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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, January 31, 2011

WAIVING GOODBYE

"It's more than a handful, but not a big number."

Almost as soon as President Obama signed the Government Health Insurance Takeover Act into law, he began issuing waivers to different organizations so that they would be exempt from certain aspects of the law. The primary reason for these waivers is to allow companies to ignore the requirement of the bill for minimum coverage. The law requires that health plans have annual limits of at least $750,000. This minimum limit requirement climbs to $1.25 million in 2012 and then to $2 million by 2014.

By this point, over 700 such waivers have been issued by the department of Health and Human Services, and the GOP has vowed to use their control of the House of Representatives to look into who and why these are being issued. If they are being used as gifts and kickbacks to donors and friends of the administration and the Democratic Party, there's some reason for concern. For example, unions make up almost half of the total employees being granted waivers.

That's how some get things done in politics, by pushing something that companies and unions may not like, but assure them that they won't be affected by the bill, or will have ways around it. That way you can get their support for something they normally wouldn't care for and it looks like a great idea. See, big business likes our plan! It can't be harmful to the economy or business if these guys sign on!

The proper way to approach this is to scrap the entire bill and start over with a new, fresh look at health care costs and insurance in the US that doesn't involve some vast government takeover and massive amount of regulation. But then, that wouldn't give the bureaucrats power and it wouldn't move the country ever closer to socialism, so you can't get the Democrats to work with such a concept.

PICTURE OF THE DAY


Ahh, that's the spot. This reminds me of Damocles and the lion.

KINDLING SALES

"There really is nothing like opening a book. The smell of the ink and the paper. And the idea that the words inside are somehow immortal because there they are, right in front of you, completely tangible in book form."
-Mandy P.

E-Reader
From the perspective of an online bookseller, selling e-books, or electronic downloads of a book instead of the actual physical copy is always the more attractive option. There's no shipping cost, no labor, and you don't have to buy an actual copy of the book to sell. No inventory space is taken up, and best of all, e-readers break down and temporary licensing means people have to get the book the bought again if they want to keep it. That all translates into more profit for the book seller.

So when Amazon announced that they'd sold more e-books than actual hardcover books in July, that was something significant for online book sellers. And most recently, Amazon just announced that since the beginning of the year, they've sold 15% more e-books than paperbacks. Now, granted, Amazon pushes the e-books more than paperbacks, they're cheaper and thus more attractive, and Amazon customers are more likely to have an e-reader than, say, customers at ABE Books. Still this is a sort of milestone.

For me its a grim milestone, a sad point in our history. I love books, I love to own them and look at them and hold them and read them. They are like friends I can always call on, some familiar and some new. They are weighty and have physical presence, they have age and history and tradition. E-Readers may be convenient but they lack the rich heritage of books and have their drawbacks. Yet I can see a day very soon when books will be very expensive to buy and harder to get, with most reading material on e-readers, and much of it only available electronically.

I can see a day coming soon when paperbacks will just vanish entirely, when you'll only be able to get special edition, very expensive hard cover versions of books. They'll still be out there, but they won't be on shelves in rows like we have today. I see a day coming when book stores will be shutting down, and used book stores will become more and more expensive. Instead of being old beat up versions of good books, they will be "classics" and "antiques," specialty items instead of used items.

And there are genuine concerns here. A book is much more permanent than an electronic file. Those can be edited easily and cheaply without the slightest trace of change. Consider the recent decision to release Tom Sawyer without the words PC folks dislike in them; consider the tendency of really political types to want to censor and delete their enemies' words. Giving people the power to change your books (and they have in the past) when you download them is something not available to books.

Another problem is piracy. Its really tough to copy a whole book, its often more expensive than just buying one. But copying someone's pdf file or distributing it online for free in electronic form? No problem. Suddenly an entirely new media form becomes prey to online pirates, and authors suffer even more.

Also doomed are remainders. These are the overstocks from publishers, who produced more of a book than they were able to move, and sell them for deep discounts. I've bought a lot of books this way, but the days of printing a lot of books and hoping they sell are coming to an end.

So I'm glad I have as many books as I do, and while I nod to the cheaper convenience of the e-reader, I am sad to see it gain preeminence in people's buying preferences at any level.

Hat tip to Ace of Spades HQ for this story. An author there posted this comment:
I have been a science fiction writer for more than 30 years, publishing my first work in 1979. I spent 15 of those years with Ballantine-Del Rey and sold a total of about 250,000 books. Good, but not spectacular. In 1995, I went into business for myself and developed both a website and a home-based book manufacturing capability. My website is, I believe, the oldest author owned/operated bookstore on the web, simply because the one that preceded me seems to have gone belly up.

I have been predicting the end of the paper book since I first went online, but this is the first year it has looked like it is coming to pass. My site sales, which four years ago were 50-50 trade paperback - ebook, at the moment are 10% trade paperback and 90 percent ebook.

Moreover, I put twelve novels and a book of short stories on Kindle in May of last year. Sales started slow, but grew. Then they began to take off. My December sales for the first four weeks of the month were 30% larger than they had been in November. On Christmas day, they doubled and stayed that way for the whole week. This is a tangible indication of just how many Kindles were unwrapped under the Christmas tree. They fell back a bit in January, but are still running 50% ahead of early December and show signs of slowly rising as the month goes on.

The question, of course, is whether this is sustainable. I don't know. Theoretically, I should sell a fixed (microscopic) percentage of the installed base and as the base rises, so will sales.

Also, I have my books at IPAD, Barnes and Noble, etc. I haven't gotten enough sales reports to tell about those markets yet, but the principle should hold for them as well.

What I see here is a return to the last days of the typewriter. When the screen resolutions and contrast get ever closer to paper and the ereaders can hold 3500 books, the end of the paper book would appear to be inevitable, which will be a sad day for those of us who love them.

Of course, since Kindle and Apple pay the authors 70% of the cover price (versus 6-8% for the traditional publishers), I guess we'll just have to learn to live with our sadness.
-Michael McCollum

Quote of the Day

"You know what's interesting about Washington? It's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature."
-George W. Bush

Friday, January 28, 2011

PICTURE OF THE DAY



Or, why I don't spend much time on Facebook. Courtesy the always amusing Doghouse Diaries.

POWER STRUGGLE

A few days ago I posted a bit from President Obama from his State of the Union Speech as a Quote of the Day. It was about earmarks, and his claim that he'd veto any bill containing them that crossed his desk. Later in the day I posted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)'s response, because it was too juicy to pass up.

Here's Reid's response in its entirety, courtesy Kelly O'Donnell at NBC:
Asked during a one-on-one interview with NBC whether Obama was wrong to promise a veto on any bill that contains earmarks, Reid quickly replied, "of course."

"This is an applause line," Reid said. "It's an effort by the White House to get more power. They've got enough power as it is."

Reid, along with other lawmakers who support earmarking, argues that eliminating the practice simply puts more discretion in the hands of executive branch officials who have authority to fund projects. "I have a Constitutional obligation to do congressionally directed spending," he said. "I know much more about what should be done in Elko [or] Las Vegas, Nevada, than some bureaucrat does back here."

Reid said voters should recognize that eliminating congressional earmarks does not, in itself, reduce spending but changes how the same money is spent.

"I think it's absolutely wrong and the public should understand that the president has enough power; he should back off and let us do what we do."
Now, I'm as skeptical as Majority Leader Reid is about the president's intentions here. He was looking to win back support and make voters like him again. I'd love to believe he meant it, but given his past performance and statements on the topic (this isn't the first time he's said this kind of thing), I just don't trust him to follow through.

