Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Just Want the Facts - Joe Friday

      When it comes down to opinion versus facts in an argument, there are well-known tools available which opinion can use to overcome facts.
      For example, if one is arguing against experts, persons who have devoted a major portion of their lives to understanding the subject under discussion, one can always find, or even create out of nothing (e.g., the Discovery Institute), a couple of renegades to dispute the majority. Then the opinionated one does not discuss the competing claims; instead he trumpets far and wide that “even among the experts there is disagreement on the subject.” The idea is to sell the imaginary controversy, not the facts. This is the method used in the case of evolution versus intelligent design. Hopefully this movement ended with the opinion in the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District case.
      Another tool of the opinionated is to take some statement or event out of context, and broadcast it as if it were the whole story. Such a case occurred recently when blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a 38 second video clip of Dept. of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod.
      In a speech before the NAACP, Ms. Sherrod, an employee of the Department of Agriculture, told of an event which occurred in 1986. Sherrod, a black woman, was helping black people who were losing their rural Georgia farms, when she was approached by a white farmer in the same predicament. The following is from the clip which Breitbart posted:

      “You know, the first time I was faced with helping a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that when he... I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that, or the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him. So I took him to a white lawyer that had attended some of the training that we had provided because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farm. So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.
      That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white--it is about white and black, but it's not, you know, it opened my eyes because I took him to one of his own.”

      She went on to say: "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who haven't. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to help poor people – those who don't have access the way others have."

      When the brass at the USDA saw the online clip, they called and asked her to submit her resignation, which she did. As the USDA spokesman put it: “There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA and we strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person.”
      Needless to say, there were some red faces at the USDA when the full version of the speech came out, and Sherrod was offered a new job with the agency.
      As he should, (remember Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here”) President Obama has told Ms. Sherrod that he “regrets the events of the last few days.”
      What has me, along with both the left and most of the right, upset about this particular case is the knee-jerk reaction of the government to unverified “information.” Ideally, government decisions should be made on the basis of facts, not hearsay. (Of course, that has never happened, and politics being what it is, it probably never will.) I can’t find the exact phrase, but I believe it was Bertrand Russell who said something to the effect that he could not remember any decision in which less information would have been beneficial.
      Action based on facts, not reaction to the opposition, is one of the hallmarks of leadership. Unless that attitude starts at the top, unless the leader begins to lead, unless the puppets on the left stop dancing whenever the puppet masters on the right pull the strings, this administration will fall to a grass-roots reaction it cannot control. There are ominous dark clouds on the horizon.
      The Spirit always builds on what has come before; nothing appears out of nothing.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in  paperback or on Kindle.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Comic Strips - 1

      Today’s blog takes a look at some of the popular comic strips of the 1930s, 1940s and later. If you are a member of the post-youth set, see how many you can remember. If you belong to the younger set, perhaps you will enjoy seeing what your parents and grandparents thought was funny. Please keep in mind that those who remember these strips were struggling through the great depression. We took our humor where we could find it.

       Alley Oop (1932 - ) was a stone age character, who along with his Friend, Foozy, and his girl friend, Ooola, rode around on his pet dinosaur, Dinny. In 1939 they were brought into the 20th century by virtue of a time machine invented by Dr. Wonmug. As to be expected, complications followed.

      Bringing Up Father (1913 – 2000), the official name of this strip, was commonly called Jiggs and Maggie after the two main characters. They were immigrants from Ireland; Jiggs had won the Irish Sweepstakes, so they were newly rich. Maggie and Nora, their daughter, worked hard at breaking into society, while Jiggs, a former working man, preferred hanging out at Dinty Moore’s saloon and eating corned beef and cabbage. Naturally, the three had some problems, with Maggie having the last word because of her willingness to use a rolling pin on Jiggs’ head.

      Dick Tracy (1931 - ) was a fast-acting, hard-hitting, intelligent police detective who fought crime masters such as Pruneface, the Nazi spy, Flattop Jones, and other equally obnoxious characters. Dick was many years ahead of his time on technology; he started using his 2way Wrist Radio in 1946. Other technological advances were financed by his rich industrialist friend, Diet Smith. Dick eventually married his sweetheart, Tess Trueheart.

      Joe Palooka (1930 – 1984) was a heavyweight boxing champion. Joe exemplified the upright sports champion, a type which seems to be in short supply in the 21st century. Joe was quiet and unassuming, but thanks to his manager, Knobby Walsh, his girl friend, Ann Howe, and Little Max, a mute orphan who hung around, the strip was voted one of the top five in 1948.

