30 December 2009

In praise of openness

Although I approve of virtually nothing Obama has done since becoming president, I have to give him credit for his recent move to prevent the U.S. government from classifying information indefinitely. It's impossible for citizens to evaluate their government if they don't know what it's doing. I don't think the measure goes nearly far enough--I'd like to see the government almost entirely stripped of its ability to operate in the dark--but it's definitely change in the right direction.

20 December 2009

Recent movies

I just saw Avatar and was impressed. I'd read "critics" claim that the movie has no plot and is simply visuals. I have no idea what they're comparing it to. It's good fun. I also watched The Union: Business Behind Getting High. I'd recommend it. My hope is that the U.S. will now simply legalize pot by making it a prescription drug. The better way, of course, would be to simply sell it openly, but we're evidently unable to talk about the issue (part of the great silence in U.S. media about all things real). I also watched The Botany of Desire--a film about the genetics of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. Last but not least, I saw a Jump Tomorrow--a very clever film done without major actors and car crashes but with much verve. Long live verve!

15 December 2009

150th birthday of Zamenhof

The Esperanto flag is flying across the Google banner today!

10 December 2009

The great con

George Monbiot has a good post discussing the corporate campaign to use a few lines of hacked emails to undermine mountains of scientific data that point consistently toward a warming planet. The following is from the end of his excellent post:

In Climate Cover-Up, in Ross Gelbspan’s books The Heat is On and Boiling Point; in my book Heat and on the websites DeSmogBlog.com and exxonsecrets.org, you can find dozens of such examples. Together they expose a systematic, well-funded campaign to con the public. To judge by the comments you can read on this paper’s website, it has worked.

But people behind these campaigns know that their claims are untrue. One of the biggest was run by the Global Climate Coalition, which represented ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and several big motor manufacturers. In 1995 the coalition’s own scientists reported that “the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” The coalition hid this finding from the public, and spent millions of dollars seeking to persuade people that the opposite was true.

These people haven’t fooled themselves, but they might have fooled you. Who, among those of you who claim that climate scientists are liars and environmentalists are stooges, has thought it through for himself?

6 December 2009

Wind + electric cars in Denmark

This is an exciting development:

By revamping the power grid, Dong Energy, Better Place’s partner and the biggest utility in Denmark, wants to power the anticipated fleet of electric cars with wind energy, which already supplies nearly 20 percent of the country’s power. With Better Place and the smart grid working together, cars would charge up as the winds blow at night, when power demand is lowest. Charging would soak up the utility’s extra power and sharply shrink the carbon footprint of electric vehicles.

5 December 2009

Thoughts on becoming strictly vegetarian

As I contemplate my 2010 New Year's resolutions, I'm considering returning to strictly vegetarian or perhaps even a vegan diet. Most of my adult life, I've either been vegetarian or close to it, and my diet has already been revamped quite a bit during the last year to reduce my weight. (I've lost 25 pounds thus far, going from the obese to the overweight category). The scientific establishment has made countless discoveries since the healthfood crazes of the '60s, but one fact that impresses me is that a person would have remained almost perfectly in line with all current medical advice if they simply ate a vegetarian diet (basically, a slightly de-Japanized version of the macrobiotic diet). The recent findings that lowering consumption of methionine (an essential protein) seems to correlate with longer lifespan puts one additional nail in the coffin of the meat and fish diet. All research that I've seen clearly shows significant health and longevity benefits (a good review can be found here in QJM). The concluding points of this 1997 article in Nutritional Reviews titled "Effects of vegetarian diets on aging and longevity," notes many of the key benefits found across studies:

1 ) From what we know, vegetarian diets result in a lower risk for many diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, constipation, hypertension, and type II diabetes. If we take the observed lower mortality rates as a parameter, longevity is higher.

Basically, these are the key "modern" diseases.


2) People on a vegan diet have an increased risk of iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and calcium deficiency; eventually also zinc, n-3 fatty acids, and protein intake may not fulfill the basic requirements. Except for vitamin B12, it appears that a vegan diet can fulfill the requirements, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge and even expertise to choose the fruits and vegetables that contain all the necessary nutrients.

B12 is easy to get since it's put in pretty much everything (such as breakfast cereals) as a supplement, and vitamin D can be had through sunshine. The latest research even suggests that less protein might be a good thing.

3) Based on our present knowledge that high contents of vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates and low amounts of saturated fatty acids are correlated with a reduced risk for the same diseases mentioned under point 1, it is obvious that total abstinence from eating meat is not a major factor for the beneficial effects of vegetarian diets.

I guess it isn't necessary to be extreme. I might still eat an occasional fish that I catch on a hiking trip.

4) The vegetarian-type diet with lots of vegetables and fruits and complex carbohydrates can be considered a prudent diet in the sense of today's guidelines (see, e.g., Dietary Guidelines for Americans 1990).48

5) History has shown that vegetarians were right when they claimed more than 100 years ago that the vegetarian diet including fruits, vegetables, fibers, and complex carbohydrates is a healthy one.

People's intuition about food seems to be pretty good. The calorie-reduction diet (CRON) that's now been found to increase longevity significantly has been around in East Asia (it's called soshik in Korean and shoshoku in Japanese).

6) The inclusion of some low-fat meat and fish does not seem to be harmful; it could actually be beneficial in lowering the risk of deficiencies in some extreme cases of vegetarianism.

7) Finally, we should realize that about 40% of today's world grain production is used for meat-producing livestock. This conversion of cereal grains and other food concentrates to animal products involves large losses in energy; 1 kg of American beef requires 5 kg of grain. Therefore, if meat consumption could be lowered, more cereal grains and other valuable food components could be used to improve the world's nutrition.

This last point brings out the economic impact. My guess is that if we took the 1400 calories per day that each American (woman, man, and child) tosses into the trashcan each day and then added in the food saved from eating grain instead of animals and from eating corn instead of creating ethanol, we could probably feed the whole of Africa (and cut our current healthcare costs by more than half in the process).

28 November 2009

Visions of dark sumatra

I nearly chopped off my finger with the coffee grinder. Don't ask how this happened. Let's just say I was suffering from a caffeine low. The tip of my finger is looking very grue.

27 November 2009

26 November 2009

A thanksgiving reflection

While many Americans feast on turkey and all the fixings today, a new study finds food waste per person has shot up 50 percent since 1974. Some 1,400 calories worth of food is discarded per person each day, which adds up to 150 trillion calories a year.

In other words, the U.S. could feed another country with the population of the U.S.--just on what we toss in the trash.

24 November 2009

Truly outrageous


I came across this over at Pygalgia. This is definitely the "elephant in the room" as they say. I heard on the radio that we're spending a million bucks per soldier in Afghanistan (not that any soldiers are making a million per year--the money's almost all in generic black suitcases full of neatly stacked bills being handed to war-profiteers.)

21 November 2009

Deculture!?

I don't know what to make of anime figures shouting "deculture." Something perhaps lost in translation? (Or are they Palin supporters?)

Gems from the sidebar

We've got healthcare on our mind these last few days. The Crone Speaks introduces a modicum of rationality into the recent mammogram debate. Tom Harper points out the paradox of botox in a country where many people can't afford necessary procedures:

Last year there were 4.7 million Botox injections, at an average cost of $400 each. Now — going way waaay out on a limb here — I’m gonna take a wild guess that these Botox injections didn’t come out of the rent money. Senate Democrats are making the same guess, and they’ve proposed a five percent excise tax on all elective cosmetic surgeries. Botox injections, cosmetic implants, teeth-whitening — fork it over!

Cyberkitten tickles my gigglebone with the latest incarnation of the Obama poster:




Dilbert has a funny take on all the hooplah over pig flu (reminds a bit of the endless smearing on of antibacterial soap at work).

And last but not least, Snowbabies warns us men about not listening to our female counterparts with this little morality tale titled If only men would listen:

Man driving down road.


Woman driving up same road


They pass each other


Woman yells out her window, "PIG!"


Man yells out his window, "BITCH!"


Man rounds next curve


Crashes into a huge pig in middle of road.

