Trick-or-treating evolved from English traditions of All Souls’ Day, when the poor would go house-to-house begging for food in exchange for prayers for the families’ deceased relatives. Costumes naturally became a part of this.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Let the Kids Have Fun!
Trick-or-treating evolved from English traditions of All Souls’ Day, when the poor would go house-to-house begging for food in exchange for prayers for the families’ deceased relatives. Costumes naturally became a part of this.
Friday, October 30, 2009
No More Fake Meteorite Strikes!
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Will All the Global "Cooling" Idiots Please Stand Up?
Now, new NOAA examination of existing data plus a separate AP-team investigation shows that this was all misbegotten, misuse of statistics. As per the article in today's Denver Post ('Analysts Dispute Claim that the World is Now Cooling Off', p. 8A) the real conclusion (for non-boneheads) from the NOAA itself is:
"The last 10 years are the warmest 10-year period of the modern record"
Quoting NOAA climate-monitoring chief, Deke Arndt.
Of course, anyone the least bit skeptical of the cooling gibberish could have found out this was all so much rubbish by himself, even before the new studies. They merely needed to access the source paper that started it all, which first appeared in Nature (May, 2006) written by Dr. Noel Keenlyside et al, wherein a tentative claim for monotonic global cooling since ca. 1998 was put forward. This twenty byte excerpt (minus the reading in context) then 'jumped the shark' and became embedded into the warming skeptics' arsenal of disinfo and set real global warming science education back at least a decade in my estimation.
Now, when one broaches warming anywhere, he is met with specious citations of the Keenlyside et al paper as "proof" it isn't happening. At the root of this misapprehension by the faux skeptics is misinterpretation of the data and statistical methods appearing in the paper - not at all helped by the media which have also misconstrued it.
Even Editors who fully knew the actual original source still couldn't be bothered to consult it, they opted to get their info 2nd hand (like from the 'Investor's Business Daily', or 'Drudge Report') then bloviate how global warming is wrong, or "hyped" in sundry editorials. Wrong and strong, as the saying goes.
People prone to the denial weltanschauung then read these superficial reports, missed the key core clues, and bruited it all about that they (deniers, skeptics) were right all along. Instead of taking shortcuts, skeptics could have retrieved the ACTUAL paper from NATURE! They could have studied the paper's key figure(3), the one that looks at past and (forecast) future global temperatures, "Hindcast/forecast decadal variations in global mean temperature, as compared with observations and standard climate model projections".
The first thing they’d have noted about the figure -- indeed, one major source of confusion -- is that each point represents a ten-year centered mean. That is, each point represents the average temperature of the decade starting 5 years before that point and ending 5 years after that point. Thus, the statistics for potential “cooling” could not possibly have been justifiably extrapolated beyond 1998 + 5 = 2003. Yet math and stats imbeciles all over the place have insisted it was ongoing.
This ignorance and perpetuation of such was incepted because too many simpletons- both on the net, and in the media- took the repeated gushing claims about warming "now changed to cooling" without examining the key source paper themselves. Even some vaunted “experts” at the Allexperts site, have climbed aboard this moron bandwagon., e.g.
Second, the skeptics would have spotted the red line in the Nature publication and – if bright enough – beheld that it was the actual global temperature data from the U.K.'s Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research. They ought to have asked: Why does the red line stop in 1998 and not 2007? Again, it’s a running 10-year mean, and the authors use data from a Hadley paper that ends around 2003, In effect, they can't do a ten-year centered mean after 1998.
Lazy deniers, however, have parlayed this simple statistical peculiarity of the data into believing that global warming factually STOPPED in 1998!
Third, at least one genius denier might have spotted the black line in the Figure, which was actually one of the IPCC scenario projections, labelled 'A1B.' It denotes a relatively high-CO2-growth model -- but actual carbon emissions since 2000 have wildly outpaced it. A further check by skeptics of the solid green line - the "hindcast" of the authors – e.g. how well their model compared to actual data (and the A1B scenario) could also be done. The lazy morons would have seen that, if extended (in dashes) through 2010 and finally to 2025, it JOINED up with A1B! In other words, Keenlyside et al's paper actually concurs with the IPCC projection that warming will ramp up majorly past 2010!
What is dismaying to those who have done serious research is how deficient the average denier-skeptic is, and how difficult it is to impart correct interpretation of data minus the bogey of ideology which stalks every word written on global warming. Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor has referred to the trend of skeptic science sown for political or economic ends - e.g. in imparting ignorance and faux skepticism, agnotology. It is achieved primarily by sowing the teeniest nugget of doubt in whatever claim is made (and as we know NO scientific theory is free of these 100%, even such rich theories as quantum mechanics and special relativity).
The sad outcome of the agnotology dynamic in the USA, in terms of exploiting the "global cooling" baloney is an even larger segment of the public vs. 3 years ago, mostly brainwashed by the Fox-ites and right wing think tanks, now believe global warming is a "hoax". Latest figures from the Pew research Center show that now barely 57% accept standard, human-engendered warming theory, as opposed to 77% three years earlier. Add this now to the majoritiy of 'Muricans who still refuse to accept evolution and no wonder most of the developed industrial world laughs at us as uneducated hicks and rubes.
