Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

March 3, 2010

Turn about and all that

Filed under: Pique,Political,Social — cec @ 9:38 pm

So maybe in my last post, I was a bit hard on Louisiana because it’s the state I’ve left.  It’s not like we don’t have our own wackos in NC.  Two examples:

  1. One of NC’s representatives, Patrick McHenry (R) has proposed that we put Reagan’s face on the $50 bill.  Maybe for his work on voodoo tinkle on trickle down economics?  Although there is some appropriate irony to giving Reagan the $50… it’s a bill that most people don’t use.  Personally, I’m not rich enough to deal in $50s, $20s maybe.  Hey, if we’re redesigning money, why don’t we give more important presidents more prominent spots.  Jefferson definitely outranks Reagan and he’s on the never used $2 bill.  What about Madison?  The dude practically wrote the Constitution.  Shouldn’t those of who don’t use $5,000 bills get a chance to see him?
  2. And closer to home, the newly minted republican majority on the Wake county school board has succeeded in rolling back a nationally recognized program to improve educational outcomes by ensuring socio-economic diversity.  Sure, I was bussed in elementary school.  It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience of my life, but at the same time, I think that it was good for me as a person to be exposed to other socio-economic groups at school.  Moreover, the program in Wake has demonstrated that it reduces the achievement gap between poor/minority students and rich/white students.  That’s gotta be worth a little time on the bus.

<sigh> Music for the evening: Danger Mouse’s and Sparklehorse’s Dark Night of the Soul and Titus Andronicus’s The Airing of Grievances.  They seem to capture the mood.

Seriously, W… T… F?

Filed under: Political,Social — cec @ 9:15 pm

Every once in a while, something from Louisiana will catch the national attention, or at least the political bits that I care about, and I’m once again reminded of why I’m happy to have left.  The latest?  Apparently, the Bossier Parish sheriff is creating himself a militia.  No really.  It’s called “Operation Exodus,” which according to the sheriff’s press release is an allusion to the biblical Book of Exodus.  I’m not certain if that worries me or makes me happy that it’s not a reference to secession.  I think I’ll go with worry since it’s a biblical reference to secession.

Now, in fairness, the sheriff claims that the program is not a militia, but rather:

The plan, known as Operation Exodus, will provide for self-sufficiency in the event of a manmade or natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Exodus will take local volunteers, train them and use them in response to a catastrophic disaster in the area. These volunteers will work in conjunction with the Bossier Sheriff’s Office to secure and protect viable resources in such an event.

For the record, this is B.S.  The sheriff wants the operation to sound like an adult version of the Boy Scouts where his parish will “always be prepared.”  But I was a cub scout, I’m pretty certain that I would have stayed on for the Boy Scouts if we were going to have access to “the war wagon”  with a .50 caliber  machine gun mounted on top.

Apparently, the militia concerned citizens are mostly past middle age [no!] white [really?!] men [shocked!!].  Women will be given the support roles and apparently, the five black members of the militia operation will be in charge of stepping and fetching [okay, i made that last one up].

The sad part is that things seem worse in Louisiana than they were 16+ years ago when I left.  But maybe I just hear the worst of it from here.  Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention to the social and political environment until after I left.  That last option has a lot of support: hell, I voted for Ross Perot in ’92 🙂

December 23, 2009

Heathcare reform: a Festivus miracle!

Filed under: Political,Social — cec @ 11:03 pm

Speaking of Festivus, I should note a recent sighting of a genuine Festivus miracle… they still had a quart of Maple View Farms eggnog at the grocery store!

Er, actually, a better Festivus miracle is that today the senate democratic caucus reached the 60 votes needed for their final cloture vote and will vote on healthcare reform tomorrow.  FWIW, the vote could have been held today, but Vitter (R-LA) objected.  The bill also could have been held up until 8pm tomorrow, but republicans couldn’t quite bring themselves to wait that long to get out of town.  So instead, the vote (needing only 50 ayes plus Biden) will happen at 7am tomorrow morning.

A quick note on the bill.  Put me in the camp with folks who wanted something better, but regard the senate bill as a significant step forward.  Specifically, I would love to see something like a single payer system.  People seem pretty happy with Medicare (wasn’t a common teabagger cry: “keep the government out of my Medicare!”?), so gradually expanding Medicare eligibility to younger people, eventually allowing a person of any age to buy into Medicare seems like a good idea.   We would still need to fix the republican Medicare Part D prohibition on negotiation with drug companies, but that’s minor.

