Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Writing on an empty mind

I have two habits that I do every morning. I write ten things that I'm grateful for. Then I write a morning page, you know, like The Artist's Way.

But I have a third habit that I justified in the morning with the excuse that I was looking for something to write about. I trawl the internet looking for topics to write about.

In the last few days, I've been working on a new habit. No internet prior to the gratitude list and the morning pages. I decided to do this for several reasons. First and foremost, to open the lines of communication between The Great Creator and my mind. The bargain I have with The Great Creator is this: I provide the quantity, He provides the quality. I consider this a great bargain because it allows me to reach farther, to stretch my mind, to find the last ounce of intelligence in my sleep-deprived brain (I'm raising two small children and the early morning is the best time for me to write).

The second reason is that for me, writing is a sort of meditation. The gratitude list and the morning pages are just for me. I just write for the sake of writing and nothing more. I write the gratitude list to show my creator, the one that I'm not even really sure exists, but that I have faith in, that I have gratitude at all. And I do. Believe me, there was a time in my life when I could find no gratitude in my poor beleaguered heart. Writing that list every day reminds me that there is something to be grateful for, whether things are going well or not.

The morning page is just that. I pour out everything that is on my mind there. Kids, wife, politics, some new thing I read about, whatever is on my mind, it goes there. I've found that writing that page empties my mind and prepares me for the day. Everything that I've really needed to say, but have no one to talk to about it, yeah, that goes there. I have friends I can call later to talk about this stuff, and I can talk to my wife, Alice. But I wake up long before the break of dawn to write, so there are few to talk to about it then, when it's pouring out onto my morning page. 

There is no purpose to the morning page other than to write. I fill up one page and I'm done. I move on. I don't worry about mistakes, or subject matter. The goal is to fill the page, no matter what.

These tasks prepare me for the next one: blogging. I believe that blogging is a healthy exercise. I blog for my audience to be sure, but in a way, it is a selfish act. I find and create content that I want to write about. Yet, there is something about writing that I love. Sharing it. Writing is just no fun if I can't share it world wide, instantly.

I do my research. And I do make mistakes, like yesterday, mistaking Illinois for Indiana. That was embarrassing. I blame that mistake on the game, Monopoly. But I fixed it from my car, using my phone. I'm not here to be anyone's hero. I write because I believe in the practice of civil discourse, of sharing ideas and letting you, the reader decide if you like what I write or not. 

My goal is to make a living as a writer, and that reminds me of Mark Twain who said, "Write for free until somebody pays you." So that's what I'm doing. I write because I enjoy writing. I share it with you because there is no greater satisfaction in writing anything than sharing it.

I start with an empty mind because I can't think of a better way to start the day and prepare to write.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Forgive them, for they know not what they do in Indiana

The hubris about a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" in Indiana swamps my Facebook timeline every so often. Post after post lobbed criticism at the governor and the lawmakers of that state in general, and rightly so. The overt point of the law is to allow businesses to justify refusal of service to anyone based upon a religious objection. The covert reason for the law is to support the idea that Christian business owners can discriminate against anyone considered to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transexual, aka, LGBT minorities for reasons based on religious belief.

The response to the law has been resounding. The most interesting response came from the CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff. Benioff has warned Indiana about the proposed law before it was passed and signed by governor Mike Pence. Benioff says that the new law goes against Salesforce' philosophy and that his company will stop or postpone all further travel plans for Indiana in protest of the law.

Governor Pence has pleaded with the press that all the law is designed to do is support the purported right of business owners to deny service to people based on religious objections. What he didn't say is that the primary religious objection supported by the law is the objection Christians may have to provide service to the LGBT community.

The waves of protests include numerous companies and groups that have called for boycotts of Indiana. Some streets were filled with protesters concerned that they too, will be denied service by righteous Christians asserting their good book in defense of their right to discriminate.

So I did some research to see if Jesus, the man of the hour, has ever been seen discriminating against anyone in the LGBT minority. The www.wouldjsesusdiscriminate.org website came to the top of the list on the first page of my search. They offer numerous Bible citations to show that Jesus did not discriminate against anyone for any reason. It seems that as far as Jesus was concerned, everyone needed help when he was alive.

This desire to express religious freedom through commercial activity seems pretty much at odds with a couple of of other principals of retail business. First and foremost, the customer is always right. If you piss off your customers, you're going to have trouble making rent. Second, I've seen signs in many restaurants indicating that they have the right to deny service for any reason at any time. True enough, there is nothing to stop any business from offering service. But that sign is usually for trouble-makers, not for emergency cases of skin color, non-conforming religion, gender or sexual orientation.

There is also little to stop the LGBT community (and everyone else) from forming a consumers union to consolidate their purchasing power and use it to undermine the law through boycotts and protests. Considering that most people have little to zero influence on national public policy, it is likely that same trend is reflected at the state level. Protests and boycotts are probably the only means we have left to reverse a statehouse gone wild, and they are a perfectly reasonable free market response to bad players in the market.

The Indiana legislature seems to have forgotten one important history lesson before passing that Religious Freedom Law. Remember those segregation and discrimination laws of the deep South before the Civil Rights Act? They were based on religious conviction. The Ku Klux Klan was an ardent promoter of discrimination and religious freedom, too. But they were a little different. They met at night, in secret, wore costumes designed to terrorize their victims and they backed up those costumes with violence, anonymously. Is that what you're trying to distance yourself from, Mr. Pence?

Yeah, you can have your religious freedom if you want it, but you must accept that liberty with the responsibility that comes with it. That responsibility is to respect the religious beliefs of others. Even if they have no religious beliefs. Freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion. Just ask any Christian living in Iran.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nature beats GMOs to feed the world with Heat Beater Beans

I had a feeling this might happen, but I couldn't articulate it until today. Now it has happened. Scientists have bred 30 strains of beans to be "heat beaters", that is, they can grow better in high heat conditions due to global warming. This is without genetic engineering or patents.

What were they saying? Oh, yeah. The GMO apologists were saying they were going to feed the world. Ha! Simple plant breeding will do a better job. Why? Nature is a lot smarter than we are. When we align our will with nature's will, we will surely prosper. But when we fail to do so, oh boy, do we suffer.

This effort highlights one of the problems that I see with GMOs. Even if the intention of GMO producers is to feed the world (and I don't think it is), their effort is forever impugned by their lust for patent royalties. The patents for glyphosphate resistant crops seem to have more to do with selling glyphosphate than feeding the world. That's the problem. Selfishness knows no bounds in the GMO business and they know it.

Genetically modified food is not about feeding people. It is about control over the food supply. Under those rules, he who owns the patents decides who may live and who may starve. Nature makes no such demands on people. Nature gives her seeds and genes freely, without seeking any silver.

Which wolf would you rather feed, the seed bearing, rent seeking patent troll or the scientist seeking to feed the world with free to share hybrids?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Right To Work" is just a race to the bottom

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that yet another state has passed a law that allows non-union workers to enjoy the benefits of union workers, without paying the dues. It's a fantastic plan to kill the unions in that state. Which state is it? Michigan. You know, the state with Motor City where the Big Three car makers (with unions) started out.

Their goal? To suppress wages in the faint hopes that with lower wages more jobs will be created. You might want to avoid that state if you're considering moving.

The WSJ is very tentative in their wording. They seem to think that it's difficult to determine if there is really a difference between Right To Work economies and the other kind, you know, the union kind. Nevermind that states that have raised the minimum wage have performed very well since doing so. There is considerable data to show at least some correlation with an improved local economy from a higher minimum wage. Business For A Fair Minimum Wage is website dedicated to this cause and they have recent evidence to show that raising the minimum wage does not cause job loss. So why all this effort to abuse unions?

