Aug. 31st, 2017 07:01 am
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We are two weeks away from the end of a twenty-year mission that was, as far as I'm concerned, the most exhilarating and ambitious thing we've done in space since the moon landings.

What Cassini has given us is just incredible. There's a whole bunch of stories written, for us to read, in Saturn's atmosphere, magnetic field, moons and rings. In the worlds revealed that orbit this giant. In Titan's storms, rivers, seas, beaches, and eroded hills. In Enceladus' water oceans and geysers. Inside hollow Hyperion. In the equatorial circumlunar mountain range, dimorphic hemispheres and secret history of distant Iapetus. In the terrible, world-shattering scars written in the craters and canyons of Mimas and Tethys. In the quiet grandeur and odd quirks of Dione and Rhea. In the moonlets that braid the rings, the moonlets covered miles-deep by billions of years of gentle, gradual fall of water-ice snow, the moonlets that permanently accompany larger moons around the planet, in the two small moons that swap places every four years. It is an astonishing place and the mission that revealed it all is something we will not see the like of again in our lifetimes.

These are the furthest places we can today send a robot to, not just to pass by but to stop, spend time, move in, get to know, even land on. Like Brigadoon, Saturn is accessible once a generation - the inexorable mathematics of mass and cost make it impossible to consider a mission to Saturn except when Jupiter is in position to boost the craft, which happens for only one period of time every twenty years. We're declining to send a followup mission during the window open right now; the next one won't open until the 2030s, and so the next mission we might send wouldn't get there until late that decade, so a lot of us wouldn't see it even if we started planning now.

Jupiter's moons are closer, and larger, and more accessible, and engage the interest of more people, and of course Mars has everyone beginning to anticipate the next great human adventure. But what we have seen at Saturn is unique, and astonishes me in fundamental ways - '50s pulp sci-fi ways - that other places in our Solar System do not approach.


Aug. 18th, 2017 07:34 am
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Eclipses arrange themselves into patterns, because of the geometry of the Earth's and Moon's orbits, and the changing geometry of the Moon's.

If you have connections to Middle Eastern or Chinese culture, you're likely to be familiar with the lunar calendar and the Metonic cycle - that's the ratio of lunar months to solar years, and their close (but not exact) correlation every 19 years (that is, 19 solar years is, to within about two hours, 235 lunar months.

That cycle has virtually nothing to do with eclipses, as it turns out. But other lunar cycles do, and one of them is coincidentally close to that 19-year cycle.

Our Moon is very weird compared with other moons. It is, of course, much bigger relative to the planet it orbits than any moon of another planet - Mars' moons are tiny, tiny things compared with ours, and while four other moons of other planets are larger (Ganymede, Titan, and Callisto are all just about the size of Mercury, about half again the diameter of the Moon; Io is about the same size as our moon), three orbit Jupiter and one orbits Saturn, which of course are eight to ten times as large as the Earth.

The weird thing, though, that really makes eclipses such a fascinating mathematical pattern, is the unusual shape and movement of the Moon's orbit around the Earth.

The moons of all the other planets - except for the mostly-tiny ones orbiting far, far away from the gas giants - are all directly above the equator of the planet they orbit. Mars's two moons, all four of Jupiter's big moons and its small inner moons, all of Saturn's rings and inner rocks and its six inner worlds, all five of Uranus' sizeable moons and all its inner moons near its rings, and Neptune's big moon (orbiting the wrong way, but still over its equator) and its small inner moons as well - all of them orbit the primary's equator.

Ours doesn’t. But neither does it follow the other obvious choice: it doesn't orbit in the plane of the Ecliptic, either. It orbits five degrees off, tilted with respect to the Earth's path around the Sun. (If it followed the Ecliptic, there'd be an eclipse every month.)

And that tilt precesses. If you draw an imaginary orbit line of the Moon around the earth, like a hoop, that hoop behaves like a ring that you spun on a table, that's just settling down before it stops - that familiar "wobbling" spin, looking like a sine wave. (The moon is of course not "settling" - there's no friction force to gradually damp it out - but its orbit does that sine-wave move just like that spinning ring does.) That movement - the changing tilt of the moon above and below the plane of the Earth's orbit - is unique to the Earth-Moon system, because the tilt relative to the Ecliptic is unique to the Earth-Moon system.

The thing about that lunar orbit precession is that it's astonishingly rapid (at least astonishing to me. Probably people who know the physics intimately say "well of course it's that fast".) The Earth's rotation precesses in a similar way but it's incredibly slow: it rotates daily but takes 25 thousand years to precess once (if you've ever heard of the Age of Aquarius, or if you knew that the astrology columns are off by a month because the astrology months were established by our culture about two thousand years ago, that's the precession I mean). So the Earth takes about ten million rotations to do one precession.

The moon, which takes 29.5 days to orbit the Earth, completes an orbital precession in only 18.6 years - about 230 orbits. That 18.6 year period is called a "saros".

[That's weird because it's close to the 19-year Metonic cycle, and when two things are close together it makes me wonder if there's a reason they're close together (that is, if there is some reason why they might be falling into resonance with each other, the way the big moons of the planets are in resonance with one another, and the planets' orbits are nearly in resonance with each other - and will fall into resonance in another couple billion years). But I digress.]

This precession of the Moon's orbital tilt - called the 'first precession", because there's another one - is critical to the timing of eclipses, because eclipses happen at the place where when the Moon's orbit intersects the ecliptic (that is to say, where the planes of the Moon's and Earth's orbits intersect), and they happen when both the Moon and Sun are crossing that spot at the same time.

The upshot is this: twice a year there's an opportunity for an eclipse: a partial, annular, hybrid, or full solar eclipse (and two weeks earlier or later there's a partial or total lunar eclipse, because if you intersect on the near side, you intersect on the far side). Sometimes the shadow misses completely.

But that 18.6 year saros is important, because all the eclipses separated by that time period have a similar path. While the time of day is different each time (the earth is spinning fast, relative to all this, so what *longitude* of the earth is under the shadow is different each time), it's still the case that if an eclipse happens now, there will be another one of similar duration following a similar path 18.6 years later.

Similar, not identical. Each one is somewhat further north than the last one. So if you follow the set of eclipses all set off one another by 18.6 years, you see them start as partial eclipses in the extreme south, then start crawling northward; after several have happened, the path of totality starts crossing, it moves northward as well, each time, until finally moving off the north pole.

This whole process takes about 1500 years, which is called a "saros cycle". There are, of course, multiple saros cycles ongoing at any time, because after all you can potentially have eclipses twice a year, which means there are, more or less, 39 of them at once. Humanity has been tracking these for a long time; the cycle to which Monday's eclipse belongs is saros cycle 136 (and actually we map them back to cycle -33, probably because eclipses belonging to that cycle are the earliest that we have any references to, though I'm speculating.) Cycles 117 through 156 are currently ongoing.

That's not all there is to it, though. A saros *also* coincidentally matches up almost exactly to another thing: the anomalistic cycle, which is also called the "second precession". This is the precession of the moon's perigee/apogee (the places where it's closest and furthest from the Earth in its slightly elliptical orbit), which again is surprisingly fast: it makes a full precession over 8.85 years. When an eclipse happens near perigee, it's a total eclipse; when it happens near apogee, it's an annular eclipse. It happens that the 18.6 year period is also very close to matching up with the moon being in the same place in its precession of perigee and apogee - the upshot of it all is that eclipses one saros apart are almost of the same duration and quality, same path direction, and similar latitude.

The numbers: one saros is 223 sidereal months (that is, 223 new moons); 242 draconic months (that is 242 times that the moon crosses the ecliptic going north); and 239 anomalistic months (that is, the moon reaches perigee 239 times).

So bringing that all together - the 2017 eclipse is the same saros cycle as the one in 1973, which crossed the Atlantic into Africa, and the one in 1991, which shadowed Hawaii and Mexico. The very first partial eclipse of saros 136 was in South America in 1360; the last will be in northern Russia in 2622. This saros cycle happens to be, over the past few and next few centuries, crossing the northern hemisphere with the moon very nearly at perigee - for a near maximum-diameter, maximum-duration total eclipse (it was *right at* perigee in 1973).

My brother Dave was in its shadow in 1973; I was in it in 1991.

Enjoy it Monday!
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Mike Royko was an influential newspaper columnist in Chicago in the 1960s-1980s. Royko told a short story once about how pornographers were treated back in the 1940s - that their stuff was considered obscene enough that it wasn't the law that got them punished, it was the hordes of ordinary people not putting up with that shit - the pornographer would get thrown into the street, beaten and kicked, physically carried to the edge of town and flung to the ground.

Now, that's a force that's scary - it can cut any which way. The madness of crowds is not in general a good metric for deciding what's okay. And it's fair to say national attitudes about porn - other than child porn, thankfully - have pretty much changed.

But the thing is, it's a story about the fact that right or wrong, communities have standards, and they have more than one way of enforcing them. Some things are not illegal by the law, but still get shouted down or turned out (or, if necessary, punched in the mouth) because they are toxic corruptions of the standards of the community as we, the community, see it.

