Saturday, July 27, 2013

Death by a Thousand Cuts

A local anti-abortion group supported by Operation Rescue has rounded up enough signatures to add a ballot measure to the upcoming October elections in Albuquerque aimed at prohibiting all abortions beyond the twenty-week pregnancy period.  The proposed ban, which would allow for no exceptions, seems unlikely to survive constitutionally-based legal challenges if passed.  That is unlikely to discourage the measure's promotion, however, as proponents will see either an up or down outcome as an opportunity to bring the issue to the fore at the state-wide level.

Local pundits are predicting that the anti-abortion issue will swamp out other issues in the City's upcoming election, including the race for mayor.  It also seems likely to complicate life for the incumbent, Richard Berry, a Republican who takes good advantage of the officially nonpartisan status of the mayoral election.  He will have a hard time ducking the partisan questions that the anti-abortion ballot measure raises this time, however.   Berry appointed city councilor, Janice Arnold-Jones, to a vacant seat recently;  she'll be shooting for winning the seat in the October election, and she is an enthusiastic backer of Operation Rescue initiatives.  There is also sure to be a very large amount of out-of-state money available to raise the issue to a high decibel level.

"Twenty weeks", "fetal pain", and "abortion procedure safety" are the buzz words that the Operation Rescue people are seeking to inject into the local race.  We are likely to hear the whole right-wing litany laid out, of course.  As Bill Barrow noted in a recent AP column,

"From statehouses to Congress, Republicans have advanced a range of ideas: banning nearly all abortions beyond the 20th week after conception; making abortion clinics follow regulations for surgical care; mandating that clinic physicians have admitting privileges at local hospitals; requiring women to get ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy..."  and

"...According to the Guttmacher Institute, which works on reproductive health issues including abortion-rights, states this year have enacted a least 43 new laws that restrict or further regulate abortion.  That comes after more than 120 new laws, several held up by the federal courts, the previous two years."

Another popular Operation Rescue theme likely to raise its head in the Albuquerque election is a proposed prohibition on abortion motivated by sex selection, usually aimed at females.  The anti-abortion radicals, in regard to this issue like to attach the terms, "feticide", "femicide" and even "infanticide" to spice their argument.  Getting traction for this initiative in the U.S. or other economically well-off countries is tricky for them as such societies tend to exhibit quite stable ratios of female to male births of around 50:50.  As a result, the Operation Rescue folks tend to target Asian immigrant groups which they allege are prone to female de-selection via abortion.  Of course, that in turn raises the issue of racial profiling, but that never seems a serious obstacle for the right wing parties.

Female to male ratios of newborns are a real issue in some societies in East and South Asia.  A Wikipedia table shows that in nine Indian states as of 2011 there were less than 900 females per thousand men.   The across-India response to this serious imbalance has primarily focused on the passage of a law that prohibits abortion for sex selection.  There is also a movement toward limiting access to gender-revealing ultrasound procedures.  Neither of these approaches seems to be making any appreciable dent in the problem, but that does not seem to discourage advocacy for the establishment of a bureau of demographic rectitude as the right's main weapon in regard to the gender equality issue.

A good example of the legalistic approach to limiting sex selection is provided by Sabu M. George who has been an indefatigable proponent for twenty years.  He presents the problem as one primarily of law and ethics, often in quite over-the-top terms:

"...Given the context of genocide happening today can we wait till the Indian society starts loving girls? The relentless promotion of sex selection by the medical profession over four+ decades has to be stopped. Therefore without recourse to the “Pre conceptional and Pre natal diagnostic techniques law” the spread and intensification of sex selection cannot be stopped. Companies including Google which have been advertising sex selection technologies domestically and encouraging sex selection tourism from our country should be held liable for the violation of global human rights conventions and grave violations of Indian law. We cannot allow the UN or global population control lobbies to ignore the history of introducing and promoting sex selection for population control in India. Neither can we forget the ways multi-national corporations have profited from their participation in the genocide of millions of missing Indian girls."

Setting into motion a vast bureaucracy to interrogate every Indian woman contemplating abortion in regard to the issue of sex selection would entail costs that are hard to imagine.  One has to wonder if Sabu George has ever considered the possibility that taking the same amount of money and giving it to women as a reward for giving birth to female children might not have a considerably greater degree of success.  I don't know what the real prospects for that would be in India, but there are a good many other practical objections to the course advocated by George and the Operation Rescue people.

