Sticks and Stones, 7/3/17

I hear the term "liberal elitist," and I wonder who they're referring to. Labels can be a convenient way to vilify someone you don't otherwise know anything about. Before there's a chance to get a complete, full-person picture, the hapless soul is tossed by the neck into a big cell with all the other miscreants, where the only thing you see is the big sign above the door.

I looked up "elitist" in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, and you first have to know the meaning of the root word "elite," which is "a group of people considered to be superior in a particular society or organization." That's not so bad -- in fact, quit a compliment. So, on to "elitist," which is derived from "elitism." The first definition is someone who believes that "a society or system should be run by an elite." Well, who would argue that a society or system should not be run by a superior person, a person of "high standard or quality"?*

Ah, but there's a second definition. An elitist could be someone with a "superior attitude or behavior." To be honest, by that definition, the first people that come to my mind are Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly, and I suspect that this is not who they're referring to.

-Blaine

* up until about a year ago, that would have been a rhetorical question.





Say "Ahh," now shut up, 7/2/17

Market-based health care -- you are not the consumer, you are the product. The sole purpose of business is to maximize profit, and the product quality control manager was let go long ago in the interest of this.

By the way, business pulls the strings in Washington. Why else would congress specifically ban Medicare from negotiating drug prices?


-Blaine





The VW Surveillance Tapes, 6/29/17

In 2047 somebody's going to be cleaning out an attic in Frankfurt, and they'll find a dusty box labeled "smelly dead rats." This intrepid person will open it anyway to find a stash of old surveillance tapes. Here's an extract:

First scene -- a noisy laboratory:
------------------------------------
- low-level Volkswagen manager: "What's that?"
- Volkswagen engineer: "Software we developed for characterizing the diesel engine performance."
- low-level manager: "I see. It's not part of the production software build?"
- engineer: "Oh goodness no. It's for lab use only. It maximizes performance at the expense of pollution control."
- low-level manager: "Right. Well, get back to work, and . . . remember, work better, not harder."

Second scene -- a drab conference room:
-------------------------------------------
- Volkswagen department director: "Budget reviews are coming up. I need to show product improvements in your group."
- low-level Volkswagen manager: "Well, we've re-designed the oil stick handle. It's much easier to grasp."
- department director: [simply stares at the manager].
- low-level manager: "We, uh, developed software that maximizes diesel engine performance. We use it in the lab only."
- department director: "Really? Is it effective?"
- low-level manager: [nods enthusiastically] "The engine outperforms most competitors."
- department director: "I see. Is it completed?"
- low-level manager: "Oh, yes. We use it only in the lab."

Third scene -- nicely appointed conference room:
-------------------------------------------------------
- Volkswagen VP: "Your hide is on the line. Performance reviews are coming up, and reductions are being mentioned. I
need to show progress for you."
- Volkswagen department director: "Of course. We're, uh, very excited about a diesel engine improvement that far outperforms all other competitors."
- VP: "Has it gone into production?"
- department director: "So far it's only been used in the lab."

Fourth scene -- an office with about $20,000 dollars worth of furniture:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
- Volkswagen president: "Your ass is on the line. Prove you're not the biggest loser in the company."
- Volkswagen VP: "Of course, sir. Well, I spearheaded an intense development effort to vastly improve engine
performance."
- president: "I'll need four slides for the Detroit Auto Show. Is this good?"
- VP: "It's awesome."
- president: "Okay, make that five slides."

Fifth scene -- same luxurious office:
------------------------------------------
- Volkswagen president: "What the hell is this? Why can't I present my slides at the show?"
- Volkswagen VP: "Yes. Well, apparently there's a slight complication that I wasn't told about. You see, there's these pollution requirements that--"
- president: "You're fired. Give me those slides."

Last scene -- an elevator whose only occupant is that engineer.
----------------------------------------------------------------------
The door opens, and the president enters.
- engineer: "Good morning, sir!"
- president: "Hrmmph."
- engineer: "Um, sir, excuse me for being so bold, but I was ordered to incorporate some test software into the production build. The problem is, you see, if we do that--"
- president: "You're fired."


-Blaine





The Three Percent Solution, 6/23/17

President Trump's budget proposal includes tax cuts for corporations and a 25% increase in military spending. He plans to make up the difference by assuming a 3% GDP growth over the next decade -- more people working and paying more taxes. Not in any one year, mind you, but 3% growth each year for ten years. Republicans argue that business growth incentives would spur the economy, but you still need more people to fill all those new factories and offices for ten years. The problem is coming up with the extra people, since we're at the threshold of mass baby-boomer retirement. Since the president abhors fake news, we can't let the 3% proposal stand without a solution. Economists have scratched their heads, and have concluded that these are our options:

      1) even if we reduced our unemployment to zero, it wouldn't be nearly enough. We could all work until we're 75;

      2) we could extend the work week from five to six days (no Saturdays off), or work ten hours a day instead of eight;

It's doubtful that even Trump's loyal base would go for any of those, and but luckily there's a last option -- in fact, the only viable one:

      3) we would have to double our immigrant population over the next decade -- forty million new immigrants over the next ten years -- the equivalent of the last 80 years of immigration jammed into the next ten years.


Well.


-Blaine





The Wisdom of Ben, 6/13/17

Benjamin Franlkin is widely quoted, but often incompletely. For example, here's the full version of an oft-repeated goody:
"Everything in moderation . . . except lead."

-Blaine





Being grownup, 6/12/17

When we visit a doctor for an ailment, often times our expectation is that he will prescribe some pills to fix us. Perhaps our first question to the doctor should be, "What am I doing wrong?"

