December 29, 2011

The Year of the Book

I'm not a big believer in looking too far back or too far forward. I like to think there are three days in my life: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But let's face it, few among us can resist the impulse to take the occasional measure of our progress to reach whatever it is we are slouching towards.

For me, 2011 will be the year of the book, the year I became a published author. Okay, so there are a few asterisks to go along with that statement. I'm a self-published author, part of a nova of writing that has exploded onto the e-book scene. I publish mostly e-books, although I have ventured into the paperback trade. Even at 99 cents, I don't sell a ton of books, but I do sell some books every day. Small potatoes when compared to the big boys, for sure, but the pleasure of getting the thing done, of writing something that other people would actually read ... well, as they say, that's priceless.

I will soon be adding another book to my oeuvre, this time a novella set in 1863. The title is Requiem for Ahab. The story is based on a couple of references in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to Ahab's child bride and to a young son born shortly before the events of Moby-Dick. My story focuses on the son, who loses a leg during the Civil War, an event that triggers a need to learn more about his long-forgotten father, a father who went mad as a consequence of his injury, a father whose madness cost him everything. One man holds the key to understanding his father's life and death. That man is the sole survivor of the sinking of the Pequod, a man known only as Ishmael.

Here's the opening paragraph: (Click here for a longer sample.)
I was not quite seven years old when my father died. His name was Ahab, and he was captain of the whaleship Pequod out of Nantucket. She was sunk off the Solomon Islands in March 1843 with all hands lost, save for one sailor who was picked up two days later by a sister whaleship—the Rachel, captained by Josiah Gardiner—that was searching for its own lost crewmen in yet another of the mishaps that made whaling a dangerous and often fatal enterprise. The Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford never lacked for new names to be engraved on the markers that adorned its spare white walls … markers that would never see a graveyard, memorializing sailors who would never again see the land. My father’s name was not among them. Ahab was an outcast, this being the result of the unspoken sentiment of a whaling community that resented the loss of ship and sailors not in the normal course of a dangerous trade but rather because of one man’s madness … or so it was said. The only available facts were collected during a brief official inquiry into the loss of the Pequod, facts derived mainly from the testimony of the lone survivor, a sailor identified only by the name Ishmael.

December 27, 2011

Anonymous

So you are sitting around the Anonymous club house with your buds, and you're asking yourselves, "What can we do to really shake up the military-industrial complex?" Forget for the moment that most folks have never heard of your target. In the cloistered world of self-appointed do-gooding, anything you decide comes complete with its own moral imperative. Actually, this is a crowd Newt Gingrich would fit right in with.

Anyhoo . . . someone says, "Hey, let's hack Stratfor and take the credit card information of all their subscribers and use it to make donations to charities of our choosing. What could be bad about that?"

Gee, I don't know. How about this for starters? You are running a perfectly legitimate charity, minding your own business, when up pops this contribution for $500 from Mr. X. This is followed very shortly thereafter by a phone call from Mr. X. informing the charity this his credit card information was stolen by a bunch of hactivitists who used it to fraudulently make a donation and would you please undo the transaction. No problem, says the charity, as soon as we pay the credit card company a $35 processing fee for the refund.

Seems to me if you are wizard hactivists looking to throw a monkey wrench in the gearworks of the military-industrial complex you ought to know enough about what you are doing to avoid collateral damage.  Expecting legitimate charities to accept ill-gotten gains is ... well, let's be charitable and just leave it at naive. Not understanding that it will actually cost them money to undo your efforts is just plain dumb. I can see why they prefer to remain anonymous.

December 22, 2011

The World According To Newt

The following video is an exchange between Newt Gingrich and Bob Schieffer on last Sunday's Face the Nation. Schieffer's astonishment is priceless to watch as he tries to initially absorb what Gingrich is saying. But Schieffer is one of the best, if not the best, in the business right now, and it doesn't take long for him to start hammering away at Newt. As for Gingrich, his high opinion of himself is evident in everything he says and does. Given the chance, he who would reshape everything into "The World According to Newt." This video gives us a pretty good idea of what that world would be like.

Medicare Fraud

MSNBC news recently reported on shell companies stealing billions of dollars from Medicare. What you do is set up a bunch of fake companies, a process that is disturbingly easy to do in many states. Then you start sending in bills from a bunch of nonexistent clinics. You keep doing this until it looks like you might get caught then you fold all these shell companies and start the whole thing all over again. Add it all up and you are looking at losses of nearly $48 billion, almost 10 percent of the total claims paid out by Medicare.

Okay, call me crazy, but this doesn't seem to be an insoluble problem. The weak link in this fraud is the clinics that are are supposedly treating people. How about posting the addresses of new clinics each month and then letting us citizens go out and see if there is actually a clinic at the address? If instead of a clinic you see a UPS store or a vacant building, whip out the old cell phone and take a picture. Return to the web site and go to the "I want to report a fraud" page and post the address and the photo.

Too simple to be true? Maybe, but with a few million gumshoes on the case, it would seem hard to believe that we couldn't knock down a substantial portion of these fraudulent clinics right from the get-go. One thing that won't help is blaming the politicians. This is simple fraud on a massive scale, fraud that is ripping money right out of our pockets. Let's get all us old farts on the case and see what we can do.

December 19, 2011

Big Trouble in China

Paul Krugman wrote an essay in today's New York Times about the housing bubble that is getting ready to burst in China. Regular readers will recall a post in this blog last March entitled China's Ghost Cities, a truly weird piece of video documenting entire cities built in China to keep the construction industry busy, even though there were no people to occupy the apartments or work in the businesses.

Then comes another report from Bloomberg that China is building its own version of New York City, complete with its own Rockefeller and Lincoln Centers and a fake Hudson River. The debt piled up for that project alone exceeds the debt threatening to sink the European Union, some $622 billion

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that the residents of Wukan in Guangdong province are locked in a dispute with the local government. Villagers allege that the government illegally sold their land off to developers. A negotiating committee was appointed, but then one of the negotiators died while in police custody. Now the villagers are threatening to stage a march outside the village, a major escalation.

Just three samples of stories unfolding from China these days. It would be one thing if this was all that was going on, but we all know that isn't the case. The world is a house of cards, getting more unstable with each passing day. And all we can do is watch Humpty Dumpty take a great fall.

December 12, 2011

Durban's Anti-Climactic Changes

The climate conference at Durban, South Africa, has produced yet another series of glowing press releases, bursting with the rhetoric of solemn commitments to get all over this climate change thing ... but not right now. South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the chairman of the conference, declared: “We have saved Planet Earth for the future of our children and our great grandchildren to come." In reality, the United States, China, and India agreed to agree on a treaty that would be implemented no earlier than 2020. Until then, efforts to reduce carbon emissions would continue to be voluntary.

All this unfolded against a backdrop of increasingly dire warnings from scientists. Preventing a two degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures has always been seen as essential to avoiding damaging climate change. If you believe the scientists, that ship has pretty much sailed if the best we can do is business as usual. Putting off binding limits for another eight years is a flawed policy given that time is most defintely not on our side.

Consider that the only reason we have made any headway on reducing emissions is because of the global recession that has cut demand for manufactured goods and cut down on people's driving to work because they have no jobs to drive to. Now listen to the political rhetoric. "Jobs, jobs, jobs." "Exports, exports, exports." "It's the economy, stupid." The fervent dream of every politician on the planet is to restart the engine of perpetual growth, an engine that runs on fossil fuels. How long do you think the politicians will stick to the promises they made at Durban if they have a real chance to improve their gross domestic product by half a point and it requires pumping more carbon emissions into the atmosphere?

So the idea that we have "saved Planet Earth" may be just a tad premature. Truth be told, Planet Earth doesn't need saving. It can fend for itself quite nicely, thank you. We the people are the ones who need saving ... mostly from ourselves.

December 8, 2011

Newt's Modest Proposal

Newt Gingrich, the current flavor of the week for Republicans desperately seeking the anti-Mitt candidate, has opined that young kids these days don't have any work ethic. One alternative he recommends is to take children and put them to work as janitors in the schools sweeping hallways, emptying the trash, or cleaning the boy's room. After all, the kids are already in school, so what's the big deal? Why not put the little guys and gals to work?