As Sneha Barot explains in a recent Guttmacher policy analysis:

"An even more compelling argument against sex-selective abortion bans is that restrictions on access to prenatal technologies and to abortions can create barriers to health care for women with legitimate medical needs; scare health care providers from providing safe, otherwise legal abortion services; and force women who want to terminate their pregnancies into sidestepping the regulated health care system and undergoing unsafe procedures. Accordingly, the joint UN statement stresses that 'States have an obligation to ensure that these injustices are addressed without exposing women to the risk of death or serious injury by denying them access to needed services such as safe abortion to the full extent of the law. Such an outcome would represent a further violation of their rights to life and health.'"

An update on the issues is available in an Aug. 15 Alibi article.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Marinaleda is a small rural town in the south of Spain with most of the 2700 residents deriving their income from agricultural pursuits.  The town has had the same mayor since 1979, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo.

At a time when about one in three Spaniards can find no employment, there is no unemployment in Marinaleda.  There is also no hunger, no homelessness, and no police force.

The story of Marinaleda has been told many times over the past thirty years; the most recent account of town's social democratic cooperative governance is related in an article by Sophie McAdam at

Marinaleda has its own web site.

The Spanish Wikipedia page provides a good over-view of the town's characteristics, organization and history.

A story from the NY Times in  2009 looked at Marinaleda as the country was plunging into the depths of the on-going economic collapse.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


We took a nice little ride this afternoon down into Albuquerque's South Valley.  The temps have dropped about 15 deg. F from last week, and the 50 mph breeze was quite nice.

On the way home we stopped off at the National Hispanic Cultural Center to take in the current show in the Gallery:

Arpilleras are hand-sewn three dimensional textile pictures, commonly made in Peru and Chile.  During the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile which lasted from 1973 to 1990, the craft became a symbol of resistance, particularly for the families who had members that were "disappeared" by the regime.  The exhibit at the Cultural Center Gallery contains about seventy examples, some from the Pinochet period, and some from the time immediately afterward.  The exhibit is extremely well documented, and it does a nice job of telling the story of what the Chilean people endured after the 1973 coup.

A good selection of arpilleras can be seen on the web through a simple Google search.

One of the best treatments of the subject is contained in a blog post by Margaret Snook who researched arpilleras in the course of her studies in the early 1990s.  Margaret is an anthropologist currently living in Chile; her blog, Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture, is well worth a visit.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


It is now a half century since the publication of Julio Cotázar's most acclaimed work, Rayuela.  Next year will mark the centenary of the author's birth.  All the publicity around these events reminded me that I had never made a serious effort to read Cotázar.  When I complained to a friend that I had always found Cotázar difficult to read, he suggested I try the short stories.

So, I went to the UNM Library and picked up a couple of the collections of short works by Cotázar, Bestiario and Las Armas Secretas.  They turned out to be good choices, with stories from early and later periods of his work.  The Bestiario stories relate strongly to the author's experience of growing up in Buenos Aires, while those in Las Armas Secretas reflect his later life in Paris.  The latter collection includes Las Babas del Diablo, which became the basis for the famous film, Blow-up, about the accidental recording of a crime in a photograph.  As my friend suggested, the short stories are more accessible to someone like me with modest linguistic skills, and I am encouraged to look now at some of the longer works.

I was also inspired to look more deeply into Cotázar's life story, which is quite extraordinary.  He started writing as a very young child, began an early career as a teacher at age eighteen in Argentina, got a scholarship to study in France based on his first novels, became a Unesco interpreter, and produced translations of classic French, German and English literary works.  Cotázar was tremendously productive in his own original creative work throughout his life.  In later life, he lent his talents to supporting liberation movements throughout Latin America.  Of course, he was also an enthusiastic photographer, which also increases his appeal for me.

Luckily for me, the UNM Library has a complete collection of Cotázar's work, as well as a very large selection of the critical and biographical writings about him, many in both Spanish and English.  For instance, there is a copy of a rare and very fine appreciation of Cotázar  published in 2004; it is entitled Cotázar: Presencias.  The book traces out his life year by year through Cotázar's own words, which are interspersed with reminiscences by people who knew him well at different periods in his life.  Cotázar was greatly admired as a writer and as a man by his contemporaries, and the testimonies to that fact in the book nicely fill in the many blanks which are left in a reading dependent solely on what is available on line.

Here is a snippet from the Nicaraguan poet, Claribel Alegría, about Cotázar's third wife, Carol Dunlop (my translation):

"In 1976 Julio met in Montreal Carol Dunlop, a north american girl who had protested against the war in Vietnam.  In one of many demonstrations at the University, the police went after the students with tear gas. Carol decided to go to live in Canada.  Settling in Montreal, she learned French, married, had a son, divorced and refused to speak English.  Many years later Bud (Alegría's husband) convinced her not to abandon her mother tongue.  English is so beautiful --he said to her-- and it has nothing to do with the criminals that hounded you.  Finally, she relented.  Julio was happy.  He was much older than Carol but they made a delicious couple.  Carol was a writer and a very good photographer.  They wrote a book together, Los Autonautas de la Cosmopista."

