Thursday, February 27, 2014

What does the Arizona veto mean?

As you almost certainly know by now, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, the now-notorious bill that would have offered a defense to businesses that refused to serve people if serving them would have violated the business owner's sincerely held religious beliefs. Critics portrayed the bill as giving governmental cover to religious bigotry, particularly against gays: legislators made no secret of the fact that the bill was inspired (if that's the word) by a lawsuit filed against a baker in New Mexico who refused to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple's marriage ceremony.

An insightful AP article by Bog Christie describes Gov. Brewer's meetings with interested parties prior to deciding what to do with SB 1062. The insight that caught my eye was:

Lawyers from across the political spectrum say much of the opponents' arguments that the bill opens the door to discrimination are overblown, but that has not eased the pressure on Brewer to act decisively.
I hadn't heard that business of opponents' fears being overblown, so I looked up the bill's text. (I've linked to what the Arizona legislature calls the "Senate Engrossed Version", which is different from — and to my untrained eye, slightly clearer than — what the legislature calls the introduced version.) Here's how state law would have read if the bill had been signed into law (you can find the exact changes in the online versions to which I linked):
41-1493.01. Free exercise of religion protected; definition

A. Free exercise of religion is a fundamental right that applies in this state even if laws, rules or other government actions are facially neutral.

B. Except as provided in subsection C of this section, state action shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

C. State action may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the government or nongovernmental person seeking the enforcement of state action demonstrates that application of the burden to the person's exercise of religion in this particular instance is both:

1. In furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.

2. The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

D. A person whose religious exercise is burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.

E. A person that asserts a violation of this section must establish all of the following:

1. That the person's action or refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief.

2. That the person's religious belief is sincerely held.

3. That the state action substantially burdens the exercise of the person's religious beliefs.

F. The person asserting a claim or defense under subsection D of this section may obtain injunctive and declaratory relief. A party who prevails in any action to enforce this article against a government shall recover attorney fees and costs.

G. For the purposes of this section, the term substantially burden is intended solely to ensure that this article is not triggered by trivial, technical or de minimis infractions.

H. For the purposes of this section, "state action" means any action, except for the requirements prescribed by section 41-1493.04, by the government or the implementation or application of any law, including state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, and whether the implementation or application is made by the government or nongovernmental persons.

One big change would have been the term "state action", which would have replaced the term "government" and which would have described a broader range of activities and actors. The biggest change, though, would have been Section E, which, along with Sections F and H, were new. And undoubtedly the thorniest part of E would have been part 2. How would you establish "sincere belief"? As far as I can tell, the bill's authors said nothing to guide implementation of the would-be law on that score. That seems problematic, to put it mildly. How are you supposed to judge sincerity? (The Great Pumpkin apparently can, but the Great Pumpkin is fictional.)

The less heralded but no less consequential change the bill would have made would have been to the definitions of "exercise of religion" and, you might be surprised to learn, "person". (I haven't quoted these definitions here but they're available at the aforementioned links.)

"Exercise of religion" would have been expanded to include "the practice or observance of religion". I don't understand the implication of this change since the existing definition seems quite broad and the proposed change looks superfluous; however, legislators don't word-smith for the fun of it so I assume I'm missing an important detail here.

The revised definition of "person" would have been quite drastic, understandable since it would have been central to the bill's purpose. Currently "person" is defined as

a religious assembly or institution
but the revised definition would have been
any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.
If you've been paying attention to the challenge to the Affordable Care Act by Hobby Lobby, et al., you may have noticed the relevance of the revised definition of "person". Hobby Lobby, a privately-owned for-profit business, would have been covered by SB 1062. It wouldn't have helped Hobby Lobby vis-a-vis federal law, but as has often been observed, the states are where legislative experimentation is supposed to take place.

I think Republicans at the state level are floating bills like SB 1062 as trial balloons that can serve as model legislation for Congress. They're trying to work out the bugs in their legal language in the fifty states so they'll have solid, unchallengeable wordings by the time they recapture the Senate and with it, Congress (the House is likely to stay Republican for a while).

