advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Sunday, April 29, 2007

On Fighting Geothermal Energy, Or, This Is The Irony Of The Week

Suppose I told you that, in this time of energy uncertainty, the Federal Government is planning an alternative energy development.

Suppose I told you that this geothermal development was to be located near major military facilities, and that the troops from those locations are knee deep in Iraq problems.

Suppose I told you that in the communities surrounding the bases there’s a movement to stop the development.

To really make it good, suppose I told you the reason there’s resistance to the idea is because the location is part of an off-road vehicle recreation area.

That’s right, this is literally a fight between supporting our troops, improving our National Security posture, and fighting global warming on the one side; and driving SUVs that tow other vehicles to the desert for recreational oil burning on the other side.

And you kinow what?
That’s not even the biggest irony in this story...

Still reading?

Here’s the deal: the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Areas, which consists of about 80,000 acres of desert that is available for off-road driving, is on the boundary of California’s Imperial and San Diego Counties, and is part of the California State Park system.

There is Federal land (Bureau of Land Management) next door, and the BLM wants to develop a 50MW geothermal facility using Federal and State land. Here’s an aerial image of the site.

The Truckhaven development has a geothermal partner, Iceland America Energy, and they tell us 1200MW of geothermal capacity is currently in production in the region.

As we all know, geothermal energy is not a carbon burning resource, and it is renewable as well (from time to time new geothermal wells are drilled to replace wells currently producing).

Since it replaces imported oil, there’s even a National Security element to the project.

So who wouldn’t like that?

As it turns out, these guys.

San Diego’s off-road enthusiasts, we are told, will be deprived of 14,000+ acres of the current 80,000 acre off-road park, and maybe as much as 40,320 acres.

That sounds serious.
However, the truth is a bit different.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) filed by the BLM presents a slightly different picture. In fact, they report that while 40,320 acres will be “disturbed”, the disturbance will only occur during the construction phase of the project.

Table 2-2 of the DEIS (located on page 52 of the document) indicates 502 acres, at the most, will be permanently removed from the available recreational land resource.

502 acres out of 80,000.

Not much to give up, if you ask me, to support the fights against Global Warming and imported oil.

Public comments are being accepted until April 30th by the BLM, and I would encourage you to drop a note expressing your feelings regarding the need for renewable energy resources.

Here’s the BLM email address:

The good folks at San Diego Off-Road Magazine would also like a copy of the emails sent to the BLM, and they encourage you to send those to:

Finally-remember the irony I promised?
Allow me to deliver.

The opponents of this project have military neighbors, as I mentioned earlier.

Know who?

How about Camp Pendleton, the Marine base, and the Naval facilities in San Diego (only the largest military base in the world, I might add.)

And guess what-when you go to San Diego Off-Road Magazine’s website, the “message” panel at the top left of your screen will read:


That’s right-a magazine devoted to a hobby that is at least tangentially involved with the war the troops getting the free magazine are fighting is trying to rally its own troops to defend the right to recreationally burn oil being fought for by those same troops to whom they're sending the magazines.

Now that’s irony.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Quick Advice From A Fake Consultant: Listen To Burt Bacharach

Remember the Burt Bacharach song “Knowing When to Leave”?

For those who don’t, consider these lyrics:

Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn…

And from the next chorus:

… Knowing when to leave will never let you reach the point of no return.

And every day someone mentions “artificial timetables”, that should be our answer.

And then we should offer this scenario to consider:

At the moment, Iraqis are fighting among each other. They are not a united nation, despite the wishes of this Administration.

More and more, the Iraqi population wants us out.
If we overstay our welcome, it is entirely possible the Iraqi people will unite.

To kill us.

Instead of an “outpost” for terrorism, we will have created a Shi'a-dominated united Iran-Iraq terror “nexus” that will turn on it’s Sunni and Kurdish neighbors first, then us.

Then the terrorists will follow us home.

Once again, to sum up:

The administration claims if we leave the outcome will be disastrous unless we can create a united Iraq.

Our response: if we don’t leave now, they will unite.
And that will be more disastrous than we can even imagine.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Greener Trains, Or, Who Doesn't Love A Bargain?

Americans used to love their trains.

Casey Jones, the Golden Spike, the Wreck of the Old 97-all are a part of our legend, and even today trains are seen as a romantic link to another time.

These days, we see the future in trains.
There are a variety of new train concepts floating around-literally-and new variants of traditional designs as well.

There is one train concept, however, that has the potential to completely change all we know about moving people and freight.

It’s cheaper to build than any other current design, but more importantly, this concept appears to forever alter how we think of energy use for mass transit.

Having piqued your interest, let’s add background information to set the stage...

Virtually all trains you see today are operated by electric motors.

In the “standard” locomotive design, electricity for those motors is provided by generation onboard the train itself (diesel engines operate generators which are the electricity source).

Other designs use electricity provided through a centrally-generated electrical distribution system. The “third rail” familiar to subway riders is one form of distribution. Overhead (catenary) wires are another, and the United States Capitol subway system offers an example of this method.

As of today, virtually all passengers and freight move by one of these designs.

The biggest changes on the horizon involve ways to move passengers faster

The Japanese “bullet trains” (Shinkansen), introduced in 1964, are a “steel-wheel-on-steel-rail” system-essentially a “standard” train on steroids. These trains require dedicated and fenced right-of-ways, special rail installations, and no contact with other traffic (no railroad crossings, for example).

These trains normally operate at about 200 mph, and they typically operate between destinations that are 100 to 500 miles apart.

