Archive for March, 2017

The gem, mineral, and fossil show

March 24, 2017

unknownMy wife Therese had the idea of going to the gem, mineral, and fossil show held at the State Museum. To humor her, I agreed, though this isn’t really my thing. Well, something to do, a little salutary marital togetherness. I was kind of expecting a dull exhibit, but instead it was a vendor bourse, very different, quite extensive, and fascinating.

We saw some amazing and bizarre stuff; the variety mind-boggling. So many mineral names I’d never heard before, seemingly without end. Many crystals looked quite astonishing, like dramatic little sculptures.

Cephalopods

Cephalopods

And cool fossils. Lots of ancient cephalopods (sea creatures like squids), highly polished and beautiful; hard to believe they were not carved by cunning artists.

Many items, like those, seemed surprisingly affordable too. As a passionate collector myself (of coins), I could see how people could really get into collecting this stuff. Rocks rock!

Therese and I tend to be lookers, not buyers, at art shows and the like, and we certainly had no expectation of purchasing anything here. But when I drew attention to one small item, Therese was blown away by it. Next to all the other bigger and dramatic pieces on view, it might not have seemed like much, a very simple little thing. Indeed, its very simplicity made it dramatic in its own way. It was a piece of whiteish rock on which was perched a good sized perfect cube* of silver-black pyrite crystal, about an inch on each side. With surfaces so smooth they were mirrors. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a crystal so geometrically perfect. Therese could hardly believe this was actually made by Nature; it took some convincing.

untitled-1And this too was not terribly expensive ($45), so we bought it. No sooner had we done so, and moved on to other sellers, suddenly we started seeing similar ones, even cheaper. But none possessed quite the dramatic in-your-face perfection of ours, so I was not unpleased.

It looks other-worldly to me, as though dropped onto our planet by ethereal aliens, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. With mystical powers.

Therese calls it spooky, saying it almost scares her, and that it changes her relationship with existence.

* Actually, it’s what’s called a rectangular prism, as the facets are not exactly square.

The health care travesty

March 21, 2017

For seven years, Republicans pursued Obamacare with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale. Now they resemble a dog chasing a car, and catching it. Or Captain Ahab tangled up on the whale’s back and going down with it.

What they hated so much about Obamacare was never quite clear, except perhaps for the “Obama” part. It was based, after all, on what was originally a Republican concept, put forward as a market-based alternative to “socialized medicine.” Indeed, to get something done about all the Americans without proper health care, Obama had to give up the politically difficult government option, and to buy off the insurance industry by giving it what seemed a very sweet deal (selling more insurance).

Anyhow, for all their obsessing, Republicans never did have an alternative plan. Now their bluff is called. And, as a genius recently said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yet, whereas Obamacare was hammered out through an agonizing months-long process of give-and-take with input by numerous interested parties, Republicans have skipped all that, and whipped up a bill in the dead of night. Do you suppose they’ve really thought through all its consequences?

Trump had been saying his beautiful, tremendous, but unspecified, imaginary health care plan would cover everybody; with better care too, and at lower prices. Ha ha. Don’t we know by now that Trump just says stuff, with no thinking, or regard for truth, reality, or decency? Of course the now-unveiled GOP plan doesn’t cover everybody. In fact it would kick many millions out of the health care system. It replaces direct subsidies with tax credits — mainly so they can call it different from Obamacare. But it will give low income people much less help. While furthermore, removing healthier ones from the insurance pool will inevitably force premiums up. Most Americans will pay more for less coverage and less care. Older citizens will be particularly screwed. While the richest get tax cuts. When will foolish Trump lovers wake up that they’ve been conned?

Obamacare, at its heart, was based on making younger and healthier folks subsidize the old and sick by requiring everyone (on pain of tax penalties) to buy insurance . This is often defended on the basis that that’s how insurance works – like with car insurance, where safe drivers pay into the system, to cover accidents by others, while if you do have an accident, it’s there for you too.

