Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Inability to solve our problems

Thomas Friedmann has an insightful article today in the NYT. The gist of his argument is that our federal poitical machinery is broken, that we no longer can muster the long range problem solving ability to tackle such problems facing us as dependence on oil (not just dependence on foreign oil).

I think the article is worth a read. While I understand Friedmann's unwillingness to suggest a cause for this situation, but beginning in 1980, with Ronald Reagan's slogan that government IS the problem, it is no wonder that we have this situation. And the market is not going to solve this problem for us. Only one candidate is really discussing this situation and that is Senator Obama.

Comedian George Carlin dies of broken heart

(previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 6/29/08)

TERRE HAUTE — George Carlin died last Sunday. He deserves an appropriate headline akin to his own spoof headlines like: “Jacques Cousteau dies in bathtub accident.” Maybe something like: “Comedian Carlin dies of Broken Heart.” or “Funny-man Carlin Gets it wrong, dies in Health Center.”

George Carlin was a force for me growing up with over-protective parents who were enthusiastic Nixon supporters. Even though he appeared something like 135 times on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, my folks disapproved of him. I borrowed his comedy albums from older friends and listened to them secretly in my room. I memorized his routines and would recite them for my friends.

In the world of Nixon supporters, the dominant cultural trends of the times were “scary.” Long hair (on men), free love, birth control, abortion on demand, drugs, communism, civil rights, women’s rights … this list is very long, and all of them disrupted the conventional, white, uptight world I grew up in. George Carlin made all that stuff okay for me, because he so devastatingly poked fun at the deathly conventional corporate culture that was emerging with suburbanization and television (with its incessant advertising).

George Carlin was everything I wasn’t. He was hip, witty, quick, and edgy. He wore a ponytail and I wore a crew cut (yes, even in the ’70s). He experimented with drugs and I snuck chocolate chip cookies. He was warped and I was about as straight-arrow as one could get. He was the “hippie dippie weatherman” and I was sergeant of the school patrol. I was a good student and he wasn’t. I thrived in the institutional bureaucracy and he didn’t.

I marveled at his observations of daily life. For instance: “When you dial the phone, do you give your finger a free ride back?” “If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little” or “I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” His celebrity was for his more edgy material, which I can’t share here because this is a family newspaper and his “seven words you can’t say on television” pretty much still can’t be said on television nor printed in this newspaper. His sense of irony was superb: “I got fired last year for saying s**t, in a town where the big game is called craps.”

I wanted to make those kinds of offbeat observations. I wanted to play with language the way he did. I wanted to turn everything upside down like he did. So, I worked to make similar observations, to turn things upside down, to seek the irony and humor in daily, common, everyday events. I make no claims to success, but I have had students who probably listened to their parents’ (or grandparents’) Carlin albums say I reminded them of George Carlin. Of the many things that have been said about me by students over the years, that is one I hope is true.

I don’t recall Carlin making acerbic observations about college. I am not trying to channel him here, but modern college professors live, in large part, in a space created by the intersection of government and the church. Modern professors have spent their lives on college campuses, going from Freshman to Full Professor in a seamless progression of dorm room keggers, grad student affairs, sycophantic assistant professor, tenured associate professor (tenure should come with a burial plot on the campus quad), to the holy grail of “full” (of it) professor. Among the many curiosities of the Academy is “academic speak.” Here is a description for a new academic program: “FS courses are the foundation of a college-level educational experience and for learning in the academic disciplines and professions.” Gee, I thought high school was the foundation for a college education, but a college education is now a “college-level educational experience.” No wonder the costs of college are increasing so much, a “college education,” six syllables has grown to thirteen syllables, “college-level educational experience” (hereafter CLEE). Instead of charging by the credit hour, maybe tuition should be figured by the CLEE, and professors rated on their CLEE production. “Steiger’s students average five CLEE per class, which is above the department average of four CLEE, but below the College CLEE rate of seven.”

A headline I’d like to see: “George Carlin rose from the dead today; declares frisbeetarianism official religion.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Happy, happy, happy, happy

An article by a business prof at Syracuse caught my eye (here). He asks, does money make you happy? Well, no, not really, except in certain circumstances. He goes on to note how the more we make the more we want, etc. Nothing new here, really. He also notes that success is really the ingredient (in the research I've read, it is not even that, it is the pursuit of goals, goal oriented behavior makes us happy and satisfied. But this Prof. Brooks, then stretches it way too thin, suggesting that capitalism has something to do with American's "happiness." Capitalism also has lots to do with defining what makes us happy and what we want. Happiness is one thing, related is life satisfaction, which is more studied, has a much longer history.