What far-right conservatives have discovered (not just in Arizona, but across the country) is that the concept they're pushing — expanded "religious freedom" — is all too easily painted as bigotry. They may see Gov. Brewer's veto as further proof that the devout are in need of protection from persecution, protection very much in the spirit of SB 1062.

Another thing far-right conservatives will have discovered is that money speaks louder than morality. The bill's future seemed bright before its critics started reminding business leaders of prior retrograde Arizona laws that led would-be visitors, including the NFL (for a Super Bowl, no less), to avoid the state. Cancellations and boycotts cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars and I'm convinced the very real threat that things could be worse this time around was the key factor in Brewer's veto.

Must business be a foe of more robust defenses for religious freedom? Only if the far right's legislative agenda continues to draw so much negative attention. It's theoretically possible for a legislature to pass controversial bills in the dead of night, figuratively speaking, but in this day and age it's unlikely that such a sweeping change as SB 1062 could be hidden. Even so, other states may not rely so much on tourist and convention dollars and their business community may be less inclined to take sides.

Still, even the neutrality of business interests hasn't been enough to salvage bills similar to Arizona's in other states. In most, maybe all, of them, the legislature itself killed the bill before it could be voted on. That, I think, is a reflection of how successfully "greater religious freedom" has been portrayed as a flimsy excuse for discrimination.

Having said all that, opponents of SB 1062 and its ilk shouldn't gloat too much over the fates of the proposed legislation so far. The modern age is moving too quickly for a substantial minority of people and their response — fundamentalism — means that the tug-of-war between greater acceptance of non-heterosexuals and a restoration of older morĂ©s will continue.

[EDIT: reworded summary of SB 1062's effects in first paragraph because the original wording was awful.]

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reich on target

Unsurprisingly, economist Robert Reich understands exactly what's wrong with our no-holds-barred, ever more efficiently-seeking-the-bottom-line economy.
Productivity keeps growing, as do corporate profits. But jobs and wages are not growing. Unless we figure out how to bring all of them back into line – or spread the gains more widely – our economy cannot generate enough demand to sustain itself, and our society cannot maintain enough cohesion to keep us together.
Unfettered capitalism is not going to be our society's savior, people. It is a blind mechanism for building wealth, but wealth alone isn't what makes a society strong. That wealth has to sustain people.

We have the wealth. What we don't have is an agreement on how that wealth should sustain people.

At some point the well-off have to understand that while they aren't responsible for giving us food and shelter, they share the country with us. If they don't want forced redistribution, they'd better help to figure out a way to make this economy work for everyone, not just themselves.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What is it about this album?

David Rice's "You ruined Neutral Milk Hotel: Nostalgia, millennials and the return of Jeff Mangum" in Salon is about whether his onetime boiling-hot obsession with Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can survive seeing NMH's guiding spirit, Jeff Mangum, live in concert.
More so than anything else I can point to, the album holds the power of genuine mythology. It’s not just mythic in scope, theme and reputation; it feels like a body of mythic experience, animated by some original energy from before the Common Era. Whoever or whatever authored the album feels as remote in time and space as the Big Bang, and as omnipresent.
I, too, was captivated by this album when I first heard it in 1998. Yet to this day, I can't quite figure out why. Rice's explanation doesn't cut it for me, as it seems to be more about the lyrics than the music itself. The words wash over me, comprehensible (Mangum is the farthest thing from a mumbler one can imagine) yet not really delivering a message that my mind registers.

If it's purely the sound, what is it about the sound? Am I a huge horn slut (the brass is quite prominent)? Is the musical saw the equivalent of heroin? Some of the songs, like "Holland, 1945", give me the same pleasure as Phil Spector's "wall of sound" production; that could be a factor.

I don't get why this album gets under other people's skins, either. I don't go out of my way to bring this album up in conversation, but it seems like whenever I do (among musicphiles, anyway), the other person has heard it. Not just heard of it, but heard it. And the loves/not-loves ratio is high.

There hasn't been a Neutral Milk Hotel album since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Maybe that's because Mangum doesn't quite know why it works, either.

Human feeling

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) has a primary challenger, Dr. Milton Wolf, a radiologist.

