"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Snow's Not All Bad

A taste of things to come. At least the panda's enjoying it.

Saturday Science: The Evolution of Morality

I go on quite a bit about how human beings, as social animals, are more or less hard-wired toward what we call "moral behavior." As I usually phrase it, "Why do people form societies?" The answer, of course, is "For mutual benefit." (Actually, my usual answer is "I don't think it's so that the greediest and most dishonest can take everything," but that's usually when I'm debating "libertarians.")

Well, this morning I ran across this post from Undercover Blue at Hullabaloo, referencing this article by Indre Viskontas on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom. The article is not easy to excerpt, but click through -- it's short, and it has videos and stuff. Essentially, it summarizes Bloom's work with infants and toddlers on how compassion and a sense of fairness seem to be on display early on, based on babies' choices of the good guys (those who help or share) over the bad guys (those who do neither) as preferences -- they opt for the good guys.

This echoes the behavior of other primates exhibited both in research settings and in the wild: most of our relatives travel in groups, and they help each other out. Primate societies are marked by cooperation among the members, which from an evolutionary standpoint (you knew this was coming) has proven to be an adaptive trait: cooperation among members of the group enhances the survival of the group and, by extension, that of the individuals who make up the group.

There's always self-interest, though. In the realm of small children, Bloom discovered that, while perfectly happy to distribute someone else's treats in equal shares, when it comes to the child's own treats, it's a very different story. As they grow, however, that changes, as witness Viskontas' first anecdote in the article on Bloom's work:

At the playground, I watch my 10-month-old son beeline to the center of the sandbox where there is a bright pink shovel. But before he gets there, a rambunctious 2-year-old snatches up the coveted toy first. As my son watches the shovel slip away, a wobbly 14-month-old comes over and offers him a half-chewed cookie.

There's an element of tribalism in this. As Bloom notes, as quoted by Undercover Blue:
"But this compassion and this helping, it all pertains to the baby's own group," says Bloom. They are less naturally generous with out-group members.

By our natures, we strongly value those around us over strangers. And to the extent that you and I don't, to the extent that you and I might recognize that somebody suffering, I don't know, from the Ebola virus in Africa, is a life just as valuable as those of our closest friends and family, that's an extraordinary cultural accomplishment. And it's something that's not in the genes. It's not what we're born with.

And there we have an added wrinkle: culture building on inheritance.

(I don't think I need to emphasize how this applies to, say, contemporary American politics: it's a matter of expanding your perception of "Us" as opposed to "Them," and the trend in American history has always been toward a larger "Us." There's always been an element in American society, and others as well, that fails to make the leap. These days, we call them "Republicans.")

National Graphic did a special with Richard Leakey on his discoveries at Turkana in Africa, of which this clip addresses the issue under discussion here:

Self-interest? Yes, but also, as Leakey puts it, "bonding, care, love, affection, protection" -- which all boils down to "compassion."

If you look at any religion -- and most people, for some reason, consider the teachings of their religion as the basis of morality, rather than its codification -- you'll find that underlying all the codes of behavior, tribal taboos, and "history" is one basic precept: we take care of each other. (Some evoutionary theorists have hypothesized that we're also hard-wired for belief. Be interesting to see how they test that one.)

And I can already hear the objections: how can genetics determine something as complex as our understanding of morality? Well, in addition to instilling a tendency toward cooperation and compassion, evolution also gave us brains. You do the math.

(I'm going to refrain from commenting on the somewhat rudimentary sense of morality evidenced by the spokespersons of the "religious" right, except to note that their concern is with tribal taboos, not any real values. Although I will admit that imagining their reaction to the idea that morality is hard-wired gives me a great sense of satisfaction.)

This one has a lot of ramifications. Use your imagination.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

This Is Not A Culture Break

Take is as a metaphorical history of the marriage equality movement:

OK -- that was my sniffles attack for the day. Somehow, the "Ode to Joy" always has me laughing and crying at the same time.

Culture Break: Nickelback, "Gotta Be Somebody"

Yes, Nickelback is culture, in the broad sense. And this has always seemed to me like a particularly fitting song for the marriage equality movement. Chad Kroeger even washed his hair.

Looking at this one again, it's one really weird video. Really weird.

"Let Them Eat Cake"

I saw this story while surfing, yesterday I think, and my only thought was, "Mike Pence is a dick." In case you missed it, he was trying to rationalize kicking 65,000 residents of Indiana off of food stamps.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration announced last month that beginning in 2015, it would no longer request a waiver to the federal work requirement for certain people who use the SNAP program. Up to 65,000 single Hoosiers could lose food stamp benefits unless they are working 20 hours a week or attending job training.

Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Pence argued that 50,000 people had joined the Indiana workforce since 2008 so it was time to return to a “core principle” of welfare reform.

“How do you feel about people who say you are targeting poor people?” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade asked the governor.

“I’m someone that believes there’s nothing more ennobling to a person than a job,” Pence insisted. “And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependants at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success.”

“You know, it’s the old story,” he continued. “Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. I think this is an idea whose time has come here in the state of Indiana.”