      The Katzenjammer Kids(1897 - ) Hans and Fritz, were two very mischievous kids who kept getting into trouble with Mama, der Captain (a shipwrecked sailor), Kink, a stereotypical African-American, and various and sundry school authorities. They survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, Viet Nam and George Bush, and the comic is still in syndication today, which, after 113 years, makes it the world’s longest running comic strip.

      Lil Abner (1934 – 1977) lived with his Mammy and Pappy Yokum (a combination of yokel and hokum) in a log cabin in Dogpatch. Even after his marriage to voluptuous Daisy Mae in 1952, perpetually 19-year-old Abner remained a naive, gullible hillbilly. One recurring feature of the strip was the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race, in which women chased after eligible bachelors. Today it has been transformed into a dance to which the women invite the men.

      I hope my little review brought back some pleasant memories. If you have a favorite comic strip you would like me to review, please leave a comment.
      The term "construct" is usually used as a verb, although Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary also defines it as a noun, i.e. (1) something constructed or (2) an image, idea or theory, especially a complex one formed from a number of simpler elements.
      Constructs – The Spirit Runs Through It

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

      Dreams can take us to magical places and into seemingly impossible situations. In a dream we may walk out of our front door into a new and strange, even scary, landscape. We may be transported into a strange and nightmarish land of fantasy. There appears to be no limit to the range of our dreams.
      But a limit does exist. All dreams are personal, and both research and common sense indicate that one can only dream of things that one knows about. That is not to say that one needs to actually experience dizzying heights or fierce dragons, but a person who has never heard of a dragon will not dream of one.
      Dreams are usually triggered by an event which has occurred while one is awake: a problem that is being worked on, a traumatic event, or even something as innocuous as a scene in a book, or a song being played in the background. While one is asleep, the mind tries not only to file the memory of the event, but also to make sense of it in relation to the memories already on file.
      While filing a problem, the mind continues to work on the solution - thinking does not stop when one falls asleep. A well publicized example is the “inter-twined snakes” dream of James Watson, which led him to the discovery of the construction of DNA. In my own case, during the time I worked as a tax preparer, it was not unusual for me to awaken late at night, suddenly aware of how to handle a perplexing problem, or even realizing that I had made a mistake in how I had reported a certain event.
      In a recent experiment, students were taught to navigate a three-dimensional maze, then one group was asked to take a nap before undergoing a test on the maze. Those that had two hours of sleep prior to the test fared better than those who continued to rehearse the maze during the waiting period. Perhaps a good night’s sleep is a better idea than cramming for tomorrow’s test.
      This subconscious thinking also approaches situations in a different way from the thinking that goes on while one is awake. It is this unique approach that leads one from the front door directly into a weird landscape filled with virtual mountains and canyons.
      Scientists have categorized memory into two types: (1) declarative memory - our memory of normal activity and events, and (2) implicit memory, e.g., our memory of how to ride a bicycle after many years of non-riding. By studying amnesiacs, people with implicit memory only, it has been determined that their dreams are similar to those of non-amnesiacs. Indications are that the assembly of dreams from the mind’s contents is performed by the implicit memory rather than the declarative memory.
      Superstitions about dreams are probably as old as the human race, and the scientific study of dreams is still in its infancy. But regardless of where such study leads, dreams will undoubtedly continue to be a fascinating subject for a long time.
      Although language is a part of nature, it has one property that is not found in other actions of the Spirit: it is transformed and transcended at a rate many orders of magnitude faster than any other entity. Concept is piled upon concept until it is difficult to see any relationship between man’s mental images and the passing show. Joyce Carol Oates best describes the situation, “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that the symbols are inventions.”
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It.