-Blaine





"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.", 6/7/17

A lot of testimony on Capitol Hill this week regarding Russian meddling in our elections. Half of Americans are eagerly waiting to see if President Trump is caught with his fingers in the grinder (guess which half). Here's my prediction: neither Trump nor any of his staff actively solicited Russia about this. I believe that they are above that. My hypothesis is that Putin was out there probing around, seeing what mischief he could stir up. I don't doubt that Trump's men, and maybe even the president himself, answered the knocks on their (figurative) door, but if there was any discussion of tampering, it would have been the Russians making proposals, which -- and here I am going to fall back on my basic faith in people -- the men politely backed away from.

Here's the thing, though. The problem will be the president's ego (and remember, this is just my prediction). He can't bear the idea that he didn't win the election fair-and-square, that America -- at least half of America -- doesn't love him and cheer him on. Talk about Russian meddling infuriates him, because it implies that maybe he didn't win based on his own performance (not a figurative usage in this case). And so he tries to shut down the story, and, as president, he has extraordinary means to do so. Only problem is that with each effort, he just looks more guilty, until he eventually goes too far, and crosses the line of obstruction of justice.

Like Caesar and Napolean, it may be our leader's ego that brings his ultimate downfall.

-Blaine





The Greatest Nation on Earth, 6/7/17

I had all sorts of snarky comments about the world ready this morning, but I decided instead to simply quote from E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World:

"I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he'd love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of 'I,' he says 'We are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth,' his fellow countrymen applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot."

-Blaine





Wear Protective Glasses, 6/3/17

I've been giving this more thought. The Paris agreement was voluntary. The president didn't have to make a big formal royal announcement -- all he had to do was . . . not comply. Why the big show? I think it's because he likes to poke in the eye people, and countries, and institutions, and, well, I guess anybody who he thinks is not "really, really, awesomely, just fantastically" on his side. Take the travel ban. The stated reason was to have time to come up with a better vetting system. The plan called for three months. It's been five months since he could have started the process, which, clearly, he hasn't. It was never about vetting -- it was a poke in the eye of Muslims. The wall with Mexico? "We'll make them pay!" Come on. A poke in the eye of Mexico. Repealing the ACA? A poke in Obama's eye. Pulling out of the Paris agreement? A poke in Kerry's eye.

Apparently his fan base loves all this poking. Maybe they grew up watching the Three Stooges, and think that this is the way the world works.

Problem is, what happens when the world pokes back?

Oh yeah, the president's proposing a 25% increase in the defense budget. Cannons away! (Rememebr the draft?)

-Blaine





Our Own Club, 6/2/17

After leading the world in science for a hundred years, today, in one policy announcement, our country has declared its intention to take a back seat -- all the way in the back of the bus, in fact. Ignoring the facts, the administration uses simplistic, unsupported logic* to conclude that pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change will save jobs, when in fact, the exact opposite is true. There is no future in coal -- even China has admitted this. The USA has joined an exclusive club (the president goes for the exclusive clubs) of the only two countries on Earth** refusing to be part of the agreement. We stand, arm-in-arm, defiant against the other 193 -- the USA and Syria, our buddy. It's not the most prestigious club, but, by golly, it's our club. Let China lead the world from now on.

Facts: the world is round, the Earth orbits the sun, natural selection drives the evolution of all life, including humans, and man-induced climate change is real.

-Blaine

* President Trump cherry-picked outdated data regarding the effect -- the current scientific concensus for full participation in the Paris agreement is pojected to be between 0.5 and 1.1 degrees Celsius. Since the goal is 2.0 degrees, this represents anywhere from a quarter to over half the goal. That is not "tiny, tiny," by any means. Instead of railing against fake news, perhaps he himself should abstain.

** I don't include little Nicaragua, since it is holding out for sharper teeth in the agreement -- not the kind of attitude for our club.





A Popularly (Nearly) Voted Great Big Tattoo, 5/13/17

When teenagers pierce their noses and date bad boys, it's often obvious rebellion against their parents. They do it to piss them off, to show them that they can't control everything in their lives. I think Washington gets it. Can we get back to running the country seriously now?

-Blaine





Na Na Na, 5/8/17

Last week, House Democrats sang the "Na na na na" chorus to that iconic 1969 Steam ditty after Republicans voted in an Obamacare replacement. This was tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye for the same thing the Rupublicans did in the previous administration. Many (most?) of the House Republicans, on the other hand, who voted for the bill never even READ it (it was brought to the floor less than twenty-four hours after leaving committee). Perhaps we should make some room in the House, and install swing sets and teeter-totters. Clearly taking up valuable space with seats for respectful observation and careful consideration is a waste.

-Blaine





The Shopping Experience, Revisited 5/1/17

And, along the lines of virtual shopping (see previous entry), imagine twenty years ago walking along the aisle of a mall and stopping to gaze at, say, a green hat in a window. Maybe you aren't even interested in the hat -- maybe you're contemplating what to have for dinner, and the hat just happens to be in your line of sight. Now, though, as you continue your stroll -- you've dropped in to see if that book shop is still open -- all the other clothes store employees, and maybe sales people streaming in from nearby malls, gather around you, holding up blue hats, and yellow hats, and maybe even drums (you see, a complete trap set includes a high hat) -- all shouting to get your attention. First, you're just annoyed, but they follow you home. You wake up a week later, and when you go downstairs to make some coffee, they're all there, shouting louder, desperate to get you to look at THEIR hat.

Welcome to the wonderful digital age.

-Blaine





The Shopping Experience, 4/28/17

The definition of a mall: a 3-D visit to the internet.

