Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stranded on Mars

I don't do Halloween. Haven't for a long time. Sugar gives me a headache, so I don't want candy in the house. I also don't want to hand out such things as pencils or quarters. And since I don't have children of my own I can skip the whole thing. If Halloween isn't a rehearsal night I usually go out for supper and a movie or concert. Today I planned to do the same. And since the cineplex was next to a mall I went a half hour early so I could get some exercise by walking the mall before stopping at a restaurant for my meal. But, not having kids and ignoring Halloween, I missed a big detail.

Halloween at the mall.

The crowds were huge, slowly flowing past stores where sales people were handing out goodies. Luckily, they all went in one direction and stayed to one side of the walkway. I could take the inside track and keep a good pace. I could also bypass the crowds by walking around inside the department stores. And the restaurants were only half-full. In spite of the crowds I doubt the stores did much business.

The movie was The Martian, an adaptation of the book I read three months ago. This was a case where the movie was at least as good, if not better, than the book. The big reason was the visuals, which were stunning – the Martian landscape, the spacecraft, the look of the technology, the image of the habitat as a full residence. The screenplay tended to assume the viewer could keep up and in many places implied as much as said or showed the second half of a scene where it was clear what had gone on in the part not shown.

Of course, there were differences. The movie doesn't show the guy stranded on Mars spelling out messages in Morse code with rocks. It doesn't show him building and using the extra room he unfolded from the rover at every stop. It leaves out one of the sandstorms. And the actual method of rescue is different and done by a different character. And, of course, it doesn't go into the details of the calculations he does to keep himself alive.

Overall, a wonderful evening.

After reading the book I heard an NPR interview of the book's author, Andy Weir. He said there is one bit in the book and movie, the thing that sets the whole story in motion, can't actually happen. That's the dust storm that aborts the mission leaving one guy stranded. Though the winds would be as fast as depicted, the air on Mars is so thin it would barely be felt, and not at all capable of causing all the damage it did.

Even so, cool story. I wonder how they filmed the weightless scenes?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Notoriously for rights

There's a new book out, Notorious RBG, the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. I haven't read it, but have read the discussion on Think Progress by Ian Millhiser. The book shows us how central Ginsberg has been for women's rights through her presentations before the Supremes while she was a lawyer, her time as a federal judge, and her tenure as a Justice. She saw her mother as highly intelligent, but had wasted it because she was stuck in a society in which women took care of the family. Ginsberg vowed to change that, and has.

A few days ago I wrote that the next president will have the opportunity to bend the Supremes to the left or right. And if the next president isn't a Democrat, that might render Democrats powerless for a long time. Ginsberg was asked the logical question. Why not retire and allow Obama to appoint a successor, guaranteeing her progressive voice? She pointed to the dysfunctional Senate and said:
Who do you think President Obama could appoint at this very day, given the boundaries that we have? If I resign any time this year, he could not successfully appoint anyone I would like to see in the court.
Alas, the next election is not likely to change that, no matter who wins the presidency.

Ludicrous lies

Back in July I wrote about HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. The GOP controlled Texas Supremes forced stopping enforcement of HERO and forced it onto this fall's election. Never mind that the petition drive didn't come up with enough valid signatures.

Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and the only one of the top ten that doesn't protect LGBT people from discrimination. Now that the same-sex marriage issue is settled, discrimination protection is at the top of our needs. And there won't be a federal response for a while. So LGBT advocacy groups in various cities and states are gearing up to make it happen locally. So Houston is seen as critical. Will Houston confirm the direction of equality or will knock the wind out of a lot of sails? Will find out Tuesday.

Naturally, lots of time, money, and effort from across the country is being focused on Houston. I got an email from the Michigan equal rights group asking if I'd be willing to be a part of the campaign and call people in Houston. Of course, lots of time, money, and effort is also coming from our opponents. And they're pulling out all the nasty attack lines they've developed over the years. Mayor Annise Parker, who is lesbian and completing her third term, said:
The fact there is so much misinformation and not just misinformation, just out and out ludicrous lies, is very frustrating. I'm worried about the image of Houston around the world as a tolerant, welcoming place if this goes down.

Float your boat

When I was young we had a subscription to Readers Digest magazine. There were also many Readers Digest Condensed Books around the house. I read a few of the articles, but mostly I read the humor bits, the joke pages, and the funny stuff after most articles. A bonus when we visited my grandfather was the shelves of old RD in his basement. There were times when I came home from college and as the rest of the family went to bed I would find the latest Readers Digest or two and read all the funny stuff. I usually stayed up late – and couldn't keep my eyes open during the church service the next morning.