Now, one of our standards, just to be meta, is a tolerance for unpopular ideas, a commitment to the right to hold unpopular ideas and to express them, and a massive, earned distrust of the madness of crowds. So the idea of shutting someone up just because we don't like what they say is, itself, an idea that normally gets shouted down and turned out. That is, and should be, one of our firm community standards. For a long time, the one thing we didn't tolerate was the suggestion that there was anything we wouldn't tolerate. Meta.

And that's not a bad thing! It was an expression of confidence in the resilience and, frankly, ideological superiority of our own increasingly-tolerant, increasingly-affluent, increasingly-inclusive culture that we didn't have to shout anything down. Nothing culturally threatened us. For a while.

But it was never absolute, and could never be. There is always a balance. There are always limits. There are always ideas enough outside the mainstream that you don't even grant them consideration. It's not the case that something has to be "objectively" bad - that in the grand sweep of history, all cultures would see the idea as totally unacceptable - for us to reject it at that level. We are permitted, as a society, to collectively decide "that is completely unacceptable to us." We need to be careful about what we decide, but we will always find we must close out some ideas, some positions - because we conclude that those positions irrevocably, intrinsically harm the society. And no matter what your society is, there is something that can destroy it, and your society needs to protect itself from what can destroy it.

Porn was, not long ago, seen as one such thing. Till the respectability movement begun by Playboy made its case and won, uncloseted porn was violently unacceptable. Today it's ho-hum so long as they're all at least eighteen. (I'll come back to that in a moment.)

Fascist racism is another such thing. Not so long ago - really! - racism was regrettable but largely ho-hum (consider your racist uncle!) Then, for a few short decades, it was so thoroughly shouted down that no one dared to express frank racism out loud - it was treated as people are calling for it to be treated again. In the interim, we swung toward libertarian free tolerance so far that respectable racism is coming back, and some of us - dedicated to these positive, tolerant principles! - are angsting about whether there is anything that should be shouted down like racism used to be.

Let me give you a hint: yes.

You doubt me? Let's return to what I alluded to: advocacy of child porn. That's something that is, and should be, shouted down like that. Beaten down like that.

Child porn itself is illegal - the government cracks down on it, and well it should - but advocating for legalizing it is not illegal, nor should it be - to advocate for changing the law is free speech, and one of the things we must firmly never allow government to restrict or even discourage.

But if someone were to advocate in any public forum for legalizing child porn, they wouldn't finish their speech. No university in the country would provide anyone with a formal stage on which to speak in favor of legalizing it. And when the advocate was turned down, no one would protest in favor of allowing them to speak. That's not even a hard call.

If Nazis, fascists, and racists are a harder call than that, you need to check yourself over just a bit, because something in you got cockeyed.


Aug. 7th, 2017 08:32 am
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Propaganda can draw all kinds of pictures and can draw on all kinds of dark impulses. People are malleable; that's the truth behind the effectiveness of propaganda. If you want to demonize a prominent person, you use *whatever is there* - you exploit an otherness with which people are uncomfortable. The dark impulses are always there, but propaganda is what exploits it.

Sometimes you attack a weakness - something people look down on. Bill Clinton was a womanizer with a rural background, so those attributes became *important* in the propaganda his enemies repeated. Barack Obama was, of course, black. Hillary Clinton was a woman. All of that is part of the propaganda message - don't trust Others like that as leaders.

And sometimes you attack a strength - something people look up to, but which thus demands a higher, sometimes impossible, standard which the propaganda tells you they don't achieve. Kerry was a war hero - so you attack that, to make people think he's a *fake* war hero. Gore was scrupulously honest; find ways to make people doubt his honesty. Clinton and Gore and Obama and Clinton were *all* incredibly smart - whip-smart - so you exploit the distrust every single person on earth has for a person visibly smarter than them; they tell you the smart person might be lying to you, and after all how would you know if they were. Can't trust them.

What brings this home is the sudden realization I had that if Herman Cain were president - or Ben Carson - almost all the same people would be supporting either one. (Not all. There are real bigots who just won't support a black person full stop.) But if Herman Cain were president - he happens to be the recent candidate most similar to Trump - and golfing as much as Trump is, all the people who complained about Obama golfing, but who don't know or care that Trump golfs *far* more, would be supporting Cain the same way they support Trump.

Not because people aren't racist. Not because their distrust of Obama wasn't grounded on his race. Not because their support of Trump wasn't based on white-resentment propaganda - but rather because propaganda exploits *what happens to be there*.

Almost all the same people would have distrusted Obama if he weren't black, because almost all the same people distrusted Bill Clinton and Al Gore and John Kerry. Barry O'Bama, the Irish-American Democrat, would have still had almost all the same opposition from almost all the same people. It just might not have been so fierce, because the different message they would have had to craft might not have had as good an underlying distrust base. But they sure would have tried to make it that strong. They succeeded with Bill Clinton the same way they did with Barack Obama, just using a different underlying distrust.

And almost all the same people would have distrusted Hillary Clinton if she were male. But again, they would have had to have been given a different underlying implication to distrust "Henry Rodham," and it might not have worked nearly as well. Not all propaganda is equivalent; not all of it resonates. (Bill and Barack won their elections; Al and John and Hillary all very, very narrowly lost theirs.) But the propagandists would have found *something* to try, and they would have tried to use it upon all the same people. It just would have been a different impulse, maybe not as dark and resonant.

Because here's the thing about most people's racist impulses. A person who has unconscious distrust of black people doesn't universally apply that distrust. This is why people make the "I have black friends!" protest when accused of racism. This is almost always a true statement, and one they believe is an honest rebuttal to charges of racism - they *do* have black friends, how could you say they distrust black people? Because they don't spend all their time, in all circumstances, with their distrust of black people "activated".

People are complicated. They have lots of impulses pushing them every which way and they choose which way to lean for reasons they don't fully understand themselves. Propaganda, like less dishonest sorts of marketing and campaigning and training and teaching (and there are no bright lines between them, unfortunately), starts from *what happens to be there*, what resonates, and from that it builds edifices in listeners' minds.

The white resentment, the distrust of black people, is there. Of course it's there. People's instincts are tribal, to distrust what's unfamiliar and different to them, and the US has a dark, dark history on race. Diverse societies are hard to deal with. Change is even harder. All of it was there.

But it *activated* because it was exploited. It could have lain dormant and maybe even continued to wither. And in most people it *was* gradually withering, because most people think racism is an unworthy impulse - and a gradually increasingly diverse society raises people with fewer unconscious distrusts of novelty. We were making progress in shoving it down. (The accumulated *effect* of it on society is still a terrible problem; that's a separate essay and I'm not trying to minimize institutional racism; it's just not the subject here.)

Propaganda is what pulled that bigotry, that discomfort, to the surface and activated it. Still unconscious, and the people it worked on will still protest, in total innocence of what's been done to them, that they are not at all racist. But race was the tool that happened to be there to produce discomfort with president 44 within those on the other team.
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"You have the support of every thinking person in the United States."
"That's not enough. I need a majority."
(attributed to Adlai Stevenson in 1956)

Of course there are the deplorables. A frightening number of loud ones who really want a fascist takeover of the country. But I don't think they're really a third of the country. They're not all of the people who still support Trump. I think it's ... less deplorable than that. And maybe there's something darkly encouraging to keep in mind.

The economy is strong, we haven't faced a significant internal or external crisis, and the president, six months into his term, is polling around 35%.

There are times when I find that number terrifyingly high - I saw articles about what that all means - but I think it's myopia, and I think it is the actual reason why we need the man-bites-dog research into exactly wtf his supporters are thinking. And I think it's the above. All of us who are so obsessed with politics need to remember that even in the age of Trump, huge swaths of the country *aren't*. They default to rooting for their team but they don't really know or care ("Yeah, I'm a Republican, I voted for Trump to do a job, he won, so now he's in Washington doing what he promised me. No, I don't follow the news, why should I? The economy's doing okay, I still have a job, even though it sucks and my back hurts and they still talk about layoffs. But I figure Trump will do something about that, that's what he promised.")

This gets brought home to me when I see actual conversations with Trump supporters. They, unlike the president or his actual policies, don't seem scary, they seem mostly disconnected, trusting, preferring not to know any more, and waiting to see - because the things that would directly impact them haven't happened, and they just don't seek out stories that tell them what's going on.

(A trivial illustration: most of his supporters *still think he golfs less than Obama did.* Consider how disconnected you have to be from the news in order to believe that. A person disconnected from the news isn't necessarily evil, or a fascist, or ready to start a civil war - they're just ignorant and trusting.)

The thing about government and elected officials - honest ones, who care about serving the public, and there really are people like that on both sides in politics - is that a lot of the work they often attempt to do is long-term. They don't expect what they do to have an immediate impact. (The ACA was so unpopular for years because *it was years before it went into effect and started helping people*.) But they don't, of course, get credit for this except from those who pay attention. And that's nowhere near the whole country, nowhere near as many people as the number of voters.

Huge swaths of people only pay attention to what's in front of them, because that's all they really have time and interest for. No, that's not -good-, and there are lots of problems with a democracy trying to operate that way, but it's the reality. We all keep shrieking to change it so people pay attention, but it's hard work with no obvious personal payoff but a lot of heartburn.

