Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I’m not one for bucket lists, but I’ve always wanted to see a total solar eclipse in person. I was not disappointed. The only complaint I have about the experience is that damn song running through my head all week.

We had lunch at 17th Street Barbecue in Marion, Illinois – best brisket I’ve ever eaten – and we watched the eclipse from the parking lot.

The first thing I noticed about the eclipse was … not much. We were still inside eating lunch during first contact, but that was okay. The first forty minutes or so of the eclipse was cool enough to watch through our eclipse glasses, but very little changed on the ground. It was only when the sun was 70% occluded or more that we noticed the temperature dropping, and it was well over 80% before the bright afternoon really seemed to dim. Think about that for a second – our human visual systems can scale up and down between full daylight and just a fifth of that, and they can do it so effectively we don’t even notice.

As totality drew nearer, the changes grew more drastic. The sun shrank to a crescent, and the light level dimmed to something like dusk. The local Harley dealer made a light show with their sign. Then the crescent sun narrowed to a smudge and disappeared altogether, and the totality was upon us. The nocturnal insects came out (grasshoppers, I think), and the earth was engulfed in darkness. Not middle-of-the-night, out-in-the-woods darkness; more like suburban lights and a full moon, but still. We were surrounded by a 360° sunset, which I should have expected but didn’t. And up in the sky, where the sun should be, there was a black disk surrounded by a bright ring.

The partial eclipse was cool enough, especially as the sun got really occluded. But the total eclipse was something else entirely. The difference between 98% and 100% is literally the difference between night and day. For the next eclipse in the US, seven years from now, if you have any reasonable chance to get into the path of totality, you should take it. As usual, XKCD is exactly right.

The most amazing moment of the whole experience was the instant when totality ended. A single bright point of light appeared in the ring surrounding the black disk of the moon, and in just a few seconds it bloomed into the brilliance of daylight. The phenomenon is called the diamond ring effect for good reason. The image will be burned into my memory (though fortunately not my retina) as long as I live.

Even more than the beauty and strangeness of the experience, a total eclipse is a window into nature at its most awesome. We are beings clinging to the surface of a big ball of rock, whipping around a much larger ball of gas and fire, inside a swirling collection of many more such systems, which in turn group together into clusters and filaments. The universe is unfathomably vast and unfathomably old.

And that brings me back to the first part of our trip, our visit to the Creation Museum, and how limited the creationist view is of the universe. In their tidy little world, God created the Earth six thousand years ago, put the sun and moon in the sky, divided the land from the sea, and created each and every kind of plant and animal, until finally creating us. And that’s it. God is a gardener. Everything is arbitrary – it is the way it is because God wills it to be so.

The story science tells us is far more interesting. Thirteen and a half billion years ago, give or take a few weeks, a single bright spark (created by God, or Nature, or nothing at all) burst forth from the void and a universe came into being. The closer you look at the universe, the weirder things get, but almost nothing about it is arbitrary. Everything works the way it does because it couldn’t work any other way. Alter the rules even a tiny bit – maybe increase the mass of the electron by a few percent – and everything is different. Stars never form. We are here because our universe is perfectly tuned for our existence.

Given those two visions of the universe, which do you find more awe-inspiring?

The Creation Museum

As part of our trip to see the eclipse, my wife and I went to visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It was fascinating, in a rather depressing sort of way.

The basic premise of the museum, and creationism in general, is that the Bible says that the Earth was created in six days, in the spring of 4004 BC, and the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of God, so that must be how it happened. From there, creationists attempt to build a coherent framework to explain how the world works, and to make that framework consistent with all the observations scientists have made about the world thus far – fossils, layers in rock strata, underground coal deposits, etc.

The result is … interesting. There are exhibits showing humans interacting with dinosaurs (the entry surmises that’s how we got the legends of dragons), and there is a great deal about Noah’s flood as the basis for a lot of geological phenomena would otherwise take millions of years to come about.

Many of the museum exhibits also discuss the conventional scientific view, placing it next to the creationist equivalent. This looks like an attempt to be fair-minded – see, we’re showing both sides! – but it’s not about fairness at all. The placement implies an equivalence between actual science and creationist pseudo-science, as if they’re of equal value. And given two choices of equal value, which are you going to choose – the word of man, or the Word of God?

