Sunday, November 28, 2010

We the People?

A while back an acquaintance of mine, a professor of Political Science at Oregon State University (no longer there) admitted to me that he doesn’t vote. I was taken aback; dumbstruck to hear such a statement from someone whose academic career was based on the study of the political process. He went on to explain that the real political forces are the lobbyists and Special Interest Groups which control an overwhelming majority of the policy making in Washington and state governments. Voting, he explained, was simply to lend an “air of legitimacy” to the perception of the democratic process. Elections are nothing more than political theater giving us the illusion of self-governance.

Likely many of us who yield to our cynicism have suspected such is the case; but we tend to hold at least some brief hope that our elected officials serve with some sense of the greater good. In our hearts we don’t REALLY want to believe that a “quid pro quo” exists between our elected officials and certain individuals, groups or businesses interests which grease their campaign machines.

But recently what glimmer of hope in the integrity of our political process was thoroughly extinguished after reading an interview with recently California governor-elect Jerry Brown by Skeptic Magazine.

Brown comes from a generational political family; his father was governor back in the days when my father was employed by the State of California. Jerry Brown, like Bill Clinton, is an extremely knowledgeable and astute practitioner of the gamesmanship which is this country’s the political game.

As my political science professor friend revealed to me, and as further confirmed through this interview with Jerry Brown, “The People” have little true participation in the governmental process. The mere 40% who turned out to vote in the recent elections appear to be essentially the willing pawns of powers they neither recognize nor understand. The Tea Baggers are the most obvious; but Brown’s revealing exposure of the truth behind who truly wields power over our republic is discouraging and revealing. But it likely confirms what many of us have suspected for some time.

Not just for American audiences, this expose’ I on American politics likely pertains to other Western parliamentary and constitutional democracies as well. The link is below – it’s a sobering read:
We the People?
Jerry Brown on Money, Politics,and Who Really Runs America

an interview by Frank Miele -, e-Skeptic, Nov. 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving - The Feast and the Beast

Let’s make this clear; Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday. The main focus of Thanksgiving revolves around food. I know many people are very excited about food – I am not one of them. I don’t really care for turkey all that much; the dark meat is OK but the white meat is usually dry. I don’t care for gravy or stuffing and I prefer the mashed potatoes that you fix from a dry powder out of a box.

As a kid Thanksgiving was usually yet another way for my father to give thanks for the invention of alcohol. Most of our relatives spent only one Thanksgiving with us due to my father’s addiction. He would start out as a jovial drunk but as the evening progressed his mood would evolve to dire, then downright evil. Most holidays concluded with my mother crying. As a result, after a few years, we had cycled through our complete list of aunts and uncles, parents, eventually falling back on “close friends” until pretty much nobody was left who wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, sister and me.

Adding to the horror was that Mom was a horrible cook. She believed any food item could, and should, be prepared in a pressure cooker. Turkey, fortunately, didn’t fit in the pressure cooker, so it was baked in the oven until it was akin to parchment stretched tightly over bird bones. The potatoes, though, were rendered to their basic molecular components in the pressure cooker. Vegetables of any sort came from a can and were merely heated. I won’t even try to describe Mom’s dressing least I become ill before finishing this post.

Fast-forward to my adult years; Nancy is an EXCELLENT cook. She has cooked professionally in Mexican and French restaurants and was a sorority house cook at one time. She quit the sorority because the rich little college girls didn’t want to give her a raise. Within two months they hired her back – with a raise. Even the stuff I don’t particularly like, I like when she makes it. And she loves Thanksgiving – so my gift to her is I turn the entire holiday over to her and I handle the cocktails.

One year Nancy, her friend and I were invited to Thanksgiving at my sister’s a house two hour drive away. Sister advised us to plan to arrive around Noon. We arrived at the appointed time, hungry having not had lunch; fully expecting a hot brown turkey to be removed from the oven after a short visit and cocktails in the living room. However, to our horror, my sister announced as she took our coats: “Well, I had probably better get that turkey into the oven.” Nancy, friend and looked at each other; our jaws agape.

