Archive for February, 2009

Learning old lessons again

2009/02/22

There is an ancient rule that any individual who becomes wealthy at the expense of the group is threatening the survival of the group, and must be isolated from the rest of the group, irregardless of the individuals eventual survival.  This law was enforced by evolution, natural selection, survival of the fittest.  It appears that civilization has caused us to forget this ancient law, because society has so much inertia that it can survive individuals who make themselves wealthy at the expense of the group.

But that condition is changing, the result of a small number of individuals who have enriched themselves enormously at the expense of the rest of us.  The brakes could have been put on the financial bubble long ago, preventing the carnage that surrounds us today.  But Greed motivated very wealthy, powerful individuals to intervene in the attempts to reign in the explosive growth.  Regulatory bodies were discouraged from investigating suspicious activity, Congress was lobbied not to enact certain laws, and a few overseas governments were manipulated into providing shelters for the wealth.

We all were encouraged to borrow, cash out equity, and to shop until we dropped.  Insanity began to take over, as the stock market kept growing beyond any reasonable limits, prices for homes doubled, and doubled again and again, and we succeeded in exporting our materialistic culture to even much older nations, under the guise of ‘globalization’.  Why should someone in Thailand make shoes for people in America if all they are going to get is material compensation.  The old ways may not have been prosperous, but the people were happy.

Greed manipulated us through the media into believing that owning things could make us happy, and accepting that our self-worth was dependent upon the things that we could by.  We became so desperate to prove our worth that we would buy cars that cost so much we had to get a 5 year contract to buy them.  Tho contract would last longer than the car would.  The same thing happened with houses, where the 30 year mortgage became the standard.  Very few people in this country actually own their home, most are paying a bank for the ability to live in the place.  By the time that you get it paid off, you are too old to take care of it, and often have to sell it for far less than what you have put into it.

All of these things made a lot of people rich, but they made a few people much, much wealthier.  I don’t know their names, and don’t want to know their names, because they are evil people.  They have been willing to run the world economy into the ground to satisfy their insatiable desire for MORE!  It would not be nearly as bad as it is if they had only played with their money, but they had to go and use ours, too.  Basically, we have all been broke for about 20 years, but we have been part of a shell game, a con, to convince us that really could spend more than we make.  It was inevitable that the powers behind this con would eventually lose track of where everything was.  When other nations with more wealth than us began to compete with us for resources, the sham collapsed, victim of gasoline prices which Americans simply could not afford.  It is one thing to put a big screen TV on your credit card, but entirely another to put a tank of gas on it.

Now, we are seeing values return to the levels they would have been at if the ‘irrational exuberance’ had been discouraged with higher interest levels, restrictions on leverage, mark to market rules, and other arcane things which are extremely boring to talk about, but which have such incredible impact on our lives when they are ignored.  Unfortunately, because so many of us have been sucked into jobs that catered to the Greed, such as selling people things that they didn’t really need, values are likely to keep on dropping.  Deflation could become a black hole, sucking the wealth out of the entire system.

Unless we begin using the material wealth that we have amassed to begin creating wealth that belongs to the community, such as a nationwide fiber optic system.  Rebuilding roads and bridges is important, but so is making those same roads and bridges far less vital, by replacing them with the means to move information, to the point that we can almost believe that we are somewhere else entirely.  Virtual reality would allow us to perform tasks half a world away, to take part in events without having to leave our homes, to shop for things without having to go to a store.

Insulating our homes, business facilities, upgrading equipment, these are the investments that we will have to make to keep energy costs low enough that we can afford them in an economy which is sustainable.  Educating our populace to the highest levels that they are capable of is another survival strategy, because the solutions to our problems are not going to come from ignorance.  Who us going to pay for all of this?  We are, the average Americans, who have been duped into spending everything that we were going make for the next few years.  Instead of paying off our credit card debts and hyper-inflated mortgages, we are going to end up working our butts off just to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

The 40 hour work week may become victim to the need to pay a whole bunch of taxes, so that this program of self-improvement is not entirely at the expense of other countries.  Probably, we are going to have to get by with what TVs, stereos, and computers that we have, because importing them would mean paying somebody else real money.  But we have so much incredible potential, so much accumulated wealth, that we could turn this thing around in a matter of a decade.  If we all agreed to work together, to sacrifice together, and to believe in each other.  There is hope, but it is mighty slim.

