Monday, August 30, 2010

What is to be Done?

Jay Ackroyd cites on Eschaton this excellent article, reminding us that Obama is operating in a far more constrained manner than he needs to, assuming he actually believes in left-liberal policies:

I agree with all the author's points, but would add one I consider, perhaps, the most important act Obama et al. could take, and which is sorely lacking: a sane, persistent, relentless, intelligent and vigorous defense of reality-based policy making, and the role of government in a civil society--'truth, justice and the American way', as once memorably phrased--against the ever more strident, crazed, intolerant, paranoid, reality-challenged opposition. A persistent refusal to allow such as Beck and the Tea Partiers to operate without consistent, forthright opposition, based on reality and conceding nothing, would, perhaps, in the long run, yield as much as anything else Obama could do, while enabling all else he'd like to do, or should want to do.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think that by far the most objectionable aspect of the Beck and Palin travesty in Washington was not their conduct, or that of their supporters, but the absence, for the most part, of any challenge to their legitimacy, there or elsewhere, from other Republicans, the media and, above, all, Democrats, who should seize the opportunity to stand for something better than dogmatic, narrow, ahistorical, paranoid, intolerant bullshit which has no chance at all of contributing anything positive to solving the nation's and the world's problems.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beck Has A Dream

Black folk love Glenn Beck. And that Limbaugh--what a card! After all, everybody knows political correctness is the refuge of the scoundrel. Great sense of humor. And they don't keep the niggers down like thase big-government leftists do, with their handouts, encouraging parasitism and removing any incentives to stand on their own two feet, joining the noble entrepreneurial class.

It won't be long before charter schools by the dozens require of their sxith graders that they memorize John Galt's 85 page speech from 'Atlas Shrugged', reconsider slavery as maybe not as bad as all that, and place themselves as individuals at the top of the ethical, political and moral food chain. True strength of will, that's the ticket; it'll always prevail against pusillanimous liberal altruism. And think of the social benefits. That'll put a quick end to the gangster/ho/pimp mentality, the strong as predators, the weak as victims, the denigration of women, the social pathologies of families, crime and drugs, overnight.

Won't it?

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Krauts Are All Right

I'm greeted by David Brooks in the Times this morning, considering the recovery in Germany, which is far more robust than America's. He concludes that the Obama stimulus was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Amongst the things Brooks doesn't notice about the German recovery are:

1. Germany remains, with respect to China and other places, a high-wage country. So their success disproves the notion that a high-wage country can't retain manufacturing jobs.
2. Germany has far stronger unions than does the United States. So their success disproves the notion that organized labor destroys private enterprise, and that unions are evil.
3. Germany benefits mightily in that, in a continent of trading countries with wildly diverse economies and needs, the common currency is managed largely to Germany's interests.
4. German industry employs large numbers of foreigners under arrangements other than citizenship. This offers an alternative to the demonization of illegal immigrants in this country, which obscures their exploitation by businesses and their actual economic contributions to the country.
5. Germany retains a large manufacturing base, which is actively supported by the government, but remains robustly profitable and in the private sector. This disproves the notion that government should never use tax revenues to stimulate the economy, that taxation inhibits rather than stimulates economic activity, that the 'free market' is the only way even pragmatically, much less ideologically, to deal with macroeconomic conditions.
6. Germany has universal health insurance. It costs a bit more than half what ours does per capita, and delivers care whose quality is, by every measure, equal or superior to ours.
7. German workers enjoy a four to six week paid vacation. AMerican workers are lucky to get a two-week vacation.
8. German college expenses are dramatically lower than those of the United States, supported by tax revenues.
9. The German transportation infrastructure is superior to ours.

Other than that, Brooks nails it, I think.

What a poopyhead...

Axis of Manipulation

With respect to American interests even narrowly and pragmatically construed, as reflecting actual reality, I can't, offhand, think of a stupider, more counterproductive speech or policy idea than the 'Axis of Evil'. As if Iran and North Korea were in any way at all remotely comparable, as if they could be reduced to evil in a simplistic Manichaean dichotomy, as if the issues arising from the Axis' conduct on the regional and world stages merited similar responses.

And the subtext, of course, was the Busherregnum's obscene equation of patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel (Johnson) or first (Bierce), with a dismissal of talking diplomacy in favor of militarism before a threatening world, cementing in place or worsening problems rather than solving them. But, I suggest, these problems served Republican interests domestically and abroad, and it was in their every interest, in fact, not to solve them but to perpetuate them. That they were easily reduced to sound bites by a compliant media, which, all too often, equated opposition to Bushist policies to weakness and appeasement, further served Republican political interests. So righties find the alleged Iranian and North Korean threats not only congenial with respect to foreign policy making, and their relationship with all those cosmopolitan internationalists in the State Department, but useful to exploit in domestic politics, manipulating the media and the electorate, casting Democrats as comparatively weak on national security issues.

Fear, hate and ignorance. Not, you might think, the only, or best, options on which to base a search for a better world. Those who disagree aren't, in fact, the slightest bit interested in a better world, but in one where their power is sustained and enlarged, and their opposition neutered.

But, then, you knew that...

A Rare Good Thing amidst Deaf Falcons

The Times reports today that even Republicans are moving away from a reflexive demonization of out gay political figures:

'Had a former chairman of the Republican National Committee announced in 2004 that he was gay, it would have been a bombshell. In that hard-fought election year, Republicans and Democrats were rushing to condemn a court for establishing the right to same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

'Six years later, in a midterm election cycle that is otherwise fierce, campaigns are largely silent on the issue of same-sex marriage — even as two federal courts have issued similar decisions in recent months upholding the rights of gay people to wed. And when Ken Mehlman, who ran President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 and then became the party’s chairman, said in an interview in The Atlantic this week that he is gay and is working to support a campaign for same-sex marriage, it was met with little controversy.

