Thursday, October 30, 2014

Where does the flame go when the candle's out?

Someone you love has died, and you're looking at her body. She looks like she's sleeping, like she could just wake up. Where is she?

She isn't. The person you loved has gone. The person you loved wasn't a physical object. All that is left of the beautiful, vibrant person you knew are the ripples she left in passing. You have your memories, you have your love, your grief, but she is gone. The physical thing before you used to be her dearest possession. Now it's not.

The person you loved was not a physical object, she was the result of physical objects. She was a process, she emerged from a collection of physical objects, she sprang into being from their interaction. Their motions created her, continuously, moment to moment, and when they ceased to cooperate, she ceased to be.

Your loved one was not the molecules of her body, she was their reaction. She was not the cells of her body, she was their cooperation. She was not an object in motion, she was the motion itself. And now that motion has ceased.

Except for the echo of that motion in you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Behind a Veil of Ignorance

So, as per usual, I've been translating wikipedia articles into English, and I've been learning about John Rawls. So far he seems awesome (but dead).

Those of you who adore The West Wing may recall that the less-handsome replacement for Sam Seaborne mentioned to his unpaid, inexperienced writing staff something about a "veil of ignorance".

John Rawls came up with that.

Essentially, the principles and laws for a just society should be constructed from The Original Position, behind a Veil of Ignorance. Everyone would naturally want to set up a system where the king gets everything and then make himself the king. But the original position and veil of ignorance say that you don't know what position you'd be born into. You don't know your social class or economic status. You don't know what sort of abilities or talents you might have. You don't get to choose to be king.

Rawls argues that, from behind the veil of ignorance, everyone would instead set up a fair society based on two principles:

1) Everyone has access to the same extensive liberty, with that liberty being conditional on everyone else also having access to that liberty (that is to say, rights and liberties will always come into conflict and have to be balanced).
2) a) Any inequalities must be structured to give the greatest benefit to the least advantaged. (the principle of difference; for example, progressive income tax at the higher income brackets balanced with a negative income tax [or a tax credit] at the lowest brackets)
2) b) Everyone must have access to positions, offices, and opportunities (equality of opportunity)

Legislators and others in power should be guided by the original position and veil of ignorance in that they should set aside their own positions and privileges and structure society so as to accrue the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.

This just seems so darn sensible. How is it that not everyone is a socialist?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Migraine Story

I'm afraid of bread. Not all bread. Just some bread. I'm pretty sure it was the bread that caused it. I had the worst migraine of my life the other day.

I've had migraines before, but this one was special. It was very bad. How bad? I honestly couldn't say. Literally. I wasn't able to speak. It's called aphasia. On a side note, doesn't that just sound like the prettiest name for a girl ever?

You can see what I normally write like; I can bang this out in about five seconds flat. This is how I was writing the other day:

Very bad., nno0t sure hadio thingk don't knowk very bad migran 

think getting better geting better 

I think my hands are getting better. Very unpleasnt. My brain is like jellos. BUt not painfully anim ore. 

This is worst ever.

That took about five minutes of intense struggle. The reference to my hands was probably because, in addition to the trouble seeing and the inability to speak, read, or write, my hands and feet were tingling and somewhat numb.

Migraines can come with a wealth of symptoms. Mine always start with an aura, a halo in the middle of my right eye that makes it difficult to read or focus, that gets progressively larger. After an hour or so I'm in intense pain and it's best if I just crawl in bed and die for an hour. This time I also had the not speaking and the hands, and nausea, and a general malaise. I felt like an intense bag of crap. I also wasn't thinking very clearly. I'm glad I made it home safe (I was working at the library when it hit, and not anticipating how very bad it was going to get, I picked up a few things at the store on the way home. On the way out, the cashier expressed some concern about my well-being.).

In the end, I managed to sleep for quite a bit yesterday and took it easy today. Sneezing only made it feel like half my head was going to explode, not too much more.

