Thursday, December 22, 2011

Things I've Learned This Year: Part II

More things I learned this year:
  • Fermentation -- I have been reading Cooking for Geeks, which has taken me down a long road of learning about food.  One of the things that fascinates me is fermentation, which I was long aware of as a source of alcohol, of course, but which is also used in a number of other aspects of food preparation.
  • Fungi -- fermentation can be accomplished by bacteria or yeast, and I was amazed to learn that yeast are a type of fungi.  This led me into something I have long wanted to know more about, namely the various types of unicellular organisms.
  • Onychomycosis -- My other encounter with fungi was not so theoretical:  I learned that I have toe fungus, which sounds so much better when you use the scientific name.  It's one of those common ailments that medicine has somehow not devised a simple cure for, so I have been soaking my toes for 10 months now.
  • Fermentation also led me into learning about the many products that can be made from milk.  I think I have a little better grasp of them now, but this chart will give you an idea of how complicated it all is.  Even the simplest aspects of our lives involve incredible complexity, most of which is hidden from us.
  • Stretching works to relieve back pain, if you do the right kinds.  I have had terrible back pain for about 15 years now, and the kind of stretching that I had done until now -- lying flat and pulling my knees, one at a time, to my chest -- was not effective beyond a certain point.  There are so many back stretches that it is intimidating to consider them all, but I felt I needed to try something.  I found that sitting with my legs stretched out in front of me and reaching for my toes was the one stretch that I really needed to add.  I can't express how much better I feel now.
  • I have a wonderful family.  That isn't really something new, but I keep rediscovering it all the time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Democratic Hate Speech of the Week

Apparently, irony is unknown in liberal circles.  That's why the same people who blamed Republicans' inflamed rhetoric for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords are capable of saying of News Gingrich, "He's a political killer, a gun for hire."  This is Chris Matthews, who added that Republicans are "about to begin the nomination for President of a figure who represents the Mephistopheles of what they preach.  He is nasty, brutal, ready to fight and kill politically."  Besides the violent images, naturally he accuses Republicans of being "ready to bow down before this false god of hatred."

Yeah, Republicans are haters.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Things I've learned this year: Part I

Learning is one of my great pleasures in life.  I don't mind doing just about anything as long as I get to learn something new from it.  Sometimes I manage to turn even that on its head by thinking, "How could I be so stupid as not to know that sooner?"  I long ago stopped making New Years' resolutions, but I thought the end of 2011 might be a good time to contemplate what I have learned in the last 12 months.
  • Look first, then back up.  This is my big lesson.  It seems obvious, but for some reason I have a bad habit of starting to back up before looking behind me.  After smashing the rear window in my van last spring, as well as ruining a mailbox, I hope I have finally learned my lesson.  And I am thankful that I have not hurt anything worse in the meantime.
  • The Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets.  I only learned the Arabic consonants, and I've probably forgotten many of them by now, but it was nice to be able to make out some basic letters.  I hope I've retained more of the Cyrillic alphabet, which, unlike Arabic, actually comes in handy sometimes even if you don't know Russian, since there are many loan words in Russian that one can make out.
  • A lot about computer security, which I picked up recently in order to get my Security+ certification.  I've never worried too much about security in the past, but if I approach it from the point of view of, "How would I go about breaking into my network?", it's much more interesting -- and scarier.
  • I can do a lot more than I thought I could.  I was amazed to discover that I could lose 30 pounds this year just by going on the "don't eat too much" diet.  To think I paid hundreds of dollars for a weight-loss program about 10 years ago to do the same thing, and I gained all that back in a short time.
  • Invisible fences are wonderful.  They allow my dog to run around the yard to her heart's content, and still be able to see everything that is going on, and they are much cheaper and easier to install than physical fence (which might be against neighbourhood policy in any case).
  • Publishers are not interested in my book topic.  I say "book topic" because no one has bothered to look at the book -- the topic alone is enough to determine that "it does not fit into their list."
  • This blog has been attracting far more visitors than I realized.  I've been getting over a hundred hits a month, which isn't much, but it is if you consider that I've only posted a few times this year.  I was also surprised that the most popular post, by far, is the one on Hume and Popper.  The second most popular is the one on offensive mascots.
  • What I had in storage.  When we moved into a house this summer, we got all the stuff out of storage that we hadn't seen for over 2 years.  Some of it I could do without, but much of it I am glad to see.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

McQueary's Reaction

With my usual timeliness, I would like to comment on the Penn State situation now that it has been out of the news for several weeks.  What struck me most was how hard people came down on Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who witnessed some sort of inappropriate behaviour between Sandusky and a young boy in 2002.  I'm used to this sort of thing from sports news columnists, but I was surprised to see it at the usually calmer National Review.  The gist is this:  McQueary witnessed a rape in the PSU showers in 2002, and did not stop it, even though he was physically larger and stronger than the assailant.  Why did he wait until the next day to report it rather than intervening immediately?

