Who Knew?

Future 30 Meter Telescope credit:  www.ctvnews.ca

Future 30 Meter Telescope To Be Built Atop Mauna Kea
credit: http://www.ctvnews.ca

Astronomy is the purest of science that I can think of.  Shown above is an artist’s rendition of what is to be, at least briefly, the world’s largest telescope in Hawaii.  It has a segmented mirror system and will be 9 times more powerful than anything before it.  It gives me hope for our species that despite all our failings, we have somehow found the will to spend a billion dollars just to seek the meaning of it all.

I have just seen a marvelous video clip on astronomy that I’d like to share with you. It shows in beautiful motion something that would have been unimaginable only one lifetime ago, the structure of the universe and how it moves.  Words fail me, but the clip says it all.

It was only 85 years ago that Edwin Hubble postulated his Hubble constant and confirmed that the universe was expanding, but at that time no one dreamed that space was anywhere as vast as we now know it is.  At that time it was thought that the Milky Way constituted all the stars and that nebulae were clouds of gas, not other galaxies and systems of galaxies.  Now we know, not only of those galaxies but that clusters of them have structure.  This is only 4 beautiful minutes long.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Faith-based Politics

credit:  humanevents.com

credit: humanevents.com

Dang. I know it’s not polite to brag, I told you so, but I just can’t help it. For most of the last four years I’ve been blogging, progressives (a group I admit having joined in the process) have been arguing with conservative bloggers about the “financial cliff”. With an historically high national debt and the immense burden of the Great Recession, two wasteful wars, nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a dysfunctional, money-based

healthcare system (all of which president Obama inherited), we were told that we must embrace a financial policy of austerity.  Otherwise, the government would collapse and our children and grandchildren would be doomed to poverty. The Tea Party actually shut down the government over this issue. Fortunately, we had a president at the helm who quietly did what was necessary, including TARP, Stimulus policies, cash for clunkers, unemployment benefits extensions, Wall Street reform, and the auto bail-out. Well, guess who was right? You won’t hear it on Fox News.

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reports

Today the Congressional Budget Office released its latest economic and fiscal projections, and guess what: The news is pretty good. In fact, all the “deficit hawks” out there who are deeply concerned about too much borrowing and the terrible choices our grandchildren will confront might want to write a letter of thanks to one Barack Hussein Obama.

To start things off, the CBO says the deficit this year will be $506 billion, or 2.9 percent of GDP. In 2013 it was $680 billion, so that’s a pretty steep drop. And in terms of GDP, not only is that slightly lower than the average deficit of the last 40 years (3.1 percent), it’s also a 70 percent decline from Obama’s first year in office, where because of the Great Recession, which brought both the need for more spending and a plunge in tax revenues, the deficit peaked at 9.8 percent of GDP.

He also reports that there has actually been a slowdown in Medicare spending (gasp). He says,

Like the program itself, the reasons for the slowdown in Medicare spending are complicated. But a big part of it is — you guessed it — the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has found direct savings in Medicare with things like cuts to some provider payments. More importantly, it has tried to achieve longer-term savings through means like encouraging hospitals to reduce readmissions (where a patient gets treated and released, then winds up back in the hospital a week later) and rolling out payment systems that promote more holistic care instead of just piling on expensive tests and procedures. It also has provisions that probably haven’t reduced spending yet but likely will eventually, like spurring the shift to electronic records.

The full WP article is here.

Will president Obama get any credit for this? The next two elections will tell the story, but if the folks who get all their news from Fox News and conservative talk-radio have their way, he won’t. They will point out, rightly, that the national debt continues to grow and that there is much more to be done.  They will also point out, wrongly, that their way would have been better.  That’s the way faith-based politics works.

Posted in Economics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments


credit:  m.theepochtimes.com

credit: m.theepochtimes.com

President Barack Obama is getting flak for being on vacation and playing golf while the world is, seemingly, going to hell in a hand basket. It’s predictable. I can recall the same complaints about every president in my lifetime. Such petty sniping is par for the course in politics. I was going to expound further on this, but I found an article from the Washington Post that says it better than I could. Link at the end of this post.

