Thursday, June 30, 2016

What's "Christian" about it?

The Church as thug

Nothing epitomizes right-wing Catholicism like the media ministry of Church Militant. Its principals (like the amazing Michael Voris) diligently churn out their rigorously medieval perspectives on current events as they fight the evil heresy of modernism. An excellent example of Church Militant's approach to Christianity was poured out on June 30, 2016, in a 40-second clip that fairly brims with vitriol.

In case you have any difficulty with the video, here is a word-for-word transcript:
A 30-year-old Utah man has become the country's first transgender Senate nominee from a major party. Referred to as "Misty Snow," the Mormon from Salt Lake is challenging Sen. Mike Lee for the U.S. Senate seat as the nominee of the Democrat Party. As self-described "conservative" Democrat currently working as a marriage therapist, Snow began acting as a woman in 2014, and believes his identity as a transgender will assist him in the upcoming election. Similarly, another man, thinking he's a woman and also named "Misty," clinched the Democratic nomination for Congress in Colorado Tuesday.
Several items stand out. First of all, spokesperson Christine Niles lays it on with a trowel as she refuses to use the gendered pronouns appropriate to Snow, who is deemed to be merely “acting” as a woman. Also, as a true disciple of the Prince of Peace, Niles makes a point of referring to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat Party,” using a ploy made famous decades ago by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Finally, note how she closes her report, referring to the successful transgender candidate in Colorado as “another man.”

I suppose it's fortunate that the people of Church Militant fancy themselves a beleaguered remnant, standing together bravely for their one-dimensional version of Christ while the forces of Satan assail them from all sides. For one thing, their unremitting nastiness is scarcely likely to swell their ranks. For another, this way they can glory in their martyrdom of being ignored as insignificant.

Monday, June 13, 2016

California scheming

Once again—with feeling

The California primary election is traditionally too late to make a significant difference in the outcome of presidential nomination contests. This year turned out to be yet another damp squib—except this time conspiracy theories have bloomed as never before. In the imaginations of Sen. Sanders' most enthusiastic supporters, dark powers have stolen their hero's “landslide victory.” A Bernie landslide in California? This is a startling conclusion to anyone who watched the election night returns. Clinton declared victory that evening and her edge of half a million votes was a compelling basis for her statement.

This is the point at which pearl-clutching hyperventilation took over. Facebook posts breathlessly insisted that two-thirds of the Sanders vote had been suppressed. Furthermore, a lawsuit had found two and a half million uncounted votes. This amazing discovery had apparently been made by cleverly looking at information posted on the California Secretary of State's public website—the same data the Secretary of State's office has been routinely posting since the year they acquired a website. Unprocessed votes are tracked on the Elections page labeled with Unprocessed ballots status, which is updated at the end of each business day. That's a pretty good level of transparency, which is old news for those of us who have observed several elections in a row, but shocking and head-exploding information for certain members of the Bernie brigade, who cannot come to terms with their candidate's loss.

With fifty-eight counties working individually through provisional and late mail-in ballots, the tallying process in California is reliably slow and tedious. They have thirty days to deliver their final counts to the Secretary of State, whose office posts partial returns as they come in. Quite naturally, therefore, questions have been raised over the practice of declaring a winner on election night. The Secretary of State doesn't ever do this. It's the news media. Well, what do you expect from them? They want a story and they're impatient to get one. In addition, the final vote tally never changes the election night results.

Never? Well, hardly ever. Clinton's election night lead of 472,000 votes made news networks confident about announcing that she had carried California, even if the uncounted votes could theoretically overturn the results. Sanders had been getting approximately 43% of the votes in the Democratic primary. He would need as much as 65% of the uncounted Democratic primary votes to overtake Clinton. The probability of that? Extremely close to zero. First of all, the 2.5 million uncounted ballots were statewide, comprising voters who participated in the Democratic primary, those who participated in the Republican primary, and those who participated in neither. Perhaps as many as 1.5 million were pertinent to the Clinton/Sanders contest. If Sanders got 1.0 million of those and Clinton got 0.5 million, the senator from Vermont would overtake the former senator from New York. Some handicappers think Clinton's margin will shrink from approximately 13 percentage points over Sanders to perhaps something as low as the high single digits, but no one is laying odds that the results of the Democratic primary will actually flip. Well, except for some of Sanders' die-hard supporters, who cannot let go of the impossible dream.

