Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

November 30, 2013

Some thoughts on what it means to be an American

Filed under: Culture,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:40 am

Just the other day I had a Facebook exchange with a friend.

This was an exchange of the kind which reminds me of (journalist) Frank Meyer’s observation, “We find comfort among those we agree with, growth among those we disagree with.”

The fact is, sometimes I spend entirely too much time with people I agree with. And of the people I don’t agree with, a lot of them don’t argue very well. It’s just not very challenging to discuss disagreements with somebody whose contentions begin and end with, “I just feel…”

When you disagree with someone who can support their position well, it challenges your brain, makes you define and refine what you believe and why you believe it.

The Facebook format forces you to do it in tiny bites, which is frustrating but also sharpens your ability to write succinctly.

In this case the point of disagreement came down to the hot button issue of our day, race.

He believes there is a cabal of white supremacists attempting to gin up racial hatred, because they are fearful of coming demographic shifts which will result in whites becoming a numerical minority around the middle of the century.

I think this is absurd, that white supremacy is the obsession of a tiny minority of pathetic losers.

In my humble opinion racial divisions are being ginned up because a voting society can always be dominated by a coalition of minorities. (There is allegedly a mathematical proof of this.) Therefore it is in the interest of at least one party to hinder the assimilation of minorities, foster divisions in society and nourish a sense of grievance.

But after signing off it occurred to me that it may not matter who is right or wrong, if we lose sight of what it means to be an American.

I don’t care what the racial/ethnic makeup of America becomes, so long as we remain American in the only way that counts.

There have been lots of nations which retained their culture but changed their look. The Mongols in the time of Ghengis Khan were not Asians but a Turkic people among whom red hair and grey eyes were fairly common. That changed after the conquest of China when every Mongol warrior brought home a Chinese concubine or ten.

Several North and South American Indian tribes and bands have become more phenotypically white or black due to intermarriage. Gypsies I’ve known in Northern Europe look distinctly different from their cousins in Romania and Bulgaria. Ashkenazic Jews often look far more European than their Sephardic brethren. Examples multiply.

I do believe that fears of demographic shifts are not groundless. I will state here and now that I used to be an open-borders libertarian. I rethought that position after conversations with people in the Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

These postage stamp-sized countries have always lived with the knowledge that a hiccup of history could wipe their nation out – forever. Who now remembers the Lusitanians? Or that the Prussians were originally a Slavic people whose land and very name was taken by the Germanic people who wiped them out?

For the Baltic peoples, a “demographic shift” means their countries become Russian, and they become a historical footnote.

But America is too big for that to happen, isn’t it?

Furthermore, America has always been a mixture of peoples. Samuel Johnson described Americans disdainfully as a bastard race of Scots, Irish, Germans and Indians. Why should any more mixing make a difference?

(After the Revolution perhaps Dr. Johnson had time to reflect that though it’s the purebreds that win the dog shows, it’s the mutts that win the fights.)

It shouldn’t matter – unless we lose sight of what makes us all Americans.

America is almost unique among nations in that our identity as a people is not defined by ancestry, but by our relationship to a set of ideas embodied in a canon of political literature.

The only other examples that come to mind are the Jews and their relationship to Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Teaching), and the Icelanders and their Sagas, historical literature about the founding of their nation.

The American canon is ill-defined but certainly includes the Declaration of Independence, Common Sense by Tom Paine, the Constitution, and The Federalist (a kind of operating manual for the Constitution). I’d say the bookends might be John Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government on one end, and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses of Abraham Lincoln on the other.

I would include Cato’s Letters by Trenchard and Gordon, a whole lot of pamphlets that circulated on both sides of the Atlantic in the 50 years prior to the Revolution, and the anti-Federalist papers as well.

Much of the Hebrew canon is made up of discussion and debate about the proper relationship of men to God and men to men in society. The American canon is a debate about the relationship of men to each other in political society.

In the American canon many historical threads come together. Echos of the Irish Brehon law that “a man is better than his birth.” The Native American notion that one may become a member of the tribe by adoption as much as birth. And the Hebrew tradition that a man can demand an accounting for his treatment by his sovereign – or even his God.

This is what being an American means to me, and if we lose this we – and humanity, lose everything.

November 22, 2013

If we can put a man on the moon why can’t we…?

