Both Sides?

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My apologies to Judy Collins. The words about both sides being equally guilty of fomenting hatred and violence caused my inner earworm to focus on her song, and my brain worked to find new words.

Rows and flows of orange hair

And ice cream two scoops in my chair

And tweet storms flowing everywhere

I’ve looked at hate that way

 

But now it only hides my truth

The media says I’m uncouth

So many things done in my youth

But hate got in my way

 

I’ve looked at hate from both sides now

Antifa and the alt-right, wow

It’s hate’s delusions I recall

I really don’t know hate at all

 

Crowd so loud, how good I feel

They love me, now I feel their zeal

That protestor, he is a heel

I’ve looked at me that way

 

But now, I cannot make them go,

They vote their way, they just say no,

Repeal, replace – they are so slow

I’ve seen Congress that way

 

I’ve looked at politics right now

No give, all take yet still somehow

No politics for me this fall

Politics – I will not play ball

 

Leers and jeers and feeling wowed,

To see them fail, that I have vowed

They have their schemes, I have my crowds

My enemies I slay

 

But now they say I’m acting strange

I laugh at them, I’ll never change

Well let them wail, I’m still orange,

I hate them every day

 

I’m President for both sides now

I won they lost and still somehow

I keep the Russians in my thrall

I really don’t know life at all

Past Performance Is No Predictor of Future Performance

 

Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins. This adage has meaning beyond its original intent when considering our current world. Like it or not, since the earth is now crowded with billions more folks than it had 50 or 100 or more years ago, and thus the free range of motion of our own arms has shrunk. We no longer can pull our nation’s head and legs into our own shell and exist on our own island. The fallacy of this isolationistic perspective is being tested with the self-defeating policies that the Trump administration is attempting to implement.

According to the Trump doctrine, in order to make America great again, it is necessary to reverse decades of stitching together the nations of the world in greater interdependence so as to allow American exceptionalism to reign supreme. The world we knew when everyone who wanted entree into the middle class could walk into the nearby factory and punch their timecard in a manufacturing plant, that world no longer exists. We can mourn the absence of the world that existed when the US served as the only intact manufacturing entity after WWII, and thus held an immeasurable competitive advantage for decades. Those were the decades of greatness that the America First agenda wishes to bring back.

It is always foolhardy to craft national policy on the basis of nostalgia, but that apparently is what is motivating the America First crowd. Instead of looking behind us for inspiration (Immigration Act of 1924, Leave It to Beaver, Homestead Works of Pittsburgh belching sparks and smoke), I prefer an attempt to steer our country and its economy towards the future. What does the future hold? Where are the opportunities for new jobs that can provide a true middle-class lifestyle?

First, let’s acknowledge that many of the jobs of the future look a lot like the jobs of the past. In particular, skilled craftsmen and women have a bright future ahead of them. Manufacturers cannot get enough skilled welders. An industry trade group projects that the nation will need 290,000 new welders by 2020 in order to accommodate those welders who will retire, plus handle the new jobs being created within manufacturing and the energy industry. There will always be opportunities for plumbers, and electricians, and for skilled carpenters. These professions also offer the chance to become an entrepreneur, since most opportunities in these fields are local. The demographic wave of the baby boom generation crested long ago, and that wave is withdrawing from the shores of the labor market. The vacuum in the labor market must be filled, and for those who have desires to work with their hands, there are opportunities. What is needed is strong vocational training and/or apprentice programs to transition folks from novices to skilled craftsmen and women.

Next, let’s talk about energy. This field runs the gamut from solar panel installation, to wind turbine construction and maintenance, to electrical grid modernization, to drilling rig worker, and to pipeline construction worker. In my state of West Virginia, where the coal industry has scalped the tops of our small mountains, leaving behind ground denuded of topsoil, but a relatively flat surface, we have the opportunity to develop large-scale solar farms. These farms can be integrated with small scale agriculture intended to take advantage of the shade provided (ginseng, anyone?), and can serve as a career option for the last generation of coal miners and those who currently have no hope and are surrendering their future to oxycontin and heroin.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room – the Republican-led conspiracy to deny that changes in energy policy are necessary, in order to mitigate a warming environment due to burning fossil fuels. I’ve seen the entire range of beliefs of those who refuse to acknowledge that atmospheric effects from anthropogenic emissions are changing the thermometer setpoint of the earth. Some of their stated beliefs are possibly correct (example – we may be entering a solar minimum period that may overwhelm any changes from atmospheric composition). Some of their beliefs are simply incorrect (temperature records are invalid since they represent a change from rural to urban temperature measurements, and besides, climate scientists have fudged their records, and besides, you know, thermodynamics is just so wrong). Some of their beliefs are based upon religious claims, like mankind has no capability of overruling God’s control over our environment. And some are purely conspiratorial in nature, such as the belief that claims of global warming are a tool of the one-world agenda deep state that wishes to impose political control over each and every aspect of life in our country, causing us to cede our sovereignty to a one-world government.

To refute each of these beliefs would take more space than my blog normally uses, and besides, my argument is that in order to transition away from fossil fuels, it is actually necessary to use one version of fossil fuels more extensively than we have in the past. Of course, that fuel is natural gas or methane, which has the virtue of emitting much less carbon dioxide per kilogram of input than any other hydrocarbon. Simply put, displacement of a high carbon fuel source (coal) with methane is the main reason why the US has reduced CO2 emissions over recent years. According to the US Energy Information Administration, CO2 emissions in the US decreased 12% between 2005 and 2015, and the drop is mainly attributed to replacement of coal by natural gas in electric power generation. So if we are waiting for renewable energy to take its place as the primary power source , or if we are awaiting for advancements in either fusion or fission (see thorium reactor cycle) in nuclear energy, then methane serves as a reliable bridge fuel.