'Even the commentary accusing him of hypocrisy seemed outweighed by people who wished him well, or merely shrugged.'

I credit the Republicans not a whit for their move away from uniform, rank homophobia. It's change reflecting the country, and a calculation that political gain is best sought elsewhere, rather than an active acceptance of gay rights. But they are, in fact, doing it. Fair's fair.

I remain flabbergasted by the change in the country and the culture re gay folk since my callow youth, when people were mostly closeted, ostracised, beat up or worse, shrinks viewed being gay as a disease based on defective fathering and tried to cure it with talking therapy, everyone went through a phase of homosexual dread, being called gay was a universal insult and so on. I remember the Stonewall riot, and the first gay organization, ever, at my college, how strange it seemed to us that they'd be openly gay. Obviously, all that hasn't gone away, and work needs to be done: in particular, many, especially on the right as part of their extraordinary doublespeak, view gay folk as pressing for unique rights, such as the millennia-old right of straight people to marry and the 1000-plus legal rights and perks of straight couples. But we're going the right way, and my kid tells me it's a complete non-issue even amongst high school kids in the process of defining their own sexuality.

It's nice, in these fraught times full of ever shriller, crazier rhetoric on the right and insufficiently vigorous response from the Democrats, to note a positive change in the country. Now, on to a fresh horror...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Making Things

Germany is recovering faster than is the USA or the UK. Though they're a high-wage country with strong unions, they remain a manufacturing powerhouse:

"(Angela)Merkel was once asked by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair what the secret was of her country’s economic success, which includes being the world’s largest exporter and running substantial trade surpluses in recent years. She famously replied, ‘Mr Blair, we still make things’. In Germany, manufacturing still dominates finance because Deutschland capitalism didn’t succumb to the financialisation of the economy that swept the United States and Britain in the 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher. In the US, this led to a tripling in the size of the financial sector as a percentage of both the overall economy and of corporate profits, as well as a loss of millions of manufacturing jobs. Werner Abelshauser, an economic historian at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, says the European way of running the economy ‘is fundamentally about a banking system based on patient capital and firms that emphasise high-quality products and long-term relationships between suppliers and customers’."

Let's see. They make cars, instruments, electronics, all sorts of stuff, and have a long-term outlook. We make derivative securities based on thin air, and reward those who trade in them if they can find a seat in the musical chairs game when the band stops playing, while worshipping at the altar of the next-quarterly report.

One of these strategies is wiser than the other...

The Visible Hand, At Rest

Here's Bill Gates, talking about public and private investment in alternative energy:

'(Energy's) a big enough market that if you come up with cheap ways of making electricity, then that should be done with typical big-firm risk taking, small-firm risk taking. On the other hand, the way capitalism works is that it systematically underfunds innovation, because the innovators can’t reap the full benefits. But there’s actually a net benefit to society being more R&D-oriented. And that’s why in health research, governments do fund R&D.'

Er, yup. The man's noticed externalities can be positive as well as negative.

The right, of course, gets appalled when the jackbooted thugs of socialist tyranny confiscate from the virtuous rich even a portion of their profits by forcing them to clean up their messes, or prevent them (negative externalities). Were the right to admit that business in fact benefits, sometimes mightily, from government actions like R&D (or many others, some less attractive to yr obdt. svt.), that'd contradict their endlessly repeated assertion that All Government Action Is Wrong. After all, if the Invisible Hand is doing all the necessary actual work, the Visible Hands attached to the arms of living human beings have no responsibility other than to make kiloshitloads of money trading third-tranche derivatives.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fishing for Conspiracies

I'm greeted by an article by Stanley Fish in this morning's Times, describing a meeting of leftish conspiracy theorists holding that, amongst other things, 9/11 was a faked, inside job. He presented them as basically equivalent to righties with equally lurid views:

Who knew? Merciful heavens...

Our government has given us ample reason to distrust it. Some of its 'fact-finding', as with the Kennedy assassination and Pat Tillman's death, is, at best, unconvincing. Some documented events--Robert McFarlane with his cake and Bible going to Khomeini's Iran to arrange an arms trade violating the law, for instance--beggar the imagination. And outright falsehoods--the involvement of Saddam's Iraq in 9/11, for instance--remain believed by many, and reinforced, or passively allowed to fester, by a government whose purposes are served by them.

A country in which 40% or so reject the theory of evolution, billions are spent yearly on such worthlessness as homeopathic remedies, and where humanity's role in global warming is a political rather than a scientific issue, is fertile ground for such theories. And popular art, from 'X-Files' to '24', Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, reinforces such things in the public mind, making them a habit of thought. I'd guess the Smiley novels of John LeCarre far more mirror the spy/intelligence environment than derring-do thrillers whose omnicompetent protagonists save the world by a hairbreadth.

Fish never notes the obvious, that 'Truthers' are on the fringe. Nobody believes them outside their circles; nobody makes policy based on their ideas. They have no power in the Democratic Party, no credibility in the media. Equally reality-challenged right wingers, such as Beck and the Tea Partiers, are, on the other hand, a major political force, are taken seriously in their policy recommendations as well as accorded legitimacy. Michael Crichton, a novelist, was called as an expert witness on global warming after publishing a novel whose plot revolved around a conspiracy to create the appearance of environmental disasters, thereby empowering those taking global warming seriously to the disadvantage of the powerless oil companies. A decades-old article in the Nation has been spun into what Beck calls the Cloward-Piven conspiracy. The Federal Reserve, the Illuminati, the Masons, the Council on Foreign Relations, on and on and on. Even those with a grain of truth are spun into impossible thin-air coherences.

