Friday, July 29, 2016

When Talks Stop, Bombs Drop

In October, 1962, United States President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev negotiated through a very tense situation. It seems that a certain enthusiastic branch of the US government decided that it would be a nifty idea to place friendly nuclear missiles in Turkey, where they would be within love making distance of willing communities in the western Soviet Union. Incredibly, the Soviets took issue with this action and, in an act of unprovoked aggression, put their Commie nuclear America hating missiles in Cuba. Right next to where they make the cigars! The nerve!

Well, old K&K negotiated for 13 days and finally Jack hog tied and chicken fried the Commies into withdrawing their commie missiles from Cuba. And all we had to do was take our buddy bombs out of Turkey. Brilliant!

Some people have suggested that it was this conciliation with the Soviets, along with Kennedy's drive to end the Viet Nam war and severly limit the power of the CIA, that resulted in his abrupt exit from politics. Coincidence, I'm sure.

I barely remember the incident, but I'm pretty sure nobody faulted Kennedy for talking to the Soviets. Maybe it was a cold war thing. World leaders were a chatty bunch back then. Even while Kruschev was banging his shoe on the UN conference table (I hope he paid for the damages) threatening to 'bury' us, there was talking going on in the quieter, less banged up, rooms. With everybody talking nobody had any time for any big wars. Except for Korea and Viet Nam, of course. Too bad there wasn't a president who wanted to stop them.

Still, I don't remember any Internet memes (we called them 'Political' 'Cartoons" back then and they appeared in 'News' 'Papers.' Look it up.) showing Nakita Kruschev holding a sock puppet Jack Kennedy. No one condemned anybody for wanting to talk openly and respectfully with the enemy. We might not have trusted them, entirely; or believed them, evidently; or were willing to give them the time of day, snarkelly; and they no doubt returned the favor, frivolously; but we talked. And guess what? Once in a while something got done! Nuclear arms treaties and stuff like that. Imagine! One thing I'm sorry for is that there is no Russian pavilion in Epcot Center. It might be nice to know that Russians are people, too. Hell, I'm one quarter one myself. Pass the vodka!

So the world survived for the sixties and seventies, un-detonated.

In 1989 President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev undertook an unheard of effort: To voluntarily disassemble an empire. That had never been done before. Empires tend to follow the trajectory of a fire work rocket. They start off with enthusiasm, energy, and creativity, reach a high point where they are on top of the world and resplendent in glory, only to fall in the end. The beginning stages are always unique and represent Golden Ages of art, theater, politics, literature, and reason; but the downward trajectory is dismally similar for every empire. Empires end by multiplying military exploits, devaluating currency at home, losing respect abroad, and suffering political paralysis at home until the surrounding vassal states suddenly realize that the Emperor has no power and gather around for the kill. The closest that any empire had come to a controlled demolition before was when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the modestly named city of Constantinople. He basically wrote off the western Roman Empire and downsized into the Byzantine Empire. It bought the empire another thousand years, so, all in all, a nice move. Europe? Well, not so nice.

Not so here. Reagan and Gorbachev planned the voluntary and controlled decompression of the colossus that was the Soviet Union into client republics. Not too shabby and quite literally history making, to boot! Of course, there were tremendous details to work out. What's to be done with the nuclear stock pile? Russia, the largest and most powerful of the former Soviet republics, agreed to take all nuclear weapons in former republics, most in Ukraine, and secure them. Ukraine agreed to lease the Savastapol naval bases in Crimea, a former provence of Russia anyway, in exchange for rent and discounts on natural gas deliveries. They signed a 99 year lease. Crimea had been a part of Russia for four hundred years, anyway, going back to Katherin the Great. That's twice as long as the US has been a country and four times as long as it's been an empire. Show some respect.

A lot of horse trading and securities guaranteeing had to go on. On our part, the West agreed to respect the old borders of the Warsaw Pact nations and not use NATO to encroach on that territory. Not one foot east! Russia then agreed to the reunification of Germany. Back and forth went the patient negotiations until it was a done deal. An empire had voluntarily downsized and obtained a workable relationship between all of its previous parts and pieces! Stunning. I hope it lasts, that whole peace thing. At least they made a good effort, Ronald and Mikhail. Some day it will be our turn. I wonder if we'll handle it as gracefully?

Again, I don't remember any mockery of the negotiations or peace process that it involved. No 'bromance' between Ronnie and Mik.

