The Birth of the United States Parliament: Update

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Update:

October 7, 2013

When I first published this post back in August, I honestly thought that neither a government shutdown nor a Debt Ceiling default was within the realm of possibility in a world of rational people.  After all, I thought, in the end cooler heads would prevail.

I’ll never make that mistake again!

Now with the House of Representatives being held as political prisoners, because the GOP’s super-conservative faction (is cult too strong a term–maybe not! Look up the definition of a cult) has decided that the idea of majority rule as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution no longer applies to them, and therefore, they can stage an ideological and, therefore, legislative coup, violating both the Constitution and their pledge to defend it.  Of course, in their twisted logic, they believe they are defending the Constitution from the rest of us who are…well, just the rest of us.  The notion of majority rule can just go to hell.  They threaten to take the nation over the socioeconomic edge into a pit of unknown calamities, though, the economy crashing down around our heads is likely to be one major consequence.

After the election in fall 2012, I was thinking, ‘Okay, now we can get back to Congress doing some real business.  The next election is a long way off and I’m burned out with the 24-hour election cycle we were subjected to by the media, and anybody else with an axe to grind and a Twitter account.’  Now, I can’t wait for Fall 2014 to get here soon enough, presuming we have some semblance of an electoral process still intact, so through some miracle, this group of constitutional insurgents can get voted out of office.  Way out.  Maybe to be the new boots on the ground in Afghanistan as we pull our troops out.  I’m sure they and the Taliban would have most interesting debates over ideological sledge hammering.  The Taliban are against compromise, too.  Oops, did I just compare the tea party insurgents to the insurgents in Afghanistan?  Well, of course not.  I obviously just used the illustration to highlight the fact the tea party politicians are pathologically opposed to compromise.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who have been Extreme Thinkover readers since the beginning, The Sniffer and I are very pleased with the Affordable Care Act rollout.  Minute by minute, Americans’ demand for access to health insurance is building as a wave against those who would still deny them that.  And as the Exchanges get the opening kinks worked out, the Whiff’ and I both have this strong feeling the initial registration and enrollment period will exceed the everybody’s predictions, perhaps by the many millions.

And all the Republicans have to present to the nation as their alternative national health care plan remains that one blank piece of paper that Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell were so smug about in January 2010 when they met with the President.  Oh yeah, and then a month and a half later President Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010.  Majority rules.

Now we are closer to devolving into a parliamentary morasse than when I posted this essay:

The Birth of the the United States Parliament

Sometimes you get an insight by reading what is going on someplace else in the world. I’ll admit that’s not a ground-shaking revelation, but the insight can be a point of sudden snap-focus into what is happening right here under your nose.

In my case, this “ah-hah!” moment came from reading a New York Times Op-Ed article by Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv journalist and senior political editor for The Jewish Journal. His piece, titled, “The Tyranny of the Minority” (2 August 2013) discusses changes that are taking place in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, regarding adjustments to the election laws that determine the threshold percentage needed to win a seat in body.  The specifics are not important to my point (you can read the article if you are interested), but the impact of the changes on how the minority parties will have to negotiate to have a voice caught my attention.

I contend we have in the United States House of Representatives not just the birth, but the rapid evolutionary growth of a parliamentary structure; a structure that, according to my reading of the United States Constitution, should never exist.

For some context, here’s what’s happening in the Knesset.  As the percentage threshold for winning a seat in the assembly is raised, the smaller parties that might have had just one or two seats under the old rule are now unable to win even a single seat.  Since these small parties represent minorities to begin with, such as different Arab groups, and more extreme Jewish conservative and liberal parties, they are faced with a huge dilemma.  How does a single party negotiate with one (or more) of the others to piece together a coalition that might mean compromising with a group they find politically distasteful?  And even worse, from their perspective, what if their only solution was to compromise and attach themselves to one of the mainline “Jewish” parties?

Rosner writes,

Raising the threshold was proposed on the theory that it could help stabilize Israel’s political scene by strengthening the two leading parties.  It may not: Some say it would only create more midsize parties. But at least it would fix the currents system’s main pitfall, which is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones.

Huh? An image began to form in my mind sketching out what is happening in the House of Representatives as we observe the growing influence of smaller and smaller groups of politically narrowly-aligned representatives declaring that they are fighting perceived tyranny in the size and function of the Federal Government, but ironically, growing closer to manifesting and exercising a true “tyranny of the minority” over the House.

Rosner’s closing point was my snap-focus realization:

For a country as varied and complicated as Israel, the representation of minorities is crucial.  But for a country as varied and complicated as Israel, learning to compromise is even more important.

Bang! Substitute the words “United States” for “Israel” and what emerges is a powerful statement of what I see is the affliction that is now crippling the House of Representatives, and placing the balance of power of the Legislative Branch outlined in the Constitution in jeopardy.

Read More…

Knock, Knock…I’m Home

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Happy Independence Day (for those of you who live in the United States…and perhaps today for those who live in Egypt as well!)

I’m back and ready to resume my blogging after an unanticipated and unplanned absence.  I turned 60 this year, and with it came an unwelcome set of health issues.  I know, there are a lot of “uns” in those two sentences.  Life is just like that at times.

Extreme Thinkover and my readers have never been far from my heart and thoughts throughout the past months. There have been countless issues in the news and ideas about all manner of things that I have wanted to write about.  Now, I think I have the wherewithall to start up again.  I can assure you I haven’t run out of opinions and perceptions of what is going on around us. Some of them might even be right.

As always, if there is a topic you would like to dialogue about, either submit a comment to this post, or write me at extreme.thinkover@gmail.com.  The Contact Me link is in the header.

Let the words and ideas fly!

DW

Health Care For All Americans, Part 3: UPDATED

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Over the past few days, Dr. John and I have been having a fascinating discussion about this post from September 2008.  It is one of the first pieces I wrote for Extreme Thinkover,  before President Obama was elected, as well as at least a year before the serious work on what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare” (but which I prefer to refer as “the ACA”) was being worked on.  It was also before Dr. John and I met and got acquainted.

I deliberately haven’t edited the post below, so our comments will make sense in the context in which they were written will make sense.  I think my readers will enjoy the back and forth between us, and I invite you to add your own comments, should you feel so inclined.

IMPORTANT: Read the comments starting from the bottom of the thread. It is where the discussion starts. And you may have to move up and down a few comments for our replies because of the way WordPress publishes them: by the time stamp of the comment/reply and not directly associated with a given submission.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

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Health Care for All Americans: Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2,  I discussed first, the assumptions needed from a medical perspective, particularly with respect  to the scope of treatment plans that would lead to optimizing the health of Americans, and second, how those assumptions would create a radical transformation in the health of Americans that would work its way through all aspects of daily life.  In Part 3, I now want to describe the logic that shows how the country would benefit.

We’ll start using my first assumption: Preventable diseases are prevented.

We could use any number of examples, but the format of the blog does requires some brevity, rather than a detailed White Paper or journal article.  I also acknowledge that the ideas I  present here have all been suggested by others, but this is how I choose to organize them.

For purposes of our discussion let’s call our example citizen, Larry.  Larry works full time for minimum wage, does not have  health insurance, and cannot afford to buy private insurance.  He also does not qualify for any government health care benefits.  Larry’s wife also works for minimum wage, but only 24 hours per week.

As long as his health holds, Larry can work and he has no medical needs.  He pays local, federal and state taxes and uses no special government services.

But let’s say that Larry gets pneumonia.  It is a very common viral strain, and can be treated successfully with antibiotics, and could have been avoided entirely if Larry had had a pneumonia vaccination.  Now he’s faced with a dilemma.  At first he thinks he just has a chest cold and he can wait it out.  Being a conscientious worker, he toughs it out and goes to work, but exposes his coworkers to the bug through his worsening cough.

By the weekend, Larry is really sick.  Over the counter cough medicines provide almost no relief, and on top of that, his cough is becoming increasingly productive.  He cannot sleep because of the cough and not being able to find a position in bed where he can breathe without effort and  pain.  Larry knows he needs to see a doctor, but having no insurance, he does not have a primary care physician, so he has no idea who to call.  Finally his breathing becomes so difficult that his wife calls  911.  Larry is taken to an emergency room by ambulance, but one on the far side of the city because the hospital closest does not like to take patients without insurance.

By the time Larry gets to an emergency room that will accept him as a patient he is nearly in respiratory arrest.   The ER doctor quickly diagnoses the pneumonia, but that it is so advanced that Larry’s life is in danger.  She intubates him immediately and transfers him to the hospital’s intensive care unit. It is four days before Larry’s condition has improved enough to send him to a “step-down” unit and two more days before he can be admitted to a medical unit room, and he is discharged two days after that.

Larry is fortunate that the hospital he is at has Certified RN and MSW Care Managers.  They work with him and his wife throughout  the hospitalization, develop a treatment plan and a discharge plan, set Larry up with a local medical clinic that treats patients without insurance, and provide his wife with food  vouchers and bus tokens so she can make the long trip back and forth to the hospital.

Despite all this, when Larry is wheeled out to the taxi to take him home, he has a hospital bill that is $250,000.  Since Larry and his wife together make too much money to qualify for Medicare, that bill rests squarely on their shoulders. He has no way to pay it back.  He will not be strong enough to work for at least another three weeks.  He will have not earned a dollar since he got sick, and won’t until he returns to work.  His wife’s income is not sufficient to cover all their bills,  and if they pay the rent, they will not have enough money to buy food.  The hospital sent home a week’s supply of medications, but after that, he will have to pay for them himself, and due to the damage to his lungs, he will need regular medications for at least six months.  Those prescriptions will cost over $800 per month.  Through the free medical clinic he can apply for medication cost support , but that can take up to four weeks to be approved assuming he qualifies.

Now multiply this basic scenario by twenty or thirty million Larrys a year. Every year. That is health care in America.

Here’s what happens.  The only good news is that Larry has survived a brush with death, ironically from a completely preventable disease.

Larry and his wife now owe the hospital $250,000.  They have no assets.  Even though they signed a promissory note with the hospital, no one is under the illusion that he will be able to pay back more than a few thousand dollars if he is a very conscientious person.

Larry and his wife owe the ambulance service perhaps $3,000.  They cannot pay it, or they will have to try to pay it off in very small amounts per year at a probably high interest rate.

Larry will lose at least a month’s income, and perhaps more if his recovery is longer than expected.  If he is very fortunate, his employer will hold his job until he can return.  In the meantime, his wife’s income is not large enough to cover their essential bills, starting with rent and food.  If Larry’s wife cannot get more hours from her current work, her only realistic option is to get another part time job, likely at minimum wage.  Whether that will at least let them pay for their basics is not certain.  It is also uncertain how flexible their landlord will be to let them catch up with their current rent.

It should be clear by now, that one simple, preventable illness has created a cascade of events that affects the economy, are extraordinarily expensive and completely unnecessary.  Yet, this is the true consequence of the current American health care system.

The hospital will have to write off the $250,000.  To compensate they will have to pass this loss, as well as hundreds of others per year, to their patients with insurance.

The ambulance company will have to spend a lot to try and recover their fee from Larry, and will pass those added expenses along to their other customers who can pay, either privately or with insurance.  If Larry doesn’t keep up with the payments, they may turn him over to collection, which will damage his credit.

Larry’s employer loses productivity from a good worker.  The company may have to hire temporary labor to fill Larry’s absence, which will be more expensive.

Larry and his wife lose essential income, which at minimum wage is marginal to begin with, and may jeopardize their ability to even house and feed themselves.

Every day that Larry does not work means that his wages do not generate taxes, local, county and federal, as well as FICA withholdings.  Multiply that by twenty or thirty million Larrys year after year and the loss is well into billions.  The impact of this loss of tax revenue and productivity is staggering on the national economy.

All this from a preventable disease that could have been stopped before it was started if Larry had had access to the most basic medical care.  Everybody loses.  The nation is weakened through attrition in ways no external threat could impose on us.   This national “epidemic” is progressive, it is close to end-stage, and we could all too easily end up with a terminal prognosis.  We may reach a point that we literally will be too unhealthy to survive as a nation.

We still have a choice.  Until the epidemic takes that away.

30 Governors Open Health Care Ghettos: October 1, 2013

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The governors from over half of the 50 states have or are considering refusing to establish Health Care Exchanges and to participate in Medicaid as provided for by the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) cynically known as “Obamacare.”  My assessment is that the consequences of this decision by the Chief Elected Officers of these states is going to in actuality create a third-tier, low quality health care environment.  Simply put, those states that offer to their residents full participation in the rights and privileges provided by the ACA, which is the law of the land, will develop in a few short years, into first-tier, high quality health care systems.  The states  that don’t, however, will within a similar number of a years see their health care, both private and public, degenerate into a ghetto of medical inferiority.

I call it…Read More

THIS President and YOU People Lost the Election. BIG Time.

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Prelude:  I almost titled this post “The Fall of the Plutocrats’ Prejudiced Pronouns.”  What held me back, though, was the fear that if someone pronounced my clever alliteration out loud, they might get saliva on their computer/tablet/smartphone screen.  Since this is the beginning of the cold and influenza season, I decided to restrain myself in the service of good public hygiene.  Oh, do remember to cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm or your shoulder.  The viral laden droplets are far less apt to be transmitted to another when you offer that hearty handshake of yours.  And for crying out loud, stop being a wuss and go get a flu shot, too.  And wash your hands!

THIS and YOU: Pronouns of the Rich and…and…and…?

The leaders of the Right (the political and ideological right, that is), both formally and virtually, have consistently referred to Barack Obama as “THIS” president. Ann Romney, the now former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, upped the rhetorical ante during the campaign by referring to the country’s population as “YOU” people, by which she apparently meant the 99% of we mere plebes who lacked any cache’ conveyed by filthy-richness have no right to believe anything beyond what we are told by those who, after all, really matter: The ONE percent at the top of the socioeconomic marble staircase. From their lofty perspective, the expectation of unquestioning subservience applies just as much to those underlings of their own party, in this case the GOP, not just the 47% of the unwashed masses who weren’t going to vote for Romney anyway because they were too busy not paying any taxes or doing anything substantive or “responsible” to care for themselves.

As one who studied the power of rhetoric during his doctoral work, I found the Conservatives’ use of the pronouns “this” and” you” revealing in the sense of standing next to a rock wall and suddenly having an invisible door open.  Casting aside all caution for fear of being swept back into the Republicanism I have been in recovery from for close to a decade, I stepped over the threshold.  What a mess!  Just don’t tell anybody.

The Republicans have been referring to THE president as THIS president virtually from the day he was first sworn into office in 2009.  I contend the use of this particular pronoun was intended to be an objectivist put-down in most cases, to be both denigrating and condescending. For some, though, it is a subtle but rhetorically obvious statement based on the racial prejudice of the speaker.  I think it can be suggested that it is the modern euphemism of the discredited term, “boy.”  In some people the choice of the pronoun is not due to conscious thought so much as an expression of a kind of group-speak, although it carries the same rhetorical effect–a sarcastic slur.  The emotional effect and intent is to place a linguistic wedge between the man, in this case, Barack Obama, and the office that he holds, which happens to be President of the United States; it is intended to communicate that in the opinion of speaker, the person in possession of, again, in this case, the Oval Office is not legitimately entitled to be there. That is because he is __________ (fill in the blank).

The use of the pronoun “THIS” as a pejorative has been rampant amongst the GOP leadership for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  In fact, I would go far as to state that if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Rep. John Boehner, Rep Eric Cantor, and their Senate counterparts, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Kyl use the phrase, “THIS president,” I’d probably be richer than Karl Rove (who loves to use the pronoun, as well), who now has nothing more useful to do than to count the fees he made off the hundreds of millions of dollars he conned from the billionaire marks to defeat not just Pres. Obama, but also numerous Democratic senators and representatives, which, as we know now, was a complete waste of money.  I’m just certain Karl doesn’t have to give back his undoubtedly very big commissions despite all those losses he suffered at the hands of the American Voter.  But I digress.  Well, I do have to ask, “Hey Karl, how’s that Citizens United thingy working out for you these days?”

As I wrote earlier in the blog regarding Ann Romney’s rhetorical use of “YOU people” the same point is evident.  With recent reports coming out of The Netherlands of how Bain and Romney are alleged to have laundered millions in profits through the Dutch financial maze and in all likelihood avoided paying tens of millions of dollars in U.S. Taxes, it appears to be crystal clear why Mrs. Romney didn’t want to have those facts come to light. Especially to YOU people!  Not only is Romney very possibly indictable for felony tax evasion against the United States, it also would mean that the ten percent Mr. Romney has claimed he has given to the LDS as required by its church rules during those years was millions of dollars short.  Salt Lake would not be amused.

With such a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads and campaign, Mrs Romney had to resort to the only weapon she had at hand, a stinging verbal rebuke of the underlings for even daring to raise the question.  We the people—or in her rhetoric, “YOU people” are not worthy to be privy to the true financial records of the Great and Powerful Oz…er, uh, Rom. I am fairly certain that to this day she believes she put the entire nation in its place—once and for all.  They never did release their true tax returns for the ten years that has become the standard for presidential and vice presidential candidates.  Romney even required his running mate, the most unfortunate, Rep. Paul Ryan, to provide those documents to the Campaign as he was being vetted to be Romney’s running mate, but it seems suspiciously apparent to me that what was good for the goose was not good for the gander.

