Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Confederacy of Art Haters: the Islamic State & etc.

What is Art, and what excuses its destruction?

Art gets trashed every day, and has throughout history. Artists often trash some of their own work as "not good enough." Some parents save their children's art, some throw it out.

Generally, if art starts having a cash value, it tends to get saved. If it does not have value, it gets trashed when it becomes inconvenient.

Old art, good and bad, tends to get valued, to be seen as "collectable," simply because it is old. Almost anything over 200 years old is of antiquarian interest, even if it was not very good art to begin with.

Some art gets trashed because some people find it objectionable.This raises the question: who gets to decide what art is objectionable?

Recently the Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups have been accused of destroying art, including ancient artifacts. For instance, it has been reported that soldiers of the Islamic State recently destroyed some of the ancient remains at Palmyra.

It is pretty easy for Americans to look down our noses at the citizens of the Islamic State for their lack of appreciation of the art of ancient civilizations. But America has a pretty bad record when it comes to destroying art. We just don't think about it, because we are trained to have a Nationalist attitude.

For instance, there was that statue of Saddam Hussein that American troops famously destroyed during the Second Iraq War. Pretty much all statues are art. Is it okay to destroy a statue of a person you don't like?

If it is okay to destroy a statue of Saddam Hussein, who gets to decide what gets preserved as Art and what gets destroyed as Statues of Hated People?

When Christians took over the Roman Empire they destroyed a lot of Art because it represented gods other than Jesus and "God the Father." Some statues were preserved by repurposing them as Christian saints. How is Islamic destruction of what they perceive to be false gods different from the favorite Christian pastime of smashing idols?

How much art was vaporized with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or burned with Tokyo and dozens of other German and Japanese cities that were firebombed during World War II? Is it okay to destroy art if it is just collateral damage to the destruction of enemy populations? [It should be noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or his advisors, did not allow Kyoto to be firebombed, because of its artistic and historic significance. But he okay'd all the other destruction, until he died and Harry Truman did the final okays.]

Now that I have desensitized you a bit, be prepared for a shock. There is a movement to destroy a lot of important, historic art right now in America.

This movement is not being done by Christian yahoos or right-wing thugs. It is being promoted by people who would style themselves leftist, progressive, or liberal (which is how I typically would style myself, except when I think leftists and progressives are acting like idiots, which is surprisingly often).

This movement wants to destroy art that depicts leaders of the Confederate States of America.

It is easy to understand the feelings of this particular group of would be art destroyers. The Confederate States of America was a complex phenomena, but central to that nation were the institution of slavery, and specifically a slavery based on "race," or skin color. Not only were slaves badly treated, but for about 100 years after the Confederacy was defeated in battle, descendants of slaves were denied civil rights (and economic rights) by the Democratic Party in the states that had been in the Confederacy.

If the display of a statue makes people feel bad (for whatever reason), should the statue be destroyed?

How precious is art, really? If we can throw away an old painting we don't like (by an artist who did not become famous), or a child's classroom work, can we throw away any art for any reason? For a good reason like not reminding them of slavery?

If so, there should be no problem with the Taliban or the Islamic State throwing away art, no matter how ancient. Nor should it be a problem to melt down statues of Confederate generals.

I favor preserving art, especially if it has become historic. I don't like Christianity or Islam, but I would not destroy the art of these groups.

I would not destroy a statue of Harry Truman, even though he is the only national leader in history to use atomic weapons against cities of civilians.

If we collectively decided to destroy statues of Confederate generals, should we not also destroy the statues of other slave owners, including Presidents? Should we not destroy the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument? Most of the Presidents before Lincoln were slave owners. That is a lot of art and history destruction to put on the agenda. And what about Indian-killer statues?

I think there are two things that are appropriate to do about Confederate statues and other artistic artifacts. One is to put up new plaques beside the statues, pointing out our present view that these were bad men who defended a rotten social system. We should not forget history. We should particularly remember the mistakes of the past, in the hope that those mistakes are not repeated.

The other option is to let governments make a little money, and let the free market decide what is worth keeping. Auction off the statues. If a museum or private collector is the high bidder, fine. If a materials recycler, or someone else who wants to destroy art, is the high bidder, that is fine too. Not all art deserves to survive forever.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Judge nations by per capital carbon emissions

Americans continue to generate carbon dioxide at unfair levels

Since Nationalist Public Radio (NPR) constantly says that China is the world's largest carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas producer, and they pass for liberal in these United States, I assume most Americans have a distorted view of how our nation fits into the problem of global warming.

If all people are created equal, we should set an average target allowance that is safe. Then everyone should work to push down the carbon emissions of those who are, in effect, cheating the rest of humanity (and all living creatures) by consuming more than their fare share.

So let's look at a few national averages, remembering that within each nation there are also high consumption carbon emitting individuals, and below average individuals. The following table is a sample. You can find fuller tables at Wikipedia List of Countries by carbon dioxide emissions.

Nation kilotons CO2 emitted tons per person
United States of America
European Union
Of the nations with large populations the U.S.A. clearly consumes far more than its share of carbon per person. The global average is 5.0 tons per day, so we are at over 3 times that.

There are a few nations with per person carbon emission higher than the U.S.: Australia at 17.3, a coal producing nation; and Saudi Arabia at 16.8 are notable. But the E. U., with a standard of living similar to the U.S., is under half.

China is, on a per person basis, is at 46% of the U.S. Its total emissions are higher than the U.S. because of its much larger population (1.38 billion vs. 322 million).

When you throw in history, the unfairness of the situation is heightened. The industrial revolution started in Great Britain in the late 1700s, in Europe in the early 1800s, and in the U.S. around the mid 1800s. So we have had very long periods of carbon emissions compared to the rest of the world.

In the aftermath of World War II pretty much every factory in the world had been damaged. Except the factories of the U.S. With our vast petroleum fields and array of factories, we dominated the world economy and dwarfed the emissions of other nations. Other nations' factories came on line gradually. By the 1970s Americans had to compete again, and had grown soft, and so began losing the economic competition to other nations. We were just so wealthy by then that it took a while for the truth to sink in.

China made stabs at industrializing going all the way back to the 1800s, but did not really start to grow production faster than America, Europe, Japan and Russia until the 1980s.

The competitive advantages to nations that continue to burn fossil fuels are enormous. Clearly, if it were about fairness, the U.S.A., which has done the most historic damage, should do the most to cut its per capita fossil fuel consumption. Instead gasoline and natural gas are cheap right now, so consumption is increasing rather than decreasing.

Fairness is all fine in a game of tennis or baseball, but in the real world people who are unfairly privileged typically don't want to play fair. I've talked to people across the spectrum of American wealth and poverty, and the response is almost uniform. People want scientists to fix the problem without any substantial personal impositions on themselves.

Scientists can't change the laws of thermodynamics. That is why they are called laws. It takes energy to keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer. It takes energy to move cars and planes around. It takes energy to fertilize farms, plant and harvest food, and get it to markets. It even takes energy to separate silicon from silicon dioxide to make solar panels, or to extract and transport fossil fuels.

It is clear that their are too many people in the world and that their standard of living is too high. In the United States we should probably do our share by immediately limiting families to one child, turning off all air conditioning systems (except, perhaps, hospitals), and adding a punitive tax to sales of fossil fuels, something like $3 per gallon of gasoline. Also all flying of any kind should be prohibited.

But we won't. The rich will buy Teslas and pretend they have done their part. They will meet with politicians in exotic locations and pat themselves on the back for closing the occasional coal-fired generating plant and putting in a few solar panel. The middle class will continue to aspire to the luxuries of the rich, and the working class will aspire to middle-class luxuries.

The coral will die, and the plankton will die, and sooner or later crops will wilt. Nature will will unleash plague and famine, and balance will be restored. Hopefully when humans die off, it won't be entirely random. Hopefully the humans that survive will give birth to an improved species.

Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at blogspot.com

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Atheists: A Little Tolerance for Christmas, Please

Christmas Can Be Secularized Through Toleration

The Founding Fathers of the United States seem to have included many atheists, agnostics, and deists (people who believe in a God that doesn't matter). It is also a historical fact that in the late 1700's there was a Christian religious revival, and that since that time a majority of Americans have been at least nominally Christian.

Officially the national government has always been secular, as enshrined in the Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exorcise thereof." And "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States."

At times in America it was dangerous to say you were an atheist, especially if you were both a communist and an atheist. So atheists kept a low profile.

