Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Remembering Ben

It was a year ago tomorrow that my son took his life through an accidental drug overdose. You can read my eulogy of him here. In that eulogy, I quoted the following poem:

Edna St. Vincent Millay -- Sonnet II

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, -- so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

Today, by coincidence, the police called my house to tell my wife that someone by my name was injured in Daytona and that they thought he might be from Tampa. My wife called me at my desk, but I was in a meeting. She called my cell phone twice, but I silenced the ring while I was in the meeting. When I finally called her back she was, of course, quite relieved. What an awful phone call to get this time of year. You can imagine how worried she was.

It's been a horrible year. I will be glad to be done with it.

It's a terrible thing to lose a child. One can never be fully happy again, because, lurking in the back at all times, is the saddest of memories. It taints every feeling.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Super Atom Kim (German cartoon)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Broadcast News" from Odessa

Pardon me for blasting this long Odessa report, but the internet here is terribly slow and I don't want to wait another 15 minutes for a separate form to appear. I have typed out the diary entry using Notepad. I only hope that the message goes through. And of course, there's no editing. Just my stream of consciousness, so pardon the mistakes.

This is my fourth trip to Ukraine. Each time, I have managed to find someplace to access the internet for email and browsing. This time, however, the only access I have is ridiculously slow.

I am getting DNS errors on When the browser cannot even get a DNS resolution, that's pretty sad.

Still, one aspect of Ukraine never fails to satisfy: the plethora of pulchritude. It's amazing. Eight years ago the fashion was for young girls to wear short skirts and short shorts. These, I am happy to say are still in fashion. Mmm. I don't flatter myself that any of these girls are interested in me. That really doesn't matter since I cannot speak their language even if I wanted to talk to them. And I don't really want to talk to them. It just never stops being fun to look.

Needless to say, the beach was a special treat.

We went downtown with the kids. Odessa has changed a lot in the last five years. They have an area down by Deribosovskaya Street that is meant to attract tourists. They have spruced up that area quite a bit. When I first came here eight years ago, it was kind of sad, really. They have made big progress.

And yet, they have a long way to go. They have no idea how to route automobile traffic effectively, so traveling by car is crazy. It has always been this way, but now there are a lot more cars. You can tell that some people here are richer than most Odessans by the cars they drive. Also, they've made the tourist area more attractive, but there is still a lot of building to be done and no public restrooms -- just an awful latrine behind city hall.

I suppose five years from now they'll have made these improvements and that will all be for the better. But I find myself nostalgic for the primitive and somewhat innocent Odessa I found in 1999 as it was emerging from Communism and utter poverty and all things Cyrillic, Ukrainian or Russian seemed new and strange to me.

We went to a shopping mall that sits on top of a parking garage. One can even park one's car in front of the supermarket there and take the shopping cart out of the store to load up the car. No more lugging bundles all the way back to the apartment. This is a big innovation in Odessa. In 1999, the site of this mall was a boarded up vacant lot. I recall seeing a homeless bitch there nursing her mangy pups in the dirt. I was delighted with the improvement. Just think of all the jobs this very compact shopping mall has created.

Inside, the shopkeepers have learned the lessons of corrupt Western capitalists. Everything is ON SALE! 30%-50% OFF. These signs are in English, by the way. The Levi's store even had a sign that said, in big bold white letters on a red background


Yahoo *

And then in tiny letters at the bottom of the poster, they had a footnote with the Ukrainian translation. They translated Yahoo as Uuu-AUU, which is really more of a transliteration of Wow. [What kind of language does not have letters for the W, H or Th sounds? Russian is absurd.]

It's clear that they aren't trying to appeal to the English speakers but rather to borrow the cachet associated with rich Americans. If only they knew that most real Americans are nothing like the supertoned, chic models they see on TV. If you want to see beautiful people, come to Odessa.

I get the impression that the window is closing for fat American men like me who want to pick up a beautiful Ukrainian bride. In five years, what will America have to offer that Ukraine won't have? Considerably faster internet service, that's for sure.

America has a great quality of life compared to here in too many ways to enumerate in this letter. Mundane things like car insurance and smooth roads. Important things like superb medical care. But is that enough to lure someone away from a land where your family lives and everybody speaks your language and opportunity is blossoming? It's going to be a much harder sell.

On the bus back from downtown, another passenger started an argument with Oxana. He tried to start it with me, but I was congenial and did not take the bait. He chided Polina for "shouting", even though she was just talking too loud. I agreed with him and promised that we would keep our voices down. This was not enough for him. He kept going on and on as though he were looking out for the interests of the other passengers. He could understand that Polina was speaking English, but those poor other
passengers could not. What significance this has, I cannot tell you. We were all lucky that Nastya, my three-year-old, was not throwing one of her screaming tantrums. They are language-neutral.

