Archive for December, 2013

Portrait of a master woodworker

December 30, 2013

Hat tip to kottke.org.

How to open a can without an opener or a tool

December 28, 2013

Hat tip to Ordinary Times.

Why gross inequality is harmful in itself

December 26, 2013

I am not bothered by the fact that there are people in the world who have a lot more riches than I do.  I’m amused, not resentful, that John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he owns or that Mitt Romney had an elevator for his car.   So long as I have a house that satisfies me, what difference does it make if someone else owns a mansion, or many mansions?

What does bother me is the means by which the upper 1 percent have gotten rich.  We have a financial elite that, with some exceptions, have gotten rich not by creating value, but by milking the system and by transferring wealth upward—CEOs who get huge compensation packages while laying off workers and managing decline, Wall Street financiers who profit from manipulation of the system and outright financial fraud.

But in the TED talk shown in the video, Richard Wilkinson presents facts and figures that gross inequality is an evil in itself, regardless of the cause.  The facts and figures in his slides the more unequal a society is, the worse off the people tend to be in many measurable ways.  Once a society reaches a certain level, once it is possible for everybody to have a minimum amount of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education and leisure, then alleviating inequality becomes the most important factor in promoting human well-being.

I’m not sure exactly why that should be, but this seems to be the fact.

Of course growth and equality are not always contradictory, and certainly it would be easier to lessen inequality in a growing economy than otherwise.   And I know of no society that strives for complete equality of income and wealth.  What’s in question is the degree of inequality and the processes that create it.

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Extreme snowboarding

December 26, 2013

Hat tip to kottke.org.

My two cents on Duck Dynasty

December 23, 2013

As a general rule, I don’t think people should lose their jobs because of their opinions.

I especially don’t think that entertainers and athletes should lose their jobs because of opinions expressed to interviewers.

The only places where Americans are doing well

December 22, 2013
northdakota

Double click to enlarge.

Is drilling for shale oil the only way Americans can make a good living from honest labor?

I hope not.

Click on How oil made North Dakota rich by Amy Harder for National Journal for more and the source of this map.

What benefit has the USA gotten from all this?

December 22, 2013
Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.  Graphic from Time magazine.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said in a decision last Wednesday that there is ‘utter lack if evidence’ that bulk telephone surveillance ever prevented a terrorist attack.   He said he invited the NSA to give him an example, and the NSA came up empty.

Judge Leon ruled that NSA bulk surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, but held off issuing an order pending an appeal.   The case will almost certainly go to the U.S. Supreme Court and, given the current makeup of the court, Leon’s decision will likely be reversed.

It is up to we, the people, to put a stop to Big Brother surveillance, if it is to be stooped

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Brazil, Germany should offer Snowden asylum

December 20, 2013

Earlier this week the United Nations General Assembly passed a strong general resolution, introduced by the governments of Brazil and Germany, affirming “the right to privacy in the digital age”.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

It didn’t mention the U.S. National Security Agency, but it was obviously inspired by what Edward Snowden revealed about the extent of the NSA’s worldwide surveillance.   I think the governments of Brazil and Germany should show their appreciation by offering Snowden asylum.

Snowden is in a precarious position in Russia.  He was granted permission to stay in that country for a year, of which about nine months remain.  President Vladimir Putin said in an interview that he wouldn’t tolerate a Russian who revealed information about the secret Russian security agencies, and that the only reason he permits Snowden to remain in Russia is that there is no extradition treaty with the United States.   If the United States signed such a treaty, and handed over certain Russian fugitives that Putin wants, he would hand over Snowden without hesitation.

Why are Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Germany’s Angela Merkel and other national leaders unwilling to give Snowden refuge?  One obvious reason is that they fear to displease the U.S. government.   Another might be that they, too, don’t want to set a precedent that would encourage Snowdens in their own countries.

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Strip searches are merely justice, American-style

December 19, 2013

I was shocked when I read how Devyani Khodbragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York City, was handcuffed and strip-searched after being arrested on a charge of underpaying her maid.

She hadn’t been convicted of any crime, so why subject her to this degradation and humiliation?  What did they think she was concealing on her person?  Why not simply serve her with a summons to appear in court?