So I think ... that since the hard work that Obama's team did is still having its effects on the economy, that the market is still climbing and the economy is still humming, we're not just riding up the edge of a bubble that's clearly about to collapse, all the things Trump has done jack-shit for, but which is the result of policies and mechanisms put in place by forward thinking and hard work over the prior eight years ... that until that 35% or so of people who are Republicans but *prefer not* to pay attention to politics, who voted for Trump and expect he's out there doing what he said he was going to do, until those people get personally hurt by a crash or a crisis, they're going to go on believing things are just fine, and they guy they like is in charge, so yay.

And of course we all still hope and pray, and there still are people yet in government trying to keep it this way, that a crisis - for which Trump is utterly, terrifyingly unprepared - doesn't actually happen.

So yes, for his numbers to drop further we need a crash - or, god forbid, a crisis, which if it's international will at least initially *raise* his popularity. And clearly a crisis or crash will *eventually* happen, because even if the hard work of preventing them were still being done, there's no way to keep bad things from happening now and then. But don't be distressed, before that time, by the fact that there are people who still like Trump.


Aug. 6th, 2017 09:16 am
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I may have mentioned on facebook that I've been increasingly interested in the debt that Hamilton owes to JCSS - LMM has acknowledged it, or some of it (at least he has mentioned it giving him the idea of telling the story in part from Burr's POV, as JCSS is done from Judas', and Superstar certainly prefigured "make this well-known historical character a different race and use that difference as part of the character's presentation").

I spent a long drive a few weeks ago listening to all of JCSS again, for the first time in several years. Some of the parallels are really striking. (One that's not even in the musical itself: the song "Congratulations", which didn't make the final cut for the Broadway version of Hamilton, is in some ways an angrier and much more erudite equivalent of "Superstar" - it's Angelica's reaction to the affair and the Reynolds pamphlet, clearly standing in for historians and the show's author wishing they could confront the protagonist and ask the unanswered questions.)

But since I'd like to convince my daughter (in particular) to listen to JCSS and perhaps to appreciate it as a similar work of art, I've been thinking more about that rock opera and what it's really about, and I realized some things about JCSS's themes that I hadn't really focused on before - things which aren't exactly hidden, they're the clear intent, but which I hadn't actually seen said or written or laid out in detail before.

JCSS is very much about trying to presenting the way that Jesus was a complex combination of different things to different people, and how none of them realize his intent until the very end - suggesting that he's been deliberately presenting all this complexity as frighteningly effective manipulation of everyone around him.

He's a philosopher - which is clearly what drew Judas to him, and what Pilate is trying to get to;

he's a revolutionary (Simon Zealotes is all about that, and it's what gets the priests to move on him);

he is, potentially, the Messiah (which underlies his claim to everything else);

he is enjoying the role of narcissistic personality-cult leader (as the disciples and Mary Magdalene treat him, and which is part of what horrifies Judas);

he is a deliberate martyr manipulating events (reluctantly, maybe even passive-aggressively) leading to his own death (which he reveals in "Gethsemane", which if you're paying attention makes everything else he is doing make sense, and which Judas, Mary, Peter, and Pilate all independently realize, too late to do anything about);

and due to the circumstances of his death he is the founder of the most overwhelming religious movement of the last two thousand years (as "Superstar" notes).

I certainly didn't get a hint of that for many years after hearing the opera (in my defense, I was five when I first heard it), though as an adult I've had several moments of 'Jesus is being kinda manipulative here, isn't he' at various points in the show. It wasn't until I started thinking about how I'd summarize JCSS's theme for my kids to have a context and reason to listen to it that I thought through exactly what's going on.
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So yes, the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance annoys me. But some aspects of it annoy me more than others. Here, in countdown form, is what bothers me the most about it.

4. The religious reference - that is, "Under God". Yes, it's a revision that undermines the message of the original pledge, yes it violates the Constitution, yes it has no place in a secular government, yadda yadda. It's awful. But honestly the backstory of why we include this is hilarious.

If you don't know, the reason "Under God" was added to the pledge in 1956 - the same year that it was mandated that all our money, every coin and bill, include "In God We Trust" - was to root out Communists, who would evidently catch fire if they recited those words. It was honestly believed that if you caught someone omitting "under God", it meant they were a Communist and you should report them. Kids would look sidewise at each other to make sure they said it.

If anything, that utter foolishness gives me hope for the world today; it makes me reflect that people have always been this stupid; it's not a new thing.

3. The idea of reciting a loyalty oath in the first place. Creepier than the religious reference, though, is the fact that we have a daily ritual where children face the flag, salute, and recite a loyalty oath.

Think about that for a minute.

North Korea does that.

The Soviet Union did that.

Those Guys In Central Europe Back At That Time did that.

Nobody else does it. Nobody. Nobody but us.

People from any other country in the world who see the Pledge being spoken in one of our classrooms universally have the same reaction: "what the fuck?"

The only thing that ameliorates my offense at this is the fact that children mostly don't take it seriously. There are a hundred different quietly mocking versions of it, using childrens' rhymes to make it clear this is a meaningless, horseshit ritual done so parents are happy. Kids in America are smart enough - a lot of them, anyway - to know how to treat this. It's only some adults who are moronic enough to think it's important.

That said, there's something kids do take seriously, and it's worse.

2. The lie that the Pledge recitation is actually okay because it's "optional". We don't require the Pledge. Any student who wants to can opt out of it.


Nobody who makes that claim with a straight face remembers what it was like to be nine years old.

There really are children, especially older children, who consider it an offense to recite the Pledge, and either do refuse to say it, or who wrack themselves in guilt for knowing they should refuse but lack the courage to.

Because it does take courage, for a real reason. Children who stand out by not participating, even in a stupid ritual nobody takes seriously, get ostracized and beaten by their peers.

And it tends to be the kids who already stand apart. Children who follow minority religions, who know the "God" being referred to isn't theirs. Children whose families have escaped from repressive societies that insisted on loyalty oaths and have a very good reason not to participate in one. Children, especially older children, who have read and understood the words of Jefferson and Madison enough to be actual patriots, taking a stand against something that's wrong and that betrays the ideals of the nation.

And they get beaten for this. You know it, I know it, and the people who pretend the Pledge is optional know it. And they consider this a feature, not a bug.

1. The lie that it's not done anymore "for fear of offending someone."

For me, this is the most damaging thing about the Pledge.

About once every month or so, some conservative friend-of-a-friend circulates a "We don't say the Pledge any more in our schools, because it made liberals all offended. 'Like and share' if you agree we should go back to saying the Pledge of Allegiance!"

I live in goddamn California. My kids went to public school - my youngest is still in high school - and they said the Pledge every goddamn day. It is a lie that the Pledge is no longer recited in schools.

But it's not just that it's a lie. It's not even that it's such a transparently obvious lie.

It's what this lie is there to do.

This lie - like a million other lies circulated by conservatives, like everything spewed by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest of the conservative worldview - feeds a false narrative of persecution to the third or so of America that wants to hear it. That wants to hear how their fellow citizens are disloyal, their fellow citizens aren't real Americans, that America is descending into chaos because only a few citizens actually feel patriotism.

I don't like the Pledge, but you can go to hell if you think that makes me even a little bit less than patriotic. I don't like the Pledge - I wish schools would decide not to recite it - but that's because I understand what my country stands for and what real patriotism is.

I think we ought to have a Pledge recitation for those who want it.

But I want it to be old-school. Not in the wording. Keep "under God" in it.

I think it should be outdoors, where everyone can see and take pictures. I think if parents want their children to recite the Pledge, they should have to be there and stand behind them.

Just this one old-school requirement.

Children reciting the Pledge should be required to give the flag the original Pledge salute.

The Bellamy salute. (Google it. I'll wait.)

Do that, and we'll all understand what it means for children to recite a daily loyalty oath to the flag.
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This is a long history lesson. I will do my best to make it at least mildly entertaining.

For a hundred years after the Civil War, racists voted with the Democratic Party, because Lincoln - a Republican - freed the slaves. For that entire century, 1865-1964, the states of the Confederacy went for the Democrat in virtually every presidential election. (The South is not of course the only place there were and are racists; they've just always been more concentrated there, and racism is the motivation for the vote of more people there.)

Now, for that same period the majority in most of the rest of the country was Republican - in large part for the same reason, that Lincoln freed the slaves - at least until the Great Depression. (The 65 years from the Civil War to the Great Depression saw only two Democratic presidents, so the Depression, and the initial tepid reaction to it, was largely blamed on Harding-Coolidge-Hoover Republicanism.) From 1932 on, the Democrats started enjoying a lot of electoral success, buoyed by solid support in the South, where they'd even vote for a liberal so long as he was of the party that also winked and nodded at their racism.

In 1964 that changed. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. This was seen by Southern racists - correctly - as an overwhelming rejection and betrayal of a demographic that - however odious - was a core demographic of the Democratic Party. Throwing them out was the gutsiest and - speaking in terms of political, electoral success - one of the most foolish political actions ever taken by a political party. RFK's comment was "we've lost the South for a generation." He was optimistic.

