January 2015 Archives

no books

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How is it that, for the first time in recent memory, I haven't finished a single book or written a single book review for an entire month? Have I stopped reading?

Of course not.

The mundane illnesses and work stresses of the holiday season certainly contributed to my lack of completion, but mostly it's just been due to an abundance of distractions.

I received quite a stack of books as holiday gifts, and--not surprisingly--began reading several of them at once, researching their authors, reading reviews...all activities that are not very conducive to actually finishing a book.

Dismayed at the growing size of my TBR pile, I've begun too many of them and completed too few. Whatever my limit is for simultaneous books being read, I've crossed it. In addition, I've been trying to get caught up with blog posts--another time-consuming affair.

Although I've made progress on the books I borrowed from my local university's library, I had to renew them for another month. Perhaps I can get caught up before the new due date arrives.

If not, I'll keep chipping away as best I can.

So many books...

Despite the accolades he has received (a Polk, a Pulitzer, bestseller status), writes Reason, "Glenn Greenwald might be the single most polarizing figure in American journalism."

Greenwald, 47, is the man most responsible for bringing the surveillance revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to light, in an ongoing series of articles buttressed by additional investigative corroboration. Snowden initiated the contact with Greenwald after reading his staunch, criticize-all-sides civil-liberties blogging at outlets such as Salon. To admirers, the two share an adherence to constitutional liberties so strong that they're willing to take on their own ideological bunkmates and live in exile from their homeland. (Greenwald resides in Brazil.) To detractors, they are part of a transnational movement to sabotage U.S. hegemony.

The interview that follows is provocative--especially his contention that, despite the lack of legislative victories, "there have been some very significant changes as a result of [our] reporting:"

I think the much more significant changes are the changes in consciousness that people have, not just about surveillance, but about privacy, the role of government, their relationship to it, the dangers of exercising power in the dark, and the role of journalism as well. [...] The most important of all is the awareness of individuals about the need to protect their own privacy by using things like encryption and other tools of anonymity. I think these things are a really important form of change and accountability that will come from the reporting.
Here is another part of the interview:
reason: [Is the] NSA's blanket surveillance now legally permissible under any possible interpretation of the law, in your opinion?

Greenwald: What's important to understand when we talk about what's legal is the extent to which our institutions that determine legality have been completely co-opted, either by the other branches of government or just by the kind of post-9/11 fearmongering hysteria that has subsumed federal judges as much as they have everybody else, if not more so.

Greenwald decries "the lack of vibrancy and independence in how journalists are allowed to report and opine and talk about the world:"

There's kind of become this very soul-draining, soulless voice that journalists are expected to adopt. It's one of contrived neutrality or objectivity that prevents them from really having any passion or spirit behind their journalism. [...]

I think it's much more honest to simply be candid about the subjective assumptions that you're embracing, rather than to pretend that you're something that you're not. But more to the point, I think that that kind of pseudo-objective journalism neuters it. It means that you can't really ever be perceived as taking a strong position because that somehow compromises your objectivity. It means that you're basically toothless, that you no longer have the ability to check those who are in power or to call out their lies when they're lying or to be aggressive in telling the truth. That's a big part of why journalism has been failing.

If the options are polarization or failure, Greenwald has made the right choice.

techno-stress

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The NYT claims that technology hasn't necessarily made our lives more stressful, pointing to "a new study by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University found [that] Frequent Internet and social media users do not have higher stress levels than those who use technology less often. And for women, using certain digital tools decreases stress."

The study, "Social Media and the Cost of Caring," wonders "why do we keep hearing that technology is harmful?"

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people's lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. [...]

Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

David Atkins looks at what happens when conservative ideologues run their own states and observes that "in spite of conservatism's seeming upswing, there are signs at a statewide level that its ideology is coming apart at the seams. Even conservatives are starting to take notice and worry:"

First and foremost is the laughingstock that extremist Republican Sam Brownback has made of Kansas. Brownback slashed social welfare spending and implemented steep regressive income tax cuts, promising that his Laffer curve-based supply-side economic experiment would bring jobs and prosperity to Kansas while increasing government revenue.

In fact, the opposite has happened. Revenue projections in Kansas are in freefall...

The failure of Brownback's experiment is also being replicated in New Jersey, where governor Chris Christie slashed pensions, cut taxes for the rich, laid off public employees and gave away $2 billion of tax incentives, only to watch New Jersey rank next-to-last in job growth.

He snarks that, "One remarkable result of the failed supply-side experiments is that many Republicans' belief in the Laffer curve has been severely shaken," to which I would add: it only took 35 years! Atkins notes that these recognitions of failure "are earth-shaking admissions:"

Conservatives have been asserting ever since Reagan's first presidential campaign that lower taxes would not only grow the economy, they would ultimately increase government revenues as well. It's difficult to campaign for tax breaks for billionaires if you're also blithely asserting that teachers will be laid off to pay for them. Retreating from the Laffer curve deception will make it much harder for Republicans to pass regressive tax cuts in the future without paying a steep political price.

The failures of Republican economics in Kansas and New Jersey also have worrying electoral implications for Republicans across the country as progressives use them as object lessons and warning signs of what could happen their own states--and the country--if conservative economic ideologues are allowed to gain too much power.

The fact that "Republicans with actual experience in state governance are trying to walk back from the more unpalatable aspects of the Republican economic agenda" is encouraging:

Economic and social realities are exposing the failure of the conservative agenda on a variety of fronts, and Republicans are still being forced to confront those failures and deal with the consequences.

marriage

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In discussing the twilight of the marriage-equality movement, Gabriel Arana writes that "The day some marriage-equality advocates have been waiting for, and some still fear, is finally here:"

On Friday the Supreme Court accepted a petition to rule on the constitutionality of gay-marriage bans in Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. The Court repeatedly declined to take up the issue in the last year, but a split among the appellate courts--those of the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have previously ruled gay-marriage bans unconstitutional, but in November the Sixth Circuit broke from the pack--was widely viewed as having forced the justices' hand. [...]

With gay marriage already legal in thirty-five states and with Justice Kennedy--the author of the two landmark gay-rights rulings of the last two decades, Windsor and Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state bans on sodomy--as the swing vote, there's little doubt how the Court will rule.

He notes that political import: "The irony is that, ten years after using gay marriage as a wedge issue against John Kerry in the 2004 election, it is the GOP for whom the issue poses a threat:"

Public opinion on gay marriage has swung dramatically: in 2004, a mere 30 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage; today, nearly 60 percent do. It's been called the largest turnabout on any social issue in American history. Support is even higher among young Americans, and even a majority of young Republicans support same-sex marriage.

Arana closes on a joyous note:

By this time the next president assumes office--thirty years after the Hawaii Supreme Court set off panic nationwide by ruling the state could not deny gay couples the right to wed--same-sex marriage will be legal in all fifty states. Anyone who hopes to lead the country must reconcile herself to that fact.

wasteful inequality

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Vox's Robert Frank examines inequality and waste, pointing out that "High levels of inequality are bad for the rich, too, and not just because inequality offends norms of fairness. As I'll explain, inequality is also extremely wasteful:"

It's easy to demonstrate that growing income disparities have made life more difficult not just for the poor, but also for the economy's ostensible winners -- the very wealthy. The good news is that a simple change in tax policy could free up literally trillions of dollars a year without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. If that claim strikes you as far-fetched, you'll be surprised to see that it rests on only five simple premises.

1) Frames of reference matter. A lot.

2) Each person's spending depends in part on what others spend, as "Houses are growing faster than incomes because of a process I call 'expenditure cascades.'"

More spending by the people who can afford it at the top ultimately creates [social] pressure for more spending by people who can't afford it at the bottom.

3) The costs of failure to keep pace with community spending norms are not just hurt feelings, because "opting out entails real costs that are extremely hard to avoid:"

Failure to keep pace with what peers spend on housing means not just living in a house that seems uncomfortably small. It also means having to send your children to inferior schools. A "good" school is a relative concept, and the better schools are almost always those in more expensive neighborhoods.

Here's the toil index, a simple measure I constructed to track one important cost of inequality for middle-income families. To send their children to a school of at least average quality, median earners must buy the median-priced home in their area. The toil index plots the monthly number of hours the median earner must work to achieve that goal. When incomes were growing at the same rate for everyone during the post-World War II decades, the toil index was almost completely stable. But income inequality began rising sharply after 1970, and since then the toil index has been rising in tandem. It's now approximately 100 hours a month, up from only 42 hours in 1970.

The median real hourly wage for men in the US is actually lower now than in the 1980s. If middle-income families must now spend more than before to achieve basic goals, how do they manage?