But it turns out that she was not singled out for bad treatment.  Strip searches and body cavity searches are now standard operating procedure for anybody arrested on a criminal charge, no matter what.    She merely experienced simply the impersonal working of the American criminal justice system as it now is.  We Americans should ask ourselves whether this is the kind of criminal justice system we want.

I do not think the charge is trivial.  If she brought a servant from India and kept her in virtual servitude, this is a serious matter.  But the facts in this case are in dispute, so I stick to the legal principle of presumption of innocence unless there is proof of guilt.

us-reviewing-indian-diplomat-devyani-khobragades-arrest

Protests in India

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In honor of working men

December 19, 2013

Camille Paglia in a recent article took feminists to task for failing to appreciate the work of men.

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North DakotaIt is overwhelmingly men who do the dirty, dangerous work of building roads, pouring concrete, laying bricks, tarring roofs, hanging electric wires, excavating natural gas and sewage lines, cutting and clearing trees, and bulldozing the landscape for housing developments.   It is men who heft and weld the giant steel beams that frame our office buildings, and it is men who do the hair-raising work of insetting and sealing the finely tempered plate-glass windows of skyscrapers 50 stories tall.

Every day along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, one can watch the passage of vast oil tankers and towering cargo ships arriving from all over the world.  These stately colossi are loaded, steered and off-loaded by men.

via TIME.com.

Rod Dreher, who writes for the American Conservative magazine, responded:

I make my living manipulating words.  I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer.   I do not have calluses on my hands, and if my back hurts, it’s from sitting in a chair all day long.  My work is only possible because of men who can and do get out in the weather and keep the water, the gas, the electricity, and everything running, the roads in good repair, and who shoulder the greater burden in defending the country from potential enemies. That’s not a sexist observation; that’s reality. 

The world could get along just fine if all the male writers ceased to exist. But if the bricklayers, pipefitters, lumberjacks, firefighters, cops, linemen, soldiers, and their like, went on strike, everything would fall apart in short order.

via The American Conservative.

I think the same way that Dreher does.  I contrast my comfortable life with my grandfather, who spend all day, every day, for most of his life doing hard manual labor on his farm.  He died when I was in my teens, but I think that if he were to look down from Heaven on my life, he would not think that anything I did in my 40 years of newspaper employment was actual work.  And if you ask which is more necessary to society—journalists or farmers?—the answer is obvious.

What needs to be mentioned, though, is how much of the necessary and disagreeable work of civilization consists of what traditionally has been regarded as women’s work—starting with the pain and danger of childbirth.  Dreher himself has written about how his life as a writer is made possible by the support system provided by his stay-at-home wife, whose intellectual attainments are equal to his own.

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The emperor doesn’t care that he has no clothes

December 19, 2013

A Malaysian scholar, Rahinal Ibrahim, is suing the U.S. government to be removed from a no-fly list and to be told why she was put on the list to begin with.  But the government refuses to tell her whether she is on such a list.  The judge and her lawyer, who was given a special security clearance, have been told, but they are forbidden to pass the information on.  Even the verdict may be kept secret from her.

And a key witness, an American citizen, who happened to be out of the country, was denied permission to fly back to the United States to testify.

Are officials of the Department of Homeland Security are so insulated from public opinion and common sense that they do not realize how ridiculous this is?  Or do they have such a sense of power that they don’t care whether what they do makes sense or not?  If you are forbidden to fly, you know that you are on a no-fly list, so why pretend that it is a secret?

It is not just that the emperor has no clothes.  The emperor doesn’t care whether people notice he has no clothes or not.

Rahinal Ibrahim

Rahinal Ibrahim

One of the key concepts of a free government—more fundamental that democracy or the Bill of Rights—is the idea of the rule of law.  Life can be tolerable even under a dictator or king if you can be safe so long as you obey the law.

What makes a totalitarian government different from an authoritarian government is that under the rule of a Stalin or a Hitler, it is impossible to obey the law—because you can’t survive without breaking the law, or because the laws are contradictory, or because the laws are secret, or because people in authority can exercise power regardless of law.   Under totalitarian rule, everybody is guilty or potentially guilty, and only escape punishment because of the indulgence of the government.

