31 December 2008

28 December 2008

Pitfalls on the Path to Zero

You can take this as an open letter to President-Elect Obama's senior Science Advisor, John P. Holdren, currently a professor of environmental science at Harvard University, and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I want to explore an idea he discussed in his Presidential address to the AAAS given last year: the idea that within two decades we can eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. He said:

S&T [Science and Technology] can contribute to achieving such progress in several ways: through technical advances that make verifying weapon-reduction agreements easier (and thus make agreeing to them easier); through other technical advances that make nuclear energy technology less likely to be used for nuclear weaponry and/or more likely to be detected if this happens; through applications of science and engineering to the task of reducing the dangers of accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, as well to the task of obviating any need for nuclear explosive testing of weapons, for as long as these still exist; and through S&T-based integrated assessments clarifying dangers and pitfalls on the path to zero and how to avoid them.

Think of this as a systems analyst offering a 10,000 mile high overview of what Holdren referred to as "those dangers and pitfalls on the path to zero."

I have seven observations to make from that perspective:

(1) In a world in which nobody "officially" has any nuclear weapons, the value of clandestinely having just a few becomes practically infinite. The incentive to cheat becomes irresistible strategic common sense for countries that feel threatened by their neighbors, but are unable to deter them by non-nuclear means. And this cheating could come either through indigenous S&T, or through prices to the likes of an A. Q. Khan network inflating almost without limit.

(2) As the nuclear umbrella of the United States folds up, the thirty-odd countries that are currently under it will take stock of their situation. Some of them will "go nuclear." Thus, although the total number of nuclear weapons may decline, they may be possessed by more and more countries. That is to say, the decline of the arsenals of the great powers may actually increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

(3) As Holdren notes, proliferation to more countries will mean that more countries have nuclear weapons without having experience in controlling and securing them. Let me amplify this point. Our experience helping Russia with nuclear materials protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) indicates that such activities are strongly influenced by geography and culture. As nuclear weapons are developed by more and more countries in response to the decline of the great power arsenals, there will be a wider variety of MPC&A practices for terrorist organizations (of which al-Qaeda is only one) to probe for weaknesses. The chances for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons may actually increase as we proceed along the path to zero.

(4) In a world where the great power nuclear arsenals decline below some trigger point, secondary powers may decide to sprint to parity or superiority. (Think of Pakistan realizing that it could surpass the US and Russian arsenals by ramping up production for a year or two.) This could lead to very unpleasant consequences, perhaps the best of which is a new multi-polar nuclear arms race.

(5) Suppose that all the forgoing obstacles are overcome, by almost magical means of surveillance and verification that work even with un-cooperative regimes, by preternaturally skillful diplomacy, etc. The result will be a world made safe for unlimited global warfare. Multi-state hot shooting wars, like World War I and World War II, could again be risked without fear of total annihilation. World War II resulted in the deaths of some 50 million people. Indeed, until the invention and shocking use of nuclear weapons, the number of people killed in wars had been rising exponentially. Eliminating nuclear weapons might cause a reversion to the status quo ante - more people might end up being killed in wars in a nuclear weapon free world than in a world with one or two large, stabilizing arsenals.

(6) From the forgoing it should be obvious that eliminating nuclear weapons will not make peace. It works the other way around. Making peace will eliminate nuclear weapons. (How long do you think North Korea's nuclear arsenal would last if there were genuine peace on the Korean peninsula, for example? I mean real peace, like what happened between the East and West Germany.) But eliminating nuclear weapons is conceptually easy. In essence it requires the ability to count. Making peace, by contrast, is hard. It can't be quantified precisely. It can't be measured. So far, it has even eluded precise definition by sociologists, the very people you'd think would be the experts on peace. Yet, if we do not make peace on earth as we eliminate nuclear weapons, we will simply create a less stable and more dangerous world than the one we have now.

(7) Finally, the whole issue of nuclear weapons may be "overtaken by events." What makes anyone think that the atomic nucleus contains the last word on explosive energy release? Of course, the theoretical physics for such a thing hasn't been discovered yet, but the physical limit on explosive energy release is out there for all astrophysicists to see. It's the Big Bang that began our universe. Now it is true that any explosive event more intense than a nuclear weapon will release the same forms of energy (x-rays, gamma rays, etc.) and it can therefore be treated as a nuclear weapon. That's true, technically. But quantity has a quality all its own. Nuclear weapons are about a million times more powerful by weight than chemical explosives. Can we really deal with another factor of a million? Or a million million? World culture is now such that S&T marches on. Genies will keep popping out of bottles they can't be put back in. Peacemaking is not an option. It is a necessity.

All of this is to say that the path to zero will be perilous, and must be tread with great care. Although the necessity of peacemaking tells us that we must start down that path, we do not yet know how to go very far along it, much less how we will finish.

May God help us.

27 December 2008

Canine Holiday Cheer

The most endearing thing about dogs is their capacity for unbounded enthusiasm and pure, unbridled joy.

As in this video, for example.

May joy be yours this Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa season.

25 December 2008

17 December 2008

Widgets and Sermons

Our multi-religion calendar script has achieved widgetude! You can now get it for your blog or website as a widget from WidgetBox.

It just doesn't get any easier than that.

We have also started a new blog, PostSermon, where we will pseudonymously post sermons that anyone submits. It's like PostSecret for those lay people, seminarians, and pastors who would like the venue to say what they really think. Within the wickets of the Revised Common Lectionary of course.

We hope to index the sermons by topic, Lectionary day, pseudonymn, title, and possibly other attributes. We hope for it to become a resource for many purposes, including for professional preachers to find out what people really want/need to hear.

10 December 2008

Honor, Shame and Resurrection

Shrinkwrapped has been blogging about Terrorism and the Narcissistic Trilogy, Part 1 and Part 2. He writes of tribal culture as being failed culture, unable to satisfy the needs of its members who have taken upon themselves the narcissistic injury that their culture is not economically and militarily competitive with Western culture.

The problem, however, is not that the cultures he identifies are tribal. Humans are by nature tribal, and all societies reflect that to some degree. The problem is that the "failed" cultures he writes of are honor/shame cultures in which power is honor and powerlessness is shame. It is the relative powerlessness of these cultures with respect to their neighbors that leads to intolerable shame that must be redressed by terrorist violence. It seems that honor/shame cultures amplify the defects of narcissistic personalities.

Can honor/shame cultures "grow out of" or "get over" their narcissistic injuries? Can they evolve into cultures based on something other than the honor/shame dichotomy? All the sources of Western culture ultimately go back to honor/shame cultures, including that of the ancient Greeks. Somehow the West did so evolve, but only through a series of catastrophes including WWII in which the obsession of the Nazi's with their narcissistic injury (defeat by the Allies in WWI) was thoroughly beaten out of them by the Allies in WWII. That is to say, sometimes cultural change must be brought about by total defeat.

We have only one example of a Middle Eastern honor/shame culture evolving into a successful modern culture - the Jews. But again, theirs is a 2500+ year long history of defeat, occupation, domination, dispersion, and finally an ingathering in their place of origin. That is how much it took to get a people to base their sense of self-worth on something other than their power over others, or even their ability to prevent others from having power over them.

Let us pray that the honor/shame cultures in which Islam has taken root will not require for their awakening an encounter with defeat as total as the Nazis or as prolonged as the Jews.

And then there is the event that stood the contemporary honor/shame culture of 1st century Judaism on its head. The Resurrection of Jesus after his humiliating execution. At the time, it was too much for an honor/shame culture to digest: the idea that the Almighty G-d would become an ordinary man, and suffer himself to be treated so badly simply does not compute in honor/shame cultures. G-d simply cannot be allowed to be humiliated. But Roman culture had already become accustomed to the idea that the right person does not always win, that power and wisdom, or power and righteousness can be two different things. Tragic heroes like Socrates prepared the way for this realization. And so Christianity had a much easier time spreading among the pagan Romans than among the Jews of Israel.

06 December 2008

Second Sunday in Advent

We had the chance to have a world better than the one we live in, and we turned it down. Here are my thoughts on Advent the season in which we Christians wait for what we are (apparently) afraid of.

04 December 2008

On the Making of Muslim Terrorists

Zakisamsudin has posted his thoughts on The Making of Muslim Terrorists. To begin, he points out that they should be called Muslim terrorists, but not Islamic terrorists, because terrorism is not Islamic. I thank him for the distinction.

He then theorizes that Muslim anger originates in fellow-feeling within the Muslim umma, in the desire to alleviate the oppression of Muslims in various places around the world. But I think he overlooks the effect of culture on shaping the outward expression of that desire.

