Archive for February, 2014

The truth about love

February 14, 2014

whatislove-blogINCIDENTALCOMICSClick on INCIDENTAL COMICS for more by Grant Snider.

The facts about kissing

February 14, 2014
Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

Source: Daily Infographic.

Why is open carry worse than concealed carry?

February 13, 2014

Under current Texas law, qualified citizens have a right to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun.  Wendy Davis, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas, has been accused of letting down Team Blue by supporting legislation to allow qualified citizens to openly carry handguns.

Why is it more extreme to license people to carry unconcealed handguns than to carry concealed handguns?  I would think the reverse would be true, that the moderate position would be “open carry” and the extreme position would be “concealed carry”.

This is an honest question, not a sarcastic one.   I would appreciate help from somebody who knows more about gun laws than I do.

The cosmic perspective of Neil deGrasse Tyson

February 13, 2014

My friend Jack Belli once remarked that the history of science is a succession of visions of the universe, each a cosmic perspective greater and more awe-inspiring than the one that came before.

The late Carl Sagan was one who was able to communication the cosmic perspective.  His 13-part TV series, “Cosmos: a Personal Journal”, was the most viewed show ever to appear on the Public Broadcasting Network.

Another is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.  In the video above and in this interview, Tyson talks about the cosmic perspective and what it means.  Starting March 9 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, Tyson will begin a successor series, “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”, on Fox.

This is a rewording of the original post and a correction of the statement that Tyson’s “Cosmos” would air on the National Geographic Channel.

Should I be preparing for collapse? Should you?

February 12, 2014

I’ve been following a blogger named Dmitry Orlov for some years now.  His ClubOrlov blog is listed among my Favorites on my Blogs I Like page, and some of my favorites from his writings are on my Archive of Good Stuff page.

A Russian-born American citizen who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orlov became known for a slide show called “The Collapse Gap

,” in which he compared the USSR just prior to its collapse with the contemporary USA.   Both countries, as he noted, were in industrial decline, militarily over-extended and dependent on foreign credit to maintain their material standard of living.  Both had economic systems that did not serve the public need, and both had governments in which the public had lost confidence.

Paradoxically, Orlov wrote, the Soviet people were better prepared for collapse than Americans.  Russians were accustomed to not being able to buy things in stores and having to fend for themselves.  Russian families with many generations crowded into small apartments were better able to face crises than American families, scattered across the country, isolated in suburbs and dependent on availability of cheap gasoline.

global-warming-record-temperatures-2012-537x442This all makes sense to me, but Orlov in the meantime has moved on.  He no longer limits his prediction to an American political and economic crisis.  Now he predicts a global collapse of civilization, based on exhaustion of fossil fuels, climate change and the inability of established institutions to respond.

In a blog post sometime back, he reviewed a book, American Exodus, by a Canadian author, Gilles Slade, about where to live in North America in 2050 after global climate change has set in.

Slade thinks that Mexico will burn up and that the U.S. Great Plains will dry up.  The Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for much of a region stretching from Texas to Nebraska, will disappear.   Irrigation water will no longer be available for places such as California’s Central Valley.

northwestterritoriesThe East Coast will be destroyed by rising oceans and increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes.  Drought refugees from Mexico will invade the United States, and drought refugees from the U.S. will invade Canada.

Taking all these things into consideration, Slade thinks the safest place to be in North America will be Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

I haven’t read Slade’s book and don’t know the specifics of his research, but this doesn’t sound impossible to me.   I can’t guess how bad things will get, or when the worst will be, but the consequences of human-made global warming are already being felt and can only get worse.

So in the light of all this, why do I continue to live my accustomed life as if nothing is wrong?


Does Evangelical influence lead to more divorce?

February 12, 2014
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

As strange as it may seem, a new study indicates that the influence of evangelical Protestant Christianity leads to higher divorce rates.