One hears no Republican at all disagreeing with this nonsense. The Republican Party, increasingly in thrall to extremists, rejects in large measure not only Obama's policies, but the very legitimacy of his presidency. This is a political fact of far more import, and far more danger to the Republic, than anything emerging from leftish conspiracy buffs. Fish errs gravely in drawing an equivalency between extremists on left and right, as if they pose equal dangers to the country.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Wise Use of Fire

In response to a friend's suggestion:


1 large sweet onion
4 cloves peeled, crushed, chopped garlic
Olive Oil

2 lb ground lamb
1 can ground peeled tomatoes
1 generous cup red wine
2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
salt and pepper

3 big eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise (maybe 7 slices each)

5 tbsp salted butter
5 tbsp flour
4 cups 2% milk

4-5 potatoes, peeled and boiled in salt water 'til soft (optional)

Fry onions and garlic in oil until translucent, maybe a tiny bit brown. Throw in lamb, sear it 'til not pink anymore and all broken up. Add tomatoes, allspice, cinnamon, wine, and cook down 'til thick but not dry, maybe 20 min--1/2 hr. Taste and add salt/pepper a couple times.

Layer eggplant slices one slice deep, no overlap, on a lightly greased sheet and bake 400 deg/10 min each side; reserve. (Avoids frying eggplant after salting it; lighter and faster, still tastes good.) Slice potatoes (if using) thinly; reserve.

Melt butter and flour over low heat; add milk slowly and cook on low heat without boiling, stirring often, 'til it thickens up.

Grease 9x12 baking pan. If using potatoes, layer them first; if not, layer 1/2 of the eggplant. Add tomato/lamb. Layer the rest of the eggplant on top. Cover with white sauce. Maybe some grated cheese or sprinkled cinnamon on top. Bake 350 deg/40 min. Let cool maybe 10-15 min; then slice up and eat.

Leftovers work great as nuked lunch. And thank Prometheus...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Happy Entrails To You

Commenting on the Sisyphus post on the Eschaton board, Echidne wondered about Prometheus, who spent a long time chained on a rock, his entrails being picked at by birds.

If the act of birds pecking my entrails arises from a good done for others, an act of courage and selflessness, then there's pleasure as well as pain in the sensation, and, at that high pleasure of the best sort, reminder of a life worth living, a choice worth making, in the context of consequences to others as well as to oneself. Maybe it's good to be a god if you can thereby maintain such a view. And, of course, if Hercules, son of man and god, comes by and frees you, recognizing what you've done, that's splendid, though you acted without any expectation that he'd do it.

Got to thinking about the story again, from another angle. The fire Prometheus stole from the gods and gave to humanity is distinctly a mixed blessing: the Greeks well knew that both war and moussaka emerge from it. But that wasn't, I'd suggest, the point. Fire, before the gift, had been jealously hoarded by the Olympians as both power and prerogative consequent to their godhood, reserved exclusively for them. After the gift, humans, too, had it. A striking notion, that: an ancestor of the Olympians punished for an act the very possibility of whose commission blurred the distinction between god and human, and freed by the very strongest of men, a son of both god and human. The gift wasn't fire. It was the new relationship between human, god and universe resulting from it. A focus on the tool, and not on the very possibility of the tool's existence in hand, trivializes and denies the true Promethean gift.

Give it Your Best Shot

Discussing with Anthony on Eschaton:

That there are limits to our understanding of the universe that, even in theory, can't be overcome is no excuse for limiting our attempt to understand it, or, in fact, our responsibility to do so, the better to do the right thing for it and ourselves within it.

I'd argue, in fact, that those limits actually lend hope to a future human experience which yields a possibility of endless advancement, rather than an a priori limit based on exhaustion of possibilities. First and foremost should always be our view of the universe as providing a possibility for surprise and delight, as well as utility, that we can never entirely exhaust.

You give it your best shot. The necessity for doing so, I suggest, remains despite a proper humility before a universe whose entirety we cannot grasp. I feel, deeply, that it's not only necessary in spite of, but because of, those limitations, and that one can, in that context, view those limitations as a challenge always beckoning not in spite of, but because of, the impossibility of overcoming it completely, adding joy and possibility to the enterprise rather than damning it a priori as further mindless denial of the ultimate reality of human uselessness. Note, too, that human conduct with a view towards mastery of the universe, rather than knowledge and mindfulness of it, places human need, as perceived by humans at a given point in space-time, at the center of the enterprise, thereby distorting and endangering it by introducing both egotism and self-reference. (I draw here a line more clearly than is rigorously acceptable, I know. But you're only as good as your dreams...)

Sisyphus can be hero as well as victim. It's up to him, in large measure, and not the gods who put him on the mountain with the boulder, to define himself as one or the other on a given day. And grasping that, while perhaps the best a human being can do, is a step towards being larger than we are, rather than towards retreat into mindless disengagement devoid of hope or purpose.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIP: Frank Kermode

Found this in the Times obit, a necessarily abbreviated summary of a life's work:

...despite the variety of his work, he almost invariably tied what he wrote to a recurring central concern of his: what the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey, writing in the London newspaper The Independent, described as “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”

For instance, in his best-known book, “The Sense of an Ending,” Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe. Between the tick and the tock of the clock, as he put it, we want a connection as well as the suggestion of an arrow shooting eschatologically toward some final judgment.

Yet, as he pointed out in “The Genesis of Secrecy,” narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation, like the Man in the Mackintosh who keeps showing up in Joyce’s “Ulysses” or the young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane in the Gospel according to Mark.