For example, Coptic Orthodox Christians are oppressed in Egypt. The latest outrage has been anti-Christian rioting in Cairo that resulted in a Church being stormed by a crowd of Muslims. Yet, I do not feel motivated to burn a mosque, or to get a gun and shoot into a halal restaurant.

In my culture it is forbidden to make someone pay for a crime he or she did not commit. This came about because we have developed a system of justice in which it is reasonably likely that the individual perpetrators can be found and prosecuted.

In many honor/shame cultures, the system of justice is much more "lightweight." Without an elaborate network of police, judges, courts, and prisons (all very expensive) these cultures leave justice up to clans and families. Since apprehending the perpetrators is more of a problem, the problem is made easier by allowing any of the perpetrator's clan or family to bear the punishment if they can be caught. The idea that revenge can be sought against any and all of the members of another ethnic group, nation, or culture is a modern extension of this old concept.

I'm glad to see that Zakisamsudin has read Ed Husain's The Islamist. But again, the story is not just psychological but the coming together of culture and psychology. Specifically Ed fell into extremism because he was trying to forge an authentically Islamic adult identity that was different from his parents' and dramatically distinct from the cultural identity that was offered by Britishness. He was thus caught between his partial understandings and fantasies of Islamic and Western culture. In his effort to become a man under such circumstances, he went part way down the path of becoming evil. Fortunately for him and for all of us, his God-implanted sense of right and wrong asserted itself, and he turned back. In the end, Ed forms an identity that is simultaneously (1) authentically Muslim after the pattern of his parents and the Islamic scholars they revere, and (2) authentically British with its embrace of free speech, thought, and inquiry, and its sense of honor and fair play.

The point of all this is that Muslim terrorism is not entirely a psychological phenomenon. It must be understood in the context of culture as well. Religion plays a part, too, but more as an identity-badge, not as religion per se. After all, the terrorists' psychology and culture lead them to commit atrocities that are specifically forbidden by their religion, and at the same time to lie to themselves about it. They do that which is forbidden and feel themselves to be holy witnesses, to be martyrs.

28 November 2008

Mumbai: Change of Tactics

So, the siege of Mumbai is winding down. Coordinated teams have shot up a town instead of hijacking planes or planting improvised explosive devices. Instead of a quick bang, they managed to disrupt Mumbai for 60 hours (not quite 3 days). They came by sea, bypassing border guards. A new tactic to watch for.

The shooters were the same types we have seen before. Young males questing for their own identity, trying to prove to themselves and their God that they are worth something. Another atrocity carried out by boys who felt themselves to be second-class.

27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving and Screw the Islamofacists

O give thanks to the Lord for the Lord is good!

In this epoch of globalization it is hard to keep focussed on all the good around you when you are able to know about every nasty thing done in every far away place. The self-appointed soldiers for Islam have been at it again, shooting up hotels in Mumbai, India, and staging anti-Christian (Coptic Orthodox) riots in Cairo.

Well, screw all you who believe that you must dominate all others in the name of your religion.

I give thanks that I live in America, where I can be any kind of Christian I want, worship God as I see fit, and join in prayer and thanksgiving with American and visiting Jews, Muslims, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., who feel so inclined.

You whose vision of God is too small to accomodate that don't know what you're missing.

17 November 2008

Style in Doctrine and Covenants

Doctrine and Covenants is one of three sacred texts unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The other two are the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price.

One of the first things that strikes me about Doctrine and Covenants is that each entry is dated and located. If Joseph Smith were alive today, he would have posted those revelations in his blog. This sort of dynamic medium would have been in keeping with a Church that believes in ongoing revelation and an open canon.

Of course, an open canon can be pointed back at the believers, and indeed it is, as we read revelations that admonish Joseph Smith and his companions. Muslims can understand what this must have felt like, since the Qur'an contains passages that admonish the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions. In both cases the parties concerned had to deal with uncomfortable revelations that came upon them in real time.

The other thing that jumps out at me from D&C is that the language is the same as that of the Book of Mormon. That is to say, the same style of English rendering is used for revelations both ancient and modern. But then the translator of the BOM and the transcriber of D&C are the same person, Joseph Smith, Junior. Perhaps he received both the translation and the revelations as pure thought, and rendered them into the English that seemed most fitting to him. Apparently this is something like the Elizabethan English of the King James Bible, rather than the American vernacular of his day.

16 November 2008

Imported Posts

It may be hard for you to remember what it was like before the world was changed, but back in 2001 there weren't nearly as many blogs as there are today. In particular, I didn't have one. I began journaling my reactions to what eventually grew into the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) and posting them as essays in VCBC's Scriptorium.

Since they have the character of blog entries, I have now imported them into this blog with their (approximately) correct dates.

My actual first blog post here is dated 3 March 2005 and entitled, "Does God Have a Religion?"

15 November 2008

What not to do if you are a Republican

Here is a list of some things not to do if you are a Republican:

1. Speak platitudes about controlling spending and limiting government. You clowns didn't deliver when you had the chance, so why should we give you another? If you give a specific proposal or two, I'll listen. Otherwise, I may heckle.

2. Make Sarah Palin your next Presidential candidate just because she's an engaging speaker and a "Caribou Barbie." I'm fed-up with imagery. Four of the last five presidents have been long on image. I'd rate one as good and another as fair. Can we have substance, too?

3. Talk about values. I'm tired of values-talk. I want to hear concrete, achievable proposals that will implement those values. If I like a given proposal I'll support it. But you double-talking borrow-and-spenders don't get any more passes because you say you have values. In the last eight years much of your values have been negative, as measured say, by my portfolio.

4. Keep trying to take over the Federal judiciary in order to stop abortion. Abortion is only one sub-heading under a main topic called "Justice." All you have achieved is the longest backlog ever in the appointment of Federal judges, resulting in backlogs of federal cases.

5. Call for reform. You wouldn't know what to reform if it ran over you like a truck. Consider something minor, like the way Congress spends most of its effort in influence peddling rather than legislating. Or the way everyone in the US House of Representatives comes from a gerrymandered district. Together these two things paralyze our politics in a "Culture War" that serves only to distract everyone from anything too complicated. Again, specifics are welcome: tell us what you want to reform, how you want to do it, and what will be the effect of the reform. And make sure that reform starts with you.

6. Claim to be strong on defense. Military procurements can take 20 years and cost more than some of our recent wars. This is because military procurements are intimately bound up with Congressional influence peddling. And it threatens our ability to defend ourselves because it makes our defense technology unworkable, obsolete, and unaffordable. You didn't fix this when you had the chance - instead you made sure to benefit from it, as measured by contributions to your campaign coffers. I'm not saying that the Democrats didn't do it, too. But they aren't smug about being perceived as strong on defense.

7. Wrap yourselves in the mantle of religion. My favorite example of a politican who wrapped himself in his religion was Saddam Hussein. So, let's say you're a Christian. I'm glad of it. So am I. So what? There are over 2 billion Christians on earth to choose from. What I want to know is why I should vote for you.

I could go on, but it's late and my dog needs to be let out to pee. She is big, beautiful and very conservative. You may pet her, but you may not make her your standard-bearer.

14 November 2008

Fascism or Ignorance?

Here is a recent note by the Diesmeister:

As the Republican Party mulls its recent defeat and seeks the road forward, discordant notes emerge from leading conservative voices. Some have made useful calls for moderation, patience, or a refocus on core values. All of these are legitimate parts of a discourse for renewal. Amid these have appeared some articles which are either terrifying or merely tone deaf in precisely the register that presaged the most recent Republican debacle.

The National Review Online posted an article, Restoring Reaganism, by Deroy Murdock in which the author issued a call for the Republican Party to reenact a famous Nazi purge, which resulted in at least 80 deaths and 1000 arrests. Murdock wrote: “What the Republican party today badly needs is a Night of the Long Knives.” By this he meant the party should eliminate heretics from its ranks and return to the purity of conservative principles. We may charitably assume he did not advocate the actual murder of dissenting voices within party ranks.

The political merit of expelling moderate voices is dubious and the language used in this instance is reprehensible. Advocating a Night of Long Knives is terrifying for the intolerance and violence it implies. It is precisely intolerance which hung like an albatross about the neck of the Republican ticket. Does the conservative movement in America truly intend to invoke fascist images as it seeks renewal?

The timing for this article could hardly have been worse. According to the website it was posted the day after the 70th anniversary of another famous Nazi purge, Krystallnacht when about 100 Jews were killed outright and 30,000 more were sent to prison or into camps. We might forgive Mr. Murdock for not keeping a clear knowledge of important events in world history, but the editorial board of the National Review should not be excused for failing to make the connection. Surely someone must have the historical knowledge to recognize a singularly ill-timed reference.

