Archive for December, 2016

Science and Republicans

For some time, at least certain “liberal” commentators have insisted that Republicans are scientifically “challenged” and that Republicans consistently ignore well-established science. According to some recent surveys, those commentators are only half-right. In general, those individuals who identify as Republicans are more scientifically knowledgeable than are those who identify as Democrats, yet they tend to ignore the science behind climate change, evolution, and other areas.

So why do Republican office-holders espouse so many positions at odds with established science? The most obvious answer would seem to be that such politicians are appealing to their political base, but if their base is actually more scientifically knowledgeable than Democrats, this wouldn’t seem to make much sense.

Another possibility is that Republicans are conservative in their understanding of science as well as conservative politically. In some ways, this makes more sense. Science proceeds from what is “known” to what is theorized… and then such new theories are tested against the evidence and either discarded, modified, accepted… or put on hold for lack of sufficient proof either way.

“New” theories often take a great deal of time to be proved and accepted. The idea of “continental drift” was first proposed Alfred Wegener in 1915 in the first edition of The Origin of Continents and Oceans, a theory which was viciously attacked, despite the evidence that Wegener presented, but, partly because certain parts of Wegener’s theory were wrong, it was not truly accepted until after World War II, when even more evidence was discovered about plate tectonics. Despite a huge amount of evidence, it took decades for the scientific community as a whole to accept Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution. Black holes were first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, but the first black hole wasn’t discovered until 1971.

Another possibility is that Republicans simply only accept those aspects of science that they can “use,” like tools, while rejecting any aspect of science that isn’t in accord with what they wish to believe.

That may be the most likely explanation, given that, for example, liberal Democrats tend to reject aspects of science that conflict with their beliefs. For example, although human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years, the term “genetic modification” is far more of an anathema to Democrats than to Republicans. Likewise, those opposing vaccination tend to be more Democrats than Republicans.

If that’s so, it’s certainly understandable, but deplorable, that what science is “acceptable” to people depends not on the facts, but upon personal beliefs.

The Religion/Pay Gap?

The financial news and opinion company 24/7 Wall St. recently released a study of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas comparing the median wages of men and women, and listing the ten best and ten worst for women’s earnings. The figures come from U.S. Census data. On a national basis, working women make on average, about 80% of what men do, but the variance can be considerable from state to state or city to city.

Not surprisingly to me, four of the five areas where women make the least compared to men were in “Mormon country” – three in Utah, and one in Idaho. The “worst” was the Provo area, where women on average make only 64% of what men earn. The single non-Mormon metro area in the bottom five was Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The fact that the five areas with the greatest discrepancy are all located in areas dominated by highly patriarchal religions seems to be more than coincidence.

Now, the first thought that some will doubtless suggest is that fewer women associated with patriarchal religions work, but the survey was of working women, not all women. In addition, figures show that the percentage of married women who work in Utah is right around the national average. The other factor is that in the Provo area, there is a greater discrepancy between the higher education levels of men and women. It’s also the “most” LDS area in Utah, with the lowest percentage of women with college degrees, which tends to suggest that perhaps the LDS faith tends to value education in women less than in men, a fact I noted in an earlier blog.

Now, I’ve heard and seen all the LDs pronouncements on education, but it’s fairly clear that education comes second to faith. Why else would the Mormon Church push the age for young members lower so that a university education essentially competes with going on a mission? And going on a mission isn’t exactly cheap. Also, why does the LDS faith/culture, especially in Utah, press for those returned missionaries to get married within a year of returning from their mission – when most of them have three or four years left to finish college, if they attend college at all. In addition, there’s tremendous pressure on young married couples to have children immediately.

The result of this faith/cultural pressure is that, in practice, education for women not only takes second place to the education for men, but is effectively prioritized behind faith and the need to have children –lots of them –and the statistics bear this out. And those statistics explain yet another reason why women in Utah are underpaid.

I understand that, for many people, faith and male priorities come first. Just don’t tell me that education is a priority, especially when Utah also has the lowest rate of spending for primary and secondary education in the United States and the highest birth rate.

A Government of..?

As President-elect Trump announces his choices for various posts in government, those choices look very much like a government of, by, and for the rich. When asked about this, Trump replied to the effect that he wanted winners, and the rich had already proved they were winners.

There are more than a few problems with that philosophy. First, not all the rich are “winners.” While some are indeed winners, some of the rich are inheritors; some are just fortunate to have been born in the right place or time, with the right credentials [Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting insights on that in Outliers]; and some are talented con men who manipulate the system and screw others in their pursuit of winning at all costs.

