26 December 2012

Norwegian Wood

I recently saw Norwegian Wood. This has to be one of the best movies I've ever seen. The plot (which I won't give away too much of here) centers around how two college-aged kids come to terms with the unexpected suicide of a classmate (the girl's boyfriend and the boy's best friend). The events take place with the leftist political protests of the late 60s going on in the background. Most of the key characters have a clear existentialist directness about them. The sound track's both beautiful and haunting, and the film (which was made by Tran Anh Hung, the Vietnamese/French director who made The Scent of Green Papaya) visually makes heavy use of burning deep greens and melancholy blues. If cinemas would only show more films like this--I'd go to the cinema every weekend.

2 December 2012

One set of facts U.S. politicians ignore

No amount of dinkering will fix the U.S. system as long as politicians aren't willing to take on the vested interests--the crooks who fleece all of us who must use the health system. The only way the system will work is if we have fixed prices for services. This has been the solution everywhere else in the world and it works.

1 December 2012

Moon Occults the Sun

30 November 2012

Mercury: A potential site for colonization?

In light of the recent news about large deposits of water on Mercury, I wonder why there hasn't been more consideration of the planet as a potential site for human colonization. James Shifflett has an interesting page where he discusses some of the issues involved. As he mentions, one of the great advantages would be the availability of solar power--a disadvantage of Mars which is farther than the Earth from the sun. Mercury also has a magnetic field and has gravity similar to that of Mars. Comparing the two, I can't really see any advantage of Mars except that it's easier and faster to get there and yes, the scenery's much more enticing. I guess Mars is also a better spot for terrafarming, although that particular project is so vast and requires so many resources and time that it's unlikely to make much difference whether we have some small groups of scientists huddled in caves on the planet's surface.

11 November 2012

And another party's over...

And now, as the post-election reality begins to sink in, we get the threats from those who didn't achieve victory for their agenda. (As for what such a victory might mean, I can only imagine since both parties are so similar. But these are the same people who think that the U.S. is communist--a view so idiotic as to end the possibility of a rational discussion.) So prepare to be unfriended...or divorced...or to have someone's dog shit on your lawn.  From Eric Dondero over at Libertarian.net:

 However, for me, I'm choosing another rather unique path; a personal boycott, if you will. Starting early this morning, I am going to un-friend every single individual on Facebook who voted for Obama, or I even suspect may have Democrat leanings. I will do the same in person. All family and friends, even close family and friends, who I know to be Democrats are hereby dead to me. I vow never to speak to them again for the rest of my life, or have any communications with them. They are in short, the enemies of liberty. They deserve nothing less than hatred and utter contempt. I strongly urge all other libertarians to do the same. Are you married to someone who voted for Obama, have a girlfriend who voted 'O'. Divorce them. Break up with them without haste. Vow not to attend family functions, Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas for example, if there will be any family members in attendance who are Democrats. Do you work for someone who voted for Obama? Quit your job. Co-workers who voted for Obama. Simply don't talk to them in the workplace, unless your boss instructs you too for work-related only purposes. Have clients who voted Democrat? Call them up this morning and tell them to take their business elsewhere. Have a neighbor who votes for Obama? You could take a crap on their lawn. Then again, probably not a good idea since it would be technically illegal to do this. But you could have your dog take care of business. Not your fault if he just happens to choose that particular spot. And start your boycott of your Democrat friends and family today. Like this morning. First thing you can do, very easy, is to un-friend all Democrats from your Facebook account.

7 November 2012

A victory of sorts

While I would fully agree with those who say that Obama's policies don't differ substantially from those of the Republicans, the Democrats at least represent a less flagrantly plutocratic version of the status quo. They'll throw slightly less money away on "defense" (a loaded word if there ever was one), and will give less away to the wealthy in tax breaks (although still giving away far too much). More importantly, we've avoided letting the Republicons change the Supreme Court, which would have moved us back to the 1950s on women's issues and abortion rights. (I do like watching Mad Men on the screen, but I'm not so sure I'd want to relive the entire era. I certainly would want it for my daughter!) So I guess it's good to see that the country has a preference (albeit, a very slight preference) for a slightly better version of corrupt pro-corporate government. On the bright side, the state results were more exciting this time around and suggest some real shifts in attitudes. We now have states with some of the most lax marijuana policies in the world. It's hard to believe that Washington now has more liberal policies in this regard than British Columbia (where you can get marijuana prescribed for acne.) And same-sex marriage laws are also catching up with shifting attitudes (especially among younger voters). These are good changes. It'll be interesting to see if these laws survive federal challenges.

1 November 2012

A somewhat profound comic

This comic (taken from Cul de Sac) belongs on the cover of a Zen zine.