Is the editorial board sufficiently comfortable with the images of fascism that neither the reference nor the timing struck them as ill-conceived. Given this editorial lapse will Mr. Murdock next deploy the image of Krystallnacht itself in some future paean of political wisdom?

12 November 2008

Small Groups

In my last post, I wrote about revitalizing the Church by making it more personal. The problem for those who have been (or who have yet to be) abused by clergy is that sometimes it can be too personal. Maybe one-on-one is not what our Lord and Savior has in mind.

Maybe having "love one to another," implies that the Church be organized in smaller, family or clan-sized groups. Neither anonymously corporate nor narcissistically individual. Enough of "us" that we really can afford to help each other in time of need, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and economically. Not so few of us that the fall of one can take down the group, not so many of us that we can't all know each other personally.

I wonder what that would be like. Maybe we should get back to style of the "primitive" church. Keep the corporate worship on Sunday (even though it was originally Saturday), and have the congregation break into small groups to meet in each other's houses one evening during the week for a light meal and a worship service led by whoever is hosting the group that evening. No written liturgy, no written music. Just whatever is in the memories of the group members. And the worship should include a check on how everyone is doing that week followed by a free-form mix of prayer, song, and group contemplation/discussion.

09 November 2008

How the Church Wounds its Members

Consider now the Gospel of our Lord. As he was about to be betrayed he said to his disciples:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. - John 13:34,35

But the Church has grown beyond little groups of people who met secretly in each other's houses. Back then love was real, person-to-person, because people really can love each other. Now the Church is a vast entity, composed of people who do not and cannot know each other. As such the Church members can love each other only in the abstract. The Church on earth is a corporate entity, and as I wrote earlier, corporate entities are incapable of love.

And so we have the paradox of the Church's successful growth from a threatened and insurgent movement to a triumphant organization whose global scope has shaped the arc of world history. It has grown into an entity that, as a whole, simply cannot fulfill its greatest commandment, the commandment by which all disciples of Christ should be distinguished - "that ye have love one to another." The Church can't do it as a whole.

As a whole, the Church does not have a limbic system to feel or express love. In that it is less like a mammal and more like a reptile. Or rather a serpent. The serpent rewards those whom it finds useful and at best discards those whom it finds threatening. One has only to remember what the Church once did to those deemed heretics for one example. Or the way it still tries to cow into silence survivors of sexual abuse by clergy for another.

Are we then to declare defeat by our own triumph and disband the Church, either by group decision, or by individually walking away? I think not. There is hope in the great commandment. Jesus did not say that the whole should love the part. He did not give an impossible commandment. He said "ye have love one to another."

What if the Church would recognize, in all humility, that it cannot fulfill the great commandment as a whole, and would therefore delegate the responsibility to individuals? What if, when dealing with an abuse survivor, the Bishop were under orders from the Church that he "should do what is truly loving toward this person, in the place of Christ and of His Church?"

You see, the money settlements are only a surrogate, a way of forcing the Serpent to attend to these matters. To the survivors they are just signals that the survivors have been heard. To the Serpent they are just a way of containing the damage that can be done by what have become "foreign bodies" who have enlisted the power of the State to help them.

But if instead of damage control, the Church were bent on delegating individuals to "have love one to another," the healing might begin.

And a new-yet-old way of reorganizing and revitalizing the Church might be invented.

The Corporation Cannot Love You

Do you love your company? Your government? Are you counting on either one to take care of you when the chips are down?

Think again.

According to psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, wrote a remarkable book entitled A General Theory of Love (2000), love in humans (and what behavioral psychologists call "attachment" in mammals) is mediated by the brain's limbic system. Mammals have this system, reptiles don't. That's why you can't get your pet snake to greet you as enthusiastically as your dog.

With regard to corporations they wrote:

A company has no limbic structure predisposing it to recognize its own as intrinsically valuable. People who extend fidelity and fealty to a corporate entity - legally a person and biologically a phantom - have been duped into a perilously unilateral contract.

Steeped as they are in limbic physiology, healthy people have trouble forcing their minds into the unfamiliar outline of this reptilian truth: no intrinsic restraint on harming people exists outside the limbic domain.

In other words, your corporation cannot love you. Neither can your government.

Something to bear in mind even when we elect officials of high ideals and soaring rhetoric.

07 November 2008

The Long View

Some 80,000 years ago modern humans began leaving Africa and settling the rest of the earth. We came to the end of that process only in the last century. The long term trend is for people to become ever more able to communicate and travel. The resulting homogenization is likely to culminate in the end of the nation-state as we know it.

The problem is that for the last 230 years or so, the nation-state, particularly the United States of America, has been the only earthly guarantor of individual liberty. By this I mean that we respect and enforce limits on what any group, including the nation-state, can do to any individual. (See the Bill of Rights for details.)

My solution is to be a partisan for individual civil liberty, to assert that it is a positive value for all people of all cultures and religions. My hope is that civil liberty will become so accepted and common as to be taken for granted all over the world. So that by the time the nation-state disappears, liberty will remain.

The problem is that, as the planetary society gets homogenized and crowded, as technology empowers individuals to do ever greater good or harm, as governments must therefore monitor individuals ever more closely, will we simply dumb down the concept of liberty to the point of being meaningless Newspeak?

In a free society the fundamental tension between the good of the collective and the good of the individual is never finally resolved. Going too far one way will crumble the society, and going too far the other will crush the individuals who make up the society.

And as we develop the biotechnological tools that will enable us to change what it means to be human, maintaining the balance between the individual and the collective will become ever more complicated, delicate, and difficult.

In a way, it's not my problem. I'm already middle-aged, and I have no progeny. But the rest of you will be sorry if you screw this up.

He Told Us So

See Setting the Record Straight, concerning Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the current economic meltdown.

06 November 2008

Nuclear Deterrence: A Britcom's View

First there's this:

And then there's this:

OK, they're funny. But they raise some serious questions. We'll see if the Obama Administration formulates and articulates a policy regarding the US nuclear deterrent. The Bush Administration never did, and the result was that Congress didn't approve a set of reliability, safety and surety upgrades to the US nuclear stockpile known as Reliable Replacement Warheads.

Over enough years, this will amount to dismantling our nuclear deterrent without our government making a deliberate decision to do so. Paradoxically, this will ill serve the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.

For example, if Japan were to think that it could not count on the US nuclear umbrella to protect it from China, or if Germany were to think that the US would not or could not protect it from Russia, what would they do? I think they would "go nuclear." That is, if we let our nuclear stockpile shrink without policy or plan, other countries may proliferate nuclear weapons as a response.

The question of "deterrence" is not as simple as the above Britcom videos make it seem. Deterrence needs to be seen as part of our Non-proliferation Treaty commitment to reduce the size of all the nuclear arsenals in the world, not just ours. It also needs to be set in the larger context of making world peace, not just making the it safer for conventional world war by eliminating nuclear weapons.

If it isn't obvious by now, eliminating nuclear weapons will not make peace. Making peace will eliminate nuclear weapons.

See also: Thoughts for the Nation.

The Working Rich

A New, Taxable Socioeconomic Class

You've heard about the "working poor." I would like to introduce a new socioeconomic class, the "working rich." These are people who are rich, as long as they're working. They are rich enough to pay the lion's share of the taxes in the United States, but not rich enough to buy their own politicians — and too few in number for their votes to make a difference. They are not to be confused with the rich, who are even less numerous, but who can make those big soft money donations, award those sinecures, and otherwise buy political influence, and who oppose tax cuts because (a) they've already bought their loopholes, and (b) they feel guilty about that part of their wealth that they haven't earned.

If you are not one of working rich, you still enjoy the benefit of having them work an extra 10 to 15 years so that they can fund your favorite social programs and still maintain their lifestyle in retirement. So, the next time you see someone who has worked their ass off to get and hold one of those really great jobs that pays good money, be thankful rather than envious. Whenever you want to take their money you and your fellow working non-rich citizens can tax them any way you like. You can even call it "taxing only the rich," to make yourself feel better. But the really rich won't pay a dime — that will be left to those who haven't quite made it, the working rich.

VCBC's Political Platform

A Work in Progress
2004, revised 2008

It is not enough to criticize Republicans (the party of rural districts) and Democrats (the party of urban districts). One must offer a positive agenda. I steal from both camps to gather the planks our DogPAC Political Platform, which I offer to any party that has the imagination to take them on.

Abortion. Write and pass a law providing limited use of abortion similar to the provisions of the Roe v Wade decision. This would move abortion out of the realm of mere judicial opinion, and free up the minds of Congress, the President, and the public to examine other criteria in the appointment of federal judges.

