Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beating a Computer Virus

To beat a computer virus, you must think like a computer virus. What is the goal of the virus maker? How would this goal best be accomplished? Then you begin to unravel the tangled web they weave.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wet Socks and Supporting the Troops

There are many problems in this world--starving children, nuclear proliferation, AIDS, and no less among them, are wet socks.  Yes, wet socks.

It's not a new problem.  In 1812, members of Napoleon's army suffered from trench foot.  This is caused by the feet being exposed to cold and damp conditions.  During WWI, soldiers would sit in trenches for months on end.  With the rain came the dreaded wet socks.  The problem became so bad that some got the dreaded disease, which went well beyond stinky feet.  Some feet even required amputation as gangrene set in.  The problem was ameliorated to some degree by changing one's socks and boots each day.  Airing out the feet and keeping them warm and dry was important.  Soldiers were required to ensure that each of their comrades changed their socks and dried their feet once per day.

As you can tell, wet socks are no laughing matter.  As a kid, I was always sensitive to the problem.  No matter how cold it is during the winter, no socks can be found on my feet at bedtime.  My feet are airing, thank you very much.  I could have four blankets covering my ankles up to my chin, but my feet would remain out there, proudly standing guard against the boogeyman hiding under my bed.

Even as an adult, I hate having wet socks.  After showering, I won't dare put my socks on until my feet have been both towel and air dried.  It takes time, but the investment is worth it.  No sense in locking in the moisture.  After a long day at work, taking off my shoes and socks is priority number 1.  Those poor guys always get a little moist from the daily toil.

Dry a double load of socks for me, because I change my socks twice a day.  Aside from the occasional water puddle, there are other risks, however.  My wife has a bad habit of washing her hands in the kitchen sink and not shaking them off.  Then she goes for a towel across the room and the water drips onto the floor, where it lies in wait, ready to attack my dry socks the next time I innocently pass through.  It drives me crazy, but she's a good wife otherwise and I love her, so I don't make too much of it.  I know I probably do things that bother her, too.  For example, when we go to church, if there is a sick person standing near me, I know they are going to try and shake my hand.  It is required during a certain segment of the mass.  Right before that part comes up, I excuse myself to the bathroom.  I really can't afford to get sick.  Shaking hands during the cold and flu season makes no sense to me.  But this is the same place where they share a chalice with wine in it that dozens of people drink from and they consider it sufficient to wipe the rim.  Never mind the backwash.  These are issues that also bother me, but alas, I will leave them for another blog post.

If I were in WWI, I wouldn't have enjoyed being shot at, sleeping in trenches outside, and being away from my family.  But the wet socks would have been unbearable.  That is one thing I certainly would not have been able to stand.  We can send a man to the moon, build electric cars, and cell phones access the Internet.  I pray that we can invent boots which keep the water out and our soldiers' feet dry.

To me, that is the best way to support the troops.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

You Don't Always Get What You Pay For

"You get what you pay for" is a maxim used by many people.

If only it were 100% true.  Like other types of conventional wisdom, it is not.  Frequently, the cost of an item has nothing to do with its actual value.  It just makes us feel better to believe that if we spend more to buy this shiny new gadget as opposed to that other, less costly one, then we are getting more value.

Take apples.  Not organic apples, just normal apples (the price of organics is a complicated analysis we will save for another day).  I can go to Wal Mart and buy them for a much cheaper cost than I can if I go to Heinen's.  The price difference can be significant, but Heinen's apples aren't somehow better than those grown by farmers who sell to Wal Mart.  The laws of biology and chemistry don't become 30% more complicated and expensive for Heinen's producing farmers.  My body is going to utilize both apples the same way if I eat them.  So what's the difference in cost?  Service.  Presumably the workers at Heinen's are paid better, receive livable wages, and the shopping experience is more luxurious.

Often the perceived value of an item raises its cost, but its utility is unaffected.  Studies have shown that only the most discerning of palates can tell the difference between wine that is more than $25 per bottle.  So this means I could spend $25 or $10,000 for a bottle of wine and receive almost the same utility value--both are going to give me a buzz and taste good, but one is a fraction of the price of the other.  Much of this then becomes about perception.  My grandfather used to be a barber.  There was an Italian man who frequently came into his barbershop and said how he could tell the differences between good and bad wine because he had grown up drinking all sorts of different wine.  So my grandfather decided to test the man's claim.  He took an expensive bottle of wine and drank it.  So far, so good for my grandfather.  He saved the bottle.  Then he took a cheaper bottle of wine and poured it into the empty expensive bottle and resealed it.  He gave the Italian man the bottle of the "expensive" wine and told him to come back and give him a review.  Lo and behold, the man happily returned a few weeks later and said "The wine was amazing, very fine and delicate tasting!"  My grandfather smiled and nodded, knowing better.

The same goes for other items, especially fashion.  Highly fashionable clothes are supposed to cost more because of the perceived value of the designer's vision.  These same clothes are frequently made in sweatshops in Asia at a tiny per-unit cost.  Quality varies to some degree, but overall, the perceived value of a dress by Vera Wang as opposed to some other unknown designer is higher, so apparently you are supposed to believe you are getting something of higher quality.  But many times, you are not.  What if an unknown designer happens to create a dress you like better, or looks better on you?  What if you don't value Vera Wang designs any more than you do of "lesser" designers.  Either way, the clothes are going to serve their utility function the same--they keep you covered.  Or if you buy a Vera Wang dress used at Goodwill, does it suddenly become worth much less?  What if it was never worn and has the tags on it?  If you pay $5 instead of $5000, are you still "getting what you pay for?"

Just because something costs more, doesn't make it better.  Yet this fallacy is something that many people hold.  Take photography.  There are photographers who charge very high prices and do shoddy work.  Even when their photos are put up against those of "cheaper" photographers, their work doesn't hold up.  Yet there are some clients who won't go with a photographer if their prices are "too low" because "they must not be as good."  What if the lower priced photographer charges less because they don't care as much about money and would rather work in volume?  What if photography isn't their main profession so they don't care about charging a great deal?  The true worth of something comes not from its price, but its value.

Oxygen is more important than cigarette smoke.  Without oxygen, we die.  Cigarette smoking costs $6.78 per pack and kills you.  If "you get what you pay for" is true, then rich people would be better off trading cigarette smoke for oxygen, right?

Let's get back to cameras.  If I have a big budget to spend on acquiring a new digital camera (we are indeed dreaming), I have many choices.  The Nikon D3x currently costs $7000 and has 24 megapixels.  But if I wait a month, I can buy the Nikon D800, which is going to have 36 megapixels, 1080p video, and other features for $3000.  So just by waiting one month, I can save almost half the amount of money and get something much better and that has more functionality.

Using price as the most important benchmark for quality is the lazy person's way out.  The better choice is to analyze an item based on what value it has for you, and how the price reflects that worth.  It means more work, but sometimes the results can be priceless.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Putting Vegetarians Through The Sausage Grinder

Driving around, I like to read bumper stickers.  Why anyone would want to advertise their opinions on the back of their vehicle is beyond me.  It's not like people change their political opinions based upon reading bumper stickers.  During election time, I'm not driving around thinking to myself "I wonder who I should vote for?"  "Oh look, there's a Romney sticker.  My mind's made up, time to vote Romney!"  It just doesn't work that way.  The same goes for those "Coexist" stickers.  I highly doubt Nazis are driving around thinking to themselves "God I hate everyone except me.  Oh look, there's a coexist sticker.  I feel so much love and tolerance now!"

I see some where people have NORML bumper stickers.  NORML is an organization dedicated to reforming the criminal marijuana laws.  Putting this sticker on the back of your bumper is like saying "Dear cops, please pull  me over and get the drug sniffing dogs ready.  I would like to go to jail for marijuana possession."  If you are a member of NORML, that is awesome.  But please, hold off on the bumper stickers.

The one bumper sticker I cannot stand is the one mocking vegetarians that says "I love animals...they taste yummy."  This is typically on the back of rusted out, very late model American made trucks.  The purpose of this bumper sticker is to be as cruel and insensitive as possible to very sensitive people.  It's an act of redneck bullying that takes pride in its cruelty.  If you have this bumper sticker on your car, you are basically advertising what a small minded asshole you are.  

I'm not a vegetarian.  I think eating meat is okay so long as the animals are treated humanely and slaughtered humanely.  However, I know people who are vegetarians.  Some of them don't eat meat because they feel empathy for animals.  Their zone of caring extends to non humans in a caring and loving way.  Their moral imagination is extended beyond their own species.  They don't preach to me or make me feel guilty because I eat meat.  They don't do anything to preach their moral superiority.  They just want to have reasonable food options at parties or on a plane.  

