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Religion and work

February 2, 2023

There have been several incidences where pharmacy workers have refused to sell a drug that conflicts with their religion. We haven’t reached the point where someone is purchasing groceries, and the cashier tells them to move to someone else’s lane, because they are buying something — pork? beer? — that conflicts with the cashier’s religion. Because grocery companies, legally, can place priority on their business needs. And generally do.

A Supreme Court case may soon change that. There are a remarkable number of people who simultaneously a) want to make sure their religion is respected in the public square, for example, by employers, and b) want not to be inconvenienced by other people’s religions. Without recognizing the conflict there. They seem to think that some religions deserve more respect than others, because they are old or popular or more historically tied to this nation’s history. The answer to all of that is “no.” Your religion seems as silly to those outside it as the newest, wackadoodle cult seems to you. And the US Constitution gives them all exactly the same legal footing.


Epigenetics and excercise

February 1, 2023

The study from the Harvard Medical School on how epigenetic programming can speed or slow aging in mice is interesting. I suspect those hoping it soon yields practical therapeutics will be frustrated in the decades to come, at how complex the road is from wondrous results with lab mice to something practical for people.

They should instead note that some of the same changes that Harvard research team targeted in lab mice are those we make on ourselves when we exercise. That second study (cite), out of the University of Arkansas, has more importance for those of us who want to do something now.

Side effects

January 30, 2023

The population relationship between one predator species and one prey species in an area is one of the classical problems modeled in a variety of biology and math classes. Biologists were expecting to see something like that, when wolves reached Pleasant Island, just off the Alaskan coast. Their population would expand, until limited by the decline of what usually is their chief prey, the Sitka black-tailed deer already established on the island. Depending on season and disease, such populations can shift back and forth. Predators dependent primarily on one prey species in an area cannot completely eliminate it, because their own population declines as their prey becomes scarce.

Something unexpected happened. The wolves there started more hunting prey on the shallow beaches. According to Gretchen Roffler, one of the wildlife research biologists who were studying this:

It appears that wolves are stalking sea otters in the intertidal zone and then probably ambushing them and then dragging them above the high tide line to consume them. It appears that they are intentionally searching for them in areas where sea otters are known to hang out… They’re not swimming out into deep water to get them — that’s pretty unlikely. Sea otters are pretty awkward and not observant when they’re on land. So they would be more vulnerable on land.

So, what happens with the deer? The wolf population expands, and kills off what is now its secondary prey. Which changes the vegetation on the island. (Cite.)

Another unexpected side effect: the turmoil in forming the current House of Representatives led to the creation of a Dads Caucus. That might be a good thing.

Gratuitous sunset

January 27, 2023

IMG-20230125-WA0003A crewmate snapped the photo shown, after we had turned the first mark and were headed to the second. Wednesday’s wind was light and from the north. With the temperature dropping below 60*, everyone had on layers. My Maine friends laugh at how sensitive south Texas sailors are to moderately cool weather.

Holy crap, Russia

January 26, 2023

Elif Batuman writes an interesting essay about reading (and teaching) Russian literature in the time of the Ukraine war:

I thought back to the essay in which Zabuzhko, quoting Tolstoy’s line “There are no guilty people in the world,” characterizes Russian literature as a two-hundred-year festival of misplaced sympathy for criminals, rather than for their victims, enabling crimes—including war crimes—to continue.

Of course, it would be easy to paint much of American literature in similar fashion. Even moreso, American TV and films. Read Batuman’s essay — she pivots in a couple of different directions.

The Russian literature course I took as an undergraduate was taught by a Catholic priest and his wife. (Yes, there are married Catholic priests.) They taught from quite a religious perspective, and highlighted how many Russian thinkers saw an eschatological role for Russia and its church. So I wasn’t much surprised in recent years, to see Putin work that into his propaganda, and to see the Russian Church align with him.

Which is great fodder for the masses. We should keep in mind that many in Russia believe in Putin’s war. The story Putin spins is a powerful one: Russia has a special role in history, it is one ordained by Christ, and its leaders and people must make Russia great again so it can play that role. Such grand story may provide less sustenance for the military officers, diplomats, spies, and bureaucrats who carry its burden. Some of whom are so dismayed by Putin’s course that they are looking to defect:

Now in the FSB it’s every man for himself, everyone wants to escape from Russia. Every second FSB officer wants to run away.

