Monday, March 31, 2014

Deprofessionalize college sports

I'm not a sports fan, so I don't feel I have a right to weigh in on sports-related issues. However, as Matt Bruenig's recent piece in Salon points out about college football, college sports aren't just about sport:
In total then, we have a system in which institutions of higher learning are working young men for 50 hours a week, in ways that scramble their brains, while shuffling them through a pretend education they aren’t prepared for, making millions of dollars for themselves and others by doing so, and then dumping almost all of them out into the world four years later, used up and still, one presumes, largely uneducated.
Bruenig brings up an idea he credits to Ralph Nader: de-professionalizing college sports by eliminating athletic scholarships.

I can get behind this idea. Sports as big business exert a distorting effect on colleges and universities. Time to kill this golden goose and make higher education once more about education.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A refresher on the Hobby Lobby case

I'm quite late on this, but seeing as the argument in the consolidated Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases took place at the Supreme Court today, it seemed timely to bring up my prior thoughts on the matter.

Oral arguments seemed to center around whether the contraceptives objected to by the companies induced abortions. The scientific consensus is that the contraceptives do no such thing: they prevent fertilization in the first place. However, according to the New York Times' account, "Mr. Verrilli [the Solicitor General] said he did not question the sincerity of the companies’ beliefs". That, of course, is beside the point: sincerity is not the issue, fact is. Sincerely believing the Sun revolves around the Earth doesn't make it so. As such, the companies are wrong and their objections are without merit. This case should never have made it onto the Supreme Court's docket.

The tremendously disheartening thing is, the conservatives on the Court, including the putative "swing vote", Anthony Kennedy, seem inclined to agree with the companies' argument.

I shake my head in disgust, because the Court would be totally wrong to uphold the companies' position. The only conceivable basis for granting the companies a victory is an indefensible deference to religious sensibilities (and, as I argued before, holding that a corporation has religious sensibilities is beyond absurd). It would violate the First Amendment rights of affected employees. The principle of granting religious sensibilities extreme deference would make it impossible to legislate: nearly any law could be challenged by a company as an infringement on its owners' beliefs, and what would be the basis for contesting the challenge?

The observed attitude during oral arguments is ominous, suggesting the Court is going to make a pernicious and deeply wrongheaded decision in these cases. I hope I'm wrong, but if not, a pox on the majority.

Creationists getting their airtime after all

Recently I noted the creationist-fueled protestations against Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos. The line creationists have taken is that their views aren't being aired in Tyson's presentation of how life emerged on Earth.

A guest entry on ThinkProgress from Betsy Phillips argues exactly the opposite. Phillips' piece is cheekily entitled, "Creationism Is Not Being Ignored On 'Cosmos' — It's Actually The Focus". Having seen the second episode (not yet the third), I'd say she's right on the money. As she remarks, "Tyson is taking creationists’ claims deadly seriously, and showing all the ways they’re wrong" (emphasis mine).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A new holiday?

Ozzie Smith wants to make Major League Baseball's Opening Day a holiday.

Football dominates American sports but baseball is still the national pastime. Even I, the biggest sports non-fan alive, have a soft spot for the game.

But come on. This is on par with calling for Halloween or Valentine's Day to be an official holiday.

We do need another holiday, but not Opening Day. Instead, all of us, including the 100,000 or so who signed Smith's petition, ought to be kicking our Congresscritters' dragging hindquarters to make Election Day a national holiday. It's a disgrace we don't have it already.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A thought about high-performing schools

A story on a local newscast about a new private school opening next year included a boast that in other schools around the country owned by the same company, the students rank in the top 1% of students worldwide.

Sounds impressive, but I'd like to know if all of the company's schools are private and therefore selective. If so, the students' success doesn't reflect on the company. Those students would have been successful anyway. The best that can be said is that the company doesn't get in the way.

Anybody who wants me to believe he can make educational miracles happen will have to make them happen in public schools, where he won't be allowed to teach only the best and the brightest.

Science deniers right on schedule

I haven't been glued to Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot (sequel? continuation?) of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Based on the premiere, I judge it a good program but lacking in things I didn't already know. Even so, I hope it sticks around a while.

