Wild Cranberry Harvest

Published at 09:46 on 30 September 2018

There were times when I was wondering if it was going to happen this year. First, the partner who was going to accompany me and give me a ride from the Seattle ferry dock flaked out. Then, it looked as if the front that was forecast to come through last evening (and which ended up doing so) was going to come in up to four hours early. That would have meant a chilly, wet afternoon in what is already a soggy place.

My desire to revisit what is a special place to me eventually prevailed. I decided to risk the weather, pay the vehicle tolls on the ferry, and go anyhow. Part of it is that I had wanted to go there last year, but the only road in was closed due to a forest fire. Part if it is that I may be moving further west and simply not visiting this particular cranberry-harvesting spot in future years (more on that in another post).

I needn’t have worried. I checked to ensure the road was open this year (no reports of closures, although I did have to make a detour around a bridge-replacement project to get to the road’s start). Yesterday afternoon turned out mostly sunny and surprisingly warm.

That latter fact still surprises me in a bog, even though I’ve been visiting such places enough to have experienced it multiple times. Bogs tend to be open places, so in sunny weather receive full sun. This is the first part of why they get so warm. The second part is their peat soils, which have much less heat capacity than normal soils. A little bit of sunlight will leave most soils still cold and clammy from the overnight chill but the floor of a bog will be warming quickly.

Intellectually, I know the above, yet peat bogs tend to be northern ecosystems, associated with past glaciation. Moreover their environment closely mimics conditions found in the arctic tundra, to the point that many bog plants are also tundra plants. So I keep associating bogs with the chill of the north in my mind, even though they are often very warm places. So long as the sun is out, that is—on cold, clear nights, the same factors that make them warm up quickly on sunny days enable them to cool down quickly. Extreme of temperature, not mere presence of warmth, is the real principle operating here.

I stepped off the logging road (recently raised with fresh gravel after advancing sphagnum had covered it and was reclaiming it from human use) that crosses the bog and was greeted by the fragrance of the Labrador tea bushes I was brushing against. My bare feet sank deep into the sphagnum and tea-colored water welled up around them.

Further in, the shrubs became more stunted and it was there that the hummocks of moss were criss-crossed with dainty trailing vines bearing plump red and yellow fruits which seemed totally out of scale with the size of the plants bearing them. Cranberries, and lots of them this time. Smaller and differently-colored than the dark red ones in the stores, but with an unmistakable cranberry flavor and not quite as sour.

With wild fruit, you never really know what you’re going to find. Some years have bumper crops, and some years are busts. There’s times I’ve come back from the bog with only a cup or two of berries. This year I easily harvested over a pound of them, enough for a batch of cranberry sauce to share on Thanksgiving. It’s not the phenomenal fruiting I saw the first time I visited the bog in the autumn, but aside from that it’s the most productive year I’ve seen.

I finished my berry harvest, spent a few minutes plucking Labrador tea leaves (another harvest I make a point of making while there), said my thanks (and maybe my farewell) to the place, and left.

One Final Kav Post

Published at 08:01 on 28 September 2018

Dana Milbank just nailed it in The Washington Post: The veracity of the allegations against Kavanaugh (which do merit, but which are unlikely to receive, further investigation) have now become pretty much a moot point for deciding whether or not he is Supreme Court grade material. His temper tantrums yesterday demonstrated beyond a doubt that he is not. He’s not even fit to serve as judge in the lower court where he presently does.

The Rednecks Have a Point

Published at 21:43 on 27 September 2018

Public schools in rural, conservative areas are starting to ban yoga. In fact, the entire state of Alabama has, throughout their K-12 public education system.

As the subject of this post indicates, they have a point. A very good point, in fact. Yoga is not merely a physical activity; it is very much part of the Hindu religion. Schools should not be in the business of imposing compulsory religious practices on children. This is as true for religious practices popular in left-wing and countercultural circles as it is for ones popular in conservative, traditionalist ones.

Yoga proponents cite studies that show yoga is beneficial for children. This is largely irrelevant. There are studies that show regular churchgoers live longer. There are studies that show people who pray regularly are healthier than those who don’t. If “it benefits children” is a blanket excuse for crossing the church-state barrier, then congratulations: you’ve just made the case for compulsory Christian prayer in public schools.

