Thomas Lewis

Distributed Energy & Clickbait

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Published on The Daily Impact  February 10 & 13, 2017

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Distributed Energy Soars at Last

 

 

 

Finally, after 130 years or so, we’re thinking about a better way to handle electricity than with strings strung on sticks. (Wikimedia Photo)

 

 

 

For those of us who have been arguing into the wind for years about the urgent need to abandon our total reliance on the electric grid in favor of distributed energy — making it where you use it — it’s a sight for sore eyes. An enormous government program is building tens of thousands of direct-current microgrids to power homes and businesses and towns all over the country, providing people with electricity that is far less expensive and more reliable than is provided by the grid.

The program began field testing its microgrids just three years ago. For a single household it consisted of a solar array, a basic battery, and a 12-volt wiring harness. By staying in 12 volt, the microgrid avoids the expense and inefficiencies of inverting the power to 120-volt, and makes use of the increasing availability of 12-volt lights, motors, computers, TVs and appliances.  By the end of of this year, 100,000 microgrids will be up and running, with no slowdown in sight.

Another triumph of American ingenuity? Hardly. You can have America’s grid when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. This is a triumph of Indian innovation.

With its one and a quarter billion people — four times the population of the United States — India is the second largest country in the world. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, the massive and long-subjugated country has moved with surprising speed toward a position of world leadership; it is, for example, one of the few countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons.

But progress has been uneven. Poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, and plain vanilla incompetence lay across the country’s many accomplishments like a toxic fog. This is especially true when it comes to energy: one fifth of the population has no access to electricity at all; half of those who are connected to the grid find it so unreliable and expensive they may as well not have it at all

For years India has been pouring money into bigger generating plants, bigger and longer transmission lines, and myriad electrification projects. Yet of its 29 provinces, only four can boast that all of their households have electricity. The only meaningful gains have been made by the recently inaugurated microgrid program initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras.

Now, tens of thousands of homes are making enough power — reliably and cheaply — to power their lights, computers, phones, televisions, fans and certain other appliances. Whether the microgrid is alone or working in tandem with the grid, it allows people for the first time to count on being able to read at night, cool themselves with fans, communicate, and watch entire TV shows uninterrupted.

That might not seem like much to you and me, and we may not see the point at first of doing microgrids here. That’s because you and I think of the grid as sturdy and reliable, and most of us consider investing in backup power only if it lowers our electric bills. But the grid is not sturdy and reliable, it is elderly, leaky, outdated and infirm [See “Rage Against the Dying of the Lights,” The Daily Impact December 5, 2014], and one day soon it is going to fail us entirely.

On that day we are going to regret deeply all that time and money we spent grafting wind “farms” and solar “farms” and nuclear plants and coal plants and natural gas plants onto our rusting forest of sticks and strings. There is nothing sustainable, or renewable, or common sensible about gathering a gazillion watts of “renewable” energy in the middle of a desert or on a remote mountaintop and them having to ram it through an aged, leaky, decrepit grid to its eventual destination. We will also deeply regret, for example,  saving a few bucks by installing solar panels with built-in inverters to 120 volt — inverters that must be connected to the live grid for the solar panel to work.

We will regret letting the industry convince us that the only way to make energy is to burn fossil fuels in huge plants, the only way to distribute it is through strings strung on sticks (wait, hook it to the Internet and call it a “smart” grid), that high costs and frequent outages and increasing vulnerability are just the way it is. We may even, if we have the time while trying to survive, take a moment to regret that Thomas Edison lost his argument with Nikola Tesla, and Edison’s vision of an America of neighborhoods served by small DC generators never came to be.

Until now. In India.      

 

Clickbait, Fake News and Low-Calorie Science

 

 

 

 

A tiny drone tries to gather pollen from a lily, to show that it is just as good at it as a bee. [Photo by E.Miyako]

 

 

 

The hucksters of high tech are abroad in the land, proving they are the equal of Donald Trump in their ability to tell brazen lies and feel no shame. These days, that’s called leadership. Their latest whopper is that we don’t need to worry about the fact that we are killing off the bees that pollinate our food crops, we can do the job mechanically. Here’s a typical headline inspired by the latest revelations in the field: “Should pollinating drones take over for honey bees?”

 

Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.)

The story itself breathes heavily through an account of a team in Japan outfitting a little drone with some horsehairs and sticky stuff and successfully transferring some pollen from one lily (a flower selected for its large size and accessible pollen) to another. Mission accomplished, in approximately half the attempts made. The team leader — Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s Nanomaterials Research Institute — said he felt “happiness that I’m a scientist.”

Couple things. The drone they used cost over a hundred dollars and required a human operator. To pollinate just the almond crop, in California alone, each year requires 35 billion bees pollinating three trillion flowers on 900,000 acres. Each little drone, with its four slashing propellers, is going to scare and injure real bees and damage plants while barging around the flowers.

Well, sure, comes the response, we’ll have to develop some kind of artificial intelligence to make the drones self-piloting, and we’ll have to achieve economies of scale, but we can do that. Eventually. In other words if we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if we had some eggs.

Over and over again we are treated to the same cycle; some minor achievement in the lab, announced with a flurry of irrational predictions about the brave new world to come because of this breakthrough. Fusion (at room temperature) has been announced a half dozen times. A week or so ago a breathless account of the creation of metallic hydrogen caught the world’s attention until it fell apart of its own weight.

These “studies” continue to flourish for the same reason that clickbait ads and fake news flourish; because of the avid appetite of ill-informed people for easy solutions. When the ad offers a quick and easy cure for cancer, or the fake news proclaims that a politician we don’t like has been caught running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza parlor, or fake science proclaims that we no longer have to worry about the bees dying or the globe warming or the world running out of oil, way too many of us turn off our critical faculties and go back to sleep.

Money flows to the grant proposals that envision finding out that what we want to be true, is true. Money flows to the clickbait ads that offer easy solutions to complex problems. Eyeballs cascade to the fake news that proclaims what we want to hear, or what we are afraid we’ll hear. And the institutions that once imposed responsibility on these offerings — the universities, the regulatory bodies, the great newspapers — are vampires now whose souls have fled, leaving behind only a vast craving for cash.   

There’s no one left to tell us there aren’t going to be driverless cars and tabletop fusion and eternal life and a cure for cancer and a mechanical replacement for bees and a simple fix for climate change; to tell us it’s up to us not to be taken, not to be gullible, not to accept a view of the world that’s simple and easy and deadly wrong. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it, and there’s no drone that will do it for you.

Cometh Civil War? & Cancelled Infrastructure

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Published on The Daily Impact  February 5 & 8, 2017

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Antidote to Civil War? Or Precursor?

New York attorney Gregory Locke boarded the subway last Friday night and was appalled by what he saw. Every window in the car, every advertisement and map, had been defaced with a swastika. And there were slogans, such as “Jews belong in the oven.”

“The train was silent,” he said in his Facebook post about it, “as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work. I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.

 “Nazi symbolism. On a public train. In New York City. In 2017.

 “I guess this is Trump’s America,” said one passenger. No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”

Two Americas. Using the same subway car in close succession on a Friday night in February, each leaving their mark. Each with something very important to say to us.

First, consider the swastika drawers, who were not very good at it — they inadvertently drew the sacred Hindu character for “good fortune” (it has to be tilted 45 degrees to the right to become the Nazi icon). But that’s an important thing to understand about haters and bigots: they’re not very good at anything.

One of the first courses I took in Sociology 101 taught me an invaluable lesson I have never forgot. It was a study of inter-racial relations among the (primarily Vietnamese) shrimp fishermen and the people of South Florida. The study found a strong, direct and inverse relationship between the state of the local economy and the quality of the interactions among ethnic groups. When times were good people were tolerant and welcomed diversity. The worse the economy became, the more bigotry appeared, and if it got bad enough there were outbreaks of violence.

Everything I have seen in the ensuing decades has confirmed for me the simple fact that people choose racism primarily when they are experiencing financial hardship, and want — no, need — someone to blame. Some “other” kind of person. easily identifiable as an enemy. The worse the hardship, the more violent, widespread and prolonged the expressions of blame/hate.

Is this Trump’s America? Yes and no. It is remarkable that hate crimes, including attacks on synagogues and mosques, and the defacing of public spaces with swastikas, have increased dramatically since his election. But it would be a serious mistake to attribute this only to him and the people who voted for him.

Despite what they say, political leaders do not run the economy, they cannot “create jobs” or “bring back industries.” They cannot make better the severe conditions that bring out in us our impulses to blame and punish. What they can do is summon us to our best efforts, to our better natures, to the rational tolerance and good will that tamp down our more hateful urges.

Or they can do what tyrants and would-be tyrants do. By encouraging the notion that we are experiencing hard times because of the Jews/Mexicans/Muslims/terrorists, the WBT (Would Be Tyrant) can more easily make the case that he, and he alone, can save us. All we have to do is give him the power. Unrestrained, absolute power. Beyond energizing his supporters to bristle at the “others,” the WBT also enables — by hinting, repeating, winking, implying, berating and just saying — many others to allow barely-restrained frustration to blow sky high.

In my own neighborhood last week a young mother described on Facebook how her (colored) child was suddenly berated in a public place by another (white) child, a total stranger, and told to go back where he came from because nobody wants him here. The white child’s grandmother corrected the white child, not for being rude or expressing racism, but because “we don’t say those things outside the house.”

Don’t worry, little precious, soon you may be able to say all those things everywhere, while decorating everything with swastikas, when it truly is Trump’s America.

But maybe not. Consider the second group of people on the subway car, with their tissues and hand sanitizers. They live in the America that I have always lived in and loved, and they have signaled their determination to keep it. I wonder if we can.

 

The Great Recovery of America’s Infrastructure: Cancelled

 

 

 

Wondering what happens when you don’t maintain the Interstate Highway system? Wondering if we can get along without it? Minneapolis, 2007. (Wikipedia Photo)

 

 

 

Watch closely any group involved in dealing with a disaster — let’s say, a fire company battling a structure fire — and you may catch the moment when they share a glance that says, “You know what, we’re not going to win this one.” Their conduct changes almost imperceptibly from “balls to the wall, we can do this,” to “watch where you step, and back away from the walls, she’s gonna burn to the ground.”

