Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Right To Swing Your Fist Ends At My Nose

Neil Gaiman, writer of the most sublimely frightening fiction, was asked recently what scared him. His answer is illuminating and thought provoking:
The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It's like the feeling, sometimes, that you'd start talking to people and you're going, "I don't know if what you're saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don't know. And you're walking around being haunted by dead ideas... Look around and see where you are today." I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.
 A lot of the ideas bedeviling America these days are like that. They've died everywhere else in the world but the U.S. is like a haunted forest. And like the ghosts of a good story some of them look just like they did in life and others appear as horribly corrupted versions of themselves.

One of the most dangerous of those ideas is "rugged individuality"; the idea that, despite John Donne, every man is an island. It is manifested in so many ways in modern America. As just one example, there has been a lot of news recently about the return of whooping cough. Is it some new strain rising from the miasma of the third world for which we have no vaccine? No. It's been traced to the increasing numbers of unvaccinated American kids whose parents don't "believe" in vaccination.

Public policy should prohibit the current exemptions that allow these children to attend school. There they mix with the general population of children who are a) vaccinated (but no vaccine can be 100% effective), b) cannot be vaccinated because of medical issues, or - most shameful - c) unvaccinated because they and their families have no access to affordable health care. I cannot imagine how it could be in any sane definition of "freedom of choice" or "free will" for parents to be able to deny their children life-saving medicine. And what choice did the children have in being left defenseless against preventable diseases?

The point being that the parents' "choice" is now affecting you and me. To the point of this post's title, choosing to endanger the rest of the us is swinging their fist so that it makes contact with my nose.

Such magical ideas - that whatever choices one makes have no consequences beyond themselves - should have long ago died out. Instead they have become the centerpiece of so much thought in the US.

Think of the reaction to trying to regulate the pollution poured out into our air by industry. Think of the reaction to regulating gun ownership (only a gun without bullets cannot reach beyond the owner's reach). Think of getting the neighborhood guy with all the rusting vehicles in his yard, leaching chemicals into the groundwater (which winds up in the local pond or your drinking water), to clean up his mess.

Perhaps, at some point in the far past, this idea of "rugged individualism" was tenable. But no more. Not with 7 billion people on this one, small world. All of us who have to breathe the same air, drink the same water, live on the same land. It is an old idea, whose time to die is long past, but which continues to haunt us.

In future posts - maybe - I will discuss some of the other ideas that should have died out but hang on to haunt the modern world.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Taking a Hammer to a Life

What if a well-known company were to release a new hammer to your local big-box hardware store? And what if that hammer proved to have a design flaw that caused the head to separate catastrophically from the handle resulting in scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries to users and bystanders? What would happen? You might consider the question rhetorical because you know what the answer is; it's happened thousands of times. The hammer would be recalled, redesigned and re-released for sale. The manufacturer would be held accountable for the deaths and injuries and the world of weekend projects would be safe again.

Tool makers learned that users expect safer tools than our parents and grandparents used. There hasn't been a circular saw released in decades without a rotating blade guard. There are still the occasional user who disables the guards but they wind up with new nicknames like "Lefty" or "Nine Fingers".

It all seems so simple. Users learned that they didn't have to risk loosing a finger while using a saw; manufacturers learned that they couldn't release dangerous tools with impunity. Laws and regulations were created or updated to protect users driving a cycle of improvements and innovations but most importantly of fewer injuries and deaths. Tools were improved to work better and to be less harmful.

This isn't about hammers in the literal sense; this is about tools in the broader sense. But the lesson pertains.

Conservatives, in general, and so-called "business leaders" specifically love to talk about "The Market" as though it were something created at the time of the Big Bang; as though it were a Platonic reality, casting it's shadow over the world. For the their part the general public has accepted this framing: if they have no economic training they accept the word of the the framers; if they have taken even a token Econ101 course they learned from books written by the framers.

We all know that the victors get to write history.

The system we call "The Market" is a tool. It was cobbled together over centuries of business and wars and political wrangling. But the people doing all of the wrangling were those with the power to influence the process and - NOT coincidentally - those who would benefit most from the end product. These were the people who would never be injured by their own product. They never had to worry if the hammer would fly apart and injure them or their family. They got to write the history of the development of "The Market". But it was an odd history. Not one of incremental accretion. No, their history was of a force (an "Invisible Hand") that had always existed. Like some form of economic Physics that underlies the whole universe. A law of gravity for money where some people had some sort of invisible mass that somehow made them attractors for wealth while others did not.

Their history of course is a lie, but they are the victors to whom go the spoils. An aphorism written by a victor, of course.

