Playing Dr. Larch

The Thinker by Rodin

“Here in St. Cloud’s,” Dr. Larch wrote, “ I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God – we should seize those moments. There won’t be many.”

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

When I was young and a good Catholic, I assumed that abortion was wrong and evil. I remember thinking, “What if we abort the next Einstein?” I never pondered its opposite: “What if we had the chance to abort the next Hitler and didn’t?” Once pro-life, as I pulled away from the Church, I became pro-choice. As a man though it’s a largely theoretical position. I can father a child and did, but I can’t choose for the mother whether to carry the child to term or not. (Technically, I can’t father another child, at least not without getting my vasectomy reversed.)

Still, sometimes we get opportunities to be Dr. Larch. He’s a fictional doctor from John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules (made into a movie starring Michael Caine). Such an opportunity came in my inbox recently.

A site that helps women get abortions in a country where it is illegal needed my help. Their web host tossed them out when someone complained. They managed to find new hosting, but had to find a way to disguise their most pertinent information: where to get abortions and who can reliably provide them in that country. This comes mostly from women trading experiences and they do so in an online forum. They needed their forum not just upgraded, but tuned to keep it harder for prying eyes to discover their paid dirt: their listings of these providers and the experiences of women who used them. Once a woman was vetted as real and sincere, they would let them access the more sensitive part of their site.

So here was my opportunity to play Dr. Larch. I wouldn’t be providing abortions but I did have a choice to make. Like Dr. Larch, I could help women do what needed to be done if they made the choice to have an abortion, or I could turn away the business.

I chose to help women. I don’t expect to make a whole lot of money from the job. The woman who runs the website will at least get my noncommercial rate. It’s only the scale of the work that made me charge her at all: it’s quite complex what she needs done. It’s a half-week of labor at least, and for about a week I’ve been trying to nail down the requirements. They are so complex I wanted to chat with her on Skype. That was not an option. She was too afraid to use it.

Yes, abortion is still illegal in her country, though it can be obtained, particularly if you are a woman of some means. The same was true here in the United States when it was illegal. The Washington Post recently republished an article from 1966 discussing how Washington area women did it back then. States that outlaw abortion won’t stop women from getting them, but will make it financially infeasible for a lot of poor women, which is the basic point. They may also be able to imprison those women they catch. It will also kill or maim many other women as they resort to self-induced abortions using coat hangers. Meanwhile, in Alabama, which arguably has the strictest anti-abortion law, it also allows rapists to have custody rights.

If I didn’t do the work, this woman might find someone else to do it, although it’s pretty complicated and I have a specialized niche. At best it would have delayed her a few extra weeks.

Some would suggest I am abetting a crime somewhere. My work is quite legal in the United States, where I work. Others might suggest I will be going to hell. If so, at least I will have plenty of company. On the other hand, I may also be saving the lives of a lot of women who might try the old coat-hanger trick, or end up with a quack for a doctor, or behind bars from a sting operation. If I help just one woman save her own life, it’s a worthy and noble mission.

This woman has a lot of courage to persist. Like Dr. Larch, the least I can do is to seize those moments when I can play God. And I choose to do what I can to empower women to have custody of their own bodies.

Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.

The gig economy model is exploitative and unsustainable

The Thinker by Rodin

I took my first Lyft ride the other day. I am pleased to say that the technology worked great! I picked up my luggage at baggage claim at Bradley International near Hartford, opened my Lyft app and within two minutes a driver was flagging me down and I was on my way home. I arrived home forty-five minutes later and just $55 poorer, but compared with taking a taxi I doubtlessly saved a bundle. In addition, my driver turned out to work part time for United Technologies configuring cloud services on Microsoft Azure for their customers. So we had lots to chat about and the drive went quickly. He fills his free hours driving people mostly to and from the airport and seemed happy to be a Lyft driver.

Until recently my daughter depended on Lyft and Uber to get around. She gave up her car a few years ago, convinced she didn’t need one in Washington’s far suburbs. If she needed to go somewhere, she’d either walk or use one of these services. Nonetheless, she snapped up the free car I offered her: my old 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid (now replaced by a Toyota Prius Prime). That was my reason for flying: I drove the car to Virginia to give it to her and took a United Airlines flight back. While normally my wife would pick me up at the airport, she recently had a knee replacement and couldn’t do it. So I experimented with Lyft, which I heard was the less evil of the two services. More to the point, it didn’t look like taking a taxi at Bradley was an option anymore. I didn’t see any I could flag down in Arrivals.

