On good news.

On good news.

How is white paint like the defeat of our nation’s (former!) white-supremacist in chief?

They’re pulling us back from the brink. Both ample cause for dancing in the street.

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When I woke on Wednesday, November 4th, the news looked grim.

Before the 2016 election, I felt pretty sure that Donald Trump would win. I felt horrible about the prospect, but based on conversations I’d been having with people – and because the man embodies so much of our crass, self-serving, money-hungry national id – it seemed very likely that Trump would be elected.

But I had no prediction this time. I haven’t been talking to people. My family has returned to something vaguely like our regular life – my spouse is teaching, my kids are in school – but the local jail won’t let me inside, and I have far fewer conversations with folks around town. Our voices are muffled, and I can’t see their lips for extra help in parsing words.

I had hoped, obviously, that watching what the man has done to our country would induce people to vote for anyone else.

Nevertheless, almost half the people who voted wanted that man to stay in office.

Sure, Joe Biden clearly won the popular vote – but it wasn’t a landslide. It was something like 51% to 48%. Even ignoring, for a moment, the awfulness of the electoral college – a system that was designed so that some people could enjoy the FREEDOM to abduct, torture, and murder other people – 51% to 48% is quite close.

Almost half our nation’s voters think the president has been doing a dang fine job and should carry on with it.

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On Wednesday morning, it looked like the electoral college might proffer another victory to our current president.

I didn’t take to the streets. Nor did I descend into my secret bunker.

Backyardigans secret lair / Nickelodeon

I don’t even have a secret bunker. Although I did notice, when I went grocery shopping on Monday before the election, that the shelves were stripped bare of most types of canned beans. I imagine other people were stocking their secret bunkers.

And it’s not clear to me whether I’d be more in need of a secret bunker if Trump had won – four more years of ravage – or if Biden had won decisively, which might induce violence from the most prominent terrorist organizations in our country, the well-armed white supremacists.

I bought some dried beans. Which is silly, I know. With young children in the house, I almost never plan our meals well enough ahead of time to use dried beans instead of canned. And, in the event of TOTAL CHAOS, there’s no guarantee that we’d have running water to cook dried beans with. And also, maybe it’s excessively paranoid to be at the grocery store a day before a U.S. presidential election and feel an overwhelming dread of impending violence.

But maybe it’s not. That’s the thing. Maybe it’s not.

Any Rip Van Winkles who lay down for a nap in 2015 would have thought I was being absurd. But in 2020, other people had gotten to the canned beans before I did.

So, waking up, feeling nauseous at the gaping blood-red wound / chasm confronting me from the New York Times website’s map of the United States on Wednesday, I sat down to send sad emails to a few people I care about. Given that depression is normally a very private affair – too private, most people suffering in silence, alone – it felt almost cathartic to have the opportunity for such shared despair. Perhaps 52% of our nation felt the same hopeless nausea that I did.

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During one of these sad emails, I wrote about stocks. I’d hedged my bets – stock in construction equipment like CAT in case Joe Biden wins and actually embarks on our sorely-needed infrastructure project; stock in HVAC (air conditioning) and Canadian agriculture in case Trump won.

And, sure, maybe I shouldn’t unload my Canadian ag stocks yet. If the obstructionists hold the Senate, maybe Biden will be stymied in his efforts to address climate change. But, you know what? At least he’s gonna try.

The other guy was going to keep tweeting that sacred-water-poisoning pipelines and mountain-wrecking coal mining would Make America Uninhabitable Later, and, after an erudite Black man had successfully governed our nation for eight years, lots of folks really wanted to maul something.

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But, the dire need for air conditioning?

Well, let’s preface this by saying that air conditioning is going to be a really problematic feedback loop in our efforts to address climate change. The world gets hotter, people feel miserable, people use more air conditioning, air conditioning is a huge energy suck, which makes the world get even hotter. That’s bad. If a chemical company develops a more efficient coolant, it’ll be a huge boon.

Kinda strange for a hippie environmentalist like me to extol the efforts of companies like Dow chemical, but also, I’m a scientist, and, also, this is where we are in the world. Things would be different if we’d made better choices years ago.

No matter. This essay is a happy one, chock full of good news.

