Friday, July 27, 2012

A U.S. of Zombies

There is not much profit in expatiating once again on the perils of an armed-to-the-teeth populace in the United States—thanks to the National Rifle Association (NRA). We all know the false mantra that has become so sickening in our time: guns don’t kill, people do. If you want to read chapter and verse about this organized insanity, check out Saturday’s Reader Supported News piece by Matthew Chapman, “What Will it Take for Americans to Reject the NRA?” I also just saw an interesting statistic from a similar piece today: there are 58 murders a year by firearms in Britain, and 8,775 in the United States.

For me, though, the Aurora, Colorado massacre evokes other sadnesses and ironies. To begin with, isn’t it fitting that a 24-year-old all-honors grad student should enter a theatre premiering the latest violence fantasy, style himself as The Joker, and open fire on the crowd? Batman in the films based on the comic is always battling evil geniuses—the Joker being the most memorable—who commit virtually motiveless violence. They’re just evil. James Holmes seems to be, or want to be, one of these. No one had done him any harm. He doesn’t seem to have been psychologically maimed in any obvious way—indeed, his latest project was investigating the "Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders." And yet, he carefully plans his murderous spree, entering the theater normally, exiting from a side exit whose door he carefully leaves ajar, arms himself with assault weapons, tear gas, body armor and a gas mask, and re-enters to begin his slaughter of people he knows nothing about. He apparently just wanted to kill people.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, July 19, 2012

He is Not One of Us

He acts kind of funny
And has scads of money
He doesn’t have hooves
But puts dogs on car roofs
He has homes everywhere
And sports perfect hair
His laughs seem so forced
And he’s not even hoarse
And he won’t drink or cuss
He’s not one of us

As we exit the Republican primary circus and enter the face-off between a black incumbent president and a white opponent, we are forced to encounter ourselves along the way. It is interesting on so many levels that I know that many of you readers will tell me how many factors that I have missed during the journey. When we compare the two major candidates on a personal basis as happened during the electioneering for the GW Bush presidency where lots of folks simply went on their gut reaction “I’d like to sit down and have a beer with W.” Somehow, I don’t think that any of us would qualify to sit in the same beer tent with the non-drinking Romney. While I can afford a beer, I cannot afford getting into a $10,000 bet, or a fund raising event in the Hamptons. I will attempt to compare the candidates to each other as well as the candidates to you and me. I am going to make a non-monetary wager right up front, however. I’ll bet that you have more in common with Mr. Obama than you do with Mr. Romney. I hope that does not spoil your day.

Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother moved several times in childhood. She lived in California, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Washington. Obama was born into the middle class and had a single parent mother whose husband left her and Barack to fend for themselves after 4 years. Stanley Ann Dunham was only 18 when Barack was born. She and her family valued education highly and sacrificed for it. Stanley (“Ann” in college) moved between the US and Indonesia as an adult as she studied and raised her son. She married a second time (to Lolo Soetoro) and divorced him in 1980. Barack’s father went to Harvard for his Master’s degree while his mother received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii in 1992. Her 20 year study covered blacksmithing in Indonesia and both her M.A. and PhD degrees were awarded by the University of Hawaii. The Obamas were dependent upon public education for some schooling although Barack spent eight years at the Punahou (prep) School in Honolulu. Although Punahou is heavily endowed, Barack’s family sacrificed to provide tuition. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was born into wealth in Michigan and never attended a public school after grammar school, nor did he send his children to public schools. George Romney chose to surround his children with other kids of privilege, as did his son Mitt. Both Barack and Mitt are distinguished Harvard JD graduates although Barack was elected President of the Harvard Law Review.

Obama’s grandparents were interesting in their own right. Stanley Ann’s father, Stanley Armour Dunham, volunteered and served in the US Army during WW II. He is related to six presidents (James Madison, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and both George H. W. Bush and GW Bush). Obama’s great-uncle Ralph Dunham also served in WW II and landed on Omaha Beach on D +4. Stanley Dunham never was quite able to open a furniture store as he had hoped, but Barack’s grandmother Madelyn Dunham worked in a Honolulu bank and ended her career as vice president of the bank. Ralph Dunham was especially proud of his service under General Patton in Europe. The Dunham family seemed solidly middle class and patriotic Americans who did their duty and served when called as did millions of others. They participated in the economy and did the best they could with the resources they had including educating Barack. They intermingled with others as part of the American melting pot.

