Archive for December, 2018

Witch hunt watch

December 31, 2018

1. Trump’s charitable foundation has been described as “a personal piggy bank for his businesses, legal bills and presidential campaign.” (Albany Times-Union, 12/19) Why should we care? Because donations to a charitable foundation are tax deductible. Using that money to benefit him personally, rather than for any philanthropic purpose, enabled Trump to illegally deduct those dollars from his income tax, as “charitable contributions.” A fraud upon the government and a theft from taxpayers.

Examples of disbursements by this so-called “charity” included $100,000 to settle a claim against Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort and $158,000 to settle one against the Trump National Golf Club. I have no details about those claims — likely they involved more of the fraudulent rip-offs that were Trump’s stock in trade. So he settled those frauds by means of a further fraud.

The “charity” was also suborned by Trump’s presidential campaign to make at least five $100,000 grants to Iowa groups in the days before the political caucuses there. Political contributions or expenditures are not tax-deductible, and not allowed for a charitable foundation. (This scam additionally violated campaign finance laws.)

Due to these abuses, Trump’s “charity” is being shut down, with Trump and his sons barred from serving on any charitable boards.

We already knew the 2016 election was subverted by Russian hacking and disinformation. This criminal mis-use of Trump’s charitable foundation is one more way in which he corrupted the election and procured the presidency by fraud.

A footnote: The Washington Post reported that the foundation’s remaining assets include a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow, bought for $12,000, and two paintings of the business genius Trump that cost $30,000; “the three items are now valued at $975.”

2. The New York Times recently ran an extensive report on Trump’s business history, littered with lies, cheating, frauds, and rip-offs. The Times detailed, in particular, how his family cheated the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars in estate tax on his father’s fortune. How exactly? Fred Trump ran a real estate firm owning many properties. Donald set up a fake company supposedly in the business of providing services (like maintenance, accounting, etc) for such properties — and falsely billing the father’s firm for those supposed services. The real aim was to move money from Fred’s empire into Donald’s pocket, improperly avoiding the estate taxes that would have been due if Fred had just left him the money.* This was actually a double fraud, because Fred’s business could deduct these payments from its own tax returns, as though they were legitimate business outlays.

A footnote: Trump lied in insisting he got nothing from his father except a small loan that was repaid. (It was not.)

3. Michael Cohen, at Trump’s direction and using Trump’s money, bribed two women to bury their stories of adulterous affairs with Trump. Trump originally lied that he knew nothing about it. Now he admits otherwise, yet he insists it was merely a private matter and not illegal. But the Justice Department thought differently, and Cohen is going to prison for these crimes.

Here’s why: the payments were made shortly before the election for the obvious purpose of affecting its outcome. The idea that it was to spare his wife is preposterous; as if Trump cared; and Melania knew what she was marrying. No, these were plainly political expenditures, coming under the purview of federal election law. Which limits such contributions and requires their reporting. Trump’s secret payments were a serious crime.

This too corrupted the 2016 election which Trump won by fraud.

A footnote: Rudy Giuliani dismissed the significance of these crimes by saying nobody died. This was immediately followed, on the radio news, by a report on the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal, in the custody of ICE, resulting from the inhuman policy of this fraudulently elected president.

The foregoing is by no means a full list of Trump’s misdeeds. There’s also, for example, the Trump University fraud, which he paid $25 million to settle. And now the corruption of his inaugural budget is under investigation. And of course also the Mueller stuff. Some will doubtless say, “They all do it.” No sir; not like this. (Anything the Clintons may have done pales in comparison.) In all the annals of U.S. political history, Trump’s record of pervasive criminal fraud is utterly without precedent. But the really shocking thing is that 40+% of Americans still view him favorably.

Drain the swamp.

Lock him up.

Make America great again.

* Living parents can give children gifts, free of tax, but above $15,000 annually they incur a gift tax; this is to prevent avoiding the estate tax via gifts.

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Democrats and anti-democrats

December 26, 2018

Democracy is great . . . until you elect people who don’t believe in it. Like in Venezuela, where a criminal gang got power, and now can’t be voted out while looting the country.

And like Wisconsin and Michigan. Republicans were voted out of the governorships and other statewide offices. But though also outvoted for state legislative seats, they kept majorities through extreme gerrymandering. And, Venezuela-like, used that legislative control to strip the incoming governors and other officials of key powers, grabbing those powers for themselves.

Politics is a hardball game. But this is something new — shredding the rules of the game as they’ve long been understood in democracies. A key element of democratic culture is honoring voter sovereignty, pluralism, and the legitimacy of opposition. When you lose an election, you accept it, bow out, and let the other side have its day.

But Republicans no longer believe in democracy. They only believe in their own power. They executed their power grabs in Michigan and Wisconsin, with hardly a fig leaf of justification, because they could. Likewise when they abused their U.S. Senate majority to steal a Supreme Court seat, something unprecedented in our history.

