Saturday, January 28, 2023

Lisping at JPL Revisited

It has been over 20 years since I wrote "Lisping at JPL", half memoir and half geeky screed (and all of it half-baked) about how an obscure programming language came to define my career.  It was a borderline throwaway piece written as much to vent my spleen as to inform.  In the intervening two decades it has gotten a lot more attention than I ever expected, becoming a perennial favorite on Hacker News, launching my (very short) career as a podcast guest, and even inspiring some people to plagiarize it, which make me feel simultaneously flattered and annoyed.

User marai2 over on HN made this suggestion the last time L@J was posted on HN:

Since this essay cycles here on HN perennially and inevitably people are curious about how your views about lisp, or other languages have changed, you might want to have a follow up page that you forever keep on updating as your views change?

So, by request...

My views on Lisp have not changed: Common Lisp is still far and away my favorite programming language, but that is mainly because I don't really program in Common Lisp any more. I program in a little custom language that I have incrementally built on top of Common Lisp over the years. This language consists mainly of a single macro called BINDING-BLOCK which is a stand-alone replacement for almost all of the other binding constructs in Common Lisp and makes my code look very different from most CL code. In particular, my code has a lot fewer parentheses, and it doesn't run off the right side of the screen as much.  (Here is an example.)  A CL programmer looking at my code would probably go, "WAT?" And when I look at regular CL code nowadays I go "blech!" Especially if that code uses LOOP. Then I go double-blech, despite the ironic fact that LOOP and BINDING-BLOCK have a lot in common.

All this is a reflection of the so-called Lisp curse, the fundamental problem with Lisp -- its great strength is simultaneously its great weakness.  It is super-simple to customize Lisp to suit your personal tastes, and so everyone does, and so you end up with a fragmented ecosystem of little sub-languages, not all of which (to put it mildly) are particularly well designed.

But *I* am 10x more productive in CL than in any other language. And not just CL, but one particular CL environment, Clozure Common Lisp, which I have been using since it was Coral Common Lisp running on a Macintosh Plus with one 800k floppy disk and one megabyte of RAM. CCL is probably the most under-appreciated engineering marvel ever produced by any species other than termites. I have been using it for 38 years. (Unfortunately, that era is likely drawing to a close.  Clozure Associates is no longer a going concern, and the volunteer effort to port CCL to the M1 appears to have stalled. This makes me very sad. It is truly the end of an era, and a very long one by technological standards.)

People often ask me what I think about other languages, and Clojure in particular. My answer is that I have never used Clojure, but from what I have read it looks pretty neat. But I think no other language can ever possibly be better than Common Lisp for me because I have customized the hell out of my environment until it is exactly the way I want it. It is quite literally the perfect language for me because I have made it that way -- because I was able to make it that way. Any time I find something about it I don't like, I can change it quickly and easily. Nothing that someone else designs can ever compete with that. Even I can't compete with that. Every now and then I toy with the idea of building my own Lisp from scratch, and I once took a semi-serious whack at it as an exercise to try to learn C++, but I gave up when it became clear that the effort required to make it competitive with CCL plus 38 years of incremental tweaking was vastly more than I was willing to invest.

There is one feature of Common Lisp that I absolutely love which no other language offers AFAIK, and that is a generic-function model of objects.   IMHO, the goal of a programming language ought to be to make writing code as easy and free of cognitive load as possible.  If I want to do an operation, I want to be able to say (op arg1 arg2 ... argn) without having to think about whether OP is a plain function or a method or an operator.  In every other language I have to think about whether to write op(arg1, arg2 ... argn) or arg1.op(arg2, ... argn) or "arg1 op arg2" or, in Objective C, [arg1 op:arg2 someRandomThing:arg3 ... someOtherRandomThing:argn].  In Lisp I never have think about that.  I just write (op arg1 .. argn) and it does the right thing.

So the bottom line is: I still love Common Lisp.  YMMV.

My second favorite language at this point is Python.  It has a lot of nifty features, and a clean design that is mostly free of gotchas.   Ironically, I don't like Python's most iconic feature, the syntactically significant white space.  Python claims to not use braces, but this is half a lie.  It does use an open brace, it just uses the colon character to serve that purpose.  So in my code I use the "pass" statement as a de-facto close-brace, so when I use emacs python-mode, my code always auto-indents correctly.

But the best programming language is like the best wine.  Different people like different things, and that's OK.  Drink whatever is the best fit for your palate, and code in whatever is the best fit for your brain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

An intuitive counterexample to the Axiom of Choice: followup

 What was intended to be a short throwaway blog post about someone else's nifty idea regarding the Axiom of Choice (AoC) ended up getting a lot more attention and being much more widely misunderstood than I ever expected, so I decided to follow up with a more detailed explanation.

Note that I deliberately chose the word "detailed" and not "rigorous".  Although I am going to try to be a little more rigorous as well, this is emphatically not a "proof" of anything, and particularly not a proof that the AoC is "wrong".  Such a proof is not possible.  The AoC is, as its name implies, an axiom.  It is a free choice to do mathematics with it or without it, and either choice leads to some weird results.  This is simply an informal argument that the AoC is not self-evidently true.  It is analogous to someone before Gauss saying about Euclid's fifth postulate, "Suppose we tried to do geometry on the surface of a sphere..."

The AoC sounds innocuous enough when you first hear it: given a collection of non-empty sets, it is possible to construct a new set whose members consist of one member chosen from each of the given sets.  How could this not be true?  Note that this question is analogous to: Euclid's fifth postulate says that given a line an a point not on that line, you can construct a unique line parallel to the given line.  How could this not be true?  And the answer is: it can be non-true if you are doing geometry on a curved surface.

The answer in the case of the AoC is something like: it can be not-true if the sets you are dealing with are really weird.  My post was an attempt to give a specific example of that kind of weirdness.  I ended up tripping over playing too fast-and-loose with the notion of "describable".  So here I am going to take another whack at it, trying to be a little less sloppy.  Note that less-sloppy does not mean rigorous.  Like I said, this is not an attempt to prove anything, notwithstanding that parts of what I am about to say might sound a bit like a proof.

So with that in mind, let us start with a few elementary observations.

1.  There are at most a countably infinite number of finite-length unicode strings.

2.  Some unicode strings are unambiguous descriptions of numbers under certain uncontroversial background assumptions.  Examples include "123", "pi", "e", "the successor of zero", and "the golden ratio".  Other unicode strings are unambiguously not unambiguous descriptions of numbers.  Examples include "hamburger", "irvnwoihdphweg" and "😱".  And still other unicode strings may or may not be unambiguous descriptions of numbers.  An example of this is "the smallest counter-example to the Goldbach conjecture."  That might be an unambiguous description of a number, or it might not, depending on whether the Goldbach conjecture is true.

A lot of the discussion generated by my original post turned on this last point, that it is very hard, arguably impossible, to pin down what an "unambiguous description of a number" actually means.  The meaning of "unambiguous description of a number" is ambiguous.  But this will turn out not to matter.

Here are a few more observations that will turn out not to matter.  I include them just to short-circuit some of the discussion.

3.  All computable numbers have unambiguous descriptions, to wit, the algorithms that compute them.

Note that unambiguous descriptions need not be unique.  "One", "1" and "the successor of zero" are all unambiguous descriptions of the same number.  Two different algorithms that compute the same (computable) number are each an unambiguous description of that number.

It is tempting to conclude that the number of unambiguously describable numbers must be strictly less than the number of computable numbers, except that...

