Ends and Means

Stephen H. Unger

What is going to show up here?

In this blog, I plan to write about a variety of subjects, ranging from e-voting to globalization to engineering ethics to efficient use of energy. Most of the material will be controversial--I might even include a piece on the designated hitter. I expect that every reader will eventually find something of a hackle-raising nature.

Comments invited. They can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

(Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with .)

  • The Need for Fewer People

    July 12, 2019

    The ongoing danger associated with the real possibility that atomic weapons may be used again is the greatest threat to the survival of humanity. A lesser, but still serious, threat to humans is that of global warming due to the continued emission of great quantities of what are called greenhouse gases: the principal ones being carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The effects of this warming include extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, and drought. The continuing increase in the human population is a major cause of global warming. Populations of underdeveloped countries are growing rapidly, even as millions are leaving them for Europe and the US. It is important to educate people in those countries about birth control technology: An expanded Peace Corps could be very useful in accomplishing this.

  • Revive the Public School

    May 12, 2019

    Education in the USA is in a chaotic condition. Public schools, even within a given state, vary considerably in quality. The same is true for private schools. There are also Catholic parochial schools, which teach mostly the same subjects offered taught in public schools, in addition to a minimal amount of material of a religious nature. For economic reasons, Catholic parochial schools are handling many fewer students than was the case a half century ago. Yeshivas, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, are almost entirely devoted to religious material presented in Yiddish or Hebrew. The number of yeshiva students, all male, is growing at a great rate.

  • Ideal platform for a presidential candidate

    February 28, 2019

    We hear all sorts of statements from aspiring presidential candidates. Tho not a candidate, I do have some strong views on what positions should be supported. Top priority has to go to ending the ongoing threat of a thermonuclear war that could terminate humanity. We need to end the "war on terror", slashing our bloated military budget--spending some of the money saved to help people in poor countries. Steps must be taken to deal with the threat of climate change due to human activity. Medicare and a decent education should be available to all Americans.

  • Donald Trump: the Bad and the Good

    January 6, 2019

    Donald Trump has no experience or skills as a politician. His predecessors in the White House did not set good examples for him. E.g., Harry Truman, against advice of the top military, used the A-bomb. Then he got us into the Korean War. Under George W. Bush, we invaded Iraq in 2003. Barack Obama came into office when the US was at war with 2 countries. When he left office, we still at were at war with these 2, and with 5 more. Trump is terrible regarding the environment, and is slashing domestic programs benefiting most Americans. But he is doing well negotiating with North Korea, and plans to withdraw our troops from Syria. Altho crude in his rhetoric, Trump is trying to cut the immigration that is hurting poor Americans (tho he is not advocating E-Verify).

  • What News is "Fit to Print"?

    December 3, 2018

    What news meets the NY Times specification of "fit to print"? One example is a story revealing that President Trump takes a medication stimulating hair growth. Examples of items that apparently fail to qualify are those about consequences of smoking, one of which is about 450,000 dead Americans every year. Another cause of death affecting less than 3% of that number of people gets a lot of attention in our leading newspaper. During the 2016 presidential election, the Times rarely mentioned the presidential candidates Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) and Jill Stein (Green Party), who received about 4.5 million and 1.5 million votes, respectively.

  • The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

    October 16, 2018

    We are living in perilous times. There is an ongoing threat to the continued existence of humanity posed by the many thousands of thermonuclear weapons possessed by 9 countries. The US continues to dominate the world with its enormous military forces, that it uses frequently. The problem of global warming is being addressed in a half hearted, clearly inadequate, manner. There is no significant movement to deal with the problem of overpopulation, worldwide and within the US. Due to the near disappearance of effective American labor unions, illegal and legal immigration, and the export of industry, income of working people is very low. The super-rich (growing ever richer) control both major political parties.

  • Demise of Democracy

    September 11, 2018

    Freedom of speech and of the press is greater in the US than in any other country. This is important, but, unfortunately, is not sufficient to nullify the enormous power associated with great wealth. The super-rich, who own the mass media, use their power to further enhance their wealth. This makes a mockery of our democracy. The situation has been getting worse for decades. Among other consequences, we are now in a state of perpetual war, killing people all over the world. Public schools, once a source of pride for Americans, have been allowed to deteriorate, making it much more difficult for children from poor families to emerge from poverty.

  • Supporting Illegal Immigration of Children, While Quietly Killing Children in the Middle East with Drones, Bombers, and Special Forces

    July 13, 2018

    The mass media displays great sympathy for little children brought here illegally by their parents and then taken into custody. But there is little or no discussion of the consequences to poor Americans of the huge influx of people willing to work very hard for very little. The environmental effects of increased population due to illegal immigration are seldom mentioned. Also virtually ignored is the killing of many thousands of children in the Middle East by American drones, bombers, and special forces.

  • Sortition: Government by Jury

    May 23, 2018

    The idea of randomly choosing members of a national legislature or parliament sounds weird. But then look at what we are getting now with conventional elections! The whole system seems designed to select people of marginal honesty, who seek public office to satisfy a craving for power and/or to profit financially. Ordinary people, if given power temporarily and the time to study the issues, with assistants to aid them, are likely to behave in a conscientious manner. It is generally accepted that people on juries generally do a good job. This approach to government was successfully used over 2000 years ago in Greece.

  • Quakers: Earliest Activists for Peace, Freedom, Women's Rights, and the Environment

    March 19, 2018

    The Society of Friends (Quakers) was founded in England in 1650, and quickly spread to the American colonies. From the outset, the Quakers were action oriented, tho they opposed the use of violence. They strongly, but nonviolently, supported equal rights for all humans. They were among the first to treat women and men as equals, and to actively oppose slavery. Quakers, from the outset, treated the American Indians fairly, and got along well with them. They were leaders in the area of prison reform. There are, currently, about 75,000 American Quakers.