The fastest of these trains, the French TGV, set a world speed record of 357 mph just about 3 weeks ago (April 3rd).

There is another design you might be familiar with, the “magnetic levitation” or Maglev design. This concept is radically different from other trains. First, the trains have no wheels, and instead “float” on a magnetic field, generated by electromagnets, within the rail system. Propulsion is provided by “switching” the polarity of other magnets, in a controlled manner, as the train passes by. The principle of magnetic repulsion, which occurs when the negative and positive polarities of the train and track magnets interact, moves the train along the track.

If you are still a bit confused over all this, the description at this site will help make things more clear. A helpful 8-minute video can also be seen here. (Click on the “MPEG 1” link to the right of the train.)

The fastest of the Maglev trains has a speed record 4 mph faster than the TGV.

Another difference of Maglev trains, compared to “standard” trains,
is the absence of an engine. The propulsion system does not use motors (or any other moving parts); meaning that all the cars on such a train can be passenger-carrying cars.

There are Japanese and German versions of the Maglev concept, and each resolves braking and stability issues in different ways, but the basic designs are reasonably similar.

An extensive list of high-speed rail projects worldwide is available, courtesy of At the moment, the only commercially operating Maglev system connects downtown Shanghai and Pudong Airport (about 30km), and pictures of that train in action are here.

While high-speed trains are relatively green (using air travel as a basis for comparison), they either require lots of amperage sent to electric motors, or lots of amperage sent to banks of electromagnets in order to operate. The Japanese Maglev design uses more current than its German counterpart due to the fact that its electromagnets are cooled to obtain a superconducting effect, and the cooling creates an additional electrical load.

The low-level electromagnetic fields created by the Maglev systems are an additional hazard, and those with pacemakers, for example, will be unable to ride those trains. The “steel wheel” trains are disadvantaged by friction, and the Maglev trains experience “magnetic drag”.

OK, so now we get to the good part.

Imagine if you could take the wheels off the train, removing the friction disadvantage of TGV, and remove the electromagnets and cooling system from the Maglev, reducing energy requirements to a fraction of what was previously thought possible.

Imagine being able to move 2500 pounds over flat level ground, at substantial speeds, while using only ½ horsepower of energy?

For that matter, imagine if the same technology could operate escalators, move container freight around the yard, or even launch spacecraft?

Earth, meet Karl Lamb.

In typical American style, he has invented a new approach to the Maglev concept, patented the idea, and has now decided to take on Germany, France, and China pretty much single-handedly.

And guess what? He may just pull it off.

His company, Magna Force, Inc. Is promoting the LevX system as an alternative.

What’s the difference between this and other systems?

Permanent magnets-not electromagnets-suspend the cars above the guideway.

With permanent magnets no current is required to keep the load suspended above the track, and no current is required to cool conductors, as in the Japanese design. This system results in enormous savings in electricity over any other concept we’ve discussed.

A linear induction motor (also described in the movie above) provides motive force. To give you an idea how much speed such a “motor” can provide, consider that a variation of this design is the linear accelerator, which propels objects at velocities approaching the speed of light.

Here’s the crazy part-the system can be scaled up or down in size. In other words, designs ranging from a 1 person people-mover, to a sort of “container pipeline”, to platforms that assist aircraft to launch and land from shorter runways (aircraft carriers?) are all possible-and would all be greener than current methods of accomplishing the same thing.

Can this concept work? Check out the last two pages of the “Letters” link for an independent engineering analysis. Long story short, it absolutely can work.

Now let’s talk money.

Because this system requires no electromagnets, no elaborate cooling technologies, and very little power for propulsion, there is a giant reduction in operation and maintenance costs. The folks at Magna Force (who were kind enough to talk to me-thanks Jo!) report that the difference is in “orders of magnitude” compared to a light-rail system such as the Sound Transit system being built in Seattle.

If that wasn’t enough, it’s much, much cheaper to build as well.

So how’s that for a great way to wrap up Earth Day?

An American company that has an exciting new technology that saves huge amounts of carbon; saves huge amounts of money, and who, if all goes well, may soon be able to announce their first commuter project. (Because there are currently no formal commitments, and no official announcement has been made, I’ll wait for developments before providing more information there.)

The best part- if this takes off, we’ll see the greenest trains ever.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On The Vagaries Of History, Or, Texas, Know Thyself

A document produced in the heat of our Nation’s birth, back in that distant time of 1776, remains etched in our consciousness today for its revolutionary declarations regarding the roles of Citizen and Nation.

To this day it remains as relevant as it did then, both as a rallying cry for Freedom, and an expression of our greatest aspirations as a People.

Another document, produced in the town of Washington, remains much less well known, yet that document also offers great relevance, and warnings that shine clear and bright through the fog of today’s politics.

“When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived, and for the advancement of whose happiness it was instituted, and so far from being a guarantee for the enjoyment of those inestimable and inalienable rights, becomes an instrument in the hands of evil rulers for their oppression.

When the Federal Republican Constitution of their country, which they have sworn to support, no longer has a substantial existence, and the whole nature of their government has been forcibly changed, without their consent, from a restricted federative republic, composed of sovereign states, to a consolidated central military despotism, in which every interest is disregarded but that of the army and the priesthood, both the eternal enemies of civil liberty, the everready minions of power, and the usual instruments of tyrants.”

Sound familiar?
Wait, there’s more...

“When, long after the spirit of the constitution has departed, moderation is at length so far lost by those in power, that even the semblance of freedom is removed, and the forms themselves of the constitution discontinued, and so far from their petitions and remonstrances being regarded, the agents who bear them are thrown into dungeons, and mercenary armies sent forth to force a new government upon them at the point of the bayonet.”

