30 June 2012


Some images deserve time and attention.  This is one such ~ a Grandidier's baobab tree.  It is native to Madagascar.  The massive cylindrical trunk can reach 10 feet in diameter, and grow to a height of 100 feet.  Please click to enlarge, and enjoy the spectacle.

29 June 2012


"We like to believe that a few bad apples spoil the virtuous bunch.  But research shows that everyone cheats a little ~ right up to the point where they lose their sense of integrity."

Thus begins a recent Wall Street Journal essay titled Why We Lie by Dan Ariely, professor of behavior economics at Duke University.  For more than a decade, Ariely and his team have been conducting experiments to determine the extent to which people lie or cheat, what influences lead them to do so, and what we can do to discourage the behavior.

The link will take you to Ariely's essay, which includes an embedded video interview in which he "explains the psychology that makes us willing to cheat more or less depending on the circumstances, and what we can do to resist temptation".  There are also tabs to other videos and to interactive graphics.

Bottom line, "Everyone has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everyone cheats ~ just a little.  Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations.  On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible.  On the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people.  Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society."

Interestingly, it is not so much an actual material benefit that is the prime influence on a decision to cheat, nor is it the probability of getting caught which chiefly prevents us.  A number of conditions (see image above, click to enlarge) contribute to our willingness to tell a small lie, to break the speed limit by a few mph, to pad our timesheet at work, or to make up a harmless story to explain why we were late.  Among them ~

  • A more distant, rather than an immediate, payoff
  • The example of someone else cheating first
  • Feeling stressed or depleted
  • Thinking that others may benefit from our act
  • A conflict of interest
  • The ability to rationalize our act
  • Living in a culture in which cheating is, if not encouraged, nevertheless commonly practiced
So what really works in preventing otherwise good people from yielding to temptation in small ways?  Apparently not laws or regulations.  Supervision helps.  So do honor pledges, and moral reminders at the moment when temptation is strongest.  Add to that (based on my own life experience) the force of habit ~ over time, if I've achieved a feeling of virtue by being truthful even when it might cause embarrassment, by not boosting that candy bar when no one is looking, by being courteous in traffic rather than bulling my way through, that can be a powerful motivator to continue practicing virtue, whether or not anyone notices.  

But each day, each moment, presents a fresh point of decision.  I invite you to read Ariely's essay at the link above.  He describes the experiments which brought him to his conclusions about cheating.  Ask yourself, "In that situation, what would I have done?"  It's easy to sit at home and believe that one would do the right thing.  But when confronted by real temptation, one's response doesn't always measure up.  That's not necessarily a damning moment.  It can be a learning moment.  "Oh, so that's what it feels like to give in.  Hmm.  I think I'll make a better choice next time."  Hopefully.

28 June 2012


My work life (paid work, that is), started at age 14.  During the subsequent half century (if my resume is accurate) I held down ten jobs lasting a year or more, and ten jobs lasting less than a year.  The short-termers were usually second jobs to supplement my income.  Of that number, the gender of my supervisors was about evenly split between male and female.  I've never had a problem adjusting back and forth ~ any issues that have arisen have been due to personality or experience, rather than gender.

Not everyone has had the advantage of working under both men and women.  Given the pro-male bias that persists in hiring and promotion, many have worked predominantly for male supervisors, and have had to learn the rules of engagement accordingly.  When such a person finds him/herself working for a woman, there can be a confusing period of uncertainty.  Do I relate to this person in the same way?  If not, what are the differences?

My own approach evolved to a relatively easy consistency.  Treat the person with respect (even at those times when you think they don't deserve it), do your work efficiently and well, earn their trust.  There's no need in my universe for second-guessing based on gender.  There are, of course, legitimate tactics one can adopt to enhance one's position.  For instance, everyone loves to feel appreciated and knowledgeable.  So ask their advice about something, even if you have a hunch about the answer.  So long as you're sincere and not obviously fawning for approval, most people enjoy giving advice or sharing their understanding of a problem.  

Even for a supervisor who gives every appearance of being a total ass, it still serves your purpose to remain emotionally neutral, do your work, and only make waves if you feel you are being mistreated.  In that situation, carefully follow policy regarding protest and appeal.  As you do, document everything and try to have witnesses to corroborate your position.  Hopefully it won't come to that.  

So what do you think?  Is it different working for a man than it is for a woman?  Probably so.  But should the subordinate employee behave any differently?  That depends.  Susannah Breslin in her brief Forbes article How to Work For a Female Boss has several suggestions, all of which make sense.  
  • Let her wear the pants.  The reality is that she's in a position of influence over you.  Get used to it, and think about whether any ill feelings that come up might be your issue, not hers.
  • Don't be her BFF.  This is directed at female employees.  It's a mistake to think that in the spirit of sisterhood, you'll become Best Friends Forever with your supervisor.  She's your boss, not your buddy.  Keep it professional.
  • Play to her weaknesses.  There's nothing predatory in this suggestion.  The reality is that even supervisors have areas of greater or lesser competence.  If you are able to unobtrusively fill in the gaps in her abilities, your standing will rise, as will your chances of promotion.  Workplace 101.
It seems to me that Breslin's advice should apply to a supervisor of either gender, for an employee of either gender.  But that's in an ideal world.  In our world, gender politics get in the way all the time.  Don't get sucked into them.  When in doubt, I adopt the carefully neutral mindset of Spock from Star Trek ~ rationality with a touch of compassion (and a dash of appropriate humor) go a long way toward making each day at work .... workable.

27 June 2012


Fact ~ "A recent Gallup poll found that 46 percent of adults said they believed that 'God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years'.  Only 15 percent agreed with the statement that human had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.  Remarkably, these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question thirty years ago.

"What's going on?  Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in?  What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?  A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance.  As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world views.  Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naive intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue.  For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth.  And then there's the irony of evolution ~ our views about our own development don't seem to be evolving.

"This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories.  Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin."  ~  Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, Why We Don't Believe in Science.

Serendipitously, Lehrer's piece was published just a few weeks before a similar one by Anne Murphy Paul in Psychology Today, The Bigger Ball Drops Faster, and Other Myths of Physics.  What Lehrer calls instincts, Paul calls folk beliefs.  The mechanism and outcome are the same ~ "Students in conventional classrooms listen to the correct explanation, read it in a textbook, and may even produce it on an exam, but their bedrock assumptions remain untouched.  The problem with conventional science instruction, according to cognitive scientist Susan Carey, is that it assumes that its goal is to fill a gap in a student's knowledge ~ when really the issue 'is not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach'.  In order to persuade students to embrace new and more accurate ideas about how the world operates, science teachers need to find out which 'alternative conceptual frameworks (myths) they already hew to."