Soft on crime, or soft in the head?

2009/02/16

Would you be upset if you discovered that there was a federal agency which spent billions of dollars every year, and yet had not accomplished anything tangible?  Well, I am upset, because the Drug Enforcement Agency gets more money than NASA every year, and yet has not had any appreciable impact on drug use or availability in its nearly 30 years of existence.  What we have thrown away so far would have paid the majority of the cost of building a base on the Earth’s moon, or all of the cost of building a couple of space stations.  Why am I using space exploration to illustrate the size of the waste?  Because we have got to inspire people to be more than what they see around them.  Because we have to give our children something better than drugs, something which is a rush, and which creates a lasting sense of accomplishment, as well as the joy of learning what is important to them.

What is spent fighting the War On Drugs nationwide is staggering, and would easily have paid for both a space station and a moon base.  Many American local governments are throwing 70 percent or more of their annual budget, year in and year out, at their criminal justice system, which is made up of the police, the courts, and the corrections system.  In my town, the figure is closer to 8o percent of the budget that goes into that black hole of negativity called the criminal justice system.  Road maintenance has been deferred again and again, the traffic lights in many parts of town are over 30 years old, and the bus system only runs until about 1830 at night.

Yet, the more money that is thrown at drug use, the more crime is reported, the higher the profit margins for black marketers, and the greater the job security of those in corrections.  Routine traffic stops end up requiring several officers, and hours of paperwork, so that someone who was somewhat careless ends up in jail on drug charges.  Without the drug laws, the traffic stop would only take a few minutes, and create no permanent record.  Another casualty of the War On Drugs has been empathy and respect for the officers of the law who are the face of our national policies.  Even people who have never been involved in illegal activities are reserved about befriending police officers, and the profession has suffered extremely high levels of suicide, domestic violence, and divorce.

After an investment of a few thousand dollars, an expert botanist can produce a pound of grass, er, ah, marijuana for about 25 dollars, every three to four months.  That pound of grass will sell for at least 2,000 dollars, and possibly as much as 3,600 dollars.  This kind of profit is very appealing, and even grass grown outdoors, with little or no cultivation, can still bring in hundreds of dollars a pound.  These profits fuel gang wars, as well as corruption of police and judges.  The United States is the only country which treats marijuana as a dangerous drug, which doesn’t make sense, considering the overwhelming evidence that it is the most benign of the illegal drugs.

But legal marijuana would probably be very dangerous to the profits of a certain industry that is very powerful in the US.  Pharmaceutical companies potentially could lose billions of dollars in sales if grass were legalized, because it seems to be effective against an astounding number of ailments.  It would not surprise me in the least if the greed of the drug companies, as well as the prison industry, has been responsible for the relentless persecution of marijuana.  It was greed that got grass outlawed in the first place, so why should things be any different now?

The dance changes tempo

2009/02/15

So far, I am not aware of anyone acknowledging the fundamental problem behind our current economic woes;  We can no longer sustain the level of consumption that we have become used to.   Between the price of many commodities going up, and home values declining, we have to spend more than we earn to live in great luxury.  Yes, luxury.

We drive ourselves around in our own cars, so that we don’t have to be close to strangers.  Many of us stand under a shower of warm water for several minutes every day.  The lights always will come on when we flick the switch, there are no open sewers running near our schools, and the water coming out of the tap is fairly safe to drink, even though it became fashionable during the Age Of Excess to only drink bottled water.  The telephones almost always work, and most people fly on airplanes when they have to go somewhere.

By the standards of most of the world, these things are great luxuries, which even the wealthy cannot always afford, because they simply don’t exist in some places.  Yet we often consider them to be ‘rights’, which cannot be infringed upon.  We have the ‘right’ to drive our own car somewhere if we want to.  But there is nothing that says that we have the ‘right’ to gasoline whenever we want to go somewhere.  If we can pay for the fuel, fine.  But what if we can’t?

