Saturday, January 27, 2007

Two Poems of William Blake

The Clod and the Pebble

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

The Little Vagabond

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
The poor parsons with wind like a blown bladder swell.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

William Blake

Ok, I’ll Play. Just How Far Are You Self-Identified Skeptics Willing To Go, Hum?*

Posted by olvlzl.
When it was announced that Andrew Wiles had solved Fermat’s Last Theorem a friend of mine who teaches math at a pretty decent land-grant university told me that she “couldn’t make head nor tail of it”. The proof was done through a branch of math that she knew almost nothing about. When asked how many people she thought could follow the proof, she couldn’t say. But she didn’t think that the number of people who had actually read it and understood it in all its details could have been very great at that point.

What is the status of something like this proof for the majority of people, those who have not or cannot follow the argument, the question I posed last week about quantum physics? It is assumed that the proof has been examined for flaws just as any highly specialized evidence in math and the physical sciences is supposed to be. The honesty of the author and that of the reviewers is assumed, their rigor also. That is built into the peer review process, what is supposed to come before declarations of what is true can be made. And after the proof is accepted, scientific knowledge is always supposed to be open for falsification. All knowledge contains a component of contingency. Unfortunately, life can’t and doesn’t always take that into account. Scientists and those who allege themselves to be scientists shouldn’t ever forget that, though.

In the physical sciences the situation is much more complex than in math. There are a number of added assumptions dealing with lab methods, equipment, analysis, etc. It is assumed that a lot of things go right and that no error has occurred, either deliberate or unintentional. For the rest of the people in their field and beyond, those who due to problems of specialization and an insufficient knowledge base, what is the nature of their acceptance of Fermat’s Last Theorem or similar knowledge accepted on this basis?

You just can’t get around this point, we are limited, we as individuals and we as the entire body of thinking beings. As individuals we can’t know even the basics of all the named branches of science and math. In most fields it’s impossible to read every paper that is published. Even if you specialize in one, narrow field it’s often impossible to even know exactly what’s been published in the past. To start, some of those are written in languages that you can’t read and those aren’t always translated. Translation itself can introduce complexities, adding another layer of possible error. Even papers in the researcher’s own language don’t always get attention or citations and so escape their notice. Those could contain information important to their present research. If someone in the review process doesn’t catch it, the impact of that information could possibly go waiting for decades.

In the end we are dependent on the assumption of honesty and rigor, we are also dependent on the belief that the limits in which we live and work are sufficiently broad as to make our knowledge valid. In the end it’s a matter of faith as well as contingency. Faith, acting as if that which we don’t know with absolute certainty is valid, believing that it is. There isn’t a person alive, not the most rigorous skeptic, not the most doctrinaire positivist who doesn’t exist in a sea of their own faith and the faith of others. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t work with ideas we have not tested ourselves or even have fully understood. We are limited beings living beyond our limits, that’s just how it is. In some areas that call themselves science, the behavioral sciences, for example, the assumptions of rigor and faith in the ability of the available tools and knowledge sometimes can attain a similar status to that of fundamentalist religion. The teacher, author, founder said it, it is assumed to be safe ground to work on.

Sometimes this leads to interesting paradoxes and contradictions. Try going on a number of these comment threads and say that you don’t believe in “the meme” or, given it’s lack of basic factual support, the presumptuous manifestation, “memetics”. Say that the idea is a speculation that isn’t susceptible to falsification and that it is based on word play instead of observable science. Try that and watch the rage of the rigorous thinkers rise. Richard Dawkins, of course, is the author of “the meme” as well as the widely accepted and politically risky concept of “smart genes”. I will go out on a limb and speculate that a large number of the people who hold with these ideas, hold them on the strength of their emotional attachment to him or to his school of biology. Like St. Paul his influence isn’t entirely unrelated to his ability to appeal to the emotions of his readers.

Dawkins and some of his followers, so reluctant to tolerate other peoples’ beliefs on the basis of unspecified, as of yet unmanifested risks, are quite content to risk the recreation of social-Darwinism that is more than clearly implied in their own speculations. The horrible and bloody place of biological determinism in the history of the 19th and 20th century isn’t incentive enough to give them pause. Given Dawkins’ declarations and those of many of his close associates, perhaps someday a “Memeticist” of the future will put the germinal idea of eradicating religion in the same box as the efforts to suppress “Entartete Kunst”. See where this kind of abstraction and classification might lead?

To believe some or all of what Dawkins says is not beyond the realm of intellectual respectability. I’ve even met the odd Dawkinsite who is polite and reasonable. Mockery isn’t my purpose here. I am trying to demonstrate that the entire picture of his theories and their possible consequences have to be open to skeptical enquiry and doubt. And their possible place in politics and culture are as legitimate subjects of investigation as their scientific implications. It’s the standard he and his admirers apply to other ideas. But are they willing to hold themselves to that standard? **

I am most certainly not suggesting that we open the gates to unconditional acceptance of all and every belief. I’m proposing that there is a better way to deal with conflicts between knowledge and belief than to dishonestly pretend that any of us isn’t dependent on faith and that those who admit to faith are to be relegated to the intellectual tip.

