fb comments plugin script

Friday, December 2, 2011

Not Even Newt Can Count the Angels on the Head of a Pin

A recent interview response from Newt Gingrich has the Catholics in a tizzy. Apparently they are upset that he wouldn't take a stand on whether a fertilized egg that had not yet been implanted in the uterine wall was a human life. Of course it is, so the nuts win on that point, but they're both missing the forest for the trees.

The correct answer from science is that life is a continuous process going back millions of years without interruption. There is no specific moment when the life of a single organism begins [or species, for that matter]. Or, as I like to say, life begins long before conception. But the real question I think the religious folks are trying to ask is either: (1) when does the SOUL implant into the organism or perhaps (2) when does the life of value equal to that of an human child begin [obviously not before fertilization, and setting aside the usual liberal quip that conservatives value fetuses more than children].

The more you know, the harder the question gets for religious folks. For example, what if there is a fertilized egg, but shortly after it starts to divide into a multicellular organism, some developmental flaw occurs that guarantees it will never be able to develop anything even resembling a brain. The pregnancy would fail naturally very soon after that, but it raises a question to someone who claims the fertilized egg had a soul or equal value to that of a human, since the event that made it impossible for it to develop into something more meaningful than a blob of tissue happened after fertilization.

But if you reject the religion or the religious proscriptions, the question itself pretty much disappears. Let's hope Newt disappears, too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Regarding the Commission Approved Draft Legislative and Congressional Maps

Click to see draft maps
If you look at recent statewide races, you see that Republicans have a 10 percentage point advantage, about 55% to 45%. That said, statewide races are close when the Democrat is highly qualified and has a clean record, and when their Republican challenger has a history of corruption or incompetence. Redistricting will have no effect on this,but it gives a sense of the population of Arizona.

The same is not true in many congressional and legislative districts. We can easily find examples of blatantly incompetent and corrupt representatives elected in safe districts due to the dynamics of a primary election with too many or too few competitors. In safe districts, we find incumbents who are guaranteed reelection in all but the most extreme cases. Are vote splitting primaries with too many candidates vying for a safe party seat followed by term limits really the way we want to select our representatives?

Competitive districts provide a safeguard against this.Competitive districts are not an advantage for Democrats. They aren't even an advantage for so-called moderates and centrists. They're an advantage for sane people.

So is that what the draft maps provide? Not really. The drafts offer only a handful of competitive legislative districts. Less than half of the congressional districts are competitive.

And how are the uncompetitive districts divided? In a state that polls at 55% Republican, of legislative districts with a 15 point spread or more, 65% percent are safe Republican seats. In a state that polls at 55%Republican, of congressional districts with a 15 point spread, 67% are safe Republican seats.

If you make the reasonable assumption that Republicans would still take competitive seats half the time, that still leaves our congressional delegation and legislatures over 60% Republican. For those of you who are bad at math, that's higher than 55%. That gives Republicans a louder voice that they would get under a truly representative system of government

They already have that.

So why are Republicans so upset with this map?

They've controlled the state legislature for decades. Do these draft maps threaten that control? No. But if you think about, it makes sense. There is no such thing as enough for them. They follow an ideology that elevates self interest and greed above all other human values, even beyond the natural balance of these forces in a sane and healthy human being. They will never have enough. There is no way to appease them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drinking Liberally @ Lux Central, Thursday

What: Drinking Liberally
When: Thursday, 6:30 - 11pm
Where: Lux Central, 4402 North Central Avenue in Phoenix (at the Campbell light rail station)
Where, specifically: probably a semi-hidden room in the back, not too hard to find though

It's time to sit down for a serious, soul searching, talk. Perhaps over drinks.

The consensus in the mainstream media is that the #OccupyWallStreet protests are lacking a clear message and have no policy solutions.

