Monthly Archives: November 2012

UN vote on Palestinian state

After Vote, Palestinians and Israel Search for the Next Step.
“Now that the United Nations has voted to grant the Palestinian territories status as a nonmember state, one question is whether the Palestinians will use their enhanced status for renewed negotiations in the spirit of peace and reconciliation or for confronting Israel in new ways through the United Nations system, and possibly the International Criminal Court.”
I’m going to be a jerk and bet on the latter.

Why Pocahontas?

So I just came back from a rather inspiring visit to Jamestown, and now I want to write a revisionist story about Pocahontas. Why?
Well, it turns out the history we learned as kids and the Disney movie are both BS. Pocahontas did not have a love affair with John Smith. The colonists did not come here looking to conquer, in fact Jamestown was picked as a place least likely to offend anybody for its distance from fresh water. They came because they were non-first-born who were left out of the estate, with no prospects save the possibility of distant lands. Neither did they starve because of some foolish drive for gold at the expense of preparing for winter.
And the colonists were good hunters, too. They may have been gentlemen, but the gentlemen of that time were both skilled soldiers and hunters. So much so, that the local king wanted one as his personal hunter at his capital. If there’s anything we can point to, it was the local tribal king who tried starving the colonists out by holding their stockade under siege: anyone caught going hunting outside the walls was shot.
Pocahontas, then, becomes the story of his 11 year old daughter, feeling sympathy for the plight of these newcomers. She probably went against her father’s wishes to bring them food during the winter they starved the most. And her efforts helped keep that first colony alive.
Later, she married John Rolfe, who was the first to successfully cultivate and export tobacco to England. Their marriage led to peace with the local natives and their king, and together these ensured the long term sustainability of Jamestown. He brought her to London later, where she unfortunately died in her 20s, likely from foreign disease.
The story of John Smith is an extra but related story. It’s doubtful whether he had anything to do romantically with Pocahontas, but he was governor during the starving years. His non-noble birth made him looked down on by the other colonists but also made him an effective, no-nonsense leader. He coined the phrase “he who works not, shall not eat” and instituted stiff laws that helped the colony survive through those times.
So what do we see in all this? Like a conceived egg, we see all the DNA of the future United States all in this one colony. Disinherited immigrants. Working class rising to leadership positions. Strained relationships with the natives. Both a capacity for hard collective work, and individual innovation and enterprise.
And we also see some greater spiritual issues: the mercy of the heavens, in the sympathy of a little girl, allowing the continuance of life. A girl’s rebellion against her royal father, and her love for the new and the future and what it could bring, even if it would ultimately kill her. And a father’s ultimate unconditional love for his daughter, which reverses his previous stern edicts.
Obviously, this treatment raises a lot of questions. That’s the point. I need to do more research. But it’s these very questions I want to commit to, and that’s the point of writing this treatment, before the memory of my recent visit to Jamestown fades away.

Statue of Pocahontas

Statue of John Smith at Jamestown Historic site

Hamas’s Unpleasant Surprise

In writing this on my iPhone so this needs to be short. I’ll have time later.
But it seems like something is different this skirmish. My more skittish colleagues think this Arab Spring has strengthened Israel’s enemies but I think the opposite is true. And Hamas, still stuck in the old politics, may find its Arab neighbors unwilling to play that game anymore.
My point is that it’s important to understand the nature of the Arab revolutions in the past year. They were pro-democracy, pro-western revolutions that literally went by the same handbook as the east European revolutions of 20 years ago. And as tragic as Ambassador Stevens’s death was, it was actually a positive sign: 1) that the US is taking an active role in steering these movements 2) they welcome a US presence. Some maintain that Islamist parties have taken over, but I hold (and have corroboration) that they’re far more similar to the conservative religious parties of Europe than any radical Taliban style party.
So, to have Hamas jubilantly firing rockets at Israeli cities, this is something that goes radically against the interests of these fledgling political powers looking for new clout in the world economy. As one NPR interviewee said, yes they’ll send envoy’s to Gaza, but they doubt it will translate into any military aid.
Really, if sources are at all accurate, the only aid they’re getting is from Iran, which in he current game, is a stodgy member of the old guard.
Now this is not to say I would be surprised if it turns out differently, even drastically so. I’m just offering a ray of light in the situation. Indeed the US State Department has its work cut out for it.
But long story short, Hamas’s game of “Kill Jews, drive out American Satan” is no longer a program that makes sense I that region. They may find themselves looking around with nobody to back them anymore.

