The Rise of Two Demagogues

I heard a story about someone comparing Donald Trump’s tactics to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany after the First World War. These remarks provoked a heated response. After all, Trump is not proposing concentration camps. No. And he is not proposing an invasion of Canada or Mexico either. But then, at the outset, Hitler did not propose death camps for the Jews or an aggressive territorial war either.

He began his involvement in politics while serving as a spy for the German army after the war. He was sent to report on an anti-Marxist, anti-democratic party called the DAP. He was immensely impressed by the anti-semitic rhetoric of the leader. Eventually he obtained permission to join the party from his Army commanders and became a leader in what was to become the National Socialist Party. Not fearing to use violence, the party agitated constantly until finally Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after having been elected by democratic vote.

Trump of course had a very different history. He never joined the army. He parlayed a large inheritance into a fortune in real estate, while going bankrupt several times. He contributed money to politicians of all persuasions, including Hillary Clinton. He did not formally join the Republican Party until 2012. When he began his campaign for President this year, he did it with a bang, attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers”, while allowing smugly that some were probably “good people.” He then proposed a program to expel all illegal immigrants and build a physical wall on the border with Mexico to shut down the flow of these people into the United States. Later, he added to his list of the proscribed by proposing a ban on the entry of Muslims into the country. Really, here the comparison with Hitler stands up pretty well. Just substitute Jews for Mexicans or Muslims in Trump’s rhetoric and you have a plausible Hitler quotation.

The comparison is inexact. But the parallel of racism is unmistakable.

Look Who’s Back

I happened to come across the movie “Look Who’s Back” on Netflix the other day. Over the course of a few days I watched it, in little snatches, not because I did not have enough time for a single sitting but because I found it hard to take for more than a few minutes.

Here is a Wikipedia article on the movie, which is based on a best-selling book “Er Ist Wieder Da” that appeared in Germany in 2014.

The premise of the story is that Hitler wakes up suddenly at the site of the bunker where he committed suicide in 1945, now a quiet residential neighborhood. A TV reporter doing a program on kids captures video of Hitler at a distance and later, after closely examining his video, goes back in search of the man. We have no idea how, but Hitler has come back some 70 years later, not having aged, but having missed everything in between. He brings himself up to date hanging out in a newspaper kiosk for a few days. The TV reporter finds him there and takes him on a tour to make a documentary. The film proceeds much like a documentary. Some people think he is a comedian or street performer and want to take selfies with Hitler, a few are outraged. But the documentary is a big hit and Hitler becomes a TV star on a show called “Whoa Dude”. But I don’t want to spoil it for you. Watch the movie or read the book – it is available in English. See if you don’t recognize the style.

Odds on Hillary

We were having lunch with friends and I mentioned that these days we have to be careful. We have both friends and family who are for Bernie. Well, as I learned, these friends were also for Bernie. One of them pointed out that in New York Bernie got 100 delegates. Ah yes, it is proportional, true enough. We went on to talk of other things.

Still, Hillary got more delegates. What is likely to happen?

To figure out the polls, I usually go to Nate Silver and colleagues are usually right about the likelihood of victory in upcoming primaries. The data for the primaries are easily accessible on the website. I checked, and Hillary is a heavy favorite in all those where they have made an estimate. In each of those she has better than an 87% chance of victory. There are not enough data on New Jersey yet, but Hillary is still ahead of Sanders there, by several percentage points. So it is really unlikely that Sanders will be gaining more delegates than Hillary in the remaining primaries. Since there are no other candidates, she will likely be the winner.

Still, Nate Silver is not giving out estimates of the probability of anyone getting the nomination of their party right now. For that, you have to look at the wagering odds, which are a little hard to translate into probabilities. Right now, according to one of these sites, you would have to bet $2500 on Hillary to win $100 from a well informed bookie. In other words he will not give you favorable odds, because he thinks Hillary is very likely to win. As for the even more remote general election, you still would have to bet $200 now to win $100 after Hillary wins the election. If you bet $100 on Trump now, you would win $175 from the bookie if Trump wins. You have to pay the bookie way more money to get him to bet against Hillary than Trump. Betting odds are not readily translated into mathematical probabilities because they are arranged so the bookie makes money no matter how the bets go. Still, the message this sends is that Hillary is going to win the election.