Details, seems to me, anchor a narrative otherwise at risk of drift, especially if the world's appalling contingency, the inadequacy of causation and teleology, leave it otherwise adrift. A lesser writer whom I love dearly though not blindly, Isaac Asimov, made his imagined futures more believable by including gratuitous details of human behavior; if he'd done that, too, for his characters...oh, well; you won't find gold in a coal mine...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

By the Numbers

My Eschaton buddy JR isn't sure if numbers themselves, rather than the sets they describe, exist. I do think numbers exist; if I can think about them, manipulate them and use them, they have to, at some level at least. And they're wicked useful. Problem is, they're willfully misunderstood. Over and over again, throughout our culture and society, the attempt is made to simplify complex entities by placing them in correspondence with numbers on the real number line. Makes things easier to compare, define, act on, but does violence to reality. It can be shown that the law of trichotomy--any real number must be greater than, less than, or equal to any other--fails even with the relatively simple expansion of complex numbers. There are things which cannot be quantitated. Working with them as if they can be isn't likely to succeed.

Examples abound: speeding over reckless driving. A breathalyzer number over intoxication. IQ over intelligence. The US News college rankings. Testing as a measure of teacher and school competence. Economic models as sufficient descriptions of human society, privileged over and trivializing social, moral, ethical considerations--what Tony Judt calls 'economism'. Quantitative scientific observations and theorizing in theory able to explain all phenomana, and, if they can't, it bespeaks the limitations of our current scientific knowledge rather than of science itself.

Not just intellectual laziness, this, but a significant, sometimes even dangerous error. Arising, in part, I think, from an uncritical celebration of the Enlightenment, which many intelligent folk with whom I mostly agree find seductive in the wake of the Busherdammerung, in the face of right wing know-nothing Lysenkoist or fundy madness. We need to reject ignorance, especially willful ignorance, the dogma and intolerance which fuels it and results from it. But we, too, need to understand, appreciate and act mindfully of the limitations of 'reason' alone in describing our lives in this vale of wrath and tears. Not easy to do it right, that...

Anthony, another buddy who comments on Eschaton and blogs on Echidne,rants about this, too, from more of a humanities perspective, and is well worth reading, in general as well as on this specific topic, if this stuff interests you:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mosque of the Read Death

We're told that the construction of a Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center site in New York has become a national issue. So here's my take on it:

1. It's not a mosque. It's a cultural center. They don't even have the facts right.
2. Whether or not the Cordoba Center gets built is a non-issue, having nothing whatever to do with a single actual problem facing the Republic or the world, or its solution. It means as little as Obama's appearance without a flag pin in his lapel, or his temerity in delivering an entirely uncontroversial address to school children, or his vacation time with his family, or any of a dozen similar non-issues.
3. It's become an issue because of naked bigotry. Period.
4. Naked bigotry, however clothed, is, as is increasingly obvious, basic to right wing politics.
5. The subtext is the oft-stated claim that Obama is a closet Muslim, hates America, wants to destroy Israel, and appears weak, accommodationist and appeasing before an implacable enemy.
6. Because of the unacknowledged subtext, arguing the surface issue of the center's construction will never, ever address the real issue, and will therefore be fruitless.
7. Obama conceding that it shouldn't be built would be catastrophic for his presidency, and wouldn't win him a single vote on the right, while alienating his base further, setting back America's relationship with a billion and a half Muslims throughout the world, boosting recruitment into Al Qaeda and other irredentist, terrorist groups, and compromising American interests, even narrowly and pragmatically construed.

But, then, you knew that...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Date Rape For Beginners

Today's Globe reports Barney Frank being, er, partisan. Seems odd that a Democrat, facing relentless, unprincipled opposition from an ever crazier Republican party, would react at all negatively. I recall FD Roosevelt reaching out to Father Coughlin, saying, 'Come, let us reason together'...

One of Obama's noteworthy, thoroughly decent and unprecedented rhetorical tropes was his mention of unbelievers amongst those of various religions. The Republicans, of course, mostly consider him a closet Muslim or a member of a caricatured Rev Wright's racist, America-hating church, either (or both--in their rhetoric, they aren't mutually exclusive) rendering him illegitimate as a believer and, thereby, as a president. The only consistency to Republican politics arises from their denial of the legitimacy of the Obama presidency and an election in which Democrats won, as if any result other than one in service of Republican power is not just to be deplored on policy grounds, but the first step on the slippery slope to tyranny. And every Republican has to kiss Limbaugh's and Beck's ring, say the Tea Partiers have a point, talk of Obama as not merely mistaken but as shredding the Constitution. Even such 'moderates' as Grassley are losing any connection to reality, and refusing to engage in actual policy debate with a view towards actually acting, rather than preventing action.

Hard to work with an opposition that won't even concede the legitimacy of your holding office. Also, I'd say, harder to present your case before the electorate as more in their interest than theirs.

Cite to Boston Globe story on Frank:

Saturday, August 14, 2010


A Boston Globe op-ed column today questions whether or not GPS units are always a Good Thing:

'Unlike digital devices, written instructions on old-fashioned paper don’t fail during solar flares or send you a paragraph-long error message while you’re driving at 60 mph. They don’t use obscure references even the crustiest local has never heard, like “Lord’s Corner,’’ when everyone knows the landmark is the Dunkin’ Donuts. They don’t have dead spots.