Once I was on my own, I also subscribed. But I got tired of the simplistic or saccharine nature of the articles. For a while I read the funny stuff on visits to home, which lasted until Dad got annoyed with what he saw was RD's anti-church stance (I could go into a big aside about the Institute for Religion and Democracy, which is actually wants religion without democracy, but not now).

After that I sometimes stood in line at the grocery store reading as much of the latest RD as time permitted. But it has been a long time since I've seen it in the checkout aisles.

So what brings on this reminiscence? RD sent me a free copy with an offer to subscribe. I threw away the subscription card, but decided to read it anyway. The articles are as simplistic and saccharine as before and there isn't as much funny stuff. But there was one article that caught my attention.

Most of the articles RD publishes are condensations of stuff printed elsewhere. This one was no exception. Since I'm not all that fond of RD I decided I would find and link to the original article. It is The Pentagon & Climate Change: How Deniers Put National Security at Risk by Jeff Goodell, published in Rolling Stone.

The article starts with the predicament at the naval facilities at Norfolk, Virginia. It and the surrounding bases are huge and are critical to the Atlantic Fleet. But the area is having increasing problems with sea water flooding over facilities and roads as sea levels rise. Perhaps in 50 years the whole place will have to be relocated at astronomical expense.

Norfolk isn't the only military facility affected by climate change – nearly all of the Pentagon's 555,000 facilities (I'd be interested in the unit of count) are affected. The issue for the Navy is seal-level rise – say goodbye to the strategic base at Diego Garcia. The issue for other facilities include drought and melting permafrost. Perhaps a threatened military would pull Congressional climate-deniers back into reality. Many of these Congresspeople love the military as much as they hate admitting climate change might be real.

The RD version of the story implies this may indeed be possible, a way forward. If we would just take a few more senators to Norfolk and talk up this angle some more then maybe... The RS version documents how unlikely that scenario is. Congresspeople are as willing to denounce the military brass as they are climate scientists.

The Pentagon is tackling the problem. But they have to do it on the sly. Congress will cross out any budget item with the word "climate." Piers in Norfolk getting flooded? Replace them with higher piers – but tell Congress the old ones were obsolete (which was true) and not mention the new ones are higher.

The RD version of the article leaves out a discussion of the Arctic Ocean. As the ice is melting countries and corporations are jostling for the resources now accessible. But the Navy has no presence in the area and has no plans to have one.

Both RD and RS cover the next topic, only differing in the amount of detail. As the world warms, sea levels rise, and the weather becomes nastier there will be a lot more need for disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and settling of fighting amongst countries and people with insufficient resources. Normandy beaches or the siege of Fallujah are one thing for the military, being the rescue squad for the planet is quite another, especially since many conflicts will be conducted through terrorism. Will the US military be able to handle it? Even if they can, there's this:
As one military analyst has pointed out, the U.S. military is the only force on Earth with the ability to police, process, house, feed and move refugees on a mass scale. But you can see how this picture could turn dark fast — one of the biggest long-term threats climate change poses could be to civil liberties and freedom.
Will these issues get the attention of the GOP leadership in Congress? Not likely.

As for the current thinking on climate change, Rolling Stone offers a look at all that is going wrong around the world and doing so at a rate faster than what scientists had originally estimated. Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I can't tell you

Dealing with my father's estate has been moving along and there have been a few days in the past week when I didn't have to do anything for the estate (though there are still lots of things yet to handle). When handling his investments what I need to do is usually straightforward, it is just a matter of doing it – fill out this form, supply that information, send in that document. It just takes time and effort.

There is one exception to this fairly smooth flow. That is dealing with Discover Bank, part of the same company that issues the Discover credit card.

In my list of Dad's assets was an entry for Discover Bank with an account number. A bit of research gave me their phone number. A month ago I called, giving the account number. I asked such things as What kind of account is it? I can't tell you. You're not the account owner. How much is in the account? I can't tell you. Is it in his trust or is a beneficiary listed? I can't tell you. So what do I do? Send us a letter of instruction and identify yourself and include a copy of the death certificate. So I did that – I gave all of Dad's vital numbers, did the same for Mom and for myself. I duplicated the Power of Attorney pages from the Living Trust for both Mom and Dad. As for instructions all I could ask for is tell me about the account.

