June 2018 Archives

Boston Review's injunction "don't let them eat cake" by Lawrence Glickman calls the SCOTUS Masterpiece Cakeshop decision "a terrible trend of valuing businesses more than employees and customers:"

The New York Times called the decision--which favored Phillips's right to refuse service for religious reasons--"narrow" because it did not rule on the broader issue of discrimination against gay men and lesbians based on rights protected by the First Amendment. However, in terms of the relationship between capital and labor, the decision was anything but narrow. The Court's majority opinion, written by Kennedy, is remarkable for its uncanny and unproblematic conflation of Phillips, the baker, and his business, the bakery. By insisting that the key issues in the case are Phillips's artistic expression and his religious liberty, the Court was silent on the question of how a company can possess these rights. It did so by assuming not only that corporations are people, but that the cakes made by Masterpiece Cakeshop are produced by Phillips alone, when in fact we know that the bakery has other workers.

Pay attention to the pronouns in Clarence Thomas' statement that "He is not open on Sunday, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need."

Presumably, Thomas meant to suggest that Phillips did not open his business on Sunday. But Thomas literally wrote instead that Phillips himself "is not open on Sunday." Since it is impossible for a person to close or be open on Sunday or any other day of the week, Thomas here marked the extent to which the Court identified Phillips with the bakery.

Glickman notes that "the language of Phillips himself, who in a 2014 video for the New York Times alternated between using 'we' and 'I' to describe the work of the bakery.) By extension, this means that the religious views and artistic contribution of the company's workers are irrelevant:"

Phillips's employees are merely props in Thomas's morality tale--figures who receive the boss's Christian charity but are otherwise unmentioned and invisible. The decision renders their status as workers for Phillips's limited-liability company morally and legally immaterial. [...]

In the same stroke that the Court effaced Phillips's workers, it also stinted consumers. Writing for the Court, Kennedy viewed "the customer's right to goods and services," not as the essence of U.S. free enterprise, but as a potential threat to Phillip's right to "personal expression." From the perspective of the Court, the rights of producers not only trump those of consumers, but should be understood, not as corporate prerogatives, but as reflections of the artistic and religious temperament of one person--what the Court called "the deeply held beliefs" of the business owner. Of course, this is not new to the Roberts court: this way of treating businesses as though they were individuals capable of possessing deeply-held beliefs has already been enshrined by previous Court rulings, notably 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and, after a different fashion, 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

"The Masterpiece Bakeshop is a small business," Glickman points out, "but it is also a limited-liability company, a distinct entity, legally separate from its owners:"

Yet the Court's decision, with its focus on Phillips, treats the cakes made by the bakery as though each one personifies Phillips's Christian values. Leaving aside fundamental issues of gay rights and freedom of expression in order to build a strong majority, the justices collaterally ratified a radical view of corporate personhood. They did so by leaning on language consistent with the broader conservative view of the business firm, small or large, as a victimized person, deserving of individual rights and protections that no longer are granted to actual workers. Viewing the desires of consumers not as the engine of the economy, but as a potential constraint upon the autonomy and selfhood of the business owner, the Court drew upon a conservative history of defining free enterprise as freedom for sellers and manufacturers rather than liberty for customers.

Baratunde Thurston's Medium piece what Google and Facebook know about you explains "How to do a data detox, in a zillion easy steps:"

I focused on the platforms I use most--Google and Facebook--as well as my my favorite note-taking app, Evernote. Like many people who have taken a sudden interest in their digital privacy, I was startled by what I learned. [...]

I'm someone who's been online since the mid-1990s. I've worked in the digital media and advertising businesses. I understand that our data is being collected to make products more useful to us and to make us more useful to advertisers. But seeing the surveillance economy all in one place made that truth more stark--and more unsettling.

"I finished my Google-data detox with a mixture of satisfaction and wariness," he writes, but "Google was entry-level detox. When I moved on to Facebook, I pretty much lost it:"

I was briefly amused by the discrepancies between the real me and the picture painted by Facebook, but it also prompted a question: How accurate do I want my data portrait to be if it is being used primarily to encourage me to part with my time, attention, and money? I toyed with the idea of whether or not, in the interest of my own privacy, I ought to obscure the real me with misleading signals.

What if I started liking Facebook pages about guns and engaging with content about white nationalism (or, worse, electronic dance music)? Of course, if I did that, I would also hinder the platform's ability to provide value by knowing as much as it does about me.

