Saturday, December 28, 2013

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup posted

The late and still-lamented Al Weisel, who posted under the nom de Web Jon Swift, started the tradition of a yearly roundup of "the best posts of the year from small blogs, chosen by the bloggers themselves."

After Al died, Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar took on the sizable task, and this year's roundup has now been posted. Do check it out; you will surely find hours of good reading as well as at least a couple of blogs you'll want to check again.

My own choice was this post, in which I said how in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing I was more frightened by the instant imposition of what amounted to martial law and even more than that by the meek submission to it, than I was by the actual bombing. "Why are we such a frightened people," I asked, without offering an answer.

It certainly wasn't my most popular (in terms of hit count) post, nor, I believe, my best-written. I chose it, I expect, because even months later it's one where I still recall the feeling I had when I did it.

But for the curious and the statistics-minded among you, here are my top 10 posts for 2013, as ranked by hit count and in decreasing order.

1. More on NSA spying (October 4)

2. Recent news on global warming (September 5)

3. The real story of "the first Thanksgiving" (November 27)

4. Hero Award: Ladar Levison (October 11)

5. Some random comments about Obamacare (November 22)

6. Outrage of the Week: death penalty proposed in Massachusetts (May 9)

7. Global warming: recent news (May 9)

8. The Boston Marathon bombings (April 18) (Note that this is a different post from the one I chose.)

9. Guns: They do not make you safer (February 7)

10. The little thing: 73% of the vote is "far left?" (December 13)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of December 27, at least 11,842 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 98 of them in Massachusetts.

139.7 - And Another Thing #3: looking for lumpy electrons

And Another Thing #3: looking for lumpy electrons

Okay, I saved what I think is the coolest for last.

We have to start with two things. First, we're used to thinking of electrons as those little thingies that orbit the nucleus of an atom. Never mind shells and clouds and superposition and all that for now, just focus on the thingies.

With the wonderful duality at the heart of quantum physics, elections can be regarded as point particles, with no dimensions. But they can also be thought of as very, very tiny spheres.

Okay, the second thing is that there is a flaw hidden in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. The Big Bang, the start of the observable universe, should have produced equal numbers of particles and anti-particles. But identical particles and anti-particles annihilate each other back to pure energy. So we shouldn't be here. Obviously, that didn't happen, because we are here, and the question is why: Why were there more particles than anti-particles? The difference didn't have to be big, but it did have to exist. The Standard Model can't be all there is.

There are several hypotheses that look to go beyond the Standard Model to try to answer that question and figure out just what it is that we are missing in our understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe.

An experiment sitting in a large basement room off of Oxford Street in Cambridge has been trying to probe that question by measuring, get this now, the lumpiness of electrons.

See, the Standard Model says that electrons must be perfect or nearly perfect spheres. But a number of the hypotheses that seek to go beyond the Standard Model predict the existence of undiscovered massive particles that would distort an electron's electric dipole moment. Don't worry if you don't understand that; simply, the "electric dipole moment" describes the distribution of the negative electric charge within that electron. The point is, that negative charge is the electron, so if the distribution of charge and so the electric dipole moment is distorted, the electron will not appear to be a perfect sphere; it will appear to be "lumpy." So by measuring that dipole moment, the researchers are looking for indirect evidence of these undiscovered particles.

The experimental team, consisting of scientists from Harvard and Yale, has been able to measure an electron's electric dipole moment to a degree of accuracy an order of magnitude - that's ten times - greater than ever before.

How accurate? The team said "Imagine an electron blown up to the size of the earth. Our experiment would have been able to see a layer ten thousand times thinner than a human hair, moved from the southern to the northern hemisphere."

And the result? The electron stubbornly appears to be a perfect sphere, which would be bad news for a number of those hypotheses, including one popular one known as Weak Supersymmetry.

It may be that the distortion of the electron is still smaller than the experiment could detect and the team is looking to increase the sensitivity of their experiment. But for the moment, what remains is that we can run exquisitely fine experiments - we're measuring the "lumpiness" of electrons, for pity's sake - which have given us an exquisitely fine understanding of the nature of reality. But there is still something missing, something we don't understand, something more to discover. And in science, that is the ultimate cool.


139.6 - And Another Thing #2: Mars was at one time "Earthlike"

And Another Thing #2: Mars was at one time "Earthlike"

The evidence that Mars was once a wet planet where life might have existed keeps on growing.

New analysis of rocks collected by the Curiosity rover reveals that there was once fresh water on Mars, in fact right were Curiosity landed last year.

Researchers believe the dried-up lakebed may have supported colonies of microbes, the same type that now are found in caves and hydrothermal vents on Earth. What’s more, they now have reason to believe that those lifeforms emerged about 3.5 billion years ago - right around the same time life was emerging here.

John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist for the Curiosity mission, said that "All the essential ingredients for life were present." Including time: "The aqueous system could have existed for millions to tens of millions of years," he added.

