December 30, 2012

A Saturday Evening Post: the fiscal cliff and statistical thermodynamics, all jumbled up

"This postulate is necessary because it allows one to conclude that for a system at equilibrium, the thermodynamic state (macrostate) which could result from the largest number of microstates is also the most probable macrostate of the system."

Building therefore on the seminal work of James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish wundermann, and Ludwig Boltzmann (the Austrian Boltzmann): well, first I have to admit that statistical thermodynamics works better with inanimate entities like gas molecules in a glass box than it does with the United States Congress.

It's the end of the year, and on all the doomsday sites that I peruse from time to time, the doomsayers are reviewing their prognostications for the year just concluded (that being anno domini 2012, or B.C.E., if you read Richard Dawkins, as I do).  Most are astonished that the American economic system has not collapsed entirely.  They give various reasons for this, usually couched in the pseudo-techno speak that is the lingua franca of the Internet InstaVisionary.  We have "kicked the can."  We are "printing money in order to avoid the necessary re-set" of the standard of living.  And so forth.

Actually, I think the true answer lies in the fundamental mismatch between the needs of a self-proclaimed visionary (Karl Denninger, James Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Tyler Durden, et alia) in commanding an audience of rapt Doomophiliacs and the actual, slow, boring processes involved in the devolution of a complicated system (such as the American economy, embedded as it is in the global economy and occupying a unique place among the nations of the world because of the size and maturity of its economic institutions).  To wit, if you say that the American economy will look very different in 2025 (as it very well might) and let it go at that, your readers will switch the channel to the gal writing the blog about how to build a house out of pipe cleaners, or whatever.

The American economy has been in a state of transformation since the early 1970's, and the process continues.  What one can say about where we are now is that the true function of an economy (providing the means for the populace, the 99% comprising the mass of American commoners, to earn a living and enjoy life) has gone seriously off the rails.  However, the forces attempting to perpetuate the macrostate most conducive to the overall needs of the populace are formidable indeed (they act purposefully, unlike the random Bernoulli motion of the gas molecules in the glass box).  And thus the transition is retarded, slowed, as the institutions attempt to retain the idealized macrostate, one formed in the collective consciousness in the 1950's or so.

This makes for lousy headlines on the Doomsday blogs, however.  "America continues on slow path toward transitional state."  That's just not going to glue the eyeballs.  The Doomers use the symptoms or characteristics of the changing macrostate to rush the prognostication.  The symptoms include:

1. A changing-out of highly-compensated employment for minimum wage jobs (the "crap jobs"  or McJobs of the New Economy).  In the single, monolithic "unemployment figure" (say, of 7.7%) this changed macrostate is not reported directly, because the political system seeks to reassure the electorate that the economy is making progress, although it isn't.  For this reason, the average compensation, in real terms, of American workers continues to decline, although prices paid for necessary goods and services (also in real terms) continues to go up.  This is called "losing ground."

2.  The better paying jobs of the Old Economy (manufacturing, production of high value-added things such as cars and computers) have been shipped overseas as part of global wage arbitrage, or have been replaced by automation, which provides a return on capital but does not pay a living wage to carbon-based life forms. This leads to the problem of Symptom No. 1, above.

3.  The "organic society" of interdependent parts, of which the American economy is perhaps the apotheosis, is highly sensitive to perturbations of its macrostate, since the humans comprising the system have little hope of actual existential independence; that is, the means to maintain their vital heat depend on the overall functioning of a huge and fragile economic contraption.  This vulnerability, as the American system has entered a long period of disintegration, results in a massive move toward dependence on the chief organ of the macrostate, the federal government.  We have seen, therefore, a tremendous increase in food stamp usage (to 50 million Americans, or about 16% of the populace), spikes in Social Security disability claims (utilized to anticipate the old age pension which follows later), Medicaid, and long-term unemployment.

There is little argument from anyone these days that the American political system is more or less completely dysfunctional, in the sense that what appear to be common sense "solutions" to these daunting problems are not in fact adopted.  I think this is a serious misreading of the real problem.  To a large extent, the devolving macrostate described above did not come about by accident or through inattention.  The three symptoms listed above (and a fourth, the complete failure of the economy to increase the absolute number of jobs for about a decade) all point in the direction of income and wealth inequality, and since command over the political system is highly correlated to wealth, the ultra-rich now control the political process, or can muster enough support (through obstruction in the House of Representatives, particularly) to game the system in such a way that the most obvious solutions cannot be used.

The most obvious "solution" is a form of socialism in which the wealth of the uber-rich is in effect confiscated, through "wealth taxes" (a direct charge against net worth, exacted annually) and other highly confiscatory taxation.  Since this is where the money is, as Willy Sutton told us, this is where the money to support a dependent population must be collected.  The rich, who are badly outnumbered by the hoi polloi, resist this obvious "solution" through their command over the political system.  It's all they've got, besides all the money.

To maintain the current favorable macrostate, the uber-rich will yield on the questions involved in the "fiscal cliff," after milking the process for all advantages possible (the lowest possible rise in the progressive tax system, for example, and changes in the entitlement systems, which Obama seems prepared to allow).  The "fiscal cliff" is a chimera which will evaporate soon, as the errand boys and girls for the rich (Congressional members) go through a pantomime of earnest consideration and then cut the best deal they can for their benefactors, while reassuring the electorate (who are needed to continue their positions of power) that their best interests are being served.

A slightly modified macrostate will ensue, with a dysfunctional economy continuing to stagger in the general direction of a Third World condition (for most Americans), with entrenched wealth inequality, and with nothing else changed.

December 25, 2012

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Living as I do on shady lane, my house backed up against a slope to the south which occludes the sunlight from about mid-November until February 10 of each year, I tend to celebrate this time of year as the ancient Mayans and aboriginals in the British Isles (with their Stonehenge lens for the solstice) must have done:  As a celebration of the return of light.  Always a nice feeling to know that each day now becomes longer.  It's no accident that the two biggest holidays in Western civilization, Christmas and Easter (or Passover) happen on astronomical clocks, one celebrating the ascent of the sun in the southern sky, and the second the return of the Earth's fertility.

Since these festivals were already in place, religious priests commandeered the pagan observances for their own use in promoting mythology.  That's really too bad.  I've always thought it one of the marvels of history that ancient man (with no Tweeting distractions or sitcoms to watch) could figure out precisely, so that observatories could be built as at Chichen Itza, the comings and goings of the solar cycle, the phases of the moon, and many other astronomical phenomena.  Simply by watching and then figuring out how to measure.  It bespeaks an attitude of great patience and humility combined with ingenuity.

We've lost touch with that kind of folk wisdom, and substituted instead an utterly useless "mastery" of a preposterous mythology (the Christ story) which, from beginning to end, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Since many Americans have difficulty finding the United States on a map of the globe, I shudder to think what would happen if you asked them to describe with any particularity what the winter solstice is.  The virgin birth - this, they can tell you about.  I've sometimes wondered whether this is the reason that Americans have such trouble thinking clearly about sexual matters; being a "Christian" nation, we became inculcated with notions about sexual purity having something to do with morality, and once this dumb idea became lodged in the unconscious it was impossible to extirpate it.  Really, morality is concerned with assault and theft: all moral transgressions flow naturally from these two "sins."