So it was a great experience until I thought about the model of Lyft and Uber in general. A lot of their drivers have too and have figured out that they are being exploited. Lyft and Uber are hardly alone using this model. In our new gig economy, the trick seems to be to create companies that find unique ways to exploit workers by making them not realize they are being exploited. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the first thing to do it not to label them employees. They are “independent contractors” who set their own hours and get paid fixed rates. One advantage to being a Lyft or Uber driver compared with being a Supershuttle driver is that they don’t have to rent a van from the company and probably aren’t working sixteen hours a day to keep paying Supershuttle’s franchise and leasing fees.

But they are getting ripped off. In the case of Lyft, they recently reduced payments to their “independent contractors”, which did not make them happy but did probably help lessen Lyft’s losses. Lyft went IPO last week but it’s bleeding money. Nonetheless, they aren’t too worried. Amazon used this strategy very profitably until their competition was either destroyed or bought out. Lyft is hoping for the same sort of success at this game. Its new shareholders don’t seem convinced yet as you can buy Lyft shares well below the $72/share price set at their launch.

These new companies exploit shamelessly and fight dirty. Customers tend to look the other way, basically because they don’t understand what’s going on. If you can save 30% or more with a Lyft ride compared to taking a taxi, you see a good deal plus in many cases they are faster and more convenient than a taxi. It’s clear to me though that these savings come principally from these “independent contractors”.

Taxi drivers are often independent contractors too. They usually aren’t employees. But they are regulated. Taxi commissions typically oversee these services and set rates that allow taxi drivers to earn a decent wage. In some cases they own their taxi, in some cases the taxi company owns them. But it’s a model that’s been working quite well because cities and towns have decided to make it work for both drivers and passengers.

Uber and Lyft decided to be disruptive, which was to just ignore these taxi commissions and brand their services as something other than what it is: a taxi service. The big difference is that their cars aren’t painted with the taxi company’s colors. You hop into one of these cars and hope that your driver won’t drive sexually assault you.

Doing background investigations on “independent contractors” of course raises costs. Hopefully both Lyft and Uber are at least doing cursory background investigations before offering contracts to these “independent contractors”. It’s more convenient to ignore these issues until it becomes too big a problem, and then hope to manage them.

But the real ones being exploited are not customers, but drivers. Basically they become drivers to get some quick cash to pay a few bills. What’s harder to see is the costs on their vehicles and how it eventually affects their bottom line. A car that was driven 10,000 miles a year that is now driven 30,000 miles a year will wear out more quickly and require more frequent maintenance. Neither Lyft nor Uber will pay for these expenses. You are supposed to figure that out as part of your business model, along with other things like withholding money for taxes and social security and Medicare, including the employer’s share. All these expenses plus the quick depreciation and higher maintenance costs on your car means that for most drivers, your effective wage per hour is below the minimum wage and you get all the hassles and costs of maintaining your car and paying taxes too.

These companies are prominent examples of this trend but they are hardly alone. Employers basically don’t want to employ: it’s costly, limits their ability to move quickly to market conditions and requires a lot of hassle. Amazon reluctantly raised wages for its warehouse workers to $15/hour, but it still hires lots of “independent contractors” who work for much less. Even my driver’s erstwhile day employer, United Technologies, is trying him out at part time wages and substandard benefits. He works from home and has to wait two more months before he is allowed to actually come into the office.

I don’t think this gig economy is sustainable. It endures until these “independent contractors” say enough and demand a fairer deal, which is hard to do if you have no union hall. Hopefully they will get a decent deal, but that will raises costs overall and make their whole business model less profitable.

But maybe it won’t matter. Like Amazon they hope that they will have gotten rid of the competition by then by hanging on as long as possible. This success though depends on cutting competition off at the kneecaps and exploiting people as long as possible. In the case of Lyft and Uber, so far it’s been decimating taxi companies. If ultimately it doesn’t work, they go out of business, leaving of course their “independent contractors” hanging.

In the case of Uber and Lyft, it’s clear this will happen eventually anyhow. The plan is to introduce fleets of automated cars as soon as the technology matures. And these “independent contractors” will be left holding the bag with cars with high mileage, lots of costs and no job.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is, continued

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November I wrote this post, which suggested (to me anyhow) that what we perceive as reality was anything but this. Since that post, I have been delving more into the subject, which is getting clearer and weirder every day. What’s weirdest about all this learning and research is that the exact sorts of people you would think would be most skeptical about this stuff, like prominent physicists like Brian Greene, are promoting stuff that really sounds outlandish.