The fact is, he was drunk -- and persistent. Eventually, Oxana had had enough of it and started giving him a hard time. "What is your problem? Leave us alone." This just got him going all the more. Then he dropped the F-bomb. Odd thing to do for one claiming to be defending bus passenger protocol. "Fuck you twice!", was Oxana's response. She refrained from answering him in Russian and really telling him what she thought because she did not want to upset the other passengers and worsen the scene.

He made some drunken babble in broken English about how he could pleasure Oxana and that he did not need her because he had a wife to take care of him. He advised me to teach my wife to be more respectful. The F-bomb is not usually, and certainly not in this case, about actual fucking. It's just a gesture of contempt. I am amazed when people get bent out of shape over this word.

Some people will show tremendous disrespect and contempt to others (for example, offering unsolicited, non-constructive criticism, e.g. "What ever made you think you could wear that?"), but then gasp in horror when you reflect that disrespect with a blunt, "Fuck You!". They seem oblivious to their own disrespectful behavior that precipitated the swearing. Or perhaps they are perfectly aware of what they are doing and get away with it most of the time simply because they maintain a fig leaf of courtesy. That's why I was delighted when it was reported that Dick Cheney, in a private conversation, told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to "Go fuck yourself". I feel certain Leahy deserved it (or worse).

In any case, I motioned for Oxana to calm down and assured the drunk bus passenger that he was entirely in the right and that we would talk more quietly. I shook his hand and kept nodding and smiling agreement. He retreated from where we were sitting, but even though he was getting ready to go, he kept trying to catch Oxana's eye so as to re-engage the argument. This was impossible as Oxana had had enough of him. Shortly before disembarking, he admonished Oxana to "Love your husband", advice I am happy to report that she really does not need. But, of course, this will now be a private joke between us as, whenever she disagrees with me, I can wag my finger at her and say, "Love your husband".

I was glad he finally left the bus, as were the other passengers, I presume, although, no one said a peep. Somehow I think that passengers on an American bus would have told him to shut up. Maybe not. It's hard to know what to do with drunks. I felt sorry for him. He was so drunk he weaved around as he stood. I wager he did not know we could tell he was drunk, that he thought he was holding himself together pretty well.

The fact is, I disagreed with him about Polina's talking, but I was not going to let on to him. Sometimes people do talk on the bus. On the way home from the beach the next day, the passengers were talking a lot, because we were mostly families. On this particular night, however, Polina was the only one talking, probably because we were the only family on the bus -- everyone else had but their own self for company. So why shouldn't my daughter play and talk with her father? True, she was not using her "inside voice", but she's six years old. A simple finger to the lips and a "shoosh" would have sufficed.

Coming home from the beach, we let the first bus fill up and waited for the next so that we could be first in line and have our pick of seats (an important consideration when you have two kids and a stroller to arrange).

A group of pre-teen boys came up behind us and one of them asked me a question. I said, "Ya nye gavaryu po Russki" -- a good phrase to memorize meaning "I do not speak Russian." I motioned for them to ask Oxana. They wanted to know if we were getting on the approaching bus (we were). Once we were settled in our seats, the boys passed us as they boarded the bus. Oxana tells me that they said (in Russian), "I don't see what the problem is. I speak English." Then he struck some rap poses and offered a sampling of his English, "What's up, muhthehfuckuh! What's up, muhthehfuckuh!". I'm sure his "muhtheh" would be proud.

People wear a lot of English phrases on their T-shirts. Some of them make absolutely no sense. Hell, back in the 80's I wore a tie that said "Kamikaze" in Japanese, or so I was told. It could have said "Suzie's Sushi bar", how would I know. If you have to ask why I would wear a tie with Japanese writing on it, you probably missed the 1980's. We saw one kid downtown with a shirt that said, "I'll fuck anything". At least it was worn by a boy.

Then at the beach Oxana saw one that read, "Born to fuck" (well, who isn't, I'd like to know -- why not just wear a shirt saying, "Desperately horny with no prospects in sight"). Again, there's some comfort that this shirt, too, was worn by a male.

Oxana said that she saw a girl at the beach baring her breasts for a couple of men who were old enough to be her father. One was Georgian -- one of the men, that is, not one of her breasts. I am not sure why the man's country of origin factored into the situation, but Oxana somehow deduced it and felt it was a necessary detail, probably to emphasize that neither of the two breasts being shown were from there. As father of two girls, I would be aghast to find them soliciting attention as this girl was. And yet, the prospect of having a pretty, teenage girl flirt with me, even if I had to pay for it, does have some appeal. How could it not? I am born to fuck, after all.