The first good news is that, pending a few lawsuits that will (eventually) fizzle in a tangled mess of illogic, Biden has won the U.S. presidency. Of our nation’s approximately 140 million eligible candidates for president, Joe Biden isn’t my number one pick. But, still. I voted for him. He’s good enough.

I’m quite happy he won.

(Given the stakes this year – buying dried beans on Monday, honestly! – that’s an understatement.)

Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

Here’s some more good news: new paint!

Seriously. If you can spare a minute to read Science magazine’s layperson-friendly press release, please, click here!

There’s a charming new research article – published three weeks ago, but unnoticed by me until this morning – that describes how much cooling we could achieve by painting buildings with a fresh coat of this special formulation of white paint.

Sunlight shines down, ready to heat any buildings covered in black shingles or whatever, but sunlight will bounce off this white paint, and be reflected in a lovely spread of wavelengths to fly back harmlessly into outer space.

This is, after all, the usual problem with greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide lets inbound sunlight pass through, but all our stuff down here on Earth absorbs the photons of sunlight and in return ships off a larger number (more entropy, more chaos) of lower energy (so that no energy is created or destroyed) infrared photons, and the greenhouse gases won’t let those new photons fly off into outer space, so our planet heats up.

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Joe Biden. And white paint.

Our species is a bit less likely to face extinction in the coming centuries. And that sounds great to me!

On the Bush years, from the perspective of the 45th.

On the Bush years, from the perspective of the 45th.

attheriverofslimeIn Ghostbusters II, the parapsychologists learned that certain words were dangerous.  A strange pink slime burgeoned beneath New York City, bringing with it a wide variety of malevolent spirits.  Every vile, hateful thing that anyone said caused the slime to grow in power.  Let slip too many insults and the muck might expand to engulf the world.

Similarly, our nation is currently helmed by an erratic figurehead that seems to draw strength from every intonation of his name.  During the primaries, and then the general election, much of what was said about our 45th was bad.  But content was irrelevant.  All that mattered was the name.  After all, the name is his key asset.  In the business world, most of his ventures folded, and the empire rebounded from bankruptcy on the value of the name alone, a crisp, bold, status-conferring word to adorn crassly gilded buildings.

And so, even though there is obviously more to write about the state of our nation, K (with the help of some lovely letters to the editor) convinced me to stop using the name.

I’ve also been binging Eliot Weinberger’s essays on my Netflix lately.  (Clarification from K: “By ‘Netflix,’ he means his library card.”)

EliotWeinbergerBW350Until I picked up his Ghosts of Birds, I’d never read anything by Weinberger.  This is tragic, because he’s been publishing phenomenal essays for decades.  “The Falls,” from Karmic Traces, is a brutal compression of three thousand years of racism.  An Elemental Thing is gorgeous throughout its two hundred pages.  Written Reaction is riddled with wry snark and lovely poetry recommendations.

And then there’s 2005’s What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles, which has proven invaluable to me as I attempt to make sense of our nation’s current political situation.

From the opening page:

bushchronicles.jpgAl Gore received some 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush.  Presidential elections, however, are determined by the archaic system of an Electoral College, to which each state sends  representatives who vote according to the will of that state’s voters, nearly always on a winner-takes-all basis.  An 18th-century invention, the College was a last-minute political concession to Southern slave owners when the Constitution was written.  Representatives were apportioned according to population; slaves, of course, could not vote, but they were considered to be three-fifths of a human in the calculations, thus increasing the populations of the slave states and the number of their representatives.

Enlightened now, we have done away with slavery.  We’ve kept the electoral college, though, which continues to suppress the voice of populous urban areas.  And we’ve kept the system of counting voice-less black bodies to inflate the votes of their oppressors: we build prisons in white, rural, Republican-leaning districts.  The prisoners count toward the local population – not the population of whatever district they lived in & will return to – but are not allowed to vote while there.

Stealing representation from prisoners’ home districts matters most for the composition of congress.  But the basic premise of the electoral college – intentionally undercounting urban votes – subverted the will of the American people in 2000, when Gore won by half a million votes, and more egregiously in 2016, when Clinton won by two million.

7301022116_374439c45e_oAwarding the presidency to the losers was constitutional.  Somewhat less so in 2004, when clownish Supreme Court justices with clear conflicts of interest prevented the state of Florida from accurately awarding their votes, but constitutional nonetheless: in Weinberger’s words, “Our Founding Fathers had a limited enthusiasm for democracy.