Romney’s parents and grandparents were interesting as well. Mitt’s actual first name is Willard; named for J. Willard Marriott, the hotel magnate. When the US government made it clear that the Mormon practice of polygamy was going to be outlawed, Mitt’s grandfather moved his family to Mexico in 1885 where George Romney was born later. Mitt’s grandfather moved back to the United States in 1910 to escape the Mexican Revolution. In that sense, the Romneys faced some obstacles due to polygamy, but George Romney became monogamous and a successful businessman who entered politics as a Republican in Michigan. Mormon polygamist colonies in Mexico were assisted by the US government with transportation and payments to return from Mexico about 20 years after renouncing polygamy as a tenet of the Mormon religion. Later, Mexico paid reparation, although many Mormons remained in colonies there. George Romney was eligible for dual citizenship due to his birth in Mexico. By Mexican law, Mexican citizenship eligibility extends to Mitt Romney. He could be a reverse “anchor baby.”

Mitt’s family faced little deprivation in the US and his father George Romney became a successful automobile executive in Michigan although he was criticized for moving American Motors to Wisconsin almost as a precursor to Mitt’s practice with Bain; moving jobs and shrinking employment to increase profits. George Romney did become the Governor of Michigan and served three two-year terms. He ran for the Republican nomination for president, but was seriously hampered by his statement that he was “brainwashed” by the military over the Vietnam War. His opposition to the war put George Romney in direct conflict with Barry Goldwater who was far more conservative. Mitt, however, strongly defended the war during his thirty-month missionary tour in France and was surprised by his father’s opposition to it when he returned home. Mitt had a total of four deferments matching the achievement of Dick Cheney, another advocate for the Vietnam War, as long as war was not personal.

There has been little discussion of an odd similarity with the two families in that both were polygamist at some point; Mitt’s great grandfather and Barack’s grandfather and perhaps even his father, were polygamists. Ooh, small world.

Ironically, days ago, on 17 July 2012, John Sununu set up our situational questions with his campaign conference call: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” That has been the GOP talking point since before Obama took office. “He is not one of us.” We have endured “birthers” and pundits from the right shouting how Obama just does not act like the rest of us. “He had foreign training in a Madrassa?” “I don’t believe he can be a Christian.” Putting aside the obvious question as to whether Mormons can be Christians for the moment, can we change this flow and ask a few questions that let us examine similarities among Romney and Obama and us.

How many of you have elevators for your three Cadillacs? How many of you have made public $10,000 bets? How many of you have never put your kids into a public school? How many of you have mansions scattered across this nation and overseas? How many of you never had to fight for work or shelter(s) or education? How many of you have been able to avoid income taxes? How many of you got draft exemptions for the Vietnam War? How many of you outsourced jobs? How many of you assaulted an effeminate classmate; forcibly cut his hair and humiliate him using other classmates to hold him down? How many of you raided pension plans to increase your profits (and had the government make up pension shortfalls)? How many of you have tax shelters in the Caymans? How many of you have Swiss bank accounts? How many of you have not had to provide tax returns to get a home loan? How many of you agree “Corporations are people, my friend?”

You get the point. Yes, Obama is black. Is that what makes him “less American?” Think about it. When was the last time you traveled with a live dog on the top of your car? Finally, how many of you agree: Mitt Romney said he finds "it hard to disagree with Rush Limbaugh on topics?"

Definitely, Romney is not one of us. This is just the opposite of what the noise machine has blared since before Obama was elected. It is time to consider whom you are most like. It may make a huge difference when decisions are made on jobs and taxes and privileges versus rights and responsibilities. Come to think of it, wouldn’t you also rather have a beer with Obama?

George Giacoppe
18 July 2012

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Higgs Bosons: What’s the Big Deal?

The news wires have been buzzing this week with the possible discovery, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, of the long-sought Higgs Boson—aka the “God particle.” Just that nickname is enough to set journalistic hearts a-flutter. But, as always in high-energy physics, there’s more to the drama than meets the eye via standard news accounts. This is not to say that I, a mere dilletante, really understand it, but reading lots of accounts and seeing several videos has made some things clearer. Perhaps I can convey that to a few readers.

