I have thought up a really radical idea for elections to our Senate and House of Representatives. It is actually an old method, going back to the original Athenian democracy. However, it is really radical in the sense that it will change everything and cause a dramatic improvement in governance over our current situation.
The idea is simply to choose our representatives by lot: every citizen over the age of 25 (or 45 for the Senate) will be included in a lottery for the seats that are open. Any person chosen by lottery can refuse, in which case the lot is drawn again (easy and quick with current technology.) Otherwise, there will be no change in the organization of the House and Senate.
The only change will be the elimination of elections. Instead, citizens of each district and state will be entered in a lottery, and the requisite number of representatives will be selected by random choice of a computer (even a physical lottery device like a bowl of chips would be suitable.)
Just think what the change in attitude will be among those who consent to serve as our representatives for two or six years. Those who serve will be truly representative of the people because everyone has an equal chance to be chosen by lot. They will likely feel an acute sense of honor and duty far more palpable than that shown by the people currently serving.
It is likely, given current average salaries and current House and Senate pay, that the honor will be attended by a dramatic raise in salary, even if temporary. This will help to insulate members from the ministrations of lobbyists to some extent, although the promise of a job after working as a representative will still be possible.
Of course, adding a requirement that one return to one’s old job (if employed) would help as well. Nonetheless, the elimination of elections alone would go a long way towards reducing the problem of money in politics.
I expect that this solution is so simple and sensible that it will be rejected out of hand by anyone with the ability to change anything in politics today. There is no possibility of adoption for this plan.
Light at the end of the tunnel has been provided by two articles in this week’s New Yorker. I haven’t written about anything in the New Yorker before, but I’ve enjoyed its deep reporting for many years. The magazine has only gotten better and better, as revealed by its clear sighted historical pieces about previous editors, for example.
The first article detailed a process for making an organic substitute for Styrofoam. This substitute replaces the basic building block of Styrofoam, polystyrene, with mushroom mycelia. Mycelia are the white, threadlike structures that appear in any damp, loose material after a few days. Spores, which are the ubiquitous, microscopic resting forms of common mushrooms, grow into these strong, light networks of the rootlike vegetative form. Not until they have matured do they produce the fruitlike, macroscopic mushroom we are so familiar with.
Mycelia are mostly composed of chitin, which forms the cell walls of these organisms. In the process that replaces Styrofoam, an organic medium such as chopped up corn stalks or similar plant debris is seeded with the appropriate species of spores after it is fully sterilized with steam. The material is blown into the appropriate shape of mold, then side aside in a warm, dark place for four days. The fully grown shape is then heat sterilized again to stop growth and is ready for use.
In the absence of the organic medium, mycelia can be grown into shapes that are composed solely of chitin. This material is as light as balsa wood, yet tremendously strong. It can potentially be used to replace plastic in many, if not all, forms.
Phase-out of plastics derived from industrial sources would have many advantages. First, chitin based plastics would be highly biodegradable. Second, the monomers used to produce plastic polymers are in many cases toxic chemicals such as styrene and urethane; these materials could be eliminated. Third, the use of “plasticizers” could be eliminated; these chemicals are also frequently toxic and highly persistent.
At this time, the world and especially the oceans have been highly polluted with plastic debris: small pieces of plastic derived from larger pieces that have gradually disintegrated. This material can be found in huge amounts, trapped in eddies in vast islands in the middle of the sea. Phasing out the use of these plastic materials will eventually reduce the quantities of this plastic debris, but it will take many years.
The second article in the New Yorker profiled a company that is making kites that generate electricity. These kites are gigantic, with wingspans over eighty feet, and they fly at altitudes of up to a thousand feet. They generate prodigious amounts of electricity, and are helped by the much steadier winds present at altitude. In effect, they can replace the enormous rotor blades, two hundred foot towers, and heavy concrete bases with relatively small ground-based spools containing high-tension electrical cable.
The company that is making these experimental kites is being funded by Google, among many other companies. They are very serious, and have already spent several million dollars on this project. If (and when) these kites become commercially viable, they will produce electricity that is cheaper than current wind projects, and much more reliable.
Although the wind industry only produces four percent of the power in the United States, they have grown by twenty times in the last ten years. Continued increases in capacity and reliability will take some of the pressure off the fossil fuel industry to provide power. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to have positive results in mitigating climate change for some fifty years or more. By then, dramatic changes will have occurred, with worse to follow. Cessation of excess carbon dioxide production will be required and it will take perhaps several hundred years thereafter for concentrations of carbon dioxide to decline to historic levels.
