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  • The $600 sailboat

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    My friend Pete Chopras came up with the idea of having a class of boats that would be limited by a box rule and a limit of $600 for materials. I've been thinking about building one for more than a year, but between moving the business and my residence, and not having a space to build in, I've yet to get past the design phase.

    Two boats that strictly meet the rules have been built, and are on the dinghy dock at Leshi, on Lake Washington. A third got built at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, but it uses items (such as the mast and rudder) left over from other boats the builder, Richard Woods, has owned and does not strictly comply with the $600 limit. Pete built the hull of his own boat, but life has interfered with completing it.

    I began thinking about this in terms of a boat that would be fast, challenging to sail, and forgiving if you screwed up.

    But I've run into a problem. If I'm going to spend the time and effort to build the boat, it needs to be a pleasant daysailer. The requirements for such a boat are at odds with going as fast as possible.

    The basic philosophy with racing dinghies is that the boat will be fastest when sailed flat, therefore the hull needs almost no initial stability. In fact, a stable hull will have more drag than an unstable hull, so stability is a negative. The formula for stability is the weight of the crew and their distance from the center line of the hull. Richard's boat, built to his Zest design, is exactly that sort of boat, narrow and with hiking wings, and will no doubt be the fastest of those built for the class, and not just because he's a better racing sailor than the rest of us..

    But I want a boat with enough stability that I don't have to work my butt off when daysailing.

    So, I've decided that if I build for this class, I'll build a boat that is pleasant to own and sail, and not worry too much about speed.

    This is what I came up with:



    The box rule is 14 ft. by 5 ft. The boat is supposed to be able to carry as much as 500 lb. of crew and cargo.

    I do have a little problem with this. 500 lb. indicates a crew of three, and that's a bit intimate for a 14 ft. boat. I could build a 15.5 ft. boat with the same scarfed pieces of plywood, waste less ply and have more room for crew. But if I build it that big, it won't have a class to race in.

    Two of the boats are built with Ironply, a product that is a high-quality underlayment with the right glue to tolerate marine use. I might use that, though if I can get a good enough deal on marine plywood, I'd go with that.

    The next problem is getting cheap enough sails. Practice sails for a Club 420 are available fairly cheap, and if I use a centerboard, I can move the center of lateral resistance aft by pulling the board part way up, in case I want to daysail with just the main up. Again, a daggerboard would be faster, with an aperture that would provide less induced drag, but I want a practical daysailer.

    The boat is a smaller version of something I drew up for illustrative purposes for my sister, who was working on saving the sail training program for Vashon's Quartermaster Yacht Club, so I've been thinking of it as the Vashon skiff.

    It's designed for stitch and glue construction, and the panels develop very little stress, so it should go together fairly easily. The decks are designed so that they all develop as well. The double hull construction will make the boat heavier than a single hull with buoyancy bags, but should I capsize in cold water, I doubt very much I'll feel like spending a lot of time bailing.

    With a crew of two, the boat should float with a waterline beam of 4 feet, which I believe is a little more than the waterline beam of a 420. So, the boat will probably be a little slower than a 420, at least in light air, but not much slower. The sharp entry and V'ed forward sections should make it a dry boat, though flatter sections might get it planing sooner.

  • The Siberian Candidate is now the Siberian President

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I confess, I have been remiss. While our new president has been showing us why we can't have nice things, I have been silent.

    Words have failed me. I have a BA and an MA in political science, and none of what's been happening in Washington has made sense to me.

    When I first heard of the title of Matt Taibbi's new book, Insane Clown President, I thought that surely, this goes too far.

    Not even close. The resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser marks the third person to leave President Trump's inner circle because of ties to Russia. Paul Manafort, who joined the Trump campaign back in March of last year, left the campaign in late August because of his ties to Russia (such as arranging for fake anti-NATO rallies in Ukraine to help Russia keep the region as a client.)

    Carter Page left the Trump camp in December when it came out that his links to Russia were under investigation by the CIA.

    Flynn's resignation letter admits he lied to Vice President Pence. It does not say that he lied to Donald Trump. And Trump didn't fire him Jan. 26, when he learned that Flynn had spoken to the Russian Ambassador to the United States and lied to Pence about it.

    This all seems a little curious. Why wait 2 1/2 weeks to fire the man? Why not fire him before the whole thing blew up in public? Could it be that Trump was aware of the call all along, could he even have directed Flynn to tell the Russians that the sanctions President Obama had put in place to penalize the Russians for attempting to sway the American election would be walked back once Trump was president?

    It seems likely that Trump and his inner circle knew about the Russian intervention all along, and there are even allegations that there was a quid pro quo for the Russians for doing this.

    Remember this?

    The dossier's claim about a Ukraine-WikiLeaks quid pro quo alleges that Trump would refrain from speaking forcefully, if at all, during the 2016 presidential campaign about Russia's 2014 incursion into eastern Ukraine. In return, Russia would provide WikiLeaks the documents it stole from the Democratic National Committee.
    It seems increasingly likely that the Trump camp has been working with the Russians for quite a long time. I, of course, don't know for certain why this is. My guess would be that there's a carrot and a stick involved. There's got to be a reason Trump has resisted all attempts to get him to release his taxes, and one possible reason would be that it might show how much he is financially entangled with Russia. And in Russia, if you have money to invest, you have ties to Vladimir Putin.