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:00 am

We used to have an expression, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…?”
You don’t hear it put that way as often these days since we haven’t been back in over forty years.
Nonetheless it’s a fair question.
The United States put no less than a dozen men on the moon in six successful landings between the years 1969 and 1972.
Over a period of 10 years starting in 1904 the United States moved several mountain’s worth of earth and rock to build the Panama Canal, the largest engineering project in history.
In 1935 the Hoover Dam, the largest concrete structure ever built, was completed two years ahead of schedule within budget.
But in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” which to date has absorbed resources equivalent to several projects of that magnitude.
One has to notice that poverty is still with us though we could have just handed the poor the money spent on them and created the largest class of idle rich in the world.
More recently it’s taken longer than any of those engineering projects to fill a hole in the ground left by the wreckage of the Twin Towers.
And currently we’re watching, with either horrified fascination or smug I-told-you-so attitudes the collapse of an attempt to provide a service that’s been on the market for generations to every man, woman and child in the country.
So if we could put men on the moon, dig the Panama Canal and build the Hoover Dam why can’t we eliminate poverty, educate everybody to a decent and reasonable standard, and get everybody an affordable health insurance policy?
Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen reasons.
One, the great engineering projects of the 20th century were accomplished by well, engineers. People who tackled concrete problems with factors that could be quantified: amount of matter to be moved, strength of materials, rates of heating, cooling, drying etc.
Two, the organization of the projects was put into the hands of businessmen. Men with experience in the private sector where failure meant losses or bankruptcy and success produced great wealth. Men who’d already organized large-scale enterprises and had the skill and confidence to take on even larger projects.
Three, there was strict accountability for cost overruns and failure to complete assigned tasks on time. And it must be said, run with a certain hard-headed ruthlessness. More than 100 men died building the Hoover Dam, and when a strike was called the project managers stopped construction and began the process of replacing the men until the strikers agreed to return to work.
In contrast the idealistic and well-meaning government projects to accomplish All Good Things these days are conceived by social scientists and managed by bureaucrats.
Though I say it who am one, social scientists deal with human variables which unlike steel and concrete, have minds of their own. They tend to engage in a lot of wishful thinking and airy speculation that goes unchecked by reality.
As a discipline social science was originally intended to be descriptive, not an engineering technology for humanity.
Plus the scale of what the government of the United States is trying to do is staggering.
The national government is trying to create programs to administer services for a diverse population of 316 million people living on 3.79 million square miles, using a top-down, one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway model of organization.
This somehow seems to escape those who admire the accomplishments of European countries such as Sweden, even as the European model is unravelling.
As an old political science professor of mine put it, “How hard is it to govern a country of nine million blond, blue-eyed Lutherans?”
And bottom line, there’s an old adage in business that we’ve forgotten about since we abandoned the notion of a government strictly limited in its functions and powers.
If you try to do everything, you wind up doing nothing well.

November 20, 2013

Print me a gun please

Filed under: News commentary,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:49 am

A Texas company Solid Concepts just announced they had made a working model M1911 automatic pistol and test fired 50 rounds through it.

What made this interesting was that the gun was made with a 3-D printer.

Just last year the open-source organization Defense Distributed printed a plastic gun and actually got a few rounds through it, but it broke down very quickly as you might expect.

The State Department then “suggested” Defense Distributed take down their download links for design components as they might possibly be in violation of International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Solid Concepts succeeded in printing a metal gun, and then fell all over themselves saying, not to worry this tech isn’t the desktop printer you can buy for about $2,000, this is a much more expensive model.

“The industrial printer we used costs more than my college tuition (and I went to a private university),” company spokesperson Alyssa Parkinson said. “And the engineers who run our machines are top of the line; they are experts who know what they’re doing and understand 3-D printing better than anyone in this business.”

Big deal. Anyone remember what desktop computers used to cost when they first came out, and how little memory and computing power they had? About like your smart phone has now.

I myself have been gritting my teeth, because I’ve been telling anybody who’d listen for the past 30 years this was coming.

The ability to build small arms in small workshops is not new. After the British military disaster at Dunkirk in World War II when a great many of their combat arms were abandoned, they started producing the Sten gun, a stamped metal machine gun with a design so simple it could be produced in garages.

The Polish Resistance used to turn make them in apartments using metal salvaged from bed frames.

Blacksmiths in the Philippines and Afghanistan have turned out replicas of the world’s small arms on hand-cranked lathes for generations now.

For decades it’s been an open secret that any modern machine shop equipped with computer-controlled milling machines could turn out small arms with the right software programs.

The only difference was in the level of expertise needed. New 3D printing technology lowers the skill requirement and puts the ability into the hands of basically everyone.

And it’s going to get cheaper and easier, that’s just the nature of technology.

The more difficult problem actually is the production of modern smokeless powders and primers for the bullets. I’m not certain what the level of tech necessary for this is, but I’m going to guess about the sophistication of your average meth lab.

Bottom line, banning guns from society is a fantasy.

Ban the technology? How well has that ever worked?

And do you want to ban the tech that is going to revitalize manufacturing and make possible wonders such as small business custom car manufacturing?

