A Smattering of Miscellania

24 07 2011

When I post an article here, I prefer to focus on one subject- or at least, on a series of deeply inter-related topics. This gives me space to delve into the facts and occasionally extrapolate the consequences of those facts into the future. Sometimes, however, the topic du jour does not lend itself to such analysis and discussion, which would result in a very brief posting with commensurately less value. At other times, there are so many topics in the news that I have trouble providing the depth of focus those events deserve. This is one of those times.

NewsCorp

According to most researchers not directly involved on either side, Montgomery Burns’ Rupert Murdoch’s publications have been conducting illegal raids into the cell phones of newsmakers for a considerable period of time. Aside from being illegal, the information so gathered is unlikely to be considered newsworthy to anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature. The now-defunct News of the World, however, pandered directly to the prurient interests of the stupid. The editors of that rag therefore gleefully published every hint of salacious gossip they could squeeze out of those illegal downloads- and profited mightily. All that is bad- unquestionably immoral as well as illegal.

Those same researchers have concluded that many other publications and news organizations use essentially the same slimy tactics to draw in readers/viewers, and thereby increase their ad revenue. For this, they should all be lined up outside Parliament to answer for their misdeeds. NewsCorp’s goons went completely beyond the pale, however. Where Murdoch’s henchmen really jerked the trigger was when they hacked into the voice mail records of a missing girl who later turned out to have been murdered. Completely erasing any vain hopes that they might yet retain a few shreds of human decency, the hackers deleted some of the voice mails in order to allow more voice mails to be recorded for them to profit from. There is some evidence that NewsCorp personnel also tried to hack into the voice mail records of victims of the 9/11 attacks for the same purposes. If either claim is true, the perpetrators should be lined up against a wall and shot.

There is an unspoken bargain between the media and the public. We put up with many of their questionable antics as part of the price we have agreed to pay for unfettered access to the truth. In return, the media are supposed to report the facts and occasionally give their opinions on the significance of those facts. We have accepted that certain public figures will lose a significant amount of privacy as a result of this bargain, but those who become newsworthy through no fault of their own- like young women who get kidnapped and murdered, for example- should be allowed as much privacy as possible by the media. News organizations which breach this public trust should be scoured from the Earth with fire. The survivors should then take the lessons to heart, and we could then return to factual news reporting in lieu of the “journalistic, infotainment-like art product” we are now subjected to.

Putting the “Final” in Final Frontier

I’ve written about NASA before, and rarely in a positive way. In a generation, NASA went from the bleeding edge of space exploration to bumming rides into orbit from the Russians. The US has received great benefits from our exploration of space, not least of which is a lot of national pride. That pride has been misplaced for at least a couple of decades. NASA turned away from sustainable manned space exploration in favor of the shuttle program. If the shuttles had been used as originally intended- as part of a generational effort to send humans throughout the solar system- the US space program would not now be in its current sorry state.

Relying on private industry to return Americans to space will be a very long wait. The return-on-investment from space exploration takes a very long time, and the up-front non-recoverable expenses are enormous. There’s a reason the Russian, European, Chinese, and Japanese governments run their respective space programs- only government have the cash to undertake such dangerous work with the pay-off taking generations.

In their short-sighted ignorance, Congress is turning the country’s back on space. Never mind the material benefits we’ve already received from space exploration, just considering the military advantages of mastering space makes this decision a turning point in America’s destiny. We have stopped looking forward, and started turning inward. Historically, societies which do this tend to decline rapidly.

I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: Humans will explore and exploit the solar system. Those humans will almost certainly not be speaking English.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

When the news first broke about the carnage in Oslo, almost everybody immediately jumped to the conclusion that Islamic extremists were responsible. This could perhaps be understood, given that Islamic extremism gets most of the press these days. What is less understandable is the fact that few of those who publicly denounced the massacre in Norway as the result of Islamic fundamentalism have come forward to admit they were wrong. Another fact which is less than understandable is the relative paucity of news coverage on this side of the Atlantic. As soon as the bomber/shooter was revealed to be a right-wing christian conservative xenophobe, the coverage dropped off precipitously.