Paul goes on to describe several methods for coming to grips with folk beliefs, and for transcending our "stubborn resistance" to learning.  It turns out that the more time we spend learning, the better able we are to suppress inaccurate information.  Our reluctance, by the way, is not limited to the sciences.  "It takes mental strength and flexibility, for example, to let go of the syntax of our native tongue and adopt instead the patterns of a foreign language, or to set aside the attitudes of the present and imagine life from the perspective of historical figures.  We may never get rid of our inner ignoramus, but we can train it to stay quiet."

So what do you think?  Recall the "famous (and probably apocryphal) experiment performed by Galileo, in which he dropped cannonballs of different sizes from the tower of Pisa.  Galileo's metal balls all landed at exactly the same time ~ a refutation of Aristotle, who claimed that heavier objects fell faster."  Intuitively, we are all highly viscous, holding fast to folk beliefs without questioning them.  Are we as a culture, as a species, capable of stepping beyond intuition and embracing evidence?  Do you think a larger cannonball would hit the ground first?

Many of us are able to make that leap of imagination, or we would still be hunter-gatherers, or living in the Dark Ages.  It does seem, though, that just as many of us must be dragged kicking and screaming into the present as it actually exists .... not to mention into the future.  Small wonder, then, that we go through periods of extreme polarization within society, as we are doing now.  Sometimes progress prevails, sometimes resistance to change rules.  Given the heated debates going on in Congress, on social media, and among the electorate, during our current passage I'd say it could go either way.

26 June 2012


We're accustomed to think of overcrowding being a result of sheer numbers, too many people.  It is equally valid to think of overcrowding being a result of sheer mass, people who are overweight or obese.  That is the premise of Ellen Fanning's Global Mail article Just How Fat Are We?  Here are a few observations to ponder ~

  • Globally, so many of us are overweight or obese that it's equivalent to having an extra 300 million mouths to feed (roughly the population of the United States).
  • If every nation's population was as fat as America's, it would be the same as having an extra billion bodies on earth.
  • People who are fat have a disproportionately large ecological footprint.  If we're fatter, we need more energy just to move around.  So an overweight person needs to eat more than a trim person to undertake the same level of physical activity.  In fact, overweight or obese people burn up more energy than skinny people even when they're just sitting around.
  • Obesity, according to Australian public health academic Garry Egger, is more than just a lack of individual self-control.  "Obesity is collateral damage in the battle for modernity, an unintended but unavoidable consequence of economic progress.  Obesity is not a disease, but a signal that a population has overshot what [Egger] calls the economic 'sweet spot'.  He suggests that economic growth, in its early stages, drove improvements in our standard of living and in longevity, but it is now having an increasingly negative effect .... Americans have overshot the sweet spot for health.  At that point, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, tetanus and measles have become much less common, and the big killers have become chronic ailments like heart disease, cancers, and the classic fat disease, type 2 diabetes.  The same pattern has started to emerge in Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  This fatness, he says, is a sign of economic excess."
While I maintain that on the individual level, personal discipline and choice remain key to a healthy life, it seems reasonable that the temptation to overeat ~ or to eat unhealthy junk food ~ is greater in developed economies.  It's hard to argue with the fact that people weigh less in impoverished nations, and weigh more in prosperous nations.  

It's also true that one's location on the globe helps determine one's weight and health, no matter how prosperous the country.  Residents of Asian nations are generally much more slender than residents of Europe and the U.S.  (see above image, click to enlarge.)

I confess to a degree of bias against fat people.  From a health standpoint, it is ludicrous to try to justify one's self-indulgence with phrases like "big and beautiful".  More like, "big and a drain on the health care system".  I've seen people so rotund that they take up two or even three seats on a bus, in a theater, on an airplane ~ and proceed to feed their faces with snacks.  I'm sorry, but if you're feeding enough body mass for two or more slender people, you really need to rethink your priorities.  What give you the right to consume such quantities of food in a world where people are dying of famine?  Think about it.

Here is an excellent resource for deciding whether you are within your fitness range ~ a weight and height chart broken down by gender, with a tool for determining your body mass index.  Simply look under the column of your gender for your height, and you'll find the weight range considered acceptable for fitness.  Generally speaking, the lower within that range your weight falls, the better your health ~ toned and muscular people will be toward the upper part of the range, less toned but slender people will be toward the lower end of the range.

25 June 2012


It's no secret that in our culture, most males are discouraged from crying starting in early childhood.  For the first year or two of our lives (if that), we're allowed to express our sorrow, confusion, pain, or rage through tears.  But like all gender stereotyping, the prohibition against crying starts very early.  "Big boys don't cry", "Are you crying?  What are you, a girl?", and similar messages take direct aim at our identity.  The result is a wrenching cognitive disconnect.  I'm a boy, so I can't cry.  I have to keep the feelings stuffed inside.

Walling ourselves off from our more vulnerable feelings is something that females aren't expected to do (at least, not to such a severe degree).  It's hardly a surprise that women don't get it when men display a lack of insight into their own feelings.  We men are trying hard to understand it, believe me.  But we were deprived of support and the right tools when we were too young to protest.  Over the course of years, stuffing our feelings has made us a little neurotic (and who wouldn't be?).

If we're lucky, in adolescence or adulthood we'll encounter a person or situation which challenges those old, crippling assumptions about what it means to be a man.  That person or situation will tell us tenderly that it's okay to cry, creating the safety to do so.  This doesn't mean that we men can suddenly cry at will ~ far from it.  But thankfully, it means that we know that safe places and safe people exist where our tears are welcomed.

Growing up, I somehow didn't internalize the "don't cry" mantra quite as much as many other boys did.  As a teenager I grieved when my parakeet died.  As a young man I cried when I found a dead fox by the road.  As a single father, kept from my son by his insecure, jealous mother, I wailed in the darkness of my bedroom.  Tears flow whenever I hear the aria E Lucevan le Stella from Puccini's opera Tosca ~ the love story ends in tragedy, but even not knowing that, the music alone squeezes one's heart with the purity and depth of grief.  Hearing the funereal salute "Taps" has a similar effect.  I weep during certain evocative scenes in movies.  And I cry on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the 4th of July, remembering the violent loss of life I witnessed in Vietnam.  Those faces, the explosions, the blood, are permanently seared into memory.  For one such memory, see my post from July of last year.

