Friday Potpourri

1. This morning, over coffee with my wife and daughter, we were discussing a recent project to refloor the kitchen at Diablo Valley School using one of those prefab wood-looking vinyl ‘flooring systems’ (gah!). The young dad who headed up the project is what we call ‘handy’, a term of art among people who are accomplished at working with their hands. The subject of layout so as to get a nice look across the two rooms involved came up, and I used the term ‘snap a line’.

Is the phrase ‘snap a line’ a shibboleth? Would it distinguish the ‘handy’ from the civilians?

I suppose that many people my age straddle two worlds. I grew up with people who said things like ‘snap a line’, ‘throw a tape on it’, ‘eyeball it’, among other colorful phrases, and said things like ’12 gauge galvanized’ as a complete description of an article. Men who could fix their own car or a brake press, and build a shed or a house if need be.

Then I went to school, and for the first time, was among the sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. One summer, a team of my fellow students got together to help build a hall for a church. I vividly remember talking to another guy about how amazed I was at people for whom a hammer or a hand saw were mysterious foreign objects, how they’d choke up on the hammer or bend the saw blade trying to get them to work, with little success. No sooner had I spoken than over wanders the son of a prominent doctor, who picks up a saw and starts in doing exactly the awkward unspeakable things with it to an innocent 2×4 that we’d been just discussing.

My reaction to the idea that my college student buddies’ dads and families were more enlightened or intelligent, somehow, than the working stiffs I grew up with is visceral. The guy who did the layout work at my dad’s sheet metal shop was as smart as most of the professors I’d had; the dude who ran the brake presses was a skilled and competent as any accountant. Sure, there was this tiny minority of academics and professionals who really were the cream of the crop, intellectually – but the run of the mill? Utter mediocrities.

Just like there are stupid welders and farmers, there are stupid doctors, lawyers and college professors. That layout guy grew up on a farm in the hills of Arkansas, joined the Navy, passed through California and decided he’d like to live there. His meticulous, orderly mind, with which he could have learned surgery or constitutional law, was instead applied to translating blue prints and specs into finished product, so that less skilled men could follow the steps and get good results. That brake press guy came from a family that immigrated to California from Mexico. His attention to detail and care and accuracy could easily have been translated to any number of professions. But, for him, doing brake press work was a satisfying and meaningful use of his talents. He could, if he wanted to, take a drive through downtown L.A. and point to the fascia on a number of buildings, and say: I did that.

These are the sort of people who, if you were looking at that floor at school, would know exactly what you meant if you said: throw a tape on that, then we can snap a line and eyeball it from there.

And it would come out beautiful.

2. I’ve pointed out previously the distinction between human endeavors where reality can be used to validate theories, and ones that are impervious to real-world outcomes. An engineer, an accountant, a physicist, even a mathematician – they can make ‘mistakes’, they can fail. The building falls down, the columns don’t foot, the tracks in the bubble chamber don’t map, and the theorem can be disproven. Other areas are immune to trial, but rely on, I don’t know, intellectual consonance – they feel right, I guess. It takes discipline to say, for example, ‘As far as we can tell, the Book of Genesis was first compiled and written down during the Babylonian Captivity, but of course records are sketchy back then, to say the least’ versus ‘the Book of Genesis was first compiled and written down during the Babylonian Captivity.’ The first is a reasonable guess, and the reasonable expectation is that we could look at the evidence and tentatively agree or disagree; the second is simply telling us what’s true – except, barring the invention of a Pastwatch or other time machine, we’ll never know.

History is full of weird, unlikely things that happen to be true. It’s just possible, for example, that Genesis was written down or orally established in its current form centuries before the first evidence for it that is known to us. And we’ll never know, and need to be humble before that fact.

And this is a relatively harmless example. Once you loose that humility before the unknowable, the hounds of Hell are unleashed. Once the unleashed get to be department chairs (and thus, gatekeepers) they can keep out those annoying people who disagree. That’s how we end up with Studies departments, in which it can be safely asserted are NO voices that challenge any of the wild leaps upon which the intellectual structures, such as they are, get built.

I keep thinking that handy guys would be less inclined to fall for this kind of stuff. Maybe.

3. A very cool thing is happening in sports: using advanced statistical analysis to determine the value of players, plays, and behaviors. It’s actually been going on for decades, first in baseball (which has lots of discrete events, such as pitches and at-bats, that are easier to observe and quantify) and now is hitting its stride in basketball (which has few discrete events – every shot or foul or turnover is part of a very fluid context of moving players doing different things). The interesting part: the stat geeks can come up with observations: teams that shoot a lot of 3-point shots do better, comparatively, than teams that don’t . The initial reaction of a coach or player is to say: yea, teams that shoot a lot of 3 point shots are the ones that tend to have the better 3-point shooters. Having better 3-point shooters makes your team better, QED.

Then, the stat heads come back: even for teams that shoot a lower than average made 3-point shot percentage, it’s better to shoot more 3s.

And here’s where the fun begins: the claim is that your team would be better off shooting more 3s even if your percentage made is worse than average. Why? Now we need to get some theories going, and then test them. The latest advance in professional basketball is a thing called SportsVu – a set of cameras that watch entire games and track the location of every player, their proximity to all other players, whether they have the ball or not, and a gillion other things. NOW we can see what happens when teams start chucking up 3s at a higher clip – and miss. We can test theories.