Second, most of those in the United States are not wealthy winners. Even most Americans in the top one percent by income aren’t millionaires, let alone billionaires. Just what do those wealthy “winners” know about the problems facing the 99.9% of Americans? The present system has shown, pretty convincingly, that the current “political class” is out of touch with the majority of Americans, and that’s one reason why, as a number of my readers have pointed out, so many millions voted for Donald Trump. Just how is appointing millionaires and billionaires who are even less aware of the real problems facing most American families going to improve things?

Interestingly enough, Trump’s election alone is likely to have made life for some of them even harder. Why? Because his election seems to have strengthened the dollar. That strengthening has already made the price of U.S. goods that are exported rise. Higher export prices cost more U.S. jobs.

Third, Trump’s entire concept of “winners” creates the idea that those who aren’t at the top of the pyramid of wealth and fame are “losers.” Is a teacher or a university professor who turns out thoughtful and successful students a loser? Is a doctor who chooses academic medicine and research that saves lives but doesn’t come up with a block-buster drug or medical device a loser? Is the person who struggles from absolute poverty into a “mere” middle-class job and lifestyle a loser?

Fourth, measuring success by the size of profit-margins monetizes all aspects of society, and applying cost-benefit, profit-margin views unthinkingly to government results in policies that are, at best, useful in the short-run and often devastating in the long run. Just in the last year or so, we’ve seen significant environmental damage to regional water supplies, caused by past short-sighted mining rules and, in the case of Flint, unwise cost-cutting decisions. We’re still paying for clean-up to industrial and mining sites all across the country because various industries were allowed to operate without sound environmental rules, and yet the rallying cry of the Trumpistas is that environmental rules are too strict. Too strict for what? That viewpoint seems to suggest that profitable jobs can’t be created without polluting.

While government programs that merely throw money at problems are wasteful, and should be eliminated or reworked, regulations that assure worker health and safely, food purity, product safety, and environmentally safe means of production shouldn’t be trashed because they “reduce” profits. As I’ve said all along, we need a middle way, and I don’t see the super-wealthy showing much concern for anything but profits and unfettered growth.

But then, the super-rich more and more live in enclaves where their water is clean, located in places where the air is better… and they know what’s best for everyone else.

Emotional Attachment

Over the years, I’ve run across more than a few contradictory comments by readers, where one reader finds a particular “fault” and another reader says that what the first reader said wasn’t true at all. My “favorite” set of such conflicting statements deal with the reader’s emotional attachment. I’ve written a number of books where one reader says he or she can’t get emotionally involved, and another reader finds the same book emotionally strong, even riveting.

And they’re both right.

That’s because empathy or emotional attachment comes from a reader being able to identify with the character and/or the situation in which the character is immersed. If a reader can identify with both the character and the situation, then the reader’s emotional attachment is likely to be stronger, and if the reader can identify with neither… there won’t be much, if any, emotional attachment.

I’ve had male readers write and tell me that they just can’t identify with female characters, any female characters by any author. I’ll take their word on that, although I do wonder somewhat about their personal life…but that’s their affair, not mine.

Some readers can identify with a wide range of characters, and some with not so wide a range.

Then, there’s always the question of how well an author presents a character. Some authors, and Hemingway is an example, offer little in the way of direct emotional portraits of a character and even keep the language so spare that actions are about the only revealing feature. Other authors, more in the romance field, I suspect, practically offer emotional blueprints of their characters. From what I’ve read, most authors fall somewhere in between.

I had one reader say that a particular character was unfeeling, especially when he lost a lover in a military action. The character never said much. He just took out a throwing knife and kept throwing it at a target until his hands were bloody and the target was reduced to splinters. Readers reacted in different ways to that scene.

I’ve also had readers complain that there wasn’t much emotional characterization when the characters never directly said how they felt, even though their acts and speech patterns and delivery revealed a great deal. But if a reader doesn’t pick that up, then he or she is likely to have less emotional involvement.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s any good way to get emotional involvement from all readers, because, if an author uses every possible way of appealing, that’s likely to result in an excessive emotional overflow… not to mention the possibility of excess wordage.

In the end, what I do is to show the emotional acts, cues, and words that fit the character in a way that fits into the flow of the story and leave it to the reader… and, frankly, accept the fact that nothing I write will appeal to everyone.

Shaking Things Up?