19 November 2009

Chrome OS

The new Chrome OS is taking an exciting direction. I'll be happy to see operating systems that no longer have to be installed, tinkered with, and secured on my home computer. If done right, internet-base applications could provide real flexibility and would even allow us to use the same set of programs at whichever computer we use away from our desk or home. If I had an extra million, I might even buy a few stocks in the venture.

16 November 2009

The new growth industry?

It's never a good sign when the only scheme that politicians can dream up for job creation is to import prisoners. I guess we could call this Reaganomics combined with globalization. The following chart shows the U.S. rate over the last seven decades. Note the great leap forward since the infamous War on Drugs:


With just 5% of the world's population, we already have a quarter of the world's prisoners (almost six times the median rate). Evidently, that isn't enough for "job creation."  We're even beating out Rwanda and Russia to maintain that coveted number one spot:


On second thought, this trend might have an upside. Maybe we can build a giant prison fence around the entire country and then all be qualified for free healthcare.

12 November 2009

Healthcare in the comics

Sometimes comedy contains much truth. This was lifted from Cyberkitten:


The "funny" thing is that after all the fuss is over, we won't have healthcare reform, and before long, more and  more of us won't have much healthcare. And the really funny things is that most people will claim it's always been that way. Hopefully, there will be a few old-timers left who can recall the old days when people went to see a doctor without first taking out a second mortgage on their house.


And lastly, from Arranology, an echo of the first comic:

27 October 2009

Hoh resignation

Matthew Hoh has resigned from the State Department in protest over the Afghan War. Hoh says that the war is simply fueling the insurgency and that he has "lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," In his resignation letter, published early Tuesday, he stated: "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end." Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Post he disagreed that the war "wasn't worth the fight," but did agree with much of Hoh's analysis.

Ultimately, our perplexity must extend to the entirety of U.S. military involvement overseas. Without an analytical rubric, U.S. actions make no sense. And a coherent analytical rubric can only come from the Left--from an understanding of wars as attempts by elite actors to monopolize resources to gain greater profit and relative advantage. Any other rubric--for example, the smug notion that all these wars somehow involve a concern for human rights, democracy, or women--isn't analytical in the true sense of the word since analysis, by definition, involves looking beyond the outer veneer of historical events (propaganda and slogans) to understand the true motives and mechanisms driving change.

22 October 2009

Possible tomorrows

I recently read Halal's 2008 book on projections of future developments in the world: Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Transformation of Business and Society. The book was created through interviews with experts in a number of fields regarding their views on future developments within their areas of study. I found the book to be a bit optimistic, but hopefully, the author is correct and mankind will mature and thus take a giant step forward instead of following on its ass. The most exciting prediction, in my opinion, is contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. While experts tend to vary quite a bit, the book's experts estimates converge around 2040. Below, I've quoted a section of the book that provides an overview of the chapters:

Chapter 2: Transition to a Sustainable World

We start by showing that industrialization is likely to cover most of the globe at about 2030 producing a three- to five-fold leap in the demand for energy and other scarce resources, in pollution levels, global warming, and other aspects of the industrialization-energy-environment crisis. The modernization of China and India alone will double or triple these problems. Our forecasts show that some of these issues are likely to be resolved over the next 10 to 15 years. Corporations are now moving to green business practices because the inevitability of this transition has made environmental management a competitive advantage spurring a huge boom in anything green. The issue of global warming is likely to be addressed seriously about 2012, and alternative energy should make a good-sized dent in the use of carbon fuels about 2020. This chapter concludes that the industrialization-energy-environment crisis actually is a great opportunity in disguise. The transition to a sustainable world will produce an enormous new industry to manage the earth and may even serve to unify people after centuries of ethnic sectarian and tribal conflict.

Chapter 3: Globalization Goes High-Tech

Chapter 3 will show that old smoking factories of the industrial age are yielding to intelligent manufacturing systems operating virtually to produce almost anything cheaply, quickly, and customized to order. Research in materials and nanotechnology is making it possible to design almost any type of product and mass customization can deliver an endless stream of sophisticated goods customized for each individual driven by the logic of cheap labor in new markets.  These changes promise to bring material abundance to poor nations over the next few decades, eliminating much of the poverty that blights the planet. The tension in this emerging world of plenty, however, will be mounting demand for scarce resources like oil, massive loads on the environment, and more clashes between diverse cultures, as in the conflict between the West and Islam.

Chapter 4: Society Moves Online

Advances in broadband wireless and AI are inexorably moving life online as computer power becomes cheap, ever-present and intelligent. Our forecasts show that today’s rapid growth of online entertainment, e-tailing, virtual education and other such e-commerce services will soon dominate modern economies.  Over a long-term, optics, quantum physics, and nanotechnology offer the hope of continuing the gains in computer power when silicon chips are unable to further improve performance (Moore’s Law). Within a decade or so we could simply speak to high fidelity images on large wall monitors while working, shopping, learning, and conducting almost all other social functions.  You might buy something by simply talking with an on-screen robot that greets you by name, knows all the merchandise and displays it on demand, answers questions and has infinite patience—the perfect salesperson.

Chapter 5: Mastery over Life

A variety of breakthroughs in medicine and biogenetics is likely to provide mastery over the process of life itself. Artificial organs are being developed to replace almost all bodily functions, including parts of the brain, and stem cell research is increasingly able to repair organs.  Life extension techniques are expected to raise average life spans to 100 years within a few decades, and possibly beyond the Biblical 120 years.  Just as the industrial age mastered most aspects of the physical world, the knowledge age is now making it possible to master the biological world.  Yes, it sounds too good to be true, but so did the notion that man could fly, much less travel to the moon.  We also explore how this progress presents social and moral dilemmas that will have to be solved.  How will we make difficult medical choices about stem cell research, design babies, life extension, euthanasia, and other sensitive matters?

Chapter 6: Faster and Faster

Travel is being reinvented to manage an explosion of global commerce.  We will describe the emergence of the “intelligent car,” maglev trains floating between major cities on a cushion of air at 400 mph, and Mach 10 hypersonic aircraft that could reduce flying times around the globe from 30 hours to three hours. It may seem that information systems could replace travel, but information forms a virtual world that parallels the physical world.  People will always want to visit each other, handle the merchandise, and hammer out tough decisions together.  The need for physical contact is inexhaustible, and some studies show that growing virtual contact only makes face-to-face relations more necessary.  The physical and virtual worlds coexist in parallel dimensions, so travel will likely grow alongside the movement of information.  Thus we forecast that there will be no rest for the weary road warrior.

Chapter 7: The Final Frontier

Space tourism is likely to become common in one decade, and we are likely to see the establishment of a permanent moon base and a man landing on Mars in about two decades.  But the ultimate challenge of deep space travel to distant solar systems awaits fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of physics.  The distances of deep space are so enormous and our capabilities so puny that it will take long, intense research to discover ways to traverse them.  Our estimates suggest the needed scientific breakthroughs are likely to arise from about 2050, which coincides with our forecasts for deep space travel.  Forecasting anything that far off seems foolhardy, but it is compelling that a variety of sources suggest travel services star systems is likely about this time.

Chapter 8: Shifting Structures of Society

Here we explore how this technological upheaval is restructuring business government medicine education and other institutions as a knowledge-based world alters the basis of economics and leadership.

Financial investment powered the industrial age when capital was needed to build manufacturing capability.  But today, speed, agility, knowledge, collaboration, and innovation are the critical factors needed to survive a world of creative destruction, fickle clients, transient workers, and shifting social values.  That’s why corporations are constantly in flux, scandals like Enron highlight ethical failures, government is struggling to redefine itself, education is going virtual, and rising medical costs are unsustainable.

We will see that two main trends are driving institutional change.  Hierarchies are dispersing into “self managed teams” able to manage complexity by harnessing the knowledge of ordinary people.  And the old focus on profit is yielding to a “corporate community” of collaborative partnerships among employees, clients, business alliances, investors, and the public.  These two major trends represent a synthesis of the Western ideals of free enterprise and democracy, offering the possibility of resolving the political impasse between right and left that grips the U.S. and much of the world.

