09 May 2014

Benghazi! WTF?

I find the whole Republican shitfit about Benghazi! totally incomprehensible. Of course, the incident on 9/11/2012 was a bit of a fuckup and was certainly tragic for those killed. But come on! In the scheme of things? Seriously? Like compared to 10 years of unnecessary and fraudulently induced war in Iraq? Say?
Not to mention that ginning up a scandal where there isn't one actually cost this same party gains in midterms that normally go their way at the 2-years to go-mark of a Democratic presidency back in '98. You know when Barney Frank got to say (as Rachel Maddow reminded us) to Ken Starr...(in effect)... "OK, nothing on Foster, nothing on Beefgate, nothing on Whitewater, nowhere to go with the sex scandal. Be nice if you'd told us that a year and a half ago."

So what are these fools thinking? I dunno, and truly, I don't really care because I don't believe this will make one whit of difference, and to the extent it does it will cost them votes.

Which isn't to say that the structural predicament we Democrats are in this year isn't a major bummer, because it is.

The Awful, Terrible, Really Not Good (albeit unintended) consequences of Obamacare

Just as the Republicans are flailing and failing to show the American people how Obamacare is a total failure (in that it isn't), the New York Times last week rather blithely published an article that talked about the effects of the law from a corporate employer's point of view. Read through the prism of a corporate employee, come to find out there actually is a serious, and truly terrible, unintended and very, very negative consequence of the passage of Obamacare, likely to occur in the next few years. The problem comes from the fact that it isn't really universal public health care, but reform of private health insurance. The presumption always was that it would supplement existing employer provided health care, which is what most people in America depend on.

But no. Apparently, according to surveys of employers, what is actually likely to happen is that the majority of employers intend to phase out private health care benefits, and replace them with nothing. Which will force working people to pay more for health care, on private exchanges, and will have the net effect of transfering even more wealth from production employees to rentierist owners of corporate shares and supersalaried corporate executives.
An unintended consequence indeed. More welfare for the rich, and more erosion of the middle class.

I would weep, but I'm too used to working people getting the shaft to be anything but confirmed in my cynical and deeply pessimistic view of our nation's economy and politics.

28 April 2014

What then must we do?

I was listening to libertarian constitutional law scholar Bruce Fein on Ian Masters yesterday and I was struck by a point he made. There definitely IS a deficit in what he refers to as the "kinetic energy of the young" in activism on the left. And I blame the timidity as "acephalous" (again, his word) leadership of the Democratic party... we don't have a clear moral mandate, and the reason is that we continually compromise our moral stance.
Progressives must wrest control of the Democratic party from those who would remain beholden to monied interests that merely want to use the government for their own ends. We must stand for an end to the war-state, the national security state, the surveillance state, the state which subverts the regulatory function to actually ensure control and enrichment of special interests, in favor of a state which is the guardian of the freedom (read "access to power") of the citizenry and ensures that the interests of the people are the only interests of government. Where we Progressives differ from libertarians is that we believe that there is a proper role for government in regulating the wretched excesses of capitalism, and ensuring access to education, health care, keeping jobs in America, robust infrastructure, (let's just refer to FDR's "Second Bill of Rights" as a manifesto)-- and add a survivable environment and world.
These are non-negotiable moral imperatives, and if our political party stood for these things, and not for the interests of the monied elites, we would capture the enthusiasm and activism of young people, as well as older people. Then, in Wordsworth's words (also quoted by Fein), the time will again come when we will say "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!"

