Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rikki's Wild Ride Published At Last

Rikki's Wild Ride is a rare combination of artistry and story-telling. The book, just released to Amazon, is illustrated by 18 pastel paintings by Holly Masri. She also had the concept and wrote the story, which is appropriate for children and entertaining for adults.

Rikki was a parrot, a green person who was six inches tall with a six-foot tall attitude. He was loud and obnoxious at times, but also endearing and entertaining, as shown in this book. He was also our friend. I'm grateful to my wife, Holly, for painting a portrait of me with Rikki and putting it into the book. The portrait makes me look like St. Francis of Assisi, which I am not, but whom I admire.

This book is truly a labor of love that has taken many years to come to fruition.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Israel's actions against Palestine are illegal, immoral, and inexcusable

Earlier today I encountered a discussion of Israeli actions against Palestinians on the site. One commenter made several statements about the legality of Israel's actions; another, an Israeli apologist, attempted to counter those statements. I have indicated why the second commenter was wrong on all counts.
Charge: Israel has acquired territory by war.
Response:  Acquisition of territory by war is by no means automatically “illegal” nor it is “immoral” – for example, the acquisition of territory by Israel isn't in itself illegal – you can't argue this, you may argue that holding it is illegal, but this is another issue]
My opinion: In fact, acquisition of territory by war was outlawed by the UN Charter, article 2, paragraph 4, which forbids signatories from using force or the threat of force against the territorial integrity of another state. So acquisition of territory by war is absolutely illegal. Whether it is immoral depends on your moral compass.
Charge: Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing 
Response: how can you make this claim in straight face, LOL! How can you claim “ethnic cleansing” when the article itself claims that the Arab population is rising?!!? This must be the most inept and incompetent “ethnic cleansing” ever!
My opinion: The charge of ethnic cleansing is not one that should be laughed at. The writer seems to equate ethnic cleansing with murder, whereas the phrase also describes the expulsion of a people from its homeland. Israel expelled 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948. In addition, members of Netanyahu's party have recently called for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Gaza.
Charge: Israel set up a system of apartheid.
Response: this smear is wearing tired, you all know it – and it even isn't logically supported – apartheid is about race, since Arabs are of the same race as Jews, the definition doesn’t hold. You may claim discrimination on basis of citizenship (justified due to real security concerns) but not apartheid – but you chose propaganda attempts over serious debate.
My opinion: The UN  International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) defines apartheid as a system of racial discrimination that includes discrimination on the basis of
race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.
The convention does not recognize an exemption due to "real security concerns" as the writer supposes. Whether Arabs and Jews belong to the same "race" or "ethnic origin" is a matter of dispute among anthropologists because the concept of race itself is controversial.

Charge: Israel has transferred population into occupied territory.
Response: this is a non sequitur, because you are trying to insinuate Geneva convention but the territories are not occupied from a qualifying side, and so, don’t fall under this definition.
My opinion:  The writer argues that settlements in the West Bank do not violate Article 2 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prevents moving people into occupied territory, because the West Bank is not an occupied territory. This theory has been put forth by a few Israeli politicians, but has been rejected by the International Court of Justice. The idea that Israel does not occupy the West Bank forcibly flies in the face of logic.
Charge: Israel is stealing natural and other resources from occupied territory. 
Response: You conveniently forget that whatever water Israel takes is in accordance with an agreement with the P.A.
My opinion: The Israeli government has been diverting water from the Jordan River to the Negev desert since 1967. It has been diverting water from the Wadi Gaza since 1973. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was created in 1994. Israel therefore could not have agreed with the P.A. to use this water until long after the usage was already established
Charge: Nothing is ever going to transform a bible into a property deed. 
Response: There is no need for that, the UN (or the League of Nations) have reconfirmed the ownership of Jewish nation over the biblical land of Israel.
My opinion: The writer does not specify which resolutions confirm the ownership of Israel over the biblical land of Israel. The Balfour Declaration (1917) granted the right to form a Jewish homeland in Palestine on condition that
nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. 
That seems a far cry from granting Israel any right to a "biblical Israel".

Monday, July 21, 2014

Microsoft fires 18,000 workers and strikes another blow for the one percent

Microsoft's Ballmer and Nokia's Elop celebrate their good fortune.
Bing! Another 18,000 jobs just disappeared down the rabbit hole of high-tech indifference. Microsoft has announced that its acquisition of Nokia will not mean continued employment for Finnish workers. 1100 of them have been fired, with limited prospects for future employment.

Here is the future promised by American corporations. Microsoft is famous for poaching employees from other companies, but it does so for its own profits, not for the benefit of the people it hires.

