Archive for March, 2022

Unfortunately, Putin Is Right

Vladimir Putin has effectively claimed that Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia, and that claim has been widely disputed and ignored. But Putin is correct. Merely by existing, Ukraine in its present mode of government, with all its flaws, poses an inexorable threat to everything that Putin believes and holds dear.

Ukraine has discovered the appeal and the effectiveness of greater personal and economic freedom, and the current level of success in resisting Russian efforts to conquer Ukraine flows from that greater level of economic and personal freedom.

Just before the Russian Revolution, Russia had the fifth largest economy in the world. Today, it’s not even in the top ten. Except for military technology, Russia relies heavily on western technology all across its economy. Most of its best petroleum equipment comes from the west, and Russia cannot build enough commercial aircraft to supply its own airlines, which may be another reason why Putin just confiscated all foreign-owned commercial aircraft in Russia. He’ll worry about the spare parts he can’t get later, or cannibalize some of those aircraft for the parts.

In addition, much of the Russian economy rests not on technology, but the export of natural resources and agricultural crops.

If Ukraine had been able to continue on its current economic and political path, within a generation, if not sooner, more and more Russians would have been moving south for economic opportunity and greater freedom.

Putin may talk military terms, but those are only a cover for the fact that Russia, as it is now ruled and structured, cannot continue to exist without leeching off its “vassal” states, and Putin cannot help but know that, at least subconsciously. By crushing as much of Ukraine as possible, even if he cannot obtain an absolute victory, he can at the least postpone the comparative decline of Russia, although, obviously, he is hoping that by destroying Ukraine, he can totally halt that trend.

For him, it is, in fact, a fight for survival of all he holds dear, and the United States and Europe need to understand that.

The Look It Up Generation

As many of my readers know, I’m married to a lyric soprano who’s a full-time Professor of Voice and Opera. She teaches everything from voice lessons to Vocal Pedagogy [grad-level courses on the anatomy and physiology of all body functions required to sing, as well as proper techniques and common vocal difficulties].

Contrary to popular perceptions, as well as to the beliefs of incoming students, music, especially vocal music, is one of the more difficult college majors. First of all, opera singers – the successful ones anyway – have to not only sing well, but have to learn and know cold a tremendous amount of music in multiple languages. The usual standard opera is at least two hours long. On top of that, they have to act and move on stage while singing powerfully enough to be heard over an orchestra.

Unfortunately, in recent years a large percentage of incoming students has never had to memorize or learn music of any length, nor have they obtained much of the background knowledge necessary to learn what they need to know to succeed in music. They think that they can just Google it – or find a video. Except when they Google music terms, they discover that much of the time they don’t know enough to use what they find or to apply what they find correctly.

And, surprise of surprises, the internet doesn’t have videos of everything. As with everything else on the internet, there are lots of videos of the most popular operas and incomplete snippets, if that, of the rest. Singers have to have the tools to learn on their own, and that means basic piano/keyboard skills. In fact, voice students can’t get into upper division courses without passing a basic piano proficiency test.

Then, there’s the “reading problem.” Too many incoming students can’t read well, and they certainly can’t read anything complex or at length because they’ve never had to before, and when they get to college it’s a bit late to start learning how. Far too many never even read the class syllabus, even when it’s online.

Add to that a low boredom threshold, and a total loss of focus every time their cellphones ring, flash, buzz, or vibrate. They can’t even concentrate that long on multi-media presentations. Lectures? Five minutes of attention, if that. They also have trouble retaining knowledge, possibly because they perceive every bit of knowledge as a separate unrelated fact [likely the result of a lifetime of standardized multiple choice tests] and can’t integrate what they read and hear.

There’s always been a significant number of students who leave college music programs for easier majors, but the numbers are going up, and, as a result, the administration puts pressure on music faculty to retain students, but pressure doesn’t solve the problem of missing skills, basic skills that should have been learned well before they arrived in college.

So far, the situation isn’t getting better. For the most part, success is going to the students who aren’t ruled by the internet, social media, and their cellphones… and there are fewer of them every year.

