Solutions please (can the crap!)

outhouse

Enough with the problem recitations, please. Article after article, in all sources both print and electronic, all we get is descriptions of problems, admonitions to face the reality (whatever it is at the moment), and the advice that we should do something.

But hardly anyone offers concrete steps to be taken or solutions we should implement to solve our problems.

Typical of the proliferation of such articles is this one: “Are we prepared for a climate crisis in the middle of a pandemic?” by Olivia Aguilar. According to Dr. Aguilar, we are not. So what should we do about it? Form committees. In about 1100 words that is the only concrete step she recommends.

Articles of little merit or value are generated by the score every day in colleges and universities that pressure their faculty members to publish something, anything, whether they have anything to say or not.

So-called think tanks are also prolific factories of shrieking calls to do something without even a scintilla of solutions offered. I’ve read article after article, watched countless mind-numbing Youtube videos, and listened to a few podcasts, all about how we need to prepare for this or that problem: global warming, swarms of climate refugees, the Coronavirus epidemic, food shortages, overpopulation, and on and on. The list of problems facing or about to consume us is endless. The list of solutions is, well, pretty much blank.

What follows are a few of the problems that need solutions, at least in rough format, that come to my mind without a lot of thought (which is my preferred mode). They could be fleshed out with a little research and high-powered thinking on the part of these people who have sinecures in academia and think tanks. With more of a project-orientation—solution centered as they like to say—they could actually earn their money by giving us some steps to follow.

  • Lawn to gardens. For at least eight years there has been a push in some quarters to convert our ridiculous lawns into gardens, especially vegetable gardens. Food supply is going to undergo serious threat so we need more how-to instruction on things like:
    — Getting municipal codes changed to accommodate gardens in place of lawns.
    — Psychological methods for breaking homeowners away from their grass fetish.
    — Protection methods against natural pillagers and human thieves.
    — And while we’re at it, canning procedures to store the produce from those gardens.
  • Golf courses to affordable housing. Golf courses are going to rapidly become a thing of the past. The areas they occupy could be converted to affordable housing. Focus on:
    — How to bring about forced change of ownership from private golf course owners. Municipalization?
    — Political action to achieve conversion of municipally owned courses.
    — How to incorporate the renting of small garden plats for individuals on former golf courses.
  • Farmland conversion. The dominance of beef and corn production are extremely problematic aspects of agriculture that must be radically changed.
    — Alternative crops appropriate to particular areas and circumstances.
    — Debt amelioration for farmers heavily invested in equipment and land.
  • Wind and solar acceptance. Over 70 percent of the American public supports alternative energy sources. But when it comes to actually implementing them the public wants them anywhere but in their own vicinity.
    — What influence techniques or methods would bring better acceptance of local installations?
    — What financial incentives or other benefits could be generated, and what would their sources be, to gain acceptance?
  • Propaganda remediation. Talk radio, social media, and Fox News have been seriously and in some cases almost entirely subverted to propaganda machines for contemporary populists and other rabble.
    — How can these media be effectively neutralized without censorship?
    — What methods could be employed to undo years of biased influence in people who have willingly subjected themselves to the relentless barrage of right wing misinformation and anti-social ideas?
  • Education rejuvenation. Starting in the late 1950s the far right-wing segment of the Republican party began to advance a policy of influence over the educational system to bring it into alignment with their warped values and focus on personal, financial wealth. Their strategy included gaining control of school boards, state departments of education, and educational legislation. They have in large measure been successful.
    — What kinds of political strategies will be necessary, and effective, in returning school board representation to the broader swath of the public?
    — What will be required to bring about truly free education from preschool through college?
    — State legislatures need to step up and fund higher education. How can that be achieved?
    — How can organizations like parent teacher organizations be more empowered to help bring about substantive, positive changes in public education?
  • Enlightenment values. The United States was once the proud embodiment in the world of higher enlightenment values. That is no longer the case with our incessant, never-ending wars and interference with foreign governments everywhere. What would it take to get back to a positive moral stature?
  • Freedom. It would be difficult to enumerate all the losses of freedom and liberty that have occurred just in my lifetime. This must perforce be the broadest and most difficult topic on this list. In brief, how do we regain our liberty?

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

This is a list I conjured up in just a few minutes. Certainly they are among those topics I think about frequently, and they are really only a small subset of the possible topics people could be studying, researching, and writing about.

And of course some are doing exactly that. Do an Internet search of any of the terms of this list and many sources will come up. But they are often, as is this one, isolated and relatively obscure websites. What we really need is for those with the biggest megaphones to stop dithering with resume or CV padding crap and produce something meaningful and useful.

Getting ready for power grid failure

power line with red background

Wife Chris and I have decided to install a natural gas powered 16 kWh stand-by electric generator.

Natural gas powered generators are quieter than the smaller, portable, gasoline powered types of generator. The location we have chosen for the generator, plus its quieter sound, will make it minimally obtrusive. We do not like noise and assume others feel the same way. The only time the generator will be running–other than when there is an electricity outage, of course–will be for periods of 10 minutes or less, once a week, which is part of the maintenance program. We will schedule this for a time during the middle of the day.

You might be wondering, why? Natural gas powered generators with their permanent installation are not cheap. Plus they require maintenance and upkeep. So why did we decide to do this?

Given the tenor of the times and the ways in which so much of our contemporary world is clearly breaking down, I have been giving a lot of thought to just how our quality of life is most vulnerable. It did not a lot of thought to conclude that one area in which a catastrophe would be most devastating is electricity.

Almost every aspect of our lives depends on the electricity being on. In the past we have lived in places where electrical outages were commonplace. Loss of power for even an hour is pretty inconvenient. It never happens at a good time.

We were living in New York during the Northeast blackout of 2003. When that struck we were without power for several days. That made us outage sensitive, so we subsequently invested in an emergency generator (portable, gasoline powered) and electrical transfer switch wiring. That made a world of difference in our quality of life during those frequent times when the electricity went off, sometimes for many hours.

