Half full or half empty?

February 19, 2017

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The beauty of fog

February 18, 2017

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I never thought of fog as beautiful.  Or that it could come in waves.

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These photographs were taken by Nick Steinberg over an eight-year period in the San Francisco Bay area, using high peaks such as Mount Tamalpais as his vantage point.  What a labor of love that must have been!

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It’s good to remember that there are other things in the world besides politics and economics.

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Why do things cost so much?

February 17, 2017

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Scott Alexander, a physician in the Midwest, points out on his blog that during the past 50 years—

  • U.S. housing costs have increased about 50 percent.
  • U.S. education costs have increased 100 percent
  • U.S. college costs have increased 400 percent.
  • U.S. subway fares have increased 400 percent or more.

All of this is adjusted for inflation.

  • Health care in the United States costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries
  • U.S. subways costs about eight times as much as equivalent subways on other First World countries.

The wages and salaries of public school teachers, college professors, nurses and physicians has meanwhile remained relatively flat.

As Alexander points out, this is strange.

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Timothy Snyder on the 1930s playbook

February 16, 2017

There is a playbook from the 1930s that some people in the presidential administration are following.  This includes picking a minority in your country, associate it with a global threat and use the notion of a global struggle as a way to create national solidarity while neglecting the nation’s actual problems.

This is a quote from an article by historian Timothy Snyder for Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.

What did Michael Flynn do that was so bad?

February 15, 2017

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after the FBI or NSA revealed that he talked to the Russian ambassador about economic sanctions prior to President Trump being sworn in.

Michael T. Flynn

Michael T. Flynn

He reportedly asked the Russian ambassador to ask his government hold back on retaliating against President Obama’s economic sanctions because the Trump administration would have a new policy.

President Obama’s actions, taken during his lame-duck period, could have put Russia and the USA on a path of tit-for-tat retaliation that would have made it harder from the Trump administration to improve U.S.-Russian relations later on.

De-escalating was a good thing, not a bad thing.

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I agree that General Flynn was not a good choice for the post of national security adviser.  He was evidently a brave and honorable commander in the field, but he did not function well at headquarters, for which reason he was fired by President Barack Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

He thinks the West is in a war with the whole Islamic world, not just the Islamic State (ISIS), Al Qaeda and their sympathizers.   He is a war hawk regarding Iran.  He would have been likely to get the United States into pointless wars—just not a pointless war with Russia.

I would consider his departure, in and of itself, a good thing, but for the fact that he will almost certainly be replaced by someone else just as bad or maybe worse.

The problem is that he was forced out for (1) trying to stop the slide toward military confrontation with Russia, and that the forcing out was done (2) by intelligence agencies with policy agendas different from the White House.

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When the United States rigged Russia’s election

February 14, 2017

Twenty years ago, the U.S. government intervened in Russia’s election to put Boris Yeltsin in power.

Mark Ames, editor of the English-language eXile magazine in Moscow in the 1990s, explained all this in an interview with Abby Martin for The Empire Files.

He told how the Clinton administration managed his election campaign, and the International Monetary Fund pumped money into Russia to keep the Russian government going.

With the guidance of economists from Harvard University, Yeltsin sold off Russia’s national assets to foreign corporations and Russian individuals who became the oligarchs who dominate Russia today.   With U.S. approval, he shut down the Russian parliament and concentrated power in his own hands.   Independent journalists were murdered.   Oligarchs took over the independent press.

The Russian people were reduced to a state of misery not seen since Stalin’s rule in the 1930s.  The death rate soared and the birth rate fell.  Eventually even the Russian stock market crashed.

Source: The Diplomat

Source: The Diplomat

Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s right-hand man.   The U.S. government accepted him as a reliable successor to Yeltsin.  But when Putin refused to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. turned against him.

I wrote in a previous post that Vladimir Putin is a killer.  But every abuse of power by Putin was made possible by Yeltsin.