We have before us a manifesto, which warns against the dangers of a Government that would disregard all interests but the Army and the priesthood, which has seen a Government fail in its duties to protect the rights of its citizens, and which has been forged in a political environment where moderation had disappeared.

A document that was really concerned about the merging of Church and State:

“In this expectation they have been cruelly disappointed, inasmuch as the Mexican nation has acquiesced in the late changes made in the government by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who having overturned the constitution of his country, now offers us the cruel alternative, either to abandon our homes, acquired by so many privations, or submit to the most intolerable of all tyranny, the combined despotism of the sword and the priesthood.”

Has anyone guessed the identity of this document that has provided these quotes?

For those who have not, it is the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Texas.

I don’t know if you saw the George Bush/John Kerry debates in 2004, but I can recall Mr. Bush telling Kerry we would never allow other nations to be, in effect, “the deciders”; that the opinions of other nations are not what should guide America’s actions.

In March of 1836, Texans took a different view:

“Nations, as well as individuals, are amenable for their acts to the public opinion of mankind. A statement of a part of our grievances is therefore submitted to an impartial world, in justification of the hazardous but unavoidable step now taken, of severing our political connection with the Mexican people, and assuming an independent attitude among the nations of the earth.”

Texans knew the consequence of the denial of civil liberties, and that is addressed here as well:

“It incarcerated in a dungeon, for a long time, one of our citizens, for no other cause but a zealous endeavor to procure the acceptance of our constitution, and the establishment of a state government.”...

...”It has failed and refused to secure, on a firm basis, the right of trial by jury, that palladium of civil liberty, and only safe guarantee for the life, liberty, and property of the citizen.”...

...”It has demanded the surrender of a number of our citizens, and ordered military detachments to seize and carry them into the Interior for trial, in contempt of the civil authorities, and in defiance of the laws and the constitution.”

Apparently Mexico also had an “enemy combatant” problem, and a Guantanamo of their own.

The Declaration also warns that the very ability to have a working democracy depends on an effective educational system.

Compare this, from the Declaration:

“It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.”

To this:

“In a recent essay on the history of education in Texas, historian James Smallwood claims that "from the early Spanish era down to the 1980s, the story of education, allowing for occasional setbacks, has been one of great strides forward . . .." He ends his article, published in the collection of essays Texas: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, by arguing that "The Spaniards would have marveled to see one of the best educational networks--from primary grades to graduate schools--in the United States."

Compare Smallwood's optimistic analysis with an announcement made by the Texas Education Agency on July 13, 1984, concerning the results of the first pre-professional skills tests given primarily to sophomore college students who wish to be enrolled in schools of education to become future teachers of the children of Texas. The students had to earn passing scores in math, reading, and writing. Of the 2,738 students who took the test at 51 of the 65 teacher training institutions in the state, 46 percent failed. Worse, only 10 percent of the blacks and 19 percent of the Hispanics who took the test passed, compared to 62 percent of the Anglos.

Education officials with the TEA called the results "depressing." Disastrous might be a better word. The results of this test, like many other achievement tests given to students and teachers alike, point to a fundamentally troubled public education system. "I don't blame the students per se," said Education Commissioner Raymond Bynum. "After all, they graduated from a high school and passed some college English and math courses. I don't know who's to blame."

And it now appears those unprepared teachers have had their impact-the American Legislative Exchange Council reported that Texas 8th-graders have moved up from 41st in the nation to a solid 39th in a 2005 evaluation.

Texas Government has, as you might expect, gone a bit crazier than usual recently, and you need look no further than the history of Tom DeLay and Texas' 2003 Redistricting to find an excellent starting point.

Texas education went national with “No Child Left Behind”, with apparently predictable results, and we can only guess what effect this would have on the Federal Government over time.

This election is an opportunity for the US to look to its founding principles, to reconsider what kind of a Nation we really are, and to make choices that more correctly reflect our history and heritage.

And so it is for Texas.

So in closing, a suggestion:

Take some time today, read your Republic’s founding document, heed its warnings, and let’s make choices that are better for Texas, better for America, and better for the rest of the world.

As wise men in Washington, Texas said on March 2, 1836:

“Nations, as well as individuals, are amenable for their acts to the public opinion of mankind...”

Even in Texas.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Fighting A War, Or, The Best Christmas Ever

Lots of people enlist in the military, many more marry into it.
Others are born into it.

I’m one of those.

I was literally born into the Navy.
So literally that my place of birth is the Portsmouth Naval Hospital.

Before I was nine, I was stationed at Portsmouth, Virginia, Jacksonville, Florida, and Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco. That’s where my Dad was transferred to a destroyer being converted from an older design, the USS Somers (DDG 34).

I remember attending the commissioning, and strangely enough, the one memory of that event that really stands out was meeting a Rear Admiral who had, my Dad told me, risen through the ranks from seaman to admiral.

I remember because my Dad made sure to point out that even though he had been an enlisted man, he did not have a Good Conduct Medal. That may have been the first time I learned iconoclasm can be a good thing.

We had been in California for about three years at that point, and every night my Dad would “come home from work”.

This was about to change.

Ships are not based at shipyards after the work is finished, so it was again time to move, this time to Naval Station Long Beach, California. (Ironically, the Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island now occupies the site. But I digress.)

I have not set a time to this story, and it’s time to do so.

We are now in the year 1969. Man will be landing on the moon in a month or so (and I’ll be allowed to stay up late to watch it on TV), and we’re fighting the Vietnam War. I am 9 going on 10.

