Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Cogent Foreign Policy in Europe nor the US? For that I blame #Bush, #Clinton, #Obama, & all of #NATO

Even as Paris continues to mourn, the West should take immediate steps to protect the values that our democracies hold dear. Failure to do so could quickly lead to much of western Europe and perhaps also the cities of America living as police states, with barricades and checkpoints at every turn. All too quickly, liberty, equality, and fraternity can be replaced by racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance.

Troops Around the Tower: Will this become a familiar scene?
Image credit:
If the terrorists have their way, then the very people who continue to pay the highest price for extremism will be treated as extremists themselves... and the West will quickly lose what few allies we have left in the conflicting region. Yes, we in the west have lost many innocents, but let's remember that entire villages, towns and cities have been swallowed up by these extremists. ISIS has been busy murdering thousands of people every month... for years. And so now we notice?

Pope Francis just implied that the events in Paris may be part of the third world war; I fear that he is quite correct. This multi-year reluctance of Europe and the US to take a clear, principled, and firm stand against extremists and their sponsors endangers us all. Does NATO even exist any more? Is its purpose simply to issue press releases...?

Leadership has been entirely absent in the US and Europe, as the threat has grown. Here in the US, our President referred to the extremists as a "JV" squad, implying that they weren't to be taken as seriously as Al Qaeda. He then asserted that the US doesn't do "pin pricks" - but that's precisely what the foreign policy has been ... from the Bush years and right through to the present.

The US has been conducting our foreign policy by remote control, trying to take little stabs at a multi-tentacled international operation. The assumption has been that the side with the best technology wins. Uh... no. We should all know by now what a box cutter can do. We should all know by now that lone wolves look like every one of us from a distance. The architects of this high-altitude foreign policy need to go... and now. It is utterly outrageous to me that anyone associated with these massive foreign policy and ground intel failures -Bush(es), Clinton(s), Biden- could actually win Election 2016. They have set us up for generations of conflict... and should be retired to hone their apologies.

Europe, you have yet again failed to protect yourselves from conflict at your doorstep. Behold the irony: high-minded talk about preventing chemical atrocities in Syria and beyond. But then when the path gets the slightest bit tough, what is the strategy? Look to the US to do the dirty work- at a time when most American could care less. And so now Europe faces an unending flow of refugees. And yes, these refugees look different from you; they speak differently; they think differently... and will become posters for your rightmost radicals. Thus you have created a safe haven abroad for extremists, and safe havens within your own borders for Le Pen and similar nazis. The price you will pay will be counted in generations living with fear and hatred.

So... what is our part, then? What are we individuals to do when our trusted governments have so thoroughly failed? Can we at least agree to hold our leaders to account, and demand that the next elections be about competent policy? Why would we turn back to the leaders that didn't lead, so many times before?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

August #missile outrage over #Egypt: passengers at risk, but not told

Just let this sink in.

Sky News and The Guardian are now reporting that this past August, an Egyptian military missile passed within 1000 ft of a British jet carrying 189 passengers over Egypt.

That is a hair's width, at flight speeds.

And to make matters far worse: apparently, the UK Department of Transport knew about and investigated the incident... but somehow didn't publicly divulge the details. Shouldn't this have been front-page news, and a clear warning to all travelers throughout the region?

Question abound: Why wasn't the airspace immediately declared off-limits to British (and indeed all) commercial traffic? How can this airspace be considered safe... by anyone? Why weren't passengers alerted to the risks?

My feeling is that this is a complete outrage, and would be an outrage even if the Russian passenger jet hadn't recently been downed over Egypt. The fact of the matter is that the region's airspace and associated airports are (and were) known to be unsafe. Yet governments let their citizens travel...

This advisory failure seems just short of treasonous; any government's most fundamental responsibility is to protect its citizens. This isn't just negligence, it is a coverup and complete betrayal of public trust.

Here is the original Sky News story:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

