Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Quote of the Day:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
Bertrand RussellBritish author, mathematician, & philosopher (1872 - 1970)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Obama's jujitsu on health care: Using Catholic power for good

Subtitle 1: "Where I agree with the Roman Catholic diocese..."
Subtitle 2: "The merciful end to employer-based health insurance."

President Obama's recent announcement that he would delay, but definitely require, religious organizations to provide health coverage for birth control, was a mystery to me. Why was he picking a fight with large employers like the Catholic Church who have the ear of millions of voters? Now the fog is starting to lift and I can see his rationale as the Catholic Church shows unease with the federal mandate.

Bishop Olmsted
Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix is renown as one of the more conservative office holders in the US; if you remember he was the outspoken critic of the nun who approved a life-saving abortion for a pregnant woman with pulmonary hypertension a couple years ago, winning the bishop the undying admiration of authoritarian orthodox Catholics everywhere.  Now Olmsted is in the news for drawing a line in the sand over providing health care for his employees that includes birth control. From Mike Clancy in the Arizona Republic:

According to Catholic News Service, bishops in nine of the nation's 195 dioceses are preparing letters to be read at Masses on Sunday encouraging churchgoers to lobby against the measure....
Of the group that has gone public so far, Olmsted appears to be the only one who has said specifically that Catholics should defy the law, according to the Catholic news agency.
"Unless the rule is overturned," Olmsted wrote, "we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences or to drop health coverage for our employees."
Olmsted added, "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law." [bold mine-- Tony].

It's not surprising that a hard line bishop would take a hard line stance on the issue, after all he is merely honing to the standard Catholic dogma, and frankly, I can see Olmsted's point. Okay, but doesn't this emphasize that President Obama should not be picking a fight with a huge organization that influences so many people?  Then I started reading the comments to the paper's on-line edition and the light bulb went off with this one comment from a Catholic:

Olmsted is an idiot and an embarrassment to the Catholic Church as a Catholic whose son and daughter attend BCP and Xavier [two local Catholic schools in AZ] he does not represent the thinking within the congregation his conservative socialist extremism would be better served with the other conservative communist teachings of Stalin. We within the Church support pro choice. We pray every day for his soul to be relieved of his conservative corrupt leanings.

What can I say? This particular Catholic commenter is just plain wrong. He doesn't understand Roman Catholicism. He's been basking in democracy too long and doesn't understand what a top-down authoritarian hierarchy is all about.  Leila, on her conservative Catholic site , puts it best:

Oh, how I love our shepherd [ie, Bishop Olmsted]! He is a gentle, humble soul, but he has courage in abundance! A true disciple of Christ!

But isn't she the outlier? Almost every Catholic woman in the United States has used or is currently using birth control, 98%*.  The Papal stance is very clear--- this is sinful-- and counting the men who have had vasectomies or have used condoms, well over half (if not close to all) of nominal Catholics are willfully defying the Catholic hierarchy and will go to hell.  Period. Up til now the Vatican has seemed content on looking away from this travesty within it's power mandate and has happily accepted donations and financial support from sexually active hell-bound Catholic sinners.

Which brings us to President Obama.  Why on earth would he insinuate his presidency, his legacy of health care mandates, into this primordial struggle over Catholic sexuality? Two reasons that I can see.

The first is the obvious but less likely: moderate and liberal Catholics may realize that their Church is still operating on the antique and medieval principle that women must bear 10 or 12 children to ensure the survival of 3 or 4 necessary to harvest the crops and do the household chores. Thomas Aquinas would be so proud. The Catholic Church has missed the whole 98.5 % reduction in infant mortality with which science has blessed us.  Maybe Obama is hoping this battle will help the scales fall from the eyes of the the faithful and they will leave the Church altogether, since most have effectively left the Church long ago anyway. Frankly, I doubt Obama cares too much about the Catholic hierarchy.

The second reason is more likely: the destruction of employer-based health insurance . All employees, not just Catholics, will view this debate and begin to see the complete silliness of having your employer, any employer, make decisions about your health insurance. Does my employer provide my auto insurance? Let's face it, the Catholic Church is correct, it is unjust.  If some law required that I furnish coverage for a service I felt was immoral, I'd be pissed too, and isn't that the ultimate point? The Affordable Care Act, like it or not, is a product of our democracy and reflects our essential view as a society that health care is 1) necessary for all  and 2) should include certain things like hard-on pills and birth control as well as heart surgery and cancer treatment. We recognize human sexuality as equal to life-saving therapies, like a pursuit of happiness thing.  Just ask Newt.