Put simply, a couple of billion years ago, Mars was, he said, "extremely Earthlike." "It’s kind of cool," he said. I agree.


139.5 - And Another Thing #1: inheriting acquired characteristics

And Another Thing #1: inheriting acquired characteristics

To wrap up this week's show, three quick examples of another occasional feature, this one called And Another Thing, where we go into something non-political, usually some cool science stuff.

To start off, here's something interesting: It's long been held that physical characteristics - as opposed to socialization - are transferred from one generation to the next through genes. An old alternative idea commonly called Lamarckism after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which held that the life experiences of parents - their "acquired characteristics" - could be passed on to their offspring is known to be wrong.


It now develops that learned experiences can be transferred to offspring. Not by a different mechanism than genes, which remain the only way characteristics are transmitted, but by potentially affecting how genes are “marked” by other molecules.

Such “markings” are called epigenetic changes and they can affect which genes are turned off or on, that is, how the genes are expressed. It develops that some of these changes - not all, but some - are maintained across generations.

In a new study, researchers say they have found that specific learned information can be transmitted through epigenetic changes in sperm, at least in cases involving traumatic experiences and at least in mice.

The researchers trained mice to fear a cherry blossom-like smell and then let these mice mate and have offspring. These offspring showed more fearful responses to the cherry blossom scent than to a neutral scent despite never having encountered either of the smells before.

Moreover, they added, the next generation of offspring, the grandchildren of the original group, showed the same behavior. The researchers were able to relate the behavior to changes in brain regions used to detect the feared scent and to epigenetic marks in the sperm on the gene responsible for detecting the smell.

So, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, you were still wrong, but not as wrong as we thought. And the more we learn about biology and evolution, the more amazing the whole process becomes.


139.4 - New Year's resolution: Obamabots beware

New Year's resolution: Obamabots beware

Finally, a New Year's Resolution. This comes by way of another edition of The Little Thing, our occasional feature where something that doesn't get the attention it deserves is what really gets to me.

The Huffington Post recently had an article about a demand made by Senator Mark Udall during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He wants the CIA to release a secret study it made of the torture - the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding - employed by the agency.

It was an important story, worthy of notice, but -

It was an 18-paragraph story. Just about right in the middle, paragraphs seven and eight were these:
During the hearing, Krass [referring to Caroline Krass, Obama's nominee to be the CIA's general counsel] told Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, that she did not believe members of the Senate panel had the right to see documents that provide the legal basis for CIA actions, such as waterboarding.

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said she was "troubled" by Krass' answer.
My jaw dropped when I read that and even more when there was no other mention of this anywhere in the story. Really? She tells you to your faces that you have no right to see how the CIA justifies what it does and no one hits the ceiling? The only reaction is one person who is "troubled?" Really?

No. Just no. A bad hair day is "troubling." A padded expense account is "troubling." The White House telling the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is charged with overseeing the CIA, that it has no right to see and therefore no way to challenge the legal arguments the CIA uses to convince itself that torture is legal is not "troubling." It is dangerous and threatening. It approaches, and if carried into actual direct practice by the administration would cross over into, impeachable.

So this is my New Year's resolution for 2014: The next time some Obamabot tries to tell me that criticizing the Amazing Mr. O marks me as a closet conservative or says anything about "11-dimensional chess," I am going to smack them upside the head. I am past all patience.


139.3 - Grinch story: the GOPper and the free lunch

Grinch story: the GOPper and the free lunch

But you had to know, where there is Santa, there must also be the Grinch.

Rep. Jack Kingston, a GOPper from Georgia, has uncovered a terrible scandal.

It seems that there is this program by which poor children - children whose families make no more than 130% of the ridiculously low federal poverty line - which is $23,550 a year for a family of four - can get a free lunch at school!

And he is outraged! He wants them to know there is no such thing as a free lunch! Literally. Two weeks ago, just 10 days before Christmas, he told a local GOPper group that even the poorest children should pay something for their lunch or better yet, they could "maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria."

That's right, you moocher, lazing about with your free one meal a day because your parents are too poor to pay for your school lunch! Get busy with that broom if you want your bowl of gruel!

What is this, Oliver Twist?

There are some poor kids in our school. What should we do about that? I know, how about we publicly humiliate them? That'll stop them from being poor! They just need to stop thinking that there's such a thing as a free lunch because you know, of course, that's what all poor people believe. They think everything is free, that's why they have so much of it.

Hey, we got us some takers down in the cafeteria! Some kids who think they should live high on the hog just because they're too poor to afford adequate nutrition! I know that makes no sense but if you can find a way that makes more sense out of a twit like Kingston, go right ahead.

Reacting to the criticism he got, Kingston's office released a statement saying "It is sad that trying to have a productive conversation about instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation of Americans so quickly devolves into the usual name-calling partisan hysteria."

