Archive for November, 2009

How we got here.

2009/11/20

Amazingly, we tend to ignore the bulk of human history when considering what is ‘natural.’  How humans lived for tens of thousands of years has imprinted itself in our genes, yet we ignore that programming, instead trying to live by what our culture says is ‘right.’  There are reasons for why we act the way that we do, feel the way that we feel, and they are not the result of the rise of patriarchal religions, or the Industrial Revolutions.  The conflicts that we experience are all too often the result of our genetic programming being at odds with our expectations.

Because humans did not have writing until very recently, little is known for sure about what life was like 20,000 years ago.  Anthropology is making great strides in uncovering the past, but its findings are still colored by modern cultural bias.  Case in point:  Hunter-gatherer societies.  When the European world discovered that there were societies in undeveloped parts of the world which survived by gathering and hunting, the male dominated society of the modern world automatically assumed that the males in those societies were the primary food providers, thus the label ‘hunter-gatherer.’  By studying the garbage of prehistoric peoples, we have discovered that they should have been called ‘gatherer-hunter societies.’  Hunting was not the primary means of getting food, but instead gathering was.

This has tremendous implications on our perceptions of ancient lifestyles.  Women were the ones who primarily did the gathering, from what we have been able to discern.  If women were the primary food providers, they would have been very important in the everyday life of a group.  It was not until the advent of agriculture that men became the primary food providers, which also was the time when male-dominated religions appeared, and the status of women diminished to that of domestic animals.

If a group of people depended on the able-bodied individuals to perform the necessary tasks of survival, that means that people of child-bearing years could not have been the primary caregivers of their children.  Spending time with your children was not a survival trait, because that would have kept you from carrying water, collecting fuel, gathering food, preparing it, and all the other things needed to keep the group going.  Perhaps this explains the affinity of very young children for the very elderly, because we are genetically wired to respond to those who would have been our primary caregivers for thousands and thousands of years.

Certainly, there are many other ways of explaining why parents and their children have so many difficulties, while those same children seem to respond to their grandparents and great-grandparents so much better.  We can attribute the desire of very young children to please the elderly to many things, but isn’t it easier to look at how humans lived for most of our existence?  Of course, this throws the concept of the ‘nuclear family’ as being the natural family unit out the window, which is not going to sit well today.  But the nuclear family is already endangered, as more and more people are raising children by themselves, or with their parents.

Looking at our behaviors in the context of what were survival traits for most of human evolution is, to me, the most logical way of determining what is ‘natural’ and ‘right’, not by using our cultures definitions.  The idea of ‘three square meals a day’ is no more natural than beating oneself with a stick every day.  It arose during the first industrial revolution, when people were only given one meal break during the work period.  Our bodies have evolved to eat small amounts of food all day long, not to process huge amounts all at once.  That is a biological fact, which cannot be changed no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.  I think that there are many more of them, which we have not discovered yet.

I can’t make you wealthy if I am broke!

2009/11/19

After consideration, I have come to believe that one of the worst practices that our modern financial system has adopted is the attempt to create wealth by charging large fees.  A late payment fee that is nearly as large as the payment only makes catching up more difficult, and when overlimit fees are added to the late payment fee, the fees are more than the payment.  Very quickly, the balance balloons far beyond the established credit limit, and keeps on climbing.

In accounting terms, the bank is getting wealthier, because it can show the money owed it as an asset.  But is this real wealth?  Is there anything tangible about this wealth, anything that has enduring value?  If I end up going bankrupt, what happens to the wealth that the bank says that they have?  Aren’t we creating an illusion of wealth, which has no substance?  Because debt is considered an asset to the lender, banks have been more than willing to extend credit, because it makes them look wealthier.

Watching a firm with billions of dollars in assets on the books go under should not happen, but when those assets are merely entries in ledgers, there is nothing to pay the light bill.  The worth of the United States has been exaggerated beyond all comprehension, as our salaries have doubled over and over again, the value of our homes shooting up without one lick of work being put into them, and our stock markets recording astronomical prices.  This balloon has expanded so much that no one is really sure just what anything is worth anymore, because we can’t get what we say things are worth when we try to sell them.