Cotázar was a world traveler and a committed photographer long before he met Dunlop.  One of his trips took him to India where he photographed the 18th Century Jantar Mantar Observatory.  Those photos along with an accompanying poetic text were published in 1972 as Prosa Del Observatorio.  I believe it is his only published photographic work; I have it and am looking forward to reading it after I finish with the short stories.

Friday, July 12, 2013


There is something quite magical about the illusion of 3D which can be produced in a 2D space.  A big step toward the portrayal of scenes which seem to mimic reality was taken with the discovery of the techniques of liner perspective in the 14th Century.  That breakthrough may have gotten a boost from technology in the form of the camera obscura which projected an image onto a flat plane, thus revealing spatial relationships in a very transparent manner.

The invention of photography early in the 19th Century incorporated advances in optics and chemistry to allow the instantaneous fixation of the camera obscura's image.  That technological breakthrough did not spell the instant doom of the arts of painting a drawing as was initially feared, but it did take over those aspects of image making concerned primarily with the accurate portrayal of scenes and objects where fidelity of detail and perspective was of utmost importance.

The production of 3D (stereoscopic) photographic images began very soon after photography was invented, and by the end of the 19th Century there was a huge market for 3D photographic imagery produced with double lens cameras and viewed with simple hand-held binocular devices which allowed the optical fusing of two images into a single photographic representation with a startling illusion of depth.  Most such images were produced and consumed for their educational and entertainment values.  However, there were also some practical and scientific benefits flowing from the technology such as in its use in aerial photography.

With 3D graphics, this NOVA film reveals how the Allies used
special aerial photos to deal a dire blow to the Nazi rocket program

Moving images in 3D color hit the big screen with a splash in the 1950s.  Audiences were equipped with cardboard-framed glasses with polarized plastic lenses which merged the images from two projectors which seemed to thrust viewers into the midst of the action.  In the films coming out of the 3D studios of that era, the novelty factor generally outstripped other production and literary values.  Projection quality was difficult to maintain given the state of the technology, and interest in producing and viewing 3D films nosedived after a couple years of this first big Hollywood effort in the stereographic realm.

The development of 3D moving pictures continued on after the 1950's in specialized venues such as those provided by IMAX and Disney presentations in the 1980s and 1990s.  By the beginning of the 21st Century, the industry started to ramp up again with many new productions taking advantage of advances in computer technology and digital image processing.  The highpoint of this latest phase was realized in 2009 with the release of the science fiction film, Avatar.  While that film was wildly successful, the industry soon took a downward turn again, possibly in a large part due to the world-wide economic collapse.  A parallel effort to bring 3D technology into home video presentations also began to fizzle at the same time.

While 3D in entertainment venues has thus experienced what seems to be one of its regular downturns, other 3D applications are still being developed at a great rate, with big and small players exploiting the fact that computer processing capacity continues to come close to obeying the Moore's Law doubling prediction every two years.  The big successes have been registered by applications with everyday utility like the on-line 3D maps provided by Google which offer vast, detailed coverage along with putting complete interactive control into users' hands.

 3D modelling in design applications got a big boost from computer advancements which was initially capitalized on by big software companies like Autodesk.  Google also got in on the act for a time with its 3D drawing program, Sketchup.  However, it is noteworthy that Google recently sold off Sketchup to Trimble.  That step away from this area of 3D image production may indicate a recognition of the fact that automated image capture and processing capabilities have caught up to older laborious manual processes and which can now produce 3D imagery very quickly and with a considerable level of sophistication.

Google's support of the Sketchup 3D modeling program was mainly aimed at giving a tool to a vast army of volunteers for producing 3D models of buildings which could be incorporated into Google Maps and Google Earth.  Now, however, some small start-ups have demonstrated the possibility of producing very good 3D architectural models using camera-equipped drones and image-processing algorithms which can produce good models in a fraction of the time required by older manual drawing programs.  It is not hard to imagine that Google may be considering the possibility of augmenting its fleet of camera-wielding mapping vehicles with airborne drones.

The convergence of computer technology from a variety of sources is also leading to the emergence of a new  level of 3D technology which goes beyond the representation of 3D images in 2D space to the actual fabrication of solid objects from scanned imagery.  One demonstration of this new technology has been recently demonstrated by a German company Twinkind in Hamburg which has built a multi-camera photo booth that can create a composite image of an individual in an instant, and then produce a foot-high exact likeness of the person with a 3D printer.  That may be just an expensive novelty item right now, but it points to the possibilities of using similar techniques in manufacturing which hold great promise, not only in rapid prototyping, but also for actual production.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Getting to Democracy

Martin Pengelly at The Guardian recently called attention to a Wall Street Journal editorial which states:

"Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy."