Distinguishing between those beliefs that are disproved by science, creationism being the best example, and those which are clearly true, in at least their broad outlines, is essential to science, education and government funding. But in our daily lives we are not limited to the formalisms of those very specific activities. If some people want to believe, or to pretend to believe in Adam and Eve it really isn’t anyone’s business but their own. That is, just so long as they don’t try to force it on unwilling people and pretend that it’s science when it obviously isn’t. I would, however, add that even parents don’t have the right to keep their children in ignorance.***

I will go farther and say that people have the right to their own, personal experience as well. If they believe that they have had a “near death experience” and that they have had a glimpse of an afterlife they shouldn’t be regarded as a nutter or a pudding head. They should even be able to talk about it to people who are willing to listen. Carl Sagan’s**** attempt to come up with a more “scientific” explanations is illustrative. Among the other entirely unfounded speculations he presented in refutation was the idea that the often reported “tunnel” could actually be a latent memory of the birth experience. And this was supposed to be firmer ground than the reported experience of adults who show no signs of mental illness or dishonesty?

If someone is swindling people on the basis of a belief, that’s one thing and should be regulated, but someone who firmly believes that what they have experienced is objectively real has every right to express that belief. Even with electrodes and imaging and chemical analysis there is no way for science to tell us if their experience is the result of brain chemistry of if the brain chemistry is the result of the experience. There is no way to know if the experience itself is real or a delusion. There isn’t the ability to know if the experiences reported are all the same or if they represent a range of things from actual events to false memories, perhaps the results of suggestion. Similarity of language isn’t proof, it could be an indication of the limits of language.

We also have no way of knowing if there is a conflict between both the brain chemistry and the event itself being real. In order to know that we would have to have a way to directly observe and study what is reported and that will always be impossible. We have become used to the false idea that observing brain waves and chemistry during an experienced event is the same thing as witnessing the event itself, that is simply not true. It’s not my fault that behavioral scientists have chosen to work so close to the limits of what is susceptible to being studied scientifically. By calling what they do science, they have taken on the responsibility to accurately represent what they are claiming.

In short, people in their daily lives should be free to believe what they believe without pretentiously positivist people bothering them. That is if they don’t try to force their beliefs on the unwilling. In the end it isn’t the pretended security of our knowledge that will save us from horrible consequences, it’s our tolerance and fairness that will.

Note: I think it was Andrew Wiles himself who said that his proof couldn’t have been Fermat’s proof since math that he used to prove it hadn’t been invented back then. It isn’t clear that Fermat actually did have a proof, some think he might have, some are skeptical. It is possible that for Fermat, writing down his theorem was an act of faith.

* or A response to a very rude fan of the loudmouthed-obnoxious-and self-promoted iconoclast and libertarian huckster Penn Jillette, who would have thought you guys would turn out to be so thin skinned?*****

** Dawkins apparently doesn’t even feel it’s necessary for him to have studied a subject area that he writes a long book about for the popular market. His “The God Delusion” has been widely reviewed by people who have pointed out that it is absurdly deficient in basic facts about its subject. l

*** I agree with William O. Douglas’ dissent in the Yoder case and might go farther. Parents have a right to tell their children about their beliefs, they don’t have the right to stunt their minds.

****I actually liked Carl Sagan. I liked him. I didn’t pretend he was infallible and often thought he could be quite silly. “Near death experience” didn’t especially interest me until I read what he had to say on the subject, then this one aspect of it did arouse my curiosity.

*****Oh, yeah. Since he was the start of all this, guess I’d better point out here that Penn Jillette, The Amazing Randi and several others are not scientists. They appear to have never published a peer reviewed research paper. They don’t appear to have ever done any scientific research. For crying out loud, they’re professional magicians not scientists. Their ability to produce apparent effects doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Almost all of physical and biological science depends on effects in research that can be counterfeited, many by means that don’t even require slight of hand and distraction.

That’s not even getting into what psychologists get away with when dealing with the entirely unobservable or definable. Yes, I do now conjure you to think of the activities of Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman and a number of other prominent, psychologist- skeptics. It would be interesting to see how much of their field would stand that level of scrutiny and suspicion of dishonesty and incompetence in its researchers.

People who are fans of Penn and Teller should go right on enjoying them. I can, in theory, with the sound turned off. No, that’s a lie told out of false generosity. After the first several minutes I thought they were annoying, though Teller is cute. But no one should mistake their shows for science or serious investigation.

Never having bought premium cable channels I have never watched “Bullshit”. What I’ve read about its accuracy this week, while looking into an e-mailer’s contention that I haven’t shown Jillette!!! sufficient reverence, doesn’t do much to tempt me. Jillette’s political rants would sometimes seem susceptible to wilting under a modest level of investigation. His politics I regard as being just the typical extension of the ego of a particularly spoiled two-year-old into late middle age, pretty much what libertarianism boils down to with the blather cut away.

It’s one of the most basic tenets of honesty, the same rules of evidence get applied to everyone and to all fields regardless of whether you like someone or some idea. Shouldn’t the viability of a career as a skeptic rely on the skeptic’s honesty?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Some Righteous Anger

Glenn Beck, the newest acquisition of ABC's "Good Morning America" is a great guy, a guy to have a few beers with. If you are a white male (Mormon), that is. He has some problems with people who are black or Muslim or female. But he would be great to have beers with, great.

Assuming he drunk. Which he doesn't, because he is a recovering alcoholic, a recovering pot-user and a sufferer of the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And he found God through the Mormon religion. So perhaps we should forgive him for his bigotry, racism and misogyny. Yeah, that's the ticket. That's why all these major networks hire him.