Affirmative Action. Bring it back, but base it on socio-economic class rather than race. This makes it fair, broadens its base of support, and plays to the American spirit of wanting to give the poor of any race, both native-born and immigrant, a leg-up into the middle class. To the extent that it works, it will also help poor people "buy into" middle-class American values.

Balanced Budget. Establish a feedback system for Congress and the White House in which the elected officials and their staffs forgo their pay when appropriations bills are late, and get pay cuts or bonuses depending on whether the federal budget shows a deficit or a surplus.

Bi-lingual Education. Bring it back, too, but stand it on its head. Require that every school-child demonstrate competency in at least two living natural spoken languages, one of which must be English, in order to advance beyond 6th grade. (If an immigrant kid is older than 6th grade, require that he or she demonstrate competency in English to advance beyond whatever grade he or she is in.) Use English-Immersion to teach immigrant kids (because it works best with most kids), with English-as-a-Second-Language classes available for those who want it. This will make America more immigrant-friendly: if you need a translator, just ask a kid. It will also make America more cosmopolitan — our whole population will be able to listen to and read non-English news broadcasts. We will also gain a broader class of international business people, and more people to work in foreign intelligence and defense for national security.

Defense. We need to execute the next revolution in military affairs — we need to build Thomas Barnett's "sysadmin" force that can move in and run a country after our Rumsfeldian fast strike force has knocked down its military and government. And we need to augment that force with a policy change — leave as many employees and administrators of the old system in place as possible, and supervise their training of replacements for the people that can't be left in place. We also need to change our policy of war and peace: we need to get involved in fewer wars, and to be much more forceful when we do get involved. Ever since WWII the US has fought wars by doing the moral equivalent of punching a man in the face hard enough to knock him down, and then helping him get up and waiting around until he hits us back. We need to do the equivalent of stepping on his neck, and then telling him to do what we say. This will be expensive, because we will have to invest in people - both in terms of a larger military and in terms of paying the locals until their tax base can support them.

Energy and Environment. Create a long-term bipartisan energy policy that provides progressively more energy for more Americans with fewer environmental consequences. Part of this means an all-out effort to solve two problems: the efficient conversion of sunlight to electricity, and the efficient, safe, and economical storage of hydrogen as a pollution-free fuel to power cars. How to distribute hydrogen? Don't! Distribute electricity generated from nuclear and solar power and use it to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen at the pump. That way we can cut pollution, decrease the human contribution to global climate change, and get the price of oil to fall — and as the price of oil goes down, the level of freedom in the Arab world will go up (because the governments there will have to turn to their populaces for money), which in turn will improve the quality of Islam and the peace of the world.

Free Trade. US jobs go overseas not because US wages are too high, but because non-US wages are too low. The American Labor Movement needs to internationalize itself and organize labor worldwide. The US government may be able to smooth the way a little, but the drive must come from labor itself.

Health care. Streamline the laws, regulations and procedures in order to reduce the administrative overhead costs of health care, and to reduce the time and cost of the process to develop, approve and distribute new medications. We need to develop a free market in health care by making most health-care outcome statistics (by facility, by practitioner) easily accessible public knowledge. We also need to develop an "assigned risk pool" in which all health-care insurers must participate in order to do business in this country. And yes, it needs to cover the cost of health care and mental health care for the indigent, the working poor, and aliens, legal and otherwise. It's just bad public health policy to let groups of people be sick — i.e., reservoirs for emerging diseases. We should also develop a list of diseases endemic to the developing world, that major pharmaceutical companies must work to cure or prevent, in order to participate in the US market, and encourage all other countries to do the same. Also, a technical detail: we need to develop a uniform electronic medical care record that will follow a person anywhere in the world.

Homeland Security. Let's encourage cities to figure out how to help neighborhoods defend themselves (with the aid of the police and other departments) and use federal funds to propagate the successful models (community policing, Neighborhood Watch, etc.). Let us reinforce the practice of busting local criminals on local charges who may be involved in supporting or committing terrorism. We also need to leverage work to reduce the consequences of natural disasters (epidemics, etc.) to "shrink the targets" we present to international terrorists.

Homelessness. Put more money and people into setting up and running group homes with psychiatric and social services. This is what we said we would do in the 1950s when we began shutting down large state-run mental institutions. We did not follow through. The result was a surge in both the homeless and the prison populations. Of course we would need to require that residents get and stay clean of drugs and alcohol.

Illegal Drugs. Legalize them just like we legalized alcohol, in order to drain the profit out of the drug trade. But create a "bottom tier" of health care for people who are addicted to them. This would emphasize drug and alcohol rehab and palliative care, the goal being to minimize the lifetime cost of care.

Immigration. We need to work with the government of Mexico to create a special status that recognizes and helps the population that washes back and forth across the US-Mexico border. We also need to work with US and Mexican employment agencies to arrange transportation, housing and employment for temporary (or guest) workers. That way the employment agencies pocket the money that currently goes to criminal organizations that smuggle people into the US. In other words, we should try to regulate the flow of immigration, which could be profitable for all concerned, rather than to stop it, which could be both costly and impossible.

Nuclear Weapons. We need to recognize that the abolition of nuclear weapons will not make peace, rather, making peace will lead to the abolition of nuclear weapons. To test this proposition, let's start by working to end the decades old state of war on the Korean peninsula. And until there is peace on earth, let us commit to keeping the US nuclear arsenal safe, secure, and sustainable.

Space. Return the US space program to exploring our solar system using robots and space-based robotic telescopes. Redirect the manned space program to spend most of its efort developing (both internally at NASA and externally by means of grants and competitions) a way to get humans safely to Low Earth Orbit and back to the ground for less than $100 US per pound of body weight. This would re-vitalize space science, spur developments in robotics, and make manned space exploration commercially viable.

Welfare to Work. Its a great idea for many people, but let's streamline it so that it gets people on their economic feet without wasting their time trying to figure out the bureaucracy. Let's also make sure that the bureaucracy provides "one-stop-shopping" for access to all the support a prospective or beginning wage-earner needs: including but not limited to child and elder care, health care, help with managing and planning finances, arranging transportation, social services, psychological services, marriage counseling, parenting counseling, drug rehabilitation services, etc. Let's remove all disincentives to getting and staying married, while we are at it.

05 November 2008

President Obama, Bearing our Hope

I have had my apprehensions about Barack Obama becoming President of the United States. He has run as the candidate upon whom we can project almost whatever hopes (or fears) we want. Sort of like a more intellectual and aware Chauncey Gardner from the movie Being There.

But I listened to his acceptance speech, and I saw Jesse Jackson genuinely teary-eyed. Forty years ago Jackson was close by when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Forty-four years ago black people were not able to exercise their right to vote in many parts of the country. Back then a common theme of the Civil Rights Movement was the song whose words included, "We shall overcome some day."

In Barack Obama's election to the presidency, that day is dawning.

I can only hope that Mr. Obama will be as great a president as his rhetoric indicates he means to be. I hope he is better than both his supporters and his detractors can imagine. But whatever happens politically, his election has to improve the sociology of this country. Children of color now have another real hero in whose footsteps they might hope to follow. And that has to be a very good thing for all of us.

03 November 2008

Yes on 11: Anti-Gerrymandering

On the ballot in California is Proposition 11, an attempt to take the drawing of state legislative districts out of the hands of elected legislators. Instead an independent commission would draw up the boundaries.

Look, it's not a perfect proposition. But our current system amounts to the foxes guarding the henhouse. Our legislators draw up the district boundaries to keep themselves in power. It's called gerrymandering, and it is a crime against your liberty and your right to have your vote count for something.

Take a look at the various district boundaries. And if you're in California, vote YES on prop 11.

If we don't fix the gerrymandering problem, our esteemed representatives will have little motivation to fix anything else of importance.

A Religion of Second-Class Boys

Review: The Islamist
Why I joined radical Islam in Britain,
what I saw inside and why I left

Ed Husain
Beware of extremism in religion; for it was extremism in religion that destroyed those who went before you. — The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
In contrast to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ed Husain was born into Islam, and raised by his parents (first generation immigrants from India and Bangladesh to the UK) with a good foundation in traditional Islamic spirituality. They followed a well-established spiritual teacher, who had followed a teacher before him, and so on, ostensibly back to the Prophet and his Companions. His earliest secular educational experiences also seem to have been pleasant, thanks to liberal "colour-blind" British schoolmarms. But to many "native" Brits, including some of his schoolmates, he was still a bespectacled "Paki." He did not "fit in." Neither did he fit in with the Bollywood enamored Bangladeshi boys at his next school. Fitting in with one's peers is the externalization of the inward quest for identity. When one is young "Who am I?" and "Who will have me?" are two faces of the same coin. The coin which with you can be seduced to sell your soul.