So, we have a situation where there are millions – billions, really – of dollars riding on the outcome of these analyses. Players will be cut or hired based on their ability to implement theory; coaches and GMs will be judged by how well their teams conform to theoretical optimums. One player on our local team, the Warriors, is Draymond Green, who was a second round pick a few years ago after a less than dazzling college career. His traditional professional stats – points, rebounds, assists – are very pedestrian. But – according to advanced analysis, he is a superstar. All sorts of good things happen when he plays, the most important of which is that team tends to win when he plays.

Green is up for a new contract the end of this year. As little as a year ago, he would be looking at getting at most $3-4 million a year (a middling NBA salary); based on his SportsVu and other fancy stats, he is now looking at getting $17 million a year or more – from some hard-headed business people who are convinced by the advanced statistics.

Funny ol’ world, isn’t it?

Book Review: The Book of Feasts and Seasons

The Book of Feasts and Seasonsseasons_256 is a collection of short stories by John C. Wright. Many of these stories first appeared on his blog, and so I had already read them there; one (The Ideal Machine) appeared in the first issue of  the Sci Phi Journal. A couple I had not seen before.

Short & Sweet: 10 great stories for under $0.50 each? Are you kidding me? Where do you get that kind of bang for the entertainment buck these days? Go buy this now!

All the stories are very good, several are tear-jerkers in the best sense. They are organized according to the feasts and seasons of the Catholic liturgical calendar, and invite contemplation on how they relate to these. Let’s run through them:

1. New Years: The Meaning of Life as Told to Me by an Inebriated Science Fiction Writer in New Jersey. This story reminded me of that genre of pop song that tries to see how many pop references it can make in under 4 minutes – we have the author and a famous Sci Fi writer discussing the ultimate meaning of life via references and allusions to dozens of different classic stories. It’s funny and fun, even for me, who maybe generously got 25% of the references.

2. Epiphany: The Queen of the Tyrant Lizards. Mr Wright’s ‘let me show you how this is done’ rewrite of the very slight and frankly adolescent Hugo-Award winning If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.There’s nothing exactly terrible about the original story, except, perhaps the laughable characterization of the Bad Guys in the Southern bar – gin? – and it’s hard to see what in it makes it speculative fiction – mentioning dinosaurs? – but holding this bit of indulgent fluff up as the finest example of speculative fiction in a short story produced over a entire year strains credulity past the breaking point.

Mr. Wright’s story is everything If You Were a Dinosaur isn’t – mind-bending speculative fiction, deft, startling, true to life where it should be (readers of a more historically grounded mind will appreciate the portrayal of the 1950s) and, in the end, emotionally complicated. The only emotional bang in the original story comes from having your prejudices against ignorant Southerners confirmed, if you lean that way. (I imagine Mr. Wright, as a Virginian gentleman himself, took a little umbrage.) Really, the original story expects you to emotionally identify with a woman standing over her dying and comatose fiance and telling him about her dinosaur-based revenge fantasy.  That doesn’t exactly fly, emotionally, for an adult. Continue reading “Book Review: The Book of Feasts and Seasons”

Talk Me Down

Are things really getting worse at the speed they seem to be, or am I just now noticing? Sometimes, I like to read Sarah Hoyt‘s blog just to get the part at the end where she says something like “in the end, we win.” While no Pollyanna, she has confidence that the manifest contradictions and disconnection from reality of our betters and their mindless sycophants will eventually cause them to self-destruct like so many hungry squid in a barrel. Evidence that the useful idiots in this battle have started to eat each other is not lacking. It’s just that history suggests it will be hard for us to stay out of that barrel.

It is completely Catholic (in general – I don’t know anything about what Hoyt believes) to believe, as my wife likes to say, that everything comes out all right in the end. If everything isn’t all right, it’s not the end. At the same time, history is the story of the forces of civilization and truth losing almost every battle, and yet building something good anyway – only to see it destroyed. Over and over again. We may win in the end, but not before evil has its day. It has its day or ten in every generation.

So now, we get to live out the two great distopias of the last century a the same time: In our Brave New World, people are to be measured by their productivity and their happiness, where productivity means doing what you’re told, and happiness means avoiding pain and getting all the consequence-free sex you can stand in whatever form you want it. That they’ll murder you when you get old is a small and reasonable price to pay. I’ve often wondered if the current generation would think Huxley’s world a paradise. If not, why not?

But I think Orwell’s world is worse, even in its comparatively nascent form as we have it now. It is with something like nostalgia that I recall that we live in a land where the simply and accurately named Department of War got renamed the Department of Defense, a process of obfuscation that has continued to the point where we now have, in addition to defense at arms, various departments, all armed to the teeth and fully outfitted with the latest surveillance gear, to ensure our Security, national or homeland, and Bureaus to define and defend us, evidently, against ourselves. Where defense against foreign aggression ends and policing begins is purposely unclear, in language first, then in practice. The Committee of Public Safety has been shown to have been lacking in vision, or at least funding.