25 April 2014

Rhapsody on Piketty and Capital in the 21st Century

After reading Krugman's piece today and his longer earlier review (in which he calls it "magisterial"), I plonked down a few shekels for Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. (Kindle edition as the huge buzz for this academic book, of which no doubt only minor sales were anticipated, has resulted in the first print run being totally sold out). 
Apropos, one of Krugman's few criticisms is of Piketty's treatment of "supersalaries" in America as a sort of alternate to the inherited capital wealth that is the main source of distributive inequality in the world (including to a great extent in America too). Which he (Krugman) says is not as definitive as his (Piketty's) more general treatment of the historical roots and pervasive insidiousness of grossly unequal wealth distribution. 
And one of his (Piketty's) more pessimistic prognostications is that we are unlikely to easily be able to enact the kind of progressive taxation, including wealth taxes, that are needed to address this fundamental problem, because it took the "modern thirty years war" in the 20th Century to be able to do it after the Gilded Age. (He calls it the Belle époque and this shows his European vantage). Two observations: 
1. This discounts the importance of the Progressive Movement in early 20th Century America, which preceded WWI and was a largely grass roots movement; 
2. As Paul Ehrlich and others have said (going all the way back to Carter's "moral equivalent of war"), we need a modern economic equivalent of WWII to deal with the economic and ecological crises of this century anyway, so these reforms can be folded right in. 
Activism is the key. Us retired folks; we gotta be ready to march. On. Washington. Over. and over.

Because, as we are now learning from recently published serious academic studies (what we already knew)(all over the wonkier news lately): what ordinary people think and care about makes NO DIFFERENCE at all to policy makers (only what the elite with the big money wants has any influence at all on policy).

Unless we make it clear to them that we will defeat them if they don't act on behalf of our interests.

24 April 2014

Oultaw Bundy odious racist, big surprise

One sees where the odious Cliven Bundy has revealed his wretched, nay, putrid racist core. Unsurprising, and it shows how hollow and blind the Rightists are in backing a selfish outlaw like that on the "principle" that citizens can defy the law whenever they feel like it. WTF.

23 April 2014

A Clarion Call

OK. This needs to be said, not that it hasn't been already, by more and more reputable scientists and ordinary informed citizens. But truly, it needs to be said, over and over, by everyone who realizes the truth of it. 
I have robust confidence that this is true, and that the survivors of this century (if there are any) will consider this a glaringly obvious historical truth of which they can't understand why the leaders of our time could have been so very deep in denial. 
• The threat to the human habitability of our world from Global Climate Change is the greatest threat to survival the human race has faced since long before the invention of agriculture; and this Sixth Extinction now appears to be likely to be on a par with some of the gravest crises to life on this planet in its entire planetary history.
We have spent as a nation over a trillion dollars since 9/11 on so-called homeland security. Virtually all of that has actually been counterproductive; making us more insecure, more paranoid, more distracted. Meanwhile our government and the governments of almost all the world's nations have continued to make the real crisis... the threat to homeworld security, worse and worse. Biogeographers and climate and energy experts ... at least some of them... think it may already be too late to avoid catastrophe. 
We WILL experience huge shocks to our economy and civilization. These may come on gradually, but maybe not. It's not all that unlikely that as soon as ten years from now the world will look very different from today, with major disruptions and political crises at a fever pitch. 
The tragedy is that we, as a species, probably do have the power to survive and even mostly reverse this. But will we? The signs are not favorable. 
Everyone needs to become alarmed and start demanding the kinds of changes that will make a habitable world for future generations possible. It probably is not too late. But if we don't force major paradigm shifts in the behavior of our species; and make the equivalent of World War II effort to change to renewable energy and sustainable resource use; catastrophe will be unavoidable.

10 April 2014

Comment on US Israel relations at the moment

I would like to express 2 opinions that are unorthodox in America right now, but which I think are more than justified by events.

1. The U.S. should inform the Likud Apartheid government in Israel that financial aid will cease immediately, given the fact that the Israeli government has repeatedly sabotaged any possibility of peace with the Palestinians and has been undermining U.S. interests in the region for many years. Enough is enough.

2. The president should personally tell Netanyahu that the very suggestion that extortion... i.e., the demand to release the traitor and spy Jonathan Pollard... in the context of American HELP in trying to solve their territorial dispute with the Palestinians is DEEPLY offensive, and not only will not be considered but if they would like to have good relations with the US in the future an apology is necessary.

