October 16, 2010

Nature's funeral month

"October is nature's funeral month. Nature glories in death more than in life. The month of departure is more beautiful than the month of coming - October than May. Every green thin loves to die in bright colors."--Henry Ward Beecher

October 15, 2010

One would have thought

Random animal picture.

One would have thought that market fundamentalism, the worship of "unleashed" unregulated capitalism, would have taken a mortal blow after 30 years of deregulation finally resulted in the worst financial crash since the Great Depression. The Gentle Reader may have noticed that this has not come to pass.

One dogma of the cult of the market god you still hear a lot today is that government action cannot do anything to promote economic vitality (other than cutting taxes for the rich).

Lately I've been reading Felix Rohatyn's Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America and Whit It Must Rebuild Now. In that book he points out numerous examples of how government action helped spur economic growth throughout our history. Examples include the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, land grant universities, the interstate highway system, the GI Bill and more.

Not all of those were pretty at the time and some we might now wish we did differently but all show that public investments and policies have always had a major role in moving the economy.

On a different but related subject, he also includes a great anecdote in the book about what it was like to go to college with veterans who had just returned from WWII and were taking advantage of the GI Bill. Rohatyn's family were Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe before the war. While he attended college after the war was over, a representative from his national fraternity visited and warned that their charter could be expelled because they had "unsuitable" members, one black and one Jewish.

As he tells it,

Then the two veterans intervened. Politely yet forcefully, they explained to the visitor that they had not fought a war against the Nazis in Europe to see racial laws enacted in the United States. With the shocked national representative wedged stiffly between them, the two veterans escorted the man out of the house and to the railroad station.

They wound up losing the charter but keeping the house. And their dignity.

THE FORECLOSURE CRISIS was bad enough. The bogus foreclosure crisis is a real mess.

CUT THE CUTS. Yet another poll shows overwhelming support for allowing Bush era tax cuts to expire.

I'M STILL NOT SHOPPING THERE, but in the spirit of budo and fair play, let it be noted that Wal-Mart is going to start buying more local produce.

THE NOT SO SELFISH GENE. Some research suggests an evolutionary basis for altruistic behavior (short version: it's a turn on).

DOUBLE SHOT OF LOVE. A new study suggests that intense, passionate love can be an effective pain reliever. Another study found that couples that had been together for a long time--say 40 years--knew less about their partner's preferences than couples who had been together for a much shorter periond, although they expressed more contentment with the relationship than did younger couples. Maybe Dylan was right when he said, "True love tends to forget."


October 14, 2010

Jack tale

The liberation of those 33 Chilean miners who were trapped deep underground for 69 days was truly inspiring. I can't even imagine what spending that long days in a place like that would be like. I wonder what it felt like for the last miner as he waited alone for his turn.

That real life story reminds me of an old Appalachian Jack tale. Jack tales are stories about a character named Jack (as in the one of beanstalk fame) which were told in the British isles long ago. Settlers in Appalachia brought a whole cycle of stories about this character with them and over time they morphed to reflect the culture of the mountains.

In the stories, Jack is the youngest of three brothers, the first two of which are bad news. He frequently sets off to seek his fortune. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jack always depends on the kindness of strangers. On his adventures, he helps those in need and is helped in return and usually prevails against the odds with the help of his wits, luck, and help from his friends.

In one story, Jack runs up against a giant who can turn into a dragon. After he finds the hole leading to its underground lair, he is lowered to the center of the earth by his rotten brothers and liberates three young women who were held captive by the giant.

He gets stranded at the bottom with no way out when his brothers throw the rope down the hole in a fit of jealousy over his luck with the ladies. In the end, he only makes it out thanks to a forgotten magic ring that has the power to grant wishes to those who deserve them.

Too bad they can't issues those to everyone who has to work underground. That would be the ultimate mine safety device.

ON THAT NOTE, it looks like diet, exercise and social support and organization kept them in amazingly good shape.

AN UGLY SPIRIT. This op-ed on the current racially charged political climate appeared earlier this week in the Charleston Gazette.

GOOD QUESTIONS. This item asks why the US right isn't upset about bogus foreclosures. Whatever happened to defending property rights?

CULTURAL EVOLUTION. Here's an interesting item on cultural evolution.


October 13, 2010

Pronunciation wars

An old John Prine song goes "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes." Substitute hole in arm with store for farm and that would be me. Several times a month it seems, I go there, shell out money, and go home with a couple hundred pounds of critter food. Each time it occurs to me that the animals on our farm need to get a damn job...

The Spousal Unit has her own problems with that store and she is engaged in a protracted war with it. It is a war over pronunciation and pronunciation wars, like wars of religion, ask and give no quarter.

She take particular umbrage over their pronunciation of the word "caprine" as in pertaining to goats. They pronounce it capreen like marine rather than caprine like alpine. Although she is trained in anthropology and linguistics, she does not celebrate this as an example of social diversity but rather seems to see it as a grave moral flaw. She does not tire of pointing out that we don't pronounce the word canine as caneen or feline as feleen.

When she asks for a brand of goat food with the word caprine in it, she receives blank stares when pronounced her way and eager assistance when pronounced their way. Each such incident only further provokes her wrath. Her goal seems to be to wear them down like water on a rock until the proper pronunciation is recognized.

This could be yet another long war. And before you misunderestimate it, don't forget that the Hatfield-McCoy feud (in which I may have had a distant cousin on the Hatfield side) is sometimes said to have begun over a dispute about a pig. It's hard to tell where a war over goats could go.

THE NEXT STEP. Proposed bills to address climate change are dead. Here's a look at what may be next.

YOU'VE HEARD OF PEAK OIL. What about peak water?



October 12, 2010

The poisoned arrow

Sometimes people, including myself, get hung up on speculative questions that don't really help much in the here and now. This reminds me of one of the Buddha's parables. According to the story (full text here), the Buddha is approached by someone interested in abstract questions about the cosmos, life after death and everything.

The Buddha responded that such questions aren't really much help in the goal of liberation from suffering. To paraphrase, he said it was as if someone who was shot with a poisoned arrow refused all medical treatment until he found out who shot the arrow, what they looked like, what his day job was, what kind of wood the arrow was made of, what kinds of feathers it had, and what the bow looked like. If that were to happen, "The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him."

IS THAT ALL? The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the US economy is short 11.5 million jobs.

SOMETHING ELSE TO DENY ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE: major parts of the world are drying up.


MEAN GIRL BLUES. Here's an interesting article on girl bullying.


October 11, 2010

Useful errors

I was in an interesting conversation this weekend about the root causes of social problems, which caused me to start thinking about the slippery issue of causality. Or maybe not.

The human tendency to think in terms of cause and effect is deeply ingrained and probably has roots in evolutionary biology. Being able to infer causal patterns was no doubt adaptive in relatively the simple environments in which early humans lived.

The problem comes when we all too readily assume that causal explanations we find satisfying are true. Natural selection, that "blind watchmaker", doesn't really care about truth; it just cares about what is useful.

My old pal Friedrich Nietzsche put it this way:

Throughout immense stretches of time the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them proved to be useful and preservative of the species: he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.

Thought for the day: would you prefer truth without utility or utility without truth?

UNUSEFUL UNTRUTHS. Paul Krugman takes aim at the prevailing narrative on the economy and the recession.

CORRUPTION. Big money, sleazy politics.

SOCIAL ANIMALS. Research on twins suggests that people are socially oriented even before birth.

DEATH BY BREAKFAST. Here's a look at some unhealthy menu items.