After starting the turkey cooking, my sister brought out a dish of crackers to enjoy with our cocktails… the three of us devoured them by the handful; we tussled over the bowl. I have recollection of one of us possibly upending the bowl directly to our mouth. In any event, in seconds the crackers were gone! Bits of cheese and bread sticks disappeared as quickly as my sister placed them on the coffee table. We managed to hold our hunger at bay for the hours it took for the turkey to be done.

A few years later it was our turn to host family Thanksgiving. It was decided that I would BBQ a turkey. I am quite the master at BBQ, I say humbly. I set up the grill with the charcoal and water pan to exacting specifications, lit the fire. For entertainment while waiting for the turkey to cook, I had set up two computers with “Duke Nukem” and my brother-and-law and I commenced to game against one another on the two machines. For those of you who are not familiar with computer gaming; one of the pitfalls of this activity is a form of “time dilation” – that is: the further one immerses oneself in the game, the slower time passes.

I can clearly state that I was completely ignorant of how much time had passed when I heard Nancy call me from the kitchen asking why there was “so much smoke coming from the BBQ?” Dashing outside I lifted the lid; turkey burst immediately into “backdraft” as flames leapt feet into the November sky. There before me was a blackened hull of a turkey, devoid of little edible meat. Fortunately, my brilliant wife had prepared a “back-up” turkey using the conventional oven method. Thanksgiving was saved.

The next day after returning my daughter back to her college dorm room, she ran ahead of me down the hallway loudly announcing to all her friends that “… dad set the turkey on fire”! (Remember, Kara?)

Today Nancy’s son and our son-in-law are both vegetarians. One year we tried cooking a “Tofu-Turkey”. This is an idea which is good only in concept. After that one experiment, our vegetarian family members seem quite thankful for veggie riblets and garden burgers.

We are hosting Thanksgiving again this year in our new house. I offered to BBQ pork ribs but Nancy soundly rejected the idea. I will stick to the arena of Thanksgiving in which I excel: cocktails.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

TSA Porn

During WWII one of the many vexing problems facing the Allies was countering the devastating effects of German U-boat attacks on merchant and war ships. To effectively minimize the toll German U-boats were exacting on Allied shipping, they needed to be located and destroyed before they could execute their attacks. But the U-boats could be anywhere; crisscrossing the entire Atlantic in search of them was out of the question. Considering the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, how could the Allies hope to find what were essentially needles in a haystack?

Out of this dilemma came the science of Operations Research; an interdisciplinary mathematical model which would predict the “most likely probability of near optimal solutions to decision-making problems”. Using science, Allied anti-sub warfare effectively reduced the U-boat threat without having to resort to systematically searching every square mile of the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently there has been a rising public uproar over the latest, and more invasive, passenger screening processes; the full body scanners and hand pat-downs of passengers who do not want to be subjected to the “revealing” scans. Pilots are complaining as well citing the logical conundrum that they are already in command of the aircraft; the need for a bomb or gun is completely irrelevant should a pilot decide to use an aircraft as a destructive instrument.

Those objecting to the new screening techniques are reminded that passengers enjoy no constitutional right to fly on commercial aircraft. But in this controversy one major question is being overlooked: are these increased security measures truly increasing air travel security? Most people might argue that checking every single passenger for risk is the most thorough screening possible; but is this the most effective procedure to ensure airline security, and at what cost? Long lines, aggravated passengers and wasted dollars are clearly the result of the current methodology.

One solution might be to apply the science of Operations Research to the problem – using probability analysis to target the most likely sources of security risks. Take for example my son who travels almost weekly for his job. He is screened on every trip, yet no history of his travel and an assessment of his risk to security, are recorded. There are no factors in his life, work, relationships or personal life that would indicate he presents a potential risk presents to other passengers. Yet a system is in place which provides potential creditors with a detailed assessment of his risk as a borrower; his credit record follows him everywhere. Were a similar “travel credit record” to be established for people such as Jesse, he and others could potentially bypass the work intensive security screening procedure. This is but one example of employing Operations Research to improve the quality of airport security and reduce the costs and aggravation of the screening process.