People who want to deliberately offend sensitive, caring people are bullies.  They are thugs.  There is nothing commendable about how cruel someone can be.  If you prefer to eat animals, fine.  You're like nearly everyone else.  But why should you give a shit if someone doesn't?  That means more meat for you, dumbass.  If you are imagining that they are making fun of you, looking down on you, or being snobbish toward you, then that's your own moral hangups and paranoia speaking, not reality.  The harsh reality is that the world is filled not with sensitive, caring people who empathize with others, but instead, with assholes like you who are responsible for a good portion of the wars, violence, domestic abuse, and other cruelties of the human race.  Taking pride in how ignorant and idiotic you are is not something to be proud of.  

People with these kinds of bumper stickers were the kinds of children who used to giggle like Beavis and Butthead while pulling the legs off spiders.  And these are the same folks who grow up to be losers whose only sense of superiority comes from beating up on people simply because they have a heart.  If that is what takes to let them forget about pathetic their lives have become, then that is really sad.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"I'm so Offended!"

Americans love being offended.  Right after watching the Super Bowl and apple pie, there's victimhood.  In fact, it's hard to find someone who's not a victim.  If you are young, you are a victim of ageism and can't get a job because you don't have experience.  If you are old, you are a victim at the hands of all those pissed off young people who won't give you a job because you aren't young and hip like them.  Over fifty percent of the population is female, but it doesn't stop them from being labeled a "minority."  If your black, you face racism.    If you are Christian, you are discriminated against because you follow Jesus.  The vast majority of the imagined "elite" Americans must hate you.  If you are not Christian, then you have Christians oppressing you every chance they get because you are, in their eyes, a pagan.

Not to worry, even us white guys don't get left out of the fun.  To feel aggrieved, we just have to turn on Fox News, which panders to us, telling us how hard we have it because the latte drinking, gay-loving, Volvo driving, Vermont-living, Ben and Jerry's eating, PBS watching, over-educated snobs are making fun of us.  Yes, after two hundred years, us white guys are really slumming it now, what with a black guy in the White House and all.  Don't get us started on all the Cadillac driving welfare queens, and illegal immigrants.  Our gun-toting heads might explode.

People love to get offended when they hear something they don't like.  It doesn't matter whether it's true or not.  When I go to parties and hear unsolicited political opinions, even when they are about politics or religion, I don't get offended.  I just jump right in and start arguing.  Religion and politics, after all, are matters of consequence.  But there are tons of people who have a heart attack if they hear something they don't agree with.  They become so emotional they hate the person.  I always thought that people of good will could disagree but enjoy sharing a rational discussion.  I must be alone in this belief, because I can't tell you how many people get absolutely enraged if you say you either love or hate Obama.  Even on TV, if you want to clear Whoopi Goldberg from a room, just say something she doesn't like.  No need to fart around her, she's doing the mad dash if you say anything against her value system.  Her head would indeed explode if she heard something she didn't agree with, and she gets paid to conduct interviews and talk on television!

America pretends to value free speech.  While America is still more free in terms of speech than other countries, there are certain taboos that will get you fired from your job faster than anything.  If you are a politician or a pundit, you can say anything you want about how the poor should be incinerated, babies should be killed, etc.  But don't you dare say anything even remotely perceived as racist.  That will get you canned immediately.  You should consider yourself lucky if you aren't drawn and quartered on national television.  In fact, the word "nigger" is so offensive, you can't even say it, because people will literally die if they hear it.  You could advocate the building of concentration camps, so long as you don't recommend that a certain race or ethnicity be chosen to go into them.  If there were concentration camps for illegal immigrants, gays, or the poor, you probably would get a thumbs up from the American public.  Beating up on gays and illegal immigrants is totally PC.  In fact, that talk will get you elected to high office.  Just say something about "family values" afterward, and all will be well.

Americans love being offended.  They love victimhood.  Why?  Because it is empowering.  As a victim, you get special rights and privileges.  You get to go to the front of the line.  You get to be immune from all legitimate criticism.  Look at the oppressive Israeli government that has brutalized and oppressed the Palestinians for years.  They bomb innocent women and children and it's not a problem.  If you criticize them, then you are anti-Semitic and not mindful of the Holocaust.  Apparently being a victim of the Holocaust means you get to do your own holocaust to others.  It's a free "get out of jail" card for state sponsored terrorism.

I would love to meet a group of people who don't claim to be victims.  I haven't met one yet.  It feels too good to be a victim.  It's too self-indulgent to ignore.  It's like the fast food of self-esteem.  "I'll take a large order of oppression with a double side of victimhood to go, please."

Please give my oppressed ass the special sauce, too.

Now I am not arguing that certain groups don't currently face sexism, racism, and homophobia, or anti-Semitism.  These are real, serious issues.  The problem is that America doesn't take them seriously.  If we actually cared about correcting past injustices, we as a society would pass laws that would actually empower all people to have equal opportunities.  We wouldn't be passing tax cuts for the very wealthy while cutting welfare programs that allow little children and widowed mothers to eat.  We wouldn't be denying health care to sick people, many of whom actually are minorities.  If we cared about racism, we wouldn't have criminal laws which make the possession of crack cocaine a lifetime prison sentence while letting primarily white, upper class cocaine possessors off the hook relatively easy.  If we cared about women, we would pass strict laws allowing more time off for maternity leave and for equal pay for women.  If we cared about working class white guys, we wouldn't be passing "free trade" programs like NAFTA which move all the jobs and factories to other countries.

But the truth is we won't do any of these things.  We would rather use Orwellian doublespeak and turn our heads to the abuses of everyone at the hands of each other.  It's easier to remain a victim and remain smug in our oppression than be adults, discuss the important issues, and solve them.  Apparently that's too offensive.

Feeling offended yet?  If yes, then I suppose I've proved my point.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Family Values?

Republicans love to talk about "family values."  "Talk" is the operative word.  You never hear the end of it, how our culture is so permissive, how anti-Christian we are becoming, and how celebrities on film and television are promoting promiscuity and violence.  Watching the Super Bowl, you get flipped off by MIA or get flashed by Janet Jackson.  Watch the Grammy's and you see Nicki Minaj mocking Catholicism.  Listen to rap and you get to hear some misogynistic filth.

None of this is new.  Back in the 90's, we had the debate about unwed mothers with Dan Quayle.  In the 70's, Richard Nixon talked about his moral Silent Majority.  Each generation of Republican contender just has to parrot some language about decency, morality, and stopping the filth, and the Christians hop on board.  But have the Republicans actually done anything to make morality better?  Can they?  Ronald Reagan played that game.  The results of his presidency included dramatic cuts to health and safety regulations that led to sickness, injury, and death to thousands of people.  His reduction of welfare programs and food stamp assistance led to hungry children just at the time he was busy breaking unions so those same parents didn't have jobs with benefits anymore.  He did nothing to end abortion.  Like many other things, he seemed to forget about that one.  What he didn't forget about included funding repressive regimes and death squads in Central America, bombing various small countries, and tripling the budget deficit.  He funded the groups who murdered Jesuit priests and nuns who taught compassion for the poor.

George W. Bush was even worse.  When things were looking tough for his re-election campaign, he suddenly found it convenient to make the argument that the gay lobby was going to take over if he weren't re-elected.  It was going to be a perpetual drag show, gay-pride parade if he weren't re-elected.  After all, they did have Ellen and RuPaul.  Of course it worked.  Bush won handily.  Abortion?  Well, once again nothing was done about that.  During his presidency, the conservativism won over the compassion part.  Inequality skyrocketed, the housing and financial bubbles led to economic collapse, and the middle class was left with their life's savings (in their home values) eradicated.  With high unemployment, the economy in a mess, and hundreds of thousands of mostly working class soldiers sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, I am unsure what is so pro-family values about that?

If you care about children and families, don't send soldiers off to war unless there is a damn good reason.  Searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction is not one of them.

Now that it is election time, we are beginning to hear the same old tired chorus from the Republicans.  Newt Gingrich has a hard time trying to sell family values because of his own, wretchedly adulterous past.  Leaving a wife when she gets cancer for another woman is a rough sell.  The most vicious and self-righteous of the bunch is Rick Santorum.  His zone of compassion only extends to the unborn.  If you happen to be born gay, sick, or poor, then his philosophy is "fuck you," you need tough love, which means going back in the closet, no governmental assistance for health care regardless of whether you are a sick child or not, and if you have a heart disease and don't have health insurance, then too bad for you.  Also, his "family values" include, as he mentions, "bombing Iran tomorrow."  So little Persian children, aka "collateral damage" also aren't part of his family values agenda.