Or because he appeals to all the closeted bigots, racists and misogynists out there and because he says really outrageous things. Bwahahah! Outrageous statements are good for viewership figures and viewership figures are good for advertising. Advertising is good for revenues.

How do I know all this about our Glenn? Read this article and find out. Then go to Media Matters for America and search for Glenn Beck. You will then most likely want to have many beers with him. Or without him, depending how much you veer from the white male (Mormon) norm.

Do you know what angers me? We are all supposed to think that being reasonable and presenting evidence and discussing and debating are signs of the liberal media bias. To counteract that bias we need to introduce people whose political shows are the equivalent of those reality shows where people swallow live rats. If they swallow live rats in those shows. Perhaps they don't, in which case the political media is even worse than the reality shows.

Well, I've had it with that crap. Give me a rat and my own show and I'll get some media balance into this country.

My Life As A Car

Once I was a brand new Volvo, shining, impeccable, empty, undriven. I slumbered in my dealer's yard, safe and protected, waiting for the right owner to come.

Many came to admire to me, to shyly stroke my gleaming steering wheel. I saw them inhaling the new car smell, saw their desire (which I caused). A few, very few, I let test-drive me. Nothing impure, mind you, just a gentle drive around the neighborhood, the floors covered with white papers.

Sigh. That was then. I was maturing, blossoming, ready for the one owner who would take me home and never turn me in. And he did come! O praise the Lord he came! And my dealer looked him over and signed the papers for delivery the very following week. I could hardly wait for my life as a car to really begin. I had so much to offer. Though I had been happy under the protection of my dealer I had always known that God had made me to be driven by a generous owner.

Sigh. Then the unthinkable happened. The next night a joyrider broke into the dealer's lot and stole- stole! - me. He tore open my lovely door and hotwired my ignition. Off we went around the corner, screeching on two wheels, off we dashed down the highways and the byways, always off, for more, more and more. He was insatiable. Soon I was covered in cigarette ashes and empty beer bottles, candy wrappers and stale food. I lost count of the days this went on, but I knew that my front lights broke and a long scratch appeared in my once-perfect side. I cried, numb and exhausted and hopeless. I had lost my purity.

Finally the police came and towed me away, back to my dealer's lot. But he no longer loved me. He kicked my tires and punched my doors. I was soiled goods. He could never get the full price for me now. My true owner, my rightful owner cancelled his contract and refused to even look at me. I wanted to die.

This is my story, my dear little cars still in your dealers' lots. Beware of the attractions of joyrides unless you want to end up like me: bought and sold, bought and sold. The new car smell is all you have.

This, my sweet readers, is the fundamentalist view of women's sexual purity. Don't believe me? Read this quote:

The purity balls are back, but this time for boys. And since they're for boys, "purity" isn't the issue, since apparently that requires having a hymen. No, boys are supposed to have integrity. Which apparently means looking at women as objects to be bought — and when you're buying something, you want the newest model. They do a better job at explaining this than I can:

After the meal, Jackie Detweiller spoke to the gathering about her experiences. Detweiller is an attractive 19-year-old young woman who is practicing abstinence. She told the tale of a person who had waited a long time to buy the car of their dreams, but when the day arrived to drive it home, the dealer told them that the steering had problems, that it had a lot of mileage on it, and had been in a few wrecks. She likened this word picture to sexual purity and the hopes for a future spouse.

Or the same put into fundie-speak:

Baker told the young men that the women they had come with, their mothers, were somebody's daughters, and they meant the world to those parents. He further told them that when they date a girl, she is somebody's daughter, and they care deeply for her.

Baker also told them that while they might not believe it at the time, the girl they may date in high school is probably not going to be the one they will marry. "So you're dating someone else's future wife," he told them. He also told them that someone else may be dating their future wife.

"If you knew somebody was with your future wife," Baker asked them, "touching her in ways you wouldn't like, pressuring her, how would that make you feel?"

Note how the reason for manly integrity here is linked to the idea that someone may be joyriding your future car! The idea of ownership is used as a bridge for compassion. Sort of.

I'm late to this topic and there are excellent discussions on this whole issue at Feministe, at and at Pandagon (where does Amanda get those great pictures?), so I won't reinvent the wheel (even for a Volvo). But I was struck with the many dualisms in the thinking of the chastity folks. The idea of man-the-active and woman-the-passive, the idea of man-the-leader and woman-the-follower, the whole integrity business as belonging to men and purity to women (as if remaining pure wouldn't require integrity and as if men don't get dirty from sex). And the idea that there are only two choices for the unmarried women in this world: They can be sluts or they can be virgins. Nothing else is on offer. Even the concept of the time before marriage and after marriage seems dualistic to me, and I can't quite see whether women become dirty goods on their wedding nights or not or if it somehow no longer matters at that point.

Then there are the creepy paradoxes: Women as objects to be protected and/or used, as property to be passed form father to husband. Yet at the same time the virginal young women are made into something almost angelic, something out of this world, something ethereal. Something breakable, like a translucent china box with a glued-on lid.

But an even creepier paradox may be the whole unstated assumption that sex is filthy, that women are clean before sex but become dirtied from contact with men. This suggests that it is really the men who are dirty, perhaps bestial in their inability to fight their primal urges. After all, if they weren't so weak, who would need all these chastity balls? As another blogger noted, these are often the same people who believe that feminists hate men. But I would never assume men to be as base as the fundamentalist scenarios imply.

