Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sequester fixed!

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Oh, when I say that the sequester was fixed, I don't mean it was fixed for you, of course. Congress just fixed it for themselves, and for their wealthy donors. Nice, isn't it?

The sequester was supposed to cause hardship for everyone, so as to force Congress to compromise - well, to force the Republicans in Congress, since Democrats are always eager, even desperate, to get along.

So this fix, which helps Congress avoid any inconvenience, goes completely against the whole point of the sequester. But why am I not surprised?

And that's not even the best part. The best part is when Congressional Republicans act surprised that the sequester was going to cause problems at all:

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La-di-da, muthafucker, la-di-da.

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I must say I've been surprised not to hear much screaming from the Defense Department. After all, Republicans don't care about any of the rest of this stuff. So the cuts to the military - to the military-industrial complex, basically - were supposed to get their attention.

I don't know, but I suspect that the military budget is just so bloated that it can absorb cuts like this without even blinking.

Monday, April 29, 2013

2013 White House Correspondents Dinner



President Obama did a great job here, as he always does at these things. Of course, he didn't write those jokes, but his delivery was spot on, don't you think?

And the jokes were pretty funny, too. "Look, I get it. These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be."

Or: "I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with. Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know? See how it goes."

But my favorite was probably that part about Sheldon Adelson, who spent $100 million on negative ads last year to defeat Barack Obama:

"You've got to really dislike me to spend that kind of money. I mean, that's Oprah money. You could buy an island and call it 'Nobama' with that kind of money. Sheldon would have been better off offering me a hundred million dollars to drop out of the race."

Heh, heh. Eat it, Adelson!

Frankly, Conan O'Brien had a hard act to follow. He had some funny bits, too, but overall, the president was a lot funnier.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Necessity's Child by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

(Cover image from Amazon.com)

Necessity's Child (2013) is another in the Liaden series of science fiction by the husband and wife team, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I've reviewed several of their books here, but only the more recently published ones, and you really don't want to start in the middle of the series.

If you want a sample, try Balance of Trade (2004), which might be my favorite, while also being completely separate from the rest of the series. (It's set in the same universe, but with completely different characters.)

Or start at the beginning with Agent of Change (1988), also found in the omnibus volumes Partners in Necessity (2000) or The Agent Gambit (2011). But don't start with this one.

However, if you're a fan of the series, you'll know exactly what to expect - appealing characters, an emphasis on manners and other cultural matters, and a pronounced, deliberate, even blatant - but still effective - tug at a reader's heartstrings.

I suspect that any fan of this series will find Necessity's Child to be an enjoyable read. I didn't mean to read this book yesterday, but I picked it up when I sat down with a beer, after working all afternoon in the yard, and I didn't put it down until I'd finished. It's lots of fun. But it's not perfect.

The book focuses on new characters to the series, including Nova's young son, Syl Vor. There are three main characters, all new, all very appealing and likeable, with three separate threads which come together into one story.

In a long series like this, introducing new characters helps keep the series fresh, giving the authors not just new people to show us, but new perspectives, too. In this case, we get to see things from a child's eyes. We also see a different culture. The story is set on Surebleak, which has not been my favorite storyline, but we encounter a new, hidden culture there now.

True, that culture isn't very imaginative. They're just Gypsies - though they're not called that (nor Romani, either) - stranded on the planet, staying hidden from the gadje, surviving by theft and trickery. Of course, their magic is real - the Liaden series is filled with psychic powers - but that's all.

There could have been an interesting problem here, since these Bedel are too few to survive inbreeding (this is the far future, but there's no cloning technology, apparently) but won't integrate for fear of losing their unique culture. My sympathies are always with integration, myself, but none of this was really addressed, anyway.

Of course, if you want ideas, this isn't the series for you. These are appealing people in colorful circumstances, with a healthy dose of sentiment (not romance, not in this particular book, at least) and psychic magic. It's a quick, easy, entertaining read, but you don't want to take it very seriously.

In fact, Necessity's Child has a few situations which are so unbelievable that I felt rather stupid for even liking the book. I did like it - it's lots of fun - but even with this kind of book, there's a limit to what I'm willing to swallow.

For example (avoiding spoilers, as much as possible), twice in this book there are cases of instant attraction - not sexual - which seem to make no sense at all. I could buy it - just - in the child's case, as the bored, lonely child was desperate for a playmate. After all, their culture embraced fostering children in other homes, so he was brought up to think that was normal (if not exactly the way he went about it). But in the other, in a particularly suspicious society which shunned anyone outside their own culture, it was just completely ridiculous.

The end of the book makes no sense, either. How could Clan Korval survive so long if they were that stupid? Even today, government officials would be acutely aware of the danger, and in this storyline, they'd already had abundant evidence of that kind of malice.

I don't want to go into details, because I do want to avoid spoilers. But even in this kind of book - romantic-fantasy science fiction, basically, a sort of feel-good tear-jerker set on another planet, far in some magical future - where we don't expect much in the way of logic or intriguing ideas, these are big flaws - at least, for me.

If you're a fan of the series, I suspect that you'll like this book. After all, it does very well what the series does very well. And I enjoyed it, myself. But when I finish a book rather embarrassed that I did enjoy it, I'd say there's something wrong.

