Month: May 2016

An Afghanistan Soldier Who Should Have Died, Many Times

An Afghanistan Soldier Who Should Have Died, Many Times

While I saw this too late to post it on Memorial Day, here is a good story about a US soldier and his perspective on the demands we place upon our men and women in uniform.

Insights From The Edge

“We finally got the wounded out on the first day and uh, we’re like holy crap, when is this going to be over? When’s the mission going to be over? And we stayed there. It went on day after day. It just became so like, we’re never leaving this place. Just kill as much Taliban as you can. It never got better. I prayed to God, please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. And then it rains. And then it snowed and then it hailed.”

This is 23 year-old Thomas Dewar, Sergeant in the US Army 101st Airborne Division, 1st Brigade, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion. He fought two tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first, 2010-2011, the bloodiest year on record.

We’re sitting in a sunny café facing the San Gabriel Mountains. Patrons chat happily as they drink their cappuccino’s. Dewar could be any all-American boy. Sandy blonde hair, sun-tanned…

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Labor: the Source of Capital

Quote of the Week:  Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.  – Abraham Lincoln, December 1861.

Abraham Lincoln reminds us of the labor-based and socialist origins of the Republican Party (something that would make current Republicans shudder, were they to own up to the ideological origins of their organization).  Horace Greeley, who had helped push the socialist agenda in the US during the 1830s, later served as a formative leader of the early Republican movement; and the party’s platform through the 1860s was solidly pro-labor and generally distrustful of the growing power of corporate wealth, which was then beginning to transform American economics and social structure.

Lincoln’s words also remind us that capital, and capitalism, were products of labor transforming from artisanal and agricultural work into paid industrial service to business owners.  Humans have always labored; but capital was a new growth from the industrial revolution.  Capital is not always evident or strong; as we can see in the difficulties that Russia has had transforming itself from a communist economy into a capitalist one.  For there to be a strong capitalist economy, there first needs to be capital as the centerpiece for the organization of production.

Ultimately, the greatest weakness of capitalism lies in the weakness of capital.  Capital is subject to gross fluctuations which shock the economy and break the ability of the middle and lower classes to save money.  It took the federal government in the US until the 1930s to decide finally that it needed to manage these fluctuations to prevent further disasters like the Great Depression.  The American political landscape has wavered from its dedication to protecting the non-wealthy from the weaknesses of capital; and in that lack of dedication lie the roots of frustration underlying the vitriolic fights of the 2016 election year.

To restore confidence in both the economy and in our political system, the US needs to restore its faith in and dedication to our organized labor movement, and to a federally based, Keynesian management of the economy.

Headline image from open domain, via Google Search.

Comedy Central’s Advice for Hillary Clinton

CC Screenshot Michelle Wolf.png

Click to watch Michelle Wolf addressing Hillary Clinton’s “Likeability Problem.”

Michelle Wolf of Comedy Central reminds us that we all hate our bosses.  Since Hillary Clinton is running for the job of being the boss, she should embrace her ability to be the boss, and forget about being “likeable.”  As Wolf exclaims, Hillary “…eats enemies and shits policy.”  Likeability?  We do not want or deserve a leader we like; we need a leader who knows what she is doing, to save us from the wasteland of the Trumpocalypse.

Wolf also buries the “email controversy” by reminding us that none of us really know what servers are and what the issue even implies. “The only question we should ask about her emails is, ‘Did they get where they were supposed to go?’  Then shut the **** up!”

Headline image of Michelle Wolf, from the video clip referenced above.

My Candidate for President

Diane Ravitch on the presidential race.

Diane Ravitch's blog

To Readers of This Blog:

I have been consistently even-handed in the Presidential race in dealing with the candidates of the Democratic party. I oppose the Republican party candidates because I don’t agree with their corporate-friendly agenda and their positions on social issues, as well as their embrace of privatization as the solution to the problems in public schools.

As between the Democratic candidates, I have supported neither. I have published posts critical of both Sanders and Clinton. Neither is especially good on the issues that matter most to supporters of public education. Clinton said when campaigning in New York state that she would not want her grand-daughter to opt out of the tests, and she waffled on the issue of charter schools. Sanders voted for the Murphy amendment to the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which would have retained high-stakes accountability under federal control (fortunately the amendment did not pass)…

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Will Edison, or Marx, or Both Prove Right on Big Energy?

Quote of the Week:  We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. –Thomas Edison

Over a century ago, the controversial technology developer (some would say, “inventor,” while others might hedge at that title) Thomas Edison evoked his hope that man would not limit himself to destructive and extracted energy sources when there was unlimited natural energy all around us.  His conflicts with Tesla over alternative energy schemes notwithstanding, and leaving aside the morality of some of Edison’s own approaches to business and corporatism, this specific Edisonian vision has been betrayed by the energy corporations that today live in his shadow.