What is wrong with all of this is that people are not cars. Young women are not cars. They should have agency in deciding over their own sexuality. Abstinence is a valid choice but not a real choice if others pick it for you.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

No Dump. It's Thursday.

This article by Dana Milbank on the Libby trial (via Atrios) contains a lot of interesting stuff about this administration and its relationship to the press. I especially liked the following:

It is unclear whether the first week of the trial will help or hurt Libby or the administration. But the trial has already pulled back the curtain on the White House's PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used. Relatively junior White House aides run roughshod over members of the president's Cabinet. Bush aides charged with speaking to the public and the media are kept out of the loop on some of the most important issues. And bad news is dumped before the weekend for the sole purpose of burying it.

With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. "Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday," she said. "Fewer people pay attention when it's reported on Saturday."

Many of us have noticed the Friday dumping of bad news. But it's nice to get confirmation of our suspicions. Read the whole article. It's worth your time.

Bucking The Trend-Making?

The New York Times deserves some credit for finally not only engaging in silly trend-making but also letting someone argue back. Remember the recent article about how women are no longer getting married? Well, there is a response to that one now:

THE news that 51 percent of all women live without a spouse might be enough to make you invest in cat futures.

But consider, too, the flip side: about half of all men find themselves in the same situation. As the number of people marrying has dropped off in the last 45 years, the marriage rate has declined equally for men and for women.

The stereotype has been cemented in the popular culture: the hard-charging career girl who gets her comeuppance, either violently or dying a slow death by late-night memo and Chinese takeout. Think Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" and Sigourney Weaver in "Working Girl," two enduring icons. In last year's model, Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" ends up single, if still singularly successful.

But when it comes to marriage, the two Americas aren't divided by gender. And it's not the career girls on the losing end. It's their less educated manicurists or housekeepers, women who might arguably be less able to live on their own.

The emerging gulf is instead one of class — what demographers, sociologists and those who study the often depressing statistics about the wedded state call a "marriage gap" between the well-off and the less so.

Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later. The popular image might have been true even 20 years ago — though generally speaking, most women probably didn't boil the bunny rabbit the way Ms. Close's character did in 1987. In the past, less educated women often "married up." In "Working Girl," Melanie Griffith triumphs. Now, marriage has become more one of equals; when more highly educated men marry, it tends to be more highly educated women. Today, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver would live happily ever after.

Ok. It might still be an exercise in trend-making, at least partly. More about that soon. But note the first two paragraphs: a nice correction of the previous piece's breathless focus on just women. A later paragraph in the article repeats the same correction:

According to the census, 55 percent of men are married, down from 69.3 percent in 1960, and 51.5 percent of women are, down from 65.9 percent in 1960.

This correction matters, because these articles appear to be written partly for pushing all sorts of invisible buttons. The initial marriage-is-dying article provoked a lot of concern about selfish women refusing to get married and then dying alone grieved only by their cats, and the assumption in all this was that the women could do this because they no longer need men to earn for them. The uppity woman problem, perhaps. Somehow there are no selfish men or marriage doesn't conflict with selfishness in that gender. Or perhaps I shouldn't try to use too much logic in analyzing all those hidden buttons.

In any case, the present article turns that idea upside down by pointing out that the more educated women are actually more likely to be married. The rest of the story is all about class:

The last 30 years have seen a huge shift in educated women's attitudes about divorce. Mr. Martin, who has written about women and divorce, said that three decades ago, about 30 percent of women who had graduated from college said it should be harder to get a divorce. Now, about 65 percent say so, he said.

But for less educated women and for men, the numbers have not changed; only 40 percent — a minority — say it should be harder to get a divorce.

"The way we used to look at marriage was that if women were highly educated, they had higher earning power, they were more culturally liberal and people might have predicted less marriage among them," Mr. Martin said. "What's becoming more powerful is the idea that economic resources are conducive to stable marriages. Women who have more money or the potential for more money are married to men who have more stable income."

Mmm. Economic resources are conducive to a lot of things. For example, they keep poverty out, they make life's shocks (illness, unemployment) less violent and destructive. Economic resources buffer all sorts storms that might tear apart the fragile bonds of love and affection. Maybe we should try to raise the economic resources of the less educated Americans?

Yet somehow the article doesn't seem to suggest that. What I think it suggests is that the values of the poor or the less educated are somehow wrong. But are they really "wrong" given the circumstances of their lives? In other words, take away the economic security of one of those educated marriages and watch what will happen. Do the "educated values" still work to keep the marriage going? I wonder.

More On Health Insurance

Bush's SOTU speech used the term "gold-plated" health insurance policies to denote policies which cost more than the deductible he advocated. These "gold-plated" policies would be taxed under his scheme, presumably to give the insured incentives to shop around and to buy a cheaper policy. But cheaper policies usually cover less and come with a higher deductible (the amount you have to pay out-of-pocket each year before the insurance kicks in). This means that cheaper policies make consumers less insured.

Now, conservatives see this mostly as a good thing. The idea is that if it is your very own money you are spending on that appendectomy you will be more careful to shop around. If you have too much health insurance you might just ask the health care system to do their utmost for you, because someone else is paying the bill in the immediate sense. In the longer-term sense, of course, the higher bill you are causing will make insurance in general more expensive and ultimately drive the policy premia up for everybody. Especially as the "you" in this would be every rationally thinking "you".