In this sense, we've ceded a lot of ground to ancient cultures, who were more naturally attuned to the world they lived in.  So think of it this way: the Earth is tilted on its polar axis at an angle of 23.5 degrees, and it transits around the Sun in an enormous ellipse.  Maintaining this tilted attitude, sometimes the northern hemisphere tilts "toward" the sun, and sometimes it tilts away.  At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the angle of sunlight is directly on the equator of the Earth.  If the Earth's ellipse were the track at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day (a race of 10 furlongs), then we are on the backstretch now at the 5-furlong mark (a furlong = 220 yards, so that the Kentucky Derby is 1-1/4 miles long, or about two kilometers).

Heading for the finish line at the Summer Solstice in the latter part of June.  Should be a rousing finish as the winter of our discontent is again made glorious summer.

December 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: finishing up on SSRI use and school shootings

Working my way out of this intellectual box canyon concerning SSRI use and school shootings, I would summarize as follows:  to an extent, the perception that an event such as that which occurred at Newtown indicates the end of civilization in America is the result of what statisticians would call emphasis bias.  For example, here is how Jim Kunstler appraised the meaning of the tragedy in his latest Clusterfuck blog post:
"Finally the USA has an act that perfectly expresses its true spirit as the horror show nation among nations: the random mass slaughter of little children by a maniac. Is it not so that the failure to protect little children from harm is the most shameful weakness an adult human can present?"
 I understand the reaction; however, calling America a "horror show" over and over does not really advance our understanding of the phenomenon of school shootings.  In a way, school massacres are sui generis, both in America and in the world at large.  They're very, very weird.  They also run counter to the general trend in violent crime in the United States.

In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in the United States has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009.  Christian Science Monitor.
That's a difficult statistic for a doomsayer like Mr. Kunstler to make sense of.  The country is becoming less violent, probably as the result of two social phenomena:  the graying of America (demographically, the United States has "matured out" of its prime crime-committing years); and the end or abatement of the cocaine craze of the 1980's, which introduced a lot of heavy-duty killing in connection with a drug which tended to make its users frigging nuts, and also brought into the USA a lot of badass dealers and soldiers of Colombian narco-gangs.

The solutions being proposed to the problem of school shootings seem to center around outlawing of assault weapons (a good idea) or a moralistic behavioral modification concerning violent video games (this is Wayne LaPierre's idea; this creepy, sepulchral figure from the NRA can be counted on to talk about everything except guns).  I honestly don't think video games are the problem; I think it's a poor way for children to expend their youthful energy, and I believe they would much better off playing in the real, as opposed to virtual, world, but if playing violent video games actually led to school massacres (all by itself), then not a child would be left standing in the American school system today. Kids (especially boys) play violent video games today with the same frequency and alacrity as we played "army" and cowboys & Indians when I was growing up.  Young males act out battle games, one way or another.

To understand the problem of school shootings would require a pretty serious multivariate regression analysis of sociological phenomena, but I would think that the known correlation between SSRI use and a certain irreducible occurrence of violent behavior as a "side" effect is worth exploring systematically.  What we can say is that databases show an astonishing co-occurrence between the rapid growth of anti-depressant use since the introduction of Prozac in 1987, and the rise in school massacres over the same time period.  To repeat: correlation is not causation. I realize that. However, we drug the hell out of kids today, to improve their "attention" (Ritalin) or elevate their moods (the full medicine cabinet of SSRI's and bipolar medications), and mainly to fatten the bottom line of powerful Big Pharma, while medical research (which Big Pharma tends to fund) and government (ditto) look the other way.  Most of these drugs do not perform better, over time, than placebos or simply waiting the problem out, but in a small percentage of people, they produce very sinister and murderous effects.

If there were some way to cull the rapid-firing assault weapons from America's armamentarium of 300 million firearms so that they were no longer available for illicit use, I suspect that the destruction in school shootings would drop precipitously.  That would be a very good thing, and it makes a lot more sense than training school teachers to pack heat.  But I doubt that it would put an end to school violence.  A kid with a six-gun can still take 5 fellow students with him before he inevitably turns the gun on himself in an SSRI-driven murder/suicide.  Lord knows that's a better outcome, but it's not a "solution."  For that, the truth would have to be aired out.

December 18, 2012

Mass Producing Maniacs in America

Prozac was introduced to the market by Eli Lilly in 1987.  It quickly gained favor among psychiatrists, or psychopharmacologists as they are often called these days, given their preference for treating all mental illness with psychotropic drugs, since it allowed the profession "to do something" about depression besides try to talk the patient into feeling better.  The mechanism of Prozac, generically called fluoxetine, was to "selectively" inhibit the re-uptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain's neurons.  Neurotransmitters do what their name suggests: they transfer energy from neuron to neuron across the synapses of brain cells.  Serotonin is essential to the maintenance of mood stability.

Since depressed patients taking Prozac began to "feel better" after an induction period on the drug, researchers (anxious to sell Prozac) backed into a diagnostic analysis: since readings of spinal fluid indicated that patients taking Prozac had increased levels of serotonin in the brain, the depression must have been caused by a "chemical imbalance" resulting in too little serotonin before administration of the drug.  This is similar to claiming, as Daniel Carlat notes in Unhinged - The Trouble With Psychiatry, that “By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.”

In fact, there is practically no scientific evidence for the "chemical imbalance" theory of depression.  All three books reviewed in an excellent piece by Marcia Angell in the New York Times Review of Books ( make this point: psychopharmacology needed a theory which would fit the action of the drug, so the industry made one up.  Depression is caused by too little "natural" serotonin.  It certainly was a profitable way of thinking about the problem.  Prozac was followed by Paxil, Zoloft, Serzone, Celexa and similar anti-depressants, and we're now at the point where 10% (or about 30 million people) over the age of 6 years old in America are taking anti-depressants.

As Robert Whitaker notes most forcefully among the three writers, the problem with Prozac and its ilk is that messing around with the brain's delicate chemical transmission mechanisms has nasty effects, which Eli Lilly and the rest of Big Pharma of course call "side effects," although there is nothing incidental about them.  Artificially pumping up the level of serotonin in the brain (above the preexisting baseline which was, as noted, probably completely normal) naturally produces a "high" or euphoria, and depending on the metabolic idiosyncrasies of a given patient (can they metabolize all this serotonin flooding the synapse because of the presence of the drug), the patient may go all the way into depression's opposite pole, mania.  In other words, Prozac and other drugs acting on serotonin can produce maniacs.

It's worse than that, however, because the effects of anti-depressants (and other psychotropic drugs acting on other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine) tend to continue even when the patient attempts to withdraw from the drug.  Marcia Angell summarizes this effect very neatly:

Getting off the drugs is exceedingly difficult, according to Whitaker, because when they are withdrawn the compensatory mechanisms are left unopposed. When Celexa is withdrawn, serotonin levels fall precipitously because the presynaptic neurons are not releasing normal amounts and the postsynaptic neurons no longer have enough receptors for it. Similarly, when an antipsychotic is withdrawn, dopamine levels may skyrocket. The symptoms produced by withdrawing psychoactive drugs are often confused with relapses of the original disorder, which can lead psychiatrists to resume drug treatment, perhaps at higher doses.
The brain cells, in other words, having adapted to the presence of a synthetic chemical which was interrupting natural function (re-uptake of serotonin), remain "stuck" in an up-regulated or down-regulated condition.  Thus, while conditions such as depression used to be, in the great majority of cases, self-limiting and brief in duration, we have, through the miracle of psychopharmacology, created an epidemic of people who are bummed out for good.

Or: become suicidal or totally psychotic, maybe even violently so.  Correlation is not causation, but it is highly suggestive, to say the least, that prevalence of anti-depressant use tracks more or less exactly the rise in school and public place massacres.  More soon.

