Monday, March 28, 2011

Of Pharisees and Atheists

I believe God is a confusing concept, and that at its best the god concept duplicates a clearer concept like Nature, Reality or Existence. Yet I am not overly fond of the term atheist because that only says what we don't believe in. Instead I accept the reality of a number of things. I have positive beliefs, which I am explaining in my essays on Natural Liberation Philosophy. In reading, or at least skimming through the 1902 edition of The University Encyclopedia, I came upon the entry for Pharisees. In my childhood I was taught in Catholic schools that Pharisees were bad people, not maybe as bad as atheists, but certainly bad enough to go to Hell when they died. The New Testament shows them tormenting the man-god Jesus with vexatious questions, which of course he turns back against them. The entry quotes the Talmud's (a Jewish holy book's) criticism of certain types of Pharisees. The specifics don't have a one-to-one correlation for atheists, but if you want here's a link to the article: Pharisees. Here I'll lay out my own set of types of atheists who could do with some improvement. I'll admit I struggle with these issues myself. 1. Atheists who think just being an atheist makes them wonderful. Boastful atheists. It is fine to say you are an atheist when appropriate. On the other hand, that does not tell people you are a good person. How do you conduct yourself? Do tell lies other than religious ones, do you steal, are you a helpful member of your community? 2. Atheists who think ethical rules don't apply to them. Also, atheists who make up ethical rules and exceptions to justify their anti-social behavior. Ethics should be a concern of every human being, religious and non-religious alike. 3. Atheists who are not charitable. Just because there is not a priest or minister hammering you for 10% of your earnings (before taxes) on Sunday, does not mean you should forget the unfortunate. I believe it is better to give to charity through a religious organization than to not give at all. Atheists should do more to help the sick, the hungry, victims of injustice, and the homeless. 4. Atheists who have nothing positive to offer society. Just because there is no God and no spirits are keeping score of your good and bad deeds does not mean that selfishness or destructive behavior is to be admired. Help people, be productive, give people an example of embracing life and society for their own sake. 5. Atheists who are intolerant of theists. This ranges from being unfriendly or unhelpful to religious people through actual persecution up to and including killing religious prisoners or civilians in time of war. If atheists were nicer, there would be more atheists in the world. 6. Anti-intellectual atheists. No one has achieved much by realizing that religious theologies tend towards make-believe. There is a lot to learn beyond that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fearing a Ten or Eleven

If the late Japanese earthquake had been a 8.0 (on the Richter scale), there would have been almost no damage in northern coastal Japan. The sea walls would have stopped the tsunami, saving thousands of people from drowning. The waters would not have washed over the nuclear power plant backup generators, leading to overheating to the edge of catastrophe. But the quake measured in at 9.0, which is 10 times as powerful as 8.0. A Ten would be another 10 times as powerful, or 100 times as powerful as an Eight.

Human fear comes in a lesser variety of magnitudes. The emotional intensity of fear from social embarrassment can be greater than the fear created by a real, potential death situation. Fear guides more human action than most people will admit. Because of our limited emotional range, we tend to exaggerate small risks and minimize larger risks.

Somewhere out there is a Ten. Somewhere out there is an Eleven, even. A scenario of apocalyptic proportions. Strangely, it is hard to prepare for a Ten or Eleven. Hence we have stopped preparing for a nuclear war. If an atomic weapon goes off over a city, survival in that city is purely an accident, and probably an unhappy one.

Instead, depending on our personalities and cultures, we might fear immigrants, germs, vaccinations, foods containing wheat or peanuts, ideas, or a harsh word from some local community member.

Some fear, however, is rational. That is, our emotions and our pragmatic responses line up with real danger pretty well. We avoid hot things and electrified things. Most of us don't drive too fast, most of the time. We don't jump off high spots, and we don't drink from containers marked poison.

Social and economic fears occupy a middling ground that tell us much about a person's character. Some of us think nothing of telling a boss to "take this job and shove it," others never leave a job unless they are fired. Some feel safe dressed conservatively, others go out of their way to dress strangely. Some are savers, some spendthrifts. Mostly these choices are not life endangering, but those who are overly afraid of society can be crippled, while those who are socially fearless may also find themselves friendless.

The recent recession looked like it might develop into a Nine or Ten, but in retrospect it was a warning shot, an Eight. This illustrates the danger of generalization, because the recession affected some Americans (and global citizens) not at all, while for some it was economically catastrophic, resulting in bankruptcy, or even death.

