Who Gives a Shit About Iowa Anyway?

So the news is engaged in a full court press today, bound and determined to prove that their horserace really is a race and they really aren't blowing smoke up our collective asses.  I'm doing my best to avoid this mess today, not listening to the news in a complete reversal of my normal patterns for daily life.

It is Monday though and Monday is Freethought Radio day (as well as Point of Inquiry day lately) so I have been listening to my regular podcasts (and BBC news) and Freethought Radio had an interesting interview with Justin Scott who has been doing some brave work in Iowa, going around asking questions of presidential candidates at various meetings attempting to call attention to the slights being offered to minority groups in the US when it comes to the subject of faith.

I wanted to highlight the bigotry by omission of candidates for government office; candidates who go around touting their religion prominently.  This importance placed on their beliefs in the supernatural leaves me wondering openly if they understand how those who believe differently feel when they stress how important their religion is to them. How important they think their religion is to good governance in the US.

The problem for me is, neither Justin Scott nor FFRF seem to be interested in producing content to be consumed directly on the internet and only on the internet.  FFRF's near cluelessness when it comes to web programming is what lead me to attempt to catalog all their episodes several years ago, a project that I finally had to give up when I realized that I wasn't willing to volunteer my effort on the project indefinitely.

First off, the videos of his interviews are not where he said they were; they are on his personal youtube channel which I finally located here. This is a playlist of all the interviews to date;




FFRF's link resolves on Facebook to look like this;


The youtube link conveys about the same level of information.  Therefore it falls to me to write something that I can share even though, as the title of the piece says, I really could not care less about Iowa. Or New Hampshire, for that matter.

Why?  Because they aren't representative of America.  They just agreed that they would go first, and they are determined as small Midwestern states to make themselves out to be more important than they are by being first to caucus and first to primary in the US, because they are utterly forgettable by almost any other measure unless you like snow.

So the presidential candidates run around in these little isolated areas of the US for months at a time, far longer than the voting block that they represent merits if you were looking at national influence, percentage of voting Americans. The idea that these two races mean anything would be laughable if only the media could be convinced to laugh.  Instead they insist on portraying the primaries as horseraces and build up the competition as if what we are witnessing was a sporting event and not the future leaders of our country vying for attention.

Which is why the subject of Justin Scott's videos interests me, even though his location in Iowa galls me ever so slightly.  Iowa is one of those regions where religion figures prominently; and when I say religion, I mean evangelical christians, the omnipotent WASP's who have run the country since its beginning.  The people who are most threatened by the presidency of Barack Obama and the likely potential that he will be succeeded by Hillary Clinton, if we are lucky.  If we aren't lucky we'll have any one of the current GOP candidates currently doing their best to out-conservative each other.

Being brave enough to go out in public and film, to identify oneself as an atheist and ask how the candidates plan on protecting your right to not believe.  That takes real courage.  I wanted to let Justin know that I appreciated his work, even though I have to spend several quality minutes (hours actually) writing a post highlighting the important work that he is doing.  I wish that more members of the media had the balls to ask the really hard questions.

Challenger 30 Years Later

"Everyone knows how they died, we want people to remember how they lived."June Scobee-Rodgers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee

(author unknown)
At 10:40 am on January 28th 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was issued the command "go for throttle up" and the subsequent explosion ended space’s age of innocence. I remember where I was that day. Like most of our memories of those kinds of events, it is probably full of holes and exaggerations.  But I do remember it.  I also remember honoring the Challenger crew's sacrifice with the crew of the (can you remember the name before you read it?) Columbia.  For quite some time my personal page at ranthonysteele.com had a memorial page for the Columbia and Challenger as a tribute to the sacrifice of both crews.
High Flight
(the pilot's creed)

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth 
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
--and done a hundred things 
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung 
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, 
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung 
My eager craft through footless falls of air... 
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue 
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace 
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew-- 
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod 
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space, 
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee
The above was found in a particularly moving article by Nigel Rees (on another now dead website) describing how the poem came to prominence and caught the attention of Ronald Reagan (or one of his speechwriters) who later remembered it and uttered it in memoriam for the Challenger crew. It was the words of Columbia commander Rick Husband that caused me to go looking for the poem back in 2003, when he unknowingly forshadowed his impending death by observing;
It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind 
Four days later, his shuttle burned up on re-entry.  I was awakened from an uneasy sleep that Saturday morning, by the ringing of the phone.  One of our fellow space enthusiast friends calling to tell us to turn on the news.  Columbia had been destroyed.

Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, whose crews were all killed within the space of a week on the calendar, if over 36 years in elapsed time. That is the way it has been for ten years and more for me.  I've kept notations on my calendar since the Columbia disaster, so that I could remember these crews and their sacrifices on the anniversaries of their deaths.

Space.com
The space program means a lot to the Wife and I.  She's become so heartbroken that we still don't have a permanent lunar base for her to immigrate to that she refuses to discuss the subject of space in any other form than as a betrayal by the US government of the people of the nation, especially people like she and I who dreamed of going to space someday.  My balance issues convinced me long before I became disabled that I would never have made it to space anyway, so I don't take the betrayal personally.  But it is hard to argue that we weren't lied to when the ISS is a shadow of its promised size and scope, and that moon vacations still aren't a thing we can experience.  Not to mention the complete abdication of NASA's involvement in space as it pertains to getting supplies to and from the ISS, the reliance on Russia to transfer astronauts to and from the station via 1960's Soyuz technology.  These are dark days for space enthusiasts when it comes to manned space missions.

So I was a little surprised that I hadn't noted that today was Challenger day until listening to the BBC World News podcast. As I frequently do, I paused the program and went over to the browser on my phone and inquired about current articles on the Challenger disaster that might be worth sharing.

Top of the list was this piece over at Gawker. It is probably worth mentioning that I have a love/hate relationship with Gawker, the name of the website itself recalls miles of freeway made impassable by hundreds if not thousands of people who just have to look at automobile accidents. Maybe I'm weird, but I can still summon up images from my high school drivers education classes, so I don't need a refresher on just how we lemmings die encased in steel on US freeways.

The subject of the article was even more enraging than a freeway pile-up that keeps you from getting where you need to be until several hours late, though;
...after the disaster, over time, a different and more horrible story took shape: The Challenger made it through the spectacular eruption of its external fuel tank with its cabin more or less intact. Rather than being carried to Heaven in an instant, the crippled vessel kept sailing upward for another three miles before its momentum gave out, then plunged 12 miles to the ocean. The crew was, in all likelihood, conscious for the full two and a half minutes until it hit the water.
This particular bit of conspiratorial fantasy really isn't news.  The briefest perusal of the wiki entry on the subject of the Challenger disaster will reveal that it has been premised that the astronauts survived the initial breakup. It isn't even controversial anymore. There is little evidence either way on the subject, and knowing they survived (or that the crew of the just as tragic Columbia disaster survived) the initial breakup only to be killed later really doesn't prove anything, or provide any great insight into either tragedy.

I remember picking up at least one supermarket tabloid in the months after Challenger went down that purported to have written transcripts of the last moments of the crew as preserved on the flight recorder.  That concoction was a total fantasy, beneath even the satirical minds of the writers of the Onion today; and the grisly nature of interest in the last moments of the life of a person about to die tragically is something that I've never had the stomach for.  That there would have been panic from trained military flyers even in the face of certain doom is very doubtful. As more than one pilot has mentioned to me over the years, the most common last words on flight recorders is oh, shit.  That is because trained pilots are too busy working the problem to realize that ultimate failure is about to kill them until the last moment. When it is too late to panic and have that panic recorded for posterity.

NASA image STS 107 launch
Some of the experiments survived
The pilots of Challenger and Columbia were both powerless to save themselves and their crews. That is the true nature of these tragedies.  The decisions that cost their lives were made by people above them in authority, people who were willing to risk the lives of others even when the engineers who designed those systems stood solidly against launching under the weather conditions present at the time.

Failure of the O-rings caused the Challenger disaster. It is doubtful that a parachute system or some other secondary contingency could have worked in the specific scenario the evolved in that launch. There was a way to decouple the shuttle from the tank and glide home, but that contingency failed with the explosion of the central fuel tank.

Ice and foam chunks damaged the leading edge of the wing of Columbia during its last launch.  There was no way to rescue the crew once they were in space without risking another crew flying under similar conditions, if the next shuttle could have even been made ready in time. Thinking back to the steely-eyed missile men who brought Apollo 13 back home, one wonders what they might have done if they had still been in charge when Columbia was in space.  Would they have risked an EVA to check the wing? Probably. Would they have found a way to get a rescue mission up to Columbia in time to get the crew off?  Maybe. Was there some way to seal the wing in space so it could survive re-entry? People familiar with the mission said no, still say no.