There is a way to bring the benefits of yoga’s physical activity to children without violating the separation of church and state: study the yoga poses, use them to design a religion-neutral calisthenics program, and have students do that instead of yoga in gym class.

If a child’s parents feel strongly that traditional spiritual yoga would be beneficial, they are free to enroll their child in the privately-run, privately-funded, after-school yoga program of their choice—much like Christian parents are free to enroll their children in their church’s Sunday School program.

Fair’s fair—no special rights for Christians or New Agers.

Fahrenheit 11/9

Published at 18:02 on 26 September 2018

Because I’ve seen most of Moore’s movies, going back to Roger & Me, I made a point to see Fahrenheit 11/9 while it was still playing in the theatres.

Compared to his other movies, it’s more rambling and unfocused. Although its stated focus is Trump, it spends a significant fraction of its footage exploring the Flint water crisis. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it; its documenting of the various aspects of the Flint water crisis is alone enough reason to see the film. I had no idea the crisis was so bad, or the state government led by Rick Snyder was so complicit in the poisoning of an entire city.

The amount of time the film spends on Flint makes me suspect that Moore had initially been filming footage for a followup to Roger & Me and decided to shift gears after Trump’s unexpected victory. (Although Moore had been one of the few voices warning of such a possibility, it seems clear to me that he was still taken aback when it actually happened.)

One of the film’s weak points is its inconsistent portrayal of Donald Trump. It starts out with what I believe to be an accurate one: as a buffoon who basically stumbled his way into the presidency, aided by a monstrously incompetent opponent. But after the introduction, it tries to paint Trump in a more sinister and calculating light, focusing on the parallels between Trump and the Nazis. While I’ve done that myself (for good reason: there are parallels), it’s important not to lose sight of Trump’s incompetence.

Another inconsistency comes up when it comes to civil rights, a panicked public, and the all-too-often willingness to sacrifice essential liberty in the name of temporary safety. It mentions 9/11 and the Reichstag Fire. But the film also approvingly cites the movement to increase the governments’ power to disarm the public in response to well-publicized tragedies like the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School. The contradiction is particularly jarring right at the end of the film, which is accomplished via a series of vignettes recapitulating the main points the film made. The juxtaposition came off as more than a little ironic to me.

The film vaguely hints at more revolutionary politics a few times, talking about how “the whole damn system” is the problem. I wish it had gone into a bit more detail of that aspect, particularly how capitalist propaganda paves the way for fascist propaganda and sometimes a fascist state. (There’s just not that big a difference between the level of disregard for basic facts that it takes to convince the masses that the class hierarchy of bourgeois “democracy” is in their best interest, and what it takes to convince them that a fascist dictatorship is.)

It is important to realize that despite his left-of-center politics and his filmmaking skills, Michael Moore is still not in any real sense a revolutionary. As such, there are limits to the depth of any analysis and insight he has to offer. It’s questionable whether the capitalist system would allow a film with an eloquent revolutionary voice to be widely distributed. (It is, alas, even more questionable whether the present-day ghetto of inward-looking radical politics could even produce such a film.)

But I digress; so much for film’s weak points. In its favor, the film really does pull few punches when naming the guilty parties. The Democratic Party establishment gets a well-deserved roasting for its abandonment of the working class and its pandering to corporate interests. Hillary Clinton gets portrayed as the out-of-touch Establishment figure with shockingly poor judgment that the actually is. And, to reiterate, the film’s exposé about Flint is worth the price of admission alone.

iCloud Mail Frustrations

Published at 21:00 on 24 September 2018

Generally, I like Apple’s iCloud (formerly me.com, formerly mac.com) email service better than Gmail. Unlike Google:

  • Apple doesn’t aggressively spy on users for purposes of marketing to them,
  • iCloud doesn’t have obnoxious security that gets false positives every time I travel or do something a tiny bit out of the ordinary.

But, there is one area where Gmail outshines iCloud like a star outshines a small, rocky planet: its Web interface. iCloud’s web interface positively sucks. It’s prime design goal was apparently to value appearance over all else, and to particularly value it over functionality. It’s bloated in the extreme with fragile AJAX-using Javascript that crumbles the moment your network connection departs from rock-solid. It’s also monstrously inefficient in its use of screen space; one must stretch the browser window to comically wide proportions just to be able to read messages. It’s so painful to use that the feature might as well not be there in the first place.