My girls were topless as well, but at three and six it's not an issue. One woman was sitting right at the edge of the water baring her beautiful and ample breasts for all to see. As luck would have it, Nastya insisted on gathering rocks at that very spot on the beach. I tried not to stare, but I certainly stole several (hundred) glances. Oxana was mildly disgusted. Personally, I think she was setting a good example. One I wish several dozen others would have followed.

The fact is, the bathing suits don't hide much, and as an irredeemable "ass man", I was in heaven. If I were a younger man, and not married, I would spend every day at the beach.

I am glad that my daughters like the beach, but I am constantly on the edge of panic if either of them strays out of sight, which Polina inevitably does, much to my consternation. Nastya, too, is quite willing to go walking right through the crowd of people, across their towels and over their bodies. She has no idea where she is going, she just occasionally takes off. The vigil really distracts from the plentiful eye candy.

Nastya was wearing her "pampers" at the beach (that's what they call disposable diapers over here). Several old ladies came over and talked to me about that. I pretended to understand them, but gave no reply, of course, just shrugged my shoulders. I presume they were giving the same advice Oxana got -- that we should just remove the "pampers". Oxana was convinced that the diaper was somehow protecting Nastya from the various dread diseases that lurk in the Black Sea. More likely, it just held the water in place so the germs could grab ahold. Eventually, Oxana saw fit to remove the diaper and Nastya was the only totally nude girl on the beach -- an example I was hoping several other girls would follow, but no dice.

The weirdest thing of all, however, happened after we left the beach. We walked the "boardwalk" of beverage, souvenir and food vendors. We bought shuarmas -- a cross between a burrito and a gyro -- a very large, soft tortilla stuffed with spicy lamb, cabbage, spicy shredded carrot and cucumber, garnished with (ugh) ketchup and mayo. I much prefer the shuarmas in Amsterdam that were made with what I presume are more traditional Turkish spices. The Ukrainians seem to like mayonnaise on everything. (ugh)

That's not the weird part. After eating, we walked the rest of the boardwalk and took in the seaview. There's a slightly more isolated area of the road that is not populated with many vendor booths. Families make picnics in the grass there and cook shashliks (meat kabobs). Oxana had to pee, so she took Polina off to find a suitably inconspicuous bush. Polina did not have to go, but Oxana figured that, if by chance there were onlookers, they might feel more sympathetic toward a little girl.

As it turns out, up the hill from the spot she chose, there was a yellow concrete building that housed two latrines, one for men and one for women. Each room was labeled -- Zhe for Zhenshina (Women) and M for, well, whatever the Russian word for Men is. The men's latrine was disgusting. It's hard to imagine a room for shitholes that is not disgusting, but these were extraordinarily bad. Outhouses have seats, at least, which not only aids in directing the effluent into the target hole, but also eliminates the need to put your feet close to said hole, where, by the way, some previous users happened to have missed the target.

Oxana and Polina had scrambled up the hillside and entered the latrine by themselves. With Nastya in the stroller, I had to take the long route to the bend where the low road meets the high road. That U-turn was about 100 meters long, so for a while Oxana an Polina were on their own. A teenage boy, I'd guess around 16 years old, decided to watch Oxana do her business. He just walked in after Oxana had dropped her drawers and stood looking at her. She yelled at him and threatened to call the police. But this nervy kid just stood his ground. Even after my girls emerged from the latrine, he continued to hang around. He finally took off after I arrived, but not because I scared him. I think he finally felt ashamed. I looked at him with a mixture of bemusement and pity. I remember what it was like to be so full of hormones and have no outlet for it. Nature is quite cruel in that respect. Needless to say, Oxana was a little freaked out by him.

There's more to write, but it's late. They baptized Nastya yesterday. She threw one of her screaming fits most of the time. She briefly stopped when she noticed a ring of candles in a brass candleholder surrounding an icon (one of dozens in the chapel). "Birthday cake!", she shouted. At another point, I managed to get her to play a word game.

"What about a tiger?", I whispered.

"What about a ELL-PHANT!", she shouted.

"What about a goat?"

"What about a SHEEP!"

This went on for two blissful, scream-free minutes until we exhausted all the truly interesting animals and started repeating.

It was ludicrous, but then any Orthodox ritual is ridiculous. At one point, the godmothers and godfathers (it was a dual-baptism with her cousin's baby boy) were required to follow the priest in a parade around the altar. Well, forget that! Nastya was not going to let anybody but her mother or me hold her. And yet, the parade must go on -- it's part of the ritual -- can't be fully baptized without the parade. So I had to join the parade, patting Nastya on the leg as her godmother held her and her godfather brought up the rear. I just hope none of the magic rubbed off on me instead of going to the intended recipients.

Afterward I apologized to all for Nastya's nearly incessant screaming. Apparently, she's an atheist. We should have asked. Well, now she's a baptized atheist.

