Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cliches of Power

The human tragicomedy has certain themes that recur with appalling frequency. Some of these involve the tactics of the powerful. One that is playing itself out in the sad nation of Iran is the repression game.

Human beings, as we all know, are susceptible to corrupt behavior and, as we all know, power corrupts. However, it is well established that human beings also have a profound distaste for being treated unfairly. So, when the corrupt leaders treat the populace too unfairly, opposition develops. How do the leaders deal with opposition? Well they don't want to give up their privileged positions so they try, for awhile, to lie and to spin and to discredit the opposition. This won't work forever (although it may seem like forever to some). Eventually, they will resort to methods of physical repression: clubs, water cannon, noxious gases, imprisonment, torture, and even bullets and bombs. At this tipping point, they are not likely to reverse course; he who rides a tiger fears to get off. This will play itself out in bloody conflict and with uncertain consequences.

A different game is in play in the USA. The Obama administration, having campaigned for change, seems to be opting for very moderate change. It is competent but centrist and very non-confrontational. Given the considerably greater expectations of its base, the administration is beginning to resort to some of the traditional tactics of power, including spin and secrecy. There would be less need for this if the opposition were inclined to go along with moderate change but that is not the case. The banksters and the insurance execs are unwilling to stop their traditional fleecing of the public and they have the money, the lobbyists, the obedient legislators, virtually the entire Republican Party, Fox News, numerous radio gurus, and enough easily manipulated crazies to be very troublesome.

How this situation will resolve itself is unclear. I am inclined to believe that there will have to be a hard fight at some point to minimize corrupt behavior and to restore the equality of opportunity and the social mobility for which this nation was created (well, sort of). Will Obama become a leader for reform or will the Democratic Party be split within the next few years? Boardrooms and four or five star hotels can be very seductive. Many of our senators are good examples of it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Compliments, Alexander Cockburn

A while ago, I sent you a note including this.

- - - it is time to consider things more soberly. Let me focus on just your final dart: about the president "trying to pass off as 'healthcare reform' a gift to the insurance industry of 30 million new customers, to be required by law to pony up insurance premiums and then be cheated."

At the time, I advised you that the bill was not yet in final form. Well time has passed and it is beginning to smell like a sellout of considerable proportions even though still not finalized. In its present form, the Senate bill looks like a mockery written for the insurance industry by its own lobbyists and a number of bought Senators.

At the same time, the Senate has defeated a proposal to permit the re-importation of American pharma products in order to lower the costs to the American people. Both of the Democratic Senators from my state, New York, voted against it. I have not yet received their explanations. However, there was a deal between the Obama administration and the pharma industry early this year. What the administration got was their promise of a pittance to close half of the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare part D package and to refrain from opposing the health care reform bill. Since then the pharma prices have been increased by about 9 percent but the administration, it seems, remains faithful.

The congressional attempts at financial reform will very likely contain enough loopholes to keep the big banks happy. Washington has not changed. Money talks and the government will not protect the public from more of the traditional fleecing.

The president is courting catastrophe. The people who made their small contributions to his campaign, who rang doorbells for him, and who spent hours on the telephone for him will not return in 2010 or 2012 unless he wakes up and works to make good his campaign pledges. His fruitless attempts at bipartisanship are not perceived as leadership. His obsession with passing a health care bill, any bill, as soon as possible is much like taking a helicopter to board the Titanic. The Democratic party may be split.

I'm sorry to have to say these things but I value objectivity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Health insurance Reform: Details Please!

The two salient needs for health insurance reform are access and cost. What will the public get in exchange for its compromise in giving up the "public option"?

1) People over the age of 54 will be allowed to buy into medicare. That sounds good if just anyone over that age can opt in. If just those who can't get private insurance can opt in, that would be a sellout to the insurers; they get the healthy ones and medicare gets the "preexisting conditions." The devil is in the details.

2) Nonprofits can compete with the industry. Under what conditions and under what management? The US Employees med plan management? The states? The devil is in the details.

3) The insurers will be required to pay out at least 90 percent of their revenues as benefits. That sounds great! But required by whom and does the requirement have teeth? The devil is in the details.

We'll see. Political compromise is the way our country works - when it works at all. However, it won't work if the Liebermans and the Nelsons are permitted to spit in our faces forever.

(I have medicare and good group supplementary insurance. Why do I care? Call it what you will; that's the kind of animal I happen to be.)


Friday, December 4, 2009

The Tao of Investing

It is quite clear that most individual investors would not study quantitative methods of investing because these are not their primary interests in life. Some follow sectors, some just buy and hold, and some practice momentum investing.

The case for momentum investing boils down to this. The prices are primarily controlled by large fund managers for whom quantitative methods are a major interest. If they make a price go up, why not follow their expertise?

The downside of momentum investing is that, when prices start to fall, every momentum investor will scramble to get out fastest and prices can drop precipitously, overshooting the mark. As someone once said "they are all trying to front run each other."

Trailing stop loss orders may limit the carnage but I have no experience with the quality of execution.

Alternatively, one can invest in things, like pipelines, that have well established revenue streams and dividends and live a less exciting life. Having lived through the great depression, WWII, Korea, VietNam, Iraq, the GW Bush administration, and two divorces, I am not looking for vast excitement.

Pipeliners Blues

"Excitement" is a magical word for me ever since I misread the caption of the frontispiece of an old romance novel. I misread it to be "she raised her lips to his and kissed him with mounting excrement."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dear iTunes, butt out!

Dear iTunes, I am just a mild mannered old former scientist but you managed to arouse my ire today. Here's how.

Being elderly and tired, I decided to start one of my iTunes playlists and lie down on my bed to rest awhile. It didn't work - for the first time. It seems that the first three tunes in my list, which had been there for a couple of years, now decided to balk and returned the message, "This computer is not authorized to play (name of song). Would you like to authorize it?" This was followed by a request for my wife's password.

Because this had never happened before, I conclude that it was caused by the latest iTunes software "upgrade." Now, I have no recollection of ever authorizing YOU to put such intrusive, Nanny style software into my computer. My computer is my property and what I do with it is a private matter and none of your business. This software is intrusive and it violates my right to privacy. If you want to put such crap into my computer, you have the obligation to explicitly notify me and to ask my permission. Naturally, that would not be granted.

I suppose that some genius with a college degree thought this up as a means of defending someone's intellectual property rights. On the other hand, things like this have caused endless annoyance to multitudes of people who use software responsibly but who would like to be allowed use their computers without being forced to jump through hoops to do it. In this case, I was asked to enter a password I had long forgotten while my wife, who is not well, was sleeping.

There are a number of things you can do for me. One of these is to remove the objectionable part of the software. If not that, please instruct me how to remove the tunes in question from my computer and cancel any account that I may have established with the iTunes store.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ego, Ideology, Acquisitiveness, and Science

The New York Times Book Reviews of November 1, 2009 (tomorrow at the time of this post) offers three very revealing reviews that deal with the general theme of economic theory and practice. If you care to think about such things these reviews will make for good reading.

There is one about the life of Ayn Rand, whose comic book ideology and powerful ego served to capture the fancy of many a naive but intelligent youth, including one as distinguished as Alan Greenspan - the one who, in recent years, managed to play a role in royally screwing up the American economy.

Ayn Rand

The second one is about the professional career and successful acquisitiveness of Jamie Dimon who helped to build that monstrous corporate entity called "Citigroup" and who currently is at the helm of JP Morgan Chase bank.

Jamie Dimon

The third is a review of two books about the life and the contributions of John Maynard Keynes to economic theory and practice. He is the economist to turn to when your favorite ideology again fails.


Draw your own conclusions. Mine are particularly simple and it astounds me that I had to become an octogenarian before I could clearly express them. I cannot explain that except to concede that I am a slow learner. Perhaps you can do better.

Ego is probably ubiquitous in humans, at least in the ones I know anything about. Mine now takes the form of simply wanting to understand things as well as I can, but it can take many forms - even in scientists. However, while ego can motivate science ego cannot replace science and it needs to be carefully restrained.

Acquisitiveness is to be found in varying degrees but it is a widely distributed trait that has not spared the subspecies called "bankers." The book about Jamie Dimon, a very successful banker, may to some extent explain why bankers should not be the final arbiters of financial regulation.

Ideology is for the simple minded and for manipulators and exploiters of the simple minded. By confining their ideas to one small ideological box it spares them the arduous labor of thought and gets in the way of real progress. It is much to his credit that "Keynes’s political views were dominated by a pragmatism similar to what Clarke describes, where the best is the enemy of the good. Keynes was no socialist, but also no free-market ideologue. He was interested in what worked."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Corruption, Inc.