Energy companies themselves should be at the forefront of green energy research and implementation, and they would be if they did not suffer from a myopia that afflicts most American corporations.  Corporations are all too wedded to the quarterly profits and the stock-market values of their stock shares, to look into the future and invest in their own success.  If and when green energy supplants oil and coal, those companies that today profit the most from extracted energy ought to have ensured their own survival by spearheading the transformation to green energy.  But that takes a corporate vision that is beyond the quarter-to-quarter profit motivation of American corporatism.  Instead of a steady transformation that protects the economy, the environment, and the corporations’ own stockholders, there will likely be a market disaster as coal and oil become suddenly too expensive and limited in quantity to provide the world’s increasing hunger for power.  Some forward thinkers will make a fortune; and some old money will disappear into the coffers of the new.  In the meantime, of course, those less wealthy people who had mistakenly invested their savings in old energy may find their retirement savings gone and their lives financially ruined.

The corporate myopia is also related to “financialization,” as major corporations worldwide invest fewer resources into research and put greater resources into stock buybacks to artificially inflate their own market share values.  Overall, business is becoming less enamored of research and more enamored of artificial devices to put greater stock values into the hands of the stockholders – and to concentrate those stocks into fewer, richer hands.  Karl Marx’s predictions for the potentials that capitalism has for destroying itself have outlived the communist movement that he helped create.  The fall of communism notwithstanding, corporatism is becoming ever more the corrupt, inefficient system that Marx criticized.  Capitalism’s increasingly apparent inability to solve problems, to create jobs, and to make people’s lives better may yet generate a new methodology for economics in the future.

Extracted energy suffers from a dilemma, in that increasing energy extraction competes with food and water resources (through environmental degradation and through the need for water to push resources out of the ground).  On the other hand, increasing food and water production require ever-increasing energy availability.  The world’s rapidly growing middle classes want energy, food, and water in ever greater quantities; and the only way to assure those needs in the long run is by switching our energy systems to non-extracted energy; to wind, sun, and other systems as hoped for by Thomas Edison.  Who will win in the end – Marx with his predictions for the end of capitalism; or Edison with his hopes for the transformation of energy?  Or will capitalism’s end help to finally enable a transformation to green energy?  The 21st century offers us both an opportunity to make our world better through innovative technologies like green energy, and a danger of what may happen if we do not.

Headline image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain images.

The Future of Religion and Bowling

Quote of the Week:  What I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It’s a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It’s not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don’t elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works. –PZ Myers

This week, Spark! is letting the Quote of the Week sit on its own, since there is no need to add further thoughts to this one.  Reflect, and have a good week!

Image from Wikipedia user Mark Schierbecker: “PZ Myers presents his talk,’You, too, can know more molecular genetics than a creationist!’ at Skepticon in 2014.

Does Clinton Have a “Favorability Problem”?

Recently, the above chart has been going around Twitter (with no link to sources, but a reference to NYT/CBS/Huffington Post polls).  The argument is that Senator Bernie Sanders is supremely equipped by his favorability ratings to take on Donald Trump in a general election in November, and that Secretary Hillary Clinton is not.  However, this chart omits two significant points of data.  First of all, Bill Clinton’s favorability in 1992 is noticeably absent.  Before taking the election in a landslide, in April, 1992, Bill Clinton’s ratings were 34 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable, giving him a net -13 (unfavorable), a point worse than his wife is currently running according to this chart.

A second missing factor is the differential between the winning candidates’ ratings and their opponents’ ratings (taking the winning candidate’s net +/- favorability, and subtracting from that their opponent’s net favorability).  The differential between Sanders and Trump (37) is by far higher than any contests on this list (higher than the Reagan-Mondale contest differential, which is 30).  That, of course, is the basic argument of the pro-Sanders user posting this chart; that Sanders ought to win a November general election against Trump in a landslide.  However, the Hillary Clinton’s differential against Trump (12) is also higher than the lowest three differentials here: her husband’s victory in 1992 against incumbent President G.H.W. Bush (differential = 3); George W. Bush’s race in 2000 against Al Gore (differential = 2); and incumbent President Obama’s 2012 reelection win against challenger Mitt Romney (differential = 6).  While there appears to be more risk in running Clinton against Trump than running Sanders as the Democratic nominee, a Clinton/Trump race, if decided on these favorability ratings, would be a Democratic win.

Headline image copied from a Tweet.

