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The portentous return of American protestant evangelical politics on the coattails of the Trump win has certainly been startling to me at least. As if to underscore this return is the announcement that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will take on the case No. 16-111 Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al., v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, et al. Petitioners.

According to the petition for a Writ of Certiorari, at issue is the following:

Whether applying Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel Phillips to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment

I for one sympathize with both parties. I would like to think that as a business man I had some control in the business arrangements I enter into. On the other hand, it seems quite reasonable that an order for a wedding cake should not be complicated by the theology of the baker. I gather that the sign over the door did not say “Bakery for Observant Christians Only”.

Having been in sales, I know there are a hundred ways to purposely kill a sale without it descending into a fight or bad feelings. A sky high price, a ridiculously long delivery time, kitchen remodeling, a diseased baker, etc. Ok, so it is a lie. It happens.

From my purchasing experience I know it is possible for a careful buyer to disclose as little information as possible so as not to cue a vendor to raise the price or decline to make an offer. The couple in question could have discretely asked for a cake without giving away their relationship or could have sent in a proxy. The figurine of a gay couple on top of the cake could have been purchased separately and set in place at a different location. Alternatively, the gay couple could have simply found another baker willing to do the job, say in Boulder to the north.

Yes, yes, yes. I know. Neither side should have to use subterfuge to complete this simple transaction. And neither side, in principle, should have to fear the consequences of their core values. But for crying out loud, this is Colorado Springs. A more conservative Christian enclave would be hard to find. The city is full of conservative retired military and a number of fundamentalist Christianist organization headquarters like Focus on the Family among others. But what are you going to do? Fight to the death everyone you find disagreeable? Does everything have to be consecrated to God? Crimony! Can’t there be secular activities like putting a lug nut on a bolt or buying baked goods?

If SCOTUS rules against Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel the petitioner to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage, then they will have set back the cause of LGBTQ rights, possibly for generations. Likewise, a ruling for the respondent might do similar damage for the conservative cause. Both sides could live with some ambiguity in this matter.

The notion that baking a cake for a gay couple somehow validates LGBTQ values seems to be a bit of a stretch. It seems to me that a conception of a God who would see the act of baking this cake with so negative a view as to impose an existential threat to the baker’s eternal salvation is to conjure up a very strange picture of the deity. If a human were to wield this kind of existential threat to the baker, that human might be regarded as psychopathic.

In my view, American evangelical Christianists have constructed a model of God in the image of a very cranky, peevish male human. A God who set the galaxies spinning, ignited our sun, breathed life into inanimate earth, and accounts for every flea riding the tail feathers of every bird would certainly have the insight and fatherly patience to see this gay Wedding Cake matter as a tempest in a teapot. Yes? Maybe? But perhaps that is me constructing God in the image of a mensch.

I like that- God as a mensch.

 

 

 

The recent news footage out of Syria showing victims of a chemical attack is haunting. When I first saw it I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was looking at. But after a minute of increasing discomfort I began to grasp the horror of the situation. Victims lying on the ground in puddles of water or in the midst of being flushed with a stream of water, gasping for air and limbs quivering in wide-eyed disbelief and fear of what they were experiencing. Others were unconscious or dead. Rescuers were moving around the victims not knowing what to do beyond rinsing off the bodies. Those handling the water, I’m sure, were grateful to be giving some kind of aid no matter how small.

It is interesting to see how people, myself included, react to this kind of news. I mean, this shouldn’t be happening. After all, the world has international conventions and treaties banning the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. Humanity has gone to some length to bar the use of war shots designed to release toxic gas or aerosols over anyone anywhere.

When we shudder and express sincere horror at the barbarity of a chemical attack on civilians, along what track is our thinking guided? What kind of decision process might lead us to believe that a sarin attack is a higher level of depravity than a bomb blast? Could it be true that people who release chemical agents are actually guilty of a higher crime than those who send bombs in the direction of a civilian neighborhood or even just 50 caliber bullets?

Explosives are chemicals that unleash kinetic and thermal violence for a few seconds per explosion. Nerve agents move like the wind, breathing lethal aerosols or gas as they flow and leaving who knows how much contaminated … everything … and for how long. Bombs can be aimed, a gas cloud not so much. Bomb violence is much more common than death by acetylcholinesterase inhibition, yet our attention is always drawn to chemical violence.

We have an industry called show business that exploits bomb violence in its entertainment products. And we the viewing audience have become desensitized to the horrific effects of explosions by sheer repetition of highly staged portrayals. Perhaps it is the very novelty of a chemical attack that captures our attention. If you survive a bomb blast, there is a chance that you can be sewn back together again. If you receive an exposure to sarin, well, what do you do to stop the inhibition of an enzyme? Find a dose of atropine if possible from someone who knows it’s in stock somewhere.

