Archive for December, 2008

Are we trapped on planet Earth?

2008/12/31

Until recently, no one gave any thought to what things would be like off-planet.  For one thing, the concept of off-planet is still pretty new, and it is so far from our everyday experience that most people are unable to imagine it.  We tend to think of anywhere at all as being like Earth, because Earth is all that we know.

Earth may be all that we know, but, unfortunately, Earth is not all that there is, unending, limitless.  Most of the place that we live, called the Cosmos, is empty space, totally opposite to what we think of as normal.  No one is exactly sure just how many solar systems there are, because we still cannot see that well far away.  But we do know one thing;  This solar system is ours to play with.  We don’t have to worry about the Martians complaining that we are mining the Earth’s moon too fast, nor do we have to avoid upsetting the folks from Jupiter.

We are alone here, in this tiny little island of dust drifting amidst the inifinite emptiness.  This is a good thing, because we will have to use all of the resources that we can find here to protect our home.  In all that we can see, even with the most powerful telescopes, there is no where besides Earth that we know of where people can walk unprotected under the open sky.  If we trash our spaceship, we will not be able to hitch a ride with anyone else.

But everything that we could conceivably need is right here in our solar system, just waiting to be picked up.  Energy practically beyond measure is ours courtesy of the Sun.  Raw materials and energy are the basic requirements of a civilisation.  What will we do with the opportunity that we have?  Will we create a better, more sustainable society, using goods manufactured off-planet?  Or, will we turn our backs on those riches above our heads, and go on grubbing in the dirt?cec

Education, or brainwashing?

2008/12/30

For some time now, it has been obvious that the approach to education used in the United States is not working.  Instead of rethinking that approach, we have continued to throw money at the problem, believing that it stems from poor quality instructors, or inferior text books, or the wrong size desks.  No one has seriously questioned the existing paradigm.

Yet, the American approach to mass education was born from a need for large numbers of factory workers, workers who could follow simple written instructions, and perform basic mathematical calculations.  Assembly lines resulted in assembly line schools, where every education was the same.  For a time, this system was hugely successful.  But, along about the 1960’s, it began to fail miserably.

By requiring that each student receive a ‘one size fits all’ education, creativity was stifled, risk taking was inhibited, and the potential of many students was never fulfilled.  The two most important things that a student learned in their 12 years of public education were ‘Be here on time’, and ‘Do what you are told’.  These are the traits that are essential for assembly line workers, because the line cannot start until every position is manned, and anyone not following procedures will ruin the work of everyone.

The introduction of television had a dramatic effect on education, but most educators refused to acknowledge this effect.  Attention spans decreased, and listening skills were neglected.  The standard model of one person lecturing to a class of 25 or 30 students was no longer was effective, because some of the students became bored too quickly, while others did not have the reading ability to keep up.

We now have the technology to educate every person in a unique, tailor- made fashion, emphasizing that person’s strengths, while building up their weak areas.  By using computers to teach subjects such as math, geography, and grammar, we could free up instructors for the one-on-one time that is so desperately needed in education today.  Instead of advancing students by class, we could have them develop proficiency while staying in a social group that they have come to know well.

We have the capability to make school something that kids would get excited about, and look forward to.  We could make it so that kids could learn at the rate that suits them, not one which is determined by the lowest common denominator.  The investment in technology would be small, compared to the expenses of dealing with dysfunctional citizens.  Teachers would still be a critical part of the education process, and would finally have the time to work with each student in the ways that would benefit that student the most.

There are very few assembly lines left in America, so I can’t see the rationale for educating our youth to work on one.  Insuring that every child can read and write at basic levels is not the solution to our crisis in education.  Insuring that every child is educated to the best of their abilities is the challenge that we face, if we wish to be a vital, energetic country in the future.

Should we keep our space program?

2008/12/30

As debate erupts over the future of manned space exploration in America, it is critical, I believe, to keep one fact in mind:  Both space shuttle disasters where entireley preventable, and both resulted from management decisions, not inherenent flaws in the vehicle design.  Yes, the vehicle is risky, but anything which travels  between 0 and 17,500 miles per hour is going to be dangerous.  Just getting in the family car is even more dangerous.

