A Flurry of Science

“Think about being able to do all these experiments on the ground, from airplanes, from balloons, with citizen scientists. It’s pretty breathtaking,” said Lika Guhathakurta, an astrophysicist at NASA. Guhathakurta will shepherd dozens of scientific projects on Aug. 21, including polarized images of the corona, which help scientists measure its temperature; measurements of Earth’s ionosphere — the charged layer of the atmosphere that gives us auroras; spatial disturbances in the atmosphere caused by heat changes; and a whole lot more. (You can get involved, too. With an app called GLOBE Observer and a thermometer, you can collect data during the eclipse and submit it to NASA. And Google and the University of California, Berkeley, are asking for video and images, which they’ll stitch together into an “Eclipse Megamovie.”) Other scientists will be studying animals — creatures as small as grasshoppers and as big as hippos have been documented reacting to eclipses — and us, too. Humans are sure to have a wide range of responses, as we have since time immemorial.

I’ll admit, this comes as a bit of a shock to me. I thought that coronagraphs permitted really good science provided a scientist could grab some funding. Not so, though.

… coronagraphs usually block more of the sun than astronomers would like. Typically, a coronagraph covers an area around 1.4 times the radius of the sun, obscuring arguably the most important region — the one closest to the sun’s surface.

“That is sort of the missing link, the region where space weather is formed, where the corona gets heated, where the solar wind gets accelerated. … So that’s where we want observations to be pristine,” Guhathakurta said.

Which means that my US readers have an excellent opportunity to do some citizen science in exactly three weeks (well, 21 days and 11 minutes from when I post this). In addition to the above links, Space.com has a good rundown of how to safely observe the eclipse and NASA has tonnes more charts and info.

And remember, a solar eclipse was once considered a bad omen for a king or ruler.

William Browder and the Magnitsky Act

While a fair number of people have contributed to Pharyngula’s “Political Madness” thread, one of the top contributors is Salty Current.

I watched Bill Browder’s Senate testimony live the other day. Here’s the link to the recording.

This one is better, actually, but if you follow either link you’ll be treated to a nearly two-hour Congressional hearing featuring William Browder, who learned about corruption at the Kremlin the hard way.

In June of 2007 my Moscow office was raided by 25 officers from the Moscow Interior ministry…. I hired the smartest man I knew, a young man named Sergei Magnitsky… , to investigate who did what and how we could stop them. … he came back with an astounding conclusion… the purpose of stealing our companies was to try and steal our assets, which they didn’t succeed in doing, however they did succeed in stealing 230 million dollars in taxes to the Russian government, from the Russian government.

Magnitsky was arrested by the high-ranking officials, and tortured in jail for much of a year. This included denying or ignoring 20 requests for medical attention to take care of pancreatitis, which left him screaming in pain. Magnitsky was eventually moved to a jail with medical facilities, but (according to Browder) was instead beaten with batons until death. Faced with a government that gave state honours to the people involved, Browder successfully lobbied for the Magnitsky Act in the United States.

That’s just the beginning of the testimony, though. Browder goes on to discuss various murders, Natalia Veselnitskaya‘s role in all this, and the depths of corruption within the Kremlin. It’s riveting stuff, and worth the watch. Can’t watch? Don’t worry, they have a rough transcript below the video. Some of the highlights I plucked from it:

  • “There’s no such thing as a former FSB agent, it’s a lifetime commitment.”
  • Fusion GPS, which hired Christopher Steele to compile that infamous dossier, is claimed to have been indirectly hired by the Kremlin to spread lies about Browder. They deny it, but if Browder is correct then it suggests that dossier was commissioned by the Kremlin so they could discredit or blackmail Trump should they have the need.
  • “Nobody was talking about adoptions, they were talking about the repeal of sanctions so that Russian torturers and murderers could freely travel and keep their money in America.”
  • The Panama Papers contain a treasure trove of information about Russian connections, one of which involves a cellist worth 2 billion dollars.
  • Brower believes that by muscling oligarchs, Vladimir Putin was able to skim off 50% of their transactions for himself and become the richest person in the world.

And there’s a lot more where that came from.

Dead Again

The Senate on Friday rejected a new, scaled-down Republican plan to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act, seemingly derailing the Republicans’ seven-year campaign to dismantle the health care law.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, cast the decisive vote to defeat the proposal, joining two other Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, in opposing it.

The 49-to-51 vote was a huge setback for the majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has spent the last three months trying to devise a repeal bill that could win support from members of his caucus.