'Maybe digital positioning systems work OK in newer, grid-like spaces in the Midwest. But they collapse when confronted with the quirky byways of New England. We live on a street that passes from Boston to Newton with the same name, but the house numbers scramble when you cross the border. I can’t count the number of dinner guests or cab drivers who have called in frustration because they can’t find the address they have entered into their trusty GPS. Taking a few minutes to listen to verbal instructions would have saved them far more time in hapless circling.

'Indeed, taking a few minutes to read good directions frees the traveler to enjoy the ride — to notice what the writer saw: the creeping fog over the harbor, or the golden haze on the cornfield. After all, the time spent in the car is also part of the vacation. It’s a chance to discover and savor new things. And for that, it’s a lot better than getting lost in Somerville.'

Technology as a tool, rather than a way of life, is unobjectionable. And every new technology, for better or worse, changes one's view of life. At 60 yo, I understand that better than I did at 20; I miss, amongst other things, record album cover art, the feel of dialling a phone, and using a Sears socket wrench set to do just about anything a VW beetle needed done to it.

As for informed travelling, a street map isn't any better than a GPS unit, and requires minimal if any thought. And detailed guides such as the Lonely Planet's, Blue Guides, the local Chamber of Commerce's, or a storekeeper's or bartender's, remain available for those interested. And you can drive whilst using GPS, even at night.

Meanwhile, GPS can, and, I'd argue, should provoke a sense of wonder, every time you use it: it links to orbiting satellites in real time, and requires for its computations Einstein's theory of general relativity. Mindfulness can extend indefinitely in a vast universe. So can a lack of intellectual curiosity, a taking of things for granted rather than exploring, questioning.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Algorithm! Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Algorithms come up in medicine a lot. The idea is that, if a patient has x symptom, or y disease, then studies show, and the treating doc should perform, A, B, C et seq. True, as with any prescription based on statistics and populations, for most, but, obviously, not for all. So, a good algorithm is better than a bad doc, but neither is it sufficient to guarantee a good doc, who'll recognize outliers and deal differently with them.

Sometimes an algorithm makes a sort of sense. An orthopedist who does nothing other than total joint replacements, for instance, and his/her operating room team, will do them better, safer, more reliably, than a doc who does them maybe twice a month along with everything else. So, you're smart to ask the guy how often he does them. More is better. But you also need a doc referring you to said orthopod who considers whether or not you're a nail before referring you to a guy with a hammer, even if he/she's very, very good with one. Another argument for decent primary care at the heart of the health care system, and a reordering of the system to value cognition as much as procedure.

Which answers the perennial question:
Algorithm! Who could ask for anything more?

It's Good To Share, and to Play With Others

This is a very important article, on a very important issue. If you aren't in the business, you might not be aware of it:

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

“It was unbelievable,” said Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.”

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

“It was unbelievable,” said Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.”

Many companies researching biomarkers restrict others' ability to do research on them, guarding their intellectual property, afraid of negative results in others' studies. A big problem, that. Proprietary tests for breast cancer risk come to mind. A lay person's idea of how science is conducted would, usually, lead to the assumption that data sharing and openness are the rule. Not so. Good on the actors here for sharing, and, in doing so, demonstrating that progress is faster, and intellectual property rights generally safeguarded. Those fantasizing about 'free market' solutions in health care should jump all over this story and applaud. They will not, because it legitimizes a role for government, too. Purity above reality.

The Marriages, They Are A'Changin'

At 60 years old, I find myself both astonished and delighted by the progressive mainstreaming and acceptance of gays and lesbians. My school years were filled with insults, 'homosexual dread' and psychiatrists who thought being gay reflected defects in fathering and could be cured with analysis. There's still a long way to go, but the change has been extraordinary. Similarly, in my youth, an interracial couple, in North as well as South, couldn't walk the street, and, if in a car, was an automatic police stop. Few regret that we've moved on from that, and fewer would say it out loud. I've no doubt that gay marriage--accepted, per my daughter, almost universally amongst high school and college students--will similarly continue movement towards acceptance.

'Conventional' male-female heterosexual marriage--mine is 40 years old--is alive and well in Massachusetts, despite legal gay marriage. Massachusetts, in fact, has the lowest divorce rates in the nation, along with Connecticut, in which, too, gay marriage is legal. There's still a lot of bigotry, not least from people still either in the closet or in denial with respect to their own sexuality. But that tide is turning. The Supreme Court, unless it restricts its purview to ideology and a history based largely on bigotry, will have to take the fact into account. The standard for denial or restriction of a constitutional right is, if that right is acknowledged, a clear and compelling state interest. It'll be difficult or impossible to back up such a claim, given Judge Walker's analysis and facts on the ground in the states and D.C. allowing gay marriage.

In which regard, I'd suggest a reading of Scalia's opinion in Lawrence v Texas. It isn't just a 'passionate dissent', as Linda Greenhouse calls it in her excellent Times article this morning. It's almost shrill, keening, barely in control, resembling a hysterical polemic more than a reasoned, logical legal opinion. (Note, by the way, that Scalia's first sentence gratuitously refers to the majority opinion in a key opinion upholding abortion rights, Planned Parenthood v Casey, as 'sententious'.) I confidently predict that Scalia will, given the opportunity, vote with utter disregard for Judge Walker's facts and logic and the ever clearer evidence that gay marriage threatens society, 'traditional marriage' and civil society not a whit. And when he does so, he will be celebrated for it by those opposing gay marriage, without any pretense that their opinion arises from other than prejudice. Judge Walker was struck by the exceedingly limited presentation of fact and logic in favor of Prop. 8, in comparison to that presented in opposition to it. Justice Scalia, and opponents of gay marriage in general, have not been, are not, and will not be, and not for legal reasons.

