America’s Getting Dumber, Pandering to Christians

InfernoSteven Benen brought my attention to some recent Christian silliness in Congress in his most recent installment of, This Week in God. Texas Republican Representative Joe Barton put forward a new bill to lift regulations on oil exports. But it was given the the title House Resolution 666. Barton freaked out. How could his bill be given the number of the beast?! Well, if you ask me, a bill designed to promote more oil extraction and more wealth for the already insanely wealthy deserves the mark of the beast. But that hardly matters in this regard.

I’m more interested in how it is that a 65 year old member of Congress feels the need to be protected from such obvious nonsense. And then, the leadership in Congress feels that they must pander to him. According to Michael Marks at The Dallas Morning News, Rep Joe Barton Changes Bill Number From 666 — Not That He’s Superstitious. His staff want you to know that.

Number of the Beast: 666 or 616Barton’s spokesman Sean Brown said, “The Congressman isn’t superstitious and doesn’t see the number as unlucky. We decided to change the number because of the reaction it gets from others. It can be distracting because it carries different negative connotations for some people.” But that’s always the way. For example, people are never racists; they would have no problem with a black family moving into their neighborhoods; it is just all the other neighbors who would move out and lower property values. In this case, Barton is clearly just pandering to other Christians such as himself.

Of course, Barton isn’t known as a wacko Christian. His thing is oil. He is best known for his involvement in the BP oil spill. After the company reached a settlement with the administration, BP CEO Tony Hayward testified before Congress. Barton felt that he was being ill treated, “I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words — amounts to a shakedown, so I apologize.” But when Barton isn’t protecting the millionaire CEOs of billion dollar corporations, he’s looking out for the feelings of ignorant Christians. In this regard, he’s an innovator.

I searched back through previous Congresses, and no one seems to have had a problem with the 666 number for quite a while. Going back through 2003, only Democrats had bills with the number 666 — so obviously, they didn’t care. But in 2001, another Texas Republican got the number and didn’t have a problem with it. From that point, there were a mix of Democrats and Republicans. I went back 30 years — 15 Congresses — and there was no one who had a problem with the 666 bill number.

What’s going on, I’m afraid, is the increasing pandering to religious conservatives. This has gotten much worse after 9/11. A lot of people think we are in the middle of some kind of religious clash. It’s as funny as anything this dangerous can be. We have the wacko fundamentalist Christians on one side going against the wacko fundamentalist Muslims on the other. It’s too bad we can’t ship them all off to an island where they can have their war to determine which of their gods is the One True God™. Sadly, for many Americans, the response to religious extremism is another form of religious extremism. And the nation as a whole feels that it must pander to these people.

I discussed all this nonsense about the “number of the beast” in some detail a year and a half ago, Christian Suffers for Her Ignorance. It was about a young woman who refused to run in a school race because she was given the number “666.” The problem is that this whole thing about the “number of the beast” is nonsense.

To start with, Revelation 13:18 does not say that all people and things with the number are the beast — just that the beast will have that number. But more important, it is not at all clear that the number of the beast is in fact 666. Most theologians think it is. But the oldest copy of Revelation lists the number as 616. And there is much evidence in its favor. I understand though: Christians don’t much care about the basis of their religion; they just want to go along with what everyone in their “group” thinks.

But as a society, we shouldn’t pander to such nonsense. Being a mathematically inclined person, I have strong feelings about different numbers and functions. I actively anthropomorphize them. For example, I consider large prime numbers as snobs who don’t get along with others. And I find the number 2 very suspicious indeed — the only even number that is also prime; I just don’t trust it. Similarly, I find cosine functions contrarians, and don’t get me started with differential equations. It is all very real to me. But it would be madness, for example, to change a bill’s number just because I claim we can’t trust the number 2.

But when it comes to mainstream religion, no amount of silliness is acceptable to mock. Thus we mock the followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult, but we venerate Saint Sebastian who forced his own death for even sillier religious reasons. In America, there can be no religious test for holding public office. Sadly, there is no knowledge test either. And rather than just tolerate such nonsense, we applauded it. Apparently, stupidity or villainy in the name of an approved religion is good.

Why Aren’t We Talking About These Things?

Ramona GriggOur need to keep health care obscenely profitable is responsible for shortening lives and causing needless pain. We seem not to be able to make the connection when ad campaigns by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital chains bombard our airwaves. Someone is paying for those ads. We try not to think about who that might be.

