Sunday, March 29, 2015

More on Swindle and Fraud

A few more thoughts as I read the spring edition of Laphams.

An essay from PT Barnum's Humbugs of the World, addressed the topic of the wide variety and seemingly endless supply of humbugs, Barnum's word for all those schemes and deceits that have been perpetuated on men by their fellow men.  From religion to medicine, business to literature, he cites example after example of ways in which men gain power, money and fame through trickery.  But, at the end, his final example, the biggest humbug of all, he saves for the "man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs." 

It is his opinion that while certainly there are schemers, plotters, and tricksters among us, and that some of the more successful of humans are those who have schemed, plotted and tricked better than most, it is the utmost fool who sees and expects the worst in everyone, sees wolves behind every tree, and casts doubt upon every plan and invention put forth by his fellow man. 

And this from a man who made his fame by rounding up all manner of the odd shaped, then embellished those unusual characteristics to create a circus of the macabre, all the while collecting money from those who preferred to believe the exaggerations.  It is as if he looked in the mirror, recognized the fake for who he was, but also believed that without the goodness of men, those like him would have no platform upon which to succeed.

What also strikes me about this essay, is that Barnum calls himself out, but also separates himself from those who pretend to believe in the evil of men, and those who actually believe.  I fear the former more than the latter, as the former know the truth but use the continuation of the lie to further his agenda, while latter may some day learn the truth and perhaps alter his perceptions.  Sorry to point a finger here, but it reminds me of the so successful Fox propaganda machine that is controlled by people who are certainly smarter than the fiction disguised as news that they propagate, but purposefully hire those who do actually believe some of the nonsense, mixed with those that know the power of the lies and choose to perpetuate them for their own benefit. 

Another interesting thought came to me from an excerpt from The Secrets of the Great City, by James Dabney McCabe in which is described (2) methods of robbery employed by street walkers and an associate.  In the first, a girl brings a john to an apartment which has a fake wall with a sliding panel.  The pigeon's clothes are placed on a chair near the wall, and while the man is otherwise occupied, the associate slides open the panel and rifles his clothes for valuables.  The second method involves the street walker asking for the money up front, but before the act can be begun, her "husband" arrives home unexpectedly.  The poor girl begs the john to leave by a side exit promising to fulfill her side of the transaction the next night.  Of course, that meeting never happens. 

Each has their advantages.  The second scheme saves the girl some energy, but she must now avoid that victim in the future so it limits her opportunity for standard business going forward.  The first plan allows for future transactions, but probably not a future robbery.

Expanding that analogy, I imagine that the real experts at fooling mankind, have multiple level plans to address the various level of fools that they must victimize.  Those that can be fooled only once, must be approached differently than those who can be fooled over and over again.  When I see the same phrase used by various pundits to describe the same false perception, I wonder if they are addressing the first type or second.  Is it enough to repeat a lie over and over again to make it be true, or do you need a willing ear to believe it as well?  And, can you prime that ear enough, give it just enough small truths so that when the big lie is stated, it is unrecognized by that trained (or untrained) ear?

Ah, yes, indoctrination.

The process by which we are all trained to accept myths and half truths as facts.  Trained by our parents, our religion, our country.  Trained for our own good, trained to protect us, trained to keep us on the path that will lead to our happiness.

But this excerpt from "Secrets.." also inspired this thought.  While reporting on violence, mayhem and wrongdoing seem the basis for so much of our news, the reality is that crime has decreased in America.  Especially violent crime.  Of course, this could be a blip, and could be attributed statistically to any number of causes, but (as I have said before) I believe it is due to the continuing evolution of mankind's spiritual nature.   But what if crime is down because people who historically had to turn to crime, the poor, the homeless, the shunned, now have a modicum of security through the various social nets that have been created in the last 60 years?

Social security, medicare, welfare, unemployment, disability income, etc, are frequently portrayed as examples of the nanny state where people are no longer required to fend for themselves.  Cradle to grave security which suppresses creativity, persistence, self reliance.  Is that the yin and yang of those programs?  Less crime, less violence, less desperate acts, to the detriment of strength of character, self motivation, independence?

Survival of the fittest sounds good, makes a great sound bite, but what about those that are less fit?  And do we all not experience states of less fit multiple times throughout our lives?  Infancy?  Sickness?  Accident?  Old Age?  It is easy to scoff at death when one is 24 with perfect abs and a clean colon, but that time is fleeting.      

When I first saw the title Swindle and Fraud, on this edition of Laphams' Quarterly, I thought it was a strange choice.  Now that I am reading it, I find it one on the most interesting and thought provoking topics yet chosen.     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fraud, Swindle and Truth

Last week I found myself out of reading material.  I had finished the March editions of National Geographic and Smithsonian, and mentioned in a previous post that I had completed the Winter 2014 Laphams quarterly.  And, of course, I had finally published An Atheist for Christ, which was the project I had hoped to complete via my built up vacation days from work.  Fortunately, the Lapham spring 2015 edition arrived in the mail.  Good timing, good topic; Swindle and Fraud.

About 30 pages in, I encountered The Importance of Being Deceptive, taken from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.  I would imagine that most people have heard of Machiavelli although he is probably also one of those writers that many people think they "know", but have not actually read.  I include myself in that statement, as I do not recall ever reading The Prince, but have described various people and/or policies as Machiavellian.  So, spent a few minutes on Wikipedia reading about the man; for those also curious, here is a link.

