Friday, November 19, 2010


Missplelling, Mispronunciation, etc.

I grew up in an area bounded by the Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario.  In school I was taught the correct pronunciations of the name of the State in which I lived as well as the names of several cities.  I was taught that the first Europeans to explore this part of North America came from France.  They spoke French and when they encountered a native American name they spelled it according to the rules of French spelling.  Aside from the vowel sounds, there is a consonant combination in French - CH - that indicates a different pronunciation than the same combination in English.  At a very young age, I was taught that I lived in MISHIGAN, not MITCHIGAN, and that it would be an indication of gross ignorance to make such a mistake in the pronunciation of the name of my native State.  Cities such as Chicago, Cheboygan, Michilimackinac, and others with the CH spelling were to be sounded as though the CH were SH.

To this day I cringe when I hear radio announcers, who have a special obligation to pronounce the English language correctly, mispronounce the name of the largest city in Illinois as "chick-AH-go" rather than "shick-AH-go."  It seems to me that they nearly all do it.  It's as gross an indication of ignorance as inserting an "L" sound in the pronunciation of the city of Palm Springs.  Anybody who has been taught correct English pronunciation knows that the first word of that name rhymes with "bomb" and "balm."  The existence of the L in words like palm, balm, calm, and psalm is evidence that English spelling is not phonetic.  It is indended instead to show the origin or the provenance of the word.  These words evolved from words in Latin which contained the L in spelling because in Latin the L was pronounced.  In Old French these L sounds changed to "ul" and finally to "-u": pau(l)me, psau(l)me, etc.  By the time these words were introduced in Middle English, the language of Chaucer, the l sound was long gone.  Subsequent scholars have reintroduced the L in the spelling simply to show that the words have been adopted from Latin.  In Chaucer's day, Latin was the language of really well educated people.

When I was still a child, there was a story that involved the pronunciation of the largest city in the State: Detroit.  The accent was on the second  syllable: "de-TROIT."  Only a foreigner, like someone from New York or Omaha would make the mistake of saying "DE-troit."  The story involved a girl who crossed the Detroit River into the United States and tried to convince the immigration inspector that she lived in "DE-troit."  She was delayed for several hours.

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Signs of Hope

Our news media are increasingly becoming part of the great conservative echo chamber.  In this echo chamber various conservative commentators, such as Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh spout half-truths and outright lies about conditions in the country, about how the recession got started, who's to blame, and so on.  Sources other than Fox News treat this propaganda as one side of an argument or debate and feel obliged to repeat it to show that they are being fair and balanced.  As a result, a large fraction of the American public believes that Obama is a socialist and was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and is a Moslem, not a Christian.

I've heard some news lately that gives me hope that all is not forever lost and covered in lies.  Two authors were interviewed about a book they had recently completed and had published.  The book explains the cause of the real estate bubble and how it came to burst and create a world-wide recession.  One interesting fact came out.  It turns out that 75 percent of the sub-prime mortgage loans were made to persons who already owned the houses they were living in.  These people were refinancing to extract some equity from their houses for purchasing new cars, vacation trips, more clothing, etc.  Wages were stagnant and spending equity was keeping the economy going.

As long as house prices kept rising, no one saw any problem with these refinanced mortgages.  It wasn't important that the borrowers had good incomes.  They had been living in the houses and had, on paper, good credit ratings.  Banks lent the money and sold the mortgages to other banks who bundled them and sold them all over the world as A-rated bonds.  The rating companies, such as Moody's and Standard & Poor, cooperated in assigning the ratings.  Since house prices were going to continue going up and up and up the process could be repeated forever and there was no problem.

Except, house prices started to turn down.  That was a disaster that no one had expected.  Suddenly consumers on stagnant incomes could no longer continue to spend the equity in their houses - they suddenly didn't have any equity - and they cut back on their buying.  Suddenly we were in the midst of a recession.  We're still in it.

Meanwhile, employers have learned to make do with fewer employees.  If you lost your job because of the recession, you are probably not going to get it back when the recession is over.  Your job has been permanently replaced by a foreign worker in Asia or by a machine.  You're going to have to learn a brand new trade.  Because of the recession combined with conservative ideology, the government isn't going to offer any training or education for you to make yourself fit for a new line of work.  You are supposed to be self-reliant and retrain yourself by yourself.

Good day and good luck!

