Fall foliage in New York’s Central Park

September 23, 2017

These time-lapse photos were taken by Jamie Scott. over a period of six months in Central Park in New York City.  He visited 15 locations, two days a week, just after sunrise, from August, 2011, through January, 2012.   The music is by Lower Dens.  I found this video on the Colossal website.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare

September 22, 2017

Two Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders [1] of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan—have proposed bills to do something that President Donald Trump promised to do, but can’t and won’t do.

That is, they would repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.

I applaud what they’re doing, and I think Sanders deserves credit for making universal health care politically possible.

Tom Price

I don’t think Sanders or Conyers can get their bills through Congress at the present time, and I think President Trump would veto them if they did.

That’s just as well.   Implementation of both programs would require the cooperation of Tom Price, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services.   He is an opponent of traditional Medicare, which he would replace with a voucher system, and favors cutbacks in Medicaid.

But under both the Sanders and Conyers bills, he would appoint the administrators of the new program, and, under the Sanders bill,

The Secretary is … directed to develop policies, procedures, guidelines, and requirements related to eligibility, enrollment, benefits, provider participation standards and qualifications, levels of funding, provider payment rates, medical necessity standards, planning for capital expenditures and health professional education, and regional planning mechanisms.

Source: Health Affairs Blog

I’m pretty sure that neither Sanders nor Conyers intends to give Secretary Price the power to sabotage and discredit their plans.   Their proposals are talking points to rally support for universal health care and encourage thinking about how to make their bills better.

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President Trump and his new axis of evil

September 20, 2017

President Donald Trump said this to say in his address to the United Nations yesterday—

We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government.  But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.

He went on to say—

Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.

I think these would be excellent points, if only he had applied them to the United States as well as the rest of the world.

He called for an intensification of economic and diplomatic warfare against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, his new axis of evil.

How is this in the interest of the American people?  How is this consistent with respecting national sovereignty?   Are not North Korea, Iran and Venezuela sovereign nations?

The United States has paid radical jihadist terrorists to overthrow the government of Libya and is attempting to use them to overthrow the government of Syria—two sovereign states that never have threatened the United States.   The result has been to reduce these two countries to chaos and misery, as the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

President Trump in that very speech threatened another nation with the most destructive weapons known to humanity—

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

He accused the North Korean government of starving and torturing its own people, and various other crimes, which were real though not necessarily current.  But then he threatened an even worse atrocity.

To be fair, it is not clear whether he is threatening North Korea with attack merely if it fails to disarm or whether he is threatening retaliation in the event of an attack, which is different.

This ambiguity may be deliberate on President Trump’s part; he may think keeping others guessing is a good negotiating strategy.   Where nuclear weapons are concerned, this is dangerous.  It may lead the other person to think he has nothing to lose by launching an attack.

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North Korea: totalitarianism in action

September 19, 2017

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

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Wit and wisdom on church signs

September 16, 2017

These photos of church signs were collected on the Bored Panda website.

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Uzbekistan’s cotton picked by forced labor

September 15, 2017

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and a crossroads of China’s so-called New Silk Roads—railroads and pipelines uniting the heartland of Asia and Europe.

This Human Rights Watch documentary shows how the Uzbek government uses forced labor and child labor in its cotton fields.

Students, teachers, medical workers, other government employees, private sector employees and sometimes children were ordered into the fields to harvest cotton in 2015 and 2016, HRW reported; they also were forced to plant cotton and weed fields early in 2016.

The World Bank has invested $500 million in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.   Supposedly it should withdraw the money if Uzbekistan uses child labor or forced labor, but HRW says this is not enforced.

An African immigrant view of America

September 14, 2017

The polite term for the black American citizens who used to be called Negroes is “African-American.”   This term is intended to put them on a par with white ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans.

However “African-Americans,” unlike white ethnics, are not immigrants, but the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were all brought to this country before the Civil War, and most before the Revolution.

The USA now has a significant African immigrant population, who are the product of a different history than old-stock black Americans.   But the term “African-American” doesn’t really apply either, because it obscures the fact that Africa is not all one country.   African nations have national characters as distinct as Italy or Poland.

Recently I got a glimpse of the African immigrant experience by reading  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013).

