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Feb. 15th, 2016

03:14 pm - Election Day Feb. 16 in Wisconsin

It was the first election of the post-apartheid era in South Africa, and the TV news crew was out in the boonies looking for good human-interest stories. The government hadn’t been able to set up sufficient polling locations or staff them fully, so there was a long line stretching out of one rural poll into the dusty prairie beyond. The crew set out, walking toward the end of the line, looking for likely interviewees.

They spotted one old gent, dressed colorfully but leaning heavily on his cane, and asked him where he was from. It turned out that he lived about 20 klicks away and had left the previous night, walking and resting as he went, to get here. He was nowhere near the front of the line, and they said it looked like things were moving slowly.

“That’s all right”, he said. “I can wait.”

“How long have you been waiting already?”, they asked.

“About 60 years.”

I always vote.

Read to children. Vote. And never buy anything from a man who's selling fear.
— Mary Doria Russell, American science-fiction writer

Jan. 14th, 2016

10:42 am - "Nones" Now Largest "Religious" Group among Democrats

I’ve got mixed emotions about the findings of the Pew Research Center that the “nones” (people with no particular religious affiliation, including but not limited to atheists and agnostics) are now the largest single group within the Democratic party when subdivided by religious preference.

On the one hand, it’s good (and kind of poetic justice) to have a counterweight to the Radical Religious Right, which came close to taking over the Republican Party and still has an outsize influence there. On the other, this bids fair to further divide America along religious lines and exacerbate the political divisions that have resulted in the extreme polarization of our legislative bodies, which can’t be good for the country.

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Can we all get along?

— Rodney King, victim of beating by Los Angeles police, 1991 March 2

Dec. 25th, 2015

11:52 am - TRUE Scale Model of the Solar System

For decades, I’ve wanted to build a true scale model of the Solar System on the median strip of I-94 between Eau Claire and Tomah. It would be big enuf for passing motorists to actually see the planets to scale and then travel the proportional distance between them. These guys had the same idea, for the same reasons, but lacked the budget (and the federal authorization) to pull it off at interstate-highway distances, so they did it in the desert. Nonetheless, it’s probably the very first time anyone on Earth has actually created such a model truly to scale.

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
   — Carl Sagan (1934-1996), American astronomer and science writer

Addendum (Dec. 25): Mark Hobson informs me that just such a scale model has existed practically in my own back yard since 2009.

Dec. 17th, 2015

04:51 pm - George W. Bush’s Greatest Accomplishment

[originally published on 2008 July 14, but look how little has changed since then.]

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition was one of history’s most amazing juggling acts.

FDR was able to convince poor, young, black, single mothers that they had something in common with affluent, middle-aged, white, married Ivy League professors. And vice versa. Farmers who produced crops linked arms with factory workers who had to buy groceries. Good ol’ boy Southerners voted the same way as slick NYC personal-injury attorneys. Veterans looking for a good college education made common cause with pacifists. Civil libertarians joined forces with alphabet-agency government regulators.

It was really pretty amazing that this ragtag collection of constituencies was able to overcome its innate centrifugal force for even a single election, let alone holding together long enuf to govern the country — and pretty well, too — for half a century.

But it was already on the wane thru a combination of fatigue, complacency, and corruption by the time Ronald Reagan came along in 1980 and started the Republicans down the road to a different coalition — one that would rule from the right — which Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” would cement in place a decade later.

This one too had its odd bedfellows. See if you can find a common theme among these:

(1) Traditionalists. Their parents or grandparents voted for Ike or Reagan (apparently nobody ever voted for Nixon), so they grew up Republican and that's the way they always vote. No thot involved; it's just who they are and what they do. (Think Tommy Thompson.)

(2) Small-Business Conservatives. The classic Adam Smith laissez-faire entrepreneurs, not much different from Thomas Jefferson's sturdy yeoman farmers, who as rugged individualists just want to be left alone to run their own businesses without a lot of burdensome interference. For them, government is the oppressor, with all its regulations. (Think Duncan Hunter.)