Well then, maybe they should vote Republican -- nobody has a less clear message than them. After all, the GOP is the party of tax cuts while their leading presidential candidate wants to raise taxes on 85% of us and the Republicans who run our solidly red state have managed to do so already. They believe in small government, but they want to regulate women's health and sexual orientation. They are the pro-life party that wants to expand the use of the death penalty and let the uninsured working poor die in the street from easily treatable medical conditions. They are proud of their fiscal restraint, yet they see nothing wrong with racking up another trillion dollars of debt to fight a war under false pretenses and another trillion in giveaways to their wealthy cronies which they hope to pay for later by cutting expenses in programs that already pay for themselves.

On second thought, not so much. By comparison, I would say the #Occupiers have a pretty clear message. Corporate power is the problem. To be fair, the GOP has a clear message, too: government is the problem. And if you don't believe it, just watch them govern and they'll prove it to you. But don't try it sober. To understand the GOP style of governing, you need to be drunk or otherwise brain damaged. I prefer to drink or to simply not understand.

So join us at Lux this Thursday evening, and we can do it together. (We're still deciding where to settle this bi-weekly event, but this looks like a really good option.)



Friday, September 30, 2011

Another Forgotten Debate

Have you ever heard a religious person tell you that science and religion both require faith? That it takes just as much faith for you to believe in evolution, or even empiricism (!), as it takes for them to believe a myth written by stone age goat herders? Well, here's how it went down this time:

It started with a parable I wrote in response to a flawed logical refutation of empiricism:
Imagine someone making a claim that there is a buried jar of black jellybeans and antique Ford gear shift knobs of a very specific configuration and location. It's a reasonable claim for the person who buried it to make, but when you casually ask about it, they explain that they believe it on faith and they have no empirical reason whatsoever for believing it's there.

You would find the claim absurd, but then imagine them laughing back at you! How could you possibly know it's not there?
To this, the creationist responded with the usual argument that it takes just as much faith to believe in empiricism as it takes to believe in his religion.  It was a very long-winded version, but that's what it really boiled down to.  Here was my reply:
I don't see it as faith. I've given lots of ideas what I consider to be a fair try.  Some I accept, some I disbelieve, some I reject as nonsense, and some I consider still up in the air. For many religions, though, they claim that what I consider to be a "fair try" unacceptable. I will only drink your Kool-Aid if you first convince me that you are right. They say a "fair try" means fully believing it first. I can't do that because (1) there are too many different religions all making that claim to try them all and (2) my understanding of the brain tells me that it's easy to convince yourself of something false once you believe it.

But how do I know what I know about the brain? Isn't it a little circular to trust what empiricism tells me about brain function? Only if you're a nihilist! You don't have to say that empiricism is the only way to know anything as a first principle. You just accept that it can tell you something.... then....

Going back to my parable of the buried jar of specific things. Suppose that instead of "just faith" the guy makes the absurd prediction by telling another story that seems, at first to an outsider, to be just as crazy and unlikely as the prediction. Religions and science are in the same boat on this one.

But then suppose we look and he turns out to be right! We might still think it's a trick. Wouldn't we? But we might be willing to give it another look. Then suppose something even more miraculous happens. He uses the same crazy story to make another and another and another seemingly unrelated and totally absurd prediction. At some point, we start to lend a little weight to the story. Even if we don't believe the truth in the story, we must recognize that it has some power. At this point, religion and science are still in the same boat but they have started to diverge.

So, you then take it to the next level and try it out for yourself. Take the crazy story and use it to make a prediction of your own. If you then find that it actually works over and over, you're hooked on that story. It's no longer just a thing with some power, but it's a thing approaching that quality we might call "truth". But at this point in the parable, religion and science have completely diverged.

This only happens with the kind of story we call "science" and if it happened to a religion, we would simply apply the term "science" to that aspect of the religion that achieves the kind of magic that science achieves with the same kind of detailed and reusable story that science tells. There is no reason that a particular story or model can be only "religion" OR "science" and not both, other than the fact that there aren't many.