Corruption is ubiquitous in this world, even in the USA, even in the Congress. If you doubt that you might just as well stop reading this now, because you are on the wrong planet. As one intelligent limo driver put it, "money makes the monkey jump." Of course, the monkey is us.

There are some folks who are unalterably opposed to corruption and, just occasionally, they have their way. We need more of them and they need our help. There are at least three ways to stamp out corruption:

1) Genetic engineering of the human psyche (maybe doable but not in this century),

2) Cultural evolution (I believe this to be possible and that the process is underway but that it will take at least a couple of generations),

3) Rigorous regulation and vigorous enforcement. We can begin immediately.

The implementation of effective regulation and enforcement will not be easy while money still makes the monkey jump. It is not enough to have the president on your side. Observe that the Fed and the Treasury Department are currently under the leadership of two high level banksters. They are good men but there is a lot of cultural conditioning and old boy values to be overcome.

old boys



If you really want justice you will have to loudly and persistently demand it. Use the Internet, the media, public forums, and use the streets. Say NO to weak regulations, to loopholes, to toothless regulators. Write to the president, to your congressperson, to your senators, to Barney Frank, to Chris Dodd. Put a strong wind into their sails.

What goes for financial regulation also goes for health insurance regulation.

I have a dream that an effective bill for health insurance regulation falls short of the 60 votes needed for cloture in the Senate and that the president finally draws a line in the sand.

"My fellow Americans, as you know, the health insurance reform act has fallen short of the 60 votes needed to bring it to a vote and the Republicans are threatening to filibuster. While they speak, large numbers of Americans will be losing their coverage or will be denied benefits, will be going into bankruptcy, will be dying for lack of good health care.

"The time has come to end the culture of corruption which is willing to pauperize or kill decent Americans in trying to sustain the unsustainable profits of a few insurance giants.

"Therefore, we shall continue to demand cloture, week after week, until the elections of November 2010 if necessary. In that case, the American people will be in a position to act decisively one way or the other.

"The question at hand is a fundamental one. Will the government of the United States be a government of the people, by the people and for the people or will it become a corporate state: of the lobbyists, by the venal politicians and for the big corporations.

'May God bless you with understanding and may God bless America."

Sure, it's only a dream.

Dr. John

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Health Care Insurance, Inc.

Let's skip a torrent of detail and go to the heart of the matter. The health care insurance for-profit companies exist to earn as much profit as they can for their executives and stockholders. Normally, if you are ideologically in favor of entrepreneurial, free market capitalism you would consider this to be a normal and correct activity but there are several giant problems in this situation.

1) The companies earn their money by rejecting applicants for coverage who seem to be poor risks. These people remain uninsured. They also refuse payment for legitimate medical treatments whenever they can legally do so, mostly on the grounds of preexisting conditions or because the recommended treatments are "experimental." They also raise premiums and co-pays for all the traffic can bear. A consequence of this is that large numbers of Americans are dying for lack of treatment or going into bankruptcy for lack of the money to pay for it.

2) A lot of money that could be spent on health care is diverted into overhead costs and profits.

3) Doctors and their assistants spend time that could be used to treat patients in dealing with the insurance companies.

4) Some of the companies' cash flow is utilized in massive lobbying because their profitability is highly dependent upon legislation, particularly, legislation that enables them to avoid competition. The companies have a huge stake in avoiding competition, either with each other or with a governmental entity. This intense lobbying has a very corrosive effect upon the integrity of government.

When the insurance companies win, you lose.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The National Asylum: a note to Alexander Cockburn

I refer, of course, to your column in The Nation: "Welcome to the National Asylum" which is a delightful instance of your incisive wit.

Nuttiness is a side effect of the allegedly "intelligent design" of the human mind, to which full rationality is an acquired taste rarely achieved. This gives you ample opportunity to torment and to crack the nuts in all political directions with gay abandon. So far so good.

When the giggles fade, it is time to consider things more soberly. Let me focus on just your final dart: about the president "trying to pass off as 'healthcare reform' a gift to the insurance industry of 30 million new customers, to be required by law to pony up insurance premiums and then be cheated."

If this is what he is really trying to do I shall join you on the barricades but, to be fair, the law has not yet been decided. Let's look at the circumstances.

There are a few sectors of commercial activity in which corporate fingers are squeezing the main arteries of the American economy. Surely, banking and insurance are among them. These same interests also have enormous clout in the Congress of the United States. The task of loosening their grip needs to be undertaken delicately unless one has truly dictatorial power. It seems that Obama does not have that kind of power and he is trying to achieve an incremental reform that can eliminate the worst abuses.

Does Obama have the skill and the spine to succeed at this? Only time will tell. I do not envy him the task. My preference would be for no bill and a good fight in the primaries and in the year 2010 elections rather than a bad bill.

fishing banks: making a withdrawal

What has happened to us?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Decrying "socialism"?

As in a number of previous heated debates, the current debate on health care reform has raised the cry of "socialism" from the opposition. This is demagoguery!

It is not that I favor socialism in all its aspects. I am not an ideologue for either side. What I want is a government that works for the people, which has not been possible in a social order that entertains a suborned Congress. We really need change.

For those with a purely capitalist ideology, I acknowledge that an environment of regulated competition might be very effective. How could that be achieved? Well, first of all, we would need a considerable number of health insurance companies competing in a national market. Secondly, we would need to provide consumer protections of the sorts that are contemplated in the Democratic bills, and which many Republicans have endorsed. We would also need close scrutiny to prevent the companies from forming an anti-competitive cartel and we would need some tax incentives to encourage companies to join in the national market and to compensate those companies whose benefits might attract the least healthy applicants. In order to make such improved insurance affordable, it would have to be universal and it woud be necessary to deliver health care more efficiently and more effectively than at present.

This is doable but not yet within reach. Why? Because those who inveigh against socialism most loudly also have a huge financial stake in avoiding serious competition and because their congressional stooges would find excuses for deregulating. That's what they did for the banks, remember?

The best opportunity for reform at at this time lies with the Obama proposals, which should be supported.

The Gambler

Friday, August 7, 2009

Health Care and Social Behavior

There is a form of social behavior which crops up now and then that strikes me as a distant relative of old fashioned lynching. It is the mob action of depriving a person or persons of their civil right of free speech by shouting them down whenever they try to speak. It has been employed at both ends of the political spectrum, for example, (on the Left?) at universities when possibly racist conclusions were being derived from IQ testing and very recently in the severe disruption of town hall meetings on health care (on the right?) throughout the country.

I'm sure this is a very old tactic and it has probably been employed by a wide variety of thuggish political causes whenever they thought it would pay. My concern is not with the specifics of the causes but with the employment of this tactic. Whether the cause is a commonly accepted element of the local culture, as was the case in lynchings, or a more special interest, as in the case of preventing the reform of health care, which is a matter of really BIG bucks, it strikes me as very anti-democratic and profoundly un-American in character.

Such things happen but I did not serve in WWII to just sit back let such things happen in my own country without protest. I regard such behavior as certainly a form of disorderly conduct but also mob action to deprive our fellow citizens of their civil rights, and, if they are shown to be organized, a conspiracy to do so.

I confess that I am just a centrist, not a Republican. I would like to hear more from the right on this matter.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who Owns the Republican Party?

The issue is reform of health care delivery in the USA.

It has been well established that the present system is unacceptable and unsustainable. More than that, it is a barbaric and destructive attack upon the American middle class, including unavailable insurance, unaffordable insurance, non-portable insurance, denials of coverage, discriminatory pricing against the uninsured, and a billing jungle.

On the other hand, the present system has been a profit bonanza to the insurance companies and the major pharmaceutical companies. Why is that a major impediment to reform? Because money speaks loudly in the Congress of the USA. There will be a lot of scary ads and a lot of "principled" talk opposing the federal option. It is really all about the money.

We shall soon see, in the votes for cloture in the Senate and in the votes for passage, who owns whom. It may be that the outcome will be a certainty, given the Democratic super-majority. If passage should fail, there will be a political firestorm in 2010.

Many people have been, and will continue to be, conned into voting against their own interests. That is not so likely to happen when the results are financial ruin, foreclosures, disability for health reasons, or premature death.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Note to Joe Scarborough

Dear Joe: I have enjoyed your former contributions to political chatter on MSNBC. I am 84 years old and I no longer do mornings so I have seen very little of Morning Joe. I was impressed by the spectacle of a Republican with respectable traits of common sense, intelligence and tolerance. It is the tolerance I am counting on by reminding you of some things which you must already know.