Of course, the AIPAC lobby has succeeded in throwing around the label "anti-semite" and creating a culture in Washington where anything short of equating US interests with Israel's is politically unacceptable... even though objectively we have few interests in common with the Right Wing Israeli regime today. So the possibility that any significant number of politicians of either party will agree with what I just said is effectively zero. But truth is truth, and I believe the facts, as I said, MORE than justify what I say here.

17 March 2014

Ionian Hortatory

From time to time I may post aphorisms, anecdotes, verses, and other tidbits from Ancient Ionian philosophy, mythology, or literature. And in time I will no doubt explain (again) what that means. In the meantime, here is a loosely translated excerpt from a very, very old and popular hortatory from Old Ionus. 

To those who have been fortunate in material things,
it is fitting that they will be industrious but also generous, 
that they will advocate for those who are less fortunate, 
that they will teach and practice abundance for everyone.

To those who have suffered misfortune in the world, 
still it is fitting that they be generous and industrious, 
that they advocate for those who are also unfortunate, 
and that they, too, seek abundance for everyone. 

Those who have been blessed to acquire knowledge, 
it is fitting that they use their knowledge for common benefit, 
that their words always be informed by what they have learned, 
that they generously impart their knowledge to others. 

To those whose knowledge is lacking
it is fitting that they seek to learn, admit what they do not know and speak what they know, 
that their words also be informed by what they have learned, 
that they share what they learn with others. 

From those who have been shown kindness,
it is fitting that they will act with kindness, 
that they always speak kindly, 
that they will impart kindness to others. 

Those to whom others have been unkind,
still it is fitting that they act with kindness, 
that they speak with kindness, 
that they seek to impart kindness to others. 

Those who have been fortunate to experience joy in life, 
it is fitting that they seek others’ happiness, 
that they  encourage and exert themselves for others’ well-being, 
that they generously impart joy to others. 

To those whose life has been marked with sorrow, 
still it is fitting to seek others’ happiness, 
to encourage and exert themselves for others’ well-being, 
and to find it in their hearts to bring joy to others. 

Those who have been blessed to have been loved, 
it is fitting that they will open their hearts to love others, 
that they will use their words to encourage love, 
that they will impart the way of love to others. 

Of those who have known others’ hatred or indifference, 
still it is fitting that they open their hearts to love, 
that they use their words too to encourage love, 
that they, too, impart the way of love to others. 

To those who have been fortunate to have received wisdom,
it is fitting that they will practice wisdom, 
that they will speak with truth, 
that they generously impart their wisdom to others.

To those who have lacked wisdom, 
still it is fitting that they open their minds and seek wisdom, 
that they seek to speak with truth, 
that when they find wisdom, they open heartedly impart wisdom to others. 

06 March 2014

Thoughts on the Ukraine situation

I have noticed that most of the people who are inclined towards interventionism, or at least agressive diplomacy, with regard to the Ukrainian situation tend not to be historians or people with deep knowledge of Russian history and culture. Josh Marshall, who qualifies on both counts, is urging more caution than is currently in vogue, and I think he's quite right. Here. We Americans are in a tricky position, having invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are relatively close to Russia, within the past decade plus. Of course we should look for a diplomatic, negotiated solution that helps the Ukrainians retain their sovereignty (supposedly guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum, which Russia signed), and succeed in ridding themselves of the almost unbelievably corrupt and kleptocratic Yanukovych legacy, but we need to be realistic. Ukraine clearly is in the Russian orbit; it has historic ties to Russia going back to Putin's namesake, Vladimir the Great, who converted to Christianity in 988 in Kiev. Which was the largest city of Eastern Europe and the capital of Rus'. So ignoring the "special interests" the Russians have always felt towards Ukraine and other peripheral or buffer regions between the Russian heartland and Europe is just to ignore reality. These factors simply have to be taken into account in devising a way forward.