“Americanah” is a Nigerian slang word for someone who has lived so long in the United States that they no longer fit into life in Nigeria.

Adichie’s heroine, Ifemelu, grows up in Nigeria, immigrates to the United States as a young woman and, after initial hardships, achieves success and fame.  But, after 13 years, decides to return to her native land.

Ifemelu, like her creator, is intelligent and outspoken, with many shrewd observations about American culture and racial attitudes.   I don’t find her likeable; that’s an observation, not a criticism.

The early chapters show the frustrations of Ifemelu and her educated, middle-class family, in life under the repressive Nigerian dictatorship.   She and her fiance, Obinze, who is handsome, sensitive and good in bed, dream of the United States as the big time where real things are happening—the way some small-town Americans in Kansas or Nebraska may think of New York and Los Angeles.

Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study at an American university, but quickly finds that the USA is not the paradise she imagined.

Her family taught her certain standards of good housekeeping, good grooming, good manners and good grammar, and she is taken aback by the slovenliness, permissiveness and vulgarity of the many Americans whose attitudes are formed by the mass entertainment and advertising media.

She has to struggle to earn a living and is sexually abused by a white employer.   This is so traumatic that she feels unable to keep in touch with Obinze.

This clears the way for her to begin a love affair with Curt, a handsome rich white jet-setter, who is good in bed.   Curt gets her a lucrative job in public relations, and her financial worries end.

Eventually she tires both of Curt and the PR job.   She starts a blog about racial attitudes in America, which is not only an overnight success, but an unexpected source of income that guarantees her financial independence.   She begins a love affair with Blaine, a handsome black intellectual idealist, who is good in bed.

Blaine, a Yale professor, spends time talking to an uneducated black security guard.  Ifemelu can’t bring herself to like him.   She and Blaine break up temporarily when the security guard is unjustly arrested, Blaine organizes a protest demonstration and she can’t be bothered to take.

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How strong is North Korea?

September 11, 2017

North Korea has the world’s fourth largest army.   It has nearly 1.2 million troops under arms, slightly less than the USA and behind India and China.

South Korea has about 655,000 active duty troops, more than Britain, France and Germany combined.  A war between North and South Korea would be catastrophic, even if the USA, China and Russia were not involved.

Click to enlarge

Some observers claim that South Korea is the stronger of the two, because, they say, North Korean troops are malnourished and South Korean troops are better trained and have better equipment.   I wouldn’t know.

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The shadow of the Korean War

September 11, 2017

Photo via The Intercept

We Americans remember and memorialize the Vietnam Conflict, and tend to forget the equally savage and lethal Korean Conflict.   I’m not sure why that is—maybe because the Vietnam fighting was stretched out over more years, maybe because Vietnam was the experience of the Baby Boom generation.

Be that as it may, the Korean War is not forgotten in Korea, and especially not in North Korea.   The North Koreans remember that they have endured the worst the United States and its allies could throw at them, short of attacks with nuclear weapons.   I think that if you remember this, it goes a long way to explaining why Kim Jong-un defies the United States.

For the record, it was the North Koreans, and not the Americans or their South Korean allies, who started the war in June 1950, when they crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the south. Nevertheless, “What hardly any Americans know or remember,” University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings writes in his book The Korean War: A History, “is that we carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

How many Americans, for example, are aware of the fact that U.S. planes dropped on the Korean peninsula more bombs — 635,000 tons — and napalm — 32,557 tons — than during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II?

How many Americans know that “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population”?

Twenty.  Percent.  For a point of comparison, the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. According to LeMay, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

Every. Town.  More than 3 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in the north.

Source: The Intercept.

The total population of Korea in 1950 was slightly over 20 million, with 9 million in North Korea.

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Thomas Frank on the Democrats’ future

September 11, 2017

Scroll down for links to six recent Thomas Frank interviews on the Real News Network

Thomas Frank, who understands American politics as well or better than anyone else I know of, is giving a series of interviews on the state of the Democratic Party to the Real News Network.   I link to them below.

Most of my friends are liberal Democrats, like me, and they can’t understand why a working person would go against their own interests by supporting Donald Trump.  But then they themselves go against their own interests by supporting Hillary Clinton.