Better physics education may be needed, but I think a large dollop of critical thinking and training in scientific interpretation is also needed. In addition, it may now be time to re-implement the Fairness Doctrine that was cut in the Reagan years. Contrary to conservative political malarkey, this doctrine doesn't remove free speech, it merely allows intelligent counterpoint to whatever bald claims are made on talk radio, OR on cable TV. Especially FOX and its three stooges variety show of Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Is the Cosmos Fractal in Nature?
Z (f) = y1 (fat) FAT
Z (c) = 0 (boundary) -------------------------------
Z (g) = -y1 (gravy) GRAVY
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Jesus: The Augustan Hippie
A formidable problem in researching and writing about historical personages, is that myth often becomes conflated with facts. This is especially true when the research entails exhaustive dredging up of numerous obscure scrolls, manuscripts- not to mention cross checking of sources.
That is why John Dominic Crossan's book is all the more remarkable. It shines out like a beacon, against a morass of many other comparable books with far less scholarly qualities. At the outset, let me say the book is not easy reading, in terms of mastering insights into textual analysis and their import for interpretation. For this reason one can be sure no limited minded fundamentalist will open its covers.
Which is a tragedy, since a crack of light shining into the darkened neurons of the fundies might well make them more human, as opposed to inhuman and intolerant.
My own ability to ferret out the key research done by Crossan was no doubt aided by my having attended a Jesuit-run university in New Orleans ca: 1964-67. So, I'd already taken courses in biblical exegesis, Quadriform Gospel analysis and Comparative Religion. My mind was therefore already open to the possibilities Crossan presents.
Crossan's conclusionary take on Jesus is perhaps best summarized on p. 422:
"His strategy, implicitly for himself and explicitly for his followers, was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.
And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth or Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating wwre calculated to force individuals into *unmediated* physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another.
He announced, in other words, the borderless kingdom of God."
Jesus as a historical person, in other words, entirely fit within the egalitarian Gnostic scheme - as opposed to the Pauline 'god-man/Savior' theme. (The Gnostics, as biblical scholar Elaine Pagels notes, considered anyone who identified with God exactly as committing a sacrilege and blasphemy).
What or who was Jesus, at the end of the day? From the weight of Crossan's arguments and insights - not to mention the consensus of The Jesus Seminar Project- he was an extraordinary man. But a flesh and blood human nonetheless.
In Crossan's final conclusion - with which I wholeheartedly concur from everything I've seen- Jesus was a "peasant Jewish Cynic". (As Crossan points out, p. 421, a 'Cynic' embodied "a life-style and mindset in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating and living and relating, that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage. ....Hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.")
Little wonder then that Jesus' habits would infuriate not only Jewish orthodoxy but the Roman government. Leading ultimately to execution for what they'd have perceived as "subversion" of the Empire.
Geza Vermes, a scholar of ancient Judaism concurs with this take. He is a Jewish Studies professor at Oxford University. According to Vermes, Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified because he "clashed with Jewish and Roman leaders" and was regarded as a "potential threat to law and order and consequently to the welll being of the Jewish people".
They thus decided he "had to be eliminated for the common good."
Vermes goes on to note the 'spark' that ignited the hostility was probably Yeshua doing the "wrong thing" by tossing out the money changers, "in the wrong place" (the Temple). At the "wrong time" (Passover).
Vermes' (like Crossan and other researchers) thus rejects implicitly the facile explanation that the dispute involved the claim of being a unique Son of God who "exercised divine powers".
Vermes doubts seriously (as scholar Elaine Pagels of Harvard notes vis-a-vis the Gnostics) that those 'Savior' beliefs and words were part of the original message.
They were added later on, most of the additions from bastardizations of the Latin Vulgate in its transciption to the King James Bible - which is probably the worst version of the bible available- though it reads the best! As Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has pointed out in his book, 'Misquoting Jesus, (p. 209) the King James version is littered with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived from an earlier 12th century (Vulgate) edition "that is one of the worst manuscripts now available to us!" (Emphasis Ehrman's). As Ehrman points out, based on this, it is "little wonder modern (correct translation) editions differ from the King James". Of course, it is amusing that the literalist fundies believe this to mean their book is the supremely correct one and all other versions are wrong!
In context here, consider the claim of a miracle: Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld has a simple explanation for this: a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when a scribe really wrote “walking by the water” it was mistranslated as “walking on the water”.
If one applies the (David) Hume test for miracles here, one therefore asks: Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous than a man actually violating the law of gravity and walking on water? It doesn’t require a lot of thought, genius or effort to see that the mistranslation of a passage of the New Testament is LESS miraculous (or if you prefer, less improbable) than that a man actually, literally walked on water.
Exaggeration, probably by disciples or early biographers eager to inflate the rebel peasant Cynic into a divine entity, and God-man was also feasible. The erstwhile reason was to "convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God" (cf. Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in 'A Concise History of the Catholic Church', notes, p. 17) . A simple example would be the changing of water into wine at Cana. This could easily be done using some berries common to the Mediterranean, which Jesus casually squeezed into water, making it change appearance - then by the power of suggestion convincing the witnesses it was "wine".