The greed has gotten out of control, and it is destroying us.  It does not matter how much you say is owed to you, what you have in your pocket is what there is to spend, because the likelihood of your getting what is owed to you is shrinking fast.

Trying to start an avalanche?

2009/11/18

For some reason, many banks seem uninterested in trying to prevent foreclosures, repeatedly losing homeowners paperwork, ignoring attempts at communication, and generally acting like foreclosing on a property is in their best interests.  That may have been so in the past, but we are on the brink of a tidal wave in foreclosures, which will put so many houses on the market that banks will undoubtedly lose large sums of money.

Perhaps it is easier to just use the accounting tools to write off the investments than to work with a homeowner, but how many investments will have to be written off?  If a glut of foreclosed homes brings the market value of all homes down, who is going to gain?  Expecting someone to pay several times what their home is worth when they are out of work, or struggling with underemployment is not rational.  Yes, it is the right thing for those homeowners to do, but who wouldn’t think “I can be putting my money into something that is worthwhile, instead of merely adding to the wealth of some bank.”  If we believe that we are unlikely to ever pay off a home, and that home has depreciated substantially since we bought it, what is the motivation to go on struggling to make mortgage payments?

Money has been made available by the federal government to offset the loses that would result in resetting mortgages, yet banks are dragging their feet in taking advantage of it.  They seem to think that they must stick to the original agreement or else they will seem like pushovers, or something.  We are not through this financial crisis yet, and perhaps the worst is yet to come.  Having the value of the nations inventory of homes fall considerably would wipe out tremendous amounts of wealth, irregardless of whether a homeowner has paid off their mortgage or not.

Expecting consumers to return to consuming when they are terrified of losing their homes is completely unrealistic.  If we do not create an atmosphere of understanding and flexibility, we are likely to experience changes completely beyond our control.  Dealing with change means looking ahead, recognizing what is coming, and planning for it, not denying that change is ever going to happen.  We may not be able to prevent change, but we have the option of guiding it somewhat, of minimizing its impact.  The alternative is chaos, as we try to cope with things without any preparation.

Space is the place for industry!

2009/11/08

Probably, you have heard something about ‘global warming’, ‘greenhouse gases,’ and some kind of ‘carbon tax’.  These are symptoms of our growing awareness of the fragile nature of our planet’s ecosystem.  Even though ecology is now an accepted discipline, it is a long way from having a complete understanding of all of the things that affect our home.  Most people feel that we should err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting that home, even going so far as buying hybrid automobiles and compact florescent lamps.  Even though the human race’s impact on our climate is still controversial, there can be little doubt that we are not going to be able to expand our industrial base enough to provide everyone on the planet a standard of living equal to that enjoyed in the United States today.

Why?  Because the United States uses nearly one quarter of all the energy consumed every year, yet only has a population of about 300 million people, while there are over six billion fellow human beings riding this spaceship with us.  You can do the math on that.  We already have experienced what happens when energy starts getting really expensive, and all indications are that we ain’t seen nothing yet.  Does this mean that we are doomed to a future of declining standards of living, fewer benefits from technology, and conflict over dwindling resources?

Only if we choose so!  We have an alternative to polluting ourselves into another Stone Age, destroying the life support system of Starship Earth, and poverty from paying for energy.  We are in the midst of plenty, far more than we can conceivably use for many thousands of years.  All around us are mineral and chemical resources, and energy, energy, and more energy.  Where?  Starting about 100 miles over our heads, on the other side of the sky.  Space, which will probably not be the ‘final frontier’, but which will suffice for now.

Our local star, the Sun, produces millions of times the energy we consume worldwide every year, pouring out so much that we have to be shielded from it to avoid turning into puddles of grease.  That is one of the reasons for protecting our ecosystem, because without the ozone layer, tanning would take about 5 seconds.  Most of the plants that we eat would not grow, and strange critters would start showing up, the result of rapid mutations.  Almost all of the energy that we use today comes from or came from the Sun.  Petroleum is sunlight which was captured by plants, and then concentrated by the heat and pressure of the Earth beneath us for millions of years.

Hydro power, the kind that come from the dams that kill the fish, is a result of sunlight heating the oceans, which lifts water far over the land areas, resulting in precipitation.  Wind is a side effect of that process, so even wind power comes primarily from the Sun.  If we were to utilize that energy in space, it would be undiminished by our atmosphere.  And we would not have the by-products and waste here on our home that are a result of every material process, but outside of our ecosystem, where they can’t hurt us, or anybody else, for that matter.

