Universal Translator

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

With Respect to Rationality

            By and large, humans are not good at thinking rationally, but, really, who can blame us? We have not had much practice at it. According to the accepted wisdom of anthropologists and paleontologists, by no later than 12,000 B.C.E. – approximately 14 millennia ago – humans already had spread to and settled in every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Yet we only started to make rational sense of our existence a few hundred years ago. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, nearly all human understanding of ourselves and our world arose out of a mythic, poetic, narrative sense – not a rational one. Of course, that is because “rationality” – properly understood – is not a concept easily embraced by humans. We are drawn to certainty and to firm, fixed answers, but for an idea to be rational it must be capable of being proved false. To embrace rationality means to embrace uncertainty, rationality’s essence.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Confessions of an Aspiring Buddhist

I am an idiot.  I think it is important to get that statement right out there, from the beginning, so that anybody reading what comes next understands how amazingly dumb I really am.

I started reading up on Buddhism for the same reason I tended to do anything when I was younger – for a girl.  Well, okay . . . for a woman.  I was desperately in love (unrequitedly) with a woman for whom Buddhism had become very, very important, and I decided to learn about Buddhism so that I could understand better what she was thinking about.

And it was an easy sell for me.  Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of consciousness.  What does it mean to be self-aware? What does it mean to be sentient? Can we create artificial intelligences and, if we do so, will we recognize them when they speak to us? What does it mean to be human?

These are all heady questions, and yet the same basic ones we all have been asking for millennia.  We dress them up with code words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “consciousness,” and we give out degrees for stringing the correct words together in the correct way, but really they are the same questions that any reflective person asks as a child and for which we have yet to find a completely satisfactory answer.

In Buddhism I discovered an unbroken tradition – stretching back 2,500 years – devoted to thinking about these very things.  I was hooked!  I have spent more than a decade since studying and reading Buddhist teachings, and I am constantly amazed at the insights these teachings have about the nature of consciousness, reality, and perception.  I cannot think of a sutra that has not made me sit back and think, Whoa . . . . that’s a new way of thinking about it.

The thing is, I’m not a Buddhist myself.  One of my standard lines, whenever somebody is so gauche as to ask me about my religion, is to tell them that I am an “aspiring Buddhist.”  It is kind of a funny line, if you think about it, because in itself it indicates that the speaker recognizes the value of Buddhism, but also acknowledges that the speaker doesn’t quite think he is worthy of claiming the title.  It is like saying one is a “lapsed Catholic,” but in reverse.

Now, here’s the thing . . . it is impossible to study Buddhism strictly for the reasons I did.  (And I’m not talking, now, about the girl.)  Yes, Buddhism does have an unbroken tradition stretching back for millennia questioning the nature of consciousness.  But that isn’t Buddhism’s main concern.  It is impossible to read and study Buddhism without being powerfully affected by what it has to say about compassion.  Compassion is the center of Buddhist teaching, and it is the core of everything the religion/philosophy is about. 

I began by explaining that I am an idiot, but even I am not so idiotic as to fail to take away at least something from Buddhism about the compassion we owe each other.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More Free Advice for the Democrats

Mitt Romney's refusal to disclose his tax returns has gotten some media attention lately, but I don't see that this attack has successfully migrated out of the pundit zone and into the heads of most average American voters.  I think a lot of this has to do with the way Obama and the Dems have pushed the story so far:  "Every other presidential candidate in the modern age has released more than two years of tax returns," and "If there's nothing to hide than there's nothing to fear," and etc.

So far, Romney and his surrogates have responded to the demand for the release of additional tax returns by simply lying about precedent.  For example, Romney claims that John Kerry only made two years of tax returns public before he ran for president, a claim that John McCain repeated a few months ago on Face the Nation.  In fact, by the time he ran for president John Kerry had actually released about 20 years worth of tax returns -- not the two that Romney and McCain claim.

The fact that McCain has been shilling for Romney is telling.  After all, 4 years ago when Romney was angling to be McCain's running mate Romney made 23 years worth of his tax returns available to John McCain as part of his vetting process -- a vetting process that Romney failed to pass.  Indeed, John McCain ultimately decided that Sister Sarah Palin would be a better running mate than Mitt Romney.

If you look at it that way, the way to get some traction for this story is simple:  make it a conspiracy.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

First Thoughts on the Healthcare Ruling


A surprising victory for the Forces of Light and Good.  Romney seemed unable to articulate a response other than to repeat that healthcare repeal will be his first job if he wins the presidency -- that even if the ACA is constitutional that doesn't make it good law.  Notably, Romney did not say that he would replace it with anything.  Presumably he is appealing to that extremely large constituency that wishes we could go back the days when college students were kicked off of their parents' plans, when people could be denied coverage for any pre-existing condition, and insurance companies weren't required to spend any particular portion of the premiums they receive solely on reimbursing health care expenses.

President Obama's statement was dignified in its understatedness.  He outlined - again - what the bill does and does not do (necessary, as I've been seeing a lot of Romney ads that grossly misrepresent the bill) and suggested that everybody should now move on.  It'll be interesting to see if the GOP can do that.

Finally, the big news is that the 5-4 decision upholding the bill was decided by Chief Justice John Roberts, and not by Kennedy.  Indeed, it appears that Kennedy would have ruled that the bill in its entirety was unconstitutional.  So can we now please dispense with calling Kennedy the all-important "centrist swing-vote" on the court?  One every significant 5-4 decision rendered over the last few years, Kennedy reliably comes down on the conservative side of the court.  He gets called a "swing-vote" and a "centrist" because he makes a pretense of hemming and hawing and being open to suggestion, but he always votes with the conservative bloc.  Let's just acknowledge that the Supreme Court as it currently stands is dominated by a reliably conservative five justices:  Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas.

