"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Still Unclear About The Concept

 In this case, probably not....
“This morning’s hearings back up what we’ve been saying all along: that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia Trump campaign collusion, that the President never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing, and that even Obama’s CIA Director believes the leaks of classified information are ‘appalling’ and the culprits must be ‘tracked down,’” the statement read. That statement was attributable to an unnamed “White House spokesman.”

So when the President says it, it's classified; unless the President says it and declassifies it by saying it to people who shouldn't hear classified information.  When somebody says it to the press anonymously it's a criminal act because it's releasing classified information (which is classified because the President said it), unless the anonymous person is not leaking "classified information."

And when is it not classified information?  Sorry, that's classified.  The President said so.

Oh, and sorry, but that's not at all what Brennan said.  What he said was the White House is too stupid to know it's being led by the nose:

As a young analyst, I wouldn’t have had direct interaction with Andropov. But I have studied Russian intelligence activities over the years and I’ve seen it manifest in many different of our counterintelligence cases and how they have been able to get people, including inside the CIA, to become treasonous. And frequently, individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late. And that’s why, again, my radar goes up early when I see certain things that I know what the Russians are trying to do, and I don’t know whether or not the targets of their efforts are as mindful of the Russian intentions as they need to be. 

And really, babbling to the Russians in the Oval Office was not good:

“Such intelligence, classified intelligence is not shared with visiting foreign ministers or local ambassadors, it’s shared through intelligence channels because it needs to be handled the right way and needs to make sure it’s not exposed,” he said. “He didn’t do that, again if the press charges are accurate.”

“Secondly,” Brennan continued, “before sharing any classified intelligence with foreign partners, it needs to go back to the originating agency to make sure that the language in it is not—even just providing the substance—going to reveal sources or methods and compromise the future collection capability. It appears as though, at least from the press reports, that neither did it go in the proper channels nor did the originating agency have the opportunity to clear language for it. That is a problem.”

But, you know, the real problem is anonymous leaks from the White House;  well, SOME anonymous leaks!

The Conceptual Hoax and its Adherents

CUNY slaps Harvard and Oxford!

Been waiting a while for somebody to actually say this:

As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance. That is partly why, as a general rule, if one wants to criticize a topic X, one should at the very least know enough about X to convince true experts in the relevant field that one is competent about X. This gets at what Brian Caplan calls the “ideological Turing test.” If you can’t pass this test, there’s a good chance you don’t know enough about the topic to offer a serious, one might even say cogent, critique.
But here's the funny part:  it's part of an article about the "Conceptual Penis" hoax, and that hoax apparently caught a number of "luminaries":

As the historian Angus Johnston put it on Twitter, “If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true. It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views.” The quick, almost reflexive reposting of this “hoax” by people like Dave Rubin, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers and Melissa Chen reveals a marked lack of critical thinking about what exactly this exercise in attempted bullying proves.

The links to Twitter there are mine.  Nothing says "high quality peer-reviewed" quite like Twitter, eh?  Such is the state of public intellectuals in America, where people gleefully engage in mocking postmodern theories and anything else they don't begin to understand.  Trump is a useful metaphor here:  after all, if he doesn't understand it, it must not be important, right?  Well, maybe not.  As for the three horseman of the dumbocalypse (credit me, please!), what they understand about Continental philosophy (the roots of postmodern theory) would fill a thimble, yet that makes them experts on the topic.  Their praise of this hoax indicates only that they, themselves, were hoaxed.

The story here, if you haven't heard, is that Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay wrote an article meant to parody gender studies, then found a journal to publish it.  Far from being a "high-quality peer reviewed" journal, as Pinker claims (and the authors themselves claim), they got published in a vanity publication, one where the authors pay to be published.  The authors claim they didn't pay to get their article published, but that doesn't raise the standards of the journal to something reputable or "peer-reviewed."  And then, to really twist the knife:

If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society. 

Which description certainly applies to Dawkins, Harris, and Pinker.

The fact is, reasoning is hard, and the basis of reasoning, of logical analysis, of critical thought (and not just "skepticism") is discerning what is true from what you want to be true.  Even religious belief is subject to skepticism, as the believer tries to divine what is from the deity v. what is from his/her own heart.  As the God of Abraham notably puts it to Jeremiah:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

The "test" there is not reasonableness, but outcome.  It is a concept separate from critique, but not alien to it.  It relates to the question of certainty, of knowing what is right.  It is a problem we've known about since the "Bronze Age," as so many children on the internet like to call the age of the Hebrew Scriptures (and of Plato and Aristotle, who somehow escape condemnation for that), and yet we're still re-inventing that wheel and re-discovering that fire.  Or at least still discovering it's validity in what passes for intellectual discourse in social media.  Who needs to even pay for an article to be published when you can put your opinion on Twitter for free?

Some of these "public intellectuals" just prove the old adage that you can't shame a whore.