30 October 2012

The Laissez-Mourir Approach to Disaster Relief

A previous version of Romney (was it Romney 1.3 or 1.4, I can't recall) claimed that FEMA should be sacked and its responsibilities shifted to the states, or better yet, to private enterprise. I have a better suggestion. We should allow all the states that vote Republican to rely solely on private enterprise to help them out during the next mega-disaster. The citizens in these states shouldn't complain if prices for services and basic nicities like bottled water sky-rocket during a disaster, or if companies find that saving certain stranded individuals or communities isn't economically feasible--that's the beauty of laissez-faire, after all. (Or in this case, should it be laissez-mourir?) States that don't vote Republican, on the other hand, can all cooperate and rely on the benefits of having the government coordinate relief activities. Instead of duplicating the entire relief infrastructure and training of experts, they can benefit from this exotic activity called "sharing" and this exotic principle called "economies of scale."

26 October 2012

Politics are lucrative in China

A recent article chronicles Wen Jiabao's family's "mysterious" rise from poverty to remarkable wealth--a further sign of the corruption plaguing China's political system. Wen is generally viewed as a populist who has pushed for more balanced growth and egalitarian distribution. The trading on names to get financial favors is certainly nothing new. The Useless Tree has a good critical discussion:

[Excerpt] At one level this is utterly unsurprising.  This is how the PRC's political economy works. Those people who stand at the intersection of state and market in the partially-reformed Chinese economy are in a position to make billions of dollars (and, yes, it is ultimately about dollars, a globally convertible currency, as this article suggests).  And high level political leaders and their children and spouses and family members are very often the ones who push themselves into those positions.  We see the same pattern with Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai. That's how they roll at the top of the PRC system. The difference in the case of Wen Jiabao is that he has presented himself, and has been presented by the PRC media, as a man of modest means and tastes.  He was famous for wearing the same plain overcoat for years on end.  He styled himself a man of the people:  "Grandpa Wen" comforted victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and personally apologized for the transportation havoc wreaked by the 2006 New Year's blizzard.  Earlier this year, he made a plaintive appeal for some sort of political reformIn all of this there is a resonance with Mencius: the righteous leader, working to secure the people's basic livelihood while personally maintaining a frugal and simple lifestyle.  

23 October 2012

Fix the Bayonets, Iran's Marching Through Syria to the Sea

And then there was this, one of the more enjoyable moments in the debates last night.

4 October 2012

Thoughts on the first debate

Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate should, I suppose, come as little surprise. With polls mostly predicting a win, the strategy is undoubtedly to remain guarded and cautious in each and every statement, and unfortunately, such a strategy does not give rise to rousing rhetoric. The debate did produce a few surprises. In the wake of the 47% remark, Romney has apparently undergone a major conversion as of late, suddenly seeing the folly of decreasing taxes on the wealthy:

MR. ROMNEY: Well, sure. I'd like to clear up the record and go through it piece by piece. First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am.

I guess that the Libertarian vote and the trickle of votes from the ensconced 1% can be written off in order to get a small slice of that juicy 53%--although one has to wonder how sincere any of this is. Are we to believe that Romney will be vetoing Republican bills to provide or maintain tax-cuts for the wealthy? 

Romney's plan on healthcare is to simply toss around the word "Obamacare." Obama's response on this made good sense:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Jim, if I — if I can just respond very quickly, first of all, every study has shown that Medicare has lower administrative cost than private insurance does, which is why seniors are generally pretty happy with it. And private insurers have to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that; that's what they do. And so you've got higher administrative costs, plus profit on top of that, and if you are going to save any money through what Governor Romney's proposing, what has to happen is is that the money has to come from somewhere.

I wish somebody would stand up at these debates and state the obvious: insurance companies don't "provide healthcare." Instead, they manage risk. And if they're forced to insure everybody, they've lost their entire raison d'être. Why can't we fire these people and then send them to work in hospitals where they can make a positive contribution. 

2 October 2012

The qu'ils-mangent-de-la-brioche approach to healthcare

The Commonwealth Fund, with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber, PhD, modeled three scenarios: if the ACA were fully implemented, if it had never been implemented at all, and if Romney's proposals were to take effect. They concluded that  "this approach to cost containment would shift the burden of growth in U.S. health care costs from the federal government to the states, to low-income families, and to Medicare beneficiaries, without addressing the underlying causes of rising costs." After Romney's 47% comment, this should come as know surprise. The Republican "plan" is to simply let costs keep rising while more and more people fall by the wayside.