Greene is one of a number of physicists who are coming to believe that our reality is basically a hologram. If true, then in some sense we do live in a virtual reality, because a hologram is merely the projected illusion of something that is real and three dimensional, but isn’t.

More specifically, what these physicists are suggesting is that there are many more than the four dimensions (time being a dimension too) that we perceive. This has been accepted wisdom among physicists for decades: that there are 10 or 11 dimensions with the ones we can’t experience being “curled up”. If you think about it though, three of our four dimensions describe space, because space has height, width and depth. Einstein discovered about a hundred years ago that time is relative. The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time elapses on places not trying to move toward the speed of light. So in some sense, Einstein is suggesting that time is virtual. In fact, Einstein called time an illusion.

The latest thinking among these physicists seems to be that not only is time an illusion, but that space is an illusion too. It turns out this is the simplest explanation for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, that if a cat could be shrunk to quantum size, then it’s possible for the same cat to be both alive and dead at the same instant. This is because of the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, where photons can be both particle and wave, depending on whether they are observed or not. If I understand what they are saying correctly, then this only makes sense if space is virtual too.

How to think about this? I imagine a transparent cube through which sunlight streams. It projects a three-dimensional real thing on a surface, but it is a two dimensional entity that we are looking at. If time and space are illusions, as a growing number of physicists are suggesting, then our lives are virtual and space is as virtual as time.

There also seems to be consensus that consciousness is external to all of this. So essentially we are all manipulating a model using consciousness that we call our lives. I imagine me (my consciousness) spending all its time looking at the projection of a cube on a two-dimensional surface. That is my reality, what I call my life, mainly because it’s something I can make some sense of life through interacting with it. I’m so focused on it that I cannot step outside of it. None of us living can, except perhaps some mediums among us. For those of us trapped inside this hologram, it’s as real as it can possibly be. But increasingly we understand that our reality is actually virtual. Perhaps it is better expressed that reality is much more than we can sense.

Many mystics believe in the notion of astral planes, i.e. other realities that the soul (consciousness?) can ascend or descend into outside of the one plane we call life. Many believe that we go into another astral plane after death. Most people believe they only have one life. Those who believe in God generally believe there is only one unique kind of afterlife, in which one size fits all. So most of us can conceive of only two astral planes: this life and the heaven or hell that awaits us in an afterlife. Conceptually there could be many more. Since there are 10 or 11 dimensions and we can only experience four (all of which may be virtual) there could be six or more other planes of existence that our souls/consciousness could inhabit or perhaps already inhabit.

It sounds so bizarre and unreal, particularly given that our reality seems to completely real to us. But this is basically what our best scientists now seem to be telling us. This is not to say they mean that a grand afterlife awaits us in some sort of heavenly cosmos. This is not to say that our traditional notion of God is real either. It does suggest though that real reality, whatever that is, is much grander, interesting and puzzling than we can perceive. If consciousness is apart from what we call reality and it persists after death (we can call it a soul), it does suggest our greater universe is some sort of collective consciousness slowly moving into increasing understanding and complexity as we discover and probe our universe through virtual realities, one of which we call our lives. We may be creating this reality simply by probing and testing its many layers and permutations.

I am reminded of the late author/philosopher Ayn Rand, whose theory of Objectivism I poo-pooed a few times over the years. I still think her theory is bullshit, since it was all about the individual and cared nothing for relationships. But one aspect of her theory was something to the effect that our lives are virtual; so we should feel free to manipulate it to get what we want out of it and don’t worry about the consequences. When we do this, we get the effects we are experiencing today, including the crisis of global climate change. It’s real enough in what we call reality and must be stopped.

Yet on some sort of grander, more cosmic level, she may be right. If these inferences are right, then we are all manipulating models of some sort of virtual world we cannot fully understand or escape, much like a baby puzzles through stacking blocks. Increasingly though, as real as it seems to us stuck in it, our reality is actually virtual. At the very least, it is an imperfect projection of a much grander and more complex reality whose true nature we are slowly uncovering.

