Archive for July, 2006

Tony Blair knows a good deal when he sees one

July 30, 2006 Comments off

In the wake of George Bush’s veto of federal stem cell research funding, England’s Tony Blair…

…is on a four-day visit to California to try to boost co-operation between the state and the UK.  The UK may benefit from an influx of cash as US stem-cell firms face vocal and politically powerful opposition.
- BBC News: Blair to lure US stem cell firms

Crippled children and alzheimer’s patients aside, biotech is huge business, with correspondingly strong support from Singapore, Korea, China, and now England.  Thanks a lot, religious fundiecrats.  Just another area where other countries can gain an insurmountable lead.

The post that EXPLODED, into four open threads at once

July 27, 2006 Comments off

Once upon a time I wrote a post about homosexuality, and how it got so gol-durned important to the religious right.  The comments went off in a different direction, so interesting I thought it deserved a separate thread all its own: How to help the poor.  In the slugfest that followed comments of that thread developed no less than four other thread-worthy topics, which I have split off for separate discussion.  My reason for doing this is to give each topic the separate attention it deserves.  Credit for generating these specific topics goes to the commenters, who I hope will continue the discussion(s) in each of the threads.  And, I hope some new commenters will join in as well.

In a way, this simply reflects the real world.  When you open a can of worms, it always takes a bigger can to recan them.  Either that, or a number of fishhooks.  Or, four new open threads at once:

  1. Capitalism vs Socialism

  2. Education
  3. Health care
  4. Social programs
Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Open thread 1 on poverty: Socialism vs Capitalism

July 27, 2006 5 comments

Much of the slugfest centered on the contest between socialism and capitalism, with GUYK and WEBS05 arguing about the definition and relative merits of each.  Although I am capitalist I think the distilled version of either ignores some important realities…

It is possible to screw up ANY kind of economy: capitalist, socialist, or communist.  But I think it would be fair to say that the odds of successful communism are rather poor.  You can get people to work by threatening them, but if you want extraordinary effort or innovation, they need to feel a stake in the outcome.  Communism offers no such stake.

I wish it was January instead of July, because a great deal of heat was generated by the conflation of socialism and communism.  While both are easy to screw up, and both are heavy on the social programs, there is one extremely important difference: under communism you cannot get rich.  Even if by some miracle you found a way to motivate people to work hard, produce a superior product, and get it to market, under communism it’s all the government’s from the very beginning.  Your top pay is set by a government pay-scale.  You are level 7, so your pay is this much.  Since there is no ‘private’ industry, high-performers are stopped at the limit of bureaucratic imagination.

Under socialism you will pay higher taxes as your income goes up, but there’s a maximum tax rate.  This, too, is hard to set correctly; the Beatles’ Tax Man wasn’t exaggerating when it said “That’s one for you, nineteen for me”.  But even under that system, the Beatles still got fabulously wealthy.  Nevertheless, Thatcher’s reforms brought much-needed cleansing to a runaway pattern of government subsidy.

Socialism is about counting people as part of the country’s infrastructure.  A good rule of thumb is to subsidize people, not industries or corporations. (Note in the next section I don’t think that subsidy should take the form of cash payments.  Rather, I prefer a strong supporting infrastructure for people to grow in, along with the opportunity to fail without utter disaster.) Socialism has a lot to learn from ruthless capitalism as to the most intelligent way to go about doing this.  But capitalism has a lot to learn from socialism about keeping the engine running.  A capitalist economy runs best on the strength of healthy, educated people.

Notes: see also

  1. Capitalism vs Socialism

  2. Education
  3. Health care
  4. Social programs

Open thread 2 on poverty: Education

July 27, 2006 8 comments

The amount of wealth in the world is not fixed.  The ‘distribution’ of wealth should not be treated as a zero-sum game, ‘knocking back what the rich get and bumping up what the poor get’.  Instead, the whole society needs to be empowered to generate wealth.

The way for this to happen, as BookJunky says, is education.  But rather than (as Webs05 suggests) pouring more money into the same broken system by putting everyone through junior college, I propose certain reforms in the system we have…

The first school reform is to bring back failure.  Without failure, there cannot be much progress.

Teachers cannot fail because even the incompetent or dangerous ones are protected by their unions.  This is a recipe for mediocrity.

Students cannot fail because it might make them feel bad.  But we need to hand out f’s for nonperformance and yes, use RED ink on the papers.  It does a student no kindness to prepare them for a “real world” which does not really exist.  Of course, when students do well, they need to be rewarded with recognition.  But only when they do well.

It is also very difficult for students to be expelled.  We liberals are constantly trying to be fair but seem unconcerned about how unfair this is to kids who are really trying to get an education.

Mainstreaming handicapped children with the rest, also seems like a bad idea to me but I am still chewing on that concept.