For me, the great irony of this election is that the Lords of plutocracy put forth a mighty cry, a bunch of bucks and a candidate that had all the personality of a Madam Tussaud’s wax museum figure, and they pretty much lost it all.  I find it hard, well, close to impossible, to be honest, to have any sympathy for their plight.

The election is over.  America is still in the hands of the people who count, not THOSE people* who thought they could buy it and own it, with the rest of us being subservient to their plutocratic will.

*Sorry, just couldn’t resist that one!

Mitt Romney is Four Years Old

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I am sitting on my couch listening to Mitt Romney give his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for President the United States.  What strikes me (as it has with other speeches I have listened to from the Republican National Convention) is that unlike scientific creationists who at least believe that the universe is a scant 6000 years old, Mitt Romney and the Republicans believe the universe is four years old.  Four years old.

Nothing in the universe existed before 2008 (shouldn’t that be year 0004?) in the GOP cosmos.  No universe, no galaxy, no solar system, no earth, no America.  It all spontaneously came into existence the moment President Barack Obama took office.

In the Republican cosmos according to Mitt Romney, nothing came into existence until Barack Obama became President of the United States. Four years ago.

That’s it.  In their cosmology all the ills America is facing are the directly the result of four short years.  Since nothing existed before that time, the Republicans and Mitt Romney believe there is nothing for which they have to take responsibility.

There is only one conclusion I can draw from Mitt Romney’s speech: The GOP is only four years old, therefore Mitt Romney is only four years old.

As a progressive and a Democrat I have news for them.  We live in a universe that is nearly thirteen billion years old, the solar system is four and a half billion years old, America is 236 years old, and four years ago when Barack Obama took office, the economy he inherited had been worn threadbare and emaciated by years of Republican living high on the hog, passing bills and conducting wars with unfunded mandates.  They are the ones who drove our economy into the ground, not President Obama.

And don’t the Democrats bear responsibility for their version of bad legislation in the past?  Of course they do.  What they don’t claim, however, is that the universe began with George W. Bush.  FDR, maybe, but not Dubya. (For the satire-challenged, that was it.)

Mr. Romney, since you are only four years old, you do not meet the Constitutional minimum age of 35 to be President of the United States.  Neither are your Republican toddler companions.  That goes for your running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan–a disciple of Ayn Rand, an atheist objectivist–along with Rep. John Boehner, so-called Speaker of the House who has raised obstructionist political shenanigans to the highest levels ever seen in the history of the Republic, and finally Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the Senate, who for the past four years–again that toddler age–has not one day done his job as a senator to govern but has dedicated is every breath to the defeat of the President.

America needs a mature adult in the White House.  That adult is Barack Obama.  He lives in the real world with a clear sense of history, both the good and bad.  And without a clear sense of history, there can be no clear sense of the future.  That is America–true Americans have never wavered from that clarity!

Extreme Thinkover Comments Require Civil Discourse

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To my dear readers:
From the beginning of Extreme Thinkover, I have set a standard for civil discourse on the blog.  I hold myself to that standard.  See the header for my statement on civil discourse.

In the past few days I received a comment from an individual that appears to fit the description of a “troll.” Trolls or trollers are persons who search the blogosphere for posts or blogsites that they disagree with for political or ideological reasons and then write comments that are usually tirades that often use profane, even lewd language attacking the individual they oppose.

In this case, the comment was a crude, ad hominem attack against the President of United States, as well as myself.

The individual who wrote the comment is a known troll who writes inflammatory comments, not just to individual blogs, but as a prolific far-right-wing spammer.  It is possible that the writer may actually be more than one person, but his style (a male’s name appears as the author of the comment) is quite consistent with other material I have read authored by the guy, so I assume that one person is responsible for the comment..

How do I know this?  WordPress provides its bloggers with a significant amount of information from those who submit comments and replies.  As a result I have access to some of this man’s track record on the Internet.

I have no problem with my readers disagreeing with me.  In fact, in my statement on civil discourse I specifically mention you are welcome to do just that.  I will not, however, approve comments or replies that violate that standard.

ACA Aftermath: Three Little Pigs & the Big Bad Wolf

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Three Little Pigs. Silly Symphony Original Release Poster, 1933. Courtesy Walt Disney Company.

Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs?  You know, one pig built a house out of straw and a second built a house out of sticks, while the third built a house out of bricks.  The antagonist is the iconic “Big Bad Wolf” whose ravenous appetite for pork knew no bounds.  Endowed with an impressive lung capacity he goes to each of the little pig’s houses and, as the story goes, “He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down!”  (It’s more fun if you say it out loud with all the enthusiasm and glee a four year old would put into it.) The house of straw immediately collapses under this pneumatic assault, and the one made of sticks fares no better.  Their plump porcine owners scramble to find shelter in the house made of brick, which as we all know, survived the wolf’s hurricane-force winds, unscathed.  It is, of course a morality tale about being wise to the ways of the world and “building” the various parts of one’s life out of material that can withstand its big bad wolves, or storms, be they actual or virtual.  Either that or a clever publicity story concocted by the bricklayers union, but I prefer the former.

Now that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) there has been non-stop huffing and puffing by the Republican opponents of the law, who thought they were going to be rewarded with a Health Care house that was made out of straw, or at the worst, of wood.  SCOTUS, they reasoned, would strike down all or part of it so that they could legislatively “huff and puff” and finish blowing the house down.

Big Bad Wolf: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!” Three Little Pigs, 1933. Courtesy Walt Disney Company.

But it turns out that the Court took the position of the third little pig and, in declaring the law constitutional, revealed a house made of bricks.  It’s rather like that moment on the television show, Extreme Makeover (Huh, something familiar about that…), where at the moment of climax as the family stands in nervous anticipation, the crowd yells in unison, “Driver, move that bus!”  Only in this scenario, the Republicans and their conservative wolf pack are not overcome with emotion at the fabulous new home standing before them, but rather are stunned, being confronted with an edifice made out of material largely impervious to their huffing and puffing.

Here’s the thing.  The story ends with the wolf leaving in abject defeat, his hunger unsated.  Conservatives, however, apparently lack the capacity to see they have lost this fight and therefore continue to huff and puff, launching into tirades to any convenient warm body holding a mic and a TV camera, insisting that they have actually won and it’s only a matter of four months until the General Election to prove that point.  Already, they have coined a new term to try to recapture their bluster: Obamatax.

We will be subjected in coming months to their incessantly chanting this new mantra as the justification for their huffing and puffing, but they fail to realize the American people just aren’t that stupid and soon it will become distracting background noise.  In fact, it already is.  Yes, the Supreme Court changed the word “penalty” to “tax” but despite the conservative’s vitriolic demonstrations of outrage and consternation over the ACA being declared “constitutional” there is nothing new here.  Nothing.

It is completely dishonest to claim that on June 28, 2012, President Obama imposed a new tax on Americans.  Completely dishonest.  And it only piles a huge mound of disingenuous, uh, bovine excrement, on top of that dishonesty to claim that President Obama lied to the country by promising there would be no new tax.  There wasn’t and isn’t.  Chief Justice Roberts bears the responsibility for substituting the words in his ruling.  The wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of the GOP and the hyper-cons is all for show, political theater at its most profane.  Over-played and badly acted, at that.

The inconvenient truth for the Republicans is that the statue of their graven idol, Antitaxus Ultimatum, has feet of clay.  The Supreme Court just took a sledge hammer to it.  It now teeters, susceptible to collapse from the tiniest puff of air from a butterfly’s wings.  Or a poorly aimed huff from one of their own, say, perhaps one Mitt Romney?

I see two important lessons that Democrats should learn (and avoid at all costs) from the Republicans: If you lie to the American public long enough on the theory that the one who shouts the loudest is telling the truth, it does not take long for you to start believing your own lies.  Second, once you begin believing your own lies, you lose all perspective regarding the reality that ultimately the Big Bad Wolf failed.  He could not blow down the house made of bricks. Ever.

Why?  The answer springs forth in the words of the man who neither succumbed to the lie nor lost his perspective of what it means to be an American:

“…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863. The Gettysburg Address.

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VINDICATED! Today a New Dawn Rose for a Healthier America

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CONSTITUTIONAL!

It is a day that even I wondered would ever come.  I began Extreme Thinkover with posts on the topic of comprehensive health care for all Americans.  I wrote in September of 2008:

The typical arguments for or against universal health care always focus on what the government will have to spend, what taxes will have to be raised to finance it at any level, or providing health care to consumers, i.e., virtually the whole population, has been, from my perspective, approached from the wrong frame of reference.

I put forth the argument on numerous occasions.  The Affordable Care Act, from my perspective, is a just solution to a miserably broken health care non-system.  It is just in the sense that this law creates a new level of access to medical assistance that Americans have never enjoyed, but that virtually every other First World country (and a number of smaller nations) has offered its citizens for decades.

The Affordable Care Act is the cornerstone of an inalienable right that makes possible in a tangible manner the chance for every person in the country to be healthier, and consequently enjoy the Blessings of Liberty. Yes, I can imagine the eyes rolling over that assertion.  But though it will take a generation, maybe more, to make that difference, doing nothing, that is, to go back to the pre-ACA situation, Americans would continue to be less healthy, costing perhaps trillions of dollars in avoidable care.  Now, at least we have a law, a system, that can turn that trend around.

Having worked in a hospital for over a decade and a half with daily patient contact, I can attest to the misery and personal suffering that those who have no insurance are forced to bear.  Add to that, my hospital is Catholic, with a mission to serve the poor and uninsured, and I have seen the incredible stress this very broken way of providing medical care has placed on my organization, restricting our capacity to plan for the future because tens of millions of dollars annually are required to subsidize those with no insurance.

I fully realize that the success of this change depends on individuals taking personal responsibility for their health.  I would contend, however, based on my experience with chronically ill patients who are poor or unemployed, they are caught in a vicious circle that all too often results in their getting the short end of the stick economically, for which access to medical care for wellness simply does not exist.

I could also put it this way, with the Supreme Court’s decision today, health care in America has finally stepped into the 20th Century.  The challenge now to us living in the 21st Century is fend off those who would overturn the law and plant us firmly back into the 19th Century.

People.  Real, live people with real live medical needs.  That is what the ACA is really about.  That is why for nearly four years, I’ve objected to the argument put forth by the law’s opponents that it was all about money and government.  I rejected that argument on both moral and ethical grounds.  Those who grouse that they are only paying for others bad habits are short-sighted, and in my opinion, fundamentally selfish.  To me, that argument is both highly ironic and paradoxical, because my experience with my neighbors has uniformly been that Americans possess a natural selflessness and generosity to help anyone in need.  But somehow getting the connection tied between to the two has been an uphill battle and continues to be.

For example, I have no doubt that if Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, or Sarah Palin were in a setting in which total strangers were injured and needed immediate emergency medical care, that every one of them would step up and wade in to help.  But all of them today condemned this law, despite the fact it acts on their behalf as well, so that their fellow citizens will receive that care as a matter of course.  And those patients won’t be nearly as likely to end up bankrupt as a result of seeking out that care.

Simply put, I don’t get it why they don’t get it. (I’ve got a pretty good notion why they think they don’t want to get it, however). Because of that great contradiction, conservatives like those mentioned above still want to overturn it legislatively.  I will continue to write to defend it.

(Yee-haw!)

Is Health Care a Constitutional Right?

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A Constitutional Right to Health Care?

The assertion that we have a right to medical care is one of the pillars supporting the Affordable Care Act.  Not the sole pillar, but one of them.

Photo Courtesy Blue Ridge Community College, NC

As with all of our rights, it has to be built up from some source that is part of the foundation of the national edifice.  Being a democratic republic, as I understand it, we in the United States have two sources.  One is the Constitution, and the other is the statutory authority given the various levels of government both federal and state by the Constitution.

Do we have the Constitutional right to medical care?  Read More…

The Supreme Court and the ACA: The Ultimate Death Panel?

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I started Extreme Thinkover in the fall of 2008.  The presidential race was in full swing.  Universal health care was one of the major topics that the candidates, media, and the public were debating.  One of my primary motivations for creating the blog was to have a forum in which to express my ideas about the health care debate.

I’ve worked in the health care industry for nearly 16 years and have daily contact with patients and families in the hospital.  I hear their stories, good and bad, about what these hospitalizations are doing to their lives.  Yes, what the hospitalization is doing to their lives.

Here in America, going to the hospital is not just about getting medical treatment; it’s also about entering a very broken and extremely expensive system. It nevertheless tries to limp along: In all fairness to the medical professionals who work very hard on behalf of their patients, in most cases, if you find yourself hospitalized, you get reasonably good medical care.

However, in the middle of this is an ongoing battle with the major health care players (hospital systems, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment providers, etc.) all wanting to maximize their profits in an economic power race that too often is at the expense of the quality of care delivered to the patients who pay for their services, as well as forcing ever-increasing demands on their care givers to do more with less.  Admittedly, it doesn’t happen everywhere, but it is far too pervasive in Rube Goldberg “system” that passes for health care in America.

I wrote in fall 2008:

Here’s the question: What kind of treatment and medical care is needed so that all Americans can be healthy, or as healthy as possible?

That perhaps is not the question you expected to hear. The national conversation has focused on how much will it cost to provide all Americans with health insurance, how will the spiraling costs of health care be brought under control, will taxes have to be raised to pay for it, what will the roles of the health insurance industry, and the medical industries, and most of all the federal government be? Tough questions all around.

That question, “What kind of treatment and medical care is needed so that all Americans can be healthy, or as healthy as possible?” remains the key to a successful national health care program.  It also remains almost totally ignored by politicians, lobbyists, and, sadly the American public, none of whom have yet realized that without answering this question first, in my opinion, the debate about the cost cannot be resolved.  I contend this is why the health care law polls low for national support.

The current law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, nibbles at the edges of what I think is essential, but it, also, is far too focused on trying to control medical costs.  And in case you are wondering, yes, I’ve read the law cover to cover.

Beginning Monday, March 26, the Supreme Court of the United States is going to hear arguments for and against the PPACA.  The primary question before the Court is whether Congress overstepped its authority regarding the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by mandating all Americans (sort of) be required to purchase health insurance.  The debate is guaranteed to be rancorous, even in the sedate and forcibly polite setting of the Supreme Court.  The debate, though, once again is all about the money.  A healthy America will likely never even come up. The pundits will have a field day with this, without question, but I doubt any will see the fundamental flaw in all the arguments, based on my point of view.

Will the justices see past the smoke screen of political ideology, special interest group pressure, and inflammatory rhetoric that is fueling these proceedings?  If they do, and declare the law constitutional, there is hope that the ACA can continue to be refined, actually moving toward being a mechanism to support a healthier America.  If they don’t, by striking down all or parts of it, the Supreme Court will, for all intents and purposes, become the Ultimate Death Panel, condemning tens of millions of Americans to poor health, premature, and in some cases, an agonizing death because they will have been denied the right to even the most basic level of health care.  And that, tragically, just months before a law already on the books would have given them the care snatched away by the Supreme Court Death Panel.

Now we wait to see how this court rules on the fate of Americans’ health for generations to come.

The Thinkover:  When Patrick Henry uttered those iconic words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”  he wasn’t suggesting that death was preferred outcome of that stand for patriotism.  So far, the opponents of the ACA have been clueless to this obvious distinction in demanding “liberty” from the ACA mandate.

Extreme Thinkover Reaches 40,000-View Milestone

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On March 7, 2012, Extreme Thinkover reached a great milestone by crossing the 40,000 views mark.  I want to express my appreciation to all my readers and subscribers, along with those who just happen to stop by and check out the blog.  Last year was an eventful year for me and I didn’t post as many articles as I have in past years.  But to those of you who have hung in there with me, I extend my special thanks!  So keep checking on the blog site.  There are some new plans in the offing that should not only generate more posts but also provide some great reading.

All my best,

David

P.S., Just for fun here are three photos of my vacation at Mt Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, California.  And thanks to Bruce and Mimi for the invitation!

I'm standing next to the 60" Hale Telescope. It's over 30 feet tall. Photo Credit: John Bogen

When the Hale saw first light in December 1908, it was the largest telescope in the world. George Ellery Hale, who later financed the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mt Palomar near Pasadena, named the telescope after himself.

This is the chair Albert Einstein sat in when he visited Mt Wilson on January 29, 1931. Note the hair. Photo Credit: John Bogen.

Einstein and the Senior Astronomers (Edwin Hubble is standing directly behind Einstein. Jan 29, 1931. Photo Courtesy of Mt Wilson Observatory.

A Memorial Tribute to My Mother

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In Memoriam

Pauline Ann Waggoner

October 16, 1928 – January 26, 2012

Pauline "Polly" Waggoner

Pauline Ann (Polly) Waggoner, a native of Boise, Idaho, beloved mother, grandmother and friend, died on January 26, 2012.