December 17, 2012

We interrupt this Eli Lilly commercial to suggest a more plausible reason behind school massacres in America

I hate to ruin a good story line and distance myself from the renewed movement toward gun control in the United States.  It's the panacea du jour:  let's ban assault weapons and other rapid-firing firearms from widespread availability in the United States and all will be well.  This epidemic of school shootings will abate and we can feel safe again when our kids are in school.

Just one thing - there is something deeply illogical about that formulation of the problem.  Granted, once a killer (usually a "troubled" youth) flips, the easy access to military-style, rapid-firing weapons greatly enhances his destructive power.  That part is logical.  However:  in a sense there is an unspoken premise that in some way the assault weapon itself caused the massacre.  There the analysis breaks down.  That doesn't make any sense.  Nor does simply saying that the killer was "evil" or a "psychopath." 

A better question is to ask:  where are these evil, psychopathic killers coming from, do they have anything in common, and why are the patterns so similar?  To wit, the killer often seems to begin his rampage at home by killing family members, then proceeds to a school or other public place and kills multiple victims, then turns the weapon on himself and commits suicide.  Most of the massacres involve a mass murder-suicide sequence,  consistent with a decision to take a lot of people (often peers who shunned or excluded him) with him when his overwhelming emotional pain propelled him to suicide.

I generally find these days that if you want to understand a broad social phenomenon in the United States, the best place to look is somewhere that most people are not talking about.  The domination of Big Business (and corporate ownership of Congress and the Media) are such that you cannot rely on public discourse to identify the real source of problems.  As a good example, take the fixation on cholesterol levels as the key to understanding heart disease in the United States, and the related (and false) nutrional advice from doctors to stay away from saturated fat.  The commercial function of this advice is to sell Lipitor and related cholesterol-lowering drugs.  It has little or nothing to do with overall health.  Similarly, the "balanced diet" which has led to an epidemic of obesity in the United States is designed with subsidies to the monocultures of grain and corn farming in mind; nutritionally, it makes no sense whatsoever.  As a final example, the fixation on the "war on terror" is part of a propaganda campaign to justify the existence of a hugely oversized military establishment designed to fight this war "conventionally."  It has almost nothing to do with American safety, although one might want to keep in mind that the Predator drone strikes that are a salient part of this "war" have undoubtedly killed far more children of Newtown age than have ever died in American school shootings.  It's just that these children are mostly Pakistani and Aghani and are thus not within the consciousness (or conscience) of an American public which listens with rapt attention as the President comforts the good people of that small Connecticut town.

Which sounds, of course, like a radical analysis of American politics, but by now (equally of course) it's not.  Noam Chomsky's notion of "manufactured consent" and corporate control of the "national conversation" (the range of policy options which are allowed into the discourse) sounded very radical when he first proposed it, but by now it's conventional wisdom.  It's the way things work.

 So back to the question: what is setting these killers off?  One distinct possibility is that the killers are suffering from statistically-inevitable "side effects" of the psychotropic drugs known as SSRI's, such as Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, and numerous other spin-offs of fluoxetine (which was first used as a pain medication and was then discovered to have mood "regulating" effects).  It's possible that these are the most dangerous drugs ever devised by the alchemists of Big Pharma, that they do vastly more harm than good, and that their persistent use owes to a willful decision of the FDA and political establishment (read: Congress) not to notice (or study systematically) their massive downsides.

One of those downsides is to trip a fraction of the patients into patterns of "extreme violence" and "hostility."  A British study from 2006 on a limited class of SSRI's (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) found a consistent link between anti-depressant use and violent ideation or hostile acting-out.  It was on the order of 1/2 of 1%, but let's think about the math of this situation.  As prominent as the school shootings loom in the public mind, they still remain relatively "rare" compared to the sheer number of schools and American children of school-going age.  Meanwhile, SSRI's are prescribed with the nonchalant alacrity of a neighbor throwing M&M's into the Halloween bags of trick-or-treaters.  Thus, the "cohort" or statistical "sample" is created by our drug-happy legions of SSRI-prescribing psychiatrists (although increasing numbers of them wonder if the routine use of Prozac and its affiliates is a good idea - see Robert Whitaker's book, The Anatomy of an Epidemic, which analyzes the roughly four-fold increase in mental illness rates in the United States which has occurred since the widespread use of SSRI's and similar mood-regulation drugs were introduced about 30 to 40 years ago).  A tiny fraction of the millions of kids or young adults on SSRI regimes will thus predictably become both violent (homicidal) and self-destructive (suicidal). The drugs cause this reaction. The connection between suicide and Prozac and Zoloft (in particular) has been apparent for a long time. Among these new crazy people, a certain small fraction will have access to powerful firearms, as Adam Lanza in Newtown easily did, or they will use their ingenuity to acquire one of the 300 million firearms floating around the American landscape.

There you have a plausible causation sequence.  It makes more sense to me than blaming it all on "video games" or the Devil.  Shouldn't someone look into it systematically? This isn't conjecture: a substantial majority of the school-killers have in fact been SSRI users (such as the leader of the Columbine massacre, pictured above).  This again follows naturally from the American way of dealing with the issue.  A young person has "emotional" problems = visit to a psychiatrist = prescription of powerful mood-regulating drugs = statistical inevitability of tragedy.  (Notice that the killers, from Columbine to Newtown, are often from nice, white, relatively affluent backgrounds, the kinds of places where the parents are most likely to seek immediate drug intervention if little Johnny has a problem with "concentration" in school or seems "withdrawn" for a couple of hours.)  The problem has not been systematically studied the way it should be, and I don't think it's paranoid to suggest that there are reasons Big Pharma would prefer we not look at the problem too closely. 

So Dianne Feinstein, Senator from California and reliable spokesperson for the military-industrial complex, tells us we've already figured out the answer, based on no analysis whatsoever that I can see.  The school-killers have access to high-powered weaponry, and they get up one day and decide to kill as many people as they can.  We can settle on that answer without interfering greatly with America's lively export business of guns, grains and obesity.  No need to rock the boat - Big Pharma is one of the keys to Obamacare, after all, and the pharmaceutical companies have a stranglehold on Congressional financing (on some of the necks that Wall Street and the defense contractors aren't already clutching).

Now, I will concede that society does in fact produce psychopaths capable of random violence, quite apart from any influence of psychotropic drugs.  But common sense ought to tell us that something else is going on here.  We're producing way too many "troubled youth" with a sudden propensity to blow away everyone they know.  You can reduce their range of available weaponry (and we ought to do so), but you will not really solve the problem of hostility reactions to psychotropic drugs.  And we won't get at that problem until someone starts talking out loud about the connection.

December 08, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: A few further notes on the militant atheists

A friend of mine of many years duration (from first grade on - I am fortunate to have several such friends) and I have engaged in a running conversation, on different forums, about the question of whether life has a "meaning."  My friend seems troubled by my conclusion that life doesn't really "mean" anything beyond what we perceive with our senses. If you enjoy being alive, that's what life means; a little tautologous, but life is essentially an opportunity to be alive and to perceive reality, an opportunity we share with artichokes and banana slugs.

As with any attempt at communication, it's good to define terms at the outset.  What I'm talking about is the concept of a narrative "frame" for existence: a sense of purpose in life, or "destiny" that gives life a kind of extrinsic importance (as opposed simply to its intrinsic enjoyment).  My friend finds such purpose in Christianity, with its teleological focus on this life being a sort of audition for a supposed Afterlife, as described in the Bible.