Hindsight is always 20/20. There would have been no need for a parachute contingency (and the added weight/cost) had NASA listened to its own engineers in 1986, because they recommended a scrub and were over-ruled on the subject.  A similar discussion occurred just prior to the launch of Columbia as well.

I have recommended this book several times on the blog, Deadly Decisions: How False Knowledge Sank the Titanic, Blew Up the Shuttle, and Led America into War.  If you really want to understand just how stupidly large human systems fail, read that book.  You will come away with a completely different view on history and on current events.  The failures of the shuttle missions in particular remain haunting to the American psyche in ways that so many of our other failures do not. Perhaps this is because they touch on the hopes and dreams of so many. Perhaps because they remain the most visible black marks on the aspirations of this country.

New York Daily News
Personally they represent the end of manned space exploration missions in my lifetime. That is what I think of most bitterly when I recall the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. I remember the teacher Christa McAuliffe and her brave, hopeful words.  Her energetic wave as she boarded the transport heading for the shuttle.  I remember thinking upon hearing of the shuttle's destruction there goes my chance to get into space.  Because that is what it meant, what the tragedy still means to me to this day. The end of hope for a brighter future.  With that knowledge comes acceptance of our limitations as human animals and a greater understanding of just how fragile we creatures are. How fragile our home is.

We may be stuck on this rock for awhile yet, so we probably should figure out how to keep it safe for the time being. Try to avoid that next big thing heading our way.  What is it? Only the future knows.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Hanlon's Razor

Blizzard 2016

Tiny snowflakes fell like radioactive jewels. The streets were deserted. Electric lights were few. Cars were abandoned alongside the road. As I crossed the Beltway, I could see hungry zombies roaming the empty streets below.  
I was followed briefly by a State Trooper, but when he saw my Alaska plates he waved me on with a brave thumbs up. Godspeed, Northman!  
Andrews AFB was dark, the great warbirds frozen in rigor mortis on the ramps beneath a load of snow at least an 1/8th of an inch thick. 
Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station
Watching Weather Channel coverage of winter storm Jonas today, myself.  Like Jim, I am amused by the panic that most people seem to be swallowed by when the weather becomes less than optional outside.  He posted this video of Jimmy Buffett's tribute to enduring cold weather as an afterthought;





Living in Austin for the last twenty years, I have learned to be cautious when the weather is anything other than warm and sunny. If it rains here I stay home. If it ices here, I stay home. These people are nuts on ice and water. If it clouds over and starts to rain, Austinites slide off the roads by the hundreds. Blows my mind.

There was a common joke that circulated back in the years I lived in San Angelo. "There are only three things in West Texas that can kill you; the weather, the animals, and West Texans on ice." I remember riding shotgun in a friend's car during a pretty impressive snowstorm, traveling back to Sweetwater from the TSTC campus that was just outside of town. The snow was packed across the road, with drifts on the sides of the road. This journey sticks in my mind because it had never occurred to me that some people did not know how to drive on slick surfaces before. I looked over at the speedometer and noticed he was doing 50+ on snow, no snow tires, chains, etc. I commented that he might want to slow down since it was slick. He applied some brakes (never apply brakes on slick surfaces) the car started to spin gently sideways. Brakes applied in full locked mode, we continued to spin until we were traveling backwards down the highway at 50 miles an hour. luckily we hit a snowbank and stopped before hitting anything else.  We did make it to our destination, eventually.

I grew up in Kansas, learned to drive in Kansas. In Kansas the snow starts falling in September and continues falling off and on until April. We had blizzards in Kansas like the one currently hitting the Eastern coast pretty much every year.  Somewhere around this house I have pictures of the Wichita County High School in the 50's, snow drifts up to the second floor of the school. Learning to drive in Kansas involved driving in snow and ice conditions, pretty much constantly.  Following a snowplow through rural Kansas in order to get to a city with a commercial center was a pretty common occurrence.  I tell you all this so that it is clear, I've seen snow. I've driven in snow.

Sitting in traffic in my brand new car, small child strapped into the car seat behind me, I have watched while the vehicles around me literally bowl over other cars already visibly stuck on an icy overpass. Watched while people attempt to escape their cars on the bridge, only to slide headlong under the car because the surface is that slick.  That day I waited patiently for traffic to clear, idling my way home on back roads as soon as I could get away from the demolition derby that was occurring on the freeway. That is Austin when there is the slightest amount of precipitation on the roadways, much less when there is an actual freeze.

