Monday, May 25, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Fascinationisms

Each of us has certain matters from the past which fascinate
us as Americans throughout most of our lives.

A great many Americans are fascinated by England, its history,
its legal system, its monarchy (past and present), its aristocracy,
the accents which Britains speak, its heroes (from Richard the
Lionhearted to Winston Churchill), or the grit that the British
population displayed during the first years of World War II.

Some Americans are fascinated by France and its capital Paris,
by French fashions, food, art and the language itself.

Another group of Americans are fascinated by Italy, its food,
its art, its cars and its films.

Other Americans are fascinated by domestic family dynasties,
especially (and curiously) the dysfunctional Kennedy family,
or by movie stars and other celebrities.

Still other Americans are fascinated by imported ideologies
from Europe, including Marxism, social welfarism, climate
changism, and post-modernism.

While some Americans are drawn to foreign ideologies and the
products of other countries, not many Americans want to
change our form of government.

Most persons in the rest of the world are fascinated by the
United States, its inherent history of freedom, its spirit of
innovation and technology, its popular music, its movies
and its past economic success.

The U.S. is still the most imitated nation on earth.

It might be fascinating to ponder that as we mark soon our
239th birthday.

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Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Consequences

Some serious persons, most of them scientists, are now
suggesting a drastic shift in human life in the relatively near
future. These stunning changes include prolonging most
individuals’ lives indefinitely, curing most if not virtually all
human diseases, dramatic changes in everyday uses of
now-common resources, and in daily habits of work, travel
and pleasure.

It needs to be said that scientists have not often had a great
record recently in predicting the future. In fact, those who have
had the best winning hands in forecasting in the past century
have been certain writers, often with little scientific knowledge,
creating (as I have written before) a genre of so-called “science
fiction,” on the printed page and on television and film.

These mind-boggling futuristic anticipations and premonitions
occur at the same time that ancient human “pathologies” of
war, violence, hunger, disease, and premature death recur for
billions of persons on a crowding planet.

Although human invention has been a constant throughout
human history, it has not ever before occurred with such
velocity. Indeed, some very serious persons are suggesting
that our performance of change is now outstripping our
capacity to absorb and integrate changes and their
consequences on the human lives we now lead.

Artificial intelligence (AI) alone gives new meaning to the ancient
notion of a Pandora’s Box. Robotic devices, as only one example,
are clearly advancing human ability to accomplish things while
at the same time, among other consequences, removing the need
for millions, and eventually billions, of human jobs.

Those who are affected most by these emerging conditions are,
of course, the young. Yet the young, on one hand, have little to
say about the development of the innovation, and if history
be a guide, on the other hand, little interest in these innovations
other than for their immediate usage.

The truth is that these circumstances are probably inevitable,
primarily because human life is always primarily an experience
of the present moment. It is only “experience” which teaches
us to think about consequences --- yet “consequences” are
the major issues of innovation and rapid change.

As far as I can see, most of our education systems, already
failing in many ways and places to prepare our children with
basic skills, do very little to equip them for the complicated and
very extraordinary times ahead.

The future, whatever it will be, will not have second thoughts.

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Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


Monday, May 18, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Are UFO's Really All About?

I hope my readers who usually turn to this site for my thoughts
about politics, food, travel and culture are not dismayed to
learn that I am going to write about the so-called UFO
phenomenon (“UFO” as it is traditionally meant to stand for
“unidentified flying objects and possible extraterrestrial life”).

But I suspect that my commentary on this subject might be quite
different from what the reader has read before.

First, on the subject of “life on other planets” or “extraterrestrial
beings” I will not much comment.  I am actually an agnostic or a
skeptic on this matter. With megatrillions of galaxies, stars and
planets in the known and unknown universe, it would seem that
some form of what we call “life” exists in many places, but the
very nature of existence, as we know it now, is rarely logical or
predictable. So far, there is no true evidence of any life elsewhere
in any form. It’s certainly possible, but it might also not be so.

In the past 150 years or so, however, there has been an enormous
amount of speculation that there is some kind of life beyond our
own planet. Most of this began as a literary genre known as “science
fiction” which not only included the interaction of human beings
with extraterrestrial creatures, but also predicted most of the
fantastic advances in human technology.

In the latter case, science fiction has actually been a prophecy of
science fact. Virtually all of the devices and scientific capabilities so
imaginatively created by writers in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries have become, or are becoming, realities in the latter
half of the 20th and the early 21st centuries. Miracle drugs, extended
life spans, incredible speeds of land and space travel, primitive
exploration of “outer” space itself, “ray guns,” the internet,
“miracle” drugs and cures, robots and innumerable devices to
perform innumerable tasks all now exist. Serious persons are now
discussing unlimited lifespans, extraterrestrial human settlements,
life without disease, human civilization without hunger or war, and
other future developments which, while not yet attainable, are no
longer fantasy --- and in fact, seem inevitable and relatively soon.