Sociologists Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak found that the higher the concentration of evangelical Protestants in a U.S. county, the higher the divorce rate was likely to be.   Early marriage is associated with low income and lack of education, but there was a higher divorce rate even among couples of the same income level and educational level in the counties with higher percentages of evangelicals.  The divorce rate among evangelical Protestants themselves is higher in such counties.

They said the reason is the evangelical Protestant culture promotes early marriage, and people who get married in their teens are more likely to be divorced than those who wait until they are in their twenties.  This fits my experience.  When I was single and living in western Maryland, a religiously conservative area, in the 1960s, it seemed as if virtually every waitress with whom I struck up a conversation had gotten married while in high school, gotten divorce and was working to support herself and a child.

The connecting link between religion and d was evangelical Protestant culture rather than evangelical Protestant faith.  Glass and Lovchak found that among couples who did marry young, the ones who went to church regularly had, on average, more lasting marriages than those who didn’t.   But statistically, early marriage did more to encourage divorce than regular church-going did to inhibit it.

Why would early marriage be associated with divorce?  Poverty puts a strain on marriage.  Young women who drop out of high school to get married have a harder time earning an income than those who postpone marriage until graduation.  This puts the burden of being a family breadwinner on the young man, whose prospects also may be poor.

Evangelical Protestant churches tend to oppose contraception, which would lead to unwanted pregnancies and shotgun marriages.  They tend to discourage sex education and promote sexual abstinence, which means newlyweds have no sexual experience and little knowledge.

But for all that, there is something worse than a culture of early marriage and early divorce, and that is the underclass culture where people never go to church and have children without thinking of marriage at all.   Early marriage and early divorce represent a step up from having sex and begetting children with multiple partners and none of the legal responsibilities that go with marriage.   In such circumstances, a strict religion such as evangelical Protestantism is a solution, not the problem.


A wise thought from Peter Drucker

February 12, 2014


Peter Drucker (1909-2005), born in Vienna, was an American writer, college professor, management consultant and self-styled “social ecologist” who pioneered the academic study of business administration and is widely credited with the concept of “management by objectives.”

Click on The Drucker Institute for access to some of his writings.   Hat tip to Tiffany’s Non-Blog for the graphic.

Bosnian protesters unite across ethnic lies

February 10, 2014

My e-mail pen pal  Jack Clontz sent me the following link.

He thinks it is important and so do I.

Anger in Bosnia, but this time the people can read their leaders’ ethnic lies by Slavoj Zizek for The Guardian.ho

Click on the link to read about how Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina have joined in protests against corruption and demands for jobs.

As Zizek points out, their action has significance beyond Bosnia, because it shows it is possible to avoid the sterile dilemma of  rule by religious theocrats and rule by materialistic dictators, as seems to be the case in so many countries.

Conflicts among nationalities and religions, and between religious zealots and secularists, helps the powers that be to divide and rule.

‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

February 10, 2014


I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.


Birds of paradise

February 9, 2014

Hat tip to Joyce Ireland

Woody Allen cast as a Dostoyevsky villain

February 9, 2014

Woody Allen’s ex-partner, Mia Farrow, and estranged son, Ronan Farrow, have revived accusations that he raped his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dyan Fallow, some 21 years ago.  After having read Robert B. Weide’s analysis of the case, I think the accusations (not charges, because prosecutors never filed charges) are unproved.

woody.allen.nihilistGrace Olmstead, writing for the American Conservative, thinks he probably is guilty because this is the kind of thing that an atheistic nihilist would be likely to do.  She compared him to Dostoyevsky’s fictional Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment who raped a mute 15=year-old girl because, as another Dostoyevsky character said, if God does not exist, all is permitted.  Other writers suspend judgment on Allen’s guilt, but say his philosophy is a justification for child abuse.

What do these writers say about the child abuse perpetrated by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, who were then protected by the church?  Were they atheists and nihilists?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think you can tell much about what people would do by the creeds to which they pay lip service.