Mass. divorce rate:
Scalia J. in dissent, Lawrence v Texas:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tough Decisions

When an American politician talks about making tough decisions, he's referring to screwing someone least able to afford it. When a Portuguese talks about tough decisions, he's talking about significant steps away from fossil fuels:

'Five years ago, the leaders of this sun-scorched, wind-swept nation made a bet: To reduce Portugal’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, they embarked on an array of ambitious renewable energy projects — primarily harnessing the country’s wind and hydropower, but also its sunlight and ocean waves.

'Today, Lisbon’s trendy bars, Porto’s factories and the Algarve’s glamorous resorts are powered substantially by clean energy. Nearly 45 percent of the electricity in Portugal’s grid will come from renewable sources this year, up from 17 percent just five years ago.

'Land-based wind power — this year deemed “potentially competitive” with fossil fuels by the International Energy Agency in Paris — has expanded sevenfold in that time. And Portugal expects in 2011 to become the first country to inaugurate a national network of charging stations for electric cars.

'“I’ve seen all the smiles — you know: It’s a good dream. It can’t compete. It’s too expensive,” said Prime Minister José Sócrates, recalling the way Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, mockingly offered to build him an electric Ferrari. Mr. Sócrates added, “The experience of Portugal shows that it is possible to make these changes in a very short time.”

'...“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

'Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.'

They probably don't have as many quants writing credit default swaps in the trillions in Portugal as they do in the States. And they probably pay more taxes. And they're a significantly poorer country than we are, in terms of money if not in polity. And they're doing the right thing.

Y'know, there are days when it's hard for me to be optimistic about this country...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fluctuation Can Indeed Be Loss

A financial adviser I once worked with, as the market went down and our portfolio did too, smiled and said, in his Oxbridge English accent, 'At these times, you have to keep in mind the difference between fluctuation and loss.' Well, if you rely solely on equities, timing is everything, and if your timing's off, you're in big, big trouble.

They originally introduced Social Security, of course, so old folk wouldn't starve to death. It's comical, or would be if it weren't so tragic, to hear all those bootstrap-pulling-up righties talking about fixing everything with savings--health, retirement, social safety nets. Pensions gone, or raided and cash-stripped in M&As, or in equities and now low. Consumer spending driven by debt on 25%/yr credit cards, home equity loans, now slowing, and, oddly, in a 65-70% consumer-driven economy, recovery ain't 'zackly going full steam. So, more savings will solve everything. That way, less government spending, a lower deficit. And, of course, the social, fiscal, political, medical, educational answer for everything, lower taxes.

Makes absolutely no sense, even if constructed on an entirely non-ideological base, as if we didn't, in fact, have any obligations to each other as human beings. None whatever. None.

Did I say it makes no sense? Let me, then, say it makes no sense...

Monday, August 9, 2010

RIP: Tony Judt

Tony Judt was, amongst other things, compulsively readable, intellectually honest, deeply engaged, and almost always taught me something i didn't know about just about any subject, no matter how familiar, I read him on. His 'Ill Fares The Land' is one of the best political polemics I've read in a long time. His takes on Sartre, Aron and Camus are a deeply thought addition to a field crowded with cant on all sides.

Among his concerns in 'Ill Fares The Land' is what he calls 'economism'. Some talk of 'scientism', by which they mean (I think) that all questions human beings can ask about themselves and the universe are in principle answerable with science, and, if they aren't today, it's because science hasn't progressed sufficiently, and not because science itself is inadequate. Judt sees the political discourse increasingly, since 1980 or so, dominated by economic considerations and models above all others. It's necessary to know what something costs, but, says Judt, that's insufficient: there are ethical and moral questions, questions about what kind of a world we want to live in, what we owe each other, that require other sorts of discourse.

Even Judge Richard Posner, known for applying economics to law--he'd consider economic utility of enforcing a contract above all other considerations--has, in a recent book entitled 'A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 And the Descent Into Depression', questioned the market's limitations while noting the economists themselves mostly oblivious to the oncoming catastrophe.

Judt's right. We should, must act as if our lives are defined by more than money. If we don't, we run the risk of a sleepless night or two in the bed we've made ourselves.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Not Thinking About The Thinkable

I crossposted the 6 Aug 1945 piece, more or less, on the doctors' blog, Sermo. I'd have thought it relatively unremarkable, not particularly ideological, advanced by many wiser and more articulate than I. The comments, extending over dozens, dealt not at all with the existential issues posed by nuclear weapons, but with Truman's use of them at the end of World War II, and their deterrent role in the Cold War. Not a single comment addressed the issue I'd raised.

Then after a while, a few commenters went on to call me deluded, a supercilious asshole, ignorant of history, elitist, isolated from reality (like all liberals), living on another planet, unfit for the company of adults. Their actual words. Those who so commented offered nothing other than vituperative rhetoric in support of their positions. Other commenters have yet to take issue with them, or offer any support at all.

I oft comment there, usually from the left of the mean, and am generally accepted, even, sometimes, welcomed, even by those disagreeing with me. I've argued against Ayn Rand, Frederich, Hayek and Murray Rothbard with true believers. I've suggested that Obama isn't going to impose Stalinist tyranny, that national health insurance isn't necessarily a bad thing, that health care is a human right--distinctly minority opinions on that site. Mostly, in a manner cordial, respectful, even friendly. And nothing, but nothing, that I've written has been so summarily rejected and dismissed. Perhaps I am, indeed, living on a different planet.

I'm flabbergasted. I'd never, in a million years, have thought a priori that this post, more than any other, would occasion a vitriolic, dismissive response. I'm also a little disturbed. Maybe a lot disturbed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Remember: 6 August 1945

Take time out today to think of 6 August 1945: one of the most significant days in the history of the human race: when we, and the world, were confronted, irrefutably and for all time, with the fact that we are capable of destroying ourselves and the world, through a technology which, uniquely amongst all the works of man, all but the insane think should never again be used.

