George Sarant

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THE US MIDTERM ELECTION RESULTS

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The general consensus, even among hostile media, is that the midterm election results went relatively well for Trump and the Republicans, due largely to an increased majority in the Senate, and a less-than-disastrous loss of the House, particularly in historical terms.  While there is some truth to this, a look under the hood for a more detailed analysis of the results shows some problematic conditions for Republicans. 

First, there is a fairly widespread pattern in the margins of victory across the board. In Democratic Party dominated “blue” states the Democratic candidates won by very large, landslide margins. In contrast, in too many Republican-leaning “red”states the victory margins were much thinner, sometimes razor-thin. That ought to set off alarm bells, particularly where the margins have been narrowing, as it suggests a potential transition of the state to a more competitive status, if not towards the other party. This applies to both the House and Senate (Governorships are more fluid due to state and local conditions). It means that Democrats are more competitive in “red” states than Republicans are in “blue” states. 

Second, Republican congressional losses were concentrated in the suburbs, once the base of the party. It is possible that many of these seats can be regained in subsequent elections, as long as they remain “swing” districts, but others are slipping away. The present political landscape makes it easier for Democrats to make incursion in Republican territory than the reverse.

Third, Republicans cannot count on the Democrats to self-destruct. Although the “resistance” and the far-Left have gotten a great deal of attention, that does not translate into public support. But Democrats played it smart in this election by fielding a large number of center-moderate candidates, including a significant number of veterans. They avoided identity politics and other assorted evils previously foisted upon us. This enabled them to win swing and Republican-leaning districts. If the Democrats follow this strategy in the next presidential election it will become a very difficult contest for Trump and the Republicans. 

On this basis it is fair to say that most Americans are, for the most part, terminally moderate. The idea that the country is “deeply divided” is an illusion that many have been sold on by the media.   “Division” is inherent in democracy. On almost any question there is going to be a majority and a minority, resulting in a division of the house to resolve a question. There may be intense divisions between activist minorities on both sides, but it is a mistake to conflate this with the pubic at large. For all the ideological noise, elections are often decided at the last minute by votes cast by people who are oblivious, disengaged, and uncommitted. For most people have a life outside of politics, where they pursue a myriad of interests, and seldom identify intensely with any political cause.  

Written by georgesarant

November 9, 2018 at 9:03 PM

Notes From Vienna

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I’ve been away from everything on another trip to Europe, this time to Austria and parts of Germany. I didn’t turn on a TV or go online for anything other than travel information so as to maintain the feeling of immersion in the marvelous  17th, 18th, and 19th century architecture of Vienna.  Virtually every building is adorned with statuary and/or some kind of decorative carving. The palaces are gorgeous, and everything is super-clean. Coming back to New York “Pothole” City reminded me that I didn’t encounter a single road defect over a few thousand miles there and I am still baffled why the roads are so much better in Europe. 

Vienna was once the seat of a great central European empire and looks it. It lasted about six centuries under the enduring Habsburgs until the terrible catastrophe of World War I, which it was central to (recall it was the Austrian Arch-Duke’s assassination in Sarajevo that triggered the war).  One hundred years ago it was at the center of world history; but today when making travel arrangements I have to repeat over and over that I’m going to Austria, not Australia, or Vienna, not Viet Nam. 

The city is central to classical music and nothing else comes close. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and many others either came or did their most important work here. Classical music is still vital to the city and there are always concerts in many facilities. Evenings we went to concerts at four different venues, as well as one by candlelight in Salzburg, where sneakers and jeans are not allowed and jackets are encouraged. All inevitably end with the hand-clapping Radetsky March, which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever watched the New Year’s concert that is widely broadcast on TV. We also visited the Spanish Riding School with the Lipizzan horses because my wife wanted to; I found it terminally boring. 

German is the primary language, but everyone speaks English and this is one place where no one will take offense if you address them in English. Overall the city reminds me most of better-known Paris, in terms of beauty and livability, although it has its own ambiance and doesn’t have some of the current problems of the French capitol. To put it another way, on the hurried and harried scale of 1 to 10, New York is a 10;  while Vienna is barely a 2.  No one will raise and eyebrow if you spend much of the day reading a paper at one of the numerous coffee houses.

Apart from other cities we also drove into Germany to visit castles, but were really taken aback by the stunning Bavarian countryside which is incredibly well-ordered and spotless. Farm after farm was full of cows; indeed more than I’ve ever seen anywhere in the US. We spent a night by Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle which was swarming with busloads of tourists despite being in the middle nowhere, before heading back into Austria. 

The only mishap was that one day before leaving I happened to get hit by a car; a car I was driving, (which is too complicated to try and explain here), so I was hobbling around after that. It was painful but without serious damage and I am okay now. 