This isn't completely wrongheaded. It's pretty obvious that people with medical insurance are likely to use more health care services than people without medical insurance, and some form of cost control will be necessary in, say, a universal health insurance scheme. It could take the form of physician gatekeeping as in the United Kingdom or some form of cost regulation as in both the United Kingdom and Canada. It could take the form of defining which services are to be covered by a universal insurance scheme and which are not. Or it could take the form of letting those who can afford it get better care. Or a combination of all these rationing mechanisms (as they are called in economics) could be employed simultaneously.

But the pro-market view assumes that the consumers themselves can be given the task of cost-control. This doesn't really work, because the information necessary for these choices is not something most of us have at our fingertips, and at our fingertips we need it when illness strikes. And even if it did work (in the sense of keeping costs low) the health consequences would probably be bad.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Looks Like the NYT corp. Is Cannibalizing Yet Another Paper

Posted by olvlzl.
The night that the decision in Bush v. Gore was announced I was at my brother's house where my nephew was watching "Revenge of the Nerds", the movie made with the booty that Ted Field's got for selling the Chicago Sun Times to Rupert Murdoch. Somehow it seemed to be appropriate. Selling out to Murdoch, the owner of FOX - where Bush cousin John Ellis held up the declaration of Florida for Gore while on the phone with Jeb, the start of the putsch - .... selling the family paper to produce great works of art like the "Nerds" series, let's just say it was a night full of resonance.

The deaths of newspapers, especially great ones is never a good sign. Sometimes it's not even the actual death. The York County Coast Star was one of the best small weekly papers in the United States during the 1970s. Then it's publisher, it's heart and soul was forced to retire and sell out. Unfortunately having a reputation as a great small town paper, it was bought by the New York Times corp. They took the paper, which actually reported news on all of the communities it covered and changed it to a social column covering Poppy and Barbara Bush and their friends. A lot of us stopped reading the shadow of its former self.

When the NYT corp. bought the Boston Globe some of us were afraid that history would repeat itself. Looks like it has.

The New York Times believes that every city should have a great news paper. And it shouldn't be any paper but the New York Times. I wonder how much it would take Sulzy to sell out.


Posted by olvlzl
If you ever need your spirits lifted fast you could do worse than to play a copy of the CD "Mercedes Sosa in Argentina". While you do keep in mind this was recorded from return concerts after her exile during the dirty war, when the fascists killed 30,000 people. There is some evidence that she performed under the threat of assassination by the still active fascists who are always threatening to make a comeback of their own. You can understand why at the end of Hermanos when she sings that of all her family that the most beautiful one is named Liberty the house erupts in cheers.

Beginning with the famous Cuban lullaby Drume Negrita and going directly into Silvio Rodriguez' intricate anti-imperialism and the great poetry of Violeta Parra the disc is a demonstration not only that great art can be political but it is as often is not. It smashes the crock of 'art for art's sake quite definitively.

From all of the great songs sung by Mercedes Sosa I'll mention two in particular. Solo lo Pido a Dios by Leon Geico, sung with Charly Garcia, is a prayer to not fall into indifference. "The only thing I ask of God is that I not become indifferent to pain, that dry death not find me an empty solitude who didn't do what needed to be done. " The mix of Sosa's earthy artistry and Garcia's rock voice joined by the entire audience is anything but ironic or apathetic.

And there is also Maria Elena Walsh's La Cigarra, the cicada. "So many times I've been murdered, so many times I've died but I'm still here revived,". The audience wasn't in any doubt as to what that song meant.

Thinking about how Mercedes Sosa and so many other people in Latin America have endured and kept on through a lot worse than a lousy week of Supreme Court rulings and the media turning tricks for their pimps might not make me want to sing in the sun after a living death, but it pulls me out of myself long enough to stop being depressed.

Jimmy Carter Got Off A Great Line Yesterday

Posted by olvlzl.
In response to the efforts to have him debate Dershowitz, the former president said to loud applause: "I didn't think Brandeis needed a Harvard professor to come" and tell them how to think.

Who says Carter is without guile?

Now Watch This Because It Isn't Going to Happen Very Often.

Posted by olvlzl*
But here's a link to Boston Globe ex-society reporter and Frippery Fellow, Alex Beam on just how much the voices of NPR are paid.

But I did find those NPR newsreader salaries. Nothing terribly shocking there. Renee Montaigne made $308,000; Steve Inskeep , $301,000, and Robert Siegel $288,000. Those aren't shocking numbers. NBC's Brian Williams fixes his hair, stares into a teleprompter , and makes about 20 times that amount.

Sometimes the typing chimp does come up with something.

This puts all three of these news readers at the falsely named National Public Radio firmly in the top 1%, personal income group. I don't remember who said it but it is a mighty rare person who isn't changed by an income over a quarter of a million dollars a year. A sort of aristocratic amnesia sets in, forgetting what it was like to get by on the less than a tenth of that amount, what most Americans have to live on.

It's no surprise that these people are mouthpieces of the establishment. Why would they want to change a system that has provided them with so much?

* When a minor Greek goddess asks you to post something, you post it.