The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide for The Daily Beast.

Defending the Case Against Woody Allen by Grace Olmstead for the American Conservative.

Woody Allen, Nihilist by Damon Linker for This Week.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

UN Report Blasts Catholic Church for Systematic Child Abuse Coverup, an interview of Kirsten Sandberg, chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the Real News Network.

I know that there are celebrities who’ve gotten away with sexual abuse of children for years.  I also know from personal acquaintance that innocent people can be falsely accused as a byproduct of martial or child custody disputes.  Based on what I’ve read, I think that Allen’s guilt has not been established, and that he is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

February 9, 2014

This reverent movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a gay Communist atheist, shows the intrinsic interest of the Bible to non-believers and believers alike.

Click on The Gospel According to St. Matthew for an introduction to this movie by Roger Ebert.

Click on We Are All Living Pasolini’s Theorem for an appreciation of Pier Paolo Pasolini by Pepe Escobar.

Hat tip to Steve Badrich.

The world scene: Links and comments 2/8/14

February 8, 2014

Iran opens new chapter in relations with Russia by Bijan Khajehpor for Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse.  Hat tip to OIdin.

While the U.S. government tries to negotiate an end to its cold war with Iran, the Russian government moves to create a closer relationship with Iran.  The two governments support the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, which could do for exporters of natural gas what OPEC did for oil exporters.  Another joint interest could be in construction of pipelines across Iran to carry Russian natural gas, making Iran even more of an energy hub than it is.

Troubled Times: Developing Economies Hit a BRICS Wall by Eric Follath and Martin Hesse for Der Spiegel.  Hat tip to Oidin.

For the past dozen years, the BRICs countries, which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and sometimes South Africa, have outpaced the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan in economic growth.  But now, for different reasons, their economic growth is faltering.  This is not necessarily good news for us Americans.  It is our own country’s policies, not the success or failure of China or other countries, that will determine whether we have a prosperous future.

Putin’s Games: Influence Peddling at the Feeding Trough of Sochi by Christian Neef and Mattias Schepp of Der Spiegel.  Hat tip to Oidin.

Vladimir Putin rewarded friends and froze out enemies in the award of the construction contracts for the Sochi Olympic games.  It is a classic example of machine politics, and an illustration of how he keeps in power.

Free enterprise and the failure of feedback

February 7, 2014

The advantage of a free market economy over a centrally planned one is the feedback provided by the law of supply and demand.  If the supply of something decreases, the price increases and demand (at the increased price) decreases until the increased price brings forth an increased supply.  This admittedly is a crude system, but it is superior to central planning because it is impersonal.  It does not require a genius to make it work.

Ian Welsh, in a recent post, pointed out that one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet economy was lack of feedback.  In a command economy, the planners need correct information.  I question whether any relatively small group of people could assimilate the information needed to direct a large and complicated economy.  Welsh, on the contrary, said the Soviet economy actually was successful for a time, but broke down when the feedback system failed.  Too many people within the system found it to their advantage to manipulate information for their own advantage.

The present-day U.S. economy is not all that different.  Our big corporations and financial institutions have become little miniature Soviet Unions, in which feedback does not work, either internally or externally

The advantage of capitalism v. central planning, is that information is sent through prices, supply and demand.  This information feedback, however, is still game-able by power blocs.  The exact strategies are different than in a command economy, but the end result is the same.  The West and America are currently undergoing this exact problem.

The entire financial crisis was about inaccurate feedback, and broken feedback loops: it was about the financial and housing industries deliberately damaging the feedback system.   Then, when it finally went off a cliff, they destroyed the capitalistic feedback system, which when properly operating, makes companies go bankrupt, by obtaining bailouts due to owning western governments.

There are myriad other problems with feedback in the developed world right now, from massive subsidies of corn and oil, to oligopolistic practices rife through telecom and insurance, to the runaway printing of money by banks, to the concealment of losses by mark to fantasy on bank books, to the complete inability and unwillingness to price in the effects of pollution and climate change.

via Ian Welsh on The Fall of the USSR.