4) Positional concerns spawn wasteful spending patterns, even when everyone is well-informed and rational

Beyond some point, additional spending on mansions, coming-of-age parties, and many other goods becomes purely positional, meaning that it merely raises the bar that defines adequate. Because much of the total spending in today's economy is purely positional, it is wasteful in the same way that military arms races are wasteful.

5) A simple change in the tax system would eliminate many wasteful spending patterns

We could abandon the current progressive income tax in favor of a much more steeply progressive consumption tax. [...] Their income minus their savings is their annual consumption, and that amount less a large standard deduction would be their taxable consumption. [...] The tax rate would start out low and would then rise steadily as taxable consumption rises.

Frank concludes that "despite their higher incomes, the rich are now worse off on balance:"

Their higher spending on cars and houses has simply raised the bar that defines adequate in those categories, while the corresponding

growing up godless

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Phil Zuckerman discusses secular family values, noting that "More children are 'growing up godless' than at any other time in our nation's history."

The number of American children raised without religion has grown significantly since the 1950s, when fewer than 4% of Americans reported growing up in a nonreligious household, according to several recent national studies. That figure entered the double digits when a 2012 study showed that 11% of people born after 1970 said they had been raised in secular homes. This may help explain why 23% of adults in the U.S. claim to have no religion, and more than 30% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say the same.

So how does the raising of upstanding, moral children work without prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons at Sunday school? Quite well, it seems.

Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.

Zuckerman continues:

My own ongoing research among secular Americans [...] confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of "questioning everything" and, far above all, empathy.

For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule.

"The results of such secular child-rearing are encouraging," he states:

Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the "cool kids" think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into "godless" adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

Recent research also has shown that children raised without religion tend to remain irreligious as they grow older -- and are perhaps more accepting. Secular adults are more likely to understand and accept the science concerning global warming, and to support women's equality and gay rights.

I can see why this upsets conservatives: it's all tied to their fear of a good example, demonstrating that their cherished beliefs are inessential (or even detrimental) to human flourishing.

Politico demolishes the myth of defensive gun ownership, demonstrating that accidental domestic firearms deaths "are the byproduct of a tragic myth: that millions of gun owners successfully use their firearms to defend themselves and their families from criminals:"

Despite having nearly no academic support in public health literature, this myth is the single largest motivation behind gun ownership. It traces its origin to a two-decade-old series of surveys that, despite being thoroughly repudiated at the time, persists in influencing personal safety decisions and public policy throughout the United States. [...] The researchers [Kleck and Getz] then extrapolated their findings to the entire U.S. population, resulting in an estimate of between 1 million and 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year. [...]

In several crime categories, for example, gun owners would have to protect themselves more than 100 percent of the time for Kleck and Getz's estimates to make sense. For example, guns were allegedly used in self-defense in 845,000 burglaries, according to Kleck and Getz. However, from reliable victimization surveys, we know that there were fewer than 1.3 million burglaries where someone was in the home at the time of the crime, and only 33 percent of these had occupants who weren't sleeping. From surveys on firearm ownership, we also know that 42 percent of U.S. households owned firearms at the time of the survey. Even if burglars only rob houses of gun owners, and those gun owners use their weapons in self-defense every single time they are awake, the 845,000 statistic cited in Kleck and Gertz's paper is simply mathematically impossible.

On a more realistic scale, "NCVS reports indicate that more than 50 percent of such ["defensive gun"] incidents are reported to the police. This would indicate 3,200 defensive uses on an annual basis." This reduction in the number of self-defense uses means that "criminal uses far outweigh defensive uses...more than 9 times as many people are victimized by guns than protected by them:"

As Wayne LaPierre of the NRA railed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun."

But the evidence clearly shows that our lax gun laws and increased gun ownership, spurred on by this myth, do not help "good guys with guns" defend themselves, their families or our society. Instead, they are aiding and abetting criminals by providing them with more guns, with 200,000 already stolen on an annual basis. And more guns means more homicides. More suicides. More dead men, women and children. Not fewer.

Reason explains what the Pope got wrong about free speech, noting that he "offered a number of comments about freedom of expression, which ranged from the unclear to the contradictory."

First, the pope claimed that "one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one's own religion--that is, in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration."

Particularly problematic was the Pontiff's "arguable contention [that] "One cannot provoke. One cannot insult other people's faith. One cannot make fun of faith:"

But then the vicar of Christ went on to explain that those who mock faith should expect to be punched in the face. "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," said Francis.

This pugnacity provokes questions:

What if one of these faiths is unable to live in free and open society because the principles of the faith conflict with those of others? What if one religion feels mocked by the things that other religions put up with in society--such as wearing skirts above the knees or eating pork sausages or failing to accept that Muhammad is God's prophet? What if those of a certain faith feel this is ridicule toward them? What if they believe it worthy of retaliation? Should the rest of us avoid these things so as not to upset anyone?

This tweet nails the problem of priorities:

TNR's piece on sacrilege in the digital age notes that "The slaughter also raised an unsettling question: How does a terrorist organization in the Arabian Peninsula come to set its sights on a niche publication in Paris?"

The impulse to commit sacrilege--and punish it--has marked nearly every society and every epoch in human affairs. People have always gone to great lengths to protect their sanctities. Examining the historical record, we find an aversion to blasphemy not only among the usual suspects, such as the resolute monotheists of ancient Palestine and medieval Europe, but in unlikely places and times: The ancient Athenians, those archetypal democrats who allowed citizens to criticize their cherished civic institutions, still forbade them from ridiculing the gods or the worship of them.

And so it has been ever since. In each century up to the last, western governments and churches outlawed sacrilege against their deities and their faiths. Even in the United States, which has acquired a well-deserved reputation for protecting free expression, state and local authorities were once authorized to punish anti-Christian sentiments.

Especially interesting is the observation that "It is no coincidence that the attack on Charlie Hebdo, like the protests that greeted the Jyllands-Postens drawings, were sparked by cartoons:"

While words are hardly exempt from accusations of sacrilege, the image is the 21st century's most potent catalyst of outrage. Graphic, easily reproduced images require little in the way of linguistic or cultural translation; their potency derives from the ease with which they transcend difference. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were intended to offend in the most straightforward and unambiguous way, avoiding theological subtleties and capitalizing instead on Islamic prohibitions against Muhammad's representation. They succeeded.

Today we confront the paradox that irreverent expression is both less inhibited and more endangered than ever before. Thanks to the fluidity of national borders and the internet's reach, people and organizations now possess previously unimagined powers of dissemination. Never in human history has speech been so abundant and unruly, nor have artists ever enjoyed so much freedom to exhibit what churches and states would have once prohibited. And yet, never has there been such a systematic international effort to discover and avenge offensive text and images.

Despite the freedom to do so, few people will wade through an illustrated edition of Dante's Divine Comedy to see the image of Muhammad within. Barefoot Bum notes that "I think it's hard to talk about Charlie Hebdo without linking freedom of speech and freedom to live:"

We have to ask, did what they say make their lives themselves of negative value? Do we condemn their killing only because killing even bad people is worse than letting them live? I think if [you] say, "The killings were wrong but...", you are taking the second position, and I think it's important to justify that position, because it really is momentous. So what's the justification? [...]

The only mockery that I think is impermissible is mockery that is based on falsehoods so well established as false and socially harmful that their expression can be nothing but perversity. It is only the latter that I would say has truly negative value, and is protected only under the second principle. [...]

I have not done a thorough analysis of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. So I don't know with any degree of confidence that they are not Islamophobic. But if you want to put them in the same category as the KKK and the American Nazi Party, I think it is incumbent on you to make that case.

Front Page stresses the importance of blasphemy. "As a deeply religious person, I don't like blasphemy," writes Daniel Greenfield, but "debates over freedom of speech and the sensitivity of religious feelings...miss the point:"

While we may think of blasphemy in terms of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, each religion is also mutually blasphemous. [...] If we were to truly prosecute blasphemy, the legal system would have to pick a side between the two religions and either prosecute Christians for blaspheming against Islam or Muslims for blaspheming against Christianity. [...]

Egyptian Muslims who convert to Christianity have found it extremely difficult to have the government recognize their change of religion by issuing them new identification cards. Muslims who question freedom of speech are not calling for a special status for all religions, but only for their religion. [...] They want a blasphemy law that exclusively revolves around them.