By making this an issue, President Obama is pushing us one more step to the eventual single-payer (or at least single payment) system we will one day enjoy. It will start next year when employees of Catholic organizations will be required to obtain health insurance outside their workplace, then others will follow and will realize how painless the process can be. Soon, the whole charade of employer-based health insurance will be seen as pointless. The government will regulate coverage on secular democratic principles, like they do all other necessary commerce, eschewing 16th century Church dogma spewed from men in dresses a world away. Obama is willing to have this debate.

President Obama is using the vast resources and power of the Catholic Church to undo employer-based health insurance coverage. Citizens overwhelmingly want health insurance and view it, correctly or not, whether they realize it or not, as a right...and if they cannot get it from their employer they will take it from the government.  If the Catholic Church wants to fight this, they will be fighting Obama's battle for him. 

And the good news: we become a tiny little bit more like Finland.

* this number seems improbable if you consider that 8-10 of women are homosexual and are likely engaging in other sins, but whatever, I'm confident the percentage is still high.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Quote of the Day:

"There are three things I like about being on an Italian cruise ship. First their cuisine is unsurpassed.  Second their service is superb.  And then, in time of emergency, there is none of this nonsense about women and children first”  --Winston Churchill, remarking during his retirement why he frequented Italian cruise lines.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

USAToday Candidate Quiz

According to this quiz, my views are most consistent with John Huntsman [66%], Barack Obama [33%] and Rick Perry (!) [33%]. The first two are not surprising, but the Rickster?! Yikes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Quote of the day. Happy birthday edition.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." --Benjamin Franklin, born January 17, 1706

Monday, January 16, 2012

Same-sex Marriage and Rick Santorum

First a few of my own observations:
1. This hostile crowd is college Republicans so of course I wouldn't expect them to have a firm grasp of all the countervailing arguments concerning any issue, let alone one as nuanced as gay marriage.
2. Santorum is essentially un-electable even in these strange Tea Party times, coming off a landslide loss in his recent Senate race...so he lies at the extreme of an extreme wing of an increasingly extreme and irrelevant party. He is a piece of fuzz on the body politic.
3. I find his sanctimonious condescension annoying, but that's me.

Now for the answers to Ricky's specific arguments against same-sex marriage, from the LA Times editorial staff:

Boiled to its essence, his argument has three parts: First, the burden of demonstrating that same-sex marriage should be legalized falls on its supporters rather than its opponents, because the former group is the one that wants to change the law. Fair enough. Here's the reason, Rick: Because discriminating against a class of people by failing to grant them the same rights enjoyed by everyone else is unfair and unconstitutional. [Not unlike any civil rights argument-- Tony]
The second part of Santorum's argument is that many of the legal benefits of marriage, such as the right to visit a hospitalized spouse, can be obtained via legal contract, so why should gays insist on marriage rights? This is monstrously disingenuous, as Santorum the lawyer well knows, but it seemed to confuse the crowd, so apparently there weren't any law students among them. Santorum is correct that property and inheritance rights can be transferred to another via contract -- gay partners can leave their houses to each other in their wills, for example. But, as Oakland attorney and author Fred Hertz explains, public benefits -- tax advantages, health insurance and so on -- can't be transferred via contract, except in states that recognize domestic partnership agreements (and most states, including Santorum's native Pennsylvania, don't). Even in the domestic partnership states, no federal tax, Social Security or other benefits apply to such partners because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. [This is the primary legal issue, and one that should endear college Republicans. It is the pursuit of happiness trope.-- Tony]
Finally, there is Santorum's third argument, which by now is pretty familiar to anyone following the same-sex marriage debate: If you allow same-sex couples to marry, why not allow polygamy? This one's tougher to refute because it gets to a truism that gay-marriage proponents don't like to discuss -- there is a social-values component to marriage. Religious conservatives see no distinction between same-sex marriage and incest or polygamy, because to them, all of these things represent sexual sins. Yet there are obvious differences.
Setting aside the ick factor of incestuous marriage, sexual liaisons between family members can lead to offspring with terrible genetic abnormalities. Polygamy is slightly less objectionable on its face, but in practice it causes enormous social problems -- polygamous societies inevitably create a surplus population of young, restive males who end up on the streets or fuel upheaval because they can't find wives, most of whom have been snapped up by powerful older men. Underage women are frequently forced into marriages with much older men, and there is an innate power imbalance built into any relationship between one man (or one woman) and multiple partners of the opposite sex. [Conversely, same-sex marriage has the benefit of adding more stability-- financial and social-- to an extant relationship. If marriage is valuable, then why not extend it more of the population? --Tony]
But more important than any of these distinctions is the fact that the entire comparison is irrelevant. There is no mainstream political movement in this country to legalize polygamy or incestuous marriage; when and if there is, we can debate whether it's appropriate. By dragging these things into the debate over same-sex marriage, Santorum and his ilk are simply playing reductio-ad-absurdem rhetorical games. This technique can be used to discredit nearly any position on anything: If we allow same-sex marriage, what's next, people marrying dogs? If we allow people to drink alcohol, why not let them snort cocaine? If we guarantee the right to bear arms, why not guarantee the right to build thermonuclear devices in one's garage?
The answer: Because it's ridiculous. Let's stick to the matter at hand -- whether consenting adults of the same sex should be allowed to marry. It's OK to agree with Santorum that they shouldn't, but let's not drag the cast of "Big Love" into the discussion.