But Senator Reid's statement here reveals a lot more about himself than President Obama. Notice Majority Leader Reid's primary concern here. He isn't upset with the idea of earmarks being banned because they're so critical, he doesn't argue that this is important for serving the country. He weakly mentions the constitution because its trendy now, but his primary concern is about power.

Earmarks are the congressman's way to throw goodies to his constituency, they are about taking funding and earmarking (tagging for specific projects) to help people in his district. That's why he mentions the bit about Elko and Las Vegas; he's insisting that he has to do this to get the money pointed the way he wants it to be.

Because this isn't about proper use of power or the constitution, its about getting the goodies to the people he intends to. Senator Reid insists that the president "has enough power" and demands he "back off." Yet it is one of the president's powers in the constitution to veto bills, and that's all the president has said he'd do.

Earmarks are not empowered by the constitution, they have no legislative power. They are suggestions that the executive department direct spending in certain ways, not commands with the full weight of the law. That's how the system works: congress determines spending in broad categories, and the executive department determines how to implement this spending in specifics. Congress funds the CIA, the CIA uses that money on projects and operations.

Majority Leader Reid here is insisting that if the executive department ignores earmarks or refuses to allow them, then its overstepping its constitutional boundaries, but the reverse is true. Earmarks are congress overstepping theirs. Because earmarks are almost never ignored: agencies understand that their bills are paid by congressional appropriations, and angering congressmen is not in their best interest. In other words, congress isn't just appropriating money, its directing agencies in how to spend that money which is an executive branch privilege, not congressional.

For Senator Reid, this is about power; the power to direct funds for his pleasure, reelection, and assistance of friends. Taking that away reduces his power, and he is upset that the president would even pretend to step on that power. This reveals much about Senator Reid and probably most of the rest of the folks in congress and their attitude about your money.

And it says a lot about how wretched the voters of Nevada are for reelecting this pathetic fool.

WORD AROUND THE NET

"I think that’s enough for today. Class dismissed."

You've probably never heard of Gil Meche, and since he plays on the Kansas City Royals, you've probably never seen him play, either. Meche was a very promising pitching prospect who got a A $50 million contract from the Seattle Mariners and tried to make his way in the big leagues. Plagued by injuries, Meche did not live up to his promise, and last year was 0-5 for the Royals. His 4 year career has been just 29 wins vs 39 losses. Well Meche has retired, and is not going to take the final $12 million of his contract. Why? Integrity:
“Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.”
He couldn't do the job he was hired on to do and refused to take the money he wasn't earning. Good man.

President Obama's State of the Union Speech was long and by all accounts not very dynamic, but it did contain a lot of small government fiscal conservatism which hearkens back more to his presidential campaign than his actual presidency. Among the things he mentioned was Tort Reform, which is the effort to scale back the damage lawsuits can and are doing to the economy. In response, several Democrats in congress are suggesting some Tort Reform ideas, according to Julian Pecquet at The Hill.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told The Hill that one solution could be "soft caps," which protect medical professionals if they make an error within the usual scope of practice.

"I get in trouble because I say I think that there's a compromise where you have a higher standard for malpractice," DeFazio said. "Something like [soft caps] might be a potential compromise, but it would have to be higher than $250,000 [for the cap on non-economic damages]."

Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee, also offered up ideas.

"If medical malpractice reform means special courts that fast-track medical cases or strong incentives to settle cases early or requirements that there be an expert affidavit that backs up the allegation of medical malpractice, I'm for those things and I think they'll work," Andrews said. "I think that's an area the president has put forward in good faith and we should work with him on it."

Whether this was actually in good faith or just a useful political gesture remains to be seen, but these seem like positive moves by congress, to me.

President Obama also claimed in his State of the Union speech that he wanted a five year spending freeze, but in the same speech repeatedly promised a multi-billion dollar interstate high speed rail project. Somehow I don't see those two things meshing very well, particularly considering how rail can only continue to exist with perpetual subsidies which only increases the cost every year.

Nanny state restrictions on behavior for your good have gotten so obnoxious that even the left are starting to complain. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore compiled a big list at CNET recently, including these proposed or existing legislative lowlights:
  • $20 fine for texting while bicycling in California
  • $90 fine for wearing headphones while bicycling in Oregon
  • A ban on texting while walking across streets in New York City
I do understand the desire to protect people and keep distractions to a minimum, but this is just going too far.
The inventor of the Uncle Milton Ant Farm recently died. Try as you might, you couldn't get the ants to actually farm, but they were fascinating to watch scurrying about in the thin case. I always wanted one of these but I had two concerns: one was the ants getting out, and the other deep down I knew it was a death trap for the ants, eventually they'd all die.

Frustrated with the poor quality of schools in her district, a woman secretly moved her kid to another, better one. The district found out, and the state put her in jail. Andrea Canning and Leezle Tangao report for ABC:
The school district accused Williams-Bolar of lying about her address, falsifying records and, when confronted, having her father file false court papers to get around the system.

Williams-Bolar said she did it to keep her children safe and that she lived part-time with her dad.

"When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else," Williams-Bolar said.

While her children are no longer attending schools in the Copley-Fairlawn District, school officials said she was cheating because her daughters received a quality education without paying taxes to fund it.
I can kind of understand the desire to prevent people from skipping around school districts, but jail seems a bit excessive, especially with the limited jail space. Here's the secret though: its not the money that goes into a school which makes it good or bad. Its the quality of teaching, administration, and the mindset behind education that makes the difference.

Predictably, the bold talk by Republican congressmen while seeking power is starting to fade away while actually in power. Speaker of the House John Beohner (R-OH) recently has started to back away from his stated intent to raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits to 70. For some perspective, consider this: when Social Security was first implemented, the life expectancy for men was 61 and women was 65. Today its over 78. Social Security was intended to be an end of life thing, not a "I'm retired, now lets spend current workers' money for 20 years or more." This can't continue.

One of the few things which earned President Bush praise from (some) on the left was his efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. What they didn't like is how he pulled money out of the UN and started to directly work in Africa, avoiding the bureaucracy and corruption of that body. John Helprin at the AP details some of that corruption:
A $21.7 billion development fund backed by celebrities and hailed as an alternative to the bureaucracy of the United Nations sees as much as two-thirds of some grants eaten up by corruption, The Associated Press has learned.

Much of the money is accounted for with forged documents or improper bookkeeping, indicating it was pocketed, investigators for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria say. Donated prescription drugs wind up being sold on the black market.

The fund's newly reinforced inspector general's office, which uncovered the corruption, can't give an overall accounting because it has examined only a tiny fraction of the $10 billion that the fund has spent since its creation in 2002. But the levels of corruption in the grants they have audited so far are astonishing.
As for me, I just can't find anywhere in the US Constitution that permits the federal government to take money from citizens and send it to Africa, no matter how good the cause.


Blogs are full of posts about how China is kicking US butt and doing so well, but the fact is when you peel back the carefully constructed facade the dictatorship has presented, the truth isn't quite so impressive. For instance, there was a traffic jam in China so bad that the cars didn't move for days. It finally cleared up after thirteen days of immobile traffic, food vendors moving among the cars. This was the most infamous of the traffic jams, but they're so common in the big cities due to poor road design and lots of cars that there's a business for sitting in traffic jams. You pay someone to hold your place and zip to your location on a motorcycle.

Virginia's attorney general is looking to investigate the global warming hysterics and see if there's been any fraud. He reasons that the billions of dollars spent on this scam are actionable if they were based on falsehood or fraudlent science. Democrats in the Virginia government are scrambling to protect their alarmist buddies. They claim he's abusing his power. He claims he's doing his job.

