Mar 26, 2014

The Supreme Court to Decide Whether Birth Control Can Be a Religious Exception. In Other Words, Conservatives Still Have a Problem With Sex.

Conservatives are challenging "Obamacare," again, arguing for religious freedom, so an employer whose religion is anti-birth control should not have to provide such as part of health care coverage. The Supreme Court will decide whether there should be an exception. Conservatives on the SCOTUS and around the country hope to shoot another hole into "Obamacare." I'll refrain from evaluating how "religion poisons everything" as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say, but apparently this lunacy has no end. It's such a distraction, and a waste of resources.

Apparently, conservatives believe they have a shot at the Supreme Court. Why? Because this court is rather conservative. Why? Because elections have consequences. Elect Republican presidents and senators and that's what you have. You get judges like Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts, who make important decisions about our lives. Yes, if you live in this society, what happens at the Supreme Court, the executive and legislative branches does matter!

Side note: in this midterm election year, it'll pivot around turnout, more specifically what groups show up to vote. I'll have another post on this later.

Justice Elena Kagan, you've got to love her. She stuck it to Scalia. If he's to be consistent with his own previous statements, he should vote against the motion for the religious exception on birth control case. During oral arguments, she said that religious-based exceptions to neutral laws could lead to anarchy!

 "Your understanding of this law, your interpretation of it, would essentially subject the entire U.S. Code to the highest test in constitutional law, to a compelling interest standard," she told Paul Clement, the lawyer arguing against the mandate for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. "So another employer comes in and that employer says, I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws; and then another employer comes in, I have a religious objection to minimum wage laws; and then another, family leave; and then another, child labor laws. And all of that is subject to the exact same test which you say is this unbelievably high test, the compelling interest standard with the least restrictive alternative."

Of course it's Scalia who has argued that our entire civil code, judicial and political, indeed our entire civilization is based on the Judeo-Christian moral code--as, of course, is clearly laid out in the Bible.  On another side note: Did you hear about the Xtian church in NYC that advocates applying this law, stoning homosexuals to death? And, did you hear that a lesbian knocked on the church's door and asked them to stone her to death? Apparently the person who answered the door said they were out of stones so she should come back another day!

To be fair to this church, the Bible indeed prescribes death by stoning for a variety of moral trespasses. Ah, the "good 'ol days" when the Lord ordered genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, subjugation of women, pestilence, floods, etc.  

Did you hear that many Xtians are upset about the movie Noah? They said that Hollywood's fiction is not what happened. Bill Maher has a response:


Mar 12, 2014

Popular Science Shows Up Big with Cosmos 2014--A Much Anticipated and Needed Story of Our Existence!

I watched Cosmos when I was very young and loved it to the point that I used a tape recorder to capture the audio so I could listen to the fascinating information again and again. There was so much information that I needed more time to comprehend. This was some 30 years ago, beyond the lifespan of my cheap tapes, which I've long lost. It's amazing how much more we have learned since then or in the last 50 years.

Carl Sagan popularized science, because he knew how to explain it. The current host of the 2014 series, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was inspired by Cosmos and Sagan to become an astronomer, and he's great at explaining and inspiring. Of course, it's by purpose they chose to host this new Cosmos series on the Fox network, because they're trying to reach the scientifically illiterate or those on the fence. I can see that happening with a few people who aren't willfully ignorant, because the latter have already made an emotional choice to be blind to science and evidence-based world.

Dr. Tyson, who's an agnostic, tries hard to reach the Bible readers without dismissing their unscientific views. Listen to this interview on WNYC; 
this interview  aired after the premier of Cosmos. He says it's OK to have faith and read the Bible but not as textbook. Well, good luck with that. I won't ask, if the Bible is full of contradictions, ignorance, and dead wrong about the cosmos, then how could it be God's word? Never mind...

I think it's good to introduce some scale of the cosmos, time & space, because, perhaps, people could wonder whether the creator of the universe cares about what clothes we wear, whether we perform circumcisions, what we eat on what days, etc. The universe was not made for us nor are in the center of it all. 

