Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers and history

A Father's day thought: my father was born in Prague; as a teenager he got out ahead of the war on a Kindertransport to Britain where he took a very English name. He served with the Jewish Brigade and after the war made his way to Chicago, where he attended UC, worked as a machinist and later an executive with a grocery distributor. The rest of his family were missing and presumably murdered by Nazis -- he never wanted to talk about them. He was never able to kick the smoking habit that everyone had from those times, and he eventually succumbed to heart disease.

Which is too bad, since he would have made a great grandfather. For me it's kind of amusing and amazing to see some of his traits reflected in me and in my kids. I consider them (and myself I suppose) sparks of life rescued from the relentless jaws of history. I miss the guy, and miss having the chance to understand how or if he missed his own parents, who he had to leave behind.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Libertarians for Stalin

A few years back, my model for libertarians was that they were my brethren (that is, basically nerds) who had just happened, through some hitch in their intellectual or emotional development, to latch onto an oversimplified ideology, an ideology that channeled a perfectly normal and even admirable adolescent ant-iauthoritarianism into political stupidity. That this geeky ideology was twisted and used by truly appalling real-world politician to gain power and strip society of its ability to function was not the nerds' fault, exactly.

But I keep learning more creepy things about this movement. Patron saint Ayn Rand was a fan of mudering sociopaths. More recent patron saint Ron Paul is in bed with racists and antisemites. Etc. It's no longer possible to think of them as just people who appreciate the elegance of distributed systems.

Now, here's something new: the Koch family, who bankrolls an amazingly wide swath of libertarian institutions (ie, the Cato Institute, Reason, the George Mason economics department...pretty much the entire brain trust of the movement) as well as the tea party and many other questionable things, turns out to have made their money by contracting for Stalin's USSR. (and later, skimming off government contracts while ripping off Indian tribes, but that seems pretty vanilla under the circumstances).
In 1929, after hosting a delegation of Soviet planners in Wichita, Kansas, Winkler and Koch signed a $5 million contract to build 15 refineries in the Soviet Union. According to Oil of Russia, a Russian oil industry trade magazine, the deal made Winkler-Koch into Comrade Stalin’s number-one refinery builder. It provided equipment and oversaw construction...At the time, the Soviet Union’s oil industry was a total mess. Equipment built by Western engineering firms was always breaking down or didn’t work at all. Western engineers were constantly being accused of espionage or sabotage, real or imagined, and booted out of the country. Soviet workers suspected of colluding with the foreigners were simply taken out back and shot. Winkler-Koch made sure it was running a tight, efficient operation. Unlike his Western competitors, Koch pleased his Soviet clients by ensuring top quality and helping the cause of socialism.
I am truly in awe. As I mentioned in the last post, no matter how cynical I get, the weird corruption of the real world manages to trump my imagination.

It's now safe to fuck with Stalin!

Is all this just a trivial sideshow? Not hardly. If the belief system of these nerds had not been so successfully employed to weaken the regulatory functions of government, we wouldn't have had an entirely preventable oil spill in the Gulf. This bullshit just killed an ocean. Doesn't get more real than that.

The Kochs also fund a good chunk of the climate-change denial machine. Of course.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cheap shit means dead pigs

People like cheap shit, no matter what the cost.
-- Megan Burns, in a Facebook discussion of the BP oil spill

I thought that was quite a nice, punchy, insightful phrase, and it applies elsewhere. We like cheap fast food no matter what the cost is to our health, in cruelty to animals in factory farms, to the environment, to our sense of taste. We like cheap manufactured goods from China, no matter what the cost is to the economic health of our own country. We like cheap credit so we create a fantasy world of trillions of dollars of basically shit loans, and rely on the government to clean up the mess. Here in California, we like to keep things cheap so much that we've let what used to be some of the best schools and infrastructure in the country decay to the point of danger.

