Friday, December 12, 2014

When does it stop?

There's a common horror plot where bad things happen in buildings built on a cemetery.  I'm beginning to think that building is the United States and the cemetery is or patch of North America and large slices of the rest of the world.  The story we are told of the US is one of settlement, civilization, extraction and industry.  Which it was, but that same settlement and civilization meant displacing and killing Native Americans and importing enslaved labor to do much of the heavy lifting.  The US has become the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world because it has spent centuries not paying for the labor and resources used to build it.  We continue to underpay wherever we can get away with it.

That doesn't make it uniquely evil. It's just regular garden variety.  Every empire does this. The skylines of Moscow, Paris, Rome, New York and Beijing are graced with architecture paid for by the wealth of empires. The British Museum did not get filled with the priceless art and cultural heritage of a hundred civilizations by paying cash for those exhibits. Neither did the Louvre, or the Hermitage, or the Smithsonian. Of course in the last half century or so, the museums of the world have learned to accept only donations with a provenance, to prove that if they were stolen, it was from long enough ago that there won't be any lawsuits.

It's impossible to rank the empires of history on wickedness.  How does one compare Rome's destruction of Carthage and salting the earth with the inquisition of the Spanish Empire?  Vast gulfs of time, learning or understanding, of capability and worldview separate us.  We can say that empires oppress and subjugate and conquer and loot, and that often the most successful empires have founded their empire on their proficiency at and enthusiasm for those activities.

Which is not to say progress isn't being made.  Nominally at least, the countries of the world are opposed to slavery, even the ones which practice versions of it with prison labor or guest workers.  Nominally, the countries of the world are opposed to war, until they think they can get something out of it.  Nominally the US has repudiated the concept of an aristocracy, even as we destroy the inheritance taxes critical to preventing an aristocracy from arising. Fewer and fewer countries have the death penalty. Nominally we have equal rights, even though study after study shows wildly unequal treatment of women in the workplace, of African Americans in courts and in prison, and LGBTQ individuals in all walks of life.

The disconnect between our society's ideals and its treatment of people at home and countries abroad is heartbreaking.  And I wouldn't be surprised if this realization has caused people to embrace hypocrisy and indulge in the same high minded rhetoric as our founding fathers used when they set up a new nation of liberty and equality for everyone, except men who didn't own land, women, slaves and Native Americans.

And it's hard to retain my optimism that Americans will continue to maintain and expand the protection of the law to those from whom it has historically been withheld, when the news show so many people gleefully cheering on the deaths of young African American men by police, or at the hands of armed civilians.  It's hard to accept that the revelations in the Senate report are not some horrible aberration, but rather than a return to form by a military which was all too willing to torture and massacre in, for example, Viet Nam, and the Philippines and incarcerate entire populations of Asian American citizens during WWII. And I'm having a rough week because of this shit and I can't think of an up note to wrap up with.

Anyway, if I don't write another entry before the holidays, merry solstice, merry Christmas, happy new year, happy Hanukkah, happy Saturnalia, and joyous Kwanzaa to everyone, especially those who could use some good news.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

New bubbles: how much disruptive innovation can one economy take?

The next bubble has already started.   I think it's the sharing economy.  Or to put it anther way 'the desperately trying to monetize everything you own, so you don't have to live on the street' economy.  There is also the disruptive innovation economy or the 'lets destroy or circumvent regulations using the internet so our investors can get rich and to hell with everyone else' economy.  "Sharing" and "disruptive innovation", the one evokes lessons learned in kindergarten and the other images of poor buggy whip manufacturers clinging to an outmoded business model at the dawn of the automotive age.

Companies like Uber and Lyft, who call themselves logistics companies, get people to use their personal cars as an 'independent' taxi in return for a cut of the fare, the price of which they, not the drivers, determine. The independence of the drivers is a legal fiction, allowing Uber and Lyft to build and operate a nationwide taxi service without the bother and expense of 1) getting a taxi cab license in the local municipality or complying with local regulations, 2) employing drivers and paying benefits 3) buying and maintaining a fleet of cars and paying for fuel. 

Now, they are advertising subprime auto loans to drivers with bad credit, the terms of which can add $10,000 to the price of a $27,000 car.  I think this demonstrates pretty clearly that the best interest of their drivers is not their highest priority.  Servicing that loan will cost in excess of $100 a week, which is a big extra expense for a person working for what Uber and Lyft claim are 'tips'.

It is a particularly innovative form of capitalism, to charge people for the privilege of using their own property to make money illegally.

I think it is an idea whose time has come.  Smartphones can do more and more.  They can empower people to work from nearly anywhere.  Give a person a charged smartphone and a bluetooth headset, and they can do any number of customer service tasks.  Book a flight?  Troubleshoot windows?  Call out on dodgy scams? Take an order? Resolve billing issues? No one needs to set up a call center anymore.  Right now it is possible to set up and staff a call center and not buy a single thing, server space can be rented, programming a call center app can be contracted, and hundreds or thousands can download a 'work from home' app that lets them do anything that it previously took a dedicated call center operation to perform.

 Google is already testing self driving cars in California.  These technologies are ripe for convergence.  Once Uber and Lyft have their brand established all over the country, what's to stop them from replacing their drivers with cars that don't require drivers at all?  Within a year, the Oculus Rift VR goggles will release their consumer model, followed shortly by Samsung's lower spec'd smartphone based VR goggles. Will trucking companies put self driving trucks on the road with one or two people virtually riding herd on a fleet to get the automated trucks out of jams their programming can't cope with?

I'm not against our roads being full of self driving cars.  It's a technology that could save lives.  What I'm against is the goldrush mentality that will result in millions people unemployed when disruptive technologies are implemented without any consideration of the consequenses.  Every bus driver, truck driver, tractor driver, combine harvester driver, forklift driver, pizza delivery driver, taxi driver that can't earn a living is going to stretch the already weak economy even further. 

We don't have the kind of social safety net that can support millions of people leaving the workforce.  And let's not kid ourselves that ay brand new replacement jobs will be as well paying or plentiful enough to put all of the unemployed drivers back to work.

Once corporate America sees the potential of cyrpto-currencies, they'll be able to avoid paying taxes entirely.  The only people still paying taxes will be those too stubborn to change to the new currencies.

So, imagine Google and Amazon and other web giants wholeheartedly embracing 3-d printing, warehouse automation, driverless deliveries, and TOR encrypted untraceable commerce with crypto-currencies, and what you're looking at is the end of capitalism as we know it. I'm not so in love with American capitalism that I think it is the acme of economic systems, but we are living in times that are about to get a lot more interesting.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Twitter Fight!

Yesterday I caught the fringes of a twitter storm.  It was every bit as stupid a situation as most twitter storms are. Basically it was person A whose politics were far left trying to dig up dirt on persons B through F or G; who are journalists who not leftist enough in person A's opinion.  And therefore person A thought it was OK to go digging for dirt to try and expose persons B through F or G to the same kind of harassment that the targets of gamergate are experiencing.  This situation is disappointing on so many levels.  I am not going to name names, because the fact that I am aware of it shows that the situation is way higher profile than it deserves to be.  The only reason I mention it, is that it illustrates why tactics are just important as goals.  The ends don't justify the means.  If person A really wants to as he claims, fight white supremacists and fascists, then he's doing a poor job of it when he attacks journalists.  Especially when he employs the tactics of the online stalker: leaking personal information and coordinating a campaign of threats of rape and violent murder.  Employing those tactics makes people who becomes aware of the issue say stupid things like 'both sides are equally wrong'.

I think that the goal of most progressives and liberals is to build a better civilization, not to build paradise on earth.  We progressives and liberals should be able to look at injustice and say, "this needs to stop" even if that injustice works to our benefit.  That means treating opponents with respect both when they have similar goals and there is a disagreement on tactics or when their goals are diametrically opposed.  That means not stooping to dirty tricks.  Dirty tricks are effective only when they are unexpected.  But given the eagerness of on-line assholes to accuse others of 'false flag' operations, sock puppet accounts, hacking and doxing, it is unlikely that they would be taken unaware by in-kind response. Further, those dirty tricks hamstring any cause when evidence is revealed. 

