Monday, November 14, 2011


Today the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a/the challenge to the Affordable Care Act. I still haven't heard a satisfactory explanation of how the federal mandate - which is at the core of the court challenge - is any different in kind from how the tax code works to reward/punish homeownership through the mortgage interest tax deduction.
Both the HRA and the mortgage interest deduction work through the tax code.  If you don't purchase health insurance you pay a penalty - basically an additional tax.  If you don't purchase a mortgage and deduct the interest, you pay a differential tax relative to what you would pay if you had purchased (and deducted the interest from) a mortgage.
In neither case do are you actually forced to buy something.  In both cases, the tax system is used to punish those who don't purchase the privately-supplied product that the government is trying to get you to purchase.
So, what's the diff?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Death Panels are so yesterday

Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast blogs about Ron Paul's response to Wolf Blitzer's hypothetical question on whether care should be provided for someone who is deathly ill and has no insurance.  (Thanks, for the URL, Yvette!)

My commentary on top:

In addition to asking the Libertarian/Tea Party folks for consistency in repealing the emergency room care law on the books, if they don't like the health care mandate (Sullivan's suggestion in the blog link above), how about a pledge from Tea Party types that they won't use emergency rooms that they can't pay for?  Maybe they could wear MedicAlert style bracelets coded to refuse care for the wearer in public hospitals or in private hospitals that required insurance?  A kind of "do-not-resuscitate" toe tag to be worn by Libertarians and Tea Partiers who have a coherent and principled world view...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Paucity of Hope

I just have one disagreement with Drew Weston's otherwise great piece on Obama in last Sunday's NYT.   And that's the title, "What Happened to Obama?"

I don't think anything happened to Barack Obama.  He is the man he always was.  In the swooning days of 2007 and 2008, some of us on the left distrusted the cult-like status of the man and his campaign.  His admirers (and detractors) weren't seeing him clearly.  Many people projected their desires and fears onto him.

With time, we can now see more clearly who he is.

And who is that?  Not a fighter.  Not a leftist.  Not a reformer.  A conciliator, pragmatist, centrist and technocrat.  Definitely not what these times call for. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

30 days without a workplace incident!

I heard Christine Lagarde interviewed on PBS today about the seriously crazy US "debt ceiling" food fight and the crazily serious Eurozone debt crisis.  She's the new head of the International Monetary Fund, replacing Dominque Strauss-Kahn on 28 June 2011. 

She sounded pretty competent.  And so far she hasn't sexually assaulted anyone. 

Good start.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Demolished Man

The tragedy in Norway last week has me thinking of one of my favorite books, “The Demolished Man”, by Alfred Bester (1953).  Without spoiling this old science fiction novel for those who haven’t read it, I just want to say that an important idea in the novel is that destructive power capable of ending humanity may ultimately lie in each and every human’s hands.  The author suggests that with the knowledge of this power, we may find ourselves developing a sense of responsibility for all humanity.  Perhaps that sense will allow us to each do the right thing, and to act in a way in which every person assumes responsibility for every other person, and protects all humanity from an ultimate demolition. 

Or, perhaps not.

As technology development speeds up in our reality, the capability for immense violence and destruction by individuals grows.  Terrorist attacks, shooting sprees and the prospect of the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by fanatical extremists are all examples of this fearful trend.

Soon, the fanciful prospect laid out in The Demolished Man will be our reality.

What will we do, I wonder?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Al Gore for President

and, if so called, I will accede to my countrymen's cry to run as his vice-president.

See Al Gore's article in the Rolling Stone on climate change, President Obama, and the future of the Earth.

Monday, July 11, 2011

factoid for the day

Fun Fact for the day:

The sunlight photons that reached the Earth at this moment was created in the core of the Sun about 30,000 years ago, while the neutrinos that reached the Earth at this moment were generated about 8 minutes ago.

Monday, June 6, 2011

my she-Luddite

It's interesting to watch my girlfriend move steadily in the opposite direction from my technology arc.

Yvette now has:
(1) no cell phone
(2) no working home computer
(3) no internet service
(4) no social networking connection
(5) no cable television connection [OK, I don't have that either]
(6) no mp3 player

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

O vs O

According to the Google Ngram Viewer tool, Osama was ahead of Obama for a long time, by a 10:1 margin before 2002.  Though Obama recently scored the final win in 2011, Ngram doesn't presently go past 2008, and so doesn't show it.  Still, it's clear by Google that Obama had Osama beat by mid-2004, somewhat surprisingly.  I would have predicted that Osama would be ahead of Obama until 2007.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Planet Money & the national debt

Great "Planet Money" podcast today.