No matter how expensive it is to make things in space, eventually it will be cheaper than making them here on Earth, simply because the penalties for using energy in large quantities will be prohibitive.  And I’m not talking about legal penalties here, but the one’s that Nature imposes upon us.  When we overdo it, Nature has ways of restoring the balance, without any regard for our welfare.  If we disrupt the ecosystem too much, it will cease to support us.

Rather than spending our resources and energy trying to figure out how to do things here on Earth in such a way that they will not have so much impact on the air conditioning, we should be learning how to do them outside, beyond the atmosphere.  Pumping carbon dioxide into the ground will work for a little while, but it is not a final solution.  The final solution is we stop burning stuff here on Earth.  Period. Buying an electric car may seem like a way of protecting the environment, but where does the electricity come from?  For most parts of the U. S., it comes from coal.  Replacing our gas burning cars with electric ones will mean building many, many new coal-fired power plants.

Unless we get the power from outside, and bring it in.  There are ways of collecting the energy of the Sun in space, and then transferring that energy down to the Earth’s surface, safely and cleanly, with much greater efficiency than any feasible collection system working here in the atmosphere.  Converting sunlight to electricity is not easy, unless you have lots of energy to work with.  We can cover vast stretches of the world with solar panels, or we can put a few solar power satellites in orbit, and build a few receiving arrays, and get our power from off-planet.  Most people don’t know this, but the batteries in electric cars wear out after a few years, and solar panels are only good for about 25 years.  So we are looking at making substantially larger investments to stay where we are, if we don’t invest in the future.

The future is off-planet, at least when it comes to energy-intensive, resource-hungry, dirty industrial processes, or producing large quantities of energy.  Our future is off-planet, because that is where the new wealth will be created after a few years.  And there could be something off-planet which will decide our future for us, if we do not have the means to deflect it.  Large rocks, some a mile or more across, are still floating around the Solar System, and running into one of those would make life much more difficult.  It might even kill us, just as one did the dinosaurs.  We can’t even see all the junk that is out there, and we often don’t realize that we are going to have a near-miss until after it happens.

To have a future, one that is certain, one that is brighter than today, one that is worth striving for, means getting off of this rock, and learning to live outside, to work, and to create the things that we need, outside of our ecosystem.  We are fouling our nest right now, threatening the future of our children.  We have a choice, all we have to do is think outside the box.

An open letter to our leaders

2009/11/06

The American presence in Afghanistan is accidental, resulting from the terrorist presence in the remote mountains of the country.  The initial goal, the destruction of the Al Qaeda training camps, was completed amidst uncertainty regarding the ruling power, the Taliban.  When it was judged that the Taliban could be held responsible for the presence of the Al Qaeda, regime change in Afghanistan was decided upon by political, not military, leaders of the United States.  Military policy was dictated by political concerns, and violated several long standing guidelines.

With a new administration, the United States has an opportunity to recognize the mistake of past policy, and admit that mistake to the world, while withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan.  The establishment of training centers for the native population to bring forth its own military and police forces would be a method of serving penance for our mistake, while allowing us to maintain involvement in the country.

We were not invited, nor even asked, to invade Afghanistan, nor have we stated our goals in doing so in any meaningful way.  We have exhibited the same behaviors that we have criticized in other major powers, in the full light of world attention.  Our credibility is being weakened by our actions, our reputation diminished.  We have to acknowledge that we have been acting in error, and move to correct that error.

What has been spent on military adventures in the mid-East which have had no discernable benefit to us is staggering, dwarfing the cost of establishing a base on the Earth’s moon, for instance.  We have far too many internal difficulties right now to be acting aggressively outside of our borders.  We are creating the conditions which inspire people to decide that we seek the extermination of a religion, and so to choose to sacrifice themselves in an effort to destroy us

The excuse of national security is completely irrelevant to this conflict, nor can we claim to be enhancing the security of allies in the area.  Justifying what we are doing becomes increasingly difficult, which creates the impression that our leaders are irrational.  We must immediately withdraw our armed forces from Afghanistan and stop our persecution of the Taliban.  No other path offers any benefit to us.

