Saturday, June 30, 2012

Happy birthday, Martha.  (And Grace Ann, Bruce D., my other bday twins known and unknown.)  As you can see I'm the same old guy, just older and, of course, bluer.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“The more realistic life may be, the more it needs the stimulus of the imagination.”
Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

MSNBC Lean Forward - Chris Hayes from Joe Gabriel on Vimeo.

"Climate change is the biggest governing challenge we face. It's the biggest governing challenge I think we've ever faced. One way or another, we're going to have to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon we're putting in the atmosphere and the scale and scope of that undertaking is every bit as transformational as the industrial revolution or the transition to the digital age. And you can think about that as terrifying, or you can think about it as thrilling."

Chris Hayes
text of his MSNBC Lean Forward promo

A Rising Tide Drowns All Cities

The tremendous rain and flooding in Florida, the fires scorching across Colorado, all  Although more Americans are making the connection to the Climate Crisis, there's still room for denial.

But sea level rise...That's a little different.  There are other ways to account for it, of course, but rising sea levels was probably the first predicted effect of the Climate Crisis that got lodged in the public memory.

So now it's not just the kind of weather the Climate Crisis models have predicted.  It's rising sea levels--and one place where they are rising much faster that the global average is the East Coast of the United States.

That's "are rising," according to a new study.  Sure, another new study, but this one is a little different:

   "Computer models long have projected higher levels along parts of the East Coast because of changes in ocean currents from global warming, but this is the first study to show that's already happened."

Of course it's a modest rise, and only one of many predicted global heating effects being observed and reported.  But models show that levels affecting  New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.  will rise twice as much as elsewhere on the East Coast.

Here's the thing about sea levels rising that maybe everybody doesn't get (I certainly didn't fully appreciate it.)  A sea level rise of five feet does not mean that five feet of beach are going to get washed away.  It means that the sea is going to come into land and flood areas that are less than five feet above sea level, potentially for miles and miles inland, depending on how high the land gets--and even then the sea could tumble through low-lying valleys to form new rivers and lakes. 

That means that stuff that's five feet above current sea level will be totally underwater.  But engineers suggest that a sea level rise of only eight inches could cause millions of dollars of damage in New York.

Current models of how high the rises will be are imprecise, and usually conservative.  Some of the latest suggest 3-5 feet for parts of the East and West Coasts of the US by the end of the century.  Along the West Coast now, beach erosion (caused by a number of factors) is so severe that some communities are wondering whether to just relocate.   But--to use an ironic metaphor--that's probably just the tip of the iceberg.

In an interview Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that if global heating continues and the major ice sheets slide into the sea, sea levels could rise by 30 or 40 feet in a few hundred years.  (He sets his new novel--cleverly called 2312--three hundred years in the future, and posits a 30 foot rise, which transforms New York City into Venice.)   If methane under the ice is released, the planet is cooked, and if all the ice melts, the total rise could be 270 feet.   That's enough to put the state of Florida underwater.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. is about ten feet above sea level.  The Central Valley of California, far from the coast, could be flooded by a 35 foot rise, creating an inland sea (which it was long ago.) 

It's even likely that with a significant sea level rise, most if not all of the world's beaches would be gone.  There would be no beach to walk on, for a million years or more.

The ramifications are huge, but maybe that one thing is enough to contemplate for now.   

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Message of Stonehenge

Stonehenge has tantalized and mystified generations.  These monumental stones were not only arrayed in some incomprehensible pattern--the stones came from many different locations, some of them very far away.  What was its purpose?

A ten year archaeological investigation has resulted in a conclusion: Stonehenge was "a monument to unify the peoples of Britain after a long period of conflict and regional differences."

When Stonehenge was built,” said Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, “there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast. This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.”

This all happened some 5,000 years ago., at about the midpoint (so far) in the history of human civilization.

The people who built Stonehenge selected a site of particular importance--because like monuments thousands of miles away (in the U.S. for instance) it does align with solar and lunar events. Professor Parker Pearson said: “When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance. This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else. Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world.”