Such a moment may well have come this week for the people who still believe — or have believed since Donald Trump was elected president — that we are going to experience a Great Recovery of this country’s rotting roads and decrepit bridges, which will in turn create millions of jobs, restore the middle class, eliminate poverty, homelessness and cancer, save the economy and make it 1958 in America once more. And Mexico is going to pay for it. (Actually, candidate Trump promised $50 billion for the purpose, double Hillary Clinton’s proposed spending. But neither of them explained where they were going to get the money.)

No one questions that this massive construction program is not only necessary but urgent. Our entire economy, all of it, travels on the backs of 18-wheelers, and if anything at all interferes with their tightly scheduled travel, we are all in the  soup, neck deep and right now.  The American Society of Civil Engineers, the people who would do this work if they were hired, has been warning us for years about the deterioration. The Interstate Highway system (900,000 miles) and all its bridges (600,000) and overpasses, came with an expiration date stamped on them, just like so many quarts of milk. Their life expectancy was 50 years when they were built — 60 years ago.

The civil engineers are very civil when they try to tell us why their hair is on fire: “by 2024, the U.S. will face an infrastructure funding gap of $1.4 trillion.” It’s not in their nature to draw pictures of empty stores, food riots, endless lines for gasoline, and various other civil insults, because they don’t want to trigger the general panic that the situation deserves. Instead, we will just agree that it’s a heckuva problem, Brownie.

And now there’s hope, right? Maybe the Child President will remember his concern about the roads (infrastructure is way too long a word, get outta here) long enough to try to do something about them. Maybe his excellent Cabinet can come up with a way to pay for fixing them (Rex Tillerson could just write a check, but that would probably be a conflict of interest).

But here’s the thing. In a few weeks, this massive project won’t even be possible, even if Canada pays for it in cash. Because the largest asphalt plant in the United States is shutting down for lack of business. According to Bloomberg, Axeon Specialty Products is converting to other uses a plant in New Jersey capable of producing 50,000 barrels of asphalt per day. U.S. consumption of asphalt has been hovering below 350,000 barrels a day since 2009.  To support a meaningful overhaul of the road system the county would need to manufacture at least an additional 200,000 barrels per day.

With Axeon’s New Jersey plant gone, there is no way that is going to happen. Even if Canada does pay for it.  The engineers are looking at each other funny — it may be time to back away from those walls before they fall on us.

 

 

 

Driverless Carz & The Pricetag of Civilization

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Published on The Daily Impact  January 30 & February 2, 2017

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Driverless Cars: Their Time Will Never Come

 

 

 

 

 

 

The driverless car. An idea whose time will not come. Ever.

Can we just get real here for a minute? Our streets and highways are never going to be populated by a significant number of driverless cars. Any more than our lives are going to be enriched by attentive robots exhibiting artificial intelligence. We are no closer to deploying fleets of driverless cars now than we were to having a flying car in every garage, as the illustrated predictions in Popular Mechanics and the like insisted through the 50s and 60s. And 70s and 80s. (I should have warned you about the disorientation a sudden dose of realism can have; sit down and breath into a paper bag, it will pass.)

The deafening hype we are hearing about driverless cars is the sound of an entire industry trying to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to itself. Everything we hear about the auto industry is good (“2016 U.S.Auto Sales Set New High Record”) because everything we hear comes from the auto industry. And yet its healthy glow is beginning to take on the ghastly sheen of a dead mackerel.

Ever since President Obama saved the auto industry from meltdown in 2008 (yes, he did, you can look it up) it has been the leading light of American industrial activity. Sales bottomed out at fewer than 10 million units in 2009, but have risen steadily since, to an all time high of 17.5 million units, in 2016. What could be wrong with this picture?

Couple of things. First, these sales were accomplished by offering low- and no-interest loans, low- and no-down-payment loans, then extending the length of the loans to lower the payments still more. The average term of a car loan is now five and a half years, with six- and seven-year loans ever more frequent. Still this wasn’t enough. To get the numbers they wanted they had to start making loans to less and less credit-worthy buyers. Before long, in order to keep the big wheel turning, lenders were bundling car loans and securitizing them for more cash to lend to sub-prime borrowers. The sales were booked. The loans were booked (with everyone involved collecting their commissions in cash).  But the cars haven’t been paid for yet, and now the default rates are in the stratosphere. According to MarketWatch:

The number of subprime auto loans sinking into delinquency hit their highest level since 2010 in the third quarter, with roughly 6 million individuals at least 90 days late on their payments. It’s behavior much like that seen in the months heading into the 2007-2009 recession, according to data from Federal Reserve Bank of New York researchers. “The worsening in the delinquency rate of subprime auto loans is pronounced, with a notable increase during the past few years,” the researchers…said Wednesday.

Nobody could have seen that coming.

Another thing. When the factories ship cars and trucks to the dealers, to sit on lots for no one knows how long, they count them as “sold” even though the dealer has the right to return them. At the end of 2016, a banner year for “sales,” an all-time high of almost four million cars were sitting on dealer lots unsold.

So despite the glossy paint on its exterior,  the auto industry is rapidly rusting out from within, and desperately needs its Next Big Thing to appear NOW. Hybrids were it for a while, but gas prices went down and huge SUVs rule the road again. Electric plug-ins? Naw. See the fate of the hybrid. But self-driving cars? Now you got some buzz, man. This could be it.

But desperation generates its own buzz. The makers of computers and cell phones and tablets have all been seeking the Next Big Thing with equal desperation for years. A few years ago it was The Smart Watch. Drum roll!!! Fanfare!!! Launch!!! Nobody bought ‘em. Remember Google Glass? Gone. Virtual reality is currently having its 15-minute audition. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7? Crashed and burned. Literally.

None of these products came to market in response to a need people had. You know, like when they invented the fly swatter. These were things that engineers and marketers believed the general public could be enticed to buy. And that used to work, back when we had a middle class in America with money to spare. Then, you could make a go of pet rocks with the right advertising campaign.

But driverless cars? Let’s try one though experiment. It’s a couple years from now, and you call an Uber car, and when it pulls to the curb and waits for you to get in, there is no one in the car, and there are no controls in the car. Are you going to get in?

Me neither.

 

That Which Kills Me Also Costs Me Money: Study

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackout 1965: Think of it — all those people trapped in all those apartments, needing to know: how much is this going to cost?

According to a new study, if a solar storm blew out most of America’s electric grid, it would cost us $41.5 billion dollars. The worst scenario calculated in the study would affect 66 per cent of the population, as well as the nation’s manufacturing, government and finance sectors. Other countries would be affected as well, but we don’t care about that, the study simply created a seven-billion-dollar chump-change jar for the foreigners. After putting a price tag on every imaginable aspect of Apocalypse Now, one of the study’s authors said somberly, “We felt it was important.” He found it “surprising” that prior studies — yes, there are prior studies making the same calculations — lacked “transparency” and missed entirely some direct and indirect costs.

Encyclopedic as it may be, and transparent as well — you can see right through it — the study raises at least as many questions as it answers [Please disengage your fake-news sensor and engage your irony alert]:

  • now that we know what the incineration of the grid will cost, can we just not do it? Is that why you told us?
  • now that we know what it will cost, shall we just put that much money in a savings account, so that when it happens, we can just write a check and we won’t be affected at all?
  • Utilities have always known about the threat from severe solar storms, and  how to protect the grid from them, but have so far refused to spend the money. So now can we get them to spend up to $40 billion? At least?
  • Isn’t this pretty much the same things as commissioning a financial analysis to calculate how much money you will not make in the 10 years after your death? (A million dollars? Holy crap! Now I really don’t want to die!)

But here’s the real question. Have we as a culture become so devoid of human values and empathy that we no longer even have the language to discuss the meaning of anything without assigning cash values? Where are the studies concluding that an event like this would put us all instantly back in the Stone Age, that most of us would die in the first year, that our civilization might never recover? 

In our world, knowledge has been industrialized. Armies of researchers often funded by the companies that will benefit from a right conclusion, delve into everything from the health benefits of food to the effects of chemicals, from evaluating stocks and bonds to  the economic cost of homophobia. If the conclusion is wrong — that is, of no benefit to the sponsors — it can be buried, and alternate studies funded. See “Exxon and climate-change research.”

Rice University researchers have calculated the cost of carbon emissions, and called for a compensatory carbon tax. In other words, never mind the visible pall of pollution, the coughing children, the elevated cancer rates, the increasingly obvious destabilization of the planet’s climate, let’s figure out how many dollars it might cost and impose a fine, in dollars. Similarly, Stanford researchers have estimated the high cost of global climate change. Duh!

As with all crimes against humanity, we must first ask cui bono? Who benefits? Studies cost money, often big money. Promoting their results to a gullible public costs really big money. Somebody is getting something for all that money. [Note to self: Apply for grant to conduct large-scale study of the cost of studying the cost of things.]

Without conducting a study, I can only surmise that the beneficiaries of studies such as the solar-storm accounting are the very industries it studied. If we focused in detail on the human cost of such a Black Swan event — that is, an event of extremely low probability but extremely high cost — and the relative ease with which the industries could prevent it, we would be storming their gates. Or at least trolling them on Twitter.  

But put a price tag on it, any price tag, and our tendency is to think, “Yeah, we could do that.” It doesn’t matter how big it is. Personally, I cannot get my head around any number that has more than six digits. I thought it was a private affliction, but it turns out to be pretty widespread.

Talk to any industry about its responsibility to the humans it is supposed to be serving, and to future generations of them, and it goes into a defensive crouch and insists that a corporation is not a person when it comes to ethics and responsibility. But threaten them with a future fine or cost, and the board meets, and says “Yeah, we could do that.” 

So that’s cui bono, baby.

No Newz is Good Newz

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Published on The Daily Impact on January 23, 2017

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An early adopter of manipulating masses with fake news.