The costs of energy are rising, and not simply because of demand.  Generating plants are becoming harder and harder to get permits for, the grid that transmits the energy that is generated to where it is needed is on the verge of overload, and we need a whole bunch of new lines to move wind power to where it can be used.  Crude oil is no longer found by drilling a few thousand feet in sandy soil.  Extracting it can mean working in thousands of feet of water, and penetrating the Earth’s crust with holes several miles deep is becoming common as we search for new supplies of oil.

For our society to become economically sustainable, consumption of energy has got to be reduced considerably, possibly 50 percent.  That sounds like a huge undertaking, but we are so inefficient in how we use energy that it would be fairly straight forward.  The majority of structures in this country are poorly, if at all, insulated.  Simply bringing every building up to the highest possible level of insulation would result in huge savings,  as would putting solar panels on every roof.

But the automobile is the biggest culprit, and there is simply no way to make it cheap to push around a whole bunch of metal and plastic so that one person can risk their life to get where they want to go by themselves.  We will always have cars, but we will no longer use them all the time.  Instead, we are going to have to get used to riding public transportation when we are commuting to work or school.  But we will still be able to go where we want, when we want, when we can afford it.

If we can make what we already own more valuable by making it more energy efficient, we have invested our money into something that will create wealth, or money, as long as it is used.  But this wealth will be diffused through the economy, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few, which might be why there is such resistance to changing the consumption of energy dramatically.  The oil companies will not make huge profits if we all start riding transit to work or school.

This will be a drastic change in the American lifestyle, but we are facing something worse than War.  We are dealing with the consequences of unbridled Greed getting its way for too long.  A lot of money was made, but the value of money is coming into question, because so much has been ‘made’ that just disappeared all of a sudden.  Real wealth is the kind that everyone benefits from, and which won’t just go away.  A bridge, a rapid transit system, a fiber optic network, insulation in every building, these are things that make all of us wealthier.

How do they do it?

2009/02/13

Sometimes, I wonder how womyn cope.  Not only do they have to deal with all the things that Nature throws at them, like constantly changing bodies, recurring pain, and the menses, but they also have to deal with our society’s demands.  Unless boys are severely overweight, they usually don’t have many problems with body image.  For girls, their body image is about the most important thing in the world.

Being slim and well proportioned are often mutually exclusive, because breasts will not be large if the body has little fat.  But the hourglass figure is the ideal of nearly all young womyn, and plastic surgery while still a teenager is considered acceptable to enhance what Nature provides.  That cost is miniscule in comparision to what womyn spend on make-up over the course of their lives.  The so-called ‘beauty’ industry is a multi-billion dollar-a-year rip off, leading people to believe that beauty is only skin deep.

And womyn have to pay for those enhancing products from salaries that are usually smaller than men’s.  Not only that, but they are often expected to wear clothing that must be dry cleaned, an expense that is not compensated for in their wages.  Neither are manicures and hair-dos, both of which are considered essential for any management-level womyn.

Although one might think so, having a partner does not usually reduce the workload that womyn must carry.  In fact, a mate often adds more work to the daily routine of womyn.  And men rarely have to deal with age bias, being considered a marketable product well into their 60’s in professions where they appear in front of the public.  For womyn, age 40 often brings removal from the public eye, to be replaced by a 20-something with no experience.

Womyn surely must the stronger gender, because they have to deal so many more things than men.  Although great strides have been made in improving their lot, womyn still have a long way to go to achieve equality, and one of the most difficult challenges is to get men to change.  Becoming a female man does not mean equality, it only emphasizes the descrimination.  Getting men to express their feminine side is likely the only way that true equality will be achieved.  Any bets on how long that will take?

Why we need to get off of this planet

2009/02/12

A lot of people think of space exploration as something which is done just for scientific research, without any relevance to their lives.  I have come to the belief that getting off of this planet is crucial to saving it.  Not from anything that we will bring back from space, but because of the change in people’s world view.