However heinous and stupid, all that stuff could be kept at arm’s length, or at least, seemed that way. Just keep your head down and plow ahead. Now, our betters must break what’s left of our affection for the truth. We are all Winston Smith. We all must ritually sacrifice the truth or be cast out into the outer darkness. If, for example, we imagine biological sex has something to do with the differing roles men and women have filled throughout every culture and tribe that has ever existed, well, let us be anathema. We must acknowledge, for example, that Creationism is bad anti-science, but that gender theory is good anti-science, so good that the term science must be bled white of all meaning in order not to contradict it. We are called to a Two Minute Hate of the largely imaginary Intelligent Design threat, while giving tenure to professors who despise science as one of the ways Oppressors keep this week’s Oppressed down. We are expected to tweet that science is a tool of white male privilege on devises and over networks built upon centuries of rigorous logic applied to understanding the natural world, with no sense of irony, let alone hypocrisy, at all. And they’re just getting warmed up.

I ponder these things because I see myself getting maneuvered up to Caesar’s altar and handed incense. So far, I’ve let things pass in silence, or simply worked around them. The couple times I’ve had people try to get me to use the wrong or imaginary pronouns in order to protect some poor soul’s RPG from reality, I’ve just used no pronouns at all. Keep my head down and plow ahead.

Soon, I expect this to no longer work. Thus, I contemplate what the our own little corner of the world will look like in a couple months. In the meantime, my brain spins on overdrive, imagining scenarios, arguments and counter-arguments. But we are not to prepare what we will say. Maybe this will all come to naught, who knows? We are told to be not afraid, and to be free from all anxiety. Let us pray that we can.

Just Go Read John C Wright and Mike Flynn Already!

Wherein they talk about ignorance and, almost like magic,cause it to thereby diminish somewhat in the mind of the attentive reader.

You can start here for John C Wright: The War of Ignorance versus Faith

And here for Mike Flynn: Hypatia Part I: The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria

And there’s tons of other great stuff there as well.

A humble comment on the unfathomable ignorance among even or especially the well-educated: In order to do what they were designed for, it is not enough for the schools to leave students utterly ignorant. They must also convince them that they stand at the apex of human intellectual achievement and open-mindedness, thus inoculating them against ever learning anything. The merely ignorant might get curious – can’t have that in the well-managed state.

Science! Discovers Aquaman

Well, not really. But it’s a little like it, as follows:

Yesterday, Agellius put a link in a comment to this article, which is about the same long-term ( as in 11,000+ year) temperature study I’ve posted about here and here. (Still have not come across a link to the study itself.)

Quick summary: A team compiled various temperature proxies, such as ice core gas concentrations and tree ring and sea shell growth in order to estimate temperatures world wide since the current interglacial period within the current ice age began about 11,300 years ago. This effort represents the best guess at how warm the climate was at various times since the ice sheets melted.(1)

This is fascinating stuff. You’d think, at least, you’d think if you were an educated amateur like me, that the results of such a study would become the base input of any climate model, that alleluias would ring in the climate modeling world, and everybody would drop everything to see how well their models *back predict* what *did happen*. Right? Because if your theory is that atmospheric CO2 is a major driver of earth’s temperature, and you build a model that predicts increasing temperatures as atmospheric CO2 increases, then – Voila! Here is a data set against which to test your theory! Atmospheric CO2 levels can be figured out from the CO2 trapped in ice cores. So – did lower levels of CO2 correspond historically to lower temperatures? Higher levels to higher temps? If not, then we’d presume your theory is *wrong* or, at the very least, in need of the kind of significant tweaking that tends to make the Baby Occam cry.

Science works from what has happened to predict what will happen. When I say: iron melts at 1,538°C, what I’m saying is that, back in the day, we melted some iron and, according to our fancy thermometers, it melted pretty consistently right around 1,538°C, and therefore, according to our theory of uniformitarianism, it should melt right around there if you try it again today. Or if I say: anything reasonably heavy and not too funny shaped that I drop from a reasonable height here on earth will accelerate at 32’/sec^2, all I mean is that that’s what has happened in the past when I dropped something heavy, like a metal ball, from a reasonable height, like the top of the tower of Pisa.(2)

The steps involved in fancier science are fancier as well, but it boils down to the same thing: as Feynman put it, first, we take a guess – we propose a theory that explains what we already see (the easy part). Then, we see if, using the theory, we can predict what we will see in some unusual or previously overlooked thing. The theory is proved, in the ancient sense of tested, by the match between the new observations and the predictions – the theory can be proved ‘false’, which in this sense means, effectively, unhelpful in predicting future observations. Or it  can be proved ‘true’, which likewise means useful (or ‘skillful’) in making predictions.

It is absolutely fundamental to keep the stuff we know – the data or facts – separate from the things we’re guessing – the predictions or forecasts. They are not only not the same thing, but stand to each other as knowledge and hope, such that knowledge doe not change, but the hope can stand or fall.

With that in mind, look at this graph from the article suggested by Angelius and linked above:

11K year temperature graph

There are a whole bunch of objections to be made here, (3) but we’ll focus on one; this graph not only combines data with projections as if they are the same thing, but even uses the exact same weird color scheme and scale so that, even if you think to look for where they pull the old switcheroo from facts to projections, you’d need a magnifying glass and psychic powers to figure it out. That scary-looking uptick at the end? That’s almost entirely *projections*. As the essay (no doubt sheepishly) admits:

It suggests that we are not quite out of the natural range of temperature variation yet, but will be by the end of the century.

Sooo – The actual data is within the range of ‘natural’ variation, but, if we kludge on the projections, *then* we can panic. It is as if someone took the body of an ape and sewed on a fish’s head – and then claimed to have found Aquaman.