Economist Dean Baker nails the logic of the Right To Work laws here. The economics are simple and devastating in their effect. He calls it "representation without taxation". Conservatives will hail Michigan's move as a vote of confidence in the free market. Actually, this is nothing of the kind. The government is intervening in the market, but on behalf of and in favor of employers.

Consider that unions should have the right to contract, just as individuals do. The new law impairs the right of a group of people to contract for work, nothing more. If the law precludes the right to negotiate a contract that requires everyone to pay the dues for the same benefits, that's an impairment of the right to contract. I suspect that our courts would agree. As Baker notes, in most states, you can get a job and work with a union shop, but you don't have a right to the union benefits. In a free market, this is what one would expect.

Right To Work laws amount to socialism of a different kind. The unions work hard to secure rights, benefits and pay and that costs money. When a worker enjoys the union benefits without paying the dues, the union suffers and soon, can no longer finance it's operations. This is the goal.

So if workers can't organize, how come businesses can? Ever heard of the Grocery Manufacturers Association? How about SMACNA, The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association? Many businesses are member of associations dedicated to supporting businesses. Now we wouldn't call them a union of businesses, but if they can join an association, they can "collaborate" and pool their resources to achieve political and economic goals.

Yet, we never see headlines about how some law or other would decimate their power, now, do we? I sure haven't. If businesses can join together in an association, why they must be acting like people, just like an association of people acting in union together. It seems funny that so few have questioned this collection of power in the hands of business. Well, not that funny.

Suffice it to say, when you see that a state has "Right To Work" laws, remember that just means that the government has intervened in the market in favor of the business, against the worker. Nothing more, nothing less. Right to Work laws have nothing to do with a free market, and have everything to do with suppressing wages and benefits. On the other hand, right to work laws are great for executives trying to justify a splurge on that vacation home on the coast of Spain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Secure boot is Microsoft's end game on Linux

If you prefer Linux over Windows, but buy OEM Windows machines because they're cheaper, get ready to start building your own computers. ArsTechnica reports that for Windows 10, Microsoft has grand plans to keep other operating systems out using Secure Boot technology according to they're preferences. They want their own walled garden, too - along with Apple and Amazon, and probably Google.

Secure Boot technology requires that certain cryptographic keys be loaded in the BIOS. The keys are used to verify that the code used to boot the computer has not been tampered with. The problem with this technology is that Microsoft has influenced the standard to make it hard to do the same thing for Linux and other alternatives. Secure Boot already has complicated life for non-technical people to install their own operating system if they want to.

I am one of those people that Microsoft will only irritate with their plan. I like to buy Windows computers from OEMs because they're cheaper than System76. When I say OEM, I mean companies like Dell, HP and Acer. For years, I've bought Windows computers because they're subsidized with crapware, advertising masquerading as free software. The free software usually comes at a cost. You get the trial version and have to upgrade later. You get the free version and submit to data collection and privacy policies that you might not always agree to. Most of it is either time consuming to remove or pretty damn hard to remove.

So when I buy a new OEM computer from Dell, I image the computer and store the image in a safe place. Then I wipe the computer and install Ubuntu Linux and proceed to set up the computer the way I want it to be. The near future plan for OEMs with Windows 10 will very likely preclude any of this. What Microsoft would like to do is restrict the boot process to prevent anything else from running on the device. They talk a good game when it comes to the free market, but honestly, they don't want competition.

When I saw the story about Windows 10, I was reminded of the epic battle between BeOS and Microsoft Windows and how BeOS lost in the dual boot wars. Some people like to be able boot either Windows or Linux. Back then, BeOS was trying to negotiate terms for dual boot with Microsoft, but Microsoft refused to or pretended to cooperate. Eventually, BeOS went bankrupt. Microsoft is using Secure Boot to prevent dual boot computers from being easy or even a reality.

Microsoft's goal to lock down the hardware has already been accomplished on their tablets and phones. It's now very difficult to root and install what you want on those devices, and I'm not sure I would want to bother with them. My main concern is the humble desktop computer and keeping them free. Just because I buy a computer with Windows installed doesn't mean I should be restricted as to what operating system I want to run. When I buy hardware, the hardware is mine to use as I see fit. I have no need for the Windows license and there have been some fringe cases where the buyers have sued to get the money for the Windows license back. And they've won in some cases.

This growing initiative seems to prove the point to me that the money in Windows is not made on the front end, it's made on the backend, the server side. Getting people to use Windows means that Windows servers must be used to provide certain content to those customers. Of course, much of the world depends on open standards of communications and web page design, much to the chagrin of Microsoft. They're dream is to have everyone programming for Internet Explorer so that everyone is running Windows.

But there will always be guys like me. We find Windows boring, stifling and ill-suited for general purpose computing. We want a shell that actually works. We want a choice of desktop environments. We want to use open file formats that don't change with each release of the software used to create the files.

If Microsoft is successful in locking down the desktop, I will again be looking at building my own computer to my own specification. I will ignore the OEMs and work with experienced builders to get the working life I want out of my computer. The computer I have now is a Dell XPS 8700 I bought from Costco. My plan is that it should be a 5 year computer at the least. With 12 GB of RAM and the top of the line i7 CPU (at the time I bought it anyway), it should last a good 5 years. Dell makes very reliable equipment and I expect that from them. But if the next line of Dell computers is locked down for Windows, I will look elsewhere.

Here are a few good alternatives if you would like to have a Plan B:

newegg.com (build your own, fights patent trolls, too)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The case for universal health care in the United States

Numerous outlets are reporting big news about glyphosphate, Monsanto's flagship herbicide: glyphosphate is a probable carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. Glyphosphate has been detected everywhere - in our water, in our water and in our soil. Genetically modified crops like soybeans and corn are touted as resistant to the herbicide and the claim upon their introduction into the market, with little oversight or public input, is that herbicide use would decrease. The reality is that herbicide used has increase by 500 million pounds annually since 1996 as a result of the use of these crops.

There is also a link between glyphosphate and autism. Researchers analyzed the records over 20 years and found a strong correlation between the prevalence of autism and the use of glyphosphate. There are, unfortunately, no big companies willing to step up and take responsibility for these trends. Not even Monsanto.

The neoliberal policies of the conservative right have consistently and successfully lobbied against higher tax rates for corporations in general. But the biggest companies have financed the campaigns of the most ardent supporters of more taxes for the common man and tax breaks for the biggest polluters. Worse, in agriculture, conventional crops get all the subsidies, while organic crops go without. Pretty cool, huh?

In this context, universal health care as a right makes sense. Since 99% of Americans have near zero influence on public policy, we can be almost sure that universal health care will not be a part of our lives in my lifetime. But the new generation of kids may not be so kind to the current generation of the "For the last time, I'm not a scientist!" conservative politician.

Given all the pollution that is around us, universal health care makes sense. From cars, to household cleaners, to fracking, coal ash spills, to GMOs, if corporations won't pay for the costs through regulation, they can pay for it through taxation. We currently spend 18% of GDP on health care, twice as much as every other industrialized country in the world. Of course, that is trending down as a result of Obamacare. The Congressional Budget has projected that the cost of Obamacare and overall spending on health care will continue to see a slowdown of increases over the next 10 years.

Universal health care financed by an employment, corporate or business tax means that average people can force corporations to pay for the costs of pollution. We could assess the tax based on the amount of pollution emitted by the entity, but that gets complicated in a hurry. Assessing a flat tax based on the number of employees and gross income could be enough to cover the costs. I'm sure there are economists, you know, scientists, who can figure this out. 