Fake news has been with us for a very long time. Has anyone heard about (I won’t ask if you remember it, because nobody is that old) the Gulf of Tonkin attack on U.S. ships that never happened, but that caused Congress to validate the Vietnam War? Anyone remember Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction? If we stop and think about it, a large proportion of all news is, and always has been, fake. But then, if we stopped and thought about it, it would be a victimless crime.

There is much less going on here than meets the eye.

If you get an email from a deposed Nigerian oil minister offering to share a fortune with you, do you turn over your bank account details and social security number and wait for the windfall? Of course you don”t. (Wait, you did?) Because you are not consumed by greed nor activated by an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. You and I have a hard time mustering sympathy for the scammed and the pfished and the swindled, because if they hadn’t lusted after unearned wealth, or if they had informed themselves just a little, they would not have been victims. Con artists cannot flourish without eager victims — a basket of gullibles, so to speak.

What does the victim get out of a fake news story? Cheap confirmation of preconceived ideas. A thrill of validation (I knew Hillary was rotten, and here she is running a child sex slave operation out of a pizza parlor, or, I knew Trump was rotten and here he is bragging on tape about groping women. He didn’t, by the way, he said if you are rich and famous they will let you grope them.)

It has always been our choice, whether to be deluded, or not. When the con is laid out on the table or the screen, we can pick a card, any card, or we can walk away. And we, you and I, have been making the wrong choices for a very long time.

When Edward R. Murrow famously posed the question: would we use television to educate, inform and elevate us, or to amuse us, we had already decided. TV stations that featured violent crime, terrible accidents and celebrities got way more viewers. Very quickly, the rule for editors became, “if it bleeds it leads.” And for decades, as a result, Americans have been convinced that violent crime is far worse in this country than it has ever been. That fake news and its adherents led to any number of “law and order” candidates and consequent “wars on crime.” So yes, fake news has consequences, but that particular deception was a drumbeat that went on for decades and continues today.

We make other bad choices. We reward with our spending the most vacuous and illogical claims made by advertising, we click on Internet headlines proclaiming that “one simple trick cures cancer,” we constantly display our willingness to be hornswoggled. So it should come as no surprise that those with the most to gain from manipulating us did so with a remarkable torrent of fake news during the election and since.

For example, take the story now known everywhere as “Russians Hacked U.S. Election.” This is the very best kind of fake news, because it contains a tiny germ of truth somewhere in it, and many high officials are intent on keeping it alive (although no one with any standing has said anything like, “Russia hacked the election” — for the simple reason that no one seems to know what exactly was done, or whether the Russians did it, or what effect if any it may have had on the election.

So here’s what we must all remember about fake news, past and present:

  • Fake news isn’t news unless we say it is. If we don’t believe the Nigerian oil minister is who he says he is, no money changes hands, no harm, no foul. So let’s stop talking about preventing fake news, or banning it, or punishing it — just stop reading it.
  • Fake news is easy to debunk. Google it. Check it on Snopes.com. The Internet has more to offer than cute animals and trolls.
  • Fake news has remarkable little real effect on the real world. Stanford University found that only 15 per cent of Americans were even aware of any fake news stories during the 2016 campaign, and of those who were aware of them, only half believed any of them. This is about how many Americans believe that they personally have been abducted by aliens from space.

Millions and millions of whom voted against Trump, and that’s why….no. wait, that’s another fake news story.

Hillary Hallucinates Energy Independence

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on October 10, 2016

we-can-do-it

Wait, we don’t have to do it! Just roll up our sleeves and imagine it’s already done!

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Just when we were beginning to accept that the lesser evil in this batshit-crazy, un-presidential election was also the safer option, we get confirmation that Hillary Clinton is almost as delusional as Donald Trump. In last night’s debate, minutes after scornfully describing Trump as “living in an alternative [sic] universe,” Mrs. Clinton emailed a dispatch from her private planet, announcing for the first time anywhere that in the United States, “We are now, for the first time ever, energy independent.”

Now, among English speakers, the words “energy” and “independence,” used together, have a specific meaning. (I know, it’s quaint of me to suggest that words have meaning independently of who is using them, but you can have my dictionary when you pry it from my cold, dead hands…) A country is energy independent if, and only if, it produces all the energy it needs.

Mrs. Clinton was seriously mistaken to suggest that the United States is energy independent now, and further mistaken to say that if it were true it would be for the first time ever. The United States produced more energy than it consumed until World War II, and never again.  

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest (September) “Short-Term Energy Outlook,” the United States is still extracting about nine million barrels of its own oil per day and burning about 20 million barrels per day. I say “still” because the numbers and their relationship have not changed substantially for several years. The EIA forecasts that next year we will produce less oil and consume more.

With the U.S. government reporting that we still import about half of the oil we use, and that imports have been rising during the first half of this year, how are we to process the fact that a woman who is about a step and a half away from the presidency of the United States professes to believe that we are energy independent and says we no longer have to concern ourselves about the instability of the oil-rich countries of the Middle East? Some of us remember that the near paralysis of this country during the Arab Oil Embargo (Remember? The closed gas stations, the endless lines, the short hours? Anybody?) occurred when we were only importing 30% of our oil, and the Arabs shut off a mere 10% of that.

If there is any logical consistency on Planet Clinton  — I know, another quaint concept, just shut up and hand me my broken lance — we can expect some awesome changes in foreign policy under the new President Clinton. You know, like closing U.S. military bases in 150 countries and bringing home 150,000 service members. Of course that’s not going to happen. Because of course Mrs. Clinton does not believe — cannot possibly believe — that the United States is energy independent.

The most charitable interpretation of what she said last night — actually the only charitable interpretation —  is to assume that she is referring to the fact that for brief periods of time we produce a few more barrels of oil than we import, and defining that as energy independence. So if the Middle East gives us any instability, we only have to park half our cars and shut down half our economy.

Oh, and by the way. According to the EIA, next year we are going to be less independent than that.

So the most charitable interpretation of Mrs. Clinton’s assertion is also the most terrifying — that she is utterly ignorant of the energy realities, and future, of this planet. On Trump’s planet, meanwhile, they have a thousand years’ worth of coal left to burn and, lo and behold, it is “clean coal.”  

There is no lesser evil. We are going to be completely fracked.

Stupid Engineer Tricks

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on October 2, 2016

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Ask an engineer to reverse global warming, he’ll do it. Just don’t ask about thwe side effects. (Photo by Pixabay)

Saudi Arabia is a desert, with oil under it. There’s nothing you can do with oil in a desert, so the Saudis sell it, for money. That makes them filthy-rich nomads who crave big cities, with palaces for them to live in, slums for foreign workers and lots of fountains, you know, like in Las Vegas. But there’s no water in a desert. Call in the engineers.

(In Vegas, another oxymoronic desert city, their engineers’ solution was to build one of the world’s biggest dams to create one of the world’s biggest reservoirs, which worked for a while but is now drying up and is likely to make Las Vegas uninhabitable. Soon.)

The answer for Saudi Arabia and several other oil-rich desert states around the Persian Gulf was desalinization. Sure, it takes a lot of money to build the plants ($24 billion in Saudi Arabia alone) and a lot of energy to run them, but that’s what oil is for, right? So you use the oil to pump and filter and boil the salt water, and you get tons of fresh water, along with tons of leftover, super-salty water. Worked great, for a while.

There was one nagging problem attending desalinization for which the engineers’ solution was perhaps not as elegant as some others. What to do with all that concentrated, super-salty brine? They say that for every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious — and wrong. And thus with desalinization. They decided to simply, obviously, dump the brine back into the Gulf. About 70 million cubic meters every day.

Now the water in the Gulf is so salty, from all that concentrated brine being dumped into it, that it is more and more difficult, and will soon be impossible, to desalinate.

Nobody could have seen that coming.

In Miami Beach, among several other American cities along the Atlantic Coast, rising sea water is beginning to encroach with increasing frequency and depth on the city’s streets. They called the engineers.

Their answer: a $500 million project to raise some streets and install 80 super-high-capacity pumps to suck the water up before it could swamp the streets. And where do they pump all that water?

Back into the rising ocean. So far, it’s working. Hard to see what could go wrong.

For the oil industry in California, the question for the engineers was; what to do with billions of gallons of water after it has been used in fracking operations and is polluted with scores of toxic chemicals and may be radioactive. The engineers’ answers to questions of waste disposal, throughout much of the industrial revolution, has been “out of sight, out of mind.”  Or, in other words, just pump the stuff into a hole in the ground. Problem solved.

The oil guys liked it. The state regulators liked it. And so three billion gallons of the poison were pumped into the ground — in some cases directly into freshwater aquifers, in a state suffering from an unprecedented drought, whose surface reservoirs were rapidly evaporating.

Eventually it dawned on someone that this might not be a great idea, and they started shutting the injection wells down.

This is why we are where we are, and why engineers and other technical experts are incapable of saving us. Ask an expert where to dispose of some poison, he’ll tell you. Come back and say what is the matter with you, putting that crap in our well, and the expert says; you didn’t ask me what would happen when we did it, you asked me if we could do it.

Engineers are not stupid, but their tricks are as stupid as the questions they are asked, or not asked. Can we desalinate water for the desert nations of Arabia? Sure. Will it despoil the Gulf for future generations? Better not ask that. Can we pump this seawater somewhere? Or this fracking water? Sure, but don’t ask any more questions.

Can we reverse global warming, Mr. Enginer? Yes? Great! Wait, why are you reaching for that hydrogen bomb, I have a few more questions…..

[PS — lest you think I exaggerate the problem, please come with me now back to 1958, to a time when the US Atomic Energy Commission was agitating to blow a new harbor for Alaska using nuclear warheads. Championed by Edward Teller (the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in the movie), supported by Alaska’s government, Chamber of Commerce and churches (!) the project got perilously close to execution even though no one could think of a reason to have a harbor on the North Slope, in the ice-bound Arctic Ocean. It would be an excellent demonstration of the peaceful uses of nuclear bombs, the Strangeloves argued, because although serious radiation would girdle the globe, no one lived up there. Seriously. Google Project Chariot. ]

Global Cooling Threatens Life on Earth

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on September 29, 2016

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I know. Not what you were expecting. (Photo by Serendigity/Flickr)

While the planet’s air, water and land are heating to dangerous levels because of human pollution, the world’s trade is cooling off, slowing down and coagulating in the deepening chill, threatening the well-being of every country and virtually every person. I remember very well in 2008 watching the most powerful members of Congress emerge from a come-to Jesus meeting conducted by the Treasury Secretary on what was about to happen to the world’s financial institutions and America’s economy. They had the pale faces and staring eyes of people who had just been introduced to the angel of death.

