Friday, April 13, 2018

Income inequality

Interesting short article in the March Smithsonian called "The Archaeology of Wealth" which touches upon research which traces the inequality gap back into history, upwards of 11,000 years ago.  The basis of the research is to compare the size of dwellings in archaeological ruins, calculate the Gini coefficient for each, then chart the changes in wealth disparity over time. 

First, what is the Gini coefficient?  In layman's terms, it is a statistical instrument developed by an Italian statistician in the early 20th century and has been generally accepted as a way to measure income/wealth distribution of a nation's residents.  The range is 0 to 1 where 0 represents a perfect distribution of wealth, while a 1 rating indicates that all wealth lies in the hands of a small percentage of the population. 

Second, since this is a statistical representation of a subject, we should be cautious when we assign a value to the results, in that a value of 0 may not necessarily be the ideal, and conversely, a value of 1 may not necessarily be the worst possible result.  Societies perception of wealth and its distribution has changed, and will continue to change as humanity evolves. 

For instance, having all the wealth in the hands of a local land owner with all the surrounding population working a plot of land near their small dwelling, turning over excess harvests to the land owner, might seem extremely unfair to all but the family residing on the top of the hill.  But, perhaps, if the land owner respected the work of those living under his rule, made sure not to leave the peasants, so to speak, with less than they needed, provided a system of rewards so their might be varying degrees of livelihood for those toiling the fields, then such a system, while low on the Gini scale, might result in a positive life for most of those subject to its rules. 

Conversely, a society where everyone has the same wealth but which that wealth is dispersed based on existence as opposed to contribution, may attain a high Gini score but not necessarily result in a satisfying experience for its citizens.

That being said, there is probably a sweet spot on the scale which equates to a society which tolerates some wealth inequality to encourage innovation, ambition, and achievement but without subjecting a significant percentage of its citizens to poverty, lack of opportunity or overt discrimination.

So, what does the article reveal about the research?  There seems to be a trend in that technology accelerates the disparity.  Whether that technology be the attainment of fire, the ability to farm and develop the land, the domestication of animals, or the creation of hedge fund accounts, as technologies develop, wealth distribution becomes skewed.  This, of course, sends a mix signal concerning the rapid advancements that are occurring in medicine, communication, transportation, and robotics.  While we can clearly see that advancing technologies has improved the standards of living for all of Earth's inhabitants, whether it be as simple as my ability to sit at my desk in Perkasie, Pa, and have my thoughts available to anyone on the internet anywhere in the world, or as complex as the effect that  social media has had on documenting atrocities in previously closed societies, or bringing the viewpoints of previously unknown perspectives right to our phones, it is also true that those same advances have created a class of people with wealth greater than entire countries of tens of millions of people.

To me, the question is how do we monitor wealth in our country, our world, to achieve that sweet spot I mention above.  Capitalism provides the means to reward those who put to best use their skills.  It fosters innovation and creativity by providing the positive results, money, possessions, freedom, which encourage even more innovation.  But greed is its main enemy, and when greed infects capitalism through doctrines that advocate selfishness and tribalism, capitalism can quickly produce a society high on the Gini scale and low on values that separate us from our animal heredity. 

Nora and I have been watching the new HBO series called Here and Now.  One of the characters, a friend of the lead couple of the show, Audrey and Greg, is known to them from their college days of anti-establishment protests.  Now, while he is trying to help Audrey in her attempts to teach compassion and understanding at a time when conflict and vitriol seems the norm, it becomes known that his wealth has been partially attained through his use of third world labor that features harsh working conditions.  Audrey is aghast at this revelation, wondering how such an idealist (past) could justify engaging in such abuse of fellow humans to make his fortune while he has long ago convinced himself that the wages he pays are and improvement, and that through their (cheap) labor he is providing millions of Americans with cheaper products, and that if he didn't do it someone even less nice than he, would be doing it.  And, of course, he believes that funding Audrey's positive programs somehow washes him clean of his human abuse, and that the two dramatically different ways he treats people evens out in the end. 

Socialism for all its suppression of individual achievement, can also act as a conscious and regulator to capitalism that runs amok.   Whether it be through programs for the most needy, safety nets for the aged and infirmed, or temporary assistance when unforeseen events occur, a socialistic outlook that recognizes our duty to take care of each other, especially those that are unable to take care of themselves, is a necessary filter through which we must gauge our capitalistic tendencies. 

Images of income inequality when shown to us through the horrible examples of third world countries where the leaders live a lavish lifestyle while the children of the poor have bloated stomachs and a one if five chance of death before reaching school age, make us shake our heads, hug our kids and thank god we live in America.  But income inequality reflected through million dollar mega mansions, CEO salaries as compared to minimum wage employees, multi-national companies that pick and choose their home base to pay the least taxes, and public servants that spit in the face of the electorate by using their positions to gain even more wealth and resources while dehumanizing those who turn to the government, we the people, for some aid, we somehow accept as a way to make America better.