Creating a single payer system that pays all the bills and collects all the records would make it easier to spot trends associated with pollution and illness. The single payer plan would create an entity powerful enough to recover costs associated with say, GMOs and/or glyphosphate use. Such an entity could have the legal power needed to bankrupt or dissolve a corporation that is not willing to pay up when charged with massive pollution and when a demand is made to pay for the health care costs associated with the damage done.

Perhaps this is the real reason why single payer plans are so opposed by the right. It's not the cost. It's the data collection. If a single agency collected enough data to show a correlation between the costs of health care and the use of a particular herbicide, pesticide or of a particular pollutant, why, that might be actionable! Having thousands of health insurance companies out there provides a convenient shroud to make it harder to find the data needed to make the association between pollutant and the cost of a health issue.

Nearly every industrialized country in the world offers universal health care, and in most countries, it's a hit. Here's a map to get an idea of who's in and who's not. There is no reason why it cannot work here. 

Oh, wait. We do have a single payer plan. It's called Medicare, and it is one of the biggest controls on health care costs that we know of outside of Obamacare. Republicans want to privatize it out of existence. Democrats want to expand it to everyone. Which solution do you prefer? The one that will almost certain exacerbate inequality and shorten the lives of the middle class? Or the one that will give the middle class some breathing room and opportunity to grow?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Might is right is a fraud

In recent days, I found an interesting Facebook page called Collective Evolution (they're on Google Plus and they have a website, too). They've produced 3 full length feature films that are all available on YouTube (which I've yet to see). I like what they're promoting and was pleasantly surprised to see this last night:

I've always believed this, but have never really articulated this idea in quite this way. It is a profound statement of the human condition. I came to believe this because I was bullied in school. I came to believe then that the bullies, with greater physical mass or agility, were dedicating their brain cells to the use of their muscles rather than the thinking power. 

I believe that if you choose might over right, you are making a tacit admission that you are unable to negotiate peace, that you don't believe your needs will be met and, lacking the skill of getting along with others, you are weak. Force is the simpler choice because your brain can't handle peace. It's too complicated.

At once when I saw that meme, I thought immediately of Benjamin Netanyahu, and his allies in Congress, with their incessant calls for war with Iran. The United States has been at war for 222 years out of 239 years in existence. That means we have only had 21 years of peace, an astounding fact to consider, especially if you love this country. That also means every trade agreement, every peace accord, every interaction we have with another country is backed by the threat of force.

A long time ago, someone told me about the two wolves story. It goes like this:







So for most of our existence as the United States, we've been feeding war, and war is evil. There is no such thing as a good war. People die in wars, innocent people, who have nothing to do with the war, and evil people will profit from war, using innocent people as collateral damage. People who engage in war will find every justification for war, but none for peace. It's an addiction. They will even claim that war will bring peace, but it only brings more war.

The reason for this is that if you feed war, you starve the thinking power. Consider how we were lied into the war in Iraq. No yellow cake, weapons of mass destruction or any link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks were ever found. Yet, they were all pretenses for the war. The American people were advised by our leaders at the time, not to think about the war, just to do it. Let us get started with the war. Let us send your sons and daughters to die in a war over political power, oil and pride. For the United States. For Israel. For God. For country.

The war siphoned resources away from the people. Instead of paying for infrastructure, we got bombs of destruction. Instead of paying for education to nurture the thinking power, we got the power to destroy other people without thinking. Instead of giving people the health care they needed, we got an endlessly polluting war.

I've seen how this works on a very personal level. I've been very angry when I was a kid because I was bullied, but I really wanted just to be left alone. I believed that being bullied would scare the other kids away from being friends with me. That I would look crazy in front of the girls upon whom I had crushes on. I was probably right given the crazy advice I got from my dad.

I was taught by my father to fight rather than to make friends with other people when dealing with bullies. By learning to fight, I learned to harness my anger for aggression when bullied. I remember how I felt when I hit the adversary. No thinking, just action. And when it was done, I was sitting in the principal's office, crying. Just wanting the bullies to stop and leave me alone. In peace.

The adrenaline of conflict threw all thinking out the window. I became more interested in revenge than learning. There is no way around it. If you're thinking about revenge, you cannot think about finding ways to prosper with your fellows. You can only do one or the other, not both. There is no other way. Believe me, I've tried and failed miserably.

But had my father taught me how to make friends, I might have been surrounded by friends when the bully approached me. I would have had the peace I needed to complete high school and go on to college. I would not have spent the next 30 years of my life struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. So I'm here to tell you, as a fellow man and to our country, you have a choice. 

You can choose war or you can choose to think your way to peace, contentment and a long life. Which one do you want? I choose to err on the side of peace. I hope you do, too.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

ESPN - the ultimate moocher, takes lesson from Microsoft playbook

Community Broadband Networks ran a very interesting story about how ESPN3, the internet streaming service of ESPN is making a powerplay against ISPs. Cable companies that are also ISPs are seeing cord cutting nationwide and are working hard to recover their revenue losses. The television networks are no different.

Seeing the weakness in the cable television market, ESPN is playing hardball as noted by Levi C. Maaia, president of Full Channel Labs and a graduate research fellow at the Center for Education Research on Literacies, Learning & Inquiry in Networking Communities (LINC) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The story is short and fascinating but, what caught my eye was this passage:
"As cord-cutters drop their cable and satellite subscriptions in favor of online streaming, TV networks are scrambling to compensate for this lost revenue.  ESPN3 is doing so by imposing a cable TV-like payment structure on Internet delivery using a model that congress and consumers have decried for decades as inflexible and expensive. These additional costs are already being factored into Internet service pricing, as ESPN3 reaches deals with the Internet providers of tens of millions of customers. If ESPN continues to be successful with this model, we can expect that other content providers will follow suit and it may not be just the cable TV networks that adopt this method. ISPs might be compelled to negotiate per-subscriber fees for access to content across the Web."
ESPN is negotiating contracts that essentially say, "You'll pay for us whether you watch us or not." Upon reading that passage, I'm reminded of Microsoft licensing for OEM computer manufacturers like Dell and Acer. They had a very similar tactic. A typical licensing agreement with Microsoft imposed a license fee on every computer made, regardless if Windows was installed or not.

I don't know about you, but to me, that sort of contract strikes me as akin to extortion. ESPN seeks to compel every subscriber for an ISP to pay for ESPN, whether they watch it or not. I must admit that I hated this arrangement under Comcast when I was their subscriber then. I hate ESPN with a passion, and this news is just gasoline on the fire for me. Why? Because now, ESPN would like me to subsidize all the sports nuts out there through the subscription fee I pay for internet access. They take no quarter and will work relentless to provide no escape for people who don't watch sports. Like me.

If you love to watch sports on ESPN, you can rest assured that guys like me have been subsidizing you guys for years so you can pay a lower fee and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. ESPN should not be on the basic tier, or I should at least be able to cut them out. But that's not what ESPN wants, no sir. Free market be damned. They want me to support those sports lovers, and they can do it because there is no competition in the cable TV industry or the internet service industry.

From now on, when I see "ESPN", I will think "moocher".

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Inequality predicts corruption

Imagine for a moment, that you're on the playground as a nine year old kid. You've just been assaulted by the local bully so you talk to the monitor. She asks if anyone else saw it happen. Sure, so you name names of people who were there. But no one is talking. Why? The bully has paid everyone off. Where did he get the money to pay everyone off? Extortion from the very kids who saw what happened. This is the current state of American inequality in a nutshell.

Granted, there are people who actually worked to make their money, and they work hard. The problem is, that once someone has "made it" beyond the point where he has to every day to ensure his survival, it is possible for attitudes to change.