Trump and a great percentage of those individuals who voted for him claimed that he was going to shake things up and get rid of the career politicians who had created the political deadlock. Trump also appealed strongly to white workers whose livelihoods had been “destroyed” or threatened by globalization, saying he was going to change things

So far, if the biographies and backgrounds of those he’s selected for cabinet posts and high positions in the White House are any indication, while he may be shaking up a few of the more liberal Democrats, his appointees are largely billionaires, high powered executives, career military, or career Republican functionaries.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but I fail to see how Rex Tillerson, the head of ExxonMobil, is either going to shake things up or do much the average American. Perhaps benefit the fossil fuels industry executives, but not its workers

And what about the selection of Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, as his White House chief of staff? How does that square with doing away with politics as usual?

Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, was deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush and served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor. She’s also married to Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. How much closer to politics as usual can you get?

Trump’s pick for U.S. Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a twenty year U.S. Senator from Alabama, who, in 1986 was rejected for a federal judgeship by a U.S. Senate committee because of his racist views. In addition to his opposition to legal immigration, he’s an outspoken climate science denier, claiming that carbon dioxide is “not a pollutant,” it’s just “plant food.”

What about Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency? He’s performed essentially as a tool for energy companies and is in favor of totally eliminating the EPA. What he wants might be a great change, but I’d prefer to have breathable air and drinkable water.

Trump’s proposed choice to head Health and Human Services is Representative Tom Price, of Georgia, a twenty-year career Republican, with six terms in Congress and eight years in the Georgia state senate. Strongly supported by the American Medical Association, he’s also a fierce opponent of abortion and federal funding of any form of contraception.

Trump has selected Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as his campaign finance chairman, as his pick for Treasury Secretary.

And for the Labor Department, Trump tapped Andrew F. Puzder, the chief executive of CKE Restaurants – and a donor to his campaign — who has criticized the Obama administration’s labor policies. Maybe I’m overly skeptical, but isn’t appointing a man whose work has been based on cheap fast-food labor setting up a conflict of interest?

The Trump choice for Commerce Secretary is Wilbur Ross, an investor whose fortune is estimated by Forbes to be $2.9 billion and who has advocated steep tariffs on China.

The choice for Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos, who has spent over thirty years as in various capacities in the Republican Party, and was chairman of the Michigan Republican Party for four years. She’s also married to an heir to the five billion dollar DeVos fortune, and an education activist who is a passionate believer in school vouchers and choice.

Trump has also indicated that he is strongly considering Rick Perry, former Republican Governor of Texas, to head the Energy Department. Also, according to sources close to Trump, three Republican members of Congress are also under consideration to head the Interior Department:first-term Republican Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.

The only truly “new” faces I’ve seen bruited about so far are Stephen Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, as chief White House strategist and senior counselor, Wilbur Ross, and Ben Carson, the pick to head up the Department of Urban Development.

Add to that three retired generals, and President-elect Trump’s picks thus far don’t exactly appear likely to change the climate of politics as usual. It looks like three generals, five billionaires or top corporate executives, eleven career politicians, plus Bannon and Carson. Or something like nineteen to two in terms of old style politicians, executives [and generals are certainly executives] and billionaires versus Bannon and Carson. Now, as more names are released, possibly even as this appears, the numbers will change… but I don’t think the overall composition will.

And tell me, again, how this crew is going to improve things.

Philosophers’ “Truth”

Gottfried Liebniz has three claims to fame. First, he was an outstanding mathematician who developed the mathematics of differential calculus independently at about the same time as Newton did. Second, he was a noted philosopher. And third, he was ridiculed by Voltaire in his play Candide [later made into an opera by Leonard Bernstein]. Not by name, of course, but the character Dr. Pangloss is always proclaiming that those in the play “live in the best of all possible worlds,” even as he and Candide suffer disaster after disaster.

In his philosophy, Leibniz asserted [and I’ve simplified the steps] that because God is perfect, and made the world, we must live in the best of all possible worlds. Obviously, many people, including Voltaire, have disputed this, particularly those who have suffered disasters clearly not of their own making.

Even during his own time, many disputed Leibnitz, but from what I’ve been able to discover, most of those disputes were about the logic and structure of Liebnitz’s proposition, rather than the key assumptions underlying the assumptions. Those assumptions, and they are assumptions, because no empirical proof exists to support or, for that matter, to refute any of them are: (1) There is a God; (2) God is perfect; (3) God created the world; (4) a perfect God would not or could not create an imperfect world, or at least not a world representing less than his best efforts. Therefore, we live in the best of all possible worlds.