The Tumblr brouhaha shows again that the Internet is not free

The Thinker by Rodin

So my daughter and spouse both have Tumblr accounts. In case you weren’t aware, Tumblr is a blogging/social media site. Both my wife and daughter are LGBTQ-friendly but I had not really tuned in that people like them haunted Tumblr because it is, or was, LGBTQ-friendly.

All that changed Monday when Tumblr announced that effective December 17 the site will permanently ban explicit adult content. This caused a great furor amongst the LGBTQ Tumblr community, who apparently make up much of the site. Tumblr is full of risqué content that does not appeal to its corporate overlords, Verizon, but does appeal very much to people who post and hang out there. Verizon owns Yahoo, who bought Tumblr. And Verizon is controlled by people who frankly largely don’t understand this universe and how important is for these marginalized people to have a safe space to be themselves.

In the future, having a safe space on Tumblr will include not allowing a lot of erotic content. It will keep many sex workers from having a place to rant. For those into Slash (erotic fan fiction) like my spouse and daughter, simply sharing these erotic stories that often go into dark areas like bondage and domination on Tumblr will get dicey. The service’s automated algorithms will decide if content is too racy or not and if it is, snip!

This decision seems motivated by a rare case of obvious child pornography posted on the site, which was quickly removed. But the main issue was that the LGBTQ community, sex workers and all these alt-blank people were too weird for the corporate masters that run the site. It didn’t look good in Verizon’s report to shareholders when they had to report they were facilitating the exchange of such socially unacceptable behavior. So Tumblr will effectively be neutered and these communities of people have to figure out — again — where to hang out online. The irony is that a lot of these people migrated from Reddit, which became overrun by the right wing. Reddit too has changed policies to clamp down on things, but not to the extent that Tumblr has with its draconian action.

So it sucks for members of these communities. They keep looking for the Promised Land on social media only to be ultimately disappointed. Twitter looks like their next place of refuge, but Twitter too is not beyond censoring or removing content. They recently removed millions of fake accounts. In any event, violate their terms of service and unless you are the President of the United States you too could be cast adrift. Ask Alex Jones, who is finding it hard to find any place in social media to broadcast his racist, hate-filled stuff.

All is not entirely lost. For the Slash community, there is still Dreamwidth, which caters to those who like to write erotic fiction oriented around existing TV shows and movies, often with heavily homosexual-ized story lines. It’s not the same thing though as Tumblr. While many of these writers are LGBTQ (or at least LGBTQ-friendly), the focus of the site is fan fiction.

Social media sites are of course costly to set up and maintain, which is why major companies like Verizon own the popular ones. All those server racks, software and site monitors don’t come cheap. Moreover, it seems impossible to create one of these public sites that won’t eventually censor some content. Some stuff like child pornography is clearly crossing a line, at least by 99.9% of us. Invariably though people like those on Tumblr will test the boundaries of how much freedom these social media companies will allow. And eventually they will discover they will transgress a boundary, largely because the needs of large corporations diverge from the social media people they attract.

So I don’t expect this problem to get any better. These Tumblr denizens will be forced to move elsewhere, but they will probably be evicted there at some point too. There will always need to be some policing of these sites. There will always be some limits on just how much freedom you are allowed on these sites. Where they are owned by large, profit-making corporations, the limits of these freedoms are bound to be more curtailed, and more prudish, than the people who will be using it.

Those who pay the bills ultimately win. It’s true for my blog too. If you post what I consider to be an offensive comment I will delete it. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t see it as a free speech issue because I pay the bills. This has occasionally bothered a commenter. Apparently they figure it’s my responsibility to host their disagreeable contents forever at my expense.

And I can’t post anything I want even on my own blog either. At the moment this blog is hosted at Siteground, and when you host with them you agree to their terms of service. This essentially prohibits me from posting pornography or doing things like inciting hate speech on my site. Essentially you have to be independently wealthy enough to create your own hosting center to have entirely free speech online. But even then you are subject to local laws. I might need to host my server in some place like the Cayman Islands to post content that would be considered illegal in the United States, but it’s likely even the liberal Cayman Islands has some standards I would have to adhere to.

What’s happening at Tumblr is unfortunate for this community who is already highly hassled and marginalized. But it’s hardly unexpected. The Internet is not free. It just offers to illusion of freedom. Unless your content is forever milquetoast, it’s always susceptible to being banned.