I mentioned that final tallies hardly ever reverse election results. There is one notable case from 2010. It was the race for state attorney general and was “too close to call” on election night. Nevertheless, the Republican nominee seized on his election night lead to declare victory and celebrate the results. The Democrat held her fire and cautioned her supporters to be patient. As the counting progressed, she overtook the Republican and the final count was in her favor, making Kamala Harris the new attorney general of California. I wrote a blog post on this contest before the definitive count was published, successfully predicting her victory based on the county trends. There's nothing similar about the Clinton/Sanders contest to suggest there could be a similar reversal. That race is over except for tweaks in the totals.

Postscript: This year Harris is on the ballot to become Barbara Boxer's successor in the U.S. Senate.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Bernie-Bot math

Examine your assumptions

Did you know that Bernie Sanders is all but assured of a contested Democratic convention? The Bernie Bots tell us so by a startlingly naive application of simple math. One example is embodied in a picture post that the senator's fans have been passing around and sharing. Its most basic claim is that “In order to prevent a contested convention with Bernie Sanders, Hillary needs to win 65% or more of the vote in every future state.” While I agree that Sanders has enjoyed a remarkable degree of success in the campaign to this point, the supposed reversal of fortune for Clinton seems a bit of a stretch. And it is.

The New York Times keeps a running tally of the delegates in each candidate's camp. As of today, the Times reports that Clinton has 1,307 pledged delegates and 469 unpledged delegates for a total of 1,776 (a nice patriotic number). Sanders by contrast has 1,087 pledged delegates and 31 unpledged delegates for a total of 1,118. The successful candidate will need 2,383 delegate votes to secure the Democratic nomination for president. Thus it's a simple matter to determine that Clinton needs 2,383 − 1,776 = 607 more delegates while Sanders needs 2,383 − 1,087 = 1,296.

Per the Times, there are evidently 1,959 delegates up for grabs in future primary elections and caucuses. Therefore, Clinton must secure 607/1,959 = 0.310 = 31% of the remaining delegates while Sanders has the more formidable task of rounding up 1,296/1,959 = 0.662 = 66.2% of them. How can the Bernie-Bot picture post be so wrong? Easy!

First, assume that all unpledged delegates (the notorious “superdelegates”) are undecided free agents. After complaining bitterly for months that superdelegates are Clinton minions who have “rigged” the nomination contest, Bernie's supporters are now pretending they can be ignored and omitted from Clinton's delegate count. If one insists that the 1,307 formally pledged delegates are all she has, then she needs 2,383 − 1,307 = 1,076. That's a whopping 1,076/1,959 = 0.549 = 54.9%. That's not as dramatic as the Bernie-Bot claim that she needs 65%, but it would still indicate that Hillary needs a majority of outstanding delegates to win the nomination! She's at a disadvantage! Or so we can pretend.

Remember how shocked Mitt Romney was when he lost the election in 2012? He and his campaign team had been taking all too seriously the “corrected” polling data from partisans who insisted that professional pollsters had biased their population samples against the Republican nominee. If you assumed that there would be a lot more GOP voters at the polls than the national pollsters were finding in their sampling, the results for Mitt were great! But wrong.

The power of an unwarranted assumption is great. And it gets even greater when you can't do the math.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Like lying—only better

Perhaps you have heard we are now living in a “post-truth” era, but it hasn't disturbed you too much because it's merely a manifestation of the low quality of today's politicians. Sure, Donald Trump spouts random nonsense all the time, but he's as undisciplined as a spoiled toddler, so no one is surprised. Carly Fiorina is, by contrast, a conscious liar, but she's an unimportant fringe candidate without credibility, so who cares? Ben Carson's relationship with truth seems pretty strained, but he's always a little spaced-out and detached from reality; besides, his star is fading.

I could go on in this vein, but I think the problem is worse than a simple matter of our candidates being worse than usual during this unfortunately prolonged election season. (It's not even election year yet, dammit!) The post-truth virus is spreading among us. I've seen this post-truth attitude affecting mere mortals, too. People I used to know as classmates, back when they seemed sane and responsible, are in its grip.

One of them posted an inanely patriotic meme from a website she follows. She was sharing a Facebook post:

It was clearly a specious quotation: “When government takes away citizens' right to bear arms it becomes citzens' duty to take away government's right to govern.” How could anyone take seriously a claim that George Washington ever sounded like a spokesperson for the NRA? I looked it up, verified it was false, and let her know with a simple declarative statement:
These words were never spoken or written by George Washington.
She soon replied with a charming lack of concern:
Ah, but they are so true!
I thought she was missing the point:
I think false attributions should be discouraged. Mainly because they're false.
She remained serenely unfazed:
But truer words were neer spoken, no matter by whom.
See? True or not, it doesn't matter. The fundamental lie at the heart of the statement is irrelevant because she agrees with the statement. We have a problem.