The world of trade and finance is confronting such a moment now, and is every bit as much in denial as it was in 2008. This time it’s not America’s Lehman Brothers tottering into an early grave and pulling half the world in with it; it’s Deutsche Bank.

Germany’s largest bank is not doing well. Its operating loss last year was almost seven  billion Euros; its share price has fallen almost 70% since April of 2015, and dropped over seven per cent in a single day this week, to just over 10 Euros. Go back to September of 2008 and read the news reports about Lehman, and feel the burn.

If Deutsche Bank’s share price drops another Euro, the total capitalization of the bank will be less than 14 billion Euros, which is the amount of a fine the U.S. Department of Justice has proposed to levy against the bank for its sins in handling subprime mortgage derivatives leading up to the deadly financial eruption of 2009. It’s not the only trouble the bank is in; it’s under investigation for transgression in currency trading, precious metals trading, and money laundering. It recently settled a massive case alleging manipulation of interest rates. (That’s it, I’m moving my money to Wells Fargo. Oh, wait….)

Masters of the Universe are talking openly about — and betting massively on —  a Deutsche Bank failure (yes, it’s another Big Short). The German government has vowed not to bail it out, but the bank’s assets, ravaged though they may be, represent nearly 60% of Germany’s gross domestic product. This is the very definition of too big to fail.

Meanwhile Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank, which has lost nearly 40% of its market value this year, has just announced a desperate reorganization plan. It’s firing 10,000 people and downsizing operations in a manner that strikes some as more like butchery than surgery. Moreover, the seven Landesbanken are hemorrhaging capital because the global shipping industry, in which they are heavily invested, is imploding.  

Germany is hardly the only country whose banks are deeply troubled right now. This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — comprising 34 member democracies committed to improving world trade — issued a stern warning about pursuing toward the brink of disaster the policies that led to the crash of 2009. The warning was not only to Germany, but to Japan and the United States as well.

 “These developments [i.e. the awful performances of banks and corporations] exacerbate the challenges to improving well-being of people in both advanced and emerging economies.” The problem for the OECD is this: people are consumers, and if consumers don’t do well, they can’t consume enough, and in consumption-based economies, that’s a cardinal sin.”

The central banks, it seems to me, are trying to feed the wrong end of the horse; stuffing perfectly good hay in places where it doesn’t belong, while the animal starves. Making sure the banks and corporations have tons of money to play with, when they don’t use it to make products or hire people, helps no one but people who do not need help.

Of course, enormous forces are at work propping up these zombie banks and their pretensions, staving off any day of reckoning until the day after tomorrow, just as they were doing in 2008. How did that work out for them, anybody remember? But whatever they do, they cannot change the fact that out where stuff is manufactured, and shipped, and sold, the temperature is falling, the pipes are freezing up, and a new Ice Age has taken hold. Stop expecting us to congratulate you for giving away free ice cubes.

[Now, as the world churns, we return you to our regularly scheduled news programs, featuring Donald’s sniffles, Hillary’s emails and who’s running for president in 2020?]

SEE ALSO: “They’re Parking the Trains and the Ships and Planes…”
“World Trade is Coming to a Halt.”

RIP Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison: 1928-2016

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on September 27, 2016

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mollison-credo

I never knew Bill Mollison. I have known of him for only a few years. But his vision has touched — in fact, transformed — the core of my being. As long as I live I will honor him for a vision that has vastly improved the way I understand and react to the world, a vision that could have vastly improved the world itself, had we listened to him in time.

Mollison, along with Boll Holmgren and others, was a principal founder of the  Permaculture movement, a way of looking at agriculture with emphasis on symbiosis among plants, including trees and other perennials; the soil, with its myriad components and organisms; and the climate with its gifts of rain, wind and sunshine. This contemplative way of farming — permanent agriculture — has since its advent in Australia in 1968 morphed into a way of looking at life itself — permanent culture.

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Bill Mollison, father of Permaculture


The most important thing about the way Bill Mollison thought about the world, in my view, was this: he was not an expert. In his life he was a baker, a trapper, a fisherman, a forester, a cattleman, a bouncer and a mill worker. Sure, he got an academic degree, and spent time in academia, but not, as experts do, learning more and more about less and less. He was a generalist, who when he looked at life saw a marvelous web of relationships, not a simplified, straight-line diagram of causes and effects.  

What Bill Mollison saw when he looked at the world was what the native American Lakota called “Wakan Tanka” — the Great Mystery. Permaculture teaches us to study the processes of nature at great length, but not, as modern humanity supposes, thinking we can understand it completely and take over its management, but in the hope we can learn enough to get out of its way, avoid destroying it, maybe even one day make a contribution to its well being.

The practice of Permaculture as codified by Mollison requires us to shed like old snakeskins many of the attitudes and assumptions that are so basic to modern life we seldom think about them, let alone question them. Before we can even begin the practice, for example, we and our family have to make a multi-generational commitment to live on and work with a piece of land, because much of the abundance to be had from Permaculture may not appear in our lifetimes. In a country where people move every three years, on average, this is a strange concept.  

The practice of Permaculture, Mollison taught us, requires less and less work over time. One puts things in place, and then lets them be. One gradually returns to the life most familiar to the human race over hundreds of thousands of years, that of the hunter-gatherer. And instead of the life of grueling labor and frequent famine, described by the apologists for chemical-industrial agriculture, it turns out to be a life of ease and plenty. Sort of like the Garden of Eden, before we brought in Monsanto.

The prospect of surviving the crash of the industrial age is more than daunting when we think about growing our own food (and defending it) in the ways that have become familiar to us in the past two centuries. But those who have a mature food forest with which to face the days after tomorrow have much less to fear from either deprivation or depredation. (It’s what made the potato the staple food of Ireland; hay and corn and livestock and preserved food were easy for the omnipresent British soldiers to steal or destroy, but it was just too much damn work to dig all those potatoes.)

So thank you, Bill Mollison, for opening my eyes to the Great Mystery, for relieving my mind of the lust to comprehend nature in order to control it, freeing me to simply sit in the midst of the Great Orchestra and hum along with delight. You came to me too late, as you came to the world too late, to save us from the consequences of our arrogance and greed, but not too late to give us, in what would otherwise have been an unbearably Dark Age at the closing of our lives, a lustrous hope for renewal.

Accept the thanks of a grateful world, Bill Mollison, and rest in peace.

Oil Company Carnage Continues

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on September 12, 2016

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When an oil well like Deepwater Horizon explodes, the images are unforgettable. When the entire industry starts to collapse, it’s hard to see and to remember.

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deepwater-horizon

 

 

 

When an oil well like Deepwater Horizon explodes, the images are unforgettable. When the entire industry starts to collapse, it’s hard to see and to remember.

In a recent essay I proposed the existence of a new human subspecies – homo sapiens ephemera — that is smart (thus sapiens) but severely afflicted by attention deficit disorder and long-term memory loss. Thus ephemera may understand, for example, the connection between a burning fuse at his feet and an imminent explosion, but almost immediately forgets it, goes on to something else, and is surprised by the blast. Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in the U.S. oil patch, whose collapse, predicted here and elsewhere for years, is now described by none other than Moody’s Investors Service, quoted in Bloomberg News as “catastrophic” and perhaps “the worst bust of any industry this century.”

 

Does anybody remember the Savings and Loan debacle? The Enron (“smartest guys in the room”) implosion? The Dot-Com collapse? And the Sub-Prime Mortgages that Ate the World? After each of these episodes, Ephemera slapped his slanted forehead and said, “Boy, that was dumb. But nobody could have seen it coming.” Put on your protective headgear, because it’s happening again.

When they came to you, Ephemera, and asked you to invest gazillions of dollars up front in the New American Oil Revolution, they talked about energy independence! and America, Number One! and everything back the way it was in 1950! But the burning fuse at your feet was about fracking wells that cost ten times that of a conventional oil well and play out nearly ten times faster, about exploding trains and polluted water and earthquakes, in a market that would soon devalue the product by 50%.

Of course you gave them the money. You bought their stock, you bought their bonds, you bought their junk bonds. You lent them money, and when they couldn’t pay it back you lent them more to roll over the debt, which almost immediately became enormous because every one of those expensive wells had to be replaced every three years. You let them convert your secured debt to unsecured debt, or to watered down stock, or to fairy dust. Now, according to Moody’s, there has finally been an explosion. Who could have seen that coming?     

Moody’s reports that twice as many oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt so far this year than did so in all of last year. Investors affected by these failures have seen an average 21 percent return. No, that’s not return on their investment, it’s return of their investment; they lost 80 per cent of their money. And those were secured lenders; junk-bond holders got back 6 cents for every dollar they invested.

Yet the fuse burns on. In the Bakken fracking field in North Dakota, for example, where no oil company has made any money, even when oil was priced at over $100 a barrel, where the total accumulated debt of the players is north of $30 billion, where production has been declining for over a year with oil prices below $50 and well below the cost of production — the zombie companies, almost all of them technically insolvent, continue to borrow operating money through such creative pitches as “distressed exchanges.”

The fuse burns faster, smokes even more, and doesn’t have much farther to go. What’s that? Hillary sneezed? Tell me more…..

World Trade Lost at Sea

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on September 12, 2016

container-ship

Containers crammed with electronics, clothing and other potential Christmas presents are stranded at sea by the bankruptcy of one of the world’s largest shipping lines. There's more to come. (Photo by NASA)

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homo sapiens, well, that’s another question, for another time.)

But the fact is that homo sapiens ephemera simply cannot grasp the fact that a long, slow-burning fuse, however boring it is to watch, almost always leads to a terrible explosion. By that time, ephemera has forgotten the fuse and is always surprised. (“Wow, no one could have seen that coming,” he says.)

