Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bush--The Decider

by Richard Crews
George W. Bush was not a deep thinker. He had no head for complex and counterbalancing arguments. (He acknowledged this about himself.) He was elected on soundbites, political rabble-rousing, and psychologically savvy advertising with big corporate money.

Once elected, he thought his deficiency of careful cognitive skills didn't really matter. He thought that by the time a question got to the president's desk, it was too subtle and complicated, too speculative and debatable, to have a "right" or even "best" answer. He saw his role as "the decider"--he thought that at the end of the day, someone had to roll the dice and that, as president, he had been designated to do that.

He also, for the same reasons--deficiency of cognitive skills--favored short-term actions to longer-term, strategic thinking.

As a result--

--We got preemptive war--a novel twist to long-standing international principles of national sovereignty, which is survivable, I guess, when you are the one and only super-power but devilishly difficult to contain as the world turns.

--We got condoned torture--with poor consideration for its moral decrepitude, its psychological ineffectiveness, and its implications for the treatment our troops might get in enemy hands in the future.

--We got abridgment of civil rights--secret wire-taps, secret prisons, loss of habeas corpus and due process rights and, because of all this and more, a hard push down the slippery slope toward tyranny.

--We got escalating deregulation of finance and business--and the worst global financial meltdown in 80 years.

--We got politicized interpretation of science--deferral of serious consideration of the dangers of global warming, of the potential for genetic therapies, and of the cultural and financial importance of green energy.

--We got failure of careful interpretation of international intelligence--NO, Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction; and, NO, we did not consider the difficulties of nation building when dictators fall.

--We got arm-waving (and arms-waving) diplomacy--the "Axis of Evil," attempted international isolation of Iran, North Korea, etc.

--We got fiscal mismanagement--unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy, and huge (historically unprecedented) federal deficits.

--We got nepotism and political favoritism in the highest appointed offices.


The Republicans, in disgraced retreat, decided on a desperate political strategy: fire-brand distortions and obstruction to any and all processes of government. They spawned Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the like.

They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The American populace are fundamentally gullible and hysterical. (As H. L. Mencken said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.")

Now the question is whether the Republicans will help try to get the toothpaste back into the tube.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

SODIS--The Ultimate Water Purification System

by Richard Crews
One billion people around the world do not have safe drinking water. Children typically suffer the most. Third-world children commonly get five to ten bouts of diarrheal disease each year. In fact, diarrhea from contaminated drinking water is the leading cause of death among children under five in many non-industrialized regions, and it is a leading cause of malnutrition and stunted physical development in the children who survive.

SODIS—which stands for Solar Water Disinfection—is a water purification system that is free, requires almost no labor, no expensive equipment, and no electricity or other expensive energy. It works best on small quantities of water--a single drinking bottle at a time.

To apply the SODIS method, begin with any available water that is not too brackish--from surface puddles, roof run-off, ponds, rivers, etc. (Water that is too muddy or brackish may require filtration through a piece of cloth or a grass mat.)

Next, take a recycled plastic water bottle, strip off the label, fill it with water, and leave it in direct sunlight for about six hours. It is best to lay the bottle on a piece of metal, such as a corrugated metal roof. (On a camping trip, you can place a bit of aluminum foil under the bottle to reflect sunlight back up into the water.) If the bottle gets hot in the sun, that's good--it can cut the time down to a couple of hours.

SODIS works because the ultraviolet wavelengths in sunlight kill all viruses, bacteria, and parasites in the water. Then the water is safe to drink. And since the water is sterile, it can be stored safely in that same bottle at room temperature indefinitely.

SODIS works best if you first fill the bottle 3/4 full, cap it, and give it a good shake to allow as much oxygen as possible to become dissolved in the water. Then fill it up the rest of the way and place it in the sun. Don't disturb the bottle for six hours while it is "cooking." If the sun is not shining brightly, a longer period--up to two days--may be required.

How can you be sure when the bottle of water is ready and safe to drink? Simply err on the side of caution. Don't wait until you are thirsty before you begin the process. Have plenty of bottles and keep them in rotation. When a bottle is empty, refill it and put it on the roof. Whenever it rains, collect all the water you can.