And now, just 25 years later, that same Russia, the one we partnered with to end the cold war, has rebuilt itself into a world power. A global partner able to host a winter Olympics and become the number one exporter of wheat in the world. A nation that is building trade agreements around the world and fighting terrorists in the Middle East. Wow! Not too shabby! We should be proud to call them comrades! Partners! Isn't that what we wanted? In 1991? With Reagan and Gorbachev? Perestroika? Isn't it? Hello? Anybody? Crickets? What changed?

So why do we here in the West have such a problem with Russia? And why its president, Vladimir Putin? Is he that much worse than Kruschev or Gorbachev? Roosevelt even talked to Stalin! They even took a selfie! Churchhill looked kind of grumpy, though. He was the grumpy cat of politics. We treated them with respect and talked to them on matters vital to both our countries and the world regardless of how they looked. Why not now?

Come to think of it, why does NATO still exist? It was a cold war relic. The cold war ended 26 years ago. And what happened to that whole, NATO won't move one foot to the east, thing? It looks like we kinda dropped the nuclear football on'a coupla things. We've even got nuclear capable missiles in Romania now. I thought Kruschev and Kennedy settled that 54 years ago? As the young people say, WTF? It seems like someone didn't live up to their end if the bargain. And it looks like it might just be us. Maybe we are now what they were then.

Why do we stop talking to people? Or even worse, why do we demonize them? Putin, the democratically elected president of the second most powerful country in the world with a greater that 80% approval rating of his subjects, a country we helped create through cooperation and compromise, is suddenly the bad guy? Huh?

Donald Trump, an unabashed flim flam man who, in a saner universe, would be a joke candidate on the Daily Show, has been endorsed by Putin, or so we are told. No. It didn't happen. Putin is not that stupid. He did not endorse Trump. He said that Trump is 'colorful' which Trump reinterpreted as 'brilliant.' Please don't insult the president of the resurrected Russia by putting him in the same chamber pot as Trump. Putin is a politician. Putin is a dangerous adversary. Putin is someone I would hate as a chess partner but welcome as a friend. Putin is a pragmatist who will strike the best deal for Russia regardless of ideology or what the currently reigning empire wants. And he will talk. Just like Reagan talked to Gorbachev. And maybe on the same topic. But he's not stupid.

So What? We've talked to worse. We're no better. We are all broth in the same political soup.

Hate Putin if you like, but he's not stupid. At least don't put words in his mouth. Talk. Listen. Bad things happen when we stop thinking of our adversary as ourselves with another opinion.

When talks stop, bombs drop.

American Serfdom

I was thinking about Mrs. Obama’s reference to waking up every day in a house that slaves built. Some people immediately brought up the old argument that the slaves were provided for in terms of food, lodging, and elderly care, etc. This is basically comparing the slave economy to the mediaeval serf economy. There is one significant difference, however. The barons didn’t hate their serfs.

Serfs were considered to be a part of the territory, along with the rivers, forests, and fields. In exchange for being allowed to live on the land, the serf provided taxes, occasional military service, and fealty to the baron. The baron, in turn, provided security and the rule of law. Serfs were allowed to work the commons and have regulated access to the King’s forests and rivers. Certain other organs of civilization, traders; soldiers; priests; etc., also factored into the mix. They always do.

A serf was not free nor was he exactly a slave. He was another integral part of the economy. Contrast this with the capitalist economy where the capitalist sheds all responsibilities while amassing as much capital as possible. His only obligation to the serf, now called a laborer, is a daily recompense: A wage. If the laborer does not work, he does not get paid. If he can’t afford food, he starves. If he grows too old to work, he dies. If the environment becomes too costly for the capitalist, he packs up, leaves town, and bears no responsibility to the abandoned laborers for anything, including environmental damage his venture may have caused to the King’s land. The capitalist has no obligations other than to make money. Period.

So the serf’s life was actually easier and more secure that today’s workers’, oddly. Check out Terry Jones’ ‘Midieval Lives’ on YouTube. Enjoyable and informative. This is peculiar seeing as we have more in the way of technology, medical advancements, sanitation, healthy food and clean water, and access to (temporary) fossil fuels which gives each and every one of us an estimated 150 fossil fuel ‘slaves.’ In other words, if we needed human laborers to provide everything we get from coal, oil, and natural gas, it would require 150 people for each and every one of us. Those are our carbon slaves.