I learned that (1) our founding father's decision to run a national debt is what made the US such as desirable place for investors to park their money, leading to the long term dominance of our economy, and (2) the one time when we paid off the national debt, it was immediately followed by one of the worst depressions we've ever experienced.

I think I've listened to every single Planet Money podcast to date.  They've produced almost 300 of them since the early days of the financial crisis of 2008.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

winter solstice in my San Francisco neighborhood

My little part of San Francisco is Bernal Heights, which is an isolated hilltop at the transition between the Inner and Outer Mission Districts and the eastern edge of Noe Valley.  Here's a taste of my neighborhood from Christmas/solstice 2010:

Red Hill Books, 401 Cortland Street

Ducking into my the neighborhood bookstore, I get recommendations on Brazilian authors and children's books. The folks there always have answers. 

La Altena, Mission & Virginia Streets

At the counter of this cheap Mex resto on Mission & Virginia, I order my usual chile relleno plato in Spanish.  They answer me back in English.  I then speak to them in English.  They answer me back in Spanish.  As usual.  In spite of the language confusion, they don't forget that I like extra corn tortillas.

Mission Street

I'm now walking north on Mission St, towards the Mission District itself.  Though it's early, it's long since dark on this shortest day of the year.  Post-rainful, I occasionally squish cardboard food containers, now pulp.  I pass my old night time cafe haunt, Socha Cafe.  They're going out of business.  It's inexplicably staffed tonight, but as has been the case these last few weeks, the door is locked.  The night shift guy - who is superficially charming, but on a closer look has a malevent edge - is apparently running out the clock on his employer.  Collecting his minimum wage while he sits with friends inside drinking beers.  I gotta find a new place.

Esmeralda Minipark

I hike up the steep stairs of the Esmeralda St mini parks.  These parks are built around stair cases that run through city land, threading from the western lower reach of the Bernal Heights where it almost reaches Mission Street, extending all the way to the park up on Bernal hilltop.  Each set of stairs has a narrow little park around it, and each has been made in a different style.  Near the middle park - which is a block below where my house is and one park down from the slide  -  I hear soft music, but coming from out-of-doors.  Clearing the last step, I see a handful of people and a handful of dancers in the flat concrete platform at the top of the stairs.  Someone is playing an old accordian, and another person is holding sheet music under an umbrella to shield the sheets from the drizzle.  Turns out they are "sword dancers."  Sword dancing is apparently some kind of traditional English dancing.  I know this only because of an old-fashioned sandwich-board style sign, hand-lettered, which gives a few details on the group.  Resting on the traffic bollards ringing the minipark are small cooking pots with lids.  I edge over and lift the lids, and smell cider and punch.  Another bollard holds a bowl of popcorn.  A kid motions for me to help myself to the treats.

The swords are clearly dull, but they are heavy metal.  In one maneuver, the dancers form a circle, raise their swords and interweave the blades together to create star-shaped object that one dancer can hold aloft and parade around.  They repeat this several times - it's kind of cool.  One time, though, a dancer got clocked in the head during this complicated move.

The dancers wear a kind of uniform: white puffy shirts, black pantaloons, yellow stockings and shoes with buckles.  Everyone is middle aged.  Everyone wears glasses.  Rain drops bead up on the greasy lenses of the dancers that move by me, the drops briefly glinting yellow light from the sodium street lamps.

The gathering is too small in number to clap hands rhythmically, though it's obvious that is what we should be doing.  Some observing kids hold lanterns, their parents appearing intent on making this into a holiday ritual.

The dancing line snakes away.  One dancer announces the name of the group and invites everyone to her mother's house to finish off the punch.  Instead, I take my plastic cup and continuing walking up the Esmeralda steps, through the rain, home.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

observations in the wake of OBL's death

Some observations in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death:

(1) In spite of all the fears we have, we're among the safest, most secure people who have ever lived.

(2) National unity is nice, but uniting around an assassination, no matter how richly deserved: not so nice  (the President's call for unity notwithstanding.)

(3) bin Laden and al Queda never presented an existential threat to the US, to Western civilization, or to our way of life.  Only our reaction to him and to them could existentially threaten our society.