Perhaps we should update the graph by projecting the next 85 years of this century based on what has happened over the first 15 years? You know, use the data instead of the projections, then make future projections based on the newly available data? If we did that, that whole scary-looking spike at the end magically vanishes! Only if the theory that has so far failed to predict anything correctly is, contrary to reason and experience, true, do we have that spike. Hmmm.

Finally, note the range of the anomalies.(4)  Even if the model were, despite all evidence, true, the projected change from somewhere in the 19th century to the end of the 21st century is lightly more than half a degree centigrade. Even the worst case, granting a theory thoroughly discredited by that little thing we like to call ‘Reality’, would be way milder than the 6 to 9 degrees that gets tossed around by panic mongers. And, just a little tidbit: if thousands of years of warmer temperatures didn’t melt the icecaps starting back 9,500 years ago, it would seem we could stop worrying about that happening until some number of centuries sometime after 2100.

1. Not that they have completely melted yet – there are still a few glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. 3.5 million years ago, those didn’t exist – that they do still exist is why we are still in an Ice Age. As far as we can tell, our current climate is an unstable ‘hiatus’ within a 3.5 million year (and counting!) age of ice sheets and glaciers and all-around unpleasant living conditions for civilized people. The ice sheets will most likely come back sometime between any minute now and a few tens of thousands of years – blink of the eye, geologically speaking. Astrophysicists think the current ice age will eventually end as the sun warms up as its hydrogen mix gradually gets leaner, until, in about 1  billion years, the sun gets hot enough – red giant hot! – to at least boil off the oceans and the atmosphere and maybe evaporate the planet entirely. Best case, the earth is a toasted cinder.

2. The science part in this is making careful, controlled observations – the iron used is pure enough, the temperature and thermometer are controllable enough, to get consistent results. Science is also a part of what we mean by ‘consistent results’ and ‘observation’ and so on. There are always definitions, theories and tools in science – applying them is how one makes ‘facts’. Facts, in turn, require an understanding of those definitions, theories and tools. As Mike Flynn points out, facts do not speak for themselves, but are rather part of a Greek chorus of science.

3. I especially like how we graph ‘anomalies’ rather than temperatures – this highlights how difficult it is to even imagine *a* number that represents the temperature *of the world* at any point. Already, we’re deep in theory: the ‘fact’ of the ‘anomaly’ is created by application of definitions, theories and tools we can’t see. There is nothing obvious about this graph. It’s also good to note that the entire range of the anomalies is about a degree and a half Celsius, while the thickness of the scribbles – which traditionally represent some measure of the uncertainty of the guesses – are almost a full degree themselves. The uncertainty is as large or larger than the claimed change in the anomaly. Finally,

Thermometre measurements only exist back to around 1860, so when climatologists reconstruct historical temperatures, they must use proxies. Tree rings, for instance, are useful because they are thicker during warm years when trees can grow faster.

Did they switch to thermometer data starting in 1860? If so, why? Why not continue to use the proxies, so we have a consistent measure? a scientist would want to be very clear on this point, not leave it to the reader to guess. Also, it’s curious to note that, once satellite measurements became available for the whole planet in the mid-’90s, the temperature stopped going up. Inquiring minds want to know: how does the proxy data look over the periods where we included or switched to thermometers and satellite measurements?

4. Perhaps the anomalies don’t map nicely to temperature? They don’t seem to, somehow, at least not obviously. What good would they be, then? This graph is less than helpful. .

Science! A picture is Worth a Thousand Lies

So, in order to gin up some panic about global warming during a very cold and snowy winter, the New York City Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying that sea level might rise 6′ in the next 85 years.(1). Now, of course it *might* happen – anything that is not logically impossible *might* happen. In fact, it is fervently to be hoped that, as the climate changes (and it always does!) the sea level rises rather than falls. If – almost certainly when – the ice sheets  return, as they have many times in the last 3.5 million years, a 6′ rise in sea level will look like a minor inconvenience by comparison. On the plus side, if the ice sheets return, those folks worried about Quebecois independence or preserving the Taiga forests could stop, as Canada and the Taiga would then be under several miles of ice.

Of course, melting the ice caps seems to take many thousands of years. And the evidence suggests that the ice caps have endured centuries at a stretch of temperatures as high and higher than they are now – and they’re still there. So, there’s that counterpoint if panic isn’t your cup of tea.

Here’s a picture that accompanied one of the numerous articles on this topic:

Sinking statue of Lib

A 6′ rise? So, the Statue of Liberty is about 8′ tall, including the base? Let’s check in with the Oracle Wikipedia: 

  • Base to torch: 151 feet 1 inch (46 meters)
  • Ground to torch: 305 feet 1 inch (93 meters)

Sooo – looks like the water level in the picture is up maybe 250′? *Slightly* more than 6′. If all the icecaps in the north and south melted, then, yea, 250′ is not out of the question. But nobody even a little sane is suggesting anything like that. Last I checked. I hope.

Of course, to get even a 6′ rise, you’d still need some combination of much warmer (expanding) water and significant ice sheet melt. This *might* happen. What one wants to know is: how likely is it to happen?

From what we know or can reasonably entertain, the chances are small. Very small. So small you’d be better off worrying about asteroids, gigantic volcanoes and huge earthquakes – other events that also happen from time to time, and have caused incredible amounts of damage.

How unlikely? First up, based on the best recent studies of ancient temperatures, in the last 11,500 years since the current interglacial period started, temperatures were as warm or warmer than they are now about 25% of the time – almost 3,000 years! But the ice caps didn’t melt. So we’d need much warmer temperatures, much lager time frames than 85 years, or both, before melting icecaps become likely.