Our roads and bridges and buildings are crumbling and we’re supposed to believe there is no money to fix them. We wait for the inevitable disaster that will open the vault to the funds hiding there all along. Large numbers of people will have to die as a sacrifice before more can live.

Private interests are carpet-bombing the land of the free and the home of the brave. We say we don’t know how to stop them, apparently not even noticing that we’ve made a habit of nurturing and promoting politicians who make no secret of their allegiance to them.

But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know.

So why aren’t we talking about these things all day every day until something gets done about them? Why aren’t we seeing periodic updates on these insults to the human spirit on the news?

—Ramona Grigg
The Things We Leave Undone While We Sweat the Small Stuff

Bigfoot or Hikers Caught on Video

BigfootThis last week, I discovered one of my favorite things in the world: an eccentric. Her name is Mary Greeley and she has a website where she posts news videos about foreign affairs. Usually, it something like an article from The Times of India which she reads. The title sequence on the videos reads, “News they don’t want you to hear.” That sounds all conspiratorial, but the articles are really nothing special — things about Ukraine, North Korea, ISIS. And they are all from establishment news sources. A better tag line for the videos would be, “News you don’t care about because you’re an American and it happened outside the country.” But its cool that she does this. And she has over 15,000 followers with over two million views.

But as the Billings Gazette reported, “She also posts less newsy videos about Yellowstone, including webcam footage of tourists and scenic attractions.” And on 29 December 2014, she posted a three and a half minute video, Buffalo Arrive at Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. It’s actually amazing: the bison enter the valley through clouds of steam. But there’s more!

At 2:55 in the video, four dark figures walk between a break in the trees behind the bison. It’s so minor that I wouldn’t even have noticed. But that’s what separates the idiots like me from the Bigfoot hunters. YouTuber Thinker Thunker noticed these four humanoids and they determined that they were something special. According to him it is a “world record.” No one has ever caught four Bigfoot on video before! Thinker Thunker then goes on to do the kinds of analysis that we have become very familiar with from people who already know The Truth™ and are simply going to make the facts fit this.

It’s curious that he claims they are hunting the bison. Because they seem to be doing the opposite. They seem to be avoiding the bison. But even better than Thunker’s analysis are all the comments on his video and on Greeley’s original post. Lolita Grant wrote, “Your buffalo/geyser video here, may very well, turn out to be the best proof to date, that Bigfoot really does exist!!” (If you were a Bigfoot hunter, don’t you think that this news would justify three exclamation marks?!!!) Some people, like Monique Migneault, just don’t get the import of this video, “That’s soooo cool you shared this video. I saw 5 buffalo about 2 weeks ago grazing in the grass in the melted area just outside the path near Old Faithful…” Wake up Migneault! If bison were important, they would hide in shadows requiring video editing software to prove their existence!

But there were a lot of people who have no use for all this Bigfoot nonsense. My favorite came from Jon Loftus, who wrote:

This is shocking. I don’t know if there is any other such clear evidence that hikers exist in Yellowstone. Like everyone, I’ve heard the stories, but this is fantastic! And to capture not just one, but a group of them, is even more incredible.

I hope a survey team can make it to the area and look for evidence of these creatures before the weather removes it all (tracks, granola residue, cliff bar wrappers, receipts for over priced boots, etc).

I’m very excited and look forward to seeing if there is additional evidence of the Hikers.

The truth is that I don’t know that the Bigfoot doesn’t exist just as I don’t know that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. But I’m pretty sure in both cases because the evidence is really lousy. But it bugs me that someone would post what is a magical video of bison and geysers, and think that it was important because four hikers in the background are “the best proof yet” for Bigfoot. We all need to open our eyes to the beauty and majesty of the world as it is. Be more like Monique Migneault and less like Thinker Thunker.


For the record, I’m all for science as anyone who reads this site knows. But what the Bigfoot folks are doing is not science. It is rather like what the global warming deniers do: start with a conclusion, find or manufacture confirming data, and dismiss contradictory data. That’s not science. That’s apologetics.