(4) There is really only one thing to worry about with respect to al Queda and Islamic terror: the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists.  We can pretty effectively prevent hijackings, mass murders, other terrorist "spectaculars" with modest defensive measures like changing airline procedures, selectively guarding high value, high risk facilities like chemical factories and famous buildings.  We should really only be focused on halting nuclear proliferation.  That task is technical, diplomatic, economic, intelligence-gathering in nature, with only a weak militaristic component. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

turning the other cheek

Me: "The Internet thingee is saying that Osama bin Laden is dead"

Policeman friend: "Think they'll drag his body through the streets of Kabul or where ever?"

Chaplain passing by: "I sure hope so!"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Who let the dogs out?

The Chronicle goes on record supporting new rules and new enforcement of existing rules on dogs in federal park land in San Francisco.  Good for the Chron.  Dog owners in America have become very self-entitled through the years.  The presumption used to be on the side of controlling your dog in every encounter with humans, pets or wildlife.  Now the default is to let dogs be dogs, and only control them in certain situations.  Not so much "Dog Is My Copilot" as "Dog Is My Frat Brother".

Things I've heard over the years from Bay Area dog owners:

"Haha!  He's never done that before!"
"Oh, he's just being friendly."
"Dogs!  What are you gonna do, huh?"
"If she wasn't jogging so strangely, he wouldn't have reacted that way."
"Oh, he just likes to act tough!"
"Ginger!  Come here!  Come!  Here!  GINGER!  COME!    Oh, well, hahahaha!"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Argana Cafe

Whirling dervishes, pastilla (with whole pigeons baked in), and a swirl of languages made up our New Year's Eve celebration at the riad that I was staying Dec 2004/Jan 2005.  Friends Chris and Hannah had journeyed on to Essouria on the Moroccan coast for a few days by themselves.  I wandered through the Marrekesh medina and Jemaa el F'na.  Occasionally, I'd find myself in a slightly anxious position, with the men of Morocco trying to identify me.  Was I English?  French?  American?  I wouldn't answer to the shouts on the square, a little fearful that in those heated days of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq I might become a target.

Still, I walked around comfortably enough.  One afternoon, I took a long, early dinner at a well-known cafe.  The Argana.  It's in the guidebooks.  It overlooks the Jemaa el F'na.  It's Western-oriented enough that the waitstaff included pleasant young women.  They brought me wine, which is a little hard to find in many Marrakech establishments, and it wasn't clear to me that it was even on the menu.  Also, in a week in Morocco, I had grown tired of only interacting with men and boys.  I read my book, looked at the square, drank my glass, picked at the tagine dish.  A pleasant and relaxing afternoon for this tourist.

No one detonated a bomb in the Argana that afternoon.  But someone did this week, killing fourteen in the blast.  I hope the pleasant young serving women are still OK, Inshallah.

Monday, April 18, 2011

raiding agencies

The S&P rating agency has issued a warning that the US government debt may result someday in a downgrading of its credit rating.  Such a downgrade would be costly to the government and to taxpayers.  The warning is being taking seriously, and indeed, government debt is a serious issue.  Lots of pols and commentators have quickly taken up the warning in their talking points, most especially the deficit hawks and Tea Party types. 


Does no one see the irony that one of the credit rating agencies central to the financial crisis is being listened to uncritically?  Only a few years ago, the rating agencies were neck-deep in the fraudulence that made the financial bubble so frothy.  A quote from one S&P agency employee to another during the bubble offered in the context of what were obviously dishonest ratings by the agency: "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.

Our memories are short.  I hope we all ask a few more questions before uncritically accepting what S&P and other financial bad actors have to say about government debt. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

We must cut off our noses in order to save our faces

Let's see if I understand this correctly: Budget hawks, austerity buffs and the right in America are threatening to block the approval of the legal raising of the US debt limit.  The threat itself is widely understood as a large potential hazard to our borrowing, our creditors, and how the international bond market views investing in the US Treasury.  That is, the threat of not extending the debt limit means the US may default on its present debt obligations with known negative consequences.

Why is this threat being brandished?  Ostensibly to avoid future default of US debt obligations.  And theoretical future negative consequences.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

If I Were King of the For-r-r-r-rest!

The decisions to keep Guantanamo open and to try the 9-11 plotters in military commissions rather than in our court system make it difficult to come to any other conclusion than we are cowardly.  I supported Attorney General Holder's original decision to try KSM in federal court in New York City.  I wish we had the courage to uphold our professed values in our legal system, our constitution, and ourselves.