Hatred is a terrible motivation.  Even when it is hatred of fascism and white supremecy.  Hatred can make a person think that their worst actions are justified when used on a hated enemy.  Hatred is a cheap thrill, a blast of anger that justifies horrific crimes.  Genocide, ethnic cleansing, these are not the products of principled opposition to a real or imagined injustice.  They result from people giving in to hatred and the belief that murder can solve problems.  It's easy to think the world would be a better place if evil people were dead.  And it might be.  But it wouldn't be as good a place as it would be if evil people saw the error of their ways, and quit being evil.  It sounds naive to put it in terms of 'evil' and 'good'.  It is naive.  Hardly anyone thinks of themselves as evil.  They may consider themselves better or different or a person to whom the regular rules do not apply, but outside of the seriously deranged, most people aren't evil.  Many people operate from different viewpoints, or with different ethics that from the outside can appear to be irredeemably evil.  I can think of a few dozen important people who are daily doing what I consider to be evil things.  But it would weaken my argument to name them, it would allow people* to dismiss this as mere tone trolling of the people I oppose. 

But people are not prey.  People are not resources to exploit or irredeemably violent fiends** to be dealt with as one would deal with a rabid dog. So I encourage everyone to exercise their empathy.  Put yourself in the shoes of those you oppose, and try to think with their experience and their ethics.  It won't be perfect. It can't be.  But the exercise itself should give you insight into how your opposition thinks, how they will act and what arguments they will find to be convincing.  Peace didn't happen in North Ireland because the most violent partisans on both sides were allowed to set the agenda.  Peace happened because both sides were sick of the violence.  Peace happened because it was easier to learn to get along than to keep going to funerals.

*the five people or so who read this blog post anyway
** OK some very small fraction of people are irredeemably violent fiends.  There aren't enough of those violent psychopaths to do more than keep the police busy,  and inspire horror movies.  And some people are sociopaths with no morals that have learned to function in society, who can and do terrible things without getting their hands dirty. Society needs a way to identify and deal with them in a fashion that minimizes the harm to done to both them and to society, and no I don't know what that would be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Public health is important.  There are more and more of us on the planet, and a greater fraction of us are living are living in densely populated cities.  The study of public health issues is the study of evolution in action.  To a microbe, a bacteria, a virus, a parasite, a fungus, the 7 billion of us represent 7 billion exploitable habitats.  7 billion homes full of food and water and shelter, to any organism that can fight or fool our immune systems.  We are megatons of food and a very exploitable habitat.  Given how we as a species deal with macroscopic threats to our individual survival, like tigers and bears, you'd think we'd have a better response to threats to our civilization.

Public health, measuring and improving the health of our population, is not glamorous work.  It's community clinics, it's sex education birth control and prenatal care.  It's vaccinations, health education, nutrition and sanitation.  It's exercise and diet.  It's hospitalization and hospice care.  It's meals on wheels and help for the disabled.  It's mental health services.  It's creating a system where we can thrive as human beings, and not allowing ignorance, laziness or profit seeking to dictate policy. 

And the USA is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is.  HMOs and insurance companies dictate standards of care that turn regular visits into bureaucratic dystopias, and doctors into assembly line workers.  Our health research efforts are often directed at the ailments of the affluent rather than those of the far more numerous global poor.  Our efforts to vaccinate for and eradicate polio, have been hamstrung by CIA involvement in Pakistan.  When the recommendations of public health run counter to those of the gun industry, it's public health officials who are silenced.

And so when a nurse I know voices concerns over Ebola, I listen.  It is a nasty disease, a terrible way to die, and a far bigger deal than it ever needed to be.  As west Africa shows us, it can tear through areas with weak medical infrastructure.  Areas of weak medical infrastructure exist on every inhabited continent. So what we need to fight Ebola now, and the next crisis next week or next year is a coordinated international effort.  If you have the cash to spare both the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders could use your help. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Third time's the charm

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN for George W. Bush's administration has written a column for NRO where he argues that the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) must be destroyed and that the US must do it.

In his three page article Bolton articulates a vision of a redrawn map of the middle east.  It's a fascinating window into the mindset and worldview of  an influential neo-consevative (he does not describe himself as a neocon, but as one of the signatories of the PNAC it's hard to classify him as anything but a neocon). The article really sets itself up for an extensive fisking, but I like to think I am a busy man with important things to do, so I am going to skip almost to the end where he makes his point:

Obviously, the central problem is not Iran’s surrogates, but Iran itself, America’s main regional adversary. And until the United States confronts the ever more pressing need for regime change in Tehran, we can hardly expect others in the region to have the strength or the will to arrange things to suit our interests. Obama’s obsession with securing a nuclear-weapons deal means the odds that he would support overthrowing the ayatollahs approach zero. The regime is determined to possess nuclear weapons, so appeasing it in Syria, as Obama has done, was never going to cause Tehran to modify its positions in the nuclear talks. Far better to concentrate on regime change in Iran by overtly and covertly supporting the widespread opposition and watch Assad fall as collateral damage thereafter.
These possible outcomes constitute working hypotheses for U.S. objectives flowing from the destruction of the Islamic State. They are not philosophical abstractions, but practical suggestions that could well change as regional circumstances change. What we must not do is take our eye off the critical first step of destroying the Islamic State. Nor can we let theories about the kinds of regimes we would like to see emerge in the region blind us to what may actually be achievable.

What the hell?  John Bolton at this point has spent two and a half pages arguing for regime change in Iran, regime change in Syria, the dismantling of Iraq into two or three pieces one of which would be an independent Kurdistan made from bits of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. He does not ever explicitly state what the point of this exercise would be. What precisely would be the objective for which he advocates?

He advocates playing RISK with the entire middle east and completely forgets it isn't a single player game.  In his analysis he fails to mention little things like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and China.  He spares half a sentence to mention 'facing off with Russia' but not why one might want to do that.  He himself admits that he cannot predict what kinds of governments would arise in the wake of this project, and yet he seems to think the current status quo is so unbearable that we must undertake a third great middle eastern war (or series of wars) in order to stop IS and redraw the map for unspecified strategic objectives? 

I don't think it's out of order to ask why IS is a problem the US must solve and just what America is supposed to get out of his proposed course of action. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Once again, Roy at alicublog has identified the stupid.  Today, David French of the National Review says:"Why can’t so many liberals understand the pure evil of Islamic jihad?"

Why am I not worried about Islamic Jihad?  Because I'm not surprised by it.  Because it didn't come fully formed out of nowhere.  Because western foreign policy has been all about imperialism and oil in the middle east and fuck everything else, especially the welfare of the people that live there for nearly a century now.  Because what the fuck did they think would happen when they redrew the map time and time again for imperial dick waving, and propped up the leaders in the middle east that that gave the west the best access to oil and overthrew anyone who even thought about taking a bigger share of the oil money for themselves or the people whose ground it was being pumped out of? Because the only thing the west has been happier to do than buy oil from religious fundamentalists in the middle east is to sell them advanced weapons. Because the west seems have been using "Heart of Darkness" as a how-to manual for foreign policy since the days of Columbus.

So pardon us for not being surprised when butchery is met with butchery.  Pardon us for being right the whole fucking time when we said not to invade Iraq, or get involved in Syria or mindlessly support Israel every time they bomb the shit out of their neighbors.  Pardon us for not being surprised that desperate people do desperate things and lash out with horrifying violence.  So I dare you.  Corner a liberal.  Put him on the spot and ask him or her why they aren't outraged.  Just don't be surprised when you get an earful.  Because we are outraged.  We are outraged that Bush junior and senior and Cheney and all the neocons that excused torture and the goons that kidnapped and tortured and executed people aren't all roommates at the Hague.  We are outraged that the same people who advised us to kick over the hornet's nest sit on their fat asses while people get stung to death, and tell us to kick it again. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

    The tiny house movement has been described as "white people discover trailer parks".  I forget who described it that way because I'd love to quote them, but my Google fu is not up to the task of tracking it down.  I like the idea of the tiny house movement though, the rejection of ever larger dwellings to house ever larger collections of stuff required to maintain giant houses and lawns and accessorize a properly materialistic lifestyle.  That said, I have 3.5 bicycles, 2 motorcycles, 2 snowboards, a half a dozen pairs of skis, SCUBA gear, several desktop and laptop computers and a hang glider that I acquired in a moment of irrational financial optimism, and that's only my half of the household goods.  I want to fit my life into a pocket sized dwelling, where my housing costs aren't the biggest single item in my budget, and I can focus on my true goal of... pursuing excellence in dilettantism? or whatever my goals actually turn out to be.  I don't want to share walls with my neighbors, I want to be able to store my stuff and I don't want to spend every non-career moment as a groundskeeper for Chateau Monotreme. 

