Breaking the Silence

13 04 2014

Haven’t been around for a while. You may have noticed. No excuses. There’s been a lot of important things happening around the world, and I’ve had opinions about all of them, but a lot of what I intended to say was said by others- and usually done far better than I could. So, it became a habit to not write anything. This is a bad habit to get into, by the way.

At the urging of one of the Unusual Suspects, I’ve decided to resume hurling my mental feces into the ether. For better or for worse, I will now hold forth on various topics of interest to me. You’ve been warned.

Ukraine

I’ve been to Ukraine- mostly the areas around the Black Sea, including the Crimea. The people were all friendly, the countryside was lovely, and I generally enjoyed my visits- to Odessa in particular.

I was therefore very attentive to the political events in the country, starting with Yanukovich rising to power and including the recent revolution. Given the history of the area (Ukraine is historically getting alternately fucked over from east and west), I rather expected the revolution to end badly for the protesters. People like Yanukovich rarely go out quietly, and a situation much like that in Syria appeared to be the most probable outcome. I was quite pleased to be wrong, and looked forward to the next bit of political theater which usually ensues in the aftermath of a revolution: payback.

After a successful revolution- such as the American Revolution- there is normally a modest period of near-chaos, as the loudest voices suddenly discover themselves without an enemy to rally against. There are always disparate factions in any revolution, and they generally only work with each other out of necessity against a common enemy. Take away the common enemy, and they tend to fall out among themselves. In the US, there was a significant period where each state was its own little nation. The leaders of those “independent” states eventually realized that their “separate but equal” status was causing more problems than their original issues with Great Britain, so they worked out a new system of government with a new constitution.

In Ukraine, the western parts of the country have historically been far more European than Russian. Thanks to Soviet-era population management measures (such as Stalin transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians to eastern Ukraine), eastern Ukraine has been a bit less focused on Europe, and more interested in Mother Russia. Geography plays a part, too. The Soviets were not fond of roads. The road network in the west is fairly extensive, but less so in the east. The roads east of the Dnieper river mostly run toward Russia. The roads west of the Dnieper mostly run to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Byelorussia.

In a post-revolutionary society, such divisions are often amplified in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, but the cultural demands for separation can be worked out by compromise between the different groups. Despite the rhetoric, they all have more in common with each other than with anyone else- including the russophiles in eastern Ukraine. The common bonds between fellow countrymen will generally overcome feelings of separatism, given time.

Alas, Ukraine was not given that time. A greedy neighbor immediately set about taking advantage of tgeh post-revolutionary chaos period. Small numbers of well-financed agitators were inserted into Crimea to foment a “popular uprising”. Suspiciously well-equipped armed men with current-issue Russian equipment suddenly appeared to “protect” the “protesters” by taking over government buildings and dealing with undesirables- such as the minority Tartar population, which wants nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.

Since the Ukrainian government was still in transition, with the chain of command thoroughly shattered and widespread insecurity about who is in charge, they wisely decided against overt measures in response to fairly blatant Russian provocation. By itself, Ukraine cannot stand against Russia militarily. And so Crimea was lost. Russia appears to be trying to repeat this tactic in eastern Ukraine, despite the fact that everyone knows what is really happening. Russia is also trying to squeeze Ukraine by arbitrarily raising the prices of oil and gas.

Why is Russia doing this? All of these actions are demonstrably not in Russia’s best interest. Pissing off the whole world- especially those nations who actually have the wherewithal to punish Russia- is counterproductive. Russia cannot withdraw into a closed bubble, trading only within its borders and with client states seized by force. For good or ill, Russia is tied into the global economy. Without access to foreign trade, Russia will clunker along for a while before everything starts falling apart.

Russia is facing the same demographic bubble as the rest of the more-or-less developed world, but that bubble is revealing a dark secret: Russia is running out of Russians. The population in 1991 was reportedly about 148 million. Twenty years later, the population is about 143 million. The largest country on Earth has fewer people than Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Nigeria. Getting into a military contest with First World nations and alliances while dealing with a demographic crisis and increased economic isolation is not rational. Suicidal, even.

The end result of all this stupid maneuvering by Russia is to alarm all of its neighbors and drive them into the arms of the European Union. By playing the gas card, Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use raw economic force to achieve its goals, leaving everyone doing business with Russia to reconsider doing so. Military adventurism and posturing by Russia along the border with Ukraine has brought heavy NATO reinforcements to Poland and Rumania, and the Turks have closed the Bosporus to all Russian traffic. Note that none of those reinforcements are headed into Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU. We have no legal standing to contest Russia’s blatant land grab.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m not privy to the Big Picture, and I’m not using the right type of political calculus. I concede the possibility, but I contend that Russia’s leadership isn’t using the right math, either.