School districts cannot fail because they have a govenment-assured monopoly.  Only the wealthiest parents have any choice but to send their children to the government-sponsored mediocrity factories.  If parents could apply their kids’ public-education dollars somewhere else…

On purpose, I have said nothing about John Dewey vs. B.F. Skinner, or ‘new math’ vs ‘old math, etc.  If parents had choices, many methods could compete and the results would begin to show.  As an aside I would like to say that overemphasis on tests is poisonous to understanding.  It is a paean to ‘efficiency’ reminiscent of the Taylorism that engulfed the education business ‘round the beginning of the 20th century.  Yes I want kids to learn facts but more importantly I want them to feel the need to learn way down in their guts. 

The second school reform is to devalue school sports.  I have no objection to kids playing kickball on the playground or tag football in PE class, but schools’ entire identity is tied up in their sports mascots.  Newsflash, jocks; no one gives a crap how well you threw a ball when you were in school

The third school reform is to put the emphasis back on real subjects.  Reading, writing, arithmetic, science, geography, history.  And when I say “writing”, I mean creating coherent sentences and paragraphs.  I don’t give a damn if a kid ever learns cursive or not. 

I might add a course called; “Drawing as a communication skill” which would teach kids how to make clear line drawings of real objects including people. Cartooning, if you will.  Sometimes a clear drawing can convey an idea far more efficiently than pages of text.

(Trust me, you will not need to “encourage creativity” if you equip children with with an ability like that.  If kids are not creative it is because we have deprived them of the tools to be creative with.  How creative can you be if your reading comprehension is poor, you can’t write a clear sentence, you don’t know anything, and you can’t draw?)

The fourth school reform is to kick out all the sensitivity activists who worry about whether kids might be offended by reading about historical events or literature, or if a child who grew up in the plains would have his self-esteem hurt by reading a story about a child who lives in the mountains.  You might think these examples are made-up, but sadly, they’re not.  We do children no favors by teaching them that they are victims of something or other if they hear a word that troubles them.

With these reforms it is very possible that, as GUYK recalls from his childhood, a high-school education would actually be worth something.  Give everyone more quality, not more years in a mediocre system.

Notes: See also

  1. Capitalism vs Socialism

  2. Education
  3. Health care
  4. Social programs
Categories: Education

Open thread 3 on poverty: Health Care

July 27, 2006 15 comments

HEALTH CARE… LuckyJohn19 alluded to the fact that if you don’t take care of certain things, you will pay for it in the end.  People are as much an infrastructure of our country as bridges, and are even more important.  I am in favor of basic socialized medicine.  No heart transplants, thank you, nor extreme measures to eak out a few more weeks of life, but working people should be able to count on basic care…

Other industrialized countries – many quite wealthy – manage this and actually get MORE for their money than we do.  Fact is, our health system spends more to get less than any other in the world.  Hard statistics of infant mortality and longevity bear this out.

Of course I have no objection to the wealthy buying extra insurance for extreme measures.  That is what drives medical advancement, after all, the way auto-racing drives vehicular engineering.  Today’s cheap, basic care was yesterday’s cutting-edge miracle.

Much has been made of the medical malpractice crisis.  But you can bet that 80% of the insurance payouts go to pay for the screwups of the worst 5% of the doctors.  Insurance companies need to refuse to insure those doctors, effectively putting them out of the business.  Hard-nosed actuaries that they are, they should be able to distinguish between risky work like OB/GYN and a pattern of truly stupid mistakes.

(Most likely this is true of any risk-prone occupation.  Who would be surprised to learn that 80% of charges of police brutality focus on the worst 5% of cops?  Professions need to get better at – pardon the expression – “policing” themselves.)

Healthy people work better, and small employers could reach farther if they weren’t trying to manage basic health care.  Some things are better done wholesale and health care is one of them.

Notes: see also

  1. Capitalism vs Socialism

  2. Education
  3. Health care
  4. Social programs
Categories: Geeky, Safety & Health

Open thread 4 on poverty: Social Programs

July 27, 2006 9 comments

First, I agree with the critics of welfare that it is bone-headed to give money to the poor.  If they had good money-management skills, they wouldn’t BE poor so that money will basically be wasted.  Those programs should end now, in favor of attacking root causes…

It is a Christian tradition to idealize the poor as virtuous.  Anyone inclined to do this should read what a police reporter of over a decade’s experience has to say and what a burned-out social worker knows about it.  The choices made by our poverty systems will have to be a bit more intelligent.

One little-considered reason for ending cash subsidies to the poor is that every social program has a ceiling that can be quite difficult to penetrate.  Suppose you are working and your income is slowly increasing.  As you approach the ceiling, your aid is scaled back and you find yourself less well-off.  In electronics, this would describe a ‘negative feedback system’ that reaches and holds a stable condition.  But when that condition is poverty, we need to change the system; introduce enough “slop” in the feedback range to allow system tipping points into higher states.

Many other social programs contain the seeds of poverty as well.  Housing assistance depresses rents and leads to housing shortages, which in turn drives up prices; this is basic economics. 