Boris Yeltsin in fact was more of a killer than Putin, but the American government didn’t care because he was willing to subordinate Russia’s national interests to the interests of American and other foreign corporations.

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Things (some) women don’t see about men

February 14, 2017

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Steve Bannon’s wars, at home and abroad

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon is President Trump’s most trusted adviser.   He is the second most powerful person in the Trump administration.

He is guided by a dangerously wrong philosophy.

He thinks that Judeo-Christian civilization is at war with the Moslem world abroad, and with secularists and Muslims at home.

He expects a shooting war with China and as well as a shooting war in the Middle East.

He sees himself as part of a global nationalist movement that includes the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and similar movements across Europe.

He has expressed admiration for Lenin and Karl Rove, and has compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.

Trump owes him.  He and Jared Kushner, through their skilled use of data mining and social media, are responsible for Trump’s victory in the 2016 Election.

His idea that Americans are engaged in both a civil war and a global war could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Steve Bannon, born in 1953, has had a varied career as U.S. Naval officer, mergers and acquisitions specialist for Goldman Sachs, and executive producer in Hollywood.  He has degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard University.

He was a little-known but influential figure even before he joined the Trump campaign.  Among his films are documentaries on Ronald Reagan, Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin and an expose of Occupy Wall Street.  He was on the board of directors of Breitbart News and became executive chair when founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012.  Another Bannon organization sponsored opposition research on Hillary Clinton which resulted in the book, Clinton Cash, and many articles in mainstream newspapers about the Clintons’ conflicts of interest.

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The hollow populism of Steve Bannon

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon, the chief adviser to President Donald Trump, is probably the most influential person in the Trump administration besides Trump himself.

But I find it hard to get a handle on Bannon’s thinking, since he shuns the limelight, and hasn’t written any books or magazine articles I could get hold of,

His 2010 documentary film, Generation Zero, is probably as good a guide to his thinking as anything else.

It is well done and, despite being 90 minutes long, held my interest—at least until the last 10 minutes of so, which consists of restatements of the main points.

Generation Zero is an analysis of the roots and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, which Bannon rightly blames on crony capitalism, the unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington that began in the 1990s.

But if you look at the film’s action items, what he really does—knowingly or unknowingly—is to protect Wall Street by diverting the public’s attention from what’s really needed, which is criminal prosecution of financial fraud and the break-up of “too big to fail” institutions.

Bannon presents himself as an enemy of corrupt politicians and financiers.  But there is nothing he advocates in the film or otherwise that threatens the power of either.

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Generation Zero draws on a book, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who claim there is a cycle in American politics based on the succession of generations.  Each cycle consists of four turnings—(1) a heroic response to a crisis, (2) a new cultural or religious awakening, (3) an unraveling and (4) a crisis.

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Ian Welsh on happiness

February 12, 2017

Blogger Ian Welsh says the first step to being happy is to stop making yourself unhappy.

I live in a single room, in a downscale neighborhood.  I sleep on some pads on the floor.  I am in debt, and I have a couple of serious health problems.

Yukon raven by gavatronI am also happy most of the time.

I’ll be sitting in my garret and thinking, “God, life is amazing.  This is wonderful.”

And I’ll laugh and mock myself, “What’s good about this?  You’re poor, sick, overweight, and broke.”  All that is true, but I’m happy (and my health is improving, no worries, I don’t expect to die soon, though who knows).

So I’m going to give some unsolicited advice on how to be happy even though your life sucks, because, well, I’m pretty good at it.

The first step is to not be unhappy.

(Insert head smacking motion from readers.)

Seriously, though, start there. Or, as I like to say: “The whole of the path is not giving a fuck.”

Run out of fucks.  Do not restock.  Life will seem a lot better.

Please don’t mistake Welsh’s philosophy for indifference to the world or other people.   He is engaged with the world through his excellent political blog.   He is concerned about world events.  He just doesn’t let world events make him miserable.