Pushing the "new civility," leftists have put on a play in Madison, Wisconsin in which right wingers are lured to dinner parties and murdered. Charlie Sykes at WTOP Reports:
As he lies bleeding on an area rug, the quintet, after some debate and initial hand-wringing, decide that they have done society a favor by eliminating him and silencing his dangerous words. They also decide that since participating in protests and sit-ins has been a futile way to fight the power, this new dinner party/murder method may be a more effective technique in coping with right-wing adversaries.
Because plays about violence against enemies of the left is not troubling at all, but people dressing up as 17th century patriots is. Incidentally, the play ends with a Limbaugh-like radio host figuring out the plot and swapping the poison so they all die and he lives.

Speaking of violence by the left, while the Giffords shooting by a lunatic who leaned left was reported as the result of right wing rhetoric, an actual politically motivated attack against a politician got scant notice by the press. Jack Cashill at The American Thinker writes:
In September 2010 Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was scheduled to speak at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City.

At some point, wearing black clothes and a bullet-proof vest, 22 year-old Casey Brezik bolted out of a classroom, knife in hand, and slashed the throat of a dean. As he would later admit, he confused the dean with Nixon.

The story never left Kansas City. It is not hard to understand why. Knives lack the political sex appeal of guns, and even Keith Olbermann would have had a hard time turning Brezik into a Tea Partier.
Indeed. You can't hurt the right wing's recent political resurgence with stories about actual leftist violence.

Cliff Kinkaid at the World Tribune has a question. He wonders how many Americans know that both Kennedies who were shot were killed by communist radicals? He only brings this up after idiotic rhetoric by leftists claiming that the mood of today is just like in the 60s when the Kennedys were killed, and the right should just shut up.

Fast food giant Taco Bell claims their meat is either seasoned beef or seasoned ground beef. Having eaten a lot of Taco Bell I find that claim dubious, the stuff is tasty enough but doesn't really have the texture and flavor of beef. Well someone sued the company recently for false advertising. The New York Post reports:
The class action lawsuit alleged that "beef" products sold in Taco Bell's eateries were made of a "taco meat filling" consisting of "extenders and other non-meat substances" and did not meet the minimum standards set by the US Department of Agriculture.

It also claimed the company misrepresented some ingredients as "seasonings" when they were added to increase a product’s volume rather than enhance its flavor.
Taco Bell has threatened a countersuit, but I suspect they're not in a very good position legally speaking. The reason companies do this kind of thing is that they rarely pay a price. Personally I think Burger King's burgers aren't exactly beef, either.

Just a few years ago, the media was ablaze with hysterical warnings about global warming and how we were all doomed because people drove SUVs. The New York Times, to its limited credit recently admitted that its reporting was wrong (courtesy Tim Blair):
At the time, some climate scientists wrote papers attributing that change to global warming. Newspapers, including this one, printed laments for winter lost. But soon after, the apparent trend went away, an experience that has made many researchers more cautious.
Oh yes, there were plenty of reports about how there'd never be winter again, how sledding was going away and so on. As of today, the New York Times building is under several feet of snow.

Perhaps you've seen this, or you will eventually when some leftist posts about it. Jay Bookman wrote an article in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal all about jobs and how the government has not grown under President Obama and it was all Bush's fault anyway. Its filled with figures and charts and references, but as Geoff points out at the Ace of Spades HQ, he's playing games with statistics and manipulating the numbers for a result he prefers over the truth.

And that's the Word Around the Net, January 28, 2011.

DON'T MESS WITH THE GURKHA

If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha."
-Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw

There was a train robbery in India, with a gang of 40 invading the train, stealing and molesting the passengers. Among the passengers was a retired soldier:
“They started snatching jewelry, cell phones, cash, laptops and other belongings from the passengers,” Shrestha recalled. The soldier had somehow remained a silent spectator amidst the melee, but not for long. He had had enough when the robbers stripped an 18-year-old girl sitting next to him and tried to rape her right in front of her parents. He then took out his khukuri and took on the robbers.

“The girl cried for help, saying ´You are a soldier, please save a sister´,” Shrestha recalled.
Unfortunately for this gang, the soldier was a Gurkha. A bit of background here.

Back when the British Empire was at its greatest, they were busy in Afghanistan trying to bring peace and civilization, and build colonies to enhance the empire. While fighting in that region, they reached a portion of the area now known as Nepal, and unlike the rest of the area were not able to defeat these stalwart soldiers. The British knew a good thing when they saw it, and instead made friends with the locals, who called themselves Gorkha after the Hindu guru Gorakhnath. Eventually the British were allowed to hire mercenaries from the protectorate, and these men became known as Gurkhas.

Gurkhas rapidly became legendary for two things. The first is their bent machete-like blade called a Kukri, the other is their incredible discipline and fighting ability. Gurkhas were an elite force which the British knew they could always rely on to fight hard, terrify their enemies, and fight to the last man. "Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you," they were described for their amazing fighting spirit and their intense loyalty.

In this case, the retired Gurkha's loyalty became attached to the girl, and he thought of her as his sister. This was the worst mistake the gang ever made, and the last for several. Srestha reached for his Kukri and when he was done, eight were wounded, three dead, and the remaining dozens were running for their lives. One man against forty; they should have brought more against a Gurkha.

The thing is, we don't know what was going through his head before the fight, but it probably was something like this: "I want to get involved, but if I do, people are going to die, and I don't want to kill anyone." When the girl was threatened near him, he had to act. He claims they ran away after twenty minutes because he thinks they figured his buddies were around too.

The stories of these legendary fighters abound. Some are legends, some are true. For example, Richard Hardman at the Daily Mail recently reported on this event in modern Afghanistan:
Just picture the scene as a soldier returns from hunting an arch-enemy. Commanding officer: 'Did you get him?' Soldier: 'Yes, sir.' Commanding officer: 'Are you sure?' Soldier: 'Yes, sir.' Soldier reaches into rucksack and places severed head on table.

Commanding officer: ' ****!' If it happened in a Hollywood movie, the audience would either laugh or applaud. But there was no laughter the other day when this happened for real in Babaji, Afghanistan, current posting for the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles.

The precise circumstances will not be determined until an official report has been completed, but reliable military sources have confirmed that a Gurkha patrol was sent out with orders to track down a Taliban warlord described as a 'high-value target'.

Having identified their target, a fierce battle ensued during which the warlord was killed. To prove that they had got their man, the Gurkhas attempted to remove the body for identification. Further enemy fire necessitated a fast exit minus corpse. So, an unnamed soldier drew his kukri - the standard-issue Gurkha knife - removed the man's head and legged it.
Look if you don't want the job done this way, don't send a Gurkha. Squeamish British command and civilian government types disciplined the Gurkha for doing his job.

At the Ace of Spades HQ where I first saw the train robbery story, commenters passed on more stories of Gurkha glory:
...the almost assuredly apocryphal story about Ghurkas undergoing airborne training. When told that they would be jumping from 1,500 feet, they asked if they could jump from 500 feet instead. The officer explained that they could not, because the parachutes would not have time to fully deploy if they jumped at 500 feet. The Ghurkas basically responded: "Oh, we get parachutes!" and said that 1,500 feet was ok.
-Fa Cube Itches


I read a story of a Gurkha who's arm was wounded during a battle. The British office who was with him was also wounded and either passed out or fell asleep. When he awoke, the Gurkha was holding a pith helmet over the British officers head to shield him from the hot sun while he repeated over and over, "I am a gurka, I will not cry out." The Gurkha's wound was so bad his arm had to be amputated. So that's the kind of men we're talking about.
-Dang


When my dad got out of the Police Academy in 1971, worked for a supervisor who was a Ranger in Korea. His company shared the line with a unit of Ghurkas who would crawl out of their holes at night to kill Chinese troops. On more than one occasion, Rangers in his company would report feeling a hand reach down into their hole and touch their helmet, then move on.