It was for this reason that Friedrich Nietzsche, the German descendant of a line of Lutheran ministers, called Christianity the greatest "calamity in the history of mankind."  His argument that seeing this life as only a prelude to the Real Thing to Come placed our mental "center of gravity" outside of our terrestrial existence, which in turn led to all kinds of irrational outbursts and atrocities in world history (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Tea Party). 

I actually find the more heated arguments of the "militant atheists" (Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens) a little misplaced and gratuitous.  I can see the point about the role of religion, based as it is on irrational thinking, leading to persecution, theocratic tyrannies, and the like.  But their arguments are actually circular, in my opinion.  If religion is simply a construct of the human mind (and what else could it be?) then there is no "objective correlative," as the militant atheists appear not to comprehend, brilliant as they are.  Religion does not impose irrational thinking on the human mind from without; religion is the product of irrational human thinking.  This is not really a distinction without a difference.  Although worship takes place in buildings, and religious clerics wear costumes and whatnot, religion, per se, doesn't really exist except as an abstract construct.  It begins and ends with the delusional state of mind of people engaging in a highly elaborate form of ritualized superstition.  By the same token, as Sam Harris has cleverly demonstrated, atheism similarly has no content.  It is not a "belief system."  It's simply what is left after the delusions are cleared up.

Thus, the eradication of religions is not really the salient point.  Intellectual persecution of religions produces an undesirable backlash. The assault on religion, a notional nonthing, sets up an unnecessary conflict, since by their very nature irrational belief systems are not susceptible to rational persuasion (I've had quite a bit of exposure to this problem).  Militant atheism is more of a commercial project than a serious intellectual endeavor, a way to sell books and demonstrate one's iconoclastic credentials, without having much effect. This is why non-scientists such as Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher have been able to pile on and probably sell more books (or tickets to movies) than Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, or Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.  The approach of Hitchens and Maher has been simply to display their logical erudition and lucidity, unlike the "childish" believers.

Nevertheless, atheism continues to progress in human societies (especially in the more intellectually advanced countries in Europe and in Russia) because of scientific progress.  Religions were founded on superstitions about the unknown and the uncertainties of human existence (vulnerability to the weather, abundance of game and other food, human and other animal predators).  The Earth was assumed to be at the center of a small universe, and it made sense, in our solipsistic way, to arrive through intellectual projection at the conclusion that It Was All About Us. 

Mankind has gradually become disillusioned on this point, but not because of the frontal assault on belief systems by the militant atheists.  Rather it comes about through education that is gradually and systematically acquired.  Richard Feynman described it as a process of learning how utterly insignificant human life is in the context of the cosmos as a whole.  In my opinion, this is why Europe and Russia are far less religious than America.  Their educational systems are significantly better than ours, and miles ahead in math and science.  They don't "teach" atheism; it comes about through the process of learning.  Becoming comfortable with "meaninglessness" is a gradual process, as with other mental disciplines, like solving quadratic equations or learning to construct piano chords.  I'm sure that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris occasionally jar loose a thought process in a true believer that sets in motion a disillusionment with religion.  But the overwhelming majority of atheists in the National Academy of Sciences, for example, demonstrates the more likely way that atheism becomes one's belief non-system.

I think we're probably in the last throes of organized religion, that is, if modern civilization can hold itself together (if we revert to primitivism, then we'll be back to rain dancing soon enough). In my opinion, that will be a very good thing, for the reasons Sigmund Freud described in the closing passages of The Future of An Illusion, his meditation on the deleterious effects of religion on the psyche.  The usual argument against the eradication of organized superstition is that there will be a collapse in morality, yet it's always seemed to me (along the lines outlined above) that it was mankind who wrote the systems of ethics found in the holy books in the first place; thus, we're clearly capable of deriving a codified morality to govern civilized life.  And a secular, more comprehensive basis for morality would have the advantage of avoiding sectarian prejudices which give rise to Muslims killing Jews, and Christians killing Muslims, and probably were behind antipathies such as the Italians hating Yugoslavs, South Africans hating Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much.

December 05, 2012

Cliff diving north of Acapulco

"The misconception of lemming "mass suicide" is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title "The Lemming with the Locket". This comic, which was inspired by a 1953 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.[10][11] Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[12] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable."

Increasingly, I think the Disney Corporation has a lot to answer for.   For one thing, the movie "Old Yeller" was just short of deliberate child abuse.  Disney spent 90 minutes making the doomed mutt lovable and then finished him off in the final scenes.  Now, with the kind of superficial research possible in the Internet age, I learn that the whole lemming mass suicide thing is a myth, what the Aussies call a "furphy."  A load.  I recall that there was a wooden turntable for humans in the Fun House in Playland-At-The-Beach, in the San Francisco of my distant youth, but it was for fun (as should be the case in a Fun House) and not for throwing us all to certain death.

Despite the apocryphal nature of the lemming story, not a day goes by where I don't see the U.S. Congress compared to these close relatives of voles and hamsters, with the point of comparison being the willingness, even the sense of destiny, of Congress as it rushes toward its own cliff, this one fiscal in nature.  Indeed, the whole metaphor of "cliff" is probably derived from the lemming myth, which means that our Congress also gets its images from the Disney Corporation.  What next, multiplying buckets of water?

Meanwhile, down in Mexico, the PRI has been returned triumphantly to power.  The PRI, the organ at the center of Mexico's "guided democracy" from 1929 to 2000, spent twelve years in the wilderness, but now the gentle gente of Mexico have come to their senses and stopped their useless experiment with multi-party democracy.   I can't help but think we were part of the inspiration.  America pretends to have two parties, but for all practical purposes we just have two wings of our own PRI.

When I saw that "1929" as the initiating date for the long hegemony of the PRI, I knew something, and something violent, must have happened to get the PRI started.  I don't know if you've ever read any detailed Mexican history, but you're missing a treat if you haven't.  American history is totally bland by comparison.  We had the Revolutionary War, then the Civil War, then our participation in World War II (World War I was a cameo).  Those events would cover about a decade of Mexican history. The instability of Mexican government up until, well, 1929 was such that there was practically never a time when the Mexicans weren't at war with each other.  In the 1920's it was the Cristero War (Cristero meaning, roughly, "Christer"), and it came about because Mexico elected an atheist president, Plutarco Calles, something the U.S. has never done (at least an avowed atheist, although let's be real here - do Clinton and Obama really seem pious to you?). Calles essentially wanted to abolish the Catholic Church, a large undertaking in Mexico, as you might imagine, with complete secularization of schools and government and restrictions on the right of priests to appear in public. It sparked a rebellion by the Cristero army, with assistance from the U.S., which wanted to make sure Mexico didn't get any bright ideas about nationalizing the oil fields (another dreary monotony in American history) while they were persecuting Catholics.

The rebellion succeeded, the government was forced to relent in its anti-church crusade, and Mexico settled into the traditional aftermath of one of its wars, a decade of revenge murders, torture and multi-purpose atrocities. Then the PRI took charge and reliable corruption once again asserted itself. Along the way, Cardenas did in fact nationalize the oil fields in Mexico, and hired none other than Leon Trotsky (in exile in Mexico at the time) as one of his polemicists.  His arguments against American pretensions to ownership of Mexican oil fields are classic anti-imperialist screeds.  