#Terrorism versus Lightning, and the American Addiction to Fear

Terrorism is in our headlines, across our national media, and in almost every speech given by every national politician. Since 9/11, and in fact well before 9/11, terrorism has, well, terrorized Americans. It is time to seek perspective, ask what this culture of fear is doing to our country, and seek ways to deny the terrorists the right to divide us with fear.
Fear is an insidious ailment because it both addictive and contagious. Physiologically, fear acts much like stress, which underlies so many of the ailments that claim lives or at least reduce quality of life.
Relative to the total population, in a typical year, the chance of an American citizen being killed by a terrorist are roughly one in 20,000,000. Compare this to their risk of...
Dying in a car accident: 1 in 19,000;
Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 800,000;
Dying in a building fire: 1 in 99,000;
Being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000. 
Of the ones that I researched, being struck by lightning is the only mode of injury ridiculously rare enough to be compared to death by terrorist attack.
As an American who grew up in a war zone and actually knows what it's like to have a loaded AK-47 pointed at me, I find it very deeply troubling that so many Americans live in a state of fear; spend so much of their time watching cable "news" which packages, sells and multiplies that fear. And many Americans habitually vote for more fear every four years or so.
For this reason I implore my dear, fellow Americans to get in their car and drive... just drive across the country. Drive thousands of miles on our awesome wide open roads and feel that peaceful sunlight and breathe that peaceful air and enjoy that scenery. Unplug the fear and drive. It feels good.
We should also remember that lot of good people have worked hard or even died to give you that a sense of freedom, peace and security. Yes, I speak of Tom Sullivan, David Wyatt, Carson Holmquist, Skip Wells, and Randall Smith, and all of their colleagues in Chattanooga and across the armed forces, and their families, and their friends. It actually devalues the sacrifice of all of our service people when we do not appreciate what we have and what they worked or even died to protect. 
We should remember that the root intent of a terrorist is... to terrorize. The statistics are very clear, and we should deny the terrorists the pleasure of cultivating fear in our minds. The terrorist are failing in the physical fight, and we can defeat them in the mental fight at home as well, simply by enjoying what we have.
So please... take advantage of our freedom and our peace at home. Yes, of course, we do need to remain ever vigilant, and continue efforts to thwart terrorism at home and abroad, but.. never forget to enjoy what you have and the price the nation has paid to secure it.
America is the rarest of rarities- a huge, wealthy, gorgeous and mostly peaceful land where we don't have to live in fear. America is the place where we have the liberty and luxury to worry about other things... like whether to put a lightning rod on the house.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

American #HigherEd and the Liberal / Conservative Squeeze

American Higher Ed circles have lately been abuzz with news about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions in his state, which appear designed to trim academic programs and confront unions. With the recent announcement of Walker's candidacy in the 2016 election, his actions in Wisconsin will bring more scrutiny and dissent.
Of course, educators are right to study and question Scott Walker's motives... and, in fact, the motives of any and all politicians, very few of who have any knowledge about Higher Ed or education in general. However, Higher Ed is struggling with much larger and broader challenges than Mr. Walker. Reduced resources from the States and Federal funding agencies; legacy costs; rampant misunderstanding of tuition inflation, the "college for all" concept ...which seems designed take the "higher" out of "higher education." Just to name a few.
An unfortunate political circumstance that is currently afflicting higher ed is what might be called the liberal-conservative squeeze: opposed forces chewing into support for Higher Ed from opposite ends.
The fringe Republicans' vendetta against Higher Ed is well known, so I won't dwell on that here. I'll simply point out that the Democrat's wondrous-sounding, beautifully egalitarian, "college-for-all" speak has inflicted grave damage as well, because it tends to devalue the on-campus, 4-year experience in favor of MOOCs and other measures that aim to take tuition revenue away from schools.... revenue that actually pays teachers' salaries. It amazes me that Ed advocates on the left don't realize that as soon as they assert the possibility of replacing current instruction with lower cost methods e.g. MOOCs, the more cost-conscious conservatives will seize upon that as evidence that faculty really aren't worth what they are paid.
Moreover, the Democrats' concept of simply shifting tuition costs for students to the broader public (via the tax base) also sounds lovely, but it does absolutely nothing to address rising costs, and isn't politically viable in many states. That leaves the Democrats with no better option than to advocate for a large private-to-public shift at the Federal level, which is unlikely to succeed, given the political ineptitude and inefficiency of the Education Department.
In my opinion, there has been far too much emphasis in Higher Ed media on Mr. Walker; far too much focus on the unfolding political machinations in that one state. Walker is ultimately a bit player, an ephemeral political being. Wisconsin will eventually overcome him and emerge stronger because of it, perhaps even with some benefits from a few of his ideas. To put it another way: if an institution can truly be decimated by one short-term, partisan politician, then it's not much of an institution. Surely we are more resilient than this. I offer this wisdom from the University of Virginia, where we know a thing or two about deep political intrusions.
In summary, a far greater long-term challenge to Higher Ed across America than Mr. Walker is this phenomenon of the liberal-conservative squeeze. It has the candle of Higher Ed burning at both ends, and if we don't address it soon (pardon the hyperextended metaphor) the light will soon go out.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Meeting (Among Friends)