Snowman from the blizzard of 2010
There are times when I will venture forth in inclement weather here.  Specific events that I know will keep most people off the roads.  We had a snowstorm that actually stuck to the ground in Austin back in 1994ish. There was snow all over the roads across the city. With the snow visible I knew that most of Austin would roll back over and go to sleep, so it was probably safe for me to venture out and enjoy a relaxed drive to work for a change.

It was the most pleasant commute of my working life. The city was abandoned, as far as I could tell. Not a vehicle to be seen on the freeways, the side roads, anywhere. I just sipped my coffee and idled the 3 or 4 miles to work. The most troubling part of the trip was the steep downhill on 19th street to the Lamar Blvd. intersection. Knowing there would be no stopping on that hill, I just kept it in first gear and let gravity do all the work.  I did see several vehicles abandoned on the uphill side of the road (poor souls, I thought) then I turned right onto Lamar and idled into the office parking garage.

I got more work done in the 6 hours it took for the snow to melt and the rest of Austin to make it out to work than I probably did the rest of that week. The rest of the office marveled at the daring exhibited by venturing out on snowy roads. "How did you do it?" they asked. "Just another day's commute where I grew up" I replied. Didn't even have to follow a snowplow, so it was easy.


The State of the Union Requires No Response

As I have confessed previously, I watch the State of the Union address pretty much every year as a matter of course. Some years I grit my teeth and bear it, some years I have to watch it with an accompanying joke track (the only thing I tolerate an MST3K treatment for is politics) since Barack Obama has been President, I've pretty much sat down to watch with something akin to interest if not utter fascination.

The State of the Union address is provided for in the Constitution, Article 2, Section 3;
"He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient"
George Washington and John Adams delivered the address in person. Jefferson, who hated the pomp that surrounded much of the Presidency, declined to give the address in person and had it sent to Congress to be read by the clerk. Every President followed Jefferson's example until the time of Woodrow Wilson. Carter was the most recent President to decline to address congress in person.

I'm not sure which is more disdainful of the legislature, to have the President speak to them directly or to have his message read to Congress by the clerk. But I can say with pretty firm conviction that the worst and most presumptuous idea ever hatched in American politics is the response to the State of the Union crafted by the opposition party and read by some sacrificial lamb that they've convinced to stand up and embarrass themselves before the nation.

The President speaks for the people when he delivers his message; that is the point of it. Here is this year's State of the Union address;


It has been patently obvious to this concerned voter, pretty much since I started viewing and reading these speeches, that the majority of the content was pretty uncontroversial. At least, uncontroversial at the time. What history teaches is another thing entirely. And yet, every single time that a speech is delivered these days, someone is tapped from the opposition party to make pretense that the content of the President's address is incorrect in some real fashion.

In the years since 2008, this tendency to pose in mock outrage before the camera has fractured, though.  Not content to offer just one critique, for the last few years the various factions of the opposition have felt that they needed to voice their particular flavor of outrage lest their self-importance be forgotten.

This year was no different. In fact, the clamor for attention after the SOTU was delivered has been comic in proportion. From what I can gather, virtually every Republican member of the House of Representatives felt they had to personally put the President in his place.  Here is the video posted by the bloviating windbag that pretends to represent my section of Austin;


I say bloviating because, like all of the statements in opposition, this one is made up largely of nothing but air. They could have showed up and simply yelled fear! fear! fear! repeatedly for all the facts contained in the (mercifully) short responses.

I am regularly spammed by this... person (and both the Senators for my state) Having unwittingly corresponded with his office, I am now permanently on his spam list, as if I have any interest in anything these Republicans might say.

Which leads me back to the adjective, pretends. Pretends to Represent. This is demonstrable. Austin is overwhelmingly liberal. Not going to change at any point that is discernible to residents within Austin.  They were dope smoking, nude sunbathing hippies long before I got here, and the weed has not gotten less potent with time.  Willie makes sure of that.

The leadership of this state is elected by the rest of Texas which is angry and conservative. (medical marijuana should help with that. Talk to your doctor!) They have taken it upon themselves to attempt to remove the only liberal Representative from Texas by breaking the only liberal areas IN Texas into as many districts as they can reasonably separate them into.  So Austin doesn't have one or two districts, which would be liberal.  No, Austin is split into no less than 5 different districts, with my district being a narrow strip through the center of Austin that then spreads out to cover 9 additional COUNTIES in Texas so as to dilute the Democratic vote in central Austin and place it in the hands of this... person.