Which brings us to point two: the temperature hasn’t increase in the last 18 or so years.(2) What if that trend is *the* trend for a while? Perhaps, over the next 85 years, temperature don’t materially change, or go up only slightly. Then the sea level changes not at all or only slightly. Astrophysicists studying the Sun’s output think this might come about. At any rate, we can look at a trend than runs from, say, 1970 to 1998, and figure temperatures are going to continue to increase rapidly, or we can look at a trend that runs from 1998 to 2015 and conclude temperatures are not changing at all within the sensitivity of our instruments to detect such change. Or some other span, with some other trend – me, I like the ‘since the current interglacial began’ span, or, better, ‘since the current ice age began’ – 11,500 years and 3.5 million years, respectively. In those spans, temperatures go up, down and all around, despite human beings making no contribution to atmospheric CO2 during the vast bulk of those times.

Third, despite the bath Lady Liberty is taking in the picture, 6′ is the outlying extreme – that’s if all the variables in the models (models that have consistently failed to predict anything – always keep that in mind) fell toward the worst case end of things. But, so far, for 20 years running, the measured temperature has fallen at or below the low or presumed best case predictions – no hockey stick. So, even going with the hopelessly flawed (as in: wrong) models currently used, the chance is slight.

But, boy, is that picture scary. I think they should have gone all in, and used this picture:

Big Wave

It’s only slightly less realistic than the one they did use.

1. They add ‘in New York’ to the claim, which makes sense for a report put out by a group with New York City in its name until you think about it. New York, as opposed to anyplace else? It would require some ‘splainin’ (a) to say why New York gets a different rise in sea level than, say, Tierra del Feugo. In marketing, we talk sometimes about bringing the message home – sea level might increase 6′ in Tierra del Fuego as well, but since your average reader could be easily convinced those exotic lands abut the Islets of Langerhans by the proper application of furrowed brows and stentorian diction, we’ll let it slide.

a. I here footnote a footnote: of course, there are differences in sea level from place to place, and differences in sea level change – the crust, until only recently weighed down by unimaginably massive ice sheets, is still bouncing back in some places – and dropping in others. And expansion caused by unequal warming, and so on and so forth.

2. Saying, as was trumpeted earlier this year, that 2014 was the warmest year ever based on a .02 degree imputed change which seems to have had to do with warmer lows, not warmer highs – well, that’s not ‘warmer’ in any material sense. It might even be cooler, given the nature of the interpolations and other fudging, not to mention that .02 degrees is a lot more accuracy than the instruments permit. It’s an estimate, folks, based on assumptions and subject to a high likelihood of error.


A Pox Upon Both Parties: What I Mean By That

Many people I respect think it is insane or irresponsible to take the position I take: I’ll vote for whoever seems the best candidate to me with little respect for their party affiliation, and on other ballot measures without regard to what the various parties have to say about it.

By not supporting the GOP, for example, it is assumed that I’m somehow succoring the enemy, that, whatever the evils of the Evil Stupid Party, it’s still much to be preferred to the Stupid Evil Party. Further, any time I don’t vote for a Republican for Congress, it is said that I’m helping the Democrats in their quest to appoint even more goofball judges and officials unencumbered by the law of the land.

However, it is abundantly clear that factions wed to political parties get screwed at the drop of a hat. Take labor, for example. For decades, organized labor was a huge part of the Democratic Party, and there was no chance Democrats were going to pass anything that labor wasn’t OK with.

Then a funny thing happened. Union membership *outside of government jobs* declined to the point where non-government union members were just another faction – they weren’t running things anymore, but were merely one of a number of groups within the Democratic Party. And – critical – all those years of identifying with the Democrats left them no where to go – the Socialist parties that had arisen in the ’30s had been subsumed into the Democratic Party under FDR so completely to have effectively disappeared, and the Republicans had been so long portrayed as irredeemably evil that switching to *them* was not an option. The loyalty and support of labor for the Democrats had reduced them to slaves: they feel they must vote Democrat, even when the party betrays them. The options – going Republican or forming a third party – just aren’t viable – yet. So, they live on the scraps that fall from the master’s table as labor relations at a national level devolves to the government ‘negotiating’ with itself in the form of government unions. The one thing the government and the government unions agree on is that more government (and therefore more government jobs) is the single most important thing, the sine qua non underlying any government proposals at all. That some manufacturing jobs might get shipped overseas as a result is beneath irrelevant. What matters is that government jobs be protected, and that there continue to be more of them.

Clinton got NAFTA passed in 1994 over the strenuous objections of labor. Yet labor voted and continues to vote strongly Democrat. Would this have ever happened had the unions played more coy with their loyalties? If they had cultivated relationships with the Republicans, and thrown a few elections to the Republicans once in a while just to make sure the Democrats knew what’s what? This seems ridiculous – unions organizing behind a Republican! What drugs am I on? – but only because the idea of party loyalty, an idea condemned by Washington, Adams and other founding fathers, has so thoroughly corrupted our political thinking as to have rendered us effectively insane.

