Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Caveat Emptor" by Ruth Downie

(cover image from

Caveat Emptor (2011) by Ruth Downie is the fourth in her historical mystery series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, Roman doctor and reluctant investigator, and his British former-slave (now, his wife), Tilla.

I actually finished this a few weeks ago, and I've been meaning to blog about it,... but I couldn't figure out what to say. I enjoyed it, but I have little to add which I haven't mentioned previously about the first three books in the series. If you enjoyed those, you'll enjoy this one (and you should read them in order).

This time, Ruso and Tilla are back in Britannia, but in the South, where the natives are more accepting of Roman rule. Tilla acts as midwife to a British woman whose lover - a tax collector - has disappeared, and Ruso is pretty much blackmailed into investigating the matter, since the taxes went missing, too.

It seems to me that these books are getting more serious as the series goes on. But the main characters are still delightful. Their relationship has slowly evolved, even as their personalities have stayed the same. So there's just enough change from book to book to hold my interest.

Well, as I said, I don't have much to say about this one, so I'll stop trying. If you're a fan of the series, you should be happy with this book. Otherwise, I'd start with Medicus.

Note: My other book reviews are here.

"Black Dog" by Stephen Booth

(cover image from Cozy Mysteries)

Black Dog (2000) by Stephen Booth was a spur of the moment purchase, when I saw that the Kindle version was only 99¢ at Of course, it's going to cost me a lot more than that, now that I have to buy the rest of the books in the series. :)

In this first "Cooper & Fry mystery," we're introduced to two young detective constables in England's Peak District, a rural area of hills and moors, much of it a national park, though with small towns, too. Both turn out to have a 'black dog' on their back.

Ben Cooper is the up-and-coming star of the Edendale police force, a local boy ridden by the death of his father, who'd also been a police officer, and by the increasing schizophrenia of his mother. Diane Fry is a newcomer, also ambitious, trying to overcome a terrible childhood and a recent gang rape.

When the book starts, a 15-year-old girl is missing. Later, after she's found dead, Cooper and Fry are thrown together during an intense murder investigation. Their differences end up causing friction that's magnified by their personal problems and their ambition.

Don't get me wrong, both are very likeable. Both are very capable, but also very decent people. And most of the other people in this book are pretty decent, too.

I'm rarely particularly interested in the mystery of a mystery novel. I mean, it's important, but the characters are far more important to me. And this book has great characters - not just the two detectives for whom this is the start of a series, but even the minor characters.

I wasn't grabbed by the story immediately. I thought it started a bit slow - interesting, but only mildly so. By halfway through the book, though, I couldn't put it down. And after finishing, I can't wait to see what happens next to these two young detectives.

As I say, all of the characters were interesting, and almost all were sympathetic - at least, in part. I was hugely impressed by that part of the book. It took awhile, because most weren't immediately appealing, but as time goes on, you learn more about even very minor characters.

This is a murder mystery, and it's not funny. It's not just Cooper and Fry who are ridden by a 'black dog,' either. But it's not depressing. I didn't find it so, at least. And if you like character-driven mysteries, as I do, I'd certainly recommend this one.

Note: My other book reviews, such as they are, are here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Go to the side of the bus, ladies

This is real. And in England, at least, universities are going along with it:
Universities can segregate students during debates as long as the women are not forced to sit behind the men, university leaders have said.

Segregation at the behest of a controversial speaker is an issue which arises "all the time” and banning men and women from sitting next to each during debates is a "big issue" facing universities, Universities UK has said.

As a result they have issued guidance which suggests that segregation is likely to be acceptable as long as men and women are seated side by side and one party is not at a disadvantage.

This is "separate but equal" segregation, and we already went through this in America. Remember the 'white' and 'colored' water fountains, side by side? Nothing wrong with that, right? After all, one wasn't behind the other.

And I'm sure it would have been fine to insist that Rosa Parks sit on the left side of the bus, where her presence wouldn't pollute the fine, upstanding white folks on the right side, wouldn't it? That would have been acceptable?

OK, this isn't America, but I'm absolutely astonished that universities would even consider such a plan. But then, it's religion, so they've got to bend over backward, don't they? I mean, it's not as though these people want to preach, right? (You mean they'd actually shut up, if they didn't get their own way in everything?)

Maryam Namazie puts it well:
Clearly, this is not about people’s belief systems.

If it were so, Muslims would be unable to ride buses, the underground, enter their workplaces via entrances used by both men and women, eat in non-segregated restaurants… They wouldn’t even be able to get to the segregated meeting room since men and women would be mingling freely on the streets and halls right up to their entry into the segregated hall kindly organised by Universities UK.

And what next? Another set of guidelines asking unveiled women to veil so as not to “result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.” Maybe they can ask that niqabs be handed out to unchaste and unveiled women before entry.

More importantly, what about the women and men, including Muslims, who don’t want to be segregated? What Universities UK conveniently forgets is that segregation of the sexes and the veil are highly contested even amongst Muslims. By justifying segregation, they choose to side with Islamists at the expense of women’s rights and equality.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal but rather to separate the “superior” from the “inferior.” Women are too “beguiling” to sit next to men; they will cause chaos and fitnah and therefore must be segregated and veiled. Universities UK agrees.

I've got a better idea: blindfolds. If a speaker doesn't want to see men and women sitting together, have him put on a blindfold. You don't need to see in order to speak. Someone can lead him to the stage, lead him to his seat, and he'll never have to be polluted by such a horrible sight at all.

And this will be his decision. He won't be making decisions for everyone else, just for himself. This way, the men and women in the audience can make their own decisions, too. How could you get any fairer than that?

And who knows? Maybe this will catch on in the Muslim world. Instead of forcing women to wear burqas (not in every Muslim country, but those where this is enforced), women could wear anything they wanted. If a man didn't want to see it, he could wear a blindfold. Simple, don't you think?

Yeah, fat chance, huh? But in this case, if a Muslim fanatic doesn't want to speak, he doesn't have to. If he doesn't want to debate, he doesn't have to. These are religious extremists trying to push their own views on us. Well, they're welcome to do so. That's what free speech is all about.

But they can't make demands on what other people choose to do. It's simply none of their business. If men and women choose to sit together, or apart, it's their business. If it bothers you to see it, don't look. Close your eyes. Wear a blindfold.

England, do you really think these religious fanatics will stop coming to your schools to convert the heathen if you don't give in on such things? Heh, heh. Not a chance! Not that it would be such a bad thing if they did. But they want to talk.

The right to offend

A friend sent me that. He thought it might be too inflammatory for his own website, but that it would fit right in here. He's right, of course. :)

Ordinarily, I would have glanced at it, chuckled, and forgotten it immediately. It's clever, sure. Apparently, it's just a slight revision to a common Christian image, but it's clever and it's mildly amusing. That's all.