Thurston offers some interesting questions:

Did I want to spend my time and energy making Facebook less efficient and more chaotic for myself? Is that what it would take to be truly free--to inconvenience myself by pretending to be someone else?

"A New Tech Manifesto," also by Thurston, is subtitled "Six demands, from a citizen to Big Tech:"

Here is my first draft proposal for restoring some balance and trust between the tech companies that are shaping the future and we the people.

1. Offer Real Transparency Around Data Collection and Usage

2. Change Data Defaults from Open to Closed

3. Respect Our Right to Our Own Data

4. Diversify Who's At the Table

The power of technology to shape the future of literally everything means that the people in the drivers' seats--the entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors--wield incredible power. But being a good software engineer does not qualify you to engineer society, politics, economics, and beyond. Not alone.

Technology is created by people, and people have blind spots and biases. That's why tech companies need more diversity at the table -- people who think differently about ethics, privacy, and tech's ability to facilitate abuse.

5. Implement New Laws and New Rules

6. Enable Users to Collect and Analyze Our Own Data

Imagine if we used our collective data to help us be better neighbors, partners, artists, citizens, and humans, rather than just better products to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Imagine, too, if we could hold technology companies accountable by demanding that they share power more equitably with the people who use and enable their products and services.

Imagine it. Now let's go build it.

Thurston gives us plenty to think about...

Ataraxik answers the question What is Marxism? this way:

In a nutshell, Marxism can be summarized with one sentence: it's the theory that economics is the driving force - or the primary agent - of historical change, and that through class struggle between the working class (wage-laborers) and the bourgeoisie (the people who own the business, property, etc), we'll eventually come to a classless society.

"However," the explanation continues, "there are more tenets of the philosophy," and identifies the following as "The two most important foundations of a Marxian theory:"

Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is an attempt to understand history through the focus on society's development over time.

In other words, the material conditions of a society, ie how wealth is created, distributed, and who is in possession of it, determines how the society organizes itself including all social relations. [...]

Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Regarding dialectical materialism, for Marx and Engels, the material world is something which exists, independently of our perception of it. Ideas can rise only as reflections or products of the material world.

Historical materialism is an extension of dialectical materialism.

How lazy must one be to just scream "totalitarianism!" at every mention of Marx while and ignoring everything that he ever wrote?

In preparing for an upcoming mini-lecture on the subject of "Quality," I found a few sources related to Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality (from his novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila). First is this Philosophy Now piece:

In my PhD I closely analysed his Metaphysics of Quality, and concluded that although traditional philosophical concepts such as causation and truth are given unconventional meanings in Pirsig's writing, there is an advantage in using his system because it has an internal coherence lacking in metaphysical systems based on Plato's example. I had the good fortune to discuss these ideas extensively with Robert Pirsig himself, and have used extracts from some of his letters to clarify various points in what follows.

I also stumbled onto this Guardian interview from 2006, in which Tim Adams referred to ZAMM as "the best-selling philosophy book ever"--with sales of more than five million copies [the snark in me wonders if that's more than Atlas Shrugged...]. As Adams writes:

After the army he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry. It was when he picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching, that Phaedrus and his desire for truth overtook Pirsig once more.

At that time, he recalls, in his early thirties, he was so full of anxiety that he would often be physically sick before each class he taught. He used his students to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the 'metaphysics of quality' in his books, the ideas that led him to believe that he had bridged the chasm between Eastern and Western thought.

Pirsig's pre-ZAMM situation "is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment," he observes:

Midwestern American society of 1960 took the psychiatrist's view. Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. Looking back, he suggests he was just a man outside his time. 'It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself.'

That immune system left him with no job and no future in philosophy; his wife was mad at him, they had two small kids, he was 34 and in tears all day.

Pirsig said that ZAMM "was a compulsive thing. It started out of a little essay:"

When the book came out, in 1974, edited down from 800,000 words, and having been turned down by 121 publishers, it seemed immediately to catch the need of the time. George Steiner in the New Yorker likened it to Moby Dick. Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused). It has since taken on a life of its own, and though parts feel dated, its quest for meaning still seems urgent. For Pirsig, however, it has become a tragic book in some ways.

