Noted in passing 2017 May 18

Acceptance of same-sex marriage continues to grow

In non-news, According to Gallup, 64 percent of Americans surveyed now agree that same-sex marriages should be recognized by law a valid, with same rights as traditional mixed-sex marriages. Only 34 percent disagree. Just 10 years ago there was 53-40 percent opposition, and in 1997 Americans were overwhelmingly opposed, 68-27.

One reason for the latest development in public opinion on the matter, I suspect, is the fact that dire warnings from gay marriage opponents have proven so obviously false. Same-sex marriage is now routine, and nothing bad has happened as a result. A tiny handful number of business owners who refused to do business with same-sex couples got into minor legal trouble in states whose civil rights laws include sexual orientation, but apparently the overwhelming majority were content to make more money. In North Carolina the law allows state officials opposed to same-sex marriages to opt out of performing weddings or issuing marriage licenses (provided others can fill in), but almost no one has taken advantage of it. A county clerk in Kentucky stopped issuing of all marriages licenses lest some go to gay couples but she relented after some time in jail for breaking the law. There was some similar noise in Alabama but it likewise evaporated.

The 2016 Republican Party platform recites the usual rote about the importance of traditional monogamous mixed-sex marriage (which nobody objects to and is not the least bit affected by same-sex marriage), and in an over-the-top rant attacks the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage in a way that would logically also condemn Loving v Virginia, the case that legalized mixed-race marriage), but interestingly the platform doesn't actually call for reversing the decision to make same-sex marriage legal again. It's just an empty tirade to make extremists happy.

Trump's staffers print out Internet news for him, some of it fake

Politico reported Monday that Trump's staff surfs the web for him and prints out articles for him to read, sometimes not bothering to check them for credibility. For example, deputy national security advisor K.T. McFarland gave him a printout showing what were supposed to be two Time magazine covers, a recent one about surviving global warming and one supposedly from the 1970s warning about a coming ice age. The ice age one was of course a fake created by doctoring a real Time cover from a few years back that was actually about global warming. According to Politico, it reached the point that chief of staff Reince Priebus had to warn the staff about passing on potentially embarrassing fake news. In at least some cases, the article suggests, staffers knowingly pass on fake stories "to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing."

Voter ID laws disenfranchise large numbers in Wisconsin

Advocates of voter ID laws insist they're needed to stop people from impersonating voters and thereby cast extra ballots. But there's a lot of evidence that voter impersonation is very rare, not least because other types of election fraud are easier and cheaper and more effective, and even if voter impersonation fraud were practical it would not be hard for a bad guy to get a fake ID plenty good enough to fool most poll workers. So the real practical effect of voter ID laws is to disenfranchise legitimate voters who for some reason don't have a voter ID of the required type. As the Associated Press points out in this article, in Wisconsin alone a voter ID law has left as many as 300,000 citizens unable to vote. If you're thinking those people should just get go get an ID, read the article and find out why it's not as easy as you might think.

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PPP reports negative attitudes toward Trump, GOP

On Tuesday Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling released results of a survey conducted May 12-14 (summarized here, with a PDF of the details here). This was after President Trump fired FBI Director Comey but before we learned that Trump gave highly classified information to the Russians and reportedly pressured Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. Some notable findings:

American voters surveyed would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress by 49 to 38 percent. Among voters who say they're "very excited" about voting in 2018, the split is 61-34. However, next year's election is a long way off, gerrymandering (combined with the concentration of Democrats in cities) gives the GOP an advantage in the House, and of the third of the senators up for election then, there happen to be a lot more Democrats running in states that went for Trump than Republicans in states that went for Clinton, so this is far from a guarantee that control of Congress will switch.

Only 29 percent of voters now favor repealing Obamacare. A large majority of 64 percent want to keep it with possible minor fixes.

By 62 to 38 percent those surveyed support for an independent investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 election. A slight plurality, 43 to 38 percent, think Trump's campaign was colluding with the Russians, but if collusion is proved, a solid 54 to 34 majority think he should resign.

There's 51 to 41 percent agreement that Trump is a "liar," and a slightly larger 55 percent consider him dishonest versus just 38 percent who disagree.

By 62 to 29 percent they want Trump to release his tax returns, and a 61-28 majority favor making it a legal requirement for presidential candidates.

Even before news of the past few days support for Trump's impeachment was at 48-41 (favor-oppose), and only 43 percent of voters thought it likely that he would serve a full term.

By 49 to 41 percent, voters wish Hillary Clinton was president, and by 55 to 39 they wish President Obama was still in office. (Seth Meyers said one of those who didn't was Barack Obama.)

The next presidential election is a long way off, but voters would prefer every hypothetical candidate over Trump by at least 5 percentage points: Joe Biden (54-40), Bernie Sanders (52-39), Elizabeth Warren (49-39), Al Franken (46-38), Cory Booker (46-39), and even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (42-37).