For decades now the separation of Church and State has become a battleground. Christians forget the historical fact that they were the ones who originally asked for the separation because they feared the doctrines of either the Church of England (now Episcopal) or the Roman Catholic Church would be imposed on them.

Atheists have led the struggle to keep Church and State separated. That is fine, but some atheists have become as intolerant as their Christian opponents.

I believe we can benefit, now, from showing a little tolerance. I believe that building up a culture of tolerance, including among religious sects, is something that atheists should help with, not fight against.

I believe our message of the priority of reason and fact-based culture over "revealed" religious tradition is winning. I believe that being nice to Christians (within reason) and people in other cults encourages dialog that leads to reason and fact-based beliefs.

So: I don't have a problem calling a Christmas Tree as Christmas Tree. I am not going to deny that Christmas Day is Christmas Day. I personally don't celebrate Christmas, I deny the divinity of Christ (and Isis and Zeus and all the other gods), but I'll take any holiday I can get. Sure, in my ideal world we would secularize Christmas by moving it to the Winter Solstice, but that is not a priority for me.

Let's start with the naming of decorated trees traditionally put up during the month of December. Most atheists, Jews, and other non-Christians want them to be called Holiday Trees or maybe Yule trees.

I can see the argument that official government holiday trees should be for everyone, not just Christians. But it is hard to get around the fact that they are associated with an official government holiday, Christmas Day.

But Christmas long ago came to have a meaning going far beyond the (probably not accurate) birthday of Jesus Christ, who certainly was not God, but was a historic figure and therefore must have had some birthday. Judging from the New Testament, he did not make a point of celebrating his birthday when he was alive. The holiday could be cancelled on religious grounds; the Puritans did not celebrate it.

Many Americans celebrate a non-Christian Christmas. Gifts and family and alcoholism and all that food.

We atheist are supposed to be the reasonable ones. We are the leaders in tolerance. So let the Christians have their Christmas and Christmas Trees.

Let's use the opportunity to talk about what is important: good will towards all people. Including immigrants, homosexuals, foreigners, and people of other faiths than our own. The ability of the Earth to renew itself (the evergreen trees being a symbol of that before being appropriated for Christmas), which is being rapidly lost.

The atheist brand has been tarnished over the centuries in a number of ways, most notably by scientific inventions gone awry, from atomic bombs to insecticides that are killing off bees. Joseph Stalin's mass murders did not help our image either.

If you want to attract people to atheism, the brand should have a positive aura. Fight for the environment, fight for justice, fight for truth. But be kind to those who have not seen the light of reason yet. Our brand should be a showcase of tolerance. We should not fight all the time just because we have gotten used to having to fight for our rights.

I'm going to celebrate Christmas as an atheist. I don't admire Jesus the way I admire Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. But to the extent he is symbol of the idea of tolerance (as when he stopped stonings) and substituting love for humans over the cruel laws of the Old Testament, Jesus is okay. If he were alive today, he'd probably be an atheist.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Air Conditioned Nightmare, a History

I was born on a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, in 1955, near the ocean. That is a temperate climate by most standards. It got hot in summer and cold in winter, but as a child I did not worry about it. We had no air conditioning, almost nobody did back then, but we certainly had heat. I remember being seriously cold only once, when Legendary Mother locked me out of the house during a snow storm in Greenville, Texas when I was four, to punish me (Legendary Father was stationed in Japan that year).

In 1955 the human population of the United States was about 165 million. The population of the planet Earth was about 2.6 billion.

When I was six years old Legendary Father was retired from the Marine Corps (they failed to anticipate the need for trained, reliable murderers starting in 1965 in Vietnam) and we moved to Florida. It was hot! But again, no air conditioning. Our house was in a suburb that had recently been a swamp. My grade school was not air conditioned either.

Then around 1964 we moved into a fancier neighborhood and the house had central air. Legendary Mother set the thermostat at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 degrees C.) In summer it was 70, and in winter it was 70. Whatever budget strains the family had, no thought was given saving a bit of electricity by letting the house vary from 70. The electricity, in that place and era, came from burning fuel oil.

In 1965 the human population of the United States was about 190 million. The population of the planet Earth was about 3.4 billion.

I have to admit I became a bit of a weenie. Cold was seldom a problem. I continued to play outside when I could, and I continued to sweat profusely while sitting still at school, in the fall and spring. But I also enjoyed walking into our air conditioned house and cooling off. At some point a new car was bought that had air conditioning.

In school I never, ever had air conditioning. Not in grade school, not in high school, not in college.

But in the winter of 1973-74 I ran into a different problem. That was a result of the Arab Oil Embargo. I had no budget for clothing for college (Legendary Father and Legendary Mother had thrown me out of the family), or I should say that working for minimum wage to pay for college made me extremely careful about buying anything. My freshman year I had endured the cold of New England dressed in Florida appropriate clothes. But at least the dorms and classrooms were well heated.

Not so the winter of 1973-74. My college economized. I was cold all the time, in my dorm room and in classrooms. But I did not die, and when Spring rolled around, I had largely acclimatized. My Florida clothes (now becoming rags) were adequate because my body had adapted.

In 1975 the population of the U.S. was about 215 million. The global population was about 4.1 billion.

My body had adapted to cold despite spending most of my childhood in Florida. In the meantime, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, America was converting vast amounts of fossil fuel into carbon dioxide. In 1975 Global Warming itself was still somewhat hidden among the ordinary fluctuations of weather, but we, the human race, had built a big ol' Greenhouse by burning fuel to run heaters and air conditions, cars and trucks, factories and armies.

Now political leaders (well, heads of state anyway) are gathered in Paris to pretend to do something about greenhouse gasses and global warming.

Couldn't they just agree to Turn Off the Goddam Air Conditioners! No one on earth had air conditioning until the 20th century. People can acclimatize to heat. They can wear shorts in summer, even at places of business. The first year will be tough, sure, as we get used to sweating again (and other people sweating).

Instead the Air Conditioned Nightmare (Henry Miller's term) is spreading like a cancer on the earth. As soon as people have the dough, they want their first air conditioner. Just like my Legendary Mother.

Sure, do all the other things. But turning off all air conditioners can be done quickly and would have a major impact.

An estimate of the current human population of the United States is 322 million, and of earth is 7.2 billion.

The other important item that should be on the Paris agenda is lowering the human population by setting up a global One Child policy. Half the population would produce only half the environmental problem. But sadly, that idea is not on the agenda. It is not on the agenda of most environmental non-profits, either, because they are afraid of the fundraising repercussions of speaking the real core truth to Power. Better to blow up skirts and reap the rain of donations.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pope Francis Pushes for Global Destruction through Overpopulation

"Countries are frequently pressured to adopt policies typical of the culture of waste, like those aimed at lowering the birthrate."
— Pope Francis in Nairobi, November 27, 2015

Pope Francis has excited the left-to-liberal spectrum of Americans with his "progressive" statements. Progressive, at least, compared to his predecessor, the neo-Nazi Pope Benedict (who was an actual Nazi as a teenager).

But while he talks of social justice, protecting the environment, and allowing divorced Catholics to receive Communion, he harbors the traditional destructive, anti-environmental and anti-woman culture of his predecessors.

If there is one thing that causes more global warming and environmental destruction, it is more people in the world. They go hand in hand. Apparently Pope Francis does not feel that the current population of over 7 billion is high enough. He is against lowering the birthrate, and against contraception and abortion.

Which means that in practice he is for global warming, for war (over resources), for the oppression of women, and for trying to keep the Roman Catholic religion alive by out-breeding religious and social rivals.

But what else could we expect from an organization that was founded by two masterminds of evil? Christianity was a loose confederation before it was given a top down structure by Constantine the Great, a mass-murderer and Roman Emperor fro 306 to 337, and Sylvester I, Pope from 314 to 335. Over time the bishops of Rome, styling themselves Popes, set themselves up as supreme leaders, in the process re-writing history and editing Scripture to support their claims.

The suppression of secular knowledge and freedom of religion were key to the success of Roman Catholicism. Violence was used to convert many nations to Catholicism, including Poland, Mexico, and the nations of South America. In many other cases a King converted to Catholicism and enforced the religion on his subjects as a means of tightening control on them.

After about 1500 the Catholic Church gradually lost its ability to kill everyone who disagreed with it in Europe. In the 1930's it made one last grasp at world dominion, promoting the dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and eventually Philippe Petain in their attempt to crush Protestant Christianity (including the planned conquest of the U. K.) and atheism (including the failed conquest of the U.S.S.R.).

