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Who Checks The Checkers?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has the job of ensuring that the products and services we buy operate properly, at least to the extent that they are free of hazards. To that end, the CPSC operates SaferProducts.gov, where people can report products that have dangerous design faults, and gain access to other citizens’ reports about unsafe products and services…

… though these reports may be completely useless. The CPSC posts a statement on the bottom of the SaferProducts.gov web site warning that “CPSC does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of the Publicly Available Consumer Product Safety Information Database on SaferProducts.gov”.

safety not guaranteedIf the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s SaferProducts.gov web site is supposed to keep people informed about which products are dangerous to them, but the reports on the web site are unreliable, doesn’t that make SaferProducts.gov itself unsafe? I would report SaferProducts.gov as an unsafe product on SaferProducts.gov, but then, the accuracy, completeness and adequacy of my report there would not be guaranteed.

A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox…

Yankee Doodle’s Unfinished Business

As members of Congress abandon their task of crafting legislative solutions to America’s problems in order to find corporate patrons to bankroll their re-elections, there is much talk about the unfinished business of the 113th Congress. The unfinished business of Congress goes much further back than just the last couple of years, however. There are years and years of unfulfilled promises in the closets of Capitol Hill, enough bills that never received a vote, or even a committee hearing, to provide an entire generation of children enough material to make paper airplanes to their hearts’ contents. My heart sinks when I see what might have been.

In particular, I pause over one worthy piece of legislation from the 109th Congress, introduced by Martin Meehan 9 years ago: H.Con.Res.243 – Expressing the sense of Congress that Billerica, Massachusetts, should be recognized as “America’s Yankee Doodle Town”.

Now, it may be true that Yankee Doodle never came to Billerica. Sticklers for historical accuracy will note that no person named Yankee Doodle ever existed, and that the song Yankee Doodle was actually invented in Europe long before the American Revolution. So, if reality matters to you, then you’ll have to admit that Yankee Doodle really has almost nothing to do with Billerica, Massachusetts.

Still, the fact remains that Congressman Meehan promised to support a resolution calling for the official recognition of Billerica as Yankee Doodle Town. H.Con. Res. 243 may have been filed as with the Clerk of the US House of Representatives, but Meehan never managed to get the leader of his own committee to give the bill a glance,

Consider the consequences. To this day, the USA lacks a Yankee Doodle Town. Is it any wonder we are so divided? Is it any wonder Lady Gaga has replaced Johnny Mathis on the Hit Parade? What’s next? Cats sleeping with dogs? Ice Bucket Challenges in church? Rick Santorum running for President again?

Congress, stop the madness! America demands that you reconvene this week and give Billerica its due as a silly little town with nothing but shopping malls to attract visitors! Young Billericans need something to pin their hopes and dreams on, and what could fit that need better than Yankee Doodle?

The time for the Yankee Doodle Town has arrived! Billericans, unite! You have nothing to lose but your macaroni!

The World’s Most Hideous Consolation Card?

“Tough cookie,” the card said.

When I picked up this card in the grocery store the other day, I read the literal words on the left. The underlying message, as I read the card in between the lines, sits on the right:

Tough Cookie Greeting Card of Consolation: The World's Worst Sympathy Card?

Sympathy cards are cultural markers. Only rarely do the cards simply read “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” or “Please let me know how I can help, and I will be there at the drop of a hat” (and aren’t those the best cards?). There are layers of more subtle expectation woven in to most cards, reflecting social expectations and a reminder that these expectations should not be violated. The underlying message I read in this “tough cookie” card is a set of reminders to a person who is suffering a loss in life. Please be a tough cookie. Please, don’t let us see you crumble. Please (oh, please) don’t cry. Busy yourself. Thanks for not asking for support from us, so that when we offer support it can be an empty gesture that makes us feel good at a minimal cost. Thanks for suffering responsibly and honorably.

To be clear, I haven’t received this card from anyone; I just hope I never do. Do you think I’m reading the card inappropriately, or do you see a hidden message too? Is this the world’s worst consolation card? Have you received one that’s worse?

The Old Evil Is Now Our Friend

Last year, the government of Syria wasn’t on acceptable evil. The Syrian government had been caught using chemical weapons on it’s own people. The bloodshed had to stop. The United States military had to become involved.

Such was the moral certainty of the time.