Sadly, it remains true that I cry only when I feel safety, either when I'm alone, or when I'm with someone I deeply love and trust.  To that extent I'm still crippled, still deprived of my full humanity.  As are all men who went through the same training.  It is so difficult for us to access our tears that when we do, people are often stunned.

I was reminded of all this when I read a remembrance by Fred Branfman, called When Chomsky Wept.  Franfman met Noah Chomsky in 1970.  The U.S. was conducting a secret bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia, killing or leaving homeless tens of thousands of civilians.  During a visit to a Laotian refugee camp, Chomsky was overwhelmed by the inhumanity of the war, and broke down into tears.  Franfman recalls, "I was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most natural and human response (my italics).  It was that Noam himself had seemed so intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words, and concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything.  I realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul.  And the visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever since.  When I think of Noam this is what I see.

"One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know those Laotians.  It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop the bombing.  But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they never saw.

"As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still shaken by what he had learned.  He had written extensively of U.S. war-making in Indochina before this.  But this was the first time he had met its victims fact-to-face.  And in the silence, an unspoken bond that we have never discussed was forged between us."

Thus with me.  Thus with most men of my generation or older, taught to keep our tears rigidly in check.  It takes a moment of profound revelation to put us back in touch with our deepest fears, losses, sorrows.  If we're lucky (as I have been), we continue to encounter people or events which allow us to reclaim the tears of childhood.  Many men never do.  Please try to understand, we want to.  Desperately.

24 June 2012


Graphs and captions courtesy of Business Insider ~ note that all three graphs cover the same time period, from approximately 1950 to the present.  Click on any image to enlarge.

1)  Corporate profit margins just hit an all-time high.  Companies are making more per dollar of sales than they ever have before. (And some people are still saying that companies are suffering from 'too much regulation' and 'too many taxes'.  Maybe small companies are, but big companies certainly aren't).

2)  Fewer Americans are working than at any time in the past three decades.  one reason corporations are so profitable is that they don't employ as many Americans as they used to.

3)  Wages as a percent of the economy are at an all-time low.  This is both cause and effect.  One reason companies are so profitable is that they're paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP.  And that, in turn, is one reason the economy is so weak.  Those 'wages' are other companies' revenue.

"In short, our current system and philosophy are creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs.  That's not what has made America a great country.  It's also not what most people think America is supposed to be about.  So we might want to rethink that."
~  Henry Blodget

23 June 2012


NASA announced yesterday that Voyager I, one of two space probes launched in 1977, is very close to entering interstellar space and becoming the first human-made object to leave the Solar System.  Voyager 1 is currently transiting the heliosheath, which is the outermost layer of the heliosphere.  (See image above, click to enlarge)

Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, explains ~ "the heliosphere is a great magnetic bubble that surrounds the sun and planets.  The heliosphere is the sun's own magnetic field inflated to gargantuan proportions by the solar wind.  Inside lies the solar system ~ 'home'.  Outside lies interstellar space, where no spacecraft has gone before."

Voyager 1 (see image below) and its sister craft, Voyager 2, had as their original mission the study of Jupiter and Saturn.  Both probes were able to continue into the outer Solar System.  The Voyager Program and the Pioneer Program have such provided a wealth of information that, given the technology of their time, they rival the Hubble Space Telescope.  It is a feat which stirs the imagination that they continue to function and transmit data after 35 years.

Click here to learn more from the NASA announcement ~ be sure to view the embedded video.   Enjoy.

22 June 2012


The U.S. and Canadian governments, TransCanada Corporation, and ConocoPhillips Oil Company are pushing hard for the construction of the Keystone Oil Pipeline ~ actually a pipeline system to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to multiple destinations in the United States, including refineries in Illinois, the Cushing oil distribution hub in Oklahoma, and proposed connections to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.  All parties are at great pains to reassure the public that in spite of multiple oil spills on the Alaska Pipeline (see "incidents" section), the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and a long list of spills from oil facilities on land and from oil tankers .... that in spite of all the evidence, oil pipelines are reliable and safe.

Alas, events continue to demonstrate that, like nuclear power plants, oil facilities and pipelines are terribly far from safe.  Two weeks ago, a part of the Canadian pipeline system in west-central Alberta ruptured, sending crude oil flowing into the Red Deer River system (see image above, click to enlarge).  The force of the lateral oil geyser was so strong that it pushed the pipeline from its foundations.  Since then, two more Alberta oil spills have occurred, one from a well and one from a pumping station.  Coupled with a tarnished record which includes two pipeline failures a day in Alberta alone in 2010, one is hard put to keep a straight face when, in response to criticism from environmental groups, a spokesman from Alberta's regulatory Energy Resources Conservation Board commented, "Alberta has a fairly strong safety record of  pipeline safety regardless of the recent incidents.  I couldn't speculate on whether the province should or shouldn't call any sort of review of pipelines because I know our pipelines, at this point, we consider to be adequate."

"Fairly strong safety record"?  "Adequate"?  Am I the only one who is less than reassured by such luke-warm assessments?  These people are trying to sell us not only on the Keystone Pipeline, but also on a similar project called the Northern Gateway Pipeline originating in British Columbia.  They aren't seeing the forest for the trees ~ they aren't seeing the overall pattern of failure.  In commenting on the Alberta spills, Alberta's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resources Development (the word "development" is a dead giveaway) "said the recent spills are not necessarily cause for alarm, noting they happened in different parts of the province.

How quaint.  I'm supposed to somehow feel safer because the spills are happening everywhere.  That's like the captain of a sinking ship saying there's no cause for alarm, because the water is leaking into different parts of the ship.  When are we going to get serious about clean energy alternatives?  My guess is, when the oil companies say we can.  They want to milk every drop of oil profit from the planet first.

The sad part is, the apathetic public will let them.

20 June 2012


I do not subscribe to an inherent superiority in either gender.  Yet due to our socialization and our respective genetic makeups, in social situations men and women each enjoy certain specific advantages and disadvantages, along with significant overlap.  Here are two cases in point.