After the inauguration, though, it didn’t take long for the constitutional egress to begin.  Bush tortured innocent Muslim men.  45 keeps attempting to ban them from our country.  Bush practiced an obscene cronyism.  Here’s Weinberger:

If you drill into Bush’s skull, what you mainly find is a pool of oil.  It’s difficult to understand Bush – especially when he speaks – but it is somewhat easier if one realizes that he sees the whole world exclusively in terms of the production and consumption of oil.

But if you drill to the core of George W. Bush’s being, there is something else, something that seems so hyperbolic, that so smacks of the cliches of old Communist propaganda, that it is hardly believable.  And yet the evidence of his term as the Governor of Texas, and the daily evidence of his presidency, proves that it is true.  Once one clears away the rhetoric that he is handed to read out loud, it is apparent that Bush believes that his role, his only role, as President of the United States is to help his closest friends.

And yet, somehow, 45 has taken this practice further.  Rather than presume that his role in office is to help his friends make money, 45 acts only to help himself.  He uses the presidency as an advertising platform; he badgers corporations that threaten his family brand; he reaps membership fees from wealthy individuals purchasing the opportunity for political contact; he bestows favors on nations where he owns significant properties (note, for instance, which nations were left off his executive orders on immigration).

Of course, neither Bush nor 45 could act alone… but Weinberger has you covered here, too.  Despite being over a decade old, his “Republicans: A Prose Poem” is still tragically relevant.  If anything, a reprise would be even more grim.  The piece is charming, though.  And a lot of fun, with lines like:

George W. Bush, President of the United States, is a Republican.  To demonstrate personal sacrifice and his determination to win the War on Terror, he gave up desserts and candy a few days before he announced the invasion of Iraq.

And yet Bush, despite his unpopularity and incompetence – nominating a governor from a wretchedly polluted state who believed in “voluntary compliance” to run the EPA; inundating the public with lies and misinformation (Weinberger: “Reagan, as everyone knows, was the master of transforming Washington into Hollywood, with his photo opportunities and careful scripts.  Bush has taken this one step further: Whereas Reagan’s scenarios were advertisements meant to promote what he was doing, Bush’s are often heartwarming television vignettes that are the opposite of his actual policies.  Thus we have had Bush in the forest extolling the beauty of the national parks, while opening them up for logging and mining, Bush reading to schoolchildren (as he was yesterday) while cutting the budgets for libraries.  Or, my favorite Bush moment: a speech he gave to something called the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a community-service group, calling them exemplary of what makes America strong and free.  The next day, his administration completely eliminated their government funds.”); selecting a racist, hateful white southerner to serve as attorney general – was elected to serve a second term.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.

It’s unlikely Bush could have won in 2004 (after all, he’d lost in 2000, before people even realized what a mockery he’d make of our government) if the 9/11 terrorist attacks had not occurred.

And we’re in a similar situation now.  From Mark Danner’s “What Could He Do”:

we must see the likelihood of a crisis as the vital springboard of a [45] presidency, especially an increasingly shaky, unpopular, and unstable one.  The lower his poll numbers, the more outlandish his lies, the greater the resistance from opponents within the bureaucracies, the thicker his scandals and chaos, the likelier he will be to seek to use a crisis and all the opportunities it offers to lever himself from a position of defensiveness to that of dominating power.

To maintain power, 45 needs the United States to be attacked.  From that perspective, his foreign policies are totally reasonable.  In Danner’s words:

If, as the Islamic State has asserted, the goal of its attacks in the West has been to “eliminate the gray zone” … then [45]’s immigration ban goes far toward accomplishing the same thing: isolating Islamic communities, placing them all among a besieged minority whose travel is restricted and whose loyalty to their adopted countries is put into question. … If one sought to design a policy to encourage radicalization, it would be hard to suggest a better one.

Similarly, why not deliberately offend every other nation.  45 cannot guarantee that his belligerence against Muslims will prompt the attack he so sorely needs.  Every possible “other” who might be molded into a threat is worth pursuing: Muslims, Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese… our own citizens who happen to have more epidermal melanin than 45 himself does… hell, even Australians… any attacker who is not a good white Christian American would do.