The acceptance of explosives but not chemical agents as legitimate weapons of war is at best a false dichotomy. But, we are a world of men and women and weaponized conflict. If a ban on chemical and biological weapons can be negotiated faster than a ban on the use of explosives, then we take what we can get. But let us not get desensitized to high explosives and the horrific tragedies they produce.

Oh, one pet peeve. They’re not ‘explosive devices”, they are bombs. The former may infer skillful and clinical dispassion. The latter suggests dumb, blunt force. The latter seems more to the point.

Dear Rep. Lamar Smith,

Yer a smart feller there, Lamar. Ya have a BA from Yale and that JD from SMU. Ya passed the bar exam and started private practice in San Antone. In 11 years ya worked yer way up ta national ‘lected office.  It’s an accomplishment no matter how’ya look at it. And that America Invents Act piled on some mighty fine improvements ta the patentin’ process. That was good work there boy.

As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Tech-nology, ya been perty skeptical ’bout them snooty climate science boys with their jar-gon and their uppity attitudes actin’ all high’n mighty-like ’bout climate n’such. A good ole’ boy from the Hill Country ought ta be able to pick up on that fancy c’mputer modelin’, right?

I think that ya ought ta throw some of yer many talents inta climate modelin’ yerself. You’d be doin’ the scientific folks a favor. You’d roll up yer sleeves an’ dig in ta clean’n up that po-litically correct climate data. Darn tootin’ you would. I’m sure the folks at NOAA would give ya a desk er somethin’ ta do yer cipherin’.

Give it some thought, Lamar. Shouldn’t take more’n a few Saturday afternoons ta make a big dent innit. Don’tcha think? Keep yer head on a swivel.

Th’ Gausslin’

 

(Texican language services provided by Elroy)

 

 

 

 

A lot of science is about trying to find the best questions. Because the best questions can lead us to better answers. So, in the spirit of better questions here goes.

By loosening environmental regulations aimed at pollution prevention or remediation, the mandarins reporting to POTUS 45 have apparently made the calculation decided that some resulting uptick in pollution is justified by the jobs created thereby.

Question 1: For any given relaxation in regulations that result in an adverse biological, chemical or physical insult to the environment, what is the limit of tolerable adverse effect?

Question 2: How will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined?

Question 3: Will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined before or after the beginning of the adverse effect?

For a given situation there should be some ratio of jobs to acceptable environmental damage.

Example: By relaxing the rules on the release of coal mining waste into a river, X jobs are created and, as a result, Y households are denied potable drinking water. What is an acceptable ratio of X to Y?

Those are enough questions for now. Discuss amongst yourselves.

A grim message from Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland of the US Chemical Safety Board reads-

“The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is disappointed to see the President’s budget proposal to eliminate the agency.  The CSB is an independent agency whose sole mission is to investigate accidents in the chemical industry and to make recommendations to prevent future accidents and improve safety.  For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters.  Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.   Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi.  The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget.  The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB.  As this process moves forward, we hope that the important mission of this agency will be preserved. ”     -posted 3/20/17

I want to voice my support generally for this elite group of accident investigators. As a chemical safety professional myself I am disappointed to see the CSB regarded low enough by the President’s budget writers to warrant being in the proposal for elimination. The job of the CSB is to investigate the cause(s) of chemical, petrochemical, or other facilities that handle materials having the potential to produce serious accidents. Having done accident investigations myself, albeit at much reduced scale from a petrochemical refinery, I appreciate what a difficult job this is and the great value of the disseminating findings to the industry.

The value of any given CSB report is the story of how an accident is initiated, how it propagates, and how it may couple with diverse systems. As a crucial part of the report is a detailed dissection of the relevant operational systems and human/machine interfaces and how they may have coupled to the event. It is educational and very useful for the safety community to learn how unfamiliar failure modes initiate and how knock-on effects may steer the accident in directions that are difficult to predict.

Planning for process safety involves input from the fields of chemistry, engineering and operations. Importantly, it requires imagination because planning safe operations is about predicting the future. Shutting down CSB investigations will deprive the engineering and safety community of a valuable resource detailing subtle or non-obvious ways in which complex systems can fail.

Recall the Apollo 1 fire or the Challenger explosion and how inquiry into those events lead to better appreciation of failure modes and the layers of protection that can be put in place to prevent the failure. If this kind of investigation is kept confidential, the advance of safe system design will stagnate.