Here is how lack of feedback plays out in an individual firm.

This company is being managed by the quarter. We have executives who have no vested interest in Walmart. All they care about is their salary and bonus. So when they make poor decisions, for example this Christmas when they had a One Hour Guarantee for multiple items. This was a complete [financial] disaster but yet the executive praise what a big success it was. […]

You know what direction us managers were given to do in January? Remember Walmart’s fiscal year ends January 31st. You guess it, cut hours. For the poor decision made by executives at Walmart who could care less where the company is at in 10 or 20 years, we had to cut hours. 

Not only that we had to cut all expenses. Home office put a hold on all our ordering of supplies and try explaining to customers you don’t have toilet paper for the rest rooms. We had to cut all our part-time associates from 32 hours to 25.5 hours. All our full-time associates had their hours cut too. […]

Do you know how hard it is to go to someone that make $8.85 an hour and tell him, sorry but I have to cut you down to 25.5 hours. These people can barely pay their rent as it is and with no notice we cut their hours.

via Decades of Greed: Behind the Scenes With An Angry Walmart Manager.

I don’t have a good answer to this.  It is a moral problem as much as or more than it is a structural problem.  I don’t see how any complicated economic or political structure can function unless there is a critical mass of people who care about the truth, and care about the common good, especially but not only at the top.

Let’s revive post office banking

February 7, 2014

Senator Elizabeth Warren and others want to revive postal service banking.  It’s a good idea.  Many big banks don’t want to bother with small depositors, and poor people without bank accounts spend an estimated 10 percent of their incomes on check cashing services, payday loans and other services just to get access to their incomes.

postoffice-bank39The idea is that they would be able to deposit cash or checks at their local post offices, and then withdraw funds with a passbook or maybe a debit card, all without a charge.  Some supporters propose free or cheap checking accounts, payday loans and international money transfers (the latter very important to immigrants).

The United States had postal savings from 1911 to 1967.   In the days before federal deposit insurance, Americans trusted the post office more than private banks, and rightly so.  Many bank depositors lost their savings after the 1929 financial crash, but the postal savings accounts were safe.  Use of postal savings faded after creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in 1933, and banks after World War Two began offering higher interest rates on savings – 3 percent instead of 2 percent.

According to Wikipedia, many other countries also have post office banking, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, China, India, Sri Lanka, Israel, South Africa, Kenya and Brazil.

The Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service estimated that 68 million Americans have no savings or checking accounts.  Many of them live in ZIP Codes without banks or bank branches, or only one.  He estimated that these Americans spent $89 billion in 2012 for check cashing and similar situations, which comes to about $2,400 per family.  They might well have paid just as much or more if they had accounts in regular banks, in charges and fees for overdrafts, having bank balances fall below a certain minimum and so on.

It is tempting to see banking services as a solution to the Postal Service’s financial problems.   I think this would be a mistake.  Big banks do not provide affordable services to poor people for a reason.  It isn’t profitable.  There are few if any instances in which government made a profit providing a service where private business could not.   The only justifiable reason for government to undertake to provide a service is that we, the people, have decided it is a necessary public service.

It is also tempting to propose a long list services the postal service could provide.  I think it would be best to start with a basic, no-frills service in which people can deposit cash and checks, and access them with passbooks or maybe debit cards, and see how that works.   It is best to be sure you can walk before you try to fly.

Many people have remarked that it is expensive to be poor.  Your cost of living is higher if you’re chronically short of cash.  Post office banking wouldn’t solve all the extra problems of the working poor, but it would help.


Why Turning Post Offices Into Banks Would Be Win-Win by Ed Mathews for TruthOut.

Postal Banking: Maybe Not So Crazy After All by Adam J. Levitin for The American Banker.  Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.

NSA scandals and leaks: Deja vu all over again?