Markets are tools. Like hammers and saws they can build wonderful things, but they can also cause great harm and misery. They need to be better regulated and perhaps redesigned so as not to cause so much injury and death. Despite what the victors will say - and no matter how much they protest - we CAN redesign the economy. Real tool makers protested that they could never create a saw or hammer that was safer. Then they changed their story saying that if the did redesign their tools the resulting items would be so expensive that nobody would be able to afford them. Then under pressure from consumer protection watchdogs and consumers they did the "impossible" and made safe, affordable tools.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Religious Right?

I've read plenty of analyses of how the American conservative right captured the hearts and minds of the faithful. These have been mostly discussions of the tactics; appeals and alignment on social issues (abortion, women's rights, gay rights), making sure that each and every Republican candidate makes the appropriate obsequious noises to god and country, prayer breakfasts and prayer meetings. What I haven't heard adequately explained is why.

Conservatives - politicians in general - are no more or less religious than the rest of us. In fact, given the level of the compromises made to their values daily, I would argue that as a class politicians may be less religious than just about any group in the country except scientists. And citizens who profess faith to one of the major religious cults and their offshoots - supposedly based on the good deeds of some ahistorical figure - should be looking to ally themselves with the party that makes care for their fellow citizens a prime plank in their platform. To borrow one of their own phrases, "what would Jesus do?" So how did that all go so wrong?

The Republican Party has become the party of the white, wealthy elite; that is self obvious. And yet, through the tactics I mentioned above they have captured the reactionary religious factions of the deep south and in a fair bit of the rest of the country. Getting these folks to consistently vote against their own and their children's best interests. But why? Their aims are not the same - at least not the aims they both profess daily. So the Republicans have thrown on the cloak of religion to capture a pretty large voting block, but to those who observe closely, these two groups just don't fit well together. What is it about the faithful do Republicans want (besides their vote)?

Their blind faith.

If someone can believe - against all scientific evidence to the contrary - that the world was created in six days just 10,000 years ago they will believe in Trickle Down Economics. If they believe that the Koran was dictated directly into the ears of a first century man in the Levant by god they will believe that the President was born in Kenya. If they believe that they can speak in tongues with little flames dancing over their heads, they will believe - despite mountains of evidence - that anthropocentric global climate change is a hoax. If they believe that an early first century Jewish teacher - who may or may not have ever actually existed - was the literal "son of god" they'll believe that corporations are people. If they believe any or all of the above, they'll believe just about anything you tell them.

That's why the Right has courted the religious in America. Their ideas and theories have been tested and found wanting many times. They were losing voters; they could see the future and it was not all white men nodding their heads sagely at the preachings of rich white men at the head of businesses looking only to improve the bottom line. But they were not in a hurry to let go of their power or their money. Maybe other writers have come to the same conclusion but I'm sure the editors of major publications would never let this be written for public consumption. In any case, I've never read this anywhere else. But it makes perfect sense. In a twisted kind of way.

And it scares the hell out of me.

Monday, March 19, 2012


The media, especially those who claim to be experts in financial matters, like to say that the markets don't like "uncertainty," I think they are wrong. Some investors don't like uncertainty, but that creates opportunities for other investors. All-in-all, as usual, the big players win.

The rest of us?

We are the ones who really don't like uncertainty. Even in a so-called recovery - where all of the benefits of the turn around have accrued to the One Percenters - we are left with uncertainty. As a microcosm of that take my wife and I.

I've been laid off twice in the past two years. The first time was when the (then) largest company in the world figured they weren't making enough money (that was the year they made more money in a year than any company ever) and outsourced the work of the group I was in to Brazil. The second company was just a mess, but here I am again: unemployed, over 50 and trying to find a job. My wife has a great paying job for that same large company (still in the top 5) but - once again they are claiming they are not making enough money - there are rumors that the division she works for is up for sale. The corporation has not said anything to its employees yet - they discovered their new helping of uncertainty in an article in the Financial Times. What will happen to her when they are sold? What will happen to her if they can't be sold?

You want to talk about uncertainty?

Here in Rochester, Xerox has sent most of the jobs paying liveable wages overseas; engineers, researchers, etc. But they've gotten big press here lately for opening up a call center where they will hire 500 workers. I got a call from a recruiter recently about one of these "wonderful" jobs; it pays $25K a year. What a great deal Rochester got for the tax breaks I'm sure they gave Xerox to bring those jobs here!

Meanwhile, the One Percenters only have to worry about where they will buy their next home or where they will shelter their next million dollars. They are uncertain about how they can keep their tax rate in the single digits. They worry about how their companies can outsource more and more services so their earnings can get larger and larger. They are uncertain about how to get the unemployed to take a urine test for drugs before they get their unemployment payments so they can keep their single digit tax rates (there's your trickle down). They worry about how they can funnel more money to their favorite lawmaker so that those tax rates will never rise.

That's uncertainty I could live with.

