Guard your irony meters!

It’s a good thing there are no actual devices out there that are capable of measuring irony as though it were something measurable and quantifiable. If so, then the mere existence of evangelical Christianity, for all its self-righteous hypocrisy, would make it impossible to find a maximum level to be measured.

I’ve talked about this before. We see bigoted people doing bigoted things, and then complaining that they’re being called bigots. Randy Cassingham, whose online column This Is True has been collecting weird and unusual news stories since the mid-90s, is quick to point out that he gets a disproportionate number of complaints when the subject of a negative article is a Christian compared with literally any other group (including other religious groups and political groups of all stripes).

We often see a degree of irony in backlash to the phrase political correctness. As if trying not to offend people is a bad thing. People railing against political correctness often call those of us who don’t want to offend, “fragile little snowflakes” or something similar.

Well, there’s a new article on Movieguide — about which I’ve written before — that, if anyone takes this complaint seriously, they immediately forfeit all right to call anyone else a “snowflake”. Brace yourself.

Apparently Google Home doesn’t know how to answer the question of who Jesus is. And people complained about this fact. If the comments section is to be believed, they’ve leveled the playing field by taking out references to Abraham, Mohammed, and Buddha.

Seriously? Let’s get past the fact that I don’t know why anyone would ask a smart speaker that question in the first place. For all of the different places where you can look up whatever you want to know about Jesus (and I recommend starting with the Skeptics Annotated Bible) why would you use a smart speaker?

It also bears mentioning that the only people who would ask this question already have a preconceived answer they’d expect to hear and anything short of that will miss the mark in their terms.

But if they’re getting that upset about it, I seriously think that the real problem is with them. And they’re the true “snowflakes”.

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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.

Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?

Profiles in … something

The popular TV show The Twilight Zone has seen multiple reboots since it first went off the air in 1964.   I’ve been thinking a good deal about one particular tale from the mid-1980s reboot.  “Profile in Silver” envisions a world where time travel is possible, and a “field historian” named Joseph Fitzgerald from about 200 years in the future is observing the events of the presidency of his ancestor, President John F Kennedy.  

The episode begins with Dr. Fitzgerald giving a lecture at Harvard on November 21, 1963 and he gets a visit from one of his colleagues from the future.   He expresses the great existential crisis of every field journalist: why must he only be observer and not participant?  She tries to talk him out of going to Dallas the following day but he’ll have none of it.   

In what appears to be an unplanned moment, he trains his camera on the open window in the book repository, sees Lee Harvey Oswald leaning out with his rifle, and panics.  He calls out to the president to duck, and effectively saves the president’s life.   How Gov. Connally didn’t get hurt, isn’t answered.  

This seriously damages the fabric of time.   As history tries to restore the original trends, first a tornado touches down in Dallas but when that doesn’t work, Nikita Khrushchev is assassinated, and his successor seizes West Berlin.  As the history computer analyzes all possible outcomes from this turn of events, the world would be completely annihilated within a century.  The only solution is for the Kennedy presidency to end as history originally intended.  Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so there’s a twist at the end.  I won’t reveal the twist but you can watch the episode below.  

There’s a scene in this show where JFK and Dr. Fitzgerald are aboard Air Force One, and Kennedy talks about how maybe his father might have been wrong about the importance of power.   “No one man should have that kind of power.   No man should have to have it.”

There is no question that Donald Trump has long had a love affair with power, and this goes back to long before he announced his candidacy for president in June, 2015.   Recall that this isn’t the first time he sought the presidency: back in 2000, he sought the nomination on the Reform Party ticket.  (Side note: I admit to being surprised that the party still actively maintains its website…)

They say that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.   There’s a truth to that, but part of the problem is that once people get a taste of power, they tend to want more and more.  Someone with such blatantly narcissistic tendencies like Donald Trump would fall into this trap more quickly than the average person.  (Note that I’m not holding myself to a higher standard here.  If I were given more power than I could handle, I doubt I’d be any less vulnerable to its appeal…)

During one of the Republican debates last year, Trump all but admitted his corruption, albeit from a different angle than where he currently resides.  As his opponents, most notably Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, tried to illustrate that he’s not a true republican, they pointed out that he had invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his wedding.   He shrugged off the charges, pointing out that he would do things like that to gain favors.  Nothing necessarily illegal about it but telling all the same.  

Which brings me to the recent firing of FBI director James Comey.   Let me make it clear that the president has the right to fire the FBI director at any time and for any reason.   Based upon that fact alone, this is neither an abuse of power nor a constitutional crisis.  

Or at least it ought not be either of those things.  After all, Bill Clinton fired director William Sessions a few months into his first term and nobody batted an eye over it.  

But it’s clear that this is a function of all of the negative trappings of power.   Comey had just requested more funds and personnel to investigate reports of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, Russia.   I suppose it’s possible that these facts are unrelated and that the real reason for Comey’s dismissal is as the White House said: the way he mishandled the reporting of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.   Then again, it’s also possible that Gary Larson got it right in his old Far Side cartoon when he explained how the dinosaurs became extinct.

The congressional investigation into the Trump-Russia affair doesn’t seem to have much in the way of force.  With the status of the FBI investigation up in the air now that Comey’s gone, we should really consider an independent investigation.  

Oh, and it needs a flashy name, too.  May I suggest Russi-a-Lago?
Profile In Silver

I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.

Watch out for fake outrage!

About a week ago, a fake video popped up in which a person who opposed Trump verbally confronted a Trump supporter.  Almost immediately after this, a report appeared where Ivanka Trump was confronted on a JetBlue plane in a similar manner.  

In light of (1) the sheer amount of fake news out there, (2) the fake video, and (3) the fact that it was JetBlue, I was skeptical of this report.  