But this essay is about comparing the serf economy with the slave economy, not serfdom vs. capitalism.

Slaves, like serfs, aren’t free. Even the Magna Carta originally only applied to the barons. Serfs had no rights. It took several hundred years for these rights to become universal and for there to be a House of Commons as well as a House of Lords (but that’s another story.) Slaves never have a House of Slaves. This was the only request of the politicos of the colonies: A seat in Parliament. Barring that, we weren’t English citizens. We were serfs. Had the King granted that one thing, there’d have been no Lexington, no Valley Forge, no Yorktown. We’d all be English now. We’d be Canada.

Also, slaves are property of the capitalist/baron instead of part of the land. So the slave economy is not like the serf economy. As much as I did not want to discuss capitalism, I have no choice since slave owners were capitalists. Slaves were treated as capital, which they aren’t. This means that the slave owner must discard ownership of his slaves as quickly as possible in order to be a true capitalist. Not owning the serf/laborer but instead just paying him a daily wage means that the capitalist doesn’t have to worry about accommodations (that’s his problem,) food (ditto,) old age (ditto,) child care (ditto,) health care (ditto,) or anything other than just providing a dollar a day.

And he gets to shunt off every other expense on the government (roads, security, law and order,) or the environment (depletion, pollution, landfill.) In turn, the serfs and the government get to give the capitalist lots of money for his goods and services. Quite a racket. They weren’t called Robber Barons for nothing. No wonder we are poorer than the serfs were.

Of course, laborers respond by using the only tool they have: Their labor. They organize, strike, and demand that the government enact laws in their favor. The capitalists react by employing union busting thugs, buying those same governments, repealing regulations which are ‘crippling business in America!’ or outsourcing work to countries where the serfs are cheaper. We are in the down cycle of that dance right now.

Most western countries had already outlawed slavery by the 1860’s. Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to outlaw it in 1888. Of course, slavery is slightly more cost effective in an agrarian economy, like the South, than in an industrial economy, like the North, but it was just a matter of time before they realized it was to their economic benefit to abolish slavery and then just hire them back at a dirt poor wage. The issue here is racism. The barons didn’t hate the serfs. They didn’t think of them much at all, any more than they thought of such and such a river or those pastures full of sheep over there. Oh, sure they thought they were better than the serfs, but doesn’t everybody?

American slaves were mostly African and the easiest way to identify an African is by the color of his skin, an insignificant marker controlled by a single gene out of tens of thousands. At other times in history slaves could be anybody. There was brief talk in ancient Rome about making slaves wear a certain mark so they could be recognized on the street. Once they realized how many more slaves there were walking around the streets of Rome than Roman citizens, they quietly dropped the idea. Good move, Brute.

So the American barons hated their serfs and treated them badly. You didn’t see English barons whipping serfs or working them to death. You didn’t see barons at all, except at major festivals. The serfs/slaves went about their own business and governed their own farms and communities according to Church and State. So it’s really impossible to compare slavery as it was practiced against Africans in the western hemisphere from the 16th to the 19th centuries and its resultant racism with any other kind of economic system, even former slave economies. This one was unique.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Brain. A User's Guide

I have a handful of tools in my mental toolbox that I use when evaluating anything new. First of all, I make sure to consider things that I disagree with or find outside of the normal. You can’t learn new stuff if you refuse to consider new things. Blinders are not glasses. Second, I try to understand things the way someone who believes them understands them instead of as a critic. I try to listen with the intent to understand, not to undermine. I may ultimately disagree, but not before I try to put myself into the author’s world and believe the argument the way they believe it, understand it the way they understand it, and feel it the way they feel it. This can be frightening at times. As Marshall McLuhan said, “I don’t believe everything I say.” I also take nothing as sacrosanct. Any belief I hold, no matter how ancient or how dear, can be overturned with new evidence or experience. There are no sacred cows.

Then there’s the salt scale. This is how much salt I take when entertaining new information. It goes from a grain all the way up to a box of Kosher. I don’t take anything entirely salt free. Say I’m reading something on the Internet. Say an article on world politics. I will look up the author’s credentials. If the article in question was written by X. Y. Zee, former CIA analyst with 30 years’ experience who is now blogging on world events, then I will consider it with a single grain of salt. If, on the other hand, I’m reading something by Anonymous or an unidentified user’s blog, then I consider it as something authored by someone I call a Sgoti. Some Guy/Gal on the Internet. This gets mega salt. I don’t necessarily reject it, but it gets served with extra criticism. Anything this person says must be verified by a trusted third source. And of course, every argument must be scanned for logical fallacies, no matter the author.