Why not indeed? Well, here's why not. Think about it. Which kids are going to be getting these jobs, the kids with money or the kids who are poor? You think the average white bread soccer mom is going to have her Little Johnny scrubbing toilet bowls after school? No way. So when the school bell rings, ending the school day, her kid will head to after-school activities while the poor kids will report for duty with their mops and buckets. Might as well put a big sign on their back saying "I'm one of Newt's 100,000." And I'm betting the the kids who don't have to work will be teasing the ones who do. That's just how kids are.

Maybe Newt has been out of high school for too long to remember how it is. Of course, he did marry his high school geometry teacher when he was 19 years old, so his high school memories more than likely differ considerably from yours or most other people. Looks like Newt had a real gift for mathematics, given how adept he became at romantic triangles.

Here's Newt's Law: The square of the hypocrisy equals the area of political ambition.

December 2, 2011

November 30, 2011

Anybody But Romney

Herman Cain's hopes for winning the Republican nomination for president in 2012 seem to be fading rapidly. A series of disclosures regarding alleged indiscretions--two allegations of sexual harassment and one report of a long-term extra-marital affair--have scared off potential donors and reduced support among potential Republican primary voters. Assuming the worst--always a safe bet--you have to wonder what he was thinking when he looked at himself in the mirror and decided to run for president. Did he think this stuff wouldn't come out? Really?

Following the principle that one man gathers what another man spills, Newt Gingrich has risen as rapidly as Herman Cain has fallen. This is all the more remarkable given the complete clusterf*k that marked the first two weeks of Gingrich's campaign. But Newt is smart, and he is a pro. He is also an asshole, although that will not hurt him among Republicans. Whether he does as well with independents, especially women, remains to be seen. This is not a guy who wears well. I already can't stand seeing that know-it-all smirk.

All of this activity can be filed under the heading of "Anybody but Romney." The other supposed front-runner in all this--former governor Mitt Romney--is distrusted and disliked by conservative Republicans, who dominate the Republican primary process, so in recent weeks there has been a frantic search for an alternative. Rick Perry's hopes ended as soon as he opened his mouth. Herman Cain's campaign has faltered badly. It remains to be seen whether Newt has the legs to pull off enough primary wins to unseat Romney.

In the end, it may not matter. As always, it's the economy, stupid. Only this time it isn't necessarily our economy that is the problem. The situation in Europe may decide the fate of the American presidency. That could go one of two ways. Either things get so bad here that any incumbent would be swept out, or people get so nervous about the future that they take the cautious road and stick with the devil they know.

November 23, 2011

November 22, 2011

November 21, 2011

A Fearful Symmetry

I've been reading a book with the rather intimidating title of Mathematics of Life, written by Ian Stewart. I won't pretend I understand it all, but here and there are bits and pieces of information that even a resolutely non-mathematical mind such as mine can grasp. The book covers a wide range of topics, from tree branches to virus structures to the internal wiring of our brains. One chapter deals with the problem of how species differentiate. The following couple of paragraphs in a longer discussion of symmetry caught my attention, as they seem to bear directly on the question of why climate change coupled with population growth is so worrisome:

As the environment or population size changes, the single-species state may cease to be stable, so that small, random disturbances can cause big changes. Like a stick being bent by stronger and stronger forces, something suddenly gives and the stick snaps in two. Why? Because the two-part state is stable, whereas one overstressed stick is not.
A population of organisms is stable if small changes in form or behaviour tend to be damped out; if is unstable is they grow explosively. Theory shows that gradual changes in environment or population pressure can suddenly trigger a change from a stable state to an unstable one.
 Sudden climate changes are well documented in Earth's geological history. The causes of these sudden climate changes are not well understood, but you have to think that what we have done to the atmosphere is surely tempting fate.

November 20, 2011

The Last Oil Hunt

In the 19th Century whale hunting was a major occupation. Whale oil was the single best source of oil for lamps, as well as a host of other useful industrial and household products, including high-quality machine lubricants and soaps. At that time, the sea abounded in whales and the need for whale oil outweighed any concerns over the well-being of the whales.

That viewpoint wouldn't sail today. Whales are viewed as an endangered species, thanks in large measure to over-harvesting by the whaling industry. International agreements strictly limit or ban whale hunting, depending on the species.Besides, we have an alternative to whale oil. In 1859, the first petroleum oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The fledgling petroleum oil industry would eventually go on to destroy the whaling fleet. We saved the whales, but at what cost?

We stopped killing the whales and began killing the planet. Unrestrained emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the last 150 years has initiated a warming of the atmosphere, thanks to the dramatically increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This in turn is causing changes to the Earth's climate. New reports directly link the extreme weather we have been experiencing to climate change driven by human activity.

This should not come as a huge surprise. Mankind was largely indifferent to the fate of the whales when it was an essential source of oil. We saved the whales not because we suddenly became a more enlightened species, but because we found something better. And until we find something better, we will continue to hunt for petroleum oil, chasing it to the deepest parts of the earth so that we may squeeze out the last drops, heedless of the damage we are doing to the planet's atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

November 10, 2011

What the Frack!

Excerpt from an article written by John Daly that appeared in OilPrice.com:
On 5 November an earthquake measuring 5.6 rattled Oklahoma and was felt as far away as Illinois. Until two years ago Oklahoma typically had about 50 earthquakes a year, but in 2010, 1,047 quakes shook the state. Why?

In Lincoln County, where most of this past weekend's seismic incidents were centered, there are 181 injection wells, according to Matt Skinner, an official from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency which oversees oil and gas production in the state. Cause and effect?

The practice of injecting water into deep rock formations causes earthquakes, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded.

The U.S. natural gas industry pumps a mixture of water and assorted chemicals deep underground to shatter sediment layers containing natural gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, known more informally as “fracking.” While environmental groups have primarily focused on fracking’s capacity to pollute underground water, a more ominous byproduct emerges from U.S. government studies – that forcing fluids under high pressure deep underground produces increased regional seismic activity.

As the U.S. natural gas industry mounts an unprecedented and expensive advertising campaign to convince the public that such practices are environmentally benign, U.S. government agencies have determined otherwise.

November 6, 2011

Life 101

I used to hate science and economics. I rarely read anything in those subject areas unless school work required it, and I chose a university in part because it required no science. They did require six semesters of economics, which was bad enough.

Nowadays, the tables have turned completely. Most of my reading is either science or economics: the former out of love; the latter out of necessity. Let's face it. With the economy in the dumper and the world seemingly going to hell in a hand-basket at an ever accelerating rate, a working knowledge of how the economy disfunctions is basic Life 101 material these days.

As for science, my love of it has grown slowly over the years, as I have patiently unfolded layer upon layer of riddles wrapped in enigmas to arrive at a dim sense of just how incomprehensibly complex and beautiful and mysterious every single thing in the universe is, from the humblest scoop of dirt teeming with microscopic life to a night sky teeming with galaxies. That self-study has helped me to see more clearly the nexus between action and reaction.

Case in point: global warming. It's not necessary to dig all that deep into science to get it. Common sense tells you that we have burned enormous quantities of fossil fuels in the last 100 years. Common sense tells you that where there is fire there is smoke, and that smoke has to go somewhere. You can smell it from a long way off, so you know there is something real and physical in the air. Looking at smoke rising out of a chimney ought to give the average person a clue as to where it is headed. We burn stuff, and smoke goes into the atmosphere. Action. Reaction.

Jesus, how hard is this?  And yet ... despite a growing stack of increasingly dire reports warning in absolute terms that we are experiencing already the effects of climate change due to global warming, there are those who adamantly insist that it isn't real. They chose instead to ignore the science. They chose instead to ignore the warning signs that Mother Nature sends our ways. They chose instead to keep on with business as usual.

And so my grandchildren and everyone else's grandchildren will learn the hard way that it pays to know a little bit about science. They will also pay the price of this generation's indifference to science and fact.

October 30, 2011

Memories

The older you get, the more terrain your memory has to wander over, around, and through. For a three-year old, a year is one-third of their life. For me, a year is ... well, considerably less as a percentage. The same is true for decades. The 90s were yesterday; the 70s not all that long ago. For most people reading this, the 70s are already a distant memory of childhood.