What triggered this note was a review of your book on conservatism in the NY Times. I am distressed by misuse of the category, "conservative", by many who include within it such strange aberrations as authoritarianism, xenophobia, racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, know-nothingism, a variety of bizarre reformulations of Christianity, and even support of the Republican Party. I also regret the acceptance of such aberrations by even respected media spokesmen.

There is a perfectly reasonable summary of conservative principles in:


I can add a few remarks of my own to this in order to contrast conservatism with mere yahooism.

One common conservative tendency is resistance to change. This can be justified as a desire to preserve what is good and valuable in socio-economic institutions and in order to avoid the sometimes counterproductive unexpected consequences of well intentioned change. Unfortunately, it is frequently used in order to preserve privilege (even hereditary privilege in distinction to meritocracy) and in order to delay even much needed change (eg, environmental conservation).

Political "conservatism" is frequently nothing but the desire of one party of politicians to win the next election This may have the effect of supporting a poor candidate over a better qualified opponent. It may also involve evoking yahoo "principles" and bumper sticker slogans in the competition for votes.

Clarity of thought is much needed in our political arena and is still little in evidence.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Note to Iran

Your nation is in the messy process of making an important choice. I don't know how long it will take you to do this but the choice must be made. I call it "go North or go South." The reference is to Korea, one people but two nations. One of these will be approximately the next phase of your development. There is a stark contrast.

North Korea is a giant prison. The best and the bravest of its children cannot realize their potential. They will wind up in the military or in a labor camp unless they can find a way to emigrate. This is a nation in which repression really works. It has isolated itself from the family of peace loving nations. It lacks a productive economy. The political "Dear Leader" is a puppet of the military and he would not last long if he were to deviate from his "army based" policies. North Korea has painted itself into a corner; it is a dead end.

South Korea is a democracy with a productive and rapidly developing economy. The people are free and the standard of living has improved over the years. It can accommodate controversy without major violence. It has both the productivity and the occasional economic disruptions of capitalism.

Iran differs from Korea in a few important details. South Korea must face a military threat from the North. Iran is a larger nation. Iran has oil; Korea does not. Also, Iran has Islam.

These differences should not be allowed to obscure the important choice which must be made. It is particularly urgent because some in the government decided, years ago, to "go North" without really thinking things through.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Future of Capitalism


Elections Made Really Simple

"CAIRO – Iran's top electoral body said Tuesday it found "no major fraud" and will not annul the results of the presidential election, closing the door to a do-over sought by angry opposition supporters alleging systematic vote-rigging." [KARIN LAUB, Associated Press Writer]

Iran's top electoral body is apparently very ignorant or is pretending to be very ignorant.

An "election" that is not fairly conducted and fairly counted is not an election at all; it is a mockery. When people are insulted by such a mockery, they may object strenuously, even when faced with batons, tear gas, water cannon and bullets.

Write that down 100 times and go sit in the corner, Khamenei.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran: The Face of Clerical Fascism

I have spent much of today watching the cable coverage of events in Iran. As an American, I normally watch the overseas news with considerable objectivity. Not this time.

Iran has been called a religious democracy. Perhaps that was the intent after the revolution. Now, I can see neither true religion nor democracy there. I see the face of clerical fascism.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be a very, very stupid man. As the leader of Iran, he has made it into an exporter of terror to other nations and a seeker of nuclear weapons - instead of joining the family of peaceful nations and building a real economy. Not content with that, he is also spitting in the faces of millions of his countrymen with a sham election to which he has given his seal of approval and is enforcing with the power of his state.

Consequently, our wonderful young brothers and sisters in Iran must now face extreme repression in the form of arbitrary arrests, bludgeons, tear gas, water cannon and bullets - because they cannot accept that insult. It is sickening and, if I were there, I would also be wearing a green headband.

One does not need a lot of fine detail to see that much. A short Biblical quote to Khamenei sums it up: the handwriting is on the wall, "you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sham Elections

“He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” [Chinese proverb]

The state of Iran is at a tipping point and the theocracy still has a choice. In one direction there are free and fair elections with the likelihood of gradual reform. In the other direction, there is a blood bath and a dictatorial theocracy which the brave people of Iran will have little choice but to fight, much as they fought the former Shah.

Was the recent reelection of the current president fair? Well, millions of Iranians don't seem to think so. I can add only one independent observation. It would be an unbelievable act of stupidity to give the people a fair election and also give them the impression that it was stolen! I am not one to deny the plausible stupidity of politicians; In the USA we have just lived through an 8 year sample of that and some of the leftover actors, now in opposition, do not seem to have learned much. Nevertheless, I do not believe that Iranian politicians can be even more out of touch than our own.

I am not Iranian nor of Iranian descent. I was once on a Pan Am flight that touched down at Teheran but I didn't step off the plane because the Iranians were rioting against the Shah at that time.

Why do I care about these far off events? Well, the world has gotten smaller, the population has grown, the climate is changing, natural resources are being stripped, the oceans are over-fished, clean water and good food will soon be in short supply, and we have not yet solved the problem of militaristic governments that lack the wit to grow a productive economy, to feed their people, or to save the natural environment. The Horsemen (plague, civil violence, hunger and war - not exactly those of Revelation) are ready to ride.

"Live free or die" is no longer just for the state of New Hampshire. It is for everyone.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Domestic Terrorism

There appears to be an increase in the incidence of assaults and murders related to extremist groups and outright hate groups within the USA. Laws against such things are a deterrent but there are those in whom the presence of pathological anger overwhelms common sense and common decency.

This is nothing new. Nut cults and even nuttier individuals have always existed on the fringes of civilized societies and they are likely to persist for some time. The problem lies with the human brain, which is a very complex organ and which can fail in numerous interesting ways for genetic, developmental, or environmental reasons.

In most human beings, the mind is open like a sponge. They can learn and adapt. In a few, the mind is closed like a tight fist. In the metaphor of computers, they are "wedged" or "in a tight loop" and frequently that cannot be remedied until they are powered down.

Some of the violent individuals can be helped by better education and mental health programs. For those who cannot be helped in that fashion I can see two options:

1. Get them off the streets.

2. Supervise them as well as possible and keep lethal weapons out of their hands.

These things are not so difficult as one might imagine, despite our constitutional guarantees of civil liberties. Most of the people who commit hate crimes are overcome with anger and obsessed by hate. These things are not so difficult to discern. It is not a matter of chilling freedom of speech but rather a matter of determining that some individuals present an imminent danger to the public. What has been lacking is the willingness to face the problem and to make the necessary investment.

A reasonable halfway measure would be to require a rigorous psychiatric evaluation for anyone who commits a violent crime before he/she is released.

I offer the following without further comment. Let the author speak for himself.

Also Sprach David Lane

David Lane

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Real Markets 101: Some serious views

For those of us who are not professionally involved in today's financial and investment infrastructures they represent opaque and sometimes threatening circumstances. A little light reading can alleviate this feeling although I cannot promise mastery of the subject. Here are a few selections, by way of internet links, that I have found helpful. First, an important quote attributed to Keynes.

"The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent."

John Maynard Keynes

Deregulation, Free Markets and Econ 101

Notice that the following article was written in 2006, well before the financial meltdown.


Another major player:

Phil Gramm

When I was still a graduate student (long ago), I had an intelligent and seriously religious room mate who observed that "religion is an act of conscious blindness." I never knew how close politics is to religion until I found the following op-ed. Notice the date.

Phil Gramm Is Right

In all fairness, here is a conservative view from the Heritage Foundation.

Meltdowns and Myths

And here is an expert's video view of the facts, which I repeat.


To round out this introduction, I have included a current NY Times financial article.

Poking Holes in a Theory on Markets

My own view at this time is that the markets are not fully informed nor fair nor adequately regulated and that various advisory services manipulate their clients with mixtures of greed, fear, and inflated claims. The amateur is indeed a minnow among sharks. Caveat emptor! However it is possible to find Internet sites which present a variety of voices.

Although the markets bear little resemblance to the idealized markets, the ones with those wonderful invisible hands, they do resemble the ideal in at least one way: virtually everyone is trying, first and foremost, to feather his own nest. Under these conditions, like Yossarian in Catch 22, you would be a fool not to do the same. This requires of the non-professional an extreme defensive posture. I am reminded of the early cold war nuclear defensive posture: put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

Draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gay Marriage

Marriage represents a potpourri of arrangements, each made by a pair of individuals to share their lives in whatever lawful ways they find mutually suitable. Sometimes it falls pathetically short of their expectations in ways that are too numerous to mention, ranging from farcical to tragic. Nevertheless, each new generation likes to pursue happiness in this fashion.