Despite the unpleasant changes to be expected with the dramatic increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (not to mention the brown cloud over Asia) that will be seen over the next few years, there is hope that the ingenuity and industry of really smart people will allow at least a portion of the human race a chance to survive the next two hundred years.
There are indications that, due to population growth and economic development, serious environmental crises or pandemics may cause a sudden drop in population in the next few years. I can’t guess the likelihood of a catastrophic change; I can only sense the possibility looming in front of us as a species. Our hope is that we can figure a way out of looming disaster.
On December 27, 1999, at about 5:15 in the evening, I was driving home from the grocery store. I had just bought a gallon of milk and one or two other things at Von’s. It was a cool and deep evening; the sun had gone down half an hour before.
As I was driving east on North Avenue, passing Temperance, in a 1997 Ford F-150 4WD pickup truck, I was going about 50 miles an hour. A Toyota Corolla going north on Temperance failed to stop at the stop sign (there were skid marks about 10 feet long leading into the intersection.) His car hit my truck just below the right front door, at about 25 mph.. I felt and saw the truck turning to my left, with the right side rapidly becoming the bottom.
The next thing I remember is being in an emergency room, lying on a bed, with an IV tube in my arm, and the nurse is talking about whether they should put in a Foley catheter because I haven’t peed in two hours.
While I was unaware or unconscious, the following happened:At the moment of impact, the Toyota was below the Ford, and it continued to submarine. The Ford’s right rear wheel rolled over the Toyota’s hood. This impact caused the Ford to roll over to the left (counterclockwise.) At the same time, the rear of the Ford went up above the front. The Ford continued to roll counterclockwise, and probably completed a 360 degree revolution. It destroyed a telephone junction box that was about fifteen feet northeast of the intersection. Eventually, the Ford landed upright on a small orange tree in the field fifty feet northeast of the intersection. The Toyota came to rest in the northeast corner of the intersection. A witness (a teenager) who was a passenger in a vehicle driving south on Temperance, heard a bang, then saw “the truck flying thru the air.”
When the ambulance arrived, I was not seriously injured. I had a large cut on the left side of my temple above the ear, caused by the frame of my glasses when my head slammed against the left side of the roof of my truck. Apparently, I was “alert” according to the ambulance report. I do remember someone coming to the side of the truck and asking if I was alright.
The other driver, the one who ran the stop sign, was also alone in his car. I don’t know what his condition was. Later, I was unable to find out what had happened to him; I dealt only with his insurance company, AAA. I did find out that he was probably on his way home from work and habitually ran that stop sign because there was so little traffic. He couldn’t see me coming because there were large trees in the field to the southwest of the intersection that blocked his view.
Afterwards, my stepson went to the accident site and found all of the contents of my pickup truck spread out among the orane trees. My toolkit, the groceries, and everything else movable had exited the truck during the crash. Later, looking at the wreck, I could see that the gallon of milk, which had been on the passenger seat, had gone straight thru the windshield, leaving a gallon-sized hole.
At the emergency room, I refused to have a Foley catheter stuck in my penis just so they could test my urine. I told the nurse if they would let me stand up, I could pee for them. I also refused to have a CAT scan of my brain. I said that I had no insurance and I couldn’t afford any such thing. Little did I know that the other driver had insurance that would have paid my expenses up to fifty thousand dollars.
I did have the laceration on my left temple stapled.
I do not recall talking to the staff at all; my wife explained it to me afterwards. She arrived about the time I started to remember things. The hospital had called my house and left a message, and when she got home from work she played it. Only two hours later did I begin to have continuous memories again.
When I got home that night (I had checked out against medical advice; they wanted to keep me all night) and undressed to go to bed, my wife found bruises all over the left side of my body.
Later, I had an MRI scan of my brain free of charge from a new scanner that was being tested. It showed normal except for a tiny empty spot, apparently an old infarction, about 7 mm long and 4 mm wide. This lesion was somewhat mysterious, as the rest of the scan was completely normal. It didn’t correspond to any area that would produce a noticeable deficit, so there was no way to make a clinical correlation. The consensus was that this lesion had nothing to do with the head injury, although there was no previous MRI to compare it with.
The head injury in the crash caused a loss of memory that extended from the moment of the crash when my head hit the inside of the roof to about two hours afterwards in the emergency room; afterwards, memory returned to normal immediately. Later, I had tests that apparently showed a mild form of traumatic brain injury. I felt that the diagnosis was obvious given the circumstances. Eventually, AAA paid me ten thousand dollars for my expenses, mainly to put crowns on three of my teeth that had fractured in the crash.