So it is with globalized trade, the system set up to allow increasingly impoverished people to borrow money on their credit cards to buy cheap crap — made in China by totally impoverished and sometimes enslaved people — at their local MartMart store. The brilliance of the system is that while the people who make the crap and the people who consume it remain impoverished, the corporations that manufacture, finance, transport, market and insure the crap get filthy rich. (Stay with me, homo sapiens ephemera, something’s going to happen in the next graph, I swear.)

Teensy flaw in the operating theory: once the lower (formerly known as middle) class has spent all its money and maxed out all of its credit and lost all of its jobs to the truly impoverished in the Third World because they work for so much less, there’s nothing left with which to buy cheap crap. Consequently — make that inevitably —  global trade has been slowing steadily since 2010, which you may remember was Year Two of the Great Recovery from the Great Recession. (I know, Ephemera, I lied about something happening in this graph, the next one, I promise. Stay with me! Where’s a good clickbait writer when you need one? “Financial genius reveals shocking truth about global bikini trade! You won’t believe your eyes!!!”)  

Okay, now that I’ve got you for a few more seconds, here’s what’s happened. After years of telling you about the burning fuse [Global Recession Accelerating toward Depression last October,  World Trade is Coming to a Halt [UPDATED]  in January and  They’re Parking the Trains. And the Ships and Planes and Trucks… in May, to name a few] something has finally blown up. Not the whole enchilada yet, but a big chunk of it. The seventh largest container-ship operator in the world is insolvent.

Who gives a farthing? You do, that’s who, because as a result YOUR KIDS MAY NOT GET THIS YEAR’S MUST-HAVE, EVERYBODY-ELSE-HAS-ONE XMAS TOYS! Talk about Apocalypse Now.

 89 monster container ships owned by Hanjin Shipping Company, South Korea’s largest shipping line, were at sea when the company asked for bankruptcy protection from South Korean courts. Immediately, ports worldwide began refusing them permission to dock for fear they would be unable to collect docking fees. If they did dock, they would be unable to unload without paying upfront the costs of unloading. If they did unload the cargo would not be moved from the terminal unless shippers were paid in advance. And of course refueling the vessels would require cash in advance.

Fourteen billion dollars worth of cargo, much of it Christmas merchandise that must be unloaded so to make the peak shopping season that begins the day after Thanksgiving,  is stranded on ships that need over half a billion dollars in cash to cover current expenses. The company has raised $90 million, and has asked the South Korean government for an emergency loan of $90 million, but prospects for avoiding liquidation are bleak. The company needs another $1.2 billion almost immediately to roll over maturing debt, and having incurred staggering losses for four of the last five years, may not be able to do it.  

Hanjin is hardly alone. The world’s shipping industry has been losing serious money since last year, and is on track to lose $5 billion this year. Industry analysts attribute the losses to an oversupply of ships, but another way to put that is to blame it on an undersupply of cargo.

Although four Hanjin ships have been granted protection by US courts and have raised the money to unload their cargoes in the U.S., havoc continues to spread through global commerce where Hanjin is being seen as merely the first card to fall.

I know. It took too long to explain. Tune in tomorrow, homo sapiens ephemera, for the 140-character version.  

Let them Eat Twinkies

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on August 29, 2016

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let them eat twinkies

 

A change in food stamp benefits for up to a million people such as this one is affecting WalMart’s profits. Something must be done. (Photo by FaceMePLS/Flickr)

In this, the eighth successful year of our Glorious Recovery from the Great Recession, things are really looking up for the American Lower Class, formerly known as Middle. The unemployment rate as calculated by the U.S. Government (adjusted for inflation, seasonally adjusted, smoothed, combed and curried) is down to a piddling five per cent, which is regarded by the country-club set as better-than-full employment, because, they suspect, thousands of people are working against their will. Moreover, the number of able-bodied adults capable of working, but not working, classified as “not in the labor pool” and therefore not unemployed (and thus not included in the calculation of the unemployment rate) is only up to 95 million people.

 

Things are looking so good for poor people that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 of them are being dropped from SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, this year. Some 20 states are reinstating the three-month limit on benefits to adults 18-49 who are not disabled or raising children. Thus freed from a crippling dependency on government handouts, these poorest of the poor are doing much better now, many of them actually motivated to go out and create jobs — in the field of heroin marketing, for example.

Surprisingly, it turns out there’s a downside to cutting Food Stamp benefits. It has been a serious blow to the sales of WalMart and Dollar General Stores — the sector of the retail market known as the Bottom Feeders. In addition to the fact that the employees of these stores need Food Stamps to survive (witness WalMart’s warm-hearted annual drive to collect canned SpaghettiOs so their employees and their families can have a Christmas Dinner), it turns out that the stores also need Food Stamps to survive.

Dollar General last week reported an 18% drop in its stock price after it reported disappointing sales, and found itself in a price-cutting war with WalMart, all since the food stamp cuts started to materialize. DollarTree reported similar problems. Cutting prices on staple items will reduce profits further, of course, but the companies hope it will allow them to hang on to their customers until things get better. (As we all know, things always get better, always before the system breaks down. That rule is as inviolate as the one we all relied on in 2008, the one that said: housing prices never go down.)

As we wait for things to get better, we cannot help but notice that they are getting worse. A Google Consumer Survey conducted this month found that more than 60% of all Americans — not just the Lower Class — have less than $1,000 in total savings. And 20% don’t have any. None.

Forbes, the magazine of the 1%, immediately ran a piece debunking the claim. “It’s Simply Not True,” thundered the headline. After clearing its throat for a number of paragraphs, down near the end, the article admitted that well, yes, it was true, actually, but irrelevant because these people have credit cards, don’t they? They’ll be fine.

So you see the problem.  

Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos said last week he has been surprised to learn that while things seem to be getting better on the surface, they are most definitely not getting better down where his customers live. There, rents are expensive and rising, home ownership is out of the question, and so is health care insurance, while the costs of health care and medicines are skyrocketing. But Mr. Vasos known exactly where to place the responsibility, and find the hope. “Our core customer,” he said proudly, “is very resilient,” and will “figure it out over time.”

So now we know the solution.

The Luxury Cruise to the End of the World

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on August 24, 2016

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This is how you watch the end of the world — aboard the Crystal Serenity, marinating in luxury.

Sorry, you missed it. But if you had known about it — I don’t know why you didn’t get the memo — and if you had $120,000 lying around ($22,000 for steerage) you could have joined 1,000-plus passengers served by 700 crew on the first luxury cruise from Seward, Alaska to New York City via the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean. Once solid ice, the Northwest Passage became navigable in theory in 2007 because of climate change.

According to the brochure, the good ship Crystal Serenity is “an abomination—a massive, diesel-burning, waste-dumping, ice-destroying, golf-ball-smacking middle finger to what remains of the planet, courtesy of precisely 1,089 of its richest and most destructive inhabitants. And it’s all made possible by runaway climate change, the existential global crisis that these same people and their ilk have disproportionately helped to create.”

 

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, that’s not the brochure, that’s a report on the cruise from Slate.com written by Will Oremus. Damn, I wish I had said that.

What the brochure says is that this is “the ultimate expedition for the true explorer.” And that is certainly the case. Not many Arctic expeditions of the past have been conducted by people sleeping in luxurious suites, with access to “a spa, a fitness center, a hair salon, multiple swimming pools, six restaurants, a movie theater, a casino, a driving range” and a selection of “luxury shops”.  Only a “true explorer” would endure such limited access to gyms, restaurants and luxury shops in order to participate in an “historic voyage, one that marks the opening of one of Earth’s last frontiers.”

That these true explorers are intrepid is self-evident. Because there is, you know, a teensy bit of ice left in the Arctic Ocean, some of it in the form of bergs. They were required to take out a $50,000 emergency-evacuation insurance policy in order to board their expeditionary vessel. The policy has a one-year money-back guarantee. If rescuers don’t get to the ship within one year, your heirs don’t have to pay.

And if that were not enough of a reminder of the danger they are in, they cannot ignore the fact that they are being escorted by an icebreaker. It took “three years of planning and preparation,” gushed Business Times about this major advance in global gluttony, “to avoid any mishaps, including a repeat of the Titanic.” Yeah. That’s a quote.  

Yes, if only you hadn’t missed it, you too could have helped open this last frontier by being among the first few thousand people to defecate in some of the last pristine water on the planet. You could have taken a comfortable helicopter tour to watch the last polar bear drown. Or set a personal best by watching Batman v Superman north of the Arctic Circle.

“Not everyone is hailing the high profile voyage,”  marvels Business Times. It’s not like Crystal Cruises is insensitive to the environment: they have assured everyone that they will not dump their sewage within 12 miles of land. (They were one of four cruise lines that drew special criticism in a 2014 Friends of Earth study that estimated that cruise ships dump a billion gallons of sewage into the world’s oceans every year.)

Still, the tree-huggers are not satisfied. There’s just something about the thought of this 820-foot long, 13-deck high monstrosity ploughing through Arctic waters belching diesel exhaust and gushing sewage for the entertainment of some rich dilettantes that bothers them.

Go figure.

Airlines Stricken by Technology Cancer

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on August 13, 2016

Plane-Crash

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It was by all accounts a small problem, a little overheating last Monday in the electronic jungle that is the Technology Command Center for Delta Airlines at its Atlanta headquarters. This minor overheating event — okay, “fire” if you insist — caused a nearby voltage-control module to spasm and allow a surge to hit a transformer, which immediately shut down the power supply. No worries, there’s an app for that. It’s called a switchgear, and its job is to sense a power failure and immediately switch the circuit to a backup power source.

The switchgear didn’t work.

Instantly, much of the computer network with which the world’s largest airline tracks and controls its  planes, employees, and ticketed passengers worldwide, crashed. Airplanes on the ground were stopped in place. Aircraft in the air landed at their destination, and parked. A thousand flights had to be cancelled, tens of thousands of passengers were stranded in parked airplanes and airports. Another 500 flights were cancelled on Tuesday, and the airline continued five days later to struggle toward normalcy.

