February 25, 2016

Commentary on Encryption

Apparently, surveys have found that only about 50% of Americans believe that Apple is right in refusing to defeat the encryption on one of its iPhones. I, for one, have long believed that no government has a right to read all our communications. Therefore,

I’m with Apple

You can click on the image for a larger view.

February 23, 2016

Another Word about Antonin Scalia

Jeffrey Toobin, the legal correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote a “Talk of the Town” piece for the February 29 issue that quickly puts the legacy of Justice Antonin Scalia in perspective. Be sure to savor the first sentence of “Looking Back,” which begins with this paragraph:
Atonin Scalia, who died this month, after nearly three decades on the Supreme Court, devoted his professional life to making the United States a less fair, less tolerant, and less admirable democracy. Fortunately, he mostly failed. Belligerent with his colleagues, dismissive of his critics, nostalgic for a world where outsiders knew their place and stayed there, Scalia represents a perfect model for everything that President Obama should avoid in a successor. The great Justices of the Supreme Court have always looked forward; their words both anticipated and helped shape the nation that the United States was becoming. Chief Justice John Marshall read the new Constitution to allow for a vibrant and progressive federal government. Louis Brandeis understood the need for that government to regulate an industrializing economy. Earl Warren saw that segregation was poison in the modern world. Scalia, in contrast, looked backward.
The whole piece can be read here. No more needs to be said except perhaps that this man must be replaced on the court by a forward-looking justice. Such a justice would not be appointed by a Republican president.

February 19, 2016

Commas, and their Absence, Strike Again

When a prominent person dies, unless that person was generally recognized as a scoundrel, commentary following the death is usually dominated by praise. Objective evaluations of the deceased’s life and career generally come later.

Amid the praise laid upon Justice Antonin Scalia, I was gratified (and somewhat surprised) to read a decidedly negative review of his accomplishments at Salon. Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote “Scalia was an intellectual phony: Can we please stop calling him a brilliant jurist?” which characterizes the late justice as inconsistent and reactionary. I commend the article to your attention.

This post, however, is not really about Justice Scalia. Like a number of other essays I’ve written here—see, for example, “Three Parents?” and “Another Comma Problem”—this is about an instance of the improper use of commas (alas, again).

Paul Campos begins his essay with this paragraph:
George Orwell once noted that when an English politician dies “his worst enemies will stand up on the floor of the House and utter pious lies in his honour.” Antonin Scalia was neither English, nor technically speaking a politician, but a similar tradition can be witnessed in the form of the praise now being heaped on him.
Each of the two above sentences is problematic. In the first sentence, there should be commas around “when an English politician dies.” One could argue, perhaps, that only the second comma is truly necessary. Commas are used to facilitate reading and to prevent misreading. Without the comma after “dies,” I found myself trying to make “enemies” the object of “dies,” despite the fact that “dies” is not normally transitive. Perhaps my brain was confusing “dies” with “dyes.” In any case, a comma would have allowed me to read the sentence without pause. As it was, my distress parsing the sentence was enough to inspire this essay.

The second sentence is a bit different. The two commas chop up the sentence is a strange and confusing way. To see this, notice that the opening indepent clause, stripped down to its essentials, asserts that Scalia was neither A nor B. The comma before “nor” destroys the coördinate relationship of A to B and suggests that the latter is somehow subordinate to the former. One almost expects a C to follow. The parenthetical element is really “strictly speaking.” Absent a comma after “speaking,” my brain was again trying to find a grammatical relationship between “speaking” and “politician.” The sentence should have been written
Antonin Scalia was neither English nor, technically speaking, a politician, but a similar tradition can be witnessed in the form of the praise now being heaped on him.
Isn’t that a lot clearer?

February 17, 2016

Letter to Mitch McConnell

I have written the message below to Senator Mitch McConnell.

Topic: Judicial

Subject: Supreme Court Vacancy

I urge you to reconsider your intention to prevent President Obama from appointing a justice to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Mr. Obama was elected twice by the American people; he has earned the right to this appointment.
Republicans seem to believe they have a right to control the Supreme Court. They do not. Just as Republicans want to maintain their control, Democrats have been frustrated by their lack of influence on the high court. Balance on the court requires appointment of a justice whose views are far left of those of Antonin Scalia.