I will however add a postscript from my own observations. Taking time off from a normal busy activities has proven valuable, even in little bits. I’ve had some of my best ideas while shaving in the mornings, letting my mind range over things like finances, travel and relationships. I usually end with inhaling the shaving soap fragrance through the towel at the end while letting my mind go blank, a sort of aroma therapy. (Am I nuts, or do other people do this?)

Listening to pod-casts while at our daily workouts at the Y exercises the mind. And a little nap in the afternoon is wonderfully refreshing. The presidency is a pressure-cooker, wherever he goes, and if he can clear his mind on the golf course, I say good for him.  Scott Farris of the Washington Post would agree.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

What’s Wrong With Obama?

Bashing president Obama is a popular pastime these days. On the Erstwhile Conservative’s blog, commenter Anson Burlingame recently blamed him personally for the current political divide in the Congress and in the country as a whole. One short paragraph summed it up neatly:

Obama has only promoted a rather extreme (for a President) left wing agenda for America, constantly dividing the nation between have’s and have not’s. I don’t believe he is capable of healing such a divide but only perpetuating it.

credit:  Wall Street Journal  WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

credit: Wall Street Journal
WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

There you have it. It’s personal, a matter, somehow of a lack of “leadership” I suppose. I was thereby motivated to look further into it: What influences a president’s job approval rating, and how have such polls varied in modern times? There’s plenty of data, including from the Wall Street Journal which has a good interactive site for exploring the matter.

Presidential track records have some similarities. They generally start out high and then decline toward the end of their terms in office. But when they deviate from this pattern, I find I can usually identify the reason by the date. In the case of George W. Bush, for example, there is a remarkable (and fairly short-lived) spike upward right after 9/11. After that, however, it was a steady plunge downward to a level shared with Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis, and Harry Truman’s labor woes. George H. W. Bush’s popularity soared with the “shock and awe” success of the first Gulf War, but dropped off the cliff after he raised taxes after promising not to. Bill Clinton’s rating record is unusual. It starts fairly low and then rises to above 60%. I can only think of one reason: “It’s the economy, stupid” (Please don’t take it personally, dear reader.) Interestingly, Obama’s curve, so far, is not unlike Reagan’s after the Iran-Contra scandal, both in magnitude and slope.

The bottom line here, for me at least, is that the job approval ratings reflect the body politic’s opinion about the short-term state of things and are virtually useless regarding how history will eventually judge the quality of a president’s performance. It is events that govern, and to expect a president to move them in the short term, with the exception of war, is naive and irrational. Yet, that is the clear implication of such polls. I think wise presidents will try to ignore them and keep their eye on the future, and I think Obama is trying to do so. But that’s not the nature of politics, is it? It’s tough.

Interstate_SystemI think the most successful presidents have been those who have been both selfless and disingenuous. Eisenhower fits that description. He had high ratings consistently and even finished near 60%, a remarkable standout. Yet despite his aura of successful Generalship it was commonly held among his critics at the time that he was a plodding bureaucrat who was unsure of strategy – they were wrong about that. The WSJ interactive poll record doesn’t go back to FDR, but it wouldn’t help much if it did. WW II was a special case because, in war, real war in which the nation’s fate actually hangs in the balance, winning is everything and the only thing, as the football guy said. But, FDR also fits the “selfless but disingenuous” mold.

If climbing in the polls were his main objective the most expedient thing president Obama could do would be something spectacular. Maybe start an air war in Syria, or maybe bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities (“. . . bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”, to quote a recent presidential candidate). But no, his eyes are on his legacy, and, in my opinion, the long-term welfare of his country. (Note to critics: not Kenya.) But to blame no-drama Obama for the partisan divide in the House is absurd. I can’t think of a single thing he could do that would please the Tea Party. He could shut down every woman’s health clinic in the country and disavow Rowe v. Wade and they would probably label it an ObamaCare plot. With them, it’s personal.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

I Was Just Following Orders, Judge

credit:  joseantoniovargas.com

credit: joseantoniovargas.com

Immigration is one of the prime issues of our time and has only been made more prominent by the humanitarian crisis of foreign children, many unaccompanied, pouring over our southern border in the last few years. I have been struck by the frankly ugly passions evoked by this crisis. My blogging colleague, Pied Type, recently posted on the matter and expressed outrage that the avowed undocumented Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist at the Washington Post, has been able to “flaunt” his illegal status for years without being shipped back to the Philippines, which is where he was before his parents brought him here at age 12. She feels he should be made an example of as a lesson to other lawbreakers.