Right. Because all poor people are lazy, that's their problem. No work ethic. That's why they're poor. Uh-huh.

Meanwhile, all of the other kids who aren't sweeping floors are, of course, getting a free lunch. They're not paying for it out of their own pockets. They're not working for it. They're just getting the money from their parents instead of indirectly from a public program. What about their work ethic?

By the way, Mr. Kingrinch, we'd love to have a productive conversation about instilling a strong work ethic in every member of the next generation, including, especially, the coddled rich whose very wealth protects them against any real consequences of their actions. We only wish you'd taken part in it.


Inserted footnote to the previous post

Inserted footnote to the previous post

Because of the holidays, this week's edition of Left Side of the Aisle was prepared in advance. That's why there is no mention either of the dramatic case of Utah or the equally significant case of Ohio. Those decisions were handed down after the show was recorded.

Rachel Maddow's comment that the Utah case "feels different" is spot on. This could be - emphasize could be - huge. The ruling, by US District Judge Robert Shelby, is the first federal ruling about marriage justice since the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and it essentially dismantled the arguments raise by the state against marriage justice - which were basically the same as those raised in New Mexico and were dismissed the same way. Shelby described those arguments as "the State’s unsupported fears and speculations."

The ruling argues that getting married is a fundamental right and that states cannot strip away rights protected by the US Constitution even by means of their state constitutions. If that view were to prevail, it would mean the end of legal bars to same-sex marriage everywhere in the country.

Don't get too excited just yet: The ruling surely will be appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which as I have said before is generally regarded as the most conservative, even reactionary, circuit in the US. So it could be overturned, even though the refusal of that court to stay the effect of Shelby's ruling pending an appeal does seem curious if the court is dead set against upholding his ruling.

The Ohio case is on a much narrower point, but the language used is very important.

In that case, Judge Timothy Black ordered Ohio authorities to recognize same-sex marriages on death certificates. When couples legally married in another state moved to Ohio, which does not recognize same-sex marriage, that state regarded them as unmarried and would not refer to them as married when one spouse died.

While the decision only applied to identifications on death certificates, the language Judge Black used was strong and sweeping.
[T]he question presented is whether a state can do what the federal government cannot - i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples ... simply because the majority of the voters don't like homosexuality (or at least didn't in 2004). Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no. ...

No hypothetical justification can overcome the clear primary purpose and practical effect of the marriage bans ... to disparage and demean the dignity of same-sex couples in the eyes of the state and the wider community.
For good measure, Black also said that "once you get married lawfully in one state, another state cannot summarily take your marriage away."

Either or both of these cases could easily wind up in the Supreme Court. But no matter what, it is yet another indicator that this is a case where the long moral arc of the universe is clearly, clearly, bending toward justice.

Footnote to the Footnote: When the Supreme Court overturned parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Antonin Scalia, who has a high-speed connection to Bizarro World such that I had to retire him from competition for the Clown Award, wrote a truly unhinged dissent. (Among other things, he called the majority opinion a "disappearing trail of legalistic argle-bargle" that labeled DOMA's supporters "members of a wild-eyed lynch mob" and "enemies of the human race.") As part of that dissent, Scalia wrote that the majority opinion's logic would inevitably lead to state bans on same-sex marriage being declared unconstitutional as well.

In a delicious development, both Judge Shelby and Judge Black cited Scalia's argument in support of their decisions. Shelby even wrote that Scalia had "recommended how this court should interpret the [DOMA] decision when presented with the question that is now before it." Assuming at least one of these cases will get to the Supreme Court, however they ultimately play out it will still be a lot of fun watching Scalia try to deny the meaning of his own interpretation of the DOMA case.


139.2 - Santa Claus story: same-sex marriage comes to New Mexico

Santa Claus story: same-sex marriage comes to New Mexico

So now, in respect to the season, three quick items with a sort of - sort of, or at least I can claim to be making a - seasonal connection.

First, we have Santa Claus bringing the good news to all the good girls and boys and the girls and girls and the boys and boys.

The New Mexico Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that same-sex partners have the right to marry in that state.

I've mentioned this before, initially back in August. The state constitution of New Mexico neither specifically allows nor specifically denies the right of same-sex couples to marry, referring to marriage only as the union of two people. The case arose because some counties in New Mexico, noting that fact, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Others would not. Some legal tussling ensued, which lead to most of the counties together asking the state Supreme Court to decide the issue so there would be one statewide standard.

The court has. Emphatically. "Barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation," the five justices ruled, violates the equal protection clause of the state Constitution.

The court bushed aside the only arguments offered by opponents, which were that the government has an "overriding interest in responsible procreation and childrearing" and in avoiding the "deinstitutionalization" of marriage. For the first, the court simply noted that "procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law" and dismissed the second as "nothing more than an argument to maintain only opposite-gender marriages."