The Achilles heel of that system was the fact that it was gasoline powered. In a widespread blackout, like the one in 2003, gasoline was hard to get because filling station pumps require electricity to work. We had to either drive outside the blackout area (too far) or find a filling station that had its own backup generator (and had not run out of gasoline to sell).

An added inconvenience was the limited number of household circuits we could power with our portable generator. We could power some of the basic circuits but we were nowhere near whole-house coverage.

With our electric-outage experience in mind I contacted the local electric utility before moving to the Madison area in 2013 to see what the outage history was like. I was told there had been only one brief outage, lasting less than an hour, in the previous ten years.

Great! I thought. We won’t be needing an emergency generator.

In the six-plus years we’ve lived here there have been a few brief outages. More than I expected from what I had been told, but nothing to get seriously bent out of shape about. So I was feeling pretty secure about our electricity supply and the unlikelihood of experiencing a serious outage.

That is, until I stumbled across a report prepared last year for the U.S. Department of Energy called An Assessment of Threats to the American Power Grid.

It detailed the four most likely ways in which the national electrical grid is vulnerable to prolonged collapse:

  • Geomagnetic storms
  • Electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) via a high altitude nuclear detonation.
  • Cyber attack.
  • Kinetic attack. (Structural damage resulting from acts of terrorism; nature, such as lightning; vandalism, such as someone shooting at transformers; etc.)

The DOE Assessment makes for some bleak and scary reading, especially when you consider that we the public are usually fed feel-good nonsense that paints a rosy picture. If these people are bad-mouthing the situation, then it must be really bad. Everything is not hunky-dory.

“Even if all the recommendations of the Congressional EMP Commission were implemented, there is no guarantee that the [national electrical] grid will not sustain a prolonged collapse. There should therefore be contingency plans for such a failure.” (Emphasis added.)

Evidently there are no contingency plans: “There should be an actionable plan in anticipation of a possible prolonged collapse of the grid—a retro-structure and a skill set to provide a framework for survival. Our sense is there is no plan.” (Emphasis added.)

So just how bad is it? I wondered. How likely is it that the national electrical grid could go down, that there could be a “prolonged collapse”? How long would the collapse last if it did? After all, in modern times we have never experienced a complete collapse of the national electrical grid. But if is possible, and there is no plan . . .

I looked into the four “postulated mechanisms” that could potentially cause grid collapse:

Geomagnetic storms. According to Science Daily, a “geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere. Associated with solar coronal mass ejections, coronal holes, or solar flares, a geomagnetic storm is caused by a solar wind shock wave which typically strikes the Earth’s magnetic field 24 to 36 hours after the event.”

Often called solar storms, these magnetic disruptions can wreak havoc on electrical equipment of all sorts, especially the essential components of the national grid. In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm blacked out large parts of northeastern North America. In 1921 there was a solar storm several magnitudes stronger than the 1989 storm. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated that if a storm of the 1921 magnitude were to strike today it would take down the entire U.S. grid. (There was no grid in 1921 like there is today.)

The 1921 Solar storm was not a unique, one-time event. NOAA is confident that a storm of that magnitude, or even greater, will eventually strike us.

Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks (EMP). An EMP of sufficient magnitude damages electrical equipment. The most likely EMP vehicle would be a high altitude nuclear detonation. From what I can gather this is the least likely thing to happen, but that might just be wishful thinking on my part.

A lightning strike is an EMP. As a result of global warming, storms are getting more frequent and more powerful. A few unluckily placed lightning strikes could leave us in the dark a long time.

Cyber attacks. A cyber attack is an assault launched against computer networks and systems. As might be expected, the electric grid is managed by computers from stem to stern.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

Not long ago Russian hackers took down a large part of the Ukrainian electric grid. The damage, destruction and loss was enormous. It has been suggested that the Russians could take down the U.S. grid whenever they want to.

A power company in the Midwest hired a group of white hat hackers known as RedTeam Security to test power company’s defenses against hacking and sabotage. The team was able to break into buildings and hack into the power company’s network with relative ease. They were able to gain full access and could have easily done serious and permanent damage, plunging the entire region into darkness for an indeterminate time.

Kinetic Attacks. These are old fashioned methods like bombs, fire, bullets, and so on. A few years ago in California someone with a high powered rifle took down a large power transformer by simply shooting at it. Much of the region was without power for months.

Speaking of transformers, they are a critical component of the transmission system. They adjust the electric voltage to a suitable level on each segment of the power transmission from generation to the end user. They are essential to the transmission of electricity across the grid.

High voltage transformers (HVTs), sometimes referred to as large power transformers (LPTs), are big and heavy. They weigh between 110 and 410 tons, and cost millions of dollars apiece. They are all uniquely designed so they cannot be mass produced, and it can take up to two years to make one.

There are approximately 80 to 90 of these LPTs in use across the country. They are essential to the U.S. electric grid. Because they are huge, transporting them from the point of manufacture to their destination in the grid is costly and expensive.

Making them is even more problematic. It can take up to two years to make one of these LPTs. That is, if the materials required to make them are immediately available. (Don’t even get me started on the problems associated with electrical steel, a special steel that is an essential ingredient of all LPTs.) Keep in mind there can be no economy of scale with these things because each one is unique. They must be designed and built for the particular requirements of where they are to be used.

It would seem reasonable to make a large power transformer in place, where it is needed. But that is impossible. There are only a couple of manufacturers in the world capable of making the largest LPTs. One is in South Korea and the other in Germany.

The German manufacturing firm is Siemens. In an impressive 568 page company publication they state that LPTs have a lifespan of around 35 or 40 years, and approximately 70 percent of the LPTs in the U.S. are at or past their end of service date.

The publication cited above says the entire U.S. grid would go down with the loss of no more than eight or nine LPTs. Yikes! Think about it. Around 60 of our LPTs are outdated and could fail at any time. And most of the rest of them are approaching that point.