This morning, I found a paper which claims to be the first systematic study of the relationship between inequality and corruption. In many ways, what we're seeing in American politics looks a lot like the scene on the playground. An oil company does something wrong, you know, like Deepwater Horizon. After years of legal wrangling, the government discovers that the political will to punish the company simply isn't there. Not in Congress, not in the justice system. And when I say "punish" I mean to seriously disrupt the business so that it can no longer function.

In my mind, Deepwater Horizon should have been the end of BP. Litigation should have killed that company, with the assets sold off and the executives in jail. None of that happened. This is likely because BP has enough money to buy the influence it needs to buy the protection needed to keep the company going.

Here's an interesting economic and legal analysis on the Wikipedia page concerning that oil spill:
"In January 2013, Transocean agreed to pay US$1.4 billion for violations of the US Clean Water Act. BP had earlier agreed to pay $2.4 billion but faces additional penalties that could range from $5 billion to $20 billion.[57] In September 2014, Halliburton agreed to settle a large percentage of legal claims against them by paying $1.1 billion into a trust by way of three installments over two years.[58] On 4 September 2014, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled BP was guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct under the Clean Water Act (CWA). He described BP's actions as "reckless," while he said Transocean's and Halliburton's actions were "negligent." He apportioned 67% of the blame for the spill to BP, 30% to Transocean, and 3% to Halliburton. BP issued a statement strongly disagreeing with the finding, and saying the court's decision would be appealed.[59]"
The upper bound for financial liability ascribed to the companies involved is about $20 billion. It has been estimated that BP earns about $93m in profits every day. If the eventual punitive cost of the disaster works out to $20b, BP can pay it off in less than a year, or about 215 days. The most likely scenario is that they will be able to spread the cost out over time and they will find ways to use the eventual judgement as a way to mitigate their tax liability.

No one goes to jail. Everyone at the top skates. This is what inequality can do. Inequality can influence the outcome of events in ways that defy the merits of political and legal decisions. We saw it in Deepwater, we saw it on the subprime mortgage scandal, we saw it with HSBC and their laundering of nearly a billion dollars of drug money.

The paper cited above also notes that inequality actually predicts for corruption. In other words, where there is greater inequality, there is greater motive and opportunity for corruption. To put it differently, a wealthy man may never has to go to jail for his crimes because he can often pay everyone else off to prevent actual jail time.

This is the strongest argument yet against Reaganomics. Trickle Down economics doesn't work, it only makes everyone else more desperate for money, so they're more compliant and willing to accept corruption as normal behavior. Don't believe me? Just ask the Kids for Cash Judge, a judge who was convicted of sending kids to a private detention center for money. He's probably the tip of the iceberg, the only one who got caught. How many more are out there?

Reducing inequality helps to remove the incentives for corruption and acceptance of the same. When more people have more money, they will not just accept the conditions around them. They will be empowered to effect change.

Reducing inequality is not just about money, it's about time, too. When people are working 2 or 3 jobs just to pay their bills, they don't have time to mind their government. Reducing inequality means giving people time to relax and charge up for another week of work. That time can also be used to engage with the government so that their voices can be heard.

The current state of inequality in America provides little breathing room for the poorest of Americans. Given that 93% of the economic gains in the last 5 years have gone to the top 1%, it is hard to believe that the top 1% are interested at all in reform, but they may not rest assured that some sort of reform is impossible to achieve.

As with many other social movements, the inequality movement is young yet, and it may be another ten years or so before effective change can be made. But as we saw with women's suffrage, civil rights and equal rights, it is an eventuality. Why? The wealthy still need everyone else to be wealthy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Big Pharma's perversion: patents

The DailyBeast has a very interesting article about the numerous problems with our pharmaceutical industry. TV advertising, clinical trial fraud, tit-for-tat payments to doctors for prescribing drugs, a Good ol' Boy club of physicians and a government complicit in helping the whole thing along. What we have now is a nation where 70% of the population is taking prescription drugs.

While the article is very interesting, what is more interesting is what is missing. Patents.

Patents give rise to this mess. The royalties are so lucrative that Big Pharma is willing to go to any length, good health be damned, to sell their drugs to anyone and everyone, even if they don't really need them. How do we know this? We know because the FDA has come down on Big Pharma numerous times for encouraging doctors to prescribe drugs for uses not originally intended. Whatever it takes, right?

The entire pharmaceutical industry can be described as a rent seeker. The patents are a government granted monopoly that gives Big Pharma the leverage it needs to jack up the cost. Once a high floor is established, then it's time to advertise, network and get that drug out there so people can use it. One problem with this strategy: prescription drugs are now the 3rd leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.

The patents on prescription drugs add at least $300 billion to the cost of health care, according to Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic Policy Research. He notes with interest how one drug, Novartis, a drug that sells here for $70,000, sells in India for $3500. This is not the free market at work, my friends. This is how patents work and patents are turning our medical system into a sort of mafia. Perhaps now we can see why some countries have made health care free for every citizen. A single payer system can smack down the leverage patents can have on the market.

There is also considerable evidence that patents do nothing to increase innovation in the market. Michelle Boldrin and David Levine, have devoted an entire chapter of their book, Against Intellectual Monopoly, to this one subject alone. Their thorough research on the history of drug development with and without patents has shown us that in countries without patents, we actually see more drug discoveries in drug manufacturing than we do with patents. This same duo has made a strong case for the abolition of all patents in a report they published at the Federal Reserve.

There are better ways to finance drug research. We could pay for our research upfront rather than with patent royalty rewards. Baker notes, "Paying for research upfront rather than through government-granted patent monopolies would eliminate the incentive to lie about the safety and effectiveness of drugs. It would also allow for much faster progress since all results would be fuller public so that researchers could more easily build on each other’s findings."

Government funded research upfront could be open sourced, so that more people are involved in the process of drug discovery, we have more transparency and that would lead to safer drugs. That in turn could reduce our health costs as a nation and provide better outcomes. Not just for ourselves, but for the world. This is how we can oust the Big Pharma mafia.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Are anti-nukes giving coal a free pass?

On a near weekly basis, I see headlines about some sort of ecological disaster. The gamut includes oil spills, fracking pollution, gas fires, coal ash spills and the list goes on. Carbon energy pollution is a never ending stream of abuses upon the earth. Do we see environmentalists rising up against carbon energy the way they line up to defeat nuclear energy? Not as far as I can see. Well, OK, they did manage a short-lived divestment campaign to get money out of carbon energy industries. But nuclear power? People will fill the streets against that in America.

When a permit for a nuclear power plant is sought, an army of environmentalists will be there. Poisoning the well, preventing meaningful dialog on the topic of nuclear energy "because there is no future in nuclear". Well, if that were the case, France would not have 75% of their power supplied by nuclear power. Who cares if after the oil crisis in the 70s, France engineered an economical nuclear power response in about 15 years. Here are some interesting facts about France from Wikipedia:
"As of 2012, France's electricity price to household customers is the seventh-cheapest amongst the 27 members of the European Union, and also the seventh-cheapest to industrial consumers, with a rate of €0.14 per kWh to households and €0.07 per kWh to industrial consumers. France was the biggest energy exporter in the EU in 2012, exporting 45TWh of electricity to its neighbours. During very cold or hot periods demand routinely exceeds supply due to the lack of more flexible generating plants, and France needs to import electricity."
In 15 years, 56 plants were built and put into production. That would never happen in the US thanks to environmentalists who seem to prefer coal, oil and gas to nuclear power.