And speaking of Roberts . . . . look, I'm glad he cast the deciding vote to uphold the law, and maybe I'm getting a bit cynical in my old age and I should just count my winnings and shut up.  But it occurred to me to wonder where this decision came from.  (Chris Matthews seems to believe that Roberts simply did not want his name associated with something that killed healthcare reform; the argument that Roberts ruled this way based solely upon considerations of his legacy seems unlikely to me -- he certainly wasn't worried about his Citizens United ruling).

Then I remembered that the one main reason Roberts generally is known for being "conservative" is that he is overwhelmingly pro-business.  I remember I saw an analysis a few months ago about the Court's decisions (sorry, I'm not going to bother to try and track it down again today) that found that the Robert's Court seemed to follow two main rules in its 5-4 decisions:  (i) always back big business, and (ii) always back the federal government over the individual rights of non-rich people.

One of the things that most bothered liberals like me about the Affordable Care Act is that it basically operates by requiring people to purchase money from the same insurance companies that have economically raping the American public for years.  Sure, it's supposed to also regulate those companies more, but the essence of the deal -- the reason Obama thought he could get it through Congress in the first place -- was that in exchange for insuring almost everybody, the insurance companies were going to get a whole lot of new, low-cost customers.

So within about 15 minutes of the decision being reported, I immediately wondered whether this was simply another example of Roberts going along with what Big Business wants.  I mean - hey! - maybe the Teabilly rubes do think requiring everybody to enter into the private market and buy insurance from private companies constitutes "socialism" and so are against the ACA on ideological grounds, but I wonder if Roberts is simply thinking that - in the end - this is going to be good for business.

I know, I know . . . I'm an ingrate.

The Lucky Ducky Older Generation

Speaking of Kevin Drum, a post he wrote the other day triggered something I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

          Both the boomers and the generation before them were enormously lucky to have started their careers in the postwar world, roughly from 1950 through 1980.  Good jobs were plentiful; retirement benefits – both public and private – increased steadily; and a variety of factors kept middle-class growth high.  But the beneficiaries of this good fortune, like all beneficiaries of good fortune, became convinced that they had done well solely through hard work and native talent.  If today’s kids aren’t doing as well, it must be because they’re dumber and lazier.

This sounds exactly right to me.  My grandmother is 81 years old, and is interested in discussing only a very few topics.  One of those is how godawful poor she and her family were when she was growing up in the 1930’s.  Seriously, it doesn’t matter what your opening conversation gambit is, she will find a way to turn it into a diatribe about how dirt poor she was when she was growing up.

Another of her favorite topics is how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket over the past couple of decades, how people spend too much money and take on too much debt, and how unjustifiable are their complaints about the state of their financial affairs.  “Nobody helped me and Papa,” she’ll tell you, “we came from nothing and we did all right.”

It never occurs to her that maybe in the 80 years of her life some significant things have changed.

For example, she was born into the Great Depression.  Don’t get me wrong . . . her family was dirt-poor to begin with, but the fact the country was mired in the Great Depression and she was born to a rural family and that rural family lived in one of the least developed of the states (North Carolina) certainly didn’t help.

But shortly after she was born FDR started implementing the New Deal and Keynesian economics.  Government spending was increased, even though that led to record government deficits.  Social Security and Medicare were signed into law.  By the time she was 12 World War II had started – an absolutely huge federal spending measure – and the amount of economic stimulus that deficit-financed project required lifted us out of the Depression.

By the time she was 20 and had married my grandfather, America was still pursuing Keynesian economics.  The highest marginal tax rate was very high (91%) and the money being raised by taxes was being plowed back into the economy.  Military spending continued as the Cold War boomed, the national highway program was taken up, and money was provided by the GI Bill to get millions of people a college education and get them started in middle-class professions.

Unions were strong.  By and large, wealth was not being concentrated only in the hands of the CEOs and a few upper-level executives, but was spread out amongst working-class Americans too.  As more and more people’s standard of living increased, they spent that money and provided a further boost to the economy.  Moreover, as Drum points out, back then people could be secure in their retirement because so many could actually count on receiving a pension, and – of course – America led the world in oil production.

My grandparents directly benefited from only  a few of these economic factors (for example, my grandfather served 20 years in the Marine Corps, and they lived next to Camp LeJeune), but they indirectly benefited from all of them.

Since then . . . let me see.  America no longer leads the world in oil production, but is the greatest importer of oil.  The assault on the New Deal has proceeded apace, and it is anyone’s guess whether Social Security and Medicare will be left standing five years from now – despite the fact workers have been overpaying into the Social Security trust fund for 30 years.  Unions have been gutted, and almost nobody has an actual pension to rely upon.  At the same time, income taxes have been reduced and flattened, and the capital gains tax has been slashed to 15%.

Keynesian economics is sneered at, federal investment in infrastructure and education has been increasingly cut back, and wages stopped keeping up with rising American productivity 35 years ago.  Now almost all the gains in American productivity are concentrated in the hands of only a tiny fraction of the American population.  And if you have the temerity to want to lift your social standing by getting a college education, you will almost certainly incur an enormous amount of non-dischargeable debt to carry around for the rest of your life.

In short, the economic factors that control much of one’s ability to earn a decent living, set money aside for retirement, and provide for one’s family have changed significantly over the life of this one woman.  In the beginning, those factors were almost entirely negative.  Then, for a brief couple of decades, they were incredibly favorable.  And now, they are once again very negative.

It is as if when she was born my grandmother were a tree seedling slowing dying on the ground in the middle of the desert, but then was suddenly picked up by a breeze and carried to the fertile plains of Iowa.  In that place she was able to grow strong and prosper, but it never occurs to her that most of the reason she was able to thrive is because she was surrounded by such a rich environment.  And now that our political system has been so thoroughly captured by short-sighted people whose only concern is to exploit that environment until now it too is almost a desert, she cannot see how hard it has become for most seedlings to grow strong the way she did.