From Science Daily ~ "New research from Brigham Young University shows that dads are in a unique position to help their adolescent children develop persistence .... Over time, the persistence gained through fathers leads to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency .... The key is for dads to practice what's called 'authoritative' parenting (not to be confused with authoritarian parenting).  Here are the three basic ingredients ~

  • Children feel warmth and love from their father
  • Accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasized
  • Children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy
The study report is brief, and does not compare how fathers and mothers might differ.  Indeed, mothers are not even mentioned.  The actual paper was published in the June 15 edition of the Journal of Early Adolescence.  It seems likely to me that children are just as likely to learn persistence from their mothers.  Despite this, it is gratifying to see male parents portrayed in a positive light, in a climate in which fathers are often described as either abusive or as deadbeat dads.

A much more thorough discussion appears in Why Women Are More Often Right, a Role/Reboot piece by Hugo Schwyzer.  The title is in the context of disagreements between male and female partners in heterosexual relationships.  The author explains ~

"As anyone who's ever been in a serious relationship can tell you, one near-certain source of conflict comes from the simple truth that thanks to our experiences, we all see the world slightly differently.  That's obvious enough.  But do women's experiences ~ as women ~ give them 'standpoint privilege' in arguments with men?  The answer is almost certainly yes.

"In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it's reasonable to assume that each person's knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status.  Class and sex and race and faith are some of ~ but surely not the only ~ prisms through which we see and interpret the world.  Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone.  Yes, as the famous saying goes, it 'hurts men too'.  But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another.  Feminists point out the deeply obvious ~ the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

"This enhanced awareness leads to something called 'epistemic privilege'.  (Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that deals with how we know things.)  Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally ~ though not universally ~ the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband.  This isn't because of 'feminine intuition', it's because folks in a historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group.  The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

" .... This doesn't mean, by the way, that women are 'always right' and men 'always wrong'.  But it does mean that in heterosexual relations it is likely that a woman's understanding of some dynamics (particularly around sex and power) will be superior to those of her male partner.  In my marriage to Eira, for example, there are several layers of standpoint difference.  I am male, she is female.  I am white, the son of two college professors, and grew up in what most people seem to consider the upper-middle class.  My wife is of mixed race, dark enough to have been called a 'nigger' when she was a child, she grew up very poor and was the first member of her family to earn a bachelor's degree.  Around three intersecting issues ~ race, sex, and class ~ my wife's experience has been radically different from my own.  In a very real sense, that gives her a breadth and depth of knowledge about those issues that I cannot share.

"Sometimes my wife is wrong.  (Yes, my love, you are, even if it's only every fifth Tuesday.)  Sometimes I am.  We quarrel like any couple, though our experiences have given us tools like 'fair fighting rules' that not everyone, alas, possesses.  We know that in our marriage, each of us is equally important, each of us is entitled to his or her opinion, each of us deserves to be heard.  But we also know that we didn't come into this marriage as disembodied souls ~ we brought our gender identities, our class backgrounds, our skin tones, our multi-generational family histories.  And just as it's absurd to pretend that we've come from equally privileged backgrounds, it is equally absurd to pretend that those backgrounds have not at least in part shaped our worldviews.  Again, power obfuscates, oppression clarifies.  So when the topic at hand is gender dynamics or race or class, the epistemic privilege is not mine.  And thus the burden to reflect just a bit harder, is." 

Schwyzer's views resonate deeply in me (hence the extended quote).  Over the years, through three marriages, a time spent minoring in Women's Studies, and even more time spent thinking about and discussing power relationships (gender, race, class, etc.), my thoughts have come to closely parallel his.  If you'd like to learn more about "gender myths, body image, sexual harassment, rape prevention, sexuality and gender justice, check out his eponymous blog.

19 June 2012


Yesterday's post dealt with the use of UAVs under the control of the CIA in military operations in foreign countries.  Today's post deals with the use of UAVs within the borders of the U.S.

According to an online report, drones have been used by American law enforcement agencies for surveillance for some time (see image above, click to enlarge).  In the near future, domestic drones may be weaponized ~ able to fire rubber bullets, tear gas, or Tasers.  According to a staff attorney for the ACLU, "It's simply not appropriate to use any force, lethal or non-lethal on a drone .... an officer operating an armed drone from afar would not have the same understanding of a situation that an officer on location would have.  So judgment on the use of force would be limited by this narrowness of observation .... The prospect of people out in public being Tased or targeted by force raises the prospect of unconstitutional force being used on individuals.

"The ACLU is also worried about the general atmosphere of pervasive surveillance that may engulf America as the use of drone technology becomes wider."

The scenario sounds like something out of the Terminator science fiction movies.  Not pretty.  Many years ago, when police departments in Tucson, AZ, and many other cities introduced helicopters for use in surveillance and the pursuit of suspects, there was much public outcry over the invasion of privacy by law enforcement's "eye in the sky".  That outcry has diminished as police helicopter have proven their utility in tracking fleeing criminals, especially at night, and as most law enforcement agencies have demonstrated restraint in their use.

But the obvious difference is that helicopters are manned by a pilot and navigator/copilot.  Human judgment is right there on the scene.  Drones have no such advantage.  Their operation by remote control (either line-of-sight radio or by satellite link) means that it becomes much easier for a drone operator sitting at a computer screen miles from the scene of action to be lulled into the mindset of playing a video game, rather than having the mindset of an officer on the scene whose own safety is on the line, depending on his/her judgment.  It's about human control and human presence, with the safety and civil liberties of the public at stake.

Further, there is a greater risk of collateral damage from drones, as has happened repeatedly with their use by the military.  Unintended civilian casualties are unlikely to see the justification of drones ~ especially when the use of even rubber bullets, tear gas, or Tasers can cause permanent disability or death.

UAVs come in a wide variety of sizes and configurations, depending on the mission.  Click here for images.  The FAA currently authorizes the use of UAVs weighing up to 11.3 kilograms (25 lb.) by police and fire agencies.  Armed drones would likely be larger and heavier, to accommodate their weaponry and ammunition.

Lastly, there is serious concern within the civil aviation community over domestic flights by both military and law enforcement drones.  AOPA has clearly voiced its concerns to the FAA and federal lawmakers over the potential conflict between civilian aircraft and drones, the latter being exempt from having to file flight plans.  Pilots' concern is not  unfounded.  There are 64 military drone bases on U.S. soil (see map here), added to dozens, potentially hundreds of civilian law enforcement drone operations.  A drone operator, focused on his/her target, is unlikely to see an approaching civilian aircraft.  And an airplane or helicopter pilot is unlikely to notice a much smaller drone, particularly without official notice of the drone's presence in the area.  A future collision appears inevitable as drones multiply in number.