If you are looking to explain the world then religion might be a good tool.  Religions are designed to explain the world in a language that makes sense to people. In this sense it might even be fair to label some ways of thinking about evolution as "religion" because it makes sense and explains so much [or "faith" in the sense that you need some faith to not be a solipsist, though "not being a solipsist" is also an instinctual default that somewhat nullifies any label you try to apply to it]. So belief in evolution might be religion in that sense, but it's ALSO something else that faith and religion are not: Science makes outlandish predictions that turn out to be true! And it does so over and over in unexpected ways starting from the same seemingly absurd [to the uninitiated] story.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is It Really Just Math?

The one major flaw in everything Obama says is that he assumes people will listen, think about what he says, and then translate it into their own moral frame. Instead, people react based purely on their programmed response to symbols.

Consider Boehner's response that "Pitting one group of Americans against another is not leadership." Pitting the other group (wealth) against the one group (the other 98%) IS acceptable because the other 98% are "not pulling their weight". But "pitting the majority against the wealthy privileged few" is unacceptable even when some of those privileged few agree with the technical analysis. Presenting FACTS that contradict the symbolism of right wing ideology is itself morally wrong! What?

This is a persistent failing of the center-left. Rather than present their case as a moral argument, they present a purely technical case from the FACTS. "It's not class warfare, it's just math." They think they are protecting themselves from moral counter-arguments when in fact they are doing just the opposite. By doing this, they open themselves to purely moral arguments that don't need to account for the facts at all!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Santorum is a Defective Human Being

may be slick, but the man is vile, and now he's running for President. Of course, we all remember his hateful statements about gays, but that's only the beginning of where his defective humanity begins to expose itself.

Naturally, his position on climate change is that the science should be judged by political power and economic interests. Don't bother to look at what the actual science says -- in fact, we probably shouldn't even be doing science with the potential to threaten the legitimacy of industries that fund our political careers. But it gets worse!

Consider his position on stem cells. Naturally, he would rather stifle medical research than allow a few clumps of human cells to be used for medical research with the potential to alleviate human suffering. The cells in question would likely not even have something recognizable as a brain, but slick Rick opposes it on the grounds that he is "pro-life" and an embryo qualifies as life. What he really means is that it has a soul, of course. He has no trouble eating meat daily which generates actual pain and suffering of living creatures on an industrial scale. No, he's concerned about the soul in the microscopic, brainless mass of cells at the expense of countless people! What a sick fuck! But it gets worse!

On biology education, he wants to abandon 150 years of progress and go back to teaching biology pre-evolution. This is like going back to chemistry before the periodic table. Shall we teach children the "flat earth theory" because some religious doctrines refuse to accept the well established evidence of modern science? Not unless we are going to teach the flying spaghetti monster as well.

Rick Santorum is exactly what we don't need in the White House.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Largest Financial Scam in History

All the talk of Reagan's legacy along with the dire warnings that we need to make "cuts" in programs like Social Security have made it impossible for me to ignore this any longer. Those of us who have been paying into Social Security for the last 30 years have been ripped off. Or at least we will if some have their way....

A $2.5 Trillion Broken Promise?

We are the victims of the largest financial scam in history, "the Social Security Trust Fund," or as it's called by politicians who oppose Social Security "an accounting fiction." I support Social Security, so you might expect me to disagree with them, but look at it this way. If I lend someone money based on a promise to pay me back and then a week later, they call that promise "meaningless" I might start to suspect that they've just ripped me off, no? So we can agree to call the promise "meaningless" -- just with slightly different perspectives depending on which side of the promise we're on.

You see, if these assets are just an accounting fiction, then so is a portion of the money that came out of your paycheck for "Social Security" over the last 30 years. That's odd. It sure didn't feel like an "accounting fiction" when they were subtracting it from my paycheck or when I was paying even more as a self-employment tax.

"Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme"

The opponents of Social Security like to say that it's a Ponzi Scheme. It's not, exactly. Some just use the term loosely, but I prefer to use such specific terms correctly. A Ponzi Scheme claims to be an investment fund, but instead of investing the money, the steward just takes the money. If more people are joining the fund than leaving, those leaving can take their original money with "gains" that are actually only given to create an illusion of a fund that is earning money. Social Security, at it's core is not an investment fund. It's an insurance system. People pay premiums into the system, and if they reach the condition they are insuring for, they make claims and take the payout. As it was originally structured, the system did not hold on to a savings fund, it just payed claims from it's income.

But the system ran into trouble in the Reagan era, requiring changes in premiums, benefit levels, and/or benefit eligibility [e.g. retirement age]. Recognizing another such bump down the road, Greenspan and Reagan created a financial device to help prepare for it. They increased premiums in advance to "save" money for the future in the form of specialty treasure bonds designed just for this purpose.

You could say it that way. Or...

Or, you could say they thought it was a shame to have such a massive stream of money flowing through the system with no mechanism for the private sector to skim money off the top, so they engineered a way to steal trillions of dollars from it. Of course, those trillions weren't just stolen outright -- they went to pay for important government expenses, like no-bid contracts for Halliburton, or foreign aid to help other countries develop their own no-bid contracts for Halliburton. You could call it a Ponzi scheme speaking very loosely, but on the other hand, this money actually is held in treasury bonds, so the only real fraud is in on the part of those politicians who have no intention of letting those bonds be redeemed.

What Does It Even Mean to "Cut" Social Security

So Social Security is an insurance system that generally pays "claims" (aka benefits) with the "premiums" (aka taxes) it takes in for that specific purpose. They collect those taxes separately from the other taxes we pay, so you can see it for yourself! They keep their accounts separate, too. Now it also has a big pile of treasury bonds it's accumulated with the hope of cashing them in to pay benefits. So what does it mean to make "cuts" in the program? Reduce benefits? I suppose so, but obviously not below the amount that can be covered by incoming premiums, right? Well, the government has become accustomed to using the money it borrows from Social Security, so maybe they do mean that low. No. In theory, it could give higher benefits than are covered by incoming premiums since it has this $2.5 trillion in savings it collected from working baby boomers ... collected specifically to cover their benefits when they reached retirement ... as many now are. So what does it MEAN to "cut" Social Security?

"Cut" normally just means reducing the amount of money spent, but it's not so simple in this case. The system has always been self-sufficient, and in the last 30 years it's actually brought in more money than it spent. So what does it mean? In this case, "cut" means breaking the promise to allow social security to redeem those treasury bonds it holds as was the plan we were sold when we started issuing those bonds. In a sense it is a cut, but it' s not a cut from spending a certain amount on the program to spending less on it. Legally and financially, it's a "cut in spending" the same way it's a "cut in spending" for me to stop making the car payments I owe to the bank.

It Hasn't Happened Yet

In theory, this hypothetical largest financial scam in history hasn't actually happened yet. Congress has not formally voided those bonds, and the national debt still includes the money owed to Social Security. I will remind you again that that money was payed specifically TO Social Security, so it's not just an "opinion" that Social Security should get that money. Perhaps you are opposed to Social Security in principle. Suppose they created a separate tax specifically for a program you support, but then they borrowed some of that money for programs you don't support. Then suppose they decided they didn't need to pay that money back. It hasn't really happened yet. What has happened recently is that the Social Security taxes were reduced, moving up [to right about now] the date when the inevitable showdown occurs. So here it is. A showdown is over whether those bonds represent money that we really owe to Social Security or "just an accounting fiction" [aka a legally binding financial savings instrument] that we can void whenever we are ready to be "honest" [aka dishonest] about Social Security.

The optimist in me hopes that the left in Washington [who am I kidding, they are centrists at best] let the payroll tax come down last year so they could have this showdown in a more favorable political environment (such as shortly after Obama's re-election campaign or perhaps as a campaign talking point). If this country slips much further into this dumbed-down far-right reactionary stupor, they will not only get enough people to enthusiastically support the elimination of Social Security, they will get away with it. And hardly anyone will have noticed the largest financial scam in history.