This was quite different from other insurance and investment companies. All of them sent forms for me to fill out and itemized all that needed to be included in the return packet. It was a matter of sitting down, filling out forms, putting the right documents in the envelope, and send it off. There was a slight delay while asking a financial advisor which box to check. Even so, it was straightforward. Not true with Discover Bank.

Today I got a letter from them. They need more information. Through the list of documents they want I figured out a couple things. This account was not a part of his trust. He had forgotten to specify a beneficiary. The only way to gain access to the account is through probate court. This is the only part of the estate for which probate is necessary and the simple thing of specifying a beneficiary would have avoided that.

I called to confirm and clarify what the letter said. Fortunately, this time they were prompt in connecting me to a supervisor. He walked me through the steps I needed to take. Go to probate court and be given this document. Go to the IRS and get a tax number. Fill out this gov't form. Write another letter of instruction specifying whether to withdraw the money or reopen the account under the estate. Send it all in. I asked, did you get the Power of Attorney form? Yes, we did, but that doesn't do any good because Power of Attorney ends when the person dies. Oh. Now to the important question: Is there enough in the account to make all this effort worthwhile? I can't tell you. Hmm. If going through probate is going to cost $100 (pulling a number out of thin air) and the account has only $99, my effort won't be worthwhile. Will my effort be worthwhile? Yes, it will. Ah! We're getting someplace.

I took a look at the website for the probate court in Dad's county. A glance at the first form and I thought I need a lawyer. So I called the one I used for Dad's affairs over the summer and spoke to an aide. She said would an affidavit work? In Michigan that is enough for accounts less than $22K.

I called the bank again. I explained the affidavit. Will this work? This person didn't exactly say I can't tell you, but the meaning was close. Hmm. I'd really hate to go through all this work for the affidavit and then you tell me that I should have done probate instead. The affidavit should be fine. We're making progress – and the account is less than $22K.

I'm now annoyed with Discover Bank. When I called them a month ago someone there knew that there was no beneficiary on the account and thus they knew the information they were telling me to send in was not sufficient. That someone may not have been the agent I was talking to, but that agent should have known. My opinion of Discover Bank customer service is pretty low. So, yeah, I'll take the lump-sum payout to get it out of your hands and put the money elsewhere.

I called the lawyer's office again. This time I spoke to the lawyer. After I described the situation he said that since the mailing address of the bank is Utah, an affidavit may not work. What we do next depends on how much money is in the account. It is important to find that out.

I don't know how much money is in the account. All I have is the account number. I've looked through Dad's filing cabinets and safes and didn't find anything, though I did find some info in his investments. No bank statements have come through the mail.

I looked at Discover Bank's website to try to find out more about it. I found they were incorporated in Delaware (as many large corporations are) – meaning: not in Michigan. Then I came across something that clicked. Discover Bank describes itself as an online bank. Therefore any account statements would be on Dad's computer, not on paper in the filing cabinet. I haven't looked there yet.

I've been on Dad's computer a few times. One of those times was to find his list of assets. He had told me the file name included the characters "asset".

Dad's computer is running Windows 7. As has been true for several versions of Windows there is a folder with the name "My Documents" and that is the place where a lot of standard tools look for things. But that isn't where Dad put his documents. I think they're under the folder Windows set up for user-specific files from email programs and browsers. But I'm not sure. To find the list of assets I went to the top of the C drive and searched the whole thing. And if the bank statements aren't on the C drive I'll also check his email archives. The next time I'm at his house will be an adventure.

Some advice: If you have a living trust to avoid probate, make sure everything is either in the trust or has a stated beneficiary. Otherwise your heirs will have to go through probate anyway.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

No finding of wrongdoing

A bit of background and consequences of that Benghazi investigation that included Hillary's 11 hour testimonyFrom Terrence Heath:
Three years, ten congressional investigations, 32 congressional hearings, 204 witnesses, 11 published reports, and $20 million ($4.5 million for Gowdy’s committee alone) has yielded no findings of wrongdoing, no evidence of an intelligence failure leading up to the attacks, and no evidence of a stand down order.
Rep. Trey Gowdy from South Carolina is the chairperson of the current committee and in charge of Thursday's marathon session.

Many conservatives were annoyed with the show, calling it "a waste of time" and decrying that everything "about it is politicized."