-Blaine





A World Entranced, 4/21/17

I used to smile and nod at people on the street. We didn't know each other, but there was an unspoken sense of a shared world. There was an unconscious confidence that if for some reason I needed help, these people who didn't know my name would be there to do what they could. I now follow a zig-zag path as I dance around people oblivious to me and everything else around them. I often feel lonely out there.

It's my own fault, eh? I could join social media and luxuriate in hundreds -- thousands! -- of "friends."

I'll pass. I've always loved the birds and trees.

-Blaine





Milk Through a Cheesecloth, 4/6/17

When I was a teenager, I would drive a mile down our country road twice a week to buy milk from a small family dairy farm. The plump (we used that term back then) matron was a jolly, blush-cheeked woman who chattered away as she filtered the fresh milk through a cheesecloth to remove the bits of debris picked up in the barn (use your imagination). This was at the tail-end of the Apollo program. One time after a particlularly nasty thunder storm had just blown through, she told me that it was the rockets launching from the cape that was causing the bad weather. The cape was a thousand miles from us, and I commented on the fact. I thought she was kidding with me. She was not.

This was the Age of NASA, and as I drove home I remember thinking how lucky we were that Washington science policies were being directed by knowledgeable people rather than the average rumor-driven American.

Looks like our luck has run out.

-Blaine





Travel Adventures, 3/16/17

A significant portion of the voters who elected Donald Trump were in favor of a complete ban on Muslims entering the US. We see that the constitution works not only to keep the people safe from aberrant forces inside the government, but equally it keeps people safe from people.

-Blaine





"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.", 3/13/17

The ACA replacement working its way through the committees subsidizes health insurance purchase via tax refunds -- not based on income (i.e., not progressive), but rather by age. In the 11/27/17 entry, I stated that I'm not smart enough to solve the health care dilemma. Apparently the Republican Congress isn't either.

Here's an idea. After we build the Mexican wall (and they pay!), we can use the surplus material to build sturdy walls around our hospitals -- not, of course, to keep people in.

-Blaine





Harpo's Hand on the Wheel, 3/10/17

Pruitt, the new EPA director, said yesterday that mankind's CO2 isn't contributing to global warming. Now, there's a WTF moment. Somebody should take him aside and quietly explain that the "E" doesn't stand for "Energy industry." Stay tuned, surely we're going to hear that illegal immigrants are causing pollution.

It seems as though Trump's troop might be trying to undercut SNL -- after all, how do you parody a band of clowns? People don't have to stay up Saturday night, they just watch the news for a good laugh.

But, on the bright side, it is comforting to know that Trump and his cadre don't really believe all this crap they're feeding their loyal base. They don't . . . do they?

-Blaine





Ignorance Rules, 3/9/17

Many states -- New Hampshire, Virginia, North Dakota, etc. -- are proposing new voter ID laws. The legislators freely admit that there is no evidence of any measureable degree of voter fraud, that no legitimate study has found such. The lawmakers say that they are reacting to the apprehensions of their constituents -- they want to allay their concerns. But, where do these constituents get the idea that there is rampant voter fraud in the first place? Not credible news sources, that's for sure.

So let's just be clear about this -- states are enacting laws based on their acknowledged voters' ignorance.

Well, well.

-Blaine





"You're entitled to your opinion", 3/5/17

Are we? Is everyone entitled to their opinion? Actually, whoever first said that should be slapped. The idea that anyone can have an opinion about anything is not only seriously ludicrous, but extremely dangerous. It's plain as day, so why do so many people spout this as though it's the 28th amendment to the Constitution? Because it's more satisfying than the truth, which in most cases is saying, "I'm not qualified to come anywhere near a conclusion on that subject."

We Americans have been coddled to the point that we believe we are God's gift to the Earth. "The customer's always right." I know people who buys products, use them a few months, and then take them back for a full refund -- no questions asked. That this behavior ultimately works against the rest of us by forcing the manufacturer to raise its price is not the point. The point is that this fosters a sense of empowerment. We've come to believe that whatever flitters into our heads is an important foundation of truth, and a vital contribution to society.

To have an opinion about a subject, you should have sufficient knowledge about it. Do you, or I, or any politician seriously think that we know enough about planetary climatology to argue with 97% of the world's scientists in the field? Seriously? There's aspects of ACA (Obama Care) that I struggle with (actually, my wife does all the struggling), and I would love for a competent review towards improvement. To those who shout that it needs to be repealed immediately, I say show me the detailed studies about what's going to replace it, or, lacking a replacement, the analyses describing the effect on the national health care system of scraping it outright. You're probably going to have to explain a lot that's in the studies to me, because I don't have a background in health care administration and economics. Pease be prepared.

Okay, I've been railing about Americans and their God-given right to opinions, and I figured I'd better take a spoonful of my own medicine, so I looked up the meaning of "opinion." A bit of egg on my face, here. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it means, "a view or judgment not necessarily based on fact or knowledge."

Fine. We're all entitled to our opinions. Just keep in mind that, by definition, the worth of an opinion is . . . nothing. Don't confuse an opinion with a conclusion, which according to COD is, "a judgment or decision reached by reasoning."

I'm sorry to have to say that reasoning does not consist of simply repeating what Bill O'Reilly -- or John Stewart -- says.

-Blaine





Tweetable Philosophies, 3/1/17

Conservatives: I've got mine;
Liberals: give them yours;
Investment bankers and real-estate developers: give me theirs and yours.