The USA operates under the rule of law for most people most of the time.  But, as this incident shows, the rule of law does not operate for all people all the time.  What can be done to someone of Muslim heritage with a dark skin can be done to those of us of Christian heritage with white skins, and there are worse things that can happen than being on no-fly lists.

Click on In Bizarre No-Fly List Trial, Even the Verdict Might Be Secret for details by David Kravetz for Wired.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

U.S. contract workers cost 2X civil servants

December 18, 2013

DoDcontractors.v.personnel

When Eastman Kodak Co. was downsizing in the 1980s, it sometimes happened that a laid-off worker went back to work at Kodak as an employee of a temporary help agency.  There were cases where they were hired to do the same jobs that they had done before—except at lower pay and with little or no benefits.

Investigative reporter David Cay Johnson wrote that it doesn’t work that way with the federal government’s contract workers.

The budget deal just worked out between the White House and Capitol Hill … does nothing to curtail wasteful spending on companies that are among the nation’s richest and most powerful – from Booz Allen Hamilton, the $6 billion-a-year management-consulting firm, to Boeing, the defense contractor boasting $82 billion in worldwide sales.

In theory, these contractors are supposed to save taxpayer money, as efficient, bottom-line-oriented corporate behemoths.  In reality, they end up costing twice as much as civil servants … . Defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman cost almost three times as much.

via Newsweek.

The federal government does not count the number of its contract employees.  Prof. Paul C. Light of New York University is widely quoted as saying that, based on government procurement data, the number of employees working on government contracts exceeds the combined total of federal civil servants, postal workers and members of the armed forces, and employment of contract workers is increasing faster.

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Hillary Clinton tells financiers she’s on their side

December 17, 2013

Hillary Clinton recently addressed a meeting of Wall Street financiers, which was set up by Goldman Sachs, to tell them that she’s on their side, Politico magazine reported.

Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Striking a soothing note on the global financial crisis, she told the audience, in effect: We all got into this mess together, and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it. 

What the bankers heard her to say was just what they would hope for from a prospective presidential candidate: Beating up the finance industry isn’t going to improve the economy—it needs to stop.

And indeed Goldman’s Tim O’Neill, who heads the bank’s asset management business, introduced Clinton by saying how courageous she was for speaking at the bank.  (Brave, perhaps, but also well-compensated: Clinton’s minimum fee for paid remarks is $200,000).

Certainly, Clinton offered the money men—and, yes, they are mostly men—at Goldman’s HQ a bit of a morale boost.  “It was like, ‘Here’s someone who doesn’t want to vilify us but wants to get business back in the game,’” said an attendee. “Like, maybe here’s someone who can lead us out of the wilderness.”

Clinton’s remarks were hardly a sweeping absolution for the sins of Wall Street, whose leaders she courted assiduously for financial support over a decade, as a senator and a presidential candidate in 2008.   But they did register as a repudiation of some of the angry anti-Wall Street rhetoric emanating from liberals rallying behind the likes of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

And perhaps even more than that, Clinton’s presence offered a glimpse to a future in which Wall Street might repair its frayed political relationships.

via POLITICO Magazine.

I would have thought that the Wall Street financial community would be highly pleased with President Barack Obama.  His administration has bailed out the Wall Street banks from their bad investments, and held them harmless.  It continued the TARP bailouts and supported Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke’s policy of pumping money into the banking system by buying up toxic assets.

The Obama administration has refrained from prosecution of financial fraud in the wake of the Wall Street collapse, in sharp contrast to the many prosecutions of savings and loan officers in the administration the elder George H.W. Bush.   It has declined to investigate illegal mortgage foreclosures or to give meaningful relief to under-water mortgage debtors.

But, according to Politico, the Wall Street community is miffed at Obama, partly because of the imposition of the so-called Volcker rule, which limits speculative investments with money covered by government guarantees, and also because Obama fails to manifest camaraderie or respond to their wishes.  That is why they give Obama “only” $6 million in the last election, compared to the $16 million he got in 2008.

On the Republican side, the Politico reporters wrote, Wall Street’s favorite is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  But the financiers also like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

What the article shows is that money still talks louder than public opinion.  The popular positions—breaking up the “too big to fail” banks, prosecuting financial fraud—are the underdog positions in Washington.

