Monday, November 29, 2010

I see no excuse for this

There was a time when the leaking of secret government information served a useful and even noble purpose. I'm thinking in particular of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, the purpose of which was to inform and educate the American people about what the government was doing in their name. It was to expose wrong-doing in the hopes that the people would put a stop to it.

The event did have an effect on public opinion in those days. People were appalled that they had been so grossly lied to by their government and it helped to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. That was back in the days of our innocence when we still were capable of being appalled.

But frankly, in my opinion, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks guy, is no Daniel Ellsberg, and no higher purpose is being served by his organization's incessant leaking of confidential information. The only goal seems to be the greater notoriety of WikiLeaks and the greater glorification (in certain quarters) of Julian Assange.

There is no governmental wrong-doing being exposed, only private exchanges of information between diplomats and government officials. If these diplomats now come to the conclusion that nothing that they say in private can be held in confidence, how does that advance the cause of peace and international justice in the world?

It seems to me that WikiLeaks is leaking only because it can, and I learned long, long ago that doing something just because you can is not a good reason for it. It is the adolescent excuse for failing to exercise self-control and refusing to think through the consequences of one's actions. It is not a valid excuse and I cannot see any good coming from WikiLeaks' self-indulgent behavior.

If the rest of the world were grown up enough to simply ignore this adolescent acting out, then it would probably soon stop. Since the world isn't that grown up, I expect we will be treated to a veritable tsunami of WikiLeaking in coming months.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I love this story!

Remember Fred Phelps and his band of haters? In case you are fortunate enough to have forgotten him or to have never encountered him, he is a Primitive Baptist (primitive being the operative word) pastor of a socalled church in the Mid-West who takes a hardy band of his congregation members around the country to funerals of American military service personnel to stand and shout hateful things at the bereaved families of these people.

They shout things such as "God hates fags!" and "This is God's punishment!" Their theology is that the deaths of American service members in combat are the judgment of God on this country because of our "tolerance" of homosexuality. They are quite possibly the lowest two-legged scum that exists on this planet, but because our First Amendment protects freedom of expression, they are allowed to shout their vile filth and make the worst day in some grieving parent's or spouse's life even worse.

If you despise these people and their actions as much as I do, then you may also love this story from the Kansas City Star as much as I do.

Posted on Tue, Nov. 23, 2010
In Harrisonville, thousands line street to keep Phelps clan away from soldier’s funeral

By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star

As if a bell tolled a neighbor’s trouble, folks came running.

The first showed up before the sun Tuesday, huddling and shivering in the cold and the dark. Others soon came, and before long their numbers stretched a block on both sides of Mechanic Street in front of Harrisonville’s Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

People drove from three or four counties away. Buses arrived, bellowing exhaust into the cold, bringing loads of schoolkids and senior citizens. People took off work. Some brought dogs. Farmers parked pickups nearby.

It wasn’t a fire, but a burning sense of what was the decent thing to do for one of their own who had given his all.

By 9 a.m., an hour before the funeral of Army Cpl. Jacob R. Carver, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people, many of them waving American flags, lined nearly a half-mile of the street in front of the church, making sure Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church/family congregation were crowded out, peacefully kept far from shouting distance of the funeral.

“This soldier died so (Phelps) could do what he does, as stupid as that is,” said Steve Nothnagel of Harrisonville as he looked at the turnout. “I’m so proud of what is happening here today. This is a community coming together. I know it’s not just Harrisonville; they’re coming from all over.”

The call had gone out by word of mouth and Facebook: Come to Harrisonville, line the streets. Let’s protect this family on this saddest of days.

Not long ago, the same strategy against Phelps was pulled off in Weston. As one woman that day said: “We’re like any small town. We fight a little between ourselves. But today, we’re all together.”

By the time the Phelps clan rolled into Harrisonville, the only spot open to them was next to a Casey’s Store nearly a third of a mile from the church.

The seven protesters got out of their van and waved their signs and ranted their slogans that soldiers’ deaths were God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Opponents drowned them out with a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” and chants of “USA! USA!” and “Go home! Go home!”

“We can’t stop them, but we can be louder,” a man said.

After a near skirmish between the two groups, the Topeka group bailed before the funeral procession passed.

Angel Needham, 15, a sophomore at Cass Midway High School — from which Jacob Carver graduated in 2008 — said she believed in free speech and the First Amendment.

“I just don’t get why he (Phelps) has to do it at funerals,” Angel said.

With parental permission, Cass Midway students were allowed to attend the funeral and take part in the human buffer.

Carver, 20, a member of the 101st Airborne Division from Freeman in Cass County, was killed Nov. 13 along with four other soldiers in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan.