    And yet, the popularity of the movement is partially attributable to the increasing inaccessibility of that house in the suburbs with a white picket fence.  With real wages stagnant since the late 1970s and a succession of bubbles and recessions where none of the recovery seems to make it to the lower and middle classes, this movement, to me, is a revolution of lowered expectations.  It is a fraction of American consumers surrendering to an economy that no longer supports a large prosperous middle class.  And maybe it never could.  Maybe the post WWII boom in prosperity was a fluke. Perhaps now that the industrial and digital revolution has reached every corner of the globe, and organized labor is a shadow of it's former size and power, and cheap energy is a thing of the past, the historic advantages of the USA no longer apply.

     Tiny houses seem like a way to make lemons out of the lemonade life has to offer.  They are a way to tailor the size of one's dwelling to the size of one's needs.  But they are- to a greater extent than a larger house, dependent on location.  A tiny house offers no place to hide from a tornado, would be completely submerged by a flood, and given that many of them are actually on wheels, are possibly subject to the mercies of aggressive parking enforcement.  A tiny house in a bad neighborhood is still in a bad neighborhood, and a tiny house in a good location, may not save much money over a full sized house depending on the cost of the lot.

If there is home ownership in my future, I am betting it involves a tiny house.

Bad analogies with Victor Davis Hanson

Roy Edroso of alicublog has mentioned  in a tweet that Victor Davis Hanson has written a blog entry at and it is very special.  In it he tells of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and his march to the sea.  As a recap, during the civil war, General Sherman destroyed a whole bunch of southern plantations, freed a whole bunch of slaves, wrecked every railroad track and telegraph line he could find and not least, burned Atlanta to the ground.  By doing this, General Sherman crippled the financial ability of the Confederacy to make war, and demonstrated that the majority of the Confederacy had been stripped of defenses in order to equip their troops in the field.

Dr Hanson then claims that this very same tactic is being employed by the IDF in their current military operations in Gaza.  This is what many armchair military historians like myself would refer to charitably as a bad analogy and more pithily as utter horseshit.  If we summarize General Sherman's march to the sea into it's defining elements, we have a large conventional army conducting anti infrastructure campaign deep behind enemy lines with the intent of causing financial hardship to the enemy thereby reducing it's capacity to wage a conventional war.

Setting aside value judgments regarding the ongoing violence in Gaza, it is clear that none of those elements apply.  If the IDF wanted to recreate Sherman's march to the sea, it would require the IDF to be conducting its operations completely on enemy soil, primarily in an anti infrastructure role, taking pains to minimize civilian casualties far away from the nonexistent conventional army of Gaza which if analogy were to work, must be marching in strength towards Tel Aviv.  Given that 50% of Hamas's funding comes from Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest comes from Iran and Egypt, there are a wealth of enemy lines to march behind.  (my source is As I mentioned, I am an amateur historian)

Which is not to say that a case can't be made for the IDF to try and stop rocket attacks. Convincing arguments in favor of military force can and has been made with varying degrees of success by allies of Israel around the world. However, when trying to make an argument by analogy, pick one that works.  Unfortunately all of the close analogies for what the IDF is doing in Gaza tend to show the IDF in an unflattering light. Sieges are not pretty.  And when a population is surrounded, cut off from food, water and power and continually bombarded, siege is the word that applies.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Today we get to see the starting gun of the great crisis of the 21st century.  All of those children swept up in the net of the INS and held in holding facilities without enough beds or bathrooms?  That's the preview reel.  This situation has been racking up big numbers in foreign markets, but it's going to come here in a big way.  Illegal aliens, undocumented workers, refugees, sans papiers if you speak French, displaced persons.  Unless we want our border fences to be built from the skulls of huddled masses yearning to breathe free, America is going to need a better immigration policy.

We are going to need to figure out how to house and feed people, by the thousands as quickly as overnight.  Because storms aren't getting any milder and the sea level doesn't look like it will be sinking anytime soon.  If that means FEMA trailers, ideally mark 2 or 3 ones that don't give off formaldehyde or rot with poisonous mold, then let's build FEMA trailers.  If that means re-purposing old shopping malls, let's do that too, if that means we can spare golf courses from becoming brand new homes for displaced people, let's not because golf is boring as hell and it's a fucking waste of water, fertilizer and real estate, and if there's enough land and fresh water for a golf course, there's enough land and fresh water for a small town.  

Realistically the immigration crisis is not much more urgent today than it was yesterday.  We still have time to plan.  But it's coming and it doesn't have to be a catastrophe.  Building cities from scratch is a thing that used to happen all the freaking time in US.  Welcoming immigrants is a thing we used to know how to do.  Turning from immigrants into Americans is the central narrative of nearly every family in the US.  We can build schools, and factories and homes.  We have rust belt cities that have been bleeding population for decades  There are counties in rural America where the population is in free fall,  there is room for more Americans.  The energy that it takes to cross the desert, or ocean to reach the relative safety of our shores is the same energy that could revitalize our economy and rebuild our infrastructure.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Grinding my teeth at the goddamn chutzpah of this guy

I'd like to get around someday to talk about things that I like, things that I love, things that make me happy.  But goddamnit, Roy Edroso points out in this tweet
that Jonah Goldberg wrote another column, which, according to Roy's law means, it is the stupidest thing ever written.

The column is pretty standard horseshit.  Any of the dozens conservative critics of the Obama administration who have a national platform could have whipped this out over a short lunch break.  Anyone of those partisan hacks whose job it is to find fault with him for everything short of ending human suffering forever, and they'd probably throw a tantrum about that too- regularly writes a similar line of condescending "Democrats are weak on foreign policy" column filler.  I can excuse that... Jonah is deep in the grip of the Dunning Krueger effect, entranced with the idea that because he is paid to spew his uninformed drivel on the pages of newspapers nationwide, he is clearly a respected figure of authority and not a textbook example of the kind of public boob whose entire career is based on nepotism and sustained by the hothouse of the wingnut welfare system and so to ask him for just one occasion to do some research, talk to informed sources and compose a reasoned criticism is as far beyond him as any demonstration of journalistic integrity would be.

 It looks dead easy to crap out this bafflegab, (and it is) but I encourage all (which is to say 'both') of my readers not to quit their day jobs to seek a seat on the gravy train unless they too have a family tree drooping under the weight of assorted professional toadys and lickspittles and a social circle full of the kind of terrible billionaires that hire out fourth rate propagandists to justify their life of avarice.

In any case, Jonah's column is fairly unsurprising bad advice to the president until he writes these sentences:
A better option would be a time machine. That way today’s President Obama could go back and give first-term Obama the benefit of his experience. He could tell him that foreign policy should define his talking points, not the other way around.
He just can't fucking help himself.  As if in the history of American dealings with the middle east, the worst mistake; the first option of anyone with a time machine would be to give Obama a stern talking to about the pitfalls of getting out of Iraq.  As it wasn't transparently obvious that he'd rather talk about the time travel movies "X-men: Days of future Past" or "Edge of Tomorrow" than Iraq again, the subject about which he has so consistently revealed his laziness, his blood lust and his ignorance since 2001.

I have to write this or the rage would make my head explode.  The history of the US in the middle east has been a litany of foreign policy failures.  At every turn the search for profit and to a far lesser extent the fight against communism, have dictated policy and the welfare of the average Arab or Persian or Kurd or Turk on the street has never once been a motivating concern. From supporting Britain and France's colonial dissection of the Ottoman empire, to toppling the democratically elected government of Iran, to supporting every single murderous thug that claimed to be anti-communist, to enriching fundamentalist theocratic despots to gain access to oil, there's basically no foreign policy mistake the US hasn't made and then repeated over and over again.  And in this litany of failure the biggest mistake that Jonah wants to avoid is getting the hell out?  What.  The. Actual. Fuck.