Also, go directly to a source. If I read something about the policies of General Porkbutt, I read it, but then try to find a speech by the general himself. I don’t just listen to the analysis of someone who hates him. Vladimir Putin is a good example. He is routinely demonized in the western press, but when you actually read his speeches, look at his actions, and listen to his interviews, he comes across as the rational one.

Avoid dichotomies. Nobody is all evil. Nobody is all good. People can be motivated by different things and still agree. People can be motivated by the same things but disagree. And you can agree with some things a person says and disagree with others. It's not all or nothing. Respect the other person, even if you disagree with them.

And, ultimately, I am always willing to experience new points of view and change my mind. If you’re not willing to do that then you are in the wrong life.

Extraordinary Claims

Then there’s how you evaluate things. Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Someone else replied that this is not true. Extraordinary claims require evidence. Period. Once evidence is provided and accepted, the claim ceases being extraordinary. As a matter of fact, it becomes common place. Obvious, even. Only an obtuse person would deny it. But someone out there had to take a risk and exercise reason and logic and defy the conventional to arrive at that opinion in the first place. They were probably criticized or persecuted for it, as well. Now it’s taken for granted. Self evident, even. Be one of the innovators, not one of the mob.

My response to claims like these is simple. Prove it.

If proof is provided, I will consider it. If not, it remains uncertain, but not refuted. It doesn't matter how outlandish it is. Elvis impersonating, shape shifting aliens from Zeta Reticuli replacing world leaders? Ridiculous. Bilderberg plot for world domination? Well, er. Probably not. FEMA camps? Um. People couldn't believe what was going on in Nazi concentration camps, either, until proof was provided. Some people still deny it.

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you know if some truth is mingled in with all the lies? By considering each piece individually, of course. And demanding proof.

One of the greatest successes of propaganda in the twentieth century was the introduction of the term "conspiracy theory" to the vocabulary. This is a thought vaccine. It inoculates the hearer from critical thinking. If I hear something outlandish I just roll my eyes and twiddle my finger near my temple and say, Wacko! No need for critical thinking here!

Prove it. That's all.


We should also have, at our disposal, a clear understanding of logical fallacies, since these are what we will mostly be confronted with. It is much easier to support something with a clever lie than a well thought out argument. Never believe something that can fit on a bumper sticker. That’s where it belongs, not in your brain.

Logical fallacies that are most common, but certainly not a complete list, are: Non-sequitur, Straw man, Anecdotal argument, Ad hominem, False dichotomy, Cherry picking, Misdirection, and my favorite, Cooking the books. As we all know, 98% of all Internet statistics are invalid.

Here is a good starting point to learn more about specious reasoning. Of course, some people learn about specious reasoning in order to avoid it, some in order to deploy it.


Emergence is a notorious philosophical term of art. A variety of theorists have appropriated it for their purposes ever since George Henry Lewes gave it a philosophical sense in his 1875 Problems of Life and Mind. We might roughly characterize the shared meaning thus: emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. (For example, it is sometimes said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.) Each of the quoted terms is slippery in its own right, and their specifications yield the varied notions of emergence that we discuss below. There has been renewed interest in emergence within discussions of the behavior of complex systems and debates over the reconcilability of mental causation, intentionality, or consciousness with physicalism.

Emergence is a philosophy that basically says that big things come from the random interactions of many small things where the properties of the big are impossible to predict from studying the small. Examples of this are bees becoming hives, ants becoming nests and neurons becoming minds.

Basically, a lot of things work together in their own small ways and produce a ‘whole is greater than the sum of the part’ organism. This is reminiscent of the Gary Larson cartoon of the blackboard with lots of flow chart squares and triangles linked together in bizarre ways with myriad lines, feeding into one big box labeled ‘And Then A Miracle Happens’ and out comes ‘The Answer.’

What does this have to do with a well-functioning brain? Just this. Sometimes things happen for no reason. Let’s take an example. I mentioned the ‘Bilderberg Rules the World’ conspiracy theory above. Does this really happen? Almost definitely not. As you probably know, the Bilderberg group is a club consisting of industrialists and politicians who meet annually to discuss… something. They won’t publish an agenda, so they are ripe for conspiracy theories.