-Blaine





Yelling Through the Legs of Elephants, 11/27/16

     Politics is divisive by nature. After all, there'd be no debates if both sides agree.
         Mayoral Candidate #1: "I'm for re-paving Main Street."
         Mayoral Candidate #2: "Oh yeah? Well . . . I said it first."
         Mayoral Candidate #1: "No. no. I first said it at the Lutheran bake sale last June."
         Mayoral Candidate #2: "Ha! I mentioned it to Mary-bell in March!"
         Mayoral Candidate #1: "Private conversations don't count."
         Mayoral Candidate #2: "Are you saying that Mary-bell can keep anything private?"
         Mayoral Candidate #1: "You win."
     Division in and of itself is fine -- opposing views form a balance, a means to find the middle path and avoid potentially damaging extremes. Think of contentious issues as a tightrope walker with a balancing pole; give him (her) just half the pole, and there's a mess on the circus floor.
     The problem lately (like, for a full generation) is that our nation has clumped all the issues in the universe into one big, angry box divided into (conveniently) left and right sides. You don't need to research and contemplate any one issue, since you have no choice about it -- you have to go along with the crowd jammed into your side. Makes things easy.      That's all obvious, and I'm not sitting here to write about that. I'd like to talk (a monologue, since I'm writing and you're reading) about two issues that don't seem to have the two sides of the box arguing different points of view. The first one is the subject of international trade agreements.
         Presidential Candidate #1: "I'm against the Trans-Pacific Partnership."
         Presidential Candidate #2: "Oh yeah? Well, I'm against NAFTA as well."
         Presidential Candidate #1: "Ha! I was against that in June."
         Presidential Candidate #2: "I told Mary-bell in March."
     The second issue is health care, specifically it's cost. You might have the impression that there's disagreement if you shout the words "Obama-care!" in a mixed crowd and step back to watch the fists fly, but the shin-kicks aren't about opposing methods of dealing with the problem, but simply that one side feels that the other has jammed a halfway solution down their throats. Let Obama-care stand, and it sort of looks like the left side won. No way.
     Let's look at each of these in turn.
     According to Wikipedia (God's gift to humankind), trade agreements generally "are concluded in order to reduce (or eliminate) tariffs, quotas and other trade restrictions on items traded between the signatories." The key word there is "restrictions." Without trade agreements, countries are free to impose taxes, tariffs, and quotas in order to control the flow of goods across their borders, to effectively manage the international market. This is, of course, the opposite of a free market. Ask any economist if trade agreements are good for a country's economy, and they all nod enthusiastically. An important measure of an economy is the flow of goods, and trade deals allow greater flow across the borders. Trade deals also mean cheaper products -- the Walmart phenomenon.
     Then ask them about jobs. Well, there is that downside. A free market implies that manufacturers are "free" to choose their method of production. Corporations are not in business to provide American jobs, they're in the business to make money. Of course they are going to go where the labor is cheapest.
     So, blocking trade agreements saves US jobs, right? Yes. Sort of. For awhile. The sticky problem is that the rest of the world doesn't go away. We'd all love to make America great again, like . . . when? The fifties? When the rest of the developed world was struggling to recover from WWII, and the undeveloped world was, well, undeveloped? To make American great again like that would mean using a small percentage of our nuclear stockpile on Europe and China, and letting Ebola run wild through the rest of the world. We'd have lots of jobs then. Of course, you couldn't go to Walmart and buy your 52" TV for $300.
     Okay, that was just a mental adventure. We're not going to nuke China (are we?). After we finish the wall on the Mexican border, maybe we can continue with economic walls around the ports -- trash the trade agreements. The products (e.g., that 52" TV) currently being assembled by dollar-an-hour Malaysians will now be built in America by factory workers earning a respectable living wage . . . which in America is, um, about $25 an hour.*
     Obviously not. Hammer together trade barriers, and US corporations are not going to toe the dirt, say, "Ah, shucks," and rebuild their factories here in the homeland. Ha! Don't make me laugh! Just because a corporation maintains its headquarters in the US doesn't mean that its market is targeted only, or even mainly, there. The writing is glaringly clear, scrawled across Detroit's abandoned walls -- throw up trade restrictions, and corporations will shrug their shoulders and wave a greeting to their new best customers in China.
     What's my point? Simply that we're screwed whether we whack the trade deals or not? Uh, yeah. NAFTA let US jobs slip away to Mexico. No question. This is a fact that both halves of the box can hold up as a bogyman. They don't talk about the endless aisles of cheap Walmart products, or tomatoes and avocados in winter. Jobs are like water, they find the lowest potential. All that NAFTA did was hasten the inevitable. We can deny it all we like, but the world is not going away. There is just one economy -- that's why it's called global.
     Well, that's pretty depressing.
     Let's turn to something positive. It's a well-known fact that the US has the best health care in the world. Assuming you can afford it.
     And, there's the rub. We hear all the time that the cost of health care is skyrocketing. There's multiple reasons for this: 1) the Baby Boomers are looking for a return on their life-long Medicare investment; 2) their children, the next generation parents, scurry off to the emergency room every time one of their trophy-toting kids sneezes; 3) we're getting fat -- sorry, but it's true; and 4) science marches on, and the breakthroughs in salvation it provides don't come cheap -- heck, the technology is expensive as hell.
     Two of these we can address, and one we can ruthlessly tear from the hands of the wailing white-hairs (including, ahem, me). The last one, alas, has no alternative. You want a full diagnostic suite to find out the cause of those nauseous night-sweats, the loss of appetite, and that odd little lump in your neck? You'd like the CT scan, MRI, and full blood workup? That'll cost around $5,000. Somebody has to pay for that. You have good insurance, you lucky bastard? Good for you. Somebody is still paying for it. Insurance companies don't grow healthcare dollars on trees (I couldn't think of a better metaphor). Take a step back. Way back. Turn around, run for five minutes, and look back. See it? All those dollars spent for all those trips to the doctor and hospital by all of us is shared by all of us, whether it's through our reduced wages so our employers can buy us insurance, or the Healthcare Marketplace. What happens when those $5,000 tests reveal a cancer that can be treated . . . but it's going to cost $40,000? Oh, and you'll need to take a drug each day that costs $200 a pill.
     If we take our hands away from our eyes and ears we have to admit it -- health care is expensive, and the average American can't afford it.
     That's a tough cookie to swallow. Without Obama Care, employers are slowly sinking under the burden of providing ever more expensive health insurance, while the developing world is eating their market lunch. With Obama Care, we all jump in the pool together, and it takes a few years, but we eventually realize there's not enough water to float us all. Either way, the life-saving wonders of modern medicine will become ever more restricted to the upper echelons of society.
     Maybe we expect too much. Speaking of making America great again (I was earlier), in the fifties, about half of Americans were covered by health insurance, and those that were had mediocre plans at best -- very few providing comprehensive hospital care. If the tractor fell on Johnny, Dad would examine the leg. If the broken bone was poking out against the skin, he'd tell Mama to bring the car around. Johnny might survive, but Dad and Mama would have to mortgage the farm to pay the hospital bills.
     Here's the results from a survey taken in 1963 and posted by Politifact -- the percentage of the general population that sought medical help for various symptoms:
          "pains in the chest" -- 25%
          "unexpected bleeding" -- 34%
          "abdominal pains" -- 31%
          "repeated vomiting" -- 40%
     The health care system wasn't burdened in the good old golden days because few people were burdening the system.
     It's a bitter pill to swallow (you can read whatever clever metaphor into that you like).
     I don't have the answers. I'm not that smart. One thing I am sure of, though -- there's two big elephants in the room that politicians don't want to talk about for obvious reasons. They stand at their podiums and yell through the elephants legs. We have to get them to reach up and grab hold of the tusks -- if nothing else, to get them to recognize the size of those damn elephants.
     If we don't get them to begin addressing the difficult problems, we're all going to be one big mess splattered across the circus floor.

