Slippery Language on ACA aka Obamacare Replacement

Fox News carried a lead story today on their website:

White House vows plan will offer insurance to every American, downplays upcoming CBO report

I will be the first to admit the story itself was somewhat fair and balanced.  It was about Gary Cohen’s appearance on Fox News Sunday, and he had this to say:

“We don’t think so,” White House Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn said on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked if many of the insured will lose their health care. “We believe if you want to have coverage, we’re providing you access to coverage.”

“We have to make a better plan,” he said

I have been noting with increasing alarm members of Congress of the GOP kind stating something over and over again especially this past week as their bill has come to light.  The oft repeated comment goes something like this:

“Everyone who wants health care insurance can buy it at an affordable price.”

I don’t doubt they can make this statement true, but before I or you go celebrating, why don’t we try and parse the meaning of this?

Off an on as I have listened to Sirius FM in my car, I have heard a commercial that begins with a man calling to make a claim on his home owner’s protection policy for a failed hot water heater.  The lady who seems to have answered his call tells him his hot water heater is not covered.  When he asks what is, she tells him earthquakes and invasions from zombie vampires.  He complains that zombie vampires would never happen, and she cheerfully responds “Yes. but you would be covered if they did!”

It seems hard to not extrapolate the GOP supporters of repeal and replace whispering the same sort of thing to us when they are talking about their plan.  Yes, anyone can buy health care insurance and can afford it.  But what would we get?  A plan that covers care for an attack by zombie vampires?  Not likely; that will probably be excluded, along with preventative care and checkups, lab tests, mammograms and PSA tests, and things that actually bring down health care costs by early preventative treatment.  Also gone will be medical advice on healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Instead, a White House copy cat plan for McDonald’s and taco bowels.

When treatments are covered, what are the co-pays and deductibles going to be?  No one, absolutely no one who wants to repeal and replace, is saying one word about costs to individuals after all is said and done.

Who is going to get hit the hardest?  Middle aged people who will get reduced tax credits, those who are not fortunate enough to have an employer=provided insurance plan, senior citizens?  The answer is clearly “anyone who gets sick.”

Remember the guy from the 2008 election campaign who had a sign saying “Keep the government away from my Medicare!”? Make that “Keep Congress away from my health insurance.”

Don’t be surprised when you hear, next year or the year after that, “We promised everyone affordable health care insurance, and you got it. Sorry about the lack of coverage.  Either ask your parents or your family to pay for that coverage, or stop being a welfare queen and get a job.”

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No Man Is an Island, Nor Is a Country Any Longer

BBC America aired a new series, Planet Earth II, last Saturday evening, a long awaited follow on to the original Planet Earth series which aired in 2006.  Both series are narrated by Sir David Attenborough, lavishly filmed and edited, and give us a front row seat to some of the most exotic natural places in the world and, through the spectacular nature photography, a look at animal and plant life we hardly knew existed.

The Planet Earth shows make our natural world particularly clear: polar ice is melting at an alarming pace, sea levels are rising from Miami to Sri Lanka, natural habitats of so many animals and plants are being overrun by human encroachment, and species are dying out at a rate that should get our attention.  Even more surprising is that human intervention, intended or accidental, is disrupting ecosystems and acerbating species loss:  lionfish in the Atlantic probably because they were dumped from home aquariums, pigs in the Hawaiian Islands, and crazy ants and crabs on Christmas Island to name a few.

But I had another takeaway from this first episode, aptly titled “islands.”  It is both a metaphor for society in today’s world, and it is likely a significant cause of how things have changed, and why we are not going back.

Sir David highlights how environments on islands large and small have forged the evolution of species found on them.  Australia, Madagascar, and so many other islands have life that does not exist anywhere else.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, many of these islands were part of larger land masses before breaking off, so they came with starter sets of life.  Others like Hawaii and other South Pacific land masses created by volcanoes had plant, animal and human life reach them by the oceans.  Life being what it is, survival and diversity, things just took off.

People, societies and cultures have long been islands whether or not they were surrounded on all sides by water.  There was trade for thousands of years, and food, religion and culture surely did migrate from one place to another and take hold.  More often than not, the migration of culture and intermix of societies was the result of conquest, not open trade or travel.  Countries, tribes and societies were islands, too.  Peoples were isolated from one another, and ideas, goods and services, language and culture stayed contained, island like.

Sea faring nations built the first of the more modern land bridges in the form of sailing vessels.  In search of new lands, often to exploit their riches and labor, intrepid sailors began to roam the Seven Seas.  Far too often they were the invasive species one sees on Planet Earth II: they plundered for gold, silver, agricultural products, slave labor.  Their muskets and canons had no natural predators.  Their diseases – small pox. syphilis, measles and more – decimated native populations.

It has only been in the last hundred years, though, where large numbers of people could easily travel to almost anyplace on the globe.  Passenger steam ships made crossing oceans and carrying large numbers of people was unlike anything that came before.  Soon, aircraft were able to make the same journeys steam ships required days or weeks to make in a day or less.  And even though planes carried fewer passengers than ships, there were many more of them.  They could also reach land locked areas no ship ever could.

Each day, close to 100,000 airline flights take to the sky. In a year, close to 3 billion people flew on over 375,000,000 flights.  That is astonishing.  That is roughly the entire population of the earth in 1960.  Every man, woman and child.  Going to places near and far.  And yet we take it for granted that such daily migrations are not only possible, bur ordinary and probable.

This same exponential growth in people traveling the world has been copied with cargo.: goods of all sorts grown or manufactured in one place and shipped around the globe to many others.  Globalized container shipping has grown from about 45 million TEUs to over 160 million TEUs from 1996 to 2013, and the rate increases.  This is exclusive of air and truck freight.  (Noe a TEU is the approximate volume of a 20 foot long standard shipping container).

Communications is just as much a factor in cross border exchanges as the movement of people and goods. It certainly takes modern day communications to make all of the physical movement possible,; the logistics, navigation, and transport vehicles couldn’t work without the computers and software systems to support and co-ordinate it all.  But communications also moves ideas, language, and culture.  Video streaming to smartphones and social media has made possible the instant sight and sound of world events, and yes, cats.

What’s the point to writing all of this?  All of our islands have been invaded and their ecosystems upended.  The same technology that drives the invasions has altered how and where we work.  Labor has been redistributed to other places, that is for sure, but the vast upheaval in jobs is due to technology, not cheaper labor and shipping costs.  The sameness of our islands, where everyone looked and acted the same, is being augmented by different foods, holidays, traditions, religions and points of view.  This is, I submit, not a bad thing.