The Ghurkas would crawl up to the hole and touch the helmet (or headgear) of the occupant. If they found a Chinese soldier, their throat was cut, if they found an American or other ally, they moved on.
-elliot


I'm planning on spending a few months on a hospital ship that works in ports in West Africa. Things can get pretty sketchy there so I was worried about how secure the ship is. I worried no longer when I was photos of the security force on the ship... Ghurkas.
-Max Entropy
Other commenters became sarcastic, mentioning how in Canada he'd probably be on trial for violating the civil rights of the theives, and how the city of Cambridge has already tried him in absentia. That's the kind of world we live in, though. Those heroic gangsters were redistributing wealth, probably driven to crime by evil capitalist exploiters. They were the real heroes, we'd be told in Berkeley.

Quote of the Day

"The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them."
-Robert Frost

Thursday, January 27, 2011

MAKING THE CASE

Just a quick post about how to convince the American people that we need austere, significant cuts in the federal government - even in programs they like or consider sacred. Because while I am happy to hear President Obama claim he wants a spending freeze for five years (even while talking about new spending in the same speech), we're past the point where a freeze is enough.

The trouble is trying to get the public who support smaller government and less spending in theory, but tend to oppose any cuts in practice, to understand and support what needs to be done. At the Ace of Spades HQ, Ace himself wrote about this problem and how not even the big guns of conservative punditry are really pushing the concept or trying to sell it. Then he quotes a commenter posting under the name curious:
Oh for gosh sakes, you have to take politics completely out of the discussion. He has to have Bill clinton and George W. Bush have a heart to heart talk with the american people with charts and graphs and THE TRUTH. Last I noticed they are both well respected and one from each of these stupid political parties.
And I think that probably is the best shot we would have. To step away from present politics back to a time when most people remember things being overall better and have these two, who clearly get along fine, present the case to the American public. Granted, neither one is a fiscal conservative, but they both are smart and experienced enough to know something has to be done.

Both do a good job of being not just likable but present their cases well in public, and they have a history of good public work after their presidencies. Let them sit down and present the case using graphs, numbers and facts to the American people then sell them on cuts. Not just vague "we need cuts" stuff but specifics, and major ones. This isn't a partisan issue unless parties make it that way. This has to be done, now.

CRUMBLING HUMANITIES

"Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!"

Steven Brockmann has an interesting piece up at Inside Higher Education which examines colleges and what has happened to their humanities departments.
We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.
What happened? Why have the humanities departments in major universities steadily dwindled while other departments have steadily grown? Brockmann traces the start to the 1980s in which there was a battle between leftists and more conservative types on college campuses.

The left wanted to jettison western civilization and traditional humanities studies. All those dead white Europeans had to go, you see. It was time for humanities to become more multicultural and diverse (defined as "anyone but white Europeans"). The quality of the literature and arts was secondary if not irrelevant; what mattered was the diversity of the sources. Aboriginal arts and non traditional sources were triumphed. Anything by women, no matter how good or dubious a source was preferred.

In the end, the left won, and humanities became a joke in many colleges. Gone were Rousseau, Plato, and Marx, and in their place new names were promoted as their equal if not superior. Names which people do not recall because they were neither. And students began to avoid these areas, not seeing the point in a humanities education to begin with. Brockmann goes on:
While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

And who can really blame them? If humanists themselves could not even agree on the basic value, structure, and content of a liberal arts education — if some saw the tradition of Western civilization as one of oppression and tyranny, while others defended and validated it; if some argued that a humanistic education ought to be devoted to the voices of those previously excluded from "civilized" discussion, such as people of color and women, while others argued that such changes constituted a betrayal of the liberal arts — is it any wonder that students and their families began turning away from the humanities?
Brockmann misses a key point here in his attempt to avoid fixing blame on the left, because he can't fix it on the right (although he tries by claiming it was the fight which caused this disinterest - if the right had just gone along there wouldn't have been a fight). He wants to argue that it is the lack of focus in the humanities on what literature actually is which is making students not care for the area. That probably has some impact, but other factors feature much more prominently, in my opinion.

The first is that society has gotten away from the principle of education being an asset in its own right. The idea that education is good simply because it educates has been cast aside for purely pragmatic concerns. Now people want an education in order to get something else; usually a better paying job, more status, more power and comfort. Education which broadens the mind making a better person and citizen is considered a waste. Courses which do not directly and tangibly result in pragmatic, material goals are thought to be pointless. Why study Rembrandt and Aristotle if they aren't going to increase my bottom line?

The second factor is the cost. As the price of higher education pushes six digits for a doctorate, people start to get more thrifty. The pragmatic argument becomes more and more powerful as students look at debt that will take half their working life to pay off. So classes which don't pack that obvious payoff become significantly less attractive.

One thing Backmann does get right, though, is the purpose that western civilization and literature studies served:
One of the core functions of the humanities for centuries was the passing down of a tradition from one generation to the next. The idea behind Western civilization courses was supposed to be that students needed them in order to understand the origins and development of their own culture.
What he doesn't seem to understand is that's exactly why the left wanted it gone. In the 1980s the left pushed for a focus on patterns of perceived oppression and power rather than truth and history. They wanted to avoid students learning the heritage and history of the ideas of western civilization because they wanted a revolution which abandoned those principles and ideas for a different set. Teaching western civilization reinforced and supported that which they wanted abandoned.

Alan Bloom warned about this in his 1987 masterpiece The Closing of the American Mind which warned exactly what has happened was about to happen. He noted (and Brockmann quotes):
"Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point."
Now students are taught what they want to hear and learn, they are encouraged in their natural urges and desires and reinforced rather than educated. Because that's what helps the left achieve their goals; its what the left wants themselves. They desire a society where people function based on their urges without any cost and what hey desire is provided by a powerful central government which controls the economy and our lives to protect us from ourselves. This sort of society requires no ethical guidelines, no personal responsibility, and no effort to better ourselves in any way. It requires little actual effort to gain what we desire, because we rely on others to do it for us.

Brockmann wants to offer an apology for what has happened to humanities and education in general, I think that's not nearly enough. The abandonment of the basic principles of education for leftist social engineering has not just been a mistake, it has been corrosive to centers of higher education, society, and the future. At this point, I suspect few of the established colleges and universities can even be saved, they will have to be replaced by other options and newer institutions, let die on the vine to be trimmed away. The faculty and administration are too heavily entrenched and set to change and hold too much power to allow any attempts.

There are signs this is happening today. What people get out of a college education seems to be less and less, but the cost goes steadily up and up. Fewer people are interested in that exchange, and it looks like fewer still every year.

I just wonder how many times the right is going to be ignored and end up absolutely right before people stop listening to the left.

PICTURE OF THE DAY

Protest

Quote of the Day

"Men are generally idle, and ready to satisfy themselves, and intimidate the industry of others, by calling that impossible which is only difficult."
-Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

PICTURE OF THE DAY


One of the few bits I liked of the otherwise atrocious League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie was when Alan Quatermain is recruited. He is advised to "pack for an English Summer." The scene then cuts to July in London, where it's raining and cold. Going on holiday in England used to mean a trip to the shore, but English beaches aren't St Tropez, nor is the weather, usually.