Never mind that carbon waste is a far more toxic carcinogen than radiation. Never mind that radiation released from Fukishima did not create the environmental disaster that is being claimed by the media and environmentalists. Fish is safe to eat as far as radiation is concerned. Thyroid cancers were lower near the reactor than in surrounding areas. The Fukishima evacuation zone is still mostly habitable. The Fukishima death toll is too small to measure. That is what we can learn when we read articles from nuclear scientists who do the research to see what really happened. But don't worry, you won't hear that kind of news from anti-nuclear environmentalists. Remember, the goal is to win at any cost. Even if the cost is more CO2 in the air, coal ash in the water and or exploding rail cars on land.

In surveying the damage from nuclear power plants and comparing them to the damage from any carbon based energy plants, I'll take a nuclear power plant any day. But I'm not just talking any nuclear power plant. The plants currently in production run at very high pressures and do not have passive safety built in. They do not use waste as fuel for fuel cycling.

The GenIV power plants will have that built in. Fukishima was built on 1950s technology. The Chernobyl design was a crazy design that was never replicated anywhere else in the world and scientists familiar with that plant know this. Yet, most people think of Chernobyl first when they think of nuclear disasters.

I'm talking about thorium molten salt reactors, the design Alvin Weinberg promoted for civilian use from day one. Weinberg invented the light water reactor and the molten salt reactor, so he should know.

Consider also, the attitude towards safety of the carbon energy industry. With almost bottomless pockets, they can fend all but the most concerted political and legal attacks on their industry. They can also use that money to thwart the nuclear power industry (and renewable power) as they have done so in the past.

Could it be that the antinuclear movement is just a useful tool for carbon energy interests? I think so..

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

California is running low on water and looks to the sea for help

The Guardian recently ran a headline story informing us that California has only a year of water left. This picture of the very lean snowpack on the mountains is not very encouraging, perhaps even a bit unnerving.

Yet, there are some who say that the situation in California isn't all that dire. Weather.com is running a story on the same subject and here is what Jay Lund, director at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, has to say: "It's not the right impression (to say) that one more year of this and we're toast. There's quite a bit more water left in groundwater, but a little bit less every year, because they're pumping it out to make up for the drought."

So water desalination is reaching the top of the to-do list again. In Carlsbad, California, after nearly a decade of political fighting, permitting and lawsuits, a water desalination plant is preparing for production. The plant is controversial for many reasons, the primary one being that it will be energy intensive and much more expensive than other means of fresh water production. After all, Nature already knows how to make fresh, potable water.

Water desalination has other problems. like what to do with the salt. I like sea salt, really. But what are we going to do with the brine that comes from desalination? I think that is a minor problem compared to the other problem, where are we going to get the green energy to support such efforts.

Yes, we could use solar power, but in my search for solar powered desalination projects, I could not find a single commercial scale plant in operation yet. Most are still in development or testing stages. Although it seems possible to supply water to many people just for desalination, I don't see that happening on a large scale with solar power.

Ultimately, we will need a compact, small footprint solution to power desalination. Alvin Weinberg, invented the light water nuclear reactor and the molten salt nuclear reactor. Seawater desalination is one of the uses he had in mind for waste heat from a molten salt reactor. The reactor would run on thorium, an element that is plentiful in the crust of the earth. There are many benefits to thorium reactors and they are far cleaner than coal or gas fired power plants. There is even one company that claims that with modular power plant construction, energy production would be cheaper than coal in about 4 years.

The use of waste heat from nuclear power plants for industrial uses, like desalination, doesn't get much press. That's because the vast majority of power plants are light water reactors. Thorium molten salt reactors run at temperatures far higher than light water reactors. This can provide the excess heat needed to desalinate water. All Generation IV reactors are being designed to run at a higher temperature for greater efficiency. The higher temperatures will allow for excess heat to be used for industrial processes. But thorium, being far more abundant, holds a definite advantage. The main obstacle holding it back in the US is a regulatory framework that would permit its use as a nuclear fuel.

New desalination techniques hold promise for greater efficiency and waste management. Here is one that relies on a temperature differential between the sea water and cold distilled water. Other processes rely upon pressure to pass the water through a filter. Either way, energy is required to separate the salt from the water. The concentrated brines are a problem, but they can be a solution. In fact they have many environmentally friendly industrial uses, described here. We may find that desalination is better than mining, after all.

Perhaps now, with the impending water crisis on the horizon, the political will to bring thorium molten salt reactors online for seawater desalination will appear. Just in time.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The unsustainability of GMOs

There is just no way that GMOs can feed the world. That's not how they're designed to work. They're designed to line pockets with patent royalties. Besides, nature has already figured out how to feed the world and has been doing that for hundreds of millions of years. Every year, nature gets better at doing it, too. Every year, life becomes more tenacious, despite the idiocy of humans worldwide.

First, set aside all the dangers and problems with GMOs and put this in a practical perspective. There are 7 billion people on the planet. Imagine the humble sippy cup. I have several of them. If you have raised kids, you've bought a few. Someone has to make them. Someone has to extract the materials from the earth to get the feedstock needed to manufacture the sippy cup using injection molding plastic. 

A reasonable question to ask is this: is there enough resources on the planet to create, market and sell 7 billion sippy cups to each and every human? Obviously, most of us don't need sippy cups since we're either adults or well on the way to adulthood. But as a thought experiment, I'd say it's simply not practical to make 7 billion sippy cups in a year.

Such a project is unbelievably damaging to the environment, economically impractical and ignores many natural alternatives.

This is the problem with GMOs. Proponents claim that GMOs are here to feed the world. Yet, as a practical matter, there isn't enough resources on the planet to feed everyone with GMOs. This is especially true when nature had this figured out long before we came along.

GMOs are relatively recent technology, with a commercial introduction in the early 1990s, and no long term safety testing. Setting aside all the dangers, and liabilities associated with GMOs, let's look at the practical matter of growing GMOs for the world. The seeds have to be distributed worldwide. Farmers need to pay the patent licenses to grow and sell the crops. Farmers will also have to buy the chemicals used to support the crops. In most cases, these chemicals are made from oil.

If you buy GMOs (it's hard to tell since they're not labeled), you should know that you are indirectly supporting the oil industry. Oil is used to make the pesticides that must be sprayed on the GMOs in order to ensure a good crop. Worse, pests are developing resistance to the weed killers and insecticides that are used to support GMOs. The amount of oil devoted to this enterprise is probably not easy to calculate. But it should be clear that the farm workers who apply the pesticides dress in full bunny suites with breathing filters to avoid the harmful effects of said poisons.

How many bunny suits will need to be made to protect the workers growing the crops for 7 billion people? Never mind that we already produce enough food to feed about 14 billion people mostly without GMOs. Only the wealthiest nations will be able to afford these GMOs. Which buttresses my point. GMOs are not about feeding the world. They are about lining pockets. From royalties to inflated crop prices, to the demise of the family farm, there is no reason to expect that we can feed the world on GMOs alone. It's not possible, practical or even safe.

It is also worth noting that the UN has commissioned a report to show that small scale organic farming is the only sustainable way to feed the world. A world filled with pesticides, herbicides and insecticides is not good for anyone, especially the next generation of children. Do we want to leave behind a world where food only grows when a commercial chemical is required to be applied before we can harvest it?

I doubt such a world is even remotely sustainable. But you won't hear that from Monsanto, Dow or Syngenta and Bayer. They're too busy lining their pockets to think of the rest of us.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Great Pacific garbage patch, and a spot of hope

Years ago, I read about a great big trash patch, a place in the Pacific Ocean where much of the floating plastic goes. Estimates on the size of the patch vary, from the size of Texas, to twice the size of the US because the particles are too small to see from a boat or satellite. Particles big enough to see from a boat deck are uncommon.

Where does it come from? Coastal populations with poor waste management. Estimates show that the bulk of it comes from China, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand running a distant second place. Some estimates suggest that human pollution will only increase with time until contributing countries get a handle on the pollution.

