Retired Emperor

August 22, 2016

Japanese Emperor Akihito may be thinking of abdicating his post because his age is making it difficult to fulfill his duties as emperor. The BBC has this story.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito has strongly indicated he wants to step down, saying he fears his age will make it difficult to fulfil his duties.

The revered 82-year-old emperor’s comments came in only his second-ever televised address to the public.

Emperor Akihito did not explicitly say he wanted to abdicate as he is barred from making political statements.

PM Shinzo Abe said the government would take the remarks “seriously” and discuss what could be done.

“Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do,” he said.

It is not as easy as that, though.

Why can’t the emperor abdicate? Abdication is not mentioned under Japan’s existing laws, so they would need to be changed for the emperor to be able to stand down. The changes would also have to be approved by parliament.

Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito

I am actually a little surprised that there is no provision for an Emperor abdicating under current Japanese law. There was a time, during the Heian period, in which the Emperor was not only permitted to abdicate, but was actually required to step down in favor of his successor.

The period of time from 794-1185, when the court at Heian ruled over Japan is known as the Heian period. This was a remarkable period of Japanese history, in which the Japanese fully absorbed the influences from China and made them part of a a uniquely Japanese culture. During the Heian period, Japanese arts, literature, and philosophy reached a peak seldom equalled in the centuries since. The influence of the Heian period on Japanese culture is something like that of ancient Greece and Rome in the West, the basis of everything that followed.

The earlier Heian period is also one of the few times in Japanese history in which the Emperor actually wielded political power, following the example of the all-powerful Chinese Emperors. Over time, however, the Imperial house began to decline in power and vigor, just as the various Chinese dynasties had. The powerful Fujiwara clan began to gain power at the expense of the Emperors. The Fujiwaras monopolized the top government posts and were the regents when an Emperor was a minor. They married their daughters to the Emperors so that a Fujiwara was always the Emperor’s father-in-law, with the filial obligations that brought. Eventually, the Fujiwara regents began to compel the Emperors to abdicate as soon as they were old enough to rule on their own. These Retired Emperors often became Buddhist monks and were referred to as Cloistered Emperors. By 1000, the Fujiwara regent was the emperor of Japan in all but name, while the reigning Emperor was a figurehead.

In any other country, it is likely that the people who had the power behind the throne would have grown weary of the pretense and seized the throne themselves, as the Frankish Carolingians had overthrown the Merovingians and were overthrown in their turn by the French Capets, or the succeeding dynasties of China had overthrown one another. In Japan, however, this was unthinkable. One of the ideas that the Japanese had not taken from Chinese politics was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Japanese Emperor was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and thus always had the Mandate of Heaven, whatever the failings of his person or his line. The Fujiwaras had to be content with being regents.

In time, the Fujiwaras declined and the Imperial House began to reassert itself. In a characteristically Japanese fashion, the reigning Emperors, themselves, did not attempt to regain power. Instead, the Retired Emperors took power. This was the known as Cloistered Rule. So, during the period of Cloistered Rule, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, who was in fact, a figurehead, with a Regent or Chief Minister from the Fujiwara Clan who was supposed to be powerful, but was another figurehead, while the real power was held by a former emperor who was in theory, merely a monk. It seems unnecessarily baroque and complicated, but the Japanese have generally preferred rule by consensus rather than by a single strong man. The system seemed to work well enough.

Then again, perhaps it did not. The members of the Imperial Court at Heian always had a strong contempt for common people and the outer provinces of Japan, what we might refer to as flyover country. For the court nobles, the common people were little better than domestic animals, while the military aristocracy who fought off the northern barbarians were themselves semi-barbarians. The Imperial Court became more insular and isolated from the concerns of the provinces. The members of the court became more concerned with their rank and position at court than with administrating the country. As a result, the military leaders in the provinces began to gain power and by 1185, after a series of struggles between several Retired Emperors and military clans related to the Imperial Family, a warlord named Minamoto no Yoritomo took power as the first Shogun (Supreme General), ending the Heian Period, and establishing the military dictatorship of the Shoguns that lasted through several dynasties of Shoguns until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Imperial Court and the court nobility continued as before except they had no power and depended on the Shoguns for funds.

Emperors still occasionally abdicated in favor of their successor, but the custom of Cloistered Rule ended with the end of the Heian Period. The last Emperor to abdicate was Kokaku who reigned from 1779-1817. His position as Retired Emperor caused some trouble with the Tokugawa Shoguns, and it is perhaps not coincidental that from his reign, and retirement, the Imperial Court began the process of asserting itself against the Shoguns.

I don’t know when the laws about abdication were changed or whether the current law in Japan actually prohibits an Emperor from resigning or whether there is simply no provision for abdication. Judging from the article, it would seem to be the latter case. If so, than I can’t imagine there would be any reason to deny Akihito’s wish to abdicate, especially considering his age and health. There is, after all, ample precedent in Japanese history.

Atomic Hard Drive

August 16, 2016

It is easy to become depressed about the state of the world right now. We have what are probably the worst two candidates running for president in this election. The whole world seems to be falling apart and terrorist attacks are starting to become a daily occurrence in Europe and America and our leaders express confusion over their motives; obviously Islam has nothing to do with the Islamic State. The economy seems to be stagnant with the 1% getting ever richer and the rest of us struggling to keep in place.