Pope Francis: let priests be people and this clergy abuse problem will largely disappear

The Thinker by Rodin

Catholic clerical abuse, mostly of minors, is hardly news. And yet this week such a story broke through to the front pages for a change, mainly because it gave us an understanding of the truly vast scope of the problem. Yesterday, a grand jury issued a report saying an estimated 300 Catholic priests in the Pennsylvania abused more than 1000 children, and likely a lot more than that, since the 1940s. Some of the reports are so graphic they will literally turn your stomach. I won’t repeat them here, but if your stomach can handle it go ahead and read them.

And yet it was hardly the only story of this type recently. Last month the archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore Mc­Carrick, was suspended from duties by Pope Francis. McCarrick is accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1970s. He was probably not the cardinal’s only victim. You will find lots more stories but few more egregious lately than these two. A cardinal is just one step from being pope!

The problem is not confined to the Catholic Church. A Unitarian Universalist minister that married me was involved in sexual relations with women who sought him out for counseling, also a terrible violation of trust. The Roman Catholic Church has a much larger problem than other denomiations, and it’s not just because of its enormous size. Adjusting for denomination size, the Catholic Church is still by far the largest denomination with this sort of problem.

For decades the Catholic Church has been trying to control this problem. Whatever they are doing doesn’t appear to be working very well. It’s my opinion though that the root of its problem is that priests (generally) are forbidden from marrying. It’s not solely a matter of not having sex. It’s also a problem due to a lack of intimacy.

People become rounded out through having deep and meaningful relationships. Marriage is an excellent way to engage in such a relationship, providing you marry the right partner. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see him or her not only with their clothes off but with their souls bared too. As I have noted, when you are in a committed relationship you may discover the real meaning of love: not just to care utterly for another person, but also to reveal your real self to yourself. Lacking such relationships you are unlikely to uncover the real you.

The Church is proposing more of the same solutions: putting procedures in place to minimize these situations, oversight by the laity and maybe even background investigations of potential priests. It really needs to acknowledge the fundamental issue: priests are people with basically the same issues as the rest of us and thus need to have the privileges of people. Because priests are people, they can aspire to be Christ-like, but taking the sacrament of Holy Orders won’t make them so. The devastation is all around the church, mostly in the minors whose trust was abused, but also within these priests. Without deeply authentic and healthy relationships in their lives they can’t help but crave them. Given that they are expected to be celibate, they are going to crave sex too. The two together though are a toxic combination that pulls priests toward dangerous relationships. They must bring the minor into a shared secret of their own broken and scarred souls, in the process making it very hard for these children to escape a lifetime of trauma.

Pope Francis is a pragmatic pope. He has taken some daring stances recently, like saying the death penalty is wrong in all situations. I wish he’d take the next daring stand: to let priests marry again, and if their inclination is toward homosexuality, let them marry their own sex. This allows them to be authentic to themselves and others, and this will carry over to the people they minister to. It’s not like priestly celibacy was always a requirement in the Catholic Church. Many popes had wives and extended families. For the last five hundred years or so the policy has changed. Somewhere along the line theological wires got crossed. Jesus never had sex, or so the Catholic Church believes, although its never mentioned in the Bible that he was a celibate. It’s quite possible that he and Mary Magdalene were married, or what passed for marriage in those days, and they had children too. No one really knows, including the Catholic Church, but they think they know and demand it of their priests. The vast size of clerical abuse in its ranks though demonstrates that their approach to the priesthood has been horrendously wrong.

No marriage is perfect and certainly mine is not. However, marriage can let you see things through the eyes of your spouse and give you a much different perspective. To take one example: I am a much kinder person because I married my wife. She is kind by nature and takes delight in animals, which is why there are usually a cat or two in our home. She has made me more compassionate, and I suspect I have made her more human too. My own blindness of my good points though makes it hard for me to say how I have helped her, but I likely have in many ways too.

If you are a priest, I guess you are entitled to have deep and rich platonic relationships with other priests, if you can find one between being shuffled around parishes, but these are hardly a substitute for a committed relationship. In any event, while priests may be trained in theology and the tenets of their faith, they lack much in the way of practice of expressing feelings like empathy, compassion or universalism. You don’t get these things from reading about them. They come from living life. It’s hard to say how much of Jesus’s life was real or myth, but he certainly walked around Palestine and got to know people’s needs, problems and perspectives. This made him an effective minister.

