We Keep Facing The Wrong Enemy

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Once upon a time, there was an inhabited planet where the inhabitants had divided themselves up into little enclaves, and pretended the divisions were there by divine right. They looked out into the heavens, and even gained enough knowledge to perceive thousands of planets in our little corner of our galaxy, but so far had not received confirmation that we were not alone in having life.

The inhabitants focused on differences in skin pigment, on the languages spoken, and even on the differences in how the inhabitants dealt with their beliefs about divinity, and were convinced they were the only true representatives of a civilized species. All others were part of the “other” and were dismissed as unworthy. Nowhere was there a recognition that the elements of commonality were much, much greater than the tiny amounts of differences.

The inhabitants worked themselves up into frenzies, and when they did not have other differences to fight over, they invented them. When faced with a need to battle a viral vector by wearing a face covering, they created yet another division, where covering your face (or not) became a declaration of what political camp you lived in. Nowhere was there a recognition that the true enemy was a novel virus, one that happened to find refuge in the respiratory system of the inhabitants. Nowhere was there a desire expressed to unite in opposition to the littlest invader, one like others we had battled over millennia.

The inhabitants grew their number explosively over the decades. There was no recognition that the planet of the inhabitants had any limitations whatsoever. So the contents of the seas were vacuumed up, for use as direct sustenance for the inhabitants, or for feeding the domestic companions of the inhabitants, or for addressing a dietary / medical need for the inhabitants. Since the surface of the seas were translucent, the changes in the population of the denizens of the deep were concealed from the gaze of the inhabitants. Likewise, many of the inhabitants believed they could not influence the chemistry of the atmosphere. Surely the spirit of he who created this planet would not allow for his creations to violate its limitations. So in the interest of not disrupting the economy, no plans were made to establish a world where providing heat or cooling, or enabling transportation, would not cause damage to the planet.

Certainly there were those who decried these trends. Some of those who spoke for the deity cried out in the wilderness for a critical need to actually become stewards of their little ball floating in the true wilderness of space. But many other voices drowned them out as they called for a continuation of their divine right to consume and possess everything within reach.

At some point, there will be a reckoning. That reckoning will come when a tipping point is reached, and there can be no mistaking what is happening. It may be that the seafood catch plummets catastrophically, and the skeletons of sea birds and seals and whales bear mute testimony to the lack of sustenance below the surface. It may come when ice shelves collapse at both poles, and for a few years, immense icebergs pose an ongoing hazard to shipping. It may come when the number of tropical storms within a year require use not only of the western alphabet, and Greek letters, but also some other nomenclature system in order to keep track of the increased number of cyclones. Once those tipping points are reached, will it be possible to ratchet back our influence and change the set point for our planet? Or will there still be those in positions of power who continue to deny the evidence staring them in their face, and exclaim a moral right to continue their pathway of greed and ignorance.

When will we recognize how unique and precious this life we share is? How few places in this galaxy are habitable, and how important it is for us to band together as a species, instead of battling unwinnable fights to keep the “others” from affecting our comfort? How long will it be before we learn how to share the bounty we’ve been given rather than covet what others have?

Given the unfortunate diversion over the last four years I’ve witnessed in my own nation, I am not optimistic. That it took a massive display of incompetence during this pandemic to even convince a small majority of this nation to vote against the current inhabitant of our Maison Blanche, it seems like it will be a slow battle to realize we do have common enemies – just not those that one party declares as the enemy. The true enemy is the emptiness of space. If we do not recognize that, and work to make our lifestyles sustainable, then the emptiness of space will win. Eventually, in billions of years, that will happen anyway. But we as a species, having been given reason and knowledge, must use those faculties to prevent our ultimate fate from overtaking us well before our time.

You Will Be Visited By Three Spirits

jacob marley

One of the advantages of having had a blog for several years, it allows you to revisit past posts. Here is one originally put up in September 2018 that has maintained its relevance in the world today. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Donald lay in bed, waiting for the gastric discomfort caused by the double cheeseburger and fries to settle down a bit. He had his comforter in his hand, and was just about to send out a tweet denouncing all NFL players who ever spoke out about any social issue ever, when his comforter buzzed. On the screen popped up an image of Richard Nixon, and his words were spelled out in the form of a text.