Another, worse example, from a recent essay in Crisis, concerning the decision by the USCCB to continue their support of the Democratic Party despite its complicity in the legalization of abortion:

The bishops’ conference staff provided two conflicting recommendations. As their pro-life lobbyist, I recommended that the bishops conduct a major campaign to educate and correctly form the consciences of American Catholics to their responsibility to elect candidates who support the Common Good, which is protecting the human life and respecting the human dignity of every person created by God (including the unborn). And those candidates who refused to support the Common Good would be morally unacceptable for public office. The laity’s responsibility included being involved in their political party so that Common Good candidates would be recruited and nominated for office.

The Social Development and World Peace staff at the bishops’ conference disagreed with this approach. They dealt with the economy, poverty, food policy, housing, human rights, military expenditures, and U.S. foreign policy, and felt their goals and prudential judgments were more reflected by the Democrats in Congress. I was told sometime later of their concern that Roe v. Wade would cause Catholics to seek the protection of the unborn by voting for Republicans (most were pro-life [90+ percent]) instead of Democrats (about 2/3rds were pro-abortion then [94 percent now]). This shift in the Catholic vote would necessarily hurt their legislative agenda. So a campaign should be undertaken to convince Catholics that there was justification to vote for pro-abortion candidates. Their view prevailed and they pursued with the relevant bishops’ committees the first-ever Catholic voters guide published in 1976, called the “Political Responsibility Statement” (now called Faithful Citizenship). It would be the primary tool to achieve their objective.

See how that works? The lobbyists on the bishops’ staff were more concerned with passing (what history has amply shown to be dubious at best) social legislation than with upholding the truth. At the time, huge numbers of Catholics, the vast majority, were reflexive, congenital Democrats due to a history where immigrants had been courted and cared for by Democratic party programs and institutions.(1) The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles in places like Chicago and New York could be counted on to be the most loyal Democrats one could hope for – after all, they had been given the police, construction and garbage collection jobs by the likes of Tammany Hall and the Chicago Machine in their darkest moments. Their undying loyalty was the least they could do.

Imagine, again, that the USCCB had gone with Recommendation A, launched that massive education campaign and made it abundantly clear that Catholic support of programs and policies was a case-by-case issue, that there was no way they were letting pro-abortion candidates off the hook. Imagine that a few elections had even been thrown to the Republicans early on, in the mid ’70s. Now what?

It is beautiful to speculate: all the sudden, 70 million voters are in play – and the parties must compete for them election by election! Do the Democrats move pro-life? Is there any doubt? BUT – and this is wildly under-appreciated by those who cannot imagine supporting Republicans – the Republicans move toward policies more palatable to Catholics as well. Each party is struggling, fighting, polling the living daylights out of Catholics to see what they need to do to get and keep power.

In this fantasy scenario, *both* parties must take the concerns of Catholics into account at every election, because they cannot count on the zombie-like consistency of their easy-to-neglect bases, bases which have been maneuvered into a ‘where else can we go?’ corner.

My considered opinion: for a Catholic to identify as a Republican has been just as disastrous to our social and moral interests as has been the Catholics who identified as Democrats in the past. Pro-Life Republican Catholics get bamboozled Every. Freakin’. Time. by political shell games – how often have we been promised action on pro-life issues, only to get another law delayed, another cipher appointed to the courts, another bunch of congressmen sitting on their hands?

The point: they know they can get away with it. They know, because we’ve allowed ourselves to get backed into the corner from which we have no choice – what, we’re going to vote Democrat?

Well, maybe. Imagine if there were 30-40 million voters (2) – enough to decide any national election – who simple refuse to embrace party loyalty, voters who had to be courted each election, and who show a real willingness to throw the bum out if he lets them down? What if the polls showed a Democrat that he would get those votes if he were pro-life? He might have to do the math: I lose support from the DNC, I lose some of my base – but I win! Hmmm.

I would like to throw doubt and confusion into the minds of our politicians. I want them not to be thinking how far they can go against the interests of loyal factions and still get their votes, but rather fear that they’ll be looking for a job next election if they don’t deliver, no matter what the policies and planks of the national committees of their party.

The key first step? A pox upon both parties.

1. That many of these Democratic Party programs and institutions involved graft, bribery and intimidation was, possibly, less obvious and objectionable to people just off the boat from countries where the political system was far worse.

2. As Mr. Magundi pointed out here, both parties spend the bulk of their efforts courting such independent voters. Why would we not want to be in that place?

In the News: If You View This Molehill From Exactly the Right Angle…

Record number renouncing American citizenship

From this headline alone, one could imagine the story going any one of a couple different ways:

  1. Fed up liberals moving to Norway or an equivalent and burning their passports in disgust (unlikely);
  2. Rich people picking up their marbles to play someplace nicer to rich people (we might wish this to be true, for it confirms all some of us suspect about the world);
  3. Pouty, fed up right-wingers moving to….? Nope, doesn’t fly at all;
  4. Some combination.

Or ‘Other’ I suppose, but, there’s that ‘record number’, so there must be a *reason* people are renouncing their citizenship in record droves.

So how many people are we talking about here?

That record number is: 3,415.

Oooo-kay. Out of a population of 319 million, slightly more than .001% renounced their citizenship last year. Renouncing American citizenship isn’t quite as rare as dying in a shark attack, but it’s slightly less likely than drowning. It is even a tiny percentage of the 7.6 million American expats, from whom these renunciations are assumed (below) to be coming. On the other hand, 654,949 people became naturalized citizens – nearly 200 to 1 in favor of getting citizenship rather than renouncing it.