Sheldon Howard Jacobson, Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has proposed applying Operations Research to the problem of airport security. Dr. Jacobson has produced a 6-minute video, “Aviation Security: Assessing the Risk”, which clearly explains his proposal to improve airport security.

Until an integrated approach is brought to transportation security, passengers will be increasingly subjected to unnecessary and intrusive distress, increased costs associated with air travel and marginal effectiveness toward greater airline security.

However, a recent under-cover Japanese airport security video has surfaced – as you can clearly see, the Japanese are taking airport security screening most aggressively. Take a look:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Atheism as "Faith"

One of the argumentative maneuverings religious believers attempt to ploy on Atheists is the argument that Atheism is, in itself, a belief system – that Atheists have “faith” that there are no gods. It is a clearly specious position; first, one cannot hold a belief in a negative, a “Not”, position; and secondly, the definition of “faith” is acceptance without proof. Atheists say there is no proof... were convincing proof of god(s) to exist, there would be no Atheists! Considering Atheism a form of faith is like considering baldness a type of hair style.

Interestingly, this week one of our Secular Society members will debate a professional theologian and debater on this subject at the local university Socratic Club forum.
The OSU Socratic Club will sponsor a debate on the topic, "Do Atheists Have Faith?" on Monday, November 15, at 7 p.m., in Gilfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus.

It is a common assertion in conversations between secularists and religious believers that religion is a matter of “faith,” which is devoid of any cognitive content and therefore, in the eyes of many secularists, of little or no truth value. Michael Gurney will argue that faith is commonly found among secularists and religious believers alike because everyone, including atheists, has a faith of some kind. Martin Erwig of OSU will argue that those who hold a secularist view reject faith claims altogether and base their views on science, rationalism, and human autonomy.
The theologian has his work cut out for him for this debate. For one thing, with an estimated 15% to 20% of the US population claiming no religious affiliation or belief in any deities, one might ask where are all the Atheist “churches”? Religions have built testaments to their belief over history in the form of huge edifices of architecture, works of art and music – nothing even remotely approaching this magnitude of devotional display exists for Atheists. That is… until now!

Thanks to Steve Martin; I give you the first in history Atheist Hymn:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Veterans Day + 1

Yesterday was Veterans Day, in some places, Armistice Day; a day when we are supposed to remember and honor the men and women in uniform who serve, and who have died serving, our nation in times of war and peace. And today, the day after Veterans Day, we can then return to forgetting those sacrifices and ignoring the unequal price they pay to ensure the comforts we enjoy.

Since the Conservatives recently regained their section of Capitol Hill turf the news media has been awash in championing their agenda; which is to cut government and reduce taxes (aka: foster unfettered expansion of moneyed interests). Example: CBS news anchor Katie Couric (who I believe has no more stature as a journalist than the kid who delivers the daily paper) touted all the ways in which the Conservatives plan to reign in government and runaway spending. With no fact checking or journalistic inquiry, she parroted the “facts” about the Social Security System being in “red ink” and on the brink of collapse and being a major cause for the burgeoning deficit. That fact is, that is NOT true!

So now the new prevailing and perceived shining path toward restoring America’s Greatness reads as follows: Ending tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of our elite is off the table. Targeted instead are the costs of supporting the poorest of our citizens; Social Security, Medicare, Welfare. It will be an ironic twist of fate if any Tea Baggers on unemployment voted Republican – unlikely UC benefits will be further extended, these folks might be the first to realize how they just voted to cut their own economic throats.

But among all the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over concern for our increasing national debt, the absence of the cost of our unnecessary and fruitless war in Afghanistan is the overlooked Elephant in the Room. We are borrowing close to One Billion dollars A DAY from China to maintain this war which has no expectation of any positive outcome whatsoever. Instead, we will continue to pay for it off the backs of people perceived as too lazy to go out and get jobs… which, incidentally, don’t exist. Large segments of our nation are apparently thirstily drinking the Kool Aid being served up by our political leaders.