The truncated Republican plan was far less than what Republicans once envisioned. Republican leaders, unable to overcome complaints from both moderate and conservative members of their caucus, said the skeletal plan was just a vehicle to permit negotiations with the House, which passed a much more ambitious repeal bill in early May.

I’ve been following this vote closely, and it looked like a sure pass right up until they were scheduled to vote. McCain may have flipped back thanks to pressure from the Arizona governor. Whatever the case, McConnell has said it is time to move on and signalled he was willing to work with Democrats, to which Schumer agreed.

Breath easy, USians. Your health care system is safe for the moment. Well, safe-ish.

Everything All Right Down There?

Do you need Canada to step in and intervene, USA? Because things are getting weird.

Shock surprise, after repeated denials that the Kremlin influenced your election, Trump is whining that no-one is reporting the Kremlin influenced the election to hurt him. All right, all right, fine, I’ll signal boost the alleged “pee pee tape” that was reported in the New York Times, Washington Post, and a tonne of other mainstream outlets.

If it were just that, I’d declare this an ordinary Thursday. But we also have this:

“Who leaked that to you?” he asked. I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. “What I’m going to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” he said. I laughed, not sure if he really believed that such a threat would convince a journalist to reveal a source. He continued to press me and complain about the staff he’s inherited in his new job. “I ask these guys not to leak anything and they can’t help themselves,” he said. “You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.” […]

“They’ll all be fired by me,” he said. “I fired one guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow. I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.” The issue, he said, was that he believed Priebus had been worried about the dinner because he hadn’t been invited. “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ” […]

“The swamp will not defeat him,” he said, breaking into the third person. “They’re trying to resist me, but it’s not going to work. I’ve done nothing wrong on my financial disclosures, so they’re going to have to go fuck themselves.”

Scaramucci also told me that, unlike other senior officials, he had no interest in media attention. “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.”

If you haven’t guessed, that was Anthony Scaramucci less than a week into his job. It isn’t often that the most bonkers person in the news isn’t Donald Trump.

Incredibly, though, Scaramucci was sane next to much of your own Senate. Not only did a mainstream publication push a story titled “Senate Republicans hope their own Obamacare repeal won’t become law“, the headline is accurate.

Mitch McConnell is making one last frantic plea to his Senate Republican members to advance the party’s scaled-back Obamacare repeal, assuring them at a private lunch that the vote is merely aimed at getting to conference with the House rather than immediately becoming law.

The Senate majority leader picked up some key votes at lunch, with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) endorsing the shriveling repeal effort as a bridge to bicameral negotiations. Not everyone was sold, but GOP leaders were emphasizing that the bill, which would slash Obamacare’s coverage mandates and result in millions more uninsured, is not the ultimate goal.

“I believe the leader has been in communication with Speaker [Paul] Ryan on that topic,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “The request to go to conference has to come from the House so that would probably be the best people to talk to. But I have every expectation we will.”

To sum up the process so far, the House just barely passed a healthcare bill thanks in part to a promise that they’d fix it in the Senate; today, some key Republicans held a press conference to trash the new Senate bill, with Lindsey Graham in particular saying it was “terrible policy and horrible politics” and a “fraud”… then announced they’d vote for it, provided the House promised not to follow usual procedure and put it to a vote. Instead, they want the House and Senate to hash out their vast differences and come up with a third version of this healthcare bill. If they fail on that task, these Senators want the House to abandon the legislation instead of put it to a snap vote, despite heavy pressure to pass something. All this is happening as no-one has any idea what’s in the Senate bill they’re due to vote on sometime in the next 24 hours, but they do know that critical portions will have to dropped to pass it with 50 votes.

We’re starting to get really worried for you up here. Should we call in France or the UN to help mediate?

Time To Mobilise, America

It’s official.

Mitch McConnell: Tomorrow, I will keep my commitment to vote to move beyond the failures of #Obamacare. I will vote yes on the motion to proceed.

The fight for your health care just kicked up a few notches. Republicans are desperate for a “win,” even though they don’t know what they’re fighting for, to the point that they’re flying in John McCain immediately after his blood clot surgery and brain cancer diagnosis. The vote happens tomorrow, so you’d better get active now. Ben Wikler has some good advice.