So, we’re talking about a tiny trickle of people renouncing their citizenship. Who might these people be? It would seem like #2 is the front-runner. CBS Newswatch tells us:

Avoiding Uncle Sam appeared to be a prime motivator, after a new U.S. tax law was enacted that makes it harder to hide assets from authorities. A survey from deVere last year found that almost four out of five of its clients, who are primarily American expatriates, said they would consider handing in their passports because of the law, which is called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FACTA.

“Treasury Department data show that a steadily growing number of individuals have been giving up their U.S. citizenship over the last few years,” said deVere Group (1) founder Nigel Green in a statement. “It can be reasonably assumed that this trend is in direct response to complying with the onerous, expensive and privacy-infringing FATCA, which finally came into effect on July 1 last year.”

While the numbers picked up sharply last year, the trend for Americans handing in their passports has been rising since 2010, the group noted, when FACTA was originally enacted by Congress. The law, which went into full effect last year, requires foreign financial institutions to report the financial holdings of U.S. clients, or else face a 30 percent withholding tax on a range of payments from the U.S.

Note the phrase “harder to hide assets”. You know, these days it’s harder to hide who you’ve been talking to on the phone, where you’ve searched on the web, and what goods and services you’ve legally purchased. Because those things, too, are the business of the government, just as your assets are. Therefore, only criminals and people with bad intent would ever make a fuss over such things. Calling it an intrusion and overreach is merely a dodge.  Without commenting on the merits myself, here CBS does give a hint here where their sympathies lie.

How about the Wall Street Journal, whose sympathies perhaps lie elsewhere? They say:

“Many Americans abroad are finding that retaining their ties is not worth the cost and hassle of complying with the U.S. tax laws,” says Andrew Mitchel, a lawyer in Centerbrook, Conn., who tallies the lists of names released quarterly by the Treasury Department.

He links the growing number of renunciations by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to a five-year enforcement campaign against U.S. taxpayers who have undeclared offshore accounts.

Jumped from almost nobody to a very few people.

The campaign began after Swiss banking giant UBS admitted in 2009 that it had systematically encouraged U.S. taxpayers to hide assets in secret Swiss accounts. Since then, more than 45,000 U.S. taxpayers have confessed to hiding money abroad and paid more than $6.5 billion in taxes, interest, and penalties.

But the campaign also complicated the financial lives of an estimated 7.6 million American citizens living abroad, leading growing numbers of them to give up their U.S. ties. By contrast, over the five years through 2008, fewer than 500 individuals a year on average renounced their citizenship or long-term residency.

Unlike many nations, the U.S. taxes nonresident citizens on income earned anywhere in the world, and U.S. tax liabilities can also apply to children born to Americans abroad. There are only partial offsets for double taxation for people who owe taxes both to the U.S. and a foreign country, and the reporting rules are onerous, experts say.

So, as is so often the case, it’s a little complicated. Swiss banks, which have been involved in a remarkable number of unsavory things for centuries, are involved – no surprise. The kind of people who keep their money in secret Swiss bank accounts – which I’m supposing usually aren’t the kind of people working overseas teaching English, for example – maybe really were doing something illegal and perhaps even wrong objectively apart from the law. But how much sense does it make to have to pay taxes for the privilege of being an American citizen even on money you make – and pay taxes on – in another country? And the government’s insensitivity to and underestimation of the work involved in filling out forms is pretty legendary.

It looks like (hard to be sure) this law did nab some of the people intended. It also looks like a huge number of other people had their lives grossly complicated and made more expensive to no productive end. Renouncing citizenship isn’t even a dodge, since, according to the article, it doesn’t let them off the hook for activities prior to such renunciation.

Tax law tends to be a shotgun, when a target rifle is required. The blast has an annoying tendency to destroy the entire target in order to hit the bull’s eye.

1. The deVere Group is interesting. It started out as a brewery, became a hotel chain, and is now largely a money management firm serving international clientele.

The On-Marching of Science! Technical Solutions a No-No?

As always, cruising the Google News science feed.

Years ago, I think it was in Wired, I read an article where a bunch of ‘futurists’ (1) and Sci Fi types were asked to make predictions for the coming (this, here) century, which were placed along a time line: by 20XX, this will happen, and so on.

All good, clean fun. In among the other predictions were 2 regarding Global Warming (the marketing department hadn’t got to them yet) and CO2. The prognosticator prognosticated that, sometime early in the century, we’d use technology to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in order to stop global warming. Then, the same seer envisioned that, later in the century, we’d be pumping that sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere after things started getting too cold.


It seemed to me unremarkable that someone would propose a technology solution to this ‘problem’. It’s almost always easier to introduce new technology than it is to get people to change their behaviors. (2) Besides, isn’t the last 200 years or so the story of the remaking of the world through technology, of moving much of the 80%+ of people who were subsistence or near-subsistence farmers into work that allows them to live past age 35 and afford phones and cars and stuff? So, wouldn’t the most direct, logical thing to do be to look for technological solutions to difficult problems rooted in human behavior? Worked well in the past, at least some of the time.

But, no. Now, finally, out loud, some have dared to suggest the solution to Global Warming might be technological.

Wrong answer. Here are some headlines and selected snippets:

Blocking Out The Sun Not The Best Way To Fight Climate Change… Yet (Forbes)

Drastic measures like geoengineering are seen as a last resort for heading off the impacts of climate change, but scientists are beginning to look seriously at the possibility that the time for such techniques will inevitably come.