That was said by an FSB officer who defected to the west. So it must be viewed as self serving. Let’s hope, nonetheless, there is enough turmoil in the ranks to weaken Putin.

It seems to me a good mental exercise for everyone to ponder, now and again, if they had to uproot and move, how they would choose their destination, and what difficulties they would face, including the variety of personal entanglements that would bear on it. And what circumstance might lead to that.

An Austin couple, under pressure from Texas abortion law, has decided to raise their family in a free state. All young women in this state should pay that some consideration.

Mad men

January 24, 2023

Yoel Roth, who led trust and safety at Twitter, explains what that meant:

As long as 90 percent of the company’s revenue comes from ads (as was the case when Mr. Musk bought the company), Twitter has little choice but to operate in a way that won’t imperil the revenue streams that keep the lights on.

The other two constraints he names are law and mobile platform restrictions. Advertising is first, since it provides the money. Musk tried to blame activists for the plunge in that revenue stream. Which is misdirection. He would have been more forewarned had he read Noam Chomsky. As that article succinctly summaries:

In a business like Twitter’s, your customers are the advertisers, and your product is the attention of your users.

Social media desperately needs a different business model. Musk will do the world good if he figures one out. Musk’s most recent hint is that people will pay to eliminate ads. Perhaps.

From a technical viewpoint, the ideal thing would be to get rid of the platform. Social media can be done entirely peer-to-peer. Modern cellphones are plenty capable of that. It still needs software development and distribution. Which requires effort. And organization. And money. A subscription model might be enough for that.

The problem is whether a new revenue model and new technology model can be evolved from Twitter? The evolution of both technology and business is path dependent. I’m skeptical that there is a way from there to something radically different.

Despite his background, Musk isn’t giving much sign of pursuing new models, technical or business. He seems more interested in running Twitter as a vanity site. Musk is rich and can prop up a company that takes on large losses for a long time. He has slashed costs, by slashing employees. Still, every year he funds the project is outlay on top of the purchase price. I hope we see something new and interesting at the end. It doesn’t seem likely at the moment.

Gender dreams

January 23, 2023

Ecuador recently passed a law allowing people to change their legal gender. A man divorcing his wife officially changed his gender, in order to escape the disadvantage of older law favoring women in disputes over child custody. That raises the heckles of some trans activists there. Diane Rodríguez, a trans activist in Ecuador, complains:

This man’s private matter, to obtain custody of his daughters, isn’t the spirit of the law. .. It does not make sense that you have changed your gender in the identity document without being a trans person, only with the objective of taking advantage to obtain custody.

GraceJones_00Spirit schmirit. The transgendered are one example of the degree to which social notions of gender largely are imagined. And can be re-imagined. Just as they seek respect for their pursuit of how to carry gender roles in their own lives, they should defend a man who uses gender registry to chip away at a law based on fixed and archaic notions of such roles. We don’t know what causes homosexuality. We don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. The transgender activists who try to paint a new orthodoxy are making the common mistake of elevating theory over liberal outlook. Such theory often looks quaint in a short decade or two. The effort seems strangely conservative and moralistic.

Embrace the kaleidescope. There are all sorts of reasons to want law that avoids gender orthodoxies. And to want culture that allows individuals the liberty to step across them. Liberal outlook has a good track record. It doesn’t require any particular theory about gender orientation or identity.

The recent spate of drag queens doing book readings, including here in south Texas, is stirring all the right enemies. It’s almost de rigueur now that any political group with “freedom” in its name actually is quite authoritarian. It’s worth noting how urban culture supports sexual minorities, even in red states. Even in Alabama.

George Lopez doesn’t want to be identified as a drag queen. I suspect most drag queens want nothing to do with him, either.

And then shafted

January 19, 2023

CATLContemporary Amperex Technology, or CATL, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lithium batteries. It is a major supplier to auto manufacturers, among others. Had you bought its stock three years past, you now would be quite happy with that investment. (Click chart right for full size.)