In 2014, we have a new moral certainty. The moral certainty of our time is that the Islamic State is evil and must be stopped. To that end, U.S Representative Dana Rohrabacher has suggested that the government of Syria, last year’s intolerable evil, should become America’s ally in the new U.S. warm against the Islamic State.

Rohrabacher writes, “Alternatively (not to say controversially), we should reassess our relations with two now-odious names: Assad and Putin. We should remember to seek out the enemies of our enemies. Assad is a bloody brute, but his interests now lie more with the West than with any grotesque IS agenda. He is at least predictable, certainly more capable of making long-term deals with us than he is to survive victory by the insurgents he faces. He has in some degree protected Christians from genocidal attacks by these fanatical terrorists now running wild in that part of the world. Oddly, Bashir Assad and his Ba’athist regime now find themselves sharing interests with Israel.”

Once, Dana Rohrabacher demanded war to eliminate the evil of imaginary chemical weapons in Saddah Hussein’s Iraq. Now, he embraces a policy to support a government in Syria that is known to have used chemical weapons.

Where will our moral certainty lead us next? In 2015, will there be a new unacceptable evil enemy? Will members of Congress, next year, suggest that we join with the Islamic State in order to go to war against this new enemy? with so many enemies, who is not the enemy of our enemy?

Given that the moral reasoning used to support America’s involvement in wars in the Middle East has become so relativistic, wouldn’t we do better simply to remove ourselves from the conflicts?

One Year Bible for Kids: Pay No Attention to 1 Samuel 15… Please!

“Can your 8- to 12-year-olds read the bulk of God’s Word in one year? You bet!”

So says the advertising copy for The One Year Bible for Kids, a publication of the Christian publication company Tyndale House. In its introductory material, The One Year Bible for Kids explains that it’s good to get to know God’s character by learning all about God:

“How do you get to know someone? Probably by spending time with the person and talking with him or her, right? The same is true with getting to know God. If you want to know what God is like and what he wants you to do, you have to spend time with him. One of the best ways to do that is by reading his special message to you — the Bible. And the cool truth is that as you spend time with God, you will see how he works in your life and helps you change in ways you never thought possible!… There is a way for you to read through the Bible in one year and understand what God is saying to you. Keep reading!”

But in the Bible passages the book makes available for children to read so they can learn about God’s character, there are odd gaps. Take, for instance, the Book of Samuel. Here’s the book’s reading plan for the end of March:

Kids Bible in One Year Reading Plan for March 28 through April 1

There’s 1 Samuel 13, and 1 Samuel 14, and 1 Samuel 16, and 1 Samuel 17, and 1 Samuel 18…

… wait a minute. Where’s 1 Samuel 15? Why doesn’t the plan call for kids to read 1 Samuel 15? After all, the more kids read, the more they’ll know God, right? After all, the introduction calls of kids to “keep reading,” doesn’t it? Why doesn’t the One Year Bible for Kids want kids to “keep reading” in this instance?

Let’s read 1 Samuel 15 in the New Living Translation (the version preferred by Tyndale House publishers):

One day Samuel said to Saul, “It was the Lord who told me to anoint you as king of his people, Israel. Now listen to this message from the Lord! This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation — men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.”

So Saul mobilized his army at Telaim. There were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 men from Judah. Then Saul and his army went to a town of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. Saul sent this warning to the Kenites: “Move away from where the Amalekites live, or you will die with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites packed up and left.

Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt. He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else.

The Lord God commands that all men, women, children and babies of the Amalekite nation be slaughtered because 400 years prior, those people’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents gave the Israelites a hard time.

Even in the Lego version of the scene (via the ever-helpful Brick Testament, this just doesn’t look good:

1 Samuel 15, the Lego Version

If kids read that part of the Bible, they’d learn that this God character demands the merciless killing of babies who have done nothing wrong because of something that their far-distant ancestors once did.

Why doesn’t Tyndale House want kids to get to know this side of God? You know the answer.

Apple Forces OS Mavericks Out Of Sync With iOS 8 Update

The people at Apple like us to think that they are experts in design. They describe their products as superior to those from Microsoft because Apple products, it is said, are designed intelligently to meet real human needs with a user interface that can be adopted intuitively.