It is also not a reversible thing.  No wall is going to keep any island isolated.  Planes can actually fly over walls.  Gads of border police may keep a lot of people out, but they also keep out some of the most desirable: doctors, scientists, small business developers, people who have been the lifeblood for growth and prosperity for this country, and others around the world.  You can’t have it both ways:  keep ’em out but just let in the good ones.  We don’t often know which is which.  We do know people respond irrationally to vague, oft repeated fears.

Beginning in the 1900s and gaining favoritism in the 1950s, largely as a result of the fears about Communism. there was (and I guess is) a push back against internationalism.  Advocates saw a Soviet crowd behind every bush ready to take over (and last year may have proven them right?) but at the same time taking no head of the exploration of labor and resources more powerful nations wanted for their own.  But internationalism as a concept was a powerful, motivating force for many conservative politicians and academics. It was seen as “brainwashing” by what children were taught in schools, what foundations and other groups did for social good.  An internationalist, in Commie disguise, behind every bush.

Today, those thought echo in populist movements and online rhetoric.  Take our country back is not only a mantra here, but is gaining voice in Europe and elsewhere.  Populist politicians see  the fear of the unknown and uncertainty among parts of the voter class and are far too willing to exploit it.  There is no rollback solution to the fears they play to, but to the fearful, the words sound like manna.

Look at island populations where the introduction of new species has caused dramatic shifts.  Evolution supplies a longer term solution, and evolution takes place more rapidly in isolated island ecosystems.  But islands know that most of their ills are due to man and his meddling, intended or not. So here we are again, man trying to alter the ecosystem, ignoring the things that make it richer and more vibrant.  The terrible thing about being smart is that you sort of know what is going to happen; that takes all the fun out of it (a line spoken by Billie Bob Thornton in “Bandits”).

Me. No, Really – ME! Your Brain at Work

Some Brain Stuff

It may be reasonable to assume just about everybody thinks of themselves as a rational, logic person,  yet each of us is most definitely not.  There is plenty of proof, what some would call pesky facts.   I hope after you read this post, you watch Brain Games, which you can watch on You Tube, or on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Brain Games originally aired on the National Geographic Channel.

You won’t find academic scientific papers when  you watch Brain Games, but you will see and hear everyday examples that explain why what we hear, see and think is quite often detached from objective reality.  You don’t think so?  Then watch as they show us two bars of equal length, but with railroad tracks behind them.  Because the tracks are really parallel but appear to get closer and closer together the farther away we are, one bar looks very much longer than the other.  Or because of shading and shadows, two identical colors look vastly different.  Think you have a good memory? So did a handful of people who witnessed a “robbery” (done by actors) while watching a game of three card monte.  Were their memories (and yours also watching it) faulty, and worse, could they be manipulated by subtle but wrong clues?  You have to watch this episode, amazing.  Or do you think you can multi-task?  David Copperfield and other illusionists and magicians show you can’t.  But we can, in our minds, right?

This is a circuitous route to some other social science and psychology experimentation and research.  In particular, let’s consider the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They emerged a few decades ago in the experimental realm but quickly spread to gaming theory interpretations and practical applications like economics, war games, and likely the military (think interrogation methodologies, but I don’t know for certain).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this: two suspects who are gang members are arrested for a crime, but into rooms that are isolated from each other and have no way to communicate. Despite being in a gang, they have no allegiance one to the other.  Each are offered a deal; rat on the other one, who will get a three-year sentence but that one will  go free.  However, if both choose to rat on each other, they will both serve two year sentences.  If neither rats on the other, then they each serve a one year sentence.  What is the best strategy for each of them?

By co-operating with each other meaning both keeping quiet, they only get a one year sentence.  But selfishly, each is tempted to choose giving the other a longer sentence but avoiding one of their own.  If both choose this strategy, they both get the worst possible outcome, three years each.  Gaming theory predicts that co-operation is the logical, rational choice.  In experiments, it is rarely what players choose to do.  More astonishing is that if the same players repeat the choices successive times, the best strategy does not emerge.  Their selfish and non-rational behavior prevails.

The Ultimatum Game also involves two players.  One is given a sum of money, let’s say $100.  That player then announces how the money will be split between the two players, anywhere from $0-$100 for player one and from $0-$100 for player two.  Player two must approve the choice, otherwise neither player gets anything. You might be tempted to think that $50-$50 is the best strategy, but you would be wrong.  It is, however, the preferred choice after many different teams have played the game.  The optimum strategy, on the other hand, is for player one to suggest $99.99 to keep and $0.01 to give to player two.  Why?  Because each will have more than before the game is played. Why doesn’t that work in practice?  Well, play the game in your mind and be player 2, and then answer it yourself.

You probably came up with fairness as the reason why you wouldn’t approve the deal, right?  Why should the other person get so much more than you?  Aren’t you just as deserving?  As good a person? As logical and rational a thinker?

My early thoughts about the Ultimatum Game made me wonder:  is this a uniquely American result, or is it uniform in different cultures and different social structures? What the research has shown is that the offers themselves differ by some cultures as well as gender (men as player two seem to get better offers when women are player one, but you knew that, right?).  There is also some variation in what the threshold split is, about 20% for player two, but less than you would think.  Likely this behavior is just how our brains are making decisions for us we think we are making for ourselves.

Some Politics

How can two people hear the same speech, read the same news story, be faced with similar concerns about the welfare of themselves, their families, and their country yet have vastly different conclusions and opinions, even see the same set of facts differently?  It is our brains, not the lack of them as some would say about “the others.” In the same way a group of people can watch a robbery but remember very different things about it, and later be completely convinced that as their memories were altered by outside influences, still remain certain of what they remembered they saw, we can watch or read something political and then not remember what it was but only what someone wanted us to remember.  It happens, it is not new, and it will happen again and again.

Watch the episode of Brain Games about magic and illusions, discover how we don’t see things so obvious because we have been told to look at something else; maybe you’ll laugh at yourself when you miss the six foot tall penguin.  Now, how is it again that fake news works?

And when we vote for a candidate who gets into office and enacts measures that are against our self interests, but we still love him or her, think about how well we do at the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  We really don’t choose well, do we.  When we complain that we don’t want our tax dollars paying for abortions, for illegal immigrants, or for someone else’s healthcare, it’s just our sense of injustice and not being fair.  Never mind that their tax dollars pays for the roads you travel on, the police and firemen who protect you, buy the goods and services for the company where you work who provides your healthcare, and for the schools you elect not to send your kids to.  None of it, really, is fair, is it?  It’s not fair to pay taxes for FEMA unless it is your house that is flooded or destroyed by a storm.  Maybe there is a pattern here?

So when you want to rant against someone because of their political leanings and opinions, because of their religious beliefs, because of whatever it is that makes them different from you, it is literally all in their heads.  And in you head, too.