Call me Chicken Little, but I find that more than a little scary.

From what I have learned over the past few months there is no doubt in my mind that we are going to experience more frequent and longer lasting electric outages. (I haven’t even mentioned the aging, inadequate, and sorely neglected infrastructure of our national grid of which the LPTs are a part.)

What to do? The first thing I wanted to know was if the electric utility had any kind of program, or perhaps suggestions about how to deal with outages, especially an extended outage which might even be nationwide, and might last for months or even years.

The utility’s manager courteously responded to all my questions in a timely manner, but what he had to say was not comforting. In his words, they were a small electric distribution company. It has little to no control over the supply of electricity to them. If they can’t get electricity, game over for them.

So! If an extended power outage is a real possibility, what’s to be done? Do we really want to make a sizable investment in time and money to install a permanent, natural-gas fueled stand-by electric generator? After all, the national electric grid has never totally gone down, and local outages have never been very long-term. It’s never happened; maybe it never will.

First I looked at it from an actuarial perspective. We have paid and lot in premiums over the years for life insurance, even though neither of us has ever actually died. Same with fire insurance, auto insurance, health insurance, and so on. We’ve had some claims over the years but we’ve certainly never recouped the total cost of the insurance premiums.

The way we’ve usually looked at it was that we were insuring against catastrophe. The ramifications of a possible catastrophic event were far more horrendous than paying the insurance premiums.

I believe the same applies to electricity. To be without it is one of the most disruptive and potentially dangerous conditions I can imagine. Or in some ways, that I can’t imagine. Things can happen that were undreamed of just the day before.

Like the sudden appearance of a new virus for which no one has immunity. As I write this Chris and I have isolated ourselves at home due to the Coronavirus outbreak. I don’t know how long we are going to have to be holed up here, but I would not want to do it without electricity.

We finally decided to get the generator if we could be confident there would be gas to power it. I wanted to hear from Madison Gas & Electric as to whether or not they could continue to provide gas in an extended power outage. It was difficult to get them to answer my questions but I kept badgering them until they did. Their answer: Their ability to provide gas is not dependent upon electricity from the grid. They do have to power the gas pumps with electricity, but they have some very large stand-by generators for that. I have to take their word for it that they can continue to deliver gas even with the electricity is off.

I did ask, a couple of times, just how long they would be able to provide gas with the electricity off. That question never got answered.

So we decided to install a permanent stand-by generator. One that is capable of powering our whole house. As long as there is natural gas we will not have to be without heat or air conditioning, refrigeration, light, hot water, computers, charged cell phones, CPAP, and so on.

Solar panels and whole house batteries would be a better solution but that option is not presently available to us because the homeowners’ association voted against allowing solar panels. We would prefer solar because it is renewable. But instead we will have to burn fossil fuel. (I have wondered how many of the homeowners’ association members who voted against solar own MG&E stock.)

Wind power is out of the question for the present circumstances. That just leaves natural gas

By the way, potable water was of concern to me in case of an outage. Local water company told me they have natural gas powered generators that back-up several of their water-well pumps. They can continue to supply water as long as there is gas.

What you need to know about ebay

ebay graphic shows thieves and crooks

It really is time for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to start breaking up the gargantuan online companies like ebay.

Amazon should also be broken up, and certainly Google and Facebook. But one thing has to be said about Amazon: They make buying (and returning) easy.

Not so ebay. I ordered a product from iherb on ebay. They evidently did not have the product they pictured and described, so they sent me a substitute. So I wanted to return it and get a refund.

That’s when all the fun began. I won’t go through all the laborious and ridiculous steps I was required to go through only to end up unwilling to spend any more time trying to get them to do the right thing.

The vendor, iherb, never did respond to my attempts to get their attention. After they had ignored me for a couple of weeks I went over their head to ebay. Although quite friendly about it, they required me to jump through numerous hoops, eventually said the vendor iherb would be sending me a return label.

They did not and getting back in touch with ebay about this specific matter has been a nightmare and now a complete failure. I have no more time to mess with them. I am stuck with a $50 item I did not want, did not order, and evidently cannot return for a refund.

This is becoming more and more a common experience in late-state predatory capitalism. I used to believe whole heartedly in capitalism and the American Dream. No more. There never seems to be enough profit for these greedsters and they lie awake nights figuring out ways to screw us, the consuming public, out of yet more money.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

I was once used ebay’s service to take credit cards but stopped because of all the bad experiences others had with them.

Now I will not buy anything from anyone on ebay ever again. The ebay “guarantee” is BS, in my experience. You might be able to get a refund from them or with their help, but not without a lot of patience and time.

Ebay should take a lesson from Amazon. At least Amazon knows how to treat customers.

NATO – Costly geriatric military alliance that’s lost purpose and meaning

nato flag

Sometime around next February the U.S. will send 20,000 troops to participate in a joint NATO military exercise in Europe called Defender 2020. There will be a total of 37,000 troops involved.

That’s 20,000 from us and 17,000 from the rest of NATO. There are 27 current European Union members 22 of which are members of NATO. So, what, five European countries are getting a free ride? And why are the European members contributing only 46 percent of the troops while we, the U.S., only one of 29 members, dishing out 54 percent of the personnel?

The national differences between European countries were put aside when NATO was formed after the last world war. But World War II ended 75 years ago and now those differences are resurfacing with a vengeance. Which detracts significantly from the primary objective of NATO has always been protecting the Europeans from Russia. It is time to call it quits. We can’t even protect ourselves from Russia’s vile influence (otherwise what’s all that noise about their interference in our elections?).

Besides, of total membership of NATO only Poland (and maybe France?) are contributing to the costs of NATO which they agreed to share a long time ago.

The NATO war games next February have been designated Defender 2020 but to me that seems disingenuous. The number refers to the year of course but I can’t help ruminating about the ophthalmological implication. It stands for perfect vision which we certainly do not have when it comes to anything military.

