Sunday, May 30, 2010

Technological leadership

The above video is in Mandarin Chinese, but this website describes what's going on. It's a technological innovation allowing passengers to get on and off a high-speed bullet train, without the train ever stopping. Neat, huh?

Arriving passengers board that connector cabin before the bullet train arrives. Then, when the train zooms through the station, it picks up the cabin (which slides along the roof of the train) while simultaneously dropping off a similar cabin containing departing passengers. Passengers move between the cabin and the train, through the roof of the train, while the train is speeding between stations.

This is really cool, but it's happening in China, not the U.S.  Don't get me wrong, it's great that technology is advancing worldwide. But it's China that seems to be taking the lead on all of this stuff these days, and as an American, I'm jealous. Also, China is a dictatorship, with no respect for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or any rights of minorities. That may change someday, but until it does, they're certainly not suited to lead the world.

But while we Americans are timidly refusing to move into the 21st Century, China is spending billions on alternate energy research, determined to control the market for advanced technology and lessen their reliance on foreign oil. While we're struggling to fill potholes because of our never-ending quest for lower taxes, China is building futuristic bullet trains. While many American cities have high school graduation rates below 50%, China has 6 million university students and almost 400 million Internet users (more than the entire population of the U.S.).

In America, politicians proudly proclaim their disbelief in evolution, and school boards work to replace science with religion. Republican leaders complain about studying fruit flies (in complete ignorance of how useful that's been to basic research) and even about monitoring volcanoes. They eagerly proclaim that global warming is just a scam, some massive conspiracy (for no logical reason) from climatologists. They leap to fund abstinence-only sex education, which doesn't work, but use political tricks to stop funding for basic scientific research, which does.

In the media, scientists are portrayed either as laughably-inept geeks or madmen eager to "play God." The hero's gut feeling is always right, not the hard work of professional scientists. In a nation which has led the world in science and technology (to our immense prosperity), only military research now gets any respect at all. At the end of World War II, the G.I. Bill led to the best-educated labor force in the world. Now, education is for "liberal elites." Regular Joes just want lower taxes for the rich, like God intended.

It's not just that China is taking the technological lead from America, but that we seem to be eager to abandon it to them. We're not even interested in competing. No, we've unilaterally surrendered. In the most advanced nation on Earth, we no longer seem to see any value in science and technology. If we just pray often enough, we'll get all that we want, right? And whatever happens, God must have wanted it that way. Meanwhile, it's TV celebrities and sports stars who are the real heroes, and what did book-larnin' ever do for them?

OK, there are still a few people in America who think science is important and who aren't threatened by higher education, but it seems to be an increasingly small minority. And many of those are children of immigrants, whose parents - unlike native-born Americans - still see a value in such things. Unfortunately, with the current anti-immigrant fervor, I wonder if we're moving towards shutting down even that source of skilled people.

Well, to show that all is not lost, here's another great video, this one from the Computational Learning and Motor Control Lab at the University of Southern California:

Obviously, we're still doing neat stuff in America (actually, in collaboration with scientists around the world, which is how science should be done.) But although it's cool, it's not nearly as bold as going to the Moon, or even building bullet trains. We apparently don't have the money or even the will for bold efforts these days. And research into robots has military applications (both of these were funded by DARPA), which is probably why we do it. Just as prisons now seem to be the only civilian growth industry in America, so too does the military seem to be the only ready source of research money, at least for cutting edge technology.

But come on! Do Republicans really think we can continue to have the most advanced military in the world if we're passed up in civilian science and technology? Military power is based on economic power. Without a highly-educated workforce, high-tech industries, and heavy research into basic science, we'll eventually be forced to buy weapons from other countries - when they're willing to sell them (i.e. probably not while they're still cutting-edge).

I don't want to give the wrong impression here. I want to be absolutely clear that we can compete with China. As I say, I get the feeling that a lot of Americans have already just given up (those who can be bothered to think about this at all). Remember in the 1980's when Japan was the unstoppable economic juggernaut? America just could not compete, so why even try? Except that we could, and we did.

It's the same way now. I've seen us taking the wrong path for decades now, but it doesn't have to be that way. Although we've gotten a terrible start to the 21st Century, suffering for eight years under the worst presidential administration in U.S. history, we're still the high-tech leader of the world, we've still got the world's most powerful economy, and we've still got a diverse society united in a tradition of innovation and risk-taking, with personal freedom that's essential for a unfettered marketplace of ideas.

If every nation on Earth were free and democratic (majority rules/minority rights: two sides of the same coin), I suppose it wouldn't matter much which nation led the world in science and technology. But right now, it does. And if we continue as we are now, as we have been for some time, we won't lead anyone much longer.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Here's Ed Stein's commentary on this cartoon:
What’s coming increasingly clear as the Gulf of Mexico turns black, is that the Bush administration’s coziness with the oil industry was worse than incompetent–it was criminal. The Minerals Management Service, already notorious for being in bed  (literally, in some cases) with the industries it supposedly regulates, handed out drilling permits and environmental waivers like candy, in violation of its own rules and environmental law, often against the advice of its own geologists and biologists. Interior Secretary Salazar supposedly drained that swamp, but it turns out that the Obama administration either underestimated or ignored the degree of corruption, and many of their worst practices have continued. The inevitable result of all this hanky-panky is the worst oil spill and quite possibly the worst man-made environmental disaster in history. Funny, I don’t hear anybody chanting “Drill baby drill” anymore.

But you know, he's dreaming if he thinks we won't be hearing "drill, baby, drill" again soon enough, just as soon as this disaster has passed from the public consciousness (given our embarrassingly short memories, I give it a year, tops). And I don't see too many signs that this has given a boost to energy reform legislation - cap-and-trade, alternate energy, conservation - either.

Speaking of the latter, I've heard absolutely no talk about lowering speed limits. And it isn't as though there aren't other benefits to that, in addition to conserving energy. Here's how Eric A. Morris at Freakonomics puts it:

According to a recent paper by Lee S. Friedman, Donald Hedeker, and Elihu D. Richter, the lifting of the federal 55 mph speed limit in 1995 was responsible for 12,545 deaths between 1995 and 2005. That’s about 45 percent more American fatalities than we have suffered in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan put together. And all those human tragedies are due not to weighty national security imperatives but to the fact that we all want to go just a little bit faster.

I might point out Al Gore's commentary in The New Republic, too:

The continuing undersea gusher of oil 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana is not the only source of dangerous uncontrolled pollution spewing into the environment. Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day—and there are over 1,400 of them.

Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours. Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, "Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life."

The problem is exactly that nothing has changed. Nothing changed after the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973. Nothing changed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Nothing changed after the 9/11 attacks. We've seen, repeatedly, for decades, that change is desperately needed, but we can't seem to muster the political will to do anything.

This is not just about the political power of big corporations, and in particular the oil and gas industry. It's not just about being greedy and gullible, willing to elect politicians who'll tell us whatever we want to hear and willing to let our descendants pay for our foolishness. It's not just about irrational, short-sighted, ignorant non-thinking. It's about all of these coming together to paralyze America and stop us from changing course before even worse disasters strike.

It might be different if we were destroying our planet to buy time, but we're not. We're doing nothing. We're wasting that time. I guess we're all hoping to die before things get really bad. Our kids? Who cares? What have they ever done for us?

Or are we even that smart? Maybe we're just too dumb to notice - and too apathetic to care if we did.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Republicans, meet the 21st Century

Yesterday, I wondered why Republicans have failed to offer any ideas of their own. Is it because all of their ideas had been thoroughly discredited during the Bush years? Or is it just because their ideas are too loony to stand the light of day?

