Author Archives: dplaflamme

Living in the Future

Did Star Trek‘s communicators have app stores so McCoy and Sulu could download Words With Klingons? If not, Gene Roddenberry underestimated the future.

When I go to a restaurant, the host assumes I have a personal communicator on which she can beam me a message when my table is ready. She’ll also tell me which app to download so I can track my place in line. 

I can buy movie tickets at my restaurant table and show the ticket taker my communicator two hours later that I have a ticket — but that’s old news. 

Ten years ago, smart phones with web browsers were rare and clunky. Twenty years ago, cell phones were rare and clunky. Thirty years ago, we’d stay up late so our long distance phone calls were cheaper — on land lines! 

Yeah, living in the future!

It’s Our Country; What Do We Want?

I realize this title only applies to 300 million people out of the seven billion people of this world. Among my readership, such as Facebook friends and Twitter followers, the percentage is probably higher. I can live with that. (Wow, what a lousy way to start this essay.)

Two hundred and forty years ago, British colonists in North America declared independence for thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America. (I’m sure there’s a good, historic reason we didn’t include British colonies in what’s now Canada, but researching that might well delay this essay until the next American national holiday, a cost I’m not willing to pay. But, I digress.) The colonists were united by their anger at King George III and their desire to determine their own course and their own laws, and this anger had been fermenting for more than a decade, in differing levels in different colonies. There are reminders that the writing of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t a quick, conflict-free process, but there was enough common ground to reach consensus on that, and later the Articles of Confederation and eventually the Constitution.

There has always been conflict about our form of government. That it should be a democratic republic hasn’t been too much challenged, but after that, the details get tricky. That there are the Articles of Confederation in between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution speaks to the perennial debate about how strong the Federal government should be. The government allowed by the Articles of Confederation clearly was too weak, but ever since, there has been a tug-of-war about how much power we should allow or grant to the Federal government. That we would be thirteen or more distinct states with their own governments united by one overarching government has never really been questioned; never to my knowledge has the idea of dissolving states in favor of one uniform government ever gained substantial traction, even after the Civil War less than a century after our declaration of independence — and of common cause as well. However, only slowly have we transformed from a nation led by white men to a nation voted upon by men and women of all races and social statuses.

Somehow, these conflicts about the nature of the governments of the United States of America have crystalized sharply over the past decade, even more than they have crystalized over the Civil Rights movement sixty years ago. After a decade of fighting about the premise that we have a collective obligation to make sure everyone can afford health care through health insurance regulations and subsidies, we seem to be fighting about the fundamental purpose of the Federal and even state governments.

Scott Pruitt represents those who would roll back regulations protecting the environment and the health of Americans from the effects of pollution and other abuses of the environment. He, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, would dismantle the protections afforded by the agency since its inception almost fifty years ago, consistent with the goals of the fossil fuels industry and other corporate interests who have funded so much of Pruitt’s political career. Nominally, they might state they wish to let states regulate the environment, but that premise is a fiction covering two truths. First, environmental issues quickly cross state — and national — borders. For example, it was well established twenty years ago that power plant emissions in the Midwest caused acid rain in the Northeast that decimated plant life there. The second truth is, many state governments are already beholden to corporate issues due to deliberate efforts to take over those legislatures with corporate allies through gerrymandering and political contributions. This parallels the history of the effects of race on civil rights: in the South, many states clearly and blatantly discriminated upon racial grounds, while in the rest of the country, any such discrimination was less blatant and had fewer effects upon racial minorities.

Betsy DeVos represents those who would do to public education what Pruitt’s supporters would do to environmental protections. They would replace locally-controlled public schools with government subsidies for private schools, both secular and religious. This in turn would let conservative social forces funnel children into schools that reject progressive ideas such as racial equality, gender equality, and the tolerance of non-conformists and minorities, be they the LGBTQ community, the pro-choice movement, non-Christians, immigrants and refugees in general, or anyone else. This movement, of course, would also roll back Federal regulations requiring schools at all levels that receive Federal funding to follow certain regulations about, yes, gender equality, religious neutrality, and these other same social issues that so motivate some of these forces. Again, they would return power to the states, knowing that they’ve already captured so many states’ education departments and legislatures so they may return their schools to academies of conformity and privilege out of the Forties and Fifties.