And the 60s? Well, hardly a year went by that wasn't filled with history. The first three years were all about the Kennedy's. The middle years belonged to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Then it was all Richard Nixon and Vietnam all the time. Things really didn't slow down until the mid-70s, when Gerald Ford brought a return to some sense of normalcy. I know what you're thinking. We had a president named Gerald?

The most memorable moment of history I witnessed was Jackie Kennedy standing on the steps of the Capitol, John-John and Caroline clutching her hands as they stood beside her, two tiny figures dressed in their Sunday best, waiting for their father's coffin to arrive. Then came the muffled drum beats of the procession, the horse-drawn caisson bearing the coffin, lead in to the Capitol by the horse without a rider, the reversed boots in the stirrup.

I don't recall seeing little John-John give his salute, but I do know that someone standing near me had a little transistor radio and there was an excited announcer reporting that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot in a Dallas jail. A surreal moment on a surreal day during a surreal decade.

Vietnam still lay ahead, but for me--and I suspect for a lot of others in my generation--the dream was over when Kennedy was killed. The life in the New Frontier that I thought I might have no longer seemed possible. We thought we would inherit Camelot. Instead, we got Vietnam and Watergate.

This is not meant as a lament or a complaint. We got to witness the most tumultuous decade in modern American history. We were, as the saying goes, condemned to live in interesting times. Priceless.

October 25, 2011

East Meets West

We talk all the time about the carrying capacity of Earth for disasters, both man-made and otherwise. The giant tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan took away with it a massive pile of flotsam and jetsam that is now floating eastwards towards the United States. This Texas-sized debris-field of household and industrial waste, much of it highly toxic, is unprecedented in the scope of the problems it raises. How will it be cleaned up? Can it be cleaned up? Where would you put all that debris? Who will pay? If you wanted a perfect metaphor for the perfect storm of environmental, economic and political problems facing us, look no further.


Bob Dylan Revisited

The poet's eyes see farther than most. Two excerpts from Bob Dylan songs written in the 60s. The first is from "Ballad of a Thin Man"; the second from "A Hard Rain's A-Coming."
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say 'Who is that man?'
You try so hard but you don't understand
just what you will say when you get home
because something is happening here but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
You raise up your head and you ask 'Is this where it is?'
and somebody points to you and says 'It's his'
and you say 'what's mine?' and somebody else says 'well what is?'
and you say 'Oh my god am I here all alone?'
but something is happening and you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
--------------------------------------------------
And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son ?
And what'll you do now my darling young one ?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my songs well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

October 20, 2011

The 99 Percent Solution

The Occupy Wall Street  movement is all the media rage right now. As is to be expected in this age of blogs, several devoted to the topic have sprung up lately. One of the better known ones is called, simply enough, We Are the 99 Percent. The format consists of a picture of someone holding up a hand-written screed explaining how they came to be a member of the 99 percent. There are a handful from the 1 percent, who seem equally perturbed at the way things are, just for different reasons.

My reaction after reading a few pages of the site was not what I expected. Instead of nodding my head sympathetically at the plight of the downtrodden, I found myself agreeing with some of the critics who complain that many of the OWS'ers come across as over-educated, under-employed whiners complaining about the consequences of decisions they made.

Okay, so maybe I was a bit harsh. Some of the tales are genuinely heart-wrenching. We all know about the health care mess. Some people are so poor that their medical costs are covered. Others make enough money to afford (or barely afford) health care, however inadequate or expensive it might be. In between are those who make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid but the health plan is either too expensive to afford or not offered at all. If you are in that group and are afflicted with a chronic condition, you are pretty much on your own.

What really struck me was the number of people complaining about student loans. The old American dream of "get all the education you can get" has morphed into a nightmare of long-term, unforgivable debt that is barely doable in a thriving economy but the complete undoing of many people in an economy without work. According to USA Today, Americans now owe more in student loans than for credit card debt. Each is approaching the $1 trillion level. Not surprisingly, the default rate is climbing right along with loan levels.

Just as the social contract that used to exist between management and labor has gone South, the idea that if you get a better education you will get a better job is being pushed to the brink of extinction by the bleak economy. The survivors are gathering together in places like Zucotti Park to find a way to sue for breach of contract of the American Dream.

But the American Dream has never come with a money-back guarantee. There are precious few safety nets. Guess wrong and you could be in for a long fall.

October 13, 2011

Mad As Hell!

The folks occupying Wall Street are tapping into the widespread feeling among the American people that we have been screwed over and screwed with once or twice or thrice too often.  Our homes are as worthless as our pensions. If we aren't out of work, then we are scared shitless that we will be. The solutions only seem to make the problems worse. Frustration boils over, and with frustration comes anger. No one put it better than Howard Beale, in the 1976 movie Network. 1976! Damn near forty freaking years ago. Makes you realize that we have been in this movie for a long time.

October 7, 2011

Understanding Global Warming

Here is a simple thought exercise to help you understand why—when it comes to global warming and forced climate change—what you see is not what you will get.

Imagine a pot you have just filled with cold water. Place that pot over a heat source and watch. For a long time ... nothing happens, hence the old saying about a watched-pot that never boils. Eventually, small bubbles will form on the bottom of the pot. Those bubbles will rise to the top and gently shake the surface of the water in a simmer. Then a tipping point is reached. Bubble production is constant and rapid, and you suddenly having a rolling boil. Now turn your heat source off, and then wait until you think it is cool enough to stick your finger into the water.

What have we learned? First, water can heat for a long time without anything visible happening. But once the process of boiling begins, the progression is ever more rapid from nothing to simmer to a rolling boil. Second, once water reaches a boil, it takes a long time for it to cool down to where you would feel safe sticking your finger back into it. Even longer to return to its original temperature.

This is why climate scientists are so worried. An enormous amount of heat has been building up in the oceans and atmosphere. Like our hypothetical pot of water, there weren't a lot of visible effects for a long time. But now things are beginning to simmer. And given that we have done little to turn down the heat, the progression to boiling is inevitable and increasingly rapid.

Bottom  Line: We are past the point of preventing climate change forced by global warming. All we can do is sit back and watch the pot boil. Here's the kicker. Even if we did somehow magically turn off the heat right now—which you and I both know ain't going to happen any time soon—it would take a very long time for the atmosphere to cool back down.

Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself. You owe it to yourself and your kids and their kids.

October 5, 2011

The End Is Near!

Take a good look at the guy carrying the sign warning the end is near ... yes, that would be me. Believe it or not, I'm pretty much a glass-half-full kind of guy. So, how did I get to be that person?

When I started looking into the subject of climate change, I was thinking if ... if it is true. Then I progressed from if to when ... when it begins in a few decades. At last, I reached the now ... we are knee-deep in Big Muddy right now, and the water is rising (literally and figuratively) faster than we can walk, run, or swim to the other side.

The economic and ecological perfect storm that has been gathering in intensity for the last couple of decades has finally broken. We are reeling from the aftershocks of a global economy in meltdown and a climate pendulum that is swinging faster and wider with each passing season.

The two feed on each other: the quest for endless economic growth to sustain our ever growing population—the seven billionth person will be born sometime in the coming weeks—means massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pumped into the sky. This has permanent and long-term impacts on the climate and the environment, which in turn limits our capacity to grow.

The short period of time I have been engaged in the issue of climate change has been characterized by denial and delay. And now it is my firm belief that we have denied and delayed our way to a point of no return. The problems associated with global warming and the resultant climate change it forces can no longer be prevented. That ship has sailed. And the global economy is melting down right along with a warming climate.

So now the only alternative we are left with is to batten down the hatches and ride out this perfect storm of a forced ecological and economic realignment to a new equilibrium. Here is my question to you: If this analysis is accurate, then what exactly is your government doing about it? Come to think about it, what are you doing about it?

September 26, 2011

Saving Social Security

Social Security makes for an interesting case study in changing political times. At its creation, the idea was hailed by Democrats and reviled by Republicans. At its looming demise, Social Security is a political third rail for Republicans and a bargaining chip for Democrats. The one thing they all have in common in an endless fretting about what should be done to "save" Social Security. (And yes, it really is a Ponzi scheme of sorts, but then so is any form of insurance. Who do you think pays for that roof you lost to wind damage or that X-ray you just had?)

