Monday, June 10, 2019

Issues For This Election

I'm getting very disheartened at the state of the nomination process of the Democrat Party.
The number of presidential hopefuls has exceeded 24 (to date: June 2019.  I don't count things very well anymore, since I retired from teaching mathematics), and shows no sign of significantly slowing down.
Having only a few candidates for president is---in itself---not necessarily a good thing.  Taking the psychology of the population into account, though, practically anything is bad.  The US population that we have today is more conducive to electing an idiot than to electing someone competent; the Presidential Election is a struggle; has been one, for decades, and will be a struggle for the foreseeable future.
Some of these candidates seem to be single-issue candidates.  There are some very pleasant, attractive people who are campaigning for a policy change, or for legislation to accomplish, some very specific goal.
There are those who are campaigning for gun-control legislation.
Some are campaigning for women's rights almost exclusively.
Pretty soon, someone is going to come along to campaign specifically for voting access legislation exclusively.
We need to address the issue of gerrymandering, but do we need a candidate who campaigns only on that issue?
Elizabeth Warren is campaigning on banking reform.  Luckily for us, this is not her only issue.  Honestly, I can get behind this candidate because she supports most of the things I consider important.
At least one candidate is campaigning on a cluster of issues---or the single issue---of the environment.  If ever there was a single issue worth supporting, that one is it.  On a recent visit by Donald Trump to the UK, Prince Charles cornered him, and talked at him for half an hour about the issue of climate change.  He impressed on Donald Trump (who is currently president, in case you're reading this in the distant future, and are confused about why I say things) that his (Prince Charles's) concern for the environment flows from his concern for future generations.  Apparently this angle had not occurred to Trump, who mused on that fact, saying that Charles was very much into Climate Change.  If there is a God, we are being punished for something, being saddled with a president who specializes in sabotaging the legislation and the judiciary, and society in general, and has practically no grasp about things we have all known well for more than a decade.
Abortion rights are another issue that has fired the imagination of some folks.  This is an important issue, but I can't help thinking that the conservatives toss out these quickie landmines to distract everyone from more serious issues.  These issues are by no means trivial.  But their introduction and their timing are trivial exercises in the bullying capability of the administration.
I'm not sure whether anyone is running for President solely on the intention of unseating Trump.  Of course, without unseating Trump no one else can be President, so it is an essential part of anyone's plan to win the White House.  But, so far, it appears to be central to Joe Biden's platform.  Actually, I think it will become fairly clear that, though no one has put it forward as their main slogan, defeating Trump is something on which all the candidates are agreed.
What I would like to see is a candidate who lists all these things as what they want to do.  By far the hardest thing to address is alleviating income inequality, which is built-into the system.  As the New Left (which means Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and numerous folk whose names I still don't know) has emphasized, the powerful ultra-capitalists, who have acquired the ability to use the resources of the government and the nation for their own enrichment, and the privilege of polluting at will, and essentially making choices at will which result in accelerating climate change, are now revealed to be climate-changing bullies, who drain the nation's resources, deprive the people of income, refuse to support government essential services, and force poor working people to pay through their noses to support the profits of the private health insurance racket, all with the same hand.  When the climate fights back with hurricanes and extreme weather, these same oligarchs force the government to withhold emergency services.
What makes a lot of this possible is that Trump and his friends have put a very seductive Us against Them face on these policies, which are ultimately nothing but racism in disguise.  Trump supporters may not support many policies, but they do support racism.
Simply talking about racism doesn't help the problem of racism very much.  It puts everyone on the defensive, which is not good.
Another major problem, and one which is not easy to deal with, is that of US aggression abroad.  At the moment, the US is helping to worsen the humanitarian crises in several parts of the world, including Yemen, and Syria.  We may not be directly responsible, but the developing crisis in Venezuela is soon likely to be aggravated by US interference.
To summarize: there are so many things that need to be fixed that, given the need for Democrats to make nice with people who are hostile to almost any progressive legislation, and given the recent weak performance of Democrats at the voting booth, the repairs must proceed at such a slow pace that we will all be in Climate Crisis mode before we're even halfway through the next president's term, or Democrats will have to be a much more dominant force in electing appropriate leaders.

See here for a list of candidates as of March 2019.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Primary Season

I can't avoid trying to say something about the political situation.
It certainly is upsetting to have to treat each election cycle as if it was going to be the last one we are ever going to have.  This escalating sense of departing normalcy is Trump's bequest to the adopted country of his grandfather, in which his family has bullied its way into fame and fortune---more fame than fortune, from all we hear.  Anyway, the Trumps were not the first, and won't be the last, to try their Robber Baron tricks in the USA; bigger crooks than they have roamed free on our prairies.
Anyway, what is our sanity worth?  Democrats and other folks are using up all their energy in getting upset over the state of the country; relax, kids.  When it is time for action, you're all going to be spent, and panting on the sidelines.
The ultimate effort for this election will be to get out the Democrat Vote.  The Democrat Vote has now been so spoiled that it will not come out unless Democrats come and knock on its doors, and issue a personal invitation for it to go to the polls!
Why should the Democrat Vote be any different from anybody else?  Have you noticed that people need to be absolutely forced to do anything that is good for them?