"While some religious people may take issue with the celebration of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons," the piece continues, "equating them with such things as the infamous 'Piss Christ', there is a fundamental difference:"

Piss Christ or a museum which exhibited photos of naked women dressed in Jewish ritual garments are acts committed against the unresisting making them the equivalent of spiteful vandalism. There are no Jews or Christians murdering artists or bombing museums. [Let us pause here to remember the destruction--by Christians--of "Piss Christ" with a hammer.]

It was not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who specialized in offending all religions, who made their Mohammed cartoons into a symbol. It was their Muslim enemies who did it by killing them. It is intellectually dishonest for Muslims to create martyrs and then to complain about their martyrdom.

"Islamic Cartoonophobia," the piece concludes, "is not only a danger to cartoonists. It's a threat to all of our religious freedoms."

In the cathedral of computation, Ian Bogost writes that "Algorithms are everywhere, supposedly" and takes issue with the near-religious reverence granted to them:

We are living in an 'algorithmic culture' [where] Google's search algorithms determine how we access information. Facebook's News Feed algorithms determine how we socialize. Netflix's and Amazon's collaborative filtering algorithms choose products and media for us. You hear it everywhere. [...]

Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.

It's part of a larger trend. The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

The problem goes deeper than the algorithms:

Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially "big data," whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity. Today, conventional wisdom would suggest that mystical, ubiquitous sensors are collecting data by the terabyteful without our knowledge or intervention. Even if this is true to an extent, examples like Netflix's altgenres show that data is created, not simply aggregated, and often by means of laborious, manual processes rather than anonymous vacuum-devices.

Think, for example, of the selection/sorting/tagging effort involved in Pinterest. My first reaction to hearing about the concept of pinning images was that it struck me as an ingenious way to aggregate vast analytical effort and apply it to the visual portion of the Internet--at relatively little cost. This method of divination trumps any computer-driven efforts (at least for the moment) for this type of problem, revealing that our creation is not yet our master:

Algorithms aren't gods. We need not believe that they rule the world in order to admit that they influence it, sometimes profoundly. Let's bring algorithms down to earth again. Let's keep the computer around without fetishizing it, without bowing down to it or shrugging away its inevitable power over us, without melting everything down into it as a new name for fate. We don't want an algorithmic culture, especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate, computational theocracy.

It's been a while since the yoga wars, which I guess means that it's time to ask who owns yoga?

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an effort to have yoga become recognized first and foremost as an Indian practice grounded in the Hindu tradition. Modi created a new cabinet post for what has been called a "Minister of Yoga," and picked Shripad Yesso Naik--former member of India's parliament, career politician, and lifelong yogi--for the position. [...] The end goal of Naik's appointment might be to get a slice of what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S. by establishing yoga's Indian-ness.

Practically speaking, securing a geographical indication for yoga would be nearly impossible. "While yoga certainly originated in India," says Sonia Katyal, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in intellectual property, "its widespread adoption in the West--including the hundreds of types of yogas created by enterprising westerners like mommy-and-me yoga, nude yoga, dog yoga--makes it a little harder to explain how its Indian origins are always essential the practice or characteristics of yoga today."

The $10 billion-a-year US yoga industry and its 20 million customers have Americanized yoga:

Today, many Americans view yoga simply as a workout, which means that the practice has more or less been broken off from its millennia-old Hindu roots. A few years ago, yoga's near-complete transition from spiritual practice to trendy fitness activity was marked by a spirited debate.

Andrea Jain's Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture looks like an interesting read.

infuriating

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Obama is infuriating conservatives by endorsing their ideas; Mindy Fischer explains how:

Since the day that President Obama was sworn into office, Conservatives have been tripping all over themselves trying to convince the American people that every Obama policy is an attempt to destroy the country. They've called him a Marxist, a Communist, a Socialist, a Kenyan, a Muslim, an Anti-Colonialist, an Extremist, a Dictator, and an Evil Traitor. [...] The truth is that Obama is actually very much a Moderate. And if there was ever any doubt about that, just take a look at all of the Republican ideas that President Obama has adopted. [...]

I could continue with a virtually endless list of all of the Obama positions that infuriate the right. But the irony is that many of the policies that the neo-Cons hate the most are actually Republican ideas. And they are Republican ideas that Conservatives widely supported...right up until Obama agreed with them.

Obama's new plan for free community-college tuition is, for example, "directly patterned after a program started in Tennessee, by a Conservative Republican Governor [Bill Haslam]. The Tennessee program is funded by the state's lottery reserves and an endowment which was created by the Tennessee General Assembly.

"Obamacare" (The Affordable Care Act) was "directly patterned after Mitt Romney's Massachusetts Romneycare and was first created by the Conservative Heritage Foundation as an alternative to Hillary Clinton's health care reform ideas over 20 years ago:"

Most on the left would prefer a "single payer" system that is government-run, like Medicare or Medicaid. But because Conservatives are always afraid of too much government control, they came up with an alternative plan. One of the corner stones of their plan was the individual mandate.

Conservatives all across the country endorsed this idea. The Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as late as 2008. They insisted that it was non-ideological, reasonable, and non-partisan.

The same thing happened with Cap and Trade until a Democrats signed on:

President H.W. Bush proposed a plan called the Clean Air Act of 1990. At the time he was concerned with acid rain so he came up with a plan that would cap sulfur-dioxide emissions, while at the same time allow the market to figure out how to allocate the permits.

Bush's plan passed easily with support from Conservatives including Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich. As a matter of fact, Republicans like Newt Gingrich were praising this plan as late as 2007. Seriously, even John McCain included a cap and trade plan in his 2008 platform. But, just like with education and health care reform, as soon as Obama endorsed the plan, the neo-Cons immediately did an about face and decided to demonize the whole idea of cap and trade as another of Obama's terrible policies designed to destroy the country. And this fit in perfectly with their new narrative that Climate Change is all one big Obama hoax.

Obama's conciliatory behavior has been less successful than hoped:

Obama has tried so hard to compromise with the right because every single time that he has attempted to appease them, he has been met with a Republican Party who is determined to oppose him, even when the ideas that they so vehemently oppose are actually their own.

Matt Rozsa's list of the dumbest criticisms of Obama takes a look at some other GOP gems, including their freakouts over funeral selfies, the #LatteSalute, September 2009's "stay in school" lecture [see here], a plethora of "secret Muslim" crap, birtherism, and Sarah Palin's "death panels" lie that earned her the 2009 "Lie of the Year" award. He concludes:

While Obama should be subjected to the same criticism as every other American president, there is a difference between criticisms that are rooted in a sound knowledge base and those that are based on racism or polemical embellishment.

Adbusters looks at Adam Smith's invisible hand, via the pen of Douglas Haddow:

In The Wealth of Nations, the blueprint for what became known as capitalism, Smith drops the phrase but once. It's situated in a rather dry discussion on trade policy and is used as a metaphor in a straightforward critique of mercantilism's excessive restrictions.

And that's it. Just a cursory metaphor used for poetic flourish in an otherwise obscure and forgettable passage. And for the 150 years that followed the book's publication, that's exactly what it was -- obscure and forgotten. Smith didn't mention it, his contemporaries didn't mention it, nor did his critics. Nary a soul on Earth repeated those two words or paid them any heed.

That is, until 1948, when everything changes [when] Chicago School economist Paul Samuelson writes a book called Economics: An Introductory Analysis, which would go on to become the best-selling economics book of all time.

In his book, Samuelson grabs hold of Smith's wordplay and freebases meaning from it until a mere metaphor mutates into the economic doctrine that would define the shape and form of global finance for the remainder of the century, and beyond.

"Through Hayek," writes Haddow, "dogma became revelation:"

Hayek's ideas spread swiftly through a series of think tanks connected to his economic clique, The Mont Pelerin Society, which counted Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and, of course, who else but Milton Friedman among its members. Together they successfully launched what we now call "neoliberalism" into the political consciousness.

David Sirota points out that Republicans are the real redistributors of wealth:

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was lambasted for supposedly endorsing policies of wealth redistribution. The right feared that under an Obama presidency, Washington would use federal power to take money from some Americans and give it to others. Yet, only a few years later, the most explicit examples of such redistribution are happening in the states, and often at the urging of Republicans.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback "signed a landmark bill that delivered big tax cuts to high-income earners and businesses," and now he's "pushing to use money for public employees' pensions to instead cover the state's ensuing budget shortfalls:" Sirota notes that "Brownback is not alone. He joins fellow Republican Gov. Chris Christie in coupling large tax breaks with cuts to actuarially required pension payments." Illinois Governor Pat Quinn joins the lineup of Republican rogues as well, and Sirota asks the "obvious question raised by these episodes...Where is the outrage?"