    It seems quite likely, given President Trump's known proclivities, that the have some sort of dirt on him. It could be that it's the  infamous claims in the "unverified dossier" that Trump hired young women to pee on each other on a bed he knew President Obama and his wife had slept on. Or that could be misdirection, and they have something else on him. Or, it could be that the money link is enough.

    Late in the presidential campaign, there were people calling Donald Trump "the Siberian candidate." I don't think we know the extent of his links to Russia or his motivations. But this seems like the only issue currently on the table that could bring his presidency to an early end.


  • Escapist fiction

    by Jamie Lutton

    As an adult, my idea of escapist reading is different from when I was a teen.

    As a teen, for a good solid 10 years, I mostly read SF novels, or Analog (sf) magazine, every day.   As a speed reader, I would sometimes plow through a book or two a day, rereading favorites.  I read my brothers and father's collections, obsessively rereading favorites, dodging home work, or even going outside.

    When I was about 20 or so, I discovered history and science books, and overnight quit reading SF and fantasy, except for a few favorites. I turned my back on the field, and did not pick up new authors much.

    When I began to assemble books I wanted to write about, I hesitated to tackle my childhood favorites, feeling like I was 'slumming'. But then I remembered how these books taught me so much about the world, and some history, as well as political philosophies to admire, then argue with.

    I previously wrote about the editor of Analog, John W. Campbell, his strengths and prejudices here.

    I got interested in why the style of story he favored - with humans triumphing, and stereotyped aliens overall.  It came to me a few days ago.

    A great many of these stories were 'fairy tales' or fables retelling the struggles of the 1930's and fighting both the Nazis and the Japanese in World War ll.

    The Greatest Generation survived the worst and longest depression the country had seen in 75 years (you have to go back to the era of Andrew Jackson to find as bad a depression) while watching Fascism grow in both Europe and Asia, marching across the landscape.

    We watched, on the sidelines, waited till we were attacked, then defeated BOTH armies, with the help of allies of course, in 5 short years.

    The stuff of science fiction, if it was not true.

    We should have acted earlier, as we watched one country after another fall in Europe,and watched Japan seize thousands of square miles in the Pacific.

    We should have rescued the Jews, or tried to slow down the death camps.  We should have entered the war earlier.

    But when we did enter the war, we kicked ass.

    These amazing events charged the minds of the SF writers for the next 25 years. In one SF novel after another, this is the fable that is told.

    In The High Crusade by Poul Anderson, written in the mid 1950's,  a small group of knights in 1346 overcome the crew of a hostile UFO bent on invading Earth, kill everyone on board except the navigator - and take off with everyone in the village on an adventure in deep space (the end of the book has our distant descendants coming across their space empire).

    In Pandora's Planet, written in 1973,  other hapless humanoid aliens try to conquer Earth, and in a series of maneuvers, have their ass handed to them by the Earth armies.  The warfare, described by the aliens, reads suspiciously like what Germans, weary from fighting on the Russian front, facing fresh faced young Americans on the battle field (in 1943 or so), might say in their memos to headquarters.

    And the target audience would have ''gotten'' it, and lapped it up.

    In Wasp, by Eric Frank Russel, written in the mid 1950's one man defeats an entire planet by using Guerrilla  warfare. The book is innocently anarchistic long before Earth First was dreamed of =- the hero blows up generals, ships at sea, and plasters the planet with flyers for a fictional underground.   The author had worked with the French Resistance, and had put things in this novel they had never gotten around to trying on the Germans during the war. And the aliens are transparently based on Japanese and German culture.

    One novel like this is a bit less dated. The Demon Breed by James H Schmitz, written in 1968. The hero is a woman, a trained biologist, and there are genetically altered 10 foot long talking otters in the book. But the aliens again are evil,defeated by the ingenuity of the heroine and her 200 year old Biology professor she is rescues from their  clutches.

    And defeated in a new way:The fighting was eerily like the fighting techniques of the North Vietnamese. The setting is even in a dense jungle, albeit on a floating island on a water planet. But the author was seeing society changing, and integrated that in the book.  Some very well known authors a generation later, like David Brin, copied the idea of genetically ''improved' animals, with his heroes that are sentient dolphins and chimpanzees.

    But still you see an obligatory happy ending, humanity triumphant.

    Part of this was that the editor of Analog wanted happy endings and humanity coming on top in the stories he accepted for the magazine.  But it was also the tenor of the times
    for many years.

    Over and over, people wanted to hear about World War ll again in their fiction, disguised in the setting and the details, but the general idea.

    Even some that are strange and odd - one story by Poul Anderson, again, written in the early 1950's, has as a deux ex machina all IQs of mammals (he did not consider the birds, a shortcoming of the book) go up and up, until humans have an average IQ of about 400 and chimpanzees, elephants etc begin to revolt and want rights.  Of course, they go to the stars, of course they are ahead of other races they find there.

    There are some dark moments in the book - people who lose their minds due to the IQ growth - but, again, humanity prevails, prospers, overcomes, goes on to a glorious
    future.