Almost 30 Democrats
Some people are anxious about the number of people running for President in the Democrat Party.  Calm down; if this is bad (which I'm not convinced of), then its too late to do anything about it.  Most of them are not accepting money from PACs (large groups of businesses and anonymous donors that give money to politicians), which is a good thing.  Most of the nominee wannabes are decent choices, though there are a few about whom we know almost nothing.  But it seems that the people we do know something about, such as Trump, should not be allowed into high office.  In these times, only notorious exhibitionists with no sense of restraint are known widely; the last thing we need is another Reality TV star in the White House, representing either party.
Many people consider this Primary Season as a sort of battle.  Women against men, gay against straight, fighters for Income Inequality against conservatives; those who want to attack the GOP versus those who want a return to civility; those who want to sacrifice the Environment to restore the Economy, and so on.  A lot of the candidates are single-issue people.  But, in the best of all possible Post Trumpian Dystopian Worlds, we should see this season as the one in which the Democrats forge the party platform.  If things go well, that platform will look a lot like The Green New Deal, even if it isn't exactly that.
Each candidate comes in with his or her own issues they want to bring to the campaign season.  Each of us---candidates included---have, unfortunately, the little bubble in which we live: the idea cloud that our reading and our friends create around us.  These things are important to us, but other things may be just as important, and possibly more important to the Democratic Voters.  The Primary Season is where each candidate should listen to the other candidates, and those poor fools who ask the questions, called the Moderators, and consider changing their issue cache.  (I was going to call it a quiver, but I couldn't remember the word.)
On one hand, if the candidates are unwilling to change their ideas about what is important to do in the next few years, then we have to conclude that they're inflexible, and will not listen to the people.  On the other hand, if they're too willing to change their minds about anything, they're open to the accusation of flip-flopping, which some media geniuses have made into a Thing.  They accused Kirsten Gillibrand of Flip-Flopping on Guns---she had initially said she was for guns, and later came out in favor of strongly controlling them, I believe.  Of all the silly things to accuse people about!
So listening to the Candidates Debates, as Paul Simon famously said, is going to be an important thing.  We must realize that there is at least one person in the White House who will be watching them carefully, with a view to dreaming up something cleverly disparaging, but of course he can't be too clever, or he will leave some of his fans behind. (Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the debates were this month.  Never mind . . . We'll get to hear the candidates over the course of the next few months.)

The major objection to Impeachment proceedings is that it will take time away from more fruitful legislation, if there is any that can be carried out without being vetoed by the White House.  Meanwhile, it will be close to impossible to have the Senate go along with the removal of Donald Trump, which is what follows a positive vote on impeachment.  So Impeachment will be a lot of fun, but will not result in anything.

Chipping In
If you're like me, you regularly get numerous appeals to Chip In a dollar or two, to get some candidate into the debates.  Remember, once you have chipped in, you should not be able to raise the count of small donors by chipping in again.  On the other hand, if they need more money, and if you have lots, you could always give them a little more, especially those candidates whose issues coincide with yours.
It might be a good idea to not respond to appeals in social media, and instead go to the websites of the candidates, and Chip In there.  I don't know whether Facebook, for instance, keeps track of the members who respond to fB ads, but if they do, you're going to be pestered beyond your tolerance.  Chances are, fB does keep track of those who respond to ads---including appeals---from within fB.  It's my impression that they keep track of everything.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Some of My Current Favorite Authors: Pullman, Pratchett, Eddings, Brooks, Rowling, Zimmer Bradley, Tolkien

This post was triggered by the fact that I'm vacationing here in Tucson, (which is odd, because life is just one long vacation, now that I'm retired,) and I bought two books at (one of the branches of) the famous Bookmans store in Tucson.  (Bookmans is apparently basically an Arizona family of stores.)

One of the books is Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett, written around 2001, and from its style, mostly Pratchett's writing.  The other was The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman, both of them authors whose works I have reviewed on this blog.  I was just reporting on these purchases to the boss, who's back home holding the fort, and the purchases were tentatively approved.  Meanwhile, of course, I'm eating far too much Mexican food; and if you eat the American versions of Mexican food, you end up eating a lot more cheese than is good for you, and that's exactly what I have been doing.  And more of it is coming up for lunch.

The things I scrutinize new stories I read for, are: Is there a jolly good story?  Then: are the characters mostly likeable?  Then: does the writer have a sense of humor?  This is important; our society is becoming relentlessly humorless, and keeping a sense of humor is coming to be more of a survival characteristic than it has been in the past.  Then: Is the author condescending towards his or her audience?  In the case of Science Fiction (or SciFi, if that is more familiar--there, see?  I was condescending right there), a little condescension is inevitable, if you really want to explain some pivotal concept that is not some magical business.  Arthur Clarke was of the opinion that you may as well allow the reader to treat it as magic; I'm not entirely convinced of that.  Already most citizens take an attitude towards technology that is dangerously skewed towards regarding it as magic, or at least deception.  I'm talking about those on the Flat-Earth Spectrum; you know who you are.  Anyway, there's a difference between laughing with the reader, and laughing at the reader.