Current status: Perplexed

Current music: I Want You To by Weezer





White Collar Blues

17 11 2013

I work pretty hard at what I do. I’m generally recognized as the subject-matter expert in my field- sometimes to the point where people from other organizations call me up for help or advice. I’m the senior person in my section, which does not mean I am any sort of a supervisor. It just means I’m the person who’s been at the job the longest. My supervisor- who actually looked like Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss with a beard and glasses- was known for frequently throwing temper tantrums whenever my co-workers mentioned that they had discussed some matter with me.

That supervisor has now departed for another job in another city. Not only do we now get to blame stuff on him, but now there’s a leadership gap in the organization. Perhaps I should say the table of organization shows a gapped leadership position. We never managed to get a lot of leadership from our titular supervisor. Actually, there are two empty leadership slots. Our supervisor and the Department Head. A time-serving empty suit that management has been trying to get rid of was dropped into the Department Head spot as a “temporary measure” sixteen months ago. This “temporary appointment” was only supposed to last 3 months, but HR just keeps renewing the appointment rather than advertising the position and hiring someone qualified.

Human Resources actually published my immediate supervisor’s job, and got 45 qualified applicants. But then the empty suit pulled some sort of bureaucratic chicanery and plopped one of his buddies into the job. This buddy can’t be called an empty suit, because he doesn’t wear suits. Other than that, the description is quite apt. He’s been running the Facilities office for fifteen years, where his sole contribution was to avoid spending any money on anything unless the Executive Director vaguely hinted that he might want something. At that point, no expense was spared. Calling him sycophantic is an insult to worthless toadies. He is also totally clueless about the work he’s supposed to supervise, which means I end up doing most of the work.

So now I am doing the work of the Branch supervisor and the Department Head- as well as trying to get my own job done. I should also mention that we’ve been working with about 50% of the manpower we’re supposed to have to begin with. Under normal conditions, I could expect to spend no more than half of any given work day at my desk. Under our current manning, I’m lucky if I get to leave my desk to get some lunch. Deadline get dangerously close before any of us worker bees are able to drag ourselves free of the swamp of suck that surrounds us and get our deliverables out at basically the last minute. That’s assuming our empty suit “leaders” don’t decide to run every document past everyone within sight or hearing and get their buy-in. In triplicate.

Note that I am not getting paid for any of this extra work. Neither are my coworkers. As soon as the Facilities guy was declared to be our new supervisor, every last one of us updated our resumes and started looking for better working conditions. Oarsmen on a Roman galley might be a pleasant change.

 

Current status- Exhausted

Current music- Bandidos by the Refreshments





Enough is Enough!

6 10 2013

Key-riced! Just when you think Congress couldn’t get any more irrational, they go and pull this crap.

For those of you living in a cave, or who get all their news from a certain vulpine “news” network (essentially the same thing, I admit), a small faction of one party in one half of one third of the government have decided to stamp their little feet and hold their breath until they turn blue unless they get their own way. They’re also threatening to take their ball and go home, completely ignoring the fact that it isn’t their ball to begin with. What’s worse, the supposed leader of that portion of the government- the horribly misnamed House of Representatives- is playing along with these imbecilic spoilsports as they ride their bikes at full speed toward the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Let’s take a look at this “House of Representatives”. They do not appear to be very representative of the country at all. The median net worth of House members is just a skosh under a million dollars. This is something like twelve times the median net worth of Americans in general. Leaving aside net worth, members of the House are paid $176,000.00 per year. The median US income is $51,000.00 per year (less than 1/3 what a Congresscritter makes). Women and minorities are dramatically under-represented, making the so-called House of Representatives a misnomer unless we’re talking about representing the richer areas of Vermont or New Hampshire.

So a cabal of psychologically stunted rich white guys have decided that they’re going to shut down the government and are threatening to tank the world’s economy  unless they get their way. Why are we letting a small group of extremist pinheads hold the country (and possibly the world) hostage unless we agree to their petty demands? I thought we didn’t negotiate with terrorists.

That is what the current situation boils down to- a hostage situation. A few desperate extremists are threatening economic violence unless their unreasonable demands are met. Unlike every other hostage situation in history, the US media seems determined to avoid casting the hostage-takers in an unsympathetic light. There’s endless blather about stalemate, gridlock, and similar weasel-words, but none of the US “news” outlets are willing to call it a hostage situation. In fact, the only place you hear comparisons to hostage-taking is on late-night comedy shows and on a few blogs (or similar non-media web sources).

The really scary part of this is the fact that no one seems to have any idea how the hostage-takers plan to get out of this. They have publicly announced that they have no strategy or end game. They are clueless about how to avoid the consequences of their petulant actions. All of their options end up with the opposite of what they claim to have wanted at the start of the hostage-taking.

More rational actors- denizens of Bedlam, for example- might realize that they’ve publicly fornicated the canine on National TV, murmur something vaguely apologetic, and quickly retire to a corner pub in the hopes that they could avoid any further disgrace by keeping quiet and off the public radar. This particular batch of loons are incapable of shutting the fuck up- and damn the consequences. Every time one of these guanopsychotic suits gets his or her face in front of a microphone or camera, they are apparently psychologically compelled to blurt out whatever imbecilic ramblings that pass for thought in their minds. They can’t help being stupid in public, bless their poor, dear hearts.