[I'm reading Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion". It's a tedious defense of atheism. At least, I find it tedious and I'm an atheist. I think I'll move on to Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". What I really wanted to read was "God is Not Great" by Chistopher Hitchens, but that was oversubscribed at the library. One point that Dawkins makes is that we pay far too much deference to people on account of religion. With politics, we feel free to argue each point, but with religion we throw up our hands and say, "Well, that's his religious point of view". If he said, "2+2=5, according to my religion", would we still be silent? How about "genital mutilation is just a part of my religion"?]

After the "Christos" (baptismal ceremony), we went to grandma Tanya's place where she had laid out a big spread. Lots of tasty stuff, all fixed without onions for my benefit, so I ate a little of everything. Polina, of course, ate only the cheese. No strange food will cross those lips. Grandma poured me three double shots of vodka. I was hung over all afternoon. I've had enough vodka for a year (and we've still a week to go).

Bad news on Wall Street yesterday. Not a good time to be cut off from the internet, I suppose. I don't trust any of the computers I use over here (possible keystroke monitoring password sniffers), so no banking or brokerage business until Aug 20. I hope I still have some assets by then.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Message Game

I have been working a lot lately. This, of course, cuts into the time I spend with my wife and daughters. I was lucky enough to get home last night in time to kiss my older daughter good night and sing her a bedtime song. It is the parental equivalent of eating the icing off the cake -- enjoying the sweetest part, forgetting how good the rest is. Well, I can't say I have forgotten how good the rest is, but I am leaving it on the plate for now.

Before we went to bed, we played "The Message Game", which is what my daughter calls Yahoo Instant Messenger (YIM). I am proud to report that her hunt-and-peck typing is faster than that of my boss. Her spelling is better, as well, but I wouldn't want her running the business.

Her favorite part of the game is playing with her papa. It's nice that we can do this even when I am at work. She contacts me when she gets home from school and we sometimes play her second favorite part. We play checkers together. It will not stun you to learn that in all of the dozens of games we have played I have yet to win. The fact is, she very much enjoys winning. She tells me this every time. "I am good at checkers," she announces, "I always win. Super Red!"

Indeed she does. This serves my purpose in two ways. It allows me the opportunity to build her confidence, if not her checkers playing skill. She does not ask herself, as indeed I have not asked until today, where the name checkers came from. She does not question why she always wins, nor imagine that there is any strategy that might help to extend her winning streak. I know that such checkers strategy exists. I seem to recall that Boris Spassky, chess grandmaster of the 1970s, had a sister Irina who was a checkers champion.

In my daughter's mind, however, she wins because she is lucky, and because she has an innate talent for checkers. It will not stun you to learn that she has the same talent for tic-tac-toe, as we discovered at an Italian restaurant the other night while waiting for the food.

The other purpose for letting her win is that it shortens the game considerably. This is not because I dislike spending time with my daughter. It's just that she generally takes a good long time between moves. Hence, I leave very little to make up for that. In a timed game, I'd whip her ass. Don't for a second imagine that she is spending this time considering her next move. She is merely distracted by a dozen other things.

I see her on the webcam I mounted over the monitor at home. It has full view of the TV room. After she moves, I watch her rise and hop over to where she can view the screen. She watches Spongebob or whatever for a few minutes, then climbs up on the sofa and makes her way back to the PC by walking across the top of the sofa back. My wife deplores this, but to Polina it is as much an adventure as finding a land route to Asia (and sometimes seems to take as long).

When I think about Marco Polo, I cannot help but wonder:

  • Did he set out for profit or adventure?
  • Had anyone else gone there and back? Why did his deeds matter? Was it because he blogged about it (well, kept and later published a journal, the blog equivalent in his day)?
  • Surely there were others who tried and failed, died along the way, no?
  • What were his special talents that helped him avoid the spear and the cookpot along the way?
  • Did his father let him win at checkers?
  • Having discovered something that altered the lives of most of the rest of the planet, did he spend his later life happy to have advanced civilization and commerce, or did he die regretting that he had not fully exploited his adventure for personal gain?
  • Did he worry that by opening up trade routes that would bring species from one biological niche into another, certain species would perish? Did he not value the biological status quo?
  • Are the founders of the internet and web happy to helped most of the rest of the planet, are do they rue that others have become far wealthier than they?
  • Do the founders ever worry that by opening up new avenues of commerce certain species of business would perish? Do they not value the commercial status quo? Have they no mom? Have they no pop?

Hold on. It is my turn.

It is now her turn again. She gets a king, or, as this child of the 1970s tells her, a queen. One advantage of playing checkers on Yahoo Instant Messenger is that it enforces all the rules. If you have a jump, it is the only move it allows you to make. All other checkers are frozen in place. It also marks a checker that has made it to her opponent's home row with a crown icon. In regular checkers, of course, we would proudly say, "King me." It is a gentle humiliation of one's opponent to command him to relinquish one of the checkers he has captured.