I’ve tried to explain this to her on a couple of occasions she’s already settled on her narrative.  And as with the vast majority of people, having settled on her narrative it is extremely difficult to get her to give that up.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cynicism (cont'd) and Political Mendacity

In my last post I discussed two substantive areas of my life in which I’ve experienced a real disillusionment over the decades – the law and finance – but I neglected to mention one other important area of disillusionment:  politics.

I know, I know . . . I am revealing myself as a naif and a heretic from the Church of the Savvy, which is the only way one should properly understand politics:  with a knowing cynicism that the only thing worth discussing in politics is Who is Up and Who is Down.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really start paying attention to politics until the 2000 presidential race.  Until then I had assumed that everything I had been taught in what passes for civics class these days – high school social studies, undergraduate political philosophy classes and, I suppose, my Constitutional Law classes – was more or less accurate.  Specifically, that different groups of people have different ideas about how the country should be run, that they argue these ideas in the legislature and in election campaigns, and that this by and large is how the will of a majority of American citizens is implemented.

Like I said . . . naive.

It is simply astonishing to me how baked in our acceptance of deep political mendacity and a refusal to engage in good faith debate has become.  For example, Kevin Drum has argued several times that there is nothing surprising about the GOP’s decision to abandon its previous support for a health insurance mandate and to insist instead that such a thing – originally a Republican idea – is, in fact, an unconstitutional blasphemy. 

Friday, June 22, 2012


Via Kay, at Balloon-Juice, I see this:

When I was reporting out my New Yorker piece, I spoke with Akhil Reid Amar, a leading constitutional scholar at Yale, who thinks that a 5-4 party-line vote against the [Affordable Care Act’s] mandate would be shattering to the court’s reputation for being above politics.  “I’ve only mispredicted one big Supreme Court decision in the last 20 years,” he told me.  “That was Bush v. Gore.  And I was able to internalize that by saying they only had a few minutes to think about it and they leapt to the wrong conclusion.  If they decide this by 5-4, then, yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud.  Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t.  What mattered was politics, money, party, and party loyalty.”

(empasis added).

Uhhmmm . . . yeah.  It’s sad that Professor Amar is having to go through this, but it is only what I went through years ago.  If you devote yourself to a profession like the law for any reason other than money, then you are a fool and a naif and real people should kick you in the ribs and laugh at you.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cannibalizing from School (cont'd)

This second essay is what they are calling a "classification essay" -- essentially, we are asked to differentiate and explain the differences between various things.  That sounded boring, and so I decided to go a bit meta and write instead about what storytelling is really like.

I am not a particular fan of this essay, because there is so much yet left to say.  But we have a 4-page limit, and to meet that I have hacked and chopped away a lot of otherwise promising stuff.

Essay below the fold.

Cannibalizing from School

I regret not posting for so very long.  I did not realize - back when I didn't have a job and wasn't going to school -- just how labor-intensive maintaining a website can be.  In my mind, I was just tossing off a coupla ideas whenever they struck me.  But in Reality, it really was a lot of work to try to spit-shine and polish my mental meanderings until they were something I wanted to share.

In any event, one of the classes the school is making me take is an introductory English, designed to teach me how to write.  Since I'm writing this stuff anyway, I figured there wasn't any real difficulty in sharing it.  

What follows is the first of the 4 or 5 essays we have to write.  It is a "process essay," in that it is intended to teach us how to explain to others how to do something.

