April 28, 2007


For first time readers, during the week this blog covers fairly serious topics, judiciously seasoned with gratuitous animal pictures.

During the weekend, however, the animals get to speak for themselves.

This weekend we once again welcome boxer Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY), official Goat Rope Farm film critic. Mr. Sege wishes us to announce that he is aghast at the low level of culture in the current cinema and that he now intends to review only highbrow films, starting with Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic The Seventh Seal.

(Note: we must remind readers that Mr. Sege sustained a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he has been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nonetheless, we believe that his unique insights into the world of film more than compensate for this regretable shortcoming.)


This movie is frikkin' awesome! There's like this medieval knight who comes back from the Charades where he went through all kinds of nasty stuff.

But that's just the start. When he gets back from Vietnam, where he busted out the POWS--a frequent motif in classical cinema--there's this plaque that's rampaging around and messing up everybody's teeth.

Anyway, he winds up playing a game of Battleship with Death to save his buddy Ted. Or maybe he's Ted and the other one is Bill.

He almost loses, but then he remembers the crane technique that Mr. Miyagi taught him and bonks him one.

There is heavy symbolism in the movie, like from the Bible or something. Doodus says the name comes from the Book of Revelations, but I thought that was about penguins instead of seals.

I kind of wish they made a movie about the Seven Penguins and that Snow White person instead. Or was that the Seven Monkeys?


April 27, 2007


Caption: This is him.

This week, in addition to whatever else comes up, El Cabrero has been pondering how people make sense of the world and the uncertainty of our knowledge. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

Professor James Hall of the University of Richmond comes up with quite a list of the different ways we try to gain knowledge of the world in his Teaching Company course "Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World through Experience and Reason."

His list includes experience, memory, association, pattern recognition, reason, invention, and experimentation. None of these are infallible or completely reliable ways of getting at The Truth, although in combination they might get us closer to it.

One reason it's hard to get there is that we can't step outside of ourselves. We're creatures not only of reason but of passion and interest and we see the world as we are rather than as it is. As William James put it, "The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything."

There are two extreme schools of thought on the subject of truth these days. One is that of the post-modernists, who are sometimes kind of irritating. They hold that there is no truth, only different perspectives and narratives.

The other school is that of the authoritarians, who are sometimes kind of homicidal. They think Truth is their sole possession.

I try to compromise. My theory is that there may well be such a thing as Truth but we can't quite get to it from here, though we may get closer. Final truths are elusive. This may be just as well--we probably couldn't handle it.

WEST VIRGINIA RANT. Here's the lead of a rant I posted yesterday in WV Blue:

Is anyone else out there as tired as El Cabrero and the critters at Goat Rope Farm re of the ceaseless barrage of commercials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about what a terrible legal climate we have here?

They love to harp on a survey of the corporation-backed American Tort Reform Association that claims to show that WV is a "judicial hellhole." Most likely, they surveyed members, corporate defendants and their attorneys.

Scientifically, methinks it's almost as good as asking eighth graders whether algebra sucks and using the results as a basis to evaluate that branch of mathematics. Here's an evaluation of the "judicial hellhole" rankings from The Center for Justice and Democracy.

The rest is here.

DYING TO WORK. The AFLCIO recently released the latest edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, which covers deaths and injuries in the workplace for 2005 (the latest year for which full data is available). The good news is that the number of deaths declined. In 2005, 5,734 workers died from workplace injuries, compared with 5,764 in 2004. However, the number of injuries went up, as did fatalities among Hispanic and foreign-born workers.


April 26, 2007


Caption: That's Venus' answer to everything.

This week El Cabrero is musing over how people explain the world (and other stuff too). If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

It's really easy to say x causes y. We do it all the time, even when it's a bit of a stretch.

Philosophers have racked their brains over this topic from the beginning. Aristotle thought everything had four causes: material (what it's made from), formal (the shape it takes or what something essentially is, sort of), efficient (what made it happen) and final (the purpose of it all, assuming there is one, which he did). Unless you are a hardcore Thomist, that's kind of out of style these days.

The 18th century Scottish philospher David Hume thought that we just attribute causality to things because of habit. As in, we see one thing happening after another and assume the first caused the latter.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant didn't like that much. He argued that our minds are hardwired to see things in terms of causality. The downside was that we can only know the world of appearances, not the things in themselves. I think I'm with him.

Here's the Goat Rope version: before we can say with a high degree of confidence that one thing causes another, we need three things:

*First, the cause and effect have to be associated with each other (otherwise, we wouldn't think about it).