Chapter 9: An Age of Consciousness

Here we explore what follows information and knowledge. Just as the agrarian economies yielded to manufacturing, which is now being eclipsed by services and information, the knowledge economy eventually will run its course as well.

Services have been automating for years (ATMs, airline kiosks, etc.) and wealthy nations now fear that even knowledge – once thought him even to export – is moving offshore to lower paid people in developing nations.  Various forms of AI are spreading, like the intelligent agent that answers your phone calls, smart computers, and cars that talk to us.  All-purpose robots are so well developed that the Japanese and Koreans expect to be selling equivalents of R2-D2 to families by about 2010.

This “automation of mental work” poses one of the most fascinating issues of our time –Is there a fundamental difference between machine intelligence and human intelligence?  Despite the fact that about 90% of us are utterly convinced that human thought surpasses sheer information, could we all be wrong?  Everybody wants accepted the flat earth model of the world for millennia.  Is science poised for another great revolution demonstrating that we are fundamentally not much more than white computers?  Or will this critical issue force us to accept the domain of consciousness and human spirit as the new frontier?  This chapter explores some of the most challenging of fundamental questions now before us.
           
Chapter 10: Scenarios

We conclude by integrating all forecast across fields in vivid, decade-by-decade scenarios to explore how this wave of innovation is likely to unfold – a sort of surrogate for time travel. 

2010 should see even greater advances in information systems and e-commerce, making most of the world smarter, faster, and fully wired.  By 2028 I will permeate our lives and permit huge advances in telemedicine, virtual education, and E.-government.  About 2030, industrialization is likely to reach most developing nations, enabling as many as 5 billion people to live in modern levels.  An intercultural conflict, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and threats of environmental collapse will pose an historic crisis of maturity that challenges basic worldviews.  By 2050, this crisis of maturity is likely to be resolved with the emergence of a modernized global society, somewhat like a far larger and more diverse version of the US or EU local wars, ecological disasters, and other troubles will continue but limited to the normal dysfunctions of any social system.

We then move across the scenarios outlined a larger path of civilization’s progress. The agriculture, manufacturing, and service stages have largely been completed in modern nations, and we are now passing rapidly through the knowledge phase toward some form of global consciousness.  I will show this movement through ever more powerful stages of development comprises a great “lifecycle of evolution,” somewhat like the individual human life cycle but vastly larger and longer.  Today’s crises, and their eventual resolution, can be better understood in the context of this great arc of civilization now approaching the brink of global maturity.

8 October 2009

Healthcare by state

An evaluation of state healthcare coverage was recently released. Looking at the map, the states that vote Democrat are clearly much better off, while those states that consistently vote Republican are at the bottom. This should come as little surprise. States that have voted in laws favoring big business tend to be . . . (drum roll) . . .  great for big business (and abysmal places for the average person to live). Another interesting map is the one showing the epidemic of obesity in the U.S. In this case, the states west of the Mississippi and the New England states definitely do better (along with Minnesota, Florida, and Hawaii). It evidently helps to live some place where the water's still clean and the sun comes out occasionally. Take time to watch the animated map, showing year by year changes. It's hard to believe that the rates have roughly doubled since the 1980s. On the other hand, I remember looking at a picture of Woodstock and being struck by the fact that everyone was thin.

6 October 2009

!Qué cosa, Newt!

Mad Kane has the following sardónica verse on Newt's bilingual webpage:

Here’s a long-standing view from the right:
Education bilingual’s a blight.
That’s how Newt has opined.
Dearest Newt, changed your mind?
Quite the pander — your bilingual site.

Guess you’re hoping Latinos forget
Your stance that bilingual’s all wet,
That they’ll vote GOP.
But Latinos shall see
Through your bilingual lies on the Net.

5 October 2009

So much for the upside

Looking at an upbeat article on "positive news," about how stocks are up and the service sector doing well again, I have to wonder whether we'll ever get a media that reports information that the average person cares about. Are we really supposed to care that companies, having completed massive lay-offs and now hiring people from the long lines of job-seekers at a fraction of the cost, are again on the upswing? Why do we have a financial section in the paper when most of us don't own any stocks to speak of? Why not have a section with graphs showing the rise and fall of vacation benefits or rising wages? We've collectively devolved into a bunch of drunks in front of an idiot-tube, cheering for the steroid-addicted athlete or filthy rich CEO, as if the only reward available exist in virtual reality.

4 October 2009

A great time to be a caviar distributor

From a Citi Group memo, discussed in the latest Michael Moore film:

Our thesis is that the rich are the dominant drivers of demand in many economies around the world (the US, UK, Canada and Australia). These economies have seen the rich take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years, to the extent that the rich now dominate income, wealth and spending in these countries. Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper and become a greater share of the economy in the plutonomy countries.

28 September 2009

Latest ranking of U.S. healthcare

In the latest objective evaluation, the U.S. gets a D while Canada gets a B. At this point, I'd be happy with just a C.

27 September 2009

Who's who in the idiot box

This picture says volumes about what is wrong with the U.S.

22 September 2009

21 September 2009

America's universal healthcare system

I just read that the socialist radicals of the Bush administration succeeded in spreading socialist medicine to America's far-flung colonies Article 31 of the Iraqi Constitution, drafted in 2005 and ratified by the Iraqi people, includes state-guaranteed (single payer) healthcare for life for every Iraqi citizen
    Article 31:


    "First: Every citizen has the right to health care. The State shall maintain public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and health institutions."

    I guess we'll have to wait to be conquered by the U.S. Army to get our own universal healthcare. The stateless folks living in Guantanamo have it, after all.

    19 September 2009

    Living in la-la land

    Flipping through radio stations yesterday, I briefly heard some rightwing rant about the great new threat appearing because Iran had opened direct flights to Venezuela. (Thank goodness terrorists aren't smart enough to hop on an indirect flight!) Then, like an auctioneer on speed, the ranter went on to connect Iran with Hezbollah with terrorism and with an imminent attack on the U.S. But then I looked at the chart on p. 25 of National Counterterrorism Center's report for 2008 and found that half of the world's attacks had been perpetrated by Sunni extremists. (While Christian extremists are mentioned, Shiite extremists don't even get their own category on  the chart!) Of course, to put the whole thing in perspective, U.S. citizens' fatalities, at 33, were a mere sliver against the nearly 16,000 fatalities suffered by non-U.S. citizens (p. 29). I'm increasingly convinced that facts simply don't matter. Anyone anywhere is free to construct any narrative about the world and rightwingers will accept it as an article of faith if it simply makes them feel better, if it allows them to pat themselves on the back for being born into the promised land and entitled race, and if it allows them to hate and vilify some weak scapegoat.

    17 September 2009

    The future of ideas and information

    I've been watching MIT World Videos--a large collection of lectures by some of the top thinkers in academia. It's a good site that I recommend. One great benefit of the internet has been in its potential in giving ordinary people cheap access to quality ideas and intellectual debate. I was thinking today how great it would be if book publishers would simply allow us to sign up to large consortiums of book-sellers and then download any book we wanted to read (or listen to). I've seen some timid steps in this direction, but there's still a huge gap between the knowledge available to researchers at the top universities and what the average low-earning citizen has access to on the internet.

    16 September 2009

    Discovery of an earthlike planet

    Astronomers have found a rocky planet orbiting another star. While the glowing lava planet in a tight orbit won't provide a good spot for vacationers or wannabe extraterrestial colonists, the find is important since it moves us closer to finding earthlike planets that are habitable. I predict we'll have clear evidence of habitable planets in the near future while many of us are still alive. This is exciting stuff. Amidst all our senseless destruction of our own habitat and shortsightedness, it's comforting to think that there might be a greener, more pristine Eden out there somewhere--even if we never get to it.

    13 September 2009

    Can't take 'em with you when you go!

    I'm headed out to get my driver's license renewed and get a new donor sticker taped to my new card. For anyone who hasn't done so yet, I strongly suggest becoming an organ donor. It's depressing to think of how many people are dying because some of us can't be troubled to take 2 minutes and fill out a card.

    The Bush legacy

    On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.