Consider:

Life satisfaction (most recent) by country

Showing latest available data. Rank Countries Amount (top to bottom)
#1 Malta: 8
#2 Switzerland: 8
#3 Denmark: 8
#4 Ireland: 7.8
#5 Iceland: 7.8
#6 Canada: 7.6
#7 Luxembourg: 7.6
#8 Netherlands: 7.6
#9 Finland: 7.5
#10 Sweden: 7.5
#11 New Zealand: 7.4
#12 Norway: 7.4
#13 United States: 7.4
#14 Belgium: 7.3
#15 Australia: 7.3
#16 United Kingdom: 7.2
#17 El Salvador: 7.2
#18 Germany: 7.1
#19 Brazil: 7
#20 Italy: 6.9
#21 Singapore: 6.9
#22 Argentina: 6.8
#23 Venezuela: 6.8
#24 Dominican Republic: 6.8
#25 Portugal: 6.7
#26 Uruguay: 6.7
#27 Israel: 6.7
#28 Spain: 6.6
#29 France: 6.6
#30 Indonesia: 6.6
#31 Taiwan: 6.6
#32 Philippines: 6.4
#33 Slovenia: 6.3
#34 Japan: 6.2
#35 Vietnam: 6.1
#36 Peru: 6
#37 Iran: 6
#38 Poland: 5.9
#39 Croatia: 5.9
#40 Korea, South: 5.8
#41 Bangladesh: 5.7
#42 Slovakia: 5.6
#43 South Africa: 5.6
#44 Turkey: 5.6
#45 Morocco: 5.6
#46 Hungary: 5.5
#47 Uganda: 5.2
#48 Algeria: 5.2
#49 Estonia: 5.2
#50 Serbia and Montenegro: 5.1
#51 Jordan: 5.1
#52 Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of: 4.9
#53 Lithuania: 4.9
#54 Azerbaijan: 4.9
#55 Egypt: 4.8
#56 Latvia: 4.8
#57 Romania: 4.7
#58 Albania: 4.6
#59 Bulgaria: 4.5
#60 Russia: 4.4
#61 Belarus: 4.3
#62 Pakistan: 4.3
#63 Angola: 4.3
#64 Georgia: 4.1
#65 Armenia: 3.7
#66 Ukraine: 3.6
#67 Moldova: 3.5
#68 Zimbabwe: 3.3
#69 Tanzania: 3.2
Weighted average: 6.0



DEFINITION: Most scores are based on responses to the following question: "All things considered, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life-as-a-whole now? 1 dissatisfied to10 satisfied" (item code O-SLW/c/sq/n/10/a). Scores of ten nations are based on responses to a somewhat different question: "Suppose the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder the worst possible life. Where on this ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?" The response was rated on a ladder scale ranging from 0 to 10 (item code O-BW/c/sq/l/11/c). We transformed the scores using the information of nations in which both this item and the above question on life-satisfaction had been used in about the same years.


SOURCE: World Database of Happiness, Happiness in Nations, Rank Report 2004/1 Average happiness in 90 nations 1990-2000 via NationMaster

The US ranks 13th. Malta? Deeply religious, for most of us, oppressively so. The wide open opportunity societies, are the former Soviet republics, they rank pretty low. But the EU countries, with their balance of capitalism and welfare states, show the most life satisfaction, even with the ossified class structure of Europe.

Even Finland, notorious for its depressive and introverted folks, ranks higher than the US.

This concept of life satisfaction or happiness is very complicated. Even what I present here is a single measure. And there is no analysis, just speculation about the results. But that doesn't stop Prof Brooks from making statements about political economy. Why bother with evidence at all?

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin (1937-2008)

To say I was sad to read that George Carlin has died is an understatement. Without hesitation, I can say that George Carlin influenced me. As a kid, in the late 60s and seventies, I listened to his comedy albums (although my parents would NOT have approved). I memorized his routines, especially the "Shit" routine. "I was fired last year for saying shit; in a town where the big game is called crap."

I really liked how he tried to look at things kind of upside down. For instance:

"The very existence of flamethrowers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, "You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done."

I began very early on to do the same thing. Look at the common and try to make it zany, incredible. "When you dial the phone, do you give your finger a free ride back?"

He was a master at poking holes in the most common, normative behavior. "Some national parks have long waiting lists for camping reservations. When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong."