Preventing people from having access to birth control creates poverty and lack of education, two keys to substituting Catholic bullshit for a modern outlook based on science and reason. It leads to environmental destruction.

As Catholic Popes to, Francis seems reasonable in contrast to Benedict. Where points of agreement can be reached, there is reason to work with him, just like it is with any political or religious leader. But beware of buying the package. The Roman Catholic package is a lie will continue causing environmental and human destruction until it is dead and buried for good.

Many American and European Catholics believe the church should change its doctrine on birth control, or even abortion. Instead of accepting this enlightened view, Francis is pushing a Dark Ages view, which is still favored by the bishops of Africa. He deserves thorough criticism for this mistaken and cowardly view.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

From Kunduz to Paris, with Love

No one wants to be an innocent victim of human violence. The recent attacks in Paris, Mali, Lebanon and elsewhere show that if nothing else is prospering in the world, hate is. But, if you can gain the perspective, these all represent small scale violence by weak players in the world's political and religious arena.

I just received a reminder from Doctors Without Borders about the tragedy at Kunduz. You may recall that Kunduz is a city of about 300,000 people in Afghanistan to the northeast of Kabul, not very far from the Tajikistan border. The Taliban briefly occupied the city in September. The "central" government took it back fifteen days later in October, with help from American troops and warplanes.

The hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders was struck by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship, an awesome weapon of war and successor to the AC-47 used to mass murder peasants during the Vietnam War.

Hospitals, as long as they function as hospitals, are never fair targets in war, the same as trucks and tents marked with Red Cross identification. For details on why the Kunduz massacre was a war crime, see Protection of Medical Services Under International Law.

This is not the sort of incident that happens by accident, nor do the circumstances around the massacre look accidental in any way. This is not a case of stray bullets from the AC-130 missing a legitimate target and then hitting some doctors, nurses, and patients. The Hospital Was the Target.

And that is the kind of thing that is controlled from the White House Situation Room. Whether President Barack Obama was actually in the situation room and made the call will probably become publicly available in about 60 years.

I have no sympathy for anyone who kills civilians, whether Presidents of the United States (or other nations) or freelance Islamists or any other political/social/religious group. So I have sympathy with the victims in Paris, and no sympathy for the perps, including the chain of command above them, right up to the Caliph.

The difference I have with most Americans [Trigger alert: prepare to be shocked by an opinion] is that I don't think the victims of American President Barack Obama (and the many war criminal President predecessors) are in any essential way different than the victims of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Osama Bin Laden, or for that matter Pol Pot, Trotsky, General Franco or anyone else. The government of the United States was established by violence; almost all governments are. It does not matter to me whether violence is used to establish a republic or an Islamic State, it is wrong because it is violence, and particularly wrong when it is violence against civilians.

In particular, I am not a fan of the French government. To me the French monarchs starting with Charlemagne, Napoleon, the French imperialists who conquered Vietnam and other colonies, Philippe Petain, and the leaders who recently bombed Raqqa are just slight variations on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi theme.

The American people have no learning curve. They are not told the facts, and if a few people learn a few facts, they are swiftly swept aside by a torrent of daily woes. We could have learned a lot from the Somalia disaster, but most Americans don't even know there was a Somalia disaster, much less how American foreign policy and military stupidity drove that nation to disaster, step by step. Somalians can now choose between a corrupt and inept U.S. puppet government and an al-Qaeda aligned opposition.

Which is not much different than choosing between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There was a time when I thought the people of Mendocino County, California, would find their way out of that trap, but with the Bernie Sanders phenomena, I see that too much marijuana and too-little fact checking, and thinking things through, makes escape impossible. Bernie has vowed to destroy the Islamic State. And how does that differ from every other power-hungry American politician?

It can be tempting to say that the victims in Paris were is some sense fair targets because they allowed their government to bomb Syria in the preceding weeks. This is the type of argument used by the British Empire and the American Empire during World War II to justify carpet bombing Japanese and German civilians during World War II. This argument leads to the excusing (by the perpetrators, anyway) of all killings of civilians.

Every nation should police its own government to prevent war crimes. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and all their gang should be tried for war crimes and, instead of being hung by their necks like the Nuremburg criminals, spend the rest of their lives in prison. To some extent the American people are to blame for allowing the crimes. But our lack of power to change the system is really no different than the situation of those living under the Islamic State. Hopefully the governments of Syria and Iraq will be able to defeat the Islamic State, but will respect the lives of civilians. And spare the lives of any soldiers that surrender, as per international law of prisoners of war.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Natural Gas Solution to Global Warming?

Can Technology Save us from an Environmental Apocalypse?

Yesterday I heard about something of a technological miracle. A company that makes alternative engines for transportation vehicles (a Green Investment, if you will), reported that the State of California has certified one of its natural gas engines as being cleaner than electric car engines. Westport Innovations is introducing the "ISL G Near Zero (NZ) NOx natural gas engine" for medium duty trucks and busses.

"The engine was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Air Resources Board (ARB) in California that meet the 0.02 g/bhp-hr optional Near Zero NOx Emissions standards. . . Cummins Westport ISL G NZ exhaust emissions will be 90% lower than the current EPA NOx limit of 0.2 g/bhp-hr and also meet the 2017 EPA greenhouse gas emission requirements. CWI natural gas engines have met the 2010 EPA standard for particulate matter (0.01 g/bhp-hr) since 2001." [Westport ISL G press release]

Vehicles equipped with these engines will create less smog and greenhouse CO2 than electric vehicles. Why? Because electric vehicles must get their electricity from somewhere, and in California most electricity is produced from natural gas fired plants.

Natural gas is preferred to coal, for anyone wanting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because it has a lot of hydrogen in it. Petroleum gasses consist of molecules that have a chain of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Burning hydrogen creates water. Burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. So burning coal, which is almost entirely carbon, produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than burning natural gas.

Most environmentalists, both of the ordinary citizen kind and paid non-profiteers, are very enthusiastic about solar energy (and wind). In theory solar energy produces no pollution of any kind. So in the ideal green world, solar panels capture energy, and electric automobiles and trucks would run on that energy. Most environmentalists advocate for moving to all solar and all electric vehicles as soon as possible, which would still take a while, given that solar currently creates only about 1% of U.S. electricity.

Of course the real world is more complicated than the imaginary utopias of environmentalists, or the imaginary utopias of climate change deniers.

While waiting for solar, let's think about the thesis of natural gas being better than coal. The first objection of environmentalists is that natural gas is cheaper than coal (the real reason coal plants are being abandoned in the U.S.) only because of fracking. Environmentalists hate fracking. They hate mountaintop removal for coal too. How does one fairly compare the side effects of natural gas extraction versus coal extraction? [a question I can't answer here]

You can see why environmentalists want to go straight to solar. But environmentalists are in denial about the complications of solar. The main active component of solar cells is silicon, but that has to be supported on some long lasting, strong material like aluminum or steel.

Producing a commercially usable solar cell requires separating silicon from silicon dioxide (sand or quartz) and extracting aluminum or iron from their ores. That involves huge amounts of energy, which comes from coal fired plants in China. It involves building massive plants to shape the raw silicon and steel into panels. Those plants are mainly in China, so the tons of panels have to be transported to the U.S. first by ship, then trucked to distribution centers. If they go on roofs it takes energy to life them up there. Even when installed they are not care-free. Cleaning them requires energy, and if they are covered with dust they produce no electricity. Also, they take up space that could be used for rooftop gardens.

Solar panels have high upfront costs. A single panel generates surprisingly little electricity. That is why it take years, perhaps two decades, for a panel to pay for itself compared to just buying electricity from a utility company.

That is no reason to not install more solar power. But it does bring us to the essence of the global warming problem: the size of the human population.

In The Martian the lead character says something like he is going to "science the hell out of the problem." I like science, I liked the movie, and I think we should science the hell out of the global warming problem. And other environmental problems like habitat destruction and lack of clean water. But the real solution involves the Secret Sauce.

Very few people want to talk about the Secret Sauce. I have noted that in the United States even the Green Party politicians don't want to talk about it, much less the Democrats.

The Secret Sauce is reducing the human population. Reducing it in California, in the United States, and in the World.

The science is available, but not the culture or technology, much less the political will. The science is birth control.

The governments of California and the United States encourage people to have children. They do that many ways, most notably through the income tax exemptions for children and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

We need a One Child Policy, to be in effect for about 3 generations until the human population has reached sustainable levels. 3 generations is 60 years, which should allow us to better understand what is really long-term sustainable for the Earth.