Now go watch Brain Games.  Read up on these cool games and experiments.  Science is waiting to help you understand your mind, even if you can’t control it.

 

Truth or Consequences

When I was in early junior high, I developed a crush on a girl in my class; I believe her name was Cheryl.  While I may not remember her name, I distinctly remember that I thought she was cute, and she had a more mature figure than just about any other girl in school.  Let me quickly add two key points:  first, no romance ever blossomed between us, and second, she had a younger sister with whom she did not get along.  Her younger sister and I were friendly, though, and she was the one who told me that Cheryl, or whatever her name was, wore a heavily padded bra.

Now this was amazing news to me.  My first recollection of fake news was in fact falsies, themselves fake.

I can’t identify the precise moment other fake news and news-like things dawned on me, but I had a growing sense of the disconnect between what I would later call conventional or accepted views and the nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right.  On TV, all of the married couples slept in twin beds, but when I would go to friends’ houses, none of their parents did, nor did mine.  I applied the early inklings about procreation to this deliminator and figured out that either TV couples wanted no more kids, or it was a contrived situation.

Teenage boy interest in females in the late 1950’s seem to have as its only source of visual fulfillment issues of National Geographic.  We had no real life experiences, no Internet, and not even Playboy or other later liberating publications to deliver us the images we so badly craved.  It wasn’t for a few years later that I realized National Geographic taught me more about the effects of gravity than anatomy.  A bit more fake news.

On the road to early adulthood, I had other occasions to question, and later verify to my satisfaction, other forms of fake news.  Propaganda was a word we all knew and identified with the Soviet Union, and with that bit of real news, assumed that everything from there was just fake news.  Well, maybe.  But the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the political upheaval that took place in the 1960s provided a smorgasbord of fake news delights.  It took a long time, in most cases, for the real news to emerge and be recognized.  A bit later, Watergate, and fake, fake news as real news.

Back then, in that pre-historic time, there were people and places we could turn to and be somewhat confident that what we saw and heard was indeed truthful.  CBS News and Walter Cronkite, Jim Leher and Robert McNeil at PBS, are examples that come to mind.  Plus, when TVs were not ubiquitous but movies were, there were newsreels. Maybe a mix of fake and reliable news, but at least we got to see it with our own eyes.

Also remarkable to me was that some very real news from the era became the source of completely fake news: conspiracy theories.  No moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, on and on.  We once thought this the stuff of crazy kooks. I was always amused and delighted, in a perverse sort of way, going through the checkout lanes at the supermarket to see the headlines on tabloids:  “Mother gives birth to alien” or “Pack of wild dogs take over South American country” or – well turn on your crazy machine.  But now, how different are the tabloids from an immense pool of Internet sites?  Can it be that  the kooks outnumber the sane?  And are running things?

Has fake news always been there? I am no academic historian, but I would bet soundly it has been.  Shakespeare’s plots suggest fake news was a way to vanquish enemies, win love interests, or in other ways to gain power.  Dickens had fake news at the heart of many of his tales.  They were hardly the only writers through the ages that recognized this probably innate human trait;  it’s just the media has changed from secret parchment dispatches to smartphones.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she came home one day and told me that one of her teachers was looking for parents to volunteer to teach a class.  Insanity gripped one, or both, of us and I found myself in front of a class of mostly bored looking and inattentive high school kids; who wouldn’t at that age be bored when someone’s dad is going to give a lecture?  What I had prepared was a slide deck that I told them consisted of 10 really astonishing things I found on the Internet.  In fact, only one was actual; the other nine I completely made up.  My intent was to make them be skeptical of Internet things, but I was wrong.  When I told them of my “fake news,” no one seemed interested or surprised.  Much less concerned. I wrote it off as teenage boredom.  Probably my second mistake.

Today we might think fake news happens when someone, or some government, puts up a web site that looks authentic and legitimate and pushes out stories that are knowingly false (like I did for my high school lecture).  Those activities, much like government sponsored propaganda from the cold war days, was intentionally designed to deceive and control what people believe.  But maybe there is a lot more to it.

The rise of conservative, and to some extent progressive, talk show hosts has blurred the lines between opinion and news facts.  When they are aggressive, loud, extreme in their opinions and didactic, few of their devotees see them as anything other than authentic and their words relate what no one else will say: the truth they have been waiting to hear.  Sure, they are biased in their beliefs and opinions (or maybe just good entertainers or both), and sure, they want to convince you of their truth, but it doesn’t a priori mean their news is fake.  At least in as much as they openly present who and what they are.  Listeners and watchers have to make judgements on whether what they hear and see is accurate.

And that is a big part of what fake news has become to mean:  my real news is your fake news and vice versa.  You may love the New York Times and believe that it is a publication that strives for fair and accurate reporting, and I may believe everything is made up to rob  me of my rights to liberty and life while I stand by Fox News as the only major media outlet who tells it like it is.  Multiply that on down the line to countless talking heads, newsletters, web sites, and stupid bloggers like me and the result is a couple of parallel universes of truth and fiction, or at least lack of fact.

There might well be other sources of fake news that are not so obvious, that may in fact be part of the divide that creates my fake and your fact:  internal voices.  In the January 9 issue of the New Yorker, the article “The Voices in Our Heads” by  Jerome Groopman discusses how he talks to himself (he is a staff writer on science and medicine) and that a lot of people do the same.  The first reaction might be to cross to the other side of the street if you saw any of them coming, but he suggests it may not always be a pejorative malady but instead part of some people’s neurobiology.  He cites the work of Charles Fernyhough, a British professor of psychology at Durham University, in England, who has researched and written on the subject and who himself has “inner voice” dialogues.

There is no conclusive evidence yet to fully understand why this is true for some people, or whether it is important (you see, real science doesn’t work like fake news although some fake news grabs onto science and connects dots not there).  But history (another fake news source?) has lots of anecdotal tales that relate to it.  Joan of Arc heard God speak and command her to lead the French in an uprising against the English rule (burning at the stake has fallen out of favor with talk show hosts I’m afraid).  The Old Testament of the Bible is replete with conversations between men and God, and Muhammad was the Prophet guided by God according to the Koran.  These contrast a bit more favorably with the guy carrying the sign about the end of the world on the street corner downtown, but we don’t know for sure.

We can be fairly certain that most people, hearing a voice certainly different from their own, coming from no discernible specific location, and whom they attribute to God or even some other strong force (any number of sci-fi movies covers this very well) wouldn’t hesitate to believe what they hear in their heads.  It’s not pathological per se, but it is understandable.  And you think there is any way you are going to convince them those internal voices are speaking fake news?

I heartily suggest reading the article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/09/the-voices-in-our-heads.  It is wide ranging, does not focus on conversations with divine entities, but instead sheds some new light on how our brains might work.  Never ever a source of anything but amazement and wonder to me.

