31 October 2014

Medical Billing Insanity

Another example of the hideous medical care system in this country-- or more accurately, the system of paying for medical care. (HMOs don't work this way... which is an argument for them).
I underwent an ER visit recently, and was billed at about $8140. For three hours in an ER, in which I didn't even get seen by a doctor. (I'm OK; it was vertigo, which fortunately resolved).
Insurance only paid $1541. The co-pay I have to pay was $171. That means almost $6450 was just phony "Adjustment." But here's the thing. If you're unlucky enough to be uninsured, they will fight you to make you pay that. People who are uninsured, defenseless, but not quite judgment proof are left with totally unrealistic and outrageous bills no one else has to pay. This system is totally corrupt, and it's the reason unpayable medical bills are the largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the US, something that doesn't happen in any other country.

And the ACA has done very little if anything to fix this utterly broken system.
Which is one of the reasons I am convinced Jefferson's prediction has already come true:
"The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."

The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution

Thomas Jefferson said:

"The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."

Can anyone seriously argue, especially after Citizens United, that we have not already reached this "end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution?"

Pardon me. I weep for my country, and I do not say this in jest. Not at all.

25 October 2014

Will Warren Run? (After All)

Elizabeth Warren made a rather equivocal statement this past week when asked for the umpteenth time if she would be running for president in 2016. Here's a bit from the interesting article in the American Prospect by the estimable Robert Kuttner:
For Democrats demoralized by a succession of presidents who ran as progressives but then governed as centrists, Elizabeth Warren is the real deal. She brought the house down at Netroots Nation last July with lines like these: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail. But a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. … The game is rigged and it isn’t right.”
Kuttner speculates, probably rightly, that Warren will not challenge Clinton, but if for any reason Clinton does NOT run (which is always possible), she will find the impetus from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party (in Howard Dean's memorable phrase)... irresistable.

22 October 2014


As anyone who knows me knows, I am a through and through Progressive. Not a socialist, but I do believe that many things are best done with public ownership and resources, or at least on a regulated nonprofit basis, including public energy grids, health care, large scale transportation systems, scientific research in areas where there is no immediate profit motive, and environmental protection.

Of course, being a pragmatic citizen of the USA, I am a Democrat.

But let me be clear. I would abandon the Democratic Party in a heartbeat, in favor of a real Progressive Party; or, on the other hand, become a much more enthusiastic supporter of a renewed Democratic Party, were it to become that party. Such a party would support as immediate policy priorites:

  • An immediate dedication to the "moral equivalent of war" --a super Apollo Project to achieve renewable energy and develop sustainable energy resources for the future, including finding alternatives to all fossil fuel use as soon as humanly achievable; and including a commitment to free technology sharing to ensure that these new technologies are spread throughout the world; and including buybacks and decommissioning on as accelerated a schedule as possible of all fossil fuel systems
  • Universal Free Public Education including higher education and vocational education as a fundamental right
  • Universal Health Care as a right, not a privilege, with transition to a much strengthened Medicare for All, on an accelerated schedule 
  • Huge investments in other public infrastructure, including sustainable agriculture, to make a livable and sustainable economy a reality
  • Greatly increased taxes on corporate profits, wealth and highest incomes to pay for the necessary public investments
  • Dedication to freedom of information and the internet
  • Financial Reform with teeth, including greatly strengthened anti-Trust activity 
Other progressive reforms are certainly doable and desirable, but these will do for starters.

But Where, I ask... Where is the Progressive movement in this country demanding these reforms, and now? Because the time is late, the clock is ticking, and the unsustainable energy and economic system we are all blindly following off the cliff is just not going to work. The world is literally dying under its onslaught, and the time for the people to take back their government and demand that a new paradigm be put in place is NOW, not later. 

In contrast, the pathetic, indeed virtually non-existent, policy program of even the Democratic Party in this country is completely inadequate to the very real challenges that face our civilization. We the people must demand much more, and now. 

Sustainable Energy Should be Our Chief National Priority.

If you don't agree with the above statement, you are simply not paying attention.