The Gini scale indicates that the United States has a poor grade in the area of income inequality.  We can do better, we must do better, before we find ourselves in a future filled with wonderful innovations that only a small percentage of Americans enjoy. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Green Energy in Texas

Among the articles in the April Smithsonian was an interesting piece about the most populous city in America that is fully powered by renewable energy sources.  While the city that previously held the title, Burlington, Vermont, home to Senator Bernie Sanders, is no surprise, the current leader is a city of 67,000 people located in Texas.  Yes, Texas.

The article details how the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, a lifelong Republican, did the math after becoming mayor in 2014, and within 2 years Georgetown was completely powered by wind and solar energy.  What is even more startling is that Georgetown isn't producing this energy on its own, but is purchasing the power from Adrian, Texas, 500 miles away, and Fort Stockton, Texas, 340 miles distant.

There are two keys to this situation,  First, Georgetown owns the utility company that serves the city, so it can negotiate and purchase from suppliers without interference from a mega utility or some such middleman.  Second, and even more vital, Texas has invested heavily in expanding its network of transmission lines, without which long distance deals to buy energy would not exist.

Of course, powering a much larger city with renewable energy sources only would be much more difficult and take more time, which is why cities like Atlanta has set its goal to be entirely powered in this fashion by 2035, San Francisco by 2030.  But the point is that it can be done, if we plan, begin investing in the infrastructure now, and continue to monitor progress.  Yes, it will take long term thinking, unlike Mayor Ross's two year plan, but will reap huge benefits in money savings, a cleaner environment, and a reduced entanglement with the areas of the world that provide most of our fossil fuels.   

And, oh yes, more jobs.

Because, as the article also details, investment in clean energy has surged in the last decade, topping $50 billion each of the last four, as has the number of employees working in the wind and solar industries.  As of 2016, there were about 50,000 employees in the coal industry, a little over 100,000 in the wind industry and over 250,000 in the solar industry. 

Lest you think that it is only blue states that are increasing their percentage of electricity derived from renewable fuels, as of 2016, Iowa was #1, followed by South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma with North Dakota, Minnesota and Nevada also in the top 10.  Andy, before you claim it can only be done by the less populated states, California is 5th and Texas 14th on the list.

To me, what it comes down to is the political will to "do the math", a paradigm shift that embraces the change to renewable energy sources rather than fighting it or claiming it is not possible, and, perhaps most important in these times of conflict rather than cooperation and the resurgence of tribal thinking that focuses on us vs them rather than we, the belief that we can harness nature without destroying it, reorganize our economy with minimal upset, and create policies that focus on results more so than the origin of the idea, individual, party or country.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Race and ethnicity

Just about through the April edition of National Geographic, an issue devoted entirely to discussing race and ethnicity.  The issue touches on all the hot topics, how race divides us, how race effects our actions and perspectives, white majority angst, the growing acceptance of interracial marriage, the disparity in occurrence of something as simple as vehicle stops by the police, and how the advances of science, especially in the areas of DNA and human genome research may help us individually and collectively evolve our understanding of race, and specifically ethnicity, so that it might become a uniting force rather than an area of conflict.

Of course, reading such a magazine requires one to acknowledge the hidden, yet powerful effect that racism has had throughout America's history.  And it requires an acceptance of the science of our evolution which indicates that we are all descendants of ancestors that came from Africa.  That skin color is an adaptation in response to the need for our bodies to absorb certain benefits from sunlight or to reflect the damaging effects that too much sun can cause.  That, light skin in humans evolved from the dark skinned humans who were the original color our species.

A particularly interesting observation in this edition was the admission by the current editor of Nat Geo that this well regarded magazine was just as guilty of promoting racial stereotypes as most other publications during the first half of the 20th century.  From its depiction of isolated tribes in Africa to its omission of the thriving black middle class in place like Harlem, added to its white readership's beliefs that the black race was one dimensional, different from us.  This example of admitting past wrongs, owning those sins of overt racism as well as hidden racism, sets a wonderful example, and a much stronger starting point to have the necessary discussions about race in America.

It is an encouraging, thoughtful and challenging issue.  Something that is sorely lacking in most of the rhetoric and vitriol that encompasses the majority of discussions about race.

I encourage those of you who might encounter this post, to purchase this issue, or find it at a local library or perhaps even borrow it from a friend or family member.  And for those who do read it, use it as a basis for your future discussions about race, encourage others to read it.  Finally, perhaps if someone among you has access to President Trump, you might encourage him to read it as well.