Famine used to be the big worry of people and governments. Because the history of the United States is largely the history of converting near-wilderness to farmland, famine has not been an issue here. During the Cold War, when officials worried about Atomic War, the U.S. put together a food reserve system (which also helped keep farm commodity prices high). Now there is very little in the way of stored food or production reserves of food in the U.S. Yet almost no one worries about that. People on the West Coast and in China have been hoarding Iodine this last week, but they expect food to be available in the usual places the next time they shop, and for as far as they can see into the future. Because they do it every day, they forget that driving to the supermarket is more dangerous than almost anything else they do.

In the end, we all die. Yet we fear death not just for ourselves, but for our friends and loved ones. We grieve when someone we knows dies; we even grieve for our pets. Yet we must accept death, both our own and for others. To deny death is to deny reality, and that leads to all sorts of problems, including many people being trapped by their fears in religious cults that suck the life out of life.

Most of the risks we run are inherent in where we are born, geographically, economically and culturally. Being born in a refugee camp brings different risks than being born in a mansion of the possessors of the land where the refugees once lived. Most of the world's people are neither refugees nor millionaires. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famous for saying "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," during the Great Depression, but then again he was from an incredibly wealthy family and had an nice salary as President of the United States on top of that.

We all figure out what is going on as best we can. Calm, wise people can prepare for the Fives, Sixes, and Sevens of life. With an Eight you hope you survive the initial shock, then deal with the hand that is dealt you as best you can. As to Nines, they are rare, and survival is mostly pure luck. When the Tens and Elevens come, one can only hope they are local, not global, and that they are in someone else's locality.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where Have All the Robots Gone? Or, Nuclear Crock Pots

Nuclear power plants were never a very good idea. Take an atomic bomb, marry it to a crock pot, and the progeny are nuclear power plants. Imagine a crock pot with over a million welds. Iit only takes one weld poorly done to recreate Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. That, of course, is just the danger of the ordinary operation of a nuclear fission reactor. Add an earthquake, a terrorist attack, or just the Homer Simpson that dwells in all human beings, and you have a little list of catastophic initiators.

Some new not very good ideas have been revealed by the incidents at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. Like placing backup generators where they can be knocked out by flood waters. The worst, however, is storing "spent" uranium and plutonium fuel rods in big stacks next to each other in pools of water. Which reminds us that 60 years after nuclear reactors began to be built, there is no safe system in place to store the nuclear waste. But don't let that stop progress.

One problem in getting the reactors and the massed pools of used fuel rods under control is the susceptibility of humans to radiation poisoning. Which leads me to ask: where are the robots when you need them? Japan is the world leader in robotics. They have factories filled with robots and robotic pets in people's homes. So why no robots that can go and take a peak inside the storage pools and the reactor buildings? Why no robotic helicopters to help in a crisis? All that is need, really, to avert disaster is a nice clean pool filled with boron salts and water and a robot or two that can pluck out a few fuel rods and space them out at nice safe distances, preferably in such an emergency back up pool.

Strangely, atomic bombs are actually safer than nuclear power plants. They are designed so that the fissionable materials are kept far enough apart that they don't react with each other, not until the bomb is detonated.

I don't think nuclear power can be made safe. We just can't anticipate everything that can go wrong. With all due respect to nuclear engineers and scientists, your pride has gotten in the way of your analytic abilities. Sure you are clever, but you can't dodge Murphy's Law forever. The only safe uranium is unmined uranium.

On the other hand, let's hear a round of applause for the brave workers who are risking their lives trying to salvage the situation.

If you have not already done so, be sure to write President Obama and tell him to shut American reactors down. Don't use email, that won't make the point. Send a snail mail letter to:

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington D.C. 20500

If you pretend to be a "progressive Democrat," you should add the administration's continuing support for building new nuclear power plants in the U.S. to your list of reasons to stop delaying the inevitable. Change your voter registration to Green Party as soon as you can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No Nukes, No War, No Service

Ever since working as a paralegal on the WPPSS debacle I have been resolutely against the building and operating of nuclear power plants, including the development of fusion reactors (current reactors use nuclear fission). WPPSS, Washington Public Power Supply System, planned to build 5 nuclear power plants back in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately they screwed up so badly that only 1 plant was actually built, although 2 others were started. The result was an economic disaster (and the consequent litigation, hence my employment). Between that, the Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl nuclear emission disasters you would have thought nuclear power plants would would be dead, finis, not on the table. But there are two powers in the universe greater than the atom: human stupidity and greed.

President Barack Obama has been a supporter of building more nuclear power plants in the United States. His excuse is the need to cut back on greenhouse gases. Campaign donations to the Democratic Party grease those skids too. So far even the Japanese disaster has not altered Obama's mind. I'm writing him a letter. Close the damned things down as soon as possible. Don't wait for an earthquake.