Or, to quote a review I found via Thought Criminal (and it will need a bit of context, but read it first):

Instead, The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past. It’s no accident, I think, that The Swerve’s imagined Middle Ages bears a strong resemblance to America’s present era of superstitious know-nothing-ism. Or that Lucretius’s secular, principled-pleasure-minded values bear an equally strong resemblance to the values of Greenblatt’s cultural peers — including, presumably, the jurors who awarded him two national literary prizes. The Swerve presents itself as a work of literary history. But really it is a salvo in the culture wars; an effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society.
The Swerve is the book under review.   The thesis of the book rests on a badly imagined version of the so-called "Middle Ages," that period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (and named by the Renaissance, which also got to name itself.  How fortunate!).  It's the last sentence that's the key:  the "effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society."  Which always rests on ignorance and know-nothing-ism, which is not a condition limited to those you disagree with.  Whenever you set your sights on your preferred conclusion and then go seeking evidence to support it, you're going to find such evidence, whether it's there or not.  Again, the metaphor of Donald Trump and most fact-finding by politicians is instructive.

We can expect better of our public intellectuals, even if we can't often get it.

Compare and Contrast

How the Queen responded to the Manchester bombing:

The whole nation has been shocked by the death and injury in Manchester last night of so many people, adults and children, who had just been enjoying a concert.

I know I speak for everyone in expressing my deepest sympathy to all who have been affected by this dreadful event and especially to the families and friends of those who have died or were injured.

I want to thank all the members of the emergency services, who have responded with such professionalism and care.

And I would like to express my admiration for the way the people of Manchester have responded, with humanity and compassion, to this act of barbarity.

Elizabeth R.
Prime Minister Teresa May's statement:

"I have just chaired a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra where we discussed the details of and the response to the appalling events in Manchester last night.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the families and friends of all those affected.

"It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation.

"This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom and although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worse ever to hit the north of England.

“The police and security services are working at speed to establish the complete picture but I want to tell you what I can at this stage.

“At 10.33pm last night the police were called to reports of an explosion at Manchester arena in Manchester city centre near Victoria train station.

“We now know that a single terrorist detonated his improvised explosive device near one of the exits of the venue, deliberately choosing the time and place to cause maximum carnage and to kill and injure indiscriminately.

“The explosion coincided with the conclusion of a pop concert which was attended by many young families and groups of children.

“All acts of terrorism are cowardly attacks on innocent people but this attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice, deliberately targeting innocent, defenceless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives.

“As things stand I can tell you that in addition to the attacker 22 people have died and 59 people have been injured.

“Those who were injured are being treated in eight different hospitals across Greater Manchester, many are being treated for life threatening conditions and we know that among those killed and injured were many children and young people.

“We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but as an opportunity for carnage.

“But we can continue to resolve to thwart such attacks in future, to take on and defeat the ideology that often fuels this violence and if there turn out to be others responsible for this attack to seek them out and bring them to justice.

“The police and security services believe that the attack was carried out by one man but they now need to know whether he was acting alone or as part of a wider group.

“It will take some time to establish these facts and the investigation will continue.

“The police and security services will be given all the resources they need to complete that task.

“The police and security services believe they know the identity of the perpetrator but at this stage of their investigations we cannot confirm his name.

What the American head of State and leader of the government had to say:

“I extend my deepest condolences to those so terribly injured in this terrorist attack and to the many killed and the families – so many families of the victims,” he said, describing his emotions on this “horrible morning of death”.

“We stand in absolute solidarity with the people of the United Kingdom,” Trump said. “So many young beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life.

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers, because that’s what they are. They are losers. And we will have more of them. But they are losers, just remember that.

“Our society can have no tolerance for this continuation of bloodshed, we cannot stand a moment longer for the slaughter of innocent people. And in today’s attack it was mostly innocent children. The terrorists and extremists and those who give them aid and comfort must be driven out from our society for ever.

“This wicked ideology must be obliterated – and I mean completely obliterated – and the innocent life must be protected. All civilised nations must join together to protect human life and the sacred right our citizens to live in safety and in peace.”
About which I would merely refer you to the comments of Jason Easley.  Two people who understand the gravity of the problem, and one person who wants to throw kerosene on the fire.  ISIS's man on our side, in other words.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Two Corinthians walk into a bar....

Except in the Texas Lege, where God is notoriously ineffective at doing the bidding of Dan Patrick....

First, this is a remarkably dumb law* that will protect no one and is wholly unenforceable:

 Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law legislation shielding pastors' sermons from government subpoena power.
Authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, SB 24 says a government cannot "compel the production or disclosure of a written copy or audio or video recording of a sermon delivered by a religious leader during religious worship ... or compel the religious leader to testify regarding the sermon." It went into effect immediately when it was formally signed by Abbott on Friday in Austin.
Which is why it was passed into law and became effective immediately, rather than in September, as most Texas laws do.  But this is the part that sets the place where Abbott held his ceremony (the actual bill was signed Friday) on Saturday:

 “Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield," Abbott said, invoking Bible verse as he addressed the 11 a.m. service at Grace Church. "You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches."