I realize that once again, Jonah wins.  He gets paid for making me and anyone else who can spare five minutes to read the history of the middle east on Wikipedia furious, and he wins when I link to his column to prove that I'm not making shit up when I quote him.  He's a brand, a media personality and unlike people who work for a living, he is only punished when he is boring, never when he is publicly, obviously, fundamentally, wrong.  Still, I can't help but wish that his employers had held out until they could afford a third rate propagandist.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Privately Owned Firearms- Preventing Tyranny Since Never

Once more I feel it is necessary to state the obvious at tedious length.  Privately owned firearms will not stop government tyranny.  You are not a revolutionary soldier and King George is not quartering Hessians in your houses to make you pay taxes on tea.

The government does not engage in fair fights.  If the FBI or the Sheriff or the BATF or the local police come for you and they think you are armed, there will be a midnight, no knock raid and any resistance will be met with overwhelming force.  Any handgun or rifle it is possible to own in the US is useless against a modern military.  It may be possible to kill a government agent or two if an attacker is very lucky.  But when the Feds or local police are hunting a cop killer, they are not very careful about the "alive" part of "wanted dead or alive".

The movie "First Blood" where a veteran single-handedly defeats an entire town's police force, is a movie, a fantasy, and is the same level of gun worshiping porn as any issue of "Soldier of Fortune" ever was.  There is a reason so many mass shooters end up dead before they can be arrested and it is not severe peanut allergies.

Video games, action movies, and overheated political rhetoric from people that ought to know better have fostered a group of people that believe the only thing separating themselves from mighty deeds of heroic valor is ownership of a private arsenal and some kind of righteous crusade.

Well, that's not enough.  Untrained individuals don't win against the government in a violence fight.  The local cops may be corrupt, corpulent, and feeble, but they have radios, telephones, and the internet.  They can and will summon help.  That help will be increasingly competent at violence.  To use a video game metaphor, after defeating a wave of low level enemies (schoolchildren and teachers seem to be the standard), the boss fight in a confrontation with police is not a seven foot tall cyborg with an obvious weakness, it is the SWAT team snipers hundreds of yards out.  If you doubt this country's historic proficiency in the area of violence, ask yourself why your landlord is not Native American or British.

Resisting the authorities with firearms, or with any level of violence at all is a game for suckers at best, and suicide at worst.

If you own a firearm, you are more likely to die from a self inflicted gunshot, or kill a family member or spouse than you are likely to successfully use it to kill a criminal.  Every year, in the US, 10,000 people die from being shot by someone else.  And 20,000 people die from shooting themselves.  Unless you live in deadly fear of being oppressed by yourself, it's hard to find in those numbers a convincing argument for firearm ownership.

Gun owners also suggest that even beyond self defense and the defense against tyranny, that hunters and sportspeople every day use firearms in a responsible manner.  Which is both true and entirely beside the point.  Hunters and sportspeople could do 95% percent of their activities with a bow, crossbow or airgun, none of which have the rapid fire deadliness so easily available at any gun store or Wal-Mart in the country.

I know what it is like to love a hobby which the majority of the country views with suspicion.  As a motorcyclist, nearly every time I go for a ride, someone is all too ready to tell me how dangerous it is, how their wife would never let them ride, how a guy they know died messily from an accident.  There have been groups that lobby to outlaw various kinds of motorcycles, to limit their speed or their power or their noise output.  And in a democracy that is the kind of give and take we have to put up with.  But in order to operate my motorcycle, I have to be licensed, I have to be insured, I have to meet minimum vision and health standards and if I am operating it in an unsafe manner I have to answer to the police.  I have to suffer the negative publicity anytime anyone on two wheels acts out in an antisocial manner.  And if the actions of the Hell's Angels and the local squids and stuntaz and the hooligans that plague Baltimore on stolen motocross bikes give the rest of us a big enough black eye, our two wheeled recreation might be face a ban.  That is the situation gun owners find themselves in today.

Gun owners find themselves trying to justify their love for the tools of murder with increasingly shallow justifications.  We have a long and storied tradition of firearm ownership which is baked into the foundational document of our country.  Which like the long and storied tradition of slave ownership which was also in our foundational document, we need to change.  It's time to grow up and put down the tools which make killing ourselves and each other easier so we can pick up the tools to make our country and our world better.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Why I'm against killing

My deconstruction of Mr. Goldberg's column tells me that some of us (like Mr. Goldberg) need to review the basics.  Killing people is wrong.   I'll go slow, because while the subject matter is elementary, apparently there are some alleged grown ups out there who still don't get it.  So, once more: killing people is wrong.  Here's what I mean by that.  Ending someone's life will cause more problems than letting them live.  No one exists in isolation and the consequences of killing of any random individual can echo for millennia.*

People out there have done horrible things, things for which the legal systems that indulge in execution, would sentence the perpetrators to death.  We share the planet with murderers, rapists, arsonists, slavers and drug dealers.  Many of the countries that have the death penalty will apply it to people convicted of those crimes. And yet, the countries that do have the death penalty also tend to use it for things that the average American is less comfortable with classifying as a capital offense.  Things like apostasy, infidelity, heresy, and homosexuality.  When we as a country condone capital punishment, we put ourselves in the same league as the repressive theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the totalitarian prison state of North Korea.  So having capital punishment, puts us in very disreputable company.

Outside of exploitative Hollywood horror, the murder crazy psychopath is rare.  Personally I'd like it if they were even rarer, and that people like Jack the Ripper or any other serial or spree killer you can think of weren't household names. But they are rare, and for every horror movie worthy killer out there there are hundreds of jealous lovers, drunk drivers, and even workplace owners with a criminal disregard for workplace safety, just as culpable for the deaths that they caused.  But killing even remorseless killers doesn't make society more moral, and it won't undo the damage they have caused. There is no moral calculation that can tell us how much restitution is required to expiate a murder, like dividing by zero the answer is infinite.  But killing even the worst of us only leaves us with more blood on our hands.

'Life isn't fair' is such a trite observation that it borders on worthless., because it points out that our ideas of right and wrong, are subjective, and useful only for interpreting the actions of people and don't apply to the universe at large.  But once the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are excluded from consideration, you have a very telling indictment of civilization.  Because society isn't fair.  How could it be fair laboring under the legacy of history?  Imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, communism, fascism, racism and whatever -ism applies to religious violence have drawn the map of the world.  Our history of violence has empowered the violent at every turn and by refusing to address that, we let the violent keep their ill gotten gains, and continue the cycle of oppression and violence.

But as the 20th century has shown, we are too good at violence.  The industrial revolution has commoditized the formerly bespoke world of organized slaughter.  Firepower that would amaze and terrify Genghis Khan is available to any American with a credit card.  And just as for individuals, countries have access to arms far in excess of historical armies,  and hold in their arsenals the keys mass destruction worse than anything up to another dinosaur killer meteorite.  Violence begets violence, and we have too much tinder stored up to continue playing with matches.

When someone can transcend the ongoing crush of mutually destructive imperatives that define modern life, and can stand up and advocate for peace and make their message heard, their days are numbered.   The list of important peacemakers of the 20th century, has a lot of overlap with the list of murdered peacemakers.  And morally repugnant as it is, sometimes yesterday's terrorist saves more lives as a peacemaker than they cost us as a killer.  Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has been dogged with allegations of terrorism, yet both of them were critically important in ending ongoing violence in their respective countries.

Which is not to say that I advocate shrugging our collective shoulders to the problem of violence.  Indeed it is critically important to address the problem of violent crime.  But it is only a small subset of addressing fundamental inequalities.  So when they are captured and convicted lets make sure to calmly and dispassionately keep them from harming anyone again.  And not by killing them, but by warehousing them in a place that is warm and dry, where they can be put to work for prevailing wages at useful work and keeping them from harm and keeping them from harming anyone else.  And to deflect any criticism that we are coddling the worst of society, we need to make sure that every free citizen also has access to room and board and employment of a better class than is being provided to prisoners.

Because under the current system of incarceration, barely paid labor and execution, we are compounding the crime of tolerating a society where the poor and vulnerable are exploited, with our complicity with institutional slavery, abuse and murder.   When we condone a society with no safety net, when we allow business decisions to impoverish millions for the sake of a stock price, when we resist any effort to stem the flow of deadly weapons to those least capable of owning them safely we make violent crime inevitable.  People don't go away because society has no use for them, people don't choose to starve to death rather than steal, people (generally speaking) don't turn to crime if they can legally earn a living.  If we want people to start making better choices, we need to give them better options.