The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act

      The Senate is set to vote on the 2,300 page Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, designed to establish much needed reform in the financial services industry. Supposedly the bill will monitor the types of transactions which led to the recent recession. With the announcement that Republican Senators Collins and Snowe of Maine, and Brown of Massachusetts would support the bill, the required 60 aye votes on Thursday seems assured. But as usual with the Senate, anything can happen.
      The bill establishes a number of new government departments (Surprise! surprise!) to implement and maintain its regulations.
      The new independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will be housed at the Federal Reserve, and will be responsible for ensuring that consumers get all pertinent information when shopping for mortgages, credit cards and other financial products. It will protect them from hidden fees and other deceptive practices.
      Also new is the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which will be responsible for identifying, monitoring and addressing systemic risks posed by large, complex financial firms as well as products and activities that spread risk across firms. It will make recommendations to regulators for increasingly stringent rules on companies that grow large and complex enough to pose a threat to the financial stability of the United States. The Council will make recommendations to the Federal Reserve for increasingly strict rules for capital, leverage, liquidity, risk management and other requirements as companies grow in size and complexity, with significant requirements on companies that pose risks to the financial system.
      The bill will replace a hodge-podge system of bank regulators, which has been legislated in a piecemeal fashion over the past sixty years, with clear lines of responsibility.
      A major contributor to the recent financial meltdown was an unregulated system of derivatives, a bundling of securities, primarily mortgages, into packages sold with no regard for their underlying safety. The bill requires data collection and publication through clearing houses or swap repositories to improve market transparency and provide regulators important tools for monitoring and responding to risks.
      Hedge funds and insurance companies also received attention, particularly to insure adequate monitoring and transparency.
      A new Office of Credit Rating Agencies at the Securities and Exchange Commission will establish new rules for internal controls, independence, transparency and penalties for poor performance of credit rating agencies such as Dun and Bradstreet, Standard and Poors, etc.
      As a result of widespread dissatisfaction with executive salaries at major financial firms, the bill gives shareholders the right to a non-binding vote on executive pay. Other standards for the determination of reasonable salaries are also included.
      Finally there are odds and ends which define and strengthen responsibilities of various boards, committees, etc.
      As usual with an undertaking of this magnitude, many compromises were made along the way, and a compromise is not always the best solution to a problem. Not all crises arise from the same beginnings, and it remains to be seen whether the measures taken to eliminate the causes of the current recession will suffice to prevent future economic meltdowns.
      Also, the rules and regulations, the minutiae, have been left up to the various agencies to thrash out. Let the lobbying begin.
      The bill could be on the President’s desk by Friday. He will sign it.
      It was the achievement of Christianity to graft the idea of hope to the one god concept. In particular, Christianity promised hope that the strict Hebraic god would always be available to the worshiper, offer forgiveness of sins instead of stern punishment, and that everlasting life would overcome death.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It

The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ideology Trunps Reality

      There is a saying that the success of a business is dependent upon three things: location, location, location, and for many businesses that is true. For example, if you are managing a restaurant or a retail store, your establishment needs to be located where customers can easily find it.
      But no matter what your business, whether you are a drug dealer, an aircraft manufacturer, or anything in between, there are three things even more important than location: customers, customers, customers. Especially with the increasing use of online buying, if you have a good delivery service available, your business could be located way back in the mountains. But without customers, you may as well be selling buggy whip sockets or antimacassars (look it up).
      There are very few people who can afford to be a customer without having a job. So it is extremely important for the economy to include a large number of working people – people with jobs.
      It is an axiom among conservatives that we produce jobs by cutting payroll taxes for employers, so let us look at that. Suppose you are running a business, and you have one employee who makes $30,000 per year. As an employer, your payroll taxes for that employee cost you about $2,200 per year.
      Congress is considering a tax bill that would give you a $1,000 tax credit in 2011. So your employee will cost you about $1,000 less (assuming the bill passes). Are you going to go out and hire another employee? I doubt it. You don’t need two employees costing you $62,000 instead of one employee costing $32,000 unless you have more customers – a lot more customers.
      I have written about the coming “double dip” recession (See for example June 23, June 10, March 12, February 7) which is rapidly approaching. In the past few weeks world leaders have taken giant steps to ensure that this calamity arrives quickly and disastrously. By agreeing to cut deficits rapidly they have stymied any real gains against recession, and have thrown the worldwide economic machine into reverse.
      The United States Senate has also managed to add more fuel to the fire by refusing to extend Unemployment Insurance to those job seekers whose assistance has run out. Granted such insurance would not create jobs, but it would stem the hemorrhaging of hundreds of thousands of buyers from the customer base at a critical time.
      Cutting deficits means cutting back expenditures for highways, technology, education, etc. - all great job and customer producers. The economic reality is that governments need to judiciously spend extra money during downturns, and judiciously cut back spending during good times. To put it another way, save a little during the good times to tide you over during the bad times.
      Ideologues say the problem is that even if governments spend during down times, they don’t cut back during up times. Perhaps so, but that is not an economic problem – that is a problem of political will. Cutting back at all times practically guarantees extreme highs and lows.
      But who am I to suggest that reality should trump ideology?
      But the greatest example of transformation and transcendence in man’s attempt to control his surroundings was the Hebrew concept of monotheism. Although the details are lost in antiquity, it appears that this concept grew out of the idea of one god who was superior to all other gods. At some time after that, all other gods became superfluous. This one god was admittedly a jealous god, and demanded rigorous standards of worship from his chosen people. He was a stern father figure.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