Amazing facts

The universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Let's compress this time into 1 year.

  • Jan 1:big bang. It takes about 200 million years to "cool down" so stars and galaxies can form.
  • Jan 10. New stars; Jan 13 small galaxies; March 15-our own Milky way. Star stuff recycled. 
  • Plus, 6 "months later" (6 billion yrs) on Aug 31-our own sun is born. Same month the Earth is formed
  •  Sept 21st, life (not human) appears in earth.  
  •   Nov 9th life was breathing, moving, eating, responding to environment. Microbes. Sex.  Tiktaalic [see link] moves from see to land (transitional fossil). 
  • Dec 28th:  Flowers 
  •  Dec 30th Dinos extinction, rise of mammals. 
  • Dec 31st, 9:45 new year’s eve…. Africa. Bipedalism. 

        Last hour, last day: humans appear at 11.59, 46’’  

    • 11:59 30,000 years, first cave paintings!  Read the stars, seasons.
    • 10,000 years ago. Agriculture. Middle East. First stable societies.
    • 14 seconds to midnight: humans;  
      6,000years ago: writing! Save our thoughts. 5’’ ago Jesus, 3’’ Mohammed, 1’’ ago science!!!
  • In the last 14’’ seconds –all we know about humanity.
  • Last second= recorded history! All the civilizations, all the ideas, art, science, wars, tribes, leaders, religions, technology, you and I, etc…

Mar 8, 2014

What do US Conservatives Want? Regression Bathed in Trickle Down Piss and Freedom to be Poor, Ignorant & God-fearing!

I watched snippets of the CPAC--the largest annual gathering of conservatives--and I kept wondering how in the hell so many people fall for this bullshit. Most of it was trite exhortations about freedom, God, patriotism; labels, simplicity, and rightwingnuttery in ample supply. These people are fit for the Dark Ages. Any politician associated with this circus isn't appropriate to lead the country forward. But, that's the point: they don't want to go forward, but backward to the "good ol' days".... making a brief stop to Reagan's 1980s, and then a fast rewind to the days when unbridled capitalism ruled, when most people who got sick died, when religious morality & freedom meant discrimination, segregation, and bigotry. Yeah, that's the kind of America the conservatives want.

More often than not, the conservative disposition can be explained by a sense of a personal loss or a price to pay if the "unworthy others" receive anything from the social safety net. They don't understand that in a proper civic society everybody receives benefits. Everybody! From the very top to the bottom. More so, for those ontop, even though they don't see it that way, as if they operate in the vacuum of space--where they make their money of course. 

The following statement is, sadly, typical not only of a conservative mind but also of a college student. Most--and I include both sides of the political divide--don't know how to write a proper sentence or explain simple ideas, let alone the fundamental beliefs they hold. 

In my personal opinion, our democratic system has so many holes in it, which is leaking, causing chaos in peoples minds. With the recent reelection of Obama, there was clearly havoc that rose among people who are against him; and in good reason. Obama wants to redistribute the wealth of others to people who did not necessarily own it and he wants the government to pay for expenses for people that cannot afford it by taxing the wealthier class.  The government is basically making people rely on others to provide for them without really trying themselves, thus making this one of the laziest generations. 

I can't count the times I hear this theme from conservatives; it's part of their narrative along with misguided patriotism and inability to imagine reality. Yes, conservatives can't think in the abstract very well. That's why they may change their minds only if they experience something themselves. Have a gay son, oh, maybe it's OK. Hurricane Sandy destroys your home, oh, where's the government to bail you out? Have a retarded baby, oh, yes, how come we don't spend more to find a cure and support such. 

The conservatives have opposed the abolition of slavery, desegregation, equal rights for women, civil rights, personal reproductive choice, science, access to voting, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, clean air, consumer protection, science (yes, even science irks them!), etc, etc, oh, and electrification!  All those things that make our lives better and are the norm in every advanced liberal-social-democracy!  But, listen to the CPAC speakers and it's clear what horrible society we'd have if they got their way. Of course you have to part the smoke & mirrors of misguided patriotism, and the empty slogans about freedom. On your knees, you pitiful, wretched creature.  