Maybe this won't bother you, but it did me.

___
Note: See here for more book reviews.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

This article begins by talking about the wild conspiracy theories surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings, but I thought this overall view of conspiracy thinking was particularly interesting:
Why are some people so quick to believe in conspiracy theories? In part, many conspiracy theorists don't consider themselves conspiracy theorists. They don't see themselves as the caricatured, tinfoil hat-wearing loons. Instead, they see themselves as patriots and independent thinkers who are smart enough to see through the lies put out by the government and its news media stooges.

Often those who promote conspiracy theories frame them as simply asking legitimate questions — and who can deny that everyone has the right to ask questions of their government and news media? The problem is that the questions they ask are often non-questions that can be (and have been) easily answered. Conspiracy theorists prefer complex mysteries over simple truths, and so they find mystery where none exists. [my emphasis] ...

People who embrace and promote conspiracy theories do so for a reason — typically because it bolsters their (often anti-government) social or political agendas. Conspiracy theories don't emerge in a vacuum; instead, there are people who are simply waiting for each new tragedy to occur so that they can frame it in a way that suits their purposes. For example, many people seized upon the Sandy Hook massacre as a faked event staged to rally public support for stricter gun control laws.

They seek out what appear to be contradictions or holes in "the official story." Conspiracy theorist websites offer "suspicious" examples and evidence, ranging from real or perceived contradictions in eyewitness accounts to conflicting news reports. But what the conspiratorial mind sees as misinformation and lies, others see as merely perfectly ordinary incomplete and inaccurate information following a chaotic tragedy. Eyewitnesses can be confused and mistaken, police officers and reporters can make errors, or repeat information that is corrected after further investigation.

Part of the reason that conspiracy theories linger is that any contradictory evidence — no matter how conclusive or compelling — can just be dismissed by claiming that it's part of the cover-up.

I regularly seem to encounter conspiracy fans, and this describes them exactly. No matter how crazy - and I mean crazy - their beliefs, they think of themselves as being rational skeptics, as opposed to the 'sheeple' who've bought the government's lies.

It might be the Moon Landing, it might be 9/11, it might be Barack Obama's birth certificate, but whatever it is, they're absolutely convinced that they're the sane ones. And really, there seems to be nothing too crazy for conspiracy fans. (They don't all choose the same conspiracy to believe, of course. That usually depends on their political leanings.)

The other thing I've noticed is that they all seem to be thrilled with being one of the few smart enough to see the 'Truth' and brave enough to fight the powers behind their chosen conspiracy. It's apparently lots of fun to be a conspiracy theorist. You might be an insignificant little person in real-life, but in your imagination, you're a brave freedom-fighter facing long odds against the powers who really control this planet.

I'm sure that's why it's so appealing. It's just human nature. And that means we'll probably never see the end of these things, don't you think?

The aftermath of gun control in Australia

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This is the third and final segment of this series (the others are here and here), and... what can I say that I haven't already said? How about that "I felt I had a bit of a duty to the rest of our society"? How crazy is that,... by American standards?

"People are the problem." No kidding! That's why we don't let people get their hands on nuclear bombs - indeed, why we restrict access to explosives of all kinds (except for gunpowder, of course, which is what the Boston Marathon bombers used).

That's why we have laws. That's why we have regulations. People are the problem,... but we're supposed to be the solution, too. Even conservatives in Australia seem to understand that. Why not here in America?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bassem Youssef

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Bassem Youssef is a brave guy - I mean, a really brave guy! He's risking not just his liberty, but his life. And it's a very real risk, too.

I am full of admiration for people like this. And there are people, all across the Muslim world, who are bravely fighting for basic civil rights, everyone from Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan to atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.

These people face deadly danger in an environment where even innocent dancing can be a crime. And Youssef isn't just angering the religious nuts in Egypt, but the government, too.

I couldn't do it. I wouldn't do it, at least. I'm not as brave as him, or as any of these people. If I were Bassem Youssef, I'd get the hell out of Egypt. He's funny enough to get a job anywhere, and he could always make fun of the Egyptian government over the internet (though not nearly as effectively).

The least we can do is support these people as best we can. That's not much, maybe, but the U.S. government does have influence, and so do democratic governments everywhere. Unfortunately, our governments tend to be willing to trade lives for their own convenience, so we citizens of free countries need to hold them accountable.

We need to pay attention, and we need to express our concerns. That's the least we can do.

Support the Constitution by gutting it

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This reminds me of those über-patriots who are constantly pushing secession. Yeah, that's really the way to show your patriotism, isn't it? How better to show support for your nation than your eagerness to secede from it?

Likewise, how better to show your support for our freedoms under the U.S. Constitution than to seek to end all those freedoms? Oh, sorry, not all of our freedoms, obviously. But, apparently, the only part of the Constitution these right-wing loons want to keep is the Second Amendment.

Yeah, get rid of the rest of that stuff, huh? Who needs it? And Jon didn't even mention the religious right's attempt to abandon freedom of religion and the strict separation of church and state. Heck, they even want to create official state religions! (Guess which one?)