I doubt there is much training like this in seminary. You may learn the Bible backwards and forward, but to really understand Jesus, don’t you have to minister like Jesus too? Don’t you have to walk around communities, listen to people, absorb yourself in their problems and help address them? Jesus at least got it, but I don’t think priests get much if anything like this kind of training. Instead, most likely after seminary they will end up in a parish, which is by nature a pretty closed and insular community.

A parish is not the real world that Jesus traversed in his ministry. Yet if you are going to have a priesthood of people who act like Jesus, these are the kind of people you would want to attract: people who broadly understand the world as it actually is from living it deeply and richly. They need to have the freedom to be true human beings and have fulfilling and messy relationships like the rest of us.

There will always be a few bad apples among ministers in any congregation. These steps the Catholic Church is taking so far is merely putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound. It doesn’t address the fundamental issues that cause these problems in the first place. For the sake of Catholic congregations worldwide, the sooner they let their priests marry, the better.

Evangelicals rooting for Armageddon

The Thinker by Rodin

On April 29, I inconveniently pointed out that most Christians in America are acting like the devil. Jesus himself seemed to be aware that people have this tendency, which is captured in the Bible in Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:3:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?

Christianity’s general failing in this area is obvious to most of us heathen and unchurched, as well as (I hope) to those Christians among us who still emulate the actual spirit of Jesus. Granted, it’s not easy to be cognizant of your own glaring hypocrisies. I don’t consider myself immune from this human predisposition. Having this understanding of the “Christians” around me though means nothing to those who would benefit from my insights. They aren’t listening and even if they were they would reject it out of hand. Since I’m not a Christian how can I be believed anyhow? When you have real faith, reason won’t trump it.

It’s one thing to have a lot of the devil in you while proclaiming your devout holiness. It’s another thing entirely to actively work for the end of the world. The latter is intensely evil. And yet as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks points out, 25% of voting age Americans are hoping for the end of the world and are actively trying to bring it about by voting for people like Donald Trump. America sent a couple of them to Jerusalem the other day to celebrate our unwise decision to move our embassy to there. As you may have read, it led to the death of 62 Palestinians and the wounding of 1200 others or so who were protesting along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

“Praise be to Jesus”, say these end-of-the-worlders about this embassy move. That’s because they can check off one more item on their dubious list of conditions for bringing about Armageddon that they have somehow discerned from reading the book of Revelations. Although the New World wasn’t even imagined in Jesus’s time, apparently one of the conditions for bringing about Armageddon was for the USA has to open an embassy there. Go figure. More than anything else, they want the end of the world. If they can pull off the Biblical conditions, Jesus finally returns to Earth. They can’t wait to be rhapsodized because they are true believers. Oh, and part of the prophecy is the rest of us get to die what looks like painful and miserable deaths, apparently a very Christian thing to do. For 62 Palestinians, they are already fulfilling the prophecy courtesy of the Israeli military. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Among the speakers at the opening of our embassy were pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Back in the 1990s, Hagee had said that Hitler was fulfilling biblical prophecies because his Holocaust caused the creation of Israel. That sure sounds like maybe the Holocaust was okay, at least by him. Jeffress is on record as saying Mormonism and Islam are heresies “from the pit of hell”, said Catholics were led astray by Satan and said that President Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist. You would think this might disqualify them from speaking at such an event, but apparently they were featured speakers. Trump’s evangelical supporters form the base of his support so of course they were featured.

Apparently it’s not enough to allow the natural course of events to bring about Armageddon; they must coach it along. So it’s all smiles from these people as more misery and destruction happen across the Middle East. That’s because they see these events as signs that Jesus is getting ready for his second coming. They are not bothered at all by their advocacy of these events. They think they are doing God’s work. That’s right: they have to help others kill lots of people so the Son of God can return to earth and make sure they are raptured. This is sick, sick, sick. Evangelicals are becoming the Antichrist they are looking for. They are clearly suffering from a case of toxic religiosity.

The rest of us don’t matter. The rest of us know what these faith-based people don’t: there is no God (at least nothing resembling what they believe in), that we only have this one planet and that most of us just want to live in it peacefully and for everyone to get along. Jesus was all about love and peace. How on earth can they be pushing for hate and war instead? What the hell is wrong with these people?

If I could be dictator, I would do away with all religion. It’s pretty clear that it works against its own professed aims. It does nothing to unite us, but plenty to factionalize us. It provides a false certainty in an uncertain world and gives its believers a faith and rationalization to inflict endless misery on the rest of us. These kinds of religion are toxic and ultimately self-defeating memes that by its nature must wash over the rest of us who simply want to live decent and peaceful lives.

