30 March 2012

Obama favorable rating up

It was widely reported a couple of weeks ago that "due to gas prices," one poll was showing Pres. Obama's favorability rating way down... to 41%. It looks like that poll was an outlier, and probably completely inaccurate even at the time. According to this piece in Salon, which is mostly about Romney's predicament, Obama's favorable rating is now above 50, and for the first time in a long time, higher than his unfavorable rating. Some polls have Obama leading Romney by 11 points.

None of this is much of a predictor of anything, this early, especially with the huge uncertainties of the stability of the recovery (better this year, so far), and the wild card that is the irrational Israeli policy towards Iran and what an Israeli attack could do to global stability; but it certainly doesn't indicate that the Republican propaganda is as effective as they would like it to be.

Koch Bros. BOYCOTT list

I am so pissed off at the Koch Brothers, and their obnoxious oligarch act, that I have personally resolved to avoid doing business with their company, Koch Industries. Here's a list (from this, which also contains a handy .pdf fact sheet)... of Koch brands to boycott: 

  • Lycra
  • Coolmax
  • Tactel
  • SolarMax
  • Polarguard
  • Dacron
  • Thermolite
  • Comforel
  • Antron Carpet Fiber
  • Stainmaster Carpet
  • Cordura
  • VanityFair
  • AngelSoft
  • Quilted Northern
  • Sparkle
  • Brawny
  • MardiGras
  • Dixie
  • DensArmorPlus
  • Platinum Plywood
  • ToughRock
International Brands:
  • Demak Up
  • KittenSoft
  • Lotus
  • Moltonel
  • Tenderly
  • Nouvelle Recycling
  • Okay
  • Colhogar
  • Delica
  • Inversoft
  • Tutto
I found that I already wasn't using all but Vanity Fair  (napkins), which I sometimes bought (not knowing they were a Koch product). No more. 

27 March 2012

Moral Shame on our Society

This morning, as I was walking in to work, I came upon an obviously both physically and mentally disabled woman, maybe about 65 years old, who was muttering to herself and shuffling along in slippers and what looked like filthy pajamas. This was on a street in downtown Los Angeles. It made me think, and hardly for the first time, that people on the Right in this country, who oppose even the most minimal basic social programs, are truly ignoring a moral dilemma of significant proportions. The fact that people like this woman live on the streets, where they are likely to die from lack of care in a relatively short time, is truly shameful and is a horrific indictment of the state of our society. There is just no way around this moral judgment. There can be no argument but that it would be feasible, even relatively easy, for our society to provide adequately for people like this, yet we fail to do so. That this is the case redounds to our shame.


Although I choose to believe that John Dean is right that the Supreme Court is actually quite unlikely to overturn the Healthcare Reform Act, I can't help but perceive that this is a problem of the Democrats' own making. Had the party, along with the large majority of Americans, enacted single-payer, what has been termed "Medicare for all," there would be no question of constitutionality, and I believe Americans would be supporting that law today by an overwhelming majority.

25 March 2012

Iain Banks: Subliming

Look to Windward has a two-page essay embedded in one of its chapters on what happens to mature sophontic civilizations (or sometimes to individuals), which he refers to as "Subliming" (with capital-S, just as non-biological intelligences are "Minds" with a capital-M).  He takes as a given (for purposes of the fiction) that there is an already existent "plane" where intelligent beings can exist as pure energy, and that one-way once-and-for-all (more or less) transference to this alternate existence is (again, more or less) inevitable for even entire civilizations. It's kind of like heaven, but not, and it's real, not pie in the sky spiritual.(Although the practical difference may be hard to pin down). One interesting aside he makes: when any particular civilization undertakes the perfectly possible (in the fiction, again) act of creating a "pure-AI," without "metalogical" (i.e., culturally derived) attributes, such an unbiased "Mind" invariably and essentially immediately Sublimes; thus, as a practical matter, Minds always have some of the cultural biases and attributes of the physical civilization that created them originally, even when they actually design and construct themselves. Anyway, if you haven't read this particular Culture novel, it's a bit of a mixed bag but there are good things in it.