Methane also offers many opportunities for jobs. Since much of the methane resources available through fracking are not in areas with pipeline infrastructure, it is necessary to build new pipelines, and that is a key source of job opportunities. Fracking also requires many more drill rigs due to the rapid depletion of fracking hydrocarbon reservoirs. I know that there is much dispute over environmental damage done by pipelines and by fracking. But it is not realistic to transition directly from dependence upon coal, to a totally green energy solution. Methane offers a transition period that enables maintenance of the living standard we enjoy that relies upon intense consumption of energy. Those who rely upon and believe in the moral superiority of coal and oil will not give in easily, though. In West Virginia, one of the bumper stickers used by the proponents of coal is “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark”. Those stickers are often affixed to the bumpers of diesel pick-ups that have been fixed with special combustion controls that dump excess fuel into the cylinders, causing a cloud of black smoke that they use to obscure the visibility of Prius drivers, like myself. I’ve been coal rolled a few times.

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Photo of rolling coal from Jalopnik.com. Justin Westbrook credited on story.

Jobs in agriculture have been decreasing for generations. Many city dwellers are now several generations removed from the farm and from rural life. Yet amazingly, farming is now coming into the cities. High technology hydroponic farming is making it possible to use some of the urban real estate that used to house factories, and convert it into high-yielding produce farms. In the suburban/rural interface, high-tunnel greenhouses are allowing intensive cultivation on small plots, enabling small-scale farmers to supply the local produce markets for cities that want organic produce sourced locally. As western diets move away from corn and soy based food chains to more vegetables, look for the number of people making a living growing food to increase steadily.

One area where the job demand is increasing is also one where the wages earned do not reflect the value provided to society. That is in the personal care industry. Whether we are looking at home assistance provided to the elderly, or the labor needed for assisted living facilities and nursing homes, these workers provide a service that our society should value. The low wages provided for these workers shows that the current job market does not value these workers, and as a result, those who are in the field are often overworked. Abuse (either intentional or not) can result, since in our society we do not properly value this form of labor.

What should we not look for in the future job market? We should not look for low-value manufacturing to return to this country, regardless of the tariffs imposed on those exporters who are accused of manipulating their currency to hurt us in the US. It is unlikely that we will ever see inexpensive metal implements to be manufactured in the US again. It is also unlikely that we will see basic garment manufacture to be sourced domestically again – unless the manufacturing processes are automated to such an extent that the number of jobs associated with the manufacture is reduced by an order of magnitude from the old garment mills. US manufacturing jobs will increasingly be focused on huge, high-tech machinery, or on processes that can be completely automated. Either way, the new manufacturing worker must be educated and trained well beyond the existing labor forces capabilities.

What we will find as we swing our nation’s fists wildly in an attempt to protect ourselves from the rest of the worlds increasing integration, is that our fists are as likely to strike ourselves in the nose as we are to rain blows down upon our perceived adversaries. The world’s economies are too tightly interwoven to enable one country to extricate ourselves from the tentacles of commerce without ripping our own economy to shreds. Beware the effect of unintended consequences as we try to make America great again.

Try To Remember, the Kind of September

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August slid seamlessly into September. We have missed the normal stressing of the tulip poplar trees, since we’ve had plenty of rain during the summer. Sometimes by early September, the poplar trees are half denuded, and shriveled brown leaf corpses skitter along the driveway, but not this year. If you look carefully though, you see tinges of color beginning to affect some trees. Most leaves are still bright green, but some trees have a yellowish cast to their edges. Dogwood trees have taken it a bit further, and have red tinting the edges of their leaves.

We just got back from a quick trip through the Potomac highlands of West Virginia. Up at 3500′ elevation, some trees had already transitioned to bright red, and not just the ground sumacs. Before long, the entire woods will look tired, and ready to adopt their brief display of fall brilliance before they drop their yearly crop of leaves to feed their roots. I’ve begun to harvest the daffodil bulbs for use by others. When I met up with my son for the eclipse, he received a plastic bucket filled with bulbs for his use in landscaping in Richmond.

The picture at the top shows what a cluster of daffodil bulbs looks like when they begin to crowd the surface. I’ll see these bulbs as I’m out weeding, and wait till the heat breaks a bit before digging the bulbs out. The bulbs keep budding and going higher till they break through the surface in the summer. After living in the same house for 25 years, I can harvest hundreds of bulbs each year and still not touch many of the clusters that could stand to be thinned. I’ve found if I keep the foliage intact until it dies back, it may look ugly for a month or two, but you will always provide the bulbs with enough energy to grow, multiply and prosper into the future.

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This second picture shows how many bulbs come out of a single cluster. You never know how many bulbs are hidden below the surface. In this cluster, I took out 35 bulbs, and left 6 back in the hole to reproduce, ready to bloom next spring. I excavated a second cluster, taking 40 bulbs out to spread around. In 5-10 years, I’ll be digging the bulbs back up again and harvesting the next batch for springs to come.

We managed to keep our outside plants watered and growing through the summer. Just now we have a bit of stress showing on some of the planters where we missed a watering or two. Normally we have shriveled baskets by this time of the year, so we are happy to have blooms still gracing our porch and deck. The hummers are still around, fighting their aerial combat missions trying to gain access to the feeders, while the alpha hummer tries to play Spitfire and beat up on the Messerschmitt fighters. One day soon, we will notice that we’ve not seen a hummer for several days. That’s when we know the peak of summer has gone away to stay.