But this kind of thinking is misleading. We do have problems, yet in so many ways, life in the twenty-first century is better than it has ever been. Our lives are far more comfortable in almost every material sense than those of the people who lived a century ago, thanks to the enormous progress we have made in science and technology. The day-to-day bad news, which tends to depress us, is really a distraction from all the amazing discoveries and inventions that will be changing our lives over the rest of the century.

Here’s a story I read in the Wall Street Journal about one of these discoveries.

By manipulating the interactions between individual atoms, scientists report they have created a device that can pack hundreds of times more information per square inch than the best currently available data-storage technologies.

The working prototype is part of a decades-long attempt to shrink electronics down to the atomic level, a feat scientists believe would allow them to store information much more efficiently, in less space and more cheaply. By comparison, tech companies today build warehouse-sized data centers to store the billions of photos, videos and posts consumers upload to the internet daily. Corporations including International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. also have explored research to reduce such space needs.

The so-called atomic-scale memory, described in a paper published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, can hold one kilobyte, the equivalent of roughly a paragraph of text.

It may not sound “very impressive,” said Franz Himpsel, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who wasn’t involved in the study. But “I would call it a breakthrough.”

Most previous attempts at encoding information with atoms, including his own, managed roughly one byte, Dr. Himpsel said. And data could be stored only once. To store new information, the “disk” had to be re-formatted, like CD-Rs popular in the ’90s.

With the new device, “we can rewrite it as often as we like,” said Sander Otte, an experimental physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the lead author on the new paper.

They can actually arrange individual atoms. When I was growing up, no one had ever seen an atom. They were too small to be imaged, even by electron microscopes. Scientists did not invent the scanning tunneling microscope, which allows individual atoms to be “seen” and manipulated until the 1980’s.

Scanning tunnelling microscope

Scanning tunnelling microscope

To build their prototype, the scientists peppered a flat copper bed with about 60,000 chlorine atoms scattered at random, purposely leaving roughly 8,000 empty spaces among them. A mapping algorithm guided the tiny, copper-coated tip of a high-tech microscope to gently pull each chlorine atom to a predetermined location, creating a precise arrangement of atoms and neighboring “holes.”

The team also crafted a language for their device. The stored information is encoded in the patterns of holes between atoms. The atom-tugging needle reads them as ones and zeros, turning them into regular binary code.

The researchers marked up the grid with instructions that cued the software where it should direct the needle to write and read data. For instance, a three-hole diagonal line marked the end of a file.

They still have a lot of work to do before our computers come equipped with an atomic hard drive.

Writing the initial data to the device took about a week, though the rewriting process takes just a few hours, Dr. Otte said.

“It’s automated, so it’s 10 times faster than previous examples,” said Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif. Still, “this is very exploratory. It’s important not to see this one-kilobyte memory result as something that can be taken directly to a product.”

Reading the stored data is much too slow to have practical applications soon. Plus, the device is stable for only a few hours at extremely low temperatures. To be competitive with today’s hard drives, the memory would have to persist for years and work in warmer temperatures, said Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a research consortium based in Durham, N.C.

When Dr. Otte’s team took the memory out of the extremely low-temperature environment in which it was built and stored, the information it held was lost. Next, his team will explore other metal surfaces as well as elements similar to, but heavier than, chlorine, to see if that improves the device’s stability.

But, maybe it will happen sooner than we think.

We truly live in a brave new world. If only we stop ourselves from messing everything up.

Who is David Duke?

August 15, 2016

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has come out of whatever rock he has been hiding under to express his support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, so naturally National Public Radio had to go speak with him about his endorsement and his run for a Senate seat from his native state Louisiana.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for U.S. Senate and tells NPR that he believes he’ll be getting the votes of Donald Trump supporters.

And he reiterated his own support for Trump, saying he’s “100 percent behind” the Republican presidential candidate’s agenda.

“As a United States senator, nobody will be more supportive of his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will,” Duke said.

Trump, while he once said he didn’t know enough about Duke to comment on him, has several times disavowed endorsements by Duke. But that hasn’t stopped some white supremacists from publicly supporting Trump’s campaign.

Duke says that Trump’s attacks on Muslims and illegal immigration have brought his own beliefs into the mainstream.

The former KKK grand wizard, who describes himself as advocating for European-Americans, filed to run for an open Senate seat in Louisiana just one day after the Republican National Convention.

Who is David Duke. anyway, and why should anyone care who he endorses or what he is doing?

As noted, David Duke was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. To be more precise, Duke was the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 to 1980. This is not as impressive as it might seem. The Ku Klux Klan hasn’t really existed since the 1930’s, at least not as a single national organization with a centralized leadership. Instead, the Ku Klux Klan has become a number of small fragmented groups with a handful of members. These rival Klans tend to hate each other, along with other racist groups, as much as they hate Blacks, Jews, the federal government and other perceived enemies. Because there is not any such thing as the Ku Klux Klan is existence any more, anyone with a few followers can start his own Klan with and declare himself Grand Wizard or Imperial Dragon or any other title he wishes. That is just what David Duke did. In 1974 founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and made himself Grand Wizard.