The United States is a nation of laws and I too believe in enforcing those laws, but the fact that Vargas declared his illegal status in Time Magazine’s cover story two years ago and still hasn’t been prosecuted is symptomatic of the political divide over the issue. In general it seems that conservatives, even the George W. Bush compassionate kind, favor strict adherence to the law, regardless of mitigating circumstances such as whether a child has legal relatives here or, as in Vargas’ case, whether they have proved themselves to worthy and valuable citizens. Progressives generally seem to believe that such mitigation is proper. One thing I hope we can all agree on is that the immigration law as it stands needs serious revision. Such a revised law was passed in the Senate with a bipartisan 68 – 32 vote, but it has languished in the GOP controlled House where the leadership has refused to bring it up for a vote, ostensibly because its approval would be considered a Democrat victory.

I submit that it is facile to dismiss Vargas’ case as one of simple illegality. I consider myself a law-abiding citizen but in cases like this I believe the law can and should be bent on the side of national self-interest, if not humanity. Does that make me a criminal? I don’t think so. The laws of the land are always subject to interpretation, there has always been wiggle-room. Prosecutors have always had broad latitude in bringing charges, for example, and also to interpret those laws in novel ways, as they have in combatting organized crime. To do otherwise would be a mistake – laws don’t come down from God etched in stone tablets, but from lawmakers who are human and who often don’t even read everything their staffs add to the fine print. The law is a process, one that involves human beings (judges) and, well, judgement.  (In researching this post I did come across an article that does mention prosecutorial discretion on the part of ICE in deportations, something I hadn’t known.  Somebody on some congressional staff must have had a good day to think of that.  The link is at the end of the post.)

Another example of reason over strict legality is, strangely enough, to be found in the organization and management of the United States’ military. While an enlisted person’s oath includes a promise to obey the orders of those appointed over them, an officer’s oath of office omits that expression and instead avows to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Why the difference? It can only be that leaders are expected to place judgement, within context, above blind adherence to orders. In fact, one could make a good case that this nation was founded by a cadre of lawbreakers who placed principle above (King George’s) written word. One might also consider how many crimes agains humanity have been justified by the need to “follow orders”?

Jose Vargas is an immigration activist. He was detained when he visited the Texas border and was ordered to attend a future hearing on his citizenship status. It will be interesting to see if we will deport this exceptionally talented man who has never known another country since the age of 12. It seems stupid, but if the courts do, maybe it will help move the GOP in the House to do what’s right and pass an immigration reform bill. But if Vargas is deported, it ought not be a cause for celebration by any citizen. I personally will be embarrassed for our country.

Posted in Immigration | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

Measuring Up, Plan or Plot?


credit: medicaldaily.com

How does a parent measure a dose of liquid medicine for her child when the label says, give child ¾ teaspoonful by mouth twice a day for 5 days ? This was the real-life example used in a report by the journal, Pediatrics, and featured on NBC News the other day. The medicine, Tamiflu in this case, was accompanied by an oral syringe, but the syringe was calibrated in milliliters. And just to make the problem even more confusing, the medicine box also carried the marking for this “oral suspension” of “12 mg/mL”. That has only to do with the concentration of the medicine, of course, not the dosage size.  (The abbreviation mL is also used for milliliter.)

The basic problem here is, I think, what used to be a matter of convenience has now become a problem. For many years, liquid medicine came without any kind of measuring device, but every kitchen had a spoon. In the above case an oral syringe was supplied but, unfortunately, it was calibrated in milliliters (thousandths of a Liter) and the dosage was in teaspoons.


credit: deandecrease.wordpress.com

Anyone knows that spoons vary widely in shape and depth, whereas a milliliter is a milliliter. It is far past time, I submit, that the United States finally adopt the metric system. (We would be the last industrialized nation on earth to do so.)

Medicinal measurements in the metric system are easy, once one gets familiar with them. I thought it might be fun to review them. Here’s a practical summary:

A meter is about 3 inches longer than a yard.
A centimeter is one-one hundredth of a meter. There are about 2.5 of them in an inch.
A millimeter is one-one thousandth of a meter, or a tenth of a centimeter. There are about 25 of them in an inch.