As an alternative to the Paris-Rome-London circuit I recommend visiting this welcoming city. They sell a pass that is an incredible bargain that gets you admission into just about everything. The tourist traffic otherwise seems to consist mostly of classical music lovers from Asian countries, who have a far greater appreciation of western art these days than we do, which says something about us. 

Written by georgesarant

October 26, 2018 at 6:15 PM

JOURNEY THROUGH WATERFALLS IN WESTERN NEW YORK

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June 2, 2018 at 9:17 PM

ARE WE REALLY “DEEPLY DIVIDED?”

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We are not as divided as some commentators assume. To be sure there are political differences, but those differences are most intense among the people (around 20%) who regularly follow politics. An even smaller number are passionate partisans. Most others are pretty apolitical and more attuned to the day to day life around them, which may turn out to be the more sensible use of one’s limited lifespan.

There are always divisions of opinion about any topic you can think of, i.e. sports, music, movies, tv, hobbies, local organizations, which way the toilet paper roll should face, etc., etc. In fact those other things are what life is really about, and people who may be at loggerheads politically nevertheless share common ground in many other areas, while their political cousins may be oblivious to, or on another side in different areas.

The people who fret most about “division” are themselves frequently part of the problem, although to them it is  those other people who don’t see things the right way. It is only possible to buy into the idea of deep division if you believe that everything in life is political. There is some of that on all sides, but it is especially pronounced on the Left (as distinct from “liberal” in this case), where true believers don’t see any distinction between the political and the social, which in turn then applies to state and society. To them everything is political, and they take the measure of things through an ideological continuum. They inject politics into all aspects of life, ruining much of it for everyone else. Ironically they are the gift that keeps on giving for the Right, for they engender far more annoyance than sympathy. That is why personally I am not so much “Right” as I am anti-Left, for the reasons indicated above.

Excess political passion is like a social disease. The fundamental basis of any ideology is virtually always irrational because its foundation can be distilled to a hierarchy of values. Values are what’s left when we can’t agree on the facts. A civilized society can address many problems based upon a common understanding of the facts, which at any given moment are true or false, and involve some degree of rational resolution. But why doesn’t everything work this way? It is because the remainder are based not on facts, but values.

Society functions because there is a common consensus regarding the way many things work. We can agree on the time of day, or turning right when the sign points that way, or noise coming from some direction, but not whether it is good or bad, because that involves a value judgement.  When division of opinion occurs that is based upon values, or where a particular value belongs in the hierarchy, there is no obvious, easy rational solution and because of that we have conflict. Then the problem will have to be addressed either democratically and peacefully, through compromise, or otherwise through force, which often involves violence or repression. Some  at the extremes become so incensed with regard to others that they will consider the latter as justified if it is in keeping with their viewpoint.

But we know that in the long term nothing is permanent and the future is unknowable. Excess passion is simply wasted energy. As things change continuously we may find ourselves strange bedfellows under new circumstances, and yesterday’s opponent may be today’s friend. The political spectrum is not carved in stone and the issues of the day often change. This is common sense to people who are less politically inclined, so most of the “division” the dividers fret about is happening on some other planet.

Written by georgesarant

April 7, 2018 at 10:08 PM

THE FUTURE OF THE AUTOMOBILE

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Not so long ago one could routinely observe several vehicles pulled over on the side of a highway due to mechanical breakdown. Today that is a rare site. These days there are very few bad cars on the the road. This unheralded improvement in quality has been overshadowed by anticipated changes, one reasonable, and the other less so.

There is a general consensus that the cars of the near future will be electric-powered and self-driving. Only one of these predictions, the electric car, is likely to be realized as anticipated. But this is hardly a breakthrough in transportation, and the supposed economic and environmental benefits are not very clear. Since something has to generate the electricity to power these vehicles it means that a substantial amount of energy is still being expended in some way, if indirectly, and the benefit clearly depends on how the electricity is being produced.

There is still nothing as efficient and reliable as the internal combustion engine, and that is the reason why most autos still run on gasoline. If that were not the case everyone would be driving electric cars now. But oil is still plentiful an cheap and without massive government subsidies and pressure electric cars would still not be viable.

But this does entail a paradigm shift. Now you fill your tank as needed based on your own choice. When electric cars predominate, the production of energy will be offloaded, centralized, and outside of our control. Nevertheless there are other advantages to electric vehicles, notably in terms of emissions, as long as the alternative energy production is significantly cleaner, which is by no means certain. Furthermore if there were to be massive automotive electrification, and it were to become the predominant method for powering cars, the cost of gasoline would tumble as a result due to reduced demand, which means that petroleum would be an even greater bargain than it is now.