But apparently, some people are getting all bent out of shape over it. From Terminal Lance:
So I posted this image on the Facebook page...

Naturally it caused quite the disturbance in the force for faux Christians who might have assumed that all Marines are warriors of God. This image isn’t anti-Christian. People are telling me I’m “Christian-bashing,” by posting this image, and they’re fucking wrong. If you think I’m bashing anyone by posting this popular image (which I’ve seen numerous times prior to my posting), you’re an idiot.

Do you have the right not to be offended? Then my rights are being violated all the time - usually by Christians.

And think about it. This is the military. Right now our only enemies are religious nuts trying to force their own views on everyone else, religious nuts who make a point of being offended at everything. Those are our enemies. So why should we imitate them?

Now, apparently, the U.S. military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism. From what I've heard, it's not easy for soldiers with other beliefs (not just atheists) when their commanding officer is a religious nut. All too often, these 'Christian soldiers' - literally - want to see the so-called war on terrorism as a religious war between Muslims and Christians.

Ironically, that's exactly how our enemies want to present this conflict, too. Funny how both sides - both varieties of religious lunacy, I mean - are in perfect agreement about that, isn't it?

But it's not true, and I'm sure the majority of Christians agree with me about that (the majority of soldiers, as well). Here in America, our troops are defending freedom of speech and freedom of religion, among other things. Our soldiers are defending your right to believe anything you want.

But you don't have the right not to be offended. That's what Muslim extremists argue (not all Muslims, I'm sure), so it's ironic to have American Christians - especially in our military - agreeing with them, isn't it?

Here, for example, are some of Ed Brayton's replies to just that argument from commenters in the Muslim Times:
The answer is simple. No human being has the right to offend another person.

Really? Because I find what you just said incredibly offensive. There are few things that offend me more than someone who blathers this kind of totalitarian bullshit. By your own reasoning, you have just committed a crime. [my emphasis]
One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Therefore offensive ‘anything’, should NOT be allowed under the guise of freedom of expression.

In fact, it is more hate mongering than so-called freedom of expression and therefore should be made illegal and a crime for it costs many lives.

There is no other freedom being impinged. You do not have any right to go through life with no one ever saying anything that offends you. And the only thing that costs lives are barbaric authoritarians who think they have a right to kill someone who offends them.

Hell yes, we have the right to offend you. And you have the right to offend me, as you do every day with your authoritarian demands.

As I said, I think that most Christians agree with me about this. It's only the religious nuts - Christian and Muslim alike - who don't. Now, I don't mean to imply that complaining about "Christian-bashing" is the same as killing people who post cartoons you dislike, not at all. But the sentiment is the same.

Get over it! In a diverse society, people are going to disagree with each other. So what? In a diverse society, some people are going to say something you don't like. And, inevitably, some people are going to use humor to get their point across. So what?

You don't have to agree with that point. You don't have to find it funny. But you don't have the right not to get your feelings hurt.

I'm not talking about criticism. If you don't like a point of view, say so. Draw your own cartoons. Make fun of the other side, if you wish. You don't have to stay silent. Obviously, staying silent isn't anything I do, and I welcome opposing opinions here. What I'm talking about is implying that someone else should stay silent, because you're offended.

That's the path to totalitarianism. When blasphemy becomes a crime, pretty much everything the majority doesn't like will become 'blasphemy.' This isn't so much a struggle between Muslims and Christians as it's a struggle between authoritarian religious extremists and modern democratic societies. Think before you side with the former, even by implication.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pope: the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit

Keep in mind that this is supposed to be the nice pope, the good pope, the liberal pope. This is the new pope saying these things.

From Vatican Radio comes this homily by Pope Francis on "the spirit of curiosity":
The spirit of curiosity generates confusion and distances a person from the Spirit of wisdom, which brings peace, said Pope Francis in his homily during Thursday morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta. ...

In the Gospel, the Pope underlined, “we find ourselves before another spirit, contrary to the wisdom of God: the spirit of curiosity”.

“And when we want to be the masters of the projects of God, of the future, of things, to know everything, to have everything in hand… the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When will the Kingdom of God come?’ Curious! They wanted to know the date, the day… The spirit of curiosity distances us from the Spirit of wisdom because all that interests us is the details, the news, the little stories of the day. Oh, how will this come about? It is the how: it is the spirit of the how! And the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.”

You see? Thinking is bad. Asking questions is bad. Wanting to know things is bad. It'll just confuse you.

So, why would a religious leader say that, if his beliefs were actually true? Scam artists want you to stop thinking. Scam artists encourage gullibility. Scientists, on the other hand, want you to think. If you prove scientists wrong, they'll thank you for that.

The only reason that asking questions is bad is because Pope Francis doesn't have any good answers. The only reason why thinking is bad is because you might come to understand the truth, and that would be terrible for the Catholic Church. Obviously, if Christian belief were actually true, popes would be encouraging what they now discourage.

The spirit of curiosity has brought us incredible advances in the real world. These days, most children actually have a chance to grow up, instead of dying in droves of preventable diseases. Prayer had nothing to do with that. For thousands of years, parents have prayed for their children, without success. No, it was the spirit of curiosity which solved this problem, and so many more.

But "the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit," according to Pope Francis, because it makes you question what Pope Francis would rather you just take on faith. Tell me what kind of person would argue against the "spirit of curiosity"? Clearly, it's the person who has something to hide, isn't it?

Well, maybe you can have peace in Christianity, if you turn off your brain, I don't know. But that's not something I'd want to do, even if I could. You'll have peace enough when you're dead, for the same reason. You won't be able to use your brain then.

As long as I'm alive, I'll continue to use my brain as best I can. I'll continue asking questions. I'll continue being curious. And to hell with faith-based idiots like the pope.

"People at my church will make fun of me"

I haven't read advice columns since Dear Abby, when I was a kid. But this is one I really had to share.

A concerned parent wrote to Dear Amy (Amy Dickinson at the Washington Post), thus:
DEAR AMY: I recently discovered that my son, who is 17, is a homosexual. We are part of a church group and I fear that if people in that group find out they will make fun of me for having a gay child.

He won’t listen to reason, and he will not stop being gay. I feel as if he is doing this just to get back at me for forgetting his birthday for the past three years — I have a busy work schedule.

Please help him make the right choice in life by not being gay. He won’t listen to me, so maybe he will listen to you. -- Feeling Betrayed

This is a classic, isn't it? This person - this mother, I assume (just from the tone of the letter) - is "feeling betrayed" because her son chose to be gay, just to spite her. And now he "won't listen to reason" and stop being gay.

Now, sure, she's forgotten his birthday for the past three years, but heck, she's busy. And is that really a good excuse for her son to decide to be gay?

But what's her real concern? She's afraid that people in her church group will make fun of her for having a gay son! Heh, heh. Yeah, she's really a loving mother, isn't she? (Or a loving parent, at least.) I feel sorry for her children whether they're gay or not.