 A Typical Conservative Prescription Bad for Your Health

 Gail Collins in this NYT editorial shows how the conservatives think and operate. If you think it doesn't matter, think again. Elections have consequences, from the state and local to the national and the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Texas is moving on to Step 2. As of September, it will require the clinics, which perform only simple early-term abortions, to have all the equipment, space and special air and water filters necessary to do a surgical procedure like a hip transplant. Miller determined the cost of complying would be in the neighborhood of $3 million per clinic.
There’s been a vague attempt to cloak all these new laws as health care imperatives, but, really, the cover is pretty thin. During the debate on the Texas bill, State Senator Dan Patrick told his colleagues to ask themselves: “How would God vote tonight if he were here?
I am mentioning Patrick because this week he came in first for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, campaigning as “a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.” He has also been desperately busy ginning up anti-immigration sentiment; this is the guy who claimed illegal immigrants were threatening Texas with “third world diseases” like leprosy. The lieutenant governor, by the way, is possibly the most powerful public official in the state.
Well, turnout for the primaries was very low. It was freezing down there on Tuesday. Once again, we leap at a chance to blame the weather.
The social right has been waving the banner of religious freedom lately. What that generally means is the right to impose one’s theology on other people. Particularly, it seems, when sex is involved.
For instance, the Supreme Court is scheduled to decide, in its next big Obamacare case, whether the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby can refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby actually already covers its employees’ birth control pills. Its owners just object to a few things, like intrauterine devices, because they have religious convictions against preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Scientists disagree that’s what an IUD does, but what the heck? It’s their theology.

The Texas conservatives are not alone. Again, take a look at the CPAC conference [here's their official site so you can watch their videos]where all the major conservative and Republican leaders attend and make speeches about the kind of society they want. 

Feb 26, 2014

Lincoln's Decision to Use Silver to Kill Vampires & Warewolves Instead of Buying Slaves Cost the Nation Dearly! (Enjoy Your Black History Month)

We like to believe what makes us feel good; it's called confirmation bias. So, why look any further? Oh, I don't know, it might be OK to keep in touch with reality, because understanding reality may have something to do with the decisions we make in real life.

How about history, the past? Bygones let them be bygones. There's no harm in revising history to fit a narrative we promote in contemporary politics. Racism, bigotry? All in the past. No need to have legal protections for people who may have had problems in the past--as the conservatives on the Supreme Court now tell us when they rule that racism is practically over, and that uninhibited access to voting, especially in the South and in GOP-dominated areas is good and dandy.

Personally, I find willful ignorance annoying. Those who spread stupidity and lies--like almost everyone at Faux News--are doing a disservice to our country. If I were to use their rhetoric, they're like Hitler holocausting history, and committing treason for betraying our country's noble mission statement, all men are created equal, and of-by-for the people.

 Revisionist history of the worst kind. The bullcrap of Faux News

 Just before Black History month ends (February), the vile opinionators (like that ass judge Napolitano in this video) at Fox News attempt to distort reality again. Jon Stuart's show has the perfect comeback.

Feb 17, 2014

President(s)' Day Thoughts.

President(s)' Day today honoring... well, whatever states want, though the federal holiday is about George Washington who was born not today (2/17th but on the 22nd). Several states mark the occasion differently. Guess what? Lincoln's birthday (2/12) is included in this except in the South. I wonder why. So the third Monday in February is set for "president(s)" to sell all sorts of consumer stuff and some patriotic version of history.

The General with a maid in his headquarters, Newburgh, NY

I feel patriotic, so stop the caustic emails. But, this doesn't prevent me from trying to learn about the truth--as much as it can be ascertained--and examine causes and effects. Let's start by asking, what is patriotism? And, where, why did it start? The notion of patriotism begins with the notion of patris--country. So, how did the British citizens in the 13 colonies see themselves in the 1770s?