Well, apparently the GOP has a glorious new plan to fix all that. They've set up a new website to collect ideas from the public. Unfortunately, Republicans don't seem to know the public all that well. According to this column in The Washington Post (registration required, though it's free), many of the suggestions offered so far are "pretty far out."

"End Child Labor Laws," suggests one helpful participant. "We coddle children too much. They need to spend their youth in the factories."

"How about if Congress actually do thier job and VET or Usurper in Chief, Obama is NOT a Natural Born Citizen in any way," recommends another. "That fake so called birth certificate is useless."

"A 'teacher' told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!" a third complains. "And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story."

To me, the really funny thing is that it's hard to tell which suggestions are meant seriously and which are sarcastic jokes. After all, if you listen to tea-baggers, you have to wonder if some of those people are just putting us on. Are they really that crazy, or are they just pretending to be crazy in order to pull off some elaborate prank? It's really hard to tell.

"Build a castle-style wall along the border, there is plenty of stone laying around about there." That was in the "national security" section of the new site.

"Legalize Marijuana, cause, like, alcohol is legal. Man. Also." That was in the "traditional values" section.

"I say, repeal all the amendments to the Constitution." ("American prosperity" section.)

"Don't let the illegals run out of Arizona and hide. . . . I think that we should do something to identify them in case they try to come back over. Like maybe tattoo a big scarlet 'I' on their chests -- for 'illegal'!!!" (Filed under "job creation.")

The GOP using the Internet always seems bizarre, anyway. How can you effectively use 21st Century technology when it's the 13th Century you yearn for? Isn't a certain amount of cognitive dissonance inevitable?

Obviously, anyone would expect a certain number of prank postings. There were certainly plenty on Barack Obama websites. But it's far worse for Republicans, because their real supporters are at least as likely to post crazy stuff as any amateur humorist.

Can you really tell which of these were meant seriously and which were not? OK, some of them, yes. But certainly not all, maybe not even most. And what happens if the GOP dismisses some seriously meant lunacy from the tea-baggers? After all, you really can't be too extreme for the right-wing these days. Moderation is fatal.

When you can't tell your own supporters from gag posters, I'd say that means you need some new supporters. But maybe that's just me.

"Let kids vote!" recommended one. "Let's make a 'Social Security Lotto,' " proposed another. "What dope came up with the idea of criminalizing a parent's right to administer corporal punishment?" a third demanded.

Some contributors demanded action to uncover conspiracies involving the 9/11 attacks and the "NEW WORLD ORDER." One forward thinker recommended that we "build the city of the future somewhere in a non-inhabit part of the United States, preferably the desert."

Some of the uglier forces of the Internet found their way to the House Republican site. "I oppose the Hispanicization of America," said one. "These are not patriotic people." Another contributor had parody in mind (we hope): "English is are official langauge. Anybody who ain't speak it the RIGHT way should kicked out."

But Republicans might want to take a hard look at the suggestion that "we need to reframe the discussion" about the BP oil spill to counteract the "environmental whackos" worried about wildlife. Republicans, this person proposed, should argue that "BP is creating a new race of faster dolphins. These fish are unable to compete against the fish of other countries, but now their increased lubrication will allow them to fly through the water. Faster fish = good."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Artificial butterfly

That's an artificial butterfly, developed from thin polymer film and balsa wood and powered by a coiled rubber band. Scientists built it "to investigate basic questions about flight that they couldn’t study in live butterflies."

Neat, huh? The article is here. And the very brief video (14 seconds long) below shows the butterfly in flight:

Skepticism - science, politics, investing

In my previous post, I stated my strong conviction that it's important to know why we believe what we do, and to recognize what evidence we'd need to convince us that we're wrong. I think about this a great deal, because I know I'm not infallible. I can be wrong. And so I try to examine my firmest beliefs most skeptically, so that I'm clear in my own mind why I still think they're correct.

One book which has been a big help with this is Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991). Although he shows examples, this isn't about what we know that isn't so, but about how and why we think so. He compares these "cognitive illusions" to optical illusions. Just as optical illusions don't mean that our eyesight is poor, cognitive illusions don't mean that we're stupid. They're just a natural consequence of how our brains are put together. And we are all subject to these kinds of errors.

To a great extent, the scientific method has been developed to compensate for those natural human tendencies. Individual scientists are still human and still prone to such errors (not to mention normal human lapses in ethics and judgment). The scientific method does not stop that (though it does help to minimize the problem). No, instead it's a collaborative effort, always building on previous research, designed so that the majority will weed out errors and determine the truth.

It's not perfect, no doubt, but the scientific method is easily the best way we've ever discovered of separating the truth from wishful thinking. The scientific consensus may be wrong, but that's never the smart way to bet. I'm not a scientist, myself. So, on every scientific issue, I accept - tentatively, as all science is tentative - the consensus of scientists who specialize in that particular field.

Global warming, evolution, the effect of vaccines, the age of the Earth, homeopathy - all of these are questions of science, and all are best answered by scientists following the scientific method. Therefore, I accept the scientific consensus on all of them. (Really, with these issues, it's not even close. The consensus is overwhelming.)

It's harder with political issues, at least when those issues aren't scientific in nature. After all, we all tend to agree with "our side" in such things, and it's very easy to dismiss arguments by our opponents. But our society is based on the marketplace of ideas, that the majority will ultimately pick the best ideas if we can hear and debate them all. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion - all are part of that.

As a skeptic, I try very hard to listen to what my political opponents have to say. After all, rational conservatives and rational liberals both have valid points to make. And they're not always - or even usually - diametrically in opposition. Often, it's just a matter of priorities, of disagreement on which of two valid points is most important. And compromise can often take both points of view into account, with neither side getting everything they wanted, perhaps, but both seeing progress.

That's why the Republican Party infuriates me so much these days. Currently, the GOP seems to be all about political tactics, and not about policies or issues at all. They've become the party of the end justifies the means. The "end" is simply political power. And since lying has been a very effective political tactic for them, they lie. Repeatedly.

These days, the GOP refuses to bring anything to the marketplace of ideas - either because they don't have any ideas (or none that weren't thoroughly discredited during the Bush years), or because they're not confident they can win a fair debate. And winning, of course, is everything, so they do whatever it takes to win. It's always about tactics. It's always about strategy. It's never about what's right.

In the marketplace of ideas, you're allowed your own opinions, but not your own facts. If you just invent "facts" to push your argument, that's not just cheating, it completely negates the value of the marketplace. It becomes all about propaganda, and nothing about real ideas.

I suppose this is the influence of Fox "News." As David Frum said recently, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering that we work for Fox." Fox News used to support the Republican Party. Now, however, the Republican Party seems to exist to support Fox. Certainly, no Republican politician dares to buck them.

Likewise, while Rush Limbaugh has always been an extremist, but formerly on the lunatic fringe of the GOP, now he's become a real power in the party. No Republican dares to say anything even slightly critical of Limbaugh, or he's forced to grovel in apology.

Well, it's hard to feel too sorry for them, because the GOP has become trapped by its own cynical strategy. When the Democrats pushed through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed official segregation, Republicans were gleeful. All they needed to do was suck up to white racists and they could take the South (up until then, the most solidly Democratic part of the country). And so they did - and their "Southern Strategy" worked. Now, the South is solidly GOP. Likewise, they decided to "use" religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists of all types. Hey, the end justifies the means, right?

But they did too good a job attracting the nut-cases. Extremists have now taken control of the whole party, and conservative politicians are terrified that they're not conservative enough for their new overlords. The lunatics have taken control of the asylum. Compromising with Democrats is considered treason, moderation is considered heresy, and no one can be too extreme for the tea-baggers who seem to control the GOP. Well, if you're willing to sleep with dogs, you've got to expect fleas.