He came from a large family and joined the Army shortly after graduation from Cass Midway, where he played football, loved to dance, and was known as the boy who would take any dare.

“He was a really good kid,” said Principal Doug Dahman, who joined a group of letter jacket-clad students in the line in front of the church.

Next to him was a man from Platte City, who got up at 4:30 a.m. Farther down was John Yeager, who came as part of a group of Blue Springs firefighters.

“We’re here for the family,” Yeager said. “Nobody should have to hear that on this day.”

So many people agreed with that sentiment that officers from the Belton and Pleasant Hill police departments, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, and the Missouri Highway Patrol helped with crowd control.

Truck driver Tom Anderson said of the outpouring: “It’s heartbreaking and it’s heartwarming.”

As usual, the Patriot Guard Riders, braving subfreezing temperatures to get to Harrisonville, provided a motorcycle escort for the funeral procession.

“Look at all those flags out waving out there,” said Donna Byam, a member of the group. “He’s (Phelps) responsible for that.”

Her husband, Brad Byam, nodded: “A silver lining in a dark cloud.”


Just when I am ready to wash my hands of the human race altogether, I read a story like this and I am reminded that for all the Fred Phelpses and the other despicable people in the world, there are also a lot of people like those small-town Mid-Westerners who came together one day, despite whatever differences they might have, to protect and support one of their families and to show respect for a fallen member of their community. Furthermore, these good people probably outnumber the scoundrels. It's just that they live quiet lives and so they don't get the notice that the loudmouths do.

In the future when I despair of my fellow humans, I'll try to remember this story and I'll be thankful that people like them exist.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where are the jobs?

The big news in the business world today is that American business had profits of an annualized rate of $1.66 TRILLION between July and September of this year. That is a record. Those are the biggest profits ever recorded by American businesses. And yet these same American businesses are constantly whining that the Obama Administration doesn't love them and that they have created an environment that is hostile to business. Personally, I wouldn't mind a share of that hostility!

It was also announced today that the economy grew faster during that same period than was previously reported. The growth rate was 2.5% instead of 2%. That's nothing to shout about, but it is a clear indication that, thanks to government assistance that pulled it out of a deep, deep hole, the economy is moving in the right direction. We've now had five consecutive quarters when the GDP grew.

So why hasn't this good news for business translated into more job creation? While some jobs are being created, the unemployment rate stubbornly stands at around 9.6%. Businesses are just sitting on their profits, giving bonuses to upper management, and rewarding their shareholders, while at the same time doing little or nothing to put people back to work. Simultaneously, they are complaining, bitching, and griping about the "anti-business" president and giving money to his foes who are trying to bring him down. Talk about ingrates!

Since Obama came into office, American taxpayers have bailed out General Motors and Chrysler and have given hundreds of billions of dollars to mortgage and insurance companies that were on the ropes. Tax cuts have been given to businesses that were supposed to pass this money along by expanding their businesses and hiring new workers. An economy that was teetering on the edge of Armageddon has been brought back from the brink and stabilized. So where are the jobs, Mr. Businessmen?

Republicans never tire of telling us that all we need to do is make the Bush tax cuts for the very, very wealthy permanent and that will create jobs. Well, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy have been in effect for ten years, and, during most of those years - the years of the Bush presidency - there was negative job creation. Though that has turned around in the last two years, the hole was so deep that it is taking a while to climb out. But, according to Republican orthodoxy, there never should have been a hole, because those tax cuts for the rich should have magically created all kinds of jobs!

In this time of the highest profits in recorded history when the very rich have had the benefit of the lower "job creating" taxes for ten years, it is high time we asked those people and their Republican allies, "WHERE ARE THE JOBS???"

Monday, November 22, 2010

This is REALLY depressing!

I read Bob Herbert's latest column in The New York Times and now I'm so depressed that I just want to curl up into a tiny fetal ball and pull the covers over my head. The topic of this column - as are the topics of most of his columns - is the state of the country. He doesn't pull any punches regarding what he believes that state to be.

"We're in denial about the extent of the rot in the system, and the effort that would be required to turn things around. It will likely take many years, perhaps a decade or more to get employment back to a level at which one could fairly say the economy is thriving."


This is especially true since one of the major political parties in the country is not interested in governing or in trying to make things work better. Instead, they are betting everything on doing nothing and letting the country slide ever farther into decline and decay in the hope that that will limit President Obama to one term. That is their only concern, their only goal - ending the Obama presidency by any means necessary. If the country and the American people have to suffer in order for them to achieve their goal, well, then, so be it!