    All like the happiness we had as Americans, at defeating the Nazis then a few months later, the Japanese.  

    I still like these stories, as I read them when I was young, very depressed, and frightened. I did not see a happy ending for myself, and I was in a hostile, unpredictable environment
    that was painful and unpleasant.

    In a way the fables of humanity facing great peril, fighting (one way or another) and winning was quite comforting to me, as it contrasted to my utter helplessness of my position in life.

    When I read The Demon Breed over and over, I could dream of defeating my enemies by using stealth and having giant killer otters to help me. Or reading Wasp and with cheery lawbreaking, bombing, and stealth, bringing down an entire planet. Lonely work, yes. But I know loneliness, and could grasp THAT and run with it in my dreams.  Or reading about a bumbling alien army not able to conquer Earth, due to our trickiness.

    Or being one of the medieval knights taking over a starship, and with my family and friends heading for the stars for deep space.

    Even as an adult, these fables are quite comforting. I have more sophisticated taste now. 

    But these books, and perhaps 40 or 50 others like them, when they come into my bookstore, I feature them on my ''recommend'' shelf.

    My tastes now run to paleontology, politics, poetry, history of disease, history of technology, etc etc, and people who know this blink when they see these fables pushed by me.

    These stories were a lifeline to me, when all else was dark, with the basic fable that humanity -- and that was me, personally -- would prevail.

    I suppose all teens seek this, as the world is a frightening place even for happy teens with sane parents. That is why these stories have a popularity even now. Though teens now seek more ambivalent novels. they did not grow up in the shadow of World War ll, they grew up in the shadow of Reaganomics, endless wars abroad, and growing fears for the future. 

    So these 'happy' and somewhat simple stories do not appeal any more. The Greatest Generation is mostly dead, and their children are getting old, I know I am.

    But a few, a happy few, of these SF fables are still fun to read.

    One thing I noticed about the elephant in the room -- the fantasy epic by Tolkien, published in this era, in the early 1950's, The Lord of the Rings.

    Tolkien worked on this epic starting in 1938, when he sat writing the thing on the back of old student's papers. He wrote the core of the book from that year to 1944 or so, the rest was revisions and more revisions, taking 14 years or so.  The book started out being a lighthearted, more or less, sequel to The Hobbit, but as he said in a letter to his son ''the Black Riders just appeared on the page."

    There are a lot of theories from academics about the how and why of these books, but one point that has been overlooked is that he was writing the core of the thing when he (justifiably so) expected the Germans to be coming over the hill any week.

    France had fallen, and Germany was openly making plans to invade England.  In Peter Fleming's book Operation Sea Lion, it was a close thing; this almost happened. Only the Germans' inability to win the air war and distraction and costs of the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians, kept them from invading England.

    Tolkien had lost 4 of his closest friends in World War l, and his beloved son Christopher was off at war when he was writing. So different a time than when he wrote The Hobbit, 10 years or so earlier. That had started out as stories he told his son when he was young.

    The genius of The Lord of the Rings is great, it is a massive book, but the dark inspiration had to have come from this professor of languages fearing for the destruction of England, and all he loved. 

    All SF - and fantasy - is about the time it is written.

    No wonder some of the post World War ll novels are forgotten. Add to this the sexism of the era -- few or no women characters of any note -- and other clunkers, it is hard to read the old stuff, unless one is willing to go into a mental 'time machine' and try to see it with the 
    eyes of the year it was written.

    I try to do this as a bookseller, and also when I go back and read them again, to see if I can recommend them, still.

    Another elephant in the room is Robert Heinlein.  He wrote such bad books at the end of his life that his good books can be overlooked. An entire essay could be spent talking about his books, as they are imaginative and varied, though they stick to the theme of Humanity  Prevailing. 

    In his best book, he had the audacity to make America the villain, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress , as well as making a sentient computer one of the heroes, an early stab at this, written 4 years before 2001 a Space Odyssey came out as a movie.

    In another good  book of his, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, a juvenile, a teen saves the Earth by bringing up the glories of ancient Greece to a skeptical group of hostile aliens bent on destroying Earth for the good of the neighborhood.

    When I read these as a teen, I noticed the author was trying to make me think, as well as entertain me.  That is why his 25 or so books, even the bad later ones are still sought after. 
    I noticed the aside about ancient Greece, and in my teens began to read ancient history, and can still hold up the passage and say 'HERE. Here is where my love of history really started' to anyone who will listen.

  • A beginning: Books I've loved

    by Jamie Lutton

    I have been struggling now for several years to get down on paper some observations on books, book reading, and book selling.

    I think I have an interesting perspective on this. I had one of the most awful childhoods meshed with getting to be around very bright, well read parents who shared their love of books. School was a misery, as I had an undiagnosed mental troubles combined with dealing with an unstable, angry alcoholic mother.

    Total face blindness combined with severe manic depression meant I slunk though the halls at school dodging spit, screams of mockery and physical attacks, while at home had to watch my mother drink heavily every night after work.

    The glimpses of pleasure I got started early, when I began to read anything I could get my hands on to escape my surroundings.

    I discovered I was a speed reader pretty early, while still in elementary school, and that I had a taste for non fiction. Novels tend to involve people, men women and children, overcoming obstacles and 'growing.' I had had enough of that in my own life.

