We’ve seen this before…

Yesterday, all of the political news media were abuzz with the information posted by The Guardian about a book coming out next week by Michael Wolff, in which the long-anticipated war between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump — which we’d been expecting since the former left the White House to return to Breitbart — finally exploded into open hostility.

I have no real allegiance to either side so I’ll just sit back and watch how things play out, hoping that neither side does too much damage to the country at large. That said, I wouldn’t be a good student of history if I didn’t point out that there have been other individual allegiances between political players that fell apart after their eventual victory. And if history is any guide, things don’t look good for Bannon.

The first that bears mentioning, is Thomas Paine, without whom George Washington would never have had the popular support for his insurrection against the British crown. When Paine was imprisoned in France in 1793, Washington chose not to intervene on his behalf. The rift between them only widened from there and by the time Paine died, he was a pauper and an outcast. While his memory has been revived somewhat in the past 200 years, Washington clearly emerged on top.

Next is Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin. Like Paine, Trotsky was valuable in helping gain popular support for Lenin’s revolution, although by the time Lenin died, Trotsky knew he’d be safer in exile. Trotsky made too many enemies in Lenin’s inner circle, most notably Josef Stalin’s who would ultimately emerge on top. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trotsky’s death was a political hit.

Finally, we have Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, two revolutionaries who truly needed each other in their quest to achieve their goals. When Castro got into power, he basically ignored Guevara, who was ultimately assassinated by Bolivian revolutionaries. Castro undoubtedly could have helped.

There’s a fourth that I considered putting in this list. I ultimately decided to mention it here but it’s not quite the same as the other three: Charles Guiteau, who believed himself to be responsible for the election of the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield. When he didn’t get the political position he had applied for, he assassinated the president. He was quickly found guilty and executed for his crime.

It bears mentioning that of the pairings mentioned above, only Castro outlived his one-time ally. Living longer, though, doesn’t mean much in the lens of history. Based upon age alone, I would expect Bannon to live longer than Trump. Washington, Lenin, and Castro all got what they wanted. Paine, Trotsky, and Guevara? Not so much.

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Net Neutrality

One thing that Barack Obama did during his presidency that gets him some criticism from his detractors and fans alike, is he issued a very large number of executive orders to get things done.

In his defense, not once during his eight-year tenure did he get the support of a single Republican member of congress for his initiatives. When the democrats had a slim majority for the first two years of his first term, he got some things (like the ACA and the fixes to the financial crisis). After that, everything other than simple procedural votes and the budget came to a grinding halt.

Everything else, if Obama wanted to accomplish something, he had to do it via executive order.

The thing about executive orders, is that any order that one president can do, the next one can overturn. There’s been a ping-pong game among presidents going back to Reagan with regard to what’s known as the “gag rule”, which dictates whether or not foreign agencies receiving US assistance can talk about options related to an unwanted pregnancy.

I want to talk specifically about one executive order from 2015, commonly known as “net neutrality”.

At issue in this particular topic is whether or not broadband internet access can or should qualify as a utility (like the phone lines, electric lines, gas lines, etc.). If it does, then it can be regulated as such under the terms of the Federal Communications Commission.

There are two legitimate sides to this debate.

On the one hand, we have the content providers. We don’t want the internet service providers to decide who gets to view which web pages. At its most innocent, the ISP’s could charge an exorbitant fee to allow you to watch The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt on Netflix. At worst, ISP’s could restrict access to news and information that’s either critical of them or the politicians they support. In other words, just because the government can’t censor content, private industry sure can.

One the other hand, we have the ISP’s. They argue, not entirely inaccurately, that overregulation is will do nothing but stifle innovation (either in the short or longer term) and, hypothetically, prevent everyone from getting faster and more reliable internet service. If ISP’s are just regulated to prevent monopolies and similar unfair trade practices, that would be in the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC.

So what about someone like me? Outside of this blog, I’m not a content provider (and this one little-read blog doesn’t really qualify as much of anything other than to serve as an outlet for my own thoughts and the few people who actually read my words). I make no money off of this blog and I have no expenses related to it (unless you count the fact that, about a week ago, I had a one-time expense of $25.00 to upgrade the software I use to compose these blog entries.

What I care about, then, is having the most up-to-date technology to provide my broadband access while at the same time not being restricted in what I can see when I do go online.

Those who would spread fear about the implications of a decision to repeal net neutrality aren’t entirely off-base. The people who have money and power don’t want an informed populace. This is nothing new. After all, the Catholic Church opposed the use of the printing press more than 600 years ago, because they knew that an educated populace could spell trouble for the power they sustained. (And, when you consider what happened basically a century later, they weren’t wrong…

A few years ago, there was a study that held that people who watch Fox News are less well-informed than people who don’t watch the news at all. What would happen if the ISPs decided that this was the only acceptable source of “news”?