The particulars of this history are so far lost to us.  Only so much can be inferred from surviving evidence.  In a way it is as mythical as the United Federation of Planets posited in the Star Trek future: another instance of peoples coming together after a self-destructive time. 

But it is the kind of myth we need.  We can guess that within us there is the possibility of coming together to solve our common problems.  It is worth something to suggest that even on this scale, humans have done so before.  That they may have done so by affirming the natural, the cosmic rightness of it, is perhaps the most heartening of all.

[The bottom photo is an official White House photo of President Obama with Nichelle Nichols, who not only played Uhura on Star Trek, but successfully recruited minority astronauts for NASA.  The photo was taken some months ago but posted recently by Nichelle.]

Judging the Court

In a decision announced Monday, the Supreme Court followed the law on federal responsibility for immigration, supporting a lower court ruling that most of the Arizona law is unconstitutional.  But the Court continued to undermine the very basis of representative democracy by its partisan and ideological doubling down on the Citizens United decision by denying Montana its historic right to regulate political contributions in state elections.

Just how wildly Rabid Right the majority of this Court is can be seen in the amazement of the reaction to their brave decision to forbid mandatory life sentences for children.  And yet Samuel Alito made a spectacle of himself in his angry dissent delivered from the bench.  Of course children should automatically be thrown into prison for life!  Rachel's take on the day's decision gets it right.

When Ruth Bader Ginsberg uttered her cryptic forecast of this week's decisions, she noted that dissents can be important in shaping later policy.  Presumably she wasn' talking about Alito or especially Scalia's demented rant on the Arizona decision.  But absent the Affordable Care Act decision, she may well have meant Justice Breyer's dissent on the Montana decision.  It does not display dazzling reasoning or appreciation for the nuances of the Constitution.  It merely points out that Montana cited actual historical evidence of big money donations leading to years of corruption in the state, whereas the Supreme 5 decided in Citizens United that this was so impossible that corporations must be permitted to spend as much as they wish.  That evidence was the very reason this law was passed--in 1912.  Again, Rachel points out the flaws in their argument that money is "speech."  Everybody has speech, not everybody has that kind of money.   A high school debater making this Court's argument would be laughed off the stage.

 Coupled with the decision last week to limit the "speech" of labor unions, it's a clear ideological and partisan power grab.  The Supremes, beginning with their entirely partisan Bush v. Gore decision that resulted in the Rabid Right almost solid 5 vote majority, are providing one of the major tools to create a one party system, GOPer rule forever: the mountains of cash from those who have it, overwhelmingly corporations supporting those who will vote and advocate the way the corporations want them to, and the billionaires who can throw around the equivalent of many lifetimes of income for most Americans on their pet causes and power grabs. 

The other half is restricting the right to vote. We'll see what contortions the Court 5 go into to help that along.  The partisan intent of those efforts were obvious even before some yahoo GOPer legislator in PA said it out loud.

In my lifetime, there have been worries about the political leanings of various justices, and while they had their points of view, most turned out to be judicious, justifying their opinions with legal argument.  But the wolf finally came. The ideological bent of this Court is so obvious that most legal experts polled agreed that the Affordable Care Act is Constitutional and should be upheld, but a majority also agreed that this Court was not likely to do so.  The judges have been judged as ideological and partisan hacks.

It matters a great deal to a great many people if they destroy health care reform on Thursday.  But even if they don't, it doesn't much matter to their long game.  They can even lose to an incumbent Democratic President, knowing that they can outspend anybody, and keep the bad demographics from voting just enough to never lose the White House again.   And it will take a lot for them to lose Congress and state legislatures, even with the very low approval ratings and the extreme measures they've pushed through.  They're establishing a feudal state in Michigan, and it's not a national scandal, it's not even a blip.