That language puts Abbott firmly in the Donald Trump Christian Camp.  It's no accident Abbott chose a "community church" for his spectacle, or that they agreed to it, or that he got away with language that a good Southern Baptist preacher would tell him was idolatrous.  When you take Biblical sounding phrases and replace anything, but especially the law, with "God," you have created an idol of the law (or whatever you substitute).  The Lovely Wife was listening to the preacher of the biggest Baptist Church in town on Sunday morning, as she flipped channels.  He preached on Moses and the need to be centered on God, not on what you want (Moses was quite reluctant to lead Israel out of Egypt, at least at first).  She then caught Joel Osteen, whose message was all about how interested God was in you and what you wanted.

A stark contrast, in other words, between a preacher of Scriptures, and a preacher of what-you-want-to-hear.  I may have my disagreements with the Baptists, but I disagree more basically and profoundly with non-denominational churches that preach a sort of American creed of the supremacy of what they want.

A subpoena of a sermon is not, of course, prying "into what your doing here in your churches."  Sermons are public speeches.  Many of the pastors affected by the subpoena effort in Houston were:  a) parties to the lawsuit, and b) broadcast their sermons as far and wide as possible.  Asking for a transcript is not exactly interfering with your right to worship.  But now Texas law will protect those churches, because apparently God can't be bothered with such things.

*the then Mayor of Houston didn't want the sermons subjected to subpoena; she knew the political shitstorm it would stir.  Unfortunately, the City was represented by outside counsel in the suit, and they were politically tone-deaf.  Note, also, this law only applies to state governments, and the next time government at any level in Texas wants to subpoena sermons, hell will be freezing over.  Private parties, of course, can subpoena away in the context of a lawsuit.  But who ever sues churches?

Thick as a Brick, Chapter 2:

But you just did; not to Russians, but to the world.

The White House keeps complaining about "leaks" and there's talk about putting leakers in handcuffs.  But this is one case where, if the President does it, it's legal.

Because being stupid is not a criminal act.

Thick as a Brick

"Really don't mind if you sit this one out
My words but a whisper
your deafness a SHOUT!"

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do....

Lite Guv. Dan Patrick wanted to pass a "bathroom bill" a la North Carolina's, because of bathroom predators and bathroom privacy and reasons.

The "predators" idea is what sank the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance ("HERO"), something that gained national attention for Houston (o boy!) and which Patrick was deeply familiar with, he being from Houston and all.

Now you have to realize the Texas Constitution doesn't give power to any one person.  The Governor and the Lt. Gov. are elected separately, and while the latter presides in the Texas Senate and the former is the only person who can call special sessions and decide precisely what the special session will try to pass (and once passed, the session is over; no hanging about passing any other laws not put on the agenda by the Guv.), that's about as powerful as the offices are.  It's largely a matter of political clout as to how much you can do in either position.  Bob Bullock was a legendary Texas pol who knew where ALL the bodies were buried in Texas, and he ran the state as Lt. Guv.  He even got a Texas history museum named after him in Austin.  Former Gov. Dolph Briscoe has his name attached to a museum on UT campus in Austin, but that's because he was rich and left a lot of money for it.  Everybody still remembers the long shadow Bullock cast; Briscoe is a phantom of some very long memories (like your host's).

So Dan Patrick was determined to "North Carolina" Texas.  Except Texas business interests didn't want to see that happen, and Joe Strauss, Speaker of the Texas House, listens to the bidness men.  Patrick's bill passed the Senate, but never had a prayer in the House.

Texas has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the country:  six months every two years.  Anything outside of that is a "special session," called by the governor, limited to what the governor puts on the agenda.  The Governor is not anxious to put Patrick's "bathroom bill" on the agenda; but he's not anxious to cross the crazies Patrick and the Texas Senate represent.  Strauss doesn't care; he's not letting Texas become the next North Carolina.  Patrick decide to flex his muscles and demand that bill (and a few others) get to the House floor, or he wouldn't pass the state budget, the only law the Lege has to pass in regular session (or come back immediately in special session).

Texas legislators don't get paid well to come to Austin for six months, and they are anxious to leave when the whirlwind is over.  But the law is the law, and a budget must be passed, before the end of the month, or in the summer.

And then this morning I learn that a "compromise" has shown up in the House, an amendment to another bill, that would limit the "bathroom bill" to public and charter schools.  K-12, so as not to bother the NCAA (of course).  The original bill applied only to public buildings, so you're local restaurants public bathrooms would not have been affected.  But if Caitlyn Jenner were to visit your local Texas courthouse or city hall, she'd have been directed to the men's room; presumably.  If she was recognized (the only reason I mention her); and if there was a policeman ready and willing to do his/her duty under the law.  Fat chance, IOW.  Still, that risk could be removed if this amendment makes it to the Senate and the Senate decides half a loaf is better than a special session.

Of course, the only people even Patrick's original bill would apply to was students in public schools.  There was a question of whether publicly owned football stadiums would be covered, and I never envisioned police standing before the bathrooms checking birth certificates and...well, what?  The premise of the bill was to enforce privacy, right?  So in the name of privacy we make you drop drawers and show a piece of paper besides?  Yeah, right.