Unsurprisingly, being a science program and not one of the hundreds of opposed-viewpoints-yelling-at-each-other shows that masquerade as informative TV, Cosmos has garnered criticism from religious fundamentalists in soiled lab coats. Mother Jones' piece on them is entitled "Science Deniers Are Freaking Out About 'Cosmos'" and it puts the objectors into two categories: evolution deniers and climate science deniers. (The article lists three categories, but the Big Bang deniers all seem to be creationists.)

As with Cosmos itself, the MJ article doesn't say anything I didn't already know. Intelligent design, aka creationism, is still unscientific bullshit, not to put too fine a point on it. If you don't already know why, see my 19 October 2010 piece on the subject; I'm tired of repeating myself. As for climate science, the overwhelming majority of actual climate scientists accept that the preponderance of evidence points to human activity having had (and continuing to have) a significant effect on the earth's climate. Climate science deniers generally think climate change is a conspiracy to take away the right to burn fossil fuels, so the deniers are either industry shills or those frightened by change.

Evolution and climate change (not to mention the Big Bang) are the shorthand names for our best explanations of certain aspects of reality. The explanations — aka theories — aren't perfect and no one claims they are; like all scientific theories, they're subject to revision based on better data and/or cleverer interpretations. Deniers, though, can't even offer competitive alternatives, much less better ones. I pity deniers. But their ideas are drivel and it would be irresponsible to pretend they're worth serious consideration.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fred Phelps is "on the edge of death"

At least, that's what his estranged son Nathan says.

If you don't know who Fred Phelps is, he was the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and a notoriously bilious gay-hater ("homophobe" just doesn't do him justice) who used to lead his congregation in gay-hating protests at funerals with signs reading, among other things, "God Hates Fags". Phelps is pretty much the poster boy for religious bigotry and extremism.

His passing, whenever it happens, will not end his congregation's despicable work, inasmuch as he managed to accumulate a coterie of true believers whose hate is undiminished. Oddly, though, Phelps himself seems to have been excommunicated from his own church not long ago; it's not clear why.

I'd make a lousy Christian because I find it difficult to forgive those who commit what I see as terrible sins. I wasn't kind to Harold Camping for his idiocies and I think Phelps is much, much worse, he being not a fool but a hatemonger.

It's hard not to be glad he's on his way out and it'll be harder not to cheer when he's finally gone. Still, we shouldn't. Not because it's unChristian (I wouldn't know about that) but because the harm he did will live on through the equally hateful family members who comprise his flock. (Some family members, such as Nathan, have left the church.) However, the world will be a better place without him.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The most important thing right now

The most important thing right now isn't the crisis in Ukraine, or the less alarming but still heated culture wars raging seemingly everywhere.

The most important thing for humanity right now is to figure out how to power civilization without killing ourselves.

"How to Talk about Climate Change", by Stephanie Bernhard, is a 3-part series of essays in Full Stop; I've only read part 1. Bernhard usefully points out that scientists aren't always adept communicators and that professional writers have an important role to play in the ongoing battle over whether to do anything about climate change. (I find it deeply discouraging that we still have to have that discussion, but we are where we are.) She also breaks down the pros and cons of the blame game, a game which in my opinion is a regrettable sideshow except to the extent that we must understand that our industrial civilization is a major contributor to our problem.

And that brings me to the only reason I mention her piece, which doesn't say anything new (to me). Bernhard offhandedly notes that one major obstacle to getting the general public engaged with climate change is that there's still not much of a solution available to us. What we're asked to do is less of what we do, yet what we do (in terms of consuming fossil fuels) is essential to modern life. We can't — or rather, we won't — go back to a 16th- or 17th-century standard of living.

So my point is this: those of you working on a renewable and non-polluting replacement for oil are doing the most important work on Earth right now.

Why oil, rather than coal? Because coal is primarily used in buildings — factories and power plants — that can be fitted (at some expense, admittedly) with scrubbers and other existing technologies to reduce its impact. Also, coal-fired power plants can be replaced by other, less- or non-polluting power sources like natural gas or wind. Some combination of these mitigating steps can address many of the problems coal presents.

Oil, though, is a different matter. Oil fuels our vehicles, from scooters to supertankers, and to date we have found nothing that matches oil's concentrated power. Battery-powered cars are all well and good, but battery technology creates its own set of environmental challenges in manufacturing and disposal (much like nuclear power). Also, nobody claims to be close to developing an electric jumbo jet or cargo ship.