Both the right and the left have always had their extremists. But the far-left has absolutely no power in the Democratic Party, none whatsoever. Even the mainstream left is disgruntled these days, since the power in the party is so clearly weighted towards the political center. The far-right, too, used to be mostly a fringe in the GOP, but not anymore. These days, they are the GOP. And if you don't like it, you'd better be careful not to say anything. David Frum is probably not the only conservative to lose a lucrative position for being mildly critical of the lunatics.

At any rate, it's hard these days to listen to rational conservatives, because I can't find any. Most of them have traded their principles for political ambition and joined the far-right crazies (John McCain is a prominent example), and the others are keeping their mouths shut about what they really think. Republican leaders aren't debating, they're just calling names. They're just lying. It's all about what works politically - and about keeping Fox "News," Rush Limbaugh, and the tea-baggers happy.

But I could be wrong. Heh, heh. I get pretty worked up by this, don't I? And I really don't think I'm wrong. But as a skeptic, I must keep that possibility in mind. So I do try to find rational conservatives. I read articles critical of Barack Obama and the Democrats (on the left and on the right). If they've got a point, I want to consider it. But these days, it's really not easy. Conservatives preach only to the choir and to the uninformed. They seem to have abandoned rational argument against anyone who know our own history.

My last example for skeptical thinking - at least, that I plan to discuss now - is investing. I don't gamble, because betting when the odds are against you is a sucker's game. I invest, since the odds are in my favor. That doesn't mean I'm guaranteed to win, certainly not. But the longer you invest, the more likely you are to come out ahead. The reverse is true with gambling.

Nevertheless, it's very easy to fool yourself when investing. In particular, it's easy to think that you're a genius when the market is going up. (At those times, everyone is a genius.) And it's very hard to avoid going along with the herd. Even when you know what you should do, it's very hard to actually do it.

I enjoy the strategy of investing. It's fun. I suspect that's not the way to look at it, but does it really hurt to enjoy what you're doing? I would never claim to be a great investor, and I would never recommend that anyone else follow my strategy. But it works for me.

One thing I do recommend, though, is to write down your plan. Why do you think this is the right way to proceed? What do you expect from it? And why have you chosen the particular investments you've picked? Regularly thereafter, you need to examine your short- and long-term results. Did you make the right decisions? Does your plan still make sense? If not, why not?

Note that losing money is not necessarily evidence that your plan was wrong. No one can reliably forecast the future. The best plan in the world might lose money, at least in the short term. But whether your investments have increased or decreased in value, was your thinking sound?

It might seem strange to include investing in a post about skepticism, but I think it fits. Human nature has a great deal to do with investing (almost as much as with gambling). And to invest successfully, I'm convinced that you have to understand why you're doing what you're doing. You need to have good reasons for your actions, good reasons for your beliefs. And you must accept that you could be wrong.

But you also need the courage of your convictions. You're not wrong just because everyone else says that you are. Don't ignore those people. Listen to them. You could indeed be wrong. But then, make up your own mind. That's never easy. We are social animals, and going along with the herd is natural. Many people would rather be wrong with everyone else than right alone.

Be especially skeptical about things that you want to be true. It is very, very easy to believe what we really want to be true. That's true for all of us. So if we care about being right, those are the things that we need to look at most critically. Make sure that your reasons for belief actually make sense. And don't ever stop questioning yourself.

This post has been kind of a mixed bag, hasn't it? Well, it seems to fit together in my mind, if not so well on the screen here. I'm a skeptic. If I had to use a one-word description of myself, that would probably be it. That doesn't mean I disbelieve everything, not at all. But it does mean that I question everything - and that I need good reasons for my beliefs.

Convince me that I'm wrong and I'll change my mind. But don't count on it being easy. I've thought about these things. I have reasons for my beliefs. I've challenged them myself, and I've tried to be critical. More importantly, I've tried to be rational.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What would convince you that you're wrong?

None of us is infallible. We can all be wrong. So it's important that we carefully consider why we believe what we do, and understand what would convince us that we're wrong. After all, if nothing could ever convince you that you're wrong, then it's pretty clear that you're just believing what you want to believe. And why should anyone respect that?

There's nothing wrong with having firm opinions. Clearly, I have firm opinions myself. And really, there's nothing terribly wrong about being mistaken. We'd all like to avoid that, but it happens. We're only human. But you are very definitely at fault if you won't change your mind when the evidence indicates that you should. Being wrong isn't a big problem, but obstinately sticking to a false hypothesis, despite the evidence, is a problem.

I thought about that when reading this article about Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who first suggested a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism. The original research, based on a tiny sample size of only 12 autistic children, was published in a respected, peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, in 1998 - and it was a real bombshell.

And understandably so. Diagnoses of autism in children have been increasing rapidly, and parents were - and are - becoming scared. And since autism is usually diagnosed at about the same age that children get these vaccines, it probably didn't seem unreasonable that there might be a connection between the two. Wakefield's research didn't attempt to show causation, but it was still a hypothesis that needed to be checked out.

Since then, though, 10 of the 13 doctors who worked on the study (Wakefield was the lead author) have renounced its conclusions. The Lancet has retracted the publication and said that it should never have been published. And Wakefield has been found guilty of more than 30 serious ethical lapses and banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

Among the ethical lapses were a couple of instances of serious financial conflict of interest. Wakefield had not disclosed that, two years before the publication of his research, he'd been hired by a lawyer to find that precise vaccine-autism link so the lawyer could file a class-action lawsuit against the vaccine manufacturer. Furthermore, Wakefield had patented his own vaccine, which would be worth a great deal of money if, and only if, the MMR vaccine could be discredited. None of this had been disclosed to The Lancet.

But really, that's not even the worst of it. The final nail in the coffin of Wakefield's hypothesis came when independent researchers were not able to duplicate his findings. Let's face it, scientists are only human. They're subject to all the flaws, failings, and weaknesses of any other human being. So, to be accepted by the scientific community, discoveries must be confirmed by multiple, independent researchers.

That didn't happen here. In fact, subsequent research generally found no link at all between vaccines and autism. Wakefield's claim was completely discredited. You really couldn't ask for a clearer example of the self-correcting power of science.

So that's the end of it, right? Let me quote from the article:

Mark Blaxill, an editor-at-large for the Age of Autism blog and a director of SafeMinds, an organization that investigates the role of mercury in autism, said Wakefield will continue to have his support, as well as the support of others who seek "safe" vaccines for children.

"It's a bad thing happening to a good man," Blaxill, who has an autistic daughter, told AOL Health Monday. "The charges are untrue and the so-called court was a travesty of justice. This was a political trial and [Wakefield] is being made a victim of the policy of the U.K. government and the pharmaceutical industry. This is a victory for industry and not for our children." ...

"When I look and listen to Andy Wakefield and I look and listen to opponents, there's really no contest as to who is the most credible," Blaxill said. "It is really despicable what the industry and public authorities are doing to Andy and to all of us who pay attention to the headlines, which are dominated by propaganda. It's our job to get up every day and tell the truth. That's why all of us are advocates and activists."

This guy is a true believer. If all this would not change his mind, what in the world would? Frankly, there was never good evidence for a link between autism and vaccines. At best, it was just a hypothesis. The evidence was never good enough for belief. I can see why people like Blaxill had hoped we'd found the cause of autism - or at least a cause - but we didn't. It's time to turn our attention elsewhere.

We need to understand why we hold certain opinions, our reasoning for believing them. And no matter how good our reasons might be, we need to accept the fact that we could be wrong. Blaxill was wrong about Wakefield and wrong about vaccines causing autism. But most likely, he will never accept that.