But the realignment wasn't just from Johnson throwing them out. It was also from Nixon, and his strategist Atwater, welcoming them in. The Republicans correctly calculated that there were at the time more racist voters than black voters in the South, and the Democrats had put the racists up for grabs. Atwater calculated ways to appeal to racists without turning off nonracist conservatives - "dogwhistle" framing of anti-minority messages that only racists would understand as such. (The messaging changes over time. Nixon started with "law and order" - to conservatives, that's simply a good priority for government; to a racist, who thinks of crime as something mostly black people do, it's a way for government to attack and punish black people. Later on it was "busing," and "welfare queens," and "affirmative action hires," and Obama's birth certificate. Reagan was a master of the dog whistle: Reagan's first speech announcing his candidacy in 1979 was in Neshoba County, and he consistently focused on "states' rights" - another of Atwater's potent dogwhistles, that nonracist conservatives and libertarians would see as an issue of simple freedom, but which racists understood very well as a shout-out to the Confederacy and Jim Crow, and against all the federal antiracism programs of the 1960s.)

For the 52 years since that realignment, the South has voted for Republicans in every presidential election, except when the Democrats actually ran a Southerner (Carter, Clinton) - and even then they were only able to split the South. Racists have never trusted Democrats since. And Republicans, from Nixon to Reagan to Dubya to Trump, have enjoyed the benefits of the Southern racist vote.

But this also isn't the end of the story. In the 1970s, smart people of both parties started looking hard at Mexico and Central America, figured out that the US was going to start getting a big influx of Hispanic immigrants over the next couple generations, and started planning how to attract this demographic. Republicans came up with a set of plans to appeal to Hispanics, relying on their generally Catholic culture, using another set of "pro-family" messages, including attacks on gays and - importantly - abortion.

This dovetailed with another Republican program. There was a movement in the party at the same time to court Evangelical Protestant conservatives into political activism, specifically involving Jerry Falwell. This movement grew out of a Southern priority opposing affirmative action (Falwell's Liberty University was in danger of losing tax-exempt status under Carter, because it was violating nondiscrimination laws since the university did not allow students of different races to date). But it quickly found its most potent cause, one which the strategists eyeing Hispanics pushed for and embraced: opposing abortion, which had been until then an almost entirely Catholic issue.

(The conversion of Evangelicals to the cause of considering abortion a moral evil and working to see it outlawed is a fascinating story, and one that others cover in detail. It's stunning how quickly and completely the position spread through the conservative Protestant community between 1975 and 1985. But it's a tangent off of what I'm talking about here.)

By the Reagan era, the Republican Party was comprised of corporate money, racists (Reagan and Nashoba County), Evangelical Christians, militarists (Reagan's aggressive militarism helped push military families and military veterans into the Republican Party), libertarians, and gun owners.

At the time of Reagan, this added up to a majority - in 1984 an overwhelming one. But there were rumblings of a problem, and that problem - while it has many forms - was most of all a Hispanic one.

During the decade following Reagan, Hispanic Americans overall came to the conclusion that Republicans, despite pro-family and anti-abortion positions, were very much not on their side. Part of this was economic - Hispanics, like any community comprised largely of recent immigrants, are less well-off overall than the median American, and Republican/conservative policies tend to be bad (or at least perceived to be bad) for working-class and poor people - but also the Nixon/Atwater dogwhistles started producing dramatic blowback.

Two kinds of people hear racist dogwhistles - racists and minorities. You can tune the dogwhistle so that nonracist white people don't hear it, but when you're getting racists excited, you can't stop their targets from noticing too. Hispanics started getting the very clear message that Republicans did not welcome them. (Pete Wilson was one of the grand villains here, in the 1990s. He ran explicitly anti-immigrant ads as a California gubernatorial candidate, and carried the message into his brief presidential campaign in 1996.)

The upshot of all of this is that as the country has gotten less white, Republicans have gotten less popular with everyone who isn't white. (To the point where I've heard conservatives assert to me, out loud and without any sort of shame or hesitation, that Democrats are committing election fraud by being pro-immigration - because Democratic policies can import potentially unlimited numbers of new citizens, who will then be allowed to vote, and vote for Democrats.)

Race isn't the only issue, of course; conservatives - because of their connections to militarists, corporatists, libertarians, evangelicals, and gun enthusiasts - see all of those demographics shrinking relative to the groups most hurt by policies that those groups want - younger Americans affected most by war; environmentally literate people horrified by dismantling of regulations; working-class and poor people affected by shredding of the safety net and commoditization of their labor; women and LGBTQ affected by anti-gay, anti-abortion restrictions; and city dwellers who are most negatively affected by gun ownership.

Yet they are in a spiral, since they cannot turn their backs on any of these increasingly unpopular positions without alienating one or more of their core demographics.

They've tried hard. There are elected Republicans who really, really wish they could write sensible environmental regulations - but they can't, because of their corporate influences. There are *many* elected Republicans who want desperately to reform immigration - but their racist core would bolt. There are those horrified by the inability of their party to do anything humane about health care - but neither libertarians nor racists would tolerate the "something for nothing" aspect of taking care of poor people's health.

And now, those who simply see a case for Republican conservative policies - those who believe in a largely free-market capitalist society that rewards work and success, and pays attention to patriotism and tradition, but has supports that strengthen the community, take care of citizens who need help, and is inclusive and welcoming to everyone - have to be feeling a gradual sense of dread and panic.

Because they also know, or believe they know, that Democratic policies are very, very sticky. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - which many conservatives believe to have negative impact on society overall - are permanent fixtures of our nation. Moreover, the electoral success of FDR and JFK/LBJ (which was halted by Vietnam and by Johnson's choice above) showed that voters respond very positively to successful Democratic programs (even though a Republican will make the case, whatever one thinks of it, that these policies' short-term benefits are outweighed by long-term costs, both economic and cultural).

So Republicans, I believe, are convinced that their gains are hard-fought and temporary, while Democratic gains - when Democrats are allowed to govern - are easy and permanent.

And - this is the critical piece of motivation I think we should understand, and the reason I went through all of that history, to illustrate the deal with the Devil they made - they see their demographic doom upon them. They know they can't expand beyond their current demographic limits. They are very, very aware that their last Presidential popular vote victory was 2004 and the one before that was 1988. They have won the popular vote in only one of the last seven presidential elections. There are more of us than there are of them and that is not going to change.

They see barbarians at the gate, everywhere. They are outnumbered and they know it. And they honestly see themselves as the last defenders of civilization and freedom, in constant danger of being overwhelmed and their light extinguished.

Needless to say I don't share their view in the slightest. But I believe I am accurately representing it. And I believe I understand it.

And when I put myself in that mindset - the last defenders of civilization - I understand their desperation. Why they embrace what seems insane. Why they are so willing to be so desperate. Why they fought Clinton, and then Obama, so furiously and relentlessly, never compromising and never allowing a single success, even one that had the potential to help enormous numbers of citizens without containing anything resembling actual "liberal" ideals (e.g. the PPACA).

They can't let us win even temporarily, because they are convinced it will be permanent. If we peel off anyone from their coalition, they'll never build it again. There's no one left for them to add. Too many Americans are nonwhite, or LGBTQ, or working-class, or nonreligious, or against guns, or in favor of abortion, or want some amount of services to provide support in an increasingly complex and demanding world. More all the time.

And all it takes, they believe, to cement an effectively permanent Democratic supermajority is for people to see a Democratic success. (They know Democratic policies help people. They're not stupid. They just think it's bad for the country to help people.) I'm not exaggerating or making this up when I say they believe they can't afford there to be a single opposition success; I've seen the position papers Republicans published under Clinton and under Obama. They have been frank about seeing relentless, total opposition as their sole path to survival.

And now that they're in charge they will literally do anything it takes to stay there, because they believe it's the last chance for their philosophy - and remember, they believe that any other philosophy than theirs leads to the downfall of civilization. This isn't evil, per se, it's desperation - or rather, it's what real evil in the real world is: not moustache-twirling sadism for the sake of it, but convincing themselves that every part of what they do, no matter how many people it hurts or what sacred traditions it destroys, has to be done to save humanity.

They can't back down, ever. On anything. They can't admit a single wrongdoing by anyone in their party. They can't quit even so awful and unfit a clown as Trump, because a weak hand going into 2020 could permanently realign the nation against them. No tactic is beyond them because they see - always - the apocalypse coming with the next election and they must use every weapon at their disposal. They are willing to throw even our ideals of free and fair elections to the winds, convincing themselves that's not really what they're doing - they're just temporarily making voting a little harder for people who probably wouldn't have voted anyway, what's the harm - who cares if there was foreign influence in our elections, they have any number of excuses for why that isn't as horrifying as it sounds - because they honestly believe the future of all mankind and all civilization depends on their victory over us.
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This is kind of long, because I want to bring a couple different lines of thought together. Yesterday I was talking to an unfailingly polite old friend of the conservative persuasion, and he said some borderline-paranoid conspiracy-theorist things about the "Deep State" manufacturing scandals about the president - while implying that he wasn't fully on board with it, just thinking about it - and I suddenly saw a common thread to a bunch of other things I've seen over the years. But let me go at it a little obliquely.