I am going to the Hammer Forum presentation tomorrow (Thursday, 7:30 PM, UCLA Hammer Forum, Westwood, Free) http://hammer.ucla.edu/…/tackling-climate-change-nationall…/ hosted by Ian Masters.  There will be discussion of what it will take for our civilization to deal with what now looks like its greatest challenge ever, even surpassing, albeit more slowly evolving, the wars of the 20th Century.

I am intrigued by Stanford Prof. Mark Jacobson's analysis that says that if we did what the USA used to be able to do (examples: the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program), that is launch a major publicly funded infrastructure project, we could in fact switch to 100% renewable energy for transportation, electric power, and manufacturing, by as early as 2030. But we would have to start RIGHT NOW, and there's no sign there is any political will at all to do this.

I will say this calmly, but in fact our hair should be on fire: If we don't wake up soon, our economy will collapse, tens of millions (mostly, unjustly, but nonetheless, in the third world), will die, and the very existence of our technological civilization may not survive this century. 

See this for some idea of what we must then do: 

18 October 2014

James Hansen, right on science, wrong on the politics of Climate Change

WaMo's Kilgore here.

Kilgore is absolutely right that Jim Hansen, who is more or less the Prophet of Doom on Climate Change (by which I most certainly do NOT mean he is wrong), has a profound misunderstanding of politics and how public policy actually works. If we follow his political prescriptions, we'll get more of the same on Climate Change, which is NOTHING. 

17 October 2014

Lockheed Skunk Works Compact Fusion Reactor Project

(Follow other links from there to read in Aviation Week and see YouTube video)

I recently posted and agreed with a piece that said solar power could/would dominate by 2050, but here's a piece that says there just may (finally) be a real breakthrough in magnetic confinement fusion power.

I have always thought that this will EVENTUALLY be made to work, after all, it's what powers stars. Or, more accurately, this deuterium fusion powers the coolest dwarf stars and was the first nucleosynthesis in the early universe. All natural, dontcha see?

I'm enough of a technophile to celebrate this, and to have a tinge of Californicentric pride that it's being developed in Palmdale, probably by a bunch of CalTech graduates. Admittedly, it's probably more likely to fail than to succeed, but you gotta try; our world really needs some technology breakthroughs that will ease us off of fossil fuel. 

Solar will dominate by 2050... or , will it be fusion power after all?

See update to prior post here.

Stenger, Observable Universe, Entire Universe, Multiverse, Biverse

In Victor Stenger's interesting book «God and the Multiverse» (although not central to it), the author remarks on Alan Guth's calculation from standard inflationary cosmology, that the "rest of the universe" beyond the approximately 46 billion light year-diameter sphere that is the observable universe (i.e. close enough that light has had time to reach here in the 13.8 billion years since the universe became transparent about 380,000 years after the Big Bang ....as seen from the Milky Way), is AT LEAST 10^23 times the size of the observable universe. That means something like 10^34 galaxies and 10^44 planets capable of sustaining carbon based life on their surfaces. A HELL of a lot of real estate.

 "well-established inflationary cosmology implies that on the other side of our horizon lies a region containing at least 23 orders of magnitude as many galaxies as those inside, which arose from the same that produced our [visible] universe. It is likely to be many orders of magnitude greater. Our visible universe can be likened to a grain of sand in the Sahara desert." (GatM, p. 374).

Note that this has nothing to do with the "eternal Multiverse," which is also more or less implicit in current cosmological theory, or the phenomenon referred to as the biverse, whereby the most logical assumption of the consequence of the inflationary bubble from a Planck sphere at the moment of the Big Bang is that an essentially equivalent process also occurred in the opposite direction of time, creating a similar (though not identical) universe, possibly with a symmetrically inverse billion-to-one anisotropy of antimatter rather than regular matter, which exists, its space expanding like ours, only in the other temporal direction from the Big Bang.

Wrap your head around that, if you care to. 