I find that in surveying the novels of the Culture on iainbanks.net, (The Algebraist being not counted as Culture, although I gather there's nothing in it that specifically rules out being part of the same universe)... the only one I haven't read is Inversions, which I suppose I will now proceed to read. I tried to read it once, but, as has occasionally happened to me with Banks, I just couldn't get into it. When I finally do read them, I haven't regretted any of them.

He has a new non-SF book coming out, called Stonemouth. It will be some kind of thriller. I haven't read much of his non-SF, but some of it is quite highly thought of in England; here, hardly a blip.

23 March 2012

Diplomacy Working in Iran ?

Gary Sick sees signs the Obama administration diplomatic tack on Iran may be working.

Hey, I'll take any good news, and this guy does know what he's talking about, so let's hope he's right.

22 March 2012

Message to the White House: Support Bernie Sanders's push to control oil speculation

This is my message to the White House today:

I believe it's extremely important that the president get behind an effort by certain senators, including Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, to require the Commodity Futures Exchange Commission to control unwarranted speculation in the oil markets. Responsible agencies, including the St. Louis Fed and even Goldman Sachs itself have acknowledged that a significant part of the run-up in gas prices is due not to supply and demand, but to rampant speculation, amounting to approximately 80% of futures contracts, in the oil futures markets. The president needs to declare a national emergency for this strategic resource, and demand that the Congress force position limits and other controls on speculation. Control of gasoline prices could well mean the difference between a continued recovery and prolonged recession, and failure to take decisive action could easily be a threat to the president's reelection. It is time that the president recognize that the "Masters of the universe" on Wall Street are not going to support him this time around, and that his best political course is to side, clearly and definitively with that 99%. Taking a tough stand publicly on gasoline prices and the unwarranted speculation that is driving them up, when supply and demand are actually favorable to lower prices, is the most important way that the president can do just that right now.

16 March 2012

Recent Red Meat Scare: complete nonsense

Gary Taubes (here) did a blog post critiquing of the kind of pseudoscience that lay behind the recent "Red Meat Scare" articles in the L.A. Times and New York Times, but I thought it was worthwhile to post the conclusions from Zoe Harcombe's detailed critique of the studies involved (cited by Taubes), just to emphasize that this scary press storm is, well, pretty much complete nonsense.

From this.

here are numerous key problems with this study – I’ll share seven:
1) This study can at best suggest an observed relationship, or association. To make allegations about causation and risk is ignorant and erroneous.
2) The numbers are very small. The overall risk of dying was not even one person in a hundred over a 28 year study. If the death rate is very small, a possible slightly higher death rate in certain circumstances is still very small. It does not warrant a scare-tactic, 13% greater risk of dying headline – this is ‘science’ at its worst.
3) Several other critical variables showed correlation with death rates – lack of activity, low cholesterol, BMI, smoking, diabetes, calorie intake and alcohol intake. These have not been excluded to isolate meat consumption alone. The raw data actually shows deaths rates falling with increased meat consumption up to the third or fourth quintile – and this is before all the other variables have been allowed for. This would suggest that meat consumption has a protective effect while weight, alcohol, calorie intake, lack of exercise and so on are all taking their toll.
4) Several other critical variables were not measured, which would logically correlate with certain meat consumption. Unprocessed meat inexplicably included sandwiches, curries, hamburgers (which come in buns) – has the correlation with bread, margarine, white rice, egg fried rice, poppadoms, burger buns, ketchup, relish or even fizzy drinks been correlated with the death rates? Indeed, Frank Hu, one of the authors of this meat study, is also quoted in today’s paper saying that one soft drink a day raises the risk of heart attacks.  It doesn’t of course – it is association at best, just as the meat article is – but one does wonder if that harmful soft drink was the one that just happened to be consumed with the hamburger or the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich ‘meal deal’?!
5) Hamburgers and pork sandwiches or lamb curries have been included as unprocessed meat. This is not a study of what real food devotees would consider unprocessed meat therefore. May I suggest that a study of consumers of grass fed ruminants would not deliver the desired headline? The lamb and beef grazing in the fields around me in Wales could not be further in health benefits from the hamburgers in buns and hot dogs in white rolls in fast food America.
6) We are all going to die. We have 100% risk of it in fact. We are not going to increase this risk by 13% or 20% if we have a hamburger and certainly not if we have a grass fed nutrient rich steak. This is headline grabbing egotistical academics doing their worst.
7) As I always consider conflict of interest, it would be remiss of me to end without noting that one of the authors (if not more) is known to be vegetarian and speaks at vegetarian conferences[ii] and the invited ‘peer’ review of the article has been done by none other than the man who claims the credit for having turned ex-President Clinton into a vegan – Dean Ornish.[iii]
All of this nonsense has given me an appetite, so I’m off to get my complete protein and essential fats plus the full range of B vitamins, ample fat soluble vitamins and lashings of iron, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc – also known as grass fed steak!

