Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's About Time

Thank you, President Obama, for moving to normalize relations with Cuba.  There may have been some justification for the embargo back in 1961, when Fidel was hand in glove with the Soviets and they were considering placing missiles on the island.  But we talked them out of that, so then what was our basis for the embargo?  Well, Cuba was still "Commie", and we hated all Commies, so we continued to deprive them of the ability to buy things from us (which they probably couldn't have done because the Cuban people were and are dirt poor).  And if we embargo trade, the Cubans will rise up and overthrow the dictator Fidel.

Worked really well, didn't it?  True, Fidel isn't still in power; but he passed it to his brother.  It's a dynasty.

When I say, "we hated all Commies," don't assume that every U.S. citizen in the 1950s and 1960s spent their leisure time muttering "I hate those Reds."  A very small number of very loud people actually did do that, or something close to it (think John Birch Society); but for Joe Sixpak (we miss you, Art Hoppe), Communists were a sort of background threat, who mostly existed in the Soviet Union.  Joe Sixpak was much more interested in his next raise, and his kid's baseball game.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, there has been No Rational Reason for us to embargo Cuba.  Without the U.S.S.R. at its back, Cuba was (is) a tiny, poor country, without an army of any standing or any major weapons.  We even lease Guantanamo from Cuba (in a 1903 treaty with a very different Cuba!), they're our landlord.  Our loudly protesting landlord, but still.

In recent years we've embargoed countries when we really want them to change something:  Iran, for their nuclear program; Russia, for its outrageous behavior in Ukraine.  It is a short term embargo, based on the assumption that if they change their behavior, we'll remove the embargo.  But somehow the embargo on Cuba was Sacred, because Fidel Castro (whose longevity is amazing) was Still In Power.

But Cuba is a dictatorship, yes?  We can't do business with dictators!  And what about Human Rights?

Oh, hell, we do business with dictators all the time.  How long have we been buddies with the Saudis?  How about China (speaking of human rights)?  We talk to Iran, which has an elected tyrannical government.  As for old dictators still in power, we have an embassy in Zimbabwe, despite Robert Mugabe's indifference to anyone's human rights except his pals'.  The only dictator we really don't talk to is Kim Jong-Un, and he's crazy.

The embargo did two definite things.  I'll let you decide if they were positive.

First, it gave Fidel Castro a gold plated gift - an Enemy he could blame things on.  There's nothing a dictator likes more than an enemy he can point at, who he knows isn't really going to attack him.  That was the U.S.

Second, it made the U.S. look silly, because everyone else in the world was talking to Cuba and they knew exactly what was going on there. It began to look even sillier when Cuban medical personnel built a reputation for showing up and helping in poor countries and in emergency situations - they've been really active in the Ebola crisis, even now that it's off the front page.

It's time we talked to Cuba.  God knows when or whether Congress will ever lift the embargo; but we can talk to them without Congress' permission, and we should.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Didn't Bankers Go to Jail?

I heard this again this morning:  President Obama is a failure because no bankers went to jail after the financial meltdown.

I worked in the financial industry.  I wasn't a banker but I worked with bankers, and I understood banking.  I think it's possible that no bankers went to jail because what they did wasn't actually illegal.  It was immoral; no question.  But in order to jail somebody, there has to be a law against what they did; and you have to be able to pin the violation on them.

Most of the financial meltdown happened because of a bunch of financial tricks and ploys, mostly called derivatives, which were invented over the preceding decade or so.  Some of those tricks and ploys were explicitly not covered by the securities laws - because the finance industry's men in Congress had written the laws to exclude them from regulation.  I refer you to the late Phil Gramm of Texas; a summary of his career is in this article in from the NY Times in 2008.

Further, most of the men we'd all like to see in jail are senior executives.  Believe me, the way big banks operate, the men in the executive office can legitimately claim that they didn't know what the guys on the trading floor, or the loan platform, were doing.  So there weren't any laws; and if there were, you couldn't pin them on the men who set the general policy that allowed the actions.

So quit blaming Obama because nobody went to jail.

Postscript:  if you're interested in derivatives, you can Google them; or you can look at the blog entries I posted, back in the day, under the tag Subprime Mortgages.  I wrote them up while I was watching my 401K dwindle (it came back, thank God).

For that matter, I've said all this before; see my post Finally the Truth, from October 2011.

Blaming Obama

I've been mulling this one over for a long time.  It's been 6 years since Barack Obama was elected president the first time.  He was elected again 2 years ago, which means he again persuaded a majority of voters to cast ballots for him.  And yet people of all views constantly blame him for whatever they think is wrong, as if he could correct all the sins of the world with a wave of his hand and simply chooses not to.