At the same time, Vermes - and others (Pagels, Crossan) are willing to grant that Jesus could spell bind a crowd with his words, and could "lay bare the inmost core of spiritual truth".
The central problem for the conventional Christian believer inevitably arises: how to reconcile his/her faith in a literal 'God-Man/Savior' Jesus, with the actual historical person. Who was more a radical, "liberal" freedom-fighter against the Roman state. (Again, imagine a well spoken 60s radical, like Yuppie Jerry Rubin, alive and well in the Middle East and dissing all the antiquated Jewish and Roman customs like he dissed the "establishment" in the 60s)
Crossan offers a hint ('Epilogue', p. 423):
"Is an understanding of the historical Jesus of any permanent relevance to Christianity itself? I propose that at the heart of any Christianity there is always, covertly or overtly, a dialectic between a historically read Jesus and a theologically read Christ. Christiany is always, in other words, a Jesus/Christ/ianity."
and finally (ibid.)
"This book challenges the reader on the level of formal method, material investment, and historical interpretation. It presumes there will always be divergent historical Jesuses, that there will always be divergent Christs built upon them, but above all, it argues that the structure of a Christianity will always be: this is how we see Jesus as Christ now."
For anyone with patience and a truly open mind, Crossan's research (embodied in his book) is a worthwhile excursion into the intricacies of textual analysis, and diligent comparison of ancient scrolls, sources. Its intellectual journey is breathtaking, and its conclusions even more so.
It goes without saying that it can't be everyone's 'cup of tea' because the (implied) threat to the pre-determined beliefs of many will likely overcome their ability to pursue open inquiry. One thing the fundamentalist is frightened of more than anything (maybe apart from his imagined "Hell") is open inquiry and the uncertainty that may be engendered from it.
Crossan on Christian Fundamentalists:
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Anti-Intellectualism in America: Concern or Hype?
One of the best insights into hatred of the American intellectual is provided in the Hofstadtler account of how Adlai Stevenson was relentlessly skewered ca. the 1952 presidential campaign. (Cf. pp. 221-22). This included barbarous and savage verbal assaults by the media(p. 225). As Hofstadter notes (ibid.) Stevenson's wit was detested even more than his intellect. Of course, wit functions in the service of intellect, to amplify intellect's intent and render its goals more efficacious. Or to smooth the delivery of information related to weighty issues. For this Adlai was repeatedly slandered and referred to as a "comedian" or "clown" and portrayed in cartoons with a jester's cap and bells. The New York Daily News (cf. p. 227) once referred to him as "Adelaide" and charged that he "trilled his speeches in a fruity voice."
Thereby rendering an additional slur - one that directly ties intellectual display or wit with homosexuality. The same media reinforced this by the description of his followers as "typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals." At lower levels of society today, this pernicious virus can still be seen - in our public high schools. There, day in and day out "geeks", "dweebs" and "dorks" are relentlessly assaulted by feeble-minded "jocks" for openly displaying any intellect. Many are also accused of being "gay" simply because they prefer the life of the mind and books- to football, gang hijinks, mailbox 'baseball' or cow-tipping.
But where Hofstadter was really dead-on was in tying this inherent hatred of intellect to close-minded religiosity. As he points out (p. 133):
"There seems to be such a thing as the generically-prejudiced mind. Studies of political tolerance and ethnic prejudice have shown that zealous church-going and rigid religious faith are among the most important correlates of political and ethnic animosity."
No wonder little has changed.
These are points I've emphasized in the introductory chapters of my own recent books: 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook', and 'Dialectical Atheism'. In both books, I reference what Richard Dawkins once called "mind viruses" to show how this sort of phenomenon is spread. Of course, an anti-intellectual culture provides fertile soil for the virus. And we behold its infectious power as Christian (and other) fundamentalisms spread world wide- while more moderate forms of religion lose followers.
Part of the reason may also be loss of critical thinking functions. This is ramped up in a society brainwashed 24/7 by a deformed, consumption-driven news cycle and its assorted array of powder puff pieces - which thirty years ago wouldn't be accepted into the most rank tabloid.
This loss of critical thinking and the ability to see moral gray areas are part and parcel of the same phenomenon, As Hofstadter notes (p. 135):
"The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean, it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan) and can tolerate no ambiguities."
This point was thoroughly reinforced in a recent Salon.com interview with Biologist Richard Dawkins who observed crisply (in regard to the audience for his latest book):
"No, I'm not really aiming it at creationists. I don't think they read books anyway, except for one book."
Which is an astute point. The average creationist-fundie is so wedded to his or her simplified outlook he or she can't be bothered to read anything outside it. Hence, I doubt the average fundamentalist reads one (other) book every five years, far less anything else (even newspapers). Why should they?
Thus there is a 'payoff' - albeit a regressive one- in being fundie. One can have the satisfaction of knowing he'll sit on the right side of his deity while all the heathens or infidels burn forever. So, he can watch as a spectator. Plus, in this life, he can walk around in the smug knowledge that all those outside his fundie orbit are "unsaved". The price, of course, is that he emerges as an untutored moron on most subjects - for which he simply adopts the words or others in his assorted jeremiads, e.g. against "Darwinian evolution".