I imagine that most people, were they to be asked if Machiavelli was a good person or bad person, might assume the worst based on their understandings of, and the connotations associated with, the term based on his last name.  It may surprise many people then, when they read that he was an historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher and humanist.  That he is considered one of the founders of modern political science, more specifically political ethics.  And, that he also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry.  In short, he was an accomplished, erudite thinker, and exerted much influence in early 16th century Florentine, which means therefore, he was an important figure during the Renaissance.  

That his greatest work, which includes his views on the importance of a strong ruler who is not afraid to be harsh with his subjects and enemies and less truthful than wise, may be more a result of his living during the time of strong but warring Italian city-states which were vulnerable to the other unified nation states, particularly France.

In other words, his philosophy was as much influenced by his place in time as his personal beliefs.

So far, I have only read about a quarter of Laphams Swindle and Fraud edition but I am beginning to see a pattern.  Regardless of the time, 1200 BC Troy or Rome, 16th century Florentine or London, or 20th century Nuremburg or New York, there have always been those who use fraud and deception to gain power, fame and riches, for, as it was so notably quoted, "there has never been a shortage of sheep to be fleeced".

(Note here.  If indeed, there have always been a subset of men who spend their days looking for pigeons, always finding them with ease, doesn't that mean that most men therefore are honest?  And isn't that a good thing?)

Today as I was walking the dog, I wondered what Machiavelli might think of the United States of America today.  Would he nod approvingly? 

Is not our entire advertisement industry based on deceit?   What product or service is not touted as the best?  And the pharmaceutical industry has created a whole new category of advertisement deceit in which they invent a disease, create a pill, then, via small print or an overdubbed voice tell you that their product might kill you.  All the while showing happy people who have been cured.

Politics?  Just today I saw a 2016 presidential candidate announce that he will be shopping for his health care insurance via the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the day after he proclaimed that if elected president he would repeal every single aspect of said act.  He is not above taking part when it suits him, nor is he troubled by castigating it when talking to his base.

Perception is the most important thing, substance a distant second, if that.  Obama is a socialist whose policies will wreck the American economy.  You can hear someone saying it on Fox and in many American homes every day.  Yet, since the peak of the recession, say around 2010, the US economy has not only rebounded, but it may be argued is as strong as any, in the world.  Unemployment is under 6%.  The stock market flirts at record highs every other week.  Corporation war chests are bursting with cash.  And, even better (or most likely even worse), the 1% have continued to realize a bigger portion of the pie than ever. 

The rich people club of America could not have written a better script; paint the president as anti-business, label equal pay for equal work, and higher minimum wage proposals as socialist, weaken unions, and allow jobs and assets to be sent offshore where lower wages, and taxes can double and triple profits.  And, oh yes, encourage the GOP to continue tossing out losing presidential tickets and far right candidates with limited agendas and intelligence, so that the rich can continue to feed the lie that big government is the enemy. 

At this point, one has to wonder if truth is even possible.  Would we buy a product that advertises that it is as good as the rest?  Or that it is cheaper because it is not quite as good?  Would we vote for a candidate that tells us that we can't be the world's policeman, without expecting blowback from those that we kill and displace?  Or a candidate that tells us that we can't pay for the benefits we expect without paying our fair share of taxes? 

Is the truth, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

If so, then Machiavelli it is!!




Sunday, March 1, 2015


Past readers of my blog know that I began the Winter edition of Lapham's Quarterly, entitled Foreigners, about a month ago.  Today I finished reading it.  In light of the fuss over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I thought it relevant to post about immigration and our current perception of "foreigners".

First, as I have said so often, the Lapham's quarterlies offer a wonderful collection of essays and perspective on a given topic.  In this edition, comments about foreigners from the vantage point of encounters, customs and hostilities were presented.  Additionally, as history is so often written by the victors, Lapham's attempts to bring light to those whose side did not win the day.  An essay from the perspective of an Indian during the century of their losing their birthright, thoughts from a woman on trial for daring to vote, or the point of view of any of the countless (and usually nameless) victims of the various land, resource, and power grabs that occurred over the centuries by those who conquered  "new" lands to the detriment of those who already lived there. 

Second, compilations like Laphams reminds us that we are all descended from immigrants, and that the majority of those outraged by the influx of immigrants today, are the progeny of immigrants similarly degraded and spat upon yesterday, who themselves were considered as foreigners by those who resided in the land when they first arrived.  Unfortunately, rather than treating those that migrate today as we would have liked to be treated, we tend to view them with suspicion and fear.

And, as understanding promotes tolerance and acceptance, fear promotes intolerance and rejection.

So it appears that despite the great strides mankind has made in our perception of those different from us, we experience situations like that which transpired in the United States Congress this past week.
On one side is a party who feeds the fear and biases of its base who have been told over and over again about the evils of those from a different country, or who believe in a different religion.  A party which is supported by a media outlet that blithely declares we are involved in a religious war.  A mindset that labels everything they disagree with as unpatriotic or anti-American, even when an opinion contrary to theirs is presented by other Americans, especially when that American is a president that they despise. 

"How can we face those who voted for us in November", began a current US Senator, "those who voted for us to fight the recent executive decisions on immigration by the president, when we have failed to overturn those decisions".  Perhaps the honorable Senator from Pennsylvania should have explained to his constituents, those whose fears he chose to inflame rather than calm, that actually removing the 10 million or more illegal immigrants from our country is not only not possible but will require huge sums of money to even attempt.  That the president's decision to act unilaterally was necessary precisely because Congress prefers to ignore the facts of the situation, preferring instead to get elected by pandering to an electorate that loves to rail against an overreaching government but fails to see that it would take an even more intrusive government to root out and find the 3% of our population that is here without documentation.  That the best way to make Americans out of those without validity, is to include them in the benefits of America, not exclude them simply because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary national border.