But this is also a matter of our hysterical fear of terrorism. And it's an irrational fear pushed by Fox 'News' not just for political advantage, but also for commercial advantage. They work hard to keep their viewers hysterically fearful, because that pays off for them financially, as well as politically.

Combine this with the need for right-wing political pundits to say increasingly insane things - just to get noticed, among all the other right-wing political pundits - and you get some really crazy opinions. And these are crazy, aren't they?

Jon Stewart does a great job demonstrating that, don't you think? Well, if you don't agree, feel free to secede, you patriot, you. :)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The wonder of lax zoning laws


The fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, probably hasn't received as much attention as it should, given the Boston Marathon bombing, too. It's really been a surfeit of disasters, hasn't it? But I wanted to post this image, which really drives home the problem of lax zoning laws.

From Daily Kos:
It's tragic enough that maybe three dozen were killed because of the gross negligence of the owners of West Fertilizer Co in West, Texas.

But compounding the carnage, it seems as if half the town was leveled including several schools and houses five blocks from the plant. But wait, there were houses five blocks from a fertilizer plant? There were actually houses across the street from this plant, and not just houses, but two of the town's three schools...

Fertilizer is a well-known component of homemade bombs for a reason—it's extremely explosive. The thought that people would build homes around a fertilizer plant boggles the mind, the thought that they would build two schools directly adjacent to it is borderline criminal. What if that explosion had occurred during school hours? ...

The middle school suffered severe fire damage. An apartment building adjacent the plant was completely leveled, killing about 15. See that tan circle off the northwest corner of the plant? That was a playground. A nursing home was within the blast radius and was completely leveled. You can see many more pictures of the damage here.

There is a reason zoning laws exist. But Texas being Texas, apparently the "freedom" to set up shop next to a bomb trumps everything else—including the lives and properties of far too many in West.

Now, I don't know what caused this explosion, but I really suspect that it's too early to be throwing around accusations of "gross negligence." That might be true, but let's wait for the evidence.

However, just look at that image! (Click it to enlarge the picture, if necessary.) That's why reasonable, rational people support zoning laws!

I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, and I can remember my Dad - a right-wing Republican if there ever was one - complaining that they couldn't get zoning laws passed in the town. So it's not just Texas, not at all. (Still, would any place but Texas put schools next to a fertilizer plant?)

No, government is not always the problem. And yes, we need regulations, because we're social animals. We live together in groups, and what you do can affect your neighbor, sometimes disastrously.

Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of zoning laws, and about the exact restrictions written into the law. But look at that image, and the one below, and tell me that we don't need zoning laws at all.


More photos here. Make sure you've read this post from a volunteer at the retirement home, too.

Deep thinking


Thomas Herndon and austerity's spreadsheet error



I've already blogged about this one, too, on Monday, but I like how Stephen Colbert does it (as I like most of his stuff). Plus, he has an interview with Thomas Herndon, which is kind of fun.

And there are a couple of things about this I didn't know - for one, that the original paper hadn't been peer-reviewed. Peer-review is designed to catch these things before publication. This is a good example of why it's necessary.

Frankly, this is an example of the right-wing jumping all over a paper which was not peer-reviewed, just because it seemed to justify what they wanted to do already. Now, that's human nature, true, but it should be a cautionary tale for us all, not just the right-wing. (And I'll admit right now that I'm doing much the same thing here.)

But the other thing I didn't know is that Reinhart and Rogoff are sticking with their conclusions, despite admitting that the data doesn't back them up (or, at least, admitting to the spreadsheet error - I don't know about the rest of it). Well, they've got a lot riding on this. They've become rather famous in right-wing circles, with everyone citing their paper.

And this is just human nature, too. Social scientists - and physical scientists, as well - are still human beings. But in both cases, the consensus is what matters. No human being likes to be wrong, so we tend to be reluctant to admit being wrong. Luckily, none of us have any qualms about demonstrating that someone else was wrong, and that's what happens in both science and economics.

Herndon has made a name for himself - while still just a graduate student! - by demonstrating that Reinhart and Rogoff were wrong. Assuming he's right, that's really going to give his career a boost. Whether Reinhart and Rogoff change their mind or not isn't important, not really. What's important is the consensus of the experts.

Compare this to religion. Imagine how a priest would fare after demonstrating that the Pope was wrong! Each religion already claims to know the truth (although they can't agree on what that truth is), and heretics aren't ever welcome. In science - and in the social sciences - successful heretics are the heroes of their fields of expertise. In religion, they'd be lucky if they were just excommunicated.

Gun control and political suicide

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I posted the first part of this last week. This part is just as good,... and might give you even more to think about.

The problem with being a successful politician in America is that re-election becomes everything. You're not 'successful' if you don't get re-elected, and I'm sure it's easy to tell yourself that you're that important, no matter what you manage to accomplish.

Eventually, you'll retire or be defeated and some other 'successful' politician will take over. And what will you have accomplished then?

In 1964, Democrats in Congress and the White House did what was right, rather than what was politically smart, when they passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation. They knew, most of them, what it would mean, that they'd lose the South, which had been the Democratic stronghold for more than a century.