New Mexico thus becomes the 17th state, plus the District of Columbia, the recognize marriage justice. It is true that from here on in, the state-by-state battle is going to get a lot harder - but leave that aside for now to just note how for some folks in love and and long-term relationships in New Mexico, this year's holiday lights are going to shine a little brighter.

Footnote: Because of the holidays, this edition of Left Side of the Aisle was prepared in advance, which is why there is no mention of the cases of Utah or Ohio, as both those decisions came down after the show was done. I addressed them is the post inserted immediately following this one.


139.1 - Why Christmas is on December 25

Why Christmas is on December 25

Last year around this time I told you about New Year's, about why it was on January 1 as opposed to any other day of the year when for a long time and in a lot of places, it wasn't. This year I'm going to give you a very brief history of Christmas, of why it comes on December 25.

Right at the top: You know those people who say that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was.

In prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and watching it get lower and lower in the sky each year as winter approached, there was a fear that one year, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was a promise of the return of spring and reason to celebrate.

The winter solstice
This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere around December 21. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that the Sun stands still - which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice. The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples, include the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.

That is a reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions are drawn from pagan ones - including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

First things first: No one knows the date Jesus was born, no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source we know it was definitely not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year; the flocks would most likely have been corralled. In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves. Which is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day listed for December 25th.

In fact, not only did early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries here) argue about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25 - some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was well-established and December 25 had pretty much become accepted as the day.

In 313, Constantine the Great legally allowed Christianity in the Roman Empire - actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says "it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best," which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Anyway, the first recorded date of the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th was in 336. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not actually get baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Okay, yeah, all well and good, but how did the chosen date come down to December 25? That was the question, after all. To answer that, first remember that this was taking place in Rome.

The solstice celebration is Rome was called Saturnalia. It was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling. Houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens. Schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with masked or blackened faces and wearing fantastic hats. Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far.

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21st. But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25. Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

This new being, this composite of a composite, was Solis invicta, the invincible sun, and Mithra's day became dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the unconquerable sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - which was becoming widely accepted among Christians right around this same time, you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, the birthday of the unconquerable "Son?"

St. John Chrysostom
According to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."

By the year 354 CE, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed. Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

In New England, Christmas is a relatively recent holiday. Among the early European settlers of the area, specifically Plymouth and Boston, Christmas was regarded as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. In fact, there were laws against it. In his journal entry for 1621, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling has been modernized.)
A page from Bradford's journal
One the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
In 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681. Even then, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686. For many years, Thanksgiving remained the important seasonal holiday in New England.

A religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in Christmas, particularly in the South. In 1837, Louisiana became the first state to make the day a holiday. New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the first time Christmas was mentioned in the town’s oldest newspaper wasn't until 1825. But once it got rolling, it developed pretty quickly: In 1856,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that "The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday“ in the region, but "We are in a transition state." By 1860 that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.

And that is why Christmas in on December 25: Because Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, I know I'm a few weeks late with this but still, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.

"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, November 15, 1979

Left Side of the Aisle #139

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of December 26, 2013 - January 2, 2014

This week:
Why Christmas is on December 25
"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, November 15, 1979

Santa Claus: Same-sex marriage comes to New Mexico,306.pdf

The Grinch: The GOPper and the free lunch

New Year's resolution: Obamabots beware

And Another Thing: inheriting acquired characteristics

And Another Thing: Mars was at one time "Earthlike"

And Another Thing: looking for lumpy electrons

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of December 18, at least 11,601 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 97 of them in Massachusetts.

138.5 - Outrage of the Week: the budget deal

Outrage of the Week: the budget deal

I expect you know that a budget deal to keep the federal government functioning for a time, anyway, has been finalized. Apparently, everybody in DC loves it - well, okay, not the purity police of the right wing, which opposes pretty much anything that doesn't involve handouts to Big Business or more and bigger toys for the Pentagon to play with, but pretty much everbody else. The GOPper leadership, the Dimcrat leadership, the Amazing Mr. O, everybody says "oh wow, isn't this fantastic, we actually had a kinda sorta at least a symbolic compromise and after all, isn't that what's really important?"

Before the House vote, Rep. John Fleming, a GOPper from Louisiana, said "I'm one of the most conservative of the caucus, and I'm leaning yes on this." He added that he didn't hear "any major objections" among colleagues. "We've actually found a compromise that does not assault the values of either side," he said.

Well, I can't speak for the politicos and pundits, but I can say this: It assaults my values! It is, in fact, the Outrage of the Week.

It assaults my values when it recovers only half of the sequestration's cuts for 2014 and only a quarter of those for 2015 - and half of that recovery is going to the military even though the US spends more on the military, on weapons, on wars and preparation for wars, than the next nine biggest spenders combined and indeed spends nearly as much as the entire rest of the world combined.