Faux Pas

Easy to be Hard

In the USA, at least, the certificates of marriage issued by the states are not religious sacraments. The US government and the states are constitutionally prohibited from any form of establishment of religion. These certificates of marriage are really certificates of civil union that confer certain rights and privileges upon the couples. Of course, a couple may also have a religious ceremony in any church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or bar and grill of their choosing that is willing to offer one.

There are some inevitable problems resulting from leaving authority over the civil unions to the various states. Specifically, must the civil unions issued by one state be honored in all of the other states; must a divorce granted by one state be honored in all of the other states. I mention these problems only in passing to remind us that the legal ramifications are not so simple.

Today's primary question is that of "gay marriage", more specifically, the civil unions of homosexual couples. There are two difficulties here. First, there is the long tradition, in which nearly all of us have been raised, that strictly forbade such a thing. Second, there is the confusion introduced by use of the term "marriage" for what is a strictly secular arrangement.

For a long time, I was opposed to gay marriage simply because of the residual effects of my formative years. I have recognized this. I have also come to the view that our constitutionally promised equal protection of the laws requires that the states issue marriage certificates to homosexual couples. This requirement can be fudged by opponents, using the argument that any person can be married to a person of the opposite sex but I find that argument to be too strained to be acceptable.

Jerry Falwell once pointed out that "the plumbing is wrong." That is a matter of taste which is best left to the principals.

My compromise position was similar to Obama's: permit homosexual unions but don't call it "marriage." However, since marriage by the state is merely a civil union by another name, that is just a sophistry designed to placate the most repressive religious ideologues. It makes no sense unless you would prefer a constitution in which the majority can trample the rights of minorities to the one we have.

Consequently, I have concluded that gay marriage is the right policy.

Why is Obama's position different? Well, as a politician, he needs votes. In my relatively undistinguished position as a mere geezer, I prefer rationality. We are both true to our values.

Hugh Hefner apparently agrees with me.

Hef Speaks

He has always been a leader in the sexual revolution. You can't poo-poo Hugh. Many decades ago, the Playboy Philosophy assured me that I would not grow hair on my palms and I can gratefully testify that he was right.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Knuckle Dragging Stupidity

Back in 1970, Senator Hruska of Nebraska defended a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court as follows.

''Even if he were mediocre,'' Mr. Hruska declared, ''there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.''

Senator Hruska didn't go so far as to use "stupid" instead of "mediocre," but would the same argument hold if he had? That is the issue before us today. That is, should President Obama have nominated a person of really knuckle dragging stupidity to represent his critics? (How's that for a straw man?)

Today, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is being attacked by many Republicans because she has been nominated by a Democratic president. They have found many grounds for inflicting wounds upon her.

Some call her a racist because she once said that a Latino woman could enrich the judicial wisdom of a court dominated by white men.

One opined that she might base her judgments upon emotion (well, she is a woman, isn't she?).

One compared her to GW Bush's ill fated and singularly unqualified nominee, Harriet Miers (well, they have some things in common: they are both women and they were both nominated by a president).

Some attack her as a judicial activist because she once declared that the Federal Appeals Courts make policy (but they do).

Now, I do not feel the need to defend Mrs. Sotomayor because I do not know her and because Obama is too skillful a politician to nominate anyone who is not superbly qualified.

My point is this: these Republicans really are knuckle dragging stupid. I do not say that because the Republican Party is the plutocratic party. I do not say that because the Republican Party is the party of fundamentalist ideologues. No, there is much more to it.

The Republican attacks will alienate two very important segments of the electorate. Latinos are the largest and the fastest growing minority group. Women are a slight majority of the electorate.

Furthermore, absent any new and very damaging revelations, Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed by the Senate. They are doing little more than baying at the moon, and much to their own detriment! Are such dunces qualified for national leadership?

Kelly Bundy

Have I missed something important?

Oh that?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

University or Institute?

Across the pages of human history we find a trail of cries like: think like us or we will stone you, think like us or die at swords point, think like us or burn at the stake, think like us or be excommunicated, think like us or be exiled, think like us or be treated at an asylum for the mentally ill.

In the gentler climate of modern America it is more usual to hear: think like us or we will shout you down, think like us or we will not listen.

There seems to be a genetic inclination toward intellectual insecurity and intellectual bullying and groupthink and following the payed pipers of conformity which is inimical to civil dialog and social progress. It is a phenomenon that may be summarily described as a strong form of "ideology." Thinking inside an ideological box is frequently described by ideologues as "principled."

Ideologues may actually believe that their "principles" are sacred and that "principled" behavior is always correct behavior and they will not accept contrary views, however well founded. This attitude may suffice to delay change for considerable periods of time, sometimes for millenia. Long term, it has always failed. In the field of science, which has a better record of achievement than most other human activities, it has been superseded by the scientific method, which depends upon fact and reason and skeptical review.

However, we are what we are and inflexible ideologues have always been with us. The question now is whether ideologues shall be permitted to dominate a university, because universities are claimed to be places where fact and reason are learned and respected. I have a modest suggestion which might relieve the tension.

Let's just agree that ideologues have a right to dominate here and there but that the places they dominate shall not be called "universities." That is a small price to pay for amicable coexistence. For example, instead of the "University of Notre Dame" we might wind up with the "Catholic Institute of Notre Dame" - if circumstances should justify that change.

. . . . . . . . . .

5/17/09 I have now witnessed the graduation ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame. There is nothing so revealing as actually "being there" even if only by electronic media. To my delight, I am now convinced that Notre Dame is and will continue to be a great university.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama's Pragmatism

President Obama has annoyed many Americans (including me) by reversing his previous decision to release more photographs of American abuse of military captives. On second thought, I believe this exception to a policy of transparency is sound.

Politics is the art of the possible. Very few principles are absolute, not even freedom of speech. We are not permitted to shout "fire" in a crowded theater.


Reasonable people will screen every policy choice on the basis of cost/benefit analysis, taking all relevant factors into account. This is pragmatism.

Making important policy decisions solely on the basis of previously declared "principles" is ideological Russian roulette. America is not a suicide pact, although extremists would have it so.

The political danger for Obama is not that he is pragmatic but that he may become just too full of himself. As many have said, "the only thing I can't resist is temptation." He will be wrong now and then because cost/benefit analysis depends upon many fallible judgments. That can't be helped. Being seduced by sycophants and euphoria is something else: powerful and deadly hubris.

Is he still innocent of hubris? Probably not and it is better to call him on it now than to let it develop further. At the recent White House Correspondents' dinner he told the audience that his first 100 days were so successful that he would finish his second 100 days in 72 days. That's a good piece of satirical humor but then he added that on the 73rd day he would rest.

That last part fails the test of pragmatism. It does not add substantially to the joke but it steps on the toes of a great many Bible lovers. In the days of the prophets it might have gotten him stoned to death. One does not have to be a Biblical fundamentalist to see that the humorist is being carried away by his own cleverness. It should have been edited out.

Obviously, there are many more substantive issues on which President Obama can and will be criticized. On the other hand, the character of the man who occupies the office of the president is very important and it should never be above criticism.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I hardly dare approach this subject, which has been just about the greatest crapshoot in human history, at least until the invention of democracy, but approach it I must.

My son, now aged 53 and intellectually feisty, has asked me why the things in this blog were not offered to him long ago, at which time they might have been of more use. My first instinct was to tell him that he probably would have largely ignored them long ago, as the young sometimes do (and as he still does).


I recognize that my spontaneous answers are frequently too shallow, as this one was.

My thinking in the early morning hours, just before rising, tends to be better and I have given his question more thought recently. I do not mean in dreams, which frequently seem to be stupid ways of expressing anxieties but in a form of focused meditation without interruptions. The bottom line is that I was incapable of this blog long ago, for several reasons. I'll review them, one by one.

My father offered me nothing like this. He died when I was seventeen and, being self taught, he was too involved in nineteenth century German philosophy to understand the limited significance of complex linguistic constructions in philosophic systems. His main contribution was to instill in me an interest in science, for which I am grateful. He did not prepare me for parenthood. Regrettably, he was not prepared himself.

Much real world understanding comes from hard knocks. Frequently, hard knocks do not result in wisdom but they seem to be prerequisite. When intelligent people live sufficiently sheltered lives, their opinions tend to be complacent, smug, and even silly. On the other hand, even thoughtful people are usually too preoccupied by hard knocks to generalize their ideas in real time. I was. Only since my retirement from corporate serfdom have I had the leisure and the inclination to do this.