Dr. Wolf "posted a collection of gruesome X-ray images of gunshot fatalities and medical injuries to his Facebook page and participated in online commentary layered with macabre jokes and descriptions of carnage", according to an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Wolf defended the postings as legal (the patients were not identified) and added that they served an educational purpose. He also suggested that they served a moral purpose; according to the article, "They also served, he said, to demonstrate evil lurking in the world."

You're supposed to get the permission of next of kin before you publish such images. I can see the families giving permission for an academic publication, but did Wolf really get permission to post the images on FB and compare them to Terminator 2 scenes?

Now, to be clear, the writer of this article, Tim Carpenter, seems to have been less than objective in this piece. Dr. Wolf comes off as a callous douchebag at best.

On the other hand, maybe that's because he is one. A callous douchebag devoid of human feeling.

He seems to have followed the letter of the law: at least, there's no evidence to the contrary, although I hope Kansas's medical licensing authorities are looking into this matter. He and his defenders (who pop up in the article's comments area) are also correct that such images can serve an educational purpose.

But doesn't context count for anything?

Don't courtesy and social niceties count?

There's a big difference between making jokes about corpses among your colleagues, and doing it within earshot of total strangers. The defenders of Wolf don't get that. They, too, seem devoid of human feeling.

Wolf may have adhered to the letter of the law, but that doesn't mean he's not a raging asshole. He seems completely indifferent to medical ethics and appears to have a low regard for patients, or he would never have contemplated making jokes about the X-rays. (He wasn't joking about people who hurt themselves doing something stupid, for crying out loud, he was joking about gunshot victims who died.)

Raging assholes are not unknown in politics, even in the U.S. Senate, but is a raging asshole who Kansans want representing them?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Links before I sleep, 2014/02/15

Some thought-provoking pieces I don't have time or energy to give their full due, but which are definitely worth passing along:
  • "Beyond Belief", by Chris Lehmann — a review of a couple of new books that document "conservative religious thinkers and their intellectual crusades". The review itself is absolutely fascinating for those who, like me, aren't well-versed in this history. The books themselves sound quite interesting, too.
  • "What Is NASA for?" by Charles Seife — this essay neatly encapsulates why NASA lost its way after we reached the Moon. It's not all the agency's fault, but that doesn't mean it's not the agency's problem to fix.
  • "Silence Inc." by David H. Gans — or, as the page header puts it, "Hobby Lobby contraception mandate challenge: Why have corporations refused to take its side?" Most of corporate America, it turns out, is extremely wary of the idea of corporations being granted First Amendment freedom of worship, and this piece explains why. (Back in December I explained at some length why I think extending such a First Amendment right to corporations is such a terrible idea, and why it's a mere side effect of the even worse idea of treating corporations as people.)
  • "Answers for Creationists" by Phil Plait — a kind of FAQ with which to refute some of creationists' allegedly most trenchant questions. I love having a handy reference to such information. Bookmark it for yourselves and let's beat back the nonsense spouted by the uninformed.
  • "God vs. the Government" by Dahlia Lithwick — this is about the legal challenge by the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns, against the Affordable Care Act's mandate for compliant insurance plans to cover contraception. Many people who have only glossed the headlines (I sheepishly raise my hand) think this is an absurd flap over whether the nuns should have to sign a form. That's not what it means to the nuns, according to their lawyers. It's a far thornier problem for them, one that touches at the heart of what it means to have freedom of conscience and how far one can take freedom of worship. Even if you disagree with them, it's worth pondering their argument.
  • "Homophobia Is a Real Fear ... but of What, Exactly?" by Zach Howe — this is a piece that really opened my eyes, and I'm embarrassed I had not seen its truth for myself. I and many others assumed homophobia stems from a fear of being assaulted by homosexuals (or, cynically, that it stems from a fear that you're homosexual yourself). Howe more than plausibly argues that homophobia is a completely rational response to a totally messed-up standard for male behavior.
  • "What Americans Don't Know About Science" by Eleanor Barkhorn — I don't normally mention pieces like this because, well, what they say is so bloody obvious if you've been conscious for any part of the last thirty years. However, this one mentions how a little tweak changes the results for a couple of the poll questions that provide the fodder for the article. What that tweak says about us Americans is something of a mixed blessing. Not as many of us as I feared are ignorant of what the scientific community thinks, but a great many more of us than I hoped don't care what the scientific community thinks about matters which the scientific community is better informed on than the rest of us. In short, a lot of us believe what we want to believe, not what the best evidence tells us. That, my friends, should make you nervous: it doesn't bode well for the policy decisions we might make as a nation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Landing at the wrong airport