It is also worth noting that the Republicans who have controlled this state since the dear departed Ann Richards was unseated by the then owner of the Texas Rangers, George W. Bush (you've probably heard of him) have failed at their dream of removing all traces of the stain of liberalism from their great state because they not only have one liberal member to caucus with, they now have two.

Back to the subject at hand.  This pretender who poses as my Representative (not that I liked the Democrat he replaced. That is another story) helpfully emailed me the text of his response, a further mercy that saves me from having to endure the sound of his voice.  Here is a snippet;
It’s been seven years since President Barack Obama took office. In that time, the United States has accumulated the largest national debt in its history, the fewest number of adults are working since Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the executive branch has expanded its power immensely – the president has chosen which laws to enforce and created new ones without Congress’ approval.  
Just the first paragraph. I can't stomach the rest of the twisted realities presented. The first paragraph is enough anyway, because it shows the agenda of the response, of all the responses. It is the same theme I pointed out last year, the Republicans are in it for the power alone. The welfare of the general populace be damned, we have a budget to manage! Never mind that the sitting President has presided over the least spending of any President since Eisenhower, or that he has been the deportation President and the anti-drug President and the terrorist-fighting President to a tune that dwarfs the last two holders of that office, that is not good enough. Truthfully nothing would be good enough.

Democrats Organizing for America
Obama came into office with an olive branch, and the Republicans batted it away.  He adopted their policies and positions, and they abandoned them for even more radical conservative positions, taking stances on subjects like healthcare that are frankly hard to fathom. So the poor should be left to die without care? Am I understanding you correctly? We should send the children who surrendered to our border guards voluntarily, back to the gang-run South American states they fled from, so that they can be forced to join gangs or become their sex slaves?  Seriously, what is it conservatives expect to be done about these very real problems that they simply try to wish away?

Last night, Obama once again offered an olive branch to the Republicans. He went so far as to praise the new Speaker of the House, even though his work has been limited to actually doing the job that the previous Speaker simply couldn't cope with. The Republican response? To once again bat the offer of cooperation away.  Cooperation means progress, and progress means hope. Give the people hope and they might actually vote without fear in the next election. Republican victory is grounded on a fearful voting public.

The most promising part of the State of the Union address?  Obama's statement that he intends to campaign to fix the gerrymandered districts that plague the House of Representatives in many other states aside from my own. I welcome his help in getting sensible, non-partisan rules for redistricting put into place.  It is about time someone took this issue seriously. maybe then Austin will have a real Representative in Washington. Hope springs eternal.

Knowledge vs. Belief

I started to write this post after Jim posted Unknown unknowns over at Stonekettle Station, which was a post in response to the tempest in a teapot that represented the 24 hour news cycle reporting on the clinic standoff and shooting incident in Colorado Springs. I shelved it for various reasons at first, none of them really earth-shattering. Of course, a week later and we have the inexplicable mass shooting in San Bernardino, which instantly eclipsed the previous story.

I could easily spin this into an screed against the gun lobby and their paid cronies in Washington DC who won't let the CDC even study gun violence in an effort to figure out how to address it, considering that we have had more than one mass shooting every day of this year (2015) which has to be some kind of record that no society on the face of this earth is really interested in breaking...

...but that isn't the article I want to write. This isn't going to be the article I started out writing, either. The issue is much bigger than the specific subject of what we know or don't know about a specific person set on doing wrong, or having been caught doing wrong. It is even bigger than the problem that Jim was trying to address, the 24 hour news cycle, which I agree probably represents the greatest threat to human civilization in the modern age. The need to fill time, to produce facts and counterfactuals when no hard facts are known about the specifics of the incident in question, can lead to greater and greater flights of fancy.

I turn the TV off when that feeding frenzy starts. It is hard enough to separate the wheat from the chaff on good days.  On bad days like the two events above bring, listening to the news just feeds confirmation bias until you end up looking and sounding like an idiot.

I will include the specific arguments for the Colorado Springs incident in this post, but the point that I'm seeing come into focus now that the shooter has appeared in court and indicted himself is the argument about what we know vs. what we believe. How we can know what we think we know, and how is that different than belief?

That is the reason why the 24 hour news cycle is such a threat. Being not much more than the talking heads that sold soap in the early days of television, the current crop of news faces appear to have even less familiarity with what facts are and why fact-checking is important. They are after all just selling soap.  Keeping the most number of eyes on the screen is how they sell soap, and so the factual content of what they say isn't the important part of the equation.  That they tell you things that reinforce your beliefs on a subject so that you will keep watching is.