Mom with Her Parents, Carl and Lucile Vocu. Photo taken about 1929.

Mom was born on October 16, 1928 to Carl and Lucile Vocu, and lived in Boise most of her life. She met her life-long love, Earl, at Boise High School. After graduating in 1946, she High School Graduation, 1946attended the former Boise Junior College. On September 21, 1947, she married J. Earl Waggoner. In those early years, she worked for the Retail Credit Union Company in Boise and then also in San Francisco while dad attended mortuary college. He graduated in 1952 and they returned to Boise. They lived briefly in Twin Falls, Idaho. After they returned to Boise, dad went to work for McBratney-Alden Funeral Chapel, which later became Alden-Waggoner.

Polly and Earl, Married 21 September, 1947.

They were baptized together in 1956 at the former Boise First Christian Church, now University Christian Church. They remained active members until their deaths, dad having passed away on August 14, 2006.

Mom and dad had three children: David, Scott and Beth Ann.  She also has four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way.  It breaks our hearts that that child will never have the chance to know mom in person.

The Waggoners, Easter, Probably 1966.

When we were growing up, mom was a homemaker, but after dad had a heart attack, she went to work with him in 1967 where she served as the Chapel’s office manager and bookkeeper. Both of our parents were very service-oriented.  Her interest in giving back to the community led to volunteering for many years on the Idaho State Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Advisory Board. She worked alongside dad at the chapel until her retirement in 1990.

Polly & Earl at the Funeral Chapel, 1973

During our elementary school years, mom volunteered at church, our school and in the community. She was past president of the Franklin Elementary School P.T.A. and Boise Jay-C-Ettes. She worked with Cub and Boy Scouts while dad was pack leader, as well as a church youth sponsor and chaperone for choir trips. Later on, she also served as a Deaconess, Church Clerk, Membership Department Chair and more recently, part of the Welcome Committee.

One of mom’s life’s joys was her Birthday Club, which started in 1961.  This group of ten women, since then, have held a monthly lunch-time gathering sharing their birthdays. It was one of the most important activities in her life and she rarely missed meeting with them. This loyalty was so typical of her personality and we see it as a tribute to the value of life-long relationships.

Mom and Beth on the Great Wall of China.

Mom and dad loved to travel, especially road trips. They regularly drove to California, Utah, and Oregon to see relatives, and from those visits we have a lifetime of cherished family memories (and nearly as many pictures–Mom and her camera were rarely separated).   On her first international adventure she flew to China while Beth was teaching English at a university in Shanghai.  It was a dream come true; she had wanted to

Mom & David Mazatlan, 2008

visit China all of her life. Scott, and his wife, Brenda, accompanied her on that expedition. Her second big international trip was a cruise to the Mexican Riviera to celebrate her 80th birthday.  The cruise’s staff gave her a delightfully special birthday party. David, his wife, Lorette, and granddaughter, Bethany, sponsored that trip.

Polly, With Her Ubiquitous FILM Camera, in Mazatlan, 2008.

Once dad retired, they took advantage of their new-found freedom. They bought a 5thwheel RV and and hit the road.  No short day-trips for them! Over several years of three-month-long treks, they visited every state in the continental US as well as several provinces in Canada, documented in mom’s extensive photo albums.  It would be remiss not to note that mom firmly resisted making the transition to digital photography.  She liked film, and had a fairly good eye for getting nice shots (We have been bemused over the fact mom passed away and Kodak declared bankruptcy within a month of each other). During the winter, mom and dad escaped the cold and sometimes harsh climate in Boise at a sunny and warm RV park in Cathedral City, California.

Mom and Scott at the Mariners' Stadium in Seattle

Besides traveling, mom was a voracious reader and sports fan.  It has been an ongoing joke in the family that while some people read books, she consumed them.  It was nothing for her to read three books a week, and that is perhaps a conservative estimate.  Do the math on that for over 70 years!  She also loved sports, although there was not an athletic bone in her petite frame.  Some of the earliest memories Scott and David have is her watching Monday night boxing announced by the inimitable sportscaster, Howard Cosell. Later, her sports interests shifted to football, baseball and golf. This was not idle time for her, however.  She could multitask with ease.  While watching the games she would knit, tat, or make one of dozens of afghans using the Swedish weaving method, which then she gave away.

Mom’s death closes a chapter on an amazing life that touched countless others across many decades.  She was a lady in the truest sense: gracious, gentle and patient. As a friend, she offered commitment and caring to essentially all of those she encountered. (She was aptly suited for that Church Welcome Committee!).  We, her children, find it easy to sing her praises and can’t imagine a better mother – and her grandchildren join in the song.

It is as a wife, however, that mom shone brightest and in that light we can learn from her on so many levels.  Don’t, however, think she was anything close to “the little woman.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  She had a mind of her own and occasionally asserted what she called her “Bohemian stubborn streak.” (The Vocu family came to the United States from what was then Bohemia–now The Czech Republic–in the 1880s).

Polly & Earl...Really. About 1947.

Mom and dad, though, were a complete package when it came to their marriage.  To put it simply, they were crazy in love with each other for all 59 years they had together.  Through the storms of life, trials and triumphs, years of dad’s heart troubles, her own battle with breast cancer, and wherever the road might take them, their love remained strong and true.  On every anniversary or birthday, they signed cards to each other, “all my h.b.s.” (heart, body and soul).  Without question, her life and marriage stands as a testament to the epitome of what married life can be and model to all of us of what unwavering love can be–in all of our relationships.

Thanks, Polly—mother, grandmother, and friend—for  showing it is possible. We love you and miss you.

David, Scott, Beth Ann, and the rest of the Waggoner Clan.

∫ ∫ ∫

In Memoriam

This post was adapted from Polly’s obituary published in the Idaho Statesman.

Extreme Thinkover Protests SOPA/PIPA

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I invite all of my subscribers and readers to visit Extreme Thinkover today to read the special text and view the video prepared by WordPress protesting passage of the pending SOPA/PIPA legislation.

Extreme Thinkover, like Wikipedia and thousands of other web and blog sites worldwide, will be blacked-out January 18, 2012, between 8:00 a.m and 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (that is 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m, or 05:00 and 17:00 Pacific Standard Time) as a part of the global protest to this egregious attack on the freedom of speech we enjoy through the Internet.

After you have looked at the material, I urge you to contact your legislators and ask them to defeat the SOPA/PIPA bill.  I will be contacting mine!

2011 In Review…And Thanks to All My Readers! Happy New Year!

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Longest Night—An Introit For the Winter Solstice

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Photo: Winter Country Road Mac Wallpapers

From eons past, upon the gathering gloom

And shade of this one evening, we tightly grasp

That three-strand cord held by our ancestors

From every shore and mount and plain

Upon this oceaned rock, who held in awe

The great fiery orb, which coursed above their heads;

Its light of such great concentration

No person dared stare into the brilliance

Of its face, for human eyes cannot bear

A moment’s glance into its searing countenance.

And yet…

From whose womb has come the ice?

And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?

Water becomes hard like a stone,

And the surface of the deep is imprisoned.

(Job 38:29-30, NAS)

 A battle eternal seemed waged in the heavenly sphere

For the chariot of light and warmth and life

Did not cross the sky each day unchallenged, inviolable.

Some unseen hand pulled at its reins, with what intent?

What mystery was at work as day cascaded into night,

Warmth dissolving to coldness, light extinguished

By the dark, new lights piercing the growing shade,

A pale swath spilt cross the arch of the heavens, with

Streaks flashing across the heavenly vault, or ominous wraiths

Appearing unbidden with tails stretching across the vastness of the night?

One great traveler of the night, too, its crescent visor

Ever revealing and concealing its expression immutable, but for

Those nights when shining bright, it darkened to a mask blood red

The mountain is dark, the shadows cast over it,

All the sunbeams of eventide are gone,

With head held high the Sun has gone

To the bosom of … his mother.

(From “Gilgamesh and Huwawa”, circa 18th Century BCE; Trans: A. George)

As twilight turned to dawn—and dawn to day—

Our ancestors saw the blessed light of their abundance

Ever southward creep lower into the sky as one condemned.

The hand upon the rein, invisible, pulling down its midday transit,

Held, too, unyielding through the night, with what intent?

Earth’s breath chilled, life’s too, and with it, the embers

Of the human heart dimming with each shortening day.

Very day and very life faltered, trudging in the darkening mists,

Forced march toward the valley of the shadow of death.

The darkest day of mortals has caught up with you,

The solitary place of every mortal has caught up with you.

(From “The Death of Gilgamesh”, circa 18th Century BCE; Trans: A. George)

 Those shadows, too, cast longer as the

Light of day growing ever shorter, while

Night’s mantle weaving on a heavenly loom

Impenetrable to any ray of light or hope of warmth

A veil sweeping away the final rays of light

Into the absolute darkness of our sepulchered fate.

“I will cover the heavens and darken their stars;

I will cover the sun with a cloud,

And the moon shall not give its light.

All the shining lights in the heavens

I will darken over you

And I will set the darkness on your land,”

Declares the LORD God.

(Ezekiel 32:7b-8, NAS)

From eons past, upon the gathering gloom

And shade of this one evening, we tightly grasp

That three-strand cord held by our ancestors

From every shore and mount and plain

Upon this oceaned rock, who held in awe

The great fiery orb, which coursed above their heads.

In their wisdom, charting those celestial journeys,

The shadows not the light divulged the hand’s loosing grip of the solstick reins.

Out of the mysteries of the Sky’s inconstancies there yet

Was a music of the spheres, a great symphony of the heavens:

The great darkness of this longest night is a singularity.

Light has not been quenched, its warmth’s ember ne’er burned out

By Death’s chill, unchallenged. For upon the Dawn of morrow

With warming hearts and upturned faces we greet the Light reborn!


The Nuclear Club Nobody Wants to Join

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For Video Credits, Click on the YouTube Link.

When I was born three nations had nuclear weapons: The United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.  By the time I graduated from high school, that group of three had grown to only five, with the addition of France and the People’s Republic of China.  Since that time only four more nations have been added to that list, India, Pakistan, North Korea and (despite on-going denials) Israel.  Currently, through the NATO nuclear weapons sharing program, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey have U.S. nukes in their possession. None of these five countries however has the capability to build their own atomic weapons.

Building an atomic bomb is not easy.  In fact, it’s beyond really hard.  Most people think that is preferable.  Very preferable.  Except there are, of course, those who want one so bad, those meaning in this case, a country, they will go to any length to manufacture their own.

For years, we have worried about North Korea and its psychotic leadership, first in what appears to be a case of intra-genocide by starvation of the entire nation, with the notable exception of those in power, to spare no expense to build their nuke, and second, now they have it, the fact they only need to toss it over the DMZ and a substantial percentage of the South Korean population is annihilated.

To date, they have been contained, probably due to the North Korean autocrats needing to keep enough of the citizenry alive so as to provide the labor for their military and their personal extravagances, so the only bargaining chip they have with the world is to not act on their sabre-rattling rhetoric to procure enough essential supplies of food and oil to maintain their horrendous status quo.  It also is relevant that another source of their restraint, to date, is having the Great Chinese Fire Dragon on their northern border that could annihilate the entire country with their nuclear arsenal should the Kim boys misstep.

Actually, the Chinese know they wouldn’t even have to use any of their nuclear weapons. Simply amassing a few million Red Army soldiers on the line between the two countries would send a message even the highly deluded Despot in Pyongyang would understand.  Well, maybe.

Here’s my question: For how much longer will the United States be the only nation ever to use a nuclear weapon in an act of war continue?  Read More…

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America the Entertained

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We Americans are undergoing a cultural transformation. I know in many respects that is hardly news. What I’ve been observing though is a confluence of streams of those changes in ways that suggest they are picking up speed, not unlike several rain-swollen rivers coming together to create a massive flood as it works its way down-stream.

It’s difficult to characterize all the subtleties of this growing torrent, but for purposes of this post I’m going to focus on three of these streams in the context of our national demand for endless entertainment. I’ll leave the non-entertaining analysis to the sociologists.

Let’s start with politics, specifically the debates by the Republican presidential candidates.  It seems to me the behavior we have observed not only by the candidates, but the very format and “rules” for these televised events is no longer a forum in any classical sense for a debate, that is, a discussion of genuine public policy positions the candidates hold on the important issues facing the nation. Instead, they have been converted into political theater, orchestrated bash and trash sessions analogous to two teams scrambling for a fumbled football, the referee-pundits at the opposite end of the field, commenting on what they think they observe eighty yards away.

The result takes little effort to parse. Read more…

Hey, Mister, Can You Spare a Job?

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A Post in the “A Modern School” Series

The unemployment situation in the United States is dismal.  Take a look at this graphic published in the New York Times September 17, 2011:

Poverty and Unemployment in the United States. Graphic Courtesy The New York Times

To my way of thinking it is incomprehensible that the human suffering caused by this economic nightmare would be considered acceptable by a single individual in Congress, but that indeed appears to be the case.  My motivation for writing this post is, however, not to slam either party for the abdication of their constitutionally sworn sacred trust to govern (although I admit I just did that very thing).

Instead, I want to look at an emerging storm that is the consequence of the situation.  As each month passes, for those who are out of work there is an assumed degradation of their skills, their ability to be “shovel ready” the moment they get that call to show up on Monday for work at their new job.

The impact of this Great Recession, as some call it, is multifaceted. Yes, the facet we hear most about  is the economic impact.  Another facet, however, continues to grow and become increasingly important: how do we reeducate the fourteen million out-of-work individuals whose job skills are either rusty or their job has disappeared altogether?

I suggested in my previous post, “A Modern School” that not only are American schools not prepared for the emerging age of Virtuality in terms of the way we construct our buildings, we are equally unprepared in the way we educate our teachers.

Add to this growing storm fourteen million adults whose job skills are degrading at an incredible rate as they sit idle, who will not just need retooling for the last place they worked, but will need comprehensive educational transformation, something we are not prepared to provide in any meaningful way, and we are in a huge amount of trouble.

Some will say, well, that’s what the community colleges are for.  The answer to that is yes and no.  Community colleges are an invaluable resource for a wide spectrum of jobs, but their ability to meet this demand is limited.  By their very nature they are institutions that are tied to their local constituents and serve often very specific missions within the community where they are located.

It is also reasonable to assume that the network of community colleges cannot absorb even half of the currently long-term unemployed.  Like the public schools, they do not have the resources, faculty, or staff, to admit numbers of that magnitude, let alone be radically restructured, themselves, for teaching these adults how to successfully work in the age of Virtuality.  Even if it were possible to for half the unemployed, 7 million!, to get the financing to enter community colleges, the schools simply could not accept anything close to that number.

America’s education crisis, let’s just be honest and call it what it is, is made far worse by this unemployment disaster, amounting to another sucker punch to the recovery.  I have little confidence that the current political atmosphere has any capacity whatsoever to either comprehend or take the action needed to reverse this rush toward the waterfall of educational disaster.

The great tragedy is that we have in every state the university and college education scholars fully capable of not only figuring out what we need to do, and along with the other professionals working in the schools themselves, equally prepared and willing to do it.  Will they be given the green light?  I’ll keep posting on this topic but I’m not holding my breath.

A Modern School

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With President Obama throwing down the gauntlet daring Congress to pass his American Jobs Act legislation, including $30 billion allocated for the repair and refurbishing of American schools, I decided it was time for me to weigh in on the subject.  More specifically, the school buildings of the American education system.  Back to that in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a number of months.

The American Education Revolution of 1916

The title of this post is nearly 100 years old.  It wasn’t a book written by John Dewey (1859-1952), who led the progressives to reform education in America, and is still widely read by students and scholars of education.  No, this was the title of a small work by his contemporary, Abraham Flexner (1866-1959).

A Modern School was published in 1916, and had a major influence on the huge revolution taking place at the time in our nation’s education from the top to the bottom. Flexner argued, and successfully for that matter, that the Classics as The Foundation of education were out of date.  He foresaw the United States as a growing economic power, that despite the huge emphasis on manufacturing and industry fueling the national economy that propelled us through WWI and later WWII, the country was inexorably moving toward an urban and white collar world.  He was largely right; the Classics never really recovered as the core of the nation’s curriculum and we indeed became financially the most powerful nation on earth.  He stated,

It follows from the way in which the child is made, and from constitution and appeal of modern society, that instruction in objects and in phenomena will at one time or another play a very prominent part in the Modern School. It is, however, clear that mere knowledge of phenomena, our mere ability to understand or to produce objects falls short of the ultimate purpose of a liberal education. Such knowledge and such ability indubitably have…great value in themselves; and they imply such functioning of the senses as promises a rich fund of observation and experience. But in the end, if the Modern School is to be adequate to the need of modern life, this concrete training must produce sheer intellectual power. Abstract thinking has perhaps never before played so important a part in life as in this materialistic and scientific world of ours,—this world of railroads, automobiles, wireless telegraphy, and international relationships. Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power.  Source: Abraham Flexner, “A Modern School,” American Review of Reviews 53 (1916): 465–474.