-Blaine

* you may be aware that factory production in the US has actually increased since 2000, while factory jobs overall has declined. Thank the robots.





No Man is an Island, But We Try, 12/21/14

The United States likes to stand on its own. After WWII, we were savvy enough not to say it out loud, but the unspoken shared recognition was that we'd saved the world's butt. Superman doesn't ask for help configuring his smart phone after intercepting incoming cruise missiles aimed at the President. We weren't about to take advice from furnurs. Before the war, the buffering Atlantic and Pacific oceans were credited for isolationist views, and since the war, the combination of our muscular economy and Hollywood have allowed us the luxury of national introspection. With the highest standard of living on Earth, we don't want to go anyplace else -- instead, a large portion of the world wants to come here. The greatest modern purveyor of culture is media entertainment, and Hollywood's fare is all about Americans (with British and Australian side-kicks thrown in for a little spice). We live our lives watching ourselves.

The result is that a lot of us see the American Way as the only way. We define normal. When Thomas Jefferson expounded on the importance of an educated citizenry in a democracy, he wasn't thinking necessarily of algebra or grammar. He meant acquiring an enlightened perspective, the collective wisdom to know what is best for the country. You and I can't decide if our navy needs another battleship. Our sacred duty is to know and communicate how we want our nation to generally play in the world. Do we want to continue bankrolling the strongest military on Earth? If so, or if not, do we want our country to focus on pushing back against nations we feel are threats, or on slicing away at fanatical terrorists? Given a national direction, the President and Pentagon can decide on that battleship.

Concrete aspects of a global perspective are difficult to nail down, but two iconic American "normals" come to mind that serve to demonstrate how the rest of the world has veered off on different paths. The first of these has been controversial for some time, but has resurfaced indirectly in the news lately -- the second amendment. All European countries tightly control firearms ownership. A license is granted only when a proven competency and need is demonstrated, and, get this, self-defense in not considered a valid reason. Wander around Europe and, in urban areas at least, you'd be hard pressed indeed to find a gun in private hands. As a consequence, the patrol police in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Norway do not carry guns. In the last fifteen years, six officers in Great Britain were shot and killed -- not just on duty, but period. That's an average of less than one a year. For the last five years (the time period for which I found statistics), the number in both the Netherlands and Norway is zero.

In the United States, on the other hand, there were more than fifty police officers killed by gunfire last year alone. Exactly how many more than fifty is not easy to determine, since these statistics are not formally gathered. (In fact, the NRA each year successfully lobbies congress to disallow -- not hold back, but specifically dis-allow -- funding for the collection and compilation of gun-related fatality figures). If you were a cop on patrol, wouldn't you be on alert, your hand poised over your holster? I am not trying to justify unwarranted lethal force, I'm just pointing out that the types of incidents in the news lately could be -- should be -- predicted.

The second iconic American oddity is our health care system, or, more precisely, our access to it. We are the only country in the world that provides health care via employers (in the form of insurance). This system has been a fixture for so long -- for all of our adult lives -- that we view it as completely normal. But it's a little nuts. Really. Why on Earth would we expect our employers to provide us with insurance? We work, we get paid. That's how it's been for centuries, millennia. Other than a few scattered exceptions, health insurance (different from job-accident and disability insurance) didn't exist at all before WWII. If you needed to see a doctor or go to the hospital, you paid for it yourself, or you turned to any number of charity organizations. Employer-based health insurance coverage was born during WWII as a result of wage controls imposed by the federal government. In order to attract workers, employers turned to the uncontrolled benefit of providing health insurance -- it was a way to circumvent the government's wishes.*

What was born as a quirk of skirting government control, became a fixture as companies continued to compete for skilled workers during the post-war boom of the fifties. But this system is fraught with horrible holes and inefficiencies. Between you and your doctor are two middlemen -- the staff at your company who manage your insurance coverage (and the administrative cost to your company is not insignificant -- ask your CFO), and the insurance companies themselves, which are, let's face it, large, nicely appointed office buildings filled with people paid to do nothing more than decide if they should allow this or that procedure. What exactly do they bring to the economic table? They receive comfortable salaries to open and close doors between you and your health care.

