NEEDS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 9th, 2015 by Ed

I'd like to thank Brother Kenneth Mehn, Order of Saint Augustine, who taught me about Maslow when I was a 14 year old high school freshman. What I'm saying is, this is partially his fault.

Maslow

HISTORIC HISTORICAL IGNORANCE

Posted in Rants on July 7th, 2015 by Ed

Every time another survey reveals that Americans can't find their asses with both hands in their back pockets knowledge wise, we end up having the same nails-on-chalkboard argument. Look how stupid everyone is, this is the problem! vs. What is the point of knowing facts anymore, you can just look everything up. I have tried over the years to become more open-minded toward the latter, with some success. It isn't a sign of moral and intellectual weakness for an individual to fail to know all of the members of the Supreme Court, provided they have a working understanding of what the Court does and how. In that example, Google will serve a roughly equal purpose to memorizing all nine names.

What that argument fails to account for, of course, is that this hypothetical rarely reflects reality. Apologists have argued that it's OK if American students, for example, do not know any facts as long as they develop critical thinking skills. The problem is that they suck at that, too. We've gone from a couple generations of students who memorized a lot of facts and information and may not have been taught much about how to put such information to productive use to generations who haven't memorized anything, don't pay attention to much, and are as good at critical thinking as the Chinese are at hockey.

This is why I've always been on the Facts side of the argument. And lately we are seeing the second major shortcoming of the "They can just Google it" thesis: Ignorance of information has a mysterious tendency to correlate with ignorance of history. History may be the subject area most affected by the declining relevance of actually learning things. I can't explain the Space Race to you if you don't know what the Cold War is, don't know what the Soviet Union was, and can't identify Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Sputnik, the Mercury Program, and other important figures. And none of the preceding will make any sense without understanding World War II, how it ended, and the geopolitical consequences. I can send you an article or even a video to explain the Space Race, but what good is that without some understanding of who these people and events are? What you're left with is a Michael Bay Transformers movie version of learning: nobody has any idea who is who or what is going on. It's a miasma of events and names that mean as much to most Americans today as Runic stones.

To see the practical results of this kind of collective mental atrophy, look no further than the Confederate Flag debate or, if you're a little more policy-oriented, the current economic situation in Greece. Watch Thomas Piketty calmly explain to a reporter that what Germany, the EU, and neoliberals the world over are demanding of Greece is the exact antithesis of what Germany, France, the UK, and other cripplingly indebted nations were asked to do at the end of WWII. The idea that austerity would solve a problem with debt was so patently ridiculous at the time that it was not even suggested. Quite the opposite; inflation and economic growth were understood to be the only logical ways to reduce a debt at 200% of GDP, and governments the world over were encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. Provided those drunken sailors had an eye toward building productive, growth-oriented industrial economies.

It worked. How many people today know that? What is being proposed now demonstrably does not work. How many people today know that? Once you've punted on knowledge and facts, the hope of having an informed debate is gone. The result is what we see today: people all around the world, from bankers and world leaders to reporters and newscasters to minimum wage earners on the street, who have absolutely no ability to look at two options and conclude that one has worked before and is therefore likely superior to the other that has been tried and doesn't work at all.

Good luck getting that from Googling "Greek debt."

THE HAUNTING

Posted in Rants on July 5th, 2015 by Ed

So, Bernie Sanders has started to get an increased amount of media attention lately. Take that with a grain of salt; part of it comes from the fact that his campaign has been doing some interesting things, and part of it is due to the media's need to cover a second (or more) viable Democratic candidate so that the nomination process is something more exciting than a Clinton Coronation.

The second caveat is that Sanders has been harvesting some low hanging fruit. Let's put it this way: if you're the progressive candidate and you can't get 10,000 people to come out to see you in Madison, WI you might as well throw in the towel. The headlines about his early draw in places like Oregon, Madison, and Berkeley are up there with "Dog licks balls" as riveting news. Furthermore, a good deal of the national media attention he has received is condescending, depicting him as your burned out old hippie uncle who once lived on a commune and probably has an extremely high electric bill (wink). It is hardly as if full scale BernieMania is on the verge of sweeping the country.

That said, he has a real shot at this. And Team Clinton must be shitting bricks right now. I suspect that more than a few who were around her toxic campaign in 2008 dare not say "Uh oh. Here we go again…" even though they're thinking it.