For instance, we are in the grip of global warming caused in no small part by the burning of fossil fuels. To that end Defender 2020 promises to make a significant contribution. Not to the solution but to global warming itself.

There is no way to even begin to estimate the carbon “footprint” of such a military exercise. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III jet planes will probably be used to transport the troops from the U.S. to, say, Ramstein Air Base in Germany. It will require 170 flights—yes, one hundred and seventy—to get the troops there. And of course they will have to eventually be brought back. What that costs us will never be made public by our government. In their mania for secrecy even public knowledge about something as silly [1] as the cost of one toilet seat to be a threat to national security. Conservative estimates range from 106 million dollars to over 200 million. That’s just for the transportation to get our well-heeled warriors there and back.

For what? Is it just a show of force? If that’s it it is not likely to impress anyone. When I was in the Army in Europe there were something like a quarter of a million of us there. Moving a mere 20,000 military meatballs a quarter of the way around the globe carries little threat to people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Ski Jumping or whatever his name is (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s Xi Jinking; easily googled).

A typical U.S.-Europe round-trip flight produces between one and two tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person. You know, that much loved and adorable greenhouse gas that is killing our planet. So if we multiply, say, one-and-a-half tons by the number of U.S. troops involved we get something in the ballpark of twenty to forty thousand tons of carbon dioxide. I don’t know what the correct number will be—does anyone, really?—but it is a lot.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that “CO2 remains in the climate system for a very long time: CO2 emissions cause increases in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that will last thousands of years.”

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

What does that mean in comparative terms? The U.S. EPA calculator [2] tells us the amount of CO2 generated just to get the troops there and back will be the equivalent of the amount of CO2 created from generating the electricity used in one year by 2,395 U.S. homes. Or the burning of more than 21 million pounds of coal.

What would it take to sequester that amount of CO2 and keep it from entering the atmosphere? It would take 23,538 acres of forest a full year to do it. Or, if you were to plant 330,704 tree seedlings and nurtured them all into full and healthy growth they could sequester the CO2 in ten years. Or of course they could just not do this kind of stupid crap.

Our military is committing this rapine on our environment, and blowing countless tax dollars, all to justify their ability to re-fight World War II. Or to just keep fighting the endless wars predatory capitalism keeps coming up with to make ever more profit.

It is past time to put an end to all the war mongering warrior worship that has contributed so much to bringing us to the edge of extinction.

Starting now the Pentagon budget should be cut in half each year for at least three years, then re-evaluated. To do that will require replacing the current political leadership (?)—meaning Republicans and Centrist Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer—with people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

I realize none of this is likely to happen, even on the smallest scale. But, hey … I can dream.

We have run out of time

melted clock indicating we are out of time

Scientists have been telling us for several decades that we were running out of time to do something about global warming. Last year (2018) the consensus of scientific thinking gave us twelve years. Now, in 2019, we’re down to eleven. That is, we have eleven years to change the ways we live and do business to drastically reduce our global carbon footprint. The objective is to keep average global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The baseline average is based on NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) for the years 1951-1980.

According to NASA/GISS the global temperature annual average for 1951-19800 was 14 degrees Centigrade (57°F). What happens when the global average rises to 1.5 degrees warmer? If you have to ask, you have not been paying attention to what is going on in the world. Here’s the way Astra Taylor put it writing in Laphams Quarterly:

[There will be] the annihilation of coral reefs, greater melting of the permafrost, and species apocalypse, along with the most dire consequences for human civilization as we know it. Food shortages, forest fires, droughts and monsoons, intensified war and conflict, billions of refugees—we have barely begun to conceive of the range of dystopian futures looming on the horizon.

Get it? Pay special attention to that part about how “we have barely begun to conceive” of the horrors that lie in wait for us. Clearly it would be in our—humanity’s and the rest of the world’s—best interests to get our collective butts in gear and mitigate the effects of global warming. And mitigate is the best we could hope for because we have already done things that will negatively affect our climate for at least several hundred years.

We were told 30 years ago what we needed to do to avoid most of the problems of global warming. We did nothing. Nothing significant, anyway. A relative handful of the world’s population began doing a few constructive but insignificant things, like recycling paper and plastic, most of which somehow ended up in landfills or the ocean. Out of sight out of mind, I guess.

(Please don’t mistake my tone. I have been no better than almost everyone else.)

There have been activists all along, trying to draw public and governmental attention to the problems of global warming, but recently there has been an uptick in public awareness. Most notably there is Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmentalist who has roused students and adults alike to demonstrate for global action against climate warming. Someone has referred to her as the tiny Swedish climate devil.

The worldwide attention now being drawn to global warming has many people hopefully asking, and speculating, about whether or not the world is finally going to meaningfully tackle the problem. Is there reason to hope that we will now do what is required to avoid at least the most serious effects of global warming?

The answer, I very much regret to say, is no.

As I see it there are some fundamental reasons that nothing is going to be done. There will undoubtedly come a point when there will be a scurrying to take action, but it will be far too little and pathetically late. Americans always do the right thing but only after they have tried everything else.

The corporatism which rules today is composed of and fed by many attributes, not the least of which are personal greed for wealth and power of the ruling elite. Corporations rule the world as proxy to a small group of ruling elites, the oligarchs who continue to profit from ecological extraction. The standout examples of this are the numerous companies and activities of the infamous Koch brothers. Make that Koch brother (singular). One of the brothers died this year; so sad. Their immense fortune was derived largely from the extraction of coal.

It is the burning of coal which has contributed more than any other single cause to global warming. Because the Kochs successfully used their wealth to stymie any meaningful attempts to stop the burning of coal, they stand out to many as the worst enemies of the future of Earth, especially any future that presumes to include humans.