Republicans’ rejection of democratic culture has long been clear too from their voter suppression tactics. Instead of trying to attract opposing voters, they aim to stop their voting.

Blacks are primary targets. A lot of Republican election wins have actually been achieved by preventing many blacks (and members of other demographic groups) from voting. This was certainly true of Georgia’s gubernatorial election; maybe the 2016 presidential election too.

Despite these shameful tactics, most blacks in America still can vote. And what mystifies me is why their turnout is not virtually 100%.

We’re endlessly told how racist America is; that “black lives matter” must be fought for. Well, the most powerful weapon in combating all that is the vote. We’re also endlessly told that the system is rigged and voting is pointless, it doesn’t matter. Yet while a single vote may not change anything, millions of votes do. Money may rule, but only if it can buy votes. People can refuse to be fooled. And at the end of the day, it’s votes that rule.

Look again at 2016 and tell me voting doesn’t matter. America would be a completely different country today if all blacks able to vote in 2016 had done so. Probably if just 5% more had done so.

Racism? Don’t talk to me about racism if you don’t vote.

Mad Dog

December 24, 2018

While the government is partly shut down, held hostage to his futile wall demand, the Russian stooge in the White House is pulling our troops out of Syria. He says ISIS is defeated. That’s as true as his claiming North Korea is denuclearizing. Trump’s first foreign policy precept is (as in everything): just lie.

Here too is the great deal maker in action. His negotiating strategy, and second foreign policy precept: give away everything for nothing in return. As with moving our embassy to Jerusalem, which he actually boasted took that issue off the table. For nothing in return. Now he’s given Putin, and Iran, and Bashar Assad, and ISIS, and Turkey’s Erdogan, something they all wanted very much. Getting nothing in return.

Meantime our erstwhile Kurdish allies — the one force in the region that was really in our corner — we’ve now repaid by royally screwing, abandoning them to the mercies of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and ISIS, all of whom want them destroyed.

Trump is also pulling half our troops from Afghanistan. For years we’ve tried to get the Taliban to negotiate. Now their intransigence is rewarded. They too are delighted by Trump’s actions.

So there’s his third foreign policy precept: give our allies the finger while rewarding our foes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest against this policy, pointedly saying Trump “deserves” a defense secretary who’s in line with it. If such a person exists. (But none of this should be dignified with the word “policy;” in truth Trump just acts blindly on whim.)

Mattis’s letter said he’d retire February 28. Trump then tweeted he’d be out by January 1.

When first nominating him, Trump reveled in his “Mad Dog Mattis” nickname. Mattis himself reportedly hated that name. Who’s the real mad dog?

Jim Mattis should be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “Make America great again?” Let’s just hope it survives this shitstorm. Not even half over, two years and 27 days left. And it will get worse.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus

December 22, 2018

We gave our daughter the middle name Verity, which actually means truth, and tried to raise her accordingly.

About the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, she wised up pretty early, as a toddler. About Santa, she was skeptical, but brought scientific reason to bear. A big unwieldy rocking horse she doubted could have gotten into the house without Santa’s help. So that convinced her — for a while at least.

Recently a first grade teacher was fired for telling students there is no Santa (nor any other kind of magic). This reality dunk was considered a kind of child abuse; puncturing their illusions deemed cruel; plenty of time for that when they grow up. However, the problem is that a lot of people never do get with reality. As comedian Neal Brennan said (On The Daily Show), belief in Santa Claus may be harmless but is a “gateway drug” to other more consequential delusions.

People do usually give up belief in Santa. But not astrology, UFOs, and, of course (the big ones) God and Heaven. The only thing making those illusions seemingly more credible than Santa Claus is the fact that so many people still cling to them.

America is indeed mired in a pervasive culture of magical beliefs, not just with religion, but infecting the whole public sphere. Like the “Good guy with a gun” theory. Like climate change denial. And of course over 40% still believe the world’s worst liar is somehow “making America great again.” (History shows even the rottenest leaders always attract plenty of followers.)

Liberals are not immune. Beliefs about vaccines and GM foods being harmful are scientifically bunk. In fact it’s those beliefs that do harm.

I’ve written repeatedly about the importance of confirmation bias — how we love information that seemingly supports our beliefs and shun anything contrary. The Economist recently reported on a fascinating study, where people had to choose whether to read and respond to eight arguments supporting their own views on gay marriage, or eight against. But choosing the former could cost them money. Yet almost two-thirds of Americans (on both sides of the issue) actually still opted against exposure to unwelcome advocacy! In another study, nearly half of voters made to hear why others backed the opposing presidential candidate likened the experience to having a tooth pulled.