And that's the truth!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

'Tis the season

To be clueless

One of my family members posted (or, rather, re-posted) a cheery little Christmas manifesto: How dare anyone besmirch the holiday season by inflicting “Happy Holidays” on Yuletide revelers, thereby harshing their Jesus buzz.

The three exclamation points really clinch the argument, as I'm sure you'll agree. Except that I didn't. I offered a mild demurrer:
This is not something worth a fight over. If someone wishes you “Happy Holidays,” it might just be a polite Jewish person who is mostly left out of the whole Christmas business. It might be a store worker who is merely following instructions not to make assumptions about the affiliations of the customers. It takes away from the spirit of the season to get worked up about this and it's probably not good for the blood pressure.
If you're anticipating my relative's reaction, you may well be thinking I was instantly subjected to a barrage of abuse, denunciation, and name-calling. Well, that would be wrong. My relative promptly agreed with me. But check out the actual wording:
Feel the same way. It was meant for those who accuse those of us who are entitled to our beliefs & customs as causing discomfort to other groups when we are expected to be considerate of their celebrations.
Ah, yes. It was merely a mild-mannered belligerence in the service of Christian peace and love. How could anyone object?

I put this in the same category as people who wave their Confederate “heritage-pride” flags and pretend to be amazed when others take offense.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

NPR's memory hole

Dr. Google has a remedy

Although we now have more news sources than ever, we don't seem to be getting more information. In their eagerness to contribute to the news glut, media outlets generate increasing amounts of fluffy bits of non-news. It's extremely disappointing to find National Public Radio getting in on the act. On October 15, 2015, NPR's “lead digital reporter” Jessica Taylor posted a shallow item titled New Clinton Spanish Posters: Hillary or Evita? Although Taylor took the trouble to learn that Clinton's staffers disclaimed responsibility for the Spanish-language posters and images appearing in Texas, she used the rest of her short article to muse about resemblances to icons of Eva Peron, Madonna (as Eva Peron), fashion designer Carolina Herrera, and Shepard Fairey's 2008 Hope poster. The mystery of the poster's origin remained unsolved.

Perhaps it was too much trouble to do the minimal amount of research required to uncover something about the poster's origins. The earliest example I found with a quick Google search was in December 2012, when a site called “The Right Perspective” (not exactly friends of Hillary) ran a very similar image (only the background differs) with an article about Clinton's expected presidential campaign. Essentially the same illustration appeared in May of last year on the “Bearing Arms (Guns & Patriots)” site with an opinion piece mocking Clinton's position on gun control.

Who cobbled together the original image? Who switched the background of wavy red and white stripes to a burst of sun rays? These deep questions remain unanswered. The pictures have, of course, spread throughout the Internet, as memes are wont to do. Zazzle has it on posters and other paraphernalia. Politico reports that a copy was posted in Clinton's Brooklyn campaign office, although that falls a bit short of establishing it as officially sanctioned by the campaign, especially given its non-campaign antecedents.

Yes, it's a tiny little non-story. And it's something a “lead” reporter for NPR wastes time on—and not very well.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

They can't (don't) count

Fools or liars (or both)?

Panic-struck evangelistic Christians are desperate for solace in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision establishing marriage equality throughout the nation. Some of these narrow-minded people, like Kim Davis of Kentucky, are unsuccessfully asserting their right to “nullify” laws and court rulings with which they disagree. Others are less well-positioned to try to express their distress. They can flock to preachers like Billy Crone, who is well-prepared to speak untrue words to comfort them.

Crone was recently the featured guest on the radio program of Southwest radio church, giving a two-part presentation on A Christian Response to the Supreme Court Decision. It's unclear whether Crone is a fool or a liar, but he's at least thorough, touching on all of the most popular anti-gay tropes. For example, homosexuality is a “choice” and people cannot be “born that way” because not all pairs of identical twins grow up with identical orientations.
Nobody's born that way. It's a choice.... That's one of the lies that they say out there, that there's no way we can turn around and people are born that way. Well, that's another lie that we expose on this study. All right, because they say, ‘Just back off and leave us alone because, you know, we're born this way.’ Well, that's not true. And we know that's not true, folks, because you have the prime example with identical twins, okay? If genetics determine a person's sexual orientation, i.e., you're born this way, then it should manifest itself every single time, one hundred percent of the time, with twins, who by nature share the exact same genetic information. Well, guess what? It doesn't!
Apparently Crone embraces the notion that “genes are destiny” and remains ignorant of epigenetic issues (either because he's never heard of them or finds them inconvenient for his thesis).

