Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hey U.S., welcome to the Third World!

It's been a quick slide from economic superpower to economic basket case.
Rosa Brooks
September 18, 2008
Dear United States, Welcome to the Third World!

It's not every day that a superpower makes a bid to transform itself into a Third World nation, and we here at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund want to be among the first to welcome you to the community of states in desperate need of international economic assistance. As you spiral into a catastrophic financial meltdown, we are delighted to respond to your Treasury Department's request that we undertake a joint stability assessment of your financial sector. In these turbulent times, we can provide services ranging from subsidized loans to expert advisors willing to perform an emergency overhaul of your entire government.

As you know, some outside intervention in your economy is overdue. Last week -- even before Wall Street's latest collapse -- 13 former finance ministers convened at the University of Virginia and agreed that you must fix your "broken financial system." Australia's Peter Costello noted that lately you've been "exporting instability" in world markets, and Yashwant Sinha, former finance minister of India, concluded, "The time has come. The U.S. should accept some monitoring by the IMF."

We hope you won't feel embarrassed as we assess the stability of your economy and suggest needed changes. Remember, many other countries have been in your shoes. We've bailed out the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea. But whether our work is in Sudan, Bangladesh or now the United States, our experts are committed to intervening in national economies with care and sensitivity.

We thus want to acknowledge the progress you have made in your evolution from economic superpower to economic basket case. Normally, such a process might take 100 years or more. With your oscillation between free-market extremism and nationalization of private companies, however, you have successfully achieved, in a few short years, many of the key hallmarks of Third World economies.

Your policies of irresponsible government deregulation in critical sectors allowed you to rapidly develop an energy crisis, a housing crisis, a credit crisis and a financial market crisis, all at once, and accompanied (and partly caused) by impressive levels of corruption and speculation. Meanwhile, those of your political leaders charged with oversight were either napping or in bed with corporate lobbyists.

Take John McCain, your Republican presidential nominee, whose senior staff includes half a dozen prominent former lobbyists. As he recently put it, "I was chairman of the [Senate] Commerce Committee that oversights every part of the economy." No question about it: Your leaders' failure to notice the damage done by irresponsible deregulation was indeed an oversight of epic proportions.

Now you are facing the consequences. Income inequality has increased, as the rich have gotten windfalls while the middle class has seen incomes stagnate. Fewer and fewer of your citizens have access to affordable housing, healthcare or security in retirement. Even life expectancy has dropped. And when your economic woes went from chronic to acute, you responded -- like so many Third World states have -- with an extensive program of nationalizing private companies and assets. Your mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now state owned and controlled, and this week your reinsurance giant AIG was effectively nationalized, with the Federal Reserve Board seizing an 80% equity stake in the flailing company.

Some might deride this as socialism. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Admittedly, your transition to Third World status is far from over, and it won't be painless. At first, for instance, you may find it hard to get used to the shantytowns that will replace the exurban sprawl of McMansions that helped fuel the real estate speculation bubble. But in time, such shantytowns will simply become part of the landscape. Similarly, as unemployment rates continue to rise, you will initially struggle to find a use for the expanding pool of angry, jobless young men. But you will gradually realize that you can recruit them to fight in a ceaseless round of armed conflicts, a solution that has been utilized by many other Third World states before you. Indeed, with your wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you are off to an excellent start.

Perhaps this letter comes as a surprise to you, and you feel you're not fully ready to join the Third World. Don't let this feeling concern you. Though you may never have realized it, you've been preparing for this moment for years.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Listen to the open blessings of life

A Thought For Shabbat:

This week we read a very gripping description of the curses that Moshe promises the retribution if we stray from the path of G-d.

The narrative is gripping and a brief sweep across the horizon of Jewish history tells us that tragically those warnings have been proven manifold...

But is that all there is to it?

...Dovber, a young child not even Bar Mitzva, would sit in Shul every week and listen to his father, the renowned Baal Hatanya (whose Birthday is today) read the Torah.