Creationism isn’t science, despite the scientific veneer the museum and places like the Discovery Institute lend to it. Science is the process of making the theory fit the observations. If an observation contradicts the theory, then the theory has to change. Sometimes it’s just a little tweak; sometimes a theory gets thrown out and replaced with a brand new theory. Creationism is the opposite of science – making the observations fit the theory. The theory is the Word of God, so it cannot change. Any observation that contradicts the theory must be manipulated until it fits.

Creationists have invested an awful lot of time and into their Biblical pseudo-science, and the whole thing is an impressive intellectual edifice. It provides a way for fundamentalist Christians, who believe in the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God, to reconcile their religious beliefs with the world they live in. Lessons for the cool kids in Sunday school, so they know the Truth while they’re learning geology and evolution in science class during the week. It seems like pretty harmless stuff.

But it’s not harmless. An exhibit toward the end of the museum tour makes it clear that, despite the side by side displays earlier, science is not to be trusted. Any deviation from God’s word, as laid down in the Bible, can only lead to chaos and destruction. That undermining of science in the eyes of the faithful hurts us all.

When the creationists attack evolution, or geology, or cosmology, they’re taking aim at the whole idea of science. When they question established theories, not based on the evidence but in spite of it, they render all of science suspect, with real-world consequences. The rejection of science encouraged by creationism makes it that much easier to ignore climate change, to overuse antibiotics, to opt out of vaccinations. That sort of willful ignorance must be resisted and corrected.

The Bible isn’t a science textbook, and it shouldn’t be treated as one.

Jury Duty

I had jury duty last Wednesday and Thursday. I was not selected for a jury, and I was both relieved and disappointed. I won’t say much about the trial other than that it was serious stuff. The initial jury pool was seventy people, jury selection took two days, and the trial was scheduled for four weeks.

During voir dire, one of the prosecutors related his own jury experience, years ago, telling us he felt like the attorneys were asking all the wrong questions. He then asked us if anyone in the jury pool felt that way, if we felt there was anything they should be asking but were not. I didn’t have anything to add at the time, but twice during the defense’s question, I thought about that.

The first defense question that bothered me was “Do you feel comfortable sitting in judgement of another person?” I understand the defense’s reason for asking the question, but it seemed wrong to me. I raised my juror card (lucky thirteen), and when called on, I told the defense attorney that it wasn’t our job to judge the defendant; it was our job to judge the facts in the case and the defendant’s actions. Other jurors seemed to appreciate my comment, though I suspect the defense did not.

The second question bothered me even more. It was something like “Do you feel, at the start of the trial, that the balance may be tilted slightly toward one side or the other. Specifically, toward the prosecution?” Once again, I understand the defense’s reason for asking, but it’s the wrong question, and even asking it does a disservice to the defendant. I was not called on, so I didn’t get a chance to answer in court, but this is what I would have said.

In a criminal trial, the balance is tilted entirely in favor of the defendant. It’s not our job as jurors to smile and politely accept the fiction that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and then forget all of that as soon the prosecution describes the awful things the defendant did in the opening statement. Nothing the prosecution says – not even the charges themselves – has any value unless it’s confirmed by the evidence presented in court. Our job as jurors is to examine the prosecution’s case with skepticism, and to weigh it not only against the defense’s case, but also against the presumption of innocence.

I suspect the prosecution would not have liked that answer any more than the defense liked my other answer.

Ann Leckie is Hacking Your Brain

How the @ann_leckie’s #Ancillary books use language to hijack the reader’s biases and turn them inside out.

I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, and it’s really good. If you go in for science fiction that makes you think and you haven’t read it yet, you should go do that now. I’ll wait.

There are a whole lot of reasons why the series is among the best fiction I’ve ever read, but I’m going focus this post on just one.

Radchaai culture – the dominant culture in the books – has no gender. People are still female and male, like always, but that’s a minor detail, like being right or left handed. Fashions in clothes, hair, cosmetics, etc. are the same for everyone, with minor adjustments for body shape. There’s no difference between female people and male people in social or professional settings, and it would never even occur to most Radchaai that there could be.

The specifics of sexual relationships do obviously vary according to anatomy, and females presumably still get pregnant and bear children while males do not, though maybe technology takes care of that. The books don’t really go into specifics. Beyond that, though, there’s no difference between the genders.

This is not because the Radch is some sort of progressive-utopian, hyper-rational, Star Trek-style meritocracy; quite the contrary. There is enough inequality of wealth and status to make Jane Austen blush, and people find all sorts of reasons to look down on and even to hate others, including money, ethnicity, religion, language and accent, family and social connections, and so on. It’s just that gender isn’t one of those reasons.