For life on Earth to continue in any semblance of how it has been, coal and oil extraction and emissions would have to be lowered to virtually zero and replaced with renewable energy sources. That would require corporations to forfeit trillions of dollars in assets. Stock markets would crash. American politicians would be cast adrift without their regular infusions of cash and direction (by virtue of being told how and when to vote). There is no question that the ruling elites and the politicians they own—in America that includes almost all Republicans and most Democrats—would continue to fight tooth and nail to prevent any change in the status quo.

The well known human aversion to change has never been more evident than in the national debate (weak as it is, considering the stakes) about global warming and what to do about it. By my tally, thirty-three percent of the American public have thoroughly deluded themselves with their denial that there even is such a thing as human-caused global warming. The excuses they give for their position are ludicrous and, were it not for the seriousness of the consequences, laughable. But they will not change.

I suspect that this group is roughly the same as the thirty-three percent of the American population who support and believe in Donald Trump. I know a thing or two about brain washing and I want to tell you something about those Trump supporters. They are the Americans who have voluntarily exposed themselves to years of right-wing, populist, narrow-minded propaganda. That is how they became the political and educational retards they are. The kind of mind control-slash-brain washing to which these people have voluntarily subjected themselves does two things. It creates a mindset in line with the objectives of the oligarchical, capitalism-loving plutocrats; and it makes it extremely difficult to change that mindset to another direction. It is mind control with built-in inoculation against other ideas and values. Especially those of the Enlightenment sort. It is highly unlikely they will ever change.

Here is how you can spot these folks. As you already know (probably), they tend to spout misogynistic, white supremacist, anti-science, illiberal claptrap. But what really gives them away are the expressions, phrases, even whole articulated arguments, that are repeated verbatim over and over. Especially on right-wing talk shows and that conservative propaganda machine, Fox News. I know because I lurk and listen to them.

Here is an example. This is a phrase that I first heard from Rush Limbaugh, whom I occasionally listen to when my stomach feels particularly strong:

Greta Thunberg thinks she has it figured out at age 16, when she has no concept of the long term cycle of climate change which is thousands of years.

This phrase was repeated almost verbatim over and over in the right-wing conservative echo chambers. No credit given, no one saying they heard it from so-and-so. And each hearer absorbs it as their own. So when they spout it later they really believe they are speaking a wisdom that is their very own.

I most recently came across this particular phrase in an email from an old friend. He has been listening almost exclusively to Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk programs and Fox News for decades now. In his email to me he repeated the above Greta disparagement almost verbatim. When I challenged him on it he back-peddled and said that maybe the statement did not actually represent his own thinking. But I suspect he was being disingenuous with me. Most people like him will not budge, or if they do, they sooner or later return to what is for them the more comfortable (brainwashed) position.

The brazen Criminal in Chief, President Trump, has publicly and loudly stated that global warming is a scam. His mindless followers think they know it is a the-sky-is-falling scam, although all they really know is what they have heard him and his servile minions say. But what would happen, you might wonder, if President Trump were to do an about face and declare global warming real? After all, since he is one of the most corrupt people on the planet, he could easily contradict everything he has said about it.

If that were to happen every brainwashed Trump junkie would experience cognitive dissonance. They would deny the reality of what Trump was saying, convinced that the evil, conniving forces trying to bring Trump down had somehow taken control of his brain and made him say it. Or even deny that he actually said whatever it was he is reported to have said, and indeed that they may even have actually heard him say. “Fake news,” they would say. They would remain loyal to the real Donald Trump and continue to believe global warming is a scam.

As for the rest of us, polls show that sixty-six percent of the American public believes that global warming is real and that it is caused by human activity.

gallup poll global warming

A majority of Americans are clearly concerned about the problem but here again we see the effects of denial and cognitive dissonance. People are not filling the streets screaming for action. The only people coming close to that are students activated by Greta Thunberg and her Friday for Climate actions. The adults are determinedly not bestirring themselves except to pat her on the head (figuratively speaking) and tell her how nice it is to see young people taking an interest in things.

The fact is, most humans don’t function well in the face of impossible odds. And that is what we face now with global warming. The thought of getting ruling elites, oligarchs, and governments to back massive change and expense for the sake of the planet is just too daunting to even contemplate. It is clear to most people that there just is not much that can be done.

Except hope! And maybe pray among those who are religious, although most of the religious factions don’t seem to place much confidence that we can pray our way out of this mess if they even acknowledge the mess to begin with.

As for hope, as Chris Hedges has often pointed out, hope is for suckers. In “Our Mania for Hope Is a Curse,” he said:

The naive belief that history is linear, that moral progress accompanies technical progress, is a form of collective self-delusion. It cripples our capacity for radical action and lulls us into a false sense of security. Those who cling to the myth of human progress, who believe that the world inevitably moves toward a higher material and moral state, are held captive by power. Only those who accept the very real possibility of dystopia, of the rise of a ruthless corporate totalitarianism, buttressed by the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus in human history, are likely to carry out the self-sacrifice necessary for revolt.

“…to carry out the self-sacrifice necessary for revolt.” Indeed. The problem, though, is that there is no time left. The UN has told us that oceans are already so warm we will not be able to avoid the dire consequences already set in motion. That in itself, I believe, deprives us of the eleven years we thought we might have in which to do something about climate.

Add to that the possibility of at least seven potential tipping points that, once any one of them is tipped, will cause a vastly sped up runaway greenhouse effect. The seven I refer to—melting of the Arctic permafrost, burning of the Amazon, marine ice sheet instability in West Antarctica, melting of huge methane clouds in the deep ocean, things like this—are only the large scale tipping elements. There are also many regional or smaller-scale tipping points. The faith (or even hope) that none of these will be tipped is beyond my ken.

The faith in a scientific miracle is also beyond my ken. I am a scientist and have always respected science and scientists but expecting a miracle at this point and and in this time frame is beyond irrational.

Our time is growing extremely short. For the first time in my life I am fatalistic about our chances for survival. It is best, if possible, to not worry about it. If even one of those tipping points is triggered we are probably done for.