No wonder then I have never ever encountered a single fundamentalist who's actually read The Origin of Species. Again, why should they when Genesis has all their answers? Hence, the anti-intellectual stance of the fundamentalist.
This is also perhaps why Bush & Co. - during their lawless reign, invented the term "axis of evil" in their advertising campaign to wage an endless war across the globe. By invoking this black-white term along with "crusade" and "evil doers" - they instantly transformed our side to the cause of the just and good. Everyone else "not on our side" , is fodder for "regime change" or at least being labeled as part of the "axis of evil". Simple black and white logic, not very different from the fundamentalist 'my way of the highway to Hell' syndrome. In each case, serious intellectual contemplation is junked, cut off at the pass.
The beauty of it is that the architects of this Manichean claptrap know from the get-go that millions of the weaker-minded will buy into it, like they buy into everything else they see or hear on TV. They've already been dumbed down and Pavlovian- trained as indiscriminate consumers by the ad-hocracy and corporatocracy.
So, what Hofstadter showed is that prejudice, religious mania and fundamentalism as well as absence of critical thinking are all of a piece in American Anti-Intellectualism. And further, that this hasn't changed in nearly forty-six years (from the time the first edition came out). All that's happened is that anti-intellectualism now assumes more varied and sophisticated guises. But it is seen at many more levels of the whole society, beyond even the business enclave Hofstadter pillories as well (Chapter IX, 'Business and Intellect').
Hofstadter, however, couldn't capture the spread of this mind hostility over time, because it effectively ceased scrutiny ca. 1962-63. Therefore, if one is to more clearly perceive the evolution of anti-intellectualism in the USA a new source must be added- after one has read Hofstadter. The ones I most heartily recommend as the optimum follow-up is 'Twilight of American Culture' by Morris Berman (W.W. Norton, 2000), and The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein.
Bauerlein's book is important because it reveals how a whole generation of youth (Generation Y'er, etc.) are being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance, and their addiction to digital crap via Twitter, Facebook, etc. Wasting time when they ought to be deverloping their minds by accessing the (written) works for politics, science, history, economics etc. (And no, as the author notes, getting your info online will not do. For one thing, you can't be sure how much of a book has been bowdlerized in its transfer to digital format)
Meanwhile, Berman's effort not only paints the warp and woof of our national dumbing down, in culture, media and everything else- but solutions to at least slow it. These are in his Chapter 4, 'The Monastic Option in the Twenty-First Century', wherein he recommends intellectuals of all stripes strive to preserve what was best in our culture - including all other works of art and science. And to do this in preparation for a new 'dark age' - which we can already see encroaching on the horizon. (Sarah Palin 2012 presidency anyone?)
An age already marked by deformed "laws" (e.g. 'Patriot Act')that permit government to access one's library reading records without having to disclose it was done. An age marked also by increasing 'synopsis' of books into computer format. Mere gutted shadows of the originals. And an age where students no longer earn their grades, but go to net sites to pay for homework assignments already down. Not realizing or appreciating this doesn't constitute learning.
Oh, and a large and growing segment of people who still accept the Earth is 6,000 years old and we all came from "Adam and Eve"
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
400-plus Planets and Counting
The latest news, that European astronomers have identified 32 more planets outside our solar system is fantastic! This now makes the total number of "extra-solar" planets discovered over four hundred.
The spacecraft used for the exo-planet discoveries is shown in the image, and is known as the "SIM-Lite Astrometric Observatory". Sim-Lite itself is a targeted, precision astrometric telescope with a single measurement accuracy (resolution) of 1.0 micro-arcsecond. This is in an operational (brightness-magnitude) domain of -1.5 to +20. Its end of mission accuracy is 4 micro-arcseconds.
Astrometry, for those not aware, is the sub-discpline of astronomy concerned with the fine details of position measurement. In the case of SIM-Lite, the position calibration features are being used to identify the location of exo-planets. It basically focuses on some distant stellar system, maybe 50 light years away, and then identifies ay telltale oscillations or motions around the stellar object. Such movements are the signals for a planet revolving around the given star.
The telescope is operated by the ESO or European Southern Observatory.Six of the 32 newly discovered worlds have been found to be several times more massive than Earth - based on their residual motions. Most planets discovered so far, to be sure, have been Jupiter-sized or larger, meaning the surface gravity is likely too great to support life as we know it. ESO Astronomer Stephane Udry said the results thus far support the theory that planet formation is common, especially around the most comon types of stars (Main Sequence, especially F, G, K spectral classes).
Indeed, especially intriguing is that some 40 percent of the planets of sunlike stars (with the classes denoted above) have planets that are closer to being Earth-sized than Jupiter-sized.
Udry himself has said: "I'm pretty confident that Earth -like planets are everywhere".
The question remains, of course, as to how close any of these Earth-like planets are. And that introduces a wealth of further questions: Do any of them have intelligent life? If so, at what stage of development are they relative to us? Do they have science like ours? Do they have religions, or have they dispensed with them? And what about "saviors"? Do they need those, or are they grown up enough to manage their lives without them?