The cost to our country for this war, and the Iraq war, have been deftly shielded and sanitized for our consumption. This has not always been true in our history. During World War II our nation sold bonds to finance the war. Everyone paid taxes to fund the war and few complained. It was necessary for all citizens to participate in one way or another in the defense of freedom. Everyone felt the pinch; consumer items such as sugar, coffee and materials like rubber and gasoline were rationed. No one was exempt, if you were not serving in uniform you were, in some way, supporting the soldiers who were. We were pulling together.

Again taxes were increased during the Vietnam War. In some sense, the cost to the taxpayer for Vietnam was but one of many pressures the public felt, in addition to the photos of caskets being shipped back home, which forced the government to yield to the growing outcries to bring that war to a close.

That is not the case today. Only recently the Obama administration has lifted the prohibition of pictures being released of flag-draped caskets being returned from the Middle East. But these images seldom make it into the consciousness of the news media; apparently more newsworthy: a Tea Bagger in a three-cornered hat with a misspelled sign calling the president a Socialist is the media’s primary focus.

Those in power have taken great pains to insure that this war costs the American taxpayer nothing; unless, of course, it happens to be YOUR child or loved one who has chosen to serve in the active military. I have not heard one public official suggest taxes be increased to pay for the War on Terrorism. And now it is quite clear that they neither want to factor in the cost of the war anywhere into the incendiary discussions about the rise of our national deficit.

I find it tragic that every day men and women go out on patrol in desolate places of the world based on pointless strategies, facing death and/or injury; while at home, Americans stop but one day a year to honor their commitment with parades and plastic flags made in China. Well hey… they volunteered to be in the service, didn’t they? I wonder who’s on “Dancing with the Stars” tonight?

Further reading:
1. "Bush-Era Tax Cuts Depart From History of America War Finance" Urban Institute
2. “The history of America’s tax system can be written largely as a history of America’s wars.”
and Taxes, by Steven A. Bank, Kirk J. Stark, Joseph J. Thorndike.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cool Clear Water

When we checked into our motel room in California, there on top of the TV set was a small plastic tray with two "complimentary" quart bottles of water... complimentary, that is, for $5.50 each + tax.

Now I am not a particularly astute shopper and I don't spend a lot of time comparing prices of various consumer goods. But after picking up our rental car prior to checking into our motel, I noted that gasoline was $3.20 a gallon near the airport, which I am sure was not the cheapest gas in the vicinity. A quick calculation revealed that a equal gallon of "Fiji" water would cost $22.00 - that's 688% MORE than an equal volume of gasoline.

Fiji Water has it's own web site: (At $5.50 a quart they can afford it, the bird sounds alone are worth the visit). Really, you SHOULD check their site out, they have information about the Fijian aquifer, cocktail recipes, contests, even a blog! I have seen corporate retail web sites that have less information about their products than this site about drinking water from Fiji. From their site:
In this isolated and idyllic setting, FIJI Water is drawn from an artesian aquifer that lies hundreds of feet below the edges of a primitive rainforest.

That distance and isolation is part of what makes FIJI Water so much purer, healthier, and richer in taste than other bottled waters.
Really - you mean to tell me it costs more to put water in a bottle than, say, drill hundreds of feet under ground in deserts or deep water off-shore platforms, pump up the sticky muddy-water-goo, ship it across the globe in huge supertankers, refine, crack and distill it through a massively energy-intensive industrial process then ship it in tankers to local distributors where it is held in tanks and pumped into our plastic bottles?

When we returned home from Southern California my water bill was waiting in my mailbox. For 8 "units" (5,984 gallons) of pure Oregon municipal tap water, I pay $22.88. This means that it cost me roughly $0.38 cents for 100 gallons of water.

Now of course there are trade-offs. Unlike gasoline which is consumed in my engine and gone forever; conversely, I only get to "use" my city provided water. A goodly amount of it is returned back to the city through an entirely separate set of pipes after flowing through my kidneys and other useful household appliances. So essentially, I have to pay the city for water TWICE. In addition the $22.88 the city charges me for delivering water to my house, they charge an additional $18.70 for "Waste water", $5.48 for "Storm Water" and a $1.36 "Transportation Maintenance Fee". (I guess pipes are not entirely reliable for getting water from one place to the other; perhaps they have to call a "water taxi" occasionally.)

