Sunday, April 30, 2017

Garbage Up “There”

Ready for the future? You settle down in your seat, fasten your much more complicated safety harness, and prepare for a trip to… er… Mars? You could be a scientist on a mission of exploration. Perhaps a really rich person who figured out how to spend some of that wealth. Or??? The take-off is severe, G-forces literally pulling your face back… but once up past the blast, the view out that window is staggering. Until there is a loud smack-crack as the window shatters, the air is sucked out of the cabin… and you just die.
From the Sputnik days in the late 1950s, followed by the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions that followed in the 1960s, mankind has been launching satellites carrying everything from building materials for space stations, global positioning transmitters, spy satellites with really incredible cameras and tracking capabilities, communications satellites and more than a few death rays along the way. We are completely dependent on these sky structures for everything from the television shows we watch to our automotive navigation systems to our military campaigns. More countries and even private industry are adding to orbiting space traffic as launching into space gets less expensive by the day.
Aside from the active satellites, there are tens of thousands of space shards, dead satellites and miscellaneous, human-created space debris spinning around up there waiting to: crash into the earth somewhere nasty, crash into another satellite costing tens of millions (if not more) and inflict massive disruption on earthly communications and operations below. “Roughly 49 percent of satellites are in low-earth orbit, which is also where astronauts work. Another 41 percent are higher up, in geosynchronous orbit.” Washington Post (10/24/13). The problems are obvious.
There’s a scene in the motion picture, Gravity: “During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has inadvertently caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of debris in space. Mission Control orders that the mission be aborted and the crew begin re-entry immediately because the debris is speeding towards the Shuttle.” Wikipedia. The International Space Station takes a direct hit. The impact of that debris is the core of the film’s plotline, and what happens is pretty terrifying.
While the film might not be completely scientifically accurate, the hazards of “too much metal in orbit” are very real, with major consequences waiting to happen. “Worst-case scenario: a massive, unstoppable, chain-reaction traffic wreck above our heads. So much for escaping Earth to distant galaxies… The news from space was not great… The problem is about to get worse, experts say, as cheap, tiny satellites are shot through the stratosphere in unprecedented numbers…
“Hundreds of thousands of bits of space junk are orbiting Earth, according to NASA. These include tiny paint flecks that can take out a space shuttle window, and some 2,000 satellite shards left by a collision of Russian and American satellites several years ago…
“[One collision can trigger a chain reaction from the resulting debris as described in] a keynote speech from retired NASA scientist Donald Kessler, known for coming up with an apocalyptic space-crash theory called the Kessler syndrome — or ‘orbital Nagasaki,’ as a researcher once described it to The Washington Post… Basically: A thing hits another thing at 25,000 mph or so. Those things then explode into more things, which hit yet more things, initiating a catastrophic chain reaction of collisions that makes low Earth orbit totally unusable.
“Kessler predicted this in the 1970s, when space had fewer things in it. At [a recent] conference, he previewed a new study he worked on that found ‘a statistically meaningful number of satellites’ that have been damaged by debris.
“And an ESA [European Space Agency] official described a recent study finding that a particularly crowded region of space has already become unstable, which he worried could foretell Kessler's doomsday scenario… The bad news didn't stop there.
“As satellites get smaller and cheaper, more and more of them are going into orbit to potentially smash into each other… In February, the New York Times reported, India launched 104 tiny satellites into space from a single rocket… In all of human history, ESA's debris chief said at the conference, about 7,000 spacecraft have left Earth. He pulled up a slide of 12,000 new satellites set to go up soon, announced by companies such as Samsung and SpaceX.
“Many of these — like the batch India sent into space — are nano-satellites: tiny, motorless machines that promise to revolutionize communications… They're simple enough to make that grade school students in Arlington, Va., put one together for a class project. Once in orbit, they fan out into wide constellations, outperforming their bulkier ancestors.