30 September 2012

The billion-year plan

Peter Garettson has a must read piece on the need to plan long-term--and by "long-term," we're talking REALLY long-term:

What our civilization needs is a billion-year plan

Sizing up the Election Odds

From an article by Jay Bookman:

After all the speeches and campaign ads and debates, politics comes down to cold hard numbers. It always has; it always will. In my model, as in most such models, we start with the basics: The number of women to whom the GOP candidate’s grandfather was married at any one time, which in this case would be (4). You multiply that by the number of extramarital affairs conducted over a lifetime by the spouse of the current secretary of state (237). (CAUTION: This number could shift at any moment.) You then add the number of emails sent in the past four years depicting the Democratic nominee with a bone through his nose, which would be 457,283. You divide that by the total number of beers and cigarettes tried by the GOP nominee in his lifetime (2), divided again by the total number of beers and cigarettes consumed by the Democrat (58,399). You multiply that by the square root of the number of hair follicles transplanted into the Democratic VP (√6,798=83.53) divided by the best marathon time fraudulently claimed by the Republican VP nominee (2.55). Subtract the percentage of Americans gratuitously insulted by the GOP nominee (47), add the number of times in a best-two-out-of-three match that the First Lady would beat you arm-wrestling (3), and then also add the number of dog-lover votes — in units of tens of thousands — lost by the Republican for transporting an aptly named Irish setter (Seamus) on the station-wagon roof (236.5). Finally, you add the number of percentage points that all polls but Rasmussen are skewed in favor of Democrats (10). Voila! You now have the mortal-lock number of electoral college votes that the Democratic nominee will win in any given year.

 Seen over at Pygalgia

18 September 2012

The Monkey Cage has some nice analysis of Romney's recent 47% remarks: one post arguing that these offhand remarks seldom matter in terms of candidates' polling and another post looking into the facts behind the comment.

7 September 2012

The following paper (pdf of full paper available here) provides an interesting analysis of causes of the Great Recession, analysis that we should ponder as we hear of Romney and Ryan's policies designed to greatly exaggerate current economic disparities: 

 Income inequality as a cause of the Great Recession? A survey of current debates 

 Till van Treeck & Simon Sturn, Geneva, 2012

 The recent debates about the role of income inequality in causing the “Great Recession” are surveyed along different dimensions. First, we review the controversy about the “Rajan hypothesis” for the United States. In his widely discussed book “Fault Lines” (2010), Raghuram Rajan argues that many U.S. consumers have reacted to the decline in their relative permanent incomes since the early 1980s by reducing saving and increasing debt. This has temporarily kept private consumption and thus aggregate demand and employment high, despite stagnating incomes for many households. But it also contributed to the creation of a credit bubble, which eventually burst, and a large current account deficit in the United States. We place the Rajan hypothesis in the context of competing theories of consumption, and survey the empirical literature on the effects of inequality on household behaviour beyond the largely anecdotal evidence provided in Rajan (2010). Second, we discuss the macroeconomic effects of income distribution in China and Germany, which both experienced pronounced declines in the share of wages and household income in national income, strong increases in personal inequality, rising personal saving rates, weak private consumption demand and strong improvements in the current account in the years before the Great Recession. Specifically, we argue that the ways in which consumers react to changes in relative income depend on such institutional factors as the deepness and regulation of the credit markets, the organisation of the labour market and the education and welfare systems, and the reactivity of monetary and fiscal policy to unemployment. We conclude that reducing inequality in these countries is crucial for overcoming macroeconomic instability and the global and European current account imbalances over the longer term.

4 September 2012

A recent review of research by Smith-Spangler and colleagues (2012) is being touted in the mass media as proof that organic food isn't healthier than conventional alternatives. The media interpretation seems to be a bit misleading. While the study did conclude that the nutritional value was similar for both (which isn't a big surprise since the organic foods are usually genetically the same as conventional foods), it reported some findings that would suggest advantages for organic choices. For example, two of the reviewed studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic diets than conventional ones. Personally, I suspect that the advantages of organic foods might not justify the extra cost--especially for those of us on tight budgets. That said, the study certainly doesn't prove that there aren't advantages. Many of the chemical compounds that end up in our food haven't been researched enough to really know for sure whether existing levels are safe.

2 September 2012

F---ing ridiculous

I'm biased, of course, but even so--the Republicans at the convention seem to have outdone even themselves in setting themselves up as the party of the rich. As befitting the party's character, the overall tone was snide. Clint Eastwood's rambling speech which had a missing Obama supposedly telling him and Romney to "go f--- themselves" was bizarre in that the speech writers seemed to be unable to pinpoint a single clear issue. (The "go f____ yourself" comment is so out of character for Obama that it was hard to even grasp the speech-writer's comedic intent.) The issues that were discussed--the dismal economy and the two wars--weren't very interesting as they're both legacies of the Bush mis-adminstration. Eastwood suggested that Romney would "bring the troops home tomorrow." (Wasn't Romney running as the "beef up the military" and kick-everyone's-ass president?!! Oh, well.) He claimed that Romney and Ryan would somehow bring the country together, healing its divisions. I guess this might be a possibility if we just kicked out all blacks, Hispanics, women, college students, and educated whites who live in cities.