4.  Some uncomputable numbers have unambiguous descriptions.  Chaitin's constant is the canonical example.  It is not known (and probably unknowable) how many uncomputable numbers have unambiguous descriptions.

So now we get to the thorniest bit.  Some commenters claimed that:

5.  It is not possible to give an unambiguous description of what an "unambiguous description of a number" means, because any such putative description is subject to Cantor's famous diagonalization argument.  In this case the argument goes like this: suppose we had an unambiguous description of what an unambiguous description means.  Then we could make an (infinite) list of all the numbers with unambiguous descriptions, and then construct a new number with an unambiguous description that is not on that list.

This is true, but I claim it is irrelevant for two reasons.  First and foremost, I don't need an unambiguous description of unambiguous descriptions for my argument to hold.  All I need is to show that there exist numbers that do not have any unambiguous description, and for that all I need to show is that the number of numbers with unambiguous descriptions is (at most) countable, and all I need for that is to stipulate that an unambiguous description must be renderable as a finite-length unicode string.  The number of finite-length unicode strings is countable, and so the number of unambiguous descriptions must be countable, and so the number of numbers with unambiguous descriptions must be countable.  But since the reals are uncountable, there must remain an uncountable number of reals with no unambiguous description, at least not one that is renderable as a finite-length unicode string.

So I don't need an unambiguous description of unambiguous descriptions.  All I need is an oracle for it, and any oracle will do.

That is sufficient reason that diagonalization doesn't matter, but since this is an informal argument I'm going to point out something else: Cantor originally advanced diagonalization to prove that the reals are uncountable.  Far from invalidating my argument, I am actually relying on that result!  The whole point is that it doesn't matter what an unambiguous definition actually is, or that we can't necessarily tell whether a given unicode string is one or not (c.f. "the smallest counter-example to Goldbach's conjecture").  We have some strings that are (by social convention) unambiguously unambiguous descriptions (which I am now going to start abbreviating UDs), and others that are unambiguously not UDs, and still others that might be or might not.  None of this matters.  Take any description of what it means to be a UD and I will happily stipulate that the Nth diagonalization of the list of numbers generated by that specification is also a number with a UD, and so the original specification must have been incomplete or even inconsistent.  You can only diagonalize a countable number of times, which is the whole point of the diagonalization argument.  If you think that diagonalization invalidates my position, then you either don't understand diagonalization, or you don't understand the argument I am advancing.  (If you want to argue that UDs do not exist at all, that works too, notwithstanding that I can exhibit counterexamples.)

None of the above matters, because the conclusion I am trying to defend has nothing to do with the details of what it means to be UD.  My claim, which I would have thought would be obvious and wholly uncontroversial, is that there must exist an uncountable number of numbers that unambiguously do NOT have unambiguous descriptions under ANY reasonable definition of an unambiguous description.  And the argument for that is simply that the reals are uncountable, but any reasonable definition of unambiguous description will yield only a countable number of them, and hence only a countable number of numbers they can possibly describe.

I could even go meta and point out that a reasonable condition on reasonable definitions of unambiguous descriptions (or anything else for that matter) is that they be renderable as a finite string of unicode characters, and so there can be at most a countable number of "reasonable" definitions of UD.  No matter how you slice it, you are still left with an uncountable number of numbers that unambiguously lack any unambiguous description.

Henceforth I will adopt the abbreviation NULUD for Number Unambiguously Lacking an Unambiguous Description.  So there are an uncountable number of NULUDs.  The NULUDs are a proper subset of the set of uncomputable numbers.

OK, but so what?  So there are an uncountable number of NULUDs.  How does that cast doubt on the validity of the axiom of choice?

Well, imagine that I gave you two NULUDs and asked you if they were equal.  Think about that for a moment.  For starters, what would it even mean for me to "give" you two such numbers?  I can never actually exhibit a NULUD, or even describe one.  I can't write one down.  I can't given you an algorithm to compute one.  There is no way for me to communicate any NULUD to you by finite means.  For me to even contemplate "giving" you two NULUDs I have to do something like postulate some sort of oracle for them which offers finite clues about their identities, something like spitting out successive digits of their decimal expansions.  But then what?  You could start comparing the outputs of the oracles, and if the numbers are not equal you will eventually find out.  But if they are equal you will never know!  Comparing NULUDs for equality is analogous to trying to solve the halting problem by running the program and waiting to see if it halts.  So not only do you need to postulate oracles for the numbers themselves, you have to postulate an oracle for their equality!  That's an awful lot of postulating.

In fact, an oracle for equality of two NULUDs is a mighty powerful oracle.  Such an oracle is even more powerful than an oracle for the halting problem, which only has to deal with computable numbers (of which there are only countably many).

What does any of this have to do with the AoC?  Well, if you are going to "choose" a number from a set you need to be able to determine whether the number you chose is a member of the set, i.e. whether or not it is equal to a member of the set.  To do that for a set of NULUDs you need an oracle for equality of NULUDs, which means you need an oracle that is more powerful than an oracle for the halting problem.

So you see, asking someone to accept the AoC for all sets is asking an awful lot.  The AoC hides a lot of power.

But let us grant ourselves all of this extraordinary oracular power.  I claim that you will still not be able to describe a procedure by which you can choose a member of an arbitrary set of NULUDs.  Again, think about it.  You can't just treat the set like a bag where you can just reach in and grab some of its contents.  The contents of a set of NULUDs is a bunch of things that can't be described, and so the set itself cannot be described.  The best you can do, given what we have allowed ourselves, is to somehow pick an arbitrary NULUD and invoke the equality oracle on every member of the set to see if you got lucky.  That process is not guaranteed to converge.

Now, a mathematician (as opposed to a computer scientist like me) would read the above talk of oracles and procedures and say that this is all rubbish, that all I need to do to "give" you two numbers without UD's is to say, "Let x and y be two (un)equal NULUDs."  And what we need for the AoC  is not a procedure but a function, specifically a choice function.  And here, they will say, there is no problem because there are many functions that can be defined perfectly well on NULUDs.  f(x) = x+1 for example.

I don't deny this.  But defining a function on NULUDs is not the same thing as defining a choice function.  A choice function is not a function on NULUDs, it is a function on arbitrary sets of NULUDs whose value is a NULUD that is guaranteed to be a member of the set.  That is a very tall order.  I challenge anyone to come up with a description of such a function, even an informal one, that does not invoke the AoC.  (That would, of course, be cheating.)  And if no one can come up with a description of such a function, a reasonable person could explain that with the hypothesis that this is because such a function does not exist.  Indeed, the AoC exists because the only way we can produce such a function in some circumstances is by postulating it.  If we could describe a choice function for all circumstances, we would not need the AoC.  Of course, I cannot prove that NULUDs are such a circumstance, but it seems plausible to me.  I can't even begin to imagine how you would do it.  (But maybe some mathematician out there can enlighten me.)

Of course, none of this disproves the AoC.  Like I said at the beginning, the AoC is not false (at least not under standard set theory).  My point here is just to describe a set of circumstances under which it is not self-evidently true.

Monday, January 23, 2023

An intutive counterexample to the axiom of choice

Time for some hard-core geeking-out.

This comment on HN by /u/jiggawatts struck me as a brilliant idea: it's an intuitive counter-example to the axiom of choice, which seem intuitively obvious, but leads to weird results like the Banach-Tarski paradox.

For those of you who are not hard-core geeks, the axiom of choice says (more or less) that if you are given a collection of non-empty sets, you can choose a member from each of those sets.  That seems eminently plausible.  How could it possibly not be true?