Bits

Flexner’s day, however, has come and gone (and Dewey’s, too, but Flexner’s vision has truly run it’s course). There is an emergent paradigm for which America’s youth must be educated.  It is my opinion as an educator, however, that they will not receive that essential new pedagogical foundation.  In fact, we are already at least twenty years behind.  If you think that the key to education is still, “Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power,” you haven’t yet switched paradigms, either.

Why such a radical breaking with these giants of American educational history?  Bits. Simply put, the virtual reality created by cyber-bits has dissolved, for all intents and purposes, the structures and pedagogical foundations of American education, of global education, really.  I would submit that we aren’t teaching our children how to live and work in this new reality, and will go so far as to say we don’t for the most part even know how to teach them what they will need to know this afternoon let alone tomorrow or next year.  Flexner’s world dominated by “intellectual power” has evaporated like so many quarks into the quantum foam.

The Building is the Curriculum

It is said art imitates life.  In the same vein, schools imitate reality.  Their architectural design imitates the work place.  Their schedules imitate the daily routine of the nation.  Their curricula imitate, since Flexner and others, America as the urban and financial powerhouse of the world.  That world is crumbling before our eyes at an astonishing speed.

So, I am pondering the question, should we really refurbish and rebuild our schools in the way President Obama envisions?  I support passage of the AJA.  I strongly support students having school buildings that are safe, enhance the learning process, are energy efficient, etc., etc., but will that $30 billion be trying to repair that which can no longer serve these functions in this new paradigm?

Consider that the school building is a teacher, too. As a manifestation of the Flexner paradigm, our schools are far past retirement.  Add the way we teach our teachers, to the degree our teacher education conforms to the Flexner model, we are preparing them exclusively to teach in those outmoded buildings.  They will not know how not to teach in those schools. Teaching in a sparkling new building with the most up-to-date technology money can buy will make no difference in the alternate universe of the emergent digital paradigm.

What if we did the most radical thing imaginable: Tear down all those worn out schools and design new ones to reflect the new paradigm that is ruled by the  bit, the byte, where those who command the power of Virtuality have truly been educated in “A Modern School.”

West Coast Universe

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The pursuit of life, liberty, and liberality…

Hello there from the West Coast Universe.*  This summer I’ve been blogging using the occasional series I’ve called “Hospital Food for the Mind,” which was based on the simple idea that I was writing short pieces during lunch from the dining room of the hospital where I work**.

It has long been recognized by all sorts of -ologists that regionalisms run deep in the cultural genetic structure of the country.  In the years since the National Media began using the Red State/Blue State concept for their political and election broadcasts, the visual impact of those disparities have been accentuated.  Added to that, the recent constant media chatter about “The Beltway” referring to the “alternate reality” of Congress and the Administration inside the Beltway highway ringing Washington, DC, the term kept popping into my mind. The more I thought about it the more I liked it and I decided to try it out in place of Hospital Food (admittedly, which still gets a bad rap even though my hospital has a classically trained chef running the kitchen).

I had to have a more evolved operational definition for WCU (see, it shortens nicely, too). After giving that some consideration I came up with the tag line: The pursuit of life, liberty, and liberality.

Yes, it’s a twist on the phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  I want to convey, however, a new twist, a XTO twist, so to speak, with a not so subtle reference to being liberal.  In many parts of the country, being labeled a Liberal is the equivalent of being labeled a dirty pinko commie (the fact dirty pinko commies no longer exist is largely irrelevant to those who do the labeling.  They know one when they see one).

I chose the term “liberality.” For one thing, it conveys a different sense of what being liberal is.  Those who find it necessary to sneer when they are forced to say the word out-loud will have to really work at extending that to liberality.  And for those who religious beliefs are welded to modern fundamentalist conservatism, they will be faced with the discomforting fact that the very concept of liberality is rooted deeply in biblical theology.

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus Christ, and the Apostles of his Gospel made it clear: liberality toward the care of our neighbors is the highest calling set out by God.  There is not, I assert, even one prohibition in scripture for the role of government—a government of, by, and for the people in particular—to care for those very people and for the taxes of those people to be used to provide that very care (in the sense of loving one’s neighbor as oneself).

To those who think they can challenge my knowledge of the Bible in this regard, let them try.

So, I’m offering my thoughts from here in the West Coast Universe, a place where those who are progressive and liberal in their politics live and thrive.  It is a land of patriots who are proud to be Americans without apology or compromise, unbowed by the radical Right.

We see our Inalienable Rights as the pursuit of life, liberty and liberality.  That’s the essence of the West Coast Universe, at least here at Extreme Thinkover.

#####

*I can’t take any credit for coining the term “West Coast Universe.”  A Google search came up with just over 260 hits of the phrase used in one form or another from a variety of sources around the world.  I can offer the disclaimer that my use is not affiliated with anyone else’s and is solely for the purpose of commentary on Extreme Thinkover and under fair use not intended as an infringement on any copyright or trademark.

**The SMS policy of my hospital prohibits naming it unless I provide a disclaimer on every single thing I write as being my opinion and not necessarily theirs.  Since I find this policy ludicrous and an infringement on my 1st Amendment Right to free speech, I refuse to list the organization by name in any of my online sites.  It’s their loss, really.  I like the organization otherwise, and would write all sorts of nice things about it.

Trollish Tirades

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Trolls (Internet):

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[2]extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[4] The noun troll may refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted”. While the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, media attention in recent years has made such labels subjective, with trolling describing intentionally provocative actions outside of an online context. For example, mass media uses troll to describe “a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families.”[5][6]  Source: Wikipedia.

Paul Krugman, (New York Times columnist, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, and 2008 Nobel Prize laureate in Economics), on his NYT blog “Conscience of a Liberal” recently posted a short, curt message regarding the constant flow of comments he receives written by “trolls.” See the above definition.  Still thinking about my previous post “Hospital Food for the Mind: Benanke, Jackson Hole, and the Importance of Being Wrong,” I realized that trolls fall into the category of ignoramuses I referred to there.

Krugman’s ongoing problem with the troll attacks is that he writes as a pundit as well as an economist. His often pointed remarks and his notoriety as a Nobel Prize winner make him a high-profile target for those who do not see eye-to-eye with him.  This is not a surprise.  Trolls have often been historically portrayed as quite large.  All of us familiar with the Lord of the Rings movies, along with the Harry Potter series also know the wide range of images in which they are portrayed. The point being that by their very stature rather than character or intellectual capacity, mythological though they may be, trolls can’t see eye-to-eye with anybody.

Battle Troll from Lord of the Rings. (c) New Line Cinema. Photo: allthetests.com

Since trolls were certain to respond to Krugman’s banning them (the fact that doing so would reveal themselves probably never crossed their minds), I, too, decided to write a comment.  I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a troll. I’ve have had numerous comments published on Krugman’s blog (22 to date) so I’m a known quantity on the positive side of the equation, even when I disagree with him. He decided, however, not to publish any comments.  I don’t blame him, really.  But I’d written what I though was a pretty good comment, so I present it here.

Reply to “Trolls:”

It seems counter-intuitive–or just odd, if you like—to comment on this particular post.

The trolls (although I fancy your use of the term “ignoramuses” in a recent post) seem to have three flaws in their character. First, they have no capacity to understand either irony or sarcasm.  Therefore, they won’t understand this comment.  Second, because they think they are completely right, they also believe they are clever enough to slip one of their tirades past your anti-troll sensors…or perhaps they are just oblivious to the fact you can read and recognize their M.O.  Finally, they think they are right, not because they have ever studied economics or whatever else you happen to be writing about, but because they can point to who is wrong.  That’s very important.  They know they are right because they know you are wrong. That’s their rule: you have to be wrong.  About everything, it would seem.

Troll from Harry Potter (c) Warner Bros. Photo: http://www.flixster.com/

That creates an interesting dilemma for the trolls (along with certain pundits, bloggers, etc.).  The problem, of course, is that here we have two diametrically opposed solutions on how to fix the economy. Everybody can’t be right.  Somebody gets to be wrong.  Somebody has to be wrong.

This probably keeps them up at night agonizing over the prospect that they aren’t the ones who are right, even though they believe they must be right, because if they get to be wrong, then you get to be right.  And based on the negative reaction to your recent comments about Texas (from not just the trolls, but pundits and certain economists clinging to failed models), it looks like that their growing sense of anxiety about getting to be wrong escalated into a full-blown panic attack.  They, of course, won’t get that either.

Afterthought: Trolls looked a lot different when I was a kid…

Troll Toy (c) RUSS

Hospital Food for the Mind

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Bernanke, Jackson Hole and the Importance of Being Wrong

And, lo, from the great wilderness, from the antlered gate of the Hole of Jackson, the voice of the Fed, the high priest of the economy, Ben the Reserved has declared what the fortunes of our land shall be; and verily he has declared that it shall be pathetic and the fault of those who…who…who…well, those whose fault it truly is, but now that we are mired in the trap of non-liquidity and are bound ever lower, his hands are tied. And great will be the suffering of all the people. All the people who don’t have a substantial personal fortune, anyway.

I’ve got a question.  How can everybody who declares they have the true answer to our current national economic morass be right? Doesn’t somebody get to be wrong; doesn’t somebody have to be wrong, when opposing theoretical positions and hermeneutical assumptions are irreconcilable? Ben Bernanke, as head of the Federal Reserve doesn’t automatically get to be right about the future of the economy simply by virtue of his office.  Alan Greenspan, his predecessor, is Exhibit #1 for the fallacy of that attribution.

Two Economists Fighting Over Who's Wrong. Photo: Yellowstone National Park

Even a brief foray into the cyberland of pundits, op-ed columnists, and bloggers reveals that every single one of them believes he or she is right about his or her solution to our economic woes.  The reason these folk cite for their veracity is that they can point out who is clearly wrong and therefore is an ignoramus. Only rarely does one find an inspired author who actually is working from a model that has been tested under the withering scrutiny of scholarly review and has been further field tested on the roiling surf of economic reality.

The ultimate test for intellectual honesty would be to have all these very-certain self-proclaimed para-ignoramuses stand under the great antler arch in Jackson Hole, during a wild Wyoming thunderstorm with its hurricane force winds and recite the principles of their economic “truth,” on the superstitious belief that if all they were blowing was just hot air, that would dislodge one of the antlers and…the result wouldn’t be pretty.  That’s certainly much more humane than pseudo-presidential candidate Rick Perry’s lynch mob approach. Of course, he has jumped head-first into the pool of para- ignoramuses who believe they are right because they can point out people who have to be wrong.  Perry evidently has exceptional talent for pointing out who is wrong, along with great hair, but that’s another post.

The World Famous Antler Arch of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Yes, they are real antlers. I've been there and walked through the arch. Note that I survived. Photo Courtesy: ALifeLessSweet.Blogspot.com

So, who’s going to be wrong? That in my mind is far more important with regard to our pathetic economy than who’s right. To sneakily slip in a biblical allusion, we really need the tares to be winnowed from the wheat.

The facts are that someone is wrong about their economic model/dogma/delusion being the one that will revitalize our economy. They need to either get out of the way or in an act of self-preservation we need nudge them out of the way so the folks with the model that will be guaranteed to work can get their economic engine running in high gear.  That we truly need.

From the pronouncements of Ben the Reserved, it’s increasingly clear that the folks who wrong are getting wronger by the day. After all, the economy stuck in pathetic is just plain wrong.

Detail of Antler Arch, Jackson Hole. Photo Courtesy Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce

Hospital Food for the Mind

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I had to be in a meeting at lunch yesterday, so I didn’t get to write this post in my normal manner: thumb-typing on my smart-phone between bites of food.  I hope that doesn’t affect the quality of this piece.  I have a question:

Is the Presidency of the United States obsolete?

Up front, I’ll admit that perhaps if I was more impressed with President Obama’s performance in the job, and thought that even one individual in the Republican pack of hounds bounding and baying after his job was truly qualified, I might not even ask the question.  That not being the case, however, I am asking the question: Is the presidency, as one of the three constitutional pillars of our Union, now an obsolete political paradigm best abandoned and replaced by something else?  Or anything else?  Okay, that second question is just for the sake of rhetorical sarcasm.

Here’s my beef with the current situation.  I was always taught that the three branches of government in the United States were specifically designed to provide a balance of power, and that principle was to be inviolable to the degree that no one branch could supersede another.  This idea is based on that handy little political doctrine called the Separation of Powers.

Looking back over my lifetime, I generally place the beginning of this nightmare on the near-destruction of the Constitution by Richard Nixon. Ever since it seems we have been sliding toward a full-blown night-terror (the infamous pavor nocturnus) complete with an Incubus sitting on our national chest.

I would suggest that as the country has become more politically partisan, like a fault-line sending up waves telegraphing a coming earthquake, the election process has absorbed those toxic seismic waves. Apparently closest to the fault-line, the Judicial Branch has become all too often no more than a political equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, fought over by the conservatives and liberals in Congress–the Legislative Branch–the floor of each chamber devolving into an arena for ideological gladiating.  Only, there’s no emperor to give thumbs up or thumbs down, and so they just go on bashing each other, oblivious to their complete abdication of their Constitutionally sworn oath to govern.

Gone, in my humble opinion, is my confidence that the Justices of the Supreme Court (and the lower courts they oversee), selected once as the best of the best, view their appointment as a sacred duty to ensure their decisions rise above the everyday fray of American politics.  Yes, I know in reality it was never quite that noble, but in prior generations there was at least a generally accepted principle that the people who wore the robes and sat at that bench comprehended the high calling to which it is enshrined in the Constitution.

As for Congress, any sense of statesmanship is long gone, of dignity–even though they put on a show of being polite most of the time through gritted teeth–and an utter evaporation of “the loyal opposition.”  Factionism has permeated both the House and the Senate because factionism has permeated our political culture.  We have created this incubal demon through the ballot box and I fear it is only the beginning of a great price we will pay as a country for this gathering divisiveness.

So what of the presidency?  With the continuing deterioration of two of the three branches of government, can we expect the Executive Branch to weather the temblors and quakes unscathed?  I just do not think so.  The Legislative Branch’s warfare shows no sign of abating, even as we teeter on the verge of a double-dip recession. The Judicial Branch has become a hammer used by well-funded special interest groups to sledge their will into law, regardless of the damage they do to the rest of us.

Can one man or woman effectively push back the crumbling pillars to maintain the Constitutional integrity of the office of the President of the United States, like a reverse-Samson holding up the walls and roof, sparing the Philistines from certain death rather than bringing down the edifice upon them?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  Would the parliamentary model of governing be better?  Looking at all the problems our best international friends have (e.g., Great Britain) in managing that approach to government, I would not be eager to jump to that solution.  Nor would I ever endorse the fractured model currently used by the Russians in which two people apparently share power, but not really, but the one who is supposed to be the subordinate has figured out a way to actually control the other one and…  God protect us from a mess like that.

We are rushing headlong into another general election season (not that you can tell any difference, because the 2012 election has been in full-gear since the moment Barack Obama was declared winner in November 2008).  If I could work my will upon the country, the presidential election season would start six months before the actual date.  No one would be allowed to campaign.  No one, individual or business, would be allowed to contribute money to a candidate.  Political Parties would have to hold their nominating conventions 90 days before the election.  No political ads could air for any candidate or for any party until the parties had nominated their candidates.  I’ve got more to say on that, but it will have to wait for a later date.

Is the presidency obsolete?  Again, I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it is every bit as battered as the other two branches of our government, and because of that, the future of the Republic is at stake.

I do hold one hope.  I continue to believe that we the people, by voting and exercising our right to petition our government, can reverse this earthquake of factionalism.  We are not beyond saving the Union.  But the day is upon us in which we must begin to do just that. To end this national night terror we must push the Incubus of Factionalism off of our chest, and, most importantly, wake up!

Hospital Food for the Mind

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Gallup didn’t call me for their USAToday poll on the Debt Ceiling bill.  The results indicated Democrats and progressives were more positive about the final product than Republicans and Tea Party members, a fact I find incredulous.  I would have been ready to give the pollster a detailed account of my thorough displeasure over the mess this bill just created.  And that’s my take being firmly on the progressive side of the opinion scale.

Let the Backfiring Begin!

One group is stumped over what happened.  Tea Party members report being dissatisfied by the bill by 80%. Despite the fact their faction acted as a curdling agent in the legislation, rendering it both unpalatible and inedible but still force-fed into law, they don’t like it.  Granted, the bill did not force the virtual dismantling of the federal government or wipe out their most despised social programs. Nevertheless, I have this sneaking suspicion that they really believed that once they had hijacked the bill, they could force their will onto the rest of the Congress Backfire #1.

Backfire #2 appears to be that the global stock markets were already weakened and skittish from the Great Recession. Near panic from the debt ceiling fight, they took one look at the junk attached to an otherwise one-page piece of legislation and that anxiety blossomed into a full-blown state of apoplexy and, among other things wiped out $ billions in the Tea Party adherents’ investments and pensions.  And, of course that crash pulled in the rest of us thanks to their gross inability to understand Macroeconomics 101.