17 August 2012

It's never a good sign when a government feels it needs to sic its hounds on a few punk singers (in this case, the Pussy Riot) miming songs in a church. A disruption of morning prayers might deserve a $20 fine and a rap on the knuckles but two years!! Russia's got a long ways to go. Putin, taking a cue from the Republicans in the U.S. and tyrannical governments in the Middle East, loves to exploit religious sensibilities to shore up his rule. (This was the initial motivation behind the Pussy Riot protest). By arresting the group, the Russian government has turned a little negative PR into a fiasco.

16 August 2012

15 August 2012

The Beginning of Infinity: A review

On my recent travels, I read The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. His sections on physics (Deutsch's area of expertise) were obscure and shocking--to say the least--and his comments in the area of philosophy of science (based on Popper's notions about the need for critiques and falsifiable theories) were useful (although Deutsch has a tendency to chase after a few straw men here and there). I even enjoyed reading the parts where the author was playing armchair philosopher and talking about the U.S. political system. (Deutsch is a harsh critic of parliamentary systems and praises the U.S. system).

Deutsch's general message is unbounded optimism (hence the title). He makes the argument that the pace and unpredictable nature of technological development makes long-term predictions little more than prophecies. This seems to be right. That said, I think he overstates his argument in some places. For example, he sharply criticizes Jared Diamond's work on the collapse of civilizations, implying that the only factor we should consider is the openness of a civilization and the inspiration of great men. However, human creativity and cultural efflorescence don't happen in a vacuum. With the appropriate academic caviats, there's no reasons why Diamond's conclusions should be discarded.

One of Deutsch's more interesting (and controversial) ideas is that humans, having achieved a civilization capable of self-criticism and endless progress, are now cognitively equipped to understand (perhaps through much ardor and effort) any advanced extra-terrestrial civilization. I'd recommend the book. It's enlightening to read somebody with enough intellectual reach to bring together so many major strands of the scientific outlook. 

14 August 2012

The Chinese government's struggle with openness

Today I came across a couple good pieces on China. Mark Kitto has an interesting article in Prospect that paints a rather dismal picture of China's future prospects. In a similar vein, Michael Anti has an insightful Ted Talk on how the Chinese central government uses internet censorship to crack down on wayward regional political figures and movements.

12 August 2012

Ryan? Really!

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one scratching my noggin trying to figure out what the hell Romney was thinking in choosing Ryan. This now somewhat dated article by Charles Pierce is worth rereading:

[Excerpt] Paul Ryan is a thoroughgoing fraud. He went through high school and most of college on Social Security survivor benefits after his father's death. He voted for almost all the Bush programs — including both off-the-books wars — that ballooned the deficit he so piously condemns now. And this week, as he rolled out his lunatic conception of a federal budget, Paul Ryan produced the definitive statement of his political philosophy: There are those Americans who deserve to live and those Americans who don't. Period. All of the former are very, very wealthy. All of the latter are poor, or struggling, or old. Paul Ryan believes the true mission of government is to bring as much pain to the parasites as it can because, by doing so, it can liberate the genius of those people who deserve to live. When Paul Ryan dreams of a free nation, it is one in which the seventy-two-year-old spouses of seventy-five-year-old patients are free to go out and shop in a rigged insurance market for the $100,000-plus they're going to need over a lifetime of tending to that patient. If they insisted on feeding themselves, and even risking the odd vacation, over the course of their working lives and they failed to anticipate what might befall them, then the spouse is going to have to starve and the patient is just going to have to sit there in his own filth, until market forces determine that they should die. Look at him when he talks about dismantling the hard-won protections of the shrinking middle class. He is so positively lubricious about it that his teeth seem to be sweating. Pain (not his) purifies the nation. Pain (not his) makes us free. This is what Paul Ryan dreams of when he dreams of a free people.

As for Ryan being a "small-government" advocate, he's better described as a typical big-government (as long as it's supporting wealthy donors) sort of politician. A New American article examines his actual voting record:

[Excerpt] ... Ryan’s voting record shows a robust support of big-spending programs to enlarge the role of the federal government, especially when they are promoted by a Republican in the White House. Ryan voted for all of the big-ticket, budget-busting items of the administration of President George W. Bush, including the No Child Left Behind Act and the prescription drug benefit known as Medicare Part D, often described as the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Ryan voted to create the new Department of Homeland Security, including the Transportation Security Administration that has harassed air travelers, while making aircraft safe from shoes, belt buckles and grandma’s knitting needles. He voted for the PATRIOT Act, giving government enhanced powers for warrantless snooping into the lives of American citizens as well as foreign nationals. Ryan voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program that bailed out the “too big to fail” financial institutions and inspired the Tea Party rebellion against big government and “crony capitalism.” He backed the auto bailout that turned GM into “Government Motors.”