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More guns, trained guns, no guns

As a precursor to today's post, I would be remiss if I didn't remind my readers that all posts I create which address what most people debate as the gun control issue, are saved in my blog under the title

Violence Control

I do so, not because I am trying to avoid the phrase gun control, but because it is clear that merely mentioning that phrase causes more ends to conversations as beginnings.  My recommendation for all people who perceive the need for an honest, sensible debate about guns in America, is to begin caching the issue as violence control.  While it is bewildering to me why any sane person believes that rapid fire, military weapons have a place in society, perhaps we can convince them the need to get a handle on the too easily used solution of resorting to violence to address conflict and disagreement.

So, before starting this post, I decided to read some of my other posts so as not to repeat what I have previously stated.  Sadly there were a number to read as many of them were written after previous mass killings.

To paraphrase a testimony given by General Mattis a few years ago during a congressional hearing on funding, he was adamant in stating that insufficient funding of the state department and its job of diplomacy, will result in the need for more funding for bullets and guns.  Conversely, it is not a big jump to the thought that without addressing the messages of our culture that advocate and even glorify violence, we will find ourselves wringing our hands over future mass killings.

Or, as the President has proposed, arming even more people.

So, let's get into it.

The premise is that by arming and properly training more people who are within the "soft" target areas, we will discourage future mass killings as the perpetrators will be reluctant to enter a place where certain death awaits.

Of course, there are a number of assumptions at work here.  First, that the mass killer uses logic to choose his targets (I won't say his or her targets since the vast majority of these people are male), and that death would be a deterrent.  Well, considering that most proponents of new gun control legislation argue that this is a mental health issue, doesn't that eliminate that line of reasoning?  If a mass killer is mentally unstable, the notion that logic is involved in the act is absurd.  And, I would posit that most mass killers are sociopaths at worst, temporarily bereft of any sense of humanity, at best.  If, however, a mass killer is sane, then he certainly knows that there are scant few instances where death or life in prison is not the end result of the act, so either the sane mass killer wants to die or somehow thinks that he will get away with it.  To me, any sane mass killer who believes he will escape justice for such a horrendous act, is probably not sane, revert back to example one.

The second assumption is that, under stress, an armed and specially trained teacher will hit their target.  This seems a bit of a stretch considering that there are many instances when the armed and specially trained among us, police and military personnel, have shot the wrong person.  Death by friendly fire in military conflicts is well documented, among the more famous being the friendly fire death of ex-NFL player Pat Tillman. Even more alarming, most articles about friendly fire deaths also mention the instances of death by one's fellow combatants on purpose which can arise from a lower rank soldier killing one of higher rank, or killing among the soldiers after disputes or fights.  What better place to hide a murder than in war.  And, of course, examples of police officers shooting unarmed citizens, innocents caught in the crossfire, and police using excess force when apprehending suspects, are all too familiar.  Would we therefore expect more or less instances of these errors by teachers who may only ever use their gun for cause once in a lifetime?  Or, in the apparent case of the trained gun on site at the Parkland School, would the armed and specially trained teacher even react in an appropriate way?

Additionally, and I know details of this plan are non-existent at this early stage, would the teacher actually carry a loaded gun in class?  On their person?  Again, are there not enough instances where victims are shot with their own guns when overcome or surprised by a third party?  Would we rethink the plan after the first instance of a teacher or student being killed by the gun assigned to protect the class, or would it take two instances?  Three?  Or, if, like those in the military who, under duress, use the cover of war to mask an non-authorized shooting, how do we react if an armed and specially trained teacher uses his/her gun inappropriately against a fellow teacher, administrator or pain in the ass student.  

Finally, there is the assumption that good people with guns will make the right decisions to use them, and that these armed and specially trained teachers, all certainly good people, will be perfect in this regard.  Huh? Again, we know that our military and police forces are filled with good people who have made poor decisions, or committed bad acts.  Yes, Virginia, good people sometimes do bad things.  Notwithstanding people like Bruce Willis in Death Wish, most relatives of victims are not people we should encourage to mete out justice themselves.  

Not withstanding this logic, lets pretend that specially armed and trained teachers are placed in every school that requests them, or every school if this becomes general practice, and lets further assume an example occurs in which a mass killing is shortened or stopped by one such armed teacher.  Success!!  Do we then move on to other soft targets?  Armed and specially trained ushers at all movie theaters, guides at churches, bouncers at nightclubs, seating helpers at music and sporting events, or any other such places where people congregate?

Many gun rights fight any and all gun control legislation for fear that it might the beginning of a trend to disarm all Americans.  Would a program arming teachers in classrooms be the beginning of arming all Americans?

Do we really want a society in which at any time someone could legally use their concealed weapon to address a situation which they interpret as hostile or dangerous?  Knowing that good people, trained people with guns use them improperly, imagine the result if more people, simply by hitting a few targets in a controlled setting, were armed?  