The Festival de San Fermίn: How to Run With the Bulls

            I spent the summer of 1991 studying abroad in Spain, and I knew even before my plane left the States that while there I would run with the bulls in Pamplona during the Festival de San Fermίn. Every year thousands of drunken Spaniards and addled tourists take part in this lunacy and, every year, one or more bull runners are gored, trampled or even killed. But Hemingway long ago made the running of the bulls iconic, and I couldn’t see how in all good conscience I could let an opportunity to run with the bulls pass me by. In the event, I discovered that running with the bulls is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that anybody can do safely, provided one knows what to expect and plans accordingly.
            Of course, the first thing you need to do is make sure you are in Pamplona at the right time and that you have assembled the correct uniform. The running of the bulls takes place from the 7th to the 14th of July, so you have only one week to participate in this madness. The uniform is nothing more than a pair of white pants and a white shirt set off by a red sash wrapped around your waist and a red kerchief tied about your neck. The sashes and kerchiefs are for sale all over Pamplona, but you will need to provide the pants and shirt yourself. You should also make sure you have a newspaper, about which more later.
            Some additional necessary preparations are blindingly obvious. For example, it is probably best to run the bulls sober. However, you may find this slightly difficult to pull off. You see, the run (the encierro) takes place in the morning and so you will have to be in Pamplona the night before, and during the Festival de San Fermίn the entire city is a non-stop party. Literally hundreds of social organizations and political groups set up booths selling beer or wine, there is dancing and music on every street corner, and unless you lock yourself in a hotel room it is difficult not to join in the fun. If – like me – you find you simply cannot restrain yourself, then I recommend making the conscious decision to stop drinking no later than 2:00 am. This will give you six hours to sober back up.
            Of course, you might as well use those six hours productively, so that is a good time to locate the encierro and walk the course. In fact, walk it several times. In just a few hours you’ll be barreling down it at top speed, a thousand pounds of thundering hoofed death hot on your heels, and you’ll want to be familiar with its layout. How embarrassing to be trampled to death (not even gored!) because you were so careless as to trip over an unexpected sidewalk.
            You’ll also want to make sure you are in the encierro no later than 7:00 am, one hour before the run actually starts.  The Festival de San Fermίn is Spain’s most heavily attended fiesta and there may be more than a thousand idiot thrill-seekers just like you who want to run the bulls that day. You will need to find a place that isn’t too crowded. You won’t want to have to push past too many bodies in order to reach top speed.       
            When the 8:00 starting rocket goes off and the encierro begins, do not – I repeat, do not – wait around. Unless you decided to start at the very beginning of the course, the bulls are being released some place a block or more away from you. Do not wait until you actually see them to start running. First, nobody else is going to be waiting. (If you thought it would be embarrassing to be trampled by a bull, just imagine how much more humiliating to be knocked down and trampled by a thousand other runners who were smart enough to start without you.) Second, bulls at speed can move surprisingly fast; if you don’t start running immediately, by the time you glimpse the bulls it may already be too late. Just put your head down, grip your rolled-up newspaper tightly, and go.
            When you reach the arena you will pass through a short, high-ceilinged tunnel and then into the stadium proper. The entire mass of runners will then split in two, one half peeling off to the right and the other peeling off to the left. You should be prepared for your reception. The arena itself will already be packed with spectators who will rise as one and cheer you as you enter, and the noise is deafening. I remember thinking when I experienced it: This must be what it feels like to run into the Superbowl.   
            Of course, the bulls will be following right behind you, but that is precisely why the runners split off to the sides. For some reason, after they enter the arena the bulls seem to lose all interest in the runners on either side of them and simply run directly across the stadium field. On the far side of the stadium a gate opens up and the bulls trot right through. None of those bulls will be seen again until they are brought out later in the afternoon to be slaughtered by that day’s matador.
            But this doesn’t mean the bull running is over. After the bulls that have just chased them through the streets disappear behind the far gate, the runners assemble on the ground directly in front of that gate and start chanting, slapping their rolled-up newspapers in their free hands to keep time. When I ran the bulls I unquestioningly sat down in front of the gate too, and tried to translate what my fellow runners were chanting. I had just worked out that they were asking for the bulls to be released again when suddenly the gate opened up and one came charging into the arena, trampling a few people sitting directly in front. Thankfully, it was not one of the monster bulls that had chased us through the streets but a much younger, smaller bull whose horns had been padded to prevent anyone from actually being gored. 
            And that was how I discovered that after running with the bulls in the streets, a new game is played in the arena. Three or four young bulls are released into the stadium and the runners take turns rushing up behind them, swatting them with rolled-up newspapers and then running away. The bulls will chase the person who swatted them until somebody else comes up and swats them again; the bulls then instantly give up on whomever they were just chasing and turn to pursue this new affront. The easily distracted nature of bulls, coupled with the fact you can jump/clamber over the stadium wall if necessary to get away, makes this part of the bull running more fun than it is dangerous.
            Once I had worked out the nature of the “swat bulls and run away game” I played until – on my third trip over the wall – I landed poorly and broke one of my toes. Well, that’s that I thought to myself. I decided that I had accomplished what I had set out to do, that I had acquitted myself adequately, and that running the bulls in Pamplona was something I now could cross off of my bucket list. So I rejoined my friends, tossed aside whatever scraps of good sense I still had left, and availed myself of all the festivity San Fermίn had to offer.
            Done correctly – with foreknowledge, planning and relative sobriety – running the bulls in Pamplona can be a reasonably safe and yet still iconic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, the kind of experience that should be once-in-a-lifetime. Because having run the bulls once, you can spend the rest of your life secure in the knowledge that there is no need to ever, ever do something so crazy stupid again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Of Comic Books and Conservatives

Straight up confession, here.  I am a 43 year old man, and I still read comic books.

Of course, that’s not too big of a confession these days.  Take a look at the box office receipts and you will see that the ranks of fanboys have taken over a good chunk of popular culture.  Like most of America, my ass was in a movie seat for the Avengers within 3 days of its release, despite the fact that (for various reasons) when I saw it I was working on less than 4 hours sleep in the past 36 hours.

(Speaking of which . . . did I miss something while zoning out in the darkened theater?  That entire second act, when Loki was in the SHIELD helicarrier . . . was there a point to any of that?  I think that was just there to fulfill storytelling requirements, but why did he plan to get locked up in the first place?  Was that ever explained?)

But I come by my fanboy biases honestly.  When I was only about 4 years old my grandfather, who owned a bookstore, gifted me a trade paperback that reprinted the origin stories of Marvel’s greatest heroes:  Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Dr. Strange . . . .  And I pestered my grandmother to re-read those stories to me so much that in exasperation she decided it would be easier to teach me to read for myself.  So I went from comic books to Dick And Jane stories and then back to comic books again.

I really treasure what comic books have given to me.  Not only the gift of learning to read, but also a love for mythology.  My introduction to the Norse and Greek pantheons was made via comic books.  And they expanded my vocabulary.  To this day I remember getting bullied because when I was seven I called another boy “incorrigible.”  It wasn’t the insult that got me bullied, it was the fact that I was using polysyllables.  I had picked up the word from a Green Arrow story.

And let’s be clear . . . when I was a teenager, growing up in the 1980’s, that was a golden age for comic books.  My grandfather had expanded his bookstore into VHS tape rentals, magazines, and comics and I worked there during High School.  We ended up starting a lucrative business buying and selling old comics, and because I was the only one in the family who knew anything about this stuff I got to be in charge of it.  The 1980’s saw Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.  I remember reading that stuff when it came out, and waiting breathlessly for the next issue.  That was some heady, heady stuff.  It paved the way for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which easily clears the bar of high grade literature.

But what I remember being  most impressed with was not the stories – not exactly – but with being confronted by the use of the medium to tell those stories.  There was an issue of Swamp Thing written – of course – by Alan Moore that epitomized this for me.  In a single 22-page issue, Moore told two parallel but contrasting stories, each of which were separated by a single page.  That is, when you were holding the book in your hands, the page on the left told one story and the page on the right told a different story.  But the two were connected, and you could literally see the construction being made . . . a construction that was greater than the sum of its parts.