One year, on this Shabbat of the reading of the "curses", his father was out of town and one of the other rabbis in the community read it in his place.

As the reader began the customary undertone lamenting the tragedies that would befall the Jewish People, little Dovber, a bright child with an astute mind but equally emotional sensitivity suddenly felt nausea and by the time the reading was over he had taken ill.

(So much so, two weeks later on Yom Kippur there was discussion whether he would even be able to fast)

When he had already recovered one of his friends asked him why he suddenly became so emotionally overwhelmed hearing the curses if in fact he had already heard them read a number of times?

"When my father reads" explained Dovber, "I hear blessings."

The Baal HaTanya read the same Biblical premonitions that we do, but he only saw and heard blessings.

No, he wasn't G-d forbid delusional or theoretical.

He was a realist as much as any of us - but he looked beyond the headlines.

Yes, even if you didn't invest your life's saving in Lehman Brother's no one is having it easy - and not just financially.

These are trying times for G-d's children the world over - in so many ways...

And yet, my inner sense tells me that we can still hear blessings.

They may not be in the headlines - but the Baal HaTanya taught us that even the hardships of the Torah are only a layer, a surface, a cover - waiting to be peeled away to expose the true blessings inside.

Far be it from me to preach to another that their suffering isn't real and painful.

But I can pass on the message that there's more to the story - don't just read the headlines, even of your own life.

Listen to the open blessings of life - which we still do have - be it a ray of sunshine, a rush of fresh air, a moment with a close friend, a child's smile, or just the fact that we're still alive.

And soon we'll please G-d see those blessings in our headlines.

Wishing you a Shabbat or listening to the blessings - even in the headlines,

Rabbi Avi and Dena Rabin

Monday, September 15, 2008

'Drill, Drill, Drill' by playwright, Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues)

I am having Sarah Palin nightmares. I dreamt last night that she was a member of a club where they rode snowmobiles and wore the claws of drowned and starved polar bears around their necks. I have a particular thing for Polar Bears. Maybe it's their snowy whiteness or their bigness or the fact that they live in the arctic or that I have never seen one in person or touched one. Maybe it is the fact that they live so comfortably on ice. Whatever it is, I need the polar bears.

I don't like raging at women. I am a Feminist and have spent my life trying to build community, help empower women and stop violence against them. It is hard to write about Sarah Palin. This is why the Sarah Palin choice was all the more insidious and cynical. The people who made this choice count on the goodness and solidarity of Feminists.

But everything Sarah Palin believes in and practices is antithetical to Feminism which for me is part of one story -- connected to saving the earth, ending racism, empowering women, giving young girls options, opening our minds, deepening tolerance, and ending violence and war.

I believe that the McCain/Palin ticket is one of the most dangerous choices of my lifetime, and should this country chose those candidates the fall-out may be so great, the destruction so vast in so many areas that America may never recover. But what is equally disturbing is the impact that duo would have on the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. In my lifetime I have seen the clownish, the inept, the bizarre be elected to the presidency with regularity.

Sarah Palin does not believe in evolution. I take this as a metaphor. In her world and the world of Fundamentalists nothing changes or gets better or evolves. She does not believe in global warming. The melting of the arctic, the storms that are destroying our cities, the pollution and rise of cancers, are all part of God's plan. She is fighting to take the polar bears off the endangered species list. The earth, in Palin's view, is here to be taken and plundered. The wolves and the bears are here to be shot and plundered. The oil is here to be taken and plundered. Iraq is here to be taken and plundered. As she said herself of the Iraqi war, 'It was a task from God.'

Sarah Palin does not believe in abortion. She does not believe women who are raped and incested and ripped open against their will should have a right to determine whether they have their rapist's baby or not.

She obviously does not believe in sex education or birth control. I imagine her daughter was practicing abstinence and we know how many babies that makes.