PS. I posted about this issue previously here. And for the facts in this case in comic book form, check this out. It's really quite good.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Destroying our oceans

(photo from Farm Forward)

I've posted about this before, but the problem is becoming critical. We are destroying our oceans for short-term gain. How can that seem like a good idea?

How about this opening paragraph from an article in Time magazine?

The oceans are being emptied of fish. A forthcoming United Nations report lays out the stark numbers: only around 25% of commercial stocks are in a healthy or even reasonably healthy state. Some 30% of fish stocks are considered collapsed, and 90% of large predatory fish — like the bluefin tuna so prized by sushi aficionados — have disappeared since the middle of the 20th century. More than 60% of assessed fish stocks are in need of rebuilding, and some researchers estimate that if current trends hold, virtually all commercial fisheries will have collapsed by mid century.

This isn't a matter of just skipping your sushi, after we've destroyed our oceans. The oceans feed a lot of people, and provide a livelihood for many more. Of course, that's one reason why it's so difficult to move to sustainable fishing, because it will put some fishermen out of work. But how many fishermen will lose their livelihoods when fish populations collapse entirely?

But there's also a major problem with overcapacity — or the simple excess of fishermen — thanks to the $27 billion in subsidies given to the worldwide fishing industry each year. Those subsidies — especially the billions that go to cheap diesel fuel that makes factory fishing on the high seas possible at all--have created an industry bigger than the oceans can support. The U.N. estimates that the global fleet consists of more than 20 million boats, ranging from tiny subsistence outfits to massive trawlers. Together they have a fishing capacity 1.8 to 2.8 times larger than the oceans can sustainably support. Our tax money is essentially paying fishermen to strip mine the seas.

Get this? We're not just destroying our oceans; we're paying tax money to have our oceans destroyed. I'm speaking about worldwide practices, of course, but the problem is worldwide. Fishing fleets don't just fish in their home waters. In fact, a big problem is factory fishing off the coasts of developing nations, where they destroy the fish that locals need for survival (and where corruption and/or lack of regulation let factory fleets do whatever they want).

As this article states, part of the problem is illegal fishing. But that's not the only problem, since even legal catches are set far, far too high. And indeed, fishing regulations often seem to be designed to let illegal practices flourish.

Right now, for example, fishing boats aren't required to have an identification code from the International Maritime Organization, the only globally recognized identifier for shipping. Establishing the requirement would help distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, particularly if the information is shared among all ports. "Accountability," Flothmann writes, "requires transparency."

Clearly, we aren't serious about this. We are winking at illegal fishing (probably due to rampant corruption in many countries), and we're encouraging overfishing even by legal means. Unfortunately, everyone involved sees a short-term gain in raping our oceans, while the long-term disaster will fall on someone else's watch.

Farm Forward has a good article on this, too:

Humans are consuming marine animals in such massive numbers that the balance of ocean life has already been drastically upset since the beginning of large-scale industrial fishing in the 1950s.

The culprit for this sudden change in the ocean’s ecosystem is what University of British Columbia scientist Daniel Pauly describes as “fishing down the marine food webs.”1 What this means is that overfishing of alpha-predators like tuna and salmon—whose populations are rapidly dwindling—has caused us to begin eating lower down the ocean’s food chain. In the absence of their predators, species a step further down the chain experience a temporary population boom, creating an illusion of abundance for fishers, who begin the process of fishing them out of existence—and so on, all the way down to bottom-feeders and, eventually, plankton.

If this trend continues unabated, Pauly suggests, the future of seafood will be an unvarying supply of “jellyfish sandwiches.”2 An initially skeptical scientific community has confirmed Pauly’s fears, even going so far as to project an approximate date by which the world’s seafood supply will have run out based on the current rate of ocean fishing: That date could be as soon as 2050, according to a 2006 paper on the effects of overfishing published in the journal Science.3

And fish are not the only marine animals to suffer from aggressive commercial fishing practices. Techniques such as “bottom trawling” (in which nets are dragged thousands of miles across the ocean floor) and longlining (using large numbers of baited hooks on an extended line) indiscriminately destroy entire habitats of deep-sea species and devastate populations of dolphins, whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and other marine animals who are trapped in the nets or hooks as “bycatch.”

It's not just overfishing, of course. Global warming is destroying coral reefs, not simply because of increasing ocean temperatures but also from ocean acidification. But even here, overfishing is also a culprit. Removing one species can change a whole underwater ecosystem. And the cumulative impact is just devastating.

(photo from SurfThereNow)

We're not talking about the far future here. Many of us will still be alive a few decades from now, when projections warn of an almost complete collapse of ocean fisheries. Certainly, our children and grandchildren will face the tragic results of our ignorance, apathy, and greed.

I'm a science fiction fan, as well as an environmentalist. One prominent SF theme has always involved turning to the oceans, after we've made the land uninhabitable. But in reality, we seem to be destroying our oceans even faster than we are the rest of the planet. This wasn't the future I'd hoped to see, not at all.

And I remember as a child learning about the old whale hunters, how they'd driven whales to the verge of extinction, until the industry itself collapsed for lack of new prey. But you know, that was taught to me as a lesson that we'd learned. Now that I'm an adult, I realize that's not true. We still haven't learned that lesson. I'm both astonished and disgusted to realize that.

Will we ever learn it? More to the point, will we learn it before it's too late? Or will our descendants look back in astonishment at how stupid we were?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another great graph

This is another great graph by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, from his blog at the New York Times. (Note that I posted about a previous graph here).

The red line is the top marginal income tax rate in America, while the blue line is the median family income. Shown this way, it's pretty easy to see that, as we've slashed taxes on the rich in recent decades, average family incomes have begun to stagnate. The point is not necessarily to show cause-and-effect, but rather to demonstrate the error of right-wing propaganda.

But Paul Krugman puts it better than I could:

Richard Green flies into a rage over remarks by Peter Wallison, who declares that
Indeed, the modern era of rapid economic growth commenced after both Democratic and Republican presidents undertook to lift costly and stultifying New Deal regulations.
Green points out that growth has actually been slower since the big rightward shift circa 1980. But what he doesn’t seem to realize is that Wallison is just following the party line. Read almost any conservative commentator on economic history, and you’ll find that the era of postwar prosperity — the gigantic rise in living standards after World War II — has been expunged from the record.

You can see why: the facts are embarrassing. Here’s a rough-cut version. The blue line, left scale, shows median family income in 2008 dollars; the red line, right scale, shows the top marginal tax rate, a rough indicator of the overall stance of policy. Basically, US postwar economic history falls into two parts: an era of high taxes on the rich and extensive regulation, during which living standards experienced extraordinary growth; and an era of low taxes on the rich and deregulation, during which living standards for most Americans rose fitfully at best.

At the Richard Green post, I see that Peter Wallison parrots another Republican Party line, too: "After all, the original New Deal—as anyone who has read history knows—failed to revive the economy." Actually, as anyone who has looked at the historical record knows, the New Deal was exactly the right medicine for the ailing economy. If anything, it was too timidly - too conservatively - applied, but the result was still obvious.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's biggest error was to listen to right-wing fears and attempt to balance the budget before the economy was completely healthy again, which led to another sharp downturn in 1937. The evidence is also clear on that. You really couldn't ask for a better demonstration of what worked and what didn't.

The right-wing, which fought against every bit of the New Deal, now claims that it was a complete failure because they realize that most Americans won't know any better. They claim that the economy didn't fully recover until World War II, which might actually make some sense (if you remember the reason for the dip in 1937). But what was World War II in economic terms but massive government stimulus? And note that it began in the U.S. before we were actually in the war ourselves.