There will be a power shortage if the world turns off its nuclear plants. Some will want to burn more fossil fuels to make up the difference. I think people should turn off a lot of unnecessary stuff. Turn off the entire military establishment of every nation, for starts. Turn off all air conditioning. Limit heating in winter to what is really essential. Walk or bike to work.

We can't stop earthquakes or hurricanes, but we can stop war. The U.S. has been the worst military offender since it became the biggest military power after World War II. We do need a military. We need about 10,000 trained men to protect us from the Canadians, and another 10,000 to protect us from the Mexicans. Or we could just merge our three nations into one big happy family, and just keep a cadre of officers trained at the military academies in the remote case that we need to ramp up to protect us from some other nation.

My Democratic Party friends, rather than leaving the party because it is a war crimes organization (an organization that has repeatedly ordered war crimes to be committed) want to defend Barack Obama and crew against the Tea Party and Republican Party. No thanks. It will only take the Tea Party two to four years to destroy the American Economy as we know it if they come to power. That is not my favored scenario. I'd like to see the Green Party or its equivalent in charge of governance. But as far as getting rid of the military and nuclear power plants, letting the Tea Party unleash anarchy on the land is a better bet.

Meanwhile, I want to express my deepest sympathies for the people of Japan, particularly those harmed in the recent tragedy. Until 1850 the Japanese militarists were content to stay isolated on their islands and abuse their own peasants. After the U.S. invaded Okinawa and Japan, they decided they rather liked the American modern style and did their best to imitate our society. Despite imitation being flattery, this imitation eventually involved cutting into America's ability to rape and pillage Asia, so FDR ordered the crushing of Japan (which started well before Pearl Harbor, with U.S. attacks on Japanese and Chinese troops stationed). After World War II the Japanese gave up on military power but still aspired to industrial power, and had quite a run. The recent earthquake would have happened just the same no matter what the human course of history, and seaside villages would have been just as drowned. But the nuclear tragedy is a purely human tragedy, built of human stupidity and arrogance that many Japanese bought into. Hopefully when the dead are buried and memorialized the next step the Japanese people will take will be to close all their nuclear plants.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gaddafi: Dictators, Cruelty, and Longevity

Sadly, the dictatorship of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi (or al-Gaddafi), is not guaranteed to fall. Muammar grabbed power in a military coup in 1969 when he was only 27 years old. While admitting he is a pretty remarkable man, going from poor Bedouin born in a tent to dictator of a nation in a very short time, there is little else good to say about him. He was a noted anti-imperialist, which is well and good, but that is not an excuse for crushing the life out of the people of Libya.

Gaddafi could have just abdicated, but he chose instead to kill as many people as necessary to maintain his power. He's an old buzzard now, 68 years old, but if he can kill enough people he might hold onto power and live another couple of decades. Sadly, uprisings often don't work against the most ruthless dictators. A lot of factors come into play.

Chiang Kai-shek was as ruthless as they come. We are taught to hate the war crimes committed by Japanese militarists in China before and during World War II, but Chiang actually killed far more of his own people than the Japanese did. He got the boot from the Chinese Communist Party, only to take over Taiwan and crush it under his heal. He was still in charge of Taiwan when he died. He was a U.S. sponsored dictator.

General Francisco Franco was the most Roman Catholic, fascist dictator of Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975. He should have gone to the gallows with Hitler's crew, but the U.S. security establishment was more afraid of another dictator, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, when Germany was finally defeated. So Franco kept murdering people until the day he died, with U.S. support. The U.S. got to put some air bases in Spain in return.

There have been successful, and failed, revolutions against both left-wing and right-wing dictators. There have been a surprising number of dictators and monarchs who allowed or even encouraged democracies to develop and replace them. England, after all, evolved from a mainly monarchist to a mainly democratic system. Some monarchs cooperated with the process, others resisted. One, Charles I was beheaded by order of Parliament; another James II, was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

For dictators force of arms does not insure success, defined as keeping a hold on power, but failure to slaughter, or at least imprison, opponents is a guarantee of failure. Often the opponents are not about to establish a democracy, but want to replace one dictator with another. The overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro in Cuba in the 1959 is as good example of that as any.

Republics (which allow a limited set of citizens to elect their leaders, as in the original U.S.A.) and democracies don't have a monopoly on goodness. Nor are all dictators all bad all of the time. What allowing a large group of citizens to share in power does is allow for flexibility and growth. With few exceptions, the type of person who aspires to, and obtains, a dictatorship has a pretty inflexible mindset. That means creativity and experimentation gets stifled. Sure, a Napoleon Bonaparte or Joe Stalin might promote scientific advancement, and sometimes a central command can jump start an economy, as Hitler and others showed. But in the long run thought, culture, and business become inflexible under dictators and start losing out to more flexible systems.