    I developed a love of poetry, at least I am fond of the poets my mother used to read to me when she was only half in the bag - Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, Frost's Death of the Hired Man, Robert Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millary, etc. She would tilt her chair back on two legs, at the dining table, smoke a cigarette, and read aloud from some collection or another lying around, in the smoke-filled, rather disorderly house. A particular favorite of hers was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, which she would try to recite without the book, especially the few lines, when she was really three sheets to the wind.

    Both my parents smoked like chimneys, and indoors, a habit of a bygone era of the Greatest Generation. The walls were tinted yellow from the constant haze of cigarettes and Panatella cigars that dad smoked.

    But mostly, from an early age, I read 'geeky' nonfiction. I had an appetite for science fiction and fantasy, as good escapes from my grim situation, but I was drawn to adult books on psychology, like How Children Fail, by John Holt, which I ate up in fourth grade when the school I was in was in the process of expelling me for ''fighting'' because I was defending myself from the bullies who hit me. Loved the book, and it still speaks to me.

    I loved nonfiction - massive adult books about kangaroos, volcanoes, plagues, earthquakes, cats, battles. Not so much biographies, as their subjects often had painful lives and I was trying to escape that kind of pain.

    Through my school years, I was reading two books a day, while phoning in my school work, handing in grubby sheets with incredibly poor handwriting on them.

    I mostly was just trying to exist without being harassed, by either my schoolmates my siblings -- the two closest to me in age and I did not get along at all, in those years --
    and to tune out my mother's drunken ravings.

    Now and then, she would read to me. When I was really little, she read to me all the time, The Little Engine that Could, and like that. She was a children's librarian by day, and a damn good one -- she would seek out hard-to-get books to put into the library system she worked in, and was a fierce champion of banned books. She was a very smart, well read woman with a wicked sense of humor - -I would miss her more now that she has been dead nearly 10 years, if she had not also been a raging, angry, accusatory, paranoid drunk.

    She got drunk most days, and was not fun to listen to, not fun to be around. I did seize on the times when she was still sober, and would talk about authors she liked. Many of them are my favorites too, such as Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, and Rex Stout, but those times were rare, as most of the time she was trying to get as drunk as possible and stay as drunk as possible every night.

    I think that is why books are so important to me. If I had not been a bookworm at an early age, I would have killed her. I had taped up on my wall for years a clipping about an 18 year old girl who did not get into Harvard, though she had been admitted with a full scholarship. She had killed her own drunken, abusive mother when she was 14, and was locked up for it till she was 18. Eventually she got in to Tufts, hurrah.

    She was my hero, privately, gleefully, for what she had done. Later on, I forgave my mother, as she lost her eyesight as her smoking (and drinking) made her macular degeneration worse.

    She suffered so by not having books to escape into. She listened to tapes and listened to a lot of NPR. I forgave her, and understood her; I think she had the same brain trouble I did, and medicated herself by drinking.

    So, books are important to me -- and not novels, though I have read and liked a fair number, but nonfiction. Some nonfiction books I have read over and over, and those are the ones I want to write about. Also those that I may only have read three times, but I thought were stellar.

    And as a bookseller, I have noticed that some authors and subjects are difficult to read without some explanation, some "helps''. Either they address problems that are not clear to us, context we don't understand easily -- like Thomas Paine, or they wrote in a bewilderingly different era, like Dante's or Elizabeth Barrett Browning's time.

    Next February I will have been selling books with a licence for 30 years (before that, I was a book scout, buying books and selling them to bookstores.) I have handled books for resale 42 years. In that time, I have come across nonfiction books that deserve attention, on many many different subject --Statistics, drug crazes, to poets, stock market crashes, human and animal evolution, etc.

    Let me share my knowledge with you. I have read a lot of second rate books, badly written or boring books, and I think I can offer up some of the best of what I found.

    This is very idiosyncratic list. I am fond of plagues, disasters, and diseases, but some are quiet
    accounts of love, knowledge, dreams and inspiration.

  • More on Republican economics and trade deficits, corporate raiders and all

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I've been giving more thought to the curious fact that we had very little experience with trade deficits before voodoo economics reared its head in the 1980s.

    What changed? Well, several things. In fact, our whole attitude to economics seemed to change.

    There was a major shift in the tax load. Ronald Reagan famously lowered the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%. This encouraged the accumulation of wealth by the highest earners. But tax receipts only went from 18.2% of GDP to 18.1% of GDP. Did that mean that voodoo economics worked?

    No, just funnin' ya. It means that while high earners got a lower top marginal rate, others paid more tax, and some was shifted from one pocket to another. Payroll taxes, for example, have been rising for a long time, and that's part of what he did, but the government kept getting just about as much of its income from individual income taxes as before.

  • Trumponomics, trade, and stateless money

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    We're hearing a lot about the trade deficit lately, and Donald Trump got elected in part based on his claim that he could turn this around.

    How will he do that? Well, if the recent Carrier deal is an example, by bribing companies with tax dollars and browbeating those businesses. He's also claimed he would put a 35% import duty on goods produced by factories relocated outside the United States (but not, apparently, on the foreign companies they compete with.)