February 6, 2014

Four decades ago, just like now, journalists and congressional investigators revealed that the NSA, CIA and FBI were illegally eavesdropping on Americans’ telephone calls and using the information against dissidents and war protestors.

But rather than crack down on abuse of power by intelligence agencies, the government went after leakers of secret information about the abuses, just like now.

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

The key figure in uncovering abuses was Rep. Otis Pike, a conservative Democrat from Long Island, who headed the 1975 House Select Committee on Intelligence and was responsible for the Pike Committee Report on secret intelligence agencies.   All this was brought to mind by an excellent article on Pike by Mark Ames of PandoDaily.

The American public was in a mood to reform abuses of power in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a front-page article in the New York Times telling how the Central Intelligence Agency, in violation of its charter, conducted intelligence operations during the Nixon administration directed against American anti-war and dissident groups.

The uproar resulted in creation of three investigative bodies – the Ford administration’s in-house Rockefeller Commission, a select Senate committee headed by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and a select House comittee headed by Otis Pike.  The Church committee’s reports on CIA involvement in assassinations and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, but, as Ames noted, the Pike committee asked the more fundamental questions.

What was America’s intelligence budget?  What was the money being spent for?  Were taxpayers getting their money’s worth?  How did the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies think their purposes were?  Were they successful in accomplishing those purposes?

Pike’s committee soon documented that Hersh’s reporting was correct.  They determined that the actual U.S. intelligence spending was much larger than Congress knew.  And, in Pike’s opinion, the U.S. received little value for the money.  The CIA did not foresee the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus or the 1974 military coup in Portugal.

I thought at the time that the National Security Agency was relatively harmless compared to the CIA.   The latter engaged in subversion and political conspiracies; the former merely listed to foreign radio traffic and engaged in code-breaking.  But, as Pike revealed and I later came to understand, the NSA was the most dangerous and out-of-control of them all.


The trap of Red vs. Blue thinking

February 5, 2014

The fundamental fallacy which is committed by almost everyone is this: “A and B hate each other, therefore one is good and the other is bad.”
==Bertrand Russell, in 1956 letter

One of the big obstacles to rational discussion of politics is the notion that you’ve got to sign up for Team Red or Team Blue, and that on any given question, the criterion is which answer helps your team and which helps the other team.

Let me give a couple of examples.

I once argued with a Republican acquaintance about the need for filibuster reform in the Senate, so that bills and appointments could be approved by a 51-vote majority rather than a 60-vote super-majority.   His rebuttal was that Democrats benefit from the filibuster as much as Republicans, and would favor the filibuster when they were no longer in the majority.   This probably was true,  but the question was not what is in the interests of  the Democrat or Republicans, but in the interests of the USA.

Obama.TeaPartyA Democratic friend once said that it was a mistake to “fetishize” the Constitution, because that is what Tea Party Republicans do.  As I see it,  support for the Constitution is the basic social contract that binds the United States together as a nation.  Without it, Americans are no more than a collection of contending ethnic groups or the world’s biggest mass market for advertisers.  Maybe my thinking is wrong, but, if so, what Tea Party members do or don’t think has nothing to do with the case.

I disagree with Rep. Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican from Michigan, on many issues, such as his role in the irresponsible government shutdown,  but I think he is worthy of praise for co-sponsoring legislation to curb abuses of the National Security Agency.

I have been enrolled as a Democrat since I first registered to vote.  I once thought there was an intrinsic difference between the two political parties.  I agreed with the historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote in The Age of Jackson that the Republican Party and its predecessors, the Whig Party and the Federal Party, represented the interests of Wall Street and big business, while the Democratic Party, going back to Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, was a coalition of everyone who might be harmed by the abuse of business power.  Schlesinger thus rationalized the fact that the Democratic coalition in the 1940s and 1950s included Southern white supremacists.  The interests of the Southern planters were not the interests of Wall Street.