Alas, we'll likely have to wait for the first radio messages in response to our own questions to find out. And that may be several lifetimes in the offing, unless they land directly on Earth first!
Monday, October 19, 2009
The Balloon Boy Farce and American Gullibility
With 7 million transfixed viewers in tow.
What gives? Why could no one figure out that a puny milar balloon weighing all of fifteen pounds could not support a 39-lb. boy?
Or that helium, which can support 0.067 lbs per cubic foot, would not do that job, given a roughly 200 cu. foot volume for the balloon.
(0.067 lb./cu. ft) x 200 cu ft. = 13. 4 lbs
discloses the weight of the boy at nearly three times what the balloon could carry. Hence, it would have been physically impossible for the boy to have been trapped inside the balloon.
Yet millions watched their televisions with bated breath, absolutely certain that a little boy was being taken along for a wild "UFO" ballon ride.
As reported in today's Denver Post, the parents now face criminal charges, with two separate counts that carry a $500,000 fine and 6 years in prison each. Evidently, from the Post story, the Larimar Cty. sheriff's office has now found clear evidence the duo (with the help of their kids) staged the hoax in order to get on a new reality TV show.
Not much more can be said for these people, so desperate to gain some sliver of fame and a minuscule fortune they'd pull off a major hoax costing tens of thousands, and commanding state and federal resources. But what about the legions of the gullible?
They clearly lack critical thinking skills. But then, what must one expect given a preponderance of believers who assert with every fiber of their being that:
- a man once stayed three days in the belly of a whale and lived to talk about it
- another ancient managed to stop the Earth's rotation by sounding a horn
- another ancient guy managed to walk on water and raise the dead
- the same guy rose from the dead and is due to come back any day now
I submit that any person who could believe any or all of the above could easily fall for a story line that a boy is trapped inside a UFO-shaped balloon- sailing over 50 miles inside it. And just as the same person would likely not scrutinize too closely the physics behind the balloon story - showing it to be quite impossible- he'd also likely not scrutinize the physics behind the consequences of causing the Earth to cease rotation. Which, as the late Isaac Asimov once pointed out, would mean the entire Earth's crust would be vaporized by the conversion of rotational energy into heat energy.
Again, this shows that serious critical thinking is the element most lacking in American education.
And why so many would prefer to rely on some specious "faith" instead!
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Is it real - or Irrational Exuberance?
DOW At 10000 as Crisis Ebbs
In other words, we are expected to believe the last few months of "rally" are real, and the magic number is bona fide- spearheading a new onrush to wealth. But can it be believed? is it truly a marker of being out of the recession, or is it a dupe's snare?
There are a number of unsettling warning indicators that are being ignored except by a few. This negligence leads the scrutinizing genuine investor (as opposed to speculator) to believe what we are actually seeing is what former Fed Chairman Allan Greenspan once referred to as "irrational exuberance". That is, the mindless predisposition to feed and fuel another speculative bubble merely because the DOW is rising.
Let's look at some of these:
1) High unemployment
The unemployment rate remains at 9.8% and according to more serious stats, is probably closer to 15%. As I have remarked in earlier posts last year, the BLS unemployment statistic is inherently lowballed and hence flawed, because it drops non-workers off the rolls after 6 months- relabelling them as "discouraged". This simply isn't cricket, and leads to an artificiality in the numbers, much like the "consumer price index" (which excludes health care costs, fuel and food costs) does with inflation.
As I pointed some weeks ago on this blog, protracted low unemployment means that either: a) people will not be able to spend adequately to prop up consumption (which constitutes 70% of the national GDP) or b) they will have to go into debt to finance spending.
(1) means corporate profits must continue to retreat and any growth is therefore unreal- based on inflated P-E ratios and rising risk tolerance. (2) means more leveraging of the economy, which is exactly what initiated the real estate bubble.
Let's go on:
2) The dollar's value is decreasing, in inverse proportion to the rise in equities. The increased propensity to take on market risk is pushing it lower. The U.S. Dollar Index, a measure of the dollar's value against a slew of currencies fell to 75.49 on Wednesday, from 75.94 on Tuesday. This means the practical-trade in value of our currency vs. world currencies is at about 75 cents. An effective devaluation. Looking at the value of the Euro in the same timespan confirms this, as it was at $1.4919 Wednesday up from $1.4829.
What's going on? Why is the dollar value falling as the DOW goes up?
Simply put, dollars are being removed from real (productive) markets and injected into speculative or phantom money markets via the stock market. When I use the term "phantom money" I mean that the value varies almost daily based on the P-E or price to earning ratio. Because people received too little in real income, and so could not generate actual savings, they've tried to make up for it in the stock market via speculation. This is somewhat analogous to a poor schlub who barely has ten bucks to his name in discretionary weekly income, but uses it to play the lotto in the hope it will deliver actual wealth. No it won't. The odds are his real remaining money will simply be bled down.
Let's take another example: In the early 80s, the constant shrinkage of bank (pass book) interest rates, as well as CDs, forced vulnerable people to chase yield in risky vehicles for which they were never prepared. These items drove millions of average Janes and Joes into the 'market' who otherwise may never have ventured there. Just as, before 1929, millions of ordinary folk were driven into the infamous 'investment trusts' that caused them to lose everything.