Do we really buy everything from China?

Barry Ritholtz sheds some light on the mythology that US consumers buy mostly from China. In fact, only 2.7% of our overall US consumption comes from foreign-made goods. Two point seven!

Perhaps a reason for believing China’s share of the US consumer market is [so high is] how often we see the Made in China label. They dominate the toys, clothing and electronics that get sold in stores like Wal-Mart and Target and Toys-R-Us.
Morgan Housel explained:
“A common rebuttal I got was, “How can it only be 2.7% when almost everything in Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) is made in China?” Because Wal-Mart’s $260 billion in U.S. revenue isn’t exactly reflective of America’s $14.5 trillion economy. Wal-Mart might sell a broad range of knickknacks, many of which are made in China, but the vast majority of what Americans spend their money on is not knickknacks.”
We also spend far more on others than we realize: Housing, Commodities (especially Food and Energy) and Services (Health Care, Financial, Accounting, Education etc.). Housel noted that in 2010, “we spent 34% of their income on housing, 13% on food, 11% on insurance and pensions, 7% on health care, and 2% on education. Those categories alone make up nearly 70% of total spending, and are comprised almost entirely of American-made goods and services.

Gingrich's anti-Romney ad

So much for Reagan's eleventh commandment.

When the GOP puts up guys like this, the Democrats don't really need to field much of a team to beat them. When the Republicans present such a dismal slate of contenders, the Democrats hardly have to get out of bed. In 2004, with the country at war and the economy doing okay, the Democrats put up two sitting Senators to run against George W. Bush, to provide a contrast to Bush's leadership. Now, it seems as though the Republicans have given up, none of their leaders are interested in entering the conversation about where we should go from here. They seem to be traingulating to keep out of the line of fire from the Tea Party or the more strident religious fundamentalists, always angling just to keep their power base.

This is why Obama doesn't need to respect civil liberties or be even close to fiscally responsible-- there is is no other choice. Who else are you going to vote for, Gingrich? Romney?  Huntsman, arguably the most sane candidate of the GOP lot, is now gone and supporting someone who, just last week, he said was unqualified to be president, and Huntsman flushes all his criticism down the memory hole.

This is a two party system, we need both parties to pay attention. We need a loyal opposition, instead we get 'vulture capitalists', psychopaths and sons of billionaires.

Remember, he's a pro

Don't you just hate when bad things happen to good people?

Always the trial attorney, now he's plying for the jurors' sympathy. I would pretty much have to personally review his medical record before believing one word of this professional bullshitter's 'heart condition' story; and even then, so what?


Quote of the day

“We need a tax system that takes very good care of people who just really aren’t as well adapted to the market system, and to capitalism, but are nevertheless just as good citizens, and are doing things that are of use in society."   -- Warren Buffett, January 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