That's Just My Opinion

     It seems to be a rather widespread notion these days that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” and on the face of it, I agree. But behind this notion lurks the further belief that all opinions are equal, mine is as good as yours, and I can easily dismiss yours with, “That’s just your opinion.” And on this point, I could not disagree more.
      In some cases, one’s opinion really doesn’t matter to anyone else. In my opinion corn is much tastier than carrots, but with the exception of my wife who does the grocery shopping, or my restaurateur when I order a side dish, no one cares. However, if I keep insisting to my circle of friends that corn is definitely better than carrots, I soon find the circle getting very small.
      How can two opinions be compared? Perhaps by their truth value. If two people arrive at opposite conclusions from the same set of public facts, at least one of them must be wrong. If millions of customers are of the opinion that brand A is better than brand B, brand A will succeed and brand B will fail
      It would be much easier to resolve conflicting opinions if everyone attempted to base opinions on facts, but that is not the case. We usually base our opinions on what we see and hear on TV, what friends tell us, on what our favorite commentator has to say, etc. And unfortunately, in many cases our communicator has accepted someone else’s word on the subject, or else has a hidden agenda.
      There is a huge industry out there whose sole purpose is to change the public’s opinion about everything from soap to autos, from political policies to pharmaceuticals, from black to white; truth has little bearing upon the message. Does the little bear really like toilet paper A because it is softer than paper B, and if so, who cares?
      How can we arrive at the truth behind an opinion? One way is to do a little independent study. If Barack, Rush, the pastor or a friend says, “Proposition A is true,” automatically (and silently) add “in your opinion,” to the sentence. Is your communicator trying to sell an agenda? Is he in a position to know what he is talking about? Examine the evidence. Are Canadians really happy with their healthcare? Polls abound on the subject – go to the internet and look at the evidence first hand.
      If study materials are not readily available, check with someone who knows the subject matter. He is less likely to be wrong than someone repeating what he has heard someone, who has heard someone, etc…say. If your car develops a bad rattle, would you rather trust a friend who says his car made the same noise back in 1987 and it turned out to be water in the gas line, or a technician who has spent years learning his occupation?
      Whether the subject is global warming, economics, medicine or whatever, it is a good idea to rely on the opinions of people who have invested their lives trying to understand it. Beware the hidden, or not so hidden, agenda.
      That’s my opinion.
      Perhaps because the gods’ answers to the desires of humans were unpredictable, the Greeks endowed their gods with the same fancies and whims that they observed in their fellow mortals. Thus we find that the leader of the gods, Zeus, was a playboy who had affairs with both human women and goddesses. After suffering a painful punishment for her part in a revolt against her husband, his wife, Hera, spent much of her time bestowing revenge upon the objects of Zeus’s amorous advances. Since all other gods in the Greek Pantheon also had their idiosyncrasies, unexpected results, or no results at all, to human pleadings were not surprising.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It.

The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Back On Line - Sort Of

      I don’t want to bore you with a recap of my activities during the past ten days, so I will try to keep it short.
      For several years my legs have been getting weaker and my balance has been deteriorating, and the doctors finally decided it was due to a pinched nerve in my back. So I decided to go ahead with an operation to relieve the pressure.
      It worked great – I have had very little pain, and although I have not been able to navigate too well since the operation, it is due to “complications” which seem to accompany much surgery, especially for post-youths such as me. If I had known about them, I might not have gone through with it.
      Anyway, the night of the operation, my bladder refused to cooperate. After a night of really, really, really bad pain, they finally got around to relieving the problem, at least temporarily.
      I promised to marry the nurse who finally took care of it, although the bitch could have done it hours earlier. They sent me home with a short-term fix, hoping that the problem would soon resolve itself.
      After two late-night trips to the ER, they finally decided that a longer-term solution was in order, so they taught me to be a do-it-yourselfer. I now have a month’s supply of evil looking plastic tubing, and more K-Y Jelly than I have previously used in my entire lifetime.
      If you know anyone who has a job opening, say at summer camp, for an expert at putting hot dogs on a stick, I’m your man.