I saw Paul Ryan on TV talking about the action the House of Representatives might take in response to the most recent mass killing.  He mentioned the culture of violence that I alluded to in this post.  Good for him. But when will he connect our culture of violence with our obscene $600 billion a year military budget? And where is his reference to the fact that our current President uses threats of violence in response to many issues.  The method in which he blithely discusses using nuclear weapons against our enemies is appalling! And his horrendous record of so many ambassadorships being unfilled to the various countries of the world. President Trump seems to be all about, I have the biggest, baddest weapons, so do what I say or else. Does this not contribute to a culture of violence, and perhaps effect a confused teenager who sees violence as the only answer to the problems of his life?  If Ryan wants to truly change our culture from shoot first, talk later, perhaps he needs to take Trump aside and remind him that the perception starts at the top.

Of course, it is not President Donald Trump's fault that a troubled youth in Florida went on a killing spree. For better or worse, we get the leadership we deserve, are led by those we elect.  If our leadership believes that more guns is the answer to violence control, then we need to put up or shut up in the next election.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I also think that the violence control issue is becoming a watershed moment for America and Americans.  Do we really believe that God is on our side when it comes to using violence to address our problems?  Is she really looking down upon us and saying, yes, more guns to the good people, and I will continue to make the bad people shoot poorly.  (Another Hollywood created falsehood; bad guy with machine gun misses every time, good guy with handgun kills with each shot).  Now, clearly, it is difficult to know the reasoning of the Almighty.  Perhaps she allowed us to create weapons of mass destruction as a test.  Perhaps it is just a phase we need to pass through as a society before we achieve a more enlightened state of mind.

But what if there is a revelation on the horizon of mankind's perception that can only be realized when we eschew violence as a means to resolve conflict?  If so, will America be on the forefront, leading the way towards that realization, or will she be holding back the rest of humanity simply because we need to justify spending so much money on "defense"?

The simple fact is, guns make killing people easier, and rapid fire guns easier still.  The 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to an assault weapon, only "arms", and we can choose, legislatively, how we define arms without amending or repealing that amendment.  Assault weapons of any type are weapons of violence. I imagine that most Americans would be aghast at using an assault weapon to hunt animals, yet we seem OK with using them to kill our fellow citizens.  There is no other use than for killing, so it seems obvious that we should be adamant in insisting that no citizen should legally possess one as a means of self defense, or, more likely as a means to kill multiple humans.  Similarly, devices like bump stocks which transform a
semi-automatic weapon into a more rapid fire one should be illegal.  Frankly, I am not sure why a citizen needs even a semi-automatic weapon, but we can at least start with those weapons that allow multiple shots to be fired with one pull.

Folks, in this age of instant information, it is quite simple to research firearm ownership and death by firearms.  And just as easily, it is clear that Americans own, per capita, more guns than any other nation, and that we consistently rank in the top 10 for most deaths by firearms.  Each and every year.  We are sacrificing our fellow citizens, and our children, to keep alive the illusion that our founders wanted us to be armed and ready to kill each other, when in fact they wanted us to be armed and ready to defend our nation against foreign invaders.  Happily, we have a well funded military for that, and state and local police forces to protect and serve our communities.

Violence control demands that we identify the tools which are used by both good and bad people to harm and kill Americans, limit and/or eliminate those tools from public access, and follow the example of the vast majority of civilized countries which experience death rates by firearms that are 50, 75, even 90% less than are own.      

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Music and Chess

Nora and I were fortunate enough to see a performance by Al Stewart last week.  For those of you who do not remember Stewart, his popular songs were Year of the Cat, Time Passages, and On the Border (my favorite).  We had seen him perform many years ago, at a nightclub in Philly, I think, although the memory has faded over the years.  At last week's concert, Stewart played all the favorites, plus some more recent tunes.  He was accompanied by the extremely talented Marc Macisso and his current back up group The Empty Pockets. In addition to the wonderful music, Stewart prefaced every song with a story, often about the writing or inspiration of the song, or sometimes just as a reflection of the times in which it was penned. And, while there were moments when Macisso rocked out on the sax or flute, or the lead guitar player let loose on his electric guitar, most of the enjoyment emanated from Stewart, his voice, his stories, his songs, and the moods they inspired, reflective, nostalgic, folksy.  Like listening to an old friend recount shared, fond memories.

As the crowd made its slow departure from the theater, Nora and I waited a bit in our seats and discussed how being a folk lyricist seemed the perfect job for Al Stewart.  Was it coincidence that he seemed to have found the job in life that suited him best, or were we seeing the results of years of learning and refining his craft that made the performance seem so natural, as if watching a bird take flight and knowing that flying is the natural activity for such a creature?