Mistaking one airport for another is more common than we (or at least I) thought. This happens mostly in areas where there are multiple airports in proximity, such as the San Francisco Bay Area's South Bay where Moffett Field and Mineta San Jose International are separated by only ten miles. (Huge kudos to the Associated Press for doing the investigative journalism behind this story.)
In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to guide the plane based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn't match what they were seeing out their windows — a runway straight ahead.
My first instinct was to fault the pilots for not heeding their instruments, but then I considered how untrustworthy GPS devices have proven in my own wanderings. Most of the time they work well, but occasionally they seem to lose their electronic minds; it seems possible the same problem might apply even to presumably more sophisticated jet navigation systems.

I'm not thrilled by the idea of making pilots even more dependent on instruments. Anyway, it seems to me that airports could deploy a lower-tech solution: a big, bright sign that displays a visual cue unique to the airport and the approaching flight. It could be a colored symbol, e.g., a green asterisk, although colors could be problematic for the color-blind (are pilots allowed to be color-blind?). Or it could be as simple as the flight number, though there might be safety concerns about flashing the number of the approaching flight to everyone in visual range of the airport. Whatever the cue, it should be both unique and easy for the pilot to check; this leaves out one of the computer scientist's favorite solutions, a random string of symbols, since that would be difficult to verify quickly. Ideally, the symbol would not be difficult to describe, either, given the language issues that surround international flights.

The protocol would be for the pilot and the flight controller to agree on the visual signifier, and for the pilot to confirm the signifier is being displayed next to the runway. Geographically proximate airports would coordinate so that they didn't share visual cues.

Air traffic controllers already have a lot to do and requiring them to coordinate a unique landing cue for each aircraft might be more than they can handle. However, that doesn't seem to me an insuperable problem: I imagine that controllers' landing procedures can be altered so as to free them up enough to carry out this additional task, possibly by shrinking their areas of responsibility and adding more controllers. It seems to me that the possible danger of landing at the wrong airport — one where the runway was undergoing maintenance, for instance — justifies the cost and inconvenience to airports, air traffic controllers and flight crews.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Think about your site design

Okay, I admit that I have a ludicrously underpowered system (memorywise) and use a browser that swells up like a pufferfish over time (Firefox, itself a refuge from the even sorrier memory pig that is Safari).

Even so, some of you site designers out there have some 'splainin' to do.

WTF, Talking Points Memo and Salon? Why is it that whenever I load multiple articles from your sites my system goes from middle-aged to arthritic? Why does system swap suddenly balloon like a cartoon mosquito that hit an artery? Why is some frakking script from adnxs.com always busy and unresponsive?

And in particular, TPM, why in the name of Christ are you still running your site on Flash?

I can leave my browser window open all day and night on the New York Times home page and return to a fully responsive browser. I can read dozens of articles from that site without bringing my browser to its knees.

Why does an old media site have a more responsive and less burdensome Web site than you guys on the allegedly new media side of things?

What the hell are some of you site designers doing?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Adios, Jay

In the modern myth of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson went out with grace and aplomb and at a time of his own choosing. The sainted Carson is still the man to beat, in Leno's mind. So if Johnny went out on his own terms, then that's what Leno wants, too.

The modern myth is probably wrong. I've heard Carson wasn't thrilled about giving up the show; it was just the least bad option open to him. (That he wasn't entirely ready to drop tools was evident in his occasional post-retirement feeding of jokes to Letterman.)

Whatever the truth, Carson was beloved because he wore his crown as king of late night lightly. When he played power games, they were low-profile and he didn't drag the audience into them.

Leno has never seemed to accept that he isn't Carson, nor that the late-night landscape has changed drastically since Carson's heyday. Leno seemed to resent being treated the way most entertainers are treated by the bean counters, i.e., shabbily. He wanted to be special, like Carson was (in Leno's mind, anyway).