Amy tells her this, in part:
DEAR BETRAYED: You could teach your son an important lesson by changing your own sexuality to show him how easy it is. Try it for the next year or so: Stop being a heterosexual to demonstrate to your son that a person’s sexuality is a matter of choice — to be dictated by one’s parents, the parents’ church and social pressure.

That's pretty good advice, isn't it? And I guess it's why she's an advice columnist and not me, because what I'd tell this pathetic excuse for a human being couldn't be printed in a family newspaper.

Of course, the whole letter could be a fake. I'd like to think so. I'd like to think it's just someone making a point. That's not exactly admirable, but it would be a whole lot better than the alternative, don't you think?

Edit: In a way, this is a similar kind of story, but it's a mother's reaction to her child being an atheist. This is the line which reminded me of the above story:
The worse transgression, in her opinion, was that my actions were an affront to her status, and I owed her the decency of coming back to the faith.

Is she worried about her child, or about her own status? Yeah, her daughter owes her the decency of living a lie. Very similar to the above, don't you think?

Monday, November 25, 2013

How Republicans rig the game

This is scary stuff from Rolling Stone magazine:
As the nation recovers from the Republican shutdown of government [this was first published Nov. 11], the question Americans should be asking is not "Why did the GOP do that to us?" but "Why were they even relevant in the first place?" So dramatically have the demographic and electoral tides in this country turned against the Republican Party that, in a representative democracy worthy of the designation, the Grand Old Party should be watching from the sidelines and licking its wounds. Not only did Barack Obama win a second term in an electoral landslide in 2012, but he is also just the fourth president in a century to have won two elections with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. What's more, the party controls 55 seats in the Senate, and Democratic candidates for the House received well over a million more votes than their Republican counterparts in the election last year. And yet, John Boehner still wields the gavel in the House and Republican resistance remains a defining force in the Senate, frustrating Obama's ambitious agenda.

How is this possible? National Republicans have waged an unrelenting campaign to exploit every weakness and anachronism in our electoral system. Through a combination of hyperpartisan redistricting of the House, unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate and racist voter suppression in the states, today's GOP has locked in political power that it could never have secured on a level playing field.

Despite the fact that Republican Congressional can didates received nearly 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates last November, the Republicans lost only eight seats from their historic 2010 romp, allowing them to preserve a fat 33-seat edge in the House.

(source - cartoonist?)

There are plenty of details in the article - far too many to post here - so I recommend that you read it all. I'll just post a few things here. For example, this line struck me:
In past elections, a gentleman's agreement prevailed among sitting politicians of both parties that redistricting would keep them safe.

Frankly, it's taken far too long for Democrats to realize that Republicans don't care about preserving America's traditional institutions. For all that they call themselves "conservative," they're actually radicals willing to destroy anything which doesn't immediately benefit them. That's hardly "conservative."

But many Democratic politicians are conservative, especially the old men (and women) in the U.S. Senate, where it's taken them much too long to recognize what they're dealing with.
At the time of the constitutional convention in 1787, the most populous state, Virginia, counted nearly 10 times the free population of Delaware. Yet both would have the same number of senators. In the more than two centuries since, America has expanded, and its population became concentrated, in ways the founders could have scarcely imagined – rendering the original 10:1 standard quaint. Today, the population of California outpaces Wyoming's by a ratio of 65:1. This extreme example underscores a nationwide trend: Half of the U.S. population now resides in just nine states. Which is to say that the other 50 percent of Americans control 82 votes in the U.S. Senate.

This state of affairs would be shocking enough if the Senate were governed by majority rule. But since 2007, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has subjected the daily business of the chamber to the filibuster, which means that legislation cannot advance and a presidential nominee can't be confirmed without a supermajority of 60 votes. Republicans have used this parliamentary roadblock to stop greenhouse-gas regulations, stall the DREAM Act and delay judicial confirmations.

The filibuster adds an undemocratic overlay to a chamber that is already rankly undemocratic. In today's Senate, 41 small-state Republicans can mount a filibuster on behalf of 28 percent of the country. And the departure from historical practice is shocking: LBJ faced one filibuster as Senate majority leader. Harry Reid, the current majority leader, has faced more than 430. Nearly half the filibusters of executive-branch nominations in the nation's history – 16 of 36 – have occurred under Obama.

Finally - finally - Senate Democrats have started to nibble away at these undemocratic filibusters (which are not part of the U.S. Constitution). But it has taken them far, far too long. And make no mistake, despite all that talk about "the nuclear option," filibusters remain. They haven't been eliminated entirely.

If Republicans are crazy, Democrats are timid. It's a frustrating combination!

Here are a few more excerpts:
Explicit racial gerrymandering is illegal under the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. So Hofeller used a proxy for race, redrawing boundaries by identifying the wards where President Obama received the highest returns in 2008. According to court documents, this approach "allowed black voters to be carved apart from their white neighbors and friends, on a block-by-block basis." ...

The triumphant GOP made no effort to conceal these machinations. "REDMAP's effect on the 2012 election is plain," reads a post-election RSLC report. "Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates . . . but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress." In Wisconsin, where $1.1 million in RSLC cash helped flip both chambers of the state legislature, empowering union-busting governor Scott Walker, Republicans prevailed by a five-to-three margin in House seats despite losing the popular vote by more than 43,000. In Ohio, only 52 percent of voters cast ballots for Republicans, but thanks to maps drawn in a Columbus-area Doubletree Hotel, referred to by GOP operatives in court documents as "the bunker," John Boehner's home-state delegation swings 12-4 for the GOP. ...

Republicans aren't finished in their campaign to rig the political system. The party has been seeking to carry over its built-in advantage in the House into a new edge in presidential elections. In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College. ...

In a true democracy, citizens could depend on the courts to overturn partisan schemes to subvert the will of the governed. But here, too, Republicans are winning. ...

... this summer, the Supreme Court not only vacated these Texas rulings, it gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ending federal "preclearance" of election law in the old Confederacy. Texas lawmakers continue to wrangle over redistricting. But the state's voter-ID law went into effect this October. Those without state-issued photo ID – gun permits are valid, college IDs are not – can seek out a special voting card, but must first pay a de facto poll tax of $22 to secure a birth certificate and then travel as far as 250 miles to apply at a state motor-vehicle office. As many as 1.4 million Texas voters are currently barred from polls because they lack the required identification. At last count, the state had issued exactly 41 special voter-ID cards.

Such trickery has come to define the GOP's approach to federal elections where Republicans can no longer prevail in a fair fight. Strict voter-ID laws have now been passed in more than a dozen states, most recently North Carolina. There, a county-­level Republican Party Executive Committee member named Don Yelton recently committed a gaffe of truth-telling, admitting on national television that the driving purpose of the state's voter-ID law is to "kick the Democrats in the butt." If the law disenfranchises college students without photo IDs or "hurts a bunch of lazy blacks," Yelton said, "so be it."