The problem is not Clinton as an individual.   As an individual, she is much more qualified to hold public office than Trump.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has come to depend on wealthy donors to finance its campaigns and it looks to well-to-do salaried professionals as its core voters.   Working people are coming to realize that the Democratic Party does not represent them.

It is not that large numbers working people are turning to Donald Trump.   The GOP is even worse than the Democrats.  It is that increasing numbers of working people—black, white and brown—see no point in voting for either party.

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Would President Al Gore have invaded Iraq?

September 11, 2017

Click to enlarge

Almost all of my liberal Democratic friends think the United States would have avoided the Iraq War if Al Gore had been elected President in 2000.   I’m not certain that is so.

Gore voted in favor of the 1991 authorization to use military force in Iraq.   Bill Clinton chose him as vice president partly because he had a reputation as a war hawk and had served honorably in Vietnam.   Gore chose another war hawk, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate.

He and John Kerry criticized George W. Bush not on the grounds that the war was wrong, but that the war effort was being bungled.   The timing was wrong, more effort should have been made to get UN support, more should have been done to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Later on there was an argument that the U.S. should have focused more on Afghanistan rather than Iraq, or Afghanistan first and Iraq later.

But the argument for invading so-called rogue states was not questioned.  I don’t criticize them so much for that because that is what I, too, thought at the time.   I think that I, unlike them, have learned better now.

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The US has tried negotiating with North Korea

September 10, 2017

The negotiations room at Panmunjom

North Korea is ruled by a murderous totalitarian government that has committed acts of terrorism.   But that government has been willing to make arms agreements with the United States in the past, and it is the U.S. government that has broken these agreements.

 The first agreement was the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean Conflict.   Under this agreement, the two sides agreed to stop fighting, pull back, respect and demilitarized zone and not introduce any new weapons into the Korean peninsula, pending signing of a peace treaty.

That is, each side could replace weapons, rifle for rifle and tank for tank, but they couldn’t increase the total number of weapons or introduce new weapons.   The U.S. renounced that part of the treaty in 1958 by bringing atomic weapons to South Korea.

Now, you can make the argument that this action was necessary to preserve the balance of power.   And later on, the North Koreans were discovered to have dug tunnels under the DMZ for the purpose of sending spies and agents into South Korea.   But still: It was the United States, not North Korea, that broke the terms of the Armistice.

Sometime in the 1980s, North Korea began work on a nuclear bomb.  In 1994,  President Bill Clinton sent ex-President Jimmy Carter to North Korea, where he persuaded the North Korean government to shut down its plutonium test reactor and put it under the control of international inspectors.   In return, the North Koreans got shipments of oil for its power grid and two light water reactors built by an international consortium.   All this was supposed to lead to normal relations between the two countries—which didn’t happen.

In 2002, President George W. Bush canceled the agreement.   His administration claimed the North Koreans  were cheating, by working on a uranium bomb.   The evidence for this is unclear, and the North Koreans claimed that the U.S. hadn’t fulfilled its part of the agreement.

Be that as it may, the North Koreans sent the inspectors home and resumed their work on a plutonium bomb.   By 2007, they exploded their first nuclear device.   Ending the agreement accomplished nothing.

The Bush administration resumed negotiations and arrived at a new tentative agreement to freeze nuclear weapons development at the new level.   But President Barack Obama didn’t follow through.   Maybe he thought that he didn’t have enough political capital to try to make peace with Iran, Cuba and North Korea, too.

Instead the U.S. government tried to pressure North Korea by means of economic sanctions.   North Korea responded by doubling down on its nuclear weapons program.

Now President Donald Trump threatens “fire and fury”.   The government of North Korea says that it will never give up its nuclear weapons so long as the United States is hostile and threatens North Korea with its own nuclear weapons.   Which is a way of saying it might give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. was genuinely willing to make peace.

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Thomas Frank on Clinton’s attack on Sanders

September 9, 2017

Paul Jay of the Real News Network did a good interview with Thomas Frank, one of my three or four favorite political writers, on why Hillary Clinton is attacking Bernie Sanders at this late date.   The interview starts about five minutes into the video.