To date, these attempts to use workers' money to finance massive giveaways to the rich have generated little media coverage or political opposition - and certainly less than the full-fledged frenzy that took place when Obama made his "spread the wealth" comment a few years ago.

The tepid response to this kind of wealth transfer suggests that for all the angry rhetoric about redistribution you might hear on talk radio, cable TV and in the halls of Congress, the political and media class is perfectly fine with redistribution - as long as the cash flows from the 99 percent to the 1 percent, and not the other way around

Although "many of the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo were mean-spirited, lazy, unfunny and sometimes baldly racist," writes Elias Isquith in Ted Cruz & the new McCarthyism, the massacre "was an obscenity, a crime whose evil could never be adequately expressed with words:"

No matter how blasphemous, callous, insulting and bigoted the political cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo over the years may have been, there is nothing -- absolutely, positively and undoubtedly nothing -- that could ever justify or excuse such fanatical sadism. The men who organized and perpetrated this slaughter were villains of the highest order, opponents of many of humanity's greatest intellectual breakthroughs and moral achievements.

Isquith notes that "some of the more influential members of the media and the government are trying to make lockstep support for Charlie Hebdo's work a new litmus test of one's belief in human freedom and dignity"

If one person claims that a threat is all-consuming while another person claims it to be "merely" dire, it's almost certain that some if not many in the audience will conclude -- through either willful obtuseness or simple faulty logic -- that their difference of opinion is due to different values. This is the very same intellectual blindspot that McCarthy exploited decades ago in order to portray anyone to the left of Robert Taft -- or anyone who was ambivalent about the country's embrace of a permanent national security state -- as either sympathetic to the Soviet Union or dedicated communists themselves.

Jim Sleeper explains that the Charlie Hebdo hypocrites "are silent as our governments and universities collaborate with or defer to regimes and interests that crush such freedoms not just abroad but, increasingly if more subtly, in the liberal West itself:" He discusses press freedom in Singapore:

Who needs to send their zealots to Syria to train with ISIS when they can learn everything they need to know here? The foreign press has been intimidated into silence by defamation suits and threats to restrict their circulation in Singapore. The Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Economist are just a few of the publications that were sued for saying things that are said every day about politicians and institutions in the West.

The climate of fear and self-censorship is still as strong as ever despite the pretence that there has been liberalization.

Salon declares that critics of stop-and-frisk were right, observing that "the debate over the once hotly divisive practice is effectively over." The case put forth by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly "was not only absolute but impressively manipulative:"

The policy had plenty of critics, of course; among them the ACLU, civil rights leaders and communities of color who considered its application a deplorable invasion of privacy (and dignity), racially targeted and responsible for fraying police-community relations.

The 90% innocence rate of those citizens who were stopped-and-frisked ultimately entered the public consciousness, and "in 2013, Bloomberg and Kelly:"

...would oversee a massive decrease in the tactic's implementation, with under 200,000 stops recorded -- less than a third the number from just two years before. The result: crime continued to fall. [...] A verdict was returned this week, with the city announcing that amid a 79 percent drop in stops from last year, crime continued to fall by 4.6 percent, reaching a record low in modern city history.

Salon concludes that "What is now indisputable is that in 2013 and 2014, it was indeed possible to keep crime down with a much lower number of stops."

Those who insisted that the police need to constantly stop young black and brown men 700,000 times on their way home from activities like school, church, or work in order to maintain order in the city were ultimately proven wrong.

The Economist looks at statisticians and war:

In 1939 Churchill, then first Lord of the Admiralty, asked Frederick Lindemann, a distinguished scientist, to set up a statistical arm of the civil service. When Churchill became prime minister the following year the "S Branch" became his personal statistical service, and a central office was created. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) had proposed something similar in 1919, only to be told it would be impracticable. But now the alternative was unbearable. Ministries drove Churchill to distraction with conflicting figures on crucial subjects such as shipping tonnage. The central office, the war cabinet was told, would produce "a regular series of figures on a coherent and well-ordered basis...that will be accepted and used without question". The new statisticians worked on government accounts; rationing (which ensured no Britons starved and greatly improved the diet of the poorest third); manpower surveys; the "pay as you earn" system of taxation (which raised the cash needed to wage the war); and the Beveridge Report on social insurance that later led to the founding of the welfare state.

The effect was a long-lasting one:

"After the war the section exploded like a London bomb into missionary statistical occupations all over the country," wrote Geoffrey Jowett, one of the SR 17 alumni, in 1990. "In convincing others that we had a good product to sell we convinced ourselves."

Senate takeover

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A reminder on the eve of the GOP's takeover of the Senate: Republicans didn't really win the Senate. "Tomorrow, Republicans will officially take control of the Senate for the first time since 2006," writes TruthOut, which is "a big deal for conservatives:"

They've been saying for years now that voters were angry about President Obama and his policies, and the fact that Republicans will now control the Senate and the House is about as good a sign as you can get that the US public wanted a change.

At least what Republicans want you to think.

However, their populism is false:

According to FairVote, the 44 Democratic Senators and their two independent allies received 67.8 million votes over the course of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections. The 54 Republican Senators, on the other hand, received only 47.1 million votes during that same time period. That's a difference of more than 20 million votes!

If you think this is insane that the party that got the fewest votes - by more than 20 million - now controls the Senate, well, then, you're right. As it's put together right now, the Senate is incredibly anti-(small "d") democratic.

Because every state gets two Senators regardless of its population, the 580,000 people who live in Wyoming, for example, have just as much influence with their two senators as the 38 million people who live in California do with their two senators.

The conclusion that "The status quo doesn't work, is biased towards rural Republicans, and is fundamentally at odds with democracy" is undeniable.

criticizing cops

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In reference to this story, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why the NYPD turned their backs on the city:

There simply is no level of critique they would find tolerable. Why take criticism when you don't actually have to? Better to remind the public that you are the only thing standing between them and the barbarians at the gate.

Coates quotes WaPo's Radley Balko on the riskiness of police work:

Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II. If we look at the rate of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for police in well over a century .... You're more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.

It is worth noting, as Coates does, that "Nearly half of those deaths are from automobile accidents."

loaded language

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Salon targets the semantics of the media double standard on shooting deaths:

An assassination is malicious and premeditated, but it is much more. It "involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack," according to the AP Stylebook.

Yet since Dec. 20, we have seen "assassination" used to characterize the killing of two New York City police officers. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton that evening said: "They were, quite simply, assassinated." Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on "Fox and Friends," said: "What happened yesterday was an assassination." News media in New York and elsewhere blindly followed suit. Sean Hannity, CBS News, the New York Daily News, USA Today and Newsday all used "assassination" indiscriminately. The San Antonio Express-News ran an editorial with this astounding headline: "No Other Word for It--Assassination."

The piece asks, "Were they murdered in cold blood? Were they targeted because of their uniforms, killed execution-style? Yes. Were they assassinated? No."

In choosing "assassination," instead of "killing" or "murder," they aren't merely searching for the right words. They are making a decision that's entirely political. [...] They have aligned a legitimate movement seeking to achieve the full measure of justice for all with an assassin.

More important, they have advanced the view that anything that representatives of the government perceive to be a threat must be suppressed by the government even if that "threat" is an honest effort to petition the government for a redress of grievances. As the head of one of New York's police unions said, "[The movement] must not go on. It cannot be tolerated." In this view, no one can protest anything if the police feel threatened.

That, of course, is to be expected of an inherently conservative organization like the New York Police Department. It is monumentally sensitive to threats, perceived and real. And it is not just intolerant of critics. It seeks to destroy them. "We have, for the first time in a number of years, become a 'wartime' police department," said a statement by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, one of the police unions. "We will act accordingly."

Considering the propaganda value of loaded language, is it any surprise that watching Fox makes people more conservative? WaPo asks:

What decided the 2000 election? A few hanging chads? The Supreme Court? Or was it Fox News?

A new working paper argues that former President George W. Bush's popular vote total would have been 1.6 percentage points lower in his race against former Vice President Al Gore if Fox had not launched four years earlier. The paper provides new evidence that Fox and MSNBC have a real influence on how their audiences are likely to vote.

Emory University's Gregory Martin and Stanford University's Ali Yurukoglu "found that watching four more minutes of Fox a week makes you 0.9 percentage points more likely vote Republican, while watching MSNBC for four more minutes makes you 0.7 percentage points more likely to vote Democrat." In their paper, entitled "Bias in Cable News: Real Effects and Polarization," Martin and Yurukoglu wrote:

In this paper, we address two questions about cable news. First, how much does consuming slanted news, like the Fox News Channel, alter the propensity of an individual to vote Republican in Presidential elections, if at all? Second, how intense are consumer preferences for cable news that is slanted towards their own ideology?