Muammar Gaddafi's real power came not from any particular brilliance but from oil. The great powers, corporations as well as nations, wanted Libyan oil, and were willing to leave Gaddafi in place as long as the oil and its profits flowed. The same is true of the Saudi dictatorship.

I hope Gaddafi is overthrown by the people of Libya, not by intervention from Europe or the U.S. However, I won't be surprised if he again manages to kill everyone who disagrees with him. Sadly, if that happens, it will encourage other dictators to reply to popular yearnings for freedom with bullets, not reform.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Green Party Registration Drive

I received a mailer from the Green Party of California announcing a voter registration drive today. It was a good mailer with good points.

"Progressives and liberals and even the general public are realizing Democrats are not going to prioritize helping ordinary Americans - that their priorities continue to favor corporations and the wealthy."

"With more effective grassroots organizing" [the Green Party] "can raise sufficient funds to build the party's membership, increase our volunteer base and elect more candidates to office."

"We can even point out that it's possible for the Green Party to replace one of the two status quo parties - which is what happened when the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party in 1854-1856 (after first being preceded by the anti-slavery Liberty Party, which then merged into the Free Soil Party ain 1848, which then merged into the Republican Party in 1854)." [See also: A Brief History of the Republican Party]

"We can show voters our stance on a particular issue that they care about (such as health care, or jobs, or taxes, or the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) is one they should support at the polls."

I can be more forthright about registered Democrats. Both the Republican Party and Democratic Party are War Crimes Organizations. They are both political parties that have authorized the U.S. military, on numerous occasions, to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. In particular, the Democratic Party is the only party in the history of the world to use atomic weapons in war, and against civilian populations at that. If you are registered in the Democratic Party, you are a member of a war crimes organization. Don't deny it. Register Green, or at least become independent (in California, that means changing your registration status to "Decline to State").

To learn more about the Green Party of California go to: Green Party of California

Direct link for donations: Green Party of California Donations

To find links to other state parties, and Green Parties in other nations: Green Party of the United States

You have the right to vote for change, and to run for office. Change will not come floating on pretty rhetoric out of Chicago. It requires determination and persistence.

My personal Green Party writings

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Gathering Firewood in Afghanistan

The main source of heat for my rural home is firewood. Mostly I cut up dead trees up myself, and because I live near the Pacific ocean, winters are mild and my firewood needs are modest. On a couple of occasions I have bought firewood from people who make that their business. Around here often people even give firewood away, there are so many dead trees that need to be cut down to reduce fire hazard during the dry season.

Apparently in Afghanistan cutting firewood is a much more dangerous business. Yesterday we learned that 9 boys were killed while gathering firewood by "NATO", probably U.S. helicopter gunships. A tenth survived only because a tree fell on top of him. As usual the U.S. military initially claimed the civilians were armed Taliban soldiers.

Just as in Vietnam, what we have in Afghanistan is an imperialist army of cowards waging a war against unarmed civilians and poorly armed Afghan patriots. Most of the kills recorded by Obama's storm troopers are not actually even soldiers.

The dead boys ranged in age from 9 to 15.

The cowards' war waged by the United States works like this: invade a nation that you have no business being in. Send out patrols to terrorize the locals, who naturally aren't interested in being ruled by Americans, much less gun-toting southern Baptist psychopaths. If someone shoots at an American, or tries to take one out with an IED, bring in the bombers and gunships. If anyone runs away, kill them, they are a soldier. If they stay, kill them, they are a soldier. Report back to that idiot Obama that you are killing lots of hostiles and winning the war. Which has now gone on longer than any war in U.S. history, including Vietnam.

If the boys had really been Taliban soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs, it would still have been wrong to kill them. It is always wrong to wage a war of agression against a foreign country. It certainly was a cowardly way to kill. American soldiers on the ground, while they probably would have killed the kids anyway, because that's what they get paid for, would have at least seen that they were just carrying firewood. They might even have checked them for weapons and escorted them back to their homes.

Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and was even before the Americans, or for that matter the Russians, arrived. Most adult males who can afford it own a firearm. The U.S. military should not be killing Afghans just because they are walking around armed. The U.S. is so careless that it is almost as dangerous being one of our puppet police or "Afgan regular army" soldiers as it is to be a Talib soldier.