IBM not going the way of old AT&T, Kodak

While the now-defunct old AT&T (in the same way as the old California based BofA is defunct, being merely the name of the predator that devoured it) ...was defeated by its failure to modernize its old communications paradigm and networks, and Kodak has waned to a bankrupt ghost of its former self, the same has not happened to IBM. True, it isn't the giant it once was, and has abandoned a number of consumer and business products, but, unlike AT&T that dumped Bell Labs, IBM has maintained its cutting edge research and looks to be a full participant in some of the coming information technological revolutions. See this.

14 March 2012

My contact to the White House about gas prices

I am writing to emphasize my belief that it is of great importance for the president to get out in front on the issue of gas prices. It is obvious to anyone who studies the matter that gasoline prices have increased due to illicit and unwarranted speculation in commodities markets, together with the effect of unwarranted war mongering by the neocons in Washington. The fact that the neocons are complicit with a foreign government, namely Israel, is probably not politically useful, but somehow the issue needs to be framed to make clear to the American people that gasoline prices are being manipulated and those doing the manipulating are not acting in America's interests. Furthermore, it needs to be made clear that the administration is not to blame. This is a difficult issue to frame, but successfully framing it may make the difference between reelection and disaster. I urge the president to formulate a speech, complete with charts and graphs in the manner of Ross Perot, in order to get out in front of this issue. I believe this is truly vital. Thank you.

FURTHER COMMENT also sent today: 

I wrote earlier today urging the president to get out in front of the issue of gas prices, by pointing out how prices are not the result of supply and demand, but the result of illicit speculation, largely by big financial institutions, in oil prices, and by unwarranted and unhelpful warmongering by Neocon types (with the complicity of the Israeli government). But what I should have stressed, and would like to point out again now, is that the president needs to make VEILED THREATS, just as he did previously on this same issue. Although the anti-speculation regulations under DODD FRANK are indeed inadequate, that should not stop the president from saying that his administration will urge Congress to investigate improper and unwarranted commodity speculation, which puts huge profits in the hands of the Wealth Extracting Financial Institutions at the expense of ordinary Americans. By doing this, the president will make clear that he IS doing something on behalf of the interests of ordinary people, and against the interests of the big finance speculators whose only goal is to enrich themselves at the expense of those who can't afford it, and to the detriment of our nation and its economy as a whole. The president needs to call them out on this.

Thank you. 

10 March 2012

Transforming society to a sustainable future

I admit to being more or less a big-government Progressive. Unlike libertarians, the extreme example of which would be Ayn Rand, and her many followers including Alan Greenspan, I believe that over the past century or more government regulation in the area of health, building, environment, etc. has been overwhelmingly a force for good. But having said that, I also recognize that government is inherently inefficient at certain types of development. The development of the X-15 and manned orbital space flight was extremely expensive and inefficient organized by government, with aerospace industries which were incentivized, if anything, to maximize costs. But, had these developments not taken place, the subsequent independent entrepreneurs who achieved the same thing, thirty years later, for two orders of magnitude lower cost, could not have done so. (This technology has still not proved itself to be economically viable, but that's another issue).