Since YIM performs this service silently, I type a message to my daughter, "Queen!", or on those rare occasions when I reach the crownhead, "King me!".

I suppose someday someone will try to explain to my daughter that her checkers do not become queens, but rather kings. My daughter will confidently correct them. She knows that girl checkers can only become queens. Only boy checkers can be kings. She will say this with certainty. It will be impossible to dissuade her.

If I were to raise her a full feminist, I suppose, I would have to avoid any and all attributions of gender to the game token. Royal Checker. Elevated Token. Oppressor. "Oh, honey! How lucky for you. Now you get to be an oppressor".

Wait, it's my turn. Imagine that, I just lost a piece.

Thinking back on my college years, I recall how the fullest of the full feminists had a penchant for socialism and its ridiculous aim of producing an equality of outcome in a society where talent and luck are not equally distributed. I suppose they might have me teach my daughter that all checkers are inherently equal, and that no one checker should have more power than another. If one checker can move bi-directionally, then all must be allowed to.

In short, the full feminists would have me teach my daughter rules that have no relation to real life. They would raise her not to be someone who helps the rest of the planet with her special skills. They would consider such truck evil, capitalistic selfishness. In the name of empowerment, they would teach her she was a victim, and sap her of her confidence and special skills, for that is their special skill. They would destine her for the cookpot. They would scare the sense of adventure right out of her.

But as I said, she is a lucky girl. Her papa knows better.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oxana's citizenship

Oxana had her citizenship interview today. Her application for citizenship was approved (of course). She was really nervous about the gov't questions they might have asked. As it turns out, the questions were:

  1. Who was the first US President?
  2. What was the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
  3. How many stars are on the US flag?

I had told her that they wanted people like her to become citizens and that they weren't going to flunk her. But she was worried they might ask her to name the thirteen original states. She had written them out and was cramming on the car ride over, along with "John G. Roberts, Jr., Charlie Crist, Mel Martinez, Bill Nelson...." She was afraid she might say, "Charlie Christ" or "Robert Johns" and they'd send her back to Ukraine.

I suppose it is still possible for something to delay her application. She has a friend who made it through the interview, but got rejected shortly thereafter when it came to light that she and her husband had temporarily separated before she had the conditions removed from her permanent status. It didn't seem to matter that she had a good reason (he had cheated on her), nor that they have since reconciled and continue to live together as man and wife. I don't know what the issue was -- perhaps that she did not disclose this. It happened after she had applied to have the conditions removed, but before the BCIS got around to processing her application. Seems unfair to me that she should reap the consequences for her husband's infidelity and bureaucratic sloth. In any case, Oxana won't have those problems.

The only problem she has is that her green card and Ukrainian passport show her name as Oksana, but I filled out her application for citizenship as Oxana. I am not sure how they will handle that. We don't really want to go to court to have the spelling of her name officially changed. Just tell us how they want it spelled and we'll work out the rest.

I don't think any entity other than a bureaucrat would try to dictate a singular spelling of one's name. I could get a credit card under the name Bob or Bobby or Rob (probably even Milkchaser, so long as my social security number was right). Same if I applied for university. Hell, Jimmy Carter took the Oath of Office as Jimmy and not James Earl. Harry Truman didn't even have a middle name (just an initial). US Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but got stuck as Ulysses Simpson Grant after the Congressman who nominated him wrote his name that way. Once the gov't records your name, they really don't want to change it (he preferred the initials USG to HUG anyway).

The BCIS official didn't seem to think this would delay her oath ceremony. We'll soon find out when that is. A joyous day that will be. Oxana wants to bring Polina along. Much as I'd like the two-year-old to be there as well, that might not work out. She nearly got us kicked out of the office today with all her screaming. She's not really an "office-friendly" child.

BTW, for any non-Yanks reading this post, the answers to those questions are:
  1. Who was the first US President?
    • George Washington (he's on the one-dollar bill)
  2. What was the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
    • The Mayflower
  3. How many stars are on the US flag?
    • Fifty. One for each state of the union.
  • John G. Roberts is the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
  • Charlie Crist is the Governor of the state of Florida.
  • Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson are the junior and senior Senators from Florida, respectively (although, how much respect they deserve is a matter of debate).

Monday, May 07, 2007

Immigrant Friendly

I have read two articles recently that inspire me to be more immigrant friendly. Gunnar Myrdal Was Right, by James C. Capretta, noted that the fertility rate of a country tends to decline as its government's responsibility for taking care of its aged population increases. The other article (paid subscription required) sought to raise an alarm about the substandard academic performance of Latino students, noting that the recent influx of mostly Hispanic (and mostly Mexican) immigrants will make Latinos increasingly responsible for the success or failure of the economy.