Doing away with religion wouldn’t mean that mankind would still not be rift in conflict. The communists recognized that religion was evil but even official state atheism could not kill it. If it’s not religion, then ethnic, racial and rich vs. poor conflicts would likely prove just as good at inspiring us to hate.

Some of us though believe that we have evolved past this crap. What we need are rational leaders, people that think through the likely consequences of their actions instead of relying on their biases and impulses. We want leaders that look to diplomacy to solve problems instead of dropping bombs.

Perhaps old-fashioned scorn would work. We should call out people like these Evangelical Christians and hold them to account for stoking the flames of hatred, certainly not to convince them but to convince others on the fence. We are not seeing much evidence of this now, as these people wrap themselves in the cloak of a false Christianity. However, the rational among us must proclaim them for what they are: perhaps nice-sounding people with an evil core perturbed by a religion that says they must be right. They must be opposed at every turn.

There is no Planet B

The Thinker by Rodin

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

The devil in American Christianity

The Thinker by Rodin

A confluence of events is proving just how dead and unchristian most of American Christianity is today. There are exceptions, most notably the Catholic Church. If you can overlook its rampant misogyny and long history of pedophilia, it still thinks it’s important to feed the hungry and shelter the poor regardless of race, color or creed but not always sexual orientation. Moreover, it puts its time and resources where its mouth is.

You have to look pretty hard to find a mainstream Christian denomination in the United States that bears some resemblance to what Jesus preached. The United Church of Christ probably comes closest, but it’s been bleeding members for years. I could also possibly include Unitarian Universalists like me, except being creedless we can’t really be called Christians, although individual members might say they are Christian. We are also a tiny denomination.

For the most part though our churches are mirroring society: becoming socioeconomic havens for tangentially religious people mostly of the same race and social status. They mirror the values of their class and society far more than they practice Christianity as Jesus preached it. Last week in Congress though we witnessed an action that pretty much proved it was dead. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan dismissed its chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for apparently modeling Jesus a bit too much.

Conroy wasn’t too happy about it but while it lasted it was a great gig for a priest. Priests take vows of poverty but Congress paid him $172,500 a year, far more than I ever made annually in my career. Money though wasn’t the issue here. Conroy apparently got under the skin of influential House Republicans, including the Speaker for constantly reminding them of inconvenient truths about Christianity, such as Christians are supposed to look out for the poor rather than worship at the altar of mammon. Last November, for example, before the House debate on major tax legislation at the well of the House, Conroy said this:

May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Well, that’s awkward when the tax legislation was mostly about funneling new amounts of government debt directly into the pockets of rich people instead. No wonder Ryan was irked. How about a little prosperity gospel instead, preacher? These people seem to form the base of the Republican Party anyhow. (By the way, “prosperity gospel” is just another name for trickle-down economics.)

Also last week we got a rare moment of candor from a Republican politician, Mick Mulvaney in this case. Mulvaney is the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But he used to be a member of Congress. Reminiscing on those times to a meeting of the American Bankers Association, Mulvaney cut to the chase:

We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

Mulvaney clearly believes in a government of, by, and for the corporation. If you wanted his attention, you had to bribe him through campaign contributions. No one else mattered.

Now in the ultimate irony, Evangelical Christians are wholeheartedly are behind Philanderer-in-Chief and complete moral failure Donald J. Trump. He garners at least 80% support from this group and nothing in his sinful personal life seems to dissuade them from supporting him. It’s not that they see Trump as a good Christian. Trump hardly ever attends church services. His church is the golf course. About the only time you will see him in a church will be if some prominent politician dies, and even then his attendance is iffy. He skipped Barbara Bush’s recent funeral. He clearly doesn’t read the Bible; in fact he doesn’t read much of anything.

These “Christians” tend to see Trump as a necessary evil: God working in mysterious ways. What they really care about is not his many moral failings but his willingness to move forward with a radical conservative agenda. If Trump can appoint another Supreme Court justice that overturns Roe v. Wade, doesn’t that justify their support? They must have excised Matthew 16:26 from their Bible:

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

In truth though American Christians have largely thrown away the New Testament. What really engages them though is the Old Testament, particularly its authoritarian parts, parts that were largely replaced in the New Testament. One of Jesus’s primary missions was to redefine Judaism into a more benign, charitable and universal religion. American Christians though seem determined to place the Ten Commandments in government spaces. But they never demand that the Beatitudes to occupy such public places instead, and these are words Jesus actually said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

With the ouster of House Chaplain Conroy, it’s clear that these thoughts are unwelcome in Congress. But that’s okay. It’s abundantly clear they are unwelcome as well in what passes for American Christianity today.