The shuttle Challanger was lost after NASA threw its own safety book out the window, for some reason, and went ahead with a launch under conditions which almost guaranteed that the vehicle would be lost, along with its crew.  The temperature overnight had fallen to about 28 degrees F., and had stayed below freezing for several hours.  The booster which was in the shade, the one one the right side, was still very cold at the time of the launch.  The huge ‘O’ rings which are used to seal the gaps between the rocket segments were too cold to be pliable, and the rings leaked.

The only reason that the spacecraft was lost was because it was flown when it was too darn cold.  And this temperature limitation was known and recognized, but was ignored for some reason.  If you put regular tires on a racing car, would you be surprised if they didn’t last very long?  Flying the shuttle that morning was tantamount to loosening the lug nuts on all four wheels of a car before taking it on the interstate.  Of course something is going to go wrong.

The loss of the Columbia was even more criminal.  Repeatedly, NASA management had been warned that insulating foam from the external tank was striking the orbiter, and that damage had occurred in sensitive areas.  One orbiter came back with a hole about the size of a lunch box in the leading edge of one wing, the same kind of damage that destroyed Columbia.  However, the management of NASA at the time felt that the problem could be dealt with during the process of preparing the shuttle for launch, and that the construction of external tanks did not need to be stopped until an answer to the foam problem was found.  The shuttles were kept flying, until a piece of foam punctured the wing of Columbia.

So, both shuttles were lost as a result of management error.  If operated properly, in the correct conditions, the shuttles have performed beautifully.  The only reason that retiring them has been chosen was because it would cost money to keep them flying, and the Bush administration wasn’t the least bit interested in space exploration.  Increasing the NASA budget 25 percent, to about 22 billion a year, would allow the shuttles to keep flying while the new generation of rockets are perfected.

Without the shuttles flying, any serious setback in the development of this new rocket could spell the end of the American space effort.  If we have to wait ten years to get back into space, we will probably just give up.  We are not likely to be the world’s leading maker of automobiles again, no matter how much we spend trying.  But we still are the best at manned space flight and exploration, and developing resources off-planet is the only long-term solution to our environmental problems.

Any view of the future which does not include off-planet exploration and development is seriously flawed, in my opinion.  The investment needed is really rather small,  far less than we spend building weapons which cannot keep us safe.  And the returns from that investment have historically been very high.  We need to make investments which will pay us back for years and years, so that our economy can grow into the debt that we have created.   Space travel is our bridge to the future, and that bridge is in danger of falling down.

Feeding the Greed.

2008/12/25

Greed is alive and well in the United States, in spite of the carnage that it has already caused.  Just recently, several homes were carried off of their foundations when a holding pond full of ash from a coal plant broke open.  This type of ash has been shown to be high in heavy metals, and calls have been made to sequester the waste product in isolated tanks.

But, because ash from coal-fired power plants constitutes the second-largest waste stream in the nation, behind solid waste, the utilities have managed to keep regulation light.  So, we get our power more cheaply, while incurring hidden costs that will not be known for generations, perhaps.  Substantially reducing power consumption in the United States is never even discussed, even though we are the most inefficient user of energy on the planet.

Consumption of energy generates wealth for a certain few, and those few are very powerful.  So they will resist efforts to reduce the amount of wealth that they can make in a year.  But, unless we begin to use some of that wealth to make things better for everyone, things are going to get a lot worse for everyone, even the rich and powerful.

Generating electricity using coal creates 129 million tons of ash, or combustion by-product, as it is called in the industry, every year.  Increasing coal use will increase this waste stream, which is already being handled at the absolute minimum cost.  Substantial evidence indicates that this waste is extremely toxic.  As storage costs increase, accidental releases are sure to increase.

Using energy always has costs, which are not always obvious.  The ‘clean’ hydro-electric damns of the American West have turned out to be environmental nightmares, destroying fish runs, impounding silt, and affecting aquifer renewal.  Using less energy to do more is the only way that we are going to be able to avoid a true energy crisis, one where the use of energy is so destructive to the environment that it cannot be allowed.

