The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The star, which they saw in the east, went before them

XKCD tackles the astronomical and geographical challenges of following the Star of Bethlehem:

If the wise men leave Jerusalem and walk toward the star Sirius, day and night, even when it’s below the horizon, this is the path they follow over the surface:

several star-struck sages spiral southward

If we allow a little theological confusion and assume the wise men can walk on water, they’ll eventually wind up going in an endless circle, 30 kilometers in diameter, around the South Pole.

Re-reading Matthew 2:7-10, however, I can't quite tell who the Magi were, what star they thought they were following, or what exactly they used to ascertain when it had showed them the location they sought. Possibly someone sent up a flare from the manger?

The Times gets my attention this evening

Three unrelated stories drew my notice this evening:

PATH service has resumed to Hoboken. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I lived in Hoboken, N.J., the birthplace of Frank Sinatra (really) and baseball (not really). I took the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train almost every day when I worked in SoHo, and about every third day when I worked in Midtown. Having experienced other ways of commuting to New York—in fact, the switch up to 53rd and Park finally got me to return to Chicago, after my commute stretched to an hour and 15 minutes and required three transit changes—I have a lot of sympathy for the people living in Hoboken and Jersey City who have had to make their ways across the Hudson without the PATH.

In the first days after 9/11, both the PATH and the MTA worried that the Twin Towers' collapse would breach the "bathtub" (the Towers' foundation) and flood both the PATH and the New York subway. No one knew how bad the damage would be, and were thankful when it didn't happen. Eleven years later, Hurricane Sandy showed everyone.

So reading today that the PATH Hoboken to 33rd St. line reopened after seven weeks made me smile. Not as much, I expect, as the thousands of people whose commutes can now return to tolerable lengths.

I'm visiting New York in a few weeks; I'll make sure to post a few photos in homage of the PATH.

Facebook's change to Instagram's terms of service has rightly outraged everyone paying attention. Instagram, a photo-sharing service that Facebook bought recently for $1 bn, this week published new terms of service that allow them to use posted photos any way they want, any time they want. Their goal, not surprisingly, is to make money. The people who use Instagram just want to share their photos with their friends.

The Times quoted Santa Clara University Law Professor Eric Goldman saying, "The interest of the site is never 100 percent aligned with the users, and the divergence inevitably leads to friction. It’s unavoidable." Well, yes, because Instagram's users are not Instagram's customers, as they are just discovering, because the customer is the one who pays you. If you use a service that is free to you, you are not the customer and therefore have nothing to say to the service's owners. I find the flap about Instagram's TOS so interesting because it seems as if none of their users has realized this key point yet.

Instagram swears up and down that the users continue to own their own photos. Of course they do. And of course you keep ownership. But if you post on Instagram, "you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channel...." So they don't own your photos, exactly, but they can act as if they do.

Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work owns it, unless he has signed away the creation right explicitly. (Example: I work for a great software company. I write software for them, under a work-for-hire agreement. Therefore, except for some explicit, written exceptions, all the software I produce that has commercial value is owned by my employer. If I write code in one of my employer's client's applications that makes 10th Magnitude a billion dollars, I don't own it, 10th Magnitude does. That's the deal I made when I took this job. I trust, however, that if I made my boss a billion dollars, he'd share.)

So if you take a photo on your phone, you own it. It's your photo. And Instagram's new TOS says, yes, of course you own it, but we can sell it if we want and pay you nothing.

Now, I've experienced a variety of contractual arrangements in my life as a creative person, so I'm not shocked when someone wants a piece of my income as a fee for finding the income-producing gig. As a software contractor, I've routinely signed away 25% or 30% of my earnings off the top, in exchange for someone else doing the legwork to find the income-producing gig on my behalf. (It's really hard to find gigs while you're working full time on one, it turns out.) And, as someone who hires software contractors now, I expect they'll agree, too. We call this a "commission," as have people in other professions for millennia.

Instagram, effectively, demands a 100% commission off your work. Not only that, but if Instagram finds that one of your photos makes Ansel Adams weep, they can market the crap out of it. You'll never see a dime. Why would someone license the rights from you, when Instagram is selling them cheap? And you can't stop Instagram from destroying the market for your work, because you consented to it by posting your photo.

Let me put it another way. Instagram is saying, "You own your car, of course. But if you park it in our garage, we get to use it as a taxi, without paying you a dime."

To sum up: the people railing against Instagram's new TOS are exactly right. It sucks. And I will never, ever post any of my intellectual property there, even if they change the TOS in response to the approbation they've received, because (repeat after me) I am not their customer.