For those unfamiliar with the book:

At the heart of it was his relationship with his son, Chris, then 12, who himself, unsettled by his father's mania, seemed close to a breakdown. In 1979, aged 22, Chris was stabbed and killed by a mugger as he came out of the Zen Centre in San Francisco. [...]

When his son died, Pirsig was in England. He had sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, Wendy Kimball, 22 years his junior, whom he had met when she had come to interview him on his boat. She has never disembarked. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to his first book, which further examines Phaedrus's ideas in the context of a voyage along the Hudson, with Lila, a raddled Siren, as crew.

Dan Zigmond's reminiscence from the pages of Tricycle magazine is also interesting, for this observation in particular: "With the elder Pirsig's passing last month [24 April 2017, at the age of 88], both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us." The author's "long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs," Zigmond writes, "might just be the inspiration they need to understand life's great mysteries:"

Over 40 years after its initial publication, the book now also serves as something of a primary source for anyone studying the history of Buddhism in America, having been the first exposure to Zen for so many outside the Asian American community. And it remains equally fascinating for its purely autobiographical content, the account of one man's deep spiritual struggle and eventual glimpse of enlightenment. If Pirsig could confront his considerable demons and find some semblance of inner peace, perhaps there is hope for us all.

After reading Mark Richardson's Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a while back, I was planning to re-read ZAMM (I have done this periodically for ages, but it's been a while since the last time). In addition to that, I should also read the Di Santo/Steele Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as well as Lila and Dan Glover's book on it called Lila's Child: An Inquiry into Quality.

Another reading quest to undertake...

The Economist's look at data detectives discusses changes in "the relationship between information and crime"--all because "people generate more searchable information than they used to:"

Smartphones passively track and record where people go, who they talk to and for how long; their apps reveal subtler personal information, such as their political views, what they like to read and watch and how they spend their money. As more appliances and accoutrements become networked, so the amount of information people inadvertently create will continue to grow.

To track a suspect's movements and conversations, police chiefs no longer need to allocate dozens of officers for round-the-clock stakeouts. They just need to seize the suspect's phone and bypass its encryption. If he drives, police cars, streetlights and car parks equipped with automatic number-plate readers (ANPRs, known in America as automatic licence-plate readers or ALPRs) can track all his movements.

Despite these changes, "the gap between information technology and policy gapes ever wider:"

Most privacy laws were written for the age of postal services and fixed-line telephones. Courts give citizens protection from governments entering their homes or rifling through their personal papers. The law on people's digital presence is less clear. In most liberal countries, police still must convince a judge to let them eavesdrop on phone calls.

The piece points out that "data can be abused personally as well as constitutionally:"

A policeman in Washington, DC, was convicted of extortion for blackmailing the owners of cars parked near a gay bar. ANPR firms insist what they do is constitutional--in America the First Amendment protects public photography. But not everything constitutional is desirable. Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has admitted that ANPRs could have an impact on freedom by recording vehicles going to political gatherings, abortion clinics or other sensitive venues.

"The use of algorithms to tackle complex problems such as urban crime, or to try to forecast whether someone is likely to commit another crime," The Economist continues, "is not inherently alarming:"

An algorithm, after all, is just a set of rules designed to produce a result. Criminal justice algorithms organise and sort through reams of data faster and more efficiently than people can. But fears abound: that they remove decisions from humans and hand them to machines; that they function without transparency because their creators will not reveal their precise composition; that they punish people for potential, not actual, crimes; and that they entrench racial bias.

The article lists a few of the technological advances in question:

Acoustic sensors trained to recognise the sound of gunfire and send alerts to officers' mobile phones telling them when and where the shots were fired. Glasses that recognise faces and record everything. Drones equipped with high-definition video cameras. GPS readers and ANPRs, allowing for constant surveillance of entire swathes of a city. CCTV systems with embedded facial recognition that lets authorities track people in real time.

All of these new technological possibilities are upending a wide range of activities and the customs associated with them. Law enforcement is no different. But if citizens do not like how their doctor or hairdresser, or a social-media site, uses their data or tracks their purchases, they can go somewhere else. The state wields a monopoly on punishment through law enforcement. Police can arrest, and even kill, their fellow citizens. Judges have the power to imprison people. That makes transparency and public consent in the justice system essential.