So what should we do about Social Security? It's obvious, really: means-test benefits and increase the retirement age. No one is better at stating the obvious than one of my faves, John Mauldin. Here is a brief except from his latest columns in his newsletter, Thoughts from the Frontline:
I think Social Security should be means tested. We should recognize it for what it is, for what Krugman called it: a redistributionist scheme. And a good and necessary one from the perspective of civilized society. Means testing would go a long ways to "fixing" the problem. But it doesn't get us there.
We need to raise the retirement age, and by more than a few years. And this is where I get called a heartless (insert expletive)! "How could you want us to work until 70 or even later? How can we do that? Is that fair?"
Let's use as our model that icon of the left, the King of Compassion, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). He created the Social Security Act in 1935. He put the retirement age at 65. From today's perspective, that seems about right, if not a little early. But what did it look like back then? I refer you to a report from the US Senate in 2006 on life expectancy in the US. Interesting reading, but for our purposes we will scroll down to page 26 and the detailed life-expectancy tables. ( http://aging.senate.gov/crs/aging1.pdf)
In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years (shockingly, the life expectancy for black males was only 32). By 1930 it was 59, which, if they kept such records then, would have been what they were looking at when the designed Social Security. In 1935 it had risen to 61.
So FDR set the retirement age four years above the average life expectancy. So much for compassion. He (they) assumed you would work into what was for them advanced old age. ...
So when someone suggests that we move the retirement age to (gasp!) 70 in a few decades, I just smile and think back to what FDR would do. If Social Security had been set up to track life expectancy in 1935, when it was formed, then retirement would be set at 83 or 84 today! Not exactly the golden-years concept, is it?

September 23, 2011

Hillary for Vice-President

There is a lot of talk about a Grand Bargain between Democrats and Republicans along the lines of reforming Medicare and Social Security (i.e., lowering benefits) in return for reforming the tax system (i.e., raising taxes). Well, I have a different sort of Grand Bargain to propose, this one of the sort that Democrats can dispose of without any help from Republicans.

Sometime in the next few months, Joe Biden, who I really like and admire, announces that he will not seek a second term as vice-president. Hillary Clinton bows to popular demand and accepts the nomination for vice-president. Obama now is positioned to win re-election, the country feeling better knowing that Hillary is just a heart-beat away from the presidency. Biden can be Secretary of State if he still wants the job. Obama is free to step down if things don't get better in a hurry.

I know what you're thinking. Never going to happen. And you are probably right. That leaves us with a choice between the devil we know and the devil we don't, not exactly a formula for rebuilding confidence in America's future. And make no mistake about it; turning the economy around is more about confidence than policy. Making Hillary vice-president would do about as much as anything else to give Americans some sense that hope is alive.

September 20, 2011

It's A Clusterf*k!

I love this guy James Howard Kunstler and his blog, Clusterfuck Nation. The message in his posts is clear: we are coming to the end of a culture that runs on fossil fuels. But denial of this unpleasant reality by those who are heavily vested in the status quo of a petroleum-based economy is a powerful force. And we the people are more than happy to dodge and deny yet another piece of the bad news that seems to rain incessantly down upon us during these end of days.
This much can be stated categorically about the USA these days: the more distressed our economy gets, the more delusional thinking you will encounter. People want to assign the cause of their misery to this or that (socialism, abortion, Jews, the New World Order). People want to believe that their world is a safe place with bright prospects (climate change is a myth, we have a hundred years of shale oil).
There are those who would perpetuate the myth of a never-ending empire of oil that will preserve the society we see around us forever. They are determined to suck every last bit of fossil fuel out of the ground, no matter how expensive it is or how damaging it is to the environment. Enter shale oil.
oil that is trapped in "tight," low-permeability rock that has to undergo fracturing operations ("fracking") before you can drain it out. It costs a lot more to get oil this way than by sticking a pipe in the ground and running a pump-jack to get it out the old-fashioned way. There are more than a few dirty secrets about the shale oil plays, but the biggest one is that you have to throw a huge amount of capital and steel at it to keep it running as an ongoing enterprise, and that money - other people's money - will be in shockingly short supply in the years head.
Why do they do this? Partly out of fear, partly out of greed, partly out of good old-fashioned head-in-the-oil-sands thinking.
to gird the hopes and wishes of the political right-wing, who are hell-bent on keeping this country from entering a plausible future. Watch these ideas take flight and wonder that you live in such credulous nation.
As I have said many times before, this shit is coming at us faster than expected, the politicians are dragging their feet, and it is already too late to avoid serious consequences of the new three horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, peak oil, and overpopulation. It's a clusterfuck. And we are all along for the ride.

September 18, 2011

The Future Is Now!

I'm too busy writing to think of anything clever to say, but this guy has plenty of clever and interesting things to say. Something to think about on an early autumn day.

September 10, 2011

Who Needs Al Qaeda?

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the nation again finds itself worried about a terrorist attack. My question is this. Why should al-Qaeda bother with staging attacks when we are doing such a good job of destroying ourselves?

Europe is on the verge of dissolving its political and monetary union, thanks to the Greek debt crisis. The United States is tearing itself apart with a dysfunctional political process fueled by ignorance and arrogance. Neither seems capable of doing what needs to be done, preferring instead to deploy half-measures and delaying tactics. They fiddle while everyone else burns.

Bin Laden must be laughing in his grave, not to mention Karl Marx, who quite correctly it would seem, predicted that capitalism would destroy itself. They certainly couldn't have come up with a doomsday scenario much better than what we are witnessing now.

Our culture, our economy, our political processes are all imploding largely due to self-inflicted wounds. It's a perfect plan, one that can't be stopped because we the people are our own worst enemy.

September 7, 2011

The Unkindest Cut

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last week suggested that any aid to victims of Tropical Storm Irene should be offset by budget cuts elsewhere in the federal budget in order to comply with Tea Party orthodoxy. He thereby confirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

For many of Cantor's fellow Tea Party suck-ups this constitutes the first time the rubber really meets the road in terms of principle versus common sense. A lot of the freshmen Republican congressmen who fueled the "debt crisis" crisis are from districts heavily impacted by Irene. They have been hearing from constituents whose lives have been devastated through no fault of their own and who have grown up accustomed to the idea that in these situations the federal government will be there to provide disaster assistance.

This episode underscores the fundamental flaw in the whole balanced budget thinking that we discussed in an earlier post. State governments can have the luxury of a balanced budget because they know that when the shit hits the fan the federal government will borrow money to pay for the damages. If you restrict the federal government's capacity to borrow when urgent needs require it to do so, then you are faced with a very politically and morally unpleasant alternative, which is a lot of unnecessary suffering among the people you were elected to represent, whose interests you were chosen to defend.

In government as in life, you are only as good as your next crisis. A new crop of politicians is about to discover the potency of that particular maxim.

September 2, 2011

Hyprocrites and Thieves

Dante wrote The Inferno both as a meditation on crime and punishment and as a very precise pay-back to those who he felt had screwed people over big time. That guy over there buried upside down having his feet tickled with flames for all eternity ... we all know who he is, or at least they did back then. Adding to Dante's list of liars, knaves, and hypocrites in these troubled times is too easy. But a couple of candidates just jump off the front pages of today's news.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has decried the disclosure of unredacted State Department files as "reckless" and "negligent." Huh? Excuse me! Boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. His effrontery is matched on another front by the American banking industry. Facing massive fines for trashing the American housing industry and a good chunk of the economy, not to mention yours and my retirement savings, the bankers are saying that being forced to pay out billions of dollars in fines "could sap earnings for years and contribute to further losses across the financial services industry." My response to that is let the bankers themselves pay the fine on their way into jail where they should serve lengthy sentences for running a massive Ponzi/RICO scheme.

I am so sick of these people who act with such reckless indifference to consequences and then whine about it when it turns around to bite them in the ass. They should all—if you will pardon the phrase—rot in Hell.

August 30, 2011

Wicked Leaks

Today's New York Times reports that WikiLeaks is releasing more diplomatic cables, this time without bothering to delete some names of people who spoke to American diplomats only after assurances that they would never be identified in public. The consequences of exposure could lead to anything from an embarrassing moment with the boss to firing to firing squad. Will anyone die as a result of this new round of leaks? There is no way to be sure, and that's the point.

