Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Arizona already has a 'religious freedom' law. So does Pennsylvania.

Much of the hoopla over Arizona's proposed "religious freedom" bill seems to suppose that it's something wholly new, that religious believers in the state would receive protections they've never had before. It turns out, however, that the measure would amend an enlisting law:

Under current Arizona law, if a business wanted to discriminate against gays, they would not need this bill to be passed to do so. It is not currently illegal for a business to deny service to someone because they are gay. Some cities in Arizona have ordinances against it but there is no state law against it. If business owners in Arizona wanted to deny service to gays, they could do so in most of the state under current law.

That's from an outfit called the Christian Post. I read their whole analysis, and found it interesting; objective, too, even though the Post makes no bones about which side it's on

The history of the topic is fascinating: Who would have expected religious conservatives and civil libertarians to find common cause in the right of a Native American to smoke peyote? 

But the bottom line is, the legal potential for "gay Jim Crow" already exists in Arizona. In Pennsylvania, too! The commonwealth passed its Religious Freedom Protection Act in 2002. Here's a bit of it: 

Section 4. Free exercise of religion protected.
Section 4. Free exercise of religion protected.
 (a) General rule.--Except as provided in subsection (b), an  agency shall not substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion, including any burden which results from a rule of general applicability.
 (b) Exceptions.--An agency may substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion if the agency proves, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the burden is all of the following:
 (1) In furtherance of a compelling interest of the agency.
 (2) The least restrictive means of furthering the compelling interest.
 Section 5. Actions.
 (a) Claim or defense.--A person whose free exercise of  religion has been burdened or likely will be burdened in violation of section 4 may assert that violation against an  agency as a claim or defense in any judicial or administrative
Subsection (b) would appear to give the state a lot of wiggle room to argue a "compelling interest" in enforcing anti-discrimination law. On the other hand, the law quoted above refers the definition of "free exercise" to Article 1, Section 3 of the state constitution, which states in part that "no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience." To me, "in any case whatever" sounds like it beats "in furtherance of a compelling interest." 

I have no idea what case law there is on this, and a layman's judgement is about the worst tool you can use for evaluating how laws are applied. Still, on the face of it, it looks as though you could argue that Rep. Gordon Denlinger's proposed bill would be superfluous. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


If you've visited this blog before, you'll notice the layout has changed. I originally had a static home page, and the blog was the last selection on the right of the menu ribbon. I've decided to try a layout without a home page as such – it was never much more than a placeholder. That means the blog is now the main page. Hopefully that means cleaner functionality and fewer clicks to get to what you're looking for. 

Phonemes R Us

Over the weekend, I was covering a tech event in Lancaster, and talked with a fellow who was from out of the area. In passing, he mentioned that he was from Stanford. Which made perfect sense, it being a tech event.

Included a quote from him in the story, "said so-and-so, from Stanford." As it happened, he had an unusual spelling for his first name, so even though I'd CQ'd it, one of our copy editors jumped online to verify it. And what do you know? He didn't say "Stanford" after all. He's from Stamford, in Connecticut.

No big deal, since it was caught, but when you're identifying someone's home town, it sucks to miss by roughly 3,000 miles.

Have a care for us journalists, folks! If you're a computer science major from Amity University, rest assured we're going to think you mean the one in Cambridge, Mass., unless you do your part to make the difference clear.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

Goldman Sachs says a good merger is one that concentrates market power and leaves consumers worse off.  

● Earlier this week on Facebook, Jim Brown pointed me to this amusing list of Japanese tips for visiting the U.S.

● Arizona has passed (but as of Saturday morning, Gov. Brewer had not signed) a bill allowing business owners to assert their religion as a reason to deny service to gays. State Rep. Gordon Denlinger of Lancaster County is seeking support to do the same in Pennsylvania. I found this backgrounder on the issue, but I'm betting there has to be more to this than Mother Jones has uncovered - there are just too many bills popping up all at once. 

Video of the week: I got to see Edgar Winter last night at the Lancaster Roots & Blues festival. He's pretty old now, and nearly everything he played was from that one big album, and he delegated an awful lot of the performance to his sidemen. (I don't think I've ever been more impressed by a musician, yet less moved and ultimately more bored, than I was by the guitarist.) But who cares? I got to see one of the all-time great rock weirdos, the guy who did this: 

The 2014 version doesn't feature the platform shoes, but Edgar still plays all the instruments, and it was damn good. FWIW, that's Rick Derringer playing guitar in the video, and the bass player, Dan Hartman, is a Harrisburg native.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Words, words, words

I enjoyed reading this article in Jacobin on the various meanings and purposes of work in our culture. (HT yet again to Mike the Mad Biologist.) Author Peter Frase argues, correctly in my view, that the word "work" can mean various combinations of things, and that
much needless misunderstanding and confusion is occasioned when people fail to parse its various senses:
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear separately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.
Frase goes on to give examples of the categories in his eightfold typology, and wraps up by suggesting that if we were clearer about the various senses of "work," it would be easier to make better decision about how it is allocated and compensated. Not sure I agree with all his conclusions — they seem to presuppose a lot more societal good will than I think actually exists — but they're thought-provoking.

