Friday, April 29, 2011

The Default Option

"Belief is the natural state of things, it's the default option." - Michael Shermer, publisher, Skeptic Magazine

I grew up believing a lot of things – that my parents loved me; that Catholicism was mandatory and there was an all-powerful and loving “Super-Daddy” somewhere out in space that would protect me. But as I began more to observe the natural world, I encountered things I couldn’t explain. I believed in ghosts, telekinesis, UFOs and my mother’s reliance on Astrology. I believed that certain special people had unique and unexplained powers.

Aside from my parent's love, I don’t believe any of those other things today. But those changes didn’t happen overnight, it required decades of effort and study; work which I continue to do. It was only recently that I fully accepted my status as an Atheist, advancing from Agnostic. What I have discovered is that it is simple to believe; but Knowing requires effort.

As a child I was fascinated by Science. The country was all about advancing in science and technology; in school I learned about the natural world. Things began to make sense; it could be quantified and measured and therefore explained. We had entered the Space Race; new discoveries were advancing the body of science on an almost daily basis. And some of what I discovered was sometimes uncomfortably contrary to some of my previously held beliefs.

As a young man following college I began to wonder about consciousness on the fringes of science. I recall subscribing to a magazine called “The New Age Journal”; a periodical for spiritual seekers, I guess one could say. Although it contained some thoughtful articles regarding developing habits to deal with life stresses (such as meditation), it also offered horoscopes and suggested that crystals (pretty rocks) had remarkable healing properties. But by this point in my maturity I had also developed a latent personality trait – Doubt.

The “New Age Journal” subscription expired, replaced now with “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by the Center for Inquiry (formerly Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Each month there were articles about lake monsters, UFOs, ghosts and myriads of other paranormal phenomena. The underlying premise of the organization was to ask (and often answer) the question: is there another alternative, and most importantly, “rational” explanation?

SI led to other books which reinforced my trust (not faith) in science and allowed me to hold my own beliefs up to the light. Then in 1980 I watched Carl Sagan’s 13 episode series, Cosmos on public television. I was riveted. I was then working in the business world, but to indulge my yearning for science, I volunteered as an “Explainer” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Eventually, I became weary of the repetitive analysis of lake monsters and alien abductions. By now, I felt they all had been thoroughly discredited – my interest turned instead to trying to comprehend why so many WANTED to believe in these things. I discovered “Skeptic” magazine published by Michael Shermer of “The Skeptics Society”. Shermer had written books such as “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “How We Believe” and other titles on scientific skepticism. I needed to understand the thinking processes and influences going on within the human mind which caused people to justify holding onto strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of diametrically opposing factual information.

As luck would have it, I was fortunate to become friends with skeptic, inventor, poet and magician, Jerry Andrus. Jerry was the creator of some truly remarkable optical illusions. He was also well known among the world of professional magicians for his unique sleight of hand and magic. Though most magicians learn their trade from other magicians, Jerry did not want to be influenced by others; all of his illusions are ones he developed on his own. Jerry was one of the few men who could actually fool other magicians!

But Jerry had a purpose in his magic; he dedicated his life to teaching people that the conclusions we conclude from the patterns we arrange in our minds, even if they are WRONG, is a completely normal, natural and remarkable result from the evolution of our magnificent brains. Jerry recognized that for humans, “belief is the default option” – but or brains also have the capacity to question our perceptions in order to fully appreciate the wonders of this universe in we live.

Next: Why do we hold on to certain beliefs and why don’t we believe science?

Trailer from my documentary, “Andrus; the Man, the Mind & the Magic.”


Monday, April 25, 2011

It's All Over, Folks

Damn, just when I was starting to feel pretty confident about my future after my heart surgery... This billboard just popped up in town:

The Apocalypse is near - Repent before it is too late! Seriously, we really mean it THIS time. "The Bible Guarantees It", according to the billboard. This ain't no heathen Aztec calender.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Meet Robo Trader

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that." ~ HAL9000

My wife and I often listen to National Public Radio news as we sip our morning coffee in bed (one of the more lovely benefits of retirement). Often during the broadcast, punctuated in between the news stories, the reporters usually toss out a brief update about how the Stock Market is doing. The Dow is up x points, or the NASDAQ down by y. I often wonder, what is the point of telling me this information? In a matter of minutes those markets can completely reverse.