This is hardly an unprecedented event:

  • In July, Southwest Airlines lost its network for 12 hours and had to cancel 2,300 flights over four days. The failure of a single router brought the system down, and it took 12 hours to reboot it.
  • In September of 2015, an American Airlines system glitch stopped its flights to and from its hubs at Chicago, Dallas and Miami.
  • In April of 2013, a national computer outage at American Airlines wiped out a third of its scheduled flights.
  • August, 2012 – United Airlines experienced a two-hour crash of its computer systems that affected 10 per cent of its flights.

Note that the frequency of these events has gone from fewer than one a year (remember that each event costs the airline tens of millions of dollars and the passengers — well, who knows what it costs the passengers?) to two so far this year. Does anybody know why? Of course. Everybody involved knows why:

  • Each airline’s system was built in the 1990s. One of the basic assumptions was that it could be shut down at night for repairs and maintenance. Now the systems are global and it’s always daytime somewhere. The system is like an airplane that can’t land, and has to be fixed and maintained in flight.
  • Since then, the numbers of passengers and aircraft have grown exponentially. Patches and add-ons have been required so that the software can contain, search, sort and otherwise manipulate ever larger masses of data.
  • There have been numerous mergers, requiring that individual, proprietary systems be modified so that they communicate and work with each other.
  • Outside systems and networks — Internet travel agents and ticket sellers, for example, have demanded access to the airlines’ systems. Adding them to an oversized network while maintaining security has not been easy.

After 20 years of slapdash growth, Frankenstein grafts, temporary fixes, plug-ins, add-ons and extension cords, each airline has a system that is too big to fix, and increasingly prone to fail. You can’t fix it because it has to keep going, and it can’t keep going unless you fix it. You can’t afford to fix it, and you can’t afford not to.

This is Stage Four Technology Cancer, and it’s not affecting just the computer reservation and scheduling systems. A recent survey of maintenance personnel for the South American Airline LATAM revealed increasing worry about the effects of cuts in the numbers and qualifications of maintenance personnel, to save money. Giving credence to those worries, another study shows that since 2010, fewer than two commercial airliners per year have crashed worldwide. That was a worse record than that of the previous several years. So far in 2016, three airliners have crashed. The numbers are small so far, but the trend is in the wrong direction.   

This is what technology cancer does; it grows without restraint until it threatens the survival of its host. If its host is the sort who refuses to have surgery because it’s too inconvenient, death ensues.

The Days After Tomorrow 6 & 7

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on July 19  & August 1, 2016

Mount-Rushmore-Native_Chiefs

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#6 They Voted with their Feet

[This is one of a series of meditations on what we might have learned, and might still learn, from the history of Native Americans about how to live without modern technology and industry, which we may have to do in the near future.]

de Crevecouer

 

 

 

This is a noble Frenchman who fought in the French and Indian War. He thought Indian culture was “far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”

If you say anything complimentary about historic Native American life, you will be told that you are buying into the myth of the Noble Savage, you are mis-applying modern sensibilities to Stone Age history, and are thus constructing in your mind a Disney movie about a Mad Max era. It’s a hard criticism to answer. How, indeed, can we overweight, sedentary keyboard crunchers come to any valid conclusion about life as hunter-gatherers without iPhones?

Turns out, we have a few witnesses. Here’s one. “The American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.” Can you hear the sneers? Obviously, this is some bleeding-heart academic New Age liberal with no knowledge of history, right? Wrong. That’s Thomas Paine, a founding father of the United States, writing in 1795 while the Indian Wars raged in the Midwest.

Paine, an Englishman, thought there was something off about his own culture. He wondered whether “civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man,” and pointed out that “the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.” Obviously, Mr. Paine thought there were things we could learn from the Native Americans.

A decade earlier, the French aristocrat (!) and veteran of the French and Indian War, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecouer (he later anglicized his name) observed of the natives, “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” So here we have a contemporary noble calling the savages superior.

What gave rise to his comment was a long-standing concern of white European settlers in the New World. The kind of concern they did not even like to talk about, for it struck at the very roots of their perception of themselves.  

[Although I have been reading and writing about this period of history for decades, I had never come across a discussion of it until Sebastian Junger’s excellent new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Here it is on Amazon. Read it.]

The problem emerged practically on contact. In 1612, just five years after the founding of Jamestown in Virginia, authorities noted with dismay that fully 40 or 50 white settlers, all born in Europe, male and female, had chosen to marry into an Indian tribe. Efforts to prohibit and punish these choices, to forcibly return those who had made them to their “civilized” homes, were many; attempts to understand why they made such choices were few.

But one colonial woman told a French questioner: “I am the equal of all the women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone saying anything about it, I work only for myself, I shall marry if I wish and be unmarried again if I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in any of your cities?” Is there, in any civilized city, today?

The most well known of the women who voted with their feet for Native American life was Mary Jemison. She actually was abducted as a teenager from her family’s Pennsylvania farm during the French and Indian War. But soon after she was adopted by a Seneca family, she realized she was where she wanted to be, and actually hid from a posse sent to bring her back.

Why? She explained to a minister who wrote a best selling book about her: “We had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased. No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace…their lives were a continual round of pleasures.” Mary Jemison remained, by her choice, a Seneca until she died at the age of 90.

How many Mary Jamisons were there? There is no way to know, but according to Jean de Crevecouer, writing in 1782, “thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no example of even one of those aborigines having by choice become European.”

Another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, agreed. “When an Indian child has been brought up among us,” he wrote to a friend in 1753, on the eve of the French and Indian War, “taught our language and habituated to our customs...if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”   

In their own words, from their own time, the people who knew best both the white settlers and the native tribes will tell us if they are consulted that there are indeed ways to live well without technology, that the tribes knew many of those ways, and that we could still learn them.

#7 To Put Away Childish Things

Vision Quest

 

 

 

Initiation rites almost always began with a long period of solitude, deprivation, even pain. All the things a parent tries to keep from a child, imposed to teach life’s important lessons. (Photo by SacredLivingInstitute .com)

[This is one of a series of meditations on what we might have learned, and might still learn, from the history of Native Americans about how to live without modern technology and industry, which we may have to do in the near future.]

We modern white Europeans have discarded most of the ways humans have devised to preserve their societies over hundreds of thousands of years. Clans, extended families, true community, ceremonies and rituals promoting awareness of connections among the people, the natural world and the spirit world — all are pretty much gone. Disabling our own society, and destroying the natural world on which it depends, have become the things we do best. If we are to start over, after our ultimate group failure, we must learn again how societies — such as the Native Americans — successfully preserved themselves for thousands of years.

One of the most important — and most universal — of the preservation techniques was the initiation rite. Humans found out early that the span of one lifetime was not enough time to gain wisdom. Elders had to pass on hard-won life lessons to the young, sometimes with stories, sometimes by example, and sometimes with a good hard cuff upside the head. Or, in other words, an initiation rite.

Father Richard Rohr, the world-famous Franciscan proponent of mystical Christianity, has researched initiation rites all over the world and has distilled their content into five essential lessons. They are lessons that it would take an unaided adolescent years to stumble over, and are considered so important that they must be learned before a young man’s life can  properly begin. Hence, the initiation rite.

Before we consider what the lessons were, let’s consider for a moment the basic assumptions we moderns impress on our young people to get them off to a good start:

  • You are special — no, make that unique. There is no one like you in the whole wide world. Other people are plain and slow and below average compared to you.
  • Because you are so special, your life is going to be a breeze. You can be anything you want to be, and achieve anything you set your sights on. Life will reward you for being special, you know, like those trophies you got in school for just showing up, and life will always yield to your control.
  • If you control your diet, and exercise, and take your supplements, you will live fore….you will never d….well, you know. No need to talk about that.

Primitive people would have considered it to be child abuse to tell that many lies to a young person. Instead, they devised ceremonies to impress a completely different set of assumptions, first by imposing serious pain and privation. It was their duty, they thought, to introduce young people to suffering because it was going to be a part of their lives and they needed to get used to it. Suffering, they knew, is a great teacher, and anyone who spent their life avoiding pain, even though they would not succeed, would delay too long learning the lessons that it brings.

In Father Rohr’s summation, the initiation ceremony as practiced by most of the humans who have ever lived over most of the time that humans have been around, stripped of minor cultural differences, imparted five fundamental lessons:

  1. Life is hard. In many Native American rites, the novitiate first had to embark on a vision quest, living alone in the wilderness and fasting until delirium began to produce hallucinations for later interpretation.
  2. You are not that important. Except as a part of your clan and the People, there is nothing special about you. Fr. Rohr says that all clans recognized that narcissism was a great enemy of the People.  
  3. Your life is not about you. Life is not a car you get to drive wherever you want to go, it’s a huge excursion bus that you were lucky enough to be able to board, and that will let you off at a time and place not of your choosing, because
  4. You are going to die. And
  5. You are not in control.

I am not advocating a reinstatement of such initiation rites in our world. For one thing, I fear the legal system would not be able to accommodate it. But I do think, as night falls on the monumental failures of the industrial age, we consider what primitive people taught their children, and what we have been teaching ours. Given our track record, some adjustments might be in order.

Technology is Now a Cancer. Stage Four. Metastasized.

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on the Daily Impact on July 18, 2016

junkyard-computer

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“New and improved” is now an oxymoron. Every single day my cell phone tells me that 10 or 20 apps have been “updated” and none of them ever work better. Instead, a phone that worked perfectly when I got it now tells me, 10 to 20 times a day, “Unfortunately, Moto has stopped.” The operating rule in technology for years now has been, if it isn’t broke, graft something onto it so we can advertise it as new and improved.

internet of things Why does every coffee maker come with a clock? Because consumers have been banging their pitchforks on the iron gates of the appliance companies, chanting “We want clocks!”? No. They do it because they can. Likewise with variable-strength settings, and delayed-start. Now they’re connecting the coffee pots to the Internet of Things so we can talk to them about coffee with our smartphones. I don’t want to discuss coffee with my coffee pot. I just want a damn cup of coffee.  

