Tuesday, November 14, 2017

It's Ice Dancing Season!

I have been watching the current series of Ice Dancing Grand Prix competitions as it winds through the various countries:  Russia, Canada, China, and Japan, so far, with France, United States, and Japan (for the final) yet to come.

I am particularly fond of observing particular pairs of ice dancers perform; especially with regard to the total impact that each of them make.  The four couples that serve as centerpieces for my observations are:

Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (Canada)
Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (France)
Anna Cappellini/ Luca Lanotte (Italy)
Maia Shibutani/ Alex Shibutani (United States)

And the three that I enjoy watching the most are the last three on this list. 

There are other very fine ice dancers, but these four are the ones I enjoy the most,  for various reasons: 
1.     For some couples, it may be that I don’t like the costumes, and Russia heads the list for bad costumes.  There are a number of Russian dancers for whom the costumes – and this is particularly true for the ladies – are simply awful.  I especially dislike transparent skirts on the women, and Russian dancers seem to use them a lot.  What the dancers wear, and especially the women dancers, should serve to present them in the most flattering way, and often for the Russians, this just isn’t the case. 
2.     Sometimes the costumes for the men are designed to make them fade into the background, so that the women are featured; sometimes they coordinate with the women’s costume, sometimes they are neutral.  I like to see an effort made so that the men and the women BOTH flatter themselves and showcase each other.  I also find the modern trend of showing, or appearing to show by using flesh-colored fabric, way too much skin, both unnecessary and unflattering.  I especially dislike costumes that are designed to appear that large bites have been taken out of the material, making me wonder if the costume is something left over from a shark attack.  The same for overly-slashed skirts.
3.     Sometimes it is the choice of music, which goes a long way to lending mood and theme to the dance.  Good music greatly enhances the mood and beauty of the dance; but bad choice of music can fracture the presentation into separate and sometimes conflicting parts.  Bad music makes me want to turn off the sound, and for me, the performance is badly flawed.  Luckily for these performances, however, music is not scored.
4.     Sometimes the skaters just aren’t expert enough in their craft to get beyond the technical aspects of the skating to include a presentation of the total program.  I’m very forgiving of the lack of technical skill, though, and I really enjoy watching younger/newer couples as they begin their careers, especially if costuming and music are well done.  It was just such a couple – the Shibutanis – that I began watching when they first arrived on the televised skating programs, and who have now risen to the very top of the ice dancing scene. 

Anyway, on to my observations: 

This couple executes – and I think “executes” is the right word – a program that emphasizes the athleticism of the pair; and, they are out to win. The emphasis is on the technical execution of the program, with the goal of maximal point accumulation. It is hard to fault them in this goal, since that is, after all, the point of the competition, but with them it is more obvious than with other skaters.  As a result, technical competence is very high indeed.  However, there are some non-technical (and non-scored) aspects to their program that could be substantially improved.  There is very little interaction between the two of them, for example, and little if any interaction with the audience – they are focused, and obviously focused, on the technical performance, rather than the total presentation.  Neither Tessa’s costume nor hairstyle does anything at all to flatter her, (and it would be so easy to flatter her), but rather the opposite.  It almost seems that it is unflattering on purpose.

Summary:  I appreciate their technical expertise; but I don’t find them all that much fun to watch.  In short, they get high scores, but I don’t care whether or not I see their performance.

This couple personifies the unearthly, ethereal beauty that can be achieved through motion.  Many times during their performance the commentators will fall silent, as awed by the performance as is the audience.  Papadakis wears mildly flattering costumes that often include filmy, dreamy, floating fabrics that contribute to the spiritual/ethereal content of the program, and Cizeron is absolutely un-matched in the use of body motions to bring, and sustain, the exquisite feeling of floating, peaceful, grace.  He is one of the few men who draw the eye by motion alone, without having to make any special effort to do so.  Music is expertly chosen to enhance the feeling of the dance; costumes are chosen to complement each other; skating is technically perfect; interaction between the two of them is focused on each other continuously from beginning to end, with the audience put in the position of an awed voyeur, which is obviously one of the major goals of the program.

Summery:  No performance by these two should be missed, ever.

This couple is the personification of the joy of dancing together.  They are extremely engaging people to watch.  They interact with each other constantly, smile often, and draw the audience into their performance as if the audience were composed of friends that they knew personally.  Anna chooses modest (which I like), well-designed costumes, with skirts that are of a proper length, opaque (sometimes double-layered with contrasting colors), and that move continuously with her and flare beautifully when she twirls.  She uses her costume to enhance and project her feminine beauty and grace, and it helps that she herself is breathtakingly beautiful. Luca’s costume is designed to mesh seamlessly with Anna’s so that together they help to tell the story of the dance, often with a hint of boy chasing girl (and both enjoying the pursuit) in many of their programs.  Music is well chosen to enhance the dance and both are highly technically competent.