But at least we have Eliot Weinberger, writing to warn us.  His words from January 2001, months before the attack:

If the economy sinks, as it probably will, a return to Iraq will certainly be the most expedient distraction.

And Weinberger’s words from September 12th, the day after the attack:

…the logic of George Bush’s seeming cowardice has received some ingenious explication.  Today, administration officials claimed that the terrorist attack was actually an assassination attempt, that the airplane that struck the Pentagon was intended for the White House (but hit the Pentagon by mistake), and that the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania was somehow supposed to crash into the President’s jet, Air Force One.  I happened to watch these pronouncements on television with a group of 13-year-olds; they all burst into derisive laughter.

That in a time of national crisis – a moment when, amidst waning government powers everywhere, government actually matters – the country is being led by a man laughed at by children may create psychic wounds as severe as those caused by the attack itself.

And, from 2003’s “Poetry is News,” collected in Weinberger’s Oranges & Peanuts for Sale:

The good news about the monstrosity of the Bush administration is that it is so extreme and so out of control that it has finally woken up the left…

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

sphereIn economics,  proofs often begin with the words If we consider a ball of radius R centered at the point X in R n I wrote those words so many times.  Reading them now, they sound quite strange to me.

A math course called “real analysis” was a prerequisite for economics.  Presumably real analysis would’ve taught me to write proofs, perhaps well enough that I’d understand why I wrote the words I did.  But my university had recently implemented an online registration system, and its glitchiness meant I could skip pre-reqs, and that I was able to enroll in both economics and inorganic chemistry during the 10 am to 11:30 time slot.  I attended economics except when there was a chemistry exam.  And still don’t know for certain what “real analysis” entails.

1280px-Schrodingers_cat.svg
As it happens, my wavelength was too small to actually be in both places at once … but Oncourse didn’t know that.

But I know that the word “ball,” in the world of mathematics, is a generic term for round things.  You have two dots in one dimension, a circle in two, a sphere in three, then a “ball” in four or more.

The number of dimensions is what the “n” stands for in “R n.”  In the world of economics proofs, you might have any number.  Of course, in our day to day lives, most of us are familiar with only two or three (yes, yes, physicists claim that we should understand four, because we move along three spatial axes and time.  But I can move forward and back, left and right, up and down.  I’ll continue to think of my world as three-dimensional until I learn to move with equal faculty into the future and the past).  But economists need more because they like to give each variable its own dimension.  Instead of “up and down,” a dimension in an economics proof might be the weather, the number of factories, the number of workers in a population.

Sliding along an axis can seem incredibly grim if you momentarily forget that a proof is supposed to be abstract.  It’s just an imaginary line projecting endlessly through space, but what does it mean?

homeless
A homeless man down and out in New York City. (Photo by lujoma ny)

For workers, sliding back toward zero means lives destroyed, people unemployed, hustling to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to feed their kids.  Or worse.  Alongside Primo Levi in the Buna concentration camp, the number of workers could be varied at will.  There seemed to be endless numbers of condemned to add, and each decrease meant another murdered man.

Luckily, in class we worked quickly enough that there was no time to think of that.  The professor would scrawl his solution upon the board, I’d copy it into my notes, struggling to keep up.

Or perhaps I lost you earlier.  Maybe you hadn’t realized that there even were proofs in economics.  I hadn’t, before I enrolled.  I expected only to draw crisscrossing lines, mark where they intersected, claim that should be your greeble’s price.  A “greeble” being, for some reason or other, the default name for an imaginary product for which the supply and demand can be used to determine a price.

I learned about these mythical “greebles” in high school, in an economics class that moved many-fold more slowly than the university class.  In high school there was more time to sit and wonder what a greeble was.  I drew pictures in my spiral notebook.  Most of these pictures made the greeble look like either a strange pet or a military weapon.  There were many vicious-looking weapons drawn in my high school notebooks.  I hated being there.  I wrote stories about blowing up the school.  Not that I was a violent kid.  I was already vegetarian because I hated hurting things.  But I certainly drew a lot of death and destruction.  Then, of course, the Columbine shootings happened and I had to stop drawing those pictures.  Writing those stories.  Murderous ideation was no longer safe.  Even once I’d stopped, they started sending me to the principle’s office about once a month.  That did not make me like school more.

fc old notebook cover009.jpg
One of my notebook covers from high school.  Maybe you get the idea.