But I digress.

What is truly funny (in a sad way) is that in the battle for funding for DHS, the fear of ISIS was stronger that the fear of illegal immigrants, so republicans were forced to backtrack from their plan to allow funding to expire unless Obama's executive decisions were overturned.  It makes one wonder if those at Fox who have elevated ISIS to the level of a global threat to our very existence, realize how that hype contributed to the failure of the republicans to overturn the president's executive orders.  It also makes one wonder when the next "most evil" group will be presented to us by Fox so that ISIS can be dropped down a notch or two.

Who knows, maybe Fox will turn its spotlight of righteousness onto the employers who hire all the illegals, thereby giving them a reason to cross the border, and, just coincidentally, allowing those employers to save on labor expenses and avoid paying certain taxes.

In the end, let us hope that intelligent compilations like that which I have just read, attempts to bring sanity to the topic of foreigners, immigrants, and those different from us, will lead us to realize that being a native or a foreigner is all a matter of geography.  And that if we would want to be treated with respect when we find ourselves out of country or out of our element, perhaps we should do the same for those who enter our own domain. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Atheist for Christ

I experienced a large surge of page views on my blog yesterday, again a majority from Norway.  No particular post was accessed, just a disparate group of topics.


Previously, I had indicated that I was hoping to use my time off from work to finish a project I had begun quite a while ago.  Happily, I did so.

As a result, I have published a group of essays, available for use on Kindle and its various permutations.

If interested, here is a link for you to cut and paste in your browser.   The collection is priced
at $1.99.

To give you an idea as to the topic of this work, I have included the forward below.

An Atheist for Christ

When I told a friend of mine that the title of this group of essays was to be An Atheist for Christ, she said that it didn’t make sense.  She assumed, like many people, that belief in the teachings of Christ presupposed belief in God.  I joked with her that she was right, I really should have called the essays An Agnostic for Christ, but that just didn’t have the same ring to it, the same pizzazz. 

What I hope to demonstrate to her in this brief collection of thoughts is that in fact one can believe in the teachings of Christ and in the beauty of his message without glorifying it with the connection to God.  In other words, if we don’t shoot the messenger who delivers bad news, conversely, perhaps we shouldn’t deify those who have brought us good news.


Monday, February 16, 2015


I believe I mentioned a few posts ago that I was spending more time reading and getting caught up on my favorite magazines.  Towards that end, I started the Winter Lapham's Quarterly called Foreigners.  Interestingly, I thought of this edition while I was watching the movie Good Will Hunting a few days ago.  The movie, if you are not familiar with it, involves a young man named Will Hunting who has an amazing gift for mathematics despite being an orphan, being exposed to a number of abusive foster situations, and having received no formal education in math.  He is "discovered" as a result of his working as an overnight custodian at Harvard where he has been solving advanced mathematical theorems placed on chalkboards in the hallways of the math department as a challenge to the students of the school. 

The scene which reminded me of Foreigners occurs between Will and his psychologist, a wonderful part played by the recently departed Robin Williams.  This is the second meeting between the two, the first having resulted in Will using his ability to hurt (before being hurt) Robin's character (Sean)by analyzing his painting.  Sean, having stayed up half the night thinking about Will's hatchet job, especially as it related to Sean's marriage, takes Will to a local park.  As they are sitting there, Sean admits to Will that he got to him, but then tells Will that eventually a realization hit him, and he immediately forgot Will and fell asleep.

Sean uses his vulnerability to Will's attack to begin Will's therapy.  He tells Will that just as it is impossible for Sean to even glimpse the pain and suffering that Will endured as a child merely by watching Oliver Twist, so it is impossible for Will to really know Sean just by looking at a picture he painted.  He tells Will that only through getting to know him, listening to Will, and by Will being willing to tell his story, can Sean truly understand him.

So, returning to Lapham's Quarterly, Foreigners, there are essays and stories, one after another, which describe how we, individually and communally, circle the wagons, so to speak, to create "we" and "they".   We prefer to read about "they", or even worse, take the word of our institutions who belittle they as barbarians, or worshipers of the wrong god, or cloaked in the wrong color skin. We prefer to act as Will, who uses his skills to reduce everyone he encounters to one dimensional caricatures, as opposed to our own complicated versions of "we". 

Among a number of interesting quotes, there is one by Confucius that particularly struck me.
"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice they get to be wide apart".  I interpret that as the understanding that at birth we are very similar.  But, as our lives progress, we are taught how to identify "they", how to hate those that are different.  If, on the other hand, we were to seek to understand each other rather than accepting a stereotypical version of who "they" are as presented by our governments, our religions, our race, we might be able to remember how we are all the same as opposed as to how we might be different. 

Another interesting section of this Lapham's edition, displayed some maps of the world and how various treaties, laws, pacts either included or excluded other people.  One interesting note was that before the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act which increased barriers and patrols along the border between the US and Mexico, before that Act, upwards of 85% of illegal entrants were offset by returning immigrants; after the law, the number dropped to 10%.  Now, I respect the editors of Lapham's as any reader of my blog knows, and would like to find some corroborating evidence of this fact, but even if it is only mostly accurate, imagine the ramifications of that information being widely discussed and disseminated.  Kind of changes one's perspective of the recent immigration talk that emanates from Washington, and all the talk about increasing patrols and barriers between the two countries.     