Ed decided to strike out in his own direction. He asked his school if he could study Religious Education after hours to learn more about Islam. Eventually a sympathetic Church of England British teacher took on the project using as a text Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sawar. It contained a remarkable passage, which Ed quotes
Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam. They are intertwined. We already know that Islam is a complete system of life ... Just as Islam teaches us how to pray, fast, py charity and perform the Haj, it also teaches us how to form a state, run a government, elect councillors and members of parliament, make treaties, and conduct business and commerce.
This text was still being widely used in the UK as a "moderate" textbook, and the opinion voiced in the above paragraph is taken as obvious truth by the UK and Western press generally. But Ed, a born Muslim, was surprised by this paragraph when he first read it, and would later be able to de-bunk it. It turns out that Sawar was not a religious scholar, but a business management lecturer, and a sympathizer with if not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami, two radical Islamist organizations dedicated to the establishment of a world-wide "Islamic State." Such a concept is touted as being straight from the Prophet and his Companions, but it is really a graft from Marxism onto Islamic Fundamentalism, which is itself bida, a modern innovation in reaction against modernity.

Under the influence of Brother Falik, the first real friend he ever had, Ed joins a mosque that has been taken over, "colonized" as it were, by Jamat-e-Islami, to the horror of his traditionalist Muslim parents. The method of colonization relied on the innocent sounding Young Muslim Organization. No pious bearded old men to interfere here - just cadres of activist youth organizing events to proselytize for the radical Islamism of the Jamat-e-Islami. JI's intellectual founder is Abdul Ala Mawdudi, a Pakistani journalist, who "translated the Koran according to his own whims, without reference to or within the paradigm of classical Muslim scholarship." Mawdudi "rebranded" Islam as an ideology instead of a religion, and founded the JI to market his concept. It has since sold well to Muslim youth, who in their adolescent rebellion against their parents and their societies, are received into radical Islam.

In college, Ed left Falik and Jamat-e-Islami to join the even more militant Hisb-ut-Tahrir, which is organized into small cells, like the European Red Brigades of the 1970s and 1980s. Ed describes how the Hizb use Marxist agitation-propaganda techniques to colonize other Muslim organizations, all the while using innocent sounding names and never their own. Banned in Pakistan and the Middle East for its violence-inciting rhetoric, Hisb ut Tahrir and organizations like it flourish in the free societies they condemn. (They see the Western concept of indifidual freedom as sin, an exaltation of self-will over God's will.) The Hisb, it turns out draws its inspiration from works by Hasan al-Banna, Syed Qutb and others who elaborated on Mawdudi. None of these men is a recognized Islamic scholar, and all of them knowingly or unknowingly grafted onto Islam categories of nihlist and anti-rationalist thought they absorbed from the West that they hated so much.

Ed's journey out of radical Islam bgan with a murder committed by one of his radical friends. His internal moral sense (which radical Islamists denigrate - how dare you judge God!) caused him to be repelled by the actuality of the violence his own rhetoric extolled. Gradually, he comes under the influence of real Islamic scholars and historians, and returns to the traditional Islam of his parents. Sojourns in Syria and Saudi Arabia confirm to him the misery of existence in societies that approximate the "Islamic State." He also discovers his Britishness: all his life he had taken basic human rights and basic fairness for granted, out of habit. British habit, it turns out.

Ed ends up discovering his own identity as simultaneously authentically Muslim and authentically British. He thus embodies Islam augmented not by the worst ideas of the West, but by the best. Like liberal democracy and freedom of religion, including the freedom of Muslims to be Muslim as inspired by God rather than as dictated by some self-aggrandizing "authority."
Ultimately, identity is the central theme of Ed's journey into and out of radical Islam. He had formed a youthful identity as a second-class Brit, and was drawn to radical Islam's promise to make him instantly a first-class citizen of the nascent Islamic State. Thus he exposes radical Islamism as a religion of second-class boys.

02 November 2008

No on 8: Let Gays Marry

There is a ballot proposition in California that, if passed, will attempt to nullify California's state Supreme Court decision to recognize same-gender marriages. First, even if it passes, it will probably be ruled unconstitutional by the same court. But more importantly, extending the legal protections and obligations of marriage to same-gender unions is a way of protecting the children these people have adopted. Or did you not know that adoption by same-gender couples is legal?

So, until someone can convince me that someone else's same-gender marriage in any way diminishes or demeans my thirty-plus year different-gender marriage, I will vote NO on Proposition 8 and anything like it. And I don't want some theoretical argument - I want a step-by-step demonstration of the mechanism by which my marriage will be so diminished or demeaned.

01 November 2008

It Takes a Tribe to Raise a Teen

I remember Hillary Rodham Clinton asserting that, "It takes a village to raise a child." And various right-wing commentators saying "No, it takes a family."

I have a alternate aphorism. It takes a tribe.

From infancy to adolescence the formative unit in the child's experience is indeed the family. But modern society progressively dis-empowers the family with regard to controlling the child's reality. First there are public and private schools, which teach in loco parentis, in the place of the parents. Unless you home-school, the state begins driving a wedge between your experience and your child's in Kindergarten.

This was not much of a problem in small, insular communities where everyone knew everyone else, and mothers stayed home. The gossip network was all it took to keep tabs on your kids. And your informal network of acquaintances, from neighbors to the police, could give a lot of support when it came to discipline. But, in parallel with the feminist movement's successful integration of women into the workplace came the economic necessity for families to do so. The result was that in the 1980's an anti-drug slogan circulated asking, "It's five o'clock - do you know where your children are?" Families began losing their grip on their kids at earlier and earlier ages.

As this was going on, technology made possible a mass media-culture, which promptly mutated into the world's first mass youth-culture. Youth-culture provided an identity-group, a tribe, in which adolescents could do what adolescents must always do - develop an identity that is their own instead of their parents'. Their first way-station to becoming their own persons is the tribe. The tribe used to be local, civil society, which exerted a powerful influence toward adopting the values that would sustain civil society, which were more or less the values of the parents.

But the youth-culture offered a tribe that had more tenuous connections to society-sustaining values. And then, another technological revolution brought the fragmentation of mass-media and mass-culture. Now you can see a group of ten kids with ten iPods listening to ten different genres of music at the same time. As there are now a plethora of music genres, there are a plethora of youth cultures, sub-tribes waiting to receive the adolescent, to be consumed by the adolescent, to reward the adolescent for consumption, and eventually to consume the adolescent. The result is the relative (to past history) dis-enfranchisement of parents when it comes to shaping the development of their adolescent children.

Some of these sub-tribes are beneficial or at least benign. Some are not, like criminal gangs, extremist groups, and radical-religious terrorist cells. In their combination of false confidence that they know what they are doing and their fear of being rejected by their chosen tribe, adolescents are primed by nature to fall prey to seductive yet superficial ideologies. Ideologies that offer a quick fix to the problems of identity and maturity: help kill the Zionist occupiers and be a man, kill them yourself and be a hero, get killed killing them and be a martyr.

What civil society lacks is a deliberate and lengthy "tribal" initiation into adulthood. To the extent that we fail to provide it, our kids will find tribes of their own. And some of them are profoundly uncivil.

I write these thoughts in the abstract, but I have a concrete example in mind. It is the autobiography of Ed Husain, a British-born Muslim of Indian/Pakistani descent, entitled The Islamist, reviewed here.

29 October 2008

Update on Clergy Sexual Abuse

"It's not uncommon for pedophiles to gravitate toward jobs and professions that give them access to children," said a psychologist friend of mine. "We see them become, or try to become teachers, priests, that sort of thing."

I can imagine a pedophile, in denial about his tendency, being drawn to the priesthood. Once a priest, he abuses a child and is found out by another priest, who protects him. But why is he protected? Perhaps the other priest is a pedophile who has thus far successfully resisted temptation, and feels that "there but for the grace of God go I." Perhaps the other priest is just trying to protect the institution on which he has come to depend for his livelihood. Even worse, perhaps neither priest is in denial, and they both sought the priesthood with malice aforethought. I do not know.

Nowadays I imagine that the Church seeks professional help in evaluating and eliminating candidates for such tendencies, but again I don't know.

I do know that the abuse of parishoners, especially young ones, by clergy can be devastating. Kay Goodnow has contributed the text of her deposition to a mediator concerning her experience of clergy abuse.

Have a read. The church settled out of court, meeting the monetary settlement, but reneging on the non-monetary provisions. Much like what one would expect of a business, rather than what one would expect of a church that professes to care about the well-being, the souls of its members.