Ever have wicked bad headaches and sensitivity to light/noise? Oddly sick for no reason with some mood swings? Take a quick look at migraines.  And maybe be kind to people who suffer them. They can be, as that quoted text above shows, debilitating even before the crippling pain starts.

Interesting thing: For years now I've been convinced that the episode that made me quit drinking was a series of seizures brought on by advancing problems of daily cycles of withdrawal/binge (because only an alcoholic drinks during the day...). I'm now convinced that it was just1 a migraine, and that I didn't notice all the other symptoms because of all the problems brought on by daily cycles of withdrawal/binge. Well, after that day, just withdrawal, slowly fading.

Remind me to tell how much fun withdrawal and addiction are some time.

Still, plus side; I'm sober.

Oh, and about the bread. Sometimes food triggers migraines. I once had a few very bad days because of a kind of tomato-basil flavored potato chip.



1 - "Just". Right.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Is Faith Harmless?

Short answer: No.

If you'll allow me to steal from Peter Boghossian, faith is a broken epistemology, it's a way of pretending you know something you don't really know.

Epistemology is the way you know things. Faith allows people to claim to know things they don't. Faith is the buttress for claims from the mild to the asinine, from the irritating to the debilitating, to deadly. It is the exact same process that Catholics use to believe a cracker becomes the actual, physical body of the risen savior that Jews use to justify mutilating infant genitalia, that Muslims use to bomb churches. There is no difference.

Many have argued that secularists, humanists, antitheists should spend their time on the latter two and ignore the former as harmless. They definitely have a point that shouldn't be ignored. We are a minority and we only have so much time, money, and energy. We're also nowhere near as united as the forces of irrationality that give credence to faith. We need to invest our efforts where they're most valuable.

However, I don't think we should ignore the crackers. PZ Myers desecrated a communion wafer that he received from a student who smuggled it out of a service for him. Both Myers and the student received death threats, as well as Myers's university was flooded with letters demanding he be fired. Clearly, this isn't a small issue for the Catholic League.

With this example, I wish to demonstrate two things:


  1. Clearly, this is the same faith. Myers's minor act of desecration against a minor tenet of faith received a response out of all proportion. His university was flooded with letters and even now, five years later, they're still receiving mail about the incident. Through the lens of faith, there is no difference between this and the more "serious" acts of faith.
  2. I believe that there is a more practical connection between these. The "minor" acts of faith give legitimacy to the more ridiculous tenets. That no one really cares to question the small things that don't matter, but this means that, with faith allowed a leg to stand on, the more absurd beliefs can point to those and say, "See? These are fine!" And then they turn around with Matthew 23:24
You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

The smaller faiths give legitimacy to the larger, which turn around and give legitimacy to the smaller. The edifice demands you dismantle the entirety all at once, bootstrapping itself on nothingness all the while.

In answer to the argument from practicality, that we have bigger fish to fry, I offer this: the smaller faith takes less time and energy to ridicule. Spend a few moments ridiculing their weekly ritual cannibalism, point out that they believe not simply absurdities, but foolish, childish absurdities:

Every week you go to a sing-song and promise yourself in slavery to a cosmic zombie because a rib-woman was convinced to eat a magic fruit by a talking snake, which broke the universe, and then God needed blood to fix the universe, but only his own blood had enough magic so he raped a virgin to give himself a body and killed it. 

All faith is bad. All faith is equal. All faith is equally harmful. Some particular instances of faith just happen not to be harming people at this particular moment. 500 years ago those angry Catholics wouldn't have stopped at threatening to kill PZ Myers. He'd be rather horrifically dead.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

400 Years Under a Peculiar Institution

This is a lecture by Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow", about the disenfranchisement of felons under the penal system since the 1980s.



This is a lecture by Angela Davis, about the Prison-Industrial Complex, a system of profit begun under the United States, but only massively expanded in recent years and now being exported around the globe.



This is a lecture by Tim Wise, in which he mentions that this system developed following 1965. Prior to 1965, the prison system was 2/3rds white, and afterward 2/3rds black. This was not an accident.