Here is the problem from Clinton's perspective. As commanding as her lead in name recognition and money over the rest of the Democratic "field" is, 75% of the party base is looking around hoping someone better will come along. Hillary Clinton seems like she could win a general election, and therefore nearly all left-of-center Americans consider her Acceptable. Acceptable and Great are not quite the same thing, however. She is the classic establishment candidate, and her argument for the nomination boils down to "It's my turn, and I deserve this." Like other establishment candidates (Mitt Romney, for example, who also saw his party desperately try to nominate literally anyone but him before circling back) her primary motivation seems to be that she really, really wants to be president. That's fine, but you can't make it this obvious. Democratic voters are more susceptible to idealists than Republicans. Someone who can come along and convince the party base that he or she might make things better rather than merely being Slightly Better than the Republican.

In 2008, Obama came out of nowhere, offered this to primary voters, and immediately eliminated Clinton's insurmountable lead. Sanders is capable of doing that. And I suspect the Clinton campaign knows it. Even if they won't say it, I think they also recognize that the fundamental problem is that while voters will take Clinton, nobody's terribly enthusiastic about it. We're all scanning the horizon looking for someone less infuriatingly Centrist, less New Democrat, less I Refuse to Take Positions on Anything of Importance and I'm Basically John McCain on Foreign Policy. Again, in a general election Democrats and left-leaning voters will vote for her overwhelmingly. She's good enough. Clearing the bar just barely will always leave her susceptible to challengers who leap over it and look like they could actually win a general election.

Sanders is not without flaws himself. He needs to be more conscious of his visuals when on stage or behind a podium. He needs some people who have a proven track record of running a winning campaign. He needs a goddamn haircut. As he stands, any opponent would have a very easy time labeling him an old codger from a bygone era. Image counts. Hillary Clinton (67) is nearly as old as Sanders (73) but looks nowhere near that age. Most people would be surprised to learn that she is even 60. Sanders also needs to avoid the fate of Howard Dean. The media will be eager to depict him as an old, ranting lunatic from the hinterlands and he needs to be careful not to give them the opportunity.

In 2016 the Democrats have a chance to give themselves a real leg up by the time the general election begins. While the GOP 20-way circus plays out as monkeys in suits flinging their own crap at one another on debate stages, the two older, mature looking and sounding Democratic candidates will turn on how well Clinton can convince voters that she is something better than Republican Lite and how "electable" Sanders can make himself sound.

In short, greet Sanders' increased visibility with guarded optimism. He can win, even if the odds remain a long shot for now. The best evidence that he is viable is the Clinton campaign's sense of alarm as they realize that she is not in fact the candidate of inevitability.

NPF: RUSSIAN WOODPECKER

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die. Today I want to share with you another one that I will probably never see in person, although as recently as the 1980s you could hear it at any point on the globe.

The Soviet Union, and Russians before and after it, equate size with power and success. When they build something, they build it big. Real big. Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous.

I talked a little about the idea of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems in the previous post. The American approach to getting early warning of a sneak attack was to build a series of small radar stations across the remote Canadian Arctic. The Russian approach, not altogether surprisingly, was to build a really, really big radar. A radar so goddamn big that it could essentially see halfway around the globe. The result of this brute force approach was known to the Soviets as Duga-3, and to the prying eyes of NATO as "Steel Yard." To every amateur radio user on the planet, though, it was called the Russian Woodpecker.

duga

To make the concept work requires a very big radar and a huge amount of power. The huge amount of power produced a radio signal that created an equally huge amount of interference with radio signals and other forms of communication. If the nickname "Russian Woodpecker" was not self-explanatory, here's a clip of what the interference sounded like on normal radio channels. It took almost no time to locate the source of the signal as this massive pile of metal Tinker Toys near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Good thing nothing bad would happen there around 1986!

The USSR shut the contraption down pretty quickly when its functions were taken over by other, less cumbersome technology like satellite monitoring. The "Steel Yard" itself remains standing, though, and despite having been abandoned to nature over 30 years ago it remains in remarkably good condition. It's a rather popular destination for thrill-seekers, armchair Cold War anthropologists, and base jumpers. Eventually the elements (or a tactical airstrike) will take it down, but until then it will keep calling my name. Metaphorically. Unless they decide to turn it back on again.