Here's how: consider the set of numbers that cannot be described using any finite collection of symbols.  Such numbers must exist because there are only a countably infinite number of numbers that can be described using a finite collection of symbols, but there are an uncountably infinite number of real numbers.  So not only are there numbers that cannot be described using a finite number of symbols, there are vastly more of these than numbers that can be so described.

And yet... how would you describe such a number?  By definition it is not possible!  And so it is not at all clear (at least not to me) what it would even mean to "choose" a number from this set.

This is, of course, not a proof that the axiom of choice is wrong.  It's an axiom.  It can't be wrong.  But it is a good example for casting doubt in its intuitive plausibility, and that feels like progress to me.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

I am offended by Muslims being offended

An adjunct professor at Hamline University  was fired for showing an historically significant painting of the prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him.  (Note: I did not add PBUH to be facetious.  PBUH is an honorific, like Ph.D.  I added it to show respect to Muslims who believe that Mohamed was in fact a prophet, notwithstanding that I believe they are wrong.)

This is the painting in question:


From the NYT article:

The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).

Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation.

Much ink has already been spilled debating the merits of Hamline's actions and I don't have much to add, but there is one thing that I haven't seen anyone point out yet: this is not a painting of Mohamed.  This painting was made centuries after Mohamed died.  The artist had no idea what Mohamed actually looked like.  No human who was not alive in Mohamed's time knows what he looked like because there is no record of what he actually looked like.  The image above is either a likeness of a contemporary (to the artist) model, or a product of the artist's imagination.  This is an image that the artist imagined to be a likeness of Mohamed, but actually isn't.

So Muslims who are offended by exhibiting this painting are not offended by the exhibition of a likeness of Mohamed, because there are no likenesses of Mohamed.  Muslims being offended by this image are being offended not by the image, but by the (false) claim that this image is a likeness of Mohamed.  They are offended not by the image but by the imagination of a long-dead artist, one who, ironically but not insignificantly, was himself a Muslim.

If you think that is a reasonable thing to pander to, well, then I am offended by you.  Again, I am not saying that to be facetious.  I am sincerely offended by your belief that I have an obligation not to offend you.  And now we have a problem: should my offense be sufficient cause to make you lose your job because you want me to lose my job for having offended you?  Because if your answer is yes, then we are headed for 100% unemployment.  No one will be able to work anywhere if a necessary condition for keeping your job is to not say or do anything that offends anyone.

On the other hand, if you think your offense is somehow privileged, that you should get to keep your job despite having offended me while I have to lose mine for having offended you, now we have a different problem: you now have to provide some justification for what makes your offense so much more worthy of accommodation than mine.  And you cannot ground your justification in religion because a belief in freedom of expression is part and parcel of my most deeply held beliefs.  The only way you will be able to justify your privileged position is to argue that your deeply held beliefs should trump mine for some reason.

(Aside: freedom of expression definitely does not mean that a private entity cannot exercise editorial control over what appears in venues it controls.)

There are only three alternatives here: either Muslims are elevated to a privileged position where their offense trumps everyone else's, or they have to be told by society to suck it up, or we enter a death spiral of social paralysis where no one can do or say anything out of fear of offending someone.

Figuring out which alternative I would advocate is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ten things I grew up believing about the United States that turn out not to be true

A few days ago the Biden administration granted Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sovereign immunity over the brutal execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.  If this had happened under the Trump administration I would have immediately listed it as yet another reason that Trump was unfit for office.  So why should I not apply the same standard to Biden?  The administration tried to justify this by saying that "the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law" but this is clearly bullshit.  The United States holds heads of state accountable for crimes all the time.  The fact that Saddam Hussein killed his own citizens was cited by the Bush administration as one of the justifications for initiating war against Iraq, so the idea that the United States gives a rat's ass about "the doctrine of head of state immunity" doesn't pass the laugh test.

It turns out this is far from an isolated incident.  The mythology of the United States that I was raised on turns out to be shot through with lies.  Here are ten examples.

1.  The United States was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights

Do I even need to explain this one?  Google the phrase "three fifths" some time.

But even beyond the obvious hypocrisy of founding a nation with legal chattel slavery on the premise that it is a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" (at least they were straight-up about leaving out women) the United States has never accepted that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are unalienable rights.  We alienate people from those rights all the time.  We imprison people, sometimes for years without charges.  We have a death penalty.  We allow people a nearly unfettered right to own firearms, despite the fact that those same firearms will be used to alienate innocent people from their supposedly unalienable right to life.

It is an inspiring phrase, but it has never been a reflection of reality, not at the founding, and not now.

2.  One of the bedrock principles of the United States is that there should be no taxation without representation

The residents of Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa (and a few other places) have to pay taxes despite the fact that they have no representation in Congress.  The United States was born in a revolution against a colonial oppressor, but it is itself a colonial oppressor, and has been pretty much throughout its history.

3.  The Civil War ended in 1865

It is true that the armed conflict ended then, but the underlying political divisions did not just magically disappear.  The northern states effectively conquered the southern ones, and then proceeded to make an absolute hash of the reconstruction process.  Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, was essentially a Southern sympathizer who inherited a military victory from his predecessor but failed to leverage that victory into actual legal protections for newly freed slaves.  The result was 100 more years of black servitude under Jim Crow laws.

4.  The fight for civil rights was won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act

These two landmark pieces of legislation were passed about the time I was born, and so when I was coming of age I was taught that civil rights were a fait accompli.  Demographic trends made it inevitable that social progress would continue unabated into the indefinite future.

It is true that things are still vastly better now than they used to be, but the intellectual heirs of the people who perpetuated Jim Crow for 100 years are still very much with us, and they have been gaining power and influence for the last 30 years or so, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the subsequent shift in the Supreme Court to a (so-called) conservative majority.

5.  We are the Good Guys

I came of age in the heady days of the shadow of our victory in World War II.  The United States was the only nation on earth that emerged from that conflict with it industrial base intact, and we pretty much literally ruled the world for several decades.  To go along with our unequaled military, economic, and political clout we cultivated a myth of heroism and self-sacrifice: we saved the world from the Nazis.  We made the world safe for democracy.  And there was some truth to that.

But the conduct of the United States has not been one of unalloyed heroism and philanthropy, neither during the war nor since.  There were plenty of Nazi sympathizers in the U.S. before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made it unfashionable, and despite the Holocaust having cemented Adolf Hitler's place in the popular imagination as the very archetype of villainy, there are, sad to say, still plenty of neo-Nazis in the U.S. today.

To say nothing of the fact that we have behaved like absolute assholes in the Middle East with disastrous consequences both for ourselves and the people who live there.  We deposed the democratically elected government of Iran and (re-)installed the Shah (for the oil, of course).  We instigated wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan.  All of these things have ended in disaster, so they are not even defensible on practical grounds, let alone moral grounds.

And that is jut the modern United States.  If you go back in history things are even worse, starting with our treatment of indigenous peoples, including Hawaiians (which are on my radar at the moment because Hawaii is where I happen to be).

6.  America is the Land of Opportunity

Like the previous myth there is a grain of truth to this.  America is certainly the land of opportunity for some people.  It was for me.  But opportunity is not exactly uniformly distributed here, nor is the playing field anything close to level.  The best predictor of your socioeconomic status here is your parents' socioeconomic status, and the second best is the color of your skin.  Social mobility has declined dramatically since World War II.  And before that, of course, it was confined mainly to people with white skin and Y chromosomes.