    Import substitution, that is, raising duties and attempting to have more things built in the homeland, did not work very well for Argentina, and is unlikely to work well for the United States. Furthermore, it appears he intends to give big tax breaks to the rich. I believe there are ties between inequality and trade, at least in the American economy.

    Now, here's a chart from The Motley Fool showing the history of the U.S. trade deficit.


    When Europe started rebuilding after World War II, we had massive trade surplus. How could other countries afford to pay for that? Well, we were shipping them plenty of capital, though the Marshall Plan and private investment. Then, we went through an extended period when trade was roughly balanced, from about 1950 to the mid-1970s, when the oil shocks changed everything.

    It was after this that the great decline came, and not just in the trade deficit. Current accounts went into deficit as well.

    Essentially, we've been borrowing money and spending it on foreign goods. In part, this is because of deliberate sterilization by China, that is, buying U.S. debt so that the Chinese trade surplus would not cause its currency to appreciate, which would tend to correct for the imbalance. China started doing this in the 1990s. In 2005, they began letting their currency appreciate, but they don't seem to have slowed up on building their dollar reserves until around the end of 2013.

  • Language and the social contract: Word, spirit, and reason

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, argued that the basis for the social contract is that in a state of nature, we see a war of each against all, so we must form a social contract to have a leader in charge of enforcing order, or we will die a violent death. I believe that was more a description of the breakdown of order during the 30 Years War, just ending when Leviathan was published. John Locke, for reasons we explored in the chapter on him and his radical activities, argued that we form a society to protect property, which includes our own lives.

    Both wrote in the 1600s. I believe it may be time to update the notion of the state of nature. First of all, the Hobbesian notion that we formed society to avoid violent death would apply to any animal capable of fear, and I think human society is fundamentally different from most or all other animal societies.

    Second, property is a term Locke never really defined. It cannot be objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is the rules and customs regulating the human use of objects. It is, if you like, what objects mean to people. It is a province in the realm of meaning, and meaning is what makes human societies different.

    The Hobbesian notion that we form a society to free ourselves from the threat of violent death explains why we have been ruled so long by force. It does not explain why we have been ruled so long by faith and custom, as well. The answer to that lies in the symbolic side of human society. What makes human society a civilization or a culture is this symbolic world, a sort of virtual realm consisting of meanings, which is invisible to animals other than humans. Human culture is one of the strangest things on the planet, and religion is one of the strangest and most powerful things in that ethereal, symbolic world.

    Reason is not the basis of religion. In fact, it is not the basis for civilization. People learn to live together by living together, and codify what they have learned into institutions, culture, and stories. The most important of those stories, such as the origin story that binds the community together and the story of what happens to the wicked in the afterlife, are in the keeping of one of the most powerful institutions, religion.

    But where did religion come from, and why do virtually all human societies have one?

    Humans, relative to other animals, have giant brains. The brain is an expensive organ, consuming about 25% of your body's energy when it is in a resting state, but it pays dividends. One result is our ability to solve problems, such as how to get a piece of fruit down from a tree without breaking our necks. Another is our use of language, and symbolic thought.

    We see signs of tool use as much as three million years ago. That is a sign of instrumental thought, problem solving. Symbolic thought is much more recent, appearing and disappearing a few times before it finally "took" permanently (we hope) about 35,000-40,000 years ago.

    Language must first have been used instrumentally, to warn of danger, coordinate defense, communicate what plants are edible and how to prepare them, and talk one's lover's mate out of killing you.

    But we see the revolution of symbolic thought in the creation of jewelry, and tools that are beautiful as well as functional. We see these as signs that our ancestors thought these things were not just useful, they had meaning.

    We are creatures who make meaning; it is the essence of being human, and allows us to have larger civilizations that would otherwise be possible.

    Most animals only coordinate with others of their species who are relatively closely related to them. Humans are different, in part because of their dual nature. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, living creatures can be seen as things that exist to perpetuate their genes. These are chemical strings of information that define what the creature is.

    But we have other strings of information, symbolic ones that define who we are as much as our genes do. Dawkins invented the word memes to describe them. They are a major part of what our minds are made of, the brain's software that has evolved to allow us to function in society. They give us, for example, ideas about honor and decency that prevent us from acting badly and selfishly.

    Our minds are made up of the memes we have been in contact with. You might say, what we accept into ourselves defines who we are, and what we reject defines the boundaries of the soul. But in the end, a large part of what we are made up of is each other, everyone we've known, spoken to, read, or watched as they went about their lives around us. In fact, so much of what we are is in our memes, we can transmit much of what we are to those with whom we share few genes. We certainly feel closer to our friends than to our second cousins, and feel they share more of who we are.

    But how does the symbolic link up with the spiritual?

    Consider what a wonder language is. You have a tree, you know its smell, recognize its shape, perhaps eat its fruit or nuts. The tree is a solid thing, growing in one place and firm in its reality.

    But then, you have a word for the tree. In fact, you have a word for trees. It is as if the tree, and all trees, have grown a new dimension. The tree now has an existence in the physical world and another existence in the new, symbolic world.

    How are we to interpret this?