“But these tiny satellites have big problems, according to experts at the conference. There will be lots of them, for one thing. And since they can't navigate, they'll keep careening through space long after they've stopped working and are thus more likely to collide with other things.” Washington Post, April 21st.
What’s the answer? One possible solution: “Economists typically solve this problem with what's known as a Pigouvian tax or user fee to better align those incentives. So, they ask, why not place a user fee on orbital launches to help pay for clean-up?
‘User fees are a solution straight out of the Reagan era to deal with precisely these sorts of environmental issues,’ says Peter J. Alexander, an economist at the Federal Communications Commission and a co-author of the paper. (He helped write the paper in his spare time, not on behalf of the U.S. government.) ‘This is a classic commons problem.’” Washington Post (10/24/13). Yup, classic? Really? And exactly who is going to enforce this and implement the clean-up? Something’s gotta give before there is a huge problem that impacts all of us down here on good old dysfunctional earth.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when you least expect it…

Saturday, April 29, 2017

$35 Trillion Antics in the Arctic

The United States, Canada, Denmark (Greenland) and Russia have borders with and the right to assert claims against the land under the rapidly-melting Arctic ice pack, particularly the increasingly navigable Northwest Passage. Norway and China are looking for their stakes in the area as well.
There could be as much as $35 trillion dollars of natural resources in this environmentally delicate region, with the continued existence of so many species, from polar bears to untold numbers of fish and plant life, hanging in the balance. “The Arctic, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates, holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.” DailyMail.co.uk, April 19th.
While the precise legality of who has a right to what has yet to be firmly established, one nation – Russia – has taken steps to claim it all. It started in the summer of 2007 when a Russian submersible descended beneath the North Pole: “Russia has laid claim to the seafloor at the North Pole, planting its national flag underwater in the hopes of securing the Arctic's potential motherlode of natural resources.
“In an unprecedented dive beneath the ice, two three-person submersibles descended 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the bottom, where one symbolically dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag.” News.NationalGeographic.com, August 3, 2007. But that was just the beginning.
Russia then began moving increasing numbers of its naval and air forces to bases in the eastern region closest to the Arctic. Russian bombers and fighters have been testing how close to U.S. and Canadian shorelines they can penetrate for years, more frequently taunting Western forces and mapping out NORAD’s detection capabilities to the max. These flights routinely come well-within 200 miles of Canada and the U.S.
As U.S. policy now officially denies the existence of global climate change – the force behind the melting Arctic ice that has opened this region to exploitation – Russia is laughing all the way to… er… rather complete and total military dominance of this region. Even before that Northwest Passage is routinely and continually open year-round, Russia’s maritime and naval capacity have expanded with a growing number of massive, state-of-the-art ice breakers. Compare Russia’s existing fleet of 40 modern ice breakers capable of operating in the area with only two operated by the United States.
But even as Russian-based aircraft and ice breakers operate from within traditional bases on the Russian mainland, Moscow has just expanded its military into a Russian-controlled island chain (pictured right above) quite far from its traditional territory: “Russia has unveiled a new Arctic military base capable of housing 150 troops as well as nuclear-ready warplanes… The triangular complex [pictured left above], painted in the red, white and blue of the Russia's tricolor flag, has been built in remote Alexandra Land in the Franz Josef Archipelago… According to the Moscow Times, it also comes complete with a cinema, table tennis and billiards rooms while a military art studio is also planned… 
“Officials have said they may deploy military jets there. MiG-31 fighters, designed to shoot down long-range bombers, or the SU-34, a frontline bomber are seen as options, it has been reported…
“Earlier this year it was reported that Moscow is starting to build nuclear icebreakers as it vies for dominance in the polar region with traditional rivals Canada, the United States, and Norway as well as newcomer China.” DailyMail.co.uk. Reindeer mounted Russian troops add to their ability to move and operate in this difficult land.
