Friday, March 29, 2019

A Pair Of Summaries

My next newspaper column:
Some thoughts on Robert Mueller’s report, about which we hear much but know little: 
Specified in Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary was that it did not exonerate Trump. Trump, being Trump, lied that it did. Republicans picked up the ball and are running with it. 
Barr wrote, Mueller “did not establish” collusion, which is different from saying he established there was none. It’s consistent, though, with Mr. Mueller gathering facts for presentation to Congress, leaving conclusions to them, rather than to an A. G. who trolled for the post with unsolicited opinions on obstruction. In that job application, Barr ruled out prosecuting Trump for obstruction, long before the final report, and despite agreeing, during his confirmation hearing, that actions similar to Trump’s constitute obstruction. 
Following Special Prosecutors’ reports on Nixon and Clinton, their Attorneys General deferred to Congress. Barr, though, did what he was selected to do: the opposite. More so if he censors the report. Either it contains material that’s more damning than he implied, or the deals Mueller granted were for what, nothing? Why, for example, lie about the Trump Tower meeting?  
Barr wrote that Mueller found both-sided evidence but chose not to opine about obstruction. Trump’s end-zone dance may or may not be on the five-yard-line. If the report does provide total vindication, you’d think he’d want its full disclosure, immediately. (Reportedly, he required a summary of the summary. Read to him.) Let’s see if he orders its release. If not, we’ll understand there’s plenty he wants to remain hidden.  
Spiking the ball, Trump named people he’d ban from media, calling them “evil” and “treasonous.” (Amusingly, he also announced plans to force speakers on colleges.) As certain as his next lie, we’ll see more vindictiveness from Trump and his cheerleaders. 
So, celebrating the possibility that the “president” might not be a criminal or have colluded with them, we return to our regular programming, beginning with updating Trump’s torrential lies and promises he’s broken like the eggshells on which we’ve all been walking. 
At every campaign rally, Trump vowed to end budget and trade deficits. Last month saw the highest of each, ever, all-time. Strangely, his supporters are silent. Also: he just resumed trying to extinguish Obamacare, without creating a promised, beautiful replacement.  
Though his latest budget proposal has zero chance of becoming law, it underscores Trump’s dishonesty, including reneging on pledges to protect Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Throughout his campaign, to full-throated hosannas, he vowed not to cut any of them. His 2020 budget does exactly that, well beyond a trillion dollars’ worth. Again, silence.  
Giving the Pentagon more than requested, Trump’s proposal makes huge reductions to education, research, and student loan funding. It cuts the EPA drastically, removes $200 billion from SNAP and $20 billion from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Trump extends a hand of riches to his corporate sponsors, withdrawing a helping hand from Americans in need. It’s shameful dereliction of a “president’s” duty to protect all citizens, present and future. Intentionally, it exacerbates sequestration of wealth in the hands of a few. His few. For our capitalist republic to survive, such imbalance is unsustainable.  
More unsustainability: projections of future budget shortfalls show trillion-dollar deficits lined up like boxcars on a coal train, far as the eye can see; and significantly lower growth than Trump asserts. It’s timely to recall his promise to balance budgets and eliminate the national debt in eight years. No rational person believed it, but his supporters did; now they pretend otherwise.  
Speaking of coal, Trump’s administration just admitted production has declined during his term, and will continue to do so. Bringing it back was one of his most ridiculous lies, swallowed only by the sort that attend his rallies. Happily, despite his efforts to stop it, energy from renewables rose by thirty-percent in the last two years. Trumpic cravenness toward the fossil fuel industry hasn’t hidden reality from forward-thinking entrepreneurs, as opposed to his credulous abettors. Maybe there’s still a chance, however small, to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. 
Finally, to those communicative conservatives who concluded my previous column called them all white supremacists: it didn’t. Serendipitously, this week a study reported that counties in which Trump held rallies experienced a 226% increase in hate crimes. That’s Trumpism. I implored decent Republicans to acknowledge it, reject it, and reclaim their party. Perhaps that could still happen, too. 
[Image source]