On my various visits to Mexico, I've always found the commoners there far more realistic about the corruption of their federal government than their American counterparts; the latter insist on believing in the mythology of "ideological differences" between the parties.  One can line up the main elements of the federal budget and see at a glance where the problems are:  a medical system that costs far too much and a runaway defense budget.  If each of these two components were cut in half, the budget crisis would be solved, and at no real cost to the quality of life in America.  We pay twice as much per capita for medical care in the United States compared to comparable First World countries, yet rank 37th in the world in the quality of care.  The U.S. defense budget is premised on re-fighting World War II, which is no longer possible in the nuclear age.  We need a home guard and a nuclear umbrella; nothing else is sensible.

Such sanity is unthinkable because our own PRI, with its Janus-faced components, will not allow sanity, because it disturbs the power base of our elected-for-life D.C. bureaucrats.  So these large, bipedal lemmings (not nearly as cute as their Rodentia inspiration) will hem, haw, extend, pretend and do nothing effective, pulling back from the cliff in the nick of time.  For now.

We're gonna need a bigger turntable. 

November 28, 2012

Speed Blogging: 1/2 hour on the economy

I haven't tried to write much about the American economy in recent months.  Perhaps it's because the economic news has a "Groundhog Day" quality to it.  We are told the recovery is well underway, as we fight back from the worst economic slump "since the Great Depression," only to be told a few days later that we're slumping back into a recession.  The stock market goes up a little, then falls back down, so that after accounting for inflation in the intervening years, the Dow Jones is actually considerably below its levels in the last years of the Clinton Administration.  Technological breakthroughs these days seem limited to electronic gadgets you can carry around in your hands so that you can "Like" your "Friends" and "Comment" on somebody's picture of their favorite cat.

The Federal Reserve pumps money into the system through its current iteration of Quantitative Easing whereby it is buying up mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in the secondary market, primarily from the Primary Dealer "community" (the "Friends" of the Federal Reserve which the Reservists "Like.")  This is called "money printing" by the goldbug, libertarian community, which in a sense it is, but it is the only kind of money printing the Federal Reserve allows itself.  Ben Bernanke does not want to produce "runaway" inflation such as would occur if the Fed purchased not MBS but actual mortgages from actual Americans.  This latter approach has been suggested by many as a real goose to the economy: the Federal Reserve could simply buy up all underwater mortgages in the United States by printing the money necessary to refinance them at a value equal to the house's fair market value, while leaving the owner-occupants in place.  Suddenly, a giant cohort of house-rich Real Americans would stand proud in their front yards.

Nope, can't do that.  Bernanke is certain (and I'm certain he's right) that an economy stage-managed to that degree by the Central Planners would turn the American economic tragedy into a farce of hyperinflation.  So The Bernank comes at the problem from oblique angles: holding down interest rates through Operation Twist (whereby the Federal Reserve buys up the long end of the Treasury curve), providing a secondary market for distressed MBS, and maintaining its Zero Interest Rates Forever program... forever, which starves the savers and retirees who might otherwise earn some money on their bank nest eggs, but this is an economy with many problems, and trying to fix some of those problems entails making others worse.

Thus, the salient point is at last reached: why do we have an economy where only tweaks and gimmicks are available for dealing with its many deficiencies in providing a general, prosperous standard of living for its citizens?  Why do we have the general feeling that no matter what scheme we try next, we're going to remain mired down in this sluggish, sputtering contraption known as the American economy, in a fugue state similar to the conditions which have prevailed since 2007, when the wheels began to come off?  When the Bubble popped?  Choose your mechanical metaphor.

Sorry, that's all the time we have for today.  Tune in next time when we ask some more rhetorical questions.

November 25, 2012

Sunday Morning Essay: American Mania & the Total American Asshole

I don't know if I've mentioned before that I've been reading a book entitled American Mania, by Peter Whybrow, a British psychiatrist and current head of the Semel Institute of Neuroscience at UCLA. This is another look at "American exceptionalism," only one that makes a little more sense to me than the usual malarkey based on sketchy ideas about Americans having "inherited" the adventurous blood of their European, Asian, African and Latin American ancestors, those who braved the unknown to establish a new country, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King of Siam said to Anna.

That always sounded like complete and utter nonsense.  Every human not living in Equatorial Africa is in some way the descendant of just such an "adventurer," and the inheritor of genes passed on by those who came up out of Africa beginning about 60,000 years ago.  Our narrative is simply a self-centered meme intended, as with so many things in the national lore, to make us feel superior. This yearning for superiority, of course, being the surest sign of insecurity.

Be that as it may:  the question, as I would frame it, is along these lines:  is there an explanation, scientific or at least rigorous in nature, that would shed light on America's tendency to mass produce Assholes?  For example, can an explanatory theory cover such excrescences as Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, the entire personnel lists of the Wall Street investment banks, James Inhofe and so forth?  Why does America lead the way in creating humans who actively work, and in some cases devote their lives, to destroying the Earth as a viable habitat?

Dr. Whybrow, gentle soul that he is, and perhaps constrained by his foreign-born status, is much gentler in his approach.  To summarize his thesis: as with other neuroscientists who have ventured into sociology, Dr. Whybrow notes the "layering" of the human brain; which is to say, the topmost layer, the cerebral cortex where all of the complicated ratiocination is carried on, is placed as a sort of sedimentary layer on more primitve structures, such as the "reptilian" brain.  (For those evolution-deniers, another almost unique species mass produced by America, I would ask: why would God build a human brain, 6,000 years ago, that contains elements obviously retained from earlier, lower life forms?  Why not just start from scratch, on this, His magnum opus?)  Moving on: Whybrow explains that this reptilian brain, operating unconsciously, controls the drives for basic security in terms of food, sex and material acquisition.  Because of the unique physical circumstances of the United States, a large and varied topography; favorable climate; plentiful water; great natural resource stores; isolation from older cultures which tend to destroy each other on a regular basis; and a progressive political system (until about 1980, when we chucked it all in), America leapt ahead into modernity and into production, exploiting this uniquely favorable real estate, on a scale never before seen in human history.

The reaction of the reptilian human brain to such abundance was natural and reflexive.  Since this brain component evolved during eras of scarcity, when the struggle for survival was a daily grind (till we reached the Upper Paleolithic, our Golden Age), abundance is treated as an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines.  We begin a frantic process ("mania") of material acquisition, power-seeking, sexual conquest, celebrity worship and envy, and other manifestations of a completely out-of-control venality and acquisitiveness.  Since American culture venerates those, most of all, who are rich and famous (the King Reptiles), we elevate to national stardom the Total American Asshole, that specimen (such as Donald Trump) who most clearly epitomizes this sick maladaptation to abundance.  Trump, indeed, with his grasping, palpable air of desperation and grandiosity, is perhaps the Poster Boy for American Mania.  An essentially dumb, incompetent Lizard who inherited a lot of real estate and managed to keep some of it through serial bankruptcy.

The other aspect of Whybrow's analysis is his explanation of America's attenuated social cohesion. To be brief (since I'm often criticized for going long, given America's pathetic attention span and ability to focus), Whybrow assigns the "folkways" of family continuity, caring (for each other and Nature), creativity and basic decency to cultures carried on and transmitted, human to human, by the cerebral cortex.  The attempt to maintain such aspects of a decent culture in America are under intense strain caused by the Mania about which he writes.  Everyone is so busy maintaining an excessively abundant lifestyle, overkilling the need for security by building 12,000 square foot houses with five-car garages and six bathrooms (for a working married couple with no children), paying credit card bills, overpaying college tuitions (driven higher by the Congressional-College Conspiracy on student loans), and in the process destroying the air, land, water and aesthetics of the Ecosphere, that there is simply no time or inclination to live in a meaningful way (in cerebral terms), and no leisure during which to teach one's offspring about what Thoreau called "the finer fruits in life," which cannot be plucked because of "fingers which tremble from excessive toil." 