From then on, at my school, even suicidal ideation was something you had to keep to yourself.  Luckily, I was a pretty happy kid.  I rarely thought about that sort of thing more than once a day.  Still don’t.

But, yes, in economics there are proofs.  One famous proof we reproduced was “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” which states mathematically that if a population is trying to vote, they’re doomed.  There is no fair voting system that picks the most-preferred candidate out of a set of three or more.  Your options are a dictatorship or else electing some schmuck whom nobody really wants.

voting

Maybe that sounds like an argument in favor of a two-party system.  But it isn’t, not really.  If you’re worried that from a set of options the best one won’t be picked, the best solution isn’t to offer only two of the crummier options from that set.  People still won’t get what they want.  All you’ve accomplished is to blast even their illusion of a fair choice.  In a two-party system people are still doomed, but they’re so clearly doomed that you don’t even need Kenneth Arrow’s fancy proof for them to know it.

As it happens, it’s election season again.  It so often is, because “election season” seems to run approximately two years out of each four-year presidential term, and sometimes a year or more for even two-year congressional terms, and huge numbers of people devote eighty, ninety, hundred hour work weeks toward their efforts to get this dude or that dude or (finally!) this lady elected.

Jason Pruett's small cartoons of each of the U.S. presidents.
Art by Jason Pruett.

Whenever I feel bad about how long I’ve spent working on a project, I remember the number of person hours that are guaranteed to be wasted each election cycle.  Because huge numbers of people work full-time to get their preferred candidate elected, and all but one won’t win.  Maybe they console themselves by thinking at least by running, we helped change the tenor of the national debate!  But, let’s be real.  Even when fewer than a third of the populace votes for a dude, he’ll refer only to the (bizarre!) electoral college numbers and claim to have received a clear mandate for action.

Nobody cares about the platform the losers were running on.  And most everybody is guaranteed to be a loser.  Even (especially?) the voters.

Capture

My personal political inclinations include taxation to assess the fair price of business externalities, free trade, open borders, lax enforcement against possession of tools for self-harm (drugs), strict enforcement against possession of tools for other-harm (guns, automobiles), progressive income taxes such that people pay (or are reimbursed) relative to what they’d likely lose or gain if we had anarchy instead of our current government.

If I were trying to be cheeky, I’d draw a parallel between my ideas about progressive income tax and the conceptual framework behind electric potential, the idea that the energy at each point is equal to the work that would’ve been done to drag a test charge there from infinitely far away.  Instead of a field-less void somewhere far off in the distance, I imagine people being launched into their current wealth or poverty from an undifferentiated state of Hobbesian anarchy.

Donald_Trump_September_3_2015_(cropped)But maybe the physics metaphor would seem too twee.  So (a la Trump, I’m not going to say they’re weak.  But they’re weak), I won’t subject you to it.

I’m pro-genetically modified foods, anti-pesticide.  Pro-vaccination, pro-childhood nutrition, against our current quantity of medical spending.  Most doctors think there needs to be a conversation about how much the government should pay for each quality-of-life-adjusted year.  I think even that is not enough.  We need a concurrent conversation about how long humans should live.  About what we as a people consider to be the meaning of life and the best way for our spending to reflect that.  Because any threshold for how much we’ll spend on each quality-of-life-adjusted year will result in untenable costs if medical advances keep allowing people to live longer.

19820235745_9ef17f2551_zAll of which means that, yup, as ever, no politician will (or should, honestly) care about what I stand for.  I’ll vote for the old hippie commie guy in the primary (if I get to vote.  I probably won’t get to, though.  My state’s primary is scheduled relatively late), and then throw away my vote in the general election (what with our electoral college, most people’s votes are submerged at that stage.  I think there’ll be something like eight states where the vote will be close enough that all people waiting in line for their turn in the booth can delude themselves into thinking that their votes matter).

Which, again, does sound awful.  Like, isn’t there a better way?

Well, yes.  There is a better way.  There are many better ways than the strange system our country has contrived.  But at least I had the experience of jotting out the full proof to know that there is no perfect way.

(Somehow I’d deluded myself into thinking that typing this essay would make me happy.  I see now that I was wrong.)