The Technology-Inequality Feedback

Dietz VollrathDietz Vollrath wrote a good article on his The Growth Economics Blog, Techno-Neutrality. It counters the argument that robots are going to make us all lose our jobs. He makes four strong points: (1) The economy is more creative than we can imagine; (2) Robots change prices as well as wages; (3) Who is going to buy what the robots produce?; and (4) Wealth concentration would be a problem with or without robots. And I agree: by standard economic analysis, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about. In general, automation has been a great thing for humans. Yet I’m still concerned. Let me explain that.

My fear is not that one person is going to end up with all the robots and the rest of us will starve to death. But it is quite possible that we could end up with something like a banana republic. In this scenario, the society would have a small rich elite, a small middle class to serve their more advanced needs (Building and repairing robots?) and a huge under class. This is also, more or less, a feudal system. And I understand that feudalism was dictated by law. But “property rights” are a form of law. The more money that the rich have, the more they can corner the market in robots and natural resources.

I really am not certain how realistic this scenario is. I don’t give it a great deal of thought because we have a very long way to go to get to that point. But it is certainly true that over the last century, technology has been used to increase inequality. And part of this is just our intellectual property laws. It is shocking that as the speed of society has gotten faster — so that movies that were made ten years ago are now called “old” — has an ever increasing copyright length. A film made today will still be under copyright protection when a baby born today is long dead. But this, I fear strikes right at the heart of the problem of robots and inequality.

With each new innovation comes far greater financial rewards. So Disney is willing to spend millions of dollars every few years to lobby Congress to yet again increase the length of copyright to save Mickey Mouse from the indignity of being free to everyone. Imagine if Common Sense were still under copyright. Outrageous? I doubt it. The only reason it isn’t is because the modern corporation didn’t exist to profit off it at that time. If it had, I’m sure that the United States government would have been convinced by now to create perpetual copyright. It doesn’t make sense for a human to care about that sort of thing, but corporations don’t die.

So the question is really how robots will cause the economic system to be distorted. I understand that in a truly “free market,” it wouldn’t be possible for a few people to control all the robots. I also understand that there is no such thing as a “free market” and that there never has been. So what have we seen the last four decades? Productivity gains — due to one extent or another to robots — have all gone to the owners of capital. Thus it isn’t surprising that people are worried.

In 1790, copyright length was 28 years. By 1831, it was 42. By 1909, it was 56. By 1976, it was 75. By 1998, it was 95. Notice something there? I don’t just mean that it is increasing. I mean that the rate that it is going up is increasing. It is getting worse at a faster rate. And this is just what we would expect when the rich have both increasing power and motivation to keep any innovations to themselves.

I do agree that it isn’t technology itself that is the problem. But we are on a four decade long path where technology has only been used to enrich the already rich. And the longer this goes on, the harder it becomes for technology to do what the economics claims it should do and what history has show that it has done. I hope that Dietz Vollrath is right in his first point, “The economy is more creative than we can imagine.” In my life, that hasn’t been the case. American economics is more ossified than a petrified forest.

Daniel Bernoulli

Daniel BernoulliOn this day in 1700, the great mathematician and physicist Daniel Bernoulli was born. He is from the amazing Bernoulli family — a group of about a dozen famous people — mostly mathematicians. But trust me, you’ve only ever heard of Daniel. He is what Bernoulli’s principle is named after. It represents about the most basic kind of fluid dynamics. And it is based upon it that I’ve long maintained that instead of electrodynamics being one of the three linchpins of physics, it could be fluid dynamics. They are effectively the same thing and they teach the same concept: flow.

Imagine a pipe that has a cross sectional area of 2 square meters that connects to a pipe of cross sectional area 1 square meter. If water is flowing through that, the total quantity of the water going through each section must be the same. Thus, the water must be flowing at twice the speed through the small pipe as it is through big pipe. That’s all just straight intuition. But because of energy conservation, this means that the pressure in the small pipe must be reduced from what it is in the large pipe.

Fundamentally, Bernoulli was a mathematician. But he was a practical guy, even if he wasn’t out measuring things. But he did important work in statistics and vibration. But you know: this was in the early days when mathematicians were still doing work that I understand. I mean, much of Bernoulli’s work was straight differential equations. I have to admit, though, that it is really nice to actually understand this stuff. Even 50 years later, mathematics becomes far more abstract. I would be very pleased if I could understand math up through 1850 by the time I die. It is highly doubtful.

Happy birthday Daniel Bernoulli!