And what if you are self-employed? I can speak to this directly. Back in the good-old days of the nineties, I could easily buy individual insurance, as long as I agreed to exclude pre-existing conditions for from six months to one year, after which I was fully covered. This was a reasonable risk, and worked quite well. Then congress decided to "help" us by eliminating exclusions of pre-existing conditions. You can guess the consequence. Yes, I suddenly had one hell of a time buying any insurance at all, and then it was expensive. Thanks Congress. We now have the Affordable Health Care Act, which is like the man who decides to jump the stream, but, at the last minute, decides instead to just take half a step.


I obviously hold opinions on these two subjects, and they are about as subtle as a hangover on Christmas morning. But the point I'd like to make is that whatever we embrace as national policies, the decisions should be made with open eyes, and recognition of consequences -- second amendment rights are going to result in accidental deaths, and a profit-based health care system has profits as its priority, not your health. To continue by tradition alone -- by default -- is the very opposite of an educated citizenry; it is the definition of an ignorant one.

-Blaine

* Franklin Roosevelt explored a national insurance program during the 1930s, but this was quashed by the American Medical Association, which fiercely opposed it, along with, interestingly, all forms of health insurance. The idea was once more floated by Harry Truman in 1945, but it was yet again scuttled by the AMA. Doctors apparently want to ensure the best in world-class health care for those that can afford it.





The Lesson of the Worm, 9/4/14

Few people in developed countries have heard of the guinea worm, but for thousands of years, this parasite tortured people of Africa and Asia.   Although not lethal, the worm can lay a victim up for weeks with extreme pain.   There is no immunity, and a person can be afflicted over and over.   The worm creates an open blister on the lower leg or foot that is excruciatingly painful -- described as feeling as though it's on fire.   The only slight relief is to immerse the wound in water, and for most of human history, this was the accepted treatment.

What people didn't know down through the ages was that they were infected by drinking contaminated water containing microscopic fleas that are carriers.   In the stomach, the fleas are dissolved, releasing the larvae, which then penetrate the stomach wall and move on into the abdominal cavity.   For months they live in your belly, maturing and mating.   The male worms then die and are absorbed, and the females begin their migration towards the feet.   They travel just under the skin, which is painful, not to mention horror-inducing.   At this point, the worm is upwards of three feet in length.   It looks like a long length of spaghetti.

Upon arriving at the feet or lower leg, the worm then pushes to the surface, creating the quarter-sized blister.   This is just the beginning.   The invader is not exiting, but has in fact arrived at its destination.   Curled up tightly inside the blister, it torments you with the afore-mentioned pain of fire, and protrudes just the tip of its butt.   In agony, you seek out the only slight relief available, and immerse your foot in a stream or pond.   This is precisely what the worm desires, as it now launches clouds of larvae.   Day after day, the worm drives you to the water so that it can propagate its children.   I'm sure you're beginning to see the cycle.   The microscopic water fleas eat the larvae, which live happily in their carrier until ingested by you again.

The point of this piece is more than just to give you the heebie-jeebies.   Soon, this terrible curse will be gone forever -- not because a cure was developed, but by prevention, which is, of course, to immerse your blistered foot in a bucket of water instead of the stream.   Eradication was so simple, but only possible once we understood the worm's life cycle.   This, in turn was thanks to science.*

So, here we have a nasty parasite that targeted not just the wicked or unfaithful, but everybody who drank water from the stream.   If God is directly responsible for all the universe, can we conclude that he meant for millions of people to suffer through the centuries?   If so, has science undercut this particular program?   Or did he intend from the beginning for science to relieve the suffering?   If God planned from the beginning for science to provide so much relief, to be such a (ahem) godsend, should we expect that he would let it at the same time be so wrong about something so fundamental as evolution?

Here's a worm specifically structured as a larvae to survive the caustic environment of our stomach, is programmed to penetrate through the stomach wall, wait inside our bellies until it has matured and mated, and then "knows" to migrate down to the lower extremities, where, when it specifically causes pain, it will be best positioned to release its offspring into an environment likely to complete the cycle.   The principles of evolution can explain, step-by-step over many thousands of years, the development of this particularly gruesome pest.

Take a step away and look back at this.   Wouldn't you much rather such a monster be created by unfeeling natural processes than a God who is supposed to love us?

-Blaine

* it took a while for science to shake off old assumptions in a few areas, this one included.   For some time, it was thought that human parasites were created by the victim's own response to an ailment -- a case of spontaneous generation resulting from reaction to the disease.





The Golden Days of Cronkite, 4/21/14

I have an idea.   This in itself isn't news, but it's an idea that I think worth sharing.   I doubt that I'm the first one to think of this, but if I am, then the scale of the problem is far greater than I fear.   I've just finished Walter Cronkite's auto-biography, and I am old enough to remember his denouncement of the Vietnam War escalation of the late sixties.   What was unusual at the time -- astounding -- was that a network news correspondent/anchor would step aside and deliver a personal opinion.   News objectivity was sacrosanct, and it was only Cronkite's prominence that allowed him this luxury.