When Leno felt disrespected, he did not play the good soldier: he needled NBC executives in the monologue and groused about them in interviews. Whether he was right about them was irrelevant. Going after them hurt him, not them, by laying bare his neediness.

It's baffling that nobody in Leno's inner circle seemed to be able to explain this simple truth to him: if you want to be loved, don't look petty. You take the high road and suffer your indignities in silence.

Ah, well ... live and learn, Jay.

Leno might be offered a second (or would it be a third?) shot at late night, maybe by Fox. He would be mistaken to take it, though. If he has any self-respect, he'll make his retirement from that arena stick this time.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Understanding fundamentalism's true nature

Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore's piece in Salon, "New Atheism's big mistake: Debating creationists solves nothing", is a fine, relatively short explanation of why, among other things, rationalists like Bill Nye shouldn't waste their time "debating" creationists, as Nye will on 4 Feb. Any debate involving creationism is taking place in the wrong context. It's a fight on the terrain fundamentalists have chosen.

The problem is the enduring streak of anti-intellectualism in American life, one that has been with us since the arrival of the first settlers from England. It's rooted in the very nature of Protestantism.

Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.
Attitudinally, then, Protestants of all stripes are predisposed to mistrust authority. Science has emerged as a domain dominated by authority figures, since the vast majority of us do not have the knowledge to understand for ourselves what they do. If your instinct is not to trust the bishop who assures you he knows what's good for you, it's not that great a leap to bring the same skepticism to a climatologist or a paleontologist or even your family doctor.

But mistaken beliefs tend to die out over time (literally, in the case of vaccination deniers). The reason American anti-intellectualism is so tenacious is that it's backed by a visceral fear.

In “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” George Marsden describes fundamentalism as “essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life.” The American Protestant response to the Industrial Revolution was engendered by the fear that a small cabal of experts would dictate to Americans how to live their lives and that science would somehow replace their religion.
Opportunists long ago figured out how to stoke that fear and harness it for their own purposes. In doing so, they perverted the Bible, counting on their followers not to catch them at it. (It undoubtedly helps that the Bible is not internally consistent: seek and ye shall find a verse that supports your view.) To take but one example, it's obvious that denying climate change and urging us to maintain our current fuel infrastructure hugely benefits fossil-fuel companies.
The religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution is not informed by their religious beliefs. Rather, these political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon. But to respond by using science as a weapon is equally problematic.
As McElwee and Salvatore argue, you can't take on the end results of this anti-intellectual attitude and expect to make a difference. You must
... confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly.
By attacking religion, as McElwee and Salvatore seem to think Nye will do in his debate, Nye will simply be hardening the battle lines and not advancing the national conversation. I've never thought of Nye as a polarizing ideologue like Dawkins, but if they're right then the debate really will be pointless. In any case, the article is well worth your time. It can only help all of us to understand the reasons fundamentalism thrives, for only thus can we understand how to change the human condition such that fundamentalism no longer has mass appeal.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Darth Vader on The Big Bang Theory

I'm a late convert to The Big Bang Theory and I'm still not caught up, so I only watch reruns on TBS. The preview for this week's new episode, though, did exactly what it was supposed to do. James Earl Jones on a Ferris wheel with Sheldon? Really? In spite of being a year and a half behind, I couldn't pass that up.

Jones plays an uninhibited version of himself. As I had occasion to discover a number of years ago during the brief run of his starring turn in Gabriel's Fire, he has a decent comic instinct. The BBT episode, though, went far beyond any funny business he did in that earlier show. He turned into the world's biggest kid in the course of the story, and although I generally dislike the adult-as-big-kid trope, his glee was too delightfully infectious to resist.

The episode is evidence that the show hasn't entirely lost its way. When Bernadette, and even more so Amy, came on board, the show changed direction to focus on their relationships with their respective boyfriends. The characters are all quirky and unique but relationship humor isn't, and my interest quickly waned when that became the center of the writing. The James Earl Jones episode finds the characters' relationships stable enough that they can talk about other things instead. It's a relief. May their geek flags fly freely once more.