A Lego sculpture that seems to float in midair

August 10, 2020

For details, click on Build Your Own Magically Floating Lego Tensegrity Sculpture by Jason Kottke on kottke.org.

A short story of the haunted Internet

August 9, 2020

The Basilisk by Paul Kingsnorth for emergence magazine.

The world’s largest signature

August 8, 2020

In the late 1990s, a Texas farmer named Jimmy Luecke cleared out some grazing land, but decided to leave enough trees standing to spell out his name in giant letters.  His signature is three miles across.  Today astronauts about the Space Shuttle use the signature as a means of checking the resolution of satellite imagery.

LINK

How the World’s Largest Signature Is Used by NASA to Analyze Satellite Imagery by Spooky for Oddity Central.

A Japanese sculptor’s devotion to Antonio Gaudi

August 7, 2020

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

August 7, 2020

A brief history of the arms race

August 6, 2020

Kulning, a beautiful medieval Nordic herding call

August 6, 2020

For details, click on Kulning, a Beautiful Medieval Nordic Herding Call by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

A high-resolution look at Mars

August 5, 2020

This panorama was created by combining hundreds of still photographs.  For details, click on Gorgeous 4K Video of Mars by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Life is a mystery

August 4, 2020

For more like this, click on Zen Pencils.

What if North America was French?

August 3, 2020

If the outcome of certain European wars had been different, the dominant culture of North America would be French and not English.

After reading David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, I think this would have been a good thing.

The settlers of New Spain enslaved Indians.  The settlers of New England drove them out.  But settlers of New France intermarried with the Indians and lives with them in peace.

This was the dream of a remarkable individual, Samuel de Champlain.  Between his first voyage to the New World in 1603 and his death in 1635, his example and his laws established a pattern for a multi-cultural society.

His career would make a good TV mini-series, because it consisted of a series of crises, which in dramatic terms would be cliff-rangers—everything seemingly lost, but with the slim possibility of one last effort putting everything right.

Champlain was a soldier, sailor, navigator, explorer, map-maker, writer, administrator and diplomat, who was able to negotiate successfully in the councils of Algonquin and Huron warriors and the court of King Louis XIII Cardinal Richelieu.

He made mistakes in judgment, like everyone else.  The worst one was underestimating the severity of the Canadian winter.  He sometimes lost his temper.

But Fischer was unable to find a single incident in which he knowingly told a lie or broke a promise.  His observations of the lands he explored and his accounts of his own actions were not only truthful, but accurate.

When other French commanders made contact with Indian nations, they usually began a show of force and a demonstration of their superior firepower.

Champlain would walk into Indian settlements unarmed, either alone or with a single companion.

No fool he, sometimes on making first contact Champlain would sometimes have troops with firearms hiding in the underbrush in case things went wrong.  But he went out of his way to appear un-threatening.

He won the trust of the Indians by spending a lot of time with them and taking the trouble to understand them.  He sincerely liked them.  He didn’t have to fake friendship.

Champlain’s humanistic Catholicism was appealing to the Indians—I think partly because the Christian idea of forgiveness freed them of the duty of carrying on blood feuds without end.

Many Indian nations welcomed European settlers because they saw them as possible allies in their wars with other Indians.  Champlain avoided that trap.  He positioned himself as mediator.

But he did help the Algonquins and Hurons in their wars with the aggressive Iroquois to the South.

Champlain and allies vs. Mohawks

Champlain led a mixed French and Indian invasion of Mohawk territory in 1609.  They fought a battle on the shore of Lake Champlain, which he named/

The Mohawks wore wooden armor and fought shoulder-to-shoulder, as in an ancient Greek phalanx.  They probably would have won except for the French use of firearms, called arquebuses.

He led another expedition, against the Onondaga, in 1615, and fought a battle near today’s Syracuse.  The Onondaga took refuge in a wooden fort, which Champlain attempted to overcome by building a European-style siege engine—a portable wooden structure taller than the walls of the fort.

I never thought Indians wore armor or built forts.  I suppose a lot of what I think of as Indian warfare is an adaptation to the superior firepower of the English, French and Spanish.

After that, Champlain and the Indian nations of New France were able to negotiate a temporary peace with the Iroquois.  Fischer noted that this was partly because the Iroquois were preoccupied with fighting the Susquehannocks to their south.

Read the rest of this entry »

Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for two violins

August 3, 2020

I’ve been holding this one back too long.  I lifted it from Decker’s Dispatches from the Asylum, a blog whose posts always end with a great musical selection.

Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony

August 2, 2020

I feel a need to post other things besides commentary on the sorry state of the world.