Terry Pratchett gets high points for his characters, and his humor, and for the first half of his story plots.  But in each case, the endings of the stories tend to unravel rather than to end nicely.  The fact that Pratchett has magic to help him end his stories is a weakness.  A large minority of his stories do have nice, logical endings.  But nearly half of his stories just fall apart, but the fun characters floundering around at the end are a sort of consolation prize with which I can live.

Philip Pullman is an awesome author, whose stories are closely plotted, and whose details seem to be worked out in almost painfully logical fashion, and I don't have enough insight into his work to have an informed opinion about the various characteristics that I'm looking for.  One interesting thing is that his characters are not clearly divided into good and bad ones.  There are always flaws in the good characters, and saving graces in the bad ones.  But I have only read three complete books (the Golden Compass trilogy), and read just 10 pages of this prequel that I've just bought, so I expect to have better informed opinions by the time I finish.

David Eddings is also an excellent author.  He brings to his writing an enormous knowledge of history, and of mythology in general, and of his study of people (which all authors must do, because ultimately the writing is only as successful as their ability to draw on our--the readers'--experiences with people.

Terry Brooks is an author about whom I haven't written before.  This gentleman seems to have a lot of knowledge about mythology, too; among other things, Indian and other South Asian mythologies.  He draws on these things to good effect.  But I do not like the sort of brinkmanship he displays in creating absolutely horrifying scenarios in his stories; I find myself skipping like mad, just to avoid having nightmares.  Call me a snowflake; I take the criticism willingly.  His canvas is also large, and his palette equally large, but that sense of being manipulated is hard to take.

Jane Rowling is a master plotter.  I mean, there are certainly a few stumbles here and there, but they are minor.  I think she should be given credit for being the Tolkien of this generation, and it is impossible to be more serious about one's subject-matter without losing one's sense of humor entirely.  The characters are brilliant (more brilliant for those who are familiar with British children's literature, since they draw on some beloved archetypes), and all the ingredients are there.  I'm not saying that authors will be unable to repeat her writing feat; but it is going to take a lot of very hard work.  (If not for the work involved, I myself would be an author!!)

Marion Zimmer Bradley, the author of the Darkover series of books, and several other important books, such as The Mists of Avalon set of books, and The Firebrand, about the Trojan War, is a wonderful author.  One has to come to terms with the particular aspects of magical realism that she uses in the Darkover series, for instance.  I can't understand why some of the details in the Darkover series are so inconsistent; taking a wild guess, I would say that she wrote the whole thing as a single enormous story long ago, and began to publish episodes taken from it.  Or the opposite may be true: she may have started publishing independent short stories initially, (we do know that she did this,) which she subsequently tried to weave into a coherent whole.  Her characters are not all easy to relate to, but many of them are.  He male characters all seem to be unstable and eccentric, and her female characters seem to be unattractive and weak, but with redeeming aspects of strength.  She must have known some very peculiar people, or else the people she admired were the weirder ones among her acquaintances.  Still, I enjoyed reading many of her books.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a fabulous plotsman, and a mythologist, and a character smith.  Mythic characters are a little hard to identify with and enjoy.  The hobbits were the ones we were, I believe, expected to identify with, whereas the Elves and Dwarfs were sort of background furniture.  Still, despite all the peculiarities of his stories to which we have become accustomed, Tolkien casts such an enormous shadow that it is impossible to evaluate him side by side with authors who were influenced by him.  (I'm probably writing someone's term paper for her.)

Of course, none of us have known the exact sorts of people who become characters in all these books; it's always a mixture of types of people we know very well; people who are a little like those we know; and people who completely out of left field, but who are somehow plausible to some degree.  If all the characters echo those we have known, then . . . I don't know; would that be a good thing?  With Pratchett, that's what happens, it seems to me.

[To be continued.  Yeah, right . . .]

Friday, May 3, 2019

Beyond "The Sound of Music," the Story of the Von Trapps

Most of us who know anything about the Von Trapp Family, have learned it from The Sound of Music, the immensely popular movie musical from 1965.  (2015 was its 50th anniversary; the movie made the already well-known Julie Andrews into an even bigger international star.)
Around the time I was in my twenties, interested in folk music and the guitar, and in German music as well, I acquired a copy of the (I believe) first book written by Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Von Trapp Family Singers.  It was autobiographical, and though it was natural that Ms. Maria may have glamorized the account a little, it was a very plausible and convincing description of what had happened.
The story is as follows:  An Austrian submarine captain, Georg von Trapp, who fought in WWI and was decorated, loses his wife to scarlet fever, leaving his many children motherless.  There was already a robust tradition of choral singing in the family, but that was hardly unusual; children of those parts were encouraged to sing on any appropriate occasion.  Singing in harmony might have been barely a little more unusual.
Von Trapp had appealed to the local convent for a nanny for the kids, and a postulant, Maria Kutschera, had been sent.  She had been a lot more successful than earlier nannies, apparently, and Captain von Trapp and she got along so well that they married.  (Maria reported that she married for the sake of the children, but later fell in love with the Captain.)  The kids already sang pretty well, but it appears that Maria at least encouraged them to sing more complex part-songs (madrigals).