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C.S. Lewis on the varied meanings of Christmas

December 16, 2013

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, wrote in 1957 that the holiday we call Christmas and celebrate on Dec. 25 is really three holidays in one.

GodInTheDockThree things go by the name of Christmas.  One is a religious festival.  This is important and obligatory for Christians, but … it can be of no interest to anyone else …

The second … is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality.  If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say I much approve of merry-making.  But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. …

But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everybody’s business.  I mean of course the commercial racket.

The idea that everybody is obligated to buy presents for all their friends, and buy cards to send to all their loved ones, friends and acquaintances, is a contemporary idea and not part of the historical idea of Christmas, Lewis wrote.  He condemned the commercial Christmas holiday on the following grounds.

1.  It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You only have to say over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare.  Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think of suitable gifts for them.  They are in no trim for merry-making, much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act.  They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

Christmas-Shopping-Fever-22.  Most of it is involuntary.  The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own.  It is almost a blackmail.  Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we can hardly remember) flops un-welcomed through the letter-box and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3.  Things are given as presents which no mortal has ever bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because nobody was ever fool enough to make their like before.  Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than the spend them on all this rubbish?

4.  The nuisanceFor after all, during the racket we still have our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labor of it.

Lewis wrote that if the Christmas shopping season is necessary to keep the retail stores in business, he would sooner give them the money for nothing and write it off as a charity.

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Snow falls on the Holy Land

December 14, 2013

snowholyland

Click on Historic snow fall turns Holy Land into the scenes we see on Christmas cards for more pictures from the U.K.’s Daily Mail.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Can global warming be real if there still is snow?

December 13, 2013

snowscientists

Click on Jen Sorensen for more of her cartoons.

Drones are not really the problem

December 13, 2013

Drone Nation
Source: Homeland-Security-Degree.org

Drones don’t kill people.   Governments kill people.   Drones are not necessarily a problem.  They have legitimate uses, including legitimate uses in war.   The problem with killer drones is that they are a technology that makes it easy to commit acts of war and pretend that they are something else.

And of course surveillance drones are different from killer drones.  They, too, have their legitimate uses.   The issue is not surveillance drones versus other kinds of surveillance technology.  The issue is how much surveillance we the people are willing to tolerate.

These are not technology questions.   These are Constitutional questions.

Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Ink and paper: The survival of craftsmanship

December 12, 2013

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Whose sarin? The truth is still in dispute

December 11, 2013

When I first read the accounts of the nerve gas attacks in Syria back in August, my first thought was that this didn’t make any sense.  Why would President Bashar al-Assad, who had been warned by the President Obama that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” he crossed at his peril, use such weapons to gain a trivial advantage?

Syrians gather to identify some of the victims of an alleged nerve gas attackMy experience of being wrong in the past should have told me that the fact that something doesn’t make sense is no proof at all that somebody wouldn’t do it.  As events unfolded, I realized that it would make even less sense for rebel groups to use sarin as a false flag operation, and I accepted the opinion of Doctors Without Borders and other impartial observers that the Syrian government, with or without Assad’s orders, is responsible for the killing.

A couple of days ago, my out-of-town friend Daniel Brandt e-mailed me a link to an article by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books (it had been turned down by the New Yorker and the Washington Post) claiming that President Obama’s charges against Assad were not backed up by U.S. intelligence.

He quoted sources as saying that the Al-Nursa Front, one of the main rebel groups, has the capacity to manufacture sarin.  He quoted other sources as saying that U.S. intelligence services have hidden sensors scattered through Syria that would have warned of a government attack.  The inspection team that went into Syria reached no conclusion about the source of the sarin, and, as Hersh pointed out, the U.S. government’s statements were carefully worded so as not to attribute its claims to the CIA.

Then Jack Clontz, an e-mail pen pal whom I’ve never met in person, sent me links to an article by a blogger named Eliot Higgins.  Based on his Internet research, he has determined that the sarin delivery system was something called Volcano munitions, which only the Syrian government forces are known to have.

