Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Civil rights? What’s that?

Back in March when the outline of the nasty guy’s budget called for gutting most of the federal government I wrote a post that catalogs what the gov’t does. Here are a couple of paragraphs from that post:
Department of Labor. Except perhaps for the Bureau of Labor Statistics this entire department is about defending the worker against the abuse of the corporation. This is entirely about standing up to ranking.

Look again at my descriptions through the lens of ranking at the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education, Interior, Agriculture, FEMA, and State. All, or a large portion, of these departments have the purpose of standing up to those obsessed with ranking. Will a president obsessed with ranking allow them to continue to exist?
We’re getting a partial answer to that question. From the Washington Post:
The Trump administration is planning to disband the Labor Department division that has policed discrimination among federal contractors for four decades, according to the White House’s newly proposed budget, part of wider efforts to rein in government programs that promote civil rights.

Without punishment or surveillance

Ash Whitaker is a transgender student in the Kenosha, Wisconsin school system. Today, the 7th Circuit Court ruled in his favor, saying both Title IX and the 14th Amendment cover transgender people and Ash must be allowed to use the boy’s bathroom without punishment or surveillance by school staff.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender, which is now expanded to include gender expression and identity. The 14th Amendment is the one about equal protection.

The court wrote that the school district did not provide evidence on how allowing Ash to use a boy’s bathroom would harm the staff, other students, or parents. But the harms to Ash were well documented.

This ruling covers all schools in the 7th Circuit, which covers Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Newly fashionable tool

My friend and debate partner sent me a PDF of an article that friends had sent to him. He added, “I can't tell where it falls on the spectrum from conspiracy fiction to great reporting.”

I searched the title and got a match, which also matched the author and holder of the copyright. It was indeed published by The Guardian, a respected British newspaper. I would hope that swings it towards great reporting.

The article is The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked by Carole Cadwalladr. It tells how companies Cambridge Analytica of Britain and AggregateIQ of Canada came together to dig through online data and use it to persuade just enough voters to vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

The data was from Facebook and from various companies that track what people do on the web. All the data was obtained legally (though I get the impression that Facebook has since changed its rules on sharing such data). The companies used various Big Data techniques to find out which voters were “persuadable” and determine what kind of message would be most effective in securing a “leave” vote. These voters were then supplied with ads, peaking just before the vote. It worked.

I’ve heard of such things being done in American campaigns, especially that Obama’s team was getting pretty good at it, though GOP candidates used it as well.

This is where it gets troubling. The guy behind AggregateIQ is US billionaire Robert Mercer. He’s definitely a member of the 1% and definitely wants to influence elections. He doesn’t expect the company to make money. It was AggregateIQ that went to the various Leave campaigns and offered its services.

It appears that Mercer also offered some type of help to the nasty guy’s campaign through American companies. It appears they operated during our campaign the same way they did during the British Brexit vote. A US billionaire helped bring about the biggest constitutional change to Britain in a century.

Keep in mind my earlier comments about knowing we’re in an authoritarian state when elections are held but no longer have the capability of changing things. Then read Cadwalladr’s closing (emphasis added):
Martin Moore of King’s College, London, pointed out that elections were a newly fashionable tool for would-be authoritarian states. “Look at Erdoğan in Turkey. What Theresa May is doing is quite antidemocratic in a way. It’s about enhancing her power very deliberately. It’s not about a battle of policy between two parties.”

This is Britain in 2017. A Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. … It goes far beyond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, increasingly undemocratic world.

The con man and the mark

Con men frequently use an effective tactic: convince the mark they have the inside track of a con being played on someone else. See that guy over there? You can help me fleece him. Only later might the assistant realize he was the target.

Some people are now proposing that this scenario is playing out with Putin as the con man and the nasty guy as the mark.


Melissa McEwan of Shakesville notes that since the end of WWII – that’s seventy years – the Soviets and their Russian successors have had a top objective: Bust up the relationship between America and Germany. Only the two together, with their military might and democratic and cultural influence, could stand up to Russia. Throughout this time Russia has had aspirations of empire, especially after they lost their satellites in 1989-91. Russia wants to dominate again. They’ve annexed Crimea and have moved against Ukraine.

Within 130 days of taking office the nasty guy completed the objective. In a trip to Europe (as well as before and since) he repeatedly made belligerent statements against Germany. That prompted Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and de facto leader of Europe, to say Europe must look out for itself (because it can no longer depend on America).

Within 130 days the nasty guy has accomplished a top, long-term Russian objective. Tell me again he isn’t compromised. Also tell me whether he has the slightest clue about the consequences of his actions.

Sure would be nice to have Hillary Clinton back as Secretary of State to clean up this mess.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Think you are a good person

Richard Dawkins is a scientist and an outspoken atheist. He’s been doing a lot of speaking lately for the Center for Inquiry. He spoke recently with Scott Simon of NPR about terrorism and religion.

Let’s get a couple ideas out of the way. (1) Most, perhaps close to all, people who are religious see terrorism as abhorrent and feel killing innocent people a violation of their religious principles. These people work hard to build community. (2) There are terrorists who are not religious.

Even so, those who engage in terrorism for religious reasons can be especially dangerous.
Religious faith really does motivate people to do terrible things. If you really, really believe that your god wants you to be a martyr and to blow people up, then you will do it. And you will think you're doing it for righteous reasons. You will think you are a good person.

Dawkins refutes the claim that only religious people selflessly take care of others. Yes, there currently is a great deal of infrastructure and money in place to make it easy for religious people to show their care. But atheists are beginning to build their own infrastructure and raise money. This includes groups such as Secular Rescue and his own Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Just one hospital

In Gary, Indiana, the St. Mary Medical Center (where Michael Jackson was born) closed in 1995. That left Methodist Hospital as the only one in town. But this sole survivor isn’t doing well, likely because Gary isn’t doing well after its steel mills closed and half the population left. A lot of Methodist’s patients are on Medicaid or don’t have insurance.