As a result of the lack of gender, along with the author’s spare physical descriptions, the reader doesn’t know whether most of the characters are female or male. They’re just people. The only time gender becomes a thing is when the protagonist is dealing with a foreign culture. It’s invariably awkward, because the protagonist is constantly afraid of mis-gendering everyone, which just serves to illustrate how completely not-a-thing it is in Radchaai culture.

That, by itself, is really cool, but it gets even more interesting.

The lack of gender in Radchaai culture necessarily extends to language – if people don’t really distinguish between female and male, you can’t have separate pronouns for “she” and “he”. It would be like forcing English speakers to use “she” for right-handers and “he” for left-handers – nobody would have any idea who was who or which pronoun to use. Lots of present-day Earth languages are (mostly) gender-neutral like this, with one pronoun representing both “he” and “she”, often with another for “it”. Examples include Finnish, Persian, Malay, and Chinese (sort of). Also Klingon.

If the author were writing in one of these languages, that would be that. Every character would be referred to by the pronoun hän or t¬ā or ghaH or whatever, and nobody would have a problem. But the author didn’t write in a gender-neutral language; she wrote in English. In normal English, we use “she” to refer to female people (and animals, robots, etc. Also, ships) and “he” to refer to males. That obviously doesn’t work for Leckie’s novels. So how does she handle the problem?

She could use “he”, traditionally used in English for people of unspecified gender. There’s also the singular “they”, the ugly workaround “s/he”, and new alternatives like “ze” or “xe”. None of these are particularly satisfying, and all but “he” read as super-awkward on the page. Leckie doesn’t use any of them.

Instead, the pronoun she uses for all of her characters, male and female, is “she”. And it’s not just pronouns; it’s also “mother”, “daughter”, “sister”, and so on.

This leads to some (deliberately, I assume) jarring language, including “She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain.”

That’s where the brain hacking comes in.

When a writer introduces a character, she can’t possibly describe every detail, so the reader has to fill in everything the writer doesn’t provide, and the reader will fall back on her own expectations to fill in those details. Until the writer tells the reader otherwise, a character named Detective Smith is probably a middle-aged white guy in a cheap suit, maybe with a five-o’clock shadow, a thick Brooklyn accent, and an alcohol problem. Similarly, the military ship captain is another middle-aged white guy, this time with a wiry build, short graying hair, and ramrod-straight posture. They’re stereotypes.

While stereotypes do vary somewhat from person to person, they’re pretty consistent across a given culture, and they are almost invariably male. Male is the default, even for roles that could be filled today by either gender – cops, doctors, professors, soldiers, random drivers on the freeway. It’s only when you get to traditionally female roles like nurses, schoolteachers, or parents on the playground that the default changes.

In the Ancillary books, the reader knows pretty much upfront that almost all of the characters could be either male or female, and Leckie doesn’t usually give much physical description to tilt the balance one way or the other. Normally, the reader would fall back on stereotypes based on the character’s title, job, social position, etc. to form a mental picture. Ship’s captain, system governor, station administrator, head of security – probably all male. Horticulturalist, servant, tea server – maybe female?

But in the Ancillary books, even though the reader knows that any given character could be female or male, there’s still that “she”. Every time a character is mentioned with a pronoun, it’s “she”, not “he”. The reader starts to imagine every character as female, even the ship captain, the governor, the station administrator, the head of security. The author gets into the reader’s head, hacks into the reader’s existing biases, and turns them around. The default becomes female.

Once you’ve gotten used to the effect, it doesn’t seem strange at all. When you’re inside the world Leckie has created, reading along, it seems perfectly natural that the sea of faces staring out at you from the page is mostly female. And it’s not some hidden subtext thing – Leckie is able manipulate readers’ biases even when they know they’re being manipulated. It’s all much subtler and more effective than an angry feminist polemic (not that I don’t love a good angry feminist polemic).

Best of all, the effect doesn’t go away when the reader leaves the book and comes back into the real world. It weakens over time, but the female cop, the female captain, the female doctor all seem a little less unexpected, a little more normal.

All that with not much more than a pronoun, a choice to see the power of “she”.

Resist

A letter to my Congressional representatives and to all Democratic members of Congress.

Dear Representative Jayapal, Senator Cantwell, and Senator Murray,

Now that Donald Trump is President, your job has changed. For the past eight years, and indeed for most of modern American history, your job has been to work with the administration and, when possible, with the Republican leadership in Congress to pass legislation for the good of the American people. Now, with a Republican majority pushing the most extreme right-wing agenda in at least a century and a president with unprecedented (and unpresidented) deficits in experience, temperament, honesty, and ethics, your job is to limit the damage.

