Thursday, July 26, 2012

American greatness? 'That dog won't hunt'

Saw this on Twitter about Mitt Romney's 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness:
England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population.
The tweet motivated me to write the following send-up of the USA (apologies to Yankee pals). The focus is on HUGE as opposed to SMALL.

Title comes from when I first heard the expression: Ross Perot's quip in 1992 US Presidential campaign, "That dog won't hunt." (meaning fuggedaboudit)

United States is just another huge country. Not as big as Russia or Canada but still huge.

Does size matter? Hard to say when little Norway's doing fine:
So rosy are its books and so high its standard of living that it has been rated No. 1 on the UN's Human Development Index for nine of the first 11 years of this century.
US roads and houses are huge, which helps explain why, like much of the developed world, it's a huge energy consumer.
Americans, make up only 4% of the world's population, operate 33% of its automobiles and consume 25% of the world's global energy supply.
All of this will eventually have huge consequences.


Its restaurant food servings are huge, and its fast food outlets are hugely popular, helping to explain why its adults and children have the highest levels of obesity on earth.
USA is the world's single largest manufacturer. It makes some things that people in the rest of the world don't want to buy, e.g., huge gas guzzling cars. 

Other products sell well, e.g., USA is the world's largest exporter of arms (weapons of death and destruction) and dominates international arms markets.

US is also famous for its silicon valley and companies like Apple and Microsoft. But many of their jobs are done by cheap labour overseas.

USA is huge too when it comes to imprisoning its population, even more than in Stalin's gulags. Some states have huge prison populations:
USA has a long-standing gun culture. As a Canadian, it scares the hell out of me, and I suspect most citizens from developed countries around the world.
Nutballs in many countries have committed mass murder with firearms, but none quite so much as USA:
To think the NRA can control American elections by targetting pro-gun control politicians is puke-inducing.
US health care costs dwarf costs of other countries. But outcomes are not necessarily better:
The U.S. has the highest health spending per capita among peer countries, yet it fares poorly on life expectancy, infant mortality, and premature mortality.

Interesting OECD overview: Why is health care spending in USA so high? Example:
  • USA per capita spending (2009): $7598 | Canada: $4139
Multiple factors but having a single payer saves mega-bucks in administrative costs.


USA does not score well on international tests of maths and science. Although it has some of the world's finest universities and continues to lead in Nobel Prize winners, when it comes to K-12 and most universities, mediocrity reigns. US students consistently score poorly compared to other nations.

Frankly, when nearly 50% of Americans believe God created mankind in a single day ~ 10,000 years ago, science is dead in the USA. 

This finding scares the hell out of me:
US is also huge when it comes to religion. For example, most Americans (59%) report that religion plays a "very important" role in their lives, a proportion unique among developed nations.

US politicians constantly refer to God and religion. Frankly, this is unheard of in other western countries. USA is just like Islamic countries in this regard.

After WWI America wasn't keen on getting involved in another European war. Famously, FDR had to work indirectly to help Britain. 

From 1939 to 1941, Britain, Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia, and Europe (except for Italy & Spain) fought Hitler alone. Gives an ironic chuckle to watch US war films that create that impression that Yanks single handed won WWII.

If the USA hadn't been bombed by Japan in 1941, it likely would have let England and the rest of the world fall to Hitler. Just think, no more Jews, no more Roma, no more handicapped.

Once noted as the world's melting pot, post 9/11 the US is rather xenophobic. No more 
  • Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Today, Canada is more open to immigrants:
As noted on Fareed Zakaria's GPS, Canada is a nation with more foreign-born per capita than the US and Canada has 'got it right.'

The US sub-prime housing crisis almost brought the entire world economy down. Why? 

Many complex reasons but mainly because under their system Americans could buy homes they couldn't afford,  greedy bankers were delighted to oblige, and later sold worthless assets to foreign investors.
Yet just over 2 centuries ago the American Revolution was a prelude to the French Revolution and the rise of democracy in Europe. 

In 1835 the US was celebrated, warts and all, by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America.

USA is hugely celebrated by its own citizens within its own shores, a shining city upon a hill.

On American TV you often here phrases like greatest country on earth, only in America, and most diverse

In reality, today's USA is not the greatest of anything unless you count incarceration, obesity, and religious rates. Oh yes, and greatest military power.

Even freest and most democratic country is subject to debate.
Note: Links to above report have changed:
I know many Americans and they are almost always universally kind and generous and smart. Maybe it's because they're mainly health care workers.

The same country that spawns the Tea Party and fundamentalist Christians, who I think of as right wing nut jobs, also counts among its citizens some of the most balanced and greatest thinkers the world has ever seen.