7.  The U.S. is a democracy

Democracy is a continuum, not a dichotomy, but the general idea is that decisions are made based more or less on what a majority of the citizens want.  The U.S. is not like that, and never has been.  The U.S. Constitution intentionally gives disproportionate power to citizens of states with lower populations.  American is anti-majoritarian by design.  And this is woven so deeply into the fabric of our system of government that you can't even change it by amending the Constitution.  Article V explicitly prohibits amendments that deprive a state of its equal representation in the Senate.  (OK, it allows this to happen if a state consents.  But come on...)

8.  Democracy (or whatever this is) ultimately produces good results

The theory behind the structure of the U.S. government is that its system of checks and balances will prevent crazy people from taking over.  It was easy to believe in this myth, at least until 1980, when an actor was elected president.  Still, Ronald Reagan was not too crazy, and things soon reverted to the mean.

And then came George Bush the second, who was installed in the White House by the Supreme Court, and proceeded to lead us into two of the most disastrously misguided wars in our nation's history.  But even Bush was not really crazy, just stupid.  (It is arguable that the country was actually being run by Dick Cheney, and that Cheney was crazy, but that is neither here nor there, because...)

Then, of course, came Donald Trump.

Now, anyone who has read my blog knows that I think Donald Trump is crazy, but that is not the point.  It doesn't matter whether or not I am right about Trump being crazy.  What matters is that a lot of people agree with me that he's crazy.  We may be right, or we may be wrong, but that is neither here nor there.  What matters is that we have so far been unsuccessful in removing him as a major influence in American politics.   Even if Trump himself eventually fades away, the movement he launched will outlast him.  Xenophobia, misogyny, and open contempt for expertise and even facts are now thoroughly established.  They will be nurtured and catered to by Republican politicians long after Trump is gone.  And this will happen despite the fact that a majority of Americans vehemently oppose it.  (To say nothing of the fact that substituting ideology for expertise and facts rarely ends well.)

9.  The United States is the Land of the Free

Again, there is a grain of truth here.  There is quite a bit more freedom in the U.S. than in other countries.  You can, for example, cross state boundaries without showing identification.  You can change your residence without having to get approval from the government.

But there are a lot of things you cannot do.  You cannot start your own bank.  If you try, the government will come down on you like a bag of hammers before you even open your doors.  Depending on where you live it might not even be legal to open a lemonade stand.

And the government is not the only entity that constrains your freedom. Most American's freedoms are curtailed much more severely by economics than the law.  Corporations and wealthy individuals have so much de facto power that they are essentially quasi-governmental entities unto themselves.  Want to run your own code on your iPhone?  Sorry, can't do it without paying Apple.  Want to buy glasses from a store that is not owned by a single corporate monopoly?  It's possible, but good luck figuring out how.  Want to work at a job where you are treated with respect, as if you were an actual human being rather than a replaceable cog in a machine?  Again, it's possible, but most people aren't so lucky.

American freedom has always been reserved for a select few.  America was certainly not the Land of the Free blacks before 1965 (and certainly not before 1865), nor women before 1920, nor gays before 2015.  It has never been the Land of the Free for native Americans.  It is still not the Land of the Free for undocumented immigrants.  And yes, I get that we have to protect our borders and reward people for following the rules, but deporting people who were brought here as children and have never known another home doesn't seem like the right answer either.

10.  The United States is in an inexorable decline

This is not something I grew up believing, but it is something that a lot of people around me seemed to believe at the time, and that a lot of people still seem to believe, except that the demographics of the people who believe it have changed.  In the 70's this was mostly believed by conservatives.  Today it is mostly believed by liberals.

I think the conservatives were wrong then, and I think the liberals are wrong now, and this is the motivation for writing this post.  I don't want to just gripe and complain about how horrible the U.S. is.  I want to point out that, although despite the fact that the United States has never lived up to its lofty ideals, those ideals have always been worth striving for, and they still are.  The United States are not a democracy, but they should be.  The United States are not the Land of the Free, nor the Land of Opportunity for All, nor always the Good Guys, but they should be.  I want them to be.  Living here has been very good to me because I'm white and male and I chose my parents well, but I want everyone to have the opportunities that I have had.

I also want to emphasize that, as bad as things may be, they are still vastly better now than they were for most of our history.  Far from being a story of inexorable decline, the story of the United States is one of more or less continuous improvement.  We are far from our professed ideals, but we are a hell of a lot closer than we have been in the past.

But you can't solve a problem without first admitting that you have one.  And we do still have one.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Send in the clowns

The papers are full of articles proclaiming that the mid-term election was a victory for democracy or some such similar nonsense.  It was nothing of the sort.  The Democrats hold the Senate by -- quite literally! -- the slimmest of possible margins, and as I write this the jury is still out on the House, with the Republicans favored to win a majority there.  I was going to wait until that had been decided before writing this post but it looks as if it's going to take a while so I decided to go ahead an just go with a prediction: the Republicans will take the House, Kevin McCarthy will become speaker (though that bit hardly matters), and the Republicans will impeach Joe Biden.  What will they impeach him for?  I have no idea, and neither to they, because there are no legitimate grounds for impeaching Biden.  But they will come up with something.  If there is one thing one can confidently say about Republicans nowadays is that they do not let a little thing like reality stand in the way of their ideology.  It is true that things are not as bad as they might have been, and the outcome of the election does present a small glimmer of hope.  But it was not a victory, any more than having an artillery shell land 20 yards away rather than directly on top of you is a victory.

I came of age in the 1970s and 80s.  My earliest memory of American politics is the 1972 election where Nixon stomped McGovern into the ground.  Watergate and Viet Nam were the topics of the day, and the cold war was still in full swing.  I was only dimly aware of these things or what they entailed, but there were two invariants in American politics during these formative years: first, the Democrats had a iron grip on Congress, and second, nothing really bad ever happened despite the threat of disaster that seemed to be constantly looming over the world.

I was vaguely aware of the fact that there were crazy people in America, but my parents were both well-educated and I grew up in their bubble.  Everyone I knew was comfortably well-off and reasonably sane and very, very liberal.  The Civil Rights Act had recently been passed (though I did not realize this at the time) and I grew up believing that racism and prejudice were things of the past.  Social progress was as inevitable as rain.  And at the end of the day, reason seemed to prevail.  Nixon resigned.  The clean-air and clean-water act were passed.  Relations were opened up with China.  The USSR fell.  This new thing called the micro-computer was looking kind of promising.  I had never heard of global warming.  The future looked very bright indeed.

In the early 90s I stumbled across Rush Limbaugh's radio show and I was stunned to learn that such a thing even existed in America.  The slogan of his show was "America held hostage" -- by liberals.  Liberals were the root of all evil.  Eceonomic problems?  Liberals.  Social unrest?  Liberals.  Crime?  Liberals.

For a while Limbaugh was an interesting (if somewhat disturbing) side-show.  I really believed that people like Limbaugh were going extinct.  But in 1994 I was roused from my political stupor by the news that the Republicans had swept the congressional elections and now controlled both houses of congress for the first time in my life.

I remember thinking: this is going to be bad.  And it was.  Newt Gingrich shut down the government and impeached Bill Clinton because he lied about getting a blow job in the oval office.  (To be sure, getting a blow job in the Oval Office was a pretty stupid thing to do, but Clinton was probably not the first.)  Fast-forward 28 years and here we are, in a situation where I can confidently predict the impeachment of an American president before anyone -- even the people who are going to impeach him -- has any idea what they are going to impeach him for.