As Herbert writes, "The wreckage from the recession and the nation's mindlessly destructive policies in the years leading up to the recession is all around us. We still don't have the money to pay for the wars that we insist on fighting year after year. We have neither the will nor the common sense to either raise taxes to pay for the wars, or stop fighting them." (My emphasis.)

A country that the rest of the world used to look to for leadership and good ideas has become completely obsessed with following policies that are against our best interests and which the world can see are entirely bogus.

Again, Herbert: "All we are good at is bulldozing money to the very wealthy. No wonder the country is in such a deep slide."

The economic inequities in our society between the very, very, very rich and all the rest of us are growing daily, and one of the major political parties in the country is totally dedicated to seeing that those inequities continue and increase and are made permanent.

"America will never get its act together until we recognize how much trouble we're really in, and how much effort and shared sacrifice (My emphasis.) is needed to stop the decline. Only then will be be able to begin resuscitating the (American) dream."


There was a time in our history when shared sacrifice was accepted as a good thing. It gave everyone a stake in their country. No more. The only sacrificing today is done by the working and middle classes. The rich are not asked for any sacrifice at all and so they have no stake in the country and are not interested in seeing it work.

And that is why I am so depressed. I no longer believe it is possible for us to get back to a place where shared sacrifice is considered a good and noble thing. Not as long as one major political party and all their rich allies bend all their efforts toward defeating the idea. I am afraid that Bob Herbert has got it just about right.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter: The beginning of the end

My daughters have been big Harry Potter fans virtually from the publication of the first book. They grew up with Harry and, in a sense, I did, too.

I read all the books and I've seen all the movies along the way so I was very interested in the opening today of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Of course, I had to see the film and so did my daughters and so we went together to wallow in the Harry experience along with other besotted fans.

We saw the movie at a mid-day showing at an IMAX theater, which was a bit overwhelming actually. The theater was perhaps two-thirds full, so crowds were not an issue as they will be for later showings.

If you have followed the saga of Harry, then you know that this movie is based on the last book in the series, but only part of that book - thus the Part 1 of the title. The last book was the biggest and darkest of the series and trying to fit all of the action into one movie would have made for a very long movie. Besides, dividing it into two movies allows the owners of the franchise to prolong the action that much longer, and, let's fact it, to make a lot more money.

Now, I'm not a movie critic and obviously I cannot give you a critic's analysis of the film, but, as a fan, I enjoyed it. I thought it was mostly true to the book.

This movie brought home to me more than the others, and even more than the books, just how much J.K. Rowling was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were many bits and pieces here that seemed to be homages to Tolkien and the main story of this beginning of the end is Harry's lonely quest, along with Hermione and Ron, to destroy the evil Horcruxes, mirroring Sam and Frodo's lonely quest to destroy the One Ring.

This movie, as the last one did, portrays the deaths of some of the characters that we have come to care about, but the main action is all about the Big Three and, although they suffer, they survive safe and intact as a unit. A unit that will continue their lonely quest in Part 2 of "the end" in the movie to be released next summer. I'm setting my calendar now.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

This law helps a lot of people. Let's repeal it!

A friend sent me a link to a conservative blog today. Out of politeness, I took a look at it and one of the first posts that I found was a diatribe against what she and her ilk are pleased to call "Obamacare". She ended her post by saying that the Republicans have two years to repeal this socialist monstrosity and the clock is ticking. Tick. Tick. Tick.

She didn't address exactly how the Republicans are to do this. She and other people of her opinion and level of political sophistication seem to think that all John Boehner has to do is wave his magic wand like Harry Potter and everything will go back to the way it was. It will be as if the Health Care Reform Act never happened and that is what these people so desperately want.

Yes, apparently they really do want the health insurance companies once again to be able to kick people off their insurance coverage when they get sick.

They want the insurance companies to be able to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

They want anyone who is not able to afford coverage under current conditions to have to go to the emergency room for treatment - the most expensive treatment there is.

They want the poor beleagured insurance companies to be able to put a lifetime or annual cap on what they will pay out to their customers.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that passage of the reform bill would reduce the deficit by $138 billion - that's billion with a b - over 10 years, but these repealists would prefer that we add that $138 billion back to the national deficit.

They would also prefer that Medicare Advantage plans continue to receive overpayments in comparison to traditional Medicare.

They do not want parents to be able to keep their children on their health plans until age 26.

They want Medicare recipients on Part D to have to pay 100% of their annual medicine costs after $2700 is spent in a coverage year until they reach $6154 in medicine expenses. That's the infamous "doughnut hole" and that is $3454 out of the sick person's pocket.