Allison Stokke at the 2012 Olympic Track Trials

This is also my experiment with image embedding and SEO. I understand a picture of Allison Stokke can get you a huge traffic boost. So here’s me with her at the Olympic Track Trials in Eugene from earlier this year. Worth it all despite the busted leg and the rain.
with Allison Stokke at the 2012 Olympic Track Trials

Monsanto’s evil mind-control ray

Oh, you didn’t know they had one, did you? How little you know, o ignorant sheeple.
So prop 37 failed, something this blogger hails as a victory, but that’s definitely not ending the GMO debate. The pro-37 people are already mobilizing to say that they would have won, but Monsanto and Dow poured so much money into defeating it that Californians were duped into voting against their interests.
So much so, apparently, that their million dollar mind-control machine convinced newspapers everywhere to oppose this proposition that nobody in their right mind would oppose. I could make all sorts of jokes about that but I’ll let that go as an inconvenient truth. Rather, let’s look at the numbers, shall we? I’m not gonna do any heavy analysis here (see Nate Silver post), but this infographic is mildly informative: The Money behind California Propositions.
The link itself concludes “clearly … it is not always the most funded position that wins”. If money swayed people’s minds like this, then many of the other propositions would have turned out differently as well.
The numbers alone can lead to all sorts of interpretation though, so let’s take a more qualitative approach (again, see Nate Silver) to this. Yeah we saw a lot of ads against prop 37. To be honest though, I thought that ad campaign was really crappy. To tell people that a label would cost too much money is a horrible argument. If something is proven to cause cancer, I don’t mind paying a bit for a warning label.
No, what convinced me was two things – one, I’ve been reading about GMOs for a long time now, both the amount of testing that goes into them, and the promise they have. Two though, and this is the ironic and important one, is the arguments of the pro-37 crowd. Yes, I go on the pro-37 Facebook groups and debate them. Remember that 11 year old kid’s thing I posted? About GMOs being “icky”? Yeah, that’s pretty much all their arguments. GMOs are icky, unnatural, go against God, and so they must make all sorts of horrible mutations to our genes and fragile bodies. So much so, that we’ll keep citing fraudulent studies as fact, because we’re so sure that’s what causes cancer.
And that was the final nail in the coffin of this proposition for me. Oh sure, the more intellectual people avoided those arguments, citing more “sophisticated” arguments like bad agribusiness tactics that someone else can bring up in another blog. But some great editorials addressed those concerns, and it’s not what this proposition is about.
This law was about people convinced that GMOs are causing their health problems, and the labeling is an implicit license to sue anyone they think may be causing said health problems. It’s as about ridiculous a law as requiring people to put warning signs around wifi spots because some people fear that wifi signals give them brain tumors.
So please, drop the argument that this is Monsanto’s fault. Do they have money? Sure. Do they influence politics? Sure. But to say a few million dollars can brainwash an entire state, that just puts no respect in the intelligence of others. And it also lowers other people’s respect for your intelligence.

Did you actually think we’d get what we want now?

Yeah, Maddow’s comment did feel pretty good. But did you really think re-electing Obama meant sending a mandate about all the things you and I would like to see in government?
A couple things prompted this. First, a friend posted this Borowitz Report today making fun of Boehner for already refusing to work with the president. Which, let’s face it, Boehner’s appeal to bipartisanship was about a sincere as, well, you come up with a crazy analogy.
But the other one is named Joe Donnelly.
We tend to think that the Democrats we elect are like the delegates we see on the convention floor – gay-friendly, multi-cultural, greener than the Amazon, working men and women standing up for each other. It is a nice picture but it’s not the Democratic Party that governs. Joe Donnelly may be a Blue Dog Democrat, but even then – the first thing he puts on the table is allowing the Bush Era Tax Cuts to stay. That’s telling. It may not be a smoking gun, but it gives an indication of what the Democratic Party’s core values are, and what they’re not.
They’re not the party that’s going to stop wars (In fact, my own representative, Jane Harman, may just be taking over the CIA directorship. But that’s a tangent). They’re not the party that’s going to end oil subsidies. And they’re not the party that’s going to force the rich to pay for their wars and their subsidies.
Sure, they’ll come out in support of pet issues like gay rights and GMOs and what not. That’s free votes. And heck, they can even do something slightly progressive once in a while like pass health care reform. But when it comes to the core values of our government – the maintenance and expansion of capitalism, the protection of the wealthy – they’re right in there with the politicians we call our enemies.
So, practically, what does this mean, what do I predict? I predict the Bush-era tax cuts will stay. They’ll blame the Republican congress for it, they’ll all piss and moan till they pass the same budget this year that they did last year. So will oil subsidies. Calls and clamors for the “fiscal cliff” and “the looming deficit crisis” will continue. And while Obama’s demand that the rich pay their fair share sounds powerful now, it won’t withstand the political pressure of the bourgeois press to gut Social Security and Medicare. And let’s let alone that the employment options people had as recently as six years ago aren’t coming back. These issues were drowned out by concerns about legitimate rape and global warming, but they are long-term issues that will become louder in the next election cycle.
And those are the real bread and butter issues that our government is discussing. Unfortunately, those are the issues that your more knee-jerk progressives prefer to ignore in favor of the isolated politics of “let me have my organic food and weed and let people marry whoever they want.” And that worries me – this sick kind of progressivism in this country, some call it “social liberal/economic conservative” but I call it being okay with barbarism.