Nonetheless, the excerpt from Mitt's book seems to speak to an underlying arrogance. Maybe not, but I wonder. Hence this send-up.

It's worth remembering that to mention weaknesses is to care.  I used to tell students how feedback is an indispensable tool and how an appropriate response to criticism is, "Thanks for telling me that." 

In conclusion, as CNN's Wolf Blitzer often says, it's huge, huge! Seems America is never small, small. Too bad.

Just for fun: 
As always, comments are most welcome.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

NIMBY, a Canuckastan family feud over a pipeline

Updated: 6 May 2015 (Fixed broken links)
I'm Christie from Bee-Cee, part of the clan Canuckastan, who lives on a beautiful property with forests, rivers, lakes, and a long, long sea front. Our property's natural wonders are so great some have even called my home, 'super natural BeeCee.'

Like Canuckastans of yore, we earn lots of money as hewers of wood and gatherers of water. Our pride and joy are our trees and fish, and we welcome visitors who come to enjoy our beauty.

My neighbour Allie, also a Canuckastanian and current head of its 40-year Albertastan sect, and I generally get along fine except for those times in the 1970s and '90s. That's when when she claimed our Bee-Cee sect went rogue and spouted too much leftie nonsense about helping the poor and protecting the environment.

Allie's clan is more into being rugged individualists. To hell with collective action to help the group, they say. Survival of the fittest rules, and the weak should be helped by their nearest and dearest, assuming they have some. If not, tough titty.

Allie herself, however, is educated, urbane, and well travelled. Unlike many of her predecessors, she's well spoken and, horror of horrors to some Albertastanians, reasonably open to the leftie-notion of the benefits of group action.

Rugged individualism aside, Allie's family is lucky because they discovered oil on their land, and her kids have pretty much been on a gravy train ever since. Still, they think of themselves as hard workers who earn every penny and deserve their good fortune. Those to the east, who mostly lack oil, are apparently slackers.

The rest of the Canuckastan clan, especially those arrogant relatives to the east, are viewed as bastards who can freeze in the dark, at least according to a more politically incorrect Albertastan leader of the past, King Ralph.

Thankfully, we live to the west of Allie and, except for revelling in our beauty, are not particularly arrogant. Now that we're not leftie-rogue anymore, Allie wants to put a big pipe across our property so she can send the oil on her property to her new friends across the Pacific and make a lot of money ($81 billion in tax revenue over 30 years).

At first I said, "Sure, but you should give my family a share of what you make." Allie said, "How about 17%" and without thinking I replied, "Great!"

To my surprise, my family hit the roof. Some said we need much more, since we will assume 100% of the risk if the pipe springs a leak, which pipes, being pipes, always do sooner or later.

No way, other family members said. If that damn thing leaks, we'll lose everything. They'll try to clean it up but it'll take years and in the meantime we'll suffer and may even go bankrupt.

Moreover, boats carrying oil are bound to run aground and  spill their cargo sooner or later, same with drilling wells. The 2010 BP spill is just the latest in a long line of disasters.

Screwing up my courage to prevent a family revolt, I asked Allie if we could have a bigger share of the earnings. To my utter surprise, the urbane Allie turns out to be real SOB.

"No way!" she screams. "This isn't the Canuckastan way. Our cousins to the east, even those who've sometimes gone leftie-rogue, have hauled their crappy potash, uranium, and assorted rag-bags across my property and not asked for anything. Even you have lugged your damn trees across my land for free."

Stunned, I don't know what to say. But I suspect immediately that transporting logs and minerals by truck or train doesn't present the same risk as oil flowing through a pipe.

Secretly, I think Allie is afraid of Dannie, her upstart competitor for head of the Albertastan sect. Dannie, normally a champion of bozo-outbreaks and everyone's right to be a redneck Albertastanian, sounds rather conciliatory these days.

SO WHAT? (Learning Points)
Likely lose-lose, but it's one hell of a family fight and critical for the future of Canuckastan.

Seriously, if 'Mike from Canmore' wanted to run a pipe carrying oil through your yard, would you let him, for any amount of money?

Perhaps the target should be Enbridge? USA regulators call them Keystone Kops.

And for old time's sake, Joni's classic
Comments are most welcome.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Has technology exceeded our humanity? (A great ape muses on our path to digital blindness).

Updated: 17 Feb. 2018 (Mostly fixed links)

Many have written about technology and how it affects and may negatively affect humans and our evolutionary path as great apes.

Many techies see anti-tech as a boring story told by modern day Luddites.