To begin with, the real action here lies with the proposed Higgs field, the Higgs Boson being only an indication that the theorized field actually exists. But the Higgs field is not like the usual fields—the magnetic field around earth, or the gravitational field around our sun, or an electromagnetic field around a generator—we’re familiar with. Those fields require an energy source, like the sun, to generate them; furthermore, the size of the force (of gravity, say, from the sun) varies with the distance from the energy source. So, the farther we get from the sun or the earth, the less force we feel from its gravity field. In short, most fields dissipate with distance because the number of particles constituting the field (virtual particles) is fewer (this last is due to the quantum understanding of fields, which used to be thought of as continuous, but are now thought of as composed of particles, like all else).

The Higgs field is not like that. Theoretically at least, the Higgs field remains the same throughout the universe even though there’s no source generating it (if I understand it correctly, the Higgs field would have been generated in the first nano-seconds of and by the Big Bang). Its force doesn’t dissipate with distance because of this lack of a specific energy source. It’s everywhere.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Why do Republicans consistently vote against legislation that benefits seniors? We are familiar with the Republican war on science, women, the environment and unions, but what have they got against older Americans?
Just in case you aren't aware of how Republicans have been voting on issues that are important to seniors and retired people there is an organization that is an advocate for those very people and keeps track of how everyone in Congress votes. The Alliance for Retired Americans is a non-partisan organization whose website will tell you what bills effect seniors and how your representative voted. You can also find this information on Project Vote Smart on the web. Needless to say votes speak louder than words.

As an example, let's take my Congressman Dana Rorhabacher in the newly formed 48th Congressional District. For over 22 years Dana has been re-elected to represent a district that includes Leisure World in Seal Beach, a senior community of about 9,000 people who tend to be registered voters. Every couple of years Dana comes to Leisure World to visit the Republican Club. The message of all the great things Dana is doing is reinforced by the glossy mailers. What he doesn't mention to the good people of Leisure World is that for 22 years he has voted against their Medicare, social security, long-term care, aid to seniors in poverty, protecting their pension and even a modest raise in their minimum wage.

The Alliance for Retired Americans lists ten senior issues the House voted on in 2011. Dana and one other House Republican from California voted for seniors once and against their interests the other nine times. You might think that 10% is a terrible voting record, and it is, but the other 17 House Republicans were zero for ten!

Contrast this with the Democratic House members from California who had 31 with 100%, one with 90% and one with 80% and you see what a dramatic difference there is. Also, both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had a 100% rating on senior issues in their ten Senate votes.

It's not like these bills were inconsequential to seniors. The House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act but were blocked in the Senate. Repeal would have cost the average senior hundreds of dollars a year in prescriptions just so HMOs and drug companies could make more profit. Then the Republicans passed a bill to block funding for health care and were blocked in the Senate.

Democrats supported funding HR 830, so seniors could stay in their homes instead of facing foreclosure but Republicans sided with the banks and voted it down. The House passed the notorious Ryan budget to essentially privitise Medicare by a 235 - 193 vote. Republicans also voted for reducing middle class benefits, including social security and Medicare.

On December 14, 2011 the House voted 261 -165 for a balanced budget amendment that would have created the sort of gridlock California has endured for decades by requiring an undemocratic 2/3 vote to pass a budget. This would allow Republicans to block any future programs that would benefit seniors and retired Americans. There were senior nutrition programs, HR 2112 the Republicans tried to slash by $400 million from low income seniors. On December 8, Republicans filibustered a bill that would have provided financial protections for seniors against unfair and abusive practices. They also filibustered a bill Democrats passed that would have allowed Americans to save money by buying prescriptions from Canada.