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with David Brooks in this case.  His position, and mine, is that people have overestimated their own probable response had they been in McQueary's position.  I have read a number of comments to the effect that "I would have intervened immediately and stopped the rape," which, while it seems like a reasonable reaction, is rather too self-confident for my tastes.  First, as Brooks points out, no one knows what he will do when confronted with such a bizarre and disturbing scene.  One of my chief lessons in life has been that it is easy to condemn cowardly or stupid behaviour when one is hearing reports of what someone else did; actually being in that situation, however, is another thing entirely.  McQueary was in his mid-20's, and Sandusky  had been on the coaching staff during his (recent) career.  The mere fact of seeing an older authority figure in such compromising activity would have caused brain freeze in virtually all of us.  That's not to say that we shouldn't or couldn't have overcome it, but if his first reaction was to go somewhere else to gather his wits, I hardly find that surprising or greatly reprehensible.

Second, we don't know exactly what McQueary witnessed.  The more egregious the crime, the greater the responsibility to react immediately.  If Sandusky had been beating the child to death, no doubt we would expect McQueary to stop it.  Anal rape would warrant reaction on a similar level, but was that what he saw?  What kind of inappropriate behaviour did he witness, and was it so inappropriate and damaging that it required immediate action?  What were the consequences of the action continued?  Is it reasonable that McQueary might have needed to think through his reaction?

Clearly, McQueary did respond eventually, reporting what he witnessed to the appropriate authorities.  What we have to criticize him for, if anything, is only his spontaneous reaction to a single incident.  Paterno, however, is another matter, and here I differ from Brooks.  As an authority figure himself, and one responsible for Sandusky and everyone else associated with the football team, Paterno's burden was to act on the information.  Moreover, Paterno had time to consider his response -- nearly 10 years, in fact.  There is no excuse for his continuing to tolerate Sandusky's presence with the Penn State football team, and arguably he should have done more to make sure the accusations were investigated and, if appropriate, punished.  But this is also dependent on what Paterno heard, and we don't know that for sure, either.  He may have heard something that should have stimulated a strong response, or he may not; and that may reflect back on McQueary.  However, we are in no position to judge that.  The information will come out, I hope, at the trial, and the guilty will be held responsible.  In the meantime, we can only outline hypotheticals.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What if the economy improves?

In my last post, I argued that Obama could win re-election -- and it wouldn't be miraculous -- if the economy only continues to improve gradually between now and next November.  But how is it possible for the economy to improve?  From what we've heard from Obama, Paul Krugman, and others, the economy is stuck in a rut that it cannot jump out of except by massive government debt spending -- more stimulus.  And since the last stimulus was too small, I can only assume that something as puny as Obama's latest jobs bill, which is only a fraction as large, would have even less of an effect.

What, you think the economy might be able to recover on its own?  That is a very serious admission if you are a Keynesian.  That changes the argument from "We absolutely must have stimulus spending for the economy to improve" to "We need stimulus spending if we want the economy to improve fast enough."  Since even Keynesians (or many of them, anyway) admit that we have a serious debt problem (at least, when there is a Republican president), we would have to balance the faster improvement of the economy against the greater debt load our country would be taking on.  If the economy is capable of working unemployment down to 8% in the next year, I would argue that our economic problems are not so serious that they require us to dig an even deeper hole that we will have to find some way to get out of later.

But what if the economy does not get better?  Does that prove that a stimulus was necessary?  No, because we have other things dragging on our economy that we have not had in the past:  the new health care mandate, along with ever greater regulations.  I am confident that our economy would grow out of even these problems eventually; people are amazing, and they have managed to improve economies under some of the most repressive regimes, of which ours is not even close.  But there is a cost to these regulations, of course, and that is slower growth.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Obama Can Win

In my usual timely fashion, I am here to present yesterday's news.  It has been clear to me for some time that Obama's defeat in the next election is not the foregone conclusion that some people think it is, and not because Republicans don't have worthy challengers.  Obviously, some of the Republican candidates would stand a better chance against Obama than others, but I don't think this is a case of a large number of mediocre candidates.  It is, rather, the usual short-sightedness of analysts.

When the Republicans won big in the mid-term elections, many were justifiably concerned that they not repeat their mistakes in 1995 and 1996, which allowed Clinton to win a second term even though it seemed hopeless in 1994.  Even though a similar scenario played out with regard to budget issues this year, Republicans have not taken a big hit.  Their position is not much weaker than it was last year, when they won big in the election.  Why do I think they might not win next year, then?

It's the economy, stupid.  Admittedly, the economy still isn't great, and I doubt if Obama would win if the election happened now.  However, it may be turning around.  The recent drops in the unemployment rate suggest that things are getting better -- only marginally at the moment, but project that out over the next 10 months.  Could unemployment be below 8% next November, as Obama has suggested?  That would be a drop of less than 0.1% per month.  If the recovery accelerates, unemployment could conceivably fall close to 7%.  At that rate, people might start to think that Obama's economic program wasn't so bad after all.

To be clear, I'm not saying the economy will improve that much by the next election.  We might be dawdling around 8.5-9.0% unemployment still.  I'm also not saying that Obama necessarily will win re-election even if unemployment does improve significantly.  We still have large numbers of discouraged workers, an unprecedented national debt, illegal immigration, and a war in Afghanistan, among other issues.  But we're out of Iraq, which has been a sore point for liberals since Obama was elected, and we are scheduled to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.  People could easily look at that and conclude that Obama has well begun the process of pulling America's forces back, even if he wasn't as fast as he promised.  If the economy is also starting to recover, and more people are finding jobs, there could be enough optimism for the future to carry him into office.  It would certainly make for a very tough campaign for his challenger.