Friday, March 22, 2019

In The Driver's Seat

My next newspaper column:
Observing the steady and, from right-wing media, deliberate dumbing down of our populace, I’ve often wondered how many smart, informed people our country needs to remain intact. Now I find myself wondering how few white supremacists and people who empower them it’ll take to bring it all down. And, noting how many American high school graduates winning awards and doing great things are immigrants or first-generation, I wonder how long we’ll last if anti-immigration Trumpism gets its way.  
The attacks on New Zealand’s mosques were planned before Trump boasted about the violent potential of his followers, but what he said was sickening: “… I have the support of the police, … the military, … the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” (New Zealand bikers performed a haka to honor their Muslim community.) 
Queen Kellyanne of the Unreachables later pretended, “He was talking about how peaceful and gentle many people are who are otherwise tough.” Yet Trump deleted his tweet referencing it. Why, Kelleyanne? “Shut up and pray,” she told the press. 
An American “president” elbows police, military, and civilians toward violence “at a certain point.” Worse, there are Americans who, rejecting the essence of our republic, love it. Who’ll support America only if it puts aside people who aren’t Christian, heterosexual, white, and, mostly, male. Such toxicity takes nurturing, and not caring by whom, or why.  
The line between here and there isn’t straight, but the White-Power-sign-flashing assassin cited Trump as a hero. So did the murderer of Muslims in Quebec. And the mail-bomb sender. And the Coast Guard would-be terrorist. After the slaughter, Trump offered “Best wishes” to New Zealanders, then said he doesn’t see white nationalism as a problem. Following boilerplate condemnation, he turned to “crimes of all kinds coming across our Southern border.” Of course he sees no problem: white supremacists are the dogs at whom Trump whistles loudest. Formerly decent Republicans shutter their consciences and look away.  
Humanity’s worst had their predictable say: Rush Limbaugh, Trump’s second-favorite liar, called it a “false flag” operation. Fox “news” and their airwave doppelgängers blamed liberals. Praising it with faint damns, right-wingers across the globe and here at home expressed “understanding” of the anger behind the shootings; allowed “the problem” might better have been handled “politically.”  
Trump and his execrable officials, adoring followers, and Congressional white supremacists like Steve King and others may not be directly responsible for murders in mosques. Or synagogues. Or black churches. Or Sikh temples. Or the desecrations. Or the videoed vilifications we see. But they traffic in the same poison. The more they speak, the more those human failings seep from our primeval parts, encouraged intentionally and by dereliction. “This is MAGA country,” a desecrator of Jewish gravestones scrawled, just last weekend. 
White nationalist atavism is increasing. No matter in whose image you believe mankind was created, or under what evolutionary pressures, our species lacks the ability to deal with the problems it has now brought upon itself. Facing dangers everywhere, early humans were instinctive killers. When ancestors discovered the benefits of community, not everyone followed. The paranoia and suspicion that protected them from saber-toothed tigers lost their usefulness. Yet they remain. 
Attacking others for one’s own inadequacies, and the ability to rationalize selfishness when problem-solving requires sacrifices – these weaknesses have long dwelt in our ancient parts. White supremacists, climate-change deniers, and, lately, blamers of the poor for their circumstances in order to justify abandoning them: if the purveyors don’t entirely overlap, they have in common the same residua. Primitive hate exists worldwide, but only our home-grown, right-wing retrogression has the potential to end our democratic republic and render our habitat unlivable. 
Regressives who mock calls for tolerance and for addressing existential problems, if numbering fewer than progressives, have the loudest voices. And, readying for Trump’s “certain point,” they’re armed. As Steve King has reminded us. Potential collapse is hastened by Republicans unwilling to speak out; and by those who like what they see. 
White nationalism, not foreign terrorists, is democracy’s greatest threat. So, by their silence, are its acquiescent enablers. It’s time for Republicans to devolve and try again. Reclaim the humanity they once had. Wrest America’s true greatness back from Trumpism’s empathy-bereft, malevolent bigots. Or acknowledge their complicity.  
[Image source: somewhere on Facebook]