Wellll . . . not so fast. Actually the concept of insurance is to spread a risk that the buyer wouldn’t want to shoulder alone. A house fire has low probability but unacceptable financial consequences, so you insure against it, spreading that risk among many others doing the same. But that’s voluntary, based on your own evaluation of the risk versus the cost of insurance.* You don’t buy fire insurance to help others, but because it’s worth it to you.

This original insurance concept has gotten perverted in the health care sphere. Like fire insurance, health insurance should cover only major episodes one couldn’t otherwise afford, not every routine little outlay. Doing the latter has meant that health care doesn’t act like a market, with consumers shopping among competing providers; a basic reason why prices have gotten so out of line. And it’s not surprising that Obamacare’s forcing people to buy such insurance, that they don’t judge to be a good deal for themselves, meets so much resistance.

But look. We are a very rich society. The basic idea that we, as a society, should take care of the less fortunate, and make sure nobody suffers unnecessarily, is a fundamental moral concept that most Americans would accept. That’s why even so amoral a creature as Trump would blurt it out (however disingenuously).

We have to come up with a way for every American to have at least minimally decent basic health care. The Republicans are not doing this; they are going in the other direction entirely. While the Trump-Putin administration’s proposed budget gives the Pentagon more billions to waste, and billions for the wall boondoggle, paid for by eviscerating everything else, including all kinds of government help for the less fortunate.

2012 Democratic campaign ad

For years, some Democrat partisans caricatured Republicans as heartless toward those less fortunate, as actually desiring to destroy programs like Medicare and Social Security, to keep poor people poor, and even to make middle class people poor, all just to (somehow) benefit the rich. It was a false caricature before. But Trump and today’s Republicans are making it true.

* Though the bank may require it, to give you a mortgage, because otherwise, if the house burns, you wouldn’t be able to meet your obligations.

Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics

March 17, 2017

(This was published as a commentary in the March 12 Albany Times-Union)

“Post-truth” has been named word of the year. The subject looms large for America’s political future. It’s not just a matter of occasional innocent misstatements, but of politically weaponizing falsehood.

Gleb Tsipurski (associate professor of history at Ohio State University) writes in The Humanist magazine that if it works for Trump, other politicians will follow his example; if they too succeed, “we’re headed for a downward spiral“ and “the end of our political order as we know it.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Tsipurski is on to something.

Being caught in a lie used to be deadly for a politician. What is so dangerous with Trump is that his fans don’t care, rationalizing away everything. As he put it, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. This resembles a religious faith impervious to reason. And removing reasoned discourse from politics is not good for sustaining democracy.

We must understand how we got here. Mainstream media has traditionally served as mediator, part of our whole system of political checks and balances. That media role might even have been over-large. Recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean for a single utterance (the so-called “scream”).

Dean’s “Scream”

Obviously, the media proved unable to perform such a function with Trump.

Why? Tsipurski says “this system for determining political truths has required an intangible but invaluable resource: the public’s trust.” And that trust has been eroding in the last decade (part of a broader decline in social trust generally).

Past trust in the media was due, in good part, simply to a lack of other information sources. But now alternatives have proliferated, notably on social media and elsewhere on the web. And, crucially, it’s not just the same information differently packaged. To the contrary, it’s often material tailored to flatter the recipient’s pre-existing biases. Or even the now notorious “fake news.” Why listen to neutral NPR (and hear things that challenge your beliefs) when you can get fare that instead bolsters what you already think? And when those “alternative facts” differ from what mainstream media says, it’s the latter that might start seeming problematic. Thus mainstream media loses not only its audience, but its authority and trust.

Further, its effort to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines mainstream media’s ability to deal effectively with a politician who lies so shamelessly* – and accuses it of being against him (which of course it is, for excellent reasons). Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word “lie.” And watch the journalists on a program like PBS’s “Washington Week” struggle to act as though Trump is just another normal political figure. They’ll soberly discuss the putative deep policy implications of a Trump statement (like his one-state-solution line), unable to blurt out that it’s simply ignorance.