And we like the cheap oil that underlies it all, no matter what the cost to the environment, no matter the cost of the military machine required to secure access to foreign sources, and no matter the cost of fucking over the environment to the point of utter catastrophe. It appears that cheaping out on safety and backups seems to have been a major factor in the BP oil spill:
In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay – at the time, a spill second in size only to the Valdez disaster. Investigators found that BP had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about corrosion brought about by "draconian" cost cutting. ...

BP has also cut corners at the expense of its own workers. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast. An internal cost-benefit analysis conducted by BP – explicitly based on the children's tale The Three Little Pigs – revealed that the oil giant had considered making buildings at the refinery blast-resistant to protect its workers (the pigs) from an explosion (the wolf). BP knew lives were on the line: "If the wolf blows down the house, the piggy is gobbled." But the company determined it would be cheaper to simply pay off the families of dead pigs. (Original report here...truly amazing even to one as jaded as myself)

The company applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf... BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.
Economic downturns only exacerbate the pressure to keep things cheap, of course. And nothing is more annoying than some urban elitist lecturing the Wal-Mart set about how they shouldn't be buying all this crap and instead furnish their house in hand-woven Tibetan wall hangings or something. (James Kunstler seems to have made a career out of doing this). Few of us who aren't independently wealthy can resist the allure of the cheap. It's tempting to put all the blame on BP, but BP was only able to cheap out because cheap-minded voters elected politicians who promised to keep their taxes cheap and keep the prices at the gas pump cheap.

Cheapness is pervasive in the system of the world and can't be eliminated by clapping BP executives in irons, tempting though that prospect is. Capitalism seems to have become a finely-tuned machine for churning out cheap crap while deferring or externalizing the costs. But bills come due some time. You might be able to keep an economic juggling act going forever, but the real world can't be fooled. Ask a dead pig or dead pelican.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Science and (yawn) religion notes

1) Let's open with the leading philosopher of social constructivism in science:
Be assured, I am not going to tackle the most boring question known to man (just after the so called Mind/Body problem, that is) namely the pont aux ¢nes, as we say in French, of Science and Religion. Nothing ever comes out of these disquisitions...The fights, reconciliations, ceasefires between those two "world views" are as instructive as a boxing match in a pitch black tunnel. Even if there are winners and losers (there do seem to be some from the cries of victory and screams of pain you can still hear), the winners and losers are ultimately indistinguishable anyway, since they both accept an unscientific science and an irreligious religion.
-- Bruno Latour, Will Non-humans be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology

2) Here's a long, decent article on the Templeton Foundation, which has fascinated me for awhile now. But its blending of science and religion may be secondary to its blending of financial speculation and religion:
When Templeton created his foundation in the mid-'80s, conventional wisdom still largely held that religion would retreat as science secularized the world. But in Templeton's eyes, this made religion the perfect investment. "To get a bargain price," he would say, "you've got to look for where the public is most frightened and pessimistic." Religion's potential value far exceeded the asking price; a lot could be done with a little.
3) Herman Wouk, of all people, has a new book out on S-and-R. I've never read anything by Wouk, but I sort of thought he had a reputation as a middlebrow writer even in my parent's generation forty years ago, and I'm somewhat surprised to find out he's alive. Hm, according the Amazon he's 94, and the book is "about his encounters with famous scientists, foremost among them physicist Richard Feynman, who suggested Wouk learn the "œlanguage God talks" -- calculus. Wouk tried, unsuccessfully..." Sounds fascinating. It seems like this is a topic on which pretty much everyone thinks they are qualified to have an opinion, and write a book. The market may be glutted (here's another particularly boring-sounding one), which is too bad, since I had a plan for writing my own and making a bid for the Templeton Prize.

4) I randomly butted into a conversation on the dread topic here, defending both the Dalai Lama and liberal San Francisco Jews against radical atheists. I guess I find the New Atheists even more boring than the attempted reconcilers like those above -- since I could easily make all their arguments myself if I had to, they have nothing interesting to offer me.


Much more in past postings, like here, here, here, here, here, and here -- the last one contains a pretty good framework for thinking about this stuff.