To improve its supply chain for a critical component, Ford is partnering with CATL to build LFP batteries in the US. A typical act of capitalism. After evaluating sites, they had selected Pittsylvania County, population 60,000, on Virginia’s southern border. The plant there would bring 2,500 jobs to a poorer part of the state.

Amazingly, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin just rejected the proposal. Because CATL is a Chinese corporation. Which makes no sense whatsoever, especially given that this is how Ford gets these batteries made in the US rather than in China. Youngkin’s response is from the bizarro world of modern Republican politics:

In what can best be described as a pissing contest with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over who can hurt their constituents more with meaningless virtual signaling, Youngkin rejected Ford’s plans for a lithium iron phosphate battery plant in Berry Hill, Virginia in late December.

Pittsylvania County voted 69% for Trump in the 2020 election. After people are duped, they then get shafted. Alas, many of them will stay duped.

Ob disclaimer: I hold no interest in CATL, except likely through some mutual funds.

“I was duped!”

January 18, 2023

Lichtenstein_Bull_Profile_SeriesWhen a particular piece of bullshit starts to lose its social potential, many of those who were riding it would prefer to play the victim to playing the grifter. I was “sucked into some things I had seen on the internet,” Marjorie Taylor Greene says now, regarding her past support for QAnon. I predict we’ll hear similar excuses from some of the fake electors, regarding why they signed their names to fraudulent certificates.

Playing the victim helps them escape accountability. It generates camaraderie with the others who participated. It elevates the alleged appeal of the lie. “See? Even I was taken in.” And it sets them up to be on the inside for the next con. Especially when, like Greene, you shed just one aspect of the larger grift.

Which means we should not let that excuse pass so easily. Someone giving up on QAnon while sticking with much of the rest of MAGA bullshit is like an alcoholic who drinks a fifth of high proof daily saying he has decided to get healthy, so instead of drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, will pour it first into a cup or glass.

Brian Klaas, a London professor, explains how this looks from the other side of the pond:

Britain’s and America’s democratic woes are not at all the same. The problems in American democracy are worse. That’s because a particularly insidious disease has infected the core of its political system, one that is not present to the same degree in other rich democracies: extreme conspiracism. Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality. Within the modern GOP, conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for Trump’s MAGA base.

Alas, he is quite on target.

The photo shows a piece of artwork once owned by Bernie Madoff. The Netflix documentary about him is worth watching. After his fraud was exposed, the investment professionals who funneled small investors to Madoff largely made that same excuse. With the notable exception of one who committed suicide.

The cult vs. the law, #2

January 17, 2023

Now is a kind of pregnant pause in the legal troubles for the MAGA cult. The Justice Department has convicted a dozen Oath Keepers for pushing to stop the electoral vote on January 6th. Its founder and his cohorts are facing decades in federal prison. Members of the Proud Boys are being tried on similar charges.

Those groups are mere ground troops. The real question is whether the justice system can work its way up to the leaders and beneficiaries of the attempted coup. Let’s hope Jack Smith has the mettle to meet the challenge.

Michigan prosecutors have grown impatient with the stolid pace of federal law enforcement, and have reopened their investigation into the fake electors there. In Georgia, the Fulton County special grand jury has finished its report. So we wait, too, to see what consequence it has. I hope it will be made public, so we also see what it says.

Dominion Voting Systems continues to press its suits. In depositions, it has made Sean Hannity and others at Fox News admit, under oath, that they never believed Trump’s Big Lie. They peddled it for the rubes. That admission gives Dominion more legal ammunition in proving defamation.

Steve Bannon is having a hard time keeping lawyers to defend him against fraud and money laundering charges.

Sidney Powell continues to lose. As does Giuliani.

As does Kari Lake. Republican politicians defeated by narrow margins should consider how their conspiracy theories have killed off some of their constituency, rather than bringing bogus suits.

Cults have a hard time in court, where evidence is required and arguments must be built from it. I expect American justice is far from finished with MAGA.

Update: Alina Habba also keeps losing.