Your continued obstructionism can have but one result—it will create more Democratic voters in the forthcoming presidential election. Are you really going to hold up Supreme Court appointments during the 8 years of the Clinton or Sanders administration?

February 16, 2016

Taking Mitch McConnell Seriously

Senator Mitch McConnell
Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Republicans are arguing that, since President Obama has less than a year left to his term, he should not nominate a person to replaced the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, he should leave it to his successor to name a new justice. However, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution says, in part,
[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. [emphasis added]
Notice the use of shall, and the lack of any suggestion that the “Power” described above does not apply to the final year of a president’s term.

If the Republicans have a legitimate point, however, and the president’s powers should be stripped from the office in the final year of the term, the term of office will effetively become three years. But that means that the president is really a lame duck in his third year in office. Surely he should be prevented from performing his duties in deference to his or her successor in the third year. O wait, perhaps this whole idea is stupid.

Words with Conflicting Meanings

Famous illusion
Famous optical illusion: Can you see
both the young and the old woman?
A small number of words in English can have nearly opposite meanings, depending on context. If sufficient context is unavailable, such words can make a sentence ambiguous. Two verbs having this property are to sanction and to betray.

The recent meeting of the Anglican primates offers an excellent opportunity to illustrate the Jekyll/Hyde nature of these words. Consider the following sentence, which might summarize the outcome of the recent Canterbury meeting:
The Anglican primates sanctioned the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby betraying their true feelings concerning homosexuality.
Ignoring any prior knowledge you might have about the politics of the Anglican Communion, what might this sentence mean? Here are the possibilities:

  1. The Anglican primates punished The Episcopal Church for approving gay marriage, thereby showing how they truly feel about homosexuality.
  2. The Anglican primates punished The Episcopal Church for approving gay marriage, thereby acting contrary to their true feelings about homosexuality.
  3. The Anglican primates validated the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby showing how they truly feel about homosexuality.
  4. The Anglican primates validated the Episcopal Church’s approval of gay marriage, thereby acting contrary to their true feelings about homosexuality.
In sentences (1) and (2), the primates disliked what The Episcopal Church did, but in sentences (3) and (4), they approved.  In sentences (1) and (3), their action disclosed their attitude toward homosexuality, but in sentences (2) and (4), they acted contrary to their own beliefs.

For the uninitiated, sentence (1) most closely describes what actually happened.

Can readers offer any additional words that have similarly ambiguous meanings?

February 14, 2016

A Strategy for Appointing the Next Supreme Court Justice

In light of the implacable opposition exhibited by Republicans to any nominee to the Supreme Court offered by President Obama, I modestly suggest a strategy the Democrats could use to put an acceptable justice on the high court.

The plan has two parts. First, the president should nominate a currently sitting judge who is a liberal Democrat with impeccable judicial qualifications. The nominee, if such be available, should be a black, gay, young, and Protestant. An Episcopalian and a woman would be a plus.

Part 2: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders should each pledge that, should the president’s nominee not be approved by the Senate and should the position on the court sill be open when he or she takes office, President Clinton or President Sanders, if there be such, will nominate Barack Obama to fill Scalia’s seat.

My guess is that this plan has a better than even chance of getting President Obama¹s nominee approved.

Oh, and when the next vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, Barack Obama should be the nominee of the Democratic president. But we needn’t announce that.

Twinkling Snow

I saw a phenomenon today that I haven’t seen before. This morning was very cold, and the ground was covered by several inches of powdery snow. The sky was not cloudless, but the sun was shining brightly, low on the horizon directly in front of me. It wasn’t snowing, but a certain amount of snow was blowing in the wind. The sunshine, falling on this snow, produced a field of twinkling lights in front of me. It was magical!

I thought of grabbing my camera and trying to capture a picture of this unusual phenomenon. Alas, the twinkling lights did not last, and they didn’t come back.

February 13, 2016

After Justice Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia
Senator Mitch McConnell issued a statement soon after the announcement of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. The statement, which offered no surprises, included this:
The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.
This, of course, is pure partisanship. The American people have had a voice by twice electing Barack Obama to the presidency.

Senator Lindsey Graham told MSNBC that, if President Obama offers a nomination, it should be a consensus candidate, not a liberal democrat. He suggested that Senator Orrin Hatch would fit the bill! Graham, like McConnell, would prefer to see the next president nominate the next justice.