As a way out of financial difficulties the CEO of Methodist Hospitals (they run a second one in nearby Merrillville) proposed to merge with Franciscan Health. And, as the name implies, it is a Catholic organization that follows the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops directives on permissible care.

So, yeah, no abortions. Also no surgery for transgender people, no chance of a tubal ligation as part of a cesarean birth, perhaps no care while in the process of miscarrying, limited fertility treatments, and restricted choices for end-of-life care.

Marie Siroky is a former nun and is a part of the crusade to prevent the merger said:
It is substandard care, because you’re not giving people all of their choices. I respect religious polity and doctrines of the church. Those are yours, and I respect them. But when you force them on someone else, that is where, to me, where it becomes unjust and immoral.
This is a problem because it is 20 minutes by car to the nearest non-Catholic hospital – longer for the poor who rely on buses.

Catholic health systems have one in six acute-care hospital beds nationwide, one in four in Indiana. Nationwide 46 of these hospitals are “sole community hospitals,” meaning they are at least 35 miles away from another hospital.

Franciscan Health is the largest Catholic system in the Midwest with 14 hospitals. They are also leading the attack on the non-discrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Attorneys for the lawsuit wrote:
Franciscan sincerely believes that providing insurance coverage for gender transition, sterilization, and abortion would constitute impermissible material cooperation with evil.
In December a federal judge ruled in favor of Franciscan Health. Now the nasty guy appears ready to gut the rules.

A person obsessed with ranking – the nasty guy – sees a kindred spirit in an organization obsessed with ranking. Perhaps obsessed is too strong a word? Catholic hospitals are imposing their views of acceptable health care – I get to decide on your care – on whole cities unlucky enough to not be able to support a second hospital. And their views result in deaths, using my tax dollars to do so.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Capable creators of mischief

Almost two weeks ago I wrote about the coming automation of almost everything, the difficulties on our way to a society where nobody has a job, and the possible paradise when we don’t have to work. My post was a summary of an article by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones.

My friend and debate partner replied, debating practically every major point. His reply came yesterday because he has been traveling. He says the trip went well. But now he's back to debating and being a friend.

This friend worked in mathematical modeling. He knows how to represent things in mathematical terms and strives to do so in ways that make sense. When he complains that math is misused I (usually) listen.

First complaint: The formula I used to create the graphs in my earlier post isn’t the formula I described in the text. Even so, the general shapes of the graphs are the same, as is the idea that it may look like nothing is happening for decades before a great deal happens in a short few years. So I won’t go into details.

Second complaint: Saying that since the number of computer operations in a tiny amount of time will soon match or exceed the number of neurons in a human brain does not imply we will soon have artificial intelligence. The human brain and the computer are two very different things.

These two complaints do not contradict a core idea of my summary or of the original article, that automation is increasing, that increased computer power will allow tech people to automate more complex jobs, and that we as a society are not talking about what to do when so many people no longer have a job.

Though that leads to…

Third complaint: This will not be “paradise.”

My friend offers three reasons. First, because of ranking, those already pushing for automation (so more money into their pockets and less into other’s pockets) won’t give up control. I and my friend might disagree on where that ultimately leads, but I think we can agree that those pushed out of a job will have little access to the necessities of life and their existence will be miserable.

Second, my friend claims that human psychology “includes includes a deep urge and need to work purposefully and contribute.” I reply that it is possible to do that outside a job. I currently don’t have a job, yet between my music and my volunteer work I contribute.

Third, even if necessities of life were covered, life would still not be paradise. I might see life without a job as a way to focus my creative and humanitarian energies (what I’m doing now) and other jobless people would also uncover and develop their creative energies. But my friend doesn’t agree. He sees that humans, even if well fed, “are immensely capable creators of mischief, conflict and rebellion of many kinds.” I, alas, see his point and add that satisfying basic needs does not remove our ingrained tendency towards ranking.

Today I received an email from my aunt titled “The Exponential Age?” The email does not mention the originator. It talks about the disruptions that have already happened or soon will: Uber, Airbnb, Watson used for legal advice and cancer diagnosis, autonomous cars, cheap and clean energy, desalination for enough drinking water, 3D printers, agricultural robots, and more.

A bit more on one of those ideas, the autonomous car. No need to own a car, no need for our kids (or us) to get a driver’s license, no need for large parking lots, significant reduction in deaths, and 90% fewer cars. Will surviving companies be the ones who put a computer in a car (Ford) or put wheels on a computer (Google)?

All of these technologies will significantly change who has a job and what kind of job they have.

And, back to a main point of the original article, we as a society are facing a massive disruption and we aren’t talking about it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Stop deciding to be poor

Ben Popken of NBC News notes that in the nasty guy’s budget $2 trillion of extra federal revenue growth would be used for the “biggest tax cut in history.” That same $2 trillion is to be used to balance the federal budget.

That revenue growth is based on the economy growing by at least 3% a year, which most economists say is close to impossible to achieve, even though the nasty guy doesn’t like the current rate of growth (as if by saying it he could change it).

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says the double accounting of that $2 trillion was “on purpose” because he says other assumptions in the budget were “overly conservative.”

Representative Karen Bass of California issued a statement blasting the nasty guy’s proposed budget. A couple excerpts:
The President’s “stop deciding to be poor” approach to the budget is a fundamental misstep that would permanently cripple the most vulnerable communities n the short run and erode our country’s international leadership in the long run.