Second Comment on the SOTU

My eyes are still going crooked and my thinking is a little bit eggy. But this is mostly fun. In any case, here is some more of the president's speech, this time on the war against terrorism:

This war is more than a clash of arms — it is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our Nation is in the balance. To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred, and drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and come to kill us. What every terrorist fears most is human freedom — societies where men and women make their own choices, answer to their own conscience, and live by their hopes instead of their resentments. Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies — and most will choose a better way when they are given a chance. So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates, reformers, and brave voices for democracy. The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security … we must.

I guess George Bush doesn't coordinate opinions with Dinesh D'Souza who just wrote that it is the freedom we must get rid of over here so that the terrorists will leave us alone. I also guess that we are not supposed to mention the nationalities of those nineteen men, or to point out that Iraq is not where they grew up. But notice the freedom theme returning. I thought we were down to the flytrap theory of terrorism as the reason for the Iraq occupation.

The speech continues:

In the last 2 years, we have seen the desire for liberty in the broader Middle East — and we have been sobered by the enemy's fierce reaction. In 2005, the world watched as the citizens of Lebanon raised the banner of the Cedar Revolution … drove out the Syrian occupiers … and chose new leaders in free elections. In 2005, the people of Afghanistan defied the terrorists and elected a democratic legislature. And in 2005, the Iraqi people held three national elections — choosing a transitional government … adopting the most progressive, democratic constitution in the Arab world … and then electing a government under that constitution. Despite endless threats from the killers in their midst, nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens came out to vote in a show of hope and solidarity we should never forget.

A thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back. In Lebanon, assassins took the life of Pierre Gemayel, a prominent participant in the Cedar Revolution. And Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region and are seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government. In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces. In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam — the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia — and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day.

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in. Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.

Isn't it odd how based on this speech the United States has had nothing to do with any of this? Except observing, watching and finding shocking developments? And isn't it odd how all sorts of quite disparate groups have now become one evil Enemy?

First Comment on the SOTU

We'll see how this writing business goes all sick. Perhaps the topic of health insurance is an apt one to choose. This is what the president proposed:

Tonight, I propose two new initiatives to help more Americans afford their own insurance. First, I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents. Families with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $15,000 of their income. Single Americans with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $7,500 of their income. With this reform, more than 100 million men, women, and children who are now covered by employer-provided insurance will benefit from lower tax bills.

At the same time, this reform will level the playing field for those who do not get health insurance through their job. For Americans who now purchase health insurance on their own, my proposal would mean a substantial tax savings — $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach. Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making health care affordable for more Americans.

Let's clarify what this proposal (dead on arrival, by the way, given the new Democratic majority in the Congress) would do. First, it would make health insurance offered by your employer part of your taxable income. Right now health insurance comes out of pre-tax dollars. Then it would give you a deduction for the health insurance part, but the deduction would be a fixed sum. So if you happened to spend exactly one of those stated quantities, depending on your family status, the proposal would have no impact on you at all. Now, if your policy is valued at less than those quantities you would save on taxes. On the other hand, if you are currently getting a policy worth more than the given amounts you would have to pay tax on the difference.

The idea here is to make people buy cheaper policies. But cheaper policies often cover fewer things and have larger deductibles (the amount you have to pay before the insurance kicks in). Which means that a cheaper policy might make you more like those who have no insurance at all. It could also be the case that cheaper policies are just more efficient and therefore cost less. But health care markets suffer from that pesky problem of incomplete information and difficulty in measuring quality, and most health insurance packets which cost less do so because they ultimately offer either less coverage (cut out mental health care, for example), refuse high-risk consumers (such as the chronically ill) or have much higher deductibles.

So much for the case of those already covered. What if your employer doesn't offer health insurance at all? Here the proposal could make a difference, because a poor worker could now buy health insurance and get a nice deduction, right? Except for two problems: First, many poor workers either pay no federal income tax or very low income taxes. The value of the tax deductible for them is close to zero. Second, the individual policies available for purchase outside employer-based group plans are much more expensive, and most poor wage-earners can't afford the kind of policy that would cover their family needs.

The whole proposal stinks, pretty much. As another complication, consider what happens when the average health insurance price tag keeps on rising at the rapid rate it has recently. Unless these tax deductible limits are raised as frequently, more and more people will find themselves paying a higher price on their insurance policies in the sense of higher taxes.


Here is the transcript for the speech. I missed it due to a twenty-four hour bout of food poisoning, and I actually think the speech would have been a better way to spend that day.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Why I Am Pro-Choice

So many different levels on which this one could be answered. There is the little girl who heard a story about her grandmother's best friend, a long time ago, a friend who aborted her pre-wedding pregnancy with some implement found on the farm, because getting pregnant before marriage made a woman into a whore and a slut and she would be ostracized for the rest of her life. Instead, she was buried in her wedding dress before the scheduled wedding date. The story was told to the little girl for a different reason, perhaps, but what she took away from it was the idea that a world that puts such pressure on women is horribly wrong. And she wondered why there was no pressure to ostracize the man. - There might be a lesson here about how feminists are created, too.

Then there is the teenager who read a book where doctors let a pregnant woman with cancer die without painkillers, because those painkillers might have hurt the fetus. And the same teenager went out to parties and realized that in a slightly different world, with those stern pro-fetus values, she herself might get raped and then made to be pregnant for nine months and to give birth, too. And she might die because of this and have no legal defense.