[Added later, after I had read the book Memories, Before and After the Sound of Music
The Movie (A Life of Music) was presented as based on the above book.  Unfortunately--and inevitably--the facts are too complex for a movie.  They had to take many of the same short-cuts to tell the story as The Sound of Music took.  In actual fact, the Trapps were 'discovered', and went touring several months to a year before the borders were closed, and life became impossible.  Captain von Trapp was asked to take command of a submarine, and refused, but life continued for a while afterwards, as I understand it.  All that is compressed into what is shown as a few days, until the family leaves right after the performance.  Still, from the point of view of what makes sense in a movie, perhaps this compression is inevitable.] 
At the time, the NAZIs took over Germany, and moved to annex Austria, and Austrian banks folded.  The Von Trapps lost all their savings.
The NAZIs indicated that they were interested in the Von Trapp house.  By accident, word that the Trapp children's choir sang well got around, and there was a struggle between the Captain, on one side, who felt it was beneath the dignity of the family to sing in public, and the children, Maria, and the local musical impressarios on the other hand.  The performance took place, and the singing Von Trapp family's fame spread.
At the urging of Maria, the family escaped by rail, via Italy and England, to the US.
The slightly sensationalized story in the movie musical had been an annoyance for many years, but in time for the 50th anniversary of the movie, a movie that stuck a lot closer to the facts was released, titled "The Von Trapp Family: A Life of Music," based on a book by Agathe von Trapp: Memories Before and After The Sound of Music.
The 2015 Movie
I watched the movie A Life of Music, released in 2015, just yesterday.  It is a sedate and low-key production, featuring songs that the children actually sang (in contrast to the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs in the 1965 movie), and a story line that reflected the facts more closely.  Of course, there has to be a little psychological drama, and this is provided by presenting the story as a flashback.  The framework of the film is a Trapp granddaughter who departs from a family gathering, unhappy with her blended family, due to a divorce.  A grand-aunt follows her to the train station, Aunt Agatha (actually Agathe, the eldest of the Trapp children, who evidently Americanized her name for ease of use in Vermont), who relates the story to the disgruntled young lady.
Captain von Trapp, in actual fact, was a rather mild and kindly man, and in the new film is portrayed as such quite believably by Matthew McFaddyen.  It is quite a contrast to the portrayal by Christopher Plummer in the 1965 movie, but of course the needs of 20th-century cinema demanded a more glamorous Captain.  The new movie also has the musical establishment of the City of Salzburg represented symbolically by Lotte Lehman, the famous soprano, who is known to have visited Salzburg, and possibly have had a hand in the discovery of the Von Trapps.  According to Wikipedia, the Von Trapps did sing at a music festival in Salzburg at Lehmann's urging, and this is amplified to some degree in the new movie.  (Miss Lehmann lived until around 1985, and has said she helped bring attention to the Trapp Family singing.)
The 2015 movie is most definitely not a musical, though there is music in every scene.  There were many opportunities to stuff even more music into it, but then it might have been moved further into the realm of the ultra-romanticized, which was evidently not the intention of the producers.  One gets the impression that the movie was an extreme reaction to the tendency of Maria Von Trapp to sensationalize and romanticize everything, and Agathe von Trapp's impatience with this tendency.  To really learn all about the family dynamics, at least from Agathe's point of view, one would have to read the book, which I have not.
Anyway, I think myself, and all of us, fortunate to have experienced the music of the Trapps, even at once or twice remove.  Musicians are passionate people, who sometimes tend to oversimplify, and then overdramatize their experiences and feelings.  From that point of view, I think the very moderate style of A Life of Music would be very welcome.

Added Later:

I have just learned that the Ave Maria which the Trapps sing (in the 2015 movie) was not even composed at the time, 1938; it is a relatively recent composition, by Vladimir Vavilov, around 1970!  It is so frustrating that movie producers have so little respect for their audiences, and the factual details of their movies!  Every little bit of reliable information is removed, and the movie is made superficially more entertaining.  Well, that's show business, as they say.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

What do we Think About Driverless Cars??!!

This is a topic that is going to come up very soon; it's going to be too late to think about driver-less cars calmly and rationally, when our hot-tempered friends and colleagues get all hot and bothered about the subject!  Many of our problems have stemmed from trying to make decisions when we're not ready, or when we don't have all the information.
I don't have all the information either; I'm just trying to gather some of it here.  I have a little physics background, and I will try to stretch its applicability a little more than it ought to be, but I daresay some of my readers are likely to be at a disadvantage compared to me, so be warned.