*Second, Aristotle aside, the cause has to happen before the effect.

Pretty easy so far. Here's the kicker:

*Third, we have to rule out everything else. And that's easier said than done.

Suppose I attribute bad driving in a neighboring state (let's call it Ohio) to the eating of French (or Freedom) fries. I'll bet most people there have not only eaten French fries, but they ate them at some point before they drove. So far so good.

(Dear Ohio cousins, I'm just using this as an example, I swear! I know you guys have a similar theory about drivers in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.)

Hold the Nobel Prize...I'm stuck at number 3. There might be something else going on besides Freedom fries (like the negative effects of flat land) causing the problem. Back to the drawing board...

Finally, even if you think you have all three, there's always the possibility you missed something and may have to revise your conclusions later.

REDUCING POVERTY BY HALF. The Center for American Progress has released a new report called "From Poverty to Prosperity," which suggest a number of concrete steps aimed at slashing poverty, which has increased each year since 2000.

Many of the recommendations have solid evidence to support them. Steps include raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and early childhood education, passing the Employee Free Choice Act, child care assistance for low income families, making higher education more affordable, and more.

A BELATED THANK YOU TO WV IRAQ VETERAN JESSICA LYNCH for speaking truth about power at congressional hearings earlier this week!

BONUS FEATURE ON REPTILIAN SEX CHANGES. In case you run out of things to talk about today, here's a conversation starter. Did you know that female bearded dragon lizards turn into males when exposed to extreme temperatures while still in their eggs? Me neither.


April 25, 2007


The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is a series of musings on human knowledge and how we explain reality (whether the word/world fit works very well or not). Lots of other stuff is to be found herein as well.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to earlier entries.

The human tendency to come up with stories and other explanations of reality on the fly has probably served our ancient ancestors well, although their reality may have been less complex than ours. It still can, with some limitations.

For an interesting look at human snap judgments, check out Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink.

Still, good information about social life or the world around us takes more than a quick storyline or a snap judgment. There are lots of ways both social scientists and ordinary people go about it, but I feel the urge to look at two complementary types today.

One looks at a specific situation in depth, while the other looks for overall patterns that cover large bodies of data.

The first kind is called idiographic, with the idio- meaning unique or specific events or situations. This is the approach most biographers and historians use, along with investigative reporters, detectives, etc. It looks at specific, unrepeatable events and tries to understand them in detail. An example would be the investigation of a specific mine disaster.

The other approach is called nomothetic, with the nomo- coming from the Greek word for law. As you might, expect, this approach looks for general conclusions that cover a large population or body of information. An example might be a study of the relationship between poverty and health outcomes or education and earnings.

Like every other way of looking at the world, both of these have limitations. An idiographic investigation might be very rich in detail but have little applicability to other situations. A nomothetic approach loses a lot of that richness--you can't unscramble an egg once it's been scrambled. And it could be prone to over generalizations.

Either way, it can be very hard to establish causality--the fact that A led directly to B--with a great deal of certainty. Real life in all its messiness doesn't permit the kinds of control one has in a laboratory experiment, not to mention repeatability.

Finally, to prove causation you need three things, two of which are easy to get and one of which ain't.

But that will keep until tomorrow.

BIG COAL, BIG TROUBLE. If you haven't done so yet, El Cabrero recommends Jeff Goodell's book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret behind America's Energy Future. Goodell has an article on The Dirty Rock and global climate change in the current issue of The Nation. I'll skip to the rousing conclusion:

By all means, let's praise innovative companies that take risks with new technology, and let's boost federal funding for carbon capture and storage research--the more we know about the costs and risks of burying CO2 the better.But let's not lose sight of the big picture here. Coal is the fuel of the past,not the future. The sooner we muster up the courage to admit that, the sooner the revolution can begin.

THE FOX/HENHOUSE THING. Here's a good one about how OSHA has come under industry control to the detriment of U.S. workers.

HALF MAST. I saw a news report recently in which U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, on lowering the flag in memory of those killed at Virginia Tech, wondered why it wasn't lowered for their own fatalities. With so many deaths lately, maybe we should lower them for all the fallen and leave them that way for a season.


April 24, 2007


Caption: This turkey hen blames global warming on Thanksgiving.

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is a series of musings on how people explain events. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to yesterday's post.