I'll take flack for this, but I don't need an explanation when I hear someone with a southern accent say, "I can't stand Obama."  Many from the South, especially senior members of Congress from the South, can't stand the idea of a black man in charge, and they don't bother to hide their feelings.  Interestingly, the self-identified Republican caller on CSPAN, who used the N-word about the president, was attributing hatred of "that n*er Obama" to Republicans in general.  (He was from San Diego, sigh.)  But I heard a caller on Michael Krasny's Forum program this morning ranting (in a New York accent as I recall) that he hated Obama even though he voted for him.  Why?  Because we went through an economic meltdown (which Mr. Obama was instrumental in ending, by the way), and no bankers went to jail.

I'll get to that in another post, but right now I want to posit a theory:  I believe a lot of the people (maybe even some Southerners, but certainly all the annoyed "lefties") who "can't stand" Obama, say that because he isn't doing what they wanted him to do.  They had an agenda item - jailing bankers, or raising the minimum wage, or "taking care" of immigration, or some other item.  He said he was on our side, and we assumed that he would take care of our agenda item. Then when he decided that other things were either more necessary or more possible, we felt betrayed.  I personally feel betrayed by his hounding of the press; he said he'd be "transparent," and he clearly isn't.

But I'm not in his shoes.  I don't sit down in that office and have to answer to the entire country, plus the rest of the world.  No one who has never been President of the United States can really grasp what that job is like.

And I think he's done a good job.  He's done a lot of what he promised; a lot of what he promised and didn't get done (immigration, tax reform) can be reasonably blamed on the Republican Party, which openly declared they wanted him to fail.

He entered office in something as close to the Great Depression as I hope we see in our lifetimes.  His team pulled the country out.  We are not where we'd like to be, but the financial system isn't in meltdown.  There was a time there where nobody could get any credit - banks couldn't get the short term loans they run on - that's now fixed.

He said he'd get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan; we're out of Iraq, and we're about out of Afghanistan.  Leaving Iraq may have been a mistake in hindsight, but I couldn't see any flaw at the time in the way he handled it; Al-Maliki's demands were not reasonable.  Leaving Afghanistan - we'll just have to see.  But he kept the promise.

He said he'd fix health care, and he did - more people now have health care than did before.  It isn't perfect, but it was designed by a committee and you know what that means.  (It didn't help that the U.S. government is incapable of managing large IT projects; but that predates Obama by decades.)

On top of all this, he is calm, dignified, intelligent, and publicly unflappable. You never have to wonder what he just said.  As far as I can tell, he's done overall about as good a job in the Presidency as anyone could do, under very difficult conditions.

I also want to give him credit for something he didn't do. He didn't get us involved in the mess in Syria.  I think he knew - and I agree with him - that if we send American troops into Syria, we will own Syria; and we'll own it for decades.  At some point the Middle East either has to fix itself or deteriorate into warring tribes.  I don't want to own Syria.

History will judge him, no matter what the Republicans say.  It will be very interesting, if I live long enough, to see what that judgment is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

People Don't Change

Listening to Morning Edition today, I heard a clip about the preview, at Harvard, of a new film entitled Dear White People.  Film sounds pretty good, if it gets to California I might go see it. But what blew me away started with this quote, from Shereen Marisol Meraji, of the NPR Code Switch team (emphasis mine):
The character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero? Lionel Higgins. He's a gay sci-fi nerd with an Afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. But when he gets word of a party where white students in blackface are eating watermelon and mocking hip-hop culture, he goes to the Black Student Union.
A little later in the interview, the director, Justin Simien, said that he put that party in, and then removed it from the next version of the script, thinking it was "over the top."  A few months later, there was a string of actual blackface parties, at campuses all over the country - to which Simien said, "Got it, Universe."

Why does this crack me up?  My undergraduate major at Cal was - English.  In my senior year I took an honors course in 18th century English literature.  I specialized in Jonathon Swift, but you can't study that period without dealing with Alexander Pope.  What does Alexander Pope have to do with blackface parties in a movie?  This:

In 1738, Pope published an anonymous (but everyone knew who wrote it) dialog called Epilogue to the Satires, or, Satires, Epistles, and Odes of Horace Imitated.  The full text is available at Bartleby if you're interested, but this is the quote:
Vice with such giant strides comes on amain,
Invention strives to be before in vain;
Feign what I will, and paint it e’er so strong,
Some rising genius sins up to my song.
In the 21st century we say, "You can't make this stuff up."  Satirists beware:  in the 18th century, Pope knew:  you can't make something up so stupid that someone, somewhere, won't try it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Don't Let Them Talk You Out of It

That's my reaction to the current case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who plans to commit assisted suicide in a few weeks, under the Oregon "Death with Dignity" laws.  In case you've been living in a cave and missed this, here's the latest CNN article.

