Sunday, November 29, 2015

I'm the authority on me

A bill has passed the US House with a veto-proof majority to restrict Syrian refugees from coming to America. I had said before that this kind of persecution of Muslims (indirectly – by refusing shelter from terrorists) is exactly what ISIS wants. The debate has now shifted to the Senate, where Elizabeth Warren said,
We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS murderers.
There is fear the bill will also pass the Senate with a veto-proof majority.

Over many years Melissa McEwen of Shakesville has been pushing back against the Diet Industry. One of the ideas she objects to is that fat people all get fat the same way and a standardized diet will work for all people. She is also annoyed that fat researchers discount what fat people say – if you say you are following this diet and still gaining weight, then of course you're lying.

A new study shows what McEwen has been saying. A food that doesn't prompt weight gain in one person might prompt weight gain in another. Our bodies are not the same. It is annoying that fat researchers never listen to fat people and we need evidence such as this study to get permission to be authorities on our own lives.

Yes, it took a long time before doctors and psychologists realized that gay people were the authority on gay people.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Flatter than Kansas

When someone remarks about land being flat, most people think of Kansas. Yes, back in 2003 research was done to show that Kansas is flatter than a pancake. But Florida, Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Delaware are flatter than Kansas. (West Virginia was determined to be the most unflat – Alaska and Hawaii weren't studied.) The flatness of Kansas has another little problem. The west side of the state is 3360 feet higher than the east side. Kansas may be flat, but it isn't level. An anonymous cartographer created a map to show what a level Kansas would look like. We'd only have to move 5500 cubic miles of earth from west to east – and watch out for the 900 foot bluff in the middle of Kansas City. But why? It would fulfill this little bit of prophecy from Isaiah 40:4: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain."


Indiana Senate Republicans have introduced a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights laws. But don't cheer yet. It still has exceptions for religion that are way too broad and institutes fines for "frivolous" discrimination complaints. It would also trump any local laws. That means LGBT people would be included in the state law under a different set of rules than other minorities. The bill did not simply add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the existing law. We would still be discriminated against. The first clue to read the bill carefully was that GOP senators introduced it. The second clue was that at the time the bill was introduced the Indiana Pastors Association was holding a prayer vigil and rally against our rights at the Statehouse. Do we even need a third clue? How about what looks like a t-shirt with "LGBT" but underneath isn't Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, but "Let God Be True."

Didn't Indiana learn anything from the smackdown they got last March with their previous religious freedom act? Apparently not. However, this bill may not get far – conservatives think it gives gay people too many rights.


The parliament in Cyprus has approved civil partnerships. The legislation does not include adoption rights. The bill passed 39-12 with 3 abstentions. An effective date has not yet been set.

In Europe 14 nations have legalized same-sex marriage (though not in effect in all yet), 9 have civil unions, and 8 nations along the eastern edge of the continent have no recognition of same-sex couples.

Canada has laid out plans to accept more Syrian refugees. Families, women, children, and gay men will be welcomed. Straight men traveling alone will likely be excluded. Interesting... a case where there is an advantage to being gay.

According to Pew Research white Christians now make up less than half of the US population. The only place white Christians maintain a steady and solid majority is in the GOP where 70% of those who identify or lean towards the GOP are white Christians. This is part of why they feel backed into a corner and are lashing out.

The Federal Elections Commission produced a map of America in which states are colored by the majority of their delegation in the US House. All is red except the western coastal states, the northeast, and Minnesota, Illinois, and New Mexico. Yeah it makes the red menace look overwhelming. But is the GOP a healthier party than the Dems? The map does not represent the size of the delegations (California would be huge and Montana smaller than Rhode Island) and does not show the size of each state's majority. Click on the link and scroll down as a commenter has supplied a cartogram that does show the relative size of the delegations. The GOP healthy? Maybe not. But they are good at gerrymandering, suppressing the vote, and pulling all kinds of other election tricks.

I missed mentioning Transgender Day of Remembrance held each November to commemorate those transgender people killed in the last year. The number is up this year, though part of that is likely better reporting. For this year's Day of Remembrance trans artists have created a bunch of wonderful posters.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Shot, beaten, gassed

The GOP candidates for prez. have been ranting about Muslim terrorists, wanting to smash ISIS to smithereens. But what about these terrorists?

* Abortion clinics vandalized in Louisville as well as Planned Parenthood clinics in New Hampshire, Washington state, California, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

* Jamar Clark, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by police earlier this month. Black Lives Matter activists protested outside the police station. White "counterprotesters" tried to shut down the protests, then fired into the crowd, hitting five. Fortunately, no deaths. With casualties on their doorstep the police turned their backs.

* Laquan McDonald was murdered by Chicago police a year ago. The release of a video of the shooting and the indictment of the officer for murder again brought out demonstrators. And the police's response was violence and aggression. Police also arrested a demonstration leader on trumped up charges.

* Mercutio Southall Jr. stood up in a Trump rally and shouted "Black lives matter!" The white crowd attacked him as Trump shouted for him to be thrown out. The crowd chanted "All lives matter!" Southall later wrote:
So for all the people who are still confused at this point, they proved what 'all lives matter' meant. It means, 'Shut up, n*****.'"
There have also been many protests at various colleges and universities around the country. I commend them and am glad to see them standing up. Most of what the black students want is safety, something rather basic.

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville catalogs the events – the acts of terrorism – over the last couple years perpetrated by white supremacists, some of whom are police. And still many white people refuse to see a connection between these events, declaring them to be isolated incidents. McEwen extends her catalog from the big things to the everyday things:
And school segregation, and job discrimination, and housing discrimination, and wealth inequality, and pay disparity, and mass incarceration, and municipal violations, and fair legal representation, and the disproportionate application of the death penalty, and lack of meaningful visibility, and unequal opportunities, and access to healthcare, and millions of microaggressions, and white people (and other non-black people) doubting whether anti-black racism really still exists and auditing the ways black people try to address it and accusing them of looking for things to get mad about and screaming BOOTSTRAPS at them and calling them oversensitive.