Worse yet is when the news then attempts to explain WHY the Stock Market took a particular rise or fall. Recently the market apparently fell on worries about the nuclear plant disaster in Japan. Oh really - how do they KNOW that was the cause? A few years back I heard a reporter attribute the market closing lower because President George Bush was having his colonoscopy. What the... ?!

The truth is that I don’t think anyone has the remotest clue why the Stock Market trends as it does. The media obviously pulls some current story out of the blue and attempts to attribute cause-and-effect to these fluctuations where there is none. Humans naturally expect reasons for why things happen, therefor, a causal effect is simply manufactured that has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

I became even more dubious about Stock Market trends after discovering that a huge majority of the trades executed daily are no longer done by human traders but by computers. The number of human traders on the floor of the stock exchanges has actually dropped by a large percentage.

As it turns out, a significant number of the buy/sell trade decisions are not being made by human traders - To a significant degree computers have taken over the buying and selling of stocks. I recently watched this story on the TV news show, “60-Minutes”. Companies have now invested millions in computer hardware and algorithms which can spot and act on trends within microseconds. Traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange is now old school.
Excerpt: It may surprise you to learn that most of the stock trades in the U.S. are no longer being made by human beings, but by robot computers capable of buying and selling thousands of different securities in the time it takes you to blink an eye.

Today [the floor of the New York Stock Exchange] is still the public fa├žade of Wall Street, and a television backdrop for reporters relaying financial news. But less than 30 percent of the trading is conducted there now, and the specialists and the noise of the floor are being replaced by the speed and quiet efficiency of computers and the action has moved elsewhere. 1.
For me this has significant bearing on the entire purpose of the Stock Market. Companies used to offer investment in the form of stocks to raise capital in order to expand, grow and become profitable; thereby sharing the benefit through dividends to their investors. However in recent years I have been puzzled why it seemed the stock in one company would fall even when they reported profitable years; equally puzzling were the rises in stock prices of companies obviously languishing.

Now I understand why – the decisions regarding the sale and purchase of a company’s stock have no bearing whatsoever on the viability, market potential or management of that company. Those buy/sell decisions are made within fractions of a second by automated traders who may likely hold a company stock it just purchased for only three minutes before it sells it.

The people behind this trend say this should have no negative effect on the small investors who like to play the stock market using their best analytical considerations about the viability of the companies they choose invest in. But if the prices are actually driven by the mindless millisecond musings of a super computer, how can you be sure the small investor is safe?