As an example of my own Carlin influence, I was diving in the Fl Keys last week. As we headed out to the reef, I told my dive partner, that the place we were headed was called "Hammerhead Cafe."

George Carlin has died. Shoot (which is shit with two Os)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Antonin Scalia doesn't believe our judicial institutions are up to the task

For those of us who believe in the constitution, and believe real patriotism is displayed during times of adversity, today's Supreme Court decision that the Guantanomo detainees have a right to habeas corpus is a sigh of relief. See article here

No suprise who the four dissenters were: Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Shiver. Scalia wrote the especially harsh dissent, with over the top hyperbole even for him.

What strikes me though is how he doesn't believe our justice system can stand up in the face of terrorism. It has already beaten him. He should resign. For instance:

Scalia's dissent featured unusually harsh language, even for him. "America is at war with radical Islamists," he wrote. "The game of bait-and-switch that today's opinion plays upon the Nation's Commander in Chief will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."


He goes on:
"Most tragically, it sets our military commanders the impossible task of proving to a civilian court, under whatever standards this Court devises in the future, that evidence supports the confinement of each and every enemy prisoner."


In the first quote, to me, says, our constitution is too cumbersome. Coupled with the second quote, then military commanders, for whatever reason, should be able to hold people indefinitely. Why even hold them, why not just kill them.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

No straight talk about the economy to those voters who are hurting?

From the current US News & World Report, from its lead story in the National & World section is this: A McCain strategist is quoted, regarding Sen McCain's strategy to court Reagan Democrats (white working class voters, who used to be called in Reagan's day, "white ethnics")

"If we're going to win this election, it will because we won Reagan Democrats," says a key McCain strategist. He addds that, since the economy isn't doing well, the argument probably will have to be based on "values issues," such as patriotism, religious faith, and opposition to gay marriage and abortion, in adition to supporting troops and winning the war in Iraq.


In other words, Sen McCain isn't going to address the most pressing issues with them, the slumping economy, high fuel prices. Instead, he is going to obsfucate and discuss these other issues which really have little place and when you look at the legislative success on those issues, pretty thin.

Reagan got away with that because he had a plan to get the economy going. But trickle down never really worked, and it is not working now, and McCain is going to continue with it. I hope the Reagan Democrats, white working class (now defined singularly by educational achievement), or white ethnics, are smarter than that. Of course, many of this group are among those who have told pollsters they wouldn't vote for a black man for president, no matter what. Sen. McCain should be especially effective in recruiting that group to his cause.

This is shaping up to be an interesting campaign: Sen McCain's fear and anger strategy vs Sen Obama's hope and change in the future strategy. In Biblical terms, it is a message of fear vs a message of grace.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Global warming: does the cause really matter that much?

I've been reading the Scietific Assessment report recently released by the White House (4 years late) on global warming and its effects on the US and North America.

And then there is this. an army scientist claims that global warming is due to the sun.

While I understand that there are implications whether "man" did it or "god" did it, what is NOT IN DISPUTE is that the atmosphere is warming and the effects are already evident.

So, as far as adaptation is concerned, does it matter? Even those who agree that humans are a significant factor in global warming, our ability to turn the process around, like we did with the ozone hole and banning CFCs, is much reduced, both for reasons of physics and geopolitics.

But squabbling over the human component of all this reduces our focus on identifying future changes and beginning to adapt/mitigate now. The outcomes are pretty predictable, whether it be due to industrialization or to s sun cycle.

Warming has occured before and humans adapated, and some didn't. But we have the ability to foresee the future on this one. Why ignore it?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Science is the radical viewpoint

I encourage my half dozen or so readers to read this editorial in last Sunday's NYT. It is written by a physics professor at Columbia.

To tease you, here is an excerpt:

And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there’s simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.


While I follow politics and the so called culture wars, as a social scientist, I know that much of what we argue over is "testable" and science could answer many of the questions that face us. No, it cannot answer question about whether abortion is right or wrong or gay marriage is right or wrong, but many of the claims made about factual matters, abortions are dangerous to women or gay marriage will undermine the foundations of society, are answerable by science. For instance:

But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.


So many people turn to religion for hope and inspiration. But the physics professor sees science providing that:

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.


I completely agree with this next paragraph:

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.


Science cannot answer all questions. Science cannot really reveal, for insance, who we should vote for. Elections are really about values, but governing is about science. Science can help so much in our policies. Sure, some of the obvious ones like global warming and environmental protection, but education, too. Politics screws all that up. In part it is because of value differences, but for the most part it is because of an ignorance of what science is.
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