We should first get our terminology straight.  One outfit that is working to smooth the way to getting ordinary car-owners and citizens using the same language is SAE, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the same fellows who set the specifications ('specs') for engine oil.  They have defined five levels of car automation.  (It's inconvenient that the word 'automobile' has the root 'auto' in it; we do not think of cars as auto-anything; when we used to talk about an automatic car, it meant an automatic transmission, which is not even considered much of an automatic thing anymore.)
Levels of Driving Automation (see here)
Level 0:  No automation.  The driver is fully responsible for most aspects of driving, even it the car may give warnings, etc.  Some cars may briefly take control, e.g. when a crash is imminent, in very specific situations, as when you're following a vehicle too closely, and it suddenly slows; this is still Level 0.
Level 1:  Hands On; the driver and the automated system share control.  The system can do the steering, for example, in automatic parking; or changing lanes on an open highway, or stay in lane on a highway; or the system can control speed, such as in cruise control.
Level 2:  Hands Off; the driver need not have his or her hands on the wheel, but must be seated in the driving seat, and be ready to grab the wheel whenever needed.  In some cases, the car will insist on hands being on the wheel, even if not steering.
Level 3:  Eyes Off; the driver need not be watching the road, but must be in the driving seat.  The car will take care of some, but not all, emergency procedures; the driver must be ready to take over for the rest.
Level 4:  Mind Off.  The car will drive automatically, and if it sees a problem that is beyond its capability, it will wait for a set time, and if the driver doesn't intervene, it will park the car and close down.  It is understood that this level of automation will only be allowed in certain safe areas, e.g. bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Level 5:  Steering Wheel Optional, Fully automatic.
How I feel about all this
Safety There is no doubt that, once the systems are close to perfection (or perfected, something that some people will argue about, but perfection is never really achieved, as we all know), a group of Level 5 cars, all communicating with each other, are far less likely to result in a collision than if even one of them is being driven by a person.  That day will come only if the crazy city traffic conditions are completely fenced-off from the 'automation-allowed' traffic zones.  If all traffic is automated, then I suppose Level 5 cars can manage pretty well.  This situation is hard to imagine; I would expect that cities will have most people on public transport, except for extremely ill, or extremely immobile (e.g. ultra-heavy, or handicapped) citizens who may have some special arrangement to avoid having to transfer from one vehicles into another.  Having a car for each person even ten years from now will be a traffic nightmare, unless the 'vehicle' is just a little capsule, and not a full SUV.
Fun  Anyhow, we have all been accustomed to think of driving as something fun to do--when the conditions are right--rather than a drudgery, a necessary evil to get from here to there.  Unfortunately, that attitude simply means that we guzzle a lot of gas, and create a lot of pollution (considering CO2, which is a non-poisonous gas, as a pollutant, from the point of view of the greenhouse effect).
Pollution In addition, large tractor-trailers, which support our maniacal consumption habit, also generate a lot of pollution, and are often at the center of spectacular pileups on the highways, and spills.  Level 5 trucks are a great idea.  Those who earn their living driving trucks--poor souls--would hate the idea of being laid off, naturally.  But from the point of view of the owners of the fleets, a truck, even going at a slow speed under an automatic system, can get goods to their destination just as fast as a human-driven truck, because it can just keep going without stopping.  They will be much less of a danger to private traffic, because of the lower speed, and the predictability of the movements of an automatic vehicle.
To make this work better, they could make on-ramps for cars onto the second lane, so that cars can shoot over the stream of automatic trucks trundling along at 50 mph.  Even if these ramps are fairly rare, it will make the whole thing more palatable for temperamental motorists.  Notice how much like the railway the truck picture is becoming?  Well, we might be stupid, but let's not be permanently stupid.
How Do They Do It?
Cars with a high level of automation combine a lot of inputs into what they decide to do.  The automatic transmission, which was essentially perfected by Chrysler and Toyota (don't quote me; I did not look that up for the purpose of this post) uses the car speed and the engine speed, the load on the engine, and almost nothing else.  This is why it is so amazingly effective; the transmission is flexible to start with (non-rigid), so over transmissions have become almost impossible to notice.  (This is why we get pissed off if the transmission even falters slightly.)
Level 5 cars use a lot of inputs; potentially:
Input from cameras on board, to detect vehicles, obstacles, road information, and pedestrians.
Input from radar- or sonar- scanners aimed around the car, to prevent collision.
Eventually, radio communication with neighboring vehicles, to be able to predict future positions and configurations, and to calculate best motion decisions.
On-board, or off-board, maps or guidance systems.
Eventually, roadside guidance markers, such as markers embedded in the roadway, or on the roadside, or both.
Clearly, Level 5 vehicles will do a lot better if the cars that surround them are also Level 5.
But because we can anticipate that most drivers will stubbornly refuse to let go of the steering wheel, figuratively, these developments will have to be phased in slowly, until such time as this generation of drivers all die off.
In crowded situations (or all situations, really), a car has to keep track of four neighboring vehicles.  It should be possible to program the system to deal with one or two vehicles that are missing the equipment to communicate the information that the automatic system would like, in which case, it could give a warning squawk, and hand the steering over to the driver.  (In that sort of traffic, most of us would prefer to have our hands on, anyway.)  In totally bumper-to-bumper traffic, the Level 5 system would do well, keeping a prescribed distance away from neighboring vehicles--front and sides, anyway; nothing can be done about the back--unless some neighboring joker wants to keep changing lanes all the time, as they seem to want to do on the New Jersey Turnpike, which is maintained for the entertainment of NJ motorists, rather than for traveling.