I lump the WikiLeaks people in with all the self-anointed wing nuts, both left and right, who wake up one day and decide that they alone know what is best for the rest of us. Be it so-called openness of information or abortion or gay marriage or budget debts, these people all burn with the inner fire of a prophet declaiming truth in the wilderness.

Let's be clear about one thing. The net effect of the WikiLeaks’s "commitment to ... making information available to all" is to diminish the free flow of information. Someone in a foreign country who has a piece of vital information that is directly relevant to our national interest—perhaps what the Europeans are planning for their next move in resolving their debt crisis—will be much more likely to keep his or her mouth shut, thanks to the fear that nothing is secret or sacred anymore, including the promise of confidentiality.

Good job, WikiLeaks. Thanks to you, an already dangerous world is even more unpredictable.

August 24, 2011

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Yesterday, the East Coast was shaken and stirred by a significant earthquake, the largest since ... well, who knows for sure, but it was big and it felt big. I was standing in my office talking with co-workers when we all felt something happening. My brain needed a few seconds to process and catch up with my feet, and by then the rolling sensation was peaking—like those jiggly lines you see on a needle graph—and then it subsided. It was over just about the time the first wave of panic was rising in my throat.

Like any good netizen, I immediately texted the wife and kids that we had just had an earthquake. This was hardly breaking news to them. They were on higher floors in their respective buildings and had felt the effects of the earthquake much more than I did in my semi-basement office. We went outside to wait for aftershocks, and by the time I was on the sidewalk I had a text from my sister in New England asking me if I had felt an earthquake. And so it went for the next couple of hours: anxious texts back and forth while the aftershocks to our psyches settled down.

I don't have any big morals or lessons to draw from this. Okay, maybe one. I remember years ago experiencing a total eclipse of the sun and feeling the immediate drop in air temperature when the shadow of earth winked out the sun, and I wondered for a split second what would happen if somehow we got stuck in this position? How long before earth would be a frozen block of ice?

This whole thing we call our lives is fragile beyond our imagining. A shrug of earth's shoulders can take it all away. And you know what? People matter, but so does our stuff ... our pathetic little collections of tchotchkes we accumulate as we go through life ... all of it matters, and all of it can be gone in a second. But what I thought of the most were the things undone. The stories unfinished, the vacations not taken, the lost time of life.

Be nice to think I will do something about it, but that probably won't happen. Chaos theory tells us we seek equilibrium in the midst of change. This is called an attractor. Right now, a little peace and quiet from Mother Earth seems pretty damned attractive. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and batten down the hatches for Hurricane Irene.

August 21, 2011

Warming Up

Haven't talked much about global warming lately. Fortunately, other folks have been busy. Here is one of the best videos I have seen in a long time. If you aren't up on the global warming/climate change issue, then I urge you to put in some time doing the research. My old site, Planet Restart, contains a lot of links to foundation documents, but go anywhere you like. Just do your own looking and your own deciding.

This is the single most important issue facing your children as they inherit the earth from us. Like the global economic meltdown, this is a mess we made that our kids will have to clean up. The least we can do is look the problem straight in the eye, accept responsibility and start taking effective measures to deal with it.


August 14, 2011

Dry Rot

The crisis in Texas combines the worst of two trends: climate change driven by global warming and politics driven by religion. The end result is a withering on the vine of Biblical proportions.

The current drought in Texas is the single worst drought in a state that has a long history of severe droughts. June and July were the hottest months on record, going back to 1895. July was the fifth month in a row where rainfall totals were ranked in the 10 lowest on record. According to John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist, "“These statistics rank the current drought as the most severe one-year drought ever for Texas. “Never before has so little rain been recorded prior to and during the primary growing season for crops, plants and warm-season grasses.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry recently announced his candidacy for president, so it seems fair to me to assess his potential performance as crisis-manager-in-chief based on how he has handled the current drought crisis in his home state. His plan of attack is two-fold: crush the global warming conspiracy and its minions at EPA and pray for rain.

That's it. That's the plan. How's it been working for him? Well, despite numerous prayers and entreaties to God to bring rain, including a proclamation issued in April of this year, the drought has continued unabated. As for the global warming conspiracy, well, it's doing just fine thank you. Never better ... or worse, depending on how you look at it.

Here is the sad part. Like Governor Perry, I too pray with all my heart that my fears about climate change driven by global warming are unfounded. I don't want my children and grandchildren or anyone else's children and grandchildren to go through the slow death that is gripping Texas and the rest of the southwest.

But wishing it isn't so, praying that it will go away ... that is not enough. You have to do something about it. That's why we have elected representatives. That's why we have a president. They are there to deal with the problems, not ignore them or wish them away or pray that something better will just come along.

My prior post was entitled The Age of Stupid Meets the True Believers. Well, this is a perfect summary of the Rick Perry candidacy. America has a history of religious-driven anger-fueled populist moments. In the past, the mood usually shifted as good times returned. That's the bitch about climate change. It is not going away any time soon. In fact, it is just warming up, so to speak.

Governor Perry has accomplished one very minor miracle. He has driven me back to prayer. I pray every day to the baby Jesus that Rick Perry does not become our president.

August 13, 2011

The Age of Stupid Meets The True Believers

“I think the U.S. has every chance of having a good year next year, but the politicians are doing their damnedest to prevent it from happening — the Republicans are — and the Democrats to my eternal bafflement have not stood their ground,” Ian C. Shepherdson, chief United States economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm, said in an interview.
Hello! Let's recall a fundamental political reality that will affect every choice made by Republicans between here and November 6, 2012: a good economy is bad for Republicans. They cannot win if voters are optimistic about the future, if the economy is finally moving forward, if jobs are growing. They don't want any of that. They need you and I to be scared and angry, just like they are.

The current crop of ignoramuses and weasels running for the Republican presidential nomination are the inevitable result of The Age of Stupid meets The True Believers. A couple of them may know better, but the rest of them actually believe the crap they are spewing out. They aren't pandering to the Tea Party or anyone else. This is who they are.

Every day, I wake up and ask myself how the Republican Party turned into such a mess. Let's hope that enough voters (including those so-called progressives who seem to live in a political world equally remote from the reality of governance) ask themselves the same question and make the only reasonable choice, which is to keep Obama around for another four years.

August 12, 2011

A Parsimonious Universe

The most striking thing about the universe we live in is how so much complexity arises from so few building blocks. There is a parsimony evident throughout creation, a striving to get the most out of the least.
There are currently 118 elements listed on the Periodic Table. Every conceivable substance—living and non-living, that ever was or ever will be—will come from some combination of those 118 elements.

Each element is put together from 19 elementary particles, which scientists categorize as either bosons (forces such as light or gravity or electromagnetism) or fermions (the building blocks of matter).

Four elements are used to build the four nucleotides that in turn build the DNA sequences that shape every living thing. Combinations of those four nucleotides account for every living plant or creature on the planet that ever existed or ever will exist.

There are 26 letters in the English language alphabet. These 26 letters can express every conceivable thought and dream and hope and possibility there ever was or ever will be.

There are 151 symbols used by the various branches of mathematics, logic and probability.These symbols are a specialized language that can explore everything from the number of stars in the sky to the spinning of electrons in the atom and how they got there and where they are going.
Computer designers experimented with various processing methods, but it was the binary model that prevailed. Two states—on or off, zero or one, this or that—create the entire digital universe, everything from Google to Facebook to ... well, this page you are reading.

Should our lives echo the parsimony of the universe? Should we be trending towards less in order to see and feel and be more? I don't know. All I have to offer is more questions chasing after fewer answers.

August 9, 2011

The Blame Game

Well, the stock market threw one hell of a tantrum yesterday. Seems as though the traders were unhappy after President Obama's speech because he didn't have a plan to fix everything RIGHT NOW! He should have called Congress back into session, even though this isn't in the Constitutional playbook.