For those of you who like figures, the first article noted that US fertility peaked in 1955 at around 3.5 children per couple and reached its nadir in 1975 at around 1.8 children per couple. Even though the fertility rate has risen to 2.0 in the US, we still rely on immigration to make up the slack. And even with immigration, we still have a declining ratio of workers to retirees (owing to the retirement bulge of the baby boomers -- that would include me around about 2027).

I realize, of course, that only non-Democrats are reading this as Democrats, punished by fate and genetics with a complete lack of understanding and interest in math, stopped reading at the last paragraph. However, since I began the paragraph with the phrase, "For those of you who like figures...", some may have merely skipped the paragraph. C'mon now, kids. Go back and read the paragraph. You won't understand the rest of the essay without it. And do try to stay awake.

The upshot of the fertility argument is that Social Security programs have an innate contradiction, prominently noted by economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s. People used to have big families because they knew that they would need their children to take care of them when they got older. More children = more people obliged to keep you from starving.

But with the advent of Social Security, reliance on one's own children declined. This seems a boon to those unlucky enough to not be able to have children. No longer would the maiden aunt be dependent on staying in the good graces of her more reproductive siblings. For that matter, one need not have as many children since one could rely on one's neighbors to populate the nation with a teeming mass of worker bees. Thus, one can conserve the resources of one's own family, no longer having to split it amongst a larger brood.

It's a kind of freeloading, in a way, although the effects of the freeloading are not apparent until quite a long ways down the road. It is not unpredictable, however, and here is where I begin to lament the inability of Democrats, who insist on forcing socialism down our throats, to grasp fairly simple math concepts. When we have fewer workers per retiree, we cannot provide the same level of benefit to retirees, or we have to place an unduly heavier burden on those workers who fund the system. It is a sad, but inevitable truth.

Of course, one way out of this is to import new workers. And owing to our wonderful way of life (secure property rights; highly functional, albeit imperfect, rule of law; mature economy; highly capitalized businesses; fairly low tax rate; not to mention a host of "quality-of-life" advantages guaranteed by the Bill of Rights), millions of people from just about every country on the planet are very eager to come here. We can import our worker bees to make up for our slacking fertility rate.

The irony, however, is that nearly every worker could easily provide for his own retirement through a forced savings program. The only thing Social Security really secures is a future where the vast majority of workers will remain poor and retire poor. It is really just a means of taxing the people so that politicians can decide how our resources are spent instead of the people themselves. If gov't in its various forms demonstrated honorable frugality, one might not begrudge this taxation. Sadly, it does not. It never has. The temptation to overspend the taxpayers' resources is irresistible to elected lawmakers. Hence, money that you might invest wisely if you were to pay it to a broker or banker instead of to FICA, is loaned without exception to the Federal Gov't at a rate that favors the big spenders and favors Social Security recipients very little. Oh, sure, it's 100% guaranteed by the full faith and bla bla of the US of A -- but it is still a crummy return on investment.

And, as stated earlier, this return is dependent on one of three outcomes:
  • a reversal of the current declining ratio of workers to retirees
  • a reduction of benefits from their current rather paltry level, or
  • an influx of highly productive workers from abroad.
And here, I come back to the second article, Boomers' Good Life Tied To Better Life for Immigrants, by Miriam Jordan. What constitutes a highly productive worker? According to this article, the children of immigrants are underperforming their "white" counterparts. Here are some more figures (and, Democrats, no cheating, no skipping).

In Georgia, for example, minorities accounted for two-thirds of the population growth between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, they represented 80% of that growth. Yet, only 12% of black fourth-grade students and 17% of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 38% of whites, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank.
The first thing that strikes me about those figures is that 38% is nothing to write home about. As a proud member of the white race, I am rather embarassed that two out of three of the white children attending school with my daughters cannot read all that they are expected to read. If twice that proportion of Hispanic fourth-graders cannot read properly, I am inclined to hope that it is because they come from bi-lingual or Spanish-speaking households and that a part of their difficulty comes from confusion between English and Spanish. As for African-Americans, I don't know what their excuse is. Their ancestors have been in the country long enough to have figured out the language.

Think this is just a problem for so-called dumb Southerners in Georgia? Nope. Turns out California is even worse.

In California, already a majority minority state, 11% of African-American and 9% of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 36% of their white peers.
The striking thing about this number is that Hispanics in California score way lower than Hispanics in Georgia. I wonder what is the average per-student cost in Georgia vs. California. Less, I would think. And yet, Californian Hispanics trail way behind their Georgian counterparts. Why?