The case has stirred up a great deal of discussion on both sides.  The arguments on both sides are well known.  The dangers of allowing assisted suicide to become more available are unquestionable; it should be "assisted" unless someone really wants it.  Oregon, from the numbers I've seen, seems to be handling it pretty well - not many ask for the drugs, even fewer use them.  Al Jazeera English has an article that summarizes the current position.

Here's why I encourage her to carry through, though God knows I don't wish her ill.  I've seen the other side. I had a cousin who developed an inoperable brain tumor in her, I think, late 30s, maybe early 40s.  At that time assisted suicide wasn't possible anywhere, and in any case, she was a devout Catholic.

It took my cousin almost 15 years to die.  I don't think her tumor was a glioblastoma.  But she lost the ability to work, then the ability to walk, she had to have constant attendance.  Toward the end, she barely knew people.  And she had a pre-teen daughter, whom her sister had to raise.  Her family made sure she had the best care she could get.  But, oh, my God.  What an end.  What a terrible end.

I'm not suggesting we should immediately do anything.  This needs thought and care.  The last thing I want to see is people forced to "commit suicide" for someone else's convenience, like the 2008 case of Barbara Wagner, where an insurance company refused to pay for a drug that would extend her life, but offered to pay for her assisted suicide.  The case is summarized in Marilyn Golden's opinion piece on CNN.  That is so immoral I can hardly believe it.  Whatever the right answer may be, that's the wrong answer.  But Brittany Maynard's decision, given the fact that our vaunted modern medicine offers her absolutely no hope, seems rational and reasonable.

We have to rethink our approach to death.  I've noticed over the years that Americans, as a group, don't deal well with death - which doesn't mean there are no individuals who do.  But there seem so many who are hypnotized with the idea of being young forever; they talk about extending life, and living past a century, as if they think they will never die.  Nobody wants to die.  But there have to be better ways of doing it than in a hospital, surrounded by strangers - as my father died, although I did spend one night in his hospital room with him before he was gone.  He actually refused medical help - he told the doctor the Lord had called him, and it was his time to go.  So they made him as comfortable as they could, and he was gone in about 3 days.

Go in peace, Brittany Maynard.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Tech Is Not Pink

Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article entitled How not to attract women to coding: Make tech pink.  Apparently, colleges trying to recruit young women to computer  engineering have been sending out flyers done in curly purple script, with flowers on them.  They create pink web sites for women computer engineers.  They refer to "web divas," in flyers printed on purple polka-dot paper.

Does this make you cringe a little?  It should.  They're trying to sell an actual, well paying career, and they present as if they're selling Barbie dolls.  You would think people running colleges would be smarter than this.  Folks, this approach is insulting - which, to the Chron's credit, was the point of the article.

I speak as a woman computer engineer.  I have 19 years experience in a mainframe data center belonging to a major bank; in retirement I support 3 web sites for local non-profits.  Computer science classes weren't available to women when I was in college - well, they were there (using IBM cards), but no one told women what they were about.  Women of my generation didn't get jobs working with computers, with very few exceptions.  (Grace Hopper was the previous generation.)

I started working with personal computers almost immediately after they came on the market.  I kept department books on an Apple IIe, using VisiCalc, in 1979.  I wrote my own menus and installed my own programs on an IBM PC-XT (10MB hard drive!) in 1982.  I took night classes, read books, took on free projects for experience building databases, and finally lucked into an "entry-level training program" at the major bank.  (If that rings a bell with you, you know what the bank was.  The program hasn't survived.)  When I retired I decided to do web management for non-profits; I taught myself that, too.  I don't do web design, I'm a mediocre designer; but I can set it up, I can maintain it, and if it breaks I can probably fix it.

I hate pink and never wear it.  Little flowery things make me wince. I'm interested in how things work, not how they look.  And while today's young women aren't like me in a lot of ways, if they aren't interested in how things work, they probably aren't going into computer science anyway.

Why do we all care that there are few women in tech?  Because women see things differently than men do.  Women ask different questions, and sometimes produce answers the men didn't think of.  If you ever wondered why the tech world works the way it does, the answer may well be, because it doesn't have enough women, asking those different questions.  Go for it, ladies; ignore the curly purple things.  It's a fascinating field, even if the recruiters haven't got a clue how to sell it to you.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

War on Whom?

Like many other people, I'm shocked and appalled by the SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby.  I've seen a lot of flap suggesting this constitutes a "war on women." (What else did you expect from a panel with a majority of Catholic men?)  But if the Hobby Lobby decision started (or contributed to) a war, it's a little narrower than that.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a war on poor women.

The women directly affected work for Hobby Lobby.  Hobby Lobby is bragging today that it has raised its "minimum wage" to $14.50 an hour and its part-timers get $9.50 an hour.  Well, goody for them.  According to Planned Parenthood, IUDs (one of the 2 methods that Hobby Lobby objects to) cost between $500 and $1000.  If you work 40 hours a week at $14.50 an hour, you make $580 a week - before withholding.  So an IUD, if that's what you need, will cost you all of one week's and part of a second week's net pay.  Or more.  And that assumes 40 hours a week.  If you work part-time you get $9.50 an hour and I won't even bother to calculate how that stacks up against the cost of an IUD.