What do you think?  Can you offer a compelling argument that we are not cowards?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

all hail the chief

I'll commemorate the 30th anniversary of the attempted assassination of President Reagan with this thought:

It’s not very (small-d) democratic for our president to enjoy the elaborate security web that we’ve developed over the last half century.   If one citizen is thousands of times (millions?) more important to protect than another something is wrong with how we’re running things.  And if an entire metropolis grinds to a crawl when the president drives through town, we have at least the trappings of a monarchy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I, for one, do not welcome our new (non-computer) overlords

We're so afraid of class warfare here in the US.  In fact, the phrase is pretty much used only perjoratively these days.  But I'm quite happy to see the anger in Wisconsin and other places, in which ordinary people are finally starting to catch fire, like damper, flame-retardant versions of Mohamed Bouazizi.  I'm happy to see sparks of class struggle.

Will the (unsuccessful) fight put up by the public sector unions in Madison signal the beginning of a broader fight?  A fight to reclaim our society from the decades long trends of (i) scandalous wealth concentration, (ii) hatred of the public sector and of government, (iii) the nearly complete take-over of our governments by the wealthy and powerful?  Robert Reich argues the salient point: It's not just unfair that the wealthy have gained control over so much, well, wealth, but rather that all the concentration of wealth is corrosive to democracy.  All that wealth and power corrupts our political institutions, pays for our political system, maintains an infrastructure of lobbyists, captures our regulatory machinery, controls much of our political speech and media, etc.  The wealthy, the powerful and the G.O.P. would have us believe - DO have many of us believing - that our problems are due to government, unions, "special interests", the elite, liberals, etc.  Those arguments are smokescreens, distractions, herrings.  Our real trouble is unprecedented concentration of wealth in our society.

I had thought that a civic realization of the nature of the problem would be the first step in the restoration of a healthy, equitable and democratic American society.  But maybe not.  Maybe it's a raw rising up, Madison-style that is the first step, with the intellectual arguments coming into focus only after we start to really fight.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

...from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli...

Mexico is fast becoming a failed narco state.  We're already supplying the Mexican government with overt military, intelligence and economic aid in the drug war (the Mérida Initiative), and based on past behavior, we may be supplying covert military aid to Mexico as well.

Libya is in revolt, with the regime of Khaddifi killing citizens by the hundreds - maybe thousands. The pressure to somehow intervene in Libya is growing. 

How long before history repeats and the US re-enacts the opening lyrics to the Marine's Hymm?


Here's a typical story from my neighborhood in Bernal Heights, San Francisco.  I think the only thing this story says is that I live in a place in which people have time and money.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

thinking clearly about debt

In the 2000's, the country couldn't think straight about mortgage, consumer and public debt.  We went crazy, borrowed on silly terms, traded financial instruments based on sliced and diced mortgages, used our houses as ATMS, and borrowed lots of public money at the state and federal levels without putting it on the books.

Not very rational.

But we're not more rational about debt now in the 2010's.  Congress and the Tea Partiers are obsessed with our public debt.  And many of the rest of us are anxious about it.  But where's the evidence that we're in a debt crisis?  Today, borrowing is cheap by any historical measure.  That will change someday, and change rapidly.  But that won't affect the debt we've piled up, any more than rising interest rates will affect your fixed 30-year mortgage payments.  It may mean that we'd fairly suddenly have to cut public spending someday.  But where's the logic in cutting today?  Is it our plan to drastically and painfully cut services and public spending today so that someday when borrowing costs rise we don't have to drastically and painfully cut services and public spending?

Rand Paul said this week "Our whole economy is equal to our debt now."  But that statement doesn't mean anything.  If you have a $200,000 mortgage on your house and you make $200,000 a year, is there a debt crisis? Is your "whole income equal to your debt?"  It makes more sense to compare your debt service to your income.  And, with a 14 trillion dollar debt and 14 trillion dollar GDP, our debt service is maybe 5% of our GDP.  That's what matters, and by any standards of finance, paying 5% interest on income or revenue is good.  How much of your income goes to debt service?  I'll bet it's more than 5%.  Why should the nation be judged differently?

Part of what is going on is that we're just scared in a rapidly changing world.  Another part is that humans don't understand numbers very well.  Witness the endless journalistic mix-up between the words billions, millions and trillions.  Not a week goes by that I don't hear the numbers 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000  or 1,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000 mistakenly interchanged.  That's like mixing up 1 and 1000.

Breathe deep, work on your math skills, don't get scared by big numbers, be on guard for fear-mongering rhetoric and read my earlier post on the national debt.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

attention joiners!