10 October 2014

Some musings on Music: Hindemith, Gesualdo

Lately I've been listening to Hindemith. Never cared much for him (too cold, modernist, Teutonic in a negative way). But I dunno. If you like Classical music at all, check out on YouTube Glenn Gould playing the Fugue from Hindemith's Sonata #3 in B flat (1936). That is interesting music by any standard.

I was spurred to do this by a post on Facebook, in which I ventured the negative comment above. But I like to think I have an open mind, so I've changed it a bit. 

Speaking of interesting music: although it can get monotonous if not taken in small doses, I'm exploring Carlo Gesualdo's Sixth Book of Madrigals (1611) sung by the INCOMPARABLY EXCELLENT Compagnia del Madrigale (Italy; on the Glossa label). Gesualdo, apart from being a prince (of Venosa) and a wife-murderer, was a really, really original and radically modern (for the 17th century) composer.

David Horowitz's vile comments

I read where former leftist and now ultra Rightist David Horowitz gave a speech in which he "thanked" ISIS or whatever we're supposed to call it... for the beheadings. Look, I don't care what his supposed point is. And I'm ashamed to admit I used to... 20 years ago... listen to this asshole on KCRW (mostly just to hear what the then "New Right" was thinking, although I'm quite sure he wasn't quite as crazy then as he is now). But I say without equivocation that all reasonable people, all institutions which purport to serve the public, all publications, should lower the boom on this guy, and refuse to promulgate his vile hatred, on the grounds that it is quite simply beyond the pale of human decency. 

I believe I would say the same of Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham. There is a level of vileness that just isn't acceptable in civilized society. 

08 October 2014

Hooray for New San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Southern Californians (at least the ones who aren't too addled by dopey cocktails and celebrities to care) are ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by President Obama's announcement that a big part of our local, very young, rugged and rapidly uplifting mountain range, the San Gabriel Mountains, will now become the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The area was for decades designated as the Angeles National Forest, but the change puts it under the aegis of the National Park Service, instead of the US Dept. of Agriculture. This means greater environmental protection, and some more money for maintenance and recreation. As a new huge park very close to America's second largest city, this is a big deal, which, of course, was accomplished with no help whatsoever from Republicans, who mostly oppose public lands and public resource development of all kinds.

Eric J. Segall on Why the Supreme Court almost always favors Rich Business Interests

See this.
Prof. Segall is also the author of Supreme Myths -- Why the Supreme Court is Not a Court and its Justices are not Judges
My own view was formerly conventionally conservative. You know, don't rock the boat. But I think the fact that the Court has been so easily hijacked by special interests and has been able, consistently, to do so much damage to the American political system in the last twenty years or so is compelling enough reason for Congress, when it next is constituted by a majority of reasonably Progressive people, should use its (in Segall's words) "almost plenary" powers to determine the jurisdiction and organization of the Federal courts, to effect reforms. As I've also noted recently, other than the terms of the justices and certain mostly rather arcane powers, exactly what the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over is determined by Congress. Article III, Sec. 2.

07 October 2014

Study Says Solar Power could Dominate by 2050

See this.

It seems obvious that Solar will eventually dominate. It's always there, and there is more energy from the Sun, especially if you include potential future space based collectors, than our civilization could ever use all of. It's just a question of perfecting the technology, and every year brings continuous improvement in that regard.

Nuclear? Pffth. Way too dirty, complex, expensive. (Dirty little secret: all nuclear power is subsidized by governments). (Fusion power included; so far the technology is barely able to sustain a reaction, and the technology is about as complex as the CERN accelerator. Maybe someday... after all this is the same energy as powers the Sun anyway... but not soon).

Wind? Ancillary.

Tidal or hydrothermal? The physics and technological feasibility just don't work.

Geothermal? Also ancillary. There just isn't enough of it, and if you go deep enough to make it universal the cost benefit equation doesn't work. 

Solar will be it.

UPDATE 10/17/2014

Or maybe not. Lockheed has announced proof of concept for its compact fusion reactor project at the "Skunk Works" in Palmdale, CA     See this and this.