So that’s when my dad left for his first “WestPac” cruise (the Western Pacific, for those of you not Naval); and that’s the first time I understood what having a parent gone for 6 months means.

It sucked that he was away.
It sucked being home.
I don’t remember ever crying because he was gone-he was just gone.

Probably the worst part of all this was not knowing when he was coming back-and the fact that 6 months to a 10 year old is a huge piece of your life.

But that all passes, and eventually he came back.

And then left. And came back again.

Now it’s summer of 1972, and we’re on a new ship, the USS Goldsborough (DDG 20).

In October they left for Vietnam, once again, to do what a destroyer does on duty. The third Christmas in a row Dad was to be gone.

What does a destroyer do in Vietnam? Basically sit off the coast and toss shells on shore at enemy positions. Pretty boring duty, I’m told, unless they shoot back.

Wanna hear a story of cultural adaptation? I heard this after one of the cruises, and never forgot it.

Apparently my Dad’s ship was tied up at Subic Bay (in the Philippines, again for those not Naval) next to a Philippine Navy ship which needed electrical repairs, and a volunteer from the US ship was sent to assist.

Courtesy requires the ship to express its appreciation, and the sailor (an enlisted man) was invited to dine with the Captain and the officers of the Philippine vessel in the ship’s wardroom.

Dinner was apparently quite good, and the Captain announced he had a special treat in honor of the occasion. In walked the steward, I was told, bearing a plate of eggs.

The sailor watched in shock as the officers each opened their eggs, slurped out the liquid contents, and ate what appeared to be a tiny bird from inside.

It turns out the eggs in question are known as Balut-and there is a tiny bird inside. Balut, as it happens, is a fertilized duck egg containing a near fully developed embryo in the shell. (Check out the picture here. Warning: the sensitive among you might choose to pass on this and the next link.)

As you might imagine, his unease grew with each passing moment, as the tray bearing the eggs drew ever closer. What to do? As a brave American fighting man, he knew he had only one choice-eat the egg.

To refuse might be considered an insult; and he was a guest on a foreign ship, after all.

With a slurp and a will of iron, he did his duty.

The Captain looked down the table and asked: “How was it?”
What could he say? “Very good, Sir”

The Captain looked back at him and uttered the words he would come to dread: “Well, in that case, let’s have another.”

I am told the second egg had a different…texture…than the first.
An unexpected sort of crunchiness that was absent from the first experience.

Nonetheless, he was able to gulp it down.

As he looked around the table, he noticed a strange look on the faces of the Philippine officers. Unsure if he had committed an error of etiquette, he looked questioningly to the Captain, who was staring back with a look of wonder on his face.

“I guess it is true what they say about you Americans” he said to the sailor.

“What do you mean, Sir?” was the perplexed reply.

“Well, I heard Americans had iron stomachs, and it must be true” the Captain responded, “the crunchy eggs, like yours…we don’t even eat those in the Philippines.”

Christmas in California is odd, now that I look back on it.

Snow? Not in LA.
Cold, bitter winds? Sometimes it would get all the way down to the 50’s, which probably doesn’t impress the Chicago reader.

Nonetheless, the holiday was just coming up, and as a twelve year old I was expecting some pretty cool presents.

Well, I got one all right.

It had to be the 22nd, or 23rd, as close to Christmas Eve as you could get, midafternoon, when I heard the knocking on the door.

The last thing I ever expected to see was what I saw-my Dad, unannounced, and at least four months early, standing at the door.

Not only that, but standing there in a uniform I’d never seen before-he had made Chief during the cruise.

Even now I can see the moment-and even now it still makes me smile.

I don’t know if I could ever recreate the emotional impact of that exact second.

I am indeed fortunate that you can watch the very same thing happen to a sailor’s son from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Washington. His Dad showed up unannounced at his school, and if you haven’t yet seen the video, you need to. It’s just simply amazing. (Here’s the link to the text version of the story. Click on the “Raw Video” link for the…well, raw video. You’ll need Windows Explorer.)

As it turned out, he didn’t return to sea duty for the rest of his career.

Nonetheless, that one day he stood in the doorway was better than all the rest of the days he was home put together.

And for a kid who never saw it coming, it was the best Christmas ever.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Today's diary was written for the BlueNC Veteran's Day celebration, and was originally posted here.

It is one of a series being posted to celebrate Veterans on the site today, and I would encourage you to visit.

Monday, April 16, 2007

On Yardsticks, Or, Remember This War?

It is likely that most readers of these pages are familiar with microlending, and by extension, Mohammad Yunus, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Microlending (the extension of small amounts of capital to the world’s poorest people) has become a huge part of Bangladeshi life, as just one example, and there are many excellent discussions of what the concept means to the world.

There is even a movement among traditional capitalists to enter this market, thanks to the efforts of Yunus’ Grameen Bank and others.

But I’m a “bury the lead” kind of writer, and for that reason, microlending will not be a part of our discussion today.

Instead, let’s discuss a forgotten war.
A war we started over 40 years ago against an intractable enemy.

Remember the War on Poverty?

The Declaration of War was issued March 16th, 1964 by a previous Texas President, Lyndon B. Johnson, in a Special Message to Congress; and we have fought the War ever since.

There is a strange similarity between this war and the Global War On Terror: the lack of a defined victory.

Fortunately for us, Mohammad Yunus has presented a “roadmap to victory”; in the form of “Ten Indicators to Assess Poverty level”.

Considering that few of us have a better understanding of poverty than Mr, Yunus, it might well be to our benefit to see how we’re doing from his perspective.

So let’s have a look, shall we?