The main saving grace on this point, is that this can’t and won’t happen too quickly not for technological reasons but instead for logistical reasons. The ISPs know that if they just shut off access to unfavorable news sources, they’d face such a massive backlash they’d effectively undermine their own arguments.

So what appears to be inevitable, is that when a republican administration comes in, they’ll repeal net neutrality regulations, and when a democratic administration comes in, they’ll reinstate them.

This is no way to run a country. The real solution is not regulatory; it’s legislative.

In 2010, republicans retook control of congress and followed a policy of obstruction, which they have continued up until this year.

What we’re seeing now, with the republicans in charge of both congress and the White House, is that they don’t actually know how to govern. Ignoring their actual positions on, well, anything, and without regard to whether you approve of or agree with those positions, they’re not really accomplishing what they would otherwise want to do.

So there’s little hope of getting a legislative solution in the short term. I should hope that, if the punditry is accurate in their predictions of 2018 being a wave election year, (a prediction bolstered by the special election in Alabama the other day), then maybe we can hope for a real solution in time for the next presidential election.

Two Editorial Notes

There are two things I need to say about my post the other day about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel.

First, I don’t know why my iPad’s autocorrect feature changed “Levant” to “Levantine” but I decided to keep it that way. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Second, the link at the end to the Rapture Ready bulletin board no longer goes where I intended it to go. The moderators of that board merged the original thread with a couple of others talking about the same topic. Here is the merged thread.

Religious Exemptions to Public Laws

On the dating website OKCupid, there’s a question that asks about religious exemptions to marijuana laws. Now on my profile, I not only answer the question with its multiple choices, but I often add my own comments and color to those responses. And this question begs for additional color no matter where you stand on the question of legalizing pot (assuming you can remember where you left the petition).

You don’t need to be a lawyer to look through all of the laws on the books in your city / state / country and see things that need to be changed, modified, repealed, or otherwise revised with changing times. Not everything needs to be changed, of course, but it shouldn’t be that hard to draw the distinction.

I genuinely don’t believe marijuana should be illegal to possess or distribute. If nothing else, given the size of the black market for it, it would be a great source of tax revenue. If tobacco and alcohol are legal — as they should be even though they’re significantly more dangerous than marijuana — then so too should marijuana. Feel free to place restrictions on where it can be smoked. And on the minimum age to buy it sell it. But don’t outright ban it.

For the record, I’ve tried it and it did nothing for me. I have no interest in trying it again.

Which brings me back to the OKCupid question. I said I am no fan of marijuana laws but at the same time, I’m also not a fan of hiding behind the fact that the first amendment protects “the free exercise” of religion as a means of subverting a law that was otherwise passed by the legislature, signed by the executive, and interpreted by the judiciary. If a law is unjust, it should be repealed, pure and simple.

Let me make it clear that I acknowledge that I’m treading dangerously close to making a slippery slope argument. The thing about slippery slope arguments is the plausibility of the end result. Letting gay people marry won’t (or doesn’t have to) lead to allowing people to marry their dogs. That said, if there weren’t some question of public good before we restrict the things that can be done in religious ceremonies, how long would it be before people tried to get around manslaughter laws because their “religion” advocated human sacrifice? There’s no shortage of religions — past and present — that do have this as a part of their tradition. (And yes, I do count Christianity as one that does even if they don’t do it any more. But the Catholics do encourage a form of cannibalism as a part of that same tradition.)

Which brings us to a case heard by the Supreme Court earlier this week. A Colorado bakery that specializes in wedding cakes refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, which ran afoul of the state’s anti discrimination law. Take a look at their web page. The first link in the top right corner is for wedding cakes, although if you click on it, they say they’re not currently accepting requests for new wedding cakes.

At the end of an article in the Washington Post a little over a week ago, the decision to stop doing wedding cakes has cost the Masterpiece Cake Shop 40% of its business. Think about that: if you’re earning $100,000 per year in your bakery, how bigoted do you have to be to be willing to cut those earnings down to $60,000 just because you don’t like the idea of two guys or two girls bumping uglies after they eat your food?

The fact that Masterpiece Cakeshop is still in business despite the publicity makes me weep for society.

Now before you ask why the gay couple couldn’t have gone somewhere else, I’ll answer that of course they could (and should) have, if for no other reason than to do some comparison shopping before choosing the baker who would ultimately make their cake. But what would have happened if the next cake shop also refused? Recall the story of Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island high school student who got a religious plaque — which was also in violation of the first amendment because it constituted government endorsement of religion — taken down off the wall of her public school. After her victory, Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to send her flowers, but three separate local florists refused to accept the order.