  • The Ugly Side of Post-WWII American History

    November 27, 2017

    With a few important exceptions, US history has been on a downward path, starting with the Hiroshima A-bomb. We are in a state of war in various parts of the world, with no end in sight. Millions of innocent men, women, and children have been killed by Americans (mainly via bombers), and by those lavishly supplied with American weapons. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) has been instrumental in overthrowing a number of decent governments in various parts of the world. Torture has been systematically used by the US government. A procedure has been implemented whereby the president orders the assassination (carried out by drones) of people, including US citizens.

  • H-Bombs: The Need to Not Have Them

    August 25, 2017

    The existence of many thousands of thermonuclear weapons constitutes an ongoing threat to humanity as a whole. It is essential that the UN treaty outlawing them (signed by 122 of the 193 UN member nations) be endorsed by the 9 nations with these weapons, and that the means for disposing of them, including verification of such disposal, be perfected and extended. A good start was made by the US and Russia, which, between 1993 and 2013, successfully converted a large amount of H-bomb grade materials to nuclear reactor fuel. We need to continue this process, and, hard as it might be, to extend it to include the other 7 nations. The goal should be the total elimination of these terrible devices.

  • The Downside of Technology

    July 10, 2017

    The assumption of most engineers and scientists is that their work makes life better for those affected by it. And certainly this is very often the case. But, it was never always the case, and, particularly over the past several decades, more and more situations are arising in which the opposite is true. This is most obvious in the case of military applications, to the point where weapons capable of reducing whole cities to ashes are in the arsenals of 9 nations. Less dramatic problems pertain to the growing gap between the wealth and income of a tiny elite and that of the rest of us. One factor is the ability to import to the US goods made by grossly underpaid people in various other countries. Our legal system does very little to protect us from the marketing of harmful new products of various kinds.

  • What a Better Society Might Look Like

    January 27, 2017

    The shock of the new government in Washington is a good occasion for considering how to address the faults in our present society. While the US has led the world in promoting free speech and a free press, our government has also led the world in the use of massive, sophisticated snooping techniques. We are currently killing people in at least 7 countries. Living standards of over half of our population have been stagnant for decades. Our justice system favors wealthy people. The export of factories has taken away good jobs held by millions of Americans. A huge, unsolved problem is that of wresting control of the country from a tiny oligarchy of super-rich people.

  • Voting: The Case for Low-Tech

    November 8, 2016

    Only about 5% of Americans, mainly in New England, vote the traditional way, with hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots. Most use electronic systems (e-voting). Some states use only vote-by-mail. These hi-tech methods have been shown to be very vulnerable both to error and to fraud. This is a rare example of a situation in which the old-fashioned way is superior to new-fangled technology. Ordinary people have no problem setting up the voting process in a way that makes the likelihood of fraud or error miniscule.

  • Where There's Smoke There's Death

    October 19, 2016

    Every time a nut somewhere in the US shoots a half dozen people, there is a rash of newspaper editorials and TV commentaries calling for stronger laws, and more restrictions on the possession of firearms. Unlike gun deaths, deaths caused by smoking are dismal, rather than dramatic. They seldom inspire colorful prose. This is too bad, since the number of Americans killed annually by tobacco is over forty times the number killed by guns (other than suicides). So the tobacco problem is far more important than the gun problem. (Note that I don't own a gun.)

  • Greater Good Versus Lesser Evil

    September 13, 2016

    Once again we face a presidential election with two terrible major party candidates. Hillary Clinton has had considerable governmental experience in the White House as first lady, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State. She has demonstrated a propensity to initiate and escalate violence, and great loyalty to the interests of the super-rich. Donald Trump has no governmental experience and is a crude, erratic, character whose only positive aspect is that he has enunciated (roughly), good positions on some critical issues. There is controversy as to which would do more damage in office. But voters do have an alternative.

  • Immigration--A Thorny Subject

    August 2, 2016

    Inviting people from all over the world to come and settle in the USA sounds fine, and seems consistent with our historical development. After all, immigration, over a period of several centuries, accounts for all but small fraction of our population. History courses in American schools paint a rosy picture of the benefits resulting from this process. But a closer look at both past and present consequences of immigration reveals that, while a tiny minority of Americans do benefit, a vastly greater number lose out in important ways.

  • Competition: Uses and Abuses

    June 1, 2016

    Competition is a powerful process that has many applications. Evolution, which is based on competition, is fundamental to the development of all living organisms. On the other hand, war, the most destructive threat to humanity is a lethal form of competition that threatens the very existence of civilization. The most celebrated form of competition is that on which our economic system is based, tho there are some peculiar aspects here. Finally, there is competition in the form of games that are a major source of pleasure for many people, both as participants and as spectators.

  • When is a vote wasted?

    April 25, 2016

    The vote is the basic tool that citizens can use to influence government policy. While it may seem at first to be a simple matter to decide how to use it in any particular election, many people choose to use it in a more complex way. For reasons discussed in this essay, I believe that the most straightforward approach is best. One justification for this belief is via the application of a powerful moral principle due to the philosopher Immanual Kant; A modernized wording is, "Adhere to a rule if you believe its widespread observation would be generally beneficial".

  • What If There is a 9/11 Encore?

    February 9, 2016

    Since 9/11, there have been no organized terrorist attacks in the US. An average of about 3 Americans have been killed annually by individual terrorists, or, in a few cases, by pairs of individuals. These attacks were all apparently motivated by outrage generated by the killing of hundreds of thousands of non-combatant Muslims by US forces in 7 countries, mainly by airstrikes and drones. The killings are ongoing. What would be the likely effect of another major retaliatory attack by Muslims on US soil, killing perhaps a thousand Americans?

  • Putting a Limit On Wealth

    January 4, 2016

    The effect of big bucks on who gets into congress or the White House has become more and more dominant. In addition to campaign contributions by a relatively small number of very rich people, which play a major role in elections, there are a number of other ways in which money counts a lot more than people in determining who runs the government. What can be done about this? Is there really no way to revive the idea of government by the people and for the people? Should the stars in our flag be replaced by dollar signs?

