Sunday, July 31, 2011

Observations from the road ...

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You travel around, you see things, you meet people, you listen ... it all makes you think. This week we're on the road in New England. Some reflections:
  • While picking up our rental car at Logan Airport in Boston, we faced the perennial question: "Did we want to add an additional driver on the rental?" That is, add my same-sex female partner. The honest answer was "yes." (I've been known to cheat on this one, but this wasn't one of the times to risk it.)

    So the young Latina behind the Budget counter asks us: "Are you married?" Picking my jaw up off the floor, I say "as much as the law allows in California." She says, "Okay -- no charge. In Massachusetts the rule is that we don't charge drivers with the same address."

    What a simple life one leads when the state considers you married!
  • Both of us stayed in Appalachian Mountain Club huts in the mountains in our childhood, forty years ago. We remembered each hut having two large, dark single-gender rooms with nasty narrow rows of three-tier bunks. Imagine our surprise at the change in the intervening years. The AMC has cut the bunkrooms up into nooks and crannies, sleeping six or nine or even four -- still in three tier bunks but without any "male" or "female" designation. Everyone is thrown in together in smaller spaces. This is great for father-daughter hiking pairs (common) and really for just about everyone.

    We heard not one remark about having multi-gender accommodations and felt no discomfort in the arrangement. The world has changed. The huts do still have single-gender bathrooms; no one remarks on that either.
  • En route to the mountains we fell into a conversation with a solid citizen of one of the surrounding New Hampshire towns. Somehow we talked a little about religious affiliations. He allowed as he was a Congregationalist in the tradition of the area.

    Then he remarked: "This new kind of religion people have gotten into in the last twenty-years -- the kind that is all about The Book [the Bible] -- it doesn't do much for the community. They are so busy with The Book, they don't care about the town's common life, about the teenagers ..."

    I was honestly surprised. I've got lots of beefs with literalist Biblical religion, but I didn't expect to hear this particular reflection on small town experience.
  • At dinner one night, we fell into conversation with a Canadian family. They treated our being a lesbian couple as simply normal. Canadian gays have been getting married for nearly a decade.

    But we did have an interesting conversation about health insurance. The man does business in both the U.S. and Canada. He needs to attract highly skilled workers in a somewhat rare scientific field. It takes a lot of good benefits to win the ones he wants to hire. I was surprised to hear that even in Canada, this means that he offers supplemental benefits beyond the standard tax-supported Canadian "medicare" that covers everyone. Still, he is grateful to the government even about this: the state creates packages of clearly described insurance add-ons that he can buy for employees anywhere in the country and know what he is getting.

    Naturally, he finds buying health insurance in the United States for his employees something of a nightmare: every state has different offerings, if people move around they have to change insurers, and it is never entirely clear what is being covered. If he were running a giant corporation he'd have some bargaining power, but as a medium size technical business, his company is embroiled in constant hassles with insurance companies.

    If you were a responsible employer who had the option to locate a business in the U.S. or Canada, where you choose?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: hiking the Presidentials

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I've been out in the mountains again, the Presidential range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Compared to the altitude of western mountains, these are nothing, topping out at a little over 6000 feet. But they are not to be taken lightly, as this warning sign aims to get across. It doesn't work very well -- whenever I've been up on the ridge, I've always encountered at least a few unwary hikers with light footwear and inadequate clothing. We knew enough not to risk that (this is where I came to love peaks), but we could have had stronger knees and tougher feet. Oh well, we made it through our four day hike, though I limped a lot.

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Hiking up to the ridge line requires a short, pretty steep ascent out of the forest and on to the rocks.

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Yes, the motif here is rocks! The hiker is looking out toward Mount Washington from the col between the cones of Mount Madison (on right) and Mount Adams.

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At the summit of Madison, more rocks and a rare wide view and blue sky. My mountain pictures always convey a slightly skewed perspective on my hikes. Most of the time on most peaks, clouds obscure at least some of the scene. But of course I snap pictures in the sunny moments, however rare.

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Cairns like this mark the way above timber line. In foggy conditions, the quartz rock on top of the pile helps make the way more visible. Sometimes you just hike from cairn to cairn. Staying on the trail not only preserves the fragile alpine environment, but keeps you from slipping into an unseen ravine!

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On the second day, we'd advanced much closer to Mount Washington, the crown of the range, having traversed the flank of Adams.

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After Adams, the huge mound that is Jefferson comes into sight.

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This is what the trail off of Jefferson looks like.

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As we approached Mount Washington, the clouds moved in. We'd already skipped the summits because of my gimpy knee -- now we took a cut off around mountain's cone. The way led under the Cog Railway that carries tourists up the slope.

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They photographed us, the crazy hikers, while we photographed them, the lazy dilettantes. Actually, we waved and smiled -- and hurried forward to get under shelter after a long hard day.

As we did throughout the trip, we stayed at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut that night. We launched off in the morning into pea soup fog, hoping for a little break in the clouds.

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The break came, more swiftly and completely than we'd dared to hope.

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The southern Presidentials, while still rugged, are a different sort of place than the high summits. Here, Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce rise much less above the tree line.

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On the flanks of Mount Eisenhower (we were still skipping summits because of my knee), there are exposed rock ledges. This one got its present name in 1972 -- before that it was known as "Pleasant Dome" which it is.

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The last of the mountains we crossed on this trek was Mount Franklin Pierce which barely rises about the scrub pine forest. In my youth I remember it being called "Clinton," apparently for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, the visionary who got the Erie Canal built. More history of the names is here.

