The Problem With Humans is… (Continuing)

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to identify all human failings clearly and concisely and then fix them? Or is that just my male, technocratic Virgo character speaking? Lord we’re complex creatures, huh? Yada yada yada, sure we are. There’s no fiction as interesting and crazy as the actual things people do, and we go grasping for why did they do that

Politically we understand that people are, generally, uncomfortable with change. So we get hung up on the status quo as the default situation. No, actually the status quo when we were young is what we default to and all change after that is suspect. Most consider such change an incremental push in the wrong direction, while others who are more arch react to all progress (change) as if it’s sending us to hell in a hand basket. 

The corollary factor to our fear of change is an even more disturbing willingness to disbelieve evidence. The greatest example of which is our human tendency to attribute most everything to the existence of supernatural beings with no tangible evidence whatsoever. Actually, in this case it’s not so much a matter of disbelieving the overwhelming evidence that there’s nothing out there listening to our prayers, as the desire to believe that there is and life will continue after death. So such “evidence” proving what we want to believe is easy to manufacture. It’s not so hard to see Jesus in a piece of toast if you have an idea in your head of what Jesus looks like and you want to see him. The Rangers won, ergo God exists and likes me!

This same disconnect with objective reality (it’s just burn marks on a piece of toast, people) happens all the time in politics, beyond the partisan desire to see the team you belong to succeed.

Once again, in reading history the same themes arise again and again. The responses of the financial elites to the Great Depression in the 30s, and the proposals to fix the system that caused it are indistinguishable from quotes 80 years later about the latest economic meltdown and what should be done – it really could be a parlor game, “Guess the Misguided Statement of Fear”. It’s bad enough that many of the same factors that caused the 1929 disaster were back again 80 years later because taking out the improvements of the 30s was the rage of the 90s and 00s. Ostensibly smart people somehow thought that human nature had changed over 8 decades and it was now okay to go back to the lax regulatory schemes of the 20s. Sure, Glass-Steagall and such worked for all this time, but there’s a lot of money to be made and there’s just no way that the geniuses at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America would take chances with the economy like they did in the 20s. We know so much more now about how it all works.

Yeah, and we then ignore it – because we want to.

When the Securities Act, Glass-Steagall and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation were proposed and enacted in 1933, Francis H. Sisson, President of the American Bankers Association said, “What American banking needs is the abolishment of special laws placing it under public regulation and supervision, rather than more statutes for its restriction and control.”

This was at a time when banks were going out of business, being suspended from taking deposits and suffering from a volatility that would be alarming for restaurants today! But many like Sisson warned not to change anything ’cause that would be communism. Hoover and his conservatives were sure that the only course of action was to let everything take its course and get back to more prudent management. The fact that 25% of the men were unemployed and people were starving to death was less important than keeping the shackles of regulation off the backs of American business. 

“During the past year you have carried the credit system of the nation safely through a most difficult crisis. In this success you have demonstrated not alone the soundness of the credit system, but also the capacity of the bankers in emergency.”

Herbert Hoover, Address before the annual convention of The American Bankers Association, Cleveland. October 2, 1930, almost one year after Black Friday. Perhaps the most delusional statement ever made by any American President.

The American Bankers Association fought “to the last ditch” against even the idea of the federal guarantee of deposits, calling it “unsound, unscientific, unjust and dangerous.”  For the record, total bank suspensions for the rest of the decade were less than those in any year of the 20s and less than 8% of those in 1933. Such regulation made banking and our entire world economy minimally volatile. It made jobs in banking the rock solid aspiration they became from 1933 to 1999. But I’m sure Mr. Sisson was never convinced of its efficacy. Just like Phil Gramm, Bill Clinton and everyone who rooted for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act 66 years later were convinced it all had to go. Funny how when there’s billions on the table fear of change can just melt away. 

It occurred to me, in light of Dick Cheney’s typical carping about President Obama’s foreign policy address at West Point, that the mechanisms that caused the Bush Administration to initiate the Iraq War, the expansion of NSA domestic spying and numerous other really bad ideas were similarly considered with blinkers on that caused the persons involved to see the evidence they wanted to see, not see that which they didn’t and sometimes hide evidence that was inconvenient because the ends justify the means – and well, we’re so smart that it’ll all work out.

The continued belief in some circles that America has to use its military liberally is never disabused by the realities of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. because the people creating these doctrines are less concerned with the evidence of the efficacy of their ideas than keeping the mechanism of war greased and ready to go. 

The financial community is always assured of its own genius, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

In sports great athletes possess stores of confidence that are necessary to compete at high levels. The ability to always believe that you’ll make the next 3-point shot despite missing the last 10 is remarkable. But the downside of that is that very often great athletes can’t let go. They miss the 11th shot and still want to take the 12th when the fans and coaches know it’s time to pass the ball to someone younger, better. In sports, other than losing, there’s not much consequence to this arrogance. But in national policy the arrogance of ignoring evidence destroys lives and nations.  