McEwen quotes her friend Dan Solomon:
Okay, here is the thing about Black Lives Matter protests and all the I'm-just-a-reasonable-white-guy whining about how the kids are all way too sensitive and don't deserve their "safe spaces" -- the space outside of a fucking *police station* in Minneapolis wasn't safe. If they want to talk about the way that black lives are at very real risk in this country, they are at risk of being fucking *shot* for it. The idea that they're not equipped for the "real world" because they want safe spaces on their campuses when the world tells them over and over again that they don't get safe spaces, that a space that is super safe for someone like me is actually dangerous as hell for them, is such heavy, condescending bullshit that anybody who spouts it should have fucking asphyxiated by now.

Every time black protesters go to the street to talk about this, they are aware that they are not safe. They get shot. They get beaten. They get gassed. They are aware that they get shot and beaten and gassed. They are *willing* to get shot and beaten and gassed. It's not because their tactics are too aggressive or they snatched a mic from Bernie fucking Sanders, it's because the world is filled with racist people who will shoot and beat and gas them. Motherfuckers, you'd want a "safe space" too.
Hey, all you GOP candidates, want to do something about terrorism? Forget about the Muslims coming into this country who might carry out some act of terrorism. Instead, look at the white supremacists who are already in the country and already are carrying out acts of terrorism. Oh, wait – this is your political base? So then you're promoting state sponsored terrorism.

The Democratic National Committee has a new video out: Inciting Fear Isn't Presidential. Using the phrase "Islamic Jihadists" is an oversimplification and wrong. How does the DNC know? Because George W. Bush said so.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sponsor a Syrian refugee

More than a week has passed since the terrorist attacks in Paris. Much of what we've been hearing in America has been state governors (including the one in Michigan) wanting to pause the acceptance of Syrian refugees. We've also been hearing a lot from GOP prez. candidates on which one will be the biggest badass ready to blow ISIS to smithereens. Terrence Heath has been keeping tabs on what conservative have been saying.

According to Heath and Melissa McEwen of Shakesville, among many other voices, these candidates and many conservative voices are giving the terrorists exactly what they want. McEwen quotes ISIS literature to explain. The goal of ISIS is to destroy the "grayzone" of what they see as half-hearted Muslims. Their plan is to attack the West and get the West to retaliate, not just against ISIS but to get the Islamophobia pot boiling and attack Muslims in general. Thus these moderate Muslims would be radicalized and pushed to join ISIS, resulting in an all-out holy war of Muslims against Christians.

And what are all these GOP candidates doing? Getting the Islamophobia pot boiling so that ordinary Americans have the political cover flaunt their bigotry and make life rough for Muslims in America and elsewhere in the West. They are the best recruitment tool that ISIS could ask for.

McEwen adds:
What happened in Paris isn't because of the refugee crisis, it's why the refugee crisis exists in the first place.
The refugees are fleeing the Middle East to escape the people who planned and carried out the Paris attacks. They are fleeing because most of the those killed by ISIS are Muslims, ones ISIS considers too moderate and accommodating.

Military strikes that kill civilians, fearmongering, and shutting the door on refugees means adding to the violence these refugees are trying to escape. That only escalates the violence, it doesn't lead to its end.

So what should we do? How about putting our Christian values to work? The central message of the Bible isn't "No room at the Inn." Want to defeat ISIS? Sponsor a Syrian refugee.

As for the nonsense that Muslim = terrorist, meet Adel Termos of Beirut who tackled a terrorist so the bomb being detonated killed only the bomber and Termos and not a host of others.

Or consider the story of Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura and Laila Alawa, who describe how thoroughly they were vetted before coming to America.

Fortunately Obama appears to understand that and isn't spouting the "smash them to smithereens" rhetoric. I'm glad he's the Commander in Chief right now.

Alas, the fearmongering done by the GOP candidates is no match for Obama's quiet style. 53% of Americans want the program to welcome Syrian refugees to be suspended.

I'm not sure where I read this (and can't find the link), but it resonated me. My version: There are some who will put up with a higher threat of terror on American soil if it means more Syrians are welcomed and made to feel safe. There are some who won't, who insist there must be no possibility of terror, even if tens of thousands of refugees are caught in the war zone. There are some who will welcome higher taxes if it means all children, especially poor children, are given a good education and a chance at a job that will support them. And there are some who won't, who insist their money is for their use alone, no matter the plight of others. There are some who welcome higher taxes for a robust safety net, so all Americans are properly fed and sheltered, who recognize we are all made safer and all are enriched when all are cared for. And there are some who won't. There are some who recognize that gov't regulation protects all citizens from corporate predators, unsafe food, and pollution. And some who refuse to see.

M world is made better when we take in the refugee, educate even the poor, provide all with basic needs, and protect the environment. It is worthwhile even if I give up some safety and give up some coin. My humanity is at stake.

Arts relevant to Detroit

It has been a busy week, especially in the evenings when I tend to do my blog writing. I had the usual rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday I was at my usual place at the Ruth Ellis Center. I spent Thursday at my Dad's house (I found his baby book – first tooth, first steps, etc.). Friday I went to see a community theater play that a friend produced (went with the debate partner). On Saturday I attended a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert. And this afternoon my performance group gave a concert.

Back to that play on Friday. North Rosedale Park is one of the top neighborhoods in Detroit, this one on the west side. Many of the houses are grand place built in the 1920s-30s. It is just east of Brightmoor, one of the worst neighborhoods. A few years ago my friend (not the debate partner) moved into a house in this neighborhood. He got a huge space for a low price, though had to do a lot of renovation.