There's good reason why deficit spending has been the standard prescription for economic downturns since the Great Depression. Quite simply, the evidence of its value has been overwhelming. Where it hasn't worked - such as in Japan's Lost Decade - that's because it was applied slowly, meagerly, hesitantly. Dribbling out government stimulus does nothing but increase deficits. Governments need to be bold. Unfortunately, governments are made up of politicians, and politicians are notoriously timid.

Well, bold politicians don't get re-elected. And as we're seeing today, it's easy to scare the average uninformed voter. After all, even a laughable claim like "death panels" worked politically. I guess, as a people, we're just not too bright.

Top ten new species of 2009

Via Why Evolution Is True, I see that the International Institute for Species Exploration has released its top ten list of new species discovered last year (including the psychedelic frogfish shown in the above video, a minnow with fangs, and a deep-sea worm that releases green luminescent "bombs" when threatened).

And this article from Arizona State University notes that a whopping 18,225 new species of plants and animals were identified in 2008 (the most recent year in which the complete data are available), as well as another 2,140 new fossil species. With the rising rate of extinctions in the world, you've got to wonder how many species are going extinct before we even discover they exist.

And we're now seeing extinctions related to global warming (including frogs and lizards), not just from over-fishing, clear-cutting, and other loss of habitat. We're already in the greatest wave of extinctions since the dinosaur-killing asteroid, and it's expected to get far, far worse.

This is our responsibility. Because of our greed, our apathy, and our willful ignorance, we're leaving our children and grandchildren a much poorer world. I fear we will not be remembered fondly by our descendants.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

This is why I never get any work done

Pearls Before Swine

This doesn't fit here, but I had to post it, since this is pretty much how my day goes. Click the image to go to the Pearls Before Swine website and see the whole thing.

Greece or Japan?

Although the right-wing continues to claim that America is becoming Greece, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says the bigger danger is that we'll become like Japan:

For the past few months, much commentary on the economy — some of it posing as reporting — has had one central theme: policy makers are doing too much. Governments need to stop spending, we’re told. Greece is held up as a cautionary tale, and every uptick in the interest rate on U.S. government bonds is treated as an indication that markets are turning on America over its deficits. Meanwhile, there are continual warnings that inflation is just around the corner, and that the Fed needs to pull back from its efforts to support the economy and get started on its “exit strategy,” tightening credit by selling off assets and raising interest rates.

And what about near-record unemployment, with long-term unemployment worse than at any time since the 1930s? What about the fact that the employment gains of the past few months, although welcome, have, so far, brought back fewer than 500,000 of the more than 8 million jobs lost in the wake of the financial crisis? Hey, worrying about the unemployed is just so 2009.

But the truth is that policy makers aren’t doing too much; they’re doing too little. Recent data don’t suggest that America is heading for a Greece-style collapse of investor confidence. Instead, they suggest that we may be heading for a Japan-style lost decade, trapped in a prolonged era of high unemployment and slow growth.

As Krugman points out, the right-wing keeps claiming that inflation is just around the corner. But there's really no sign of that. In fact, the signs point to deflation as a more likely threat. And deflation would be far more dangerous than inflation, since it's much harder to combat.

We should be talking about a new stimulus package, but there doesn't seem to be much chance of that, not with Senate Republicans determined to filibuster everything. And really, it's to their political advantage that unemployment stays high, just as it's to their political advantage that the Democrats fail at accomplishing anything at all.

Well, it hasn't been easy, but the Democrats did pass health care reform. And they seem to be on the verge of passing strong financial reform, too. The GOP couldn't keep their filibuster together on that, not so soon after the recent economic meltdown. I'm hoping that the American people come to their senses, but I've learned not to count on that. So we'll just have to see.

Right now, we seem to have a better government than we deserve. But in a democracy, that can't last. I really wonder what's happened to my country. How did we become such a little people - ignorant, gullible, greedy, superstitious, cowardly, bigoted, and dumb? Not all of us, of course, but way too many. Has a large segment of the population always been like this? Or is it just those people who are getting media attention?

Aping Celebrities

Here's another interesting post from Not Exactly Rocket Science. The first paragraph immediately caught my attention:

There is no action so stupid that you can’t persuade someone to do it by getting celebrity endorsement. Even the barmiest advice on everything from medical decisions to diets will have happy idiots queuing up to listen, if it comes from the mouth of someone who was once on TV. Such recommendations can be disastrous, but they can be beneficial if the people in question are wise and knowledgeable, from village elders to community leaders. This is all part of the same trend – the human penchant for apeing individuals with high status. And now, it seems that we aren’t the only species that does this. Chimpanzees have the same inclination for apeing those with prestige.

We know that chimps can pick up new traditions from one another, with different groups enjoying rich and diverse cultures. Much of this understanding is thanks to work from scientists like Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten and Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Now, the same team have found that when it comes to passing on traditions, some chimps are more influential than others. Given a choice between two individuals, chimps tend to copy the actions of the older, higher-ranking one.

As I've said before, the more we learn about chimpanzees, the less unique we human beings seem to be. Chimps really are our close relatives, and I have to think it's only luck that we're human and they're not.

Hmm,... another similarity seems to be that chimps are also plagued by conservatives:

Groups of wild chimps certainly have cultural differences but equally, field researchers have found that the vast majority of innovations never spread. Chimps also get ‘stuck’ on familiar techniques. They’re reticent to adopt a new strategy, even if it’s more efficient.

Horner’s new results could help to explain why. It seems that in chimp societies, subordination is the mother of invention. Most innovations are the work of low-ranking individuals, trying to avoid competition from their superiors. Ironically, these individuals are the least likely to be aped by their fellow apes. Only if they rise through the ranks do they stand a chance of significantly passing on their new behaviours to their colleagues.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rowan Atkinson Amazing Jesus

Limbaugh's alternate universe

On the Doonesbury website, I came across this quote from Rush Limbaugh:

When do we ask the Sierra Club to pick up the tab for this leak? Everybody's focused on BP and Halliburton and Transocean...The greeniacs have been driving our oil producers off the land.

Heh, heh. How loony is that? Of course, Limbaugh deliberately tries to say the most outrageous things possible. That's his schtick, after all. But you have to wonder about the alternate universe inhabited by his dittoheads and teabaggers - and really by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and pretty much all of Fox "News."

I realize that many of my fellow Americans have very short memories, but doesn't anyone remember the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973? Even then, we were importing huge amounts of oil from some of the worst nations in the world because that's where the oil is. Oil is not a renewable resource, and when it's gone, it's gone. That's why big oil companies are trying to drill ever deeper, in ever harsher conditions, even deep in the oceans. And that's why we're sending huge sums of money overseas, to feed our oil addiction.

The Arab Oil Embargo should have been the shock we needed as a nation. The writing was clearly on the wall almost 40 years ago. We should have started a new Manhattan Project - a huge government-funded effort to begin to wean ourselves from an oil-based economy. But OPEC was smart enough to drop oil prices whenever we seemed to be getting serious (never very serious) about alternate energy. And in the "don't worry, be happy" Reagan years, we were quite willing to pretend that all was well. In an ant and grasshopper world, we were - and we remain - the grasshoppers.

Then came 9/11, when we missed another opportunity. Here's Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times:

President Bush’s greatest failure was not Iraq, Afghanistan or Katrina. It was his failure of imagination after 9/11 to mobilize the country to get behind a really big initiative for nation-building in America. I suggested a $1-a-gallon “Patriot Tax” on gasoline that could have simultaneously reduced our deficit, funded basic science research, diminished our dependence on oil imported from the very countries whose citizens carried out 9/11, strengthened the dollar, stimulated energy efficiency and renewable power and slowed climate change. It was the Texas oilman’s Nixon-to-China moment — and Bush blew it.