I see now that this is an oversimplified view of history.  From the Civil War to the Great Depression, there were as many progressives in the Republican Party as in the Democratic Party.   The Republican Party was not merely the party of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge; it was the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, George W. Norris and Fiorello LaGuardia.

And as political scientist Thomas Ferguson has pointed out, the Democratic Party is as much beholden to Wall Street and corporate interests as the Republican Party.

I agree with the Democrats more than the Republicans on most, although not all, issues on which the two parties differ.  But I am much more concerned about political continuity and bipartisan agreement on questions such as propping up Wall Street, extrajudicial killing, preventive detention and warrant-less surveillance. , a consensus that seems to endure in Washington regardless of public opinion. And I am pleased when people from either side of the political aisle dissent from this consensus.  If we Americans want a free, peaceful and prosperous country, we’ve got to get beyond limits of Blue vs. Red.

No political party is worthy of loyalty in and of itself.  No political label is worthy of loyalty.  The only things that are worthy of loyalty are certain principles and certain human beings.  A political party, like a corporation or a union, is merely an organizational structure in which individual people can do certain things.  But if the people are replaced, and their principles and purposes are lost, what is there left to be loyal to?

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014: RIP

February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman died Sunday.

Click on Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014 for film critics’ recollections of this great actor.

Hat tip to Kathleen Geier for the link.

The problems with the Common Core

February 4, 2014

waynehighstakesI never thought President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program was a good-faith effort to improve the public schools.  It seemed to me that its real purpose was to brand public schools as failures, in order to privatize public education in this country.  This in turn seemed to me to be part of a broader movement to transform all public U.S. institutions into for-profit businesses.

It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards movement is an updated version of the same thing.   The core of the Common Core is the use of high-stakes testing to brand students and school systems as failures.   I am not one of those who opposes Common Core out of generalized hostility toward public education or the Obama administration.  The truth, as I see it, is that the Common Core undermines public education.

Stan Karp, of Rethinking Schools magazine, pointed out that the Common Core standards were drafted behind closed doors by academics and assessment “experts” without input from classroom teachers.   Among the 25 people in the work groups that drafted the standards, 15 were associated with for-profit testing companies, and none – zero – were public school teachers.  So it is not surprising that the Common Core is based on testing.

Common Core sets higher standards without providing resources to meet these higher standards.  Instead, public education is being de-funded, teachers are being laid off, schools are being closed and teachers’ unions are under attack.  The number of children in poverty is increasing.  “College-ready” high school graduates find higher education out of reach without taking on debt that leaves them in jeopardy of indentured servitude for the rest of their lives.

Common Core does not cause these larger problems, but neither does it address them.  Instead Common Core provides an excuse to scapegoat students and teachers for the failures of the larger society.

If I wanted to improve the public school system, I would convene a commission consisting mainly of experienced public school teachers who had won state “teacher of the year” awards, and limited to those who attended American public schools themselves and whose children are in public schools.  They would, of course, be free to draw on the expertise of anyone they chose, including employers, testing services, college professors or anyone else.

I would recommend they look at high-performing school systems such as the Massachusetts public schools, and judge whether their best practices could be adopted nationwide.  I would test any educational “reforms” in pilot studies.  The last thing I would do is commit the nation’s schools to a radical transformation based on untested theories.


Click on The Problems with the Common Core for the full text of an excellent presentation by Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He speaks from 30 years experience teaching English and journalism in the New Jersey public school system.  Hat tip for this link to Steve Badrich and his friend Bill.

Vanishing farmers and disposable workers

February 4, 2014

Yukon raven by gavatronIan Welsh on his web log pointed out the connection between the decline of farming and the growth of sweatshops.  He noted how the connection operated in England during the Industrial Revolution, in Mexico under NAFTA and also in the United States.

After World War II Americans flooded from the farms into the new cities. For this generation, the GI generation, it was a straight upgrade: their lives were better. They worked less hours, they had more food, they had access to power and indoor plumbing, and good jobs with good pay.