I believe in making such a policy as minimally coercive as possible. By eliminating tax credits for children, after the first child of a couple, we could probably get a good balance. Some religious crazies would probably insist on having more children than they should, but some couples (or singles) will have none, so it should balance out.

Our economic system would need some alterations as well, but then it needs alterations anyway. Average people could have a higher standard of living if there were less people competing for what little is left of the world.

Meanwhile, hurray for converting trucks from diesel to natural gas. Hurray for solar. But let's no be naive. The human population can be brought down gently and humanely, or Nature will bring it down in a crash. Talk about it. Ask politicians and environmental groups and churches about it. We are out of time. We we be far better off if we started a One Child Policy a generation ago. We have the tools, let's use them.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rich Lives Matter More: How Robert Kennedy Got to be U.S. Attorney General

A 19 year old black man hits another man over the head with a bear bottle. He is arrested by cops, charged with assault or even attempted murder. He is convicted and serves 2 years in jail. After that he is a felon, and so can't get a job, and ends up in a life of crime.

That is a believable story in the United States of America. Some variation of it has happened millions of times in our history. It could have been a true story in the 1920s, or 1950s, or in 2015.

Now consider this quote from The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

At a bar "Magnuson, happened to be already celebrating his birthday there, and his friends began singing Happy Birthday to him. Infuriated over what he apparently regarded as an intrusion into his celebration, Bob walked up behind Magnuson and hit him over the head with a beer bottle, sending him to the hospital for stitches." This was just an example of a pattern of illegal, criminal, violent behavior. In another fight friends said "Bobby would have killed him if we didn't pull him off."

Now there are many reasons an act of violence does not result in jail time. Much violence is simply hidden, as when the victim can't ID the assailant, or has his or her own reasons to avoid the police.

Anyone who thinks all white men and women carry get out of jail free cards with them, should take a look at prison statistics (there are about 120,000 white males in federal prison on any given day in the USA with about 77,000 black men).

Some times violent men avoid jail because they have good lawyers. Some times that may be a public defender, but more generally for serious violence only a private lawyer will do. As a result, black or white, having money for lawyers is the main prerequisite

Some violent men get off scott free because they are part of a system of corruption. That would include cops, friends of cops and judges and politicians, and other connected people.

The Bob above is better known as Bobby or Robert Kennedy. He is better known for being the brother and United States Attorney General of President John F. Kennedy. Bobby was assassinated and died on June 6, 1968. President Kennedy was assassinated and died on November 22, 1963.

Are you surprised? I am. I thought I knew quite a bit about the Kennedy family. Only recently I read Robert Kennedy's The Enemy Within, which is mostly about his (later successful) attempt to jail Jimmy Hoffa. Robert did not mention that he acted like a psychopath at least as late has his college years.

In this particular case the violent criminal was the son of one of the most powerful men in the world, Joseph Kennedy, a billionaire (when there were only a few in the world) who maximized profits by dancing back and forth over the imaginary line separating business from organized crime. Apparently no charges were every brought against Bobby for anything he did. The American Bar Association found nothing objectionable about his ethics. He joined the Justice Department, then became Joe McCarthy's henchman in his anti-communist crusade. And at last, through nepotism, the highest figure in American law enforcement.

My own, anecdotal experience in life confirms the picture. Mainly I stay away from criminals and crime. I figure being a political dissident in America is dangerous enough. But three friends of mine have been involved in crimes that were slightly more than petty. Two, probably binging on drugs, copied a scene out of Cool Hand Luke and one of them was caught. One friend, a cook, punched the restaurant owner in the face during an argument.

All three were white. The cook was charged with assault, convicted, and spent over a year in jail. One thief, as I said, got away. I later learned he followed Bobby's path, getting a law degree and a job at the Justice Department. The one who was caught was quickly released and only orally reprimanded by a judge. I don't know what he did for a career.

The difference? The cook was poor and had poor parents and a public defender. The thief had rich parents, with connections to the intelligence community, and an expensive lawyer.

I know black and hispanic and Native American Indians all get treated worse by law enforcement and the courts. But being white and poor or working class is no picnic.

One more anecdote comes to mind. If you are going to be a terrorist, it pays to be from a rich, powerful family. Ask Patty Hearst.

Black lives matter. We need to do more to end all forms of racism. But we also need to give the same justice to people who commit crimes regardless of their economic status and ability to hire lawyers of various levels of competency.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Parable of the Drunk and Sober Drivers

"When you (or somebody else) finally has the good idea, you feel very stupid for not having seen it sooner." — H. M. Georgi, "Grand Unified Theories" in The New Physics

One evening two men went to a social club event. One of the men had quite a bit of alcohol, the other stayed entirely sober.

Each man drove home in his car in the darkness. The sober man got distracted and drove off the road and smashed his car into a tree, but he was not hurt.

The drunk man weaved around a bit on the road and almost hit a car, a dog, and a mail box, but kept it together and made it home without scratching his car. He even managed to stumble unhurt into bed before passing out.

The men at the social club analyzed the event. The concluded that in the interest of safety, every man would be required to drink a minimum of two alcoholic beverages at all future events.

Obviously this is a false parable, but it illustrates some very interesting aspects of reality and the human mind. In shows the difference between anecdotal evidence and statistics. Also that drinking is preferable to sobriety, until it isn't.

Statistically driving drunk is a bad bet. Take a sufficiently large sample and a trend will appear. Not everyone who drives sober drives safely every time. Not everyone who drives drunk gets in a wreck every time. But the frequency of accidents is quite a bit higher for drunk drivers than for sober drivers. The frequency of accidents also climbs as the amount of alcohol measured in the blood climbs.

I originally made up this parable to explain to my friends why one of my friends did not believe in global warming. Most of my believer friends have only the vaguest idea of how statistics work. That does not prevent them from sharing statistics that confirm their beliefs, even if it is easy to show the statistics are falsified. Math is just not a strong point with them. Let's call them artists, rather than math disabled.

On the other hand my global warming denier friend is a very capable guy. He is good at logical argument, at accounting, and at statistics. He knows more about the history of temperatures of the ancient earth than I do. So what are the chances that he is wrong and the artists are right?

We can know he is wrong by looking at the work of people, scientists, who know even more than he does. Those scientists have vast arrays of data available for analysis and know what can go wrong when data is collected.

We know he is wrong because we can step into a greenhouse during a sunny day in winter and notice it is warmer than outside. We can check (should we have the time and interest) the spectral characteristics of sunlight, of carbon dioxide, and of the radiation of heat from the earth, and see that carbon dioxide is indeed a greenhouse gas. And we can measure (in a home lab, if you have the money for equipment and the skill) the level of carbon dioxide in the air, and compare it to older measurements. And of course there are all those thermometers the scientists have set up around the world, starting in the 1700s.

But for a lot of stuff is even harder to distinguish between anecdotes, belief systems, and factual statistics. Recent studies showed many science experiments are difficult to reproduce, and that difficulty seems to be driven by mental (and ethical) problems of the scientists. In other words, Publish or Perish drives the survival of the best liars. In particular it seems like the entire profession of Psychology is run by nut cases. When specifically asked why their experimental techniques were so bad, most psychologists did not even seem to understand there was a problem. Yikes. [See How Scientists Fool Themselves]

Of course my global warming denier friend would take this information and say exactly: my global warming denier scientific minority has it right. Your ecology-warped green scientists are misinterpreting the data.

Even stay-at-home paranoid Internet mavens don't have time to check every fact. Politics and many other professions depend on lying as a basic tool. Yet we need truth or we will suffer bad consequences.

Fortunately most lies don't pass the basic smell test. My first order guess is that the scientists are right and the theologians are wrong. Scientists are not always right, and theologians are not always wrong. But it you drink the theological kool-aid, you are going to crash into reality at some point.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why Israel (Secretly) Loves the Islamic State

Boundaries of the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS or the Caliphate) shift from day to day. Currently most of the Islamic State territory is a good day's drive from northern Israel, about 350 miles. But pockets of Islamic State control are already within a few miles of Israel, or at least the Golan Heights (illegally and apparently permanently occupied by Israel), according to the Carter Center map that tracks the Syrian conflict:

Syria civil war areas of control map

The bottom left of the map touches Israel. Lebanon is to the east, Turkey to the north, and Jordan below the long slant at the bottom.

