Sunday, May 28, 2006

More From The Aquarium

The Aquarium was the last dive site of the trip and, from the minute we hit the water, it was apparent the dive master saved the best dive for last. It was, literally, as if we were dumped into a giant aquarium.

Sea Life

The spotted moray eel in the middle of the photo was really
irritated that a few of us divers with cameras got too close for comfort.
That's Hubby among the schools of sargeant majors and yellow snappers
at the dive site appropriately named The Aquarium
Sightings of the Loggerhead Turtle are rare
I had to chase this Manta Ray to get this shot

Spiny lobster
Tons of groupers in the Blue Hole

One of the many sharks circling overhead in the Blue Hole.
The sharks never came closer than 20-30 feet away, which was disappointing.
What's that old joke about sharks and lawyers and professional courtesy?

Blue Tangs

Sea anemone
Leopard fish

Angel fish

Gilligan's Island

What an incredible week. Rather than pen a lengthy treatise about the many wonders of Belize, I will prepare a series of bite-size posts with highlights from the trip.

Below are photos of the Blackbird Caye Resort, where we stayed for the diving portion of the trip. The resort is accessible by local jumper plane, but we took the more commonly used 2-hour boat ride from Belize City.

The solitude and isolation of the resort are reminiscent of Gilligan's Island. Coconut trees, hermit crabs and a few other people are all that share this little slice of heaven with you. The local dive spots are mediocre, but it is a wonderful place to detach from the world.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Gone Diving...

Approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Belize City, the almost perfectly circular Blue Hole is more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) across and some 400 feet (123 meters) deep. The hole is the opening to what was a dry cave system during the Ice Age. When the ice melted and the sea level rose, the caves were flooded, creating what is now a magnet for intrepid divers. Today the Blue Hole is famed for its sponges, barracuda, corals, angelfish—and a school of sharks often seen patrolling the hole’s edge.

Hubby and I are headed to Belize for four days of SCUBA on the barrier reef and three days of hiking in the rainforest. I bought a marine casing for my digital camera, so I hope to return with quality pictures of sharks in the Blue Hole.

There is no internet access at the the resort, so have a great week!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Fundamental Contradiction

Capitalism v. Patriotism

An intelligent discussion cannot proceed without clear definitions of the material terms so, for purposes of this post, the following definitions apply:

Patriotism - Love of and devotion to one's country.

Capitalism - An economic system based on a free market, open competition, profit motive and private ownership of the means of production.

Free market - A market in which price is determined by the unregulated interchange of supply and demand rather than by artificial means.

The world is in transition. Technology makes the world smaller, connecting us to people we would not otherwise encounter in our communities (the blogosphere is a wonderful example of this) and these changes are occurring at warp speed. Anyone who has read Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat has had his eyes opened to the globalized "flat" world and its implications for America and Americans.

Change is inevitable. Evolve or die.

But it is not the nature of human beings to accept change peacefully. They are stubborn, scared and cling to safety blankets with the fervor of a dying man. What's more is that it makes no difference whether the safety blankets are a bundle of contradictions - the human clings to them nonetheless and, as a result, lives with the resulting mental calamity of hypocrisy.

The torture of contradictions cannot be sustained without mass mental suicide and this is why Bush is dropping in the polls. This is why Republicans are deserting him left, right and center. The torture of unresolved contradictions has taken its toll.

You see, patriotism and capitalism -- the pillars of the Republican party -- are inherently incompatible. One must give way for the other to flourish. The Chimp-in-chief's tortured attempts to wed the two have resulted in great disaffection over a myriad of his stances, including illegal immigration and China.

On the one hand, patriotism, which Bush wields like a sword, demands complete devotion to America ("you're with us or with the terrists"); complete devotion to whatever he says America is. As a patriot, I should favor America, Americans; I should pay taxes to the republic to protect me from whatever I am told to fear; I should employ Americans over non-Americans, regardless of the wage differential; I should buy products made by Americans; I should make whatever sacrifices are needed to make sure my country reigns supreme in the world; I should care about morality and the morality of my neighbor.

Fair enough. All nations demand this of their citizens.

On the other hand, however, being a good American also means my unflinching belief in the American version of the free market; I should applaud capitalists and capitalism; I should respect the importance of earning a profit; I should believe that anything to earn a profit is okay and that anything that cuts into profits is bad; I should accept that corporations are amoral and that they do not and should not care about the citizens of any nation; I should accept that it is horrific and communist to expect corporations to pay taxes.

Can I love my nation and the free market at the same time?