Begun at mid morning after many greetings, the silence is at first awkward. Somewhere, a beeping device and then a whisper. Traffic nearby. A train whistle, off in the distance. Another beeping...really? That one is at least outside. Then there is the shifting of human mass upon the benches, the creaking of old wood. It takes good time.
True quiet is difficult to establish, and it's not all their fault. There are too many songs in my head; too many things for my fingers to do; too many reasons not to be quiet. Minutes pass, and then more. The room is a bit warm, so I loosen my shoes and set my feet upon them and find a comfortable posture.
When quiet is finally set among us, there is the wait. Will someone speak? What will they say? No one need speak, actually: we all know what is in our minds after this week. It is written on every face of every color and age.
Light streams in past the clouds and through the skylights, and I have calculated well: it doesn't touch me. It would be too warm, with those ceiling fans off for the sake of the silence. My corner is dark and cool... and comfortable.
After a time, a different tight compels several to stand and speak. You don't need to know what they said; it is for us there, and it is sincere and beautiful. There is perceptible relief when someone speaks... the silence is just too much for most of us; except, perhaps, for a few of the white-haired old Friends who have built up a tolerance for such things.
After the messages, the doors open and a rather beautiful, willowy young lady enters, in a light and flowing dress. She is accompanied by boisterous children. One is not even two feet tall, African in appearance, who flashes the peace sign and scurries to his white guardian. She wears her usual peace shirt. The children disturb the peace, but in the best possible way. 
Then there is the most beautiful occurrence: a very young girl in braids darts into the open space in the center of the room. No one attempts to restrain her. She stands comfortably at the focus of twelve benches facing her, in our circle... or is it more a square? In any case, she drifts around that center, almost dancing, and facing each direction in turn: north, south, east and west, around and around, facing all of us for a little time, like an uninhibited little muse. Then she meanders back to her mother's side. I am sure there is a common sense that we have all witnessed something
The Speaker brings this all to a close, and a call to propose a hymn. "There is a Bomb in Gilead," one woman says... or so I heard it. Fortunately, the children distribute hymnals and I see that it is the Balm that is our subject. Our hymn is a familiar old spiritual, and its final verse is special, or at least a bit more special than the rest:
"You don't have to preach like Peter,
You don’t have to pray like Paul;
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all."
Finally, we introduce ourselves and make little comments. One woman relates her child's marriage, and the truer friends wave their hands in their charmingly goofy way. For some mystical reason, the introductions always follow a clockwise helical pattern from the back row to the center, like a welcoming maelstrom of friendliness. It ends with the willowy young woman who tended the children. She doesn't seem at all taxed by them.
A few more words and announcements, and that is the conclusion of another meeting. Time for us to stand and shake hands and wander out from whence we came... and wonder what just happened.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Conservatives *do* have a point... but it's not what they are talking about

One of the most unique and successful features of American democracy, the Federal-State system, has taken several serious hits from the Supreme Court over the past few days.

First there was the Obamacare ruling, which essentially upholds the establishment of a costly, bureaucratic and complex system across all states... even if any particular state's citizens don't want it and opted not to set up a health insurance 'exchange.' This is particularly contentious for many conservatives who celebrate the principle of self-determination and fear that they are being asked to pay for someone else's health care.

Next came the ruling on same-sex marriage, which some religious conservatives may perceive as the single most fundamental affront to their religious traditions in all of US history. The opinion offered by Chief Justice Roberts makes it clear that he (& an aging but nevertheless vocal minority) considers this Supreme Court ruling an intrusion on historical tradition. Some conservatives will now feel that they are being asked to fund the marital benefits of same-sex couples, even if they are religiously opposed to same sex marriage.

There have been many other perceived abrogations of states' rights, in recent years, notably 'Common Core,' which some conservatives fairly(?) see as a Federal program to teach to a Federally-controlled test and thereby control what our kids learn. And then, after the horrid tragedy in Charleston perpetrated by a very sick lone wolf, there was the sudden popular outburst against the rebel flag, which still proudly adorns many walls and pickup trucks across the eastern half of the country. Some conservatives perceive that the Federal government is attempting to define a traditional symbol as hateful....when they don't see it that way.

The point that conservatives could make, but dare not for obvious historical reasons, is that the relevance of state law is rapidly eroding. Given the transition to larger multi-state and multinational corporations and gargantuan Federal programs, many state boundaries have become virtually meaningless in terms of fiscal and social policy.

I will attempt to state what I think conservatives might fairly argue. In my view, the very best argument they have is that the flag of these United States has fifty stars, not one. Moreover, the states have historically functioned as relatively independent places to test new programs and policies, some even quite radical. Consider, for example, Massachusetts' Obamacare-like health care law; the current experiments with legalized marijuana in Colorado; the sale of state bonds for higher education in Oregon; the various contentious laws concerning abortion, particularly in the late term; and indeed the legalization of same-sex marriage prior to this Supreme Court ruling.

In essence, the conservatives could fairly argue: if it's not broke, why fix it? States have been experimenting with all manner of contentious issues... for generations. Why compel states to do what they could decide to do on their own?