  • Nice Party versus Tough Party: is this fight real?

    December 2, 2015

    Listening to speeches of major party politicians, one might think we are on the verge of civil war. The Tough Party, candidates seem especially belligerent. But fear not. While they may have fiery debates about such matters as gun control, or the death penalty, and while Nice Party politicians wax eloquent over the need to ensure world peace, and to improve the lot of working people, neither party will do anything that would upset the plans of the moneyed interests who control them. Rhetoric aside, arms manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, and Wall Street have nothing to fear from either party.

  • A Political Platform Worth Fighting For

    October 12, 2015

    A presidential election is an opportunity for citizens to express their views on a wide variety of issues. A vote for a particular candidate should indicate general approval of that candidate's positions (as well as a belief that the candidate would really try to implement his or her platform planks.) In this essay, I have stated positions on what I regard as the most important issues of the day. While it might be too much to expect a candidate to agree with me on every issue, I certainly won't vote for one who I disagree with on more than a few of the major matters treated here.

  • Who is Today's Version of "Fighting Bob" La Follette?

    July 20, 2015

    From the 1890's thru 1932, representatives of the wealthy dominated American politics. But a sprinkling of forward thinking people in congress fought hard for measures benefiting the general population, for civil liberties, and against militarism. When, as a result of the Great Depression, the New Deal arrived, the seeds planted by these pioneers germinated; the result was passage of legislation making life better for the great majority of Americans. After Roosevelt's death, control of the government reverted to the wealthy elite and, with the conspicuous exception of the civil rights movement, much of this progress has been lost. Who now fights for the interests of the average American?

  • Why Good People Vote For Bad People

    March 24, 2015

    Americans across the political spectrum agree that our political system is in very bad shape. Almost two thirds of the eligible voters abstained in November 2014. Relatively few cast their votes with any enthusiasm. Many people who did vote in that election explain that they were motivated mainly by a desire to prevent the election of a candidate even worse than the one they voted for. Unless they are personally very wealthy, candidates for high office are viable only if backed by people with tons of money. How can we account for this miserable situation?

  • Selling out America: Transnational Trade

    December 10, 2014

    Carried out properly, transnational trading can be a very benign activity, both sides obtaining what they need at reduced cost. But a good deal of current international commerce is of a very different nature, often harmful to all but a small minority of powerful people. It enables employers to force people all over the world to compete with one another for jobs by accepting ever lower pay and worsening working conditions.The general effect is amplified by Chinese manipulation of currency exchange rates, so as to further reduce the prices of Chinese exports, and to discourage imports to China. A major consequence is reduced income and loss of good job opportunities for Americans.

  • The Need For Solidarity

    September 11, 2014

    An individual parachuted into some uninhabited wilderness area is not likely to prosper. A group of humans in such a situation will do much better, assuming they cooperate. But humans can come close to realizing their individual potentials only when they are in a civilized community that, in exchange for their own contributions, will provide the necessities and amenities of life. In order to facilitate the necessary cooperation, and to protect themselves against mistreatment by powerful people, it is necessary for individuals to support one another in reasonable ways. A root cause of many of our basic problems today is that the great majority of people seem to be unable, or unwilling, to join with others to defend against usurpation of power by a small, wealthy minority.

  • Children Crossing Borders

    July 30, 2014

    There have been several sources of immigrants in US history, as people have come here for one or more of several different reasons. The recent, and apparently ongoing, surge of children illegally crossing our southern border is unprecedented. Altho the consequences may not be all that different from those associated with conventional immigration of adults, sometimes with their children, many people are responding very differently, based on emotional reflexes. Allowing emotions, not moderated by objective thinking, to govern our response could lead to errors with serious consequences.

  • How Pharmaceutical Products Differ From Tennis Balls

    July 2, 2014

    Consider how tennis balls differ from medications. There are good reasons why those of us who are consumers of tennis balls are usually more satisfied with tennis ball purchases than with purchases of pharmaceutical products. One important factor is that anybody past the beginner stage can determine very quickly if a tennis ball is OK, even if the particular brand is unfamiliar, while not even an experienced physician can personally evaluate a new medication. The bottom line is that, while tennis ball manufacturers have every motivation to produce the best possible product at the lowest possible price, pharmaceutical corporations can maximize their profits by abusing their customers.

  • Is Progress in Technology Always Beneficial?

    May 26, 2014

    Isn't it obvious that it is alway good to acquire more scientific knowledge and engineering know-how, and to apply it to produce new products, or to improve the way we produce existing products? Maybe not! I'll bet that you can think of items that you wish did not exist. Apart from this list, how about artifacts or processes that you can imagine, but that you would be relieved to learn could not be produced or implemented? How about new technology that seems nice, and is being eagerly purchased and used by many, but where there are disturbing indications that there may be serious problems that won't surface for decades?

  • The Texas Crisis

    April 1, 2014

    The current crisis in Texas constitutes more than just a threat to the stability of the US. There are international implications that clearly entail a revival of the cold war, and a real danger that matters could spin out of control and lead to a hot war involving nuclear powers. While the reckless behavior of the Russians is deplorable, it would be a mistake for the US to over-react and respond in a manner that could lead to a truly tragic disaster. The UN and other international organizations should behave responsibly, exerting a moderating influence.

  • Justice for All

    March 18, 2014

    In our criminal justice system, the primary mechanism for determining guilt or innocence is a contest, in which attorneys for the state and the defendant engage in a debate before a jury that then makes the decision. Civil law suits follow a similar pattern, each side having its own champion. This system provides the basis for exciting TV dramas, but often falls short of producing a just outcome. The fundamental problem is that the relative skills of the attorneys, and the resources available to them, is a crucial factor in determining the outcome. The ability to hire a major league lawyer gives a wealthy person an enormous advantage, while an indigent person is greatly handicapped. I propose here a modification of our justice system that would take jury trials out of the realm of competitive games.