Mother Jones uses this to point out that "Fox really has had a big effect on Republican fortunes over the past two decades." The primary example is that without Fox, there would have been no Iraq War:

"We estimate that Fox News increases the likelihood of voting Republican by 0.9 points among viewers induced into watching four additional minutes per week by differential channel positions." And this in turn means that we owe the Iraq War to Fox News: "We estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the average county's Republican vote share by 1.6 percentage points."

As usual, there's asymmetry involved:

The difference in persuasion rates is significant: the study finds that in the 2008 election, a full 50 percent of Fox's left-of-center viewers switched to supporting Republicans. For MSNBC, the number of switchers was only 30 percent. That's a big difference.

Scalia on torture

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The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel discusses Scalia on torture, snarking that "Psychopaths, sadists, and Scalia notwithstanding, no one really asks the asinine question, 'Is torture terrible?' because it's already been answered:"

Torture, George Washington told his troops in 1775, brings "shame, disgrace, and ruin" to the country; earlier this month, Sen. John McCain called the CIA's enhanced interrogation tactics "shameful and unnecessary" and decried their employment. The UN expressly banned torture in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and twice underlined the position in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in 1966) and Convention Against Torture (adopted in 1984). Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions (1949) prohibits "violence of life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture," as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." Finally, torture is illegal in the U.S. under federal law.

"Scalia's is a truly frightening piece of rhetoric," she continues, "an interpretation of the Eighth Amendment so narrow as to render it nearly irrelevant:"

Scalia implies that the emphasis of the Eighth Amendment is on "punishment," not "cruel and unusual." Scalia envisions a simple timeline between crime, apprehension, and punishment, seeming to think that the state can do anything it wants to a prisoner, detainee, enemy combatant, whatever--so long as it does not constitute officially meted-out punishment, which to Scalia means one thing: sentencing. In other words, torturing someone in the service of coercion, interrogation, or investigation is fine, right up to when a court assigns culpability and adjudicates consequences, at which point torture instantly becomes punishment and becomes impermissible.

In explaining how the rich get richer by staying hidden, Henry Grabar tells of Star Island (near Miami Beach), where "a vacant lot sold for $10 million this summer:"

It's rare to come face to face with such heights of personal wealth in this country. The grandest homes are squired away, Biltmore-style, on large estates. The next class of mansions hides behind walls, gates or dense horticulture.

As "the top end of the country's wealth spectrum has grown more and more obscure," he writes, "Opulence lurks unseen:"

That may be one reason Americans don't seem to rally around inequality as a political issue: It's hard to see. The tremendous concentration of wealth at the upper end of America's income spectrum isn't reflected in our daily experience of the world. On paper, this may be another Gilded Age. In person, it doesn't look like it.

Meanwhile, the finance industry is gorging itself because, thanks to compound interest rates, "those who wield the power of debt, wields enormous economic power:"

In our society we've given that power to private financial corporations, and they've done a masterful job in pushing us to the brink of debt peonage.

"Therefore," the piece observes, "key to controlling runaway inequality is to dramatically curtail the power of high finance:"

Before 1990, the average consumer limited household debt to about 40% of disposable income (income we can spend after we pay our taxes). But after modern financial engineering invaded the housing and credit card markets (making it possible even for dead people to obtain mortgages) household debt soared to nearly 160% of household income.

The more households paid to service their growing debt, the more money flowed into the financial sector. Rising inequality followed.

The effects of tax rates on inequality are well noted here:

Throughout the ages, the wealthy would rather loan the government money than pay taxes. The reason is simple. When the wealthy loan money to governments (historically to fight wars) they stand to make more money in return. Not so if they are taxed.

In the modern era, this is even more true since government debt instruments pay interest that often is tax deducible. The rich benefit by loaning money to government and having the rest of us pay it back through our taxes, not theirs.

On the income side of the ledger, Naked Capitalism's Ed Walker explains what the market says you're worth:

Even as more low paid workers take to the streets to demand an increase in the minimum wage, there are plenty of people ready to tell you that labor markets pay you what you are worth, so if you get $9.35 per hour for 30 random hours a week, that's what you are worth. I hear this from lots of people who should know better, college-educated people holding well-paying jobs in the corporate world, even women who must know that on average women are paid less than men doing the same job. One reason people believe this obviously false idea must be the theory of marginal productivity of labor taught for decades in colleges and high schools.

He asks, "if most economists think so little of [marginal productivity theory], why does it survive?"

Maybe it's because the distribution it describes is supposed to arise from the operation of Natural Law. As such, it fits neatly with Invisible Hand mumbo-jumbo. Natural Law isn't a testable or usable theory. Instead, it is a normative theory. It tells you what the writer thinks is the moral and righteous position. People who tell you marginal productivity theory is true want you to think that current distribution of income is natural and just, and that any other distribution would be unjust, unfair to someone.

That's what that Natural Law stuff means: the income you get from the labor market is what it Should Be, and if you get more, you're taking it away from someone. Maybe that someone is another worker, but more likely, you're stealing from the owners of the things used in production: the return to which the capital owner and the land owner are entitled by virtue of the Natural Law.

Paul Krugman looks at presidents and the economy, observing that "serious analyses of the Reagan-era business cycle place very little weight on Reagan, and emphasize instead the role of the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy and is largely independent of the political process:"

Reagan got the political credit for "morning in America," but Mr. Volcker was actually responsible for both the slump and the boom.

The point is that normally the Fed, not the White House, rules the economy. Should we apply the same rule to the Obama years?

Not quite.

For one thing, the Fed has had a hard time gaining traction in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, because the aftermath of a huge housing and mortgage bubble has left private spending relatively unresponsive to interest rates. This time around, monetary policy really needed help from a temporary increase in government spending, which meant that the president could have made a big difference. And he did, for a while; politically, the Obama stimulus may have been a failure, but an overwhelming majority of economists believe that it helped mitigate the slump.

Since then, however, scorched-earth Republican opposition has more than reversed that initial effort. In fact, federal spending adjusted for inflation and population growth is lower now than it was when Mr. Obama took office; at the same point in the Reagan years, it was up more than 20 percent.

I enjoyed his concluding remarks: "Do those who were blaming Mr. Obama for all our economic ills now look like knaves and fools? Yes, they do. And that's because they are."

Salon summarizes that "conservatives have egg on their faces," but the Red Staters no doubt consider it a black mark against liberals who aren't patriotic enough to wear egg.

In discussing art for data's sake, Leann Davis Alspaugh wonders, "Whatever happened to contemplation?"

One of the last bastions of quiet reflection used to be the art museum. Once through the museum's heavy doors, past the security guards and the moneychangers at the admission desk, one could enter the galleries where beautiful objects offered edification, pleasure, and even repose. First stop, the favorites, and then on to a serendipitous encounter with something around the next corner.

Now, we have the inevitable advent of the smartphone into the museum gallery. This one-stop portal has mostly replaced the audio guide and visitors now read or listen to downloaded guides through their own earbuds.

"Don't be surprised if, while you linger in front of a Caravaggio," she says, "a coupon for a cappuccino in the museum café pops up on your phone." She also anticipates "ever more intrusive invasions of our privacy in the name of convenience, points, and rewards:"

It used to be that museums were satisfied with allowing the art to speak for itself. Have museums lost confidence in culture to be self-sustaining? Can we no longer trust our institutions to fulfill their mission of enrichment unless there also be a monetary incentive? For years, the arts have struggled to assert their value to society strictly in terms of education. Learning, however, is a reciprocal experience for which the individual is just as much responsible as the orchestra, the opera house, and the art museum.

Sadly, she concludes that "here in the art museum--a singular repository of edifying images--we may be quickly losing the ability to see."

teen brains

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This excerpt from The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults uses a demonstration using two volunteers to unpack the girls-mature-faster-than-boys belief, stripping it of moralizing:

Then she told them she was going to ask each of them to name as many words beginning with a certain letter as they could, given a time limit of one minute [but] by the time a minute is up he's lucky if he has named half as many words as the girl.

There is a reason, she explained, that the girl did so much better than the boy and that in a couple of years that difference will be negated. The ability to fire off the words actually relies on two distinct brain areas: the parietotemporal area, where speech and language are processed; and the frontal lobe, which controls decision-making. The task the two teens were asked to perform requires both language and rapid decision-making, and at the age of thirteen, girls are simply further along in having those two required brain areas wired together.