Duke didn’t fit the common stereotype of a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He was not a drunken red neck constantly spouting racial slurs, but an articulate, educated, and telegenic figure who preferred to dress in business suits rather than Klan robes. He tried to change the Klan’s image from a band of violent racists to something like a White civil rights organization with an emphasis on nonviolence and legality. As a result, he became popular on the talk show circuit where liberal talk show hosts, like Phil Donahue, could present him as the charismatic leader of the new, growing and dangerous Ku Klux Klan.

It was all a lie. Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was not rapidly growing in numbers and influence.The Klan remained divided and fractious and the more violent and old fashioned Klans, like Duke’s rival Bill Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan were actually more popular among racists. Duke himself was not a particularly good administrator or leader. In the late 1970’s, a reporter for the Tennesean named Jerry Thompson managed to infiltrate the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Invisible Empire and discovered that Duke’s organization was a shambles. Meetings were rare and not well attended. Duke found it difficult to gather a quorum for Thompson’s initiation ceremony. The group seemed to exist more for Duke’s publicity than anything else. By contrast, Thompson found the Invisible Empire frightening with their more violent rhetoric and carrying guns everywhere. Even so, Wilkinson’s group had few members and despite a real  danger of individual Klansmen committing violent crimes, the organization as a whole was fairly ineffective. Thompson tried to play up the Klan threat in his book, My Life in the Klan, but all his investigative journalism managed to convey was how ridiculous Duke and the Ku Klux Klan actually were.

David Duke resigned his position as Grand Wizard in 1980 under somewhat murky circumstances. He claimed that he had become disenchanted because of the associations between the Klan and violence, particularly when he had no power to stop other Klans from committing violent acts. Instead, Duke decided to form a new organization the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). There were allegations that he had used funds from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to renovate his home. Jerry Thompson reported that Duke had met with Wilkinson and agreed to sell him the membership list for his organization. This was seen as a betrayal by many of Duke’s former associates.

Since then, David Duke has been busy writing and promoting his racist and anti-Semitic views. He was convicted of tax fraud and mail fraud back in 2002. He has also run for public office and generally losing. He did manage to win election to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served from 1989-1992. He does not seem to have been a very effective legislator. Duke has generally run as a Republican, although he began as a Democrat and joined Ross Perot‘s Reform Party in 2000, working for Pat Buchanan.

The answer to the question, “who is David Duke?”, then, is that he is nobody of importance. David Duke is a failed politician and a failed leader of a fringe movement. There is no reason for anybody to really care what David Duke thinks on any issue. So, why does NPR think Duke’s opinions are worth reading? Maybe the editor’s note at the beginning of the article can explain.

NPR spoke with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who supports Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, because Duke represents the way in which white supremacists attach themselves to Trump’s campaign.

The logic is that because white supremacists support Donald Trump, Donald Trump must be a white supremacist. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump is hardly running on a white supremacist platform. He has said some unpleasant things about illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but I do not believe that it is racist to insist that we maintain some control over who gets into our country. This is simply guilt by association. Not even association, since I doubt that Donald Trump has ever met David Duke and may well have been telling the truth when he said he had never heard of him.

It is odd that no one seems inclined to look into the past associates of any Democrats. Barack Obama began his political career in the apartment of a left-wing terrorist and attended a church with a racist, anti-American pastor for many years. The Clintons have a number of unsavory acquaintances, not to mention their corrupt dealings with their Clinton Foundation. None of that seems to matter as much as a nobody like David Duke endorsing Donald Trump, just as the Clintons’ obvious corruption is somehow of far less importance than Donald Trump’s more idiotic public comments.

We have had a biased media for quite a long time, but I don’t think that I have ever seen them so determined to choose a winner for the next election, even if it means sacrificing what little integrity they still have and even if it means outright deception. I have never liked Donald Trump very much and I wish that someone else had been the Republican nominee, but I have to say that anyone who the liberal media hates so much must be doing something right.

 

Trump and NATO

July 25, 2016

National Review Online‘s Kevin Williamson wrote an article criticizing Donald Trump for his latest really bad idea, having the United States not necessarily follow up on its treaty commitments to our NATO allies. I might as well say that while I vastly prefer a Trump presidency over a Hilary Clinton presidency and I do not think that Trump will be the disaster in the White House that some are predicting, his tendency to shoot off his mouth, along with his apparent ignorance of the nature of international trade, cause me to have serious reservations about Trump’s fitness for the office he seeks. Unfortunately, he seems to be the lesser evil by a long shot. I might as well also state that even when Trump seems to be saying something stupid or unacceptable, it often turns out that he is making a good point after it has been stripped of its populist rhetoric. It may be that this is the case with his statements about NATO.

First,  here’s what Williamson has to say.

Trump, whose nickel-and-dime gestalt could only have come from a repeatedly failed casino operator, is a creature in search of petty advantages and small paydays. As such, he suggested yesterday that the United States might forsake its commitment to NATO — our most important military alliance — because he believes that our NATO allies are not carrying their share of the expense. Trump’s mind processes information the way a horse processes oats, and the product is exactly the same.