I can offer counter-arguments to the above, but for the sake of argument, I present what I consider to be the conservatives' very best case, and the one that I believe they may present in the next election.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The so-called #confederate flag

Quite a vocal debate has ensued since that disgusting, racially-motivated murder by the young fool in Charleston, which took the lives of nine innocent Americans at church. The most prominent leaders across the political spectrum have weighed in.

Foremost, I must say that I'm not quite comfortable with what it says about our society that we are already talking about flags and abstract meanings rather than good people's lives ended much too soon by ignorance. Nevertheless, the flag topic is on the table, and I must offer comment, because there is an awful (and I do mean awful) lot of misunderstanding about the 'confederate flag" and the 'southern heritage' that some falsely claim that it represents. It represents something far more insidious, and its continued presence is deliberate for that reason.

At issue are actually four flags. It is important to note this detail, if we really attempt to understand what hateful disease was festering in the mind of this young fool, as opposed to simply sinking him to the bottom of the ocean and forgetting that he ever happened. (Which is tempting... but we do need to try to effect some good from this awful event, if at all possible.)

One flag that confounded this young fool's brain is the current American flag, which, of course, represents national unity. Obviously, the concept of people from different races and religions coming together to help each other through shared commitment to civility did not reach the young fool, during whatever inadequate upbringing he had. And so the young fool trampled and burned our flag.

Then there are the [apartheid-era] South African and Rhodesian flags that he wore, which represented two precarious regimes in a part of the world where this young fool has actually never tread. No one can assume that he knows what they represent. I happen to know a thing or two about those two flags, but will save that for another thread. Let's proceed to the main topic of discussion.

And then there is the so-called "confederate flag"... which isn't actually the confederate flag, and never was... and was in fact rejected for that purpose. What some southerners now call the "confederate flag" was at best a northern Virginia battle flag used by Robert E. Lee during the confederacy. Moreover, the familiar design offered by pro-slavery racist William Porcher Miles has little if anything to do with southern heritage. Of course, the rebel flag and its meaning have changed over time, and it now represents many things to many people. To me the rebel flag represents a backward mentality that I cannot tolerate... because it is by its own nature intolerant. I do not apologize for this strong point of view.

In the context of the recent discussions about the controversial "confederate flag," I have read the term "southern heritage" tossed about. We are supposed to believe that the flag somehow represents the south or at least its history. But I can think of *many* more positive symbols of southern-ness than a flag designed by a pro-slavery racist in the 1800s. Do people claim there is really nothing more positive to represent the south and its heritage than the rebel/confederate/battle flag? If so, that is sad for America and even sadder for the south.

God bless the United States.

Friday, June 12, 2015

#Google, the French, and le droit à l'oubli

The French are again challenging Google over the company's neural algorithm and associated indefinite caching. Apparently they'd like for Google to reset the search history on routine basis... and to extend that practice globally. Google has already been compelled by Europe's highest court to forget some things:

What you need to know about the 'right to be forgotten' on Google

A key part of Google's search is the use of historical information, i.e. what you searched for in the past and related patterns, which may be established by what other people searched for. The search algorithm apparently functions quite similarly to how our brains retrieve info: the more you try to recall something, the quicker and more facile that process of recollection becomes. The brain is trained.

The problem is that once a pattern is established, there is no fresh search. Ever. The search network becomes 'wired.' Thus arises a reasonable complaint that a search engine can, in effect, steer traffic away from less-visited sites, perhaps placing local business at a disadvantage. If you want a search engine to feature new sites and services, you'd need to wire in some bias toward them.

A related issue is that once something is online, it tends to get parroted and cached all over, so that it never ...ever... goes away. (Hence internet 'truthification'... the tendency for even the most blatantly false info to live on and on)

What if you didn't want a statement or indiscrete photo to remain immortal on the internet? It'd be very hard -if not impossible- to expunge. This is going to be a very big problem for young people, who are likely to say or do things online that they later wish they hadn't. Their indiscretions are on permanent record.

Google does a very fine job of finding exactly what people want. That's a good thing, but also a bad thing, according to the French. Everyone should have le droit à l'oubli. And maybe they have a point.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Barenboim's Big Piano

Conductor-Composer-Pianist Extraordinaire Daniel Barenboim has collaborated with Belgian instrument-maker Chris Maene to produce an interesting straight-strung grand piano. He was inspired to do so after playing Franz Liszt's imposing concert grand piano, which is straight strung.

Barenboim says that the new piano has "more transparency, more clarity." He probably means that the piano sounds more pure... from the bench. I doubt very seriously that it makes any difference at all by the time you're at a typical audience's distance; a spectrum should bear that out. The performer sits in the near-field, so to speak, of the piano's sound. The audience sits much further away... in the far field.. and thus likely hears a typically overtoned spectrum, no matter how you string the harp. The audience is hearing sound enriched by the modes of the sound board and splayed off the lid. This is my initial thought; I'd be interested to see some data, to see if I am right.