Granted, US news organizations are traditionally uninterested in news overseas which doesn’t involve Americans, but the speed at which this story dropped below the fold is astonishing. Apparently, you can;t sell newspapers or advertising space unless the atrocities are committed by muslims.  We need to get past this blind spot and face facts- there are a lot of loonie-toons out there. I guarantee that several people knew the shooter and many more read his facebook. Those people could have called attention to the fact that he had lost his ticket to the rationality train and this tragedy might have been prevented thereby. We also need to come to grips with the fact that almost every single muslim you meet is just an ordinary person going about his or her life just like you are. He or she is entitled to believe what they wish, providing their actions on those beliefs do not intrude upon the rights of others- just like you. I have no use for Islam, or any other flavor of religion. That said, my personal desire to have no truck with gods does not make me hate those who want to believe. Instead of focusing on the fact that another person might believe something differently than you do, try paying attention to how they act. Minding your own business is the very best rule for a civilized society. The fact that so many are unwilling or unable to mind their own business is direct evidence that our society is no civilized.

To Be or Not To Be

… in a world of shit. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to ignore the manifold stupidities coming out of Washington or endure the intelligence-destroying fumes throughout the Logic-Free Zone in an attempt to forestall a global economic disaster.

Leaving my butchery of Shakespeare aside for the moment, the gaggle of criminal imbeciles we’ve elected to Congress are playing a game of Chicken- with the life and livelihood of most of the planet as the stakes. No matter who “wins”, we all lose. For those of you who don’t understand the extent of the crisis, let’s review a couple of basic facts:

1- The US currency is what is known as “fiat” currency. This means that it is backed up by nothing more than “the full faith and credit of the US Government”. In other words, you can buy something with a dollar because everybody agrees that it is a viable medium of exchange. There are some very good reasons why this is so, but there are risks.

2- The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Translated, this means that the dollar is accepted all around the world for almost any purchases. Many other currencies measure their value against the US dollar. The US government makes a modest amount of profit from these facts, and our current consumer-based economy is absolutely dependent upon it.

3- One of the biggest outstanding debts in the US budget are Treasury bonds. The US borrows money by selling bonds, with a promise to pay the buyer back with more money than the original purchase. US treasury bonds are considered the safest investment on the planet, and everybody buys them. The US enjoys extremely low interest rates when borrowing money as a result of the stellar reputation of our bonds for safety. Congress- specifically, the House of Representatives- decides how many bonds the government can sell. This is known as the Debt Ceiling.

4- The Debt Ceiling was actually reached back in May of this year. This means that the US government can only pay out what is currently coming in. In order to buy more time before a default, the US government started cutting back on some functions to allow Congress to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government operating.

5- The US takes in about $200 Billion each month in revenues (taxes, fees, etc). We pay out about $330 Billion each month. Once we reach the end of our current reserves, many government functions will be completely shut down for lack of money.

In the event Congress fails to pull their heads from their collective asses, the President will have to make a whole bunch of difficult choices on which bill gets paid. Failure to pay interest on our outstanding debt  (currently estimated at $400 Billion per year) would cause economic upheaval all over the world. Leaving all that aside for a moment, it would also cost the US our current low interest rate for debt. Among other things, our annual debt-service payment would rise to somewhere north of $600 Billion per year. Any future borrowing would also be subject to higher interest rates, creating a self-perpetuating spiral of default and higher payments.

Now let us examine some of those real-world repercussions from a US default. Financial institutions all around the world would take a beating as customers try to convert their savings into usable forms. International trade would be severely affected for decades until a stable reserve currency could be created. US business would find it harder to do business overseas as credit dries up. Several million government workers- including the military- would suddenly find themselves going without a paycheck. Companies which provide goods and services to the government would stop getting paid and no new orders for their goods and services would be coming in. Furloughed government workers would have to dramatically cut back on expenses until the mess gets straightened out, and some of them will go bankrupt. The businesses which provide goods and services to those people would take a large financial hit from which many will not recover. The people thrown out of work as a result of this will all be looking for unemployment benefits, which the states will be unlikely to be able to pay. State services which are partially or wholly funded by the Federal government such as Medicare and Medicaid will suffer funding cuts, which will affect the services they can offer.