Of course none of this has anything to do with arguments about policy or ideology. It is the science of public opinion.

The New York Primary

Hillary is the winner in the New York primary on the Democratic side. With a double-digit spread, it looks like tremendous victory for her.

On the other hand Donald Trump has an even bigger victory on the Republican side.

The speech he gave was a vapid, 10 minute “thanks” with no substance; Hillary’s on the other hand was a general election campaign speech with specific policies and vignettes, including a touching one about the daughter of the Sandy Hook school principal who died defending her students.

If, as seems almost certain, she is the nominee, Hillary would clean Trump’s clock again and again. The Republicans’ only hope is to prevent his nomination. It is looking as if they cannot do so.



I’m for Hillary

For a while now I have been supporting Hillary with a monthly donation. I began that when she was sky-high in the polls, and despite the addition of Bernie Sanders to the competition, I have kept doing so, and have not sent money to other candidates for President.

Hillary has taken a beating from Republicans and the Press, which is nothing new. They have been tough on her for a long time. I do not care to go into theories about why this is the case. I never got the Republicans’ virulent hatred of Bill, much less the facile transfer of this to Hillary. The controversies about Benghazi and the email server are just the latest expressions of this, without any real importance in comparison to the policy issues relevant to governing the country.

But I do have my reasons for supporting Hillary over Bernie, and of course for supporting either over any Republican.

Hillary is serious. She is very bright and she works hard. The policies she advocates are good for America. Hillary has a depth of experience of the executive branch of the federal government that is unrivaled by any other candidate.

There is a tremendous amount at stake in the coming election. A Republican in the White House would be a complete disaster for anyone who believes in a sane foreign policy and a decent way of life for all citizens. The Republicans would slash Social Security, health care, scientific research, and efforts to combat climate change, all in order to cut taxes that would disproportionately benefit their wealthy supporters. They would squander money and lives on further military adventures in the Middle East and maybe even Eastern Europe. Some of them would begin a campaign to demonize and expel undocumented immigrants rather than find a pathway for their assimilation. The prospect of Republicans running the government is truly appalling.

I would support any Democrat who got the nomination to defeat the Republicans. But I don’t think Bernie Sanders, as an avowed and admitted socialist, has the remotest chance of winning the election should he get the nomination.

Clear Evidence that Fossil Fuel Has Earth in a Slow Burn

There is a certain genre of argument, common to creationists and climate science deniers: to address evolution or human-caused climate change as if they were just hypotheses or even conspiracies.  

   As proof they cite a famous scientist, who, having reached a certain age and level of notoriety, feels no compunction about stepping outside of his area of expertise and holding forth on the subject. Often it is a physicist or, sorry to say, an engineer. The “expert” often will isolate some minor puzzling observation and blow it up to the proportion of a game-changing criticism, or   sometimes issue a wholesale denial of the consensus in the field.

   There is nothing wrong with writing about stuff outside one’s field of expertise (this article is itself an example). The important thing is to offer a logical argument instead of merely appealing to authority or to the assumed virtue of iconoclasm.

   In the Sept. 9 edition of the Times Union, James Shapiro,   citing the physicist Freeman Dyson, took exception to the opinion of the editor, Rex Smith, that Galileo would have supported 95 percent of actively publishing climate scientists, who say that the Earth is getting warmer and that this is due to the burning of fossil fuel. To Shapiro this is a dogmatic and religious position, and Galileo would not support it. Instead he would insist on   stringent tests.

   It’s only fair to accept the notion that Galileo, if aware of the issue, would have an opinion. Attempting to channel Galileo, I conjured the following:

   What nonsense. The climate scientists are on the money here. But in one respect, Shapiro does speak the truth, for I do insist on stringent testing and reasoning.     When I was alive, of course, I had never heard of carbon dioxide, radioactive dating, greenhouse effects, and the like (nor did I know modern English, but I digress).