One guesses that it has something to do with California Hispanics...
  • Living amongst a larger population of Spanish speakers
  • Having spent a shorter average time in US, having immigrated later
  • Having been handicapped by a well-meaning, but misguided attempt at bi-lingual education.
As I said, these are just guesses. I would not be surprised to be contradicted. And, as before, 36% for whites and 11% for blacks! -- nothing to be proud of, folks.

The author of the second article sees this as cause for alarm, since we cannot build a great economy on the backs of people who cannot read. We need architects and doctors, not fruitpickers and construction workers, is her point.

There might be merit in that, but except for the mass migration of British Americans who replaced the indigenous population of North America, the pattern for immigrants coming to America has been to take less skilled jobs. It is the successive generations, the descendants of those immigrants, who have moved up the economic ladder. And this is a rule that has yet to fail -- except in the case of those African Americans who continue to languish, for reasons I cannot fathom, generation after generation (one can blame skin color prejudice for some failure to advance, but that explains nothing of the gap in reading proficiency -- go ahead and call me a racist, but I note this is not a substitute for an explanation).

My take on the immigration problem is that we are not taking in enough immigrants and that those we do take are not those we select. We let people slip in undetected, unselected and demonstrating their willingness to break the law. I know that they are almost universally eager to work. I covet that productivity. But that distinguishes them not a whit. Plenty of people from Russia, China, India or Iran, and a host of other countries, are willing to come in as well. We should let more of these people in and select those we want. For example, we could expand and streamline visa programs such as the H1-B that are geared to bring in highly educated people. But we could also expand the number of visas granted to family members as these people arrive with a built-in network of support.

And as for the solution to Social Security, although immigration would help, there is no reason to allow the pay-as-you-go system to continue stripping us of our savings. We should put an end to the gov't pillaging of the working people through this awful socialist program. In the retirement system, the only roles I would like gov't to take on are:

  • to take care of the indigent, who cannot care for themselves (widows, orphans, disabled),
  • to force savings so that no one is allowed to become a burden to society through a lack of planning, foresight or wisdom,
  • to regulate forced savings so that people do not get ripped off and do not invest overly foolishly, so that we can project a worst case outcome that is better than currently promised benefits.

That said, I am glad to see immigrants come in, but not to save our country from socialism. We can do that ourselves by simply abandoning it. Socialism, and Social Security in particular, is a failure so far. It will always fail. This is not news. We should not continue to pretend otherwise.

Related articles:
Making Kids Worthless: Social Security's Contribution to the Fertility Crisis, Oskari Juurikkala, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Jan 24, 2007
Having Large Families is An 'Eco-Crime', Sarah-Kate Templeton, Times Online, May 6, 2007
The Global Baby Bust, by Philip Longman, Foreign Affairs May/June 2004

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

One in Five Children Commits Suicide?

Each week 450,000 children are bullied in school. Another 500,000 are taunted by their peer group in the community. And more than one in five children will turn to suicide as a way out of being severely bullied, writes Debbie Andalo.

Speaking as a survivor of school bullying and peer group taunting, let no one claim to be a greater foe of this awful practice. I am pleased that schools these days are trying to eliminate bullying. But this article claims that one in five children will turn to suicide. This is just nuts.

Granted, the rate of attempted suicide is thousands of times higher than that of suicides that end in death (I can't bring myself to call them successful). And the rate in UK is apparently much higher than here in the US. Who knows why.

Still... One in five children? This article claims that one in six children in inner cities attempts suicide. One guesses that the rate is lower in less depressed areas.

I suffer from chronic clinical depression (which I am able to treat with medicine). Also, my son accidentally killed himself by drug overdose. So I am sympathetic to the problem, but I can't help thinking that the aim of that wild statistic is meant to make the problem sound bigger than it actually is. Very few of the attempted suicides are serious enough to require hospitalization. A small fraction result in death. Are these people measuring suicidal ideation as equivalent to an actual attempt?

The quote says that one in five children turn to suicide as a result of bullying. But surely some of those children are reacting to the many other causes of despair: family problems, alcoholism/drugs, depression or factors endemic to their locale other than bullying.

It seems that the authors of the study are trying to drum up gov't money (about 4 British Pounds per child, it turns out). I do not know if that is an appropriate amount of money to spend on that particular program, but can't they justify its cost with believable statistics.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Global warming advocate believes in head shrinking

The interesting part of this article is the description of a study that shows a correlation between skull size and higher latitudes. The author of the Wired article misinterprets the study to claim that thus global warming might shrink brain size. One hopes he's kidding.

The study might indicate that surviving in colder climates requires more brain power, thus smarter people lived longer than dumber people in more challenging environs. This is not the same as suggesting that cold climate caused bigger brains (killed smaller brains would be more accurate). Hence warmer climate would not cause smaller brains.