What I discovered this week, with the release of iOS 8, is that Apple’s smart design image is, to use a technical phrase well-known to industry insiders, a load of bullshit.

apple iCloud loadingYesterday, when I was using my iPad Air to write a document in the application call Pages, I received a pop-up message telling me that Pages was no longer compatible with iCloud, because of the release of iOS 8, which was released on Wednesday. The solution seemed simple: Update my iPad to iOS 8.

The update took a bit of time, but seemed to work out well. But then, this morning, I got on my desktop, an Apple computer I bought just this summer, and everything fell apart.

The reason I decided to buy an Apple desktop computer is that Apple software is supposed to be easy to integrate across multiple devices. So, I can begin writing a document on the desktop, and then continue working on it on the iPad when I have to travel, and then come back to the desktop when I’m back at my home office. All the while, the document remains in sync, stored in iCloud.

That’s how it worked with iOS 7 for the iPad, anyway. Apple is busy telling people that upgrading to iOS8 will make keeping devices in sync even easier, but I had a different experience.

apple yosemite osWhen I logged on to my desktop this morning, the computer informed me that, because it was using the operating system Mavericks, the Pages documents I had been writing could no longer be kept in sync. The work I had done last night on my iPad, and the work I had done on my Apple desktop, were no longer linked. I had two separate documents now, each one with its own set of additions and corrections. I had to hop back and forth between the two devices to figure out how to keep all the content I wanted.

Furthermore, the documents I have on iCloud can no longer be opened on my desktop computer, because the desktop computer’s software is now regarded as out of date.

The problem, my desktop Apple computer told me, was that I had not yet updated to the new operating system for Apple desktop computers. The name of the new Apple desktop OS is Yosemite. I should update to Yosemite, my computer said.

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” I said to myself, and went to look at the App Store to find the update.

It wasn’t there.

OS Yosemite, it turns out, won’t be released until the middle of next month some time… if there are no delays. In the meantime, Apple suggests that I log in to a web page to use a beta version of Pages and its other iWork applications, each of which is missing many of its standard features.

The release of iOS 8 and the release of OS Yosemite are a month out of sync with each other. Apparently, no one at Apple, the company that is supposed to specialize in elegant design, considered the implications of this gap for the user experience. Apple itself seems to be out of sync, with the mobile side of the company unaware of what the laptop and desktop side of the company is doing.

How can we trust our work to such an awkward chimera?

Pushy Christians In Orange County, Florida Open The Door To Satanists

It’s a move designed to show the absurdity of allowing religious groups to distribute their propaganda in public schools. However, Orange County, Florida Christian groups don’t seem to be getting the message.

The Satanic Temple has demanded equal access to Orange County public schools for their own material, a coloring book with the title, the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities. The coloring book promotes patience and understanding of difference, as exhibited by friendly Satanist children who contend with playground bullies and teachers who seem unable to comprehend the worth of cultural diversity.

Members of the Satanic Temple do not actually believe in the reality of any entity known as Satan or the devil or demons. Instead, the group believes in separation of church and state, and uses the metaphor of Satanism in order to communicate that belief in a form that other people are likely to pay attention to. The Satanic Temple has expressed the desire to refrain from distributing Satanic materials in public schools, asserting that it is unconstitutional and unethical for religious groups to use government-sponsored schools to spread their messages. However, given that the Orange County public school system had been giving sole access to Christian religious groups, the Satanic Temple decided that the best course is to provide students there with a broader range of religious propaganda, and to show Christians what it feels like to have someone else’s religion shoved at their children by public school administrators.

Local Christian groups are expressing outrage, however, saying that Christian material ought to be allowed, while religious materials from containing ideas that Christians don’t like ought to be banned. Satanism is too scary for children, say the Christians, ignoring the mass murder, rape and torture that populates their own holy book.

The Orange County public schools could stop the nonsense at any time, of course, by deciding to get back to the fundamentals of education, respecting the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion, and allowing students and their families to come to decisions about religion on their own.

satanic coloring book

Yale Prof: Unpopular Bizarre Claims Can Be Ignored, Popular Bizarre Claims Must be Respected

How much does Yale University pay a professor to paraphrase the cliche that “100 million people can’t be wrong”? Fully tenured Yale Professor Keith DeRose explains in the New York Times why Christianity deserves more respect from atheists than Pastafarianism deserves from Christians:

“I think you can sometimes rightly claim to know that something doesn’t exist even if you don’t have a good argument for your claim. This is the situation with the currently infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster: We all find it bizarre and literally unbelievable and so reject its existence without any argument. I, in fact, think some of our most important and interesting knowledge comes not through anything like arguments, but from just rightly rejecting as bizarre things that so strike us….