A couple of years ago I was watching a video of Senator Rand Paul questioning a deputy secretary of, I think, education. The context was the budget, of course, and the secretary was defending a request for X million dollars (let's say 50 million) for a specific program - I think it was for a certain sort of disadvantaged-areas education program. The specific amount of money or specific program doesn't matter for what happened.

Paul asked her "why fifty million dollars?" She gave a professional explanation - that fifty million would see a return of about three times as much in improved economic conditions and reduced need later; the additional education had been projected to result in X amount of increased income, Y amount less government support, Z amount less crime, down the road, for the students enrolled in the program.

Paul said two amazing things. One was pure rhetorical nonsense - "only in government do you see people arguing that by spending money they're saving money." That's such a nonsensical piece of bullshit - he has never heard of investment, never heard of preventative programs (I sure wouldn't want him as my dentist; does he not believe that spending money on a toothbrush and dental floss now could prevent the expense of a root canal later?) - that I almost missed the other thing he went on to say. And that's the thing I want to talk about.

He went on to say "if you say you can do good with fifty million, why not ask for ten times as much? Why are you only asking for this amount?"

This understandably confused the secretary, who nevertheless tried gamely to suggest what might be done with ten times as much, but said that she knew there was a limited budget and she had to prioritize.

Paul persisted in the question, thinking he was making a point. And it suddenly struck me - he's a true believer. He thinks he's a Randian superman, facing a Randian moocher. He not only didn't believe what she was saying, about the good the money could do - he didn't believe that she believed it either.

It's not just that he was assuming that the money she was asking for would be better off not being spent. That's a common conservative position. It was that he was completely convinced a priori that she thought so too. That she was asking for money for no reason other than that it was her job to ask for money, and to try to get as much money as possible. Not to accomplish any task, not to help people, not to fulfill the priorities of her department. Just to get money. What he was saying could only make sense if he was assuming she thought everything she was saying was distracting nonsense.

Maybe I noticed it just because it was during the three-year-long book review of Atlas Shrugged being done by the daylightatheism blog, and so the mindset was front and center in what I was thinking about. But the lack of empathy and the curious blindness about the perspective of others made me sit back and blink a lot.

It's a peculiar sort of world blindness. It's not only a buy-in to a particular worldview's morality play, it's a failure to recognize that others are not seeing the same morality play. That the villains in your story do not see themselves as the villains of your story.

I don't know if I described that right. It's the difference between thinking that what someone is saying is wrong, and having the unquestioning conviction that the other person also knows that what they're saying is wrong.

It got me thinking. There's another place you see this - a subset of religious conservatives, the ones who (among other things) consume the Left Behind novels. There's a specific attitude a lot of them have about religion: not only are they completely convinced of the rightness of their faith, they have the unquestioned assumption that everyone else in the world knows the Christians are right, and simply operates out of a choice to deny the obvious rightness of their view. They literally do not understand someone who follows some other religion out of an equally sincere commitment to a different faith. They believe, completely, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and everyone else know that they are following "pagan" faiths that deny the obviously-real divinity of Christ. That not only is the divinity of Christ obvious to them, but that it is obvious to everyone.

Phrased that way it's then easy to see why they think everyone who isn't Christian lacks such fundamental virtues as honesty and trustworthiness.

The failure to consider that others simply do not accept the paradigm you accept is the common thread.

This brings me back around to my conservative friend. His conspiracy theory about the "Deep State" is that the entire US government bureaucracy is committed to one thing only, its self-preservation. It is not there to provide services, to keep us out of wars, to protect the environment, educate the country, stop foreign spies, safeguard our nuclear materials, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, establish justice, or anything else. He assumes it is all there to perpetuate itself. And what's more, he believes that everyone with a job in government holds the same view. There's no room in his conspiracy theory for idealism, for patriots who want to make their country better, dedicating their careers to government work. He assumes all real patriots go into private industry.

Because there's no other way his Deep State conspiracy theory could work. His conspiracy theory is that the scandals that plague the current president (and others like him) are the work of bureaucrats desperate to protect their own livelihoods against a political movement that seeks to (his most telling words) "cull the herd".

For the conspiracy theory to work an immense number of government bureaucrats need to be in on it - and not a single one is willing to blow the whistle and reveal the deception.

It's not just a belief that what the government does is worthless. It's a worldview where he has to assume everyone working for the government also believes that what the government does is worthless.

It's an inability to consider the existence of a different worldview.

Do I think this is confined to the Right? Well, actually, not exactly, but that's mostly for another long essay. I do think that when people on our side say "conservatives want people like me to die", or "there are no honest conservatives", I think they're doing something that's at least a little similar. As I say, that's for another time.
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I feel like this point sometimes gets obscured in the debate about health insurance. And it's this: technology has reached the point where a health insurance market is a bad way to allocate health care resources.

I know that sounds like 'well, you just don't believe in the power of the free market'. But I do. I just identify a problem that I would love to solve, but don't think there's a market solution to. Please hear me out.

(This is a long essay about insurance. It leaves out a big part of the issue - that a free market in health care, as opposed to health insurance, is ultimately a brutal eugenics-based society. But that's for another time. Just know I don't attempt to address the question here of "well, what about just paying for health care directly and forget about insuring it?")

Let's first review risk. Insurance is a perfectly fine consumer product in that it is a way to purchase someone else's assumption of your risk.

That sounds complicated when I say it. But you all know what I mean. We know there's some specific misfortune that happens to a few people and we don't know who it will happen to. If ten thousand people each own a house for twenty years, five of those houses will burn down - randomly. Without insurance, those five people would lose everything. That seems unfair and bad.

We'd like to prevent them from losing everything - because when fires happen, it probably wasn't the owner's fault, because we figure everybody's in the same boat. Nobody knew whose house was going to burn down ahead of time. Even if it was technically the owner's fault, you kinda figure everybody's stupid once in a while and it was just bad luck that this particular time the poor guy left a candle burning - which we all do, or something else similar, once in a while - and it was his house that burned down.

Right. So. We invented the concept of insurance. A guy goes into business and offers to take on risk, in exchange for money. He gets a bunch of people to give him a hundred dollars every year, and he signs an agreement that if any of their houses burn down, he pays them for the house and everything in it, so they get to build a new house and go on with their lives.

He's taking on the risk. But because that hundred dollars every year from each of ten thousand people winds up being a huge ton of money, it's no longer a risk to him - he can afford to pay out whenever somebody needs it.

But what if one guy always leaves candles burning in his house, and over the last ten years his house has burned down three times and insurance has already paid out three times? Here we get to concepts like moral hazard - he's doing something stupid and getting rewarded instead of punished - and that gets into why insurers have actuarial tables. We all figure it's reasonable for the insurance guy to refuse to do business with him, or at the very least to start charging him more than he charges other people, because now he represents more risk.

Insurance companies spend most of their time and effort trying to figure out exactly how much risk each policy represents - how much risk protection they're actually selling you. If they're selling you protection from more risk - because your situation represents more risk - it should cost more, right? Whether it's life, auto, fire, malpractice, or whatever, insurance companies pretty much get to do some invasion of your privacy, snoop around in your history and learn your reputation, because we figure that's fair. It's a free market; people should be able to figure out whether someone's hiding a bad deal from them before they make it. Somebody should get to decide to do business with you only if you give them the information they need in order to make an informed decision.

But here's an important part of that: it's fair because most of the risk factors tend to be behavior and choice related. If you're a smoker, you're going to die sooner; you pay more for life insurance - but you could just quit smoking. If you've been in a couple of car accidents, you're probably a bit of a sloppy driver and you will pay more for auto insurance - but you could go take a class and learn to drive better. If you chose to buy a house in a flood plain, you're going to pay a lot more for flood insurance - but you chose that house, it's your own fault. And so on.

But the thing is, for this to work there has to be actual risk involved - a veil of ignorance over the situation, on both sides - otherwise what's being covered isn't risk at all. While the insurance policy payments are being made, up until the payout, neither party knows whether the insurance payout will be triggered; the insurer has just figured out the statistical probability. But the dice haven't been rolled yet.

And then once it's triggered - once the bad event has happened - it's one payment, one event, and it's over. And if that event was your fault you will find it more expensive or more difficult to get insurance afterwards, and if it was not your fault then you shouldn't represent any greater risk, and you should be able to prove that to the insurance company, that there was nothing you could have done differently, and that ought to mean you're still the same as everybody else and don't represent any greater risk than you did before, and if you can prove that then they shouldn't raise your rate. That's what we all think of as fair.

But now we have the problem of health care and technology.

Back when we started doing health insurance, medical care was a lot like home repair. Something happens, you need work done, you get the work done, it's over. Medical insurance could handle things like broken arms. Or acute illnesses - you get a treatment and you get better. A treatment. One. One event.

Chronic conditions happened but we mostly couldn't do much about them, until relatively recently, except hope your body could heal itself. Or you could change your habits (like with diabetes).

But we have over time developed better and better methods - technology, tools, medications, therapies - for chronic conditions. And that is where the model of paying for it with insurance starts to have a problem.