Enact draconian penalties for possession of firearms?

That’s certainly one option. One that creates an incentive not to submit to arrest and try to shoot it out with the police instead.

And what haunts me is the feeling that once all firearms are banned, why wouldn’t a criminal, or even a very scared citizen willing to break the law, say, “Oh well, hung for a sheep, hung for a lamb. The heck with a pistol, print me a Sten”?

Law enforcement is rightly concerned about firearms with no serial numbers getting into circulation, and guns cheap enough to be used in one crime then destroyed. The existence of a legal aboveground firearms industry at least insured that almost all guns could be identified and a reasonably accurate record of the chain of ownership maintained.

As a society we should have been thinking and discussing the potential consequences of this for a long time now. Instead we’ve been absorbed in what we can now see was an utterly pointless debate about whether society should be disarmed.

We are for better or worse going to remain an armed society, at least in potentia, forever.

November 9, 2013

Birther bosh bites back

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:28 am

From Fox News Politics, “Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday he is a “U.S. citizen by birth” despite being born in Canada, amid questions about whether he is planning to run for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

Cruz, R-Texas, said in an interview with Fusion that because his mother is an American citizen he is a citizen as well.”

“I was a U.S. citizen by birth and beyond that I’m going to leave it to others to worry about the legal consequences,” Cruz said.

The article quotes Cruz saying he is in the process of renouncing his Canadian citizenship.

Cruz was born in Alberta, Canada, to a Cuban-born father who became an American citizen in 2005, and an American mother. His parents owned a seismic-data processing firm in the oil industry.

Interestingly as a young man Cruz’s father fought in the Cuban revolution with Castro, and then against Castro and fled to the United States in 1957.

Cruz is a TEA Party Republican and has been endorsed by the libertarian-leaning Republican Liberty Caucus.

Democrats are going to have a field day with this. As well they should.

From the beginning of the “birther” controversy I have made two points again and again to the point I’m getting sick of repeating myself.

One, there may or may not be something fishy about Obama’s birth documents, but there was a notice of birth in a local newspaper in Hawaii and eyewitnesses, Republican ones at that, who remember the circumstances of his birth at a time when African-American bi-racial children were a rarity.

If I were of conspiratorial mind on this issue, I’d wonder if Obama’s people were stonewalling just enough to keep this thing going to make the right-wingers look ridiculous and divert attention from the real issue. The issue Cruz has just brought up.

Two, the child of an American citizen is an American citizen no matter where they are born.

I know this because my son was born in Poland to a Polish mother. He’s had an American passport since soon after his birth.

But, he also has a Polish passport. He has dual citizenship.

The guy working the passport desk at the embassy explained it to us. They don’t like dual citizenship, almost nobody does. It creates problems. They recognize it happens though.

The practical implications are: my son must enter the U.S. on his American passport, Poland on his Polish passport. Everywhere else he can chose the cheaper visa.
If he comes of military age in either country, and they have a draft, the country he’s in gets him.
And if he gets arrested in either country, God forbid, the other can do nothing.

One can acquire dual citizenship in adulthood. My sister did after long residence in the UK because it was simply more convenient to apply for British citizenship than fill out the legal permanent residence application every year or so. The US and the UK allow that sort of thing.

Or one can arrive in this world a native-born citizen of two countries, as my son did.

And this is what I’ve wondered about the birther controversy. Not whether Obama was not born an American citizen, but whether he ever claimed dual citizenship or had it claimed on his behalf by his mother.

That’s the interesting issue. To the best of my knowledge the Constitution is silent on the issue of dual citizenship. I’m not even sure there was such a thing back then.

Obama simply ignored the issue and ignored the question of whether he has ever traveled on a foreign passport.

Cruz can’t ignore it, it’s a matter of public record.

If Cruz even comes within spitting distance of the Republican nomination in 2016 – it’s going to get interesting.

Note: This is my weekly op-ed for the first week of November.

November 7, 2013

Google invests in life extension

Filed under: Hard Science,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:01 am

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” – Woody Allen

For those who were wondering what they were going to get up to after Google Glass, Google announced in September a new startup Calico, dedicated to research on combating aging. And though they’re not splashing it all over the media, it’s pretty plain they don’t mean making old folks’ last years more active and comfortable, they mean giving us more years. Lots more years.

Google is reported to be funding this venture to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This actually doesn’t come as that much of a surprise. Last December I mentioned here that Google had hired Ray Kurzweil, Prophet of the Singularity. Immortality is one of the things Kurzweil says is within our grasp.

I’ve been following the discussion/debate on the life extension project since the mid-60s. During that time I’ve seen the notion go from the obsession of a few lonely cranks to one that’s being taken seriously by reputable scientists.