One of the perks of living in North Rosedale Park is a functioning community center. This building is the focus of what is essentially neighborhood government, an association of owners that provides services the city can't. This civic center hosts a community theater troupe, the Park Players, that has now been going for over 60 years (started during Detroit's heyday). My friend has performed with this troupe a few time (I saw their production of The Addams Family Musical last spring with my friend playing one of the ancestors).

This fall he was asked to be the producer – the guy behind the scenes that expends considerable effort to keep track of details and make it all happen. The show was Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. The show is about the Rodney King beating, the trial of his attackers, the resulting race riots, and the federal trial. The author interviewed various people close to the incidents – King's mother, jury members, police commissioner, Reginald Denny (attacked during the riot), gang members, Korean shop owners (businesses damaged by the riots), a Latino man, various activists, a black US representative, a white Senator, and many others. The author assembled 35 of these verbatim monologues into the play. I heard later she performed all 35 roles herself in a one-woman show.

Most of the time there is one person on stage telling us their story. And they were powerful. For community theater, most of the 30 actors were quite good, a few were exceptional. A member of the original jury (acquittal of all four officers sparked the riots) told of the hate mail and threatening phone calls along with the revulsion on getting a letter from the KKK offering assistance. A Korean man explained he understood racism and slavery because so many Koreans had been enslaved in Japan. Reginald Denny told of the consequences of being attacked – pulled out of his truck and beaten. That was followed by an activist wondering why white man Denny was discussed so much in the news while all the black people beaten and killed were ignored. The best acting of the evening was by the woman playing a juror in the federal trial, the one brought by the Department of Justice for violations to King's civil rights. This actor, in telling her story, also portrayed several other jurors. This jury had to identify and work through its own racism before dealing with the charges at hand.

A very important and well done evening of theater. Alas, many of its themes are still relevant.

On Saturday evening, in spite of a snowstorm, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed a new piece Symphony in D by Tod Machover. Though the title refers to the key of the piece (at least I think so) it also refers to the city. I sometimes hear the phrase "in the D" referring something happening in the city.

Machover is a professor at the MIT medial lab. He leads an effort to combine music creation with technology. A few years ago he started a project to create a musical landscape of a city featuring orchestra and recorded sound. Toronto was first and Detroit was the fifth. For this one Machover asked people to record sounds of the city and submit them to his MIT lab. He was surprised at the 15,000 entries, a much higher number than the previous projects. Machover also spent several days each month over the last year meeting people in the city. A few of them were asked to appear to read their poem or tell their story as part of the performance. The orchestra also added an ethnic drummer, a couple guys on electric bass, and a Chaldean choir (there is a large Chaldean community in Detroit).

The piece lasted 30 minutes. Parts of it worked very well, though other parts weren't as successful. Most of the time I couldn't tell if the recorded sounds were being added to the mix. By my ears those sounds weren't added all that often. And the sounds I heard didn't seem to be all that much about Detroit. It would have been really cool to have factory sounds supply the percussion during a section of the piece. I'm not sure whether I didn't hear the factory over the sound of the orchestra or it wasn't included.

Overall I liked it. But if I had written it the result would have been quite different.

A week ago I raved about the opera The Passenger presented by Michigan Opera Theater. I'm not the only one who thought it was excellent. David Kiley of Encore Michigan thinks it may be the finest production the MOT has done in its 40 year history.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A night at the opera

Yesterday I went to see the Michigan Opera Theater presentation of The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. It was written in the 1960s and first performed in 2010. I'll tell that part of the story in a bit.

The basic plot: Walter and Liese, a German couple are on their way by ship to Brazil where he will serve in the German embassy. But Liese sees someone from her past on the ship and it brings out secrets. Liese used to be an SS overseer in the women's barracks at Auschwitz. The woman she sees on the ship is Marta, from Poland, who helped Liese control the other prisoners, yet remained defiant. Liese is sure Marta had died. Yes, some of the scenes are in Auschwitz, showing how Marta interacts with Liese and how Marta takes care of and protects the international group of fellow prisoners, though she is only 20. She is called the Madonna of the Barracks.

Also at the camp is Tadeusz, Marta's fiance, though they don't meet until they've been there two years. They meet when Tadeusz goes to the room where Marta is sorting through luggage new arrivals are forced to abandon. The camp Kommendant wants Tadeusz to play a violin for him. Surely, there is a decent violin in all this luggage. But Tadeusz refuses Liese's offer to allow him and Marta to meet again because he refuses to be beholden to Liese.

The book on which the libretto is based is by Zofia Posmysz. She survived Auschwitz and later though she saw her overseer in Paris (though it turned out to be someone else). That idea prompted her book, though the situation is reversed – the overseer thinking she sees her former prisoner.

Some of Weinberg's relatives died in the camps. When he had a chance he escaped east to the Soviet Union. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was impressed with Weinberg's work and invited him to Moscow where the two became friends. Weinberg poured his heart into this opera. It was set to premier in 1968 – but that was indefinitely postponed because the authorities said it was contrary to the principles of Soviet Realism. So Weinberg never saw his masterpiece performed.

After Weinberg died many of his papers were sent to the West, including this opera. A consortium of opera houses, including ones in Austria, Poland, England, Spain, and Detroit put up the funding to get the opera staged, which was or will be performed in each city.

I found all aspects of the production to be the highest quality. The set was on two levels, the deck of a ship above and Auschwitz below. Around the central area that held up the ship deck was a circular railway track with two more tracks cutting through the circle and heading upstage. For some scenes there were rail carts that were pushed forward. For others two curved rail cars were moved from the side of the circle to the front. The top of one held the ship's cabin for Walter and Liese. The outside of the other was filled with cubbyholes that served as the beds for the women's barracks. Those train tracks did a good job of evoking Auschwitz, where prisoners arrived by train.

