Resting On Our Laurels

20 07 2016

Forty-seven years ago, a small spacecraft from Earth set down on the surface of the moon. There were two humans onboard, with a third remaining in orbit. Everyone on Earth- or at least those who had access to global information- looked up into the sky at that moment in awe. For a brief moment in time, everyone on Earth connected to international news looked skyward and said, “D-a-a-a-a-amn!”

Since that day, almost a half-century ago, ten more humans travelled from Earth to visit our nearest neighbor in space. They conducted some scientific tests and collected a lot of samples.Then, they all came back home. By any standards, the Apollo program was an amazing technical achievement. Never mind the fact that it would never have happened if not for political and military posturing by earth’s two most powerful nations, it was a truly amazing feat of engineering and science.

Since December in 1972, when Apollo-17 departed, no one has gone back.Think on that for a moment: the high-water mark of manned spaceflight ended forty-four years ago.What happened? Why did we stop?

The late Carl Sagan also wondered about this. He wrote an article in 1989 saying, among other things, “The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, made those odd skipping motions they called ‘moonwalks’ on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured there. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened?

For one shining moment, humanity looked out at the vastness of space and knew that the stars were in our future. Then we turned our backs on the stars and went home. Despite the fact that semi-literate children in countries without regular electrical service now walk around with pocket radios with more computing power than any of the Apollo spacecraft, we’ve never gone farther than low-Earth orbit.

Apollo cost the US about $25 Billion at the time. Adjusting for inflation, that runs to a bit over $100 Billion today. One hundred billion dollars today is only about 16% of the US Defense budget (roughly $600 Billion), or a hair under 3% of the entire US budget ($3.54 Trillion).

By the way, do you know how much of the current US budget goes to NASA? $18.5 Billion. Basically one half of one percent (0.52%) of the US budget is used to fund NASA. That’s for everything at NASA- toilet paper, administrator salaries, office supplies, and space.

To put all the data into words: NASA has been achieving amazing science and developing mind-blowing technology, putting robot spacecraft into orbit around planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and dropping robot scouts onto the surface of Mars on a budget consisting of the spare change Uncle Sam found under the couch cushions.

Those robots are doing some outstanding work. For some exploration, they’re actually preferable to humans. But the robots just aren’t as adaptable as a Mark One, Mod Zero educated plains ape. For one example, the Opportunity rover has been on Mars since 2004, and has travelled a bit more than 26 miles in those twelve years. On Earth, humans routinely run that distance in a few hours.

Humans are far more versatile and adaptable than our robots. But they require a lot of very heavy equipment and infrastructure to get them to the exploration site and keep them in working order long enough to get some science done. This is a significant downside to manned spaceflight, but something we can fix. It just takes time and effort-which means money.

We are totally getting our money’s worth out of the Space program using robots, but manned spaceflight could be accomplishing so much more. All it takes is money and the will to use it. We have the money. Hell, trim 5% off the military budget and give it to NASA. That’s roughly $30 Billion dollars more for space exploration, and the military obviously doesn’t need it- the US spends more on our military than the next dozen countries combined. Almost forty percent of all military spending on Earth goes to the US military.

Granted that we need our military to be the best in the world, even by American standards this is overkill. Let us put some of that cash to use out in space, instead. Let us also note that I am not NASA’s friend. Too many scientists and engineers are being sidelined by paper-pushers and politically-connected bozos. But they are the best game in town, so we (the US) has to use NASA, or nothing.

It’s been 44 years since the last humans left the moon. We have been resting on our laurels for far too long. Humans from the United States once walked on the moon. Sooner or later, more humans will be exploring and exploiting the solar system. If we don’t get off our collective asses, we can be fairly certain those people exploring and exploiting the system will not be speaking English.

 

Current status: Pissed off

Current music: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton





Wrapped in the Flag and Carrying a Cross.

18 06 2016

That headline is from a quote by Sinclair Lewis which seems more and more to be chillingly prescient. Here’s another quote appropriate to the topic at hand:

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”- George Santayana

You may be curious about where I’m going with these quotes. I’m going to post a link to a news article here that will make my meaning crystal clear:

http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/14/politics/newt-gingrich-house-un-american-activities-committee/

Is everyone all through vomiting at the idea? Good. Let us continue.