Friday, March 09, 2012

My Creative Side

If you've visited here for long enough you know that I've occasionally posted photographs. Photography has become quite important in my life; maybe someday I'll make a business of it. But for now, I do it for fun, for relaxation and to scratch that creative "itch" I've had all my life.

To help myself along that path, to try to learn a bit more and to widen my audience a bit, I've started a photo blog. My intent is to tell the story of one of my photos; maybe about how I took it or where I took it. Maybe it will be about how that particular picture makes me feel. I want the blog to be a conversation, I want to learn from those who visit.

In any case, go visit my new photo blog, it's called Robot Retina. The tag line is "Exploring Photography and Inspiration Where Photons Meet Electrons; at the Robot Retina." Let me know what you think. Join the conversation.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Millions Pushed Into Child Labor in US

I borrowed most of the headline right off of the MSNBC site; but given Newt's recent comments and the general hatred on the right for any kind of social contract it could be true some day here as well.

The real headline: "Millions pushed into child labor in Pakistan."

And if you think it sounds Dickensian, well...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Dick Tufeld with The Robot
I remember rushing home from school in the late 60's so that I could catch "Lost in Space" on the local UHF TV station. The early episodes were in black & white and the later ones were in the gaudy, over-saturated colors of the 1960's.

The special effects were pretty bad, the acting was even worse. But it was the only afternoon science fiction I could get; Star Trek was shown in the evening when I had to share the TV with my sisters or my parents (none of whom were fans of the show). Nevertheless, I loved the spaceship, the Jupiter II and - most of all - the Robot.

Mostly he was just called "Robot," but in the scripts and (I think) the original pilot he was technically designated B9 (benign). Whatever you called him, I loved the concept of a helpful and friendly robot.

That was the long way to get to the point that I just found out that the voice of the robot, Dick Tufeld died last week. His voice was distinctive and could be heard on many shows created in the 60's and 70's. He even reprised his voice-over role for the (horrible) 1998 remake of "Lost in Space." Audiences cheered when they heard his voice again after so long.

Now that voice is silenced as is the Robot. Never again will Dick - in the guise of B9 - utter that famous phrase: "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" Farewell, Dick Tufeld. Farewell, Robot.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Life Aint Fair

Conservatives are upset at the number of references to "fair" in the SOTU speech. "Life's not fair!" they claim. On that very narrow point, I agree with them.

But here's where their argument falls apart.

Life is not fair. In a strictly Darwinian sense, life in the jungle, life in the caves, life on the African savannah was not fair. But one of the reasons that we are all here, able to have this conversation, is that our ancestors worked to make life a little more fair. They banded together for protection; they worked together at hunting and gathering - and later at agriculture. They helped the old, the young and the sick not just because it was the "right thing" to do, but also because those who might have been seen as a burden in the days of roaming the savannah were now able to help on the home front.

Just about every societal advancement our ancestors worked so hard to create was in an effort to make life more fair. A conservative commenter on one of my Facebook friend's posts about the SOTU - in reference to fairness - stated "when YOU feed a poor child that's [good], when government does it that is... evil."Really? When only the government has the resources to reach all of those in need, even then their feeding of a hungry child is evil?

I want to live in a fair society. When conservatives can look around the ideological blinders even they want to live in a fair society. Can anyone really imagine that they want to live in a truly Darwinian society where only the strong survive?

Let's Try This Again...

News of my demise is greatly exaggerated.

The last time I wrote an "I'm back!" post, I really thought I'd be able to keep up with The Fulcrum again. The job I found, and worked at for nearly a year and a half, wound up taking almost literally all of my time. Working 10 hour days was common; weekends too. Even holidays were not safe from it's reach.

Now I'm back on the job-hunt. And there's an election coming up. And there's so much to discuss.

This time I really do mean to post here - and keep posting. I'm working on my blog roll; if I've left off someone important, I apologize. The new Blogger templates and editing tools are taking some adjustment. 

Let's see how it goes!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Americans Are Stupid

A community center is not a mosque. Yet liberals have allowed the Tea Baggers and the rest of the xenophobes on the right to frame the discussion around a "mosque at Ground Zero." As Keith Olbermann stated, it's not a mosque and it's not at Ground Zero. But Keith is the only person of note saying so.

If the (absolute) least common denominator gets to set the frame how is it possible to have an intelligent conversation?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Taking To The Streets?

This post on Tom Dispatch by Bill McKibben is worth the read. Why aren't more people enraged by the lack of progress on Global Warming?

McKibben lays out 3 things that need to be done to move forward in a meaningful way on what is literally a life and death issue. One of those things is that we're going to have to get loud; we may have to get arrested. His last paragraph:

Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we’ve got. It’s not going to go away because we ask politely. If we want a world that works, we’re going to have to raise our voices.