Getting ourselves out of this mess is going to take a lot more than a razor-thin victory in a mid-term.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ron descends from the mountain

It has been over a year since I wrote a real post here.  The reason for my long absence is that I have been struggling with a number of existential crises.  Three of them, in fact.  The first is over climate change.  The second is over the political situation in the U.S.

The third is not so easy to distill into a slogan.  It has to do with the idea that the kind of outcome I want to see for the world is simply not possible because it actually violates the laws of physics.  It's pretty geeky as existential crises go, and one of these days I'll write about it (click here for spoilers), but for now climate change and politics are more than enough to fuel my despair so I'll focus on those for the time being.

The TL;DR is that a while back I came to the conclusion that the climate change situation was hopeless, that the distance between what would need to be done to avoid catastrophe and what could plausibly be done given the geopolitical situation here on earth was so vast that the odds of averting catastrophe were indistinguishable from zero.  But it was even worse than that.  I first became aware of climate change more than thirty years ago.  Back then it was a long-term concern, something that might start to produce some observable effects in my lifetime, but where the really bad stuff wouldn't happen for 100 years or so.  Twelve years ago I moved from LA to San Francisco thinking that would make a difference in my personal exposure to the worst effects of climate change.  I now think that was wildly overoptimistic.

Let me be clear about what I mean by "the bad stuff".  I'm not talking about the extinction of life from the surface of the planet, or even the extinction of homo sapiens.  That is not going to happen.  We're not talking about "saving the planet".  The planet, and even our species, has been through much bigger changes than what we are facing.

I'm talking about the end of technological civilization, the organization of humans into cooperating groups larger than tribes.  I'm talking about what happened beginning at the end of the last ice age when humans stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and started to engage in large-scale agriculture.  That led to the formation of city-states, then to empires and nation-states, and ultimately to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and cat videos on your smart phone.

I've become a big fan of industrial civilization.  It has allowed me to live a life of relative leisure compared to most of my ancestors.  I have beheld great wonders.  I have even been privileged to participate in the production of a few of them.  I want those who come after me to have the same opportunities.

But the maintenance of our civilization is heavily dependent on a stable climate.  This is because it depends on infrastructure, and infrastructure is generally not mobile.  Factories and data centers are generally housed in buildings and connected by networks of roads that are attached firmly to the surface of the earth.  And the same goes for farms.  And so civilization depends on a certain amount of climate stability.  In particular, it depends on rain falling in somewhat predictable patterns.

Those patterns are changing.  And that change is happening with breathtaking speed.

This has become very evident to me living in California, which is one of the epicenters of climate-change-related drought.  But this phenomenon is not unique to California.  It is global.  The Mississippi river is at historic lows because there is drought not just in California, but across the U.S.

The reason that all of these places are getting drier is that the jet stream, which once brought winter rains, has been moving further and further north.  The reason for that is that the jet stream is caused by the temperature difference between the arctic, which once has a giant ice cap on it year-round keeping it nice and chilly.  But that ice cap has been melting.  That moves the jet stream, and the rains, to the north.

Some time in the next 10-20 years the arctic ice cap will almost certainly melt entirely producing a so-called blue-ocean event.  What happens after that is anybody's guess, but whatever it is it will almost certainly not be good.  The jet stream could stop altogether, along with rain in California.

California currently produces 13 of the agricultural output of the U.S.  Without rain, all of that will stop.  If it were only California that might be survivable, but it won't be.  Droughts do not respect political boundaries.  There is a real possibility of drought-induced global famine some time in the next 10-20 years.  Within 100 years it is all but certain to happen.

This in and of itself, as bad as it is, would not necessarily be calamitous if not for the second problem: humans are very resourceful creatures, but to be our most effective we have to cooperate.  To solve the climate-change problem we are going to have to cooperate on an unprecedented planet-wide scale.  And lately we have not proven to be very adept at this.  We can't even agree that climate change is in fact a problem that needs to be dealt with, let alone what we're actually going to do about it that has a chance of succeeding.  Our geo-political institutions just do not appear to be even remotely up to the task.

In the past year I have been holding my breath to see if the Democrats could address the short-term problem of crazy Republicans trying to overthrow the government of the United States.  As I write this the jury is still out, but I've decided that it doesn't matter.  Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so at times the right thing to do is to suspend disbelief and proceed as if you believe that there is an answer even if you have no idea what it might be.  You never know when you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you got it wrong.  And make no mistake: literally nothing would make me happier than to find out that I'm wrong about this.

So I've decided to start blogging again in the hopes of discovering that I'm wrong, that there is in fact hope of saving civilization from itself.  Over the course of the next few weeks I'm gong to write up some detailed analysis of both climate change and U.S. politics in the hopes of starting a discussion that might lead to either uncovering existing ideas that I'm not currently aware of, or generating some new ones.  I have no idea where this is going to lead, or indeed, if it's going to lead anywhere.  Like I said, in my heart of hearts at the moment I think this effort is doomed.  But there is something inside me that won't let me rest peacefully unless I try nonetheless.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Someone is impersonating me on Facebook

This ( is my profile on Facebook.

This ( is not my profile.  It is someone trying to impersonate me.   Apparently, at least six people I know have already fallen for this ruse.

I've submitted a DMCA takedown request on the grounds that this person is violating my copyright on my avatar image, but it is sheer luck that this came to my attention at all.  Someone who received a friend request from the imposter got suspicious and contacted me directly.  Otherwise, this person could have been impersonating me for a long, long time and I would never have known until they got some sensitive information out of one of my acquaintances and used it to hack into my bank account or something like that.

For the record: I never use my Facebook account, and this is one of the many, many reasons why.  If you are getting a message from me through Facebook it is almost certainly fraudulent.

[UPDATE] Clicking on the fraudulent link now results in a page that says "This content isn't available right now."  So I'm guessing this has been dealt with.  But I'm also guessing that trying to prevent this from happening again could turn into a very frustrating game of whack-a-mole.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Game over for Roe v. Wade -- and constitutional rights

You may not have heard, but the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade yesterday.  They did it covertly, by failing to act on Texas's devilishly clever end-run around the Constitution.  And in failing to act, they have effectively terminated the rule of law in the United States and opened a Pandora's box of vigilanteism powered by civil lawsuits, against which the Constitution can offer no defense.

Make no mistake: the unenumerated right to privacy and the concomitant right to have an abortion are still nominally the law of the land.  But no one can exercise that right in Texas any more.  And it is much, much worse than that, because in letting this law stand, the Supreme Court has effectively overturned another bedrock principle of American jurisprudence, which is that in order to prevail in a civil lawsuit, a plaintiff has to show actual damages to themselves.

We can see the future where this will lead us because there is already one notable exception to this principle on the books: the Americans with Disabilities Act, which empowers anyone, disabled or not, to bring civil suits against establishments who violate the law.  The result is a sleazy industry of spurious lawsuits, and the proliferation of swimming pool lifts that hardly anyone ever uses.

But at least in the case of the ADA, there is an actual law underlying the suits which has passed constitutional muster.  In the case of the Texas law, citizens are now empowered to sue people for exercising their constitutional rights!  It should be a tautology that this is unconstitutional.  What can it possibly even mean to have a constitutional right if the government can, by using this tactic, nullify your ability to exercise it?

But the Supreme Court doesn't see it that way.  They let the Texas law stand without comment.  And that's it.  Game over.  Your constitutional rights now exist only on paper, not in the real world, at least not in Texas.  (I don't want to quibble over whether or not Texas actually qualifies as "the real world."  You know what I mean.)