Summary:  To watch these two dance on ice fills me with pleasure.

The word I keep coming to for these two is “professional”.  Nothing is overlooked, everything is in is proper place.  Maia is a lovely woman and hairstyle and costumes are chosen to enhance every aspect of her beauty.  She chooses modest outfits with skirts of exactly the right length, of exactly the right color, and exactly the right consistency so that they flow and flare exactly right as she moves on the ice.  Alex’s costume is a muted complement to Maia’s costume.  Music and dance compositions are designed to bring out and show off their strengths and talents.  I have watched them for years, now, as they continue to get better and better.  They work together beautifully, and they are very, very good.

Summary:  Every presentation is a jewel.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

On the Vagaries of Driving in the USA

I have recently returned from driving from Virginia, through West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and back to Virginia. The bulk of this drive, although not all of it, was on interstate highways. The driving time was approximately 70 driving hours, covering nearly 4,500 miles. The drive gave me ample time to observe other drivers, road conditions, and road signs along the way.


 The first impression I had was that there was one overwhelmingly favorite road sign in all the states. That sign is: “Fines doubled”, for various reasons. The ubiquity of this sign, in all its variations, leads me to surmise the following:
     1. In general, drivers do not obey speed limits – especially reduced speed limits in construction zones, hence the desire to increase penalties in an effort to emphasize the need for safer behavior in these areas;
     2. There is a distinct tendency on the part of the state administrations, to believe that the average driver is not able to judge what is an appropriate speed, given the state of the construction zones, presence or absence of workers, the condition of the road, the density of traffic, and the weather that actually exist at the time of his passing. Hence drivers must be severely warned with highly threatening signs to adhere to what the state desires in these areas, rather than use their own experience and judgment based on the local conditions at the time of their encounter with the zone in question.
     3. The real reason for the “fines doubled” signs is revenue enhancement, as adequate penalties are already assigned for law enforcement purposes.

 The revenue enhancement purpose becomes more highly suspected when the “fines doubled” signs are attached to a zone labeled as “safety zone”. These zones are often (though not always) areas where the road is straighter and more level, and sometimes with additional lanes, all of which allows drivers to see farther and more clearly. Thus the zone is often already a safer zone, due to better road conditions. Why then ALSO increase the fines?

Interestingly, I did not see any speed enforcement whatsoever in any of these “safety zones” on this trip, although I passed through a fair number of them. Clearly the state desires no increase of speed – and often an actual reduction in speed – in “safety zones” and simply uses threatening signs as the enforcement methodology of choice.

 Speaking of road signs, here is one unique to New Mexico: “Strong Winds May Exist”. What this sign means, of course, is “Winds strong enough to interfere with your vehicle’s stability can occur at this location, so pay attention!” but that is far too long to put onto a road sign, so the message has been condensed to the point where it is little more than a simple statement of fact.

 Other signs of note include warning signs for road construction zones (which multiply like rabbits in the summer and fall). Some construction areas are only a few yards long and don’t even ask for a reduction in speed (although nearly everyone who goes by does, in fact, slow down to a reasonable speed) even when no workers are present. Others can be miles long, with very long additional regions where speed must be reduced and/or lanes blocked off.

 In one construction zone, one lane was blocked off by barrels placed on a base – you know, the ones painted like traffic cones, only the size of 55-gallon barrels. But the barrels were placed so that the travel lane was somewhat narrower than usual. Ahead of me was a tractor-trailer unit. At first I thought the barrel and base that I found in the middle of the travel lane was just happenstance, but as I encountered more and more of them, I noticed that it was the truck ahead of me that was causing them to tip over. As the big rig passed each barrel, the wind of its passing caused the barrel to move. Some barrels recovered, but some did not. Some barrels tipped over and, because the roadway was not level, began to roll while still attached to their base. Others tipped over, leaving their base behind. Those with the base still attached rolled in a spiral, because the base was bigger than the barrel itself – well, the others did too, because the wind was blowing them around. In some places the roadway tipped away from the travel lane, and there the barrels rolled out of the way, but in some places “downhill” was into the travel lane, and there the barrels might pass entirely through the travel lane and into the median or they could stop in the center of the travel lane, creating a hazard to traffic.

 It just goes to show that there really is a need to increase attention and awareness in construction zones.