They do not want small businesses to get tax credits to help them provide coverage for their workers.

Well, there is lots more in a similar vein that these misguided people would ram down the throats (to use one of their favorite phrases) of sick and helpless Americans. My question to them is, why do you hate your fellow citizens so much?

The truth is that most of the people out there demanding repeal of the law don't even know what is in it. They know what their fearless leaders like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh have told them and so they are up in arms and in full-throated cry against this "socialist, fascist" law. Once again foolish people have been persuaded by lies from liars to inveigh against their own public and personal interests.

Disgusting. There must be a special room in hell for people who mislead others in this way for their own political advantage.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A different and more sensible approach to cutting the deficit

After the co-chairmen of the presidential commission on reducing the deficit came out with their draconian proposal last week, it was difficult to believe that anything sane and sensible would emerge from this ill-begotten group, but, in fact, today it did!

Representative Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-09) is a member of the commission and today she released her own proposal to reduce the deficit. Here are her major points:

* Ending various corporate tax breaks (132.2 billion in annual savings)

* Reducing defense spending (110.7 billion in annual savings)

* Taxing Capital Gains and dividends as ordinary income (88.1 billion)

* Passing cap and trade (52 billion)

* Passing a robust public option (10 billion)

* Reducing agricultural subsidies (7.5 billion)


In addition, she recommends several other smaller changes that would cut tens of billions from the federal budget deficit.

Her plan also focuses on $200 billion in investment spending that would help get people back to work, thereby saving the federal government in unemployment benefits and raising tax revenues.

In regard to Social Security, she proposes raising the cap on the income for which employees are required to contribute to the fund.

Of course, Rep. Schakowsky's plan does not penalize the working and middle classes in order to subsidize the very, very rich and so it probably will not be taken seriously by the "very serious people" who make these decisions and whose only concern seems to be making rich folks richer. Politically, these ideas are very popular with the majority of the American public, but then so was the public option for health care reform and we know how far that got.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What do Americans want?

The lame duck Congress is back in session this week, with the memory of the recent election still firmly in their collective memories and the punditocracy's 24/7 analysis of that election swirling in their heads. The pundits, though, really only listen to other pundits and they wind up parroting each other and their thoughts then become "common wisdom".

In my opinion, the wisest and most perspicacious analysis of what the election means and what it shows that Americans want has come from blogger ginandtacos, from whom I quote freely here:

"1. Social Security reform that guarantees my current level of benefits, alters someone else's, and cuts everyone's Social Security taxes to boot.

2. A world-class national infrastructure that can be built and maintained without tax dollars.

3. A balanced budget that doesn't sacrifice any of the government programs – especially the sacred military-industrial complex and the various old age benefits – that we like.

4. Clean air without pollution controls, clean water with a neutered and underfunded EPA, and businesses that do socially responsible things without any regulation whatsoever.

5. Consumer goods at Made in China prices that create high-paying jobs in America.

6. Giant trucks and SUVs that drive like Formula One race cars, look cool, fit into small parking spaces, cost under $18,000, and get the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius.

7. Complete freedom and complete security at the same time.

8. An America that acts like a swaggering, sociopathic asshole on the global stage yet is beloved by all the nations of the world.

9. Wars against every enemy, real or imagined, all of the time, with no U.S. casualties and no effect on the budget.

10. Incredibly rich and rewarding professional lives while supporting our employers' right to do whatever they want to us without recourse.

11. A vibrant, consumption-based U.S. economy with good jobs for anyone willing to look for one resulting from free trade policies that encourage money and capital flows to cheap labor markets.

12. A highly educated workforce produced by a school system that requires no tax dollars to achieve excellence, students who have no interest in learning, and a virulently anti-intellectual society.

13. Closed borders and an endless supply of cheap labor to keep prices low.

14. To buy whatever we want irrespective of what we can afford while maintaining the drumbeat of personal responsibility.

15. Health care that is cheap, superior, and readily available to me without the danger of the same being enjoyed by anyone I deem undeserving."


And there you have it. That is all we ask of the new Congress coming to town in January. You might want to get a head start on the agenda, Mr. Boehner.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The big tax kerfuffle

Congress comes back into session next week and among the first things to be considered will be whether to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts. The question before the House - and the Senate - will be whether to extend all the tax cuts past December 31, 2010, including the extra added reductions for the very rich who have taxable income of $250,000 or above, or whether to eliminate those extra reductions in taxes for the rich and just keep the middle-class tax cuts. As usual, the Republicans have drawn their line in the sand in defense of the very rich and are insisting that they will refuse to compromise on the issue. The Democrats want to continue the middle-class tax cuts and let those for the very rich expire, but the White House has been distressingly wishy-washy on the issue.