The first big tell is Tuesday morning, when Republicans need 50+1 votes to start final debate on… something bad, don’t know what yet. 2/

Nobody knows how Tuesday’s vote will go. I have a sinking feeling. As do others. Need constant, maximal pressure. Call: 202-224-3121 3/

Unlike earlier phases of this battle, the hard right is now fully engaged. Koch organizations, Trump admin, the works. We must be louder. 4/

If McConnell votes FOR the motion to proceed but it FAILS, he can’t bring it up again and you can exhale. 7/

that’s very unlikely. Leaders nearly always switch their votes to “nay” so they’re voting w majority and reserve right to bring back up. 8/

If the Rs win the Motion to Proceed, we enter 20 hours of debate. Surreally, that’s all the debate we’ll get on Trumpcare. 11/

In this case, though, the MTP isn’t necessarily a preview of final vote because we won’t know what the final bill will be. So TURN IT UP 13/

Tue-Wed, we’ll have 10 hours of R speeches, 10 hours of D speeches, furious dealmaking, & (your job) mega public outrage 14/

Then vote-o-rama: the weird Senate thing on budget reconciliation bills where each side proposes unlimited amendments & ALL get voted on 15/

This time, vote-o-rama will be used by Rs to propose radical restructurings of the health care system without time for debate or review 17/

Meanwhile, Dems will, I hope and expect, come ready with 100s or 1000s of amendments to extend vote-o-rama as long as possible 18/

That’s the only way Ds can delay the final vote. But the Parliamentarian could rule them dilatory. Or McConnell can change rules anytime 20/

At the end, McConnell will intro an amendment that wipes away all previous amendments. That’s the final bill. Possibly unseen till then 22/

And then the Senate will vote on Trumpcare, whatever Trumpcare is at that point. A mystery bill that could shape all of our futures. 23/

In a series of moments, each a second or two long, a handful of Republican senators will vote yay or nay—death or life for untold 1000s 25/

If the Senate votes yes on Trumpcare, it’s very likely that the House votes the bill through intact & with mind-blowing speed. 29/

If the GOP passes the Motion to Proceed on Tuesday, I’d suggest basically putting your life on hold until the Trumpcare final vote is over.

This is one of those extremely rare moments in politics when everything is on the line—AND nobody knows which way it’ll go.

His advice for what to do begins around here in the Twitter thread. One thing I’d like to point to directly are virtual call banks, where you repeatedly call your representatives from the comfort of your home, but Wikler details a lot of other ways you can help and dishes some great advice (eg. don’t call people who don’t represent you).

Now get moving! Your health depends on it.

Stat of the Union

Time to do another deep dive on polling in the US. The first item comes via Steven Rosenfeld over at AlterNet. A number of polling companies have examined Trump’s standing in swing states, and compared it to how they voted. Their findings? They like him more than the average American, but less than when they voted for him. As Chuck Todd/Mark Murray/Carrie Dann put it at MSNBC,

In the Trump “Surge Counties” — think places like Carbon, Pa., which Trump won, 65%-31% (versus Mitt Romney’s 53%-45% margin) — 56% of residents approve of the president’s job performance. But in 2016, Trump won these “Surge Counties” by a combined 65%-29%. And in the “Flip Counties” — think places like Luzerne, Pa., which Obama carried 52%-47%, but which Trump won, 58%-39% — Trump’s job rating stands at just 44%. Trump won these “Flip Counties” by a combined 51%-43% margin a year ago.

So the sagging of support I mentioned a few months ago continues to happen. Rosenfeld also links to a few interviews with Trump voters, to get a more qualitative idea of where they’re at. There’s no real change there, they have a pessimistic view of what he’ll accomplish but praise him as a disruptor in fairly irrational terms. Take Ellen Pieper.

Poll respondent Ellen Pieper is among those disapproving of the president’s performance so far. The independent from Waukee voted for Trump and said she still believes in his ideas and qualifications. It’s how he behaves that bothers her. “He’s trying to move the country in the right direction, but his personality is getting in the way,” she said, calling out his use of Twitter in particular. “He’s a bright man, and I believe he has great ideas for getting the country back on track, but his approach needs some polish.”

Still, Pieper says, she’d vote for him again today.

Rosenfeld also makes some interesting comparisons to Nixon, but you’ll have to click through for that.

The second item comes via G. Elliott Morris, who’s boosted some diagrams made by Ian McDonald as well as their own. [Read more…]

Change Of Plans

I’ve had a draft cooking for a while over Laci Green’s view of trans* people. I don’t claim to know why she’s hanging out with MRAs or treating TERFs as if they were feminists, but if she’s going to sit down and attempt to make logical arguments the least I could do is return the favor.