On a more analytic note, the progress of the Viet Minh (called the Viet Cong by Americans) in overthrowing the hated Roman Catholic, U.S. Puppet government centered in Saigon, was relatively slow until the U.S. decided to give more and better arms to the South Vietnamese army and its militia subsidiaries. The Viets were able to capture large quantities of American weapons and ammunition during 1964, which they used to almost destroy the South Viet army in 1965. That's why Lyndon Johnson suddenly had to send hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam in 1966; otherwise the war would have been over in '66, with 2 million or so less casualties.

Now President Barack Obama is following the advice of the idiots who pass for his military advisors: he is arming the police and troops of his puppet government in Kabul. But anyone who is honest and has been in Afghanistan will tell you that Kabul's guys are afraid of the Taliban, even when better armed. Which means that is fast as the U.S. issues arms and ammunition to its "allies," those arms will be used against U.S. troops.

The bad guys (that's us, the U.S.) will still have a military advantage since the Taliban won't have helicopters and jet bombers, or even artillery and tanks. What they have shown a lot of, however, is courage. The American method of fighting is to call in air and artillery support. The Vietnamese found they could defeat American soldiers by fighting close up, preferably hand-to-hand. Then air support is useless. If the Taliban shifts to that tactic, the U.S. troops will be in trouble. Obama will have to send in another 200,000 just to stay even. That will play well into the hands of the Saudi game. The goal of this war all along was to bankrupt America. They have made a lot of progress on that goal in the past decade.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rainy Day Wisconsin: Union Busting

Arnold Schwarzenegger, former actor and Governor of California, looks a lot better after a few months out of office. Partly that is because California does not look so bad, now that the problems of states like Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois are more in the limelight. Mostly it is because the new fearless leader of California, and its same-old Democratic Party, Jerry Brown, is having to tell his party constituency pretty much the same thing Arnold did: there is no money. We have sucked the blood of the golden geese, the working taxpayers and productive businesses, to the point where we have to wait for a bit of recovery before we can throw more poly ticks into the mix

My heart bleeds for the public service workers of Wisconsin. Public service is a fine thing. I believe in the right of working people to form unions, too. But while Governor Scott Walker, is hell-bent on destroying every union, public and private (except ones that support the Republican Party, hint, hint), that does not mean I feel I need to defend every union, and every union action, no matter what the details.

If the United States, or the individual constituent states, were really based on democratic (rule by the people) principles, what would be the relationship of government to public employees? In a democracy should the public make decisions through its elected representatives, or should public employees be the real decision makers? Should public employees decide their own pay, working hours, and pensions?

What can be good in a private sector union can have negative consequences with public employee unions. Private sector unions provide a balance for ordinary workers against the power of corporations. That does not mean that corporations would always be wrong if they set pay scales without employee input; it does not mean that unions don't sometimes have their own problems, like internal corruption. But a union that asks too much of a business will destroy the business, and hence hurt its own members interests. Smart unions and smart corporations cooperate so that everyone is reasonably happy: stockholders, management, employees, and yes, even customers.

Public service unions can have some good effects. My own take (and I have served on a public school board, and have been observing these matters for decades now) is that some government employees are overpaid, and some underpaid, just like in private industry. Some are workhorses, and some are shirkers, just like in private industry.

The reason anti-union ideologues like Scott Walker make government worker unions the scapegoat for all unions, and for that matter all employees (seen by Walker as an inferior class of people who don't have the initiative to start a business or claw their way into management), is that our political system does sometimes allow particular unions of government employees to get out of control. The unions use campaign contributions and their ability to mobilize members to work on political campaigns to influence state legislatures. In return state budgets get distorted in two ways. Powerful unions (in California that would be police and prison guard unions) get a disproportionate share of the state budget allocated to them. And since each time a budget is done there is not enough money to go around (and that includes tax loopholes for the rich, and make work for well-connected corporations), the future gets mortgaged, usually in the form of promises of higher pensions.

What we need to fix the system is less ideology and more attention to detail. The every-man-for-himself Republican Party needs to stop acting as if every union (and every employee wanting a living wage) is bad and every government employee is an overpaid shirker. Liberal Democratic Party politicians need to stop acting as if every public employee demand for pay and benefit increases is legitimate. Some group of politicians needs to start working for the preservation of the bulk of employees whose only old-age pension is Social Security.

The job of a representative in a democracy is not just to pimp for powerful businessmen and powerful unions. The rest of us, the non-union workers and small business people, would like some representation too. We should all want good schools and good police and some sort of a safety net. None of us need a bloated military establishment or taxpayer subsidies to the rich or a pension system for highly-paid bureaucrats that no amount of taxation can sustain.

Public employee unions should retain their right to collective bargaining. Our elected officials, and the administrators who actually set salaries, need to be tough and fair negotiators. Unless you think the People they are stand-ins for are soft but unfair. Which might be right.