This one thing I do know, as NPR tells me the Stock Market is up or down so many points, by the time I finish my morning coffee, that information is old news.
~~~
1. How Speed Traders Are Changing Wall Street, “60-Minutes”, October 10, 2010

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

In a recent post I explained how I came to understand, through the clarity of a remarkable comedian, how our supposedly democratic republic has been taken over by a small, but very powerful, group of “individuals” (an identity which, according to the Supreme Court, also includes huge corporations).

This disturbing fact has not gone unnoticed by a significant segment of politicians, economists and intellectuals. Many understand how we got here – now the question is, can we as (human) individuals regain control over our country and how?

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity –
In 1700’s France during the reign of King Louis XVI the country, due to financial mismanagement and feudal oppression, was in a serious downward spiral. Faced with a dwindling treasury, King Louis engaged his top financial advisers who ultimately suggested that the wealthy nobility, currently exempt from taxation, be taxed. The wealthy refused. With both the nobility and equally wealthy clergy exempt from taxation, the burden then fell onto the general French public. 1

But French commoners were not faring all that well and attempts to squeeze more tariffs from the growing peasant class resulted in social upheaval; the brunt of which was borne by the aristocracy and nobility who found themselves losing their heads, literally. After years of furtive attempts to design a new constitution and government, France eventually ended up being ruled by an emperor (Napoleon). 2

Could this happen in this country? We currently have corporate executives realizing previously unheard of amounts of executive compensation while the effective earning power (wages) of the middle class has declined. We are facing a widening disparity, in both and assets, between the middle and wealthy class. And like the reign of Louis XVI, the wealthiest 2% of our nation, and the clergy, retain their exemption (thanks to BOTH political parties) from bearing a reasonable share of the tax burden.

So will Americans be storming the Bastille any time soon? I genuinely doubt it. Unlike the draconian conditions which precipitated revolution in Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east...
1) American public awareness is broadly blind, or cannot otherwise fathom, degree in disparity between them and the wealthy elite: “…income inequality as an issue doesn’t win elections because Americans don’t begrudge the rich so much as they dream they may join them.”3

2) The staggering availability of cheap food, cheap technology and almost unlimited distractions in the form of entertainment and media propaganda, provide a welcome anesthetic to dealing with the dwindling opportunities for a better life for the middle class. It was the media that promoted the Tea Party from a fringe group to a position of legitimacy through constant media attention. Ask yourself why, for example, Sarah Palin continues to enjoy more media exposure than John McCain? The media chooses, orchestrates and controls the message.

3) Americans don’t think in terms of community or the well being of society as a whole, that would be too "European". Americans think of themselves in terms of the individual; beyond exercising their vote, most Americans feel they have little power. If you noticed the union demonstrations in Wisconsin the crowd was mainly comprised of older workers. Young workers see little relevance in union membership.

As long as the ultra wealthy and the corporations control access to Congress, define the media agenda and continue to placate us with consumer distractions, the American public will remain like the frog in the cooking pot, oblivious to the ever-slowly-increasing heat until they are cooked to death.
~~~
1. "The French Revolution (1789–1799)", sparknotes.com

2. "France History - Causes of the French Revolution", Bonjourfrance.com

3. "Rising Wealth Inequality: Should We Care? - Why do Americans seem unperturbed about the growing gap between the rich and the poor?" NY Times - March 23, 2011


Frog cartoon courtesy of Graviton Creations

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pondering People and Pigs

It has been four weeks since my aortic valve replacement surgery; three weeks of being out of 23 days in the hospital. My life is currently weeks of multiple medical appointments and visits to the Infusion Clinic where my IV antibiotic pump connected to me 24/7 is serviced and my Coumadin levels checked and adjusted. I have good days and times when I feel extremely vulnerable; still I am lucky to be alive.

Constantly wearing this IV pump is a hassle; it is heavy and wearing it on a strap over my shoulder makes my already aching and healing chest ache even more. Yet this experience has also given me an appreciation of what others with more serious health issues must go through. I drop into the Infusion Clinic where my IV pump is quickly serviced and dressings changed. Most of the other patients there are required to hang out, enduring hours of infusion therapy, primarily for chemotherapy treatment. Again, I feel extremely lucky.

In the years prior to my mother-in-law’s, Wanda, death, her life completely revolved around hospitals and clinics. I now have some appreciation as to how difficult a time she was having. She suffered a cardiac amyloid condition; a condition similar to Alzheimers however affecting her heart rather than the brain. Her prognosis was that she would eventually decline, slipping into congestive heart failure. She was never going to get better, only worse. It was not unusual for her to have two or three doctor’s appointments every week, made even more difficult as she was by then wheelchair bound.

When Wanda was told that her condition had deteriorated to the point where she would require kidney dialysis, she decided that she had had enough dealing with needles, procedures and medications. Knowing that without dialysis she would die, she accepted that as the most humane way she could go. She died at home of kidney failure surrounded by her family.

My Coumadin treatments will eventually end in a month or two; likewise I should be free of my IV pump in a few weeks. I am in otherwise good physical condition and expected to make a full recovery. Eventually I will be able to do the things I enjoy; building and remodeling, yard work, riding my bike. I’m told I can expect to feel better than I before getting my new “pig” valve.

But my situation has reminded me of the countless others whose lives currently revolve around simply staying alive, who live within the restricted world of hospitals, clinics, therapies and procedures; many often painful or causing great sickness. My thoughts, at this moment, are for their difficult fight for life.

Did I mention how really lucky I am feeling right now?

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Myth of True Democracy

A few years back I was having an interesting discussion with a professor who taught Political Science at the local university. Somewhere in our conversation the topic of voting came up; he confessed to me a rather jaw-dropping admission – he personally doesn’t vote. Flabbergasted I was really curious why he, of all people, would chose not to exercise his right to vote.