Abolish Lifetime Tenure at Supreme Court? And some comments on Judicial Reform


I have long held the view that ALL federal judicial offices should have a ten year term, non-renewable at the same level (although judges could be appointed to higher or lower levels). This would require a Constitutional Amendment, but ONLY for Supreme Court justices. The tenure, and even the existence of other Federal judicial offices, is purely the creation of Congress, through ordinary legislation. Most people don't realize this. In fact, apart from some mostly rather arcane matters specified in the Constitution as the province of the Supreme Court, even exactly what the SC, and for that matter, all Federal courts, have jurisdiction over is purely up to Congress. As is the organization and number of justices on the courts, including the Supreme Court.

So, apart from, and possibly in lieu of, a Constitutional Amendment to limit the terms of SC Justices, I think serious consideration should be given to the following:

♦ Carving out a separate Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court, which would hear only reviews of the constitutionality of legislative provisions, both State and Federal.
♦ Separate 3-judge criminal divisions of the Supreme Court to hear everything else, with en banc 9-judge review on Petition (if accepted).
♦ Increase number of justices to 18, with the 9 to hear Constitutional matters rotating among the 18 annually, to avoid "blocks" of justices becoming embedded in the court for long periods of time.

♦ Whether applicable to the Supreme Court or not (as that would require amendment), ten year non-renewable terms for all other Federal judges, and rationalization of the Circuit system strictly by equal-population Circuits.

All of this, except as noted, could be done by simple legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President (or passed over his veto).

Islam as a "motherlode" of "bad ideas"... racism?

I listened rather carefully to Chris Hayes defending Ben Affleck referring to Bill Maher and Sam Harris as "racist" and "gross" in saying that "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." I think it's important to make the distinction, which Harris and Maher were doing, between INSTUTIONAL Islam, which has tenets and doctrines, and the personal views and political positions of Muslims and those prevailing in Muslim countries. Criticizing the tenets and doctrines of a religion is not racism, and it's not gross. It's legitimate discourse. And that is all Maher and Harris were doing. Truculent and categorical their opinions may have been, but they were legitimate opinions which do not deserve condemnation as somehow beyond the pale of permissible expression, which is what Affleck, and to a lesser extent Chris Hayes, were advocating. Change things around a little bit. If they were to say, "The Roman Catholic Church is the motherlode of bad ideas," would anyone even bat an eyelash? Disagree, maybe, even be offended, but this is not racism and it's not "gross." You are not guaranteed to go through life without having your opinions trashed or your sensibilities offended.


03 October 2014

Blue Sky

I posted this a while back, but it's neat enough that I'm posting it again.


Buddhism as Philosophy, not Religion

Anyone interested: Please see this link (same as the link on the left): "My Posts on Why I'm a Buddhist," and this most recent qualifying comment, to see how my practice and understanding of Buddhism (as philosophy, no longer as religion), has changed over the past several years.

That Nagging Six Year Old's Question

With, truly, no intention to annoy or offend my friends "of faith," I think this passage is unalloyedly true:
« [Your child asks…] 'Where did I come from?' If you are an up to date liberated parent you are apt to leave God out of it, nor will you employ — it goes without saying — the antiquated dodges of stork or cabbage leaf. You will no doubt explain about sperm and ovum, and perhaps about penis in vagina, also about DNA, and maybe a little about natural selection. All that time your child be looking you in the eye with your trusting gaze, and if you have a truthful bone in your body, you will be embarrassed. With all the stunning modern discoveries of cosmology and the biosciences, you really don't know the answer. Nobody does. Not the unbeliever, not the believer. Faith is hope, not fact. »
--Herman Wouk, The Language God Talks (2010).

I say this having read A Universe from Nothing, by Lawrence M. Krauss, which claims to explain how it is not only possible but necessary for (a) universe to emerge from nothing. I believe I understood what he was saying, but, despite his claim, he still has not answered, without changing the meaning of "nothing" from its ordinary sense, the question I, among millions of others, asked when six years old, "why is there something rather than nothing?" The answer, God, of course, just invites infinite regression. I've read a fair amount among the sages of the World over the years, but no one gives a really satisfactory answer to this. (Some say it's a silly question, but I beg to differ: it is a fair question, even if, as scientists are wont to do, you substitute "how" for "why," since most philosophical "whys" aren't really scientific questions. "Not even wrong," they like to say).