    12 September 2009

    Sick and wrong

    Matt Taibbi has a good general article on the healthcare issue in Rolling Stones. One paragraph in particular pretty much sums up where we're at:

    Just as we have a medical system that is not really designed to care for the sick, we have a government that is not equipped to fix actual crises. What our government is good at is something else entirely: effecting the appearance of action, while leaving the actual reform behind in a diabolical labyrinth of ingenious legislative maneuvers.

    The U.S. political system allows subtantial change if and only if it doesn't hurt some wealthy interest, which is of course just about never. As Taibbi points out (if you look closely between the lines here, you'll see a faint smirk), the rightwingers, in their rebuttal make a good case for the public option:

    The logic behind the idea was so unassailable that its opponents often inadvertently found themselves arguing for it. "Assurances that the government plan would play by the rules that private insurers play by are implausible," groused right-wing douchebag George Will. "Competition from the public option must be unfair, because government does not need to make a profit and has enormous pricing and negotiating powers." In other words, if you offer a public plan that doesn't systematically fuck every single person in the country by selling health care at inflated prices and raking in monster profits, private insurers just won't be able to compete.

    Obama clearly hasn't done what he promised.

    One of the reasons for this chaos was the bizarre decision by the administration to provide absolutely no real oversight of the reform effort. From the start, Obama acted like a man still running for president, not someone already sitting in the White House, armed with 60 seats in the Senate. He spoke in generalities, offering as "guiding principles" the kind of I'm-for-puppies-and-sunshine platitudes we got used to on the campaign trail — investment in prevention and wellness, affordable health care for all, guaranteed choice of doctor. At no time has he come out and said what he wants Congress to do, in concrete terms. Even in June, when congressional leaders desperate for guidance met with chief of staff (and former legislative change-squelcher) Rahm Emanuel, they got no signal at all about what the White House wanted. On the question of a public option, Emanuel was agonizingly noncommittal, reportedly telling Senate Democrats that the president was still "open to alternatives."

    As the title of the piece goes, this is all so sick and so wrong.

    10 September 2009

    Insurance lobby now, food lobby next

    Michael Pollan in the NY Times makes a good argument for including food in the debate about healthcare. I strongly feel we need available healthcare. At the same time, people need to take care of their own health and work at shedding the extra pounds. A couple excerpts from the article:


    We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.

    But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

    6 September 2009

    A new Moore film!

    Capitalism: A Love Story premiers tonight and is supposed to hit theaters October 2nd. I'm looking forward to watching this. I'm generally a great fan of Michael Moore's stuff and I really think we need more muckrakers and askers of hard questions. Our recent experiences with the Shrubian misadministration and our current experiences watching Obama, like some half-hearted Don Quixote, failing to face the corporate windmills and create a miniscule change in a collapsing health system have made me increasingly convinced that the American people, like some raging alcoholic, simply haven't quite hit bottom yet and so aren't willing to admit that they've got a problem. Of course, just as alcoholics have a limited time to seek help before their liver and brain turn into silly putty, nations and peoples (or, for that matter, intelligent species) have a limited time to alter their trajectory. I'll be interested in seeing Moore's take on the problem.

    2 September 2009

    District 9


    I watched District 9 and agree with Cul that this is a must-see film that deserves credit for originality.

    31 August 2009

    Killing Stephan Hawkings and Palin's baby

    The Investor's Business Daily, with their buildings full of top researchers ready to give you advice on what to do with your hard-earned dollars, informs us:

    The U.K.'s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) basically figures out who deserves treatment by using a cost-utility analysis based on the "quality adjusted life year." One year in perfect health gets you one point. Deductions are taken for blindness, for being in a wheelchair and so on. The more points you have, the more your life is considered worth saving, and the likelier you are to get care. People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

    Actually, I've never seen Stephen Hawking's passport, so I'm pretty sure he was actually born to a family of pigmies in Africa and was smuggled into the U.S.--which merely proves that much more that there's something terribly wrong with the Brits and the French who have chosen to build their country right next to them.

    26 August 2009

    Monkeys with two moms

    A brave new world is rapidly approaching. Scientists have not created monkeys with three parents (as a technique to avoid passing on defective genes of a parent with faulty genes in their mitochondria).

    25 August 2009

    A small step in the right direction for China

    China plans on installing a massive wind farm that will give it 100 gigawatts of wind-generated capacity by 2020. This is good news since it'll provided a needed boost in the manufacturing capacity for wind infrastructure. Of course, it's still a minute fraction of China's overall use. But someone sitting within U.S. borders can hardly point fingers. Critics of China's rapid industrialization are, as the old Chinese saying goes, like the cowardly soldier who retreats 50 steps, only to criticize the ones who retreated 100 steps.

    Diminishing expectations

    Change that lobbyists can agree to.

    24 August 2009

    Our task

    Murli Natrajan has an excellent post providing a good general picture of the current healthcare debate and how to proceed.

    21 August 2009

    Guess who's coming to dinner: Mercury

    The USGS has released a report showing that pollution, primarily from coal and auto exhaust, is leading to harmful amounts of mercury in fish throughout the U.S. As the introduction explains (bolding added):

    Mercury (Hg) is a global pollutant that ultimately makes its way into every aquatic ecosystem through the hydrologic cycle. Anthropogenic (human-related) sources are estimated to account for 50–75 percent of the annual input of Hg to the global atmosphere and, on average, 67 percent of the total Hg in atmospheric deposition to the United States (Meili, 1991; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997; Seigneur and others, 2004). Elevated Hg concentrations that are attributed to atmospheric deposition have been documented worldwide in aquatic ecosystems that are remote from industrial sources (Fitzgerald and others, 1998).

    The mercury flowing through the water ends up flowing through our veins as well:

    Accumulation of MeHg in fish tissue is considered a significant threat to the health of both wildlife and humans. Approximately 95 percent or more of the Hg found in most fish fillet/muscle tissue is MeHg (Huckabee and others, 1979; Grieb and others, 1990; Bloom 1992). Women of child-bearing age and infants are particularly vulnerable to effects from consumption of Hg-contaminated fish (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2001).

    The report found dangerously high amounts of mercury throughout the U.S., but particularly, on the East Coast:

    Hg concentrations in fish at more than two-thirds of the sites exceeded the value of 0.1 μg/g Hg ww that is of concern for the protection of fish-eating mammals, including mink and otters. Fish-Hg concentrations equaling or exceeding the 0.3 μg/g ww USEPA criterion for the protection of human health were found at 27 percent of the sites. The highest concentrations among all sampled sites occurred in fish from blackwater coastal-plain streams draining forested land or wetland in the eastern and southeastern United States, as well as from streams draining gold- or Hg-mined basins in the western United States.

    The presence of mercury from old gold mines is noteworthy. Quite often, the market-oriented lovers of capitalism deride concern for the environment. But many of the mines that are causing problems were created 50 or 100 years ago. They made a few people rich and a century later are still making people sick! And they will probably continue to leech poison into the water for thousands of years. Business entrepeneurs and the government representatives that they buy off simply can't be trusted to look forward for decades or centuries so as to factor in the ultimate costs of what they do. The appearance of mercury throughout a key part of the foodchain is deeply disturbing. It shows limits to this growth-at-all costs mentality that drives so much of our thinking about the economy.

    The Karlo proposal for healthcare

    As the nation engages in its meticulous and rational debate of the issues, it's interesting to note that 62% of Republicans believe that the government should stay out of Medicare. Since Republicans tend to be the bacon-chompin' ignorami with the big guts, I suggest an alternative solution to the Obama plan. Why don't we just divide the nation into two halves, between Republicans and everyone else and have an insurance company calculate the rates for both halfs based on health risks? My guess is that the Republicans would pay double. We can then have all these Democrat-leaning states (like California) stop paying more to the Federal government than they get (in effect, subsidizing the red states). Finally, we can have the government get out of . . . Republican Medicare.