Frank says Clinton has no just reason to hate Sanders personally.   He conducted a relatively gentlemanly primary election campaign, and supported her loyally during the general election.   She should be grateful that he decided to run within the Democratic Party in the first place, and not as a third-party candidate, like Ralph Nader in 2000.

But what Sanders represents, which is the pro-labor New Deal tradition of the Democratic Party, is deeply threatening to the power of the corporate wing of the party, which is what Clinton and her husband have represented through their political careers.

I think the reason the Democratic Party has done so little to fight voter disenfranchisement and to register voters is that disenfranchised and unregistered voters are mainly in demographic groups that corporate Democrats don’t care about.

They would rather seek the votes of culturally liberal suburban Republicans, whose votes, as Frank noted in the interview, Clinton actually won in the 2016 election.

The argument of the corporate Democrats is that (1) the Republican leaders are so reactionary and dangerous that nothing else matters except defeating them, (2) this can’t be done without matching the Republicans dollar for dollar and so (3) Democrats can’t afford to advocate policies contrary to the interests of their big-money contributors.

This is why they found that Sanders campaign so threatening, Frank said.   Sanders showed it was possible to conduct a political campaign based on small donations.   As far as that goes, Clinton outspent Trump two to one, and she still lost.

Sanders and Clinton are both getting on in years, and I don’t think either has a future as a national political candidate.  But I think there will be a long struggle between Sanders and Clinton factions under different names.   The struggle will be bitter because the stakes are high—whether the U.S. government will be accountable to the common people or to a corporate and political elite.

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Why threatening Kim Jong-un is futile

September 7, 2017

Kim Jong-un tells the people of North Korea that they live in the most advanced and admired nation in the world, but that they are under threat by the United States.

Threatening North Korea reinforces the message that they have to unify behind their Supreme Leader.

Isolating North Korea helps shut out the knowledge that not everybody in the world is as regimented and poor as they area.

Recent history shows Kim that there is no safety in renouncing nuclear weapons.  Saddam Hussein renounced nuclear weapons,   Muammar Qaddafi renounced nuclear weapons.   That didn’t save them from being killed like animals following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and proxy invasion of Libya.

Kim Jong-un surely knows that a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicidal.   His nuclear weapons tests and missile demonstrations make sense as an attempt to deter attack.   Bear in mind that the United States  conducts military exercises in South Korea as if rehearsing for an attack on North Kora.

The real danger is if Kim Jong-un comes to believe that his country is going to be attacked, and that he has nothing to lose by firing nuclear missiles (assuming he actually has nuclear missiles).

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On the ground and in the air, two laws of war

September 7, 2017

Ben Mauk wrote a good article for Granta on how bombing from the air has changed the law of war.

There is a law of ground warfare, which treats targeting of civilians as terrorism, and a law of air warfare, which treats killing of civilians at worst as a purpose and at best as unavoidable collateral damage.

The Nanking Massacre of 1937 is considered one of history’s greatest atrocities.  As many as 200,000 or 300,000 Chinese civilians were bayoneted or machine-gunned by Japanese troops.

An estimated 100,000 Japanese civilians died in a single fire-bombing raid on Tokyo in 1945, which was one of many.   But, aside from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. bombing of Japan is not widely considered to be a war crime.   One you decide on a bombing strategy, civilian deaths are inevitable.

General William T. Sherman’s 1864 march through Georgia during the Civil War was regarded at the time as an atrocity.   He ordered the indiscriminate destruction of civilian property in order to break the Confederacy’s means and will to resist.   But he only destroyed property.  He didn’t massacre civilians.

Now imagine a Sherman not on horseback, but in the cockpit of an aircraft.   How could he have carried out his policy without large-scale killing of civilians?

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Renewable energy’s mismatch with the grid

September 4, 2017

Falling cost of photovoltaic cells. Chart via QIC.

The existing U.S. electrical grid can’t handle too much solar and wind energy.   They’re too variable.   They can’t be counted on when they’re needed most.

Until this changes, electric utilities will continue to rely on their aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants as certain sources of power.

The problem, as Gretchen Bakke describes it in The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, is in the unique nature of electricity as a commodity.   It is the only commodity that has to be used as soon as it is produced.