For the foreseeable future, fake news in all its forms of delivery and acceptance is here to stay and part of the fabric of our daily lives.  Vice News did a clever video gathering clips from dozens of news shows basically joking that fake news is fake itself.  Sigh.

I love being around smart, really smart people.  There is so much to learn and know.  One of the signs I look for in really smart people is their recognition of what they don’t know.  They are humble in that regard, healthily skeptical and inquisitive.  It is, I believe, a significant part of what makes them smart.

I would like to hang out around you, so please try and be smart in that humble, inquisitive and skeptical way.

 

It’s Almost Christmas – Our Traditions

Today, I spoke to a friend who is Jewish.  I wished him a Happy Hanukah, and I got a small earful of comments I found I pretty much agree with.  He said that Hanukah by traditional standards was not a religious but an historical occasion, and there was even some disputes about exactly what it commemorated.  Was it the stretch of oil in the temple to an eight day supply?  Or something else.  What he disliked, he said, was how the festival seemed to have been torqued to become a substitute for Christmas for Jews with all the commercialization of it and the gift giving; this is a guy who is big in retail!

What he said got me thinking about Christmas.  I realized that what we think of as enduring Christmas traditions are pretty recent things.  Although St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in much of Europe on December 6, his feast day, Santa Claus was first popularized by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822.  He was an Episcopal minister who wrote “The Night Before Christmas” as a poem for his daughters.  Our modern image of Santa Claus arose from that.

Christmas trees are even newer as home decorations and traditions.  Although trees were brought into homes in Germany as far back as the 1500s, they were considered as odd by most Americans well into the 1800s.  However, in 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shown with their children in an illustration in a London newspaper around a Christmas tree.  They suddenly were all the rage.

Gift giving was long a tradition for St. Nicholas Day.  The actual saint was considered a pious and devout man who looked after children and the poor.  Giving was done in his honor.  Now of course, gift giving is as much a part of Christmas as Black Friday.  You get the picture.

But what about Christmas itself?  Easter was a sacred religious holiday from the time of Christ, but it wasn’t until Pope Julius I set Christmas to be celebrated on December 25th that it was more than just another day.  Even then, it took centuries for it to become a universal celebration.  Oliver Cromwell wanted to ban it as a pagan festival, and from 1659 to 1681, it was banned in Boston in the Pilgrim colony there.  And certainly December did coincide with many pagan rituals somewhat clustered around the solstice on December 20 or 21.

Back to my Jewish friend and his comments about gift giving.  His real point was that when  you give someone a gift for their birthday, anniversary, or as a thank you for some kindness, it is a sincere acknowledgement of your relationship with them.  To give a hoard of people gifts because you work with them, belong to the same book club, that they teach or coach your kids or hail you cabs demeans the idea of giving.  He claims, and being in retail probably knows better than the rest of us, that getting a wide swath of gifts can produce anxiety: did I spend as much on them as they did on me, will they like it, what if they don’t get me one in return?

I think he has a point.  As a family, we have decided this year to give presents only to the youngest kids among us.  For each other, we will do experiential things during the year, like get togethers, travel, maybe make something for no good reason.  Also, more donations to needy families and charitable organizations that do social good.  That seems like the real spirit of giving.

I suggest you do a bit of research into the history of some of what we call treasured traditions to see what is really behind them, and Christmas seemed like a natural place to start.  Most of us have enduring childhood and family memories about this time of year, and those feelings run deep.  They seem to suggest things have always been the way they are.  TV, movies, ads and everything else done to propel us to retail outlets at this time of year only reinforces that feeling.

Before I conclude, I wanted to address salutations and wishes at this time of year.  Much has been been made by some about a “war on Christmas” because some people say “happy holidays” even if they also say “Merry Christmas.”  My personal perspective is, well, not worth putting in the vernacular that I am thinking of.  I am an atheist in that I believe in no deity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who are religious or those who are not.  I gladly wish people Merry Christmas, as I would gladly wish them Happy Hanukah, or in other times of the year, glad greetings for whatever they might celebrate that I do not.  If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or anything else pleasant, I gladly accept it in the spirit and hopefully love with which it was given.

Now that I know a bit more about what we have come to know as Christmas, how it has not been a straight line back to the birth of Christ, it seems even more important that if you believe in Him, that you would think of the reasons why you believe he was born: to bring love and salvation to mankind.  Not to make us wary of one another and doubt us as neighbors because we might be a bit different in what we believe and do.

So have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and all of the other wonderful days in the year ahead.

Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It’s Off to Where Did Our Jobs Go?

Forbidden Planet

In 1956,  Frankie Darro changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.  I never really met him, nor even knew who he was until years later.  Maybe you don’t know who he is either.  And maybe that, dear readers, is a metaphor for this post:  it’s what you don’t know that should make you wonder why.

Robbie the Robot was a 7 foot tall star in the movie “Forbidden Planet.”  He had a large head and in place of an open mouth was a blue light panel that flashed in sync with his mechanized speed.  Frankie Darro was a stunt man inside Robbie.  Robbie was the most memorable early example of artificial intelligence and seemed to have been programmed with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, first stated in 1950.  Check ’em out.

That movie, and in particular Robbie, had a lasting but barely detectable influence on my life.  I got a degree in physics, launched into a decades-long career in computers, and did some (commercial but otherwise not memorable) work with neural networks, the early foundation of today’s AI world.

It wasn’t just Robbie.  I remember many TV programs, articles and pundits declaring how automation was a threat to the working middle class.  It would obviate their jobs, and worse, obviate their lives.  That essentially didn’t happen then, but it has definitely been happening, and I argue in this post, will be an accelerating trend.

Robots Since Robbie

For decades after my childhood encounter with Robbie, robot ideas and concepts seemed modeled on him. But then came “2001:A Space Odyssey” and HAL 9000 and the computer on the Enterprise in “Star Trek” and changed the robot image entirely.  I don’t think fans, aside from a devoted few, thought of them as robots.  Instead, the idea of big, often yellow, fast acting but rather stationery workers on automobile assembly lines that moved, assembled and welded parts were our new Robbie incarnates.  Or those MIT/Stanford/etc. contestants in the DARPA-sponsored self driving competitions, with their multi-camera eyes, Erector Set quality bodies, and dangling wires harking to mad scientists instead of our social companions.

Along comes Deep Blue (chess) and Watson (“Jeopardy”) from IBM, Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Alexa (Amazon), and Google Voice/Translator/et al. (Google).  We are seeing these robots in our everyday world (except for the IBM mainframe things as of yet) where we use them as sometimes frustrating but ever improving helpmates.  And along comes the Tesla and Google and a pack of other self-driving cars.  And on the entertainment front, HBO’s “Westworld” is a modern extrapolation of Robbie and his human companions, presented with a hint of moral and commercial conundrum (and violence and sex – hey, it’s HBO).