So when I saw someone on Facebook make a vaguely worded comment that could have been interpreted as the fake video, I commented “you know this is fake, right?” I talked about confirmation bias and how it feeds into fake news.  And then the following morning, when I realized that it wasn’t fake, I apologized for my error.  

That’s when things went downhill in the Facebook dialogue.  She asked me to make a post on my Facebook feed echoing her outrage at the actions of the man who was escorted off the plane.  After all, would the political left have sat idly by if it had been Chelsea Clinton who had been harassed like that?  And in the presence of her child no less!

I politely refused to do so, largely on the grounds that this isn’t something worth being outraged about.  She threw my confirmation bias statement back at me along with a few other things and I abandoned the dialogue. 

I’m not defending the actions of the man who confronted Ivanka Trump, but he was punished accordingly by being escorted off the plane.   Conservative news media continue to talk about this and how horrible the guy was.  Tucker Carlson called him a member of the intolerant left.  

I call it bullshit.  

Let’s start with the “think of the children” part.  What should it matter?  We hear that a lot when people want to give a comforting lie to children rather than expose them to uncomfortable truths about life.  I have no problem with being age appropriate to some of the more unpleasant aspects of life, but to outwardly lie to them and pretend that things aren’t the way they are?  No. 

I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Dragnet with Dan Aykroyd playing the very uptight Joe Friday and Tom Hanks playing the more iconoclastic Pep Streebek.   They’re investigating vandalism at the local zoo and find a lion whose mane had been shaved into a mohawk.  Friday goes on a long “think about the children” screed about this travesty and how will they recover from seeing this.   Streebek looks over at a group of children and says, “kids, it’ll grow back.”  They all cheer.  

Ivanka Trump may have one of the most unenviable positions in modern politics: she has her own business interests to tend to and she may be best positioned to temper her father’s nature.  If she intervenes too much, charges of corruption and nepotism will surely arise.   If she does too little, she may be questioned about why she allows her father to do the things he will inevitably do.  

Do you want real outrage?  How about Donald Trump’s attempts to redirect US policy during the transition, most glaringly with regard to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory?  By comparison, then-president elect Bill Clinton didn’t even complain when still-president George H W Bush had an initial troop deployment to Somalia in December 1992.  If ever the outgoing president might have been in the right to refrain from acting until the new administration came in, it was here.  

How about a Secretary of State designate who has a personal vested interest in seeing the sanctions against Russia be lifted?  How about a Secretary of Energy designate who not only doesn’t accept the reality of climate change but who wants to pursue policies that will make it worse?  How about an Attorney General designate who thinks that racism only exists when it’s aimed at white people?  How about a Secretary of Health and Human Services designate who wants to make it harder for people to afford the health care they need?

How about a Secretary of Education designate who wants to dismantle our educational system, replacing scientific truths with lies that I’m not even sure I’d call comforting?  You want someone to think about the children?  Yeah, I’ll take that over a rude and inconsiderate person on an airplane.   

I suspect the fake outrage machine is only just getting started.  

Edukayshun in Pencilvainya

My parents bought a house in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, when I was five months old, and my mom still lives in that house. Langhorne is located in the Neshaminy School District and my entire undergraduate career was spent in the schools of that district.

Earlier this week, the Neshaminy School District School Board voted to close two of the schools in its district, including the elementary school that I attended from Kindergarten through 4th Grade, and then 6th Grade as well.

My interest in the fact of this closing is more sentimental. If I still lived in the district, I would probably oppose the closing on the grounds that the plans to replace the closed schools involve building a massive, sprawling school that would have far too many students in it. But as a resident of a different school district in the state of Pennsylvania, I’m simply watching it closely and hoping that something similar doesn’t happen where I live. But yeah, I’m sad that the school where I have so many memories soon will be no more.

The decision to do so is undoubtedly a cost-cutting measure. I would like to believe that, no matter what else might or might not be true about this vote, the long term results will be some degree of cost savings, regardless of the question of whether or not it would actually improve what the students actually learn.

On the same date as the vote to close those two schools, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee approved House Bill 1640 and sent it to the greater PA House of Representatives. I don’t know when they’ll vote on it, but I’ve already called my local representative to tell him to vote against it.

This bill, if passed, would compel the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear in every school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

I’ve written before about the phrase “In God We Trust” as our national motto and feel that it’s shameful that it is our motto.

I think it’s interesting that the text of the bill that’s coming up for a vote lays out in no uncertain terms that the person who first pushed for the usage of the phrase on our currency, Pennsylvania Governor James Pollock, was known as “The Great Christian Governor”.

Doesn’t this fact alone contradict the 1970 Federal Court Ruling in Aronow v. United States, which held that

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. …It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’ or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.'”

No. It’s not obvious that the national motto has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. In fact, it certainly seems to push for exactly that.

As I said above, I called my local representative and asked him to vote against the bill. I gave three reasons, actually.

I maintain that direct references to any deity in official government writings is absolutely an establishment of religion as not all religions worship the same deity. It effectively excludes any different religion as well as non-religion. It shouldn’t be our national motto but as long as it is, there’s no compelling need to post it everywhere unless you want to pander to Christians who are pushing for their religion in places where it doesn’t belong.

Second, it actually wouldn’t do anything to improve education in the state. At best, it would do nothing (positive or negative) in a given school. At worst, it could create two classes of students as officially recognized by the state: those to whom the statement applies in their day-to-day religious life and those to whom it doesn’t.

And finally — and probably most importantly — is the cost. I hardly think that the Neshaminy School District is unique in having budget issues. Why waste scarce educational resources on something like this?

If it’s a foregone conclusion that my elementary school will be little more than a pile of rubble in the near future, let’s at least not let the same thing happen to the concept of education itself.

If you live in Pennsylvania, call your representative and ask him or her to vote against it, just like I did.