Clearly what is not helpful is allowing an escalation of tit for tat isolative measures directed towards Russia. We must think long term here. This crisis will pass, and we will continue to have to deal with Russia. It is not in our long term interests to reignite the Cold War or try to militarily isolate Russia. Roger Morris has also commented along these lines, and I believe he is right as well: America should tread lightly, urge a reasoned and negotiated resolution, while respecting Russia's long term historic interest in the area. 

05 March 2014

Is Hillary Inevitable?

I for one am more than a little uncomfortable with the notion that somehow Hillary Clinton is entitled to be president. I do agree with those who point out her good qualities, and also that she is qualified, although from a policy perspective in particular I do not support her in the primary process. She is just not liberal enough for me; she remains, unsurprisingly, a Clinton Democrat in many ways. And for a dyed in the wool liberal Democrat like me, that is NOT a good thing. (Which said, I would and will vote for her, of course, if she is nominated). Mainly, I do not believe that political dynasties are good for the country, and as far as I'm concerned the fact that she is the wife of an ex-president, while not disqualifying, is a cause for heightened scrutiny of her campaign, because it amounts to an unfair advantage.

I am hoping someone like Sherrod Brown (although preferably someone who is not a senator) will emerge to challenge her from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

03 March 2014

Powder Keg: Ukraine

I really hope I'm wrong, but listening to an interview by Ian Masters with Russian commentator Pavel Felgenhauer and looking at news reports in the last 48 hours or so, it appears to me that we may very well be on the cusp of a very serious deterioration in the balance of power that has reigned, with sometimes more sometimes less stability, between Russia and the West since 1992 or so. If the Russians actually intervene in the Eastern Oblasts of Ukraine, I think the pretense of a normalized relationship with the Great Russian Bear will evaporate instantly, and the future of Europe will change irrevocably. This could go either way... a slide into a new normal of tense relations, or a really, really bad collapse of a fragile metastable situation that will be all but impossible to restore. It's no exaggeration to say it all depends on Putin. He has acted pretty damn rashly in intervening in the Crimea and using the Russian media to stir up paranoia and hatred in Russia, with all kinds of historical allusions to WWII etc. But if he realizes that Western financial sanctions, which are a real possibility, would wreck the prosperity that is the currency with which he's bought the complacency and support of the Russian people, he may back off. However, there are signs that the man is more than a bit of a megalomaniac, and that he sees himself as a kind of neo-czar. Building empire costs dearly, both to the empire's people, and, even moreso, to those in the way. And the West will not want a head on confrontation. So we may be looking at a much, much worse overall international situation in the coming years. Again, I hope not.

For a well-informed, and perhaps slightly less alarmed viewpoint, see Josh Marshall's analysis from TPM here

28 February 2014

Krugman on TPP: Failure no big deal

See Free Trader Paul Krugman in the NYT today. He fails to mention the very negative effects the TPP would likely have (had) on internet privacy and the ability of the US to favor its own manufacturers in government procurement, which I believe is important for the preservation of a viable manufacturing sector in our country, but even he acknowledges that the administration's zeal for TPP, when there really are no barriers to trade involving the potential signers (including even China, which is not part of the proposed deal so far), is quixotic.

I remain opposed to TPP, and if the free trade establishment is beginning to realize that the thing is going to go nowhere, I say, great... in a country that sometimes seems to have gone stark raving mad in the last few years, it's one less thing to bemoan.

06 February 2014

«R.I.P., G.O.P.» & «Blue Texas»

So Boehner says no immigration bill will pass this year, even though it's obvious to everyone if the Senate bill were put before the House for a vote, it would immediately pass. 

Can we all sing a chorus of a new song: "R.I.P., G.O.P." please? Because with zero Latino votes, zero Asian American votes, and zero other ethnic American votes, they may be in a bit of trouble, ya think? 

I hear the chorus of another new song wafting in the air, too... "Blue Texas."

03 February 2014

Inevitability of Science, and the Rise of Science in the West v. China

A friend posed a question, which I attempt to give my answer to.