Numerous backfires will continue to create havoc in our politics. The final one I’ll mention in this post is the credibility of conservative agenda. Magnified and distorted a thousand times by the Tea Party’s first, and we can only pray, last congressional disaster visited upon the Union, their believability has been reduced to next to nothing.  They won’t get it, of course. In fact I expect them to be noisier at least through the 2012 general election. But as the backfires continue to damage the country at home and abroad, their chance to be a sustained political voice will be muted more and more.

The tragedy for the rest of us is the consequnces we will be forced to endure. The Tea Party won’t get that either.

Hospital Food for the Mind

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Okay, let’s get one thing straight. This post is not about hospital food even though I work in said institution and eat its food almost daily.

I’ve decided to create a new sometime feature on Extreme Thinkover that I’ll write on my lunchtime sitting in our dining room eating hospital food. That’s the hook. Pretty simple, but these posts will mostly be short on account of the time constraint of my lunch time.  Get it? Good.

Here is intallment #1:

The debt ceiling.

If I were a member of congress, I’d vote no.  Why?

If Sen. Mitch McConnell is smiling, anyone with the slightest leaning toward progressive and responsible government should be running screaming in the opposite direction.  That smile means he just defeated the White House and the Democratically-controlled senate.

Put that all together and you have guaranteed a horrendous piece of legislation that will generate some of the worst intended and unitended consequences in the history of the country!

I agree with NYTs columnist Paul Krugman that this bill is a disaster. I’d add a disaster based on a delusional Zeitgeist fueled by those whose political self-centeredness creates a whole new clinical diagnosis above narcissism. Perhaps it could be named TEA: Terribly Egopolitical Agitators.

 

I strongy disagree with PK, however, that the only stance is to be a stiff-backed progressive, and being a centrist is a bad thing. If we had a significant number of centrists in Congress supporting the president, I contend we might not have ever gotten into this ugly extremist versus extremist battle-royale to begin with.

Update:I received a note from one of my readers that my use of the phrase “tea bag” is a code word for a particular sexual act, something I was not aware of. So, yes I rewrote part of the post. I wanted to convey my consternation, not make a veiled peurile insult. Even though both Houses passed the bill and President Obama will sign it, I still would have voted “no.” DW.

NASA Misses Its Own Historic Moment

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1:30 a.m. PDT.   I’m sitting in my living room watching NASA-TV in the middle of the night to see the space shuttle Atlantis’ final landing, and with it, the end of the STS program. But the most important factor in Atlantis last touchdown is it also signals the end of the United States’ manned spaced program. 

I have a few opinions to express over this turn of events.

On a practical note, I’m wondering why NASA decided to end this historic flight in darkness, when the vast majority of Americans are still in bed (leaving only a handful of hardcore flight watchers willing to sacrifice sleep to say we were there). It gives one pause to ponder why NASA decided it was better to sneak Atlantis back down earth under cover of the pre-dawn gloom rather than plan a final landing with a huge celebration to tout the value and successes of putting humans into space?  It is my studied opinion NASA has, once again, been its own worst enemy with regard to publicizing its accomplishments.

My other thought sitting here is having the full awareness that we as a country have ceded our predominance in human flight, a fact that the Russians, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and European space agencies can only consider an enormous gift to their programs. They will undoubedtly continue to accelerate their efforts to exploit the infinite and rich discoveries that await those first humans who have the vision and courage to push past the bonds of low earth orbit. 

It deeply grieves me to know in my lifetime, I witnessed both the beginning and the end of my country’s foray into that great human endeavor to explore above the sky and beyond the finite limits of our oceaned world. 

But my grief is tinged with frustration, because it didn’t have to end this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be ending at all!

Boehner Blink?

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Question #1 regarding the Federal Budget Debt Ceiling Limit Talks is are we hurtling toward a disaster on August 2?

Although the actuality for the U.S. Government and economy (depending on which pundits you choose to believe), may be more political than a real fiscal disaster, the political war of words has escalated to an incredible intensity.

Anyone paying the least attention to the rhetorical clashes between the political parties–and their internal factions–knows that the positions on both sides have been hardening, although perhaps ossifying (even fossilizing) might be more appropriate.

August 2, 2011 has become an temporal Great Wall of China (yes, I get the irony of the comparison).  Imagine two opposing armies charging headlong toward it from different directions, oblivious to fact the wall is not going to move.  Even though they hit the wall at the same time, the damage they inflict upon themselves will be enormous.  Evidently, only in the split second after the crushing blow of charging warriors into the wall begins, will the generals of both armies realize the magnitude of their mistake.  The Wall, though, won’t be hurt much at all.

In this game of chicken with an unmovable object, however, something unexpected has just happened.  Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, perhaps, has blinked. The New York Times reports (9 July):

Citing differences over tax revenues, House Speaker John A. Boehner said on Saturday night that he would pull back from joint efforts with President Obama to reach a sweeping $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan tied to a proposal to increase the federal debt limit.

Huh.

Now.  Who’s paying attention?  Will the Republicans, both the Mainline and the Tea Party factions trust Boehner’s judgment and unexpected move?  Is their iron-will to resist compromise, in the end, a strategy they can hold up as a prize, not only in congress but with their base?

Will the Democrats pull back from their headlong rush into the wall as well, and trust that the President’s growing pressure on Boehner to soften his position is having an affect that will meet their political goals regarding the deficit cap, as well as those for the Federal Budget and the economy in general?

We’re going to find out in just a few days.

My List: Five Books +Plus One

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Origins of the Book: Nag Hammadi Codex Collection. Among the Earliest Known Codices Extant (Book Binding rather than Scroll). Dated to ca. 200 C.E. Discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, December 1945. Photo: PD.

Well, here you have it.  My list of “Five Books +Plus One.

Sometimes having to live by your own rules is harder than one would think.  This was one of those cases.  I realized that a few of the choices I easily could have included were not books but articles from periodicals or chapters from books.  As tempting as it was to cheat, I didn’t.  I’m not even mentioning them here as kind of a back door way of saying, Oh, by the way, these were the “also-rans” and here’s why. The other issue, as I’m sure not a few of you have also encountered is the sheer volume of books we have read during our life-times. Thousands is not a stretch of the reality.  How do I winnow all those down to just six?  It was not an easy process. I even resorted to staring at my bookcases and mentally inventorying what was there.  It turned out not to be all that helpful.

Here’s my list, roughly in chronological order as I read them.  It may surprise you; to some degree, it did me:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson
  3. The Church by Hans Kung
  4. Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman
  5. The New American Standard Bible

My “Plus One”

  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951.

This is the cover of my first copy of "Foundation."

I have often said that Isaac Asimov taught me how to Think (capital “T”). Other than the Bible, I have read it through more than any other book.  I bought my first copy from a grocery store book rack when I was 15 or 16 and it changed my life.  Foundation is an unusual story in the Science Fiction genre because it is about a group of people, facing the collapse of a galactic empire, who Think.  Calling themselves “psychohistorians” they developed a complex logic and math-based system of predicting events in the future.  No magic, no Force.  Smart people thinking about almost hopelessly complicated assumptions and outcomes.  Did they get it right?  You’ll have to read the book.

I wanted to be a psychohistorian, not so much for the ability to reason out the future, but to be able to explore human behavior in its most deep and subtle implications.  To that end, I pursued psychology.

I can describe two huge influences Foundation (a series Asimov stretched into fourteen novels) had upon me.  First was the inspiration of learning how to Think, to stretch my mental capacity through creative and logical thinking and education.  Once you learn how to do that, all of life in its almost infinite variabilities becomes fascinating.

The second impact was to ask the question: What does it mean to be human?  Isaac Asimov in his nonfiction works said that was the central theme of Foundation.  He was a humanist, but an optimist who saw that through our common humanity we have the ability to overcome the many inhumanities we inflict upon one another and make ourselves into a better species—even if he did use robots to help us along that journey.  That optimism struck me as a teenager, and I carry it as a core of who I am to this very day.

Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. Published in 1968.

Thinking about all of the books I read as an undergraduate as a psychology  major (even though I graduated with a major in Biblical Studies, with minors in Psychology and General Science, due to the Northwest Christian College curriculum structure in 1976), I had the hardest time narrowing this chapter in my life to just one book.  I decided, finally, on Erikson’s Identity, Youth and Crisis, for three reasons.

First, Erikson’s idea of human development and epigenetic life stages has been a key part of my professional life, even today. Though the stages have been modified, the essential concepts have stood the test of time.  Other authors, including those writing about spirituality and religious development have built on Erikson.

Second, out of a handful of books that shaped my self-identity as a “psychologist,” Identity, Youth and Crisis rightly belongs at the top of that list.  That was not an easy decision to make because the also-rans were very influential as well.  But as I thought about which of them I had returned to over the years, Erikson came in first.  The only way I can think of to describe its impact is that after I read this book, I “became” a psychologist, and through it, as I entered first seminary and then my masters in counseling program, Erikson continued to be of special importance.

So, third, I returned to Identity, Youth and Crisis in my masters in counseling program at the University of Oregon (1981).  My second year, I elected to do a reading and conference course, and chose to read Erikson as my topic.  Even though I read six of his most influential books, I started again with Identity, Youth and Crisis.  It was the anchor for the term.  I still keep my copy handy on my book shelf.

The Church by Hans Kung.  Published in 1968.

This is the choice that surprised me.  As I pondered which books have had the most profound theological effect on me, it came down to three.  One was out of my heritage as a Disciples of Christ, two were written by Catholics.  Hans Kung, one of the Catholics, won.  Why? Similar to what I noted above, it is the book I have returned to most often over the years because it is the book that was most transformational in my personal and professional development as a theologian.

Hans Kung, a German theologian has been in trouble with the Catholic Church for nearly half a century.  He’s an iconoclast of sorts, and writes things that are transparently Protestant, and therefore the Holy See takes a dim view of his views. I have read that Kung and the current pope are not on good terms.  Nevertheless, when I read The Church, I could hardly put it down.  Kung’s grasp of the history of the church, the context from which doctrines and practices arose were so eloquently explained that by the time I got to the end of it, for the first time, I finally had a clear concept of “Church” in my head, and one from which I could see how Disciples’ theology clearly fit into. The “Church” and “the church” finally made sense, and that is saying something.

Little did I realize at the time that the chapters on Catholic sacraments and things like the priesthood and Apostolic Succession, would be a necessary reference in my work, but even now, The Church is my first reference when I encounter another confusing Roman Catholic belief or practice, which after 15 years still occasionally happens.  We don’t have to tell the pope I’m using Kung to check his facts.

Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman.  Published in 1989.

  I spent eight years working on my doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, studying Higher Education Policy and Management and graduating in 2002.  One would think that at least one book in higher education would make this list.  Two almost did.  When I got to my dissertation research, however, the foundation of that work took an unexpected twist.  Blame that on my advisor, Dr. Paul Goldman.  He took a kernel of an idea I had and put it into a context that ended up with my not only getting to do cutting-edge research, but also got my dissertation published in the internationally renowned Journal of Educational Administration.  That twist was Organizational Ecology.

In a nutshell, Organizational Ecology is a branch of Organizational Theory that examines how institutions survive in the ecology of their organizational environment.  It assumes that organizations either thrive or wither depending on how well they can access the resources that “feed” their mission and productivity.  It is a very organic model, parallel to biological ecology.  It also assumes that institutions have a life span, and theorizes how they can replicate themselves across generations.   This very developmental perspective for me was a perfect fit.

Organizational Ecology changed the way I think about the institutional world.  It was a touchstone in the process of researching and writing my dissertation that changed how I think.  Literally.  The greatest moment of amazement I experienced as I finished the dissertation manuscript was the realization that the way I think had been organized into something completely different than when I began.  In one respect I had this sense that I had taken a step toward being a psychohistorian.  It was the last thing I expected to gain from earning a PhD.

The New American Standard Bible.  Published Originally by the Lockman Foundation in 1960. Authorized Updated Version Published in 1995.

It is a well-known aphorism in biblical studies that every translation of the Bible is a collection of compromises.  This is true and generally accepted, even by those scholars who believe the Bible is literally the Divinely dictated words of God. For the rest of us, the issue takes a different path.

I find value in reading a variety of translations because I understand the nature of the compromises that went into each version.  Knowing that different translations and paraphrases reflect the theological perspectives of their editors makes each a much more interesting read.

For me, I find The New American Standard Bible my version of choice.  I got my first copy of the NASB when I was 16 years old.  I still have it and use it frequently (which is a testament to the quality of its manufacture and binding, as much as to my affinity for its text).  The NASB was designed to be a Bible that was as close as possible to being a literal translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, to also be as theologically neutral as possible, while at the same time being written in excellent English.  To be honest, they got the literal and neutral parts better than the English.  The readability, however, was significantly improved when the bible was updated in 1995.  To this day I have yet to find another translation of the English Bible that does a better job of presenting the first two, even as they work on getting the English part more polished.

I suppose some of my readers are wondering why I didn’t talk about how the Bible has been the spiritual bedrock of my faith. The answer is simple. This is a list of books that have influenced my life, not a spiritual autobiography.  And why didn’t I make it my +Plus One choice?  Doesn’t it deserve that special distinction?  The answer again is simple. It was a compromise.  I wanted to highlight The New American Standard Bible as the translation that has profoundly influenced my faith and life for over forty years.  Therefore, I decided it belonged in the list of Five, those books that have been my most important standards for shaping me as a person and as a professional.

As for my +Plus One.  I’ve decided to put that in a separate post, as Part 2.  I listed it above.  Now you can ponder why I might have chosen it for that distinction.

Five Books +Plus One: What’s On Your List?

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I recently discovered The Browser, a literary website with the tag line, “Writing Worth Reading,” which has a feature called “FiveBooks.”  I found it a brilliant and straightforward idea.  They invite experts from a wide variety of fields to be interviewed on the five books that influenced them most in their professional development.  What I found particularly engaging is that the books listed by those individuals are by no means limited to their profession or field of study. Often, the person being interviewed would place a book read during adolescence as seminal in his or her direction in life.

While I was reading the interview that led me to “FiveBooks” to begin with, I kept thinking that we who are not world renown experts would have lists that are just as interesting, because the stories coming out of the impact of the books in our lives is just as compelling.

Here’s my idea, then:  I invite you, my readers, to submit your list of books that had a profound influence on your life and the reasons for that, not solely professionally, but from a much broader perspective of the development of who you are as an individual.  How to do that?  I explain below.

Giving The Browser full credit for their “FiveBooks” idea, I came up with a twist to make it distinctive: Five Books +Plus One.  Don’t think this, though, is just a play for a list of six books.  The twist is to choose the book for the “+Plus One” that far outweighs the influence of the others, a magnum opus, so to speak, from which you have essentially and existentially organized your life.  Makes it not quite so simple, doesn’t it?

I’m working on my list.  I can tell you already, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.  But I also think we need to have some basic rules.

Update 28 June: I’ve got the first draft of my list.  I’ve got to think about it for another couple of days before I finalize it and write up my post.

Although I wish I could extend an invitation to anyone who might read this post to send me her or his list and have it published as a guest author on Extreme Thinkover, the nature of the blogosphere today requires a more prudent approach.  So, I’ve decided to set up eligibility criteria and some easy to follow ground rules:

Eligibility:

  1. Any reader can submit a list as a Comment (see the Rules below, please).  Those comments will be approved using the same criteria for civil discourse that I use for all Extreme Thinkover comments.  But: See #3!
  2. Extreme Thinkover subscribers, and my Facebook and “The Intersection” friends can submit their list as a comment, or email me at Extreme Thinkover (click on the “Contact me” link just under the header) if you would like to be featured as a guest author–Which I really hope that you’ll do!
  3. If you fit into #1 above, and you’d like me to consider posting your list as a guest author, write me at Extreme Thinkover (click on the “Contact Me” link above) and we can talk about it.  I’m always interested in meeting new folks.

The Rules–So We Have Apples-to-Apples Lists:

  1. Each book on your list has to be one that you’ve actually read.  The whole thing.  Kindle and other electronic reader versions are permitted.
  2. Works from any historical period are allowed, as are works of poetry, and religious texts.  Excerpts from historical works are not acceptable.  And for the sake of continuity, the Christian Bible or Jewish Bible are both considered one book in their entirety, though they are compilations of individual “books” and letters. The same standard will apply to other religious texts, as well.
  3. One book from a published trilogy or series is allowed.
  4. Graphic novels that are original works are allowed.  Graphic novels that are taken from a published print work are not; again, the idea is to have read the book.
  5. Musicals, opera, masses, and other musical pieces are not allowed.  It’s a great idea, but for this invitation the focus is on the printed word.
  6. “Cliff Notes” or “I saw the movie” rationalizations are not allowed.  This goes especially for those who might put Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (and the like) on their list.  If you haven’t read the published book, you can’t put it on your list.  I will, however, make the smallest exception for Star Wars Episodes 4-6.  It was difficult to find the novelization of those movies in the early years, but the screen plays were published.  So, if you’ve read the screen play for any of those specific episodes, I’ll allow that.