No, in the long run — indeed, for there to be a long run for humanity — we need a renewable, non-polluting replacement for oil. It probably won't combust in the way fossil fuels do: I don't see how traditional combustion of anything can be continued on a mass scale if we're to reduce our contribution to climate change. However, the replacement will pack the concentrated power of oil so that we can continue to support our global trading and travel patterns, patterns that are indispensable to civilization.

(My guess is, we're going to have to expend huge amounts of energy to mitigate climate change's effects on our cities anyway, so we'd better get good at generating lots of it.)

The transition to a non-fossil fuel-based infrastructure will be expensive and complex. Well, guess what? Our standard of living is neither cheap nor simple. If we want to preserve it, we're going to have to bite the bullet.

Those of you working on this problem, keep at it. Demand as much support as you need. We need you to succeed.

Without a clean, renewable way to power our vehicles (and everything else), we can kiss our civilization — and perhaps ourselves — goodbye.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Putting the Russian invasion into context

I wasn't going to belabor the points I made in "Russia moves into Ukraine" and "GOPers, shut up about Ukraine", but aside from John McCain's belated admission that U.S. military intervention would be a bad idea, Republicans still seem obsessed with taking advantage of the situation to (fail to) score political points. Lindsey Graham, for instance, is still ringing the George W. Bush Bell of Machismo, tweeting, "Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt - everything Obama has been engaged in - he's a weak indecisive leader". Another tweet defies any semblance of logic: "It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression". Ted Cruz has a serious challenger for the post of "Senate's resident intestinal blockage".

In the admittedly faint hope of countering Republican stupidity, let me point you at an insightful essay in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart, "No, American Weakness Didn't Encourage Putin to Invade Ukraine". It provides historical perspective that is badly needed in order to understand Putin (and Russian leadership in general) as more than a simple power-hungry thug.

You really, really, really should read the whole thing. It's not that long. But if you need the thesis, here it is in Beinart's own words:

Geopolitically and ideologically, the West’s frontier has moved further east than almost anyone could have imagined a couple of decades ago. The bad news is that it has left the countries just beyond that frontier, the ones most eager to be connected to the West, terribly vulnerable. During the Cold War, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia shared that tragic fate. Today, Georgia and Ukraine do.
Republicans treat the invasion of Ukraine as if it were a point scored in a debate against the U.S. by Russia. Their attitude not only trivializes a very serious incident, but betrays a fundamental small-mindedness about foreign policy. Beinart reminds us that where we are today represents a huge victory for the West. Even if Ukraine is drawn back tightly into Russia's orbit, the U.S. and its Cold War allies will still be very much on the "profit" side of the geopolitical ledger, if you must view things from that standpoint. Republicans shooting off their mouths about "Obama's weakness" having led to the invasion willfully ignore history. They're not just petty, but stupid.

This isn't to excuse Russia. It wasn't entitled to hold the independent states that it swallowed into the Soviet Union, or the independent states it coerced into the Warsaw Pact. Russia under Stalin and his successors created the unfriendly attitude on the part of the non-Russian populations, causing them to race into Western Europe's (and America's) arms as soon as the Russians couldn't afford to intimidate them any more. The invasion of Ukraine was immoral and unjustifiable, and I hope the Ukrainians are able to achieve their formal independence from Russia. Even better, I hope the Russians can someday get over their wounded pride, their paranoia, their chauvinism and their dreams of domination so that they won't commit acts of aggression like this any more.

We mustn't lose ourselves in the delusion that Russia's invasion of the Crimea is all about us. This misses not just Russia's and Ukraine's messy entangled history, but Russia's current strategic concerns. So Republicans, stop trying to score cheap debating points. Grow up and help the administration to address the problem.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

GOPers, shut up about Ukraine

Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio have all shot off their mouths about the Ukraine situation.

Graham: "Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. President Obama needs to do something."

Yeah, because Russia would never have invaded a nation on its border whose leader was just deposed and which was on the verge of establishing closer ties to Europe (and which, in the past, has made noises about wanting to join NATO) if Obama hadn't made a weak-tea threat against Putin.

