Saturday, April 17, 2004

Grading Time

It's final examinations time for a lot of students, and I think that we should have examinations for the politicians and the media, too. An article on president Bush's policy towards Afghanistan and Iraq in the late fall and early winter of 2001 states this:

Following an important meeting on Iraq war planning in late 2001, President Bush told the public that the discussions were about Afghanistan. He made no mention afterward about Iraq even though that was the real focus of the session at his ranch.
"I'm right now focused on the military operations in Afghanistan," Bush told reporters after talks on Dec. 28, 2001, with top aides and generals.
A "war update" was the White House description of the news conference Bush held with Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of the Afghan war as head of U.S. Central Command.
Details of the meeting's focus on Iraq have since emerged in a recent speech by Franks, who now is retired, and in a new book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Now, many of us knew this, of course. It was impossible not to see that the Iraq war plans had been hatched years before the government's initial propaganda campaign on them. But I at least didn't know that Bush was fibbing about what was going on to his employers; and make no mistake about it: the voters are the employers here. What would you do to an employee who isn't working on the project he says he's working on? Or a student who's not answering the question the examination has set? What grade should Bush get here?

And what about the media, the watchdogs of democracy? Do they still deserve that name, or should they be renamed something more suitable, say, the guarddogs of the government. It doesn't matter that we don't have to rely on one state-run information channel when all the different channels that we do have act as if they've been employed to uncritically report on the government's views.

Consider this commentary on the recent press conference president Bush gave:

But no one followed up on Bush's admission that even if he had known Saddam didn't have WMD stockpiles, he still would have pushed the Iraq War! And no one had the courage to challenge the President on his intimidation tactic in response to the first question, which was about the Vietnam comparison. Bush said, "That analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy." Instead of pointing out how chilling Bush's statement was, the reporters focused on the personal. Five times, they asked him variations of the question: Was he going to apologize, or take responsibility, for any mistakes he might have made? Once would have been enough. This should not have been a personal morality play. It should have been about the fundamental policies of the U.S. government, which right now are jeopardizing the lives of U.S. troops, and, in a profound way, the lives of Americans everywhere. Bush has given only three prime-time news conferences in his Presidency, and reporters lost one of their few opportunities to hold him accountable.

What grade should the journalists get? How well are they informing us about the goings-on in the government? Is democracy kept transparent and safe by the media? Or are all the media outlets nowadays as 'fair and balanced' as the famous Faux News Channel?

I'm angry, as you may have noticed. We demand that ordinary workers work hard and act ethically, we demand that students work hard and don't cheat, but what do we demand of those who really have the power to influence things?Whatever we might demand, what we get is mostly bread and circus. Remember last time that was a governmental policy, in ancient Rome, and what happened next?

A Test to Take - Haven't Had One for Some Time

This is a pretty interesting one, too. It will tell you where you fall within a two-dimensional graph of left-right and authoritarian-libertarian ideas. You can also find out what famous person (read: famous man or Margaret Thatcher) you most resemble. I'm a lot like Gandhi. Again. Well, I look a lot better.

Here's the link.

Thanks are due to lucia in the comments-thread of Alas, a Blog.

Friday, April 16, 2004

The Little Blog That Could?

Blogs are wonderful things to have, but sometimes I wonder what they're good for. Like today. It's a beautiful day, and here I'm sitting in the darkness, with just one drowsy snake around my throat, typing away. I should be outside, causing mischief if nothing else. Instead, I'm talking to emptiness, hoping that something exists out there and will hear and even answer back one day. It's a little bit like spirituality, don't you think? Do you exist? Do I exist? Does it matter if we don't?

Some blogs are gigantic business enterprises, run by a proper Organizational Structure. Some blogs have Experts, and several interesting bloggers. But most blogs are these little amateur affairs: a solitary lunatic typing, typing away, hoping to catch some other eccentric person somewhere. Is there life on earth?