Is it any wonder so many college graduates have trouble finding high-level employment?

Economic-Political Extremism

As I’ve often tried to point out in my novels, the greatest evil lies in extremism, and that especially applies to governments and the economic systems they foster.

Tsarist Russia economically wasn’t all that different from the time of the Robber Barons in the United States and, just before World War I, had the fifth largest economy in the world, even with a government best described as monarchist-authoritarian with some democratic window-dressing. With the Russian Revolution, the Russian equivalent of the Robber Barons, the monarchy, and the democratic window dressing (mostly) got thrown out and Russia ended up with pretty much a straight autocracy. At present, it bears an eerie modern-day resemblance to Tsarist Russia, except that the head autarch makes the last of the Romanovs look like an incompetent milquetoast by comparison. And it’s still an autocracy with an economy hobbled by the requirements of surviving in an autocracy.

This is a problem that the Chinese recognize, and what they’re attempting to do is to create a sort of semi-free market circumscribed in various degrees by an authoritarian government.

On the other hand, true capitalistic free-market systems are efficient at producing massive amounts of goods, but extremism in capitalism tends toward excessive concentration of wealth and power, which, if unchecked, isn’t that much different from an authoritarian government in repressing wages and in creating unhealthy workplaces, except that the autarchs are the business owners and not the government. Also, without strong government oversight, capitalistic systems tend to create continual boom and bust economic cycles and to neglect creating strong infrastructure on a national basis, as well as underfunding national defense.

At the same time, too much regulation/regulatory control in a capitalistic economy has a hobbling effect similar to that of an authoritarian government, as unfortunately the state of California is beginning to demonstrate.

History demonstrates, pretty conclusively, in my opinion, that countries dominated by the extremes of authoritarian governments or of free-market capitalism are pretty miserable places to live for anyone but the elites, but that’s something that the elites always rationalize away.

Thugs and Authoritarian Governments

It’s been said that the only thing that thugs and bullies respect is power. That’s not true. They deride power lesser than their own and despise power greater than their own, and the more they find their actions constricted in any way the angrier they get and the more likely they are to take it out on those with less power.

That certainly appears to be true with regard to Vladimir Putin, but what Putin doesn’t seem able to recognize is that the more authoritarian his government is the less likely it, or he, will be able to survive over time.

The strength of authoritarian governments lies in their ability to concentrate and focus power, but the greater the control exerted by the government over the people and the economy, the lower the overall efficiency with which the economy, and usually the government, operates. This is why the old USSR collapsed. Its highly controlled and restricted economy was much less economically efficient than a freer economy and system was and couldn’t support the economic drain of an enormous military establishment. Putin has modernized many aspects of the Russian military machine, and paid for that modernization through a combination of energy exports and what amounts to Ponzi-type financing, at least from what I can tell, but those finances are limited, and taking over, first, Crimea, and now Ukraine offered the possibility of more economic plunder.

While the Russian army is having difficulties as a result of the authoritarian nature of the Putin government, the sheer mass of forces concentrated against Ukraine means that the conflict, if it continues, is likely to decimate both countries. The innovative and creative ways in which the Ukrainians have managed to blunt and sometimes stall the Russian advance will fuel Putin’s anger and desire to win at all costs. The more it becomes clear that Putin cannot win an immediate victory makes an arrogant narcissist like him even more dangerous, both for the Ukrainians and the world.

Yet failing to stop him will likely result in yet another attempt on Putin’s part to recreate a new version of the old USSR.

The Other “Opioid” Crisis … Electronic Soma

Over the past few years, there’s been a continual concern about the growing pharmaceutical “opioid crisis,” and there’s no doubt that it is a severe and continuing problem. But a significant part of the problem lies in the fact that there are essentially no non-addictive pharmaceutical products to deal with severe pain. Given this basic fact, which seems to be willfully ignored by crusaders who seem intent on condemning sufferers to live with a life of severe pain, and which results in increasing suicide rates, as I’ve noted earlier, I don’t see much progress in resolving the pharmaceutical opioid crisis until better non-addictive methods to alleviate severe pain are developed because, at present, either prescribing or not-prescribing opioids for severe and continuing pain causes “excess deaths.”