And the meta-story ended exactly the way all conflicted stories should:  with the narrator puzzled by what it all means.  It was a beautiful, beautiful piece of fiction writing, and something that could not have been conveyed in any other medium.

* * *

But, of course, these tales are an ode to the best of what the medium can produce, not a description of what the medium is mostly about.  What it mostly is about is brain candy, Right and Wrong in great, four-color format.  Morality tales dressed up in tights; Truth, Justice and the American Way easily digestible and easily absorbed.

Not that there is much wrong with that.  It’s nice to feast on pablum, every once in a while.  And there is a reason we refer to things that are bad for us as “comfort food.”  One can only have so much vegetables.  Occasionally, we all need some cookie dough.

And so I keep that injunction in mind while I read my comics, skimming through what passes for entertainment and looking for that truly emotive moment that I know these things can still provide.  I understand that most of what I am reading is not literature, is not morality, is nothing more than brain candy, a rush of sugar – like a pixie stick – to be downed before rushing back to the adult world.

But y’know what?  I worry about conservatives.  I worry that they haven’t figured out that this kind of brain candy, infantilized storytelling doesn’t really reflect the Real World.  

Part of the problem I have with your standard comics story is that I don’t understand the motivations of the Bad Guy.  Picture Doctor Doom or the Red Skull:   I Will Rule the World!

Seriously?  These guys want to “rule the world”?  They’re supposed to be geniuses, and yet this is their goal?  I think ruling the world would suck.  Don’t get me wrong . . . I understand wanting to be free to do whatever you want to do.  But that just means that you are rich.  Ruling the World actually means a lot of work, and being responsible for, well, everything.

And that leads me to my next point:  after you’ve got enough money to do whatever you want, what kind of person believes their lives will be better if they just have a little bit more?  Seriously, how does that make any sense at all?

And yet, we are treated to stories like this, in which Mitt Romney – aspirant to the highest job in the nation – talks about moving to Florida because it doesn’t have a state income tax.  Mitt Romney, already richer than any of us common folk can fathom, wants to live in a state because that means he’ll have just a little bit more. 

I can’t be the only person who looks at people like this and sees a cartoon, comic-book villain, can I?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Random Thought For the Day

I came across the word "portmanteau" today. I'm familiar with the word -- have been for years -- and understand that it is a mash-up of two different words to describe a new concept. And I've understood that for years as well.

And yet, it is not a common term and so - as always when I run across it - I have to take a moment to remind myself what the word means. And, as always, I am once again struck by the fact that the term "portmanteau" doesn't refer to a piece of furniture.

"Portmanteau" . . . it just sounds like the name of a piece of furniture.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Napoleon, R.I.P.

About five months ago I wrote about a recent scare I had had with my dog, Napoleon.  
(That's him, there, toward the right . . . the avatar I use.)
I knew he was growing old and was increasingly in bad health, and something happened back in December that scared me and more than half persuaded me at the time that his checking out of my life was imminent.  But then it all turned out to have been a false alarm, something easily fixed, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Still . . . I titled the post "Part I" because I knew that there was no long-term solution to the real problem that my poor dog was growing old and that I was going to eventually lose him.
I lost him this past Saturday.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Nursing and Surfing

So I was walking my dog Sunday evening; I was trying to adjust my sleep schedule so that I can be awake in the mornings again.  I slept away most of Sunday afternoon and hoped to get some more sleep later before I had to show up for my eight o’clock Monday morning class.

These days I spend Friday night/Saturday mornings and Saturday night/Sunday mornings at the local hospital, where I work as a Certified Nurse Aide.  I became a CNA I about a month ago, and am still in school for the CNA II.  But my school does clinical work at the local hospital, and apparently I made enough of an impression that they wanted to hire me before I finished my program.  And so for the past two weekends I’ve been working at the hospital whilst I finish learning all the stuff I need to help the patients for whom I am caring.

It has been an interesting experience, this actually doing the job for which I am still being trained.  It is exhilarating, for one thing, that sense of flying by the seat of your pants when you know that you don’t really understand yet what you are doing but have to pretend that you do anyway.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Toward a 21st Century Economic Patriarchy

This is just a brief rumination.  I've not thought too deeply or too long about it, so perhaps there is something I am missing or there is some wrinkle I don't see that makes the metaphor not work . . . but it struck me a little while ago how seemingly connected is the economic Right Wing's worship of the uber-rich "job creators" and the social Right Wing's denigration of women as second-class citizens.

Bear with me on this one, while I try and tease out these thoughts.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Democracy by Date Rape, Representation by Roofie

So this morning I was alerted - via Anne Laurie over at Balloon Juice -- about this Jon Chait piece regarding Mitt Romney.  I've read the Chait piece in its entirety and its premise is that Mitt Romney is just a goddamned liar.  He lies repeatedly, he lies often, he lies regularly, and he lies without regard for the truth.  Good.  Glad Chait recognizes that.

But then, there's this from that same piece:
I've always had a soft spot for Mitt Romney, who strikes me, in a way I can't completely define, as a good guy.  The fact that he is an audacious liar does not strike me as a definitive judgment on his character, but primarily a reflection of the circumstances he finds himself in -- having to transition from winning a majority of a fairly liberal electorate to winning a majority of a rabidly conservative one, one that cannot be placated without indulging in all sorts of fantasies. 
I see him as a patrician pol, like George H. W. Bush, who believes deeply in public service but regards elections as a cynical process of pandering to rubes.
I gotta tell you . . . I'm not quite sure what to make of this.  I understand what Chait is saying here -- and I understand that his main take-away is that Romney is, in fact, an inveterate liar on the campaign trail -- but couple that with the foregoing and I think what I am listening to is an excuse for Romney to be a huge liar on the campaign trail.