One Last Idea
The easiest plan to implement would be to set aside a couple of lanes only for Level 5 cars.  This idea will work just about as well as the idea of the High Occupancy Vehicle lane (HOV lane) works, which is: just average; there are always renegades who want to get into that HOV lane and cruise, all by themselves.  It is this omnipresence of renegades in the US that makes certain types of progress very difficult and slow.  Unfortunately, the law and the courts seem to be on the side of the renegades!  Oh well, the price we pay to live in freedom.

Friday, April 26, 2019

What Sort of a President Do We Want?

[No nice pictures for this post; this is only for grown-ups.  Matter added later will be in Blue.]

The Internet is full of helpful information on this subject, and here is a place where (at Noon, EDT 2019/4/26) a lot of this information was summarized.  But we have to clear up our minds, and summarize, and tabulate and organize what we think our fellow-citizens need.

Normally we do not have to do this.  Ideally (I mean, if there wasn't that pesky Electoral College, whose effects we are really unable to adjust for, and that's why these hordes of Political Engineers are in business) we should just be able to vote for whom we want.  But now we have to keep an eye out for what it is that our---sometimes muddle-headed---fellow citizens might have at the back of their never-too-sharp minds.  Pardon my patronizing attitude, but I began to suspect long ago that the population of the US was not too bright, and nothing since then has made me change my mind.  When the electorate has done the right thing---in my opinion, I have to admit---it has been as the result of a large minority working very, very hard to urge that outcome.

It is beginning to look as though only a middle-aged, white, protestant, heterosexual, married and monogamous, high-visibility, moderate, business-friendly, ultra-patriotic, handsome, male candidate is appropriate.  John Kennedy was catholic, and that didn't turn out so well.  OK, maybe the fact that he was catholic did not affect the outcome, but the fact remains: he got shot.  Barack Obama was black, and that didn't turn out so well.  Hillary Clinton was (and is) a woman, and that didn't turn out so well.  Bill Clinton was a little not-so-monogamous, and he squeaked by only with great difficulty.

Can we keep the demographic of our potential Presidential candidates so narrow for much longer?  In my eyes, Barack Obama's presidency seemed brilliantly successful, but the majority seems not to agree.  It appears that even among the Democrats, there was some dissatisfaction with the choice of a black.  I think---and shoot me if I'm wrong---the Presidency needs to be nudged a little in the direction of diversity.  We've tried racial diversity (Obama), and the Conservatives just could not deal with that.  (They could; they just could not deal with Democrat success; the fact that it was a black president who was so successful made them even more sore.) and their idiot rank and file could swallow the racist objections better than they could swallow a confession of the political success.  Remember, in politics, it's not what you believe,but what you say you believe.  How about gender diversity?

Should we try a woman again?  The choice is between Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, and Marianne Williamson.  (You can read all about each one at the link I gave above.)  Kirsten Gillibrand began to gain attention as an anti-sexual harassment champion, and she needs to be a little punchier, a little more multi-issue, before I support her.  Elizabeth W. is awesome, and I have no major problems with her.  Kamala Harris, too, is wonderful, but appears a little too easygoing.  (I take this back; I can't decide on Ms. Harris until I can see her in some non-prosecutorial circumstances.)  I don't know much about Mss. Gabbard, Klobuchar or Williamson.  Marianne Williamson is an author, and I imagine she must have got tired of telling everyone to take charge of their lives, and decided to walk the walk; good for her.  She has to do a lot of reading, or watch a lot of YouTube, as the case may be, and I will be watching the debates.  I have heard a few opinions such as that, well, that might work in Britain, but they're sissies.  That will never work here; only a guy will do.  US opinion moves slower than molasses, but I hope, for all our sakes, that it does move.  It is a pity that the Presidency is has become so much showmanship, and so little statesmanship.

I think we tried a businessman---thinking of Trump as a businessman for the moment---and I don't think that worked out well.  Quite apart from Trump's inability to play well with others, his support staff, picked from the business community, were a failure at running the country.  Of course liberals viewed their policies as disastrous.  But they were disastrous even for conservatives, and for business and trade, which displays a surprising inability of those from the business community to keep their eye on the big picture.  They can come back and tell us that we picked the wrong businessman.  But I disagree; we have to steer away from businessmen and business-friendly candidates for at least a short while.

The approach of the far-left Democrats to deal with almost every issue, is like maneuvering a large crate into position with a crane.  It's clumsy, but it's fairly direct.  The approach of the business and economics people to the same issues is like nudging them into position with a fire hose.  Indirect does not even begin to describe how ineffective it is.  You lower taxes, you tinker with the Fed, you screw around with trade deals, you talk about Walls . . . Wall Street eats it up (at least most of it), but that only tells us that the very big investors are doing well.  Not many of us are very big investors.  (Robert Reich is a liberal economist, who analyzes how various GOP policies effect the average taxpayer; he has a channel on YouTube.  You can check it out.)

We tried a professor---Obama---and that was not an total disaster.  (If Obama only had the good sense to be White, all would probably have been well!  Not my own joke.)  The closest thing is Elizabeth Warren, who will probably make life a lot easier for consumers, at least; I believe with her, that the Federal Government should clamp down on predatory banking and lending and soliciting practices.