The music is quite modern and there aren't any hummable tunes, but it fits the story and text quite well. All of the singers were excellent. The libretto is in seven languages – Walter and Liese and her SS comrades sang in German. Marta and Tadeusz sang in Polish. The other women sang in their native languages – Russian, Czech, French, and Yiddish. There was a men's chorus that occasionally commented on the action that sat in the railcar that became the women's barracks. They sang in English. During scenes in the barracks they leaned over the edge and watched, not as voyeurs, but as witnesses. Yes, there were supertitles above the stage that translated everything.

Yes, some of the action was grim, but there were also many touching and beautiful moments, such as when the women care for each other, when they sang about their hopes for life after the war, when they sang about how they might choose to die, when one sings a song of her homeland, and in the epilogue when Marta exquisitely sings about keeping alive the memory of her friends who were murdered.

It was an excellent evening. I highly recommend seeing it. Three performances remain. During intermission an usher asked if I was enjoying the performance. I said this story isn't one that someone enjoys.

Identifying the worst evil

An apostate is one who formerly had religious beliefs and is now denying them. A pagan or infidel may never take up beliefs. But an apostate is seen as worse, one who believed and then rejected that belief. In many religions that is a reason for kicking out the apostate. For a few that is a good reason for stoning – professing you're one of the good people, then actively rejecting it has to be the worst evil.

To help identify the apostate the Mormon leadership has listed five sure signs of apostasy. The first is the expected, "Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders." Three more are in the same vein. And that last one: "Are in a same-gender marriage."

Yup, being gay and marrying the love of your life is a complete rejection of the Mormon religion and grounds for being shunned by those still in the church.

Because the gay couple are considered apostates, their children cannot be baptized as long as they live with the gay parents. And at the baptism they must renounce their parent's relationship.

These rulings by the leadership are not going down well with the membership. Yesterday there was a mass resignation from the Mormon church. About 1500 took part, many already disillusioned by the church. But the deciding factor was when the kids were affected.

Alas, there has been a dramatic increase in calls to suicide prevention hotlines.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On the move

Nicholas Powers, writing for Truthout, makes a fascinating connection. After 9/11 Bush II began talking about the War on Terror with Bush talking about the evils of Islam. The Millennial generation, coming of age about that time, noticed that every evil thing Bush and others said about radical Islam was also reflected in American Fundamentalism. Gay rights? Nope. Women's rights? Of course not. Separation of Church and State?

Um, Millennials said, maybe we don't want to join your religion. So the push to demonize gay people backfired in this generation. Thus, says Powers, a result of that War on Terror is the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Yeah, I know, Millennials aren't the only ones who saw the Fundies as the American Taliban. But most of the rest of us already had an opinion of Fundamentalism.

This map shows the magnitude of the African and Middle Eastern refugees streaming towards Europe since 2012. Each dot represents 25 people – about half a bus – in motion. The dots don't show the torturous route taken by the refugees, only the movement from one central dot to another. Yes, there is a bright rush from Syria, especially in the last year, but there are also steady streams from Somalia, Nigeria, Russia (mostly in 2012) and, since they're off the map, I would guess Afghanistan and Pakistan, among many others.

A description of the state of a refugee camp in Calais, France prompted Melissa McEwen of Shakesville to write (emphasis in the original):
Every day, I see news articles and op-eds in which Serious People ask what is going to happen if Europe and the US help all of these refugees. And all I can think in response is: But what is going to happen if we don't?

Shortly after Paul Ryan took over the job of Speaker of the House, Chuck Todd interviewed Ryan and asked Ryan to name just one thing the GOP intends to get done in the next six months. Ryan responds with a list of thing that are wrong – poverty, foreign policy, Obamacare – but he doesn't say how the GOP intends to respond to any of them. Lots of complaints. No solutions. Likely intentional.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Quite the bomb

Michigan has finally passed a road improvement bill! Gov. Rick Snyder started calling for it four years ago, pegging the price of good roads at $1.2 billion a year. But the legislature, with a good chunk of them supporting a no new taxes pledge, couldn't seem to get it done. Yeah, there was that crazy attempt at a package of bills, including new taxes, that went before the voters. But that was so convoluted with gimmies for everyone that the voters roundly rejected it. So the legislature – after a change in personnel (there's that term-limit thing here) – went back to the beginning and tried again.

What they came up with is a big budget bomb.

On the good side $0.6 billion will be raised through a gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Yes, new taxes. But that will be ramped up slowly, not raising the full annual amount until 2018.

The other $0.6 billion comes from unspecified cuts to other things in the General Budget. And that won't happen until 2019. Why not next year? The delay means that all the legislators who approved this mess will, because of term limits, be gone and not have to be accountable to the mess.

Michigan's General Budget has already been through the wringer. One of many reasons: A few years ago the business tax code was "simplified" (read: canceled). That severely cut the budget, which by state law must balance. And here comes another round of forced cuts.

The biggest parts of the state budget are education, revenue sharing for cities to pay for public safety, and healthcare. The rest of the budget is too small to absorb a cut of $0.6 billion. So the top three get cut again. And again.

Once again, it is the poor who will lose out. They get stuck with a bad primary education and can't afford college, even if they could get in. The availability and affordability of healthcare is cut. The police and fire departments cannot keep up with the crime.

Snyder crows that the state economy is growing, so there will be more revenue and the hole in the state budget won't be that big. It's still bad finances and education and healthcare will still be cut. But there is one more goodie in this plan. If tax revenue increases faster than inflation than income tax rollbacks go into effect. So even if the state economy grows, the state budget can't.