In the meantime I believe we have an obligation to maintain a moral position in keeping with the highest ideas of the Enlightenment. If we have to go out we should go out standing tall, caring for one another and easing suffering of people and animals as much as possible.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

I personally intend to do as much as I can to head of what looks like our guaranteed end. Not from any senseless hope but out of principle. And celebrate my good luck for having lived in this best and worst final stage of humanity.

Letter to an aging, unwell friend

Dear Thom,

Your concepts regarding the snow on Crestone Needle [a Colorado mountain] are irrelevant. Whether or not the snow is melting does not constitute an argument against global warming. I think you are being mislead by isolated “facts” like this. I recognize the roots of your comments in contemporary Republican misinformation enabled by the propaganda machine Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Please take a look at this 6,000 word article on snow and global warming by some of the top climate scientists in the world: Scientific American. You will not find any Fox News blathering heads or Trump tweets or administration poobahs cited in it. Nor can you find any more than a tiny smattering of crackpot scientists who claim to refute the scientific facts supporting the view that global warming is real, that it is the result of human action, and that we are headed for a near-time catastrophe. The crackpots’ claims are each and every one invalid, unscientific, and totally without merit. I know, I’ve looked. Trust me; I’m a doctor — as we used to be fond of saying.

Then please view this speech by Greta Thunberg. Earlier when I asked you your opinion of her you said, among other things, “Greta hasn’t lived long enough to have knowledge of all the planet’s weather patterns.” And you have? What the fuck?

Both the article and Thunberg’s speech are powerful. But they will not be viewed as such by anyone constitutionally incapable of facing the reality of our rapidly approaching extinction. To them I say, I am no longer disposed to humor bullshit. There is no more time to waste swallowing the insultingly erroneous, wishful-thinking-based capitalist swill blasted forth from the Trump administration and his propagandists.

You also said, “I must find fulfillment in other ways. It has to be with my mind, my resolve, my decision to be productive somehow, and not be satisfied with limited time and place.” You are certainly capable of doing that. Your excellent writing skill and perceptive intelligence have always been a model I have looked up to and tried to emulate. We both started out — you were the department chair, I was lowly faculty — as conservative Republicans and I still consider myself somewhat conservative (but now definitely and defiantly anti-Republican). Where we differ significantly is on the concept of intellectual freedom. I fear you have voluntarily subjugated yourself to the rigorous straight jacket of contemporary political conservatism and it hurts me to see you slip into claptrap mode, expressing thoughts and reasoning not your own on politics, economics or climate.

None of us has all that much time left. To me that makes it all the more important to spend time in ways that are honest to myself and to others. I continually strive to honestly question the positions and stands I take. That, I believe, gives me license to challenge the opinions and positions of others in like manner. Which of course makes me offensive to a lot of people, especially those who are perpetually offended.

Cutting through the bullshit, I have always found, is expensive. It does not make life any easier for me. But I have no trouble sleeping at night. I used to take great pleasure in discussing, or debating when appropriate, contentious issues with you. But in recent years you have more and more parroted Rush Limbaugh or the talking heads on Fox News.

It would be unreasonable and foolish to expect you to agree with me on everything, and I have enjoyed batting around ideas and concepts with you when we did not agree. But only when the positions you espouse are your own thinking and not the residue of Trump/Fox/Limbaugh propaganda.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

I know you have felt alone since your beloved wife died, you hurt, every day is a litany of discomforts and inconveniences, your dignity is frequently assaulted, and you have very little freedom left. Believe me, I get it. But the great thing you so have left, the thing that is so valuable and precious, is mental freedom. Videtur quod sit libera. “Think and be free.” But only if you sunder the shackles of conventional wisdom (the phrase itself is an oxymoron). I believe it a far grander finale to go out free and liberated than to go out whimpering, being a chump who hews to the party lines of those pygmy intellects who are abjectly terrified of intellectual freedom.

If I were advising someone else about the wisdom of writing a message like this I would tell them to save their breath; don’t waste their time. I know how difficult it is — impossible, often — to break through those obdurate, protective boundaries the human mind sets up to protect an embrace of conventional wisdom.

But I had to try. This is the only way I know how to be an honest friend.

Perge movere.

Where’s the laughter of yore?

people laughing

Over the last several years I have been periodically checking in to Alain Laboile‘s web site to enjoy pictures of his family. They live in a secluded rural part of France and Alain’s photographic documentation of the children’s exploits are positively delightful. No small part of the reason is that Laboile is a discerning photographer with an artist’s eye. He is in fact a sculptor and graphic artist and his family album documenting his family is well worth your time. And money (he has a book or two for sale — see above for the URL to his website).

The above picture is of part of his family laughing about something. No text is provided with these family pictures so it is not possible to know what they are laughing about. But they do laugh a lot and the children are forever probing and testing their environment as they grow and learn in a natural and uninhibited way lost long ago by most of us in the Western world.

The thing about this picture of their laughter is the way they heartily laugh without reservation. It seems to me we Americans used to laugh a lot. Not so much anymore, though, I’m sorry to say.

Three members of a Luxembourg family enjoying a good laugh.
Three members of a Luxembourg family enjoying a good laugh.

This is a picture taken many years ago of some dear friends who lived in Luxembourg at the time. (They are Dutch, originally from The Hague — Den Haag, or Sravenhaga, to native Nederlanders.) I meant to get them to smile for the picture I was about to take but I obviously overdid it. Whatever I said cracked them up and, being the amateur that I was, I went ahead and snapped the picture anyway.

I didn’t care much for this picture originally because convention had it that pictures of people laughing bigly were not good pictures. You know, mouth wide open, eyes half shut, enjoying a great good guffaw.

But over the years I have returned more and more often to this picture because it truly captured the nature of these friends. They laughed often and large. They were not self-conscious about their laughter and it was never forced. They laughed when they felt like it and didn’t when they did not, yet managed to never be insensitive or rude.