 Another construction zone I traversed was 17 miles long, with the speed limit reduced by 15 mph the entire way. Watching carefully throughout the whole zone, I saw exactly one worker standing in the median (well off the actual roadway) repairing a single post. For this, literally hundreds of drivers had to slow from 70 to 55 and maintain that reduced speed for the next 18.5 minutes even though the actual working zone was less than ten feet long, containing a single worker well off the roadway. During the time I was at the reduced speed, I was passed by every single vehicle that appeared in my rear-view mirror, no matter how far behind me it was when it first appeared. So, apparently, I was the only one who slowed down. I estimate that this single zone imposed an additional 100 hours of driver’s time each day on the vehicles that passed through – well, less for those who ignored the signs.

 Okay, this is an extreme example. However, it does illustrate that drivers will do what they believe is reasonable, regardless of the signs, and it highlights the tendency of Department of Transportation officials, and lawmakers in general, to believe that drivers are not capable of making reasoned judgments regarding a reasonable speed for such conditions.

 Also, one may suspect that the signs are more of a CYA so that the DOT is protecting itself from drivers who may want to sue the state rather than take responsibility for their own mistakes in judgment.


 Speed limits climb as one drives from Virginia to Utah; from 70mph in Virginia to a maximum of 80mph in Utah (also in Kansas), with 75mph being common in the western states where traffic density tends to be substantially lower than in eastern states. The condition of the roads – we’re talking only of interstate highways here – also tends to be better in the west, which, coupled with lower traffic densities and longer distances between settlements, makes such speeds understandable.

 However, I noted with interest that very few drivers actually drive below, or even at, the speed limit. I encountered bad weather only once on this trip – low, dark clouds, rain, and poor visibility – and then the traffic did slow down, but otherwise not so much. Those who drive below the speed limit most often have special circumstances, such as trailers, vacation trailers, heavy loads, or the like. Most automobiles, however, exceed the speed limit by about 10mph up through speed limits of 75mph.

 At the 80mph limit in Utah (and also in Kansas), however, I saw far fewer drivers exceeding the speed limit; 80mph seems to be about as fast as anyone wants to go. There were exceptions, of course, but I didn’t see many, and those who did exceed that speed did so for only short distances. For long-haul drivers, 80mph seemed to be fast enough. 

Several years ago I took a trip to Italy, where I rented a diesel-driven station wagon. I drove it all over northern Italy on the very good Italian super highways at 135kph (to go slower was to risk being run over), or about 85mph. At the time, I was one of the slowest cars on the road, and even large trucks passed me by. Such speeds, however, are not usually reached in America, even in Utah, where the speed limit out on the desert, at 80mph, is about as high as it gets.

 Besides, most of our roads are of such poor quality that they simply can’t support vehicles that travel at that speed.

 Judging by the behavior of the drivers I observed throughout this trip, the speed limits on the routes I traveled seem to be:
     1. Set for poor road conditions rather than for good road conditions. By this I mean that if it is set as a LIMIT, that means in plain English that it is not to be exceeded under any circumstances. But by my observations, it is routinely exceeded in good weather, by the great majority of drivers, which means that most drivers believe the limit is too low, and they choose to drive at a speed that they judge is appropriate to the circumstances at the moment, taking into account the time of day, the weather, the traffic density (this observation does not apply to people in cities), the visibility, and their own state of health; and,
     2. Largely unenforced.

 The effect of poorly set speed limits is that:
     1. The legislators create a situation by which they turn most (sometimes all) drivers into lawbreakers;
      2. They teach whole generations of drivers that the law (specifically speed laws, but by extension, all law) is unworthy of respect;
      3. Enforcement is random and arbitrary; and
     4. Law enforcement officers are their enemy.

 I would suggest that this combination of effects represents bad governance, and really needs to be corrected.

 In the first place, one effect is that nobody knows what the actual speed limit – what I would call the enforcement limit – actually is at any given time. It appears to the driver to be a judgment call: the enforcement officer’s judgment against the driver’s judgment, and we all know who will win that contest.

 In the second place, most of the drivers on the roads – not all, but most – are experienced, responsible, capable people whose judgment deserves respect. Most speed limits, by contrast, are determined by formulaic rules set by legislators at the various levels of government, and not necessarily by consideration of the actual conditions of the road for which the limit applies. Drivers on those individual roads, however, many of whom drive them every day, are much more familiar with the issues and considerations that apply to each individual road. These considerations may, in fact, be different for roads that otherwise would fall under the same formula as set by the legislators.