The first excuse was predators:  men in women's clothes looking to rape our innocent white young girls.  That worked in Houston, but it won't work again, and it's pretty much gone as an argument.  Privacy was next, but bathrooms are supposed to be private, and unless transgendered women are gonna belly up to the urinal, whose to know, unless we remove the doors on stalls in the name of privacy?  So we're down to the point of this bill all along, and the only population it could ever apply to:  public school students.

The schools know who you are, and what it says on your birth certificate, and the schools alone can police their bathrooms in the ways no other institution can.  Even the broadest reach of Patrick's fevered dreams was only ever going to come down to public school students.  Apparently public school isn't hard enough, we have to make it tougher.

Then again, this may not pass muster in the Senate, because it allows an out:

The last-minute vote amended a Senate bill focusing on school districts' emergency plans and added language requiring K-12 schools provide single-stall restrooms and other public areas to a student "who does not wish" to use facilities designated by "biological sex."
So they don't have to pee where they want to pee, but they don't have to pee with other people, either. Hey, it's compromise, right?

The result is the same:  Dammit, we gotta discriminate against SOMEBODY!  What's the point of having a legislative session in Donald Trump's first term if we don't do that!

And while we're talking about schools, Patrick still insists on a sop to hard-working rich people:

HB 21 now includes a provision the House hates and Patrick wants: state subsidies for parents who want to send their children with disabilities to private schools or need money for services to educate them at home.
The amount involved is about $8000.  That won't pay tuition at many private schools, if you can get in (most around here have waiting lists.  Well, the better ones.).  And those aren't even the schools targeted.  Fewer and more expensive and more exclusive are the private schools that take children with disabilities.  Such schools limit enrollment, as all private schools do.  So if you think you can take that voucher and put your kid in a private school that will deal better with her needs, I'm afraid that won't happen.  But if you have the money for that school, $8000 is nice refund on the costs you're paying.  As I say, this won't help people who can't afford those schools; it will only help the people who can.

The flip side of this is that Texas tried something like this years ago, allowing people to take the money and spend it on private schooling of almost any description.  A huge number of fly-by-night schools opened, took the money, and ran.  Imagine how much worse that would be for poor parents with children who need help and get the minimum Texas will pay for and the federal government will  provide; and then they go to a private school that has no interest beyond getting that voucher coupon cashed.  We've seen this movie, we know how it turns out; and now we're gonna sit through it again.

And for those kids who can't escape the public schools, we'll make sure to shame them as much as possible about where they go to relieve themselves.  Why should life be easy for kids whose parents aren't rich, right?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Asking for a friend....

Since Trump's already shredded the emoluments clause of the Constitution, what's the over/under on whether he treats this medal as personal property?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Turns out, he really is that stupid

So, there's this:

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I,” Trump said, according to the document. “He was crazy, a real nut job… I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Which is not only as clear a statement of committing obstruction of justice as a prosecutor could wish for, it also indicates who Trump trusts to share confidences with.  As Josh Marshall puts it:

What really stands out about this is the recklessness of Trump’s actions and his familiarity with Lavrov and Kislyak. As related, the substance of this conversation is that Comey is someone Trump took care of. He’s on the other team from Trump and Lavrov and Kislyak who are familiars.

Marshall links it to the "collusion" question.  I think it just proves Trump is a clear and present danger, who would tell the Russian ambassador what the nuclear codes were, if he thought it would earn him some bragging points.

And then there's this:

President Donald Trump has told advisers he wants to end payments of key Obamacare subsidies, a move that could send the health law's insurance markets into a tailspin, according to several sources familiar with the conversations.

Many advisers oppose the move because they worry it would backfire politically if people lose their insurance or see huge premium spikes and blame the White House, the sources said. Trump has said that the bold move could force Congressional Democrats to the table to negotiate an Obamacare replacement.

Of course, Trump still hasn't figured out why nobody carried him around town on their shoulders for firing Comey, so his political skills may be just the least bit, well....non-existent.

The important point here is not what Trump says, although that is very important in the case of the Russian ambassador.  The important point is, this stuff is getting out.  The "many advisors" opposed to Trump's strategy are obviously the ones who called Politico.  Somebody called the NYT to read the transcript of that Oval Office meeting to a reporter.  Sean Spicer's response to the report about that transcript was:

"Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

Problem is, just because the President says it in the White House, doesn't mean it's classified.  I don't think the rats are leaving the sinking ship; I think they're turning on the captain.  The report that staffers would feed Trump fake news in order to turn him in their desired direction has now turned into staffers torpedoing the S.S. Trump Administration, because they don't like where it's going.

Trump is gonna do a Palin, and he may well do it soon.  4 months in, and this administration is flying apart from it's own centrifugal force.  The center cannot long hold.

David C. Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge, said Trump’s comments demonstrated a profound inability to grasp the potential consequences of his words.

“In terms of potential criminal activity, it’s amateur night at the White House,” Gomez told The Daily Beast. “These guys—and Trump especially—don’t know how to not implicate themselves.

“On a big case like this, the ideal thing would be a wiretap on your number one subject,” Gomez added. “But in this case, you don’t need a wiretap. He just comes right out and says it.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Horror of Giving Horror a Backstory

Echoes of da Vinci?  Really?