Friday, March 15, 2019

Robots Will Not Replace Us

Here's my upcoming newspaper column:
To benefit humanity, and from the goodness of my liberal, bleeding heart, I answer medical questions on some websites. Of late, many concern “robotic” surgery, about which it’s apparent there’s much misinformation. As it happens, the FDA just warned surgeons to stop going crazy with what they’re doing using robots. So let’s talk about it. 
For general surgeons, robotic surgery is laparoscopy, but cooler. The laparoscopy revolution happened well after I finished my surgical training, so I took courses later. The first, for laparoscopic gallbladder removal, was sponsored by a laser manufacturer; in fact, the procedure was originally called “Laser Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy.” We practiced on pigs (sorry), using both lasers and standard electrocautery. Seeing no advantage to the laser, I asked the sales-guy why anyone should spend fifty grand (back then) on the device. “Because,” he replied, “If people hear you’re not using one, they’ll go elsewhere.” Ah.  
In hospitals across the land, those lasers gather dust, after recognition that, for most operations for which they were purchased and advertised, there was no added benefit. It’s unlikely surgical robots will become electrified dust-bunnies, but, for now, their value is familiarly controversial: multiple studies have found no improvement in outcomes, whereas operative costs increased by several thousand dollars. (Robots cost millions. Attachments add more.) That FDA missive was occasioned by surgeons using robots for mastectomy, raising concerns, because of more restricted view, about leaving critical tissue behind. Having done many mastectomies, I’m concerned, too.  
Evidently, lots of civilians believe robots do the operating, employing extraordinary artificial intelligence. They ask if my profession is threatened, if surgery is better done by robots than humans. So, here’s the deal:  
Robotic surgery was conceived as a way for military surgeons to operate on soldiers near the battlefield, but remotely, from behind the lines. (Not so, of course, for the medics who’d be installing the instruments.) Mechanical arms would move the instruments, controlled from anywhere, wirelessly, even across the internet.  
My analogy: you’re being driven somewhere. The driver is your surgeon, the car is the operating room. With traditional open surgery, the driver sits up front, her hands on the wheel, gearshift, operating all controls directly, looking out the windshield to see the road.  
With laparoscopic surgery, the driver sits in the back seat, controlling the wheel, etc., with long tools, and instead of looking out the window, he’s looking at an image sent from a maneuverable camera on the front of the car to a TV screen, giving a closer, changeable view. 
Also, it’s a minicar.  
In robotic surgery, servos, grabbers, whirring motors, are attached to the controls. That marvelous mass of machinery is being operated by your driver, who’s nowhere to be seen; ensconced, rather, at a console, in the garage, at home, or, truer to the surgery analogy, in a trailer being pulled behind the car, in case of mechanical trouble. She’s got fingers in all sorts of moveable gadgets, her head in a booth at the front of which is a TV screen. The controls of the car are moved by the attachments, but only in response to your driver’s every action, including verbal commands. It’s laparoscopy by remote control and with more agile instruments. The “robot” itself, though, is stupid. Acrobatic, yes. But dumb as a gallstone.  
Robot-assisted abdominal surgery ramped up with prostatectomy and hysterectomy. Surgeons like the view they get, and the un-anatomical movements that are possible using their brilliantly-engineered tools. And it’s fun. Because medicine in the US is a commercial, competitive enterprise, doctors, and especially hospitals, trumpet their use of robotics. As with lasers, patients are impressed, convinced it’s even more “non-invasive” and less dangerous than laparoscopy alone. Futuristic. Magical. Cutting edge, one might say.  
Now, “robots” are employed in ever more complex operations. Also, simple ones: gallbladder removal, hernia repair, for example, adding complexity (setting them up is a big deal). Better results have yet to be demonstrated, compared to standard laparoscopy. Greater expense remains the only consistent finding. But robots market really well. 
Occasionally, robots have been used as imagined, by surgeons remote from the operative location. Having a world-renowned expert available from afar to “do” your operation is rightly appealing. In other situations? We’ll see. No matter what, though, there’s no thinking robot involved. Tender and variable tissues still need human minds. We’re not even at the R2D2 stage, let alone C3PO.
[Image source]