The best plastic bottles to use are PET, polyethylene terephthalate; these are bottles with a recycling code "1" in the triangle on the bottom. You cannot use glass bottles because glass will block the crucial ultra-violet wavelengths. Cloudy or whitish plastic does not work well either, and a PET bottle works best when it is not too scratched or beaten up.

SODIS is effective against any and all biological contamination. However it does not remove salt and cannot remove chemical contaminants. But water from rain, roof run-off, or even ground puddles can usually be collected before it has picked up such chemicals. Even for the infamous arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, arsenic enters the water as it seeps up through underground aquifers. Water that just lands on--or courses along--the surface generally does not contain arsenic. By the way, laboratory test have demonstrated that water heated or stored in PET bottles does not leach any poisonous chemicals from the plastic.

There have been a few problems with acceptance and use of the SODIS method in the third world. In a couple of places there has been a lack of social acceptance--people who have bottles of water out in the sun on their roofs feel they are advertising that they cannot afford to buy "normal" chlorinated water as their neighbors do. Also, there are other possible sources of diarrhea-causing organisms, such as contamination of vegetable gardens by non-potable irrigation water. These problems must be addressed through continuing education.

The SODIS system--effective, free, and remarkably simple--is currently in use by more that four million people around the world. It is recommended and endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obamacare--The Dark and Unnoticed Corners

by Richard Crews
The new health-care legislation is not a panacea. The U.S. has the most expensive health-care system in the world by any measure. And one of the worst among advanced, industrialized nations by many measures (for example, we in the U.S. have the shortest overall life expectancy; in addition we have relatively high mortality rates for several chronic and curable illnesses). Obamacare notwithstanding, this will continue to be so for many years to come.

On the other hand, the new health-care legislation is not the dawn of Armageddon. Despite Republican predictions, it probably will not bankrupt the nation (though pre-Obamacare trends seemed to be headed in that direction); it will not raise taxes inordinately; and it will not impose a draconian bureaucracy between healers and healees.

By now you have read wonderful lists of the marvelous changes the new health-care legislation will bring about. But there are some important changes that Obamacare will initiate that are not often cited. For example, while it has been widely noted that some 32 million poor people will get health-care insurance, it has not been highlighted that before this new age these people got their basic medical care from emergency rooms. This has been an expensive drain on hospital resources. In the future these poor folks will be able to get better care for less than half the dollar cost to society by using "regular" (middle-class) clinics.

Also largely unnoticed: among these uninsured masses are millions of under-insured people who now pay low premiums for supposed catastrophic health-care insurance but with such large deductibles that they in fact have no real health-care insurance at all. They also routinely go to emergency rooms; since they default on their bills, the hospitals and thus society at large, pays these medical expenses. Anyone who buys health-care insurance in the future will buy "defined benefit packages." (Yes, in a shadow of some of the Republican distortions, their premiums will be higher--paid with the help of government subsidies--but this is because they will now have real health-care insurance.)

In addition, insurance companies will be required to pay for preventive care. Although this does not, statistically, reduce overall health-care costs, it does (statistically) make for a healthier population.

Finally, among the positive "unoticed corners" of the Obamacare legislation, many millions of dollars have been designated for "best practices studies," so that doctors and other health-care providers will have clear evidence about what works and what doesn't work. These findings are not coercive--the law clearly and carefully protects the doctors' and patients' rights to continue to make fools of themselves.

This "best practices studies" is a double-edged sword, however, since it will be driven by traditional Western (alopathic) medicine and thus will not fairly evaluate many alternatives like chiropractics, acupuncture, and homeopathy.

As to hidden corners of the fully negative variety, the new health-care legislation does not cap malpractice awards. Although outlawing runaway multi-million-dollar "pain and suffering" lawsuits was favored by many legislators (including Republicans), trial lawyers--whose fees are usually a percentage of the take--simply had too strong a lobby.

In addition, negotiating prices for generic drugs, including from foreign providers, is still forbidden (although the Veterans Administration is allowed to do this, and saves hundreds of millions of dollars annually thereby). The myth behind forcing Medicare and other plans to buy high-priced meds is that pharmaceutical companies need protected profits in order to encourage research and development of new drugs. The important point missed here is that universities and non-profit organizations should be doing this research into new drugs. This process should not be left to "Big Pharma" with the public advertising and doctor arm-twisting this brings about.

Another problem not solved by the Obamacare legislation is the payment patterns to doctors and other health-care providers. Payments are usually based on episodic illness, rather than on health maintenance (or via simple staff salaries).