The problem I continue to have with Ridley Scott's continuation of his "Alien" series is that he wants to introduce theology into it; or at least some philosophy of religions questions like the nature of evil. And the problem is he is so bad at it.

The closest I will come to seeing "Alien:  Covenant" is reading reviews like this one.   And while this review notes a vague connection to Egypt (through Shelley's "Ozymandias," not a connection to Egypt I would press down on too vigorously) and Norse legend through Wagner (the Ride of the Valkyrie), it doesn't note the connection to Greek mythology (and angering the gods) in "Prometheus."  The anger of the gods, according to that legend, was provoked by letting humans have fire.  But Prometheus, the Titan, was punished for that crime ("sin" is a Judeo-Christian concept; let's keep our lines clean here).  "Covenant," as the reviewer at Vox notes, is an Hebraic concept, so here we are more explicitly trading on theological (i.e., Christian) ground.

But the first problem is:  "Covenant" has precious little to do with Noah's ark (despite the 2000 souls aboard the ship looking to colonize somewhere not earth; a religious concept only if you think Stephen Hawking, who keeps saying we need to do just that, is a religious thinker), and even less to do with Milton's Satan.  David the Android (will no one comment on the most famous king of Israel, who was devoted to God but also all too human?  But David the android has nothing to do with the Biblical figure; he takes his name from the Michelangelo statue, a work of art reifying the Renaissance ideal of human perfection in form, not the deeds of the king of ancient Israel) is not a figure cast out of heaven; he is a figure as alien as the humanoid creature that terrorized (will terrorize, I suppose) the Nostromo.  He's really no more sympathetic to humans than Ian Holm's character.  It will take "Aliens" to redeem the artificial persons, and "Alien: Resurrection" to allow them to find faith.

Maybe that's what Scott didn't like.....

The construct here seems, to me, to be fairly straightforward, and it has nothing to do with Satan being cast out of paradise.  If you go back to "Prometheus," it opened with a tall albino figure dissolving himself into a stream, presumably creating life on earth.  Whether this was approved by his shipmates is open to interpretation, since the "Engineers" (as they come to be called) seem to be perpetually angry.  Or maybe that's just something to do with culture.  Anyway, it seems clear in that film that a)  the Engineers are all dead, at least on the base where Prometheus' crew finds them and b) they were very frightened of something before they died.  IIRC, there is some discussion of the base being a weapons laboratory, and it is this that seems to pique David's interest.  He is, after all the reason Noomi Rapace's character has to have a C-section by robot to get the alien out of her that her lover has inadvertently planted.

At any rate some of the tension of the film rests on the dreadful things they might find if they stay around so, of course, they stay around.  David finally manages to resurrect a dead Engineer and even talk to it; in return, the Engineer rips David's head off and tries to fly the alien ship away to parts unknown (it is presumed by the characters to fly the deadly payload to Earth).  From the trailers I've seen for "Covenant" David is repaired by Rapace's character, and seems to learn from her some idea of compassion.  Or not, as another scene shows him raining down some kind of black terror on a planet full of Engineers.  Satan creating Pandemonium (his "House of All Demons" cum palace in Hell)?  I'm guessing not, but you don't need Satan when you have a creation myth gone bad.

Rapace's character at the end of "Prometheus" has her faith shattered because she finds out human life originated with the Engineers, not with God's word.  A curiously literalist reading of Genesis, but let it go.  Scott seems to think he's recapitulating the discoveries of the 19th century centuries hence, and I'm not sure what that means except Scott isn't thinking about this any too hard (besides, all religious thinking is rooted in the 19th century, right?). But there's also speculation in that film that whatever weapon the Engineers were creating, it was meant to go back to Earth and destroy all life there.

So maybe that's why David turns it on them when he gets the chance.  Or maybe not, because it seems that David is responsible for the xenomorph that eventually becomes the iconic Alien.  Why is still shrouded in mystery and spoilers I haven't read about yet, but really:  who cares?  The theme here is pretty clear:  the creation of human life led to a less than perfect outcome (the whole "problem of evil" in philosophy of religion circles).  So, suitably, the creation of artificial life in our image (as we are made in the Creator's image; and is it an accident that the Engineers are chalk white humanoids?  Just asking....) is less than, well, human.  The redeeming factor of humanity, the counterpoint to evil, is compassion, concern, even love.  David lacks these traits entirely (Winona Ryder's artificial person even prays to the God of Abraham, by contrast).  David is merely experimenting when he afflicts Noomi Rapace's character on"Prometheus."  He apparently is behind the creation of the xenomorph, so his effort at creation is even more flawed than God's (or, in this case, the Engineers).

Or maybe he's just mad that that Engineer he just raised from the dead and wanted to talk to, instead ripped his head off.   And like any ungrateful creature, he turns his anger on both the Engineers and humanity.  Or maybe that Engineer just wanted to exterminate humanity as a bad concept (seems to be the point of the opening scenes in "Prometheus").  Or maybe that Engineer was doing the rest of the crew a favor, and once again foolish humans create their own worst enemy by being....human, and compassionate.  I dunno, but it seems to have something to do with Christmas, since both movies include Christmas trees on their ships (really?  After all that time?).