1) The family lives in a house worth at least Tk. 25,000 (twenty five thousand) or a house with a tin roof, and each member of the family is able to sleep on bed instead of on the floor.

25,000 Takas are about $362 US, so let’s interpret this to mean “homeless” here.

It is estimated that just under 750,000 Americans are homeless-44% of whom do not have access to shelters.

95,000 families are homeless-in fact the numbers show a roughly 60/40 split between single persons who are homeless and persons in families who are homeless.

There seems to be progress in resolving single-person homelessness, but the problems facing families have not yet decreased, as far as I could tell.

2) Family members drink pure water of tube-wells, boiled water or water purified by using alum, arsenic-free, purifying tablets or pitcher filters.

We’re not doing so well on this one, I’m afraid. One in six Americans drinks contaminated tap water-including residents of Tucson, who are treated to radioactive water. The intent of the current Administration seems to be in favor of reducing, rather than raising standards, suggesting no good news ahead for this metric.

3) All children in the family over six years of age are all going to school or finished primary school.

40 million Americans “have pressing literacy needs”; and 30 million have “the most minimal ability” to read or write English, we are told. Further, 42% of adults have a high school education or less, and 66% of those who did graduate high school don’t have the skills to attend college.

By the way, 2/3 of the jobs in the US require education beyond high school.

4) Minimum weekly loan installment of the borrower is Tk. 200 or more. ($3 US: author’s note.)

Instead of trying to do a dollar-to-dollar comparison, let’s consider the broader concept of Mr. Yunus’ measurement: the idea that access to credit is vital to move up from poverty.

Just as in Bangladesh, access to credit allows you the chance to start a business, access to education, and the chance to own property. A “sub-prime” credit status in America means you pay higher interest rates, might not get a job, and will likely pay more for insurance products, if you can get them at all. Large numbers of “sub-prime” borrowers in a community causes the entire community to be affected.

Estimates suggest as many as 130 million Americans (43%) are “sub-prime” borrowers.

5) Family uses sanitary latrine.

Based on numbers quoted above, at least 41,000 families do not have this access (95,000 families divided by the 44% who are unsheltered), and some larger number of single Americans as well (198,000 is my guess, again based on numbers provided above). For purposes of comparison, as many as 20% of residents of the developing world lack such access.

6) Family members have adequate clothing for every day use, warm clothing for winter, such as shawls, sweaters, blankets, etc, and mosquito-nets to protect themselves from mosquitoes.

I could not find a good number for how many Americans lack adequate clothing, but consider this: a Google search of the phrase “clothing bank” yields 77,900 hits, and if you follow the links there appears to be a wide geographic dispersal around the US. Here’s an example of a clothing bank operated by a PTA for over 40 years.

7) Family has sources of additional income, such as vegetable garden, fruit-bearing trees, etc, so that they are able to fall back on these sources of income when they need additional money.

91 million Americans garden, although of course, not all of those are growing food. It is reasonable to assume, however, that if needed, a large number of this total would begin to grow food, if possible.

Community gardens are another alternative for those not owning land, and there are at least 6,018 of these operating across the country. Customers presumably are available at the 3,700 farmer’s markets around the country.

Additionally, in this country, we can also consider home based businesses as an income supplement, and it is reported that 19.5 million businesses with no payrolls (of the Nation’s 27 million total businesses) exist in the US.

8) The borrower maintains an average annual balance of Tk. 5,000 in her savings accounts. (Just under $73: Author’s note.)

For purposes of comparison, the average Bangladeshi earns $380 annually, suggesting a 19% savings rate is recommended. How is the US doing? We have a negative annual savings rate (a corner we turned in 2004), and have never posted an annual savings rate above 4% in this century.

9) Family experiences no difficulty in having three square meals a day throughout the year, i. e. no member of the family goes hungry any time of the year.

You’ll be happy to know that since 2006, no American is going hungry. On the other hand, 35 million of us (12%) experience “very low food security”. I’ll let the readers provide the appropriate comments regarding the “improvement”.

10) Family can take care of the health. If any member of the family falls ill, family can afford to take all necessary steps to seek adequate healthcare.

At least 46 million Americans can not pass this test, and the numbers are getting worse.

So how did we do?

By my count, five of the ten metrics are trending in bad directions (numbers 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10), one is neutral (5), and four are not what I currently consider particularly bad (1, 4, 6, and 7).

Do the results suggest we are a nation in poverty? Maybe not, but it does paint a picture of a country moving closer to poverty, and doing it faster all the time.

And as we said at the top of the diary, if anyone knows poverty, it’s Mohammad Yunus.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On John Cornyn, Or, Let's Play "20 Questions"

I am again today playing the part of the player at the piano bar. Today’s request is from sarantx, over at the John Edwards site, who wonders how we might resolve her (and by extension, Texas’) John Cornyn problem.

For those not aware, Cornyn is the former Texas Attorney General who filled in the last few weeks of Phil Graham’s term following his own election in 2002, and before his inauguration in 2003. He is serving his first term, and is up for re-election in this cycle.

This is one of the more difficult diaries I have written in a while, mainly due to the strange nature of Texas politics.

It is difficult to describe exactly how weird Texas is in this way, and should you require a refresher course, I would direct you to the works of Molly Ivins, who was able to sustain a long and distinguished career thanks to the bizarre antics of the Texas Lege, and the unusual behavior of the Texas voter.

It is also fair to point out that in many states the political spectrum rums from blue to red. In Texas it’s more like blue to red to more red to super duper red.

Suffice it to say that you can travel very far off the beaten track and still win elections in Texas.