27 October 2008

Obama on Redistribution of Wealth

Before you vote, listen to this radio interview given by Barack Obama in 2001.

Obama sounds like my college professor talking about "redistributive justice" in a Modern Political Theory seminar. Theoretical discussions in an academic setting are meant open our minds. But in politics, ideas have real consequences.

What we need to redistribute fairly in our society is the opportunity to create or amass wealth, not wealth itself. Congress already taxes our income and redistributes our money as it sees fit. But there comes a point where redistribution blunts the initiative of those who would otherwise create wealth. The more driven of them simply leave for better opportunities in other societies. That's how we got so many talented immigrants to come to America. Too much redistribution of wealth would reverse that flow by diminishing opportunity.

Does Barack Obama know this?

25 October 2008

President Obama, the Second Coming of FDR

Before you get too excited, take a look at this minority opinion of what happened back then, Great Myths of the Great Depression, by Lawrence W. Reed, Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He can't be entirely right, of course, but then he may not be entirely wrong, either.

You might also want to plot your salary, deflated by the Consumer Price Index over your entire career. That will let you know how hard it is to get ahead by working for a wage. If you really want a stark view, do the same plot with your after-tax income.

Now, financially speaking, do you need more help, or less hindrance?

22 October 2008

Obama may be about to win

I tuned into NPR during the evening commute and wow! They carried two pieces in a row that were complimentary to John McCain. Maybe they have an interest in making the election more of a nail-biter for both sides. But I suspect that they are belatedly thinking about burnishing their reputation for even-handedness, and are pretty sure that it's too late in the campaign for any nice words about McCain to do any serious damage to Obama's chances.

Real Estate may be about to go up

An acquaintance told me that her friend can't buy a foreclosed property in Antioch, CA for cash. The friend made an offer that met the bank's price, but now the bank doesn't seem to be able to get around to processing the transaction. My acquaintance thinks the bank may have let its experienced people go and hired younger, cheaper people to replace them. The young folks don't know what they're doing, so the bank slows down and the paperwork piles up.

I'm not so sure. It's more likely that the bank thinks the local real estate market is about to go up in the next couple of months, and is delaying the sales of foreclosed properties in hope of getting higher prices. It's playing dirty against the friend with the cash, but for the rest of us, it's a hopeful sign.

21 October 2008

Too Many Laws

I was wondering how many federal laws are on the books, so I Googled the topic, and find that nobody seems to know. The official site for the United States Code doesn't even let you ask that question. Ditto for the Code of Federal Regulations. The former contains the body of permanent US Federal laws, and the latter contains the body of permanent US Federal regulations issued by various agencies of the Executive branch of government. There must be a lot, and I doubt that it would make interesting reading.

I wondered about this because I was riding BART recently and noticed a sign over a bench stating that "FEDERAL LAW REQUIRES THIS SEAT TO BE GIVEN TO HANDICAPPED PERSONS." It's a perfectly reasonable and humane piece of legislation. But BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which does not extend beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. The entire system is contained within a few counties of the State of California. Couldn't it have been a State law that requires handicapped persons be given access to that bench? Or better yet, couldn't people simply observe common civility if simply reminded, as in "Please give this seat to handicapped persons?"

My point is that we have too many laws, and too many of them are federal laws. And then there is federal spending. The quantity of it is not as important as its coming in an awful lot of very small chunks, the so-called "earmarks" that make the annual body of Federal appropriations bills exceed the length of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What we have is a federal government that is trying to do too much, to rule and spend at too fine a level of detail. Our government must pay attention to ten million things, and so can't pay attention to anything for long, even if it is important. And since the most important things can be painful to deal with, some of them don't get any attention at all.

Now if you're a business executive and find yourself similarly overwhelmed, you fix it by hiring good subordinates and delegating responsibility to them. To some extent the President and Congress have done that by creating Federal Agencies to make regulations for them, and Congress has built a large Congressional staff to do its real business. But those have only enabled the retention of too much detail at the Federal level: the Agencies have grown and proliferated and gotten into everybody's knickers, and Congress has become a clearinghouse for influence peddling.

Fortunately, there exists another level of government that can lift this burden from them - the States. And States can be relieved of the need to manage excess detail by the Counties and Cities.

At least that was what I was taught in Civics class, back the previous century. Maybe they don't teach Civics anymore.

18 October 2008

The Face of Pain

A decidedly Democratic friend of mine gave me his reaction to the last televised encounter between the two presidential candidates. "Did you get a load of John McCain's face during those debates?" he asked. "Those quirky expressions? That grin that looks like a grimace? You'd think the guy was in some kind of pain or something."

"He is in pain," I said. "Chronic pain. He probably hasn't had a pain-free minute since he got shot down over Vietnam. A few broken bones, some torture, some scarring that leads to nerve damage, and the man has a certain level of constant, chronic pain. He probably doesn't take the cocktail of drugs that John Kennedy took. But like Kennedy, some amount of pain and physical disability are part of his life."

My friend wasn't taken aback in the slightest. Maybe you aren't either.

But it strikes me that when you see a candidate on television, you also see a lot of what you bring to the picture. My friend saw quirky facial expressions that he found a little scary. I barely noticed them. Maybe because I see them in the mirror every now and then.

15 October 2008

Right and Wrong on Energy

Yes, we are in a short-term (a few years) financial crisis. The slowdown in the housing market created a shockwave in the credit markets due to the securitization of too many bad loans, which had been pushed on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the Clinton Administration, which wanted to extend the opportunity of home ownership to classes of Americans who were previously underrepresented among homeowners, in itself a laudable goal, even if the approach is proving to be self-defeating. The following Bush Administration was distracted by need to pump up the economy with cheap money (low interest rates) after the slump following the 9/11 attacks. This accelerated the run-up in housing prices, which was stopped only when the average American family could no longer afford to buy the average American home. In other words, both parties get the blame on this one.

But we face a long-term financial crisis caused by our inability to produce our own energy. Again, we turn to the Clinton Administration, which cancelled the Integral Fast Reactor. The IFR is able to take almost any fissionable material as its initial fuel, including natural (unenriched) uranium, spent nuclear fuel, and weapons grade uranium or plutonium. Whatever the fuel, it burns it up leaving only short-lived "fission fragments" that decay within days to a few decades. The long-lived radioisotopes like plutonium are simply burned up to create energy. And the IFR is passively safe (meaning without the intervention of electronics or active systems). In the case of a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) the IFR simply shuts down and uses natural conduction and convection to reject its waste heat. In hindsight, it's hard to believe that the Clinton Administration cancelled the IFR and that the Bush Administration did not revive it.

To be fair, the IFR is not a panacea for the world. Given non-plutonium fuel, it first breeds plutonium, which it then burns up. IFR proponents claim that since the bred fuel contains really hot (radioactively and thermally) fission fragments, the bred fuel would be "self-protecting." However, I think a nation-state sufficiently determined to extract the plutonium before it gets consumed could build robots that could handle that fuel.

Now there is another concept that could generate similar amounts of clean, safe energy - LIFE, or Laser Ignition Fusion Fission Energy. The idea is to use lasers to implode a pellet of deuterium/tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) fuel, causing it to undergo fusion, which yields helium and neutrons. The neutrons irradiate a blanket of fissionable fuel (the same fuels as IFR) which breed up to plutonium, which then burns up to provide energy.

Both concepts drastically reduce the need for burial of waste in a facility like Yucca Mountain. Both offer the possibility of completely destroying excess nuclear weapons material. Both could produce huge amounts of energy without the possibility of nuclear meltdowns. It's time to pursue them, together with the technologies that will enable ground transportation to operate on either the electric power these reactors could produce, or the hydrogen that the electricity could be used to make.

We need to stop sending $7B to countries hostile to our interests to buy petroleum, only to burn it up and dump the excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And new reactor technologies like IFR and LIFE are the way to do it.

The difference between Obama and McCain is that nuclear power is a minor component of Obama's plan. It is a centerpiece of McCain's plan. In that Obama is wrong and McCain is right. There is just no way to concentrate the energy of non-nuclear sources enough to provide the power that America and the world will need in the long term. (Not because we haven't invented the ways to concentrate them - it is thermodynamically impossible to do so, for reasons similar to why it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine.)

The world knows this. The rest of the developed countries in the world have built or will build safe, clean nuclear power plants, whether we do or not. If we do not, we will fall behind economically, making future generations of Americans ever poorer with respect to the rest of the world. We will no longer be able to champion the advance of liberal democracy, and will have to rely on the good will of others. As you look at the others around the world, this prospect should not inspire your confidence.

14 October 2008

Why is Bin Laden still alive?