(3) Big-Business Conservatives. People who have figured out how to game the system with their armies of lawyers, lobbyists, and tax accountants. For them, government is the sugar daddy, with its no-bid, cost-plus, sole-source contracts, an endless source of corporate welfare. (Think Mitt Romney.)

(4) Social Conservatives. Decent people, usually religiously motivated, who sincerely believe that abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sinful perversity, America's biggest enemy is moral decay, and the 1950s were a glorious era when everything was right with the world. (Think Mike Huckabee.)

(5) American Triumphalists. In an earlier era, these were the people who flocked to the banner of “manifest destiny”. They think that the US of A is the greatest nation on Earth, and it's our bounden duty to export our culture to the poor, benighted inhabitants of the rest of the planet, who will gladly welcome it as soon as we patiently explain what they've been missing. (Think John McCain.)

(6) Neo-Monarchists. You may have heard the parental theory of politics, where people who need nurturing want a mommy (the Democrats), while those who need protection seek a daddy (the Republicans). These are the people who totally buy into the daddy side of things. They want a strong, decisive leader and are basically suspicious of too much messy democracy. In an earlier era, they would have been rooting for MacArthur to become America's Mussolini. (Think Rudy Giuliani.)

(7) Holy Warriors. These come in 2 subflavors: (7A) 2nd-Coming Christians, who want iron-clad control of Israel so the end-time prophecies will be fulfilled in time for Jesus to fight the big battle at Armageddon; and (7B) 1st-Coming Jews, who want iron-clad control of the Promised Land so the Messiah can finally get here to save his Chosen People. Each of these factions thinks the other is nuts, if not heretical, but they have a common end goal, so they work together for now. (Think Sam Brownback with a side of Joe Lieberman.)

(8) The Disapprovers. Also coming in 2 subflavors: (8A) Men, who (while slamming down boilermakers at the corner bar) rail at permissive laws than mandate only 20 years in the jug for those dope-smoking long-haired hippie freaks; and (8B) Women, who despair of hip-hugger jeans, ear piercings, and “what’s become of today’s youth”. However, neither subflavor disapproves of massive overgeneralizations based on sex, race, or national origin. (Think Tom Tancredo.)

(9) The Brahmins. Old money. It’s not as if they’re single-interest voters, but nobody else cares more about the inheritance tax (which they call the “death tax” and see as a threat to the legacy of their noble descendants). (Think Jim Gilmore.)

(10) Libertarians. They figure we can get by with as little government as possible, and that almost all human interactions can be handled by contracts entered into and enforced by enlightened individuals with their eyes wide open. For them, government is just a giant mistake, a trip down the wrong fork in the historical road. (Think Ron Paul.)

If there’s a common thread there, I sure can’t find it. Quite the contrary. There’s an inherent tension between big vs. small businesses, Christians vs. Libertarians, and so on.

But every Republican nominee or wannabe since Gerry Ford and Jack Kemp has had to show solidarity with each of these disparate factions, promising to look out for their interests. And they’ve had to appeal to all of them. As we saw in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the country is so evenly split that they needed every vote they could earn (and many that they didn’t earn but were handed to them gift-wrapped by Katherine Harris and Ken Blackwell). They couldn’t afford to let even one of these subgroups slip away.

As you can tell from my ability to attach the name of a Republican presidential aspirant to each of the above paragraphs, by 2008 each group figured that its own turn had come up — time to reap the rewards for the loyal support they’d shown in the past. Each managed to put forth or belch up an old white guy to carry its banner. Each such aspirant was clearly a product and exemplar of his particular group. And, probably for that very reason, each was held suspect by all of the others.

After all the shouting finally died down, and the Rs had ended up with the oldest, whitest guy of them all, they’d managed to at least disappoint if not infuriate all the other groups.

And this brings us back to George W. Bush’s greatest accomplishment. Not once but twice he not only convinced every one of those groups that he’d advance their particular agendas, he totally sold himself as being one of them! 