You wonder if these people have been on another planet for the last couple of months. We are in the midst of major political gridlock. Both parties have extreme "my way or the highway" wings that will cheerfully sacrifice the day-to-day well-being of the average citizen if that's what it takes to maintain doctrinal purity. Yet the "market" believed that the president should have just waved his magic wand and made it all better, and because he didn't do that they said "fuck it" and went crazy on us.

So to the list of institutions that are building our failed state brick-by-brick, we can add Wall Street and Standard and Poor's. (I know that is overly harsh and an immense over-simplification, but I'm feel a bit cranky this morning, standing here in the rubble of another economic aftershock that is destroying my nest egg.)

Whose fault is it, anyway? Despite what they say, we all like to play the blame game. Who do you think is responsible for the mess we are in? My answer is pretty much everybody.

President Bush rushed into an unnecessary war in Iraq and the Republican-controlled Congress went on a 6-year spending spree while at the same time cutting taxes. This lead to a massive deficit that quickly wiped out the Clinton surplus and made us beholden to China.

The banking industry, emboldened by Republican disdain for government oversight of private business, went on a criminal spree the likes of which this country hasn't seen. People who should have known better and who never should have bought homes practically had them shoved down their throats. If the numbers didn't work, no problem. Phony paperwork was ginned up on the spot. Thus was born the mother of all housing bubbles.

President Obama took office in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and decided that the top priority was health care, not the economy. A huge miscalculation. An enormous amount of political capital and good will was expended on a program that offered no immediate benefit to the economy.

Out of that debate—if that's what you want to call it—came gridlock and the Tea Party, which decided in their infinite wisdom that debt and only debt mattered.Speaking of the Tea Party, they must be included in the blame game. Perhaps their role in this was little more than jesters and pawns, but the fact is their intransigence during the debt crisis was a huge factor in the gloominess over at Standard and Poor's that lead them to downgrade our credit rating.

And so we have a failed company passing judgment on a failed economy being brought to its knees by a failed political system. Who is to blame? Everyone.

August 7, 2011

Feeling Their Pain

A couple of paragraphs from today's op-ed column in the New York Times, written by Joe Nocera, who specializes in business topics:
"Standard and Poor’s just downgraded U.S. debt for the first time in modern history. Despite the better-than-expected job numbers on Friday, unemployment remains stubbornly, and unacceptably, high. So far this year, G.D.P. growth is under 1 percent. The stock market is skittish. Companies have cash, but they aren’t hiring because there is no demand for their products.
Choking off spending can only make matters worse. Mark Zandi, the well-known economist at Moody’s Analytics — who applauds the debt ceiling deal — acknowledged to me that if major spending cuts take place in 2013, as is currently envisioned, they will cost the country 1.5 percent of G.D.P. The debt ceiling deal, it seems to me, practically guarantees another recession."
I'll say it again. As you watch these events unfold, remember this simple proposition: for the 2012 election cycle, a poor economy hurts Democrats and helps Republicans. It's not so much that Republicans will purposely try and tank the economy so much as they will assess various policy and political strategies and not automaticlly rule out courses of action that include outcomes negative to the economic well-being of the average American, instead accepting them as necessary evils to be tolerated in pursuit of victory.

They want us to be in pain. They want us to be angry. And in that pain and in that anger, they want us to lash out at the Father of All Evils, Barack Obama. A simple plan if ever there was one. The only question is whether we the people will let them get away with it.

August 6, 2011

The Downgrade

Another day, another crisis. This time it is a downgrade of the U.S. government's credit rating from AAA to AA+ by the credit rating agency Standard and Poors. If this causes interest rates to rise—which everyone says it will—then this decision will inevitably directly affect every one's pocketbooks, because unlike the assertions made by the Tea Partyers during last week's debt extension crisis, typical families do live like the government, borrowing from pay check to pay check.

Speaking of those assholes, you can lay the blame for this current development directly at their door stop. Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around and there are many other economic issues feeding into this downgrade decision, but the turmoil caused by the debt extension crisis seems to have been the last straw, and the Tea Party was definitely the straw stirring the drink on that one.

This is what Standard and Poors had to say about the reasoning behind their decision to downgrade:
The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics.

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness,stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon.
Hard to argue with that.

August 5, 2011

Next!

Summer is supposed to be a slow news time in politics. But this year it seems like we have bounced from one crisis to the next. We had the debt crisis and then the FAA crisis and now the stock market is collapsing. Geesh! What next? Wait. Forget I asked that. I don't want to know.

Of course, we do know. Europe is next up in the batter's box. Their debt crisis has been building steadily over the last couple of years and has finally spread to Italy and Spain. This is what you need to understand. The United States finances its own debt by government-borrowing, mostly from other countries. European countries finance their debt by borrowing from private banks.

The problem for us in the good ol' U.S. of A. is something called credit default swaps. Think of them as a form of insurance for banks. Here's the key thing to zero in on. American banks hold a shitload of these things on European banks. So when a European country defaults and the European banks take a hosing, American banks will have to pony up billions of dollars in insurance payments.
According to the Bank for International Settlements, while U.S. creditors have just 5 percent of the direct exposure to Greek debt, they have 56 percent of the indirect exposure through CDSs. Similarly, the United States has 25 percent of indirect exposure to Ireland and 44 percent to Portugal. That equals about $33.6 billion for Greece, $54 billion for Ireland and $41 billion for Portugal.
Just what our already shaky economy needs to quicken that race to the bottom. And you wonder why the stock markets are panicked?

August 4, 2011

Hello Gridlock, My Old Friend

Most folks point to the recent crisis over the debt ceiling as proof positive of Washington's political dysfunction. But if you want a more typical example of why Washington doesn't work, check out the shutdown of the FAA, a mess that is finally getting the attention it deserves now that the debt ceiling crisis has been put off for another year.

The Republicans have put a poison pill in an otherwise routine measure to extend funding for FAA (stop me if you have heard this before), and they are quite content to forfeit $1 billion in tax revenues over the next month while Congress is out of session, not to mention idling tens of thousands of workers who would normally be rebuilding our airports. All this to cut $16 million from the budget by eliminating air service to some remote airports, mostly in Democratically controlled territory. Meanwhile the airlines are laughing all the way to the bank as they pocket the now uncollectible taxes which were embedded in airline ticket prices.

The actual reason for this stalemate has to do with a  ruling from the National Mediation Board, an independent agency that oversees labor-management relations within the U.S. railroad and airline industries. Get this. Before the ruling, employees absent during a vote to unionize were counted as "no" votes. Under the new rules, they won't be counted at all ... because they weren't there. Damn! Sounds reasonable to me. You aren't there so you don't get included in the tally instead of the old system where your absence turned into a "no" vote.

Executives at Delta Airlines didn't see it that way. They leaned on their Republican buddies in the House to put a measure into the FAA budget extension that would have overturned the NMB ruling. Democrats balked, so Republicans countered with a new measure to eliminate funding to remote airports. Hello gridlock, my old friend.

You will hear the Republicans say that jobs are their priority and that it is the Democrats who are being the stubborn ones here. Uh-huh. This is what a key Republican, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had to say about this dispute last month, when not so many people were paying attention:
“It’s just a tool to try to motivate some action to get this resolved,” Mica says, adding that the NMB issue is being moved “at the highest leadership levels of the House and Senate and beyond my ability to resolve.” If the NMB provision were resolved, “the rest can fall into place within 20 minutes,” Mica says.
Remember, this effort by the Republicans to save $16 million will end up costing the government $1 billion in lost tax revenues. And a ton of jobs. All this at a time when the economy is one step away from life-support. Now think about this. A good economy helps Obama. A bad economy helps Republicans. You figure it out.

August 3, 2011

Doing The Research

I've started writing a short story, something I have always wanted to do. The tale is set in 1863, so I feel as though I should become at least passingly familiar with events of the second half of the 19th Century in order to create a plausible backstory and to provide those telling details my critics so lament in their reviews.

Research sounds tedious, but I have found it to be engrossing, even exciting. As I have shaped out the characters lives I have found myself increasingly immersed in my half-real, half-fictional version of Princeton, a very real small town located dead center in Massachusets. Like most New England towns, it is blessed with a richly documented history that has helped me greatly in my imaginings.