Moreover, the cross-string design came into being for several good reasons:

(1) A cross-string piano is much more compact;
(2) Crossed bass strings pass over the middle of the sound board, giving better resonance;
(3) $$$!

Furthermore, I speculate...

(4) Technicians have been working on cross-string grands for ~150 years and I suspect this new (old?!) design will present new maintenance challenges;
(5) The forces on the harp are probably better balanced with cross stringing;
(6) I'd expect better overtone resonance with a cross string design, i.e. more cooperation between the strings.

So will the Big Barenboim succeed? I doubt it. But it's still interesting!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

#DDay71 #DDay Thank You

On this seventy first anniversary of D-Day...

Words can never suffice, but I thank all who so bravely marched against the bullets and the tyranny of Naziism. And I thank all at home who worked, and hoped, and prayed for your success.

You are humanity's epic heroes for all time.

We simply are not worthy of your sacrifice and can only attempt to make it so.

Comments on Racial #Gerrymandering

So you think segregation is a thing of the past? Apartheid was just in South Africa? Well... have a look at North Carolina's 12 district. Not only does it carve red from blue, and haves from have-nots; it separates regions by melanin...

Many state legislatures have attempted to racially gerrymander their district boundaries; recent examples include AL, LA, NC, and VA. Fortunately, these tortuous district perimeters can be challenged in the courts, and there they have been consistently failing.

In 2012 Alabama's Republican legislature's instituted racially gerrymandered district boundaries. The Alabama proposal was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.... this past March... 2015! Yes, it took several *years* of legal battles to reach that point, and by then, considerable damage was done.

The Republican Virginia legislature's racial gerrymandering around Richmond was just struck down a few days ago- a significant victory. But wait: a similar plan was struck down last year, so this is an ongoing battle and there is no solution in sight. Voters would likely need to elect new Delegates to break the impasse.

It is important to note that Democrats have pushed for racial gerrymandering as well. The implied liberal argument for it (which sounds fair at first) is that minorities would not be adequately represented without their own districts. And so there are some representatives who wouldn't possibly rise to office without some special assistance. This is an insidious practice which grooms leaders who represent the white people or the African American people, but seldom serve the People as a whole. And then we wonder why we feel divided...

The implied Republican argument for racial gerrymandering, I suppose, is that African Americans will always vote for their own. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you don't work, year after year, to represent everyone, transparently, then the population will naturally self-segregate.

The lesson from South Africa and perhaps also Israel is that once you lock in geographical boundaries -whether by fence or by district boundary- racial tensions increase. People get a sense of "us" versus "them;" they notice more crime there than here; they notice more prosperity here than there, etc. After a generation or two, there is Apartheid-in-effect.

And that is toxic to American democracy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

My brief review of #FarFromTheMaddingCrowd

Last night, I enjoyed Far From The Madding Crowd.

For me, a clear highlight was the tuna tartare afterward, at Parallel 38 in Charlottesville. I kid... for me, the real highlight is Bathsheba imploring her abiding shepherd, Gabriel, to poke her bloated ewes. This is useful knowledge, and for that alone, I give the film three stars.

The film is beautifully photographed, and the cast -all new to me- were exceptional. True to Hardy's novel, the film follows the pretty young Bathsheba's experiments with four relationships... with three men, and with herself. Bathsheba struggles to chose a suitor, while questioning whether a woman of her means really needs a husband at all.

In the end, Bathsheba does exactly what most viewers will expect, and certain members of the cast also seem to know precisely what will happen. Therefore, even a few Dickensian plot twists can't rescue the film from a sense of inevitability.

In summary: very good cast; good script; excellent cinematography; and the film did the best it possibly could with the novel. I found the score sadly unengaging - basically, just some string etudes in the background. However, there is one very nice folk musical scene that ties the whole film together quite well. And then there are those (mechatronic?) sheep, which really deliver the drama in two key scenes.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Can we save America's small colleges by sharing some administration?

At many of our institutions of Higher Education, undergraduate tuition has inflated significantly faster than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This inflation has multiple sources; e.g. administration and administrative redundancy; facilities management; expenditures to accommodate increasing enrollment; and a broad reduction in research investments.

It is important to note that teacher compensation has not exceeded CPI, and tend to lag behind. Yet, many current strategies to reduce the overall cost of college currently focus on reducing instructional cost or reducing the number of classes that students take at college. These strategies will fail to reduce tuition and may, in fact, increase it… as schools seek additional financial input to preserve core functions.