While many people in the world are upset at the to-date triumphs of the Islamic State, Israel is not. Here, by Israel, I mean the typically ultra-orthodox, nationalist Jews who have controlled the government for some time now. There are still many Jews in Israel that believe in human rights for all peoples, they just have been marginalized over time.

The Islamic State fits perfectly into the National Zionist Zeitgeist Ideology (NZZI) narrative. Zionists like to pretend that Palestine was empty, more or less, before they arrived. The existence of large numbers of Palestinian survivors of the Holocaust of 1948 has always been an embarrassment. Extremist Zionists have always advocated a Greater Israel with various boundaries, but typically including everything south of Turkey and north of Mecca, to be taken in bites, of course.

The Islamic State appears to Americans and Europeans to have no redeeming qualities. ISIS are ultra-orthodox Islamists hell bent on taking over the world and willing to kill anyone who disagrees with them, even other Sunni Islamic sects. Unlike the Palestinians, who traditionally were either moderates or secular, and the PLO, which was Marxist and therefore atheist, the Islamic State has no appeal to anyone outside its own camp.

The Islamic State is the Israeli caricature of Palestinians, Arabs and Islam made into reality.

So if the Islamic State takes over Syria, the Israelis can dust off the old war plans for the capture of Damascus. No one would stop their fighting ISIS, and the people of Damascus might actually welcome them. At first.

If the Islamic State takes Syria it will also take Lebanon and Jordan. Then Greater Israel is just a matter of eating, digesting, and eating again. Enough area can be left to the Islamic State to make it a permanent global threat that justified anything Israel does, including to the Palestinians within its borders.

For the Israelis and Islamic State, it is a win-win situation. Of course, as Hitler learned when he tried to create Greater Germany, things don't always go according to plan.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Betrothed: Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI

How love of a Romantic Novel led to global human misery

Perhaps excepting the rare graduate student of Italian Literature, few Americans have heard of Alessandro Manzoni or his novel The Betrothed. I read it only because it was mentioned as the favorite book of Pope Pius XI in David I. Kertzer's The Pope and Mussolini.

The Betrothed was written in the 1820s and was set in and near Milan (Milano) in 1628. It is largely an old-fashioned adventure story centered on the romance of a young peasant couple who are prevented from consummating their planned marriage by an evil local member of the nobility. It is quite readable and modern. As literature it is notable in the way it develops a wide variety of complex characters, from a simple peasant girl to the powerful movers and shakers of the nobility and Roman Catholic Church.

Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, would have found it easy to identify with several of the characters. Achille was born in 1857 to a silk factory supervisor and his wife in a town just north of Milan. He became a priest early in life and quickly rose to the position of director of the Ambrosiana Library. Thus he could relate to Renzi, the silk worker who is in love with Lucy, as well as with the monk and priest characters up to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who founded the Ambrosiana Library. Achille became Cardinal Ratti, archbishop of Milan, in 1921, around the time Benito Mussolini was developing his Fascist Party.

Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Romagna, northern Italy, in 1883, to a socialist blacksmith and a Roman Catholic schoolteacher. Benito was not baptized, but was sent to a Catholic boarding school. As a young man he was influenced by a variety of writers in the socialist camp, notably Georges Sorel, and was attracted to violent tendencies within the socialist camp. The world would likely be different if he had remained a school teacher, but in 1904 he joined the Italian Army for two years. After another teaching stint he became a Socialist Party functionary. Still attracted to violence, he nevertheless opposed the Italian war against Libya in 1911 [part of a series of preludes to World War I in which European nations began dismembering the Turkish empire].

After initially opposing Italy's entry into World War I, Mussolini switched positions, rejoined the the Italian army, declared himself a nationalist, and began to develop what would come to be called fascism. It was an anti-establishment, nationalist, anti-clerical, violent movement with socialist tinges. It appealed to young men, and to local gangsters. Italy's democratic national government was weak and corrupt, and Benito was elected to it. In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini to be Prime Minister.

And now we are in The Betrothed, at least as far as Cardinal Ratti was concerned. Pope Benedict XV had died in January 1922. A flock of cardinals divided between an ultra-conservative faction and a conservative faction settled on Ratti as the next Pope. He took the name Pope Pius XI. It was all perfectly clear to him. He was the equivalent of Federigo Borromeo, and Benito Mussolini was the equivalent of the character in Betrothed only referred to as The Unknown.

In the novel The Unknown was the leader of bad men, and a threat to all that was good. Yet, through his encounter with the virtuous Lucy and then with Cardinal Borromeo, The Unknown turned his back on evil and becomes a force for good.

Mussolini is now thought of as a dictator with absolute power, but that is a caricature of the real situation. The Pope too, while powerful, depended on a bureaucratic machine to rule. Mussolini had changed his ideology many times prior to becoming Prime Minister, and now made a strategic decision that fed into the Pope's delusion. He decided to embrace the Roman Catholic Church. He eventually made it the only legal religion of Italy.

The Pope liked that the Fascists beat Protestants and atheists into line. But he did not want to take orders from Mussolini. Benito liked that the Catholic Church solidified his rule and enabled him to control some of his own rabid-dog fascists, as well as to destroy his main political rival, the Socialist Party. But he did not want to take orders from the Pope. See The Pope and Mussolini for the gory details.

Reality contradicted The Betrothed. Both Mussolini and the Pope became more evil as the years passed. Hitler rose to power in Germany and added his own evil to the mix. At a crucial time Pius XI helped Hitler become Chancellor of Germany. Probably he again saw Adolf Hitler as a useful tool against atheism and communism, and another The Unknown. It helped that Hitler was Roman Catholic (he thought the small percent of Nazis who were pagan or atheist were nuts).

Pius died in 1939, of natural causes, before the final terrible results of his sponsorship of Mussolini, Hitler, and General Franco became obvious to all. Mussolini died in 1945, shot by communists.

Pius XII, who followed Pius XI, danced with both Hitler and Mussolini, and hoped that they would destroy communism and atheism. Islam, Budhism, and Protestant sects could be mopped up later. But when it became obvious the Allies would defeat the Axis, Pius XII switched sides, thus becoming a cold war ally of the capitalist block.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Harry Truman's Hell

"According to the pleasant mythology Truman later created about those years, he was the solitary rose in the manure pile, an honest public servant unaware of the crimes around him."
Thomas Joseph Pendergast was the political boss of the Democratic Party of Kansas City and effectively controlled the city from 1925 until about 1936.

Harry Truman served in the U.S. Army in World War I, and one of his associates then was a nephew of Pendergast. Truman was elected county judge in 1922 with the backing of the Pendergast machine (which had been started by Tom's older brother). Like many city machines of that era, corruption was rampant. With Prohibition in full swing, vast bootlegging profits slushed around Kansas City; plenty to buy any votes needed to control the political offices.

Harry was a funny guy, according to his own notes. He followed orders from Pendergast, helping the machine to rob the city, but (he claimed) doing his best to minimize that, and refusing to take any graft for his own use. "I could have had $1,500,000.00. I haven't $150.00. Am I a fool or an ethical giant?"

Pendergast liked Harry because he was a competent administrator, kept his own hand out of the till, and yet followed orders. When a U.S. Senate seat became available, it was Pendergast's machine that sent Harry Truman to Washington in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Truman then and later claimed there were no strings attached. Biographer Richard L. Miller observed: "Clearly he protested too much, perhaps to ease his own guilty conscience about his role as an honest front protecting the power of thieves and murderers."

During the Pendergast era Kansas City was the nation's Las Vegas. Nothing illegal was not available and easy to find: alcohol, prostitutes, casinos and other forms of gambling. The city actually prospered, as organized criminals led by Johnny Lazia made sure visitors and citizens were safe from petty crime, and the take from the criminal enterprises was generally divvied up in a civil manner. They even used a lot of it to build up infrastructure. Even after Lazia was gunned down in July of 1934.

Senator Truman, of course, was an ardent supporter of the New Deal. Pendergast eventually fell victim to his own gambling addiction. He was indicted for tax evasion by the IRS and went to jail in 1939. In 1940 a reform slate came to power in Kansas City, just in time to the boom years of World War II.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1940, found he needed the corrupt urban political machines (he had not needed them, at least not much, in 1932 or 1936). American tradition, starting with George Washington, was that no President would serve more than 2 terms. Roosevelt imagined himself indispensable, but he did not openly run for the Democratic nomination. When the convention assembled in Chicago (where the Capone machine still ran things) the delegates thought they were nominating John Nance Garner, then FDR's Vice President. Ed Kelly, Chicago's Mayor and a Capone man, packed the convention hall with thugs who "spontaneously" staged an hour-long demonstration demanding that Roosevelt accept the nomination. Roosevelt did. Mussolini's March on Rome was not more perfectly staged.

