25 November 2014

The Failure to Indict Darren Wilson

Look, I don't pretend to know all the details of this case, but I do know from thirty years working in the legal field that there are ALWAYS discrepancies in what witnesses say, so that's not in itself a reason not to prosecute so clear a case of apparent manslaughter (at least) as this one.

In an empassioned but thoughtful piece on the Washington Monthly Political Animal blog today, Martin Longman does a great job of running down why the "thrown case" decision by the Grand Jury in St. Louis County not to prosecute this case of murder-by-cop constitutes a "Grave Injustice."


Justice isn't a superfluous option in a free society. Without it, the foundations of anything remotely resembling a democratic form of government inexorably crumble and fail.

22 November 2014

Stenger on the place of Humanity in the Cosmos

Since Copernicus, humanity's conception of its place in the universe has steadily diminished from the biblical teaching that we are the center of the universe to one in which we are but a minuscule speck in space and time. Once we had telescopes with which to peer into the sky, our view of the universe grew from originally that of a single star system and its planets to a galaxy of 100 billion stars and on to a visible universe of 100 billion galaxies. And that was not the end of it. As we have seen, since the 1980s we have found good reasons to think that our visible universe is but a drop of water in an ocean of galaxies lying beyond our light horizon, perhaps 100 orders of magnitude larger, that all resulted from the same Big Bang. Furthermore, this universe may be just one of countless others just as big [in the Multiverse].
  While a god might still preside over all this, it becomes incredible to believe that he, she, or it put his, her, or its favorite creatures on this tiny planet and left the rest of this vast multiverse inaccessible to them.
   --Victor Stenger (d. 2014), God and the Folly of Faith, 2012

17 November 2014

Fear not death, but the Transporter, well, yeah, fear that.

The following, from John Dryden’s 17th century translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, is as succinct and cogent an explanation as you could want as to why we should not fear death — (as opposed to the pain of dying). It also happens to function as a really good explanation  (especially the second stanza) for why, even if such a thing were invented, I would not get into the Star Trek transporter for all the wealth in the world.

So when our mortal frame shall be disjoined
the lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we will not be.

Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
and matter leap into the former dance;
though time our life and motion could restore,
And make our bodies what they were before,
What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
The new-made man would be another thing.

Bernie Sanders for President

I declare my support for and intention to work for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for President in 2016. We need an open debate in the Democratic Party about the essential Progressive policy positions which should be the core message of any Democratic candidate.


15 November 2014

A.C. Grayling on the immorality of (Fundamentalist) Religion

Not intending to offend my religious friends, I find the following from humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling's The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism interesting and provocative, if a bit tendentious:

[R]eligion is a bad source of moral insight. This is not least because it is in fact either irrelevant to questions of morality, or it is positively immoral. This claim undoubtedly seems contradictory or merely polemical at first, but reflection shows otherwise.
   Consider the primitive form of Christian morality as set down in the New Testament, which collects the religion's foundational documents. In a few respects it is the same as all other moral systems, in enjoining brotherly love and charity: that is a commonplace of any reflection on what would make for good lives and societies. But then it differs, with its own particular set of injunctions: give away all your possessions, take no thought for tomorrow (consider the lilies of the field), do not resist anyone or anything evil (turn the other cheek), obey the authorities (render unto Caesar), turn your back on your family if they disagree with you, do not marry unless you cannot contain yourself sexually. This is the morality of people who genuinely believe that next week or next month the world was to end, that this world does not matter — indeed, is ripe for the furnace — and that one should ignore its demands and realities.
   This is not a livable morality. The additions of the church, claiming to have continuing authority in revealing the deity's requirements, and further irrelevancies and distractions. To live as a serious person in a world of many difficulties and demands, one needs something vastly richer and deeper than these anchoritic nostrums, hence the irrelevance claim.
   The immorality comes hard on its heels. When fundamentalists of one or another religious tradition deny rights to gays, deny education and health care to women, practice genital mutilation, amputate limbs as a punishment, stone adulterers to death, use murder against those they oppose, extol suicide bombing in acts of terrorism in the name of their faith, religion becomes positively immoral.
  Much religious energy is devoted to interfering in and controlling sexual behavior, either by prohibiting most forms of it, together with representations and even thoughts of it, or by preventing sensible management of its consequences as in the case of abortion. In countries where the religious cannot stone or imprison those they regard as sexual malefactors, they send the press complaining letters about nudity on the cinema screen and teenagers buying the morning-after pill while ignoring the fact that automatic rifles, handguns, shells, cluster bombs and rocket launchers are being exported from the country they live in to regions of the world gripped by poverty and Civil War. With such examples in contrast, religion has little to offer moral debate.

    My only argument with this is that by using the word "religion" to essentially mean fundamentalist monotheism, he is conflating things that are not in fact equivalent. Many people find consolation in religion without believing it to be the sole source of what is good and moral. But the point as to those who insist that all morality must derive from revealed religion is, I think, quite right.

07 November 2014

Democrats must fight, and stand for something, if we are going to be the winners in 2016 and beyond

This post in TPM, purporting to show that gerrymandering has locked up the House until at least the next Census/Redistricting for the Republicans, is defeatism. I deplore it.

Democrats have developed a terrible tendency to just remain static and defensive, trying desperately to "hold on" in the face of Republican onslaughts and stratagems on all fronts.