Those Americans were treated very well, and if you weren’t black, the 1950s and 1960s are looked back on as the heyday of American prosperity. Good jobs were plentiful and easy to find and they came with healthcare and good pensions. Life was good.

Today, millennials and Gen-Xers don’t have such a good deal. Unemployment is high, if you lose your job you will have a hard time finding as good one, or a job at all, and good pensions and healthcare plans are more and more uncommon, and increasingly restricted to the executive class.

Why? Well, one reason is this, the family farms are gone.  The first generation had to be treated well because they had options: they could go back to the family farm. So their jobs, and their lives as consumers had to be clearly superior to being on a farm.

Click on The Disposable Economy to read his whole post.

Who are the NSA’s real targets?

February 4, 2014


Is the National Security Agency simply over-zealous in trying to protect Americans from foreign terrorists, or do NSA officials regard Americans themselves as a potential threat to the powers-that-be?

I think the answer is indicated by the fact that the NSA has weakened cryptography and installed back-door systems that weaken the ability of Americans to protect themselves and their businesses from foreign spies, cyber-criminals and malicious hackers.  It shows that NSA officials are more interested in spying on Americans than protecting them.

Any government needs some sort of secret, intelligence-gathering operation.  And, I agree, you can’t have such an operation of any low-level employee is allowed to indiscriminately publish confidential information for all the world to know.  A certain amount of confidentiality is necessary to the administration of any structured organization.This was as true of the newspapers where I worked as anything else.

But when the organization is guilty of wrong-doing, there is a duty to report to higher authority.  And who is the higher authority when the government itself is violating its laws and Constitution?  In a democracy, the higher authority is the citizens.  In a dictatorship, the higher authority is the world.

I think in the case of the U.S. surveillance scandals, we are well past the point where governmental authority can be trusted to act in good faith and correct itself.

This is shown by the massiveness of the surveillance, the huge number of people inside and outside the government (it may be as many as a million) with secret clearances, the willingness of government officials to lie about the scope of what is being done, and the willingness of high-level administration officials to leak confidential information themselves when it makes them look good.


The Three Leakers and What to Do About Them by David Cole for the New York Review of Books.   The three leakers are Snowden, Assange and Manning.

A Vindicated Snowden Says He’d Like to Come Home by John Cassidy for The New Yorker.

How the NSA Threatens National Security by Bruce Schneider for The Atlantic.

NSA defenders’ shameless “national security” bait and switch by David Sirota for Salon.

It’s About Blackmail, Not National Security by Alfred McCoy for TomDispatch.

Spy Agencies Probe Angry Birds and Other Apps for Personal Data by ProPublica, the New York Times and the Guardian.

Forget Metadata … the NSA Is Spying on Everything by Washington’s Blog.

It’s Vitally Important That Your Government Continue to Spy on You by Chris Bray for The Baffler.

Hat tip for the cartoon to jobsanger.

Syria has one million drought refugees

February 3, 2014


If peace ever comes to Syria, and the government of Bashar al-Assad is replaced, that unfortunate country’s troubles will be far from over.  Any future Syrian government will have to cope with 1 million refugees from Iraq, and 1 million of its own citizens displaced from the land by years of drought.

Thomas L.  Friedman of the New York Times recently quoted from an appeal by Abdullah bin Yehia, Syria’s food and agriculture representative to the United Nations, for $20 million in aid for Syria’s drought victims.

Yehia was prophetic. By 2010, roughly one million Syrian farmers, herders and their families were forced off the land into already overpopulated and under-served cities. These climate refugees were crowded together with one million Iraqi war refugees. The Assad regime failed to effectively help any of them, so when the Arab awakenings erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian democrats followed suit and quickly found many willing recruits from all those dislocated by the drought.