Remember, these results were from before Trump was reported to have committed obstruction of justice by trying to get Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and before he was reported to have passed on top-secret intelligence to the Russians without first consulting with U.S. intelligence agencies about the potential harm of doing so (which is apparently pretty serious).

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Trump's staff and supporters reportedly distraught

Yesterday CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger reported that President Trump's friends and supporters are increasingly worried about his ability to right his floundering presidency.

The same network's Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza said that the White House staff is miserable, repeatedly taken by surprise by Trump's latest actions, public statements, and tweets. Their efforts to paint whatever Trump did as reasonable (for example, asserting that he fired FBI Director Comey on the recommendation of the top two people in the Department of Justice) routinely get blown up by Trump's own contradictory remarks (in that case his assertion that he was motivated by annoyance with the FBI's investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election and that he has decided to fire Comey no matter what the DoJ recommended). Others have described staffers as hiding in their offices, and journalists have described hearing people in the White House shouting at each other.

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Chris Meloni's kite surfing lesson

Christopher Meloni, probably best know for his years on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, also played (among other roles) the bizarre character Freakshow in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, though I suspect a lot of people who saw the film had no idea who the actor was. (Here's a clip of his first appearance in the film.)

Anyway, he was recently on Late Night with Seth Meyers and described taking what proved to be a strange kite surfing lesson. For some reason it struck me as pretty funny, so here it is:


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The biggest terrorist threat in the U.S. may be home-grown

A May 15 article by J Oliver Conroy in The Guardian explains why to many in law enforcement, the biggest terror threat in the U.S. is not from radical Muslims but fanatical anti-government activists, many but not all on the remote fringes of the far right.

Conroy gives a series of graphic examples of politically-motivated attacks on law enforcement officers, often by self-styled "sovereign citizens" who believe themselves essentially above the law. Fortunately the total number of these attacks is not that large, at least in comparison with the overall murder rate, but the breakdown might come as a surprise to some. Quoting Conroy's article,

According to data from the Anti-Defamation League, at least 45 police officers have been killed by domestic extremists since 2001. Of these, 10 were killed by leftwing extremists, 34 by rightwing extremists, and one by homegrown Islamist extremists.

The pattern is roughly similar for violent extremist acts directed at the public:

In fact, a 2016 report by the US Government Accountability Office noted that "of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-rightwing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73%) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27%)." (The report counts the 15 Beltway sniper shootings in 2002 as radical Islamist attacks, though the perpetrators’ motives are debated.)

The second-most-deadly terrorist attack in American history, the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 (including 19 children) in 1995, was an earlier example of far-right anti-government domestic terrorism. One of the men convicted for the murders called himself a "sovereign citizen."

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Noted in passing 2017 May 16

Three countries lead the world in imprisoning journalists

In a column published yesterday (May 15) on the Columbia Journalism Review website, Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalist pointed out that as of the end of 2016 there were 259 journalists imprisoned world wide, the most in recent history. Turkey holds the most, at least 81. China comes in second with 38, and Egypt third with 25. Those three countries count for more than half.

The U.S. has long promoted freedom of the press, but the current administration routinely attacks legitimate news organizations as "fake news," and in a speech May 3 the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced a de-emphasis on human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

Trump's bragging

In his latest column in yesterday's The New York Times moderate conservative David Books makes what should be an obvious point, namely, that Trump's constant (and frequently dishonest) self-promoting boasting is behavior most people grow out of in childhood. Brooks quotes several recent instances, e.g. Trump's telling Time magazine, "In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care," and bragging to the Associated Press, concerning his speech to a joint session of Congress, "A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber."

There are of course plenty of other familiar examples Brooks doesn't bother to repeat -- Trump's false insistence that his inauguration had the biggest crowd ever and his saying, over and over again, that he won the electoral vote by a historic landslide. His bragging about being famous lets him kiss and grope women at will was obnoxious in many ways, but it was also yet another example of bragging. Brooks's point is that in this and other things (his notoriously short attention span, for example) Trump's behavior is remarkably childish.

What puzzles me is why Trump's supporters -- in most polls well over a third of voters -- don't find this behavior more off-putting.

Morning Joe hosts report Kellyanne Conway can after all feel shame

According to Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, "alternative facts" enthusiast and Trump occasional spokesweasel Kellyanne Conway used to say, off the air after defending Trump, "Blech, I need to take a shower."


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Being cynical about the wrong things

There is a sense in which you can't be too skeptical. Even when people tell the truth to the best of their knowledge, they might still be mistaken. People also tell deliberate lies. No source of information is completely reliable, and it's fair to say that all knowledge is tentative and subject to correction.