The excuse goes something like:  Yeah, sure . . . Romney is lying, but he's only saying things he doesn't believe in order to get elected.  Deep down and underneath it all, he's not a bad guy -- he's like Poppy Bush.

An Old Man in School

Well, I'm back.  The frequency of posting obviously has gone down since the nursing classes in which I enrolled actually started.  The classes themselves consume 30 hours a week, and I am still juggling professional responsibilities in the Life from which I am slowly disentangling myself.

Also, a lot of my free time has been consumed by a bunch of additional extraneous errands necessary to get through the nursing program.  First, I had to get my shot records, which I was unable to find anywhere (I have never really had a regular doctor) and so just this Wednesday I ended up getting hit with about 6 different vaccines all at once and was sick as a dog for two days.  I also had to get a brief physical, which, it turns out, you can't get unless you can produce your shot records (had the physical today, and am in good health - if not great shape - thank you very much).  And finally - for some reason - a dentist has to say that my teeth look alright (I'm taking care of that Monday afternoon).

All of this is in addition to getting CPR certified (taken care of last week) and passing the criminal background check (which, between you and me, is the only one I was worried about and yet the easiest one to get through . . . mostly because it didn't require any effort on my part.)

Oh yeah . . . and I've moved again, which involved relocating myself, a good deal of my possessions, and the dogs.

So while I've been keeping abreast of recent goings on I haven't really had an opportunity to comment much on them.  And I intend to, shortly, but first I thought I'd talk about one aspect of my experience in the nursing program:  being the oldest guy in the class.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Romney: The Worst of Both Worlds for the GOP

I came across two interesting posts this morning that got me thinking some more about the Republican nomination contest.

The first is Steve Benen’s summation of Mitt Romney’s most recent political woes:

Think about where Mitt Romney stood a week ago. He’d won the nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire; his national lead was large and getting larger; and he enjoyed double-digit leads over his squabbling competitors in the South Carolina primary.
And then think about where Romney stands this morning. It turns out he lost Iowa to a candidate he outspent 7 to 1; his national lead has, according to Gallup, “collapsed” over the course of the last several days; he struggled through two widely-panned debate performances; and polls suggest he’s likely to lose the South Carolina primary.

It’s likely, in about 12 hours, the only contest Romney will have won will be in the state he lives in for much of the year.
Benen goes on to point out that far and away Romney’s biggest political liability is that voters just don’t like him – the more people see of him, the less likely they are to want to vote for him.
This ties in very well with Steve M.’s comment “A Blind Romney Finds a Nut,” in which he argues that Romney’s apparent refusal to participate in Monday’s GOP debate in Tampa may be the best way to quash Newt Gingrich’s surging momentum.  Newt doesn’t have the money to fund an ad campaign that can keep up with Romney’s in Florida, but Newt does very well in debate formats and has successfully leveraged those performances to keep his candidacy viable. 
Steve M. goes on to speculate that – as the “establishment Republican candidate” – Romney may well benefit by the GOP establishment deciding to simply cancel any further debates, thereby depriving Gingrich of the oxygen he needs to continue his assault on Romney.  I would suggest that such a move might also benefit Romney directly by keeping him from further alienating primary voters with his very personality.
Assuming both Steves’ observations are more or less on point, my question is:  what does the Republican Party hope to gain by engineering the nomination of the guy that the rabid Republican base simply cannot stand?
After all, Romney’s big selling point – the reason he was supposed to be the inevitable Republican nominee – has always been his supposed “electability.”  Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, Gingrich . . . each was considered too extreme a candidate to do well in the general election.  So while the GOP base switched from one candidate to the other searching for the anti-Romney, a candidate about whom they could be excited, the GOP political apparatus quietly lined up behind Mitt.  The thinking seems to have been that nobody in the Republican Party liked Romney, but in the general election they would all hold their noses and grudgingly vote for him and that he might in fact be able to beat Barack Obama in November.
But while Romney may not be too blatantly “extreme,” it sure is beginning to look like he is too patently unlikeable to actually win.  When it comes to Romney, even the slightest degree of familiarity is sufficient to breed truckloads of contempt.
But if Romney is just as unelectable as the other candidates (albeit for a slightly different reason), then I just don’t see what the downside is for the Republicans if they ran Gingrich or Santorum instead.  They’d lose – sure – but at least they’d be running a candidate that actual Republican voters could be enthusiastic about.  Instead, what they are likely to end up doing is running a candidate that actual Republican voters simply cannot stand and then lose the contest anyway – the worst of both worlds for the GOP.
Unfortunately, it may very well be a lousy outcome for the rest of us as well.
As others have pointed out before me, losing with Romney will only exacerbate the current craziness of the GOP.  If they run Mitt Romney and he loses to Barack Obama – the man whom most Republican know-nothings have convinced themselves is the most reviled president in modern history – it will only be further confirmation that they lost by being too moderate.
They will – just as they did after the 2006 and 2008 elections – double-down on the Crazy.  If you thought the American political landscape has been a bit nutty since the Tea Partiers got started, just wait until you see what it’s going to be like after the unlikable “moderate” Mitt Romney dashes all those Teabaggers’ dreams.
The Crazification Factor will go all the way up to Eleven.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Another Reason to Organize, Occupadores!

Over at DKos Mark Sumner is rounding up the pundits and has this to say about Sam Tanenhaus's op-ed about Tea Party weakness:
What's making for weak Tea? In this case, the formula seems to contain plenty of uprising, but few core beliefs. The only demand placed on Tea Party candidates is that they be rabidly mad at Democrats, for any number of mostly make-believe reasons. That may be enough to win an election cycle, but as it turns out, it's not enough to sustain a movement. This party's over.  (emphasis added).