Hobby Lobby, at least, is only objecting to 2 methods of contraception.  But the ripples are spreading - just today, Eden Foods, a maker of soy milk, has announced that the 150 people who work for them will not get any paid contraceptives at all.  Eden Foods is closely held and the owner is Catholic - and he's refusing to pay for anything that "prevents procreation."  He sued about being forced to cover contraceptives, and was refused by the U.S. Court of Appeals, on the grounds that a for-profit corporation couldn't exercise religion.  The day after the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS vacated that ruling and sent the case back to the Court of Appeals "for further consideration."

This is a war against poor women.  Well-to-do women can pay for contraceptives themselves.  How much money do you have to make before you can drop $500 on birth control?  How much before you can drop $1000?  What if you're married with kids?  I'd stop and think before paying $1000 for anything out of my pocket.

One could argue that this is merely a salvo in a larger attempt to reduce women to mere chattels again, with no voice in society and no ability to make their own decisions on when and whether to have children.  That war is going on.  But this specific decision is just a skirmish in it.

The most ironic statement of all came from Justice Alito:
“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections,” he writes in the opinion.
So here it is:  a prescription for single payer, direct from the Supreme Court.  I thought we should have gone straight for single payer years ago, when this whole argument started.  Can we reconsider Obamacare and go where every other civilized nation in the world has gone, now?  

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

I am appalled and disgusted by the furor that has blown up over the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  The flap began when people started complaining that President Obama shouldn't have traded 5 top Taliban leaders for him.  I put that down to the fact that if President Obama were responsible for the sunrise, the Republican and Tea Party idiots would refuse to get up in the morning.

Now we have a whole load of manure dumping on Sgt. Bergdahl and his family and his neighbors, based on what looked to me like an unsupported set of rumors that he had deserted his post and therefore didn't "deserve" to be brought home because men died searching for him.  His home town has had to cancel a homecoming celebration because the Internet trolls have flooded the town with threatening emails and letters.

My first response was to say, we don't even know who these people are who are saying this, since the Internet is full of anonymous trolls.  Today, however, the New York Times editorial board published a detailed analysis of the situation, The Rush to Demonize Sgt. Berdahl, in which they say they've established that yes, the accusers were in Berdahl's unit.  But read this excerpt (read the whole thing, but especially this):
"Republican operatives have arranged for soldiers in his unit to tell reporters that he was a deserter who cost the lives of several soldiers searching for him. In fact, a review of casualty reports by Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren of The Times showed there is no clear link between any military deaths and the search."
And a classified military report shows that Sergeant Bergdahl had walked away from assigned areas at least twice before and had returned, according to a report in The Times on Thursday. It describes him as a free-spirited young man who asked many questions but gave no indication of being a deserter, let alone the turncoat that Mr. Obama’s opponents are now trying to create. 
If anything, the report suggests that the army unit’s lack of security and discipline was as much to blame for the disappearance, given the sergeant’s history.
We're all sadly used to the fact that on the Internet, you're guilty if anybody says you are, no matter the actual facts and no matter whether you know who the accusers are or not.  But the NY Times account raises an even nastier set of suppositions.  In my studies of military history, the U.S. military has always made every effort to bring missing soldiers home, even if all they could find was bones (and, as the Times points out, even if the soldiers had in fact deserted before being captured).  Ask the people still looking for remains in the jungles of Vietnam.  But here we have a man who walks away from camp and is captured - and 5 years later the men he served with accuse him of desertion and say or imply that he shouldn't have been rescued.  If you follow the link about the Republican operatives arranging the interviews, you'll find that some people didn't like him because he "wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds.”  Apparently his "buddies" found it particularly offensive that he was trying to learn Dari and Arabic and Pashto.

What happened to the concept that the soldiers in the units had each other's backs?  In today's army, do the guys in the unit have your back only if they like you??  How do you ensure unit cohesion under fire if your "buddies" are willing to dump on you for no obvious reason?  I don't know that's what was going on, but from what the Times has unearthed, I think we have to ask the questions.

If the Army thinks there's cause to suspect he deserted, let's have a court-martial. Let's get witnesses under oath and have a decision made by a military judge, and find out what happened.  This has gotten so bad that nothing but the facts will clear it up, if it's still possible to establish what the facts are.