Volume and Weight
A liter is the volume of a kilogram of water and is about 5% bigger than a quart.
A milliliter is a cube of liquid one centimeter on a side and is therefore one cubic centimeter (cc). That’s about the volume of your average grape.
One milliliter (one cc) of pure water weighs 1 gram and equals about 20 drops from the faucet. (A thousand grams is a kilogram, or 2.2 lbs.)
One teaspoon equates to about 5 milliliters. (So, in the example above, ¾ teaspoon would be 3.75 mL, which is easy to estimate on a graduated syringe.)

So, let’s each of us call on our Congress person to finally make metric measurement mandatory in the United States, for medicine at least, and to require that all liquid medicines be packaged with metric measuring devices (plastic syringes are cheap). That way we can at least claim to be more modern than the other two countries that don’t have it yet: Liberia and Burma. The only thing I can see standing in the way is if the Tea Party sees this as some kind of Kenyan plot. That could never happen. Could it?


credit: markkolier.wordpress.com

Posted in Culture, government regulation, Healthcare | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

(Credit) Card Games

English: 'I'm Lovin It' — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner...

English: ‘I’m Lovin It’ — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner swipes his gift card in McDonald’s new card machine, April 4. The new machine now allows customers to use debit, credit or gift cards to purchase food. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems to me, the bigger companies are, the more they manipulate customers. Financial institutions are arguably the most deft at this. We had been using the same couple of credit cards for several years when I recently spied an ad for a new one, from American Express, that I was eligible for through my credit union. It actually offered a clean 1.5% cash-back on all charges, credited at the end of each monthly bill. So I stopped using Discover Card and started using the AmEx for everything except food and groceries (discount stores excluded). For those I use a Visa card that pays 5% on gasoline and 3% on groceries. To leverage this even more, I’ve found I can use the AmEx card to pay my cable, satellite and insurance bills.

The kinds of cards have exploded, with all kinds of specialty uses. Those most unappealing to me are the air-travel ones for which you get “miles”. They must be lucrative (for the airlines) because I don’t think a month goes by that Mollie and I don’t each get a big packet in the mail urging us to apply. The USPS should be grateful. One would think the airline would have figured out after 15 years that I’m retired and no longer a business traveler, but they clearly haven’t. We only take a couple of flights a year, if that. And I’m really not sure what a “mile” is, anyway. How do you define that? Small print, obviously, with restrictions that run several pages. I’ve been accumulating American Airline “miles” for at least 15 years now and I still don’t have enough of them to pay for a ticket anywhere. Every year or two they try to get me to “spend” some of them ordering magazine subscriptions.

Speaking of fine print, you know that Visa card I mentioned above? This year, instead of crediting the pay-back to the statement, they started paying in “points”. What’s a point? One might think a point is one percent, but one would be wrong. Turns out, when I now go to redeem points I either have to use them to buy from a list of sponsored products at non-

PT-barnum-MONEY-GETTING-Poster Credit:  kevin.lexblog.com

Credit: kevin.lexblog.com

discounted (or even elevated) prices, or to buy a debit card, and it takes 11,800 points to get a $100 debit card. That’s a 15% hit (100/118 = 0.85)! A hundred “points” is therefore 85 cents, not a dollar.  And isn’t it a little transparent for them to move the decimal point two places to the right?  Well, maybe not.  P. T. Barnum and all that, you know.

I wondered if Discover Card might get upset at me for dumping them, somehow, but there’s no indication of it.  They still send me a friendly-sounding email once in a while and I’ll likely go back to using them again when the rules change, which they are bound to do. Discover has a nice web site that makes it easy to manage billing and even do budgeting. Their irritating gimmick, however, consists of switching their percentage discounts to different categories every three months. One quarter it will be restaurants and the next, for example, home improvement. Clearly, they think I’ll forget what the current category is and use the card for everything.  (They would be often right.)  It’s all a game, and one I probably wouldn’t be so assiduously playing if I weren’t retired. Not as much fun as crosswords, but still kind of interesting and, hey, the money I get back is free of tax because its just return of some of what I spent.

What about you, fellow consumer? Anyone else out there who plays credit-card games?

Posted in Personal Finance | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments