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.