It assaults my values when it does nothing about an extension of unemployment benefits, meaning about 1.3 million Americans will lose those benefits this week, leading to 300,000 fewer jobs next year through the loss of that stimulus.

It assaults my values when it cuts pensions of federal workers and military retirees but leaves gaping tax loopholes that benefit the richest untouched.

It assaults my values when, as expressed in this deal, we are still so damn concerned with deficits even as one in five children are growing up in poverty in this country, with nine percent of all children in the country living with unemployed parents, nearly double the rate of five percent in 2007, before the recession brought on by Wall Street greed.

It assaults my values - in fact, the whole stinking thing assaults my values.

It assaults my values that we nickel and dime programs for the poor while income inequality balloons to the widest gap since the Roaring '20s, with the richest 1% of us getting nearly 20% of all household income.

It assaults my values that raising the minimum wage is even as issue that needs discussing, when the current federal minimum is worth 23% less than it was in 1968 - and if it had kept pace with the increase in worker productivity, it would be nearly $25 an hour.

It assaults my values that we mock, deride, humiliate, and scorn people on Food Stamps and are now talking about an $8 billion cut over the next 10 years - on top of the $5 billion cut that came in November because the White House and Congressional Dimcrats never put pack the stimulus money they took out of the program - even as hunger persists. And worse, that we're going to be expected to be happy, to celebrate, that the cut is "only" $8 billion.

It assaults my values that the epithet "takers" got so much as a fingernail hold on our national political discussions.

It assaults my values that even as the portion of the economy going corporate profits hits record highs, the portion going to wages hits record lows. That even as profits in the manufacturing sector soar, wages in the same sector have fallen 3% in real terms since 2009.

It assaults my values that no one has gone and no one will go to jail over the fraud committed and still being committed by the banks against homeowners and others over the mortgage crisis. That those same giant banks, which by being "too big to fail" required that we bail them out of their recklessness and greed, are now even bigger, with an even stronger grip on our economic lives.

It assaults my values that 25% of all people with jobs still qualify for some form of public assistance.

It assaults my values that poverty, that hunger, that homelessness, that unemployment, that underemployment, that desperation and despair persist when they don't have to. When we do have enough to make sure everyone has enough. We have the resources, we have the technology, we have the abundance. We have what we need to see to it that everyone has enough. Not luxury, not the life of Riley, but enough.

It assaults my values that we don't do that, the fact that we are so pathetically far behind other developed countries, that we rank so low among other developed countries.

Talking about the budget deal, Katrina vanden Heuvel said it well:
Advocates of compromise for compromise’s sake argue that everybody sacrifices something in a tough negotiation. This is an easy mantra to toss around when you’re talking about sacrificing political cover as opposed to, say, a roof over your head.
The fact that we are supposed not only to make those compromises, but to regard them as inherently good things simply because they are labeled compromises, is an assault on my values. It is, this week and every week, an outrage.


138.4 - More gun profits, more gun deaths

More gun profits, more gun deaths

Here's another edition of Everything You Need to Know, in this case Everything You Need to Know in two headlines, which appeared sequentially on my news aggregator:

The first:

Sandy Hook Gun-Maker Profits Up 52 Percent In Year Since Massacre

The second:

Arapahoe High School Shooting Leaves At Least 1 Dead, 2 Injured

And that is Everything You Need to Know. But in this case I'm going to do some backfill.

In the first article, the grossly-misnamed Freedom Group, also known as the Remington Outdoor Company, reported that its profits have gone up by 52% in the year since one of its death machines, a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, was used to slaughter 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Cerberus Capital Management, a private-equity firm that owns Freedom Group, said in the wake of the massacre that it was going to sell its interest in the company. It never did.

Remington is not the only death-dealer smiling. Sturm Ruger, the largest US gunmaker, predicts its earnings will be up 52 percent over last year. Its profits for the first three quarters of the year were 66 percent above the same period for the year before. In the first half of this year, Smith & Wesson saw its profits jump more than 70 percent over the same period in 2012.

Meanwhile, it has actually gotten easier to get a gun in this country. Since Newtown, there have been 70 state laws passed weakening gun controls and only 39 tightening them. You can carry more guns more places and every state in the nation now allows you to carry a concealed weapon.

And so now there is another school shooting, this one at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, which is just eight miles from Columbine High School and 17 miles from Aurora.

Arapahoe was the 25th school shooting since Newtown - that's roughly one every two weeks. At least 18 people have died in those attacks.

And what's the answer to this we hear, we hear over and over? We need more guns! We need more people packing heat! We need teachers, administrators, janitors, walking the halls of schools armed. In 2013, 80 bills were introduced in 33 states to arm school teachers or staff. In eight of those states - Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas - those bills became law.

