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.