The vegetable gardens are winding down. Squash and cucumbers are yellowing and dying back now, but the Roma tomatoes are still providing salad and sandwich slices. Our green and hot peppers are producing – it took forever for the hot peppers to grow to maturity. With luck, they’ll produce till the first freeze of fall. We have the last crop of green beans coming to maturity and should have some good meals out of them yet.

A thunderstorm is approaching as I write this. Thunder is rolling from ridge top to ridge top as it heads towards us. It is ushering in a cold front that will drop our temperatures down into fall-like levels. As this front droops through the southeast, it is expected to steer Hurricane Irma up onto Florida, and keep it from marching across the Gulf. My hope is that this storm will lack the punch and destructive power of Hurricane Harvey. But with its winds at 185 mph, it will need to shed a lot of energy if it is not to generate its own weather catastrophe.

Why so close? Chemical plants and oil refineries, and water.

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Chemicals, oil, and water are linked eternally in a faustian bargain. In order to produce most chemicals, and all petroleum products, it is necessary to have access to immense quantities of water. Thus, the infrastructure for these industries is found in the low-lying areas alongside of rivers, and within the inlets and bays along the coastline of the oceans. When the inevitable floods happen, the potential for releases of chemicals and oil, and even explosions as seen in Crosby Texas this week can and will occur.

Why is there this dependence on huge quantities of water? In order to make many chemical reactions occur, it is necessary to provide heat. That heat normally comes in the form of steam. Steam is also used to enable separations of chemicals through distillation. The tall columns seen in chemical plants and refineries are usually distillation towers, where products and wastes are drawn off at various levels in the towers. These products must then be condensed, and they are condensed in heat exchangers with water being used to cause the vapors to condense. The chemicals and the water don’t mix in these condensers, since they are found on opposite sides of the heat exchangers. But immense quantities of water are used in heat exchangers, and the water is thus warmed, reducing its effectiveness in condensing and cooling chemicals.

The water used in heat exchangers and condensers may only be used once. This is single-use water and it is necessary to have a large volume of water nearby in order to release the warmed water without adverse ecological impact. If the water is reused, then it is necessary to cool the water back down in order to use it again. This is done in cooling towers, and you normally will see the plumes of water vapor coming up from these large structures, where water is cooled through evaporation as it drips on down through the wooden framework of a cooling tower. Cooling towers increase the concentration of salts in the water, since a portion of the water is lost to evaporation and may have many cycles through the cooling tower before being discarded to a body of water.

Since it takes lots of energy to move large quantities of water, and lots of money to run long lengths of piping, most chemical plants are found just adjacent to the water. They are sited so that they are above the normal flooding levels, but when unprecedented flooding happens like with Harvey, they are supremely vulnerable to damage from water. In my career in the chemical industry, I worked at two plants (in Tennessee and in West Virginia) that were situated along rivers. The plant in Tennessee did have problems long after I left when flooding from the Mississippi caused backwater flooding that buried part of the plant, which was situated on a smaller feeder stream. Fortunately, it didn’t cause the release of chemicals, and was not a large problem, but it highlights how close proximity to water comes with its own set of risks.

I have been to plants in Texas that were totally inundated from the floods this week. One along the end of the Houston Ship channel, that immense concentration of oil and chemical plants along Texas 225. The other was in Beaumont, situated right next to the marshlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities at these plants are designed to be safe and to be able to be shut down without causing chemical releases. But. There are limits to what you can do and still be safe. When you have feet of floodwaters covering a site, then the power of the water can do things that cannot be controlled. Water can erode pipe supports, and the dangling piping will bend and break, releasing the contents of the lines. Floodwaters can shove vehicles and boats into pumps and piping, causing them to break. Even in the normal process of shutting down facilities, excess venting and flaring of flammable and toxic compounds can happen, which can cause irritation and concern among the neighbors of these facilities.

Just as there is a faustian bargain between these facilities and water, there is another relationship that comes into play. That is the relationship between the workers and their families, and their proximity to the plant. Very often the workers for these facilities are found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants. Entire generations of workers have grown up nearly in the shadow of the towers of refineries and chemical plants. This is especially true in the region around the Houston Ship Channel. The towns of La Porte, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown have a symbiotic relationship with their industrial behemoths. Only a single road separates the residential areas from the properties of the oil and chemical companies. Quite literally, the companies and the towns are all in the same boat at times like now.

The plant that had the explosions this week was a different type of chemical plant. This plant was not adjacent to a large body of water. What it manufactured was a chemical that is essential in the manufacture of plastics, but by its own nature, it was extremely unstable. In my chemical plant in West Virginia, we also manufactured a similar material. These materials are known as polymerization initiators, and they make it possible for chemicals like ethylene (two carbons bound by double bonds) to react with each other, and form long chains that we know as plastics (polyethylene). The materials we produced in West Virginia also have to be kept refrigerated or they will grow unstable and catch fire. Part of the lore of the plant involved the time when the manufacturing line for this material had a problem, and the temperature rose to the point where the chemical decomposed and ignited. That fire was remembered long after everyone who worked during the fire had left the plant. What made the situation in Texas worse, was that the organic peroxides they made are not only flammable but are explosive when they decompose.