No, I don't know what any of this has to do with Christmas.  That's a rabbit trail too far, for me.

And the sin?  Creating something in the image of God, of course.  Really bad consequences flow from that decision.  The Greeks might even call it an act of hubris.

I dunno; does that theme play in a horror movie?

N.B.  I stepped away from "Star Wars" after the third movie (even my daughter, then the target age, gave up after "Phantom Menace."  That one bored her to tears, not just me), so I've not kept up with the plethora of films.  But now I find out (yes, the last person the planet to know) that "Rogue One" exists largely to explain why the Death Star was built with such an exploitable weakness that would destroy it at one blow.   Seems a ship designer sympathetic to the Rebels threw that in.  And how did this escape the notice of all the other designers?  And how did it cost lives to get that info?  Well, I guess that's the movie, isn't it?  But honestly, trying to turn a good one-off into a narrative empire, just doesn't work.  Ask Frank Herbert, who really should have quit with Dune.

She Blinded Me With Science!

Funny what the morning news brings.  This:

Is not Donald Trump "changing reality."  This is Donald Trump whining.  But it isn't the sound of a sui generis man-child, it is the sound of Trump's supporters who still think there is nothing to the allegations made against Trump.  And they think that because they, too, are whiners.  They think their privileges have been taken from them, that life has not been fair to them, that they deserve better than they've gotten, and many of them probably dream of living the way Trump lives:  loudly, ostentatiously, gaudily, bragging about his sexual conquests and parading a small army of blond wives around, each younger than the last, each more "pneumatic" than a blow-up doll.  I'll put it bluntly and you can read the article at Slate to get my context:  Trump isn't "reshaping reality" with his language (he's hardly one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he deals in toddler-speak).  He is simply giving voice to a minority who put him in office because of the quirks of the electoral college and low voter turnout in 2016.  They aren't trying to change reality; this is how they see the world.  The "consensus" view of politics, law, international relations, government, is not their view.  If there is a danger in Trump, it is in not recognizing who he speaks for, however inadvertently.  But are they going to rise up through Trump and take over America?  Is their view going to prevail?  In some sense, they have, and it does:  the GOP is the dominant political party throughout the country, despite the fact it is numerically the "minority" party.  But will that last?

Only the future will tell, and no one can predict that.  Which brings us to the other interesting story in the news:  Slate also tells me that ESP is real, and that fact has broken science.

Well, the headline says that; the article says otherwise.  A 10 year study by Daryl Bem concluded that replicable evidence of ESP had been produced, based on results above statistical expectations (albeit barely, as best I can tell).  What interests me is not the assertion, but the reaction to the assertion; and I don't mean the reaction the article focusses on.  The thesis of the article is that Bem instigated a review of standards regarding the scientific method which may reverberate throughout not just psychology and the social (or "soft") sciences, but reach ultimately to chemistry, physics, etc. I don't think that would be a bad thing, especially considering how much blind faith (yes, I said it!) is given to science today, based on the fact that it's science!, and therefore must be true!  Oh, sorry:  True!

No, what interested me was the connection between that article and this argument about proofs of the existence of God (a philosophy of religion issue, by the way, not a theological one. I always feel constrained to clarify that point, now.  Anyway....).  You see, the interesting reaction to the publication of Bem's results was not:  "Gee, is that possible?  Should we conduct some experiments to find out?", but:

 “I was shocked,” he says. “The paper made it clear that just by doing things the regular way, you could find just about anything.”

The paper, you see, had to be wrong.  Mind, the methodology was impeccable:

“Clearly by the normal rules that we [used] in evaluating research, we would accept this paper,” said Lee Ross, a noted social psychologist at Stanford who served as one of Bem’s peer reviewers. “The level of proof here was ordinary. I mean that positively as well as negatively. I mean it was exactly the kind of conventional psychology analysis that [one often sees], with the same failings and concerns that most research has.”

But it couldn't be right.  The results were unacceptable, so clearly something was wrong.  But is that conclusion the result of the scientific method; or the result of a refusal to let paradigms shift?

The article moves to other concerns with how scientists actually follow the scientific method (spoiler alert:  badly!), and I'm not making a case for the reality of ESP.  But if you can read a peer-reviewed paper published in a scientific journal and conclude immediately it must be false, then how do you ever accept a proof of God's existence?

Not that you have to, but what is the purpose of such a proof except to overcome doubt?  That isn't the purpose, actually.  If you read the excerpt at Thought Criminal outlining the argument of Duns Scotus, you'll note the argument is more theological than philosophical (do I contradict myself?  No.) because it is aimed at establishing the nature of God, not at overcoming modern atheism (anachronisms abound, and again I choose my words carefully).  Even if it is taken as a proof of God on par with Berm's "proof" of ESP, I can see many a philosophical atheist concluding "With logic you can find just about anything."

Or, as Kierkegaard put it:  if you do believe, what proof do you need?  And if you don't, what proof is possible?  A point illuminated by the Slate article:  Berm has not convinced "skeptics" that ESP is real, but he himself remains convinced it is.  How would you dissuade him?  How could he convince you?