I'd suggest that the gradual awareness of the environment as requiring stewardship rather than exploitation, for the good of all the life on the planet, arises in part out of a recognition of the horrors of the Holocaust and the fact of nuclear weapons. Here is a link to the extraordinary, deeply troubling photograph taken at high speed by 'Doc' Edgerton of the earliest stage of a nuclear explosion. We are a different species for unleashing, unequivocally and for all time, the gates of hell, and given the choice to enter them.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

We Wasted Nature, and Nature doth Waste Us

Tim Egan writes in the Times about wildfires, in a superbly understated manner only better describing his subject:

Were I teaching writing, I'd use this as an example of how understatement beats melodrama every time, even with a subject almost crying out for it. (Another essay I'd teach would be Molly Ivins' brilliant takedown of Camille Paglia, for humor arising out of brilliant use of a range of diction ranging from the academic to the casual, while remaining utterly on a serious point.)

I'd also include it in a course discussing science and technology, and how they're viewed. Egan doesn't make it explicit--he's too good a writer for that--but he's questioning the old notion of science, technology and, in general, the works of humanity as exploiting, mastering, dominating the natural world, the position of humanity at the apex of a teleologically driven evolution, or of God's creation. It seems ever clearer that we are of nature rather than over it, and that our works which attempt a triumph over nature rather than a better accommodation to it are both doomed to fail and inevitably produce unexpected negative consequences.

The Enlightenment is a tempting touchstone in these times, when a good part of the polity celebrates its rejection of truth and reason. But the Enlightenment, with human reason at its center, erred in viewing reason easily defined, sufficient as a principle of human existence, and triumphant over the natural world and the human past. At the time of its invention and display, there was never a greater triumph of human reason than that which the world first encountered on 6 August 1945. Our dubious mastery of nature has, ever after, been at the price of our demonstrated ability to end it. We haven't quite figured all this out yet. Humanity has never, ever, in all its existence, had such a monumentally difficult and important fact with which to contend.

Stewart Brand, of 'Whole Earth Catalog' et seq., said something like, 'We are as gods, and had better get good at it.' He meant well, I think, but completely, utterly misses the point. Gods are in a place removed from the earth. We are not. We are of the earth, and must live as the earth, with the earth. And, yes, we had better get good at it.

(cite to Ivins:
Have mouth clear of expellable substances as you read it)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The World, and the Steamrolled Worker, Are Flat

A good part of Tom Friedman's argument in 'The World Is Flat' accepts the inevitability of globalization at its worst, and celebrates the boundless future available to those who go back to school and retrain for a new job market. As always with Friedman, he's most useful as a mirror displaying the views of his constituency. The position amounts to the following propositions:

1. Change is inevitable. No point to resisting it, any more than Canute's feet stayed dry.
2. Anybody can not only maintain themselves but improve themselves and their lot by expanding their knowledge and skills base, being open to new opportunities and like that.
3. Those opportunities are not merely available, but available in profusion and everywhere.

He, and most of his ilk, leave out the logical consequences of this Panglossian crap:

4. An individual's bad fortune arises solely from a failure of that individual, and not of the Wondrous Cornucopia of the world economy.
5. True, too, of towns, cities, regions, even nations.


1. The only one responsible for an individual is that individual; nobody else need bother their beautiful mind in the presence of human suffering.
2. Every last social entity humans have created, or are likely to create, other than economic entities, is a waste of time, energy and resources, based on dubious premises at a distance from reality, and which divert people from Doing What Needs To Be Done.

Never retreat. Never surrender.

Bob Herbert this morning manages to support the veterans, call for an end to the wars, and suggest that we, as a nation, make more of a commitment to common enterprises, such as the military during war and unfinished domestic business such as infrastructure, in a manner more substantive than cutting taxes and going shopping:

On this same page as this economically written column, correct in each particular while demonstrating their interdependence and our insufficient, unrealistic response to them singly and together, Timothy Geithner suggests that the recovery, while slower than anybody would like, is, in fact, in progress, and that the stimulus helped forestall a free fall while aiding recovery. The two juxtaposed are sad, in that Geithner isn't listening to, much less responding to, Herbert. He'd better, as Obama had better.

The distance between Geithner's position and the perceptions of much of the country is huge, and getting bigger. After decades of being told that greed is good, consumerism the very apotheosis of civic life, personal debt not much of an issue, living beyond one's means is as quaint as Gonzales thought the Geneva Conventions, we now face 'structural,' that is, chronic unemployment and underemployment. Even the too few available jobs increasingly exclude such things as light manufacturing in cities and regions dependent on them. A country where doctors, lawyers, upper management, financiers and software jocks do well, and the rest are in service industries, simply isn't even sustainable, much less kind to most of its people. The home equity loans that financed a lot of remodeling, college tuition and consumer debt consolidation are going or gone as housing prices fall. Credit card debt, at usurious interest rates--generally accepted by most people, including those outraged at the very thought of a sales tax increase or government deficit--benefit banks with fell long-term consequences. So not only are things tough, and not getting easier all that fast, but long-standing behaviors, thought of as not merely pleasant choices available in times of plenty but rights due Americans, the cornucopia always available under 'free market' capitalism, are being challenged, less part of life. Some might call those alleged rights not the just due of the hard-working, but 'entitlements': just deserts whose unavailability, in the slightest, demonstrates an America in trouble. Some might even say health care is a human right for citizens of the largest economy ever seen in the known galaxy; the very notion is opposed by the right as not just wrong but tyrannous.