    19 August 2009

    Guns--fine, t-shirts-not

    Guns at Political Events: A Chilling Effect on the First Amendment

    by Howard Friel

    On August 11, a man with a loaded firearm in a holster appeared outside a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where President Obama was speaking. He carried a sign that said: "It is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty"—a reference to Thomas Jefferson's statement that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Neither the Secret Service nor police ushered the man away from the area of the president's town meeting. ("Protestor at Obama Healthcare Town Hall Carried 9mm Pistol-Legally," Guardian, August 12, 2009)

    On August 17, a reported dozen people carrying guns, including two with assault rifles, were among protestors outside a convention center in Phoenix, Arizona, where President Obama was speaking. It was the latest incident where protestors with guns were seen outside events where the president had appeared to speak about his healthcare proposals, which right-wing opponents denounce as an assault on liberty. Neither the Secret Service nor police ushered the persons carrying guns away from the event, nor were any persons carrying firearms arrested. ("Armed Men Seen Outside Barack Obama Event," Telegraph/UK [via Common Dreams], August 18, 2009)

    Compare this restraint by the Secret Service and police to the following events.
    In July 2008, a 61-year-old librarian was arrested at a McCain campaign event in Denver for carrying a sign that read, "McCain=Bush." ("Woman Arrested at McCain Event for ‘McCain=Bush' Sign," AlterNet, July 7, 2008)

    In 2005, three people were ejected by police from a Bush town hall meeting in Denver after they arrived in a car with a bumper sticker that read, "No More Blood for Oil." ("Politicians Are Stifling Dissent, Critics Say," Knight-Ridder [via Common Dreams], February 4, 2006)

    In October 2004, three school teachers in Medford, Oregon, were threatened with arrest by police and thrown out of a political rally featuring President Bush after they showed up wearing T-shirts with the slogan, "Protect Our Civil Liberties." ("Teachers' T-Shirts Bring Bush Speech Ouster," NewsChannel 8, Portland [via Common Dreams], October 15, 2004)

    In July 2004, a Wisconsin county supervisor wearing a blue-denim shirt over a T-shirt that said "Kerry for President" was ejected from a Bush campaign speech after the Secret Service reportedly took his driver's license, social security number, and phone number. (" County Supervisor Booted from Bush Event for Wearing Hidden Kerry T-Shirt," The Progressive, July 22, 2004)

    From the standpoint of the U.S. Constitution, the heavy-handed treatment of liberal school teachers, librarians, and county supervisors and the more deferential approach to armed right-wing protestors, makes no sense. While there would be no threat to the Constitution in the months and years ahead if dozens or hundreds of school teachers showed up at Republican political events wearing T-shirts with political messages that did not incite violence, the threat of violence would be extreme if as many armed right-wing protestors appeared at Democratic events. Even in the absence of actual violence, the implicit threat of violence by the appearance of armed right-wing protestors represents an unacceptable chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of Americans.

    Black's Law Dictionary defines "chilling effect" as "the result of a law or practice that seriously discourages the exercise of a constitutional right, such as ... the right of free speech." Who could credibly argue that the appearance of armed right-wing protestors at Democratic political events would have no chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of Democrats to attend those events, and to express their political preferences with regard to healthcare, global warming, or gun-control? Mustering the courage to show up and speak up at Democratic political events in the presence of armed right-wing protestors obviously poses an undue burden on the First Amendment rights of Democrats, including on Democratic presidents, congressional officials, and candidates for office.

    Nor does the alleged Second Amendment right of an individual to a firearm trump the First Amendment rights of Americans. While the federal courts have treated First Amendment rights as fundamental to the Constitution, the same courts have not treated any Second Amendment right in a similar manner.

    The Congress and the president have a compelling public interest and constitutional duty to protect the First Amendment, and the safety of elected officials and their supporters, by outlawing the discretion of gun owners to appear at political events with their weapons.

    18 August 2009

    Canadian healthcare


    A Majority of Two has a long post in response to some rightwinger's taunt ""When was the last time a new lifesaving treatment was developed in Canada……?" The post lists a panopoly of key medical procedures discovered in Canada. The final paragraphs:

    Canadians live longer, they receive better health care than most Americans, there is no such thing here as a “pre-existing condition” which prevents them from getting medical care. And, Americans would be surprised to learn just how much of their medications and medical procedures are discovered in places like Germany, France (yes) even Great Britain.

    I could go on, but I’m getting tired. Canada is not a medical backwater, and Americans need to come here and see the truth for themselves. All the horror stories about Canadians going to other countries for medical care is false. I work in the medical system, and I know. It is false. It’s fear mongering. In fact, it’s embarrassing it’s so untrue.

    We are not saying our system is perfect. Far from it, but it's better than many others. However, we would really appreciate it if Americans would stop telling lies about our system in order to further their arguments in their debate about their own health care system. We really don't care what system you choose, but please -- stop trashing ours.


    Since we're on the topic, here are some interesting stats to consider (not from A Majority of Two):

    In the World Health Organization's ratings of health care system performance among 191 member nations published in 2000, Canada ranked 30th and the U.S. 37th, while the overall health of Canadians was ranked 35th and Americans 72nd.

    In terms of population health, life expectancy in 2006 was about two and a half years longer in Canada, with Canadians living to an average of 79.9 years and Americans 77.5 years. Infant and child mortality rates are also higher in the U.S.

    The incidence of cancer and incident of cancer mortality rates of the two countries are basically identical with slight variations (some favoring one system, some the other) depending on the type of cancer.

    YET Canada spends roughly half of what the U.S. spends on healthcare (in 2006, per-capita spending for health care in the U.S. was US$6,714; in Canada, US$3,678.)

    16 August 2009

    Nietzsche and the Nazis

    I recently watched Stephen Hicks documentary (or should I say, "filmed lecture") titled Nietzsche and the Nazis on Netflix. It's an interesting film. I agree with the author that Nietzsche provides much of the philosophical groundwork for Fascism. Hicks does point out some areas where Nietzsche's philosophy and words were twisted a bit to fit into the Nazi framework, but by and large, he concludes they're a good fit. A good critique of the film can be found here.

    15 August 2009

    Boycott Whole Foods? Getta life!

    People are calling for a boycott of Whole Foods because of the conservative views the CEO voiced about healthcare reform. I've got news for these people. Most CEOs have such views, so if you really want to be consistent, you're going to have to stop shopping all together. To make matters worse, Whole Foods is about as green and likeable as a corporation can get--with John Mackey and top management voluntarily taking an exceedingly small share of company profits. Boycotts are a great idea, but if anyone has any sense, Whole Foods should be on the very bottom of the list of companies to boycott.

    Related articles:

    Waylon Lewis--Why I ain't about to boycott Whole Foods
    The Moderate Voice (looks at what Mackey actually wrote)
    TPM: Whole Foods Boycott and the Progressosphere: Bats in the Belfry