Who is more likely to have been responsible for the atrocity?  Higgins asked.  The Syrian government, which is known to have stockpiles of sarin gas and Volcano delivery systems, or the Al-Nusri Front, making home-made weapons in a secret machine shop?

Logically, both Hersh and Higgins could be correct.  Hersh could be right in saying that Barack Obama and John Kerry were ready to commit acts of war based on incomplete information, and Higgins could still be right in saying that all the evidence points to Bashar al-Assad (or maybe some unauthorized person under his command).

I think the full truth is not yet known.  For practical purposes, the issue is moot.  Agreement has been reached for removal of chemical weapons from Syria, and both the Syrian government and the rebel forces have shown they are well able to kill people on a large scale by non-chemical means.

For me the lessons are as follows:

  • Beware of confirmation bias.  More than once in my life, I’ve started to look into something, found facts that appeared to confirm what I already thought, and stopped looking.  This almost always proved to be a mistake.
  • Beware of privileging secret informationSeymour Hersh uses confidential sources to provide him with inside information.  Eliot Higgins searches the Internet to find what’s publicly know.  Public information is just as relevant, and usually more reliable, than secret information.  The principle applies to journalists as much as to the CIA and NSA.

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‘What would you have done?’

December 10, 2013

Nelson Mandela, who died last week, was mourned by many Americans as a hero.  But there was a time when the American government regarded him as a terrorist.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

I agree with Newt Gingrich’s judgment.

Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future.  This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.

What would you have done faced with that crushing government?

What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.

After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny.  We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

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Today is Human Rights Day

December 10, 2013

2013-10-16-humanrightsfinalThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved by vote of the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.  The vote was 48 to 0, with eight abstentions—six Communist delegates, plus Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

A commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt and representing 18 nations spent two years drafting the declaration.  As a declaration rather than a treaty, it does not have the force of law, but it provides the philosophical and moral basis for later human rights treaties.

Click on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the full text.

Click on Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic Social and Political Rights for background information from Wikipedia.

Ghosts of evolution: Ginkgo trees and avocados

December 9, 2013

Hat tip to Hal Bauer.

William Sloane Coffin on Socrates’ mistake

December 8, 2013
W.S. Coffin

Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.   Descartes too was mistaken, “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am?”  Nonsense,  Amo, ergo sum sum – I love therefore I am.  Or, with the unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  I believe that.  I believe that it is better not to live than not to love. 

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Reflections on the legacy of Nelson Mandela

December 7, 2013

Nelson Mandela was a remarkable and contradictory figure. He was a revolutionary who believed in armed struggle and admired Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He was a believe in freedom and democracy who refused to hate anyone because of their race. And he was the leader of a government that preserved the economic status quo and protected the interests of corporate business.

The charts below are a snapshot of what he accomplished and what he did not accomplish.

south_africa-1024x744The top chart shows how black South Africans came to identify with their country since apartheid ended, and black South Africans were given the right to vote and equal civil rights with whites.

The bottom chart directly below shows the economic gap between white and black South Africans that still remains. While the incomes of black South Africans, adjusted for inflation, have doubled since the end of apartheid, the income gap between whites and blacks has widened.

sa_mandela (more…)

Obamacare is not Heritage Foundation plan

December 7, 2013

Liberals like to point out that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is the same as a proposal by the right-wing Heritage Foundation.  That is, everybody has to buy insurance from for-profit companies, but insurance in theory becomes affordable because the cost is spread out over a whole population of rich and poor, sick and healthy and old and young.

I, too, sometimes fall into the trap of saying President Obama’s plan as a whole is a warmed-over Republican plan, but, as Scott Limieux pointed out on his Lawyers, Guns and Money blog, this is not really so.

ACA2-300x278

Of course it remains to be seen whether there really will be strict, federally enforceable consumer rights, or whether the ACA will simply create a new captive market for the health insurance industry.

And the historic expansion of Medicaid, which was a key part of the ACA, was sabotaged by the Supreme Court and Republican state governments, although that is not Obama’s fault and may eventually be overcome.

The important thing about the ACA is that there is no longer any point in speculating about its impact.  It is the law and will remain law until at least 2016, and that will be plenty of time to see whether it does more good than harm.