What are they probably doing? Discussing the state of the world in the context of their own individual somewhat enlightened mostly selfish self-interest. Each wants what’s best for himself and is willing to horse trade to get the best deal from the rest of the world’s oligarchs who are also trying to do the same thing. There’s no five year, long term planning. No deciding whose going to be president or where the next war will be fought. No Masonic ground breaking ceremony for the New World Order headquarters on the temple mount. Just a bunch of selfish people pursuing their own selfish interests and grudgingly considering the selfish interests of others as long as it suits their own selfish needs.

In other words, they are emotionally incapable of creating a master plan of anything and would fail if they tried.

But how does it look from the outside? According to emergence theory, the activities of all of these players in their own play pens, when they interact, will create a greater entity that no one could have predicted from the inputs. So, conspiracy theories happen, just not intentionally. The players might be just as surprised as any of us useless eaters at what’s going on.

Never ascribe to malice what can be sufficiently explained by mistake or happenstance. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, just that there’s no real cause.

Use your brain. It emerged for no reason. But now that you have it, give it a whirl.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Arbeit Macht Frei

In memory of Elie Wiesel. He said that he was a witness and that everyone who heard was a witness. These are my impressions of the Dachau concentration camp. I am a witness.

Three words. Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free. These words hung over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. This came to represent the horror of the Nazi concentrate camps. But now I was at the first and longest running camp in the Nazi's ultimate people disposal system. Repurposed from a WW1 munitions factory and upgraded by slave labor, Dachau, outside Munich, became the poster child for how it should be done. Other camps received Dachau trained officers as teachers.

I came to Munich from Nuremberg today. It was a short trip by train, which at times clocked 248kph. About 160mph. I was here early enough to check my backpack and venture out to explore.

I kept being drawn to Dachau.

Just as in Berlin, Germany could have just plowed under and paved over the concentration camp's concentration camp. But they didn't. They made it a monument. Many buildings are gone. Some were repurposed by the allies after the fighting stopped. Some are reconstructions.

It's hard to describe what I felt there. The buildings and grounds all seemed sanitized or sterilized, even. I expected to smell bleach from the ground. It was raining and there were few living things. The gravel on the paths held no straggling weeds. Nowhere were there bee’s nests or signs of opportunistic birds, though the harsh cawing of crows overhead was gnawing. At one point I crossed a bridge right outside the multiple defenses of the gate and spotted a swan on the water. I was compelled to take its picture. Here was life, there a vacuum.

The camp humiliated people on every level. From the strip delousing on arrival to being forced to keep their bunks and utensils immaculate. A sheet out of place or a water mark on a gruel bowl could earn you hours standing up in a chamber no bigger than you are or being hung by the wrists from a pole. Or so the posters in the barracks said. I don't doubt them, but the place felt deserted. It's as if the ghosts can't even stand to be there.

The prisoners, at first political prisoners but later all undesirables, eventually became slaves working in the munitions factories as the war turned against Germany. So they worked until they were exhausted then sent to the extermination camps with the rest of the unfit.

The main administration building was where things came alive. In cold narrative illustrated with letters and artifacts, room after room of displays brought you through the history of Dachau. From the early days when it was for Communists and other enemies of the state, to the time when prosecutors investigated what was taking place there. Murders had to be covered up as suicides. The German legal system was legitimately investigating the camps. Next prosecutions were dropped and judges were imprisoned in the same system they were investigating. Anyone could be an enemy of the state by then. Don’t look too closely. The abyss looks back.

Hitler ordered the camps closed in 1943. It almost happened, but then in 1944 they desperately needed the slave labor. Commandants were ordered to treat the prisoners better so they could work. The shining example of Dachau had to change. Now they were rewarded for the amount of work they got out of each prisoner instead of the number dead.

And there was so much more. The medical experiments to see which organs shut down first in ice water. That helped in treating downed pilots in the North Sea. The operations performed by unskilled SS guards. The prisoners who were doctors themselves who volunteered to treat the others until they succumbed. Diseases like typhoid that pressed the ovens to their limits, never mind the gas chambers. And little acts of defiance, or if not defiance, then simple camaraderie. People doing what they always do: come together in times of adversity.

Some people ran for the gates so they would be gunned down. Some shut down inside. And most died.

Now be a witness.