It's estimated that there are two million people out of work in the Midwest, but only a million jobs. Good luck with that fishing pole, Gov. Pence.

And it appears I'm not the only one who thinks he's a dick -- the Young Turks took a swing at him, too:

Thirty-Four? I'm Losing Count (Updated)

At any rate, add Montana to the list of marriage equality states. Via Joe.My.God.:

The Court hereby DECLARES that Montana’s laws that ban same-sex marriage, including Article XIII, section 7 of the Montana Constitution, and Montana Code Annotated section 40-1-103 and section 40-1-401, violate Plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court PERMANENTLY ENJOINS the State of Montana and its officers, employees, agents, and political subdivisions from enforcing Article XIII, section 7 of the Montana Constitution, Montana Code Annotated section 40-1-103 and section 40-1-401, and any other laws or regulations, to the extent that they prohibit otherwise qualified same-sex couples from marrying in Montana, and to the extent that they do not recognize same-sex marriages validly contracted outside Montana. This injunction shall take effect immediately.
(Emphasis added.)

Yep, no stay. Marriages begin immediately. The full ruling is here.

The Republican Attorney General, Tim Fox, will, of course, appeal. His appeal will most likely go first to the Ninth Circuit, which has already struck down marriage bans in Nevada and Utah and is not likely to change its mind for Montana. He can appeal to SCOTUS, which has already declined to hear appeals from Nevada and Utah, so I doubt that he'll get any satisfaction there.

The Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock, has a different take entirely. Again, via Joe.My.God.:

Today’s decision ensures we are closer to fulfilling our promise of freedom, dignity, and equality for all Montanans. It is a day to celebrate our progress, while recognizing the qualities that bind us as Montanans: a desire to make a good life for ourselves and our families, while providing greater opportunities to the next generation. I have instructed my administration to quickly take all appropriate steps to ensure that we are recognizing and affording the same rights and responsibilities to legally married same-sex couples that all married Montanans have long enjoyed.

And of course, the map:

It appears that both Kansas and Missouri are going county by county and waiting for someone to make it statewide. Desperation makes people do weird things.

Update: Here's Timothy Kincaid's summary of the status of marriage equality as of today, with an updated map.

Now We Know

Why Brian Brown's fundraising appeals have gotten so desperate:

In a time when virtually every nightly newscast, political debate, even television series delves into discussions about marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, the beleaguered National Organization for Marriage (NOM) can’t seem to raise enough money to cover its expenses. According to analysis of the organization’s 2013 tax filings done by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), NOM raised $5.1 million in 2013, dropping by over 50% since 2012. Just 2 donors accounted for more than half of the organization’s funding – further evidence that everyday Americans have little interest in furthering NOM’s extremist agenda. In addition, the NOM Education Fund also dropped by nearly $3.5 million in funding -- a drop of almost 70% since the previous year. NOM ended the year more than $2.5 million in debt.

Any guesses on which two churches are the major donors? Oops -- did I say that out loud?

I don't normally gloat, but in this case, I'll make an exception.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm So Glad I Live In Illinois

This is an ad for something:

A nice little bit of reverse psychology to get young people to sign up for Obamacare.

As one commenter noted, now the Republicans have their replacement for the ACA.

Now if the state can just survive our new governor. (Even we make mistakes.)

Marriage: Of Course Marriage Discrimination Is Rational

Tweet from Chad Griffin, Executive Director of HRC:
Chad Griffin @ChadHGriffin

80yo Charles Manson will soon be getting married, but by all means don't let gay couples destroy sanctity of marriage!

4:20 PM - 17 Nov 2014

Here's the story.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marriage News Watch, November 17, 2014

The official summary:
More victories this week. Marriage has started in Kansas, and a judge has overturned a ban in South Carolina but you still can't get married there yet. The lawyer who got DOMA overturned is now taking on Mississippi's marriage ban. And a few states are taking a closer look at overturning marriage bans at the ballot or in the legislature, just in case the Supreme Court doesn't come through for us.

Thirty-what? I can't keep track, it's happening so fast. Here's Wikipedia's most recent map:

  Same-sex marriage legal2
  Same-sex marriage performed elsewhere recognized
  Same-sex marriage legalization pending3
  No prohibition or recognition of same-sex marriage
  Judicial ruling(s) overturning a same-sex marriage ban stayed indefinitely pending appeal
  Same-sex marriage banned contrary to federal circuit precedent
  Same-sex marriage banned

1Native American tribal jurisdictions have laws pertaining to same-sex marriage independent of state law.
2 Same-sex marriage is legal in St. Louis, Missouri.
3 A ruling striking down Florida's same-sex marriage ban has been stayed until January 5, 2015. A ruling striking down South Carolina's same-sex marriage ban has been stayed until November 20, 2014.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Welcome to Feudal America (Update)

This story is just unbelievable:

To get the $15-an-hour job last spring, Almeida was required to sign a “restriction on competition” clause that said if he leaves, he can’t work for two years for any firm doing similar work in ServiceMaster’s “geographic area” — which the company’s lawyer told me means King, Snohomish, Island, Yakima and Kittitas counties.