No one chooses food stamps over a job. No one *wants* to be poor, but based on recent quotes from the budget director and the presentation of this budget, it seems like the President fundamentally believes otherwise.

Senator Elizabeth Warren took a look at the Congressional Budget Office report on Trumpcare and simplified it for everyone to understand:
The CBO confirmed: Trumpcare is a $663 BILLION tax cut for the rich paid for by kicking 23 MILLION people off of insurance. End of story.

Sarah Kendzior has this to say about those controlling Washington (which Hillary Clinton incorporated into a speech)
When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Taxpayers first

The nasty guy released his detailed budget for the fiscal year starting in October. It is disappointingly, but expectedly, nasty. Cuts to just about everything except Defense and Medicare and a good chunk of the gutted Education budget designated to go for school choice efforts (see why that is a bad thing here and here). Nasty through and through. I’ll let you read your favorite news source to see the depths of the nastiness.

Many hope Congress won’t be nearly so drastic. It depends on how much they feel they must respond to voters. So far this year that record isn’t good. Even if what Congress passes isn’t “drastic” it will cut the social safety net. But the nasty guy’s budget is what all GOP Congresscritters would like to enact if they thought they would survive the next election.

What really annoyed me was the language used to describe this budget.

Mick Mulvaney is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. That means this nasty budget is something carries his name and blessing. In presenting it today he said this budget will be “putting taxpayers first.” He also said:
Taking money from someone without an intention to pay it back is not debt. It is theft. This budget makes it clear that we will reverse this larceny.

He has the audacity to say the poor and working poor are thieves? This is an amazing amount of chutzpah. The poor? Really? Let’s go back to something I wrote a year ago about who the thieves are.

I wish for words stronger than “audacity” and “chutzpah.” I even checked a thesaurus and didn’t find something strong enough. Brazen? Gall? Nerve? Arrogance? Though a phrase from my time in the auto industry comes to mind: “He could bowl with those balls.”

On to that odious phrase of “putting taxpayers first.”

Many of the people paying taxes are the working poor. I’ll come from another angle: 73% of of those on public assistance are the working poor. They have a job. They pay taxes. Yet their employer is so stingy they still can’t get by and need assistance for basics such as food and shelter. This budget does not put these taxpayers first. It actually makes their situation much more precarious. And Mulvaney accuses these people of theft when it is their bosses who are stealing wage and productivity gains the workers made possible. And the GOP in Congress are promoting that theft by refusing to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

And then we get to those who don’t have jobs because their local schools were a mess because of underfunding, who can’t afford a car and don’t have public transportation, who can’t afford child care, who can’t work because they can’t afford healthcare, who can’t work because…

Because Mulvaney and the people whose bidding he does have stolen the future of person after person.

But what annoys me most is the implication that the government should value taxpayers higher than anyone else. Part of that is a ranking thing – that taxpayers as people are worth more and should be ranked higher than others. And part of it is the idea that taxpayers don’t have to share. They can separate themselves from the rest of us. The well-being of the country as a whole doesn’t depend on us working together.

This is a blow to building community, to the reality that we’re in this together. We need to take care of one another. We are one nation.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Tantamount to shutting down free speech

The new Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has led his team into the first step in undoing net neutrality, the rules that say internet service providers must treat all traffic the same. They can’t slow down or block traffic from sites they compete against or disagree with. The first vote was 2-1 in favor of undoing the rules.

There will now be 90 days of comments. And the comment process is looking mighty suspicious.

Joan McCarter of DailyKos wrote:
Shutting down the open internet is tantamount to shutting down free speech and doing it for Trump makes it even more fraught with danger.

Carvell Wallace emphasizes that last point in a series of tweets:
If you’ve noticed that black and brown writers, media makers, activist, etc have a much bigger role in the conversation, if you’ve notices that writers like me have a platform now when we would not have 20 years ago, then you should know that it’s because the internet has to a significant extent removed traditional gatekeepers from media. Back in the 90’s you COULD NOT GET ON unless a white person gave you permission. And that could be revoked if you talked too crazy. Social media, and the initial (relative) even-handedness and openness of the net has changed that, has allowed us to talk openly, honestly. This is EXACTLY why whiteness is being so roundly question as a benign and neutral default. This is EXACTLY how patriarchy is coming to be publicly and widely examined for the fucking bullshit scourge that it is. NET NEUTRALITY is about all that. This is literally an attempt to return ALL media to paying corporations.

Calvary and white horses

Congress has abdicated its Constitutional checks and balances in investigating the nasty guy, including around the mess with Russia. This is not yet an issue for the various courts, the third branch of our government system. Which leaves… who?

The who is a special counsel working through the FBI (I think) and supported by the general intelligence community. Hooray! At least someone is doing it! Here comes the Calvary to save us!

But Melissa McEwan of Shakesville and others are growing alarmed. This Calvary may not be riding white horses. They don’t necessarily have the nation’s best interests in mind. Some of the reasons for their alarm:

* The intelligence community (IC) has been on the receiving end of the nasty guy’s ire. Which means the IC is trying to even the score by being all the more determined to pursue allegations against the nasty guy. This is coming out as dueling coups – the IC trying to bring down the nasty guy while he is trying to dismantle them (or at least their ability to investigate him) and replace them with loyalists. Which will happen first?

* Michael Glennon of Harpers notes that the Constitution says the Congress is to provide a check on the prez., not a bureaucracy devoted to security. Who controls this bureaucracy? Do we want to set that precedent? Security forces, with strengthened powers, don’t have a good track record: FBI blackmailing civil rights leaders, NSA watch lists, CIA waterboarding. Those good at repression would not keep us from repression. And security is the excuse for everything they do.

