Sep 29, 2010

Remember Carl Sagan's Cosmos? It Aired 30 Years Ago this Time. He Popularized Science and Hooked Many of Us in Awe!

Thirty years ago almost to this day, PBS aired Carl Sagan's COSMOS and made history. Science and its fruits were finally presented in such a way that most people could understand and, yes, be in awe!  I didn't have a VCR or a way to record this program except put an old tape recorder next to the TV and capture the sound. Listening to those tapes years later I still found the series extremely interesting.

"We wish to pursue the truth where ever it leads..." Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan had a gift of taking complicated scientific subjects and explaining them to the public. Some scientists criticized him for over-simplifying science, but he understood that the great scientific discoveries and knowledge should be something excites everyone. We need more of this, and we should have academic programs specializing in the Public Understanding of Science. Not only because, after all, it's public money that supports much of science, but because science is the best tool we have for understanding the world around us. Not to mention that we live longer, better, and healthier lives because of science.

Until the 17th century, the Church controlled knowledge in Europe. Of course, controlling knowledge is one way to control people. Any alternative theory was deemed a threat to the status quo. Free thinkers are a threat to dogma and absolutism. The more a person learns, the more questions he asks, the more chances that freedom and free inquiry will become a necessity.Knowledge is empowering. 

I often have to pinch myself when I see that, despite all the learning opportunities and tools we have at our disposal, so many Americans remain willfully ignorant. How else can you explain the war against science, and the scientific illiteracy of our fellow citizens?

If a specific knowledge is claimed by anyone, then the starting point should be, which kind of knowledge is better? The one arrived at by inquiry, evidence, and rational thinking, or the one that "feels right" or secretly revealed to the select few and can't be challenged? 

If you dare to learn, ask, how do you know the things you think you know? 

Like Hitch says, claims without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Sep 25, 2010

The Arrogance of Those Who Did Bad and the Need for Strengthening the Middle Class

It's amazing that those people who are saved by the government are also against government--not just inefficient government--but scream against the expanding powers & scope of it. On This American Life [link to follow when they make this segment available], I listened to a segment about Wall Street people who never ever want to acknowledge (not even to themselves) that they screwed up and their companies & jobs had to be salvaged by a big government bailout!

Edvard Munch's Vampire. [yes, there's an analogy somewhere here]
Most Americans are under the impression that the marketplace is the best mechanism for everything and that pure capitalism is the order of all things. No, the state has lots to do with the marketplace. For one, it protects the businesses, creates opportunities for new entries, regulates behavior to protect consumers, and ensures competition. All these are desirable qualities. The fact that there are failures should lead us to examining the causes and improving the performance of our institutions.

The Republicans run on a platform of limited government, which may be a good principle as an alternative. Personally, I'm in favor of efficiency, honesty, transparency, accountability, all in the service of our commonwealth--or, put it in another way, in service to the people of our country. But, what is the best way to serve the people? Leave it to the "invisible hand of the market" only? Not sufficient and might even be dangerous without the appropriate safeguards.

Like any other country, we have powerful myths. Yet, we often should check with reality. For example, do we live longer than other advanced countries? Are we more educated? Do we have more leisure, are we less affected by crime, are we happier? If not why not? 

Most advanced countries seem to have decided that a strong middle class is necessary for a better quality of life and for the political system to serve the people, not the elites. Extreme concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of the few isn't good. Greater such inequalities exist in dictatorships and less advanced countries than in advanced liberal democracies, who rely on their government & the laws to correct injustices and lack of opportunity.

Aristotle who was very critical of democracy--the common people participating in the decision making process of their polity--but he thought it was the best regime to promote the interests of the many. He argued for a government bound by popular consent and one that serves the middle class. He was in favor of a Republic, as the framers of our constitution were. But, he was adamant about having a strong middle class, not extremes of power and wealth.

Now, guess what, those responsible for royally screwing our government and the country (not to mention other countries) want to be in power again--and they may be able to capture the House of Representatives. Their "new" ideas are those old ideas about giving tax cuts to 2% of the population, less regulation in Wall Street, and, oh yeah, no consumer protection, or creating opportunities for those who need their government to represent the people's interests.  

How's this for a new Republican idea, their energy saving proposal: construct all roads downhill...

Sep 20, 2010

Apparently God Can't Intervene When Priests Bugger Boys in His Church. The Pope Just Covers the Evidence, Offers Regrets in Hindsight. All is Well Then. No?

In Africa, a new wave of witch hunt is going on and many Christian churches are taking advantage of the superstitions. Even children are sometimes accused of demonic possession if a parent suddenly dies. Other individuals are hunted down because they are either possessed by demons or are witches/warlocks. Religious leaders offer solutions to this problem of witchcraft and the devil's doings. The gullible faithful believe and obey, and they flock to the churches.