And while conservatives generally like to leave wars and military spending off the list of costly “big government” programs, Ryan’s record on that front is also troubling. Like Romney, Ryan has no foreign policy credentials and no record of military service to point to in the election campaign. And like Romney, Ryan swallowed whole the Bush-Cheney line on Iraq and supported the decision to invade and occupy that country in a needless war that cost more than 4,000 American and hundreds of thousands Iraqi lives and has added roughly a trillion dollars to our soaring national debt. Ryan’s budget calls for no reduction in military spending, despite the continued presence of U.S. troops in some 130 countries around the world, most of which have no bearing on our own national security.

Even more troubling is Ryan’s vote last December in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation included a provision authorizing the President to use the military to arrest suspected terrorists, including American citizens apprehended in the United States, and hold them indefinitely, without charges and without trial, in clear violation of due process rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This year Ryan voted against an amendment to remove that provision from the law.

Ryan did vote against reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which grants loans and loan guarantees to foreign governments and businesses for the purchase of U.S. products. But his vote last year for the $915 billion Omnibus Appropriations Bill for 2012 went to support further spending on housing, education, foreign aid, and other programs for which there is no constitutional role for the federal government. On The New American magazine’s latest Freedom Index, matching congressional votes with the strictures of the Constitution, Ryan’s rating for the 112th Congress to date was an anemic 67 percent.

Paul Ryan is, in short, a typical Bush-era Republican, whose selection as a vice presidential candidate is being trumpeted as a triumph by many of the same Republicans who are doing their best to flush the administration of George W. Bush down the memory hole. Republican candidates almost never invoke the Bush name and the most recent Republican President will not be attending the party’s convention in Tampa, where Romney and Ryan are expected to be officially nominated. Chances the name of the 43rd President will be mentioned in rare fleeting reference, if at all. Yet in his choice of running mate, Romney has chosen a loyal Bush Republican and reliable supporter of the programs and policies that made the Bush administration an anathema to genuine conservatives and an embarrassment to the nation.

Finally, the Ryan budget, while including a number of unspecified cuts in entitlement programs, would push overall spending higher than current levels. Despite its optimistic revenue projections, the Congressional Budget Office projects the Ryan plan will lead to a balanced budget by 2040.That suggests a rousing slogan for the Romney-Ryan ticket: “Slightly Less Socialism And A Balanced Budget in 28 Years.”

25 July 2012

24 July 2012

Across the universe

Hopefully, this is a trend. I came across two articles today--one claiming that a Dutch entrepreneur plans to begin sending humans on a one-way trip to Mars in 2023, and another claiming that NASA plans to send humans on a one-way mission in a large and slower ship. If we're ever going to live on and colonize other planets, this sort of bold thinking is sorely needed.

23 July 2012

NK shake-up

The recent Chosun Ilbo report that former Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Ri Yong Ho and his bodyguards had a firefight with soldiers accompanying Korean People's Army General Politburo Director Choe Ryong Hae when Choe went to dismiss Ri is quite alarming if true. Choe has climbed quickly in the North Korean military ranks in recent years. 

15 July 2012

Obama should apologize: Romney is certainly a job creator

BEIJING (The Borowitz Report) – After a brutal week in which he was booed by the NAACP and grilled by the media, Republican presidential choice Mitt Romney got some support from an unlikely place today: Beijing.

Manufacturing workers from across China flooded downtown Beijing to show their gratitude for Mr. Romney’s robust record of job creation in China while at the helm of the private equity firm Bain Capital.

While Mr. Romney’s feats of outsourcing have taken a political toll at home, they have made him a national hero in China, according to workers like Qiu Huang, who attended the rally.

“I owe my job to Mitt Romney, and so do many of my friends and family members,” he said. “His record as a job creator, in China at least, is second to none.”

Mr. Qiu said that if Mr. Romney ran for President of China, “he’d win in a landslide – he wouldn’t even need those billionaire brothers to buy ads for him.”

But the Chinese worker was surprised to learn that Mr. Romney had spent the better part of the week denying that he still worked at Bain during the company’s frenzy of outsourcing jobs to China.

“Why would you deny doing a great thing like that?” he asked. “That would be like denying you gave people healthcare.”

11 July 2012

Fathers and Sons

I just finished Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. While I generally love Russian literature, I must confess that this wasn't my favorite. As the title suggests, the short novel is partly a reflection on generational differences. The most memorable character, Bazarov, is a nihilist who seeks to radically challenge all views. Part of my difficulty warming to the book probably stems from the cultural and language gap. The significance of much of the interaction between upper-class Russians from the period is lost on me, and the translator clearly had a hard time conveying all the plays on words and use of dialect to mark social standing. In the end, I still prefer the iconoclastic characters in Camus' The Stranger, in Zorba the Greek, and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The characters in those three books were more fleshed out and sparked deeper philosophical reflections.