   Back to climate change. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see how the theory of climate change holds up. What do the data show? As I found from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report and research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels are rising, due to the melting of ice in Antarctica and the thermal expansion of the water; glaciers are melting all over the Earth; direct measurements of air and sea temperature have   risen; the list could go on.

   So there is no real doubt that the planet is getting warmer. Which is odd, because based on the glaciation cycle, the Earth should be cooling about now.

   Since the late19th century we have known that carbon dioxide and some other gases retain radiative energy and release it as heat. Thanks to many independent researchers, we know that the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from 180 ppm around 1900 to about 400 ppm today. Inventories of fuel combustion show that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuel is sufficient to explain this rise in concentration. Independently of this, we know that the oil and coal we burn have very little carbon–14. Most carbon is carbon-12, which is stable, but carbon-14 is radioactive and present in trace amounts.   This element is produced all the time in the upper atmosphere and there is — and always has been — a little of it in the carbon dioxide consumed by plants. So plants, and the animals that eat them, contain a small amount of this radioactive carbon-14. It is in the same proportion as in the atmosphere. When they die, they stop accumulating new carbon and the proportion of carbon-14 immediately starts to decline because of radioactive decay. Half of it decays to nitrogen-14 every 5,700 years or so.

   That’s a long time, but way less than millions of years. The decay of carbon-14 is the basis of radioactive carbon dating, used in archaeology to date moderately old campsites, mummies and the like. The remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago, which are now coal, oil and gas, no longer   have a significant amount of carbon-14. If the coal, oil and gas we burn are responsible for the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then the relative proportion of carbon-14 in the atmosphere should be declining as this very old carbon-12 continues to build up. Climate scientists have documented this decline, in agreement with the prediction from inventories.

   This is the essence of scientific thinking — the quantitative verification of a prediction by independent evidence.

   So despite Shapiro, Dyson and other self-styled skeptics, the evidence is in. Climate change is real, and it is due to human burning of fossil fuel.

   Personally, I don’t care, because I am already dead. Still, it would be a shame if the whole planet were taken over by insects.

This article appeared in the Albany Times Union, September 16, 2015


Faith vs Fact

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago, has written a new book, “Faith vs Fact” (Viking, 2015). He explains his reason for writing by noting that, despite copious evidence for evolution, large numbers of people, even when familiar with the evidence; refuse to accept it, essentially for religious reasons. He begins by noting that there is a widespread perception of a conflict between religion and science, citing 1) the avalanche of books claiming, in contradictory ways, that the two are compatible; 2) the high proportion of scientists who are atheists, especially among members of the National Academies; 3) laws privileging faith over science such as in the medical treatment of children; and 4) pervasive belief in creationism.

He is very careful to specify what he means by “religion” and “incompatibility”, relying on dictionary definitions of these terms, but explicitly excluding some specific religions that make few or no claims about reality. He takes religion to mean those belief systems, as practiced by the majority of their adherents, that depend on faith and that make claims about the world; and by incompatibility he means essentially discordance, an inability to work together toward a common result in a routine way.

In this work Coyne shows that he belongs in the company of such modern authors as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, but he also cites earlier writers such as Robert Ingersoll, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Bertrand Russell. He points out that what distinguishes those modern writers from earlier writers is the observation that religion routinely makes pronouncements about reality that are testable. Not surprisingly, in every case, the tests find the predictive capability of religion lacking. The most famous examples are controlled double-blind studies showing no effect of prayer on healing the sick.

He cites Carl Sagan’s example of the dragon in the garage (published in Varieties of Scientific Experience, 2006) to show that in science when evidence that should exist on the basis of an hypothesis is not found, the hypothesis is abandoned until further data can be obtained: Suppose somebody tells you there is a dragon in his garage. You ask to see the dragon’s footprints but he explains there are none because the dragon floats; likewise you cannot feel the fire of the dragon’s breath because it is a cold fire. You conclude that there really is no dragon. Religion is like the story of the dragon in the garage.