November 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Essay: If At First You Don't Secede

Following Barack Obama's reelection, a wave of petitions under the "We The People" program have been submitted to the White House requesting permission for various states to leave the Union.  Petitions which reach the requisite number of 25,000 citizens are supposed to receive an official presidential response (not just on secession, but on any issue).  Some states, such as Texas, have far exceeded this number so we can anticipate that the President's staff will put together some form of excessively complicated answer which reminds us of the strength and durability of the American republic, affirms the right of free speech and the right to petition the government about grievances, and blah blah blah.  Ending with, I don't think so.

It's really a kind of fad at the moment, and it can be expected to meet the same fate as the Occupy Movement.  Americans have a very limited attention span for such matters, and the MSM is probably mostly right, at the moment, to consign such convulsions to a knee-jerk response from some conservative quarters to the prospect of four more years of submitting to the rule of a chief executive of African descent.

Bob Cesca of the Huffington Post wrote a long, querulous rejoinder to the secession petitions from Southern states in particular in which he trotted out the usual arguments against secession: such states, in fact, are more dependent on federal largesse than their blue brethren, since the transfer payment scheme (Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment) tends to favor such states with a higher rate of return (higher than 1:1, and in the case of such states as Louisiana, much higher) on their federal tax dollars.  But this is not always the case, as in Texas, for example, where Texas pays in more than it receives in federal benefits (this is also true in California and other large states).  States such as Texas and California, if allowed simply to retain the federal income and FICA taxes paid to the federal government, would probably be in a more favorable budgetary position than as members of the Union, and, of course, would have the freedom and flexibility to use their money as they saw fit.  California, for example, could spend its money as if it were living in the 21st century and Texas could continue to win the War of Revolution against Mexico.

I think, however, that there is more to the secession noise than impatience among the Southern states with a minority President.  American "approval" ratings of Congress have been ridiculously, hilariously low for a very long time, as one example - on the order of 11% of all voters.  It's not an exaggeration to point out that the vast majority of ordinary American citizens despise the central government, in the good old, SAT-test definition of this venerable verb.  Americans hold Congress and Washington, D.C. in contempt.  They regard the whole apparatus as one step up from useless.

I do think that a good definition of the federal government is "an insurance company with an army."  This is the root of Washington's problem.  As the "entitlements" and interest on the national debt have swollen to consume virtually the entirety of all federal income taxes paid (mainly income and FICA), the central government is little more than a paymaster.  You send your money in, they send it out.  The other function of the federal government is to engage in mysterious "warfare" against an extremely ill-defined "terrorist threat" that apparently has something to do with killing members of the Taliban and blowing up other Muslims with Drone strikes from time to time.  Increasingly, these activities make less and less sense to the American populace.  We launched a war against the Taliban because they were "harboring" Osama bin Laden.  We now know that for most of the time the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, bin Laden was in Pakistan, a putative ally.  Bin Laden is now dead, beyond anyone's ability to "harbor" him (Allah, I suppose), yet the war in Afghanistan for some reason continues, I guess because of the other reason blown up by the Bush Administration: the Taliban repress women, unlike the royalty, for example, in Saudi Arabia.

I think all of these factors have seeped into the American consciousness.  Congress and the Executive shuffle around, put off deadlines on budget matters, shout hysterically about "cliffs" of their own devising, borrow enormous sums of money to run their dubious enterprises, send American soldiers off to die for no reason whatsoever, and many Americans are simply looking for a way to make them all shut up and go away.  Thus, all these petitions for "secession."  Since there are no real solutions to any of the problems outlined, in a resource-constrained, economically-stagnant world, these ideas are going to stick around and mutate into something more tangible.  Such is my intuition, based on the idea that things that can't go on forever, don't.

November 15, 2012

Further notes on the slippery slope to tyranny

One aspect of Dave & Paula & Jack & Jill that has received little attention (yet is the actual story) is the extent to which the FBI ransacked the email accounts of four Americans without a shred of probable cause.  Glenn Greenwald wrote about it, of course, and Rachel Maddow (that perspicacious observer of subtle story lines) said something, too, for which she deserves much praise, for after all this is Obama the Great's Justice Department of which we speak..  But for the most part, the complete and utter disregard of the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights continues unimpeded by so much as a whimper from the Mainstream Media or the political establishment. 

For example, our Constitutional scholar President might have risen to the defense of his CIA Director by murmuring the following:  General Petraeus's emails were hacked into by the FBI by the following chain of logic:  an FBI agent with the hots for Jill Kelley, the Tampa party girl and military groupie, responded to Jill's damsel-in-distress routine about emails received from Paula Broadwell, which apparently were to the effect of "back off, bitch," or something along those high school-rivalry lines.  This agent, along with others at the FBI, could not really find anything in these emails from Broadwell to Kelley which were actionable; there were no threats of bodily harm, no warning that Jill's house would be burned down, nothing.  Nevertheless, the FBI then began pawing through Paula Broadwell's emails and discovered that she was having an affair with Petraeus.  This led to reading all of the CIA Director's emails, and then the agents discovered among the emails of Jill Kelley (which they of course began reading, far beyond the scope of the Broadwell "threat" emails) the voluminous emails from General John Allen to Jill Kelley.

The only activity that is even remotely improper, as far as the four targets of the FBI were concerned, was General Allen's affair (if there was one) with Kelley, which would violate the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  But UCMJ rules are not within the purview of the FBI.  Petraeus's affair is not criminal in any way, since he was a civilian (CIA Director) at the time his liaison with Broadwell occurred.  More importantly, as of the time the FBI began its wholesale invasion of the privacy of these four Americans, there was no indication that any crime had been committed, since the point of entry for the Bureau was the Broadwell to Kelley email traffic.  Unless the FBI found an initial basis for believing (reasonably) that a crime had been committed, anything else it discovered would be inadmissible as "fruit of the poisonous tree," as we used to quaintly call the doctrine before the repeal of the Fourth Amendment.

The FBI paid a kind of faint tribute to the rules of search-and-seizure by arguing, ex post facto, that the Bureau was "concerned about breaches of security," thus betraying the FBI's cognizance that it had no business rifling through the private lives of four Americans without a predicate crime on which to base its investigation.  This "national security" stuff (involving the Petraeus-Broadwell affair) came to light only after the initial violation of the Fourth Amendment.

As I say, if we had other than an Empty Suit President (with the election behind us and a greater danger averted, we can go back to the plain truth), the real issue here would be part of the public discourse.  But Obama, while still a Senator, completely reversed himself on the issue of telecom immunity for cooperating with violations of the FISA law and warrantless searches, despite his campaign promise that he would "never" vote for immunity.  He didn't until it became politically expedient to do so.

President O doesn't want to dredge all that up into the public consciousness again, so he will, as usual, do nothing.  Which, as we have been warned by wise men, is all that is necessary for evil to thrive.

November 13, 2012

A Personal Note of Thanks to David & Paula & Jack & Jill

(with a cameo role by the shirtless FBI agent who became infatuated with Jill.)  Without this meaningless "scandal," we would have been inundated over the next six weeks with nonstop news about the "fiscal cliff."  Yech.  This is a lot more fun.  I don't know if we can squeeze a Christine Keeler/Mandy Rice-Davies sized story out of this tale of Generals Behaving Badly, but the Lamestream Media can at least try.