“Donald, I have come to warn you of the path you are on.”

“Donald, if you do not change, you will wear the chains of disgrace that I bear.” With this text, the image on the comforter drew back to show the entire body of Richard Nixon, shrouded in chains binding his arms and legs.

“Donald, I am sending you three messengers, to show you how you have come to this point in life, and to offer you a chance to repent. If you ignore these, your fate is sealed.” And with this last text, the image of Richard Nixon faded from the screen and only the unsent tweet remained.

“That was strange,” thought Donald. He looked up and Hannity was still on the television. Nothing around him seemed to show that he had just had a virtual visitor on his comforter. He put it down and reached for the television remote control. Better to try to sleep than to have to think about what had just happened.

Sleep was hard to come by, but eventually his mind calmed, and he was able to doze off. That is, until about midnight when his comforter suddenly began buzzing uncontrollably. Donald shuddered, then groggily reached over to the nightstand to pick it up. When he did, the visage of his old mentor, Roy Cohn, appeared on the screen. Donald sat up and looked dumbfounded at the screen, and as he looked, Roy began to speak. He was clad in his trademark robe, seated in his old apartment, and he said “Donald. Remember those days we spent together in the ’70’s? What is it that I taught you then?”

Donald replied to the image. “You taught me to never settle, never surrender. To counter-attack and counter-sue immediately. And no matter what happens, claim victory and never admit defeat. I’ve tried to follow your advice. Look where it’s got me!”

Roy’s cadaverous face nodded in agreement. The image was of Roy just before he died of AIDS, and he was hollowing out what was already a slender body. “Let me show you what you missed while we were together.” Roy’s face dissolved, and a pier on the waterfront appeared. A huge car was parked on the pier, and two men were approaching the trunk, which they opened. They hauled out a bundle shaped like a human, totally concealed by cloth wrapped tightly around it. They took chains and wrapped them around the bundle, securing the chains with a padlock. Then they lifted the bundle up and tossed it into the dark water. After the loud splash, the bundle sank beneath the surface without hesitation. The scene dissolved again, and Roy’s face appeared once more. “You see what happened there? I got Fat Tony off on that charge. We used my technique and it worked. It’ll work for you too. Keep that in mind. These times are tough and you need to be strong.” And Roy’s face disappeared from the screen, and the comforter went silent.

Donald turned the light on, then pulled up twitter. He wiped out the post he had intended to send about the NFL, and instead wrote yet another condemnation of his attorney general. He ended it with “Where’s my Roy Cohn!” and sent. Many would wonder about the tweet sent at 12:45 in the morning.

Donald turned the light back off, and tried to resume his sleep. He was just entering REM sleep when …. his comforter began buzzing uncontrollably again. He picked it up, and this time he was face to face with one of his nemesis MSNBC commentators, Rachel Maddow. She spoke not a word, but pointed with her long fingers at a monitor to her side, and his attention was drawn to it. He recognized the Oval Office, and saw himself seated at the desk, with papers cluttering the surface. He got up, and left the office for a state function, the meeting with the Emir of Losewhatchakan. Not five minutes after he left, he saw a hooded figure enter the room, and that figure crept over to the desk and pilfered two pieces of paper. Looking around to see if he had been observed, he crept cautiously away. When Donald saw himself returning to the office, he never noticed that the papers were missing. Rachel’s face reappeared as the scene dissolved, only this time he heard her say in that annoying way she had, “And to think that all of your staff is laughing at you behind your back. Never has a President been treated with so little respect that his own staff would sabotage him – and never has there been a President who would not notice that he was being thwarted. Now, watch this.”