So, I accept that people will call me a starry-eyed bleeding-heart liberal.  That's probably an accurate description.  But anyone who reads the (non wingnut) news knows that global climate change is going to re-draw the map over the next hundred years.  Resource depletion means that power and food and clean water will be a lot more expensive than we'd like.  And maybe it's just me, but when the waters are rising and the storm is blowing, I'm not going to be too picky about who made the sandbag I'm filling.  I think we are going to need all hands, in the years to come, and I think that we may be doing ourselves a great disservice every time we execute someone.  And by working towards these goals, we can build a civilization worth saving.

*The canonical example is that of a certain Jewish carpenter in Palestine 2000 years ago.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

He gets paid for this?

Jonah Goldberg wrote another column today, which means, as Roy over at Alicublog is so fond of pointing out, that it's the dumbest thing ever written.  In his column  at the National Review dated "America's moral compass"* Jonah asks if it would be moral to deploy super drones to kill every member of Boko Haram.

Jonah's little 'thought experiment' reveals far more about himself than it could possibly reveal about the morality of drone warfare.  Even his modified version where the members of Boko Haram are paralyzed until they can be apprehended is less credible than the thought experiment most of us learned in nursery school about the three magic beans.  In his concluding paragraph he pulls out 'with great power comes great responsibility'  cliche, he handwaves away the fact that we don't actually have super drones capable of paralyzing specific evildoers, and that they are roughly as likely as Mars colonies in our lifetime.

So let's change his thought experiment to reflect reality.  If our informants and allies of wildly varying reliablility and with agendas of their own, point out a group which may or may not be Boko Haram, do we have the responsibility to take that information, and, hours later, try to kill them with an airstrike or with ground forces that would also kill anyone in the area, and knock over most of the buildings nearby?

And now, we have a thought experiment that is worth considering.  But it cuts to the heart of the real problem, which is lack of information.  A shit load of questions need to be answered before one even thinks about taking the dust covers off the drones.  Who are our allies and informants?  Can they identify Boko Haram?  Can they be trusted not to finger their rivals in an attempt to have the US eliminate them?  How old is their information?  Have they moved in the intervening time? Are the kidnapped girls held separately or would an attack endanger the hostages?  How fast can military assets be deployed?  Do we have sufficient forces available to handle an ambush?  How many causalities are we willing to suffer in this attack? Can they distinguish Boko Haram from hostages and bystanders?  How will the hostages receive medical care and evacuation?  How will our forces return from this engagement?  What will be done with prisoners?  To whom do we hand off any rescued hostages?  How can we prevent similar occurrences in the future?

Life or death isn't flipping a switch.  Condemning people to death from halfway across the world is cheap, lazy, bloodlust.  Jonah's "thought experiment" is about as fleshed out as one would be that starts with "consider a frictionless spherical terrorist of uniform density".  Not a goddamn thing has stopped Jonah from enlisting his flabby ass in the USMC or Army since the most recent round of pointless wars began back in 1991, or again in 2001 when it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that we would be at war again and soon.  Bizarro Jonah who joined the USMC or Army in 1991 would have fought at a minimum in Kuwait and Iraq, the former Yugoslav republics, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and possibly Libya.  Bizarro Jonah would have had the opportunity to have his ass shot off or blown up by a roadside bomb for more than 10 of the last 20+ years.  Biazarro Jonah would have had an informed opinion on the use of force and its limitations.

But pointing out his complete lack of combat experience doesn't mean that this public ignoramus is shooting his mouth off again about matters which he doesn't understand, it just strongly implies it. Just like the fact that he has publicly advocated for the use of force in every major political crisis since forever, doesn't mean that the use of force in this instance is wrong, but what it does mean, is that he is the last person one should turn to for accurate and carefully reasoned opinion on this matter.  He is like the proverbial stopped clock, right twice a day by sheerest coincidence but without additional sources of information, you'll never know when that happy event occurs.  Jonah Goldberg doesn't have a moral compass, he has a finger-painted arrow that points to war.

*I really hate linking to that cretin, but I want to make it easy for anyone who cares to, check my work and verify for themselves that I'm not exaggerating the depths of his ignorance and laziness.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Weak Sauce

Roy over at Alicublog brought this to my attention with this post:

I'm going to be fair to Rod Dreher.  He doesn't deserve it, but here you go:
Properly sourced and linked and everything, just like I would for a column written by someone worthy of  respect.  In this column at The American Conservative, Rod tries to link the rejection of Condi Rice as a commencement speaker, with the killing fields of Cambodia.  That chain of, for lack of a better word. 'reasoning'  has a good chance of making it into the big book of logical fallacies as a textbook example of the slippery slope.  But in trying to prove his point he writes:

This is a fair enough description of the problem with American progressivism. They are never satisfied with the world as it is, and never think of the possibility that the world as it is might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances. Rather, they push and they push and they push for utopia, and consider themselves virtuous pilgrims on the Grand March.

(True, the problem with American conservatives is that we are too much enamored of the evils we have, and insufficiently motivated to imagine a better way to live and to work to achieve that end.)

This week, it is the dumbest thing ever written.  I'm sure that Jonah Goldberg will rise to the challenge and regain the crown soon, but damn.  That is the laziest excuse I had the misfortune to encounter.  What possible circumstance are we supposed to consider that would excuse, for example, lying to the American public to start a war that killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?  Is there any situation at all that could be excused by his "it's a flawed world" line?  Let's try it out.

Scenario 1:

The world as it is: The Catholic Church has harbored priests who are rapists and child molestors, and has deliberately stymied efforts to prosecute offenders and compensate victims.  We should identify and punish the offenders through a combination of civil suits and criminal prosecution.

Rod's excuse:  Have you considered that this is the best of all possible worlds, that things are already the best we can hope for, considering the circumstances?

Helmut's reaction:  remind me again what circumstances excuse child rape?

Scenario 2:

The world as it is:  The drug war has imprisoned so many African Americans for non violent offenses that it is more common for an African American man to have been incarcerated than to have attended university.

Rod's excuse:  Have you considered that this is the best of all possible worlds, that things are already the best we can hope for, considering the circumstances?

Helmut's reaction:  What circumstances make this situation, unique among all of the nations of the world acceptable?

And so on, etc.  Pick a social ill, pick a flagrant abuse of power and Rod can hand wave it away in the laziest way possible.

The progressive movement isn't fighting the second law of thermodynamics, gravity or the speed of light in a vacuum.  Human rights are an achievable goal, and to suggest that they are unachievable or unimportant, is to choose to side knowingly with sloth and despair.
Here is an article that you should read:
Ta-Nehisi Coates shows at length and in depth the extent of the historical and continuing injustice being done to African Americans.  He makes a convincing case that the continuing insult of centuries of institutional overt racism have denied African Americans their fair share of the wealth of the wealthiest nation on earth.  He doesn't have a suggestion on what form the repayment should take, but after reading the article it is blindingly obvious a huge debt is owed.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Meditations on a particularly odious piece of juvenalia

Recently a freshman at Princeton, who in a fit of almost certainly unwarranted generosity, I will refrain from naming or linking to, penned a petulant repudiation of the phrase "check your privilege", in the probably misplaced hope that sooner rather than later he will come to regret writing it.  Gods know why, but the piece was then published in the Princeton Tory and made a minor splash on the web.  Cerb at Sadly No wrote an excellent critique of the article and there I posted a version of the text below:

What joyful prose.  Another college republican boasts to the world that he has nothing of which to be ashamed.  He has made it to the rarefied summit of academia as a freshman at Princeton, by steadily treading the straight and narrow path of hard work and personal virtue.  He is a man who has made the good choices and stands at the cusp of his reward for virtue.  Never mind that his particular straight and narrow path is about 20 feet long, brightly lit and patrolled for those who would do him harm.  Certainly his path was harder than that of the scions of the truly wealthy who, one assumes, are conveyed to the gates of Princeton via private limousine.  He doesn't realize that someone less well starred than himself might have a straight and narrow path of virtue that leads to barely staying out of jail.