More and more Republicans are saying NO. Illegal immigration is bad because illegals take jobs from Americans and endanger our national security (patriotism), but a "guest worker" program is necessary in order to keep grapes and strawberries cheap (capitalism). Cuba is bad because it is communist (and we patriotic Americans hate communism), but China is our friend because its population is over 1.2 billion and that's a lot of Cokes and Nikes our corporations can sell (capitalism). Americans are wonderful, kind people who deserve a dignified standard of living (patriotism), but f! them if they won't work in a factory for $.50 per hour, the corporations can find workers in China, Taiwan, Turkey, Burma, Vietnam, Mexico, Guatemala who will(capitalism). American workers should be willing to give up health benefits, wages and pensions in order to help businesses survive (patriotism), but under no circumstances should any CEO relinquish a $600 million retirement package that he "earned" (capitalism). China's currency policy is bad if it hurts America (patriotism), but the Federal Reserve's manipulation of the interest rates and currency is a-okay (faux capitalism). dependence on foreign oil is bad (patriotism), but the Bush family's close ties with the Saudi royal family and other oil-controlling dictators is forgivable (capitalism); Arabs are bad and we should fear them (faux patriotism), but Bush believes America should allow an Arab country to manage operations at our ports (capitalism). America's borders should be walled, manned and armed (patriotism), but a free-moving labor force is a necessary ingredient of a free market (capitalism).

I could go on forever with this, but you get the point.

At the heart of the conservative critique of Bush lies the contradiction between these two opposing forces. It is not possible to credibly argue that humans should be moral while you applaud the amorality and immorality of corporations. It makes no sense to demand utter devotion to America from the citizenry while American corporations provide jobs to the Chinese. Bush and the rest of the junta have effectively stirred the patriotic fervor of the citizenry, but the business elite is getting nervous because it is not patriotic -- it is capitalist.

Perhaps this contradiction has yet to be articulated, but each person must ask himself which of the pillars is more important. It is the answer to that question that will determine the direction in which this nation moves.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ranting About Education Again!

Back In March, we had a discussion about the mandatory nature of public schools and I asked why public schools shouldn't be voluntary. The range of thoughtful responses got me thinking about the subject, but I nonetheless return to the same point - why waste money trying to educate those who don't want to be educated?

The importance of this question is evidenced by the recent ruling from a California state judge in Alameda County, which prohibits public schools from denying students a high school diploma just because they failed the high school exit exam. In issuing the injunction, Freedman said he was swayed by the parents' argument that many impoverished and minority students — particularly those learning English as a second language — attend low-performing schools that do not prepare them adequately for the test. Of the 46,700 seniors who have failed the test, 20,600 are designated as limited English learners and 28,300 are poor.

In a nutshell, parents sued the school so their illiterate or semi-literate children can receive high school diplomas.

While there is no denying that the school has some culpability in this unfortunate situation, where were the f'ing parents along the way? By bringing this lawsuit, the parents are essentially admitting that they have not been paying attention to their children's education for the past 12 years or, if they were, they did not care. Those parents should be arrested for child neglect.

20,600 Of those who failed are limited English learners, which makes sense that if you can't speak English, you probably won't be able to pass an exam that has an English section. Others who failed are "poor". No one knows how "poor" is defined for purposes of the statistic, but the reader is supposed to intuitively understand it to mean that school is unfair to them.

I do not buy it for several reasons.

Education cannot be forced down anyone's throats. Without a fundamental curiosity and interest, no one will learn. Period. My mentee, for example, is a sweet, wonderful, kind-hearted teenager who is truly the most understimulated, uncurious child I have ever met. And I've tried everything. The aquarium; marine biology summer camp; the festival of books, Cirque du Soleil, helping me at work, playing video games, tutoring at Sylvan, board games, etc. It doesn't matter. Last year, she got a "D" in her English class because she didn't do a book report. When I asked her why, she said that the book was boring (as if that absolved her of the obligation to do the work) so she wasn't going to read it. And she was completely matter-of-fact about it. Why should she care about her grades? No one else in her family is educated and they are all doing just fine (courtesy of government aid).

In contrast, I recently coached the daughter of one of my dad's friends for a moot court competition. Moot court is a competition in which the participants argue for their fictitious clients before a mock court of appeal. To do well at it, you must be able to read legal jargon, understand judicial philosophy and have incredible public speaking skills. The high school senior volunteered to do it, in addition to her otherwise demanding AP courses, made it to the semi-finals and argued better than some lawyers I have seen in court. Her family is really religious, she lives in a gang-infested neighborhood and the parents barely speak English. If it were up to her Bangladeshi mom, she would have been married off by the time she was 16 and have babies already (thank goodness for her dad who has the opposite opinion). Did I mention she scored a 2310 on the SAT and is getting a full scholarship to the college of her choice? Or that she e-mails me to ask if I prefer Hobbes' or Locke's philosophy? According to the "standardized tests are culturally biased b.s.", she should have failed out of school by 6th grade.