The world has changed a great deal during my lifetime. Science, in particular, has advanced markedly. The simple, deterministic Newtonian universe has been changed by relativity, quantum theory, fundamental particle theory, dark matter, dark energy and string theory. The life sciences have also progressed dramatically in diverse fields such as biochemistry, genetics, and the neurology of the central nervous system. These things have not told us definitively what we are and what our universe is but they have greatly expanded my perceptions. These perceptions were not available in the past.

Change is not entirely friendly. I took form in the womb of a different America, a different world, a different time and I miss it poignantly like a long lost love.

Goodnight Sweet Princess

I miss the optimism of American industry before globalization and Wall Street together developed a model of privilege called the "ownership society" and I miss the majestic power of the old steam engines. I am a small child again gazing up at the magnificent iron horse, listening to the hissing cloud of steam and the first few powerful strokes as it began pulling the old train. You may find that emotional dissonance hard to understand but I have found what has happened to us disconcerting. How can I prepare anyone to accept the future, in which change will be more rapid?

Wabash Cannonball

City of New Orleans

Changes in technology have also opened up the possibilities of electronic publication. Working with this medium and having the hypertext capability of including links in my text and of seeking facts in Google have changed writing from a chore to a world of fun. The blog medium was not available during my working years.

Given all of these problems, how can I characterize the most pressing need?

It seems that our formative evolutionary forces have focused upon the two basic needs: survival and reproduction. Although evolution is slow by human standards, the species that can evolve and adapt to changing conditions most rapidly are the ones that are likely to change and persist in new forms. Consequently, each human life is granted a very thin slice of eternity and the reproductive period is even shorter. The pace of cultural evolution is much faster than genetic evolution.. It follows that we are never sufficiently evolved to have adapted to the current culture. At a time when advanced social, political and economic skills are vitally important many of us are still better adapted to be hunter-gatherers. That is a good definition of Hell and we are living it.

Absent genetic fitness, good parenting and education are needed urgently but they are not here yet. Parents are too young and frequently also too immature themselves. For many of us, senility preempts maturity. Education is very much in need of reform and progress. Where is the redemptive vision?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Speechless at Last

This really needs to be heard. There is not much I need to add.


Fortunately, there are a few people left on Earth who still earn their money.

here's one


Sometimes, compromises are necessary.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Do Hogs Have Free wIll?

In an earlier post, I was speaking of hogs as a metaphor for the executives of financial firms, particularly large firms, whose greedy pursuit of higher profits ruined the world's economy. I said, "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

Now, that language has a hard edge to it and I am aware that it was emotionally driven. That is nothing for which I need apologize. We are what we are; we do what we do; and we can do no other. That said, there are questions here that merit analytical consideration.

To begin with, most metaphors are imperfect. When we speak of "X" as a metaphor for "Y" we are asserting that there are some interesting similarities between X and Y, not that they are identical in all respects. For example, George Orwell (in Animal Farm) also compared hogs to humans in a different context but no responsible critic would accuse him of saying that hogs can really become human.

The similarity that I was exploiting is simply a popular impression that hogs are driven mostly by greed and fear. That is not true of all humans (and perhaps not of all hogs) but there are many who fit that description and it is legendary about Wall Street.

What then are the important differences? Let's skip the obvious physical and intellectual differences. We are after something deeper. Human beings, when offered certain alternatives, can make choices. Well, hogs in a farm do not have many opportunities to make important choices but when given alternatives, they will also make a choice. Even well programmed computers can, and do, make choices - even to the level of competing at chess with grandmasters of the game.

So humans and hogs are similar in having the ability to make choices. But humans, it has been asserted, have "Free Will." This is not a well defined concept; perhaps deliberately so. The essence of it is that humans, because of their free will, are subject to moral judgment whereas other animals are not.

I am unable to find any discernible evidence for free will. The human brain seems to be the sole support for the human mind. When the brain is injured, the mind can fail in very numerous interesting ways. When its blood supply is cut off for too long, the mind is beyond rescue. To assume the existence of some non-physical moral entity that influences human choices is a religious doctrine for which there is no evidence whatever. Philosophically, it is a dualism and in very low repute among serious philosophers.

The scientific view is that the brain is a biological deterministic machine. Even if we were to find a quantum-mechanical component in the brain that randomly influences human choices that would not change much. QM randomness is not a moral force.

Therefore, if we are to determine that free will is an important differentiating factor between hogs and humans, it must be shown that hogs have free will. I do not hold that position, nor do I think anyone will take it seriously. It follows that there is sufficient similarity between hogs and financial executives to justify my harsh metaphor: "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

how to catch a monkey

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fire in the Church!

I had an interesting experience circa age 8 which is associated in my memory with William Golding's insightful novel, "Lord of the Flies." The common theme is the behavior of children away from adult supervision. My experience was limited to the behavior of boys.

The locale is the lower east side of Manhattan during the early 1930's. It was mainly built up with apartment buildings and inhabited by immigrants and their children, of which I was one. After school and on weekends, the kids were usually in the streets playing a variety of kid's games. These included slapping a rubber Spalding ball (which we called a "Spaldeen") up against the side of a building on one bounce, a variety of tag-like games, and hopscotch. Sometimes the girls played at jacks.

Many of the things taken for granted today were not yet available but we did have radios and the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 on some stations was devoted to 15 minute serial adventures for kids, mostly sponsored by popular foods such as HO oats and Ralston wheat cereal. I remember lying under our console radio, where the speaker was located, to hear the stories: Bobby Benson and his H-O ranch, Jack Armstrong the All American Boy, Little Orphan Annie, Chandu the Magician. Among the many simple things we did not have were zippers. The boys' pants were buttoned.

One afternoon, when I was still a newcomer, a couple of the boys came over to me and one of them said,"hey, kid, wanna play fire in the church?"

"What's that?"

"It's real easy. You just walk down those steps and shout: fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!"

The steps he pointed to descended several feet from the sidewalk to a basement door that was usually kept locked. It did look real easy but, just this once, I was wary and I declined. Not discouraged, the boys found another newcomer who agreed to play so I had an opportunity to witness the game.

It began as advertised. The new kid walked down the steps while about six other boys stood quietly on the surrounding sidewalk. When he shouted "fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!" they gleefully unbuttoned their flies and put out the fire.

This was done more out of high spirits than out of meanness and it was a game invented by the boys themselves, which impresses me.

Several years earlier, in my first day at school, I had another memorable experience. At recess a group of us went to the boys' room to urinate. The geometry of this room was interesting. In the center, there was a little vertical wall, several feet long and taller than I. At the base of this wall and on both sides, there were troughs to carry off the liquid. When we entered, I saw the boys line up on both sides of the wall but, instead of standing up close, they stood back and peed in graceful arcs over the top in both directions. It was a lovely spectacle, like a beautifully designed public fountain. I wish the designer of Belgium's Manneken Pis had enjoyed such an inspiration.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Socio-economic Rationality

President Obama has recently said, "I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. What I want to do, though is to channel our anger in a constructive way."

The president, it seems, is trying to segue governance from emotion to rationality. I'm all for that, so let's take a look at what's needed. Our prevailing culture and our present institutions have betrayed the American people, fleecing them literally of trillions of dollars and subjecting them to serious economic dislocations as well.


Who are the villains of this catastrophe? It seems they are everyone from shameless white collar criminals to the wealthiest, best educated members of the corporate leadership, and their partners in crime, many of the politicians. Obviously, reining in such a powerful class will be a labor of Hercules but it is not impossible.

We are a nation of laws, so we must depend upon laws for a remedy. Clearly, cultural change could be of significant help but we cannot do a makeover of the human psyche overnight so we must depend upon laws. What are these laws to accomplish? I can think of several worthy objectives.

In the present economic crisis, the nation is being held hostage by a small number of financial corporations that are allegedly too big to fail. These are insurance companies, banks, investment banks and hedge funds. The solution to this is simple. Limit them each to only one of these activities and limit the size of all of them so that true competition can prevail: divestiture and size limits in terms of market share. There is nothing essentially new in these regulations - they have simply been abandoned under the influence of corporate lobbyists. We must renew them and, this time, make it stick.

The second important objective is to reduce the influence of corporate money and corporate lobbyists. The corporations, some of whom are the engines of prosperity, must have a place in our political life and their voices must be heard but they cannot be allowed to have a stranglehold upon the politicians' careers by means of financial favors. Strict regulation of these favors and of the revolving door between lobbying and government are needed. Publicly financed campaigns would be a big plus and, all things considered, would be a much better bargain than the present system.