Dr. Tom Price leads the Department of Health and Human services, ready to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its effects as soon as Congress allows him after years of his vocal attempts to repeal the ACA while he himself was in the House of Representatives, and if he can dismantle or neuter Medicaid, too, he’ll take that opportunity. Dr. Ben Carson leads the Department of Housing and Urban Development because of his public skepticism for that department’s programs and purpose. Rick Perry leads the Department of Energy despite his apathy about nuclear energy in this country and his hostility to Energy’s more recent programs to promote alternative energy forms, such as solar and wind. Our Secretary of State, a recent oil company chief executive, oversees a department with almost no leadership of the diplomatic corps due to vacancies among so many appointment positions. Only scandal prevented a corporate CEO with a history of labor law violations at his companies from becoming the Secretary of Labor.

Behind it all, Steve Bannon is the President’s “Chief Strategist,” a minister without portfolio who has in his past made clear in interviews a desire to “destroy the state.”

Forget GIFs of a TV reality show star beating up a wrestling villain, now labeled as a cable TV news network. Forget the history of misogyny of the TV reality show star who is now our elected President.

Ask yourself:

Do you want a government that deliberately forfeits its powers to establish a minimum standard of health and well-being for all residents, that deliberately reverses of decades of inclusiveness and generosity in favor of implementing an attitude of, “I’ve got mine; screw you!” that lets corporations run free without regard for individual citizens from whom governments derive their power?

It’s easy for liberals, progressives, and others with mere shreds of common decency to be outraged by the daily acts and rants of our elected President. It’s shocking when we find people who aren’t outraged, who can find some fig leaf to hide behind while defending him. What we have to remember is, Our President is just an empty figureheadbeing manipulated by those who would reverse the government’s course over the past six decades for their own selfish purposes.

Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others don’t like Donald J. Trump and wouldn’t have chosen him, but they can use him. They are using him! Steve Bannon is using Donald J. Trump. Tom Price accepted his appointment of Secretary of Health and Human Services not to serve Trump but to implement his his own agenda, shared by those who whispered his name in Trump’s ear.

Is this what you want?

Do you want to roll back six decades of social and environmental progress?

If you want this, own it! Don’t hide behind “states rights” or the alleged faults of the ACA. Own it! Tell us that’s what you want! Tell us that your Christianity (or other religion) lets you reject refugees out of fear of strangers and takes away health care from the poor because you think your Jesus would somehow judge them “undeserving.”

If you don’t want this, Resist! Continue to call your Senators and Representatives. Find and support candidates in gerrymandered House districts and in polarized states. Work to make Trump and all that hides behind him a one-term embarrassment as hard as those same forces worked to oppose all that Obama did and steal a Supreme Court seat from him.

Own it, or resist it! It’s our country; what do you want?

If I Had….

Years ago, as a Boy Scout, I’d get in the mail regularly a catalog of Boy Scout-branded merchandise, from camping gear to very-Scout specific materials, such as merit badge guides. Sometimes, I’d leaf through the catalog wondering what I’d buy if I had $100 in credits for gear in the catalog. One day, when asked what I was doing, I explained this to one of my parents, who asked in return why I didn’t just earn $100 by doing odd jobs so I could really do that?

That question made no sense to me, but I had no answer for it, either. The short answer is, if I had had $100, I probably wouldn’t have spent it on Boy Scout-branded gear. If I wanted a tent, I’d look at manufacturers like North Face and stores like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports. Or, going a different direction, I might spend $40 on music, $20 on movies, and save $40 for a rainy day.

I still play meaningless hypothetical games. If someone told me to book a room at Disneyworld for the week of my birthday, what would be available? Never mind that I have no plans to go to Disneyworld any time soon, and if I did, I’d look for the least expensive rooms, not “the best deal.” Some people have their fantasy sports teams; I have my fantasy shopping preparations.

It’s not just shopping. What route would I take from Spokane to Douglas, AZ? OK, the fleeting chance that I’d ever take that trip vanished in a puff of sibling envy, but for a couple of days, I researched central Nevada and why there’s a road rally on some highway there every year. It wasn’t wasted time; it was a nice problem to work on.

Good computer programmers and good computer administrators spend a lot of time on hypothetical questions. What if this program I call returns an error? What kind of error? Is it worth retrying? Would I have to roll back prior work? Do I need to notify a human to intervene? The more hypotheticals we consider, the less likely we are to be surprised by something we hadn’t considered. That sounds trite, but my sleep at night directly corresponds to how complete my instructions are for my Operations staff.

Sometimes irrelevant questions help us figure out who we are. Betty or Veronica? Your choice says something about your preferences. It doesn’t matter that neither exist; both represent something, and knowing how we feel helps us sort out of the more concrete issues of our lives.

Answer the Correct Question

Last night, three men killed seven others in London using a van and then knives. Coming so soon after an explosive attack in Manchester and an earlier vehicle-vs.-pedestrians on another London bridge, people, including Islamophobic politicians, are asking, “How can we prevent such attacks?”