    I Am A Self-Reliant American Conservative

    I enjoyed this clever article by David Gaines.
    I get up at 6 a.m. and fill my coffeepot with water to prepare my morning coffee. The local government water supply is clean and safe because some tree-hugging liberals fought for federal minimum water-quality standards. With my first swallow of water, I take my daily medication, the original basic research behind which was conducted by the National Institutes of Health. My medications are safe because some stupid commie liberal fought to ensure their safety and that they work as advertised. All but $10 of my medications are paid for by my employer's medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance - now I get it, too. I prepare my morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. The bacon is safe to eat and the pigs it comes from are treated more humanely than used to be the case because some girly-man socialists fought for laws to regulate the meatpacking and agricultural industries.
    In the morning shower, I reach for my shampoo. My bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount relative to the total contents because some pansy crybaby fought for my right to know what I was putting on my body and how much of each ingredient it contained.
    I dress, walk outside, and take a deep breath. The air I breath is relatively clean because some tree-hugging environmentalist wacko fought for laws to stop industries from polluting all of our air. I walk down the public sidewalks to a public subway station patrolled by tax-funded police officers for my government-subsidized ride to work. I save a considerable amount in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation.
    I begin my work day. I have a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some pinko socialist union members staged protests and strikes, and in many cases died, so that we could have those benefits. If I'm hurt on the job or become unemployed, I'll get a worker's compensation or unemployment check, thanks to some stupid nanny state liberal who didn't think I should lose my home because of my temporary misfortune.
    It's noontime and I need to make a deposit at my not-for-profit federal credit union, the idea for which some hippy brought down from socialist Canada, so I can pay some bills. My deposit is insured by the National Credit Union Administration because some godless communist wanted to protect my money from speculators causing wild swings in the economy. I have to pay my Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and my below-market federal student loan (so that I could attend a publically funded state university) because some elitist McGovernite decided that both society and I would be better off if I were educated and earned more money over my lifetime.
    Now I'm home from work. I plan to visit my father this evening at his farm in the country. I get into my car for the drive. My car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating socialist fought for car safety standards and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to go along with the taxpayer-funded roads. I arrive at my boyhood home. Mine was the third generation to live in the house, which was financed by the Farmers Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans. The house didn't have electricity until some big-government liberals stuck their noses where they didn't belong and demanded rural electrification. My father lives on Social Security and a union pension because a bunch of bleeding heart "blame-America-first" types worked for decades to make sure he and people like him wouldn't spend their old age in poverty. My aunt and uncle are able to visit him tonight too. They were laid up for a long time but are back on their feet now, thanks to the socialist doctors and hospitals paid for by the Veterans Health Administration (my uncle's a Korean War vet).
    On my way into the house, I bring in a letter that arrived in my father's mailbox. It was delivered from 2,000 miles away for only 44 cents, thanks to a bunch of leftists who created the US Postal Service. If not for yet another big-government program called Rural Free Delivery, Dad would have had to drive dozens of miles to pick up his mail.

    When I get home I log on to the internet, which was developed by the Dept. of Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA), and post on FreeRepublic.com and Fox News forums about how SOCIALISM will ruin our healthcare system because the government can't do anything right!

    We don't need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I'm a good old, self-made, self-reliant, American conservative who believes everyone should take care of himself, just like I have.

    13 August 2009

    A not-so-novel experiment

    On his website, Stephen Hicks has the following bold proposal:

    I think we have to consider sacrificing Maryland. Some of my best friends are Marylanders. Nothing personal, guys, but this healthcare thing is important, and there’s only one way to break the impasse: hard scientific experimenting. Here is the plan. We isolate Maryland and turn it into a giant test case. We send in a crack team of government healthcare administrators to run the place. We give them some billions of dollars and a free hand. And we leave the rest of the country alone (especially Illinois). And after five years we’ll know one way or the other: Maryland the shining exemplar of robust health. Or not.

    Hmmm. Or we could save ourselves five years and simply look at how the rest of the world runs their healthcare system and compare it to the U.S. "experiment" over the last couple decades. If we did the comparison, we'd find, using statistics from pretty much any reliable source, that the U.S. healthcare system is far more expensive, and that the other health systems (e.g., those of France, Germany, England, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Japan) beat the U.S. system in terms of actual outcomes using pretty much any meaningful measure (life expectancy, infant mortality, satisfaction, and so on). But I guess Hicks humorous proposal at least does what it's meant to do: paint attempts at reforming the broken U.S. system as wildly risky and untested and the current system as somehow natural and inevitable. Personally, I suggest we create a national system and then let Illinois continue with the grand U.S. experiment, trusting healthcare providers, insurance companies, and drug lobbies to suddenly start cutting costs and premiums.

    12 August 2009

    Decoupling spiritual and material wealth

    Undoubtedly, the most commented-on post thus far here on Swerve Left has been one of my off-the-cuff rants I made about Alan Stang, an odd ("ridiculous," in my opinion) character who has been described as a neo-Confederate. I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the supererogatory flames, but one interesting meme that I noticed was the repeated attack on historical figures based on the failures of their business ventures. John Brown, to take just one example, is to be loathed because he was a "failure" in "everything" he did.

    I guess the implication is that those who succeed financially should be praised since they've been "successes" in everything they've done. This coupling of capitalist success with personal virtue is something that I don't quite get. But it underlies a lot of rightwing rhetoric--this notion that we shouldn't hand out any benefits to the poor because they're the unvirtuous group that doesn't really deserve it. Many libertarian sites (Hispanic Pundit's a good example) expend much of their ink on protection of the virtuous wealthy against the poor rabble who want to steal their hard-earned money.

    The meme doesn't fit in very well with any of my own experiences of the world. I think back on my own grandfather who was in constant motion until the day he died, working to the point of exhaustion, and who never really had anything to show for it, and then I reflect on all the superwealthy that I've observed (mostly from afar) who don't seem to do anything except expend resources and corrupt the political process. In my imagination, I'd love to trace their wealth up their family trees to its ultimate source. I'm pretty certain that instead of finding generations of hard-working virtuous ancestors, I'm more likely to see a lucky speculator (probably dealing in weapons or pirating) or someone on a horse with a gun watching slaves work a field--hardly the Joe the plumber sorts that the right parades about.

    With this thought in mind, we need a few more statues and parades for the great "losers" in history, who stood up for what was right against great odds and . . . lost. We need fewer parades for Christopher Columbus and more busts of John Brown.

    11 August 2009

    Heinberg artcle

    Oil Drum has a good article by Richard Heinberg on the current economic crisis and resource depletion. Some excerpts:

    Rather than attempting to prop up banks and insurance companies with trillions in bailouts, it would probably be better simply to let them fail, however nasty the short-term consequences, since they will fail anyway sooner or later. The sooner they are replaced with institutions that serve essential functions within a contracting economy, the better off we will all be. (27)

    Meanwhile the thought-leaders in society, especially the President, must begin breaking the news—in understandable and measured ways—that growth isn’t returning and that the world has entered a new and unprecedented economic phase, but that we can all survive and thrive in this challenging transitional period if we apply ourselves and work together. At the heart of this general re-education must be a public and institutional acknowledgment of three basic rules of sustainability: growth in population cannot be sustained; the ongoing extraction of non-renewable resources cannot be sustained; and the use of renewable resources is sustainable only if it proceeds at rates below those of natural replenishment.

    -----

    It is worth noting that the $23.7 trillion recently committed for U.S. bailouts and loan guarantees represents about $80,000 for each man, woman, and child in America. A level of investment even a substantial fraction that size could pay for all needed job training while ensuring universal provision of basic necessities during the transition. What would we be getting for our money? A collective sense that, in a time of crisis, no one is being left behind. Without the feeling of cooperative buy-in that such a safety net would help engender, similar to what was achieved with the New Deal but on an even larger scale, economic contraction could devolve into a horrific fight over the scraps of the waning industrial period.

    However contentious, the population question must be addressed. All problems that have to do with resources are harder to solve when there are more people needing those resources. The U.S. must encourage smaller families and must establish an immigration policy consistent with a no-growth population target. This has foreign policy implications: we must help other nations succeed with their own economic transitions so that their citizens do not have to emigrate to survive.

    If economic growth ceases to be an achievable goal, society will have to find better ways of measuring success. Economists must shift from assessing well-being with the blunt instrument of GDP, and begin paying more attention to indices of human and social capital in areas such as education, health, and cultural achievements. This redefinition of growth and progress has already begun in some quarters, but for the most part has yet to be taken up by governments.

    A case can be made that after all this is done the end result will be a more satisfying way of life for the vast majority of citizens—offering more of a sense of community, more of a connection with the natural world, more satisfying work, and a healthier environment. Studies have repeatedly shown that higher levels of consumption do not translate to elevated levels of satisfaction with life.

    This means that if “progress” can be thought of in terms of happiness, rather than a constantly accelerating process of extracting raw materials and turning them into products that themselves quickly become waste, then progress can certainly continue. In any case, “selling” this enormous and unprecedented project to the general public will require emphasizing its benefits. Several organizations are already exploring the messaging and public relations aspects of the transition. But those in charge need to understand that looking on the bright side doesn’t mean promising what can’t be delivered—such as a return to the days of growth and thoughtless consumption.

    10 August 2009

    This is what the best looks like?