So a weakened mainstream media couldn’t do to Trump what it did to Dean. And Tsipurski says Trump has a genius for exploiting such systemic vulnerabilities. Use of alternative and social media, bypassing mainstream media (thereby further enfeebling it), played a big role in his campaign. Exploiting trust-related systemic weaknesses similarly fueled his financial enrichment. The Trump Foundation self-dealing, and Trump University fraud, were prime examples. And trust plays a key role in business and commerce generally: vendors supply goods and services trusting they’ll be paid. That’s how the system works. And Trump exploited it by simply not paying, over and over and over.

Is all this “genius?” Or walking through open doors?

The press’s authority is maimed even more by Trump’s continuing attacks, even turning the “fake news” trope against it. Another of his big lies. Tsipurski likens our unfolding situation to a “tragedy of the commons” – when it’s hard to protect a communal resource against those pillaging it. Here, our shared resource is a political environment where objective facts (disseminated by news media) hold sway, so that rational policy choices can be made. “This intangible yet invaluable resource,” Tsipurski writes, “is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics.”

He understands his followers prefer to have their opinions uncontaminated by pesky reality. (He himself exhibits that very syndrome.) Better yet to feed them falsehoods tailored to those opinions. But voters need a source for, and to care about, truth and reality, to make rational political choices. Only thusly can their interests truly be served. That’s why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn’t get it, why should politicians care either – about facts and about people’s real interests? When they can instead succeed by emotional manipulation and lies?

That’s the road to authoritarianism. It’s the one Putin followed. He destroyed Russia’s independent media, so he could work his “magic” on citizens unfettered by truth or any accountability. And that’s the road Donald Trump openly steers toward.

* Falsely accusing his predecessor of a serious crime is disgusting behavior for a president. A sane adult would simply admit the mistake and move on. Not this stinking turd.

Paterson: the poem film

March 13, 2017

unknownWe recently saw two films in a row featuring Abbott and Costello.

Those were the names given the aliens in Arrival. And in Paterson we even get a little of “Who’s on first?” (a famous Abbott and Costello routine).

Adam Driver plays a bus driver, named Paterson, in Paterson, NJ. Yes, there’s a lot of twinning in the movie (including several sets of actual twins).images

The film is about poetry. The film is a poem.

Not a drama. It unfolds slowly and quietly. Indeed, the very absence of drama is a salient feature. It’s filled with events the viewer might expect but (spoiler alert) don’t happen:

• The marital blow-up

• The heavily foreshadowed dog-napping

unknown-1• The spurned lover’s bar-room blow-up (which does happen, but fizzles; the gun turns out to be a toy one).

• The cupcake disaster

• The bus crash. (Instead, a mere breakdown. Three people say to Paterson that the bus could have “blown up in a fireball.” But he knows otherwise.)

Paterson is a bus driver who’s a poet. Though very private about it, he takes poetry very seriously. Looming large is William Carlos Williams, another Patersonian, who wrote an epic poem titled Paterson. images-1Paterson reads that, and much other poetry, studies it. But not only poetry, apparently; I was amused to spot a copy of Infinite Jest on his bookshelf.

And he is a very good human being. The film takes pains to show that, while avoiding being saccharine. A rare and welcome departure from the glut of movies filled with human dysfunction and depravity.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts 'n' cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts ‘n’ cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

One disaster, of sorts, does befall Paterson, near the end. But he takes it with his well established philosophical equanimity, and it sets up completion of the film/poem’s arc in a very positive and satisfying way. What my wife calls a “squeeze” at a poem’s end.

Her being a poet made Paterson a must-see for us (her insights helped me with this review). She is also much attuned to eerie connections in life. I’ve mentioned the film’s twinning theme. Afterwards, we have dinner in a nearby restaurant. A couple seated next to us finishes and leaves. Shortly, another couple enters and takes their table. images-2And the new guy is the previous one’s identical twin brother.

The French election sex drama

March 10, 2017

Hollande

I have written snarkily about French politics. (Not that today’s U.S. politics is to brag about.) I considered Socialist President Hollande ridiculous when elected, and apparently the French themselves soon did too. He isn’t even trying for re-election.

Yet the Socialist presidential nomination was won by a doubling-down purist left winger, Benoit Hamon – consigning the party to irrelevance. (Democrats take note.)