There is now no limit to the extent that this new tactic can be used to strip people of their rights.  A state legislature could pass a law empowering people to sue their fellow citizens for speaking out against the government, or owning a gun, or remaining silent when questioned by the police, or trying to vote, or simply being uppity.  On what possible principled basis could such laws be overturned now?

This is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but with silence in the dead of night.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Conservatives Can't Handle the Truth

When the truth is not on your side one thing you can do is to try to change it, and when that doesn't work, outlaw it:

Under the culture war rallying cry of combating “critical race theory” — an academic framework centered on the idea that racism is systemic, not just a collection of individual prejudices — [Republican] lawmakers have endorsed an extraordinary intervention in classrooms across Texas.

Their plans would impose restrictions on how teachers discuss current events, bar students from receiving course credit for civic engagement and, in the words of advocates, restore the role of “traditional history” to its rightful place of primacy by emphasizing the nation’s noble ideals, rather than its centuries-long record of failing to live up to them.

So much for freedom of speech.

Now, I am sure some pseudonymous troll will point out that liberals support restrictions on teaching creationism, but that is not true.  What we oppose is teaching creationism as science because it isn't.  I'm sure most liberals would be more than happy to have creationism taught as part of a class on comparative mythology or comparative religion.  I certainly would.

Conservatives can't handle the truth.  Conservatives fear the truth.  So they have to stamp out the truth because the truth is not on their side.

Unfortunately, it is far from clear that they won't succeed.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Republican Hypocrisy Watch: Cancel Culture is Bad -- Unless it's Republicans Doing the Cancelling

The brazen shamelessness of Republican hypocrisy is on full display as they move to remove Liz Cheney from her leadership position for daring to say that Donald Trump lost the election while at the same time whining about cancel culture.

I am really beginning to wonder if there is anyone left in the Republican party who realizes that you can only act like the old Soviet politburo for so long before you start to achieve the same results that they did.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Repeal the Second Amendment

It has become repetitive to the point of being tiresome: a crazy person buys an automatic weapon and kills a bunch of innocent bystanders.  TV "news" reporters gather like vultures on a carcass.  Prayers are said.  Hands are wrung.  Soap boxes are scaled and calls for gun control are recited, which collide head-on with the second amendment and DC v. Heller.  And then, a few days later, everyone forgets it ever happened until the next crazy person buys a gun and shoots some innocent people and the whole cycle starts all over again.  And again. And again and again and again and again and again.

There is a simple solution to the problem: repeal the second amendment.  By "simple" I do not mean "easy to implement."  It clearly is not that.  I simply mean that this solution is conceptually and procedurally simple.  You don't have to argue about how to interpret the Constitution, or what a "well regulated militia" is.  All you have to do is decide that the second amendment is doing more harm than good, and it's time for it to go.  We've done it before.  We can do it again.

The second amendment has clearly outlived its usefulness.  Like the three-fifths doctrine, it is a relic of an earlier time.  Two things in particular are very different in today's world than the one in which the second amendment was ratified.  First, the U.S. now has a standing army. And a navy.  And an air force.  And a space force.  And marines.  And a coast guard.  And a national guard.  And a department of homeland security.  And a DEA and an FBI and a CIA and an NSA.  Between those and a few other government agencies, those organizations have been doing a pretty good job at protecting the territorial integrity of the United States, at least since 1865.  Whatever you think a "well regulated militia" means, it is clearly no longer necessary for the security of a free state.

The second thing that has changed is that technology and the laws of physics no longer limit the amount of damage an individual can do the way they did in 1791.  Back then, smooth-bore muskets and canon were the state of the art in weaponry.  They were severely limited both in range and firing rate.  A highly skilled musket operator can get off 2-3 shots a minute at most.  An AK-47 does that in a third of a second.  In 1791 a deranged shooter could reasonably hope to get off no more than one or two shots before they were subdued by an angry mob.

And of course there is no principled reason to stop with an AK-47.  If the second amendment really does convey an unfettered individual right to keep and bear arms, and if that right is not limited to the technology of 1791, then on what possible basis could you draw a line that includes assault weapons but not bazookas or tanks or stinger missiles or even nukes?  The right to defend yourself won't get you out of this jam, for two reasons.  First, no one has ever used an AK-47 in self defense.  They are offensive weapons (there's a reason they are called "assault rifles" and not "defense rifles").  And second, the second amendment specifically calls out the reason for the right to bear arms, and it is not individual self-defense, it is the need to maintain a "well-regulated militia".  Whatever else that phrase might possibly mean, individual self defense plainly ain't it.  The founders knew about individual self-defense, and if that was the reason they enshrined the right to bear arms, they would have said so.

The only reason that second amendment endures is a concerted propaganda campaign by the National Rifle Association (funded mainly by the gun industry) and adolescent fantasies about good guys with guns vanquishing bad guys with guns.  We saw the end-game for that this past January 6.  Vigilante justice and violent revolution plays a lot better in spaghetti westerns and other conservative fantasy worlds than it does in today's reality.

So it is time for the second amendment to go.  Repeal it now.  Stop this insane cycle of slaughter.

P.S. Note that calling for the repeal of the second amendment is emphatically not a call for "taking everyone's guns", though many will surely see it that way.  Repealing the second amendment merely allows guns to be outlawed through the normal democratic self-governance process, it doesn't require them to be outlawed.  Whether or not they should actually be outlawed in any particular jurisdiction is a totally separate question from whether outlawing guns should be allowed at all, just as the question of whether marijuana or alcohol should be outlawed in any particular jurisdiction is separate from the question of whether it should be permissible to outlaw it at all.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ron's Commandments

For the last year and a half or so I have run a weekly Bible study which attracts a diverse group of believers and non-believers.  On a semi-regular basis someone will challenge me by asking, essentially, could I do better than God, which is to say, better than the Ten Commandments, in coming up with a pithy set of rules to guide our behaviors and the structuring of our society.  I decided to take up that challenge because, yes, I think I can do better.  In fact, I think pretty much anyone could do better because, frankly, the Ten Commandments are a pretty low bar.  The actual Ten Commandments are not what most people think they are and even the text that is commonly considered as the Ten Commandments is not that hard to improve upon by modern standards.

So here are Ron's Commandments, or at least a first draft.  They weigh in at 358 words versus 309 for the popular version and 466 for the actual version (i.e. the ones that the Bible refers to as The Ten Commandments).  I'll post all three versions here for easy reference.  You decide which set you would rather live by.

The popular Ten Commandments (Exo20 and Deu5):

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The actual Ten Commandments (Exo34):

Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee.

Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:

But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:

Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;

And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.

Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.

All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.

But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.

Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.

And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.

Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel.

For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.

Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.
And, just for the record, the next two verses:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.

And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.  [Emphasis added.]

Ron's Commandments:

Be kind to your fellow humans, and all other sentient creatures.  Don't cause them unnecessary pain.  Don't murder them.  Don't rape them.  Don't enslave them.  Do not bear false witness against them.  Strive to understand them even (especially!) when you disagree.  Avoid eating them.  If you must eat them, raise them and slaughter them humanely.  Under no circumstances eat your fellow humans (c.f. Jer19:9).

Organize your society around democratically elected governments charged with establishing regulated free markets and social safety nets.  People have a fundamental right to vote for the people who make the rules they are expected to live by, and to clean air, clean water, food, clothing, and shelter.  No one should be deprived of these basic human needs under any circumstances.  If you see homeless people around you, you are doing something wrong.  Fix it.  Private property is not a fundamental right, but a mechanism for promoting work, innovation, and acceptance of risk.  Wherever it fails to meet that purpose it should be abolished.