So what are blogs for? Other than providing an outlet for all those extraneous thoughts that don't neatly fit into the daily lives of most of us? I'm not sure. Are the blogs taking over important tasks from the mainstream media by providing alternative sources of news and their interpretations? Definitely, and that's probably all positive, especially if you believe in some free competition in the world of ideas. But most blogs aren't trying to take over the newsdesks of New York Times or similar media sources. Most blogs are just voices in the wilderness, attempts to connect to something or someone, or perhaps just a way to hear your own voice echoing back.

My blog is a very little blog, run by one minor goddess, and in that it shares a sisterhood/brotherhood with the majority of blogs. It's not a nice purebred political blogsite with plenty of venom and outrage (though I do my best), and neither is it really a very good feminist blog. I'm too much of a mongrel for keeping my writing clean enough for any one purpose, and I think that many of us bloggers are like that: neither one thing nor the other. But this makes it hard to define blogs or to put them into tidy boxes, and it also makes for difficulties in competitions for honors such as "The Best New Political Blog of the Year".

Though of course everything has politics in it, and politics has all sorts of other things in it. Maybe this is what the little blogs can do? To point out when our love of taxonomies is not at all helpful, to widen the lens a bit in our views of this world? The little blogs certainly help in letting us hear more voices, and often these are voices which are silenced in the mainstream media. Goddesses, for example.

I'm going out now to listen to some nice Blues. Now, Blues are very political. If you read about the history of this branch of music you get quite a good education on the race relationships of the 20th century USA, as well as an interesting example of the way some women performers were made invisible later on. Writing about this clearly would fall under politics and feminism, but it also would fall under the category 'human activity', and that's the category that the little blogs are really good at.

Enjoy the weekend!

Sean P. O'Malley and the Winds of Change in the Catholic Church

He is the new archbishop of the Catholics in Boston. He was picked for the job after all the sexual molestation trouble the church had had. He's the Clean-up Man, and he has started cleaning. What he is vacuuming away are individualism, materialism and the culture of death. Culture of death is Catholic-speak for being pro-choice.

He also doesn't like the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1966. Maybe they will be sucked up next into the church's big dustbag? This is what he said about this lost generation:

"The most educated and affluent group in US history," he said, "are heirs to Woodstock, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, feminism, the breakdown of authority, and divorce. Typically, they are religious illiterates, but they are interested. Not big on dogmas. My karma ran over my dogma could be their motto."(Bolds mine.)

Feminism is listed together with all sorts interesting things, drug culture and the breakdown of authority and divorce. The archbishop thinks that equality of the sexes is a bad thing, I gather. And a whole generation of 'the most educated' Americans are religious illiterates. But he didn't say a single word about the sexual abuse of minors.

Elsewhere, rumors are rife that the Vatican is going to limit the use of altar girls. Too many girls want to serve, and not enough boys. To correct this gender imbalance, quotas are going to be put on the girls. See, the church IS interested in gender equity, after all, though of course it has its own ideas of what equity should look like. I wonder what the Virgin would do? Hmmm.

Is this a wind of change blowing? Or the same old northwind that has spread out the churchmen's dresses for centuries?

Friday Canine Blogging

Hail, all fellow canines!
This is Henrietta the Hound, the intelligent feline in this madhouse. The other one hardly bears mentioning among the noble breed of dogs, being a mere Labrador. Everybody knows Labradors are really Laboratory dogs, and the development was never finished. Anyway, she brought home a Bug. From the mud in which she pretends to swim. And gave it to me.

After watching her gorge and vomit, gorge and vomit, I succumbed to the same condition. There's no justice in this world.
I read only the classics, I refuse to obey the lowly humans, I bite butt most efficiently, and what do I get for all this? The same humiliating bug.

But I've nearly finished with the vomiting, and even managed to nibble on a small piece of French toast. This was after an exhausting day of chasing away a woman who pretended to want to change the gas meter, and also successfully chasing away some man in a telephone repair truck. He was yelling about mad dogs as he run away. And then the thankless cur of a goddess threw things at me while screeching something about the telephone lines having been down for days.