Here is what he explained to me: our government policies are driven by, and for, special moneyed interest through lobbyists; in fact much of the legislation is written outside of Congress by the very same special interests the proposed laws are designed to regulate. Elections, he went on to explain, is just “theater” to give people the illusion of representation in governance. Voting trends are completely manipulated by very complex, expensive and professionally managed campaign marketing machines.

The professor has since moved to a university president position; I’ve lost touch with him over the years. Still, at that time I found it very difficult to accept what he told me. Somehow, I still held onto the belief that the democratic process was working the way it was supposed to. But events over recent years have caused me to no longer believe we live in a democratically run country.

Some of you may already be familiar with this monologue by the late George Carlin. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again. Carlin is not joking, he is deadly serious – and I fear is he is also right.


Carlin has been accused of being a “conspiracy theorist”; but as he pointed out during an appearance on the Bill Maher show, the ultra wealthy do not need to meet in secret chambers, they need no secret plan or to plot devious strategies -- the wealthy and powerful already know what is in their best interest and their enormous resources are employed to further those interests.

Even newly elected governor Jerry Brown in a recent interview, "We the People? Jerry Brown on Money, Politics,and Who Really Runs America" even concedes the democratic process is skewed to the advantage of wealthy special interests. Exerpt: "The fact of the matter is that if... you take special interest money, you do what they want. Now on any given bill, if there’s heat, if there’s public scrutiny, you’re not going to be obvious about having been bought off. You have to keep that covered. But in fact you are bought off. The entire system is bought off by the institutional bias created by special interest campaign spending."

I understand that some people want to hold onto hope. The Obama campaign was selling hope by the bushel basket; and I bought into it as well. But one needs to ask themselves; why is it we are debating cutting benefits for the most needy in our society while the wealthiest 2% sacrafice nothing? Why have the two longest wars in our history been waged without a tax increase as ALL our other wars have?

Even our "free press", is sustained by huge private media corporations. Fox news is, at least, blatant about their conservative bias. The stories which air are intentionally crafted to manipulate the public; be it “gay marriage”, abortion, immigration, the growing deficit. These hot-button issues are intentionally thrust into the public consciousness to divert our attention from the corruption of our democratic process. In a country where a vast majority base their decisions regarding candidates and issues primarily based on 30-second TV advertisement, this is where the propaganda turns directly into votes.

I do not discount that there are men and woman of principles and conscience within our government. For example, Vermont's Bernie Sanders or our own Peter DeFazio here in Oregon. But they still are limited by the rules and the harsh realities of government strongly influenced by unseen moneyed and special interests.

As sad as I am to accept what Carlin is saying, I find substantiation of his views on an almost daily basis. We are dancing to the tune being played by the wealthiest 2% who own 24% (and growing) of the nation's wealth. The system is working for them quite well.

Below are just a few bits of evidence supporting Carlin's view; you can likely find many more on your own.

~ Court rulings ~

January 2010 - The US Supreme Court has struck down a major portion of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law, saying it violates the free-speech right of corporations to engage in public debate of political issues. The result is that all campaign finance laws are thrown out opening the door for any anonymous moneyed interests to support candidates or causes.

~ Documentaries ~

Frontline: The Warning (2009)
A detailed look at the roots of America's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, this "Frontline" documentary exposes why government officials refused to regulate emerging derivatives markets that later ruined global financial systems.

Frontline: Breaking the Bank (2009)
With an eye on the financial crisis that sent Wall Street reeling in the midst of the 2008 presidential election, this penetrating edition of "Frontline" investigates what went wrong, who's to blame and how long it will take to repair the damage. Specifically, the program looks at the role of so-called "superbanks" and other players in the housing market's soaring fortunes -- and its ultimately devastating decline.

Frontline: Obama's Deal (2010)
Witness how American politics operates in the Obama era with this revealing documentary, which grants viewers incredible access to private meetings from the White House to Capitol Hill throughout the lengthy and arduous health care reform debate. Through interviews with key officials, senators and lobbyists, this program exposes how quiet negotiations and special interest groups drastically reshaped the landmark health care legislation.