That has to be the wrong question. Attackers who are willing to die are nearly impossible to stop. You can’t outlaw vehicles that can be driven into crowds. Regulating larger knives and other blades might be good public relations, but smaller blades can kill, too. Explosives are so easy to create from everyday chemicals, you can’t prevent them.

Don’t stop the supply of murderous weapons; stop the demand for them. That’s the answer to “the war on drugs,” and it’s the answer to “the war on terror,” too.

The correct question may be, “Why is it so easy to motivate so many people to commit those atrocious attacks?”

I refuse to accept the premise that Islam simply has a inherent hatred against non-(Islamic)-believers. I have two reasons for rejecting that premise. First of all, it’s exactly analogous to the accusation that Christianity wants to overwhelm non-Christians by might. Secondly, if it were true, there would be a billion people or more conspiring to kill “us,” not mere thousands.

It is true that in the past, Islam has sometimes expanded by conquest, not by persuasion. The same is equally true of Christianity. If one side cites the Moors’ spread across northern Africa and into the Iberian peninsula, the other side can cite the Crusades — and later the Inquisition as well. Both religions have at time been led (or coopted by) fanatics who use religion to justify violence, and both have scripture readings that can be read as justifying conversion by almost any means. Just as Christianity no longer acts upon some of its more embarrassing verses, so, too, can many Muslims reject some of the teachings cited as proof that Islam must hate us.

It is also true that both religions have outliers who would use violence under the cover of religion even in these modern times. ISIS may be dramatic currently than the KKK or the extremists who burn the Koran or paint pictures of Mohammed explicitly to provoke outrage in the Islamic world, but ISIS no more represents the Muslims I know than the provocateurs represent me and my classmates from Catholic schools I attended growing up.

We in the West seem to have an instinctive inability to admit that our actions and philosophies might give cause to legitimate grievances. In the aftermath of almost any attack in the name of Islam against Christian or secular targets, it is heresy to ask if we in the West have done anything to earn their ire. My Google-fu isn’t strong enough to even find shreds of attempts to raise the question in late 2001, apart from a “readers’ responses” article from The Nation. I remember academics trying to ask, “Have we done anything to provoke this,” and being shouted down by, “Nothing can justify this!” I am deliberate in asking about provocation versus justification; people quickly dismissed questions about provocations by declaring that there could be no justification for such a level of hatred and violence.

This is, like so many other points in modern Western debate, a false dichotomy. Proving your opponent wrong does not prove that you are right. That a response is disproportional in magnitude does not mean that there was no provocation to begin with.

Why do people become radicalized? Why do people accept and adopt hostility and conflict while rejecting accommodation and existence? I can ask the question about violence under the banner of nominal Islam, and I can ask the question about Donald Trump’s supporters. Journalists have been writing for two years about “economic anxieties,” only to be mocked by others after displays of open racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other non-economic sins perpetrated members of the same class of people. This mocking, too, is a sign of a false dichotomy. Who says that some Trump supporters can’t be reacting to losses of jobs and industries while others are simply horrible people feeling emboldened by nationalist, xenophobic, homophobic, and other extremist forms of rhetoric?

The world has become a lot more homogenous in the past 100 or 150 years. It was more homogenous 150 years ago than it was 300 years ago, and that was more homogenous than 200 years before that. Social structures that existed in vacuums of isolation are challenged when faced with other social structures that deny assumptions present in the vacuums. Monarchies are challenged by democracies. Patriarchies are challenged by women’s rights. Slavery is challenged by the premise that slaves are people with fundamental human rights. Notions of inherent superiority (of any group or trait!) are challenged by actual experiences with the nominally inferior. And, yes, domestic industries are challenged by exports from countries with lower standards of living or fewer environmental protections.

Oligarchs of all varieties rise to power by presenting themselves as saviors of a group that doesn’t even know it’s a victim. “Men subjugate women!” “Femi-Nazis want to exterminate men!” “Straights have no tolerance of diversity!” “Freaks want to recruit your children to be like them!” “Christians want to exterminate Muslims!” “Muslims want to exterminate Christians!” “Vaccines are a plot to kill our people!” “Savages who don’t know any better will try to kill us!”

The question isn’t whether any of these statements are true. The question is, are there seeds of despair or oppression that give these lies and hyperbole soil to germinate in? Why are Muslims in Europe and America so vulnerable to radicalization? Why are poor whites so vulnerable to Trump’s brand of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and victimization?

Why are there pockets of people ready to hear and accept calls to violence and confrontation? 

That, I say, is the question we have to ask in the wave of Yet Another Act of Extremist Violence.