So, let's see. The state roads are a mess. The money to fix them won't get to half strength until three years from now. It won't rise above half strength until at least four years from now. And then there will be forced cuts to things that poor people depend on. In the meantime the roads will continue to be a mess. And the perpetrators will be long gone – safely transitioned into lobbying jobs.

Quite the bomb.

Give me back my power!

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville noticed that a big theme of the Milwaukee GOP debate earlier this week was we must take the country back! This isn't a new theme. And when it is brought up an important question is: Take it back from whom?

Yeah, the usual suspects were trotted out. All these candidates promise to protect the conservative base from "the emergent menace of liberals, brown people, immigrants, atheists, feminists, same-sex couples, jihadists, socialism, and trans people in their bathrooms." Sigh.

Carly Fiorina caught McEwen's attention by giving a critique of Big Government and its deficit spending, corruption, and cronyism … and then using the evening's phrase the government is a mess and we must take it back!


Doesn't the GOP control the House, the Senate, and a large number of state legislatures? Doesn't the GOP usually get its way with this closely divided Supreme Court? Wasn't this a GOP debate? Wasn't Fiorina speaking to a GOP crowd? Which means she is urging the GOP to take back the government from … the GOP.

And nobody onstage heard the irony alarm go off.

David T.S. Jonas, writing for Alternet, provides a bit of background behind Fiorina's crazy statement. Fifty years ago power was held almost exclusively by straight, white, Protestant males with America as undisputed Top Dog. But in those 50 years there has been an expansion of economic and political rights for women, people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants. Power has been given to foreigners through free trade agreements and a global economy. In addition, the demographics are working against the straight, white, Protestant males.

And they're freaking out. They keep winning elections yet can't restore their status as Top Dog.

Democrats are also angry. Their anger is towards gov't that is stymied by corporate money. However, they know to make progress they need to form coalitions and to compromise.

But those freaked out white dudes can't compromise, because that means ceding more power to the people who, in their eyes, already have too much of it. They say give me back my power or nobody gets anything! You won't repeal Obamacare? We'll shut down the entire government! That means anyone seen trying to compromise has sold them out. Thus their anger is at their own party leadership, not at the Dems.

Rage like this usually burns out when the rest of the electorate pushes back. And when might this one release its hold on the government? Oh, around Nov. 8, 2022 – the first election after the next round of Congressional redistricting. At the moment Dems and moderates cannot make a difference in 90% of the districts (about 390 of 435 seats, some mapped so only Dems can win) because gerrymandering has been so successful. And that means the real battle for a seat is in the primary when voters tend to vote for the most conservative candidates. So we need to get busy about that gerrymandering thing.

Otherwise we could get to 2030 and conservative voters will still be saying Congress doesn't listen to the voters, even if the GOP controls it all.

I said this isn't a new theme, the freaking out of the straight, white, Protestant male. I wrote about it in detail back in September of 2010. In it I listed a large number of things the GOP and the Tea Party are doing to discredit democracy and maintain power. In reading through the list I see the GOP is still actively working on every item in the list. One that caught my attention:
Overturn gun laws to make sure the rabble is well armed. Imply that the opposition is so evil that eliminating them is a good idea.
The protection of the ability to carry guns is still a big issue. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder just vetoed a bill that required school districts to permit open carry of guns. He thought it should be a local issue.

I see this again as straight, white, Protestant dudes freaked out about losing power and are determined to get it back – even if it has to be at the point of a gun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

For the people

Two hopeful items from last week's election:

Ohio passed an issue to prevent gerrymandering. It passed by more than 70%. The way it works:

* Establish a seven-person bipartisan commission, with at least two members of the minority party.

* Explicitly ban drawing districts primarily to advantage or disadvantage a political party.

* Require that districts reflect how voters actually voted.

* Shorten the time a map will be in effect if it doesn't have at least two minority party votes.

This link has details, including a discussion of gerrymandering and why it matters. Interesting that the diagrams are the same as what I saw in the League of Women Voters presentation a few weeks ago.

There was lots of news out of Ohio about the defeat of the marijuana issue, very little about this one.

Seattle passed an Honest Elections Seattle initiative. It passed by 60%. It is a bit complicated, which is one reason why many urged to vote against it. Again, there was very little mention of this one in the news. It works like this:

For each campaign season, each registered voter is given four vouchers, each for $25. The voters give them to candidates they like – which means the candidates actually have to engage and please the voters. The candidates redeem the vouchers to fund their campaigns. The whole thing is funded by an $8 property tax on homes worth more than $400K.

Another aspect of the initiative is that corporations that do more than $250K in business with the city in a year are banned from donating to candidates.

Terrence Heath references the campaign literature and adds a few comments. The initiative would:

1. Limit big money interests in city politics.

2. Ensure candidates listen to voters, not corporations. Citizens may donate to a campaign beyond their vouchers, but are limited to $500 total in an election cycle. In addition, top city employees must wait three years after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist.

3. Increases transparency through electronic disclosure of campaign funds.

4. Enables ordinary citizens to run viable campaigns against big money candidates.

Monday, November 9, 2015

In the right order and right place

I finished reading the book Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. The book lays out the overall reasons why evolution, not Creationism or Intelligent Design, is the way of the world. It is good to see it all in one place. I found the book readable – written for the general public, not the scientist – and quite fascinating.

The big reason for the book is that the general public will take what a scientist says in stride – except when the subject is evolution. That is particularly true in America. The opposition is, of course, driven by the Fundies, but there is still high skepticism in the general public not associated with the Fundie churches. Coyne devotes a whole chapter to that.