Crone continues in this vein, pointing out the “logical” conclusion that gay rights must perforce lead to rights for other criminals. The reasoning is simple (like the reasoner):
A guy goes and he robs a bank—right?—he stands before the judge and says, ‘Hey, I'm sorry, judge, you can't prosecute me. You can't send me to jail. I was born this way! It's my civil right.’
I have to admit it's difficult to argue with statements this stupid, but Crone speaks with great assurance and authority. He keeps averring that his statements are “logical,” speaking to the degree that his sectarian blinders are firmly in place.

A familiar equation pops up in his rhetoric. He hates the word “homophobia” because it is used against his co-religionists.
Oh, and by the way, this term, homophobic. How is disagreeing on an issue automatically get you this label homophobic? There's plenty of people in the world who disagree with all kinds of behavior. People disagree about lying, or coveting, or stealing, or hatred, or mockery, or pedophilia. Does this mean we now label these people as liar-phobes, or covetophobes, or mockophobes, or theftophobes, or pedophilia-phobes?
See how smoothly he mixes in pedophilia with his jeremiad against homosexuality? It's all part of the same problem (in his mind).

Crone skips lightly through statistics on physical and mental illness in gay people, life expectancies, and other warped data. (At least he didn't cite Paul Cameron by name, but the stench of Cameron's fake research hovered over Crone's summary.)

But my favorite moment in Crone's entire presentation came early in the first installment, the moment six minutes into the broadcast when he offered comfort to his afflicted listeners. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Crone insists that opposition to same-sex marriage commands a huge majority in our nation:
When you look at the voting statistics, folks, on those who were against—in the states—that used the voting procedure, not one judge overruling the voice of the people in that state—that's not what our system is set up to be—okay?—and not only a handful of people on the Supreme Court, okay?—but when you look at the voting statistics of the states, the thirty-one states that voted against this, versus only three that did, you play the statistics there, and we are in the majority twelve to one. Twelve to one is the majority of people who are against this, so we are not in the minority; we're in the majority on this issue and so we need to stop listening to the media and thinking that you might as well roll over and play dead.
By what magic did Crone conjure up this cataclysmic landslide against marriage equality? It's simple, provided you ignore enough data! While he gave no citations of sources, it's clear that Crone must be clinging to outdated tallies of anti-gay victories at the voting booth. Various on-line lists identify thirty or thirty-one states with constitutional definitions of marriage that support the “traditional” version (where “tradition” in this instance means “one man and one woman,” and does not includes the various polygamous arrangements of several Biblical patriarchs and kings).  If we accept Crone's count of thirty-one state votes against same-sex marriage versus three votes in favor (or, at least, not against), we still do not get a ratio of twelve to one. It's more like ten to one. (And for all of you math pedants out there, yes, it's actually ten-and-a-third to one.) Crone is prone to exaggeration. But that's not the main point.

Crone's numbers are stale, well past their freshness date. The earliest state ban on same-sex marriage goes back to Alaska in 1998, when 68% of the voters placed the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage in the state constitution. However, Public Policy Polling found in 2014 that Alaska's voters favored same-sex marriage by a 47 to 46 plurality. This is a state that does not belong in Crone's anti-gay tally, especially since the national trend directly contradicts his claim about a massive majority being on his side.

So ... is Crone merely lying ... or is he a fool?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Perspective crash!

Looking too closely

The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, made it perfectly clear: The stock market had crashed. The headline “Plunging markets” was accompanied by an illustration that made the disaster graphically clear—provided you didn't read the fine print along the margin. The understated labeling of the vertical axis was, fortunately, reinforced by the actual numbers. The Dow Jones was merely down 588.40 from 16,459.75, a drop of 3.5748% (which the Chronicle over-rounded to 3.58%). Yes, that's a significant market correction in a market widely viewed to be overvalued. Not exactly an apocalyptic result. Nicely eye-catching headline, though.

A better perspective on the issue shows why the market chart would have been quite underwhelming if drawn to a scale that including the zero point. The grid lines representing 1000 points on a hard copy of the Chronicle were separated by 6 centimeters and ended at 15,500 along the bottom edge of the graph. To extend the chart down to its zero-line would have required an additional 93 centimeters (36.6 inches). That's right: It would have extended an additional yard below the printed chart and (since the newspaper isn't that long) more than two feet below the paper's bottom margin.

A fold-out extension would have attracted more attention to the front page, but ruined the message.