Nate Silver, statistics, and the qualitative

So Nate Silver has been making the news lately, because his statistical analysis so perfectly (and humbly) predicted the election. Meanwhile, pundits everywhere did their usual entrails-reading analysis, and refused to eat the crow even after they were proven disastrously wrong.
And that’s all I’ll say about the election in this article.
But you can read an excerpt from his new book, as well as a telling NBC interview, here: Inside the mind of the man who predicted Obama’s win
The thing is, I’m not even sure my mom knows I studied econometrics in college, which was the application of statistical analysis to economic theory. So this perked up my ears on a personal level.
I didn’t pursue it because economic theory was just so much entrails at the time I was in college I felt that pursuing it any further would just dumb myself down. But Nate Silver helps to not only “make math cool” as the talking heads like to put it, he also proves that you can develop solid theories first, and then apply numerical analysis to those theories to make some pretty damn accurate predictions.
So that’s heartening to me. Maybe I still have some science career ahead of me. But that depends whether I can find a place in academia, even as a maverick. Because there are a few things that need to happen in the social sciences before statistical analysis can properly be elevated from entrails-reading to a diligent science.
And I’ll explain it with a bit of philosophy. Before you can make a quantitative analysis of anything, you first need an accepted qualitative theory. Examples: before you can accurately chart and predict the movements of the planets, you need Newton’s universal law of gravitation. Before you can split an atom, you need E=mc2. Before you can refine oil, you need laws of chemistry. These are obvious now, but they weren’t always given. Planetary movement seemed odd and random to us, back when our astronomical theory was based on heavenly circular movement. And so on.
In the field of economics and politcs it becomes doubly difficult, because we are what we’re studying – we’re no longer watching an object through a looking glass like we watch the planets. On a higher level, this means a different philosophy towards the science, but on a basic level, these sciences are so politicized that they believe their own bullshit and lies. They can’t predict their own crises? Of course not! They’re too busy selling overinflated stock to ever entertain the notion that it’s overvalued and can collapse.
But guess what? Karl Marx made some really accurate qualitative theories about boom and bust cycles, as well as how capital accumulates, and needs to accumulate. It’s so precise it predicts not only crises, but trade wars, and real wars. It’s too bad that its revolutionary implications mean that academia, which seeks to find a role within society, tends to ignore it completely, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There is plenty of promise in the field of statistical analysis in the social sciences. But there’s also a lot of work to be done to make it legitimate. Work which I’m not sure the universities are up to, and work that I’m not willing to do on my own, especially if it means arguing against a bunch of loudmouth dipshits.
There are good professors out there who offer a proper qualitative understanding of contemporary capitalism. This illustrated David Harvey lecture offers a great framework for analysis. The question for faculties out there is whether they make the courageous decisions to hire more professors like this, and fewer apologists, who can write enormous amounts of shiny garbage but it all amounts to wasted time and money.
To close, I wanted to quote Nate Silver’s book, where he talks about the explosion in information that the internet provides: “This exponential growth in information is sometimes seen as a cure-all, as computers were in the 1970s. Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, wrote in 2008 that the sheer volume of data would obviate the need for theory, and even the scientific method.”
This is nothing new. I came of age when Michael Crichton wrote Jurrasic Park, which popularized chaos theory and ridiculed this same notion. It’s too bad that he only offers the unknowableness of nature and a superstitious reverence for it as an alternative. Because chaos theory actually says we overcomplicate things, and that behind seeming chaos and disorder isn’t unknowability, but a very simple equation with a profoundly different philosophy. Understanding that equation at the heart of systems has enabled us to develop more effective predictors for everything from hurricanes to elections. We can only expand on that.

Rachel Maddow on the 2012 election

Rachel Maddow speaks on the 2012 election. I’m glad there are professionals to say these things because I don’t have the time to construct something so well-put myself. Let me quote my favorite part:
“Ohio really did go to President Obama last night. And he really did win. And he really was born in Hawaii. And he really is legitimately President of the United States, again. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month. And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy. And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats. And Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad. Nate Silver was doing math. And Climate Change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing. And Benghazi was an attack on us, it was not a scandal by us. And nobody is taking away anyone’s guns. And taxes have not gone up. And the deficit is dropping, actually. And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the Moon landing was real. And FEMA is not building concentration camps. ANd UN election observers are not taking over Texas. And moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as communism.”
And, lest this seem too far to the left for you, let me also quote our good friend Michael Specter, who is as enthusiastic about the promise of GMOs as I am: “You have the right to your own opinions, but you don’t have the right to your own facts.” Hopefully this election is, if anything, a mandate for a facts-based discussion.

Switching to Disqus commenting

The Facebook commenting system is definitely nice, unfortunately it’s leaving out a lot of people who are not on Facebook. So I’m trying to switch to something more inclusing, and not so embedded in Facebook. If I have things correct, disqus should allow you to use your Facebook login or any number of popular logins, but will keep the comments within the site. We’ll see how this works.
I will keep the Facebook plugin going for a while longer as well, but if Disqus does what I want I will gradually phase it out.