Guapo, AZ. The American Greenhouse Association (AGA) released a statement Friday in response to the Trump Administration’s denial that greenhouse warming is not based on established science. The spokesperson for the AGA, Mr. Harlan Stamen, announced that the greenhouse industry has begun a fundamental reexamination of the science behind the greenhouse effect. The AGA was one of many organizations meeting last week at their industry’s annual conference at Pultroon University.

Mr. Stamen, standing before a packed room of reporters, bluntly stated “we thought we understood how the greenhouse effect worked. Honestly, we thought that problem was solved. Then we hear from the new administration in Washington that as many as a few percent of scientists were unsure.” Stamen went on to say that greenhouse researchers were working feverishly to understand how certain substances, CO2 among them, in fact just do not absorb solar energy as believed. “Clearly”, Stamen allowed, “we have to figure this thing out. We have no clue how our greenhouses get warm in sunlight.”

The spokesperson for the White House Office of Inquisitions,  Olivia Gastly, Esq., released a statement saying that the Office is “aware of many individuals in Democrat science who think they understand these issues of climate- I mean, who knew it was so complicated-  but our belief .. our belief … is backed by many years of assurances by the very best people that using fossil fuels cannot possibly produce global warming.”

President 45 has chosen a cabinet, with senate confirmation, that outwardly seems chosen specifically to deconstruct the large scale structure of the federal government. This has come out in the open by admission from the likes of Steve Bannon, but serious dialog about the consequences of this has only just started.

If you step back a bit and think about what role the federal government has had in modern US culture, you might realize that the federal governmental superstructure has provided a framework and a shelter for many things citizens and businesses have come to rely on.

Some science oriented services the federal government has provided-

  • Funds for industrial expansion in 2 world wars
  • DARPA, which funds for the development of advanced military hardware, including aviation, communications, orbital platforms, electronics, robotics, computer technology, and more. All of this has spillover benefits to the nation at large.
  • A military establishment that countless young men and women joined that helped them build a career for life after enlistment
  • The GI bill post WWII credited with aiding the formation of the American middle class
  • The FAA regulates the operation of a large scale civilian aviation system, including organizing the airways, aviation safety, air traffic control
  • NIST, which provides for common weights and measures as well as the definition and standardization of many other units of measure for science and industry
  • CDC, which monitors and aids in the identification and containment of diseases
  • NOAA, which provides a large array of satellites and computer capacity for weather forecasting
  • EPA, that agency much maligned by pollution-generating industry, is charged with oversight of surface waters of all kinds as well as the purity of the air we breath.
  • The NIH which serves as an effective national resource for the advancement of medicine in research and in practice
  • The NSF has for many years funded basic scientific research, and in doing so provided many generations of scientists and engineers for industry and academics
  • NTSB is charged with investigating transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety
  • you get the picture …

I am not entirely sure what the slogan “Make America Great Again” really means. It is a brilliant piece of propaganda in the sense that it stirs the emotions of voters, but cannot be pinned down to any one meaning. The image of greatness is in the eye of the beholder.

When I think of this greatness business, my mind naturally goes to the source of our vast science and engineering prowess. The US evolved a unique and effective system of research and development.  The American university/government R&D machine has over many years provided breakthroughs in technology, but also it provides a constant supply of valuable scientific and engineering talent for any and all who need it.

Another benefit of our scientific establishment is the treasure trove of knowledge it leaves behind for posterity. Working in an R&D heavy manufacturing environment, I have at my finger tips the largest collection of international scientific references in the world. This is the CAS registry at the Chemical Abstracts Service and it is in fact national treasure.

I use this resource almost daily to uncover known technology and substances dating back to the late 19th century. A great resource to have because in business, you can’t afford to reinvent the wheel. And a lot of wheels have already been invented. Highly detailed information can be retrieved to provide the knowhow to solve problems encountered in industrial R&D today. Information that is in the public domain. Even better, because of the practice of peer-review, the information usually can be considered highly reliable.

Our government/university R&D complex is the goose that laid the golden egg. It is part of the engine of ingenuity that drives our economy.

Industry benefits from tremendously from a constant supply of talented engineering and scientific talent graduation from the best university research establishment in the world. It is this way in large part because of financial input from federal government funding agencies. Yes, there are monies available from private organizations. But I don’t think it compares in magnitude and breadth to funding from DoE, NSF, NIH, etc.

When I see that the present crew of republican elected officials and their appointees gunning for the large scale teardown of government agencies and reductions in force, I am naturally worried about the future of our education and R&D apparatus. I have trouble believing that the present congressional majority and the White House have the knowledge and intellectual bandwidth to comprehend the consequences of their actions.