Most of the white-looking people in the US trust the police intrinsically, for example.  Most of us older types were raised on police dramas portraying the cops as the good guys who enforce the laws and keep the peace.  It is very uncomfortable for most of us to be confronted with stories if entire police departments covering up the details of killings done at their hands. And yet, time after time over the last few years, we have been shown just how human police departments are everywhere in the US.  Be it Chicago, Baltimore or Saint Louis, just about anywhere USA, there are examples of police who brazenly violate laws and procedures who are then protected by their brothers in uniform.

This really isn't news.  If you've been paying attention you would have run across stories by people like Radley Balko who have been documenting police excess for several decades now.  The police are after all only human.  If you were in their place you would act no differently than they would, because that is what humans do.  But that doesn't excuse the excess, it is a point of data that needs to be accounted for when deciding what you know or don't know about any given subject.

For the black or brown people who are almost always the bad guys in police dramas, the revelation that cops are only human really isn't news either. They've lived with the reality of constant police scrutiny for generations. So much so that stories abound of fathers and mothers cautioning their children not to become police statistics.  So it is no wonder that the chant black lives matter resounds with them. The counter offered by clueless whites that all lives matter is heard by these same people as just another call for them to sit down and be quiet. How is this possible?  How can realities and beliefs about these realities be so widely separated?

When it comes right down to it, what you know with certainty is a very small number of things. Whether it is night or day. Whether it is cold or hot. You know these things because you can test them directly with your senses. Solipsists will argue that you can't even know those things because we are all just brains in jars at best, but I'd like us all to pretend that the shadows on the cave walls actually represent something real, and try to make sense of that.  If that much can't be granted, then there is little point in continuing to read this.  Even less in my continuing to write.

Beyond what you can test yourself (fire burns) there are grades of factual knowledge which you can probably safely rely on.  At each point where the facts exchange hands, the ownership of that data has to be documented to be trusted. This is why, when doing research, it is important to seek out source material and not just rely on wikipedia.  The more obscure the subject matter the less reliable secondary sources are.

When watching the news on television or reading news stories on any other site than AP, Reuters or UPI you are already dealing with information that has been through at least three hands if not dozens. When you've gone beyond the point where the witness is being interviewed in person, you are dealing with evidence that wouldn't be accepted in court. That doesn't mean it is without value, it just means the news you are being offered could be just this side of fantasy.

It might even be pure fantasy. Case in point, the FOX/conservative/anti-abortion counter-narrative about the Colorado Springs shooter.  When I logged on Blogger that night, the first thing I saw wasn't the Stonekettle Station article. The first article that caught my eye was a piece over at Friendly Atheist in which Ted Cruz voices the notion that the shooter was some kind of leftist.  No, I could not make something that stupid up myself.  Let me quote a bit;
 Cruz is basing that characterization on a supposed voter registration form in which Dear was listed as a woman. Whether it’s a mistake, or Dear was just messing around, or simply not the right form, we don’t know, but no other evidence indicates that he was transgender.
There’s even less evidence that he was a “leftist.”
The problem that I had with Jim's Unknown unknowns piece now surfaces. Jim mentions this story in opposition to the reports (which he attributes to Planned Parenthood) that the shooter was heard to say "no more baby parts" as he was being arrested.  But the contrast between the veracity of these two stories is as marked as they are in opposition to each other.

The statement no more baby parts was repeated by an officer to a reporter directly on scene, who dutifully passed it on to their viewing audience. While that is hearsay and not evidence admissible in court; the officer if he were to appear in court could repeat the statement and it would be admissible.  It would also be accepted by an overwhelming number of juries who trust police officers to be truthful (see above) even in the face of so much evidence that police will lie to protect their own.

Since this case isn't about one of their own, and since the police showed remarkable restraint in bringing a cop killer in alive, I was inclined to believe the statement of the arresting officer.  That the shooter (not alleged, he plead guilty) repeated a version of the same statement at his hearing just confirms the motivation that lead him to commit the crimes he is guilty of.

On the other hand, the preferred story of conservatives/anti-abortionists is based on what? Essentially no evidence whatsoever, more wishful thinking than anything else.  And yet it is repeated by a Republican Presidential candidate as if it was the unquestionable truth.