“In any case, the situation is very different with God. The thought that God exists does strike many atheists as bizarre. But in contrast to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there are all of these theists and agnostics who do not find the thought of God’s existence bizarre, and I really think they ruin our atheist friends’ hopes for easy knowledge here. The basic point is that, when there are many other apparently sensible people who disagree with you, you need a good argument to claim that you claim that you know they’re wrong.”

Got that? DeRose insists that if you are a member of a religious minority (like Pastafarianism), then other people can just reject your religion out of hand without making a solid argument because its tenets seem bizarre to you. If, on the other handko, you are a member of a religious majority (like Christianity), then other people cannot reject your religion without a firm argument that it is definitely wrong, even if the tenets of that majority religion seem bizarre to you.

Why? Because lots of people subscribe to the bizarre beliefs of Christianity… and 100 million people can’t be wrong.

Tenure for this. Apparently, argumentum ad populum isn’t a fallacy any more, at least in the Ivy League.

The argument must be extra true because it appears in the New York Times. 100 million subscribers just can’t be wrong.

Congressman Rangel Seeks To Reinstate The Military Draft If War Against Islamic State Is Approved By Congress

This week, the U.S. Congress ought to be voting on whether to authorize Barack Obama’s new war against the Islamic State. However, members of the U.S. House and Senate are in a rush to leave Washington D.C., so that they can gather money for their re-election campaigns, so no such vote will take place. What has taken place is a vote in the House of Representatives on legislation authorizing Barack Obama to send weapons into Syria, to rebels who are fighting against both the dictatorial government and the Islamic State. Both houses of Congress seem content to allow President Obama to continue his unconstitutional war in Iraq and Syria.

Charles Rangel voted against the legislation to send weapons to rebels in Syria, but he wanted to do more. Rangel sought to attach an amendment to the legislation, which would do two things:

1. Require the new war to be paid for with a special war tax
2. Reinstate the military draft, so that a wide range of young Americans will be placed in harm’s way during the course of the war.

“We already lost 6,800 American lives in this war, and it is very difficult to explain to their families and friends at funerals what the cause was or whether we won or lost,” Rangel said yesterday. “The question should be once we make a determination that there is a threat to our national security, we should have the mandatory Selective Service Act reinstated. We already have it on the books. We should activate it to make certain that if you are voting to put more men and women’s lives into jeopardy, make certain it is universal men and women would be selected to make certain that they provide for a national service of some sort.”

The leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives did not give Congressman Rangel the opportunity to introduce his amendment.

The House voted to approve the legislation to send weapons to rebel groups in Syria. Most members of both political parties voted in favor of the weapons bill. Nearly equal numbers of Republicans (53) and Democrats (55) dissented.

Big Money Corrodes Absolutely: Mayday Super PAC devolves into spinning self-protection

From its inception, the Mayday PAC run by Americans Elect alumni Lawrence Lessig, Kahlil Byrd and Mark McKinnon has run on a tank of political fuel emblazoned with the words JUST TRUST US.

So the Mayday PAC was led by a group of people who deceived followers in a previous political effort. So what? Just trust us, said the leaders of the Mayday PAC.

So the Mayday PAC planned to stop the corrosive effect of big money in political campaigns by… yes, raising and spending big money in political campaigns. So what? Just trust us, said the leaders of the Mayday PAC. Or, as they put it in their promotional literature, “Embrace the irony.”

So the Mayday PAC actually ended up sending loads of money to a group whose leaders actually oppose campaign finance reform and who appear to have spent the money to promote causes unrelated to campaign finance reform. So what? Just trust us, say the leaders of the Mayday PAC. All is well behind the curtain…

… but not all is well behind the curtain. Last week, blogger DocDawg found and disclosed an ongoing chat between staffers of the Mayday PAC as they split time between:

  • trying to figure out how to hide or “spin” the news that the Mayday PAC hadn’t attracted the big-donor contributions it told its followers it would have,
  • trying to figure out how to reconcile the contradiction of supporting a candidate who said he took no PAC money who actually did take PAC money, and
  • giving DocDawg a hard time for criticizing the group.