This whole deconstruction of the federal government in favor of state control has the smell of a return to confederacy. Ask yourself how a confederate states of America would function when challenged by China or Russia militarily. How would the disunity by strong state control of resources respond in the case of an incremental land grab like the Russian takeover of Crimea. What if China takes over Taiwan and threatens hegemony of the Pacific?

The present political regime in DC threatens to do great harm to a civilization that used to be the envy of the world. Opportunity, wide open spaces, modernity were an attribute of a productive, unified nation. Do a majority of the citizens want what amounts to the libertarian dream of personal responsibility in the form of isolated bubbles of humanity? Does every aspect of our lives have to be a potential profit center for someone? Competition thrives with individual choice. But civilization requires cooperation. I vote for civilization.

 

 

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has made clear by his comments that he knows little about science generally, let alone those areas that EPA is charged to oversee. If the Wikipedia site is to be believed, Pruitt’s education and career track in no way qualifies him to direct or make assertions on behalf of the EPA.

I would say that Pruitt does not have the credentials to speak authoritatively on the matter of climate science. This contention should be printed everywhere 24/7.

Plainly, he is the boss man of a wrecking crew for dismantling environmental protection.

 

 

Much as I would like to indulge in witty and ironic commentary about the results of the 2016 general election, it would be yet another steaming load of pathetic word paste gumming up the internet. There are no words or sentences you could construct that would make a meaningful difference in the direction our wobbling American culture seems headed for.

I’m left with the conclusion that only civil disobedience can disrupt the unholy congress of corporate media, banking, energy and the foetid red-light district of governmental-industrial conjugation. After all, aren’t the B-school gurus always going on about disruption? It’s good, right?

Could it be that donors and lobbyists amount to a 3rd house of Congress?

Enormous corporations, it seems, no longer have need of our democratic republic. Fortunes are stashed abroad, sheltered in tax havens lest a slice finds its way into public kitty. Thanks for the use of American infrastructure- you know, public education, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FBI, FDA, NIH, NASA, NSF, public highways, airways, NOAA, etc., etc. Deregulation is creeping forward. We live in a period of reconstruction. Neoliberal doctrines have taken hold and may be near a critical mass in state legislatures, perhaps to bring a modern constitutional convention.

America has become a big barrel of fish, stunned by the high voltage of short life-cycle electronic marvels and easily harvested. We’ve become increasingly compliant with the tightening harness of ever advancing complexity and the cloying whispers of big data.

Neoliberalism has its flying leathers on and wants to take flight. There are minerals to extract, civic institutions to suffocate and public lands to privatize. Like the quivering desire of a lusty 18 year old, capitalism knows only one thing- that it wants more. Always more and in bigger gulps. The second derivative dollars over time must be greater than zero in perpetuity. Our brains soon grow tired of static luxury and comfort. Satisfaction, like our lives, is only transient.

The invisible hand of the market, we’re told, will surely trickle down a baptism of unexpected benefits to the masses, if only the rotten buggers would let the acquisitive have their way. After all, if your taxes are lower, the first thing a business owner will do is to add hirelings. Yes?

Wait a minute … if business is flat, why add staff? Why not keep the premium handed to you by the 99%?  Hmmm.

The gospel of laissez-faire is practically physics, you know. A force of nature both inevitable and irreducible.

Taking to the streets is a form of persuasion that has rewarded many movements here and abroad. In thermodynamics, power is the rate at which work is done through the transfer of energy resources. Anthropological power lies in the ability to allocate and focus resources on a need or desire. Money is power because for a price, you can persuade someone to get most anything done. There is no shortage of those who would step up to the challenge or sell their souls or accept any spiritual disfigurement for the hefty feel of lucre in their hands.

If the tin ear of corporate media are deaf to the reasoned voices of those who don’t buy advertising, then what is left for us to do? Elect a businessmen? This general election cycle a species of disrupter was elected president. This charismatic fellow can work a crowd like Castro or Hugo Chavez or Mussolini or (add your own dictator)? A large crowd in the spell of a colorful and grandiose orator seeking high office meets the show business definition of “compelling.” If the event results in fisticuffs or tempers flaring like Roman candles, so much the better.