As this article concludes, demographics are favoring the Democrats,... over the long-term. But in the short-term, this could get worse before it gets better. Republicans are getting more and more hysterical as they become a smaller minority of the population, and they're becoming even more determined to hold on to power, any way they can.

Most Americans don't pay any attention to this stuff. And Democrats are notoriously bad at actually voting, especially in non-presidential years (like next year). Republicans tend to be older, whiter, and angrier,... and they vote.

Plus, if you make it harder to vote, as Republicans are doing to Democratic-leaning constituencies, many people won't bother - especially when they're not very reliable voters in the first place. Demographics may favor the Democrats, but that's over the long-term, and we still have to survive the short-term before we can even get there.

Plus, the consequences live on long afterwards.We always knew that George W. Bush would have to leave office after eight years, but we're still suffering from his presidency, and we will be for decades yet to come. And that's just if we can keep another George W. Bush from taking office in the meantime!


Apparently, David Waldman posts a list of gun-related accidents every week, and I thought I'd re-post a few excerpts from this one:
Heavy volume this week, as we top 50 listings for the first time in quite a while. But that just gives me a chance to remind you that statistically, I'm capturing only about 20 percent of accidental gun injuries each week, and there's no telling how many accidental discharges or other types of GunFAIL are being missed that don't immediately cause injury. I suspect that the arrival of November—and with it, deer hunting season—is partly responsible for the increase in gun cleaning accidents, of which there were eight admitted instances. Three people were accidentally shot in hunting mishaps, as well. Four, if you count the one who says he and his friends were out hunting for Bigfoot. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because of course. A fifth victim shot himself in the face when he took his rifle out while telling hunting stories.

It was likewise a rough week for law enforcement, with four officers accidentally shooting themselves, one contract security guard accidentally putting a round in the floor in the El Paso, TX municipal court building, and one McLennan County, TX prosecutor accidentally shooting out a colleague's office window. McLennan County prosecutors are armed, it should be noted, in response to the murders of two prosecutors in nearby Kaufman County earlier this year. It might well make sense as a matter of policy for criminal prosecutors, but I thought it made an interesting footnote to the related question of whether it makes sense to arm teachers. Here, after all, were two respected professionals in their place of employment, and still we not only saw an accidental discharge, but afterwards, the insistence that, "I was being extremely safe," from the very person who caused the accident. ...

In other recurring theme categories, two people who shot themselves were caught lying to police, at first claiming some mysterious stranger had shot them, one person accidentally shot himself with his concealed weapon while reaching for his wallet at the grocery store, four people were injured in three separate accidents at practice ranges, two helpful patriots shared freedom projectiles with unsuspecting neighbors (including one very giving person who fired through a total of four neighboring units), one 11-year-old boy accidentally shot his sister, and one resident of Rock Hill, SC accidentally shot himself, bringing the grand total of Rock Hill GunFAILS this year to nine. ...

Other twists this week: the man who shot his friend not because he didn't think his gun was loaded, but because he thought he had loaded it with blanks (but hadn't); the Denver road rager who accidentally shot himself (for a change); and the toddler who accidentally shot his father (grabbing an unsecured, loaded shotgun as he climbed into dad's truck).

The child victims of GunFAIL this week were ages 4, 4, 5, 14 and 16.

So, just an ordinary week in America, right? But I thought I'd post it because of this story. One of Nebraska's dumbest state legislators is trying, again, to get guns in our public schools.

Oddly enough, right-wingers tend to hate teachers. Well, they're not too fond of education, in general. But they commonly think that teachers can't be trusted with anything,... except guns. Obviously, these complete incompetents, intent on brainwashing their little charges to accept socialism, UN black helicopters, and the coming gay dictatorship, should still be well-armed, though.

It seems weird to me, but right-wing Republicans apparently love guns more than they hate teachers.

Of course, no teacher, no matter how incompetent, is going to have a gun accident, right? They're not going to drop the gun or accidentally pull the trigger or leave it lying where a kid can get to it, not like what happens to trained police officers. And when an emergency occurs - a loud BANG, say - these teachers will handle it like a trained SWAT team, including not shooting all the other teachers who've also pulled their weapons.

But then, if there is a problem with this, we can just arm the students, too, huh?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why religious claims are unbelievable

This is a brief excerpt from the May, 2007 Truthdig debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges. The full debate is here.

I really like Sam Harris here, but the funny thing about the entire debate, to my mind, is that Chris Hedges, who's defending religion, seems to be about as far from religion as it's possible to get and still claim to be religious (which he does, but only reluctantly).

I have to wonder what Christians think about this debate, when Hedges is supposed to be the guy on their side. Hedges seems to be the kind of believer who's backed up about as far as he can get without becoming an atheist, himself. He's given up everything but the will to believe, apparently. But he really doesn't want to take that final step.

When it comes to politics, I probably agree with Hedges more than with Harris. (And, to be sure, the topic of this debate was "Religion, Politics, and the End of the World.") But when it comes to religion, the question is whether or not its claims are true. Like most people, Hedges rejects everything he doesn't want to believe, but why can't he see that that's the fundamental problem with faith?

You can have ethics without religion. I do. You can have morality without religion. I do. You don't have to believe in magic to be a good person. So why believe in magic if there's no good evidence for it? This always astonishes me about liberal believers like Hedges.

But what really struck me here, as I said before, is that he's not even slightly representative of religious believers in America. I don't mean just the fundamentalists, but even the mainstream Christians. What do they think about Chris Hedges debating their side here, when he freely gives up just about everything they actually believe?

"In some vague way, I still consider myself religious"? "The childish notion of an anthropomorphic god"? Heh, heh. This is the guy who's defending religion - or, at least, faith-based thinking, because Hedges doesn't even want to call it "religion." It's just "faith." Could you get any further from actual religious belief as widely practiced in America and elsewhere in the world?

Well, as I said, I thought it was interesting. Some people - liberals, usually - just cannot give up the last tattered remnants of what they were taught to believe from infancy. They can go such a long way, but that final step is just too much for them.

But I'll leave you with another brief clip of Harris:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Bible, Pt. 14: Genesis, Chapter 46 - 50

This will finish up with Genesis, in my Bible reading series, following directly from Pt. 13. Note that all quotes come from the King James version of the Bible.

Chapter 46:
1 And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.

2 And God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I.

3 And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:

4 I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again: and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.

Note that God is lying to Jacob (Israel) here, because he ends up dying in Egypt. ("I will also surely bring thee up again..." Nope, not unless dead counts.) But we'll get to that later.