And they did. Cynical Republican leaders began their 'Southern strategy' of deliberately wooing white racists and they took the South for themselves. Now the South is solidly Republican, where it was once solidly Democratic. And the Republican Party has used the resulting political power to disastrous effect here in America.

But that was still the right thing to do in 1964, don't you agree? Race had been a serious, nearly insurmountable, problem in America for hundreds of years, and we've made huge progress since the Democratic Party took that principled stand.

Should they have abandoned civil rights and kept those racist Dixiecrats in their party, maintaining political power at the expense of what was right? Would that have been the mark of 'successful' politicians then? The party certainly suffered for that, and so did our country.

But not nearly as much as if they hadn't done the right thing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why do we freak out about terrorism?

From The Guardian (UK):
The thriving metropolis of Boston was turned into a ghost town on Friday. Nearly a million Bostonians were asked to stay in their homes – and willingly complied. Schools were closed; business shuttered; trains, subways and roads were empty; usually busy streets eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set; even baseball games and cultural events were cancelled – all in response to a 19-year-old fugitive, who was on foot and clearly identified by the news media.

The actions allegedly committed by the Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were heinous. Four people dead and more than 100 wounded, some with shredded and amputated limbs.

But Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They're right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we've seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the "threat" of terrorism. ...

To be sure, public officials in Boston appeared to be acting out of an abundance of caution. And it's appropriate for Boston residents to be asked to take precautions or keep their eyes open. But by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major American city, Boston not only bowed to outsize and irrational fears, but sent a dangerous message to every would-be terrorist – if you want to wreak havoc in the United States, intimidate its population and disrupt public order, here's your instruction booklet.

Putting aside the economic and psychological cost, the lockdown also prevented an early capture of the alleged bomber, who was discovered after Bostonians were given the all clear and a Watertown man wandered into his backyard for a cigarette and found a bleeding terrorist on his boat.

The thing is, this is exactly what terrorism is designed to do. But why does it work so spectacularly well on us Americans? Why do we make such great victims?

Weak people turn to terrorism because they simply have no effective way to attack their enemies (or perceived enemies, at least). Terrorism is the weapon of the impotent. It's designed to provoke a reaction that's completely out of proportion to the event itself. That's the whole point.

Now, true, in this case we didn't overreact as badly as we did after 9/11. Starting two wars (one against a completely innocent country, which had no connection to the attacks whatsoever), torturing prisoners of war, and creating a nightmare experience for air travelers - those, among other things, were all horrendous overreactions. Al-Qaeda must have been overjoyed at their success.

But it still seems odd, especially given our unconcern about other, much more serious, threats:
In some regards, there is a positive spin on this – it's a reflection of how little Americans have to worry about terrorism. A population such as London during the IRA bombings or Israel during the second intifada or Baghdad, pretty much every day, becomes inured to random political violence. Americans who have such little experience of terrorism, relatively speaking, are more primed to overreact – and assume the absolute worst when it comes to the threat of a terror attack. It is as if somehow in the American imagination, every terrorist is a not just a mortal threat, but is a deadly combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond.

If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country. There's something quite fitting and ironic about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the Senate blocked consideration of a gun control bill that would have strengthened background checks for potential buyers. Even though this reform is supported by more than 90% of Americans, and even though 56 out of 100 senators voted in favour of it, the Republican minority prevented even a vote from being held on the bill because it would have allegedly violated the second amendment rights of "law-abiding Americans".

So for those of you keeping score at home – locking down an American city: a proper reaction to the threat from one terrorist. A background check to prevent criminals or those with mental illness from purchasing guns: a dastardly attack on civil liberties. All of this would be almost darkly comic if not for the fact that more Americans will die needlessly as a result. Already, more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks). ...

The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.

At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.

It's not just firearms that produce such legislative inaction. Last week, a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, which hasn't been inspected by federal regulators since 1985, exploded, killing 14 people and injuring countless others. Yet many Republicans want to cut further the funding for the agency (OSHA) that is responsible for such reviews. The vast majority of Americans die from one of four ailments – cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease – and yet Republicans have held three dozen votes to repeal Obamacare, which expands healthcare coverage to 30 million Americans.

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on "others" – jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers etc. But the lurking dangers all around us – the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day – these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will. And so the violence goes, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side – we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.

Yes, partly, it's because we have so little experience with terrorism, while gun violence is commonplace. But a lot of it is the media, too. Terrorism is dramatic. Sadly, most gun violence is just... ordinary.

On television, terrorists are master criminals, barely kept at bay each week through the desperate actions of American heroes (and a great deal of luck). We seem less and less able to distinguish fantasy from reality, and super-villains are well established in American fiction, so in our imaginations, one wounded 19-year-old is a huge threat to everyone.

And let's face it, we like having enemies, especially powerful enemies. I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it looked for awhile like America wouldn't have any significant enemies. Right-wingers seemed to be in a state of panic, desperate for an enemy, any enemy (but preferably one to justify lots of military spending). Diseases just aren't the same.