Okay the examples so far are trivial. These aren’t:

  • More cars broke down and stranded their occupants on the road in 2015 than in any year on record. The main culprit, according to AAA: technology.
  • Farmers in several states are campaigning to win the right to repair their own machines, while manufacturers claim the farmers only lease the technology that makes the thing run, and any problem has to be handled by a certified technician in a company-owned service center. Tell a farmer that when, in harvest time, his $400,000 combine is sitting silent in a field containing his annual income for lack of a 100-dollar oxygen sensor. Then  step back.
  • Long-haul truckers are desperate to escape the rising costs of technology — some of it mandated to control emissions. “The engines and drive trains of these new trucks are good for a million miles, easy,” one operator told me. “But the technology starts shutting them down after about 20,000 miles.” Nothing like having a refrigerated 18-wheeler stopped on an Interstate ramp in Florida because a crankshaft-position sensor is hallucinating.
  • Now comes the Internet of Things, featuring devices connected to the Internet via your Wifi system so you can use your smart phone to feed your dog, adjust the thermostat in your empty house, adjust your refrigerator temperature (something I personally have not done more than twice in 50 years), adjust the lighting in your empty house, and other necessary things.

There is no question that automobiles, for example, are far better today than they were 30 years ago, mainly because of improvements in the machining of engine and drive-train parts. We used to have to drive a car a thousand miles at painfully slow speeds to “seat” the valves and rings and bearings, which meant, let them bang against each other until they fit better. Even when properly broken in, and most of us didn’t wait to exceed 60 miles per hour, it was rare for an engine to last 100,000 miles. Now, precision tools have done away with the break-in period, and at least tripled the life expectancy of engines. Score one for technology.

Now consider the matter of the ignition key. Was this a huge problem? Were people calling customer service and demanding a black box with a battery in it to carry around, instead of a key?

Never mind. Here’s your black box, because the engineers are proud of it and the marketers think it has legs. Forget about worrying where your keys are, just leave the box in the car. (Whoops. Kills the car battery. Which disables the car locks. Which you need to operate to get at the battery. Snag.) Okay, leave it on a shelf inside the house. (Which might be close enough to the car to allow you to start it and leave, not discovering that you don’t have the box until you get where you’re going and shut off the car. Snag.)

As we patch and fix and tinker to deal with such unintended consequences, and add on the newest insane ideas of the engineers, the software required to run a car has become bloated and bug-bitten. It takes 100 million lines of software to get you on your way. All of Facebook operates on 60 million lines.

In fact, according to a new book  Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, the sheer size of these programs, with their fixes and patches and now interactions over Wifi and Internet networks, is exceeding the ability of the human mind to comprehend them. Hm. Sounds like it’s time for driverless cars. What could go wrong?

Moreover, the opportunities for malware have been increased by orders of magnitude. It is now possible to insert an infected CD in a car’s player which, when played, will disable the car’s brakes.

And the growth goes on. In every field of endeavor, the engineers and the marketers high-five each other every time they come up with some new feature that nobody needs, but everybody can be convinced they ought to have. (“No, really! It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”)

There is nothing in nature that grows continuously except cancerous tumors that eventually kill their hosts. That is what technology is doing now — getting so big and ponderous that it is beginning to endanger the systems it was supposed to be helping. 

Let the (Wile E. Coyote) Games Begin

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on the Daily Impact on July 18, 2016

wile e coyote

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What will be the trigger that detonates the final implosion of the industrial age? The betting is always changing, and a new and unexpected candidate has just presented itself as a possibility. The traditional destructors — scarce and/or expensive fuel, shortages of food and/or water, rising sea levels, spreading drought, violent weather and the like — are lined up like dominoes and will eventually fall onto each other in a final wave goodbye. But who will go first? With such musings do we beguile the time as we wait. This is how to get Dallas, and New Orleans, and Nice off our minds, we’ll think about Rio de Janeiro and the Olympics. 

This is the power of Business As Usual: The engines of our industrial universe are all running at full speed in exactly the way you and I drive a car whose gas gauge is on empty. “Driving on fumes,” we say as we hold the accelerator down, refuse to think about what could happen any second,  and scan the road ahead for a gas station. We know one will appear in time. It’s the same faith that keeps Wile E. Coyote aloft after he has run  off the edge of the cliff. But even in the cartoons, it only works until the coyote looks down.

In our real, increasingly cartoonish world,  it is possible for example to levitate the stock markets to ever new highs as long as no one looks down at the hideous price-earnings ratios, the bloated inventories, the cancerous debt, the rising flood of defaults and bankruptcies. Admit those realities, and coyote falls. Same with the oil bidness, with quantitative easing, negative interest rates, rotting infrastructure. They are all coyotes, windmilling desperately in mid-air, trying not to look down.  

So wouldn’t it be a hoot if the whole global edifice were cracked accidentally by a sporting event? Specifically, the 2016 Olympics, about to open in Rio de Janeiro? I’m not predicting it, I’m just saying…

They are about to open despite the fact that everybody in the world with a lick of sense is saying don’t do it, it’s not worth it. If it were a normal Olympics in a normal place and time, it still probably wouldn’t be worth it. The notion that hosting the Olympics is good for the host city and country has been thoroughly discredited.  [See “Does Hosting the Olympics Really Pay Off?The New York Times, and “Nobody Wants to Host the 2022 Olympics,” Business Insider.]

Yet despite the lack of an obvious payoff, the Masters of the Olympics Universe — which is to say the select few who will make billions from the games — are determined that the games begin, despite a rising sea of troubles. Let’s review:

  1. Often touted as a way to showcase triumphant emerging economies and societies, these games will showcase a country whose economy is tanking, whose president has been impeached, whose crushing deficit will be almost doubled by the cost of these olympics. So they are hosting the games to showcase what, again?
  2. Brazil is a hotbed for the newly dangerous zika virus, spread via mosquito bites and associated with ghastly birth defects. The half million visitors expected at the games will risk zika infection themselves, and risk spreading the virus around the world. The fact that it’s winter in Rio reduces the mosquito threat somewhat, but on the other hand it turns out the virus is spread by sexual contact. Point counterpoint.
  3. Rio de Janeiro dumps raw sewage into it waterways, which flow into the ocean and onto the beaches. The waters on which olympic athlete will sail and row, in which they will swim, are very badly polluted, with everything from human fecal matter to human body parts..
  4. Make that very, very badly polluted. Scientists have discovered super-bacteria — resistant to antibiotics — teeming in the waters off Rio’s spectacular, and soon to be teeming, beaches.
  5. And what may we infer about the infrastructure? A new railroad line to move tourists to the famous beaches and back opened June 1 and was closed down a few days later when the power failed. They’re working on it. And an $3-billion-dollar subway extension considered critical to moving people among venues, residences and attractions will probably be open in time but it will not have been tested. So what could go wrong?  A section of a spectacular new bicycle-racing track broke off and fell into the ocean.
  6. As for public safety, travelers arriving in Rio by air have recently been greeted with large signs saying “Welcome to Hell” and warning them that the police and firefighters cannot protect them, for lack of money. The signs were put there by the police and firefighters. The province that pays them has declared a “state of catastrophe”

But the Games are an enormous industry, and as long as they continue to pay huge dividends to the select few, they will continue. Until they precipitate a disaster so murderous, destructive and pointless that the coyote falls. That could be the moment that, shocked into reality, all the coyotes fall.

 

The Days After Tomorrow 5: None So Blind

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Think the days of arrogant white ignorance are over? Consider that just a few weeks ago, American Geek-in-chief Bill Gates grandly offered to give Bolivia, which he referred to as a poverty stricken country, 100,000 chickens. (Sort of a “Let them eat eggs” statement — or, with a little extra trouble, cake.) Bolivia, it turns out, has a thriving economy, exports 36 million chickens a year, produces nearly 200 million. But thanks anyway, Great White Father.

 

Published on The Daily Impact on July 7, 2016


This is one of a series of meditations on what we might have learned, and might still learn, from the history of Native Americans about how to live without modern technology and industry, which we may have to do in the near future.]

One cannot answer a question that has not been asked (if you are a parent, you know exactly what I mean). And one cannot ask a question of which one cannot conceive. Thus does ignorance remain locked in place. Before we can learn anything useful from or about any other culture, we have to remove any blinders that prevent us from conceiving of questions: things like bigotry, racism, intolerance, delusions of superiority and exceptionalism, convictions of a special and exclusive relationship with God.

Fellow white Europeans, we have some work to do. The toxic brew that characterizes our relationships with others races did not begin with our contact with Native Americans, but it sure reached a kind of an apex before our mutual story was done. We can’t atone for that behavior, of course. But it would be good if we would stop it.

Columbus set the bar by mistakenly calling the first people he saw on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean “Indians,” because that’s what he was looking for, and in his culture, believing was seeing. That was just the beginning of the ignorance.  As European traders, explorers and then settlers began moving inland, they would get to know a tribe, eventually become aware of another tribe some distance away, and would ask their hosts, “Who are they?” “Oh, you’d better steer clear of them,” would come the reply, “they are rattlesnakes, (pronounced Iroquois).” Or, “You mean those people out west? They are cutthroats (Sioux). The ones down south? Cannibals (Mohawk).” Almost all the names assigned to the tribes of North America were in fact vile pejoratives, often words from a language other than their own. (And today, the PC Police get overwrought about the Washington “redskins.”)

Anyone who cared could find out that each tribe referred to itself as “The People,” perhaps with some modifier. The “Iroquois” were the People of the Longhouse (Haudenosaunee); the “Sioux” were just the People (Lakota); and the “Mohawks” were the True People (Ongwe Honwe). But who cared?

Is there any right more fundamental to human dignity than the right to be called by your own name, in your own language? Is there any worse insult than refusing to do that? But wait, there’s more.

Every Native American had an identity with two parts; asked for it, he or she would offer a name and a clan. One’s clan membership was as vital to knowing who a person was, as our last names are, to us. Clan membership determined who one could and could not marry. It was the clan that defined and preserved and passed on the behaviors and beliefs that comprised the character of its members. Hardly any white people knew then, or know to this day, that the clans even existed.