    One way would be to regard that second existence as spirit. The tree now has a spirit, perhaps we could speak of it as a wood nymph, the brook has not just the sound of moving water but the babbling of the water sprites.

    This is a mythopoetic understanding of the world. We understood this new dimension in the world by calling it spirit, and inhabiting the world with a new sort of creature that existed only in the realm of magic.

    In our materialistic age, we tend to think of the world and society in materialistic and instrumental terms. But this would not necessarily be the dominant mode of understanding for all of history. In a slowly changing world, we could construct a society of customs and myths that caused people to act in ways that made the crops grow and the social order to remain stable. This would be a world Edmund Burke could admire, in which the customs and myths society imbued its members with were the cumulative wisdom of the society.

    There is a branch of philosophy called pragmatism, which says ideas have an evolutionary life, in which the fittest ideas survive. For millennia, this could work slowly, and the ideas only had to work, they did not need to be literally true. Humanity could live by its myths.

    When the world changed quickly, as in the late bronze age collapse of about 1200 BCE, this system did not work well enough. The new technology of iron meant the old powers fell. In the following dark age, many cities were leveled, never to be built again on those sites. Populations fell, civilizations failed.

    It took around 800 years for civilization to recover. And from that dark age came a flowering of reason we now think of as the Greek golden age. Instrumental logic, combined with language, became philosophy. It was a precursor to the age of reason.

    We entered a new dark age when Rome fell, and society relied more on religion and custom for centuries. Then came the Enlightenment, and we began to try to reason our way to the good society again.

    So here we are, with reason and faith often at odds. The world is changing too rapidly for mythopoetic systems that have evolved over the ages to adapt quickly enough, but there is great resistance to leaving them behind, and for good reasons. The Enlightenment, after all, produced philosophies that led to the Terror, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields. There is enough wisdom in myth to make it still useful. Its claims to truthfulness are usually not testable, and beside the point in any case.

    But reason and faith are not the only things at odds. Both can be used to justify either authoritarian or democratic regimes. The violent regimes justified in the name of "science," such as the fascist and communist governments, have been pretty thoroughly discredited at this point. But we are now seeing violent reactions against liberalism from people motivated by religion and tradition. We are used to thinking of democracy as a better form of government to live under, but there are plenty of people fighting for or living under authoritarian regimes. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not valued in these societies, and a surprising number of people seem to be just fine with that.

  • Reality, truth, & facts, versus the Republican will to power

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Some on the right seem to regard reality as a mere inconvenience. Recently, Trump supporter and CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes went so far as to assert that "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts."

    It would be interesting to know when there ceased to be facts. Was it during George W. Bush's first term, when an administration official (almost certainly Karl Rove) claimed that "we create or own reality?" Certainly Republicans had a history long before that of acting as if facts were irrelevant. They've continued to assert that lowering taxes increases tax revenue long after that was shown to be untrue.

    Now, there is a philosophical position that "truth" is impossible. In The Will To Power, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted as much:
    Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena--'There are only facts'--I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact 'in itself': perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. 'Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],' you say; but even this is interpretation. The 'subject' is not something given, it is something added and invented ... [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? ... In so far as the word 'knowledge' has any meaning, the world is ... interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings--'Perspectivism'. It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives ... Every drive is a kind of list to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.Nor is this rather malleable notion of the truth new to the right. As I've noted before, German fascism did not consider even science to be capable of objective truth:
    Each nation had a science natural to them, they maintained, and any science that claimed to be universal was "Jewish" and false. The "science" of racial hygiene was far more acceptable.
    I believe the source of the error here is a failure to understand the relationship between reality, facts, and truth.

    Truth is a species of belief. It is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Reality is what is there whether we believe it or not. As I write this, it is winter, and the thermometer in the room I currently occupy reads 63 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a simple, observable fact. I know that the thermometer in question is not the most precise, but I can report what it says without fear that my interpretation has contaminated the reading, and I can be certain that it accords to a reasonable degree with reality.

    Now, lest you think I've taken the statement from Hughes out of context, or that I'm being pedantic about "facts," here is her statement in context. As a call-in guest on the Diane Rheme show, she was asked what she thought about some fact-checking that showed much of what Donald Trump tweets is lies.
    "On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go 'No it's true,'" Hughes said. "And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people who say 'facts are facts,'-- they're not really facts." "Everybody has a way--It's kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts," she added.I think here we see the basic problem between those of us in what Rove termed the "reality-based community" and those in the conservative bubble. We think there are facts -- observable, objective representations of reality -- while Hughes and her ilk think there is only opinion.

    Given the definition of "truth" I've given above, it should be clear that I think it is possible for people to maintain that something is "true" -- that they believe it without question -- while not being in accord with the facts -- objective representations of reality. Hughes seems to mean that if people claiming a thing is true actually believe that, and are not lying, that's as good as having a belief that aligns with observable reality.

    Those of us in the reality-based community tend to think people saying this are in effect claiming their ignorance is as good as actual knowledge. In fact, they think their ignorance is better if it wins.

    That is a very Nietzschean notion of truth (well, rather cruder than Nietzsche.) Donald Trump himself, asked if his dishonest and heated rhetoric during the campaign had gone to far, replied in this same mode:
    "No. I won," he said.This is perhaps the clearest statement yet of how conservatives have come to regard claims made in the political sphere. In Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol wrote of supply-side economics,  "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities."