Had we done that on the morning of 9/12 — when gasoline averaged $1.66 a gallon — the majority of Americans would have signed on. They wanted to do something to strengthen the country they love. Instead, Bush told a few of us to go to war and the rest of us to go shopping. So today, gasoline costs twice as much at the pump, with most of that increase going to countries hostile to our values, while China is rapidly becoming the world’s leader in wind, solar, electric cars and high-speed rail. Heck of a job.

We had a government of oilmen. Both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had made big money in big oil, and for political purposes, there's no way they would have asked Americans to make any sacrifices anyway. Remember, these were the people who actually cut taxes (mostly on the rich) during wartime. Yeah, we ran two wars on a credit card. Real smart, huh?

Of course, we never would have invaded Iraq - which hadn't attacked us, was actually the enemy of the people who had attacked us, and was no threat to America whatsoever - if it hadn't been for their huge reserves of oil. Remember how the war was going to pay for itself? Yeah, in the same way that we were greeted as liberators, huh? (Were Bush and Cheney ever right about anything?)

Meanwhile, there's global warming, a real and very serious threat. I've discussed that before, but let me just repeat two quick points: First, if you accept anything except the consensus of climatologists - the experts in this scientific issue - you're simply sticking your head in the sand and believing what you want to believe. They could always be wrong (none of us is infallible), but no one else is likelier to be right. And second, it's the ultimate of foolishness - and certainly not "conservative" - to keep changing the atmosphere of our only planet unless we know for certain that it won't cause problems.

And while idiot America still rallies around "drill, baby, drill," China is putting billions into alternate energy research. Yes, while America is still basing our economic future on the equivalent of buggy whips, China is moving forcefully and intelligently into the 21st Century. And since they're spending vast sums of money on such things, their economy is still growing strongly, even in this worldwide economic meltdown.

Admittedly, we started out in a hole, due to the spendthrift policies of the GOP - now newly re-branded as the "Party of No." Now, suddenly, they're the deficit police. (How funny is that?) And they're warning of inflation in our distant future, when deflation is the real threat in America, now that they've collapsed our economy. They're denouncing deficits (really, how can they do that with a straight face?) when this is a time when deficits make sense. You don't want deficits in good times, but we learned in the Great Depression of their great value during an economic collapse.

And just as in your personal finances, debt isn't always bad. It all depends on why you're borrowing the money. (Borrowing to pay for a college education is a lot different than borrowing to have a wild vacation in Hawaii.) When Republicans held power, they created record-breaking deficits just to give tax cuts to the rich and to wage war unnecessarily. If, instead, they'd invested that money in education, in scientific research, in alternate energy technology, or even in 21st Century infrastructure, we'd be far, far better off today. Heck, even if they'd used the money to balance the budget, we'd have been far better off!

But in the right-wing alternate universe, God created the Earth and gave it to human beings to despoil as we wish. There's no possible way we could ever destroy what he created, so we're perfectly free to foul our own nest. Besides, all good Christians will be raptured up into the sky any day now, so why worry about long-term impacts?

In the right-wing alternate universe, there's a bottomless bowl of oil under America, easy to reach if those damned (literally) environmentalists would just get out of the way. There is no global warming. There is no problem with pollution. Mountaintops are made to be leveled. And drilling in the oceans is perfectly safe, except when those clever environmentalists fiendishly sabotage drilling rigs. (At which point, the ocean will miraculously take care of the oil spill, anyway, as God intended.)

Environmentalists in this alternate universe are strangely powerful, and multinational corporations strangely impotent. Poor CEO's struggle against mighty tree-huggers. No politician dares to cross the king-makers in the environmental lobby. But, of course, they aren't really worried about pollution and clear-cutting and endangered species. No, not at all. In reality, it's all a giant conspiracy to set up a new world order of socialism, communism, fascism - and probably other "ism's" good Republicans have never even heard of - under a black Antichrist. Oh, and let's not forget the death panels!

In the right-wing alternate universe, quitting means that you're not a quitter. And only true American patriots advocate seceding from the Union. In the right-wing alternate universe, immigrants are always the scum of the Earth - except for our own immigrant ancestors, of course, who came to America from the white right nations.

In the right-wing alternate universe, it's treason to criticize a president during wartime - but only if that president is a Republican. Torture is a traditional American value, but separation of church and state is not. Thomas Jefferson does not deserve to be in history books, and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery (which was never as bad as liberals claimed, anyway).

In the right-wing alternate universe, since the ozone hole is no longer a big worry, that means we must have banned ozone-destroying chemicals for no reason. And the absence of a Silent Spring has nothing to do with our subsequent regulation of pesticides. Since the government cannot, by right-wing definition, do anything worthwhile (except to wage war, of course), those dangers simply must not have been real after all. Certainly, our actions couldn't have made a difference, could they?

In the right-wing alternate universe, you need Republicans to protect Social Security and Medicare from Democrats. In the right-wing alternate universe, a high-profile failure of abstinence-only sex education makes a perfect spokesperson for abstinence-only sex education. In the right-wing alternate universe, President Barack Obama is a socialist!

We laugh at Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and all the other crazies, because we think they're so loony that no one could ever believe them. Heck, Democratic leaders eagerly pointed to Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party (and he, always the showman, was eager to don that mantle). After all, the vast majority of Americans couldn't possibly be dumb enough to go along with this stuff, could they? Could they?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Demons everywhere!

(graphic from FreeClipartNow)

Here's an interesting post at Evolving Thoughts:

Take a deep breath and relax. These demons are not about to unleash hell upon you. ...

Look, the internet is nothing at heart more complex than other forms of public communication, like a noticeboard in a hallway. You pin open and private notes to the board, to be read by all and individuals. Sometimes others read what you put on that board who you didn’t intend to, so you take precautions, right? You don’t put private details that you do not want everyone to read on that noticeboard. ...

These are not the demons that they are painted to be, and we have a lot of demons to choose from these days. Child abuse is one of them. I doubt that there is any more child abuse today, proportionally, than there was in 1900, 1950 or even 20,000 BCE. Humans tend to treat their kids much the same in all places. What has changed is not the rate of abuse, but the reporting, and when you can hear about things daily that happen thousands of kilometres away rather than only in your own village or suburb, it raises the rate of fear and anxiety. We don’t need demons.

Child pornography is not about to warp your kids minds or put them at risk – we should prevent it, but not surrender everything about the internet that makes it great, and certainly not everything about our rights that makes this the most peaceful, best educated, healthiest, most survivable period in history in many places in the world, including mine. My predecessors and ancestors fought for those rights. I don’t want to see them restricted because we fear demons.

There are a lot of scary things in the world today. But that's no different than it's always been. Do you really think that our ancestors had it any easier?

The difference is that their demons were more likely to be real. OK, it wasn't really demons killing their children; it was germs. But the risk was certainly real. And life didn't get a whole lot safer as you got older. Certainly, people didn't have the social safety net we all take for granted today.

It's not so much that our demons aren't real as the fact that we exaggerate the likelihood that we'll encounter them. The media outdo each other in trying to publicize sensational, attention-grabbing incidents. But in a nation of more than 300 million people, you could expect a "one-in-a-million" incident nearly every day. And the U.S. population pales alongside the nearly 7 billion people on the whole planet.

We human beings didn't evolve in this kind of environment. We evolved to survive in small groups, almost all of whom were related. The next village was a strange and foreign place, and "news" was local gossip about people everyone already knew. So we can't use our gut these days; we have to use our brains.