I urge you to resist. I urge you to do everything in your power to frustrate, obstruct, and delay the legislative and administrative agenda of the administration and the Republican majority.

Do not vote to confirm Betsy DeVos, the profoundly unqualified nominee to lead the Department of Education. Do everything in your power to prevent the confirmation of the worst nominees like DeVos, Pudzer, and Tillerson, and withhold your vote from the rest. Do not vote to confirm any executive or judicial nominee the administration puts forward, no matter how qualified, from Secretary of State all the way on down to the Director of the Office of Paperclip Distribution. And, most importantly, use every weapon at your disposal to deny President Trump the opportunity the Republican majority denied President Obama – the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice.

Do not vote for any bill advanced by the administration or the Republican leadership. Use the rules of legislative procedure to derail or delay the most damaging legislation, and make sure that every bill passed by the majority receives a full measure of debate, with your opposition noted in the Congressional Record. Do everything you can, short of shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt, to frustrate the Republican legislative agenda.

If you do find bipartisan agreement on a specific issue – sentencing reform, perhaps – then you should of course work with like-minded legislators from the opposing party. But don’t compromise your core principles when you do so, even in pursuit of a good cause.

You will lose many of these fights, perhaps most. The damage to our country will be awful, but that’s the political reality for the next four years, even with a favorable election in 2018. But while Republican control of both the Congress presents a terrible danger, it also presents a political opportunity. Make the Republicans pass every piece of destructive legislation with only Republican votes. Make the Republicans own every awful thing that happens while they control Congress. If the past eight years have taught us anything, it is that voters will not only forgive uncompromising obstruction, they will reward it. With the new president’s historically low approval ratings and the huge crowds at the Women’s Marches across the country, relentless opposition is looking even better as an electoral strategy.

Resist. Your conscience and your constituents will thank you.

Sincerely,

RE Andeen

Chaos

Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.

He didn’t win a majority of the votes; he didn’t even win a plurality. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of close to three million votes. For the record, the last time a Republican who wasn’t already president or vice president won the popular vote was all the way back in 1980. Claims of a “historic mandate” are not even close to the mark.

But it was enough, and we need to recognize the legitimacy of the result. We owe that to the office of the President and to, you know, reality, even though elements of the Republican party have refused to accept the legitimacy of any president in recent memory, maybe any president since John F. Kennedy. To Donald Trump himself, we owe nothing.

Distressed liberals are offering all sorts of reasons why Trump was elected – voter suppression, media bias, gerrymandering. Trump voters are racist or stupid or insane. Bernie Sanders would have been a better candidate. Anybody else would have been a better candidate. There may be some truth to all of these, but none can explain how almost half of voters could chose such a plainly awful candidate.

The real reason is much simpler. Americans voted to burn down the house.

People are angry at the status quo, and they voted for the opposite of the status quo. They didn’t vote for Trump in spite of the fact that he is an awful human being. They voted for him because he is an awful human being. They voted to tear down all the institutions they feel are rigged against them, and there is no better wrecking ball than Donald Trump. Nobody even comes close. The collateral damage is going to be terrible.

We already know a few things that are going to happen as a result of a Trump administration along with Republican control of Congress. Environmental regulations, especially those targeting climate change, will be rolled back or ignored. Broad immigration enforcement will needlessly ruin the lives of many immigrants and their families. Taxes on the rich and on corporations will go down, without a word spoken about the increased budget deficits that will result. The lives of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks – anybody not a straight white cis male – will get worse, if not because of actual harm from the administration, then at least from indifference to injustice.

The repeal part of the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act will happen very quickly, but the replace part will take much longer, if it happens at all. The Republicans have a few good ideas on health care, like allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, but they have no real plan beyond vague rumblings about “market-based solutions”, which the ACA already was. As a result, ten to fifteen million Americans will likely lose their health insurance in 2018.

And we’ll get at least one new Supreme Court justice. That can’t be good.

Beyond that, though, I’m much less certain what’s going to happen for the simple reason that nobody knows much about what Donald Trump is going to do as President, not even Donald Trump. It’s possible that Republican lawmakers and a cooperative administration will reduce harmful regulation and make the economy more efficient, though I’m skeptical. It’s possible that President Trump will be so preoccupied with settling his personal grudges that he doesn’t pay much attention to the business of governing, and we wind up with a pretty conventional Republican administration.