18 June 2012


The use of Predator drones (see image above, click to enlarge) in launching precision missile attacks against al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist groups and leaders has been increasingly in the news ~ both when a particular surgical strike is successful, and when the strike is less surgical, resulting in unintended civilian casualties.  The most recent incident, which killed al-Qaeda's second in command, was notable not only for its success, but also for the degree to which the report revealed President Obama's personal involvement in the selection of targets and the final "go" command to launch the mission.

David Luban in Boston Review writes eloquently about drone warfare and the president's role, in the context of 'just war theory' ~ the doctrine of military ethics which holds that "a military conflict ought to meet philosophical, religious, or political criteria".  Among other sources, just war theory has its origins in the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who posited that in order for a war to be just, a number of conditions must be met ~

  • war must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain
  • war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state
  • peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence
  • diplomatic agreement is preferable, even for the most powerful party, before a war is started
  • the response should be commensurate to the evil ~ using more violence than is necessary would be unjust
  • governing authorities declare war, but the war is just only if the people support it.
  • there are moral limits to action ~ one may not attack innocents or kill hostages
  • war is only legitimate as a last resort, after all options for dialogue and negotiation have failed
By Aquinas' reckoning, examples of just war include ~
  • war in self-defense
  • preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack
  • war to punish a guilty enemy
  • war to prevent or halt genocide
Luban's article explores the nuances of just war theory in the context of the war on terrorism, focusing specifically on the use of weaponized UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones).  There is little controversy surrounding the use of drones for reconnaissance, but arming them with missiles remotely guided in real time by an operator stationed on safely in the U.S., has pushed us into new military and ethical territory.  The wars of science fiction have become reality.  In Luban's words, "The most agonizing issue in the drone program is figuring out who is an enemy combatant, who is not, and how one knows.  The modern law of war is clear, however, that no matter how difficult the inquiry is, it must be undertaken.  Parties 'shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives, and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.'  There is nothing quite so clear or straightforward in the just war classics, and they would offer no guidance to the president on this score.

" .... What about unintended civilian deaths, so-called collateral damage.  The rule in the modern law of war is that militaries must do everything feasible to minimize collateral damage, and must never launch an attack at a military target if the expected civilian damage would be excessive .... This rule permits proportionate collateral damage so long as harming civilians was not the intention.  This principle also has no clear counterpart in medieval just war theory .... In the war context, striking the military target is the intended effect, the collateral damage is the unintended effect, and it is the former, not the latter, that defines the moral character of the action .... President Obama and his advisers have cancelled targeted killings for fear of excessive collateral damage.  It was reportedly for this very reason that the president vetoed his advisers' recommendation of an airstrike on the bin Laden compound in favor of the riskier SEAL operation."

Clearly we have entered uncharted territory, and are refining the military and ethical aspect of the rules of engagement as we learn from experience.  War is troubling enough when engaged in by armed human combatants who risk injury or death.  The new dimension of armed drones, even though guided by humans, calls for heightened ethical scrutiny precisely because a drone or its operator can't be killed ~ only the target can be.  The reduction in risk to one side in a conflict inevitably calls up the temptation to engage at will ~ which is why an institutionalized devil's advocate is needed to argue against each and every deadly "nomination".  

Luban brings up further legal, moral, and practical issues, which I invite you to read and consider.  As an example ~ "So far i have said very little about the issue that, for the majority of observers, matters most ~ the drone strikes themselves ~ beyond my basic point that killing deadly enemies is in principle neither immoral nor illegal.  I say 'in principle' because so much turns on the details ~ the expected collateral damage, how much care has been taken to verify the target and the danger he poses, whether the target was trying to surrender, whether the foreign state is truly unwilling or unable to suppress the target, what the non-lethal alternatives were.  The wrong answer to any of these issues means the decision to kill from the air flunks the test of morality.

"But if the killing is legitimate, the fact that it was targeted, or done by a drone rather than a bomb or a gun, makes no difference.  If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call 'indiscriminate' and a war crime."

17 June 2012


During the 1970s and 80s, I was an avid whitewater kayaker.  I lived in the southern Arizona desert ~ a condition which impeded my pursuit of an aquatic adrenaline rush, not to mention slowed the development of my skills and experience.  But being a member of the kayakers club at the University of Arizona helped, as did being good friends with a woman who herself had was an enthusiastic whitewater rafter.  During several memorable summers I kayaked the Sea of Cortez, the Salt and Gila Rivers in Arizona, the Eagle River in Alaska, the San Juan River in Utah, the Yampa River in Colorado/Utah, and lesser rivers in South Carolina, New Jersey, and Oregon.  Many more western rivers beckoned, most especially the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, but life took a different turn and my kayaking days were put on hold.

I still dream of rivers I've run, and rivers I'd like to run.  On a multi-day trip, nature's riparian rhythm takes hold ~ rising with the dawn to birdsong, eating and breaking camp, easing into the current, and feeling yourself become one with the flow.  You might drift through a stretch of easy water, or you might become aware of the subsonic rumble of imminent rapids ~ or simply realize that downstream the river seems to disappear from view.  Either is a clue to pull out and walk down along the shore to visually scout what lies ahead, and decide how you want to navigate it.  Or even if you want to navigate it ~ some passages are too formidable, and a portage is called for.  It's important to be realistic about your skill level, and to understand the visual clues which the current is giving you.  It's also important to do some research beforehand, to have a reliable river map and river-running friends whose judgment you trust, to be properly equipped, and to have a safety backup plan when things go south.  And they will go south sooner or later.

Quiet drifting or manic paddling through a chaos of whitewater, it's all magic.  I treasure every trip in memory, and the Grand Canyon still awaits.

If you'd like a vicarious experience, try renting the movie The River Wild.  Several excellent actors make the best of a mundane thriller plot, but the real star of the film is the river itself.  (In reality, the film was shot on several rivers in Montana and Oregon.)  The scenery and cinematography are fine ~ one nice touch is that (as in real life training) you experience milder rapids early in the film, and are lulled into thinking "Gee, this is not so bad" ~ only to discover that each successive set of rapids is more intense and challenging, until the final rapids, at which point you think "No way".

I was reminded of all this when I came across the photo above (click to enlarge) ~ a waterfalls on the Yangtze River in China.  Whitewater is rated as Class I through Class VI, with Class I being flatwater and Class Six being unrunnable by even the most skilled paddler.  How do you think the Yangtze River falls should be rated?