 I have observed examples in my own home area, for example, where similar roads have quite different speed limits, and vice versa. One road started out as a two-lane gravel road with a limit of 30mph, and hardly anyone went much faster. Now it is a four-lane divided roadway with a speed limit of 35mph, but most of the traffic moves at about 45mph.

 The point I am trying to make here is that speed limits should take into consideration the general consensus of drivers on each road, not by class of road, and not by the application of a formula. Furthermore, if the speed limit needs to be set differently from the consensus of drivers on the road, the drivers who use the road need to know what that reason is so they can take it into account.

 Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon, anymore than speed bumps will be removed.


 Drivers in different states seem to behave differently. In some states, for example, drivers seem to drive even faster than seems prudent (to me). After observing this tendency, I began to wonder why they did so. The thing is, I have noticed this tendency even when I encounter drivers from those states in Virginia; that is, when drivers from those states are driving in Virginia.

 After driving through those states, I concluded the following:
     1. The speed limits in those states are poorly set.
      2. The speed limits tend to be lower than the limits in nearby states.
     3. The speed limits do not adequately take into account the road conditions; when approaching a region where limits are reduced, they are reduced too early and are held lower too long after that region is passed. A case in point was one construction area where the speed limit was reduced a full three miles before actually reaching the construction itself.
     4. Drivers – especially drivers who encounter these situations every day – are frustrated and offended by these conditions that they are powerless to change.
      5. The end result is that drivers act on those frustrations by over-compensating (driving faster) when speed limits are finally raised, or by simply ignoring speed limits altogether. In short, they are protesting against what they perceive as bad government.

 I first noticed this effect in Kentucky, but it was most prevalent in Illinois where it appears that NO ONE has any respect for the law as it applies to speed limits.


 Another aspect of the speed of traffic is that it rises as you approach a city. One can drive for hours in the country at a speed that matches (or nearly) the speed limit, but when you approach a city, the actual flow of traffic speeds up by about 10mph whereas the speed LIMIT falls by about the same amount. At the same time, traffic density rises – there are far more cars on the road near a city. Usually it is safer to drive at a speed that minimizes encounters with other vehicles on the road, which means it is a good idea to match the speed of the flow of traffic. Approaching a large city, that flow becomes faster, but the speed limit is reduced! Suddenly you find yourself in the position of exceeding the speed limit (traffic speed went up; speed limit went down), so that now, while trying to drive responsively, with a view towards overall safety, you become, by fiat of the state, a lawbreaker. Law enforcement, recognizing the impossibility of actually enforcing the speed limit under these circumstances, is largely absent, in an attempt, no doubt, to not make the situation even worse than it already is.

 This tendency is starkly exemplified in my own home state, where there is a toll road adjacent to a non-toll road. The speed limit on the toll road is 65mph, and on the non-toll road it is 55mph. The limit is fairly rigidly enforced on the toll road, where the traffic density is very light, and driving at 70mph is likely to see you pulled over. But on the non-toll road, where the density is often very heavy, the flow of traffic often rises to about 70mph, with many drivers trying to go even faster. Enforcement is far less common on the “slower” non-toll road where traffic density is greater, and is essentially abandoned during rush hours. Thus we have the situation where exceeding the limit by even a modest amount on the lightly traveled road is enforced, but to exceed the limit on the heavily traveled road, even by a large amount, and especially during periods of very heavy traffic density, is not.

 This situation seems to me to be backwards, but there it is.

 And speaking of law enforcement, it is my observation that enforcement officers do no better than other drivers in respecting the speed limits. As with other drivers, some do and some do not. On the interstate highways, the actual speed limit can be taken as whatever a state police car travels at, which may be well above the posted speed limit. Most drivers, however, recognize that it is not a good idea to actually pass a police car that is traveling above the speed limit. Officers, it should be noted, often have the same frustrations that all other drivers do with following speed limits, as opposed to relying on experience, observation, judgment, responsibility, road and weather conditions, traffic density, urgency of mission, personal alertness and all the other factors that come into play when driving, to choose an appropriate speed. The unavoidable result, however, is to further degrade the public’s respect for the law. If even the law enforcement officers do not obey the law, then why should I?