I am continuing my reading of the Winter Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called States of Mind.  I recently read an excerpt from "The Chess Master and the Computer", by Garry Kasparaov.  In the essay, Kasparov recounts what he terms the golden years of man vs machine in the realm of chess, 1994 to 2004.  It was during that time when the computer progressed from too weak to too strong in its ability (its programmed ability) to play chess.  For Kasparov, those years and those matches were not unlike the progress one's child might make as a father taught her to play chess.  At first, father wins every time, but then there is a time period where the matches are close and interesting as the child learns from her mistakes.  In this case, the child was as much the programmers who uploaded the chess playing algorithms as the computer, but Kasparov seems to indicate that he knew it was inevitable that the computer would eventually be the better player, just as if often the case that the child bests the parent over time.

Kasparov concludes this particular part of the book by recounting how the new challenge in chess is to combine the sheer number crunching power of the computer with the ability of the grandmaster, against other such teams.  In other words, make use of the best of both worlds.  It is that kind of thinking that, were it to be applied to the problems of the day, might make a difference in addressing those problems.

There are some who thing that music and chess are the best expressions of the two parts of our brains.  And further, that these skills, when performed at the highest levels, share a common thread; precision.  I decided to link these subjects for a different reason, however.  Like Al Stewart, Garry Kasparov seems to have found the perfect occupation for his talents.  This is not to say that other occupations for either man may have also matched their skills.  During the concert, Stewart joked that his job might soon be vacant, referring, I assume to the thought that he couldn't perform forever.  He indicated to us that he thought that the best folk lyricists might be found teaching history as he considered himself as much a historian as a song writer, or perhaps both at the same time.  Perhaps Kasparov would have found complete job satisfaction from being a physicist, or actuary.

Thinking about this takes me back to high school and those aptitude tests that we all were subjected to. Certainly, there was real science at work, just as there is some validity to using a dating service that evaluates likes and dislikes and matches accordingly.  The problem with high school aptitude tests may not have been the results but the audience.  Why would a teenager listen to any adult about the results of a test that tells him that he should be an accountant?  Certainly, I hold no value judgement against accountants, in fact I like numbers as much or more as the next guy.  But who wants to hear that assessment, even if accurate, when the whole world is out there, full of promise and excitement and the unknown.  Sure, as we reflect on our lives and realize that being in retail or fast food or working an assembly line or any of the other jobs that we all have done, and perhaps still do, to pay the bills, we might wish to vault back in time to our teenage selves and extol the virtues of accounting in hopes of avoiding the drudgery and boredom of our future lives.

Perhaps then, we might try the best of both worlds for our youth as we assist them in discovering their strengths and pursuing the opportunities that will be presented them.  Give them those silly aptitude tests, but present the findings with the idea that a job pays the bills, and we all must take the occasional job to survive in the world, but an occupation should be a reflection of your life.  It is OK to use an aptitude to find the occasional job, but a much bigger reward, a more satisfying life will result in finding an occupation that reflects your being.          

Perhaps if we spent more time seeking satisfaction in our daily lives, including our work, we might be in less need of distractions, especially those that lead to harmful addictions or rage or depression.  

Life satisfaction, priceless.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Super Bowl Champion Eagles!!

As I begin this post, the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl Parade is culminating with player and coaches speeches on the Art Museum's steps with thousands of people cheering, clapping and celebrating the first Super Bowl Championship in Eagles history.  It is a glorious day in the City of Brotherly Love!

For those of you who are not familiar with the remarkable story of the 2017-18 Eagles season, it is truly a wonderful tale.

The story of a 2nd year coach, hired amid doubts and the disappointment of the Chip Kelly years, coming off an initial 7-9 season during which his football intelligence and pedigree were openly questioned.

The story of a GM who was emasculated during those same years, but who stayed with the team and honed his skills, culminating in two amazing off seasons during which he traded up to draft a franchise quarterback, signed a number of important free agents, and even wrangled a mid-season coup to bring a workhorse running back to compliment an already strong offensive team.

The story of a rookie quarterback who played more like a veteran from week to week, who made the impossible play routine, and who led the team to a league best 9-2 record despite losing their Pro-Bowl offensive lineman, star running back, best special teams player and star middle linebacker.

The story of a backup quarterback who all but quit the game just two years ago, but decided to give it one last shot, who signed on as the rookie's relief, just in case, and them was thrust into the limelight and pressure when yet another season-ending injury struck the rookie quarterback sensation.

And the story of a team of players who worked in unison towards a single goal, who absorbed one hay-maker after another as their teammates fell, who took the cliche, next man up to its fullest expression, who ignored all the experts and pundits who not only discounted their chances to win, but actually made them underdogs in all three playoff games, including, for the first time ever, the games they hosted.

Finally, the story of a team who won for themselves, their fallen teammates, and their fans, beloved in the Delaware Valley and besmirched everywhere else, and who walked among them on this very day, high fiving and celebrating this tremendous victory of cooperation and collaboration.