I don't know. I certainly don't mean to minimize the horror of randomly bombing innocent people in  Boston. But when it comes to our response, it might just be that hysteria is addicting. We seem to be in a permanent state of hysteria these days, over almost anything.

I've often wondered if we Americans have become a nation of cowards, but maybe we've just become a nation of fear addicts.

___
PS. This was another link from Jim Harris. Again, my thanks!

The student who proved the GOP wrong

This is an interesting article at Salon:
Since 2010, the names of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become famous in political and economic circles. These two Harvard economists wrote a paper, “Growth in the Time of Debt” that has been used by everyone from Paul Ryan to Olli Rehn of the European Commission to justify harmful austerity policies. The authors purported to show that once a country’s gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90 percent, economic growth slows dramatically. Debt, in other words, seemed very scary and bad.

Their historical data appeared impressive, as did their credentials. Policymakers and journalists cited the paper to convince the public that instead of focusing on the jobs crisis that was hampering recovery, we should instead focus on deficits. The deficit hawks jumped up and down with excitement.

But something didn’t smell right.

Progressive economists I knew were shocked at what appeared to be the shoddiness of the research and the absurdity of the conclusions. In their paper “A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession,” Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson observed that R&R had truncated their sample of British data in a way that skewed their conclusions, eliminating more than a century of data in which British debt loads exploded but economic growth raced ahead (see pages 11–13). The always savvy Marshall Auerback called them out in a blog for New Deal 2.0, which I edited at the time, criticizing the relevance of the cases they had used to justify their conclusions.

But plenty of pundits took their suspect arguments as gospel. The editorial board of the Washington Post declared that “debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth.” The economists cited were Reinhart and Rogoff, whom the WP passed off as speaking for the entire field. A new Washington consensus was born, and the public was hammered with the idea that cutting jobs, stripping away vital public services and letting infrastructure crumble was a good way to get the economy going. Most any ordinary person on the street would probably intuit that this made no sense, but there was this Academic Research By Esteemed Persons, so the argument was over.

Enter Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the heroes of this story. Herndon, a 28-year-old graduate student, tried to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results as part of a class excercise and couldn’t do it. He asked R&R to send their data spreadsheet, which had never been made public. This allowed him to see how the data was put together, and Herndon could not believe what he found. Looking at the data with his professors, Ash and Pollin, he found a whole host of problems, including selective exclusion of years of high debt and average growth, a problematic method of weighing countries, and this jaw-dropper: a coding error in the Excel spreadsheet that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. ...

In their newly released paper, “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff” Herndon, Ash and Pollin show that “when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0:1 percent as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. That is, contrary to R&R, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.”

Herndon, Ash, and Pollin have set off a firestorm, with those who long suspected that R&R’s work was crap shouting hallelujah and defenders scrambling to figure out a way to support deficit hysteria despite the body blow to their theory.

Bottom line: The foundation of the entire global push for austerity and debt reduction in the last several years has been based on a screwup in an Excel spreadsheet and poorly constructed data.

Apparently, Reinhart and Rogoff admit their mistake. But what's the response to this on the right? Note this column in Forbes magazine:
In reality, the only lesson to be drawn from this episode is that academic economics, like many social sciences, is grounded in hubris and pseudo-precision. And that the modern urge to demand an academic study to “prove” or justify inherently complex and ambiguous decisions is antithetical to clear thinking.

Get that? The lesson to be drawn from this is that we shouldn't listen to the experts. Instead, apparently, we should just believe whatever we want to believe, without requiring "proof" or even justification.

I take something a little different from this. These are economists, not scientists, but they still have other people, independent researchers, double-checking their work. They are still evidence-based, which means that, when they make a mistake - as everyone does, sometimes - other economists catch it, at least eventually.

Republicans jumped on that first study only because it seemed to back up what they already believed. And yeah, that's human nature. I'd do the same thing, probably, in their shoes (and, clearly, so would the author of that Salon article). However, I'd be willing to change my mind when the evidence indicated that the first study was fatally flawed. Faith-based people won't.

As I say, this shows the necessity of listening to evidence-based experts. They may be wrong, but how else are you going to make "inherently complex and ambiguous decisions"? With your gut? And if they are wrong, they'll eventually discover that. That's how science advances, and that's how economics advances, too (more slowly, because independently-replicable controlled experiments are very hard to do in economics).

Compare this with faith-based politicians. Republicans are still pushing 'trickle-down' economics, still pushing tax cuts for the rich, still pushing deregulation, despite the complete and utter failure of those policies during the Bush administration. Well, when you're faith-based, the evidence doesn't matter. You just know you're right, despite the evidence.

I don't propose that we blindly accept what an expert says about anything, because "experts" are still human. But I do suggest that the consensus of experts is far more likely to be right than my gut feelings. That's especially the case when it comes to scientific issues, since the scientific method has proven itself as the best way to distinguish reality from delusion and wishful-thinking.

But it's also true when it comes to the social sciences. You don't just pick an expert and go with that (since, obviously, you'll just pick someone who agrees with what you want to believe), but you do listen to the consensus. And if you're shown to be wrong, you change your mind.