Populism and the medical profession

August 1, 2020

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank wrote a good article on universal health care as an example of the battle between populists and professionals.

In both the United States and Canada, the organized medical profession bitterly opposed all attempts by the public to take control of the administration of health care, either through government or voluntary co-operative organization.

But in Canada, the province of Saskatchewan in 1962, led by populist Premier Tommy Douglas, instituted Medicare for all.  The province’s medical profession responded with a general strike, which failed.

In the end, many Canadian physicians admitted they were wrong. Evidently they were motivated by mistaken opinions, not greed.  The system was rolled out nationwide in steps in 1966.  Some polls indicate that Tommy Douglas is the most admired Canadian.

President Truman proposed a universal health care system in 1948, but his plan was defeated.  So was every universal health care proposal since then.  The task force appointed by Joe Biden, this year’s presumed Democratic candidate, rejected Medicare for all.

The American Medical Association no longer wields power.  Control of medical practice has been taken over by bureaucracies, just as physicians feared.  But they are controlled not by patients or the general public, but by health insurance companies and health maintenance organizations, who are the anti-populists of today.

Frank emphasized that the original Populists and their successors in fact valued education and knowledge.  The question was and is who benefits from education and knowledge.

It is interesting that Frank’s writings do not appear on the Op Ed pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, although they deserve to be.   Frank used to be published regularly in The Guardian, but his most recent two articles appeared in the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique.  I’m not sure of the significance of that.

LINK

It’s the health care system, stupid, by Thomas Frank for Le Monde diplomatique.

What lies in the ocean’s depths?

August 1, 2020

Click on The Deep Sea for a look.

How Trump could win: (2) by election rigging

July 31, 2020

The stability of a democracy rests on losers of an election accepting the fact that they lost fair and square and that they will have another chance to win next time.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if the system is rigged?

Greg Palast, an outstanding investigative reporter, thinks the system is rigged.  He has been devoting himself exclusively to this topic for years.

He reported his latest findings in his new book, HOW TRUMP STOLE 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished Voters by Greg Palast with comics by Ted Rall. The book is highly readable, but if you don’t have time to read the whole book, Ted Rall’s cartoons sum up the story.  If you can’t get the book, check out Palast’s home page.

Palast found that, in the 2016 presidential election, 5.87 million votes were cast and never counted.  These included 3.03 mail-in ballots rejected or lost.  In addition, 1.98 million voters were blocked from casting votes.

This did not happen at random.  The 7.85 million Americans who lost their vote were disproportionately African-American, other people of color and younger citizens—all Democratic constituencies.  This probably gave Donald Trump his margin of victory over Hillary Clinton.

In Michigan, for example, 75,355 votes were not counted because ballot scanners in Detroit broke down, even though they could have been counted by hand.  Trump won Michigan by just 10,700 votes.  There are similar stories in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Since 2016, 16.7 million American voter registrations have been canceled, and they are disproportionately minorities.  The Democratic politicians are not the victims here.  The victims are American citizens who have a right to expect fair elections.

Voter suppression and election rigging at this moment in American history is done mainly by Republicans.  That’s not to say that Democrats are angels.  But, according to Palast, what election rigging they do is mainly in primaries.

In the past, ballot-stuffing by Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine in Chicago may have give President John F. Kennedy his margin of victory.  The word “gerrymander” comes from Elbridge Gerry, a 19th century Democratic governor of Massachusetts.

Present-day Democrats are strangely indifferent to this issue, as is much of the press.  One exception is Stacey Abrams, a Georgia state legislator who fought against voter suppression even before she ran for governor in 2018.

Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. Photo: CNN

Her opponent was Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who purged 500,000 voter registrations on the grounds that they supposedly had left the state.  One of them was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92-year-old cousin, who was turned away when she tried to vote.

Palast put together a team that checked out every name.  They found that 340,134 of the purged voters had never moved.

Kemp also refused to accept registrations of some 40,000 new minority voters and threatened to arrest Korean-American voter registration volunteers.  His margin of victory over Abrams was just under 55,000 votes.

This is something that has been building up for a long time.

In 2000, George W. Bush’s margin of victory over Al Gore in Florida was 537 votes.  Florida’s vote gave Bush a majority in the Electoral College.

Palast discovered that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris canceled 94,000 voter registrations, mostly of black voters, on the grounds that they’d committed felonies in other states.    Palast got the list and found that exactly zero were illegal voters.