Simply maintaining our consumption levels to enrich a few wealthy individuals can not be sustained.  Public outcry is needed to overwhelm the power that wealth can throw at avoiding change.  We have got to stop feeding the Greed, and start putting Greed to work for us, instead of the few.  We don’t have to prevent anyone from making money, we just need to reduce the rate at which they are accumulating new wealth, because that wealth is coming out of our future.

Plug into what?

2008/12/25

The American auto industry has indicated that part of the recovery plan involves developing plug-in electric and hybrid cars.  This is a brilliant strategy, because it absolutely minimizes the emissions of the vehicle.  Of course, there is the small matter of where the electricity is going to come from to charge up all those batteries every night.  Are we merely allowing the car makers to rob Peter to pay Paul?

We are going to have to accept that there are no viable substitutes for petroleum fuels, due to their portability, energy concentration, and cost.  What we need is new ways to think about extracting the energy from the fuel.  Detroit is in love with the reciprocating, internal combustion engine, one of the least efficient methods known to extract energy from fuel.

The turbine engine, which features continuous combustion, as well as only a single major moving part, is far more efficient at burning fuel, which means cleaner, as well.  Coupled to an electrical generator similar to those used in airplanes, electricity for movement can be generated.  Advanced computer controls could maximize efficiency, and motors at each wheel all could dramatically increase fuel efficiency and versatility.

Detroit must make a clean break with the past, abandoning the tried and true, and safe, for new technologies, new ways of doing things.  Just because none of the Big Three have ever built a successful turbine engine (That I know of,) doesn’t mean that there are no companies in America with the expertise to develop power plants for automobiles.

Over and over, America tries to fix problems by throwing money at them, while avoiding any significant change.  Well, significant change is coming our way, it would seem, and the only way to make it any easier is to try to ride the change, and maybe guide it a little bit.  We can’t stop what has already happened, but we can still affect what happens to us.

What am I worth?

2008/12/23

According to one of the laws of American accounting, if someone owes you money, it increases your net worth.  (‘Accounts receivable shall be treated as assets on the balance sheet.’)  So, if you borrow money from me, I can say that my net worth is increased by the amount that you borrowed.  The more that is owed to me, the more that I am worth.  This is why banks have been so desperate to get people to borrow money in the past.

The ability to pay back the loan is not a factor, so I can show on my books the total value of all that is owed to me.  Under the so-called ‘mark-to-market’ rules, if 20 percent of the loans outstanding have defaulted, than I have to write down the value of the outstanding loans by 20 percent.  This rule was fought tooth and nail by the banks, because it lowered their net worth.

When a bank cannot sell debt at face value, instead having to discount it, it means that money that was on the books has evaporated, and must be written off.  A large bank tried to sell several billion dollars worth of debt, but could find no buyers until it had discounted the value of the debt to 22 cents on the dollar.

So, no one really knows what they are worth, because they can’t find the real value of the debt that they hold until they try to sell it.  For a bank, this means that they may not actually have the money that they thought that they did, so they don’t want to loan any money out.  Considering how inflated the prices of everything has gotten, how much will the Treasury have to pump into the system to get lending going again?  Do we have that much money?  Probably not.

What do we really want?

2008/12/16

There has been a great deal of rheteric about ‘energy independance’, focusing on more energy efficient cars as the means to achieve it.  We are being duped!  The wealthy don’t want any big changes, they want us to go on consuming energy as we have in the past.  If we truly wanted to achieve freedom from the Mid-East, we would be figuring out ways to stop driving, period.

Mass transit, bicycles, walking, these are the only ways that we are going substantially reduce the amount of oil that we consume.  These are also the only ways that we will be able to extricate ourselves from the religious cesspool that is the Middle East.  When people get on their knees to pray five times a day, every single day, and are more than willing to die for what they believe in, any attempts to alter their lifestyles can result in jihad, a religious war.

Saving the auto industry is only a way of prolonging our dependance on oil, in spite of the wonderful sounding words about increased fuel efficiency.  Cars simply are not the answer.  The longer we pretend that we can afford to drive wherever we want, whenever we want, by ourselves, the longer it will take for us to achieve the true independance of self-sufficancy.