Well, nobody told me. All she had to do was a little groveling, and they came back and fixed it all. Luckily I didn't have to go the veterinarian, so it's all the same to me.

The spring is here, which means much more interesting smells. Have you noticed this? Even humans, the poor smell-challenged creatures, seem to sniff more these days. Not that they catch all the intriguing stuff that's going on. I even smell something from the distant Washington D.C.: a whiff of desperation, the bitter smell of scared armpits. Could it be that the right-wing political march is out of lockstep? I would be surprised if the humans got it right this year. They hardly ever do.

Take Clinton. Who should have replaced him? Me, that's who! I'm extremely good-looking and charismatic, I'm very dominant, and I mount all dogs irrespective of sex or which end of the dog it happens to be. If I had been selected, none of the humans' current problems would have existed. And there would have been no Labrador retrievers.

Yours, in solidarity,
Henrietta the Hound, CEO of Snakepit Inc, PhD, DPhil etc.

Postscript: Hah hah ha! I snuck in when she wasn't watching. That's me Hank the Labrador! And I gave her the bug on purpose. She is one of the libural elites, and she should puke! Me, I'm really good again, and yesterday I almost caught a squirrel. It was probably a terrorist or a communist. I'm shedding now! See me shake!
Smooches to everybody!

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Is the Nightmare Over?

As my computer was down I had time to engage in that antiquated activity: reading stuff on paper pages. I re-read the Onion satire from 2000 on the Bush presidency ("Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over'"), and as others have said, what is scary about this satire is that it turned out not to be a satire at all, but a very good forecast of what has actually taken place.

If you don't believe me, read for yourself:

"Bush swore to do "everything in [his] power" to undo the damage wrought by Clinton's two terms in office, including selling off the national parks to developers, going into massive debt to develop expensive and impractical weapons technologies, and passing sweeping budget cuts that drive the mentally ill out of the hospitals and onto the street."

If this is satire, it's very weak. Now consider these more detailed predictions:

"During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years."

"On the economic side, Bush vowed to bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession, which would necessitate a tax hike, which would lead to a drop in consumer spending, which would lead to layoffs, which would deepen the recession even further."

Both of these predictions have turned out to be true, though Bush is having the tax hikes done through the state taxes rather than the federal ones. I also found this prediction very relevant:

"Bush had equally high praise for Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, whom he praised as "a tireless champion in the battle to protect a woman's right to give birth"."

Once again, not satire at all. That's the problem with our current administration: it's pretty much impossible to satirize them by using exaggeration. It just won't work. I know this from personal experience: I once tried writing a satire entitled "The American Right's Advice to Mothers". What I came up with would have been regarded as a serious academic treatise by a very large number of right-wingers. This is most depressing, and yet another reason to vote in a Democratic administration come November.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Computer Trouble

I'm having it. Plus tax trouble. Plus the telephone lines to Snakepit Inc. are down. If you call the repair number, you get connected to number inquiries... And Henrietta the Hound is vomiting all over the property. If you call the veterinarian, you get connected to the local bakery.

For all these reasons I'm now A Goddess In Her Wrath and not very good company. All should be fine tomorrow, though, and I should then be back to my usual wordiness. Happy Tax Day to all my American readers!

Monday, April 12, 2004

On Chairs, Spoons and Toasters, OR: What I Saw in A Dream

How do you write a letter to someone who doesn't want to read it? Doesn't want to read it not because you are an enemy, a nuisance or a guilty reminder but because you are a complete nonentity, a thoroughly uninteresting everyday object, a piece of the background against which heroes do their stuff.

How do you write to people who don't plan to pay any attention? How do you get their attention? Should we cry? 'Look, guys, a chair just walked in and cried!' Should our words be weapons? 'Hey man, that toaster just tried to cut my throat!' Should our sentences plead? 'Gee, I could've sworn that spoon just begged me for understanding.'