When I was growing up I was taught that you are innocent until proven guilty.  Sadly, even in our courts that's no longer true.  But if we reach a point where you are guilty when social media - or mass media, a lot of this is coming from Fox News - say you are, we are in even worse case than I feared.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

On Executions

Following the disastrously botched execution in Oklahoma, I'm as appalled as anyone.  But I'm not surprised; the human race is distressingly predictable.  I do, however, agree with Charlie Pierce that it was an "act of fucking barbarism."

Consider this map of the countries that still execute prisoners, published in the Washington Post (from Amnesty International) in April 2013.  Is that the company we really want to be in?  You'd think the fact that nobody wants to sell American state governments the drugs they need should tell them something - but Americans only seem to listen to the market when it tells them something they want to hear.

There are no good reasons for killing a criminal, even a disgusting murderer.  We execute, when we execute, as a pure act of revenge.  An eye for an eye.  People say it's to "deter them" - no dead murderer has ever re-offended that I know of - but statistics don't support it.  Texas, which executes more people than any other state, doesn't have a lower rate of capital crime than Michigan, which doesn't execute.  You can Google the research for yourself.  So we kill them - because we can.  I hate to say, because it makes us feel good - but I think that's part of it, for some people.

Why is killing criminals bad?  They did awful things, why shouldn't they die?  I could go into all the discussions, but I think the real reason the state should not kill criminals is the effect on the citizens of the state.  The state, after all, is us - government by the people.  So we, corporately, assume the right to decide who shall live and who shall die.  This is a corrupting act.  It encourages us to think that we're "better than them."  It also encourages us not to ask whether we may have been mistaken in convicting them; and there is evidence that sometimes we are.  KQED's Forum this morning discussed a research study which concluded that 4.1%, or about 1 in 25, prisoners on death row are probably not guilty of the crimes they were convicted for.

And why do we kill them in secrecy?  The official argument is that it's to protect the prisoner's privacy.  Yeah, right.  In truth, the state employees who carry out the killings, and their management, don't want the general public to be fully aware of what they're doing.  And the public collaborates in this corporate lie to itself.  A couple of years ago, in an op-ed in the NY Times, Zachary Shemtob and David Lat argued that executions should be televised.  I agree with them - if we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in public:  "Ultimately the main opposition to our idea seems to flow from an unthinking disgust — a sense that public executions are archaic, noxious, even barbarous."  Well, exactly.  We kill people - in Oklahoma's recent case, with no idea whether the new drugs would actually work or not - but we don't want the public to know about it except for a sterile notice, without photos, in the newspapers, after it's all over.  We even have a special word for it - "execution" - so we won't have to say that we kill people.  After I realized that I edited the post to replace "execution" with some form of "kill people," except where I'm quoting.

Furthermore, our insistence on secrecy and privacy in killing people makes us ignore a well-known and well-documented method of killing, instantaneous and close to painless, which would obviate the need to buy drugs that nobody wants to sell you.  It doesn't even require electrical power, which could go out at the wrong time.  I'm talking about the guillotine.  Oh, but that's ugly and messy.  So is what they did the other day in Oklahoma.  It isn't "public" killings that are "archaic, noxious, even barbarous" - it is the official killing of people.

If we're going to kill people at all, we should do it in the light of day, in a quick and painless manner.  If we aren't willing to do that, we should not kill them.  Let us remove ourselves from the company of China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and stop killing people as a function of the state.

We should stop killing people, period, but I know too much about the human race to expect that will ever happen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Work, Careers, and my Father

Back in January, a Facebook friend of mine posted a Salon article on why "doing what you love" is a bad career choice.  I finally got around to finding and reading the article, and it's even better than I thought; take a look at it (linked above).  The author's argument is that defining "real" work as "what you love to do" makes the people doing "unlovable" work (cleaning toilets; making beds; assembling circuit cards) invisible, and without worth.  It also encourages people to take unpaid internships, because they "love" the job.  She's very sharp about Steve Jobs, who was a great advocate of "do what you love" - without ever acknowledging all the people at Apple who were just toiling away, doing the dirty work.

I'd like to write a bit about a man who never had the luxury of doing what he loved - my father, Lestle Warren Ivy.  Born in Missouri in 1907; in 1910 his mother left his father and took the five children with her.  Because he had to work to help support the family, it took him until 1928 to get his high school diploma; he was 21, and that was as far as he got.  (He made sure both his daughters went to college.)  Here are the jobs I know he had at some point:  He worked in an ice cream factory.  He tried doing field work in Texas, but he couldn't stand the heat and he couldn't make it work.  He drove trucks for bootleggers.  (I only just learned this!)  He sold shoes.  (He never let either me or my sister buy shoes without him along.  He didn't trust the salesmen to fit us right.)  He may have sold furniture; his older brother worked in a furniture store. 