By 1944 the bosses were back in charge of the Democratic Party. "The 1944 convention — dominated by Hannegan, Hillman, and the city bosses — added Truman to the ticket. Roosevelt died three months after his fourth inauguration, and Tom Pendergast's boy became President."

President Truman continued the New Deal and tried to extend it to creating a national health insurance program. He also committed heinous war crimes, continuing Roosevelt's policies of purposefully targeting civilians in German and Japanese cities with conventional weapons, then becoming the only human in history to actually use nuclear weapons, and against mainly civilian targets at that.

Go to hell, Harry.

[All quotes were found in Stephen R. Fox's Blood and Power, Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America, William Morrow & Company, 1989.]

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit, Dualism, and Consciousness

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." I've heard that from plenty of people. What does it mean? The not having a religion part I understand. Some who claim free-floating spirituality believe in God, and others don't. Most think they have something like a soul and some sort of cosmic link or immortality.

Duality, the belief that individuals have both a body and a non-material component, call it mind or soul or spirit, is an old concept. The ancient Egyptians had it, but it may be an idea that existed before civilization started.

I reject it. And I am not alone in that. Consider what Nick Lane has to say in Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution:

"Another paradox that can be addressed quite simply, at least in part, is the perception that our minds are immaterial, and our feelings ineffable . . . The essential insight is that the mind does not, indeed cannot, detect the existence of the brain. We perceive neither the brain nor the physical nature of the mind by thinking about it. Only the objective methods of science have linked the mind with the physical workings of the brain. How remarkably misguided we have been in the past is exemplified by the ancient Egyptians, who in embalming their kings preserved the heart and other organs with great care (they took the heart to be the seat of emotion and mind), but scooped the brain our through the nose with a hook . . . They were uncertain what the brain was for.

That was published in 2009. Ponder it. Our minds do not seem material, the feeling is of a consciousness immersed in a body immersed in the material world (or the illusion of a material world, if you belong to an illusionist religion or sect of philosophy).

Now consider what Ludwig Wittgenstein had to say in Philosophical Investigations:

412. The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process: how does it come about that this does not come into the consideration of our ordinary life? This idea of a difference in kind is accompanied by slight giddiness — which occurs when we are performing a piece of logical slight-of-hand. (The same giddiness attacks us when we think of certain theorems in set theory.) When does this feeling occur in the present case? It is when I, for example, turn my attention in a particular way on to my own consciousness, and, astonished, say to myself: THIS is supposed to be produced by a process in the brain! — as it were clutching my forehead.

Of course both Wittgenstein and Lane go on quite a bit. We can dissect the idea endlessly. We can watch someone else go unconscious when they sniff chloroform, take a sleeping pill, get hit on the head, or catch a bullet. But we still feel like a spirit, and if we try to analyze that, may end up scratching our heads and noticing that we are aware of the sensation of our skulls being scratched.

And so the quest to understand consciousness by understanding that mass of neurons known as the brain goes on. And even if it does come to be understood by a few, as quantum physics is, most people will either have to take the new understanding on faith, or stick to the older idea.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Robert Kennedy, The Enemy Within, and Labor Unions

Robert Kennedy is rapidly fading from the national consciousness. Only those of us who lived through the period of his activity remember him. At best younger people know him as the assassinated brother of President John Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy wrote a number of books. Lately I have been reading what is perhaps his best known book, The Enemy Within [Harper & Brothers, New York, 1960]. I am reading it as part of my study of the influence of organized crime on business, society and politics (and vice-versa). See, for instance, Uncle Raymond Clinton, Or Is Hillary Still Mobbed Up? [May 25, 2015]

It is possible that Robert titled The Enemy Within more aptly than he knew. Enemy mainly chronicles Kennedy's investigations of Hoffa and the Teamsters Union and associates. It paints a pretty grim picture of how bad things can get when a union is corrupted or mobbed up. But it also shows how glaringly narrow-visioned Robert Kennedy was, and raises the question of whether, at the time it was written, Robert Kennedy knew where the Kennedy family wealth came from.

Today it is well known that Joseph Kennedy, Robert's father, was an important organized criminal, in addition to being an important legitimate business and political figure. In popular culture you can see that illustrated in the later seasons of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, for instance.

But in the 1950's Robert (born in 1925) certainly acted as if he was ignorant of where the money came from that made for a luxurious childhood, a Harvard education, law school, a career in the Justice Department, and working at a high level for Congress at an early age.

As I waded through this often tedious book about dead crooks and the men who investigated them, I came upon this delightful passage:
Fortunately, our work was not without its lighter moments. There is an office building on Fourteenth Street in New York City whose tenants include a number of labor unions. Knowing that some of these unions were under investigation, and suspecting that perhaps the building was owned by a racketeer or perhaps even by "The Mob," Walter May, Paul Tierney, and Bellino checked the records. They were shocked to learn who owned the building.

It was my family.
Of course the investigation stopped there. Had some other reputed mob family owned the building, Robert would have kept digging like a terrier.

Many researchers have alleged that Robert did indeed know his dad had been a mobster, at least in the distant past, based on what Robert (and his brother John, then a Senator and also on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) avoided investigating.

But something else is obvious in the book. Kennedy crucified the Teamsters and James Hoffa. It helped turn the nation against unions in general. Republican politicians, Hollywood and the business propaganda machine went on a decades-long spree telling Americans that all unions are corrupt, that every member is a Union Thug.

But on page after page, where does most of the corruption come from? From the businesses that employ teamsters. Hoffa & crew misuse union dues, to be sure. But the extra money is coming from business owners who find it is good business to pay Hoffa, say, $100,000 in cash to get results that save $1 million on the payroll end.

Democratic unions, run honestly by elected officials responsible to their members, has always been a goal to almost all union members. Corrupting those unions has been a goal of employers and organized crime, which are often the same thing.

There are some reasonably honest businesses too, perhaps a majority. But a careful examination of the record shows that the interface between organized crime and profit-taking is a loose one. In addition to the Joe Kennedy types who move money back and forth gracefully between criminal enterprises (like importing whiskey during Prohibition), stock market scams, and legitimate businesses, there are the many CEOs and stockholders who don't mind making a little extra money by dumping toxic wastes, failing to invest in worker safety, or selling dangerous and shoddy products to consumers.

Most people are complex, and the more successful they are, the more complex they have to be. Joe Kennedy amassed a vast fortune at other people's expense, but it is hard to criticize the job he did helping to set up the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). If it weren't so tedious, that story would make a good "It takes a Thief" type TV series.

Maybe, if elected President, Robert Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War his brother started. Maybe he would have led America to Camelot. Maybe he would have expiated the sins of his father. On the other hand, his regime might have been the most corrupt and hypocritical in U.S. history. We'll never know.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


People who are smart, or think they are smart, often criticize others for their inability to "connect the dots," or to see a pattern that makes sense of otherwise unconnected information.

But both smart people and not-so-smart people have problems with overgeneralization. That is, once they have figured out or learned a general rule, they sometimes fail to see when there are exceptions to the rule.

In other words, they connect dots that, in reality, are not connected. We all do it. It is one of the difficulties of life.

Partly this is driven by necessity, partly by laziness.

We all have limited time. For any given task we must limit the time we can commit, otherwise the many other tasks in our life will not get done. This is true in decision making and in intellectual pursuits as well as daily tasks.

Limits on decision making time are often externally imposed. Most American citizens don't devote very much time to politics, for instance. A fair proportion of citizens vote in elections, and there is a deadline for each election. We are only willing to devote so much time to learning about the candidates and choosing between them. We might listen to ads, if not willingly, and some voters listen to debates. But how many voters go over a candidate's voting record? And even if a citizen had nothing else to do, to actually read all the words of all the legislation that elected officials vote on is impossible. Even the politicians don't do it: they rely on their staffs and on the work of the committees that write the legislation.

So we generalize. We let simple criteria guide us. In most general elections most voters simply vote either Democratic Party or Republican Party. Primaries are more difficult, because the choices are within a party. That is one reason so few people vote in primaries: they don't know who to vote for. Some people vote based on a key issue like Social Security or pro-life/pro-choice, or based on perceptions of personality, or even just handsomeness.