The ripple effects of a default would leave chaos and catastrophe in their wake, both here and overseas. Yet our elected officials are playing political games with the lives and livelihoods of billions of people at stake. Whether or not the debt ceiling gets raised, the stupid antics of the clowns-in-office is putting the country’s credit rating at risk. Our government’s inability to do their fucking jobs without playing political fuck-you games is a greater threat than any number of homicidal religious fanatics.

That’s All Folks

That’s all for this week. Don’t forget to stock up on booze, porn, and ammunition. You can use the ammo to protect booze and porn you’ll be trading for food.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People

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The Sky’s the Limit!

10 07 2011

Once upon a time, that expression meant that there were no limits. The implication was that the sky included the sun, moon, stars, and the spaces between. Now, that expression has become a self-imposed limitation on American scientific endeavor.

I’ll not weary you with the extremely long list of benefits the country and the world have received as a result of the Space Program. It has been done by others far more eloquent than I. I’ll merely mention that one would be hard-pressed to find any aspect of life in the US which bears no debt to the spin-off technologies from the space program in general and the manned space program in particular. In a classic case of “what have you done for me lately?”, America has turned its back on space.

The US manned space program is effectively over. Quite aside from the bittersweet launch of Atlantis being the end of the shuttle program, there is no program currently in the works to put any Americans in space for the foreseeable future. The Constellation program, which was originally hailed as a return to Apollo’s roots, was mismanaged to the point where even die-hard space enthusiasts couldn’t defend it any longer and was eliminated- several years over schedule and still years from producing a working spacecraft/launch vehicle combination. For at least a decade, any Americans going into orbit will be guests on some foreign nation’s spacecraft.

That decade may turn into several. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to savagely cut back on funding for NASA in particular and science in general. Perhaps someone could explain to the members of Congress that the one real advantage the US has over any potential rivals is the technology which has granted us command of space. From satellite communications to electronic eavesdropping to orbital reconnaissance, the US enjoys a massive military edge over any possible threat. That edge has to be kept sharp by legions of engineers and scientists, lest we lose our technological- and thereby our military- advantages.

The Economist has a depressingly accurate article titled, “The End of the Space Age“. Americans in particular and the western world in general are increasingly turning inward mentally. So long as the space program was breaking new barriers and going “where no man has gone before“, generations of schoolchildren wanted to be astronauts and studied mathematics and science. Some of the best engineering and science schools in the world were built and staffed to provide the required training for these professions. To this day, shuttle launches and rocket launches draw large crowds in meatspace and cyberspace alike. Despite this obvious popularity, many universities in the US are cutting back on their science and engineering programs, and Congress is hell-bent on gutting NASA, the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This is nothing less than an assault on science and technology in the United States, ostensibly made in the interest of saving money. Since the sums involved are relatively tiny fractions of the bloated US budget, Congress’ action smacks more of “stunt cost-cutting”- making it look like they’re doing something without actually addressing the problems.

Leaving aside the raping of science funding, let us look at what it takes to make a space program work: Thousands of engineers, technicians, and scientists. These skilled professionals are being forced to take jobs with private companies as the US space program winds down. These men and women possess skills and knowledge which are literally irreplaceable. Assuming the US decided to fully fund a manned space program tomorrow afternoon, re-hiring the skills and knowledge base which has been lost would be extremely expensive. Failing to recover those skilled personnel, it would take years to train and educate a new cadre of professionals to run any new space program.

If cutting costs was the reasoning behind the decision to gut NASA/NOAA/NSF/NIST, I’m sure there are many better sources for the alleged savings. How about the DEA? The staffing budget alone was a little over 2.1 Billion dollars for fiscal year 2011. If the government would quit worrying about pot smokers and growers, I’m sure the DEA could stand a little thinning here and there. Let’s take 25% off the top- call it $500 million. How about the TSA? Everybody hates those jack-booted neanderthals, and with good reason. They’re not just corrupt, power-tripping, authoritarian fuckwits, they’re also completely useless at their intended function. Their budget for 2011 was roughly 43 billion dollars. How about taking 25% off their budget? That would save a cool $10 billion. Shutting down our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan would save a couple hundred billion dollars all by themselves. Since NASA’s budget was less than $20 Billion this year, we could keep all the agencies running at full strength and still cut costs.