___
PS. My thanks to Jim Harris for the link.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Are you a homophobe?



I really admire people who can overcome their upbringing like this. I never had that problem. My parents were conventionally conservative and conventionally religious (which meant that Mom took us to church on Sundays), but I was never exposed to fundamentalist Christianity.

And when I was a kid, gay rights weren't even an issue. Of course, if I'd been gay, they would have been, no doubt - certainly for me! But it wasn't something you heard about, or not very often. Homosexuals stayed very firmly in the closet, at least here in Nebraska.

Out town was all white, all Christian, and all straight - at least, as far as I knew. And while that might make some people bigots, for me it meant I could get my information from books (I was always a big reader), rather than from local idiots.

And my parents tried to teach me right. They were bigoted, but they didn't realize it, so they didn't teach me that bigotry was right. (I'm talking about racial bigotry, primarily, but I didn't have any problem extrapolating from that. In fact, the first lesson I remember in tolerance was about Jews.)

I also like this video because it takes a somewhat different tack than most such arguments. Variety is great, isn't it? And this information might help some people understand reality (as, apparently, it helped this man, himself).

Now, if you didn't get enough of the disgusting religious displays of homophobia in this video, I'll post his followup, too. It's not easy to watch, I'll admit. But it does end well. So it's not as depressing at it might seem, at first.



Why we're succeeding on social issues, failing on economic issues



I've wondered about this, too. We don't seem to be making the same progress on economic issues that we're making on many social issues.

Despite the screaming from the right, they've already lost on gay rights. We've made really dramatic progress there. I'm still surprised by it. And despite lingering racism, they've given up entirely on issues of segregation, anti-miscegenation, and fair housing/employment laws. Even when it comes to immigration, Republicans are starting to throw in the towel (desperate as they are for Hispanic votes).

But when it comes to economic issues, we've seen no progress at all. Democrats these days are more conservative than Republicans decades ago, and Republicans have gone completely insane. When it comes to economic issues, Barack Obama readily gives Republicans most of what they want,... and the only reason they don't accept it is because they refuse to accept anything from Obama.

For decades, the right-wing has controlled the rhetoric on economic issues in a way they haven't on social issues, despite the fact that their policies proved to be absolutely disastrous failures during the Bush years. It's not just that Republicans stick to 'trickle-down' economics, deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and cuts in social (though not military) spending, but Democrats do, too - despite the evidence.

Gun control is kind of in the middle, and I think Reich overlooks the connection there. Overwhelmingly, the American public has moved towards progressive positions - favoring universal background checks and bans on assault weapons, machine pistols, and large magazines - but politicians have not. What's the difference? Money.

Just like wealthy interests control the debate on economic policies by their campaign contributions to politicians, gun and ammo manufacturers use their incredible profits to buy Congressmen, themselves. (Note that it doesn't have to be direct. They can just threaten to run negative ads against a Congressman, to get him to toe the NRA line. Politicians tend to be hopeless cowards.)

Still, his main point is valid. There's no money to be made when it comes to social issues. Wealthy individuals might have their own opinions, and they certainly do spend money to influence these issues, but they don't make a profit from homophobia, so it's not the same to them, not at all. But if you're making money from oil and gas drilling, from refineries, from fossil fuel use in general, you very definitely have an economic incentive to attack the science of global warming, for example.

And, unfortunately, it's very easy to believe what you want to believe. That's just human nature. Did you wonder how tobacco company executives could live with themselves for denying the health effects of smoking for so long? They weren't all sociopaths, I'm sure. They just had a vested interest in believing otherwise (and especially a vested interest in making other people think otherwise).

When you're wealthy yourself, it's easy to believe that tax cuts for the rich are a good thing. That's just the way it is. A few billionaires will overcome that bias, but most won't. More to the point, when you're making boatloads of money from a government policy, you'll almost certainly support that policy. And nothing has become more important than money in our political system.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Charles Darwin schools Kirk Cameron



As long as I'm trying to cheer you up, I might as well post this, too. :)

It's kind of fun, don't you think?

She's OK, we're all OK

Fertilizer plant explosion, West, TX

Need a break from depressing news? I know I do.

Are you fed up with teenage mass murderers, mean-spirited religious leaders, and lying politicians trying to drown America in a bathtub? Oh, and how about those gun nuts?

Well, this cheered me up, and maybe it will you, too. It's a horrible tragedy, true, but those things happen (not to say we shouldn't investigate such things and work to make sure they don't happen again).

But it's our response to such things which really matters.
I've been home for a couple of hours..I'm exhausted..The blast was at the fertilizer plant and it's across town from where I live. Which is about 4 miles tops. But it destroyed: West Rest Haven where I did Jackie's Kitchen once a month, where my Granddaughter works with her mother who is the Activity Director. When it blew I was on the computer and it almost knocked me out of my chair..and I'm such an idiot..my first thought was "well, that little asshole North Korean does have a bomb." ...

When she told me the fertilizer plant had blown up and that the nursing home had been damaged I said I'm going. She said not to go that the other one could blow at any time. I said "I'm going."..I drove straight down Reagan Street and passed a house on fire and then on the right I could see the Jr. High School was on fire and then I could see the apts which are directly across the street from the nursing home and it was almost a shell..I parked in my usual place and got my flashlight and leaving my keys in truck and purse too and went inside..