We start with six basic concepts. Evolution means that a species undergoes genetic change over time. Over time a species may become quite different because of changes in the DNA. These changes originate as mutations.

Evolution operates through gradualism. It takes many generations, sometimes hundreds of thousands to millions of years. When an environment is stressed, a change may occur quickly, but in an environment for which the species is well suited evolution slows down.

There is speciation. Environmental isolation usually causes two groups in a species to evolve in different directions, eventually becoming two species.

The flip side of that is common ancestor. Pick any two species and there is a species somewhere in the past that is a common ancestor species to both. This lineage can be traced through DNA sequencing or the fossil record. When we say that humans and chimpanzees are closely related it does not mean humans evolved from chimps. It does mean there is a species of primate from which both humans and chimps evolved. That ancestor species may have characteristics that are identifiably human and others identifiably chimp.

In 1735 botanist Carl Linnaeus began classifying animals into groups. Evolution eventually confirmed those classifications – each group was shown to have common ancestors. That means a natural classification system is proof of evolution.

Evolution works through natural selection. A gene mutation may make an organism better able to reproduce, may make no difference in reproduction, or may make an organism less able to reproduce. If the first one, the gene soon spreads through the descendants and the species has changed. For example, consider mice who live in an area that has dark dirt near pale sand. Hawks are better able to pick off dark mice on the sand and light mice on the dirt. Soon there are two groups of mice, light colored on the sand and dark colored on the dirt.

An example of a mutation that doesn't (or didn't) make a difference is the gene that manufactures vitamin C. In humans this gene doesn't work. That mutation also occurs in several other primates and can be traced back to an ancestor that first carried the mutant form of this gene. That mutation didn't matter because there was enough vitamin C in the diet. But now that humans have spread away from the tropical climate vitamin C isn't as readily available in our diet.

The last concept is processes other than natural selection can cause evolutionary change. An example of this is genetic drift.

Evolution is a science. It is testable and can make verifiable predictions. It can be shown to fit the facts better than alternative theories. Creationism and Intelligent Design cannot be tested and are not science.

Coyne spends much of the rest of the book discussing the predictions made by evolution and showing how they were verified.

Making fossils is hard. An organism must die in calm waters and be quickly covered over by sediment so it doesn't decay or get eaten. That doesn't happen too often. So fossils are relatively rare. There are lots of species in our evolutionary history that did not leave a fossil record. Yet, there are enough to show evolution.

Fossils are encased in rock. In 1945 geologists showed it was possible to determine the age of rocks and thus the age of the fossils in them. They also showed that sedimentary rocks are in layers with younger rocks over older ones.

The fossils we have clearly show species change over time and there are "missing link" fossils that show transitional forms between water and land animals, between reptiles and dinosaurs, and between dinosaurs and birds. Coyne explores several evolutionary paths.

The fossil record is clear. It shows gradual changes within lineages, splitting of lineages, and transitional forms. It also shows these changes are in the right order and the right place. Early bird fossils appear after dinosaur fossils and before modern bird fossils. The steps from land mammal to a whale in the sea can be traced and those steps appear in the fossil record in order. Fossils for early Australian marsupials are in Australia, not Europe. Fossils for early man are in Africa as are the fossils for other early primates. There have never been fossils out of order or in the wrong place.

Because evolution works from small mutations features of an ancestral species are remodeled into new features of the descendant species. The stout limbs of fish become legs of land animals. The middle ear bones of mammals are remodeled from the jawbones of reptiles. Bird wings are remodeled from forelegs of dinosaurs.

We can see some of that refashioning as we watch embryos develop. Very young human embryos look a lot like fish embryos (which is not the same as looking like fish). In many species various features begin to develop, then are reversed, such as hind legs in a dolphin embryo. Coyne traces the gill arches of a fish into the middle ear bones, thyroid bone and larynx, carotid artery, and neck muscles of a human.

If there was an intelligent designer why are there vestiges? A kiwi bird can't fly, so why would a designer bother giving it nubby, yet useless, wings? Why do whales have hip bones that aren't connected to any other bones? Many cave dwelling animals can't see – no need in the perpetual darkness – so why were they created with eyes that don't work?

If there was an intelligent designer why are there bad designs? In a human why does the nerve that connects the brain to the larynx travel down into the chest and loop around an aorta just off the heart? Why is a flatfish born with eyes on both sides of its head then one eye migrates over the skull until both eyes are side-by-side?

A reason why evolution leads to what we see as bad designs is that in natural selection each mutation must be an improvement (or make no difference) to what is already in the organism. A mutation cannot undo or be a redesign. The mutation cannot be a step back so that a better version can emerge later. This mutation must move the species forward. A mutation cannot be a benefit for another species. It must benefit the species which contains the mutation. Scientists haven't studied all situations in which one species apparently does something for the sole benefit of another species.

Evolution explains biogeography. Certain species occur in some places and not in others, even if the habitat is the same. Plants and animals in the desert of Arizona are different from those in the Sahara and both are different from the Australian Outback. That's because they evolved separately. Many fossils and species are similar in South America and in Africa because in (evolutionarily) recent times the two were part of one continent.

Islands that used to be parts of continents – Britain and Madagascar – have a broad range of species that are similar to the continents from which they separated. But oceanic islands – Hawaii and the Galapagos – do not have the full range of native species. These islands have the native plants, birds, and insects, all of which could travel over oceans (plant seeds usually traveling in bird guts). But oceanic islands do not have native land mammals, reptiles, amphibians, or freshwater fish. These could not cross the ocean. In addition, oceanic islands frequently have a wide variety of a small number of kinds of birds. The Galapagos are famous for their wide variety of finches, which Charles Darwin studied in his travels.