Not too long ago, people like these would have been kept out of sight by relatives or State institutions. Even when allowed out in public, the words and actions of such people were dismissed with embarrassment by those who knew them. “I’m sorry about Uncle Edward. He just can’t control himself, bless his heart. Pay him no mind.”

Now, however, the loonies are running the asylum. And we are all in the rooms with mattress wallpaper wondering what the fuck happened.

Not everyone is aware of the consequences of a government shut-down yet. Here are a few low-lights:

- Close to a million government workers have been sent home without pay.

- Those government workers who are still at their jobs are also not getting paid, although they might get back pay whenever Congress gets its act together.

- A large number of contractors working for the government have been sent home- also without pay.

- All of those people not getting paid are tightening their belts and cutting back on expenditures to ride out this Congressional temper tantrum. This means that everyone who does business with those people is suddenly earning less money. So they cut back on their expenses- perhaps they order fewer replacement parts or supplies. All of their suppliers are suddenly going to see a drop in their revenue streams as well. Can you say ripple effect?

- After a week of furlough from the shut-down, Federal workers are all eligible for Unemployment benefits. Imagine what the October labor report will look like after a million or so Federal employees and contractors all sign up for Unemployment. Note that the states where these people live will have to pay out more than they had planned, resulting in state and local budget issues as well.

And all of this is yours, thanks to the actions of a few spoiled children in the inaptly-named House of Representatives.

 

Current status: Enraged

Current music: Toccata and Fugue in D by Johann Sebastian Bach





Hype and Hysteria

28 01 2013

I’ve been quiet for a while now, trying very hard to stay out of the storm of nonsense in the media about gun control. For reasons that presumably make sense to the media, only the most strident, idiotic, and unpleasant people on either side of the argument are permitted any airtime. This leaves the average citizen convinced that anyone discussing the issue is a rabid fanatic. Part of the problem is the fact that the two factions trying to discuss gun control aren’t speaking the same language. The lack of understanding by both sides tends to convince each group that the other is dealing dishonestly. Accordingly, I will begin with a basic glossary.

Automatic Weapon- Any weapon which fires continuously as long as the trigger is pulled.

Semi-Automatic Weapon- Also known as an “auto-loading weapon”, this weapon only fires once with each pull of the trigger. The recoil (or expanding gases from the cartridge discharging) ejects the casing of the cartridge which just fired. A spring forces the bolt back into position, loading another cartridge into the firing chamber in the process.

Magazine- The device which holds cartridges in the weapon. A detachable magazine is a magazine which can be removed from the weapon.

Clip- A device used to group cartridges together until inserted into a weapon’s magazine. Several common firearms use clips to load cartridges into non-detachable magazines, including the SKS and M-1 Garand.

Cartridges- Also called “rounds”, this is the most common type of ammunition in use. A metal cylinder holds a primer and a chemical propellant sealed behind a projectile called a “bullet”.

Assault Rifle- Contrary to popular opinion, there is a precise definition for this term. An Assault Rifle is a fully-automatic weapon which fires a light or medium-caliber cartridge and has a detachable magazine.

Battle Rifle- A large-caliber rifle which may be designed to accept either magazines or clips.

Caliber- The designation of the weapon’s bore diameter in either fractions of an inch (.223, .308. .45, etc) or in millimeters (5.56 mm, 7.62 mm, 9 mm, etc). Note that many firearms share the same bore diameter, but the cartridge casing may be much longer. Hence the intermediate cartridge 7.62 x 39 mm (commonly used in many rifles, including the AK-47) is not the same as the large cartridge 7.62 x 51 mm (also known as the .308, and commonly used in many rifles- including battle rifles and hunting rifles).

Assault Weapon- An artificial term for any semi-automatic firearm which superficially resembles a military firearm. This term is easy to confuse with Assault Rifle, despite their differences. To qualify as an “assault weapon”, various cosmetic accessories are all that are required to convert a “normal” firearm into an “assault weapon”.

Gun Show Loophole- A misnomer describing a design flaw in the national instant background check system. Any private citizen may sell a firearm to any other private citizen without requiring a background check (which is required whenever a firearm is purchased from a licensed firearms dealer). This was due to the way the instant background check system was set up, and private citizens were deliberately excluded from using the system by design.

High-Capacity Magazine- Another made-up term whose meaning depends on which side you ask. For firearms owners and enthusiasts, high-capacity magazines are those which hold cartridges in excess of the magazine the weapon was designed for. For those opposed to civilian firearms ownership, high-capacity means any magazine which holds more than some arbitrary number of cartridges ranging from 3 to 10.

Concealed Carry- In most states, citizens who wish to carry a concealed weapon must apply for a license to do so. Details vary by jurisdiction, but an extensive criminal and mental background investigation is common. Applicants are often required to take mandatory training in firearms safety before being issued a license.

Open Carry- The opposite of concealed carry. Wearing a firearm openly, for all to see. This is legal in some states, although a license may be required.

