Of Polar Bears and Patents

Kali Polar BearThe USA Today reported earlier this evening, Cute Kali: Orphaned Polar Bear Cub Prepares for Move. It told the story of the preparations to move young bear to the Buffalo Zoo. And yes, it is cute as a button. All mammals are cute before they get big enough to eat you. But there was something about the article that really caught my attention. It reported, “The bear’s mother was killed March 12 by a subsistence hunter near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo whaling community 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.”

Where is the outrage? After all, polar bears are threatened. But there is no outrage because it would be really stupid to be outraged about a practice of the native people who have hunted the bears for generations. They aren’t the reason that polar bears are threatened. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the survival of the species and none of them are Eskimo hunting.

But this raises an important question: why can we be reasonable about the causes of polar bear population degradation but we can’t be reasonable about economic matters? In particular: patents. It has long bothered me how patents reward innovation in a highly unjust and even random way. The Wright Brothers, for example, got a ridiculously high fraction of the rewards for work that they shared with many others who got less and in many cases nothing.

My point here is that we see that a subsistence hunter is but one small part of the forces that are causing polar bear populations to decrease, even though that hunter is the only cause of the death of that one polar bear. But we don’t see (or regardless, don’t care) that economic progress is also a large scale phenomenon that involves a whole society. Bill Gates probably does deserve to be well rewarded for his work. But there is no way that he is worth even 1% of the rewards that he’s received.

Advances (scientific, artistic, business) are the results of a highly complicated social system. But we have settled on an economic system that doesn’t come close to rewarding people in a just way. In fact, well over half of our politicians worship our broken system as though it were not only good but perfect. We need to start distinguishing the bears from the species. Or else we will all go extinct.

The Gertrude Stein Scandal

Gertrude SteinI can’t believe all this talk of Benghazi and the IRS targeting of conservative political groups. Has Washington lost sight of what a real scandal looks like?

I am talking about plagiarism, of course. Yes, the president is cool. He sounds just like he’s making up the words as he goes along. But no! Or as a great American once said, “You lie!”

I would put it differently, of course: Mr. President, I’ve read Gertrude Stein. I know Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you’re no Gertrude Stein.

What’s next, a White House Rose Garden ceremony where he says, “A rose is a rose is a rose”?

We need a special prosecutor for this!

Anti-Smoking Ads Disappear

No SmokingIf I were in a Broadway musical, I would break out singing:

Isn’t it bliss?
Could it be true?
Anti-smoking ads are gone
I can safely view.
Send in the Post,
I can read the Post![1]

For many weeks, you could not visit the Washington Post website (or a lot of others as well) without seeing a horrifying anti-smoking ad that involved a woman (Terrie Hall) who was missing at least half her jaw and had a hole in her windpipe. Now it is gone. And I am so glad.

Look: it isn’t like I’m against these ads. I have smokers in my life and I worry about them constantly. And these ads make me far more likely to talk to them, even though I find it hard to talk with them without ragging on them. But that’s why these ads are so disturbing. I don’t worry that my sister is greatly reducing her life expectancy. Life isn’t as great as we believe; death is not the worst thing. But going through these surgeries and having parts of your body removed? Suffering through radiation treatments? Living in pain or at least at diminished capacity? That’s terrible. And I hate to think of her like that.

So I understand the ads and I think they are a good thing. But I still hate seeing them. They creep me out and make me sad. I’m very grateful for the respite. And I’m enjoying it, even though I know how temporary it is. Meanwhile, my efforts to move my sister continue.

[1] That’s a not good at all parody of one of my favorite songs, “Send in the Clowns”:

IRS Scandal: Crossroads GPS

Crossroads GPSAlec MacGillis has written a great article over at the magazine Andrew Sullivan almost destroyed. All right, The New Republic! Called The Real Scandal Behind the IRS Controversy, it simultaneously puts the IRS “scandal” into perspective and presents what is a real scandal.

Why did the IRS group in the Cincinnati office go after the poor Tea Party groups? Very simply: because they were suspicious. The 501(c)(4) clause is supposed to be used by groups that are committed to the social good. For example, a group that wants to raise money to increase awareness of the plight of the Wandering Salamander. It isn’t for groups that want to encourage Obama to “stop killing babies” in the middle of the 2012 campaign. There is a bit of tax code for that: 501(c)(3). The problem is that such groups have to reveal who their donors are. As of 2009, there was a huge increase in new groups that claimed to be 501(c)(4) compliant. It rightly seemed fishy to the Cincinnati group and it made sense to target right wing groups because the vast majority of these new groups were right wing.

MacGillis notes one aspect of this that I wrote about this morning:

Not to mention that the applications from tea party groups demanded special attention for another reason: These groups were proudly political! Even if you take at face value the movement’s initial claim to be something all its own, something more than just the conservative wing of the Republican Party, its whole purpose from the get-go was to orient American politics and government toward its constitutional roots by intervening in elections at all levels, starting with Republican Party primaries. The tea party groups’ whole mission called their suitability for 501(c)(4) status into question.