But there is another “opioid” crisis which is continuing to develop, particularly among younger people. That’s the electronic opioid/drug of social media among teenagers and young adults. Teenagers now spend an average of 7.4 hours a day looking at screens, and one in four check their social media at least hourly. Some try to check social media every few minutes, according to my wife the professor, now that the university has banned confiscation of cell phones [just for the class period] from problem users.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), teens who spend over three hours daily on social media are at high risk of mental issues. A number of other studies have established that social media is addictive in the same way as gambling or other recognized addictions. Facebook’s own internal documents acknowledge that 8 to 12 percent of its customers are ‘problem users.’

A recent study conducted by the University of Southern California and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that students without previous attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who then engaged in high levels of social media use were 53% more likely to experience ADHD symptoms for the first time.

Anxiety, depression, self-harm, and teen suicide risen significantly since 2009, the same year social media platforms became widely available on mobile devices, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. The suicide rate for those aged 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% since 2008, and the increase has been 151% among girls aged 10-14, which is hardly surprising since cyberbullying is among the prime reasons for suicide attempts.

So… we have an addictive electronic social media network/system, which, with all its components, reduces the ability of users to concentrate on anything at length, enables cyberbullying, worsens existing mental problems, and appears to be the primary cause of a rising suicide rate among young Americans. Yet this crisis isn’t getting anywhere near the emphasis of the pharmaceutical opioid crisis.

The Standardized Test Fallacies

With President Biden’s nomination for the next Supreme Court justice, standardized tests are once more in the news, along with the fallacies offered on both sides.

What both sides fail to admit, at least publicly, is that standardized tests are a tool, nothing more and nothing less. If the tool is poorly constructed, it won’t work well. Even if it’s decently constructed, if it’s applied poorly, the results may not be accurate.

Often overlooked is the fact that tests such as the ACT and the SAT were initially effectively designed to measure the qualities needed by white, predominantly male, upper middle class students to succeed in college. The tests have proved to be, despite claims to the contrary, moderately effective for determining collegiate success for that socio-economic group and for certain hard-working Asian minority students. They’re less effective for other socio-economic groups, for a number of reasons.

Well-designed standardized tests will measure certain results accurately, no matter what detractors claim. The problem is that the results they measure aren’t precisely what the proponents of such tests claim. Tests such as the ACT, SAT, LSAT, MCAT, or GRE measure not only certain types of knowledge, which is their stated purpose, but they also measure indirectly other abilities.

The tests measure the ability to read and comprehend quickly, to recognize and analyze patterns, and to quickly recall facts and techniques and to apply them to a situation, problem, or text presented in verbal or mathematical form.

That means that someone who takes the test who reads quickly and accurately has a tremendous advantage on timed tests, and that advantage effectively allows the test-taker more time and places more pressure on the test-taker who knows just as much if not more but who cannot read as fast. In addition, the tests often don’t measure depth of knowledge or the ability to solve complex and multi-faceted problems.

Tests given at the primary school level can reflect as much the students’ socio-economic backgrounds as their intelligence, because a student from a well-read and well-educated upper middle class background will often have greater exposure to the terms and structures of testing.

Such tests are biased, no matter what backers of the tests say, against individuals who do not read the test language quickly, against individuals from a differing socio-economic background who don’t know all the indirect cultural referents embodied in the test, and against those who have high intellectual levels but who do not process information quickly.

What that does mean is that the tests are generally more accurate in assessing the abilities of an upper-middle-class male who reads moderately quickly than in assessing actual intellectual abilities of someone who comes from a different background.

Such tests can be a useful indicator, but they shouldn’t be used as the sole indicator. Unfortunately, the problem today is that many of the other indicators used previously have become useless. Grade inflation has gotten to the point where there’s almost no statistical difference between students in many schools, and where class rank is often decided by a single bad mark in a single course in the ninth grade [FYI, this isn’t hyperbole]. Neither are outside activities.