When I think of the plastic in the ocean, I also see in my mind, the plastic on the side of the road. My policy is that nothing gets out of my car unless it's going to the trash bin or the kitchen (like groceries). We will keep it in the car for as long as it takes to get it to the trash, thank you.

From time to time I think of that trash vortex when I'm driving to work. I see us driving around in shiny cars, hoping not to hit anything. I see us, working to achieve some sort of status or goal, oblivious to what is going on around us. Some of us wear new clothes, a gold watch, or new shoes. Some of us are in nice homes with a family and friends. Some of us are well to do, with money in the bank and time to spare. But most of us are not thinking about where our refuse goes.

Is there any hope for mankind? Yes, actually, there is. At least a spot of hope. There is The Ocean Cleanup project. It is a foundation running as a business and the primary goal is to clean up the ocean. The Ocean Cleanup is developing a way to automatically clean up the ocean while allowing the winds and the currents to bring the trash to it. The machines used to collect the trash are solar powered and automated. This is the only way we're going to be able to do it.

The other half of the work is prevention. That means getting all coastal countries on board with collecting their trash before it goes to sea. Sure, there are treaties that regulate pollution of the sea, like this one, but public awareness of the problem will do more than any treaty can do.

I also find it interesting that in the few searches I did today, I didn't see any billionaires spearheading an effort to clean up the oceans. There are no major government funded programs to clean up the oceans, either. This suggests that we're not really that serious about cleanup yet. Perhaps we will have to wait until the public consciousness makes the connection between human health and ocean health.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

47 men and a bomb

It is hard not to notice that 47 Senators sent a letter to Iran declaring their intention to kill any nuclear deal with Iran. The goal, as Senator Tom Cotton said, is "total nuclear disarmament". The press and social media seem mixed on the severity of the charges to be leveled against those Congressmen. Some say, "disqualification", while others say they should be charged with "treason" under The Logan Act.

Considering that some of the signers of that letter are backtracking already, a good dose of embarrassment might just be enough punishment. While Marco Rubio might parlay the letter into funding for his next campaign, perhaps we could consider the ramifications of such action.

I see this action by Congress as an obvious effort to assert their power against a president they see as uncooperative on many issues. A president who has managed to outmaneuver Congress on nearly every major issue. So they did an end-run by communicating with a Iran's leadership directly to undermine the president's foreign policy agenda. In short, they said that if the GOP ever gets in the White House, any agreement signed today will be history. Here is a thoughtful analysis of where the power may be found by the president and the Congress.

On its face, the letter seems like an invitation to war, but Congress would prefer that it not be nuclear war. I'm sure they have some vision of "shock and awe" in the style of George Bush, never mind that another war could set us back 10 or more years and another trillion down the drain. But hey, if you're a defense contractor, at least you know who to call, right? You'll have 47 guys who are happy to increase funding for your weapons.

There is a flipside that Republicans seem unwilling to consider. If you make a nuclear deal with Iran so onerous that they won't buy in, then they will likely sign the deal and conduct their work in secrecy. Weapons are like that. People who really want them will find a way to get them. But if we sign a deal now, just to permit nuclear power, at least we can have some supervision going into it.

Besides, there are numerous options for dealing with proliferation. Power plants can be designed to use and create materials that are not weapons grade. We can find ways to monitor what goes in and what goes out, and Iran gets a power plant that works for them and works for us.

Let's not forget that their nemesis, Israel, already has nuclear weapons and they are probably not afraid to use them if they get backed into a corner by Iran or any other Arab nation. Iran, fresh with new leadership, is probably more interested in detente than war. If we give them some outlet to at least create the power supplies they need to run their country, then they might not be so tempted to go nuclear.

I'm surprised that Iran isn't building a world class solar power plant right about now. Imagine what would happen to world politics if Iran and the rest of the middle east went solar, instead. They could just sell solar power to the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A practical fascination with tech

I've had a computer around me for much of my life, starting in high school with an Apple IIe. I wanted dearly to play with that computer more and learn more about programming, but it was not for me. It was for my dad who became addicted to playing military simulations from SSI. The game and the computer were advertised as the $2000 wargame in Scientific American. I did manage to get some time in playing in Apple Basic, but Dad was there most of the time, playing until his fingers got numb.

I had the bug from that point on. Not as a programmer, but as someone curious about tech. Maybe I got the bug from the little box radio my parents bought for me for Christmas or for my birthday when I was 5. The radio turned on when I pulled it open and when I closed it, it turned off. That was the first electronic technology that I ever had. It was transistor technology that was still about 15 years old, just smaller due to advances from the space program.

As I grew up, I was the one to figure out how to program the VCR when we got one. I figured out the cable system and the remote controls. Whenever the family got new tech, or some shiny new gadget, I was at the ready to read the manual and set it up.

As a young adult, I always had a computer in my abode. I started with the C64 from Commodore, a computer I bought from my sister. At the time, I did not seriously consider programming (why bother when I was going to be a sheetmetal worker, anyway?), but I learned enough to know how to run the computer and run applications I wanted to use, mostly games. Then I found that I wanted something to help me balance my checkbook. But on the C64, it was all command line, and I really wasn't ready for that.

I did some shopping and found the PC and the Amiga. I hated the PC already and fell in love with the Amiga. I didn't even consider the Mac. I really don't know why. But the Amiga had a certain appeal to me. I liked the colors I guess and the Mac was still in black and white then. I spent about 4 years on the Amiga 500 and 3000 before I finally succumbed to the market and bought a used Macbook. It was an Apple Powerbook 145b, I think.

Sometime in 1997, I got a windows machine, because I just tired of the slow, clunky, black and white Mac. I laughed when I went shopping for software and found so much to choose from. I was running Windows 95 and somewhat happier at that point. Then I got an upgrade to Windows 98. That was OK, too.

But the turning point for me came when I took classes in Windows NT. Then I learned how to install an operating system. I started to think of computers as commodities rather than something that I just used. Once I began to see the hard drive as a mutable, flexible storage appliance for my operating environment, applications and data that I create, my attitude towards computers changed.

From that time on, I began to see that I had choices. I had choices, that at the time were limited to Windows. That was around 1999. In 2001, I bought my first copy of Red Hat. I downloaded a copy of Gentoo Linux and spent the night trying to get it to run. I did a lot of experimentation from about 2001 to 2007. I had developed an interest in Linux.

Linux has done for me what Windows steadfastly refused to do: let me control my computer. Linux gave me the freedom to use different file formats, new desktop concepts like virtual desktops, and a command line shell that I can actually use, Bash. I started again with Ubuntu and ordered a free CD. I had a Windows computer and managed to find a spare for cheap from work. Once I installed Linux on the spare computer, the exploration got deeper, much more interesting.

By 2007, I always had a Windows computer and a Linux computer running side by side. By using Windows and Linux side by side, I saw what I needed and what I didn't need. I started setting priorities and found that for the most part, browser, office and music, Linux did the job. I was at the precipice, ready to make the leap.

Then in the summer of 2007, with my fiance at my side, I decided to use only Linux and never look back. I wanted to see how long I could go without windows. Eventually, my wife said, "When the antivirus expires on my computer, set me up with Linux." Since then, we have been a Linux house.

The difference between Linux and Windows that is important to me is more philosophical than technical, since many of the concepts used in general purpose computing can be found in both. Both have windowing metaphors, both have a command line, both have file systems and networking. But Linux has something that Windows does not: a philosophy that says that one user on a multiuser system cannot destroy the work of another user. Linux is a true multi-user system and is built to run on networks. Windows was not built that way but it is made to do so, begrudgingly.