&some. Lives Matter

There’s a story going viral now, in the spring of 2017, about a waitress who paid for the meals for a table of policemen she served who had just been at the funeral of a murdered colleague. Some versions of the story include a picture of her note on the back of the receipt, including the line, “#policelivesmatter”.

This is clearly a response to the “Black Lives Matter,” movement, whose theme might be summarized as, police shouldn’t get away unchallenged with so many shootings of African-Americans. It suggests that African-American lives don’t matter, that too many people believe that so many African-Americans are criminals and dangerous that almost any police shooting of an African-American can be justified.

The implication of #policelivesmatter, or #alllivesmatter, for that matter, is that police lives, like African-American aren’t valued and that some class of people in America shoot law enforcement officials with impunity routinely. “All Lives Matter” would imply that anyone in America can be shot with impunity, that African-Americas aren’t more likely to be killed by people not prosecuted than others.

People who shoot police offices are routinely found, arrested, and tried for their acts. The man accused of killing the officer in Columbus faces (faced? I can’t find anything about an outcome) the death penalty.

It’s much less common for officers who kill African-Americans to face criminal charges, let alone convictions.

Our legal system values highly law enforcement lives. It doesn’t hold the same value for African-American lives.

I don’t mind a waitress’s act of kindness toward police officers mourning one of their own. I mind her telling them she supports them, doubly so when she herself is the daughter of a retired office.

What I mind is the coopting of the construction, “<adjective> Lives Matter”. Get over it. Stop it. Admit there’s a problem and stop making every social issue about yourself.

Faith, Belief, Evidence, & Fraud

Religions encourage and praise faith without evidence in their believers. Christianity is no better, nor probably any worse, than other religions that way. Cynics would argue that religions have to do this, that their authority comes from a source that can’t be proven.

I write tonight, not to blast religions or the religious, but to discuss the limits of faith as a virtue.

It’s one thing to accept or deny a belief in the absence of evidence. Is there a god? Things that were once accepted as proof of gods are now more often understood through science. That doesn’t disprove the existence of a god, but it also makes it as hard as ever to prove that there is a god.

What about a hundred other things that were once taken on faith that no longer stand unchallenged? Are men superior to women? Is one race superior to the others? Is the Earth the center of the universe? Are left-handed people evil? Exposure to other cultures have raised or validated doubts about gender superiority and racial superiority, even if some refuse to accept those arguments. Science has provided us with models that match our observations better but require us to deny that the Earth is the center of the universe, or even our own solar system. And, thankfully for my sister and others, left-handedness is no longer seen as a sign of evil.

There are people who refuse to accept scientific evidence that contradicts beliefs codified in ancient religious texts. How old is our planet and our universe? A literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian scriptures would suggest an age of 6000 years or so; modern scientific theory suggests millions of years, not mere thousands of years. On one side, some suggest that the devil plants false evidence to make us doubt holy scripture. On another side, some suggest that religious scripture aren’t meant to be scientifically literal and accurate.

Closely related is the question of evolution, particularly as opposed to creationism. Again, does one take the Bible literally or does one accept scientific evidence to provide a more nuanced view of the world than was possible 3000 or 4000 years ago?

What about vaccines? This isn’t directly a religious argument, apart from some religions that reject more or all of medical science. But some people reject the arguments that vaccines are effective and best for the communal health of society. This is a particularly vexing issue for scientists, because the origin of the argument against some types of vaccines is well known, as is the fraudulent nature of that argument. Its initial proponent was trying to sell a different form of vaccines for which he owned patent rights; his arguments against specific vaccines became the basis of an argument against all vaccines, even though it’s well known the proponent was scientifically dishonest and fraudulent.

Here the arguments get, in many views, irrational. An agency of the US government, one argument goes, was corrupted and suppressed one or studies proving that vaccines are dangerous. Never mind that other governments around the world have refuted the arguments against vaccines; there must be some corruption somewhere to explain this. Others cling to anecdotes that blame vaccines for unexplainable illnesses, especially autism. We don’t know precisely what causes autism, so why not vaccines? The fact that there is no correlation found in large studies doesn’t dissuade the people who hear some parent’s anguished argument about how their kid was fine until they had vaccines. It is from this fallacy that one hears the argument, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

This argument has real consequences. Some people, usually due to severe illnesses, can’t be immunized. The best defense for those people is to immunize everyone around them so they aren’t exposed to the illnesses for which they can’t be immunized. This is “herd immunity,” the concept that immunizing most of a group is almost the same as immunizing the whole group. How much is “most of a group” is a key point; some parents believe that it’s not important to immunize their child because everyone else will be, negating the risk. The percentage of a population immunized soon plummets below the threshold for minimal herd immunity, and suddenly we have outbreaks of diseases that are easily preventable.