This was a wonderful, tough trip for a couple of "old ladies." We both could have been in better shape, but we wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rays of effing sunshine:
NFL football is back -- and I discovered a new sports writer during the lockout!

It seems that while I was gallumphing through the White Mountains this week, football players and team owners reached an agreement that saves the upcoming season. Yeah! (Well, mostly "yeah" -- in 20 years many of us may be ashamed that we so loved a "sport" that left too many players brain damaged ...)

Like any fan, I followed the news of the negotiations. Unlike many fans, I had no problem deciding who was in the right. Football players may (sometimes) make millions, but most only have 3 or 4 good years getting beat up for our pleasure and then live with the results in their bodies for the rest of their lives. So I figure, they should get very well paid; they are entertainment industry workers of a unique sort. I go with the workers every time in labor disputes.

Last May the UC Berkeley Labor Center held an interesting forum on the dispute that I described here. At that forum, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (pictured here) suggested that the writer to read on the negotiations was Yahoo Sports' Michael Silver. I could not agree more.

All Silver's columns have been interesting, but if you care about the business of football as well as the sport, don't miss his summary response to individuals' actions during the lockout.

Here's a snippet to give the flavor of the piece:

So the question for fans and football columnists alike is this: Now that the owners will lift the lockout, can we unlock our hearts and forgive the transgressors who got us all hot and bothered before and during the work stoppage? In some cases, it won’t be easy. However, because I consider myself the ultimate team player -- or, more realistically, a guy with an increasingly lousy short-term memory who believes it’s healthier to let go of his anger -- I’m all about absolution as the football world returns to normal. ...

  • Frustrated fans (and amateur economists): All you folks who informed me that I don’t understand capitalism, and/or called me a commie, were undoubtedly thrilled by my column comparing the owners to Politburo bosses. I might have used a bit of hyperbole for effect, but I stand by my basic premise that owning an NFL team is the least risky endeavor in American society. That said, econ class is over, and I’m not mad at any of you for disagreeing -- not even you knee-jerk management apologists on the right side of the auditorium.
  • The owners and players who took the fans for granted: Yep, they gambled that you’d come running back to them once the labor dispute was settled, and I believe they were correct in that assessment. And I’m cool with that, just as I’m OK with the fans for not lashing out and/or tuning out en masse as a means of displaying their displeasure. ...
  • The money-grabbers: Those owners who cut the pay of coaches and other employees once the lockout began, before any reasonable evidence of lost revenue, were being senseless, shameless and gutless, as I wrote in early June. And you know what? I don’t forgive them, unless and until they change their mind and refund the cash they gratuitously stole from their workers -- which the Jets have done. Sorry, but when someone like Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who saved tens of millions of dollars in the uncapped year by reducing player payroll, institutes staff-wide pay reductions in March, someone has to whack him in the kneecaps. ...
Go on, go read the whole thing. And bookmark Silver for future reference.

I don't want to just gripe here all the time. I do after all, quite frequently, encounter things and people that delight me. Hence this feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Where the IMF was born ...

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While our rulers were testing whether they could crash the United States financial system through a combination of political brinksmanship and sheer stupidity, I've been offline for four days, hiking through New Hampshire's Presidential range. An Appalachian Mountain Club naturalist gave us a tip: "When you get down, you can see where they signed the Bretton Woods agreement -- just walk in." So we did, muddy boots, filthy clothes, smelly bodies and all.

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In 1944, the rulers of the winning side in World War II wanted to create a financial system that would be rock solid. They believed the contentious national financial policies of the 1930s had led to the Great Depression and contributed to the catastrophic war. They also wanted to be sure they stayed on top. So they held a conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations at the Mount Washington Hotel in Breton Woods, New Hampshire. Pretty swanky place, then and now.

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Nice digs for a meeting of the masters of the universe.

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U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., photographed here in conversation with the British economist J.M. Keynes, led the meeting in setting up the International Monetary Fund and the predecessor organization that became the World Bank.

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The Bretton Woods agreements, signed at this table, pegged the world financial system to the dollar -- and the dollar to gold. In 1971, President Nixon ended the arbitrary (and essentially irrational) practice of backing the dollar with gold and thus ended the original Bretton Woods regime. But the status of the dollar as the world's de facto safest form of money remained -- until our current clowns (mostly the Republican ones) put it in danger. If they succeed in crashing what remains of the international financial system to attain their dream of a world where they and their rich friends don't have to pay taxes, people all over will suffer. Evidently they don't care.

The institutions created at Bretton Woods have not been an unmixed blessing to most people in the world. The International Monetary Fund has forced brutal austerity regimes on poor countries to ensure they transfer their wealth to richer nations and individuals. But international financial anarchy is not good for most people either.

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In the tranquil lobby, this fellow just stares down at the passing cast of characters, beyond worrying any more about it all. I had to wonder whether he hung there in 1944.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Walking the Presidentials

As you read this, I'll be coming off of the terrain above, having spent four days walking the ridgeline of the Presidential Mountains in New Hampshire. (That's not my pic; I stole it and will post some of my own when I get a chance.)

These are the mountains of my childhood, rugged but low. It's a privilege to be able to come back to them on vacation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rays of effing sunshine: she lives in Kathmandu chronicling climbs and climbers

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An article from Outside Magazine tells the tale of 87 year old Elizabeth Hawley:

...Hawley hasn't climbed a mountain in her life. She has interviewed, documented, and, when necessary, investigated nearly every expedition coming through Kathmandu since the country opened its doors to outsiders in the mid 1950s. She's also acted as an archival historian, collecting trip reports from as far back as 1905.