LEADEN BAGS

"Yes, I see the little hypocrites are wearing leather sandals."
-Murphy Brown

Green Bag
One of the eco-driven changes I happen to like is the cloth grocery bag. Its always seemed wasteful to me to use up all those paper bags and the plastic ones, while more reusable, were not biodegradable. Reusable cloth bags for shopping feels very old fashioned and responsible to me, even though they have a plastic liner at the bottom - and most are made of nylon.

The problem is that you have to wash these bags or they start to develop bacteria like Salmonella and other, more lethal varieties. And, thanks to their likely Chinese origin, there are other problems. Gary Chittim at King 5 news reports:
The Washington, D.C-based Center for Consumer Freedom tested bags at 44 major retailers. Of those, it says 16 were selling bags containing lead in excess of safety standards.
The CCF team is actually trying to prevent plastic bags from being banned, so there's some reason to think they may not be entirely unbiased, but finding lead in Chinese products is not exactly shocking.

Just something to consider when you look at the alternatives for shopping. Most stores will give you a discount for using any bag you bring, even if its not their product, so you can probably come up with safer (and more durable) alternatives.

Quote of the Day

"Both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it."
-President Obama

*UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's response:
"American public should understand, and I'm sure they will as time goes by, that the President has enough power. He should just back off."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

WAITING

"Those who were too young to remember how it was back then will be able to play this game with their parents or grandparents and maybe talk about how things were for the older generation,"


Monopoly was developed at the depth of the Great Depression, a simple, easy to play game designed as a celebration of capitalism and luxury. In a way it was a sort of mockery of the big business tycoons as well, with you trying to control everything from utilities to hotels to railroads, looting the community chest, and being thrown in jail. But at the same time it portrayed wealth creation, investment, and earning as a positive thing.

Communists have a different approach to economics, and those who lived under communist governments a different approach entirely. I remember well the Russian Language teacher I had in high school telling us stories about his visits to the country. How he'd get to shop at special tourist-only stores, about the lines and tales from locals about buying whatever shoes they could at the shop even if they didn't fit. They'd fit someone, and maybe you could make a trade. Shortages of toilet paper and basic necessities were the norm in Communist Russia, and this wasn't in some podunk village in the Taiga, it was downtown Moscow with a Communist Party Handler's family. They'd line up for everything when supplies arrived, hoping they'd get something.

And its these lines that a new game out of Poland called Kolejka commemorates. The game is by older Polish citizens who remember well the old communist days of lack, fear, and restriction. And most of all, the frustration and lining up in hopes of getting what you need for your family. Jill Petzinger at Der Spiegel reports:
There are no glamorous avenues for sale, nor can players erect hotels, charge rent or make pots of money. In fact, a new Polish board game inspired by the classic Monopoly is all about communism rather than capitalism.

The goal of the game, which will officially be launched on Feb. 5, is to show how hard and frustrating it was for an average person to simply do their shopping under the Communist regime in Poland. The game has been developed by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Warsaw-based research institute that commemorates the suffering of the Polish people during the Nazi and Communist eras.

Just like in the original Monopoly, acquisition is the name of the game. In this case, however, that means struggling to get basic necessities such as food, clothing and furniture. "In the game, you send your family out to get items on a shopping list and they find that the five shops are sold out or that there hasn't been a delivery that day," the IPN's Karol Madaj told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday, explaining that the game "highlights the tough realities of life under Communism."
...
Just like in the Communist era, players can leverage certain advantages to get what they need. The "colleague in the government" card is the equivalent of the famous "get out of jail free" card in Monopoly. Any player lucky enough to have one of these beauties can secretly find out when the next deliveries will arrive in the shops.
Its been long enough now that people just don't remember communism as well, and generations are grown to adulthood without having ever experienced it. There's good reason that Poland and other eastern European nations have statues of Ronald Reagan in them; they remember the horror and misery of communist rule. And they're worried their kids wont.

Its not like they can rely on Hollywood to remind anyone. Every few years someone puts out another movie about how evil Nazis were, or how bad the McCarthy hearings were. But when it comes to communism they act as if it never really happened. Cold War era movies should be pretty hot about now, it was an interesting time and the Russians were snappy dressers, but that would not fit the narrative very well, so the left won't touch it.

Communism didn't work and can't work with real people. It wasn't just a miserable failure, but a misguided and infantile understanding of human nature combined with corruption, brutality, and cruelty. The attempt to strip out all tradition and ethical guidelines to start afresh ended in hundreds of millions of deaths and many times that in misery, sadness, and oppression. Kolejka is an attempt to remind people of how it was, when academia and entertainment want to pretend nothing ever happened.

THE CODE

"Rape was so overused that it became a hackneyed plot device."

CCA Seal
In 1948, a psychologist named Fredric Wertham claimed that comic books were corrupting America's youth. Parents were concerned at the violent and rebellious tendencies of American teenagers, and instead of looking at themselves and their teaching looked at everything else around them. Music, clothes, motorcycles, comic books, radio dramas, and movies, all were blamed for these troubled youths who just wouldn't do what they were told.

Wertham wrote an infamous book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he pointed to many lurid comic book titles which focused on sex, violence, horror and monsters, and themes of incompetent or stupid authorities. Essentially what we have today in popular entertainment media, but at a level and tone that was incredibly more subdued and mild. Where today MTV is trying to market a young teenage TV show where the protagonists have sex and appear nude, the old comics would have a girl in a ripped dress being menaced by bad guys and kissed when she didn't want it.

Racism was also present in a lot of these titles, as was torture, divorce, and other issues generally avoided in polite discussion. Congress held hearings about the dangers of comics to kids, and the industry went into motion to protect its self. A previous code for comic publication had been created by comic book producers in 1948, modeled after the Hays office film code, but it was never enforced.

This new code, the Comics Code Authority, would be enforced by distributors, who refused to ship comics to newstands which lacked the CCA stamp on the cover. And to get that stamp, you had to follow the code. The full code is rather long, but includes such points as:
  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
  • No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.
  • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable.
  • Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for morbid distortion.
  • The treatment of live-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.
What this did was result in very bland, mild, and simple stories which avoided the easy shock, the quick emotional manipulation, and other tricks used in the past. The purpose was to steer comics away from the increasingly gutter-related topics and themes that many had gone into for quick sales and toward more wholesome, positive stories.

Dracula
Overnight, many titles died, and the public perception of comics was rapidly repaired. It became more like Superman and less like Tales From the Crypt. For decades, from 1954 to around 1986, the CCA was on every single title produced by mainstream comic book companies. "Underground" comics came out in the 1970s such as The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers which completely ignored the code, but they were only available through mail order or in drug paraphernalia shops. In the 1970s, DC and Marvel both pushed the limits of the code with books that portrayed drug use (such as a very popular and respected series of Green Arrow stories), vampires, and so on.

In the late 80s, comic book giant Marvel experimented with a direct shipping method to comic book stores which had become more common by that point. Titles such as Moon Knight were sold only in comic book stores, and were typically higher quality than the newsstand versions. As this distribution system became more and more common, titles lacking the CCA stamp did as well, since they were not being distributed through the usual system.

By the 1990s, both DC and Marvel had "mature" imprints (Vertigo and Epic, respectively) which usually would not pass CCA muster. Although these were never as big sellers as their other titles, they did grant greater freedom to writers and artists. In 2001, Marvel dropped the CCA badge entirely and went to age-appropriate categories for their comics instead of the code for all. By this point distributors didn't care if titles had the code, and newstand sales had plummeted for comics. Now, its rare to see any comics at any news stand or grocery store when they once were always visible.