For those who may have been living in a cave for the past few decades, there is an election approaching. This country has been mired in an election campaign for what seems like six or seven squintillion years. A campaign where the presumed nominee of one of the two major political parties has been openly espousing fascist ideology and overt racism to throngs of cheering supporters. Those same supporters who appear to be just fine with physically attacking anyone who vaguely hints at disagreement with their Leader or anyone with a less than lilly white skin tone. Supporters who have openly warned they would resort to violence if their Leader doesn’t win.

That’s bad enough, but now we have a retired politician from that same major political party saying- on camera- to a news organization that the country needs to return to the halcyon days of yesteryear in the form of the House Un-American Activities Commission. If you aren’t familiar with HUAC, go look it up. I’ll wait.

Here’s a bit of background for those unwilling to learn from history. In the 1950’s, a US Congressman names Joseph McCarthy claimed that he was in possession of a list of communists who had “infiltrated” the US government. He gleefully exploited public fear over the “Red Menace” (OMFG- the eebil rooshians are gonna come pollute our precious bodily fluids!) to establish the House Un-American Activities Commission in order to search out these communist infiltrators, wherever they might be- presumably including under your bed.

And so, the witch hunt was on. American citizens were accused to being communists or communist sympathizers, and the resulting public furor meant most of them lost their jobs and couldn’t get hired anywhere else. People were exhorted to inform on their friends, neighbors, and relatives if there was even a vague hint of “un-American activities”. Fear and prejudice and panic ensued, resulting in the director of the FBI investigating thousands of government employees to determine if they were sufficiently loyal to the United States- essentially based upon whether or not J Edgar Hoover agreed with their politics. Actors, writers, journalists, and publishers joined government workers in the endless search for the evil commies.

Please note that there was no burden of proof involved. Merely being accused was enough to destroy someone’s life and livelihood, and even successfully avoiding getting convicted in court wasn’t enough to undo the damage caused by being denounced.

This is what “the smartest man in the GOP” has publicly called for. On camera.

Never mind that HUAC was a cynically successful ploy by a small number of senior government officials and congressmen to gather more power for themselves. All these few people had to do was continually warn everyone they were in danger from godless communism and should therefore allow the power of the US government to be turned upon US citizens without check or hindrance. And the American people fell for it.

And a large number of Americans are being led down the same path to Hell today by their Leader.

Ooga booga! The evil moose limbs are coming to kill your children. Only we can protect you from this existential threat, but you gotta let us throw out that pesky Constitution in order to keep you safe. We pinky swear these powers will only be used against “them“. Them. The “others“. The people who don’t worship your god the same way you do. The people possessed of insufficiently white skin pigmentation. People who speak other languages. People who disagree with you politically. “Them“.

Shockingly, this message of xenophobia and bigotry is finding eager listeners among people who aren’t willing to use their brains much. Thinking is hard, and so is remembering lessons learned from long ago. Sure, it turns out that locking up tens of thousands of Americans who happened to be descended from Nipponese immigrants was stupid, expensive, wrong, and totally ineffective. Never mind that. This time is different, because … uh … because reasons.

Actually, there is a reason why dumb white people are buying into this line of thinking. There’s a reason why they have so much trouble articulating the source of their ignorant fear, and that reason is demographics. It turns out that white people will soon be less than half of the population. Oh, the horror! Rather than learning to treat other people equally, these dim-as-five-feet-up-a-pig’s-ass yokels are willing to destroy the very thing that made this country great: our non-homogenous society.

Every group of immigrants has made America richer. They bring in new ideas, new foods and drink, new attitudes, new beliefs, and America gets better and stronger from adopting the globe-spanning range of new stuff brought here by immigrants. And every single one of those immigrant groups is treated like shit by the descendants of previous immigrants. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the Irish being vilified by descendants of English and Dutch immigrants.When Italians began arriving on our shores, the descendants of those Irish immigrants who been the subject of bigotry treated the Italians the same way. Asians, Africans, and Jews have been perennial victims of American xenophobia, along with anyone from any cultural background who doesn’t belong to the right religious group. They’re different, and therefore suspicious- if not outright evil.