Jobs programs can be very effective by building work history and also by addressing problems right in the poor person’s neighborhood.  You work, you get paid; this is a good pattern to learn.  The cost is similar to cash assistance programs except stuff gets done and people become accustomed to working.

Food assistance is controversial for two reasons: fraud and luxury.  Both can be addressed with restricted-spending debit cards, coupled with strong penalties for illegal possession of an issued card.  In general I have no problem with food assistance, especially if luxury items are excluded and nutrition education is given as in the WIC program.  No one, and especially no child, should ever have to go hungry in this country.

Family-planning assistance is extremely cost-effective.  Politicians need to get over their squeamishness about sex education.  Abstinence-based education sounds good but doesn’t work.  The countries with the lowest rates of teen pregnancy are the ones with sex education that would scare the pants off a fundamentalist. 

There was once an orphanage in our community and the general consensus among alumni seems to be that it was a good thing.  Of course, not all orphanages were well-run; some were houses of horrors.  I have heard many opinions on the value or iniquities of orphanages, and suspect that with modern oversights it may be possible to raise children in such institutions and have them grow up to be productive citizens. 

In a nutshell, I prefer indirect assistance to the poor, along with the opportunity to fail and the resources to continue when failure happens.  Direct assistance, when it is offered, should be coupled with some strings such as education, work, or even public service.  But almost any model can work if it is well-administered, and hardly any model (including private charity) can guarantee good results if it is run by incompetent or evil men.  Probably the only assurance of good administration is transparency, a relatively modern invention that allows citizens to see past the outer institutional walls.

Notes: see also

  1. Capitalism vs Socialism

  2. Education
  3. Health care
  4. Social programs

“An Inconvenient Truth” movie reivew

July 27, 2006 2 comments

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
- Upton Sinclair

You wouldn’t think a movie about a politician giving a slide show could possibly be interesting.  But I saw An Inconvenient Truth on Thursday and darned if it didn’t turn out to be really well done and very interesting indeed…

As a side-note, it is the best PowerPoint presentation I have ever seen.  Being at a university, I’ve suffered through quite a few, most absolutely terrible.  But if you give presentations in your job, and if you use PowerPoint, I encourage you to see this movie to get an idea of how well it can be done.  (Yes, I know Gore uses Apple’s ‘Keynote’ but it is a very similar product.  The same principles would apply to either)

I now realize that much of my opinion about Al Gore was formed by things that other people said about him.  He was, after all, a science buff in a Senate dominated by lawyers and party loyalists.  And when he stepped in front of a camera, his handlers were coaching and prompting him so much that he really didn’t come through very well.  That all changes with this movie. 

If you have been following actual science about global warming (as opposed to popular media) you know by now that working scientists are pretty much in agreement on the reality and the cause. Gore does a wonderful job of cutting through the popular-media crap to bring this to the screen in an understandable form. 

He answers popular criticisms of global warming theory with data and clear exposition, rather than with invective and indignation.  Michael Moore could learn a lot from the ex-next.  On second thought, no; he probably couldn’t.  He would complain the rational approach was cramping his style.

Gore illuminates the comparison of loss,  as in the way his family only quit growing tobacco after his sister died of lung cancer.  When something unimaginably awful is coming, and we know it, we just don’t want to face it and take action ahead of time.  So much easier to pretend that everything is OK.

He also clarifies exactly what we stand to lose.  A little more carbon dioxide, a few degrees warmer, so what?  Well here’s ‘so what’…

The movie ends on a hopeful note that while time is extremely short, a combination of several changes can reverse the increase in greenhouse gasses.  He also provides an example that – inexplicably – I had not thought of; the ozone layer.  Today our ozone layer is on the mend because the science was clear, governments acted, and the problem was solved. 

At the end of the movie, according to the newspaper review, he makes good use of the credits-rolling time.  But unfortunately (conditioned by years of boring credits) I had already left the theater when they began to roll.  No big deal; I will probably see it again. 

Commenters, please be sure to note if you have seen the movie.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

What?  It says; “BUSH”!

July 26, 2006 1 comment

Seen on the back bumper of a pickup truck in downtown Normal, Illinois.  Have you ever seen that email where every word is disastrously misspelled, yet you can still read it perfectly?  Same thing here.  The brain is a pattern-finding engine bent on making sense out of the stimuli it collects.  But the sense it makes, the conclusion it draws from that stimuli, varies according to one’s whole matrix of knowledge and affections.

Categories: observations

Stem cells on the front line

July 25, 2006 4 comments

This may be John Stewart’s best comedy/editorial, ever:

Stem Cells and the War On Terror(ble) diseases.  I don’t know whether to file it under “humor” because it’s funny, or “Stupidity” because it’s about one of the most hypocritically sanctimonious things our president – and this is goin’ some, I realize – has ever done. 

OK, “Humor” it is. Link sent in by Webs05

Categories: Uncategorized

Dance like a monkey

July 25, 2006 1 comment

I don’t know why, but it made me laugh, and tap my feet too: Dance Like A Monkey.

Categories: Humor, observations