There is another difference in philosophy that I would like to point out. While Windows says "This is it. There is nothing more to see beyond this desktop," Linux says, "Hey, check out what you can do with Bash, Python, Perl and Java. Try out KDE, Gnome, XFCE or any number of desktops and distributions. There is something for everyone here."

Most kids today don't know how to install an operating system. They tend to take technology at face value. But there is a lesson to be learned from general purpose computers. General purpose computers are pliable, malleable, and can be made to do what we want them to do. Having a spare computer around for exploration and experimentation is great for the kids, if that is the direction they want to go.

I'm raising two kids now. I see that in the not too distant future, attempts will be made to eliminate the general purpose computer, but they will not be completely successful. There will always be a clean slate to work with in a PC chassis. CPU, motherboard, storage, networking and display will all be there. As long as the storage can be wiped and a new operating system can be installed, I will be there, teaching my kids about how computers work.

This is not to say that I'm going to push that on them, but I believe that anyone who works with computers should know something about how they work. From installing an operating system, to backing up your files, to installing applications and basic networking, we should at least know how to do that if we're going to use them. It's not too much to ask of our schools and of parents.

To me, my fascination with tech has had many practical uses and has given me the freedom to use the tech I want to use when I want to use it. When I look beyond Windows, I see many wonderful and useful choices. I hope you do, too.

Monday, March 09, 2015

An introduction to Interpol (the band)

I know I'm dating myself here, but I thought you should know that if you're a fan of the rock of the 80's, there is still hope for you. When I was a teenager, I found relief from British Invasion Rock in KROQ, when it was a great station. They were playing bands like Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, Devo and Wall of Voodoo. Very unusual, very eclectic, very far from the beaten path of Classic Rock stations like KMET and KLOS. I was hooked. Even as a middle aged man, I still go back from time to time to listen to those tunes.

About a decade ago (wow, it's been that long), I was sampling tracks on eMusic and found Interpol's "Turn On the Bright Lights". After listening to about 20-30 seconds of 3 of their tracks, I liked them enough to buy the CD as a set of digital tracks. I've been a fan ever since. I am particularly fond of "PDA", "Say Hello To The Angels" and "Obstacle 1".

Interpol has a great bass/drum combo that drives their music and that makes a great foundation for anything else they lay on top. It's 5 men with 3 guitars, a keyboard and drum kit. There isn't much keyboards in their music, so you might not see them as a New Wave kind of band like I do. But upon hearing the guitar riffs and lead vocals of Paul Banks, I am reminded at once of "Anarchy" by the Sex Pistols.

While I do enjoy the music from this band, that is just part of the reason why I'm posting this article. There is another much more interesting reason. Over the last few weeks, I've taken to YouTube to find live footage of bands I love or just happen to enjoy. I've located great footage of Natalie Merchant and some not so great recordings of Stereolab and Peter Murphy.

But this video of an Interpol concert produced by the BBC, is fantastic in every respect. Taken in 2014 at sunset in Glasgow, Scotland, the video captures the mood of the sunset and the concert together. The golden sunlight, the shadows, the textures, the music, it all comes out in striking relief.

The band dresses smartly, plays with dignity and as one would hope, in tune with their original work. In fact, I think it would be hard to distinguish between a track on their LP and the same song played at that concert. They are very accurate in reproducing their studio work, so there doesn't seem to be that much improvisation of their music.

I was very impressed with their renditions, and found a new song I liked that I don't have yet, "Not Even Jail" (starting at 12:32 in the video). I enjoyed the bass beat, the match of the melodies with the impending twilight and the rhythms of the drums. I especially enjoyed the introduction of the song as Banks adjusts the distortion on his guitar. The expression on his face is serious, but we also see that he's enjoying himself with the rest of the band.

To me, that song has all the classic elements I look for in music as a New Wave song, even if Interpol has been described as "Post-Punk". I had "Not Even Jail" running through my head yesterday and found it particularly enjoyable to watch again as the video has times and songs listed below so you can jump to wherever you want to start. I suggest watching from start to finish the first time if you have 49 minutes to spare.

I don't know if this is your cup of tea, but I hope you have a chance to catch the video and see for yourself if it is. You might find it a worthy discovery to save for future enjoyment.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sorry conservatives, the free market allows for damages from pollution

Conservatives like to paint themselves as champions of the free market. I see it all the time, yet, when someone damages the environment, they are quick to forgive. For some reason, they have a hard time acknowledging the fact that adequate damages should be sought in the case of environmental damages. Here is a great example floating around on social media this morning:

Sure enough, newswires and papers are running with the story, showing a suspicious conflict of interest between an attorney working on the settlement and Exxon, the oil company at issue. The attorney was appointed by Chris Christie and that attorney had partial ownership in a mutual fund that owned about $100,000 in Exxon stock.

Even if there is no conflict of interest, the settlement was negotiated in secret with no public oversight. In other words, the stakeholders, the public, were not informed of this work until after the deal was done.

The Christie Administration of New Jersey, and Governor Christie in particular, are quick to recite the virtues of a free market in defense of their action. You know, "limited government"? Here, we see that the governor has taken his own initiative to shield one of the largest oil companies in the world from a wrist slap by reducing it to a caress, without acknowledging the costs to other people.

I know, it's hard to believe, but the free market actually contemplates damages to the environment. Don't believe me? Check out the book, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain, by Richard A. Epstein. It's not a very big book, but it's a treasure trove of legal history surrounding the power of eminent domain. It's not even a new book, and at $30 for a Kindle edition, it's still very much in demand.

The takeaway I got from the book is a concept called riparian rights. What are riparian rights? They are landowner rights for those who live along a river. But I take riparian rights to mean anyone downstream or nearby to a polluter. Epstein is still floating around at Forbes, I see. Even in this article on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he points out that in cases of environmental damage or pollution, strict liability should be assigned to the polluter and someone has to sue for damages to the property that has no owner, the property we all share in the state. That would make the people the stakeholders, too.

The secrecy of the settlement by Christie's administration seems to be intended to preclude any recourse for the People in his state. Indeed, under Epstein's analysis, the secret settlement is akin to a violation of the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution. What does that clause say again?

"nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

In addition to the direct harms caused by the oil company, the settlement burdens the state with the costs of cleanup rather than Exxon. With such a fire sale of a settlement, taxpayers will probably see an increase in taxes to cover the cost of cleanup. But don't worry. Some New Jersey Republicans will be happy to avoid raising taxes and to let the pollution languish in the environment, instead. Even if taxes were raised to cover the cost of the cleanup, you can be assured that the richest among us will get the legal assistance needed to avoid the bump.

This is not an isolated example. From Deepwater Horizon to the housing bubble of 2008, it is hard to find and example where the executives of the richest corporations go to jail for their wrongdoing. There are even some who would identify this sort of behavior as a part of the Conservative Nanny State. The contempt for the People of New Jersey in that settlement is palpable. But at least conservatives can sleep at night knowing that the market remains free when it suits them. Just ask Tesla Motors, a company blocked by Gov. Christie from making car sales in New Jersey.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Matter. It's not the only game in the universe.

Scientists at the University of Granada have conducted research which suggests that dark matter, matter we cannot see, touch or smell, makes up 85% of all the mass in the universe. Dark matter plus dark energy is currently estimated to make up 95% of the known universe. By studying the effects of gravity on the universe around us, scientists have determined that behavior observed in stars and galaxies cannot be explained by matter alone. There must be something else influencing behavior and they call it dark matter.