People who are intensely concerned with the environment are singing my song.  Jay Inslee of Washington looks to be one of the most likely candidates to be aggressive on such things as Single Use Plastic.  If you didn't know, this is to minimize or eliminate items made of plastic that are intended to only be used once, from grocery bags, to ballpoint pens, to medical packaging.  He is white, male and handsome, but those are his only drawbacks (jk).

Well, that's just a start.  Bernie Sanders, for instance, is a strong contender, but that leaves our leadership in the hands of the older generation, and I feel that we must wean ourselves off from their paternal leadership.  We need younger, diplomatic and restrained leaders, who can handle new problems and threats with a certain amount of grace.  Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can certainly do the job of President without turning the position into an international joke that, but there's something a little sad about scurrying to that generation for help with our problems.  If we can't find younger men and women to keep us together, then we won't have an option except to call on those aged uncles.

There are several minority candidates: Thulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, Cory Booker from New Jersey, Julian Castro from Texas, and Andrew Yang from California.  A couple of these candidates look very promising indeed, but I need to learn more about them before I start plugging for them.

Bear in mind that whoever is elected---and I'm expecting, and certainly hoping, that it will be a democrat---is going to have to decelerate the rate at which the gulf between the parties is widening.  You already see in the media, the talking heads clamoring for impeachment.  Impeachment will provide a lovely spectacle for the entertainment of the bored, and to increase the income of the News Business.  It also appears that the GOP thinks impeachment will help their people in the 2020 elections.  They're trying to present it as if not to impeach would be a black mark against the Democrat Congress.  I don't think anyone has a duty to impeach; it seems that pursuing impeachment is just an option.

Please do not stop with reading this post.  Do go out and study the candidates and their positions for yourself!  I don't have advertisements on this blog, so I don't owe it to anyone to do their work for them!!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What Americans Want, What They (Probably) Need

What Do Americans Need?
For anybody to attempt to answer this would have sounded arrogant a few years ago.  Today, though, because of the way various sub-groups have rejected the aspirations of other sub-groups, we have to thread our way carefully, and each Need has to be tagged to the groups that would need it most.  (Added later: I haven't done this, unfortunately.  Some of that is implicit in the item.)
Employment.  Because of the way Business has dealt with the problem of (at least, at one time,) rising wages by sending the work overseas, this has become a problem that is getting worse.  We have an unplanned economy, (the technical word for an economy where each citizen / family is essentially on his own, the way Capitalists like it) which means that it's up to each kid getting out of high school (and his family--pardon the gender non-neutrality) to find work.  Low-level, easy (in the sense of preparation for it) jobs are few, because of the outsourcing factor, and do not pay well.  High-level, more difficult (in the sense of preparation, again) jobs are even fewer, because you either need to have connections, or the Chinese do it better, and for less money.
Clean Air and Water.  Everyone needs these things, and there isn't any way for each citizen or family to go out and find this for themselves; it has to be a community action.  That Flint fiasco should never have happened.  (That looks like a case of Political Engineering gone wrong.)
Public Education.  Each family trying to educate their own kids on their own dollar is wasteful of effort.  This is not the place for people to compete with each other for educational resources.  As I have said, each child is a resource for the entire nation.  To some that may sound like some sort of communist idea, but if you have been a teacher you look at some young genius in your class, and you don't immediately think: oh, he's going to make a lot of money someday!  You should think: I hope he's going to find a cure for cancer for all of us!  (Of course, some of you are probably thinking: Just like a liberal: telling people what to think.  Hey, this is the sort of Blog where all I do is tell you what to think.  Love it, or leave it!)  All education should be community sponsored, and by community I mean the entire nation.  This doesn't mean the classrooms should be clogged with unmotivated kids throwing paper airplanes at each other.
Housing.  I don't say that everyone has to be given a mansion on top of a hill, or a penthouse suite.  I mean that basic housing should be available to everyone.  Fancy housing will be your own problem.
Public Transportation.  Public transport is in everyone's future.  The poor need this, because personal transport is going to become more expensive, and the maintenance of unsafe legacy automobiles is going to become even more expensive, because as wages go up, there won't be fly-by-night repair shop who will fix and certify your junker for peanuts.  Old cars are fine, but they must satisfy high anti-pollution and mechanical standards.
Clean Energy that--at least presently, and probably for ever--does not aggravate Warming.  Again, this has to be a communal effort; it is inefficient for each family to go out and scrounge their own energy for themselves.  And we should minimize all energy-wasteful activities.  Minimize, maybe not eliminate entirely.
Control of Extortionary Business Practices.  Not everyone is a financial genius, and as we age, even the most brilliant among us will tend to succumb to predatory insurance offers, or loans and similar shifty things that come in the mail.  Abruptly rising credit-card interest rates, unexpected rent increases, crooked lawyers, all these things must be carefully looked at.
Law Enforcement and Security.  It could be years before there will be a comfortable relationship between Law Enforcement and citizens, especially minorities, but that day has to come soon.
US Businesses that Process Plastic Waste.  Most communities across the nation do extract plastic from household 'recycling', and separate it from metal and paper.  Much, if not all, the plastic has been exported to China, which recycled the plastic.  But since late last year, China has refused to do this, for political reasons.  But why outsource plastic recycling?  The US can probably do it better and more cleanly than the Chinese can, except, of course, we're going to have to pay the workers US wages, which is fine.
Mandatory Recycling At All Levels.  This already exists, to some degree, for businesses: they must recycle Flat White paper--that is, paper from photocopiers or printers, possibly shredded--and certain very specific classes of other waste.  I don't see why they shouldn't be made to recycle everything.  Personal recycling, too, should be encouraged strongly.  Clothing, books, household implements, electronics, etc, should be diverted away from landfills, and put back into use at the highest level.  By 'highest level', I mean that for instance a cast-iron skillet should recycled into a skillet (carefully cleaned and refinished), rather than recycled as scrap iron.  I encouraged my students to use the blank backs of discarded printer paper to do their homework on; of course the government cannot enforce anything as peculiar as that.
[Added later, also see here: America has a recycling problem. Here's how to solve it.]