And that's a volunteer job: she gets paid for some admin work for the foundation started by mountaineer Edmund Hillary, the Himalayan Trust, and writes a few articles.

And she's clearly one awesome, smart, funny and ferocious lady. Go read about her and check out the pictures.

Photo is of Kathmandu street scene, November 2010

I don't want to just gripe here all the time. I do after all, quite frequently, encounter things and people that delight me. Hence this feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine."

Monday, July 25, 2011

An economics designed for class war on most of us

Some self-satisfied twit of an economics professor thinks he understands why old people (65-74) have maintained their share of the employment pie better than younger workers. He celebrates how efficiently market forces have made old people "increasingly willing to work." This leads him to question the social utility of tax credits and unemployment benefits that reduce the human impact of the recession.

It's pretty obvious that the dude is A) young and B) has never worked for a living at anything more arduous than creating equations and boring aspiring academics with Powerpoint presentations.

Here's a reality check: most people are out of the workforce by age 65. Here's the picture:

About 15.5 percent of Americans age 65 and older were still working in 2008, according to recently released data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Most of those [working] seniors (62 percent) have cut back to part-time work. But over a third (38 percent) [of those still working] continue to work 35 hours a week or more during the traditional retirement years.

My emphasis. Folks who are still working at 65 are NOT the norm in their age group. Only a tiny slice of old people are in the job market at all.

So who are this small set of old workers? Our twit points to one set: the desperate.

Many elderly people, for example, saw the market values of their homes and retirement assets plummet in 2008 and feel they can no longer afford to be retired. Naturally, many of them react by looking for work.

How lucky for his beloved (personified) "market" and for employers who can find takers for jobs with short hours, lousy pay, and abusive conditions now that expectations of financial security for ordinary people have collapsed. Those "most interested in working" (according to the twit) turn out to be also people who are most willing to bust butt and lick ass to keep any job, no matter how brutally painful, exploitative or demeaning.

I'll resort an anecdote to describe another kind of old worker. A friend's mother just died in her mid-seventies. Until last year, she'd worked nearly every day of her life including decades for the postal service. For the last few years, she'd had escalating health problems. But she kept delaying retirement. Why? Because she simply had no concept of herself as doing anything except reporting for work each day. Retirement never came; disability finally triumphed, followed by a quick death. The outcome reflected her choices, not market forces. Each of us has to ask ourselves whether a society that teaches old women and men -- teaches all of us -- that we are nothing if we are not working for money is a good one.

The other sort of old worker who carries on well beyond conventional retirement age is the sort whose job is also their creative outlet: think artists, politicians, administrators, judges, college professors ... That is, the kind of people whose employment never causes them to break a sweat and usually offers the chance to feel autonomous, in charge of themselves. Of course these people like to work: it boosts their self-esteem and feeds their souls.

Our twit seems not to have noticed how rare the last class is, presumably because he is comfortably confident he'll be around to join it someday.

Economic writing like this is enough to create sympathy for old-fashioned Bolshevism or Maoism. Profs who propound this twaddle need a stint of forced rehabilitative labor, perhaps a fifteen year sentence to flipping burgers, hand addressing begging letters for charities, or at casual construction or agricultural labor. After that, they might know something.

Photo is of a sign at a demonstration in support of Wisconsin state workers' right to unionize.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rebuild the dream: get together and DO something

Last weekend I attended a Rebuild the Dream housemeeting. Twenty-one neighbors sat around listening to one another and discussing what the heck has gone wrong with our country when Wall Street can implode and put so many out of work with no penalties and no end in sight. It's hard to see that government is even trying.

We were asked to read lists of what others had said were important problems and prioritize what we thought should be worked on. We knew the answer must start with decent jobs for everyone who wants one. We need to fix the tax system: make the people who have a lot of money pay their share toward the well-being of the whole country. And rebuilding is going to require ending endless dumb wars too.

It all looks like a big job. Many people sounded tired and others confused. I was reminded of a comment I'd run across in a similar discussion, that one online, last week. There are good reasons why we haven't hoisted our rulers on pitchforks.

I think the reason ... many of the unemployed appear so composed is the innate sense of threat that looms so large daily; a survival response. Ideally it would be the most appropriate time to mobilize as feelings are strong but in reality, that is not how it plays out. We are all privately unraveling and there is little energy for doing anything but putting out the fires at our feet and trying to deal with the wolf at our door.

To be unemployed right now is to find oneself in a war zone of complexity and threat in unknown terrain. Like in any war, protest is a luxury left to those who are not in the trenches.

If that writer is correct, and I think she is, those of us who have jobs have a lot of work to do for the good of all. Recovering the mere concept of "the good of all" would be a smart place to start.

Rebuild the Dream is trying to bring people together to overcome these kind of feelings of helplessness. I don't know whether this particular organizing effort will work. The project certainly does has all the right endorsers as you can see on their web site.

I do know that the idea is right: this country is in trouble. Organized, demanding people need to come together to put it right. So far, a Democratic President hasn't helped much, while crazy Republicans work daily to make things worse. This job relies on the people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: a cross country flight

This week I experienced something I haven't in many years, if ever. The vagaries of finding the cheapest cross country flight (San Francisco to Boston) available crammed me on a 10-hour daytime ride, with one stop in Dallas, in a window seat. This might have been my definition of hell, but it turned out to be fun. Today's post is the result, captured on my cellphone.