Q: In Paul Davies's Eerie Silence, there's a section titled 'Is Science Inevitable?' In the paragraph beginning 'Suppose an asteroid had hit Paris ... It goes on to say: In medieval China, no clear distinction was drawn between moral laws and laws of nature. Do you think that is still the case? After 65 years of communist rule?

A: There are really two questions here. First, whether the rise of science is inevitable given the rise of a toolmaking intelligent species, and second whether Chinese society today reflects the same sort of philosophical attitude towards epistemology as it did in the Middle Ages. (To paraphrase). Never one to shy away from discussing things I only slightly understand, I will attempt some comments.

If I took his point, what Davies was saying is that science; or, more specifically, the scientific method, arose because of a contingent series of historical accidents, beginning with ancient Greek logic, followed by late Medieval philosophical developments which themselves were dependent on certain intellectual currents in the Islamic world, followed by a new age of exploration and technological development in the Renaissance. Take away any of these elements— q.e.d., no science, and presumably much slower or non-existent progress towards systematic procedures for uncovering the actual nature of physical reality, slower technological growth, etc. Counter-example being China, which in 1000 AD was far ahead of the West in every way, including technology and what you might call practical engineering and descriptive science, but which had not developed a procedural system or methodology for investigating scientific truth. And as a result, in a few short centuries it fell hopelessly behind the west in science and technology.

Davies apparently infers (from what, I’m not entirely sure) that the Medieval Chinese drew “no clear distinction… between moral laws and laws of nature.”  To the extent that statement is true, though, I’m not sure that the development or failure to develop scientific methodology is explained by it, or that either is necessarily dependent on the other. (Although it would seem likely that the state of philosophical development could significantly affect the timing of scientific advances). There are those (such as Thomas Nagel) who even today reject the modern secular notion that values are purely relative, so the idea that a civilization could not have a systematic set of cultural norms that espoused “moral laws” as objectively true, and at the same time develop a truly scientific methodology, does not seem obvious or even plausible to me.

For example, the Ming Emperors Hong Xi (r. 1424-1425) and his son Xuan De stopped the voyages of exploration of the great admiral Zheng De, who had explored the Indian ocean and rounded the tip of Africa in huge trading fleets during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, well before Columbus. And, interestingly, their reasons for doing so were apparently moral, i.e., that it was unfit to require crippling tribute from foreigners. (Anti-Imperialism in 15th century Chinese political philosophy!). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_he). But I have to say, can there be any real doubt that had history not caught up with China, i.e., had the Europeans not beat them to the punch, they would have, in time, resumed these voyages of exploration? And the Chinese may have had more intellectual baggage surrounding the nature of truth, and so on, but Buddhist philosophy contains the principle of determination of truth through direct investigation, which could quite easily have led in time to something hardly distinguishable from the scientific method. I actually think the parallels between more or less isolated Chinese civilization and the civilization of the West (including Islam) up to around this time more plausibly leads to the inference that something like science, and certainly engineering and technological development, were very much inevitable developments.

Looking at it from the broader context (the assessment of the likelihood that extraterrestrial intelligence, if you posit its existence, would necessarily develop advanced science and technology),  what Davies is saying seems to me to be a variation on his Anti-Copernican theme. Namely, that maybe we here on Earth, both in terms of the serendipity of the origin of life, the suitability over deep time of our home planet for life to thrive and for complex, and ultimately intelligent, life to arise, maybe actually ARE kind of special, after all. That this series of events is not only contingent but maybe rather spectacularly unlikely, in the greater universe. Add some apparently rather unlikely contingencies for the development of advanced science and technology, even given a toolmaking intelligent species, and you get an argument for extreme rarity of technological civilizations, which is pretty much exactly where Davies seems to be going with this.