Our government has intentionally aided the auto industry to make us dependent on oil, by subsidizing road building, encouraging companies to invest in Mid-East oil fields, and turning a blind eye to the environmental devastation that results from distilling large amounts of gasoline from crude oil.  Consumption has been the goal, not efficiency, because consumption makes certain people wealthier.

The money that we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan would have created mass transit systems in many American cities, as well as updating existing ones.  Instead, we are cultivating a whole new generation of terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and extremists.  We cannot impose our ways upon other people, no matter how much money we spend, military might we use, or rhetoric we spew.,

A slice of the pie

2008/12/11

Everyone wants a slice of the pie, but some people want the whole pie.  Well, they have gotten it.  They have all of the money, and we have none.  This is the drawback to the way that capitalism is practiced in the United States.  The money ends up in the hands of a few, the mass has nothing, and commerce comes to a stop. Pop!  The bubble bursts.  Deflation sets in, and markets crash.  What is anything worth, if no one has the money to buy it?  They can’t borrow the money anymore, because the bankers don’t know how much the money is worth.

We are all so far in debt that there is no possibility that we can pay it off.  We are in default on too many things, because there are not enough of us actually creating anything of value to exchange for what we need.  A service is only as good as the ability to pay for it.  When everyone has to do their own cooking, restuarants are not going to do well.  And the list goes down the line.

We are now in the Post-Industrial, Post Everything, Service economy.  And we are all broke.  We can not afford to consume Service anymore. EOF

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There is a different way to look at Capitalism.  Do not look at people as a resource, look at them as owners.  They own the means of production.  The buildings, assembly lines, and whatnot are only there to create a place for people to work.  Supposedly, productivity has increased by several percent every year for years and years.  Has compensation for labor?

Labor is not just a resource to be exploited for the lowest possible cost.  Labor is provided by people, the members of your community.  Your community is this country, what you call yourself.  If you are an American, your community is broke.  Maybe you aren’t, but so many of us are that your money is not going to be much compensation for the loss that cannot be measured in dollars.  Our culture, our pride, our energy.

The only way out of this situation is to put everyone to work working for each other.  Creating wealth that all of us benefit from, because it makes each of us worth more.  Rapid transit systems, fiber optic networks, high speed rail systems, space exploration.  We are going to have to get used to work a lot without being able to spend very much, because all of our money is going to be used by the government to pay for creating this wealth.  But this will be real wealth, not shopping centers, office towers, and parking lots.  This will be wealth that will be used for years and years, and create more wealth every time it is used.

This is capitalism as practiced where the people are the owners, even though they do not own the companies that do the work.  I have a saying that I came up with.  “If I work to make things better for everyone, things will get better for me, too.”  Whether or not we end along with the ending of the old ways is up to us.

2008/12/10

How do you deal with the realization that something you have grown up believing in is wrong, fundamentally flawed?  When everything that you have been taught turns out to be a lie?  Isn’t it natural to cling to what you think that you know, even when it isn’t working anymore?  When you see other people trying to make what used to work work again, doesn’t it seem right to believe in what used to be with them?  How do you accept that you have been intentionally misled, used, deceived?

I think that these, and questions like these, are going through the minds of a great many people right now, as the framework of the world that they know bends and cracks.  We have always been told that consumption is good, that accumulation of wealth was right, that our way was the best way.  Suddenly, all of those premises are being called into question, the catechism of capitalism confounded.

We didn’t even blink when credit cards were introduced, back in the 1960’s.  This was just an easier way to pay for things, better than cash or checks.  We took it in stride when automakers began to offer financing on their products, because those products had become so much better that they were worth paying for over three years.  Did we feel any doubt when we were told that we deserved to fly instead of taking the train?  Or that driving our own car was better than riding a bus?

Slowly, insidiously, greed manipulated our trust, our belief in our system.  We might have been uncomfortable going into debt to buy things, but that was the American way! When a contract for a car jumped from 3 years to 5 years, did we balk, and refuse? Of course not.  That was just the way that things were.  We had no reservations about seeing the doctor, even though it might mean years of working off the cost of the surgery.

