Archive for August, 2017

North Korea: fear the madman

August 9, 2017

We keep hearing about the “madman” in Pyongyang. Is Kim Jong Un bad? Yes. Mad? Probably not. It’s the guy in D.C. who’s both.

Kim doesn’t have to be told that attacking America would be suicide. Trump’s “fire and fury” declaration was brainless bluster serving no purpose except foolhardy provocation. He warned Kim against any further threats. Kim promptly responded with a new threat. Where will this schoolyard standoff end?

As long as it’s just a war of words, okay. But this is recklessly dangerous because North Korea in the past has shown a penchant for military provocation too, as with its 2010 bombardment of a South Korean island. In today’s belligerent climate, the moment one side or the other does the least thing military, the risk of tit-for-tat escalation will be severe. Neither will back down readily.

The Economist recently ran a detailed scenario for how it could well unfold, ending in nuclear warfare with mass casualties. Either side could all too easily miscalculate. And Trump is no paragon of finesse.*

So what should we do about North Korea? I’ve wrestled with this problem before. Right now, the answer is: just shut up. Trump’s chest thumping achieves nothing except to make things worse.

We don’t have to do anything. Kim will not commit suicide by attacking us unless we force him to.

It’s the madman in the White House I fear.

* He might even calculate (insofar as he’s capable of such) that war with North Korea would produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect, just the thing to bury his Russia troubles on page 8.

Venezuela’s tragedy: be careful how you vote

August 8, 2017

Chavez & his mentor

It began in 1992 when paratrooper Hugo Chavez tried a military coup. He failed and was jailed, but vowed he wasn’t done. Released, in 1999 he won a democratic election as president.

Be careful how you vote.

Chavez strutted as an adversary of “U.S. imperialism” and avatar of “21st century socialism,” earning adoration from a Hollywood claque and the usual left-wing moral morons, bedazzled by the word “socialism” into excusing all manner of anti-democratic repression.

Chavez did enjoy much genuine support among poorer Venezuelans, whom he basically bought off by distributing the country’s oil wealth — while he crippled that very industry by nationalizing it and stuffing its ranks with political types, and wrecking the rest of Venezuela’s once-rich economy with an insane farrago of anti-market, statist policies.

Dwindling oil revenues could not sustain the game, the rich got poorer, and so, ultimately, did the poor too. Chavez died of cancer at 58 in 2013 before the mierda fully hit the fan. His chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won a 2013 presidential election.

Maduro

Be careful how you vote. Though Maduro’s win was almost surely fraudulent, he couldn’t have pulled that off without votes from nearly half the electorate.

Then Venezuela really went off the rails, the economy collapsing in structural disarray, producing nothing, inflation exploding, people unable to get food or medicine. Instead of reversing the economic idiocies causing this, Maduro doubled down, and blamed the troubles on supposed U.S.-inspired sabotage. But few fell for this nonsense, his political support also collapsed, and the opposition won big in 2015 congressional elections. Only more fraud and manipulation denied them a decisive two-thirds majority. Maduro’s policy was now to intimidate, emasculate, and simply disregard the congress.

Meantime, the opposition also gathered more than enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote, pursuant to the Chavez-promulgated constitution. That too the regime quite simply disregarded, refusing to hold the vote.

All this plays out against a background of increasing repression (opponents jailed; forget a free press) and rising violence as protests by an increasingly desperate citizenry escalate, and the regime responds brutally. Its intransigence made negotiation efforts useless. President Maduro, who cannot win a fair vote, has now moved to seal Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship by convening an all-powerful “constituent assembly” of handpicked stooges to supplant the congress and rewrite the constitution. That assembly’s “election” was — of course — another farcical fraud. (Even the company that ran it said so.)

Ortega

One of the assembly’s first acts was to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a former regime stalwart, with at least a vestige of integrity that couldn’t stomach Maduro’s extreme illegal power grab, which she condemned.