These days, we are surrounded by strangers, many of whom look very different from us. We hear of the most horrific incidents from around the world, not of the far more common acts of charity and good-will. The media are businesses intent on making a profit. And when ranting blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck attract viewers and make a lot of money, that's the kind of thing we're going to get.

They appeal to the primitive reflexes of the human animal - the instinctive fear of people who are different, the fight-or-flight response of adrenaline, the gut reactions of a hairless primate. Rational thought is harder, slower, less instinctive. Relax, calm down, think it through. There's no tiger in the bushes who'll take the slowest in the group, not these days. But our instincts don't know that.

In fact, it's only our brains that will save us now from the real threats of the modern world. In an overpopulated world, our instincts still tell us to reproduce. In a world of nuclear weapons, our guts still tell us to hate and fear other people. In a diverse democratic society, we still innately separate our fellow citizens into "us" and "them." This isn't just wrong; it's dangerous in today's world.

The demons are in us. And they can only be combated by rational, evidence-based thinking, by good education, by the calm assessment of competing claims in the marketplace of ideas. They can only be combated by using our brains, instead of our guts.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dale Peterson for Ag Commissioner!

Heh, heh. This is The Onion's take on a real campaign ad that, quite frankly, isn't all that different. Maybe it will go over well in Alabama, though.

Rand Paul, still fighting the 1964 Civil Rights Act

That's Rand Paul, who recently stomped his opponent in Kentucky's GOP primary for the U.S. Senate, re-fighting the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the Rachel Maddow Show.

Clearly, he didn't want to answer Maddow's question. Bobbing and weaving, he kept assuring us of his personal abhorrence of racism (not the point), argued about free speech (again, not the point), and telling little stories - which seemed to have nothing pertinent to do with anything - about William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. What in the world did any of that have to do with the question?

He claims that segregation is a bad business decision. Really? And that's why segregation was everywhere in the South? Because it was such a bad business decision?

The U.S. government stepped in because, one hundred years after the Civil War, black people were still deprived of their civil rights in the South. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was one of the greatest accomplishments of Congress - and of the Democratic Party - in our history.

I must say that it's bizarre we're even having this debate 46 years later. Why are we still debating the 1964 Civil Rights Act? It's very easy for Rand Paul to say that he's not a racist. And who knows? It might even be true. But should blacks still be banned from restaurants and motels and other businesses in the South? Is there really any reasonable argument that ending segregation was wrong? How can we still be debating this in 2010?

No one is claiming that Rand Paul is a racist, only that his political views are extreme. Well, I've never known a libertarian who didn't go completely off the rails following his political theories to their most inane conclusion. Frankly, it seems to be all theory and no common sense whatsoever. That's just libertarianism in a nutshell.

But that's another thing. In most respects, Paul doesn't seem so libertarian, does he? In fact, he seems to be a very typical Republican. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-immigration reform. He actually proposes to cut taxes and also balance the budget. (Haven't Republicans learned anything in recent decades? Still with the voodoo economics?) He's solid with the NRA. He pushes home-schooling. In what way, exactly, is he any different from the Republicans who ran our country into the ground in recent years?

I see no social libertarianism in his thinking. And all that talk about taxes and spending is... well, talk that we've heard from every single Republican for decades (to our ultimate dismay). Frankly, as the son of a prominent GOP politician, he seems as typically Republican as they get. After all, isn't that how we got George W. Bush, by inheritance? Isn't that how we got the last GOP administration, full of incompetent, and very conservative, ideologues with no common sense?

And now these Tea Party lunatics want to take back America. What a phrase! Do they just want to go back to a year and a half ago, so they can continue the job of destroying our country? Or do they want to go clear back to the 1950's, so they can end all that racial civil rights nonsense and keep white men on top, as God intended?

Claiming that you're not a racist doesn't impress me much when you're not willing to do anything to combat institutional racism in America. And claiming that you'll cut taxes and balance the budget certainly doesn't impress me, when we've heard that claim before and seen exactly the opposite result.

Chimpanzees use tools... for what???

(graphic by Viktor Koen, New York Times)

In a funny - but scientifically accurate - story in the New York Times (registration is required, though it's free), John Tierney finds that chimpanzees really are remarkably like human beings:

In a 50th anniversary essay in the journal Science, the primatologist William C. McGrew begins by hailing the progression of chimpanzee studies from field notes to “theory-driven, hypothesis-testing ethnology.”

He tactfully waits until the third paragraph — journalists call this “burying the lead” — to deliver the most devastating blow yet to human self-esteem. After noting that chimpanzees’ “tool kits” are now known to include 20 items, Dr. McGrew casually mentions that they’re used for “various functions in daily life, including subsistence, sociality, sex, and self-maintenance.”

Sex? Chimpanzees have tools for sex? No way. If ever there was an intrinsically human behavior, it had to be the manufacture of sex toys. ...

I couldn’t imagine how chimps managed this evolutionary leap. But then, I couldn’t imagine what they were actually doing. Using blades of grass to tickle one another? Building heart-shaped beds of moss? Using stones for massages, or vines for bondage, or — well, I really had no idea,...

It is kind of funny. But it's neat, too. The more we learn about chimpanzees, the less unique human beings seem to be (except in the sense that all species are unique, of course). In the wild, chimpanzee "tribes" actually have their own cultures, which are taught to their young and are not the same in every population.

We human beings are animals, like other animals. We are apes, like other apes. We are a unique species, like any other species, but we're still very similar to our relatives - biologically and, to some extent, behaviorally. Realizing that doesn't diminish us. On the contrary, it makes what we've accomplished even more admirable.

And our species does not have a divine mandate to destroy all other species. We are all family, and we actually have an obligation to our siblings, don't you think? Not to mention what a poorer place this would be without them.


I posted a link to this video when I first started the blog, before I'd even figured out how to embed video clips. By now, everyone has already seen it, I suppose (13 million views on YouTube), but I still thought it deserved a re-post here, this time embedded as I should have done before.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The campaign to save the deficit

Here's an interesting post by Matthew Yglesias on the campaign by conservatives in 2001 to save America from budget surpluses.

...the bizarre episode in 2000 and 2001 when a mainstream view among right-of-center economists was that the nation was facing a threatening situation in the form of possible elimination of the national debt. That’s right, the Clinton administration’s budgeting had not only eliminated the budget deficit, but was seen as possibly leading toward paying off all the accumulated debt of the Reagan years. And the right was afraid!

Funny, huh? Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of the people worried that we'd run out of government debt. Imagine the disaster then, if America were debt-free! And as Dick Cheney said, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

But if America ran out of debt,... ooh, that would be so scary!

The idea was that we might pay off the national debt and then decide to put further surpluses into what we nowadays term a “sovereign wealth fund.” Specifically, the Social Security trust fund could have been transformed from an accounting rule into an independently managed fund that would hold a diversified portfolio of financial assets. This, in turn, would make it possible to fund future Social Security benefits without dramatically impacting the rest of the federal budgetary situation.

The official view on the right was that this would be a disastrous situation that led to undue government meddling and horrifying socialism. The reality, however, is that a large and diverse set of countries—from Norway to Singapore to Abu Dhabi—successfully manage sovereign wealth funds. Indeed, conservatives regularly cite Singapore’s mandatory savings approach to social insurance seemingly without noticing (or at least without mentioning) that it substantially takes the form of just this sort of publicly managed collective investment in financial assets.

Of course, they were also pushing for Bush's tax cuts, and that was probably the whole point of this argument. Among Republicans, tax cuts - especially for the wealthy - are always good. They're a magic fix-all for every situation. Is the economy booming? Cut taxes on the rich. Are we in a recession? Cut taxes on the rich. (That's pretty much how you can tell that it's magic, when it's supposed to cure everything.)