  • The Price of Free Enterprise

    February 17, 2014

    Our economic system is based on an ingenious theory purporting to show how greed can be harnessed to serve the interests of people in general. There are, indeed, cases where the drive to maximize profit can have beneficial side effects, but, in the real world, it's a lot easier to find important situations where the effects of greedy behavior in the free market are costly to most individuals and to society. One major problem is that there is no free market mechanism for effectively deterring environmental abuse. Even the free market itself cannot survive without strongly enforced laws against cartels and monopolies.

  • Can American Democracy be Revived?

    January 7, 2014

    In what kind of "democracy" is wealth and income increasingly concentrated in the hands of a minuscule fraction of the population? In what kind of "free country" does the government imprison, or even kill, people, including some of its own citizens, without due process? Is large scale interception and collection of private communications by a secret government agency compatible with a free society? Is "one person, one vote" meaningful when elected officials are usually far more responsive to sources of campaign funds than to voters? These grim aspects of present day America are exacerbated by the fact that no remedies are in sight. It appears that things will have to get even worse before enough people realize that they need to change their approach to politics.

  • SOS--Save Our Schools

    November 25, 2013

    A necessary condition for a true democracy is an educated citizenry. Every democratic country in the world today has a functioning public school system. For two centuries, American public schools, while far from flawless, did an effective job in this regard. But, for several decades, they have been under heavy fire. Are the attacks justified? Are there many schools doing a poor job because of incompetent teachers and teachers unions? Are charter schools an effective way to improve the situation? To what extent is poor performance by students from low-income families due, not to inferior schools, but to poverty-related problems?

  • Our Descent Toward Third World Status

    October 21, 2013

    Large numbers of Americans are experiencing hard times. The unemployment rate is high, job security is shaky for many, salaries and wages are not keeping up with the rising cost of living, many are employed at jobs they dislike, relatively few have adequate savings. What makes the current situation particularly bad is a unique combination of factors that make a real recovery unlikely. Unlike previous economic low points, the pain is being inflicted on the general population, while big corporations and the wealthy elite are prospering. There are plausible remedies, but, so far, there are no signs that enough people are ready to take the necessary political action to stop and reverse our slide toward third world status.

  • The Demise of Unions and Why We Need to Revive Them

    September 11, 2013

    Large numbers of Americans who live on salaries or wages have been going thru hard times for several decades, and the outlook for the future is for more of the same. There are a number of reasons for this, including automation, the exporting of jobs, and the importing of workers. But a key factor, arguably the most fundamental one, is the near demise of American labor unions, particularly in the private sector. Union membership in the US enjoyed a surge during the days of the New Deal. It has been falling since it ended, as government effectively turned against unions. This adversely affects nonunion workers as well as union members.

  • Privacy, and open government: both under assault

    August 16, 2013

    While the ability of government to obtain information about individuals has been greatly expanded, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to obtain information about their government. Individual privacy is being eroded, while governmental secrecy is growing. Both trends are highlighted by the dramatic action of Edward Snowden to make public, in some detail, how various secret government agencies have been using modern technology to eavesdrop on people all over the world, including American citizens on US soil. One consequence of the eavesdropping is to make many pubic figures vulnerable to blackmail by the NSA, FBI, etc. The intense assault being mounted on whistleblowers is weakening a vitally important check on the abuse of governmental power.

  • Government by Jury

    July 8, 2013

    Monarchy, dictatorship, theocracy, representative democracy, direct democracy, are types of government that have been tried in the past, and at least remnants of which still exist. Some governments today include elements of more than one type. There is widespread dissatisfaction with all of these. Dictatorship, monarchy, and theocracy have few open adherents in the US, but the existing system is also widely criticized, and there are many proposals for improving it. Rather than discuss ideas for reform (which I have done elsewhere), I suggest that people consider seriously a very different kind of system that was employed over two thousand years ago, and which can be considered as an extension of our jury system.

  • The Hazards of Gambling

    May 21, 2013

    At a time when we are still in deep economic trouble, with huge numbers of people unemployed, or under-employed, and with no serious effort to get corporations and the super-rich to pay more taxes, many states and municipalities are turning to gambling as a "painless" revenue source. We are seeing more state lotteries, licensing of casinos, etc., and the use of the internet to make it easier for people to gamble. Is this a good thing, or is there a serious down side? Place your bets as to what my position is on this.

  • Reckless Use of Technology

    February 20, 2013

    The means used to protect people and the environment against harmful artifacts are falling further and further behind the rapid advances being made in science and technology. All kinds of attractive, but potentially harmful, new products are being marketed that have not been adequately studied. The regulatory agencies that are supposed to play a protective role in this area have been systematically weakened, mainly by legislation, and by gross underfunding. In effect, a product is assumed to be OK unless there is unequivocal proof that there are serious problems with it. The effects are particularly serious in the areas of climate change, pharmaceutical products, and our food supply

  • The Case For One American Language

    December 20, 2012

    People who can't talk to one another won't get into arguments, but they also are not likely to become friends, will have problems working together, and won't be able to interact politically very well. In countries where different languages are spoken by different segments of the population, squabbles over language use are common and, in some cases contribute to, or lead to, separatist movements. So it makes no sense for the US, which is fortunate to have one language spoken by almost all Americans, to create problems by granting citizenship to millions of people whose English language skills are grossly inadequate. Unfortunately, this is what is now happening, as evidenced by the requirement that many voting precincts must provide interpreters at the polls, and foreign language versions of ballots.

  • Money and Elections: Can People Beat Dollars?

    November 3, 2012

    As we see billions of dollars spent promoting major party candidates in our elections, many people are moved to fight to get laws enacted to cap such expenditures and/or to get some sort of public funding for election campaigns that would help third parties. But Supreme Court decisions thwarting such efforts, are leading to calls for a constitutional amendment. Is this the best way to cope with this truly difficult problem? I believe there are better ways in which people working in the interest of the great majority of Americans can use their time and energy.

