California gay marriage verdict

The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the backers of Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage in that state do have the standing to sue in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a District Court judge’s ruling that the proposition violated the US constitution. Hence their appeal can go forward. If the court had ruled the other way, the District Court opinion would have gone forward and gays would have been able to marry.

I think the verdict is the correct one. Usually, it is the state government that pursues any appeals to court decisions that overturn laws but in this case the governor and attorney general of California had both declined to appeal the District Court ruling. I am uncomfortable with the idea that government officials should be given the power to prevent a full legal hearing of an issue. The backers of a proposition should have the right to pursue the legal process to its end.

Although this is a setback for gay rights, a more important principle is at stake and that is that government officials should not be given the power to determine who gets their day in court.

I think this setback for gay rights is temporary. The march for equal rights is unstoppable and that day will come soon, both in the courts and in public opinion.

Relativity-14: Revised OPERA experiment finds same result

The OPERA experiment that caused such a flurry of interest with its reports of faster-than-light neutrinos has been repeated to take into account one of the criticisms and they find that the neutrinos still seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light. You can read the paper on the revised experiment here. (For previous posts in this topic, see sere.)

In the earlier experiments, the neutrinos were sent in clusters that spanned 10 microseconds, much longer than the 60 nanoseconds time difference that signaled the faster-than-light effect, and thus the experimenters had to do some fancy statistical analyses to extract the time of flight of each neutrino. Some skeptics had suggested that those statistical analyses were flawed. The new experiment has clusters that last only 3 nanoseconds, thus ruling out that particular source of systematic error.

The other potential sources of error will take longer to check out.

Bye, bye, Herman, it’s been fun

It is becoming clear that Herman Cain’s 15 minutes of fame are up. So what caused the rise and fall of Cain? The fall is perhaps easier to explain than the rise. While I think he could have survived the fact that he is ignorant about almost anything other than the restaurant business or that he seems to be a creep when it comes to women, the combination of the two was too much even for the Republican party’s crazy base. The relentless mockery has taken its toll. As one could have expected, The Daily Show mined a rich vein of comedy out of Cain’s latest gaffe over Libya. It was brutal.

He is no longer their darling and their new heartthrob is, incredibly, Newt Gingrich. It is surely an indication of how desperate they are and how much they dislike Mitt Romney that they are now pinning their hopes on yet another arrogant blowhard, someone whose candidacy was declared dead just a short while ago and will be dead again soon.

The Republican party primaries are providing further evidence of the reality of the 27% crazification factor, that argues that 27% of the electorate is willing to support even the craziest of candidates or issues. That was roughly the size of the support that Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain reached before their stars faded and that group looked for a new crazy person to venerate.

But what caused Cain’s rise in the first place? Reader Tim sent along this very amusing clip in which Rachel Maddow marshals the evidence that Herman Cain is a performance artist whose entire campaign was a spoof, and that he kept sending out coded messages that indicated it was all a joke but that we missed them. And this was even before the Libya fiasco. Calling Cain a performance artist could be construed as an insult to genuine performance artists, but in recent days that term has become synonymous with anyone who is pulling a complex prank or hoax. (Incidentally, while I like Rachel Maddow, she is a little too hyper for my style. But I like that fact that she has her own show and presents views and guests that might not get a hearing otherwise.)

Maddow was being facetious (I think). I don’t think Cain started out as a hoax candidacy. I think that he was just another one of those rich former businessmen who are arrogant enough to think that they are really smart and can run the country but did not seriously expect to succeed in their campaign. It likely started out as a vanity project to get him a brief moment of the limelight. I think he may have been truly surprised by the fact that crazy policies that feed the prejudices of the base, delivered with arrogance and condescension, struck a chord with so many party faithful that he started to think he had a serious shot at the nomination, not realizing that slogans only take you so far and that increased prominence brings increased scrutiny. This, coupled with the fact that Republican party’s real power brokers were probably terrified that someone as unelectable as he would get the nomination, resulted in him getting hammered from even those within his party, so that his campaign started taking on water and sinking rapidly. It is noticeable that Republican party stalwarts, and this includes Fox News, did not rush to provide Cain with a full-throated defense, a sure sign that they want him gone.

Conversely, Romney has been saying all manner of contradictory and bizarre things and yet he has escaped any serious criticism from the Republican establishment commentariat. The Republican party leadership clearly wants Romney, reckoning correctly that he will advance oligarchic interests and has the best chance of winning in 2012. It will be interesting to see how they undermine the Gingrich boomlet.

The party leadership doesn’t really care about Romney’s dubious stands on social values that the crazy base of the party really cares about and has resulted in the latter creating a movement that is dedicated to preventing Romney from getting the nomination. The person who must be most chagrined is Tim Pawlenty. He would have been the most credible not-Romney who could have got the support of both the party leadership and the crazies except that he was knocked out by the idiotic and absurdly unrepresentative Ames, Iowa straw poll right at the beginning.

So it is time to say farewell to the Herminator.

American banks’ involvement in the Eurozone crisis

Last week in a post on the Greek crisis, I said that the extent of US banks’ liability for risky debt (either in the form of loans that may go bad or credit default swaps that may turn out to be bad bets) was not clear. Recall that banks give out loans to governments and then take ‘insurance’ on those loans in the form of credit default swaps (CDS) in case the governments cannot pay back the loans. But if the loans go bad and the banks that issued the CDS cannot pay up on the insurance claims, these banks could face huge losses.