Cooperation and collaboration.

Sports is clearly not the real world.  Games played by adults for large sums of money in cathedrals akin to those celebrating religious rites.  Entertainment for the masses to distract us from reality, and the hard truth that our exploits in athletics as kids were just fun and games.

But there are lessons being taught and learned on sports fields everyday.  Lessons about perseverance which can result in the best team overcoming a team with the best players.  Lessons about loyalty, even in the face of personal injury or failure.  Lessons about winning humbly and losing graciously, the first being displayed to the man by the Eagles, the latter less so by the losing Pats.

I bemoan the money in sports, the obvious priority that winning takes over an education in college athletics, the lure for those born in less economically advantaged situations when an education should be paramount over the slim chance of a professional athletic career, the sheer magnitude of the economics, when our schools and infrastructure are in such dire need of resources.

But for those who follow the political scene, who tune in to the shows that inflame our passions for or against those who adhere to a different economic or political philosophy, this Eagles story and victory should be a required course of study.

You see, it is possible to take a group of people from all areas of America, with as myriad a variety of backgrounds, with different skin colors, different religious beliefs, different perspectives on patriotism, gun control, social justice, and have them work together, despite their differences, to achieve the seemingly unreachable.  

To come together and seek the best ideas, regardless of its source, and evaluate that idea based on its merit. To put partisanship aside and stay fully vested in the welfare and happiness of all of the fans, or all of the country.  To remember that if your only goal is to advance that which benefits you, then those you need to work are more likely to advance only that which benefits them.

That a stalemate is not a win for either side, but a loss for all sides.

So again, hail to the Philadelphia Eagles, and its legion of sometimes boisterous but always passionate fans for their Super Bowl LII victory.  And hats off to my brother Paul who flew in from Texas to be there, and to represent all of us who could not or did not attend.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

States of Mind

Last week, I began reading the Winter Edition of Lapham's Quarterly called States of Mind.  As is the case for most of these wonderful editions, it has immediately fired all kinds of thoughts.

Last summer, I titled a post, Reading and Thinking.  In it I touched on a few of the things I had recently learned by reading, and made some other comments as I am wont to do.  After reading a few of the essays in States of Mind, the preamble by Lewis Lapham, an excerpt from Diane Ackerman's An Alchemy of Mind, and one from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, it strikes me as unfortunate, perhaps even, if I may be so sanguine to say, disconcerting, that the concept and execution of "reading" has changed so dramatically in the past few decades.

First, of course, we read less than previous generations, especially those that grew up without the great distractions of television and the internet.  The printed word was king for 600 years, breaking open the shackles that had hid the knowledge of the ages from the everyday man, providing a medium and a market for new ideas, exposing the hypocrisy of rules and taboos that were created by those seeking to maintain their power and control over the masses, and freeing the mind of so many who before were constrained by only what they could experience.  More than anything before, Gutenberg's press provided the imagination with an infinite source for creating new states of mind.

But more than that, why we read seems to have changed as well.  Where in the past, one went to the library, book store, or magazine rack to learn as well as for entertainment, to increase one's knowledge or to escape, if even for a little while, into a world created by the author's imagination, now we seem to read as much to confirm our opinions as to seek new information.  And, perhaps unbeknownst to us, our go to place for reading, the various sources of social media on the internet, have been programmed to direct us to opinions, sites and news that reflect our past clicks.

It is as if, when walking through the doors of a library or into a bookstore, your library card, or debit card were scanned for past borrows and purchases, and only those sections were now open for you to browse. As if, once a science fiction book borrowed or purchased, that is all you would be offered again.

What was conceived as a way to ease one's navigating the internet, cookies which track your previous queries and algorithms which predict where you might want to go based on where you already went, is now more often used to tempt you with the goods and services that someone with your profile might like, or to direct you to sites which share your previously espoused opinion, or present you with news that might influence and confirm how you might vote.

In short, where reading was once a personal experience, limited by one's own desire for entertainment or willingness to seek new sources of information, internet reading via social media vehicles is too often controlled by the unseen forces of a technology without a value system, or an advertiser in search of a sale, or an opinion manipulator with goals both insidious and unnamed.

I have always thought of reading as a way to improve oneself, promote self reflection, increase empathy, perhaps even make one a better human.  To create a state of mind that is free from the restrictions that make us turn towards destructive behaviors, individually or as a group.

When I engage in discussions with people, especially my dear wife Nora, about the obvious problems we see with the present direction of our leadership, I generally try to assuage her fears with the pendulum analogy.  Great progress and change is challenging, and threatening.  It should be no surprise that after 8 years of the first African American President, one with visions of real equality, racial, gender, marriage, etc, after 8 years of agreement that climate change is a real threat and that our nation needs to move away from fossil fuels, after 8 years of slow, steady growth after the near depression of 2008-10, after 8 years of the hard truth about the inequalities in our judicial and penal systems, in our boardrooms, and in our spending priorities, it is natural for the pendulum to swing back a bit.  