 I along with a bunch of other people were taking residents out in wheel chairs ...water everywhere, the ceiling had falling, beeping alarms, insulation knee deep in places..I was soaked from head to toe..water leaking from the sprinklers and plaster all over the place. Each room with windows caved in, furniture upside down, beds turned over. The dinning room was a jumble of chairs and tables . One of the nurses said the building just imploded..the roof went up and then came down and the windows blew in at the same time. I can't describe the carnage..Blood everywhere..sweet old people huddled in their wheel chairs, some with blood all over them and some just in shock. The amount of immediate help was wonderful to see..They got all the residents to the senior center for emergency help. We went through the building about 4-5 times to make sure we got everyone. ...

I stayed with as many as I could till their family got there. I think I got back home about 1 or so..don't remember. I have blisters all over my feet and my back and legs are killing me..But I am not bitching..I have my apt, my cat, I didn't lose any family members, but lost friends.

We saw this in Boston, too - people rushing to help in situations of stunning horror. Even in complete disaster, this kind of behavior has to lift your spirits, doesn't it?

We Americans - we human beings - aren't as bad as it seems sometimes.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ask an atheist


Dang, I missed it! Yesterday was National Ask an Atheist Day.

Well, that's OK. You can ask me anything, anytime.

Go ahead, ask. If it's about atheism, I'll do my best to answer.

It's a free country


Click image to embiggen.

How the gun lobby blocked bombing investigators


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Given the recent Boston Marathon bombing, this is particularly pertinent, isn't it? The NRA hasn't just blocked gun control, it has deliberately hobbled bombing investigators, too.

Think about it. This is the organization which has Congressmen running scared. Incredible, isn't it?

From MSNBC:
One avenue of investigation is already closed off to forensic officials working the Boston Marathon bombing case due to efforts dating back decades by the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers.

The FBI said Tuesday that gunpowder, along with pieces of metal and ball bearings, were packed into at least one pressure cooker and another device to make the crude bombs that killed three people—including an 8-year-old boy—and wounded more than 170 more during the Boston Marathon Monday.

But a crucial piece of evidence called a taggant that could be used to trace the gunpowder used in the bombs to a buyer at a point of sale is not available to investigators.

“If you had a good taggant this would be a good thing for this kind of crime. It could help identify the point of manufacturer, and chain of custody,” Bob Morhard, an explosives consultant and chief executive officer of Zukovich, Morhard & Wade, LLC., in Pennsylvania, who has traced explosives and detonators in use in the United States and Saudi Arabia, told MSNBC.com. “The problem is nobody wants to know what the material is.”

And why does "nobody" want to know this?
“These taggants would allow the police to identify the maker and even the lot of the ammo by the taggant,” posted blogger dfariswheel online in January in a closed gun-forum called AR15.com, a longstanding group named for the same type of military-style, semi-automatic rifle used in both the Newtown grade school and Aurora movie theater mass shootings.

Get that? If you could identify the gunpowder, you might be able to catch the bomber or the shooter who used it.

To NRA supporters (the NRA itself refuses to comment, of course), that means the big bad government will be able to track you down during the revolution, or the race war, or the next attempt by 'patriots' to secede - or whatever loony thing they imagine is imminent.

To sane people, it means that terrorists and other criminals now have an easier time getting away with murder.

PS. Thanks to Jeff for the link.

Killing my soul

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I like - or, rather, I don't like - how the media call this "the most far-reaching gun control legislation in two decades." For one thing, it's not far-reaching if it doesn't pass Congress. But for another, these were a series of separate proposals, none of which - like banning assault weapons or large, military-style magazines - had the slightest chance of passing, except for expanded background checks.

And even that was a watered-down proposal from two Senators who both have an 'A' rating from the NRA. It wasn't the "universal background checks" which are overwhelmingly supported by the American people. This just expanded background checks to gun shows and internet sales - beneficial, sure, but a relatively small step forward.

Of course, even that didn't pass, since it was filibustered. (Yes, a clear majority of senators supported it, but we don't have a democracy in the U.S. Senate anymore.)

Still, I guess when gun control legislation has been completely off the table for decades, anything could be called "far-reaching," huh?

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To my shame, that Sen. Mike Johanns is from Nebraska. I called his office to express my disappointment with his vote. But when his staff answered, I realized that my expectations of Johanns are so low that nothing he did could really be considered a 'disappointment.' I simply don't expect anything else.

I did suggest, however, that they either buy him a dictionary or a computer game (ideally, both). No, Senator, in a computer game you are not "literally shooting at people." And not a single person who plays video games thinks that they are "literally shooting at people."

In a game, no one gets hurt. That's why even pacifists play war games - because it's not real. We talk about dying in games, but it's not literally true. No one really dies. If I had a chance of literally dying, I wouldn't be playing these games, I assure you!

Games are just make-believe - kind of like the Republican Party. The difference is that everyone who plays games knows that they're just fantasy.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Demonic" D&D "literally destroyed people's lives"



I may not be as old as Pat Robertson, but I'm too old to have played Dungeons & Dragons, at least as a tabletop game. I'm definitely sorry about that, since it really was a great game.