And finally, while no damage was done to women's reproductive health care by the Obamacare legislation, no gains were made either. The language remains exactly unchanged--an opportunity missed.

And 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. are not covered under Obamacare any more than they were before. I consider this a tragic travesty--a violation of fundamental American values.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unearned Income

by Richard Crews
The latest health-care reform bill includes a tax on unearned income (personal income that you did not earn as a salary, for example, from dividends, interest, or rent income).

Some people have objected that this is a "Wall Street killer." But doesn't it serve some positive goals?

Like turning the tide, even if just a little bit, against the obscene disparity between the very rich and the rest of us that has developed over the past 20 years? CEOs now make hundreds of times what line workers make--a couple of decades ago it was "only" dozens of times. As Warren Buffet said, he is taxed at a significantly lower rate than the person who empties his waste basket (15% vs. some 30%). The broad phenomenon termed "unearned income" is at the heart of this.

Basically Wall Street managers are supposed to perform two functions: allocate capital (from many pockets to entrepreneurs, production, and services), and preserve (or guard and protect) wealth. On the one hand, in recent years they have done both badly, their activities laced with short-sightedness and greed (in the absence of realistic regulation). On the other hand, even if they did these functions well, they should not receive major portions of the distribution premiums (the value added between "field and table") for them. They do not invent, produce, or even polish anything--neither goods nor services. But since the advent of Reagonomics (with favor-the-rich trickle-down taxation policies and favor-the-secretive-greedy deregulation), they have carved off bigger and bigger slices of the American pie.

The U.S. financial apparatus--especially the systems for wealth-holding and wealth-management--needs substantial rethinking, reorganization, and redistribution of assets, goods, ideas, and services. These have gotten badly out of whack, and not just our vaunted democracy (as Churchill said, "the worst form of government except for all others") but our invaluable (for humanity's advancement) entrepreneurial industrialized capitalism are being stifled.

It seems to me that such legislation as this makes a meager but useful chip in this obscene and counter-productive edifice.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Earth Energy

by Richard Crews
Our planet Earth gets energy from three major sources:

(1) radiation from the Sun
(2) the internal radioactive decay of Uranium and Thorium
(3) the gravitational tug of the Moon and Sun

(1) The Earth receives 174 petawatts of radiant energy from the Sun at the upper atmosphere. (A petawatt is 10^15 watts, so this number is 174,000,000,000,000,000 watts; a medium light bulb delivers about 100 watts.)

Of this, 30% is reflected back into space. The remainder is absorbed by land, clouds (and atmosphere), and oceans. (Some is reflected back, after reaching the surface of the Earth, by water and especially ice and snow, but this is largely absorbed by the atmosphere [and clouds] rather than being lost from the planet into space.)

Since the oceans cover about 71% of the planet's surface, they receive (and absorb) about 85 petawatts. This represents about 570,000 times the current needs of humanity. Most of this is absorbed as heat and goes into making wind and weather patterns, and deep ocean currents. (Only about 1/1,000 of it is captured by the chlorophyl of plants for use by plants and animals.)

(2) The Earth's heat output is about 44 terawatts. (A terawatt is 10^12 watts, so that's 44,000,000,000,000 watts.) Most of this is from the radioactive decay of Uranium and Thorium. In addition, much of it is residual heat from planetary accretion when the Earth first formed; some is from the gravitational effects of the Sun and Moon (solid masses like land can't ebb and flow with tides so they heat up); some, from the electric dynamo effect of the Sun's magnetic field. This energy is principally manifest as volcanoes and earthquakes.

(3) The gravitational tug of the Moon and Sun produces ocean tides (54% from the effects of the Moon, 46% from the Sun), amounting to about 3.75 terawatts (3,750,000,000,000 watts). This is only a tiny fraction (0.00002) of the amount of energy received from the Sun as radiation--but still some 2.8 times humanity's current needs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.S. Education

by Richard Crews
Two or three decades ago the U.S. education system, from kindergarten through graduate school, was the envy of the world. Parents emigrated to the U.S. from across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America to gain for their children the precious gift we provided. And the brightest college students from around the world left their families, friends, and cultural roots behind to attend U.S. universities, especially U.S. graduate schools.

The decline of U.S. education was insidious, but its extent was severe.