Coyne remarks on the fact that no amount of evidence will force believers to abandon certain tenets of their faith. And if they do abandon some element of their faith they find a way to save the authority of religion on the point, such as the idea that evolution was just God’s way of creating life. This inherent difference in method has profound consequences according to Coyne. It is incontestable that science works to produce amazing results, and he cites numerous examples, such as the doubling of human life expectancy since 1800. Mainstream religion, however, has made no advances. The ancient texts on which it relies do not show any knowledge of reality apart from what was known to the ancient world, religious or not. This is not to say that the religious domain is static. The examples of Scientology and Mormonism show how weak evidence in the hands of a charlatan can produce a new religion that can attract significant numbers of believers, even today. The suggestion is that mainstream religions might have gotten started in similar fashion. The extent to which mainstream religions have changed for the better is largely attributable to their grudging and belated acceptance of progress in the secular world, due for the most part to science. Most importantly, religion has made no progress on the main problem: the existence of gods. Religion has not produced better information on this than the ancients possessed. Science on the other hand has done extremely well without invocation of gods in explaining phenomena that it wants to study, and has consistently produced novel and useful results.

Coyne writes that faith, whether based on religion or some other premise, is harmful, and we should stop admiring people noted for their faith. He distinguishes faith as the acceptance of propositions despite the lack of evidence, as opposed to confidence in science, which is based on the results of verifiable experience, observation and analysis. One of the most telling examples comes close to the end of the book, where he describes the case of a girl named Ashley King who was discovered by concerned neighbors to have a large tumor on her leg. Her parents were Christian Scientists and refused to seek or permit medical treatment for her. The girl died in agony. Her chances of surviving would have been about 50 or 60% if she had gotten prompt medical help. Her parents were later convicted of reckless endangerment but exhibited no remorse and received only the mildest of punishments. Coyne points out that in many states in the USA, laws minimize consequences for many crimes if they are committed for religious reasons.

A world without faith might scare some people, but Jerry Coyne is not among them. He points out the example of Northern Europe, where most people are non-believers, and the societies are functioning quite well, by many measures better than the United States.

Coyne’s tone is anecdotal, sometimes quite personal. He describes the “aha” moment when he realized that presentation of evidence on evolution was woefully inadequate to the task of convincing the average American. After he had given a lecture at a businessmen’s luncheon in a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of the audience shook his hand and said he found the evidence convincing but because of his religion he still did not believe in evolution. It was then that Coyne realized that religious faith was a formidable obstacle to acceptance of evolution. Another example: he admits not having had a very extensive training in religion, but still describes the moment when he realized that he did not believe what little he had received while he was listening to the Beatles’ recording “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The one quibble I have relates to his repeated resort to a rhetorical device in lieu of a citation. For example he described religionists’ claims that certain scientific tests that prove the inefficacy of prayer are themselves invalid, (“God cannot be tested”). He says then that if the results had been to show an effect it would have been fine with them. He sometimes gives an example after such remarks, but often does not. It is not that he is necessarily mistaken in assuming the likelihood of such a reaction, but in a work of persuasion, assumptions are not good evidence.

This book is a rational and scholarly work, rich with insight into one of the thorniest problems in our public life. I recommend  this book to anyone who is willing to look at the issue with an open mind. Believers might find it rough going, because religion as a “way of knowing” comes off poorly here.

Beach Bush, Sullivan’s Island

I took this picture with an Iphone in January 2015 on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, not far from the distinctive round beach house on the ocean side.

Beach Bush, Sullivan's Island

I was amazed at the detail that came out when I had a 20 x 30 inch print made – so much so that I had it framed. It is now hanging in our living room with a frame by Morningside Gallery.

A Family Gathering

Hello everyone,


Here are some shots I took the day of Betty’s funeral.