What is dark matter? No one really knows for sure. All we know is that ordinary matter, the stuff we know and love, the stuff we're made of, makes up about 4.9% of the known universe. Everything else? That's dark matter, a substance that doesn't radiate or absorb any as we know it. Saying that ordinary matter accounts for only 4.9% of the universe is like saying that we can only see the top layer of the soup in our bowl. We know something else is there. We just need a spoon to get to the bottom.

Dark matter is not just some sort of "out there" phenomenon, in some distant galaxy. Scientists are also finding fleeting evidence of dark matter in the closest star, the sun. Analysis of the energy emitted from the sun suggests that variations in the energy from the sun can only be explained with dark matter.

This development is very similar to the discovery of infrared light in 1800, with further work over the next century to show that our eyes can only see a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. The rainbow we're so familiar with excludes most of the electromagnetic spectrum. That spectrum looks like this:

See that rainbow box? Now look at the lines going from the box to smaller box for the visible electromagnetic spectrum. That's the sliver I was talking about. To put it simply, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

For many years I've known that our eyes capture what amounts to a peephole on the universe in terms of spectrum. As I sit here, I recognize that all sorts of other radiation, in the form mostly of infrared light, is illuminating the room. But for some reason, we have adapted to the familiar spectrum of light. When I enter a room without lights turned on, I know that there is infrared light in the room, even if I can't see it.

During the day, I know that there is ultraviolet light falling from the sun onto me and all around me. I can't see it, but the bees can see it. Other animals have adapted more to night vision and can see in the near infrared. Even those animals still only see a small fraction of the light in the environment.

Yet, I am still surprised at the extent to which dark matter and energy rule the universe. That means that we haven't got a clue about about what is going on in the universe. We only know enough to get into trouble. We can only sense enough to stay alive.

Maybe that is all we need, but I'm glad to see scientists reaching out to see what is really there, in front of me. All the time.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The miracle of sharing

I'm a Star Trek fan, there is no doubt. When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns and was fascinated by Spock, the eminently logical character played by Leonard Nimoy. I have never really delved into his personal life nor have I cared to. Spock is who I think of when I see Nimoy's name. In later years, I enjoyed his reprise of the Spock character in various Star Trek movies and even again in television.

Shortly after his death, pictures of him and a quote attributed to him began to appear in social media. The quote?

"The miracle is this: the more we share the more we have."

Since I saw that quote, I've been thinking about it, and what is implicated by that statement. I remembered that sharing is everywhere. There are no exceptions. It seems to be a law of nature that everything is shared in one way or another. Nimoy seemed to have been intimately aware of a universal truth.

Consider the humble atoms that we are composed of. Atoms in chemical bonds share electrons. In water, hydrogen and oxygen share electrons to form the bonds that create the liquid that our lives depend on. Free electrons exist everywhere and you know it when you get out of the car on a cold, dry winter day only to be shocked by the frame of your door. You've just shared electrons with the car.

We share the sky, the light, the air, the land, the water, and the food. Having lived alone for much of my adult life, I find food far more satisfying when I am sharing it with my family than when I'm alone. I go shopping with my wife, she loads the cart and I pay for it. At home, she prepares the meals and we all eat together. I know, so quaint in today's modern world. But when we eat at the table together, we talk, laugh and share stories. We enjoy each other's company around food that we share.

Every mammal shares. Parents share with their progeny. Hunters share their kill. Foragers share the meadows, the savanna, the trees and even the ants. For animals, there is little incentive or capacity to accumulate and store food. Food is temporary and transient. Food is now, not later. Unless you're human, then you might have a refrigerator.

Nimoy recognized that in taking part in media, he is sharing, even if he is paid very well to do it. I don't think he spent time as an actor or a photographer for the money. He was looking for something he enjoyed doing and was lucky enough to be paid generously for sharing. After sharing, he found that he had more than he had before. More of what? He didn't say, but it must have been enough or he would have found something else to do.

I personally can't think of anything that I have enjoyed in life that isn't better when shared. Can you?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Congressional opposition to local internet choice is out of touch with their constituents

There are 20 states that have laws that are designed to prevent local communities from building municipal broadband networks. I live in one of them, Utah. Making the news on a regular basis are Tennessee and North Carolina for their electric utilities in Chattanooga and Wilson, respectively. Chattanooga has the EPB offering gigabit speeds to their customers. Wilson has Greenlight doing the same thing. Both services are wildly popular in their respective jurisdictions, and both are making plenty of money serving their customers. Both want to expand service to areas outside of their service area.

But the incumbent carriers have erected state laws as barriers to prevent that from happening. Incumbent carriers like Time-Warner, Comcast, ATT, and Verizon all pitched in to prevent municipal broadband from taking root, only to fail in the face of public support for an alternative.

Now comes the FCC with a new ruling to preempt the state laws that prevent communities from making their own choices about internet access. These cities built their own networks after pleading with the incumbent carriers to offer better, faster service, only to be denied by a bean counter in New York. This is what absentee ownership does to people. It insulates them from the people they serve.

Forces are gathering now to stop the FCC from executing on its order to preempt state laws that prevent communities from building their own networks when the incumbent carriers betray the public trust. Rep. Marsh Blackburn (R-TN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are working on bills in Congress aimed squarely at the goal of stopping the FCC. Oddly, there is no local support for their actions, but there is legal support gathering at the local level to defend the FCC.

Layfayette, LA City-Parish President Joey Durel wrote a supportive letter to Wilson's Mayor Bruce Rose. He offers this instructive passage:
"As in Wilson, the Lafayette community has been united in our support for high-capacity broadband connectivity to the Internet as an essential tool of economic development and as a means of securing our community's economic future. While some will use any means possible to distract you from achieving your goals for your community, our deeply conservative electorate has consistently supported our electric utility's great achievement in building a future-proof broadband Internet infrastructure, and this support has been consistently bi-partisan. My Democrat colleagues have joined me and my fellow Republicans in insisting that we in Lafayette should have the right to choose our broadband Internet future. We here in Lafayette will determine how our community engages this essential economic development tool, and we will not have our economic future dictated to us by others." (emphasis mine)
So, on the one hand, we have a pair of very conservative Republicans in Congress claiming that states rights should prevail on this issue. On the other, we have mayors proclaiming that cities should prevail on local choice for internet access. We also know that the majority of municipal networks have been built in conservative jurisdictions. Clearly more than a few members of Congress are out of touch on the issue, and perhaps, a bit hypocritical in a quiet nod to the monied interests.

Conservatives in Congress say that states rights should prevail against federal jurisdiction, but they omit the fact that state laws are preventing local jurisdictions from making their own choices about how to best provide internet access to their constituents. In other words, a top down approach is fine if the state government tells the cities what to do, but it is not OK if the federal government tells the states what to do. Yeah, no hypocrisy there.

If you want to go by delegation of power, then look at it this way:

Federal government

Who's on top? The People. Who's on the bottom? The Feds. So, in a way, Blackburn and Tillis may be right. But the model they seem to support looks something like this:

Federal government

Wait. Where are the people? Oh, that's right. Corporations are people. The laws that Tillis and Blackburn are promoting support the incumbents and they are using states' rights as cover for their actions. I know hard to believe. But when you look at the list of contributors to Blackburn's campaign funds, ATT, Comcast, Verizon and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association are in the top ten.  Tillis is no better with generous past support from the telecom industry.

If they want to stop the FCC, and their ideas have merit, they don't need that much money to support their cause. But given the local opposition to their statements and actions, it would seem that money is clouding their thinking.

The cities of Chattanooga and Wilson both have popular support for their broadband networks with neighboring cities looking with hope that they can do the same thing. Why not let them roll their own? Why can't every city roll their own network if they want to? If the incumbent carriers don't want to serve the people, then let the government do it. They might just do a better job at it.