If your culture does not value education, good luck. There is nothing school can do to fix that. Sharky commented in the earlier post that, in this country, being a "nerd" is an insult, while being an idiot is "cool" and exam scores will not improve until that changes; a stark contrast with Egyptian culture that focuses on "nerd" worship. If you have money, but are uneducated, you're still a loser in Egypt. It doesn't matter, which is why most Egyptians you will meet in America are doctors, engineers or a PhD in something. Years ago, my parents helped my uncle's driver immigrate to the U.S. from Egypt. This guy is quite a piece of work. In Egypt, they call his type "saeedee", which more or less translates to "country bumpkin". Dirt poor, to this day can speak barely two words of English (and his Arabic ain't that great either), worked as a construction day laborer for his first few years until he had a horrible accident in which he was disabled and he has been on welfare since. His son, who attended woefully bad LAUSD schools, just graduated with an engineering degree from CalTech. In case you didn't know, CalTech is the west coast equivalent of MIT for the level of genius required to get in there. According to the "my parents can't speak English" and "I'm poor" argument, the son should have been illiterate. But yet, he ended up at CalTech because his father wouldn't have had it any other way.

No more making excuses. If the parents aren't at home letting the children know that education is priority number one, nothing the schools do is going to make a damn bit of difference. If you come from a culture that does not value education, do not cry because the top math and science departments in the country are dominated by Asians. Did you hear about the high school in Silicon Valley that is scaring away white people because it is too academically driven? These parents should be slapped.

It is time to get a grip in this country. If kids don't want to be educated, let them get a job picking fruits and see how they like it. Instead of lowering the bar, how about changing the culture?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Book Review: Don't Think Of An Elephant

George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley, believes he knows why conservatives have been so successful in recent years and how progressives like himself can beat them at their own game.

In this book, Lakoff examines the ways conservatives in America use language to create "frames," phrases fully loaded with significance from the American collective cognitive unconscious. He shows how he believes this misappropriation of language creates the context for discussion amongst candidates, parties, and in the media, rather than the real issues. He asserts that progressives and others committed to full public discourse must learn when it is used, and how to use it themselves to level the playing field.

Admittedly simplistic, Lakoff distills the fundamental distinction between Republicans and progressives to their differing familial views of the world, the former adhering to a "strict father" model of family while the "nurturant parent" construct guides the latter's policies.

The world is a dangerous place, according to the strict father model, in which each person is a winner or a loser in the universal arena. Children are born bad and achieving a place in the winners circle requires the presence of a strong father who will discipline them as needed. Obedience from children is critical to their development of the discipline necessary to be winners and, thus, physical punishment is an appropriate means of securing that obedience. A "good" child is obedient, does what is "right" (as defined by the strict father) and grows up to be a prosperous adult, rewarded monetarily for these virtues. Anyone who has money, therefore, deserves to have money because he is good and disciplined whereas those who are poor are poor because they are undisciplined, "spoiled" children. Welfare and other social programs only inhibit the undisciplined child from learning goodness while stealing rightful earnings from the good, disciplined people. "Spare the rod, spoil the child" is the anthem of the right wing.

Contrasting this "frame" is the nurturant model, which is gender neutral. People guided by this model believe that both parents play an equal role in shaping the child, who is born good and can be made better with the caring of her parents. Empathy and responsibility are the guiding values of the nurturant parents who see their moral duty as parents to raise happy, fulfilled children. Opportunity, prosperity, freedom, communication and trust are the essential values of the progressives.

Using these models to understand voting patterns, it makes sense why poor people vote Republican against their economic interests. If a poor person accepts the strict father model, the language that comes from that "frame" will ring true. The idea of a father having to go to the UN for permission to defend his family (i.e. nation) is an outrage; the goodness of the father (Bush) who only wants to teach discipline to the undisciplined children of the world (Iraq, Iran, etc.) is a given; rich people deserve their wealth because they are good, disciplined people who "sacrificed" for their earnings; two men getting married threatens the authority of the strict father; the world is bad, inhabited by pure evil (communism, fascism, terrorists, liberals, illegals, etc.), and only the strong, strict father can protect all us children from it. "Father knows best".

With this, cliches become easy substitutes for meaningful dialogue. I Support The Troops, (although your butt is sitting on a couch supporting nothing but the Cheetos factory), means you support war, you believe your father is good and honest, you believe your siblings fighting the war are noble and that you are part of a family that is pure goodness. Anyone who disagrees is disloyal to the family and should be outcast.

When rational people respond with facts and facts and more facts, it does not matter because the frame of the strict father is firmly in place. Since progressives care about empathy and want understanding, they go into lengthy explanations of facts that rarely, if ever, change the strict father frame. Remember John Kerry in the debates? Articulate, spoke English (unlike the Chimperor), clear on facts, but it did not matter. America liked Bush because he didn't use big words - strict fathers don't use big words. America liked Bush because he spoke in pithy, stupid cliches - strict fathers do not owe us children an explanation for why they do things. "Father knows best." A person trying to convince me of something and obtain my consent for it is not "strong". Think John Wayne.