The God Delusion

I recently read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Dawkins presents a cogent argument against religion in general (primarily with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in mind). Unlike many books written for a general readership, Dawkins refers to a wide scope of relevant scholarship, citing and discussing particular studies in a number of cases. The book's a must read for anybody interested in understanding the atheist position.

8 July 2012

To Rome with Love

A few days ago, I watched Woody Allen's latest film--To Rome with Love. The film is a grand farce, of a very fractured sort, featuring great star power and the beautiful backdrop of Rome. The film didn't strike me as funny. If I hadn't seen it in the theater with other people and had been watching it at home on TV, I definitely wouldn't have survived to the end. This is something of a disappointment after Midnight in Paris.

2 July 2012

Conservative educational values alas

The Republican Party of Texas’s 2012 platform has a plank on education that reads:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

The first statement's an explicit statement of conservative orthodoxy. Of course, if you can't challenge fixed beliefs and the beliefs of the older generation, you pretty much can't have science or learning of any type. The next time I review a paper for a peer-reviewed journal, I'll have to try that one--"I don't think the paper should be published since it challenges our fixed beliefs and doesn't accord with what we all believed to be true three decades ago."

12 June 2012

The plebs have spoken

Stolen from Rook's rant.

11 June 2012

Prometheus and Another Earth

I recently watched Prometheus and would recommend it. Much in the movie is left unexplained, but the basic idea for the story (the existential question of what it would mean to create new life forms or to be a created life form) is intriguing. The film's a cross between sci-fi flick and horror film. I personally wish they would have had less focus on the horror element so that they could have filled in more of the sci-fi element. I also watched Another Earth--a much more low-budget film that adopts the unlikely premise that another Earth (with all the same people on it) shows up in Earth's orbit. For those hoping for a rich sci-fi experience, this can't be recommended since less than a minute of the entire film shows anything from the other planet (which isn't that interesting after all, since it resembles our own planet in every detail). The only effect used in the entire film is the Earth that's superimposed on the sky. That said, the film is very watchable, if not a bit melancholy.

25 May 2012

Rebellion as existential act

With the approach of Memorial Day, I thought that a recent article by Chris Hedges was very apropos (especially this paragraph toward the end):

Rebellion is an act that assures us of remaining free and independent human beings. Rebellion is not waged because it will work; indeed in its noblest form it is waged when we know it will fail. Our existence, as Camus wrote, must itself be “an act of rebellion.” Not to rebel, not to protect and nurture life even in the face of death, is spiritual and moral suicide. The Nazi concentration camp guards sought to break prisoners first and then kill them. They understood that even the power to choose the timing and circumstances of one’s death was an affirmation of personal freedom and dangerous to the status quo. So although the guards killed at random they went to great lengths to prevent people in the camps from committing suicide. Totalitarian systems, to perpetuate themselves, always seek to break autonomy and self-determination. This makes all acts of resistance a threat, even those acts that will not succeed. And this is why in all states that rule by force any act of rebellion, even one that is insignificant, must be ruthlessly crushed. The goal of the corporate state, like that of any totalitarian entity, is to create a society where no one has the capacity to resist.

Krugman on Republican plans for the economy

23 May 2012

Fake warriors and bizarre allies

In today's news, conspiracy theories abound. Jean Levi has an interesting article arguing the China's terracotta army is actually fake. In another piece of news of the bizarre, Pakistan has apparently imprisoned the doctor who helped the U.S. located Osama bin Laden.

22 May 2012

Climate Reality Institute's new ad

In response to the Heartland Institute's recent ad (which was rapidly pulled), the Climate Reality Institute is putting up the following billboard:

In the end, some people simply refuse to take into consideration the findings of science, preferring to trust in emotional outbursts by the talking heads sponsored by corporations that have every reason to be biased.

19 May 2012

The eight Nguyens

This tickled by funny bone:

For the eight students at a California high school with the same last name-Nguyen- it was obvious their wallet-size snapshots would be sharing the same yearbook page. So instead of exerting their individuality with the standard Grateful Dead quote and a prom-worthy up-do, they decided to join forces for the ultimate prank. Alexandra, Angela, Angelica, Elizabeth, Emily, Isabella, Madeline and Vi Nguyen all wore the same black off-shoulder dresses and the same hairstyles. Then they went for the win. Eschewing the optional yearbook one-liner under each of their photos, they divided up two sentences that made fellow students and administrators think twice before making any stereotypical assumptions. Altogether, the words under the Nguyen girls' eight pictures read: "We know what you're thinking and no we're not related." "Not to brag or anything, but I came up with this," Isabella Nguyen, one of the eight girls commented on her own Facebook page.

16 May 2012

Since when did we need a supermajority to pass laws?

WaPo has a good article about the constitutionality of the filibuster. The article makes a very good case that the current use of the filibuster was never intended by the writers of the Constitution.