Take off from the Bay Area was lovely.

Climbing toward the mountains, the most obvious features are various bodies of water.

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Could that be Glen Canyon below? I have no idea, but it seems possible.

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Over Texas, I learned there's some kind of agriculture that is likely to inspire belief in crop circles. Perhaps the pattern has to do with irrigation?

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No wonder the plane started bouncing a bit with that thunderhead sticking up below.

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Pretty soon, the clouds resolved themselves into what I thought of as "popcorn over Texas." (There's a lot of Texas.)

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I was surprised by this, evidently human-made, lake near Dallas. I don't think of central Texas as having any water at all. But what do I know?

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Back aloft and flying northeast, there was weather alongside us.

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This classic oxbow river bend was probably in the Mississippi. As we flew east, the particulate matter in the air seemed to thicken and views of the ground became less distinct.

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We landed at Boston at sunset. This was the only cell phone shot that miserably fails to do justice to what the eye could see. The sun appeared huge and orange, not this tiny bright spot. But hey -- they were finally going to let us escape from this plastic tube!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Now we're talking real health care reform ...

That big, complicated, sometimes disappointing, health care law that passed last year was supposed to ensure that insurance covered preventative care. Seems like a no-brainer: insurance companies should pay for the inexpensive measures that keep people well, not just the expensive procedures that follow on serious illness (that is, the stuff that makes hospitals and doctors rich).

The law created an independent expert panel called the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to tell the Department of Health and Human Services what ought to be considered preventative care. And lo and behold, they came up with recommendations that could really make us a healthier (and probably happier) people. Via Feministing, The Hill reports:

The IOM said "the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling" should be covered for "all women with reproductive capacity."

It also recommends coverage for annual HIV tests for sexually active women, annual counseling on other sexually transmitted diseases and — for women older than 30 — testing for the human papillomavirus.

Screenings for domestic violence also should be covered, the IOM said.

This isn't really a new recommendation. According to the International Business Times,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that back in 2001 that about half of the pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. Such pregnancies are associated with an increased risk of morbidity. Also women with an unintended pregnancy may delay prenatal care, which can affect the infant's health, according to the CDC.

With the availability of free birth control, more women will be able to better space out the time between births.

It's going to take guts for the Department of Health and Human Services to implement this recommendation. All the suggestions are for medical measures that fall under the Republican rule about sex: if it has unfortunate consequences, people who do what comes naturally should "Just Die."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Voters just want self-esteem

Want more people to bother to vote? Don't exhort them. Instead, offer them a positive identity. That's the finding of a recent psych experiment.

One group was asked questions like: "How important is it to you to be a voter?" while the other was asked: "How important is it to you to vote?"

Going through public records after Election Day, [Stanford researcher Christopher] Bryan was able to figure out which of the participants in the experiment actually voted. The results showed that people whose surveys referred to "being a voter" were more likely to go to the polls than people whose surveys referred to "voting."

"It seems that in almost every election cycle, you hear about how winning and losing comes down to which side can get more of its supporters to the polls, especially in close contests," Bryan said.

The research found a 13 percent increase in turnout among the group surveyed as "voters."

This accords completely with what I teach organizers about practical campaigning. Unlike almost any other form of political agitation, taking part in elections runs along with the mainstream of the country's ideal image of itself. We're all supposed to be citizens; we feel good about ourselves when we participate in civic rituals. Most people want to take on the self-image of good citizens. You can give them the gift of seeing themselves as "voters" by the way you talk with them.

Of course in the real world, campaigns have sides: the voters you want to turn out are the voters who will support your candidate or initiative. That comes down to targeting: talking with the appropriate people who will vote your way. But once you have picked out such a list, part of your job is the pleasant task of making them feel good about themselves.

On the road in the great state of Maine


For the next few days I'll be in Maine, visiting family. It was nice to see that some people in Portland have some issues with their new Tea Party governor, Paul LePage. He was elected when four other candidates split the vote, hence the claim that "61 percent" voted for someone else.

LePage swims in controversy. Since he has an adopted Black son from Jamaica, he figured he was in the clear to tell the NAACP to go "kiss my butt." On taking over, he ordered removal of murals depicting labor history scenes on grounds they were unfair to business -- removal from the state Department of Labor. Just this week he threw down with Governor Rick Perry's call for a national day of prayer and repentance despite objections from advocates of the separation of church and state.

It looks as if getting LePage is not enough to drive Mainers to require a majority vote for Governor. LePage isn't the first elected with such a relatively small percentage of the vote -- in fact, his Democratic predecessor in the job also didn't manage 50 percent, though he exceed this guy's total by a lot at 48 percent. A constitutional amendment to require a run off if no candidate exceeded a 50 percent threshold failed in the state legislature this spring.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: who are the climate change deniers?

Because I do politics, not science, my first thought on observing resistance to the findings of climate science is to ask "who benefits?" The evidence for global warming seems overwhelming and increasingly is presented in ways non-scientists can understand. So who are the deniers, who pays for their continual sniping at legitimate science, and what motivates them?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, a couple of historians of science, answer these questions and more in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Their answer turns out to be pretty simple: a little coterie of cranky Cold Warriors, funded by industries and right wingers, are afraid that climate science will undermine their idol: unfettered free market capitalism. So they have been willing to scheme, to lie, and to smear in the interest of undercutting the legitimacy of all science. The only thing surprising about the tale is that these people were once legitimate scientists themselves, though not in fields relevant to those they target.