Andrew Ferguson, author of a book on the subject, "suggests five questions that departments should answer before buying new technology:"

Can you identify the risks that the technology addresses? Can you ensure accurate data inputs? How will the technology affect community relations and policing practice? Can it be tested to ensure transparency and accountability? And will police use the technology in a manner that respects the autonomy of the people it will affect?

The old line about "more questions than answers" is as true as ever.

Godless Mom suggests that atheists get more joy out of life than theists. "The other day," she begins, "I noticed this tweet:"


Aside from the fact that Mary seems to have missed the point of the poem, Mary has offered up the same sentiment I hear from so many theists: atheists are joyless.

"Here are seven ways atheists are free to feel joy," she continues, "without the burden of dogmatic shame or guilt." I've excerpted some of her explanations, but they're worth reading in full:

1. Sex!

2. Celebrating the joy of others!

We find profound amounts of joy knowing we are on the right side of history, and even more joy can be derived from being able to separate ourselves from those who would judge another based solely on who they have fallen in love with. You see, trying to actively prevent certain people from loving certain people, is an act against love and against joy. It defies the very idea of joyful living.

3. Discovery!

4. Saying "I Don't Know"!

Saying, "I know for certain that God created us" gives you no need to further investigate our origins and eliminates the possibility of you learning something new about it. Saying we don't know, leaves us open to discovering something new about our existence... and that would be a discovery that would bring a great amount of joy to those who were open to learning about it.

5. Sunday mornings!

Godless Mom lists several sub-items, and then comments that "These are just a few of the things that bring more joy than a sore-bum from being stuck in a cold, hard pew, surrounded by corpses on crosses, listening to a man warn you of the eternal fires of hell."

6. The joy in knowing this life is all we have.

7. Masturbation!

8. No Hell to fear!

An atheist is free to live their lives without the fear of hell [...] believe in compassion and empathy and love, not torture. It's not so hard to believe that choosing compassion over eternal torture is a far more joyful way to live, is it?

9. We are not being watched!

Today's most populous religions come with deep shame. They make people feel guilty for who they are, and how their bodies function. Fear is driven into the devout and obedience is cultivated via threats of damnation. These things are directly incompatible with joy.

Facing facts is not cold or hard or joyless. Facing facts gives us freedom. It gives us the freedom to live with far more joy than your book would have you experience. It gives us the freedom to live life in reality and celebrate our own humanness.

Are atheists more joyful than religious people? I doubt we can prove that... but to assert that we are joyless is completely unfounded. We live with a great deal of joy... joy that many of you will never know.

gun laws

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NPR's Martin Kaste writes that "In the wake of the Parkland high school massacre, there's been renewed interest in 'red flag' laws, which allow courts and police to temporarily remove guns from people perceived to pose a threat." Kaste talked to clinical psychologist Aaron Kivisto, who researches gun violence prevention:

He's completed a new study study ["Effects of Risk-Based Firearm Seizure Laws in Connecticut and Indiana on Suicide Rates, 1981-2015"] of the effect of red flag laws in Connecticut and Indiana, two states that have had such laws on the books the longest.

"In Indiana, for example, there have been some years where 80 percent of all gun seizures have been due to a concern for suicide rather than homicide or domestic violence reasons," he said.

The results seem positive so far:

"In Indiana, after the enactment of the law [in 2005], we saw a 7.5 percent decrease in firearms suicides in the 10 years that followed," Kivisto said. "We didn't see any notable increase or decrease in non-firearms suicide." [...] "And so when we looked at it from 2007 and beyond, [gun suicides in Connecticut] decreased by 13.7 percent," Kivisto said.

Gun permit laws, do affect murder rates, according to this new study:

"Requiring handgun purchasers to obtain a license prior to purchase was associated with a 14 percent reduction in firearm homicide," says Cassandra Crifasi, at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. [...]

"There are lots of conversations right now about gun policies that are effective at reducing violence," she said, "and this study adds to a fairly robust and growing body of literature showing that requiring prospective handgun purchasers to obtain a license is one of the best policies to reduce violence."

update (8:15pm):
The ATF is beholden to the NRA, writes Jezebel:

In an apparent attempt to placate gun sellers and the gun lobby, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives routinely allows dealers that violate gun laws to hold on to their licenses. [...]

These violations go far beyond the routine clerical error made by a gun seller, which are often seen as innocuous as long as they are corrected. Instead, the Times report found repeat offenders who have sold guns to prohibited gun owners--like those with a felony conviction--as well as gun sellers who don't run background checks, and yet they still have a license to legally sell firearms.