So, it seems to me, the only practical ideology is one which recognizes that government has an essential role to play in setting the standards of society: safe buildings, security, medical care and decent level of housing, etc., and which is prepared to finance research and development when the kind of "bang for the buck" that government can force to happen is needed, but which then is more than willing to allow private entrepreneurial activity to actually do the development (and re-development). This private development works best not on a subsidy contract basis, but on the basis of seed money or even just intelligent regulation that allows private actors to develop technologies and businesses that meet the needs of people, while disincentivizing enterprises that merely extract and concentrate wealth. I think this sort of recognition of overlapping but not congruent spheres or magisteria, is the only basis for a sound system of government.

America has a serious structural problem in its governance. Our constitution and the forms of government, at all levels, while they are the descendants of what have become historical models of how to institute checks and balances and protections against domination of public policy by vested interests, have almost entirely failed in actually protecting the society from control by oligarchs whose interests are directly inimical to not only the interests, but the stated beliefs and intentions of the majority of citizens. Our politics has been nearly completely hijacked by the power of money, and the ideological tenor of our elected representatives is far more regressive, and specifically, shaped by the dictates of moneyed interests, than that of most citizens. This is just a fact.

But the solutions to our problems are not, I believe, primarily, the re-institution of "Big Government." What we need is responsive government, which recognizes its function as serving the needs of the people as a whole, is not beholden to special interests, and which functions to shape the economy and direction of the society to prevent the excessive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of people whose advantages are, when really examined, invariably the result of unwise policy.

But at the same time government must encourage creativity, cost-effective and advanced technology development shaped not by a desire to concentrate wealth but to solve the problems of the society. Government should foster, but not dictate, new ideas, and entrepreneurship, while ensuring that the essential interests of the people are protected. We face huge technological challenges in the coming decades: how to ensure sufficient clean water, how to grow enough food for an expected world population of 9 billion at peak, how to create an energy and transportation economy that utilizes only renewable energy sources, how to restore a more localized manufacturing capability that efficiently provides goods and services, how to husband and obtain the needed resources to make a high-tech economy work in a sustainable way. Government has a role to play to ensure that new technology brings not only wealth for a few, but a viable economic system, for our country, with jobs and wealth creation here, as well as in cooperation with other countries. These things are not going to be solved entirely or even primarily by government programs, on the model of rocketry research and development after World War II that led to the "military industrial complex" which is now more of a millstone than an aid to our future development. Government will have a role to set the agenda, direct resources to projects that are shown to work (maybe through "prize" competitions), fund university and laboratory research, etc., but a lot of this needs to be done more on the model of the Stanford and U. of Illinois technological DIYers who gave us, in the original seed R&D, workable personal computing and the public dimension of the internet. (Building, it is true, on military research; again the government has a role, but ordinary people also have to be given the incentive and freedom to work out what actually works for people).  Government needs to encourage solutions, while setting, through public policy, some of the goals: more efficient agriculture that isn't reliant on petrochemicals, energy produced from renewable sources, smart rail and automotive transportation that doesn't require oil, manufacturing that utilizes emerging technologies and which produces jobs as well as stuff, etc. For example, we need to protect individuals' rights to their labor and intellectual property, but there is no advantage to society in giving a Monsanto a monopoly forever on a type of seed that is found to produce more with less land and resources. There have to be intelligent and dynamic regulations to ensure rationality and public interest.

In this, government needs to be responsive, not compulsive. Our society is greatly distracted by frivolity and nonsense these days, in which category I would include no only the Kardashians and celeberity idolization, but things such as most of the TSA security for airline passengers, which just doesn't make sense. We spend billions on "security" and "intelligence" that accomplishes almost nothing. (I'm not saying there is no role for security and intelligence, but these areas need to be openly scrutinized with an eye towards getting only what we need for the least possible expenditure of resources. Plus, if we were to spend more of our resources working on moving towards a post-oil public-focused world economy, I actually believe that many of our security problems would gradually disappear). We need to foster and encourage a steadily emerging new spirit of We Can Do It. Kids need to be encouraged, and incentivized, to think about solutions to problems, to spend time tinkering with technology, and go into math, science and engineering; fields which will be the necessary springboards for a renewal of our economy and national spirit. The goals of our public education should be informed by values: people working together can solve problems, for the benefit of people. Not selfishness, but a sense of synergistic development that benefits all. This should be the goal of public policy, and the ethos of our public education.