The author of this article demonstrates he might not have been one of the survivors in an icier era.

Worse, he demonstrates that the only way to promote his global warming theory is to attempt to ridicule its critics into silence rather than to present convincing evidence to the contrary. This is not science, but scaring people into believing pseudo-science is not about science. It's about controlling other people.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Beautiful Life Lie

Here's a provocative little essay. Jerry and I were discussing today how one of the things we resent about the Catholic Church is that they set themselves up as an Authority and insist that Catholic adherents believe things that have no basis in reality (e.g. even though they admit that the Eucharist and wine undergo no changes in physical properties, one must believe they are actually the Body and Blood or one is not allowed to partake of the Catholic Communion rite).

That's a lie, but the worst part of it is the so-called authority who foists it on others. This essayist suggests adopting your own "life lie" (by which he means what others call a life's dream). As I said, it's provocative.

I think of his advice as similar to buying a lottery ticket. It matters not that our chances of winning are small. We buy because we are 100% guaranteed at least a flicker of hope of riches. That's worth a buck every now and then.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Toxicology report

I just received this note from Ben's mother today.
I finally got Ben's toxicology report. I will be mailing you the complete copy soon but basicly there were only 3 things in his system. There was NO heroin. There was :

  • Fentanyl : 3.3 ng/ml [therapeutic range 1-3]
  • Methadone : 54 ng/ml [therapeutic range 50-1000]
  • Diphenhydramine (antihistamine) : 77.8 ng/ml [therapeutic range 30-300]

He was treating himself for heroin addiction. He was trying to get off of the heroin. He was trying to be good and clean himself up. And he was trying to do this using a street mixture.

It was the fentanyl that killed him. It is a pain killer and usually given to patients in the form of a patch. It is a dangerous drug and doctors have to watch their patients for respiratory side effects. It can slow down the breathing which relaxes the body and also slow the heart rate. It is very potent and less controllable in liquid form. If Ben had been seeing a doctor, he would not have died. If Ben had been treating himself in front of his friends, letting them know what he was using, he would not have died. If he'd passed out in front of his friends and they knew what was in the syringe, he could have been given a drug to counteract the effects. Ben was a little bull-headed, always wanting to do things his way and this time it got him killed. I know this was an accident. I am slightly comforted by the fact that he was trying so hard to get his life on a positive track.

Please pass this information on to anyone who may be interested.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Give Evangelicals a break

I am a former born-again Christian, now an atheist. I don't believe that Christianity is true and some of Jesus' advice is bad -- outright bad advice.

But I commend Evangelicals. I have fond memories of most of my experiences as a Christian (the worst part was really the anguish of struggling to believe, and that ended when I stepped away from the Faith).

Christians, especially Evangelical Christians are in general some of the most loving and generous people on the face of the planet. I also believe they are, in the main, extremely tolerant.

Some people find the Gospel to be irritating and maybe even a little boring. They find the professed certainty and judgementalism of committed Christians appalling. Christian-haters are entitled to such uncharitable feelings. After all, they are just feelings and don't by themselves do harm.

I feel sorry for people who let other people's fantasies bother them. Religious fantasies about Jesus and God and heaven might bother so-called liberals (what's liberal about despising Christians? Not much). Christians probably find some sexual fantasies repulsive. Everyone is entitled to feel that way about other people's myths. I don't mean to disparage genuine revulsion to other people's "happy thoughts". But I also feel sorry for people who let that innate revulsion eat at them or cause them distress.

For example, there's something about the irrationality of Christian myth that bugs me. But I don't let it distress me. If it makes some people happy, I don't want to take that away from them. I am not going to church anytime soon, but I am not trying to shut down any churches.

Similarly, I don't pass judgement on homsexuality. I see no rational basis for denigrating it in any way, but I feel an innate revulsion to it (well, to male-male acts mostly). I don't know why that is, but I would be lying to deny it. Still, why should my revulsion become a source of distress for me. No one is telling me I have to like it, just that my revulsion is not the basis for prohibiting somebody else's "happy thoughts".

To my way of thinking, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs about the cosmos -- and that includes the belief that all other belief systems are crap. I don't think you can really be said to have faith unless you believe that all contradictory faiths are crap. The tolerance required by the First Amendment is not that we pretend not to have faith, but that we don't take any action against all those others who do not share our particular beliefs.

You see, no one can make me believe in God. Nor can I make someone stop. Nor would I care to, especially since, as I said, I have fond memories of being a Christian. Christianity is a really blissful religion. It makes a lot of people really happy -- genuinely happy. And that's a pretty good thing.

My faith is now the faith of Liberty. I believe that letting other people act, talk, believe and own property as they wish is the profoundest rule we all should obey.