It seems to me we Americans used to be at least a little bit that way. When I was growing up around animals and barns and windmills and other hayseeds in the 1940s and 1950s (I was born in 1939, if you must know) laughter was important and not a day went by that you would not hear someone laugh hugely. Someone would bust a gut, as we used to say.

Today unfortunately there is a pall upon the land. In my people watching I hardly ever observe anything more than a courteous (or often nervous, it seems) chuckle. There is one glaring exception to this I should point out, often in situation where alcohol is available. You can’t help noticing when someone in the near vicinity laughs loudly and obnoxiously. Over and over again. Dominating the surrounding sound space with non-stop forced hilarity. That kind of hysterical noise making just doesn’t qualify as honest laughter. Alcohol fueled (possibly) desperation laughter only makes more obvious the generalized absence of good humor in us stressed-out Americans.

I’ll not launch into speculation about why so many of us are maxed out on stress. Everyone has his own opinions about what is going on today and airing those opinions often ends badly. Suffice it to say things are not going well for us today.

People do still laugh, of course. Sometimes uproariously. But my point is that the big laugh has become rarer, more the exception rather. Big laughter is not expected frequently. Beyond any socio-psychological analysis of what’s wrong with us, what does diminished laughter mean as a cause, rather than an effect? That is, rather than the reasons for less laughter, what does laughing less — or for some people, it would seem, not at all — do to us?

Theories of laughter abound, none of them totally convincing or satisfactory. I’ve read most of them and I still can’t give you even a vague precis as to what laughter is. I once in my dim ancient past had a setup in my lab for research that required spoken English language played backwards. This required a not-insignificant technological setup. Or at least it did back then.

Laughter was not on our research agenda but we did analyze a few samples of laughter just out of curiosity. We noted some of the stereotypic ingredients of laughter like laugh‐note structure and duration, internote intervals, crescendos and decrescendos — boring stuff like that. Just for the heck of it we played recorded laughter backwards to see what it sounded like.

We were curious about reversed laughter because ordinary spoken language, when played in reverse, sounds nothing like ordinary speech. Backward speech creates sounds that are impossible to make with the human mouth and not likely to be mistaken for any human language.

Interestingly, we noted that laughter played backward sounds pretty much like ordinary laughter. Whether it was one person’s laughter or the recorded laughter of several people laughing at the same time, it all sounded like you would expect laughter to sound. That may not surprise you be we found it remarkable. Why should laughter be so different from spoken language? Alas, it was a question we never got around to addressing.

We were just too busy at the time to spend much time on laughter. I wish we could have but we were steeped in studies associated with the production, perception, and evolution of human auditory signals of which speech is a special case. The particular dynamics of human laughter clearly demarcate a domain of neuroscientific inquiry; I thought it would be (and others have shown this to be correct) fruitful to analyze the neurobehavioral mechanisms involved in laugh detection and generation. I am eagerly following the ongoing research in this area but so far there is not much to interest anyone outside of a laboratory setting.

Laughter is a reflex located in the reticular system of the hindbrain. The whole enterprise of human laughter is quite complex. Preceded by smiling, even in the womb, laughter appears very early in life, sometimes within just a few days of birth. Each of us has his own characteristic laugh which is stable throughout our lives.

It is commonly assumed that laughter and speech differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Frankly I’m not as sanguine about that as I once allowed myself to be. With age comes wisdom and a greater awareness of ignorance. Consider for instance how much more ignorant we are today than were the people of, say, Copernicus’ time. That’s because we are much more aware of how much we don’t know than was Nick (1473-1543 AD) and his contemporaries back in the 15th century. He did not know it was even possible to plot the path from a launch pad on Earth to a landing site on the moon, and back again. I do know that it is possible, and I also know that I do not know how to do it. Hence I am more ignorant than anyone living in Copernicus’ time. 

That having been said, and perhaps apropos of nothing, I am no longer as confident as I once was that other animals do not have language skills the way we humans do. And I have not since my childhood Sunday school days thought that animals do not laugh. I’ve always suspected that that hunh-hunh-hunh from a horse that had just dumped me on the ground by “inadvertently” stumbling was a chuckle. The horse’s version of heh heh heh. And the horse’s highly mobile ears would usually twitch just a little as they chuckled at me lying on the ground.

By the way, you know that way horses have of curling their upper lip and opening their mouth? They look like they are laughing. They are not. They are getting ready to bite the crap out of you. Run.

Rats giggle when tickled. They seek out the handler’s hand that is doing the tickling — “Do it again, Daddy, do it again!” Then they struggle to escape the tickling as they issue a subsonic titter. Sound like any kids you know (except the subsonic part is usually supersonic with kids of the human persuasion)?

Then there was Omar. Omar was a pet parakeet I once had whom I refused to keep caged up. He did had a cage which was his place of privacy where he ate (mostly) and slept at night. He insisted that his cage be covered at night so he could sleep undisturbed and he became quite vocal in the morning when it was time to remove the cover so he could get out and say good morning. The door to his cage was always open.

Omar loved to throw things off the coffee table. I had a handful of small cotton swabs (Q-Tips is one brand name) which I would scatter on the table and Omar would grab one in his beak, walk over to the edge of the table, and drop it to the floor. Then make a sound that could only be taken as a parakeet’s laugh as he looked down at his handiwork. He would do this repeatedly until all the swabs were on the floor, sufficiently laughed at.

This was play for Omar. Most animals, it appears, like to play. Everyone has played with dogs and cats, but who would have thought birds like to play. In my experience the only animals I’ve been around but never seen play were cattle. Calves play but seem to give it up when they get older. Like some people I know.

Laughter is closely related to play. I don’t recall ever hearing noises from playing calves or colts, but who knows? If rats can make laughing sounds undetectable by human ears, maybe other animals can too.