~ Journalists ~

Robert Reich:
Big American companies are sitting on almost $2 trillion of cash because there aren't enough customers to buy additional goods and services. The only people with money are the richest 10 percent whose stock portfolios have been roaring back to life, but their spending isn't enough to spur much additional hiring.

Republicans, for their part, worry that if they tell it like it is Americans will want government to do more rather than less. They'd rather not talk about jobs and wages, and put the focus instead on deficit reduction (or spread the lie that by reducing the deficit we'll get more jobs and higher wages).

To the extent non-financial companies are doing well, they're making most of their money abroad. Since 1992, for example, G.E.'s offshore profits have risen $92 billion, from $15 billion (which is one reason it pays no U.S. taxes). In fact, the only group that's optimistic about the future are CEOs of big American companies.
[FYI: GE paid NO corporate income taxes last year.]

George Lakoff
Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people.

~ News ~

Regarding President Obama's chairman of his "Jobs council", GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt - former senator Russ Feingold says: "How can someone like Immelt be given the responsibility of heading a jobs creation task force when his company has been creating more jobs overseas while reducing its American workforce? And under Immelt's direction, GE spends hundreds of millions of dollars hiring lawyers and lobbyists to evade taxes." Read the full article here.


Update: There apparently is some misinformation regarding GE and it's tax liability. For a more detailed explanation, check out this article: Setting The Record Straight on GE’s Taxes, by Allan Sloan, Fortune, and Jeff Gerth, Pro-Publica.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Misconstruing the American Dream

My jaw dropped; I couldn't believe the words I was hearing – Pop culture and self-proclaimed financial guru, Suze Orman, advising people that it no longer makes good financial sense to own your own home! It's Okay to be a renter for the rest of your life, she now says.

Now to be blunt, I’ve never put any stock into Suze Orman or any of the pop media “financial advisers” blather. Others often tout the importance of having savings, even when holding high credit card or other debt. You do the math: which has the highest financial return, aggressively paying down outstanding credit balances on your 14% interest credit card, for example, or putting that cash into savings account which only may be earning a measly percent or two?

Orman did admit that her opinion of home ownership has taken a 180 degree reversal. But this idea that our home as an "investment" in the traditional sense of the term, is only a fairly recent phenomenon. I recall the “American Dream” being instead the comfort and security that comes from home ownership in your retirement years – not viewing your residence as a big ATM machine. I would love to ask Orman just how much more retirement income should you plan to earn to pay for ever-increasing rent?

The reason most people (including me) chose to purchase our homes was, at some point in our lives, hopefully about the time one expects to retire, the mortgage is paid off and your remaining cost of housing drops down to a more affordable property tax and insurance. In our case, we were only able to retire because we no longer have housing costs (mortgage). There is no way we could afford to retire if we had to pay rent to some landlord. Did Orman forget that housing costs are the most significant portion of one's living expenses?

I’ve been listening to these so called media financial adviser shows for decades. Interestingly, in all that time, I have NEVER heard any of these advisors recommend for people to invest in real estate. Though its taken us decades, my wife and I did just that; pulled some equity from our home to invest in rental properties. Over time we were eventually able to shift our home mortgage over to the rentals which meant that our renters essentially purchased our properties and paid our mortgage for us. You will never hear such advice from financial "gurus" like Orman.

There is another advantage to owning your own home, particularly as one enters retirement age. Some of our friends have actually turned their homes into monthly income by taking out “reverse mortgages” on their paid off homes. In a reverse mortgage, one actually sells the equity in their home to a financial institution and so receive a monthly income. The owner is allowed to live in the house indefinitely. You can't do that if you rent all your life.

The prospect of being a permanent renter may have some short term benefits for a few. But I still see home ownership as an American Dream to the extent that, once owned outright, one can retire comfortably on a reduced income. The prospect of paying ever-increasing rent as a retiree appears downright frightening.

Because I'm a Skeptic I take the advice of “experts” with a generous dose of doubt. I like to ask the question, “who stands to benefit”? In most cases that turns out to be the person giving the advice. Besides, whether renter or owner, you still have to live somewhere.