Failing single payer, what I really would like to see are controls on how hard the insurance companies can screw you (currently hard enough to make you want to scream “green balloons“), and then provide subsidies to allow more people to buy insurance.  Well, that’s what we got.  Sure, there’s a purchasing mandate – you must buy insurance, but that’s pretty reasonable.

So, it’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a good start and will help literally millions of people and will literally save tens of thousands of lives each year.  That’s a good first step.  There’s nothing that says that we can’t improve the bill over the next decade.  That’s what has happened with every other expansion of the social safety net for the past 60+ years, from social security to medicare.  There is no progressive rapture.  We won’t pass a bill and then be taken up to liberal heaven or achieve social nirvana.  There aren’t 72 hippie virgins waiting for us at the signing of any piece of legislation.  And neither mankind nor its societies are perfectible.  But both mankind and society is subject to continuous improvement.  We can make things better and this bill is another step in that process.

November 5, 2009

gop hcr doa

Filed under: Political,Social — cec @ 11:02 pm

In the most awesome [1] display of legislative ineptitude since they presented a budget with no numbers on April Fool’s Day, the republicans have released their plan for health care reform.  Now, keep in mind that as scored by the CBO, the democratic plan will increase coverage from 83% to 96% of the legal population in the U.S. by 2019 and will reduce the deficit by $104 billion over the same ten years.  Of course, the republican plan was going to be “much better.”  And was it?  Not so much.  Under the republican plan, coverage will increase from, wait for it,  drum roll please 83% to a whopping, um, 83% by 2019.  Well, hey, at least it’ll do more to improve the deficit, right?  Well, not exactly.  According to the CBO’s initial analysis, there would be a $68 billion dollar reduction in the deficit over the next ten years.

Wow!  How do the republicans manage to achieve such amazing results?  Simple, what they lack in sense, they make up for in strict adherence to ideology.  Free market principles baby.  Do they regulate insurance companies regarding rescission?  Nope, instead they would create the same sort of race to the bottom that we have for credit cards.  Ever wondered why most credit card companies are based in either Delaware or South Dakota?  Simple, those states have passed laws that screw consumers.  Since the credit card market is deregulated, Delaware and South Dakota can screw the whole country and not just their own citizens.  Under the republican plan, you would be looking at the same thing for health insurance.


[1] In the 80s, lots of things were “awesome” to me, and I was very serious about it.  Sometime in the past decade, I’ve taken to using the word again, but with 100% more sarcasm.  Things are now “awesome” in the same sense as 80s hair metal bands are awesome: think Winger.

August 26, 2009

DDoS-ing good policy

Filed under: Political,Social,Technical — cec @ 10:08 pm

In computer security, one of the most difficult and annoying problems is the distributed denial of service attack (DDoS).  The idea behind a DDoS attack is straight forward: the attacker tries to prevent legitimate use of the service by using a large number of other computers.  Usually these other computers have been compromised (hacked) and are following the commands of the attacker.  Such computers are usually called “zombies.”

There are a number of ways to conduct a DDoS attack, but they are typically variations on the following theme.  The attacker instructs the zombies to request access to the service.  But the zombies have no intention of actually using the service, instead, they often forge network traffic so that it’s impossible to tell who is making the request.  Because the zombies don’t want to use the service, they can make thousands of requests without slowing down.  The poor computer hosting the service then sees tens of thousands of requests for access, tries to fulfill the requests and eventually becomes overloaded and dies.  The zombies win.

What makes the DDoS attack so difficult to defend against is that each and every request coming in, looks like a legitimate request.  The problems are: a) the core of the request is a lie (at the direction of the attacker, the zombie has forged the network traffic), and b) the sheer quantity of bogus requests – one or two could be handled easily, 10s of thousands not so much.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing the exact same thing when it comes to creating good policies in the U.S.: a distributed denial of service attack.

The creation of good policies requires discussion.  Ideally, arguments will be presented, the merits debated and evaluated with respect to a set of shared norms, and these discussions will shape the eventually enacted policy.  But on every important issue, this is not occurring.  Instead, we have a group of reactionaries (they’ll call themselves conservatives) who try to prevent the important discussions from ever occurring. Take two issues, global warming and health insurance.

On global warming, we could have a fairly important discussion about the expected costs of global warming, the probabilities of certain events occurring, the expected costs of limiting CO2 in order to limit the effects.  We could discuss the moral issues involved, from the increased rates of disease due to higher temperatures, the possibility of spending more money now on certain social problems, and the moral worth of species that will go extinct because of a changing climate.  There are even scientific questions that remain unresolved.  But instead of having any of those discussions, conservatives persist in lying.  Those lies are then redistributed on Fox News and in conservative publications.  The purpose of the lies isn’t to have a real discussion with respect to a valid scientific point.  The purpose is to attack the very idea that there can be a discussion.  The purpose is to make people believe that instead of global warming being a policy issue, it’s a political one.