Luckily (?) we never had to worry about this. Bush cut taxes and increased spending (supply-side or "voodoo" economics) - and turned Bill Clinton's budget surpluses into record-breaking budget deficits that put Reagan's debt to shame. Oh, and then the GOP collapsed the economy, for good measure.

But I can't let this go without noting Bush's famous quote from 2001: "My plan reduces the national debt, and fast. So fast, in fact, that economists worry that we're going to run out of debt to retire." As it turned out, he was just as right about this as he was about everything else!

And now Republicans want to take us back to those days. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Non-Belief, Pt. 2: Standing Up

In Part 1, I talked about my childhood disbelief, how I seemed different from everyone else I knew, but that it didn't seem to matter much. I didn't advertise my atheism, just because it didn't seem to be anyone else's business. I didn't hide it, but that was hardly necessary. Everyone pretty much assumed that I was a believer, and I didn't really care if they did.

I finally encountered other nonbelievers - and people of other faiths - when I went to college, but only casually. For the most part, the subject never came up. This was the late 1960's, and even in Nebraska, we were absorbed with more pressing issues (not to mention our personal lives). This was during the height of the Vietnam War, after all. It was the so-called Age of Aquarius - a time of riots in the inner cities (Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968), a time of feminism, a time of sex and drugs and rock & roll.

Heh, heh. No, I wasn't at Woodstock. And this was still Nebraska. Alcohol was still the drug of choice, and there wasn't nearly enough sex going around to suit me (then again, I was very shy). But ideas - big ideas - were in the air. We were going to change the world. We were going to eliminate racism, eliminate sexism, eliminate war. Very shortly, the environmental movement would take off, too. (I remember the debate about whether or not it was just a distraction from the anti-war movement.)

But "God" wasn't one of those big ideas. Religion was the past, a remnant of the Dark Ages. Remember the 1966 Time magazine cover, "Is God Dead?" It seemed like a reasonable question back then, at least to me (and apparently reasonable enough to Time magazine). Sure, the vast majority of Americans still believed in God, at least on Sundays. But even religion was searching for a way to become "relevant." Heck, even the Catholic Church was becoming more liberal (until the backlash from the far-right within the church).

(image from Wikipedia)

There seemed to be just a handful of evangelical Christians on the University of Nebraska campus. We called them the "God Squad." Kids our age who were seemingly obsessed with religion - and right-wing politics - they kept to themselves, little more than a casual joke to everyone else. If you'd have told me they'd be running the country in a few decades, I would never have believed you. It couldn't happen. We were going to change the world.

Of course, we were a minority even then. We were, after all, rebelling against the establishment. Richard Nixon was president (Bobby Kennedy had also been assassinated in 1968). But we were young and the future was ours, wasn't it?

But the right-wing backlash was building, and the seeds for that had been planted back in 1964. Since the Civil War, the South had been firmly Democratic. No part of the country was so solidly Democratic, not even close. But when the Democrats pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that landmark legislation outlawing segregation, it was the beginning of the end for Democrats in the South. The Democratic Party knew that would happen, but they did it anyway. How admirable is that? They did the right thing, even knowing that it would devastate them politically.

The Republicans were positively gleeful. Finally, they could take the South. It was the opportunity they'd dreamed of. All they had to do was suck up to white racists. Piece of cake! And so began the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy."

And it worked. Blacks stopped voting for Republicans, sure, but blacks are a minority even in the South. By taking the South from the Democrats, right-wing Republicans have dominated in national politics pretty much ever since (interrupted only briefly because of Nixon's Watergate scandal, and now by the disastrous George W. Bush years).

There's a lot I could say about that. But for this post, it's enough to note that the South is also the Bible Belt in America. Those southern white racists were also culturally conservative and solidly Christian. And as the Republican Party strove to attract such people, it lost what had traditionally been bipartisan: respect for our Constitution's separation of church and state. And as first liberals and then moderates began to leave the GOP, the remainder became even more fanatically right-wing - and even more determined to unite politics and their own personal brand of religion.

The future has certainly not turned out as I expected (in so many ways). I watched all this with increasing dismay. It was actually the first President Bush (then vice-president) who stated, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." But it was his son who really convinced me that I had to start standing up as an atheist (and, really, as an American).

After 9/11, when religious extremists attacked my country, our leaders seemed to think that the solution was to become religious extremists ourselves. Bush spoke more about "God" than he did about our American traditions, and certainly more than he did about the rule of law. According to both parties (Democrats becoming completely spineless whenever anyone hints that they might not be sufficiently "patriotic"), this was a Christian nation.

OK, they'd reluctantly acknowledge Jews as honorary Christians, in many cases. But separation of church and state? Forget it! In effect, we were going to give up more than 200 years of our most sacred traditions because a handful of religious nuts scared us! During a previous dispute with a Muslim country, we'd produced the Treaty of Tripoli, clearly explaining that we were not a Christian nation, but rather a secular nation with some Christian citizens (along with others of different beliefs). Not this time. Not with fundamentalist Christians firmly in control of the Republican Party.

“Our country has been hijacked by a bunch of religious nuts. But how easy it was. That's a little scary.” — Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning author Seymour Hersh, 2004

I was furious. I was not a second-class American! (I can just imagine how angry a Hispanic American must feel when he's asked for his papers.) I was at least as patriotic as anyone else! (Admittedly, I remained highly skeptical of the right-wing ├╝ber-patriotism that seemed to infect the nation. I, at least, could still tell right from wrong. And patriotism doesn't mean that I can't criticize my country's actions - just the reverse, in fact. It is my duty as an American to criticize my leaders when they deserve it.) In America, your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are your own business. They're certainly not any business of the government!

And to see the whole government celebrating the same kind of thinking that created the 9/11 attacks in the first place,... well, that was just too much. OK, this had been building for a long time - with creationists trying to get our schools to stop teaching science, with the automatic assumption (inexplicable to me) that religious leaders are somehow experts on moral issues, with increasing attempts to tie belief in a god - the Christian god specifically - to public policy. I'd really had enough!

I decided that I had to stand up as an atheist - to stand up for all of my beliefs, in fact. Now I would say what I thought. Now, if you mistook me for a believer, I would politely set you straight. I added "fortune cookie" signatures - with random quotes from scientists, atheists, and progressives - to my emails. I wore t-shirts with a skeptical message. I commented on religious articles posted online by my local newspaper. And now, finally, I've started this blog.

Oh, I'm not going to start picketing churches. Your belief is still your own business. I'm not going to pester my relatives or my neighbors with my disbelief (unless they ask, of course). That's just not polite. And I'm not going to go door to door as a missionary for atheism. But if you come to my door as a missionary, I'm going to tell you that I'm an atheist. No more will I respond with just "sorry, I'm not interested." I want to be counted as an atheist. (Yes, I consider myself to be an agnostic, too, but I seldom use the word. I don't want anyone to be mistaken. I am a proud atheist.)

There are more non-believers in America than Jews, Muslims, and Mormons combined. But, really, it shouldn't matter if I were the only atheist in the whole country. I'd still be just as much an American as you are. And I would still expect that religious beliefs remain strictly voluntary - and that my government stay out of it entirely.

We atheists look like everyone else. We blend in. In the past, that was the only way we could survive. And even today, many atheists have to keep quiet about their disbelief - at least if they want to keep their businesses out of bankruptcy or get voted into office. Some worry about losing their friends or even their families if they're honest about their disbelief. I won't criticize anyone who's still in the closet. But I think it's important to stand up for what we do - and don't - believe in.
(from the Out Campaign)

These days, in fact, I think it's critical to stand up. So here I am, an American atheist.

Note: The rest of this series is here.