Part of the manufacturing process for chemical plants involves process hazards reviews. In these reviews, the participants go through a systematic review of the inherent hazards of the process and facilities, and determine if there were adequate safeguards to prevent incidents and injuries. Sometimes a significant hazard is discovered, one that had not been previously considered, and then the management of the plant faces the task of getting the fix done to remove the hazard. Since it takes time to implement new facilities (and get the authorization to spend the money to build facilities), normally there are administrative controls that are put in place to temporarily mitigate the risks. But even though I participated in many process hazards reviews in my career, I do not remember ever having considered the case of having my plant submerged in multiple feet of floodwater, and having no way to get anything working for days at a time. I imagine that the chemical and refining industries will have to go through substantial work trying to come up with new safeguards that will prevent releases and explosions such as are being seen in Texas now.

Misguided Priorities? You Decide

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Photo posted on Wikimedia commons. Photo by Aerial Photography, Inc. Allen Texas High School.

Compare and contrast the priorities of two adjacent states. In an AP story today, we learned about how Oklahoma’s conservative approach toward taxes has resulted in teachers becoming eligible for a house from Habitat For Humanity, and their children becoming eligible for reduced price school lunches. See the story here:

http://wtop.com/business-finance/2017/08/charities-try-to-help-oklahoma-teachers-survive-pay-collapse/

Meanwhile, in a CNN story, we learn about the ongoing arms race in Texas football stadiums, where new high school stadiums cost as much as $70 million dollars. See the story here:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2729443-72-million-for-a-high-school-stadium-in-texas-its-only-up-from-there

I can think of nothing that displays the misplaced priorities of the US better than these two examples. In one state, teacher’s pay has stayed stagnant for a decade, while its GOP-led legislature maintained extremely low tax rates on oil and gas extraction, and in 2014 passed legislation to cut the personal income tax in the state. This has resulted in Oklahoma per pupil spending on public education to decline by a quarter from 2008 to 2016. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Continental Resources, an oil extraction firm, says “We don’t have a revenue problem in Oklahoma. We have a spending problem.”

Across the Red River in Texas, things are full speed ahead for funding for worship spaces for the Texas state-sponsored religion, high school football. Katy (a Houston suburb that is probably now just wanting the rain to stop) has just completed work on their $72 million dollar facility, replete with luxury boxes and a $2 million dollar video replay board. Granted, Texas does support its teachers better than Oklahoma does, with their average teacher pay about 32nd in the nation as compared to Oklahoma’s position at 48th. Still, the excess public funding for athletic facilities, and the excess adulation given to young male athletes is out of all proportion to the true value of high school athletics.

Can you imagine what it would be like to work for a school system where they passed bond issues to improve the chemistry labs for their high schools? Or one where they upgraded their biology laboratories with modern microscopes instead of using manually focused machines that were obsolete in the 1970’s? Indeed, over and over again we see that the priorities of this nation are to prevent funding for new school academic facilities, preferring instead to cut taxes once again in order to stimulate economic activity. Ask Kansas how that’s working out for them?

We suffer in this country from a surfeit of selfishness. Republicans proudly commit to the principles of Ayn Rand, advocating full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism as the only valid moral code. We no longer recognize a collective need for action and spending unless we ourselves directly benefit from such spending. How many comments on message threads state “Why should I support spending on schools? I have no children going to school.” Such flawed reasoning holds that since I have mine, and have already benefited from common societal spending, I have no duty to the rest of society to enable others to potentially gain the same benefits as I already accrued.

Indeed, you see many screeds in the blogosphere about the unfairness of being taxed at all, that all taxes represent a taking from someone who has earned everything they have. If our entire society thought and acted like that, then we would live in a world of constant violence, where only those who could spend for defensive capabilities would be allowed to hold on to their own hard-earned assets. Taxes are necessary, and the belief that lowered taxation will always result in increased economic activity, so much so that it will lift the entire society out of poverty, has been proven demonstrably false. State after state has attempted that as a prescription for stagnant economies, and in each case, the results have not met expectations. See Kansas and Oklahoma and their growth rates vs. that of California, who chose a different path.

The issue of spending on schools, both teachers and facilities, is symptomatic of the direction that this nation has taken over the last four decades. At the national level, we grew tired of a congressional appropriations process that resulted in infrastructure spending only where it benefited powerful congressmen and women. So we banned earmarks, and now have included all infrastructure spending within the discretionary spending caps which are falling further and further behind in meeting critical needs. Meanwhile, attacks on unions have created the image of the Teachers Union slackers, living high on the hog on our largesse while simultaneously shirking their responsibility to adequately educate our children.

It is certainly true that the past method for allocating infrastructure spending was fraught with manipulation and waste. That is not an excuse though for letting all of it rust away and collapse like the levees did in New Orleans. We need civic-minded politicians who are willing and able to accept the recommendations of experts, who can assign priority to the critical infrastructure upgrades that are needed. These experts must also assess the capabilities of our construction contractors. Since we have neglected necessary funding for so long, we cannot scale back up immediately with 2x or greater spending on roads and bridges. We need to ramp up the spending rate over time, and we need a plan that is longer than that of a continuing resolution in order to provide contractors with the confidence that they can procure additional equipment, and hire trained workers, and receive an adequate return on their investment. Not to mention that we need some sort of training protocol for those who would benefit from infrastructure jobs. I know, I referred to the ultimate oxymoron – civic-minded politicians. In this day and age of polarization and political fratricide as practiced by President Trump, it is nigh unto impossible to conceive of a civic-minded politician. Put your disbelief away for a while, and just imagine a congress packed with such critters.