Note that ‘geoengineering’ is a drastic measure, but reducing much of the world’s population to penury via totalitarian micromanagement of their lives (what every ‘reduce CO2 emissions’ proposal means in practice) is NOT drastic. Right.

‘Giving geo-engineering to this US govt is like giving a CHILD a LOADED GUN’ (The Register)

We’ll just leave it at that, while pointing out that giving the UN enough power to stop anyone anywhere on earth from, say, clear-cutting a forest, building a coal powered power plant or a plant to manufacture cement – things generating a lot of CO2, but kind of important for civilization – is TOTALLY DIFFERENT. No way the UN would abuse that sort of power! Only a hopeless cynic would ever think such a thing!

Geoengineering May Cool the Earth, But Cutting CO2 Emissions is Crucial (Science World Report)
U.S. agencies may have been reluctant to fund this area because of the sense of what we call ‘moral hazard’ – that if you start down the road of doing this research you may end up relying on this or condoning this as a way of saving the planet from the cost of decreasing CO2 emissions,” said Penner. “But we’ve stated that decreasing emissions must go hand in hand with any climate intervention efforts.
Having someone suggest the US government might not want to do something because it presents a “moral hazard” in a world where that government just spent several trillions of our and our future children’s tax dollars to make whole financial institutions that gambled the economy into a collapse is, I don’t know, ironic? Hypocritical? Clueless?
The hazard, here, from our government’s point of view, is that technological solutions might work, obviating the massive multinational power grab that reducing CO2 emissions necessarily entails. Or, even more realistically, that we spend our time over the next couple decades developing these approaches – and things don’t get warmer. Even the most reality-vaccinated among the pro-panic crowd might be given pause by a 40 year ‘hiatus’. (3)

Highly Cited:These Strategies to Modify the Climate are Dangerous, Immoral, and Barking Mad (Slate Magazine) 

Can always count on Slate for the calm, balanced view of things. Turns out the author is a dude who is a lead author on the IPCC Third Assessment Report, which is a test case for the proposition that corporate money is hopelessly tainted, while government money, in its driven-snow purity, carries with it no  pressure at all to reach the conclusions the government would like to hear. Government money, according to this theory, is spent with cool logic in an enlightened search for truth, as is manifest in how military contracts, government jobs and mining rights are awarded. For example. We never see any corruption or problems with those, so it would be absurd to think there are any problems here, either.

And so on, with, by now, hundreds of incestuously written articles quoting the same couple people and making cookie-cutter arguments. The positions taken run from “OK as a last-ditch effort as long as we also cut CO2” to “double-plus ungood! Too evil to ever mentioned again!”

Me, I’d like to see technological solutions explored – seeding the oceans with iron seems the most obvious one, especially since you could do it on a limited basis, stop and check out the results for a few years, then proceed or stop based on the outcomes. Such limited test cannot be said to threaten an ocean we dump millions of tons of sewage and waste into every day. You know? Despite certain heads exploding, it’s hard to see why this is so evil – except that it might work and is really, really, cheap and requires no massive intergovernmental apparatus to execute. Can’t have that.

But we explore these things to use them *IF* rising temperatures occur as predicted by reasonable models that can account for the ‘hiatus’. In other words, models that usefully predict something, unlike the ones we have now.

1. Futurists are a little like ethicists – what, exactly, qualifies one for this sort of job title? I guess it’s at least possible a futurist could be wrong. An ethicist can always skate on the outcomes of his recommendations by furrowing the brow and embracing his hard and lonely destiny.

2. Especially in situations such as the current climate panic, wherein the people most panicked are the same people benefiting the most from the practices they condemn – it’s not third-world peasants jetting to exotic locations from their comfortable, well lit and well heated homes to attend climate conferences.

3. Just kidding! If recent history shows anything, it’s that there’s no limit to what True Believers will be willing to explain away in the name of the Cause. See: the persistence of Soviet apologists, and those who see China as an emerging paradise except for all the capitalism.

A Few Observations

Yes, I’m crass enough to notice page views.

1. I hope you’re sitting down – detailed posts on Hegelian philosophy do not generate the number of page views one might hope. It’s like people don’t even care. Perhaps the souls of people who don’t view those posts are in a better place than mine – easy to imagine – and they don’t need the years off Purgatory?

2. I may be the web’s go-to guy for analysis of John Donne’s poem “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day.” Google has me in the top 6 results, in there with actual scholars and stuff. Also, a surprising number of people seem to wander over to view a post about the Fra Angelico’s Annunciations (there are 2) in San Marco’s in Florence. True story: my wife and I saved up money the first year after we married and took a trip to Italy – Rome & Florence, really. It was fun. We were two of only a handful of people in San Marco’s, and I, still only a couple years removed from art school, was giving – you’ll find this completely hard to believe – a little running lecture to my bride on the images in the brother’s cells. Soon, I noticed a small clot of tourists following us around – I apparently missed my true calling as an English-language Italian tour guide, which would work as long as the tours were of the tiny handful of things I know anything about, sort of like St. Joseph of Cupertino’s oral examination question.

At the end, we had a brief, fun discussion with an elderly German couple who seemed to enjoy my blathering. Elderly meaning about the age I am now. Sheesh.

3. But the winner, at least for as unfocused and cat-picture-free a blog as this one, it to review books by people other than Hegel.

That reminds me – got some Flynn and Wright beckoning from the book pile. It’s about time to read them.