    The political possibilities involved being able to lower taxes on the rich while claiming they were neither cutting programs for those less fortunate nor exploding the deficit. The fact that supply-side economics never worked was a feature, not a bug. It allowed conservatives to argue that the deficit they had created was too large, and we needed to cut programs like Social Security.

    Neoconservatives have long believed themselves a sort of intellectual vanguard, who have no merely the option, but the obligation, to mislead people in order to lead them.

    Paul Krugman is fond of saying that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." But why is that? Perhaps it's because conservatives and liberals have a very different relationship with reality and truth.

    Conservatives are all about conserving traditional values, beliefs, and power structures. Their truth is already established, through long-standing tradition. Liberals are trying to discover the world and human nature, and discover the best way for people to interact with the world. Liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment, conservatism has been with us as long as culture has.

    We see this in their relationship with the press, as well. Starting with Nixon, the conservative take on the press has been that the important thing is, are they with us or against us? Prior to the advent of Fox News, when reality conflicted with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures, the press would present facts, which might establish that the truth was not what we had believed before. This is very annoying to people who know the truth without reference to the facts.

    This became particularly noisome from the conservative point of view when they were reporting on the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. Fox News found an opportunity here, providing "news" that did not conflict with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures; if the facts were a problem, they ignored them or changed them.

    When Donald Trump claimed he would "Make America Great Again," he was not talking about greatness in the sense of some objectively quantifiable fact. He was promising to restore -- wait for that phrase again -- traditional values, beliefs, and power structures.

    No, he can't bring back the jobs lost in the West Virginia coal mines, and perhaps the West Virginians who voted for him don't really expect him to. In fact, they may not expect him to change objective facts in their lives at all. What he represents to them is the will to power for the formation of a different kind of truth, about traditional sex roles, about the power structure that existed in that lost world of the 1950s.

    As L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The world has changed too much for us to return to a time when being white and male and willing to work made the world your oyster, or any other mollusk you chose. It's no accident that the 2016 election took place against the backdrop of a controversy over transgender bathroom use and white backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor is it an accident that the champion of tradition did badly among the young.

    Those who can adjust to reality are doing so. For the rest, truth is known from tradition, and reality is an inconvenience.

    (I should note that in my opinion, Nietzsche would not have approved of Donald Trump. He was opposed to tribalism and nationalism, and wanted to see a unified Europe, whereas Trump is very much about tribalism.. And Trump does not resemble the ubermensch so much as the last man, who is decadent and resentful, fearful of progress, comfort-loving and backward-looking. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the titular character, finding people reject his teaching on the ubermensch, gives them an example of someone so disgusting he assumes they will be repelled by him, der letzte Mensch, or last man. Instead, they embrace him. That makes me think of how the pundits thought Trump was too disgusting to be elected, and were dismayed when he was. But in truth, Trump does not fit the image of either ubermensch or letzte mensch very well.)

  • On being a blue monster

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Among the autopsies of the recent election, the largest group blamed the result on people who didn't vote for Donald Judas Trump: Liberals.

    Apparently, if you live in a city near salt water (and not in the Southeast) you are part of a blue bubble whose occupants, through their smug condescension, "created" Trump. Politico outlines the process (dare I say it, with smug condescension) in this article.

    The prism of history changes the meaning of events, and nothing could show this more clearly than the Politico article. It begins:
    Well before Donald Trump declared he was running--to the amusement of the liberal media and Washington establishment, who didn't stop laughing until Nov. 8--and long before Hillary Clinton dismissed half of Trump's supporters as "deplorables," the right had gotten used to being looked down upon by liberals. The general attitude of the left was: Disagree with us? You're probably racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted or all of the above. Indeed, for many liberal Americans, these prejudices have come to be seen as inseparable from identity of the Republican Party itself.Now, perhaps Politico has a different view of David Duke and other "alt-right" characters, but I think they are deplorable. And while the right seems never to pay a price for stereotyping their opponents, liberals never seem to stop apologizing when they do it.

    So, by hurting the feelings of "real Americans," the headline on the story tells us, "the left created Trump.".

    What kind of monster would create Donald Trump? Apparently, a blue monster, one who lives in an area where Trump got few votes. The New York Times went so far as to quote from a 1998 book that supported the the blue-blaming theme. That book, Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, said the following:
    Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers -- themselves desperately afraid of being downsized -- are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for -- someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. ...I've known postmodern professors.  They did not call the shots, and most taught as adjunct faculty, the temp workers of the academic world. As we move on to whatever is post- postmodernist, they will become ciphers even more than they are now. Smug bureaucrats? Rorty wrote that description in a book published only three years after a right-wing nut killed 168 people by setting off a truck-sized bomb outside the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It was a bit of a clanger to have written, at about the time the jury was sentencing Timothy McVeigh to death for the bombing, that the real problem was smug bureaucrats.