TED: Animations in molecular biology

The God of Mind: Neurotheology

Why do some individuals believe in God and others do not? From Nirmukta:
Neuroscientists have discovered curious truths about religious experience and their potential enhancement through drugs, disease or even practice. In this article I explore the implications of the apparent malleability and non-universality of religiosity.A relatively new area in neuroscience gaining momentum rapidly is neurotheology – a field which investigates the notion that within the brain are neural structures which give rise to the potential for religious experience. More studies are beginning to show not only that neural correlates exist, but that they have susceptibility to pharmacological and pathological modification and potentiation, much as the same as we have found for many of the complex emergent properties of the brain.
The neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has extensively investigated a curious condition known as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Studies have shown that after TLE patients undergo an epileptic seizure, they uniquely describe having a profound “spiritual” experience. They claim to understand their place in the cosmos, and how everything suddenly becomes saturated with significance and meaning. Such experiences occur independently of prior beliefs held by the patient. Ramachandran has explained that the phenomenon is not evidence for “God module” as the media initially popularised. Rather that there are perhaps a variety of structures which work together to give rise to such spiritual experiences, which is the case with other specific systems of the brain. The visual system for example has many quite distinct components (colour, movement, object recognition, facial recognition) working together to produce vision, rather than a “vision module” located in a single area. TLE patients also show a reduced response to normally provocative images (such as sexual images), but a heightened response to religiously-loaded words or imagery.
The serotonin (5-HT) system has long been of interest in biological models of human personality. Psychopharmacological research has investigated the effect of psychedelic drugs in relation to religious experience. The drugs which have been studied include adrenaline derivatives (e.g. mescaline) and serotonin derivatives (e.g. LSD, psilocybin, DMT). It has been found that these drugs cause transcendental or spiritual experiences as well as intense visual hallucinations. The remarkable finding is that all of these drugs act on one specific type of neuroreceptor called serotonin 2A (or 5-HT2A) receptors, which are found all over the cortical surface of the brain. 5-HT2A receptors are stimulatory, which means when these drugs acts on them they increase production of serotonin in the brain, and this gross overstimulation of the 5-HT2A receptors leads to what are interpreted as religious experiences.
The most significant question that arises from these discoveries is the implications on the theistic account of free will in choosing faith. In other words, the typical monotheistic description of a God who gives us the ability (free will) to choose to worship him becomes problematic, since we find that the capacity for religious experience seems to be as varied among the population as any other personality trait, individual characteristic or innate ability. Some people are simply born with a brain that has a greater chance of finding God, as they are “wired up” that way. We are restricted in our choice, much the same as we are restricted in our choice to prefer chocolate or vanilla, Bach or Mozart, men or women. Neuroscientific studies have consistently shown that all the choices we make in life are far more greatly influenced by genetic makeup, rather than our environmental influences. In this regard, we are certainly not equal in finding pathways to God.
This issue dovetails with the book I recently reviewed called The "God" Part of the Brain, by Matthew Alper, which is much more complete thesis on the neurotheology or "biotheology."  Morality has a biological basis, free will is an illusion.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Newt's Iran policy

Maybe I watch too many spy shows on TV, but is this really what you want your presidential candidate to say on TV?

The operative line: Newt says, "First of all, maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian [nuclear] program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum coordination with the Israelis..." 

Before that Newt says he certainly wouldn't do what Obama is doing, "Both the answers you just got are superior to the current administration."

Firstly, how does Gingrich know what the Obama administration is doing?  How does he know the US was not behind the recent attacks on Iranian scientists? If Obama were panning to target foreign scientists all along, wouldn't it be much more prudent to publicly denounce these acts, or at least keep quiet as he has done? Isn't that what covert is?

Secondly, and more importantly, do we really want a future president on record saying that he would take covert steps to illegally target foreign scientists and make sure it was all deniable?  Really? Does Newt think that Iranians don't own televisions, or their public opinion doesn't matter?  Is this Newt's master plan for the re-working of civilization? 

(from C&L)

Woody Guthrie's 1943 New Year's Resolutions

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Quote of the day:

“I don’t believe Iowa is representative of America." It is “91 percent white and 90 percent Christian. They have never elected a woman to the Congress or Senate or as governor. The largest city is 200,000.” "You have [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Santorum claiming victory when they only have 30,000 votes. What is this? It’s nothing. That’s not representative of anything. Iowa is a small state that is losing one representative. This is crazy.” --Stephen Bloom, professor of journalism

Book Review: The "God" Part of the Brain, by Matthew Alper

Four out of five stars.

This is a book-length essay with references to support the author's point of view. Easy to read and covers topics about neuroscience in enough detail to make it interesting but accessible to the lay person. Alper begins by reviewing how we have come to our understanding of physics, chemistry and biology-- very accurate and well-written. He continues by discussing the brain and how our proclivities toward God-belief are hard-wired into our biology. His ideas about sociobiology are consistent with E.O. Wilson, who is quoted extensively. 