There is already a movement emerging to find solutions to problems without recourse to government. If we, through movements like Occupy and the general frustration that the majority now feel with the way our government is controlled by a small fantastically wealthy elite, can bring about a change in government: make it more responsive, resist and defeat the myths and structures that make it possible for certain oligarchs to virtually own it, ensure that it functions to regulate and encourage positive development rather than protect the interests of wealth-extractors, then a new paradigm of public and private cooperation can emerge.

I think this is the only viable way forward, but it will require that people power, the willingness to get involved and demand change, come to the fore. We saw, in Wisconsin last year and in the Occupy movement, that there is a level of dissatisfaction, comparable to what existed just prior to the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam Anti-War movement, that may be about to take off. If this energy can be channeled, internally, by the hopes and desires of its own people, to demand changes that enable not a big "Old Left" "new new deal" transformation, but a transformation of government to one that actually listens to the people, responds to new ideas, ensures public interest and basic welfare, and encourages people to get involved in direct, to a great extent private, efforts to solve the problems we face in transforming our society into a sustainable one, then we just might be able to not only survive, but flourish in the twenty-first century. It's going to be up to us, as a people, to make this happen.


09 March 2012

Data collection by google, etc.

I take quite a different view regarding online privacy of search engines and e-mail programs like google and gmail and its competitors than most people of a progressive bent. I actually take somewhat seriously the fact that a sort of meta-informational world system, of as yet unknown form, is in the process of emerging. We need to accept, I think, that what we do in a relatively public way, such as what we buy, what we are interested in and read, and what we say in public spaces, will be partially tabulated and utilized as significant data. Obviously we need safeguards to ensure that people who could take advantage, or governments, cannot individually identify information, but there is an implicit bargain which is the entire raison d'être of google and such; they find out about us, and direct advertising to us, in exchange for free services. I find this an acceptable bargain, with the understanding that if someone, including the government (without due process and probable cause) asks for or otherwise seeks to obtain identity-specific information about an individual, the privacy policy (and the law) need to protect that information from disclosure. In other words, statistics, stripped of identifying information, or use of data to steer commerce, yes, but use of data to gain specific information about people, no. This may not always be an easy tightrope to negotiate, but it seems to me the proposed alternative, of draconian restriction of the flow of information from users of the information superhighway to purveyors of commerce, would undesirably stifle what is likely to be the main commercial intercourse in the future just as it is really starting to develop.

06 March 2012

Obama playing grown-up on Iran

Seems Pres. Obama is doing a pretty good job of playing the grown-up in the room on the Iran warmongering fever among the Republican presidential zoo.

U.S., Europe offer to restart Iran nuclear talks

Hopefully this initiative will blunt the war fever being ginned up by the man I've come to regard as evil, Benjamin Netanyahu. I can't be more convinced that pushing for war with Iran is horrible policy for the U.S., the World, and for Israel. Israel's security would be greatly degraded by the outbreak of yet another war in the Middle East. How is it that seemingly rational people cannot see what is before their eyes?

03 March 2012

Robert Wright: Netanyahu affront on Iran

Please read Robert Wright's latest piece in the Altantic: "Netanyahu's Latest Affront to Obama".

02 March 2012

2d Message to the White House today: get out in front on the Iran War Fever

Here's my second message to the White House today:

The President needs to cut off all the war hysteria on Iran at the pass. He needs to clearly state what his military and intelligence leaders have said: that there is no evidence that Iran has committed to building a nuclear weapon, and he needs to reassure the American people that we act in OUR interests, and will not allow our foreign policy to be dictated by Israel or anyone else. We will continue to seek a negotiated resolution to issues and suspect actions of the Iranians having to do with their nuclear program, but the White House will make decisions on the basis of facts, not on the basis of propaganda, or a drumbeat of war fever cooked up by vested interests.

I believe that the American people overwhelmingly DO NOT WANT another war in the Middle East, and if the President, as he is quite capable of doing, frames this issue correctly, the people overall will support him and it will inure to his benefit in seeking re-election.