Don't get hung up about sexuality.  You are complex living beings.  Sexual urges are as fundamental to your nature as hunger.  Sex is not a sin.  But causing unnecessary pain to a fellow being is, so you should only have sex in the context of mutual informed consent of all parties involved, which means adult humans.  Children and animals cannot give consent.

I reveal my truths to you through your experiences, not through prophets.  So be skeptical.  Do not believe anything except on good evidence, not even these commandments.  Base your choices on the evidence whenever you can, but recognize that time advances inexorably and so sometimes you will have no choice but to act on incomplete information and take leaps of faith.

Recognize that the thing that sets you apart from the rest of creation is your capacity to create new ideas.  Cherish and nurture that.  Especially cherish those ideas that lead to better environments for creating new ideas, like books, peace, quiet, love, and mutual support and encouragement.

Dance.  Sing.  Mourn when you must, celebrate when you can.  Enjoy your life, and do everything you can to help others do likewise.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

PSA: I'm debating Matt Slick tonight

FYI, I'm doing a YouTube debate this evening at 5:30 PST with Matt Slick on the topic of "Atheism, Christianity, and morality".  It will also be recorded so you don't have to watch it live.  Here is the link.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The rats are finally begining to flee the SS Trump

From The Washington Post:

Whether President Trump is forced from office or serves out the remaining days of his term, he is now destined to slink out of the White House considerably diminished from the strapping, fearsome force he and his advisers imagined he would be in his post-presidency.

In the wake of the mob attack on the Capitol that Trump incited, some allies have abandoned him, many in the business community have shunned him and Twitter took away his social media megaphone. Many Republicans also hold him responsible for losing their Senate majority with last week’s twin defeats in Georgia, not to mention their House majority two years ago.

Emphasis added.  What is remarkable about this is that the Post is reporting that Trump is "destined to slink out of the White House" not in an opinion piece, but as news.  Front-page news.

This is a hopeful sign.  It means there is hope we could get out of this mess without any further bloodshed and loss of life.  That, of course, is up to the people who have supported an enabled Trump to this point.  The more of them repent now, the more likely the rest of them will lay down their arms.  I'll still give you long odds against, but not nearly as long as I would have before reading this story.

Arnold Schwarzenegger compares the Capitol attack to Kristallnacht

Arnold Schwarzenegger just released a video in which he compares the Jan 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to Kristallnacht, and draws a straight line from the Proud Boys to the early Nazis by way of his own personal experience growing up in Austria in the long shadow of World War II.  The video gets a little corny and treacly towards the end, but the analogy is apt and the warning is one we would all do well to heed.  Worth watching at least the first half of the video.

The Capitol attack was not the beginning, and it won't be the end

A dry run of the attack on the U.S. capitol occurred the day before in northern California:

Here in California’s rural, conservative northern counties — where people have long wanted to split from California and form a new state called Jefferson — the kind of anger and distrust of the government that Trump has fomented is on full display.

And it is not likely to go away any time soon, because some residents believe there is great political utility in making government officials believe that potential violence could become all too real.

“We have to make politicians scared again,” Carlos Zapata, who attended the supervisors’ meeting, told The Times. “If politicians do not fear the people they govern, that relationship is broken.”

The last four years, and even Jan 6, have been a warmup.  The main event, the real damage that Donald Trump will do to our country, is yet to come.

Trump and the Reverse Cargo Cult

Speaking of prophetic observations, here is a particularly profound one made by Hans Howe back in 2017:

Trump administration lies constantly but doesn’t even attempt to make it seem like they aren’t lying.


Trump’s supporters don’t care about being lied to. You can point out the lies until you’re blue in the face, but it makes no difference to them. Why? Because it is just a game to them. The media lies, bloggers lie, politicians lie, it’s just all a bunch of lies. Facts don’t matter because those are lies also. Those trolls on Twitter, 4Chan, T_D, etc. are just having a good laugh. They are congratulating each other for being so smart. We are fools for still believing in anything.

Well worth reading the whole thing.

Ron prognosticates: Trump will pardon the capitol rioters

I don't think I'm going very far out on a limb to make this prediction, but I just wanted to get it on the record before it happened.  It seems like some low-lying prophetic fruit that I just felt like picking this morning.  (Oh, and I also predict that he will also issue blanket pardons to himself and his family.)

As long as I'm writing, an administrative note: I am now moderating all comments on this blog.  For seventeen years I have not done this because I believed in free speech, and I still do.  But my recent posts have attracted conspiracy cockroaches.  I would just ban the worst offenders, but unfortunately the Blogger platform doesn't allow that, so I'll have to filter everything manually.  I deeply regret having to take this step, but I will no longer allow my blog to be an outlet for repeated blatant lies that are a clear and present danger to the country that has been my home for most of my life.

So here's the new rule: I will no longer publish anonymous or pseudonymous defenses of right-wing propaganda.  If you want to defend these positions here, you're going to have to do it under your real identity, as I have been doing for the last 17 years.  If you really have the courage of your convictions then show your face.  If not, then go crawl back into the holes from whence you came like the cowards that you are.

[UPDATE] One pseudonymous coward has taken to the comment box to whine about censorship.  Tough.  One man's censorship is another man's exercise of editorial control.  I have actually had an editorial policy since the beginning, but it hasn't really been necessary to enforce it much until now.  If you send a letter to the editor of the New York Times they are under no obligation to publish it, and neither am I.  You are perfectly free to write your own blog if you want to be heard.  But this blog belongs to me, and if you're not willing to show your face or demonstrate that you have a basic grip on reality you are not welcome here.  Begone, pseudonymous trolls.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Faith and Insurrection

 Article III section 3 of the Constitution of the United States says:

"Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

Donald Trump, while wielding the authority of the Presidency, incited a violent insurrection against the government of the United States.  It cannot possibly be any clearer that he committed treason, and hence he is an Enemy of the United States, and hence anyone who still actively supports him at this point is giving aid and comfort to an Enemy of the United States and hence also guilty of treason under the Constitution.  I make these allegations fully cognizant of the fact that treason is a capital crime in the U.S.

Of course, very few people will take this seriously despite the fact that it is manifestly true.  Donald Trump will not be indicted for treason, let alone convicted and executed for it, despite the fact that if anyone else had done what he did they would already be in shackles.  And if that person had been black, they would probably be dead already.

Seriously, imagine if Barack Obama had done the exact same thing as Donald Trump after the 2016 election: made baseless accusations of voter fraud and claims that the election was stolen from Hillary, and incited a mob of angry black men to storm the capital.  How do you think Republicans would have reacted to that?

The sad fact of the matter is that 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and while some of them might have had a change of heart after the events of Jan 6, most surely have not.  Not even the actual manifestation of an attempt at violent overthrow of the government will dissuade these people that Donald Trump is the Chosen One, and anyone who dares accuse him of treason, indeed who dares to question him in any way, will face their wrath at the ballot box and now, quite possibly, in the streets or in their homes.  And so there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands.  There might even be ignominy of a second impeachment and removal from office (though I'll give you long odds against).  But there will not be justice.  Donald Trump may live out his remaining days in disgrace, but not in prison.

