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.