It was such a blatant and pointless display of a political inquisition Senate Democrats sent a letter to Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican National Committee demanding that the RNC pay that $4.5 million rather than the American taxpayer. They support their demand with several reasons: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the committee was put together to drive down Hillary's poll numbers. Gowdy and his staff focused on Clinton rather than the actual events in Benghazi. The RNC used the committee as a key point in a solicitation of money.

Of course, the RNC won't pay up. Why do so when the deep pockets of the taxpayer are so available? In addition, that would be an admission that the whole thing was politically motivated.

End of Democrats?

Ian Millhiser, writing for Think Progress, says that if the Democrats don't win the White House in 2016 then Democratic power, and progressive ideals, might be impossible for a good long time.

Much of the current GOP power is based on gerrymandered states. Democrat candidates for the House received 1.4 million more votes than GOP candidates, yet the House is solidly in GOP hands. Dems would need to win House seats by over 7% to take it back. Put another way, GOP power isn't going to end until gerrymandering ends and absent a string of state constitutional amendments gerrymandering ends only when the Supremes say so.

Yet, in a 2004 case the Supremes said they would dismiss cases involving political gerrymandering. Add to that the Court's approval of voter ID laws and the gutting of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. So the only way to curb GOP power is to change the Supremes.

When the next president takes office conservatives Scalia and Kennedy will be 80, and progressives Ginsburg and Breyer will be 83 and 78. That next president has the potential of increasing the progressives by 2 – or increasing the conservatives by 2. And they would be solid conservatives, acceptable to the Fundies and the Tea Party.

Under a Democratic president's Supreme appointees overturning gerrymandering, banning voter IDs, and reinstating the Voting Rights Act should be straightforward. A GOP president's appointees would entrench those decisions, then be willing to gut any initiative by a future Democratic president or Congress. Keep in mind there were justices willing to gut the Affordable Care Act, rather than defer to Congress.

Getting a Democrat into the White House in 2016 is critical to the progressive cause.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Questioning fitness

Pope Francis convened a Synod so that about 270 Catholic bishops from around the world could talk about issues that face the family. A couple issues in particular: Should a person who has divorced and remarried be allowed to receive Communion? Should the welcome of gay people be expanded by no longer calling them "intrinsically disordered"?

Yes, Francis raised the questions. The conservative backlash has been so strong they are now questioning whether Francis is fit to be pope (similar to Obama and the birthers).

The pope now has three options, none good. He could issue decrees that implement what he wants. But that could raise the wrath of the conservatives (similar to Obama and his executive orders). He could call for more debate. If so, he would fall short of progressive hopes and disappoint his fans. He could endorse the Synod's conservative recommendations. If so his popularity in world opinion might collapse, though his popularity among Catholics might rise.

Not much difference in the conservative – progressive tussle whether it is in the halls of the American Congress or the halls of the Vatican.

11 hour circus

Hillary went before the House committee on Benghazi about what went wrong such that the ambassador and a few aides were killed. General consensus of the 11 hour circus: Hillary won. The way she handled these clowns showed she could handle the presidency. As Melissa McEwen of Shakesville put it:
Honest to Maude, if the Republicans had tried to conceive of a way to help Clinton's campaign, they couldn't have done any better than giving her an extended platform on which to present herself as one of nation's best politicians and statespeople, while they hammered away at her in a petty, partisan attack.
The Republicans on the panel were so bad and Hillary was so good there were reports of Republican voters saying Hillary got their vote.

Another indication of her success came during the hour just after the debate in which her campaign had its best hour of online fundraising – and that's without an explicit ask.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

We're in the future!

In 1989 the film Back to the Future II was released. I had seen the first movie in which Marty McFly goes back in time to 1955. In this second movie McFly is transported forward to 2015 – in particular, Oct. 21, 2015. As in today. The really nerdy can look at all the things the movie got wrong, or all the things it got right. Or you can leave that task to someone else – the NPR program Marketplace Tech did a series on the movie's accuracy in predicting the future.

Change the way districts are drawn

I left my duties at Ruth Ellis Center early this evening to attend a presentation by the League of Women Voters. The title was "Redistricting in Michigan, Should Politicians Choose Their Voters?" I attended one of several events the LWV is doing around the state. This one was the closest.

I've been writing about gerrymandering – the political practice of drawing district boundaries to favor one party over the other – since 2011. So much of what was presented tonight wasn't new to me, though I learned a few things.