Musket warfare
Under the mercantile economic system, there was a zero-sum game: for every winner it had to have a loser. The colonies were a source of wealth for the then empires, and under imperial policy, the colonies were there to exploit the local resources and populations for the benefit of the mother country. It was forbidden for the colonies to trade with anyone else. But, that didn't prevent the American colonists from breaking the law to enrich themselves. When Britain turned the screws, they rebelled. Yes, the economic elites in the colonies had an economic reason for self-governance and thus a revolution.

The Tea Party rebellion? Well, it was triggered by Britain's decision to give the East India Co. the monopoly of the tea trade, thus crippling American economic interests, not withstanding that the EIC tea was cheaper and of better quality. The colonies had enjoyed a relative independence to conduct their own "internal" affairs and the New World had unique conditions, like the reality of the expanding frontier. All these factors made for a different breed of a citizen. 
Harbrouck House, New Paltz, NY.

Yet, even at the break of the revolution, most Americans in the colonies [let's not forget they were other "Americans" in the continent too] were British citizens. Even the Declaration of Independence demonstrates that the colonists believed they were denied their British rights of life, liberty and property, and, therefore, had a right, indeed a duty, to replace a government after a "long train of abuses."

The ideology of liberalism with its "natural rights for every man" that came out of the Enlightenment was used as the foundation of the regime of the new country to be. But, it would take a long time to turn those Americans into patriotic United States of America citizens. Patriotism primarily evolved along with the formation of the modern state in the last 2-3 centuries. Allegiance was to one's own tribe, ethnic or religious group, and later to a city-state or a larger state, like New York. Most Americans then identified their loyalties to their particular states, not the US. Fully 1/3 of the colonists remained loyal to Britain; most were expelled, many were killed, a few remained.

Class System, Order of the Universe

The belief that the universe had an ordained, divine order was widespread. A rigid class system prevailed too. Yes, it was possible for merchants to elbow their way into the upper caste--like the despised nouveau riche by the "old money" aristocracy--but everybody "knew their place." Old Europe operated on this scheme, so it's amazing that the ideas of liberalism sprouted and even used as ideals for a new state/country. Of course, anyone who has watched docudramas of the last 200 years or has visited the mansions of the rich knows how society worked those days.

The elites often went to war against each other for power and wealth, but they had their code of honor which meant that death would be visiting primarily the lower-class soldiers and civilians. It was against military honor to shoot at officers of the opposing army! George Washington could have been killed by British snipers on a couple occasions but he was spared because he was an officer. The Americans didn't shoot at British officers either...  Well, some American riflemen, often despised by both sides, broke this code by indiscriminately killing British infantry and officers. Nowadays, taking out the enemy command is standard military strategy; not back then, which is incredible if you think about it. The thinking, I'm going to let the enemy generals be so their army can be more effective against me and my side, is totally crazy unless....

At first, it seems natural that the French would side and aid the American colonists in their war of independence. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say. But, it was a troubling decision since rebelling against the crown was a no-no among all royal houses of Europe. Yes, royal factions could engage each other, even in civil war, but challenging the notion of monarchy was evil. 

George Washington could have been king after the revolution, though to his credit he did not wish it and admonished those who proposed a monarchy for the new country. While in Newburgh, NY, he communicated with many domestic leaders and urged for a constitutional republic. The constitution of 1787 provided a blueprint for a federal country, which is still evolving today. Many of the good changes and ideas come from the top, the educated elites, but also as the result of bloody conflicts.

The country the presidents we're celebrating today knew is much different today, and I think for the better. It's OK to appreciate the effort and the good ideas of past leaders, but I don't think we need to idealize-idolize them. Some were very progressive while most were trapped in their time & culture. There's no divine order in human society; it's what we make of ourselves, our understanding of the important issues, and the policies we can muster for a good life for every citizen, indeed a human being.
Fictional rendition of the Delaware river crossing (note the "U.S. flag")

Feb 12, 2014

Darwin Day: February 12th. A Celebration of the father of Evolution and the Scientific Method

One of the strongest scientific theories we have is that of evolution, whose fundamental tenets have been confirmed by several scientific disciplines, from archaeology to forensics, and from genetics to geology and biology.