* Are we seeing an effort to oust the nasty guy, or are we seeing the IC only trying to keep the nasty guy from being hostile to them? Are they simply fighting for power and influence? If the nasty guy manages a truce might he then turn the security forces to his bidding, might they be turned against us?

Think of it another way: If the nasty guy is ousted and the vice nasty guy ascends he will be very good a cosying up to the IC with ways to use them against democracy.

Yeah, I’m glad someone is researching the nasty guy. But they may not be doing it for us.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Slight thawing

Last Monday the NPR program The 1A did an hour on the slight thawing of Evangelical Christian Churches towards LGBTQ people. There are now hints of openness, of pastors who changed their stance, of LGBT people urging their own congregation to change, of people willing to risk a little to talk about the issue. I listened, but didn’t hear any new thoughts or ideas to share with you. Even so, it is worth mentioning the thaw is taking place and that NPR thought it worth devoting some time to it.

Also at the link is the results of a survey showing differences in the way Millennial Evangelical Protestants think compared to their elders. There are big differences over some questions, but they’re still not very progressive. Only 45% of the Millennials are in favor of same-sex marriage, though that is far better than their elders, of whom only 23% are in favor. The country in general is in favor by about 65%.

From a week ago: In response to the nasty guy firing of FBI Director James Comey Democrats called for an independent prosecutor. Majority Leader McConnell said that would slow down the work being done in Senate and House committees and rejected the idea. So Dems are slowing down the whole Senate. There are numerous rules about Senate procedures. Many times senators will request unanimous consent so that procedures can be expedited. Dems are no longer giving that consent. Every last little procedure must now be followed, a slow process.

I haven’t heard if the appointment of a special prosecutor was enough for Dems to pick up the speed.

Never buy back your soul

I attended another wonderful Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert last night. The piece that got all the attention and drew the crowds (for 4 performances) was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the groundbreaking piece that ends with the Ode to Joy, a monumental hymn to peace and brotherhood. It was a wonderful performance, stirring and heart-warming, and all that. The piece is worthy of its sterling reputation.

But the primary reason why I got a ticket was for the opening piece on the program. It was *Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan* by John Corigliano. Yes, that Bob Dylan, the one who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I’ve enjoyed several pieces by Corigliano, including the music for the film Red Violin, from which he also created a concert piece for violin and orchestra. He is considered one of the top living American composers. I met Corigliano when he was a guest speaker at the Wayne State University composition seminar (though I think it was after I had graduated). So I was interested in something new by him.

Corigliano says he bought a book of Dylan’s lyrics – the text without the music. He was captivated by them and heartily agrees the Nobel Prize was appropriate. When Corigliano received a commission to write a song cycle he chose Dylan’s poems. He said he had not heard Dylan’s music prior to composing and refused to listen while this work was in progress.

The songs are for soprano and orchestra. Corigliano specifies the singer is to use a mic so she can use a cabaret style voice (rather than operatic) and still be heard. My one complaint was that her mic was not very loud, the orchestra frequently drowned out her words.

I grew up hearing (and, as part of youth groups, singing) Blowin’ in the Wind. It is easy for me (and likely many my age) to read the words, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and automatically mentally hear Dylan’s music. This well known tune is folksy and with the words is posing a simple philosophical question. Corigliano’s version is much more ominous and dark. Hey world, this is an important question, not at all flippant. And when we get to the words, “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” we see the composer really does want us to stop and take the question seriously. There are dire consequences if we don’t.

After that came Masters of War. I don’t think I’ve heard the Dylan music for this one (or for the others beyond Tambourine Man and Blowin’). The words of this one are aimed at those who wage war and who build things for waging war. This song includes these words:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
The song Chimes of Freedom featured a couple extra sets of orchestra chimes, those long thin bells seen in percussion sections. The extras were put alongside the hall behind the box seats. Some of its words:
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing…
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute…
After all the noise of these two the last song is Forever Young, an amazingly simple and serene moment.

At the start of the program director Leonard Slatkin pointed out the connections between the texts of the evening’s two pieces. One very much against war, the other promoting peace and unity.

In all, wonderful music by both Corigliano and Beethoven.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Is it a crisis yet?

The New York Times reported that the nasty guy asked then FBI Directory James Comey to end the investigation into the Michael Flynn/Russia mess. This is seen by many to be an obstruction of justice. Since this is one piece of the careful notes that Comey wrote, there is likely to be more.

Aphra Behn of Shakesville noted last Friday: If this had been done by Hillary Clinton articles of impeachment would have been filed within the hour. Yet, all we hear from GOP members in Congress is expressions of discomfort, saying the situation is “troubling.”

Melissa McEwan, also of Shakesville takes issue with the verbal combat of saying hypothetically “If Hillary had done …” as a way of showing how despicable the GOP is and how much of a double standard they have. But McEwan is adamant Hillary would not have done those things! It is possible to show how despicable the GOP is without trashing Hillary: (1) Just look at what they did to Obama. (2) Just look at what the nasty guy has messed up in less than 4 months (McEwan provides a helpful summary, in case you forgot).

Back to the GOP and their discomfort. Why? Why are they only saying it is troubling? Why not do more?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is getting rather brazen in his statements:
I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.
That prompted this from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo:
People have been saying for months that establishment Republicans had decided that they'd let Trump do almost literally *anything* as long as he agreed to sign a big tax cut and help repeal Obamacare. And now McConnell, faced with the ultimate consequence of this moral desertion, is happy to say it out loud.
McEwan adds:
McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, reductively refers to Trump's imperiling the nation as "drama from the White House," his primary concern about which is that it distracts from the Republican agenda.

There it is. There will be no checking and balancing.