One of my characters served in the Civil War. I signed him up for the the Second Massachusetts Regiment, a unit that saw action in several key battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg. The key moment for my character comes during the Battle of Culp's Hill on the third day at Gettysburg. The Second Massachusetts was one of two regiments mistakenly ordered to attack a much stronger rebel position. For a writer, this is like finding gold. You now have an incident which can be used to add depth to your character's backstory, especially since the central theme of the story revolves around a war wound your character received during that engagement. That the whole incident was a "fog of war" mistake just adds to the psychological texture.

The core of the story remains two characters who have something in common. One is the sole survivor of a great disaster; the other the son of a man lost in that great disaster. The son seeks out the survivor to learn the truth of the final events leading up to the death of his father. But the son has his own labors and sorrows to contend with, as does the other man, who bears the burden of being the only member of his family to survive a second calamity.

These two wounded warriors come together to talk and listen and perhaps help each other accept the losses that have so damaged their bodies and souls. I hope I have the skill to put into words the story I feel in my heart. For now, it is more research. My grandson and I are off to Gettysburg to visit the hallowed ground wherein some of the events I describe occurred.

July 31, 2011

Someone Needs To Blink

The country is in a state of suspense the likes of which I haven't seen since the Cuban missile crisis. I remember back then waiting by the radio as the Russian ships steamed towards the blockade line. If they crossed the line, nuclear war was just a half-step away and with it the end of life on the planet as we knew it. Fortunately, the Russians blinked first. The ships turned around, and the crisis was averted.

The current crisis over raising the debt ceiling is at a similar point. If we get to August 2 (or whatever date it turns out to be) without a clear solution in sight, then our financial system will go nuclear and the fallout will affect every household.

Someone...anyone...everyone...needs to blink.

The Republicans are right. We aren't cutting deep enough. The level of cuts proposed don't even begin to address the problem. Current and future social safety net programs must be reduced in size and scope. Discretionary spending must be cut even further. Protracted overseas military engagements must seen for what they are...a debt payable in treasury and blood that must be incurred only in the gravest of circumstances.

The Democrats are right. We need to increase revenues. Long-term we can reform the tax code to make everyone pay their fair share of taxes, but right now we need to reduce or eliminate obsolete corporate tax breaks and take away some of the Bush tax cuts that clearly haven't delivered the promised economic prosperity.

Someone...anyone...everyone...needs to blink.

July 27, 2011

The Debt Bomb

We have a debt crisis in large measure because of Bush-era tax cuts and out-of-control spending by Congress when Republicans controlled all three branches of government. The boiling point was reached thanks to a wave of criminal negligence that swept through the mortgage and banking industries, negligence encouraged by the lax regulatory atmosphere of the Bush years. Remember this the next time you hear some Republican blathering on about how we have to defuse this debt bomb. They were the ones who caused it in the first place. Hello!

That's not to say this wasn't a bipartisan effort. Obama came in and threw trillions of dollars in good money after bad to stop the bleeding on already bled out economy. But the Republicans would have done the same thing had McCain gotten elected, because people were clamoring for a solution and throwing money at problems is what politicians do best. What Obama did that was uniquely his own contribution to this mess was to take his eye of the ailing economy in order to pursue a "this will secure my place in history" health care reform proposal that instead delivered a fatal poisoned pill to an already paralyzed political system, setting the stage for the current deadlock.

We the people didn't help when we elected a bunch of populist tea-partyers who are convinced they have a mandate from heaven to save the rich from paying even one single penny in extra taxes to help us out of the mess. "Trillions for Social Security cuts; not one cent for tax increases on the well-to-do." These people didn't know where the Capital building bathrooms were six months ago, but now they can run the country?

A fine mess we've gotten ourselves in.

July 25, 2011

Critical Mass

One of the perils (and privileges) of being an author is that other people get to read and review your work. I've had a handful of reviews, including a couple of not-so-great reviews, which—believe you me—will quickly determine your skin density. The first bad review was a wake-up call to improve the editorial quality of the product, a call which I heeded to the best of my ability. I may never fully master the vagaries of commas, but I do believe that just about all of the typographical nits have been picked.

Some folks just plain don't like the way I write. They say the story is okay but too much time is spent on details of setting and character. The idea I guess is to keep driving the plot forward to keep the reader engaged. One of my authorial idols, Mickey Spillane, was mentioned as a role model for me to emulate. But there are other writers in the thriller/mystery genre who do take the time to stop and smell the roses along the way to the next dead body. Raymond Chandler comes to mind. His short stories contain gorgeously written descriptive passages.

Nonetheless, I concede the point. Out of the 99,000 words or so in The Magpie's Secret, there could have been some pruning. That's why God made editors. Unfortunately, the reality is that I will never be picked up by a real publishing house, and I really can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars to hire a professional editor. In a sense, reviewers serve that function after the fact, so I do pay attention to what they say.

I will also stipulate that perhaps too much time was spent reminding readers of my central character's issues. Point taken. But those descriptive passages ... well, they are the true pleasure of writing, at least for me. True, you don't want to go crazy and spend five pages describing a house, but I fail to see the harm in setting up a scene with a sentence or two of description:
A few regulars were scattered around a handful of tables and the half dozen stools that fronted a well-worn bar patrolled by a bartender who looked as worn out as the bar, the deeply fissured wrinkles on his face matching the crackled varnish of the bar. A couple of heads turned to check us out as we walked in, but most ignored us, content to remain focused on their search for the meaning of life that apparently was lurking somewhere in the intricate webbing of beer suds that lined their mugs.
Okay, maybe it ain't Hemingway, but I felt the passage was a worthwhile investment in word count. But maybe folks just don't read that way any more. We like shooters instead of beer, quick tosses instead of long draughts. We are a society that takes our pleasures in ever shorter and sweeter measures. The ultimate expression of this is tweeting, our modern-day 144-character haiku.

I don't think that way or write that way. My whole adult life has been devoted to slowing down and living in the now. When you do that you notice the fine details of the passing scenery. And when you notice things you want to share them with your readers. I figure if they keep reading after the first twenty pages then they are like-minded in their idea of what constitutes a pleasant read.

So reader beware! My novels are not for runners locked in the private world of their headsets. Instead, they are for those who prefer to walk and take their time and observe sparrows rustling under a bush or the moon fading to gray in the daybreak sky.

July 17, 2011

Lifting the Debt Ceiling

Washington gridlock is alive and well as evidenced by the inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on lifting the debt ceiling. This is a recurring drama in Washington. State governments must have a balanced budget, but the federal government can borrow money when it needs to, but only up to a certain point, after which Congress must approve further borrowing.

This gives the ax-grinders of the day momentary leverage to force attention on whatever issue is biting their ass. In every case, a deal was struck, and it will be no different this time. It's a hell of a way to run a railroad, but no one seems interested in changing their positions enough to avoid such train wrecks in the future. Truth is the ax-grinders like it like this.

You hear a lot of talk about "Cap, Cut and Balance" from Republicans. Better to think of this proposal as "Crap, Crud, and Baloney." Here's the bottom line difference between states and the central government. When natural disasters hit a state, who comes to the rescue? When the homeland is under threat, who raises (and pays for) the defense of the homeland? When an aging population requires more medical care, who pays for it?

Some fiscal needs can neither be predicted nor controlled. You have to be able to find the money to deal with the unexpected in life. Any homeowner knows this. The furnace goes out or the car breaks down, you find the money to fix it. That might mean taking money from your kid's college fund or it might require getting as loan from the bank. The federal government is no different. State governments can pretend to live within their means and can afford the "luxury" of balanced budgets because the federal government is always there to bail them out.

This is the lunacy behind the idea of requiring the federal government to operate like state governments. How do you deal right now with a Katrina or a 9/11 if your hands are tied by a balanced budget requirement? You have to wonder if the people pushing this idea have a clue as to how things really work or are they cynically pushing for an idea they know is stupid but will gain them temporary advantage? Fools or knaves? Take your pick.

July 16, 2011

Our Fracked Up World

Hydraulic fracturing—"fracking" for short— is a process that smashes rocks several thousand feet down with high-pressure water and other chemicals to induce cracks in the rock that will make it easier to extract natural gas. Actor Mark Ruffalo has lead the opposition to fracking in New York on the grounds that it renders unusable vast amounts of fresh water and increases our reliance on carbon-based energy sources. He recently appeared on Countdown, the resurrected version hosted by Keith Olbermann. The whole thing is about fifteen minutes long, but most of the good stuff is in the first five minutes.