What we seem to have right now is in the words of one scientist, “a big bottle of hope.”

However that hope is on a bit firmer footing than it used to be. We’ve got a better handle on how to prepare ourselves for a more vigorous and healthy old age. Partly through the classic methods of good diet and healthy exercise and partly through the still controversial use of nutritional supplements.

Moreover, we have new tools available such as genetic analysis which can alert us of future health risks encoded in our genes that we can start planning how to deal with before they show up.

So is Google’s new venture going to give us the long-sought Fountain of Youth?

Who knows? I see three possibilities coming from the next few years of intensive, well-funded research:

1) A breakthrough in life extension adding decades, perhaps centuries to our potential lifespan, with all that implies.

2) Some advances in gerontology but with steadily diminishing expectations as problems prove intractable and the goal of significant extensions in lifespan recede into the indefinite future.

3) Convincing evidence that it’s just not going to happen. Bummer.

What I don’t see is any downside to it. Whatever the result, we won’t be worse off for having asked the question.

Note: This is cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

November 4, 2013

Review: The Blacklist

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:51 am

A former government agent, now one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals, walks into the FBI headquarters, identifies himself and submits to arrest. He offers to help them catch a seriously bad guy but he’ll only talk to a certain FBI profiler, who started work just that day. (Megan Boone playing FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen.)

They sure know how to hook you on “The Blacklist” and they haven’t let go yet.

James Spader plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, a.k.a. “the Concierge of Crime,” a master criminal with a list of the worst people in the world, some of whose existence the FBI isn’t even aware of. He offers to help the FBI get them all in return for immunity, but on his own terms only.

When confronting one particularly vile criminal, she says, “I thought the FBI had you.”

“The FBI works for me now,” he replies.

Reddington’s personality is essentially a carryover of Spader’s pervious role as Alan Shore on “Boston Legal.” He’s a cynical, witty guy with a rigid personal code of ethics but is not overly scrupulous about the means to accomplish his devious ends.

“You’ve killed three people,” one of his handlers says.

“Nobody’s perfect!” he says defensively.

And that’s the thing about Reddington. He helps the FBI close in on terrorists, human traffickers, and one specialist in disposing of dead bodies by a particular method that earns him the nickname, “the Stewmaker.”

But they all seem to wind up dead.

And dead in ways that just reek of poetic justice. He dumps the Stewmaker into a vat of his own acid while rescuing Keen. He poisons a human trafficker who poses as a great humanitarian with an overdose of the drugs she uses to sedate her captives, then gets her to confess her guilt with the promise of the antidote.

Oops! Too late.

Keen asks, “What if you hadn’t had the antidote?”

“There was no antidote,” Reddington says. “I detested everything about her.”

There are plot complications aplenty.

Special Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) doesn’t like the idea of working hand-in-hand with a criminal at all. But he likes getting results. He’s a strictly by-the-book kind of guy who insists on accompanying Reddington to a meet with a gangster.

So Red introduces him, “This is FBI Special Agent Donald Ressler,” and trusts him to wing it from there!

Keen’s husband Tom (Ryan Eggold) turns out to have a box hidden in their apartment containing several passports under different names and a pistol Keen confirms was associated with a homicide. Furthermore, Reddington appears to know things about them both.

Reddington asks Keen, “What if I told you everything you believe about your life is a lie?”

Of course right away you begin to suspect Keen is Reddington’s long-lost daughter, but that would be too simple. Is she possibly the daughter of an old friend Reddington swore to look after perhaps?

Not even Spader seems to know. Or at least he won’t admit to knowing anything.

“The Blacklist” is doing very well in the ratings and deserves to. The acting is good, the writing is original and there’s lots of room for character development.

I think part of the appeal of “The Blacklist” is we like the idea of scary vicious criminals brought low, but we’ve grown a bit suspicious large crime-fighting organizations like the FBI. So Reddington walks in and blithely takes over the operation. Of course that’s never going to happen but it’s kind of cool to think about.

Another is the vigilante aspect of it. The hell with building a case and arresting them, they’ll only have a slick lawyer get them off. Just kill the so-and-sos!

Of course we don’t really want that either, but it’s kind of fun to think about.

One problem with series based on progressive revelations of Deep Dark Secrets in the characters pasts is that they either have to keep the secrets buried and risk audiences getting impatient, then bored, or reveal the secrets and jump the shark.

I think they’ve got enough of a cast of supporting actors who can be brought forward into greater prominence with their own backstories to keep this going for a while though.

Another is that with plot complications like this you might not be able to jump into the series much past the first season.

Well then, if you have a taste for this kind of thing you’d better get on board. Something tells me this could be the next “Alias” or “24.”

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

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