It seems convenient that the Republicans are all up in arms about whether or not Catholic employers have the right to deny free contraceptive coverage within their health insurance benefit packages.  Never mind the family values of those employees who aren't Catholic.  Never mind the family values of making it affordable for people to plan the size of their families as to properly feed and clothe the children they already have.  Never mind the providing of contraception for other health reasons, such as to balance out imbalanced hormones or to prevent birth when a serious genetic or inherited disease might result.  Apparently these things don't count as "family values."  And if the Catholic bishops want to have a hissy fit of moral indignation, where was that same indignation when their flock was being molested and raped by their own priests and they chose to cover up the scandal to save money on lawsuits?  Unfortunately their moral authority has become very dubious given their behavior.  Even more telling is their lack of outrage over the horrific Iraq war, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi's and thousands of American soldiers.

Regarding the filth in the mainstream media, this shouldn't be surprising.  Filth sells.  It is pure capitalism and greed that leads to outrageous behavior by greedy stars.  Why do you think Howard Stern and his shock jock comrades have huge ratings?  People love their filth.  The same goes for television and movies.  The more shocking, the more our Puritanical culture reacts, and the more is sold.  It is unregulated capitalism that the Republicans favor which leads to this behavior.  Parroting the values of decency while working to deregulate large corporations responsible for the filth doesn't solve anything.  It makes the problem worse.

Actions speak louder than words.  If you claim to be for family values but you promote economic programs that destroy the family for the benefit of large corporations, such as eliminating child labor laws, the right to collectively bargain to receive a living wage, food stamp programs, health care programs for the poor, preventing the dumping of cancer causing toxic waste into streams and rivers where children drink, and the like, then you are a hypocrite.

Actions speak louder than words.  Let's not forget it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Obladee, Oblada, WTF?

I have a confession to make.  I don't like the Beatles.  In fact, I think they stink.  I've tried so hard to like them.  Believe me.  With all the hoopla around how revolutionary they were, and how they changed everything, I still can't for the life of me figure out what the hype was all about.  I mean, I know I am supposed to like them.  It's a part of being a modern American born after WWII.  It's practically required.  Rejecting them is like saying Faulkner was an idiot, or if you are from Medina, that Frank Bianchi wasn't the shit.  It's heresy.  (In all fairness to Frank Bianchi, I do think he is extremely talented, so please no hate mail on that one).

I can see how the Beatles may have had some kind of cool allure in the early 60's with their mod outfits.  I thought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was a good album, but I don't think they deserve rock-god status.  I've tried looking at their work holistically.  I can't see it.  Their songs just never resonated with me.  I know it was about love and finding harmony with the world and all that, but how was that any different from the stuff by other artists of the time?

As far as individual artists, I think Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were sort of lightweights.  The best thing Ringo ever did was narrate the Thomas the Train Engine series.  "I think I can, I think I can" was Ringo's finest cultural achievement.  John Lennon on his own was fine, and of course George Harrison was talented.  In fact, I always thought Sean Lennon, the youngest son of John, was always more talented than his father.  His music has more depth.  Sean is lucky to have taken after his father instead of his mother, Yoko, in the music department.  Yoko's musical ventures have not been pretty.

Maybe you had to be alive at the time.  Apparently with the Vietnam War going on and their opposition to it, and their hippy values, they sort of were in touch with the spirit of the age.  Being born in 1976, this was long past my time.  I don't think it's cultural, though, because I can listen to Bob Dylan and the lyrics give me chills.  I see Dylan as being a musical genius.  I listen to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doors and I can appreciate how awesome the music of the Vietnamese War era was.  I really think it was just the Beatles.  To me, they were of the same caliber as the Monkees, who overall were a fun band but had as much impact as the New Kids on the Block or maybe Menudo.

Okay, I suppose I am a cultural troglodyte.  Next thing you know, I'll be dissing Shakespeare and praising the Sarah Palin reading list, or claiming how I think Joe the Plumber is a deep thinker.  I might even start giving away free Milton Friedman books.  Watch out.

Of course maybe I'm not so far off.  After all, there has to be an English professor somewhere who doesn't like Shakespeare, a musician who doesn't like Mozart, or an athlete who thinks Michael Jordan wasn't so great.  If that's the case, I will stick to my guns and continue disliking the Beatles.  If you want to play them, fine.  I won't run away.

But if you start playing Ringo or Paul, I'm outta here.

Unemployment--Good for The Fund Managers, Bad for You

To get some honest to God truth, read the business press.  The following article, entitled "Fidelity, Vanguard, Pimco say inflation to be contained," really lays it out clearly for us.

What do we learn?  Well, the masters of the universe, aka the mutual fund managers, are breathing a sigh of relief as thankfully, unemployment promises to remain high.  Wages will remain nice and stagnant.  This is good, they say, because this means the economy won't "overheat."  "Overheat" is a code word for reduced unemployment.  We wouldn't want that.  Reduced unemployment is bad.  It is even worse when wages increase, because this leads to inflation, which makes creditors, bondholders, and others who hold large monetary assets lose money.  Essentially, their investments are worth less.

These also happen to be the folks who contribute huge amounts of money to electoral campaigns and super PACs to help ensure that unemployment remains high and wages remain stagnant.  Why do you think politicians are more worried about the national debt?  All of this is a smokescreen to avoid solving the real problem of unemployment.  Why do you think wages are being frozen for federal employees?  Why do you suppose the Republicans are against any and all jobs bills that Obama proposes?

From the perspective of your average worker, the economy sucks.  From the perspective of fund managers, things are stellar.  Just read the business press.  They are breathing a sigh of relief that people will remain unemployed.

This isn't surprising.  These fund managers are legally obliged as fiduciaries to maximize short term profits.  If they don't, they get fired.  This is just how the system works.  It's nothing personal.  If you own mutual funds, this is also good for you, but not if you have a 401(k) through your employer who decides to downsize your job and outsource the work to India.

Now if you live on mutual fund income, like Mitt Romney, then you aren't going to be too worried.  The problem is that this is short term thinking.  In the long run, as the greater share of people in this country become destitute and hopeless, they are also going to become restless.  This means more civil unrest and protests, kind of like the ones we see with the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  If things get bad enough, we could see riots like we saw in the 1960's.  Protests are good for democracy.  Riots are bad for everyone.

Unfortunately for the mutual fund managers, we are all in this together.  What you do affects me, and vice versa.  If you work to keep me unemployed, I'm not going to be able to buy your products, which in the end is bad for you.  If you deny someone preventative health care to save a few bucks, you end up paying much, much more when you treat a serious illness.  You can deny the diabetic test strips to save money now, but when they go on dialysis, your tax dollars are footing the huge bill.

"Penny wise and pound foolish are we," says Yoda.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Don't Expect Me to Intimately Know Your Beverages

I dined at a very upscale restaurant a few days ago.  This not having been my first time getting cleaned up, I was very conscious about minding my table manners.  Using the right fork--check.  Not sipping loudly through my straw--check.  Napkin placed on my lap--check.

Then I was stopped dead in my tracks by a curve ball.

"What sort of pop do you have?"  I asked, hoping Diet Dr. Pepper was available.

"We have Coke products," said the waitress.

Hold on there, tiger.  "We have Coke products?"  What the hell does that mean? I didn't know quite how to reply, especially since she didn't say anything after that.  She just expected me to know.  Am I the only one in the world who doesn't know the particularities of what the Coca Cola company makes versus the Pepsi Cola company?  If I asked for a Coke, that would be another matter.  But saying "We have Coke products" is like me asking for a Saab and a car salesman saying they have Ford products.

"I don't know what that means," I said to the waitress.

I really wasn't trying to be a dick, honest.

Then she went down the line of her pop selection.  I was looking for this answer from the beginning.  The ultimate answer came out to be, "No, damnit, there is no Diet Dr. Pepper."

I asked my friends whether they knew the answer to this pressing issue.  Much to my surprise, they knew.  For the love of God how, I have no idea.  How can it be that I am the only person in the world who doesn't know these things?  After all, I am a reasonably educated and worldly guy.  I am 35 years old.  I wasn't born yesterday.  How could this be something utterly beyond me?  I know that the speed of light is 186,000,282.4 miles per second.  I know E=mc2.  I know the date of Columbus discovering America, 1492.  But I don't know who makes what sort of pop?

Maybe it's because I'm not a dedicated enough pop drinker.  I don't usually make use of vending machines because they are overpriced.  When I buy pop from Wal Mart, I usually buy the generic stuff because it is cheaper and tastes more or less the same.  But even if I were buying named brand pop, how would I come to learn who makes what?  Is this detail something written on the packaging?  If yes, I've never seen it.  Most of the pop I drink is too busy telling you how the saccharin or aspartame in it is going to give your pet rats cancer.  Once you read that, it's hard to become interested in the details of whether Pepsi makes Mountain Dew or not.

I could look up this information on the Internet, but somehow I am content in my ignorance.  The bottom line is that I don't care enough to learn the information.  In a complex and busy world, trying to keep up, all I expect is for my waitress to just plod ahead and humor my dumb ass and tell me whether they have Diet Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew.