That is the nature of belief. It doesn't require facts.  Facts are counterproductive because they can be questioned. If facts are presented that counter a belief, it only takes the briefest scrutiny to discover or manufacture an anomaly which the believer will use to discard the entirety of the factual information presented. Ted Cruz wants to believe that the shooter couldn't be one of his fellow anti-abortionists. Ted Cruz believes that leftists are dangerous people, and that LGBT people are a threat to his way of life.  The story he repeats is ready-made to fit into his preconceived view of the world, and it matters not one bit that the story makes no sense on its face.  That the average liberal and LGBT person would be in support of Planned Parenthood and consequently wouldn't see a need to attack one of their clinics never enters into the mind of a conservative repeating this laughable story.

Given the history of attacks on Planned Parenthood, and the current cloud of controversy artificially created by anti-abortion activists faking videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood selling body parts, the story of a shooter in a clinic almost serves itself up ready-made as a vehicle to attack the religious right and conservatives in general. Of course they would want to craft a counter-narrative (however flimsy) to give themselves an out, a way to disavow accountability for their actions over the last twenty years and more.

A conservative could easily counter all of the above (most probably will) with the adult equivalent of I know you are but what am I?  Since about the time that Reagan was elected, conservatives started to complain about the liberal media. Even I, for a time, fell for this notion that the media was somehow biased in general against conservatives. As the years have progressed, and conservatives have created their own outlets like FOX news, conservapedia, and uncounted news sites including the whacko fringe like prisonplanet and infowars, it has become clear that conservatives aren't satisfied with simply presenting news from their point of view.  No, what they want is their own set of facts which are unassailable.  Unassailable because they aren't based on anything real.

Another example is the softer, nicer language of pro-life and pro-choice adopted by the two sides of the endless argument over abortion. Having softened the language, pollsters can get majorities of citizens in the US to say they are pro-life. Who would be against life?  I'm pro-life, I'm also pro-choice; militantly pro-choice.  The fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe that abortion should be legal gets lost in the conservative rush to declare the opposite, that the majority of Americans oppose abortion. This conservative view on the matter simply isn't true as polling shows.

What has occurred since the creation of FOX news is the division of the US into two camps; one of those camps thinks they are right, and the rest of us are liberal.  In their attempt to prove that the rest of the media is based on a liberal conspiracy, conservatives have consciously created a conspiracy of their own. A conspiracy where they tell lies which they know are lies, because the ends justify the means.

When you evade the truth, when you spin tales to hide your true goals, what you get are people who believe your lies so firmly that they will act on them as if they were truths.  You get what transpired in Colorado Springs yesterday, to the embarrassment of every single person who identifies as pro-life. Remember that the next time you hear the phrase liberal media.

Dublafluwitchy

Or maybe Doblafluwitchy. Possibly Dooblafluitchy. I appear to have made up a word.  Could have sworn I heard it somewhere, but no search for that character string turns up real results.

Which is too bad.  I find it far more satisfying as a word than thingamabob (thingamajig? Give me a break) or whozeewhatzits. Doohickey comes close, but really just doesn't roll off the tongue like dublafluwitchy.

I blame it on the contractors who insisted that pookie was a substance that you could fill gaps with. Was tempted on numerous occasions to notate drawings with pookie joint instead of the boring sealant that conventional nomenclature called for.

Convention is so boring. As a natural born contrarian and non-conformist, I do my damnedest to avoid marching in step whenever possible.

Fleek or cool, I really don't care. If you can't define it, then it's a dublafluwitchy and that's all there is to it.

JFK Assassinated 52 Years Ago Today

Originally posted here, radically enlarged and embroidered here, I've copied this to the day it should have been published on, and will be published on in the future if the wild hair suits me. Conspiracy fantasists are getting on my nerves these days, and I don't feel like cutting them any slack.


One of the most widely accepted conspiracy theories in the US remains the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Just last week I heard someone suggest that Oswald didn't act alone.  Statistics show that more than half of US residents agree with this statement, and are convinced to this day that Oswald was a patsy, silenced by Jack Ruby a few days after the assassination.

For many, many years I was one of those people. I read several books on the subject, watched every documentary, even went to Dealey Plaza once simply to stand next to the spot where Kennedy was shot. In many ways the assassination of JFK was the lynchpin for all of my conspiratorial thinking; it was the first conspiracy theory I had ever heard, it was the most solidly defensible of any of the many popular conspiracies that cropped up later (so much so that even the US government has agreed there was a conspiracy, contradicting the findings of it's own commission that investigated the assassination) and once I was led to question that theory, my belief in all those other theories also crumbled.