Still, compared to Fiji water, my municipal water is a whopping bargain. Had I instead chosen last month to water my lawn, filled my spa and flush my toilet with Fiji water, it would have cost me $131,648.00 !

Okay, so water in Southern California is likely somewhat more expensive than here in Oregon where we, on the other hand, get free lawn irrigation pretty much the entire months from October through May. However It didn't really dawn on me just how crucial water conservation must be to Southern Californians until until I stepped into the bathroom in our motel room and took a picture of the bath tub.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

California Screaming

I’m playing catch-up, at the moment – trying to get current on the several blogs that I follow. Nancy and I just returned from Southern California where we acquired a new daughter-in-law – my step-son’s wedding and a brief reunion with relatives we usually only seem to connect up with at weddings or funerals.

Our itinerary required us to fly into the southern half of the Los Angeles basin (Orange County) and transverse then north (Ventura County) via automobile. If you ever want your awareness to focus on the reality of funerals, try driving on Southern California freeways. They will make a Believer out of you.

From the moment you step off the plane to when you wrestle that carry-on into the overhead compartment at departure, the pace of the So Cal’s lifestyle is “hectic” to put it mildly. Public transportation is a completely off the radar of Southern Californians here in this part of the world where the automobile is King. Nancy had reserved a full size rental car; I opted instead for a smaller vehicle feeling that being light and fleet-of-foot would give us a greater edge toward our survivability.

In general I would say that southern Californians view their highway system as one large reality-based video game. The goal is to get from point A to point B in as little time as possible. When the freeways are not choked to the point of being long narrow parking lots, they are drag strips. I concede that I can somewhat understand the “need for speed” as traveling on the side streets is a major trial of one’s patience. The traffic lights are excruciatingly long in cycling. More than once I pondered the economy of turning off my engine at the stop lights. The Southern Californians have adapted, however - I saw people glibly thumbing” away on their i-phones while stopped in traffic.

But the freeway is another matter entirely. Here one indulges the need to shrug off the bonds of traffic and hurtle heedlessly into the horizon as fast as humanly possible. My goal was simpler… to attempt to maintain sufficient distance from the other four-wheeled objects while sustaining a decent velocity. But then again I was always a wimp in any sort of video game. Dying was annoying even when I could hit the “replay level” button.

And sure enough, there were wrecks… though far fewer than I had expected. Still the acts of stupidity bravado were astounding to witness. For example: two motorcyclists jetting between cars and lanes traveling easily over 100 mph, by my estimation. I wondered if they knew there was no “replay level” in real life should they be just ever so slightly off of their hand-eye coordination. And if the worst were to happen – there would be no sympathy or pity from their fellow motorists who would more likely curse them for creating a mess and further delaying traffic.

The frenetic mentality was not limited to the roadways. At our motel a guy riding down in the elevator with us decided that the doors were taking excessively long open as we reached our floor – he “knocked” on the stainless steel elevator doors, I guess thinking somehow they would get the hint and open more quickly. Busy guy and precious nano-seconds were being wasted!

One of my blogging buddies, Gutsy Writer, is writing a book about their family abandoning the fast pace of Southern California and moving to Belize. As she explains on her blog: “To Live a simple life. Escape gridlocked freeways and the Orange County, California rat race. Teach our kids gratitude instead of entitlement.”

We all know it’s there, yet I think one cannot truly appreciate the full scope of the societal and emotional desert which is Southern California until one temporarily immerses themselves into it.

My step-son, now living in Orange County (where there are no longer any orange orchards, by the way… NONE) was raised in the beautiful green of the Pacific Northwest. I asked Jesse one day if he ever missed the cool clean air, the forests, and the greenness of his home state. “No, I pretty much stay inside most of the time”, he replied, then returned to checking his i-phone.

But now my step-son is married and with lovely a new bride. And I can’t help but wonder, if children result from this union, if perhaps Oregon will regain some sense of allure to the young parents. I can only hope.