This was just the beginning.  Just in the past two years, 16.7 million voters have had their registrations canceled.  Among those who’ve turned up on purge lists are Sequanna Taylor, a Milwaukee County supervisor, who, coincidentally or not, is African-American

Palast said his investigators found that, in certain states, one in seven African-American votes and one in eight Hispanic and Asian-American voters were purged.

I refer you to Greg Palast’s book and web site for details about the Crosscheck system, voter caging, voter ID laws, removal of voting machines from key districts, voting machines with verification and anti-hacking features turned off.

Instead I’ll concentrate on the main threat to the integrity of the 2020 elections, which is problems with mail-in ballots and rejection of mail-in ballots.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Cancel’ culture and American politics

July 29, 2020

The following is the the results of a YouGov poll commissioned by the Cato Institute

The Cato Institute is a strongly libertarian organization, but the poll was conducted by YouGov, which is a reputable organization, so I don’t think these results are biased.

Now the poll did not reveal the specific political views that Americans are afraid to express, but if highly-educated Americans are more fearful of expressing their opinions than the rest of us, I don’t think these fears are restricted to neo-Nazis or Klansmen.

I think a lot of the USA’s problem are due to misgovernment by an entrenched elite, and I hope for the kind populist revival that Thomas Frank describes in his new book.

But the Cato poll indicates just how hard it will be to make that happen.  We are too divided among ourselves.

It used to be that most self-described liberals thought of ourselves as defenders of free speech for all.  No longer, apparently.

Donald Trump and the Republican leaders are not friends of free speech.  But the divisions indicated in these polls work to their advantage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Richard Wolff on the coming economic crash

July 28, 2020

How Trump could win: (1) with political strategy

July 27, 2020

The Electoral Map as some pollsters see it. Source: Naked Capitalism

I don’t expect Donald Trump to be re-elected.  I expect him to self-destruct.  But that’s what I expected in 2016.  The election campaign isn’t over until it’s over and, even then, it may not be over.

The thing to remember about Trump’s strategy, and the strategy of Republicans in general, is that it is not to win over voters from the opposing party.  It is to hold onto core supporters and to try to reduce the Democratic vote by fair means and foul.

This is done by two means.  One is by manipulating the election process.  This includes gerrymandering, eliminating likely Democrats from voter registration lists, making voting difficult in predominantly Democratic districts and, possibly, tampering with electronic voting machines.

The great investigative reporter, Greg Palast, has been working on this issue for years, and he summed up his findings in his new book, HOW TRUMP STOLE 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished VotersI’ll review his book in a follow-up post.

The other is by persuading core Democratic constituencies that it isn’t worthwhile to vote.  This was the strategy of Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager.  He used social media to target African-Americans, women and college students and convince them that it wasn’t worthwhile to vote for Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, Trump received a slightly smaller percentage of votes than Mitt Romney in 2012.  What brought him within reach of victory was a long-term decline in the Democratic vote, which began after the 2008 election.  The big question is whether this decline can be reversed.

Harper’s magazine earlier this year sent a reporter to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a formerly prosperous manufacturing town with strong labor unions, that has been emptied of its industry.

The reporter expected to find people full of despair and anger.  Instead he found that most had come to accept industrial decline as a fact of life, and were trying to make the best of things as they were.

Some were indignant about workers in local Amazon workhouses being put at risk of coronavirus infection.  Nobody outside knew what the health risks were because Amazon simply refused to allow the county government to make inspections.

Most of them took it for granted that both political parties and the national government were under control of elites who cared nothing for people like them.  The administrations of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump himself had killed any audacity of hope.

Joe Biden is not someone to reawaken hope.  The two main themes of his political history are support for the financial industry and support for the police.  He told his big-money financial backers that nothing is going to change and he’s not going to propose any legislation that will harm their interests.

He supported NAFTA and other pro-corporate trade treaties.  He is even more of a war hawk than Donald Trump; he has accused Trump of appeasing China.

All these things are politically significant because they dampen enthusiasm for Biden, and as possible points for targeted social media by the Trump campaign, the same as in 2016.

But Biden has one big advantage.  He is not Donald Trump.  In 2020, this is no small thing.

Read the rest of this entry »

The War Nerd on silence and genocide

July 27, 2020

Racism and oppression are not perpetuated by insensitive language.  Racism and oppression are perpetuated by making some topics off limits to talk about at all.  The best PR for genocide is silence.

John Dolan, writing as “Gary Brecher,” the War Nerd, illustrated this point by pointing to the silence of the Victorians on the famines in Ireland in the 1840s and India in the 1870s.

Most of Dolan’s writings and broadcasts are behind a pay wall.  Maybe I should subscribe.