Here’s a clue chit for the small-minded bigots among us: Different does not equal evil. Stranger does not mean enemy. Those “foreigners” you’re wetting your panties about aren’t foreigners anymore- they’re Americans. What are you imbeciles afraid of?

I want you

WITCH HUNT by Rush

The night is black
Without a moon
The air is thick and still
The vigilantes gather on
The lonely torch lit hill

Features distorted in the flickering light
The faces are twisted and grotesque
Silent and stern in the sweltering night
The mob moves like demons possessed
Quiet in conscience, calm in their right
Confident their ways are best

The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will
Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat and burn and kill

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

Current status: Appalled

Current music: We Belong by Pat Benatar





Blatherings and Rantings of Dotards

23 12 2015

Oh, yeah. It just keeps getting better every four years. And, by “better“, I mean much, much worse.

It’s bad enough that our political processes have been essentially hijacked by a duopoly run by thieves, liars, and similar offal. But it seems one half of this duopoly is desperate to try and turn back the demographic clock by appealing to the base fears and prejudices of their sole remaining constituency- scared old white people. These people are simple folk. Farmers. The common clay of the new West.

You know- morons.

In their desperation at the prospect of losing control of the levers of power, this political party has descended into nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and overt fascism. Oh my dog! Horrible brown people are infiltrating this country to sully your precious bodily fluids, sodomize your sons, sell your wives and daughters into slavery, and drive down your property values! Boogah! Boogah!

Scary, isn’t it? No, not the nonsense regularly oozing from the sense-organ clusters atop the perambulating mounds of excrement that this party has put forth as contenders for the Presidency. That’s almost to be expected. What is truly frightening are the mindless herds of wannabe Brown Shirts bleating and screaming is support of such nonsense- no matter how vile, fascistic, and profoundly un-American it may be.

In their defense, I suppose one could say that little more could be expected from the panty-wetting and firmly anti-intellectual crowd being pandered to so successfully, but the fact that there appear to be tens of thousands of these mule-headed imbeciles who are willing to stop fucking their kinfolk and/or farm animals long enough to go to political rallies ought to give any rational person pause.

For FSM’s sake, at work the other day I overheard two African-American men speak admiringly of two of the more reprehensible would-be Presidents. Two candidates whose public pronouncements and rhetoric say they would relegate African-American citizens to (at best) third-class citizenship. But these two men- who are not particularly thick-witted on other issues- were speaking at length about actually voting for one of the aforementioned walking stacks of horseshit.

Therein lies the problem. Far too many people are willing to vote against their own best interests solely because they’ve allowed themselves to become frightened of the “other“. The outsider. The foreigner. The immigrant. The non-christian. Anyone who is different.

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Guess what? We are all different, in one way or another. Traveling down this road leads to pogroms, mass-murder, and eventual Balkanization. Sooner or later, those to whom we have given power to save us from the “other“, will determine that we are too different to be allowed to live.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. – H.L. Mencken

Out of sheer self-defense, we (the People) must utterly reject these demands that we divest ourselves of our innate decency as Americans and piss ourselves in terror while the Wise Ones in charge “protect” us from the “other”. Every one of those calling loudly for such un-American ideals as preventing people of a certain ideology or a certain religion or a certain skin color from entering the country- even if they are American citizens- must be run out of town on a rail. These people are willing to destroy the very thing that makes the United States of America so successful just so they can gain a tiny amount of short-term political advantage.

I want you

We can do this. We (the People) can metaphorically run these bags of manure masquerading as humans out of town by the modest expenditure of the time it takes to show up and vote. While you’re thinking about that, here’s another line of verse to remind you of what the United States of America is supposed to be all about:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Current status: Appalled

Current music: Brandenburg Concerto #5 by J.S. bach





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





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





Howls of Derisive Laughter

18 04 2011

This missive is intended for the eyes of those who seek positions of power over the People. Since those striving for such a position rarely take the time to read anything beyond summaries and talking points, this open letter will most likely only be read by a few people on the Internet and- possibly- by those who work for the power-seekers and have to read their mail. There are two versions of this message- one short and one somewhat longer. I will start with the shorter version.

 Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

 The longer version is mainly an explanation of the short version.