In the 1940s he moved out to California to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the only job I (as a child) ever knew him to have; he worked there over 30 years, retiring in the early 1970s.  Because he wasn't a veteran, as a civilian employee he was a second class citizen - the better jobs went to veterans.  Every time the Navy got a budget cut, they had a "rif" - a reduction in force - and the non-veteran civilian employees either got laid off or were reassigned to lower paying jobs.  Before I learned what it meant, I knew that a "rif" was a bad thing.  Dad did everything blue-collar at Mare Island; he chipped paint on ships (which cost him his hearing, but the Navy never admitted it); he drove forklifts; he carried and stacked boxes.  After the war, he moved up to stockman; at one point he made quarterman, with a team under him.  I have his awards for years without a team accident.  He moved officers in and out of quarters for awhile; to the end of his life he could get more stuff in a U-Haul trailer than anyone else I knew.

Did he love any of that?  He appreciated the paycheck.  He didn't like the rifs, but he just kept going; it was a good job.  And while he was doing that work, 5 days a week, driving 30 miles back and forth to work from Napa (with 5 riders, to help him pay for the gas), in his spare time he was rebuilding our house from the inside out.  He painted the house himself, every time.  He sheetrocked the walls and ceilings.  He put in oak floors - after the war, the Navy tore down some enlisted housing in Benicia.  Underneath the linoleum, the floors were 1" x 4" solid oak.  Dad got a truckload of that oak for $150 and he relaid the entire floor except for the kitchen, the back hall, and the bathroom.  It took him three days to lay the first plank.  He hired a man to finish the floor in the first room; he followed him around and watched what he did.  Then he rented the equipment and finished the rest of it himself.  I remember being down on my knees on that floor with a handful of steel wool and a can of paste wax.  Last time I was in Napa, I saw that, finally, somebody is remodeling that house; I hope they can salvage those floors.

Everything he did, was done as well as he could possibly do it. He never paid anyone to do anything he could possibly do himself.  He fixed his own cars, he mowed his own lawn; if he had friends who needed it, he fixed cars and mowed lawns for them.  Work was what you did; what you loved was your family and friends.  When he retired, he had his civil service pension, but no Social Security; so in  his 60s, he got a job as a roustabout at a local body shop, washing cars and sweeping the place up, to get in his Social Security quarters.  When he finally quit that, they begged him to stay; they said he worked harder and better than anybody else they had.  It wasn't the work; it was him.  His self-respect was in doing the work, any work, as well as he could.  When he couldn't work any more, like many men of his generation, he lost his self-respect, along with his hearing and his eyesight; and so he eventually died, in 1994, aged 87, a few weeks short of his 50th wedding anniversary.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. - Ecclesiastes 9:10 (King James Version)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Morality and War

This afternoon I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on KALW radio, and I heard a man ask, speaking of the war in Syria, "Is it more immoral to kill 1,500 people by gassing them with nerve gas than it is to kill them by mowing them down with machine guns?"  I didn't hear an answer in the time before I had to go do something else.

This evening I was reading this week's Economist, and the Lexington columnist was discussing the current flap in the Pentagon over whether drone pilots, and other "cyberwarriors," who never actually get shot at, should receive medals for valor.

The combination of the two leads me to answer Philosophy Talk's question - yes, I believe it is more immoral to kill someone with nerve gas than with bullets; and I believe that really good drone pilots should be recognized for their contribution but a medal for valor isn't the right award.  To explain why I feel this way, I want to do a quick review of the history of warfare.  I don't write much about this subject, but I've actually read quite a bit about it over the years; the human race being what it is, you really can't study history without studying war.  I've studied European warfare, so that's what I'll use to explain my point, which is that nerve gas is immoral because it can be used from farther away, and there is no way to fight back against it.  If a man is mowing you down with a machine gun, he has to be within machine gun range, and you can at least try to shoot back at him, if you have a gun.

It's fairly accurate to say that until roughly the 14th century, when Joe wanted to kill Ed, he had to get very close to him, and fight him hand to hand; and he had a measurable chance of losing the fight, and his life.  The invention of the bow made it possible for Joe to kill Ed from rather farther away; so did the sling.  But the bow and the sling are specialist tools; not everyone can just pick them up and kill someone.  They require training; they require a lot of practice.  It takes less practice to use a club, a spear, or a sword.  The Welsh bowmen who defeated the French army at Agincourt were masters of their trade, and they trained from childhood.

In the 14th century, European traders began reaching the Far East, and among other things they brought back gunpowder.  Gunpowder rendered the fortified castle obsolete; artillery could throw rocks through the castle walls.  Individual soldiers still fought hand-to-hand.  It took another couple of centuries to develop individual weapons like muskets and pistols, which could reliably shoot lead balls without blowing the shooter's hand off; and they fired one ball and then had to be reloaded, a task which took an expert almost a minute.  Still, by the 17th century, armies still fought hand-to-hand, but they did so after shooting several volleys of bullets at each other, from a working range of maybe 50-100 yards.