Because, I suspect, this question is literally beyond the conceptual mind of human beings to understand.

John Stuart Mill presages the doctrine of sustainability

Here, I think we have (although perhaps not in the clearest possible form), one of the earliest proclamations of the principle of sustainability, including as a necessary corollary reasonable limits to economic and population growth, given the carrying capacity of the World's environments:
If the Earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.
--John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Mill was also likely the first significant political philosopher to strongly advocate complete political equality for women.

This is quite topical, in that Naomi Klein has just published a polemic («This Changes Everything»), arguing that the mandate for unlimited growth which is inherent in a capitalist economy is literally killing our world. Mill, interestingly, started out his career arguing (based on Jeremy Bentham's somewhat simplistic Utilitarian principles) for free markets, but came to believe that economies must be organized cooperatively and that "the greatest good for the greatest number" required that economic activity be regulated and democratically organized.

Carter on War

I've been quoting FDR a lot lately, but here's a quote from Former President Carter (who turned 90 yesterday) that's well worth remembering.
Jimmy Carter turns 90 today.

A (somewhat Materialist/Utilitarian) view of Human Significance

Having now finished Caleb Scharf's «The Copernicus Connection,» I want to point out a lacuna in his conclusions. He talks about various ways in which we are not as mediocre as the sort of pure Copernican paradigm would have it. He dances around the concept that our cognition and intelligence makes us SIGNIFICANT, in that we are capable of discerning the existence of life elsewhere. But I think he misses a major point here.

Cognition and intelligence do indeed make us qualitatively different, I would argue, from the rest of the biosphere even of Earth alone. Think about it this way. For a couple of billion years the Earth was dominated by archaea and bacteria, organisms which are inherently microcosmic and limited in numerous ways. Then came the era of eucarya, which are capable of forming larger organic structures and shaping the environment further. You could count the evolution of large animals and plants as a separate development if you prefer. But I would argue that the rise of an animal capable of modeling the whole cosmos (however imperfectly), and of building tools that actually transcend the planetary environment (so far just barely, but nonetheless)... is a quantum leap. This may have happened elsewhere before (we don't yet know), but we do know that it's happened here, and we are it. And this begs a huge question.

How might humanity make Earth a truly exceptional and significant place (even if it weren't already)? The answer to that seems obvious to me. From other parts of Scharf's book, and much else published recently, there's no doubt that roughly earthlike planets, where some form of life is POSSIBLE, exist, and all over the place. It may well turn out that the splendid isolation that the huge distances between stars helps to ensure may mean that many of these worlds, for whatever reason, remain lifeless. So, what does advanced life do? What is its prime directive? I would argue, "Go forth, and colonize environments where life does not already exist."

And this is what we, as a species, will do, if we don't make ourselves extinct first. Even if it's just sending one way seeding missions, I foresee in the future, we will send technological envoys to other stars, and where we find sterile environments where Earth based life could exist and thrive, we will insert that life into those environments. We will be the agent, the flower, if you will, of Earth's biosphere, in finding new environments where life can exist.
Scharf doesn't even mention this possibility, but I regard it as a near certainty for the future of humankind. That is, if we don't foolishly wreck our homeworld and become extinct ourselves first.

Of course, if you take the long view both forward and backward, this carries with it an interesting implication. If advanced life, such as has now arisen on Earth, frequently evolves technology and spreads itself to other nearby, then maybe not so nearby stars, why do we not see evidence of that? Or, is it possible we do? That it is in fact the origin of life on Earth? We can't rule that out, although there's no evidence for it either. But if we find most stars, with planets where life is possible, to be lifeless, we will have to conclude that intelligent / technological beings are not so very common in the universe, because a long, long time has already transpired in which they could have been active in just this way. Long enough to spread life throughout all of this and every other galaxy. And since that doesn't seem to have happened, I take it as a bit of evidence that we are not so mediocre after all, but a rare development in the universe that has the potential to wreak MAJOR change for the better, from the point of view of increasing the prevalence of life.