All because, in the words of Wayne LaPepeLePew, head of the Nutzoid Rabbit-brains of America, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

It's all a sick superhero fanatasy. A couple of years ago, the TV show 20/20 did an experiment. It took a group of college students of varying familiarity with guns and gave them professional training exceeding that required in most states for getting a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Then the producers recorded the students reacting to simulations in which an aggressive, active gunman entered a classroom. In every simulation, every single time, the student failed to stop the aggressor and was badly or fatally wounded; in one instance, the student narrowly missed shooting a victim of the assault.

Weapons experts will tell you that only professionals who drill continuously in live shooter simulations can hope to succeed in such chaotic situations. Even cops who go a month or two without drill start to lose the training.

In fact, a New York Times study from a couple of months ago revealed that even highly trained New York City police officers who discharged their guns in public hit their intended targets only 34 percent of the time. Put differently, the police missed their targets and hit something - or someone - else two out of every three shots.

But according to the gun freaks, what we need to stop more Columbines, more Newtowns, more Arapahoes, is thousands of semi-trained people carrying guns in our schools, ready to play Batman. Terrific. Which, I expect, is more than you needed to know.


138.3 - Everything You Need to Know: about which side Obama is really on

Everything You Need to Know: about which side Obama is really on

Now for an example of Everything You Need to Know, where you can learn a lot in a very short time. In this case, it's everything you need to know about what side the Obama administration is really on in just one sentence.

Tim Geithner, who was one of Barack Obama's key economic advisors even before becoming Treasury Secretary during the Wall Street bailout, during which time his appointment calendar detailed extensive contacts with the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup, is to become the president and managing director of private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

And that is everything you need to know.


138.2 - Clown Award: Paul Rantin'

Clown Award: Paul Rantin'

Now it's time for the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

This time the stupid is wrapped up in a nice package of "Say what?" Our winner of the big red nose this week is that dashing darling of fiscal foolishness, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Rantin'.

Speaking on the right-wing Hugh Hewitt radio program on Tuesday, Rantin' raised the possibility of demanding that the White House approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline as a condition for raising or suspending the debt ceiling. First, let's just take a moment to remember what the Keystone XL pipeline is. This is a proposed pipeline to carry tar sands from Canada to refineries in Texas, tar sands being about the dirtiest, most polluting way of getting oil that there is.

Now let's take another moment to remember what's involved with the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is the limit placed on how much money the government can borrow through the sale of Treasury bonds and so on. Raising the ceiling does not create more debt; rather, it enables the government to have the means to pay the bills for the things Congress has already approved. Not raising the debt ceiling means the government being unable to pay its bills meaning potentially defaulting on its debts, meaning the cost of future borrowing is much higher assuming you can get buyers for your bonds.

Okay, with that in mind, back for more Rantin'. This is what he told Hewitt:
We’ve never just done nothing. We want to make sure that we’re taking steps in the direction of fiscal conservatism, of fiscal responsibility. I, for one, think we need to do more in the energy sector. I believe we need to approve Keystone pipeline. We need to produce regulatory certainties to all this private capital that develops this energy boon. We could be an energy independent continent within a decade if we stop the government from stopping it from happening. If we just get the government out of the way, it could be a real renaissance of oil and gas exploration in America, lower our gas prices, stop sending this money to foreign countries.
This is actually a big comedown from the right wing's glory days: They would really prefer to force cuts and changes in Medicare or Social Security or preferably both as a price for raising the debt ceiling, but they've figured out that just ain't gonna fly. So they're setting their sights a good deal lower, at a target the White House has already been suspected by environmentalists of favoring.

Okay, but where's the stupid? It's right there in the middle of the blather: "We could be an energy independent continent within a decade if we stop the government from stopping it from happening."

Yep, just "get the government out of the way!" It'll be "a renaissance of oil and gas exploration." And pudding for everyone!

First, the Keystone XL pipeline doesn't have a single thing to do with energy independence: The oil that would be refined in Texas would be shipped out to be sold overseas. There's the reason the proposed pipeline goes to a port, people!

Second, "get the government out of the way?" What, government like in the EPA? Have you looked at China recently?

But here's the real thing: Really? You want us to drill even more, become even more dependent on fossil fuels? Really?

Even in the face of all the scientific evidence of global warming, including more bizarre weather like snow in Cairo for the first time in over 100 years?

Even in the face of, coupled with that, the news that last month was, worldwide, the hottest November in at least 133 years?

That doesn't mean anything to you, Paulie? That doesn't give you pause in your desire to see more drilling, more oil, more gas, more pollution, more waste, more profits for Exxon and the rest, more more more?

I thought not. You really, really are a clown.


138.1 - NSA spying probably unconstitutional

NSA spying probably unconstitutional

Okay, we have some good news. And it is really good news. Unhappily, it may prove to be temporary good news, but even if it turns out that way it's still good news because it shows a move in the right direction.