In previous chapters, we saw that there was famine in the land, but that God had arranged - in a Rube Goldberg kind of plan - for Joseph to be in charge of famine relief in Egypt (indeed, to be second only to the Pharaoh).

In Chapter 45, both Joseph and the Pharaoh himself had invited the clan to Egypt and sent wagons to pick them up. In fact, Jacob (Israel) had already decided to go at the end of Chapter 45 - even before asking God about it, apparently.
5 And Jacob rose up from Beersheba: and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.

6 And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had gotten in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him:

7 His sons, and his sons' sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.

This says "his daughters," but he has but one daughter, Dinah, who's only been mentioned at all because she was raped in Chapter 34. Similarly, Jacob's sons and grandsons are all listed here by name, but no living women, except for Dinah and his granddaughter Serah, daughter of Asher (and, presumably, Asher's unnamed wife).

Since women aren't considered important enough to even mention, for the most part, we don't know if Tamar was with them. Too bad, huh? But altogether, there were 66 in the immediate family (i.e. not including slaves and other servants), 70 including Joseph's family who are already in Egypt.
31 And Joseph said unto his brethren, and unto his father's house, I will go up, and shew Pharaoh, and say unto him, My brethren, and my father's house, which were in the land of Canaan, are come unto me;

32 And the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have.

33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation?

34 That ye shall say, Thy servants' trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

When they get to Egypt, Joseph is going to take them to meet the Pharaoh. But he cautions them to be sure to tell the Pharaoh that they're shepherds (are they lying about this? aren't they really shepherds?), because "every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians."

That doesn't seem to make any sense, so I suspect that "abomination" isn't meant as we'd define the word. Egyptians probably don't think of shepherds as we'd think of pedophiles or slavers (neither one of which would probably have been an abomination back then, huh?). I suspect this just means that Egyptians didn't commonly become shepherds themselves.

After all, Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world because the Nile flooded every year, enriching the farmland on either side of the river. But away from the river, it was just desert. So there probably wasn't much grazing land in the country. (That's just a guess, admittedly.)

The Hebrews were being settled in Goshen, in the eastern Delta, which was a very rich land. (In the next chapter, the Pharaoh calls it "the best of the land.") According to a later Egyptologist, it contained both crop land and grazing land.

Chapter 47:
5 And Pharaoh spake unto Joseph, saying, Thy father and thy brethren are come unto thee:

6 The land of Egypt is before thee; in the best of the land make thy father and brethren to dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell: and if thou knowest any men of activity among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.

Again, shepherds hardly seem to be an "abomination" as we'd understand the term. Indeed, the Pharaoh is glad to hear that they're shepherds. Apparently, he needs capable shepherds, because he makes them "rulers over my cattle."
12 And Joseph nourished his father, and his brethren, and all his father's household, with bread, according to their families.

13 And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore, so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Canaan fainted by reason of the famine.

And so, thanks to God's extravagantly elaborate plan, Joseph keeps his whole clan fed, even during this terrible time of famine. But what about the rest of Egypt (let alone the rest of Canaan)?
14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought: and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's house.

15 And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth.

16 And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail.

17 And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year.

18 When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands:

19 Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.

20 And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh's.

Of course, God doesn't give a crap about the Egyptians. They're not his people. And they're not Joseph's people, either. And Joseph has a monopoly on grain, since the Pharaoh had taken one-fifth of everything during those seven years of booming harvests.

So what does he do? He sells the grain back to the Egyptians (and to anyone else with money) until the money runs out. Then he demands their livestock - their horses, their sheep, their cattle, their donkeys,... everything - which keeps them from starving for one more year. (Remember, this is a seven-year famine.)

After that, these poor Egyptians have nothing left to sell but their land and themselves. The Pharaoh - and Joseph, inevitably - make out like bandits. Everyone else is basically enslaved...
22 Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands.

...Well, everyone but the priests, at least. Typical, huh? Remember, the Egyptian priests had been useless in interpreting the Pharaoh's dreams. And the Pharaoh recognized that no one contained the "Spirit of God" like Joseph. Yet, as I noted before, there's absolutely no hint of proselytizing here.

Joseph doesn't even attempt to get the Pharaoh to worship his own god, and the Pharaoh doesn't seem to consider it, himself. Why not? According to modern Christian (and Jewish) thinking, this is the only god. According to Christians, certainly, this is the 'God' who cares about everyone - and who wants everyone to know about him, too.

But not here, not in Genesis. Here, this is simply the god of the Hebrews. There are many other gods, and they've got their own worshipers. There doesn't seem to be any desire to poach other believers or to spread the word about a particular god among other folk - not even among these people who are supposed to be (according to modern thinking, at least) monotheists.

Sorry to repeat that, but I just think it's really weird that Christians seem to ignore all this.
23 Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.

24 And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.

25 And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh's servants.

26 And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh's.

How should we interpret this? At first, I thought that this was just the invention of taxes. The Egyptians get fed during this famine, but they can go back to their land, they're given seed grain, and they merely owe the Pharaoh 20% of what they grow. This doesn't seem to be any different from before the famine, when the Pharaoh took 20% then, too.

Of course, the priests are tax-free. That seems to be an inevitable fact of life, as inevitable as taxes themselves, huh? But otherwise, this is just the Egyptians funding their own government.

Or is it? This could also be interpreted as serfdom. Joseph says, "I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh." The Pharaoh owns them, and he owns their land, too. As we saw previously, these starving people sold their land and themselves for food. So now the Pharaoh owns them.

And sure, he tells them to return to the land and grow grain, as they always have. What else is he going to have them do? But aren't they just serfs now? Aren't they just slaves? Right-wing rhetoric today may equate taxes with slavery, but there's a huge difference, even in undemocratic societies.

But I don't know, not for sure. You'll have to interpret this for yourself.
27 And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they had possessions therein, and grew, and multiplied exceedingly.

28 And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years: so the whole age of Jacob was an hundred forty and seven years.

"Israel" - meaning a people, instead of just Jacob, apparently - "grew and multiplied exceeding" in the rich land of Goshen. That's going to cause problems, I suspect. :)

Jacob is 147 years old, and he makes Joseph swear to bury him with his fathers (where Abraham and Sarah were first buried, and later Isaac and Rebekah), not in Egypt.

Chapter 48:
8 And Israel beheld Joseph's sons, and said, Who are these?

9 And Joseph said unto his father, They are my sons, whom God hath given me in this place. And he said, Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.


13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel's left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel's right hand, and brought them near unto him.

14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim's head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh's head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn.

Honestly, do these people deliberately try to make their sons hate each other? Well, in this case, it's grandsons, but it's still the same thing.

Jacob (Israel) is dying, and Joseph brings his sons to be blessed. Manasseh is the elder, and that's very important to these people. (Apparently, they can't both get a similar blessing to be well and prosperous and happy, which is what I'd do.) But Jacob deliberately switches them.