Which means not that we should pull together to make things better; quite the opposite, in fact. It means that it's somebody's fault. Not yours. The Democrats, with their tax-and-spend fiscal madness and absurdly complex health and finance reforms which most Americans dislike, distrust and don't benefit from. Those hordes of brown people who invade our country like locusts, stripping us bare. Those black folk whose racism and parasitism make a mockery of American values while they suck on the government teat at others' expense. The crooks and liars in the government, all Democrats, whose taxation policies amount not just to governance but theft, enriching themselves and aggrandizing power at the expense of the virtuous. Those greedy unions, winning zero-sum games at the expense of taxpayers and stockholders. Or so we're told, over and over again, by strident voices who don't stop there, but move on to conspiracies, birth certificates, Godless abandonment of values, on and on: their opponents are not merely mistaken, but entirely lacking legitimacy, criminal, even treasonous in their abandonment of the True Faith, in their wanton destruction of what we're told the actual Constitution, the actual views of the Founders, the very roots of the country.

Too easy, it seems to me, in the context of the poverty of our public discourse since at least Reagan, and entirely consistent with the worst of this country, for that to be the default position. And it's not happening in a vacuum, but aided, abetted and aroused by the most ignorant, intolerant, racist, supercilious, self-satisfied, unconstructive, amoral people I've ever seen in a lifetime of watching politics and society, who aren't challenged nearly enough by those who should know better. Framing it thus, I'd think it obvious, and viatl, to oppose such a stance, and provide a better alternative, not only in the current debate, but for the future of the country and the world, moving the political and social debate even a little bit towards the legitimization and actualization of common enterprise as well as self-actualization. These cowardly, greedy, intolerant, psychotic bastards don't care if they destroy the country or the world. We must provide a counternarrative, as vigorously persistently and purposefully as they do. Conduct politics and government along the lines of 'Galaxy Quest': never retreat, never surrender, and, if event demands more than rhetoric, and actual lives are on the line, to make the rhetoric reality. The occasional Geithner op-ed isn't enough, neither as policy nor even as rhetoric. Bob Herbert knows this.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Disloyal Opposition

It's increasingly clear that righties, who endlessly bleat about others' failure to accept personal responsibility, and a myriad repugnant counterincentives to doing so arising out of statist, totalitarian Democratic Party ideology, bitterly oppose the notion that the right might accept responsibility themselves.

An interesting position: the country is not just flawed, but going to hell in a handbasket, and not a bit of it, not even a little bit, is our fault. So we need make no contribution to governance other than the obstruction of anything Democrats want to do.

Bipartisanship. It's not just for breakfast anymore...

Which brings up the new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Today, the Times informs me that the nuclear arms treaty up before the Senate soon--endorsed by wild-eyed, Birkenstock-wearing former Weathermen like James Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and George Shultz--can't yet command the necessary 2/3 majority

The stated Republican reluctance revolves, apparently, around a non-binding line in the preamble to the treaty which doesn't gleefully endorse missile defense: a non-issue surrounding a non-program, but one forever identified with Ronald Reagan and which, rather humorously, some hold the key factor in winning the Cold War and inducing the Soviet Union's collapse. The actual Republican reason, of course, is that ratifying it would give Obama a foreign policy victory, and, of all things, a bipartisan one. Which would reveal current Republicans as rejecting something that mainstream Republicans, and some highly conservative Democrats, endorse. Which would demonstrate that when Republicans say they are willing to work with Obama, and that only Obama's radicalism keeps them from being able to do so, they are lying.

The Republicans' endorsement of the treaty, therefore, in some ways, makes it more, rather than less, imperative that it be defeated.

Towards A Radiant Future

In a comment on the prior post, JR notes that ideology trumps reality. I'd go further and say that ideology trumps people, and the reality of people's lives. The victory of an idea is so important that, as in war, collateral damage is acceptable. Especially, of course, if the collateral damage is to someone else. One of the reasons it's despicable for the rich and powerful to demand 'austerity', 'tough measures', 'facing reality' and so on, requiring all that toughness, good citizenship and taking it on the chin for the team from those least able to bear them, or empowered to resist them.

Ideology doesn't just trump reality. It trumps people, and their lives, as if the theory of how people should live is more important than the actuality of their lives.

There's curious parallel between left and right. An old lefty would see individual dysfunction as a sane response to an insane society--greedy, corrupt, human values ground beneath the capitalist's boot, all that--and, come the revolution, with all that gone, nobody would be crazy, and the New Socialist Men and Women would march, arm in arm, towards the Radiant Future. A righty sees individual dysfunction as a predictable response to an insane society--permissive, encouraging of dependency, destructive of freedom and initiative, all that--and, with all that intrusive, tyrannous, parasite-coddling gone, the Newly Liberated Men of the Mind will pick themselves up by their bootstraps, better their lot and, therefore, society's, and march into the Radiant Future.

Neither of these pay much respect to the fact that human beings, leading individual lives, are more complicated objects than the philosophical, economic and sociological models which, against mountains of historical and contemporary evidence, ideologues hold sufficient. Neither the New Socialist Man nor the New Entrepreneurial Man will emerge, in shining sanity, to lead us into the Radiant Future once all of government and society is set right, in conformation with ideology.

And today's most prominent ideologues, the righties and tea partiers, so sure they are of themselves, the righteousness of their lives, the utter truth behind their anger, the worthlessness of their opponents' lives and ideas, are going to do more harm than good, even, in the end, to their own cause. But people will get hurt, many of them. And they won't care. Parasites, one-worlders, America-haters, welfare queens, all. Kulaks.