Robots we don’t likely see or even know about are in the hands of health care providers and scientists and engineers.  Just at the horizon are imaging devices that will detect abnormalities even better than trained radiologists, genetically driven test devices that can predict diabetes or heart problems and cancer and on and on, well before a doctor might.  Not too far away is the medical tricorder of Star Trek.  Engineers use lasers in smart devices for measurements and design, as do scientists.  Scientists get great robotics in large telescopes and particle accelerators, but don’t expect these to become pocket-sized anytime soon.

Old robots are getting significant upgrades, too.  Industrial, manufacturing ones.  Not only the giant assembly line ones but smaller, more dexterous, smarter ones that are also more mobile.  They not only make products but work in warehouses to pick parts and deliver them to a loading dock for shipping.

So What’s that Got to Do with Jobs?

Market conditions have always been drivers for and against jobs. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, most workers were in agriculture on small farms or in some form of cottage industry.  But as factories were built, there was a migration to cities where the work force was needed.  At the same time, agriculture got significant productivity multipliers, so that one farm worker could produce for many instead of for only himself and his family (excuse the gender-specific reference).  That trend grew significantly when manufacturing grew to embrace Henry Ford’s production lines, replaceable parts, and all we have come to expect in products today.  Post-war (think especially 1950s) manufacturing embraced a growing middle class economy and manufacturing workers became part of it, building products for others while consuming products with their increasing buying power.  All was good.

Transportation changes began shaping how manufacturing companies looked at their options.  Canals, then railroads, and then trucks were significant in how manufacturing was planned and carried out but was kept pretty much to national confines.  Airplanes and ships started to expand first just markets internationally, but then where items were made. It actually became feasible to make parts in one country and ship them to another for assembly into finished products, then entire products themselves were made in one country and shipped to another.  As transportation costs, as well as transit times, fell, manufactures saw their significant cost component was labor.  And it was far cheaper to find labor outside the US, and manufacturing went where the cheap labor was.

Certainly free trade deals made some overseas migration of US manufacturing jobs easier, but manufacturers would still have chosen cheap labor costs over tariffs; tariffs could be passed along as a price component to consumers, but high labor costs were harder to include in low product prices.  The flip side of this is also important: US products in agriculture, technology and other sectors where the US held dominance benefited from the free trade deals.  Hold onto these thoughts while we take a side trip in our story.

Changes in Policy Ahead?

Donald Trump’s campaign promises may be fulfilled if reading the tea leaves of his announced appointees is a prediction of the future.  These include fining companies who send jobs out of the US, a 35% tariff on (at least automobiles made in Mexico) goods made outside the US by US manufacturing companies, “tearing up” trade deals and re-negotiating them, significantly reduce the federal government’s role in many areas and reduce federal spending by whopping amounts, and repeal and replace the ACA aks Obamacare.  He promised that these measures would create <insert your enormous number here> of jobs, increase US GDP growth to 4% annually, bring down unemployment, bring back steel production, coal jobs, and open up US drilling and production of oil.

Let’s examine just a few of those.  Steel mills have shut down in so many areas displaced by newer, more efficient mills in China and Japan, for example.  Not only would it take significant capital investment to create competitive mills and time to build them, but investors are almost certainly going to look at more lucrative returns on their investment dollars in other ventures.  Coal has been dealt its setbacks not so much because of regulation but by cheaper renewable energy like solar and wind, and very cheap and clean natural gas.  Coal fired power plants, already an endangered species because of cheaper fuels to run them, may additionally face more pressure from a new generation of nuclear power plants that are safer but still costly and time consuming to build (an likely to need a higher level of government intervention, unless the presumptive DOE Secretary Perry decides nuclear energy should be a completely free market enterprise).  And somewhat unnoticed by the media and pundits is that coal (coke) usage also fell when steel mills were shuttered.

Maybe 40% of light trucks sold in the US are made in Mexico.  Slapping a tariff on them would probably raise the average price somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 per vehicle if not more at 35% on a $17,000  cost.  Buyers will struggle to come up with the extra cost, sales will fall, and auto makers will respond by pulling back.  It’s not just the workers at their plants in Mexico; it’s also the replacement parts makers, the sales staffs, the body shop employees, and all the auto food chain that will pull back as well.

Substitute any other product made overseas and sold here and you get a similar scenario: smartphones, consumer electronics, clothing, furniture, toys, and even produce like fruits and vegetables, a seemingly endless list of what we have to have at the cheapest prices possible.  In other words, put tariffs and duties on imported goods, see prices go up, sales go down, and a whole backlash of things happen.  Not to mention the unhappiness of buyers who want all of that stuff.

So Why Did We Lose Jobs in the First Place?

Market forces certainly led to cheaper labor overseas, and it wasn’t only in manufacturing.  Call centers, software developers, human resources, tax and accounting, all sorts of services that could be outsourced.  Countries like India, China, and other developing countries not only had government policies that fostered their domestic workforce to develop the skills necessary, but they encouraged private investment – often from American companies and investors – to nurture that development as well.  So while manufacturing jobs went overseas, so did many white collar jobs.  You just didn’t see a lot of HR or tax accounting people holding protest signs during the 2016 campaign.

Which brings up another important issue.  Over the decades and centuries, many jobs have been lost.  Job categories, that is.  Buggy whip makes is a moniker for this but suggests it  is a very old and ancient issue.  It is not.  How about elevator operators, telephone operators, workers who made mimeograph and fax machines, TVs that were not flat screen.

Some, many that is, jobs are lost because the market for what those jobs produced dry up.  The jobs are replaced by innovation, new inventions and discovers, economies of scale.  You can’t bring those jobs back.  And most people would say, why bother?

I started this story talking about robots.  Ponder for a few words with me how robots (as a broad class of automation) will affect jobs in the near and even very near future.

Self-driving cars and trucks and drones.  They are so close we can touch them.  Their impact on jobs will be enormous.  It is not just that trucks and cars as we know them will zip along carrying goods without anyone driving them.  They will certainly enable very different paradigms of what cars and trucks do, how they are built, and how they function.  To illustrate this, consider that Amazon bought a robotics company and has deployed tens of thousands of robot pickers in their vast warehouses.  They get order information from computer systems that no doubt have sophisticated algorithms to get items ready first that have the earliest delivery/departure requirements grouped by how they aggregate for shipping.  But more to the point, Amazon can now completely change the way it organizes items in its warehouses from what works best for humans (like items grouped together so humans more easily remember where they are) to. say, items often ordered together because computers remember where things are for the robots.  Likewise, cars and trucks that don’t have to accommodate human drivers will certainly be different from what we know.