To my mind, there’s  a lot of sort of anti-teleology going on here. Or what you might think of as negative special pleading. Sure, there are a lot of things that have to have gone right to get us to the point, say 10,000 years ago, where civilization was about to arise on Earth. There are all kinds of arguments for why that is terribly unlikely to happen elsewhere in the universe, to which those who advocate that extraterrestrial intelligence likely is out there counter, yes, but there are so many, many stars and worlds, surely some of them must have had their own favorable contingencies (and not necessarily the same ones), etc. etc.

But looking only at the question of whether science was purely dependent on the specific contingencies of European civilization ca. 1500, I have to say I don’t buy it.

As for the second question here, which is whether there is some kind of continuity with the what I’m referring to the epistemological cultural attitudes of Chinese civilization vis-à-vis the West, and whether it continues today in Modern China, well. That’s inscrutable. No, seriously, I think of the Chinese as being pre-disposed to longer term thinking than Westerners, by and large (a stereotype, of course, but like many stereotypes, with a grain of truth). And the same goes for their history. As a nation on the edge of the World’s great continent, subject to repeated barbarian invasion, occupation, and eventual assimilation of the barbarians to the (to them) obviously superior Chinese civilization, Chinese history almost looks like a series of pendulum swings between stable empire (Heaven’s favor) and the chaos of various interregnums, (Heaven’s disfavor), when thugs and brigands rule and Confucian morality is trampled upon. Not hard to see the period from 1930 to the present (and beyond?) as such a “warring states” period. I don’t doubt that many in China, even though it’s not yet safe to say it, would argue that Deng Xiao Ping was a restoration emperor, who brought back a civil order, but I suspect others would say that the deeply corrupt and nepotistic Communist Party, the unrest of the people, and the environmental instability and unsustainable growth of the modern Chinese society all are indicators that the period of Chaos isn’t over yet. (It is pretty clear that specifically Maoist/Communist rule came to an end sometime before 1990, but the regime didn't change. An entire historical treatise on how Marxism, and even Leninism, were subverted to become mere ideological pretexts for totalitarian regimes, but I've already ventured far enough afield. It is notable, though, that the Chinese regime has pretty undeniably retreated somewhat from the kind of totalitarianism that held sway under the worst days of Mao).

All of which is to say that moral truth may not be a major issue for Chinese leaders today. They have embraced Western technology, and its science, and perhaps even more significantly the currently fashionable Western moral relativism. China has produced, for example, some fine physicists and other scientific leaders, and their society has seemingly embraced amoral market capitalism even more enthusiastically than is the case in the countries of the birth of that concept. But whether, in the long run, a purely Chinese traditional philosophical system will re-emerge and modify their attitude towards science, it’s hard to say. I like to think that what will emerge, perhaps during this century, is a synthesis of western and traditional eastern attitudes towards what truth is, and how it is arrived at, which may allow for a syncretistic and secularized acceptance of certain key moral values as objectively necessary and true. Perhaps then, the favor of Heaven may come to bless our whole world, and the people and the rulers will live in harmony; the Confucian ideal. (Don’t hold your breath, but we have to have something to work towards).

This has been a rambling and verbose answer to these questions, but there you have it.

26 January 2014

Blue Sky: signature of living worlds

An alien being with vision approximately in the same wavelength range as ours could immediately infer from an seeing the Earth's sky that the Earth is a living world.

The blue hue we see is caused by Rayleigh scattering (a quantum effect) that preferentially scatters shorter wavelength light, combined with two factors, one of which is peculiar to humans and the other of which is the key to the statement above. Humans have a deficiency of violet sensitive photoreceptors, which makes us see violet fields as bluer (or you could say redder, anyway less violet) than they really are. So the sky is "really" a bit more violet than we see it.

But just as importantly, molecular oxygen selectively absorbs light in the near violet, so that it's not just that the sky appears more blue, it actually is more blue. If it were pure nitrogen, it would be distinctly blue-violet in color. And so, a being from another living world who found himself magically transported to the surface of the Earth could infer at once that he might not be home, but he was standing on the surface of a living world whose atmosphere contained a substantial percentage of molecular oxygen.

Ain't the universe remarkable?
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