The historic economic problem of electric power utilities is that they have to be able to supply as much electric power as their customers need at any point in time, but that most of the time this capacity goes unused.   This is especially acute in the USA, Bakke wrote, because we Americans insist on being able to use as much electricity as we want, any time we want it.

The Public Utility Regulatory Power Act – PURPA – requires electric utilities to buy renewable energy at a price equal to their cost of making non-renewable energy.    Now wind and solar electricity are reaching the point in which they’re competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Bakke reported that 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewables.   The percentage is bound to increase.   Denmark reportedly gets 40 percent of its energy just from wind.

The problem is that wind and solar power are not always available when and where they’re needed.  The windiest and sunniest parts of the North American continent are not necessarily where the population is concentrated.   And the windiest and sunniest times of day are not necessarily when energy is most needed.

So some utilities are faced with the problem of insufficient solar and wind energy during some hours of the day, and so much solar and wind energy at other times that managers have to scramble to prevent the grid from being fried.

Solar power, by definition, is only available during the daytime.   But electric power use peaks in the early afternoon.   Fossil fuel and nuclear energy, on the other hand, can be turned on at any time of the day.   Until this mismatch is eliminated, electric utilities can’t stop using non-renewable coal, oil, natural gas or uranium.

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Working at Kodak then and Apple now

September 4, 2017

Corporate headquarters of Apple Computer and Eastman Kodak

Neil Irwin of the New York Times wrote a good article about Eastman Kodak, Apple Computer and how the economy has changed for working people.

Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.

For Ms. Evans, that meant being a janitor in Building 326 at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester in the early 1980s.  For Ms. Ramos, that means cleaning at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in the present day.  [snip]

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean.  She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages.  Going back to school is similarly out of reach.  There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

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America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

August 31, 2017

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

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The Human trilogy

August 29, 2017

During the past few nights, I watched a three-part documentary movie series called “Human.”   An account of the origin of the film is above, and the three parts are below.

It consists of a series of interviews of people from all over the world about love, war, work, marriage, parenthood, poverty, migration, being gay, being handicapped, the nature of happiness and the meaning of life, plus remarkable aerial photographs of human activity.

It reminded me of the benediction we used to give in my church, which included the words, “behind all our differences and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one.”

Each part is about 90 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it is broken up into segments of 15 or 20 minutes, so you don’t have to watch it all at once.

If you watch it, you should use the CC (closed caption) feature, which will tell you the first name of the person being interviewed and the location of the interview or scene.

The film series was made by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a French environmentalist, photographer, journalist and filmmaker.   He and his 20-person team interviewed 2020 people, in 60-some countries and speaking 63 languages, over a period of three years.

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A cat watches Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

August 26, 2017

Two versions, in case one is taken down or has too many pop-ups

A third version below matches the kitten’s reaction with the scene.

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Friendship, ancient and modern

August 24, 2017

David Andreatta, a newspaper columnist, wrote that a true friend is somebody you would enjoy having a beer with, and who also would help you move.

Tim Madigan, co-author of the forthcoming Friendship and Happiness, once said to me that a true friend is someone who would visit you more than once if you were in a hospital or hospice.

But in ancient times, the ideal of friendship was that friends would literally sacrifice their lives for one another.

The most famous example is the story of Damon and Pythias, supposedly based on historical fact.  Damon was sentenced to death on charges of plotting against the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, but asked for leave to go home first to attend the funeral of his father.   His friend Pythias volunteered to be a hostage to be executed in Damon’s place if he did not return.

Damon was late, and the tyrant, mocking Pythias for his trust, was about to execute him, when Damon appeared.   He had been kidnapped by pirates, and was able to escape only at the last minute. The tyrant was so touched that he spared their lives.

A.C. Grayling, in his book Friendship (2013), tells a story of an even deeper friendship, the medieval story of the knights Amys and Amylion.   Amys perjured himself in order to save the life of his friend, and, as punishment, was stricken with leprosy. Years later Amylion was told in a dream that he could cure his friend by bathing him in the blood of his children.   He did so, Amys was cured and the children were miraculously restored to life.

I read Friendship over a period of several months as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by Paul Mitacek.   I do not recommend it.  It is rambling, and does not come to interesting conclusions.