It was, of course, a total con job, a masterpiece of snake-oil salesmanship, the repeated success of ingratiating but unexamined claims like “Yo hablo Español” from a guy who could barely manage English. It was the triumph of Karl Rove’s version of manufactured reality.

But, in the pragmatic world of politics, it met the only test that ever matters: it worked!

And, hard as it may be to believe for those of us who think that history will judge Bush the Lesser as one of America’s all-time worst presidents, within just a few years GOP stalwarts will be looking back on him fondly as having delivered — at least for them — on his claim of being a uniter, not a divider.

Jun. 26th, 2015

01:03 pm - More on Flags

Eisenhower on Gay Marriage: "What's good for GM is good for the country."

Jun. 20th, 2015

01:32 am - Keeping Things in Perspective

After the massacre in Charleston, the South Carolina state capitol flew the national and state flags at half staff but saw no particular reason to do the same for the flag they’re proudest of:

Update: MoveOn.org has created a petition asking South Carolina to retire the Confederate flag.

Still later PS: After posting the message above, I ran across an article explaining that, to many people in South Carolina (also Georgia, Mississippi, etc.) the Confederate flag is a symbol of “Southern pride”. This got me to thinking about what symbols of Southern achievement they could use instead, and right off the top of my head I came up with:
• drinking gourd (Harriet Tubman)
• peanuts (George Washington Carver)
• saxophone (Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
• trumpet (Louis Armstrong)
• Olympic Gold Medal (Muhammad Ali)
• Nobel Peace Prize (Martin Luther King Jr.)

I wonder why they haven’t latched on to these instead?

Jun. 17th, 2015

09:53 pm - A Woman on the $10 Bill

The US Treasury Department has announced that it would like to feature a woman (by law, a dead woman) on the $10 bill, replacing incumbent Alexander Hamilton. They’ll ask for suggestions on a website (not yet launched) and over social media with the hashtag #TheNew10.

Altho I know that a pacifist doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making the final cut, I’m nonetheless going to be pushing for Jeannette Rankin.

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You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.

— Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), 1st US Congresswoman. Rankin served only 2 terms in Congress, each time losing her chance for re-election because she had voted against US entry into a world war. She cast the lone vote against WW2.

Apr. 30th, 2015

05:34 pm - On the "Left-Wing Media"

Yesterday I sent out a widespread e-mail blast about the introduction into the House of Representatives of a Constitutional amendment to roll back the effects of Citizens United. One of its recipients came back with a “yeah, but …” expressed thus:

The big money is being spent by both parties so why is the media so slanted left?

This red herring sent me right up the wall again, and this is what I shot back:

Take a look at the nature of the TV news coverage. Do you hear “This is what Hillary Clinton thinks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated in secret?” or “Here’s where Jeb Bush stands on the issue of the 16,000,000 illegal immigrants living in this country?”, let alone “And here’s what they said last year on the same subject” or “This differs from what these other 2 contenders from their own party are saying”? That is, anything that could help the average viewer become an informed citizen capable of casting an informed vote?

No! What you hear is “Who’s ahead in this poll or that survey” or “Look at this picture of a candidate ordering a taco” or “Maybe Joe Savior will jump into the race” — all trivial superficialities, no depth, no context, no substance, but each and every one designed to suck in short-attention-span eyeballs with “Real Housewives of New Jersey” scandal-sheet irrelevancies that, not at all incidentally, also help boost their ratings and the fees they can charge for advertising.

And don’t give me that crap about it being “left-wing media”. Not only are they all dumbing down the real news in pursuit of the holy dollar, whatever political biases they’re allowed to let glimmer thru the MTV-level cavalcade of trivia are being dictated from the top by their owners, who (you may notice) don’t comprise a lot of sandal-shod, tree-hugging Earth mothers wearing peace medallions. Instead, they all belong to the “Big 6” multi-national media conglomerates, the poorest of which is CBS Corp., with its measly $13 billion in annual revenue.