A year ago, I was at a family reunion and sat down with my father and uncle who hold advanced degrees in physical sciences (masters and phd respectively).  The topic came around to global warming – perhaps one of them made a derisive comment about it, I don’t recall.  The next thing I knew, these two very intelligent men turned into DDoS zombies.  They brought up a number of talking points that they had heard, but hadn’t actually verified:

  • “Ice cores have shown that temperature rises before CO2 levels.” Historically true, but completely irrelevant.  We know of the causal reason that an increase in CO2 will increase temperature.  A doubling of CO2 will raise the temperature by roughly 3 degrees Celsius.  However, no one has said that the only reason that the temperature can rise is due to CO2 – there are certainly other reasons.  Why temperature rose in those cases is a legitimate scientific question, but rather than discussing that issue, the right uses a misinterpretation of the idea to attack the possibility of global warming.
  • “CO2 only contributes 3% of the effects of greenhouse gases.” Alternatively, you’ll hear that water vapor is 97% or 98% of the total effect.  Nope.  This is a pure, flat out lie.  I spent a few hours trying to track down the source.  It turns out that it’s not a scientific result.  3% never appeared in a peer-reviewed paper.  Instead, someone reviewing one of the IPCC reports decided that the report said 3% (it didn’t) and ever since, right-wing news has thrown around that number to dispute the very possibility that rising levels of CO2 could contribute to global warming.

There were a few other talking points they had and there are dozens more to be found online.  My favorites often come from a site called Watt’s Up With That.  Favorites because they completely demonstrate that people are *actively* constructing lies to deceive the public on global warming.  You read a post there and you go to the original sources that they cite and sure enough, they’ve either taken it out of context or they’ll take the worse of all possible predictions.  My favorite is when the push what amount to linear rather than the actual (exponential) projections of climate change and then argue that because the actual temperatures don’t fall into their bogus projections, climate change is false.

The point is that none of those talking points are serious attempts to debate the science.  They are merely an attempt to overwhelm the dialog with incorrect information in order to delay or kill good policy.  Hell, they aren’t even arguments, at best they are arglets. Fragments of an argument with no real merit.

The arglets against health care reform are even worse.  A handful of people literally make things up and rather than having a discussion about the very real ways our health care system is falling apart, the news media (Fox and others) goes off on these tangents for days.  Consider:

  • “death panels” What a load of crap.  There’s no such thing in the health care bill.  Which is of course, not to say that these things don’t exist.  Every insurance company has a death panel.  Or more accurately, insurance companies consider the amount of rescission activity when evaluating employees, i.e., you’ve paid your premiums for years and when you try to use the policy and the company drops your coverage.
  • “in <scary socialist country of your choice> people have to wait <some large number> weeks for <some medical procedure>.” We hear that one a lot.  Usually, the country is England or Canada, the time is 6+ weeks and it’s a hip replacement.  Of course, this arglet is also untrue, but is interesting in being untrue on multiple levels.  First of course, is the basic lie – delays for surgery. A small nugget of truth – this was a small problem pre-2000, before the British started increasing the amount of money for the NHS.  Then the larger lie – the implication that it’s better here in the U.S. under your insurance.  Then finally, the mother of all lies – that anyone’s even proposing a single payer system like the NHS anyway.  “Oh my god, some other system that no one here is seriously considering has wait times that are as bad as some of ours with insurance, but not nearly as bad as if you have no insurance and have to wait until you’re on medicare to obtain the surgery.”  To borrow a line from a glibertarian idiot – give me a break.
  • Perhaps my favorite recent arglet: “Stephen Hawking never would have survived to be a brilliant physicist under the British system.” Given that he is a British citizen and has always received his health care via the NHS, this is completely crazy, literally divorced from reality, batshit insane.

I could go on and on.  For any topic you can name, there are people promoting lies in order to prevent good policies from being enacted.