Health care providers may not lose their jobs as fast as truck drivers, but they will require brand new skills and a refocus on how various practices actually work.  Teachers will continue to find value in automated teaching aids.  Houses now built by crews on their foundations will see the trend for factory-built components installed on site but eventually even those will be done by robot cranes and framers.  This is a minute fraction of what can, or more than likely, will be done.

And it’s not just in the US.  Foxconn, manufacturers of the iPhone in China, recently completed a phase of robotic automation and reduced their workforce from over 100,000 people to about half of that.  And expect to do more of the same.  Not only does automation reduce the labor head count and cut out spending on salaries and benefits, it allows new tasks to be done by machines that simply cannot be done by humans.  Coal miners have long known this and don’t dig out coal with a shovel and wheelbarrow.  Beyond brute force, speed and precision are domains of expertise machines claim that humans cannot.

Let’s Put Some Pieces Together

Yes, some jobs have moved from here in the US to other countries, and not just manufacturing jobs.  Yet more jobs just disappeared because automation made them, as the English would say, redundant.  More will yet fall to automation, and the numbers will likely astound and shock us.  So will coal and steel and other manufacturing jobs stay here, or as promised, come back?  Not something you should wager heavily on. Will there be token boomerang jobs that come back, like the Carrier plant last month? Oh for sure, politicians and especially Donald Trump need the theatrics.  Those few hundred jobs cost Ohio tax payers $7 million over a decade to come, but will the jobs last that long?  Did United Technologies, the parent of Carrier, figure keeping the jobs was a small cost against the loss of its billions in defense contracts?  I would wager on that.  During much of the Obama administration, and for about the past 75 straight months, private sector growth was about 180,000 to over 200,000 new jobs PER MONTH. Do the math when comparing.

But what about job loss?  If government spending on social programs, research, and health care is drastically cut, how will job growth match those numbers, much less exceed them?  How will curtailing trade agreements grow jobs instead of eliminating enormous markets for our goods and services that rely on open trade?

It is easy for me to believe that there are very wealthy individuals who will profit handsomely in their business endeavors if deregulation opens up natural resources and gives them a competitive advantage.  They may even create a few thousand jobs by doing so.  But higher prices will hurt a consumer base whose spending is precariously close to its earnings and their social nets fray and disintegrate with conservative, you’re-on-your-on policies.  Go back to oil for a moment.  Deregulation might mean more fracking state production and even open up offshore and – heaven help us – Alaska permafrost drilling and production.  In a world market with a glut of oil and lower prices than many of us have ever known, crude prices should stay the same or resume their decline.  That makes coal even more relatively expensive and makes exploration, drilling and production investments more risky and eventually unlikely.

Will some manufacturing jobs return here?  I believe so.  They will follow models, like Foxconn and others, and come back in highly automated factories that employ mostly highly skilled and trained information workers to plan and control operations.  After all, if you don’t have to pay salaries, it doesn’t matter that wages might be high.

I avoid any mention of climate change/global warming with its well recognized consequences of rising sea levels, heavy rains and storms, and increasing drought in already arid regions.  It would fall on deaf ears to many I would like to seriously consider job growth and protection in the next few years, so let’s just say it’s important, in all of these contexts, to some of us.

Said in just a few words, so many of Trump’s potential policies will conflict with each other in terms of his campaign promises to the many people who have lost their jobs, and feel as though the country is slipping away from them.  I fear they will be left holding the bag just as empty as the campaign promises made to them.

 

We Need a Black Hole in Our Neighborhood, or Black Holes Matter

If you have wondered where I have been, then you have no reasonable activities in your life.  But let’s put that aside.  I am writing here again.

What do you know about black holes?

I assume that anyone with an Internet connection has heard of black holes.  That doesn’t mean those same folks really know anything other than junk science from movies and TV and fantasy stories.  Kinda like political news, only worse.  A bit of not too technical pieces of information to start us off.

Black holes are a whole lot of stuff crunched down to a size that is so tiny we can’t really imagine it.  As physicists would say, it’s a whole lot of matter.  Really they would say it is a region of spacetime that has is so warped that electromagnetic radiation attracted into it cannot escape; since light is electromagnetic radiation, the term black hole is used to say that no light can be seen from outside the black hole.

I doubt if this helps you understand even a bit about black holes.  Let’s try some lame analogies that should help.  Take a heavy (to us) object like a bowling ball and place it in the center of s bed sheet tied at its four corners.  The weight of the bowling will cause the sheet to sag in the middle.  If you were to drop a ping pong ball onto the sheet, you realize it would roll to the center and land next to the bowling ball.

Roughly, that is spacetime curvature.  A massive object with its gravitational field curves spacetime.  If you vaguely remember science, you may recall being told that light will curve as it passes near a massive object.  It isn’t really curving, like a car on a road or a curve ball, but rather following the curve in spacetime the large body has caused.  When Einstein proposed the Special Theory of Relativity, one of the predictions is that during a total eclipse of the stars that were actually behind the sun at that time would be seen on the side, displaced from their real location.  In 1919, these predictions were found to be true.

Curvature of spacetime has implications for time as well as space; what a surprise.  If space is curved near a massive body, it means that light or anything else traveling near it follows that curvature, and the path it travels is longer.  Relativity predicts, then, that to a stationery observer farther away, time slows down.  What?  I got you to understand the bowling ball thing but not that your watch is affected?  Relatively says it depends on your point of view, and it does.

Suppose you are wearing a special watch that flashes a beam of light once every second.  And suppose you are on a space ship traveling near a massive body which curves spacetime.  To you, your watch keeps flashing once every second.  To an observer quite a distance away, not in the significant curvature of spacetime, your watch is slow because, even though it flashes once every second to you, the curvature of spacetime gives light a longer path to travel to reach the observer. hence your watch needs adjusting.

Apply this to black holes

So much matter is in a black hole that spacetime is curved so much that light can’t travel out of it.  In other words, spacetime has curved so much that the path light must travel is far longer than the 186,000 miles per second speed that light is limited to zooming around.  It is not, then, some form of cosmic Velcro that grabs hold of light and won’t let it go.  It is that space has gotten so big that there is nothing fast enough to travel across it.

What is the implication for time, then?  Think about your watch with the flashing light.  If you and it fall into a black hole (we’ll mention the effects on you and it later) what would you see from the outside?  As the watch got close to the edge of the black hole, curvature would be so great that light would take a very long time to travel to you.  Hence, you as an outside observer, would think the watch had slowed way down.  Then it falls into the black hole, no light comes out, so you would think it has stopped completely;  you would never see a subsequent flash of light.  That doesn’t mean that inside the black hole, wearing the watch, you would see it still running at one flash per second.  (It wouldn’t actually work that way but let’s ignore that for now).