I don't think that Republicans really hate seniors. Seniors and retired Americans are simply the innocent victims of Republicans rigid belief that government should only spend money to benefit corporations or the military. Part of the problem is you might hear about senior issues in the headlines or on the TV news. You might have to dig around because it isn't a hot button topic. If you are a senior, or plan to be one, you need to be aware of who is voting to protect your interests and who is not. So, wake up seniors! It just makes sense to vote for the representatives who will vote for you.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Hooked on the ‘Net

A history teacher on the Frontline documentary “Digital Nation” put the problem succinctly: “these kids (his high school students) are natives in this world; we (pre-computer types) are immigrants.” That’s more or less the way I feel. The computer is essentially a typewriter to me. The internet helps in the way a library used to: it provides a quick source for necessary facts, but it is not the place where I live. For the internet generation, however—the one that has been using computers since almost birth—it is where they live. And more and more of them cannot imagine a world without that constant connection. Either via iPhones or laptops or game consoles or iPods or all and more at the same time, the internet generation now in schools like your neighborhood grammar school or high school or MIT is constantly connected, multitasking at all hours of the day and night, including when they’re in class, eating with friends, or studying at home or in the library. They’re googling, chatting, texting, posting on Facebook or Twitter, indulging in their online second life, listening to their playlists, and doing their homework all at the same time.

There have been many warnings about this, and about what the constant distraction might be doing not only to the competence, but to the brains of these kids. But there are also those who pooh-pooh the warnings and insist that the world in which the current generation will have to function requires them to be adept at multiple tasks and “problem-solving” rather than the old style of memorizing facts and dates. Still, a segment with a teenager in South Korea, where the government has actually had to step in and institute a program to teach children how not to misuse the internet, is sobering. One teen named Kim got so addicted to constant computer gaming that his mother sent him to one of the Internet Rescue Camps where teen internet addicts learn to do outdoors-y things with their peers—like actually communicating in person. Kim wasn’t so sanguine about the camp, though. He said he was obsessing about computer gaming constantly, and couldn’t wait to get home so he could get back online. Others have not been so lucky: several teens actually died after spending 50 hours constantly gaming without a break for either food or water.

Neuroscientists have begun to seriously investigate what all this constant screen-interaction (average kids spend over 50 hours a week on digital media while real devotees—i.e. addicts—spend considerably more) is doing to youthful brains. Where most young people are certain that their multitasking is very efficient, Prof. Clifford Nass at Stanford had doubts even before his research: “a great deal of research has already shown us that the brain can only attend to one thing at a time,” Nass said. His subsequent research on the efficiency of multitaskers (these were young college kids who regularly work on five or six things at once) showed that, contrary to their own assessment that they were efficient multitaskers, most were significantly slower at simple tasks than normal, and basically terrible at every aspect of multitasking. Nass concluded by saying, “We worry that this may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.” Another research project, by Dr. Gary Small of UCLA, gave a more graphic picture—neuroimages of some brains reading, compared to other brains doing google searches. At first the results seemed comforting: the brains of those “googling” showed about twice as much brain activity as those reading a book, thus prompting initial news reports that net surfing is good for the brain, and makes us smarter. But Dr. Small cautioned that in brain imaging, “bigger is not necessarily better.” In fact, Dr. Small pointed out, one could well argue that smaller is better, because, as with a well-trained athlete, the fit body needs to use less energy to do a given physical task than the unfit one. The same applies to brains: reading a book, for a good reader, requires less brain effort to get information (and even pleasure and relaxation).

Being a book man, of course, I would agree. Reading a book is far easier on the eyes, and far more cozy than staring at a screen all day jumping from one graphic stimulant to another. But those who have been reared on computers do not agree; they’re bored with books. Said one high school student named Greg: “I never read books. If there were 27 hours in a day, I’d read Hamlet maybe. But there aren’t.” Greg, therefore, like most of his peers, gets his “information” about a play like Romeo and Juliet from the internet sites that, in a few paragraphs, provide him with the plot and all he needs for a test. Other sites provide pre-written essays on any aspect of any literary work. That leaves students ample time for all the other joys of the net like Facebooking and texting and gaming. Prof. Mark Bauerlein, of Emory University, has written about such kids and their generation—in a book he titles The Dumbest Generation. He refers to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education referring to them as ‘the new bibliophobes.’ What the study found was that while use of the internet can raise reading skills in the early grades, as students get more wired, their reading and thinking skills deteriorate. As Professor Bauerlein noted, their writing skills are equally atrocious. Most of his colleagues, he said, agree, noting that less than 10% of students come to college actually prepared to write, and/or think. The aforementioned Professor Nass, of Stanford, was more specific: “Instead of writing an essay, they write paragraphs. They’re good for one or two paragraphs. Then they’re distracted and onto Facebook or some other online destination.” The result, he said, is that there are no connections between paragraphs, no sense of the big picture. Several students actually admitted that this was true of their own writing and the way they go about it.