  • Free Speech: An American Idea

    September 19, 2012

    Even at a time when we are seeing the steady erosion of so many of our civil liberties, it is interesting, and perhaps a source of pride, that the US has always been, and remains today, the country in which freedom of expression is the greatest. This freedom has been undermined elsewhere in the name of protecting people against verbal attacks that might hurt their feelings, or motivate others to mistreat them. Even here we have to be on guard continuously against attacks on free expression and the free flow of information, the most serious of which are currently being carried under the guise of protecting national security.

  • Should You Vote for the Best Candidate?

    August 7, 2012

    If the only effect of an election is to determine the winner, then, if there are only two contenders on the ballot, voting for the better of the pair, even if one strongly dislikes that candidate, might make sense. But, presumably there will be more elections in the future, and the outcomes of these elections may be influenced by the votes for ALL candidates in the current election. This, and other considerations, undercut the value of sophisticated, "strategic", voting and suggest a more straightforward process for deciding who to vote for.

  • War with Iran? On the Brink

    July 25, 2012

    War with Iran, starting some time in the next few months, probably not long before our upcoming presidential election, is a real possibility. The primary cause is related to the reputed desire of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons for use against Israel. As in the Iraq case, there is much controversy over assertions made by those advocating attacking Iran. Does Iran really intend to join the nuclear club, and, if they did, would this be something we could not live with?

  • The Internet: A Wonderful Resource with Some Irritating Characteristics

    June 7, 2012

    While the internet is a fabulous resource, it does have some shortcomings, due, in part, to poor design of many websites. Immature or malicious users are also troublesome. What are the problems, and what can be done about them?

  • Nano Particles--Giga Benefits, Giga Risks

    Apri 4, 2012

    Uses of materials in a form consisting of particles with at least one dimension less than 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) are proliferating at a great rate. We are seeing this exciting new technology applied to increasing numbers of consumer products, industrial materials, and medical procedures. And it appears that this is just the beginning. This is the good news. The bad news is that the same properties that make nanoparticles so useful also make them potentially dangerous, both to humans and to the general environment. What is being done to protect us against us against such hazards?

  • Where did the Benefits of Technology Go?

    February 10, 2012

    A two thousand dollar laptop computer today is vastly more powerful than the most expensive supercomputer was in 1975. Great advances have been made in the related field of automation, and in many other technical fields. Applied to manufacturing and the supply of various services, the amount of labor needed to perform many tasks has been greatly reduced. This explains why working people today, despite shorter work days and more vacation time, are earning much more in real dollars than they were 35 years ago. Wouldn't it be great if the previous sentence were true? Why isn't it true?

  • Is the Death Penalty a Necessary Evil?

    January 5, 2012

    What does China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the USA, and Saudi Arabia have in common? They are the top 6 countries of the world with respect to the number of annual executions. That doesn't mean capital punishment is necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that perhaps we ought to think hard about it.

  • The Occupy Movement: A Ray of Hope

    November 29, 2011

    It looks as tho, after a long slumber, the sleeping giant, American democracy, has suddenly awakened. A broad spectrum of Americans, recognizing how the country has been captured by the corporate elite, is effectively shouting, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Beginning with a few hundred, mostly young, people taking over a small park near the Wall Street stock exchange, a growing movement appears to be gaining momentum. This despite efforts by a number of city governments, led by New York Mayor Bloomberg, to shut it down thru the use of police equipped for combat with paratroopers. It seems clear that the Occupy movement is not going to fade away.

  • The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side

    October 19, 2011

    With millions of Americans unable to find jobs, leave alone decent jobs, it would seem sensible to do something about immigration, both legal and illegal. Corporate interests profiting from the availability of cheap labor strongly oppose any restrictions on immigration or serious efforts to deport illegals already here. Their motive is obvious. Less easy to explain is why they have as allies on this issue so many of the people who one would expect to sympathize with poor US citizens forced to choose between unemployment and working under very bad conditions for very low wages.

  • Governmental Secrecy: Shield for Tyranny, Incompetence, and Corruption

    September 14, 2011

    Governmental secrecy has been increasing along with other assaults on American democracy. The ostensible reason is fear of terrorism, which has replaced fear of the Soviet Union. It doesn't make sense, since, after the 9/11 attack a decade ago, there is little to indicate the existence of a significant credible threat, and, even if there were a credible threat, the kind of excessive secrecy we are now seeing would be counterproductive. What we have is a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and a cynical exploitation of fear to suppress resistance to the increasing concentration of power in fewer hands.

  • Wake Up America! 2012 is Coming!

    July 27, 2011

    The time is fast approaching when the 2012 presidential election contestants will be selected. Republicans are excited about this and numerous hopefuls are volunteering to run. The only activity in the Democratic camp is the leadership raising tons of money, much of it from wealthy donors, to re-elect the incumbent. We don't hear much from those generally regarded as liberals. On the one hand, they are mortified at the way Obama has been morphing into a political replica of George Bush (tho with far better language skills), and on the other hand they are terrified by off-the-wall Republicans rhetoric. They seem too traumatized to even discuss the upcoming election. Not being traumatized, I have managed to examine some fundamental aspects of voting, to determine why the approach popular with liberals is faulty, and to suggest an alternative path.

  • Worker Co-Ops: A Plausible Solution to Some Big Problems

    July 11, 2011

    Most co-ops that we encounter are consumer co-ops, set up to enable people to buy food and other items at lower prices. Going back over two centuries, and extending to the present day, American farmers have cooperated with one another, helping neighbors in barn raisings and, on occasion, at harvest time. Other forms of cooperation included sharing certain kinds of expensive machinery, sharing grain storage facilities, and pooling produce for marketing purposes.

    In an era when US corporations are looking abroad for cheap labor, good jobs are becoming scarce in the US, and some people are forming co-ops of a different kind, the worker co-op. This might be considered as a do-it-yourself solution to the job problem. A worker co-op is a business firm owned and controlled entirely by the employees. There are some very successful examples of such enterprises in the US, most quite small, but some employing over a hundred people. They range from small retail bakeries to firms designing and manufacturing hi-tech products.