Coyne discusses natural selection as the engine of evolution. But that takes time, usually in time scales longer than a human life. But there are modern and fast examples. Natural selection takes too long? Let's look at artificial selection, otherwise known as animal and plant breeding. A big and well known examples of artificial selection is dog breeding. All 150 breeds – Chihuahua, Saint Bernard, greyhound, dachshund, retriever, and Pomeranian – as well as all the mutts descend from one ancestral species, likely some sort of wolf. All this variety happened in less than ten thousand years. Think of the diversity that could happen in millions of years.

Evolution has played a role in modern medicine. Antibiotics, introduced in the 1940s, were seen as the solution to infectious diseases. But an antibiotic usually doesn't kill off all of an infecting bacteria. The ones that survive are the ones a bit more resistant to the drug. When that happens enough times we end up with superbugs – diseases that can no longer be treated with known antibiotics. This is a major medical concern these days.

Coyne also includes a discussion of sex. Why does a peacock have such a showy tail and the peahen doesn't? The male invests little in bearing offspring, so spreads his genes best by having lots of mates. The female invests a great deal in bearing offspring, so spreads her genes best by being choosy in mates. She usually chooses the mate with the showiest tail (which can also be an indication of the health of the male). But there are limits. If the tail is too big it becomes a hindrance to living (too difficult to escape predators) and the male doesn't live long enough to reproduce.

Coyne discusses what is a species and how do we get new ones? A species is a group of organisms that can interbreed. Almost always a new species will develop when two groups of a species become geographically isolated (such as another island of the chain) and their genetics evolve in separate directions. Coyne cites a species of shrimp in the Pacific Ocean near Panama. It's closest genetic relative is a species of shrimp in the Atlantic Ocean. Before Panama rose out of the ocean there had been only one species.

The changes between species might only be in mating habits. Two organisms from either side of a divide might still produce fertile offspring. But they don't breed because they no longer see each other as potential mates and are thus separate species.

Many people say, well, evolution may be true for animals, but humans are different. Humans were created. So Coyne spends a chapter discussing the evolution of humans from primates. He documents some of the species of hominins (a more accurate term than hominid) that appeared in the last seven million years. Creationists will look at these fossils and draw a line, saying those are primate, these are human. That usually allows that there has been more than one species of human. But there is one problem – different creationist leaders draw that line in different places.

Coyne is well aware that most of the time when scientist discuss race it is usually to justify racism. Coyne notes there is much more variation within races than between races. Yes, there are visible differences between a Finn, a Japanese, a Masai, and a Navajo. These differences can be attributed to adaptation to different environments and to sexual selection and cultural preferences. He speculates that in evolutionary time races are way "too young to have evolved important differences in intellect and behavior."

Now back to the reason why Coyne wrote the book. Why are humans so resistant to believing that evolution is true? He can lay out all the evidence there is and some people still won't believe. Behind the shouting that evolution denies God there are two complaints, evolution denies purpose and it denies morals.

If belief in God supplies purpose and morals (and many believe that morals can only be supplied through belief in God), then denying God also negates the purpose and morals defined by God. But the scientific method isn't set up to define morals.

Don't our behaviors evolve along with our genetics? There is a field of evolutionary psychology and it does explain some features of human behavior. But a great deal of the field is unprovable speculation that is only a parlor game.

Genes are not behavioral destiny. Some of our behaviors likely did evolve with our genetics. But we are not "marionettes dancing to the strings of evolution." The world is full of immorality and injustice. It is also full of kindness and altruism. All these acts are a choice, not of genes.

Evolution may operate without a purpose. But that doesn't mean our lives are without purpose. We supply our own purpose, meaning, and morality.

Is evolution just a theory? Perhaps. But all of a great deal of evidence found so far supports it. And there hasn't been any evidence to refute it.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Because it worked

News from last Tuesday's election

Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, Tea Party darlings, were expelled by the Michigan House in September for bizarre scheme that included extortion to cover up adultery. Both ran for the seats they were just thrown out of. Gamrat got 9% of the vote in her district, Courser got 4% in his. Bye!

Jackie Biskupski, lesbian, beat out the incumbent the become mayor of – Salt Lake City. Derek Kitchen was a lead plaintiff in the case that challenged the same-sex marriage ban in Utah. They won in December 2013, though the ruling was stayed until the Supremes refused to hear the case 10 months later. Kitchen has now been elected to the Salk Lake City Council.

Matt Bevin, Republican, won the race for governor of Kentucky. He beat out one of our allies, AG Jack Conway who had refused to defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Bevin replaced another ally, Steve Beshear, who declared marriage licenses legal when Kim Davis tried to make them invalid. Bevin did it by linking the decline of coal in Kentucky to Obama and by being best buds with Davis. So, the first order of business for Bevin? Kynect was one of the more successful state exchanges created under Obama's Affordable Care Act. It brought health insurance to lots (millions?) of people in the state. Bevin says the state can't afford it. Sounds like a lot of other GOP governors. So, yeah, Bevin convinced the poor of the state (and it is poor people in coal country) to vote against their own medical and economic interests.

HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated by 61%. This was the local ordinance that would have given the nation's 4th largest city protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. It also specified how complaints were to be handled, which would be important even if there were state and national anti-discrimination laws (which there aren't).

The opposition to the bill was quite effective in rebranding the bill as allowing men to come into women's bathrooms and molest them. That is the only thing mentioned in their ads. Never mind that there is much more to the bill than transgender rights. Never mind that there are already laws to punish those who molest women. Never mind that there are no documented cases of men entering women's bathrooms to molest them. All irrelevant. The anti-gay crowd will continue to pursue the "bathroom panic" idea as more cities and states try to pass anti-discrimination laws to protect us, and they'll do it because it worked.

And until we figure out to combat that idea, it will work again and again.