Perhaps Orrin Hatch seems like a moderate to Senator Graham compared to the far-right Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination, but, by any objective standard, Hatch is exceedingly concervative—not at all a moderate.

I believe that Obama should nominate an unreconstructed liberal to the Supreme Court forthwith. That person may not get through the Senate approval process, but that process will become an issue in the coming election. This will focus the mind of the electorate on what is at stake in this election.

If a Democrat becomes the next president, he or she will face much the same opposition as a liberal Democrat nominated by President Obama. Let’s get on with the constitutional process.

As if it were not already clear, the future direction of the United States of America will be determined in the next 12 months.

Radix-90, Order-10 PPDIs

Most readers will neither understand nor care about this post. If you’re curious, however, you can learn about pluperfect digital invariants (PPDIs) on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago here.

For those who have continued to read, I want to announce my latest discovery even before I integrate news of it into my discussion of PPDIs on my Web site.

My working hypothesis is that all bases greater than 2 have nontrivial PPDIs. Certain bases that are multiples of 18, however, seem not to have small ones. The smallest base for which this is true is 90. The smallest PPDI in this base is of order 8 and has been known for some time. That PPDI is

[73] [62] [15] [62] [83] [18] [39] [47]

There are no other radix-90, order-8 PPDIs.

I recently discovered that there is but a single radix-90, order-9 PPDI:

[13] [6] [0] [22] [69] [25] [10] [35] [65]

Unfortunately, the number of combinations of digits to be considered in the search for PPDIs rises rapidly with order. I estimated that the search for order-10 PPDIs would require considering something like 18 trillion combinations. I have finally completed that search and discovered that there are exactly two radix-90, order-10 PPDIs:

[59] [19] [25] [4] [46] [86] [55] [19] [23] [36]    (22,940,795,766,222,111,006 in base 10)


[77] [25] [39] [48] [77] [79] [75] [50] [2] [42]    (29,940,885,782,493,570,222 in base 10)

Thus far, all I can say about radix-90 PPDIs is that they are quite rare. Further, those radix-90 PPDIs that I have discovered do not suggest a proof that would lead to showing that every base larger than 2 contains nontrivial PPDIs. Perhaps the best approach to proving this would be a proof by contradiction (i.e., assume there is a radix with no PPDIs and show that this leads to a contradiction). I have no clue as to how to construct such a proof.

February 12, 2016

An Alternative to Reducing Taxes to Encourage Repatriation of Profits

#change date

A popular idea floating around among both Democrats and Republicans is a temporary tax reduction to allow corporations to bring profits being held overseas back into the U.S. Politicians talk of the benefits of “repatriating” corporate profits. The theory is that, although the government would, at least in theory, “lose” tax money, it would at least collect more taxes than it would otherwise.

Child thief
The Guardian wrote about this idea a few months ago. Writer C. Robert Gibson likened it to catching a child stealing money from his parents and rewarding his bad behavior by letting him keep the money. I assume the analogy to reducing the corporate tax to allow repatriation is both obvious and compelling.

Incentives come in many guises. I’d like to propose a different scheme for encouraging the repatriation of corporate profits, one which doesn’t require a sacrifice by the federal government. It uses a stick, rather than a carrot.

Rather than encouraging repatriation by making it cheaper for corporations, why not make it cheaper now but more expensive later. Allow repatriation now under the existing tax regime, but raise the tax rate substantially 12 months from now. Make that increase permanent or, if not permanent, in effect for a long period—for 10 years, say. Given that corporate management has difficulty seeing beyond the next quarter, that should supply a persuasive  incentive for bringing money back into the U.S.

Why has no one proposed this? (Corporate lobbying may have something to do with it.)

February 7, 2016

Dislikability of Republican Presidential Candidates

Today, the morning after the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary, NPR interviewed Carly Fiorina, who had been excluded from the debate. The segment on Weekend Edition Sunday reminded me just how unpleasant I find the former HP CEO.

This realization got me thinking about ranking Republican candidates according to how likable (or not) they are. The idea seemed particularly meaningful, since one candidate, Ted Cruz, is notorious for being disliked. The more you know him, apparently, the less you like him. (See Frank Bruni’s New York Times column, “Anyone but Ted Cruz.” I’m not making this up.)