Why did it happen? The causes were subtle and complex. For one thing, pay gradients got out of whack. The brightest graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were increasingly drawn to Wall Street by the obscene incomes paid for untangling and manipulating the novel network of sub-prime loans, derivatives, mis-rated bonds, credit-default swaps, and other exotic financial inventions spawned by deregulation. Young executives in the financial field made millions; at the other end of the pay scale, young college graduates who entered teaching barely made enough to support a family much less pay off their tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.

In 2001 the Bush administration tried to get elementary and high-school education turned around with the No Child Left Behind Act. But this was misdesigned in several key ways.
(1) It left to the states to set testing standards--there was no effective national guidance.
(2) It specified only reading and math--not science, social studies, languages, or history, much less music, art, or any well-rounded educational perspective.
(3) It depended on specific achievement tests--teachers were forced to "teach to the test" rather than drawing out broader concepts and intellectual development.
(4) And there was no federal funding--states were left to the mercy of lobbyists and their own state budgetary constraints to fund the new federal mandates. "No Child Left Behind" became "No Lobbyist Left Behind"; the spin phrase "educational race to the top" became a "race to the bottom."

During Obama's first year in office, he orchestrated the greatest advances in U.S. education in history. From pre-school through graduate school,
(1) national curriculum standards were carefully developed by teams of educators,
(2) the focus broadened to encourage science education and a spectrum of humanities including history, languages, social studies, art, music, and athletics,
(3) student evaluations were diversified and made part of the curriculum,
(4) and federal funds were made available at every level.

Obama is also promulgating regulations for transparency and accountability on Wall Street. Some return to salary sanity should follow.

Education is the most important infrastructural foundation on which U.S. success in the 21st century--both for individuals and for the nation--will depend. The Obama administration has made a splendid start at rebuilding and reinvigorating our education systems.

Deem and Pass

by Richard Crews
Congress has been drying its laundry in public lately (part of the new Obama transparency), but the stains on the sheets have become the laughing stock of the neighborhood.

First it was "pass it [health reform] or stay after school"--summer break would be delayed. But you just can't keep study hall and detention open indefinitely, so last July the Democrats finally said, "OK, go play in the sunshine, but we're going to make it a summer STUDY vacation by having Town Meetings all over the country to talk about health-care reform." The Republicans responded, "Just try it!" And they sent agitators to those Town Meetings all over the country to heckle and disrupt the discussions and distort the facts.

The media helped. Town Meetings are usually dull, drab affairs. But when someone--anyone (even someone from out of town carrying a briefcase with an elephant on it)--stands up and starts shouting obscenities--that's NEWS, baby!

These disruption tactics were so successful that the Republicans surprised themselves. As a result, stalling, disrupting, and obfuscating became the new Republican Platform.

The Republicans also came back from their summer of rabble-rousing fun having spawned a new party--the Tea Party--in the bushes by the side of the road. It didn't amount to much, that Tea Party, a dirty little thing all sweaty and fragmented, but as the Washington gridlock escalated, it grew and coalesced and became a strange, grassroots, populist movement that was scary to both Republicans and Democrats alike. (This may be the only thing they have agreed on recently.)

As the new Republican Platform (to stall, disrupt, and obfuscate) developed, it was clearly unwieldy and ridiculous. The Republicans would filibuster everything, get over-ridden, and then many Republicans would vote to pass the legislation they had just filibustered--several bills passed in the Senate, after overcoming a filibuster, by 80% and even 90% margins. (The advantage of this was that legislators could later campaign as having voted either for or against the bill depending on how the political winds were blowing.) In addition, scores of appointments of judges and Executive Department directors were blocked--and the Republicans could then trumpet the judicial overload and lack of Executive Department leadership.

The curious thing was that opinion polls showed the American public buying it. The Democrats lost ground in the national popularity contest, and the Republicans gained ground (not much ground, to be sure--mostly the public was just fed up with Washington bickering and do-nothing-ness). But that shift in the polls made the Republicans more and more intransigent.

Along came a Democratic defeat in an obscure Senate contest in Massachusetts (a state which already had universal health-care insurance), and the Republicans solidified their filibuster-wielding minority.

Not to worry: "reconciliation" emerged into the spotlight (it had previously played in the shadows), and filibusters versus anti-filibuster "super-majorities" no longer ruled the day.