First Message to White House: Get out in Front on Gas Prices

Here is the first of two messages I sent to the White House today:

Although the CFEC has failed to rein in the rampant speculation which is obviously the real cause of the spike in Gasoline prices (when domestic demand is actually LOW), the President can and should announce that his administration will investigate the unwarranted speculation going on in these markets. As Michael Greenberger has said, this would be like turning on a light; the cockroaches will go scurrying. The 1%er speculators, like the Koch Bros., who are responsible for this intentional harm to ordinary working Americans, don't want to take even a slight risk of going to jail.

The President already knows this tactic will work, because he said the same thing a year ago, and it was, in fact, the threat of investigation which drove gasoline prices down the LAST time they went over $4/gal.

The President can also urge Senate leaders to hold conspicuous public hearings on this issue.

High gas prices are a danger to our recovery, and a danger to the President's re-election chances, and it's vital that he get out in front of this issue immediately.

Thank you.

01 March 2012

Still a Buddhist

I have strayed away, in the last couple of years, from what had been a fairly intensive involvement in training in Tibetan-origin Buddhist doctrine and practice. The program I had been involved in just became too much for me to deal with; and, in truth, especially after the passage of some time; I've come to realize that I really wasn't accepting some of the truth claims being made. The practices, in the form of training the mind to correspond to Buddhist values, I still regard as wholly admirable and undoubtedly the most worthwhile of any possible human endeavor, but some of the more peripheral doctrine I never really quite accepted and still do not.

Looking back on one of the very earliest posts on this blog, however, Why I am a Buddhist (2004) [link], I find myself still in accord with all of it, and hoping to find the time and energy to put into practice the core Buddhist "Way of Life" to the best of my ability and capacity as I go through the rest of my life.
UPDATE, 2014. I find nothing in this 2012 post that I don't still hold to, except perhaps that I would not describe the parts of the Buddhist tradition I was studying (based on Gelugpa, or Kadampa, through Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's so-called "New Kadampa Tradition," which I now find to be both soteriological and supernatural, (and thus, to my hopelessly literalist mentality unbelievable), as "peripheral." Actually, they are quite important to that tradition, and to its sincere practitioners. And I certainly respect and wish nothing but success for them. But for me, the ethics, the mental practice, the discipline of developing the Brahma Viharas and of focusing your mind on the well-being of others; these things are innately good and supported by reason. This is Buddhism as philosophy, not religion, and there I hope to dwell and practice for the rest of my days.

Breitbart dead

I cannot pretend for a second to mourn the death of the odious Andrew Breitbart. If consciousness (in whatever form) survives death (an open question, I'd maintain), then I wish for him a better existence. His prior existence among us sucked.

Two important messages Pres. Obama needs to drive home

A couple of quick points it seems to me are issues the President needs to drive home right now, and take action on in the near-term.

1.  Responsible economists are nearly unanimous that the current spike in oil/gasoline prices is not primarily caused by normal supply & demand, but by unwarranted speculation in the commodities markets. Thanks to a turncoat Democrat on the CFEC, the Dodd Frank regulations were not really implemented. Still, the President can announce (and then carry out) investigations of illegal and "unwarranted" speculation. Michael Greenberger has said that doing this would be like turning on a light... the cockroaches will scurry away. (Listen to this --audio). It's also vital for the president to make clear that gas prices are the result of "1%ers" run amok, not the result of fundamental economic problems. This issue could be a big problem for the economy and Democratic electoral prospects if not dealt with quickly and decisively.

2.  Christine Fair, who is one of the world's leading experts on South Asia, has made clear that U.S. policy in Afghanistan has become completely untenable. (Listen here). The President seems to get this, but he's dragging this out. He probably calculates that the Republicans would criticize a "cut and run" policy. It would have been better if the Administration had executed an accelerated withdrawal last year, as many Progressives urged, but it's still not too late. It would have to be framed as "we've tried to help the Afghan Security forces to build up the capacity to defend themselves, but this is a two-way street, and the U.S. cannot accept responsibility for the corrupt government there forever." U.S. interests simply are not served by continued slow bloodletting in Afghanistan. Pres. Obama should get his top military leaders to get out in front and call for accelerated disengagement, then go on TV and promise an end to the war in Afghanistan sooner rather than later.