Xenophobia is defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners in some dictionaries, the unreasonable fear of strangers or foreigners in others.  I find it interesting that some add unreasonable, as I accept that it is reasonable to be wary of what is different, but attribute so much of the violence in the world to that wariness when it blossoms into fear, then hatred.  As a child begins to understand the world, his mind begins to incorporate all the new sensations, groups them, connects them to known sensations, resulting in less fear and a larger store of experiences through which even more encounters can be less feared, more easily absorbed into that ever growing set of things not strange, things not to be feared.  However, somewhere along the line, our cup of experiences fills, or we decide to shut out anything new that doesn't already live in our set of sensations.  We stop expanding our "we", but even worse, we focus too much on increasing our definition of "they". 

Here is a hint.  When he hear someone in a public forum, TV, radio, etc.  Listen for how many times they use we and they.  Whether it is to unite or to isolate.  Try to calculate how wide a tent their "we" truly is and how often "they" are blamed for the troubles of the day.  Then ask yourself if you prefer leaders who incorporate a disparate citizenry or only a special subset.  And, finally, if it is the latter you prefer, pray that someday you are not labeled among the "they" when a new group is needed to blame or excoriate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Keystone Pipeline

As I have mentioned before, I receive a weekly summary of all the high profile votes cast in the United States Congress.  The last few weeks have featured a number of votes related to the Keystone Pipeline, a topic upon which I recently commented.

To begin, the Senate passed a bill by a 62-36 vote (there were a few abstainers) that would immediately allow TransCanada to construct, connect, operate and maintain the pipeline, including any revision to the route within Nebraska.  It also would consider the January 2014 environmental impact statement issued by the State Department sufficient to satisfy all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.  

At this point a number of amendments to the bill were put to vote, amendments generally sponsored by Democrats.  One such amendment expressed the sense of the Senate that climate change is real.  This amendment was voted in favor of, overwhelmingly.  What's that you say, the Senate, a GOP majority body voted almost unanimously that climate change is real?  Finally, sanity has prevailed.  But alas, a different amendment that added the phrase "and that human activity significantly contributes to it" was also brought to the floor.  It also passed, 50-49 with 1 not voting, but by unanimous consent the Senate agreed to raise the requirement for adoption of this amendment to 60 votes.  Ah, so close to the promised land.

Two quick questions here.  One, why is the State Department issuing an environmental impact statement as opposed to the federal agencies empowered to protect our environment?  Could it be because the state department might look favorably on a project that continues to benefit the fossil fuel industry while the EPA might consider potential risk to our water supply?  Hmm.

Also, what happened to the 49 Senators who voted that human activity is contributing to climate change, but then voted to require 60 votes to pass a bill recognizing our complicity?  I guess they figure then can say they voted for it without mentioning the second part.  Can you say spineless?

Then there is the amendment that also expresses the sense that climate change is real, that human activity is partly to blame, and that we should promote an overhaul to our energy system away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy.  This amendment, sponsored by Senator Sanders from Vermont was defeated 56-42, 2 not voting. 

Two more quick questions.  Isn't is obvious that we need to continue to experiment with, invest in and encourage the development of cleaner energy sources?  That doesn't mean we have to stop all the government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.  Or stop all the drilling in the earth and offshore.  Or even stop poking little holes in the ground and injecting chemicals.  In just means that we recognize the need to think towards the future, think about harnessing that bright ball in the sky that will be shining there for quite some time.  But, I guess if a Senator votes in such a way, even if it is to make the point that we will need to someday get away from fossil fuels, said Senator risks the ire of the Koch brothers, et all, and the chance that a different fossil fuel industry shill will have a Senate seat purchased for them at the next election.

Second, who is not voting?  If my Senator was abstaining from any of these votes, they better be mostly dead.  I would be curious as to what their notes from mommy said as to why they were absent.

Two other amendments were offered that would have addressed the current law that exempts tar sands companies from paying a per-barrel tax that goes into a government fund for oil spill cleanup. This loophole is especially relevant because tar sands oil is harder to clean up than conventional oil when it spills.  TransCanada of course, currently benefits from that loophole.  But, sadly, both were defeated.

All the benefits, none of the responsibility.  Socialism for business is certainly alive and well.

Strangely, a generally favorite tea party issue, eminent domain, was addressed.  But, as usual, the politics of "I voted to protect rights even though my vote was meaningless" raised its ugly head. 
A GOP sponsored amendment which claimed to protect property owners from having their land seized (right now, landowners in Nebraska are being served with eminent domain papers from
TransCanada) was passed, but it appears that the amendment likely won’t do much to protect those property owners from getting their land taken. The language of the amendment states that the U.S. must “ensure private property is protected as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” But,  eminent domain can be used for economic development, and the U.S. Constitution says land can be taken if the company provides “just compensation.”  I would bet dollars to donuts that the company will meet the requirements of just compensation; they will probably even use it as a PR spin and claim they overpaid.  Strangely, the Senate rejected an amendment that actually would have prevented TransCanada from seizing property owners’ land in Nebraska by making it law that private property could not be seized under eminent domain for the financial gain of a foreign-owned company.  Remember, TransCanada is the name.  I imagine that vote won't be part of any GOP campaign anytime soon.

So, what do we learn from this?  The GOP loves to talk citizen rights except when a large company is looking to trample them.  And the DEMS love the environment until it gets in the way of business.
The good news, of course, is that some temp jobs will be created.  Unless someone deep in the heart of Arabia leeks information that a terrorist strike against the pipeline is in the works.  Then, we will have to guard every inch of that pipeline.  Do you think TransCanada will pay for the guards?  Or will that be just another "expense" that the fossil fuel industry passes along to the American taxpayer?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Winning, God and Avatar

Happy Super Bowl Sunday!!