Here's the authors' summary:

In case after case, Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and a handful of other scientists joined forces with think tanks and private corporations to challenge scientific evidence on a host of contemporary issues. In the early years, much of the money for this effort came from the tobacco industry; in later years, it came from foundations, think tanks, and the fossil fuel industry. They claimed the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. They insisted that scientists were mistaken about the risks and limitations of SDI [Reagan's Star Wars anti-missile boondoggle]. They argued that acid rain was caused by volcanoes, and so was the ozone hole. They charged that the Environmental Protection Agency had rigged the science surrounding secondhand smoke.

Most recently--over the course of nearly two decades and against the face of mounting evidence--they dismissed the reality of global warming. First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn't matter because we could just adapt to it. In case after case, they steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed.

A handful of men would have had no impact if no one paid any attention, but people did pay attention. By virtue of their earlier work in the Cold War weapons programs, these men were well-known and highly respected in Washington, D.C., and had access to power all the way to the White House. ...

It wasn't just the Bush administration that took these claims seriously; the mass media did, too. Respected media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and many others repeated these claims as if they were a "side" in a scientific debate. Then the claims were repeated again and again and again--as in an echo chamber--by a wide range of people involved in public debate, from bloggers to members of the U.S. Senate, and even by the president and the vice president of the United States. In all of this, journalists and the public never understood that these were not scientific debates--taking place in the halls of science among active scientific researchers--but misinformation, part of a larger pattern that began with tobacco.

Oreskes and Conway document this process exhaustively. It's depressing; several generations of scientists have seen their conclusions challenged and distorted for reasons that have their origin not in the truth of their work, but because some powerful interest might have to sacrifice some profits for the common good.

What struck me about this book was the extent to which Oreskes and Conway had to explain over and over how science actually works. For a people who benefit everyday from antibiotics and the internet, we are frequently pretty oblivious to the system of knowledge that underlies our civilization. So we get reiterated elementary lessons here:

While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. It is about claims that can be, and have been, tested through scientific research--experiments, experience, and observation--research that is then subject to critical review by a jury of scientific peers. Claims that have not gone through that process--or have gone through it and failed--are not scientific, and do not deserve equal time in a scientific debate.

Industry doubt-mongering worked in part because most of us don't really understand what it means to say something is a cause. We think it means that if A causes B, then if you do A, you will get B. If smoking causes cancer, then if you smoke, you will get cancer. But life is more complicated than that. In science, something can be a statistical cause, in the sense that that if you smoke, you are much more likely to get cancer. Something can also be a cause in the everyday sense of being an occasion for something--as in "the cause of the quarrel was jealousy." Jealousy does not always cause quarrels, but it very often does. Smoking does not kill everyone who smokes, but it does kill about half of them.
Doubt-mongering also works because we think science is about facts--cold, hard, definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means that the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery. Scientists do not sit still once a question is answered; they immediately formulate the next one. If you ask them what they are doing, they wont tell you about the work they finished last week or last year, and certainly not what they did last decade. They will tell you about the new and uncertain things they are working on now. ... Doubt is crucial to science--in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism. It drives science forward--but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved.
Scientists are confident they know bad science when they see it. It's science that is obviously fraudulent--when data have been invented, fudged, or manipulated. Bad science is where data have been cherry-picked--when some data have been deliberately left out--or it's impossible for the reader to understand the steps that were taken to produce or analyze the data. It is a set of claims that can't be tested, claims that are based on samples that are too small, and claims that don't follow from the evidence provided. And science is bad--or at least weak--when proponents of a position jump to conclusions on insufficient or inconsistent data.
Oreskes and Conway conclude by calling for all of us to take responsibility for affirming enough scientific knowledge to get human beings on track to deal with the manifold damage our unsustainable release of carbon energy is inflicting on the planet, our island home. This isn't easy; there are loud, annoying and quite vicious opponents out there.

At a recent conference, a colleague told one of us that in IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] discussions, some scientists have been reluctant to make strong claims about the scientific evidence, lest contrarians "attack us." Another said that she'd rather err on the side of conservatism in her estimates, because then she feels more "secure." ....Intimidation works.

Perhaps the most forgivable reason why scientists have not gotten more involved is because they love science, and believe that truth wins out in the end. It is their job--their singular job--to figure out what that truth is. Someone else can best popularize it. Someone else can better communicate it. And if there's garbage being promoted somewhere, someone else can deal with it. ... Unfortunately, garbage doesn't just go away. Someone has to deal with it, and that someone is all of us: journalists who report scientific findings, specialist professional bodies who represent the scientific fields, and all of us as citizens.

My emphasis. We really have no choice. Scientists have made the survival of contemporary civilized life possible. We have to listen to them when they do science.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is the internet changing your brain?

The shelves are multiplying in the lobby at my branch library. First there was a small bookcase in one corner. Then the shelves were extended along the wall. Now, rolling carts have occupied much of the floor space.

Why? Because the way many of us use the library has changed. Instead of consulting a catalog at the branch, whether in wooden drawers or at a computer, we select our books from the online catalog at home and put in an automated request. If the book is anywhere in the library system, they get it and deliver it to the local branch. The person making a request gets an email and the book goes on the lobby shelves awaiting pickup. You have 10 days to go get it.

"We can barely find enough space for all the requests," says the librarian at the desk

Aside from young people studying after school and homeless/poor people using the computers, the great hall where the permanent collection lives is no longer the central focus of the building. I haven't been up there in years. I haven't browsed the stacks in years.