The Designer of NYC’s Subway Map Dead

It almost seems surprising when you read that everyday items that you hardly consider, they’re just part of your life, just always there, were designed by somebody consciously to be that: utilitarian, unobtrusive and easy to use. Massimo Vignelli designed this subway map in 1972 and it became an icon printed on shirts, mugs, dresses, etc. People would get the subway maps and hang them on their walls as artwork. I did.



Even more importantly, Vignelli brought Helvetica to America.

He also co-produced the New York City Transit Authority’s legendary Graphic Standards Manual, which standardized transit signage and introduced Helvetica to the U.S. In that same NPR interview, he said: “When I came to New York, we brought the type along because it didn’t exist at the time here. People say that I single-handedly turned this country into a Helvetica country.”

That’s the definition of something you see all the time and do not think about. But somebody designed that typeface. Somebody popularized it. Some of his other designs on display at MOMA.

Talk Radio Slowly Dying

ImageThe slow motion sinking of once vaunted, and incredibly lucrative careers on gabfest radio, like that of Rush Limbaugh, continue to get some press when news of his declining ratings come out and elicit great schadenfreude. Due to the ongoing consumer efforts to boycott him since his Sandra Fluke outrageathon in March, 2012, all talk radio has declined. The iceberg that has laid low the foremost bully in radio also pushed Glenn Beck to the web and Hannity to smaller, weaker stations.

Less well known is how the boycotts of irresponsible (and often reprehensible) broadcasters like Limbaugh has effected even the few liberal outposts of chatter. While ratings for liberal stalwarts have stayed steady, many advertisers have made the choice to just stay away from controversy period. So yeah, Limbaugh and Hannity get pushed from 50,000 watt flamethrowers to struggling second rate stations that get out rated by Spanish language stations, the few liberal talkers get pushed out entirely.

KTLK-1150 in Los Angeles was the home of Bill Press, Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes, all thriving liberal talkers in the liberal talk ghetto, until owner ClearChannel needed to move former behemoths Limbaugh and Hannity to smaller stations because of their tanking ratings. You see, conservative talkers never get cancelled no matter how bad their ratings and conversely liberal talkers never get promoted despite earning it. So the mostly liberal KTLK gets converted into the hard right conservative KEIB (excellence in broadcasting, get it?) and the new home of Hannity and Limbaugh in LA. While Press, Miller, Rhodes and others lose their LA station (Miller lost her studio entirely as she had broadcast out of KTLK for 10 years). The upshot for Limbaugh is he’s now on the 37th rated station in the nation’s second largest market (ratings are down since the format change, by the way) and Los Angeles joins San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., Seattle, overwhelmingly blue cities, that have NO liberal talk radio at all. Just for context, Los Angeles, one of the bluest cities in the country has 4 conservative talk radio stations between LA and Orange County and no liberal ones. You say the market created that situation? Bullpucky.

New York also has no progressive radio.  In this case the humiliating moves of Limbaugh and Hannity from WABC to smaller WOR didn’t push any liberals out.  That happened when the last liberal talk station (WWRL) switched to Spanish language broadcasting. The market may be responsible for that as the Spanish speaking audience is the fastest growing in NY and other large cities. But again, how is it that a station like WABC can’t find one spot for a liberal talker? It’s all conservative all the time in a city that votes 75% Democratic. 

Another theory behind the collapse of commercial liberal talk radio is that it has gone mainstream. Some of the most popular personalities from the now-defunct liberal Air America radio network — Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz — now command much larger audiences on MSNBC every night, as does the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is syndicated on dozens of black talk radio stations. Air America’s biggest star, Al Franken, is now a U.S. senator.

Well, that’s a positive spin to put on it. but if you admire radio it’s distressing to think that 10 years ago Air America broke ground by creating a progressive network of talkers and stations that reached a peak of 75 stations with a lineup that consisted of the then unknown Rachel Maddow, Sam Seder, comedians Lizz Winstead, Mark Maron, Janane Garafolo and Al Franken with long time radio pro Randi Rhodes anchoring. Of that group none are on terrestrial or satellite radio today. Only Sam Seder has a daily podcast – the terrific Majority Report.  Sure Maddow and Franken are more influential today with their moves to TV and elective office, respectively, but damn, they did good radio shows for a period. 

Whether by the fiat of big naturally conservative networks like ClearChannel or the invisible and palsied hand of the market, the decimation of liberal talk radio is lamentable for me, an ardent listener.  After the death of KTLK, Randi Rhodes moved her show online and then more recently got out of the business entirely. Ed Schultz also has dropped his 3 hour radio show in favor of a 1 hour a day online subscription program. Stephanie Miller, who has one of the best rated morning shows wherever she’s broadcast, as well as very popular live shows (the Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour), is broadcasting from her home and fortunately has a home on Sirius Progress Channel. But even she has recently suspended efforts on the comedy tour to concentrate on the radio show because of the depressed radio atmosphere.