And where, in all this, you might wonder, is the army? Why doesn’t it step in to protect the constitution, congress, and democracy? Because the army is part of the regime, long since packed with loyalists. Its guns are what really keep Maduro in power. It’s the army brass, not the people, he needs to keep happy. And this is not about ideology. The “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric continues, but that’s just a fig-leaf cover for the reality. The regime, and its army, are a gang of thugs ruling Venezuela exactly as Al Capone ruled Chicago, and for the same purpose — their own criminal enrichment.

As ordinary Venezuelans sink into an abyss of deprivation, the regime and its army feed off their flesh and suck their blood. Having destroyed the normal economy, so that not even food can be purchased normally, the army has been tasked with bringing in and selling food — profiting hugely. It’s grubby fingers are in many other businesses too. Further, while the currency has become virtually worthless, they maintain an inflated official exchange rate, at around 1,000 times the Bolivar’s actual value. Why? Only insiders can exchange Bolivars for Dollars at that phony rate, plundering the state to enrich themselves. That’s why they won’t give up power. And because if they do, they’d expect punishment for their crimes.

Here is your “21st century socialism.”

What is the sad lesson of Venezuela? Be careful how you vote.

What Einstein means to me

August 5, 2017

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.

 

APPENDIX

Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.

Police State

August 3, 2017

I’d love to get back to non-political topics. But some things demand comment. By now it’s hard to be shocked by anything Trump. His Boy Scout speech was an utter disgrace. But the police speech was worse. Imagine: the President of the United States literally encouraged police brutality. Literally.

Some typically dismissed it as joking. I saw no humor. Trump himself later said he was not joking.

Police chiefs throughout the country have condemned the speech, as urging them to break the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Trump was addressing police in Suffolk County — whose own police chief was recently sent to federal prison for personally beating up a suspect (accused of stealing, from the chief’s car, a bag containing pornography and sex toys).

Police brutality against African-Americans in particular (not fake news) is a major societal sore point. The Trump administration is already thoroughly contaminated with links to white supremacists. And he speaks out for more brutal police behavior? Just what we need.

I sincerely hope that when men in blue finally come to escort him from the White House, they will ignore that speech and treat him with utmost gentleness.

The obviousness of the police brutality problem in some cities had prompted the Justice Department to enter into agreements with their police departments aiming at ameliorating matters. Attorney General Sessions has been working to undo these agreements.

Another major police scandal is the Fourth Amendment, against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” becoming virtually a dead letter with rampant police confiscations of money and property from citizens without needing proof of crime. Here again, the Justice Department, recognizing the abuse, had previously promulgated some rules to curb it. And here again Trump’s administration is rolling back those rules.

Say what you will about Obama (I criticized him plenty), he consistently maintained the dignity of his office, respected the law, and consistently invoked the high ideals and fundamental values that America stood for and which made it great. Trump’s values are of the sewer, smearing America in filth.

Henry Clay and John McCain

August 1, 2017

In my office hangs an old engraving of Henry Clay. It was no accidental acquisition. About 50 years ago I searched antique shops for it, being a political history freak and aspirant. Clay was the consummate model for a public career. The Senate was Olympus, and he its Zeus.

Clay was not a saint; he had eponymous feet; he was human, partisan, intensely ambitious, and scheming. But none of that undermined his devotion to the good of the country. You could even say he saved the country, twice no less, in 1820 and 1850, masterminding great bold compromises over the most divisive issue in U.S. history, staving off civil war.

“I like people that weren’t captured, okay?” said he who never served. “Captured” suggests insufficient warrior mettle. John McCain was shot down flying combat missions in Vietnam. Taken prisoner and tortured for five years. Offered early release because his father was an admiral, McCain considered it wrong to leave without his comrades.

Suffering aggressive brain cancer, John McCain postponed treatment last week to return to the Senate, to speak against the disgraceful way his Republican colleagues were trying to pass a disgraceful health care bill. It should instead be done, he said, in the open, with hearings and outreach and broad input. And, yes, compromise. And then John McCain cast the decisive 51st vote to kill, once and for all, that noxious bill.

Some saw here a rich payback for Trump’s disgusting insult. And perhaps this was some cosmic justice. But the true reason for John McCain’s vote was that it was the right thing to do.

Up in Senate Heaven, Henry Clay was smiling.