15 June 2012


For the first eight years of my life, I was an only child.  Living on a farm, I was often left to my own devices for entertaining myself (when I wasn't doing chores), and thereby developed a healthy imagination.  By inclination and circumstance, my free time usually was spent applying any raw materials at hand toward the construction of play-related objects ~ rearranging hay bales to make a fort, or digging snow from a bank large enough to house tunnels and 'rooms', or meticulously fashioning roads, bridges, and plants into miniature landscapes for toys to populate.

Fast-forward a few years, and my creativity was channeled by membership in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.  Handicrafts, camping trips, and a variety of skills learned to earn merit badges were a source of much fun and pride, and contributed (as did projects for school science fairs) to my confidence in adult life that I could fix or build just about anything. That engagement and confidence is the goal of the Maker Movement, "a growing community of young people and adults who are designing and building things on their own time", as described by Thomas Kalil in his Slate article, "Every Child a Maker ~ How the Government and Private Sector Can Turn American Kids on to Science Through 'Making'.

Kalil explains that "The Maker Movement is important for a variety of reasons.  First, it promotes values that are ends in themselves, such as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-expression. Second, it has the potential to get more boys and girls excited about STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math], in the same way that chemistry sets inspired previous generations of scientists and engineers.  Third, many manufacturing companies complain that they have many job openings they can't fill, and they need more welders and machine tool operators.  The Maker Movement could promote a renaissance of 'shop class', which was historically a pathway to practical skills and middle-class jobs.  Finally, communities of hobbyists are often hotbeds of innovators .... The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is encouraging all agencies to provide R&D funding for entrepreneurs with good ideas for low-cost instruments and kits for Makers and citizen scientists."

A coalition of manufacturing companies, youth-serving organizations, science museums, individual Makers, and foundations and philanthropists is needed to supplement the already-active engagement by private events like Maker Faires, President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign to improve STEM education, and the work of government agencies like DARPA, the VA, and NASA to fund and promote projects designed and built by students, ranging from robots to space exploration.

"A number of important technology trends are helping to fuel the Maker Movement.  The tools needed to design and build just about anything are becoming more affordable and easier to use, in the same way that the move from the mainframe to the PC to the smartphone has democratized information technology.  Although local communities are still important, the Internet has made it easier for Makers to share blueprints, software, CAD files, and step-by-step instructional videos and cartoons."

One cannot overstate the importance of instilling in young people a passion for science and the arts, both in school and at home.  With them, we are a unique and vibrant culture.  Without them, we will continue our present downhill slide from creative prominence among the world's nations.

14 June 2012


Chris Vaughan in The New Yorker has written a careful review of Ronald Weitzer's new book Legalizing Prostitution:  From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business.  The sex trade is a hot-button topic, with most views highly polarized and passionate, but with little solid research as evidence.  Weitzer aims to change the nature of the debate by introducing evidence so that readers can have a firmer foundation on which to found their opinions.

The author "divides the warring camps into two ~ the followers of the empowerment paradigm and the followers of the oppression paradigm.  The empowerment paradigm hghlights the ways in which sexual services qualify as work, involve human agency and may be potentially validating or empowering for workers.  This paradigm holds there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organized for mutual gain by all parties ~ just as in other economic transactions.

" .... The oppression paradigm is a formulation of radical feminism.  According to this paradigm sex work is the quintessential expression of patriarchal gender relations and male domination.  Not only does the sex industry objectify and commodify women's bodies, it also give men the idea that they have a 'right' to buy erotic entertainment from women, thus reinforcing women's subordination to men.  Supporters of this paradigm argue that exploitation, subjugation and violence are intrinsic to and ineradicable from sex work."

The author argues that both paradigms suffer from being one-dimensional, with neither derived from carefully conducted research.  He proposes instead "a more nuanced paradigm, one he calls polymorphous, based on the current state of research which identifies a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations and participants' experiences.  A growing body of research, he says, documents tremendous international diversity in how sex work is organized and experienced by workers, clients, and third parties, undermining some deep-rooted myths.  Victimization, exploitation, agency, job satisfaction, self-esteem and other dimensions should be treated as variables (not as constants) that differ with types of sex work, geographic locations and other structural conditions .... Most countries which have brought a degree of regulation to the sex industry have registered a degree of success in achieving one or more positive goals."

It should be clearly stated that Weitzer's vision of the sex trade is confined to behavior between consenting adults, with assurances of health and the absence of STDs or other communicable conditions.  Regulation, decriminalization, and maintaining a non-offensive low profile are key.  So is constraining the influence of profit-making third parties who may otherwise wield a corrupting influence on the process.

I can understand the feelings of those who endorse both traditional paradigms.  On balance, however, I think Weitzer's paradigm takes the broadest view, examining the sex trade as practiced in other countries to provide a standard of reference.  Having never sought out the services of a prostitute myself, and having no intention of doing so, for me the discussion is intellectual ~ until the social ills of the non-regulated sex trade enter the picture ~ the risk of disease infection, drug use, child prostitution, human trafficking, violence.  Those variables are not inevitable, and should not be tolerated.  Those things aside, if a woman or a man freely and without duress chooses to trade sex for money, and do so with discretion, what business is it of mine?

NOTE ~ the map above (click to enlarge) portrays the legality of prostitution and brothels around the world.  Green areas are places where prostitution is legal and regulated.  Blue areas are regions where prostitution is legal but unregulated, and organized activities such as brothels are illegal.  Red countries are places where prostitution is illegal.  Gray areas signify lack of data.  Map courtesy of Wikipedia here.

13 June 2012


Here's something I did not expect ~ death has a preference for birthdays.  A research summary linked by Andrea Kuszewski explains ~ "Researchers studying mortality rates on over two million people over a forty year time span have found that statistically speaking, people are more likely to die on their birthday, than any other day of the year.  Bumping the numbers are suicides by men, who apparently find the ultimate milestone a little too hard to bear.  But those deaths aren't enough to account for the overall fourteen percent increased likelihood that any given person will die on the same day as the day they were born, compared to any other day of the year.

" .... The number that really stands out, of course, is the 34.9% greater chance of dying by suicide by men on their birthdays .... some have suggested higher death rates on birthdays is likely attributable to those trying to hang on, for whatever reasons, to reach their birthday.  [The] research doesn't agree with such speculation, however, [adding that increased] stress on birthdays is most likely the culprit, noting that average alcohol consumption goes up on birthdays as well."