She indicated the monitor beside her. On the screen appeared an image of an immigrant detention center. The chain link partitions indicated this was a serious place. He saw his agents approach one woman who was surrounded by three children. The agents took possession of the children, actually pulling one from the mother’s arms. Though there was no sound, the anguish of the mother and the children were apparent as unheard wails could be seen coming from each of the family members. The mother was escorted away to yet another place of confinement as her children disappeared down a corridor. The scene dissolved again, and Rachel pointed up once more with her long, long fingers. Longer than Donald’s, that’s for sure. Rachel said, “Your program was more successful than you could have imagined. But there were people who didn’t like what they saw in this scene. They actually thought this was cruel to separate the family in this way. But you know better, don’t you?”

Donald was confused. He could not force a coherent word out of his mouth, but did manage to shake his head in assent. His mop of comb-over flopped back and forth, deprived as it were of its binding chemicals.

Rachel had one more thing to say. “If you don’t crack down harder on those who disagree with you, your reign is in peril. Remember what Roy said,” and then her visage faded away.

Unable to truly focus, the only thing he could think of tweeting was “The FAILING NBC network keeps showing FAKE NEWS.” The tweet appeared at 2:30 on the time stream. Soon Donald was back snoring peacefully amidst the soft pillows.

But there was one more interruption on this endless night. His comforter began buzzing louder than ever, and he again reached over to grab it. When he did, what appeared was a stylish blonde covered totally in white fabric. Her body appeared to be similar to his daughter’s, but he could not tell because only her eyes and a wisp of hair protruded from the eye slot that showed flesh. She spoke not a word, but held her finger up to where her mouth would have been, and extended her other arm in an open invitation to follow. Donald did watch as the scene changed to that of a crowd of white-clad people marching along a street. Slowly the camera panned back to reveal that the crowd of people extended as far as the eye could see, an endless mass of pilgrims walking, walking, walking. The crowd was even bigger than at his inaugural. Who were these people? Then the camera pulled back further, and he realized there were tall spires around the crowd, and that all of these people were MUSLIMS! So! Many! MUSLIMS! If he didn’t act soon, they would be all over our country, flooding our streets, turning our daughters into abaya-clad disciples of Allah! Something must be done! But as he felt resolve entering his limbs, the scene dissolved into yet another scene. Now he could see a camp of some sort, with thousands and thousands of tents, and even more people milling about, aimless, idle. He recognized that this was some sort of refugee camp, the people looked like they were Asian, and there were just so many of them. He could see them storming our border as an unending horde. He must do something to prevent these hordes from overrunning our civilization. Then the scene changed once more, and he saw a dreadful looking ship, in danger of foundering on the ocean, crammed to the brim with dark-skinned people. He saw the ship list, and saw people fall or jump off into the ocean without any survival gear, hundreds and hundreds of people. He knew then that this was a vision of the future, that all of these people were intent on invading our shores. He tried to stir himself, but found his muscles frozen.

He awoke from this last vision at his normal hour. He was determined to share his lessons from the visits of the evening. He would be ruthless in his pursuit of those who denigrate him. He would be unceasing in the efforts to keep the nation pure by banning all immigrants other than those who had enough money to buy citizenship. He would keep the faith of Roy by striking out through the legal system at all who had wronged him. He turned to his comforter to begin to share his lessons of the night with his many followers.

What? You believed that the visits of the spirits to Donald would result in a transformation? That he would grow a conscience and his heart would grow three sizes? That he would show charity towards all, and malice towards none? You don’t know him very well, do you?

One Problem Ending? Another Yet To Be Faced

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We may be finally nearing a solution for the current version of the pandemic facing this nation. A vaccine is being distributed across this nation, and if there are enough doses, and enough people are convinced it is safe to take, then it may be possible to begin relaxing the constraints felt by many across this nation. Felt by many, but by no means felt by all people. For there are still significant numbers who remain convinced that all of the past year represented a mere distraction orchestrated by shadowy forces intent on bringing in a new world order under the pretext of a global pandemic.