    For the life of me, I just don't get this conservative meme about the U.S. healthcare being the greatest in the world. This morning, I call my primary care doctor, who I'm supposed to see in order to get access to any healthcare, and was told that he was booked up solid for the next four months. I then called my insurance company and after punching in keys to no avail and then talking to a computer that couldn't understand my English, was told to call back Wednesday when I might be able to get through. After much frustration, I eventually reached a living person and was told to try a walk-in clinic. And this is what the most expensive healthcare system in the world is supposed to look like? What a frikkin' joke! We really need to toss a die on a map of northern hemisphere and adopt wholesale the first country's system where the die lands. (We'll have a roll-over rule if it lands on the U.S. or Russia.)

    9 August 2009

    Julie and Julia


    I watched Julie and Julia tonight. Meryl Streep does an excellent Julia Child, and viewers are offered a few historical allusions to help spice things up. The film switches back and forth between Julia Child's life and the life of a young admirer who sets out to cook her way through all the recipes in Julia's cookbook. As someone with high cholesterol and a propensity to put on pounds, all the concoctions looked very much like forbidden fruit (with thick syrups on top), but I suppose a few people blessed with thin genes might enjoy them. If you're in the mood for a heart-warming and very watchable film (and aren't straining under pressures of a diet), I'd recommend this.

    6 August 2009

    Robert Entman on global warming coverage

    Extra! Extra! Read All About It?

    The US news media are utterly failing to offer a coherent climate crisis narrative of the sort required for scientific understanding and urgency to penetrate the public mind. This is evident not only from analyses of media, but from surveys showing that public understanding and concern have dropped even as scientific comprehension and apprehension grow.

    To increase the potential for greater public involvement, and more importantly, to give our leaders strong incentives to make policy based on science rather than ideology and denial, journalistic practices must change. As it turns out, such a shift would require journalists to more closely mimic the ways scientists themselves build and communicate scientific narratives (aka theories).

    These points add up to the argument suggested by my title: that the media need to do something “extra,” that they should treat global warming as a crisis, as “stop-the-presses” news. Failing this, the public has scant ability to read (or find out) all about the growing threat of climate change. Unfortunately, as the public’s not-so-blissful ignorance of climate science grows, politicians’ inclinations to act creatively and decisively shrivel.

    Public Misunderstanding of Climate Science is Growing

    Recent Gallup Polls reveal the results of the media’s failure to construct a narrative that accurately registers the scientific consensus on climate change. The data show public ignorance and emotional detachment from global warming, along with a disturbing partisan gap. Gallup’s results show a decline in public concern about global warming and a firming up of its ranking in last place among eight environmental problems.

    Those saying the media exaggerate the seriousness of global warming now outnumber those saying they underestimate its gravity by 41-28 percent. In 2006 respondents saying “underestimated” outnumbered “exaggerated” by a 38-30% margin. So there’s been a net swing of 21% toward public ignorance.

    I use that word with some confidence since others’ research, along with the data disclosed below, demonstrate that the American media have not “exaggerated” the perils of global warming. Thus even if one interprets the survey as more a rating of media behavior than of global warming itself, it reveals a poorly informed public, a conclusion backed by other survey data too.
    The polarization of opinion (Figure 2) suggests that this ostensibly scientific factual issue has been subsumed into the larger culture wars that feed the nation’s partisan divide. The partisan gap in those seeing global warming as exaggerated grew from 12 points in 1998 to 44 in 2009.[1] This is deeply troubling, for these polls suggest the debate on global warming is taking place not over how to cope with the problem but whether it even exists. As Figure 2 shows, over the past few years there has been a sharp jump in denial even among independents. Abetted by traditional journalistic practices, the public mind appears to be miring deeper in confusion rather than focusing more sharply.

    The Narrative Gap

    The surveys make a prima facie case that the US media are not persuasively conveying the scientific consensus. They also challenge any hope that the internet is educating the public.[2] Consider some further evidence of the media’s failure to encourage understanding of the climate crisis.

    On March 12, 2009, an international conference of leading experts on climate change issued a preliminary statement of major findings. They concluded that “the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized” and that “a significant risk [exists] that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climate shifts.”
    It is difficult to imagine a clearer, more compelling demonstration of the seriousness with which scientists take global warming. Yet the mainstream media virtually ignored the event and its stark conclusions.[3] Among all the media indexed in the Nexis database, just one full newspaper story (370 words in Newsday) appeared. Four other papers gave the Copenhagen news passing mentions (one to three sentences). Broadcast and cable news networks entirely ignored the findings. Reasons likely include such traditional journalistic practices as “objectivity” and “balance,” which (research shows) often yield their opposites, and reporters’ and editors’ probable perceptions of global warming as stale news.

    Yet this was not merely another study suggesting a climate in crisis, it was a declaration by many leading scientists that their prior warnings were insufficiently dire. To make a war on terror analogy, it is as if the media neglected an al Qaeda bombing in Chicago that killed “only” 50 because we’ve all heard the terrorism story.

    Journalistic treatment of the Copenhagen conference both points to and reinforces absence of the continuing crisis narrative needed to attract the interest and generate the comprehension and concern of the public. That vacuum reinforces leaders’ temptations to take the easy path and put climate policy on the back burner (as it were).

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    Media ignored Copenhagen in major part because powerful US leaders did. Journalistic neglect in turn reduced elites’ incentives to tackle the issues and opened space for denial—among citizens, politicians, and journalists—in a self-reinforcing vicious circle. Breaking into the circle requires leadership from the very top. Only the president has sufficient sway over media agendas to interrupt this spiral of ignorance. As is true of traditional national security issues, pure democracy here is neither desirable nor possible. What we need is leadership of public opinion, with longer-term responsiveness to more informed public input.

    Moneyed interests generally support vigorous (and profitable) responses to conventional security threats. They usually overpower underfunded peace groups in public discourse, making it relatively easy for policymakers to ignore or mischaracterize public opinion by isolating opponents as unpatriotic. In the matter of climate change, many wealthy interests oppose a pre-emptive “war.” This situation calls for Churchillian leaders whose cause can be taken up by watchdog journalism.

    News media can help to interrupt the vicious circle of denial and delay, though it’s an uncomfortable role for them. The task would mean abandoning their stance of (ironically mislabeled) objectivity and actually becoming more scientific and more subjective (as scientists are too) in telling stories. Arguably, interpreting and narrating information collected with an open and creative mind might even serve news organizations commercially in their time of economic crisis. Coherent narratives sell.

    For the Copehagen conference, this would involve fitting the scientists’ findings into a running narrative of threat and crisis akin to those stitching together otherwise disparate developments for the wars on terror, drugs, and AIDs, among others. American leaders in government and the media need to create a new narrative of global interdependence on climate, ecology and energy. Not only would this reflect scientific and economic truths, it would serve genuine US security interests.

    [1] Other data supporting this conclusion can be found in a May 2008 Gallup Poll available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/107569/ClimateChange-Views-RepublicanDemocratic-Gaps-Expand.aspx?version=print.

    [2] Blogs and internet searches can supplement news reports for a small proportion of citizens. As suggested by the polls, blogs and the rest cannot signal or produce changes in perceived or actual public opinion without penetrating major media in an enduring story.

    [3] Based on searching “Copenhagen AND (warm! OR climat!)” in the Nexis libraries of (Broadcast) Transcripts and U.S. Newspapers, between March 10, 2009 and March 17, 2009.

    5 August 2009

    Moon

    Today I watched Moon. The movie got high ratings and has been praised as thoughtful, but I wasn't very impressed. The plot is quite predictable and this theme has been explored in other sci-fi movies (many of which were vastly more entertaining). I'd give this one a miss.

    4 August 2009

    Atarashii biru

    biru Just what we need, spirulina beer. We can now get drunk and healthy at the same time.

    3 August 2009

    More $s for world's dearest healthcare system?

    Talk of new taxes to pay for healthcare reform reveals that the current approach is wrongheaded. Not that I'm generally against taxes, which are progressive--especially, if targeted at the wealthy--and are needed in our current plutocracy. But the move ignores the fact that we already pay more for healthcare than any country in the world. More needs to be done to contain costs, and the best way to do this is to get rid of private insurance, which merely adds costs (and tremendous hassle and headache) without adding any value whatsoever. Even more importantly, we need to develop fixed rates for every procedure. The absurd notion that the government is going to somehow give us more while we pay ever increasing sums out to the government's corporate sponsors is laughable--or would be laughable, if it weren't happening to we, the people.