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Sunday, November 14, 2010


Small Government

I admit I'm rather slow-witted.  There has been evidence before me for years that would explain a puzzle I've had regarding the leaders of the Republican Party.  I'm thinking specifically of leaders in Congress, particularly Senator McConnell of Kentucky, whose professed goal is to create a situation that will lead to the defeat of President Obama in his reelection campaign in 2012.  The puzzle is that Senator McConnell surely must recognize the dire straits we are in as a nation, due mostly to the incompetence and arrogance of the previous administration.  Why wouldn't Mr. McConnell as a patriotic citizen in a powerful position do what he could to get us out of the situation we're in?

The answer finally hit me.  It's an old one.  Republicans don't believe in government that provides useful or helpful services for the people.  Government should be small and weak.  Government shouldn't get in the way of a business making big profits by imposing regulations limiting air pollution, employee safety, working hours, and the like.  Government shouldn't do things for the people like providing them a guaranteed retirement pension, guaranteed health care in retirement, protection for their savings accounts in banks, and rescuing people trapped by hurricanes and floods.  In fact, it is necessary to show the people that government is really no good at such activities and they shouldn't rely on it.  To make sure the public understands this inherent lack of capability previous Republican administrations have deliberately put incompetent people in charge of such departments as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The result was the housing scandal of the Reagan Administration and the incompetence of FEMA in dealing with the results of the hurricane in New Orleans.

Anyway, when you vote for Republicans these days you are voting for government that doesn't do anything for you.


Saturday, November 13, 2010


More about Nuclear Reactors

In my previous post I argued in favor of using nuclear reactors as reliable, back-up power sources to fill the power gaps occurring when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing in an electrical power system based mainly on solar power and windmills.  A friend has pointed out another important use for nuclear reactors: producing radioisotopes for use in medicine.  Even if we do manage some day to develop geothermal energy as the reliable back-up for nights and windless days, we would still need reactors for medical uses.  There would be some radioactive waste from these reactors also even if not in the volume produced by power reactors.

One of the goals in the petition I was writing about was to avoid reprocessing spent fuel elements.  I think that expressing such a goal in a petition is pointless.  In the United States we do not reprocess spent fuel elements.  It is cheaper to mine fresh uranium, enrich it to the desired U-235 content, and make new fuel elements.  We have rich deposits of uranium ore.  We have no commercial incentive to reprocess spent fuel and so we don't do it.

In France the situation is different.  The country derives a large fraction of its electrical power from reactors but has no domestic sources of uranium.  All uranium has to be imported.  It makes economic sense, therefore, for France to reprocess spent fuel elements and recover the uranium for subsequent use.  An added benefit is that the waste or the fission products removed from the uranium in the reprocessing operation is very concentrated and does not create a great storage problem.

Some Americans point out that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel creates quantities of highly concentrated radioactive material.  Such material would be a target for thieves who could sell it at a good price to terrorist groups who would use the material in "dirty" bombs.  I accept the argument, but I must point out that banks are targets for thieves and robbers who use the money for nefarious purposes.  We have learned how to deal with bank robbers.  We can learn how to foil radiation thieves and similar criminals.  My point is that we don't give up using money because of bank robbers.


Friday, November 12, 2010


Clean Energy

Recently I've been invited to sign a petition or write a letter to my Congressman advocating certain measures regarding the handling of radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors.  Some of the measures are (1) no processing of spent nuclear fuel rods; (2) develop safe means of storing spent nuclear fuel; (3) stop generating nuclear waste.  The third measure would entail shutting down all nuclear power reactors in the country.  The anti-nuclear activists constitute a single-issue constituency.  In their minds the importance of their issue outweighs everything else.

For one thing, it outweighs the need for a dependable and adequate source of electric power 24 hours a day.  It also outweighs the need to get a handle on global warming and air pollution caused by human activity.  We have an urgent need to decrease and, if possible, eliminate the use of fossil fuels for producing electric power.  I agree with those who urge the development of solar power farms and wind power farms as sources of electric power to replace power plants that use coal, petroleum, or natural gas as fuel.  Unfortunately, there are few places where the wind blows all the time and no place where the sun shines all the time.  We need other sources of power to fill the gap when wind and sun can't supply our needs.

There are three sources of supplemental power that I know of: geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear.  Geothermal power is available in places of present or past volcanic activity, such as Iceland, Hawaii, Yellowstone National Park, and California.  The technology of converting heat from the earth to electrical energy is not fully developed.  In theory one can bury a heat exchanger in a hot place and convert water to steam and run turbines.  The development of materials for heat exchangers and means of placing such large objects deep underground have not advanced very far.  More work needs to be done before we can hope to obtain a significant fraction of our power needs from the earth's heat.