All clear now? Everybody speaking the same language at last? Now, let us discuss gun control.

The sheer hysteria generated whenever the words “gun control” are uttered is almost staggering. Those in favor of unrestricted firearms ownership immediately begin snarling nonsense about “cold dead fingers”, while those in favor of complete civilian disarmament start referring to the size of gun owners’ genitalia. There could be a middle ground, but the extremists on either side are drowning out everyone who might be willing to find one. People on one side are shrieking that “we have to do something!” while people on the other side feel like they’re being punished when they haven’t done anything wrong.

Let us start with some facts. There are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians in this country. The number of civilians owning firearms is estimated to be roughly 60 million, indicating that each firearms owner owns an average of five weapons (this is far from the case, but the minority who own dozens of firearms skew the average number high). There are approximately 10 million civilians licensed to carry concealed firearms in the US (note that some states have no licensing requirement for concealed carry, and this may skew the average low). In 2010, there were approximately 8,000 murders committed using firearms (roughly 6,000 by pistol, 350 by rifle, and 1,900 by “unreported type”). Two-thirds of all deaths caused by firearms (approximately 20,000 per year) are suicides. The FBI data shows that citizens with concealed carry licenses are less likely to commit a crime than almost any other group in the country- specifically including police officers.

If we’re going to talk about gun control, where do we start? By far the most common firearm used to commit murder is the pistol. Should we make all pistols illegal? Should we, the People, prohibit the manufacture, sale, and distribution of a product involved in the deaths of 6,000 people a year? If you answer “YES” to that question, does this answer hold for any such product, or are firearms somehow a special case? If pistols are the type of firearm used in most murders, why is the loudest hue and cry about so-called “assault weapons”?

Speaking of “assault weapons”, why is this firearm okay:

Mini-14

but this firearm:

Evil Mini-14

a tool of the devil?

For those of you playing at home, they are the same rifle. The first one is the standard Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle. It is a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine. The second image is also a Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle, but it has a bunch of accessories that make it look scary. Those accessories have no effect on how the weapon operates or how deadly it is, no matter what Senator Feinstein’s opinion may be. The pistol grip and collapsible stock make the weapon more comfortable to hold, and the attachment points on the fore-end are to enable easy attachment of accessories like a scope or light.

Here’s another pop quiz. Which of the following firearms is the most powerful?

AR15 Garand

They are both semi-automatic rifles, by the way. Far too many people have been nattering away about how the scary “assault weapon” (the first picture, obviously- the evil AR-15) is just too powerful to be owned by civilians. The AR-15 fires a .223 caliber cartridge. The “normal” appearing rifle beneath it is the M-1 Garand, which fires a 30-06 cartridge. For those of you unfamiliar with firearms, the Garand has more than twice the energy per shot than the AR-15. No one is talking about banning the M-1 Garand. In fact, the US Government has a long-standing program wherein the Government will provide ordinary citizens with a Garand if they join the Civilian Marksmanship Program.

Okay, fine. You must talk about dealing with the scourge of “assault weapons”. I have a couple of suggestions for gun control measures.

Suggestion 1- Since everyone seems to be terrified of the scary black guns, why not make ‘em pink? Start a government program to prohibit the sale of any civilian version of military weapons unless the weapon is permanently neon pink. Anyone who so desires may trade in their existing scary black gun for a brand new neon pink one. The government would have to subsidize the trade-ins, of course, similar to the “cash for clunkers” program for old cars. The manufacturer could either destroy the traded-in scary black guns in return for tax credits, make them permanently pink to comply with the law and re-sell ‘em, or ship them overseas.

The beauty of this scheme is the fact that everyone wins, and everyone will hate it. The folks opposed to civilian firearms ownership will be happier because there will be fewer scary black guns on the streets, but they won’t like the fact that there will still be firearms in civilian hands. Rational firearms enthusiasts won’t care much about the color if the weapons still function properly, so they can still enjoy their shooting sports. The pin-heads who seem to think they need a gun to be macho won’t touch a pink gun, so there will be even fewer of them in circulation (and the ones in circulation won’t be in the hands of weak-minded idiots). We could stimulate manufacturing and possibly ease the unemployment rate with one program.

Suggestion 2- Citizens can only own firearms equivalent to what law enforcement is permitted. Any weapon the cops can have, ordinary citizens can have. I’ve written before about the increasing militarization of civilian law enforcement. Get fully-automatic weapons out of the hands of civilian law enforcement- they have no need for them. The military needs full-auto weapons, because their job is supporting the government’s decision by force. This frequently involves full-scale combat against unfriendly strangers armed with automatic weapons. The police are supposed to enforce the law. Period. 40% of police vehicles in the US are supposedly equipped with AR-15 rifles. If true, removing identical weapons from ordinary civilians means the police aren’t being held to the same standards. This tends to encourage abuses of authority, and we already have too much of that.