He is remarkably silent on the fact that making good choices are entirely dependent on having good options.  And, coming from  a home that valued education, hard work and had the prosperity to back that up gave him an enormous head start.  No one, no matter how much of an autodidact, raises themselves.  Our bright and beamish boy did not tag his parents out on his natal day, thank them for the fact of his conception and birth and inform them that further parenting would not be required.  They fed and sheltered him, they educated him at considerable expense, and regardless of how much of a sacrifice it may have been for them, they did it.  Which only means he is not a member of the .001%, not that he has a high score of martyr points in the suffering Olympics.   He is blessed in that his hard work was rewarded, and that any of "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" didn't set him right back at square one.

Working harder than the children of our American aristocracy is a mighty low bar.  I might have accidentally done it the day after I ate a half pound of cheese in one sitting.  Working hard is, of itself not much to be proud of either, as anyone who has ever worked an 11 hour shift for minimum wage could tell you.  But despite what theologians as diverse as John Calvin and Creflo Dollar would have us believe, prosperity is rarely the reward of virtue.  Any number of well publicized news stories could illustrate that the prosperous and the virtuous are two distinct groups with little overlap.  So, even if he is the charity scholar attending Princeton on the strength of his academic excellence at the sufferance of his betters, he is mostly giving plausible deniability to the charge that the ivy league is far more about giving the children of privilege a place to drink to excess with a group of like minded affluent young men and women in a place where they won't end up puking on the heirloom rose bushes, than it is about education.

The day junior here first begins to regret writing this particular piece of embarrassing drivel, and opens his eyes to just how bad it is for just how many people, will be the day he can start to call himself a grownup.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

On the [F]utility of political violence

Out west in Nevada Cliven Bundy 'won' his standoff with the BLM officers who tried to repossess cattle improperly grazing on protected land.  He refused to pay grazing fees for 20 years, and after all of the court cases were decided against him, he owes the Government more than a million dollars in fees and penalties.   So, insofar as he gets to continue doing what he's doing, he 'won' that particular conflict.  Of course, to do it, he had to rile up as many disaffected anti authority gun nuts as he could, in order to momentarily outgun the Feds. 

Which of course means the public at large loses.  We lose the million dollars he owes us, we lose respect for lawfully constituted authority,  we lose protected habitat for endangered desert tortoises,  his neighboring ranchers who abide by the law have to compete in the marketplace with someone who doesn't have to deal with the costs of lawfully doing business.  What do we gain? we gain a political movement that doesn't hesitate to use threats of deadly violence to advance their agenda. 

If the Feds were wearing their thinking caps, every person who took up arms and stood with Mr. Bundy will get added to a list of potential domestic terrorists.  I fear that in the future, more people will chose to defy the federal government in a similar fashion and someone, or a lot of someones will get killed.  In this instance the Feds probably chose correctly, when they elected not start shooting.  The tortoises that live on the land probably are safer from Mr. Bundy's cattle than they are from retaliation minded rednecks in the event of violence.

The BLM is nothing if not patient, and by working with the IRS and the court system, they will no doubt eventually be able to thwart Mr Bundy, especially given his habit of going on record with ignorant racist bilge.  If the reactionary wing of the American right thinks they have a champion in Mr Bundy, they are mistaken.  His appeal is limited to the people who thought Archie Bunker was the hero of 'All in the Family'. 

So when the next bunch of 'patriots' openly defies the feds, will it be in the Nevada desert?  or will it be closer to home?  Who watched the situation play out on their TV and will decide that they too can fight the law and win?  If this leads to more violence down the road, are we going to look back and see this as a missed opportunity?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Contemplating the future

The end of the world is in again.  After the cold war failed to deliver a hot sequel and y2k landed with a wet flop instead of a bang, I thought the end of the world might fall out of fashion.  It is not so.  In the last few years, the rapture has become bigger than ever, the zombie apocalypse has become a national obsession, and peak oil and the singularity round out the list of popular end of the world scenarios.  Digging a little deeper we can look at global climate change and various local secession movements for equally grim situations.

And looking at the problems facing the US and the modern world there are ample grounds for pessimism.  The world's population of humans has never been larger, the climate has never been hotter (in human history) and most of the easily exploited fossil energy resources have been exploited right out of existence.

But the key thing to remember is that despite the wishes of an apocalyptic few, there are 7+ billion of us who have a vested interest in improving the status quo.  Survivalists and secessionists both labor under the same delusion, that the reason they aren't more successful is that more powerful forces are holding them down.  Survivalists, imagine a world in which their carefully hoarded AR-15 and pallet of ammo are worth more than a well-paying job [even more so than a supportive community of friends and family].  Preppers imagine roughly the same scenario only their power flows from a diesel generator or cache of canned food.  Secessionists imagine the only thing separating them from their own kingdom where they get to make the rules and taxes are merely an unpleasant memory is the boot-heel of the federal government.

But the answer to powerlessness in the face of government or corporate exploitation isn't building a separate microcosm of society.  If the civilization were to crumble tomorrow, by next week the people running what's left would not be the back to nature farmers, the paramilitary militias or the jack-of-all-trades preppers.  The people running the show will be the organizers, the business people, and the leaders, who pretty much are running the show already.  Organizing in the wake of disaster is what governments live for.  It's why the army corps of engineers gets to redesign the Mississippi river every decade or two.  Its why New Orleans isn't a ghost town.  Its why New Jersey and New York are rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and why Florida is inhabitable at all.

Acute national disasters are the local's worst nightmare but the aspiring administrator's opportunity.  FEMA is pretty freaking good at what it does.  The National guard and the Red Cross do a bang up job at getting to where the action is, rescuing the distressed and giving them a hot meal, a place to poop and a place to sleep.  Even the government's belated and half-assed response to hurricane Katrina, saved far more people than it failed.  And insofar at it failed, it is rightly seen as a disgraceful lapse, rather than business as usual.

This is why, in the face of global climate change, and all of attendant food shortages, water shortages, plagues and brushfire wars of the coming century our best bet isn't to stockpile guns or canned food.  Our best bet is to meet our neighbors, and work together to build a more resilient civilization.  We need to build and remodel houses and multi-family residences that are liveable year round, where a power grid failure would be an annoyance not a catastrophe whether it happens in January or July.  We need neighborhoods where residents can build a real sense of community.  We need power and water not dependent of the price of ever more expensive carbon.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

I am not the only person who notices that things cannot continue as they are.  Changes need to be made.  In the US, the productivity gains of the last 30 years have gone straight into the wallets of the richest .01% of us.  In real terms the purchasing power of the average American has been in decline since the late 1970s.  That isn't just a problem for the middle class, that isn't just a problem for the lower class, it is a problem for every American.

And it isn't just the US.  The manufacturing jobs that let anyone with a high school education support a family and buy a house on a single income are long gone.  They were the backbone of the economy, they won us two world wars and they were an escalator out of poverty.  Investors in the US thought it would be better to move those jobs overseas so they didn't have to deal with unions and American environmental and safety regulation.  Now we get cheap electronics and the Foxconn employees that make it are committing suicide to escape the misery of 21st century indentured servitude.

Wealth is brought into the economy in two basic ways, harvest or extraction.  You can broadly characterize them as agriculture vs mining, but that's an oversimplification.  Harvest is the sustainable production of a good or service in a way that means it can happen year in and year out.  When farmers produce crops year after year, and take care to guard against erosion and rotate their crops and even leave fields fallow to protect the soil, that's harvest.  However if the farmer plants the most lucrative crop year after year, fertilizing and spraying pesticide as much as they can to maximize yield without giving any consideration to runoff or soil erosion or anything that would cost him an additional cent, that would be extraction, that farmer is trading in the long term viability of that farm for an immediate paycheck.

Mining is, by definition, extraction.  Mining is also necessary and central to our current economy.  But
even mining could be better. Some  plants bio-concentrate heavy metals,  they could be grown on beds of crushed ore, and later burned and smelted for a dramatic reduction of energy input to produce metal.  Smelters themselves need  not use coal fired furnaces, they could just as easily run from wind power or solar arrays.

Extraction is attractive to financiers and investors, it maximizes the return on up front investment and
pushes off negative externalities onto local communities.  It is less attractive to those local communities, because of those same negative externalities, like communities full of underpaid workers, piles of coal dust, mine tailings and smokestacks belching smoke.