Joseph objects:
17 And when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him: and he held up his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head unto Manasseh's head.

18 And Joseph said unto his father, Not so, my father: for this is the firstborn; put thy right hand upon his head.

19 And his father refused, and said, I know it, my son, I know it: he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.

Now really, was there any point to that? Was Jacob just showing off his powers of prophecy, or what? Why not bless both sons equally, and if one later became greater than the other,... fine?

How could this do anything but cause unnecessary friction between the brothers, just like what happened between Jacob and his own brother? Did he learn nothing from that? Why can't you love your children, or your grandchildren, equally - or, if not that, at least pretend to do so?

But then, it probably wouldn't make a very entertaining story without all that inter-family conflict, huh? It would be like the Jerry Springer Show without trailer trash. Or a soap opera without backstabbing. What would even be the point?

At any rate, for good measure, Jacob also gives Joseph "one portion above thy brethren," just to encourage continuing jealousy there, too. (Given that Joseph is second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt and no doubt vastly wealthy already, there hardly seems any more reason to it than that.)

Chapter 49:
1 And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.

2 Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.

3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:

4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.

6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.

7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

8 Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee.

9 Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

11 Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes:

12 His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.

13 Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.

14 Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens:

15 And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.

16 Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.

17 Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.

18 I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.

19 Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.

20 Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.

21 Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.

22 Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:

23 The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him:

24 But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel:)

25 Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb:

26 The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.

27 Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.

28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.

I'm copying almost all of this chapter here, because these are "the twelve tribes of Israel." This is where that comes from. I thought this was interesting, though I'm not even going to attempt to explain the various prophecies here. But there were two things I thought were interesting.

The first is that Jacob isn't praising all of his sons. Indeed, for a dying old man, he's being rather harsh. He says that Reuben is "unstable as water," and that he won't excel. (That part about defiling his father's bed? That's when he had sex with Jacob's concubine - his brothers' mother - Bilhah.) He calls Simeon and Levi cruel. Even if these things are true, he's not exact making for pleasant family get-togethers. Can you imagine Thanksgiving dinner with this bunch?

The second is that, as I've come to expect, there's absolutely no mention of Dinah, his daughter. All of Jacob's sons are going to become the twelve tribes of Israel. But what does his lone daughter get? Nothing. She's not even mentioned (though she did come to Egypt with them).

Poor Dinah. She was raped in Chapter 34, so now she's spoiled goods. Since she's not a virgin anymore, she's not even valuable property. Her rapist - if that's indeed what happened - loved her and wanted to marry her. He offered to give her family anything they wanted, and part of that turned out to be the circumcision of every man in his village. But Dinah's brothers went back on the agreement and killed them all (and then enslaved their women and children).

I'm not saying that marrying her rapist would have been a good thing for Dinah - certainly not if she had nothing to say about it (which she didn't). But she has nothing now, either. Heck, her father doesn't even remember her on his deathbed!

I sympathize with Dinah, and her story interests me. But she was just a woman, so her story didn't interest the people who told these ancient stories. So she's just ignored. We don't know what happened to her (just like we don't know what happened to Tamar).

According to Wikipedia, Anita Diamant wrote a novel called The Red Tent (1997) that's a fictionalized autobiography of Dinah. So I guess I'm not the only one who wonders about Jacob's only daughter. But she wasn't considered important - women weren't considered important - in the patriarchal culture depicted in the Bible. They're rarely even mentioned by name.

Sure, these are just stories. Most likely, the whole thing is made up. But I've been reading fiction for most of my life, and I come to care about the characters. I care about Dinah in this same way. Furthermore, I care about all the nameless women - the real women - who suffered in those primitive cultures. I have to wonder how any woman can be a Christian, given how they're treated in the Bible (but, for some reason, a higher percentage of women are Christians than men).
29 And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,

30 In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a buryingplace.

31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.

Leah is buried there, but not Jacob's beloved Rachel, who died in childbirth and was buried on their way to Ephrath. And his two concubines? The two slave girls, Bilhah and Zilpah, who bore him four sons between them? Their death and their burial aren't even considered important enough to mention.

Anyway, here's when Jacob dies, at the ripe old age of 147.

Chapter 50:
7 And Joseph went up to bury his father: and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,

8 And all the house of Joseph, and his brethren, and his father's house: only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, they left in the land of Goshen.

9 And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen: and it was a very great company.

Joseph is a big man in Egypt, and the death of his father is recognized throughout the land. Joseph has Jacob embalmed (which must have been an unusual thing in those days, outside of Egypt) and all of Egypt mourns for 70 days.

The Pharaoh not only gives him permission to leave, in order to bury his father in Canaan, but "all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt" go with them, along with a host of chariots and horsemen. A very great company, indeed!
14 And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father.

15 And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him.

16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying,

17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him.

With Jacob dead, Joseph's brothers start to worry about that whole attempting-to-kill-him thing. But no, Jacob "comforted them, and spake kindly unto them." It was, after all, God's will. That was all part of God's elaborate plan to save them (and no one else) from the famine.
22 And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father's house: and Joseph lived an hundred and ten years.

23 And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph's knees.

24 And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

25 And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.

26 So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

The End.

Well, that's the end of Genesis, at least. But this has been a lot of fun so far, so I'm looking forward to continuing with Exodus next. I'd read Genesis before - I'd read parts of it, at least, several times - but the rest of the Old Testament will be completely new to me.

Well, it will be as "completely new" as it's possible to be, living all of my life in an overwhelmingly Christian country, where these stories tend to be widespread in our culture. But since I'm blogging about this, I'm reading much more carefully than I normally would. And that makes a big difference.

I should note that I've been surprised at how unimportant some of these things have turned out to be. "Jacob's ladder," for example, is a common Christian theme, but it's just based on a dream in Genesis that seems to be completely inconsequential. His wrestling with an angel (which is how Christians usually interpret that passage), too.

Yet Tamar and Dinah,... well, I don't think I've ever heard anything about them, prior to reading Genesis. But I find their stories far more compelling, myself. What do you think?

Note: This whole series can be found here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Elizabeth Warren on the Rachel Maddow Show

Two of my favorite people in the same video - how could it get any better than this? :) Seriously, this is why so many of us would like to see Elizabeth Warren in the White House.

After all, they're right. Social Security just needs a very simple fix to be perfectly solvent for the foreseeable future. And really, why should wealthy people - high earners - pay a lower percentage of payroll tax than you do?

That makes no sense at all. But we're so used to giving tax breaks to the wealthy - the very low rates on dividends and capital gains, for example - that we don't seem to think anything of it. Of course the middle class should pay more than the rich, right?

Where's the outrage over the 13% in taxes Mitt Romney paid (in that one year he paid enough that he was even willing to show his tax rate to the American people)? Where's the outrage over hedge fund managers taking advantage of a special loophole made just for them?