Suggestion 3- Make the instant background check system as close to free as possible and require all firearms purchases to go through the check -even for private parties. Require a nation-wide 3-day waiting period before taking possession of a handgun, with the exception of those with concealed weapons licenses. Require all states to meet minimum standards for issuing concealed weapons licenses, and make every state treat a concealed carry license with the same deference accorded to driver’s licenses.

There you have it. Three solid suggestions for reducing the odds of another spree killing, while still allowing citizens to own and bear arms. Any one of the suggestions should also work whether or not any other is also implemented, and they should all pass Constitutional muster with the Nine Worthies.

Current status: Irked

Current Music: Fame by David Bowie





Just a Little Pin-Prick

17 12 2012

I have been remiss in not talking about a very important subject. Like most topics I deem worthy of a rant, the people at whom I direct my ire routinely disregard evidence and scientific inquiry in favor of what they believe the truth to be. The more evidence is provided which completely disproves their idiotic beliefs, the more strongly they cling to their irrational ideas. I am speaking, of course, about the anti-vaccination movement.

This could probably fall under the heading of “First World Problems”, mainly because this misguided effort to inflict misery and death in the form of preventable diseases seems to be solely the prerogative of wealthy Americans. Not content with helping measles and mumps make a comeback here in the US, these cretins are now trying to spread the misery to areas of the world already miserable from the prevalence of preventable illnesses.

Their stated objection is the presence of a chemical called Thimerisol in the vaccines intended for use by the UN World Health Organization in Africa. Thimerisol, for those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the anti-vaccination movement, is supposedly the embodiment of pure Evil which causes autism in children. Never mind that there is no evidence that Thimerisol causes autism, or that study after study has proven there is no link between vaccinations (with or without Thimerisol) and autism, a bunch of well-off white women think there’s a link, and that’s good enough for them. They’re not even content to just allow their own kids to fall victim to diseases which ought to be nearly non-existent in a First World country, they have created crusades to spread the word about this horrible conspiracy by doctors, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies to make their babies autistic.

Why is Thimerisol added to vaccines anyway, a more reasonable person might ask? It turns out that Thimerisol is a preservative, and is used to prevent the vaccine from going bad if un-refrigerated. Refrigeration is ubiquitous here in the US, but is much more rare in other parts of the world, such as a lot of Africa. If the vaccine is not kept properly refrigerated before being dispensed, the recipient can develop a nasty case of meningitis. Thimerisol prevents this from happening. Apparently the shrill suburbanites who oppose vaccinations would rather have 40,000 children die from measles in Africa (last year’s number) than be exposed to the living Hell that is life-saving medicine.

In a rational world, these frantic harpies would be ignored byeveryone with a functioning cerebellum for their willful ignorance. Sadly, the United States is apparently chock-full of people desperate to prove that it is someone else’s fault their kid has autism. “They gave my baby a shot right after delivery, and now he’s autistic!” “They’re giving our kids too many vaccinations too soon, and this overwhelms their little bodies and makes them autistic!” “It isn’t my fault- it has to be those evil pharmaceutical companies!”

Let’s see now. The doctor in the delivery room gave your baby a shot right after birth, and this somehow contaminated the poor tyke and caused permanent mental impairment. Here’s a clue for you: when your baby took its first breath, it inhaled several trillion microbes into its lungs along with the air. By comparison, the drug cocktail in the syringe is as close to sterile as medically possible. Furthermore, there’s a damned good reason to get that shot immediately- it protects the child from Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) causes chronic illness and roughly 3,000 deaths every year. 30-40% of those chronic illnesses result from childhood exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a schedule of recommended vaccinations for children, developed from research on preventing childhood diseases. Of course, to the anti-vaccination crowd, this only means that the CDC is part of the conspiracy.

How about that idea that the vaccinations are too much, too soon? Sorry, but that is also a crock of shit. Despite howls of protest from the anti-vaccination wing-nuts, yet another study has shot down this idea. There is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism- or any other neurological problem.

Every single time these anti-vaccination imbeciles come up with a new reason why no children should ever be protected from preventable and life-threatening diseases, doctors and scientists sigh heavily and conduct another study which proves that the anti-vaccination folks don;t know what the Hell they’re talking about. With every scientific defeat, these loons dredge up yet another outlandish theory about the causes of autism. They absolutely refuse to look at the scientific evidence which suggests that there’s a strong genetic component to autism. In some cases, the neurological abnormalities associated with autism have been observed in babies still in the womb. This alone should put the entire “vaccinations cause autism” bullshit to rest, and yet the “movement” continues to try and convince everyone else to refuse childhood vaccinations.

Why should we care? What does it matter if a bunch of suburban housewives refuse to let their precious snowflakes get vaccinated? It’ll be too bad for the kid when he or she gets dangerously sick from an easily preventable disease, but that’s the parent’s problem, right?