Finally—and I assure you, this is not related to Instagram—I recoiled in horror at the latest religious stupidity, that the Taliban have started killing anti-polio workers in Afghanistan.

Full disclosure: I was a member of Rotary International for a few years, and I wholly support the organization's amazingly-successful efforts to destroy polio the way we destroyed smallpox. Polio is a sufficiently complex organism that it can't evolve as quickly as we can kill it, making it an ideal target for eradication (like smallpox). But you have to get immunized, and sufficient numbers of your neighbors do, too, or it will keep spreading.

So, these idiot religious fundies, who subscribe to any number of irrational fantasies already, have apparently decided that the people trying to keep their babies from dying of an entirely preventable disease are, in fact, American spies. As the Times reports, "the killings were a serious reversal for the multi-billion-dollar global polio immunization effort, which over the past quarter century has reduced the number of endemic countries from 120 to just three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria."

Does anyone else see a coincidence between the three last outposts of a crippling, preventable disease and religious nuttery? Part of Rotary's success, by the way, has been in reassuring local populations that eradicating polio is no more and no less than it seems: a humanitarian effort to end a horrible disease forever. Wars have stopped to allow Rotary and the Gates Foundation to conduct immunizations. But the Taliban do not believe in reason. They would rather have hundreds of their children dead or crippled than accept the possibility that some American- (and British- and French- and Japanese- and South-African- and Namibian- and Saudi- and...) funded organization wants to prevent their children dying or becoming crippled.

Three countries still have polio. They also have air travel. Not everyone in the OECD has polio vaccinations today. So, if I can mention the self-interest of everyone able to read this blog post, who must therefore speak English and have an Internet connection, the religious nutters killing health workers who, but for being shot, would have eradicated a disease that has crippled millions, have made your life more perilous.

</ rant>

All right. Time to walk the dog.

PS: You may need to subscribe to the New York Times to read the linked stories. I apologize if this inconveniences you, but I recommend subscribing anyway. For $15 a month you not only get the entire newspaper online (and on any tablets you own), but you get to feel good about yourself. You also get to live Kant's categorical imperative, by behaving in such a way that the behavior could be universal. Isn't $15 an incentive worth aligning?

Did Dawkins cause a religious fundamentalist resurgence?

Robert Wright wonders:

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country--south-central Texas--and I don't remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn't an issue.

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. ... I don't just mean they professed atheism--many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

My fear is that the damage is broader--that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

Three centuries after the Enlightenment and 46% of the people in the world's most powerful country believe a mythical being created humans from scratch. Wright may be on to something.

It's true that if you tell someone he's wrong, he'll often dig his heels in. But I think Wright misses the basic distinguishing feature separating religionists from atheists: we atheists tend to believe evidence, while religionists tend to have faith in magic. Tell an atheist he's wrong and generally he finds real, testable evidence to support his claim—or he changes his mind.

Why people have trouble with evolution

Via Sullivan, a suggestion from Dan McAdams about the difficulties some people have accepting natural selection theory:

A story is a narrative account of a motivated character who acts to achieve certain goals or ends over time. Every great story you can think of—from Homer’s Iliad to your favorite television show—involves characters who pursue goals over time, characters who want something and set out to achieve it. In this sense, the classic biblical creation stories are very good stories. You have a main character—God, the creator—who sets out to achieve something over time. There is purpose and design to what God, the main character, does. God is an agent—a self-conscious, motivated actor. All stories have agents.

Evolutionary theory, however, is not a story in that there is no prime agent, no self-conscious and motivated main character who strives to achieve something over time. For this reason, there is no overall narrative arc or design, no purpose that is being achieved by a purposeful agent. Instead, you have random, mechanical forces—variation, selection, and heredity. Bad story! But, at the same time, extraordinarily brilliant and elegant theory, for it provides a compelling and scientifically testable explanation for life on earth.

This dovetails well with a book I read two weeks ago, Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain. Mooney doesn't suggest that people who deny the obvious—like evolution or climate change—are stupid; rather, they have compelling psychological and historical reasons for believing what people like them tell them. Mooney makes it clear that we need better stories, better narratives, to help people understand and accept the counter-intuitive ways the world actually works. But McAdams has a point: some people need narratives, and narratives need actors. Natural selection works without any conscious intervention. Climate change happens because of billions of diverse actors.

Pointing out how people have got things wrong doesn't work. We need to speak the same language.

Two steps back...

Today the right wing won two battles in their long, slow, rear-guard war against the 21st century.