Likewise, public school education has suffered from waste, and a lack of accountability. It is unacceptable to have incompetent teachers protected from losing their jobs due to bureaucratic procedures. We need to enable the system to eliminate those teachers who do not perform, while increasing the pay so that the profession attracts more capable applicants who would actually be able to pay off their student loans. But it also needs to be acknowledged that we have failed our education systems by systematically refusing to upgrade facilities, voting down bond issues repeatedly until the very roofs start caving in on the poor students caught in the public school system. The solutions identified by the head of the Department of Education involves increasing the profit potential for investors in charter schools, affecting only a fraction of the total school population, instead of offering real assistance in enabling our school systems to succeed. We don’t need curriculum mandates and charter schools, we need assistance for teacher salaries and school facilities.

America was great when we had a firm commitment to public schools, and to public infrastructure. That we have meandered so far away from that commitment speaks to our failure to reinvest in our future. Are we that selfish that we opt for a fragmented and failing society just so we can retain a few more percent of our income? But the philosophy of conservatism since the days of Reagan keeps insisting that prosperity is just one more tax cut away. Sad. So sad.

It Was Totally Worth It!

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Photo courtesy of Sky and Telescope web site.

It was about 10:30 on Monday morning that we saw our first eclipse tailgaters parked in the ubiquitous church parking lots and also along dirt and gravel roads leading out into farm fields of soybeans and cotton. We were cruising down US 601, heading to Orangeburg, South Carolina, and my adult children were still berating me for getting them up at 6:30 because I was afraid of the gridlock that could have covered all of the roads south out of Charlotte. Traffic going down into the zone of totality was non-existent, and there were no backups anywhere.

Eclipse tailgating! That would have been a good idea. Groups had their shade canopies and lawn chairs, most folks had coolers, and some had even brought grills and other food items out to enjoy before the big event Monday afternoon. As for us, we had made a stop at Mr. Bunky’s Market on US 378 east of Columbia. This was quite an eclectic place, two gas pumps keeping sentinel outside, an interior with a second floor that was part antique store, part flea market. The main floor held everything from PVC pipe fittings to burlap bags advertising 50 pounds of Mr. Bunky’s Marijuana. There was a restaurant on the side that we didn’t go to, but we did get our commemorative eclipse t-shirts with the palmetto and sun phases on the back. Mr. Bunky’s was my fall-back viewing location if traffic was horrible, but since we were so far ahead of schedule, leaving this store by 10:15, we went on to my primary objective of Orangeburg.

Thank heavens for Google Earth and Google maps. Using those tools, I could scope out the entire route. We made it to Orangeburg by 11 AM and stopped at the FATZ restaurant near the intersection of I-26. They were advertising their eclipse party, and had 100 pairs of glasses to give away, but we didn’t need any since we were well equipped. After a leisurely meal and an appropriate beverage, we adjourned out to the back lot of the restaurant, where a few trees offered shade. We set up our lawn chairs and awaited the celestial events. Clouds were blessedly few, but still could have interfered.

Initial contact for us was at 1:14. Within a minute or two, it was evident that there was contact with a dark form just touching the rim of the sun. I started to take photos every 15 minutes of the ambient light, hoping to see the transition from light to dark after the eclipse was over. The word of the day was inexorable, as the moon continued its steady incursion over the sun’s surface. Still, there was no observable difference in the light that we saw.

A family in a van who had driven up from Charleston parked near us, and set up their display tools. Besides the glasses everyone sported, they also had brought a colander, a box with a pinhole for observation, and the best touch, a piece of cardboard with 8 20  2017 punched out with small holes. When they held that cardboard up, the second white piece of poster board held the image of the sun with an increasing amount of black displacing the light from the sun. They described the image as the pac-man sun, and that was very appropriate. They kept taking pictures of the date image as the eclipse progressed.

After about an hour, you got the sense that the light was changing slightly. Difficult to describe, but the light began to seem a bit fragile. I started taking pictures every 5 minutes at this time. The change in the light kept coming, and as it started to visibly darken, the light had a bluish tint. I thought about that, and it’s my belief that we normally associate sunrise and sunset with a reddish tint. That’s partially due to the longer path that the light takes through the atmosphere, and it tends to scatter the light and emphasize the redder wavelengths. But with an eclipse, the sun is shining straight down, and it is more of the blue of the sky that you sense as you head towards this unnatural dusk.

By the time you got to 10 minutes before totality, it became noticeably dark. The parking lot lights began to flicker on and tried to fight this unexpected dark. Still, I did not see any bird activity, nor did I hear crickets start their evening chorus. We were near woods that led towards a railroad track, so we could have seen these things, but I didn’t notice this happening. The tailgaters out in the country probably did.

As totality neared, everyone was craning their necks up with their eclipse glasses watching the last thin remnant of the crescent sun disappearing. We were not blessed with the brilliant images of Bailey Beads, or a diamond display as the last rays vanished behind the moon. Then, as the eclipse glasses grew dark, we removed them and saw…..

Totality! The pearly glow of the corona extended out about one solar diameter from the surface on all sides. It shimmered with white-hot ferocity around the black disk of the moon. At about 4 or 5 o’clock on the disk, there was just the faintest touch of orange extending over the moon’s surface. We actually saw a solar prominence with the naked eye. I had tried to take some pictures with my cell phone camera, but looking at the images later, it was obvious that the corona was too strong to image properly.  I didn’t want to look away from the corona, but forced myself to briefly look around at the horizon. Light shone faintly in all directions as the sky outside of the zone of totality stayed illuminated by the remnant of the sun.