My first post on Gerrymandering was in 2011 and was about the newly drawn Michigan Congressional districts. This article explains gerrymandering. A post from November 2012 shows the effect of that mapping process on that year's election. One from June 2013 put some numbers to the issue. In the 2012 election 54% of the votes for state representative went to Democrats, yet 54% of the seats went to Republicans.

The LWV presentation provided a bit of history. Alas, I didn't catch it all. Back in 1963 Michigan ratified a new constitution. It described the body that was to draw district maps. It had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, so was consistently deadlocked. Then some provision of that clause was declared unconstitutional (I didn't catch the reason or the year).

In 1964 the US Supremes established the "one person, one vote" standard.

In 1996 the Michigan Legislature established guidelines for how to draw districts. It was challenged and in 1999 the requirement that districts be "compact" was thrown out by the GOP dominated state Supremes.

The current process is that a legislative group appointed by the leadership (meaning by the party in power) creates the district maps. The legislature approves it. The governor confirms or vetoes it. If it gets stuck in the legislature the state Supremes are called in for the final decision. The LWV says this is higly partisan with both parties drawing boundaries to favor themselves. Their data shows in 1998 the Dems skewed the Michigan delegation to the House as much as the GOP did it in 2012. Both parties are guilty.

Under the current maps about 85% of the districts for the US House, state Senate, and state House are "safe," meaning the outcome is stacked in favor of one party over the other. This can be done by drawing boundaries so that 55% of the citizens are reliably of one party, making 45% of the votes meaningless.

This gerrymandering clearly has an impact on policy enacted in Michigan. The policies proposed by the two parties are quite different in the areas of education (funding has dropped under GOP leadership), transportation (Michigan roads are a mess), voting rights, health care availability, and civil rights (discrimination of gays). The solution is to change the way districts are drawn.

There are three ways districts are drawn. The legislature draws the maps, as is done on 27 states. The LWV says this is a conflict of interest. In 17 states an advisory panel draws the maps, which the legislature approves. This isn't any better. And in six states an independent commission draws the maps without needing legislative approval. California is one of the states and has seen increased voter turnout and confidence, less partisan bias, and more accountability of legislators.

Arizona is another such state. The voters approved the independent commission. The legislature challenged it. And this summer the US Supremes approved the idea of an independent commission.

To make that change happen in Michigan the legislature needs to pass an amendment to the state constitution by a 2/3 majority (ain't gonna happen) and the voters concur. Or there is a petition drive to put the issue directly before the voters.

During the Q&A session the LWV made their role clear. They are concerned enough about this issue that they are conducting these education events around the state and encouraging us to educate our neighbors and friends through social media, letters to the editor, and the usual campaign tactics of knocking on doors and making calls. Consider yourself educated.

However, the LWV is not leading a petition drive, though they hope to inspire a group to do just that. The LWV does not have the manpower and financial backing for such a drive.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A deal with the devil

William Greider, writing for The Nation, puts some history behind the current chaos in the House, which is currently unable to find anyone willing to be Speaker. The current troubles are a result of Nixon's Southern Strategy of 1968.

That Southern Strategy was a deal between Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond to unite corporate Republicans with Southern segregationists. These are two quite different groups – corporate leaders and Wall Street partnered with "poor, rural, church-going voters" looking for a way to preserve segregation. And the corporate leaders "don't care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion and immigration." And the common folk "don’t worry over marginal tax rates, capital formation, or subsidies for major corporations."

The problem was that the corporate types had no intention of fulfilling the dreams of the common folk, though they threw the occasional small bone. But this group could be whipped up to vote against the Democrats. Scott Lilly, a Democrat who was the staff director of the House Appropriations Committee said:
If [the common folk] ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for [subsidies for major corporations], they would be in open rebellion.
So what happened? The common folk finally understood. They realized they were being played as suckers. The GOP establishment always failed to deliver on their issues. Then there was the Great Recession and the shrinking middle class and that intensified the sense of betrayal. Thus the Tea Party was born.

The sense of betrayal intensified again when the GOP leadership railed against Obama, created a sense of terminal crisis, called on followers to stand up to this huge threat and take back the country, then didn't follow through – even though they had majorities in both the House and Senate.

Fifty years ago a strategy to unite corporate people with segregationists was a deal with the devil.

What now? A sign: This summer the South was mighty quick to condemn and remove the Confederate Flag. And a suggestion: The Democrats should demand the Tea Party explain why their partners intend to cut Medicaid and Social Security to finance billionaire tax cuts.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Correct answer: I'm a progressive

Stuff that's been accumulating in my browser tabs...