IMG_1758 IMG_1756 IMG_1755 IMG_1754 IMG_1753 IMG_1752 IMG_1750

Sorry I could not get everybody! Not enough time, as we had to go back so soon after the services.

About France

I have read about a couple of authors who have characterized the French as being disappointed and discouraged. The theory is that the idea of France as a leader of civilized life has suffered a check. The idea is that the French are envious of the role that English plays in today’s world.

I hope that this is not true. For I have to say that what I find in France quite contradicts this. I have always found, in every part of that country that I have visited over the last twenty years, a proud people, very welcoming of me and my wife, whatever our competence in their language might be. (Believe me, for myself in the beginning it was quite negligible. In Montpellier in 1995 I was proud of being asked, by two young girls, what time of the day it was – even though the only thing I could do to answer was show them the face of my watch)!

We have visited Paris most often. This is a beautiful city, human in scale in a way that New York is not, which I admire. (There are too many skyscrapers already, so bless the Parisians for saying no more Montparnasse Towers)! In Paris, for us, there have been really very few problems. Most of the people we have to do business with speak better English than we do French. But when they get the idea that we want to speak their language, they are perfectly willing to do that too. That to me is gracious, even magnanimous. And we find that routine. There have been almost no occasions when a French person deliberately made us feel like foreigners.

We spent time in the Dordogne, near Sarlat, a part of the country that I compare to the Adirondack Park in my state of New York – but with much better wine. Another time we stayed in Menton, on the south coast, where we were traveling as members of a chorus, close to Italy but not really tempted to go there, for the city itself was sufficiently interesting. We drove through the mountains, along the Gorge de Verdon, to the beautiful village of Moustiers-St Marie, where countless visitors since the Middle Ages have made their pilgrimage. This village depends now on tourism, but it has a rich cultural and craft history. The people there were very welcoming. I could go on for all the parts of France we have visited, from Normandy to Strasbourg, from Sancerre to Tours. Everywhere we met only kindness and interest in our well-being.

There was a time in Sancerre when we were attending a language course at the Ecole de langues. My wife had a problem with her eyesight. The course director sent us to her own general practitioner who quickly referred us to a specialist in a nearby town. We went there by cab, and the driver waited in town for us to finish our business, and brought us back. We got excellent medical care, even though we were foreigners. I can hardly imagine the same good fortune happening to any tourist in my country.

Once we were in Rheims, and undecided about lunch, we bought some wine and charcuterie, and went to a local park to have a picnic. Our surroundings were clean and pleasant, and we had a wonderful time. Again, in my country, this little adventure would not have been possible. There would have been a lot of trash, and unpleasant people in the area.

We rent cars in France and travel on the AutoRoutes. The roadside Aires are magnificent by comparison with those in the USA; the road surfaces are smooth, the traffic is well-regulated, the trucks have to travel slower than anybody else. All of these things are worse in the USA than in France.

When we visit museums in France we find almost every time a class of students, led by their teachers, being instructed in the arts and history of their country. Generally this does not happen in America. If the French complain about their education system, imagine what they would say if they lived in New York.

My father’s tomb is at the military cemetery in Colleville, on the Normandy coast. We have often seen classes of students, led by their teachers, visiting the cemetery, and learning about the recent history of this part of their country. After seeing this I do not listen to people who make disparaging remarks about France.

We can only spend a few weeks at a time in France. To keep up our skills in the language, we take part in a literature group and a conversation group, each of which meets once a month. I have become a reader of French literature, particularly late 19th and early 20th century works. I see in this the origin of many of our cultural memes. The ideas that founded our country come in large part from the work of 18th century French writers. We cannot forget the support of the French in our own founding as a nation. Likewise, the works of many modern French writers and authors fascinate millions of Americans. What happens in French politics shows up on our TV. So, even though we speak English here, we owe a lot to French ideas, and we care about what happens there.

So, to my friends in France, not numerous but well -loved I say, forget about disappointment. You have a great country, and we still have a lot to learn from the way you do things.

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