The more recent (ca. pre-2000) piling into the market with 401ks, IRAs, etc, resulted in a hitherto never-before -seen phenomenon. What mass speculation did was to drive P/E ratios to incredible overpriced magnitudes. In some cases some equities, and mutual funds, were trading at over 70 time earnings. Invest one buck and get $70 back. It was better than playing the slots in Vegas on a good day.
People actually came to believe they could reach retirement based on ginned up returns from such speculative investment rather than plain old, unsexy, slow but steady saving. They were way wrong, and learned the lesson in the 2001 post 9/11 crash, and more recently in the mortgage -bubble generated crash.
What I'm getting at here is that the inverse dollar value-equities relationship is a nasty warning sign. It is telling the investor who has more than air between the ears that he's playing with his hard earned money much like the guy who earns $150 a week and is trying to double it playing slots, or the lotto.
Meanwhile, this chasing of phantom gains by speculation in the stock market - in fact - has caused the underfunding, under-investment in the REAL economy. Not the speculative one. Thus, as money has been removed from the spending stream and injected into speculation, real corporate infrastructure - including for better (improved) plant, research, labor was removed. Are you still scratching your head wondering why, if the DOW is so big and cool, the employers and corporations still aren't hiring people?
THAT is the question you ought to be asking.
The dollar's slide is also tied directly to the lack of national savings, which though it had slightly improved during the worst of the recession, is now retreating again. Granted a 2.7% rate is better than 0.7% from 2007, but it is still less than it was in December. (3.9%)
One thing the Fed could do to address the dollar value-equity imbalance is to raise interest rates. Not much, just to 0.5% or better 0.75%. This would have multiple benefits, not least of which is to protect the dollar from further retreat. It would also help other nations, such as Canada, to continue their own path out of recession. As it is, the increase of the loonie's value vs. the U.S dollar is stalling economic growth for Canucks.
Of course, the Wall street boys will weep and gnash their teeth, and we can't have that, can we?
3) There has been no true regulatory reform put into place.
Wall Street is basically carrying on as it always has, and there is no accountability, none. This sets the stage for yet another bubble based on derelict and obscure financial instruments, which will ensnare the unwary. Lest people- common investors forget, the "insurer of insurers" AIG, failed precisely because it sold vast amounts of CDS or credit default swaps without properly covering their own positions. Trillions of these yet remain on banks' books as "toxic waste".
What has to be taken away from the AIG, Lehman experience is that these damned CDS are totally toxic devices which need to be strictly regulated. (My own take is that they need to be outright outlawed, but no one will ever permit that to be done, too much common sense. And besides, there's a sucker born every minute who might buy them).
At the very least, only those who actually own the underlying REAL bonds ought to be able to purchase them. You can't do it on other people's money. If a true government regulation was passed simply requiring this, the result would be to tame a horrific financially destructive force and also cut the overblown price of CDS.
But nothing has been done!
Hence, the potential to craft new, more devastating ones persists, and any in the stock market - or even owning a bond fund or mutual fund, need to be very aware of that.
My personal opinion is that I would not set one investing "foot" in the market until every last CDS is cleaned out, OR (better) strict federal legislation is passed to control their creation.
Now, it is true many forlorn 401k owners have lost over 50% because of the 2008 meltdown. And they are impatient to get their hard earned money back. But they really ought to have understood from the get go that the 401k was never originally designed as a speculative-investing plan but as a SAVING plan. The original 401k was designed to allow workers to put money away each week, not to gamble it on stocks, or mutual funds (see also: The Great 401k Hoax, by William Wolman and Anne Colamosca)
Another point you need to know: if a share of anything goes down by 20%, it requires an advance of 25% to get back just to the breakeven point. If the value of a share drops 40 percent (as has occurred with some recent mutual fund hits since last year), you need a 66.7 % advance to break even. If the share drops 50% - as already noted- a 100% gain must be registered to return to ‘break-even’ (i.e. you’re not losing more than what you already paid).
Most realistic prognoses for most stocks and especially mutual funds (such as appear in 401ks) disclose at most only a 3-4% gain or return per year. If you experienced a 40% drop and are trying to earn it back, this means at least 16 2/3 years at 4% per annum. If you were 60 when your mutual funds blew out a 40% drop hole, it means you won't make it back to where you were (before the fall) until you are 76-plus.
But things get worse. In the above Pollyanna scenario no one is reckoning in taxes, or fund fees. Assuming 1% for each of those, means your after tax, after fees collected real return is only 2% per year. That means you will need to wait 33 1/3 years to get back to break even!
Perhaps, just perhaps, you'd have been better off with plain old saving (say in T-bonds or CDs) rather than being in the market in the first place!
Friday, October 2, 2009
Meet Our Newest Hominid Ancestor!
As revealed in today's SCIENCE Journal, there's been a new and momentous addition to the hominid family, which includes humans: the find is of a female fossil skeleton and is known as Ardipithecus or "Ardis" for short. This find, excavated by an international team, is 1 million years older than the previous one - designated "Lucy".