Leveraged buyouts, and hostile takeovers and stockholder lawsuits are all the result of investors demanding higher return on investment, which is to say a shift to extraction, or to double down on it.  If you examine what used to be considered the hallmarks of a well run company, e.g.  a well trained, prosperous work force, production capital that was wholly owned, not mortgaged or rented, a well staffed R&D department busily developing new products and production methods and a pension fund that was fully funded and invested in safe investments.  Every single one of those things is something a buyout artist will liquidate for a quick payout.  Workers will be downsized or outsourced, facilities will be sold and rented back or mortgaged, and pension funds will be raided.

For a current example I invite you to read this article on what Bain Capital is doing to Guitar Center, the "big box" merchant of musical instruments.  (I am a fan of knowing where a hyperlink will send you, sono shortened links here!) Guitar Center is just another example of a company that is being squeezed to death by too much attention from investors.

When big finance turned its attention to real estate, we got credit default swaps, the ongoing recession and millions of Americans bankrupted and evicted.  Every step of that process was squeezed for maximum upfront payoff, which is why banks got in trouble for foreclosing on everyone they could, even those eligible for assistance.  They wanted the immediate payout of a short sale.

Now, big finance has turned it's eye to post secondary education.  State financial support for public universities has collapsed since the seventies, so prices have ballooned, college loans are easy to get and federally subsidized, so for-profit colleges of doubtful utility have bloomed like mushrooms in manure, private  college loans are ruinously expensive and now college debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. From an economic standpoint, we have another situation akin to a pile of oily rags stacked next to a leaky furnace (hmm, it's almost like someone's out there doing this on purpose).  The result is millions of young people have huge amounts of debt they that many of them will never earn enough to discharge.

We need a way to insulate our institutions from the financial sector.  We need a way to shield a boring profitable business from the investors that will break it up for a quick payday.  We need a way to stop propping up businesses that take government  money in one hand and beat up their workforce and outsource and send profit off shore (...with their other three hands? metaphors are not an exact science)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

More on the injustice of uncool

Over at Sadly no, in the post Cool Schmool Cerb takes Greg Gutfield to task for claiming that hipsters are using cool as a weapon to fight those nasty right wing conservatives,  I have some thoughts of my own on that issue.

I don't know when cool became cool.  It certainly became a nationwide obsession in the 1950s.  My guess is that after a huge number of Americans got a first hand taste of combat in WWII and Korea, the idea of being 'cool under fire', i.e. a soldier apparently unbothered by incoming gunfire, gained a large amount of cultural capital.  Certainly, in combat, the ability to attack or face an attack without becoming enraged or terrified, is a survival trait, it's something commanders ask of their troops, troops ask of their commanders and soldiers ask of each other.  I think that got changed through a decade of war movies and fiction into the idea that being calm and confident and purposeful in all situations was the ideal, and that over the years was further was changed into the idea that being visibly excited about things was 'uncool'.  Furthermore I think there is a difference between cool and hip.  The term cool is often applied to novelties in fashion or technology, when a more exact phrase would be 'aesthetically pleasing' or 'new and exciting'.

Gutfield gleefully switches back and forth between definitions of cool as he tries to make whatever point it is that he thinks he's making.  It's OK, to examine change with a skeptical eye.  The economy and society that supports Gutfield at the trough of wingnut welfare is a contrived and delicate thing.  Changing any one of a number of factors might mean that his employer might find it more expedient to toss him out on his ass to fend for himself than to continue to employ such an unpersuasive hack.  Some things that might make an employer consider that?  breaking up broadcast monopolies like Clear Channel, bringing back 'balance' laws in broadcast news', making news organizations criminally liable for spreading untruths, the list goes on.  But at some point one has to draw the line, how much harm is he willing to perpetrate or promote, to earn a living?

To, broaden the scope to Americans in general; there are many of us in a similar situation, in that the only thing that keeps us in our station is the lack of meaningful examination of the American economy and way of life with an eye towards constructive reform.  How many of us could afford meat at every meal if all meat produced or imported had to face meaningful environmental, sanitary, and animal care standards that were diligently and vigorously enforced?  The American experience is as nice as it is for some people, because other people have to do without or cut corners that the rest of us really think they shouldn't.

Gutfield is sad that conservatives are labeled 'uncool'.  He should be pleased as hell to be 'uncool', it's a far more gentle adjective than he and the reactionaries on the far right deserve.  It's uncool to work for people who are deliberately trying to disenfranchise American citizens, to destroy regulations on pollution, on, workplace safety, on electoral fundraising, on financial malfeasance.  It's uncool to start foreign wars to benefit the bottom line of big defense contractors and oil companies  And it's uncool to attempt to pay for all of that by gutting the already threadbare social safety net and to blame poverty on the poor while perpetuating the abuses that impoverish them.  But besides uncool, its also, lying, mendacious, malicious, malevolent,  pernicious, deceptive, perverted, and sometimes treasonous.

And ultimately, I think that's why we've seen a never ending war on 'hippies' since the sixties.  They had the temerity to point out, that the American dream wasn't equally accessible to all Americans.  They pointed out the game was rigged in favor of older white christian men, and that every other group was part of a hierarchy of lesser Americans whose influence and power diminished with every step away from white, straight, wealthy, christian or male ideal.  They saw that the rules would have to change so that everyone could participate meaningfully in culture and politics and the economy and the academy.

And the for all that conservatives claim to want a meritocracy, that everyone be judged and rewarded on the basis of their capability and contributions, the establishment of a true meritocracy is their worst nightmare.  The last thing that the low level shills and propagandists of conservative America want is to have to compete with each other on the basis of results.  They are employed as cheerleaders and demagogues to rally the faithful and castigate the unrighteous and to faithfully parrot the alleged merits of unrestricted capitalism (and highly restricted voting) to America.  Their job is far more about reassuring their employers than it is about making a convincing argument for lower taxes on millionaires.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Singular Societies

I missed the Q&A with the folks from Ray Kurzweil's Singularity Institute, so I'm posting my questions here.

The singularity sounds different every time it is described.  If we define it as a the emergence of a distinct society based on blurring the line between human and machine intelligence, will that society will emerge spontaneously once a certain level of technology has been achieved, or would it have to be consciously created by people attracted to that idea?  Will there be only one singularity society or multiple?  Will that or those culture(s) eventually encompass all of humanity or just a fraction, and how might those proportions shake out?  Where will this begin first and where will it be most eagerly adopted? Will there be push back against singularity (sub)culture from society as it currently exists?  Will a singularitean society/(sub)culture(s) acknowledge legitimate criticisms of human-computer integration and address valid concerns?  Will the effects of global climate change endanger the emergence of the singularity? why or why not?

For extra credit, show your work.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Futurism Part II: The Electric Boogalooening

 I wish I could make sweeping predictions about a golden age to come.  Sadly, I don't see it happening without more than a few growing pains.  The 22nd century will look back at us and be astonished by our greed, our pollution, our deliberate blindness to the problems we thoughtlessly create. 

The world is changing in unexpected ways and the country today, is not the country we were led to believe we'd have when adults first told us about the future.  But to look at the world today with it's almost unimaginable changes from the dark days of the cold war, and conclude that it's terrible and getting worse, is willful ignorance.

Which is not to say that we don't face serious problems, of course we do, mostly related to climate change and resources depletion, but that's never what these reactionaries are upset about.  Civil rights, gay marriage, government regulation, imaginary gun control, the black dude in the white house and Obamacare, and a laundry list more of resentments that add up to they don't get to win just by showing up anymore.  I'm not even sure there is a way to wake them up and have them see the world without the blinders of prejudice and resentment.

Sometimes it takes a shock to the system, to wake us up and change our lives.  Some people see the shock and double down.  My aunt lost her leg to diabetes, and rather than take that crystal clear warning sign to heart and begin to exercise and diet and monitor her blood sugar, she didn't change a thing because "doctors don't know anything". She died two years later when gangrene took her other leg.  So some of us aren't going to make it to the other side of our current energy and food and water crisis.  Some people will sit in coastal houses even when the storm surge rolls in.  Some will use their last drop of water to irrigate their desert lawns.  Many more will survive because their loved ones and neighbors have dragged them kicking and screaming into a future where recycling and renewable energy are a way of life instead of quaint environmentalist hobbies.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the 21st Century We Will All Have Flying Cars

I love the idea of becoming a futurist. Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others all got to leave an indelible mark on the way their times imagined the coming decades.  I love the idea of painting a picture with nothing but Utopian optimism as if resources would be dedicated to building a future for the betterment of mankind with no tawdry commercialism marring the perfection of cloud piercing skyscrapers with ads for light beer.  I love the idea that we'd all drive around in flying cars powered by itty bitty fission reactors on the way to our office jobs where we'd use slide rules to plot our business class flight to the moon.