The debates about evolution or vaccines, while emotional and fervent, usually are honest, with the notable exception of the initial claim that some mercury-based vaccines would cause autism. The “debate” about climate change, on the other hand, resembles the vaccines issue in some ways, but it is corrupted by very real commercial interests.

Approximately 97% of scientists accepted by other scientists as experts in the field agree that climate change, global warming, whatever you choose to call it, is driven by human activities. There are well debated theories on the mechanisms in modern human history that have caused and accelerated global warming. The science of the mechanisms of global warming are well understood; the human activities fueling (almost literally) the warming are understood.

Alas, some of the technologies driving the developed world’s economic explosive growth are also driving the devastating increase in the causes of global warming. Simply put, the burning of fossil fuels has been a boon for the developing world but a threat to the health of the planet. This is very analogous to how consuming tobacco products contributes to higher rates of cancer. Equally analogous, both fossil fuels and tobacco make their producers rich. Reducing demand for those products, while understandable from many perspectives, runs counter to the interests of those producers.

The tobacco industry lost their battle to prove their products innocuous. Their products haven’t been banned outright, but in the USA and several other countries, demand has been greatly reduced. The fossil fuel industries have learned from those battles and have fought tooth and nail to prevent acceptance of the role of fossil fuels in threatening our planet. They try to sow doubt that global warming is real. They try to sow doubt that humans cause it. They try to cherry-pick data to show the problem isn’t as severe as claimed. They try to attack the methodology and credibility of the scientists studying the problem and concluding that we humans are to blame.

All of this leads to this weekend’s Marches for Science literally around the world. Most of the developed countries of the world and almost all of the developing countries of the world accept the science of global warming. Every government on the planet accepts the benefits of vaccines. Basic scientific research is seen almost everywhere as a good thing that helps countries and cultures advance. My country, the United States of America, has the only government of the world that acts as if global warming isn’t settled science, and that is due to the self-interest-driving political activities of the fossil fuel industries.

Ours is a technology-based country. Internal combustion engines are ubiquitous, as are modern hospitals, cellular telephones, computers, plastic products, televisions, people conceived through artificial insemination, farm animals and race horses conceived through artificial insemination, and a million other elements of daily life whose origins lie in the scientific method. People who decry vaccines and people who profit from fossil fuels all casually use these products of the scientific method but deny its validity on their very narrow issues. Fossil fuel companies in particular employ scientists and engineers by the tens of thousands to help them find fossil fuels, extract them, refine them, and get them to market — but they refuse to accept the proof of the consequences of their actions.

Will the Marches for Science make a difference? I hope so, but it’s easy for me to be cynical. Will people suddenly turn against their elected representatives out of a new-found respect for science after this weekend? Or will this remain convinced that the Earth is 6000 years old and scientists who believe in evolution and geology where duped by the Devil? They’ve been so conditioned against “intellectual elites,” will they ever admit that perhaps they should listen to people smarter than them and not just people who say what they want to hear?

I’m glad for the scientists getting politically active, but I hope we figure out who to address the root of the problem: fraudulent rejections of science driven by selfishness.

Patriot Day and Anti-AntiFa Efforts

Part of me is impressed that the “Pro-Trump” rally in Berkeley, CA, called a “Patriot Day” rally. As a child of Massachusetts, I grew up with the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord being celebrated as Patriots Day. Little did I know that only Massachusetts and its spin-off, Maine, celebrate that day. (Are Massachusetts and Virginia the states to shrink because counties split off and became their own state? Is it just a coincidences that these are two of the four states that are named as Commonwealths?) (Hey, you knew this was called “Overanalysis While You Wait,” when you started reading.)

Mostly, though, I’m dismayed at the cognitive dissonance on the part of some who attended the rally. The people distributing instructions on how to build signs that could easily become weapons in case counter-protesters provoked a fight were expecting to fight “Antifas.” “Antifa,” of course, is a shortening of “anti-fascist,” in the same way that “alt-right” is a shortening of “Racist Islamophobic xenophobes.” If your opponents are anti-fascism, does that make you pro-fascism? Or just shit-stirrers who look for reasons to fight?

Definitions of fascism vary, but one common element seems to be a strong, authoritarian government. This makes their reference to Patriot Day especially perverse, because the colonists in Massachusetts are against the strong central government in London. They were against the strongman King. They qualify as “antifa,” not pro-fascist.

Once again, people who like Donald Trump are shown to have flunked the most basic elements of American history.