Generalizations can be untrue, but the more difficult cases are when they are mostly true, but have important exceptions. Since the beginning of the science of astronomy, objects in the sky were classified into the sun, moon, planets, and stars. But when a sufficiently powerful telescope was developed, it turned out some of the stars were actually galaxies. So to every animal that swims is not a fish: some are marine mammals.

One of my favorite areas to watch people overgeneralize is in food, diet, and health. The best example right now is glutenphobia. Gluten, the protein component of wheat, can cause reactions in individuals whose immune systems are out of balance. But this is rare. Yet by constantly complaining, these gluten-intolerant individuals got food companies to note which foods are gluten-free. Other people (most people thrive on gluten) started seeing the words "gluten free" on labels and decided that gluten must be a poison. Quack doctors, pseudoscientists and "health food" corporations realized they could make a lot of quick bucks by promoting this fear.

Fear and hope are big drivers towards overgeneralization in ordinary life. Barked at by a dog? Beware of all dogs. Win a jackpot at a casino? Lose all your money trying to hit another jackpot.

Fear can save your life, of course. Not to long ago, in a state of nature, when there were still lions and tigers and wolves and bears to worry about, fear was a friend. Fear kept people alive. Hoping to kill a grizzly bear alone with a flint knife was a bad use of hope. Somewhat in the same way that people now get immunological diseases because their immune systems are not exposed to enough bacteria and viruses, now our fears tend towards the irrational. Our fear system overgeneralizes.

Almost everyone has life experiences that show us that some particular overgeneralization is wrong. As a child I was taught Jews were bad people who had killed Jesus. Anti-jewish remarks were a commonplace where I went to school (Roman Catholic Schools) through 8th grade. In 9th grade, at a different school, I made the usual anti-semitic remarks. Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that many of the students in my classes were Jewish, and that they tended to be the kids I wanted to be friends with. Fortunately they were gracious and came to accept me, once I stopped talking like a jackass.

By now police in America should know that being a black and a teenage male does not mean you are a criminal. Policing can be a difficult job, but that is no excuse for making judgments about people based on appearances. A poorly-dressed person may be poorly-dressed precisely because he (or she) is not as greedy and unscrupulous and the people in nice suits.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Joseph Biden Primary Talk and Rotten Boroughs

This weekend the major media revived the idea that Vice President Joseph (Joe) Biden could enter the Democratic Presidential primaries. That isn't as exciting as watching Donald Trump beating up on his Republican rivals, but it reveals much about Democratic Party and American politics.

The basic idea is that while the nation might be ready for a female President, that female might not be Hillary Clinton. She is taking a bit of a bruising from the "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party, now led by Bernie Sanders, who until recently was an independent socialist, not a Democrat at all. And of course the the conservative media, which is most of the media, treat Hillary like she is some combination of Bloody Mary and Joe Stalin's wife.

Joe Biden would be promoted as a fresh face that can unite the Party. Once its bureaucracy, donors, and likely even voters, reject the Bernie Sanders bid.

People forget what Joe Biden stands for and where he comes from. A narrative a personal grief and service as Vice President under Barack Obama is supposed to make us forget his deeper, darker, shadier past.

Joe Biden come from a pocket borough, and not just any pocket borough.

The term pocket borough came from Britain to indicate an election district where a very few people chose someone for Parliament. It did not so much result from corruption as from the migration from rural areas to cities, combined by leaving the districts drawn in ancient past in place. But once the pocket burroughs existed, it was easy for rich people to control them, and thus control Parliament.

A similar, if not quite as dramatic, situation exists in the United States, set in cement when the Constitution was drawn up. Each state gets two Senators, no matter how small its population.

Bernie Sanders is from the state of Vermont. It has a population of about 627,000. In other words, its entire population is equivalent to a mid-size city in one of the more populous states. Yet it gets two U.S. Senators. In this state we had liberal capture, or socialist capture if you will, or at least capture by Bernie Sanders. He has never accomplished much in the U.S. Congress, but he has somehow kept the voters in Vermont happy.

Before the Vice Presidency Joe Biden was Senator from Delaware. That state has a population of about 936,000, but is much more urban/suburban than Vermont. Most importantly Delaware is the most corrupt state in the nation, if by corrupt you mean rich people and their banks and corporations getting their way. Delaware is so corrupt that corruption (of the corporate type) is legal.

Most notably, Delaware has the loosest laws to control corporations in the nation. It is so lawless that most corporations of any size in the U.S. incorporate themselves in Delaware, even though their corporate headquarters are in other states.

So as Senator, Joe Biden was essential representing corporate America. The last time he tried to run for President I called him the Senator from Visa Card.

On the plus side Biden seems to have been less interested in pushing foreign wars than Hillary Clinton. When it comes to the Presidency, you have to pick your poison, if you want to have some chance of backing a winning candidate. If you want to vote your progressive conscience there is always the Green Party candidate. Though I think Hillary is actually reasonably environmentally friendly and progressive, when compared to the other choices.

Perhaps the bigger question is not who should be President, but why the Senate should be institutionally riddled with corruption. The Constitution should be amended to apportion the Senate to make each Senator represent roughly the same number of people, like other offices in the U.S.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Roman Catholic and Nazi Rituals

National Socialism, the Germany party better known as Nazi, was a complex phenomena with many sources. It existed before Adolf Hitler joined, but he was the politician responsible for navigating the tricky route to power over the German people.

William Shirer was an American journalist in Germany starting in 1934, after the Nazis had gained power by a combination of electoral success and shrewd bargaining, including gaining the backing of Pope Pius XI and the German Catholic Center Party. As a basis of further discussion I quote from Shirer's Berlin Diary for September 5, 1934:

I'm beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler's astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans. This morning's opeing meeting in the Luitpold Hall on the outskirts of Nuremberg was more than a goreous show; it also had something of a mysticism and religious fervour of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral. The hall was a see of brightly coloured flags. Even Hitler's arrival was dramatic . . . Hitler appeared in the back of the auditorium, and followed by his aides, Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and the others, he strode slowly donw the long centre aisle while thirty thousand hands were raised in salute . . .

In such an atmosphere no wonder, then, that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high . . .

Hitler himself was Roman Catholic, so it should be no surprise that, like the Pope, he expected people to believe every thing he said. He and the Pope disagreed, both publicly and privately, on many occasions, but that was about who would be top dog. Hilter wanted a subserviant Pope, and the Pope wished for a subservient German dictator. On the whole they got along quite well, though later the Church did well at re-writing the history. And of course most people, including non-Catholics, swallowed that lie with ease.

Most German Christians were either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. All Nazi Party members had to swear they were Christian. Most atheists in Germany belonged to either the Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party, the main enemies of the Nazi's. So how did the Nazis get recast as atheists or pagans?

Pro-Catholic propagandists had the occasional sharp remark from Hitler to use, but since Mein Kampf was co-written with a Roman Catholic priest, using Hitler's own words requires a great deal of selectivity and is easily contradicted by his testaments to the Catholic and more generally Christian faith.

Instead they tend to use quotes from Hitler cronies. As far as I can tell some of them really did not believe in god, and certainly Alfred Rosenberg was a pagan. These cronies each, at times, attributed to Hitler their own beliefs. Now Hitler was a skilled liar, that is why he was such a good politiican and able to gather so many truly diverse Germans into his party. So his cronies may have believed Hitler secretly agreed with them, no matter what his public announcements.

Here's what Shirer has to say about these men. In this case Shirer is writing on December 1, 1941, after World War II started, when everyone still knew the fascist dictators Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were all loyal Roman Catholics:

Goring, Himmler, Hess, Ribbentrop and Ley — comprise the "Big Five" around Hitler. They are called in for consultation. All but Goring give their advice very carefully and with some timidity. In every case the decision is always Hitler's.
. . .
Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's mento in early party days and formerly one of the chief men in the party, has entirely lost out and today has no importance in the party or country. He was too much of a dreamer to be practical.

So why do people keeping lying about fascist religion? Clearly the Roman Catholic Church has reason to lie. They started World War II and lost it and want to hide that fact.

If historians are defined as people who teach History, then the answer is clear. Academia has its good side, but its bad side is bootlicking. You have to lick boots to get a PhD. You have to lick boots to get a professorship and tenure. You don't have to lick boots once you have tenure, but by then you are so mired in the boot-licking system that your ability to tell the difference between lies and truths is greatly diminished. In a nation like America, where Roman Cathocism is still the largest single denomination, historians seldom want to make their own lives uncomfortable by telling the truth about Hitler. Or about many other things.