Several science fiction “creations” with mass appeal have appeared
in recent years. Perhaps the first to notably reach beyond the “cults”
or “fandom” of early readers was the radio broadcast in 1938 of
H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” by Orson Wells during which
millions of Americans across the country were frightened by a
realistic yet fictional account of an invasion in New Jersey by aliens.
Several science fiction books had preceded it and numerous ones
followed it. There had been Buck Rogers, et al, before that and so
many Hollywood sci-fi movies after it.

In recent years, a television series called “Star Trek” (which later
became a series of films), the films "Star Wars" (also a series of
films), “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters Of A
Third Kind” have appeared as iconic cultural moments in the U.S.
and other parts of the world. These four science fictions have
purported to take not only technological prescience to a higher
level, but have employed the art form to at least the pretension of
a philosophical level.

And it is this phenomenon, science fiction as philosophy, that I
want to discuss. In each of "Star Trek,"“Star Wars,” “2001: A
Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters Of A Third Kind” there
are extraterrestrial life forms contacting human beings of the
planet Earth. In “Star Trek" and "Star Wars“ as in many science
fiction stories, past and present, the relationships and issues are
really about earthly relationships and issues of today, and are not
really predictive of what we might discover in the future in outer
space. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was perhaps the most ambitious
effort of the three, attempting to understand human existence in
an ambiguous cause from  some mysterious extraterrestrial source.
Considering that virtually all extraterrestrial encounters in
science fiction for the past century were ominous and threatening,
“Close Encounters Of A Third Kind” was a new attempt to cast the
first meeting between humans and extraterrestrials as positive and
hopeful. Each of these works were immensely entertaining.

None of these three really offer more than a popular and superficial
philosophical idea, but I do suggest that their impact and popularity,
along with the many novels, stories and films which preceded them
are an important cultural development. In fact, all of them as well
as the widely held belief that there is life elsewhere perhaps
represents a profound widespread psychological condition or
awareness that humanity is crossing a kind of threshold which is
dangerous, frightening and problematic.

For most of human history, at least in its past four or five thousand
years, religion served as a universal haven for the anxieties which
arise from what the human mind and experience could not answer.
At first there were multiple gods, then one god, and then various
mass forms of worshiping and understanding the religious deity
which seemed to peak in the 19th century. Many of these religions
exist today, and enjoy the membership of perhaps a majority of
persons worldwide. In most of these religions, there are movements
which attempt to recapture the original fervor of belief, but it is also
evident that for millions of others, religion is a cultural custom more
than a theological one.

As in each step of human development, originally multiple gods and
then a single god figure, a person sought  some understanding and
solace about death and the unknowable mysteries of life from some
external form. As human beings begin to recreate themselves with
computers and machines, and also reach some limits, it is
perhaps only natural that some would posit a new external form  of
explanation and origin.

It would seem mere egotism and species childishness to think that
if some extraterrestrial life form did exist and had the capability to
travel to our little planet, such a life form would have any interest in
interacting with us. There also might be no other life forms in the
universe, or if there are, no way for them to communicate with us
in any form.  As we face profound problems of our own, as a race of
creatures living tenuously on a relatively small planet, perhaps on
the verge of technologically abolishing ourselves, the hope and
promise of some visitors from space coming either to threaten us or
save us, seems a poor substitute for the real challenges we now face.

In a future we now face, it has turned bleaker not from threats from
the stars, but by the persistence of what we continue to visit on
ourselves.

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Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Getting Ahead By Trailing

The way to win a presidential nomination in 2016 might be
to be behind most of the time. It remains to be seen if this
notion will prove to be true this cycle, but there are signs it
could be the ultimate strategy.

Certainly, the earliest frontrunners in the nomination races
of both major parties are in some jeopardy, especially in the
Republican race at this time. Former Florida Governor Jeb
Bush filled the vacuum from pre-campaign favorite New
Jersey Governor Chris Christie when the latter faded
following controversies in the Garden State. Then, one by
one, new major entries, including Wisconsin Governor
Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, soared to
the top of some polls. With Ohio Governor John Kasich, not
yet announced, already announced Texas Senator Ted Cruz,
and unannounced Kentucky Senator Rand Paul with apparent
potential to go high in the polls. a number of other GOP
hopefuls, including Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry,
Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee also have notable potential.
Considering his charisma, it is easy to see that Mr. Christie
might make a comeback after the presidential debates begin.
In fact, his dip in the polls and public attention might be the
biggest break he receives in his as yet unannounced run for
the presidency (as he is given time to repair his public image).
This is reminiscent of the 2012 GOP nomination contest when
virtually all of the major candidates, at one time or another,
led in the polls until Mitt Romney, the early favorite, won at
the end.