Sharing certain administrative services between several institutions may be an effective way to tackle administrative cost. This approach might benefit smaller public schools, in particular. (Larger universities may find more benefit by implementing a shared service approach within their school, i.e. sharing services between departments and schools in order to tackle administrative redundancy.)

Many administrative functions served at our colleges and universities are quite similar to analogous functions elsewhere and do not require full-time, local personnel. For example, routine procurement and financial functions; grant pre-award reviews; routine accreditation reviews; certain HR functions; and perhaps even initial admissions reviews might be effectively pooled.

Moreover, there exists a need for highly specialized expertise that may be difficult for smaller schools to source; for example, specialized financial, legal, and intellectual property consultation.

It is very important to note that this “shared services” approach is not intended to eliminate core functions. Nor can this approach be implemented in a manner that makes services less accessible to faculty, staff and students. On the contrary, the objective is to find more resources for those core functions that truly require customization due to the particular needs of a school, whilst reducing cost for other functions.

As an initial step toward implementing this approach, I suggest that schools begin to distinguish, within their own administrative structures, those functions that require high levels of customization and local service, etc. in order to serve the core mission of their school. These core administrative services must be preserved and should indeed be enhanced. Next, functions that could be perform equally -or perhaps even better- with a shared service strategy can be identified, and those items can be considered for pooling with similar schools.

If this can strategy can be implemented without adversely affecting their core mission, several of America’s smaller institutions of Higher Education that currently struggle with escalating administrative cost may soon find incentive to unite and conquer.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Depression is *not* Psychosis

After the horrible #Germanwings tragedy, the media is aggressively pushing depression as the cause, and the word "suicide" appears in almost all related headlines. A few quick points:

(1) One of the very first things that mental health professionals ascertain, when confronted with a troubled person, is whether that person is (a) a potential harm to themselves, or (b) a potential harm to others. That's one of the first steps in assessment because those are two very different branches of behavior, requiring very different treatments;

(2) Depression and suicide are very different from the kind of psychotic behavior apparently exhibited by this pilot. It is wildly unfair to the many people who occasionally struggle with anxiety / depression to confuse them with psychosis;

(3) Partly because of (2), many who could/should get treatment for depression will be disinclined to do so, and that is a real shame. Stigma kills. It really does;

(4) Depression is treated in very different ways than psychosis and other issues tending to lead to harm of others. In fact, medications used for one may even worsen the presentation of the other, in some cases;

(5) Some of the SSRI medications widely used to treat depression can [rarely] induce psychosis, and for that reason, the SSRI industry (yes it has become an industry) really needs to insist that these are used in combination with person-to-person therapy;

(5b) I find it outrageous how casually certain medications are prescribed, typically by doctors with little mental health experience and usually without any regard to patients' access to supportive counseling, socialization and exercise habits;

(6) Many, many young people have depressive or even suicidal thoughts from time to time. It's really not that uncommon in our hyper-anxious, fast-paced world... and we shouldn't treat anxiety / depression like some taboo topic. My experience is that those young people who disclose and verbalize their thoughts and anxieties are far more likely to recover (although this is, to some extent, a tautology);

(7) In this case, it seems that this pilot faced the loss of his job if his condition(s) were revealed to his employer. Cosistent with (6), this tends to correlate with a poor outcome. Also, if he were perchance experiencing depersonalization as a [fairly common] side effect of his treatment, this might well have exacerbated or promoted the behavior. I.e. incomplete treatment might even be the cause of the tragic behavior. That is scary to me, given how widely and casually these medications are now prescribed.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Advice to Young Bigots

Having the freedom to say what you mean and mean what you say, without having to hide anything of shade the meaning, is very liberating. I suspect that a lot of people with hidden biases feel those issues eating away at them, all the time. Everyone is at their best when they are their whole self, openly being whoever they are; becoming who they want to be.

One of the common things that young people experience on their way to adulthood is a "club" or "tribe" or "frat" effect in which they are expected to adapt their behavior, appearance, words, and even thinking just to fit in.

I suppose everybody tries this at some point in their lives. It's a natural and powerful feeling to want to be part of a tribe. But if that tribe causes them to say or do things in order to belong, and those things feel uncomfortable at an unconscious level, then it will progress like a cancer to their conscience. They can deny it, they can hide it... but it's still there and it wants to spread and consume the whole self.

Based on this observation, my advice to the chanting Ohio State SAE boys, Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, and their colleagues, is as follows:

Find how to be thankful that your behavior was caught on video. Only when you are able to do that, only then will you know why it caused so much hurt.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Friday, March 6, 2015

Federal Spending vs. Federal Investing, and the #DebtCeiling Debate

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew just announced that the Federal Government will again reach its debt ceiling around 3/18.