Hydroelectric power has been used for a long time.  The technology is mature.  In addition, most of the available water power is already in use.  We can not hope to make a significant addition to our power capability by building more dams with turbines.  In fact, there is pressure to destroy some of the dams that we have constructed as a means of restoring runs of migratory fish, especially salmon.

The remaining source is nuclear power.  I admit to a bias in favor of nuclear power, having studied nuclear physics in graduate school and having worked for companies involved in designing nuclear power reactors or economical means of concentrating the isotope U-235 in raw uranium.  I recognize that a nuclear explosion is a dangerous thing.  However, the experience with nuclear power has shown that there are fewer deaths and cases of illnesses per megawatt-year of energy produced by nuclear reactors than by fossil-fuel fired power plants, especially coal plants.  In addition to adding to the burden of CO-2 in the atmosphere, coal-fired plants also spew compounds of sulfur, resulting in acid rain in regions down-wind from the plants, and also radioactive elements such as uranium that are present in trace amounts of coal.  Before 1950 it was known that a coal plant would emit more radioactive material than a nuclear plant of the same power.  Even then nuclear power was touted as "clean" power.

The argument that nuclear power is potentially dangerous has to be taken in context.  Hydroelectric power is potentially dangerous.  Dams break and drown people.  Coal miners die in mine accidents.  Geothermal power is obtained from dormant volcanoes which will, some day, become active.  Windmills for power generation kill migrating birds.  Solar farms have to be located in places where there is strong sunlight every day; most of those places are far from the centers of population where the power is needed.  High-voltage transmission lines have to be built to deliver the power.  High voltage wires can break and start fires and cause other damage.  Nothing is inherently safe.  Even abstention from the use of electrical power can cause death due to freezing.

I had an opportunity to sign a petition, but I passed it up.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010


Thoughts about John Boehner as Speaker

The presumed accession of Representative John Boehner to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives has stimulated me to think several things.  First, about Boehner himself, he comes across as a blowhard, spouting Republican orthodoxy.  There will be no tax increases on his watch.  Republicans will become paragons of virtue and thrift and save the Republic by trimming waste and unnecessary programs from the federal budget.

If you think only about what he says and about the dangerous situation this country is falling into, you may conclude that he is a complete jackass.  There is no way that any party, any administration, is going to save us from ultimate ruin simply by trimming waste and unnecessary programs.  The gap between services that the public demands and the revenue available to pay for these services is too great.  However, many Republicans, especially those who are political activists and vote in primary elections and raise money for election campaigns actually believe such nonsense.  It was the great and revered Saint Ronald Reagan that told them that. In spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary they still believe it.

I think that Mr. Boehner is a reasonable and intelligent man.  He must know that he is uttering nonsense.  Why?  He has a coalition, a political movement to lead.  If he is to continue as leader, he mustn't get too far away from the doctrine of his followers.  In his present position, or the position to which he aspires, he can not solve the nation's deficit problem.  He will need help.

David Stockman, St. Reagan's advisor on the budget, has laid out a program for the solution.  First, let the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of December.  Let them expire for everyone, including Mr. Obama's beloved middle class.  There still won't be enough money to pay all the bills.  Make some cuts in entitlements for everyone, even the rich.  Defense spending must be cut.  It is unrealistic to think that we can be perfectly and completely secure against foreign aggression if only we spend enough on fancy weapons and a great Defense department.  We live in a dangerous world and we have to accept some risk.  We must reform the practice of medicine so that our health care costs are reduced to a level closer to those of Canada and other developed countries.  We must stop coddling the rich by keeping the Reagan tax rates.  We should go back to the rates in effect during the Kennedy and Nixon administrations.  We should raise the age of retirement from 65 to, say, 68.  We should reduce subsidies to farmers.  I can go on and on with this list.  If there is pain, it must be shared by all, not just the retirees living on their meager Social Security benefit.  The rich, the wealthy corporation farmers, the bankers, the security speculators, the military-industrial comples, and all the rest must share in the pain.