 Driving a car is a serious business. To compare it to something most people can understand, a 30-06 rifle will discharge a 150-grain bullet at about 3000 feet per second, and will seriously injure or kill almost anything it hits. The energy content of this bullet is about 3000 ft-lb and is the equivalent of a 4000-lb car moving at less than 5mph. The same car traveling at 70mph represents just over 650,000 ft-lb of energy – more than 200 times more than the bullet from a 30-06 rifle. Such lethality deserves to be taken seriously.
The thing is, the handling of firearms is known to be dangerous – everybody recognizes this. Most responsible teachers place a heavy emphasis on the lethality of these items and the requisite need for close attention to the rules for safely handling them. Unfortunately, the same attention is not always given when teaching the operation of motor vehicles, which, just as a point of reference, are far more dangerous. In 2016, for example, deaths in motor vehicle accidents totaled 40,200 in the U.S., with more than 4 million people injured (note1). For comparison, unintentional deaths from firearms in the period 2011-2015 averaged 3,388 per year (note 2) . Most deaths from firearms are intentional – either suicides or homicides – tragic to be sure, but intentional nevertheless. Most deaths from motor vehicle accidents are unintentional (although there is the presumption that an unknown, but small, number are caused by what is termed “suicide by automobile”).

 My point here is that both guns and cars are dangerous. Both are known to be dangerous. But a very large number of people seem to be unaware of how dangerous cars really are.

 It takes all of the driver’s attention to drive a car. The slightest departure from this attention is a risky and potentially lethal act – perhaps lethal for yourself, perhaps lethal for your passenger(s), perhaps lethal for someone you don’t even know. It is something akin to firing a gun at random into a crowd – it may cause no real harm, but then again, it may result in something ranging from inconvenience to death.

 I maintain that it takes a whole brain to drive a car, but the number of brains that are actually in use is more like 1/N, where N represents the number of people in the car. Thus with two people in the car, only ½ brain is available for driving; if three people, only 1/3 is available for driving, and so on. It’s a ball-park figure; some people do better, some worse. My point is that it is a serious responsibility to operate a car.

 But I digress.

 On my trip I traveled safely, for which I give thanks. I saw wonderful scenery along the way, which I always find absolutely fascinating. I visited with people that I love, who I wish I could see more often. But I also spent a great deal of my time concentrating on driving, and thinking about what makes people act the way they do when they are behind the wheel – other drivers, with all their eccentricities and regional variations – that make driving so very interesting.  

Note 1. This is a direct quote from http://www.nsc.org/NewsDocuments/2017/12-month-estimates.pdf

NSC Motor Vehicle Fatality Estimates
Prepared by the Statistics Department National Safety Council
 Motor-vehicle deaths up 6% in 2016.
 With continued lower gasoline prices and an improving economy resulting in an estimated 3% increase in motor-vehicle mileage, the number of motor-vehicle deaths in 2016 totaled 40,200, up 6% from 2015 and the first time the annual fatality total has exceeded 40,000 since 2007. The 2016 estimate is provisional and may be revised when more data are available. The total for 2016 was up 14% from the 2014 figure. The annual total for 2015 was 37,757, a 7% increase from 2014. The 2014 figure was less than 0.5% higher than 2013. The estimated annual population death rate is 12.40 deaths per 100,000 population, an increase of 5% from the 2015 rate. The estimated annual mileage death rate is 1.25 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, an increase of 3% from the 2015 rate.

 Medically consulted motor-vehicle injuries in 2016 are estimated to be about 4.6 million, an increase of 7% from 2015.

 The estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2016 was $432.5 billion, an increase of 12% from 2015. The costs include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage.

 Note 2. From Everytown Research; this note was in the form of a pie graph, which did not make the transition into the blog format.  The graphic can be found at https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thoughts of Christmas

