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.