For those readers overseas, and according to my recent stats, there are more of you than from America, I imagine that our celebration of the Super Bowl seems odd.  If so, take solace in the thought that we look askance at your obsession with the World Cup Soccer finals.

One thing we do have in common however, is the desire to win, and/or be a fan of a winning team.  Which brings us to the controversy surrounding the footballs allegedly used by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.  In essence, the league has a rule governing the PSI of the footballs and it appears that the Patriots broke that rule by using under inflated balls.  Of course, the Super Bowl is big money, so, while an investigation may have begun, no one expects any answers until after the big game.  And, if it is determined that the Patriots did cheat, I don't expect the punishment to include the forfeiture of the AFC victory, nor a super bowl victory should the Patriots win today.  It will be another lesson in the classroom of life which regards winning the most important achievement, regardless of the methods employed.  (I predict a Patriots victory, 27-24)   

I do expect however, someone on the winning team to thank god for the victory.  Why the supreme being, creator of everything that has ever existed, and is to exist, the force that was there for the Big Band and will be there for the final whimper, the being older that time itself actually cares about a game of sport being played today is not the point.  Perhaps, if just once, someone on the losing team might blame the devil for the loss at the post game interviews we could at least have some balance. 

But back to winning for a second.  If someone cheats to win, is it still OK to thank god for the victory.  Doesn't that somehow make god a cheater too?  After all, if the winner cheated, and god had a hand in the victory, then clearly god either participated in the deceit, or at the least, condoned it by not taking steps to keep the cheating side from winning.

Of course, man's history is replete with the winners thanking their deities for success, whether personal or national.  There are many Americans that take for granted that their god created the land we currently call the United States just for us.  The fact that there were already people living here is besides the point, especially when we assume that their pagan beliefs did not recognize the Judeo-Christian God that we accept as the best version of god.  Consequently, our slaughter of the Native Americans becomes glossed over in phrases such as Manifest Destiny, progress, modernization.  After all, our one God was more powerful than their multiple gods, hence our success in forcing the remaining American Indian we didn't kill to move to the least hospitable parts of the country, for little or no compensation despite the various treaties that we signed. 

Similarly, the enslavement of the black man from that dark, barbaric continent of Africa must have been blessed by our god.  Why else would western man have been so successful in tearing apart families and using the backs of men whose only crime was to be born in a sunny land, so they could create farms and plantations to feed the country, and their bank accounts as well?

Seems kind of ironic that we look back on the civilizations that appeased their gods through sacrifices, animal and human, as if their beliefs were inhumane, simplistic, while believing that our supplications to God are so much more advanced.  We pray to win, to win at sports, to win money, to win a war not realizing that so many of our prayers, should they be answered, may mean, for another, the loss of a game, the loss of one's possessions, the loss of life.  Is it more inhumane to kill someone, straight out by cutting their throat, or to kill them slowly by denying their heritage, or by poisoning their air and water for profit, or by destroying their homes from above via bombs and drones?

I watched Avatar again last night with my wife.  There was a scene that reminded me of how far we still have to go in our belief in and the purpose of God.  If you remember the movie, you will remember the scene when Jake goes to the Tree of Souls to pray for Eywa's help in the war to save the homeland of the Na'vi people.  At this point his native girl friend, Neytiri, tells him that Eywa does not choose sides, but only acts to maintain balance.  Her people have a strong connection to the land, a strong belief in their god, but not so strong, not so arrogant, that they believe that by asking for help they will automatically receive it, in the way that will benefit them.  As if the victor in every human encounter wins through the grace of god, the loser because god does not favor them.

Unfortunately, Jake's prayers are answered, the animals of the land and air come to the aid of the Na'vi and the humans are defeated.  I say unfortunately, not because I was rooting against the Na'vi, but because their god is portrayed as choosing a side.  And, while we applaud the victory of the Na'vi, we aren't necessarily reminded by the movie that the Na'vi won, not because they were the more spiritual, not even because the humans were portrayed as greedy and violent, but because Eywa maintains balance and it is best maintained via the Na'vi culture.  God does not choose sides, certainly not in sports, and most definitely not in wars where destruction and death are the means to winning.  Perhaps, once we realize this, we might be less celebratory when we cross an imaginary line on the ground with a elliptically shaped pigskin, and less eager to glorify the killing of those with whom we share our planet just because their culture, religion, or skin color may be different.  

Or, to be more blunt, those misguided Islamic radicals who have perpetrated some horrific acts of violence are not tools of a lesser god, the god of Islam, any more than those misguided Christians who slaughtered the Native Indians were tools of a lesser god, the god of Christianity.  The victor in our current global war against terrorism, will not be the side which God favors.  It may be the side with the biggest guns, but that won't make it the side of god, as Avatar teaches us.  Hopefully, It will be the side which harnesses the power that is the root of all religions, the power of love.  And then, perhaps, God can be thanked for a victory that resulted, not because we asked God for help, not because our God was better than theirs, but because we acted as God's messengers have taught us to act and behave.       


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Unbroken, and other Readings

Week two of my two-days-off-every-other-week plan.  I worked on my next e-publish effort last week, and have made great progress on getting caught up on my reading.  I finished the January editions of Nat Geo and Smithsonian, plus while reading Smithsonian I realized I had not read December's edition.  I had apparently put it aside and forgot about it.  Finished that edition as well, and started and finished the book I was given for Christmas, Unbroken.