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Maybe we all really can get along

February 11, 2017

This Danish television program takes people who fit in different boxes ethnicity, belief and social and economic class, and shows the commonalities that exist across these divisions.   Who among you was the class clown? they were asked.  Who are step-parents?   Who is madly in love?

It’s easy to put people in boxes.  There’s us and there’s them.  The high-earners and those just getting by.  Those we trust and those we try to avoid.  There’s the new Danes and those who’ve always been here.  The people from the countryside and those who’ve never seen a cow.  The religious and the self-confident.  There are those we share something with and those we don’t share anything with.

And then suddenly, there’s us.  We who believe in life after death, we who’ve seen UFOs, and all of us who love to dance.  We who’ve been bullied and we who’ve bullied others.

  Maybe we all really can get along.   Hat tip to kottke.org.

Why I’m not sorry I voted for Jill Stein

February 8, 2017

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Hillary Clinton was not defeated by a white working class uprising in favor of Donald Trump.

And she was not defeated by the defection of liberals and progressives to Jill Stein.

She was defeated by her personal failure, and the failure of the Democratic Party overall, to hold the votes of its core supporters—black and white, male and female.

It is important to remember this because merely attacking President Trump (as justified as these attacks may be) will not, in and of itself, bring back the Democratic vote.

You can’t beat something with nothing.   Unless Democrats offer a path to prosperity and peace, they will very likely lose and, even if they win, their victories won’t matter.

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Is it fair to call Vladimir Putin a killer?

February 7, 2017

In a word, yes.

Vladimir Putin is clearly implicated in killings of Russian citizens.

It is true that Barack Obama also initiated a policy of killing individuals he deemed a threat to the United States, and a couple of those were American citizens.   It is true that the U.S. supports dictatorships that use death squads.  But changing the subject to the U.S.  doesn’t change the facts about Putin.

2014-03-07-PUTINIs the fact that Vladimir Putin is a killer a reason not to have diplomatic relations with Russia?  It certainly is a reason not to be naive in dealing with Putin.  It is a reason not to regard him as a friend.

But President Franklin Roosevelt formed an alliance with Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass killers of the 20th century, in order to defeat Nazi Germany.  President Richard Nixon flew to China to open U.S. relations with Mao Zedong, another mass killer, in order to checkmate Soviet Russia.

If working with Putin can eliminate the danger of nuclear war over Ukraine or defeat the Islamic State, that would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

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Why GOP administrations are transformative

February 7, 2017

I have to give Donald Trump and Steve Bannon credit.  Their administration is unpopular, most of the leaders of their own party distrust them, yet they are moving forward as if they had won a landslide victory.

I have to go back to Lyndon Johnson before I can find any Democratic President who has acted so decisively on taking office.

This is part of a pattern.  Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush were transformative Presidents.  Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not.   What Clinton and Obama basically did was to normalize the changes that Reagan and G.W. Bush brought about.

Michael Kinnucan, writing in Current Affairs magazine, said the difference between the two parties is that the Democratic leaders always try to position themselves in the moderate center, while the Republican leaders continually redefine where the center is—

Ending Medicaid isn’t an obvious or an easy fight—it’s a very efficient program that’s been part of the American social fabric for 50 years, a program with 70 million beneficiary-constituents, one vital to the survival (economic and otherwise) of some of the most photogenically unfortunate people in America (families raising kids with major disabilities, for chrissake!) and a major source of business for the gigantic and very widely geographically distributed healthcare-provision industry.  It’s also very popular; only 13% of Americans support slashing Medicaid. And no wonder: 63% of Americans say that either they or a close friend or family member has been covered by Medicaid at some point. It’s not even arguably in any kind of crisis; there’s no obvious reason to touch it.