And is anyone ever going to convince Trump, or his most ardent supporters, that reality is not centered around them?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Deja vu all over again

With friends like these? Rivera is not a lawyer; Trump, Jr. is not a lawyer.  But to say it isn't obstruction you have to assume/admit it happened that way.

Watergate is not so green in my memory that I have photographic details of it down and complete.   I don't recall if John Dean testified before or after the Saturday Night Massacre. I do recall Dean's testimony didn't convince everyone Nixon was crooked, or guilty of obstruction of justice, or had to leave the office of President.  Dean was vilified, in fact, as a quisling, a leaker, a breaker of confidence, perhaps even criminally culpable simply for testifying.  And yeah, we're already seeing that "shoot the messenger" defense being trotted out:

“After getting fired, [Comey] magically reaches into his jacket and pulls out some memo he wrote at the time?” [former Trump aide Jason] Miller said to [CNN host Erin] Burnett. “That is absolutely absurd.”

“I think there’s also something a little bit weird and a little bit vindictive on Director Comey’s part,” Miller charged. “There’s this little diary — or figuratively speaking a diary — where he’s keeping every single note so he can try to come back and play gotchya games later on…the whole thing just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

That line has already reached the Speaker of the House:

“Look, there’s been a lot of reporting lately, I think, that requires close examination, let me tell you what I told our members just (Wednesday) morning,” Ryan said. “We need the facts. It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president, but we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House, and that means, before rushing to judgment, we get all the pertinent information.”

“I’m sure we’re going to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happened as he describes, why he didn’t take action at the time,” Ryan said. “So there are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Protect the King; shoot the messenger.  One question is a legal one; the other is a distraction.  There was a lot of attention on Dean, as a way of taking attention off Nixon.  Of course, the desperation to distract is a tacit admission, too.

A senior official in the Trump administration, who previously worked on the president’s campaign, offered a candid and brief assessment of the fallout from that string of bad press: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”

Neither does Paul Ryan, which is why he's trying to shoot the messenger.

For Nixon, the other big event history still vividly remembers was the Saturday Night Massacre, which seems historic and devastating in retrospect, and was eventually another nail in Nixon's coffin, but not necessarily so in the moment.  Somewhere in there, too, was the 18 1/2 minute gap, and the photo of Nixon's secretary straining mightily to keep a foot on the pedal of the dictaphone while reaching somewhere else on her desk, while putting another hand on another part of her desk.  Something like that; it was nuts, but it was meant to explain how she could have been distracted for almost 20 minutes while making the machine erase what was on the tape.  It was no more convincing than it sounds, and yet it didn't bring Nixon down.

The tapes were even released and published.  I remember buying a copy, and wish I'd held on to it to keep beside my copy of Ellsberg's Papers On The War (now I am dating myself).  I still have the Ellsberg, but the tapes were about as interesting to read as a phone directory, and disappeared somewhere in the last 40+ years.  But that didn't bring Nixon down, either.

The last straw was the "smoking gun" tape.  It's worth remember the Democrats controlled Congress; Nixon may have won a landslide victory, but the people gave Congress to the other party (as they thought they were doing in 2016), especially since it was a second term for Nixon.  Impeachment proceedings moved slowly and deliberately, with little fuss or bother; there were numerous public hearings and a rogues gallery of players to keep up with.  The movie "All the President's Men" covers it well, but simplifies it, too.  It wasn't just Nixon, or Dean,  it was a vast and greasy cast of characters.  Somewhere in there, too, Agnew had to resign and face criminal charges for something wholly unrelated to Watergate (putting the lie to another of Trump's ideas, that as President he is immune from criminal or civil prosecution).  It was long, it was drawn out, it was painful, and it wasn't over until it was over.

And it wasn't over until even the most die-hard hold outs went to Nixon and said it was over, even for them.  Men of impeccable Republican and conservative credentials who, to a man (they were all men, after all) would be considered "squishes" and "weasels" themselves, in today's GOP.

I don't know when this ends, I don't know how it ends.  I do know the center cannot hold: that this kind of chaos and madness and incompetence cannot go on sucking up the resources of so many people and so much of the Administration.   But don't take my word for it:

There is a growing sense that Mr. Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble, and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.

There is a fear among some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers about leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground.
And when that doesn't work, McMaster bald-faced lies to the press, as he has done about the leak to the Russians.   One can only lie so many times, but that number is high.  The bigger problem is trying to explain what the President, the man who "speaks his mind," just said, and why he didn't say what he clearly said, and didn't do what he clearly did.  When it was clear what Nixon had done, when he couldn't deny it anymore (although he continued to until he died), he was done.  Trump doesn't even deny it, he declares it, and insists it is his right to do as he pleases.  He's got the Presidential seal, and the Presidential podium, and his momma loves him like a rock.*

Trump is like the old Greek concept of chaos.  Logos, or reason, kept chaos in check, but couldn't vanquish it.  One day, the Greeks reasoned, reason and the order it imposed on chaos, would be forced to give up the struggle, and chaos would rule again.  Trump cannot be eliminated, only controlled.  But that control is limited, and limiting, and it can't stop Trump from being Trump; and therein lies the problem.