This book is a must read for anyone who cares about taking America back from Goebbels' brownshirts.


The Rockridge Institute, headed by Lakoff, has more on these and other issues.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The "Booming" Economy

Analysts say that the American economy is booming but, when you look at the hard facts, one must question for whom it is booming.

If the economy is indeed "booming", who is reaping the windfall? If economic growth is fueled by increased consumer debt, what happens to the economy in light of the lack of bankruptcy protection and the questionable future of Social Security? Are we simply delaying the inevitable?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Book Review: The True Believer

On the recommendation of the Prodigal Son, a frequent commenter on the Shark's blog, I picked up The True Believer, written in 1951 by Eric Hoffer.

In this 168-page easy read, Hoffer explores the essential characteristics of mass movements and the "true believers" who make them possible. While the analysis is shallow and simplistic at times and the anti-Christian, anti-Muslim bias of the author distracting, Hoffer makes certain observations about fanatics that are nevertheless worth a read.

Fanaticism, according to Hoffer, derives from the frustration and sense of personal failure individuals experience during periods of rapid social change; it is the refuge of those for whom the present is irremediably spoiled, relying on a mythic future for hope. From this truism springs several axioms that find great relevance here in America and elsewhere.

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. He easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life.

Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill. The substitute for self-confidence is faith; the substitute for self-esteem is pride; and the substitute for individual balance is fusion with others in a compact group. In the chemistry of the soul, a substitute is almost always explosive if for no other reason than that we can never have enough of it. We can never have enough of that which we really do not want. What we want is justified self-confidence and self-esteem. We can be satisfied with moderate confidence in ourselves and with a moderately good opinion of ourselves, but the faith we have in a holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising, and the pride we derive form an identification with a nation, race, leader, or party [religion] is extreme and overbearing.

It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal - a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.

[I]n order to be effective, a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.

Whence comes the impulse to proselytize? The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse. It is doubtful whether a movement which does not profess some preposterous and patently irrational dogma can be possessed of that zealous drive which "must either win men or destroy the world." It is also plausible that those movements with the greatest inner contradiction between profession and practice - that is to say with a strong feeling of guilt - are likely to be the most fervent in imposing their faith on others.

Hoffer opines that, among leaders of mass movements, a "failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs." If only for Bush's sake, that were true.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

More On Gold

The mass desertion of the dollar to gold we are currently witnessing reminds me of an ominously prophetic passage from the novel Atlas Shrugged -

Watch money. Money is the barometer of a society's virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion—when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing—when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors—when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you—when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice—you may know that your society is doomed.

Money is so noble a medium that is does not compete with guns and it does not make terms with brutality. It will not permit a country to survive as half-property, half-loot.

Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men's protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked, 'Account overdrawn.'

A Great Sense Of Humor

Stephen Colbert took off the white gloves at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and it was hilarious. Although I think the Chimperor is a thieving scumbag, hats off to him for his sense of humor. Colbert even saved some for his "paisan" Scalia.

Watching stuff like this reminds me of how good we have it here in the U.S.; of how lucky we are to live in a country where a comedian can poke fun at the President and a Supreme Court justice and make it home alive. Let's make sure America stays that way.

Amazing that the so-called "liberal" media gave it virtually no attention.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Depends On The Definition Of "Mission"

Ever since Bush boldly declared the mission accomplished,
  • Gasoline prices in the U.S. rose to over $3 per gallon.
  • Gasoline prices in the U.K. reached north of $6 per gallon.
  • First quarter 2006 Exxon profits were $8.4 billion.
  • First quarter 2006 ConocoPhillips profits were $3.29 billion.
  • Energy companies have been given billions in welfare.
  • Over 2,400 American soldiers have died.
  • Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered.
  • The price of gold soared from $340 per troy ounce to $660 per troy ounce.
  • The value of the dollar has fallen to new lows against the Euro, Yen and Canadian dollar.
  • American bankruptcy laws were "reformed" to prevent soldiers from obtaining bankruptcy relief related to debts incurred as a result of their military service.
  • The percentage of working-age Americans with moderate incomes who lacked health insurance for at least part of the year rose to 41 percent in 2005, a dramatic increase from the 28 percent in the same category in 2001.
  • The Iraqi resistance is still fighting, with no end in sight.

In a presidential debate with Al Gore on October 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, NC, Bush said: "I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building…I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I’m missing something here. I mean, we’re going to have a kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not."

Nope, America's troops should not be used to spread democracy. They should be used to enrich oil executives. Mission Accomplished!

The 1st panacea of a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the 2nd is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; a permanent ruin.

Ernest Hemmingway