I'm not on Facebook (though I have to figure out what to do with my dad's account) because it is too invasive of privacy. Even so, the company can do some interesting things with all that data. For example, it has tracked the number of people who have changed their profile to "express a same-gender attraction or custom gender." That rate of coming out was fairly steady through March of this year, then began rising. There is also a huge spike the day that the Supremes announced marriage equality.

Facebook also created a map showing the percentage of Facebook users who have identified as LGBT in each state. At the top are New York and Nevada at over 4% and Mississippi is at the bottom at 2%. Michigan is at the low side of the middle around 3%.

The State of Michigan has paid over $1.9 million in legal fees to the team that challenged Michigan's same-sex marriage ban. There was also a great deal spent by the state to defend the ban.

The students of Oak Park High School in Kansas City, MO elected a transgender student as homecoming queen. Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest. The counterprotest was so strong that WBC fled after only a few minutes.

Evan Wolfson was the head of Freedom to Marry, an organization that was instrumental over the long term in bringing marriage equality to America. Freedom to Marry has already celebrated its "going out of business" party. But Wolfson's job isn't done. US embassies in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland have invited him to be a consultant. These three countries have civil unions and not full marriage equality and appear open to Wolfson's help. Wolfson's services might also be useful in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Malta (these have civil unions) as well as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia (these have no partner recognition).

Worth thinking this one through. From Ragen Chastain of Dances with Fat:
Nobody can prove that fat causes the health issues that it gets blamed for. Nobody knows for sure why nearly every health problem that is correlated with being fat is also correlated with being under constant stress. Nobody knows for sure the long term health effects of living in a society that constantly stigmatizes you and tells you that you can’t possible be healthy. Nobody knows what would happen to fat people’s health if they didn’t live in a society that constantly stigmatizes them. Nobody knows of a single study in which more than a tiny fraction of people have maintained long-term weight loss, and nobody knows what that weight loss means for people’s health since it has not been studied.

That’s a lot of “nobody knows”.

I had written that the Alabama Secretary of State had decided to close all but four branch offices due to budget constraints. I had also written that such a move was quite suspicious for a state that requires an ID to vote. Here's another mighty suspicious detail:
Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one.

Terrance Heath has a few things to say about the recent debate by Democratic presidential candidates. Progressives have been envious of the power the Tea Party holds over the GOP (see the current House Speaker mess). Though progressive movements haven't been in the news as much as the Tea Party, that debate shows their work has moved the candidates. The correct answer for a Dem candidate is now "I am a progressive." The candidates saw that it was politically expedient to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal because of the work of progressives. For the same reasons candidates have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and are learning how to deal with structural racism. And none of the candidates were asked about LGBT issues – because there was no need to ask. The party's pro-gay stance is already well known.

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has been a fierce opponent of gay people. So when he says that reparative therapy doesn't work, that's a big deal.

Timothy Kincaid of Box Turtle Bulletin says Mohler might be a bit surprised by the implications of that statement. It prompts the question: What is homosexual sin? The answer to that used to be easy. The Southern Baptists say that Johnnie getting his jollies (as my mother used to say) while looking at pictures of women is a sin, but not worth special mention from the pulpit. But what if Johnnie is looking at pictures of men? The younger generation is much more willing to point out any disparity in treatment. There are rules for heterosexual dating (no kissing). What about rules for gay dating? There are rules about no sex before marriage. What to tell gay kids who are currently told they can't ever get married in the church? This debate could get very interesting to watch.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

There's a job opening

Did you happen to notice that a week ago Kevin McCarthy withdrew from campaigning for Speaker of the House of Representatives and nobody has stepped forward to ask for the job? There's a reason for that.

The Tea Party members of the House now call themselves the Freedom Caucus. They have 40 members and maybe a hundred admirers – members who don't want to make a scene yet know their constituents want them to vote the same way as the Freedom Caucus. That means there aren't enough other Republicans to get a vote for Speaker through the House.

The Freedom Caucus says they want to be heard by the leadership. But in their proposal for "more democracy" they include a list of demands. If a candidate for Speaker won't commit to these demands the Freedom Caucus refuses to vote for him. Their demands include a cut in welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs comparable to the coming increase in the debt limit, and a removal of funding for Planned Parenthood from all budget bills. Failure to meet their demands and they threaten to shut down the government and let gov't debt default.