So for Republicans, going after Medicaid is picking a big fight, one they could easily dodge.  But that won’t stop them.  They know that destroying this kind of program is key to their vision for America, both ideologically and in terms of budget math.  They’ve known it for years, and they’ve been releasing plans and focus-grouping and developing consensus for years in the wilderness, and now they’re tanned, rested and ready.

And for 95% of their congressfolks it’s not even a question—they’ll vote yes.  They’ll do it in the smartest possible way, too: they’ll say there’s a fiscal crisis and it’s necessary, they’ll say it’s not a cut it’s just market efficiency, they’ll use block-granting to disown the cuts that happen and lay them on the states, and then wait till the cuts reduce the program’s popularity to mop up what’s left.  Most Americans won’t really believe anyone would do what the GOP is about to do until it’s too late.

And hey, maybe they’ll even lose a couple of Congressional races over it, but the Dems won’t be in a strong enough position to reverse the cuts for years and years, and starting a program like this is much harder than ending it.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Source: Current Affairs | Culture & Politics

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Seeing with an eye of an eagle

February 4, 2017

An eagle with a Sony video camera flew off the top of Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, enabling us to (sort of) see what an eagle in flight sees.   It’s too bad there is no footage of the eagle’s last few feet of flight before landing, but the footage is still something to see.

The billionaire behind Bannon and Trump

February 2, 2017

An interesting behind-the-scenes look at the Donald Trump election campaign, which I just now got around to watching.   Click on this for a transcript.

Donald Trump embraces Goldman Sachs

February 1, 2017

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During the election campaign, Donald Trump rightly denounced Hillary Clinton for her ties to Goldman Sachs, the predatory Wall Street banking firm, and especially the three $225,000 speaking fees she took for giving one-hour talks to that company.

Now Trump has put two former Goldman Sachs executives in charge of economic policy—Steve Mnuchin, former Goldman partner, as Secretary of the Treasury, and Gary Cohn, former president of Goldman, as his top economic adviser.

President Trump has put a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the great enemy of concentrated financial power, in his office.  But his appointments show that he will be a champion of the moneyed establishment.  Those who voted for him in hope he would be a friend to working people are going to be disappointed.

LINKS

The Goldman Sachs effect: How a bank conquered Washington by Nomi Prins for TomDispatch.

The Vampire Squid Occupies Trump’s White House by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Trump’s Muslim decree versus the rule of law

January 31, 2017

The noteworthy things about President Trump’s decree on Muslim immigration were how unnecessarily cruel it was, how incompetently it was drawn and how it caught everyone by surprise.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

The other noteworthy thing was how mass protests against his decree pressured him to back down from one of the worst parts of it—the forbidding of Green card holders and other legal foreign residents from returning to the country if they are out of it.

I think these things will be hallmarks of his administration—that is, cruelty, stupidity and unpredictability, but also vulnerability to public opinion and public pressure.   Trump does not have the power of a dictator, although he would like to have it.

Even conservatives who strongly believe in keeping out unauthorized immigrants and immigrants from the Muslim world thought Trump handled this wrongly.

But the most dangerous trait that Trump revealed was unpredictability.

Being unpredictable is a strength when you’re fighting against adversaries, whether on the battlefield, the marketplace or an election campaign.  It also is a strength of a showman, which Trump most definitely is.

It is, however, a dangerous trait in the head of government of a great nation.   The most important defining characteristic of a free country is the rule of law.   People who live in a free country need to be able to know what the laws are, and to know that they are safe so long as they obey the law.

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Donald Trump and the Syrian refugees

January 30, 2017
Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees

President Donald Trump has banned Syrian refugees from coming to the USA.

But there wouldn’t be any refugees from Syria if the U.S. government hadn’t intentionally destabilized their country.

It is shameful to treat the refugees as if they themselves were to blame for being persecuted and homeless.

Ten years ago, Syria was a country where Middle East refugees fled to, not away from.  What changed it was the rebellion, instigated by the U.S. government and spearheaded by the Islamic State (aka ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, the heirs to Al Qaeda, to overthrow Bashir al-Assad.