Boehner can not accomplish this difficult task.  We need to help by insisting on getting wealthy contributors out of the business of financing elections.  It will probably take a constitutional amendment to limit the spending by candidates and their supporters to a level that allows their opposing candidates the same access to the public as that provided by their money.  Money equals talk and excess money drowns out the opposing opinion.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010


More about the High Cost of American Medical Care

I may have written before about this subject.  My source is Dr. Atul Gawande, who has written several articles on the subject in the New Yorker magazine.  I have conservative friends who insist that the reason medical care in the United States costs more (at least twice that of the next most expensive country) than in any other country is (a) Americans live dangerous lives, with automobile accidents and gun fights injuring and killing people, or (b) The care provided in those countries is inferior and often too late to avert death.  I have liberal friens who insist that the reason is (c) The greedy insurance companies make exhorbitant profits and cancel policies on patients who develop a new and expensive condition.

They're all wrong, of course.  According to Dr. Gawande, the cost of good medical care varies greatly within the United States and depends on the model of medical care practiced by the doctors in each community.  The cheapest and best is provided by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  Doctors work on salary.  Specialists and laboratory services are available for the asking.  The patient doesn't pay the doctor but rather the Clinic.  An expensive model is one in which doctors operate as intependent businesses and refer their patients to specialists and to laboratories as needed.  The patient pays the doctor, or primary care physician.  If the doctor refers him or her to a specialist, the patient pays the specialist - usually a big fee.  The patient pays for any laboratory work done.  The doctor, or primary care physicion, receives a kick-back from the specialist and perhaps from the laboratory.  In this model, specialists do not see any patients except those that have been sent or referred by a primary care physician.

When a doctor, whether primary care physician or specialist, operates as an independent business, usually a corporation, he or she has a strong incentive to maximize the income received from the practice.  A primary care physician may prescribe unnecessary laboratory tests or specialist referrals and enjoy the extra revenue from these referrals.

Dr. Gawande has discovered, by comparing Medicare per-patient payments, that the clinical model exemplified by the Mayo Clinic provides good care at substantially less cost than the private physician model.  It is clear to me that his results show that all three of the excuses listed above are incorrect.  It remains to be seen whether the new health care bill has incentives to persuade medical doctors to adopt the clinical care approach instead of the individual practice approach.

In Canada and England, where there are systems to provide universal health care, one can of course choose to be treated by a private physician, one who is not in the British National Health Service or who receives payment from the Canadian single-payer system.  This person can receive the same level of care as his neighbors and have the privilege of paying American prices for the care.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010


Sound-bite Masquerade

I've noticed that many people use favorite quotations, or "sound-bites," to express principles that they believe to be very important or compelling.  These people will use such a quote to make a point in a political argument.  I've undertaken a hobby of collecting them and I'm starting my collection with this post.

Governments should learn to live within their means, just as we do as family members.  This expression is used in a discussion of the deficits run year after year by the federal government and many States, particularly California.  The speaker means that the solution to the deficit is simple: cut expenses.  The speaker never gives a thoughtful list of programs to cut or abolish.  He or she may give a list of a few well-publicized examples of waste or fat in government, such as providing free car washes for government employees.  It doesn't matter that eliminating the free car washes will reduce the deficit by less than 0.001 percent.  That is the only solution offered.  A more thoughtful response to the deficit problem is to discuss both ways in which major expenses can be eliminated, such as closing the prisons or the schools, as well as ways in which revenue can be increased.  A government is not like a family.  A family can lose its home and declare bankruptcy.  A government can not go bankrupt.  A family can not make modest increases in its income.  A government can increase taxes.

Only private businesses can create jobs.  To me this is a surprising assertion.  The speaker will often in the same conversation comlain about all the public employees and how much government has to pay them.  To me these employees have jobs.  They perform activities that are generally useful to me as a citizen and resident.  Public employees carry the mail.  Public employees repair potholes.  Public employees teach our children.  In California public employees maintain and repair the State's highways and freeways.  Governments contract with private firms to build bridges, canals, highways, new educational buildings, new prisons, and the like.  To me that activity seems an awful lot like creating and maintaining jobs.

Liberals have no interest in creating wealth.  They just want to divide it up.  This speaker typically is arguing that we "liberals" want to rely on government too much and have disdain for private business.  I can think of many things that governments have done that either created wealth or provided facilities that enabled private businesses to create wealth.  After the Civil War the American government provided railroad companies a subsidy just for building railroads.  The American government created the Panama Canal.  Governments have built highways, bridges, the internet, postal systems, dams, and many other facilities that have enabled others to create wealth.  Many of these projects were supported by liberals who were willing to have governments spend money on projects that no private business could undertake.  A private business can not fund the building of a bridge unless it is a toll bridge, so that stockholders would have a return on their investment.  If a private firm built a toll bridge, it would locate the bridge in a place where there was bound to be heavy traffic.  Bridges in remote locations would never be constructed and many rich areas of the country would remain inaccessible.  Bridges in such locations have to be built with government funds.