Or maybe next time I'll just ask for a Diet Pepsi.  Britney Spears drinks it, so it must be the right choice, right?  I think it is the choice of the new generation, whatever that means.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why The Economy Isn't Getting Better

Naively, people keep thinking that the current economic downturn for the middle class will rebound and our prior glories will be restored.  If only we vote for the right mainstream candidate, we are told, then everything will get better.  Or maybe we should just wait it out.  Nonsense.  A better question is, why should the economy improve?  There is nothing leading the economy in that direction.  The masters of the universe--the heads of giant corporations and their purchased politicians have no interest in improving the economy in any kind of real way because it would cost them money and cut into their profits.

The state of the economy improves the lives of the middle class when it is producing real value.  After World War II, the economy was based upon industrial manufacturing.  America actually made things.  It took labor and capital, mixed them together, and produced something of additional value.  Over the last thirty years, corporations and management have worked with politicians to de-industrialize America.  Manufacturing was abandoned and rebuilt in China, Mexico, India, and other Third World nations.  The middle class lost their jobs.  Union activity was crushed.  These changes reduced labor costs for corporations and brought great wealth to their shareholders.  The problem is that most Americans aren't shareholders.  Most Americans were middle and working class folks who used to earn their money working in factories.  With no money to spend and no new jobs, demand for products and services plummeted.

It used to be that the best and brightest mathematicians and physicists were recruited to work for NASA and high tech industries building things like computers, lasers, and the Internet.  Now Wall Street recruits these folks to use mathematics and game theory to invent new ways to game financial markets to get, but not make, money.  Nothing of value is actually created.  It becomes a way to game the system.  The housing bubble and meltdown of 2008 is a perfect example.  The financial industry created credit default swaps and derivatives.  Unconcerned because they knew the government would bail them out, the top banks and lending institutions took excessive risks and crashed the financial system.  In the end, the housing bubble created no new value.  It was a speculator's game.

For the last thirty years, the so called "improvement" in the economy was all a fiction, not a reality.  One bubble after another, nothing based on the creation of real value.  First was the dot com bubble, which imploded, then the housing bubble, which also imploded.  All during this time, the factories were being closed.  No new, real jobs were created.  America is becoming a nation of fast food workers.

To help make things even worse, taxes for the rich were cut and basic services were slashed.  The infrastructure of America--it's schools, roads, bridges, and the like are falling apart.  Local police and fire departments are facing budget crises.  Assistance to the poor to help for home heating and to feed hungry children were reduced and eliminated.  Welfare reform, under the guise of punishing the "lazy", actually served to destroy wages for the bottom half of the market because the supply of workers then outstripped the demand for low skill, low wage jobs.  This served to make everyone poorer.

Tax cuts, combined with two unfunded wars, led to massive budget deficits.  As we speak, Social Security is being de-funded through a cut in the payroll tax.  This will later mean that seniors and the disabled will have nothing to survive on when they most need it.  The rich will push for Social Security to be privatized, risking the economic security for those most in need.  New stock market bubbles will implode and leave people hungry and homeless.

America is now a country that doesn't make things.  It manipulates markets by playing shell games and creating bubbles that burst every few years.  China is growing at 10% each year.  The standard of living is increasing rapidly in China.  Ironically, we hear all the time about how communism doesn't work, and that capitalism is the answer to all of our problems.  First of all, the U.S. is not a capitalist country.  It cannot be capitalist when it provides socialist style bailouts to banks which are so large they are like monopolies and trusts.  America cannot be capitalist when it insures the existence of banks which would fail without government welfare.  China, the supposedly communist country, carefully plans its economy and encourages growth by subsidizing upcoming industries like solar power and high tech manufacturing.  The bottom line is that China is creating real value, and that will be a threat to America eventually.  The problem is that American corporations--the masters of the universe--cannot do anything but invest in short term strategies.  If you are the CEO of a large corporation and you don't outperform each quarter, you are fired and replaced by someone who will.  Shareholders don't have patience for long term investment anymore.

If America really cared about the free market and capitalism, it would not have bailed out the big banks.  It would have let those who couldn't cut it fail.  The market was never given the chance to correct itself.  In America, capitalism is like tough love--it's only for Main Street, never Wall Street.  Tough love is also for the poor, who must learn to live without luxuries like food, medical care, and heating.  This builds character.  But Wall Street speculators are given bonuses of a million dollars subsidized by public tax money.  This is American "capitalism" at its best.

There are solutions to the problems.  We could immediately increase taxes on the rich, use the money to hire people to repair America's crumbling infrastructure, fund schools so our children have the knowledge to work in a high tech and advanced economy, and balance the budget.  We could create a single payer health care system that is more efficient, involves less fraud and abuse, and one that rewards health outcomes instead of paying for more and more medical procedures which are unneeded.  This would also help American business be more productive compared to all the other industrialized nations which provide health care for all at half the cost of the American system with superior health outcomes.  Right now, we are 39th in the world on health care outcomes.

The problems can be solved, but they won't be because America's election system is hopelessly corrupt.  We need a constitutional amendment calling for the end of private money in politics, even if this means restricting free speech rights.  The corrupting influence of big money has destroyed American democracy.  This is something that both the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Tea Party can both agree on.  Change can only come from the bottom up.  Relying on a political hero who preaches hope and change and doesn't do anything, or relying on an empty suit with plastic hair, isn't the solution.

We the people, we are the answer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Repost Worthy of A Good Read

this post was originally from from the blogger minotaur


Sugar is Evil

Most of the calories we consume can be attributed to one of the catagories in the set of Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrate. Protein is everyone's friend. It provides all those nice amino acids which your body uses to build more you. Eat your proteins and enjoy clear skin, strong muscles, and shiny hair. Hooray. Fat gets a bad rap. Fat is a great way to store energy, high fat foods can be excellent sources of oil soluable vitamins like A, E, and D, and high fat foods can help promote high-density cholesterol. While not every high fat food is good for you, there are many healthful foods which are very high in fat and can be included in a heathy diet.

This brings me to the last catagory: Carbohydrates. The set of compunds which are called "Carbohydrates" includes what are known as trisaccharides. Trisaccharides include cellulose and starch. These compunds provide energy to those animals capable of digesting them. Since humans and other monkeys can't digest cellulose, it really only acts as a transport agent by helping the body to push food from one end of the digestive tract to the other. There are lots of good foods which are high in both cellulose and starch and since the body does need a very small amount of them, they are a necessary evil.

This brings me to the unneccessary evils: mono and di-saccharides: glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, maltose, and lactose... These are the enemy. Your body doesn't really need you to consume them directly but for some reason people not only want to suck down all the high sugar foods that they can, they fill their kids up with it. It's not good for you and it never was. Moreover making heathful choices is made difficult by modern marketing: sugar is everywhere. You have to stay VERY vigilent in order to avoid it.

This Thanksgiving, do your body a favor. Enjoy all the turkey, ham, or tofu that you want, have a second helping of mashed potatoes, rice, or stuffing if you like, and say no to any dish described as a "pie", "cake", "cobbler", or "crisp". Your body will thank you.

Why Poor People Tend To Be More Overweight

In American society, the most overweight people also tend to be the poorest.  Why is that?  You would assume that the poorest people would be the thinnest.  If you believe in the "calorie in, calorie out" hypothesis, then this should be the outcome.  However, this simply isn't the case.  As Gary Taubes points out in his book "Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It", there are many cases where poor women tend to be fat while their children are malnourished.  Does this mean the women are hoarding all the food for themselves and letting their children starve?  Hardly.  In fact, it is all about nutrition.  It has to do with the women eating government subsidized foods heavy in sugar and carbohydrate which causes them to gain weight, but causes malnourishment in their children because these types of food lack essential vitamins and minerals to help them thrive.  Take, for example, the Pima Indians.  The Pima diet was traditionally heavy in fresh vegetables, little processed wheat, no sugar, and a moderate amount of meat.  The Pima, under their traditional diet, remained lean.  Enter the introduction of government subsidized wheat and sugar as part of their food allotments.  The consumption of highly refined carbohydrates and sugars increased dramatically due to the lower cost of these foods.  Next thing you know, the population gains a tremendous amount of weight, particularly the women.  There also happens to be an epidemic of adult onset diabetes and obesity among the Pima as well.

The U.S. government heavily subsidizes the corn industry.  Corn and grain products are so abundant it is unbelievable.  Because the ingredients are cheap, the food industry has managed to produce a huge amount of artificial, fake foods which are delicious tasting, filling, and cheap.  The profit margin on a bag of cheesy poofs, potato chips, and the like is huge.  Breakfast cereal is a perfect example.  Take some grain, process it, toss in a bunch of sugar to make it tasty, and then make a colorful box that gets the attention of children.  Put it on the shelf at just the right level so the kids see it.  Make a cartoon character like the Lucky Charms leprechaun or Tony the Tiger who make the cereal seem fun.  Or, even better, put Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan on the box and you have a financial winner!