Recently there was a debate on the ..validity of evolution between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. [link] I'm all for reasonable debates but when there are not standards of evidence and reason, I think it's futile to argue with the creationist. I've done it on occasion on panels and other events. I now bring with me the "magic box" so I can--for the purpose of demonstration--make any claim I want, no matter how ridiculous, and then point to the box to say, the answer/reason/method are in that box!

Those who refute evolution point to their own magic box, the holy books, to argue that all they need to know is in that box, which, conveniently, has the inscription that everything within it is absolutely true!


Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809, and 50 years later he published the ground-breaking theory of evolution. [Here's a great BBC documentary on Darwin's Tree of Life with David Attenborough]

When I was little I couldn't understand the concept of billions of years. I looked at those over 30 and thought they were too old! It was the time I believed in Santa Claus and in superheroes with fantastical supernatural powers. Then I slowly began to learn all sorts of wonderful stuff about history, science, and critical thinking. Eventually I was exposed to the theory of evolution. Eventually this led  me to ask one of my teachers when the soul entered the human body in this long chain of changing forms--from the very primitive to modern humans--a question I've asked anyone who tries to reconcile evolution with creationism; I haven't gotten a satisfactory answer.

The teachings of religion used to be the source to explain everything. Science has replaced this, at least, for those who have answered the question, which knowledge is more reliable? There are gaps or unknowns, but a scientific method is the best tool we have to discover and understand the world around us. It's a matter of self-confidence to accept notions like, I don't know, and, it remains to be seen, rather than opting for a "sure thing" that's based on irrational conjecture at best.

It's amazing that it took so long for humans to come up with a rather obvious theory of adaptation, survival, and changing forms in response to environmental conditions. Since the domestication of animals and plants, our ancestors could see evolution taking place in their lifetimes, yet, they stuck with the religious notions that everything was designed in its present form! 

These remnants of thought-inhibitors are still erecting obstacles to progress today. How else can you explain the current debate about contraception? The bishops say contraception is bad, because they figured out that what the maker of the universe wants, so they're part of the debate and given political considerations! Oyvey.

I tip my proverbial hat to Charles Darwin for having the courage (to go against his family and the prevailing social views) and the intellectual fortitude to formulate such an important scientific theory--by observation, testing, factual investigation, reasoning--and advance important knowledge for humanity.

Science depends on people who understand its importance and on people who value it so they're willing to support such an endeavor. I'm saddened though that we have not succeeded in teaching the most important thing science is to every person in the US, and indeed the world: skepticism, rational thinking, and inquiry.

Jan 28, 2014

Goodbye Pete Seeger. Many Thanks to this Great American Patriot

At the Strawberry Festival, Beacon 2013
The machine that kills hate! Pete's banjo
Sad news today that a symbol of civic activism and engaged citizenship has died. Yet, Pete Seeger lived a full life, inspiring several generations of Americans (and not only) to affect change to benefit the poor and the middle class. I met the man several years ago, when I moved to the Hudson valley and kept bumping into him at various events. He lived in Beacon, NY, where he had built his own cabin decades ago.

I wasn't really surprised the see a 90+ year old man to lead one march of the Occupy Wall Street when that movement sprouted a few years ago in NYC. It was Pete's kind of thing to support such causes.
I took this picture at the Strawberry Festival in Beacon, 2012

A self-described communist (with a small "c") and a people's advocate, he was often persecuted by various authorities in the US. We like to think that our country always had the best democracy and copious amounts of freedom, but it ain't true. Pete was given one year sentence for contempt of Congress after he refused to cooperate with Congress's witch hunt of those engaged in "un-American activities." Later this sentence was overturned. But, he was blacklisted and
"Backstage" but always ready to perform

barred from radio and tv for many years because of his political beliefs and activism. No matter, he continued to perform all over the country to big audiences. At it is often the case, radicals of one era are venerated later and recognized for their contributions. In 2009, Pete performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

The Hudson river is one of the great rivers in the US. I live by the beautiful Hudson so I take the time to look at it every day from my house, and of course sit by it for long periods at various locations up and down, on either bank. Pete loved the river and helped many efforts to clean it up. He supported the Clearwater Sloop--a boat and an organization devoted to the preservation of the river. The Clearwater Festival takes place in Croton on Hudson, usually in June; two days of music and awareness. Great place to be. Pete was there last summer. Pete liked to tell lots of stories and I'll always treasure those and our brief chats about political activism.