Thoughts of Christmas 22 December 2015 Christmas is here, and it seems appropriate to consider for a moment, some of the traditions we use to celebrate at this season of the year. We use the colors red and green for Christmas. They both represent life; red, the color of blood, to represent human life, and specifically the life of Christ which he lived here on earth, and which he gave for us; green, the color of plant life, is the color of the tree that we decorate as one of the primary symbols of Christmas. The tree represents life, and because we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, it also stands for the renewal of life that will come with the Spring. Not just any tree will do, however – it must be an evergreen tree – so it represents not only life and the renewal of life, but also eternal life, just as the tree is eternally green. In Europe, no building is ever erected without an evergreen tree being fastened at the topmost portion of the building as it is under construction. It is not removed until the building is complete. This tree represents the wishes of the builders for a blessing on the building, for a long and useful life for the building itself. We also use white at Christmas, the color that represents cleanliness and purity. We imagine that angels are dressed in white, for example, and we want the earth to be covered in snow at Christmastime so that the earth is blanketed in white and appears clean and pure. We place either a star or an angel at the top of the tree, recalling the star that guided the wise men to the child, or the angels that visited the shepherds to announce to them the birth. We place lights on the tree to remember the lights that appeared in the heavens at the time of his birth, and we place gifts under the tree to remember the gifts of the wise men, and to celebrate the gift that God gave to us. In recent decades, Christmas has become heavily commercialized and we are bombarded with advertisements to buy, buy, buy – gifts not only for our families and others but also for ourselves at this holiday season, but notwithstanding such efforts, the idea of spending our resources to be able to give to others is still at the heart of this season, and we still remember the gift of His son that God gave to us. We gather our families around us at Christmas time. Schools take a vacation so students can travel home for the holidays. We feel an increased love toward our family members, mirroring the love that God had for us and the whole world in sending his son to live among us, even knowing that he would be persecuted and murdered at the end. We decorate the tree with ornaments, lights, and other decorations. We want the tree to look as beautiful as possible. We do this because in some way, the tree becomes a symbol of Christ himself, and we honor him by doing everything we can to honor and beautify the tree that represents him. We sing hymns to remember the hymns that the angels sang when they came to the shepherds. Those angels sang for joy at the birth of the son, and we also sing for the same joy, in celebration of the happiness we feel because of the gospel that Christ gave us. In Christ the old law was fulfilled, and a new law was given – a higher law designed to raise the quality of life; to bring about a better civilization; and to enable us to become better individuals; and to improve our very manner of thought. Moses said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, for example, but Christ said, in effect, “Don’t even think about it.” Moses focused on actions; Christ focused on attitudes. Even though the secular world holds these symbols in derision, they are still powerful reminders of why we celebrate this season of the year. They are uniquely and intensely Christian in nature, and represent an immensely potent mythology that has vitalized people for a very long time. They still speak to us today. We still use them to remember and celebrate that Christ came to earth and lived a life among us, providing for us a long, continuous, living revelation of what God Himself is like. This is why he said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”, and “The Father and I are one.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Government

I see the citizenry as being divided into two broad groups. One group is comprised of people who were taught to believe that it is the responsibility and duty of every American to support, with a portion of their funds, the government that is needed to guarantee our access to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- call them the contributing group. The second group contains those who appear to believe that the government is the very source from which flows funding and access to happiness -- call them the receiving group. The contributing group would like to limit the size and role of government to those items that actually are necessary, because it is their funding that the government is taking and spending, and frankly, they would like to see it wisely spent. The receiving group, by contrast, would like to expand the role of government into as many areas as possible, primarily because other people, namely the contributing group, are largely funding those programs, but they will be the primary beneficiaries. This arrangement seems fair to the receiving group because, after all, the contributing group being taxed have more money, so those taxed can better afford to pay for these programs.

This portrayal is overly simplistic, of course. And, not everyone falls cleanly into one group or the other (although quite a few actually do). But it illustrates that the fundamental emotion behind give-away programs is a negative one masquerading as a positive one: It is greedy and selfish to desire for oneself benefits that can only be obtained by taking money by force from someone else -- it smacks of envy, and also of theft. It masquerades as altruism -- to help and benefit those less well off than ourselves -- but altruism implies that the giver is not coerced. If coerced, it becomes not altruism, but robbery. One can argue that people pay taxes out of altruism, but more often than not, this is simply not true, and it is suspect in all cases because the tax rates are set by the government (heavier on the more wealthy, note) and are rigorously enforced. And when our representatives in Congress spend the money, that is not altruism either, because it is not their money that they are spending! If they want to be altruistic, they can spend their own money -- and I note in passing here that they are much more careful when spending their own money than they are when spending mine.

"Ah", you might say, "but you did agree, when you elected representatives to the Congress that passed the laws setting up such programs." There may be room for this argument when those doing the electing are from the contributing group, or even largely from that group. The argument is less convincing, though, when the receiving group, which has the same voting power as the contributing group (one person, one vote, after all) begins to outnumber the contributing group. Then representatives are elected that seek to solidify their base by constructing programs that benefit the receiving group that elected them at the expense of the contributing group that opposed them. (See former blogs on getting elected as the number one priority of elected representatives.)

Those who give are now at the mercy of those who take.

Worse yet, many of our representatives are willing to spend not only all the tax money there is, but also money that has not yet been collected. It is not their money; but they incur no penalty for spending it, and there is no operative force to act as a restraint. But the contributing group is appalled, because it is their money, and the unfunded expenditures will eventually have to be paid for with their future money. The receiving group sees no problem. It is not their money. They won't have to pay for it.