I note the vice nasty guy would be just as gleeful in signing anything McConnell and Ryan produce.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post speculates the GOP has a reason already ready – that they shouldn’t override the results of the election (one might get the impression they feel elections are sacred. Or something).

McEwan paired Sargent’s comments with those of Speaker Paul Ryan:
I don't worry about things that are outside of my control. I worry about things that are within our control—and that is whether or not we do what we are elected to do, which is to solve people's problems.
Yo, dude: Yes, the Constitution says writing articles of impeachment is something within your control. And, yes, the Constitution says your job is to protect the nation from a lawless president – that checks and balances thing. And, yes, you were elected to do that.

Which makes me conclude again: They want that. They want a president trampling all over the Constitution.

I’ve heard a lot of discussion over the last week on the difference between a general government crisis and a constitutional crisis. I even listened to an hour-long NPR program on the topic. At the time it was only the firing of FBI Director Comey. Some panelists said it isn’t a constitutional crisis because the nasty guy hadn’t done anything not permitted by law or the Constitution.

What about now with evidence of obstruction of justice? I would say no, because the Constitution lays out the remedy of impeachment.

So, take another step: What about a lawless president and a Congress refusing to step in with the Constitutional remedy?

In my opinion: Yes. Now the Constitution itself is in peril.

And many of the players at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave. don’t like democracy.

Between the time I wrote this and posted it (an evening at the Ruth Ellis Center was the between) came the news of the appointment of a special prosecutor. The appointment was made by the Deputy AG (because the AG has recused himself on this issue). This could be a good thing, or it could be a way of saying “See! Were doing something!” without actually doing anything. Though it looks like the guy selected is a good one.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Between here and paradise

There have been news articles about the retail industry dropping 90,000 jobs since October. Politicians have been ranting about lost jobs in manufacturing and mining but have said very little about these jobs, even though more people are involved. Part of the reason is who is losing those jobs.

And part of the reason is who is gaining by those job losses. Those that gain are tech giants and manufacturers who automate and thus achieve lower labor costs. The management of these manufacturing companies are big supporters of the GOP. These jobs are not coming back.

I’ve been reading another old magazine I found in Dad’s house, this one is Mother Jones from May/June 2013. On of its articles is Terminated, by Kevin Drum about how soon Artificial Intelligence will be so advanced robots will take over nearly everybody’s job. I noticed the online title is different.

Drum agrees that AI is not yet ready to take over creative and management jobs. But he says given Moore’s Law (computing speed and power doubles about every 18 months) we should start seeing huge improvements in AI, even though we’ve seen what seems like very little happening in 60 years of computers.

To explain that Drum has a delightful example about Moore’s Law and the power of doubling. My friend and debate partner, well versed in that, will enjoy this one:
Suppose it's 1940 and Lake Michigan has (somehow) been emptied. Your job is to fill it up using the following rule: To start off, you can add one fluid ounce of water to the lake bed. Eighteen months later, you can add two. In another 18 months, you can add four ounces. And so on. Obviously this is going to take a while.

By 1950, you have added around a gallon of water. But you keep soldiering on. By 1960, you have a bit more than 150 gallons. By 1970, you have 16,000 gallons, about as much as an average suburban swimming pool.
But compared to the size of Lake Michigan, this is nothing.
So let's skip all the way ahead to 2000. Still nothing. You have—maybe—a slight sheen on the lake floor. How about 2010? You have a few inches of water here and there. This is ridiculous. It's now been 70 years and you still don't have enough water to float a goldfish. Surely this task is futile?

But wait. Just as you're about to give up, things suddenly change. By 2020, you have about 40 feet of water. And by 2025 you're done. After 70 years you had nothing. Fifteen years later, the job was finished.
Drum explains that Lake Michigan was chosen because the number of ounces of water in the lake is similar to the number of neurons in a human brain.

That example prompted me to open a spreadsheet and create a couple charts.

I’m familiar with the standard parabolic shape that a doubling function produces.

But that image usually shows maybe six or seven doublings. What happens with a couple dozen? Then the scale becomes so large that the first three-quarters of the doublings will be flattened into a nearly straight line.

And that explains why it is still hard to see a lot of commercial use of AI though we’ll see a great deal in the next decade. I’m sure it also explains such phenomena as tipping points (another favorite subject of my friend).

Now on to the important stuff.

What this means is nearly all of us will be out of a job. And soon. Those at the top won’t have to pay for labor, which will concentrate wealth even more (though at some point they’ll run out of people who can afford their products). And the rest of us not at the top?
We'll need to let go of some familiar convictions. Left-leaning observers may continue to think that stagnating incomes can be improved with better education and equality of opportunity. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. They'll both be wrong.
What to do? We’ll have to fundamentally change the way we share economic growth (if those at the top will allow it). Drum lists a few ways to do this. We’ll also have to change such things as health insurance provided by the employer. If we don’t, fascism and extreme right governments will likely take hold as the people clamor for a strongman to come up with a solution.

But once we do solve the situation we could be aiming for a very happy time. All of us will have time to do what we want to do without having to worry about the pesky job. In my case it would be devoting time to writing music (an AI might be able to write music, but it won’t be able to write my music). Actually, since I’m essentially retired, that is what I am doing.

There are a couple problems along the way to this paradise. Very few people are thinking about how to get from here to there. And many have huge incentives (especially related to ranking) to make sure we don’t get there.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Curious incident

I was at the Fisher Theater in Detroit Friday evening for a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is based on a novel of the same title by Mark Haddon, which I very much enjoyed (and I recently discovered I still have). This play was written by Simon Stephens. In 2013 it was nominated for eight Laurence Olivier Awards (British equivalent to the Tony Awards) and won seven. In 2015 It was nominated for six Tony Awards and won five. It also won a slew of awards from the Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and Drama Desk.