Now a news report says that Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have involvements totaling more than $5 trillion of debt globally but they are not divulging how much if that is in the troubled PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). Bank of America, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley also have taken similar risks.

Where does our morality come from?

For reasons that are not clear to me, some religious people seem to think that the moral sense that we possess is evidence for god. In fact, some of them (such as Francis Collins in his book The Language of God) go so far as to claim that this is a really powerful argument for god. They point to the fact that there are quite a few moral impulses that seem to be universal and claim that this must mean that they were implanted in us by god.

This is a specious argument. In my series of posts on the biological basis for justice and altruism (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4), I discussed how our ideas of justice and our altruistic impulses can be traced to biological origins. What science is making abundantly clear is that the foundation of our moral senses also are evolutionary in origin and that culture builds on those basic biological impulses to create moral system of increasing generality.

Paul Bloom has studied this question by looking at what we can learn about the moral thinking of babies and in his article The Moral Life of Babies in the New York Times issue on May 5, 2010 writes:

The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, “Because I wanted to,” this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like “It was my turn” or “It’s my fair share” are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

There is a nice video of the experiments that Bloom has done with babies.

This is why science and religion are at loggerheads. As science advances, religion simply has less room to exist. This is true in all areas of knowledge and, in particular, in the area of morality. We now realize that evolution has given us two great gifts: basic moral instincts and the capacity to reason. The latter has enabled us to build on the former and create the complex moral systems that currently exist. God is entirely superfluous.

General relativity versus modified Newton theories of gravity

In the case of the large-scale structure of the universe, the dominant paradigm is that the dynamics of the universe are governed by the theory of general relativity, augmented by the postulation of the existence of dark matter and dark energy. Classical Newtonian theory of gravity was not believed to hold, because it could not explain many features of galaxies.

But in science, one can always come up with alternative theories to the dominant paradigm to explain any phenomenon and there have been efforts to develop what are known as MOND theories (standing for MOdified Newtonian Dynamics) to explain the properties of the universe that would dispense with general relativity and revert to Newtonian gravity with slight modifications. Via blog reader Hunter, I came across this article that says that they have tested one form of the MOND hypothesis and found that it cannot explain the measured gravitational redshift of galaxy clusters, while general relativity and dark matter can.

This does not definitely rule out MOND theories since any theory can always be tweaked to accommodate any experimental result. But such negative results do make them less plausible to scientists.

What the Murdoch scandal reveals about oligarchic power

The waters roiled by the Murdoch scandal keep slowly rising higher. Now that the veil that covered the closely knit and secretive workings between government, business, and the media is unraveling, we are getting to see how the oligarchy operates (at least in the UK) in raw, unfiltered detail.

First up, The Guardian reports on how the parent company News International (NI) put pressure on successive British governments to get its way. It ranged from the more usual practices (such as wining and dining and otherwise pampering government officials) to placing their people in government and the police, and in turn hiring people from those organizations into its own ranks (thus creating a tight network of loyalists all committed to serving NI’s interests), to crude threats to punish politicians if the soft touch did not work. Opposing lawyers, other media outlets, indeed anyone who stood in the way of what NI wanted, were threatened with ruin. The report of their naked thuggery reads like something out of a gangster film, with Murdoch and son playing the roles of Vito and Sonny Corleone.

It has also been revealed that the publisher of the Wall Street Journal‘s European edition had made a deal with a company to buy copies of its own paper in order to boost its circulation figures. He has resigned. It has also been revealed that NI had hired investigators to spy on hacking victims’ lawyers and their families, including their children. This caused member of parliament Tom Watson (himself the target of the Murdoch goons) to go ballistic and accuse James Murdoch of acting like a Mafia boss and the BBC of covering up for them. The mob references keep piling up.

Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir apparent James has been shifty and evasive under questioning, repeatedly denying any knowledge of the serious abuses committed by those working for him. As the story unfolds, you will hear a lot about something called the ‘For Neville’ email because it is seen as directly harmful to James Murdoch and threatens the entire empire. The Guardian explains the significance of the email. In connection with it, two former News of the World executives have issued a statement that implies that James Murdoch has been lying to the police and parliament. Rupert Murdoch has already sacrificed two of his key cronies (Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks) to protect himself and his tottering empire. Will Papa Murdoch now sacrifice his own son too?

The uproar has caused some British conservatives to think twice about their allegiances. Now that the Murdoch enterprise is in the crosshairs, all those politicians who were once anxious to cozy up to him in return for favorable coverage are trying to create some space. Prime minister David Cameron keeps increasing the distance between himself and his former buddies at News Corp as other heads continue to roll.

Incidentally, if you do not want to soil your mind by reading Murdoch-produced information, there are now plug-ins for some browsers that warn you if you have entered a Murdoch-controlled website.

Libya? Let me try answer #3

Herman Cain’s response to a question about Libya makes Rick Perry’s flub during the debate pale in comparison. It is painful to watch Cain struggling to remember what he has been told to say about Libya and not confuse that answer with other rehearsed answers. After about ninety seconds of complete incoherence, he then launches into one of those non-answer answers that seasoned politicians have perfected but he is just learning to do. He seems to make the weird claim that the US intelligence services had important information about the situation in Libya that they did not share with Obama which was why he made bad decisions, though Cain did not specify what it was he disagreed with.