Even though I understand that the Earth is a small planet, dashing around the Sun at 66,000 miles per hour, it is hard not to think of the Earth as being endless, infinite, impossible to use up or to change significantly, no matter what we do.  Why is it hard not to think that way?  Because there is no other place in existence right now, where people live and work, and things happen that might be important to me, whether it be my girlfriend working up there or the discovery of diamonds in large quantities.

There is only one body in the Solar System that could be used to alter the human race’s perceptions about where it lives, and that is the Earth’s moon, Selene.  The Moon is the only place in all of space that looks like a place, because it has visible features, and it is not just a speck of light.  To know that there were people up on that disk in the sky would have a profound impact on most people’s thinking, I believe, because it will force them to accept that there really is someplace other than Earth.

This will be a form of evolution, I believe, because it will have substantial effects on our behavior.  Once the knowledge that we are all together on a little piece of rock hurtling through emptiness sinks in, how we treat each other is very likely to change from suspicion and fear to acceptance and trust.  The idea that we can expel billions of tons of materials into the atmosphere, year after year, with no effect whatsoever will become harder and harder to defend.  Sure, a volcano can dump hundreds, even thousands of times what we do into the atmosphere in one eruption, but there are not major eruptions every single year, year in, year out.

A sense of community never before experienced will begin to spread through the race, as we all realize that we are crew on Spaceship Earth, and that we all have a responsibility to each other to take care of the ship.  This is the only place in all that we can see, and we can see a long ways away, where we know that we can live unprotected by advanced technology.  (Some people would consider central heating and insulation to be pretty advanced technology.)  This is the only place where we can walk naked under the open sky, if we have the guts to do it, without freezing solid in a matter of seconds, being burned into a grease spot in a matter of minutes, or dissolving in an atmosphere of corrosive acid.

This is home, folks, for all of us, and if we mess it up, we have no where else to go.  The only way to get people to understand that is to go somewhere else, and show people that there is somewhere else.  Many intelligent people I have met have been amazed to learn that the Sun is a star, just seen close up.  All those little lights in the sky, except for 6 of them, are suns, which are just very, very far away.  The other six are Selene, Earth’s moon, and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  (Don’t quibble, you’ll just confuse things!)

Selene is the only one which is not  millions of miles away, which is why it is a visible disk, with surface features that we can see.  Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. is not very much larger than the Moon, and there are moons of Jupiter and Saturn which are bigger than Mercury.  But they are all very far away, if not in terms of distance, than in terms of how long it takes to get there.  Because the Moon is so close, we can get there in a matter of days.  Anywhere else is going to take months, or even years, at our current level of technology.

So I think that we need to get off of Earth in order to save it, and the only place that we can go where people will be able to conceive of it being another place is Selene, the Earth’s moon, because it is so close we can see it as a visible disk, with features.  If we succeed in saving the Earth by going to the Moon, than we will succeed in going anywhere in the Solar System that we want to, because we will mature enough to learn how.

We never saw the Earth until we left it, and we will never think of Earth as a place, just like other places, until we leave it.  If we cannot visualize the Earth as a limited, finite place, we are very likely to make it impossible to live here, because of our innate greed and desire for comfort.

If we are equals, why aren’t our taxes?

2009/02/09

The economic stimulus bill being rushed through the Senate right now focuses more on tax cuts than the House version of the bill, which promotes federal spending.  Why are the Republicans so obsessed with tax cuts?  Because many of the wealthy in this country object to having to pay higher taxes than the middle class.  At some point in the past, when the liberals controlled the government, it was decided that the wealthy could afford to pay more of their income in taxes than the middle class, so the tax rate for the wealthy was raised to 50 percent.

That inequity still persists, although the highest tax brackets are no longer taxed at the 50 percent level.  Another item that was to be included in the stimulus package was relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax, the liberals attempt to stop the wealthy from using various tax loopholes to escape from the high tax burden.  All this talk about taxes is boring as sin, but when you are talking about a pile of paper over 5 feet high, of letter sized pages, typed single space, who could avoid being bored?  That is the size of the United States tax code.  No one knows the whole thing, and there are people whose lives revolve around a few inches of that stack.  Armies of people work to prevent companies and individuals from paying more than they absolutely have to.