 

It is true that the United States spends more in both absolute and proportional terms than do other NATO members, but here the United States is the outlier. It spends a great deal more on national defense than other NATO members do, and more than non-NATO members, and pretty much every country on the face of the Earth. That has nothing to do with NATO; that has to do with political decisions made in Congress and by presidents of both parties going back to Franklin Roosevelt. It may very well be that the United States spends too much on the military — I believe that it does — but that isn’t because some other country spends too little. The myth of the free-riding Europeans, diverting domestic tax dollars from national security to welfare programs, is not supported by the evidence. They don’t have unusually small militaries; we have an unusually large and expensive one.

Since 1949, there has never been any serious doubt that the United States would fulfill its obligations to the North Atlantic alliance. That is a big part of why we had a Cold War instead of an all-out (probably nuclear) World War III in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a big part of the reason there is no longer a wall running through Berlin, and why the people who hold Bernie Sanders’s political philosophy were able to murder only 100 million innocent human beings instead of 200 million.

 

Thanks to Trump, the heads of government and defense ministers of the other NATO powers must now consider that the United States will welsh on its obligations the way Donald Trump welshes on his debts. He isn’t the president yet, of course, and he probably won’t be. But the chance isn’t zero, either. If you are, say, Lithuania, and you suspect that the United States will not actually have your back — a suspicion fortified by Trump’s man-crush on Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — what do you do? Maybe you try to get ahead of the curve and go voluntarily into the Russian orbit.

All of these are good points and Williamson is probably correct is asserting that our European allies are not really taking advantage of us when it comes to funding NATO. He is definitely right that NATO played a role in seeing that the Cold War did not become World War III and that the alliance helped us to win the Cold War. But, I think that Williamson, and maybe Trump himself, misses the larger point. Why does NATO still exist?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 in order to combat potential aggression from the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. NATO was conceived of as a alliance of mutual defense among the free nations of Western Europe and North America. In many ways, NATO has been one of the most successful multi-national alliances in history, and although the NATO allies were never called into joint military action against the Soviet Union, the alliance was surely a deterrent against any Soviet plans to extend Communism into Western Europe.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The whole reason for NATO has not existed for a quarter of a century. Why is NATO still around? Who are we defending against?

There are still threats in the world. Vladimir Putin seems to be intent on restoring as much of the Soviet empire as he can ,but Putin’s Russia is only a pale shadow of the old Soviet Union. Russia is still a strong country, but it is not the superpower that the Soviet Union was. Putin can stir up trouble in the Ukraine, but he lacks the global reach of the Soviet leaders. The leaders of the Soviet Union were inspired by a militant, millenarian ideology, Communism, that had some appeal and supporters in West and elsewhere. These days Communism is discredited everywhere except on American college campuses and Bernie Sanders rallies. Putin’s appeal to Russian nationalism is not something to inspire people in Europe and America. There is also the threat of Islamic terrorism and other threats around the world that clearly call for coordinated action by the United States and its allies, but a framework for fighting the next world war may not work so well against a more diffuse enemy.

Looking over the Wikipedia article, I find that NATO has made many changes in its command structure, etc in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it seems to me that it is an organization that is seeking a role to play, particularly since NATO has been permitting Eastern European former Soviet satellites such as Poland to join the alliance, pushing the alliance all the way up to the Russian border. This may not have been wise. The Russians must surely see this as a threat. How would we feel if Mexico and Canada joined in a political and military alliance originally created to counter the United States?

Kevin Williamson mentions Lithuania in his article. Lithuania joined NATO in 2004. Obviously, under the terms of the alliance, if Vladimir Putin sent tanks into Vilnius tomorrow, the United States would have to respond as though it were an attack on American soil. How credible is that, really? Would the United States really fight a war against Russia over Lithuania? Are American interests really served by threatening war over Lithuania? It would be unfortunate if Lithuania had to return to its previous role as a province of Russia, but is it really America’s job to keep that from happening.

I am not an isolationist. I believe that America, like it or not, has to be the world’s policeman, both for our good and the good of the whole world. These peacekeeping actions we keep finding ourselves in are expensive, but not nearly so expensive as a full scale war would be, and I have no doubt that that is exactly what we would have if we let things go. But, I think we need to be a lot smarter about how we use our influence in the world and we need to understand that we cannot get involved in every single quarrel, nor can we bring democracy to people who have known nothing but despotism for centuries. The next president, whether Trump or Clinton, should probably begin a complete reappraisal of our foreign policy to determine what serves American interests and what does not, and this reappraisal must include considering whether relics of previous decades should be kept, reformed, or abolished.

Team America

July 19, 2016

In a recent post, Scott Adams has a few words to say about how persuaders can unite or divide us. Some of what he has to say matches things I have been thinking about for some time particularly on the subject of racism in America.

To begin with, Adams divides people into three categories.

Rational People: Use data and reason to arrive at truth. (This group is mostly imaginary.)

Word-Thinkers: Use labels, word definitions, and analogies to create the illusion of rational thinking. This group is 99% of the world.