Finding the one bakery that actually abides by the anti discrimination law could test anyone’s patience.

I also want to draw the distinction between requesting offensive imagery or messaging on a cake and what happened here. A Nazi who requests a cake with a swastika on it would rightly be rebuffed. If the only difference between a cake for a same sex wedding and one for an opposite sex wedding is the apparent genders of the figurines on top of it, you should be laughed at for trying to draw a distinction between them. And I’d even support the cake shop if the customers asked for something truly inappropriate on it.

A lot of bigots complain that they don’t like being called bigots. There’s an easy solution to that one: don’t do things that make you look bigoted. Jack Phillips, the owner of the cake shop, is a bigot. And if he’s complaining that he’s being called a bigot, he’s a fragile little snowflake too.

Now there’s one thing I can think of that specifically pertains to the catering industry that I worry about, assuming the Supreme Court does the right thing and rules against the cake shop. (Not a given, considering a relatively recent ruling that I thought was equally obvious.). We’ve already seen bakeries risk their reputation because of the religious views of their owners to varying degrees of success. I would worry that they’d be willing to risk their reputation even further by tampering with the food they prepare. May it not come to that.

You don’t need to be a prophet

Chapter 38 of the Book of Ezekiel (and to a lesser extent, chapter 39) speaks of a war in which a man known as Gog, from the land of Magog, will threaten the land of Israel, but who will be destroyed by God itself. You don’t need to be a historian, theologian, or biblical scholar to read verse 8 of this chapter and see parallels with the conditions of the founding of the modern nation of Israel. Read it yourself (NIV translation, basically copied verbatim from the above link):

After many days you will be called to arms. In future years you will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people were gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate. They had been brought out from the nations, and now all of them live in safety.

Many fundamentalist Christians see this war between Israel and Magog as a necessary prerequisite for the end of days described in the Book of Revelation.

Let’s ignore the obvious fact that there’s currently no country in the world known as Magog. And I’m not sure there ever was. A large-scale war between Israel and any of its neighbors has been a possibility since the founding of Israel in 1948. Call it Magog, or the Palestinian authority, or Iran, or Levantine, or whatever other group of people who don’t feel adequately compensated and protected might want to call themselves.

Which brings us to the unofficial announcement yesterday, and the likely official announcement today, that Donald Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Before we get into that, I want to make it clear: the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is located in Jerusalem. By that definition alone, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

What’s not so clear is what the true boundaries of Jerusalem actually are. By a declaration of the Knesset in 1980, it includes the area of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. The United Nations disagrees. There’s an excellent map on Wikipedia that illustrates the different parts of the city.

Jerusalem is an extremely important city for each of the three major monotheistic religions. And when you consider this simple fact, the claiming of this city in its entirety for any one of them — especially at the expense of either of the other two — is a recipe for disaster.

There are no other countries in the world that have an embassy in Jerusalem. If we want to have any hope for a lasting peace in the region, it is best not to antagonize either side. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem buys the United States nothing and only antagonizes the Palestinians.

Donald Trump sold himself as a great dealmaker during the campaign last year, and that he’d put America first. This latest decision is evidence that both of these statements are outright lies.

The only people truly celebrating this move are the ones who see Israel as a stepping stone to help us get to the Rapture.

This feels like fraud

According to their website, Murka has been making casino-type games on various computing platforms for six years now. I have three of their games installed on my phone. (Two slot machine games and one blackjack game.)

I want to talk specifically about one of their slot games: Scatter Slots. I’m not going to deny that I do enjoy playing the game. Although I do like it, I have found that there are some aspects to its actual execution that simply could work better. For example, although the graphics, gameplay, and soundtrack are excellent, I found that the in-app notifications and solicitations for purchasing more coins are excessive. I have had several run-ins with their less-than-helpful customer service.

As a result, I wrote a detailed review and gave the game two stars on the App Store. (Out of five).

One thing that makes this game unique among games of this type is that it offers multiple virtual slot machines and a quest-type form of gameplay. You move from one machine to the next on a vintage-looking “map” by completing goals. (For example, win a certain number of coins or spin a certain number of times.)

There is a feature on this game that I truly have mixed feelings about: integration with Facebook. On one hand, Facebook, as an advertising medium would know that I play the game and the game often tries to post on my wall, something I consistently try to prevent from happening. I don’t care when my friends play a game and don’t want them to know when I am. On the other hand, the game saves your progress on Facebook’s servers and, thus, allows you to play the game on one device, put the device down, and then pick it up where you left off on another device.