Demography may be destiny in the long run politically, but this Court may well have those 5 votes for a long time, too.  It's going to make the very difficult future unnecessarily more painful for all but a very few.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Great Dithering: The Climate

The UN international sustainability conference held in Rio--twenty years after a similar meeting seemed to aim world efforts at addressing the Climate Crisis--has ended with nearly unanimous negative reviews.  The Executive Director of Greenpeace called the final report "the longest suicide note in history."

No real international or national commitments, no enforcement, nothing but platitudes--the Great Dithering.  The NY Times reporters suggest that non-governmental action and pledges to act were perhaps the only positive outcome.  None of this is new.  And that's the problem.

I try to take into account the natural sense of things ending, or not changing fast enough to avert catastrophe, that seems to come with age, especially as one's abilities to do anything about it have an expiration date that is fast approaching or probably has long since passed.  I take note of the efforts of young activists, and their point of view.  And while I am saddened by persistent but useless, unfair and counterproductive tarring of an entire Baby Boom generation, I know that the torch has passed and I wish the younger generations well.  But it seems increasingly likely that those being born now are going to be engaged in Civilization: the Reboot during their lifetimes.

For while political decisionmakers (including constituencies) dither, the climate keeps on its catastrophic path coming ever close to the point of no return.  Even if there is a sudden enormous change at the last minute--though another summer of devastating wildfires, heatwaves and storms doesn't seem to be turning the trick--it may be too late.  Right now I have to look for optimism to those who say that humanity could recover in a couple of hundred years, and that's mostly if we figure out how to live somewhere in space.  I console myself with the thought that in a thousand years, if humanity doesn't make the same mistake of deifying predatory capitalism as the god and measure of all things, it might be ready to take another step towards the fulfilment of its promise.  

The Great Dithering: The Economy

Paul Krugman has issued yet another warning about the U.S. and indeed the global economy, only this one is less about what we should do (and could easily do) to jumpstart growth than about the consequences of not doing that, which could be quickly severe in the extreme--not 1937, when FDR listened to the austerity hawks and lessened federal stimulus which reignited the Depression, but 1931, and a series of indecisions that led to the global economic collapse of the Great Depression.

The occasion for this is the Fed's decision last week to do the absolute minimum that prevents people from saying they did nothing (to paraphrase Krugman) when it could have done more to get the economy moving.  His conclusion:  

Why won’t the Fed act? My guess is that it’s intimidated by those Congressional Republicans, that’s it’s afraid to do anything that might be seen as providing political aid to President Obama, that is, anything that might help the economy. Maybe there’s some other explanation, but the fact is that the Fed, like the European Central Bank, like the U.S. Congress, like the government of Germany, has decided that avoiding economic disaster is somebody else’s responsibility.
None of this should be happening. As in 1931, Western nations have the resources they need to avoid catastrophe, and indeed to restore prosperity — and we have the added advantage of knowing much more than our great-grandparents did about how depressions happen and how to end them. But knowledge and resources do no good if those who possess them refuse to use them.
And that’s what seems to be happening. The fundamentals of the world economy aren’t, in themselves, all that scary; it’s the almost universal abdication of responsibility that fills me, and many other economists, with a growing sense of dread."

He's So Bain

Three stories in major U.S. newspapers over the past several days have examined Mitt Romney's experience running Bain Capital and they are all damning.

First was the Washington Post, which found that while Romney loudly laments the loss of American jobs to overseas and pledges to reverse the trend, he pretty much started it:

"During the nearly 15 years that Romney was actively involved in running Bain, a private equity firm that he founded, it owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission."

The New York Times chimed in with an analysis of Bain's operations which showed that at least seven of the companies Bain took over failed, but that Bain still made money from them:

Mr. Romney’s experience at Bain is at the heart of his case for the presidency. He has repeatedly promoted his years working in the “real economy,” arguing that his success turning around troubled companies and helping to start new ones, producing jobs in the process, has prepared him to revive the country’s economy. He has fended off attacks about job losses at companies Bain owned, saying, “Sometimes investments don’t work and you’re not successful.” But an examination of what happened when companies Bain controlled wound up in bankruptcy highlights just how different Bain and other private equity firms are from typical denizens of the real economy, from mom-and-pop stores to bootstrapping entrepreneurial ventures.
Bain structured deals so that it was difficult for the firm and its executives to ever really lose, even if practically everyone else involved with the company that Bain owned did, including its employees, creditors and even, at times, investors in Bain’s funds."