More on Hitler's Catholicism

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What is there in Syria? Apocalypse

"Mesopotamia . . . yes . . . oil . . . irrigation . . . we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine . . . yes . . . the Holy Land . . . Zionism . . . we must have Palestine; Syria . . . h'm . . . what is there in Syria? Let the French have that." — Lloyd George during the 1919 Peace Conference, thinking aloud in the presence of Arnold Toynbee [Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919, page 381]

What is there is Syria? Not Lebanon or Palestine. Both were traditionally part of Syria, but were partitioned off by the Great Powers (the old French Empire and British Empire) in the early 20th century.

How many people are left in Syria? Maybe 18 million. Note that Greece has a smaller population, about 11 million. So why are we so worried about a debt default in Greece, when the Apocalypse has already come to Syria? Because the Greeks owe the rest of Europe so much money. Syrians made the mistake of not borrowing vast sums of money from America and Europe.

Of course, to borrow vast sums of money from Europe and America, the Syrians would have had to give up much of their autonomy. They would have to undertake a pro-American and pro-Israeli foreign policy. And they would have to use the loans to make profits for the lenders, which was a little hitch the Greeks forgot about.

After the French Empire finished mismanaging Syria in 1945, it was left to the locals to mismanage their country. The French apparently trained the locals well.

At one point, when the two empires were dividing up what bits of the world they had not grabbed already before World War I, the city of Mosul and the area around it was supposed to be part of Syria. Mosul was already known to have oil. The French and British argued. They decided Mosul would be part of British Iraq, but that French oil companies would share the profits from Mosul oil, and would allow a pipeline to be built through Syria so the oil could be picked up on the Mediterranean coast.

Syria may not have much, but people want it all the same. It was building up a respectable tourist industry before the current civil war began. So of course President Bashar Assad and the political and economic elite wanted to hold on. It's not like they were in the position to grab anything else. They could not even grab the Golan Heights back from Israel.

Every system, no matter how democratic or how authoritarian, has its outsiders who would like to become a new part of the old elite, or a new elite. Assad and friends had made enemies, and for all I know some of their complaints might have been justified. In any case protest turned to civil war in 2011.

Civil war is usually a bad choice. Maybe the legally elected regime could have compromised more and averted the war, but I doubt it. The Syrian civil war was always about Islamic radicalism. Sunni Arabs account for about 60% of the population, yet Assad is Shia and the government is dominated by the Shia minority. Politically the government is dominated by the Baath party and its allies in the National Progressive Front, which includes many Sunni Arabs.

Some people just never modernize. They think religious platitudes are actually fact-based. They don't want to tolerate anyone who does not believe in the same fairy-tales as themselves. Apparently there were plenty of these people in Syria, because they flocked to the rebellion. Then the I-am-more Islamic than you game got some momentum. Al Qaeda became prominent, then its even-more-radical offshoot the Islamic State.

Syria may not have anything the British Empire wanted after World War I, but when you have nothing, even Syria may be attractive. The Islamic State wants Syria, and since the U.S. has an irrational hatred of Assad and the Baath Party, it won't be a big surprise if the Islamic State gets what it wants.

Wither then? Turkey? More likely Jordan. The difference is that Jordan has long been a U.S. client state. Whoever is President (of the U.S.) at that point will probably try to get Saudi Arabia or Israel to defend Jordan. But likely at that point, if they are not needed somewhere else in the world, U.S. troops will be deployed in earnest.

Even when you are better armed and better trained, fighting fanatics is not a job any sane person wants. They just keep coming at you. You begin to feel like you are a minor character in the Walking Dead series. You can't let your guard down for a moment. Ask any Vietnam Veteran.

It kind of makes me wish we had just let the old U.S.S.R. have Afghanistan and a free hand to convert the lot of them to atheism.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Hot Shower before the Apocalypse

More to save on the electric bill than on California's water, I habitually have showered only twice a week for years. I can get away with that partly because I work at home. You can't smell me over the Internet.

I was brought up to bath or shower once a day, and I do enjoy a hot shower. I enjoy it especially when I think about how the Apocalypse could come any day. No, I am not expecting the return of Jesus. He said he would return during the lifetimes of his Apostles, and he didn't.

By Apocalypse I mean all the ways the civilized world as we know it could fall apart.

I am a child of the Atomic Era, so my earliest apocalyptic worries were about Atomic War. Apparently that came pretty close to happening several times both before I was born (in 1955) and on up until the end of the Cold War. It still could happen. Even a single atomic bomb going off in New York City, Washington, London, or perhaps Moscow could bring on a kind of lesser economic apocalypse that could turn hot showers into luxuries.

I live about a half mile from the San Andreas fault, so a major earthquake is a real possibility. That could bring on a local apocalypse, but would not effect people outside of California much.

Some people think storms will get worse due to global warming. But I see storms as just temporary apocalypse lite events. If it takes a long time to repair the electricity lines I would long for a hot shower.

Famine might leave us with hot showers, but hungry. It is hard for Americans to grasp how bad a famine could be. Most post Civil War hunger in America has been due to screwed up economic priorities, not due to an actual shortage of food. But look at the recent egg shortage. What would happen if the corn and wheat crops failed in a major way two years in a row? We don't have a lot of food in storage in the U.S. any more, not like we had during the Cold War. People would fight over food, with the relatively rich probably getting most of it.

I live in the country, but not in a food-producing region. My soil is lousy, it required fertilizer to produce anything edible. The only thing I typically have a surplus of is apples. Apple trees love it here. I know how hard it is go grow enough food on a small scale to do more than just supplement food that comes from professional large-scale agriculture. Don't kid yourself. A suburban backyard garden won't keep you from starving to death (if you can't get food from outside), it will just slow down the process. Assuming your water supply is even working.

But the most likely and scary form of apocalypse would be economic and social collapse. I don't see that coming until we have another bubble of some sort first. Even then if people have done some saving in the meantime and keep their heads, we might muddle through. My main concern as an analyst is the National Debt. It has become a balloon, and if interest rates rise enough, it will balloon so fast it could take down the government and economy.

Sometimes people just go nuts. Enough nutty people and the economy tanks, the government falls, and the next thing you know food does not get distributed, and neither does electricity, and so: the end of hot showers.

Or it could be a combination of things. Like when people walk out on a balcony with wood rot. Dry rotted wood can be surprisingly strong, but put enough weight on it, and at some point it reaches the snapping point.

A sudden jump in the rate of global warming, a tightening of world food supplies. A war in the Middle East spilling over into India or Europe. Too much debt. Too much political gridlock. Too many people unwilling to give up their oversized piece of the pie for the common good. A blight striking down grain crops, or perhaps knocking down a good proportion of the human population. Plans based on growth suddenly up in smoke, defaults on loans, low tax receipts, a default on the federal debt, Dr. Strangelove firing off a nuclear missile thinking that, somehow, will make things better.

Of course the Apocalypse might kill you, or me, but I enjoy thinking about surviving it.

Enjoy your next hot shower. It is not likely to be your last, but it could be.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Terminate the H1-B Visa Program

The H1-B visa program allowing U.S. businesses to employ specialty workers on a temporary basis should be terminated. It has been abused by employers while offering little or no benefit to the U.S. economy even when used as intended.

The foreign workers employed are supposed to have skills in technology, science, business, or other areas that are not available from potential employees in the U.S.

In large, however, the skills are available from U.S. employees. The difference is the H1-B workers can be employed at low wages and threatened with deportation should they fail to meet employer demands.

In the cases where there are shortages of skilled workers in the U.S., these could be fixed by simply training Americans or providing specific education for them.

In theory only 65,000 H1-B visas are to be issued each year, but due to loopholes in reality almost 136,000 were issued in 2012. Each visa is good for up to six years.

The legal immigration quota for the U.S. currently is 700,000 per year. That does not include student visas and guest workers. That is a lot of new arrivals each year. If Congress wants to prioritize within that 700,000 those who have skills that would help the U.S. economy, I have no problem with that.

Work skills are already one of the criteria for determining who gets a regular immigration slot. The difference is that person does not come to the U.S. as a slave to a corporate sponsor, but may take any employment they like.

Comprehensive immigration reform is something every politician says they want, but different groups have different ideas of what changes they would like.

I favor comprehensive immigration reform, including allowing all North American citizens the freedom to travel, work, and do business anywhere in North America.

But the H1-B visa program has been abused to the point that it should be terminated. No exceptions. Businesses that abused the program should be investigated and sanctioned.