Have you ever noticed that after something really bad happens, the media goes into overdrive, reporting the facts and then bringing in an endless stream of talking heads to explain Why It Happened?

(I dare you to diagram that sentence.)

Sometimes people say the darndest things, whether there is any real evidence for them or not. Sometimes the talking heads use these opportunities to score political or propaganda points.

The classic example was the chat between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the 700 Club after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Falwell said

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

I remember a conversation I had in the 90s about youth violence with someone who blamed the teaching of evolution in schools. At the time, I gently tried to suggest that most perpetrators were probably not too well versed in the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

Right wingers don't have a monopoly here either. Last week I received a statement blaming the VT massacre on the capitalist system.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, anybody can attribute the causation of anything to anything...and usually does. Second, anything can be predicted after the fact. When we move beyond shooting for explanations from the hip, it's a little more complicated. And often a little less certain.

About which more next time.

TRADE TALKS STALLED. The New York Times had an interesting article this weekend about how the issue of labor rights is stalling further action on new "free" trade deals in the US House. Short version: the majority wants them in and the administration wants them out.

I trust we need not pause to allow readers to recover from the shock....

Sample from the middle of the piece:

At issue is the Democratic demand that pending trade deals with Colombia, Panama, Peru and South Korea include a provision guaranteeing certain rights for labor in the trading partner countries, including a ban on child and slave labor and the right to organize.

In addition, the Democrats want the accords to endorse general labor protections adopted by the International Labor Organization, like the right to organize.

The Bush administration, backed by business groups, contends that this Democratic demand could lead to trading partners suing to overturn basic American labor practices, like teenage summer jobs or work on farms, or the practice in some American states of prisoners making consumer goods.

Probably the real issues the administration doesn't want uppity foreigners, many of whom are un-American, to remind it that many workers in this country are effectively denied the right to organize due to weak protections for workers.

The most amusing part of the article was a comment by National Association of Manufacturers president John Engler, who said “For state constitutions or laws to be subject to a foreign nation’s challenge would be unacceptable."

Mr. Engler chose to ignore the fact that under NAFTA and related trade deals, democratic decisions by state and local governments can already be overturned if they are considered unfair to foreign investors, but not if they are unfair to workers.

This should be interesting.


April 23, 2007


In memory of Private Michael J. Slater, age 19, of Scott Depot , WV, who died on April 21 in a combat action in the town of Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad.

According to news reports, the recent Winfield High School graduate who died shortly after being deployed to Iraq always wanted to be a soldier.

In the words of The Book of Common Prayer, "may light perpetual shine upon him."


Caption: This man is liable to tell you anything.

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope will be a series of musings on how people explain the world, along with many other topics.

Let me explain.

One of the main ways that people make sense of the world is through stories. We are creatures of story and it seems to be our nature to construct narratives that explain our world.

Some scholars, such as Walter Burkert, who has written a lot about mythology, ancient Greece, and religion, believe we're hardwired for stories at the biological level.

Stories aren't the only way we try to make sense of the world, but they are probably the oldest and most deeply rooted way of doing it. Other ways include but aren't limited to rational speculation and scientific investigation. But even then, when it comes to the telling, it usually takes the form of a story.

We often see or construct stories when there's no basis for it.

And no matter how old we get, there's always a little of the child's "Tell me a story!" in there somewhere.

More on that next time.

SPEAKING OF STORIES, HERE'S ONE: a study of health care systems in the U.S. and Canada found the latter performing as well as the former at a fraction of the cost and with universal coverage:

TORONTO (CP) - Health outcomes for patients in Canada are as good as or better than in the United States, even though per capita spending is higher south of the border, suggest Canadian and U.S. researchers who crunched data from 38 studies...

"In looking at patients in Canada with a specific diagnosis compared to Americans with the same diagnosis, in Canada patients had at least as good an outcome as their American counterparts - and in many situations, a better health outcome," said one of the 17 authors, Dr. P.J. Devereaux, a cardiologist and clinical epidemiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"And that is important because in the United States, they're currently spending a little over $7,100 per individual on health care annually, whereas in Canada we're spending a little over $2,900 per individual annually," he said in a telephone interview from Brantford, Ont.

REINING IN CEO PAY. According to Business Week,

The House voted Friday to give shareholders at public corporations a voice in executive pay packages that typically equal 500 times the salaries of workers at those companies.

The shareholder vote under the bill would be advisory only. But Democratic backers of this provision said that investors need a say when companies losing money or laying off workers are paying executives eight- and nine-figure salaries and retirement packages.

"This is not an aberration, and there is a hue and a cry from the American people across the American landscape that is saying something must be done," said Rep. David Scott, D-Ga.

The bill will fact a tough fight in the Senate and is opposed by the White House.

MINERS DIE, CEO PAY HIGH. Rescued from last week's news, International Coal Group's CEO was paid $1.6 million in 2006, the year 12 miners died at Sago and the company's stock fell by 42 percent. But that's nothing compared with the compensation of Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who received nearly $27 million. That's enough to buy almost anything...except maybe an election.


April 22, 2007


No rest for the wicked at Goat Rope Farm...The following op-ed of El Cabrero's on the privatization of war appeared in today's Charleston WV Sunday Gazette-Mail. Also, check out Gazette writer Paul Nyden's excellent coverage of yesterday's public forum on Iraq.

In this rush to privatize government, what losses

In Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22, the hyper-capitalist Milo Minderbinder says, “Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.”

What was once a laugh line is becoming a reality, due to the Bush administration’s ideological mania for privatization, or outsourcing government functions to business.

I’m not a fan of the Iraq war, but this drive to “run war like a business” made a bad situation even worse for U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians and the American people.

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld planned the privatization of many defense functions. The day before the attacks, he described the Pentagon bureaucracy itself as “an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America.”

For Rumsfeld, President Bush, crony capitalists and worshippers of the market god, the answer to most questions was to farm out as many government functions as possible, from warfare to Social Security, to private corporations.

Privatization of traditional military functions to corporations such as Halliburton and security firms such as Blackwater has been a major component of the war in Iraq. While this has been a bonanza for the corporations involved, the well-being of U.S. troops has arguably suffered.

Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich point out a chilling example of this in their 2005 book The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. In December 2004, 22 people were killed when insurgents in Mosul, Iraq, blew up a mess hall which had previously come under attack.

In an interview on “The News Hour” with Jim Lehrer, retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters noted that the traditional military rule for dispersing during meals in a combat zone to reduce the risk of mass casualties was ignored. “And what’s clearly happened in Iraq is that we violated our own rules about troop dispersion in wartime. I suspect it has to do with outsourcing. This mess hall, mess facility, chow hall, was run by a contractor. ... Instead of security, what we saw was convenience and efficiency.”

That’s a clear case of the pursuit of profit trumping the protection of people.

One underreported aspect of the Walter Reed scandal was the roll that privatization played in reducing the quality of services provided to injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The Army Times and other sources have carried reports of an internal memo which said that privatization of services at Walter Reed put services for veterans “at risk of mission failure” as skilled federal workers left in droves in anticipation of losing their jobs.

Last month, CNN reported that “needed repairs went undone as the non-medical staff shrank from almost 300 to less than 50 in the last year and hospital officials were unable to find enough skilled replacements.”

Jim Hightower reports in the April Hightower Lowdown that in 2006, IAP Worldwide Services, a corporation “run by two former senior Halliburton officials,” was awarded a $120 million contract to run the facilities. He notes that the same company “botched the delivery of ice to New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina fiasco.”

Another example of privatization in action in Iraq was the shipment of 12 billion dollars with no strings attached — 363 tons of cash to be exact — to Iraq when Paul Bremer was in charge of the Civilian Provisional Authority, as National Public Radio reported in February. The Emerald City, as the Green Zone has been called, was a living laboratory of neocon utopianism.

As Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, wrote in the Washington Post, jobs with the Civilian Provisional Authority were dispensed on the basis of political loyalty to the administration and its ideas.

He writes that instead of rebuilding that country’s infrastructure and promoting security-steps that might have undercut the insurgency and stopped the civil war before it started, “many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States.”

Other priorities included reopening the Iraqi stock exchange and putting an end to free health care.

Is anyone surprised that the cash disappeared? Or that the situation deteriorated? God knows what was bought and by whom with the money, although it’s a safe bet some of it exploded.

True believers in the cult of the market god accept as an article of faith the idea that privatization always promotes more efficient outcomes and that profit-seeking corporations always outperform public institutions in promoting the common good, but clearly that is not the case, either in war or peace.

In the real world, business has a very important role, but is no substitute for democratic institutions and a vigilant public. A good society is one based on systems of countervailing power, where government institutions, businesses, labor, non-governmental organizations, other institutions and citizens (not necessarily in that order) provide checks and balances against the excesses of others.

Some things are more important than the corporate bottom line.