Electronic news broadcasting is really just show business. A key element of a good story is conflict. Look at any movie. The writers take a sympathetic character and do terrible things to them. There is a chase, violence and intrigue, reconciliation and a twisty ending. Sound familiar? TV is made to do this and they are good at it. And it sells. Watch Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Civil disobedience, as opposed to picketing, makes meaty footage because there is the possibility of imminent violent conflict. It is compelling. As an exercise in power, though, immediate resolution rarely happens. The power aspect comes to play when and if the establishment is forced to confront awkward questions. Often establishment authority is refractory to public scrutiny. Other times it folds like a lawn chair.

 

 

 

Over the last few decades the notion of political correctness has been held, particularly by conservative and conservative protestant evangelical elements in the electronic media, as evidence of moral decay or wrong-headed concern for frivolous sensibilities. Political correctness has been hailed as a form of speech expressing hypersensitive and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of groups or to certain political beliefs. The words “political correctness” and “liberal” themselves have become epithets through repeated accusatory statements attempting to poison the well of progressive credibility.

Born in 1957, my growth and schooling has been coincident in time with a good deal of what is now called political correctness (PC). My perception of what lead to PC is not hard to describe. Over these years, especially in the 1960’s, there was a conscious attempt by progressive, fair-minded people to remedy the effects of centuries of bias and oppression of minority groups by the caucasian dominated power structure under the heading of Affirmative Action. The civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, the Stonewall riots, assassinations, counterculture, expanding feminism, and a controversial land war in Asia lead to a large scale pushback of the establishment.

During 1960’s the threat of nuclear annihilation and the domino theory of communist aggression had already been in the popular conscious mind since the early 1950’s or before. Add to this the internal upheavals listed above and you have a period of great anxiety and turmoil. For many young people like myself, the notion of equality and fairness to all was imprinted by television, teachers, and a few adults. But especially, seeing the growing integration of black Americans on television programs gave way to a strong normalizing effect on myself and others in lily white Iowa. I began to suspect an essential arbitrariness of racial discrimination.

By the time I moved west and entered high school in 1972 the notion of racial equality was openly embraced by many of my fellow students and found in a few readings assigned in school. Busing desegregation was in full swing and news of controversy filled the airwaves. That is, when the Watergate congressional investigation was not playing.

I have come to think that the origins of PC has evolved from this era. In my view, PC is an attempt to level the playing field for diverse groups seeking equal treatment and opportunity. It was manifested in law by way of operational practices in hiring and equal protection in general. The military embraced racial equality in a large way through recruitment and promotion. But perhaps the most obvious form of PC is in language. The use of epithets and slang that demeaned a person’s race or religion gradually became taboo in many parts of the country. Since the 1970’s this taboo on demeaning language and treatment has broadened and institutionalized to include gender, sex, and sexual preference.

In my college years a ban on epithets and belittling or demeaning language was part of the institution’s mission statement and policy. When I eventually taught at the college level, we were expected to speak and treat everyone in a fair and civil manner, respecting the individual and their rights to their beliefs and speech.

Research has shown that the nuances of grammar in a language affect the way the speaker perceives people and objects (see Boroditsky below).

The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?  Lera Boroditsky [6.11.09].

If, as Boroditsky argues, the subtleties of language can affect perception of the world around you, then it follows that caution must be applied in the nouns and verbs we use in reference to one another lest we infer meanings that are offensive, unintended or slanderous. Plainly we do this all the time with people we know and care for. In regard to those we do not know, is it defensible to make broad assertions that are demeaning or belittling? It will be defended by the meek and the bellicose if bystanders do nothing. And that is what has been happening over the last few decades over conservative talk radio, TV, and even religious broadcasting. These broadcasters repetitively spew divisive rhetoric meant to drum up anger and frustration in it’s listeners. It has worked well. If this kind of rhetoric didn’t work, do you think they would use it anyway? Anger and conflict attract audiences and audiences attract advertisers. Ad revenue encourages purveyors of truculent and intransigent rhetoric to continue. Witness the popularity of Rush Limbaugh with his golden voice and vitriolic diatribes.

If a child grows up hearing and using language asserting that skin color defines people as “other” or “lesser” or “lazy”, this distinction as other or lesser or lazy can become normalized in the child’s thinking.

So, what is wrong with the language of political correctness if it is the attempt to promote fairness and equality? Like any aspect of language, it inevitably undergoes meaning-creep. PC may devolve into ridiculous conflicts when people overreact to a perceived slight and claim that they have suffered some mental trauma. Likewise, PC may cause institutions to enact policy overreach in an effort to avoid perceived threats based on a breach of PC.  Like any social meme, PC can be taken too far. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is without merit.

If we truly want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it must apply to everyone. Why wouldn’t we clean up our language a bit, if for no other reason than to enjoy reciprocity?

 

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