As China has illustrated with its man-made island expansion in the South China Sea, and as Russia has proven in its unilateral annexation of Crimea in violation of its treaty obligations, nations that build out significant military capacity in disputed (or likely to be disputed) areas tend to be able to force their mandate on other nations that are either unwilling or unable to counter such aggressive moves. So if our policy-makers are unwilling to stem the “big melt” rather directly linked to man-induced global warming – which is particularly evident in the Arctic region – then we are going to have to pay the trillions and trillions of dollars (with concomitant losses) necessary to deal with the consequences of our irresponsible greed and stupidity.
I’m Peter Dekom, and living in an era of science-denial and irresponsible austerity – which are clear and obvious mistakes with massive consequences – is exceptionally difficult when the evidence of what we inevitably will face is so crystal clear.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stand Your Ground and Hold Your Lane!

We have accelerated the proliferation of guns, have a new pro-gun Supreme Court appointee, a rise in pro-gun Republican control of everything from Congress to most state legislatures and a pro-gun President. After 20 children and six adults were massacred at Sandy Hook in 2012, most major efforts to curb gun violence have failed – like the 2014 effort to require background checks that couldn’t even make to the Senate floor – but gun sales have spiked after every mass shooting.
We’ve seen an expansion of “open carry” laws, even allowing guns into universities and many government installations, as well as a growing right to carry a concealed weapon without an extensive permitting process. Stand your ground laws, extending the right not to try and retreat from serious danger even outside your home but allowing deadly force instead (remember Trayvon Martin?), are growing, and several states are considering legalizing silencers because the noise of a shot disturbs people at a gun range… even though not hearing gun shots might allow a shooter more time before being detected by police. The NRA is having the very best time, and despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans really approve of greater gun control, there are almost no Republican legislators willing to stand up the NRA.
While the government is not allowed to record and track gun homicides, private researchers are putting the pieces together and generating the missing statistics privately. We killing each other with guns more than ever, despite NRA claims to the contrary. “In 2010, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm. In 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns. In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides. In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S. In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.
“Firearms were used to kill 13,286 people in the U.S. in 2015, excluding suicide. Approximately 1.4 million people have been killed using firearms in the U.S. between 1968 and 2011.” Wikipedia. 115 days into 2017, Chicago experienced its 1,000th gun victim, 27 alone on New Year’s Day. 2016 produced 762 gun homicides in the Windy City, a huge 60% increase from the year before. Europeans, most of the world in fact, is aghast at our apparent love affair with guns… apparently a passion that exceeds our love for our own children.
The April 25th New York Times addressed a recent study in an area of American gun violence that might surprise you: “The analysis was published by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence. It found that cases of road rage involving a firearm — where someone brandished a gun or fired one at a driver or passenger — more than doubled to 620 in 2016, from 247 in 2014.
“The Trace compiled its data from the Gun Violence Archive, which inventories and catalogs episodes of gun violence in the United States based on news and police reports and other sources.
“There were at least 1,319 road rage episodes involving firearms during the three-year period examined, with at least 354 people wounded and 136 killed, The Trace reported…
“The Trace analysis concluded that these figures were conservative because law enforcement agencies do not inventory cases of road rage as a specific category. The site said most instances of road rage involving a firearm occurred in disputes between strangers.
Professor David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said he was surprised by the reported increase, attributing that to more and better reporting of such episodes.
“Dr. Hemenway, who was an author of a 2002 paper that found Arizona drivers who had guns in their cars were more likely to act rudely and aggressively, said drivers develop a sense of territoriality.
Another research paper, ‘Is an Armed Society a Polite Society? Guns and Road Rage,’ which Dr. Hemenway co-wrote in 2006, noted that cars offer an environment where people feel safe displaying hostility… ‘A car gives the motorist power, protection, easy escape and anonymity,’ it said.
“The report analyzed data from more than 2,400 licensed drivers who were surveyed in 2004. It found that after controlling for variables, such as age, gender, geography and driving frequency, drivers with guns in their cars were more likely to make obscene gestures and aggressively follow another car.