But it did raise interesting questions to talk about. Can bad people be friends? Do friends put up with each others’ faults or try to correct them? Do similar or dissimilar people make the best friends?  And just how important is friendship to us today?

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Neoliberalism is about more than free markets

August 22, 2017

The common mistake about neoliberal ideology is to think that it is about nothing more than unrestricted free markets.

In fact, neoliberalism is about unrestricted accumulation of capital.

Concentration of wealth at the top is an intended, not an unintended, consequence.

The idea is that of classical economics’ three sources of wealth – land, labor and capital – it is capital that is the force multiplier.

Capital investment, as Karl Marx recognized in the Communist Manifesto, is what has increased the total amount of wealth available to humanity in the modern capitalist era.   What neoliberals say is that this process can and should continue, with capital remaining in private hands.

That is why neoliberals advocate upper-bracket tax cuts and government austerity, and oppose minimum wage laws and labor unions.   Working people only waste their wages on their personal needs, neoliberals think; capitalists invest and increase the wealth of society.

That is neoliberals they advocate bailing out banks in the USA and Europe, while insisting that home mortgages, student loans and the debt of nations such as Greece by repaid to the last penny.

There is logic to this, once you accept the underlying assumptions.  The wrongness of this idea is shown, not by economic theory, but by the history of the last 40 years.

We have had increasing austerity and increased concentration of wealth in the upper brackets, but the investment needs of the USA and other advanced countries are unmet.

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In fact, non-violent anti-racism tactics work

August 21, 2017

Demonstration in Boston Saturday.  Click to enlarge.  Photo: Al Jazeera

Kevin Drum made the point that non-violent tactics are the most effective way to fight violent racists—at least at this point in American history.

The truth is that white supremacist groups are pretty small. Their views are so obviously vile that they just don’t appeal to very many people.  Generally speaking, then, the answer isn’t to fight them, it’s to outnumber them.  If they announce a rally, liberals should mount a vastly larger counter-rally and…do nothing.  Just surround them peaceably and make sure the police are there to do their job if the neo-Nazi types become violent.  If antifa folks show up with counter-violence in mind, surround them too.

Nonviolence isn’t the answer to everything, but it is here.  The best way to fight these creeps is to take their oxygen away and suffocate them.  Fighting and bloodshed get headlines, which is what they want.  So shut them down with lots of people but no violence.  Eventually they’ll go back to their caves and the press will get bored.

Source: Mother Jones

This is exactly what was done in Boston on Saturday.

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Charlottesville and the face of the Alt-Right

August 18, 2017

Everybody, no matter how reprehensible their opinions, has a right in the United States to express them peacefully, provided that they don’t engage in violence or advocate violence.

The VICE News video above shows Alt-Right protesters in Charlottesville, Va., last week, and it is plain that their purpose was to show their strength and intimidate their enemies.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for all, even those I despise.  I don’t believe in the right to act like a thug, even by those I agree with.

This goes for the club-wielding “Antifa” (anti-fascist) protestors, who believe in fighting fire with fire.  I don’t say they are equivalent to Nazis and KKK members.  I do say that the best way to fight fire is with water.

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The coming collapse of U.S. power

August 17, 2017

The United States is the world’s dominant superpower.   This is not sustainable.    I believe the collapse is likely to come suddenly, like the fall of the Soviet Union.

American geopolitical dominance is based on:

  1.  A world-wide network of military bases that give it the power to use military force in remote parts of the world.
  2.   Covert action agencies that work to subvert governments that resist U.S. power.
  3.   The dollar as the world’s medium of exchange, which gives the U.S. the power to control the world’s banking system.

The material basis for this dominance was U.S. industrial power, which once was supreme, but no longer is.

U.S. government is dominated by two factions with contradictory policies.   One is what I call the neoconservatives, who think the United States can make itself secure by crushing any nation that resists U.S. dominance.   The other is what I call the neoliberals, who think the United States can make itself prosperous by subordinating policy to the needs of U.S. corporations.

The problem is that executives of the largest U.S. corporations think of the world in global terms, not national terms.   They don’t regard themselves as responsible for maintaining U.S. geopolitical and military power.   Neoliberalism saps national economic strength that neoconservatives count on to support military intervention.

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