What a concept.  I suppose much depends on the number and severity of stressors in one's life, but it seems counter-intuitive to choose one's birthday to exit this mortal coil.  I've thought about death over the years (who hasn't?), and other things being equal, I know I'd like to leave this life during the same season in which I entered it ~ Spring.  There's a nice balance there, giving up the nutrients in my body to rejoin the cycle of life.  No embalming fluids, metal caskets, or cremation for me ~ just a winding sheet or a plain pine box in which to decompose naturally. I'd like to be buried in a natural setting, with a tree sapling planted on my grave.  It pleases me to think of wild animals and birds making their home in my tree, or human children playing in it.

But I'm in no hurry.  Unless I come down with some virulent disease which leaves me in misery and unable to enjoy life, I shall persist as long as I can.  There remains so much beauty still to discover ~ music, art, books, travel, friends, laughter, fine food, soul-splitting ideas.  As for dying on my birthday, I don't think so.  A birthday is a time of celebration (although I suppose there are circumstances in which ending one's life might feel like a celebration).  I do know this ~ as I and my peers become older, I'm going to be careful about sneaking up behind a celebrant and yelling "Happy Birthday" ~ the unintended consequences could be fatal.

12 June 2012


Lose Worry Through Wonder ~ "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."  Carl Sagan.

Our Story in 2 Minutes ~ Well, the choice of highlights is highly subjective.  That's all I'll say.

Secrets of Body Language ~  Fairly long, but deeply informative.  Bet you'll begin to notice things you'd never thought of before.

'You Are Not Special' commencement speech ~ sounds belittling, but it's not.  An entertaining and thoughtful reality check.

Why is 'X' the Unknown? ~ Yeah, why is that?  There's a surprising, yet logical story here.

11 June 2012


I'm using the term "at-risk" not to refer to the risk of committing criminal activity, or to the risk of yielding to the temptation of addictive drugs, or the risk of academic failure.  My focus is on two aspects of life as a teenager in the U.S. ~

The Centers for Disease Control has released the results of a study which found that in 2011, for the first time ever, more American teens were smoking marijuana than cigarettes.  "A full 23 percent of students surveyed told the CDC that they had used marijuana within the last month, whereas just 18 percent said they had smoked cigarettes."  The findings are consistent with a 2011 study conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which reports that "almost half of American teens (47 percent) said they have used marijuana at least once, representing a 21 percent increase over their 2008 study."

I'm not against the moderate use of marijuana by adults.  By any standard, among recreational substances marijuana is far and away the most harmless.  But the brains of children and teenagers are still developing, and to that extent pot presents a health risk similar to the early use of alcohol or tobacco.  THC, the principle psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, presents extremely low toxicity.  It does, however, contribute to a delayed motor response, acts as a mild depressant, and can lead to a dissociative state.  Frequent use is associated with disrupted linear memory and short-term memory, as well as impaired driving skills and judgment.  Equally troubling are the effects produced by inhaling marijuana smoke, which deposits four times the amount of tar in the human respiratory tract as tobacco does.

The concept of marijuana as a 'gateway drug' to other, more addictive and toxic drugs has been discredited.  In one sense, if young people are experimenting at all, I would rather it be with marijuana than with tobacco or alcohol.  But the biologist in me wishes that experimentation be postponed until one is in his/her early-to-mid 20s, when most brain development is complete.

Stop and Frisk.
Statistics show that young black and Latino men are disproportionately targeted in stop-and-frisk policing (see image above).  Here is an enlightening seven-minute discussion among three youths who are among the black and Latino males, ages 14-24, who account for 41.6 percent of NYPD stops (and other cities as well, it seems likely).  There are links at the bottom of the page to other videos related to minority issues.  It is a disgrace that racial profiling persists among law enforcement, whose job it is to "serve and protect" all citizens.

10 June 2012


When he was a youngster, one of my son's favorite TV shows was The Dukes of Hazzard.  The plot was thin, and the comedy was lowest-common-denominator, featuring two rascally good-ol'-boys (cousins in the Duke family) and The General Lee, their customized 1969 Dodge Charger ~ a vehicle which, like KITT in Knight Rider, seemed capable of feats which defied the laws of physics.

Unlike my son, I'm not a fan of super-charged cars or car racing.  But I can understand the attraction for a young rural boy in those times.  When I still lived in Tucson, Arizona, we had the chance to see KITT at an auto show there.  Years later, when I was living in northeastern Tennessee near Bristol Motor Speedway (the Mecca of stock car racing), I happened to see The General Lee, much to my son's envy.  Too bad I didn't get a picture of either vehicle.

But all is not lost, though it appears to be shrinking.  Below you can see an image of The General Lee, back in the day.  And below that is an image of a Smart Car tricked out in TGL's livery ~ The General Wee?  I had no idea that the troubled economy was actually shrinking cars.  My son is now grown, and father to my 10-year-old grandson.  Enjoy, Ian and Ryan.

09 June 2012


Three days ago the planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun.  Such an event is called a transit, and the 2012 transit of Venus was one of the most-photographed celestial events in history.  According to NASA, "These [Venusian] transits occur in pairs eight years apart that are separated from each other by 105 or 121 years.  The last transit was in 2004 and the next will not happen until 2117."

In the image above (click to enlarge), Venus is the black sphere just inside the upper left arc, as it begins its transit.  Photos and videos like this give us a priceless perspective on the scale of objects and the distances between them.  Here's what I mean ~ we viewers on Earth are 93 million miles from the sun.  Venus, with 80 percent of Earth's mass, orbits at about 64 million miles from the Sun (and 29 million miles from Earth's orbit).  Yes, Venus is about two-thirds of the distance out from Sun to Earth.  Further, If you lined up 109 Earths in a row, they would equal the Sun's diameter.  Venus is even smaller than Earth.  It is the foreshortening of telephotography that creates the illusion that Venus is as large (relative to the Sun) as it appears to be in the image above.  The silhouette of Venus might be compared to that of the head of a pin, closer to the viewer than to the light bulb on the ceiling.

My Chicago friend Bill sent a link to what must surely be the definitive collection of videos of the Venus transit, provided by NASA, collected at various wavelengths of light.  Enjoy.