This is the documentary "Slavery by Another Name", also a book, by Douglas A Blackmon, detailing how the system of slavery mutated radically after the Civil War. It became far more horrifying and far more profitable.


These are not separate institutions. Slavery began as the bondage of non-Christians in the 17th century. It rapidly evolved into a racist system, the permanent bondage of blacks. The Civil War was followed by Reconstruction, a period in which the North occupied the South, and white Southerners responded with a hostile terrorist insurgency, the likes of which has only been seen every time the United States has tried to occupy foreign soil and impose justice and democracy on an unwilling, hateful, fundamentalist people.

Following the failure of Reconstruction, permanent chattel slavery became more horrible as once valuable private property (black slaves) became cheap public property. The Tragedy of the Commons was played out in the most inhumane fashion imaginable, as people were kidnapped off the streets, hired for pennies, and worked to death for dollars. Profits abounded to white people all around, and black Americans kept in terror and subjugation. Those who were not worked to death in the most horrible slavery were kept in a more gentle slavery, unable to leave or change jobs without employer permission, and subject to the threat of imprisonment and slavery if, at any time, they were unable to provide proof of employment.

Blackmon is incorrect to say that the system ended with the Civil War. "Arrest the closest nigger" persisted into the mid-sixties, when it was used to radically transform the prison population of the United States. As Wise pointed out, the demographics of the prison system reversed in the aftermath of Civil Rights. People of color were forced into a cycle of imprisonment and poverty from which there was no escape, which cycle exists today.

The so-called War on Drugs was begun under President Nixon as part of his Southern Strategy in the 70s. It was a many-pronged approach to winning the votes of fearful, racist, white voters in the South. Without much subtlety, the Republican Party promised to round up "them" and get them off the streets. When crack appeared in the 80s, the Reagan Presidency saw it as a blessing from God and began a massive propaganda campaign, flooding the airwaves with messages about crack addicts and crack babies.

It is no accident that, to this day, mandatory minimums are higher for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine. It is no accident that 90% of those targeted by New York City's infamous Stop and Frisk program are people of color, even though white people are at least as likely to carry, use, and sell drugs. It is no accident that 80% of routine traffic stops are people of color, even though white people are 80% of drivers.

The War on Drugs is a lie. It's the War on Blacks. The war on the Brown. This is a system that has been put in place to subjugate, imprison, to terrorize those who frighten the residents of Leave-it-to-Beaverville. Americans of African decent, of hispanic decent, of native decent. Native Americans have more people imprisoned per capita than any other population in the US.  And once you've been imprisoned, you cannot leave.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're unemployable. You can't even work at McDonalds. Any employer who does hire you holds a palpable threat over your head. You can be fired at any time, or accused at any time of a crime and no court will ever be on your side.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're homeless. It is legal to discriminate on the basis of conviction. A felon must beg for housing from anyone with a room to spare, and no one is obliged to give it to him.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're starving. Unemployed and homeless, felons are ineligible for food stamps.

Unemployed, unhoused, unfed, what can a felon do? What desperate choice? You're not rejected by the system, you're a victim of the system. Once convicted you are forever caught in a trap made all the worse by the fact that you are expected to pay of thousands of dollars in fines and fees. You're expected to pay rent for your time in prison. And you're expected to work while in prison.

Is it any wonder that privatized American prisons are traded on the New York Stock Exchange? Is it any wonder that this system of abuse and exploitation is being exported around the world?

Is there any hope?

Angela Davis argues movingly for the elimination of the prison system, and she tells you to reject the question, "What will you replace it with?" What would you have replaced slavery with?

There are those who need to be removed from society for being a danger to others. Rapists, murderers, unrepentant psychopaths. But our penal system is not the answer to that question. Our penal system is designed, and always has been, to create, sustain, and control a slave caste, a caste composed primarily of people of color. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on New Year's Day, 1863; 150 years ago, but slavery never died.

We need a new call for abolition. We need a new birth of freedom. We need an end to this Peculiar Institution, 400 years in the making.