    I know exactly why I hadn't heard of Rorty's book before. It came out claiming there was an economic crisis at one of the few times in recent decades when we had full employment and real wages were rising, in those sunny days near the end of the Clinton Administration. It was only the application of the right's favored formula for economic success, banking deregulation and tax cuts that favored the rich, that things got worse, bringing on the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the election of our first African-American president. After eight years of liberal policy, unemployment got down to below 5%, and real wages started to rise again. So, obviously, they needed to get someone to push the old snake oil again.

    But the problem isn't that the right sometimes does something wrong. It's always the fault of the left, for having made them do something wrong. How dare they connect the Republican party to racists, just because the Republican Party nominee for president was re-tweeting stuff from white supremacists on a regular basis?

    And how could the left think conservatives were in any way connected to racism? Was it just because the Republican Party pursued a Southern strategy, going after the voters and politicians who felt their racism was better accepted in the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act?

    After all, conservatives did what the left would not. They made people feel comfortable and accepted for their attitudes about race and gender preference. The party has been doing that since about 1964, when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act.

    And Trump won by doing what the Republican Party has been doing for more than 50 years. He made it feel okay to be racist, and fight against being oppressed by smug postmodernists who we all know wield much more power in our society than people like the Koch brothers.

    Did Republicans "have" to do this? Well, if they'd managed to nominate a more normal candidate, along the lines of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, they'd have likely been well ahead in the polls as the election resulted. It's quite normal when a party has held the presidency for eight years for them to lose it.

    Allan Lichtman, whose model had correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote for president from its invention prior to the 1984 election through the 2012 election, faced a model that said Donald Trump would win in 2016. This time, he hedged his bets.

    Why did Lichtman, who teaches history at American University in Washington, D.C., feel a need to hedge?

    His model is based on 13 key facts, and he figures if six of the keys are met, the party in power will lose. One of those keys was whether people were sufficiently disenchanted with the major parties that someone else would get 5%. While the polls prior to the election showed Libertarian Gary Johnson getting more than 5%, Lichtman recognized that this could flip. And, Lichtman told the Washington Post:
    The second qualification is Donald Trump. We have never seen someone who is broadly regarded as a history-shattering, precedent-making, dangerous candidate who could change the patterns of history that have prevailed since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.Those keys are linked, because of the possibility that many people would see Trump as too dangerous to take a chance on and vote for Clinton rather than cast a protest vote.

    As it happened, it looks like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein together will finish with less than 5% of the vote. Therefore, the model would say that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, as she did. But to predict the election, Lichtman would have had to make that assumption before the election, which he does not seem to have done.

    But in the end, Trump has been elected, and we'll have to live with that, whether we are the sort of blue monsters that hurt the feelings of the people who voted for him or the sort of people who actually voted for him. His administration has the potential to change the patterns of history that have defined our country for more than 150 years, and it's easy to see why, for example, a publication like Politico might want to shift the blame from their own failure to vet Trump the candidate.














  • Non-representative democracy for an undemocratic republic

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    From Vox:

    More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. More Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republican Senate candidates. And while we don't have final numbers yet, it looks likely that more Americans will have voted for House Democrats than for House Republicans.
    The senate was designed this way, giving two senators to every state, whether they represent the 582,658 people of Wyoming, or the 38,332,521 people of California. Each senator represents 291,329 people in Wyoming and 19,166,260.5 in California. This means that in the senate, Wyoming voters are 65.8 times as powerful as California voters in any decision made by the senate.

    The remedy designed for this is that the House of Representatives is allocated by population, with each state having at least one House member. Therefore, Wyoming's one House member represents 582,658 people, and each of California's 53 House members represent 723,255 people.

    Notice I say people, not voters. When the constitution was written, some slave states had more slaves than free men. This remained the case up to the end of the Civil War: South Carolina, the first state to secede, had a total population of 703,708 and a slave population of 402,406 in the 1860 census. The compromise that helped bring the slave states into the union allowed them to count slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining how many congressmen they were allocated, and electoral college members as well.

    There are 538 members of the electoral college, one for each House member, one for each senator, and three for Washington, D.C., since the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961. This means that each of the 55 electors from California represent 696,955 people, while Wyoming's 3 electors each represents 194,219 people. In electing a president, Wyoming's voters are roughly 3.6 times as powerful as California voters.

    And since this power structure is based on population, not votes cast, during the Jim Crow years, states paid no penalty for preventing African Americans from voting. Nor do states in the present day pay any penalty for suppressing the votes of African Americans and Hispanics.

    The result of all this is that a party that gets a minority of votes can elect the president and gain majorities in the senate and house. The problem is made worse by gerrymandering. After the election of our first African American president in 2008, Republicans were looking at a demographic death spiral as the country became more diverse and more urban.

    Their response was a concerted effort to make America less democratic. They recognized that the backlash against the election of a black president gave them an opportunity, and outspent Democrats 3-1 on an all-out effort to capture enough state legislatures and governorship to control a large part of the redistricting that was done based on the 2010 census, as Pro Publica detailed here. The results have been extraordinarily successful.

    Republican now control the senate, the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the power to appoint judges who will favor them. They also control most state legislatures and governorships. They have the power to change the rules of the game so that they can prevent those who would vote against them from voting.

    The question that remains is, how long can a minority party successfully rule a republic where a majority of the citizens don't agree with their program?



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