LINK

The War Nerd: Amateurs Talk Cancel, Pros Talk Silence by “Gary Brecher” for Radio War Nerd.

I could listen to this all day

July 25, 2020

The passing scene: links & comments 7/24/2020

July 24, 2020

Who Is the Most Dangerous Fascist? by Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report.  The best perspective on Donald Trump and fascism I’ve read yet.

Biden Just Made a Big Promise to His Wall Street Donors by David Sirota on Too Much Information

Cold War Escapades in the Pacific by Patrick Lawrence for Consortiumnews.  The danger of war with China.

Russian coronavirus doctors are mysteriously falling out of windows by Alex Ward for Vox.

Chevron vs. human rights – big consequences for the man who fought big oil on We Don’t Have Time.  A lawyer is literally under house arrest and faces criminal charges in the USA for having won an environmental lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador.

A Conversation With Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr. for The Bellows.  Benn Michaels and Reed are the best-known critics of “race reductionism.”

What You Need to Know About the Battle of Portland by Robert Evans for bellingcat.

COVID’s Gettysburg moment

July 23, 2020

My friend Michael J. Brown, who teaches history at Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote a good article in the Rochester Beacon about the struggle against the coronavirus.

He compared it to the struggle to save the Union during the Civil War.  That may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 took more American lives than all of the wars of the 20th century.   The current pandemic could be just as deadly, and hundreds have already given their lives.

In the Civil War, as Brown pointed out, President Lincoln had a choice—to try to put things back the way they were before the war, or to remove the cause of the war—human slavery.  In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln resolved that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”  Brown asked—

Has this coronavirus calamity simply been an ordeal to endure, or does all the suffering and loss have some galvanizing purpose?  

Will it result in a new birth of freedom for our time—a period of reconstruction and reform addressing the myriad inadequacies and deep racial inequities that COVID has laid bare—or will a return to “normalcy” leave these problems untouched?

Reckoning with COVID, we might reevaluate the disparity between the significant health risks of “essential” work and its comparatively meager economic rewards. 

Michael J. Brown

We might ask why in a “booming” economy so many Americans were one paycheck away from miles-long lines at food banks.

The pandemic could prompt us to rebuild our Union better than it was, or its legacy could be limited to “We’re all in this together” commercials, in which “this” is the reassuring glow of national brands.

The difference between these outcomes is a function not only of what we here highly resolve, but whether we resolve anything at all.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln gestured beyond the Civil War to a better nation.  But he also spoke of prosecuting that war until Union victory—for which so many had already given “the last full measure of devotion”—was achieved.

Our battle against COVID is today very much in doubt.  More than 800 front-line health care workers have given their lives in the struggle.

While Lincoln resolved to finish his fight, “America is giving up on the pandemic,” according to the Atlantic.

“The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus,” reported the New York Times.  “As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb … Mr. Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.”

Just as it was in the mid-1860s, the outcome today is uncertain. Just as then, it will have to be determined by countless people—from elected officials to everyday citizens.

This is COVID’s Gettysburg moment. Will we meet it?

LINKS

‘These dead shall not have died in vain’: COVID’s Gettysburg Moment by Michael J. Brown for the Rochester Beacon.  The whole thing is well worth reading.

In the Flower City, Take Root by Michael J. Brown for Dissent magazine (2010).  An earlier article by Michael.

Second thoughts about race and police killings

July 23, 2020

Click to enlarge

Polls as of July 3 estimate that between 15 million and 26 million Americans had participated in the George Floyd protests, making it the largest protest movement in American history.

Ending abuse of power by American police would be a great accomplish.  But if the protestors define the problem as racial prejudice and nothing else, and if they limit their demands to defunding or cutting budgets of police departments, they may wind up accomplishing very little.

“Race reductionism” means reducing everything to a question of race.  In the USA, almost every social problem has a racial angle.  But very few things are about race exclusively.  Almost every social problem also has a money angel.

No reasonable person would shut their eyes to racial prejudice.  But racial prejudice alone does not explain why white Americans are more likely to be killed by police than Europeans of any race.  Or why American states with the smallest black populations have some of the highest rates of police killings.

The first chart shows the annual rate of police killings per million people for young and older black and white Americans.  It demonstrates that progress is possible.

The second chart shows the rate of police killings in different American cities.  It demonstrates that race cannot be the whole story, unless you assume that people in Albuquerque are more than 13 times as racist as people in New York City, or people in Memphis, Tennessee are nearly three times as racist as people in Nashville, Tennessee.

Police killings correlate more closely with poverty than with race.  Black Americans represent 24 percent of the victims of police killings, and 23 percent of the poor.  White Americans comprise 46 percent of the victims of police killings, and 41 percent of the poor.