There will be predictable nonsense about how much debt we have taken on as a nation, and how this is around 100% of GDP, and how the Chinese can manipulate us, if they want. I'll attempt a few words of clarity....

* The Chinese can't manipulate us. We could, in fact, unilaterally cancel all debt payment obligations, which would simply whack our credit ratings for a while. This really isn't about China or any foreign debt holders; this is about the status of our national debt as the absolute safest security, the so-called zero-risk asset.

* That US debt is in such high demand is a good thing and a bad thing. It allows us to, in essence, spend more in the near term, but....

* ...There is Federal spending and then there is Federal investing. Which are we doing? I am not convinced that the current leadership in either major party knows the difference. We need clarity, more than ever before.

* The Tea Party fringe that adamantly opposes any debt ceiling increases is not proposing any workable solutions. They really do believe that shutting the machine down is a solution- it's not.

* Shutting down the government or forcing 'extraordinary measures' is expensive. It does not save money, in fact it costs us a lot more. A protracted shutdown would do a lot more damage than just the direct costs, it'd raise the long-term cost of our debt payments. Imagine you tell your bank you're just join to skip some payments... what happens to your interest rate? Any sensible person knows that you have much more bargaining leverage after you rein in your debt!

* In a functional government, the debate would be about how to bend down spending and increase investing. The US is in a fantastic position to invest very strategically, in ways that would put our kids and grandkids in a position of leadership for the next century. Will we do it? Well...

* ...the big problem here is that our leaders think in terms of short-term election cycles, not longer term investment. It's all about attempting to whack the other side right before the election, and playing to the base before the primaries. This mentality is the polar(ized) opposite of what we need to set up long-term investments.

I could go on and on but will refrain. Just... please don't vote for someone whose entire political vision is to shut the thing down. It benefits no one but a few politicians in districts where financial education is lacking. (Politically incorrect, but sorry, it's true)

Why we don't bring back "civics" and infuse real financial education? It's urgent that our kids understand the basics, because clearly a lot of adults do not. On both sides.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On those negative Swiss yields and what they don't mean

Some odd explanations are being offered for the negative yields seen recently in several countries' debt markets. Today, Swiss bond yields went negative right out to 15 years, quite an historic anomaly. Why?

Contrary to what I've seen and read through several outlets, negative bond yield does not mean that individual investors knew, a priori, that this would happen. It does not mean that they are cheerfully willing to accept losses over the term of a bond, just to put their money somewhere.

We have to remember that a lot of capital is moving simultaneously but also independently from many different directions, into the rather small Swiss debt market. Certainly, Switzerland is a magnet for safe-haven investing, particularly after they unpegged from the Euro a few days ago. Now there are many large investors moving their capital, and they are all doing so very quickly because of a variety of factors: oil price collapse, eurozone deflation, currency collapse...many separate reasons. There is a widespread sentiment that something really big might go down e.g. Greece could move to sever itself from the Eurozone, or Russia could realize they are going to default and start behaving even more belligerently, to (so to speak) get it over with in Ukraine. China could confess that their GDP numbers are twice cooked. A lot of things could happen.

Now, if many investors, working independently, spooked by their own economy, decide that a low-yield Swiss bond is the safest and most convenient place to put their money for now, and if Switzerland isn't offering much new debt to match the demand, then that collective behavior can force the yields negative.

How much debt can the Swiss offer? Well their entire national debt is only about $127B...yes billion, which is tiny, and it's only ~35% of Swiss GDP. By comparison, US debt is above 100% of GDP, at ~$17T, currently. So it's very easy to distort Switzerland's yields, and much harder to distort ours.

All of this doesn't mean the magnetic poles have flipped or Draghi has released antigravity or whatever. It means that a teeny tiny debt market in a small economy has been distorted by a lot of capital rising in from many different directions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The State of our Union's Tax Code - #SOTU #SOTU2015

I am amused and cautiously joyed to hear that President Obama will propose to simplify the US Federal Internal Revenue Code in his State of the Union address tomorrow. The jumbled tax tome is so complex that it has spawned a whole industry of tax preparers who rake in billions every year. The Code is an annual gift to lawyers and 'tax professionals,' and generates all manner of lawsuits that go on for years.

You just about need Alan Turing to figure out what you owe, or what the IRS owes you. The Code is so ridiculously complex that most Americans (not just Mitt Romney!) truly don't know how what percentage they pay. Debates swirl over how regressive our Code is, but we can all agree that it is oppressive.

There have been a few stabs at our beastly Code over the years. Perhaps out of sheer desperation, a number of people have proposed replacing it completely with a flat tax. The latest proposals call for something "flatter," whatever that means.

Our lawyerly Congresses have been hell-bent on making the Code even more complex. Democrats want more Federal tax revenue, and they'll grub for it anywhere they can. Republicans work tirelessly to append corporate loopholes or to get little favors for certain constituents.