Persuaders: Use simplicity, repetition, emotion, habit, aspirations, visual communication, and other tools of persuasion to program other people and themselves. This group is about 1% of the population and effectively control the word-thinkers of the world.

And people think in terms of in-groups and out-groups.

You can easily spot word-thinkers when they talk about politics. Their go-to strategy involves identifying enemies and fitting them into whatever category matches their biases and cognitive dissonance. Look for this form:

You can easily spot word-thinkers when they talk about politics. Their go-to strategy involves identifying enemies and fitting them into whatever category matches their biases and cognitive dissonance. Look for this form:

Examples:

  • Person X is liberal, or not
  • Person X is a conservative, or not
  • Person X is an insider, or not
  • Person X is a racist, or not
  • Person X is a legal resident, or not
  • Person X is like Hitler, or not
  • Person X is a science-denier, or not
  • Person X is a sexist, or not

So, part of being a politician is defining people and issues in such a way as to make their supporters feel as though they are a team and their opponents as part of the opposing team.

For example, Trump is trying to frame the election as Americans versus outsiders. To Trump, you’re either in the American category or you’re a threat to those who are, in terms of money or violence. You will note that Trump has avoided calling Clinton liberal. That category lost its power. But Trump has defined a “crooked insider” category for Clinton and makes sure you know she’s in it.

Clinton has avoided calling Trump conservative, because the label wouldn’t fit. Even conservatives have a hard time putting Trump in that category. But if the alternative is Clinton, conservatives will hold their nose and accept him in their group.

Clinton’s strategy – which has worked well – is to put Trump in the boxes that are labelled sexist, racist, science-denying, and Hitler. That’s too many boxes for the purposes of good persuasion. Persuasion requires simplicity. So team Clinton tried to create an overarching category called “hate,” in order to assign Trump to it. They even used the “love trumps hate” slogan. Trump has tried to get out of the hate box by talking about love and doing a lot of hugging.

 

The big risk with word-thinking during an election – with all the analogies and categorizing – is that the public starts to see the world in those terms and act that way. Clinton’s message has been that America is divided by race and gender, and suddenly we see a horrifying uptick in police shootings because it fits that world view. That blood is on team Clinton’s hands (my side), in my opinion. My guess is that the genders also have a more negative view of each other than at any time in history. That’s coming from my team as well.

Obama has not been the unifying figure that many people hoped he would be. It might have been better in a Nixon going to China way if the first Black president had been a Republican, perhaps with a military background. Instead we got someone who, as a community organizer and Marxist, was inclined to see people as opposing groups.

Trump, on the other hand, is drawing us a picture of America as one team and everyone else as the competing teams. In terms of persuasion, this is a super-strong message, but only if he hammers it home at the GOP Convention.

Have you ever noticed that professional sports teams are great at overcoming racism and getting everyone to play together? That’s because the coach has persuaded the players to see the team as their dominant identity. Trump can do the same with America. Just tell us we’re on the same team, and that we’re in afriendly competition with the rest of the world. I don’t care what gender and ethnicity you are, so long as you’re with me on the American team and helping to compete against the rest of the world.

The words “Team America” would be the strongest persuasion this country has ever seen. That framing loses the xenophobia and hate, and defines us as part of a friendly competition with the world that is good for all. The only downside is that Team America is the name of a hilarious puppet movie. But I think we can get past that.

Here is the part I have been wondering about. Have you ever noticed that the people who claim to be fighting against racism, sexism, etc are the same people who insist on dividing people by race, sex, etc. They emphasize our differences and bring up past and present grievances and then seem surprised when the result is not an increase in racial harmony.

Contrary to what is preached from every corporate human relations office, diversity is not always good. Homo Sapiens is a pack animal and we instinctively prefer member of our own pack, group, tribe, etc. Emphasizing differences and then preaching diversity only gives people reasons to dislike and distrust one another. If these people really wanted to end prejudice, they would emphasize our common identity as Americans, making us feel as though we were all one tribe or team. They would draw attention to the things we all have in common as Americans and minimise the differences between race, etc. I think we would all get along a lot better if we thought of ourselves as Americans first and anything else second. But, then maybe their goal is not fighting prejudice and racism but taking advantage of them to divide and rule.

 

 

Abolish the Police

July 18, 2016

A Black Lives Matter activist named Jessica Disu has called for the police to be abolished during what was called a heated discussion on the Kelly File, as reported on Fox News.

A Black Lives Matter activist from Chicago argued during a heated Kelly File discussion that American police forces should be abolished.

“Here are the solutions. We need to abolish the police, period. Demilitarize the police, disarm the police, and we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice,” said Jessica Disu, drawing some shocked reactions.

The conversation started with Megyn Kelly asking the panel – which included Black Rights Matter supporters, law enforcement officers, conservative commentators and religious leaders – about some who praised the Dallas gunman.

Disu, who described herself as a community organizer, said that Black Lives Matter has never called for violence against anyone.

She did not comment when Kelly pointed out that some protesters have called for “dead cops.”

Megyn Kelly asked her how citizens would be protected if police forces were “abolished.”

“We need to come up with community solutions. The police force in this country began as slave patrol,” Disu argued.