When my kids were in college, I seethed when my taxes went to fund scholarships for which my own children were not even eligible. I worked hard to pay for my children to go to college, and financially it was a difficult time, but not only did I have to pay college expenses for my own children out of my own pocket, but in addition, the government took even more so I could (altruistically, Congress no doubt thought) also pay for someone else. There was absolutely no benefit whatever to me, because my children were positively disbarred from these scholarships. It was a program that benefited a specific group of people at the expense of a different group of people.

This brings me to the subject of what is the proper role and scope of government. This is a subject that varies all over the map, so I will give only my own views. When the government takes money from taxpayers, it should expend those funds for projects that will benefit taxpayers as a whole, and rigorously restrict itself from projects that take money from one group of people and expend it for the benefit of a different group. Further, it should maintain a high degree of fiscal responsibility for those funds. When funds are expended, it should be, in general, to buy something -- either that the government needs, or that is used for the benefit of the general citizenry.

Examples of proper government funding include such items as roads, bridges, and infrastructure (benefits the expansion and maintenance of commerce, which benefits all people); defense (protects the whole country and ensures continuance of our way of life); law enforcement (protects all citizens -- even those not abiding by the law, most of the time); statecraft between us and other nations; treasury and fiscal policy; other needed government institutions that represent the citizenry as a whole.

Examples of improper government funding include such items as "entitlement" programs or any other "spread the wealth" programs (money taken from one group and given to a different group -- violates the benefit taxpayers as a whole test and violates the "buy something" test); social security (a tax, run as the most monumental Ponzi scheme in history, that is masquerading as a retirement fund -- violates the "buy something" test, and egregiously violates the fiscal responsibility test); lotteries (persecuted as illegal when run by the Mob, but was taken over by the government when it saw how much money could be made and now run as a "stupid tax" -- encourages bad habits, does not "promote the general welfare", preys on the ignorant and poor); schools at the federal level (this a responsibility of the states); bailouts (violates fiscal responsibility test).

There is a tendency for representatives elected by the receiver group to see tax money as a gold mine, limitless in scope, to be mined for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. And they are not alone: Every government agency also sees the tax revenue as a source for their own needs and tries to get as much of it as they can. The President sends a budget to congress each year that is full of items that are (in the view of the contributing group) unwise, unnecessary, unwarranted, and wasteful, and it is up to Congress to eliminated those that do not fall within the definition of good government. But instead, members of Congress hasten to add to the problem rather than the solution. They scheme and maneuver to carve out portions of the budget to favor their own specific groups or organizations. Each member believes that if others insert these "earmarks" into the budget, it should be called "pork", but if they do it, it must be good government -- after all, if it helps get them re-elected what could be better than that? It must be, by definition, good government.

But in my mind it is clear: If a program or law benefits one group at the expense of another, it is almost certainly bad government, and if it does not apply equally -- including to members of Congress -- then it is almost certain to be bad government. Congress should be ashamed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Intelligent Dogs

At work there is a young woman – and by “younger”, I mean younger than me – who has a seeing eye dog. This is her second dog since I have known her. We held a retirement party for her first dog, “Penny”, and then she was gone for six weeks while she broke in her new one. This one is a yellow Labrador called “Randy”, and he is young and energetic. We all learned with Penny the do’s and don’t’s for seeing eye dogs and so everyone in the office knew how to relate to Randy. We are not to feed it unauthorized snacks. We are not to let it out of the office. If the dog is “working” we are to leave it alone. But there really isn’t much for the dog to do during the day, so often it appears to be bored out of its mind. The dog is free to wander around the office as long as he is within calling range if he is needed. There are a number of toys for the dog to play with in his owner’s office, but Randy keeps his place pretty clean so people don’t trip over his toys while walking by.

I have to walk past Randy’s office to go out to the soda machine, cafeteria, and at the end of the day as I go home, and I say hello to Randy, but I hadn’t actually spent any time with him. But yesterday I was bored, so I walked to one end of the office where there are windows that look out over the parking lot and the city. Then I thought I would go out to the soda machine and get something. I turned around and, looking down the path I would walk, I saw Randy, about 150 feet away, looking at me. He continued to look at me as I approached, and then when I got close to him, he picked up a rubber ring – one of his toys – and offered it to me. I took hold of it, and there ensued a tug of war for awhile. Then I said, “Do you want me to throw it?” and immediately he let go and got prepared to chase it. I tossed it down the way I had come and he bounded after it, catching it on the second bounce. He brought it back to me and wanted another little tug of war. I said, “Ready?” and he immediately let go and tensed for another run. I threw it and he chased it down. We continued for awhile as I threw the ring down the hall over and over. Each time I would say, “Ready?” and he would get set for another run. Finally he came back and did NOT offer the ring to me, but tossed down on the ground and flopped down next to it. I said, “OK, we’re done” and rubbed his ears. I started toward the door again, and his owner murmured in my ear, “Thanks.”