People who once led normal lives have been made homeless and exiles by warlords and armed religious fanatics.

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The saving grace of President Trump’s order is to make exceptions for religious minorities and Syrians in danger because they worked for Americans.

Christians comprise 10 percent of the population of Syria.  The Christian community there goes back to the time of St. Paul.   Although Christians are targeted by ISIS and other jihadists, they comprise fewer than 10 percent of refugees—possibly because they’re in danger from Muslim fanatics in the refugee camps.   It would be shameful for a nation that is more than 70 percent Christian to turn its back on them.

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A photographer who paints with light

January 28, 2017

North of the Arctic Circle in Finland, there is a period of about 50 days when the sun never rises above the horizon, known as the Polar Night.

Artist and photographer Hannu Huhtamo uses this period of darkness to paint with light.  He makes his strange and haunting works of art by making a long-exposure photograph of a moving bright light source against a dim background.

LINKS

Hannu Huhtamo Photography.  His website.

Light Painting Artist Hannu Huhtamo | Light Painting Photography.  An interview.

This Photographer Paints With Light in the Finnish Polar Night by Lisa Lanot for Konbini.

Polar Night and Midnight Sun articles on Wikipedia.

A joking Dutch message to Donald Trump

January 27, 2017

Update 2/14/2017.  You also can click on this to view the video.

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Why Trump’s staff tells obvious lies

January 26, 2017

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What needs explaining is not why Donald Trump and his staff tell lies.   Many recent leaders have lied.

What needs explaining is why Trump and his staff tell obvious and easily disprovable lies, such as the claim that record numbers of people came to see his inauguration.

My own thought was that it served two purposes.  One was to confuse the issue, because most people don’t have the time or resources to check facts.   As long as you stick to what you’re saying and never back down, a certain number of people will believe you.

The other purpose was to distract the attention of the press from more serious issues.   The time spent by reporters in covering arguments over crowd sizes is time spent not covering things such as Trump’s infrastructure plan.

But economist Tyler Cowen has a more sinister explanation.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration.  That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command.  Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters.  If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid.  If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you.  That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

Source: Tyler Cowen – Bloomberg View

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Super-rich get ready for collapse of civilization

January 25, 2017

Some American hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley billionaires are preparing refuges so they have places to flee in the event of a revolution or economic collapse.

Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker, said they call this “apocalypse insurance.”

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me.

New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more.  Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”

I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad.  “I would guess fifty-plus percent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home.  Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ”

The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.)

“I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy?  Is it going to turn against technological innovation?  Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”

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The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon

January 23, 2017

During the past six or eight months, it seems as though every conversation on a general topic that I’ve engaged in has come around to the topic of Donald Trump.

Yesterday morning I led a discussion at First Universalist Church on the topic of spirituality.  It was a good discussion overall, but the conversation soon drifted to the lack of spirituality of Donald Trump and how people’s spirits were lifted by taking part in protest demonstrations against Trump.

donaldtrumpczeur4ixuaaryrYesterday evening I took part in a group that is reading and discussing Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.  Sure enough, we soon started talking about the resemblances between Donald Trump and the Emperor Nero.

I don’t hang out with pro-Trump voters on a day-to-day basis, but my guess is that they also are talking about Trump and his opponents.

It is amazing to me how President Trump has managed to dominate public discourse, and on his own terms.

The Washington press yesterday was talking about estimates of crowd sizes.  It wasn’t talking about what Trump’s policies will be concerning the economy, the environment or foreign wars.  Still less was it talking about what we Americans ought to be doing concerning these issues.

No, the national press—as well as all my friends who get their information from network television—were reacting to Trump’s tweets and sound bites—that is, to an agenda set by Trump.   And so is most of the national press, even though in their own minds they are opposed to Trump.

I feel as if I am the target of psychological warfare, intended to induce despair and fear.

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