  • Are Americans Obsolete?

    May 31, 2011

    Something strange is occurring with respect to the US economy. Large numbers of ordinary Americans are struggling, often without success, to make ends meet. Many have lost their homes. Others feel insecure about their employment as they see jobs like theirs melting away. But, at the same time, business, particularly big business, is doing very well, with large corporations raking in huge profits. How can this anomaly be explained, and what lies ahead?

  • Guns

    April 27, 2011

    Few public issues generate as much emotion among Americans as do laws or proposed legislation dealing with guns. Most gun support activists are very sensitive to any measures that they think might hinder their ability to use their guns for self-defense against criminals, or to resist a tyrannical government. They also oppose regulations imposing gun purchase procedures that they consider excessively bureaucratic. On the other side are those convinced that guns pose a significant threat to life via use by criminals, and by accidents and suicides. They also fear quasi-military armed groups who might engage in terrorist activities on behalf of any of a number of far-out causes.

  • Where's the Outrage? Is Torture Just Another Tool of Government?

    March 7, 2011

    Perhaps the use of torture constitutes an ultimate test of end justifies the means arguments. Are there indeed ends that justify the deliberate torture of human beings? To get away from abstract arguments, should there be laws and regulations that would permit such acts as the torture of small children to get their parents to reveal where in Manhattan a nuclear bomb has been planted? If such laws existed, how likely is it that they might actually be used to avert a catastrophe? How likely is it that they would be grossly abused? What can we learn from recent events involving the use of torture by the US government?

  • Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: Our Fake Two-Party System

    January 5, 2011

    When we say that a country is democratically run, we generally mean that, for the most part, the wishes of the majority determine government policy. There may be variations in how the government is organized and elected, but the essence is the concept of popular sovereignty (with protection of the rights of minorities). There are a number of ways in which the will of the majority may be frustrated in what appears to be a democratic country. These include election fraud and error, gerrymandering of election districts, and corruption of elected and appointed government officials. Few would dispute their importance. Less understood, but even more important, is the potent combination of concentration of wealth and the two-party system.

  • Land of the Free: Frantic Feds Feel-up Fliers to Foil Fumbling Foes

    December 5, 2010

    "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. ", said Yogi Berra. Who could have predicted a decade ago that, as part of the price for air travel, Americans, both men and women, would meekly submit to having strangers examine nude pictures of them, or handle their private parts? Surely only a defeated, demoralized, population would acquiesce to such humiliation. This is in addition to being exposed to radiation that, with some low, but unknown, probability might kill them. How did this happen? Is the terrorist threat serious enough to justify such a reaction? Are there less drastic ways to deal with this situation?

  • Unwanted Newborns: A Painful Problem

    November 20, 2010

    This is the third in a series of blog essays on protection of human life . The first (9/27/2007) presented an argument as to why a strong societal rule against killing is needed to minimize pain and anxiety among most people. It is interesting that, altho justifying a rule against killing without resorting to scripture is not obvious, there is a neat solution. In the second essay the rule is applied to abortion. Here it is applied to another difficult situation: unwanted newborns.

  • How to INsource American Jobs

    October 14, 2010

    If you are not wearing ideological blinders, it is easy to see the path out of the economic wasteland we are now in. The key to widespread full employment has always been manufacturing. American factories have been shutting down for almost 2 decades and more are closing every day. This is because US corporations have found it very profitable to replace American workers of every type with grossly underpaid workers in, or from, other countries. The solution is to make this process unprofitable. Bring back the factory jobs, and prosperity for the great majority of Americans will follow. Let's consider exactly why manufacturing is so important, why it is being phased out in the US, and how we can turn things around.

  • Safety Last—Corporate Profits First

    September 29, 2010

    All kinds of neat new ideas are being converted into useful products that many of us are happy to buy. Other products are "under the hood", designed, for example, to extend the shelf lives of canned goods. Some are medications supposed to make it easier to live with various chronic ailments. One thing they all have in common is that little more than token efforts have been made to ensure that they do not pose non-obvious threats to our health or to the environment. The societal mechanisms that ostensibly protect us against risky products have been gutted by commercial interests.

  • Pioneer Killer Products: Asbestos, Lead, and Tobacco

    August 14, 2010

    We can learn a lot about how to deal with the new chemicals and devices streaming into our environment by considering the history of asbestos, lead, and tobacco. Few would dispute today the hazardous nature of these products. But the corporations involved with them did a great job of keeping them in the marketplace for many decades after their harmful nature was beyond doubt. There is good reason to be concerned that mechanisms to protect us adequately against other such menaces are not in place.

  • National ID Cards: A Threat to Liberty?

    June, 22, 2010

    Wouldn't it be nice to have a single ID card that could be used to confirm who we are with a high degree of reliability? It could be used at hospitals and physician's offices, for voter ID, and possibly for a number of other purposes. A major application would be use by employers in satisfying the law against hiring illegal aliens. But some don't think it would be nice. They feel that such cards would lead to a dictatorship in which the government would monitor and control every important aspect of our lives. How valid are such concerns?

  • The Immigration Struggle: Defending Arizona

    May 16, 2010

    In response to the flood of illegal immigrants over its southern border, the State of Arizona, angry at the failure of the federal government to take effective action, has made violations of basic federal immigration laws also violations of Arizona law. This allows state and local police to help enforce those laws. The fact that the new Arizona law has been strongly attacked by a wide range of people from all over the political spectrum suggests that there may be a lot to be said in its favor. That, and its popularity with the American people, particularly in Arizona. So let's take a look at the facts and arguments.

  • Cars That Won't Stop: Are Computers the Problem?

    April 26, 2010

    Much has been written and said about the terrifying, sudden, unexpected acceleration problems encountered by drivers of Toyotas. Some episodes have been attributed to purely mechanical effects, but there are also claims that computers may be implicated. Since modern automobiles make heavy use of microprocessors, many frustrated computer users are worried about the possibility of computer crashes leading to automobile crashes. How valid are such concerns?