Why shouldn't they, when they didn't even have a magic bullet to hide behind?

The trip to reality was long and arduous for me. It started about the time I started writing this blog, and continues to this day.  Every single thing I read these days sends me off looking for corroborating sources and counter-arguments, just so that I can be sure I'm dealing with real facts and not some fever dream of the magical thinking majority.

I wish I had access to Case Closed when I was a young man looking for facts on the JFK assassination.  The depth of investigative research that Gerald Posner has gone to is unequaled amongst the many different authors on the subject.  Here is an interview with Posner from 2013, discussing the mountains of evidence linking Oswald to the killing, and detailing the kind of man Oswald was.





If Case Closed had been available to me when I first started looking into this subject, I never would have started down that rabbit hole of conspiratorial thinking in the first place.  Would have simply come to the conclusion ah, Oswald shot Kennedy and left it at that.  But I didn't have access to that book back in the 70's when I was into the subject.  I don't even remember the titles of the books I did read; but I do remember The Men Who Killed Kennedy documentary being something I watched and rewatched many times, as well as the Oliver Stone film JFK which I remember receiving quite credibly.

Except for one thing.  The repeated mantra back and to the right which Stone puts in Garrison's mouth in the film. I actually went back and reviewed the Zapruder film because of this, and discovered that the motion he insists is there really isn't there at all.  The film clearly shows the headshot coming from the back and above, just as Posner says in the video.

But I didn't have Posner.  Never ran across his book until recently, while listening to back episodes of the SGU (like so many good skeptical habits I have picked up) what I had was my own inability to ignore evidence when it is presented to me. What I stumbled across was this re-enactment (one of several) proving that the magic bullet was nothing of the kind. That the trajectory of the bullet is mappable and repeatable given an accurate reproduction of the events of that day.

First off is The Kennedy Assassination - Beyond Conspiracy clips of which are assembled here;




The second source of video was a very detailed recreation of the exact poses of the victims taken from Zapruder film footage, that were mocked up by Anatomical Surrogates Technologies for the  documentary JFK: Beyond The Magic Bullet .  (full video available in three parts here) While the shot does appear to strike too low, the trajectory is almost identical to the bullet on that fateful day.






Lastly we have the recreation of the headshot showing that the direction that Oswald fired from was indeed the only direction where the damage seen to the President's head can be replicated.  For those who simply aren't convinced by the replication of the magic bullet's trajectory.





Conspiracy theorists will of course come up with reasons why this proves nothing. Personally I see no reason to continue pretending that Oswald did not kill Kennedy.  If you feel the forensic tests are simply not enough evidence, then I encourage you to pick up a copy of Case Closed.  If none of this suffices, then I suggest you look to your own mental barricades. If your beliefs cannot be falsified, it says as much about your failings as a critical thinker as it does the indefensibility of your opinions.



h/t to NeuroLogica
New this year, the long derided photo of Oswald displaying the same model rifle as the one that killed Kennedy has been scientifically analyzed and found to be genuine.

As Dr Novella goes into on his blog entry, conspiracy theorists attempt to discredit evidence that would seem to destroy their preferred fantasies by picking apart the details of the evidence, looking for the slightest anomaly that they can then use to discredit it.

Having watched The Men Who Killed Kennedy I remember the attempts to discredit this photo and the autopsy photos quite vividly. I remember wondering at the time why anyone would go to such lengths to hide evidence, marveling at the scale of the conspiracy required to perpetrate such a massive hoax.

It is with a wry chuckle that I remember my own gullibility on the subject.  The understanding of the scale of the conspiracy should have been my first clue as to the implausibility of the conspiracy itself.  That understanding would take years to mature, though.

The computer simulation embarked upon to validate this photo is as much of an over-the-top effort to show the solidity of the evidence for Oswald being the shooter, as the series of videos I linked above was.  In the study linked here, you can see the many points of data used to determine if Oswald is actually standing in a stable position, and that the shadows in the photo match the shadowing that would have been present at that time of day and season of the year.

This is the kind of thorough analysis that is required to refute the claims of conspiracy fantasists who continue to insist that it simply wasn't possible for such a insignificant little man to have killed the most powerful man in the world single-handedly.  At least the computer modeling techniques showcased here can be used for many other instances of questionable photographic evidence, so that their validity can also be certified.