In North Carolina, voters chose by a 60-40 margin to add an anti-marriage amendment to the state constitution, continuing the tradition of tolerance and modernity established by enlightened statesmen such as Jesse Helms and William Blount:

North Carolina has become the 31st state to add an amendment on marriage to its constitution, with voters banning same-sex marriage and barring legal recognition of unmarried couples by state and local governments.

Money from national interest groups poured into North Carolina. The National Organization for Marriage contributed $425,000 to the Vote for Marriage campaign, according to the latest reports, and the Human Rights Campaign and its affiliates contributed nearly $500,000 to the opposition Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families.

Vote for Marriage raised more than $1 million, and the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families raised more than $2 million.

It's interesting that the latter two groups, who received most of their money from out-of-state, anti-gay concerns, failed so miserably to do what their names suggested were their missions. It's almost as if George Orwell had named them, but of course he's been dead for quite some time.

Meanwhile, Indiana Republicans tossed out the third most senior U.S. Senator because his decade-long rightward drift wasn't radical enough:

Sen. Richard Lugar’s 36-year Senate career is now history.

Lugar was defeated in today’s Republican primary election by Treasurer Richard Mourdock, ending his bid for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate.

It wasn’t even close.

With 70 percent of the vote counted, Mourdock had 60 percent to Lugar’s 40 percent.

It's possible that Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly will defeat Mourdock in November, but not likely. Indiana, some will recall, came close to legislating the value of a mathematical constant not too long ago, shortly before giving vital support to the Ku Klux Klan.

The struggle between fear and future has gone on longer than written history. Future always wins. But fear inflicts an enormous cost in the bargain. I only hope today's victories by the religious right in the U.S. are what they seem: tantrums of the bigots and zealots that history is leaving behind.

Update: Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett has won the Wisconsin Democratic primary to face Governor Scott Walker next month in the latter's recall election. The re-match of the 2010 election is a statistical dead heat, though Barrett has a slight edge. At least Wisconsin's right wing is unambiguously about making rich people even richer, without muddling the message with religion. Still: I'll be glad to see the back of Walker, whenever he leaves office.

Separation of Church and State in the UK

The United Kingdom has no Constitutional prohibition against established religion; in fact, the head of state is also the head of the church. But the UK has a much deeper secular grain than we have, to the extent that many people in the country get quite exercised about even public prayer. The Washington Post explains the latest row:

Local lawmaker Clive Bone, an atheist, was backed by four of his peers in challenging the long-standing tradition of opening public meetings with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes on the prayer ban, Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.

Bone, a transplanted Londoner and retired management consultant who has given up his seat on the council, said: “This isn’t about freedom of religion. I will defend their right to pray in their churches to my dying breath. Just don’t make us listen to it anymore. It is a backwards tradition that alienates people in this country.”

Most people I know in the UK say religion is entirely private, and would likely be offended at having to listen to prayers at minor public meanings. It's yet another example of how really out of step the rest of the Western world are with us.

Climate denial and dog whistles

Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, someone who expects to be taken seriously as a potential leader of a 21st-century republic, has taken yet another step back from the reality-based community:

“We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit,” Santorum told a Colorado crowd earlier this month.

“When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate — this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government,” Santorum said.

This illustrates two common tactics of the religious right. The first is to blow a dog whistle; that is, to use a word or phrase indicating support of a fringe idea without actually saying explicitly that he's a supporter. In this case, Santorum's use of the word "dominion" suggests he believes in Dominionism, which is essentially that the U.S. should become a Christian theocracy.

The second is to make a frightening accusation about the opposition (i.e., the rational people making up a majority of the Western world) that actually applies to the person making the accusation. In this case, "an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government." It's a stretch to see how saying "these observations of empirical data lead all but the most obtuse to see that humans are changing the climate, so we should perhaps take steps to mitigate that problem" is radical centralization. It's less of a stretch, however, to see how saying "I want the government to adhere to the theology I believe in and criminalize everything that disagrees with that theology" is anything but.

Dog whistles and accusing your opponents of exactly what you're doing: this is what Lincoln meant in the Cooper Union speech when he said, "A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'"

That is cool indeed.

How fireplaces explain religion

Author Sam Harris likens our love of wood fires to other unshakable beliefs:

The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe. Even if you reject every intrusion of the “nanny state,” you should agree that the recreational burning of wood is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you are creating pollution that you cannot dispose. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing. ...

Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful—and has always been so—is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege.

The entire essay is worth reading. And when you dig into it, given how few people have ever tried to annihilate their neighbors over wood smoke...well, you can see where Harris is going.