08 June 2012


Several weeks ago an article appeared in the Washington Post, summarizing the gridlock in Washington (political dysfunction, partisanship, attack politics, low public approval of Congress).  The authors, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, went on to list five fruitless cures that are often proposed, and four cures that stand a better chance to make a meaningful difference.  Here's a summary (read the article for a fuller description) ~

Solutions to avoid ~

  • A third party to the rescue.  DOA ~ 90 percent of Americans identify with or lean toward one of the two major political parties.
  • Term limits.  Self-defeating ~ new lawmakers tend to have no incentive to think long-term, and start jockeying for their next step up once they leave office ~ e.g., lucrative careers in lobbying.
  • A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.  Experience has already proven that this doesn't work.  49 states have balanced-budget amendments.  When an economic downturn occurs, the government experiences less revenue and increased demand for services.  The result?  Raising taxes and cutting spending.  Not a healthy way to run a society.
  • Public financing of elections to restrain special interests.  Fail, for two reasons.  One, the money raised by public financing is a drop in the bucket compared to the floodtide of expenses in today's elections, and cannot compete with the massive cash infused by often-anonymous super-PACs under today's election rules.  Two, those same wealthy special interests (the NRA, AARP, the AFL-CIO to name a few) don't just donate to campaigns.  They also "mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers, and they hire former lawmakers or congressional staff members to gain access to power and boost policy expertise on key issues."  Individual private citizens don't have that kind of financial or policy influence.
  • Stay calm ~ acrimony comes and goes in cycles.  True, but only up to a point.  "We are experiencing neither politics as usual nor an odd blip.  We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing everything put forward by the Democrats, the near-disappearance of the regular order of Congress, the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction, and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law."
Solutions to consider ~
  • Realistic campaign finance reform.  To include (a) "Passage of straightforward disclosure legislation requiring the timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads (say, of $5000 or more)", and (b) "real efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to simply enforce its own regulation on nonprofit 501(c)4 entities to keep sham organizations from exploiting the law to hide political donors."
  • Converting votes into seats.  Redistricting should use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines based on respect for communities' boundaries, to reduce escalating partisanship.  "Another option that would help make votes more accurately reflect the electorate's real feelings is instant runoff voting, where voters rank their candidate preferences.  Such a system produces majority winners, eliminates the spoiler role, and reduces the 'wasted vote' calculation for minority-party candidates."
  • Restoring majority rule in the Senate.  "Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import ~ and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction ~ should be a top priority .... Senate rules should guarantee an up-or-down vote on executive and judicial nominations reported out of the relevant committees, with a time limit to the holds of the nominations."
  • Expanding the electorate.  "Consider the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls, where not showing up results in a fine of $15 or so.  This modest penalty has spurred participation to more than 90 percent since the 1925 reform. Australian politicians can count on their bases turning out, so they focus on persuadable voters in the middle .... and they seek to attract a majority of the entire citizenry.  In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties' incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents' supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes.  Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are ~ closer to the middle .... Finally, if we can't persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches?  How about a lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected rom the fines of those who didn't vote?"
The proposed solutions sound attainable.  I would add to the last solution expanding the electorate to include all undocumented immigrants ~ provided that they register as temporary workers, and are allowed to remain in the U.S. long enough to satisfy the requirements for citizenship.  Their presence in the interstices of our culture is simple reality, and they are as affected by our laws as anyone born in the U.S.  The infusion of another set of voters, educated in American history and politics, but with a different (not better or worse) experience with race, class, gender, and economics influence our worldview, could only serve to diversify and deepen everyone's understanding and (hopefully) mutual tolerance.  We are all immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants.

07 June 2012


From a blog entry by Ross Eisenbrey and Colin Gordon ~

"The passage in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protected and encouraged labor unions, sparked a wave of unionization that led to three decades of shared prosperity and what some call the Great Compression ~ when the share of national income taken by the very rich was cut by one-third.  The 'countervailing power' of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) gave them the ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike.  Both median compensation and labor productivity roughly doubled into the early 1970s.  Labor unions both sustained prosperity, and ensured that it was shared.  Union bargaining power has been shown to moderate the compensation of executives at unionized firms.

However, over the next 30 years ~ an era highlighted by the filibuster of labor law reform in 1978, the Reagan administration's crushing o the PATCO strike, and the passage of anti-worker trade deals with Mexico and China ~ labor's bargaining power collapsed.  The consequences are driven home by the figure below (click to enlarge), which juxtaposes the historical trajectory of union density and the income shared by the richest 10 percent of Americans.  Union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened ~ reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.

Over the years I held a variety of jobs, and uniformly the ones in which workers were unionized featured better job security, health benefits, wages, and working conditions.  My experience includes unionized government jobs at the city, county, state, and federal levels, as well as jobs as a professional transit driver.  It is revealing that unionization not only benefits workers, it also levels the fiscal playing field between employees and corporate executives.  As Arsenio Hall used to say on his late night variety show, "Kinda makes you go 'hmmmm'."

If you are opposed to labor unions, you are opposed to all benefits unions have won over the years ~ paid vacations, sick leave, seniority rights, paid holidays, wage increases, pensions, health insurance plans, time-and-a-half for overtime, unemployment benefits, safe working conditions, the end of child labor, and job security.  I'm certain that the robber barons who run Wall Street, hence Washington DC, would delight in rescinding those hard-won gains by their employees.

06 June 2012


World War II was arguably the defining event of the twentieth century.  Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Normandy, France ~ the largest amphibious invasion in history, and the definitive turning point of World War II.  The landings took place along a 50-mile stretch of coast divided into five sectors (see map below) ~

The invasion was officially named Operation Overlord, but is known universally as D-Day.  The invasion fleet was the largest ever assembled ~ over 5000 ships.  The landings were preceded by paratroop drops behind enemy lines the night before, and by a massive naval artillery barrage and air attack.  Over 157,000 Allied troops landed on the first day alone, meeting heavy German resistance.  

You can read in more detail about the complex, secret planning and execution of D-Day here.  Two movies stand out for their depiction of the harsh reality of the invasion and its aftermath ~ Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.

The generation which fought to save the world from Hitler's domination (and that of his Axis partners Benito Mussolini of Italy and Emperor Hirohito) was my parents' generation.  Those brave men and women, now in their 80s and 90s, are passing from our midst by the thousands daily.  Please take a quiet moment to honor their sacrifice.

Far too many free people in this world have no familiarity or understanding for momentous events in our recent past.  It is disturbing that many cannot describe why World War II took place, or when, or who the combatants were, or what life would be like today if we had lost.  Think the holocaust.  I am against war in principle.  But our fighting in World War II was an honorable necessity against unprovoked aggression.  It is important to know history, lest we repeat it.