Such a view was represented in Washington this past Saturday when the newly elected representative for Virginia’s 5th Congressional delegate spoke before people who were holding yet another demonstration in favor of Trump’s claim of winning the election. He said, “It’s a serious virus, but it’s a virus. It’s not a pandemic,” said Good (R). Now one may quibble about semantics, but the degree of ignorance in his comments remains incomprehensible to me and to many who have recognized the dangers of viral spread since the beginning of this epidemic. Congressman-elect Good mentioned how good it was to see so many people rejecting the tyranny of the mask and showing their faces in public. I swear that far too many people in this nation will not recognize the seriousness of this medical situation unless we have someone going through our streets with a cart, calling “Bring out your dead”.

The voters in the 5th Congressional District had a choice in the general election, but also had a choice in the Republican primary. For in that election, the incumbent Denver Riggleman was defeated. Congressman Riggleman had the audacity to conduct a same-sex wedding while in office, and for that sin, he was expelled from his job. Bob Good, who was the athletic director at Liberty University, then faced Dr. Cameron Webb, who serves as a hospitalist at the UVA hospital in Charlottesville, and teaches at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. And, horror of horrors, Dr. Webb happens to be African-American. Can’t have that. So in a district that stretches along the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge parkway, from the Potomac to the North Carolina border, the voters rejected someone who has personal knowledge and experience in dealing with health matters, and selected a Republican instead who would follow the current President over the precipice.

But then, this is the conundrum that we face in this country. We are seemingly a nation that refuses to acknowledge the value of knowledge, and instead insists upon fealty to a single person as head of a party that is increasingly intellectually bankrupt. Though we have now seen the risk of turning over the reins of government to someone who disdains competence, still we have a significant percentage of this nation that refuses to give any credence to any statement coming from the government. Well, we do not live in a world where we can pull up our drawbridge and retreat to our island stronghold. Britain is trying that and in a couple of weeks, when the reality of Brexit hits them, they will soon wish they had never cast a vote to leave the EU. Maybe we can learn from their mistake, and from the mistakes we’ve lived through over the past four years.

We know that the world is now interconnected in ways inconceivable a few short decades ago. Supply chains for international corporations require seamless transfer of materials and funds across national borders. Any disruption of those flows increases the overall costs. In essence, we’ve traded lower-skilled jobs, for lower inflation for the nation. That has resulted in economic losers in many rural and ex-urban regions, where the current strength of the Republican/Trump party now resides. But the discussion about whether we are willing to pay higher prices in order to move manufacturing back to the US has not happened. And on the Progressive side, we’ve not discussed how consumers will respond to paying higher prices for fast food, and pizza, and child /elder care if we institute a higher, livable minimum wage. Face it, part of the bargain we have made over the last several decades is we’ve traded lower prices for the loss of economic security for the lower class of workers. Whether it is the displacement of main street retail for the low prices of big box retailers, or whether it is an assembly operation that can be done for $0.25 less by an overseas supplier, this nation has willingly chosen the lower price.

Maybe we have gained a slight awareness of the value of local enterprise through the course of this pandemic. Personally, we have made the choice to forego any chain restaurant during this time, and spending our dollars on takeout or outdoor dining at truly local restaurants. But we are only one small bit in the economy even of the small town we live in. We are long overdue on having a discussion about acceptance of higher prices in exchange for better economic conditions at the domestic level. Until I see a political party willing to discuss this, I won’t take any efforts they make as being serious efforts to improve the economy.

When Will This Election End?

Narcissist In Chief

So the drama keeps on keeping on. The narcissist-in-chief refuses to give up that title as he vainly attempts to influence state legislatures to do something totally outside of their powers – mainly, to overcome the will of their state’s electorates and declare the narcissist as the winner in the Presidential election. Many of the narcissist’s followers have latched onto this quixotic quest and have begun a new pasttime of harassing state electoral officials. Doesn’t matter whether they are democrats or republicans, these officials have run afoul of the narcissist’s need for official affirmation.

I had hoped by this time in the election cycle, we could diverge from the path of the last five years, and begin to discuss the issues we face as a nation. Unfortunately, the most recent election will not recede into the past. We are given the images of the narcissist’s lawyer conducting press conferences in a gritty north Philadelphia neighborhood, accompanied by images of a porn shop and a crematorium adjacent to the Vivaldi concerto (The Four Seasons). We were treated to the unforgettable image of the narcissistian bimbo addressing the Michigan state senators with a performance seldom seen before this year. For once Saturday Night Live didn’t have to exaggerate their impersonation in order to lay bare the total ludicrousity of the testimony of this woman.