The observation that "there truly are anatomical, physiological differences between an adolescent girl's brain and an adolescent boy's" is detailed here:

The amygdala, where emotions generally arise, develops about eighteen months sooner in girls than in boys in early adolescence. The hippocampus also develops earlier, and there are differences between males and females, with the two sides of the hippocampus being asymmetrical in men and symmetrical in women. This is consistent with other data showing higher levels of side-to-side connectivity in females in general [but] no causal link has ever been established between gender-based variations in brain development and the cognitive abilities of females versus males.

Steve Neumann makes a case against in-your-face atheism:

I spend much of my time criticizing my fellow atheists. While I agree with the goal of making atheism a socially and politically acceptable movement, there is a type of "firebrand atheism" that I believe is hindering its progress.

The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, defines firebrand atheism as simply telling the truth about religion, with the emphasis on the telling.

He also observes that "How we go about attacking what's bad and wrong about religion as well as promoting what's good and right about atheism matters" and suggests that we "cut back on an approach that relies on ridicule and contempt for others' sense of belief and identity:"

It undermines the kind of self-affirmation that is needed for sincere believers to be open to changing their beliefs--or at least be more accepting of atheism.

A rebuttal from Adam Lee, however, details the importance of firebrand atheism:

For purposes of this post, I define firebrand atheism as unapologetically arguing that religion is false and harmful, including elements of polemic and ridicule, even if it causes some believers to take offense.

Lee calls this position "naïve" because "People's political beliefs are tied into their sense of self and community every bit as much as their religious beliefs are, and in fact the two are often one and the same:"

We've seen this over and over in the last few years: climate change, gun control, health care reform, same-sex marriage and many other political issues have all been framed by religious conservatives as patriotic Americans who believe in the Bible and the Constitution defending our precious freedoms against those commie liberal queers who want to take them all away.

Neumann makes an assumption that he doesn't support: namely, that we have a choice between criticizing religion while remaining likable and making a take-no-prisoners critique that alienates people. Most outspoken atheists, I find, soon arrive at the realization that religion has contrived to arrange matters so that you can't criticize it without being seen as rude.

He notes that "if the choice is between speaking out, knowing it will offend some people, versus keeping silent altogether, I know which one I pick" and concludes by saying that "Likability is an important thing, but it's not the only thing:"

In some cases, it may be that sharp criticism and ridicule cause individual believers to dig in their heels. But this has to be balanced against the cumulative effect of the firebrand strategy on everyone who might witness it from the sidelines. A suitably strong critique undermines the legitimacy of beliefs whose holders view them as sacred and above criticism, and in the long run, brings about a society where it's more normal and accepted to not hold those beliefs.
Rmuse notes that with a stroke of his pen, Obama can lift 10.4 million workers into the middle class, and points out how "the average American's is well-aware that their financial situation is not improving and it is due in great part to stagnating wages that the incoming Koch Congress will perpetuate and if possible make much worse:"
Millions of Americans actually earn more than the minimum wage, yet they are still barely making it compared to thirty years ago. The big difference is that there has not been an increase in threshold for salaried workers to earn overtime pay since the 1970's. Subsequently, it has contributed greatly to the income inequality crushing their financial situation and a major factor in the demise of the middle class while corporations and big business are reaping inordinate wealth. As it works out economically, "fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers." It may not, in fact, be the be all, end all, to rebuild the vanishing middle class, but according to noted economists, "it is an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class." It is also something that President Obama can unilaterally change with a stroke of his pen over an executive order that will leave Republicans, the Koch brothers, Heritage Foundation, Wall Street, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and corporate CEOs bitching loudly that Obama is an overreaching dictator; but well within his Executive Branch constitutional power. According to the decades old Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there is a nominal wage level below which every worker qualifies for mandatory time-and-a-half overtime pay; even if they are on a salary. Like many economic protections for American workers, that level has only been raised once since 1975, and compared to the 65% of salaried employees earning overtime pay in 1975, only 11% are covered today. What that means for salaried workers is if that if they make one penny over $23,660 annually (poverty level for a family of three), they are not entitled to overtime pay regardless if they work 41 hours a week or 80. It is a bonanza for businesses, particularly large corporations, and the reason why last year House Republicans passed a so-called "jobs bill" eliminating overtime pay for all workers. As one of the House's storied jobs bills the Democratically-controlled Senate would not consider, it will be one the Koch Senate will pass easily.

Ussher's history

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This excerpt from Martin Rudwick's Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters is interesting. Speaking of the notorious James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Rudwick writes that "Ussher's world history embodied the best scholarly practice of his time [and] is therefore a good starting point for understanding the origins of our modern conception of the Earth's deep history:"

4004 BC was just one proposal in a crowded field ranging (according to one survey) from 4103 BC to 3928 BC. Scaliger, for example, had decided on 3949 BC, and Isaac Newton--a keen chronologist among many other things--later settled for 3988 BC. [...]

It is only by historical accident that Ussher's 4004 BC has become the best known of all such dates and now the most notorious, at least in the English-speaking world. Almost half a century after Ussher's death, a scholarly English bishop included a long string of Ussher's dates among his own editorial notes in the margins of his new edition of the "Authorized" or "King James" translation of the Bible into English, which had originally been published with the authority of Ussher's royal patron back in 1611. Ussher's dates remained there, by custom or inertia, in successive editions of the Bible in English, right through the 18th century and most of the 19th, although they were never formally authorized by either church or state.

babies in blue

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The AP reported on another NYPD temper tantrum from the Babies in Blue:

Thousands of city police officers turned their backs Sunday as they watched Mayor Bill de Blasio eulogize an officer shot dead with his partner, repeating a stinging display of scorn for the mayor despite entreaties from the police commissioner not to do so.

Are their egos really that fragile?

In discussing religion's sinister fairy tale and the fight for reason, Salon's Jeffrey Tayler offers some kind words to Reza Aslan for "resurrect[ing] a word the late Christopher Hitchens, now three years departed, used to describe himself: antitheist:" As he commented, "I'm happy to be labeled an antitheist. Or an atheist. It makes no difference to me:"

The point is, I do not, cannot, believe, and do not wish to believe. I have never envied people of faith their worldview, never esteemed the ability to consider something true without evidence, never respected as morally superior those who manage this feat of credulity and illogicality. For that matter, I have never had an experience for which I sought a religious - that is, supernatural or superstitious - explanation. For Aslan, though, the semantic distinction between "atheist" and "antitheist" is key and intended to discredit those speaking out for rationalism and against religion.

However, he disparages Aslan for his remarks that it wasn't "atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so."

Tayler calls this "Untrue:"

In both countries, faith enjoyed nominal constitutional protection as a private matter and was never outlawed, lingering on despite official efforts to the contrary. Militantly atheist, the communist governments of the two countries opposed religion because it rivaled the all-encompassing state ideology they were bent on inculcating in their subjects. This was particularly true in the case of Russia, where the tsar had claimed a divine right to the throne and ruled as God's viceroy on earth, and the Russian Orthodox Church functioned as an arm of the state. Lenin and then Stalin waged a decimating war on the Old (faith-buttressed) Order, with the clergy numbering heavily among their countless victims, with many houses of worship destroyed or expropriated. But Stalin eventually had to backpedal and enlist the Church to help him rally the masses in World War II. The point is, both Russia and China aimed to break resistance to their versions of Marxism, with the goal of establishing dictatorial temporal power.

"Rationalists," Tayler writes, "are assertively making their case" today in a vastly different environment:

...because religion, since the Reagan years, has been abandoning the realm of private conscience (where it has every right to be) and intruding itself into national life, with politicians and public figures flaunting their belief, advocating and (passing) legislation that restricts women's reproductive rights, attempting to impose preposterous fairy tales (think intelligent design) on defenseless children in science classes, and even, in the case of Texas, recasting the Constitution in school textbooks as a document inspired by the Bible. Abroad, militants pursuing Islamist agendas have been raining death and destruction on entire populations, with religious extremism the main cause of terrorism the world over. [...] No one who cares about our future can quietly abide the continuing propagation and influence of apocalyptic fables that large numbers of people take seriously and not raise a loud, persistent, even strident cry of alarm. [...]

Reza calls New Atheism "a reactionary phenomenon." He is right about that, in one sense: nonbelievers have taken to reacting vociferously against attempts of the past decades to drag us all, in the name of faith and our own good, away from secularism and the Enlightenment, and back toward a more primitive age.

evolving

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Is it true that god is on the ropes?

The Christian right's obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but [...] Darwin also didn't have anything to say about how life got started in the first place -- which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who's proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. "[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life," he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that's since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he's saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

The explanation is intriguing:

The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life. [...]