I fail to see what is so difficult about this for the president and his staff. Mr. Obama has said that he wants to keep the middle-class cuts and that the additional cuts for the rich are just too expensive, and he is absolutely right. Furthermore, a significant majority of Americans agree with him on this. And, very importantly, probably 95% of Democrats agree. Most importantly of all, 100% of liberals agree! These are the liberals who did not turn out in swarms to vote in this year's election. They were demoralized and discouraged by President Obama's constant calls for bipartisanship, by which he seems to mean kowtowing to Republican demands.

We did not elect Barack Obama to be a Republican-lite president. We elected him because we knew the country was headed to hell in a handbasket and we wanted a change in direction. We wanted forceful, effective, and empathetic leadership from a leader who would try to improve the lives of the masses of Americans instead of just the bottom lines of his rich pals. So far what we have gotten from this president is an abdication of leadership.

In all the legislative fights over the last two years, he has left the heavy lifting to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, while he stayed out of the arena, above the fray. Nancy Pelosi has delivered everything that has been asked of her and she has been demonized by the right-wingers for her effectiveness. Harry Reid has had a tougher row to hoe because of the arcane rules of the Senate, but when the chips were down, he, too, has been able to deliver.

But how much more effective both of these legislative leaders might have been had they had the support of a third partner in their slugging matches with the opposition. If Barack Obama had deigned to roll up his sleeves and get down into the trenches with his foot soldiers and if he had perhaps thrown a few punches at the opposition instead of always holding up his hands and offering compromise before the fight began, the legislative record of the past two years could have been even more sterling than it has been.

Now Obama has been given another chance, perhaps a final chance in the eyes of the progressive/liberal base of his party. He can again choose "bipartisanship" and lose his base entirely or he can stand fast and fight for principle, knowing that Pelosi and Reid will be at his side and all that party base, as well as a wide majority of Americans, will be behind him cheering him on, because this is what we want. We do not believe that the rich should be given special breaks. We believe they should pay their fair share just like the rest of us. This is a fight that we cannot and must not lose.

Ending special tax breaks for the rich is not only a political winner, it is a moral winner, as well. If Barack Obama does not see that and finally turn and fight those who seem determined to turn this country into the banana republic that I recently wrote about here, then he probably will be a one-term president, and he probably will deserve to be. And we, for our sins, will be dealing with President Sarah Palin.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Donald & Lillian Stokes: A review

As an avid birder, I tend to believe that one cannot have too many bird field guides, so I'm always happy to welcome a new one to my overburdened bookshelves. In that spirit, I was very excited to receive my copy of The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America last week.

The first thing that one notices about this new field guide is its cover which features the beautiful Painted Bunting on the front, surely one of the most colorful and striking birds on our continent. On the back is another, smaller, picture of a Pileated Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker known for certain to still exist in North America, and one of the more impressive birds to fill our skies.

Then you pick the book up and the next thing you notice is that this is one heavy book! It weighs slightly more than three pounds. It's all those pictures, for this is a field guide that uses photographs to illustrate the bird species of North America. It features 854 species of birds, including all the residents and regular migrants and many of the accidental visitors to the continent. There are 3400 photographs of birds, each species shown in all of its significant plumages.

I think you get the idea. This is a BIG book. It is 5.5 x 8.5 inches and has 816 information-packed pages. And this is my only real objection to the book as a "field guide": I think it is just too big, heavy and unwieldy for the average backyard birder to carry into the field when looking for birds.

Donald and Lillian Stokes made the critical decision early on to include all the birds in one volume rather than dividing it into two volumes of eastern species and western species as, for example, David Sibley did. Sibley, in fact, first published one big volume with all the birds in 2000, but then three years later came out with the two volumes, which are smaller, lighter and more easily carried into the field.

Including all the birds in one volume is a valid approach and has some advantages. One big advantage would be that when eastern birds wander west or western birds wander east, as birds will do, you can more easily find them in your one volume, rather than switching back and forth. And, of course, if you are taking a cross-country birding trip, it is useful to only have to take one volume. However, I think that, rather than a "field" guide, I am more likely to use this book as a back-up reference book. I'll continue to take the smaller Sibley into the field with me, but when I get back to the car, I'll look the bird up in this book and compare what I've seen to what appears there.

An added feature of the book which may prove useful especially to beginning birders and to those who enjoy birding by ear is that it comes with a CD with over 600 sounds of 150 common birds.