When is Trump done?  When what he's doing matters again.That may be by the end of the year, if he keeps making life and the function of government for his staff not only impossible but criminally illegal.  Asking Comey to "back off" Flynn is obstruction of justice no matter how you look at it.  Is it established?  No, but that's why you have investigations.  But as he undermines more and more of his own staff, making it impossible for them to even make an announcement that isn't refuted within hours or days, it will be harder and harder for his Administration to function.  If he doesn't break it all by 2018, a new Congress is very likely to break him, solely for the sake of the nation.  That break is coming.  At Slate, they compiled a list of news articles indicating the declining morale, not of the FBI (which is alternately "shattered" or "emboldened" by the Comey firing, depending on which article you read next), but of the White House staff.  It ends with this description from, of all people, Ross Douthat:

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
We aren't six months in yet, and already Trump is losing the support of his staff.  Despite the attempts to blame Comey now, the chickens will come home to roost soon enough.

*Paul Simon; look it up. I can't do everything for you.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

If not for those meddling kids!

The problem is not that Trump screwed the pooch and revealed sensitive information from Israel to Russia.

“The real issue, what I would like to see debated more, is national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality and those releasing information to the press that can be used connected with other information available to make American citizens and others more vulnerable,” [National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster] McMaster told reporters.
Yeah, that's the REAL national security risk!

When in worry when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!

I think little Marco is losing the thread.  No offense, but when a U.S. Senator is tweeting those Bible verses, it's not comforting.

Meanwhile, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!  Focus on what's important!

I read the Washington Post story and I read General McMasters response, which tends to refute the story, rebut the story. 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.

And then the Trump tweets which refute and rebut the McMasters response!  Wheeee!!!!!!!!!  And how's that working out for him?

“He seems to be sort of constantly shifting what his justifications are; he tries one thing and when it doesn’t work he tries something else,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told TPM. “The problem with that is he’s using up the credibility of a number of people inside the White House who’ve spent a lifetime building up their credibility. And they seem willing to be putting that on the line for somebody who doesn’t back them up.”

There were reports of screaming among White House staff last night:

I understand the "prestige" of working in the White House, and that it's always a high pressure job, but honestly:  who would put up with this?  And how long will it go before people start leaving like rats off a sinking ship?

And finally, is this really a defense?

The key is that McMaster says Trump was within his rights to make the decision (true, in terms of legality) and that he and two other top advisors believe it was in fact the correct decision (a subjective call we have no direct way to evaluate.)

The "true in terms of legality" there is, in Josh's own words, "too cute by half."  Trump's action may fall within the strict letter of the law; that does not mean it is not grounds for concern, or even impeachment.  The President may have the ability to declassify information, but that isn't an "absolute right" to do so.  And grounds for impeachment are not limited to clear violations of statutory law.  Grounds for removal are even broader.

The issue remains the same:  "Bottom line: It matters who we have running the most powerful institution in the world."

Adding:  it will be interesting if the involvement of Israel moves some GOP lawmakers to take this matter a bit more seriously:

According to the Times’ sources, “the revelation that Mr. Trump boasted about some of Israel’s most sensitive information to the Russians could damage the relationship between the two countries” because it “raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia’s close ally and Israel’s main threat in the Middle East.”

Israeli spies were reportedly warned by some of their American counterparts earlier this year to avoid sharing information directly with the Trump administration over fears that sensitive intelligence could leak out to hostile powers.

Only Kings have "Absolute Rights"

But today we call such people "dictators."

And B)  Trump has now admitted he shared classified information with Russians in the Oval Office.  How much of this story is "false" now?

C)  Trump told the Russians in the Oval Office "I get the best intel, I get great intelligence."  And then he told them what he knew that they shouldn't know.  His "humanitarian reasons"?  He needed to stroke his own ego.

D) Notice he takes no responsibility for revealing an intelligence source that shouldn't have been shared with our allies, much less with Russia.  It's all about Trump and his "absolute right."  And, as I say, what exactly is "false" about this story, now?


It’s also impossible that he thinks it’s fine to leak classified intel. He ran an entire presidential campaign – the greatest ever, he claims to anyone mad enough to listen to him – on the premise that Hillary Clinton should be locked up for mishandling classified intel.
Obviously it isn't impossible any more.  L'etat, c'est Trump. 

No, even the bozo-in-chief isn’t stupid enough to think it’s OK to hand out information like presidential M&Ms to anyone who walks into the Oval Office.
Tweet ipsa loquitur.  The tweet speaks for itself.

It seems Trump sees nothing wrong in being so close to the Russians that he spills his guts about our most precious intelligence. He is so desperate to impress them that he cannot distinguish between American interests and his own neediness. America First means Trump First, and if Trump wants to brag about his inaugural crowds or his intel reports, it’s all good. As Richard Nixon liked to say, if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.

I think Trump just said that.

(Trump's tweet drives the last nail in the coffin for nations who want to share intelligence with the U.S. that they don't want shared more widely.  This is directly how the President can be a threat to national security.  He makes us less secure by scaring our allies away from sharing information with us.)