It’s also possible that President Trump will bumble, completely uninformed, into some issue that piques him and wreck everything in his path. For just one example, he could decide to shred the economy by unilaterally disrupting foreign trade as punishment for companies that have workers outside the US. He can’t generally impose tariffs without help from Congress, but there are plenty of administrative levers he can pull to achieve the same effect.

We really have no idea, because we have no precedent. Most of Trump’s policies are either obviously ludicrous (build a wall and make Mexico pay for it), impossibly vague, or wildly inconsistent. The man has a tendency to contradict himself on issues of substance, sometimes during the same speech.

My biggest worry is foreign policy. Our standing in the world is about to collapse. The world can’t address problems like climate change when the leader of the only superpower (no, China doesn’t count) denies it even exists. And while our role as the world’s policeman has not been especially successful of late, the power vacuum left by American isolationism will be much, much worse. Trump has already jeopardized the legitimacy of NATO’s mutual-defense provisions, maybe even the organization itself, by questioning whether the US should defend NATO members from Russian aggression.

The thought of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief of (by far) the most powerful military in the history of the world is genuinely terrifying. The Trump administration might refrain from intervening in places like Yemen where there’s no possible way to do good, but it could also provoke or even initiate a conflict elsewhere on the flimsiest of pretenses. We know from recent experience that it’s not too hard for a president to take the country into a full-blown war just because he wants to.

Donald Trump is not known for getting along peacefully with others, and he has the potential has the potential to wreak untold death and destruction with the arsenal at his command, even without considering nuclear weapons.

Like the Brexiteers and the Filipinos who elected Rodrigo Duterte (look him up), Americans in their frustration and anger have freely voted to reject institutions, norms, and order.

We have chosen chaos.

I Voted

I filled out my ballot today, and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

There are lots of other decisions on the ballot, many of which will have more practical effects on my life. I urge everyone to carefully consider everything on their ballot – it’s all important.

But in this post, I’m only going to discuss my choice for President.

Above all, I voted against Donald Trump. He is not fit to serve this country in any capacity, let alone lead it, and I will waste no further (virtual) ink on him.

I also voted for Hillary Clinton. I voted for her not just because she’s the least bad option, but because I believe she will be a positive force for this country. I can’t give her my full support, but then I haven’t unreservedly supported any major politician since Ronald Reagan, when I was too young to realize that every politician is a flawed human being.

For a start, it’s important to me to vote for the first woman to become President. Progress on equality for all Americans has been excruciatingly slow since, well, ever, and I believe that President Clinton will be a voice not just for women but for everyone who wants to live up to the declaration that “all men are created equal”.

I generally support the policy positions of the Democratic party, and much of the Republican platform seems downright extreme, especially compared to moderate party I remember from my childhood. But with the exception of climate change, which needs immediate, responsible action, my vote isn’t about whose policies I prefer. Given the extreme intransigence of the Republican party, I expect very little of President Clinton’s agenda to get through Congress anyway.

I want government to work, to accomplish the myriad things large and small that keep the country functioning every day. We clearly can’t trust the Republican Party with this task – they have spent the past thirty years trying to convince us that government is always the problem, never the solution, and that’s even before considering the spectacular ignorance of the party’s current candidate. The Democratic Party’s record is far from excellent – they usually advocate more government rather than better government as the solution to a particular problem – but I do have cause for hope. Hillary Clinton has more and broader experience in federal government than anyone who has ever run for President, and I believe that experience will make her an effective manager of the executive branch. When I voted for Barak Obama eight years ago, my biggest reservation was that he would lack the skills to run the executive branch effectively. His administration has been more competent than I expected – certainly better than the Bush administration – but we can always do better. That is why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. She may well disappoint, but I have hope.

I do have reservations about the next Clinton administration. Bill Clinton’s policies on criminal justice and welfare reform, though universally supported at the time, have had devastating effects. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy has gotten American involved in ugly, bloody conflicts across the Middle East, resulting in death and destruction across the region. Unfortunately, no public figure has been able to articulate anything better. Though broad principles apply, every situation is different in foreign policy, and right now an awful lot of those situations are going to turn out bad no matter what.

The rest of my reservations have to do with the general haze of dishonesty surrounding Clinton. The trouble is, the haze is all we can see. In all the hype about Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! or the email server or whatever else, we’ve seen a lot of things that look vaguely shifty or shady, but no investigation has ever produced concrete proof of anything criminal or even seriously dishonest. If there were something real there, we’d have seen it by now.