Sarah Palin does not much believe in thinking. From what I gather she has tried to ban books from the library, has a tendency to dispense with people who think independently. She cannot tolerate an environment of ambiguity and difference. This is a woman who could and might very well be the next president of the United States . She would govern one of the most diverse populations on the earth.

Sarah believes in guns. She has her own custom Austrian hunting rifle. She has been known to kill 40 caribou at a clip. She has shot hundreds of wolves from the air.

Sarah believes in God. That is of course her right, her private right. But when God and Guns come together in the public sector, when war is declared in God's name, when the rights of women are denied in his name, that is the end of separation of church and state and the undoing of everything America has ever tried to be.

I write to my sisters. I write because I believe we hold this election in our hands. This vote is a vote that will determine the future not just of the U.S. , but of the planet. It will determine whether we create policies to save the earth or make it forever uninhabitable for humans. It will determine whether we move towards dialogue and diplomacy in the world or whether we escalate violence through invasion, undermining and attack. It will determine whether we go for oil, strip mining, coal burning or invest our money in alternatives that will free us from dependency and destruction. It will determine if money gets spent on education and healthcare or whether we build more and more methods of killing. It will determine whether America is a free open tolerant society or a closed place of fear, fundamentalism and aggression.

If the Polar Bears don't move you to go and do everything in your power to get Obama elected then consider the chant that filled the hall after Palin spoke at the RNC, 'Drill Drill Drill.' I think of teeth when I think of drills. I think of rape. I think of destruction. I think of domination. I think of military exercises that force mindless repetition, emptying the brain of analysis, doubt, ambiguity or dissent. I think of pain.

Do we want a future of drilling? More holes in the ozone, in the floor of the sea, more holes in our thinking, in the trust between nations and peoples, more holes in the fabric of this precious thing we call life?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Republicans Lie, part 104,368. This is getting too easy.


Out of bounds: McCain-Palin misdirect blame for immigration flop


September 12, 2008

Throw the flag against: The McCain-Palin campaign.

Call: Illegal shift.

What happened: The campaign Friday launched a 30-second Spanish-language television ad charging that Democrat Barack Obama and his Senate colleagues torpedoed meaningful changes in immigration laws.

"The press reports that their efforts were 'poison pills' that made immigration reform fail," the ad charges. "The result: No guest worker program. No path to citizenship. No secure borders. No reform. Is that being on our side? Obama and his congressional allies ready to block immigration reform, but not ready to lead."

What that's wrong: Media accounts cited two votes as effectively killing immigration reform last year - and Obama was on the same side as McCain in both.

On June 7, supporters failed by 15 votes to cut off a filibuster. McCain and Obama voted to limit debate. The Politico headline the next day: "Senate immigration compromise collapses."

On June 28, another effort to limit debate failed by 14 votes; CNN called it a "crushing defeat." Obama and McCain again voted to cut off debate, but it was largely Republican senators who led the filibuster.

In its review of the 2007 Congress, Congressional Quarterly cited both votes as crucial to killing the immigration measure.
Penalty: Set the McCain-Palin campaign's credibility back five yards.

To read the CNN account on the June 28 vote:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Compare this to "Am I Just a Figment of Someone's Imagination"

Are We Trapped in God's Video Game?

Discover Magazine

Probably not. And no, he's not looking at your underwear.

by Jaron Lanier

There are certain questions about virtual reality (VR) that I’ve been asked a few times a day, every day, for over a quarter century. The e-mails still come in, from a kid in Korea or a grandmother in Australia: Will VR ever get so good that we will no longer be able to tell it’s VR? Is it possible we are already living in VR? Recently even The New York Times got into the act, interpreting an argument from philosopher Nick Bostrom to mean that “it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.”

When these questions come up, I usually try to redirect the inquirer’s attention to the world of actual VR research, because that topic is richer than most people realize. But readers of this column know I am as friendly as can be to weird speculations, and it is interesting to think about the metaphysical side of virtual reality.