It is impossible to fully convey the image of the corona. It was the single most incredible image I’ve ever seen myself. Dazzling. Irresistible. I can see why some people become eclipse chasers, willing to spend whatever it takes to experience this image repeatedly in their lifetime. And then, it was over. Sunlight peeked over the rim of the moon, and it became necessary to put the eclipse glasses back on. Cheers erupted from the crowd as we all knew that the best part of the show was over, but we all reveled in the experience.

I remember back in 1979 during the last eclipse, I was working at a chemical plant. There they had welding goggles that we were able to use to look at the sun, and I remember using the pinhole method to see the image of the sun projected and showing the portion swallowed up by the sun. But for anyone who questioned whether it is worth it to get inside of the zone of totality, it is totally worth it. It is only during the last few minutes when the solar illumination is about 2% or less that you really sense the difference in light level, and seeing the corona is just incredible and is an image that I will take with me through the rest of my life. Make your plans now for 2024, because it is worth it.

After totality, everybody started packing up. My older son was going on down the road to Folly Beach for camping, so we said our farewells. My younger son came back with us to the hotel to decompress from the event. We encountered much more traffic on the return trip than we did on the way into the zone of totality. Still, traffic didn’t prevent us from seeing, and no clouds obscured the entire time of totality. And I got to share this incredible experience with my whole family. It just didn’t get any better than this.

The Shadow of Moon’s Smile

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It’s coming! An event that long ago showed up as a dream marker upon my imagined future life trail. The eclipse of August 21, 2017. As a child I was fanatical about all things related to the cosmos, and I devoured all of the books I could about astronomy and cosmology. I confess that I learned I was a nerd even before the word was invented. How many 2nd graders do you think had a strong conviction on the then current scientific controversy on whether the universe was the result of a big bang, or whether the steady state theory was the explanation for the observations of astronomers. I was quite firmly on the side of the big bang. This was a year before the discovery of the background microwave radiation that was the echo of the big bang, and there were indeed two schools of thought on the explanation for the observed universe. Being proven right on the big bang led to many more theories that I expounded upon during my childhood.

Since eclipses are known, predictable events, way back in the 1960’s I realized that if I was alive in 2017, a total solar eclipse would happen right over my head in Lincoln, Nebraska. That was the first total solar eclipse that I would be able to attend without travel to a foreign country (and back in elementary school that seemed to be so far out of reach). Now fast forward over 50 years, and I am now in the position of nervous anticipation of the event of August 21. I have our hotel reservation near the band of totality. Our two sons are planning to join us for the final journey to the strip of land that will experience darkness in the middle of the day.

Two things cause me nervousness in anticipating the event. First is traffic on the morning of the 21st. I will be 70 miles outside of the band of totality. I’m avoiding the interstate like the plague, but there will still be thousands who will follow the road that I will take, slowing our progress. I will probably antagonize my family by insisting that we get up and leave much, much sooner than we really need to, just to make sure that we get there in time. Ideally we want to go about 130 miles to our preferred viewing site, but the absolute must is to make it to the band of totality.

The second thing that causes me anxiousness? The weather. We will be in central South Carolina, and the sky conditions in this part of the south are iffy at best, both historically and in the extended weather forecast. I can say to myself that if clouds obscure the view, at least I will experience the coming of sudden darkness, followed by an instant morning, But that will never substitute for the absolute thrill of seeing the corona emerge, shining eerily over the surface of the darkened side of the moon. It would be extra special if there were a solar flare at the time that you could see, but just seeing the physical manifestation of the solar wind will be awesome.

Well, you pay your money and you take your chances. South Carolina offered the only opportunity for my entire family to attend this event, so we will be going in a spirit of optimism, rather than pessimism.

If we miss it this go around, there is a subsequent eclipse coming up in 2024 that bisects the country again. I hope to be able to travel to it as well, but the first shot I have will be my best hope.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy!

The story in the paper finally explained to me why I feel like an alien in the land of my birth and an alien in my chosen religion. Dr. Robert Jeffress, who had previously escaped my notice as a pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, explained to me how it is that Donald Trump is God’s weapon of choice to take out the evil exemplified in the North Korean government. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”

That statement and the belief system underlying that statement are so alien to me that I am seeking vainly to forge any type of reality-based connection to someone who would make such a horrendous statement and issue it as speaking with the authority of God. How to begin? Well, first I would say that anyone who would defend the taking of military action resulting in the deaths of millions of humans is not speaking with the authority of God. Those who take the name of nuclear holocaust in vain share the unimaginable consequence of being responsible for the immense loss of life and the innumerable lives that will be changed due to the detonation of nuclear weapons. To think that such a consequence would be due to someone just demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that he has cojones makes the potential devastation just that much more sickening.

I have wondered how the group of folks associated loosely as evangelical Christians could ever have supported such an overt sinner as Donald Trump. Yes, I use the biblical term sinner to define his existence prior to seeking the Presidency. Donald Trump revealed himself to be a sinner as he failed to pay multitudes of small contractors what they were owed for services to his multiple properties. Why? Mainly because he could and it would be too expensive for a small contractor to demonstrate harm from the behemoth that was the Trump empire.