Does this new way of "doing library" change my interaction with books? I don't know; I do know I like the convenience.
Dr. Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University says that the internet is changing how we use our capacity to remember things. Google has won. We count on it and adjust how we interact with information accordingly.

Sparrow devised experiments to test whether the expectation of internet access changed what we remembered. It did.

The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. “Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write.

A second experiment was aimed at determining whether computer accessibility affects precisely what we remember. “If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example,” the researchers wrote, “do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?”

In [another] case, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. The researchers were surprised to find that people seemed better able to recall the folder.

“That kind of blew my mind,” Dr. Sparrow said in an interview.

She concluded:

...“Human memory,” she said, “is adapting to new communications technology.”

I have no doubt she's right. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Obviously many of us would be in deep doo-doo if we tried to perform some data-intensive task without internet access. But does this adaptation change or impair our experience of things that require something other than the internet -- such as trail running or listening to a familiar piece of music? The Tubes may make these pleasure easier to access (through route-finding or downloading), but the pleasure still resides elsewhere. The same goes for pains -- suppose I sprain my ankle on that trail. I still need to stagger home and in time do my physical therapy exercises, even if I can look up the condition online.

There are still physical limits to the alterations our technology can lead us into -- but for how long? I do wonder.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Responsibility meets conviction, births used dishwater

The shenanigans in Washington drag on. They look likely to both crash the economy again and deprive government of more of its capacity to promote the general welfare. Nobody is talking about what most everyone actually wants: jobs.

In this sad moment, George Packer has managed to say something meaningful:

The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism.

Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad. ...

What does either side have to offer the tens of millions of Americans who have settled into a semi-permanent state of economic depression? Virtually nothing. ...

Huge, powerful countries can collapse when they rot from within. We've seen this in our lifetime. Must we live it here?

How to save Social Security and Medicare

To my boomer age group and my elders: if you want to keep your Social Security and Medicare, get on board with sensible immigration reform. Making it easier for eager workers -- highly skilled most obviously, but also lower-skilled -- to enter the U.S. legally would be in the best interests of the aging population. The welfare state works best when the economy is growing. Only when we lose our spunk and can-do spirit, when we accept decline as the new normal, does it begin to look impossible to sustain our benefits.

This country's prosperity has long been built on a great sucking sound: we've long attracted people with gumption, entrepreneurial spirit, and sheer willingness to work for a better future from all over the world. And that's great, because oftentimes those of us who've been here awhile need their energy.

Right now, old people (over 65) are about 12.5 percent of the population; in 2050 (when I don't expect to be around) elders will be 20 percent. It will be immigrant workers, a first generation in this country busting their butts to give their kids a chance, who are going to take care of all those old people. They'll be the folks paying taxes and FICA -- we need them.

You don't have to believe me about this. Listen to Fareed Zakaria, a journalist, editor at large at Time magazine, and a citizen-immigrant himself.

I think there is a certain kind of closing of the American spirit. And here's the tragedy, if you look at one of the absolute crucial strengths the United States has going forward, it is immigration. Why do I say that? If you look at every industrialized country in the world, we all have the same problems. We've got a welfare state. We've got too many people who are going to get old. We have health care costs rising. And, you know, those are things you can fix. They're difficult, but you can fix them. The one thing you cannot fix, you cannot change really is demographics. Every rich country in the world is going to have fewer and fewer people.

The problem that Japan has, which is so much part of its 20-year decline, is that it is simply losing people. Italy will be next. Germany will be after that. One big exception: the United States. We are the only industrialized country in the world, the only rich country that will actually gain in people. By 2050 the United States will have 400 million people, which is why you talk to any CEO who understands these trends and they will tell you America remains a powerful, powerful economic dynamo because it's going to have more young workers who are entrepreneurs, inventors, producers and taxpayers. So that means that the United States is going to be vibrant economically, demographically - and this is all because of immigration.

The only difference between us and all these other rich countries is that we take in, legally, every year, more people than the rest of the world put together. And this is our extraordinary advantage. We take them in. We assimilate them. We know how to do it. We're the envy of the world with regard to this stuff, and yet, what we are doing is we are now trying to copy the immigration practices of France and Germany, which have utterly failed to assimilate their populations. We are adopting this churlish, hostile attitude towards immigrants.

Fresh Air, 6/30/11

Zakaria is unafraid; he looks at the genius of his new country and sees successful generosity. What's the matter with so many of us, especially older people?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why some people hate Darwin

Mark Sumner writes on the front page at Daily Kos, the contentious, fractious and occasionally illuminating site for progressive Democratic Party bloggers. But this is a guy who, long before jumping into that mosh pit, wrote 32 books mostly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. He's thoughtful himself and he induces thinking.

His The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, is a non-fiction exposition of how the mechanisms of evolution which Darwin described have analogies throughout societies.

According to Sumner, Darwin was an egalitarian revolutionary.

Darwin's ideas were dangerous. They were dangerous not just to those who counted on a rigid understanding of theology to give them purpose, but dangerous to the whole social order. It wasn't that Darwin's ideas promised to drive mankind along a path toward some dystopian ideal -- it was that he threatened to topple the social pyramid. Darwin revealed that the emperor was indeed just as naked as the rest of us apes. His ideas run counter to philosophies that predate Plato and traditions older than the Christian church. His ideas were, and are, the greatest threat to the system since a Jewish healer and rabbi preached an upending of the social order in first-century Palestine. Members of the aristocracy of Darwin's day -- and of ours -- were aghast at his ideas not because he left out God, but because he left out them.