Shopping at any grocery store is eye opening.  The most inexpensive foods are the ones with the most sugar and the most carbs.  60% of the grocery store center section is filled with candy, processed foods like instant mash potatoes, snacks, factory made bread, and pop (soda).  You have to go all the way through the store to get to the most nutritious foods, such as the dairy and the meat section.  This is all about money.  Then go through the checkout line.  You aren't going to find refrigerators filled with meat or vegetables.  The profit margin isn't large enough for those.  No, you will find chocolate bars, cold pop (soda), and candy.  This is the store's last chance to make some money, the junk food sitting next to the Star Magazine and the tabloids reporting the birth of the Bat Boy and three headed kittens.

None of this rules out the factor of individual taste.  Some people value taste more than nutrition.  Given the opportunity, there are many people who say "to hell with it" and eat whatever they want, the consequences be damned, regardless of cost.  In the end, this remains a person's right.  My contention is that if people just cut out the sugar, soda, candy, and reduced their consumption of carbohydrates, they would already be making some progress toward improving their health.  

Eating low-carb to control your weight and promote your health is more expensive than eating lots of processed foods.  This puts the poor at a disadvantage.  Fresh meat and fresh vegetables are more expensive than eating lots of macaroni and cheese or Ramen Noodles.  There are things you can do to reduce your costs, however, such as buying fresh, pasture raised meat from a local farmer, growing your own vegetables, and making use of canning and freezing garden vegetables.  Eggs are an an inexpensive form of protein.  Hot dogs are cheaper than steaks, but you certainly don't want to be eating hot dogs every day.  Store brand canned tuna is also inexpensive.  Deer meat donated by hunter friends is also a real bargain, particularly when the hunter has had a good year and caught more than his family can eat.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Is Obama A Catholic Hater?

The United States has a complicated history regarding Catholicism.  Much of this is actually systemic.  The Founding Fathers were not Catholic, and England at the time was Anglican, not Catholic.  This is not to say that the Founding Fathers were actually anti-Catholic.  But they certainly weren't pro-Catholic, either.  Some of them were Deists, some were Christians, others were Secular.  Many of the early European immigrants were of the English variety, not Irish or French, which traditionally tended to be Catholic.  Those in power again were typically white, male, land-owning Protestants.  With this came certain assumptions about how the world should operate--and following the Pope wasn't one of them.

Black slaves were encouraged to become Christians, just like their slave owning masters.  To this day, Blacks in America are generally more Protestant than not.  In the South, the KKK was fiercely anti-Black, but also anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.

Economic troubles during the late 1800s and early 1900s brought hatred toward immigrants, many of whom happened to be from traditionally Catholic areas, such as Ireland and Poland. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, my own Irish-German grandfather recalls tales about how he was called a "fish eater" by school officials and how the KKK had an office in town.

The large influx of Catholics and the economic strength and development of Catholics in America over the last fifty years has changed the demographics of power in America.  The Supreme Court has more Catholics on it than any other religion.  Catholics hold power in the government and in local politics as well.

Despite all this, however, being Catholic is only acceptable in America so long as you don't challenge the interests of the power elite who run this country.  John F. Kennedy was acceptable because he didn't act like a Catholic.  He served the interests of the moneyed elite and the power brokers, so he was fine.  So long as he supported the war in Vietnam, which served the interests of the military manufacturers, he was fine.  So long as he supported terrorist operations in Cuba (aka Project Mongoose), which involved the bombing of civilian installations and generalized terrorism against the Cuban population which needed to be punished for supporting Castro, he was fine.  Never mind the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

But when Catholics get too uppity and start supporting interests which hurt the power of the elites, then Catholicism is not okay and must be wiped out.  Pope John XXIII organized the Second Vatican Counsel.  He wanted the Catholic Church to support the rights of the poor and the marginalized.  Catholic theologians began developing the notion of the "preferential option for the poor", which meant supporting true democracy and people instead of moneyed interests.  Now this would not be tolerated.  This was played out in Latin America.  When Archbishop Oscar Romero witnessed the murder of a priest by U.S. backed goons (because the priest had supported the poor and the democratic political forces there), he began to question the U.S. backed forces and their death squads.  Shortly after writing a letter to Jimmy Carter asking him to stop funding these thugs, he was assassinated by the U.S. supported killers.  In Nicaragua and other countries the same dynamic was played out.  Any time Catholics supported the rights of the working people against the moneyed interests, Catholics were the enemy and murdered.  That's also why priests and nuns were targeted by U.S. backed forces and murdered.  During the Vietnam War, Jesuit priests and nuns were arrested for protesting against the draft and the war.

The Wall Street Journal is the voice for the power and moneyed elites in America.  It is designed to serve their interests.  It is also owned by Rupert Murdoch, the right winger owner of Fox News.  In an article yesterday by Peggy Noonan, she asserts that Obama essentially has contempt for Roman Catholics because of his position that Catholic employers must provide health insurance coverage that includes contraceptive coverage.  She asserts that this is essentially declaring war against Catholics and that Obama's contempt and arrogance toward them will come back to bite him in the next election.

This is a perfect example of the moneyed interests using class warfare and propaganda to turn the interests of Catholics against themselves.  It is convenient that the Wall Street Journal supports Catholics so long as it is in the interest of their moneyed readers.  Pope John Paul II wrote against rampant capitalism that puts money and greed ahead of people.  Yet the Republicans supported this type of capitalism all the way through the last thirty years.  The Wall Street Journal was all for the deindustrializing of America for short term profit in the name of "globalism."  It was all for the Reagan policies of choking unions and cutting assistance for the poor and disabled.  The evil genius of Reagan was to manipulate the good intentions of Catholics by parroting language about morality, family values, and being pro-life while doing everything possible to economically cut the throat of the American family.  You can't actually be for family values if you cut food stamps that help keep children from being hungry.  You can't be pro-life when you support death squads and regimes that murder priests and nuns, or if you support foreign wars of aggression that happen to be economically profitable for the stock market.

Obama is no Catholic hater.  He is a traditional politician obsessed with enhancing his career.  He has done very little to advance the abortion issue one way or another because he knows that politically the issue might hurt him.  On the one hand his administration vetoed the ability for the morning after pill to be available over the counter.  On the other, it supported this new legislation that orders Catholic employers to provide health coverage that includes contraceptives.  He is certainly no pro-abortion zealot.

The more likely reason for his support of this legislation is that it supports the underlying rationale of the Obama health reforms--that the government is to ensure a minimum level of health care coverage is provided to all Americans.  This rationale is actually a very Catholic one--health care for all serves the well being of everyone.  As it stands now, most, if not all health insurance plans cover contraceptives.  This is just a normal part of how things work.  By providing health insurance to its employees, the Catholic Church isn't forcing anyone to use contraceptives.  It simply remains an option made available by nature of the coverage.  It is just like the Catholic notion of double effect.  For example, abortion is considered the immoral taking of life in Catholic teaching.  Yet say a woman is faced with an ectopic pregnancy that will certainly lead to the death of the mother and the fetus if not surgically corrected.  The Catholic surgeon may remove the fetus for the sake of the mother's life, which has a secondary effect of aborting the fetus.  This is considered moral by the Catholic Church although technically an abortion is committed.  The same should go for the notion of providing health insurance coverage that just so happens to provide contraceptive coverage.  The importance of providing quality health insurance to everyone without enabling loopholes which could harm everyone is important.  If we allow the Church to avoid providing coverage for contraceptives, then other religious groups might stop providing coverage for other, non-legitimate reasons, which could end up being more about politics and economics than legitimate religious conviction.

It is also important to remember that not all Catholic employees are Catholics themselves.  Many aren't.  And limiting their health coverage doesn't serve them fairly.  Mandating health coverage to provide contraceptives is indirect.  It is totally different from ordering Catholic hospitals to perform elective abortions, which would be a direct offense to Catholic teaching.

The Wall Street Journal doesn't give a rats ass about Catholics and their beliefs.  It cares about electing its Wall Street darling du jour, Mitt Romney.  The fact that it would stoop so low as to try and inflame Catholics to serve its ends isn't surprising.  But it is surprisingly disgusting.  But I am the naive one.  After all, the Wall Street Journal has been cynically trying to play Catholics like a fiddle for the last thirty years, so why should I expect them to be any different now?

Catholics who care about family values are smarter than the Wall Street Journal might otherwise claim, and hopefully the next election will show it.

Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen Foundation: The Poverty of the Debate

The controversy over the funding of Planned Parenthood from the Susan G. Komen Foundation is an interesting one from a cognitive science point of view.  George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist, points out in his book, "Don't Think of An Elephant", that how we think about an issue is automatically determined by the language that is used to define the problem.  For example, if I say to you "don't think of an elephant", you can't help but imagine an elephant.  No amount of mental work can stop this.  It is part of how the mind works.

The ability to define the parameters of thought is called "framing".  In politics, the framers are able to win arguments before the battle even begins.  This is especially true considering many people don't think more than superficially.  Most people make decisions based upon their emotions.  This is why marketing and advertising work so well.  Just look at the Super Bowl ads.  Corporations spend millions of dollars on commercials featuring half naked women selling cars, celebrities telling us to buy things, and animated characters hocking a variety of wares.  These ads work, otherwise corporations wouldn't waste the money.

On NPR yesterday, Neil Conan was interviewing a reporter about the Susan G. Komen Foundation controversy.  His framing of the question automatically tainted the interview.

"So, [Mr. Reporter], you are opposed to abortion rights, so what is your opinion about this decision?"

Wisely, the reporter stopped Mr. Conan and clarified his position.

"Before we begin, I'd like to clarify things.  I don't define myself as "anti-abortion rights."  I believe, because of my religion, that human life begins at conception and that a human life is taken during abortion.  Therefore, I am 'anti-abortion.'"

Neil Conan tried to dismiss the criticism.

"Well, your editors will have to talk with my editors."

But the criticism of the reporter remains valid.  By defining someone as being opposed to someone else's rights, the minds of the listener have already been framed and primed toward the issue.  People who are opposed to abortion aren't mean, nasty, small-minded turds who hate women, despite some attempts to paint them that way.  Many of them consider human life to begin at conception.  If this is one's position, then it makes sense that the right to life of the unborn would be hierarchically more important than the right of the mother to terminate the pregnancy.  Given this understanding, using terms like "anti-choice" and "anti-woman" are unfair and mean spiritedly biased.

This goes both ways.  If I support the repeal of Roe v. Wade and I define those who support it as being "pro-abortion", this is an unfair label.  No decent people are "pro-abortion."  Supporters believe that abortion is a right that women should be able to exercise given difficult circumstances.  They aren't murderous lechers who hate fetuses.

Getting back to the Planned Parenthood issue, there are larger problems that haven't been addressed by either side.  First, Planned Parenthood does provide health screening services along with references to abortion providers.  If Planned Parenthood cared about providing health services to women, it could simply promise to segregate the funds received from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to be used solely for health screenings instead of being provided for abortion related services.  This would be a fair compromise.  But instead, Planned Parenthood decided to make the thing political.  This isn't surprising.  Given its history, Planned Parenthood is not neutral on the abortion issue.  Just research the history of Planned Parenthood and of its founder.  It is very much in support of Roe v. Wade.  The second issue is that women shouldn't be forced to go to charities to receive health care screenings because they don't have health insurance.  All Americans should have free and universal access to health care coverage.  The United States is the only industrialized First World nation without universal health care coverage.  No one seems to be scandalized or worried about this, although they should be.  The current health care system is the most inhumane system in the world.

The controversy here has become laden with value judgments instead of discussion of the real issues.  This is unfortunate.  It was my hope that news outlets like NPR would be less biased.  Of course I was wrong.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

We Aren't Broke

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States is not broke.  In fact, the U.S. is very, very rich.  The problem is that the money is sitting in offshore and private accounts like those owned by Mitt Romney and his Wall Street friends.  This is also why the economy for 99% of people is terrible.  Because such a large share of the money is in the hands of the top 1%, the bottom 99% lacks the funds to spend.  This means decreased demand.  It's not surprising that the economy isn't doing well for the vast majority of Americans.  Money is like water.  Right now it's not flowing because some are hoarding it.

The current unemployment problem is easy to solve.  Hiring would increase if we increased consumer demand.  This means getting money to consumers.  Consumers aren't buying now because they are indeed broke and don't have jobs.  This means taxing large corporations and the rich and using the money to hire people to repair the infrastructure of our crumbling roads and bridges.  It means investing in alternative forms of energy and building more broadband Internet connections and investing in high tech energy research and development.  The problem is that unemployment benefits the large corporations and richest donors.  How?  By not hiring, large corporations can force existing workers to do more.  This means less cost to them and more profits.  The stock market, unlike the unemployment numbers, is doing fine.  The relatively small number of stockholders in America are happy.  Also, unemployment means less inflation.  If you are a bondholder, such as the holder of U.S. Treasury Bonds, then you don't want inflation, because this means your investment goes down.  So for those with stock and bond portfolios, unemployment is a good thing.  And who donates money to politicians?  The largest holders of stocks--large corporations and the rich.

Giving tax breaks to the very rich has never been shown to increase hiring.  In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, the tax rate was much, much higher than it is now, and the economy was growing like gangbusters.  Corporations and the rich just use tax breaks to hold onto more cash.  Apple, for example, currently has 72 billion dollars of cash on hand. This is more money on hand than the U.S. government.  Apple could use this to hire more people, but they don't need to.  They already have enough cheap outsourced labor from China.  The "job creators" aren't creating more jobs from tax breaks.

The neoliberal policies of the last thirty years have destroyed the American economy.  Take the education system, for example.  Public education at the elementary and college level is more expensive than ever.  This has a cause, too--it's called excessive tax breaks for the rich.  The Reagan, Bush, and Obama tax cuts have caused massive budget deficits. Add to this two unfunded wars.  Then there is no money to fund and repair the nation's infrastructure, government, or educational institutions.  Students graduate from college now as indentured servants to corporate America.  With student loans in excess of the average $30,000, this isn't surprising.  But it works out perfectly for corporate America.  Workers are more docile and compliant when they have nowhere else to turn.  And if the workers become too problematic and demand more rights, their jobs can always be outsourced to India or China.  In fact, the less educated people are, the better, because then there is an excuse to outsource.  Engineers in India get paid much less than those in America.

The healthcare issue is another one.  It's a matter of socialism for the health insurance companies and capitalism for everyone else.  As Ron Paul points out, capitalism and the free market have nothing to do with our current healthcare system.  That is why it is so expensive.  As a nation, we spend twice as much as any other industrialized country.  This expense is reducing American competitiveness.  In fact, the extreme health care costs to the American auto industry is partly how Obama was able to get his healthcare reforms passed.  When General Motors decided it was time for change, we got change.

When I go to the hospital to get my cholesterol tested, the cost is three times what it costs me to go to a private lab and pay out of pocket.  The difference is the middleman.  With the health insurance industry as a buffer, consumers are insulated from the costs.  The Obama healthcare reform bill cannot bend the cost curve because only the public option could have done that.  As it stands now, the health insurance industry is guaranteed to get extra consumers by mandate.  This is socialism for them, but capitalism for everyone else because they are forced to buy health insurance which has a built in profit system for the private health insurance companies.

The answer is not doing away with health insurance, but instead doing away with health insurance designed for profit.  The free market doesn't work efficiently in the area of health care because the incentive is to not provide care for those who need it most.  There isn't going to be competition to sign up the sickest people for health insurance policies.  Health insurers only make money when they deny health care to those who need it and collect money from those who don't need it.  This is completely the wrong incentive system.  A single payer system, such as that found in almost every other industrialized nation, helps keep costs down while ensuring health outcomes are reasonable.  Through the use of public taxes, the costs for health care can be regulated.  American business would no longer be competitively disadvantaged by yearly increases in health care premiums.  Those who need care get it.  Those who don't need it, don't.  Because everyone is required to pay into the system, everyone can benefit.  By spreading the risk, each person benefits.  This is the same thing we see with public taxation for fire and police services. The risk is spread around so everyone benefits.

Some elements of capitalism in a single payer system can in fact be utilized to save money.  For example, if the government used its bargaining power to buy pharmaceuticals at a reduced rate, this would save a tremendous amount of money.  But of course, this was not part of the Obamacare reform legislation because the Obama administration made a secret deal with the pharmaceutical industry to not include this so as to gain their support.  This would have saved a tremendous amount of money.  Again, we have socialism for the large corporations and capitalism for the consumer.

