The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

"Rains of Castamere" reactions

Last Sunday's Game of Thrones episode portrayed one of the most gut-wrenching scenes from the books. People who hadn't read the books had understandably strong reactions:

Via Sullivan come two more-considered reactions to the scene, and to the series' portrayal of violence in general. First, from Alyssa Rosenberg:

[T]he attack on Talisa seemed to stand out for some viewers even in this context as uniquely stomach-churning, evidence that the show is participating in some of its characters disgusting enjoyment of violence against women.

Though Talisa’s murder is unspeakably cruel, it didn’t read that way to me. Rather, the decision to kill her by killing her fetus made, within the astonishingly cold-blooded context of the Red Wedding, a great deal of sense. A comprehensive attempt to make the Starks extinct would include an attack on everyone in their family line, born and unborn. And as an attempt to make Robb Stark feel unspeakable emotional pain before his physical death, an attack on his wife and his unborn child that he has to witness while he is physically incapacitated is a twistedly brilliant thing to do. As Talisa died and Robb held her, the focus was on their faces, and their shared pain, just as they’d shared joyful glances during Edmure’s wedding vows, and flirted during the banquet. Our sympathies and focus were on them, rather than on a pornographic contemplation of the violence to which they’d been subjected.

But Talisa is part of a larger tradition of television women who die during childbirth, or are subjected to terrible violence during pregnancy or labor...

Meanwhile, Rowan Kaiser thinks GoT indicts patriarchies in general:

In the world of Westeros, Robb's innate goodness was at odds with his job title. As heir to Winterfell, and then as King IN The North, he had obligations that had to be fulfilled, which included marrying for strategic gain—obligations that he didn’t keep. Marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of Roslyn Frey wasn’t his only shirked responsibility. His inability to maintain relations among his vassals led directly to his death as well, in large part because he was unable to punish his mother after she worked against him. So Robb didn't just die because he'd married for love; he also died because he'd been kind to his mother. Both of those actions seem like they should be no-brainers, but because of the world he was in, they combined to ruin the hero.

The chief weapon of the patriarchy in maintaining and destroying its men is the drive for honor. The most surprising development of the second season was the elevation of Theon Greyjoy, the Stark family ward, into a major character and villain. Theon was the only son of a rebellious father, who journeyed to visit that father as another rebellion was brewing. Theon was forced to choose between his actual life with friends and lovers among the Starks, and his imagined life with honor and pride as a Greyjoy. Theon chooses honor, which takes him down a path of betrayal and child-murder.

I'm interested to hear whether Anita Sarkeesian agrees. (More on Sarkessian in a later post.)

Then there's this blather:

The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations — not to mention the free-wheeling sex — that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.

That, in turn, has prompted intense debates about whether Christians should watch "Games of Thrones" at all, or whether the show's only possible virtue is depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born — or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.

Right. Christianity would have made Westeros a peaceful place, just like it made Europe an Eden in the middle ages.

Priorities in the Illinois House

Sometimes, the Illinois General Assembly reminds us that Molly Ivins had it right: the only state legislature worse at their jobs than Illinois' is Texas'.

Yesterday, the only legislature we have adjourned for the summer, after passing the least popular bill on its agenda this year and failing to pass one of the most popular:

Illinois had appeared poised to become the 13th state to approve same-sex marriage. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn promised to sign the bill. Democrats held veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. President Barack Obama called for its passage during a Thursday night fundraiser in his home city, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a major backer as well.

Under the bill, the definition of marriage in Illinois would have changed from an act between a man and a woman to one between two people. Civil unions could have been converted to marriages within a year of the law going on the books. The legislation would not have required religious organizations to perform a marriage of gay couples, and church officials would not have been forced to allow their facilities to be used by gay couples seeking to marry.

But as the hours wore on, the optimism and energy dissolved in the face of strong opposition from Catholic and conservative African-American church groups, leading [Rep. Greg] Harris [D-Chicago] to rise on the floor and tearfully announce that he would not call the bill — there wasn't enough support after all.

Thank you, churches, for confusing conservatism and Christianism once again. And thank you, Illinois House, for cowering behind procedure in the face of criticism from a small minority of constituents. Failing to take a vote means we actually don't know which of our representatives would have chosen to side with history and which ones with the past. Well-played, troglodytes, well-played.

Oh, and the legislature also failed to pass pension reform, about which the bond markets will probably have something to say on Monday.

Good thing it's now legal to carry concealed guns in Illinois. Because nothing keeps your kids safe (from gay germs, one must assume) like a .380 in your purse.

Holy shit

The Pope has announced his resignation:

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28 because he was simply too infirm to carry on — the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the cardinals. "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.

Ratzinger is the person most directly responsible for the office accused of covering up priests abusing children for decades. I cannot wait to read Sullivan...

Update: I was not wrong about Sullivan.

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.