In fact, for five decades after its birth, TV network news carried on the objective tradition inherited from newspapers and radio.   Occasionally skeptics would question whether certain news stories were quashed because of pressure from sponsors, but none (okay, none that I ever heard about) were ever substantiated, and the very fact that the very suspicion of news bending was itself news demonstrates the integrity practiced within the profession.

Now we have the internet, which was supposed to free us from the chains of spoon-fed network news.   Everybody could be their own reporter.   Nothing would remain hidden and unreported.   I believe that what has happened, however, is that it has illuminated in stark contrast the precious value of "corporate" media news.   It's not that corporate media by nature generates fearless objectivity, but only that this happened to be a dominant home of the unofficial journalistic guild, the torch-carriers of truth.   There was no good reason for their stubborn insistence on news integrity, beyond the judgment of their peers.   It was a tradition from which we, the public, benefited and perhaps too long took for granted.

For I greatly fear that it's day is passing.   The mash of internet information and mis-information free-for-all has handed opinionated loud-mouths a microphone, and the crowds they gather around them are the people who already fervently believe in what's being spouted.   The loud-mouths provide for the polarized clubs the fantasy that their biased beliefs are being substantiated with "news" information.

The network news organizations are still there, of course.   But whatever corporate pressure may have weighed upon them previously, must now be piling on the heat as the networks struggle daily to hang on to ad sponsors.   Thus Fox "news." But don't think that Fox is an aberration.   Oh, no.   Their success will inexorably draw the other networks into the game.   They won't all take up conservative muddle -- that easy one has been taken -- but they will find their culture market niche, and America will fragment completely.

The internet isn't freeing us from the bindings of corporate media news, it is allowing us to revert back to our natural fealty to the tribe, where now the tribe is not geographically determined, but belief-system.   The problem is that through all of history and for as long before as archeologists can discern, tribes defined themselves in opposition to other tribes.

And by "defined," I mean "waged war."

Oh, yeah.   One more thing.   The internet is world-wide, but of all the industrialized nations, only America allows its citizens to stockpile guns.

It's shaping up to be an interesting century.

-Blaine





Sliced Spaghetti, 3/30/14

My wife used to watch silently as I cut up my spaghetti with a knife and fork, and then eat it with a spoon.   She had long ago learned that to question my occasional odd behavior would mean reprisal in the form of a detailed lecture about practical sense.   Now she ignores me when we eat spaghetti at home, and I wisely avoid ordering it in public.

There's a lot of things we take for granted in life that are purely cultural, that we've always assumed are just the Natural Order of things.   We chuckle when we see Arabian men holding hands, or the Scot's kilt, but they are no doubt chuckling at a dozen inexplicable behaviors of ours.   From a practical point of view, forming pasta into long floppy strands, and then covering it with indelible tomato sauce is kind of nuts.   Unless you're adept with the twirling fork, either your chin or your shirt, or both, will be smeared red before the plate is half consumed.

Ah, but that's the point.   Eating spaghetti in public is a demonstration of your sophistication.   To carry on a casual conversation while supervising slippery pasta strands through their gravity-defying acrobatics proves your mettle and worth.   Everybody knows that this takes years of practice, and only the socially indoctrinated would bother to take the time.   Maybe the intractable spaghetti was invented by Sicilian Mafia bosses as a test of dominance.   Red sauce splattered across your shirt created effective camouflage for blood.

This is the sort of lecture my wife sidesteps by pretending that I'm not reducing esthetic food art to an ad-hoc form of SpaghettiOs.   She deprives me of the opportunity.   This might be one reason why I created this blog, why I took up writing at all.   It might also explain why she rarely reads them anymore.

-Blaine





Both Sides, 3/13/14

Douglas Adams relates a bizarre incident that happened in a London train station.  As he was waiting for his train, he decided to have a cup of tea.  He bought a packet of biscuits from a vending machine (what we would call cookies) and sat down at a table to enjoy his newspaper.  As he sipped his tea, another man sat down right across from him and proceeded to rip open the cellophane wrapping and help himself to a biscuit.  Douglas, being British, didn’t protest, and took a biscuit for himself, although wondering whether this chap was right in the mind.  The man glanced at him, and took a second cookie.  Figuring he’d better not dally or this strange gentleman would eat them all, Douglas hastily took a second as well.  Once they’d finished off the packet, one after the other, the interloper left, and Douglas saw that it was time for him to catch his train as well.  As he picked up the rest of his paper, he was astonished to find his packet of biscuits underneath.

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a month sailing among the windward islands of the Caribbean.  We were told by the charter company that boys of the islands would sometimes sneak out to where the sail boats were anchored and steal dinghies, and so we were warned that we should tie ours at night with the cable and lock they provided rather than a rope.  One evening while anchored, I stepped out to pee off the stern.  As I was finishing, I heard a sharp pop, and was amazed to see the dinghy drifting away in the wind.  I dove in and recovered the boat, which was fortunate, as it would have cost us a good deal of money, otherwise.  On inspection, I saw that the slim stranded cable had cleanly parted, weakened from the constant jerking in the eternal trade winds.  Here’s the thing, had I not happened to be peeing at that moment, there is no doubt that we—everybody—would have concluded that an island boy had snagged another prize.

The point, of course, is that jumping to conclusions can be dangerous: AIDs is God’s punishment for gays, Hussein is hiding WMDs, a soldier mistakes a scientific tool for a weapon and wounds Klaatu.  People have always been susceptible to this failing, this natural tendency to jump reflexively to a quick judgment, but I fear how it is exacerbated by the polarization inherent in the unfettered media that has exploded in the last decade.  Indeed, the braying-to-the-choir news and talk shows have become adept at roping us in.