Donald Trump revealed himself to be a serial adulterer and as someone who used his position of power to extract sexual benefits during his association with the Miss Universe beauty pageants when he ran that obsolete version of an event aimed at objectifying women. For evangelistic Christians to overlook the multiple adulteries of Donald Trump while they crucify his predecessor for imagined sins of, well, I’m not sure what sins Barack Obama was actually accused of. I never heard an accusation of womanizing as he has been faithful to his only wife throughout his marriage. I never heard of an accusation where Barack Obama admitted to taking liberties with women because it was overlooked for those individuals who were blessed with power and status. Even taken from the biblical perspective of “he who has not sinned, let him cast the first stone” does not seem to apply to Donald Trump’s predecessor. Although Donald Trump certainly lobbed many paving stones at Barack Obama accusing him of being a less than 100% American born citizen.

Donald Trump demonstrated his ability to steal from his lessers when he established his ersatz Trump University. Can you imagine someone audacious enough to attempt to cash in on his bogus reputation as a master real estate developer by offering a cascading offering of real estate courses, each level purporting to reveal more and more secrets from the man himself (of course for a much higher price), only to reveal itself as a fraudulent enterprise aimed at preying on the dreams and aspirations of those who had been damaged beyond redemption by the financial crisis and the subsequent financial collapse. That Donald Trump was ever required to provide financial reparations for his rapacious greed is a miracle of contemporary jurisprudence.

Donald Trump demonstrated that he has no concept of the term of bearing false witness. Through innumerable statements he has made, he continues to bear false witness even against himself, due to the volume of falsehoods

he has made that he subsequently contradicts in a later statement. Or tweet. We haven’t even gotten into the issue of him using a new media offering as his unfiltered access to his base. Well, if he has a base, it is pure sodium hydroxide solution, and his credibility is softening into mush as it soaks in this solution.

No, what I realized when I saw the comments from Dr. Jeffress, is that Donald Trump is a manifestation of a phenomena that first revealed itself when I was a teenager. At that time, a Presidential candidate by the name of Richard Nixon invoked the Silent Majority as critical supporters of his bid for office. He was able to convince enough voters that his view of America as being intolerant of dissent, insufficiently strong to withstand opposing viewpoints, and convinced voters that he alone held the secret answers to solve the external problems that plagued America in the era of Vietnam and hippies.

The same divide that was enunciated in our culture in the 1970’s TV show All In The Family still shows up as fault lines in our current society. We are still divided into the hard hats and the hippies of those days. You either support Archie Bunker, or you support Meathead. The difference is that now both sides of the cultural divide have our own media environments to reinforce our biases with the 24/7 proclamations of our chosen media service. Since we can inoculate ourselves against exposure to opposing viewpoints, let’s do so now and therefore prevent us from ever considering that we may be wrong in our beliefs.

As I reflect upon the comment from Dr. Jeffress, I realize that indeed, the perspective he espouses could be found in the Bible – deep in the bowels of the Old Testament, where the sexploits of the leaders of the Israelites are documented. Where the cruelties inflicted upon the enemies of Israel are celebrated throughout the books of Judges and Kings, where the will of the Lord is reflected in an angel slaying one hundred and eighty-five thousand Syrians, leading the sons of the King of Syria to slay their own father. This is the mentality that is reflected in someone saying that it is the will of God to bring untold misery into the world by unsheathing the nuclear sword once more upon the world.

Much ink has spilled over the differences between conservatives and liberals. It seems to this follower of Jesus that the conservative position is for those who long for the Old Testament vengeful God, those who believe that strength defines right, those who believe in subjugation of the individual to the majesty of the government. The liberals favor the wisdoms revealed in the words of the Gospels, where the government is addressed as having authority (render unto Caesar), but the kingdom defined is not mainly of the government. Instead, the entreaty is to treat the stranger as a friend, to share with those who have the least, and to express righteous indignation at evil being done even in the house of worship. Of all of Jesus’s faults in the eyes of the Pharisees, the one that was unforgiveable was interfering with commerce in upsetting the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.

Maybe just gaining this perspective for myself can help me to deal with having to coexist with a segment of the population who share few of my values. At least I can understand their frame of reference, and maybe that is a start in trying to bridge the gap between two diametrically opposed perspectives. That it took referring to texts from thousands of years ago to gain this perspective, is indicative that the differences in perspectives has always existed, and we as a species are no closer to closing the gap between us. Only now, the stakes are higher since our tools of destruction have grown immeasurably more deadly.

 

Flo and ebb on the coast

For those who live in towns designated as ports of call on the ocean coasts, there are two totally different tides that rule their lives. The timeless ebb and flow of the waters, first flooding the marshlands of the coast, then pulling away, running backwards out to sea. Life has been nourished through this endless rhythmic cycle.

Then there is the human tide, unleashed when a cruise ship opens its umbilical cord to the welcoming greeting of the coastal town’s inhabitants. These residents are dependent upon the flow of money emanating from the cruise ship passengers, waiting for their share of the fertilizer that will be left behind in their wake.

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For some towns, the arrive of a ship’s passengers is scarcely noticed. Large enough to absorb the swell of the human tide, they offer many options for the passengers who only have a few hours to partake of the culture of the port. But for a small port, the flood of passengers can become a tsunami, overwhelming the limited facilities available. The crowds cause delays, impatience grows, and both the passengers and residents resent each other. Still, the residents are dependent upon the monetary opium left behind by the passengers.

The tide recedes, the passengers pass back through the ship’s umbilical cord, and wthe ship sails away with a blast from it’s horn. The residents of the port of call can settle back into their natural rhythm of the tides, awaiting the next time when a human tide is unleashed upon their shore.