But MacGillis isn’t an apologist for the IRS. He notes that there were two aspects of this right wing deluge of questionable 501(c)(4) use. One part was the smaller Tea Party groups. But the more important was the huge groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. In fact, he notes that Crossroads GPS alone was responsible for 28% of the $254 million spent by all 501(c)(4) groups. Yet Crossroads GPS didn’t hear a peep from the IRS. That’s a scandal!

But it is hardly surprising. Here in the United States the law is applied equally to all people and institutions. Unless the person or institution gets big enough. Then they are above the law. That’s what was going on at the IRS regarding their investigation of the 501(c)(4) groups. In their defense, I suspect that the Cincinnati group was afraid to go after Karl Rove. And it is certainly the case that Rove would have sent his high paid lawyers after them. But cowardice is no excuse. And all it does is lead to our current situation with a two-tracked justice system.


I have little doubt that this will get little coverage in the coming hysteria over the IRS actions. The Republicans and Democrats are about equally committed to comforting the rich and powerful. Time will tell.

Don’t Smear Dr. Papanikolaou

Georgios PapanikolaouOn this day back in 1842, composer Arthur Sullivan—one half of Gilbert & Sullivan—was born. One of the fathers of cubism, Georges Braque was born in 1882. Composer Ken Darby was born in 1909. Boxer Joe Louis was born in 1914. Bea Arthur was born in 1922. Director Herbert Ross was born in 1927. Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones was born in 1931. Science fiction writer Roger Zelazny was born in 1937. Ritchie Valens was born in 1941. And Motown great Mary Wells was born in 1943.

Harvey Keitel is 74 today. Stevie Wonder is 63. Screenwriter Alan Ball is 56. Unofficial ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman is 52. And Stephen Colbert is 49.

But how could I not give the day to a man you have probably never heard of? He’s a man who is really important—especially to women, which is to say to everyone. On this day back in 1883, Georgios Papanikolaou was born. He was a Greek scientist who did really important work on the early detection of cancer. In particular, he invented the Pap smear. So if you are a woman and you are still alive, or a man who was born by a woman who had not died of cervical cancer, then you can likely thank Dr. Papanikolaou. He’s one of the many great people we never hear about who have had profound positive effects on our lives.

Happy birthday Georgios Papanikolaou!


And this one goes out to Dr. Papanikolaou:

If Unions Are Too Powerful America Is Ignorant

Union Yes!Gallup released a poll where they asked Americans which entities have too much power. There is good news and bad news. The list includes some notable bad guys: lobbyists (71%), major corporations (67%), and the finance industry (67%). But it also listed the federal government (58%) and unions (43%).

It is wrong to say that lobbyists have too much power. Lobbyists are just employees. The problem with lobbyists are the companies who hire them. Focusing on them is missing the larger picture. So people are more concerned about lobbyists than the major corporations who hire them. When it comes to the next two entities, they are more or less the same thing. But the numbers are telling: roughly 33% of the people think that major corporations have the right amount of power or too little. This is the crazy Republican base. Anyone who doesn’t think corporations don’t have too much power in this country is living in an alternate universe.

I’m torn by the statistic on the federal government. I really don’t know how I would have answered that question because the federal government is multifaceted. There are areas where it has way too much power: surveillance, targeted killing, war powers. And there are other areas were it does not have enough power: economic control, welfare, the environment. The 58% figure is typical of the American disgruntlement regarding government: we love what the government does for us but always with a vague feeling that it is up to no good. The best example of this is foreign aid. We spend less than 1% of our budget on foreign aid, but Americans think we spend about 25%. So in a general sense, the fact that most Americans think the federal government is too powerful is meaningless. Note also that Americans are equally against cutting funding of the military—the one place the government clearly has too much power.

And then we get to unions. This is a similar thing to the federal government. Despite the fact that unions have been gutted and have almost no real power anymore, 43% of Americans are still afraid of the boogeyman that is unionization. Oh my God! Workers are organizing like the companies they work for! The horror! Even Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks piles on in the video below. He admits that unions don’t have much power anymore, but that is apparently too much for him. He seems to be confused. The idea of a democracy is not that groups don’t have power; it is that groups will have representative power. As it now stands, unions have far less power than is reasonable for the workers they represent.

The poll doesn’t really matter though. One thing that polls have shown is that Americans are pretty clueless about what is going on in America. They are, for example, against Obamacare while being for every individual idea in it. Most everything in this poll is just the conventional wisdom of political reporters. It does not indicate that Americans know what’s going on.

Monsanto Shall Not Be Held Accountable

GMOApparently, it doesn’t pay to be a clever farmer. Vernon Hugh Bowman had a brilliant idea. He bought a bunch of soybean seeds from a grain elevator. He figured that some subset of those seeds would contained the Roundup Ready gene, a patent of Monsanto. He planted the seeds, sprayed them to Roundup, and kept the seeds from the plant that survived. Then he had the Roundup resistant seeds that he wanted to sell as such. Monsanto pushed back, of course. And now the Supreme court, in a unanimous decision, found that Bowman had indeed infringed on Monsanto’s patent.