But then this happened. [Read more…]

Proof From Miracles (1)

September 21st, 1995, was a good day to be a god. Or, alternatively, to own a grocery store.

A worshipper of Ganesha offered a statue of their god a sip of milk. To their surprise, the milk slowly disappeared from their spoon. Word travelled around New Dehli like lightening, and soon other devout Hindus were astonished to find their own statues were just as thirsty. Temples struggled to keep up with the flood of visitors, traffic took all day to recover, and even distant, exotic locales like England saw a marked rise in milk sales. The event was officially sanctioned as a miracle by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, better known as the World Hindu Council.

The Catholic Church tends to use more careful words, like “worthy of belief,” when declaring miracles.

Take the events of Fátima, Portugal, as an example. Jacinta and Francisco Marto, plus Lúcia Santos, claimed to have seen a glowing woman while tending to their sheep on May, June, and July 13th, 1917. Each time, the woman told the children to perform sacrifices and penance, as well as pray regularly. On the July visit, the woman gave them three secrets. The first two were kept quiet until 1941. The third was supposed to be held until 1960, but was eventually revealed forty years behind schedule.[168]

Word spread quickly, especially after that third visit, and by August 13th thousands of pious had flocked in to have an experience. The three children were jailed for that day, on the grounds that religious visions were politically disruptive, and alas no vision occurred. On August 19th, however, they claimed the woman came knocking again while they were alone. There was a crowd around on September 13th, but all that happened was a quiet picnic in the country.

Excitement was building for October 13th, however, which was supposed to be the “big reveal” that would convince even the sceptics. At least 30,000 people gathered in hope of a good light show. The angels didn’t disappoint.

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: “A miracle! A miracle!”

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws the sun “danced” according to the typical expression of the people.

Standing at the step of an omnibus was an old man. With his face turned to the sun, he recited the Credo in a loud voice. I asked who he was and was told Senhor Joao da Cunha Vasconcelos. I saw him afterwards going up to those around him who still had their hats on, and vehemently imploring them to uncover before such an extraordinary demonstration of the existence of God.

Identical scenes were repeated elsewhere, and in one place a woman cried out: “How terrible! There are even men who do not uncover before such a stupendous miracle!”

People then began to ask each other what they had seen. The great majority admitted to having seen the trembling and the dancing of the sun; others affirmed that they saw the face of the Blessed Virgin; others, again, swore that the sun whirled on itself like a giant Catherine wheel and that it lowered itself to the earth as if to burn it in its rays. Some said they saw it change colours successively….

(“The Immaculate Heart,” quoting from Avelino de Almeida’s article for “O Seculo.” John de Marchi, 1952)

Crack open any holy book, and you’ll find all types of events that are “worthy of belief,” from reviving the dead to candles that burned longer then they should.

Only a god is capable of breaking the laws of the universe. Doesn’t this clinch it?


Before going any farther, we’ve gotta agree on what a “miracle” is. In the Transcendence proof, I defined a miracle as any permanent or near-permanent change in the universe. This is a good start, but there are shades of grey that need to be examined.

Changes are easy to make, after all. I can change this spelling of tis word, for instance, and yet no-one would call that a miracle. The sort of change that qualifies as a miracle has to violate the laws of the universe, in some way. This leads to some awkward situations. If a magician threw down a stick and had it turn into a snake on hitting the ground, we’d clap and think it was a good show; magicians don’t claim to violate the laws of the universe, after all, they just fool our expectations of how the universe works. There’s always a material explanation behind the curtain.

Actually, the stick is a snake at the very start. The trick depends upon a species called the naja haje, or the Egyptian cobra. A peculiarity of this snake is that it can be made motionless by pressure just below the head. Thus temporarily paralysed, the naja haje becomes rigid, like a stick, but when it is thrown on the ground, it is jolted back to action.[169]

(“Secrets of Magic,” by Walter Gibson. 1973)

If Aaron or an Egyptian holy man turn a staff into a snake, however, it’s now a legitimate miracle.

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר

(The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,)

כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין

(“When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a sign for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff, [and] cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a serpent.’ “)

 וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין

([Thereupon,] Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.)

  וַיִּקְרָא גַּם פַּרְעֹה לַחֲכָמִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם כֵּן

([Then,] Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic.)

וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ וַיִּהְיוּ לְתַנִּינִם וַיִּבְלַע מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֹּתָם

(Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.)

(Torah, Shemot 7:8-12, English translation by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg)[170]

While both situations look identical to any witnesses, only the second is claimed to be a miracle, because only it broke the laws of the universe. On the surface this seems to be no problem, since both the magician and prophets have made the situation clear. But what if the magician lied, and claimed their own work was a miracle? A witness has no way of spotting the lie, and would happily believe a false miracle. Conversely, what if the magician is mistaken, and there really is no material explanation? Our witness would falsely agree that no miracle happened, when in fact one did.

It all points to a simple conclusion: it doesn’t matter if something is declared to be a miracle or not. We need to examine the evidence, in every case, and cannot take it on faith.

This story of duelling snakes is not the first ever miracle; a few people claim that the very existence of the universe counts as a miracle. That’s already covered by the Fine-Tuning proof, which is examined in another chapter.

However, the creation of everything and the creation of the Earth are two separate things.

That Agni, when in loftiest heaven he sprang to life, Guardian of Holy Laws, kept and observed them well. Exceeding wise, he measured out the firmament. Vaisvanara [Agni] attained to heaven by mightiness.

Wonderful Mitra[171] propped the heaven and earth apart, and covered and concealed the darkness with his light. He made the two bowls part asunder like two skins. Vaisvanara put forth all his creative power.

The Migbty [?] seized him in the bosom of the floods: the people waited on the King who should be praised. As envoy of Vivasvan[,] MatariSvan[172] brought Agni Vaisvanara hither from far away.

(Rig Veda, Mandala 6:8.2-4,  translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

Declaring who came first is a bit of a challenge. The followers of Jainism point to the birth of Rishabha, the first Jain “Tirthankar” or enlightened person, as miraculous; the wind became perfumed, the sky had a warm glow, and a good vibe flowed over the land. According to legend, that was about 10224 years ago, which puts it roughly 10224 years before the Big Bang. Worse, Rishabha is only the first Tirthankar in our own epoc; Jainism believes there were an infinite number of cycles before then, so that year represents the first known miracle, but nothing [HJH: looks like I forgot to write a part back then. Whoops! Please accept this crude approximation…] in their religion states there was ever a first miracle, full stop.

Un-shockingly, there’s no evidence to support any of that. The source of Rishabha’s legend, the Adipurana, was written between 941 and 1000CE by the poet Adikavi Pampa. In contrast, Jewish tradition states the Shemot was revealed to Moses by God around 1312 BCE; no written copies existed until after 600 BCE, however, and some evidence suggests it was created at that time.[173] By historical standards, Judaism can claim to be earlier.

Hinduism has both of them beat. Thomas Oberlies estimates the last Mandala of the Rig Veda was composed in 1100BCE.[174] The earliest Mandalas, which includes the one I quoted above, were crafted between 2000 and 1400BCE, with the second date being the most widely accepted. While the Rig Veda itself wasn’t written down until about 10BCE, the text gushes on and on about holy rivers. By comparing their descriptions within the work to the historic paths of rivers, archaeologists can estimate when the oral versions of the Mandalas were first written. Some claim this adds an additional millennia or two to their age; others dispute this.

There may be earlier records of miracles. Imhotep was an advisor to several Pharaohs, and one of the few commoners to be declared divine by the ancient Egyptians. His skill as an architect, physician, and sage were long celebrated, and most likely he could perform some sort of “magic.” Alas, no record of his tricks have survived, and without details I can’t declare him to be a true miracle worker. It’s too bad, since he could have easily stolen the crown; he lived from 2655 to 2600BCE, after all.

[168]  Maybe. There are a lot of sceptics who claim the Catholic Church forged or altered this prophecy, pointing to oddities like the number of pages (the official release had four, yet previous reports claimed there was only one). The Church has continually denied this.

[169]  I’m sceptical of Gibson’s explanation, but my point survives even if he’s wrong. You’ll see why shortly.

[170]  This passage is also in the Christian bible, filed under “Exodus” in the same location.

[171]  This god was named after contracts, but also influenced friendship and honesty.

[172]   Vivasvan is the name of a sun god, while MatariSvan is the person who brought fire to the rest of the world.

[173]  “Exodus,” by William D. Johnstone, an essay published in Eerdmans Bible Commentary (2003).

[174]  “Die Religion des Rgveda,” Wien, 1998.