The find will be documented today in no less than eleven research papers, and reinforce the status of a common ancestor of both chimps and humans (although the aboriginal ancestor remains to be identified, and is likely as much as 2 million more years earlier than this one. As readers may know, the location of fossils becomes much more difficult as their age increases, especially because the Earth's crust isn't stable but shifts due to tectonic activity).
As it was, this find had to be critically pieced together using highly specialized equipment that wouldn't have been available to researchers such as Richard Leakey when they made their earliest finds. In particular, the creature's skull was in so many pieces it had to be reconstructed digitally via the use of CAT-scans and over a thousand hours of computer processing. The pelvis required six years to reconstruct in a project involving 47 research scientists worldwide.
From putting the clues and pieces together, researchers have learned this ancestor of ours had a brain about the size and mass of a chimp's, and also walked upright. But as seen from the image shown (Fig. 1) based on fleshing out the skull, "she" was not at all chimp-like in facial structure, with a much flatter, more humanoid face. Her height was probably close to 4' 4" and she weighed in at 110 pounds.
The tragedy of the Ardis find, of course, is that ardent religionists will see it as one more threat to their fairy tale book of biblical origin stories like "Adam and Eve". As well they should. Because each new evolutionary find like Ardis or Lucy puts another nail into the coffin of such insipid and unsupported drivel. And it effectively marginalizes further those who somehow think evolutionary theory has it wrong- and their infantile Adam and Eve are fact.
While it’s inevitably true that there is a residual incompleteness in evolutionary science (on account of the difficulty of highly dated fossil excavation), the positive evidence for the fact of evolution is truly massive, made up of hundreds of thousands of mutually corroborating observations. These come from areas as diverse as geology, paleontology, comparative anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, ethology, bio-geography, embryology and - increasingly nowadays - molecular genetics. The weight of the evidence has become so heavy, indeed, that opposition to the fact of evolution is laughable to all who are acquainted with even a fraction of the published data.
Some aspects of the massive amount of American ignorance especially are worth noting. For example, in a 2004 U.S. News & World Report piece, Stephen J. Gould was asked about the whole phenomenon of resistance to evolution. Gould replied that it was peculiar to Americans- and that no other western nation "of any strength or power" had such problems. Based on surveys and international tests given in the sciences, as well as math, one can easily conclude however, that this American exception is due to massive American ignorance. An ignorance that is breathtaking and born out by statistics, such as:
- 47% of Americans, including 25% of college students, believing humans did not evolve.
- 60% believing that creationism ought to be taught alongside evolution despite the fact that it has no separate repository for its own scientific facts which have been tested based on the premise of attempted falsification.
- A majority believe that humans existed alongside dinosaurs like T. Rex. - despite the fact no human fossils have ever been identified or dated in those (e.g. Jurassic) layers.
More recently, a Charlie Rose interview (on PBS YOU) featured E.O. Wilson (the great Harvard biologist) and James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA with Francis Crick). When notified by Rose that more than half of Americans refused to accept evolution, and instead accepted biblical or "divine creation" , both Watson and Wilson expressed little amazement. As Watson pointed out (and Wilson agreed) :
"what do you expect when you conduct polls of the uninformed who never have read Darwin, far less examined what natural selection means".
In my own casual poll, when I taught a handful of fundies at Barbados Community College, I once asked them if any had ever actually read The Origin of Species. Not one indicated he had. Thus the massive ignorance Watson pointed out, for how can one know enough to critique a theory if he hasn't even read it?
Wilson went on to note that he believes the "frontier nature" of the country - founded via expansion of wilderness by descendants of Puritans, and others led to this. It caused them to band into small communities and take their bibles along as their one certainty against the vagaries of nature, not to mention Indians. It led to their obsession with biblical literalness and refusal to accept anything beyond the borders of their "good books". (Which is why the most illiterate segment of the American populace - outside their good Book- remains Christian Right American Fundamentalists. They average 1 book (other than the bbible) read every seven yrs.)
When asked about Darwin's influence, and Evolution itself, both men were clear and succinct. Darwin was indeed "the greatest man ever to have lived on Earth" since he placed humans in their proper perspective, according to Watson. Wilson added, it was so "frustrating to be a modern biologist because each new idea you come up with you think is original, Darwin already thought about it or mentioned it earlier in one of his works".
On the issue of "evolution as the means of divine creation" Watson gave a good chuckle and noted how that was ridiculous on its face. With the role of DNA as the evolutional information molecule now well elaborated, evolution was clearly autonomous and anyone who remotely understood natural selection and what it meant would grasp that. Alas, most Americans - even so -called educated ones, do not. They rebel at the notion of chance, algorithmic processes governing our world, but that is what's happening.
As Watson noted, "There is absolutely NO role whatever for any divine interference in nature" and Wilson agreed, also adding, "No scientist I know of accepts evolution on that basis ....""Except one", Watson chimed in. "Collins!" And both scientists chuckled. Watson then remarked - as Rose's eyes widened to the size of saucers:
"It is amazing how much simpler everything is without God".
By which he meant, of course, rigorous observations making sense in the context of existing theory without dragging in nebulous, and specious externals.