What's wrong with this picture, you may ask. Some in our society would dismiss such problems as endemic in primitive societies. Yes, the more primitive a society is the more ignorance and superstition exists. However, even an advanced society can be fertile ground for superstition and idiotic beliefs. Actually, our own country has many unscrupulous leaders who peddle such nonsense, and, incredibly, there are millions of Americans who buy this crap and want to shove it down our throats.

If I can convince you that there's a curse on you, then I offer you a remedy, that I (or my reps) can lift this curse for a fee or for strict obedience... then, I'll have a great scheme going for me. Not going to happen because we have modern people with enough education and smartness? Not so fast... It has happened over and over again, and it's happening right now, here in the US, Europe and every other country.

So, everyone is born with original sin--religion has convinced people of that. But, don't worry, there's a solution to this problem. There's somebody whose father sacrificed him to pay for the sins of others and to prove that his father loves us. {I love you, therefore I'm going to kill someone for your benefit} Then you can communicate, telepathically, to him that you accept him as your lord and savior so the curse can be lifted. This curse was placed on you because the very first couple ate the fruit of knowledge and was kicked out of paradise. Ever since, all humans begin in guilt/sin and it's up to them to beg, bargain for salvation. Easy, if they pay up (support the church and its minions) and listen to God's reps on Earth.

I suppose since every single person at time of birth bears the scar of sin is why the murder of children to pay for the sins of their parents is acceptable--in a Biblical sense of course, because modern civilized societies have a more rational approach, thank God.

Now here's this Pope--whose church's dogma proclaims that he's infallible in matters of faith--telling us that atheists are responsible for evil-doers like Hitler and Stalin. Really, Mr. Pope? I don't know, but I'd think any monster doesn't kill in the name of atheism, and even if he did, he doesn't represent the non-believers. Yet, the Catholic Church, and all major religions have officially sided with monsters in perpetuating crimes against humanity, over and over again.

If a child is raped, I want the perp to face criminal charges in a civil court of law, and not judged only by God after death. Oh, yeah, how should I interpret the practice (and often the official policy) of the Church covering up the crime and exhorting the victims to remain silent?

As long as people remain sheepish and in abject fear, any scam is possible. I had hoped that there wouldn't be too many of them at the dawn of the 21st century.  Being lectured by a schemer is too much to bear. It's not accidental that the Christian story is analogous to that of a shepherd and his flock of sheep... They want people to be sheep that serve the interests of the master, are fleeced, and eventually killed.


PS. I hope it's clear, but if it's not, I'm singling out the Catholic Church for perpetuating a scam. All religious institutions, organizations who profess to know something they don't and who provide remedies for imaginary ailments are preying on the gullible, the ignorant, the weak, and the fearful.  

Those who would argue that so many smart and educated people can't be the types I describe here for accepting religion, I have to say that humans have the ability to hold contradictory beliefs in their brains, and, secondly, intelligence is many things... A person can be a brilliant scientist mapping the genome sequence but see a waterfall and think that Jesus has a message for him.

Stupid Rules: Can't Film or Make Sand Castles in Public Parks! [and, what the public shouldn't know]

This situation provides an interesting point of discussion about the role of government. What should the government do before, during, and after a disaster like the 206-million-gallon leak in the Gulf.  Seriously, should the government regulate and supervise certain economic actities? How is the public good being served? Assuming the government works in the interst of the public.

The video above demonstrates that government can have silly rules--like not filming or digging a few inches of sand in national parks, or that special & narrow interests have prevailed. It could be incompetence too. Why shouldn't the public know how well BP is cleaning up the spill on our beaches? And, shouldn't our government want to be transparent about such things?

Sep 17, 2010

Tea Parties + Republican Morass = More Disfunctional Politics

It seems that the tea parties have some success in the Republican primaries this year, producing nominees that are way out of where most Americans are politically. The teabaggers may represent a growing movement but I think such reactionary and rather extreme groups don't have much lasting effect once crises subside. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is being pulled further to ultra-conservatism and to a political base that's small and shrinking.

Irresponsible leadership, careless rhetoric, and promoting crazy ideas eventually comes back to bite you. The GOP will not compete for control of the Senate this year because of the teabaggers. Moderate Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) said today that if the moderates are endangered in the GOP, the party cannot be a majority party. In the northeast, ME has the only Rep Senators, while in the House there are zero from New England, and only 2 if NY is included. This may change in this election and the next, but this region--and for that matter most of the country--is not moving in the GOP's direction.

Think of the major policies, ideological stances, and the candidates on the Republican side. Do you see the majority of Americans being attracted to them in the future? I want a modern Republican party, one that promotes science, is tolerant & cosmopolitan. If it promoted fiscal responsibility in an honest way, it could be helpful. Please, don't tell me about Repubs being for fiscal responsibility since Nixon..  All have been big spenders and deficit peacocks... all show but no substance.