This is the beginning of my list.  Dear Readers, you are welcome to add your own favorite sound bites to the list.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010


More about Democracy, etc.

Today is Wednesday, November 3, 2010.  When I started to write this post several days ago the election had not yet happened and I was going to write about some of the seeming contradictions in the American system of government.  Now that the election is past and the results are known, I can add some comments about the election and what I think it means.

Except in California, the Republicans won big yesterday.  They achieved the largest turn-over in the House since - perhaps during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.  I don't have the statistics handy, but it was larger I believe than the turn-over in 1994.  What meaning is there for the present big change in representation in the House?

My first thought is that the result affirms a statement ascribed to Alexander Hamilton.  He is quoted to have said something like "the public (people?) is a great beast."  The most common element among voters to explain their choices is that they were reacting in anger and by instinct, not by reasoning.  I may have a blind spot regarding Conservative thought but it seems to me that in many cases the voters voted against their own best interests.  They were angry that the government hasn't done enough to create jobs and end the recession.  So, they voted for candidates who promised that they would have the government cut taxes and do less.  To me, that is the reaction of an angry wild beast, not a logical thinking human.

A more subtle explanation is that the voting public is frustrated at the failure or refusal of elected officials to make changes in "Washington" and do something effective about unemployment.  The frustration is misdirected.  Our system of government was designed by the likes of Alexander Hamilton to prevent government from doing anything unusual or out of the ordinary.  Certainly Hamilton never imagined that the federal government would ever be involved in trying to create new jobs for unemployed workers.  The classic solution for unemployment in his day, and right up to the beginning of the last century, was to encourage an unemployed worker to "go west" and find his fortune.  The government facilitated the "go west" solution by dealing with the rather annoying fact that there were already people living on the land that the unemployed worker wanted to claim for his family's farm.  These annoying people, even more annoying than some of the wild animals, like wolves and bison, were dealt with sternly by the Army.  They were killed off or relocated in areas not desired for agriculture.  That's where their descendants are today, on Indian Reservations.

Clearing out the indigenous population was a "Conservative" program to deal with unemployment.  It had been used in various places for thousands of years.  Our government was designed to favor "Conservative" acts and policies: acts and policies that had been in place since the beginning of history.

The Great Depression of the 1930's was the first big economic downturn since the closing of the frontier some time between 1910 and 1915.  My father witnessed that event while homesteading in the State of Washington.  After that, the nation could not solve economic hardship by telling the unemployed to "go west."  The "west" was the Pacific Ocean, completely unsuitable for farming.

If we were a logical people, we would recognize that "going west" was no longer a useful means of dealing with recessions.  We would have developed other alternatives and embraced them.  In fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930's we were fortunate to have had a President who recognized the need for other means and who tried a method of having government fund work projects to put unemployed workers to work doing things that were supposed to be useful.  Some of the projects were very useful; others were boondoggles.  Somehow we recovered from the depression without having a violent revolution.  The French in 1789 and the Russians in 1919 were not so fortunate.

Our archaic system of government did not fit well with President Roosevelt's make-work programs.  Later political leaders eschewed the idea of government spending money just to put unemployed people back to work.  Recently we have tried giving money (bail-outs) to banks and insurance companies so that they won't go bankrupt and can continue lending money to entrepreneurs who want to start businesses.  This approach hasn't worked even as well as Roosevelt's WPA and PWA and other alphabetic programs.

Roosevelt had the advantage that the United States had an excellent credit rating.  He was able to fund the various programs by borrowing money.  However, the ease of borrowing money led many of his successors to use borrowing in preference to increased taxation to pay for projects that were not aimed at putting unemployed workers in jobs but rather in projects that didn't have a lot of public support.  Many of these projects involved wars aimed at establishing and protecting an American commercial empire.  As a consequence we are now at a state in which we have a huge national debt and have justifiable doubts that we can raise the money for programs like the WPA and PWA by selling T-bills to China.

By the way, how many of you watched the interview with David Stockman on the "60 Minutes" program on CBS last Sunday?  He pointed out that our political leaders of both Parties are unwilling to propose an increase in taxes as part of the solution of the chronic deficit problem.  He advocated simply letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire as scheduled on December 31 as a start.  All of them, not just those for the people with incomes greater than $250,000 a year.

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