Now here’s the part where I tell you the good news based on my DDoS analogy.  Tough – there isn’t any.  There are a few approaches to dealing with a computer DDoS:

  1. Ignore it.  Build capacity so that all requests, legitimate and bogus can be serviced.  This is unlikely to work.  The media has a short attention span, hell they’ve got ADHD.  While the majority of arglets are debunked within minutes of their creation, they continue to live on in the right-wing zombies and the media is incapable of ignoring that.
  2. Identify the source of the arglets and take ’em out.  In computer terms, this often means tracking down the source of the DDoS commands and arresting them.  For dialog, this means identifying the source of the arglets and ignoring them and their zombies.  But then we’re back to solution 1 and the media’s inability to call bullshit.
  3. Ensure that all potential zombie computers are patched, i.e, ensure that potential zombies are innoculated/education against the lies.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work in a computer context – too many lazy people with computers that they don’t want to take care of.  And it’s unlikely to work in a political context – too many lazy people who can’t be bothered to conduct basic fact check (or even sanity checking) before propagating a lie.

In short, there’s no way for the current political process to work properly while the right wing and various corporate interests are conducting a denial of service attack.  Unfortunately, the only real solution is to circumvent the dialog and pass good legislation regardless of what’s in the press.  For 16+ years, Bill Kristol has advised the right to prevent such a thing.  “Don’t allow good legislation on health care.”  People would like good legislation and would realize that the republicans were a bunch of lying con men who wanted to shovel government money (aka public funds,  aka your money and mine) to corporate interests.  The republicans have gotten good at this and now the only way to pass decent legislation is to ignore them, which is easier and easier given that they’ve flat out stated that they won’t vote for their own compromises.  Screw ’em.  Health care is too important.  Pass it, pass it now.  If you won’t support a single payer option, then at least give people the choice of a public option that’ll be better, cheaper and more efficient than what we’ve got now.

Ted Kennedy

Filed under: Political — cec @ 6:11 pm


also, I’m glad I’m not the only one who went there

July 28, 2009

Palins resignation speech

Filed under: Funny,Political — cec @ 11:39 am

I haven’t paid much attention to Sarah Palin in the year since I first heard of her.  Okay, periodically I’ve laughed at her.  And Palin As President was pretty funny.  But last night I was commenting to K that this line from her resignation speech was pure Zen:

“In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one impressed by the end of the speech.  This is just beautiful:

April 28, 2009

Specter (D-Pa.)

Filed under: Political — cec @ 1:14 pm

It looks like the average IQ of democratic senators and the average IQ of republican senators have both declined today.  Hopefully there will be a 2010 challenger in the PA democratic primaries.

April 14, 2009

Chatham tea party

Filed under: Political,Social — cec @ 8:32 pm

Tomorrow is April 15th, tax day.  And in case you’ve missed it, republicans, flat taxers, gold fetishists, racists, defense nuts and other extreme conservatives are planning to host tea parties tomorrow.  Tea parties?  Yep.  Protests, harkening back to the days of the Boston Tea Party when proto-American patriots dumped tea into Boston harbor to protest taxation without representation.  Tomorrow’s tea parties appear to be a bit less principaled.  Some protestors are objecting to the Bush tax cuts on the top 2% expiring in 2010… as they were scheduled to do by republican law makers.  Some protestors seem to object to having lost the election in 2008.  Others object to bailouts of home owners… or is it bailouts of banks… or is it bailouts that don’t help their bottom line?  Some seem to object to having a black president.  Others are Ron Paulites who seek to restore the gold standard?!

In celebration of all you crazy right wing nuts out there, I threw my own tea party tonight:


From left to right, Blue wants to restore the gold standard.  Java (the cat) is upset that, while he only earns the median income of $35,000 or so right now, he might have to pay an extra $0.04 for every dollar he earns over $250,000… assuming he ever earns that much.  And Mr. Bun-bun?  Well, he doesn’t really have a grievance.  He’s just here for the tea-bagging.  Note the carrot and apparent oral fixation.  Now there’s a true republican for you!

March 1, 2009

Recessions don’t have hidden virtues

Filed under: Political,Social — cec @ 4:25 pm

I wasn’t originally going to write about the Michael Gerson piece from the other week where he talks about the “hidden virtues” of a recession.  Leaving aside the irony of a relatively well off speech writer for George W. Bush telling us how the recession caused by his boss’s policies will be good for us, I just assumed that the idea of a virtuous recession was self-obviously wrong and wouldn’t be taken seriously.  But since then, I’ve heard other people, even more liberal people, make the same arguments.  In several of those cases, the argument is that a recession will help (force?) Americans to lead simpler lives, to save more and to focus on what is really important.  I’m offended by that sentiment because, while I have often thought, and said, that people need to focus on what’s important and that they should save more, there is a huge difference between doing so as a choice and being forced into it due to scarcity.