Pengelly asks if the WSJ can get away with such advocacy for brutal dictatorship.  Of course, they can.

Meanwhile, back in Chile the current front-runner in the 2013 presidential election race is Michelle Bachelet who was previously the country's president from 2006 to 2010.  Bachelet, her mother and her father were all imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime along with thousands of other Chileans.

During the first Bachelet presidency, the country made great strides in economic equality, education and public health.  Bachelet, a medical doctor, speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, German and French.  Prior to winning the presidency, she served as Chile's Defense Minister and Health Minister.  After leaving the presidency, Bachelet became the first executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Bachelet's presidency of Chile overlapped the second term of George W. Bush who spoke English as if it were his second language, and who led his country into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Bush's successor, Obama, has managed to squander whatever good will he built up during the run-up to his election, and is quite likely now held in lower esteem throughout Latin America than was Bush.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

doppelganger economics

I spent two hours yesterday watching a debate between Warren Mosler and Robert P. Murphy.  It was not the best of debates, but it did give some insights into a couple of approaches to economics that diverge from the Keynesian mainstream.  The main problem with the debate was that Mosler is a good deal more articulate than Murphy, so it was hard to compare their two positions based on just this one encounter.

Warren Mosler is probably the foremost proponent of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), originally known as Chartalism.  MMT focuses on the fact that present-day economies use a currency which derives its value from being a government monopoly rather than having  a connection to some valued commodity such as gold.  Mosler is fine with the existance of this unbacked "fiat money", but he is critical of the way that economists, financial managers and politicians manage it.  He asserts that there is no need to worry ever about deficits.  When asked how he would go about fixing the current financial recession, Mosler says he would set the interest rate permanently at zero, have the government provide a minimum-wage job to every unemployed person who was willing to work, and he would place severe restrictions on public banks to do anything other than provide checking and savings services -- eliminating all the complicated financial manipulations that led to the current crisis.  While critical of the bail-out for the big financial institutions, Mosler is in favor of stimulus and feels that a much bigger sustained effort should have been undertaken.

Robert P. Murphy is a representative of the branch of the Austrian School of Economics which basically rejects the Keynesian approach with its emphasis on large, aggregate movements and their analysis through mathematical modeling.  Murphy sees the economy as essentially the sum total of all individual microeconomic decisions.  He would basically eliminate government control a virtually all economic activity, leaving it to be managed by private enterprise.  Prices are the only useful measure of economic activity in Murphy's view, and government efforts to ameliorate the effects of booms and busts only make things worse in the long run.  Murphy, unlike Mosler, worries about interest rates and inflation, and advocates a return to the gold standard as a way of encouraging economic stability.

It seemed to me, based on the debate content, that the theories advocated in both instances were essentially utopian.  Filling either prescription would require massive shifts in the management of government and society which are really unrealizable in the absence of a magic wand.  Mosler's approach basically takes liberal Keynesianism to its ultimate logical conclusions without much analytical underpinning.  The MMT approach doesn't contradict fundamental mainstream economic theory, but people like Krugman are uncomfortable with the idea that deficits never matter.  The fact that Krugman has not engaged in an analysis of MMT postulations in greater depth may be due in part to seeing it as something of a fringe movement, and in part to the fact that the commonalities of the Austrian School and the Chicago School make those approaches a greater real threat.  Both the Austrians and the Chicagoans, for instance, have long insisted that the Fed's monetary policy efforts will ultimately produce runaway inflation and that has added a lot of fuel to the current emphasis on austerity.  Krugman says that battle has been definitively settled, but nobody seems to being paying attention.

Critics of Murphy's economics point to an over-reliance on logic and a disregard for both rigorous analysis and historic evidence.  It does seem to me that Murphy is basically wanting to take us back to an age of gold-hording robber barons..  At the same time, there is little real reason in the absence of magic wands to believe that his propositions are going to be seriously entertained.  The real-world problem that flows from the Austrian approach, it seems to me, is that the simplistic approach to monetary and fiscal policy has some seductive appeal that is encouraged by the Right, and that it also is apt to discourage attempts to reform financial institutions while holding out hope for unrealizable utopian scenarios.

It seemed to me that the two debaters were mostly talking past each other, and the comments of the moderator and the audience were not helpful to me in achieving a thorough understanding of the two points of view. Toward the end, though, one of the final questions to the two men did give a revealing look at basically where they were coming from.  The were asked what political figures they saw to be advocating or promoting the proper economic solutions to the current economic disaster.  Mosler, the MMT guy, said he could not think of anyone at all that was making the right moves toward economic sanity.  Murphy, of the Austrian School, could only come up with Ron Paul.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013