There is, in short, much to recommend this gorgeous book, especially if you are a birder who prefers a photographic field guide rather than one with drawings. If the weight of the book doesn't bother you, this may be the guide for you. And if the weight does bother you, it can still be a valuable back-up reference for you, as it will be for me.

(Full disclosure: I was sent a free copy of this book by the publisher for purposes of this review.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salute!

It's Veterans' Day. That means that our younger daughter is engaged in one of her favorite rituals with her dad - doing an all-day movie marathon of war movies. They do this every Veterans' Day. It's daddy/daughter bonding time.

Recently my daughter did a story for the Houston Library about their ritual. In her entry, she posted a couple of pictures of her father as a very young, very skinny soldier attached to the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. If you follow one of the links she gave (Battle of Hamburger Hill), you can read an account that that young soldier wrote about that dreadful battle. You can also follow her links to see a list of favorite World War II movies. It's these movies that make up the bulk of their movie marathon and there are some really good ones there.

As for me, I don't do war movies anymore. As a young girl, I used to watch them with my father, the World War II veteran, so history is repeating itself in our household. But then I grew up and along came Vietnam and I spent many years watching that war on television news every night. Along the way, I lost some friends and acquaintances in that conflict and that quelled my appetite for ever again watching war movies.

But it is important to have rituals, and it is important to remember and to honor the service and sacrifice of members of our military both past and present. And so, on this Veterans' Day, I salute my favorite veteran, who is now happily ensconced watching WWII flicks with his daughter, and all veterans, as well as those still active in the military. Stay well. Stay safe. And thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Would you trust your plumber to do your root canal?

While sitting in my dentist's chair today waiting for his recommendation on whether or not to proceed with a root canal, my mind wandered to something I had read in Skeptical Science earlier today. The blogger was discussing the tendency of some who have expertise in one area to assume that they are experts in other fields as well. Thus, you might have, to use one of his examples, a perfectly competent gardener who claims to be expert in ichthyology, even though he has never studied the biology of fish.

This tendency seems very prevalent in the field of climate science. You have all kinds of people who may be knowledgeable in one field of study claiming expertise in regard to what the real climate scientists refer to as global climate change or anthropogenic (man-made) global warming.

Most often, these people from other fields who bill themselves as experts on climate science are global climate change deniers. They are absolutely certain (or claim to be) that the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by liberals to make us give up our gas-guzzling cars and our air-polluting factories. They maintain this certainty even though more than 95% of climate scientists - i.e., the people who have studied this and have ACTUAL expertise as opposed to PRETEND expertise - state unequivocally that global climate change is happening and that it is largely caused by human activity.

I can't think of any other subject matter where this would be acceptable to a large number, perhaps even a majority, of Americans. How many of them do you suppose would allow their plumber to perform a root canal for them? And yet, in regard to this one topic, they will listen to and accept opinions from people who are absolute idiots on the subject.

As for myself, I prefer to listen to the people who actually know what they are talking about and are not receiving financial inducements from Big Oil and other notorious polluters to say what they say.

I wouldn't let my plumber or Glenn Beck do my root canal, either.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brazil takes another step into the future

The U.S.A. was not the only Western Hemisphere country to hold an election last week. Far to the south, the giant of South America, Brazil held its presidential election. Like Chile and Argentina before it, Brazilians elected a woman, Dilma Rousseff, to be their new chief executive. In this, of course, they are all three more advanced and forward-looking than the United States which has yet to give that position to a woman.

Brazil is an interesting story. It is a country on the move and is beginning to make its mark on the world stage. Its president for eight years has been Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and he probably would have been elected again but he was barred by term limits from seeking the office. And so he personally chose Ms. Rousseff, who had served as his chief of staff and energy minister, as his successor. He campaigned tirelessly for her.

Even so, she was not able to gain a clear victory in the first round of the election in which there were three candidates. In the second round, she was running against Jose Serra, the former governor of Sao Paolo and she defeated him handily, 56 to 44 percent.

The da Silva presidency has, by most accounts, been a very good thing for Brazil and the voters strongly indicated a preference for continuing his left-leaning economic and social policies which have given the country economic stability and lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle classes. Ms. Rousseff promised to focus on eradicating poverty and giving the state greater control over the economy. She wants to build millions of low-income houses, expand a community policing program and improve the quality of education and public health care.