The Unmentioned Genius That Drives Our World

Quote of the Week:  Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all. –Martin Gardner

It is all too easy, as Gardner effectively warns us, to focus (in both history and in current events, especially of a political nature) on specific political actors, or on other individuals who represent a tiny minority of the people who manage to change the world in some way.  Mathematicians and scientists are lauded by their own institutional structures, like the Field Prize and Nobel Prizes, and are published in journals read mostly by specialists in the same field.  But few people outside the realm of science and mathematics are ever aware of more than a very tiny few leaders of these fields.  This, in part, helps to explain the “revolutionary” nature of modern technology.  People unaware of what our best minds are thinking only learn about such things when some shiny new toy can be ordered from Amazon that makes use of new science and new knowledge – and even then, we understand the device, but not the science behind it (and we then have detailed but inaccurate debates about our toys during moments like the recent fight between the FBI and Apple over iPhone encryption).

But besides not understanding our devices, our disconnect from everything that makes our modern lives possible also threatens our ability to impact and control our modern lives.  For example, conservatives pretend to “debate” on climate change, an issue that is far past the point of debate for those who understand anything at all about the science involved.  There is no debate; just people who understand what is happening, and people who do not but think that a coal company’s paid spokesperson “speaks the truth” in calming the voices of alarm about our increasingly obvious damage to our environment.  If more people understood science, and knew about more actual scientists and their work, there would not be any pretension to a “debate” between the knowing and the ignorant.  We would have produced and implemented policies now only envisioned by those who are close to the subject and cognizant of the basic facts and processes.

Although our schools need a much more diverse program, teaching not just STEM courses, but social sciences, culture, and languages, the focus on STEM does come from a need that is increasingly unfulfilled – the need for a 21st century labor force and citizenry that understand the modern world in which they live.  Part of that need involves teaching a greater awareness about the scientists and mathematicians who helped to make that world, and their ideas which are driving the technological revolution.  We need to focus our resources on education to a degree far beyond what we are doing now, teach science and math and an appreciation for the processes and pioneers leading our scientific and mathematical progress.  Those who have, and are, and will be radically altering our world need far more recognition – as do their ideas, their processes of discovery, and the results of the knowledge that they have given to us.

Headline image from BBC News; “How to stop the brain-teasers set by a top puzzle master,” 24 October 2014 (© 2016 BBC).

Battle For The States

Another good argument from elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Rcooley123's Blog

During Presidential election years here in the US, there is a basic tendency to downplay media coverage of what is taking place in other political arenas, such as Congress, the soon-to-be-outgoing Presidential Administration, and especially state and local government happenings. This year has been no different is this regard. Who can resist the non-stop madcap coverage of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others constantly berating and disrespecting each other along with major segments of the voting population?

Ever since the 2010 midterm elections and the fallout of redistricting made possible by major GOP victories at the state and Congressional levels during a census year, some of what is arguably the worst state legislation in generations has stung residents of many states at once – often negating gains seemingly coming from Supreme Court decisions. At a time when the people were electing and re-electing a President espousing a break from the…

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Don’t Just “Like” Teachers, Help Them!

Yes, we are all about our slacktivism.  We “like” things on Facebook, “retweet” them on Twitter, and find other ways to spend three seconds at a time in dedicated support to a cause before we move on to something else.  Some of this helps to get the message out to others, and so this is not an entirely useless activity.  However, it is all too easy to think that these momentary (and cost-free) “supports” of a cause really do very little to actually support the cause.

Okay, enough guilt for the day.  This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.  You can “like” this or some other post or meme, “share” it or whatever else you wish to do.  But you can also spend just a few minutes more – and a little of your own money (how much is entirely up to you) – by going to Donorschoose.org and contributing to a classroom project.  The site will give you choices of project types, locations of schools; even specific schools and teachers and projects to support, what the projects are for and how much they need.  You can spend a few bucks or hundreds of dollars (or more), as you choose; finish funding a project needing only a little more help, or be one of many getting a project closer to having full funding, whatever you want.

Today, for a contribution that my wife and I sent to some Detroit schools (a 1st-grade math class and a 4th-grade history class), we got these thank-you cards and letters (you can also donate anonymously if you feel weird about recipients knowing who you are):

Thanks from Donorschoose Kids.jpg

Our nation is strengthened by education, our workers are more competitive when educated, our national earnings and revenues are higher, deficits and debts are lower when our people are educated.  You don’t have to bankrupt yourself to help out, or commit many hours out of your busy schedule.  But just a few moments on this site and whatever contribution you can afford will go a long way toward moving specific kids toward their learning goals, toward better lives, and toward a better nation for us all.  Help out, won’t you?  Thanks!

Headline image taken from a Twitter post.  Photo of cards and letters © Sparkpolitical, 2016.