Note to readers. My wife and I just finished a wonderful cruise from Boston to Montreal, and stopped at multiple ports of call on our way. It was the first ocean cruise either of us had ever taken and thus we had no basis for comparison. We loved the attention we received from the mainly Indonesian crew, but more than anything else, we loved the serendipity from our dinner companions. If you wished to dine in the dining room, it was necessary to make reservations, and we chose to agree to share dinner with strangers. The last night of our cruise, we shared a table with two other couples. We are from South Charleston WV for reference. The first couple was from Bluefield WV, at the far southern end of the state, where he was a EN&T surgeon, and his wife was a nurse in his practice. The other couple we ate with was from Boca Raton Florida. Their connection to West Virginia was that the wife was related to a very prominent dental family in the Charleston area who are continually advertised on the television.

We did not find exceptional coincidences on the trip. I grew up in Lincoln Nebraska, which is about ready to experience the totality of eclipse. We saw a gentleman wearing a University of Nebraska shirt and when we enquired, found out he and his wife are from Beatrice. That is at the height of totality, near where Bill Nye the Science Guy will be hanging out on August 21. But we did not find anyone that we knew on the trip (I did try to figure out the mathematical odds of meeting someone I knew on the cruise, and swiftly gave up due to the complexity of the computation). But we did find more like-minded individuals who were opposed to the current US administration than we found who supported it.

As this was my first ocean cruise ever, I will wish to share some observations later. But for now, may you have a bon voyage as we had on our Holland America cruise from Boston to Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is This Sentence Too Long For You?

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One hundred and forty characters. That is the new delineation between acceptable political discourse, and incomprehensible gibberish, according to the new world order. Twitter me this: Are we so limited in our attention span that we can only understand concepts described in 140 characters or less?

The simple answer is, yes, we have regressed back into simplicity. We are so immersed in the shallowness of thoughts induced by our addiction to our electronic devices, that we now find it uncomfortable to concentrate for longer than a single tweet. And, appropriate for a nation addicted to fluff, we have selected a celebrity leader who epitomizes our shallowness.

When did we begin to worship “the cult of the celebrity?” Certainly in the 1800’s, the emergence of celebrities began. Fostered by the development of mass media (newspapers and magazines), and the growth of cities, a critical mass coalesced whereby people could become familiar with famous people, even if they never had the possibility of seeing these people perform. Think of Jenny Lind (supported by one P. T. Barnum). Think of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show. Think of Samuel Clemens and his touring lectures. Certainly in the late 1800’s, it became possible for individuals to become famous for being famous.

By the early 1960’s, the cult of the celebrity was well established. In 1961, Daniel Boorstin wrote in his seminal book “The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream”, “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness”. At the time he wrote those words, it applied to a much smaller group of people. Zsa Zsa Gabor comes to mind as exemplifying celebrity culture in the late 1950’s, and even then she did have some accomplishments as a movie actress. Boorstin was definitely prescient in foreseeing the direction of the culture.

America has also harbored a strong anti-intellectual bent. One of my favorite movies, Bringing Up Baby (and it’s ’70’s remake, What’s Up Doc), personified the attitudes towards intellectuals and scientists in popular culture. Cary Grant is the hapless paleontologist who inexplicably becomes the pursued object of the alpha female Katherine Hepburn. It is Hepburn as the mob moll, spitting out the end of a cigar, who rescues the scientist from incarceration. Small point, maybe, but except for film biographies of noble scientists struggling against society, movie culture rarely pictured scientists at all, and if they were pictured, more often than not they were objects of ridicule. They were the Nutty Professor instead of the rugged individualists portrayed in hundreds of westerns.

Today, anti-intellectualism is worn as a badge of honor by many in our society. In our schools, those who excel academically are derided and bullied by those who do not value scholastic achievement. In government, our politicians state, “I am not a scientist, but…” just before they explain why they are against scientific consensus on an issue, usually climate change. Anti-vaxxers who couldn’t describe the functions of vaccines in stimulating the immune system, claim that the cost / benefit ratio of vaccines has been miscalculated ever since the invention of the smallpox vaccine. And since the latest Presidential election, the scientists of the Federal government have been demeaned, threatened with slashed funding, and have been removed from any position of power and influence. Indeed, as of early July, no one has been nominated for the position of National Science Advisor.

Science and scientists have taken the brunt of the anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration, but other intellectuals are the victims of his misguided philosophy of dismembering government as a ruling strategy. Why rely upon professional diplomats who have spent decades studying issues and learning about regional and global political issues? Let’s just go to a meeting of world leaders and wing it. What could possibly go wrong?

So now we have the Tweeter-in-Chief using stream of consciousness to posit the latest birth of a thought (A cyber-security cooperative between us and Russia!), only to come back 12 hours later saying, “Not gonna happen!” My question is who is going to end up running the Trump empire once all of the key players end up imprisoned due to their actions during the campaign and subsequent time in power. Maybe we can get a remake of the First Wives Club (or first and second and third wives club) with Ivana, Marla, and Melania? I’d pay to see that.

Back to 140 characters. It is so deeply ironic that when NPR decided this year to not only recite the Declaration of Independence, but to tweet it, that many in the twittersphere took the words of our founding fathers as disrespect against the dear leader. Can you imagine that happening in any time other than the present, that such profound ignorance would display itself in a public medium?

I am reminded of the wisdom of the National Lampoon back in the early 1970’s for their parody, Deteriorata. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey6ugTmCYMk ). They, too, foresaw what was happening, and where we were headed. One of my favorite lines in this piece is: “Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls would barely get your feet wet.” What an appropriate metaphor for government of the tweet, by the twit, and for the twitted.