American politicians, including Obama, have preached that students should study technical subjects like Science, Technology, Electronics, and Mathematics--STEM. STEM workers will go to work for high-tech companies and enjoy a profitable career until they are fired because their wages are too high and they can be replaced by workers in China and India.

Companies like Microsoft continually lobby Congress to admit more workers from other countries. They complain that there is a shortage of high-tech workers. They need more bodies to feed the roaring fires of the high-tech boom.

Only there is no boom, at least not in developed countries like the US and Finland. Just last year, Microsoft announced it was acquiring a large part of Nokia's business, and that 25,000 employees of the Finnish electronics company would become Microsoft "team members". Three months have passed since the deal was closed and 18,000 of those team members are being thrown out of their jobs.

Of course, in modern hi-tech jargon, the jobs (not people) have become "redundant". It is their misfortune that people who held these redundant jobs are now unemployed. Microsoft does not explain how jobs can become redundant when it is demanding that the U.S. import more workers into the country. Redundant means there are too many workers, not too few.

Microsoft claimed that the acquisition of Nokia would accelerate innovation and help introduce a billion people to Microsoft services. Microsoft has just redefined the word "innovation" to mean "unemployment".

So the executives of Nokia and Microsoft smile and pose for cameras while they contemplate how many careers will be destroyed by their actions. Moore's law states that the complexity of electronic components doubles every two years. There should be another, equally famous law, that states that some percentage of tech workers laid off from their jobs will never find technical employment again. Let's call it Ballmer's Law. Ballmer's law increases the wage disparity between the wealthy employers and the workers they make redundant, because mergers bring higher stock prices to the executives of a company while taking salaries away from the workers.

Innovation indeed.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

New York Times Profiles John Christy, A Climate Change Denier: When Will They Learn?

John Christy, a "real" climate scientist, received another whitewash in the New York Times on July 15. The author of this article portrayed the dispute between Christy and his critics as an interesting scientific discussion. The author portrays Christy as an honest scientist unjustly scorned by his colleagues. The article attempts to elicit our sympathy for this beleaguered scientist.

Only it's not true. Christy is not an honest scientist. He is one of two or three scientists on the planet who cling to the data produced in an experiment involving data gathered by hot-air balloons and earth satellites. Numerous papers have been written explaining the errors in this data, but Christy will have none of it. Christy and his colleague, Roy Spencer, made an analysis of the balloon data and are staking their scientific reputations on its validity. Due to their obstinacy in the face of overwhelming evidence, however, their scientific reputations are about as weak as the poll ratings of the Republican party.

Christy is not an honest scientist because he has been using the usual right-wing outlets to publicize his views. These outlets include Heartland Institute, where Christy is listed as a climate change "expert" in their Journalist's Guide to Global Warming Experts (2008). Note: Christy has reportedly refused to appear at any of Heartland's climate change denier conferences because, according to NY Times science reporter Andrew Revkin, he does not wish to be presumed guilty by association. Christy's articles have been published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which has received funding from the Koch brothers and other energy companies as it spews out tracts claiming that the EPA is protecting tiny insects at the expense of jobs, among other prejudicial nonsense

Christy has published numerous climate denier articles in, (and here) a blog whose only purpose is to attack climate scientists who disagree with climate-science deniers. 

Christy has regularly appeared at climate denier conferences held by the Cato Institute, including a 2003 conference on climate change that featured a roster of climate change deniers. The Cato Institute has received more than $12 million in funding from the Koch family and its front organizations between 1986 and 2011. Cato undoubtedly pays its conference speakers for their appearances, so Christy has apparently benefited from Koch largess.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed where Christy claims his balloon observations disprove the conclusions of nearly every other climate scientist. The Wall Street Journal, through its continual beating the drum for climate skeptics, has long since ceased to be a neutral reporter of scientific facts.

The New York Times should recognize that there is a political discussion going on here, not a scientific one. Arrayed on the side of climate change deniers are oil companies and other corporations that contribute heavily to publicize their political views. Therefore, the Times should research and publish articles about where the money to publicize deniers like Christy comes from. Where is the Times article on that?

All these articles are have one goal, to cloud the issues and make us doubt scientific opinion. We do not doubt scientists when they tell farmers when to plant crops, nor when they tell us that some food additives are poisonous instead of healthy, nor when they instruct oil companies how to process crude oil into gasoline--no, all the science that tells us those things is just fine. When it comes to climate science, however, climate change deniers warn us not to believe the vast majority of scientists who warn us about the dangers of global warning, but instead to trust the 3 or 4 who take money from the Koch brothers and tell us not to worry about the future.