However, a curious problem arose in the House of Representatives. Democrats wanted--in fact, they needed--to pass health-care reform; otherwise the myth was rampant that they had not accomplished much. But they didn't want to have to vote for it and possibly get hung out to dry in hometown, midterm elections. So by passing an amendment to the Senate reconciliation by an obscure "deem and pass" rule, they could have their cake and eat it too: they could pass health-care reform without actually having voted for it.

Let the good times roll!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Senate Parliamentarian

by Richard Crews
An obscure and reclusive figure, the Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin, has recently come into the spotlight--and he may have a historic role to play in the weeks ahead.

Here's the background: After a year in the sausage-making process, the final passage of Obama's health-care reform depends on overcoming two enormous barriers. One is getting the House to pass the same bill the Senate finally passed by the narrowest, filibuster-defying "super-majority" on Christmas Eve.

This will not be easy--if it is even possible. The Republicans have solidified their obstructionist minority against it. The Democrats, fearing the apparent oncoming Republican tsunami in the mid-term elections this fall, are shivering in their boots--they are afraid to reload. Presumably Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, will be able to cull enough favors and twist enough arms to get the health-care reform bill through the House. We shall see.

But even if she does, it then faces an enormous challenge in the Senate, and that is where Alan Frumin comes in. The Senate Republicans would stop it with a filibuster if they could. But the Democrats will try to pass it via a process called "reconciliation," an obscure bit of parliamentary maneuvering not used since President George W. Bush pushed through three major tax cuts favoring the wealthy, each of which was predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to substantially increase federal deficits, and each of which was opposed by the Democrats.

But reconciliation represents a complex set of procedural rules which MAY allow the Republicans to stall the legislation indefinitely by proposing an endless series of amendments. This stalling tactic will only succeed IF the parliamentarian, Frumin, decides that some or many of the amendments are allowable (in theory they must be relevant to the bill and related to budgetary matters).

Although the chairman of the Senate, who is the vice president, Joe Biden, can rule "yes" or "no" on the parliamentarian's suggestions, a recommendation by the parliamentarian has never been refused, and it would be an upsetting historical precedent if one were.

So a major parlor game in Washington these days is to try to outguess and predict what Frumin will do.

Alan Frumin is a quiet, scholarly guy who has held his position under both Democratic and Republican administrations. When called upon in the past, his decisions have been fair, cautious, and not at all political. He is an unknown--a powerful unknown--and Washington politicians hate and fear that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Has Obama Accomplished So Far?

by Richard Crews
Much has been said about Obama's preoccupation with health-care legislation during his first year in office. When this is coupled with observation of the obstructive paralysis in Congress, this has led to the implication that he hasn't gotten much done. Nothing could be farther--FARTHER--from the truth.

Even legislatively--over tremendous lobbying pressures--he has, for example, gotten the Fair Pay Act passed expanding significantly the rights of women to sue over prejudicial pay inequities. And gotten passed new authority for the federal government to regulate tobacco. And substantial consumer protection legislation for credit card users. And legislation expanding health care to cover some 12 million children and poor families. And more.

But, the partisan paralysis in Congress being what it is, Obama has also accomplished a great deal through executive orders which build on, redesign, and reinterpret existing laws without needing Congressional action. For example:

Executive Order 134990 banning every member of the Executive Branch from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and from engaging in any lobbying activities for two years after leaving office.

EO 13491 banning torture, rendition, and CIA-run detention facilities.

EO 13505 removing barriers to responsible scientific research involving human stem cells.

EO 13514 providing federal leadership in environmental, energy, and economic matters.

EO 13526 limiting the use of "classified" designation which was used widely to keep government activities from public view.

Those are just a few of his many significant accomplishments. In addition


Passing stimulus, generating jobs. On February 17, 2009, Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law. In December 2009, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report estimating that "in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States" due to that legislation. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, CBO has increased its estimate to 800,000 to 2.4 million additional employed through the fourth quarter of that year. Moreover, a November 20, 2009, New York Times article reported that the "consensus" among "dispassionate analysts" is that "the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working," citing nonpartisan analyses of gross domestic product and total employment figures by several companies specializing in economic forecasting. Further, a January 25 USA Today article stated that, according to its "quarterly survey of 50 economists," "[u]nemployment would have hit 10.8% -- higher than December's 10% rate -- without Obama's $787 billion stimulus program," adding, "The difference would translate into another 1.2 million lost jobs."