McCain:

Putin has made it clear many times he wants to restore the role of Russia, that means the near abroad ... and Ukraine is the crown jewel of that. So when Putin sees the President of the United States say, "We're going to act if they cross a red line" and we don't, and when he sees the President of the United States saying, "Tell Vladimir that when I'm reelected I'm going to be more flexible", when we are pushing the "reset" button, I think that Vladimir Putin, being the old KGB apparatchik that he is, does not have a belief that the penalty for this behavior will be very severe.
Earlier in this interview McCain also mentioned Putin taking advantage of what McCain called "the decline of the United States", demonstrated by, among other things, American reaction to Russian aggression against Georgia. What McCain left out is that the Georgian crisis occurred in 2008 on George W. Bush's watch.

In any case, McCain, like Graham, is hopelessly hung up on so-called perceptions of American weakness and how those perceptions govern world affairs. This perception of American decline, and the panic that arises from it, makes us a more dangerous nation as it encourages our elected leaders to see menace in every shadow. Ironically, it's also exactly the sort of wounded pride that fuels Russian nationalism.

Like many hawkish conservatives, McCain can't imagine that stuff happens in the world that has no relationship to the U.S. Putin didn't care what Bush thought in 2008 and he doesn't care (except for propaganda purposes) what Obama thinks now. Putin and the Russian government perceived Georgian unrest to be problematic for Russia in 2008 and they perceive Ukrainian unrest to be problematic for Russia today.

Then there was this McCainism in Time before Russian troops entered Crimea:

In response to reports of a Russian takeover in parts of Crimea, Arizona Senator John McCain said on Friday, “We are all Ukrainians.”...
Um, no we're not, John. Nor are we all Ugandans in spite of that nation's horrible new antigay law, nor Venezualans in spite of that nation's unrest against its elected leader, nor Syrians in spite of the horrific massacres in its civil war, nor ...

Rubio: "We know that the Russians have basically violated every major treaty they’ve ever entered into. We’ve seen how they’ve basically lied. Let’s call it what it is. They are lying and this government is a government of liars, the Russian government."

And we all know Russia's the only nation that has ever lied and broken a treaty. You should read a history book or two, Senator.

What these politicians' statements have in common are bellicosity and emptyheadedness. Even considering that these statements are really mile markers for the 2014 and 2016 elections, the impression they leave is just ... sad.

GOPers, do us all a favor: just shut up. I don't think you're morons ... but you sure as hell sound like that on Ukraine.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The West misled Ukraine

Salon's Patrick Smith has a sadly plausible take on the West's role in creating the current Ukraine situation. The U.S., and to some extent the E.U., indulged a reckless and irresponsible desire to play real-life Risk, to try to corral one more nation into the "capitalist democracy" column.
Having induced a convulsion to shake a nation loose, neither seems willing now to see through the undertaking. One suspects they recognized they had taken on more than they could manage the minute they got the prize. From the present vantage point, it looks as if Ukraine was never about Ukraine for the West, but about biting Putin on his backside.
One of Smith's most damning pieces of evidence is a quotation from a New York Times piece:
Turned off by what he saw as Mr. Bush’s crusading streak … Mr. Obama, aides said, was wary of being proactive in trying to change other societies, convinced that being too public would make the United States the issue and risk provoking a backlash. The difference, aides said, was not the goal but the methods of achieving it.
The goal didn't change. Many of us who voted for Obama in 2008 didn't think he could achieve anything like the unrealistic expectations his most starry-eyed supporters had for him, but we assumed that he at least didn't harbor the same delusion of changing the world that George W. Bush did. One didn't have to be as coldly practical as Henry Kissinger to think that the U.S.'s foreign policy badly needed a renewed emphasis on recognizing how complex the world is and how limited the U.S.'s power to change things really is. Moreover, as Iraq should have taught us in a punishingly blunt way, reckless change can bring disastrous consequences.

If Smith is right — and as I said, his take is uncomfortably persuasive — Barack Obama's exceedingly mixed foreign policy record isn't the result of naivete, as some of his detractors claim. To the contrary, his record is the result of the same inexplicable desire to make an idealized world as his predecessor. Indeed, to some degree Obama shares the same zeal for evangelizing democracy as virtually all of his predecessors going back to Woodrow Wilson.