No. All it would achieve is a small surprise, the astonishment that an inanimate thing suddenly acts and feels. This would be added to the list of supernormal events. It wouldn't make us seem any less of a chair, toaster or spoon; only an uncommon kind, a weird chair, toaster or spoon. Something that, for one fleeting second, might deserve curiosity. But not for long.

How do you touch someone who doesn't believe in your existence? Can it be done?

And if not, is it enough to talk to the other chairs, toasters and spoons? To write 'chair books', 'toaster stories', to be exhibited with the works of other spoons? Is this of value?

Perhaps. If you know that at night the chairs dance, beautifully, on one leg, twirling around the kitchen, leaping over the toasters which tell stories about their lost loves and vanished hopes, while the spoons drum a rhythm from misty worlds full of desperate questions and complicated answers. Perhaps . Isn't this life, too? Isn't this a sort of heroism, a type of victory in the war against dying? Isn't this human, too?

So why bother trying to reach the others? Because they are the sitters on the chairs, the eaters of the toast, the stirrers of the spoons. Because theirs is the kitchen in which we dance, whisper stories, sigh and cry. And because when they see us and say 'Such a comfortable chair, such an efficient toaster, such an elegant spoon. What would we do without you?' they turn away without expecting an answer, without hearing us scream.

Foot Washing in Atlanta

This has to do with Christian traditions. The Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual commemorates the biblical story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. Archbishop John Donoghue doesn't like to wash women's feet in this ritual:

A Catholic archbishop has banned women from participating in Holy Thursday foot-washing rituals in Roman Catholic churches in Atlanta.
Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta issued a letter to all of his parishes stating that only 12 men at each parish should be selected for the ritual, The Associated Press reported.
The ritual represents Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper and is offered to girls, women, and men in most archdioceses or dioceses around the states. This is the second time, however, that Archbishop Donoghue has banned women from the ritual, issuing a similar ban in Charlotte, N.C. 15 years ago.

This exclusion of women is no longer customary in Catholic churches, but maybe Archbishop Donoghue finds women's feet too stinky? Or maybe including women would deviate too much from the 'religious correctness' required in the event? In that case why not exclude all men of non-Semitic or Roman origin, too?

I think John has got it completely backwards (I can call him John, can't I? Calling him my father would be a lot more insulting for him.). The point in the story about Jesus washing his disciples' feet was a reversal: a teacher much above his disciples is doing a very menial task, a task associated with humility. Why exclude anyone then? Unless, of course, John believes that women are much superior to men...

GDP for Econophobes: Fun and Sexy!

I swear. Once you've read this post you can go out and radiate the dangerously sexy aura of someone who knows about economic acronyms. It's a real guy or gal magnet, at least in my experience.

GDP is short for Gross Domestic Product. "Gross" doesn't refer to the ugliness of the term, but to the opposite of "Net", meaning that we don't subtract certain things when arriving at this measure. What these things are will become clear later. "Domestic" means that we will ignore stuff that's produced abroad. Sort of. And Product is a term meaning all the stuff we produce within a year: cars and haircuts, psychiatric visits and cups of coffee. Sort of. For the United States, say, GDP then tries to measure the total amount of goods (physical things) and services that are produced within the United States (whether by foreigners or natives) within one year.

The larger the GDP number, the more is being produced. This has made GDP into one measure of economic well-being, with the idea that a larger GDP means we are better off. But there are also problems with this interpretation: First, the GDP doesn't tell us how many people were involved in producing it. If two countries had the same GDP figures, but one had to support twice as many people than the other, the larger country would clearly be worse off. This problem can be solved by dividing the GDP with the population size of a country to arrive at an average or per capita GDP.