Friday, March 8, 2019

Oversights And Oversight

My next newspaper column:
What an amazing week, the one when Trump’s bone spurs didn’t keep him from Vietnam and Michael Cohen spurred the bones of Trumpworld. Our reprise begins with Trump’s behavior around dictators: 
What world leader takes a high-profile trip across the seas, after his or her people had been working on an important international agreement, without having it nailed down? Or, putting it another way, who but a delusional narcissist would believe his deal-making skills were so phenomenal that he could single-handedly hammer one out, in a day or two, with a murderous dictator known for his creative methods of offing relatives?  
Well, he tried. Called Kim a great leader, a great guy, said they “like each other.” (Last time, it was “fell in love.”) Took his word, that of a malevolent tyrant who surely knows what goes on in his torture chambers, that he, Kim, knew nothing about the merciless, slow assassination of American Otto Warmbier. 
Buttering up the person across the table can be a useful tactic, but this? A despotic starver and punisher of his own people, who demands absolute fealty, on pain of death? Trump also takes Putin’s word over our intelligence agencies’, even as Russia openly called for Kim not to give up his nukes. And Putin’s emissary was in Hanoi. 
Fudging the fiasco, Trump said “walking away” was smart. After such embarrassing failure, it surely was, but it didn’t erase the travesty by which Kim made Trump look weak and ineffectual, lost nothing, and won another cancelation of US-South Korea war games. Last year Trump announced the nuclear threat from NoKo was NoMo: “Sleep better at night,” he beamed. This failure was over denuclearization. Fake news back then, from its primary purveyor. 
After Trump’s decampment, North Korea called him a liar. And we’ve just learned Kim is buffing the missile site he’d promised to dismantle. Played like a janggu.  
On, now, to Michael Cohen, starting with obvious questions for his Republican interrogators: If your point is that he’s a liar, cheat, and felon, what are your thoughts on the man who employed him for a decade? (The RNC did, too, for a while.) Although you never will, is it inconceivable that a person who rolled over for a crook found a conscience? What does Cohen, already heading to federal prison for years, have to gain by lying now? 
Trump called Cohen a rat, possibly ill-advised mob-speak for a guy who squeals. There are prior examples of testimony before Congress from convicted felons that blew doors open on criminal enterprises for which they worked, leading to bipartisan action. But that was when both parties had integrity.  
The extent to which Michael Cohen is deemed credible depends, we know, on one’s political leanings and ability to compartmentalize. For example, Trump bleated that everything Cohen said is a lie except the “no collusion” part. Per usual, Trump was lying about Cohen’s statement, which was not that there was no collusion; only that he’d not witnessed it. Suspected it, though, and provided reasons. 
No Republican attempted to exculpate Trump from Cohen’s disclosures; how could they? For that matter, excepting Justin Amash, none showed a molecule of interest in exploring the possibility of criminal activities by an American “president.” A dais of deplorables, it was.  
How likely is it that Trump’s career as a lying conman, bully, and swindler ended when he took office? It’s public record: Bankruptcies, stiffing contractors. Scam businesses, racist housing policies. Tax evasion, insurance fraud. When his tax records are made public, we’ll understand why he wanted them hidden. 
Because Trump’s crimes are self-evident, Michael Cohen’s testimony was mostly unsurprising, but, in this political climate, it was undeniably brave. What was surprising was the incoherence of Republican inquisitors. Repeating irrelevant questions, cherry-picking the record, flinging discredited falsehoods, they even whined the hearing lasted too long. The guys who chased Hillary Clinton for eight years, whose investigations of Trump when they were the majority were being exposed, before their eyes, as vaporous shams. That week, we saw what Constitutionally-mandated oversight looks like, when the majority and its chairman have rectitude. We’ll see more.  
A constantly lying “president” can’t expect to be believed when he proclaims innocence, nor should he be. So, off he went to CPAC, whipping up resentment, disgorging a record-breaking torrent of lies, spewing unprintable obscenities to the adoring, “conservative,” “family-values,” USA-USA-chanting throng.
[Image source]