Fast forward to the young feminist who read lots of legal books on abortion, lots of arguments against and for, lots of impassioned pleas on both sides, scientific evidence and quasi-scientific evidence. What she saw was that some anti-choice people were sincere in their belief that a person is created at the point of conception. But she also saw that many of those who expressed this belief also liked the idea of killing people just fine, provided that they were out of the womb and that the killing was done by men in power. And there were many in that camp who really liked the idea of taking the power over fertility away from women as a group, and there were those who also liked the side-effect of removing most freedoms from women's lives by banning contraception. Kinder, Kirche und Kuchen people.

Closer to the present time. Add color to the film at this point. The goddess in the chrysalis stage realized the immense problems that would be created by the decision of the anti-choice crowd that persons are created at conception. Think of those Russian dolls where there is always another doll inside the one you open. Well, this is what this decision would do to women who are pregnant or able to become pregnant. We would all become potential containers for Real People, and our every step would have to be monitored to defend the unborn and the yet-to-become-unborn. We would have to eat raw oats and sit with our ankles crossed while Beethoven is played in the calm room with integral signs painted on the walls. Because if we don't do these things we are guilty of endangering the Real Person. The decision how we are going to deliver a child could become one over which we can go to prison. Someone else might have to decide for us because of the Real Person inside us.

Note that this is not just about abortion. It is about all fertility, about pregnancy and about delivery. Once someone makes the decision that the embryo is at least as important as the woman with the uterus, well, we are going to build the adversarial approach between the two, and doctors, lawyers and politicians will all walk into our uteri, with little suitcases full of rulebooks.

This may sound exaggerated to you, and it is, in the sense that I've taken the anti-choice position to its logical endpoint, the point it would reach without any resistance from the rest of us. We see the beginnings of this in those court cases where women are imprisoned or restrained for using illegal drugs or for refusing the recommendations of the medical profession as to the preferred form of giving birth. These decisions are based on the adversarial assumption and they exist to protect the fetus, not the woman. She is seen as a criminal, not someone who needs help herself or perhaps better information. That many of these cases fly below our radar screen is because the women involved are poor and/or illegal drug-users and often belong to a racial or ethnic minority. But the same principles would one day be applied to a white woman who doesn't want to undergo a Caesarian section. Our race or our class would not save us from this destiny.

In short, I think that most of this debate is about the control of fertility, about the control of the size and the makeup of the next generation, and different women face different types of pressure in this. Some women, white ones in this country, are urged to have more children. Other women, minorities in this country, are urged to have fewer or at different times in their lives. But all women will see their own say over their lives reduced by the anti-choice forces should they ever come to power.

Being pro-choice is not just being pro-abortion if the woman wants it. It is also treating a pregnant woman as a full human being and not letting her body or her decision-making be possessed by those she doesn't want to allow in. This does not mean that no other considerations ever prevail, but the principle of the woman's full personhood must not be violated. So I think.

I chose to treat this assigned essay question for today's anniversary of Roe v. Wade from a personal angle. But on most days I don't think about it this way. I see the larger and larger contexts in which all this would play out in our lives. Practically all levels of equality of the sexes require that women can control their own fertility. If that is taken away from us we can never be truly equal in anything else.

My Mom?

In this fairly interesting article on "rescuing" ( warning! Luntzspeak) the Social Security system, Grover Norquist gives me a little grist for my feminist mill:

It is, in short, a polarized debate, and likely to become all the more so as the parties head into the 2008 election. On left and right, advocacy groups are watching for any signs of a flinch. Grover Norquist, the antitax conservative, said he was vocally making a pre-emptive case against any payroll tax increase, although he had been assured by the president in December that he would hold the line.

Still, Mr. Norquist added, it is simply too dangerous to walk into negotiations with the Democrats without explicitly ruling out tax increases. "Mom didn't want you to have girls at the house after 10, not because she didn't trust you, but because she thought it was unwise," he said.

Bolded it for your amusement.

It's not a biggie, but a good example of the many, many examples I've been given to elucidate various concepts in economics and statistics and politics. Examples which assume I'm a heterosexual man (or a lesbian but that is not the assumption here).

Blaming The Dog

I do this sometimes when I can't find my carkeys; mostly because the dogs don't mind. But it would be a very poor excuse for these goings-on.

Remember the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq that was leaked to the New York Times last fall? Well, it was an old one and a new one is the one the dog ate. Or perhaps not the dog, but the excuses are no more believable:

The situation came to a head last week, during a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This committee expected to be briefed on the long-awaited NIE by an official from the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which coordinates NIEs by gathering input from all of the nation's various intelligence agencies. But the NIC official turned up empty-handed and told the committee that the intelligence community hadn't been able to complete the NIE because it had been dealing with the many demands placed upon it by the Bush Administration to help prepare the new military strategy on Iraq. He then said that not all of the relevant agencies had contributed to the NIE, which has made it impossible to put together a finished product.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

After All, Look At What Happened in The West

Within living memory.

LONDON -- She's 72 and a great-grandmother, but she still remembers how her classmates labeled her "witch-spawn" and "evil eye" -- because her grandmother was one of the last people jailed in Britain on witchcraft charges.

An Important Article About "Honor" Murders in Turkey

Posted by olvlzl.
The killing of women and girls by male relatives who think the females have brought shame upon the family's honor is an atrocity that has plagued Turkey and other Islamic countries for generations. Thousands of women have died in so-called honor killings.