Others see information technology and the Internet, including its creepy aspects, as just the unfamiliar that we will get used to:
  • You know, things like breaches of personal privacy by Google or Facebook and selling us to advertisers. We need to be 'cool with that' or risk being considered Luddites.
This blog documents some of my observations from everyday life based on daily walks around lovely Corbett Hall at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Corbett Hall is only a block away from where my husband and I live in an apartment complex whose tenants are mainly university students and health professionals working at UAH, mostly the former.

Typical Day
Went down in the elevator with 2 young people. Both were texting on their cell phones. No eye contact with anything but the tiny screens.

On Whyte Avenue a young man who was texting would have walked into me if I hadn't shouted "Hey!" This happens more and more often. He wasn't plugged into an ipod so could hear me.

At corner of Whyte and 112 Street, when the red light changed to green, I was nearly run over by a car turning right whose driver, a young woman, was on her cell phone, even though it's illegal here.

Lovely summer day. In the trees along Whyte Avenue and around Corbett Hall birds cheeped. Peregrine falcons nesting on the nearby Clinical Sciences Bldg, where I worked for 22 yrs+, soared and screeched.

A group of ~12 very short people from the nearby daycare centre marched arm in arm in a long line down the lawn and eventually began to frolic about while being supervised by daycare staff. Much giggling and gurgling by joyous toddlers.

A lone jack rabbit suddenly hopped across the lawn and through the parking lot to the adjoining large sports field.

Walked across the sports field to University Avenue and was accompanied by a whirring squadron of dragon flies, the flying aces of insect world.

Rounded a corner of Corbett Hall where the smell of lilacs still lingers.

Several students sat at the tables in front of Corbett. Many were texting.

Passed several students who had ipods (or similar) connected with earbuds.

Someone passed me and said hi, but when I turned to return the hello I saw he was on his cell phone using a microphone headset with microphone.

Was temporarily startled by a young man who whizzed by on his skateboard.

Dropped into Sobeys for a coffee. At next table sat 3 young people. One talked on her cell phone, one texted, and the other looked a bit forlorn. The phone conversation was the American 'valley girl speak' typical of most young Canadians for years now.
"I was like, 'She's such a crappy prof.' And he goes, 'That is so true. What a c_nt!' Many more I was like and he goes with numerous gratuitous expletives thrown in.
As someone who 'grew up' in the 60s, I've said many vulgarities at one time or another but not in a neighbourhood cafe in a loud, giggly voice, including when I was an immature 18.

At end of walk, returning home along Whyte, I passed a frail white-haired woman using a walker who met my greeting of "It's sure a lovely day" with a smile and replied, '"Wonderful, just wonderful."

Stopped as usual to smell the wild roses and other flowers planted along the avenue.

Went up in the elevator with 3 young tenants, all of whom were texting.

I have a cell phone, desktop computer, laptop, digital recorder, digital camera, ipod, ipad and was an early adopter of Internet technologies.

For 12 years I've made a living mainly as a self-taught webmaster, turning knowledge of transfusion science, education and the Internet into a post-teaching career. None of it would be possible without the generosity of colleagues.

As well, as a way to share interesting resources and news, or to vent about perceived injustices, but mostly I blog just for fun.
and Tweet:
After nearly 20 years of using  computers at work, I'm all but positive (who can be 100% sure of anything?) that nothing particularly important happens when sitting in front of a computer.

Certainly nothing we'll remember on our deathbeds. Instead of Citizen Kane's 'rosebud' few of us will call out 'iphone' or i-anything.

To me it's a no-brainer to appreciate what's real and take care to enjoy the natural world. All too soon we will lose the 5 senses our human bodies enjoy and enter the never-ending void called death.

I'm 'cool with that.' Someone, probably a Buddhist (forget who) once said the equivalent of, "I never worried about the millions of years I didn't exist before birth, so why be concerned about the eternity I won't exist after death?"

Hence, to live in the present we must be aware of our senses.  The ideas in Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Coming to Our Senses seem reasonable to me.

Nature is precious. It's everything worthwhile on our tiny 'pale blue dot,' as Carl Sagan put it. Einstein's famous line (about quite a different technology) seems appropriate:
  • It is appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity. 
As to evolution of our branch of hominids, I'd guess that many of us are becoming blind, totally unaware of our surroundings. Maybe aware of digital sounds and images but not to real 'in-the-flesh' sights and sounds of natural life.

Over time, my guess is that we'll develop enormous thumbs, much like the troglodytic Morlocks of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine developed huge eyes. And we'll only be able to communicate digitally.

Who knows, maybe our thumbs will give us so much pleasure that they'll evolve into our sex organs. Can already hear the thumb envy, 'Mine's bigger than yours.' (Fill in your own salacious variations.) 

A George Harrison classic that expresses my feelings about youngsters I see daily who let life pass them by:
As always, comments are most welcome.