How we’ll get your list ready to publish:

  1. Reading is one thing, but part of the fun of blogging is doing some writing yourself.  For each of your five books, write between 100 and 300 words about the influence of that work on your life.  For your “plus one” book, feel free to write up to 500 words on its singular impact on who you are.  I put the word limits on for two reasons.  One, you’ll have a clear idea what length to make your comments, and two, it requires you to be disciplined in your writing (a most important skill to learn for effective writing) and not ramble on for page after page.
  2. If you don’t feel confident in your writing skills, I will be more than happy to help you edit and fine-tune the commentary for your list of books.
  3. No deadline.  I see “Five Books Plus One” as a continuing series over the coming months.  And you may have yours ready before I do, so I’m not going to hold off publishing someone else’s list before mine.

Come On! Take a Risk and Send Me Your List!

It will give you something unique to do rather than watching the summer reruns on TV.  But more importantly, as I said above, the books on your list and the story of how those books influenced you as a person is a compelling narrative.  No life is really ordinary because every life is unique.  That’s what I think makes your “Five Books +Plus One” list as important as any “expert’s.”

One caveat.  I have to reserve the right to decline to publish a given list and/or comments that do not meet the standards for civil discourse on Extreme Thinkover, or does not meet the rules as outlined above.

Extreme Thinkover– A New Look–Still Extremely Thinking Over!

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Change is good.  If you’ve worked like I have in an industry such as health care, you also know that change is the only constant.  You either decide change is good or you end up decompensating physically and emotionally into a nervous wreck.  I started Extreme Thinkover (XTO) nearly three years ago to have an outlet for my desire to write in a public forum–and to better deal with that whole change thing, myself.  What I discovered is that  blogging occasionally is like writing your diary and posting it on a billboard next to a major urban interstate.  On the other hand, it is also an amazing personalized bully pulpit from which to express your opinions and advocate for issues you hold to be of great importance.  And then, sometimes it’s just a outlet to write for fun, to be funny, maybe sarcastic, or even tender and reflective.  So that’s why I write XTO.  My interests vary widely, and that is my intent to continue for the next phase of Extreme Thinkover.

Blogging, though, is just not about the words.  It is also about the look.  The look of the theme is as important as good writing.  Our brain’s occipital lobe, where vision is located is second in size only to the frontal lobe where reason and thinking are.  We know by seeing.  We know by thinking.  In blogging we get to put integrate them into words and pictures.  Together, the two are key to what makes us human.  And that is what makes blogging in both it’s verbal and visual dimensions so very interesting and powerful.

I look forward to your joining me on my journeys in blogging.  My most special thanks goes to my daughter for her professional expertise in helping me choose and design the new Extreme Thinkover look.  My wife’s expertise with PhotoShop produced the classy visually-captivating header.  And thanks to WordPress for this new theme and all their support for their bloggers!

David

is the cloud dumbing us down?

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A certain company known for its often astonishing leaps forward in user-oriented personal electronics announced yesterday its latest innovation that allows its customers to integrate all their devices (of course, manufactured by said iCompany) in the “Cloud,” the world wide web formerly known as “the Internet.” It can once again be said what they’ve done is leading the industry.

However…

I found myself oddly troubled by this announcement, not because it is innovative, because it certainly is, but because it is an innovation that potentially has a dark side. In this brief post I have two questions about computing in the Cloud.

First, when I store a document, say this blog post, which I can rightly claim is my intellectual property, on the Cloud, are my rights as an author protected and do I own that digital document, even though I am storing it on rented server space somewhere in the world? If someone who “owns” that space I am renting either goes out of business, or decides they don’t like what I’m writing and storing, what protection do I have to retrieve my documents or prevent them from being misused or destroyed?

Second, as iCompany and others create more innovations to simplify the use of their products, aren’t they pushing the user further away from the true complexity of the device, and in the name of convenience, really dumbing us down, all the while marketing their products as being the epitome of chic techno-saavy?  What is the technological saavy required for a device, when all you have to do is turn it on and tap the touch-screen?  Beyond that, however, the user has no idea, and really is obstructed from knowing how that product works.

When I was a kid, I had a transistor radio. All I had to do to operate it was turn it on and move the tuning dial to listen to my favorite radio station.  No more difficult than using the typical mp3 player, really.  The difference is, though, if I was interested in how it worked, I could save up my allowance and go to the local Radio Shack and buy a kit to build one.  I can safely guess that if you went to your local iStore, or even a modern Radio Shack, you can’t find a kit to build a real iWhatever.

So I ponder these issues. I, like everyone else who uses the latest digital technology, is faced with answering these questions. Or choosing to ignore them to be part of the techno-chic.  I’m typing this post not on my regular computer, but on my smartphone. Guilt by association, I confess.  However, do I get to defend myself by stating I don’t own any products by the great iCompany? I didn’t think so.

Oh, and the issues of security and privacy in the Cloud? That requires an entirely different post!

We’re All Still Here: The Fallacy of Predicting the End of Time

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Like a thief in the night…

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There are four reasons–four very distinct reasons–why people like Mr. Camping are always wrong about predicting the end of time by scouring the Book of Revelation for secret clues.  By the way, the proper biblical term for “The End of Time” is the Eschaton, not the culturally popular “apocalypse,” which means “to pull back the veil.”  This error is based on confusing the Greek word “apocalypsis” used for the Book of Revelation, with the word that means the “end”: eschatos.  In some editions of the Christian Bible, Revelation (please note the word is singular not the plural “revelations” as many call it) is titled “Apocalypse of John.”  Unfortunately, the genre of literature in which the Book of Revelation is classified is called “apocalyptic literature” and not “eschatological literature,” a fact that adds to the confusion.  Here is the list:

  1. The knowledge of the End of Time is exclusively reserved for the Mind of God.   In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 24, which contains Jesus’ teachings on the “end of the age,” Jesus explicitly states that “No one knows the about that day or hour,  not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36, NIV*).  Point One: Christ did not know the time of the End.
  2. Since the First Century, Christians have yearned for the return of Christ.  Even St. Paul, early in his ministry. believed that Jesus would return in his generation.  This belief figures prominently in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his instructions to them strongly suggests they were actively debating the return of Jesus in their time.  Some had even quit their jobs.  And though Paul, himself, believed Jesus would return in his lifetime ( later in his life he realized that this likely would not be the case), nevertheless, he cautioned the Thessalonians not to let it cause division among themselves and also not to behave as if there were no tomorrow.  Literally.  To emphasize his point, he writes, “About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (I Thess 5:1, NIV)  Point Two: Paul the Apostle, nor any of the other apostles, knew the time of the End.
  3. Nowhere in the Book of Revelation is there a definable, historical, sequence of events tied to the narrative that points to a specific knowable day in the future.  It just isn’t there.  The reason is so simple it’s almost ridiculous: That day was not revealed to John.  Revelation is written in the first person as a series of visions given to John.  Not once does Christ nor the angel that guided him through those visions reveal the date of the End. In chapter 16:15, Christ is once again quoted: “Behold I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him…” (NIV) In fact, knowing the date is irrelevant to the whole message of Revelation.  The true message of Revelation to Christians of all generations is: Endure, Overcome, and Endure Patiently. That however, has not stopped Christians in every single generation since Jesus walked on this earth from trying to “unlock” the mysteries of Revelation and predict the exact day the End of Time will begin.  Mr. Camping joins a very large, and very frustrated legacy of people who have discovered that what Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 24, indeed was the truth.  In 2008 I wrote an outline of Revelation for a program curriculum at my church.  You can access it by clicking here: The Revelation to St. John. Point Three: The Book of Revelation is not about predicting the End of Time, it is about how Christians are to live until The Day of the Lord.
  4. In light of the first three points, the final reason is: You can’t outwit God.  What Mr. Camping failed to understand, and in a deeper sense, discern, as one of the most important theological truths in Christianity, is that we cannot know when the Day of the Lord will be.  Notice I am not using the term “Day of Judgment.”  The Day of the Lord will take place in God’s timing.  The date of that day is not secreted away in the text of the Bible.  Jesus, himself, said he did not know the day, as did St. Paul and St John.  The reason for teaching us about the Day of the Lord is to help us live according to the gospel of Christ, not to stop living trying to anticipate that which cannot be known.  Point Four: You can’t outwit God. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
*NIV: New International Version.

Hail Endeavour and Her Crew!

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At this moment I’m sitting in my living room watching the coverage of the final launch of Endeavour.  What a magnificent craft she is!  I salute her and all those brave souls who have entrusted her to carry them to the threshold of the universe. God speed, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour Landing with Drogue Chute Deployed. Photo: Nasa.gov

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The Final Launch of the Orbiter Endeavour

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Endeavour in Her Element...And Hard at Work. Photo: JPL/NASA

And here is a nice photo of the replica of the HMS Bark Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship under full sail.  It looks large because of the tall masts and the sails, but in reality, the original was 106 ft (32 m).  By way of comparison, Orbiter Endeavour is 122 ft/37 m long (not counting the main external tank, which is 154 ft/47 m).  A number of years ago I had the chance to tour the replica of the HMS Endeavour.  It is a wonderful ship and a fascinating look at history and brings home how difficult the crew’s life was day after day.  No real amenities.  No mission control, and years at sea to circumnavigate the earth instead of 90 minutes.

The HMS Bark Endeavour, Full Size Sailing Replica. Photo Courtesy: thevilloz.com

Correction Update: Much to my embarrassment in my original post, I misspelled “Endeavour.”

Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

Less of Our Light for More Star Light

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I have participated in the GLOBE at Night program sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for several years and continue to support it for two vitally important reasons:

As an amateur astronomer, light polluted skies wash out both the quality of what can be observed and can radically reduce the number of stars and other celestial objects that can be seen.  Light pollution affects all visual telescopes, no matter how large they are.  That is why the world’s greatest observatories are almost always built on very high peaks in very remote places far away from cities.

 

Light Pollution from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, Mt. Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of Marco Pedani & University of Arizona

Every photon created by artificial light requires a human-manufactured source.  Measured in what is called “kiloWatt hours” (kWh) the electricity that is used to create unnecessary light (overlighting) is a nonrecoverable expense.  We waste billions of kiloWatt hours every year, costing us billions of dollars in the production and service used to create the light that wasn’t needed to begin with.  As we think about our energy production and the price paid to create the fuels to generate it (coal, oil, gas, hydro, nuclear–even solar, wind, wave, geothermal, and other cutting-edge energy-producing technologies require huge costs to meet our power demands), just the amount lost to light pollution cannot be justified from either a perspective of economic sustainability or the stewardship of the earth’s finite resources.

 

Large Binocular Telescope. Currently the world's largest optical telescope for total combined aperture, 16.8 meters, 662 inches (55.16 feet). Mt Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of John Hill and LBTO, University of Arizona.

I invite you to join in the effort to change this one vital part of preserving our natural resources, not just those from the Earth but also those of the sky.  Please watch the short video, and then read the letter from Dr. Constance Walker, PhD*, Director of the GLOBE at Night campaign, and then follow the links to join in the fun of walking out your front door, looking up (I’ll bet you haven’t intentionally looked at the sky in a long time!), and with the very user-friendly GLOBE at Night instructions, instantly become an important participant in a global research project with such important implications.

Please note that the results for people living in the Northern Hemisphere must be submitted by April 4, 2011!

Note: Any connection between exposure to artificial light at night and cancer remains under investigation. The statement in the video represents that of the producers and not necessarily the views of Extreme Thinkover or GLOBE at Night.  See links below for more information**.

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Join the 6th worldwide GLOBE at Night 2011 campaign:

March 22 – April 6

With half of the world’s population now living in cities, many urban dwellers have never experienced the wonderment of pristinely dark skies and maybe never will. This loss, caused by light pollution, is a concern on many fronts: safety, energy conservation, cost, health and effects on wildlife, as well as our ability to view the stars. Even though light pollution is a serious and growing global concern, it can be one of the easiest environmental problems you can address through responsible lighting on local levels.

Participation in the international star-hunting campaign, GLOBE at Night, helps to start the process of addressing the light pollution issue locally as well as globally. The campaign invites everyone all over the world to record the brightness of the night sky. The campaign runs from March 22 through April 4 in the Northern Hemisphere and March 24 through April 6 in the Southern Hemisphere. The campaign is easy and fun to do. First, you match the appearance of the constellation Leo or Crux with simple star maps of progressively fainter stars found.  Then you submit your measurements, including the date, time, and location of your comparison. After all the campaign’s observations are submitted, the project’s organizers release a map of light-pollution levels worldwide. Over the last six annual 2-week campaigns, volunteers from more than 100 nations contributed over 60,000 measurements, 30% of which came from last year’s campaign.

To learn the five easy steps to participate in the GLOBE at Night program, see the GLOBE at Night website. You can listen to this year’s 10-minute audio podcast on light pollution and GLOBE at Night. Or download a 45-minute powerpoint and accompanying audio. GLOBE at Night is also on Facebook and Twitter. (See the links at the end.)

The big news is that children and adults can submit their measurements in real time if they have a smart phone or tablet. To do this, you can use the web application. With smart phones and tablets, the location, date and time are put in automatically. And if you do not have a smart phone or tablet, there are user-friendly tools on the GLOBE at Night report page to find latitude and longitude.

For activities that have children explore what light pollution is, what its effects are on wildlife and how to prepare for participating in the GLOBE at Night campaign, see the Dark Skies Rangers activities. Monitoring our environment will allow us as citizen-scientists to identify and preserve the dark sky oases in cities and locate areas where light pollution is increasing. All it takes is a few minutes during the 2011 campaign to measure sky brightness and contribute those observations on-line. Help us exceed the 17,800 observations contributed last year. Your measurements will make a world of difference.

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, world's largest single aperture, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, currently the world's largest single aperture optical telescope, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

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GLOBE at Night: http://www.globeatnight.org/

Star Maps: http://www.globeatnight.org/observe_magnitude.html

Submitting Measurements: http://www.globeatnight.org/report.html

Web App for Reporting: http://www.globeatnight.org/webapp/

Audio Podcast: http://365daysofastronomy.org/2011/03/07/march-7th-globe-at-night-2011/

Powerpoint: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_slides.ppt

Accompanying Audio: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_audio.mp3

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GLOBEatNight

Twitter: http://twitter.com/GLOBEatNight

Dark Skies Activities: http://www.darkskiesawareness.org/DarkSkiesRangers/

The Milky Way as you've probably never seen it under excellent dark skies. View inludes Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Scutum & Ophiuchus from Cerro Tololo, Chile. Photo courtesy of W. Keel, Univ. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

*Constance Walker, PhD, director, GLOBE at Night campaign (www.globeatnight.org)
chair, International Dark-Sky Association Education Committee
chair, IYA2009 Dark Skies Awareness Cornerstone Project
member, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Board of Directors
associate scientist & senior science education specialist, NOAO
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Democracy: The Universal Solvent

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Updated: 19 Feb 2011

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This post is dedicated to the Egyptian Coptic Christians who participated in the protests in Tahrir square, largely ignored by the press, but claiming their ancient heritage as Egyptians, stood along side of their fellow Muslim citizens.

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In 8th grade science we were taught that water was considered the universal solvent. That is, given enough time, water would dissolve almost everything.  Water inexorably works its way into every crack, nook and cranny, saturating the soil, seeping through the dikes and dams built to try to hold it back.  In that sense, water will dissolve or penetrate any barrier it meets or finds a channel though which it can flow if given enough time.

In North Africa and the Middle East a new manifestation of that concept has appeared. The flowering of democracy and freedom among the populace to break the grip of autocratic and repressive theocratic regimes seems to be a gathering force that politically and socially is having the effect of a universal solvent against retrenched and decades long rule by dictators or monarchs. The water of democracy has not only found the cracks in the façade of those rulers who by force have imposed their will upon the people, but it has opened up channels and holes in those walls and is flowing with historically-unprecedented force.

First we saw Tunisia, which did not demand our attention immediately, although it should have. The success of the revolution, remarkable for its lack of violence, did make us sit up and take notice. The collapse of the government in a matter of days and the exile of the strongman ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were accomplished without the revolutionaries possessing guns.  In an ironic contrast, according to the Gun Rights doctrine espoused by millions who practically deify the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution here in the United States, Tunisia’s gunless should have been inconceivable let alone successful.

Then came Egypt. For eighteen days we held our collective breath as the unarmed protesters daily came in waves into Tahrir Square demanding President Hasni Mubarak’s resignation, a new democratic government, a new constitution, and a reduction in soaring food prices.  Each successive day we watched entranced, despairing that night the hated police attacked the protesters, who had managed to conduct their demonstrations with virtually no violence. Then finally, with stunned disbelief we again allowed ourselves to hope the cause might succeed for the Egyptian people when the army began taking very visible action to protect the protesters and take the reins of power from Mubarak and his cohorts. Though many questions remain, Egypt was transformed into a proto-democratic state in just over two weeks. Once again a government was toppled without the people being armed to the teeth and having no equivalent to the U.S. 2nd Amendment in their constitution. Bringing down a government without a heavily armed populace is not supposed to be within the realm of the possible.