The Observable Universe vs. the ENTIRE Universe

The Observable Universe vs. The Entire Universe
I was reading along in Caleb Scharf's very interesting book. «The Copernicus Complex -- Our cosmic significance in a universe of Planets and Probability,» when I came across a reference to the approximately 400 billion galaxies in the "observable universe." This is a figure and a concept I've seen before, and I've seen descriptions of the relationship between the so-called observable universe and the ENTIRE universe, but I wondered about it so I looked it up.

The "observable" universe is that (small) part of the universe where light has had time since the Origin Event (Big Bang) to reach Earth. Every place in the universe has its own "observable universe," all the same size at the present time, and they may or may not overlap with ours. It APPEARS to be roughly 27 billion light years in diameter at this epoch, but in fact is more like 45 billion, due to the expansion of space since the Big Bang. Lot of space.

So, my question (to which I'd seen various answers) was, What is the percentage of the entire universe, including the part we can't see and will never see, made up of this observable part? Alan Guth, the discoverer of cosmic inflation, estimates that it could be as much as 10 to the 23 times the size, which is truly mindboggling. That would mean the number of galaxies (each with tens to hundreds of billions of stars) in the whole universe would be a number that makes the number of grains of sand in all the beaches of the world seem as nothing. But other theoretical estimates range down to more like just 250 times. But even that... A space with a diameter 250 times 45 billion light years. Countless billions of galaxies. Untold trillions of stars. The mind simply reels at the thought.

FDR on the living wage

FDR on a living wage (cribbed from Teresa Tritch in the New York Times).

In the more than 75 years since Congress first enacted a federal minimum wage — at 25 cents an hour — lawmakers have increased it nine times, reaching the current level of $7.25 an hour in 2009. And with every increase the same objections have been raised.
Today, instead of dismantling these arguments on my own I decided to get a little help from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had to fight Republicans, conservative Democrats, the Supreme Court and corporate leaders to pass the initial minimum wage in 1938.

Objection: Raising the minimum wage will hurt business and reduce employment.

“No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” (1933, Statement on National Industrial Recovery Act)

Objection: $10.10 an hour is too much, maybe $9.

“By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” (1933, Statement on National Industrial Recovery Act)
Objection: Once you add in public assistance and tax credits, $9 an hour is plenty, and business could survive that.
“Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you – using his stockholders’ money to pay the postage for his personal opinions — tell you that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.” (1938, Fireside Chat, the night before signing the Fair Labor Standards Act that instituted the federal minimum wage)
Objection: The minimum wage is a government mandate that interferes with the free market.
“All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor.” (1937, Message to Congress upon introduction of the Fair Labor Standards Act)
IF ONLY we had leaders of FDR's caliber today.

Climate Change as a Political Issue

I've seen comments that Climate Change just isn't a significant electoral issue. Which is true. Neither was WWII in 1938.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Although a lifelong liberal, my father always had a sort of ambivalent, kind of knee-jerk, antipathy towards Eleanor Roosevelt. I assume this came from being raised in West Texas, where she was always regarded as a total pariah. I think the charge of "do-gooder" — with all the negative associations that word connotes — did sometimes apply. But I had forgotten, for example, the important role she played in founding the United Nations, and in creating — and pushing through — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. I think you could actually make a case that Eleanor Roosevelt was as qualified to be president as her husband was. Of course that simply could not have happened in those days. I thought it was fitting, as they depicted towards the end of the Ken Burns's film, The Roosevelts, an Intimate Portrait, that not only Pres. Kennedy and his vice president Lyndon Johnson, but the only then living former presidents, Eisenhower and Truman, attended her funeral in Hyde Park in 1962. That was not customary for former first ladies. But Eleanor Roosevelt was much more than that.
**Correction. I realized after posting this that Hoover was still alive, though ailing. He died in 1964 (the same year Churchill died; he didn't make the trip either). I reveal my age by pointing out that I remember hearing of both of these deaths on the news.

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.
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