Social Security is another example.  Even the language around this program is framed by Republicans in a propaganda sort of way.  When we provide money to sick and old people at even the most basic subsistence level, this is actually a form of tax relief for them.  We are placing less of a burden on them.  Instead, the pejorative term "entitlement" is used, as if the sick and old are spoiled brats wanting a free handout.  Never mind most old people having worked and paid into the system for their entire lives.  But when we give large corporations massive tax breaks even though these same corporations are using public roads, infrastructure, national defense, etc. for free and making private profits, this isn't called an entitlement.  It's not even called a subsidy.  No, this is "investing" in the "job creators."  Social Security as it stands now is no ponzi scheme.  It is self funding and with the right tweaks, can exist for our children and grandchildren.  But Republicans despise this system.  Despite overwhelming public support for Social Security, they will stop at nothing to attempt to destroy it.  They resent the idea that the government can do something well and not exclusively for their benefit.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush's strategy of cutting taxes for the rich and creating massive budget deficits actually benefits their agendas.  How?  Because then the government doesn't have the funding needed to pay for the social programs, infrastructure repairs, and other programs that they deem wasteful and useless.  It directly serves the rich by giving them welfare at the expense of everyone else.  It also serves as a fantastic means of social control.  The poorer people are, the more they begin to blame others for their problems--like immigrants, minorities, union workers, teachers, etc.  This has been a consistent feature of American history.  Scapegoating isn't new.  And it helps deflect attention from the real causes of poverty--the greed and selfishness of the power elite in charge of this country.  Keeping people divided and full of anger works well.  Add to this the other forms of social control used by the rich--mindless entertainment, such as reality television shows, act as a form of modern day bread and circus games approach to keeping the populace docile.  This was done during the Roman times as well.  The gladiator games served an important purpose, to keep the people from rioting and demanding change.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Am I Fat?

If you listen to Jillian Michaels, then losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more.  Simple enough, right?  We are fat because we are lazy and because we are gluttons.

Anyone who has problems with their weight knows that the issue might be more complex than that, especially considering that the rate of Type 2 diabetes and obesity has skyrocketed over the last 30 years.  People certainly haven't become any lazier than they used to be.  The rate of exercise, if anything, has increased over the last 30 years.  Suburbs and automobiles have been around long before 1980.  What has been the difference?  Perhaps it could be not how much we are eating, nor how much we are exercising, but instead what we are eating.

Ever since the 1970's, the government has stressed that we eat 6-11 servings of carbs per day and limit our intake of fat, particularly saturated fat.  We were encouraged to eat margarine and other trans fats.  Even McDonald's switched their fry oil from beef tallow to trans fat, all in hopes of being "heart smart."  Now we know that trans fats essentially harden your arteries and are lethal.  We would have been better off eating the beef tallow.  In fact, study after study, including the Framingham Heart study, has shown that saturated fat, so long as not consumed with excessive carbs or sugar, is not harmful.

Ten years ago I was a study hall monitor at a suburban middle school.  I was shocked at how fat the kids were.  Usually middle school children are very lean.  When I was a middle school child in the early 1990s, obesity was not very common.  After all, middle school kids are growing rapidly.  Kids at this age aren't supposed to be fat until they get older, right?  Wrong.  And the cause was pretty obvious.  The school lunch program was part of the problem.  During study hall and throughout the day, the kids would purchase processed snacks filled with sugar.  They drank huge amounts of pop (soda), ate candy bars, and munched on potato chips.  At lunch, they filled up on pizza, cheeseburgers, and french fries.  I asked the principal why the lunch program didn't offer healthy choices.

"Kids don't buy healthy food.  We lost money when we tried that.  Now we break even or make money."

So apparently it's all about economics.

It's not surprising that middle school kids don't like the taste of healthier food compared to unhealthy food.  That is natural.  But then we shouldn't be surprised why kids are fat and have health problems, either.

Some of the increase in obesity has to do with economics.  Prior to the Nixon administration, the price of grain as a commodity would shift rapidly.  This fluctuation in prices caused instability in food prices.  Politically, this was problematic.  Nixon instructed his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, to stabilize grain prices.  Butz reformed the New Deal program of paying farmers not to plant corn.  Instead, he encouraged farmers to go big and plant as much as possible.  Corn subsidies from the government meant the price of corn would remain stable and abundant.  The food industry found a thousand and one uses for corn, including the creation of high fructose corn syrup.  Soon, high fructose corn syrup found itself in everything because it was so cheap.  This had the effect of greatly increasing the amount of sugar and carbs that people would eat.

While the decrease in food prices was a benefit to the poor, it also had health implications.  The revised food pyramid encouraged by the government was happily encouraging the massive consumption of carbs and considered sugar innocuous.  The low fat, high carb diet, subsidized by the government and embraced by the food industry and by doctors, had serious metabolic implications.  The conventional wisdom was that if you feasted on low fat snacks, you were being heart healthy.  It kind of reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine were enjoying their low fat yogurt without guilt, only to find that they were getting fatter and fatter.

Eating carbohydrates turns to sugar in the blood.  The body must then make insulin to regulate the blood sugar.  Too much carbohydrate and sugar eventually wears down the body and leads to insulin resistance, which can turn to diabetes.  It also leads to weight gain and obesity.  Diabetes frequently leads to heart damage and other health problems if uncontrolled.  Insulin is also a fat storing hormone.  A perfect guinea pig to show this process is a person with juvenile diabetes.  Type 1 diabetics (juvenile diabetics) do not make their own insulin.  So when they eat sugar or carbohydrates, their blood sugar goes very high.  The body cannot utilize the energy so it passes into the urine.  Even though a person with juvenile diabetes has high blood sugar, his or her body cannot use the energy stored in the sugar without insulin.  The person is literally starving to death.  He or she will lose weight rapidly.  He or she is also very thirsty.  Without insulin, death is not far behind.  In fact, there are some teenage girls with juvenile diabetes who intentionally don't take their insulin to control their weight.  It is dangerous, but it is done.

When juvenile diabetics begin insulin therapy, they gain weight.  The more carbs and sugar they eat, the more insulin they need, and the more weight they gain.  Insulin is the key factor.  The same goes for non diabetics.  The more carbs and sugar one eats, the more insulin the body makes, the more weight that is gained.  This also explains my fat middle school children.  They were drinking soda pop like it was going out of style.  I saw kids drinking 3-5 cans of Pepsi and Coke a day.

We are also witnessing an epidemic of fat babies.  Why?  Is it because they are eating too much and exercising too little?  Is it because they aren't going to the gym enough?  It could be because during pregnancy, their mothers were eating lots of carbs, which meant higher blood sugar, and more insulin.  This is passed onto the baby, priming the baby's little metabolism to be big.  Another perfect example of this is the babies of juvenile diabetics.  Frequently mothers who are juvenile diabetics must be induced early because their babies are huge.  This is caused because of high blood sugars and excessive insulin during pregnancy.  The baby grows so large it is dangerous for it to be carried to full term.

Some of this also has international implications.  Consider the "War on Drugs."  As a country, we waste billions of dollars fighting drug producers in Columbia, Mexico, and here in America.  But why do farmers in Columbia, Mexico, and other countries grow drugs?  The answer is simple--they have to.  Because of NAFTA and so called "free trade", they certainly can't compete with the subsidized American grain farmers.   It is impossible.  When given the choice between starvation or growing drugs, they take their chances.  The American government doesn't care at all about whether people use drugs or not.  The real purpose of the drug war is economics.  As a nation, the United States has more prisons than any other Western nation.  The cost of running these prisons is astronomical.  But it is also big business.  Consider the number of lawyers, judges, federal drug enforcement agents, bureaucrats, prison guards, food-service-to-prison companies, police officers, and others who have jobs because of the "War on Drugs".  We now even have private prisons, so putting people in jail can be profitable to a small number of shareholders.  Many of the people in prison are there for drug related crimes. This also serves the side benefit of locking up unskilled members of the labor population who might otherwise make trouble.  It helps decrease unemployment figures as well.  Some prisons even have work programs to sell prison labor to private corporations at a cheap price.  All of this costs the American taxpayer big money, not to mention how unjust it is.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Patriotism vs Nationalism

The difference between patriotism vs nationalism is the like the difference between love and obsession.  One is balanced, healthy, subtle, rich and complex.  The other is unhealthy, out of harmony, and misguided by raw emotionalism.  It is driven by fear and insecurity.

Patriotism, according the Webster's dictionary, is a "love that people feel for their country."

Nationalism, on the other hand, is "a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries."   

Unfortunately, what is commonly a form of unhealthy ethnocentrism and aggressive nationalism is called "patriotism" in America.  Somehow, the term has been co-opted by the Right.  Therefore, if you don't support aggressive Bush doctrine wars, you aren't "patriotic."  

True patriotism means understanding the American legal system and it's government.  It means using one's freedom of the press and freedom of speech to become informed about important societal issues.  It means being civically engaged, such as participating in protests, voting, working at the polls, and running for public office.  It means being actively engaged in public life and service.  To me, the Occupy Wall Street Movement is as patriotic as it gets.  By embracing nonviolent, peaceful demonstration, democracy is embraced and nurtured.  Elected representatives are pressured to engage the will of the people, not just those who fund their electoral campaigns.  That's why during the 1960's America was much more democratic than any other time in its past.  This was a revival of consciousness and true patriotism.  It was this spirit that led to real progress for civil rights for all.  