“‘One would hope that those people with firearms in their vehicles would be among the most self-controlled and law-abiding members of society,’ the paper said. ‘Unfortunately that does not appear to be the case. In Arizona, and now at the national level, the evidence indicates that those with guns in the vehicle are more likely to engage in ‘road rage.’ ’ ”
Funny thing about judicial decisions embracing fewer restrictions on guns is how such courts focus on the blue words next in the Second Amendment and simply ignore the red. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. You’d think those “strict constructionist” and “originalist” judges would actually apply the clear words of this constitutional amendment… but they seldom do… and almost never let those red words modify their extreme interpretation of that provision.
I’m Peter Dekom, and there isn’t a moral justification for the extreme ease with which guns are available in this country to people who obviously are unable to use them responsibly.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Living in a Parallel Universe

Imagine living in a world where Vladimir Putin is our close ally, climate change is nothing we need to worry about, unskilled and semi-skilled blue collar workers can make solid middle-class livings, people have free choice to use their tax dollars for any primary or secondary school they want, robots and automation are not even a remote threat to manufacturing jobs, radical militants will no longer threaten Americans, economic polarization vaporizes as the hard-dollar benefits a booming economy is shared by everyone, a fully-functioning infrastructure, no one enters or remains in or leaves the United States without strict controls, medical care is cheap and accessible to all, women no longer want or need abortions, domestic fossil fuel abundance generates falling energy prices, federal taxes plunge as our deficit fades away, our trade imbalance ends as imports continue to be cheap, and even as the United States reduces its financial commitments to global institutions the United States regains global respect, trading superiority, cheaper consumer prices and sustainable growth. That is a partial summary of Trump’s promise to America. And virtually none of this is true or economically possible. It is the parallel universe, a dream that cannot become a reality, that Trump followers believe with more passion than an evangelical’s belief in Jesus Christ. But that parallel universe does not and never will exist.
There’s a damned good reason why most of Europe is terrified of Russian aggression. Three years ago, the Russians absolutely annexed Crimea in complete abrogation of a treaty they signed pledging never to do that. They absolutely have mounted an aggressive attack against Ukraine, providing soldiers and weapons to foment a civil war that never needed to happen. They have been shown to hack into sensitive election sites across the United States and Western Europe, spreading disinformation, a fact sustained by every relevant U.S. federal investigatory agency. There may be more, a lot more, from more direct interference to unholy economic activities in and around powerful elected politicians. Russia is not trustworthy, definitely not our friend, a reality accepted by a great many Congress-people on both sides of the aisle. Just not our president.
That global climate change is wreaking havoc – floods, rising seas, storm surges, violent weather patterns, drastic and continuing temperature change, droughts, fires, insect/disease migration – is almost universally accepted as fact by the scientific community, even fossil fuel conglomerates and virtually every other country on earth… except the United States. Aside from the fact that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, denies that carbon dioxide causes global warming, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has pretty mandated that no one at his agency utter or write any words suggesting the existence of global climate change. Ugh! Enough said on this for now. Read my blog for the rest.
We are playing “whack-a-mole” with Islamists – violent terrorists who act under their misguided interpretation of the Qur’an – such that as ISIS is defeated (as it will be), it (or its radical kin) will pop up somewhere else… even as our polices seem to beg that the United States should be a much more direct target of terrorism. There is only so much swatting as a wasp’s nest before the wasps decide to make a point. We seem to have strongly declared that America is the enemy of Islam, even to the extent of banning travelers from Islamic nations from which not a single perpetrator of US terrorism has even come from. But we are very carefully painting a bullseye over our entire country… to what end? We certainly aren’t going to find Muslims willing to cooperate with us to help identify those religiously-inspired terrorists. We need that intelligence to prevent real threats. Smart us.