Here's the thing; you'd think that the CCA was some crushing burden of censorship which was viewed as a terrible thing by comic book artists and writers. And while most grumbled about it and the companies struggled against the limits, and while the limits took prudence to a level of prudery that was a bit excessive, they did save comics, and they aren't as disliked as you'd think.

In the 1950s, the primary buyer of comic books were kids, 12 year olds buying their latest issue of Superman or The Flash for 12 cents each. They were aimed at kids and the CCA made sure the content was appropriate for kids. Pre-teens do not, MTV aside, need to be reading about miserable divorce, rape, torture, and naked women. It is beneficial for their growth and society in general for kids to learn that authorities can be trusted and should be looked up to. When they get older they can learn that some authorities are bad, but the general presumption should be of respect and trust, unless otherwise proven.

Its true that good writers need to have flexibility to tell a story, and its also true that the primary audience for modern comics is guys in their early 20s, not kids any longer. Yet the pendulum has swung entirely too far the other direction. Now it almost seems that there's an anti-code in place. You cannot publish a comic unless there's torture, horrific and graphically protrayed violence, corrupt authorities, miserable failure of good, and lack of heroic behavior.

Where there once were cartoonish always-good heroes who never lost, now the stories are of brutes with powers who always break the rules to do the most violent things possible to their enemies who are inevitably the worst evil ever just to set them apart from the morally questionable protagonists who are often not heroes at all.

There was a discussion of the comics code recently on Facebook between various old time and modern comic book professionals whose names I'll edit out for privacy but it went like this:
Yeah, because they're not wholesome, and nobody that reads them wants them to be wholesome.

The younger crowd doesn't buy them anymore. However, I view the CCA's demise as yet another sign of our culture's continued decline.

No code for the comics means none for the "heroes." I was shocked and disappointed to see Captain America and Sharon Carter sleeping together last year in "Reborn."

While the limitations of such codes (comics, movies, tv, etc) restrict some creativity, it also inspired many to do better work than get a "cheap laugh". I like the ability for creators to be as 'rude' as they want... I just miss the ability to see something where they aren't.

There remains an "innocence" to the older comics that made them fun to read. Nostalgia notwithstanding, I can still get into these -- even when I come across an old silver age story I missed. In 2001 my daughter was sent home from school with a parental complaint letter over a CRACKED edition, published before my time. I decided then and there to make our offerings "school friendly." That worked. I predict the comics publishers will be begging to get that code back. I'll tell you why the "softer" Cracked worked...schools deemed it safe, and allowed me to hand out box loads to students in schools I visited...I observed kids walking the halls between classes proudly clutching those magazines in full view. Most of them had never read a comic book. To me, the money is in mainstream readership -- and it's very doable. Those outside comics still hold these publications in contempt. I know.

The current editorial staff at the "Big Two" are not interested in gaining back their mainstream audience. They would have to surrender their "ain't it cool" status to do so.
about an hour ago.

The 'big two' are not comic book companies anymore. They are divisions of media giants. Their purpose is to develop properties for movies and TV... and help promote said movies and TV.
Keep in mind these are comic professionals, guys whose names you'd recognize if you're a comic book fan. The problem is, they're guys who worked in the past, and might not be so well known now. They're the old guard who were shoved out in the 90s and later for younger guys who are cool and hip and putting out stuff to please their peers, but not really that beneficial for the industry.

I've written before about how comics are dying, and because they are targeting twenty year olds instead of kids or young teens, they have no future. Without a younger audience to bring into the fold and interest in comics, they will eventually run out of buyers. Reading is becoming less and less popular overall, and while comic book movies are getting more respect and higher quality, that isn't translating into kids wanting to read comics. They just want more movies and games with those characters.

Its possible that the day of the printed comic is coming to an end, that they're just going to be replaced by other media and online images rather than printed in little booklets. I just suspect that if the comic companies were a bit more willing to work closer to the old code they'd put that day off a bit longer and kids would benefit from it.

Quote of the Day

"There is more to life than increasing its speed."
-Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, January 24, 2011

CAN OF WHISKEY

Well, I'll be here around suppertime
with my can of dinner and a bunch of fine.
-ZZ Top, "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers"

Whisky Can
A while back I posted a picture of a can of wine, thinking that this probably wasn't the finest vintage. Lined or not, aluminum cans do affect the chemistry of any beverage kept in them, especially over time and canned cola for instance isn't as good as bottled. So even if the wine was good to begin with, it wouldn't be after a short time kept in a can. Well there's canned whiskey out there too.

According to Mark Howarth at the Daily Mail, Scotch Spirits began selling cans of Scotch Whisky in Panama, which are labeled a "rare blend." Notice it doesn't call the whiskey a "good" blend, and purists consider blends to be inferior to begin with. The Scotch Whisky Association (they spell it without the e) is trying to block the new product on technical (labeling) rules, but mostly I think they just don't want their product associated with cans of beer.

Here's the thing though: the can holds seven shots of whiskey. Even if this is pretty thin stuff, that's an awful lot of booze. There's no way to close a can once its opened, and although whiskey won't go flat like beer or a cola, it does evaporate and becomes stale. This probably is meant for mixing, but its still seven shots worth, and I can't think this will be in any way healthy. Consider who's likely to buy this: younger people and really big drunks. They are practically encouraged to drink too much just by the container.

Putting all aesthetic and purist complaints aside, this seems like its just a really bad idea all around.

HAWAII BANS PRAYER

"Above all, our responsibility is to adhere to the Constitution"

Red Meat
"The leftist attacks on the Christian faith continue," quips Gateway Pundit. Jim Hoft is referring to the decision by the Hawaii State Legislature to end their practice of starting each new session with an invocation or prayer.

What happened is this: The Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) like all the rest of its chapters, has long had a problem with the policy of every legislature at the state and federal level in the United States following this practice. Its been done since even before the constitution was written, with the continental congress having a prayer before starting sessions even before the American Revolution.

The ACLU has long contended that these prayers are violations of the 1st amendment to the US Constitution which states that legislatures shall pass no law which establishes religion. They are concerned that the prayer establishes religion when done, and as such is unconstitutional.

The Hawaii State Legislature agreed, disagreeing with the recommendation of a committee to use nonsectarian invocations that avoided specific religions. Now, obviously that doesn't mean the state banned prayer everywhere, or that individual legislators (or even small groups) cannot pray if they choose to. This decision just eliminates one of the rituals of each new starting session, changing a rule of the legislature its self rather than passing a law. Future legislatures can reverse this if they wish, but aren't likely to.

Now, some are very upset about this particular change, decrying the removal of faith and consider it an ethical downslide. I think the loss of absolute ethical principles and adherence to them happened some time ago and the prayer was like a band aid on a patient dying of AIDS. Its insulting to the patient and does them no good. Further, most if not all of these opening invocations are so vaguely spiritual and lacking in specific religious concepts that they aren't of any particular faith value to begin with. Most legislatures mix in some alternate religion once in a while (such as a prayer by a Buddhist or a Muslim or a local Native American tribe) and aren't Christian at all, which is the concern of many people critical of this decision.

It was the concern of the ACLU. They specifically mentioned that saying the words "Jesus Christ" violated the 1st amendment. The other prayers that are done were ignored, apparently they don't matter. It doesn't establish a religion to have a Mayan priestess pray for the Jaguar Goddess Ixchel, only to say Jesus. My problem is with this attitude, not the lack of prayer. They're singling out Christianity, not trying to protect the people of Hawaii from violations of the US Constitution.