  • Immigration: Who wins? Who Loses?

    February 27, 2010

    Would increased immigration and an expanded guest worker program solve a labor shortage to the benefit of Americans? Is coming to the US the solution for impoverished people living in poor countries? What is the effect of this migration on the home countries? Should there be a general amnesty for illegal residents here more than a year? Or should there be a concerted effort to apprehend and deport all illegals? Or ... what?

  • Brutal Prisons Are Hurting Us All

    January 20, 2010

    Being "tough on crime" sounds good. But when it leads to long jail terms for minor, nonviolent crimes, and to callous neglect and brutal treatment of prisoners, the result is more hardened criminals and inflated taxes and other costs for all of us. It is interesting that current toughness does not extend to high-level corporate executives convicted of crimes harming tens of thousands of people and involving hundreds of millions, of dollars.

  • Victor Paschkis Versus Wernher von Braun: Responsibility in Engineering

    December 5, 2009

    Suppose a computer engineer working for Acme Software is given the assignment of designing a program for identifying people communicating on the internet. The customer is the national police force of Myanmar (Burma), which plans to use the product to locate dissidents. Should the engineer accept the assignment? Victor Paschkis would have said "no", while Wernher von Braun would probably have said "yes". Let's check out these men and the general principle involved.

  • Fixing Our Broken Democracy

    October 22, 2009

    Hey, its not surprising that Republicans are unhappy with the federal government after losing the presidency and control over both houses of congress. But a lot of other people are also upset over current events. Many feel that their views on important matters are being ignored. Some serious defects in our political system may account for this. What are they, and how can we fix them?

  • The Energy Crisis: Part 2—Inefficiency and Waste

    August 17, 2009

    Big trouble is coming if the growth in worldwide energy demand is not reversed. The technical approach is to increase efficiency of energy use. While useful and important, this is not likely to suffice. We also need to revise the lifestyles that routinely and thoughtlessly waste resources on a large scale. Preaching and nagging won't do the job. Fortunately, there is good reason to believe that public opinion would support effective measures to bring about the necessary changes.

  • The Energy Crisis: Part 1—The Supply Side

    July 31, 2009

    At current energy consumption rates, the world is headed for big trouble: depletion of fossil fuel reserves and global climate change, The descent into disaster is accelerating due to the rapid increase in energy use by the most populous countries. Our government's token effort to address the problems won't be enough. Much more R&D and investment in a variety of alternative energy sources, and in more efficient energy use is essential. But it is even more important that, as a society, we take effective steps to reduce energy waste.

  • The Need for People-Friendly Research & Development

    May 4, 2009

    Research and Development (R&D) projects paid for by corporations are generally aimed at results profitable to those corporations. Since most R&D today is so funded, many problems important to the well being of people are neglected. Also, since incomes of most scientists and engineers come from corporations, it is hard to find unbiased experts to evaluate the safety and efficacy of many products, including medications. Greatly expanding the role of publicly funded laboratories would go a long way toward solving these problems.

  • The War On Terror: An Exercise in Hypocrisy

    March 19, 2009

    I've expressed opposition to the war on drugs and to the Afghanistan war. Now I'm coming out against the war on terror. This one makes no sense at any level. Most of what we are doing in the name of this war is promoting the cause of the presumed enemy. It is also hypocritical because the US has a long history of practicing terrorism.

  • Afghan War Escalation: Out of the Frying Pan into the Frying Pan

    February 3, 2009

    It looks like those worried that the "Vietnam syndrome" might inhibit US policy makers from aggressively promoting American interests on the international scene can relax. The lessons from the Vietnam War seem to have been safely forgotten, as we appear to be committed to expanding the war in Afghanistan, while maintaining a significant foothold in Iraq. War with Pakistan would be a logical next step.

  • The Rich and the Rest of Us: Gross Inequality Versus Democracy

    January 13, 2009

    Both directly, via early campaign contributions, and indirectly, via media control, very rich people determine which candidates for public office are "viable". After elections, their interests and views are treated by politicians with great deference. Great wealth can be deployed in many ways to influence governmental behavior. Wealth and income inequality in the US is large and growing. So a small subset of Americans are a lot more equal than the rest of us. What can be done about this?

  • The Drug War: Stuck in the Tunnel

    December 2, 2008

    The war on drugs has been going on so long that it receives very little media attention. But, it nevertheless continues to impact the lives of millions of individual Americans and affects the nation as a whole via a variety of monetary costs amounting to several hundred billion dollars annually. We really can't afford to continue on the present course.

  • a

    The Case for Tax and Spend

    October 6, 2008

    When was the last time you heard a candidate for public office promise to increase a tax? The mantra, "taxation is robbery", once a far-out slogan, has been mainstreamed. But while valid where the government doing the taxing is in the hands of robbers or tyrants, as is the case in some parts of the world, it makes no sense in a civilized country. Since I am not planning to run for public office, I will stick my neck out and defend this very unpopular institution.

  • Forward to the Past: Junk the Machines, Count Votes Manually

    August 5, 2008

    The kiss principle, "keep it simple stupid", is an important engineering principle. It is violated, big time, by e-voting systems, an expensive non-solution to a non-problem. Hand-counting of hand-marked ballots works very nicely in most industrialized nations, as well as in many New England towns. Here is why I think this is the way to go.

  • Cell Phones: Not Definitely Dangerous?

    June 19, 2008

    Over two hundred million Americans use cell phones. (I just bought one myself.) Isn't it crazy to suggest that they might be hazardous? Surprisingly, there is substantial credible scientific evidence suggesting that significant risks are associated with heavy mobile phone use over many years. This is another instance of a crumbling regulatory system. Here I try to clarify the issues and suggest remedies.