I love the way 20th century futurists would imagine 20 lane elevated freeways filled with aerodynamic bubble cars traveling at 200 mph under a flawless blue sky.  I turned the pages of Popular Mechanics and OMNI magazines, jaw dropping at each fabulous new supersonic passenger jet, or Single Stage To Orbit reusable rocket.  I love the way those landscapes never feature so much as a gas station, or a road crew, or traffic jam, or smog.

I love the optimism, the vision of cooperation, the sense that 20th century progress would free us from the perils of communism, and the specter of hunger, greed and want.

But there are still futurists working today.  Ray Kurzweil has made a career of predicting the coming 'singularity' where computing is ubiquitous, inexpensive, and possessed of superhuman intelligence; leading inexorably to a fusion of of biological and machine intelligence which will empower us all and free us from the petty limitations of biological incarnation and inevitable death.

My experience of the 21st century has been a bit of a letdown by those standards.

Because, as it turns out there are no flying cars.  There are technological curiosities that manage to be both airworthy and street legal, but they only prove to demonstrate that the conflicting requirements of air and ground travel, basically preclude the existence of a practical and cheap flying car.

Nuclear power, is still limited to aging and dangerous fission reactors that threaten to poison us all with their all but eternally dangerous waste products.  Fusion is a sideshow, perennially 20 years from commercial power generation.  Forty years have passed since the energy crisis and gas guzzling muscle cars blanket the highways like they never left.  Oil companies and coal companies still dictate our nation's energy policy.

The computer revolution's early promise has been squandered.  The efficiency gains in finance and manufacturing that could have given us full employment and 20 hour work weeks have only served to enrich the already wealthy, and convince the rest of us to work twice as hard or our job will be the next to move across the Rio Grande or the Pacific.  The power to deliver the sum of human experience cheaply to our desks, and our pockets, has been prostituted to sell us boner pills.  Internet service providers and social media have colluded with the darkest parts of the national security apparatus to create a series of interlocking panopticons where our commercial transactions, our medical records, our browsing habits, and even our movements are stored away for the perusal of paranoid authoritarians and their favorite commercial catspaws... I mean contractors.

But the situation isn't hopeless, just less hopeful. We probably won't finish out the 21st century with thriving cities on the moon, but with a little luck, we might have some here on earth.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Marxists (or people who aren't Tea Party Republicans) and their obvious perfidy

Over at Sadly no, BBKF  re-posted an American Thinker comment that claimed that "As Marxists have proven over the centuries they are the lowest of the low." and went on to claim that Democrats were engaged in wholesale election fraud.  Leaving aside the unproven, deliberately provocative, allegations of imaginary election fraud, by broadly painting democrats and liberals as Marxists, he's trying to suggest that Marxism is inherently bad, and that liberals and democrats should feel bad, and stop trying to obstruct the goals of Tea Party, the Republican party and by implied extension of all true Americans.  But...

Property and ownership are customs, they aren't inherent in any physical object, much less for abstract concepts.  Customs can change.  Animals claim territory so it's not just a human invention, but they also share territory, and they are at the mercy of any other animal or group of animals capable of running them off.  Capitalists claim ownership of mines, of farms, of factories, but the only thing that makes that even as valid as a bird's claim to a nest, is the collective will of society to enforce those rights.  Society can also exercise its collective will to abrogate some or all of those rights.  Laws and taxes can change. 

Lots of people forget that.  When a society or population has had enough of the concentration of resources and power by the wealthy elite far beyond the dreams of avarice while a broad plurality of the population have to curtail their ambitions of a good job and a house and a family, or go hungry or homeless, that society can and should re-examine the social contract that makes that hoarding possible, and if necessary, re-distribute resources in a more equitable fashion.

There's nothing inherently moral about our current system of property and capital.  There's nothing inherently immoral about systems that strive to curb the excesses of hoarding and monopoly.  Every time a new tax is implemented or adjusted, legislators and regulators are adjusting the rate at which capital can accumulate, and way resources are allocated.  I'm not against hyper capitalist billionaires buying everything and running the world economy for their sole benefit because of my deep commitment to make sure everyone has an equal share of our world's prosperity.  I'm against hyper capitalists buying everything because that road leads to riots, famine, bloodshed and revolution.

Marxists aren't the lowest of the low, billionaires aren't the lowest of the low*, the lowest of the low are people that defend the inequalities in our country and our economy because they hope to someday make a buck off of it.

*put a billion dollars in my stock portfolio and I too, would probably throw my weight around politically and legally.  Anything that empowers people, will also empower assholes, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should have live at the mercy of the whims of billionaire assholes.

Wishful Thinking

Over a decade ago, I spent a most of a year in Antarctica, at McMurdo Station.  Spending a year in Antarctica is a great way to spend some serious time in self discovery, With that much time and isolation it was hard not to spend time thinking about my life and who I am, and what I thought I was doing right and what I thought I was doing wrong.  I won't lie and say that I completely re-invented myself and finished that year as a much changed and improved person, but I did learn some things.  One of the things that I learned there was that wishful thinking is very poor insulation.  It may be a bright sunny day, but that doesn't mean the temperature is above zero or that the wind chill isn't down around minus twenty.  On those days, anyone who wasn't dressed in their issued extreme cold weather gear was not going to stay outside for long, or was going to have a bad day. 

A hundred years or so ago, wishful thinking sent Robert Falcon Scott to the south pole with five men and enough food for four.  All five of them died.  Wishful thinking doesn't make problems go away, doesn't make obstacles disappear, doesn't put food on the table and won't insulate enough to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. 

So when I see people put their faith and trust in wishful thinking, and act as if wanting a thing to be true were the same as that thing being true, that puts me on my guard.  Because someone so in love with their ideas that they can't see the reality around them, is dangerous to themselves and anyone around them.

For example the climate change denialists desperately want the climate to not be changing, they want to ignore rising levels of atmospheric CO2, they deny there's a correlation with human activity and global climate change, they deny rising sea levels and melting glaciers and they pretend everything is peachy when there is open water at the north pole.  Because acknowledging the fact of climate change and the human cause of it means it's time to make some changes in the way we live, the way we work and the way we play.  It means serious investment in renewable energy, in conservation, in recycling and agriculture.  It means stopping or greatly reducing coal mining and oil drilling and fracking.  Because the worst effects of global climate change are always a decade or two away, the wishful thinker always has time for one more excuse why they shouldn't have to change today, or why someone else should change first.  But really that's just an argument by people in a leaking life boat about whose turn it is to bail.

Monday, March 3, 2014

An Introduction

My nom de blog is Helmut Monotreme.  I am an opinionated middle aged bald white guy.  I wear glasses and sport a short full reddish beard.  You now know everything that can be known about me from a glance.

Since like four people have asked me to start my own blog, I have.  This is it.  Here I can share all of my insights with the world, or the fraction of it that comes here to read what I write. 

I am politically and socially liberal.

Through a lifetime of failing to live up to my potential I have gathered a small amount of wisdom which I will occasionally share here.  How occasionally is a good question, as I have a bad habit of starting things and not following through. 

I'd rather define myself by my aspirations than by my accomplishments, since by that measure, I could be Emperor of Mars and Protector of the Asteroid Belt, Kupier Belt and Oort Cloud, rather than another guy who got into IT in the 1990s when all it took to get in the  business was a willingness to beat on a computer with a hammer until it started working.*

Seriously though, I think of myself as a bicyclist, a downhill skier, a snowboarder, a SCUBA diver,  a computer gamer, a motorcyclist, an avid reader, an atheist, and a guy with way too many hobbies, far more than I think of myself as a database programmer (except for when I'm actually working.)

Thanks for reading and I will try to make it every bit as worth your while to read, as it is for me to post my thoughts here.

*Back in the 1990's when I worked for the local giant public university's computer repair shop, I would occasionally have to straighten out a cheap-ass computer case in order to bend it back into true enough to hold a motherboard and sit with all four feet on the floor.  I usually waited for another of my co workers to bring a customer back into the shop area before beating on the computer case with a large rubber mallet.