I tell her that our state of mind, while alarmed, must also be hopeful that the pendulum will soon slow in its current backwards path, and begin to swing back in a direction that reflects true Christian values if that is your choice, loving thy neighbor as thyself, turning the other cheek, helping the least among us, etc, or reflects the goals of a generation who believed in the message and visions of Kennedy and King.

In the meantime, I encourage those who might "read" this post to reconnect with your relationship with reading if you recall a pleasant one when young.  And, for those for whom that relationship did not flourish, consider trying again.

Create your own state of mind before one is created for you.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear Mr. President,

As we approach the one year anniversary of your inauguration, I sense that you might be confused and surprised about the level of dissatisfaction among the citizens of the United States concerning your work to date, especially that which emanates from those of us who did not vote for you.

I recently finished reading the January/February edition of the Smithsonian magazine, and I would like to recommend that you obtain a copy and read it through.  Perhaps the various articles which detail many of the explosive events of 1968 might shine a light on the angst which is demonstrated daily by some us.

You see, the entire edition reflects on what some people believe was one of the most exciting, depressing, challenging, historic years in recent memory.   A year which brought to mainstream consciousness a number of the issues still being debated today; environmental protection, women's rights and treatment, social justice, war and our place in the world, worker's rights, politics and protests, the explosion of technology in our everyday lives, and race relations.

It was a time during which many people thought the direction of our great country, and hopefully the world as a whole, might be marked as the beginning of a new social contract.  A contract which truly reflected the founder's beliefs that all men were created equal, not just those with money, power, male genitals and white pigmented skin.  We thought it might be a turning point, despite the horrific sacrifices paid via the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the thousands who died and were mentally damaged from the Vietnam experience, and the invisible men and women who stood up for their principles even when social norms and outdated concepts of race and gender blocked their paths.

Change is always difficult, and generally not linear.  There are peaks and valleys, pendulum swings of progress and stagnation.  We still believe in the promises made in the 1960's and America's ability to lead the world towards such far reaching goals.  We still believe that America can be the shining light on the hill. But we don't believe that your agenda matches those goals.  We don't believe that selling the environment to the highest bidder, bribing the working class with $1000 while opening the flood gates for even worse income inequality, calling fake news any story with which you disagree, and early morning tweet storms aimed at anyone not in line with your thoughts, are the ways to achieve those aspirations.

Please Mr President, turn off the TV and read this magazine.  Open your mind to the possibility that those who disagree with you do, indeed, love America, so much so that we are willing to be counted among those who voice our disagreement with your vision, and ready and willing to offer an alternative which is more inline with what we believe were the dreams of those who made 1968 a watershed year in America.

Respect and regards,

Joe Pugnetti

Monday, January 15, 2018

Finding the positives of being born in a Sh%@hole country

Been trying to catch up on some reading this month.  Working through the December edition of the National Geographic magazine, I recently read a wonderful article called Africa's Tech Generation.  It detailed the amazing contributions of some African born entrepreneurs who are simultaneously creating a better life for themselves while improving the lives of those in their communities.

For those of us who take for granted internet access as well as all the other advantages that the tech age has provided for us, it is important to remember that if not for our good fortune to have won the birth lottery in being born in the western world, in general, and America in particular, we might be faced with the daunting challenge that 78% of the population born on the African continent face; no way to go online.

That the individuals detailed in the article overcame this obstacle, first, by being identified as an above average student thereby qualifying for a more advanced education, then by applying the knowledge they were given to identify and address a problem in their world, and finally to have the perseverance and drive to obtain the computer time, funding, and opportunity to make their dream a reality, is inspirational  But, when perceived in the context that for every one who made it, there are tens of thousands who never had even a glimmer of a chance to walk a similar path, it is also very sad.  The sheer magnitude of the realization that there exists such a loss of potential is staggering.

The good news is that start-up money, access to other young people from the West with similar characteristics, and the encouragement for others who can see hope in the successes of those from their home countries, will combine to quicken the pace of internet access, in addition to the more overriding belief that the time will come when an African born child will be provided the same opportunities and advantages that a Western born child enjoys.

Unless, of course, the attitude expressed by President Trump in his recent description of those born in Haiti, and in African countries, is not addressed.  While many people are as alarmed by his overt racism as I am, there are far too many Americans that either share his viewpoint, or are unwilling to take him to task for fear of losing the opportunity to advance their political and economic agendas.