Powers behind a couple of these thrones are Rupert Murdoch at Fox and Sumner Redstone at CBS, also not exactly paragons of leftist politics.

TV is the worst, but newspapers are headed down that same road, due to the awful Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed by corporatist President Bill Clinton, husband of current corporatist front-runner Hillary Clinton), which essentially lifted the lid off the ability of huge conglomerates to monopolize all the media outlets — TV, radio, newspapers — in a given market. That squeezed out all the small, locally owned and operated, independent operators and homogenized not only the news but also the entertainment available to us over the public airwaves.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I put in 3 years working for The Spectator back at UW-Eau Claire and at one time even toyed with the idea of a career in journalism. I’m devastated to see the sorry state this once noble profession has been reduced to.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.
— John Kenneth Galbraith, American economist

Apr. 29th, 2015

02:24 pm - Big Thanks to Rep. Mark Pocan

A huge “thank you” goes out to Wisconsin’s 2nd CD Rep. Mark Pocan for being 1 of 6 co-sponsors of House Joint Resolution 48 — the “We the People” Amendment — which would amend the US Constitution to specify unequivocally that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and regulation of political spending is permitted under the law.

It’s been 5 years since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision — including Justice Anthony Kennedy’s incredibly fatuous, naive, and totally unevidenced claim that it would lead to neither corruption nor the appearance of corruption — opened the floodgates to massive infusions of cash into the political process, drowning out the voices of us common citizens with giant megaphones purchased by billionaires, corporations, unions, churches, and (for all we can tell in the absence of disclosure laws) foreign governments.

It’s well past time that we put a stop to it, and the only effective way to do that in the long term is to overrule the Supreme Court by reinserting sanity into the supreme law of the land.

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
—Big Brother

Corporations are people.
Money is speech.
Citizens United

Apr. 21st, 2015

01:07 pm - On High-Stakes Testing

Voice of the People contributor Eric Thompson asks how we can measure academic success without testing. As someone with a great respect for the scientific method, I have to agree that testing hypotheses against reality is the sine qua non of sorting out fact from fiction (or even fondness, in the case of things we wish were true).

But let's ask "in service of what end?". What are we testing, the kids’ learning or the schools’ teaching? Ideally it should be both, but it’s only the kids who pay the price if their test scores come back low. What do we do when that happens? Do we try to adjust our teaching to aim more squarely at their demonstrated level of preparedness and interest, or do we just slap a “slow learner” tag on them and ship them up the line, with lowered expectations, to the next grade?

The sad fact of the matter is that the primary determinant of what we teach our kids is not what they want to learn, or are ready to learn, or would be useful for them to learn, it’s their birthdays. If you were born in Year X, that makes you Y years old, and therefore we will place you in Grade Z and treat you exactly the same as everyone else born in Year X, because you’re all essentially identical little square pegs, and we’ve got a whole bunch of identically sized square holes you’ll exactly fit into. Good at English but bad at math? On to the next grade anyway; sorry about that math thing. Or maybe we’ll hold you back a year; sorry about that English thing. In an era where we have beaucoup computing power to customize our treatment of highly individual children, we’re still treating them all like mass-produced fenders working their way down a conveyor belt in an auto plant.

And why is it that we measure “success” based exclusively on a child's facility with math and English, simply because those are most readily reduced to simplistic true-false questions that are easily quantified into even more simplistic 3-digit test scores? How do we measure “success” in art, music, philosophy, critical thinking, history, honesty, community service, or other abstruse subjects we hope the schools are also inculcating in our young people? And even other things that we can measure — like gymnastics, punctuality, or driving a car — don’t count toward a student’s supposed 3-digit “worth”, yet aren’t they valuable as well?

The point that the opt-out folks are making, Mr. Thompson, isn’t that tests are worthless, it’s that they’re way too limited; way, way overvalued; and have way, way, way too much emphasis being placed on them (thus the phrase “high-stakes”, which is not a compliment) in lieu of trying to produce well-rounded, responsible adults.

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As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.

— bumper sticker

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