The story is about Christopher at age 15. The play doesn’t offer a diagnosis (the novel doesn’t either), though one might conclude the lad has high-functioning autism. The author says says he didn’t study autism before writing the book. Even so, doctors say he got it right. Christopher is great at math and wants to take an exam usually given at age 18. But people confuse him – he can’t figure out how facial expressions relate to emotions. He doesn’t like to be touched. He understands only the literal meaning of words, so he always tells the truth. He loves red and considers it brings good luck, but he hates yellow and brown.

The story opens with Christopher discovering a neighbor’s dog is dead. He enjoyed playing with the dog, so is distressed to see it gone. This isn’t giving anything away because the corpse is on stage as we walk into the theater.

Since the police won’t, Christopher decides to investigate who killed the dog. This is brave of him because he doesn’t deal well with strangers. The investigation leads him to exploring his own house and he finds uncomfortable things about his parents. Those discoveries drive the rest of the story.

The stage was high-tech. We saw three walls and floor in black with a white grid. There were LED lights at the corners of the grid which could be turned on in various patterns and colors. There were also projection systems to show various things on the walls and floors. Most of these showed the state of Christopher’s mind. Many of the grid squares also opened to show a well-lit compartment holding a prop for the scene, such as pieces for a model train set Christopher builds when he is agitated. There were a row of illuminated square tubes around the edge of the floor. This border was large enough that actors could sit on it while waiting to be a part of the scene. There were, of course, doors – one in each side wall and one in the back.

One actor portrayed Christopher’s teacher. She sometimes narrated the action as she read from the book that Christopher wrote describing what happens. Two more actors portrayed Christopher’s parents. The other eight actors played anywhere from two to six characters in addition to crowd scenes – such as when Christopher must navigate a train station while suffering from information overload.

During the show Christopher wants to explain one of his math problems to all of us. His teacher convinces him to do it after the story is told. So after the curtain calls the actor came back on stage and, while the projection system showed us, he explained and solved the problem, which is:
A triangle has sides of lengths: n-squared + 1, n-squared – 1, and 2n. For n greater than 1 prove that this triangle has a right angle.
For the solution think Pythagoras.

I very much enjoyed play. It had been a while since I read to book so there were only a few times when I knew what was coming. I had quite forgotten the ending.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Elections may mean nothing

Before the election the nasty guy pronounced that if he didn’t win it was because the voted was rigged. Afterward he was apparently was miffed that while he got the job he didn’t get the most votes. He talked more about a rigged election.

Also after the election the Michigan state legislature said two things:

* There is no need to have a recount of the nasty guy’s narrow win in the state or investigate the election day irregularities in Detroit. There is no voter fraud.

* The voter ID laws in Michigan need to be more stringent because of voter fraud. The proposed law was passed.

For many years the GOP has been pushing the idea of voter fraud as a reason for enacting voter suppression laws. Michigan is just one of many states where such laws were enacted. Some of them are severe enough that citizens on the wrong end of these laws don’t jump through the hoops to get a proper ID, but simply don’t try to vote. That surely made a difference in Michigan’s election outcome in 2016.

In January I read that the sign of a despot is that elections no longer matter. They are held, but the outcome cannot change the government. And recently the GOP members of Congress have been acting like that is already the case.

Also in the last few months, especially in the last couple weeks, I’ve heard from various sources that because of the way citizens are annoyed with the House health plan the 2018 election could decisively flip the House to the Democrats, in spite of the extensive gerrymandering.

So it isn’t surprising, though highly troubling, that the nasty guy is talking about voter fraud again. And this time he wields an Executive Order. It creates a “voter fraud commission.” We’re not at all surprised the co-chairs of the commission are vice nasty guy, who oversaw voter suppression laws in Indiana, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the biggest promoter of the myth of voter fraud.

Some of the things on Kobach’s resume that endeared him to vice nasty guy:

* He has imposed strict voter ID laws, which courts have smacked down each time.

* He lobbied for and got a state law to give him a team of prosecutors independent of the AG to target voter fraud. The number of cases of fraud his crack team found: four.

* He created and promoted the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program to match voter names across state rolls – with the problem it matches only names and 85 of the top 100 most common last names are used by minorities. This purged over 7 million people, most low-income people of color who tend to vote Democratic.

Depending how successful Kobach is, don’t depend on the vote in 2018 save us. Resist now.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

To disclose or not disclose

FBI Director James Comey has, to put it mildly, been in the news a lot lately. Last week he was before a Senate hearing saying the idea that the release of his letter hinting at more Hillary Clinton email investigation affected the outcome of the election would make him feel mildly nauseous. Sen. Diane Feinstein was quick to point out that while he felt he had to disclose a tentative investigation on Clinton he was concealing the had an active investigation on Trump.

I wish that in addition to pointing that out she had asked him why the discrepancy.

Senator Richard Blumenthal caught and expressed an important point about that active investigation into Trump and Russia. No matter what Comey’s investigation uncovers he must get permission from the Attorney General (or his deputy) before sharing the results of that investigation with Congress. And both the AG and Deputy AG are nasty guy appointees.

Translation: Comey, perhaps accidentally, stated the reason for the need for an independent investigation.

A big issue about the nasty guy and Russia is whether he has been compromised. That’s a polite way of wondering whether Putin somehow has a way of blackmailing him. Does the nasty guy owe money to Russian banks that would be called in the moment he does something Putin doesn’t like? Did the Russians hack his email and now know a dirty secret? Does Putin have a chain he can yank?

This morning Melissa McEwan of Shakesville made an important point. We know Clinton’s emails were hacked and Russians were using what they found to discredit her and influence the election. It is likely that the nasty guy was hacked too, though harmful details weren’t divulged.