And being smarter actually doesn’t help. In fact, smarter people are better at coming up with rationalizations for their beliefs and for dismissing countervailing information.

Yet a further study reported by The Economist used an MRI to scan people’s brains while they read statements for or against their beliefs. Based on what brain regions lit up, the study concluded that major beliefs are an integral part of one’s sense of personal identity. No wonder they’re so impervious to reality.

Remarkably, given the shitstorm so totally perverting the Republican party, not a single Republican member of Congress has renounced it.

The Economist ended by saying “accurate information does not always seem to have much of an effect (but we will keep trying anyway).”

So will I.

The REALLY big picture

December 19, 2018

We start from the fact that the Universe was created by God in 4004 BC.

Oops, not exactly. It was actually more like 13,800,000,000 BC (give or take a year or two). The event is called the Big Bang — a name given by astronomer Fred Hoyle intended sarcastically — and it was not an “explosion.” Rather, if you take the laws of physics and run the tape backwards, you get to a point where the Universe is virtually infinitely tiny, dense, and hot. A “singularity,” where the laws of physics break down — and we can’t go farther back to hypothesize what came before. Indeed, since Time began with the Big Bang, “before” has no meaning. Nevertheless, while some might say God did it, it’s reasonable instead to posit some natural phenomenon, a “quantum fluctuation” or what have you.

So after the Big Bang we started with what’s called the “Quantum Gravity Epoch.” It was rather brief as “epochs” go – lasting, to be exact, 10-43 of a second. That’s 1 divided by the number 1 followed by 43 zeroes.

That was followed by the “Inflationary Epoch,” which also went fairly quick, ending when the Universe was still a youngster 10-34 of a second old.

But in that span of time between 10-43 and 10-34 of a second, something big happened. You know how it is when you eat a rich dessert and virtually blow up in size? We don’t know what the Universe ate, but it did blow up, going from a size almost infinitely small to one almost infinitely large, in just that teensy fraction of a second; thus expanding way faster than the speed of light.

After that hectic start, things became more leisurely. It took another few hundred million years, at least, for the first stars to twinkle on.

This is the prevailing scientific model. If you find this story hard to believe, well, you can believe the Bible instead.

Here are some more facts to get your head around. Our galaxy comprises one or two hundred billion stars, and is around 100,000 light years across. A light year is the distance light travels in a year – about 6 trillion miles. And ours is actually a pipsqueak galaxy; at the bottom of the range which goes up to ten times bigger. And how many galaxies are there? Wait for it . . . two trillion. But that’s only in the observable part of the Universe; we can only see objects whose light could reach us within the 13.8 billion years the Universe has existed. Because of its expansion during that time, the observable part actually stretches 93 billion light years. We don’t know how much bigger the total Universe might be. Could be ten trillion light years across. (I don’t want to talk about “infinite.”)

Now, it was Hubble who in 1929 made the astounding discovery that some of the pinpoints of light we were seeing in the sky are not stars but other galaxies. And more, they are moving away from us; the farther away, the faster. Actually, it’s not that the galaxies are moving; rather, space itself is expanding. Jain analogized the galaxies to ants on the surface of a balloon. If you inflate it, the distance between ants grows, even while they themselves don’t move. And note, space is not expanding into anything. It is making more space as it goes along.

But there are two big mysteries. Newton posited that the force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between masses. However, what we see in other galaxies does not conform to this law; it’s as though there has to be more mass. We don’t yet know what that is; we call it “dark matter.” (There is an alternative theory, that Newton’s law of gravity doesn’t hold true at great distances, which might account for what we see with no “dark matter.”)

The other problem is that what we know of physics and gravity suggests that the Universe’s expansion should be slowing. But we have found that at a certain point during its history, the expansion accelerated, and continues to do so. This implies the existence of a force we can’t yet account for; we label it “dark energy.”

“Ordinary matter” (that we can detect) accounts for only 5% of the Universe. Another 24% is dark matter and 71% dark energy. (Remember that matter and energy are interchangeable. That’s how we get atom bombs.)

But, again, the story is a lot simpler if you choose instead to believe the Bible.

(This is my recap of a recent talk by Vivek Jain, SUNY Associate Professor of Physics, at the Capital District Humanist Society.)

An immodest proposal for reducing inequality

December 15, 2018

Inequality — the cri de coeur of the left. The rich get richer while the poor get . . . actually richer too, in fact, though not as fast. We should stop obsessing enviously that the top 1% or 0.1% are so rich, as if their wealth makes others poor (it’s not so). Instead, the concern should be to give more people more opportunities to get rich(er).

America’s real inequality is between the well educated and the less educated. And that gap inexorably grows as the economy increasingly demands smart workers. So education ought to be the big equalizer. But U.S. education does the opposite — instead of giving the poor a hand up, it slaps them down. The education they get is worse than what the better-off receive.