He describes Herbert Spencer's corruption of how evolution works -- the caricature encapsulated in the muscularly imperialist phrase "survival of the fittest" -- as the ruling elite's riposte to Darwin's democratic insight:

In a neat example of literary adaptation, [Herbert] Spencer took Darwin's terminology, made it his own, and then proceeded to ignore the actual ideas at the heart of Darwin's work. Spencer's editing of Darwin turned evolution into a mishmash of Lamarckian mechanisms and natural selection catch phrases. Accuracy gave way to popularity and the perpetuation of classism and racism. ...

But you can't shake an idea that clicks. Spencer's theory was much more palatable for those who were used to the Great Chain of Being. It retained the order, the drive, and the neat location of man on top and apart from the "lower" animals. Darwin's views on natural selection proved right; Spencer's ideas on Lamarckian inheritance proved wrong. But you wouldn't know it from the influence each man had on society. ...

Spencer's ideas stick because they fit the built-in prejudices and concerns that the well off have always had about immigrants and the poor. In his writing, he managed to invent Social Darwinism before there was such a thing as Darwinism, so it seems only appropriate that among Spencer's followers was The Time Machine author, H. G. Wells. Wells based his vision of future society on Spencer's work: the childlike Eloi and the trollish Morlocks were the end results of Spencer's division of labor driving humanity into separate species.

I can't claim Sumner's little book on evolution entirely worked for me. Some of his contemporary social analogies to Darwinian processes seem a stretch, even if happy ones. Here's an example of one that works -- one I think plausible, though audacious.

Wal-Mart itself is undergoing a kind of phyletic gradualism, growing from merely Brobdingnagian to an absolutely Galacticusian scale. Maybe that change will serve to keep the giant ahead of the circling Davids, but I wouldn't place a bet on it. Over the long term, evolution is particularly unkind to giants. Only 27 years after their discovery, someone ate the last Steller's sea cow. No matter how powerful it appears at the moment, it would be risky to bet that any retail giant would survive much longer. ...

I like the idea, but millions of thoughtful people who have staked their thoughts and even their lives on the inability of sclerotic regimes to adapt have been dumbfounded by the flexibility of apparent dinosaurs. But then, sometimes they do disintegrate.

This book is great fun, even if every line of it doesn't entirely hold up. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: Crater Lake, Oregon

Just a few shots from the snowy National Park taken last month. If the small slide show doesn't work, try this.

Today I had expected to be in Yosemite National Park at Tuolumne Meadows, but the residue of the season's long winter intervened. The leach fields around the tent cabins where we stay are still so saturated from by snow melt run off, that the area remains closed.

It could be worse. One of these days a heavy Sierra snow pack is going to melt quickly in the spring and inundate Sacramento.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

People will migrate if survival depends on it

As the NATO/US Libyan adventure goes sour, with charges of rebel responsibility for civilian casualties, I want to return to something I've written about before: for European nations, the problematic Libyan war aims to create a bulwark state that will inhibit the flow of climate change refugees from Africa to their continent.

The current drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya provides a preview of the migration that increasing desertification caused by human-induced warming is likely to set off. This is only the beginning. Here's al Jazeera's report.

Meanwhile, people suffer and aid agencies are doing what they can. Here's Oxfam America's drought appeal.

H/t International Relations.

Unhappy and mean

This local urban street art feels appropriate to this summer of discontent and general meanness. Knowing the neighborhood, I do not doubt that people do sometimes involuntarily sleep in that doorway.

Meanwhile our overlords in Washington play politics with the U.S. economy. Some Republicans are willing to crash the whole thing for short term political gain. Our purported Democratic defenders of government for the general welfare seem mesmerized by the prospect of appearing statesmanlike by giving away the fruit of a century of people's struggle for social equity.

Like the idiotic wars of choice of the '00s, this crazed and self-defeating behavior seems incomprehensible to a mere citizen. Perhaps a people who have enjoyed the security of living for half a century in a unchallenged world-dominating power are driven slightly mad when that power ebbs.

Madness in the powerful is dangerous to us and to the world. It's a mean season.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Democracy, Brit style

As Josh Marshall at TPM points out, you have to appreciate "the weird mix of high dudgeon and understatement that is the hallmark of British public politics" to properly enjoy this. But enjoy it you will, for about 11 minutes. (Some of the tangled background here.)

The Murdoch media scandal they are chewing over of course has implications for this side of the Atlantic. The bullying billionaire rightwinger owns the Fox media empire as well as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Harper Collins publishing. Every British politician of all parties for the last generation has had to come to some kind of accommodation with Murdoch's thuggish outlets, as ours do with Fox.

People familiar with the debates in the British House of Commons often mourn that few of our politicians could survive if this kind of unscripted verbal fluency were required of them. On the other hand, their pols are seldom nearly so practiced at glad-handing folks at church picnics. Different skills for different continents.

Warming Wednesdays: human inventiveness makes optimism possible

Andrew Revkin writes the Dot Earth blog tracking climate change and our responses for the New York Times. He's a charming, cheerful guy ...

Engagement ... is step one ... we have a stunning capacity to dis-invent and invent resources ...we can surprise ourselves.

we have been in a bi-partisan slumber party for decades ... if we get that back into gear, then I have a lot of confidence ...

Watch this. It will do your heart good. Then remember that to be human is to be an animal that makes its destiny. We can confront the challenges of the Anthropocene, if we dare to engage.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Morning rant

The social safety net is not Barack Obama's to give away.