Imagine a candidate offering a platform of enhanced safety net and social programs, with nary a word about tax cuts for the rich. And she won! Good for you, Brazilians. You've taken a giant step into the future. I hope that some day my own country will be sufficiently forward-looking to join you there.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The banana republic of North America

When I was growing up, the term "banana republic" was a pejorative used to deride certain Central and South American countries that had great inequalities in their societies and were constantly prey to having their governments overthrown, either from without or within. These days, most of those countries are making strides toward a more equal and just society. Their governments are elected by popular vote and, for the most part, they work toward improving the lives of their people rather than just enriching an oligarchy of corporate and military interests that spends its time raping the land and taking all the wealth without putting anything back. No, if you are looking for a banana republic today, you can look a lot closer to home. Like out your front door.

In the United States today, 1 percent of the population takes home about 24 percent of the income. C.E.O.s of our largest companies earn more than 500 times what the average worker earns! During the period 1980 to 2005, the richest 1 percent of our populace received more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes. These people are doing very, very well while the rest of us are falling farther and farther behind. And yet there are those in government, many of them newly elected, who will tell you that these people should not pay any taxes, that to require any financial sacrifice from them will depress the economy. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that one of the prime forces suppressing growth is the society's economic inequality, the wide chasm that exists between the very, very, very rich and all the rest of the population.

Our country does not need giveaways for the rich. Our country needs a massive jobs program to put our unemployed masses to work. We need a program to make the infrastructure of this country strong again. Those two needs could easily be meshed to solve two problems at once, if only our government had the foresight and will to do it.

But already, one week after the election, all you hear about is 2012. The politicians are already running for the 2012 election. They are not concerned about the country or about the people's needs. They are only concerned about their own desire to hold onto and enhance their power at any cost. And those few politicians who really are concerned about the country and try to do what is right for it rather than what serves their own interests can expect to be vilified, ridiculed, and derided for the next two years. It takes a very strong person to stand up to all those vested interests and the liars who serve them.

Poor U.S.A., where the rich get richer and the poor have no hope and no help. What a sad state of affairs in which to find ourselves. When I was growing up, I would never have thought that I would see this day. The day when my own country became a banana republic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A review

It was only a coincidence that I happened to be reading this book during this week of the election. Or was it? Perhaps it was kismet. Fated to be.

Gary Shteyngart's latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a dystopian novel set somewhere in the near future in America when society is falling apart and the Chinese are just about to foreclose. This is a society that is obsessed with the individual's credit ratings and with what the chemical analysis of the blood shows about one's health condition and long-term prospects. It's a society where extending life - it is hoped to eternity - is a worthy and sought-after goal. It is a society divided into HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and LNWIs (Low Net Worth Individuals) and you don't want to be an LNWI. The main activity of the HNWIs is shopping. The main activity of LNWIs is trying to find what they need to stay alive.

In this world, the United States is at war with Venezuela and there are National Guard checkpoints all around New York. Except some of them are not NG but are contractors. Books are considered disgusting, papery-smelling anachronisms that nobody who is anybody reads. Instead, people scan for data with an instrument called an apparat, which sounds something like a 10th generation iPad. They wear these things around their necks and are connected to the world by them. Not only can they receive information, but they can constantly stream the wearer's thoughts, conversations, as well as credit ratings and sexual desirability to the world. The latest clothing fad among girls is something called Onionskin jeans, which is just what it sounds like - transparent jeans that show off one's genitalia to the world.

Living in this nightmare world and trying to make sense of it is Lenny Abramov. He is nearing forty and his credit rating is sky-high, but his sexual desirabilty rating is pretty low. He is the son of Jewish Russian immigrants and he has never had a good experience in love. His self-esteem is microscopic, almost non-existent.

While in Italy, Lenny meets Eunice Park, American daughter of Korean immigrant parents, whose life history in many ways mirrors Lenny's, except that she is much younger and she is hot! Lenny finds himself falling in love with her and slowly, slowly, through a set of convoluted familial circumstances, Eunice comes to love Lenny, too. They are a mismatched couple and somehow you just know this isn't going to turn out well. And it doesn't.

This is a satire about a future America that has become ungovernable and is on the brink of fiscal collapse. Actually, it sounds like it might be the day after tomorrow. I guess that it should comfort us to know that even in such a place and time, love is still possible. Even if it is super sad.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Did you hear the one about...

Did you hear about President Obama's $200 million a day trip to India? Or is it, as Glenn Beck said, a $2 BILLION a day trip?

Well, actually, of course, it is neither. It's another one of those stories, of which there seems to be an endless stream, that has been made up out of thin air by some right-wing nut and is then repeated 24/7 on the Fox "News" Network as if it were fact. Soon it becomes a part of the "truthiness" accepted by gullible people, and, the first thing you know, millions of people believe it and are repeating it as gospel! It never occurs to them to stop and think about the source of the story or to wonder about that astronomical figure. They heard it on Fox so it must be true.