With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to propose a game: Rank the Republican hopefuls in terms of their “dislikability,” a measure of the degree to which a candidate inspires dislike. A person exhibiting a high degree of dislikability, I suggest, is even less attractive than someone who is merely unlikable. A dislikable person inspires active disgust, not merely indifference. Dislikability is independent of talent and beauty, though perhaps not of ethics.

As best as I can tell, here are the remaining Republican presidential candidates in alphabetical order:

Jeb Bush
Ben Carson
Chris Christie
Ted Cruz
Carly Fiorina
John Kasich
Marco Rubio
Donald Trump
My ranking is here. What is your ranking?

Update, 2/8/2016. Apparently, Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia, is still running. Who knew?

Update, 2/12/2016. As of today, Jim Gilmore is out of the race. He hardly made a ripple in the political pond.

February 1, 2016

Political Thoughts (from the Last Election)

Donkey and elephant
In 2012, I was very concerned about the presidential campaign and about issues that seemed important at the time. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to be blogging about  every day’s political news. Therefore, in September 2012, I wrote, in a post titled “A Preëmptive Political Post,”
To save myself from all that future writing, I’ve decided to develop a kind of preëmptive post simply listing themes relevant (or maybe relevant) to the presidential campaign. Each of these themes could be expanded into a standalone essay, but I leave that, at least for now, to the imagination of the reader. Other bloggers are free to write their own essays on these themes. Who knows, I might even do that myself if I get really fired up. More likely, though, I will save my efforts for campaign issues we haven’t even heard about yet.
The post, which is little more than a list of political beliefs, has attracted more visitors than anything else I have written here. No one has ever left a comment on the essay, though, and I suspect that few visitors have ever became readers. Instead, I think I created perfect click bait, a post that includes so many politically relevant words that Google often presents it as a relevant search result.

I reread my 2012 post today and was struck that most of what I wrote is still relevant, and I have no reason to repudiate anything I wrote during the last presidential election. (This is something of a depressing thought.) To the degree that anything on my list seems less relevant now than then, it at least has some value as nostalgia.

I invite (real) readers to have a look at “A Preëmptive Political Post.” I do have one additional item to add that has special relevance to the 2016 presidential campaign. I do this just before Iowans go to their caucuses:
Lack of political experience is not a qualification for high political office.

A Reflection on Bishop McConnell’s Reflection on the Meeting of the Primates

Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell wrote “A Reflection on the Anglican Primates’ Meeting” January 16, the day after the Anglican primates concluded their meeting in Canterbury. That meeting, of course, declared that there should be restrictions imposed on The Episcopal Church for a period of three years. (I discussed what the primates did in my essays “Abuse of Anglican Power: Where Do We Go from Here?” and “Additional Thoughts on the Meeting of the Primates.”)

The curate’s egg
Bishop: “I'm afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.”
Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”
When I first read the bishop’s message to his diocese, I had a hard time deciding what to make of it. I have continued to think about it, but I still cannot say that, on the whole, I am either pleased or displeased. McConnell’s missive is something of a curate’s egg, I’m afraid.

It is good to keep in mind that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still rather conservative. Liberals played a crucial role in keeping the diocese in The Episcopal Church despite then bishop Robert Duncan’s leading many congregations out of it. Enough conservative clergy and laypeople remained, however, so that the diocese, while now in the Episcopal mainstream, is nearer the conservative bank than many of us in the diocese would like. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Bishop McConnell has kept what remains of the diocese together and now presides over a diocese no longer actively hostile to The Episcopal Church. He wrote
The primates’ decision, along with the fact that the current leader of the ACNA was invited to participate for the duration of their deliberations, has opened old wounds for many of us: for lesbian and gay members of our diocesan family and the congregations who support them; for our more conservative sisters and brothers who have remained in TEC out of their love for the Church; for all of us who have spent painful years nurturing relationships across deep disagreements in order to hold the unity of the Body of Christ.
The bishop then insists that any wounds felt in the diocese are “the wounds of Christ crucified, …, the wounds of our own selves crucified to one another and to the world.” I’m not sure I know what this piece of clergy-speak means. I think he is saying that we are enduring the consequences of taking a principled stand, and I wish that he had said something like that.