My favorite angle?  Diane Feinstein's outrage that the FBI was having all the fun with this, poring over thousands of pages of steamy emails (military version), without "consulting" Congress.  Oh brother.  Let me get this straight: an entire war (Libya) can happen without consulting Congress (as in, seeking authorization under the War Powers Act of 1973) and that's not a problem.  But if things get worked up into such a lather that an FBI agent is iPhoto-ing himself with no shirt in an effort to turn Jill Kelley on, and Congress is not in the loop, it's time for a Special Prosecutor?

I'm trying to come up with a story line that better illustrates the utter and complete frivolousness of Congress, the endless War on Terror, our misbegotten wars and the commanders who lead them, the entire circle jerk of what Washington's bureaucracy has become - and drawing blanks. 

Twenty to thirty thousand pages of emails between Kelley and John Allen?  What, exactly, is General Allen being paid to do?

November 11, 2012

How Could General Petraeus Do Such a Thing??!!

(For the benefit of curious and deductive sleuths, I have provided the above visual clue as to why a 60 year old man exhibited "terrible judgment," in his words, in making such a colossal mistake.)

Oddly enough, this is not the question the valiant Washington press corps is asking.  Rather, in General Petraeus's case, the only real issue seems to be whether President Obama should or should not have accepted his resignation. I'm not sure this question even makes sense.  Refuse his resignation?  It's a measure of how undone Washington is over this disgraced hero.

As Glenn Greenwald has (hilariously) pointed out, in all other sex scandals involving Washington bigwigs, the smarm is thick enough to shmear your poppy seed bagel with (my words, not his).   While straining to keep a straight face, and delighting in every lurid, salacious detail dredged up on the embarrassed public official, the media always play sex scandals to the hilt.  Nothing is condemned as harshly as marital infidelity, as Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and many others have found out.  Every Washington reporter, every Congressperson, every D.C. bureaucrat instantly becomes functionally Amish.

But this is the military we're dealing with, and, to boot, a four-star mega-hero who has salvaged (so the legend goes) two completely unnecessary wars and prevented them from becoming unsuccessful unnecessary wars (not that it would matter, heroism-wise), and kept us safe from terror which would not exist were we not waging war in the Muslim world all the time.  And in my book (and it better be in your book, too), all that we can be, as far as General David Petraeus is concerned, is eternally grateful, and wipe that smirk off your face, soldier.

We'll get puff pieces, however, on new "insights" into infidelity.  (Adam was probably faithful to Eve so long as no other options existed, but it was all downhill from there.)  Still it must be "analyzed," psychologists, sociologists, urologists, must be consulted to find out why people have sex when they can.   Here's the actual title of a piece on the Huffington Post by Lisa Belkin, who's something called the Life/Work/Family Senior Columnist:

Why do powerful men cheat?

I simplified this as follows:

Why do powerful men cheat?

I realized I could ask another question:

Why do powerful women cheat?

And as before:

Why do powerful women cheat?

Reducing to simplest terms, and using a collective noun:

Why do (wo)men cheat? 

Or:  Why do people cheat?

My answer was as follows:

Because they’re people.

Something told me that this would not be the answer from the  expert on the the Huffington Post.  And sure enough it was far more nuanced and complicated than that.  Belkin said:  "What is unclear is why."

That's why I'll never be the Life/Work/Family Senior Columnist on The Huffington Post.

November 09, 2012

The Distant Sound of Heads Exploding

Rick Blaine → Ah, that's the new German 77, and judging by the sound, only about thirty-five miles away.  "Casablanca."

What an ear Monsieur Reeeeeeeeck! had for German armament.  I suppose it's because, during the Spanish Civil War, he fought on the Loyalist side, although Franco would have paid him much better.

Ilsa had just said something about her heart beating, an obvious opening for Rick, but he got all masculine and technical in response.  Maybe because his brain was constantly addled by excessive carbon monoxide from all those French cigarettes he was hoovering.

No matter what else happens in American history from this point forward, I shall be forever grateful that I was there when Karl Rove made a complete, utter and irretrievable doofus out of himself, refusing (in the characteristic Republican fashion) to stare reality in the face.  Although the candidate he had been bankrolling through "American Crossroads" (a giant slush fund made possible by sympathetic cheerleaders for unrestrained corporatism on the Supreme Court in their Citizens United decision) was 100 electoral votes behind, although it was obvious that Ohio's vote count was simply going to get worse for Romney, although all "paths to 270" were clearly foreclosed for the Republican, Rove, remembering his fondest days as a bag man for W, could not concede.  I remember the best description I have ever read of Karl Rove's appearance, one penned by Al Franken back in his writing days:  Karl Rove looks like a "giant baby."  Now he was acting like one.

At some point in this chronicle, I related that I looked up the demographic mix at the elementary school I attended in the period 1954 to 1960, in suburban Northern California.  From old class pictures I still had, I could see that back in the Eisenhower era, the school was about 95% white.  Current stats maintained by the state of California paint a different picture.  Albion H. Horrall Elementary is now 64% Hispanic and about 11% white, with the balance a mixture of African-American, Asian and South Pacific Islanders.  

Times change, and with it the suzerainty of the white, aging Baby Boomer.  When I watched Obama give his late-night acceptance speech, transported as I was by his soaring, eloquent bullshit, I realized, maybe for the first time, that only Obama would have been an appropriate choice for the United States at this point in history.  Romney would simply have retarded the move toward the nation's destiny for another four years.

It's been pointed out that only the United States, among First World countries (basically, Japan, Australia, Canada the U.S. and most of Europe) shares a long, mostly unguarded border between itself and the Third World (Mexico, which is used as a transition path also for Hispanics farther south).  This is the primary driver behind America's move toward a new "multi-culturalism," and the old, white commentators on Fox News and elsewhere, tricked by the "parallax of nostalgia," have a hard time coming to grips with it.  The billions unleashed by Citizens United simply aren't enough to stem the tide anymore, and voter suppression, at a certain point (which was passed in Ohio and Florida) actually becomes counter-productive: it simply encourages people (particularly minorities) to vote just to show the Man they won't be denied.

America remains, of course, with all of its same problems, its perilous finances, its declining status among nations, its delusional fixation on safety from "terror," its extreme polarization.  In a way I think Obama has not so much been elected President as Chief Engineer of a Runaway Train.  Having said that, however, I must acknowledge he looks a lot more like Modern Life than the other guy.

November 02, 2012

Sure, I'll Vote for Obama on Tuesday

Come on, I was just kidding.  Jill Stein?  Ha!  I've got to be kidding myself.

Look, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.  We all know that.  I have been brought around.  Not, mind you, by Obama himself.  He's the same as he ever was, a rather opportunistic shredder of the Bill of Rights who can claim, along with George W. Bush, that he was there when the Constitutional lights went out.  The NDAA-driven indefinite detention, deprivation of counsel, even murder of American citizens by Presidential fiat?  Drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan with a 2% accuracy and effectiveness in killing the terrorists we're mass producing by....drone strikes?

Voting your conscience in modern America is terribly self-indulgent, however.  It's kind of intellectually fussy.  In a country which has fundamentally lost its mind (as this one certainly has), one must vote for the candidates of the psychopathic party which is closer to the psychopathology you favor.  I know, in my heart of hearts, that the good and noble Barack Obama only engages in systematic unconstitutional and even illegal acts (of war, of violations of civil rights) simply because he needs to convince a sufficient number of uninformed and deranged fellow Americans that he has what it takes to be the leader of an insane country.  I think he's done that.