There are demographic issues that also impact the Texas vote, and for that background I would refer you to one of our earlier discussions, “On Unexpected Opportunities, Or, Wanna Win Texas?” to see the numbers.

Perhaps a quick recap? OK. Basically, Texas women are less likely to vote than almost any others in the US, and in fact 6.7 million are not voting at the present time. (In contrast, the total number of votes cast for the Cornyn and his opponent, Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, in the 2002 Senate race, was only about 4.5 million.)

Just to reinforce the point-more women in Texas did not vote than the total of all voters in 2002.

This is clearly the first step to defeating Cornyn-get new voters voting.
Especially women.

How can this be done? By reminding women that they are the ones who have to look after their families-and that Republican policy is anything but family-friendly.

But I have another idea as well: the best defense is a good offense.

Hire a camera operator. Have someone follow every public step he makes, and let him write his own anti-Cornyn commercials. Democratic Party, time to step up with some funding, if you haven’t already.

Now that we have him on camera, there should be an effort to ensure that whenever he appears, he is forced to answer-or duck-questions about his views on today’s issues.

When you look at his positions on issues, you find a very “target rich environment” to question.
For example:

--Texas is possibly the most military State of all. Why were you unaware of the Walter Reed problems and issues affecting veterans who can’t get disability ratings before the Democrats raised the issue? Why don’t you care about veterans?

--Why do you support sending troops to war who aren’t properly equipped? Why did Texans have to buy body armor for their family members in Iraq until Democrats raised the issue?

--You voted against working to reduce oil imports in 2005. Saudi Arabia and Iran control major parts of our oil imports. You claim you support Homeland Security. How do those two positions fit together?

--You claim setting a date to leave Iraq is “how to lose”. How can you ever leave if you never set a date to leave? Do you support a “forever” war?

--Why did you vote no to restrict corporations from financing terrorists?

--Your own website lists your positions on “Constitution & the Rule of Law”. There is not a single word on that page about the Patriot Act, or Enron, or the Attorney General. Why?

--Your own website says you do not support “mandating national standards and curricula” for education. The very next sentence says “Local schools need to be held accountable by testing for real results”. How does this make sense?

--Your own website says you created the “Texas Internet Bureau” to arrest those who prey on children over the Internet. Should Mark Foley be arrested and prosecuted for doing the same thing? If not, why?

--Remember Katrina? The levees aren’t fixed, neither are New Orleans’ pumps, and what about redevelopment? FEMA? There’s not a single word about any of this on your website. Why don’t you care about Americans facing another hurricane season?

So there you go, sarantx:

--let’s dog Cornyn with cameras, to let his own words work against him.

--let’s force him to explain in front of those cameras the answers to these questions (and any others we can think up-suggestions below, please...)-or, in the alternative, let’s put images of him ducking the questions on YouTube, and Texas TV news, and the national outlets, as well.

--most important of all, as we have said before, get Texas women voting. Convince them that their families’ quality of education, economic future, and very survival (Iraq today, Iran tomorrow...) is at stake.

This is not an impossible task, but it will require funding, and big-time effort, and a willingness to find non-voters and show them it’s worth the effort to get involved.

Time is also a factor-by spring of ’08 the legwork needs to be well under way. Reach out to women’s groups, churches, and veteran’s groups now. It will be worth the work next November.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

On Religion, Or, Is It Time For A New Martin Luther?

“Above all things I beseech the Christian reader and beg him for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to read my earliest books very circumspectly and with much pity, knowing that before now I too was a monk, and one of the right frantic and raving papists. When I took up this matter against Indulgences, I was so full and drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great zeal, I would have been ready to do murder -- at least, I would have been glad to see and help that murder should be done -- on all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to his smallest word.

Such a Saul was I at that time; and I meant it right earnestly; and there are still many such to-day. In a word, I was not such a frozen and ice-cold champion of the papacy as Eck and others of his kind have been and still are. They defend the Roman See more for the sake of the shameful belly, which is their god, than because they are really attached to its cause. Indeed I am wholly of the opinion that like latter-day Epicureans, they only laugh at the pope. But I verily espoused this cause in deepest earnest and in all fidelity; the more so because I shrank from the Last Day with great anxiety and fear and terror, and yet from the depths of my heart desired to be saved.”

--from “Dr. Martin Luther to the Christian Reader”, 1545

486 years ago come April 16th Martin Luther appeared in Worms to be offered the opportunity to recant his statements (“The 95 Theses”) regarding the power of the Pope to sell dispensation (Indulgences) for earthly sins to the living and the families of the dead.

What do you mean "dispensation"? Early in the sixteenth century the Church discovered a new business opportunity-why limit yourself to offering forgiveness to the marketplace of the living, when you could “grow the brand”, as it were, and offer the same services to the deceased for sins they committed during life?

How can you make money from the dead? Easily, if you convince their living descendants that forgiveness in the “afterlife” (the ability to move from Purgatory to Heaven, for example) depends on a steady stream of payments from the living. And thus the “Indulgences” industry was born.

How far had the Catholic Church strayed from Christian principles? In 1536 William Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake (taking no chances, apparently) for translating the Bible into English-versions of the Bible not translated by the Church were listed in the Church’s “Index of Banned Books”, and violation of the rule was a capital offense.

He declined. With that act, resistance to Church authority achieved moral authority-an authority that needs to be exercised today.

The actions of Martin Luther are the basis for the formation of the Protestant Church (“Lutheran” of course, being derived from his name).

So here we are, 486 years later, and the wheel seems to have turned full circle.