So, yeah, nobody wants the job of Speaker. I've heard that might give John Boehner an opening to stay in the job. He had been coddling the Freedon Caucus because he was afraid they would force him out of the job of Speaker. But he has already resigned. He may have room to ignore the Freedom Caucus and craft deals with Democrats. Kick me out? Go right ahead.

SWAT team

I visited the college where I teach – well, taught until this semester – for a student recital. Most of them had been in my classes last year, with a couple new faces. While there I had about 10 minutes to talk to the department chair. She said the college finances are not doing well, so at least for the semester starting in January there is a restriction on the use of adjunct professors – such as me. So I won't be teaching my usual class to the one student who didn't get a high enough grade last year. Will that restriction still be in place next fall? The department chair thinks that's likely. Time to take the job search seriously.

Though I don't have students at the moment I still consider myself as a professor. So a post by Aphra Behn, professor of history, caught my attention. She is responding to renewed calls for instructors to be armed, to protect their students in case of an incident similar to the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College. Behn's response is similar to what mine would be. She and I are professionals at instructing students. We have been well trained know our subject well. We do research in our chosen field (I compose music). We work to keep our classes current and figure out how to keep our students engaged.

We are not on the SWAT team.

That is a completely different skill set. I have not been trained in how to use a gun (and would loudly refuse to do so). I have not been trained, nor am I being paid, to be alert to danger, handle hostage situations, or take down a shooter.

A SWAT team member cannot do my job. I cannot do theirs. Suggesting I should is a ridiculous idea. Suggesting I must for my own safety and the safety of others means there is something else in our society that is really messed up. Let's fix that. And for those who say they respect law enforcement officers, suggesting I can do their job is insulting to them.

Still think arming the general populace is a good idea? A few incidents...

* A young man tried to rob a Waffle House in North Charleston, SC. A customer decided that wasn't right and shot the robber, who later died of his injuries. The customer had a permit for a pistol. Lots of people were praising the shooter. Except … I'm pretty sure the penalty for robbery isn't the death sentence.

* A shoplifter was fleeing a Home Depot in Auburn Hills, Michigan. He was being chased by store security. He jumped into a waiting SUV. As the vehicle began to pull away a woman began firing at it. The only damage was a possible flat tire. Which is pretty good, considering this was a busy parking lot in the middle of the afternoon. And shoplifting isn't punishable by death. Do police want this kind of help?

* A pickup driver in Houston was jumped by two men as they tried to carjack the truck. A passerby pulled out his gun and fired it several times. He missed the thieves – and hit the truck owner in the head. Last I heard the owner survived, though probably has a long recovery ahead. Do I really want a passing vigilante to save me? Would I be a better shot if I had to face down a shooter?

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville responded to Trump's call to make assault weapons legal. As part of her takedown she notes that people with guns in active shooter situations don't pull them because they don't want to be mistaken by law enforcement for the shooter.

So if arming the general populace is a bad idea, what's the solution? Why don't we try limiting the number of guns?

Now back to that mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. Melissa McEwen has a few things to say about that too. The shooter, Christopher Harper-Mercer, complained about not having a girlfriend. That little phrase put the whole thing into focus for McEwen and she rages that the media refuses to see the obvious.

Beyond Harper-Mercer McEwen names eight other mass shooters, and assures us there are many more, who are beta males, or "unwilling virgins." These are men who can't seem to get women to have sex with them, and they believe they are entitled to that sex. This is toxic masculinity in which men believe the purpose of women around them is to have sex on demand. And when this sex doesn't happen these men become frustrated and vengeful.

Having trouble accepting McEwen's premise? Some of the shooters and some would-be shooters have said as much. But the media, supporting male privilege, refuse to talk about it, giving all kinds of other reasons. I've been learning from McEwen how toxic and deadly privilege and the associated sense of entitlement is. If a guy is entitled to women's bodies and can't have access he sees himself as a loser. How to demonstrate masculinity and shed loser status? Many of these men see two options – demand submission of the women around them or mass murder.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Midnight on the ocean

Yeah, I'm still here.

Dad's memorial service was last Friday and it came off very well. Lots of family came and I enjoyed visiting with them after the service and during the luncheon. The church ladies who put on the luncheon guessed the attendance might be 100. They told me they served 120. There was still plenty of food, which we ate that evening.