Wrong. There is a substantial minority of people in this country who cannot be vaccinated for some diseases, or who have depressed immune systems for a variety of reasons (such as cancer treatments). Very young children aren’t scheduled to get the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) shot until they’re 12 months old, so they are at risk until properly vaccinated. Older people whose vaccinations have lapsed or who may be allergic to a particular vaccine are also at risk. Ordinarily, they would all be protected by what doctors call “herd immunity”. If enough members of a group (such as the United States of America, for one example) have or are given immunity or resistance to a particular disease, there will be so few cases of the disease that the few who lack the immunity/resistance can be relatively safe.

No longer. Thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, the number of measles cases in the US doubled between 2008 and 2009, with 89% of the victims being children whose parents had refused vaccination. In 1996, there were four deaths from Pertussis (whooping cough) in the US. By 2001, the number was 17- most of them infants under one year old. Since the deeply stupid anti-vaccination craze took hold, there have been roughly 5,000 cases of mumps across the US, with roughly 15 deaths per year.

For those of you not really paying attention so far, allow me to sum up: People (including children) are dying of easily preventable diseases here in the US because of a group of anti-scientific imbeciles who refuse to listen to facts and evidence. Is that clear enough for you?

Here are some more facts for you:

Fewer youngsters worldwide are dying of childhood diseases now than at any other time in history. About 80% of children today are vaccinated against such deadly illnesses as measles and polio, compared with 20% in the early 1980s.

There were an estimated 30 to 40 million cases of measles in 2000, causing some 777,000 deaths.

…immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Health officials say aggressive efforts to vaccinate young children against measles have resulted in a 74 percent global decline in the number of deaths due to the illness [between 2000 and 2007]. Experts say the biggest decline, 90 percent, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”

In England and Wales, measles cases increased 36% in 2008. Measles cases more than doubled from the year before during the first half of 2008 in the United States.

“Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.”

Amy Wallace

Pay attention to the numbers above. Doctors are often accused of only providing treatments, but not cures. Vaccines have provided one of the really few bright spots in medical history, where the docs can say they have a definite win. Polio is almost extinct. Small pox now only exists in a few laboratories. Those diseases once devastated millions, and are now all but eradicated, thanks to vaccines. Are we going to throw all that away because a few deeply stupid people in the US “don’t feel right” about it?

Special thanks to Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, whose excellent writing on the subject convinced me to add my miniscule voice to the chorus.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Youngblood by Naked and Famous





Cliff Diving

3 12 2012

If you are considered a sentient life form and live in the United States, you should know about the “looming fiscal cliff”. In order to remain ignorant of the “fiscal cliff”, you would have to work very hard at avoiding any form of media for months on end- starting back in June. Since you are reading this on your computer, I can safely assume you might be aware of the existence of this fiduciary peril. Not many people really understand much beyond the nifty name, however. In order to do any trace amounts of justice to the topic, I’ll have to delve into some history. Try not to disturb the other students with your snoring.

Back in the bad old days (the summer of 2011), the US government was about to hit its Congressionally-set limit on how much money it could borrow. This is known as the “Debt Ceiling”. Historically, whenever the government approaches this limit, Congress harumphs loudly and raises its own credit limit. This is possible because Congress is apparently immune to cause and effect, rational thought, or any possibility of serving the public who hired them. The idea of living within our national means does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Congress, ever.

At any rate, raising the debt ceiling- particularly in the middle of a fiscal year- was never a big deal until the summer of 2011. That was when the opponents of President Obama decided to use what used to be a pro-forma action to get even with him for being insufficiently republican, or something. Despite a couple of centuries of nearly-automatic approval for raising the debt limit, the House of Representatives voted to play “chicken” with the country’s credit rating.

Mind you, a great many people whose business it is to know such things warned repeatedly that playing stupid political games over the country’s ability to borrow money would have consequences. These warnings had no observable effect on the Congress-critters who were dead set on using the issue to punish the president for some imagined transgressions. The credit ratings agencies which decide how much it costs to borrow money weighed in, warning that this sort of partisan dickery would lower the country’s credit rating, but Congress didn’t listen- even after the US credit rating was downgraded. The end result of this political bullshit? Glad you asked. First, it now costs the government more to borrow money, making our financial situation even less secure. Second, Congress decided to pass a law allowing our debt limit to increase if a certain set of conditions were met. The rest of the government agreed to meet those conditions, and the crisis was averted … sort of.

Those “conditions” in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling were pretty basic. First, Congress would have to form a special committee to negotiate budget and spending cuts to avoid such problems in future. This committee would be formed of equal numbers of democrats and republicans, from both Houses of Congress, and they had to come to an agreement by a certain date, or a bunch of extremely painful spending cuts would automatically take effect … more than a year later. If you think that all boils down to merely postponing the problem until after the next General Election, you have a lot of company in that opinion.

To no one’s surprise, the Super-Committee utterly failed to reach any sort of agreement, so- theoretically- a great many budget cuts would automatically take place on January 1st, 2013 (the so-called “Fiscal Cliff”). The problem, of course, is that Congress can always pass a law to nullify the law they passed earlier. The House republicans were confident that they’d win enough additional seats in the House and Senate (and possibly the White House) during the General Election to allow them to merely ignore the spending cuts by Congressional fiat.