Frase's article made me think about the many words that, like "work," come stuffed with multiple meanings, words that people can use in different ways and which can be creatively exploited by partisans with an agenda. Many, perhaps most, political words are like this.

Some are abstract and necessarily require definition and interpretation: democracy, freedom, equality, justice and so on. Those words are never going to have nice, sharp edges. What I find more curious, though, are words that have an esoteric and an exoteric meaning: one for the cognoscenti, another for the multitudes.

The word "unemployment" is like this to a modest extent. To the layman, anyone out of work who wants it is unemployed. The official unemployment rate, however, only counts people actively looking for work. Get so unemployed that you give up looking, and you drop off the rolls.* Thus arises the odd situation that the unemployment rate sometimes goes up when the labor market improves, as people who had given up on finding work start looking again.

"Small business" is another example. Before doing much business journalism, I thought small businesses were mom-and-pop affairs — dry cleaners, flower shops, restaurants and the like, places with maybe a dozen employees tops. Silly me. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, depending on the sector you're in, you can have up to 1,500 employees and still count as a small business. Alternatively, you can have up to $35.5 million in revenue, or $500 million in assets if you're in the financial field. That's a lot of pressed shirts or peonies.

I used to think of these words as "complex simples," and imagine that one could construct a theory of them. Complex simples are different from jargon, and they're different from deliberately crafted doublespeak, such as "enhanced interrogation" or "rightsizing." They're some of the most interesting words around. ("Work" is one of the best complex simples. Another good one is "money.")

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously states, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." Getting to define words — in particular, getting to specify esoteric definitions for vernacular words that everyone thinks they understand — is an underappreciated means to power.

 *You become a "discouraged worker," which means you get counted in the U4 rate, but not the U3 rate. U3 is what gets reported in the media every month.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● Slate is doing a series titled "The massive liberal failure on race." The second article takes on affirmative action's ugly origins and lousy track record: 

The black unemployment rate holds steady at double the white unemployment rate; the median net worth for black households is about 7 percent of white households; annual per capita income for blacks is 62 cents for every dollar of per capita income for whites. When presented with these figures, supporters of affirmative action typically use them as evidence that conservatives kept affirmative action from working. Others say the statistics are proof that affirmative action didn’t really work that well to begin with. But there’s always the third option to consider: that persistent racial inequality is, at least in part, the result of affirmative action working exactly as it was intended to.
● One of those articles that makes me realize I do not understand the Internet: More than 7,000 people collectively lost $300,000 in an online galactic war

● I don't know why Esquire is rerunning this 1998 article on Latrobe's own Mr. Rogers, but it's a hell of a piece. Author Tom Junod references Rogers' one-of-a-kind 1997 Emmy acceptance speech, which you can see here

● Having had my interest piqued by Wanda Guthrie's posting of this article on Facebook, found this Scientific American post: "Pretending Keystone XL Politics is Science."

Video of the week: This past Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan. 50 years! We're as far away from the Beatles' U.S. debut as they were from the outbreak of World War I. 

Anyway, skipping ahead a few years, here's a Beatles-related vignette that has always stuck in my mind: John and Yoko's encounter with cantankerous cartoonist Al Capp during the infamous bed-in of 1969:

Capp's doing a pretty good Bill O'Reilly here, isn't he? 

That was the week that wasn't

Ugh. Gah. Not even one lousy post this past week? Shame on me. We'll do better going forward.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

Dear America, I saw you naked. (HT The Browser)

● At the bottom of the "Dear America" article, there's a link to a piece on "How the robots saved Pittsburgh."

 Sugar on trial (HT Tony Teelucksingh)

 And via the sugar article, "Eggs and cholesterol

Video of the week: About halfway through Bruno Mars' halftime show at the Super Bowl, a bunch of middle-aged guys turned up and cavorted to some taped music for a few minutes. Dudes looked like this back when they were Bruno Mars' age: 

As you can see, their fashion sense actually has improved in the intervening two decades ...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

When I first heard this well-known Zen koan, I think I was about 12 years old. I was a literal-minded little smart-aleck, and I'm pretty sure I did what I suspect a lot of kids do: I waved one hand back and forth a few times, said "Duh!" or the equivalent, and concluded that people who fall for this stuff are idiots.

One grows up, however, and over the years this has become one of my favorite existential jokes, along with Woody Allen's one about the guy who thinks he's a chicken (which I take to be about life in general, not just about relationships). 

A couple of days ago, the koan popped into my head again. This time, the insight it propounds really, really really struck me. Sometimes when you realize something, it just sort of sits there like a frog on a lily pad, blinking at you with a bored expression on its face. Other times, the universe briefly falls apart and puts itself back together before your eyes. This was one of the latter realizations. (And it was turtles all the way down.)

Which I think is the point of koans, so I'm glad the universe took the trouble. It and I are so often at two with each other. 

I'm sure my cluttered, concept-riddled mind will continue to run things most of the time, for better or worse, but it's nice to know that once in awhile that other mind can put in an appearance.