This doesn't solve all the problems yet. Another sticky one has to do with the way we add up the amounts of goods and services produced. How do you add up, say, 20,000 Fords and 1,000,000 bagels? The GDP does this using money: the value of the 20,000 Fords is their price multiplied by 20,000, and the value of the million bagels is the price of one bagel multiplied by a million. Ok. But prices change over time. If bagels or Fords double in price, but we still make the same amounts of them as in the past, the GDP figures would tell us that we now produce more even though that's not true. To solve this problem, GDP is often given in real rather than in nominal terms. This means that the prices used in multiplying the quantity items are standardized to some specific year in the past. For example, we could use 1994 prices of bagels and Fords to multiply the quantities produced both in 1994 and in 2004. Then any difference between the two total GDPs would show if we are indeed producing more today. This works some of the time, but we get into some iffy areas when the products produced today didn't even exist in 1994, so they couldn't have any prices then. There are ways around this problem, too, such as using chain-linked indexes for the prices, but the point is to remember that we value the stuff we produce with its prices, and prices may not always reflect what we want them to. Another example of this is when the prices of some product are severely distorted by a monopoly which charges much more than a competitive industry would. The GDP would record these 'too high' prices as an increase in the GDP.

A third problem with the GDP as a measure of economic well-being is in its gross nature. We produce a lot of stuff just to replace the bits that are worn out. I just made a shower curtain to replace a really old moldy one. How much did my personal economic well-being increase? Well, some, as the new curtain is nicer, but on the whole the change wasn't very large. If we really wanted to use the GDP to measure changes in economic well-being we should adjust it by subtracting all the production that goes to replacing worn-out items. But then we'd have Net Domestic Product, and as economists can't agree on the way to measure wear-out, we don't want to have one of those. Still, keep in mind the gross nature of the figure.

And now we come to the really serious problems with the GDP as a measure of economic well-being.* The first of these is that the GDP ignores the negative effects of economic activity on the environment. If I first produce coal and a lot of pollution, the value of the coal increases the GDP, but the negative value of the pollution is not included. If I then start a company to reduce the pollution I caused, the value of this activity increases the GDP! Say the value of my coal in the market is 1,000,000 dollars, and the extent of my pro-environment activity earns me 500,000 dollars, but the environmental degradation I caused would have a value of minus 3,000,000. The GDP gives my contribution as 1,500,000 dollars whereas it really should be -1,500,000. Of course it's really hard to put a dollar value on the environmental effects, and that's one of the reasons why they are ignored.

This omission of environmental consequences is a serious problem with the GDP. Another equally serious one has to do with the omission of nonmarket output in the GDP calculations. By 'nonmarket output' we mean goods and services which are produced but which are not sold and bought in the markets so that they have no easy prices to use in the calculations. Almost all production at home falls into this category: the production of home-cooked meals, childcare of one's own children, cleaning, laundry and yard-work. If I and my neighbor both do this work for ourselves, none of its value will be entered in the GDP figures. If, on the other hand, I hire my neighbor to do my chores, and he hires me, suddenly both of our outputs are entered in the GDP, which now shows an increase in production, even though no increase actually happened.

Our omission of nonmarket outputs in the GDP figures means that it's very hard to compare two countries by using their GDPs if they have very different patterns of market and nonmarket work. Also, the GDP underestimates women's production drastically, as the majority of household work is done by women. Estimates of the omitted value of nonmarket production vary, but most of them suggest that as much as one half of the total GDP may be omitted in omitting this part of the production.

Ok. Given all these omissions and problems, what is included in the GDP? How do we get the actual figures? To understand the procedure, note that we don't have any readily available measures of production, so we need to sort of deduce the production values from other stuff. Something that is produced today in the United States must go to one of the following uses:
-It's consumed by someone in the U.S. ( either because the person consumes it in a private act of consumption or because the person consumes it as part of government-provided consumption (use of roads, say)).

-It's not consumed right away, but it will provide goods or services that can be consumed in the future (this category includes durable consumer goods such as washing machines and also all investment). Some of this investment goes to replacing worn out equipment.

-It's consumed by someone abroad. This is counted as U.S. exports. But note that U.S. citizens can also consume things made abroad, and we don't want to include this in Domestic Product. What we need to do, then, is to add the value of exports to the GDP, and then subtract the value of imports from it.