But there is, of course, a difference between that sort of skepticism and just flatly assuming something to be false because you think there's some reason to think it might be false or because you just don't like the source. From experience I'm skeptical of Fox News, but that doesn't mean all, or even most, of what they report is false. They even managed to get the Hello Kitty story right (about an erroneous claim that Hello Kitty was supposed to be a little girl rather than an anthropomorphic cat) when other media outlets got it wrong. See this previous post, in which I wrote, "Amazingly, Fox News managed to report the story accurately, even though generally speaking Fox News is neither a fox nor actual news. (I'm not sure what it is, but given the mix of on-screen talent, it's possibly a sugar daddy dating site.)"

I hate to sound like an old guy talking about how bad things are now compared with the good old days (though I'm admittedly old enough to get senior discounts without asking), but lately it does seem to me that people may be even worse than they used to be about rejecting information just because they don't want to believe it. The obvious example is Donald Trump's repeatedly labeling legitimate news sources as "fake news" whenever he doesn't like what they report and the tendency of many of his supporters to believe him in the face of evidence.

Here's a younger guy saying something similar, entrepreneur and popular YouTube vlogger Hank Green. (Yes, I cite Hank and his brother John a lot, but they often have wise things to say, even though Hank's delivery often makes me think he should switch to decaf.)


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The Daily Show's Bill O'Reilly retrospective

As you probably know, Bill O'Reilly was fired by Fox News after it emerged that he and the network had paid multiple women a total of millions of dollars in response to lawsuits for sexual harassment and numerous sponsors had pulled their ads from his show. The network's former head, Roger Ailes, had recently been dismissed over similar allegations.

O'Reilly was the single most watched news show host for many years and a best-selling author of books on history despite widespread criticism of them from academic historians. But he was also notorious for bullying his guests, riling up his viewers with invented controversies (most famously the supposed "war an Christmas"), and exaggerating his own background, claiming for instance saying in his 2001 book The No Spin Zone, "I've reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands," and a few years later asserting in a column, "Having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash."

He also claimed, "I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off, you know, but at the same time, I’m looking around and trying to do my job, but I figure I had to get this guy out of there because that was more important."

Later, when it was pointed out that the closest he came to the actual Falklands War was Buenos Aires 1200 miles away, O'Reilly insisted, "I never said I was on the Falkland Islands," and that by his reference to the "war zone" he was talking about violent demonstrations in the Argentine capital. But those claims were disputed as well by other reporters present at the time. O'Reilly's response was to imply that the other reporters had been sheltering in their hotel rooms while only he, O'Reilly, had the courage to brave the streets, but in fact other reporters were on the scene. For more on this see Politifact and Salon.

On a more amusing (and stranger) note, I've read that though O'Reilly is a quite tall and imposing, he insisted that his guests sit in shorter chairs in order to make himself look relatively even bigger.

Interestingly, O'Reilly reportedly comes across as much nicer in person, quite friendly and soft-spoken. Stephen Colbert said that O'Reilly once told him his Fox News persona was merely a role he played.

Below The Daily Show and its host Trevor Noah offer a retrospective of O'Reilly mainly in the form of clips that suggest he, or at leasts his television character, could be a pretty nasty person.


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Martian beach

Yesterday's Astronomy Picture of the Day from NASA was an image from the Curiosity rover showing what was at some point in the past very probably a beach on Mars and before that the bottom of a lake. NASA is confident enough in its analysis of the terrain that it has named the location Ogunquit Beach.

The YouTube clip below is interactive, provided you have a browser that supports 360-degree images. (Safari doesn't appear to work, but Chrome and Firefox do.) Just click the play button, then after it loads click on the picture and drag it around. It's a mosaic of many individual photos, so expect some blank areas. Note that by clicking the dashed box icon at the lower right you can make the picture full screen.


Incidentally, Curiosity was expected to work for only about 90 martian days ("sols"), after which the solar panels would be too covered with wind-blown dust to produce enough power. Instead it's still roving after more than 13 years. Somehow the solar panels keeping getting the dust cleaned off them, sometimes overnight and sometimes over a period of a few days, in so-called "cleaning events." This is most likely caused by high winds (which would feel like gentle breezes on Earth, no matter what The Martian implied) combined with going up and down hills, thus tilting the panels (see this 2004 article in New Scientist), but of course on the Internet it's been ascribed to conscious extraterrestrial help. I suspect the blank bits of the image below will be ascribed by some to censorship of areas showing aliens with squeegees.

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Ivanka and Jared and Rorschach

Conventional wisdom suggests that Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner are moderating influences on him, and this may be true. But in the clip below John Oliver points out that there's not much hard evidence one way or the other. Ivanka is very good at sounding calm and reasonable without actually saying much of anything, while Jared is noted for saying almost nothing at all.


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