I got to thinking about other dogs I have played with. One of my daughter’s friends had a dog named “Seven”, a young golden retriever or perhaps yellow Labrador, who had more energy than anyone in their family could really deal with. I was visiting one day because we had been invited over for dinner, when Seven decided he wanted to play. I threw toys all over the house for Seven, until he was completely worn out. Later I heard my daughter’s friend mention to my daughter that I was the only person who had ever worn Seven out. She said Seven slept almost the entire next day.

Then there was Barney, a mixed rotweiller/retriever, who belonged to a friend of ours. Barney was a city dog who easily got car sick, but he liked to come out to the cabin, and after a few trips, began to get over his car sickness as soon as he figured out he was headed toward the cabin. Barney had a herding instinct, I guess, because he was very conscious of the whereabouts of everyone in the family. He would make the rounds of the house in the middle of the night to make sure that everyone was in their right place. I would wake up with a cold nose in my face and reach out to pet Barney and assure him that I was all right, and my wife would do the same. One night Barney came in to check on us when my wife had left the bed to go to the bathroom. People say that dogs don’t really have different expressions, but I tell you, Barney did the most astonishing double take when he looked in the bed for Carol and didn’t find her there. It was so human-like that I nearly laughed out loud. Then Barney put his front feet on the bed so he could get up to see better and looked up and then down the length of the bed for Carol. He was clearly just astounded that she wasn’t there. Finally I said, “She’s in the bathroom, Barney.” I believe he understood what I said because he immediately got down and walked over to where he could see the bathroom door and sat down to wait for her. He waited until she came out and escorted her back to bed where she belonged before leaving to check on the rest of the household.

Another time my daughter came out to the cabin with a new baby. Barney was extremely solicitous of both mother and child, and took it upon himself to monitor the health and welfare of the baby. If my daughter took the baby into the house, Barney would escort her to the door and would be at the door when she came out again. He followed the baby everywhere and sat next to whoever was holding the baby. From time to time he would move to where he could see the baby’s face to make sure it was all right. If the baby cried, Barney (his hearing was better than a human’s) would come right to the mother and move toward the house, looking back to see if she was coming yet. You could almost hear him saying, “Come on, come on, the baby needs you.”

Another friend came to the cabin one time and brought two German shepherds. One was quite old but the other was more frisky. She accompanied me out into the woods where I was working, but when I turned to go, she didn’t want to come. I discovered that she had found what looked like a dead limb that was mostly buried in the leaf thatch that covered the forest floor, and had gripped it in her jaws and was trying to pull it loose. She tugged and tugged at it, and each pull loosened it a little more. After a bit, she finally got it loose and triumphantly hauled it into the meadow – her every expression and body language just shouted “gleeful”. Well, it turned out to be a bit more than a “limb”. It was almost 20 feet long, but she waved it back and forth to show everyone what a great hunter she was. I tried to take it away from her, but only got into a tugging match. Between the two of us, we finally managed to break it up enough to have pieces that were small enough to throw and fetch, which we did for the rest of the day. Hmmm, she slept most of the next day too.

These dogs were all astonishingly smart, but unfortunately not all dogs are smart. When I was young, we had a Chihuahua named “Candi”. This dog was smart and I loved her. She slept in my bed with me at night. She had a litter of pups, all but one of which were sold. The one that didn’t sell was what I would call dumb – D. U. M. When food was put down for them, Candi would eat all of hers and then go to the sliding glass doors that looked out over the patio and bark. Chico (the dumb one) would come to see what she was barking at, and would also start barking, which he kept up for awhile. Meanwhile, Candi went back to the food and ate his too.

I think there is nothing so attractive as intelligence. Dogs – people – intelligence makes them come alive, and that is so very attractive.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Still Another Example

For a very apro pro column on politicians and their innate need to look out for their own interests first, see the column by Tony Blankley in the Washington Times of August 25, here. The subject is President Johnson and his turmoil over the Vietnam war, but the unintended point of the column is that politicians protect their own interests first and foremost.

Friday, August 28, 2009

And Still More

This from Newt Gingrich, in the context of how politicians bungled the Cash For Clunkers program:

"They're not concerned with the long-term, just the next election."

From his column:

Three Reasons Why Government Can't Run Health Care
Read his column here: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=33275