I think that if people are free to choose how they govern themselves, that's a good thing. As such, democracy in the abstract is a good thing. However, democracy as enjoyed by many Western nations requires a citizenry that knows what to do with it and how to hold onto it. The people of a country have to be ready for it. As disingenuous as China's claims of a "Chinese form" of democracy are (the Chinese Communist Party obviously has a vested interest in creating the appearance of democratic rule without actually making itself vulnerable to genuine political challenges), it's true that cultures have to find their own way to self-governance.

Yet if Smith is right, President Obama is as ignorant of — or more likely, as impatient with — that indisputable truth as most of his predecessors going back a full century.

If you're cynical you can chalk up all our presidents' zeal for nation-building (of other people's nations) to the overweening influence of big business. Major corporations have a long track record of insinuating themselves into newborn nations and it's easy to see why they'd like the U.S. Army to make the job easier. Pressure from big business seems more plausible as a driver of (dumb) U.S. foreign policy than a president's own supremely naive zeal for democracy.

Smith convincingly makes out the Ukrainians as the latest victims of Western duplicity — a desire for ideological victory without a realistic road map, and at heart without the will, to make it happen.

Russia moves into Ukraine

Per the New York Times:
As Russian armed forces effectively seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on Saturday, the Russian Parliament granted President Vladimir V. Putin the authority he sought to use military force in response to the deepening instability in Ukraine.
Raise your hand if you're surprised.

Russia has an important military base on the Black Sea in Crimea. Much of the population in eastern Ukraine is pro-Russian (though hardly all; Ukrainian and Russian sympathizers are much more intermingled throughout the country than popular accounts have suggested). Russia historically has regarded Ukraine and other bordering republics as vital to its security. Ardent Russian nationalists, like nationalists everywhere, want their country to flex its muscles on the world stage, and such nationalists are a vital domestic constituency for Putin. No doubt there are Russian military and political leaders who worry about the kind of unrest in Ukraine (and Chechnya, and Georgia, and ...) spreading to Russia if left unchecked; Putin himself is probably one of them.

Those are the pros I can think of off the top of my head. The cons? Well, let's see ... the afterglow from the Olympics wouldn't have lasted forever anyway; the NATO countries, individually and through the alliance itself, have absolutely no appetite for war and everybody knows it; Russia's seat on the U.N. Security Council ensures that no larger international response will be forthcoming; the only other great power, China, probably sympathizes with Russia, having done exactly this sort of thing in the past (Tibet, anyone?); and as the Times article points out, nobody has significant economic or political leverage over Russia anyway. Hell, Europe gets much of its natural gas from Russia.

Lots of pros, no cons. Russia's intervention was a foregone conclusion.

From a moral standpoint it's a wash, inasmuch as the U.S. — the only country that regularly gets its knickers in a knot about morality in international relations — has no leg to stand on here. Ukraine is well within what everyone knows is Russia's sphere of influence, whether we like it or not. The U.S., having for better or worse repeatedly invoked James Monroe's doctrine to keep other countries from intervening militarily in the U.S.'s so-called back yard, is rhetorically toothless to object to other "great powers" acting in their own best interests in their neighborhood.

Indeed, it boggled my mind that President Obama warned Russia that "there will be costs" to Russian military intervention in Ukraine. It's obvious the U.S. isn't just rhetorically toothless on this score, but militarily and politically, too. What on earth moved the president to speak out like that? Did he learn nothing from the fraught brinksmanship he engaged in on Syria (where Putin, be it remembered, humiliated him)? An anodyne request not to intervene would have sufficed for domestic consumption: nobody but the most arrogant and unreconstructed neocons would have demanded more. (Well, opportunistic Congressional Republicans have demanded more, but a wise leader doesn't heed self-interested blowhards.)

What will happen to Ukraine? I'm no expert, but if I had to guess I'd say partition is the best for which Ukrainian nationalists (and Europe sympathizers) can hope. I wouldn't count on even that, though. Russia wants a whole Ukraine, and it certainly doesn't want another Europe-influenced state on its border. Ukraine's economy isn't robust enough to withstand Russian pressure. If Ukrainian leaders paid any attention to the fate of Ukraine's onetime fellow Soviet state, Georgia, in 2008, they know better than to expect Western military intervention. One way or another, Russia will squash Ukraine's hopes for squirming out of the bear's grasp.