Now, practically speaking, the death of talk radio in toto is clearly a positive given how monumentally influential conservative talk radio has been (along with Fox News) in moving the dial of ideas rightward, and arguably stupidward, over the last 20 years. Angry white males are demonstrably less angry when they turn off the outrage machine that is talk radio. So the loss of liberal radio would be a small price to pay if the annihilation of right wing radio is complete.


Back From Vacation

I attended a commencement and a funeral. Kind of perfect balance there.

Cleaned out my garage.

Got a new mower just in time to tame the wilderness.

Started reading a massive book about the history of New York from the 1600s through 1898. Did you know that Gotham means Goat Town in Anglo-Saxon? Not nearly as glamorous as it’s present day connotations. 

Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day.

See ya

It’s Science! – Researchers Kill Woman’s Cancer with Measles Vaccine

Mayo Clinic researchers cured a woman’s stubborn cancer by giving her enough measles vaccine to innoculate 100 million people. It made her violently ill for hours, but then as she recovered the cancer started shrinking.

The forehead tumor vanished over the course of several weeks, and the other tumors in her body followed suit.

“It’s a very simple concept, really,” Russell explained in a Mayo Clinic video. “Viruses naturally come into the body and they destroy tissue.”

In a paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Russell explained that his team re-engineered the measles virus to program it to fight cancer.

Once inside the body, the measles viruses bind to the tumors and use them to replicate their own DNA. The cancer cells eventually explode to release more copies of the virus. The procedure has the added benefit that the invading viruses trigger the patient’s immune system, which then goes to work against the remaining crippled cancer cells.

Kind of amazing, and even more so for the paths of research it opens up. The downside is that if you’ve had measles, or been vaccinated against it, it won’t work for you.

Erholtz’s case, said Russell, taught researchers two things, “No. 1, you need a really big dose and No. 2, the patient needs to not have an antibody to the virus.”

But if the theory works with other viruses, like the common cold, that’s a work around. It goes to clinical trials now. 



We Only Thought it was 2014, It’s Always 1870 Somewhere

Child labor laws don’t cover some agricultural work. We know that fact intellectually, and we dismiss it by thinking of benign family farms. But this incredibly disturbing report by Human Rights Watch awakens our conscience to the reality:  kids as young as seven are working long and dangerous hours on tobacco farms, right here in the U.S. of A as if it were 1870. And it’s disgusting!

While US law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to children, children can legally work on tobacco farms in the US. The world’s largest tobacco companies buy tobacco grown on US farms, but none have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work… 

Several hundred thousand children work in US agriculture every year, but no data is available on the number working in tobacco farming. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described going to work on tobacco farms at age 11 or 12, primarily during the summer, to help support their families. Most were the children of Hispanic immigrants who lived in communities where tobacco was grown and who attended school full-time.

Children Human Rights Watch interviewed described feeling suddenly, acutely ill while working on tobacco farms. “It happens when you’re out in the sun,” said a16-year-old girl in Kentucky. “You want to throw up. And you drink water because you’re so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you’re cutting [tobacco plants], but you just keep cutting.” A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina described a headache he had while working:“It was horrible. It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it.”

Acute nicotine poisoning – often called Green Tobacco Sickness – occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants, particularly when plants are wet. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Though the long-term effects are uncertain, some research suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have consequences for brain development.

What that fucking hell!  Please read the article, if not the actual study. It’s a real eye opener.

One is inclined to ask “where are the parents?” but we know where the parents are. Probably right next to the kids in the fields, struggling to make ends meet and facing horrible economic choices like needing their children to spend their “summer vacation” laboring under conditions we thought did not exist in this country in this century.


Germany Sets New Renewables Record

They’re using about 27% renewables so far in 2014 next to the U.S.’s approximately 13%, but last Sunday Germany hit a mark of almost 75% renewable energy for the day. That’s a new record and the records keep coming.

Observers say the records will keep coming as Germany continues its Energiewende, or energy transformation, which aims to power the country almost entirely on renewable sources by 2050.

That’s Germany.

They don’t have a sun baked Southwest.

They don’t have a sun baked anything!

The unprecedented growth of solar PV in particular has been fueled in large part by policies that incentivize clean energy. Germany’s simple feed-in tariff (FIT) policy, which pays renewable energy producers a set amount for the electricity they produce under long-term contracts, has driven the solar power boom. But as installations continued to outpace government targets, Germany announced last year that it would begin scaling back its feed-in tariff.

It’s all about policy – but that’s influenced by politics and makes it difficult.