Of course, there are always the apologists: a principal of a public school in the Bronx claimed to have turned his school around by equipping every student with a laptop, insisting that this is what these kids will need when they enter the ‘real world.’ An even grander apologist was Mark Trensky, CEO of a digital company called “Games2Train.” He opined that he didn’t at all agree that the book “is the best way to train people for the 21st century,” adding that alarmists also cried havoc when print first replaced memorized epics and when mechanical printing first made books available to the masses.

Perhaps. Perhaps the digital way of the internet really is opening the world to a more democratic, better-informed, more equitable society of instantly-linked brains. But some cautions might be in order here as well. One commenter on the frontline blog had this to say:

Facebook and the internet in general, a potentially momentous tool for pushing society forwards, seems to actually be limiting activism. As my peers noted, its easy to browse Facebook, find a cause, and join a group, and simply state that you support the fight against cancer, or say that America should not go to war. These groups could be a potential starting point for activism, mobilizing and connecting people with common values and causes, but from what I've seen, usually nothing moves beyond simply joining a group.

A more deeply-thought out criticism comes from Joshua Sperber on Counterpunch, in a piece called “We’re All Porn-stars Now.” What Sperber suggests is that the internet has actually co-opted all of us, getting us to internalize the ethics and behaviors of our capitalist masters. This results in profits for those who own the sites and tools that we love—Google and Facebook and even online dating sites—by entrapping us into furnishing the information about ourselves which allows them to sell advertising. This is, of course, why all those “free” sites elicit our information—to provide the means for advertising to be targeted at specific audiences likely to succumb to their appeal. And of course, thousands of sites are direct peddlers of every kind of product from foods to clothes to porn to willing dates ready to provide all of what we desire. Sperber notes, in fact, that dating sites have recently become more profitable than porn sites…This effectively means that people who post pictures on dating sites, or engage in amateur porn, are “giving it away for free.” More accurately, given their extraction of profit through user input and advertisements, as well as the fees that many sites charge, online dating sites establish a relationship of reverse prostitution. Notwithstanding their offer of “efficiency” (which makes their promise of “romance” oxymoronic) and exhibitionism, the material basis of the relationship is that you pay to work for them.

It’s hilarious, really. The internet was supposed to be the essence of “freedom.” Information free, entertainment free, social networking free, the whole world connected in this free, open flow of human togetherness and sharing and learning. And yet, according to Sperber’s account of it, we’ve all become colluders with the money-makers and hucksters, as when we go on Yelp and criticize the service at a restaurant, thus placing the blame for a bad experience on the poor waiter or waitress, while the employer who pays that person a minimum wage gets off scot free. And by “marketing” ourselves online—on Facebook or Linked-In or even Craigslist—we are unknowingly making ourselves into the very thing we say we deplore: commodities. Here’s how Sperber puts it:

..we attempt to make money marketing ourselves online not merely as laborers but as aspiring capitalists, trying to extract surplus value from any conceivable trade, skill, or gimmick. Selling one’s personality, purpose, and essence, the division of labor has been seemingly resolved online: we own the (would be) means of production, which actually means that we have become utterly commodified.

In short, we don’t have the Internet. The Internet has us, and it’s virtually impossible these days to get away. We’re hooked, cooked, and addicted to our own beloved technology. As my father used to say, “What a revolting development this is.”

(Postcript: since writing this on June 20, my internet connection has failed. After nearly an hour talking to an ATT rep, I was told my modem is kaput and no longer able to make the connection to online consciousness. So I’m waiting, bereft of my connection, for a new modem to be shipped by UPS overnight, the whole thing to cost me nearly $100 and a couple of days inability to function as I’ve been brainwashed to expect. Not sure whether this is the revenge of the Internet Gods re: the above critique, but one way or the other, they really have us by the short hairs.)

(PPS: It’s Saturday and I’ve just gotten back online. Should anyone be surprised that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with my modem—I learned this after finally getting the new one working—but rather with some connection prior to the modem fixed by ATT repair. Aarrggh!)

Lawrence DiStasi