Eliminating wasteful spending. Obama was able to achieve some significant cuts to wasteful spending -- most notably, the elimination of the F-22 fighter jet program after he successfully lobbied the Senate to vote to strip out financing for more jets from a defense funding authorization bill. The Washington Times reported on January 14 that Obama won "60 percent of his proposed cuts" and also managed "to get Congress to ax several programs that had bedeviled President George W. Bush for years."

Sotomayor nomination. On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice David Souter. She was confirmed by the Senate on August 6, 2009, and sworn in August 8, making her the first Hispanic justice, and only the third woman, on the court.

Public lands bill. On March 30, Obama signed an omnibus public lands bill, which The New York Times reported "allows for 2 million more acres to be declared wilderness... [with] more than 1,000 miles designated as scenic rivers, and adds land for national trails."

Transparency. The Washington Post reported that moves by the Obama administration to improve government transparency "included a ban on lobbyist gifts; restrictions on the hiring of lobbyists; publication of White House visitor logs and other records; and a move to bar lobbyists from serving on advisory boards." A report by Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, and U.S. PIRG stated that: "The cumulative effect of the Administration's actions has been to adopt the strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics and transparency rules and policies ever established by an Administration to govern its own activities."

National service. On April 21, 2009, Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expands the scope of AmeriCorps and provides opportunities for young people and senior citizens to join in service programs.

We cannot say what he might have accomplished if there had been a functional Congress. But even without one, he has accomplished a great deal.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Be Resolved?

by Richard Crews
When President Obama appointed George Mitchell special envoy to the Middle East, there was a gasp of hope in political circles around the world. Mitchell was renowned as a negotiator and peacemaker; he had been instrumental in bringing the Irish and the English to end their long, bloody conflict. But, as one Israeli noted, that struggle had "only" been brewing and stewing for 300 years; the bitterness between the Israelis and Palestinians dated back thousands.

Three great worldwide religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--all covet the land of Israel, particularly the capital city of Jerusalem. For Jews, Jerusalem is the holiest of cities, established as the capital of the Jewish Nation a thousand years before Christ. For Christians, Jerusalem is the place where Christ was crucified; it is where he made his ultimate sacrifice for humanity. And, although not mentioned in the Qur'an, Jerusalem is the third holiest city of Islam, after only Mecca and Medina. There are, within that one small city, the highest of holy sites for all three religions.

Those three great religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--actually have a lot in common. They are all profoundly peace-loving and civilizing with many of the same tenets of belief and practice. In fact they are called "the Abrahamic religions": all three take their historical roots from Abraham. For Jews and Christians he was "the father of the people of Israel"; for Muslims, the "prophet of Islam" and a direct ancestor of Muhammad.

But the three have suffered a stormy relationship over the millennia--often with bloodshed, even slaughter. None of the three, particularly the Jews and Muslims, would be content to see the other in political control of their holy places.

Perhaps Jerusalem could become an international city under United Nations' political control. All religions would be assured access to their holy places. But even that resolution would be difficult for people who have come to be such bitter rivals.

There is a second problem confronting resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. After the Second World War the Jewish people, who were scattered around the world, were given their own homeland. They came to Israel by the millions, to settle, to draw sustenance from the dry lands and deserts, to build a nation, to establish a democracy and a Western-style economy--and they prospered. But in recent decades their homeland has been overrun by non-Jews. In many places throughout Israel a truly democratic system of government would exclude the Jews from the halls of political power. They would, in fact, be replaced and ruled by their bitter historical rivals.

Is there a solution to these two problems--a way that the three great religions can share the holy city of Jerusalem? A way that the Jewish people can honor democracy and their neighbors without losing their homeland?

Perhaps the future knows. I do not.

Friday, March 12, 2010


by Richard Crrews
I heard about this a couple of days ago, but I wasn't sure how big a deal it was. I thought it might be just some more Washington smoke. It certainly doesn't amount to much financially--a couple of billion bucks in a budget a thousand times that big. But you know what they say in Washington--a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon it begins to add up.

It seems our vaunted representatives in the capitol are having a "drop you pants" contest about curbing earmarks and some Washington watchers think it may just be a big deal--in fact, a VERY BIG deal--the tip of a proverbial ice berg (to mix a delightfully sadistic metaphor).