The concept of “VR so good you can’t tell” can mean different things. It might mean that a person who started off in natural reality can be fooled by a simulation, or it might mean that a being who was created as part of a simulation can become conscious.

Let’s consider the second possibility. Can consciousness arise inside a computer simulation? As it happens, I’m that rare creature, a cybernetic daredevil who is usually a dualist: I get thrills from figuring out how to make computer programs reproduce tricks the brain can do, and yet I often believe consciousness is something special that cannot be simulated like other phenomena. Suppose I’m wrong, though, and a simulated character can become conscious. Could it know it is living in a simulation?

Robotics researcher Hans Moravec originated the argument that we are probably already living in VR: If it is possible to build virtual realities sophisticated enough to give rise to sentient residents, it’s likely there would be many such VRs. After all, once we built the first car or the first laptop computer, millions upon millions more followed. (And even if humanity never builds superlative VR machines, some alien civilization somewhere will do it, if it is possible.) If you are a self-aware creature, then, there are two possibilities: You live in natural reality, or you live in one of these super-VRs. Since there is only one of the former and a lot of the latter, the chances are quite strong that you, and indeed all of us, are living in a simulated world.

Although this pseudostatistical style of reasoning doesn’t prove anything, it does say something about the relative likelihood of a particular metaphysical truth. That may seem like a strange way to think, but an even stranger development, to my mind, is that recent results may give us empirical evidence about whether we are living in a simulation. If you believe that thinking about metaphysics in a pseudostatistical way is sensible, then these results make it seem much less likely that we’re living in a VR than it did back when people first started asking me those questions.

When Moravec first made his case back in the 1980s, the popular way of thinking was that there is one and only one natural reality. These days, that answer is becoming less popular all the time, because of a seemingly unrelated field: quantum computation.

Experiments over the past decade show that quantum computers (which process information using the quantum states of particles rather than transistors) really can work. And as it happens, one interpretation of quantum mechanics that used to be somewhat obscure has suddenly become popular because it’s better adapted for explaining quantum computation, at least to human brains.

I’m speaking, of course, of the many worlds interpretation. In this view, each world has a copy of your quantum computer, and they all run at once; that’s why they outperform regular computers that can function in only one reality. When you get an answer out, it’s the same thing as discovering which of the many worlds you are in.

The rising fortunes of the many worlds interpretation seem to have emboldened champions of other ideas about multiple realities. Some string theorists now talk about a “landscape” of realities in which physics is different in each reality. Cosmologist Max Tegmark and the late philosopher David Lewis have offered yet other ways of thinking about many realities instead of one.

You might object that even if there are a large number of realities, there still ought to be many more VRs, because each reality could have many VRs inside it. But that’s not so. Many of the multiple-realities theories suggest an unbounded number of worlds, and if the number of realities can be infinite, then there can’t be more VRs than realities; infinity is as many as there can be. Even if there are only a finite number of realities, there is no guarantee that each reality would host VRs. Virtual realities take up time, energy, and space—and a given reality has limited supplies of those things. All of this suggests that VRs are unlikely to be more common than natural realities.


Of course, this whole discussion begs the question of what we mean when we distinguish a VR from a natural reality. If a simulation is perfect in every way, it is by definition indistinguishable from the thing it simulates. So there must be some difference between a natural reality and a virtual one, or else there’s nothing virtual about it. Maybe the VR is self-evidently low resolution. The ones we can build today certainly are! But that’s not the only possible difference.

The usual sort of difference that people are interested in is the existence of an entity that can look into the lives of players in the VR, a powerful player who is usually but not necessarily hidden. It’s similar to believing in a god. The rhetoric of VR thought experiments often plays up this angle. Some people imagine this creature as a pimply nerd in the sky who is running a cosmic copy of The Sims, who are us. Perhaps with that image in mind, one woman commented to me that she worried that this being might be able to see whether her underwear was clean on a given day.