Still, this monstrosity of an administration is ending the only way it could – dissolving into an utterly chaotic pool of recriminations flavored with the virus de jour. Now let me say that I don’t know absolutely that a different approach could have engendered less death and misery upon this country. What I do know is that due to the propensity of the narcissist-in-chief to minimize the impact of the virus upon this nation and its economy, we squandered the time we had available to mobilize an effective plan to produce and distribute protective equipment and testing supplies. By relegating all responsibility for virus response to the states, we were treated to the spectacle of states bidding against each other for scarce resources. And of course, the price for these supplies escalated significantly, causing wasteful spending to fall upon the states. We had the image of a republican governor essentially negotiating an international trade deal with Korea, and bringing in testing supplies on a charter flight that was unloaded within the sovereign territory of his state, rather than risk it being seized by Federal forces if it were to fly to the normal international airport of Dulles.

It is seldom that you can see evolution happening in real time, but if the behavior of republicans and democrats were to be perpetuated over several generations, it seems that the human population within the US would tend to be more educated and more likely to support science. Because the population that pooh-pooed science and its response to the virus will be more likely to diminish, since so many of them will die. But their freedom will be maintained.

Once more we see how the US Constitution that we have relied upon for over 200 years as the model for our behavior, is incapable of guiding appropriate responses in our modern world. The need to maintain the common welfare comes into direct conflict with the desires to maintain the freedom to conduct all manner of activities, whether it be to crowd the stage at a narcissist’s rally, or get sloshed at a neighborhood bar, or sing to the Lord a new song in an unmasked sanctuary. At the same time, long-festering wounds within the social structure had their scabs ripped off, and the nation had to address the reality that life has never been equal for those who are in the minority within our states. For many of the narcissist’s followers, since they do not live in cities where the grievances are strongest, those grievances are by definition not real. Any voice raised in support of those who expressed outrage was castigated as being un-American, and traitorous.

If this nation is to remain whole, and not splinter into irreconcilable geographic factions, we must come up with a new social contract. This social contract must define our responsibilities towards each other, recognizing that the shrinking of the globe that has happened over the past few decades must be taken into account. The existing Constitution served us well during the time when there was always a frontier that we could move to if life got too constrained within the cities. Well, now it is the cities that are constrained by the stultification they find outside of their borders. We no longer have the ability to declare unconstrained freedom to pursue our own desires, if in by so doing, we cause damage to the well being of many others. The unfettered ability to use one’s own property as you desire, or pursue unrestrained commercial activity, or exercise religious freedom, has now run up against the limitations that flow from having a much larger population. How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory human needs?

I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that armed mob intimidation attempts, at state capitols, or at the residences of state officials, is a useful way to resolve these issues. Shouting past each other does not, and will not ever work. What will work? My hope is that efforts like the Problem Solver’s Caucus will turn out to be more successful than such entities as the Freedom Caucus, who seem intent on fanning the flames already turning this nation into a firestorm of hatred and vitriol.

Poll Dancing

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Ok, it is time to talk polls. For the second Presidential election in a row, the lack of accuracy from major polling services has been an issue. Before the election, there was skepticism expressed by many, since the predictions of a blue wave as detected by the polls did not match the gut feelings of people on the ground, especially in those states declared to be battleground states. It is always difficult to determine the slope of a line with less than three data points, but in this case, since presidential polling only gets tested every four years, it is appropriate to declare a trend and try to understand why it is occurring. In this regard, I have no knowledge about the internals that polling firms have seen. I am only looking at trends in society in general, and extrapolating them to the polling results.

First, polls are very valuable in estimating the characteristics of a large population, if three criteria are met. Those criteria are:

  • Those polled are a representative sample of the population
  • Those who respond to polls are honest in their answers
  • The technology used to reach those who are sampled matches the technology used by those who are sampled.