Friedman reported that the population of the Middle East has increased four-fold in the past 60 years, more than any other part of the world.  At the same time, according to the International Journal on Climatology, the region has steadily grown warmer, with many more warm nights and fewer cool days.   He went on to say –

And then consider this: Syria’s government couldn’t respond to a prolonged drought when there was a Syrian government. So imagine what could happen if Syria is faced by another drought after much of its infrastructure has been ravaged by civil war.

And, finally, consider this: “In the future, who will help a country like Syria when it gets devastated by its next drought if we are in a world where everyone is dealing with something like a Superstorm Sandy,” which alone cost the U.S. $60 billion to clean up? asks Joe Romm, founder of

So to Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are funding the proxy war in Syria between Sunnis and Shiites/Alawites, all I can say is that you’re fighting for control of a potential human/ecological disaster zone.  You need to be working together to rebuild Syria’s resiliency, and its commons, not destroying it. I know that in saying this I am shouting into a dust storm.  But there is nothing else worth saying.

Responsibility doesn’t just lie with the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It lies with Vladimir Putin’s Russia to an even greater degree.  Syria is Russia’s main remaining ally in the Middle East, and Putin is committed to propping up the Syrian regime.  For Russia to provide effective aid to Syria’s drought victims would do as much to stabilize Syria as sending its government more weapons to put down rebellion.


Click on Wikileaks, Drought and Syria for the full article by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times.  Hat tip to Joshua Chacon for the link.

If marijuana is legalized, what then?

February 3, 2014

I’m opposed to drug prohibition for the same reason that I’m opposed to alcohol prohibition, gun prohibition or any other law that can’t be enforced.  The social cost of increased addiction if the law is changed is less than the social cost of mass incarceration of young black men and of the drug wars being fought in Mexico, Colombia and other countries.

Still, I wonder whether the big tobacco companies will start to mass-market marijuana products the way they market cigarettes, and tweak THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to make it more addictive, the way they did nicotine?  They would not be the only companies to promote an additive drug.

Rewards and punishments

February 3, 2014


I think that the main reason that the distribution of wealth is growing so much more unequal as that the distribution of incentives, opportunities and bargaining power is growing more unequal.


Majority of Americans favor raising taxes on the rich to aid the poor by Pew Research.

Most Americans, including 54% of Republicans, Say We’ve Got Too Much Inequality by Washington’s Blog.

The Invisible Finger of the Market by John Perr for DailyKos.

California’s New Feudalism Benefits the Few at the Expense of the Multitude by Joel Kotkin.for NewGeography.

Hat tip for the cartoon to jobsanger.

Does anybody still read the Bible?

February 2, 2014


My old friend Steve, who teaches English at a community college, says most of his students have incredibly detailed knowledge of the origin myth of Spider-Man, but draw a blank when asked about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   He thinks this is a big gap in their education, and I agree.

The decline of Biblical literacy is not limited to the young or the poorly educated.  I know people who are fascinated by Reza Aslan’s Zealot or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code who do not read the Gospels for themselves.  My experience is that the main groups of people who study the Bible intensely are hard-core Protestant Christian fundamentalists  who are trying to follow it and hard-core atheists (or rather anti-theists) who are trying to debunk it.

The American Bible Society did a national survey of what they call Bible-mindedness, based on the percentage of people who told a pollster they had read the Bible within the past seven days.   The chart above shows how American cities rank in Bible-mindedness (my own city, Rochester, NY, is 83rd of 100), but does not show how Bible-minded they are; that is, it doesn’t show the percentage of Bible readers in each city or in the nation as a whole.

I think it is too bad that so many Americans haven’t read the Bible because:

  • The Bible is the key to understanding American and English literature.  Without Biblical literacy, you can’t understand expressions such as “forbidden fruit” or “prodigal son”.
  • The Bible is one of the two foundations, along with the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, of American and European culture.  The heritage and values of the Bible mold the thinking even of people who don’t believe in it.
  • The Bible is so damn interesting.