January's Nat Geo article about the origin of the universe made me think about those who like to deny or ridicule certain science facts and theories when they don't fit into their comfort zone.  Of course, easy pickings are those who prefer to ignore the scientific work of the archeologists who estimate the earth at 4-5 billion years old, while believing in the creationist theory which places man and dinosaur on earth together, only 8000 years ago.  For those of us who looked to people like Bill Nye to help us learn about science when we were kids, he continues to be a source of rationality, and, kudos to him, patience, as he continues to teach real science rather than religious science. 

Then there are those who would rather believe in a liberal conspiracy as opposed to the insurmountable evidence of climate change.  My wife frequently asks me how seemingly intelligent people can continue to ignore all of the research; she forgets that even intelligence can be overcome by fear, and it is the fear that we need to alter our way of living that prevents so many people from trusting the science of climate change.  And, unfortunately, the power of the status quo, which in America today is translated as the power of the fossil fuel industry to deny their culpability, and use their influence to buy politicians, distort the facts, and instill fear through the prospect of lost jobs. 

Strangely, we are experiencing an unprecedented drop in the price of oil resulting in a huge drop in the cost of gas (good for the consumer), but a reduction in the profitability of shale and oil production in the United States (bad for US jobs).  So, it seems that no combination is good in that jobs will always suffer when oil is too high or too low.  What scares me is that the low price of oil is the result of OPEC manipulation to reacquaint America with its oil addiction (what better way to bring sheep back to the fold than to lower the cost), whereupon the pendulum will swing back to $4 a gallon gas once we have turned back to the OPEC teat.  Or, even worse than that, all of America's oil money going to the Arab countries will be used to build a huge solar energy industry that they will control, as I detailed in my story The Energy Conundrum.  (link below)

What intrigues me about the science deniers is their tendency to trust certain other science implicitly.  Medical science, especially through the pharmaceutical industry, seems to have no doubters when it come to taking a pill to fix your ailment.  (Especially when that pill produces a hard on, but that topic is best left to rise another day).  Even when the side effects, which generally range from nose bleeds to death, are stated during the commercial, and presumably, on the label, we are more interested in the instant health gain than the potential hazard.  I guess that explains this clamor for the XL Pipeline.  It is the dirtiest, most difficult to cleanup, least efficient form of energy (tar sands from Canada), but, since it will produce some jobs for a few years, its full steam ahead.  Of course, should the president fail to veto the bill, or if the fossil fuel industry buys enough of our legislators to override the veto, don't expect that same Canadian company or the fossil fuel industry to pay for the cleanup, assuming they can even do so, when the first aquifer is spoiled, or the first swath of farmland is made barren.  No, the American tax payer will foot the bill, as we certainly can't allow those big oil and gas companies to go bankrupt.  Think of all those lost jobs!

I guess it depends on the nature of the science.  That which allows us to maintain our bad habits, only having to take a pill to rectify, good.  That which points out the consequences of our actions, or makes us think about our behaviors, bad. 

Finally, we turn to Unbroken.  I have not seen the movie, so be forewarn that my impressions from the book may seem odd to those of you who saw the film.  First, it is an incredible story of a remarkable man who defied the odds, and survived circumstances that would have killed, and or broken most of us.  For those of you who sometimes feel that fate or god has dealt you a poor hand, this story is a good reminder that everyone faces trials and tribulations, and that it is in the face of adversity that your character is forged, and your life is revealed.  The author takes the philosophy of the difference between perceiving things as half full or half empty, and, with the backdrop of the Pacific World War Two theatre and the indomitable spirit of the main character, Louis (Louie)Zamperini, she has created an amazing and inspirational story.  I read the 400 or so pages in less than a week.

Yet, I found myself not liking Louie.  Now, I am sure that had I met Mr Zamperini (he died just this past July), my perception may be different.  From what I have read in other accounts of his life, he was a truly remarkable man, the epitome of anything can be done if one tries. 

So, why did I find myself not liking his character?  I thought about it yesterday, on the ride to work, at work for a bit, and on the way home.  My current theory is that the author relied too much on divine intervention to explain Louis's ability to survive his torments, and to turn from his obsession with the war and one particular prison guard, to becoming an inspirational Christian speaker.  What bothers me about this way of explaining his strength, is its simplistic nature.  (My lack of faith lurks in the back of my mind; I acknowledge it is there, but prefer with this explanation, for now).  It seems to suggest that only those with such an abiding faith can survive such horror.  That, assuming divine intervention, only those preferred by God will overcome.  Taken to the next step, then, did God not favor the tens of thousands of American airmen who died in the Pacific theatre?  Did God not love those who survived, but could never overcome their bouts with the mental damage resulting from their particular experiences? 

Also, the author describes Louie's early years, before the crash of his plane began his ordeal, as someone who stole, fought, and was in trouble a lot.  It makes me wonder about the boys who exhibited similar immature traits and actions but did not have the boyish grin and luck to have been forgiven his foibles.  Boys who were merely thrown into jail at the first sign of trouble, especially in light of the appalling incarceration percentage of young black men today.  And, I was not all that happy with Louis's perception of women.  He loves his mother, immensely for sure, but when the author mentions other women in his life, they seem to be fulfilling only one purpose.  Even his wife, whom he marries after less than a month of dating, is treated poorly during his times of fighting with the mental devil that overcomes him after the war.