The suggestion is not actually as crazy as it sounds. We believe that having a professional, uniformed, quasi-military style police force is essential for maintaining order in our communities, but in fact, the idea of a body of police officers with the duty of capturing criminals and investigating crimes is a surprisingly recent one, dating back only to the early to middle nineteenth century. Before that time there were no policemen, as we know them. Of course, there have been officials charged with maintaining law and order for as long as human beings have had governments, various forms of county sheriffs. town constables, city watchmen, etc. For the most part, these officials have had the duty of enforcing court orders, serving warrants, responding to citizen’s complaints, and keeping order. Pursuing criminals wasn’t their main function. In most cases, in the ancient and medieval eras, it was up to the victim of a crime and his family to resolve crimes committed against them and to bring the criminal to the attention of the magistrates. Often, there were no public prosecutors, as we know them, and it was up to the victim to bring charges against the criminal in court. If the identity of the criminal were not known, the victims could hire a thief-taker, something like a modern private investigator, to track down and capture the criminal.

This system probably worked well enough in a Medieval setting of a rural country with small villages where everyone knew each other. Social pressure would have prevented most people from committing crimes and it wasn’t too difficult to discover who was responsible for a theft or murder, etc. It perhaps worked less well in the larger cities of pre-industrial Europe, but conditions were probably manageable, at least for the elite. With the industrial revolution, cities such as London or Paris began to grow in population to an extent unprecedented in European history. There were large numbers of people moving to the cities in search of jobs and as a result crime increased to unprecedented levels. It was becoming obvious that something better was needed.

Robert Peel is often credited with establishing the first metropolitan police force in London in, although the gendarmes established by Napoleon in France anticipated his reforms in some respects. Robert Peel was a Conservative politician who would go on to become Prime Minister in 1834-1835 and 1841-1846, when he would prove himself to be something of a reformer. In 1829, Peel was serving as Home Secretary and had become greatly concerned over the rise in crime in London and other British cities. Acting on the recommendations of the committee he had created to resolve the problem, Peel got Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Police Act which created the first, tu, metropolitan police in history.

Strange as it may seem, the idea of having uniformed police patrolling the streets of London was fairly controversial when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed. For many Londoners, the idea of a semi-military force keeping order seemed more fitting for the despotic regimes of the Continent than for a free country like England. The freedom loving Englishmen, along with their former colonists in America had a particular horror of a large standing army as an instrument of tyranny. Kings used such forces to impose their will on the people. For this reason, Peel was anxious to emphasize that the new police force was not a military organization, but was a politically neutral body accountable to the public it served. The police wore blue uniforms, in contrast to red worn by British soldiers (redcoats) and carried no weapon except a club and a rattle, later replaced by a whistle, to call for assistance and he used no military ranks, except for sergeant. Above all, Peel saw his new police force as part of the public, not as something separate. “The police are the public and the public are the police”, he often said.

The London Metropolitan Police proved to be effective at controlling crime and police forces based on Peel’s principles were soon organized in other cities in Britain and the United States. Professional police forces like Peel’s have become the norm all over the world to the point where it is simply inconceivable for a modern society to be run without them, yet I wonder what Robert Peel would make of what we have made of his creation. I think he would be alarmed at the extent in which his critics have been proven right.

Remember that the most important principle on which Peel organized the London police around was the idea that the police were not soldiers occupying the city of London but were a professional, civilian organization dedicated to serving the public. Somehow, over the last century that principle has been eroded. All too often, the police today are organized on explicitly military lines with military-style ranks, uniforms and training. We have heavily armed police officers in armored personnel carriers and Special Weapons and Tactics units being increasingly used to perform the normal duties of police work. Inevitably, people who are trained almost as soldiers begin to act like members of an occupying army instead of public servants, particularly in areas where the ethnicity of the police differs from that of the community. They become warrior cops instead of public guardians.

An excellent question

An excellent question

I do not favor abolishing the police. We cannot go back to the simpler times in which a society could get by with informal law enforcement. Yet, maybe it is time to have sort sort of public discussion what sort of law enforcement serves us best in the twenty-first century. We may want to move away from the warrior cop model in which the police become almost as dangerous to civilians as the criminals towards a police force more integrated with the communities they serve. Demilitarizing the police seems to be a good first step. we certainly want to stop this tendency to see the police and the civilians as somehow being opposing sides. Both the police and the public, at least theoretically, want the same things; safe places to live.

For this reason, movements like Black Lives Matter and community organizers like Jessica Disu are doing more harm than good. By all means, police officers who break the law should be punished, and the police do not do their side any favors when they refuse to assist in the prosecuting wrongdoers in their ranks, but it is reckless and irresponsible to paint all police officers as racists bent on killing black men for no reason. This antagonism can only make needed reforms more difficult to enact, particularly when abuses which should concern everyone; Black and White, police and civilian become a matter of Black versus White and police against the civilians. We all have to learn to stand together or we will fall divided.

Dilbert and Gun Control

July 15, 2016

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, took some time away from praising Donald Trump’s abilities at persuasion to explain why “commonsense gun control” isn’t getting anywhere in America.

On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist. At least I couldn’t find any that looked credible.