Right Wing lunacy, on the other hand, guided mostly by an obese and moronic monstrosity whose cerebrum was turned to lemon-flavored Jell-O long ago by chronic, massive Oxycontin abuse, is way too dangerous.  Voting for Romney increases the chances that a Republican mob will seize total power and institute a kind of American Fourth Reich.

The Republicans have become completely, freaking nuts, their ideology shaped by vast conspiracy-theory nonsense, theocratic yearning, anti-scientific obscurantism, and racial and misogynistic hatreds.  Nothing whatsoever should be done to help them.  In such circumstances, consistency doesn't matter.  Only survival does.

Four more years!  Of something or other.

October 30, 2012

General Theory of Irrelevance, Part 1

As a philosophical, and probably temperamental, style, I have always found great comfort in theories of hopelessness.  Luckily for me, such theories abound and exist at every philosophical and existential level.

Take, for example, the theory at the outermost concentric ring of reality, the life cycle of the sun (or Sun, since it's so special to us).  The Sun is in its main sequence, as it's called, where it's busy converting its hydrogen supply to fused helium.  This generates heat which radiates to Earth, and this is the fundamental energy powering life on our planet.  The Sun, like everything else in the known universe, is subject to basic conservation and thermodynamic laws, and it can't go on forever like this because, large as it is, it's a finite mass.  Toward the end of the Sun's life, it will begin to expand as it exhausts its fuel; it doesn't have the mass to go supernova (the major leagues), but it's got enough heft to achieve red giant status, sort of the Triple A baseball of stellar transition-states.  I've always found this a fairly convincing argument (among many) against Creationism: I mean really, God put us in a galaxy where our own Sun isn't even one of the Big Boys?  That doesn't make any sense. Anyway, the Sun is about halfway through its main sequence, with about 5 billion years to go on its journey to White Dwarfism (sorry, that's just the way it goes), but before you relax and start thinking you have, well, all the time in the world, pay attention: 

Earth's ultimate fate is precarious. As a red giant, the Sun will have a maximum radius beyond the Earth's current orbit, 1 AU (1.5×1011 m), 250 times the present radius of the Sun.[108] However, by the time it is an asymptotic giant branch star, the Sun will have lost roughly 30% of its present mass due to a stellar wind, so the orbits of the planets will move outward. If it were only for this, Earth would probably be spared, but new research suggests that Earth will be swallowed by the Sun owing to tidal interactions.[108] Even if Earth should escape incineration in the Sun, still all its water will be boiled away and most of its atmosphere will escape into space. Even during its current life in the main sequence, the Sun is gradually becoming more luminous (about 10% every 1 billion years), and its surface temperature is slowly rising. The Sun used to be fainter in the past, which is possibly the reason life on Earth has only existed for about 1 billion years on land. The increase in solar temperatures is such that in about another billion years the surface of the Earth will likely become too hot for liquid water to exist, ending all terrestrial life.[108][109]

 This may provide some comfort if you haven't saved enough for retirement.  You were thinking we all had five billion years to go, but we're not going to be around to see the Sun reduced to its pitiful White Dwarf destiny.  You might call this the ultimate Inconvenient Truth. 

It's nothing to worry about, however, as I shall attempt to describe subsequently.

October 21, 2012

Alice Checks Out the 'Hood

In her twelfth year in Wonderland, Alice couldn't help noticing that things looked a little ragged around the edges.  In the place of forest paths edged by wildflowers, there were potholed streets lined with old cars, and the residents of Wonderland spent their time standing around trash fires burning in rusted barrels, warming their hands against the cold of early autumn.  Those who weren't so engaged stood in long lines waiting to get into Government Groceries.

"Goodness, what a sight," murmured Alice lifting one patent leather shoe to step delicately over a passed-out drunk on the sidewalk.  Up ahead, Alice thought she saw the Mad Hatter, standing with the Dormouse around another trash fire.  He was heating his teapot on a wire screen resting on the barrel.

"Mr. Hatter, how do you do?" said Alice as she approached.

"What up," grunted the Mad Hatter.  "Slumming or something?"

"I'm lost, as ever," said Alice with a little more heartiness than she really felt.  "Silly me."

"Yeah, silly you," said the Hatter.  "Want some tea?  How bout a biscotti?"

Alice looked at the teapot, smudged black with flame, and the metal canteen cups, which weren't in much better condition.

"Oh no, thanks," said Alice.  "I've eaten."  Which was literally true, although she couldn't remember which year that had been.

"Suit yourself."

Alice noticed that the Dormouse, who was wearing a pair of oversized Ray-Bans that kept slipping down his snout, was inhaling deeply from a short stubby cigar.  He coughed between tokes.

"Is the Dormouse alright?" asked Alice.

"He's good," said the Hatter.

"That's nice," said Alice, for lack of any other remark to make.

"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," said the Dormouse to no one in particular.

"So what's new with you and Wonderland?" said the Hatter, in his usual caustic tone.

"I was just thinking that things don't seem very much the same since I followed the rabbit down the hole back in...oh, so many years ago."

"Times are tough, kiddo," said the Mad Hatter.

"Boo-yah!" the Dormouse suddenly shrieked.

Alice tried to ignore this last interjection.  "I can see that," she said thoughtfully. "What seems to be the problem?"

"What seems to be the problem," sneered the Hatter, "is that we ran outta dough, you know?  Cash, dinero, the old scratch.  Bust-o, kid, tits up and no pulse.  Along those lines."

Alice couldn't help thinking that one thing that definitely hadn't changed was the Mad Hatter's penchant for unpleasant self-expression, which was as vibrant as ever.

"But why is that?" asked Alice, genuinely curious. "Did the Red Queen cease her benevolence."

"She's flown the coop," said the Hatter,  "down in the Caymans, luxuriating on a pile of her money."

"How very selfish," said Alice.

"Careful, Lamebrain," said the Mad Hatter.  "Or they'll off with your head."

"I thought you just said the Red Queen had fled Wonderland," replied Alice, perplexed.

"True that is," said the Hatter, "but the two guys running for Red King can label you anti-Wonderland and it's sayonara, Toots." 

"I'm afraid I don't understand," said Alice.

"If you're afraid, you're getting warmer," said the Hatter.

"I still haven't the first notion what you're talking about," said Alice.

"Knock me over with a feather," said the Mad Hatter.  "Look, Babycakes, if you're anti-Wonderland, you can wind up on the losing end of a Drone missile on the Red King's say-so."

"Which Red King?"

"Take your pick," snickered the Hatter.  "It's the law.  Of course, your odds are worse if your name's Arab."

"That's what the law says?" asked Alice timidly.  This surely didn't sound much like the Wonderland she used to know.

"Not in so many words.  That would be unconstitutional.  Equal protection, you know."

"That sounds ever so much better," said Alice, relieved.

"We're now entitled to equal lack of protection under the law, see," said the Mad Hatter, cackling... madly.  "Hey, want to buy a hat?  How bout five hundred of 'em?  Things have been a little slow."

"I don't really think so, thanks," murmured Alice.

"Suit yourself, Bimbo.  Have a nice day."

Alice hurried away down the sidewalk, down a side street, and eventually came upon the forest, where she at last relaxed a little.  Strolling along in the deepening woods, she looked for sign posts.  She wondered if she could find a trail to the Cayman Islands.