After traveling to India last week where all sorts of religions co-exist AND reading a great expose in the New Yorker on L. Ron Hubbard's nutty cult, I'm tempted to start my own religion.  All I need is a good name.  "Scientology" is already taken.  I could use your help in coming up with a catchy one.

Here's the list I developed on my 25 hour trip back home:
  • Scientography
  • Scientonomy
  • Religionetics
  • Scientoscopy
  • Cultifics
  • Scientovedics
  • Temple-onics
  • Beliefonautics
  • Sciencoramics

Sunday, January 30, 2011

commie monopoly

Help me urge my friend Jeannette to post photos of the Monopoly game she made in Communist-era East Germany.  Her account of fabricating an East German version of the entire game is pretty interesting.  Leave her a comment and maybe she'll get her folks to send her some photos...

don't forget our amnesia

To those who are cheering the uprisings unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, be cautious in your celebrations.  Many cheering may be suffering from short term amnesia.  How many supporters of these popular revolts condemned Wikileaks?  Wikileaks is reportedly the oxygen that fed the fire from the spark of the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohsen Bouterfif.  Other cheerleaders may be suffering from longer term amnesia.  The theocracy of Iran began as the popular uprising against the American-supported dictatorship of the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The revolt in Egypt could yet turn away from the secular and towards the Islamic, as occurred in Iran in 1979.  (Tunisia seems a safer case.)

In addition to being careful what we wish for, we should try to remember what it was we wished for and what we wished against.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good vs. Evil

In the long-running battle between Good and Evil, Good seems to be gaining the upper hand.  At least, as defined by the historical frequency at which the words "good" and "evil" appear in the Google Google Labs "Books Ngram Viewer" quantitative analysis tool.

Good has increased in an absolute sense over Evil.   However, the all-important GER (Good/Evil ratio) has actually dropped from about 7 a decade ago to around 5 today.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

America dislikes democracy - a proof by ten questions

  1. why do we vote in such low numbers?
  2. why don't we want to pay for campaigns with public monies?
  3. why is "running against Washington" or "running as an outsider" such a winning strategy for public office?
  4. why are we so allergic to taxes?
  5. why are business people held in such high regard relative to politicians?
  6. why are the words "politician", "political", "public" and "government" held in such low regard?
  7. why are politicians oft assassinated in our history by ordinary citizens, but business leaders, labor leaders, educators, religious leaders, celebrities etc., are not?
  8. how can we explain the "hanging chads" of Florida and the generally poor funding of elections themselves?
  9. why do lobbyists make so much more on average than do our elected leaders?
  10. why do so many citizens think divided government is such a good idea?

Monday, January 10, 2011

video of Giffords talking about Palin "cross hairs" violent imagery

"Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Talk Palin Cross Hairs" - and in talking about Palin, violent rhetoric and the vandalism of her own office, foreshadows her own violent fate.

At about 2:20 in the Youtube video is the bit where she specifically talks about being in Sarah Palin’s "cross hairs."  

One might say this video was chill-inducing, if one's chill had not already been induced by all the crazy rhetoric on the right.  Yes, I say on the right.  All the commentator and media talk about the troubling "tone of our politics" across the political spectrum is dishonest.  It's the right wing of America that is using violent language and engaging in the occasional act of violence, not the left.  Responsibility for that tone - if not this particular act of violence - lies squarely with the right.  Will the right and Republican leaders own up to it?  If you answered "yes" you haven't been filling out your B*I*N*G*O card properly...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

why do we remember yesterday but not tomorrow?

Time's Arrow points in a definite direction.  So we think.  Or feel anyway.

I learned in my study of physics that the fundamental laws of nature do not indicate any such thing.  Sean Carroll talks about this in his excellent lecture on the direction of time's arrow and the nature of the Universe. 

Why do we remember yesterday but not tomorrow?  In a word, tidiness.  Specifically, the extreme tidiness that existed at the beginning of the Universe.  Expressed in the language of cosmology, the extremely low entropy state of the Universe at the instant of the Big Bang meant that entropy (disorder) would always increase with time.  Put another way, the fact that the Big Bang happened and that the Big-Bang-insta-Universe was a uniquely highly ordered and organized state means that the Universe would continually evolve into a more disordered and disorganized state over time. 

One consequence of the continuous increase of the entropy of the Universe is that conscious beings (like us) perceive the future as different than the past. 

Without the Big Bang, time would not point in one direction, and we would (if we existed in such a universe) remember tomorrow as well as we could remember yesterday.