    Insipid people

    I watched Funny People last tonight. Having heard some favorable reports, I was quite disappointed. It's humorless, formulaic, and predictable. Worst of all, like some many films of this type, the humor is consistently crass, plagiarized from the walls of junior high boys' bathrooms. Go see the movie if you can laugh at various syntactic variations of "licking balls" five dozen times. Anymore, I'm thinking that U.S. would be much better off if we just spun a bottle around a map of the world and adopted wholesale the first health system that it pointed to. We could then repeat the process and import films of the country that the bottle pointed to (with some good dubbing if the country didn't speak English).

    30 July 2009

    Gates and the Duran case

    As mentioned in a previous post, I don't think the key point we should focus on in the Gates fiasco is race. My Left Wing points us to the insightful rule in Duran v. City of Douglas Arizona. The case began when "Plaintiff Ralph Duran directed a series of expletives and an obscene hand gesture at defendant Gilbert Aguilar, a police officer. Officer Aguilar responded by detaining and arresting Duran, who, along with his wife, now brings this lawsuit for injuries he suffered during the incident."

    In his ruling, Kozinski (a Reagan appointee) wrote:

    Thus, while police, no less than anyone else, may resent having obscene words and gestures directed at them, they may not exercise the awesome power at their disposal to punish individuals for conduct that is not merely lawful, but protected by the First Amendment. . . . Inarticulate and crude as Duran's conduct may have been, it represented an expression of disapproval toward a police officer with whom he had just had a run-in. As such, it fell squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment and any action to punish or deter such speech-such as stopping or hassling the speaker-is categorically prohibited by the Constitution.

    This is right on. All of us, in our work, come across people who are extremely annoying, who call names, and by doing so, make our day a bit more miserable than necessary. But we don't have the right to arrest such people (not even to put them under a citizens arrest!) If such actions aren't a crime when they happen to us, it's hard for me to see what makes them a crime when directed toward a police officer. In the end, in the big picture of things, it's all about creating a country where people cower in front of authority, whether that authority carries a gun or rides a limousine.

    Pentagon Propaganda Gets a Pass

    Amidst government cries that it can't find the money to provide decent healthcare or education, the news that we're essentially paying the government to lie to us is highly disturbing.



    July 29, 2009 byDiane Farsetta in CommonDreams.org

    Is there a difference between covert propaganda and secretive campaigns to shape public opinion on controversial issues? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) apparently thinks that there is.

    The GAO recently ruled that the Pentagon pundit program did not break the law against taxpayer-funded domestic propaganda. The program involved some 75 retired military officers who serve as frequent media commentators. From 2002 to 2008, the Pentagon set up meetings between the pundits and high-level Department of Defense (DOD) officials. The Pentagon's PR staff not only gave the pundits talking points, but helped them draft opinion columns and gave them feedback on their media appearances. The Pentagon also paid for the pundits to travel overseas, following carefully-scripted itineraries designed to highlight successes in Iraq and humane measures at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

    "There is no doubt," the GAO ruling states, "that DOD attempted to favorably influence public opinion with respect to the Administration's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the [pundits] with conference calls, meetings, travel, and access to senior DOD officials." However, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress concluded that the Pentagon pundit program wasn't covert propaganda, for two reasons: the Pentagon didn't pay the pundits for their favorable commentary, or conceal the program from the public.

    However, the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the program, along with the available internal Pentagon documents, reveal major holes in the GAO's reasoning.

    All that glitters is not gold

    In finding that the pundits "clearly were not paid by DOD," the GAO ignores well-documented evidence -- including statements from some of the pundits themselves -- that the Pentagon access and information they received was as good as gold.

    Many of the pundits are lobbyists, executives or consultants for military contractors. In these roles, their ability to attract clients and the rates they're able to charge are directly related to the number of influential Pentagon contacts they have and their ability to learn privileged information. The Pentagon pundit program provided both in spades. "Some Pentagon officials said they were well aware that some analysts viewed their special access as a business advantage," reported the New York Times' David Barstow. Brent Krueger, a former Pentagon aide involved in the pundit program, told Barstow, "Of course we realized that. ... We weren't naive."

    The Pentagon program even provided financial benefits to pundits without military industry ties. "Many analysts were being paid by the 'hit,' the number of times they appeared on TV," explained the Times. "The more an analyst could boast of fresh inside information from high-level Pentagon 'sources,' the more hits he could expect."

    Further proof of the program's worth to the pundits can be found in their willingness to repeat talking points they questioned or disagreed with, simply to remain on the Pentagon's good side. Pundit and Blackbird Technologies vice president Timur J. Eads admitted that "he had at times held his tongue on television for fear that 'some four-star could call up and say, "Kill that contract."'" Fellow pundit Robert S. Bevelacqua, who works for the military contractor WVC3 Group, Inc., questioned the case for war with Iraq presented at the Pentagon meetings, but kept his concerns to himself. "There's no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart," he told the Times.

    To back up its assertion that the Pentagon didn't conceal the existence of its pundit program, the GAO cites a New York Times article from April 2006. At the time, pressure was mounting on then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. To push back, Rumsfeld called an emergency meeting of the Pentagon pundits. Word of Rumsfeld's efforts leaked, and the Times obtained a memo sent to the pundits. Its 2006 article reported that the memo had been sent to "retired generals who appear regularly on television" and who Pentagon officials "consider to be influential in shaping public opinion."

    That oblique reference to a massive -- and, at the time, growing -- Pentagon attempt to shape public opinion on many controversial issues falls far short of any realistic standard of meaningful disclosure. Moreover, the GAO fails to acknowledge that the 2006 Times report and others like it were prompted by a leak, which the Pentagon scrambled to cover. "This is very, very sensitive now," a Pentagon official warned others about the pundit program at the time, according to the Times' April 2008 report. That article also reported that program "participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon."
    Lastly, if the Pentagon was so forthcoming, why did the New York Times and its lawyers have to engage in a two-year-long legal battle, to have the Pentagon respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for documents about the pundit program?

    What happened to the GAO?

    The weaknesses in the GAO's Pentagon pundit findings is surprising, given the agency's strong track record of interpreting the "publicity or propaganda" restrictions. In 2004 and 2005, the agency repeatedly ruled that government-funded fake TV news segments, or video news releases (VNRs), were illegal covert propaganda.

    "While agencies generally have the right to disseminate information about their policies and activities," the GAO explained, "agencies may not use appropriated funds to produce or distribute [VNRs] intended to be viewed by television audiences that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials." It is not sufficient, the GAO added, "for an agency to identify itself to the broadcasting organization as the source."

    In 2005, the GAO ruled that work done for the U.S. Department of Education by the PR firm Ketchum also constituted illegal covert propaganda. The problematic activities included VNRs and commentaries by Ketchum subcontractor Armstrong Williams, a PR executive and conservative pundit, that promoted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). "The Department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship with the Department," the GAO concluded.

    There are obvious parallels between undisclosed VNRs, Williams' payola punditry and the Pentagon pundit program. All three employ a standard PR tactic -- the third party technique -- to promote a government agenda via seemingly-independent news or commentary.

    In setting up the Pentagon pundit program, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Torie Clarke (a former PR executive) argued that "opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent," according to the New York Times. Internal Pentagon documents that refer to the pundits as "surrogates" and "message force multipliers" further suggest that Defense Department officials were quite deliberately obscuring their role in shaping media commentaries by "key influentials."

    It's unclear why the GAO would fail to take the most damning information into consideration, when ruling on the legality of the Pentagon pundit program. I fear that by giving a pass to a nefarious PR tactic that undermines transparency and democratic values, the GAO has helped pave the way for similar deceptive campaigns in the future.An earlier version of this article identified Timur Eads as a "Blackbird Technologies lobbyist," based on his title of "vice president of government relations," as described in the April 2008 New York Times article and other reports at the time. Blackbird's website does not list any of the military contractor's personnel.

    Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.