It took me several years to recover completely. Sometimes the effects of the injury were overwhelmed by the way people treated me. They acted as if I really were brain-damaged. Sometimes I felt as if I were not impaired, but at other times I did feel that I was missing something, especially when my wife kept things from me.
The New York Times online has a number of unpleasant stories today. First, outstanding student loans now total one trillion dollars and Congressional action will be necessary to keep interest rates from rising to seven percent at a time when the prime rate is nearly zero. Second, there is speculation that President Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. Third, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen to 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. Fourth, the Sunnis of Iraq are revolting against a system put in place by the US military and continued by the Shiite dominated government that uses paid informants and near-indefinite detention.
Many young people, in their 30′s, have just graduated from college and owe tens of thousands of dollars on student loans. At a time when base interest rates are near zero because of the poor economy, they are paying four percent and are threatened with an increase to seven percent. At these rates, even with a good job, paying back those loans subtracts everything extra from one’s pay check.
Then there are people who have spent equally large amounts, from ten to fifty thousand dollars, on schools that have taught them nothing useful. They have no marketable skill despite their “schooling” and are forced to take jobs working at fast food restaurants and the like. These suffering people will soon find themselves behind on their loan payments and faced with obnoxious, threatening letters from the bank. They will have their pay garnished. As a result, they may not be able to pay their rent and may become homeless, even with a fast-food job.
The economy still has not recovered and many people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control.
In Iraq, the Sunni population has been abused for years by the system put in place by the US military. This system uses paid informants to anonymously denounce suspected militants. Once arrested, those denounced are held for prolonged periods without facing charges or even being interrogated. The system is designed for abuse and to terrorize the Sunnis. In addition, anyone who was a member of the Baath party or a military officer is disqualified from any position of trust and usually unemployed. Violent demonstrations and violent government reactions have been increasing. The government has promised reform but delivered nothing.
The rebellion in Syria has increased the motivation of Sunnis in Iraq, since the Alawite government of Syria is allied with Shiite Iran and Iraq. Conditions are deteriorating, and widespread civil war is likely to break out. US and European governments are unable to commit arms to the Sunni side because the most powerful military faction in the Syrian rebellion is Al Nusra, which has declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda. Israel has sent warplanes to destroy Syrian government missiles that were earmarked for Lebanon. Syria has large stockpiles of the nerve gas sarin, and has probably used it in a limited fashion recently. Russia has been delivering surface to air and anti-ship missiles to the Syrian government. All these factors forecast a prolonged military struggle in Syria.
At the same time, there is speculation that President Obama’s Administration will approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. Completion of the Keystone pipeline will allow Canadian tar sands oil to be piped to refineries in the New Orleans area. Eventually, this refined oil will be shipped to China and other foreign destinations, since it is more than the United States needs for domestic consumption. Burning of this tar sands oil will continue the process of altering the environment in negative ways.
From air monitoring stations worldwide, especially the famous Mauna Loa observatory, comes the news that carbon dioxide concentrations in the air have reached 400 parts per million. This concentration has not been seen in approximately four million years. For the last four hundred thousand years, a period that can be accurately measured by air bubbles trapped in ancient ice, concentrations have varied from 180 to 280 ppm. During the last eight thousand years, concentrations have stayed close to 280 ppm. Since about 1800, carbon dioxide has steadily increased, and in the last fifty years of accurate real time measurements, levels have increased from 315 ppm to today’s 400 ppm. There is no doubt that this increase is due to burning of coal initially and a combination of fossil fuels from 1900 on.
It is predicted that levels will continue to increase to 800 ppm and more regardless of what we do now. It is, unfortunately, impossible to predict with any accuracy how the climate will respond to these levels. Most serious scientists believe that average temperatures will rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, and that severe weather events will increase in frequency dramatically. Rising sea levels are also inevitable, but exact sea levels are very difficult to predict. More than a foot of sea level rise is reliably predicted in the next hundred years, with more to follow. Changes in weather patterns, with severe droughts and monsoons, have already begun to occur.
Random flashes of intellectual and moral brilliance from the comments section of the New York Times online
When reading a news service online one may be occasionally struck by an odd flash of brilliance in an unlikely place, such as the comments section. As a matter of fact, the quality of the comments is one reason I pay to get the New York Times online. That being said, I am not above stealing and reproducing these gems in an attempt to get a wider audience for them.
The following comment struck me as particularly pertinent to the situation this week in Boston: (slightly edited for style.)