But looking at the GOP obfuscation when Sally Yates went before a Senate hearing makes McEwan wonder. How many senators have been hacked? How many of them are compromised? A couple of those senators, Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz, were candidates for president. Were they hacked as Clinton was and are they now compromised?

Which means the leaders of the Senate investigation, the ones trying to find out if the nasty guy is compromised, may also be compromised.

FBI policy is that ongoing investigations are not to be disclosed. Comey should not have agonized whether to do so or not. So why did he?

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses Comey’s letter to Congress just before the election that strongly swung the outcome in the nasty guy’s favor. Comey may not have acted out of malice against Clinton. He may have simply been a coward.
If he followed FBI policy, once they learned about it Republicans would accuse him of covering for Clinton. If she became president (which at the time everyone assumed would happen), they’d attack him in the media, they’d haul him before Congress, they’d curse his name. That’s the catastrophe he apparently feared.

Which brings us to this afternoon. Pardon me while I turn off the irony alarm. The nasty guy fired Comey. The “official” reason is because Comey mishandled the Clinton email mess. Or perhaps he mishandled his hearing before Congress where he talked about the Clinton email mess.

So Comey was afraid the GOP would skewer him if he didn’t disclose the latest twist in the Clinton email saga. And then his boss skewered him because he did disclose. Or something like that.

But there is a telling detail. The dismissal letter, signed by the nasty guy, contains the phrase:
While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation...
Which makes me – and the entire Democratic Party – think he protests too much. That the firing was not at all about Clinton’s emails. That the real reason is that Comey’s investigation was getting just a bit too close to the truth about the nasty guy and Russia.

Ever since Comey pulled that stunt back in October I’ve had no respect for the man. But until today his investigation into the nasty guy was the only one not mired in partisan gridlock (even if he wouldn’t have been able to reveal what he found).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Two beautiful souls

A couple people to tell you about.

Joe Dombrowski teaches fourth grade at Oakland Elementary in Royal Oak, Michigan. He is also gay. He has fun with his kids including an April Fool’s Day spelling bee in which he tossed out made-up words, such as “blorskee” (“I lost my blorskee at a carnival.”), and the names of drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (the hyphens better be in the right places).

Dombrowski created a video of the prank spelling bee, which went viral. It also landed him a spot on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

But it is an aspect of his everyday teaching that caught my attention. And it has to do with him being gay. Because his students can see he is being authentic to himself he has a much stronger voice in saying it is OK for them to be themselves.

C.J. describes himself as a boy who likes girl stuff. He is now 10. His mother Lori describes her son as “gender creative.” She has been writing a personal blog Raising My Rainbow about the joys and difficulties of parenting a child like C.J. I’ve been reading it for a few years now. Lori and her husband Matt sound like fantastic parents.

Recently the family vacationed with friends at a resort hotel. They had a spectacular time. That got C.J. thinking:
I decided that when I grow up I’m going to make my own hotel resort. It will be mostly for drag queens, gender nonconforming people and transgender people. A lot of transgender and gender nonconforming people like me don’t feel comfortable going everywhere. At my hotel resort everybody will always feel comfortable and welcome no matter what.

The number one rule at my hotel resort is “you can never judge anyone for the color of their skin or the gender they are or the people they love.”

I want everybody to feel luxurious while they are at my hotel resort. I want them to feel like a prince, princess, king or queen. Whichever one they want to feel like, it’s their choice.
C.J. fills in the details of what his resort will be like. And it sounds fabulous! It also sounds comfortable and safe. But when C.J. wrote his description he couldn't think of an appropriate name, so asked readers for suggestions. They responded with over 100 suggestions. He chose Pride Palace.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

They sang what they could not say

I attended an excellent and amazing Detroit Symphony Orchestra program last evening. It was titled The Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin. The core of the evening was a performance of Requiem Mass by Giuseppi Verdi, which was premiered in 1875. The music includes four vocal soloists and a huge choir in addition to the orchestra. The piece is famous for its Dies Irae “Day of Wrath” section that features several mighty whacks on the bass drum (I’m sure an online video will demonstrate).

What was amazing about the evening was the story that was wrapped around the performance. Part of the story was told by the conductor, Murray Sidlin, in a pre-concert talk. Sometime around the year 2000 he found a book about the music at Terezin. That prompted him to create an evening program to tell the story. That story was told as part of the performance.

Terezin is the Polish name for what the Germans called Theresienstadt. This was a city/ghetto/camp to hold Jewish prisoners during the Nazi era. This was the showcase camp, where the Nazis took the Red Cross to say, “See! We treat our Jews very nicely!” Though there weren’t gas chambers, a huge number of the over 100,000 prisoners died of such things as starvation. Residents were frequently shipped to other camps that were set up to kill them.

With all that chaos and insanity around them the prisoners looked for ways to mentally escape. They organized lectures on practically every subject, though especially literature. These were educated people, mostly from Prague, who valued books and stories. But they had to leave most of their books behind. The also organized concerts, of all types of music. Many of the prisoners had been in the several Prague orchestras or played in various dance bands. Perhaps 20 of the prisoners turned to composing, writing their music on whatever paper they could scrounge. At the time of a concert the camp authorities requested instruments be brought from a warehouse in Prague – which housed the instruments confiscated from Jewish musicians when they were ejected from the orchestras.

One of those musicians was conductor Rafael Schächter, a rising star in the opera scene. When he was sent to Terezin he could not leave his score for Verdi’s Requiem behind. After being there a while Schächter decided his fellow prisoners needed to perform the Requiem.