Insurance is based on making payments while nobody knows whether an event might happen. Neither you nor the insurance company should know whether you're going to need medical care. And for stuff like broken arms or meningitis or other acute problems, that's fine.

But it's not how it works anymore.

We want, we need, and we do know more now. And a lot of what we know about projecting future health is not based on personal choice. I'll get to that in a bit. But let's just start with the fact that now we can do a really good job of projecting future costs.

As soon as you're diagnosed with a chronic health issue, whatever that issue is, you're a bad risk for the insurer. He no longer wants you to hold the policy you have, because now you're suddenly not a good risk, you're a bad risk - and often a certain loss - to the insurer.

Payment for your first instance of therapy for a chronic condition is fine. Everyone was ignorant until then. But once the diagnosis hits, it’s not just a risk but a certainty that there's going to be more payout. For as long as you hold the policy.

And that's part of the problem. The payment doesn't happen all at once. It happens in drips and drabs. Of course, one could theoretically write insurance contracts to be unbreakable, so the insurer agrees he'll never adjust your policy no matter what new information comes up. But that leads to a whole slew of problems… for example, if there was evidence of the possibility of this chronic condition at some point in your past, which you didn't disclose, it could be fraudulent. And what constitutes "evidence of a possibility"? Well, that's for lawyers to decide. Really persuasive lawyers cost a lot of money. Who has money to hire really good lawyers? You, or the insurance company? I do hope you see this is a problem. And you, meanwhile, after your diagnosis, have to go on with your life. You might move or change jobs. (You might lose your job, and your access to your insurance policy, or even your ability to pay for insurance, because of your chronic condition.) Your situation might change and you might find you need to switch your policy to some other insurance company. Free markets, remember, are like that.

Who's going to agree to take on a fresh policy to insure you, now that you're not even just a bad risk but a certain expense? Nobody. They'd be fools. They'd go broke.

Obamacare - the PPACA - deals with this problem by hacking the market - by drawing an artificial veil of ignorance over the deal. It says insurers have to ignore most of what they can learn about you, and offer everybody the same sets of policies at the same price structure. But that by itself would actually produce a much worse problem: since chronic care doesn't have huge costs all at once, if insurers have to take you regardless of what level of risk and what certain expense you represent, you wouldn't have to buy insurance to cover chronic conditions until you were diagnosed with a chronic condition. Insurers would then never make any money; the only people holding policies would be the ones whose houses had already burned down. So the PPACA draws an artificial veil the other way too - it says everyone has to buy insurance, and the insurance has to cover a ton of different things. It's to prevent the market from collapsing, which it's easy to see it would otherwise do if you didn't let insurers make preexisting conditions unaffordable to cover.

That's why we have the PPACA and why taking away only part of it doesn't work.

So that's part of the problem with free-market health insurance, but I want to address one other piece of this, and it's the existentially terrifying piece. Not to people who are facing this problem already, but to healthy people - the ones who think the whole issue of government getting involved is a bad idea. The ones who think they're grownups and can make their own decisions. The ones who don't want all this complexity.

See, risk assessment for insurance - any insurance - carries with it the implicit idea that when you, as an insurance customer, are revealed as a bad risk, it's your fault. That you could do something about your risk level if you wanted to. That underlies almost everything about how we think about insurance.

If you have high auto insurance rates, it's because you're an unsafe driver, and that's because of how you drive. If you bought a house in a flood plain, that was your choice. If you regularly get sued for malpractice, you're probably sloppier than the average doctor. We all know random things can happen, but we also have a moral sense that people who are bad risks are at fault in some way - that they're bad at the thing they're insuring themselves against, and if they wanted to enough, they could just get better.

The idea that the Universe treats some people unfairly for no reason is terrifying. And it is especially terrifying to people who are not currently being treated unfairly. Because we all want to imagine we're masters of our domain; we have control over what happens to us in our lives, that for as long as we're good, hard-working people, mostly good things will happen to us.

That's not how it works. Not when it comes to the genetic and morphic behaviors of our own bodies. And that fact is a primal and existential terror - the primal and existential terror. It is our own mortality.

Oh, we have some control. We can eat healthy and exercise. Sure. And we can follow every single kale-based fad that comes along and imagine to ourselves that we're effectively managing our risk of cancer, of heart disease, of psoriasis, of whatever thing the fad promises. But at some level we also realize we don't really have control. And that's terrifying. We'd rather not admit it.

That is, I think, at the core of why healthy and able-bodied people sometimes fight so ferociously against a health system that isn't market-based. Because otherwise they'd have to admit to themselves that it's mostly luck. That their health isn't something they control or earn. That their own bodies could have turned on them and it wouldn't have been something they could have prevented. That makes anyone who thinks about it for very long want to run and hide.

Your body could betray you at any moment. It might have done so already. For some people it has already happened - sometimes at birth. And you can't do anything about it. It's not because God is punishing bad people for sin, or that people just suffer some natural consequence of some risky behavior - it's because some people just get screwed by biology.

Today we have the resources to unscrew a lot of that screwing. That's the amazing and exhilarating thing.

But the people who get screwed aren't the ones with the resources to afford to get unscrewed. So just offering solutions for sale doesn't work. That's why we do things like have insurance.

But chronic problems aren't a risk you can offset with free market insurance once you know about it, because it's an ongoing certain cost. Insurance only works before you roll the dice. With a chronic health problem, the dice already got rolled. You can't make a bet covering a snake-eyes result when the dice are already showing snake-eyes. When you're twenty-five and the oncologist tells you that your testicles have been replaced with a pair of dice showing snake-eyes. When some infants come out of the uterus holding a pair of dice showing snake-eyes.

Free markets are based on the universe being fair. We want, deep down, to believe the universe is fair. It's not.

I noticed something a long time ago. The people who say "Life is unfair, get over it" are never the ones life is currently being unfair to. They think it's being fair to them, and that you only think it's unfair because it's your fault. Every time. They say it because they don't really believe it. Which is ironic, because life really is unfair. But "get over it" is the wrong response.

The whole point of technology and civilization and human advancement is that we found some things that were unfair and worked to make things less unfair. Medicine helps make things less unfair. So does insurance, when it works; that's the point of it.

But insurance by itself doesn't work for delivering medicine.
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So. Looking past Trump, I was struck by something Robert Reich said - he was in Washington, talked to both Ds and Rs there about how out of touch and abandoned people in the country feel, and got pretty much uncomprehending looks in return. He seems to feel that the problem is that nobody in Washington is prepared to propose the kinds of policies that would help people.

It's easy to say "that's the Washington bubble" but I want to suggest there might be a different problem. Again, forget Trump for a minute and look at the larger scale.

As the two parties have gradually polarized over the last 50 years, the ability of Washington to implement new policies has ground to a halt. (Reagan changed some things, but far less than his rhetoric suggested he wanted, and he took over early in the polarization process.)

I think both parties have huge laundry lists of policies they would really, really like to implement and which they really, really believe will help the country a lot, if implemented. (Obviously, I agree with one set but not the other, but I'm talking perception and intent here, and that's the perception and intent of both sides.)

But they're finding they can't really change anything significant. I mean, look at 2010 - for a few months (and that's all it was, between seating Franken and the death of Kennedy) the Democrats were able to combine a president, a House majority, a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority, and a bare four and a half votes on the Supreme Court; they passed one major piece of legislation that had to slice half its ass off multiple times in order to squeeze through - in response to which the furious campaign mounted against it led to an electoral drubbing that November, and the opposition has gone clinically insane throwing everything they have into mindless derailing opposition and repeal efforts for the seven years since then, and now will succeed in undoing at least some of its surviving benefits. As their top legislative priority.

The lesson learned is complete hopeless deadlock. (When a party gets the majority they keep hoping. But they won't get 60 votes in the Senate for any budget, not ever again, not until there's 60 Senators of the same party.)

And I've been saying for a while now that this is a fundamental flaw in our constitution that a succession of special circumstances have camouflaged (effective one-party dominance through 1800-1836, again from 1876-1928, and 1928-1964, the latter two assisted by the ideological crossfertilization caused by Lincoln accidentally being from the wrong party). Without another such special circumstance or a catastrophic failure, I don't see a solution.

So I suspect that almost everybody in Washington, Democrat and Republican, seriously believes some variant of "People are frustrated not because we are out of touch, but because we are unable to *do* anything we want to do." It's not that either party lacks a platform that (they believe) will help the country. It's that neither party has any realistic hope of implementing their plans, because the other party is utterly committed to a scorched-earth unrelenting opposition to every one of their plans, and united opposition is too effective.

Too many impediments exist that were intended to be used by well-meaning legislators to slow legislation and further debate, but they become impenetrable walls when used by partisans (who use them because they are honestly and fully convinced of the destructive potential of the partisans on the other side - and I myself strongly believe this to be true about the other side, so I'm not trying to stand apart from or above this conflict.)

We're stuck where we are - unless the nation truly leans itself into a demographically-spread 60/40 split for a sustained period and lets one side actually control the ball and score some touchdowns. But it can't happen for as long as big chunks of people - even just a sizeable minority - are convinced this will lead to destruction and collapse, because they'll take up arms.