Moreover, most of the clans in North America were matrilineal, meaning:

  • when a couple married, they went to live with the wife’s clan;
  • when a child was born, it was born into its mother’s clan;
  • when a person died, any possession or title that could be inherited —  not many could — went to daughters, not sons.
  • a child was taught the ways of the clan, i.e. virtually everything about life, from how to hunt to how to cook to how to dress, by aunts or uncles who were fellow clan members. Fathers, who were not,  had little to do with their progeny, but had major responsibilities for their sisters’ offspring.

Think what this means for the Europeans’ attempts to establish religious and political authority by invoking — as they did constantly for centuries — to the presumed authority of a “great white father” residing somewhere overseas, or in Washington, or in heaven. If you ever come across a carefully done transcript of an exchange of views between whites and natives, you will note that when the natives wish to convey respect they use the appellation “uncles.” And their responses to the notion that they are in the care of a “great white father” fairly drip with sarcasm.  

“Hey, lighten up,” I can hear someone calling. “Why are you so down on your ancestors for not knowing enough about Indians? They didn’t have Google.”

Well, I am down on them, and the culture they bequeathed us,  not only because its baked-in bigotry enabled one of the most evil episodes of genocide in the history of the world — but because the habit of racist condescension is still here, still killing people, still poisoning relations among people of color and white people everywhere..

We fought and lost a terrible war in Vietnam convinced that the people of Vietnam were allied with the people of China against us; in fact, they had been mortal enemies for a thousand years. We fought our longest war, in Afghanistan, and our dumbest, in Iraq, with little knowledge of the religious sects and familial clans that are central to life in those countries.

If we can’t change our own culture’s nature, change its tendencies to racism, violence, exploitation and greed, we have no hope of a better future. Because bound as we are by chains of traditional ignorance, we can’t even see the multitude of paths that could lead us to a better place.

Fortunately, the ignorance I’ve been describing was then and is now dominant, but not universal. There is another thing that happened during our early history with Native Americans that is virtually unknown, and has immense significance for our present inquiry. We’ll get to that, next time.

 


Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.

Bored on the Fourth of July

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on the Daily Impact on July 1, 2016

https://faithspear.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/independence-day-image-c.jpg

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beach closed “Hi, Twits and Likees and BFFs. Can’t find the right emoticon for our family’s bummer of a long weekend. As you know, because we’ve been posting about it all year, we planned the trip of a lifetime to Florida’s Treasure Coast beaches over the 4th. But when we got there the beaches were covered with a green, toxic, smelly curd that some genius compared to guacamole but I never saw an avocado tree anywhere so that doesn’t make any sense.

“They said it was algae, washed out of Lake Okeechobee, which apparently has been turned into like a yuge septic tank with a 35-square-mile algae mat that is getting more and more toxic and now heavy rains have like flushed it south to the ocean. And the gunk is all over the beaches of four counties. It’s not just that you shouldn’t swim in the water, you shouldn’t touch it. The governor, Rick Scott, has declared states of emergency and says it’s Obama’s fault.

“Well, here we were, and it’s Florida, right, so we headed over the the Panhandle for some abbreviated Fun in the Sun. And eight beaches in the Florida Panhandle were closed because of elevated toxic fecal bacteria readings. Yeah, I didn’t know what that was either until a guy explained it to me. “The shit,” he said, “has hit the sand.”

We kept going west, looking for a place to get in the water, but Sea lice infestations have purple warning flags up at South Walton and Santa Rosa Beaches in the Florida Panhandle,  and they are moving west towards Alabama. They’re not really lice, it turns out, but the stinging larvae of stinging jellyfish, and they turn your skin into a reenactment of a California wildfire. So we kept going.

Half of the beaches tested in Louisiana were posted, as were 15 beaches in Texas, mostly around Galveston. The Chambers of Commerce were relentless in insisting that everything was okay. Galveston officials, for example, insisted that their beaches were not “closed.” They were simply labelled as places where, if you went in the water, you should expect to experience nausea, rashes, asphyxia, bleeding and death. The good news trumpeted by several tourist organizations was that although their waters were teeming with dangerous bacteria, flesh-eating bacteria did not appear to be among them. Or brain-eating bacteria. That was the good news.

We were getting pretty desperate now, with the long weekend mostly gone. A check of the Internet showed beaches posted in New York, New Jersey, all along the coast. At Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, officials have erected permanent signs — they’ve been up since 2007 — advising against swimming because of frequent, dangerously high bacteria levels.

Se we gave up, and decided to go home and spend a few hours hanging out around our hot tub.

What? Get in it? Are you crazy? We live in Flint, Michigan.

Anyways. Happy Birthday, America. Is this a great country? Or what.

Peak History

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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history

Published on The Daily Impact on June 14, 2016


We live in a country whose citizens — make that residents — are increasingly averse to complicated thought, indifferent to veracity, and reductionist in their thinking (every thing and every thought and every person is and must be either one kind of thing, or another kind of thing, no additional choices allowed). In such a country history has few friends.

History is too hard. You have to find out what happened, and then you have to figure out the context of the events — what led up to them and what followed — so you can tease out their significance for your time and place, and even after doing all that it may not be clear. Far easier to decide first what history means, and look up a few facts to “prove” it. Works for Fox News. And what they have made of journalism, we are making of history.

The stories of contemporary history are short and punchy, crafted for an audience suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder; their lessons are simple and obvious, as befits an audience capable of obeying rules, not of evaluating them — you know, nine-year-olds. (Soon we will have a population of adults who will not cross the street without holding a grown-ups hand, because, you know, that’s the rule.)

A recent case in point: the American Civil War. It is now almost universally spoken of as a war that was about only one thing, slavery. Knowing that, as all right-thinking folks do, it follows that everyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting to maintain slavery. Period. Because they were wrong to do so, a very popular line of “thinking” goes, we should scrub from our history and our world every vestige of their existence, eliminating their flag from our sight, rooting out and destroying their statues from our county seats and capitals (you know, like ISIS is doing in the cradle of civilization) and reducing their biographies to simplistic diatribes.

Now we could see in this an evil hand, an intent to make sure that our children never learn that good people fight in bad wars for good reason,  that bad people support good wars for bad reasons, that causes and outcomes are complicated, and can be both good and bad at the same time. Because if they do learn that, they are far less likely to allow some tinhorn president to fight any damn war he wants to for trumped-up reasons.

But the reality is probably dumber than that. While I was trying to figure out how to express my view of it, Ken Burns did it better, not the first time that has happened. He delivered the commencement speech to this year’s graduates of Stanford University (damn him, he still looks too young to be a graduate, let alone advise them). Most of the news coverage hyperventilated over his blistering condemnation of Donald Trump. But mostly he talked about history and our misuses of it:

… we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you—no—desperately needs you—to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

We are, in other words, in the grip of a terminal case of cultural Alzheimer’s Disease, increasingly unaware of the people around us, unable to remember where we came from and who we are, deprived, in other words, of the resources we need to set a rational course, we are reduced again to children who can only follow orders. So we grasp the nearest grown-up’s hand and await instruction.  


Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.

Brexit Brokit. Now Trumpit?

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on June 27, 2015

Scorpion and Tortoise

“All we need to do to get safely through this,” said the scorpion to the tortoise and the tortoise to the scorpion, “is be true to ourselves.” (Wikipedia Image)

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It was unthinkable that voters in the United Kingdom would elect to leave the European Union. And indeed, thinking was apparently not involved, because the very ones who did it are running around today screaming “WTF?WTF?” and asking please, sir, could they have a do-over? It is unthinkable that voters in the United States would ever, likewise, place their country in the hands of a President Donald Trump. Go ahead, take a minute and try. See? You cannot think it. Doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.

The Brexit referendum was set in motion by British Masters of the Universe, personified by Prime Minister David Cameron, to demonstrate how silly it was to think the British people would ever want to leave the EU. Well, as our own Alexander Hamilton observed, “Your people, sir, is a great beast!” And the people of the UK reacted to their opportunity as if they were the cast of The Game of Thrones: they handed the prime minister a plate, put his newly severed head upon it, and gave his family a few days to clear their stuff out of No.10 Downing Street.

It all brings to mind the fable of the scorpion and the frog (or the tortoise in older versions), in which the scorpion begs the frog to carry him over the flooded river. The frog protests that he is afraid the scorpion will sting him to death, to which the scorpion replies, “That would not be in my interest, if I killed you I would drown.” Reassured, the frog takes the scorpion on board and starts swimming. Halfway across the river, the frog feels the dreadful shock of the scorpion’s sting. Just before slipping under water, the frog mumbles a single question: “Why.” “It’s just my nature,” murmurs the drowning scorpion.

The thing is, in the Brexit story, I cannot figure out who is the scorpion and who represents the frog.

The Trumpit referendum was launched by the Donald, the perfect embodiment of greed, vanity, stupidity and hubris. The great beast responded by putting him on a great white horse, brandishing pitchforks and setting up a huge procession toward the Capitol, on the way making lists of people whose heads they intend to have. Unthinkable that he should triumph? Not any more it isn’t.

The great beast, you see, is in a very bad mood. In 1980, or thereabouts, the Masters of the Universe pulled off a great global coup d’etat, which disenfranchised ordinary people from the fruits of democracy by chaining the powers of government to the will of the wealthy and their corporations. They did not tell us about this coup, of course, they did their best to keep it from us, with everything from comic-book-action-hero movies, to football gladiator spectacles to screaming debates about the variations of sexual activity and identity. And, need we mention, pervasive dread of the threat of black and brown people who want nothing more than to kill us all in our beds.

But is is dawning now, on the great beast, who is not, frankly, the sharpest beast in the dungeon, that something has been done to him; that the Masters of the Universe are not only not taking care of him  but may be trying to kill him.  Or at the very least, are perfectly willing to let him die in the street without health care, or social security, or shelter, or mercy.

Yes, the Great Beast is annoyed, and when annoyed, is very strong, and likely to destroy things without rhyme or reason, and without the desired effect; that is why Brexit Brokit. Afterward, the Beast may regret his tantrum, as he surely will if he now goes on to Trumpit.

But, you see, it is his nature…..

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