No, the outrage, in America, is about poor people - many of them working full time, some even as soldiers in our armed forces - getting food stamps! The outrage is that ordinary people in America, who've worked their entire life, actually expect to get the Social Security benefits they were promised when they paid into the plan.

Insane, isn't it? And you know, wealthy people tend to live longer, on average, than the rest of us, too. So they take advantage of Social Security and Medicare longer than middle class people, while paying a lower tax rate to support it. Why is there no outrage about this?

Most Democratic politicians are terrified to even mention such things. Well, they rely on the wealthy for campaign donations, too. But Elizabeth Warren is making sure these issues are heard. I like that!

Incidentally, this video is from just before Warren's appearance:

Bill Maher: cheap of faith

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

God's checklist

This is Scott Clifton, soap opera star,... again. Yes, I know I've posted two videos by him already (here and here), but he really does a great job, don't you think?

Besides, as that YouTube advertisement keeps saying, they give my brain a workout. :)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Katrina, the healthcare glitch

Funny, isn't it? This describes my reaction pretty well:
I’ve been noting the similarities between these two events. Just outside my window, the bodies of people who haven’t been able to access a website are stacking up in the streets. The lucky who have survived are huddled together in their own filth in hot, overcrowded stinking shelters, waiting to log in.

And well I remember how Democrats worked for years to gut FEMA. Every Democratic governor pushed all disaster preparedness up to the federal government to make FEMA’s job as hard as it could possibly be, and the forty separate votes by the Democratic Congress to defund FEMA are still etched in my mind.

Mario Piperni adds:
And while you’re congratulating yourselves for revealing the uncanny similarities between the two events, please feel free to ignore the little fact that while Democrats were intent on cooperating with Republicans in finding answers to the problems plaguing aid to Katrina survivors…Republicans are now doing all in their power to obstruct implementation and legislative fixes to the Affordable Care Act.

Let’s just leave that part out, assholes.

The next segment of the Daily Show continues the fun:

And suddenly, Republicans are positively giddy about their election prospects next year. They're all looking like geniuses now, right?

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

The Bible, Pt. 13: Genesis, Chapter 39 - 45

This is my reading of the Bible, continuing directly from Pt. 12 (with the entire series available here). All quotes are from the King James version, 1769 revision.

Chapter 39:
1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.

2 And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.

3 And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand.

4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.

5 And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.

The last chapters in Genesis contain the story of Joseph's experiences - indeed, the rest of his life - in Egypt. It's a long, drawn-out story, so I'll see if I can condense it some.

Joseph is sold to the captain of the Pharaoh's guards, but "the LORD was with him," so he was soon made overseer of the household. We could interpret that as meaning that Joseph was just especially capable, but that's not how it's presented here. Instead, God has blessed this Egyptian household simply because Joseph is one of their slaves.

Doesn't that sound weird to anyone else? It sure does to me. But it turns out later that there's a very convoluted plan in all this.
6 And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.

7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.

8 But he refused,...


12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.

13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,

14 That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice:

His master's wife notices that Joseph is a "well favoured" young man. But when he refuses her advances, she accuses him of attempted rape. (You really have to wonder what garment he left behind in her room, don't you? What could you lose that easily, but still be evidence of sexual attack?)

Again, this woman is doing the Lord's work here, because, as we find out later, this is still all God's plan.
20 And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.

21 But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison.

22 And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.

Luckily, the only thing that happens to Joseph is that he goes from being the guard captain's slave and overseer to being the head trusty of the Pharaoh's prison.

Chapter 40:
1 And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt.

2 And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.

3 And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.


5 And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison.

Remember how Joseph interpreted his own dreams (one of the things which got him into trouble with his brothers)? Well, now he interprets the prophetic dreams of the Pharaoh's butler and baker.

I won't go into the details of each dream, but Joseph predicts that the butler will be released in three days, while the baker will be killed - hanged on a tree for the birds to peck. Both events come true. But when the butler is restored to his position, he forgets all about Joseph.

Chapter 41:
1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.

2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.

3 And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river.

4 And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.


8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.

9 Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day:

But this time, it's the Pharaoh himself who dreams, and there's no one who can interpret them until the butler remembers his stint in the prison. Joseph, of course, has no trouble predicting the future, based on those dreams:
29 Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt:

30 And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land;

31 And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.

The Pharaoh believes him (it is, after all, a time of widespread superstition), so he takes some wise precautions. He orders that part of the harvest from the good years be set aside, and stored, so there will be food during the lean years.

He also puts Joseph in charge of everything.
38 And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?

39 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:

40 Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou.


43 And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Not a bad promotion for a prisoner, let alone a slave, huh? Furthermore, the Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife, "Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On," and she bears him two children: Manasseh and Ephraim. (Finally, no insistence on marrying a cousin - or even within his own religion!)

Note that the Pharaoh sees "the Spirit of God" in Joseph, but he doesn't start worshiping that god himself. And Joseph doesn't expect him to, let alone try to convert him. This god, you see, is just the god of the Hebrews. He's not the only god, he's just the one who cares about them (and only about them).

Of course, this is the Bible I'm reading, so this is supposed to be the Christian 'God,' too. But the whole idea that anyone else should worship this god, except one small clan of his favorites, is completely absent here. Funny, isn't it?

Did God just change his mind after this? When he stopped appearing in person in the world, when he stopped performing miracles, did he also decide that he wanted everyone else to start worshiping him, too, instead of just a handful of his favorites? Did he suddenly start caring about everyone else in the world? There's been no indication of that so far in Genesis, has there?

Joseph is thirty when he's raised up to rule directly under the Pharaoh. He'd been sold into slavery at 17, so it's been a few years. But he's still done remarkably well for himself. And sure enough, everything turns out just as he predicted.
55 And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.

56 And the famine was over all the face of the earth: And Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt.

57 And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands.

On behalf of the Pharaoh, Joseph takes a fifth of all the grain grown in Egypt during the next seven years of good harvest, and then he sells it back to the Egyptian people during the years of famine. Not just to the Egyptians, either.

Nice racket, huh? For the Pharaoh and for him.

Chapter 42:
1 Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?

2 And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.

The famine is everywhere, so in Canaan, Jacob (Israel) sends ten of his remaining sons to Egypt to buy grain. He holds back only Benjamin, Joseph's full brother (Rachel's second child, delivered just before she died), because that's apparently his new favorite now that Joseph is gone.
7 And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.

8 And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.

They don't recognize Joseph, since he's living as a high Egyptian official, and no doubt dressing like one, too. He speaks to them through an interpreter, pretending not to know their language.

So he decides to screw with them. Of course, from his point of view, they attempted to kill him. On the other hand, they are trying to buy food to keep the whole clan from starving to death. Maybe that explains his contradictory actions.