McConnell goes on to say that we—the churches of the Anglican Communion, presumably—are stuck with one another:
What makes this moment so painful is that, even as we hurl threats of separation, or lay down conditions, or demand repentance from everyone but ourselves, we know we cannot get away from one another.
I have two problem with this. First, I don’t believe The Episcopal Church needs to repent of anything regarding its adoption of same-sex marriage. The decision of the General Convention was long in coming and prayerfully considered. We knew that the decision would upset some primates, but we thought that pleasing God was more important. What, exactly, is the bishop referring to when in the phrase “everyone but ourselves”?

Then, there is the matter of Anglican churches’ relationships to one another. Many in the Communion are intent on replacing the traditional bonds of affection with bonds of obligation. But we are stuck with one another only so long as we choose to be. McConnell implies that our connection to the wider Communion is indissoluble. He writes about “the unity of the Cross”—more clergy-speak. But aren’t our bonds of affection with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, say, stronger than those with the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion? I see no theological reason why our relationship to Anglican churches should be any more sacred than our relationship to other Christian bodies. (Readers objecting at this point that Anglican churches are interdependent, should read my essay “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.”)

Bishop McConnell’s next paragraph acknowledges reality:
The world suggested by the primates’ decision appears to imagine another: a unity achieved or broken by the actions of ecclesial structures. Although I was initially encouraged by their stated desire to “walk together,” upon further reflection, it is difficult to imagine what this would look like in five or ten years. There is not the least sign that our General Convention would undo recent actions in regard to marriage, nor that the Church of Canada will change course, nor that the Churches of the Global South will in any way become more tolerant of these trends.
This is a clear acknowledgment that, certainly in three years’ time, nothing much will have changed, and the Communion will be right back where it started. But, suggests the bishop in more clergy-speak, we should carry on:
But the unity of the Cross is not something we achieve; it has been achieved for us. We need only live as if we knew it, through lives of sacrificial love even and especially toward those who believe they can do without us.
This is followed by something of a non sequitur:
The trend indicated by the primates’ actions suggests that the formal instruments of Anglican fellowship may become less important in the coming years.
This may well be true, but it surely isn’t obvious. The primates may have overplayed their hand and may be more widely recognized for the disruptive cabal that they are. Or, as seems more likely, they will have established another precedent leading to even more interference by Anglican churches in one another’s affairs. The Primates’ Meeting may be either less or more important in the future. What is certain is that Archbishop Justin Welby is willing to pander to the angry conservative element of the Anglican Communion for the sake of “unity.” In future years, he may well become known as the Neville Chamberlain of Anglicanism. God save us!

Bishop McConnell suggests, correctly, I think, that the more important aspect of the Communion is the collection of relationships between people, parishes, bishops, and dioceses across Anglican churches.

Alas, he seems to excuse the actions of the primates (and his own longstanding connections to Uganda through Pilgrim Africa) by saying that the churches of many of the primates “are beset by challenges we can scarcely imagine”—poverty, colonial oppression and post-colonial condescension, Islamic aggression, and the ravages of war. These challenges do exist, but they are no excuse for attacking The Episcopal Church as a way of distracting Africans from their local problems.

The bishop’s letter ends with this:
As we live this mission on the road, I believe that the common life we have built in this diocese will be shown as an effective and godly example for the whole Communion. Our diocesan community spans the theological breadth of Anglicanism and we hold that breadth as a treasure, not a weakness. We do so as our conscious expression of the faith once delivered to the saints and still held by us today. I trust that God will sow seeds of His reconciliation wherever our own story is told.
He almost strikes a proper tone for a 2016 Bishop of Pittsburgh, but he needs to be chided for the phrase “the faith once delivered to the saints.” This is a favorite phrase of the now disgraced Bishop Robert Duncan, who used it as shorthand for the conservative, moralistic theology that he held as the righteous alternative to the mainstream theology of The Episcopal Church.

I wrote about the phrase “faith once delivered to the saints” more than eight years ago in my blog post “The Faith Once Delivered.” Here’s how I ended that essay:
The next time you hear someone piously pontificate about “the faith once delivered to the saints,” remember that the proper response is to ask, “Yes, and what was that?” You might even cite Jude 1:19, which says about the false teachers, “It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (NRSV).
Perhaps Bishop McConnell should explain just what he meant and why he chose to use a phrase so dear to his predecessor.