July 12, 2011

Ants

Our kitchen has been under attack from an invading army of ants. We have fought them on the countertops and in the dishwasher, from stovetop to island. The front has wavered back and forth as we deployed new weapons to repel the invaders.

Finally, I resolved to go on the offensive and take the battle to the enemy. Spray can in hand, I went out to attack them where they lived. I began by spraying along the base of the house and then around the windows, seeking to interdict the ants’ infiltration routes. In my eagerness to deal with the ant menace, I failed to note a new threat that had arisen on my flank. A flash of yellow was followed by an intense blooming of heat and pain on my thumb. In the time it took the neurons to register the first assault, a second front opened on my left shoulder.

After I beat a hasty retreat and took time to treat my wounds, I returned to the field of battle and did a more thorough reconnaissance. I noticed a wasp hovering around my bird feeder. I walked over and looked underneath and found, in the hollow space under the feeding tube, a gray honeycomb being tended to by a half dozen or so wasps. Some of the insecticide I had been spraying to deter the ants must have drifted too near the wasp nest, provoking a furious counterattack.

I decided to leave them be. After all, the wasps had attacked me only after I had provoked them. I could hardly blame them for refusing to be collateral damage in my war against the ants. Since then, I have looked in on the nest a few times. Always there are wasps busily doing something: either flying in and out, or poking around in the honeycombed structure, or just chilling.

I am struck by their devotion to maintaining and protecting what is theirs. I assume there are wasp progeny being hatched inside at least some of the tubes, which would account for most of the activity. There is a certain delicacy—perhaps tenderness, if that isn’t reaching too far—to their ministrations. The nest is something they care a great deal about. It is the center of their lives. For a brief moment I placed it in peril and was punished accordingly.

We are comrades in arms, those wasps and I. We will defend our homes with whatever it takes. The urge to preserve and protect reaches deep into the heart and soul of every living thing. Lesson learned.

July 7, 2011

Dust In The wind

The dust storm in Phoenix had an eerie end-of-days quality, as if a flap on one of the seals of the Apocalypse had been lifted for just a moment, giving us a taste of what was to come. Of course, it was just a freak natural event caused by a confluence of thunderstorms and lots of dust from a prolonged drought.


Still, it makes you think, especially if, like me, you worry about climate change driven by global warming. It's not so much that things change as they intensify. Climate change is what they call a multiplier; it takes ordinary weather events and kicks them up a notch. Trends become drier or wetter, hotter or colder. New records are made every year as weather gets pushed further to the extremes. Next thing you know, you are in the middle of a dust storm of Biblical proportions.

I come at the issue of global warming from a slightly different direction than most of the bloggers in this arena. I'm not trying to save the planet, just myself and my kids and their kids and anyone else who will listen. My suggestion is that you treat the issue as affecting you as seriously as the Greek debt crisis or the housing collapse. The first step in treating any issue seriously is to educate yourself about it. Take some time and do the reading. Make up your own mind. Don't take my word for it.

If you come to the same conclusion I did—that climate change is here to stay—then understand that meaningful measures to prevent significant climate change are no longer likely and soon will no longer be possible. This means an inevitable and inexorable rise in average global temperatures, with all that implies. If you aren't sure what that means, think about what Bob Dylan said: The answer is blowin' in the wind.

July 3, 2011

The Dog Experiment

Think you've heard it all? Think you can't be shocked? Think you can't be stunned by a new piece of information? Well, stop reading here if you wish to maintain that illusion.

The experiment described below could never happen today. It involves a dog subjected to a stunningly dangerous procedure. Again, if your sensibilities are such that this is likely to be upsetting—which it is, no doubt about it—stop reading now!

René Quinton was a French biologist with an idea. His idea was that seawater and blood were very similar in composition ... so similar that one could be used as a substitute for the other. His experiments lead to the development of Quinton Plasma: seawater captured and stored under precise conditions. The plasma was and is used to treat a wide variety of conditions.

So ... about that dog experiment. Last disclaimer!!! The blood of a stray dog was completely drained and replaced with seawater. A day later, the dog was able to slowly walk around the lab. For the next three days, it's red and white blood cell counts slowly climbed. On day 4 the dog ate some red meat.  Eight days after the withdrawal of blood and replacement by seawater, the dog was running around the laboratory. It lived for 5 more years.

Okay. I have read a lot and learned a lot over the last few years of blogging, but this is one of the most arresting tales I have come across. The trail began with a video on dying oceans, during which the narrator mentioned that seawater and blood were nearly the same in composition. From there, it was but a short Google hop, skip, and a jump to René Quinton and his dog experiments.

What does it all mean? Beats the hell out of me. It's all part of that big lump of unknown stuff that I chip away at in hopes of finding some common thread of meaning that will somehow make it all clear, this sweet mystery of life we are immersed in, an ocean of intent that we can never fully grasp because we are too much in it, body and blood and soul.

July 1, 2011

Population Matters

Whatever you are doing ... stop! Read this article—Population bomb: 9 billion march to WWIII—written by Paul B. Farrell in MarketWatch.
The United Nations predicts there will be nine billion or more humans on Earth by 2050. And while demographers want us to believe total population will level off, they’re just guessing. Depending on an unpredictable range of mathematical scenarios, maybe our planet could top 15 billion by 2100, all demanding a better lifestyle, all demanding more natural resources, more commodities, starting revolutions to achieve their economic goals.

June 30, 2011

Mission Impossible

Hate to say I told you so, but the war in Libya is going exactly as predicted here. The following appeared in CNN today:

Part of that failure was a lack of consideration of the makeup of the Libyan population, said University of Texas political scientist Alan J. Kuperman, author of "The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention."
"The fundamental error by the White House and NATO was to imagine that the Libyan people were united in opposition to Gadhafi," he said.
"In reality, Libya is divided along lines of clan and tribe, some of whom benefit greatly from Gadhafi, and therefore defend him fiercely," he said. "Any expert on ethnic conflict and intervention could have told the White House that ahead of time."
Why do we do this sort of thing over and over and over? We charge into a region utterly unaware of the history or the state of affairs on the ground, backing people we don't know a damn thing about in a cause that was lost from Day One. You're telling me that I could see it coming but the professionals in Washington, London, and Paris couldn't? Unlikely. They were blinded by ... well, I don't know by what ... oil? the Arab spring? revenge? Instead they blundered into yet another "quick" war that never turns out that way.

What a waste! Karl Marx had it right when he said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Chores

I planted a small garden this year, but once planted, even a small garden requires tending. Each night when I get home, after I have fed the dog, we both go outside where she runs around while I water the garden. The first bucketful goes to the side yard garden, where I planted the tomatoes and squash. The second is for the green beans and a lone pepper plant. The last to be watered are the petunias which adorn the perimeter of the deck.

These small nightly oblations to the Earth Mother Goddess are chores, yes, but they are more than that. They tie me to the cycle of duty that binds the animal world together. For only animals have the notion of doing something for a future reward. Plants just grow. Animals do things for a reason. A bird gathers twigs to build a nest. Bees gather pollen to feed the hive. I raise tomatoes to feed the insects which feed the birds with the side benefit of the occasional tomato for a salad or sandwich.

Chores are the glue that bind together any society. Failure to do chores foreshadows a decline in family or societal fortunes. Each day that the unpleasant necessaries of life are left undone is a step farther away from cohesion and a step closer to collapse. The discipline that comes from the daily grind of doing chores is the only defense we have against entropy—the drag of nature against order, the weeds that left untended will return entire cultures to the jungle.

Just like individuals, societies and their governments have chores to do. And just like individuals, governments that fail to tend to their chores are on a course for eventual collapse. Chores are about stewardship, the taking care of things.  Can there be any doubt that our governments have failed in their duties as stewards of the future? They have borrowed heavily from the next couple of generations to finance a lavish lifestyle that Mother Nature has been telling us we can no longer sustain. We put off doing what needs to be done, preferring instead to cling to false hopes and false dawns.

Gloomy thoughts on a gentle summer's night lit by fireflies and moonlight.