And they only get it for half the year! What with weekends, holidays, and, mainly, the summer vacation which — at three months in America — is just about the world’s longest.

Fixing all that’s wrong in education for poorer kids is a huge challenge. But here’s one extremely simple thing we could do: cut the summer break. The education poor children get isn’t what it should be, but it’s better than nothing, yet for three months of the year we do give them nothing.

Poor kids fall further behind during those months. Studies have shown that such a prolonged hiatus causes children to lose a lot of what they learned in the preceding term. Affluent parents can offset this with enriching summer activities, which poorer ones can’t afford. Even just letting kids range free outdoors can aid development, but even this is curtailed by safety fears (largely overblown; though in the worst neighborhoods it is indeed dangerous for kids to be in the streets). Summer jobs too have largely become a thing of the past. The result is that poorer kids often spend summers as couch potatoes, rotting their brains.

A 2007 Baltimore study found the summer learning fall-off could account for two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor students, by their mid-teens.

It even actually makes poor families poorer. During summers their kids miss free meals in schools, so their grocery bills rise, and they face added child care costs too.

Lengthening the school year would cost money, but would benefit all American children — the poor especially, reducing the opportunity gap. We can afford the added cost. Indeed, this investment in our kids and their future ability to contribute to the economy would surely more than pay for itself in the long run.

At the very least, we ought to do much more to provide summer activities, including meals, for poorer kids. Instead, Trump (who in the campaign challenged black Americans, “what the hell have you got to lose?”) has sought to cut all funding for such programs from the federal budget. Better educated citizens aren’t good for today’s Republican party.

Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

“The Discovery” — Scientific proof of Heaven

December 6, 2018

Our daughter recommended seeing this Netflix film, “The Discovery.” It starts with scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) giving a rare interview about his discovery proving that we go somewhere after death.

This has precipitated a wave of suicides. Asked if he feels responsible, Harbor simply says “no.” Then a man shoots himself right in front of him.

Next, cut to Will and Ayla (“Isla” according to Wikipedia) who meet as the lone passengers on an island ferry. Talk turns to “the discovery.” Will is a skeptic who doesn’t think it’s proven.

Turns out Will is Harbor’s estranged son, traveling to reconnect with him at Harbor’s island castle. Where he runs a cult peopled with lost souls unmoored by “the discovery.” While continuing his work, trying to learn where, exactly, the dead go.

Meantime, people keep killing themselves, aiming to “get there” — wherever “there” is. Will saves Ayla from drowning herself and brings her into the castle.

Harbor has created a machine to get a fix on “there” by probing a brain during near-death experiences — his own. It doesn’t work. “We need a corpse,” he decides.

So Will — his skepticism now forgotten — and Ayla steal one from a morgue. This is where the film got seriously silly. (Real scientists nowadays aren’t body snatchers.) The scene with the dead guy hooked up to the machine and subjected to repeated electrical shocks was straight out of Frankenstein 1931.

This doesn’t work either. At first. But later, alone in the lab, Will finds a video actually had gotten extracted from the corpse’s brain. Now he’s on a mission to decode it.

I won’t divulge more of the plot. But the “there” in question is “another plane of existence.” Whatever that might actually mean. There’s also some “alternate universes” thing going on, combined with some Groundhog Dayish looping. A real conceptual mishmash.

One review faulted the film for mainly wandering in the weeds of relationship tensions rather than really exploring the huge scientific and philosophical issues. I agree.

The film’s metaphysical incoherence goes with the territory of “proving” an afterlife. There was no serious effort at scientific plausibility, which would be a tall order. Mind and self are entirely rooted in brain function. When the brain dies, that’s it.

The film didn’t delve either into the thinking of any of the folks who committed suicide, which would have been interesting. After all, many millions already strongly believe in Heaven, yet are in no hurry to go. But, as I have said, “belief” is a tricky concept. You may persuade yourself that you believe something, while another part of your mind does not.

The film’s supposed scientific proof presumably provides the clincher. Actually, religious people, even while professing that faith stands apart from questions of evidence, nevertheless do latch on to whatever shreds of evidence they can, to validate their beliefs. For Heaven, there’s plenty, including testimonies of people who’ve been there. But there’s still that part of the brain that doesn’t quite buy it. Would an assertedly scientific discovery change this?

I doubt it. Most people have a shaky conception of science, with many religious folks holding an adversarial stance toward it. Science is, remember, the progenitor of evolution, which they hate. Meantime — this the film completely ignored — religionists generally consider suicide a sin against God. Surely that can’t be your best route to Heaven!

The film did mention that people going on a trip want to see a brochure first. That’s what Harbor’s further work aimed to supply. Without it — without “the discovery” having provided any idea what the afterlife might be like — killing oneself to get there seems a pretty crazy crapshoot. Even for religious nuts.

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.