But we do know that race and poverty are correlated. And we know that poverty and crime are correlated. And we know that race and political affiliation are correlated. Therefore, my team (Clinton) is more likely to use guns to shoot innocent people, whereas the other team (Trump) is more likely to use guns for sporting and defense.

That’s a gross generalization. Obviously. Your town might be totally different.

So it seems to me that gun control can’t be solved because Democrats are using guns to kill each other – and want it to stop – whereas Republicans are using guns to defend against Democrats. Psychologically, those are different risk profiles. And you can’t reconcile those interests, except on the margins. For example, both sides might agree that rocket launchers are a step too far. But Democrats are unlikely to talk Republicans out of gun ownership because it comes off as “Put down your gun so I can shoot you.”

Scott Adams is being humorous but his observations are essentially correct. Gun control has become yet another one of those intractable culture war issues. People’s opinions on this matter are a reflection of their own values and experiences and since different people have different values, this is not an issue that it is easy, or even possible, to come to any sort of national consensus on policy.

The people who support stricter gun control laws tend to live in urban areas. For them, guns are weapons wielded by the bad guys to commit violent crimes. They probably do not own any guns and have only seen guns used in the movies and on television. Gun use is not a part of their lives and guns are strange and alien to them. For some of the better educated, guns may symbolize the violence which they believe that they believe that they have evolved beyond, forgetting perhaps that they are protected from violence by armed policemen and soldiers and maybe even private security. Guns are “icky” for them and we would all be better off if they would all go away.

The people who oppose stricter gun control laws often live in rural areas and small towns. For them, guns are essential tools for self defense and recreation. In place where response time to emergencies may be many minutes or even hours, it seems foolish not be able to take care of yourself. They may have grown up around guns or may have a military or law enforcement background so guns are familiar to them. For many, guns may symbolize freedom and self-reliance and they reinforce their self image as rugged individuals descended from frontiersmen. They may have an instinctive feel for the medieval concept that a free man is an armed man so when someone says, “we must control guns to prevent crimes”, they hear, “we must take away your guns to take away your freedom”.

When two sides are talking past one another, speaking practically different languages, it is almost impossible to come to any solution that satisfies both sides. As Scott Adams puts it.

Let’s all take a deep breath and shake off the mental discomfort I just induced in half of my readers. You can quibble with my unsupported assumptions about gun use, but keep in mind that my point is about psychology and about big group averages. If Republicans think they need guns to protect against Democrats, that’s their reality. And if Democrats believe guns make the world more dangerous for themselves, that is their reality. And they can both be right. Your risk profile is different from mine.

So let’s stop acting as if there is something like “common sense” gun control to be had if we all act reasonably. That’s not an option in this case because we all have different risk profiles when it comes to guns. My gun probably makes me safer, but perhaps yours makes you less safe. You can’t reconcile those interests.

Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it. There is no compromise to be had in this situation unless you brainwash one side or the other to see their self-interest differently. And I don’t see anyone with persuasion skills trying to do that on either side.

If we had a real government – the kind that works – we would acknowledge that gun violence is not one big problem with one big solution. It is millions of people with different risk profiles voting their self-interest as they see it.

In fact, it is very difficult to come to a consensus on almost any really divisive issue in a diverse country that spans a continent and has a population of more than three hundred million. All of those culture war issues; abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc might be more easily resolved if the people in each state or region were permitted to find their own solutions to these controversial issues. If California were permitted to enact strict gun control laws and Utah could ban abortion, while Massachusetts encouraged gay marriage and Tennessee forbade it than the residents of California, Utah, Massachusetts, and Tennessee might be happy with the outcomes, even if the people of other states might not. At least if such decisions were made democratically on the state and local level, people would feel that they had some say in whatever compromises were adopted. As it is, with the left insisting that every problem must have a national, one size fits all solution, enacted by the court if the legislature is not cooperative, people feel as if policies are imposed on them by a distant and unresponsive federal government.

If we had a government that works, it would leave people alone to live their lives as they see fit. It would allow us to cling to our guns and our religion.

Basidium

July 8, 2016

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People

Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men

Great Ta and his wise men

The Election of 1852

July 8, 2016

The election of 1852 was the calm before the storm. The issue of slavery, which had been inflamed over the issue of extending slavery to the territories won from Mexico, had been temporarily calmed by the Compromise of 1850. This compromise, like any good compromise had failed to satisfy either side and would eventually contribute to the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War. At the time, however, it seemed reasonable enough and probably did delay the Secession Crisis and the War by a decade.

The slavery issue was still out there, however, and since both the Democratic and the Whig parties required a broad, national coalition of North and South to win, neither major party was willing to nominate a candidate who had expressed a strong view on the slavery, or any other sectional, issue. This meant that both parties turned to candidates who had not played much of a role in national politics or had shown strong leadership in the civil government. Neither party was willing to take any real stand on the issues of the day and the Whig and Democratic party platforms were virtually identical. The election of 1852 was to be fought over personalities rather than issues.