We'll miss him. 

*Click on the pictures above to make them bigger. I retain the rights to these pictures.

Jan 20, 2014

The Problem We All Live With. Some Thoughts on This Martin Luther King Day, 2014

Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With"
On the occasion of the MLK day, I've read and heard several speeches of the slain civil rights leader and, of course, most of us today wonder why American society was so opposed to equal rights, or more specifically to blacks having equal treatment under the law and equal opportunity like anybody else.

It's conservatism! Being conservative is a disposition--an attitude towards change and something new. Conservatives exist in all political parties. This was particularly true in the 1950s and 1960s in the Democratic party. Many of the opponents to the Civil Rights acts, most from the old South, left the party and joined became Dixiecrat Republicans. President Lyndon Johnson said that the South would be lost for his party after he signed the CRA. It's been certainly true, but a couple states like Virginia and North Carolina may be trending the other way now.

There's a difference in disposition between conservatives and liberal-progressives. I think we have a better imagination and we are more confident over all. Why is imagination necessary? To evaluate abstract scenarios, to imagine change, whereas a conservative prefers the "tried and true," tradition, familiarity and can't imagine a different world. Blacks having same rights as whites? Oh, goodness, traditional society would collapse, a way of live (which included either slavery or later discrimination and separation of the races) of the old was preferable to a new order.

PBS's documentary, Slavery By Another Name, is a must-watch *

Confidence? Well, sameness is comforting. Confirmation bias, solidarity of thought and action is soothing to a conservative.  We all have this trait to some extent. We like to see our choices, thoughts, beliefs, customs, etc, confirmed; it validates our life...   Yet, some of us are willing to accept correction; we're open to revision, and seek the truth even if it's uncomfortable. Confidence doesn't mean stubbornness of a closed mind, but it means that the new, the different doesn't necessarily make us uncomfortable. And we can image a world with all races, creeds, and sexual orientation.

Isn't the same approach and the also the difference between the conservatives and liberals when it comes to same-sex marriage? My heterosexual makeup isn't threatened by homosexuality. My heterosexual marriage or relationship isn't threatened by homosexual unions or marriages. The right to marry a person of your choosing is having equal opportunity and treatment under the law. End of story (for a liberal).

Speaking the Tongue of the Natives

MLK was a great leader and even a better orator and thus motivated lots of people to meaningful action for civil rights. He spoke like a preacher, which, for me, isn't my favorite elocution. I don't want to be preached at. I don't want to be told that a certain action is good because it has the blessings of a god, or the God.  However, MLK spoke the language of religion in a deeply religious land, whereas both sides had used religious language to justify their positions.

But, many people on both sides were practicing confirmation bias--using the Bible to justify their positions. Guess what? The Bible has a little for every one. Am I glad that MLK's Bible quoting and religious messaging worked to help bring about change? Certainly! Because, this was a much-needed change. 

However, it should be noted that the Bible condones slavery! [source]  I would expect a messiah to preach against the evils of slavery, but Jesus didn't. The Gospels in the New Testament don't advocate for a slave-free world. On the contrary. Women's status? Subservient. We're talking about divine morality here. The word of God, good then, good today, and unalterable in the future!

Anyway, we have a long way to go despite our advances, many of which have been forcefully opposed by conservatives of all types. We're still very primitive in how act, think, and often treat each other. 

 * This PBS documentary examines the conditions of servitude that existed until the second part of the 20th century in the US. It's definitely worth a watch.