A pimply video-game-playing kid is an especially unlikely “god” ruling over our reality.

Strangely enough, there are some recent empirical results that may influence whether we should believe in this underwear-­obsessed dude. Before I describe them, though, I need to introduce the idea of a spectrum of possible gods, running from wimpy to omnipotent. All the supernatural beings of religion and science fiction fit somewhere on the spectrum.

The very wimpiest god can hypothetically see into our world but can’t do anything at all to interact with us in any way, in any world—including hypothetical afterlives. As far as we’re concerned, it’s meaningless to think of this god as one who exists. The second-wimpiest god might be able to perform just a trick or two that seem supernatural to us, but underwear spying is just one trick of many, and therefore unlikely.

Paradoxically, pseudostatistical reasoning suggests that the most omnipotent god won’t notice your underwear, either. Such a god can see and manipulate all possible versions of you and your world (including your wearing clean, filthy, or no underwear at all). If there is something special enough about your underwear to merit notice, there’s another version of you in another reality wearing even more special underwear. The Top God is infinitely less likely to focus on the particular pair of underwear you are wearing today than you are likely to focus on a particular grain of sand on a beach. He is just as moot as the weakest god.

So as far as underwear spying goes, it’s only those gods in the middle of the spectrum who should concern us. A god who spies would do so, presumably, only if he (or she for that matter) experiences surprise at the unveiling of the future and is able to see into only a narrow range of realities. The Greek gods were like this.

The empirical results that influence how we might think about God-as-video-game-player are the successful demonstrations of quantum cryptography, in which a sender and receiver can be assured that no natural observer has eavesdropped on a message. This system works because a component of the message is ruined by quantum effects as soon as it is read. For a god to eavesdrop on a quantum cryptography session and then cover his tracks, would, as it happens, require near omnipotence. When the first quantum cryptography experiments were done, I felt a little relieved and sad at the same time, because we then knew that one kind of potential exotic or supernatural form of life that might have been watching us either did not exist or wasn’t paying attention.

Continuing the pseudostatistical arguments, a god that can exist only within a narrow portion of the spectrum of possible gods is less likely than a god that can exist over a larger portion of the spectrum. The game-playing kid feels the squeeze from both ends. He has to be both weak enough to be able to focus on a particular pair of underwear and strong enough to be able to cover his tracks after eavesdropping on a quantum cryptography session—or else be willing not to peek at any messages we decide to keep secret.

That probably—no guarantees—places him within a razor-thin niche on a wide spectrum of possible gods. So I can’t swear that we’re not living in a simulation, but I can offer some assurance: A pimply virtual reality operator is an especially unlikely god.

Further down the rabbit hole...

"WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow U.S. special forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the approval of the Pakistani government, The New York Times reported on Thursday."
  1. Pakistan is in a time of transition in which a staunch U.S. ally, a military leader, Musharref, was unable to control the fundamentalist factions in his otherwise moderate moslem country.
  2. This country became unstable the minute it was clear that Musharref could not maintain his power. I think that was about July.
  3. Shouldn't our special forces be operating in our war zones? Oh, we must be opening another front in our war. Pakistan's a good choice: after all it is an increasingly fundamentalist moslem country, thrust into a period of political instability, which has nuclear capacity.
  4. Also I guess the fact that Al Queda is already entrenched and protected by the locals-- because they like Al Queda-- shouldn't make you worry that, if a U.S. invasion leads to a galvanization of the fundamentalists, Al Queda could easily end up with nukes.
  5. But then again, what are the odds that a U.S. invasion would actual create greater instability in the country resulting in the galvanization of, increased recruitment for, and thus power in the hands of the fundamentalists. I mean that already happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, so (ala Garp) what are the odds of that happening again?
  6. Well no doubt we'll have far better luck than Musharref in getting Pakistan to follow a moderate line, after all, what could Musharref possibly have known about Pakistan?
  7. Oh, something else-- how much do you think its going to help Benazir Bhutto's husband to have a US military presence in the country when he's promising to reestablish a moderate and functional democracy and actually has a chance to do so?
  8. Isn't there some historical precedent for when a president authorized special forces to conduct operations in a country we were not at war without the approval of that government? How did that work out? Not too good, huh? Well I'm sure things will be different this time. After all, history never repeats itself.
(The forgoing sarcastic tirade, of course, is subject to withdrawal if we nab Osama as a result of these operations. Maybe two weeks before the election in November would be the best timing. But to suggest that the administration is taking this stupid risk to try to help McCain's otherwise worthless campaign would be the type of conspiracy-theorist paranoia that this writer tries --sometimes helplessly-- to avoid. Maybe they're not just stupid, maybe they're evil too.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Republicans Lie, Part DDMXII