This is just the wrong way to go about politics in a Republic (however flawed its systems), entirely.  I read where the usual Centrist and Clintonista pols and political operatives now say we have to squelch the Progressives if we are to win elections, blah blah. We've heard all this before, and it's totally wrong.

If there is ANY lesson to be learned from these disastrous elections of 2014 it is this: Running away from Democratic principles and accomplishments is a sure recipe for disaster. 

Reid, Obama, Pelosi, and Democratic governors and other important members of Congress should powwow at a retreat somewhere (somewhere Democratic... how about California?) and come up with an agreed set of principles that Democrats will run towards, will aggressively campaign for, and will present as a better deal for Americans. 

Americans, even in red states, by and large favor Progressive policies. Higher minimum wages. Portable Pensions. Expanded, not cut, Social Security. Better Medicare benefits, and making them available as an option to younger people in lieu of private health insurance. Infrastructure investment (this has to be sold, but it can be sold). Financial reform with teeth. Environmental Protection, including serious action on Climate Change (this too, needs some selling, but it can be done). Rethinking the neocon agenda in the Middle East, for example: moving forward with detente with Iran. Rethinking trade policy, to make sure that it doesn't constitute a cession of Sovereignty by Corporate lawyers for corporate interests, which is exactly what NAFTA and the proposed Trans Pacific treaty being pushed by this administration (against the best interests of the Democratic base, namely the 99%) are. We must change 180 degrees on that policy and embrace a more populist agenda. Not only because that will be what wins, but because that is what we should stand for. We cannot win by being all things to all people. We cannot be both the party of Wall Street and Main Street. We must choose Main Street and push, push, push for victory on the strength of our principles and the ability to organize people, no matter that the Republicans have made it possible for money to buy political influence wholesale. We just have to fight harder, organize better, and, especially, stand for something the American people want!

We must not just give up and continue the disastrous defensiveness displayed in both 2010 and 2014. These defeats are our own fault: we have not clearly stood, as a party with national leadership, for something that all Democrats broadly support and that the American people will buy. As Tom Ferguson recently put it, in Politics, if you are playing defense, you are losing.

This means, I think obviously, that the Democratic Party must stop trying to be Republican Lite. We need to clearly present a case to the American people that in the present environment, deficits are not a significant concern. Progress and development, jobs, education, health care, the environment, and economic fairness are the concerns that our party must put front and center. And we must have the courage of our convictions to be able to win over people, in the South and West especially, who have been successfully propagandized on the Right to vote against their own interests for way, way too long already.

We Democrats have just not been doing a good enough job, but retreat and more defensiveness will just make matters worse, and could even lead to loss of the White House in 2016.

If you are a Democrat who agrees with what I've just said here, please. We need to reach out to those who control our party and make clear to them that this is how it's gotta be, or we will lose again, and, here's the scary part: can there be any doubt that at this juncture the future of our nation is indeed at stake?  This is important, as important as any political issues in my lifetime, and we just cannot allow the supine and weak positions our party has taken in the last few years to continue another day.

Waldman in Prospect: No compromise feasible

Paul Waldman at the New American Prospect EXPLAINS CLEARLY just why any notion that Obama needs to become more "bipartisan" and "compromise" with Republicans is absurd: these people have no intention of offering ANYTHING to move towards. "Compromise," to them just means surrender, and Obama MUST NOT do that.

01 November 2014

Space Plane Crash October 31, 2014

I encountered the view that the Virgin Galactic crash here in Southern California is exemplary of the rapacious profiteering to offer rich sons of bitches expensive rides, and what a waste of resources, etc. etc.

I confess to being unsympathetic with this view. Sure, there is an element of pandering to celebrities, etc. But the test pilot who was killed, and even Branson's entire enterprise, are not, primarily, doing this as a way of pandering to celebrities or just as a way to make money. They are, in fact, motivated by the desire to promote development of space access technology. Access to space will eventually be crucial to the progress of human civilization, and we should not be so short sighted as to dismiss it because at times it serves purposes less noble.

Consciousness, and Dennet's Kinds of Minds

Just read Daniel Dennett's Kinds of Minds/ Toward and Understanding of Consciousness. To be fair, he does say, as a philosopher, he is posing questions not delivering answers. But I think I grasped his points reasonably well, and I remain more than skeptical. He attempts to demonstrate that mental activity is the aggregate of intentional (but not aware; this is philosophical jargon) processes, and that language, both internal and external, is essential to human self-awareness. 

Sure, I get that, and that seems relatively obvious to me, but I still find his entire commentary goes almost nowhere down the road of explaining either the how or the why (if why even means anything in this context) of awareness itself. Why should a brain or mind evolve that has inner experience, and how is it that that inner experience exists uniquely as "my experience" as opposed to some "other experience?"  He ridicules this very question, but he doesn't answer it or, to me, satisfactorily explain why it isn't a valid question. 

I still find the very existence of internal awareness almost a complete mystery. Religion, including the meditative kind, can offer a great deal of insight into the experience of consciousness, but it isn't any more successful at explaining it than science.

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.

When I sent this around in another form, not everyone understood my point. I was complaining that for insured patients only $1700 or so is EVER paid, whereas if you're unlucky enough not to be included in this vast corrupt system, they will chase you down to pay more than four times as much, and that this is fundamentally wrong. In other words, I'm not bitching about MY experience, I'm bitching about a system that is fundamentally flawed in the way it works, and victimizes people who can least afford it. I guess I didn't make that clear enough.

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.
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