Oops.

Contrary to the optimistic predictions of the republicans, they lost seats in the House and Senate and failed to win the Presidency. The ultra-faux-conservative “Tea Party” wing of the republican party took the brunt of the public ire, which might- theoretically- make it easier for House republicans to compromise with democrats and the White House to avoid the upcoming budget cuts. Early returns are in, and the same problems which prevented the “Super-Committee” from accomplishing anything are still in place. The Speaker of the House is still acting like he’s the one driving the debate, and is unwilling to compromise. The democrats are acting like they were the big winners in the General Election, and are pushing for concessions from the republicans. The People … well, we’re pretty much screwed no matter what happens.

One of the painful budget issues which start on New Year’s Day is the expiration of the “temporary” tax cuts from the previous administration. This means that everyone in the US who earns a paycheck is going to pay more in taxes. One group in the government wants to make those tax cuts permanent. Their opponents want to allow the tax cuts to expire, then re-instate them for everyone making less than $250K per year. Since neither side appears to be willing to budge on this, you can count on paying more in taxes in 2013. It will be mildly painful- basically returning to the tax levels from the end of the Clinton administration- but we, the People, have survived worse. It’s the rest of the slash-and-burn budget cutting which is going to really throw a wrench into the economy’s gears.

Here is the White House description of what is going to happen should the government go over the fiscal cliff. Note that, even in an official White House document, the President can’t resist taking a few partisan jabs at his opponents. Note also that Congress wrote a lot of exemptions into the budget butchery they approved. Things like Congressional perks are in no danger of having to make sacrifices.

Short version (the linked document is almost 400 pages long): Sweeping spending cuts to every single program in the federal budget go into effect on January 1st. These cuts will affect every program, no matter how important. The democrats are facing cuts to social welfare programs like Medicare, and the republicans are facing deep cuts in military programs. Everyone will feel the pain. Congress-critters will face lost jobs in their districts as government and military programs are reduced or eliminated. People on Welfare or Medicare will get less support from the Federal government and the States. Consumer Safety organizations will be forced to curtail inspections of workplaces, factories, and food-production facilities. The military will have to eliminate research and development of weapons systems and procurement of replacement parts. People will lose their jobs. The ripple effects from this sort of draconian budget cutting will slow the economy so badly we may slip back into recession and stay there for a long time. Among other things, our credit rating will take another hit, making it even harder for the government to borrow money.

Why is all this happening? Why is the government risking the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans on political brinksmanship? The short answer is the fact that our elected representatives are more interested in making political points than in doing the job they were hired to do (running the country, for those of you not paying attention).

Governing in a democracy- or a democratic republic like ours- is dependent upon compromise. Those who we elect to represent us in government are expected to do the work of keeping the country running. This involves providing basic functions which are beyond the ability of individuals, localities, or States to provide. Our elected representatives are expected to debate, negotiate, and compromise as necessary to provide these essential functions and services.  Despite that, our elected representatives spend most of their time trying to score points at the expense of their political rivals. The tone of political discourse has grown increasingly combative and strident over the last couple of decades. Both sides demonize the other, and issue public statements claiming that their political rivals are enemies of the people. This is hardly an environment conducive to debate, negotiation, or compromise. Why do they continue with this course of action, which is so profoundly at odds with their actual job?

Because we let them get away with it.

Too many Americans are willing to allow their elected representatives to commit any perfidy so long as they aren’t personally discomfited thereby. So long as they have a few perks of their own, too many Americans have been willing to let the government descend into partisan bickering and gridlock because there was something amusing or titillating on TV. Guess what, Sparky? The free ride is over. Best part? It’s your own damned fault.

So buckle in, everyone. We’re going for a wild ride over a fiscal cliff of our own making. Note that the safety of those buckles cannot be guaranteed, because the government regulators who are supposed to inspect them for quality were laid off. Enjoy the ride!

Wile-E-Coyote_falling

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Young Turks by Rod Stewart





Reality vs Fantasy

19 11 2012

When I was in High School, I used to spend lots of time creating worlds. I mapped out continents, developed what I thought were internally consistent climate and weather patterns, designed and built centers of population, created languages and religions, and wrote extensive backgrounds (history) for all of the above. All of this was part of my responsibility as game master for my group of friends when we played role-playing games. As I grew older and learned more, my creations grew ever more complex. This had the effect of consuming huge swaths of time which ate into my social life, such as it was. Much of that work was apparently lost on the players in my games, who never seemed to wonder why a particular dungeon was where it was, or why a particular warlord acted the way he did. This took away from my enjoyment of the labor somewhat, but I still enjoyed it. As an intellectual exercise, it requires at least a cursory knowledge of history, geography, geology, linguistics, biology, physics, and a host of other disciplines. Role-playing gaming, then, was the “gateway drug” for a lifelong interest in science.