The term self-driving car is an oxymoron based on the Greek and Latin roots of automobile, which already means self-driving. On that basis if driverless cars were to become ubiquitous, logically self-driving cars would be those still operated by humans. However, I don’t think this is ever going to happen everywhere. It certainly will happen in older, denser large cities, where there would be pronounced efficiencies in only using a car when needed. But while these urban dwellers might not need to own a car, most everyone else still does.

The implications of driverless cars don’t seem to have been fully thought out, due to an almost blind faith in the superiority of technology. But there are abilities that humans possess that machines are unlikely to ever have. For example, experienced drivers have an extra sense, almost an instinct as to what the surrounding drivers are likely to do. They can anticipate how others will move with amazing accuracy. They can intuit what another drivers intentions are. Think of driving on a highway alongside a car to your right, which hasn’t yet signaled or doesn’t bother to, yet, somehow you know they intend to pass in front of you. Or the way you know that the car in front of you is likely to make a left turn before they even turn on their signal.

If we did not have this sense there would be far more accidents than there are. It is like anything we do well without really thinking about it, having subconsciously absorbed the method, like walking. There is just no way a machine can accurately sense the trajectory of cars around them based upon a sense of the other driver. Most cars are equipped with automatic cruise control, but hardly anyone uses it consistently, and it is quite likely that driverless vehicles will suffer the same fate.

Written by georgesarant

March 31, 2018 at 12:51 AM

DON’T DRIVE IN NYC II

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The other day I had just crossed the border between Long Island and NYC when I was pulled over for allegedly speeding, doing 70 mph. Now since everyone else at the time was doing around 65 mph in a 50-55 mph zone, whatever the speed limit it didn’t seem like much. Just prior to that some moron in front of me was talking on a cell phone and driving erratically and slow in the left lane. When he finally pulled over I accelerated for all of 10 seconds to catch up with the traffic, and that is presumably when I was “speeding.”  Obviously when you stray from the herd you are at risk, but if anyone should have gotten a ticket is was the cell phone dude.

After waiting an interminably long period of time for the cop to do his paperwork, he came back with the ticket saying I was doing 71.  By doing that he put me in a higher speed category at great cost. The measurement was thus highly questionable, and certainly disputable, but I shrugged it off, as whenever possible these days I try to just let things go and avoid hassles, as part of the random cost of living here.

However, when I looked at the ticket I found that I had gotten 6 points  and a $300 fine, all of which was far out of proportion the the alleged offense. Then to make matter worse, as I read further it turned out I also had to pay yet another $300 for a “Driver Responsibility Assessment” NY now tacks on, even with a clean prior driving record. So I now had to pay $600 for a few seconds of “speeding.” So then I thought this time I have to appeal, but as I read further on the ticket it stated that you can appeal if you want but if you do your fine may be increased.  The message is thus clear- don’t even think about appealing this. Further, this really has nothing to do with speeding or traffic safety and everything to do with revenue; but obviously not for roads since they are still awful.

From long experience I know that it is now impossible to beat a ticket in NYC. For example, one night we were at a Lincoln Center concert, and when it was over we found the car was gone. It had been towed away for allegedly parking at a bus stop.; except that there was no sign anywhere in sight and the actual stop was much further down the block. So before picking up the car and  paying a few hundred dollars for the tow alone, we took several photos of the location, of the signs, the street, and the buildings, as I had every reason to appeal. When I did, I mailed in the photos and then even printed photos from Google maps of the location so that no one in their right mind could question it. Nevertheless it was turned down with the ridiculous statement that the evidence didn’t prove anything and it could be anywhere, never mind that was specific to that location.  But again, it had little to do with the offense and everything to do with revenue. I don’t go out at night as much as I used to in the city because if I do I have to either pay more than $50 for parking or a cab, and even if parking in a spot that appears to be legal, can still get a ticket.  BTW virtually all the other tow offenders where from out of town using rental cars and were clearly targeted, so be forewarned.

The city is now so anti-car it simply doesn’t pay to own a vehicle or drive, which is exactly what they want; at least from a Manhattan-centric point of view, never mind what car-owners need in the other four boroughs. I’ve been driving here since I was 17 and this is the worst it’s ever been. I don’t want to give up my car, or my house, but life is now at a state-sponsored intolerable level. But if they add tolls to the Brooklyn Bridge I am gone.

So again, be advised, don’t drive here, and if you don’t have to work here avoid coming altogether.

Written by georgesarant

March 29, 2018 at 7:53 PM

THE FADING PROMISE OF THE INTERNET

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February 11, 2018 at 9:09 PM