If England's theory works out, it will obviously be an epochal scientific advance. But on a lighter note, it will also be a fitting rebuke to pseudo-scientific creationists, who have long mistakenly claimed that thermodynamics disproves evolution (here, for example), the exact opposite of what England's work is designed to show -- that thermodynamics drives evolution, starting even before life itself first appears, with a physics-based logic that applies equally to living and non-living matter. [...]

Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order. [...] If order from disorder is supposed to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, why is it ubiquitous in nature?

The Quanta article will be of little comfort to those invested in the status quo:

England's theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. "I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong," he explained. "On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon."

The paper "Statistical Physics of Self-Replication" (PDF) opens with this passage:

Every species of living thing can make a copy of itself by exchanging energy and matter with its surroundings. One feature common to all such examples of spontaneous "self-replication" is their statistical irreversibility [and] this observation contains an intriguing hint of how the properties of self-replicators must be constrained by thermodynamic laws, which dictate that irreversibility is always accompanied by an increase of entropy.

time to retire?

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This excerpt from Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It reminds us that "Just 30 years ago, most American workers were able to stop working in their early sixties and enjoy a long and comfortable retirement:"

This "golden age" of retirement security reflected the culmination of efforts that started more than a century ago when employers first set up pensions. Gradually, over decades, we built an effective system with Social Security and Medicare as the universal foundation and traditional pensions--where the employer was responsible for all the saving and investment decisions--providing a solid supplement for about half the workforce. The increasing provision of retirement support allowed people to retire earlier and earlier.

Sadly, "This brief golden age is now over [and] our retirement income systems are contracting just as our need for retirement income is growing:"

On the income side, Social Security is replacing less of our preretirement income; traditional defined benefit pension plans have been displaced by 401(k)s with modest balances; and employers are dropping retiree health benefits. On the needs side, longer lifespans, rising health care costs, and low interest rates all require a much bigger nest egg to maintain our standard of living. The result of all these changes is that millions of us will not have enough money for the comfortable retirement that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

While "traditional pensions are rapidly disappearing, replaced by 401(k) plans," many are left out. The author mentions that "those with a 401(k) are the lucky ones; half of today's private sector workers don't have any employer-sponsored retirement plan:"

So what can we do--as individuals and as a nation? There are only three options. The first is to simply accept that we are going to be poor in retirement. The second is to save more while working, which means spending less today. The third is to work longer, which means fewer years in retirement. Those are our only options.

The author glosses over the idea of increasing SS payouts by decreasing the eligibility age--which could be funded by removing the cap on contributions. Instead, the proposals offered are anti-retirement, suggesting that government should be "vigorously promoting age 70 as the new 65:"

It should also consider raising Social Security's Earliest Eligibility Age from 62 to, say, 64. (At the same time, we need to find a solution for those of us who simply cannot work longer due to health problems or outdated job skills.)

We need a solution, all right--but I don't see much here.

Mark Danner's piece on the new politics of torture is worth a read:

Hugh Eakin: What are some of the most revealing findings of the Senate report?

Mark Danner: There is a lot in the executive summary that we already knew but that is now told in appalling detail that we hadn't seen before. The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques; the totality of their effect when taken together--walling, close-confinement, water-dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed "rectal rehydration," and various other disgusting and depraved things--is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself. [...]

The White House, including the offices of the president and the vice-president, and the National Security Council--these three vital areas of decision-making still have not been examined. And there's a reason for that. The Republicans refused to sign on to the Senate investigation unless these areas were put beyond the committee's ken. The original vote by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to pursue the CIA investigation in 2009 was 14-1, and they got the Republicans on board by agreeing not to look at the executive. As it was, most of the Republicans jumped ship and abandoned the report anyway. Now, in their own 167-page summary of their "minority views," they attack the report for "faulty analysis, serious inaccuracies, and misrepresentations of fact" and argue that the program was essential to gaining vital intelligence that saved many lives. But they present no convincing evidence.

Danner notes, as have many other experts, that "These techniques, we should remember, were not only depraved, immoral, illegal; they were counterproductive." He also takes issue with Obama's statement that "we need to be looking forward and not backward:"

When any kind of accountability--investigation, prosecution, all such activities--are the heart of looking backward. And he says we need to be looking forward. [...]

We're in this surrealistic world, in which, twelve years after these decisions to use torture have secretly been made, we're seeing a public effort at disinformation spreading throughout the country, through all the media outlets, cheerleading for torture. It's quite an astonishing thing: torture, which used to be illegal, which used to be anathema, has now become a policy choice.

cop stop

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ThinkProgress writes that the NYPD work stoppage benefits low-income New Yorkers, who have seen "a 66 percent drop from the same period last year:"

While the protests have drawn scrutiny for "squandering the department's credibility" and leaving the city's streets virtually unattended, they have also had the unintended effect of benefitting New York's low income residents who are usually the target of the city's tough-on-crime practices. [...]

NYPD officers have long spoken about quotas which require them to issue a certain number of summons per month to maintain statistics showing a reduction of crime in the city's neighborhoods. Although Bratton promised an end to arrest quotas when he took office in January, the city's police are still operating under a quota system which is illegal under state law, according to a recent report by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

The Progressive takes a peek behind the charter-school facade, observing that in the wake of when Hurricane Katrina "New Orleans is now a 100 percent charter district." This is problematic because Louisiana charter schools "have intensified segregation by race and poverty." NOLA's schools initially "appeared to do well enough," but:

The truth became public only in 2014 when the state performed an audit that showed Vallas's schools had purged under-performing students to artificially inflate their performance scores and graduation rates.

Additionally, "the shiny new schools were built about as far away from the poorest communities as they could be:"

These schools are theoretically open to the entire state, but do not provide transportation. They also require many hours of "service" from parents. Service time increases per child enrolled. Charter schools offer enrollment to all children on paper, but in the real world they do whatever they can to keep out the riffraff. [...] Charter schools often find ways to comb out the poorest of the poor. [...]

By requiring service at schools and transportation, charter schools know they can filter out the poorest children with the least involved parents. This gives charters an advantage over traditional schools that is not captured by data, since public schools must educate everyone. This "creaming" strategy actually burdens traditional schools by leaving them with the students who need the most support and who are the farthest behind. Despite these advantages, charter schools still post poorer performance than their demographics would warrant. However, most traditional media outlets don't understand this. Many of them have been bought, or they've bought the propaganda that charter schools are always an improvement over public schools.

difficult books

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Noah Berlatsky declares that readability is a myth and asks, "What's the most difficult book you've ever read?"

For me, at least within recent memory, there's no question--the book that was hardest for me to slog through, the book that I would have put down if I didn't have to read it for work, was E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey. [...]

"Difficult," when applied to literature, generally refers to works that are hard to read, hard to get through, hard to finish. [...] There are certainly some highbrow books with sesquipedalian sentences that I've had trouble getting through--Melville's interminable, rambling collection of anecdotes-to-nowhere about the Galapagos Islands, for example. But is my desire to stomp upon "The Encantadas" until it can trouble me no more really categorically different than my desire to hurl John Grisham (or at least his books) from a height?

In the first case, I know, the fault is supposed to be in me, that I have failed to look deeply enough into the work of a master. In the second case, most people would say the fault is in John Grisham's shockingly vapid prose and brain-dead plots. But in both cases, the experience is one of repulsion, boredom, alienation. Melville and Grisham: They're both difficult for me to read.

rational rioting

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Jacobin explains why rioting is sometimes rational:

Long before broken windows, the partisans of law and order claimed that protests are bound to cause riots, and that riots are bound to cause violent crime and neighborhood decline. In the decades since the urban uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, the myth of the "riot effect" has been deployed to rationalize the massive expansion of urban police forces and with it, the escalation of policing to the level of low-intensity warfare.

Fifty years after the Watts Rebellion, and more than four months after the first shots were fired in Ferguson, we continue to hear the same refrain [that] property owners and officers of the peace are the hapless victims, while targets of state terror are the aggressors.

The "riot effect" narrative's "fatal flaw [is] the assumption that 'riots' are essentially random occurrences," destroying the supposition that "civil resistance has nothing to do with the underlying conditions that make it rational to rebel, or with the relations of power that make other avenues of action unavailable to the urban poor:"

What, then, are those alternatives? The first is an economic one...the collapse of their industrial base -- the result of which has been a decline in demand for less-skilled labor and the growth and ghettoization of a surplus population. [...]