The most frustrating things about Usama Bin Laden are that he is still alive (most likely), and still at large. I use the transliteration "Usama" because it renders his initials as UBL, which can be pronounced "übel," the German word for "evil." As is usual for fugitive cases, his continued liberty depends on who is hiding him and who is hunting him.

If indeed he is somewhere in the mountainous part of Pakistan that borders on Afghanistan, he is protected by the local population, who probably regard him like we regard a popular celebrity. This is in stark contrast to the situation of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. By the time we caught Saddam, he had no friends, and one of his enemies turned him in. We had military "boots on the ground," in Iraq, indeed, all over the ground for a time, and we still needed a tip to get Saddam. By mutual agreement, we do not have military boots on the ground in Pakistan. But even if we did, finding UBL would still be extremely difficult. So much for who is hiding him.

If you think about it, there are probably two US organizations hunting him: the CIA and the US Military. The US Military has a custom that may impede their effort to "find, fix, and finish" UBL - soldiers change duty stations every couple of years. To get UBL or any other fugitive, you either need a lucky break, or you need a team of the best dedicated, talented professionals available, and you need to keep them on the assignment until the job is done. They need to spend years getting to know their quarry, the terrain both geographic and social, and on, and on, and on. There is a lot to know, if you don't get lucky. If you want to get a feel for the problem, just watch HBO's "The Wire." The hunters keep getting taken off the trail by political, economic, and social forces. They are frustrated because every time they get close to making a difference, they are disbanded. By the time they regroup, the game has changed.

The CIA may do better, but one wonders how they reward people who do the same job year after year and still come up empty-handed. Their top guy published a book summarizing what can be known from open sources, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America, shortly before he retired. It may be that those who want a successful career just move on after a while.

But if Bin Laden is in Pakistan, how did he get there? Recall that the Bush Administration tried to court world opinion (including that of the Islamic world) by using minimal force to invade Afghanistan. The US used its troops to tip the balance of power between the Taliban and the other local militias. That was all it took to crumble the Taliban regime. But in a region where warfare is a way of life, one seldom seeks to destroy one's enemy. After all, the shoe may be on the other foot on another day. And thus, according to local custom, top al-Qaeda leaders were allowed to escape. It was not a deliberate choice of the US, but simply due to our relying on local fighters without our knowing the local way of war. Had we unleashed the Rumsfeldian blitzkrieg on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, we might have gotten Usama instead of Saddam.

Now, getting UBL will require us to implement and maintain a slow, careful, painstaking, patient counter-insurgency strategy. From their rhetoric, it seems to me that Mr. McCain understands what that is, while Mr. Obama hasn't a clue (although he will probably be a quick enough study, one hopes). If you're curious, see John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, or better yet, his new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that he wrote with Generals David H. Petraeus and John F. Amos.

Make no mistake about it, the Bush Administration has been trying to get Usama Bin Laden for a long time. But along the way, "mistakes were made." Let's hope the next administration will learn from them before changing course. Again.

10 October 2008

Chaos and Control

Maybe it's appropriate to remember the two opposed espionage organizations in the old TV series, "Get Smart," when one thinks of the financial markets. But what we have here is an attempt by regulatory organizations around the world to control the the global financial chaos. Many of the measures the regulators take will be helpful. But none of them will "work" in the strict sense of that word, because the event loop of the markets moves faster than the control loop of the regulators. That's what control theory says.

To make that more concrete, let me give you an example: Suppose I give you a Maserati, but I have rigged it so that its brakes, accelerator, and steering won't react to anything you do for fifteen seconds after you do it. You wouldn't last fifteen seconds trying to drive a car that powerful before wrecking it. Unless you were suicidal, there is no chance you would get into that car.

But many of us got into the stock, real estate, or financial markets. (Because over the long run all other investments fail to keep up with inflation. See the Motley Fool for details.)

The stock and credit markets move on a time scale of minutes (due to programmed trading among other things) while the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Treasury and other regulatory agencies move on a time scale of weeks. In the strict control theory sense, the markets are out of control and have been out of control for about two decades. The only hope for the regulators to get on top of things is to slow down the event loop of the markets to a human pace - to place an indefinite moratorium on both naked short selling and programmed trading.

But that itself might have unforeseen consequences. As I said here and there, nobody really knows how the markets really work, because nobody has really tried to do a rigorous stability analysis of the markets, backed up by, say a detailed and large agent-based simulation.

So buckle your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

09 October 2008

Nightmares of God: Theodicy, Miracle, and Analysis

Previously I wrote that Universe resembles a vast web of self-consistent thought, a kind of cosmic dream. But that raises the question of theodicy : if the dream is dreamed by the Abrahamic (Jewish/Christian/Islamic) God who supposedly loves His creation and His creatures, why is so much of the dream a nightmare?

The short answer is that you wouldn't take life seriously if it never hurt, or if those hurts could be fixed.

The universe imposes on us the discipline that actions have consequences, yours and everyone else's. And for actions to have consequences, there must be an arrow of time so that what is done cannot be undone. And for us to be unconstrained in our actions with respect to God - for us to have free will to experience those consequences - there must be cause and effect. The cosmic dream must be mathematically consistent. Miracles must be so rare as to be almost non-existent (a set of measure zero) compared to the set of all other events in the universe.

At least, that's my explanation for accidents and disasters - the kinds of thing philosophers used to call Natural Evil - and for the scarcity of miracles to provide relief and rescue from them.

Human evil - the ways in which we make each other miserable - is another story. Specifically, it is our story, the part of the cosmic dream that we make up. Couldn't we just dream something else?

Have you ever had a nightmare, and while you were having it, tried to just dream something else? Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes not. When you can't, the nightmare has you in its terrifying power. But that power is your power, because you are the dreamer. Maybe nightmares are your attempt to practice/process how to deal with your real fear in an unreal setting - safe fear. But the point is that the dream both is and is not under your control. You both make up what's coming next and are surprised by it. And most often you are stuck with it.

Does God, in whose Image we are made, also separate Himself into the Dreamer and the Experiencer of the Cosmic Dream? Does the Father know, while the Son must guess?

And then there is the question of how much we participate in dreaming the cosmic dream. Tom Ogden writes of the "psychoanalytic third," that part of the interaction that belongs neither to the analyst/therapist nor to the patient/client but to both when they are together, and leaves vestiges of itself in each when they are apart. The "third" is the field of interaction, where the real work of therapy is sparked, where the therapist and client lower their barriers to each other and risk being absorbed. Is the Holy Spirit a kind of psychoanalytic third that is arises between us and God when we experience God's presence? Is this how God enables us to re-dream ourselves, to experience conversion?

Is the Son how God experiences with us the nightmare side of the Father's Cosmic Dream, and the Spirit how God heals us of its evil?

And what about you know who?

Campaign Comparison

Obama vs McCain, or Star Power vs Leadership as Serving those who follow? You decide.

06 October 2008

Mormonism is Christian and then some

Just as I wade into Doctrine and Covenants, I pick up this month's issue of First Things and find a point-counterpoint article by Bruce D. Porter and Gerald R. McDermott entitled, "Is Mormonism Christian?" And tonight on PBS they are broadcasting, The Mormons, a four-part series. Guess I'll have to watch.

In the meantime, the First Things article supplies an answer to my earlier question about whether Mormons believe God is omnipotent. The word "omnipotent" is used as a title of Jesus Christ by the prophet-king Benjamin in Mosiah 3:17, The Book of Mormon.

05 October 2008

Who is the Dreamer who Dreams the Dream?

Everywhere I turn, I seem to hear or read about how science has caused the "disenchantment" of the world, an opinion usually held by those who think this is a good thing. Yet underneath their confidence, they seem a little angry and disappointed, as if someone had stolen the magic of their childhood - and if they can't have the magic, then by golly, neither can anyone else.

They think the real world, the ordinary world, is simply a web of causes and effects that, if we ever learn enough, we will be able to untangle. The universe (or multiverse) is self-existent, and everything that happens in it is inevitable, at least in a statistical sense.

Western (and increasingly world) culture has come to this conclusion based two ideas. The first is an understanding of physics that has its origin in the mechanics of Isaac Newton (1643-1727), in which time and space were regarded as a fixed background in which the motion of anything was perfectly predictable (and retrodictable) provided one knew its position and velocity at some instant.

Physicists and laymen alike, now hear this: We've known for a century now that this idea of the world is only a gross approximation to how it actually works. Basing your epistemology (way of knowing) on it is like building a house of sand just as the hurricane arrives.