Laughter is a unique medium of communication. All human societies speak their own language but the sounds of their laughter are universal. Most people laugh at least sometimes but there are always some who never laugh. I’ve known a few of those and to a man I did not like them. I can’t recall ever knowing a woman who never laughed. Oh, wait, I take that back. Many years ago there was an undergraduate in Colorado who took a couple of my classes. She would not even smile because, she said, she did not want to cause wrinkles. She was a professional model. That explains a lot right there.

Laughter has a mood elevating and relaxing effect, but only when it is of the right kind. Cynical, cruel or derisive laughter does not appear to have any positive effects. But what I’ll call here clean or healthy laughter does — muscles are activated; heart rate is increased; respiration is amplified, with a concomitant increase in oxygen exchange. All of these are antithetical to stress so laughter is a great method of stress management.

The healing power of humor has been a serious subject ever since 1964 when a guy named Norman Cousins — at the time a well known American political journalist and author — used humor to cure himself, by his claim, of ankylosing spondylitis. To do this he watched comedy movies and claimed that watching (and laughing) for ten minutes would give him two hours of pain free sleep.

We know there is a profound relationship between stress, which we can think of as negative emotions, and disease and illness. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of disease and illness is strongly associated with stress. Cousins made a strong argument, based on his own experience and his considerable reading of the extant research literature, that if negative thoughts can have negative physiological repercussions, then positive thoughts should have the potential to produce positive effects throughout the body. This kind of thinking which was widely popular at the time led to the development of a new research discipline called psychoneuroimmunology. That is, the study of the mind-body relationship.

drawing of norman vincent peale
Norman Vincent Peale in his Shriner’s fez., rumored to be covering a tin foil hat.

By the way, please note that having positive thoughts or even thinking positively does not mean the same as Positive Thinking, the cultist belief in a magical elixir somehow conjured up by mere belief. The cult of Positive Thinking is essentially a religious devotion to an imagined power of belief. If you can make yourself believe it, it will come true. As I have written elsewhere and at length, Positive Thinking does more harm than good. Sometimes this is difficult for people to understand because of all the nonsense proliferated by hucksters like Napoleon Hill and religious crackpot preacher Norman Vincent Peale (also known as the Grand Imperial Chaplain of the Shriners). But I digress.

It cannot be said that psychoneuroimmunology has made a lot of progress. I submit that that is because it is a) a really dumb name and b) it was immediately hijacked by the medical profession. Now, I don’t have a lot against the American medical profession (take that with a grain of NaCl) but it is well known that it is difficult to make headway in any area — research or applied — that does not hold the promise of outrageously profitable new drugs for the pharmaceutical industry or expensive gadgets for the biomechanical manufacturers to make and sell.

But let’s get back to laughter and how we don’t do as much of it as we used to. Laughing, that is. Laughter or a jolly demeanor go together, which also goes with positive thinking. Maybe we have done to much laughing and feeling positive, or forcing a positive outlook. That might be one of the reasons we are in such a pickle today. If you force yourself to look on the positive side all the time you miss a lot. You are less likely to see things, or people, creeping up on you. Things that are not in your best interest and tend to waylay you when they catch you by surprise.

For that matter, someone who is really into seeing only the bright side probably would not waste time and money on like, say, insurance. We all know how that can end up. No, a healthy pessimism is in fact the basis of the scientific method as well as being at the root of any analysis meant to be meaningful and useful.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

All-out pessimism is not called for and is actually not a good thing. What is needed is a form of balanced, objective pessimism in order to form realistic expectations and conduct a sober evaluation before taking action. This facilitates a thinking-through of all the negative possibilities in order to avoid them.

Objective pessimism can be the precursor to objective optimism. That is, wax negative and play the devil’s advocate as preparation for something you intend to do. Be tough. Be rigorous. Get it all out there where you can deal the potential negatives. Once you have done that thoroughly, put aside the negative attitude and be positive.

Not blindly positive — you should always be alert and ready to get back into objective pessimism mode. This way you are less likely to turn a negative attitude into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pliocene here we come

Graph showing atmospheric carbon dioxide by year

We are now at the same atmospheric carbon dioxide level as Earth was during the Pliocene three to five million years ago.

That’s it! We are headed toward the same conditions that prevailed during the Pliocene and there is no way to stop that. Temperatures are rising rapidly above 80° north and south which will result in continuing rise in sea level, which in turn will create ever more flooding along the coasts of the world.

Where are the people who live there to go? If you are a coastal dweller you can be certain that within a very few years you will be looking for somewhere inland to live. If you live inland, prepare to be inundated by climate refugees.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

Climate disruption is here. We were told 30 years ago this was coming and everyone pretty much ignored it. Up until about 10 years ago we could still have done something about this. But now it is too late.

Global warming is a topic that demonstrates the human capacity for denial of reality. The imbeciles who continue to deny that there is a problem are the ones who deserve to be global warming’s first victims. With any luck …

Climate Change Claims Its First Mammal Extinction

In a Scientific American report dated March 21, 2019, the Bramble Cay melomys, a tiny island rodent, has gone extinct according to the government of Australia. The species was a victim of sea-level rise.

small rodent eating plant
Bramble Cay melomys (also known as the Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat, Melomys rubicola. Picture by Ian Bell, EHP, State of Queensland WikimediaI (CC by 3.0 AU)

Never to be seen again. Scientific American claims this is the first mammalian species wiped out by global warming.

These little guys lived on a small reef island at the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, near Papua New Guinea.

They didn’t have much territory to begin with because the cay only measures about 1,100 feet by 500 feet and its highest elevation is three feet. Extreme weather events killed all the vegetation which was the melomys’s only source of food.

This is going to sound more and more familiar as mass extinction number six, now ongoing, continues.

Subscribe to be notified when a new article appears.

* indicates required

At least this rodent species gets a passing thought upon its official demise. We will not get any attention when we’re gone because there won’t be anyone left to notice. That is, other than all the remaining species who will likely rejoice greatly.