So although having a prayer to start out a legislative session in no way establishes any state religion (the founding fathers insisted on having the prayer, and they wrote the 1st amendment), I don't really care if they start with one or not. It means even less to them than their vow to defend and uphold the constitution, its just a ritual which has lost all meaning.

See, the purpose of the prayers was originally to remind the legislators that although they wield great temporal power, they are still servants of ultimate power. It was to remind them that they are responsible to obey the laws and principles of a greater One than themselves, and to keep their faith in mind while working on the laws of men. It simply does not do that any longer, except for a few scattered individuals. So why keep doing it?

PICTURE OF THE DAY


Courtesy Big Government.

Quote of the Day

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
-President Teddy Roosevelt

Friday, January 21, 2011

WORD AROUND THE NET

"I want my MTV"

Oregon's cyclists are grumbling about a bill introduced to the state legislature. Representative Mitch Greenlick (D) of Portland has proposed a bill which would ban any children under the age of 6 from being allowed on a bicycle or trailer. That means no kiddies pulled behind the bike or on a special basket. Because parents can't be trusted to have judgment and there's a huge rash of fatalities from cycling tykes. Well, not really but its a pressing issue to this guy.

Not to be outdone in the silly law area, Washington State is working on creating a new business license. Sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican, it would require hair designers to be licensed. After all, you can't let just anyone design hair styles! You might end up with people looking like this:

Dumbass
Now its up to 27 states with official legal challenges to the Government Health Insurance Takeover Act. Its already been overturned in one house of congress, maybe people just don't like that bill and it never should have passed to begin with.

Folks who think that disasters and radical weather is getting worse or peaked in the 20th century are lacking in history. At Futurepundit, Randall Parker has some useful history lessons about the 19th century, which included:
  • The New Madrid earthquake
  • Mount Tambora's vast eruption
  • The 1859 Carrington Solar Event
  • 1816 Year Without a Summer
  • The little ice age ended in around 1850
  • a 28 year drought in California ending in 1810
In all it was far worse in terms of violent and catastrophic natural events than the 20th century, it just is less known, the areas less populated (the New Madrid earthquake, for example, would make Hurricane Katrina look like a rainbow), and the publicity less hysterical.

Rush Limbaugh and Ann Althouse couldn't resist the irony of President Obama visiting China with plenty of diplomacy and kind words:
"The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Winner hosted a dinner for the guy holding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner in prison..."
Its almost as if Obama didn't deserve the prize or something.

Speaking of President Obama, his administration is still trying to get Honduras to accept Zelaya back into the country. Before the Honduran government hurled the would-be dictator for life out of power, few had even heard of Zelaya, but I suspect President Obama and his team of academic intellectual types were well aware of not just him but dozens of "revolutionaries" and leftist leaders they want to support and help around the world. I wonder what they're doing for these guys we don't know about?

Nutrition labeling is very common in the US, you can hardly buy anything edible or drinkable without some kind of content labeling (other than "food supplements" like bee pollen). One exception: liquor. Beer companies are try to market their beer as healthier somehow by claiming it has fewer calories and so on, but now the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau which handles liquor labeling is looking to require nutritional labeling on booze. Because people who drink booze care about how much vitamin A they're getting.

Often when conservatives argue that the government needs to be cut to shrink it to proper size and get rid of waste, some leftist will pipe up with "well what should be cut, huh? huh?" There are always good suggestions - and these days few conservatives consider the military a sacred cow like we once did - but Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe have gone further, listing over a trillion and a half dollars of savings that could and should be done.

Speaking of specific cuts and naming names, Jane Jamison at Right Wing News did the same thing for the State of California, listing scores of government agencies that are wasteful, absurd, outdated, or just insane that California spends billions on. Its a huge, huge list, and even if half of them were kept there would be significant savings.

Unions fought hard in the 20th century for legislation to make union votes private and secret so companies couldn't pressure or punish workers for trying to unionize. Now they want to get rid of that because they're on the strong side but losing workers and need that ability to pressure and intimidate to win votes. There's no chance a bill of that kind can pass this congress, but states are passing legislation to replace the federal law just in case the next one tries again. Now the Obama administration is threatening to sue states who dare to disagree with unions on this topic.

And finally, Dire Straits is offensive and must be banned. So says the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC). Their problem is with the song "Money For Nothing" which, while not their best song was their most popular and it contains the phrase "The little faggot with the earring and the make up, yeah buddy, that's his own hair." Mind you that's mocking someone who'd have that attitude, but the truth is, lots of songs have lots of words that people find offensive (most of hip hop and rap, for instance). The broadcast council isn't a government agency, its more like an industry broadcast oversight group which suggests what radio stations should do. In response, at least one station is playing "Money For Nothing" over and over all day today. I onder what the CBSC thinks of The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." Mark Knopfler explains the song this way:
Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can't let it have so many meanings - you have to be direct.

In fact, I'm still in two minds as to whether it's a good idea to write songs that aren't in the first person, to take on other characters.

The singer in 'Money for Nothing' is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality - somebody who sees everything in financial terms.

I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guys rich: that's a good scam.Yeah well, some groups are sacred, Mark.

And that's the Word Around the Net, January 21, 2011.

THOUGHTS ON INSURANCE

"I don't want to tell you how much insurance I carry with the Prudential, but all I can say is: when I go, they go too."
-Jack Benny

One of the stranger concepts in finance to me is insurance. I understand it from one perspective, wanting to pay a little bit each month into a fund that can help you in emergencies, I just don't understand it as a business. The concept of someone you pay to hopefully never use just doesn't make sense to me.

Because unlike most companies, they aren't about your return business or giving you fine service, they are about you not using their service. Insurers are about taking your money away to give you nothing as much as they possibly can. The only similar endeavor I can think of is a bank.

Insurance companies advertise as being good, helpful, forgiving, protective, and neighborly. They are portrayed as smiling, attractive, non threatening people who rush over with a check when things are tough, given cute mascots. But really, they're a lot closer to loan sharks than the kindly pastoral figures they're advertised as. Insurance companies spend billions trying to make themselves look good when their primary purpose is to make money off you. They want you to pay forever and never make a claim, that's their ideal customer. Someone who has a policy as long as possible but never uses their business.

Some companies advertise that their "deductible" gets less the longer you go without actually using it. Now think about this a bit. The entire concept of a deductible is a fee charged to make sure you don't use their service much. They want to dissuade you from frivolously charging their company, so that you only use it for significant damage, something notably greater than the deductible. They charge you a fee to prevent you from using the service you're paying for to begin with.

Lets consider this further. The principle of a vanishing deductible is that every year that goes by without actually taking advantage of the service you pay regularly for - by law, if you own a car - the total of the deductible goes down, actually reducing to zero. Until you use it. In other words, once you actually take advantage of your paid service... you now are punished by having to pay more for the next time you use it. Can you imagine anyone in any other business trying that kind of stunt?

Thank you sir, we hope you come again, but it will cost you more next time. That first gallon of gas was cheap because you haven't filled up for three months, but the next one costs extra. Those frequent flier miles you accrued make this ticket cheaper but the next one will cost you extra because you flew on our plane.