While many might have liked to dispute those assumptions, in the seventeenth century, publicly disputing any of them was potentially courting a death sentence, or at the least, economic, political, and social ruin.

Voltaire did the best he could to highlight what he thought was the absurdity of the proposition, simply by contrasting the extremes of what happened to people in real life every day, but that observation and others like it had Voltaire in trouble with the religious and secular authorities on and off throughout his life.

But the problem of inaccurate assumptions isn’t just limited to philosophers of past centuries; inaccurate and unfounded assumptions appear to be the bedrock of current politics.

Minority Government?

It now appears, pending the results of the Green Party’s initiative to force recounts in three states, that Hillary Clinton, while losing the election through the Electoral College, actually won the popular vote by more than two million votes. That is the largest popular vote margin in favor of a losing candidate in U.S. history. Even Al Gore only had a 540,000 vote margin.

So, despite a significant Electoral College victory, President-elect Trump is essentially the minority candidate who is behaving as though he won a great majority. If Trump pushes the wide range of issues that he trumpeted during the campaign, he’s very likely to alienate the majority of the nation, especially given that neither candidate was regarded favorably by a majority of the electorate. Yet, if he doesn’t push at least some of the campaign issues, he will alienate sectors of his hard-core base, which is already a minority.

There are already signs of discontent among the most conservative of Trump supporters as a result of Trump’s potential and proposed Cabinet appointments.

Add to that the fact that some Republican senators oppose certain of Trump’s pledges and that the Republicans only have a two vote majority in the Senate, and it’s not hard to see that enacting some of what he promised will be anything but easy, and may not even be possible.

On the other hand, both parties believe that an overhaul of the corporate tax structure is necessary and that tax reform should be undertaken. Fixing the corporate tax mess is likely to be the easier part of that, especially since Trump’s proposed changes to individual income tax rates will cause the federal deficit to soar. Trump and the Democrats both want to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but conservative Republicans… not so much.

With Jeff Sessions as attorney general, assuming he is confirmed, which is more likely than not, the U.S. position on immigration will definitely harden, the only question being how much and in what specific areas. And while Trump has stated that conditions for minorities need to improve, his only specific point so far has been that all the legislation pushed by Democrats hasn’t done the job.

So…just what will a Trump Presidency bring? Lots of people have firm ideas, including me. I suspect we’ll all be wrong to some degree

Economics of Speed

Just over forty-nine years ago, in October of 1967, William J. Knight flew the North American rocket-powered X-15 at a speed of Mach 6.72 [4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h)], to set the still-unbroken speed record for a manned aircraft.

The speed record for an unmanned aircraft was set by NASA’s X-43A at Mach 9.6 on November 16, 2004, at an altitude of 33,223 meters over the Pacific Ocean.

The top speed for a manned aircraft taking off on its own power belongs to the SR-71 Blackbird which established in July of 1976 a still-standing speed record of (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h), approximately Mach 3.3. There are reports of faster speeds, but not under accepted standards for records.

None of these aircraft are known to be operational today, ostensibly because the first two were experimental research aircraft that served their purposes, and because it’s been stated that the SR-71’s reconnaissance objectives can now be achieved by satellite or UAV reconnaissance at a much lower cost. Of the 32 SR-71s built, twelve were lost to mechanical or other non-combat causes. Over 800 SAMs were fired at SR-71s, and none ever hit, but the operating cost of the SR-71 exceeded $85,000 per hour, and ran $300 million a year, essentially $10 million per operating aircraft per year.

When I left the Navy, the F-14 was the top fighter [at least Navy pilots thought so], but it was retired early, despite being not only faster and able to do more than the F-18, because it required more than twice as much maintenance and because of [disputed] claims that some of the missions it could handle were no longer necessary.

The fastest commercial aircraft was, of course, the Concorde with a top speed of Mach 2.04, and, like the SR-71, it was retired from service for economic reasons, because it never made a profit, and refitting costs would have made it even less profitable.

Economics also have impacted commercial airliners. Today, on major routes, it takes longer to fly point to point than it did fifty years ago. The 1960s Boeing 707 actually cruised at faster speeds (roughly 3% faster) than does the latest B-737-800. The reason is that that newer airliner use high-bypass jet engines that are currently much more fuel-efficient at slightly slower speeds, and since fuel costs range from 26-35% of operating costs, fuel efficiency is far more highly prized than speed.

The bottom line: For both the military and for commercial air travel, economics outweigh speed.