The devil made them do it.

Our new not-so-naughty Internet

The Thinker by Rodin

I used to make monthly reviews of Craigslist’s casual encounters section a feature of this site. I gave it up about a year ago because it wasn’t bringing in that much traffic anymore, but also I felt like I had read it all. It used to be that I could reliably find a few nuggets of gold among the voluminous postings of horny guys and mostly women for sale. As you may have read, its casual encounters section, which includes its basic dating area, is shutdown. I wouldn’t have noticed except the event made the news. It became a victim of the recently enacted FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) law. The law adds tough penalties for sites like Craigslist that even inadvertently facilitate sex trafficking.

Also quickly caught up in the act’s passage was backpage.com, which has been shutdown and now comes with a warning that the site has been seized. The site was pretty much just a place for prostitutes to find clients, so it’s not surprising its top leaders had their homes raided and they were charged with crimes. The Feds seized the domain. Just six days after its passage, backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to both state and local charges.

FOSTA-SESTA’s passage into U.S. law has had sex workers in Canada scrambling. One of these is a client of mine who lives in Ottawa. Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, or at least not in Ontario, or I would not have taken her on as a client. Advertising these services in Canada though has always problematic and more so now that FOSTA-SESTA has been passed because backpage.com brought in most of their business. In my client’s case she needs to move her domains to web hosts outside of FOSTA-SESTA’s umbrella. She’s been proactive and for more than a year has had her hosting overseas. Now she needs to move her domains off GoDaddy to an overseas registrar too. One odd effect of the law is that since many Americans that used to find women on backpage.com may opt to travel to Canada instead. But in general it’s definitely becoming harder to find places to hookup online due to FOSTA-SESTA.

FOSTA-SESTA breaks a unique covenant that has formed the foundation of the web’s success: that website owners could not be held liable for content posted by others. Basically it amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which had given website owners a pass. The law’s domain is sex trafficking but now that the door has been opened it’s possible that future congresses will open the door widely to more Internet censorship. Sites that allow hate speech, even tangentially like Facebook, may be held liable. As a practical matter just like a cop cannot possibly arrest every lawbreaker, it’s impossible for most website owners to police all the content it gets as it is time and cost prohibitive. For sites like Facebook, laws like these put at risk its whole business model. Computer algorithms can help flag such content but no algorithm is perfect.

While I often enjoyed my monthly surfing of Craigslist’s casual encounters section, it was quite clear that the postings were rife with prostitutes and at least some of the posts probably involved sex trafficking. Many years ago I found one such ad, encouraging Craigslist users to fly to the Dominican Republic where having sex with a minor was apparently not much of a problem. In Craigslist’s case though they can at least say that they made no money off these postings. They did off its erotic services area until that was closed down after a client murdered a sex worker who advertised using this Craigslist area.

Unless FOSTA-SESTA is repealed it’s unlikely that I will be reviewing Craigslist’s casual encounters section anymore. There are plenty of reviews on my site if you are nostalgic for such stuff under my Craigslist tag. It is unclear to me though where people go if they are truly looking for a hookup. For the adulterous, after it was hacked in 2015 ashleymadison.com proved to be problematic. For hookups with random strangers, tinder.com is probably the place to go these days. But it requires a smartphone app plus you have to create a public profile with pictures and stuff. This is presumably not a problem if you are single, but if it is principally a hookup site you may not want the taint of having your boss or coworkers find you are on the site. For gays and bisexuals, grindr.com offers a similar service. Presumably these are policed reasonably well to keep the posters legitimate.

With FOSTA-SESTA, it sure looks like some twenty years after the World Wide Web took off, its glory days are gone. It had a Wild West feel to it, and sites like Craigslist were where you went if you found that sort of stuff titillating. Craigslist of course is still in business, but it’s back to finding more pedestrian ways to make money such as through job postings and facilitating the buying and selling of excess stuff. Its voyeuristic nature is not entirely gone. There is still its Missed Connections section where two ships passing in the night try to find each other. But its naughtiness is gone. Craigslist has to hope its brand can survive the gaping hole that was lost with the closure of its personals section.