Le Pen

But the big story is Marine Le Pen. Her National Front party was founded by her father as a racist, quasi-fascist one, toxic to most French voters. But then she took over, booted Dad out, and aimed for detoxification and political seriousness.

Some of Le Pen’s critique of the French status quo is actually on target. Its voters have long dwelt in a fantasyland that romanticizes a paternalistic state and reviles the “harshness” of business and commerce. But unfortunately Le Pen’s platform is  a farrago of populist garbage much like Trumpism. Anti-trade, anti-globalist, anti-EU, anti-immigration, promising to restore the 1950s. (I’ve heard her called a rightist candidate with leftist economics — showing how mixed up these categories have become.) Catastrophic if her program were actually enacted. Yet, after the dimwitted Brexit and Trump victories, Marine Le Pen has been seen as threatening to consummate a populist trifecta by riding the same sort of voter rebelliousness into the Élysée Palace. And thus as profoundly threatening Europe’s whole future.

France votes in two rounds, with a run-off between the first round’s top two contenders. (Nobody ever gets a first-round majority.) Daddy Le Pen once managed to sneak into the second round (pipping another limp Socialist nominee), but then an overwhelming decent-minded majority voted for the conventional alternative. Now Marine Le Pen is considered a shoo-in to also reach the second round – and with far better chances there.

Yet there’s much doubt the French would really break so dramatically with conventionality. Hence whoever faces her in the run-off was still expected to be an overwhelming favorite.

Fillon

Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy tried for a comeback, seeking the nomination of his center-right party. But he lost to Francois Fillon after they battled to outdo each other in Muslim-bashing, even advocating idiotic burkini bans. Considering too Fillon’s Trumplike pro-Putinism, he did not seem like France’s savior.

And that was before scandals blew up on him. Fillon was charged with giving family members no-show government jobs with fat salaries. And then with failing to declare a big crony loan. How odiously corrupt the French elite is! No wonder outsider Le Pen attracts support. So far, Fillon refuses to quit the race.

So Hamon, Le Pen, Fillon – take your pick. What a depressing menu of choices.

But wait . . .

Here comes the man in the white hat. Running as an independent, Emmanuel Macron, only 39, former investment banker and economy minister, who – in France! – actually seems to believe in open free markets and trade, globalization, and curbing the hand of the state. Maybe even that prosperity is created not by government largesse but by productive work, making goods and services people want to buy. How thoroughly un-French; equivalent to being a bomb-thrower.

Naturally this heretic’s chances were rated at approximately zero. Until Fillon’s scandals. Now Macron is on a tear in the polls, and might even beat Fillon into the run-off.

Macron

Pity those poor French if faced with a choice between two run-off candidates neither of whom presents the comforting political pablum they’re accustomed to. Will they swallow Le Pen’s guileful snake oil or bite the unpalatable bullet of Macron’s economic reality?

The world is watching. Let us hope the tide of madness can finally be turned back.

The President is insane

March 6, 2017

imagesSo he was able to read a nice speech from a teleprompter and appear “presidential.” Then he tweeted that President Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower and is a “bad (or sick) guy.”

Hurling put-downs that uncannily apply more to himself is trademark Trump. Like crying “fake news” at legitimate reporting, while his own wiretap accusation came from what really is fake news.

images-1It’s not just baseless but preposterous. Laws prohibit it, it’s inconceivable that Obama would have directed federal officials to violate them, and inconceivable that they’d have complied (instead of blowing the whistle). A warrant would have been required, issuable by a judge only upon convincing evidence of a crime being investigated.

“Those restrictions,” said Ben Rhodes (a former top Obama security aide), in a tweet addressed to Trump, “were put in place to protect citizens against people like you.”

Who’s the “bad (or sick) guy” — recklessly flinging baseless accusations? Why isn’t the nation totally freaked out by a president behaving so grotesquely? unknownDaniel Patrick Moynihan coined the trope “defining deviancy down.” When something previously unacceptable becomes accepted. The Trump phenomenon has shredded what used to be America’s civic standards. The media are having a hard time reporting soberly on Trump without their hair on fire, thus giving it all a seeming patina of normality. So this is the new normal. Hence no huge uproar over Trump’s insane wiretap accusation.

images-2I use the word insane not figuratively but literally, clinically. Trump’s behavior — not only this instance, but too many others to count — shows a deep psychological pathology. The President is insane. He should be removed from office pursuant to the procedures of the 25th Amendment.