Judgment should always be tentative, truth is an infinitely layered onion, walk a mile in my shoes, wisdom is having patience about achieving a conclusion.  All beneficent aphorisms, but the trick is to employ them every minute of every day, to apply to our judgments the same rigor we expect of science.  Remember that there is a British man out there somewhere relating the bizarre story of how a fellow traveler blithely stole half his cookies.  And, how many Caribbean dinghies have actually been brazenly stolen in the night, rather than found along the shore the next morning and salvaged?

-Blaine





A Bald Truth, 3/5/14

I enjoy reading examples of how evolution explains so much about ourselves.  Your sense of hot and cold, for example.  Stick your hand into cold water that you are expecting to be hot and it indeed feels hot for a second.  Your body can be confused between the two.  The reason is that, except for the mere last hundred thousand years, we’ve never had to deal with distinguishing the difference.  Humans have been using artificial heat—e.g. fire—for that long, but our basic sense of hot and cold evolved over a billion years.  For nearly all of our evolution, water in winter was cold, while in summer it was warm.  There just hasn’t been enough survival advantage to reflexively distinguish hot from cold water.

Or, the fact that a majority of people prefer landscape paintings of open meadows with scatterings of trees over jungle or mountain scenes.  Much of our intelligence evolved while we roamed the open savannas of Africa—meadows are our ancient home.  Or that Sickle-cell anemia has the benefit of providing a degree of immunity to malaria.  In mosquito-friendly environments, more people on average survived to procreation age with Sickle-cell than those with normal cells.  Or that newborns tend to look more like the father for the first couple of months.  Men want some confidence that the child is really sired by them.  A hard truth, that one.

All of that was an introduction.  You see, I’ve come up with my own example: an evolutionary explanation for baldness, or, at least, pattern baldness.  Most anthropologists believe that the hair on our heads is simply a result of sexual selection—in other words, merely an ornament, like a peacock’s tail.  So why would genes for baldness not be selected out?  One theory proposes that progressive hair loss is supposed to demonstrate a degree of maturity, and so induce an appeal of elevated social status.  This seems a bit lame, since if baldness were sexually advantageous, evolution would thin the hair of younger and younger men in an attempt to fake out the nubiles into thinking they had Sean Connery appeal. 

Here’s my superior explanation:  warfare.  A disproportionate amount of the tribe’s breeding stock were being killed in battle because their hair was getting in their eyes and tangled up with their spears.  Our ancestors probably tied back their bangs, but every once in a while the fastening broke—it was just a bit of vine, after all—and, whomp! he got a spear in his gut.  Note that pattern baldness depletes the hair just above the forehead, the hair that would otherwise be hanging in your eyes.  Those men who were lucky enough to carry the newest mutant baldness gene survived to sire babies who looked like them for a couple of months.

-Blaine




2/26/14
The 2,000th copy of my verilog text has sold on Amazon

 


 

Lies, Damn Lies, and Novels, 2/17/14

I wish more people lied.  Not to me particularly, but in general.  In my improved world, I would be, like, the only person they were completely honest with, but I could observe them lying incessantly to everybody else.  Or at least struggling with everybody else to tell the truth.*

I wish I could observe more people lying, because then I wouldn’t feel so abnormal.  You see, I have an inherent inclination to lie.  It’s as if five minutes after I was born, the nurse accidentally picked up the syringe labeled “liar” instead if the one marked “handsome.”**  I have no other explanation.  My parents and siblings don’t lie.  They tell the truth even though it often causes them visible discomfort.  I watch them wince and cringe, suffering the righteous path, as I’m instinctively fabricating lies in my mind for them.  I am forever amazed that, out of the infinite variations available in the barrel, they reach in and pull out the thorny truth, even though it pricks and slashes them.  It’s as though they aren’t even aware of the many sugar-coated alternatives, the Disney renditions. 

So, apparently I can’t shrug off my ugly flaw as a mere consequence of genetic inheritance, an unfortunate congenital deformity.  A voice whispers in my ear that my lying follows from simple laziness.  Or maybe just stupidity—I think that I am grabbing the easiest handles, when in fact I’m setting off a complex Rube Goldberg machine that eventually allows a huge mallet to swing down onto my head.  Maybe all the wincing and squirming that I observe is just plain old-fashioned forethought. 

I don’t know. 

And, it’s not just my family.  All my friends—every pure-hearted one of them—are scrupulously honest.  Either I am attracted to honest people, or—God forbid—they are attracted to liars.

But I try.  I really do.  I don’t want to lie, and I’m trying not to, but it’s not easy.  Constant, wearying vigilance is required. Just a moment of distraction, and I find my mouth telling our postman who had a hip replacement that my uncle had his entire leg blown off in WWII, but delivered mail for thirty years afterwards.  It’s as though the lies are being fabricated in an internal lie projector, and they pile up, creating a pressure that requires an outlet. 

Fortunately I’ve found that outlet, and it’s writing novels, which, of course, are nothing more than hugely elaborate lies—lies of monumental proportion, lies of such breathtaking scope that they expand to encompass entire worlds.  But like the little lies that I’m constantly biting my tongue to suppress, the novels at their core are real life, but with excitement and adventure layered on like sweet whipped cream.  An uncle delivering mail with one leg is just an extrapolation of a very real mailman, who lives a very real adventure every day.

-Blaine 

* My wife hates it when I use incomplete sentences.  It’s sort of like lying:  breaking rules we all agree on in order to gain a short-term benefit. 

** They did that back in the fifties, you know, until Eisenhower put a stop to it.  Crap.  There I go again with the lies.