It is not difficult today to find examples of those who would teach hate as enlightenment, or those who would assert the gathering of wealth is serving a higher purpose.

It is easy to find those who call themselves Christian, but who would ignore the missive “...If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (John 3:16-18).

There are even those who suggest that a final battle will cause the death of the Unbelievers, and bring, in a final show of God’s love, the Second Coming-and that we should do all we can to encourage the process.

With all this in mind, I humbly offer a few New Theses for today.

--Hate is not a tool for spreading understanding.

--Revenge is not a means to achieve righteousness.

--Taking away from the poor because you need the money to kill others will not get you into Heaven.

--If your religion is guided by voices from Heaven, be careful of voices from Earth.

--I don’t care who you are, if you think you understand the One and only Truth about anything metaphysical-you don’t.

--As regards a Second Coming: be careful what you wish for-you may get it.

This is a community.
Let’s all be Martin Luther today.

Do you have a thesis of your own?
Add it to the list-think of it as your own Easter egg to the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

On Bees, Or, An Apple A Day May Be A Thing Of The Past

America employs a massive army of migrant farm workers, who rise from their winter slumber every year and travel from farm to farm, helping to prepare the crops.

From October to December of 2006 they started vanishing in unprecedented numbers. Many of the ones who survive have suffered massive injuries from an unknown agent; and it is possible that crops from apples to pears to avocado will no longer be produced in the US as a result.

Who are these workers? Honeybees.

Why does this matter? Bees pollinate crops, you may recall, and without the efforts of bees it would be impossible to produce many of the things you expect to find at the grocery store. Almonds, apples, avocados, and sugarbeets (think crop based fuels here) are all 90% or more dependent on bee pollination. Not to mention honey. (Corn, rice, and wheat are pollinated by the action of the wind, and are not pollinated by insects.)

Honeybees are not the only pollinating animals. Wasps and other “bee types”, ants and beetles, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even bats also pollinate. Each, however, presents unique management issues that have prevented their widespread adoption as tools of the farming trade.

The dollar value of all these potentially lost crops may exceed $15 billion.

How bad is the problem? A beekeeper in Georgia reports that he only expects 9 of his 1200 beehives to survive. There are concerns that the beekeeping (apiary) industry may not recover. Other apiasts report losses of 30-90% of their bees.

The spread of Colony Collapse Disorder can be seen on this map.

The cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is currently unknown.
It is known that this Disorder is highly unusual for several reasons:

--the collapse of colonies is massive and sudden, which is unprecedented.

--unlike bee disease outbreaks in the past, it is almost impossible to locate dead bees in or near the hives.

--in affected colonies, virtually all older worker bees are absent, with a queen, larvae, and young adult bees being the only remaining hive residents.

--in an extremely disturbing development, empty colonies, which are full of highly desirable nectar, honey, and royal jelly (more on this later) are not immediately “poached” for their food by other normally opportunistic insects, such as the wax moth. Insects appear to be unwilling to access these free food supplies for at least two weeks following a hive collapse.

--there are extensive anatomical abnormalities, from the thorax to the sting gland, which seem to be associated with the presence of one or more pathogenic agents not currently identified.

--the affected bees are both unwilling to feed (yes, beekeepers feed their charges) and apparently unable to digest pollen, as undigested pollen grains have been found in the digestive tracts of live bees.

At this point in the discussion, some background is in order.

Most beekeepers, as discussed above, travel from place to place renting their bees to farmers.

There were about 2.4 million hives in production at the end of summer 2006, with 1/3 of those in California. There will not be that many in the summer of 2007.

Despite that number, apiasts must come to California to supplement the State’s bee supply by an additional 600,000 colonies every year just to pollinate the almond crop. (It can cost up to $150 per day per colony for this service.)

A bacillus was associated with the American Foulbrood disease. It is considered the most serious of bee pathogens, and outbreaks resulting in extensive die-offs of bee colonies occurred in the 1940’s. Antibiotics have controlled this pathogen since then.

The Varroa mite was implicated in the near complete elimination of bee colonies in the wild during the 1990’s; a second mite (the tracheal mite) is not well understood. Neither mite was discovered until the 1980’s.

Here is a great page taking you through the biology of a bee. I’ll quickly tell the story below.

There are three kinds (“castes”) of bees. Queens live one to a hive, and basically do nothing but eat, lay eggs and generate a pheromone that prevents the other females in the colony from wanting to reproduce. A newly hatched queen will kill all other queens present, including her mother and sisters.

Mating occurs when a “virgin” queen, having just killed any other potential queens, takes her “mating flight”. In this flight she interacts with drone (male) bees who deposit, literally, a lifetime of sperm which she will store in a specialized gland. Sadly (or not, depending on your perspective), the event is fatal for the drones. The interaction with multiple drones appears to be an effort to create genetic diversity.

Queens have the option of fertilizing an egg with her stored sperm. If this occurs, a drone will hatch. Drones have no purpose other than mating, and over the winter no males will be present in the hive.

Non-breeding female (worker) bees are the result of unfertilized eggs, and vastly outnumber the other two types of bees.

Eggs are deposited in the familiar hexagonal cells of the honeycomb. (Brood comb is the term for the portion of the comb that actually contains eggs, as opposed to the food storage portion of the comb.) It surprised me to learn that workers prepare a unique peanut shaped cell which is kept in reserve in the event the current queen stops producing eggs or pheromone. If this should occur, workers will install a female egg in the cell. About 3 days later the egg will enter its larval stage, and with proper feeding, a queen will develop who will emerge and kill her predecessor.

