Saturday, January 29, 2011

Arab Dictatorships Teeter

by Richard Crews
Over the past six weeks a wave of civil and political unrest has engulfed the Arab world in North Africa and the adjacent Arabian Peninsula.

It began in Tunisia (December 18, 2010),
spread to Algeria (Dec. 28),
then Jordan (Jan. 14),
Mauritania and Oman (Jan. 17),
Saudi Arabia (Jan. 21),
Egypt (Jan. 25),
and Yemen (Jan. 27).

The root causes are high unemployment, inflation of food prices, government corruption, lack of freedom of speech, and generally poor living conditions in the face of exorbitant wealth of the families of entrenched dictators.

Modern information technology has played an important part in these uprisings. Satellite TV and the Internet have spread images of political freedom and comfortable life styles into downtrodden homes around the world. Then last fall WikiLeaks revealed rampant corruption in the government of Tunisia. And the social-connection systems of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have allowed people on the streets to communicate with one another to encourage and coordinate their demonstrations.

These are not anti-religious movements. It is fascinating to see throngs of thousands on the streets of Cairo pause in their riotous police defiance and kneel together facing Mecca for five o'clock evening prayers. And they are not anarchic. In Tunisia in early January when a large group of lawyers tried to meet to establish a new government and were beaten and arrested by the police, 95% of Tunisia's 8,000 lawyers went on strike the next day.

The U.S. State Department has mixed allegiances. They have supported many of these dictators in the interest of worldwide political stability and favoritism for U.S. interests. During the infamous Bush era, many of these countries provided secret prisons for the U.S. for holding (and torturing) individuals who had been kidnapped and "rendered" outside the law. But over the past few days, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have voiced support for the civil rights of the anti-dictator throngs.

It has been said that "Tunisia is the Arab Gdansk" and will provide--as Gdansk did for the Polish Solidarity movement that spread to the ousting of Communism from Eastern Europe--the beginning of the end of savage dictatorships in the Arab world. It is too early to know, but the signs are hopeful. We shall see.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Google Books

by Richard Crews
Google has undertaken to scan electronically everything ever written in any language. So far their project, Google Books, has gathered two trillion words from 15 million books. That represents 12% of every book in every language published since the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s.

Although copyright disputes have limited the right to put some recent works in readable form, Google has produced a giant database of words and word patterns for analysis. Some interesting findings are:

The English language now has a vocabulary of one million words.

More than 50% of these--after excluding proper names--have been missed by all dictionaries. (Yep, there are over 500,000 words in use in English that have never been picked up by dictionary scholars.)

Historical periods of repression or censorship of certain authors, ideas, and fields are readily trackable--and some new ones previously unknown to historians have been discovered.

[Science, 17 Dec 2010, page 1600]

Saturday, January 8, 2011

ObamaCare 2.0.11

by Richard Crews
The United States is the only "First World" country (that is, the only advanced, industrialized country) in the world that does not have universal health care for its citizens. Tens of millions of our citizens simply cannot afford to get sick or injured. If they do, they have no trail of medical history--no ongoing record of how their health has been in the past, what (if any) treatments they have received, and how they may have fared as the results of those treatments. There is no single clinic or physician who knows them and their families and cares for them. When they get sick or injured--or just plain old and worn out--their choice is to suffer and muddle through as best they can, perhaps with the help of friends or family if they can get some help there--until death heals their pain.

Some, if they can afford it, have expensive, private health-care insurance--insurance that may take a fourth or more of their entire family budget; insurance that may fall short or abandon them if they get too "expensively" sick and begin to pose too great a financial burden on the insurance company. Some (many millions, in fact) rely on hospital emergency rooms where the care they get is expensive (it costs about twice as much as compared with care from a neighborhood medical clinic) and of relatively poor quality since the hospital is staffed and equipped for more urgent and emergent services and, in any event, has no ongoing record of their medical needs. The costs of this ER care are borne by the hospitals--by their foundations and donors, by their government grants, and by increased premiums paid by people who do have medical insurance (about half of the cost of medical insurance premiums goes to pay for people who have no insurance of their own).

The result is that although the U.S. has some of the best medical schools and medical research facilities in the world--and makes the best of medical care available for the rich and privileged--it has, overall, the most expensive and poorest quality medical care for the bulk of its citizens of any civilized nation.

Teddy Roosevelt, a century ago, was the first president to try to pass universal health-care laws for the U.S. He was not successful. And every president since then has tried--and failed--until last year. In 2010 President Obama, expending a tremendous amount of "political capital" (that is, wielding presidential influence and losing popularity), managed to muscle through Congress legislation establishing universal health care for the American people, legislation which is now gradually--and over the next several years--being put into place.

There have already been significant positive effects: stabilization of insurance premiums (which used to go up--sometimes drastically--year after year), refusal to let insurance companies drop people who get too expensively sick, etc. But there have also been problems. For example, several cases have gone to the courts challenging the constitutionality of the new health-care laws; one or more of these cases is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the next couple of years. Furthermore, serious errors have emerged in the difficult projections that were made of how many people would choose this or that provision of the new laws. In addition, implementation costs are proving significantly higher than expected in some cases. And--perhaps most significantly--several large unions and employers have decided that under the new laws it will be more profitable for them to dump sick employees onto the public rolls.

These problems will be patched and "healed." A new era of health-care responsibility is upon us--the U.S. is ready to join the rest of the civilized world in providing health care for its citizens. But the path to this goal over the next few years will be rocky.