Finally, the horrific treatment of the American POW's at the hands or their Japanese captors is detailed very starkly.  In contrast the author offers a few examples of some Japanese officers who were not sadists, and mentions a Japanese POW who claims that his detention as a prisoner by America was a positive experience.  She glibly ignores the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were interred without warrant during the years of WW2.  Don't get me wrong, the Japanese culture of the time was not tolerant of the West, and its citizens had been socialized to consider other races inferior.  They were wrong in these beliefs, just as Americans were wrong to dehumanize the Japs and the Krauts.  It is a function of war to whip up the citizenry so that they will hate the enemy, and risk the lives of their children to die in the fight.  It was done during WW2 by all sides, as it is done today by those branding our enemies as terrorists, evil, barbaric.  In the end, when nuclear weapons were used to end the war against Japan, the author easily justifies it as having saved the lives of all the American POWs who would probably have been murdered by their Japanese captors.  We are led down the primrose path to empathize with the suffering of Louie and all the prisoners, hate the Japanese, and shrug off the death of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary, without questioning the morality of killing women and children in their homes, their schools, their beds.  

I guess what I am saying is that the author paints a picture too black and white.  And, for me, Louie becomes the face of that picture.  Which, I guess, for me, makes him seem less human, more an extension of the divine. 

Is it that scary for us, that we have to make those who excel in life whether by overcoming tremendous obstacles or by exhibiting advanced spiritual knowledge, into something beyond human?  And, that we like to find flaws in those in the public eye, so as to bring them down to the level of the everyday?   Perhaps someday, we will be able to admire those who have achieved greatness despite, and with the knowledge of their human frailties, and bemoan those who commit despicable actions without attributing those actions to the devil.    


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Education and Spending

With the recent announcement by President Obama concerning his proposal to enhance the education of America's youth through a free community college program, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on my personal experiences with the cost of education, especially as it relates to my children.

First, Obama's proposal was met with the standard political reactions; support and cheering by Democrats and liberals, dismissiveness and "cost" concerns by Republicans and conservatives.  (Is it even possible for a member of either party to praise a proposal from someone across the aisle?).  Those supporting the idea cite numerous studies that find a correlation between level of education and income, marital stability, employment with a livable wage, access to health care, and perhaps most importantly, those same categories for their children.  Even the business community, often quoted as bemoaning the lack of skills among those applying for job openings, generally support advanced education. 

As for the cost, it is a no brainer that for every dollar spent on education, the return is substantial, ranging from money realized through taxes, to money saved from expenditures on public housing, welfare, unemployment and incarceration.  Lamenting that it is $60 billion that we don't have to spend as some Republicans have stated, reminds me of the old oil filter commercial where the mechanic says, "You can pay me now or pay me later".  It continues to amaze me when some politicians play the cost card for everything that helps those with the least, yet find no objection to spending 500, even 600 billion dollars per year on our military budget.  Or, find no reason to reduce the tax benefits for the richest, all in the name of (bow your head) business. 

(Perhaps with this proposal, the business community will put some money where their mouth is, lack of skills among job seekers wise, and get all the Washington politicians to include education funding within the framework of their worship of business).

For me, addressing education reform is far bigger than free community college.  One reason why attendance at community colleges and technical institutions has exploded is that the cost of higher education, public or private, is out of control.  In Pennsylvania where we live, the state college system is about $20000 per year.  Most private schools start in the upper $30K range and end in the $60K range for the "best" schools.  As compared to inflation, the cost of college has risen many times the cost of almost any other commodity, certainly much more that the average family's salary.  (Of course, the good news is that the salaries of the top 1% has kept pace with the cost of college.  Is it possible that education costs are driven by what the richest can pay?  HMMM).  It is no wonder that college tuition debt is the fastest growing type of debt.  When middle class parents are no longer able to save for their kids college, and are less able to use home equity to finance tuition, yet still retain the belief in the American dream of a college education for their kids, then borrowing by both the parents and the children becomes the only option. 

For my family, now that my son has graduated college, we are starting repayment on the tens of thousands of dollars we borrowed, while my son has begun his own $300 a month for 10 years repayment program to cover his Stafford loans.  I accept the idea of some debt for college.  While I applaud the free community college idea, I firmly believe that with any privilege, all should have some skin in the game.  It makes everyone appreciate what they are involved in, work that much harder to be successful knowing there is a cost.  What galls me is the interest rates being charged!
The parent plus loans we have are 7.9%.  Stafford loans range from 3.5 to 6.0%.  At a time when the prime rate is virtually nil, charging 5,6, 7% interest for 10 years is obscene.  If zero interest loans for education seem anti-capitalist to you, fine, but let's at least agree that 7.9 is outrageous.  How about 1% over prime, with a maximum of 5%?  Remember, the more money the middle class and recent college graduates spend on education, the less money there will be to purchase the goods and services that we need to keep the economy growing, to keep the demand for jobs high, to allow everyone to pay their debts in the first place.

Another question we need to address relates to who should go to college.  In some European countries, a test is administered in high school; pass, and you attend a free university for higher education, fail, and you are taught a skill that suits your talents and will provide a livable income.  I can't imagine Americans agreeing to allow such a system here; there are too many examples of people who test poorly but are good students, or are late bloomers, or who find the motivation to succeed in college while being unmotivated in high school.   However, if we hold the idea that only through college education can one be deemed successful, then we do a great disservice to those for whom college is not the best choice.  We drastically need to provide better counseling to our high school children about all the paths to success, we need more partnering of local businesses with public schools to direct the right skills to be taught to those not going to college, and we need to
re-emphasize the importance of the skilled trades as being, not only necessary for our society, but a solid career choice for those with the aptitude, not just a second best choice.  This also means that we need to address this issue by re-evaluating compensation levels; do we need $100 million dollar salaries in any field?  Should there be a salary structure that provides a livable wage for all job choices, as opposed to one which relegates those at the bottom to poverty wages while rewarding those at the top with obscene salaries? 