In its rhetoric, the Mayday PAC asserts that it is different from all the other Super PACs because you can Just Trust its leaders, who are good and honest and well-meaning and principled and pure enough to avoid the taint of money. But in its actions and behind-the-scenes deliberations, the Mayday PAC is taking the journey traveled by just about every other Super PAC out there:

  • starting out with an idea to promote,
  • making the decision to take others’ money to do it,
  • making deals with other groups to accomplish immediate tasks in ways that contradict the super PAC’s initial ideals,
  • finding itself the target of criticism,
  • spinning the truth, and
  • turning to defense of the group itself as an increasingly important activity.

Just as no Super PAC begins as an invention of the Hall of Pure Evil, so there are no moneyed groups that are so Purely Good that they can be trusted to wield immense political power responsibly on the basis of that Pure Goodness, on the basis of faith in the line “Just Trust Us.” Give me enough money on the basis of trust alone and I’d probably make the same mistakes. Let’s stop shoveling huge loads of cash to new group after new group, relying on trust and personal purity as we hope that this time, the latest group will deliver us from the schemes of the group before. A movement to reform corrupt power must avoid corrupting tools. The people we must be protected from include ourselves.

Did Obama Really Say There Would Be No Boots On the Ground?

What’s the easiest way to get American soldiers to Iraq?

Lie to the American people.

That’s what happened the last time American soldiers were sent to fight in a war in Iraq. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney wanted a war, so they told the American people that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was a bald faced lie, and it worked.

What about this time around?

Well, this time around, the American people are being led to believe that now that “we are at war with” the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war), American soldiers won’t be sent back to Iraq. The idea has been that there will be no “boots on the ground”.

iraq orange cratersRepublican U.S. Representative Matt Salmon recently blasted the dishonesty of this assertion. “Why don’t we be straight with the American people? There are already boots on the ground. You might not want to call it boots on the ground. But, the people that are there, the over 1,000 that are already there right now, their families consider them to be boots on the ground,” he said.

Exposing the lie even further, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress yesterday that American soldiers in ground combat against soldiers of the Islamic State could easily become part of the new U.S. War. Dempsey explained to members of Congress that he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces,” if he believed it to be the best military strategy.

This statement from Dempsey has been depicted as a reversal of policy from the Obama Administration, but is it? When Barack Obama gave a speech announcing that the United States is now at war against the Islamic State, he said that “the best way to defeat a group like ISIL isn’t by sending large numbers of American combat forces to wage a ground war”. That statement makes it sound as if Obama is ruling out sending American soldiers into ground combat in Iraq and Syria, but that’s not precisely what it says. Obama’s words only argue against “large numbers” of American soldiers fighting on the ground, and they only state that a massive American ground army in the Middle East isn’t the best strategy, rather than promising that such an army won’t end up going to Iraq.

In fact, in Obama’s speech, he admitted that he has already approved sending more American soldiers to be on the ground in Iraq. Obama described their mission in a limited way, that they “will help Iraqi and Kurdish forces with the training, intelligence and equipment they need to take the fight to these terrorists on the ground”, but never in his speech did he promise that American soldiers wouldn’t join in fights on the ground.

This wasn’t an accident. Speeches by the President of the United States are reviewed word by word to make sure that the President says exactly what he intends to say – nothing more, and nothing less. It seems that Barack Obama’s strategy is to triangulate, appearing to Americans to be proposing only a bombing campaign while allowing himself room for another American ground invasion.

It’s telling, and troubling, that Obama chose to end a speech titled We Will Degrade and Destroy ISIL with the observation that the new war in Iraq is starting “thirteen years after our country was attacked”, as if there is a connection between Iraq, the Islamic State and the attacks of September 11, 2001. We went through this kind of misdirection with the last Iraq war as well. There is no connection between the Islamic State and the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Islamic State didn’t even exist in 2001.

Barack Obama, the politician who won the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination instead of Hillary Clinton because he had opposed war in Iraq and promised to end it, is now bringing the United States into an entirely new war in Iraq, and doing it in a style that George W. Bush would have approved of. Democrats ought to be outraged that their own political party’s leader is engaged in these kinds of slippery maneuvers, but so far, voices of Democratic dissent are few and far between.