4 May 2012

Do you still believe in science? Well, you're a terrorist.

According to the Heartland Institute, people who put their trust in science instead of trusting oil companies to guide environmental policy are "terrorists." Normally, I would make some snarky comment at this point, but this is just so over-the-top stupid that I'm momentarily struck speechless. I'm especially shocked that people would bother to take on "global warming" at this point, since it's a well-established explanandum (a set of facts to be accounted for by a theory). Clearly, if people all over the globe read their thermometers and the mercury is, on average, a little higher, the Earth is warming. I don't quite get what the rabid right angle is here. Is the argument supposed to be that scientists and lowly weather station bureaucrats all over the globe have secretly conspired to add a few degrees to their measurements (all the while, ensuring that they do so in a plausible way that would agree with weather models)? This is enough to send any sensible person into a coprolalic frenzy. The idea is so blatantly ludicrous that it would be rejected as a conspiracy plot for a third-rate spy novel. I suppose we'll be seeing more and more of this sort of idiocy if the Republicans gain power.

Others talking about this story:
New York Times
The Guardian
The Daily Caller
Global Warming: Man or Myth?

30 April 2012

Crazy vs. zany

25 April 2012

22 April 2012

Earth Day: A few reflections

Happy Earth Day! Today we reflect on the repercussions of our actions and our way of life. We're living through one of the planet's great extinctions. Unless there's some artificial creation of new viable species in the future (if such a thing is even plausible given the complexity involved), there will never be as many species on this planet as there were when I was a child for as long as Homo sapiens exist. In other words, if our planet does eventually redevelop the diverse range of species it once had, it will be in some far off future when our ancestors (if still around) no longer look or think like us and certainly do not hold our current values.

On the environmental front, many of the manmade pollutants we're putting into the environment, such as plastic in the ocean, will perhaps never break down during meaningful time scales. When the Earth is nearing its end and the evolved cousins of today's octupi and sea urchins head out to space searching for a new planet, they'll sift through the tiny plastic remnants left in soil samples and ocean mud and marvel at the destruction, shortsightedness, and selfishness of the ancient humans.

I really hope that we can all come together as a global community to work together toward a sustainable and beautiful future with a new vision of where we fit into the planet's ecology. We need a modern Daoist vision of our inherent interconnection with living systems and our environment.

Oil depletion and alternatives

Kurt Cobb has a good article about how oil production has remained relatively flat for years now. Unfortunately, alternative liquid fuels don't appear to be poised to make up the difference.

16 April 2012

Sad but oh so true

CTJ on Buffet Rule

The Citizens for Tax Justice have a good article advocating acceptance of the Buffet Rule--along with a switch to treating investment income like any other income.

[Excerpt] The most straightforward way to implement the Buffett Rule would be to eliminate the personal income tax preferences for investment income. This would mean, first, allowing the parts of the Bush tax cuts that expanded those preferences to expire. Second, Congress would repeal the remaining preference for capital gains income, which would raise $533 billion over a decade. When President George W. Bush took office, the top tax rate on long-term capital gains was 20 percent, and the tax changes he signed into law in 2003 reduced that top rate to 15 percent. The same law also applied the lower capital gains rates to stock dividends, which previously were taxed as ordinary income. If the Bush tax cuts, which were extended through 2012, are allowed to expire, then capital gains will again be taxed at a top income tax rate of 20 percent (meaning there will still be a tax preference for capital gains) and stock dividends will once again be taxed like any other type of income.

15 April 2012

Occupy 2.0

Occupy Wall Street is literally occupying Wall Street. Over 40 occupiers recently began sleeping on Wall Street across from the New York Stock Exchange. They're encouraging everyone angry at the greed of the financial system to bring a sleeping bag. Follow on Twitter: #SleepOnWallSt, #SleepfulProtest.

11 April 2012

Want a 22,000% return on investment? Hire a lobbyist

Lest anybody argue that money doesn't make a difference when currying political favor...

Alexander, R. M., Mazza, S.W. and Scholz, S. (2009). Measuring rates of return for lobbying expenditures: An empirical analysis under the American Jobs Creation Act (April 8, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1375082 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1375082

[ABSTRACT] The lobbying industry has experienced exponential growth within the past decade. The general public, the media, and special interest groups perceive lobbying to be a powerful mechanism affecting public policy. However, academic research finds inconclusive results when quantifying the rate of return on political lobbying expenditures. In this paper we use audited corporate tax disclosures relating to a tax holiday on repatriated earnings created by the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 to examine the return on lobbying. We find firms lobbying for this provision have a return in excess of $220 for every $1 spent on lobbying, or 22,000%. Repatriating firms are more profitable overall, but surprisingly, profitability is not a predictor of repatriation amount. Rather, industry and firm size are most predictive of repatriation. Cash on hand, a proxy for ability to repatriate, is not associated with the repatriation decision or the repatriation amount. This paper provides compelling evidence that lobbying expenditures have a positive and significant return on investment.