ServiceMaster of Seattle, a franchise in a $3.4 billion national corporation, now is trying to force Almeida to forfeit his $18-an-hour job at Superior Cleaning of Woodinville.

The noncompete clause would mean Almeida also couldn’t work in any water- or fire-damage job, janitorial, office cleaning, window washing, floor or carpet cleaning or other job ServiceMaster does.

I've had to sign non-competition agreements, but I was a highly placed employee with inside information on clients, as well as personal relationships with many of them. But for a $15/hr janitorial job?

If something like this goes to the Supreme Court, expect a 5-4 decision in favor of the corporation.

Read the whole story at the link. It's pretty appalling.

Update: And they have all sorts of ways of screwing us. Just ran across this story, via Balloon Juice:

Tens of thousands of Americans who went through bankruptcy are still haunted by debts long after — sometimes as long as a decade after — federal judges have extinguished the bills in court.

The problem, state and federal officials suspect, is that some of the nation’s biggest banks ignore bankruptcy court discharges, which render the debts void. Paying no heed to the courts, the banks keep the debts alive on credit reports, essentially forcing borrowers to make payments on bills that they do not legally owe.

But there's a ray of hope?

Now lawyers with the United States Trustee Program, an arm of the Justice Department, are investigating JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Synchrony Financial, formerly known as GE Capital Retail Finance, suspecting the banks of violating federal bankruptcy law by ignoring the discharge injunction, say people briefed on the investigations.

The banks say that they comply with all federal laws in their collection and sale of debt.

Really. This is the Obama/Holder Justice Department. Frankly, I'm surprised they're investigating at all, especially with Holder getting ready to step down. I mean, what will he do for a job if he alienates the banksters?

Best case scenario: the banks get a slap on a wrist and maybe -- just maybe -- stop doing it for a while. Until no one's looking.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow. . . .

Add Kansas to the list:

marriage 2014

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court has refused to grant a stay in Kansas' appeal of the district court decision finding the state's marriage ban unconstitutional.

14A503 Kansas Stay Denied by Equality Case Files

As others have noted, it's interesting, not that Scalia and Thomas would vote against lifting the stay -- that's a foregone conclusion -- but that they'd elect to publish their dissent. I mean, it's not like they're running for re-election. Alito voting to vacate surprised me a little, but I'm not counting on him in the long run.

And of course, Gov. Sam Brownback, who has already worked such wonders for Kansas (I understand the state is facing a $1.8 billion budget shortfall; time to close more schools), intends to keep on fighting the good fight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Through the Looking Glass Award: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Comcast)

By now I'm sure you've heard about Sen. Ted Cruz' tweet about Net Neutrality:

Gods. Where to start? How about my designation of Ted Cruz as (R-Comcast)? Turns out, he's one of many.

And of course, he's flipped reality on its head. His tweet was in response to this statement from the President:
An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.

“Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.

Click through to read the whole thing.

In essence, Cruz is coming out against maintaining the free and open Internet that we now have. He wants the major ISPs -- Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, TimeWarner -- to be able to dictate who gets what content and what speeds. The battle-cry, of course, is "No regulation! Free market! Freedom!" This follow-up tweet from Cruz' communications director summarizes Cruz' bullshit statement neatly:

Amanda Carpenter @amandacarpenter

Net neutrality puts gov't in charge of determining pricing, terms of service, and what products can be delivered. Sound like Obamacare much?

9:51 AM - 10 Nov 2014

It's a lie, of course.

Ted Cruz and his team have the facts wrong about net neutrality. Obama specifically said the government would NOT be in charge of pricing: "I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services."

A lot of the commenters on various sites reporting this little dust-up assume Cruz is stupid. He's not. He's throwing red meat to his base. Besides, Obama supports Net Neutrality. Therefore, the Republicans are agin' it.

Given that the FCC's website entertained over 4 million comments from the public, overwhelmingly in favor of Net Neutrality, it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Marriage News Watch, November 10, 2014

The official summary:

Well we just capped off the busiest month in marriage equality history, but it's looking like November's going to be just as busy. Two judges in the Sixth Circuit just ruled against equality, which sets us up for a Supreme Court ruling in the coming months. And no sooner did the Sixth Circuit uphold marriage bans than a judge in West Virginia issued a ruling of his own, explaining why they're wrong. Plus, judges overturned marriage bans in Kansas and Missouri, with some complicated rules about who can get married and when.

I commented on the Sixth Circuit decision here.

And here's the juicy part of the West Virginia decision by Judge Robert Chambers:

Lambda Legal adds Chambers also offered a critique of the Sixth Circuit's ruling upholding four states' gay marriage bans, with Chambers stating that the appeals court:

"fail[ed] to recognize the role of courts in the democratic process. It is the duty of the judiciary to examine government action through the lens of the Constitution’s protection of individual freedom. Courts cannot avoid or deny this duty just because it arises during the contentious public debate that often accompanies the evolution of policy making throughout the states. Judges may not simultaneously find a right violated yet defer to an uncertain future remedy voluntarily undertaken by the violators."

Here's Judge Chambers' decision.