By way of comparison, a real economic disaster on the order of the notorious crash that ushered in the Great Depression involved a 13% drop on “Black Monday” (October 28, 1929) and another 12% drop on the immediately following “Black Tuesday.” The losses continued to accumulate and full recovery, as we know, took decades.

What about this week's “plunge”? The Business Insider published a report with an appropriate title: “After all that, the stock market finished the week higher.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

All in this together

Denying individuality

We live in an age when everyone, whether enthusiastically or grudgingly, gives at least lip service to diversity. Most people acknowledge diversity as a strength, others may claim they find it excessively politically correct, but a surprisingly large number of people seem to forget all about it in certain venues. I notice it all the time, like when it happened multiple times at a series of seminars earlier this year. How often have you heard speakers address groups with remarks like these?
Sometimes you just need a beer, right?
No. Never. I belong to the approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population that eschews alcohol. The man extolling the virtues of beer had about one hundred people in his audience, so about a dozen people were left out of his all-encompassing declaration. He probably never considered saying, “You know, I really need a beer sometimes.” Even the handful of nondrinkers could have chuckled in sympathy with that remark.
Last night, of course, we were all watching the game!
No, I wasn't. I'm not even sure what game you're talking about. It's even worse when the speaker wants us to cheer for a particular team. Not everyone is fascinated by sports teams.
Just think back to your senior prom!
I didn't bother to go. I didn't bother with the junior prom, either. Not my thing.

Then there's funerals. Nothing beats the last rites for unleashing mandatory group-think, whether you're inclined to go along or not.
We can all take comfort in the thought that she's in a better place now. She and her late husband are together again.
People try to coerce you into prayer. They inflict inane pieties on you and prate about an afterlife. It is, of course, the maximally inappropriate venue to insist on dissent. No individuals are allowed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Confederate pseudohistory

The flag game

The most vigorous defenders of the flag always bring up “heritage” and “Southern pride.” They cite the bravery of fallen ancestors, whom they imagine fighting till their last breath and last drop of blood for states' rights beneath the waving Confederate flag. Ah, but which flag? Ironically, many of those revered rebels probably never even saw the flag that their descendants regard as sacred to their memory. Unless they were part of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which used the infamous banner as its battle flag, Confederate soldiers went to war under other colors—including even Lee's troops.

The official flag of the Confederate States of America was the Stars and Bars, first adopted and flown in the CSA's provisional capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. Its resemblance to the USA's Old Glory made its use in battle problematic, insufficiently distinguishing the two sides. The Stars and Bars acquired additional stars as the CSA incorporated (or pretended to incorporate) more renegade states and remained the Confederacy's official banner till it was set aside in 1863 in favor of a new design.

The so-called “Stainless Banner” was characterized by a now-familiar image embedded in a field of white. The white was described by the flag's designer as representing “the cause of a superior race.” Now a different problem arose. The generous use of white made the Stainless Banner appear in some circumstances to be a white flag of surrender. It was back to the drawing boards one more time, resulting in the third and final iteration of the CSA's national banner in 1865.

The “Blood-Stained Banner” never had a chance. Although the addition of a broad red stripe mitigated the problem of confusion with a flag of surrender, surrender was, in fact, at hand. The final CSA flag was adopted in March 1865 and General Lee conceded to General Grant in April. Most Confederate soldiers never saw the new national flag, which was defunct with the defeat and dissolution of the CSA.

Both the Stainless and Blood-Stained CSA banners featured a canton displaying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had adopted the starred saltire cross in late 1861 in preference to the confusing Stars and Bars. Despite the battle flag's role as the banner under which General Lee surrendered, it had a vigorous post-war life. Decades after the war was over, the battle flag (often in rectangular rather than square form) was favored as the official emblem of various associations of Civil War veterans in the South. It outlasted the official flags in its identification with the Confederacy and its Lost Cause.

Later the battle flag found favor with the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that promoted “white power” and suppression of the civil rights of black citizens. It can hardly be mere coincidence that Georgia chose to revive the battle flag and incorporate it in its state banner in resistance to the desegregation mandate of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.  (The illustration depicts the change enacted in Georgia's flag in 1956.)

The racist component of Southern heritage was there at the outset, as detailed in the constitution of the seceding states and the declarations of the Confederacy's officers, but it was compounded and exacerbated by the era of Jim Crow and the South's segregationist state governments. The Confederate battle flag can no more be purged of that association than the swastika of Germany's National Socialist Party can be restored to its pre-Nazi status.

It's time for the battle flag to fade away, the sooner the better.