What Do Americans Want?
To the extent that we want the things listed above, that's fine.  But there are some things that have been traditionally desired, which are not possible to supply, given the enormous deficit that has been incurred by forgiving some of the most lucrative Businesses and individuals their taxes, and the hostile relationship that exists between the US and our trading partners.
Strongest Possible Military.  We have historically--at least since 1941--had this, but it has only got us into trouble.  Furthermore, many of the vendors of our military equipment, if not all, are US companies, that do not hesitate to charge premium prices.  At the moment, more than half the US budget is spent on the Military.  This must make someone rich, but whom?
Best Possible Education System In The World.  This is a laudable goal, but education achievement requires two things: Interest, and Industry.  There is a large population of teachers in the US that could deliver an excellent education to students in, say, third world countries.  But US students expect better efforts on the part of teachers, which means that they're sort of 'Insulin-Resistant', to borrow the language of diabetes.  The Industry requirement is also a problem, because a lot of the young people out there consider the thinking involved in doing homework to be drudgery.  Finally, since businesses and other employers try to extract the last iota of intellectual effort from their employees, there's little mental energy left for them to give judicious help to their kids: give a little help, a little explanation, but not to do the homework for the kids.
Drive around in flashy, gas-guzzling personal transport.  This reflects a pet peeve of mine.  What's worse is that these vehicles are often noisy, and for some reason automobile noise is tacitly considered by some as part of their First Amendment rights.  Finally, there are a few youths who drive in a way intended to intimidate those in smaller, lighter vehicles, so that the whole thing is an expression of a sort of entitlement to bully.
Own a mansion on top of a hill.  This is fine, as long as it already exists.  I don't think we can afford to continue lopping off hills and sticking homes on them.  That disrupts the water absorption patters of the area, encourages small-scale flooding, makes it difficult for firefighters and police to get up there in case of an emergency, and puts an additional burden on local government to provide access.
Pay little or no tax.  This may be possible eventually, if community needs are deducted from revenue in a mechanical way before they get into the hands of individuals.  Quite honestly, the belief that society exists for the benefit of the most wealthy has a lot of truth in it.  Society builds the roads, society buys the merchandise, society staffs the small businesses that enable the wealthy to maintain their style: dry cleaners, restaurants, jet planes, airports, sewage treatment plants, schools, gasoline stations, bookstores.  So the most wealthy should pay for them.  The wealthy teach their kids that part of the privileges of the wealthy are just to pay the tag price of commodities.  No, to the extent that society makes it possible for these ordinary people to live, the wealthy must subsidize that expense.
Banks must be allowed to charge any interest rate they want for College Loans.  In most cases, I suppose in a free society, anyone should be able to charge anything they want.  But in the case of education, banks tend to charge higher rates and impose unfair conditions on students simply because there exists a sort of de-facto collusion among banks to do so.  If free education becomes a reality, this problem mostly goes away; students who want an expensive private education will have to deal with the banks, but for most students, at present, college loans are an unfair burden, especially since employment cannot be guaranteed.
Industry should be permitted to manufacture plastic goods as they please.  This is no longer feasible.  The right to manufacture goods out of plastic ends where the right of people to live in a world free of plastic waste begins.  Even importing inessential plastic goods must be stopped, or discouraged with heavy tariffs.  Some things, such as plastic tubing for medical needs, etc, will be difficult to replace with substitutes, but it is probably not impossible.  Bear in mind that the dwindling energy needs that are satisfied with petroleum will not allow channeling of some of it to be made into plastic; allowing The Market to decide whether petroleum is used to make plastic or gasoline is insane.
Litter At Will.  This is something that saddens me.  One way to address this problem, is to hire a cadre of people who simply roam about policing people's littering offenses.  People hate Meter Readers with a passion, but endure them.  Well, it seems to me (and I'm no expert,) that littering falls under the same general class of offense.  Well then, there we go.  The workers could be paid at least partly based on fines, and could be required to take video of the offense taking place!  Alternatively, people could be hired to clean up litter. (Unfortunately, this might actually encourage young people to litter, simply as a game they play, to bait litter-cleanup workers.)

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