Third, it would be very helpful to limit executive compensation. I am not speaking of the capital gains resulting from entrepreneurial activity but of compensation for work done in corporate management. Why is this important? Because you can't expect the
executives to determine their own earnings, as they now do through cronyism on their various interlocking boards of directors, without getting super-greedy about it. That is already an observable fact. OK, but why is that important? Because we need our young people to want to make the most of their talents, some of whom would contribute more of value as scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. Now, they are excessively motivated to swarm into business schools in the hope of living like oriental potentates and being REALLY respected for their wealth. No first rate nation can sustain itself for long with such a distorted value system.

I believe in you

Those are my modest suggestions for rationality. They do not diverge very significantly from Obama's rhetoric. I shall cry "foul" if he does not follow through.

Some may indulge in mock horror of "socialism" when exposed to these ideas but that is unsupportable. These are the ideas which can make entrepreneurial capitalism work in the national interest.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Some consider justice to be a form of vengeance against evildoers. Others consider it to be a means of compensating the victims of antisocial behavior. Still others consider that punishing evildoers is primarily a way of discouraging additional crimes.

Being no saint, I like all of the above. In this, I seem to be in agreement with Maureen Dowd whose op-ed in today's NY Times criticizes Obama's apparent low level of anger at some executives of the AIG company - who appear to have negotiated and received huge bonuses as a reward for staying and containing the consequences of the ruin of their own company and their country's economy. Her op-ed is also culturally instructive. It offers one of her father's favorite Gaelic sayings, "never bolt the door with a boiled carrot."

To digress briefly, I am also fond of pithy proverbs. The Greeks have a saying, "a fish starts rotting from the head," and the Japanese have a beaut in, "the nail that stands up will be hammered down." The English language seems not too well endowed with such. Despite this, the early days of computer science added a bit of spice by using a language translation program to translate English sayings into Chinese and then back into English. Putting "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" through this process was reported to yield, "the liquor is good but the meat is rotten" and "out of sight out of mind" came back as "invisible idiot."

To get back to the case of the of the retention bonuses, some harsh measures seem to be called for. Consequently, some harsh authorities will be needed. There are some of these in the Congress who at least talk a good game. Except for Rahm Emanuel, I haven't noticed enough of those in the White House and I am unaware of any that may be in the Treasury Department. I have a modest suggestion. Rehabilitate Elliot Spitzer and put him in charge of AIG and the insolvent banks. It would be good for him and good for America.

Unpleasant, perhaps, but a fitting riposte to the massive economic destruction we have experienced. Alas, politically impossible.

According to the testimony of Mr. Edward Liddy to the Congress today, the guilty parties have been removed from AIG. If this is true, we are faced with the concept of collective guilt. When a nation is at war, innocent people normally pay a heavy price for it and even more so if they have lost. Perhaps that should be true of great corporations. Millions of innocent people have been injured by this financial disaster. Maybe the collective guilt of the AIG employees is not perfect justice but it may be a deterrent.

Justice is a hard row to hoe.


Islamic Justice

The Islamic teacher in the latter video observes that freedom of conscience entails freedom of heresy. I concur.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Musical Interpetations of Love

Being associated with powerful emotions, love has long been a playground for poets, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, and the composers of operas. The stories are sometimes appalling. I'll let a few of the musical examples (links to YouTube) speak for themselves.

First, a few humorous specimens. If you are a Really Serious Person you may want to skip these.

Frankie and Johnny

Frank Mills

Always True to You

Good Golly Miss Molly

Opera consists of a frequently tragic libretto infused with some serious music and vocal arias. Given the nature of the librettos, the music can be extremely passionate. Puccini is one of the great masters of this type of composition. Here we see the joy of new love.

O Suave Fanciulla

More Puccini, the hopeless devotion of Madama Butterfly:

Un Bel Di Vedremo

There is a classic representation of love betrayed in I Pagliacci.

Vesti la Giubba

Occasionally, things work out well for the lovers.

Sephardic wedding song

Black is the Color

Here is a Celtic version of the song.

More Black

A loving goodbye.

Goodbye Old Girl

Another two happy songs.

Blue Moon

The Way You Look Tonight

I wish Billie's life had been like that but it wasn't. It seems that there are far too many ways for things to go sour. Here are three examples of sad songs. Billie is famous for her unique vocal style and the musicians accompanying her are superb.

I can't get started

Billie's Blues

Travelin' Light

There are many other songs of bad luck or heartbreak. Here's a traditional song that came to America and met Bluegrass.

Fair and Tender Ladies

Here's a lovely celtic song.

Chi M'in Geamhradh

Now hear a formerly popular latino bolero.


We've got a Cajun classic also.

Jolie Blon

Harry Belafonte has a complaint for us.

Waly Waly

I consider "She Moved Through the Fair" to be an exceptional representation of love and bereavement. It gains its poetic affect through understatement. Love is portrayed by ordinary things, for example, "Fondly I watched her move here and move there," and there is an explicit mention of her death in only some versions. Seeing his love in a dream is the code for it in others. The sense of profound loss is amplified by the beautiful, haunting melody and by the singer's interpretation. I have included performances in three distinct voices and in drums with one piper.

He Moved Through the Fair

She Moved Through the Fair

She Moves Through the Fair

She Moves Through the Fair

There are many songs of love and courtship. Here are a few.

Eriskay Love Lilt

Cucurucucu Paloma

Besame Mucho

Is This Love?

O Sole Mio

My selection of examples has been very sparse but it is sufficient to hint at the considerable role played by language and music in our cultures. What, now is the bottom line?

Something very interesting has happened during the past very few million years. Our proto-human ancestors developed language and then songs. This represented a profound evolutionary change. They not only felt specific emotions that were triggered by events, they were then able to talk about them and to sing about them. More than that, we are now able to evoke strong emotions without the normal triggering events, we need only sing an appropriate song. This can clearly be seen in the arts, in commerce, in religions and in other public affairs. Songs can be used in selling products and in conducting wars.

We are emotional animals and songs can play upon our emotions. We also have, in varying degree, the capacity for rational problem solving. It will be helpful for us to know whether emotion or rationality is in control at any given time and to make it the appropriate one. Unfortunately, consciousness knows very little about what goes on in the brain and science cannot yet tell us adequately what we are. This above all, remember that nature is unforgiving and that you are frequently on your own.

Have some fun.



Monday, March 9, 2009

Sophistry and the Straw Man

"If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one present, does it make a sound? Scientifically, the answer is yes. Sound is basically the vibration of air. Philosophically speaking however, the answer is no. The concept of sound is meaningless without an audience. Using this extrapolation, Agnostics have cleverly crafted an ideology which boldly claims that because of our incapacity to detect or prove God, then one is not rationally inclined to believe in God. However, I think my agnostic friends have confused two essentially unrelated ideas. Ignorance is only proof of ignorance, not proof of non-existence. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. But that’s not the only thing amiss in this peculiar flavour of atheism."

Well, if God is perfect, so is his world.

The Best of all Possible Worlds

One of the tools of sophistry (false reasoning) is the creation of a straw man just in order to demolish it as representing something else. In this bit of sophistry, Xenocrates suggests that agnosticism is a flavor of atheism, which it is not. If religionists and atheists want to quarrel forever about something they cannot know, that is their privilege and much good may it do them. Let them leave honest agnostics out of their fruitless quarrel.

Agnosticism is merely the admission of those who do not know God that they do not, in fact, know God and that they make no claim concerning his existence, his non-existence or his attributes. A stronger claim would be that God is unknowable and that those who claim to know of his existence or nonexistence or attributes or wishes are either delusional or charlatans. I am personally inclined to this view but I do not claim to know that it is true - nor do I claim that delusions cannot be useful to some people at certain times.

Because of certain limitations of the human mind, sophistry is a formidable foe.

Medical Ethics?

Medical ethics is not an oxymoron but it is fair to say that it has been neglected and requires constant vigilance when your life is at stake. Why? Because doctors are human beings, just like politicians, lawyers, bankers, and corporate executives. The good old revenue stream is highly valued by most of us.

values revisited

In saying this, I am not indulging a grudge. I really like my family doctor and I have also encountered a cardiologist and a bone surgeon whom I respect. However, I am trying to be objective about this vitally important subject. There are a number of areas in which I have noticed that medical ethics seem to be distressed.