30 March 2012

Jobs numbers

I don't think Obama's been much of a president. That said, the Republicans are likely to do much greater damage if they're given the reins. As Romney goes on and on about Obama's mismanagement, it's important to remember just how dismal things were in the U.S. after Republicans had been allowed to pass out endless favors to their rich friends. This chart's very telling:

28 March 2012

Mad men

I really think the Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot with their assault on women's rights. I just can't believe that this demographic of white males pulled right out of a smoke-filled room in Mad Men, represents a winning combination at the polls. Of course, we'll rapidly stop hearing about all these "moral" issues after the Republic race is decided. Nevertheless, it's a reminder of how backward-thinking the party has become.

27 March 2012

The mandate issue

The tragedy of the healthcare issue in the U.S. is that we can't simply be up-front about it and pay the "mandate" out of taxes. This would eliminate insurance companies, which currently all demand their own pound of flesh, and get the debate focused on the key issues of costs and services. If the U.S. could do that, I'd actually be supportive of incentives for people to stay healthy (and extra costs for people who decide to pursue unhealthy lifestyles).

18 March 2012

Pavement indeed

This is a nice quote from a piece on Wall Street by Robert Reich:

The problem isn’t excessive greed. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement. The problem is endemic abuse of power and trust.

28 February 2012

The current cast of clowns

This comic's bizarre...but then, so is the entire list of Republican candidates.

14 February 2012

8 February 2012

SETI: Does it need a Dysonian approach?

Bradbury, Ćirković, and Dvorsky have an interesting paper criticizing SETI's current approach. An audio of the entire paper can be found at Dvorsky's site Sentient Developments.

2 February 2012

Fox news

26 January 2012

Bright minds vs. dark attitudes

Some of the correlations discussed in my previous posts receive further support from a recent study by Hodson and Busseri (2012). The study suggests that people who give in to racism and prejudice may simply have low cognitive functioning. The research also finds that children with low intelligence tend to hold prejudiced views as adults. These findings point to a vicious cycle, according to lead researcher Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward conservative ideologies, which, in turn, stress hierarchy and resistance to change, attitudes fomenting prejudice. Here's the abstract:
Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models. 

18 January 2012

Fat, stupid, ignorant, and devout

Have you ever noticed the odd correlation between conservative views and virtually every negative social trend? Here we have the 2008 electoral map:

And here you have recent state comparisons of obesity.

As would be expected, the correlation isn't perfect, but it's pretty close. Conservatives (especially those in the staunchly conservative bible-thumpin' south) tends to be fatter. This comes as little surprise, in a sense. Since conservatives can't believe climate scientists who tell them things they don't want to hear, why should they believe the doctor who tells them they need to shed some pounds to stay alive.

Recently, Gingrinch made some assinine claim that Obama has put more people on food-stamps than any other president (actually, Bush holds the record--mostly accomplished before plunging the country into an economic crisis). And if we look at which states put more people on food stamps, once again the red states are at the top of the pack:

Below we have high school graduation rates by county.  This map seems to line up pretty well with the above maps as well.

This helps understand why so much of the conservative rhetoric seems so juvenile. Many of the targeted voters have the education levels of children. This doesn't bode well for conveying complex environmental issues to the public. Since the uneducated have no benchmark to tell if the media is exaggerating any scientific finding, I don't know how to interpret the following chart. But the difference is stark.

Uneducated populations are also easily swayed by corporate propaganda demonizing unions, so it comes as little surprise that the red states tend to have less union representation (and hence, tend to have low wages). Research has shown that not just individuals but states as well benefit from unionization.

We should also mention that it's a bit odd that conservatives want to get rid of the nanny state since conservative states (along with several of the northeastern states) benefit most from federal aid relative to their tax contributions. If the conservative politicians in Congress are really so keen on getting rid of earmarks, they should start at home.

Many of the conservative states also tend to be the most violent:

And they tend to lead the country in per capita incarceration rates (the darker colors show higher rate, with over 650 per 100,000 people for the reddest conservative states such as Mississippi, Louisiana , and Oklahoma):

And they've led the U.S. in per capita executions:

Of course, many of these fat, ignorant, anti-environmentalist, violent, science-denying folks tend be "deeply religious." 

In short, the word "conservative" seems to be an apt label for a syndrome--a long list of psychological and cultural maladies--that wreak havoc on both individuals and communities. The U.S. would be so much better off if we could let the Republican Party die its natural death and allow the Democrats to fill the role of corporate-backed  corrupt party of political hacks (we only need one such party after all). We could then work on establishing a truly alternative party far to the left of the Democrats that could address real problems with real solutions.

5 January 2012