One of my brothers and his family volunteered to have Mom come live with them in Texas. Mom, who has Alzheimer's, will receive much better care than my sister can provide. Saturday Mom was a bit panicky because she thought she had another week, would be seeing her house for the last time (lived in it 50 years), and wondered who would care for sister. She gets stuck on the question but doesn't remember the answer. On Sunday Mom was a bit panicky about getting packed – how many seasons do I need to pack for? – in spite of brother's assurances that there was plenty of time and his wife would help. So Mom took all her clothes out of her closet and put them on the bed, then asked each of us, one at a time, where the suitcase was. On Monday she was more ready to accept that one part of her life had ended and another would begin.

Brother, wife, and Mom left about 1:30 Monday afternoon. Yesterday afternoon they were scheduled to visit one of Mom's sisters in the St. Louis area. Today they were scheduled to follow the Mississippi River south before heading west for a night near Little Rock. Tomorrow they plan to visit Mom's other sister in northern Texas. They should be at my brother's home Friday afternoon.

One niece had raided Dad's closet and had chosen a colorful sweater. She has even worn it to her high school classes. That prompted another niece to see what she could find. She came down with a pretty one. She is quite slim so the sweater's shoulder seams were almost to her elbows. She has now worn it to her office.

Mom may not remember recent events, but her memory of things from long ago is still pretty good. Friday evening with lots of family gathered around the table we swapped stories of Dad. It didn't take much to prompt Mom to recite a silly poem she would say to us when we were young. Alas, I don't remember it all. I also can't look it up online because those versions are definitely different.

T'was midnight on the ocean
Not a streetcar was in sight.
The sun and moon were shining
for it rained all day that night.

While the organ peeled potatoes
Lard was rendered by the choir.
As the sexton rang the church bell
someone set the church on fire.
"Holy smokes!" the preacher shouted
and in the rush he lost his hair.
Now his head resembles heaven,
for there is no parting there.


The paperwork continues.

Yesterday I spent the morning dealing with my aunt's trust. Forty years ago she had a stroke, ending her working career. Thirty years ago my father and his mother set up a trust to help with her expenses. Grandma has long since died. My cousin is caring for his mother and all the money should be turned over to him.

But Cousin wasn't named as a trustee, being nine years old when the trust was created. I learned he has to create a trust so that the account can be transferred from one trust to another. My phone call was long, but my involvement should now be minimal.

Today the call was to Social Security. I had been sent a letter explaining why the SSA needed to be repaid nearly $600. Except, of course, the explanation was incomplete. So I called. The expected wait time was 24 minutes, so I made use of their call-back feature. The agent didn't speak English very well and seemed to be able to respond to only the most basic questions. He had to "research" every question I asked, putting me on hold, then he wasn't able to explain things well and frequently had misunderstood the question. After 20 minutes of this I asked for a supervisor.

It took maybe 5 minutes to get a supervisor on the line. Thankfully, he was a native English speaker. Even so, it took him 15 minutes to explain what was going on. The October 3rd payment went out before my Dad's death in September was recorded. That payment had to be returned. But that was balanced by a death benefit and an increase in Mom's payment because she is now a widow. The numbers still don't quite add up, but I'm sure that is due to adjustments in tax withholding and different Medicare payments.

So, yeah, on the phone for 40 minutes. I didn't get into why I had to send a check rather than have the amount taken from the next payment. And didn't want to repeat the hassle by calling back.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why is this so hard?

I've been serving as estate agent for my dad, work that began once he went into the hospital last April. With his passing the big task is to work through the packets sent by life insurance and investment companies. Today I was working through the packet from the company that pays his pension and supplemental health insurance. The pension will continue for Mom and the form is straightforward (though the form for federal tax withholding...).

But the health insurance... That can make the head spin. Mom has Medicare, Medicare Part B, Medigap, and prescription drug plans. Some of the Medicare Part B premium is taken out of the pension payment. Another part (I believe) is a direct withdrawal from Dad's bank account. Then the fun begins. There is a first pot of money, held by a separate company, that will reimburse Mom for Part B premium payments. It watches for such payments and will send a check automatically. It also watches for expenses that Medicare and Part B don't pay.

And when the first pot is gone there is a second. This is run by yet another company. But to get at this pot I must send them the receipt for payments I've made. Which means I also have to know this pot of money exists. Which, until now, I didn't.

Would it have been possible to design a healthcare payment system that is more complicated?

All these packets of paperwork could take over my life. I'm trying hard to make sure that doesn't happen, though when I set it aside for the day I've been thinking, … so what am I supposed to be doing?

My latest motto: It ain't over until the paperwork is done.