  • On Liberty and Fluoridation: Another Look

    April 26, 2008

    The American Dental Association, The National Institutes of Health, The National Academy of Sciences, The US Public Health Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agree that fluoridating our water supply to combat tooth decay is a great idea. They may be right, but I think there are good reasons to check out the wardrobe of this emperor.

  • Fluoridation No! Seat Belts Yes!

    February 27, 2008

    I generally oppose the idea of laws restricting individual behavior that does not affect other people. Apparent examples are fluoridation of water supplies and requiring the use of automobile seat belts (and motorcycle helmets). The critical difference between these cases was made clear to me by a jarring experience that fine-tuned my thinking.

  • Regulating the Invisible Hand: A Contradiction?

    January 15, 2008

    The Adam Smith free market concept is a great idea for setting prices in a rational, decentralized manner, depending on the independent actions of numerous consumers and suppliers. But, in practice, real world conditions are such that the invisible hand often needs help from other mechanisms, principally governmental regulatory agencies. Free market purists usually, but not always, vigorously resist such deviations. This discussion focusses on serious problems related to pharmaceuticals, and also touches on a few other areas such as agriculture. Finally, it addresses the question of the viability of a regulated free market.

  • Electoral Kludge

    November 19, 2007

    For over two centuries, the US has put up with a system for electing presidents that makes no sense. This was made clear in a number of painful cases, but, so far, nothing has been done about it. Now there is a proposed solution that looks like it is simple enough and has enough support to be adopted.

  • Killing People Is Wrong: What About Abortion?

    October 16, 2007

    Previously, I presented an argument for a strongly enforced rule against killing, and showed that it is broadly applicable, protecting, for example, elderly and senile people. In the present essay, I discuss entities not covered by this rule. In particular, I show that fetuses are not covered, so that abortion is not murder.

  • Why Should Killing be Illegal?

    September 26, 2007

    We hear a lot about a "right to life", which seems like a simple notion, easy to justify and to apply. Actually, as is shown here, demonstrating the need for a strongly enforced rule against killing is surprisingly interesting. The nature of the argument helps clarify some very important issues, including abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

  • The Patent Game: Multiple Monopoly

    September 8, 2007

    Our patent system relies on the granting of monopoly privileges to persuade people to create and to reveal new technological ideas. This system never really worked all that well and, in recent years, has been rewarding lawyers more than anyone else. What are the problems, and what can be done about them?

  • Jobs

    August 4, 2007

    From fruit pickers to computer engineers, American workers face a cloudy future. There is already a lot of fog obscuring what is happening. This is an effort to pierce that fog to get a realistic view of the exporting of jobs and the importing of workers.

  • Man Rescues Coast Guard

    July 8, 2007

    The Coast Guard often comes to the aid of people in serious trouble, exhibiting great courage in effecting rescues. This is about Michael DeKort, an engineer who, at great risk to his career, came to the aid of the Coast Guard. He demonstrated how an ethical engineer should behave when the going gets rough.

  • Why I Would Like to be a Republican

    June 5, 2007

    If you want to be on the winning side, it seems obvious that you should join up with the really good fighters, those who have the skill and will to win. For some of us, there is a serious problem when applying this idea to politics, but I have found a surprisingly simple solution.

  • Bloated Ballots

    May 24, 2007

    Cluttering ballots with races for court clerks, state university trustees, dozens of judges, and decisions about routine bond issues strikes me as a bad idea. It may look like true democracy, but, for reasons presented in this essay, I think this is an illusion.

  • The Great Sarasota Undervote Mystery

    May 2, 2007

    How did it come about that over 18,000 voters in Sarasota County, Florida showed up to vote, but didn't vote in the hard fought battle for the House seat vacated by Katherine Harris? Were they too angry about a nasty campaign to vote? Did they fail to see the race on the ballot due to bad ballot design? Was the touch-screen system too slow for fast voters? Was there a program bug? Was there foul play? This is a report critiquing the work of some first-rate computer detectives who tried to solve the mystery. This episode clearly illustrates what a frustrating task it is to evaluate the accuracy of e-voting results.

  • Money Talks, and Nominates--and Elects

    April 10, 2007

    More about elections. Even the best candidates can't win if nobody ever hears about them. Nobody hears about them if the media ignores them. The media ignores them if they don't have a lot of campaign funds. They can't raise money if nobody hears about them--unless they are wealthy or have the backing of wealthy people or organizations. What can we do about this?

  • Instant Runoff Voting: Looks Good--But Look Again

    March 26, 2007

    Instant runoff voting is an improvement over plurality voting in that it allows a voter both to support a third party candidate and to help choose between the major party candidates. But it has some serious drawbacks not shared with alternative schemes with the same benefits.

  • Range Voting: Packing More Information into a Vote

    March 11, 2007

    This is about a different type of voting system that allows voters to express their views more completely. One important advantage is that third party candidates do not have a "spoiler" effect.

  • E-Voting: A Closer Look

    March 1, 2007

    In my February 5 blog, I discussed e-voting systems in some detail. Here I focus on some specific issues such as why there is so little public discussion of hand counting of ballots, tactics used by e-voting system vendors, the Holt Bill, more about costs, and some possible solutions to a major problem associated with hand counting. I also elaborate further on why the use of machines increases vulnerability to fraud.

  • Redistricting: A Nasty Political Problem with a Nice Mathematical Solution

    February 14, 2007

    Drawing legislative district boundaries for federal, state, or local government is a difficult problem, highly susceptible to manipulation for a variety of purposes. It is difficult even to define what a fair result would be. An attractive solution, presented here, is to use a conceptually simple mapping algorithm that generates a unique solution in which the districts are compact, and where there is no opportunity for manipulation.

  • E-Voting: Big Risks for Small Gains

    February 5, 2007

    E-voting is vulnerable to virtually every corruption technique applicable to manual voting systems. There is also an unbounded set of cheating methods, many of which are extremely difficult to protect and guard against. Some of these can have very large scale effects. E-voting is also almost always more expensive than manual systems and offers very little in the way of compensating advantages.