So if we can add up the values of current and future consumption and correct this for the foreign influences, we should get a measure of GDP (though with all the problems I talked about earlier). By now you are up to reading the following summary of the included items, I hope:

It is common to see the following equation in economics textbooks:
GDP = C + I + G + NX

Consumption spending (C) consists of consumer spending on goods and services. It is often divided into spending on durable goods, non-durable goods and services. These purchases accounted for 68 percent of GDP in the first quarter.
Durable goods are items such as cars, furniture, and appliances, which are used for several years. (10%)
Non-durable goods are items such as food, clothing, and disposable products, which are used for only a short time period. (20%)
Services include rent paid on apartments (or estimated values for owner occupied housing), airplane tickets, legal and medical advice or treatment, electricity and other utilities. (38%) Services are the fastest growing part or consumption spending.
Investment spending (I) consists of nonresidential fixed investment, residential investment, and inventory changes. Investment spending accounts for 19 percent of GDP, but varies significantly from year to year.
Nonresidential fixed investment is the creation of tools and equipment to use in the production of other goods and services. Examples are the building of factories, the production of new machines, and the manufacturing of computers for business use (15%).
Residential investment is the building of a new homes or apartments. (4%)
Inventory changes consist of changes in the level of stocks of goods necessary for production and finished goods ready to be sold. (Less than 1%)
Government spending (G) consists of federal, state, and local government spending on goods and services such as research, roads, defense, schools, and police and fire departments. This spending does not include transfer payments such as Social Security, unemployment compensation, and welfare payments, which do not represent production of goods and services. (17%)
Net Exports (NX) is equal to exports minus imports. Exports are items produced in the US and purchased by foreigners (12%). Imports are items produced by foreigners and purchased by US consumers. (16%). Currently, the US imports more than it exports so that net exports are negative, about -4% of the GDP.

Got it? The total value of what is produced domestically goes either into what people consume (the first item), or into future consumption (investment, the second item) or into what the government consumes (the third item). In addition to that, we consume some things which are produced abroad (imports) and we produce some things which are consumed abroad (exports). The difference: exports-imports adjusts the other three groups for this, so that we are not omitting production that was consumed elsewhere or including consumption that was produced elsewhere.

Pretty simple, isn't it? Well, I hope so anyway.
*I'm not covering all the serious problems with the use of GDP as a welfare indicator. See this link for more information.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

A Sunday Post

In other words, something light and frothy is called for. Perhaps interior decoration? Tassels, bows and dried flower arrangements? I hate them all.

The problem is that I love to make awful items for interior decoration, yet I can't bear the sight of them. Giving them out as gifts works, but it tends to severely reduce my population of friends. So most of these creations are hidden in the basement where they make a good surface for spider eggs to rest (see post below on spider eggs). I just finished a homemade lamp shade. It has a long fringe and it's bedecked with blue-centered daisies made out of fabric! It was such fun to make, and now I have to hide the thing before breakfast or I lose my appetite. I also have a mini skirt in the basement, made by tearing up several silk shirts and by sewing the fragments on a canvas base. Also several 'ancestor' portraits made out of stuffed fabric shapes, flea market jewelry and so on. They are ancestor portraits for people who don't have ancestors, as well as for goddesses like me who just always existed. The idea is to hang them around the dining room, in massive, dark frames.

That's enough of light and frothy. In reality, I like my buildings stark, with marble and big open fireplaces. If there has to be furniture, it better be as simple as possible, and the only portraits allowed are of my favorite snakes and lovers.

But then I want to make something, and it always involves tassels, gilding and everything I can find at the local flea markets. Do you think I would benefit from some new age therapy? Or would that be too risky, given that seeing a real live goddess might make some therapists cross the border between sanity and insanity? In the wrong direction, I mean, though maybe the opposite is equally likely, and in that case I'd be a benefactress by resorting to medical help.

In the meantime, I have to decide what to do with all my frothy and light art creations when the basement overflows.
How about a lottery for some nice charity? And the winner would get his or her pick of my goodies! Would you buy a ticket for a good cause, say a rest-home for retired goddesses?