First, he accuses them of being spies and tells them he's going to throw them in prison. One will be released to go home and return with Benjamin, who supposedly will confirm their story about not being spies. (I'm not sure why he's supposed to believe Benjamin, when he won't believe the other ten brothers. That doesn't make any sense, does it?)

Then he hears them talk among themselves:
21 And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.

22 And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required.

23 And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter.

Funny, isn't it? Reuben didn't actually say anything like "do not sin against the child." He just suggested they not shed blood, but to throw Joseph into that pit, instead. Note that they removed Joseph's coat before they did it, so they were obviously expecting their brother to die there.

But Joseph gets weepy and relents, deciding to keep only Simeon a prisoner, while sending the rest back loaded with wheat. He also orders that their money be put into the grain sacks, too.
27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the inn, he espied his money; for, behold, it was in his sack's mouth.

28 And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?

Yeah, they don't know what the hell is going on! So they return to Jacob (who's still being called Jacob, despite God previously changing his name to "Israel" - twice!) and tell him everything that happened.
36 And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me.

37 And Reuben spake unto his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to thee again.

Jacob resists. Joseph is already dead (or so he thinks), and Simeon is in an Egyptian prison. He doesn't want to lose his youngest child, Benjamin, too.

But Reuben promises that he'll bring Benjamin back, and that if he doesn't, Jacob can kill his two sons. What a deal, huh?

Chapter 43:
2 And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said unto them, Go again, buy us a little food.

3 And Judah spake unto him, saying, The man did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you.

4 If thou wilt send our brother with us, we will go down and buy thee food:

Clearly, they hadn't gone back to Egypt with Benjamin. Jacob didn't want to let him go, so they just left Simeon rotting in jail. However, the famine was still with them, and eventually - after they'd eaten all of the grain they'd brought back - they needed more food.
11 And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds:

12 And take double money in your hand; and the money that was brought again in the mouth of your sacks, carry it again in your hand; peradventure it was an oversight:

13 Take also your brother, and arise, go again unto the man:

They argue about it awhile, rehashing everything that happened previously (there's a lot of that in these chapters), before Jacob relents. This time, they'll take a little gift back with them, plus double the amount of money (they still don't know what to think about the money that was put inside their grain sacks), and... Benjamin.
24 And the man brought the men into Joseph's house, and gave them water, and they washed their feet; and he gave their asses provender.

25 And they made ready the present against Joseph came at noon: for they heard that they should eat bread there.


32 And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves: because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

This time, Joseph has them brought to his (no doubt imposing) house, and they have a party. Joseph is still incognito, so he ate by himself. (The Hebrews and the Egyptians each ate separately, because it was an "abomination" to the Egyptians to break bread with Hebrews. And Joseph is still a Hebrew, though that's not evident to his brothers.)

Apparently, though, they can still drink together, because the last line reads, "And they drank, and were merry with him."

Chapter 44:
1 And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man's money in his sack's mouth.

2 And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack's mouth of the youngest, and his corn money. And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.

Remember, Joseph's brothers still don't know who he is. This time, he releases all of them, filling their sacks with grain to take home. Again, he puts their money in the sacks, too - but he also has a silver cup put into Benjamin's sack.

And when they've left, Joseph sends his steward to accuse them of theft!
11 Then they speedily took down every man his sack to the ground, and opened every man his sack.

12 And he searched, and began at the eldest, and left at the youngest: and the cup was found in Benjamin's sack.

13 Then they rent their clothes, and laded every man his ass, and returned to the city.

As I noted, Joseph keeps screwing with them. Then he'll go off by himself for a good cry, before coming back and continuing the pretense.
18 Then Judah came near unto him, and said, Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant: for thou art even as Pharaoh.


30 Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's life;

31 It shall come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave.

Judah is Jacob's fourth son (his mother was Leah). Note that he was the guy in Chapter 38 who slept with his daughter-in-law, thinking she was a prostitute. He's also the brother who suggested selling Joseph as a slave (after they'd thrown him in the pit), because... why not make a profit on the whole thing?

But here, he seems quite decent. He asks for a private word with Joseph, then explains about their elderly father, how leaving Benjamin behind will kill the old man. He even offers to take Benjamin's place.

Chapter 45:
1 Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren.

Finally, Joseph can't stand it anymore, and he tells his brothers who he really is. However, they needn't be ashamed of their previous actions. What they'd done was all part of God's plan:
5 Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

6 For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest.

7 And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

You see, God knew that a famine was coming, so this was his plan to save the Hebrews. (Naturally, he didn't give a crap about the Egyptians.) Joseph had to go to Egypt so God could set him up in a position to preserve the family. Simple, huh? Slave to prisoner to ruler of all Egypt, under the Pharaoh.

Now me, I have to wonder why an omniscient, omnipotent god wouldn't just make it rain in Canaan. Or lessen the famine in some other way. Wouldn't that make a whole lot more sense? Also, note that, contrary to what Joseph says here, they hadn't actually sold him to those Ishmeelites, and Joseph has no way of knowing that they'd even planned to do that.

His brothers threw him into that pit to kill him (without actually shedding his blood themselves), and when they decided later to sell him as a slave instead, Joseph was no longer there. Some passing Midianites had already seen him down there and decided to make a profit on him, themselves. So what Joseph is saying is flat-out wrong.
8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

9 Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph, God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, tarry not:

10 And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children, and thy children's children, and thy flocks, and thy herds, and all that thou hast:

11 And there will I nourish thee; for yet there are five years of famine; lest thou, and thy household, and all that thou hast, come to poverty.

But no, God had Joseph sold into slavery so he could become "a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt," just so he'd be able to keep his family alive during the famine. So Joseph tells them to go back to Jacob, gather up everyone and everything they own, and return to Egypt, where he'll keep them fed.

The Pharaoh is fine with it, too:
17 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Say unto thy brethren, This do ye; lade your beasts, and go, get you unto the land of Canaan;

18 And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.

19 Now thou art commanded, this do ye; take you wagons out of the land of Egypt for your little ones, and for your wives, and bring your father, and come.

20 Also regard not your stuff; for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.

This is quite a story, isn't it? I can't say it's well-written, because the details are repeated over and over again. (I'm sorry about the length of this post, but I've condensed things as much as I could.) Yet, as a story told orally - which is undoubtedly how it started - that repetition might have been useful.

But note that God isn't even necessary to the whole thing. Sure, Joseph credits God for all of it, even his being sold into slavery, though that's hardly credible. But as a story, God is hardly necessary at all. I find that interesting.

At any rate, Joseph's brothers return and tell their father:
25 And they went up out of Egypt, and came into the land of Canaan unto Jacob their father,

26 And told him, saying, Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt. And Jacob's heart fainted, for he believed them not.

27 And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said unto them: and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived:

28 And Israel said, It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive: I will go and see him before I die.

We'll finish up Genesis next time.

Note: This whole series can be found here.