PHARMACEUTICALS. The great pharma companies spend more on marketing than on research and marketing means a lot more than distributing valid information to doctors. In particular, it means contributing to the incomes of doctors directly through sponsorship of meetings, lectures, and directed research. Recently, it has been reported that about 279 professors and lecturers at the Harvard medical school have received income from Pfizer or Merck. All of us are also targeted by direct TV advertising to the public. This type of public relations is not noted for its scientific objectivity. While some prescription drugs are life savers, there is the danger of widespread over prescription and over use.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE. This is a complex subject because even the best of doctors can make mistakes. However, the best of doctors make many fewer mistakes than the worst of doctors and the policing of the doctors' ranks is not very well thought out. Hospitals also make mistakes, which is to say that their medical staff members make mistakes. The number of deaths and injuries in US hospitals caused by medical mistakes has been variously estimated at roughly 100,000 per year. Remarkably, the opponents of universal health care in the USA have placed an ad in which medical mistakes in countries which do have universal health care are pointed out. What callous indifference to fact!

DELIBERATE WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION. Sometimes doctors, particularly surgeons, will not advise a patient that his condition can be better treated at another place, where the skills, experience, and facilities are better. This is likely to be true in difficult cases, such as rectal cancers, in which unnecessary colostomies may be performed.

BILLING. This is a jungle because of the confused and sometimes chaotic condition of the US medical care delivery system. Medicare beneficiaries are the lucky ones because of federal oversight. The rest of the paying population is vulnerable to being fleeced. Consider a surgery patient in the intensive care unit of a US hospital. He is unable to communicate because of sedation and a tracheal tube. He is temporarily under the care of an "intensivist" who is in charge of the ICU, and whom he has probably never met. Nevertheless, the hospital permits the intensivist to bill him as an individual client. If he is uninsured, the bill will be vastly more then an insured patient's bill. If he is insured, the doctor may claim to not be a "participant" in that particular insurance carrier's plan, even if the hospital does participate - or, there may be a disagreement between the doctor and the plan as to his participation. The hospital may disclaim any responsibility for the billing practices of its physicians. The hospital's own charges will also be vastly inflated for uninsured patients. Some of this overcharge is allegedly caused by the obligation to care for the needy. It is not clear why, if there is such a social obligation, the cost of it must be born by the uninsured patients rather than by the public treasury. Agricultural subsidies, for example, are paid for by the public treasury and not by agribusiness. It may be just a matter of political muscle, because even states with smaller than average populations have two senators each.

Information on these subjects may easily be googled with the right key words.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Rush Limbaugh is a far right entertainer. There are a number of these with radio talk shows and he is the most famous and influential.

I have never followed the emanations of Rush or his like because I had never been struck by the
accuracy or wisdom of anything I had heard from them, which seemed mostly to be adverse to the common good of the American people. However, there was one member of a now defunct NY Times forum who alleged that "Rush is a genius", so I have been conscious of the need to occasionally look for the evidence. I am still looking.

The most recent proclamation from Mr. Limbaugh is that conservatives ought to hope and to work for the failure of the Obama administration by getting their legislators to oppose that administration by all means available. When they lack the votes to defeat a bill, he advised using parliamentary procedures to obstruct and delay its passage.

It seems to me (as well as to at least one Republican governor) that the administration's failure would unavoidably entail America's failure as well. That puts the Limbaugh policy in the category of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

I fervently hope for America's success but that is not the point. I would like to understand this effluvium of spite. Shakespeare said that "all the world's a stage" and Limbaugh is a political entertainer but is the whole thing just theatrically inspired? We all know that people, even small children, can be vengeful and spiteful. Perhaps that is an intrinsic part of our genetic inheritance. If so, Limbaugh and the other extremist radio gurus have a ready made audience.

Pirate Jenny

Can spite trump hope?

Monday, February 23, 2009

What We Can Learn From The Gecko

I tend to be more pragmatic than ideological but there are limitations to that. Pragmatism is very useful in solving problems but first the problems and the goals need to be defined. It is our human values that help to define the problems and the goals.

So it is with me. I have been a spectator to the slow motion train wreck that is minimally regulated American capitalism. That train wreck is observable fact. First, the lively interplay between wealth and politics made for some questionable decisions, particularly, in globalizing the race to the bottom with respect to cheap labor. That caused many of our manufacturers to fold their tents and silently steal away across the Pacific or South of the border. Slowly at first but then at an increasing pace, the USA has lost much of its manufacturing capacity. Also, the taxes on the wealthy were reduced so that an ever greater fraction of the nation's wealth has been concentrated in a few hands.

The globalization of financial transactions and international banking paralleled these developments. More recently, we have been told that we now have the "ownership society," meaning, I suppose, that if you must actually work for a living then you are on your own.

None of this matters much unless you care.

The key to stabilizing capitalism has not yet been discovered. It seems to progress by means of a sequence of "bubbles" followed by crashes. Peoples' lives are seriously disrupted when they lose their jobs, lose their homes, or lack medical care, or cannot afford their children's education. It has happened before and now it has happened again.

John Henry

Well, we humans sure have got rhythm but the best and the brightest can't manage an economy in the common interest.

These truths are self evident. The gecko knows.

The latest crash is more severe than most. It came at a time when the government had been deprived of revenues by massive tax cuts and bled white by wars, when the physical infrastructure of the nation had been long neglected and was crumbling, when fossil energy was peaking and needed rapid replacement, and when many of our institutional traditions were antiquated and failing.

The cruelest cut of all was not something I had expected. I have long been aware that when torrents of money pass through human hands the owners of those hands develop sticky fingers. I had not believed that it could get so bad. Some members of that highly respected and magnificently rewarded class, the top level bankers and investment bankers have engaged in a reckless race to the bottom with respect to risk management. They fouled their own nests and, with that, they sabotaged the entire international financial machinery. Even the gecko knows that.

Now, we are told that those same great guys trust our common treasury to save them and they will tell us how. That's where the gecko comes in.

The gecko is an animated figure, just a few inches tall, who appears in various entertaining commercials for the GEICO auto insurance company. In the latest of these we see the gecko's boss (a middle aged white male, of course) telling him about the importance of trust to their business. The boss suggests a new commercial in which he will fall backward and trust the gecko to catch him. He then stands up and begins to fall backwards toward the gecko, who is visibly in fear of being crushed. The commercial ends at that point.

It seems to me that the gecko is a very clever fellow and that this is an allegory about saving the really big, very insolvent banks. Can our treasury save them or will it be crushed. Are they too big to fail or too insolvent to save? Will we be left with "zombie banks" that persist but cannot do much lending?

No need to speculate. Like it or not, we shall see. The psychological economists have pointed out that markets are not entirely rational and will not therefore be acceptably self regulating. To put it another way, hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street.

Stretching it a bit, there is also an allegory about the recent behavior of our financial bigwigs based upon drunk driving.

Wreck on the Highway

Since this was written I have heard President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress and to the nation. I have also heard Bobby Jindal's response. Obama's speech was highly optimistic but he had a lot to say. Will some friend of Bobby Jindal please suggest to him that if one has nothing even remotely useful to say it might be best to shut up.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


In my long life, I have met a few people who were unusual and impressive. They are rare but, in a large population, you may also have met some.

Metaphorically, they are old souls whose wisdom and kindness suggest that they have passed through this vale of tears more than once and are better prepared to deal with it. They do so without egotism and without wearing any faith on their sleeves. They are not striving to be anything, they just ARE. If you happen to be a Christian, or a Jew who considers Jesus to be family, you may understand me when I say they are not followers of Jesus, they are Jesus.

Speaking in a more literal vein, meeting such people gives me a vision of what human beings can become when the proper genetic and cultural variables have been identified and understood. We have a long way to go but scientific progress is accelerating and the travel time may not be as long as you might think.

Have you encountered any of them?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Behavioral Observations

It is well known that power corrupts; we see that almost daily in our news media.

It is also well known that human beings sometimes practice deception for personal advantage. I find it interesting that intentional deception is not limited to humans. If deception confers advantages then it might well also confer an evolutionary advantage, in which case we might find examples of it in other species. Of course, we know that a mother bird might employ the old "broken wing" trick to lead a predator away from her chicks but I cannot rule out the possibility that such behavior is innate to birds.

One example of deception in a dog is almost certainly not innate. I was visiting a home that had two resident dogs, one male and one female. They ate out of two separate dishes on the floor. One day, I observed the male finish his food more quickly than the female and then run to the front door, barking loudly. I assumed that he had heard someone at the door. So did the female and she left the remains of her food to join him at the door, also barking. At that point, the male ran back to the kitchen and quickly ate her food.

There are also mean spirited behaviors that confer no tangible advantages but which are somehow rooted in human psychology. I'll offer three examples from my childhood and adolescence.