Climate change deniers are like the human sharks who promoted no-interest loans. No-interest loans delay payment until some time in the future when those who receive them are hit by huge increases in loan payments that they have no ability to pay. Climate change deniers urge that we should do nothing to prevent catastrophic climate change. There are no observable ill effects at present. But future generations will pay a huge price for our blindness and inaction. Perhaps our descendants, like the debtors of no-interest loans, will be unable to pay the price.

Errata: A previous version of this post erroneously reported that John Christy had given a keynote address for the Heartland Institute. I apologize for the mistake.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Most Corrupt States are Controlled by Republcans

A 2011 study of corruption in the U.S. has reached some alarming conclusions. The study used a single factor to determine the level of corruption in a state, namely, the number of officials convicted of corruption over the past several years. There were 25,000 corruption convictions between 1974 and 2008. Corruption trials are all prosecuted under federal laws, which do not vary from state to state and do not favor one party over another. Therefore, a corrupt state official cannot influence his own trial. 

Political corruption results in higher state expenditures. The same study found that states with higher levels of corruption spent an average of $1,300 per resident per year more than they would have with only average levels of corruption. The state of Mississippi, which the study rated most corrupt in the U.S., therefore lost $3.8 billion due to corruption of its officials.

Corrupt states spend more money on construction, capital, and highway projects, because these projects are undertaken by large, monopolistic enterprises. When only one or two companies bid on a project, it is hard to tell whether the bid is inflated by payoffs to politicians. Corruption often takes the form of subsidies to sports franchises for locating in a city or constructing a new stadium. Miami-Dade County paid $337 million to build a stadium for a baseball team. Ultimately, the taxpayers of Miami-Dade will pay at least $2.6 billion to pay of the bonds sold to finance construction. The stadium primarily benefits the owner of the team, Jeffrey Loria, whose estimated net wealth is $500 million. Corruption in these sorts of deal is difficult to prove, but Florida is the tenth most corrupt state on the list.

Government corruption leads to expenditures on capital projects like the Marlins stadium. The budget increases are offset by cuts elsewhere, usually in health and education. In Miami, Florida, the Mayor of Miami-Dade County cut 36 positions for fireboat crews. He also demanded that the fireboat crews should also be cross-trained in emergency rescue, which the union refused to do. The dispute led to shutting down one fireboat.

On the evening of July 4, 2014, a 3-boat collision led to 4 fatalities. The unmanned Miami fireboat, which might have responded and rescued one or more victims in the water, stayed in port. The unmanned fireboat may or may not have saved anyone that night. The stadium deal may not have involved corruption. One fact is clear: The Miami government was able to give $337 million to millionaire Loria, but could not find the funds to pay firefighters.

The most disturbing aspect of this survey is the correlation between the level of corruption and a state's adoption of the Republican Party platform. For example, the study concludes that favoring tax cuts over incremental tax raises correlates with a state's corruption. In other words, the motto, “no new taxes” may invite corruption.

The study says that corrupt state governments tend to hide their excesses by engaging in deficit financing. A popular way for governments to raise revenues for capital projects is tax increment financing (TIF). This form of funding does not increase budgets, but it does lead to abuses. TIF is used to fund redevelopment projects, with the money going to large, politically connected construction companies. Redevelopment projects are supposed to help residents of blighted districts, but they frequently result in gentrification, when richer residents move into the redeveloped districts and the poorer residents are forced out. The money raised goes to the corporations and taxpayers eventually pay the higher cost of services demanded by the new residents.

Policies of Republicans, who favor cutting taxes and awarding contracts on favorable terms to corporations, have caused Republican-governed states to experience more corruption. Here is a list of the ten most corrupt states and the political parties that control them. The list comes from the study and the political party control statistics come from Multistate Associates Incorporated.

Ten most corrupt states Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Alaska, South Dakota, Kentucky, and Florida.

Rank.   State name      Governor's Party       State Senate Party       State Assembly Party

  1. Mississippi        R                               R                                 R
  2. Louisiana          R                               R                                 R
  3. Tennessee         R                               R                                 R
  4. Illinois               D                              D                                 D
  5. Pennsylvania     R                              R                                 R
  6. Alabama            R                              R                                 R
  7. Alaska               R                              R                                 R
  8. South Dakota    R                              R                                 R
  9. Kentucky          D                              R                                 D
  10. Florida              R                               R                                 R

There are 30 power bases listed in this table. 25 (83%) of them are controlled by Republicans. This is the type of figure you would expect to see if the correlation between corruption and Republican policies is true.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How to Rein In the Runaway Court

Many people have suggested amending the Constitution as a method of controlling the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). I disagree. Constitutional Amendments are difficult to pass. As SCOTUS has proven with its recent spate of rulings, the 5 Conservative Justices on the Court are capable of twisting Constitutional language to the benefit of the ruling one percent.