There's a 14 minute video of Larry O'Donnell (who is a blond MSNBC talking head, if like me, you don't follow these guys) that several progressive sites have posted in the last 24 hours praising President Obama's strategy in the debt ceiling talks with the Republicans. The current top diary at Daily Kos gushes over it. I'm not going to give it any more circulation, but here's a sample of what folks are so excited about:

What you are now witnessing is the most masterful rope-a-dope ever performed by a president against an opposition party in Congress. It began months ago... Biden and House Democrats ... rope-a-doped the Republicans into weeks of discussions over trillions of dollars of spending cuts. And during that time, Democrats appeared to be increasingly willing to go along with trillions of dollars of spending cuts -- possibly as much as three trillion. Then Biden and the President insisted that there be at least a trillion in tax revenue increases and Republican Eric Cantor fell for the Obama ultimatum and walked out of the talks doing exactly what the President wanted him to do because Cantor was thereby proving to the country once again that President Obama was willing to be much more flexible and reasonable in these negotiations and compromises with Republicans than Republicans were willing to be with the President. Specific policy issues aside, President Obama has already won the public contest of who appears to be more reasonable and he won that weeks ago.

I watched the whole thing. O'Donnell makes not one mention of what the proposed cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would do the the millions of people who need those programs. Who cares? Obama's fancy footwork is all that counts in Partisan Pundit World.

Now I don't know how all this is going to come out. But unlike either Larry O'Donnell or politicians in Washington, most of us live in the real world where government programs make the difference between a modest life, anxiety and misery, and sometimes death. The so-called "entitlements," the modest government insurance programs that ensure care for the disabled and a decent old age, came into being as the product of decades of struggle by people who came before us and sacrificed to make this a more equal, more equitable country.

Barack Obama has no right to play games with the security of millions so he gets another round in that lovely Washington mansion.

When you boil these thing down, there are two possible core messages for high profile candidates running for office. You can inspire hope -- that was Obama's pitch in 2008 and the nation believed him. Or you can inspire fear of the other guys -- that's the pitch that the "rope-a-dope" Larry O'Donnell and fans think is so awesome: Republicans are crazy nuts -- vote for the grown-up.

The fear pitch leads to weak victories. You don't win office because anyone likes or trusts you; you don't have any real friends; you're just the "least worst" option in the words of some first graders I respect. In California we have lived through a nasty illustration of how damaged such lesser evil elections can leave an incumbent: Democratic Governor Gray Davis never in a long career managed to make a case for himself as anything but the lesser evil -- but hey, he got to be governor twice. That is, until a cartoon character named Schwarzenegger came along and easily knocked him off in a recall. It turned out that when push came to shove, Gray had no real friends.

Given the lunacy of the Republicans, Obama's "last responsible man" strategy might even work. But if he trades away the accomplishments of decades of Democratic politicians to win an election after which he confronts a hostile Congress without a friend in the world, will most people in this country be better off? It becomes harder and harder to answer that question.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Remembering the 1990s Bosnian massacres

Vermonters fill cups with coffee in artist Aida Sehovic's project “Sto te nema” which translates as “where are you?” in memory of more then 8,000 killed in Srebrenica. In this video, her father remembers. "You watch people killed on TV and you change the channel. You don't know til they come to your door ..."

Produced by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for the Burlington Free Press.

Your blogger is pooped

Blogging will be scant today. I need to recover from and digest an intensive weekend retreat focusing on what people can do within the real life context of our divided and anxious country to reduce militarism and our rulers' enthusiasms for wars without end.

A highlight was Hany Khalil's report on his recent visit to Egypt to visit family and see firsthand where the Egyptian revolution for democracy was trending. As soon as we can get it, his multimedia presentation will be posted in full at WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras.

One of the topics of the retreat was why the once seemingly bright prospects of the Obama administration seem to have dissolved for many people, leaving cynicism, demobilization and even despair. On this topic, the morning's New York Times brings some insights within an interview reporter Joe Nocera conducted with the outgoing head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair. Here's a tidbit to tease the piece; go read the whole thing.

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me. “I absolutely do. But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing — I think those are two very different things.” What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks. But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

1000 too many

U.S. deaths in Afghanistan under President Obama hit 1000 on July 7 according to iCasualties. That's nearly twice as many under the new guy as under the old guy, a toll reached in less than half as many years years of war. Neither Bush now Obama has been able to lay out a plausible explanation for the seemingly endless war.

After the initial assault that drove al Qaida to Pakistan and the Taliban rulers from power, it has never been clear what U.S. troops were supposed to accomplish. Were they hunting down terrorists (but the bad guys had decamped) or propping up a government (the one in Kabul seldom seemed to control little more than the capital, if that) or installing good governance (Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world) or training a local army (after nearly ten years the Afghan army has only 600 soldiers thought ready to fight)? Who knows? All the war has been good for has been killing Afghans, U.S. soldiers, and allied NATO troops. Oh, any enriching military contracting companies.

The Obama administration is dragging its heals about getting out. They clearly know and intend that the U.S. will leave. But they proceed by baby steps.

While the Administration has publicly conceded that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, and claimed that it supports 'Afghan-led reconciliation', its policy on the ground is marked by a refusal to establish a timetable for full military withdrawal.

Just Foreign Policy

There is no reason for more killing in Afghanistan by our troops and no reason to continue to waste the lives of our forces. That unfortunate country needs to heal itself and run its own affairs. Enough is enough.