My thinking on this case is complicated. On the one hand, if we are going to have a patent system, we have to enforce patents. On the other hand, Monsanto is polluting the world. Farmers generally only buy seeds from grain elevators for animal feed and other low quality purposes. But one can’t do that if he wants to avoid GMO products. So our government protects the products of corporations but does not hold those corporations responsible for the effects of those products.

I am not saying that GMO seeds are necessarily bad. Pollution isn’t necessarily bad. Pollution is just something that you don’t want. And when it comes to GMO products, there are a lot of people who don’t want them. (I’m not one of those people, by the way.) But when it comes to wealthy people and corporations, we have a different approach to the law. If something makes Monsanto money, that it must be protected. If something cost Monsanto money, then it was me overlooked. This is, of course, exactly the situation with investment banking: privatized profits, socialized losses.

So I’m all for allowing Monsanto their non-free-market profits from their patented genes. But I’m against Monsanto getting to pollute our food supply with products that a good part of the country does not want. More and more, we are becoming a country where the laws are tilted excessively toward corporate profits. The government does everything it can to assure those profits. And we call this the “free market.” Meanwhile, the government does nothing to limit the harm that these corporations do. That would be “socialism.” I assure you, if the situation were reversed and Monsanto were trying to steal Bowman’s seeds, the Supreme Court would have come to the opposite conclusion. I even know the argument they would have made: stopping Monsanto from taking Bowman’s seeds would have been too big a burden on the free market.

“A government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation, shall not perish from the earth.” Just ask the “liberals” on the Supreme Court.

Rubio: Fire That Guy Who Resigned

Marco RubioThis whole IRS controversy seems much ado about nothing. The IRS is generally interested in looking at political nonprofit organizations because regardless of their political stripes, they ought to be paying taxes. Most of these groups aren’t working for the public good; they are pushing their own agenda. And as Matt Yglesias is fond of saying: that’s great! But it isn’t something that we should be subsidizing with tax exempt status. Inside this effort, a small group looked at organizations with names that included “tea party” or similar. And then the head of the division found out about it and put a stop to it. One would think that would be the end of it.

But before I go on with the story, let’s think for a moment about the idea that a group with “tea party” in its title is conservative. As I’ve argued, the Tea Party doesn’t really exist; it is just the base of the Republican Party. But the people who consider themselves members of the Tea Party have long argued that this isn’t the case. Why, they’re not even conservative. They have Democrats and Republicans. So how can an IRS investigation of groups with “tea party” in their names be an attack on conservatives? I welcome this controversy if it means we can finally all admit that the Tea Party is nothing but the conservative base of the Republican Party.

Now that Benghazi seems at last to be fading to the “fake moon landing” status it so richly deserves, the conservatives are grabbing hold of an actual controversy: IRS targeting of conservative groups. Marco Rubio wants blood. He wants the head of the IRS Commissioner. But as Jonathan Chait noted this morning, there is no commissioner. When this program was going on, the IRS was being run by Donald Shulman, a Bush appointee. But his term ended last November, and since then, the acting head has been Steven Miller. (Obama has yet to nominate a new commissioner; this is typical of him and it is almost as big a problem as the Republicans filibustering every nominee.)

So what exactly is Rubio doing? He wants to register his outrage. But this whole thing ended almost two years ago. As I said: much ado about nothing. But one of the few things that Republican politicians do is appear on conservative media to shout about how horrible things are. Calling for the resignation of nonexistent bureaucrats is an important part of their job descriptions. And even when they do happen to latch on to a real controversy, it doesn’t mean their reaction will stay inside the reality based world. I’m sure that we will hear some conservatives calling for the abolition of the IRS because of this. Of course, there are always conservatives calling for the abolition of the IRS. If Rubio thinks he can be at the head of the pack with calling for a resignation of a nonexistent person, he’s seriously underestimated the craziness of his party.

The Other Other H-Word

The term, ADHD, is unhelpful and inaccurate.  It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  I don’t believe my son has a disorder, and his attention may or may not be a deficit.  That is completely dependent on the situation.  This morning we had a tough time with math which included teary eyes (his) and frustration (both his and mine).  But right now he is upstairs working on his iPad Mini, creating an animation project that he’s been glued to for almost an hour.  Who’s to say he has an attention deficit?  There’s a funny bit Steven Wright does talking about his nephew with ADD.  It’s very short, well under a minute and worth watching.

Wright is right!  People with ADD/ADHD have an amazing ability to focus when they are doing something they enjoy.  The term for this is hyperfocus.  This quality can be beneficial when someone is doing something creative.  In some ways it can be detrimental to an individual’s relationships and health.  People might spend too much time doing one thing they enjoy while neglecting their spouses, their children, and their work.

What I’ve started doing with my son, so he can learn to regulate his activities during free time, is to set a timer.  If there are no meals, jobs, or errands in the immediate timeline, I have him set the timer for an hour.  After that he needs to take a 10-15 minute break and do something completely different.  To be honest, when I first began having him do this there was a bit of opposition, but now my son is used to it.  Though it’s still not a perfect system, it really has gotten better with practice.  Taking regular breaks is good for everyone.  I like to think (or at least hope), if it’s managed well, hyperfocus can really be a gift and allow those with ADD to create amazing things without harming their health or their relationships.