I recommend this book to anyone who wonders why some people believe in God and others do not. Why are we moral? Where does altruism come from? Alper presents the scientific non-theistic view very well and tries to show where the field of "bio-theology" will go in the future. Not a definitive work on the subject nor is it a scientific treatise, but this book's themes stimulate lots of thought and he provides plenty of references. I can see why it has acquired a cultish following among the young and irreligious.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Vindication: New Years baby edition

Phoenix presented two New Years babies since they were born so close together, one from Mesa and one from Glendale.

Monday, January 02, 2012

WWJLD: What Would John Lennon Do?

Usually I like New Years for no other reason than I get a 45-week reprieve from the constant drone of fatuous Christmas music. So imagine my consternation when this special day was marred by the criminal butchery of one of the great secular songs of all time.

Imagine. Cee-Lo Green changed the lyrics of the Lennon classic from "No religion, too" to "All religions, too."  Aside from the obvious question, why would anybody change the lyrics to any song that is perennially at the top of any "Best Song Ever" list, but why change the lyric to mean the EXACT opposite of the writer's intention?

Lennon wrote "Imagine" as a secular, pacifist, socialist theme, like it or not. Imagine indeed. And I would add that Lennon was a better songwriter than any lyricist who would ever think to construct a Christmas carol. Imagine the heart-rending furor that would erupt if someone changed the lyrics of one our beloved Christmas carols and switched the word "Nature" for God or Jesus? The horror!

The redeeming issue here, however, is that the public has risen up to denounce Cee-Lo Green for his misstep and he has even been forced to remove his Twitter account over the bruhaha. Writers should write, and performers should perform. Remember that, Mr. Green.

Heres the infamous video from New Years Eve (Fast forward to 3:55 for the song):

And Cee-Lo in one of his better moments, gotta love the pink zoot suit: (explicit lyrics):

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Phoenix' New Years baby?

Picture stolen from the internet. Simon was actually cuter.
It's been 20 years since I've worked New Years, but here I am. In my old practice in Michigan I always offered to take call on Christmas or Christmas Eve since I didn't have kids and we didn't have enough Jews in town.  But this year, it's a new state, new partners, new priorities and I was asked to work New Years. No problem.

I forgot about the drama, the overriding theme of who will have the first baby of the New Year. Every patient who comes in to be evaluated is hoping to have the New Years baby. "I hope I'm in labor." Well, what do you know, about 4pm a couple wanders in, she's contracting regularly and changing her cervix. The board is full of multips in various stages of labor, all destined to deliver before midnight, but Agnes and Donald (names changed) are here with their first and the timing seems right...a centimeter per hour, plus some pushing, puts her close to delivery by midnight.

The hours pass, the epidural is placed, the baby is doing fine. She's 8cm at 10pm, hmmm.  Others are delivering and I'm back doing a c-section at 11:15 PM on someone who came in dilated who was scheduled for a repeat c-section in a couple weeks. Agnes is making more progress and the nurses call in to the OR for me to go directly to the delivery room when I'm finished.  As I enter, the nursing house manager is present (usually not a good sign, but tonight is different) with a camera and words of encouragement. Agnes is pushing like a trooper and the baby is crowning on the perineum.

"Push it up slowly, everything is going well," I say.  Donald is excited, holding the video camera with one hand and his wife's leg with the other, learning to multitask early.

Another nurse sticks her head in the delivery room, "Desert [hospital, across town] has someone about to deliver, too. They're asking how close we are."

"Close," three of us say in unison. Two RN's, a baby nurse and the manger, with all our attention trained on the laboring patient.

And there it is. Happy New Year, little Simon comes out and gasps his first breath! Desert had a delivery at 11:57 PM and ours was at 12:01AM.  The New Years baby! We got the New Years baby! A city of  4 million, and it's us. Can that really be?

Congratulations, pictures, phone calls, texts, bubbly grape juice. A celebration to remember. Now we wait for the newspaper reporters and TV crew in the morning.

As I'm doing the paperwork, one of the RN's comes up, "Did you hear what Desert did?"

"No," I say.

"They said their clock was off by 3 minutes and their "official" clock said exactly midnight when their baby was born."

"Huh? That makes no sense."

"I know," she says, "but that's their story. They got the New Years baby."

Agnes and Donald don't really care, they have a beautiful boy and that's all that matters.  I have to say that it never really meant much to me to deliver the New Years baby, I never really wanted to even work on this holiday, but when it looked like it happened I definitely felt the excitement, the rush. The cutthroat world of obstetrics... victory was snatched away by the Desert hospital demons.