And that is exactly what is wrong with this country. People have lost the ability to reason and to think logically. They are fed a pablum of lies from a source in which they devoutly believe and they never question it.

Consider the fact that the war in Afghanistan costs roughly $190 million a day. Does it seem likely to you that a diplomatic trip would cost as much as a war?

For security reasons, the Pentagon and the Secret Service will not release information about the true cost of the trip, but we know that even the most expensive presidential trips in the past have cost about $5-$6 million. I think that we can probably safely make the assumption that this trip will be in line with those figures.

But, never fear! I feel quite sure the new Republican Congress will be more than happy to spend the next two years investigating this matter and will probably end up trying to impeach the president over it.

Haven't we seen this movie before?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thank you, Madame Speaker (with update)

Nancy Pelosi has been Speaker of the House for four years, the first woman to hold that position. During her tenure, she has arguably been one of the most effective Speakers ever to hold the position. She has maintained the discipline of the House and, more importantly, the discipline of her Democratic caucus, a process often compared to herding cats.

When the economy of the country and the world tanked during the last years of the Bush administration, she worked with members of that administration, regardless of political differences, to stave off disaster. She helped get the Bush bank bailout package passed. For her efforts she was later vilified by Republicans and demonized as if she had been the author of that package, even though she got it passed at the behest of Bush and his Treasury officials.

When the Democrats won big in 2008, she worked with the Democratic White House to get their agenda through Congress. She was remarkably successful, passing just about every initiative presented by the White House. Health Care Reform. Wall Street Reform. Financial Recovery Act to stimulate the sick economy, an act, by the way, which gave tax cuts to 95% of Americans. College Loan Reform. Increase in the minimum wage (first time in 10 years). All of these and many more were passed under her strong leadership. Many initiatives were passed by her Congress only to get bogged down in the arcane and anti-democratic structure of the Senate, but that's another story.

What did she get for all this hard work on behalf of the American people? She was demonized, vilified, called every vile name in the book by Republicans, and even some of her Democratic caucus ran away from her during the recent election. They were the Blue Dogs of the caucus and, interestingly, almost every one who repudiated Pelosi's leadership lost. Perhaps there is some justice after all.

Now some of the surviving members of the Blue Dog Democrats are saying they will oppose Pelosi for Minority Leader in the next Congress. In fact, she hasn't said yet whether she will run for the position. I hope she does and I hope she wins. She is one of the few Democrats in the legislative branch of government today that I can truly, unabashedly admire. She is a strong woman, a strong leader, and, god knows, we need strong leadership at this time.

So, thank you, Speaker Pelosi, for all that you have done for ungrateful Americans. History will judge your Speakership. I expect it will judge kindly.

UPDATE: Here's more (and much better written!) commentary on the subject.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

VOTE!!!

IT'S ELECTION DAY. VOTE LIKE YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE DEPENDED ON IT!

(Because it does, you know.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ignorance x Laziness x Hubris = Stupid Behavior

I have a lot of peeves. The older I get, the crankier I get, and I am frankly irritated beyond belief by some of the manners in today's world. Mostly having to do with cell phones.

But there is one thing which probably irritates me more than almost anything else and so it earns the title of "pet peeve" and it is simply this: People who mispronounce the names of the countries of Iran and Iraq.

You hear it from politicians, from "newscasters", from military personnel who have served in Iraq, from ordinary people in the street. Whenever they talk about either of the two countries, they will invariably refer to them as EYE-rack or EYE-ran. It grates on my ears and makes me grind my teeth. It makes me want to grab them by the shoulders and stare intently into their eyes and say sweetly, "It's EAR-rock," or "It's EAR-rahn." Really, what is so very hard about that?

I believe that this ignorant behavior started as a deliberate insult to those two countries by American politicians who wanted to show their disdain for an entire group of people by refusing to pronounce the name of their country(ies) correctly. And they have now misled very large numbers of their own countrymen into the same stupid error. The only difference being that many of these ordinary people don't realize they are mispronouncing because they are just following suit of what they have heard on television. They've never bothered to look in a dictionary. That would require effort.

What is perhaps most distressing to me is to hear military people who have served in Iraq referring to it as EYE-rack. Dude, if you're going to invade a country, you should at least learn how to pronounce its name!

Now that David Broder, that Dean of Pundits, has advocated war with Iran, perhaps we will be be hearing veterans of some future conflict there referring to the quagmire in EYE-ran!

Honestly, this is just an example of ignorance compounded by laziness, multiplied by the hubristic assumption that Americans get to call people and their countries anything that we want to. Is it any wonder that we are seen by those people and countries as "ugly Americans"?