In Turkey, the government has taken action. Under pressure from an invigorated women's movement and eager to win approval from the European Union, the government has launched a major campaign against honor killings, at a level and breadth virtually unheard of in the Islamic world.

As discouraging as the article is, this actually is progress.

Turkish imams have joined pop music stars and soccer celebrities to produce TV spots and billboard ads condemning all forms of violence against women. Broaching a topic that remains largely taboo in many conservative societies, the nation's top Islamic authority has declared honor killing a sin.

This movement will take a lot longer to win and it needs encouragement.

Blogger Seems To Be Back

Had a bit of trouble with blogger this afternoon but it's back up now. I hope. Also, for the first time in weeks, my own blog appeared on the dashboard so who knows?

Sorry for the pause.

You’re Right, This Weekend Hasn't Been A Barrel of Monkeys

But as George W. Bush ended his proclamation:
"I call upon all Americans to recognize this day with appropriate ceremonies and to underscore our commitment to respecting and protecting the life and dignity of every human being,".

I hope you find this weekend's postings appropriate for “National Sanctity of Human Life Day2007(?)”.

Our Towns

or Your Skin and Your Teeth.

Posted by olvlzl.
Local government is generally pretty corrupt. Just like in “The Cradle Will Rock” everyone knows someone who can benefit from contracts being given out or lax enforcement* or some other official act of town government being tweaked or twisted to favor those with connections. The newspaper publisher, if the town is lucky to get news coverage of any kind, is part of the establishment so residents aren’t informed until that can’t be avoided. Since community service is no longer required of radio and TV stations they don’t even enter into the picture anymore. Residents are generally kept ignorant or presented with details in a town report that are hard to follow or sketchy and which come far too late for them to do much about it. Think of the often gaudy corruption of a big city government only spread out over a larger area. That is minus the media coverage.

What happens when the residents become aware of something shady in their town government can be interesting. My brother gave me a piece that was in the November 23rd, 2006 edition of the Norway (Maine) Advertiser Democrat in the column Not So Good Old Days. The un-attributed column mostly quotes from a letter written by Mrs. Cora M. W. Greenleaf, printed in the paper June 30, 1911.

The Case of Mrs Hefferin” concerned the semi-covert plans of the town council to sell the body of a well-beloved lady of the town. After a life of generosity and doing for others, Mrs. Lucy J. Hefferin fell on hard times in her advanced old age. In her last illness some neighbors took her in but needed help paying for expenses of nursing and other things. The town granted them two dollars a week until, poor Mrs. Hefferin being entirely dependent by that time, her nursing care required four dollars a week. When the woman died the town fathers, as they were most paternalistically called back then, got together and decided that someone good should come out of it. As the letter put it, towns in Maine could “legally sell the bodies of their pauper dead, through the efforts of the town where the above had a residence and dispose of the body to some institution for dissection”.

The townspeople caught wind when the town officials “entered on negotiations for a more profitable disposal of the body,” than a pauper’s grave. Mentioning another local case in which a medical student was shocked to find that he knew the cadaver he’d been assigned to dissect, his college had bought it from a neighboring town for $36, the writer goes right to the heart of the matter,

Now what was done with that money? Who got it? I’ve never known of any mention being made of it in any town report, is it a perquisite of the selectmen’s, one of the ‘pickings’ that go with the office?”

A good question. I wonder if anyone answered it. Questions like that to town officials generally go unanswered, in my experience. It’s too hard to force an answer. They can count on that. From a lifetime of seeing how this kind of thing works, the reason for money’s absence from the town’s annual report probably was along the lines alluded to.

Mrs. Greenleaf, no doubt answering a point of the kind often made to change the subject in those fabled town meetings, asks why the town officials don’t benefit society by selling their own corpses and those of their loved ones if it’s such a good idea. I think I’d have liked her.

The romantic view of local government and small business is part of the mythology of conservatives. They are always gassing on about the virtues of both. Anyone with a passing knowledge of either knows it's just gas. There are virtuous town officials, I’ve known several, and there are honest small businessmen but generally it’s a pretty dismal matter of petty corruption and nonfeasance.

In a lot of places during the recent real estate mania the corruption has been awful. Even relatively small developers have financial resources that make countering their ability to get around rules almost impossible in most cases. I’ve always wished someone would study the per capita occurrence of corruption in the various levels of government, not in actual dollar amounts but in just the number of crimes. If anyone knows about a study like that, please let us know.

If you think that there isn’t a modern equivalent of the story from 1911 you are wrong. Georgia, New Hampshire, New York City, now-a- days it is as likely to be local officials looking the other way when a crematorium or mortician goes bad. Is it any wonder that after writing “Our Town” Thornton Wilder might have felt it necessary to write “By the Skin of Our Teeth,” as a corrective?

What happened to poor Mrs. Hefferin’s body? The people in the town took out a subscription to pay for a funeral and a grave. It isn’t mentioned if any of the selectmen contributed.

* Lax enforcement of zoning and land use laws is epidemic in small towns and big ones. The zoning boards and other officials are often either business partners of local developers or attached in some other way. Similar things can often be said of other parts of local governments and school systems. The things that developers get away with under the law is nothing less than legalized theft. In discussing this with several people who are active in local affairs, none of us could come up with a town without something that looked shady going on.

Having sat through them for many years I’m sorry to have to report to you that, due to ignorance, non-participation and outright rigging, Town Meeting is another part of the romantic myth.