The press has given the republican party another break, calling this a mistake. What is missed is the irony of the fact that in trying to associate their candidate with the Walter Reed Medical Center, they have proved that their candidate has never even seen the Walter Reed Medical Center (or if he has, he has no recollection of it.)

It gets worse. The LAUSD charges $2,500/day for filming at its schools. I wonder if a check is on the way. So if its not bad enough that Republicans perpetually underfund education, it now appears as if they are actively stealing from our public schools.

The principal of Walter Reed Middle School, Donna Tobin released a statement on the school's website saying that the school had not given permission for the footage to be used, "nor is the use of our school’s picture an endorsement of any political party or view." I have lived in North Hollywood. McCain's lame attempt to connect himself to this marvelous community is an insult. I am willing to bet that there is not a single person with a family member in that school or otherwise actively involved at that schools that benefits from another Republican administration (except for those that are willing to sacrifice their jobs and affordable healthcare over gun control.)

I am not convinced this is a mistake. At best, this was a reckless act. In other words, an act undertaken without any regard for the truth. As McCain has insisted, "this campaign is not about the issues." It is an effort to convince a majority of the populace that they are similarly situated to those who earn over $600,000 per year and thus benefit from Republican policies. The only way they can do this in light of increased wealth stratification, decrease in real wages, the disappearance of public social services, and the rising cost of and thus unavailability of health care to the marginalized middle class, is to lie.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Family Values, Republican Style

Meet America's first trailer-trash vice-presidential candidate: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska ("the state closest to Russia!" )-- soon-to-be grandmother of out-of-wedlock child carried by 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. Shown here relaxing, Alaska-style.

Who is Sarah Palin? Here's some basic background:

  • She was elected Alaska's governor a little over a year and a half ago. Her previous office was mayor of Wasilla, a small town outside Anchorage.1
  • Palin is strongly anti-choice, opposing abortion even in the case of rape or incest.2
  • She supported right-wing extremist Pat Buchanan for president in 2000. 3
  • Palin thinks creationism should be taught in public schools.4
  • She's doesn't think humans are the cause of climate change.5
  • She's solidly in line with John McCain's "Big Oil first" energy policy. She's pushed hard for more oil drilling and says renewables won't be ready for years. She also sued the Bush administration for listing polar bears as a threatened species-she was worried it would interfere with more oil drilling in Alaska.6

1. "Sarah Palin," Wikipedia, Accessed August 29, 2008

2. "McCain Selects Anti-Choice Sarah Palin as Running Mate," NARAL Pro-Choice America, August 29, 2008

3. "Sarah Palin, Buchananite," The Nation, August 29, 2008

4. "'Creation science' enters the race," Anchorage Daily News, October 27, 2006

5. "Palin buys climate denial PR spin—ignores science," Huffington Post, August 29, 2008

6. "McCain VP Pick Completes Shift to Bush Energy Policy," Sierra Club, August 29, 2008

"Choice of Palin Promises Failed Energy Policies of the Past," League of Conservation Voters, August 29, 2008

"Protecting polar bears gets in way of drilling for oil, says governor," The Times of London, May 23, 2008