On the way home from working at my Dad's house on Thursday evening I listened to On Point on Michigan Radio. The hour was a discussion of HERO's failure. I didn't listen to the whole thing because I became quite annoyed with guest Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (a name I'm sure is intentionally vague about its political goals). He kept pushing a "compromise" – make sure there are family or genderless bathrooms available for the transgender people. He refuses to see how demeaning that is. Besides, not every building has a genderless bathroom. The other two guests on the show did provide good background and insight. Part of what they (and other news sources) said is that those promoting HERO didn't address the one thing their opponents said, didn't talk about the economic benefits of the ordinance, brought in outsiders (Hillary, Sally Field) to give a limp endorsement in a city and state that doesn't like to be told what to do, and didn't put in the work of a grassroots campaign that reached into the black and Latino neighborhoods.

I mentioned a few reasons why the bathroom panic idea is not logical. Dan Savage has another. Because our opponents insist a transgender woman is a man in a dress, they're really talking about straight men. And apparently these straight men can't get enough images of women washing hands, in spite of the vast resources of the internet. "So the haters won yesterday by convincing a majority of voters in Houston that straight people suck."

I mentioned our opponents will use bathroom panic many more times. Yeah, there are lots of cities and states that want to pass LGBT protections, because Congress has no intention of doing it at the federal level any time soon. And bathroom panic will be used in each of these battles.

But, according the Jay Michaelson of The Daily Beast, the real battle will be the 227 city ordinances providing more protections for us than their state laws do. These are the blue dots in red states – Austin, Boise, Cincinnati, Key West, Laramie, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and so on. I could mention a few in Michigan: Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and about 30 others. This is where the bathroom panic will be used. Again and again. Until we figure out how to neutralize it.

There is hope. We figured out how to neutralize the nasty arguments around same-sex marriage and started winning in places like Maine and Minnesota.

After the defeat of HERO Texas Governor Greg Abbot (R) said "Voters in Houston showed values still matter..." That sent Melissa McEwan of Shakesville into writing a stirring rebuttal. "I have values too." Everybody has values. So enough about claiming that because you have values, yours are the only ones that exist. Better to look at the quality of those values.

Here's some of McEwen's values: Safety of queer and trans people. Equality and justice for marginalized people. Separation of church and state. Science being taught in schools. Universal healthcare. A robust social safety net. And a faith in humankind, even if that faith is frequently not borne out.

As for that last one McEwen notes that many religious people have a faith in God, but not in humans. When that is the case they want to legislate morality because they don't have faith that people will make good decisions – they don't even have faith in themselves.

So enough of this talk of values – which is usually a cloak for bigotry.

I'm now getting a bit beyond the original idea of this post. But McEwen linked to one of her posts from 2011 and that has some interesting and related ideas. This was written after a GOP debate leading up to the 2012 election. In that debate Newt Gingrich (remember him?) explicitly linked moral judgment with faith in God.

McEwen soundly rejects that idea and uses her own life journey as an example. Her big complaint with her former religion is that it was very good in teaching her how to believe in God. But it told her nothing good about how to relate to other humans. And taught her lots of things she now sees as bad.

Her religion had taught her to categorize people – sinners, saints – us, them. It talked about loving one another, but didn't talk about how to recover when she had hurt someone. It said God's forgiveness was enough, but didn't teach how to be reconciled to someone else.

Things she learned after giving up religion: how to apologize, accept criticism, make amends, examine privilege, and avoid being judgmental. To have compassion and create connection. She's definitely a values voter.

Monday, November 2, 2015


After I go to a movie theater I usually look up the film I just saw through (Internet Movie Data Base). So after watching The Martian I did just that. For each movie there might be pages for memorable quotes from the movie (or at least what imdb participants think are memorable), trivia, crazy credits (unusual things that go on during the closing credits or mentioned in the credits), and goofs.

The goofs page lists everything eagle-eye viewers catch, such as being able to see the camera in the faceplate of the environmental suit or airplane contrails in the sky over Mars. There are also continuity errors (a well known one from another unnamed movie – we see a man with the top two buttons of his shirt are open, a moment later the shirt is buttoned to the top, a moment after that the top two are open again), factual errors, and plot holes.

I find this list fascinating, partly because I rarely spot the problem when I'm watching the movie.

Alas, The Martian had 32 goofs, a couple of them rather major. The first one is a factual error. During the movie one of the airlocks malfunctions and rips away from the habitat. We see our hero secure a sheet of plastic over the opening to the habitat and strengthen it with duct tape. The plastic then flutters in the breeze. But that will never work, the air pressure difference between the interior of the habitat (where our hero takes his helmet off) and the Martian atmosphere is too huge. A plastic sheet like this would pop immediately. And even if it did hold Martian air isn't strong enough to make it flutter.

This particular incident was handled correctly in the book. A seam in the habitat itself blew and our hero carefully cut away part of the hab material from one area (making the hab smaller) to fill and thoroughly seal the hole.

As for the other big error, a hole in the plot... Many scenarios of missions to Mars send an unoccupied return rocket ahead of the crew. While waiting for the crew to arrive it can do various extraction operations to create fuel for the return to earth. The mission shown in the movie is the third. The return rocket for the fourth mission is already on Mars though quite a ways from the site of the third mission. It is this rocket that our hero uses to leave Mars. But the movie begins with a strong dust storm. Our hero is stranded when the rest of the team is in a hurry to launch the return rocket. The hurry is because the wind is about to tip the rocket over, which would strand the entire crew.

So why didn't the fourth return rocket not tip over? Surely, there were storms with strong winds there as well.

As I said in the earlier post, this storm is in the book and the author already admitted the thin atmosphere could not cause the rocket to tip over, no matter how fast its winds.

Even so, I still recommend the movie.