Curiously, if one is to research the original GI Bill and its 62 year history, there were many detractors of the concept, many doubters that it would provide assistance without encouraging laziness.   In retrospect, it seems crazy to question the efficacy of these programs and the astronomical return we received on the investment in the various GI bills, yet most new programs, especially government programs, are met with doubt at the time of birth.  This is even more so now, in light of the movement to depict the government as the bad guy, and the desire to make it smaller.  When I see someone of this ilk, I always wonder which government program they or their family used to help them and I wonder if they are unappreciative or merely the victim of selective memory.    

I applaud Obama's proposal although I do so with restraint, fearing that the real problems in education may not be addressed.  Perhaps, education should be one of those services that is not market driven.  Perhaps our education system should focus on knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and skills which enhance the life of the graduates.  Perhaps it should teach how to think just as much as what to think.  Perhaps be less concerned with budgets, and alumni donations, and more concerned with graduation rates and employment opportunities.  Like our health care system, there is far too much money in our education system that is not being directed properly.  We should be able to cut the cost and improve the product, but we need all parties involved to work towards the same goal and I fear that those who support the status quo will win the day.

In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to make sacrifices to pay for my son's college debt, and the ongoing college education of my daughter.  I have seen first hand how college helped my son to mature, become a more confident person and a more productive citizen.  And I already see similar results for my daughter after a year and a half.  I know we are not unique in this perspective, there are tens of thousands of parents who make similar decisions every spring when their children decide on a college in the fall.  My hope is that over time, those voting, those who win elections, and those who claim to be educators will come together and realize that the future of America lies not in how many guns and bombs we can make, but in how many young people we can inspire to believe in themselves and in our country.   

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Interstellar and Time

Happy New Year!!

I am starting the new year off "right" by taking some time off from work.  Of course, not everyone has the luxury of a stockpile of vacation time, or a job where taking one's vacation time does not interfere with the smooth operation of the business, but that unfortunate fact is topic for another day.  In my case, I plan to take a few days every other week for the first quarter of the year.  Hopefully, it will provide me the time and the opportunity, to catch up on my reading, and e-publish something I have worked on for far too long without completing.

In the meantime, I finished the Laphams Quarterly called Time.  It was interesting in parts, but a bit redundant in others.  I say redundant in that essays, poems, reflections about Time seem to fall into a smaller group of categories as can be inspired by other topics.  I guess after the umpteenth example of someone expressing regret over wasting their time as their life comes to a close, after another example of a metaphysical approach to defining Time in relation to eternity, God, space, etc, after yet again someone's reflection of how Time makes a mockery of earthly possessions, fighting over specks of land, angst over almost any of life's events when compared to forever, I was beginning to tire of the effort to read.

Then I went to see the movie Interstellar.  For those of you who have not seen it, I will try not to spoil the story.  In essence, it is a love story, set with a background of time, space, and the future of mankind.  For me, it brought to life many of the concepts encased in Lapham's Time edition.  I would imagine that for most people, Einstein's theory of relativity is just that, a theory, but something hard to apply to everyday life and experiences.  Reading a magazine like Laphams, I surmise that there may be an attempt to make such a theory come alive by compiling the musings about Time over the course of thousands of years.  With just such a perspective, it is a sobering read.  But, perhaps regrettably, seeing the effect of relativity as played out on the big screen with believable actors in a not unbelievable story, seems to bring home the point all that clearer.  For me, one of the most striking scenes is the one in which the father is reunited with his daughter after his time in space.  It is a reunion in a hospital where the daughter is dying of old age while the father has aged only slightly.  On the face of it, something out of science fiction, but as theorized by Einstein and as depicted in the movie, as realistic as any scene could be.  

To return to Lapham's Time, there was one essay that caused me pause.  It was written by a father who, with found memories of his childhood days at a summer vacation spot, decided to bring his own son to that same place.  At first, unsure that Time and Progress may have changed his summer retreat, he moved cautiously.  But, upon arrival, and after the first full day, he was happy to discover that very little had changed at the lake.  Except him.  While Time had seemingly stopped as far as the summer vacation spot was concerned, he had aged.  When he looked at his son, he remembered his own father and he started to combine those images.  He saw himself as both the son and the father, interchangeable.  This, of course, made me think about my father, already gone for two years, and my son, just graduated from college.  I am the link between them, yet also the end result of a link that extends multiple generations in the past, and hopefully, the beginning of a chain that will extend multiple generations into the future.  A bit of immortality, both backwards into history and forward into Time.

There is no time like the present.  A nice little saying.  Ridiculed by some who perceive those who live in the present to be irresponsible or immature.  Yet, is it not the present that links what has happened with what is to come.?

Which begs the question; what is preferable, or what is worse; living in the past, living in the present or living for the future.  The past is a nice place to visit when one feels nostalgic but its experiences tend to exist through rose colored glasses, always better in reflection than they were in reality.  It may be pleasant to start one's sentences with "I remember when.." but turning back the hands of Time is not a foundation to build upon for the future.  While the future is an imagined place, a wonderful or dreaded place depending on one's age, outlook, economic situation, country of birth, gender, race, health condition, etc.  For those of us approaching retirement, there are too many stories of friends or relatives who plan for their years after work, only to pass to the next realm within a few months,  never actually reaching the future they planned for so long. 

Perhaps then, there is no time like the present is the better choice of philosophies, perhaps the only choice that adequately links the past with the future.  The only choice that values what has come before, honors what is now, and appreciates what is to come.