Let's start with "what are earmarks?" (This will be a short paragraph but you can skip it if the term "earmarks" is old hat for you, that is, if it already leaves a bad taste in your mouth.) An earmark is a little amendment a senator or congressperson gets attached to a bill which is passing by on its way through Congress--and it may be a bill on a totally different subject--so that a particular company in a particular voting district gets a particular government contract or grant with no competition or public fanfare. The company then makes a campaign contribution.

Earmarks are simple, straightforward, common (there are many thousands of earmarks passed by Congress every year). They are the meat and potatoes of lobbyists. And the major source of campaign funds for most legislators. Public-interest groups commonly fight against earmarks; candidates for high national office commonly rail against them when campaigning (including Obama and McCain--oh, hell, they all do). But nobody does anything (including Obama and McCain--oh, hell, nobody does). Earmarks are too quick and easy, and they are too tried and true--just part of the Washington woodwork. With the earmark system everybody wins--well, everybody except the public, that is, the taxpayer.

So ever since earmarks were invented several decades ago, nobody has seriously undertaken to get rid of them. Until now.

Because of an alignment of several weird flukes (including a couple of streaks of honesty), a "Ban the Earmark" contest has been staged in Washington. First, some key committee leadership positions shifted; then...well, to make a long story short, the Democrats in the House of Representatives swore off earmarks (sort of--they swore off them just for profit-making corporations and just for a year). The House Republicans, not to be outdone (this is ludicrously referred to as "gaining the moral high ground") thereupon swore off ALL earmarks (for a year) thereby including ones for non-profit organizations such as schools, hospitals, and churches.

The whole Washington lobby industry is in a tizzy (which is a good sign--it's the major thing that makes me think this is significant). And to think, this is just a couple of weeks after that terrible Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates of secret campaign donations by private organizations.

We'll see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


by Richard Crews
I got my MD from Harvard so I knew:

(1) that I knew just about all there was to know about health and healing, and

(2) that homeopathy is ridiculous: it violates known principles of chemistry and physics and physiology; only someone who is simple minded and naive could "believe" in it.

Then in 1977 I stumbled into the job of executive and clinical director of the Wholistic Health and Nutrition Institute of Mill Valley mainly because:

(1) they were going broke (I lost $30,000 before I got back out),

(2) they were running a nutrition course for nursing students from New College of California where a man I knew was president,

(3) it was near my home (2 miles), and

(4) I was trying to figure out something interesting to do with my life--I had tried practicing psychiatry a dozen different ways and was bored with it

At WHNI we had weekly clinical conferences. There were three people practicing homeopathy, and I started to notice what ridiculous cases they presented--clearly impossible cures, misunderstood clinical syndromes, etc. So I dutifully approached them about the situation--after all, I was trying to clean the place up. I discovered that they were sincere, rational, intelligent people. Looking into things a little further, I discovered that they (and other homeopaths in the Bay Area) didn't present their best cases/cures in "public"--they were too ridiculously spectacular.

So, puzzled and determined to be open minded (HAH! what a pathetic delusion we all share!), I got myself a small kit of a couple of dozen common remedies in low potency and a beginner's book on how to prescribe them.

The next weekend my wife and the two kids were off visiting their grandma but I had a bad cold, so I was home alone.. I settled myself at the dining room table with the book to see if I could figure out what the homeopathic remedy for my cold might be. After 45 minutes or so (it would take me maybe 15 seconds now), I decided the remedy must be pulsitilla. So I walked to the bedroom where the box of remedies was--unsteady, nauseated, casting a sidelong glance into the bathroom as I passed it to see if I needed to stop by to have diarrhea or throw up. I put a few pellets of Pulsitilla nigricans (in 30x potency) on my tongue, swallowed them, and headed back out to the dining room.

When I sat down (which was maybe 30 seconds after I took the tabs), I realized that my headache was gone, I didn't feel stuffed up, I wasn't sick to my stomach--in short, I didn't have any symptoms.


I was flabbergasted.

I sat dumbstruck at the dining room table. I began to cry. It simply couldn't be so--but it was.