The Democratic national convention met first, from June 1-5, at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts in Baltimore, Maryland. The party was bitterly divided between the supporters of the four major candidates, Lewis Cass of Michigan who had been the nominee in 1848, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania who would be the nominee in 1856, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and William L. Marcy of New York. Aside from these, there were various dark horse and favorite son candidates put in the ballots. None of the major candidates were able to obtain a majority of the delegates’ votes and none of them had a consistent lead or momentum over the others. On the thirty-fifth ballot, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was on the ballot. Pierce slowly gained votes as the balloting continued and by the forty-ninth ballot he was nominated.

Franklin Pierce had been a relatively obscure New Hampshire politician who had served as a Congressman from 1833 to 1837 and as a Senator from 1837 to 1842. He had fought in the Mexican War in command of volunteers from New England and had risen to the rank of Brigadier General. Pierce was personally opposed to slavery but considered the abolitionist the greatest threat to the Union. As a northern with sympathy for the south, Pierce seemed to be a perfect candidate. The Democrats went on to nominate Alabama Senator William R. King as Pierce;s running mate. King was a Unionist who opposed both the abolitionists and the more radical pro-slavery “fire eaters“. As it turned out, King was already very ill with tuberculosis and would die soon after becoming Vice-President.

The Whig Party’s convention also met at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore from June 17-20. Like the Democrats, the Whigs were divided. President Zachary Taylor had died after little more than a year in office to be succeeded by his Vice-president Millard Fillmore. Fillmore wanted to be nominated for another term but he was unpopular among some Whigs for his support of the Compromise of 1850 and many Whigs believed that he could not be elected for a term in his own right. They preferred to use the Whig standby of nominating a war hero, in this case, General Winfield Scott.

Winfield Scott was one of the most remarkable Americans of the nineteenth century and it is a pity that he is no longer so well known. Scott was a war hero who commanded forces in the War of 1812, the Blackhawk War, the Mexican-American War, and the Second Seminole War. He served as Commanding General of the United States Army from 1841-1861, longer than any other man who has served in that post and he holds the record as longest-serving active duty general in the US Army.  In his long tenure as Commanding General, Scott essentially created the army that was to fight in the Mexican War and the Civil War and he wrote the book on the tactics and drill used by the Army from 1840-1855. Scott was not only a brilliant general, but also a compassionate leader who because of his care for the men under his command and his adherence to military drill and discipline was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers. At 75, Winfield Scott was too old and ill to lead troops in the Civil War, nevertheless he did develop the Anaconda Plan of slowly dividing and squeezing the South into submission. This plan was ultimately used by the North, but at the beginning of the war it ran against the popular sentiment of “on to Richmond and end the war by Christmas” that prevailed in the North. Although Scott was proved right in his assessment that an quick and easy victory was impossible, he felt obliged to retire after the disastrous Battle of Bull Run, though Lincoln still consulted him throughout the war.Getting back to 1852, the Whigs nominated Winfield Scott for president after fifty-three ballots and selected former North Carolina Governor and Senator William Alexander Graham.

There were a number of third parties, most notably the Free Soil Party which nominated New Hampshire Senator John P Hale for President and Indiana Congressman George Washington Julian for Vice-President.

There is not much to be said about the general election. Despite Scott’s skills as a military leader, he was no politician and Old Fuss and Feathers somehow didn’t seem as appealing as Zachary Taylor’s  Old Rough and Ready. Scott seemed to be rather too military to be the civilian Commander-in-Chief. The Democrats warned of a “Reign of Epaulets”, contrasting the uniformed, rank conscious, professional Scott with the humble citizen-soldier Franklin Pierce who, like Cincinnatus, left to fight for his country and then returned to civilian life. Scott’s anti-slavery views also did not help him in the South.

The Whigs, in their turn, ridiculed Franklin Pierce for his obscurity. They also made use of an incident during the Mexican War in which Pierce fell off his startled horse and wounded himself in his groin and knee. While Pierce’s enemies claimed that he had fainted through cowardice or drunkenness, the truth is that Pierce fought with courage in the Mexican-American War, insisting on leading his brigade after the accident, even though he was in terrible pain. This didn’t stop the Whigs from deriding him as the fainting general and the “hero of many a well-fought bottle”.

In the end Pierce and the Democrats won by a landslide. Pierce got 1,607, 510 (50.8%) of the popular vote to Scott’s 1,386,492 (43.9%). Winfield Scott only won four states; Vermont, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Tennessee so the electoral vote was 254 to 42. The election of 1852 was to be the last presidential election in which the Whigs participated. The devastating loss in 1852, the deaths of party leaders Henry Clay and Daniel Webster that year, and increasing sectional tensions over slavery destroyed the Whigs over the next two years.

John Hale of the Free Soil Party got 155,210 (4.9%) popular votes, less than half of their 1848 showing, and no electoral votes. The lessened tensions over slavery in 1852 had caused many of the barnburners to return to the Democratic Party, but by 1856 the Free Soil Party would merge with anti-slavery former Whigs to create the Republican Party.

The Election of 1852

The Election of 1852

As for Franklin Pierce, he turned out to be somewhat over his head as president. He would have made a decent enough leader in peaceful times but he proved incapable of dealing with rising tensions over extending slavery in the territories and his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act only made the polarization between North and South worse.

Independence Day

July 4, 2016

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

And so it has been, for the last 240 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.

Happy Independence Day.


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