I think it's really important, though, to be clear about what brought us to this pass, because it is plain as day: we are here because Donald Trump lied.  And he lied and he lied and he lied and he lied and he lied and then he lied some more.  And eventually people started to think that there just had to be some truth to the lies, not because there was any actual evidence that they were true, but simply because no one could possibly lie that much, right?  Where there is smoke there has to be fire.  So the election was stolen, not because there was any evidence for it, but simply because Donald Trump said so.  And said it again.  And again.  And again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again...

And it worked.  And it continues to work.  And that is our ultimate shame: we have built a society where lying works as long as your lie is big enough and you repeat is often enough and you never back down, not even in the face of manifest catastrophe.  In this regard we are extremely fortunate that Donald Trump is merely a consummately skilled con man and not a scheming despotic mastermind, because if he were the latter we'd staring down the barrel of a much bigger gun.

How did we get here?  How did we build a society full of people so utterly incapable of skepticism and critical thought that it gave us not only Donald Trump and his followers in the tens of millions, but anti-vaxers and anti-maskers and holocaust denialists and lunar landing denialists and climate-change denialists and flat earthers and birthers and 9-11 truthers people proudly waving the Confederate flag saying it has nothing to do with slavery?

I submit that it is because, in American society, denial of the truth is considered a virtue.  Except that it's not called denial of the truth, it's called "being a person of faith."

Now, I want to be very clear here that I am NOT signing on to Richard Dawkins's rabid anti-religion agenda.  I'm sure many religious folks are fine peopleSome of my best friends are religious.  The irony here is intended to be dark humor, but in all seriousness, I am about to levy some pretty harsh criticism on religion, and I want to be very clear that there is a distinction between that and religious people.  The problem with "people of faith" is the "faith" part, not necessarily the "people" part.

The problem with faith is not that it leads you to believe in things that aren't true (though it certainly can do that).  The problem is that it leads you to believe in things without evidence, or worse, in direct contradiction to the evidence.  Again, I want to be clear that this is not necessarily bad.  There are circumstances where believing in things without evidence or contrary to evidence can be very beneficial, which is probably why we evolved the tendency in the first place.  If you believe you can kill that sabre tooth tiger despite all the evidence that it is hopeless, that might spur you to attempt to kill it, and you just might surprise yourself and succeed where your more rational competitor might have just given up and cowered in a corner and gotten eaten as a result.  In some circumstances, suspension of disbelief really can be a virtue.

But it can also be incredibly dangerous.  It's not mere happenstance that a large majority of evangelical Christians support Trump, nor that many of the insurgents were waving signs that said, "Jesus saves."  They have been trained to bow to authority, to submit themselves to the Will of God, many from a very young age.  I'm sure many of them believed in their heart of hearts that they were doing the will of God.  I'm sure many of them still believe it.

People of faith now need to wrestle with this if they want democracy to survive in the U.S.  Faith can lead to hope where there might otherwise be despair, action where there might otherwise be complacency, courage where there might otherwise be fear.  But it can also lead to people doing stupid shit like what we saw two days ago.

Where faith becomes especially dangerous is when it leaves the realm of the ambiguous and the spiritual and places itself squarely at odds with objective reality.  Your faith in your ability to vanquish the sabre tooth tiger will be put to the test when you try to act on it.  Either you will vanquish the tiger or it will vanquish you.  That kind of dynamic prevents faith from spinning too wildly out of control.  If you see enough of your tribe mates being eaten by sabre tooth tigers you may start to rethink the wisdom of believing in your prowess against them.  But your faith in (say) being rewarded in the afterlife cannot be put to the test until it is too late for anyone to act on it if you turn out to be wrong.  And if your faith is too strong you may well end up believing that, say, Donald Trump is telling the truth when he says he won the election because it was God's will so it cannot possibly be any other way.  If the evidence says otherwise, well, then the evidence must be wrong.  Too much faith leads inevitably down the conspiracy rabbit hole.

The events of Jan 6 were horrific, but we actually dodged a bullet because it could have been so much worse.  Think of what might have happened if the rioters had been organized and brought their assault rifles.  Or if, instead of inciting this riot, Donald Trump had instead decided that the best way to for him to stir the pot would be to nuke Tehran.  (And if you think he wouldn't go that far then you really haven't been paying attention.)

Faith can be a virtue, but it is not an unalloyed good.  I'm not a person of faith so there's not much I can do to help solve this problem other than to point it out.  If you consider yourself to be a person of faith, this ball is squarely in your court.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

My take on yesterday's insurrection

It was never a question of whether Donald Trump would destroy the Republican party, but when and how, and whether he would take the rest of the country (and possibly the world) down along with it.  The one silver lining to yesterday's horrific events in our nation's capitol is that we finally have the beginning of a real answer.  Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell finally joined the rest of the rats fleeing the rapidly sinking S.S. Trump, leaving Ted Cruz at the helm.  I predict he will stay there like a hyena on a rotting corpse because he is so hungry for power that no matter how bad things get he will not be able to tear himself away from all those tasty, tasty MAGA voters.

That Trump's reign would end something like this was utterly predictable from the start.  I'm sorry, but if you didn't see something like this coming, you really haven't been paying attention for the last four years.  Donald Trump was never going to stop abusing his power until he got smacked down hard.  In fact, he still hasn't gotten smacked down hard, and so he is still not going to stop.  Maybe he will get smacked down in the next two weeks (by a largely symbolic second impeachment), or the next two years (by being prosecuted for his various crimes), but until that actually happens (and it is far from clear that it will) Trump is not going to stop being himself even now.

But the Republican party, thank God, is done for.  Donald Trump has set out a very stark choice for Republicans: follow me, or follow the law.  As with everything Trump does, there is no room for compromise or nuance.  You are either with him or you are against him.  Choose.

As bad as yesterday was, we still have a lot to be grateful for because it could have been oh so much worse.  Imagine if the mob that descended yesterday had been disciplined and well-organized and armed with assault rifles instead of the ragtag motley crew that it turned out to be.  Or imagine if, instead of a riot in Washington, Trump had decided that it would be a good idea to nuke Tehran on his way out the door.  Yesterday could very well have been the Reichstag fire.  Instead it was the beer hall putsch.

But make no mistake, this war is far from over.  Yes, the Republican party is finished, at least for now.  It will split into the Trump wing and the anti-Trump wing, and that will blunt its influence for a while until it can heal and reorganize.  But we have much to fear from what will inevitably rise from those ashes.  The 70 million people who voted for Trump in November of 2020 are still out there.  They are still nursing their grievances and concocting their conspiracy theories and, most frightening of all, waiting for someone new to lead them to the promised land where white people will once again assume their rightful place at the pinnacle of society.  Ted Cruz is even now maneuvering to fill that role.  Cruz is even less principled and more power hungry than Trump, and, what should really scare the living daylights out of you, a hell of a lot smarter.

In the end, the only thing that saved us from total disaster this time around was Donald Trump's incompetence.  Not Mitch McConnell, not Mike Pence, not Bill Barr, not Ron Cohen, not Robert Mueller, not Chuck Schumer, not Nancy Pelosi.  If Trump had been just a little bit less stupid, if he'd actually thought things through, if he had any skills at all beyond bloviating in front of a crowd, we might well have learned the hard way that our democracy is a whole lot more fragile than most people think it is even now.

So yes, breathe a small sigh of relief that the bulwark of democracy appears to have held this time around.  But don't take too much comfort in this because the next time we might not be so lucky.  And there will be a next time.  What happened yesterday was just the latest skirmish in a conflict that has been running cold and hot since before the founding of the Republic.  Democracy has won this battle, but the war is far from over.