The NYT's report is damning:

As they inspect the nation's gun stores, federal investigators regularly find violations of the law, ranging from minor record-keeping errors to illegal sales of firearms. In the most serious cases, like a sale of a gun to a prohibited buyer, inspectors often recommend that gun dealers lose their licenses.

But that rarely happens. Senior officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regularly overrule their own inspectors, allowing gun dealers who fail inspections to keep their licenses even after they were previously warned to follow the rules, according to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former law enforcement officials and a review of more than 100 inspection reports.

One store was cited for failing to conduct background checks before selling a gun. Another store owner told investigators he actively tried to circumvent gun laws. One threatened an A.T.F. officer, and another sold a gun to a customer who identified as a felon. All were previously cited by the A.T.F. In each instance, supervisors downgraded recommendations that the stores' licenses be revoked and instead let them stay open.

"Of about 11,000 inspections of licensed firearm dealers in the year starting in October 2016," the piece continues, "more than half were cited for violations. Less than 1 percent of all inspections resulted in the loss of a license." Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady campaign, summarizes: "There's a small number of gun dealers engaged in really irresponsible practices, putting everybody at risk, and the A.T.F. knows exactly who they are and allows them to continue operating." "The inspection process is further complicated by laws that govern record-keeping in the gun industry," notes the NYT, "which forbid the A.T.F. to keep records electronically:"

The A.T.F. has historically struggled to meet its goal of inspecting each licensed firearms dealer once every three to five years. The United States had more than 130,000 active federal firearms licensees in 2017, including dealers, manufacturers and pawnbrokers, according to the A.T.F.'s most recent statistics. Resource limitations have forced the bureau to prioritize some gun dealers over others.

bigot baker

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NYT's Adam Liptak explains the bigot baker's big win at Trump's conservative SCOTUS:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 7-2 decision, relied on narrow grounds, saying a state commission had violated the Constitution's protection of religious freedom in ruling against the baker, Jack Phillips, who had refused to create a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

"The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here," Justice Kennedy wrote. "The Civil Rights Commission's treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection."

Where is the verse declaring that same-sex couples can't have cake? Is it the same one that once prohibited African-Americans from eating at lunch counters?

Back to Liptak:

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Phillips's free speech rights had not been violated, noting that the couple had not discussed the cake's design before Mr. Phillips turned them down. The court added that people seeing the cake would not understand Mr. Phillips to be making a statement and that he remained free to say what he liked about same-sex marriage in other settings.

Here are some comments from the ACLU:

"The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. [...]

"Today's decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue," said Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, client in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. "We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are. We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told 'we don't serve your kind here' that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does."

This decision sets back gay rights by a lifetime, according to Daily Kos staff:

In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a seven-justice majority--led by Justice Anthony Kennedy and including justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan--determined that Colorado unconstitutionally discriminated against Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to make a cake celebrating a same-sex wedding--that of Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins--because of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

"There's no silver lining," the piece continues:

Kennedy refers to the "dignity and worth" of gay persons and gay couples, to the recognition that we cannot be treated as "social outcasts" or inferior in those respects, but in the same paragraph writes, "religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression." These two statements are as inconsistent as any ever written.

When Kennedy writes, "Phillips was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case," he legitimizes homophobia. It's also proof that he truly doesn't recognize the equal dignity and worth of gay people. There's precedent for what happens when the right of persons equal in dignity and worth to be treated as such clashes with others' religious claims to a freedom to discriminate.


Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others. When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding--not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings--and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied. [...]

For the reasons stated, sensible application of [the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act] to a refusal to sell any wedding cake to a gay couple should occasion affirmance of the Colorado Court of Appeals' judgment. I would so rule.

Daily Kos reminds us of the following:

It's not just that courts matter: Every seat matters, from district court judges who decide solo or guide a jury through that process to appellate and Supreme Court jurists. Every voice changes the conversation; the balance of votes decides compromises.

Given the relative youth of the conservatives on the Supreme Court and the likelihood Trump will get at least one more nomination, this setback could last a lifetime.


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Trump claims that he can pardon himself, while simultaneously proclaiming that he has done nothing wrong:

As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong? In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the mid-terms!

-- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2018

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect!

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