Gmail, by contrast, at realizes that not the whole world wants to run bloatware in their web pages, and offers a “basic HTML” mode which is actually pretty sane.

I’m hoping to work around the problem by installing Squirrelmail and using that to access iCloud for those times where I don’t want to configure a mail client. Already ran into one roadblock with my connections from one of my servers (a shared one) being blackholed. And I really shouldn’t need to do this: Apple should offer a simple, sane, non-bloated web interface for iCloud.

Inverted Standards

Published at 09:17 on 23 September 2018

The chattering classes are spending a fair amount of time on the story that Rosenstein might have considered encouraging Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment.

While that does put Rosenstein at risk of dismissal, it is important to note that legally this is nowhere near as bad as stealing papers from Trump’s desk. The 25th is a constitutionally-endorsed act of insubordination, designed to protect the country against a president incapable of performing his duties. By contrast, there’s nothing in the US Constitution about it being OK for staffers to hide presidential papers they don’t like.

Health Care Ideals

Published at 17:02 on 22 September 2018

As promised in my most recent post, here’s my thoughts on health care. First, any reform should have three main ideals:

  1. As much universality as possible. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. An individual’s standing in the class hierarchy should have as little effect as possible (ideally, none) on the quality of the health care s/he receives.
  2. As little centralization as possible. A single bureaucracy must not be allowed to run the whole show. Imagine what would happen if a competent fascist (as opposed to an incompetent one like Trump) got control of such a bureaucracy, and used denial of health care as a tool to oppress people.
  3. Be achievable soon. It should not require any grand revolutionary transformation of society. As desirable as I personally happen to think that is, I also realize that it will take time. There’s people suffering from lack of access to health care who need it now, not at some vague point in a distant future.

The first two goals conflict somewhat, of course. The simplest way to decouple access from place in the class hierarchy is to have a centralized bureaucracy ensure that all get the same access. And the simplest way to decentralize is to let health care policy be market-driven. Welcome to the real world, where good solutions are never simple or easy.

That said, there are things one can do. Single payer, whatever my misgivings about the centralization it involves, actually is a measure in this direction. It centralizes health insurance, while leaving health care decentralized.

Doctors and clinics in Canada are private businesses, who if they choose can buck the system by giving care (at their own expense) to those whom the government would deny insurance. This is imperfect, of course, but it beats the pants off any system where doctors could simply be summarily dismissed by the centralized government bureaucracy that employs them.

But there’s no reason for insurance to be centralized for there to be universal coverage. It’s a false dichotomy to insist that the only two options for health insurance are capitalist competition or government centralization. Private, nonprofit, noncapitalist organizations already exist. There is no fundamental reason why health insurance could not be provided by multiple private nonprofit organizations.

In fact, this is already partially being done in Switzerland. Health insurance companies there are still for-profit capitalist concerns, but only partially. On the basic, universal insurance that the government subsidizes, they are forbidden from making profits (and required by law to offer such coverage). Universal access has been achieved with one more level of insulation between the State and its awesome power and those who furnish health care.

Critics point to how Switzerland is not as good at controlling costs as most other countries with universal health care. That is in fact the case, but it is also the case that the Swiss system is much better at controlling costs than the one in the USA, and does so while ensuring a basic level of access for all.

Moreover, the Swiss seem to actually get something for all the money they spend. Theirs is a high-quality system as well as a high-cost one; Switzerland ranks near the top of European countries when it comes to life expectancy. Importantly, they are also getting decentralization and the resultant resistance to tyranny. Securing liberty is certainly worth paying for as well.

It’s not a perfect system, of course. It’s greatest failing is that it’s a strongly two-tier system; the universal insurance is fairly basic. But there’s no reason a decentralized system could not be accompanied by a more generous level of universal care.

There is also, to reiterate, no reason for private insurance schemes to be for-profit, capitalist ones. One should take it one step further and require or strongly encourage insurance firms to be non-profit. For bonus points, encourage them to be governed by those whom they cover: have insurance cooperatives.