The budget cannot be balanced by cuts alone. Revenue is needed too. And, giving a trillion dollar tax cut to the rich isn't right and won't help either.  As long as the GOP runs on an anti-government platform, it should remain out of government. In a free and advanced country, the government is of-by-for the people. The "for" means the government serves the interests of the people not the elite's.

Did you hear about a country that 1 in 7 people live in poverty? Where the middle class wages have remained stagnant (adjusted for inflation) since 1973? Where almost 50 million people are still without or limited health care?... That's 1 in 6 with no health care insurance. Where infant mortality in some states is much higher than Cuba's and Iran's? Where the gap between the rich & every one else has increased and now it's bigger than the so-called Gilded Age?

Ah, freedom! It's a nice thing to have. But, it has to be connected to meaningful choices and opportunities.

Now let's observe how the Dems will screw this up once again. They should take the fight to the Republicans. Despite the former being played like a rag doll by the GOP during the first year of the Obama administration, they have to remind the voters who's responsible for this mess, that a wrecked economy can't be fixed in 18 months, and that this ultra-nutty GOP cannot be trusted with the keys to the government.

Sep 3, 2010

Those Who Wrecked the Car Want the Keys Back.... (Some Thoughts on the November 2010 Election)

It's the economy, stupid. September has been good on Wall Street but no so good on Main Street. Anywhere between 25 and 35% of our working force has felt the effects of unemployment since the Republicans were in office in 2008. The latter are saying now that the Dems haven't fixed the problems of the Great Recession in 1.5 years that they created when they controlled the government.

Unfortunately there's a big percentage of Americans who have short memory and float from side to side and often decide elections. They are low information voters, moved by impressions of power and outcomes. For the life of me, I can't see why voters would return control of the House to the Republicans. The congressional GOP has one strategy: to frustrate any Dem initiatives and make Obama one-termer. The hell with the country. Controlling one chamber (the House) will produce more dysfunctional government. Indecision, delays, bad laws, inaction, and a protraction of the economic crisis all are bad for Obama in 2012 and the Dems.

We can consider ourselves a bit lucky that the biggest threat to the Republican party right now is the tea parties. If it weren't for the teabaggers wrestling control from key GOPers, the Dems would also lose the Senate this year. Take for example Dem Harry Reid in Nevada. He would be trailing by double digits today if his opponent wasn't such a nutcase. Instead he's ahead by a couple points. 

Now, what has the Dem in the White House and those in Congress done? Not much. They have managed to alienate their most reliable and active base--the progressives and those groups that believed the country would finally get bold leadership to pull it our of the morass the conservatives had sunk us in. But, no such bold leadership came despite huge majorities, a huge electoral win, and high approval ratings when Obama took office in Jan. 2009. 

Drildo. Many voters will be satisfied (one way or another) in November
I've written lots on this wasted opportunity and how the Dems have been incompetent in managing their good fortunes after the last general election. Let's look to the future now. But, in a democracy with popular elections there has to be some kind of strategy, good communication with the public, and, yes, a clear & bold policy. The president usually wins public fights with Congress if he knows how to play the game. He has to be out there every day saying articulating a clear policy while pointing to the obstructionists. The current president should see how Clinton played the Republicans when they shut down the government via their congressional leadership.

The economy will be a major factor in this election and it ain't getting much better between today and election day. But, from Labor Day on the voters pay more attention to politics and begin to form their opinions. 
  • Bigger than 5% points in polls by end of this month will be insurmountable by election day. Time to act is now.
  • In a low turnout midterm election the more energized base produces huge advantage. Thus far, the Dem leadership has failed to energize its base. Why? Because, they shied away from legislation (jobs bills, tax breaks for the rich, immigration, etc) even if there are big majorities in favor of such bills. The Times has an article on college voters, here.
  • Obama must set forth a clear agenda now and make a promise to implement it one way or another. He should establish clear objectives and send a clear message to the Republicans and Dems that he's going to be a stronger leader than he's been so far.
With fewer Dems in the Senate and a minority in the House it's imperative the Dems show more solidarity. Their electoral fortunes in 2012 will depend on this. And, the country will be better off. The Republicans are going to have a brawl with the teabaggers one of this days or the GOP will cease to exist as a party that represents a big chunk of the country. Tea party candidates are way out of the mainstream and I don't think they can sustain their initial success, but then again they may capture the GOP whose white, southern (regional) stronghold is shrinking.

The bottom line is who can convince the voters that they can do a better job with the economy after the November election. In theory there should be no contest, but in reality... well, we're seeing it right now. I just think there's a small (and getting smaller) window for the Dems to stem their loses and retain control of the House. Yet, I wouldn't hold my breath on this one.