As coal miners expect to go back to high-paying mining jobs, many at now-bankrupt mining companies, restrictions on “King coal” are lifted. And why would American companies embrace coal and the new pollution standards that go with it when global demand for coal is vaporizing and international air quality standards simply will not allow new coal-burning to generate electricity anymore. And as we bring back manufacturing jobs to the U.S., who is stupid enough to think that the work will go to highly-paid workers and not to the rich folks who own the automation where the processes are really going? The benefits go to those who own the equipment, not the workers who are not getting those old jobs back.
“Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says automation isn’t something he loses sleep over: ‘It’s not even on our radar screen . . . [it’s] 50 to 100 more years’ away, as he said at an event organized by Axios. ‘I’m not worried at all,’ he added. ‘In fact I’m optimistic.’
“Mnuchin’s statements contrast with warnings issued by the last administration, which produced reports looking at the economic impact of automation. It said, for instance, that 1.3 million to 1.7 million truck drivers could lose their jobs as a result of self-driving technology. ‘We are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage [robots and automation],’ Obama told Wired.
“New research shows Obama perhaps had a better sense of reality than Mnuchin does. Looking at the effect of industrial robots across the U.S., it shows how automation is already leading to job losses and wage decreases at a significant scale and that new jobs are not being created at a fast enough rate to take their place. ” FastCompany.com, March 31st. Maybe Steve has not been to any U.S. automobile manufacturing facility with the last decade. Next.
The failure of the Donald Trump-advocated American Health Care Act, which had a meagre 17% public approval level, couldn’t even get through a GOP-controlled Congress. The Congressional Budget Office made it clear that millions of Americans with current healthcare insurance would lose that coverage if that law passed. It didn’t. Even Trump-followers were too scared to support that legislation. Limiting health care to comport with a minority religious group’s view of the world will make our medical care better? Huh?
Every version of tax reform that has been presented, hinted at or espoused by Donald Trump or any of his senior advisors, tells us that we will have vastly lower taxes only for one group: the highest earners in the land. The rest of us… not so much. Even if Donald Trump were able to pass his bare-bones budget, which he clearly cannot, the most credible experts project that the loss of tax revenues would generate trillions of dollars of additional deficits. Cutting taxes and simultaneously reducing deficits is a bigger fiction than LaLa Land.
Trump $1 trillion infrastructure program – light when the American Society of Civil Engineers tell it’s more like a 10-year program with four and a half times as much – is heavily predicated on handing the upgrades, in significant part, to the private sector. This allows mega-rich investors to fund infrastructure in exchange for usage tolls that many folks just cannot afford. It looks more like a wealth transfer tax, and a lot of lower earners will find those meagre monies just won’t stretch so far.
The thought we can impose trade restrictions unilaterally, without risk of retaliation, is beyond na├»ve. And if there are trade wars, if the lack of lower cost undocumented labor continues to accelerate, the one sure thing is that consumer prices will skyrocket. But wait, there’s more.
Our allies don’t trust us anymore. Trump can vacillate, tweet a mix of confusing policies, propose budgets that decimate foreign aid, UN and NATO support, and it all plays to his base. But it means the rest of the world, those who depended on us, are now planning work-arounds to live without depending on anything American. Think that makes us stronger and our economy better?
Our schools are bad and getting worse. Trump response: school vouchers. These vouchers have historically been used (where state sanctioned) primarily for religious schools where moral versus empirical education is the priority. Think that will make us more competitive, stronger, and create higher-paying jobs? Really? What did our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos for whom there is no evidence that she ever visited a public school before her appointment, learn at that bastion of higher-learning, Christian Reform Church-sponsored Calvin College, she attended?
In the end, it is those lower socioeconomic Trump voters are going to be betrayed the most, but we will all suffer what may well be irreversible damage to our political system, global credibility and influence and our economy. Some of these policies could even retrigger another global recession.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if Ted Cruz was “Lyin’,” Hillary Clinton was “Crooked,” and Marco Rubio was “Little,” exactly what is Donald Trump?