Look . . . I'm a Sumner fan and I don't like the Tea Party . . . but how is this also not an indictment of the Occupy movement as well?  Don't get me wrong, I think that the Tea Party is as doomed as a political movement as Sumner thinks it is but . . .  well, doesn't the same thing apply to Occupy?

This is the reason I and so many other people have been saying that Occupy needs to rally around/behind at least one or two political causes:  because without having something to fight for, any movement eventually just becomes noise.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Making a Life Change

Well, I’ve not been around for a while.  Real Life, as they say, has gotten in the way of blogging.  If anyone’s missed the running commentary, I’m sorry ‘bout that and I promise to try to do better in the coming weeks.  Although that may not always be easy.

I’m trying something new these days, and it is gripping and exciting and very, very different than anything I’ve done before with my adult life, but it is also demanding quite a bit of my time, so blogging may be a bit sporadic until I get more of a routine down.  I’ll tell you about it, but let me first back into it by telling you a bit more about me and how I came to be where I am today . . .

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Santorum: Fishing in the Crab Pot

There is a disturbing tendency among a lot of people to equate suffering with virtue, to equate ignorance with “common sense,” and to equate sacrifice with value.  It appears that Rick Santorum is treading these well-worn boards on the campaign trail.

It should be noted that Santorum earns hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as a lobbyist, a corporate consultant, and one of Fox News' gunsels-for-hire (go ahead . . . click on the link to find out what the word “gunsel” really means).  It should also be noted that his tax plan, were he to be elected president, would actually add about $6.5 trillion to the national debt, mostly by cutting taxes for corporations and the richest 1%.

Yet despite the fact Santorum is an unapologetic mouthpiece for the plutocracy, in two recent campaign speeches he can be seen attempting to garner working-class votes by telling voters they are the backbone of America and the salt of the earth -- even as he works to screw those people over.  Unfortunately, a great number of these Americans pay almost no attention to politics and therefore have no idea what Santorum's policies really portend, so when they hear someone like L'il Ricky give a speech lauding their willingness to work hard for little pay they naturally think:  Hey, he appreciates me.

No, no he doesn't.  He appreciates the fact that some of these people will vote for him even though he does intend to make them work harder for much less compensation, and he appreciates that some of the people that vote for him can be persuaded afterward that because they will then be suffering even more they will have somehow proved themselves to be "better" than people (like Santorum) who don't have to suffer at all.  Simply stated, Santorum is trading on the propensity people have to turn themselves needlessly into martyrs.

Reading Marx – Part XIII

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter III, Section 2, Subsection c

Random Observations Re: Last Night’s Debate

When I finally tuned out last night, the bobbleheads were calling the debate for Mitt Rombot because (i) the Rombot failed to completely short circuit on stage, and (ii) none of the other contenders really went after it.  From the bobbleheads’ perspective, calling the debate in the Rombot’s favor is undoubtedly the safe call as the Rombot is almost certain to win the New Hampshire primary two days from now and apparently is topping the polls in South Carolina (curse you, Newt Gingrich!  You have once again proven that I simply cannot predict what Republican voters are likely to do.)

In no particular order, below the fold are some random observations about last night’s GOP debate:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reading Marx – Part XII

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter III, Section 2, Subsection b

Some Honest to God Good Employment News

Last month the US added 200,000 new jobs, and the official unemployment rate dropped to 8.5%.  This is a big deal, because as a rule of thumb the US needs to add about 150,000 new jobs each month just to keep up with population growth.  So, roughly speaking, 200,000 new jobs means that not only did we manage to accommodate all the new workers entering the labor force, but also that about 50,000 people who previously had been unemployed were able to get a job.

Yay, us.

There's still a long way to go, and all the usual caveats about potential future crises still apply (I for one am still keeping a wary eye on Europe), but good news on the employment front is fairly rare these days and I'm happy to have an opportunity to remark on something positive for a change.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Shameless Nixon Speculation

By now you may already have heard about Don Fulsom’s new book Nixon's Darkest Secrets:  The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President.  It has attracted some attention because in it Fulsom suggests that Richard Nixon may have been a closeted homosexual who carried on a long-term affair with Bebe Rebozo.

Is it true?  Who the hell knows?  My understanding is that the book’s argument is entirely circumstantial and that Nixon’s alleged homosexuality cannot be definitively proved one way or the other, even if the individual reader may find Fulsom’s argument persuasive.  I won’t be reading the book myself because my interest in a dead president’s sexual orientation ranks about on the same level as my interest in reading the US tax code from beginning to end.

I will say this though:  it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.  As a matter of fact, when I heard about the book my first thought was, That actually would explain a lot.  From everything else I’ve read about Nixon, the man’s naked ambition and lust for power seemed driven by a deep sense of inadequacy and self-loathing.  I can easily see how being a closeted homosexual – especially if he was a closeted homosexual who felt that his orientation made him “less of a man” – could have been the fuel that fired both Nixon’s self hatred and his unquenchable need to triumph over his enemies and detractors.

And I’d be willing to bet that – if Nixon really was homosexual – in his deepest heart of hearts he was always whispering to himself:  “If the President does it, it is not gay.”

Elder Abuse and Police Brutality

I learned something today that I did not know before about elder abuse, especially as it occurs in privately run assisted living facilities:  the inappropriate use of physical restraints for punishment or for the convenience of the staff is prosecutable as “elder abuse.”

In other words, the mere act of physically retraining a resident – be it by locking them in their room or raising the guard rails to keep them from getting out of bed – not even because the staff wishes to punish that resident or to hurt the resident, but just because doing so makes life easier for the facility’s staff, is considered to be a crime.