And the country is, to be honest, kind of not grappling with that reality. If Washington's in a bubble, the problem isn't so much that they can't see out as they can't change the laws of political physics that govern it.
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I started as an advocate for science more than thirty years ago - as a college student I fought in the Usenet trenches, spending endless mostly-unproductive hours arguing with (primarily Christian; there are other sorts of) creationists. Few people (you will not be surprised to hear) changed their minds, but I learned a great deal that's become applicable to other scientific advocacy.

In particular, the same tactics and same classes of denial the creationists used and still use are being employed by the deniers of climate change. Again, that's not a surprise - but I want to share one interesting specific parallelism, and a hypothesis that I'd like to see tested somehow (someone who's an expert at polling or interviewing) regarding the furious insistence on climate change denial coming from conservatives. But a bit of description of the similar parallel argument from creationists first.

It has been clear to me after arguing with creationists for years that their fundamental worldview was at risk from acceptance of cosmology and evolution: they could not leave aside a literal Adam and his literal creation by God. The discomfort of being related to animals aside, the timeline problems aside, the problem for them was original sin. If Adam did not exist, if Eden did not exist, if the Fall did not happen, they explained to me, then the sacrifice of Christ was meaningless, and their entire worldview would collapse.

I would sometimes gently try to explain there were many devout Christians who accepted evolution and cosmology, and I tried to explain their theological positions as I understood them - but to these creation-believers it was a foreign religion; a "salad bar" that discarded the "inconvenient" parts of the Bible; they could not bring themselves to any different worldview.

So those who were exposed to the overwhelming evidence for evolution, but unable to accept it, were fully convinced that a grand conspiracy of scientists around the world was faking evidence and presenting false conclusions specifically to destroy Christianity.

So what does this have to do with climate change denial? I have a hypothesis.

What does it mean to be a firm believer in free markets, microeconomic laissez-faire, Adam Smith, and the power of capitalism to make humans better? (I will note that I'm a moderate liberal, thus a supporter of markets and of regulated capitalism leavened with some social support, and it's my view there is strong evidence for at least a "weak" version of this belief - the iterative, evolutionary nature of market capitalism does solve lots of problems, microec has some validity, capitalism has been responsible for some significant advances. But a debate on economics is not really the point of this essay, any more than a debate on religion. It's really about a specific logical train.)

My sense is that it is the belief of a strongly laissez-faire capitalist that markets always solve problems better than government. The justification for this statement is based on the premise that markets efficiently move to find solutions that are ultimately better than any one person could plan, because the constant competition and winnowing of potential solutions in the market, through consumer choice, drives innovation and efficiency. Econ 101 market rules. And a lot of people fully accept this and consider it gospel truth.

Now I think the "always" is at best highly questionable, but there's no doubt this is the belief of many people.

How does this lead to a disbelief in climate change? I think it actually has to follow from that premise. Let us put ourselves in the mindset, for a moment, that accepts that government regulation never solves a problem "better" than the market does.

Now, the person with that mindset does also observe the world: specifically, that there are many scientists and supporters claiming that the climate is changing - and that this is a problem requiring a massive response to save the planet.

So, the conservative reasons, one of four things must be true:

- There is no solution to this problem; the planet is doomed.
- The market is solving, or will solve, this problem on its own.
- The market will not solve the problem on its own; regulation and collective action will be required.
- There is no actual problem; a grand conspiracy to destroy economic freedom is responsible for faking or deliberately misinterpreting the evidence.

The first possibility is of course a position of despair and nihilism, and most people reject it.

The second possibility runs counter to the current observed economic behavior: oil and gas are still popular forms of energy, and keep being used; if use of oil and gas were really a serious problem, and the market were solving the problem, demand for polluting/global-warming energy sources would be vanishing.

But the third possibility is anathema to the laissez-faire capitalist, who _by definition_ - by the fundamental premise of his worldview - cannot accept that a problem exists that can only be solved by government regulation. This is the key (hypothetical) insight. If the conservative accepted that government action were needed, it would undermine his entire understanding of economics and government.

And they can't let it be undermined - for a lot of reasons, but consider this one in particular. Conservatives are regularly accused by liberals of callousness and cruelty - eliminating programs that help people, eliminating regulations that were saving lives, and so on. Remember that the accusations of cruelty have to bother them. Their only rationale for a conservative's supposedly cruel behavior is the firm belief that it is for the best, and that belief is based on his worldview that the market will always solve a problem better than government does. If that worldview were shown to be false, he would have to confront the reality that he has been cruel for no valid reason. He has no choice. He has to double down and play it out to the end.

So he simply rejects the possibility, exactly as a creationist rejects the possibility that a literal Adam did not exist to commit the first sin.

So the laissez-faire capitalist is, I believe, left with no alternative but to believe that science is engaging in a grand conspiracy to falsify evidence, in order to convince the world that climate change is happening - because if it really were happening and had a solution, the market would be finding the best possible solution; since the market isn't solving it, it must not be happening at all.

And they thus have to imagine a rationale for the conspiracy, and of course they imagine an attack on their beliefs: that the reason for the conspiracy is to destroy their worldview. Just as evolution is considered by the creationist to be an atheist conspiracy to destroy Christianity, climate change is considered by the climate-denier to be a communist conspiracy to destroy capitalism.

I would like to see some experiments designed which examine and get at the root beliefs of climate change deniers, to see if the syllogism-like elimination of possibilities I describe is actually what is going on in their heads. I *think* it is, but I would like to see some actual interviews and investigation done, where climate change deniers are willing to expose their thought processes.
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This would be better if I could find the link to the original document, but I don't have the fortitude to wade through the sewers on the Internet to find it.

Somewhere around four years ago an old friend on Facebook - who over the years has evolved from a more hardcore libertarian to a left-libertarian; I agree with him more and more - copied something he'd seen from one of his right-wing friends and asked for comment. (I admire him for it; he's provoked a lot of discussion and, I think, has genuinely listened and learned over the years.)

What he shared was a pro-NRA meme saying that yes, America had one of the highest rates of gun crime in the world - but if you eliminated just four cities from the statistics, four cities with "strict gun laws", it would have one of the lowest rates of gun crime.

The four cities it listed were Chicago, Washington DC, Detroit, and New Orleans.

Well, I couldn't resist; I took thirty seconds and googled, and responded with actual statistics. The claim was, of course, absurd on its face - you could zero out gun violence numbers not just from those cities but from the entire states they're in and it would barely nudge the national numbers. So obviously this meme was nonsense. But then I took a second look at that list, because it seemed at first like those cities had very little in common. When you're constructing a nonsense list, why choose those four?

Chicago and Detroit are big cities, but New Orleans and Washington are relatively modest population. Illinois and DC have fairly strict (if not very effective) gun laws, but Michigan and Louisiana are shall-issue states. Per-capita crime rates are indeed high in some of those cities, but not all four. And so on. Nothing much in common.

On the other hand, Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York and Boston are all big cities in scary liberal places, with strict gun control and yet significant crime (and could have been used to make a point along those lines). But they're not on this list. And remember, this list was made-up; the author could have listed any cities he wanted since he was untethered to actual data. So why use those four cities for spreading a meme intended to make people think that "gun crime" is really a them-not-us problem?

Then I realized. If the list had included Atlanta and Baltimore it would have been clearer.

What Chicago, Washington, Detroit, and New Orleans have in common is a huge African-American population, to the point where they exist in the popular imagination as predominantly Black cities.

This was a message to gun owners that the real problem is black people. It was a dogwhistle that nobody heard except the intended audience; gun owners would forward this list around, many unaware either of its inaccuracy or its hidden intent, and a subset of them would look at it, nod knowingly, and fantasize about an entirely white America.

Why bring this up now, years later?

Because the president is talking incessantly about "Chicago" and crime.

Now, Chicago does seem to have a problem over the past year or two - it seems likely it's an organized-crime problem; bucking the trend of the last 25 years, Chicago murder rates have bumped up since 2014. But incessantly talking about "Chicago" and crime serves another purpose.

"Chicago", in any context discussing crime, is code for "Black." It's why it's so easy for so many people to just figure "oh, that's why there's crime there!" It's why he gets away with talking about sending the military into a major American city. It's why conservatives are so comfortable treating it as an "other" place. It's the new way of saying the N-word. Racists nod knowingly, thinking they're communicating secretly to each other.
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If there were no Trump, I would have a wonky and nonpartisan question for McClintock, and I'd be genuinely interested in his answer. (I still am, it's just that with an ongoing literal, not rhetorical, fascist takeover of the country that we have to fight, it doesn't really seem like the most relevant thing in the world. But I still wonder about it.)

The question is this. McClintock is, if anything, more personally conservative than his caucus is generally. But since the election he's been willing to push a strategically wise position on ACA repeal/replace - that he is not only decrying but voting against measures that would repeal any part of the ACA, because he says repeal without a replacement to cover "most" of the people affected by the repeal would come back to haunt Republicans in 2018.

Now, of course he's right. And there's not going to be any meaningful "replace", of course, so this is going to be a clusterfuck for them. But my question, which in calmer times I would very much like to put to him and want to know the answer for reasons entirely unrelated to whether we could unseat him, is:

"Do you find that with the California open primary system, where the top two candidates in the primary results regardless of party become the two general election candidates, has made you more willing to stand up against obviously bad ideas being pushed by the elements of your party more concerned with purity than strategy?"