Tests also don’t reflect the character and determination of the test-taker. Every year, my wife the professor sees students with good high school grades, high test scores, and good native ability flunk out because they were unwilling or unable, for other reasons, to do work that should be well within their capabilities.

But right now, standardized test scores, flawed and biased as they are, are the most accurate predictor of performance for their original target population, simply because there aren’t any other reliable measures.

For everyone else, whatever other yardsticks are being used to determine their abilities are in fact somewhere between estimates and guesstimates.

The Other Ukraine Problem

Last week, amid the personal, geo-political, and humanitarian disasters caused by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, it also dawned on the tech world that between forty and seventy percent of the world’s pure neon gas [depending on which source is reporting] has been refined and provided by Ukraine. We can certainly do without any more garish neon signs, but nearly perfectly neon is required for the production and manufacture of the majority of computer chips, and it takes time to build and get into operation a plant that can provide the 99.9% pure neon required for high-tech uses..

Most chip manufacturers appear to have between three to eight weeks supply of neon, but some have less than that. China also has neon, likely enough for its needs, and Linde built a neon plant in Texas in 2016, but some chip-makers will soon exhaust their supplies, and that means another chip shortage in the months ahead.

Outsourcing and offshore manufacturing to get the cheapest costs is based on the assumption that trade patterns remain stable and reliable, and that all nations value economic stability over military objectives, but Putin’s attack on Ukraine illustrates the dangers of national and industrial policy based on that assumption.

And this doesn’t even take into account that Ukraine also supplies the majority of wheat and vegetable oil for countries like Egypt, where shortages could also result in hardships and socio-political unrest.

So long as the world contains nation-state powers that can disrupt trade and supply lines, it’s foolhardy not to have critical reserve capabilities. So…in effect, to maintain a stable industrial economy, the U.S. either needs to maintain overwhelming military power and considerable economic power to keep rogue regimes in line or an industrial policy and programs to insulate our manufacturing and wholesale production economy from supply interruptions.

Right now, it appears that we’re not doing that well on either front, largely because politicians won’t or can’t address either and because too many of the giant corporations don’t want to do anything that adversely affects their immediate profitability in the slightest… and because too many Americans fail to understand that cheaper at all costs is seldom better in the long run.

But, hey, who cares about the long run (at least enough to really do anything about it)?

Why So Hot?

The other day, I was in the local Walmart, which actually has a good grocery and produce section, and which might be because it sits right next to I-15, and I-15 is the main interstate for produce flowing out of Southern California. On my grocery list was either Chinese plum sauce or sweet and sour sauce. Now, the oriental food section in Walmart isn’t huge, but it runs from floor up to eight feet and extends twelve to fifteen feet from side to side.

In that entire space, I could not find any form of sweet and sour sauce or plum sauce. In fact, I couldn’t find anything besides soy sauce and sesame oil that wasn’t hot, hotter, hottest, or super hot. Except for soy sauces and sesame oil, everything was spiced with some degree of heat, many vowing to be the hottest ever.

That got me to thinking, and as I went searching for some plain Cheetos, I found one bag, barely visible, surrounded by various versions of “hot” Cheetos, again in copious quantities. The same was true of the Dorritos. In the meat section, almost all of the Italian sausage is “heated,” with two lone packs of “sweet” Italian sausage.

I could go on in detail, but it seems like everywhere, from grocery stores to fast food chains, even to upscale restaurants, there’s a heat craze. I don’t like bland food, and I’m quite fond of cinnamon, but I draw the line at food spiced so much with chilies of various sorts that all I can taste is the intensity of the chilies, and that only for an instant before my senses and taste buds burn out.

Not only that, but now I’m even seeing chili ice cream, and there’s an Italian chili ice cream that you can’t get without signing a liability waiver.

Apparently, not only are our politics going to heated extremes, but so, it seems to me, is far too much of our food.