“It’s good to be the King” Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI character tells us, and, not unlike France, maybe not so good to be the Queen.

The total time from egg laying to emerging from the larval stage as a young adult is 20 days for all three “castes” (Queen, worker, and drone). All larvae will be excessively fed for the beginning of that stage, and then worker and drone larvae will be fed much less often as the larval stage progresses.

It is estimated that worker bees will visit each larval bee 110,000 times during the 16-24 days of the egg and larval stages.

Pollen is the protein source for the colony, and nectar is the carbohydrate source.

Nectar (which is stored in the hive) with moisture content that has evaporated below 18% becomes honey.

Remember Royal Jelly? This most precious of bee foods is a mixture of digested pollen, honey, and bee saliva. In a process reminiscent of the production of fois gras, a female larva is “lavishly” fed this food by older nurse bees to become a Queen.

A lesser food, “bee bread”, consisting of digested pollen and honey, is provided to future worker bees after the first 24 hour feeding of Royal Jelly. They are not fed nearly as often as Queens, and are cared for by older and younger adult worker bees.

The food provided to drones changes from a low-pollen mixture to a high-pollen mixture as the larvae develop. Because drones grow to the largest size of all three castes, they also require the largest quantity of food.

Lifespan? Drones live more or less two months, workers typically live one to four months (shorter in the summer), and Queens can live from two to five tears.

It is possible to “split” a colony to create two colonies, if a new Queen can be provided, and of course, the market has filled this need.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.
Unless linked otherwise, all of the following information is referenced here.

There are commonalities among the affected beekeepers:

--they are all migratory beekeepers. All of the impacted colonies had been moved at least twice; and possibly as many as five times in ’06. (However, reports of major losses to non-migratory keepers can be found here.)

--each experienced at least a 30% mortality rate (a 10% mortality rate is considered normal for “migrant” colonies).

--each has “restarted” a dead colony by using resources from another living colony. The way this works is “dead-out” brood combs (which may or may not contain living larval bees) are placed in physical proximity to a living colony. The workers will then maintenance all the combs. When the Queen lays eggs in the new brood comb it is removed and placed in a new box, creating a new colony. You can see pictures of this process here.

--they all “stressed” the affected colonies in some way. These stresses included overcrowding, pollinating crops with low nutritional value, and drought. (This is not a complete list.)

--none of the keepers used Fumigillin to control nosema disease.

These practices raise the following concerns:

--placing “dead-out” colonies in proximity to apparently healthy colonies may transmit the pathogenic agent to the healthy colony.

--moving colonies, for a variety of reasons, may be stressing the bees, and increasing the possibility of disease.

--moving colonies around the country may be exposing bees to new pathogens.

--splitting out colonies creates stress. This includes the stress of forcing older bees to serve as nurse bees, rather than pollen gathering bees. Because older bees are more likely to have diseases, this increases the possibility that larval bees will be infected at emergence.

Performing examinations of dead bees, normal for this type of investigation, has proved extraordinarily difficult because there aren’t any dead bees to examine. As was mentioned at the top of the diary, this is an unprecedented occurrence.

As a result, scientists are forced to examine living bees, bee bread, and honey. 24 colonies (19 from Pennsylvania, and five from Georgia) were examined.

Examining the dead-out combs does not reveal significant levels of pathogens.

However, examination of the living bees does reveal extensive pathogenic loading (including both viruses and fungi). In fact the samples contained virtually every known bee disorder, and the levels of infection are far more extensive than any previously reported in the scientific literature.

A photograph of the dissected thorax of a bee collected while still alive exhibits discoloration normally associated with dead bees.

Photographs of the normally white “kidneys” (Malpighian Tubules) reveal brownish discolorations. The structures have even disappeared in some samples. Unusual levels of debris are noted in the tubules.

Evidence of fungal infections can be seen in the pyloric scarring evident, the accumulation of immune defense cells near the sting gland, and the visible presence of mycelium, in some cases.

Strange stonelike objects are present in the abnormally transparent rectums of samples from the Georgia colonies that cannot be explained.

One slide revealed a square structure that resembles a known virus, but the structure is ten times the size of that virus. This also cannot be explained.

It has been suggested that symbiotic combinations of crop treatment chemicals may be stressing the bees, allowing these other opportunistic pathogenic agents to take hold in the colonies. A new class of insecticides, the neonicotinoids, has especially attracted the attention of investigators.

There is a research project under way, using the samples, to determine if a currently unknown pathogen exists.

So now what?

The most recent recommendations I’ve seen (dated March 7th) suggest not merging colonies together, isolating affected colonies while research on a “sterilization” process continues, and following specific chemical treatment and feeding processes, with the goal of reducing potential “kidney” damage and other bee stressors.

There was no suggestion that migration from farm to farm be discontinued as a beekeeping practice.

There was no suggestion to the general farming community that changes in the chemicals applied to crops might be in order.

So let’s sum up:

A currently unknown event is causing the disappearance of worker bees from managed bee colonies.

The event has occurred with previously unheard of speed.

This event is unprecedented in its scope, and has the potential to completely alter American agriculture in a manner not yet fully appreciated.

Crops as diverse as grapes, strawberries, ornamental flowers, and all citrus fruit could become nearly impossible to grow commercially as a result of the event.

The living bees examined have pathogen loads never before seen by science.

Beekeepers express doubt that the industry will continue to exist if a solution cannot be found quickly.

There are virtually no feral bees to replace or assist in the rejuvenation of the bee population.

Normally I try to offer a snappy observation to end these discussions, but today I don’t have one.

Let’s hope the bees don’t provide it for us.