Orbiting a black hole

Suffice it to say that at the right distance from a black hole inside your space ship traveling at the right speed, you could orbit a black hole.  This ignores angular momentum, relativity and some other stuff that we can briefly – and permanently for this blog posting – ignore.  So you go round and round.  Just close enough to the black hole but not too close.  You want to stay away from the event horizon.  The what?

Imagine you are in a canoe on a river upstream from a big water fall.  As the river nears the waterfall, the current increases and your canoe goes along with it.  If you aren’t too close, you can paddle hard and turn around back upstream.  But get too close to the waterfall and you can’t paddle fast enough to keep from falling over it.  There is some point where you could just stay in place if you paddled hard enough, but past that you are going over the edge.  Near a black hole, that is the event horizon.  Just past it, light can’t travel fast enough to cover spacetime curvature to get away from the black hole.  In other words, we can’t “see” over the event horizon; things that happen  past it are out of our line of sight.

But to that orbit. Your space ship would probably have to be going very fast to stay in orbit, and that would call relativity into all sorts of considerations.  But the one I want you to think about is time.  Let’s suppose your spaceship has a big watch with a flashing light attached to its outside hull.  Every second its light flashes.  You see it keeping perfect time, and another traveler in orbit near you would agree that the time is correct.  But back here on earth, the time between flashes would be way slower than once a second.  Not because we are a long way off – it’s not how long the first flash takes to get here but how long BETWEEN flashes – but because the curvature of spacetime near the black hole means a much longer path for the light to travel.

Said another way, your twin brother here on earth observing your orbit will experience time a lot faster than you will in orbit.  For grins, every time your one second flash appears to him on earth, his own watch may have flashed several times or more, depending on fast you are traveling in orbit and how close you are to the BH.  So when he is a year older, having no life at all other than watching you out there, you may be only a few months or so older, if that.

How about a BH in our neighborhood?

It might be like the immigrant family who moved in from the Middle East or Asia or Eastern Europe a few months back.  Yes, they look a bit different, have different customs and practices, maybe a different religion, but they seem nice enough.  Their English may not be perfect but if we got to know them better we could definitely learn something from each others’ backgrounds and experiences.

A black hole might be a little more disruptive than that, however.  You would have to hang onto your stuff, not that your new neighbor might take it, but things will definitely curve in its direction.  But that’s not why a BH as a close neighbor would not be a great thing.

In late October of this year, we could have sent a whole bunch of people who did not vote in the election along with the “protest voters” who voted neither for Clinton nor Trump.  Now, we could get them to come back and it will still be November 7th.  They all could vote.  Better or at all.

You might be thinking this country has fallen into a black hole.  Unlikely.  It takes a bit of science and thought experiments – which require thought, right? – to “get” black holes. There is certainly no sign of either past 11/8/16.

Happy science.

Textalyzer – Good, Bad, Stupid?

First, I am happy to be posting again after a prolonged absence.  No real excuse.  I would like to say I didn’t have time, but I could have always made time.  I would like to say I didn’t have anything interesting to write about, but that is ridiculous.  I would like to say I just didn’t feel motivated, and that would be closer to the truth.  But here I am again.

In yesterday’s New York Times, the following story appeared, and it resurfaced today in an email from the paper with the subject Personal Tech:  http://p.nytimes.com/email/re?location=4z5Q7LhI+KVBjmEgFdYACPLKh239P3pgjLgQE8v0H/BvOS1wY/cUjO19PWzxHyUEkIRZWAg+ppB7O/1sva1CQk9dx3ga6lR3H6OBN6E4UXpa8Rtl0mltcLJ6iXquO107QnOFMTCq2g94pH1c2KOfwtNLsqLJmm+z&campaign_id=17095&instance_id=75448&segment_id=88718&user_id=84e41ccecd81e6755a0988aad5cbaa10&regi_id=26286525.

I urge you to read it.

There were over 600 reader comments about this article, and from what I can tell all were supportive if not downright endorsements.  My own comment earned yet another NYT pick.  Here’s what I had to say:


I drive and text all the time – legally although touching one’s phone while driving is illegal in Washing State. I accomplish this with my Windows Phone (I am the 3%) and my car’s audio system. Should a text message arrive, my phone plays it through the audio system and allows me to reply by speaking the message, A lot of interaction with the messaging is possible, but you get the idea.

So if I were pulled over and asked to hand over my phone for a police office to see if I had been texting, there is a possibility that my phone would show I had. It would not, however, show I had done so with a Bluetooth connection and voice only interaction. Completely analogous to a hands free phone conversation, which also would show up as happening while driving.

So much for apps and assumptions.


I vaguely recall a police investigation about 15 or so years ago looking into some illegal downloads from the Internet; it may have been porn or music or who knows what.  The point is the police traced it to a smallish business location and then went in to bust the owner because they assumed he was doing the illegal downloading.  They were absolutely baffled to learn that there was only ONE public IP address for the business – the one everyone there used to browse, etc. – but LOTS of internal IP addresses.  Their golden case quickly turned to lead.

I happen to agree with not only so many of those who commented on the article that texting or other phone-related distractions are annoying at best and in most cases dangerous with far too many deadly endings.  But this technology, given to police, is guaranteed to produce unintended consequences. My own scenario from my comment is one, and another reader wondered how, during the time an officer responded to an accident, texts could and probably would be sent that couldn’t be determined to have been sent before or after what is then an inexact time of the accident itself.

There is another issue.  Veracity of any officer.  He or she could say a driver was stopped and then determined to have been texting.  But where is the check on the officer’s word to guarantee that harassment isn’t taking place?  Unlike a breath test, where the results are unambiguously preserved and can be supported by blood tests, not so much for texts.

Despite the ban on in any way physically interacting with your phone except by voice (at least in WA), on any given day of normal driving I probably see five or more people holding one to their ear or to their mouth, obviously speakerphone enabled.  I also see cars not moving when stopped for traffic and the cars ahead do.  I see people standing in the aisles at stores, texting or more insidiously gabbing, oblivious to the fact they are blocking others and intruding into everyone else’s personal space.  I see people walking downtown doing the same thing.

It would be nice to believe that legislation or technology would solve any of these problems, but neither will.  Good manners and common sense are several orders of magnitude less distributed than smartphones are.

But a good effort, like Textalayzer, is not good enough.

What is needed instead is a black box-like recorder in our automobiles that captures this information as it does on trains, airplanes, and other commercial vehicles.  We need every car equipped with Bluetooth interactivity to eliminate the need to hold one’s phone. We put seat belts in every car to prevent injury so why wouldn’t we do the same to prevent death or injury by text?