The first and third criteria are closely interrelated. Since most polling still depends upon land line responses, the audience for polling is becoming further and further divorced from the population as a whole. That is because fewer and fewer people use a land line, but instead are totally dependent upon their cell phones. If you look over the past decade, the growth of cell phone penetration has been explosive. And another factor that comes into play is that many people automatically disregard phone calls from an unknown number. So if you attempt to contact people on cell phones, you are likely to be ignored by an increasing percentage of the population. Finally, once you have answered the phone, you have the opportunity to opt in to being polled. I normally will opt in unless I am in the midst of doing something else and can’t split my attention. But I would be interested to see if there is a difference in behavior between those who lean left and those who lean right in terms of voluntary opt in percentages. Since so many of those on the right politically now distrust the government and the established elites, my sense is that more people on the right will decline to participate in a survey.

The second criteria, being honest in their answers, is the most subtle factor in determining whether a poll is accurate. Sometimes folks just want to throw a monkey wrench into the works, and so they will deliberately answer inaccurately in order to influence the results. The number who choose this option may be small, but when you are trying to assess a smaller population (like a state), the smaller sample size means each response is proportionally more important. So it can appeal to those who feel powerless in society to try to exert more influence on polls than normal by screwing with the results. For this to affect polling accuracy, it would mean that more people on one side of the electoral continuum would use this than those on the other side. Sounds like a good project for a social scientist to take on over the upcoming years.

Why has polling been so heavily used over the past few decades? Because it worked. When the US was a more homogenous nation, and we all shared a common communications technology (the telephone), it was possible to ensure that you could select a random slice of the population. Call someone up, have them answer a few questions regarding age, sex, and race, and you could slot them into one of the acceptable demographic categories for a poll. In case you haven’t noticed, we no longer fit neatly into categories as we used to. And the longer we go with alternative communications technologies, the further we stray from the easy-to-sample population we had from the 50’s through the 90’s.

Now, as to how the polls are used, you have to stray into the world of mathematics. One of the most common terms you hear is “Margin of Error”. That phrase is bandied about by the Steve Kornacki’s of the cable world along with many others of the pundit class. The formula for margin of error is this:

The margin of error in a sample = 1 divided by the square root of the number of people in the sample

This is what is amazing to understand. It doesn’t matter what is the size of the population being sampled, it only matters what is the size of the sample. That is why having a representative, but random sample of the population is so important. Incidentally, for a +3% margin of error, the sample size would need to be 1090. For a +5% margin of error, the sample size would need to be 400. Usually national samples are larger in order to ascertain valid statistics for subgroups (male, female, white, black, age groupings). But if just the top result is desired with a +3% margin of error, it is possible to sample the entire population of the US with a sample size of slightly over 1000 individuals. This is the magic of polling.

When someone speaks about the margin of error being +3%, what that means is that you would expect the true value for the population to be equal to the sampled value, +3% for 95% of the time. The 95% is a standard confidence limit in statistics, used often to determine if an effect is real or may be just a chance result. So if someone shows a poll support of 45% with a margin of error of +3%, then we would expect the real value to be within 42% to 48% for 95% of the time. If two candidates are being sampled, you look to see if there is any overlap between the 95% confidence intervals for the two. In this case, if candidate A had 45%, and candidate B had 49%, there would be some overlap between the 95% confidence intervals for the two. The range from 46% to 48% would fit both of these candidates. Now, if there is only slight overlap between the two, it is more likely that the one who samples higher is truly ahead, but it is not outside of the standard of 95%.

The 95% confidence interval is used many times in science. It is used in testing of drugs and medical treatments. I used it in production trials in a chemical plant, when we were attempting to determine whether one set of conditions was better than another. Once you are familiar with the math behind sampling, you can use that math in many different ways.

But once again, it all depends upon whether the population that responds to a survey is truly a representative sample of the population as a whole. It seems obvious that at least in the US, there is something wrong with the methodology used to select a random, representative sample. It remains to be seen whether these problems can be diagnosed and fixed before the next huge use of polling coming up in 2024.