Obamacare has significantly complicated the Code; you'll hear more about that over the coming months. Democrats have advocated a whole new class of complex taxation -financial transaction taxes- (FTTs) to try to skim revenue off each and every stock trade. Meanwhile, entire corporations migrate abroad just to get out from under the Code. Don't try that trick as an individual, though: the US expects tax revenue from you even if you live and work abroad; yes, even if you don't earn one penny in the US. Only one other country pursues your income to the ends of the Earth: Eritrea. Yeah. Hmm, maybe if we all become individual multinational corporations and use bitcoin...

Our Code is in imminent danger of collapsing under its own weight. The IRS has a fraction of the Code-trained personnel required to thoroughly and fairly inspect all of our tax documents. The Democrats' solution? Add more bureaucrats. The Republicans' solution? Lower taxes. And so ordinary Americans are stuck with poor service from an IRS that is hamstrung with the worst Code in the world. And so, as many Americans know, filing taxes has become a game of chance. me amused that President Obama will call for a simpler Code in his State of the Union address tomorrow. Good luck, Mr. President. No, I really mean it, good'll need it. The Code is an enduring gift to the legal profession in America, and ~40% of Congress is composed of lawyers.

Most Lethal Terrorists in the US? The #KKK

I asked myself: what is the most lethal terrorist group in the history of the US? I poked around for some numbers and facts. Here's my verdict:

The Ku Klux Klan and affiliates are known to have lynched thousands of African Americans since their founding in 1865. The numbers I found: ~3500 total black lynchings to date directly attributable to the Klan, or ~120 per year, although the Klan has had several periods of growth and then collapse. Note that a large number of whites were also lynched. There are, of course, various Klan side organizations and freelance racists, so it's hard to get firm numbers.

The Klan ran local politics in several States for many decades and directly intimidated an uncountable number of people across the country...for generations. Most young Americans don't realize just how openly the KKK used to weigh on American politics. This should give you an idea:

Yes, they marched that openly in Washington D.C. in 1928, and have held many large, public gatherings since.

Of course, the Klan is best known for advocating segregation and fighting against equality, whilst packaging their very anti-Christian arguments in faux Christian symbology e.g. crosses. Through their actions, the Klan also spawned hateful counter-groups which in turn also committed hateful acts; hatred, of course, begets hatred.

Let's remember, as we speak about terrorism from abroad, that the single worst terrorist group in the history of our nation was born and bred right here, and still exists openly in many States. And whether that terrorizes you probably has a lot to do with your skin color.

Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage & #SCOTUS

Same-sex Marriage will shortly be taken up by the US Supreme Court. I'll express my own legal opinion. If you're not prepared to read what I have to say then don't read further ~

My opinion is that if reason prevails, this will be the conclusive end of the ridiculous State-by-State, case-by-case lawsuits, and civil marriage -whatever you want to call it- will be fairly and equitably extended to all who meet the basic legal requirements. The reason has nothing at all to do with opinions about right and wrong, and everything to do with extending rights to a minority that have long been recognized by a majority.

Now, I'm sure that some will object based on their religious beliefs, interpretations of scripture, or other arguments. It is certainly your right, as a member of your church, to follow your own church's guidance and speak freely and as you wish. No freedoms of religion or expression are violated by others' private actions.

However, the first key legal point is that citizens of this country have had a separate and non-religious 'civil' pathway to marriage for many, many years. If the desire is to put marriage back into church, that would entail upending a very longstanding precedent. Not going to happen.

Yes, there are a [very] few countries that don't recognize civil marriage e.g. Saudi Arabia, Syria, get the picture. In these law-abiding United States, the issue is conclusively settled: you can get a civil marriage outside the church. Those wishing to marry are therefore not beholden to the strictures of any particular church.

It sends to me that the above point, alone, may not be quite sufficient to extend all same-sex marriage benefits, however. And so the second key point is that it would be unlawful to extend civil benefits in a way that discriminates on the basis of gender or race. This is perhaps not quite as legally enshrined as some might wish, but the spirit is well recognized throughout our legal system. You can't reward someone for being born as a particular gender or race; so too you can't penalize them.

Therefore, the right to civil marriage should ...and very certainly and inevitably.... will be extended to all who meet basic legal requirements e.g. age of consent and ability to recognize the terms and implications of the marriage contract. (And n.b. these latter qualifications very clearly exclude all the nonsense that some worry will turn us all to salt e.g. underage marriage, polygamy, unions between man and animal, and all the rest of the straw men typically offered!)

So, in conclusion, I say: the argument against same-sex marriage is already legally lost and that's the end of the story. We need to focus on far more important things than what consenting adults do in their own homes and whether they can share earned financial benefits.