In the early 19th century, someone put two inventions together and produced a major step forward (if you call it that) in the ability to kill people from a distance:  the mass-produced gun with a rifled barrel.  Mass produced meant there were now a lot of guns relatively cheaply available; the rifled barrel meant the range was more like 300 yards.  Part of the carnage in the American Civil War was due to the fact that the tacticians on both sides were placing the ranks maybe 100 yards apart, and the troops were firing rifles at each other which were accurate up to 3 times that. 

In the Civil War, of course, hand-to-hand combat was still very common.  But the next century and a half developed weapons with greater and greater ranges - artillery pieces which could fire for miles; airplanes dropping bombs from above; short range and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The objective is to kill as many of the enemy as possible, without exposing your own warriors to their weapons.  And the more long-distance methods were developed, the less hand-to-hand combat was needed.  Poison gases were used on World War I battlefields, to such universal horror that nations produced an international agreement not to use that again, although as always, not everyone obeyed the agreement.  If you look at the war in Syria (yes, I mean you, Mr. Assad), you'll see that the government forces attempt to use the longest range killing machines they can.

With remotely controlled drones, the 21st century has produced a weapon with which a soldier can kill people on another continent, at no risk to his own life.  I've thought for some time that this is making war much too easy for the attacker.  War should be hard.   If Joe wants to kill Ed, he should risk his own life to do so.  Otherwise he shouldn't be doing that at all.  If you conclude from this that I think remote-controlled drones are immoral on a level with poison gas, you're right.  I do think that.   We have found that by spending huge amounts of money on these drones, we can kill people in Afghanistan, get in the car, and drive home to have dinner with the family.  The arrogance of remote-controlled drone attacks is appalling.  I can't even imagine what this is doing to the drone pilots.  We should be giving them their own personal psychiatrists, not medals for valor. 

And we shouldn't be conducting war like this at all.  For that matter, why are we still shooting at Afghan tribesmen with remote-controlled drones?   We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and we're using our riches to kill people who live in mud huts with no electricity, at no risk to ourselves.  Consider that image, if you can stand to.  And yet we have the gall to complain about Basher Assad's poison gases.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the worth of a man?

I wrote the following draft in 2006, and then set it aside, because I couldn't reach a conclusion, except that this is wrong:

This has bothered me for some time now. When I was young, and more, when my dad was young, a man could do a day's physical work, and earn enough money to buy himself food, and a place to sleep. This is what Roger Miller sang about in "King of the Road": "two hours of pushin' broom Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room." And if you had a skill, or a college education, you could earn more than that, maybe enough to buy a house and start a family.

Sometime between then and now, it's gotten too expensive to be a working American. Now, a man doing a day's physical work doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, and if he has a family, he and his wife both have to work two jobs just to get from one end of the month to another. And the kids stay home alone after school because there's no money for child care.

What happened? I'm afraid globalization is what happened. Factory jobs went from a place where people want safe working conditions, and a break for lunch, and a pension, and maybe to buy a house - to places where people are happy to work for $5 a day or less, and don't complain about working conditions or lunch breaks. This is why the stuff at Wal-Mart is so cheap, and not just Wal-Mart.

In the case of jobs that can't be exported, like fruit and vegetable picking, we imported the people instead: that's what the illegal immigrants everyone's talking about are doing. And because they're illegal, they're doing it for less than minimum wage - how can they complain? So to keep the produce we eat cheap enough for us to buy it, we pay the pickers so little that Americans can't afford to do the work. The immigrants live four or six to a room, and send money home. And a job that Americans did seventy years ago (what do you think the Okies came to California to do, during the Dust Bowl?) is no longer an option, even if Americans wanted to do it. Some people say Americans "won't take those jobs." Well, they certainly won't at those wages.

It's not just factory jobs anymore. Eighteen years ago I became a computer programmer, because it was a good career path. Now, there are damn few entry level computer jobs; they've gone to India where they can get a kid with a college degree in computer science for $20,000 a year. I've read complaints that American kids aren't studying engineering, especially computer engineering, in college. Why should they? The jobs are in India. And senior people with long careers are told they're "not measuring up", and then replaced by a college grad for a quarter of the salary.

That was in 2006.  It's now 2014.  The intervening 8 years have made it brutally clear that the America I grew up in no longer exists.  We've reverted to the America my grandparents grew up in - historians call it "The Gilded Age."  The age where all employment was "at will," there were no work rules and no safety requirements, and if you got sick you went home to recover or die, without pay, because there was no "sick leave" and only the rich could afford doctors.  Check it out on Wikipedia - the first pre-paid health care arrangements coalesced into Blue Cross in the 1930s, and employer insurance came in during World War II because wartime regulations didn't allow salary raises (see the Wikipedia article cited above).