Wouldn’t it make sense to throw that pile of paper away, and replace it with a single, flat tax rate, which applies only to individuals, and represents the portion of the Gross Domestic Product that it costs to operate the government?  If we want to modify behavior, call it a fine or fee, or a subsidy, but leave it out of the tax code.  This is where the complexity has come from, trying to change behaviors.  If the government doesn’t want people doing something, they put a tax on it.  Conversely, if the government wants to encourage something, they create a tax break for it.  All of this leads to thousands of pages of legalese, which usually doesn’t go away when the activity it addresses does.

If we went to a flat tax rate, and did away with all the shelters, deductions, and other loopholes, so that everyone paid the same rate, we could get by with a tax rate of about 17 or 18 percent.  That is the proportion of the G.D.P. that the government has spent every year for some time.  This slightly higher than what most middle class people are paying, and a lot lower than what the higher tax brackets face.  If we are equal before the law, why can’t we be equal before the I.R.S.?

A new dohickey!

2009/02/07

I finally was able to afford an adapter that allows me to plug a PS2 keyboard into my newest computer, which only has USB ports.  This has been a real hinderance for me, because I have become used to using the Dvorak keyboard layout, which I consider to be vastly superior to the QWERTY keyboard.  Now, through the wonders of modern technology, I can plug one of my old, converted keyboards into my hot new Dell computer, and type away happily.  (Once I figured out how to convince Vista that I really did want to change the keyboard layout.)

For those of you who are not familiar with the alternative to the QWERTY keyboard, it came about because the QWERTY keyboard was designed in the 1860’s by one of the pioneers of typewriter design.  He wanted to minimize the chances of the keys getting stuck together, so he laid out a keyboard where most words require the typist to work alternating sides of the keyboard.  Contrary to popular belief the QWERTY keyboard was not designed to slow the typist down, but it is laid out in such a way that very high typing speeds are difficult to achieve.

In the 1920’s, a scientist from the University of Washington began a study of typing, the English language, typists, the mechanics of pressing the various keys, the relative strength of the different fingers, etcetera.  He took the results of his study and laid out a new keyboard design, which now bears his name.  When the Dvorak keyboard was first introduced, typewriters had to be made specially to use the layout, because the keys were all different.  With the advent of computers, however, switching between keyboard layouts became a matter of few mouse clicks.  (Well, except for Vista.)

Personally, I much prefer the Dvorak keyboard, as I am a much faster typist on it.  I taught myself how to type, and have never taken any classes, or done any exercises.  Perhaps this made it easier for me to adapt to the Dvorak, but that is neither here nor there.  What is important is that I am consistantly faster on the Dvorak keyboard, and that I developed that speed in a matter of weeks after starting to use the Dvorak, without exercises, long practice sessions, or any of that.  I just started to write using the different keyboard, and very quickly I was touch typing.

I believe that all young people should have a chance to experiment with an alternative to the QWERTY keyboard, if simply for the sake that the alternative is the result of study and analysis, whereas the QWERTY keyboard was designed to prevent a problem that hasn’t really been a problem since the 1950’s.  Converting a keyboard is a simple matter, as long as the keys are all the same on the back side.  I have discovered that some keyboards have slightly different mounts for the two home keys, which prevents them from being put into any of the regular key locations.  Popping the ‘j’ key cap and any other key cap off and comparing them will tell you if the keyboard can be converted.  If the mounts are keyed in different ways, the keyboard can not be rearranged.

I often pick up old keyboards at second hand stores, just to convert them to Dvorak, so that I can give them away to people who have children, or who are interested in learning a different way to type.  I like to promote alternatives to some of the things that we accept and take for granted, like the 12 hour clock.  There are 24 hours in a day, and having some weird system where those 24 hours are split in half makes no sense to me.  Especially when the numbering system goes “10 AM, 11AM, 12 PM.  I find it much easier to calculate time duration when using a system where the numbers just keep going up, instead of starting all over again.  And it is the ’24 hour clock,’ not ‘military time.’  The military uses the 24 clock, but so do scientists, doctors, air traffic controllers, and many other professions where confusion is to be avoided at all costs.

Seeing as it is 2115, and I have been on the run all day, I am going to call it a night.