On Monday, December 16, US District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the National Security Agency's controversial spying program that collects data on tens of millions of Americans' telephone records is probably unconstitutional.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a conservative activist - and frankly, flake - named Larry Klayman charging that the program violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Leon, responding to a move by the government to have the case dismissed, said this:
The court concludes that plaintiffs have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the government's bulk collection and querying of phone record metadata, that they have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim (of unlawful search and seizure), and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent ... relief.

What's more, Leon slammed the very idea that the massive spying even works.
Given the limited record before me at this point in the litigation - most notably the utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics - I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.
The government, Leon wrote, "does not cite a single instance" of the spying stopping an imminent attack. The government has repeatedly claimed in public that NSA spying has helped stop literally dozens of attacks, but presented the judge with no evidence to back that up, not even in a closed hearing.

Leon issued a preliminary injunction against the program but suspended the order to allow an appeal by the Justice Department, an appeal which he said he fully expected to do come and which, he acknowledged, could take six months.

The case is one of several that are coming up in the next months.

In another, during a hearing last week in a Manhattan courtroom, US District Judge William Pauley III was described by observers as "receptive" to the idea that Americans enjoy some level of privacy in their phone records.

The government's defense of the constitutionality of the phone spying program has always rested on Smith v. Maryland, a Supreme Court decision from 1979 that found that Americans have no expectation of privacy in who they are calling, because they knowingly give that information to phone companies and therefore police don't need a warrant to get that information. That decision has always struck me as utterly bizarre; it's saying that because you have to tell the phone company who you're calling in order for the call to be made that therefore the government can know, too, and the decision has been expanded to cover things like banking records - because the bank knows what transactions you've made, what deposits and withdrawals you have made that therefore the government can know, too - but it is, unfortunately, the law. James Madison, I believe, would be aghast.

Anyway, that's the argument. However, in that case, in the Smith case, all the police could find out is what number the person called.

During the hearing, Pauley asked "Doesn't the information collected here reveal far more?" And indeed the metadata the NSA collects can reveal far more than just a phone number, enough so that at least two members of the Supreme Court have expressed the opinion that the Smith ruling may be outdated. In his opinion, Leon also addressed that issue, calling current technology "almost-Orwellian" and "a far cry" from that found in, or envisioned in, 1979.

The suit before Pauley was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, and its New York affiliate just days after the program was revealed in news reports drawn from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. An earlier ACLU suit about government spying was dismissed in 2012 because, the Supreme Court ruled, the fact that the program was secret meant that the plaintiffs couldn't prove they had been targets of spying and so had no legal standing to challenge it - which is another interesting bit of twisted thinking; it's saying that because the program is secret you can't know if you personally have been affected by it so you can't challenge it, which effectively puts all secret government programs beyond legal challenge, but the point here is that this program is now public and confirmed by the White House, so the standing issue shouldn't apply.

Judge Pauley did not issue a ruling, but said the hearing left him with a lot to think about. Meanwhile, Stuart Delery, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, said Judge Pauley should wait for the Supreme Court to rule on bulk data collection rather than try to resolve the matter on his own - just let it sit, let it wait until the Supreme Court gets around to the issue ... sometime. Which sounds very much like a man afraid he may well lose.

Whatever Judge Pauley rules, however that case ultimately turns out at the District Court level, it will be appealed, as of course Judge Leon's will be. And no matter what happens at the Appeals level, there is a good chance that both of these cases will wind up at the Supreme Court. So none of this good news is definitive and it may not last: We could still fall victim to the courts' historical, traditional, reluctance to challenge executive authority on so-called "national security" matters. In a number of ways, the Fourth Amendment is on life support as it is.

Still, what this does mean is that there is an increasing push, an increasing sense, that we have gone too far in surrendering our privacy and our rights for the chimera of supposed security, far enough, in fact, that Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the the man who was the primary author of the Patriot Act, the bill the NSA and White House claim legally justifies their spying, says he is shocked by their interpretation of the law and what the NSA is doing is illegal and unconstitutional. And that change in attitude is a very good thing.

And it's an especially, an exceptionally good thing, because a few weeks ago another revelation from what we might call "the Snowden papers" was that shortly before the leaks began, in February 2012, the NSA proposed a four-year mission strategy to enable the agency to acquire data from “anyone, anytime, anywhere” and eventually acquire all digital information available in the world.

The document talks about breaking all encryption, including by investing in the industrial base in order to control and direct technological development on a path suitable for the spooks and by using spies in companies abroad to decode their decryption tools.

The document also claims that existing US laws are not adequate to the spies' desires and set an objective of “aggressively pursu[ing] legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age.” Put more simply, the NSA wants more power, they think there are too many restrictions, that they're not free enough, the agency wants more power to spy anywhere, anytime, any way it wants and thinks that having to do dumb things like get a dumb warrant from some dumb court is just dumb and that dumb old Constitution is just dumb, so there.