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's Not Easy Being Green

My next newspaper column:
Atop the list of ironies soiling our divided political landscape is the right-wing claim that liberals are about “free stuff.” Pegging the irony-meter is their counterfactual assertion that tax cuts pay for themselves, so the nation can have what it needs without paying for it. That “free stuff” corporate tax-avoidance benefits us all. And, because government is the problem, we can ignore increasingly dire problems, cost-free. Market magic will fix them.  
Enter the “Green New Deal,” decidedly not free. From the variety of attacks on it and its primary sponsor, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one concludes it hits a little too close to the foundation of Republicans’ house of cards. “Her apartment is too nice,” they say. “No airplanes! Forced veganism!” they lie. “Communism” and “socialism” come up as often as cheeseburger burps in the Oval Office. 
By some, knowledge is still considered good; those who so wish can read the actual bill here. 
Let’s stipulate that, after the “Whereas-es,” which are factual, the proposals lack detail, even as they imply optimism that our system might still work. Albeit deferring to technological feasibility, its sky remains pied; and although its goals merit thoughtful consideration (a political oxymoron nowadays), it’s too sweeping to have a snowball’s chance in the Senate well. Perhaps, risking enlightenment, climate-change deniers might consider, before responding with the usual “climate has always changed,” and “in the 70’s ‘they’ predicted another Ice Age,” and “carbon-dioxide is good for plants,” and “scientists fake it for grant money,” taking the time, out of self-respect, to search “climate change science” and “debunking climate change denial” before jerking. Their knees. Where’s the harm?  
Blame for climate-change illiteracy doesn’t fall entirely on the amateur denier: they’ve been played for fools by the most expansive and effective disinformation campaign since tobacco producers attempted to hide the dangers of smoking. They’re human, and it’s the exploitable weaknesses of humans that are targeted so precisely by an operation designed to be unrecognized as such by its victims.  
Civilian deniers gain something by remaining misinformed – excuses for not modifying certain behaviors or paying more in taxes – but the Senators (including some Democrats) who refuse to debate the GND have gained much more; receiving, on average, $670,000 apiece from oil and coal companies. Which shows the incline of the uphill battle realists are facing.  
If arguably overreaching, the Green New Deal properly reflects the existential seriousness of climate-change, and the depth and breadth of responses it demands. Moreover, those responses are the opposite of socialism: they’re aimed, among other things, at improving the lot of the workforce, without which the system fails. Good jobs. Workers’ rights. Clean water and air. Healthcare. Infrastructure. Energy-efficient workplaces. The oil of the machinery of capitalism. 
Nearly all Americans benefit from such things. To recognize who doesn’t, namely the oligarchs among us (except that, in the long run, they do), is to understand the reasons for the fierce pushback. Knowing the lengths to which fake news and disinformation are being pushed by the fossil fuel industry and the legislators they own, affords some sympathy for those in their thrall. On the other hand, since the truth is easily obtained by any serious person, and given the cataclysm furthered by continued ostriching, such sympathy is past its shelf life.  
Naïve Ocasio-Cortez may be, but it’s only to the extent that she believes there’s hope that legislators, pushed by enlightened voters (or pushed out by them), can be made to act in the public interest instead of their own. She also presumes enough voters might come to recognize how they’ve fallen for cynically generated fictions. 
Still angry that our government released a factual, dire report on climate change, Trump is trolling for a new group of “scientists” to “reassess” the threat it poses. Among those netted so far is a physicist with no climate science expertise who’s compared attacks on carbon dioxide to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. “Only the best people,” indeed. Unsurprisingly, the group is carefully constructed around avoidance of public disclosure laws. Trump’s swamp has no drain.  
If nothing else, Representative AOC has provided a framework for honest discussion. It falls upon all of Congress and, even more, upon citizens, to acknowledge the reality beyond the lies. The time is now for detoxification from Foxification, and taking actions equal to the enormity of the crisis.
[Image source]

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