The State’s role would be largely limited to distributing vouchers for coverage to everyone. Vouchers have something of a bad name in the USA, due to their use by opponents of universal education. The problem here is not the vouchers themselves, but that schools are allowed to charge tuitions above and beyond the voucher amount. Therefore vouchers end up serving merely as discount coupons for the wealthy to purchase privilege for their children. One can eliminate this problem by banning the institutions accepting the vouchers from charging anything extra.

Also, there must be a promotion of civil society. Health care workers must be encouraged to unionize, and health care consumers should be encouraged to form watchdog groups. There need to be multiple, intersecting, non-government organizations in place to promote the interests of all involved, and if needed to resist the efforts of any tyranny from above to undermine the right to universal health care.

None of this will guarantee a positive outcome, of course. No plan will. Even plans modeled on successful programs elsewhere might fail if tried in the USA. Countries are not the same; what works in one place might not work in another, and in the real world success is never guaranteed.

This is a quick and incomplete sketch. I haven’t even begun to address things like the need to keep coverage reasonably well-standardized, and to collect and disseminate impartial statistics on how well various insurers and providers do, so that people can make well-informed decisions, instead of being compelled to swim in a sea of policies with twisty little mazes of fine print, all different.

When it gets to where health care is now, where the USA is paying more and more for it and getting less and less to show for it, it should be possible to replicate pieces of what have been done nearly everyplace else to achieve better outcomes. The “better, cheaper, faster” trichotomy only is valid if one is at an optima point, and evidence strongly indicates that the USA has drifted well away from any of those.

Creepy and Dystopian

Published at 17:43 on 21 September 2018

This definitely qualifies as both creepy and dystopian.

Note where this is happening and note who is doing it. Namely, it is happening in the USA and not in some big-government European welfare state. And capitalists, not government bureaucrats, are the ones mandating it. None of that should be a surprise except to the Ayn Rand-quoting idiots who seem to think that only government can be a threat to peoples’ liberties.

That’s not to say that it’s of no concern that a more centralized, universal health care system in the USA might be tempted to abuse people’s privacy like this. The privacy-violating demands related in the story are already happening first in the USA, for openers. And a country that sends the like of a Trump to the White House can’t really be said to be the sort of place where widespread concern for civil liberties prevails.

These are powerful arguments for having universal health care be accomplished in way that’s more decentralized and independent from government control than single-payer. It’s not impossible to do; there are, in fact, examples of countries that already do it. I will be posting some more thoughts on how to solve this problem soon.

It’s not just health insurance companies that are doing such things, either. Most of the big Internet companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) rely on privacy-compromising data collection as a core part of their business model. And again (and depressingly) the USA is a place where such practices tend to widely-tolerated; what pushback there is seems to be concentrated in Europe.

Every society has its moral failings, and this behooves those of us proposing social change, even sorely needed social change (particularly sorely needed change), to be aware of those failings so that they may be compensated for. Else things may well get more creepy and more dystopian, and paradoxically get that way via the best of intentions.

One More Kavanaugh Post

Published at 09:15 on 20 September 2018

This link basically says it all. Of course it’s all about power. Of course all the stated principles are nothing but fig leaves for arguing in favor of what most benefits one’s side at the moment.


Religious Bigotry on the Left

Published at 08:23 on 20 September 2018

This makes for a depressing read, and not being a Pagan, I’m not even in the target audience for the publication that ran it.

Religious claims are not scientific claims. As such, it is not possible to prove or disprove them according to any sort of scientifically rigorous standards. Furthermore, the majority of people have some sort of religious or at least spiritual beliefs.

Put those two factors together and you can pretty quickly take away some conclusions:

  1. If you’re hostile to any sort of religious belief, congratulations: you’ve automatically written off the majority of potential supporters for your cause.
  2. What should matter (really, the only thing that can matter for purposes of logic-based inquiry and debate) is an individual’s position and actions in the realm of real-world, non-spiritual, things that are provable via something approaching scientific inquiry.

If someone supports a freer, more egalitarian world, it should not matter whether they share your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. Such beliefs should be basically irrelevant for purposes of forming broad-based coalitions. (Your beliefs are doubtless very important to you, but that in no way means others must share them.)

Assuming that just because someone is religious therefore they share all the very worst characteristics of any religious person is as bad as assuming that just because someone identifies as a socialist or a communist (or atheist) that s/he wants to do exactly the sort of stuff that Stalin and Pol Pot did.