On the Democratic side, former First Lady Hillary Clinton has
led throughout the earliest phase of the campaign, but has
faced relentless criticism and controversy. Her poll numbers
continue to decline in spite of a furious effort by her friends
and supporters to maintain her as the prohibitive favorite.
With minor announced or likely opposition including former
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator
Bernie Sanders, Mrs. Clinton remains substantially ahead, but
that could easily change if some or all more formidable
opponents, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren,
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Minnesota Senator
Amy Klobuchar, entered the race later in 2015. The commonplace
comparison here is not with 2012, but with 2008 when Mrs.
Clinton was also far ahead until the primary/caucus season began.

I know I have written on this theme before, but repetition does
serve the reader an important purpose, I think. at this very early
stage when poll numbers are almost irrelevant, and so little is
known about the chemistry of the nomination contests when the
candidates have to face each other in television debates and on the
actual primary/caucus campaign trail.

My point is that 2016 might not resemble either 2008 or 2012, or
any other recent presidential cycle. Nor might the usual standards
for predicting outcomes apply, including early fundraising prowess,
name recognition, and poll numbers. With an open contest in both
parties, a potentially new electoral college map, deep nationwide
anxiety about unemployment, growth, national security and the
nation’s role in the world, I suggest that smug predictions about
final outcomes in November, 2016 are incredibly risky in May,
2015. Not only that, I suggest, whether we like it or not, the
current state of political indecision is likely going to persist
throughout the next several months, especially over the summer.

This will not prevent, of course, endless speculation provoked
by meaningless polls, quickly-forgotten incidents, candidate
media-determined flubs, and ponderous comparisons with past
cycles by various pundits and commentators, myself included.

It’s a good time, however, to take nothing for granted.

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Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 8, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Upset In Britain (update)

With final vote returns counted, the upset in the
British elections was big and historic as the
Conservative (Tory) Party, led by Prime Minister
David Cameron, won a clear majority of seats in
parliament. Cameron will no longer need to form
a coalition to run the government.

Virtually all opinion polls and most of the English
commentators had predicted a close race, however,
between the Tories and the leftist Labour Party.
Predictions that the Liberal Party, a partner in the
current government with the Conservatives, and
led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, would
lose most of their 58 seats, turned out to be true,
as did the prediction that the Scottish National
Party (SNP) would sweep the election in Scotland
at the expense of Labour. Anticipation that the 
rightist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), led by
Nigel Farage, would receive 20% or more of the vote,
and deny the Conservatives any gains, did not take
place as UKIP won less than 13% of the vote and
only one member of parliament. But UKIP was
successful in moving Cameron to a more euroskeptic
direction.

In the wake of the results, Mr. Milliband, Mr.
Clegg and Mr. Farage each have resigned as leaders
of their parties.

The leader of the SNP had said the Scottish M.P.s
would join with Labour to “shut the Conservatives
out,” but this offer was obviously now moot.

In a pattern similar to both the domestic and
international press coverage of the recent Israeli
elections, most of the domestic British media and
pollsters, as well as much of the international media,
had it very wrong about the electorate. Considering
that most of this media is biased to the left, this
emerging pattern is no surprise. U.S. media also
underestimated the size and scope of the Republican
victories in the 2014 U.S. mid-term elections.

Voters in North America and Europe, however, seem
to be ignoring media commentators, and resisting
accurate polling. An egregious example in the British
election was, despite one set of exit polls showing
the Tories doing better than expected, the pro-Labour
London Mirror newspaper insisted (an hour after
voting ended) that their exit polls showed the popular
vote to be close and the Tories far short of a majority.
(There must be some red faces at the Mirror this
morning. Pun applicable?)

Two notable Tory winners were charismatic London
Mayor Boris Johnson (a possible future prime
minister) and Bill Cash, the long-serving M.P. who is
a leader of the U.K. euroskeptics who oppose the
political unionization of Europe. Mr. Cameron had
promised a national vote on European Union (EU)
membership before the election, and now that vote
will take place. Both the Labour and Liberal Parties
are pro-EU, but each of those parties were badly
defeated in this election.

One of the consequences of the British election,
therefore, will be the probable necessity of new
concessions from EU countries to try to avoid a
“no” vote in the United Kingdom on its continued
membership.