In some ways, I feel sorry for President Trump and those who are so willing to dismiss those born with a different skin color or in a different country, without regard to the depth of their character or the size of their heart.  They are missing out on such possibilities!  We all have our prejudices and preconceived notions which limit how much of life we might enjoy.  When we refuse to eat certain foods that look or smell strange, or refuse to travel to or learn about certain areas where we might encounter people of different cultures, or when we avoid engaging with certain people who express their individuality in ways that are foreign to us, we miss out on life.  And we only hurt, and limit ourselves.

Does President Trump ever wonder why our creator developed a world where people spoke different languages, looked different, fell in love without regard to gender, and established cultures, religions, and institutions in a myriad of ways?  Does he and his ilk ever think that life is not just about amassing large sums of money but about exploring the host of variances that exist within mankind?  It is certainly not easy to remove oneself from the rigors of everyday life, but to consciously avoid the knowledge that the world consists of a tremendous variety of people, and that those unlike us are inferior, is a shame.    

There is no honor is telling the poor, huddled masses of the world, the refugees fleeing war torn countries, or the children whose only crime was that their parents crossed an arbitrary line in the sand in hopes of providing a better life, that they are unwelcome in America.  Especially when the reason is prejudice and fear.

It is very easy to only invite people like yourself to your home, or your country.  There is no easier a task than to stay in one's comfort zone.  Fortunately, our ancestors, those who do not have an American Indian heritage, thought differently.  They took the risk to leave their birth nation to provide a better life for their progeny, just as my grandparents did, just as President Trump's grandparents did.

For those young men and women on the African continent who were presented to us in that Nat Geo article, they shared an even more amazing trait; to stay where they were born and make life better.  In some ways, it is even more noble than the trek of our ancestors who sought a better life, and reflects even more poorly on the attitude expressed by President Trump, who, in his ivory tower of discrimination, thinks his dismissive perceptions of those born in Africa makes one iota of difference to those dreamers.   They will succeed with or without our help.  We can only hope they treat us better should the circumstances change and we are the people living in a sh%$hole country.

In the meantime, perhaps we need to stop pretending that America First is anything more than an excuse to justify the dehumanization of anyone that doesn't look or think like ourselves, and embrace the creator's vision of Earth; a cornucopia of life filled with a diaspora of humanity that emerged (from Africa) in pursuit of liberty and happiness.


Friday, January 5, 2018


Happy New Years!!

I've been engaged in a brief battle within; to continue to blog or not.  Of course, this was not the first round of this particular war, and will certainly not be the last.  One might even postulate that without such times of doubt and questions, a particular effort or desire or goal might wither and fade.  In this case, the part of me that is eager to continue to express and comment was victorious over the part that fears that everything has already been written.  As has been said before, a life not reflected, is not worth living; let's hope that my continued reflections might produce the occasional thought or idea that encourages others to reflect as well.

I have recently discovered an idea that suggests that us liberals, progressives, Democrats, etc, have been missing a critical component of our new President; the fact that he has an inscrutable sense of humor.
In other words, we take him at his word, expecting serious comments and solid logic when in fact, he loves a good joke, and clearly believes that we are taking it all far too seriously.

A 30 foot wall separating Mexico and the United States?  Only kidding as he himself alluded to when he admitted that ladders could be used to scale such a wall.

Lock her up?  Of course he was not serious, only autocrats and dictators treat their political rivals in this manner.

Climate change is a hoax?  Obviously, the climate changes all the time, especially in the northern states when we move from one season to the next.

Fake news and liberal media bias?  Just his way of saying that he would prefer that all printed thought, as well as TV and radio transmissions only report news that he believes, thereby creating a unified perspective without dissent and making it that much easier to make America Great Again.

Voter fraud?  Obviously it exists, and the lack of documented evidence is proof of it.

Russian collusion in the recent presidential election?  Of course it did not happen, and the voluminous evidence is proof that it didn't happen.

The recent tax overhaul a boon to the rich, both corporate and individual?  Of course we are advocating the continued shift of income and resources to the rich.  Taking care of friends and family are the most important things in life.

"I will only hire the best people".  He already knows more about war than the generals, more about fixing the government that career politicians, more about running our economy than economists, so he already has the best people, that guy he sees in the mirror.

Clearly, President Donald Trump is an amazing, terrific, tremendous individual, smart, very rich, no nonsense, tough on our friends, and even tougher on those Americans who hate our wonderful country by resisting his plans to divert even more money to the wealthiest 1%, to use nuclear weapons against our enemies without any nuclear fallout, to eliminate the insidious flow of immigrants, squash equal pay for equal work, expunge voting rights for those who vote the wrong party, reverse marriage equality and gender identity protections, and all those other confusing, politically correct, social changes that have pale skinned, males in an uproar.

And if you are unsure of the truth of this, just ask him and he will tell you with a wink and a smile and a nod, both actual and figurative to himself, kidder-in-chief.