1) At age approximately 6 my father gave me a new air rifle which used compressed air to fire pellets. (I can't imagine why he did that.) I was standing out of doors with it when another boy of about the same age came over to admire it. He then asked me to let him hold it, which I did. Then he asked me to stand about ten feet away "so I don't shoot you." When I moved to the indicated spot, he shot me. I can only guess what went through his mind. Perhaps, while holding a gun, he just wanted the new experience of shooting someone.

2) At age about 11, I was playing in an empty lot with an occasional companion. We had just finished a one-on-one game which I had won handily. Then he pointed to a wooden fence with a wood rail at the top and asked me to put some empty cans on it so we could try to knock them off by throwing rocks. I did that and then stood far enough aside that he could not possibly hit me when aiming at a can. The first rock he threw hit me just above my right eye. I believe that was a mean spirited payback.

3) At age about 16, a frequent companion invited me into his home after school. We were just talking amicably in the kitchen when he suddenly grabbed the hair at the back of my head, pulling my head back, and held the sharp edge of a very large kitchen knife to my throat. After a few very tense seconds, he released me and laughed aloud at the good joke he had just played on me. He added that he had believed that the back of the blade was at my throat and had contemplated carrying out a sawing motion but decided against it. More chuckling. Naturally, I did not see much of him after that. In retrospect, I explained to myself that he really wanted to kill his father and he had been acting it out on me.

Aside from indicating my incredible naivte' these episodes also illustrate the erosion of trust that can result from common childhood experiences. Since the productivity of civilized society is very dependent upon trust we would be much better off in a culture which made such deceptions and betrayals very rare.

Absent such a culture, it is necessary to be very discriminating about new acquaintances. I remember a refrain from a country song I heard many decades ago.


Although individual behavior is circumscribed to some extent by law and custom, mob behavior is a more free form phenomenon.



Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The term "agnostic" literally means without knowledge. It is usually taken to mean not knowing God.

That's a no-brainer isn't it? What do I know about God? Only what others have said and most of them already had closed minds on that subject or were as confused as a termite in a yo-yo. So I am really on my own with respect to God. Well, if one doesn't know, what could be more honest than to say "I don't know"? Still, this point of view needs some explaining.

There is the famous problem of the First Cause. We are accustomed to events in this world where we generally see that everything that comes into being has been caused by something, or someone. "When I see a watch I look for a watchmaker" is the way someone expressed it. (William Paley's watchmaker argument) However, this explains very little. The first cause might be something or some entity that is unique and completely outside our experience and even beyond our imagination.

The rest is speculation or fantasy. I have one of my own but, unlike religionists, I freely admit that it is just an amusing fantasy and no more. Consider a universe that is much grander than ours and unknown to us. In that universe, there exist immensely more powerful computational devices than any we can imagine and grand experiments are carried out on these machines by entities of great intelligence. One of these entities, whom I shall call "IAM, the graduate student" for rhetorical convenience, is carrying out a very interesting experiment. It is the creation of a virtual universe in which the fundamental physical laws are probabilistic, so that the new universe can evolve in unpredictable ways. It is a very sophisticated evolutionary algorithm which happens to have produced us, an event of nearly zero probability. We are merely collections of symbols in that machine.

It is not at all clear that IAM intervenes in any way. He may merely observe. He may or may not permit the experiment to reach the finality of death. Perhaps he will terminate it sooner. We may have no possible way to discover this underlying reality, nor can we explain the mystery of IAM's existence.

This is not the whole story. There is another kind of religious belief which is pragmatic. That is, perhaps the rather weak human psyche needs religious belief as a crutch. Perhaps only some people feel this need. In any case, the beliefs they choose to hold may actually be useful to them. The popular singer, Frank Sinatra once, when asked what he believed in, replied "whatever gets me through the night." The philosopher, William James, spoke of "The Will to Believe."

My take on this theme is that, while some beliefs may fortify the spirit, human beings will also profit from "The Will to Doubt" [Bertrand Russell]. Many of us are curious by nature, especially scientists, who are trained to be skeptical. I see no particular difficulty in the human mind harboring both belief and skepticism, either of which can be summoned as needed. I suggest this in order to make it clear that we have some interesting choices. What is the goal?

old time religion

Nice song, but if the goal is to civilize human behavior nothing has yet been dicovered that is good enough. Nevertheless, liturgical music is a salient feature of a religious culture.

Kol Nidre

Lord's Prayer

Despite what I have said, if you think that tribal loyalty means nothing, think again!

Rivers of Babylon


Monday, February 9, 2009

Ideologies Versus Pragmatism

There is a lot of unsupported economic speculation to be found at this time.

It seems to me that one conclusion is reasonably clear: the human species has not yet discovered how to create a culture and a socioeconomic infrastructure that is productive, humane and stable.

Joe Hill


So, in the present difficulties (largely facilitated by ideological believers in minimally regulated capitalism) we are offered the choice of massive debt, followed by inflation or default - or else, of doing nothing, followed by an economic collapse and human misery to rival the great depression.

Naturally, it is not the right time to completely replace a leaky roof in rainy weather if a tarp will suffice. However, when times are relatively good, the voices of privilege and complacency are loudest and dissidents are treated like lepers. This culture needs to change.

The fundamental flaw in our thinking, besides the normal human quota of greed, fear, and intellectual bombast, is the massive allegiance to restrictive ideologies. Sooner, rather than later, people will have to start thinking outside of their ideological boxes. Sometimes, this is referred to as "pragmatism" but it needs to be big picture pragmatism not just clever patches.

Need I add that the macro-economy would be better regulated by a well designed computer program than by the Congress of the United States? There are only a few salient parameters in question: money supply, interest rates, government spending, and tax rates. Remove these from the arena of political bullcrap and watch our garden grow. Why? Well, a few things can be discerned.

Our political class will have less opportunity to extort money from the corporate class.

The corporate class will be less motivated to buy favors from the political class.

Scientific methods are much more reliable than ideological bullcrap when regulating a complex quantitative system. That is why airplanes can fly but our economy frequently crashes.

What Am I ?

I can answer this puzzling question only in scientific terms. The rest is unsupportable speculation.

Simply put, I am a deterministic biological machine. I respond to the stimulation of my senses in the only way I can, depending upon my state at the time. My brain makes a choice and a fraction of a second later I become aware of it and I say "I have chosen that." What does it mean to become aware of something? That is an internal mental state which philosophers might call "an emergent phenomenon." The value of awareness is that it permits the brain to critique its own actions and the results of them. It enhances our ability to learn and to modify our own behavior.

I am a little, lost, imperfect machine thrown, will he, nil he, into a prefabricated lunatic culture to which I am ill adapted and of which I was initially wholly ignorant. This deserves a generalized universal lament.

Moon's Joli Blon

A simple example of the multitude of things I didn't understand is currency inflation. Shortly after the big war, circa 1947, I was a college student involved in a debate on the proposition: we should retain the five cent fare on the New York City subways. I took the positive position.

There were others who knew better. Mike Quill, the leader of the subway workers union, always put on his best brogue during salary negotiations. At one time, when told that higher wages would inevitably require higher fares, he thundered "there should be no fare at all!" There was no effective reply to such argument. Mike was no shrinking violet. When the handsome, liberal, Republican Mayor Lindsay visited Mike's hotel room to inquire how the negotiations were going, Mike greeted him with "once a schmuck, always a schmuck!"

New York was not alone in such butting of heads.


A brilliant mathematician of my acquaintance once said of someone "he believes that something is true as soon as he hears himself say it." This was a humorous overstatement (we all practice deception) but there is much truth in it. We are what we are.

We got to be what we are through a process called "evolution." That is an extremely painful
and wasteful process and it has been going on as long as there has been life on Earth. The survival of the fittest is accompanied by the misery of failure for many in the great crapshoot of life.

Reuben James


The brightest kid in my school never came back. Our families in Europe were destroyed.

Mammals have been in existence for about 200 million years. Therefore, I am the descendant of a 200 million year old unbroken line of sex-crazed mammals. So are you. If just one male in this line had been unmotivated by the rear ends of females, you or I would not be here. That explains a lot about our behavior.


fan commercial

Scientists are close to the point of being able to control genetics without evolution. They are almost as close to the point of making intelligent robots. When these things are realized we may have some really different "descendants" in a big hurry.

What a Piece of Work is Man

The human species may become irrelevant, except as a curiosity. Think of it: all of our ethnic, racial, and religious quarrels will go the way of the buggy whip and all of our ideological nonsense will also be in turd with our bones. :-)

One thing more that I am, that I think we all are. It is not so much a thing as it is a potential phenomenon: a moment of extreme passion that comes up like a summer storm and empowers us to do things that we never before could have done and to risk all. I cannot explain it but perhaps you can recognize it.