Jordan’s King Hussein, educated in America, saw the events unfold and voluntarily began to institute democratic reforms. Whether they will be enough to satisfy the force of the democratic waves pounding against the shore of an autocratic monarchy remains to be seen. But here we have a third instance where the true power of the ideals of democracy works into the hearts of the oppressed and the realization of that dream does not require an armed populace.

Now we are again holding our breath as we watch the protests and demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and most importantly, Iran.  The regimes of those autocratic and theocratic states are resorting to using brute force in their attempt to make the price of protest and dissention too high and to preserve their iron-grip on the status quo. What will the final outcome be?  Only time will tell.  None of these countries have a 2nd amendment on the right to bear arms.

There are, in my assessment, two broad consequences regarding bringing down a government by force. The first, when the population has unlimited access to firearms, an scenario is set up that will either almost certainly be a protracted or bloody revolution, or worse, an even bloodier civil war.  In recent years we have seen the horrendous conflicts in places like Rwanda, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Somalia and Chechnya and East Timor, to name a few.

What we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks is incontrovertible evidence that revolution by an unarmed populace does not require years but weeks, and does not require the blood of thousands. It also does not require that populace be armed with guns. Unfortunately the protests claimed the lives of a few dozen who were caught in the fringe of rage staged by the ruling regime’s police and their operatives.

But in recent history, this is not the first time we have seen a revolution succeed largely without violence. We watched two decades ago, transfixed, by the collapse of East Germany, and then to our greater astonishment the disintegration of our Cold War super-power adversary, the Soviet Union.  Poland and Czechoslovakia broke away from the Warsaw Pact and had their own versions of bloodless revolutions.  Czechoslovakia in particular separated into to two countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia without a civil war.  Hungary voted to leave the Warsaw Pact with an 85% majority, as did Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Romania was the only Eastern European country to have a bloody revolution as part of its citizens overthrowing the government, ending in the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena.

I cannot predict the outcome of the current protests for democratic reforms in these other nations, but I have confidence in the universal solvent of democracy.  The tide has turned. Even against massive state violence, as has happened in Iran and Bahrain, where the protesters are beaten back for a while, the regimes’ blindness to the unequalled strength of the democratic ideal will ultimately be their downfall.

The right to bear arms as a part of the Great American Experiment, as guaranteed in the Constitution in the context of the power of Democracy and Freedom, is appearing more and more like one of our greatest failures when placed against these historical events. We endured the horrors of one Civil War, and I can see no rationale that excludes a similar nightmare and threat to the Union should a group of radically discontented  people decide it is their right to overthrow the legally elected government by force.

Such action would be treason because all the other parts of the Constitution, which are more important than the 2nd Amendment, are the solid foundation we enjoy as a nation of laws as well as providing for the orderly transfer of power every eight years at the most, ensuring that democracy and freedom remain the keystone of The Republic.

What we have seen in the events unfolding in Africa and the Middle East is that the true power of Democracy and Freedom comes from the hearts of their people and not from their having all the guns in the world.  It is a lesson we Americans, particularly at this moment in our own history, need to understand where the reality actually lies.

Dr John Bogen contributed to this post.

The Good Herd

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To Your Health…

Updated: 23 January

With my apologies to the great humanitarian, Pearl Buck, whose 1931 novel The Good Earth won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, it’s the  influenza season and time to get…yes…a flu shot.  I’ll explain the herd allusion below.

First of all if you have any reservations about vaccines and a purported connection to autism, (as well as the MMR vaccine [measles, mumps, rubella], and Crohn’s Disease [an extremely painful bowel disorder]) you may put your fears aside. Really.

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A Pernicious Lie Finally Crushed

This month, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a major investigative article in three parts by English journalist Brian Deer, titled Secrets of the MMR Scare: How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money.  The author details one of the most pernicious medical scams ever conceived and perpetrated virtually on the whole world, leading to millions suffering needlessly, not to mention the thousands of deaths from these diseases or complications related to them as a result of the patient and or family refusing to receive the vaccinations.  Add to that the fears of millions of others thinking they should mistrust vaccines in general (and now many will never give up that incorrect perception) compounding the suffering and deaths on annual basis that will continue because of one man’s incomprehensible lack of conscience and insatiable greed.  And as for those who decided to follow him…  It is my opinion that a new circle in Dante’s hell needs to be constructed for the likes of these.  As all health care providers will tell you, vaccines do carry risks, but in comparison to what this one English doctor did, they are minuscule.

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Please Get Your Flu Shot–There’s Plenty of Time

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The CDC has a new program this winter called “Take the Pledge”  It’s a quick and fun way to declare your solidarity with the millions of Americans who get their annual shots. Dr. John Bogen, MD, an Extreme Thinkover guest author, states,  “The shot is a cheap ‘insurance policy’ against missing a week of work or having to stay home from work due to a sick child.  It is covered by Medicare and most insurance plans. Why? Because the shot reduces overall health costs.  Also, even if you are in good health and could withstand the flu yourself, getting your shot reduces the number of children, chronically ill, pregnant, and elderly who get the flu: populations that are more susceptible to the complications and deaths from influenza.”  I took the pledge on the day I wrote this post.

I already got my shot, since I work at a hospital.  Not only am I protected from influenza so are my family, friends, coworkers and patients. The CDC stats show a low incidence of last year’s H1N1 Pandemic strain- this year’s vaccine protects against influenza A 2009 H1N1 & H3N2 and influenza B, the three main influenza strains shown by surveillance to infect humans this season. I urge you to get your shot, too, as soon as possible.

So, what’s with this “herd” reference in the title of the post?  Immunologists use the term “herd immunity” to describe when enough of a susceptible population has gotten vaccinated plus those who have contracted the disease and subsequently have natural immunity to create a “herd” large enough to mostly be immune to that pathogen the next time it comes around.  Dr. John helps us understand how the herd is created:

If each sick person transmits the illness to less than one other person, transmission stops.  Basically, if enough of a population is immune either through prior infection or vaccination, transmission is inefficient.  It isn’t as if the herd is completely immune, just that a critical mass is reached such that rampant infection doesn’t occur.  Sporadic cases still do occur from infectious contacts both outside and within the herd.

Of course, viruses that cause the flu and colds continuously mutate, so the challenge to keep up with the bugs will never end.  That makes getting a shot all that more important.  You never want to get behind the curve in the race against the germs!

So despite the fact we humans like to think of ourselves as pack animals, like wolves and lions, when it comes to your health, being part of the herd with immunity acquired by a vaccine is definitely the best option!  Need an image to help fix the idea in your mind?  Imagine you’re part of this stately elk herd in the mountains of Idah0!

 

Elk Herd in Idaho High Mountain Valley. Image: http://www.idahoriverjourneys.blogspot.com

My thanks to Dr. John for contributing his medical expertise to help make this post accurate and up-to-date.  DW

Extreme Thinkover: 2010 in Review

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Extreme Thinkover Received a Very Nice 2010 Annual Report from

the “Helper Monkeys” at WordPress.com:

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 16,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 4 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 33 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 135 posts. There were 355 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 36mb. That’s about 7 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was August 9th with 349 views. The most popular post that day was About Extreme Thinkover.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were community.nytimes.com, WordPress Dashboard, facebook.com, righthealth.com, and en.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for serenity, serenity movie, grunewald, tcu horned frogs, and galileo’s telescope.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

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About Extreme Thinkover September 2008
1 comment

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Serenity Movie Revision: Saving Wash’s Life June 2009
1 comment

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Grunewald’s “Resurrection” April 2009

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Galileo’s Telescope: the 400th Anniversary, August 25, 1609 August 2009

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Go Horned Frogs! November 2009

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Thanks WordPress for a great blog site!

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Part 2

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Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

A Stellar Event…Strangely, Not So Unexpected.

In Part 1, I suggested that the story of the Star of Bethlehem is one that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time. I see that as an asset, for perhaps that contradiction contributed to both its lasting power and to its veracity. In the previous post, we looked at the creation myths from the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. These narratives were created by peoples on opposite sides of the Earth who never had contact with each other. Despite that, their creation stories have unmistakable and remarkable similarities that suggest that there is an archetypal human story, following the models about which Joseph Campbell wrote extensively.

The Star of Bethlehem, which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, is an anomaly. One of the unsolved mysteries of the Nativity narratives is that the star is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Other than the opening passages of Genesis the writers of the Bible simply seem to have no interest in the sky, except metaphorically. Stars are lights in the night sky that are compared to something earthly or are evidence of God’s creative power. The Hebrews, however, did have an organized cosmology:

Hebrew Cosmology Illustrated. Photo source: unknown

 

The remarkable contrast of the above Hebrew model of the universe is clearly evident when compared to those of the Aztec’s and the Sumerian’s: In Genesis, there is a complete lack of violence in the act of creation. Few other religions have a similar cosmology in which an Earth Mother-goddess does not have to be destroyed and her various body parts used to make the earth, sky and humans. The ancient Hebrews had knowledge of these various stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt, but in the Genesis account, those elements do not appear. For example, this Egyptian version (one of many Egyptian origin myths) demonstrates the more common world view of the Beginning:

 

Egyptian Creation Myth Illustrated--This Picture is based on the "Heliopolis Cosmogony," one of several dominant myths in the Egyptian Pantheon.

The Problem of “The Sky.”

I also suggested that humans began to differentiate the sky being distinct from the land and the oceans perhaps around circa 4300 years ago. Gavin White (2008), in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, maintains that “Babylonian astrologers started to export to their neighbors as early as the 13th century BCE” (p. 7). He goes on to contend that the development of natal horoscopes required a level of mathematics that was compiled in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, with the first modern equivalents finally appearing in the 5th century, or 2500 years ago. It is this assertion that raises the prospect of historically credible ties to planetary observations by Matthew’s Magi, and the possibility that the Star of Bethlehem’s discovery, or rather interpretation of a sky-based observation, was based on their millennial old texts and maps of the constellations.

These particular Magi were likely among the most highly educated individuals from any civilization, and familiar with astronomy from the known regions of the world. That would include Greece, where we must take a brief trip to meet the man who changed the sky and the universe four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

To set the stage, I return to the question, “What is the sky?” White shares my view that these ancient cosmologies are neither crude nor primitive:

Today this “flat-earth” cosmology is generally belittled as being rather “primitive” and as far as it is given any attention it is relegated to the kindergarten of metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, as the model is actually a rather elegant presentation of archaic man’s view of himself and the universe in which he acted and had his being. It is a complex view of the world, one full of awe that utilizes the mysterious language of symbolism, where every element is a part of an interrelated network of forces. This model also underpins the rationale of celestial divination and magic, mankind’s first attempts to foretell and forestall the shape of things to come. (p. 21)

The tools of those attempts included defining the constellations, plotting the motion of the planets, phases of the moon, vital because they were tied to the seasons, but of course eclipses: lunar, more common than solar, the unexpected darkening of the day often believed to be a portent of evil or disasters.  To many in the ancient world only comets might inspire a greater fear.

From China to India, Persia to the Mediterranean, Egypt across the great Sahara of North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, the expanse of the Roman Empire all the way to Britannia, the great celestial scroll of the night sky unrolled from horizon to horizon, open to be examined, its mysteries to be plumbed, and the fate of humans read in its aetherial language.

Sometime around the 7th century BCE, in Greece, the question of the sky rose once more, and a startlingly new answer was ventured. What if, these renegade philosophers dared to suggest, using their emerging expertise in mathematics and geometry, the sky was not the abode of the gods? What if the sky was a place, just like the earth, that the Sun, Moon and stars, even the ones which wander, were places? And if that were even possible, how far away were these places? What caused them to move around the earth? And if they moved, what if the Earth moved, too?  The intellectual battle raged for over 400 years, but no one could seem to find that one all-important key to prove whether it was right or wrong.

 

The Greek Geocentric Cosmos. Photo: Source Courtesy, A.H., 1996.

These were dangerous questions, on the level of heresy, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Sky Problem Solved–But 1700 Years Too Soon!

Aristarchus of Samos

Those willing to think about daring questions at times come up with extraordinary answers.  One such radical was Aristarchus of Samos, a mathematician and astronomer who lived circa 310-230 BCE.  Samos, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, lies in the archipelago that separates modern Greece from Turkey.  An older contemporary of Archimedes, he was known among his generation as “the Mathematician.”

According to Sir Thomas Heath, who published Aristarchus’ full text of “On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon” into English (1913, 2004), “There is not the slightest doubt that Aristarchus was the first to put forward the heliocentric hypothesis. Ancient testimony is unanimous on the point and the first witness is Archimedes, who was a younger contemporary of Aristarchus, so that there is no possibility of a mistake. Copernicus, himself admitted that the theory was attributed to Aristarchus, though this does not seem to be generally known” (p. 301).

Archimedes, to his discredit, did not accept Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory and campaigned against it. Aristarchus’ idea was not theologically popular either in some circles. One Cleanthes attempted to indict the Mathematician “on the charge of impiety for putting into motion the Hearth of the Universe… ” (Heath, p. 304). What enraged Cleanthes was Aristarchus used geometry to prove his hypotheses: “by supposing the heaven to remain at rest and the earth to revolve around an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis” (Ibid.). No one knew how prescient this hypothesis really was, until seventeen hundred years later another mathematician named Copernicus reached the same conclusion after studying Aristarchus’ text , and a second, 150 years after him, one named Galileo.

The Magi: The Hubble, Sagan, and Hammel of Their Age

What is the connection to our Christmas Star? Aristarchus used star charts and calculations developed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Sir Thomas presents a number of examples where Aristarchus used, what he called “Chaldean lunations,” basically books of tables that all mathematicians of the era would have as a standard in their libraries (p. 314).

The Magi, it is reasonable to infer, would have read Aristarchus. Mathematically he was an “Einstein” of his age, his texts were in circulation, and even though they likely would not have accepted his heliocentric hypothesis, just like modern astronomers who still read Copernicus’ and Galileo’s works, they would have studied his math proofs and geometry to predict lunar and solar eclipses, and to calculate “The Great Year,” “which is completed by the sun, the moon, and the five planets when they return together to the same sign in which they were once before simultaneously found” (quote from Censorinus AD 238; Ibid, p. 316).

That very high level of geometric expertise would have been invaluable in calculating planetary conjunctions with a high degree of accuracy.  Furthermore, the ability to correctly forecast the birth of a king was the Gold Medal of astrology/astronomy. Whoever they were, the Magi were convinced they had gotten this one right, and with a level of confidence so strong they were willing to travel from their homes somewhere east of Jerusalem, command an audience with King Herod and tell him right to his face!

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. (Mt 2:2, NIV)

Saying that to a reigning monarch is the kind of thing that could get you beheaded in short order. What stayed Herod’s hand? Perhaps the sight of this from an east-facing palace balcony:

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition. The proof, as they say is in the pudding. This is a natural sky view of the proposed Star of Bethlehem. See if you can spot it without scrolling down to the annotated version.

A Historical Event Reconstructed out of a Myth: The Power of Good Science and an Astronomy Software Program

Michael Bakich, a Senior Editor of Astronomy Magazine writes in the January 2010 issue:

The biblical account says that the wise men spoke to Herod about the star. Neither Herod nor his scholars knew what they were talking about. No other Bible verse or secular writing mentions the star. What was it? Could it be Matthew, the only gospel writer who mentions the star, wanted to prove to his readers what he knew from reading the Old Testament? I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel… (Num. 24:17). Did the writer of Matthew invent a story to fulfill this prophecy from Moses? Most historians don’t think so (p. 37).

The solution is most likely a planetary conjunction. It is not, in the end, the definitive answer, nor does it subtract the mystery and miracle of that night.

It was the Star of Wonder. And if this particular conjunction or cycle of conjunctions that occured in 3 BCE signaled the birth of the Savior, how we can rejoice what a clever God we worship!

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs with Annotations. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition

One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the Magi as they pointed this astronomical event out to Herod and his astrologers, going over their data and calculations. We know what was going through Herod’s mind.

The conjunction would have been very bright. Jupiter was shining at a magnitude of -1.8 and was at 99.98% phase full (think full Moon), and Venus was at a shadow-producing magnitude by itself of -3.9 and 93.38% full phase! Regulus by contrast would have almost seemed dim at its very bright -1.38 magnitude, and Sirius, the brightest star in the northern sky at -1.44 magnitude was glowing high in the SW sky.

Star of Bethlehem with Magi Card

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matt 2:9.

Merry Christmas and may the Blessings of the Christ Child Come to You and Your Loved Ones.

 

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Myth or Astronomical Event?

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Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

 

The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA

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Prologue

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf.  Photo: NASA.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.

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First, Some Historical Background

The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.

Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read.  White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version.  It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE.  So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

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The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem

If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing.  The same thing happened to  the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

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What was the sky?

Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.  Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.  Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.  Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.

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The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.

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The First Astronomers

Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA

To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

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The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres.

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The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

 

START Treaty: When Will We Ever Get a STOP Treaty?

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The New START Treaty: When Will We Ever Get a STOP Treaty?

A Guest Post by Dr. John Bogen, M.D.

The First Atomic Blast "Trinity" Taken by Jack Aeby. July 16, 1945. The only color photo taken of the blast. Photo: PD

Rich Lowry, Editor of the National Review wrote an op-ed column titled  A Poor START for the online political website, RealClearPolitics on November 22, 2010.  Lowry questions why the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), signed earlier this year by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Dmitri Medvedev, is being promoted as such a crucial issue by the Obama Administration that requires immediate ratification by the U.S. Senate before the end of the lame-duck session in December.

Lowry concludes that “the administration wants the treaty because it thinks it makes the Russians feel good and fosters a ‘reset.’ The benefits of reset are overrated, though. Yes, the Russians voted for the fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, but only after watering them down along with the Chinese. They have made it clear they won’t support more stringent sanctions outside the U.N.”

START’s History

U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon & Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev at the signing of the SALT I Treaty in 1972. Photo: Nixon Presidential Library

The history of the START goes back over forty years to 1969, when negotiations began for the original SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This ultimately culminated in the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972.

In 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed SALT II, which was not ratified by the U.S. Senate in part due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later in 1979. Nevertheless, both countries agreed to abide by the terms of the treaty until 1986, when, per Wikipedia, “the Reagan Administration withdrew from SALT II after accusing the Soviets of violating the pact.”

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated certain intermediate-range missiles for the primary purpose of enhancing the security of Western Europe.

START I, signed in 1991 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, expired in December 2009, and with it, among other things, verification provisions that each country was actually in compliance with the treaty. (START II was signed by United States President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 and was subsequently ratified, but never activated. A START III treaty was negotiated, but was never signed.)

Russian Pres. Putin and U.S. Pres. Bush signing the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), better known as the "Moscow Treaty," 2002. Photo: The White House Archives.

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), better known as the Moscow Treaty, was signed in 2002 by U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, further limiting the numbers of nuclear warheads, yet failing to contain verification provisions. SORT expires in December 2012.

President Obama, who ran on a platform of a nuke-free world, took office in January 2009, and had his administration negotiate with the Russians a New START treaty as a follow-on to START I and SORT. This was signed in April 2010.

Lowry asks a legitimate question in his op-ed piece, why the sudden rush for ratification of New START?  As noted above, past treaties have been adhered to without formal ratification. The Senate and in fact the entire Congress faces more pressing issues, such as deciding on an extension of the Bush (43) tax cuts and dealing with the economy, not to mention immigration reform and energy policy.  Isn’t the New START a relic of a Cold War that came to an end almost twenty years ago with the dissolution of the old Soviet Union in 1991?  And in light of the growing nuclear threats from Iran and particularly North Korea dominating the news on November 23, 2010, why is the president pushing so hard for ratification of an obsolete treaty that does little to make the world safer from nuclear conflict?

We Should Be Negotiating “STOP” not START

Personally, I think any treaty between the U.S. and Russia that falls short of completely eliminating nukes is meaningless. Both countries have no desire for war let alone nuclear war.

There exists a new global war, to be politically incorrect, between a growing list of nations and Muslim extremists. Nuclear powers including the U.S., Russia, China, India, Britain, France, Israel, and Pakistan all face conflicts with radical Muslims. These jihadists have also murdered hundreds in Spain, Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, and several African nations. And that doesn’t even count Iraq or Afghanistan. Regional hotspots also exist with rogue nations such as North Korea having recently acquired nukes and Iran widely believed to be endeavoring to do so.

U.S. Pres. Obama and Russian Pres. Medevev signing the "New START" treaty, April 8, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: Courtesy AP.

So, I believe New START is irrelevant in today’s world. The U.S. and Russia are moving towards smaller arsenals through attrition and both countries do not have the money to keep the numbers up. Regardless of the treaty, both countries still have enough nukes to destroy the world many times over. Does it really matter if you have 2,200 or 1,550 or 500 or 100 nukes? This treaty is obsolete even before it has been ratified. Inspections could be extended without even mentioning numbers, and the numbers would come down on their own through obsolescence.

Completely eliminating nukes from the arsenals (except for maybe a token number just in case they are needed for example, for asteroid mitigation–not unlike the stocks of smallpox kept secure in the U.S. and Russia, needed for the manufacture of vaccines should the disease reappear somewhere in the world) would be a bold step the U.S. and Russia could take.  This might reduce the desire for nuclear proliferation throughout the world, or at least embarrass rogue nations by making them appear less civilized (e.g. “We are civilized. Nukes are so ‘yesterday.'”).

Even if the U.S. gets nuked someday by a terrorist bomb via a shipping container smuggled into a port city, or by an ICBM from a rogue nation, the U.S. won’t respond indiscriminately with a nuke.  And that is the biggest reason to abandon New START – a treaty designed to reduce yet continue the obsolete military doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

Trident II-D5 Nuclear Capable Missile Submarine Launch. Photo: U.S. Navy/PD

The current conflict over New START ratification between Democrats and Republicans is purely political posturing and is meaningless from the national security standpoint. I disagree with Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) trying to get more money (which we don’t have) appropriated for modernization of our nuclear arsenal. However, he does have a valid concern that Russia wants to limit the U.S.’s ability to field an anti-ballistic missile system, which most certainly would be for protection against limited missile strikes from rogue nations, rather than to defend against Russian attack.  I also disagree with the Democrats for making this treaty out to be more important than it really is, and who just wish to deliver a foreign policy victory to President Obama, following his recent lackluster Asian and European trips. The political void of the November-December lame duck period is about as empty as Washington D.C. is every August – much ado is made about nothing.

Ratification of New START should hardly be the highest priority for the Senate when the economy, unemployment, tax rates, and the deficit / debt are far more pressing issues. The Congress and President Obama should get their priorities straight. And so that the Russians do not feel ignored, I would begin negotiations on START IV, a.k.a. STOP (as in STOP ALL NUKES), a much bolder push to lead the entire world away from dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons.

Virtual Deficits in a Virtual Economy

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It seems like a simple enough question: What is money made of?

 

The Spanish "Piece of Eight" 16th-17th Century. World's First Global Currancy. Photo: British Museum, London

The answer, however, is complex, very complex, in fact.  So complex that I am only going to briefly address it.

Money, historically, has been whatever a group of people have decided was an acceptable currency to trade for goods and services.  Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Money is any object that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given country or socio-economic context. The main functions of money are distinguished as: a medium of exchange; a unit of account; a store of value; and, occasionally, a standard of deferred payment.

Money originated as commodity money, but nearly all contemporary money systems are based on fiat money. Fiat money is without intrinsic use value as a physical commodity, and derives its value by being declared by a government to be legal tender; that is, it must be accepted as a form of payment within the boundaries of the country, for “all debts, public and private”.

The money supply of a country consists of currency (banknotes and coins) and demand deposits or ‘bank money’ (the balance held in checking accounts and savings accounts). These demand deposits usually account for a much larger part of the money supply than currency.  Bank money is intangible and exists only in the form of various bank records. Despite being intangible, bank money still performs the basic functions of money, being generally accepted as a form of payment.

500 Mixed Medieval Coins. Offered by Dorchesters.com

So, assuming the definition of money is accurate, that “fiat money” is apparently the “gold standard” (of course, gold is no longer the standard for basing the wealth or value of a country’s economy), is “intangible and exists only in the form of various bank records,” my opening question can again be asked: What is money made of?

The whole question of deficits in the United States budget got me to thinking, money has become virtual.  At least almost virtual, in that now money is dynamic, a form of energy of sorts, that can move as photons through fiber optics or as electrons through a copper line, arranged on silicon microchip, or as a radio wave broadcast to a antenna tower or to a satellite thousands of miles into space and back.  And that leads me to ask another question:

How much is an electron/positron worth?  Or a photon?  Or a radio wave?

Show Me the Money! Graphic Representation of a Photon creating an Electron and a Positron. Image: David Horman

Take a look at what (graphically) is the reality of our money today.  When I get paid, my company transfers my “pay check” to my bank account using electrons, which are stored as organized electrons inside a silicon chip that is connected to other microwires.  When I go to the grocery store or the gas station and enter the code for my debit or credit card organized packets of electrons flow to my account, checks to see that I have sufficient electrons arranged to virtually verify there is enough electronically defined money in my account that it can subtract the correct amount and then add it to the store’s account.

That raises an interesting question.  Is the deficit real or virtual?  Are the words being thrown around that we are trillions of dollars in debt based on reality?  How do we really know what the deficit is, if it exists at all, beyond a vituality that has no tangibility?

As the nation with the largest Gross Domestic Product in the world, what would happen to the country, indeed the world, if we hit the reset button?  And can anyone really prove what would happen?  It’s not like we have to open Fort Knox and hand out gold ingots to all the money we supposedly own ourselves?  Where is it written in stone that we have to pay huge sums in interest on this virtual debt?  And if it is only written by an act of legislation, why can’t it be changed?

Many economists state that we are in a liquidity trap.

In its original conception, a liquidity trap results when demand for money becomes infinitely elastic (i.e. where the demand curve for money is horizontal) so that further injections of money into the economy will not serve to further lower interest rates. Under the narrow version of Keynesian theory in which this arises, it is specified that monetary policy affects the economy only through its effect on interest rates. Thus, if an economy enters a liquidity trap, further increases in the money stock will fail to further lower interest rates and, therefore, fail to stimulate.

Dr. Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, Princeton University professor and New York Times columnist, has stated that inflation targeting as the solution to a liquidity trap, “most nearly approaches the usual goal of modern stabilization policy, which is to provide adequate demand in a clean, unobtrusive way that does not distort the allocation of resources.” (Krugman, 2009).

A second Nobel Laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University), shares Krugman’s perspective :

[G]overnments can improve the outcome by well-chosen interventions. Stiglitz argues that when families and firms seek to buy too little compared to what the economy can produce, governments can fight recessions and depressions by using expansionary monetary and fiscal policies to spur the demand for goods and services. At the microeconomic level, governments can regulate banks and other financial institutions to keep them sound. They can also use tax policy to steer investment into more productive industries and trade policies to allow new industries to mature to the point at which they can survive foreign competition. And governments can use a variety of devices, ranging from job creation to manpower training to welfare assistance, to put unemployed labor back to work and cushion human hardship.

The key issue, in light of our living in an age in which money is virtual, that it is almost a literal description of currency to call it electrons or photons, the rules for how to manage the debt and the interest we pay on it is for all intents and purposes, purely arbitrary.  At the same time, the rules provide a basis for the orderly exchange of goods and services. Despite this need for order, the pressure on the American public continues to grow.

If, for example, Congress decided to decrease the amount of interest we pay on the national deficit by even half a percentage point (it is now approximately 3%) it would pump billions into the economy, freeing up the suppression of demand especially on the middle class.  It would be a de facto tax break that might result in the reduction in the deficit more quickly.

 

Debt as a Percentage of GDP: USA, Japan, Germany. Image Courtesy: Alex1011.

I’m still thinking about this idea and its implications.   It might be unworkable.  It might be conceptually accurate but not possible to implement.  But as you can see from the chart above, the level of public debt as of 2009 stands at about 62-63% of the nation’s GDP.  And though the U.S. has the largest economy in the world with a GDP of $14.26 trillion over three times that of Japan and Germany, that percentage roughly calculates as ≈$8.9 trillion.

CORRECTION to my original conclusion:

As of today, the United States’ national debt is $13,795,134,710,938.49.  The total interest bearing debt for the country in October 2010 is 3.047%.  This interest rate has been falling by a few tenths of a percent year by year.  For instance, the interest in October 2008 was 4.009%, and a year later, 3.362%.  These decreases represent substantial billions of dollars of relief.

Still, the debt itself is a crushing reality.  TreasuryDirect.gov provides an easy to understand explanation of what the debt and deficit are and how they are managed on a year to year basis:

What is the difference between the debt and the deficit?

The deficit is the fiscal year difference between what the United States Government (Government) takes in from taxes and other revenues, called receipts, and the amount of money the Government spends, called outlays. The items included in the deficit are considered either on-budget or off-budget.

You can think of the total debt as accumulated deficits plus accumulated off-budget surpluses. The on-budget deficits require the U.S. Treasury to borrow money to raise cash needed to keep the Government operating. We borrow the money by selling securities like Treasury bills, notes, bonds and savings bonds to the public.

The Treasury securities issued to the public and to the Government Trust Funds (Intragovernmental Holdings) then become part of the total debt. For information about the deficit, visit the Financial Management Service web site to view the Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government (MTS).

The question I ponder is why is the United States budget designed so it is forced to “borrow money to raise cash needed to keep the Government operating”?  In a reality of virtual money, what is the purpose of this system, which from my perspective appears to be at best archaic and at worst  a system of financing to guarantee an eventual national financial implosion?

Is the debt real or virtual?  Is the money we supposedly owe ourselves tangible tender or bank fiat money?  If it is the latter, what is to prevent us from taking a revolutionary step of redesigning what the dollar really is?  As I asked at the beginning, how much is an electron worth?

Watch for more in the coming weeks.

Hey NBC & WSJ–What’s With Your Poll Report?

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Today NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a new survey conducted by the polling company Hart/McInturff.  MSNBC.com’s deputy political director, Mark Murray writes,

The GOP’s ‘likely’ advantage

In the survey, 50 percent of likely voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 43 percent who want Democrats in charge.

Last month, Republicans held a 46 percent to 43 percent advantage among likely voters on this question.

The GOP’s current seven-point lead, McInturff observes, is on pace — historically — to result in a shift of power in Congress. “The Democrats, with two weeks left, are facing very, very difficult arithmetic.”

Yet among the wider universe of registered voters, Democrats hold a two-point edge, 46 to 44 percent, which is up from the 44 percent to 44 percent tie in September.

But Hart calls that lead “hollow,” because not all registered voters will participate, especially in a midterm election.

Indeed, among those expressing a high interest in voting this midterm season, Republicans hold a 13-point advantage on the generic ballot, 53 percent to 40 percent.

So, as I often do, I clicked on the link to the published survey results and read it through looking for the results described in the article.  First time through I thought I missed this 50% to 43% advantage of the Republicans over the Democrats.  So I read it again, now looking line by line where that percentage comparison came up.  I couldn’t find it.  Okay, so one more time, very deliberately reading through the survey.  Nada.  What I did discover were two very interesting questions that belie a different mood in the electorate.

Keep in mind this was a survey of 1000 registered voters, which, as I have explained in previous posts, I hold to the theory that registered voters provide a more reliable sample and predictor of which way the election is more likely to go.  In two weeks we’ll know.

Let’s look first at question Q11a:

Q11a:   What is your preference for the outcome of this year’s congressional elections — (ROTATE:) a Congress controlled by Republicans or a Congress controlled by Democrats?

The result favors the Democrats 46% to Republicans 44%. That is mentioned in the quote above.  It’s also within the published margin of error of +/- 3.10%.  One could say, therefore, it’s a wash, but there is some interesting info in the trends.  The median (the midpoint of the 11 surveys NBC/WSJ has conducted since January 2010 for the Republicans is 44% and the Democrats, 43%.  Now that is tight!  The slope of those eleven surveys for this question is also small, 0.21% for the GOP and 0.25% for the Dems.  Not what you might write home about.  But still, when you apply those numbers to tens of millions of voters, small changes can make the difference.  It also shows that the Democrats are perhaps not in quite as bad a shape as the pundits have been droning on about month after month.

But there is more.  Question Q12A reads:

Q12a: If you had the choice in your congressional district, would you be more likely to vote for a (ROTATE:) Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, or  Green Party candidate for Congress?

Since the smaller party candidates are at best wild cards, we can’t make a prediction if those who claim affiliation will actually vote for them.  But here, we find the responses again favor the Democrats over the Republicans, 44% to 41%.  Unfortunately, the survey does not provide the historical results of this question.

If you have looked at the published survey results, you might have noticed a number of questions are missing.  So, we can perhaps infer that NBC and the WSJ decided the most interesting information in the survey they wanted to keep to themselves, which is their prerogative since they paid for it.  And perhaps that 50% Republican advantage is among those survey items that were, shall we say, redacted.  But if the Democrats are in such dire shape going into the election and the survey shows that is very clear, why bother with cutting questions out of the published report?  Wouldn’t a reasonable person, or especially a partisan one, such as the Wall Street Journal’s clear editorial preference for Conservatives, want that information right there for everyone to see?  I can’t answer that question, but I do find it perplexing.

Nevertheless, there is enough information to ponder the strength of the GOP’s “surge” as reported.  My updated graph with the trend lines still shows the Democrats in a stronger growth curve:



Registered Voters Surveys 18 Oct 10. Data Courtesy HuffPost Pollster

I will be eagerly looking forward to the next batch of polls to be released.  Each data point provides a world of information about might or can happen on November 2nd.