The Boston Globe focused on one of Romney's big deals, which heavily involved him with junk bond king and felon Michael Milkin:

 "What transpired would become not just one of the most profitable leveraged buyouts of the era, but also one of the most revealing stories of Romney’s Bain Capital career. It showed how he pivoted from being a relatively cautious investor to risking his reputation for a big payoff. It is one that Romney has rarely, if ever, mentioned in his two bids for the presidency, perhaps because the Houston-based department store chain that Bain assembled later went into bankruptcy."

But what distinguishes this deal from the nearly 100 others that Romney did over a 15-year period was his close work with Milken’s firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. At the time of the deal, it was widely known that Milken and his company were under federal investigation, yet Romney decided to go ahead with the deal because Drexel had a unique ability to sell high-risk, high-yield debt instruments, known as “junk bonds.”

 Romney, meanwhile, once referred to the deal as emanating from “the glorious days of Drexel Burnham,” saying, “it was fun while it lasted,” in a little-noticed interview with American Banker magazine."

(An additional irony for me when I linked to for this story were the interpolated ads after the opening graph: the first was a solicitation to contribute to the Romney campaign, the second was an enticement to invest to get:  9.42% Annual Yield. 2 Year Term $1,000 Minimum. Not FDIC Insured.  [Emphasis added, of course.])

Rightists will snivel that these are libral lamestream media publications to invalidate the stories, but I'm afraid that isn't really enough.  The facts asserted will have to be challenged, such as mistakes or even deliberate misuse of Securities and Exchange Comission data--which wingers are intimately familiar with, since they--and the Romney campaign--regularly lie about quantifiable facts, let alone interpretations.   They've already attempted such with the Post story.  As of Sunday they have two more to deal with.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Planet of the Apes?

An AP story begins:

The more we study animals, the less special we seem.

Baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share.

"It's not a question of whether they think — it's how they think," says Duke University scientist Brian Hare. Now scientists wonder if apes are capable of thinking about what other apes are thinking.

"The evidence that animals are more intelligent and more social than we thought seems to grow each year, especially when it comes to primates," the piece continues.  Monkeys have amazing memories.  Apes may be setting goals and working towards them. But it's not just primates:

Dolphins, whose brains are 25 percent heavier than humans, recognize themselves in a mirror. So do elephants. A study in June finds that black bears can do primitive counting, something even pigeons have done, by putting two dots before five, or 10 before 20 in one experiment.

Even dogs and cats are getting more scientific respect. There's more evidence in a recent booklength collection of research. Still more research suggests that crows and even bees recognize individual people. Little birdbrains remember where scores of food caches are, even under snow cover.  Why all of a sudden are we figuring this out, as primate species particularly are on the brink of extinction?  Prejudice operates among scientists just like everywhere else, and if the conventional wisdom is that animals cannot have uniquely human abilities, then anybody who goes looking for them--or even sees them and reports them--risks being laughed out of their careers.  Primatologist Frans de Waal, a pioneer in this area, has suggested that scientists haven't seen such evidence because they simply weren't looking for it.

But now that it's okay, there's much more research money available for these studies, and so there is much more evidence.  Apart from the ethical implications of how these animals are treated by scientists and other humans using them for entertainment, there is of course the profound ethical implication of causing their extinction. 

We aren't so incredibly different and special.  But we do have the power to destroy and maybe the power to save.  At least it is our moral duty to try to save the world from the Climate Crisis and the other destructions we're wreaking on the life of this planet.  It's great that scientists are looking at other animals and finally asking, what are they thinking?  But we need a good look in the mirror, and ask on behalf of these animals, what are we thinking?