I find it interesting and significant that we haven't heard too much of late from the NSA-sycophants like Diane Feinstein. It would be nice if their silence was due to embarrassment or better yet shame, but I think they're well past shame. But at least it means kissing up to the spooks doesn't look like a political winner now. And that is a good thing. Thank you, Edward Snowden.

By the way, as a footnote to that, you may recall I called Larry Klayman, the guy who brought the suit before Judge Leon, a flake. He is. He once sued his own mother, is closely affiliated with the birther movement, and thinks Obama is a Muslim. He's the guy who a little while back wanted Obama "to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up."

But there is an old and very wise saying: If it's the truth, what does it matter who says it?


Left Side of the Aisle #138

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of December 19-25, 2013

This week:

NSA spying found probably unconstitutional

Clown Award: Rep. Paul Rantin',0,1691393.story#axzz2nN6nJ0Ja

Everything You Need to Know: about which side Obama is really on

More gun profits, more gun deaths

Outrage of the Week: the budget deal

Friday, December 13, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of December 10, at least - and remember, this figure does not include suicides - but at least 11,395 people had been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, at least 96 of them in Massachusetts.

137.6 - Anniversary of Newtown

Anniversary of Newtown

Just very quickly, a couple of anniversaries occurring around this time that I thought worthy of mention. Taking them in chronological order:

December 15, 1791, was the day that Virginia ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, making the Bill of Rights formally part of the document.

December 8, 1980, was the day John Lennon was shot and killed. It's a mark of his impact on the culture that people still remember the event as well as they do.

Finally, December 14, 2012, was the day Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered 20 children and six adults before committing suicide.

I'm not going to go through the blood-stained halls of the school, running down a timeline of events, that has been done too many times to too little purpose. In fact, if you want to know to just how little purpose, know that there is an online computer game - or at least was, there is an effort to get it taken down - called "The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary" which allows you to re-enact Lanza's actions, starting with the murder of your mother in her sleep before you head for the school. At the end of the game - which at the school lasts the same length of time as Lanza's massacre - you are scored on how many people you managed to kill.

The author of the game, one Ryan Jake Lambourn, claims that it was intended to be "about [the] importance of gun control" but even assuming that is somehow true, this is such a sick way to do that, that it demonstrates just how sick our whole gun culture is.

And we are indeed sick with guns, obsessed with guns, drooling over guns, saturated with guns. We as a people, as a culture, are hooked on, addicted to, the feelings of power, of independence, of control that guns bring. Even those of us that don't own guns - and actually, that's the majority of us: In the last 30-plus years, the number of individuals who own guns has never exceeded about 30% and the number of households with guns has never exceeded 50% and both those figures have been on a gradual decline - but even those of us who don't own guns get sucked into the mythology of it all.

Still, something else I'm not going to do is go through the arguments over guns - I refuse to say "gun control" because the sort of tepid, quarter-measures usually described as such might snip away at the outer edges of our gun crime rate, dull some of the sharper edges of the violence, but ultimately would change little because, bluntly, while things like expanded background checks are good things in and of themselves, they do not address the real issue, which is our gun culture, our enthrallment to the fantasy of weaponry.

And what's more, guns are another area where you are always, invariably, inevitably, faced with the same old tired arguments, the same cliches, the same bumper sticker thinking. If you raise the mass murders like Newtown or Aurora or Columbine, they'll in one breath denounce you for "politicizing a tragedy - how daaaare you!" and in the next insist that if there were only more guns around, some brave soul would have taken out the shooter like some combination of John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and Spiderman. No matter how many studies you can cite connecting rates of gun ownership to rates of violent crime, they will scream "Second Amendment," often with an adjective like "sacred." No matter how much historical data or how many legal argument you can present to show that the Second Amendment was about maintaining a militia at a time when no one thought in terms of a standing army, they won't care, they'll just scream "Second Amendment!" even louder. When you cite legal precedent, they'll stop screaming long enough to say "The Supreme Court has spoken so shut up!" When you ask why if that's true they didn't shut up in the face of the previous decades of Supreme Court precedent, they'll just scream "Second Amendment!" again.

I have gone through the arguments, I have made the arguments, I have actually made some arguments at some length. Last January, in the wake of Newtown, I discussed guns, gun violence, gun laws, and so on over a period of eight weeks, including citing some of those studies about guns and crime and discussing how the 2008 Heller decision, the Supreme Court decision that for the first time found an individual right to own guns hidden in the Second Amendment, ignored both precedent and original intent while at the same time not going as far as the gun nuts think it did. I'm not going to go through all that again now. If you want, links to all eight pieces are below.

For the moment, I am just too tired to go through the arguments again, too worn out with anger at the spineless, crawling, not-even-worthy-of-being-called-wimps Democrats in Congress who are so preoccupied with keeping a tight grip on their sinecures that they can't see the blood on their hands.


The series on guns:
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