That is, does the open primary give him confidence that he won't be coming in lower than second, and that if he comes in second to an even dumber teabilly he'll count on the Democrats and enough Republican support to stick with the devil they know in the general election?

Because if so, we should be telling the other 49 states about it. Because honestly, in 2021, it might be better for President Gillibrand to face 52 Republicans in the Senate who aren't terrified of being teabagged in their primary than 48 who are.
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All of this protest is tactical combat against specific unlawful and extreme policies. Some of them have been surprisingly effective against the specific targeted policies, so far.

But as we protest, we need to focus on an achievable strategic goal.

What is, today, achievable and necessary?

Broadly speaking, two *different* things are going on right now.

- Conservatives are in power and are implementing conservative policies and priorities.

- A dangerously unfit narcissist with no commitment to or experience in public service, manipulated by a terrifying white supremacist, holds the White House, and is tearing down the normal process of government.

We as progressives, as liberals, object to both.

But they are different problems with different levels of severity and different timescales.

In the short term we cannot prevent the first one, only slow it and moderate it, without ourselves threatening the normal process of government. It is, arguably, the necessary and straightforward implication of free elections that this first item happens from time to time. We have important responsibility to oppose it, but our responsibility is primarily to work toward the next election and ameliorate the damage to those hurt.

But the second one is also happening. It is not a normal development. It threatens the survival of our democracy, our country, and arguably the human race. A strategy for solving this problem needs to be developed as swiftly and successfully as possible.

The strategy must be in service to an achievable goal, and I argue there is one, and only one, achievable goal that will solve this problem.

President Michael Pence.

It will do nothing about the first problem - in fact it will exacerbate it. But *if we are to survive as a nation and as a species* we must understand that the problem of Trump's unfitness is far more serious.

There is a certain mechanism available to us that, if applied successfully, will reach that goal. To apply this mechanism successfully requires we make alliance with certain political forces.

Specifically, we need the help of the forces that will be our adversaries in the next election.

And of course that calculus is uppermost in their minds.

So the question is how we gain their alliance - the specific alliance of these three entities:

- 24 Republican members of the House.
- 19 Republican Senators.
- Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

I don't have a proposed path to reaching that goal. I only argue that we need to focus on the most serious problem, an achievable goal that solves that problem, and develop a strategy to reach that goal. And I do not see an alternative to the goal of President Pence.


Jan. 26th, 2017 04:16 pm
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An astonishing (that is to say, greater than zero) number of people call Donald Trump "honest".

It moves me to wonder whether this has to do with his limited vocabulary. We all tend to believe, unconsciously, that anyone less intelligent than ourselves can't persuasively lie to us.

And for a lot of people who are a tad limited themselves, that's the only metric they have - even though for them, at least, it's pretty much not true; stupid people can't tell when other stupid people are lying to them, they just think they can.

But a person who's not very bright does develop, as a prudent defense mechanism, the suspicion that anybody clearly smarter than they are is trying to fool them - because they instinctively know they wouldn't be able to tell the difference, and they keep this suspicion of anything sophisticated simply because they do get taken for a ride by the clever and unethical.

I do really think this is a big part of the reason such a transparently dishonest man is "trusted" by his supporters. Trump's language is practically baby talk; it makes him seem like he's simply not bright enough to lie - the Chauncey Gardener/Forrest Gump effect.
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I read the Harry Potter series to each of my children, for each one stopping at the point when they decided to pick up the book themselves and read the rest.

Josh was at the age where he was still bothered by nightmares when we read Prisoner of Azkaban - so I talked with him about scary things - dementors and boggarts - and in the course of it I realized what Rowling was trying to teach young readers about fear.

I told Josh that nightmares were like boggarts. They can scare you - they can be what you are most afraid of - but they can't hurt you. All they are is fear.

Now, there are things that really can hurt you. And for that you have to take other steps; you can't just banish fear and be done. But in the story, by separating out fear and giving it the persona of a boggart - representing anxiety, terror, dread, separated for a moment from real power or real events - Rowling showed exactly how to defeat it.

(Keep in mind that fear is being deliberately sown - because contra Yoda, fear leads to despair, despair leads to inaction, inaction leads to dictatorship). Fear is a weapon that must be countered on its own.

Rowling's lesson is that the way to counter fear is to laugh.

Fear cannot survive when people are laughing.

After only a few discussions of boggarts - a few conversations about how to wake after a nightmare, think about what was so scary, and then imagine how to make it ridiculous (Riddikulus) - Josh stopped having nightmares.

This isn't Rowling's invention, of course. Consider Spike Jones' "Der Fuhrer's Face". Laughter works as propaganda. It demolishes unearned respect. It renews the soul. It banishes fear.

Of course, much more than laughter is needed. Laughter doesn't stop oppression or damage. But when you are terrified of what is coming, what is already happening, if you give in to terror, you participate in the damage. But by laughing, you inoculate yourself against self-damage. Against participating in the oppression. You prevent yourself from making it worse.

And It really is hilarious, this child, this narcissist, who thinks, who really thinks, he's qualified to run the world. It's dangerous that he's there, but do not be afraid; remember, he is a man-child, who petulantly insists on respect he doesn't deserve; he hates it when he's laughed at.

I wrote a short story a few years back, in the dreamwidth archives somewhere, that ended with the Lord God Almighty telling a damned fool, "When I said 'be not afraid', I meant it."

So laugh. Stop cowering. It's important. Laugh at the clown who's so absurd he thinks he is entitled to your respect - he thinks he can make you afraid. Keep laughing. Share all the pathetic, foolish, childish, petulant, boastful, imbecilic things about Trump. Delight in the discomfort your laughter sows. Because it banishes the boggart. Step one - accomplished. You have stopped fear itself from hurting you.

Laugh, and then get to work stopping the damage.
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So I have decided to put a journal on dreamwidth. I haven't journaled in years, except for facebook - which is too non-searchable and ephemeral to serve as an actual blog - and I've had at least one friend (who's a professional writer!) tell me I should be blogging.

So maybe I will. And it begins with an import of all my livejournal, because Russia. So it's all here, now, and maybe I'll figure out how to link one to the other...
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I've been reading the beginning of Razor Coast, which was in my virtual stocking on Wednesday. There's a number of "degraded heroes" in it - a party of former adventurers where it all went wrong for them, and they're moping around in variously bad situations in the city, for the PCs to optionally inspire, rescue, and join forces with.

It made me think about how to model "degraded hero" in 3.5/Pathfinder. And there's an obvious answer: long-term negative levels, caused by failure and emotional trauma. What I don't have (up front) is a mechanism more complicated than Restoration for removing these long-term negative levels. Something like atonement/geas-quest sorts of thing, or fulfilling a ghost's purpose to banish it, but strictly on a "mundane" level; it could be done with sufficiently inspiring Diplomacy or even Intimidation, or bardic performance, or just removing whatever the block is that keeps them from being active again. (I'm also watching Nikita and thinking about blackmail and so on.)

And then that led to something else: I thought of how rogues get powers like "do 2 points of Dex or Str damage with each successful hit", and I considered the idea of using Intimidate, Diplomacy, Bluff, or other social skills to do temporary Intelligence (enragement), Wisdom (distraction), or Charisma (self-doubt) damage, the way Ray of Enfeeblement does temporary Strength damage. It'd generally be hard to do in combat (ye olde -4 in combat), but it sure might be potent to use against spellcasters and others who do magical effects. Probably not major effects, but 2 or 4 points of ability score damage, if you make a sufficiently hard skill roll (target's Will save + 20 or something as the difficulty?)

Anyway. Thoughts.
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They all have names! Royce and Serafina the twin half-elves, and Darby the gnome druid.

Not nearly as much happened this time - or at least what happened was less consequential. The PCs started exploring - they found a patch of moon radishes and killed the kobolds who'd been harvesting them (selling them for a cool 250gp back at the trading post); they killed a pony-sized spider that'd been preying on creatures in the area, and liberated a treasure map from its lair; they found a rickety bridge and just missed losing a horse to it; they happened upon a huge tree infested with the mites that had stolen items from the bandits (who'd stolen the ring from Svetlana) and resolved to come back and beat upon the mites; they found the clue to the treasure map and discovered a pile of loot that the bandits had taken from an itinerant wizard, including a scroll of spells and a wand -- and all in all they spent a couple of weeks of game time exploring the lands surrounding Oleg's post, surveying it for suitability to start a kingdom.

One thing I forgot to mention to J/W/S - so I'm mentioning it here - is that they've completed two quests (eliminate at least 6 bandits and deliver moon radishes to Svetlana), and each quest nets them additional XP, which means they're actually second level now, and they should level before our next adventure (which is probably a month away because it's marching band season.)

Their next mission will be to smite the mites, explore the rest of the hills north of the Shrike, delve into the Narlmarches, follow reports of kobolds, find and kill a tatzlwyrm, and track down the rumored great boar called Tuskgutter. After which they have to go after the Stag Lord himself and rid the northern Greenbelt of brigands once and for all.


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