Click to enlarge.

There are those who would like to drastically cut budgets for police departments and use the money to improve public education, housing and social services.  Not a bad idea.  The problem is that there isn’t enough spare money in police department budgets to make much of an improvement.

There are those who say it doesn’t make sense that someone with a gun and Mace is the one you call on to defuse domestic violence or deal with a mentally ill person who is acting out. Good point.  The problem is that having an array of highly-trained specialists on hand will not come cheap.

The best outcome would be for Black Lives Matter to broaden its demands to include (1) adequate funding of municipal social services, (2) enactment of Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget to create full employment and living wages and (3) reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.  Hopefully, this would result in less crime, fewer police killings and a better world for both white and black people.

Read the rest of this entry »

Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

July 21, 2020

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.  [Google Dictionary]

A good bit is being written nowadays about the alleged threat of populism.  The word is usually taken to mean an uprising of ignorant and intolerant masses against knowledgeable and responsible powers that be.  Donald Trump is called a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders.

Frank set the record straight in his new book, THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which is just out.  He begins with the original Populists, members of a radical farmer-labor party in the 1890s that briefly threatened the rule of bankers, railroad barons and grain and cotton merchants..

Naturally the plutocrats feared and hated the Populists, Frank wrote.  They said Populism was mob rule, the second coming of the French Revolution.  They said Populism was hatred by the failures and losers of the successful and capable, who deserved to be on top.  In the end, through the power of money, they won.

The core of the opposition to populism was opposition to democracy itself—what Frank called the “democracy scare.”  In The People, No, he traced the history of this opposition.

Frank wrote an excellent book.  It is short, it is easy to read and it covers a lot of ground.  What he wrote is true, important and largely ignored.  He also had a few blind spots and omissions, which I’ll get to.

Right now the USA is on the brink of an economic crisis as great as the ones in the 1890s and 1930s, and today’s economic, political and intellectual elites are failing just as badly as their predecessors did.

There is just as great a need now as there was then for a movement of the common people to take back control of the political and economic system, and just as much of fear of democracy.

The world “populist” is Latin for “of the people.”  The Constitution, the USA’s founding document, begins with the words “We, the people…”   President Abraham Lincoln said the USA stood for “government of the people, for the people and by the people.”  So why does the word “populism” have such a bad name?

Read the rest of this entry »

Democracy, the military and the para-military

July 21, 2020

The U.S. Army has been used many times in American history to intervene in strikes, disperse protestors and even enforce court orders to desegregate schools.

So it’s interesting that the top military brass was leery of supporting President Trump’s plan to intervene in the Black Lives Matter protests.

I can understand why they might not have wanted to be identified with one of American history’s most divisive figures.  But there is another possible reason why they hesitated.

Roughly 21 percent of American soldiers are African-American, compared to just under 14 percent of the total population.

If I were an Army general, I would not want to test whether black American troops, and their white and Hispanic barrack-mates, would be willing to put down a movement whose goal is to end police abuse of black people.

But, as it turned out, Donald Trump didn’t need the career military.  The federal government has 132,000 personnel with military-grade weapons.

Since they lack rigorous military discipline, codes of conduct or a tradition of staying out of partisan politics, they serve his purposes better than the career military would.

In Portland, Oregon, unidentified men are grabbing people off the streets, throwing them into unmarked cars and taking them off to unknown locations.

They are not protecting government property or private property.  They are not restoring order.  They are putting down a rebellion.

Presumably we in the United States are not at the point where we can expect people in unmarked cars to dump bullet-riddled bodies into the street and speed away, as in the Dirty Wars in Argentina and  other Latin American countries.  I wish I could say I was confident that we would never get to this point in the USA.

Portland is just the beginning.  The Department of Homeland Security reportedly plans to send its para-militaries into Chicago and other U.S. cities.

The likely result will be to broaden and intensify the conflict.  Revolutionaries and fascists have a common objective—to widen conflicts so that everyone will have to choose one side or the other.

LINKS

Who Are These Guys? by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Trump’s police state attack in Portland, Oregon by Patrick Martin for the World Socialist Web Site.

President Trump sending federal police agents into major American cities by Kevin Reed for the World Socialist Web Site.

Border Patrol’s Dream of Becoming a National Police Force Is Becoming a Reality by Jenn Budd for Southern Border Communities Coalition.  [Added 7/22/2020]

TRUMP’S SECRET POLICE: A HISTORY LESSON by Peter Daou [Added 7/22/2020]  Trump is building on precedents set by Bush and Obama.