The other idea is that anything that cannot be measured (subjected to repeated, precise observation at our will) is not real. As I have discussed elsewhere, this is pure hubris and almost certainly false. And yet, it took hold of academic culture deeply and pervasively. At the height of our cultural infatuation with this idea, experimental psychologists declared that personality did not exist, which everyone now knows is false on its face. Personality is a non-quantifiable, immeasurable phenomenon that we encounter constantly.

The actual relationship between measurability and reality is this: If I can measure it, it is real. If I can't measure it, all I can say is that either I don't know how to measure it (yet), or it may be immeasurable in principle. I can't legitimately claim it doesn't exist, unless I can prove that it doesn't exist, and immeasurability alone is not proof. But since I can't offer a scientific explanation of anything I can't measure, my own hubris tempts me to sweep it out of my mental image of the universe.

So if the popular idea of the scientific world view is outdated and wrong, then what is the modern scientific world view as of today? For that we turn to theories of Quantum Information. What emerges from them is a consensus that every physical interaction is an exchange of so many bits of information. Indeed the emerging connection between fundamental physics and information theory makes the universe resemble not a machine, but an enormous, detailed, and mathematically self-consistent web of thought.

A dream.

"From desire start the skandhas, which resemble a dream," goes an old Hindu/Buddhist saying. Which leads us to ask, abusing the title of Grotstein's tome on psychology, who is the dreamer who dreams the dream? Hindus believe the dream dreams itself. Buddhists believe that you are the dreamer. Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe the dreamer is God.

In the great dream of things, these ideas are not necessarily incompatible.

03 October 2008

The Sound of the Answers

Listen to the next McCain-Obama so-called debate. (I can't call it a debate, because I was on my high school debate team, and the format we went through was a lot tougher than what these two do.)

It seems to me that when Barack Obama answers questions, he sounds not like a president, but like a presidential advisor. On the other hand, John McCain sounds like a president very much in need of an advisor. However the election goes, I hope they can find some way to work together.

02 October 2008

About that Debate

If I hear one more Republican talk about cutting government spending I might just lose it. Republicans have had eight years to do just that they gave us the fastest growth of government spending in history. Likewise if I hear one more rich, over-privileged Democrat engage in the rhetoric of class warfare.

There, that's better. Now about that debate. Palin and Biden both did well. But it is the overall themes in the candidates' performances rather than their specific answers that gives some indication as to what the McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden administrations would be like.

McCain and Palin bill themselves as mavericks. The upside is that they are willing to depart from the culture of vicious and oblivious partisanship that has taken over the Republican and Democratic parties. The risk is that their administration may be an administration without a party, a lame duck from the beginning. Maybe they will be able to hold to and increase the gains (both political and military) in Iraq, and not much else. If the economy really collapses, I don't know that they will be able to do anything about it other than to refrain from vetoing the initiatives of a Democratic Congress.

Obama and Biden enjoy vigorous support from their party (because they are partisan) and will be energetic and effective in pursuing their agenda. The risk is that they will overreach early in their administration, as both Clinton and the younger Bush did in the early years of their administrations. Maybe they will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq, and then blunder into Pakistan, destabilizing the Pakistani government even more, causing chaos in which some of the Pakistani nuclear weapons or weapons components go missing, and still fail to capture Bin Laden. Maybe they will lurch too far toward socialism in an attempt to imitate Roosevelt's New Deal as a way of getting out of the worsening recession.

I don't care who won or lost tonight's debate. I care about what we seem to be getting ourselves into. One of these teams will be our next President and Vice President. And that worries me.

01 October 2008

House full of Amateurs

Given the seeming inability of the US House of Representatives to act to stem the current panic in the US and world financial markets, I think it fair to make two observations.

There are no term limits on the House. Because of this and unconscionable gerrymandering, many members of the House have been in office for a long time. You would think that this would lead them to act more like professionals than like amateurs. But clearly, when it comes to understanding financial panics, their history, and doing what it takes to mitigate them, we are looking at a House full of amateurs. If the House fails to act, I will vote against my Congressperson, whether he voted for the so-called "Bailout" or not. Because his duty is not just to vote for it, it is to persuade enough others for it to pass. Those of us watching our retirement nest eggs evaporate as the stock market falls and facing layoffs as the credit markets dry up are not amused.

Congress currently enjoys a 10% approval rating, some 20 points lower than even the President. The members of Congress need to realize that they did not get elected because we liked them. They got elected because we felt that we had no other viable choice. They need to quit working so hard to prove to us that we were wrong about that.

30 September 2008

Mine, all Mine

Nessa, our 160 pound Great Dane, is sleeping on the chair (and ottoman) formerly owned by Pongo. "Mine," she seems to be thinking, "it's mine now. All mine. This chair. This house. This yard. These people. Mine."

She seems a bit subdued, it's true. But also self-satisfied.

Nobody Believes in Rationalism

The fact is that if you are a thoroughgoing rationalist there is no way anyone can prove to you that it is worth getting up in the morning. The purely rational conclusion is that life is not worth living, so why go on? And yet, the rationalist does get up, driven by non-rational urges to get dressed, to get breakfast, and to start another day. Because, deep down, the rationalist does not entirely believe in rationalism.

Let us therefore admit that rationalism speaks to the "how" and "what" of existence, but not the "why" of it. The why of it is the crisis of our age - the crisis of meaning.

In order to live, we must satisfy our non-rational urge to live meaningful lives. To find meaning, we must (and do) ultimately turn to faith. So, the question is not whether we can have faith. We all of us already have faith to some extent, because we simply must. The question is how can we live simultaneously with the faith we need, and with the scientific rationalism we have fought so hard to achieve?

The necessary synthesis begins by realizing that faith and rationalism begin helping each other by placing limitations on each other. I cannot believe things I can prove false, but I know some things to be true that I cannot prove.

29 September 2008

Remembering Pongo

On this Michaelmas and Eve of Rosh Hashanah, we sent our German Shorthaired Pointer Pongo's little soul to walk with our Master. He was almost fifteen. He had had a long struggle with nasal disease, kidney disease, and bowel disease. In his time he overcame epilepsy and two cancers. What we know of his lifetime trophies include two squirrels, two birds, and a vole. It is impossible to tell of his victories over gophers, because we never saw evidence of any in our backyard during his lifetime. He also successfully hunted and destroyed two sprinkler systems (until we learned not to use impact heads), two screen doors (one wood, one metal), two sets of interior wooden shutters, and part of a wooden deck. In his prime, he was known for his speed, his daring, and his obliviousness to the numerous athletic injuries he incurred by doing things like running through barbed wire fences, and pawing at the neighbor's Rottweiler.

He was originally brought in to our pack to take the pressure that our first Great Dane Maya, then a puppy, was putting on our first dog, the then aging Samwise. This he did admirably. When we would come home from work, Maya would stagger in, look at us as if to say, "Take the child," and collapse with exhaustion. Maya could outrun him on the straight stretches, but Pongo could out maneuver her in the corners. The would run back and forth in our yard until Maya had raspberries on both sides of her butt from colliding with the fences. Then they would cuddle together as if they were mother and son.

After Maya passed, Pongo went into emotional decline and tore off his second screen door. We then brought our second Great Dane, Nessa into the pack. Pongo brightened considerably, and did his best to move up to Top Dog, but it was not to be. When your girlfriend grows to outweigh you by a factor of three, you are going to have to learn to toe her line. Still they played together energetically, running at each other from two corners of our yard and colliding in the middle. This lasted until Pongo's back began going out, after which they switched from the equivalent of tackle to touch.

Pongo had a long prime, keeping most of his speed, enthusiasm for life, and strength until the past year. His strength of will never left him. Although he was not intellectual, he had strong opinions, which he advanced with cunning and patience. He seduced our late mother-in-law into letting him cuddle against her legs while she sat in a favorite chair. Over two months he used techniques of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and desensitization to move from floor to lap, and from lap to chair, conquering our prohibition concerning pets on furniture and making the chair his own.

Really his own. It smells like him, even to a human. We had fantasies of putting his corpse in the chair, and the chair on a wooden barge on a lake, and burning the lot together in a Viking style funeral. As it is, we will probably get it reupholstered and keep it in memory of him. He is pictured above, having gone from 65 to 46 pounds because of his illnesses, in the chair that he prized so much.

Farewell, little fella. May you be as blessed in the next world as you were a blessing to us in this one.

For those of you in similar need, here is a link to a canine funeral service.

Note added 9/30: And then there was the time he ate the car. For some forgotten reason we had to leave him unattended in our vehicle for a few minutes. He chewed the steering wheel, ate the ends off the gear shift and emergency brake levers, and completely severed a seat belt. Fortunately, we were thinking of trading in the car anyway. Pongo just accelerated the process by a few months.