Dealing specifically with Gerson’s opinion piece, the facts are that he’s just wrong.  He notes that Christopher Ruhm, a researcher at UNC-G, found that, while mental health problems increased (yay?), physical health improved during recessions.  Of course, that’s not exactly a majority opinion in public health.  Other researchers have noted that as many people start eating fast food as start cooking healthfully at home.  Moreover, gym memberships decline and cheap vices increase.  Health care is often pushed aside and in the U.S., those who lose their jobs often lose their insurance and therefore much of their preventative care.  None of this suggests improved health.  Moreover, Ruhm’s study was not longitudinal – he didn’t study people before and after suffering the effects of a recession.

Gerson also claims that it is a paradox even though crime is correlated to poverty, the Great Depression was a time of lower crime rates:

There is a parallel debate about the influence of economic hard times on the nation’s moral health. Without question, the most acute social problems — crime, illegitimacy, etc. — are concentrated in areas of highest poverty. But sociologists and criminologists have long pondered an apparent paradox. During the Great Depression — with about a quarter of Americans out of work — crime and divorce declined. During the relative prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, crime rates shot up and families broke down.


Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. “One reasonable hypothesis,” argues James Q. Wilson, “is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime.” Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes — and that have decayed in our own. The Depression generation controlled the things it could control — including its own consumption and character.

But aparently, it’s not that great of a paradox.  Social science researchers have demonstrated that the Roosevelt administration’s relief efforts, which were intended in part to reduce crime, did have that effect. The researcher’s “estimates suggest that a 10 percent increase in per capita relief spending lowered crime rates by roughly 5.6 to 10 percent at the margin.”  In other words, while families may have pulled together during the Great Depression, the social spending that allowed people to feed their families was demonstrably useful in lowering the crime rate.  The republican govenors should consider that before turning down extended unemployment benefits for their states.

So, what about savings?  People definitely need to save more.  So, why aren’t we?  For a while, the U.S. had a savings rate close to 0%, sometimes it was even negative.  Over the past couple of years, the savings rate has increased, and is now around 3%.  But wait, during a recession, we need to increase spending, that’s part of the purpose of a stimulus bill.  And given that personal spending drives the U.S. economy (roughly 65-70% of all spending), will increased savings doom us to a poor economy?  Will we all just have to get used to less?  Should we learn to enjoy the current economic levels, because that’s where we’ll always be?  Nope.  Or more accurately, hopefully no.

A part of the problem is that over the past thirty years, *real* median income for men has been roughly flat.  It’s been a little better for women, but that’s mostly because of a reduction in wage descrimination.  Household income has increased, but that’s because there are more two income households.  For thirty years, households have been improving their standard of living, first by having multiple earners, then in the nineties by investing in the stock market, then by borrowing from their homes during the real estate bubble.  Savings were certainly eaten into over that period of time.  So, the way to actually increase savings would be to allow people to improve their standard of living without borrowing – i.e., if wage gains rose at the levels of productivity gains, the median wage would be probably 50% higher.  That would allow people the ability to improve their standard of living while still saving.  Instead, we’ve seen companies hoard more cash, spend less and keep the benefits of productivity gains for the CEOs.  In part, you can see this in the weakness of the last recovery.  The recovery was weak, and took quite a long time, in part because companies refused to spend.  Consumer spending had to pull us out of the recession, and it took borrowing to do so.

So what about the last idea, that the recession will help us to live a simpler and more enjoyable life?  Unfortunately, it’s not true.  More to the point, the amount of spending is not necessarily correlated to “simpleness.”  You can have a robust economy wherein people are spending money on things that matter to them.  For example, K and I don’t go to movies and we seldom eat out.  However, we probably spend more each year on books than most people do on movies.  We don’t eat out, but we do eat well.  Other people I know whose lives I admire make an effort to eat at locally owned restaurants or spend money at the farmer’s markets or on their hobbies.  All of these people are making a useful economic contribution while still living an enjoyable and “simple” life.

On the flip side, just because you have less to spend doesn’t mean that you will magically start saving more and leading a simpler life.  Sure, there’s less money available, but that could just as easily mean that you stop visiting local restaurants and start eating fast food.  It could mean that instead of telecommuting, you have to work multiple jobs at different locations around town in order to make ends meet.  Simplicity is a lifestyle choice and is not well correlated with financial situation.

Everyone has to live within their means, but as a society, our goal should be to increase those means.  We shouldn’t have a country where 20% of the benefits of society go to the top 1%.  We should work to ensure that all people have better access to the benefits of society.  We shouldn’t be “rooting” for a recession to teach us moral values.  If people choose to live a simple life and to save more, great.  If not, that’s their choice too, regardless, a recession is good for no one.

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