Driving tips

2009/11/04

After driving vehicles for a number of years, there are some things that I think are worth passing on.

Look ahead!  Watch what is happening down the road a bit, don’t just stare at what is right in front of you.  Be observant of people waiting to turn left, so that you don’t get trapped behind them.  Watch for emergency vehicles, pedestrians, people backing out of driveways, anything that might affect traffic flow.  By being alert to what is ahead, you can avoid surprises and unnecessary delays.

Try not to get ‘boxed in’, where you have vehicles in front of you, beside you, and behind you.  Try to keep an escape path clear if something were to happen in front of you.

Don’t stop!  Well, sometimes you have to, but on many occasions, you can avoid coming to a complete stop.  Why?  Because starting from a complete stop requires more energy than accelerating from a crawl.  Plus, it puts more wear on the vehicle.  If you are coming up on a red light, slow down before you are up to the waiting traffic, then roll forward slowly.  At a stop sign, slow right down, look both ways, TWICE, then move through if clear.  You will not be stopped by the police for failure to stop if it looks like you came to a stop.

When the roadway is really rough, drive at the edge of the lane.  Try to stay out of the ‘ruts’, the most heavily traveled part of the lane, because the ride is rougher, you will have more resistance to changing direction, and hydroplaning during rain is more likely.

When you are driving in winter conditions, avoid the black part of the lane when slowing down, because it might be glare ice.  If you are having trouble stopping, try to get onto less firmly packed snow and ice.  Slow down well before you need to stop or turn, so that you are less likely to lose traction.

If you are driving a vehicle with automatic overdrive, switch it off in town.  It will try to engage at even 20 miles per hour, resulting in delays before accelerator pedal input takes effect, deposits building up in your engine, and reduced mileage after a while.  When you come to hill on the interstate, shift out of overdrive before you start up the grade, so that your engine will be turning over faster when the load increases.

If you are starting out from a stop sign or signal, turning right onto another roadway, look for pedestrians and bicycles before giving it the gas.

If you are on a hill, at an intersection, apply the handbrake to hold the car, then give it gas until the engine starts to lug down and release the brake.  This will prevent the vehicle from rolling backwards.

When stopping a vehicle with an automatic transmission on slick roadways, put the transmission in ‘neutral’.  The engine is trying to keep the wheels turning whenever the transmission is in ‘Drive’, and vehicles with lots of power accessories often have the idle set very high.  But all vehicles with automatics will be easier to stop if the transmission is in ‘neutral.’

Shift down going up steep hills.  Many automatic transmissions will not downshift until the engine is lugging badly, which is bad for it.  If it is a long, steep hill, turn off the air conditioning, as it puts additional load on the engine.  If you are having problems with the engine overheating, turn the heat up all the way, and crank the fan to the highest setting.  The heater will help to cool the engine.

Learn how to stop the vehicle with the emergency brake, by holding the button on the hand brake, or pulling out the handle for the parking brake while engaging the brake.  This is a back up system to the regular braking system, which will work even if you rupture a brake line and lose all the brake fluid, or if the engine stalls and you lose the power assist.  You must be careful that the brake does not lock in the ‘on’ position, so that is why you depress the button on the hand brake, or pull the handle out for the foot brake.

Check your mirrors every few seconds.  It is important to know what is going on around you.  If you are stopped in traffic waiting for someone to turn or to back out, watch your mirror.  If you see someone coming up behind you who does not look like they are going to stop, put your head back against the head rest, and get ready to stand on the gas.  Having your vehicle moving 1 mile per hour at impact will lessen the shock as compared to being at a standing stop.

Turn your lights on when driving on the highway.  It makes it much easier for others to see you.

Don’t drive with your left foot on the brake pedal.  You can brake with your left foot all you want, but driving with your foot on the pedal often results in your brake lights being on all the time, because the switch that turns them on activates after the pedal is depressed the slightest amount.  Having your brake lights on all the time is like having no brake lights at all:  People can’t tell that you are slowing down, and rear end you.  And it will be your fault.

Leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you.  You may have superhuman reactions, but even they won’t help you if you are following too closely.  Back off, and watch what is going on in front of the car in front of you.

That is enough for now, I think.