At least evolutionary scientists, such as the ones who achieved the Ardis find, are able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions for their find to be acknowledged as a genuine human ancestor. Up to now, no Christian believer has been able to achieve the same thing with respeect to his God.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Of Prophecies and Humbug
While it is easy to laugh at the gullibility of people that swallow such crap, it defies imagination that we mostly give them a pass in the religious sphere. In that arena, all manner of moronic foretellings, described as "prophecies" are awarded some aura of exceptional gravitas....and an 'Ooooooo....' factor. But why? Have any actually come true? There isn't a scintilla of evidence.
By comparison, the technical science of celestial mechanics can make a prediction of exactly where Mars will be on the date of July 22, 2044. It is so good a prediction, than one can actually take a telescope out (or even basic binoculars) and verify it. There is no ambiguity, and we don't have to rely on some dead person's words. It is right there, in front of our eyes!
The latest rage in extremist Christian Right circles is to make bald claims about also being "in the last days" and there will soon be an "Antichrist". One would think they'd have learned their lessons after Hal Lindsey's humiliation - from his book, The Late, Great Planet Earth. For those who don't know, Lindsey predicted the onset of the Great Tribulation (to last seven years in all) beginning in 1988.
His basis was from a biblical claim or "prophecy" that "this generation" (starting with the birth of Israel) shall not pass, before the Tribulation begins. So, using the definition of a "generation" = 40 years, and given the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Lindsey added 1948 + 40 = 1988, and Voila! The Tribulation!
Trouble is, 1988 came and went, and there was NO onset of "Tribulation"!
Worse, for Lindsey, he forecast that the "ten headed Beast" described in Revelation, was actually the (then) ten-nation European Union, from which the Antichrist would rise - as from a new "Roman Empire". But, again, never happened, and now....worse for Lindsey, the EU has at least 22 nations with several more pending. So much for the ten-headed beast!
All of which points up the danger of trying to squeeze modern events into the mindless blatherings of ancient, semi-literate nomads - who had all they could handle to keep their sheep and goats straight, far less see two thousand or more years into the future.
In one of the most memorable performances ever, ca. 1991, Magician James Randi squared off against a Christian Bible bigot who kept yammering about being in the "last days" and we can tell they are here - what with wars, all the horrid crimes, and monumental disasters. To hear the Christian yap, you would believe Armageddon was within five years away.
Randi, not one to punt, kept pressing the fool to say exactly when. He reminded the bible puncher that "last days" invocations have been going on and off for the past 100 years or more. And still, none of the forecasters warning us have gotten any closer. Of course, the guy escaped by saying that "it is not ours to know the day, nor the hour. Only the Lord's!"
And as Randi replied: "Convenient!"
The problem with all attempts to use modern events in the service of ancient "prophecies" is that they are like tea leaves or Rorshach blots: anyone can read anything into any statement or claim. At the time of Randi's face off, the worst thing that had been going on was the Gulf War. Everyone, including the pretend preacher, insisted it was the war to lead into Armageddon - since Israel was so near to Iraq. Today, only the nations of fret have been changed, so now it's Iran that may lead us into it.
And so it goes, and goes...over and over and over.
Then there are the prophecies about the "Antichrist". But who or what is it, or he? Numerous excellent religious scholars, including past Jesuit professors I had at Loyola, have made it clear that the Antichrist is not a person at all. It rather represents a metaphor for that nascent, atavistic spirit of aggression and hate within humanity. A sensibility that is as much a part of present day "god-fearing" Christians (who easily commit those of any other faiths with which they disagree, to the fires of hell) as communists, or terrorists, or.....atheists!
In other words, the Antichrist is within us all, as a regressive nature or force emanating from our ape-linked genes that still have much further to evolve. In the case of this anti-"spirit" or malevolent force showing up in proclaimed "devout" Christians, I'm still reminded of a Phil Donahue show (when he was still on MSNBC) in December, 2002, wherein he featured a roundtable with Jews, Christians and a couple token secular folks. At one point, near the end, Donahue directly confronted one of the Christians - leader of the Southern Baptist fundies, about the importance of Israel in his Revelation predictions. He responded, "True, because the Valley of Megiddo is in Israel and that is where the final battle will be waged between the forces of good and evil".
Not one to be a wallflower, Phil pressed him: "So, after the final battle - since the Jews have served up their homeland to fulfill your prophecies, they will all be saved".
And he smiled and said: "Nope, only 144,000 of them. The rest will depart to the eternal fires".
The cruel imbecile never even thought twice of the irony of his remark, especially in the context of good v. evil. He could not see, for all the Jesus life presumed to be inside him, that he was of a kind with that selfsame evil associated with the spirit of Antichrist. The hate and negative side of human nature that seeks to exclude all those who differ.
And yes, true enough, if we don't get our acts together - Jew and Muslim, Christian and atheist, Right wing and Left, American and Russian (or Chinese) - and at least try to get along with each other in some manner of tolerance, it will destroy us. By nuclear holocaust, if nothing else.
No "Satan" or other evil persona is needed to explain it, nor are arcane, archaic pseudo-prophecies (which are always "proven" ex post facto) needed.
We are the authors of our own destiny, and the creators of our future. We have the power to make the future of this planet bright and bountiful- or a living hell on Earth.