We grew to expect that companies would pay us money every year for lending them our money, and based our investment strategies on those expectations.  We envied the high-flying executives who made millions of dollars a year, plus stock options, but we knew that they earned that money with hard work.  In spite of wanting to keep the family home, we signed the contract on a new house, because that is the way things were done here in the United States.

But we began to feel uneasy when our neighbors lost their job to some workers in a place we had never heard of.  Doubt might nag at us when we saw the local factory, or mill, or plant shut down, because the work could be done cheaper overseas, but we kept quiet, not wanting to rock the boat.  When a family member lost their health benefits from their job, we were uncertain if that was right, but we didn’t know what to do about it.

Only when our life savings, our retirement fund, our childrens college money disappeared in the collapse of a major company did we really get upset, and what could we do then?  Or maybe it was the second house that we bought, intending to flip it for a profit, only to discover that no one wanted it, that made us think that we had been ripped off.  Disgust began to come easily, as we saw our schools failing to teach our children, our roads crumbling into potholes.

All of a sudden, none of the things that we have been led to believe in are working.  People are too far in debt to buy a new car, even though they have to have one, because there is no public transit.  Going to the doctor is out of the question, because we don’t have insurance.  Some folks are making millions every year, but our paychecks are not getting any bigger, and everything seems more expensive.  Borrowing money is the only way that we know how to survive anymore, and no one will lend us any.  Our house is worth less than it used to be, and is losing value constantly, but the bank still wants the amount we signed for.

The wealth that could have built modern train systems, rapid transit, public health care, and energy efficient housing has been squandered on a small number of our population.  Greed has prevented us from investing in social services, space exploration, and education, convincing us instead to buy, buy, buy.  Developing countries have followed our lead, instead of creating wealth that every one of their citizens could have enjoyed.

Now, there is no more money to lend, no certain value to place on assests, no real wealth to create.  We can’t afford to buy products from other countries, so their workers are suffering.  The prospect of deflation is becoming more and more certain, throwing our financial system into chaos.  People cannot pay off their debts, resulting in foreclosures and bankruptcies, which further diminishes our overall wealth.

We allowed this to happen, by believing in a system that sacrifices the whole for the individual.  We helped this to happen, by buying things we didn’t need with money that we hadn’t made yet.  We could never believe that we would have to pay the consequeces for our irresponsibility.  We refused to accept that creating public wealth was essential to our long term survival.  Now, we are just like the car owner who never put any money into their car, broken down on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere.

Surviving our own greed

2008/12/06

No matter how dire the world situation is, Greed will seek a way to profit from it, irregardless of the consequences.  So, in order to survive our own greed, we must find a way to direct it into channels that will result in things getting better for everyone.  This can be done by convincing the greedy that the course of action that will offer the best benefits, or returns, is one which leads to moving our industrial base off planet.  We cannot rely upon enlightenment to protect us from Greed, because even highly educated, intelligent people fall under the sway of this powerful emotion.

Of course, we can just allow the consequences of Greed’s actions to punish the greedy, but, all too often, the innocent suffer the worst punishment.  This is the case right now, where the actions of a few million executives, financeers, and brokers have resulted in mass dislocation.  Economists have been stunned at the lack of self-control the markets have exhibited, thinking that self-preservation would stay the hand of Greed.

So, how are we going to make Greed believe in investing in off-planet development?  By making industrial practices on Earth prohibitively expensive, while supporting the development of technologies for getting into space cheaply, and surviving there.  All the resources that we could possibly want in the forseeable future exist in our solar system, plus nearly unlimited amounts of energy.  The only way that the Earth is unique is that we can live on its surface without advanced technology.  (For the most part.)

Protecting that quality is the most important task facing humanity, because all of our knowledge, all of our determination, all of our creativity, will be nothing if we become extinct.  Our existence is dependent upon environmental factors which are very narrow, with little tolerance.  Too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too little oxygen, too much radiation, and we are toast.  Then there are the incoming rocks, which occasionally wipe out whole species.

We are in a race, a race to develop a technology which will allow us to survive anywhere before the only home we have becomes uninhabitable.  It does not matter if that is through our own actions, or the forces of Nature.  In either case, there will be no more tomorrows for anyone if we are still stuck on Earth.