I have played computer games based on it, of course (many of them only loosely based on D&D). I even played a few PBEM games, years ago. And the thing is, gamers understand quite well that magic is just fantasy. It's only Christians - and other religious believers - who think magic is real.

It's a game. Games aren't demonic, because... well, for one thing, demons aren't real, either! Everyone who plays a game knows that he's playing a game. It's really hard to mistake it for real life. Unless, of course, you're a religious nut who doesn't know the first thing about it.

Oh, and Harry Potter is just fiction, too, Pat. In case you were wondering.

Tea Party group seeks to arrest political opponents

Have we reached a limit on crazy yet? Or is there a limit?
Enter the TEA Party Republicans of New Hampshire. As reported last week in the Huffington Post, TEA Partiers in the state have taken up a petition to have removed and arrested one hundred and eighty-nine law makers who voted to repeal the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law. (The article in its entirety can be read here.)

As the Post reports:
Tea party Republicans in New Hampshire want to press criminal charges against state legislators…and kick them out of office. Two Republican members of the state House of Representatives and a former state GOP chairman have filed a petition to remove 189 members of the state House and file criminal charges against them for their March 27 vote to repeal the controversial gun law. The group claims that the vote violates the lawmakers’ oath of office, unconstitutionally challenges the Second Amendment and fails to adhere to state constitutional protections on life.

Now I don’t normally compare or call people fascist, but when I do it usually involves someone trying to arrest and imprison another for disagreeing on a political issue. Fortunately, the vitamin deficiency that prevents right-wing conservatives from properly absorbing irony has kept this group from realizing that they are advocating for gun rights, partly because they claim guns will keep them safe from oppressive political forces, while simultaneously attempting to use politics to oppress people they disagree with.

Yes America, this has what we have come to. Conservatives fearful that gun reform will eventually lead to fascist governments, that can arrest and jail people for disagreeing on politics, have decided to take the initiative and start pushing for the arrests early! In other words fascism minus all that bureaucratic paperwork! This early arrival only proves that the GOP really is the party of less government.

What can I say, other than to thank Jeff for the link? The level of crazy on the right just keeps rising. Will we ever see it peak?

Accidental racist, oopsie-daisy homophobe


Yeah, I'm a big fan of country-western music, too - not! And I'm almost as big a fan of rap music. Put them together and I'd rather listen to a dental drill. Or maybe jazz. :)

But when they're this stupid, well, I really yearn for that dental drill.

OK, I suppose they meant well. That has to count for something. But still, I've got to love Colbert's parody.

We must never forget

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Jon Stewart: "See, the thing about a moral compass is, if you take it out and check it from time to time, you don't have to wait for history to tell you you're facing the wrong direction."

We must never forget what fear made us do. We must never forget how our elected leaders betrayed our country in this way. We must never forget how idiotic and counterproductive this was, even if it hadn't been morally despicable (which it was).

Do you think the Germans and the Japanese weren't scared during World War II? Do you think they didn't have good reasons for torturing prisoners - or thought they did, at least? But we held them accountable for that, after the war.

In America, we've held no one accountable. In America, we swept it all under the rug (not just the torture, either, but the lies that got us to invade a completely innocent country, too). In America, those Republican leaders still claim they did the right thing - though they don't do it in foreign jurisdictions where they'd likely be arrested for war crimes!

This is what happens when you let irrational fear rule. Fear is a useful emotion, in moderation, but when hysterical, irrational, blind fear takes over, you can end up doing terrible, terrible things. And, maybe worst of all, stupid things, too.

The Bush administration didn't just trash America's reputation. They didn't just trample on our sacred honor. They didn't just extinguish that "shining light on a hill." They also did all that in a way that made us less safe.

And less proud to be Americans, too. That's what really hurts. It's a sad chapter in American  history, and we have too many of those, already.

PS. For more information, here's a Reuters article. And here's a link to the report itself.

Enjoying the rat race?


I'm out of the rat race, myself,... but I do miss that cheese!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Background checks voted down



Christ, can you believe it? Twenty little kids, and their teachers, were murdered - just the latest in a long series of massacres - and we couldn't even get background checks through Congress!

I've seen polls indicating that increased background checks are favored by 91% of Americans (and even 87% of Republicans), but the gun manufacturers still have that much power, the NRA still has that much power. It's just incredible, isn't it?

And this wasn't even universal background checks - to say nothing of a ban on assault weapons or machine pistols - but a wimpy little 'compromise' bill, full of loopholes, designed to keep Republicans happy. Yet even that couldn't get through the Senate!

Oh, it received more than a majority of votes, but we don't have a democracy in the U.S. Senate anymore. Everything is filibustered these days (although not the old-style filibuster, because Republicans don't even have to do anything). And again this year, Democrats were too timid to change that.

What will it take? Do you know why we don't have more bombings, like the recent attack in Boston? It's because we have strict regulations on explosives.

Oh, well. This is outrageous, it's frustrating, it's maddening, but what can you do but weep for our country? How did America get to be like this? Sometimes, I really lose hope for the future.