Milliband and his Labour Party had campaigned
promising higher taxes for wealthy Britons and
increased government social spending. This was
clearly rejected by UK voters at the end of the campaign.

Actual control of the British parliament requires
323 votes (since five M.P.’s traditionally don’t vote),
not an absolute majority. With at least 330 seats
won, and new much tighter rules for dissolving the
parliament, Mr. Cameron and his party are likely
to be in charge for the next five years.

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Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.



Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: An Upset In Britain

Only about a two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the 2015
British elections have been decided, but all indications
are that the ruling Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister
David Cameron, is heading for a major and historic upset over
the Labour and Liberal Parties.

Opinion polls right up to election day had predicted a very
close election, with the possibility of Labour, under its lead Ed
Milliband, taking over the government. Media commentators
had frequently suggested that the Tories (Conservatives) had
failed to persuade U.K. voters to return them to office.

The voters have proved the pollsters and commentators wrong.

It is not only a bad night for the leftist Labour Party, but for the
moderate left of center Liberal Party, under Deputy Prime
Minister Nick Clegg, which had formed a coalition with the
Conservatives five years ago when they won 58 seats. Indications
are that the Liberals will win only about 10 seats this year. A big
winner tonight is also going to be the leftist Scottish National
Party (SNP) which is likely to win more than 50 seats. Virtually
all of their gains will come at the expense of Labour. UKIP, a far
right protest party, got a sizable number of votes, but less than
expected, and is expected to win only very few seats.

The major suspense  of the night  is whether, when all the votes
are counted, will the Conservatives have an outright majority in
the parliament, and thus not have to form any coalitions to control
the government. The SNP leader had offered to form a coalition
with Labour to block Cameron’s return to office, but Milliband
vowed not to accept their help. The deal now seems moot.

It will take 323 seats for effective control the parliament.
Projections early in the evening suggest the Tories will win
310-325 seats. In any event, David Cameron is expected to be
asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form the next government.

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Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


[UPDATES WILL BE POSTED IN THE MORNING]

Sunday, May 3, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: It's More Unsettled Than You Think

The major party nominations for president in 2016 are far from
settled, probably more unsettled than most political observers
now think --- about 14 months before the Democratic and
Republican national conventions.

On the Republican side, the field is getting larger with some
potentially serious --- and unexpected --- entrants, including
California business executive Carly Fiorina and Ohio Governor
John Kasich. Conventional wisdom until now was that only
former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott
Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio could win the
nomination. But early frontrunner Jeb Bush has failed to take a
commanding lead, surprise subsequent frontrunner Scott Walker’s
momentum has slowed, and Marco Rubio’s strong initial entry has
waned for the time being. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an
earlier frontrunner, has fallen back in the wake of controversies,
although he remains a potentially formidable candidate once the
presidential debates begin. Other major figures could still enter
this race.

The good news for the GOP, in fact,  is that they have so many
aspirants with political talent and serious credentials for the
presidency.

On the Democratic side, the once presumptive nominee, Hillary
Clinton, is having critical problems with her quest for her party’s
nomination. Most of these problems arise from the sobering fact
that she is a mediocre campaigner and communicator at best, and
that her long public exposure as first lady, U.S. senate and U.S.
secretary of state is laden with numerous controversies. The bad
news for the Democrats has been that, until now, there have been
few credible alternatives to Mrs Clinton. That could change soon,
perhaps even as early as this summer, if Massachusetts Senator
Elizabeth Warren, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar enter the race.

Conventional wisdom about presidential races usually focuses on
fundraising prowess and high early poll numbers. But the staggering
new forms of social and broadcast media have changed the old and
limited forms of raising campaign funds and of obtaining name
recognition. Republican Scott Walker’s recent meteoric rise was an
example of this political change. A similar phenomenon could take
place if Democrat Amy Klobuchar, for example, announced for
president, or if Republican Carly Fiorina’s campaign catches on.

The 2016 cycle is one without an incumbent running for president.
The man who is now the incumbent, Barack Obama, has struggled
for popular support since his re-election in 2012, and like his
predecessor , George W. Bush, finishes his second term with
considerable voter “fatigue” for his performance. The U.S. has
become defensive and wary in its foreign policies, and faces huge
challenges to its preeminence in global economic power. Domestic
unrest has recently emerged again, and the economic recovery has
seemingly stalled as real unemployment remains high. All of this
uncertainty now leads to a national election in 2016.

I caution that it is still much too soon to predict the full dimensions
of the next presidential election. Although it still might be a race
between a Clinton and a Bush, there are increasing signs that the
ultimate “deciders” in this matter, i.e., the voters, might have
some other names on their minds.

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Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.