But I can’t deny that, without this Facebook integration, I wouldn’t know what I’m about to say.

When you switch from one device to another, the game will ask you if you want to restore from the locally saved version of the game, or if you want to load the online version. You could argue that it’s cheating to go back to a save point and revert to what you had before you lost all those coins. Perhaps, but you also lost any progress you might have made.

If you do this, and then play the same “machine” that you played the first time around, something interesting happens. It turns out that the results of a given “spin” aren’t as random as Murka would have you believe. The pattern of wins and losses, and the actual symbols and the location where they appear on the board are exactly the same when you play them from the same starting point.

What this means is that if Murka sets a goal of, say, spinning with the maximum bet 50 times for a given “mission”, then the game already knows exactly how much you’re going to win or lose before you spin the first time. And it’ll be the same no matter how many times you restore from an older saved version. Or even how long you wait before trying again.

I amazed my thirteen year old son by correctly “predicting” the results of a bonus game on the “Spirits of Nature” board. In reality, I had already seen those same results three times before I tried it in front him.

If it were a real slot machine playing with real money, there are regulations that vary from one state to the next that dictate minimum payout rates. I’m not aware of any related regulations for ones with no real money at stake.

That said, there is real money involved to some degree in the form of in-app purchases, as I mentioned above. And if your in-game bank is low enough, they can definitely be tempting. And that kind of inducement makes you wonder if they’re trying to fleece consumers.

One of my many encounters with customer service involved me complaining about the low payout rates of one of the game. The person I corresponded with told me to sit tight and I’d win more eventually. This new information certainly puts that conversation into perspective.

Is it illegal? I’m not a lawyer and I wouldn’t know. It’s certainly unethical, though. I’m not saying not to play this game but you absolutely shouldn’t buy anything within this app. Even if you need extra coins.

Murka certainly has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Why I’m not getting an iPhone X

I’ve been a fan of Apple products since the late 1980s. Call me a gadget geek, or whatever, and I probably fit the description. I bought a few shares of Apple stock in mid-October, 2001 when all stocks were trading at a discount in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks simply because I liked the company.

I didn’t know that they’d be launching the iPod less than two weeks later.

I bought my first iPhone when the 3GS came out, as that was when my then-contract with my prior phone was up. A year ago, I signed on to their annual upgrade program. So this year, when that program allowed me to choose between an iPhone 8 and an iPhone X, I chose the 8. (Technically, an 8 Plus since I like the size of the device.)

I have three main reasons for not wanting the X and today, on the eve of its formal release, I have yet to see anything that addresses my concerns. And none of these reasons cover the much-discussed privacy concerns raised by others, about the new FaceID technology.

My reasons for not wanting it, have more to do with preferring to keep the existing TouchID fingerprint recognition technology. Here are my reasons, in greater detail:

1. I have CarPlay in my car and connect my phone to it. Furthermore, I have a few HomeKit devices in my house. Without going into detail about the specifics, there’s a bug somewhere within HomeKit that requires the phone to be unlocked — even while using CarPlay — in order to be invoked. I’ve reported this bug to Apple but as of right now, it’s still an issue. My workaround is to unlock my phone while I’m driving. There are no safety concerns given where I put my phone while I’m driving and the fact that I can unlock it simply by putting my finger on the home button. (But I still do that at red lights anyway…). There would be huge safety concerns if I had to raise the phone to my face, if it would even allow it.

2. There are times when I want to keep the phone locked to get to something on my home screen without unlocking it. The two most prominent are my medical ID and my Apple Wallet, which contains most of my loyalty cards to various businesses I patronize. (Indeed, one of the things I hate about CVS’s app is that they don’t let you add their card to the wallet…). It’s much harder to get to these things through an unlocked phone, since they actively require you to open the wallet or health apps. From a locked phone, just push the home button twice, and attempt to unlock the phone with a finger that hasn’t been recorded for its fingerprint, respectively.

3. This one is the biggest one. Many apps, especially games, offer in-app purchases. While I do sometimes make in-app purchases, some apps make it far too easy to inadvertently tap a point on the screen that would result, if I approve it, in my making that purchase. I don’t want to make an inadvertent purchase simply because I’m looking at my phone’s screen. That technically could apply for buying actual apps, music, movies, TV shows, and books, within the respective Apple stores in my device, but games are the worst offenders here.

I’m not going to get into a debate about how secure the facial recognition software is in the iPhone X. Even if I give Apple the full benefit of the doubt on that matter, that doesn’t address these three concerns. And until they are properly addressed (which, in the case of the HomeKit bug, means fixing it), I don’t want it.

Maybe next year. Who knows?