Bob Dylan and his peaceful songs of protest are infinitely more patriotic to me than the nationalistic songs such as "Over there", which was manufactured as propaganda to encourage working class Americans during WWI to fight in a war that only profited robber barons.  Contrary to the song, Johnny would have been better off not having gotten his gun.  Another patriotic classic is Credence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son."

Any time the political elites beat the drums of war, such as is happening now with Iran, and discourage people from making a fuss or thinking for themselves, this is nationalism at work, not patriotism.  True patriots are those who refuse to sit idly by while politicians aggressively pursue another war.

It seems that for the United States, much like ancient Rome, war becomes a permanent state.  The economic benefits of war are too seductive.  After all, the weapons industry, financial speculators, and large corporations see war as a means of modern day colonialism.  Wipe out the government, destroy the infrastructure of the country, and then you can get lucrative governmental contracts (like Halliburton in Iraq) to rebuild the country.  Your large corporations can dominate the opened up markets.  Who cares what happens to the inhabitants of the country.  That isn't even a consideration.  After all, we know what's best for them.  Just don't oppose the war if we invade, because then you aren't "supporting the troops."  That, in this nationalistic age, is basically the equivalent of treason.  To truly support those in the armed services, perhaps one should consider whether their lives are being risked unnecessarily.  That is the best way to" support the troops."

I consider myself a patriot, not a nationalist.


War With Iran?

A review of the newspaper headlines is incredibly troubling.  Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent inspection and the follow up inspection planned for the end of February, and despite there being no objective proof that Iran is anywhere close to having nuclear weapons, Israel is putting out propaganda stating that Iran already has the ability to produce four nuclear weapons.  It has consistently pushed for attacks on Iran and is becoming frustrated at the slow pace of American aggression under Obama.  Apparently the current sanctions which are causing untold suffering to the Iranian people aren't enough.

As we speak, Israel has over 200 nuclear weapons.  Even if Iran had a nuclear bomb, it wouldn't use them because doing so would be suicide.  The consequence would be mutually assured destruction.  The purpose of Iran having them would probably stabilize the region, not destabilize it because the balance of power in the region is now focused on Israel with its military might and nuclear weapons.  The deterrent factor of Iran being able to defend itself would stabilize the region.  But Israel doesn't want this because it likes being number 1.

A recent inquiry into the Republican candidates for president is telling.  Sheldon Adelson, casino mogul and hard core Zionist, has given 10 million dollars to a Super PAC for Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich has since taken a  very hard line stance in support of Israel against everyone in the region.  Mitt Romney's campaign has 15 of 22 former Bush administration advisors who supported the Iraq invasion in an attempt to privatize the crude oil market and set the floor for crude oil.  Now they want another shot with Iran.

America cannot afford another war.  War has already cost this country a fortune in blood and money.  The deficit is out of control from unfunded foreign wars and enough people have died.  Further, a war with Iran could lead to a full scale war throughout the Middle East.  Unlike Iraq, Iran is more than willing to defend itself.  Tired from the sanctions and indirect violence committed by the West, Iran would be no cake walk to dominate.  It's amazing how Republicans say there is no money for Social Security, Medicare, to repair roads, or for public education, yet at the same time give billions of dollars in tax breaks to the rich and support never ending foreign wars.  The money is burrowed from China to pay for these wars.  Apparently there is money for the things they want, but no money to help the old, the sick, and the poor.  

A war with Iraq would also have the effect of driving short term oil prices through the roof.  Iran is a very oil rich country and a major supplier of crude oil.  A war would interrupt this pattern and send gas prices soaring.  While Big Oil and speculators may love this option, the real victims would be the average American worker, including truck drivers, rural commuters, and farmers.  This would be just another incidence of the rich taking advantage of the poor.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"I Work Hard, But You Are Lazy"!

Premise No. 1:  "I work hard, but you, well, you are lazy."

This seems to be the reigning mantra for many people.  Breaking down the phrase, I don't know what the hell it actually means.  What is "working hard"?  Do you have to suffer while working to make it hard work?  What if you enjoy doing something--what makes it different from a hobby, which isn't even considered "work"?  Is physical work harder work than mental work?  Say you are a ditch digger.  Before the backhoe, you had to dig the ditch with a hand shovel.  This was physically exhausting, back-breaking work.  Then the backhoe comes along.  Now the digger spends his time moving foot and pedal levers while the machine does the muscle work.  Does the digger still "work hard"?  Does this mean he should get paid more or less?  The same goes for mental work.  Before the Internet, doing legal research was a pain in the ass.  You had to go look up case law using books, which took a long time.  Plus you had to manually check the validity of cases, which was a real burden.  Now, lawyers can use the Internet to do extensive legal research much more quickly and efficiently.  Does this mean that legal research was hard work before the Internet but is now not hard work?  If it takes less time, does this mean the cost savings should be shifted to the client?  An interesting and important question.  I know in my own case, if something only takes me a brief amount of time, I only bill for the actual time spent, not more.  This means the Internet saves me time (but costs me money).  The client ends up the winner (which overall is a good thing).  However, I still have to have the legal knowledge, the analytical ability, and the know-how to interpret the law. This part still requires law school training and legal experience, which deserves adequate reimbursement.

Premise No. 2:  "I work hard, so I deserve my money.  I earned it."

This is another challenging phrase.  Mitt Romney recently claimed that he shouldn't be derided for making 20 million dollars per year.  He said he "earned" his pay, and that he didn't inherit it or win it.  We know ditch diggers, farm workers, teachers, and mostly everyone doesn't make 20 million dollars per year.  By this standard, Mitt Romney must have worked millions of times harder than 99.9% of everyone else given his income.  I find this hard to believe.  No one works that much harder than others.  So in America, the notion that "working hard" correlates to pay doesn't mean anything.  The other argument is that maybe he added so much value to society through his work that he earned his 20 million dollars per year.  If he invented something like the Internet, the computer, Taxol (chemotherapy), or the laser, we might agree he added so much value to society he is worth 20 million per year.  Unfortunately, however, this isn't the case.  In fact, all of the previously mentioned high technology items were invented by the government and then given to corporations to sell for a profit.  If you don't believe me, look it up.  Romney acquired his money by heading a financial investment firm that essentially downsized corporations and fired people to maximize income for shareholders.  While helping the small proportion of stock holders in various corporations, the overall added value to our society is minimal compared to even your most modest garbageman, who serves the vital function of ensuring public health and safety are maintained by removing filthy, disease spreading trash.

Almost everyone thinks they work hard.  Some also believe that while they work hard, other people are lazy.  This is almost like Garrisson Keillor's Lake Wobegone, where everyone is above average.  Statistically, it just cannot be true.

There is a tendency for some people who earn a great deal of money to believe they are making a bigger contribution than what they actually are.  In our society, the notion of pay is supposedly based on supply and demand.  If you  have skills which are rare but in need, then you get paid more.  Assuming this is the case, it doesn't mean you are adding more value to society.  There are porn stars who make millions per year, but it doesn't mean they are bringing more value to society than a grade school teacher who teaches kids to read and write.  The same goes for LeBron James.  Ultimately his job really doesn't matter.

Pride is also a problem.  There are people who have mental jobs which few people might be able to do.  Some of these require an extensive education and the investment of years of work.  This being the case, it makes sense that one should be compensated for this added investment.  However, sometimes these workers are excessively prideful about their status.  They must be mindful of contributing factors which had nothing to do with them.  For example, some people are born into middle and upper class families that provide extra opportunities.  Some are born with the genetics for intelligence.  Some are taught self-discipline and have good parents.  However, no one chooses these things.  No one chooses to be born dumb, or born to poor or absent parents.  These are things outside of our control.  So even if one took advantages of opportunities and combined one's natural gifts with hard work, that person's success is not 100% their own.

Remembering this, one would think, would lead to a sense of humility.  Yet there are some men who believe their penis's are cartoonishly enlarged.  These folks need to learn humility.  The same goes for elite athletes who make millions of dollars.  Because despite how hard they work, ultimately what they do is a form of entertainment.  They are not curing cancer or teaching children to read.  They certainly aren't taking away the trash.  The same goes for rappers, any of the Real Housewives of Whatever, and Rockefeller heirs.

The truth is that in America, how much money you have and how hard you work have little correlation. On average, a person born to average privilege in America has to do some work to financially survive.  But the work that is done is rarely so valuable that the pay is directly tied to the benefit provided.  And even if this is the case, there are external factors that lead to individual success which cannot be wholly attributed to that person's "hard work".  Therefore, humility is in order.  Maybe it's time to stop judging other people based on how lazy you perceive them to be.  Maybe we should be thankful for what we have and not presumptuous about how great we are while everyone else sucks.

Maybe this also means not judging people who work their asses off as retail clerks, day laborers, and other positions but still need government assistance for food, medical care, and housing.

Jesus would have expected no less.