Peter London, UK
Following this story from across the pond, as it were, I have noticed a calmer reaction from Americans in response to the terrible events in Boston.
If you live in US, you may not notice the change, but I notice it. The bombing in Boston is not an attack on America. It is just a case of two idiots who were obviously deranged.
I have often thought that we should think about Islamic terrorists as people who have a serious mental health problem. This is not to let them off the hook.
Think about it. Someone who creates and lets off a bomb with the intention of killing innocents, by definition has a sociopathic mindset.
Let’s be smart about this. The war on Islamic terrorism is one-sided. US is not at war with Islam. But I think the mistake is to describe these Islamic killers as “terrorists.” By doing that we may be feeding their paranoia, and confirming in their minds that they are, in fact, engaged in a war.
What if we changed our language, and instead of describing these people as terrorists, we simply described them as people with mental health problems.
The pen is mightier than the sword. My belief is that if we took the approach of describing these killers as having mental health problems, rather than combatants in war, this might be a more powerful way of undermining their philosophy.
Don’t kill them with bombs or bullets.
Kill them by understanding and tolerance and show that the values that sustain us are more powerful than the hate that drives them. (April 21, 2013, 6:59 AM)
Now, isn’t that sweet? But seriously. It takes all the moral authority out of Muslim terrorism if you define a terrorist as someone with a serious mental health problem. It doesn’t make the USA a better government over the things it has done in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But it does make terrorists part of the problem rather than part of any rational solution.
A big part of the problem is an Islamic claim of special sensitivity to certain cultural artifacts and practices. For example, to a Muslim it is sacrilege to print a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed. Of course, to a Catholic it is also sacrilege to portray the Pope in a cartoon, but the reaction is less. The point being that non-Islamics are expected to display special deference to Islamic sensitivities. Or am I just showing myself as a reactionary anti-Islamic by saying that?
Not really. We are here defining as mentally ill someone who has a violent reaction to perceived insults to his religion. That is what is at issue. Military occupation and exposure to sundry exploitation schemes is the fault of a certain American government and should not be expected to justify attacks directed at civilians. Suicide bombings are not an answer to economic and religious abuse.
This I say to the radicalized Muslim: First, get a sense of humor. Second, if you want to fight American oppression, go to Afghanistan and pick up a gun. If you just want to become a doctor, go to school. But if you think of becoming a terrorist, you need to get your head examined.
There is great popular interest in the Supreme Court recently, as a result of two cases about gay marriage that were argued in front of the Court in the last two days. The first case involved the California Supreme Court; namely, an appeal of its decision to declare Proposition Eight (outlawing gay marriage) unconstitutional. The second case questions the constitutionality of the 1996 federal “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA), which banned federal spousal benefits for same sex couples married under state law. The appellate court has already struck down DOMA.
It appears that the Court will overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, hopefully as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The reason for applying the Fourteenth Amendment was not considered by those who wrote and ratified the amendment because homosexuals were not popularly thought of as a class of people who might be discriminated against. Therefore, as Antonin Scalia would have it, the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be applied, because it can’t be considered an “original” intent of the writers.
However, over the time since the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, things have changed. First, it was 1954 before the Fourteenth Amendment could be said to have been enforced (as applied to color) in some places in this country. Second, homosexuals have become a much clearer object of discrimination and a much more obvious class of persons in the last fifty years.
The idea that sexual preference is inborn, not learned, has led to a much clearer appreciation of the involuntary, permanent nature of homosexuality. The notion that one’s sexual preference is learned is no longer popular, nor is it supported by any scientific evidence. This is expressed in the psychiatric diagnostic manuals: since 1980, homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental disorder.
There has been, at least until recently, a movement that seeks to “treat” homosexuality through a form of psychotherapy. This movement has made claims of at least some “cures” that are said to be lasting. Unfortunately, the scientific research has been lacking. The one author who published a positive paper on this therapy in 2000 has since renounced the conclusions in his report. The few therapists who claim to treat homosexuality now are religiously motivated.
Therefore, it has, over time, become clear that homosexuals are a class of persons who are, not by choice, identified as different and subject to discrimination. This makes them eligible for the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. In my opinion.
There is likely to be a considerable fog of discussion about state prerogatives in the institution of marriage, and that is where gay rights will lose some momentum. The Supreme Court may refuse to reconsider the decision of the California Supreme Court on the grounds that gay marriage is a state matter. This is something of a cop-out because of the Fourteenth Amendment argument noted above, but it is likely to be found suitable by the judges who think “we are moving too fast.” In other words, the conservative majority isn’t convinced that we should go forward despite strong public opinion.