In Citizens United, SCOTUS ruled that corporations are people under the law and used that controversial assumption to gut federal election laws. Other decisions have been equally heinous. With each new decision, SCOTUS gives more rights to the richest one percent and strips everyone else of theirs. Amending the Constitution, even if possible, would take decades. There is another remedy available that would only take a congress and president that have a will to end judicial abuse.

Dictatorship does not need a single authoritarian ruler. Dictatorship can be established by a political class (like the Russian proletariat) or a religious group (like the English protestants under Cromwell). In our case, dictatorship has been instated by a court that has profoundly undemocratic and authoritarian beliefs. The Republicans have lost the Presidency and the Senate, but they have no need of those institutions if SCOTUS keeps on depriving us of our rights.

The Constitution says the judicial powers shall be vested in one Supreme Court and such others as Congress may establish from time to time. The Constitution did not create a court of nine members, or even one whose members hold their office for life. The wording of Article iii says nothing about how many justices should be on the Supreme Court, nor how they should be chosen.

President Franklin Roosevelt proposed to increase the number of Justices to 15. This could be done by a simple majority vote of Congress, with the President's signature. Fifteen Justices would be harder to co-opt than nine. More importantly, the addition of six new judges would break the grip now held by Conservatives set on establishing a theocratic plutocracy.

The Congress could do more. The Constitution says that federal judges should be life appointments, but does not specify that they must be organized into federal circuits and appeals courts. Federal Courts may just as easily be organized into a single body of judges who may at times be appointed to the Supreme Court and serve at other times in various other capacities.

This reform would have a beneficial effect on the speed at which cases are decided, since a larger Supreme Court could handle a heavier case load. A leveling of bureaucracy like this also tends to speed up cases because a case does not have to travel from one over-loaded court to another for years while plaintiffs continue to suffer and defendants continue to offend.

Such a reform is long overdue. We have suffered under the yoke of the wealthiest one percent long enough. The means of liberation is at hand. Let's use it.

Runaway Court: SCOTUS bends laws to suit its religious and political beliefs

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is only the latest in a series of SCOTUS verdicts that threaten the impartiality of our laws and our Constitutional system. With their ruling in this case, SCOTUS has picked a side and then tailored its verdict to favor that side. It is no coincidence that all 5 of the conservative Justices on the majority are Catholic. The Catholic church has for decades made its dogma on contraception known. Now SCOTUS has indicated that it agrees with the Pope. Contraception, it says, is wrong.

The owners of Hobby Lobby are not Catholic. Rather, they belong to a Christian sect that opposes all forms of contraception. Hobby Lobby claimed their objection to buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was based on their religious conviction that contraception is tantamount to abortion. SCOTUS, by its verdict in their favor, agrees with them. What is more to the point, five unelected Judges have made the religious beliefs of some Christians the law of the land.

Let me explain. Hobby Lobby claimed that 4 forms or birth control were offensive to their religious beliefs because these forms were actually abortions. Scientists disagree, explaining that in none of these cases was an embryo destroyed. But radical Christians have declared that human life begins at the moment of conception and therefore anything that interferes with the implantation of an embryo is an abortion. SCOTUS agrees with them, at least to the extent that the Court has declared these beliefs, although fallacious, must be respected. Therefore, Hobby Lobby does not need to carry health insurance that covers these forms of birth control.

The beliefs of the women whose health care bills may go up do not matter to SCOTUS. Their beliefs may be sincerely held, but they may still have to pay for their own medical care, because Hobby Lobby will not approve any form of contraception. Of course, when SCOTUS made the ruling, they said the employees would not suffer because Hobby Lobby only had to sign a form explaining their ethical position and return it to the government to escape their obligation.

On Monday, however, we learned that Hobby Lobby may not want to sign that simple form because Wheaton College has received special dispensation from SCOTUS because they claim that even signing a form is too great a burden for their consciences to contend with.

Signing a form is too great a burden. permitting an insurance company to make payments for contraceptives is too great a burden. SCOTUS only supports the Christian groups because the Justices making the ruling share their beliefs.

If anyone should deny that this is true, they should look at another ruling made by a Federal Court in Navajo v. US. In that case, Native Americans objected to drinking water contaminated by human waste because they sincerely believed it would cause "ghost disease". The Federal Court discounted the beliefs of Native Americans, even though the burden the government imposed was physical and real--the Natives Americans would have to drink water they believed was unclean and eat food that had been grown with irrigation from unclean water. The Court ruled this was not a burden for the Native Americans. But SCOTUS ruled that permitting another to make payments or being forced to sign a one-page form was too great a burden for Christians to bear. Judge for yourself whether this court does not favor one religion over another.

No doubt absolutist Christians are elated that SCOTUS has made their religion the law of the land. No one else should be happy about it.