 Have you heard the old saw about it being better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove doubt? It really and truly applies to politicians. Every time one of the so-called “political elite” opens his or her pie-hole, everyone with an IQ above room temperature begins face-palming so hard they risk mild concussions. Before you deign to pollute the public discourse with your “views” on any given subject, it would behoove you to know something more than the Cliff’s Notes version of the subject matter. If you don’t have a general working knowledge of any given subject, refer back to the short version of this message.

 I grant that the world is growing ever more complicated, and it is not possible to have encyclopedic knowledge of every subject. That is no excuse for policy-makers (and would-be policy-makers) not bothering to take the time to learn a little bit before running off at the microphone. If you plan on making policy or laws regarding a given subject, it ought to be required to know whereof you speak first. Sadly, this is not the case. Our elected representatives are routinely caught making demonstrably false statements on all manner of subjects- in public, no less. Here’s a clue for all you would-be movers and shakers in the realm of politics: Every fucking thing you say or write can be microscopically examined by anyone with internet access.

Here’s another clue for the politically-minded among us: The internet is a two-edged sword– it can be used by you or against you with equal ease. Just about every fragment of information you can think of is available online. Make use of this asset to help you avoid the more obvious pitfalls before speaking in public. You can also find out various and sundry interesting things about your political opponents online, but be warned- they will be doing the same thing to you. Failure to heed this warning will result in the worst possible outcome for political power-seekers: public humiliation.

 Being politicians- which is merely a synonym for “attention whore”- our elected oafishals are completely incapable of shutting their yaps. In a rational society, the drivel spouted by any given politician would be reserved for the “humor” sections of the Sunday newspapers. Here, of course, the media gives the empty-headed opinions of political “leaders” a great deal of air time, thus continuing the Klingon Death-Spiral of public discourse. This self-perpetuating cycle of vacuous commentary reported breathlessly as “news” only encourages more attention whores to vomit their misinformation onto the public’s collective laps. For those of you playing at home, “misinformation” is a long word for “lies”. Whenever a politician is speaking, assume that he or she is either not telling the whole truth or lying through their teeth. The same holds true for political pundits and similar would-be policymakers. Obfuscating the truth is part of their job description. From an engineering perspective, the truth is always preferable. Even unpleasant truths are serviceable. Lies break under strain. Politicians specialize in lies.

 Sadly, a solid majority of the voting public (which is a far smaller population than the public in general), is only too happy to swallow lies which make them feel good over unpleasant truths. This growing trend has allowed an ever-larger number of would-be rulers to survive and prosper in public office. This, in turn, has led to a growing number of politicians who treat the public they supposedly serve as either sheep for the shearing or inconvenient obstacles to be overcome. In either case, our elected officials are growing farther and farther removed from the people they are supposed to represent. Far too many of them are so secure in their positions that they routinely and openly treat their constituents with contempt. Whenever a politician grows complacent about his or her power and position, they tend to arrogantly assume that the voters in their district will mindlessly re-elect then regardless of how the politician acts or what the politician says.

 Fortunately, we (the People) can deal with arrogant would-be rulers: point and laugh, long and openly. Every time a politician does or says something stupid, point and laugh at them. Encourage others to point at them and laugh. Attention whores cannot stand getting laughed at, and that goes double for self-important ass-hats who think they’re better than their constituents. An unintended side benefit of pointing and laughing at dim-witted politicians and/or pundits is the fact that the voting public is more likely to remember something which made them laugh when it comes time to vote.

Scorn and derisive laughter are the sire and dam of change, to paraphrase a poem by Rudyard Kipling (The King’s Task), and real change is sorely needed. The turnover rate among our elected representatives is abysmally and shamefully low. Once an elected oafishal gets a taste of the power and perks of office, he or she starts compromising whatever principles  he or she has left in order to maintain that coveted spot sucking off the public teat. In order to remember just how badly these pernicious vermin-in-office are screwing us, we need to make fun of them. Fortunately, the nature of the beast is such that politicians are unable to stop doing and saying stupid things. Make jokes about these all-too-common fuck-ups by our self-described ruling class, it will help us remember why they don’t deserve another term when the next election rolls around. After they are hounded out of office by their justifiably-furious constituents, we can forget all about them.

But, in the meantime, don’t forget to point and laugh.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Secrets by One Republic