The Supreme Court considers public opinion carefully when it makes its rulings. Having no enforcement mechanism to carry out its edicts, the Court depends on the agreement of the executive bodies with its will. Thus it is not likely to shock the conscience of those who read its rulings. The conservative wing of the Court has an audience as well, and it has shown a tendency to play to that audience. Thus, considering everything, the Court will probably refuse to consider either case, leaving intact the appellate court rulings that struck down Proposition Eight and the Defense of Marriage Act.
In my personal opinion, having encountered people of all sexual preferences in medical practice and in social situations, it’s all normal. Both men and women seem to be born with a preference for intercourse with one gender or the other; there might even be a lobe in the brain that determines sexual preference (and gender identity.) Whatever you feel is what you feel. If you’re attracted to someone or something then nothing can change that. Just try it sometime.
If you’re concerned about whether it’s “natural” to “do that” a review of practices throughout the animal kingdom is revealing.
I think that it is only when you go against your natural preferences that you develop problems; therefore, a person should be free to choose without provoking any discrimination from others. People have inborn preferences and those preferences should be recognized as primary aspects of one’s sexuality.
There are, potentially, problems with people who have a preference for juveniles as objects of sexual interest. Regardless of what such individuals may claim, I think that such preferences are abnormal and the result of abnormal influences in the individual’s environment. A preference for intercourse with minors is not a natural impulse. In addition, it is theoretically impossible for a minor person to consent to sexual relations with anyone. Thus, such preferences should be treated and alleviated if possible. A preference for sexual relations with minors should not be tolerated as a “variation.”
The age at which a person transitions from minor to adult status is controversial. Whether a person must be sixteen or eighteen to be an adult for purposes of consent to sexual intercourse is open to discussion. The onset of puberty occasions an ineluctable desire. This must be fulfilled to confirm one’s identity as a sexual person. When are we able to consent to the possibility of pregnancy or venereal disease? We must be educated and know about all of the potential consequences, good and bad, of our decisions.
Bassem Youssef, who produced a popular television show modeled on “The Daily Show”, was informed Saturday that he needs to go to a police station to answer for the warrant, charging him with insulting President Morsi and denigrating Islam. He said that he would probably go on Sunday, the first day of the workweek in Egypt. He mentioned that they could save him the transportation if they would just come and pick him up. Apparently, the police have been watching Mr Youssef for some time and had appointed a judge to investigate the complaints against him. The new government of Egypt has been suppressing dissent with the same brutality as the old government. Just last week, five anti-Islamist activists were arrested on charges of inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The television show that Mr Youssef produced had been the subject of numerous complaints by Islamists who were offended by his references to Mr Morsi and the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the first time, however, that a public prosecutor has issued an arrest warrant. No doubt this signals the end of Mr Youssef’s weekly TV show. He has had a wild ride with conservatives, even reconciling with some of them, but has made many enemies among the Salafists.
At the same time, Egypt is facing an intense shortage of diesel fuel and many critical items such as wheat for bread, which is imported. Locally grown wheat is poor quality and is mixed with imported wheat to make an edible bread. The shortages stem from Egypt’s economic collapse over the last two years. Tourism has dwindled to nothing, and reserves are collapsing. The Europeans are negotiating a loan which may perhaps be more realistically seen as a grant in aid. There are systemic issues that make these chaotic conditions inevitable.
Right now, the Supreme Court of Egypt has nullified some of the election laws and new laws must be written. The Legislature, however, is in recess and President Morsi thinks he is better off waiting. At the same time, someone must sign off on the tax increases and other painful measures demanded as part of the European “loan.”
The apparently unreasonable behavior of the people in this crisis situation is inevitable and events will continue to unfold regardless of what the people do. There are too many people, and this is creating a strain on resources that radiates through-out the system. The strains are manifest as food shortages, fuel shortages, interpersonal violence, migration, and collapse of government.
Egypt would benefit if they had a better leadership but there is so much complicated overlay in the present system that little can be done constitutionally. The Court system is full of leftovers from the previous autocratic administration who interfere with government action at every turn. Now, in a “free” election for President, the Egyptian electorate has been forced to choose between a known Islamist and a lackey of the previous administration. The Constitution is hurriedly revised, with solo input from Islamist sources. The only effective behavior at present seems to be to negotiate loans. Elections are difficult when the Court invalidates all the election law.
Egypt is dependent for its survival as a coherent nation state on the assistance of external organizations. We, the United States, and many other nations, must step in and provide assistance where it is most needed.