Yet congressional Republicans now promise to investigate not the President’s insane behavior but the imaginary wiretapping. While thousands, all across the nation, joined the “March 4 Trump” to support him. Is insanity contagious?

Earlier, some of my friends (who did not support him) lamented that Trump is even worse than they expected. I said he’s not worse than I expected, because I knew how bad he is. But perhaps I didn’t. I had also expected the weight of the presidency would have some impact on him. It has not.

unknown-1No wonder the Russians wanted Trump elected. To sabotage America with a dysfunctional, bull-in-a-china-shop president. And if there be method in his wiretap lie madness, it’s to distract us from the Russian connection.

Trump’s is not the kind of mental illness that might elicit sympathy. It’s malevolent. Previously I’ve called him a “vile creep” and “stinking piece of crap.”* But now I’ll have to come up with something stronger.

*  The sanitized version.

The ICE man cometh

March 4, 2017

unknownThis title was unavoidable. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have long referred to it as our Gestapo. And that was before Trump. Under Obama, 2.7 million were deported, and horror stories abounded. But at least there were some restraints. Now ICE is totally out of control.

As in the case of law enforcement generally, ICE has an unfortunate tendency to attract the wrong sort — who get their jollies abusing people. And it’s reported that “morale” in ICE ranks has soared under Trump, with the “shackles” now off. When his travel order came out, ICE men were emboldened to enforce it with sickening excess. Many victims legally entitled to be here were treated brutally and denied entry by ICE pricks.* (“And some, I assume, are good people.”)

poster420x415f8f8f8-pad420x460f8f8f8-u1Now the administration has issued new deportation guidelines. The idea of deporting all undocumented residents was always considered, well, crazy, at least if you have brains and human decency. Alas, those are not hallmarks of the Trump administration. The new guidelines target not only those having committed crimes, but even minor traffic offenses. And — get this — people merely “SUSPECTED” of offenses. (By who? On what basis?) How can that square with the 14th amendment, which says all “persons” (not just citizens) are entitled to due process of law. A noble assertion of what used to be America’s fundamental values.

imagesBut in practice, ICE men now seem free to seek out and grab not just “bad hombres” but anybody. Like Ramiro Martinez-Chacon of Hudson, (formerly from violence-wracked El Salvador), in the U.S. since 2002, minding his own business at home on February 7 when some ICE men came, handcuffed him, and dragged him away, in front of his children, who are U.S. citizens. His sole transgression was being here. This story is being repeated all over the country.

unknownI get it that undocumented residents don’t have a legal right to be here. But many of them were brought as children and have lived their whole lives here. And many have minor children who are citizens. Don’t those kids have a basic human right to live with their parents? Deporting those parents is an extremely cruel, stupid, shamefully pointless policy that harms American children!

And the great majority of these people make a positive contribution to our country. It’s actually only thanks to them that our population and workforce isn’t shrinking. Not only do they do a lot of needed jobs, but by spending money in our economy, they actually support a lot of other jobs held by citizens. It’s been estimated that spending by undocumented residents comprises 5% of our economy. They also contribute taxes (while not being entitled to many benefits). Booting them out makes America and its citizens worse off.

But economics or rationality have nothing to do with Trump’s policy. He’s simply pandering to those who just hate living beside people who don’t look or talk like them. And he’s furthermore whipped up those prejudices by harping on crimes by undocumented people. When in fact studies show they commit fewer crimes on average than U.S. citizens. As should be expected, since the potential penalty (deportation) is more severe.

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

It’s also ridiculous to say other countries are exporting undesirables to America. To the contrary, anyone undertaking all the risks, difficulties, and challenges of such migration must possess the kinds of personal qualities that make them an asset to whatever community they join. I want them here.

Better than ignorant, hate-filled Trump supporters.

* And not just Muslims. Click here.