They needed to sing it even though it was Jews singing a Catholic text. The rabbis at the camp opposed the idea. They needed to sing it because that “Dies Irae” section speaks of the ultimate Judge bringing justice to their oppressors. They could sing to their captors what they could not say. They needed to sing it because that same “Dies Irae” section calls on God to hear them, to save them, to pull them out of the ashes. They needed to sing it because the music speaks to the spirit, about all they had left. They needed to sing it because it was both a balm for their souls and an act of defiance.

Looking through a lens of ranking, the Nazis (ranking in the extreme) would have heard the words and assumed they were the favored of God and would be plucked from the ashes while God would smite the Jews, who deserved it. After one performance a Nazi official was overheard to say isn’t it appropriate they are singing their own requiem?

So Schächter charmed other prisoners to be in his choir. He then taught them the music by rote – he had the only score. They performed it with piano. In all they performed it 16 times. Twice in that time two-thirds of his choir was swept off to death camps and he had to rebuild his choir. I think it was the final performance that was presented when the Red Cross visited. Shortly after that a great number of prisoners were sent to death camps. Schächter did not survive the war.

On stage at the performance I attended was the orchestra and chorus. There was also a Lecturer to tell part of the story, an actor speaking as Schächter, a piano (definitely a console style, not a grand), and a screen. Several times the conductor turned around and told us other parts of the story.

Between sections of the music the screen showed surviving members of the choir talking about what they went through and what Schächter and his efforts meant to them. Towards the end we also saw the Nazi propaganda film showing the world how pleasant life was in Terezin. In the pre-concert talk the conductor said the Nazi government had plans to show that movie around Germany. They never did because by the time it was completed the whole country was in such ruins it would have shown Jews living better than Germans were.

The program began with a bit of a montage of the wide variety of music performed at Terezin. Then, each section of the Requiem was begun with chorus and piano, as it would have been performed in the camp. After a moment or two the lights came up and the orchestra took over. We heard what Verdi wrote. As each section ended the orchestra dropped out, the lights dimmed, and the piano took over again.

The Requiem ended quietly and immediately a clarinet and violin played a Jewish folk tune while the choir hummed along (I heard a woman behind me humming too). In the darkness the orchestra, except for the clarinet and violin, left the stage. The choir slowly filed off too, still humming. I interpreted it as the Nazis dismantling the choir by sending the singers to death camps. Soon, only the violin was left. She finished the tune and walked off as a message on the screen asked us to observe a moment of silence rather than applauding.

They sang what they could not say: You may starve me. You may work me until I drop. You may beat me until I’m broken. You may even kill me. But you will not take my soul.

Being alive is a preexisting condition

There was that vile House GOP health care bill this past week. The focus has been on the huge list of preexisting conditions that will send a person’s health care premiums into the unaffordable stratosphere. Several news sources that have published the lengthy list of conditions that fit the category. I’ll list just a few:

* Transsexualism, yeah being transgender could be a reason to boost your insurance rates.

* Pregnancy for the females and expectant parent for the males.

* Obesity. It is bad enough that many doctors already blame all sorts of ills on obesity and insist on weight loss before treatment. Now with obesity as a preexisting condition the patient won’t be able to afford either the fruitless weight loss plan or the treatment of the actual illness.

* Pending surgery, which seems to mean you could pay standard rates and keep your coverage up until the time the doctor finds something wrong that needs surgery. Now that might be something that developed while you maintained coverage, but once it happens it is “preexisting.” Coverage is great until you actually need it.

I agree with Paul Waldman of The Washington Post, who calls it an abomination. Others have called it the most cruel legislation ever passed by a body of Congress. Waldman calls on us to make sure every one of those yes voters is held accountable. This should be a stain on their records for the rest of their careers, even if the bill never becomes law.

One of the few comments I read (out of over 3000) said so how are we going to hold them accountable with the way House districts are so heavily gerrymandered?

Waldman also lists the other provisions of the bill. One that hasn’t gotten a lot of airplay is that it “provides hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for families making over $250,000 a year.”

The vote handed Democrats a weapon, which was gleefully seized, to hammer at those who voted yes. They will be wielding that hammer relentlessly form the next 18 months.

Chauncey DeVega of his personal blog Indomitable explains the bill in terms of ranking (though not as solidly as I could) and refers to a conservative “celebration of selfishness.” He wrote:
There is a moral obligation to speak plainly and directly in a time of crisis. To wit: The Republican Party’s so-called health care reform is designed to kill, injure and bankrupt the poor, the sick and the weak, in order to line the pockets of the 1 percent. As Republicans have repeatedly shown, the supposed “party of life” is actually the “party of death.”

While driving to Dad’s house on Friday I listened to the NPR program The 1A and their roundup of the week’s news. One of the panelist (I don’t remember which one) described the difference between the Democrat and GOP view of health insurance. In the Dem view health insurance is like Social Security, a basic right given to everyone. In contrast, the GOP talks about health insurance like car insurance. If a driver tends to speed and get in a lot of accidents it is expected his insurance should go up. No one else should have to pay for his recklessness. The GOP says in the same way the healthy shouldn’t have to pay for those foolish enough to get sick.

DeVega says this idea is the just world hypothesis, the idea that if bad things happen to you it is because you deserve it. But it is a fallacy. Even the rich get cancer. It is also a justification for ranking.
The just world hypothesis can be compelling. It allows the privileged, the powerful and the rich to rationalize their opportunities: “I earned it! Those people are lazy!” “Good things happen to good people! Those people are immoral and made bad choices unlike me!” “Their problems aren’t my responsibility!”

Sarah Kendzior has a couple tweets on the issue:
Bill is devastation in own right, but also ominous. You don’t pass something this unpopular thinking there will be free and fair elections.

When you flaunt disregard for public will this blatantly, you’re assuming public will is irrelevant. You have a lock through corruption.