Instantly, I flashed on the increasingly common use by cops of non-lethal force such as pepper spray or tasers as a convenient means of coercing citizens to comply with police orders.  From the infamous John Pike’s pepper-spraying of protesting college students at UC-Davis for refusing his order to disperse, to this story involving a middle-aged alumni couple being tazed for sitting in the wrong seats at a college football game, it seems increasingly clear that the police routinely employ physically abusive and quite painful practices simply because doing so makes the cops’ jobs more “convenient.”  Why bother actually talking to and calming down an irate or confused citizen when you can simply tazer them into instant submission?

And yet somehow almost nobody in American society seems to have a problem with the cops’ use of such force.  That really needs to change.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

All Thane’s Day and the Occupy Movement

Some time ago I wrote a post about the Occupy movement’s insistence on maintaining a non-hierarchical, horizontal organization even if keeping that kind of organization might not always be in its best interest.  I pointed out that for thousands of years humans naturally have been organizing ourselves into hierarchies for good reason:  a hierarchical structure brings with it a number of distinct advantages that consensus driven organizations just do not possess.

This afternoon, just to have something to look at while I ate my lunch, I randomly opened Jared Diamond’s fantastic book Guns, Germs and Steel and came across something Diamond wrote about social organization that seems to travel along the same line as my earlier critique.  I’m going to get to Diamond in a moment, but first I’d like to tell you about All Thane’s Day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

One Last Iowa Thought . . .

I spend a lot of time complaining about the sheer inanity of the US political press.  But after the Iowa caucus results last night, I think it may have hit a new low.

Until last night, Rick Santorum was a joke candidate.  Best known for the result one pulls up on Google when running a search on his last name, this is a man who has recently declared that the government should prohibit US citizens from using any form of contraception, and that no one should be having sex unless it is for the purposes of procreation.

You get that?  His official presidential policy is:  No Americans Are Allowed to Have Sex Just For Fun.

None of that has changed.  And yet . . . I've been scanning the political punditry all day, and I've yet to see anybody claim other than that Rick "Frothy" Santorum is a credible candidate for the US presidency.

Are.  You.  Fucking.  Kidding.  Me?

Either the world's gone insane or I have, but there is just no way in hell a guy whose presidential platforms is:  The proper role of the government is to regulate your sex lives, Americans is anything other than a joke. I don't care if he did only lose the Iowa caucuses by 8 votes.

It simply boggles my mind that under the modern rules of political punditry they actually have to take this guy seriously.

The Scylla and Charybdis of Voting For Democrats

One of the things I see a lot of on the Left is fighting amongst Progressives over the proper reaction to the perennial selling out and betrayal of liberal principles by Democratic politicians whom we elect to office.  Every two years we mobilize on behalf of some Democrats, help to get ‘em elected and then – at some point during their term – find ourselves yelling, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

It’s like clockwork.

Reading Marx – Part XI

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter III, Section 2, Subsection a

Everybody in America Thinks They’re Middle Class

Over at Washington Monthly, Steve Benen expresses confusion about Mitt Romney’s claim yesterday morning on MSNBC that “Somebody who’s fallen from the middle class to poverty, in my opinion is still middle class.”  Benen asks

I’m just not sure what Romney means when he defines “middle class.” As he sees it, even if someone falls into poverty, he or she is still middle class? In what universe does that make sense?

Actually, I think I understand perfectly what Romney is saying here, and it is the reason many Americans are still resistant to the straightforward complaints being made by the Occupy movement:  in America everybody considers themselves to be “the middle class.”

The truth is, Americans don’t really think about class in a truly economic way, but in a social status, lifestyle kind of way.  This is why, even though the median household income in the US is only around $50,000, professionals making several hundreds of thousands of dollars or more each year still consider themselves middle class – they’re not rich like the people they see on the TeeVee, who can charter private jets and take expensive vacations.

It is also the reason why the people who are increasingly falling behind economically probably enjoy hearing that – regardless of their actual economic standing – Romney still recognizes that they are “middle class at heart.”  For these people, if they used to have a house and a nice paying job but were then laid off and lost the home in foreclosure . . . well, they still don’t consider themselves really poor.  Not at heart.  ‘Cause then they’d be losers.

Like I said, it is one of the reasons I think a lot of people hate to recognize the growing wealth disparity that exists in this county – because if they did then they would also have to recognize that they’re on the losing end of that growing gap.

Fraud Creates the Market

In his latest post about Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi points out that the investment bank has developed a record now of recommending that its clients buy various financial products at the same time that Goldman Sachs – coincidentally – is selling those products from out of its own accounts.  Inevitably, Goldman Sachs’s turns out to have been wrong and those financial products tank . . . but Goldman Sachs makes out like a bandit by moving those assets off of its own books before they tank.

Taibbi’s post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now, something that occurred to me when Goldman Sachs and the rest of the Big Money Boyz showed up a year or so ago to testify before Congress as to why their selling mortgage backed securities that they knew to be “shitty” wasn’t unethical.  To a one, they all pointed out (i) that the people they were dealing with were “sophisticated investors” who “knew what they were doing,” (i) that these were “arm’s length transactions,” and therefore (iii) they had no responsibility to advise their customers that they personally considered these instruments to be “shitty.”

It always seemed to me that this defense rested on the investment banks’ fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge the real role they played as the creators of those mortgage-backed instruments:  the role of the “market gatekeeper.”

Instant Iowa Analysis


I’ve been biting my tongue the past few weeks while being told repeatedly not only by the TeeVee Talking Heads (who do little but spew Conventional Wisdom) but also by most of the independent political bloggers whom I respect, that Newt Gingrich’s campaign to snag the Republican nomination is over and done with.  Looking at the Iowa results, I still can’t see that.

Here’s my fast-n-loose assessment of what went down last night and yet more shameless speculation about "what it all means" going forward:

Reading Marx – Part X

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter III, Section 1