The point of this blather is not merely shameless self-congratulation. Despite my often intense focus on building “realities” for fantasy universes, I never thought they were real. They were mental playgrounds, a shared experience with my friends in which we could exercise our imaginations, nothing more. My position as game master did not grant me any special status or authority with my friends outside the game, nor did I expect such. The games were fantasy, not reality, and we all knew the difference. As a side note, we never allowed our fantasies to unduly interrupt the reality of such things as girlfriends or parties. All this is as it should be. The fantasies we built and shared during the game were no more than fantasies, and the fantastic realities of “real life” always reigned supreme. Since High School, I have continued to indulge in my hobby of building fantasy worlds, but I am far more intrigued and awed by the sheer spectacle of the real world, which is far more fantastic than anything I’ve created.

That brings me to the real point of this rant. My political views haven’t changed much over the past couple of decades, and I was always considered fairly conservative until the last ten years or so. The “conservative” portion of the US political dimension has shifted so far to the right that I’ve been recently accused of being a democrat. So far, not much of a problem. Political winds are always shifting, and political labels are- in my opinion- largely a waste of time.

The problem arises from the flavor of the red shift. Far too many who call themselves conservatives conflate that term with “religious”, and specifically with a particularly vexatious form of evangelical christianity. You can believe whatever you want to believe, and even try to convince others of the rightness of your beliefs. If I want to believe that the current republican party should rename itself the christian nationalist party, that’s my privilege. Likewise, it is the right of the fanatical christians currently infesting the conservative position on the political graph to consider me a communist because I refuse to allow them to make my country into a theocracy. You have the right to your beliefs, but you don’t have the right to your own facts.

Let us take a look at what makes the US the preeminent military and (for the moment anyway) economic power on Earth. Science, and the technology that pursuit of science gives us is what made the US a superpower. The pursuit of science has enabled and sustains our current extravagant way of life. So why, then, are the christian nationalists republicans so hell-bent on destroying our scientific and technological edge?

Case in point: Current US Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the science and space subcommittee in the US Senate, was recently asked if he knew the age of the Earth. I don’t know about you, but everyone I know could easily answer that question with a modest margin of error- including my teenage niece. Rather than directly answering the question, Senator Rubio decided to try and waffle his way out of the issue. You see, if he had given the right answer (defined as the one with mountains of physical evidence and scientific consensus), he would have angered the christian nationalists, and this would have a deleterious effect on his future political aspirations as part of the christian nationalist party. On the other hand, if he had given the preferred answer of the christian nationalists (the wrong answer), he would anger the entire rest of the voting population. So he waffled, and tried to please both sides. This satisfied no one, of course. Perhaps the Senator should take a hard look at the demographics of the christian nationalists and realize that they are (fortunately) a dying breed, and act like a well-educated US citizen with at least a middle-school grasp of basic science.

And it is basic. You are reading this tripe courtesy of advances in quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and electronic theory. It is a fair bet that at least a few of those reading are eating something recently warmed up in a microwave. That microwave is not powered by magic or witchcraft. If your textured-vegetable-protein burrito got hot when you hit the “start” button on your microwave, then quantum mechanics, physics, and electronics all work the way they’re supposed to. All of those same disciplines work because they’re based on fundamental principles of science developed from observation and experimentation over centuries. Those same fundamental principles also govern the scientific disciplines which tell us the age of the Earth with a fair bit of precision (4.54 billion years, plus or minus about 30 million). All of these disciplines together give us things like the global positioning system satellites, which would not work if those fundamental principles were wrong.

Despite all of this, the rabid god-botherers among us refuse to accept objective reality. They have built a fantasy world wherein bronze-age mysticism is somehow equivalent (or superior) to what they can see with their own eyes. They refuse to believe that their particular version of their sacred texts is anything less than the Laws of the Universe. The fact that they aren’t even following their own texts doesn’t make a lick of difference to these people. They have decided to live in a fantasy world which they like better than the real one.

Okay, so what? They can believe whatever they want, right?

Up to a point. That point is where they try to force the rest of us to live in their fantasy world. The religiously deluded are convinced that they have the duty to force everyone else to believe as they do, and they are working very hard to make their fantasy a reality. Several political candidates in the latest demopocalypse even went so far as to say out loud beliefs they normally don’t mention outside their little circles of like-minded co-religionists. Note carefully that every one of those candidates got treated harshly by the US electorate. Note also that, in the aftermath of the electoral kick in the balls the christian nationalists suffered on November 6th, the refrain from the religious conservatives has not been calls to bring their party in line with objective reality, it has rather been calls to stop saying what they really believe in public.

These people are literally deluded. They really believe that they can enforce their religious totalitarianism on the rest of the country, and they cast their votes accordingly. Altogether, they aren’t that numerous, but they can all be reliably counted upon to vote, and this gives them influence far beyond their numbers. Thus we have a US Senator with possible hopes for a future run for the Presidency trying desperately to avoid causing these irrational people any distress.

If that doesn’t scare you, perhaps you are living in a fantasy world.

Current status: Profoundly irked

Current music: Long Cool Woman by the Hollies








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