Consider: how many businesses in existence charge you more every time you use their service? I can understand insurers trying to handle increased risk by increasing costs in one sense. If someone is shown to be reckless and irresponsible, they should cost more to protect. But the presumption that someone is reckless and irresponsible when they have an accident is not just insulting, but counterintuitive. Accidents by definition are not the fault of the person involved. Ever see the movie Hot Fuzz? Remember this exchange, when Nicholas Angel tells his colleague that it is official police policy to call it a "collision" rather than an accident?

BUTTERMAN: Hey, why can't we say "accident," again?
ANGEL: Because "accident" implies there's nobody to blame.

If you have a genuine accident, something you did not cause, why should your insurance go up? I can understand raising someone's rates if they are steering with their feet with a blindfold on while high on amphetamines and texting, but just an accident? That's simply punishing someone for using the very service they paid for.

It seems to me that insurance shouldn't be a for-profit business at all. We use the term ghoulish sometimes to describe certain jobs like lawyers and undertakers, anyone who profits from the misery and misfortune of others. What does that make an insurer? They are trying to make money off people who merely want to protect themselves. part of the reason we don't have private police forces in America is that people reasonably do not believe they would find justice and any hope of an uncorrupted force with people that are paid to enforce the law for a profit. But we do it every day with insurers, we pay people to protect us from misfortune and they're looking to make money off us doing it.

Non profit insurers would have a rough time of it, to be certain. Insurers are required by law to keep enough money to pay off the full policy cost for more than 50% of their customers at once, and that's a gigantic amount of money. Ever insurer has to have that set aside in a pool just in case they have to pay all at the same time. It is not easy for insurance companies to stay afloat in many areas, such as California or New Jersey where the legal requirements and absurd demands on their business get worse and worse.

Yet it seems to me that making money at the business of insurance changes its focus. Insurance, I believe, ought to be more like a co-op than a business. A fund that lots of people pay into as a pool in case they need to draw on it rather than a company taking payments and trying not to pay out so they can maximize profits. The entire business model seems shockingly misguided, at best and we all take it so for granted these days.

*Just for the record: I have no insurance of any kind, unless you count a few hundred dollars of Social Security money piled up in earlier work years.

PICTURE OF THE DAY


"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Inigo Montoya

Quote of the Day

"Wasting resources on symbolically fighting ever present climate change is no substitute for prudence. Nor is the assumption that the earth’s climate reached a point of perfection in the middle of the twentieth century a sign of intelligence."
-Richard Lindzen

Thursday, January 20, 2011

SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY

"Philosophy always buries its undertakers."
-Etienne Gibson

Recently Ed Driscoll wrapped up a lot of different links in an attempt to show how the left seems to be the anti-science side, not the right, as they claim, calling it their "Creation Science*". In that article he points out how the vaccine fraud was created by a left wing reporter, how the repeated claims of no more winter are so humiliatingly wrong, and how other junk science the left touts is believed not based on logic or facts, but faith.

In the resulting discussion in the comments, quite a bit of interesting debate takes place (not the least of which is something I've pointed out here before -- how uncomfortably similar the arguments, stances, and attitude of AGW hysterics are to Evolutionists). Much of it is concerns about how the left clings to things that aren't so, but some if it is more worry about science its self. Thomas Wicklund writes (emphasis mine):
The problem is when politics and science intersect. Both Climate Change and Evolution / Creation have become major ideological and theological (in the case of creation) issues. I find this results in both sides becoming more and more polarized. Thus, an evolutionist who expresses any question (even about the mechanism of evolution) is quoted (out of context) in support of creation theory (and vice versa). Each side hardens its position so as to not allow any opening for the other to gain credibility.

The problem here is that the normal questions and uncertainties of scientific research have to be abandoned to avoid the political aspect. While science is often portrayed as “collect data then form a theory”, in practice scientists routinely start with a theory then look for the data to support it. However, the normal peer review / journal / etc. process tends to weed out the junk science (though not perfectly, it can take many years).

Throwing politics and the general public into the mix means that the scientific process cannot occur smoothly. One aspect is the current politicized Climate Change or Evolution / Creation (extending into religion / atheism) debates. Another occurs when there is a problem with no real solution, thus “alternative” medicine, vaccine questions, the (probably hundreds) of different “here’s how to cure ADHD” popular book prescriptions, etc.

The further one goes from repeatable, experimental science (e.g. drop the apple, it hits Newton’s head), the more room for interpretation. When science must depend primarily on observation and a lot of interpretation (such as with rocks that look like bones) and cannot perform perfectly repeatable experiments (as with medical science, people are individuals and each individual reacts differently to a treatment), there wide room for interpretation and fitting data to the theory. Adding the news media and politicians into the mix makes it that much worse.
Someone named Flicka47 linked an article at First Things about Stephen Hawking's latest book. In it, he attempts to argue that philosophy and natural theology have been left behind by the latest scientific theories (more on that in a moment), and that anyone who clings to those things is hopelessly outdated and behind the times. This isn't the first time some scientist declared God to be dead and philosophy useless. John Haldane writes:
Notwithstanding their death notice for philosophy, in introducing their idea of a fundamental physical account of the universe, M-theory, the authors themselves cannot resist engaging in evident philosophizing about the nature of theories and their relationship to reality. To address the paradoxes arising from quantum physics, they use what they call “model-dependent realism,” which “is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world.”
When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other.
While a professional philosopher might disambiguate and refine some of these expressions and formulations, Hawking and Mlodinow are describing a position familiar within the philosophy of science and known variously as “constructive empiricism,” “pragmatism,” and “conceptual relativism.” They are not replacing philosophy with science. Indeed, their discussion shows that, at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.
And ultimately, that's where Hawking tends to end up in his writing. He wants to write about the bleeding edge of new physics and theory, but ends up almost entirely writing about theory, with precious little science behind it, and thus ends up in the realm of philosophy himself. He isn't writing about what scientists are able to observe using reliable and reproducible testing, but what he thinks those observations mean and what that means about life, the universe, and everything. He wraps it all in terribly complex scientific jargon and mentions research, but most of Hawkin's writings are in fact his theories and ideas rather than science its self.

And too much of modern science is in this realm. Instead of scientists finding out a little bit more and demonstrating it through experimentation and measurement, they're slouching off into other realms like wizardry and philosophy. They can't actually test, measure, or empirically examine their theories about "string theory" and quantum physics in many cases, they can only speculate and each new layer of speculation has less and less concrete scientific basis. These men are getting beyond the point we can understand and know with the present limitations of science, and as such are leaving science behind entirely.

That's fine... if you label it as speculation, philosophy, and curiosity, but they label it as hard science, physics, and truth; what's more guys like Hawking declare it to have destroyed exactly what they're engaging in. Science is very beneficial and useful, when done properly and restricted to its area of proper use. It becomes worse than useless when extended beyond that boundary; it becomes destructive and pernicious.

The same thing happens when religion or philosophy tries to transcend its boundaries into, say, science, as we saw during the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. This too becomes destructive and evil. The proper thing to do, then, is to respect the boundaries of your work and not presume upon the expertise of others.

*Driscoll actually calls it "creationism" but that's a misnomer; creationism is the understanding that all existence was created by God, creation science tends to try to jam the world into a few passages of scripture not meant to be scientific. Newton was a creationist; Creation Scientists argue that the grand canyon and all fossils were caused by the great flood, and that the world is only a few thousand years old. Creation Scientists make the same mistake AGW hysterics do: they start with a conclusion then try to ram data into it until it fits like a child with a star-shaped block and a square-shapedhole.

Its possible that Driscoll, like a lot of people unfamiliar with the field, does not know the difference, and its possible that he simply thinks anyone who believes in a creator god is some kind of knuckle dragging cretin.