Income in America today is appallingly unequal.  I'd usually cite the research, but we've all read it.  The rich now own Congress - hell, the rich now are Congress.  And the Supreme Court supports them.  Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with them.  Sure the judiciary is independent.  
How can we be proud of an America where you're either Mark Zuckerberg, with more money than he knows what to do with at age 30, or you're working two jobs at $8 an hour and still can't pay the rent, like far too many people in the San Francisco Bay Area?  When did we decide that $2,500 a month was a reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment?  When did it become "reasonable" to pay a few bankers millions of dollars a year for bankrupting our economy through fraud?  

What do we do about this, and how?  I wish to God I had answers.  I hope to God that the money we've saved up will last us the rest of our lives; it seems like a lot to me, who grew up with my mother making all my clothes, and canning fruit every fall; but we're still comparatively young, and we have no kids to "help us out."  Not that anybody's kids can help them out when the kids are also making $8 an hour, if they have a job at all.  

Whatever the solution is, if there is one, we have to work together to do it.  The rich have gotten where they are by scratching each other's backs, and setting less wealthy people against each other.  In case you wondered, that's where all the rhetoric about "welfare queens" and the "lazy poor" comes from.  Until the rest of us realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with "the 1%", and start collaborating on solutions, things will stay exactly as they are.  There are more of us than there are of them; but they're really good at the old "divide and conquer" routine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Google Glass Can Now...

I've had my doubts about Google Glass for some time, and not just because I'm not one of the beta testers.  I don't think I can be - I wear actual glasses to see with, and I've never seen any explanation of how a four-eye like me could even put them on.  Over my glasses?  I don't think so.  My metaphysical objection to Google Glass is that it - they? - make it way too easy to get lost in your little digital world, and to forget that your physical body is doing something actually dangerous, like driving a car, or crossing a street.  After all, those are two of the most dangerous things you can do these days, in terms of the death rate.

Google Glass strikes me as a solution in search of a problem to solve.  It can do some very useful things - but that tiny heads-up display could all too easily be a fatal distraction.  Yes, military pilots use heads-up displays in very tough situations, but they also go through hours of intensive training.  Sooner or later Google Glass will kill someone - a man merely texting while driving just killed two people in Santa Rosa (of course, he was also high).  (Sorry, the article is behind a paywall but you can see the headline and summary.)  I'm not the only one who thinks this, either; San Francisco Chronicle columnist C. W. Nevius came to the same conclusion about 10 days ago.

It wouldn't break my heart if Google Glass never came out of beta. But it almost certainly will, and now we learn there will shortly be a video game for Google Glass.  Oh, great, a video game.  Even better, the game is "Global Food Fight."  I am not making this up.  You will now be able to walk down the street, wearing your Google Glass, weaving and bobbing your head and shoulders back and forth to control a Global Food Fight game that only you can see.  Isn't that precious?  Take a minute and imagine what it will look like. And somebody will do that - it's inevitable.

Cell phones are bad enough, useful as they are.  In the bad old days when phones lived in phone booths, if a man walked down the street gesturing and talking loudly to himself, you could assume he was crazy.  Now if a man does that (or a woman), you have to look for the Bluetooth headset before you write them off as short a couple of shingles.

I never walk down the street talking on the phone.  It's a great way to get your phone stolen.

Imagine the joy of watching a Google Glass wearer bobbing and weaving down the street, indulging in a Global Food Fight.  Now imagine them playing the game and talking to someone on the phone about it.  Since Google Glass is a Bluetooth headset, they'll be walking along, talking to themselves, moving their head back and forth and shrugging their shoulders...

After all, as the article says, a virtual food fight game "is a fun way to engage people to play with the potential of this new device."

And of course, in San Francisco, it's possible that no one would notice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP, Pete Seeger

I don't often cry when I listen to the news.  But I cried this morning when I heard that Pete Seeger had died.  He was 94, and people do die when they're that old.  I thought about his lifelong struggle to put people and music over war and conflict - his attempt to prove that the guitar is mightier than the sword - and I cried to think that he is gone.  I learned his songs fifty years ago, in college; I'm still singing them.

It is mightier, Pete.  As long as we continue to sing your songs, you will be immortal.

But I'm still crying.  Vaya con Dios, Pete.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stop the Wars!

Recent discussions of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty got me thinking again about something that's been on my mind.  A San Francisco Chronicle editorial on the War on Poverty claims that we've "only been able to declare a draw."  That's too positive.  With the slats kicked out of the middle class, and millions of people living paycheck to paycheck and praying for nothing to go wrong, we've lost the war on poverty.  The anti-poverty programs that started with Johnson - Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, whatever food stamps are called this week - they don't eliminate poverty.  They merely help poor people not to die starving in the street. Today they help people not to starve in the street who have full time minimum wage jobs.  If the campaign against poverty is a war, we've lost it.