Over the next few years I studied homeopathy long and hard, practiced it, taught a beginners' course (free to anyone around Mill Valley who wanted to come over to my office for 3 hours each Monday evening--there were 25 or 30 students), and even wrote a book, "Introductory Workbook in Homeopathy," because there wasn't a good one telling people how to get started. The book I wrote can be read on the Web at

I know homeopathy can't work. I have discussed the process of potentization with University of California faculty-type chemists and physicists. After a few false starts, when I finally convince them what I am really trying to ask them, they smile knowingly and patronizingly and walk away.

The remedies simply cannot get MORE potent the MORE you dilute them--but they DO.

And they simply cannot be active far (FAR) beyond Avogadros' number*--but they are.

I guess there are truly more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, Horatio.

* You want to know what "far" means? Avogadro's number (the number of molecules in a certain, set amount of any material) is about 6 x 10^23--that's 6 followed by 23 zeros. The remedies are regularly potentized through serial dilutions to 10^30, even 10^50. In the highest dilutions there is less than one chance in, say, 10^25 that there is a single atom or molecule of the original material in there. But the remedies are dramatically effective. In fact, even though there is nothing there but a trace of pure water dropped (for convenience in handling) on to a tiny pellet of pure lactose, there are more than 200-- THAT'S MORE THAN 200 --different, clearly distinguishable, very potent remedies that have been raised to this potency.

Go figure. I can't.

When I say "clearly distinguishable," I mean that if you take the wrong remedy--not correctly repertorized or figured out according to homeopathic principles--nothing happens. But if you take the right remedy, LOOK OUT !

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Unbelievable Mpemba Effect

by Richard Crews
From a letter to New Scientist, March 3, 2010: "If identical vessels of hot and cold water are placed in a freezer at the same time, the hot water will freeze first. This was first alluded to by Aristotle and then reported in the late 1960s as a result of observations by a young Tanzanian student. The findings were eventually published (Physics Education, vol 4, p 172), but the reason is still unexplained."

But my cousin, John LeGates, writes--

"I discovered it myself in the early seventies. I took it to a very senior professor of physics at MIT who happened to also be a neighbor and good friend. He said that the explanation is simple. Heating the water drives out the air dissolved in it.

"There’s a test for this explanation, which I devised and carried out. Heat two vessels of water, driving out the dissolved air. Keep one hot and let the other cool off. Then put them simultaneously in the freezer. Sure enough, the cool one freezes first. Incidentally preheating water before you freeze it also makes for clear ice with no bubbles."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Plants and Animals

by Richard Crews
Fifty years ago when I studied biology in college, all living things were divided into two broad groups or "Kingdoms": the plant Kingdom ("Plantae") and the animal Kingdom ("Animalia"). To be a "living thing" you had to demonstrate several key abilities such as procreation (the ability to make more little guys like yourself) and metabolism (the ability to harvest energy from the environment to run your inner machinery). The difference between "animals" and "plants" was also simple: if you could move yourself around, you were an animal; if not, you were a plant.

Within each of these two Kingdoms the creatures were divided into "phyla" (the plural of "phylum"); each of these into "classes"; these, into "orders"; then, "families"; "genera" (the plural of "genus"); and "species." So we biology students memorized "Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus" (all capitalized), and finally, "species" (not capitalized)." It was a neat and orderly system that scientists had been developing for a couple of hundred years; more than two million organisms had been closely studied and classified into this system.

Then starting about 50 years ago with the advent of better and better tools (such as the electron microscope) and more and more biologists making more and more careful and sophisticated studies, things got more and more complicated. First there was another Kingdom added (I remember with wistful nostalgia how having just two Kingdoms--plants and animals--had seemed so tidy). Then another, and another. FIVE Kingdoms! Clearly things were getting out of hand.

But there continued to be better and better tools (like DNA sequencing) and more and more biologists picking over things.

Nowadays Kingdoms are not even the highest level any more; there are three super-kingdoms or "domains" of living organisms. (It is even time to stop capitalizing the word "kingdom.") One of these domains has four kingdoms. Another has three. And one of the domains, the bacteria, hasn't even had its members divided up into kingdoms yet; instead the official word is "kingdoms are not yet available"; there are said to be five "divisions" among the bacteria but beyond that--well, hold the phone.

Today I heard a high-school biology teacher lament that "next year I'm going to have to change my 'Kingdoms of Life' chart again." (She meant her "Domains of Life" chart.)