A second explanation centers on the role of institutionalized racism. [...] Segregation went hand in hand with practices like redlining and blockbusting, driven by private developers, mortgage lenders, and the white elite. Such practices likely did more to depress property values than a riot possibly could. More importantly, they maintained a black ghetto wildly profitable for white capital.

A third alternative links the fate of the inner city to the dynamics of class struggle in the North. Rebellions have tended to occur in cities where black workers also engaged in other forms of disruptive power, such as strikes and demonstrations.

It is as rational for communities capitalism deems superfluous to rebel as it is profitable for white power players to keep them in their place. But when the apologists for this state of affairs turn to social science for backup, it is worth remembering that their claims to truth remain as questionable as their claims to legitimacy.

AlterNet lists 9 ways the Bible condones torture, noting that "the strongest approval [for torture] com[es] from Christians, both Catholic and Protestant:"

Faced with moral outrage, including from within their own ranks, Christian torture apologists took to the airwaves and the Internet, weaving righteous justifications for the practice of inflicting pain on incapacitated enemies.

As morally repugnant as this may be, anyone familiar with either past survey data or Christian history shouldn't find it surprising. [I noted this previously in 2009 and 2006.]

There's a reason devout Christians past and present can turn to torture when it suits their ends and then blithely maintain that they are on the side of God and goodness. The Bible itself--Old Testament and New--endorses torture regularly, through stories, laws, prophesies and sermons, including from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Torture is utilized in nearly every imaginable way: as punishment (Eve's Curse "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth"), a test of loyalty (Job), for self-gratification (the sexual slavery of the Midianite virgins from Numbers 31:18), a show of strength ("I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt" from Exodus 7:3, wherein Jehovah "methodically terrorizes the Egyptian populace"), correction (The Law and Proverbs), vengeance (Elisha's Curse from II Kings 2:23-24), and persuasion (extraordinary rendition in the "wicked servant" story from Matthew 18:34-35).

"In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Of course, there's also the redemptive torture of Jesus, and--worst of all--the eternal torture of the afterlife:

The torture most taught by modern Evangelicals is neither redemptive nor terminal; it is infinite. Perdition, Hades, Gehenna, the lake of fire, outer darkness, eternal torment--hell represents the most intense and most prolonged torture the Iron Age mind could conceive and the Medieval mind could elaborate.

Religious believers often claim that without a god everything is permissible. I tend to think that the opposite is true. Without gods we are guided, however imperfectly, by empathy, fairness and truth-seeking--impulses that are built into us by our evolution as social information specialists. [...]

By contrast, religious morality, dictated from on high, can be as contradictory or cruel as the god doing the dictation, or the culture that created that god. When god is the supernatural version of an Iron Age warlord, everything becomes possible--including torture.

As a supplement check out what the Bible says about torture from Skeptics Annotated Bible. It's all rather horrific.

Addicting Info's Jameson Parker writes that, on Christmas Day no less, the Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed by Eric Metaxas claiming that "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God" (paywalled). Not surprisingly, the piece was "a meandering journey into the mind of a creationist playing at scientific literacy - but only when it suited his predetermined conclusions." Parker remarks:

In a letter to the editor, Krauss systematically dismantles Metaxas' shallow science and demonstrates that, not only has science not proven God's existence (or disproven!), but most of the assumptions Metaxas makes are flat-out wrong.

Parker quotes from astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss' open letter to the WSJ:

Religious arguments for the existence of God thinly veiled as scientific arguments do a disservice to both science and religion, and by allowing a Christian apologist to masquerade as a scientist WSJ did a disservice to its readers.

The NYT mentions that the NYPD denies an organized slowdown:

Mr. Bratton said on Monday that a "weeklong period of mourning" and demonstrations that were straining resources were contributing to the drop-off in arrests and summonses. But he said the slowdown should not concern New Yorkers. "I would point out it has not had an impact on the city's safety at all," Mr. Bratton said.

A top union official flatly denied that there was a job action and pointed to the orders to double up and the need to police demonstrations as the main reasons.

"No one has sanctioned a slowdown or stoppage," said Edward Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. "That is not something that anybody came out and said to do."

The article goes on to observe that "one senior police official who reviewed precinct-level data across the city said the decline had the signs of an organized effort and was continuing this week" and that "the drop-off in activity in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in Downtown Brooklyn could not explain the sharp slowdown in routine enforcement in each of the city's 77 police precincts:"

In the week after Officers Ramos and Liu were killed on Dec. 20, the number of summonses for minor criminal offenses, as well as those for parking and traffic violations, decreased by more than 90 percent versus the same week a year earlier. And arrests over seven major categories of felony offenses were nearly 40 percent lower, the numbers show.

RJ Eskow argues rather forcefully that even atheists should capitalize god:

I understand why some atheists might want to write "god" instead of "God." If you believe that the word describes a human phenomenon rather than a genuine and existent deity, it might seem appropriate to use the lowercase form. But it's not. If you are referring to the singular and all-powerful deity of monotheistic tradition, you are using a proper name. That means the capital "G" is a must.

No, his name is Jehovah (or Yahweh)...'god' is a title. I recognize no god just like I obey no master (or must I write 'Master'?). Blue Letter Bible provides this list of names for the Judeo-Christian deity:

El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty) El Elyon (The Most High God) Adonai (Lord, Master) Yahweh (Lord, Jehovah) Jehovah Nissi (The Lord My Banner) Jehovah-Raah (The Lord My Shepherd) Jehovah Rapha (The Lord That Heals) Jehovah Shammah (The Lord Is There) Jehovah Tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness) Jehovah Mekoddishkem (The Lord Who Sanctifies You) El Olam (The Everlasting God) Elohim (God) Qanna (Jealous) Jehovah Jireh (The Lord Will Provide) Jehovah Shalom (The Lord Is Peace) Jehovah Sabaoth (The Lord of Hosts)

The god of the Jews, the god of the Christians, the god of the Moslems, the gods of the Hindus--they all matter naught to me, but Eskow still disagrees:

When you don't capitalize a proper name like God's, you're violating a fundamental principle of grammar.

You heard me right: grammar! You don't want to violate the laws of grammar, do you? I mean, seriously: Is nothing sacred?

I would say "No," but Gahan Wilson might respond differently:

20150101-isnothingsacred.jpg

In case you missed it in the two years since Obama's re-election, we're still waiting for conservatives' failed predictions of catastrophe. Just within the economic realm, they stoked fears of expensive gas (Newt Gingrich predicted "$10 a gallon" gas, but it's now hovering around $2.24), high unemployment ("Romney pledged that, if elected, he could bring the unemployment rate down to 6% by January 2017 [but] The unemployment rate currently stands at 5.8% and has been under 6% since September 2014."), a stock market crash (fears that "the stock market would drop at least 20%"were followed by the Dow rising over 35% since Obama's reelection) and a collapsing economy (Rush "I know mathematics, and I know economics. I know history" Limbaugh predicted that "the country's economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected," but our economy grew at 5% in the 3rd quarter, up from 4.6% growth in the previous quarter).

I wonder: When does Shariah Law get implemented? How about the ACA death panels? Gun confiscation? FEMA death camps? Martial law? Suspension of the Constitution? Railroad cars full of Christians? Aren't we overdue for pillars of fire or a plague of locusts?

Poor conservatives--their predictions are always wrong, but they're so consumed with the next faux outrage that they never notice.

Does anyone remember Ted Nugent's claim (way back in April 2012) that he'd "either be dead or in jail by this time next year"?

Get on the ball, Obama...your destroy-America plans are failing quite miserably.

Speaking of fear, hatred, and failure, AlterNet looks at why conservatives despise Neil Degrasse Tyson:

While most of the country was spending the Christmas holiday relaxing with friends and family, many conservatives were working themselves into an angry frenzy over a perceived offense over a silly culture war issue. The target was scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who took to Twitter on Christmas Day to write, "On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642."

Right-wing Christians, already primed to be hostile to anyone who values evidence and facts over myths about the supernatural, claimed that Tyson was deliberately provoking them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson... has become a punching bag for the right, where they can work out all their hostility to science and reason, while all pretending to be victims of some great Tyson-led anti-religion conspiracy.

Of course. Tyson "isn't wholly innocent in all this:"

He enjoys teasing conservatives about their reflexive hostility to science, correctly understanding that their anti-science sentiment does get in the way of scientific discovery and education. His little trolling moments are about exposing how anti-science conservatives are a pack of fools, unable to explain exactly why they believe they are entitled to hear flattering lies instead of objective truths that hurt their feelings. So yeah, he's trolling. But his targets deserve to be trolled, and we're all better off because he's forcing this discussion.

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