Is this a remake of an old movie?

And of course I mean….

The Donald.  Many of us would characterize him as a demigod, referring to the derogatory definition that elevates an individual to an impressive or important status for self aggrandizement.  In the political sense, a demigod is someone who challenges the system of government but in a way that puts them at the helm of a gathering citizenry.  While possibly a good way to keep government in check – think Bernie Sanders – when taken to an extreme and the citizenry becomes a violent enforcer not so good – think Adolf Hitler.

No matter where on the political spectrum they fall, none of my friends disagree about Trump.  We find him outrageous, uncultured, ill tempered and self promoting.  And those are just the good things.  So I got to thinking, how unique or unusual is he in American politics, or world politics?

I don’t really know but hope someone does

There are a few politicians who have appeared during my lifetime, or a bit before it so their legends are well known to me, that want to make me believe Trump is just another one of them.  Think of Huey Long, Sen. Joe McCarthy, George Wallace.  They all played to populist fears and gained more than just a following, like demigods do.

I leap to the conclusion that these guys, along with Trump, are admired by groups of people who are not that distinguished from one another over across the decades.  They are people who feel threatened that their way of life is being taken away and want to blame the government run by “others” for “others.”  If contemporary polls, and my ad hoc experiences, are correct, they are also predominately male with little or no higher education.  They feel, or at least exhibit, that they have little or no control over their lives, and they naturally look for an outspoken, muscular-sounding, I-ll-fix-the-problem leader. Never mind that these leaders don’t articulate what the REAL problems are nor offer any viable solutions to them.  All they have to do is rant.

Does history bear me out on this?

I hope so.  While Long ran Louisiana like it was his own fiefdom, as did Wallace in Alabama, neither man was a successful presidential candidate.  It was sad that both were targets of assignation though; no one deserves that fate.  McCarthy died in office after a vitriolic career of not just looking under every rock for a Communist but for homosexuals as well.  All of these, including Trump, were vilified while running and/or in power by a great many.

What does not make me qualified to rely on history is my lack of really understanding it.  What are the real messages, if any, and how would we learn about them?  If history is repeating itself, why and how can we recognize it and avoid the wrong outcomes again?

May politicians learn from history: what works and why.  Maybe they recognize as well that most people don’t learn from it at all, and they are doomed to repeat it.  They rest of us are doomed to watch them do it.

New Year’s Day – What Is It?

January 1st?

Most of us, I assume, celebrate January 1st as New Year’s Day.  Unless of course you are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, or one of a number of other religions, cultures, or countries.  For some of these, the new year begins on dates that seem random on the Gregorian calendar, but are tied to the lunar cycle, something easily observed and recorded by ancient civilizations. A great many of these other new year dates are in the late winter to early spring.  Notable exceptions are the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, a fall celebration commemorating the seven days of creation in the fall and those celebrated on or near Diwali, the Hindu ancient festival of lights, also in the fall.

Nearly all cultures and religions have some sort of New Year celebration or significance.  What is common, then, among these widely diverse groups?

January 1st Through April New Year’s

The longest day for darkness (in the Northern Hemisphere) of the year is the winter solstice, and it occurs between December 20th and 23rd in the Gregorian calendar.  In 2014, it was on December 21st, apparantly the longest in the history of the earth: the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down, so it would take longer this year to make a revolution than in any previous recorded year.  In the era before humans had lights, the cold and the long darkness of those days must have been not just scary, but life threatening.  Gathering edible food from plants and animals was limited and warding off cold could prove fatal.

It is no wonder, then, that getting through that precarious season was a time to celebrate.  The daylight hours slowly began to lengthen, temperatures warmed, and as spring approached, plants returned to life and animals got ready to have their young, and the earth provided what must have seemed like unbounded abundance.  But this is a Northern Hemisphere centric view, as just the opposite was happening south of the equator.

Autumnal New Year’s

The thankfulness for surviving and flourishing is equally apparent in the fall celebrations. The summer months meant a time to cultivate crops, raise livestock, gather wild berries and hunt game.  Before the winter set in, the harvest and the storehouse it provided for the upcoming months of lean was indeed a time to give thanks, feel blessed, and celebrate with festivals, food, and gather family and friends to share in the bounty.  Other reasons are just thankfulness for life and happiness, perhaps surviving to live another year.

Hope for the New Year

In addition to the timing of celebrations of New Year’s is the hope and often deep belief that the next year will bring new health, wealth and happiness in ways the year ending did not.  Chinese New Year celebrations feature red as a predominate color.   Legend has it that red paper frightened away an evil spirit who came yearly to eat villagers and especially children, and that firecrackers were an added deterrent.  Red envelopes are now passed to family and friends as New Year’s presents.  Dragon dances and firecrackers scare away other evil spirits, and red has become the color of good luck.

Spirits dominate western culture New Year’s celebration as well.  Noticeably, champagne.  This relatively expensive, effervescent bubbly drink has become the poster child for Midnight January 1st, along with the New Year’s kiss.  Lucky indeed is the person who gets both a glass of good champagne and a good kiss to savor with it.  Other spirits can help with the great kiss, like bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka, and rye.  The next morning, almost no one wants to hear firecrackers to make these spirits go away; maybe tomato juice and strong coffee would be better.

What I Have Pondered this Holiday Season

We take so much for granted, particularly when it comes to our holidays.  What our childhood memories of them are is likely to be the view we assume is, was and will always be.  That traditions, meanings, and celebrations will change over time, as well as place, is not something many of us give much thought to.  Christmas, for example, has become an almost world wide celebration.  Not, as I believe, because more people wish to celebrate the birth of Christ, but because Christmas has become a universal business opportunity.  Yes,there is all that warm and fuzzy spirit of the season, and that helps – people like to get in on the fun and trapping of the day – but overall it is mostly a secular celebration now instead of a predominately religious one.  No doubt some readers will find this offensive, but I mean it only to be objective.

Shift away from North America and Western Europe and the view of the holiday season is going to go through a shift in the spectrum of celebrations and attitudes as well, from closely aligned to non-existent.  In the same way, New Year’s celebrations change (by date and more) moving outside our Northern Hemisphere and dominant cultures and religions to the rest of the world.

Shift in time is equally startling. Go back a little more than a century to a wold of candles and fires as our only sources of light and heat, where there were no Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Macy’s parades, Black Friday or bowl games.  Our holiday season is a fairly modern invention.  But who doesn’t associate it with sleigh rides, Coke’s jolly St. Nick face, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and I’ll Have a Blue Christmas?

What I have learned is that there are many ways to celebrate life, family, creation, and happiness.  Our traditions are just one group of many more.

So may this New Year, from a Gregorian pointy of view, bring you the health, happiness and prosperity that you wish for.

Happy New Year!