I’m sure I am not alone in my desire to maintain a first-rate space program in the US. There have to be others out there who, like me, understand what it means to lose the technological dominance and the literal high ground that dominance has brought us. Those people must speak up and make their wishes known to the hypocritical jackasses which infest the nation’s capitol. Contact your Representatives and Senators and let them know you are appalled by the callous disregard they are showing to the science and technology which makes the US so powerful. I’m off to do that as soon as I post this.

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Sugar We’re Going Down by Fall-Out Boy





Miss Ogyny

5 07 2011

I’ve long noted the tendency toward racism and xenophobia among the rabidly religious in the US. I had thought, however, that much of the institutional misogyny endemic in fundamental christianity had been muted and/or driven underground. It appears that this is not the case.

In some southern states, laws have been passed requiring any woman who suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth has to  prove that she did not cause the miscarriage or stillbirth. Suffering through a miscarriage is bad enough. Forcing women to defend themselves against criminal charges after such a traumatic experience borders on sadism. Scratch that- it is sadism. The more so since approximately 10-20% of all pregnancies spontaneously abort before the 20th week. This fact is apparently lost on the devotees of the christian caliphate in America. They’re not interested in facts or evidence, they’ve got to make sure none of the women get “uppity”.

Why does the Guardian, a British newspaper, seem to be the only news agency discussing the fact that the American Taliban are trying to put women in prison for suffering a miscarriage? Why is this not national news? Are the people in Mississippi and Alabama merely ignorant of what their elected representatives are doing in their name, or simply apathetic? Worse, are the people in those states so mind-controlled by their religion that they’ll accept any barbarism if the parson says it’s OK?

Elsewhere in the fundamentalist christian War Against Women, the state of Kansas seems to have decided that murdering George Tiller wasn’t enough to prevent women from getting abortions, so they’ve decided to get sneaky. They passed a law mandating that all abortion clinics or women’s health clinics in the state must meet some esoteric requirements for how the clinic is designed. The law demands that various rooms and offices be of specific sizes and dimensions. The rules are incredibly detailed- far more than the requirements for hospitals, for example- and were drawn up to be prohibitively expensive. The best part of this exercise was the fact that the minimum standards were not published or made available to the clinics in Kansas until three days before the law went into effect. Clinics are free to request a waiver or extension from these rules, but the law also grants the sole discretionary authority for approval of such requests with an appointed official- who just happens to be a rabid evangelical christian friend of the Governor and vehemently opposed to abortion for any reason.

For those of you not paying attention, allow me to translate: In direct contravention of federal law and multiple Supreme Court rulings, Kansas has effectively ended abortion in the state. Women with money or connections can still travel outside Kansas to get an abortion, but the large majority of women in Kansas are without enough money or connections. Those women have effectively lost the right to run their own lives and do with their bodies as they wish.

Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no day care, no head start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re fucked. Conservatives don’t give a shit about you until you reach ‘military age’. Then they think you are just fine. Just what they’ve been looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. Pro-life… pro-life… These people aren’t pro-life, they’re killing doctors! What kind of pro-life is that? What, they’ll do anything they can to save a fetus but if it grows up to be a doctor they just might have to kill it? They’re not pro-life. You know what they are? They’re anti-woman. Simple as it gets, anti-woman. They don’t like them. They don’t like women. They believe a woman’s primary role is to function as a brood mare for the state. Pro-life… You don’t see many of these white anti-abortion women volunteering to have any black fetuses transplanted into their uteruses, do you? No, you don’t see them adopting a whole lot of crack babies, do you? No, that might be something Christ would do. ” — George Carlin

Why? Why is it so important for these christian fundamentalists to exert control over a woman’s body? Will the religious fuckwits in the Kansas state government pay for medical care for women who would be forced to carry all pregnancies to term? How about caring for the unwanted children the women of Kansas will be forced to bring into the world- will the would-be theocrats of Kansas provide them with homes, educations, and worthwhile lives? Will the fundamentalist ministers in Kansas provide for the surviving families of women who died from complications related to childbirth because abortions were not available for any reason?

I have an idea for you religious shitbags who demand the power to control the lives of others: if you don’t have a uterus, you don’t get any say in how it gets used. Shut the fuck up and mind your own damned business!

Current status: Teetering on the edge of a murderous rampage

Current music: Sweet Disposition by Temper Trap