Want to Take a Dip in the Lake on Mars?

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Humanity needs a frontier in order to provide meaning to our existence. It is in the pursuit of the frontier that we have an opportunity to exhibit our best character traits, and provide a relief valve for our churlish nature. Up until the 20th century, we had frontiers on most continents. Exploration in the Amazon rain forest, conquering the outback in Australia, “civilizing” the American west by taking it from its original inhabitants, all of these helped to fuel the imaginations of the time. Once the frontiers closed though, it has not been possible to dream of adventures in exploration that would open new vistas to humanity.

Until recently, that is. Beginning with government efforts in the US and the Soviet Union enabling space exploration, we now are in a world where many nations are launching their own satellites, and conducting virtual space exploration to other bodies in the solar system. Private industry is playing a larger role, as the value in providing access to near-earth orbit becomes profitable. Even now, we have begun to dream of new adventures in revisiting the moon, and placing human footprints on other celestial spheres.

That is why the recent discovery of a lake of liquid water sealed under the south polar ice cap of Mars is so important. The story of the discovery may be found in the August 3 issue of Science Magazine. The Italian research team describes the results from the European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express probe, where radar pulses were sent down into the Martian surface, and the return pulses were analyzed. The pulses show both the surface features, and the features below the south polar ice cap. They show a clear signal of a very strong return of the radar beam from below the ice cap in certain places. By comparison to radar images taken from subsurface lakes in Greenland and Antarctica, they can state with confidence that the bright reflections represent a free water surface found below the ice. That water is undoubtedly extremely salty, since even under a kilometer and a half of ice, the freezing point of water needs substantial salt content in order to keep the water as liquid at the temperature of Mars. Still, the discovery of water, on a planet that long ago lost its atmosphere due to the decay of its magnetic field, gives hope that in the future humanity may actually be able to survive the hostile landscape of another planet.

mars ice cap

Mars Northern polar ice cap

The discovery shows how human probes continue to make significant discoveries at Mars. Right now there are eight probes (from the US, the ESA, and India) either circling Mars, or rolling over the surface of the planet. It is no longer extraordinary to see 360° panorama views of the surface of Mars, showing the approach of a lander to the distant mountain that will be explored next. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the entire cycle of space exploration. One of my earliest memories was hearing over the radio the announcement of Sputnik’s successful launch as my family drove back from vacation. I was an inveterate space junkie during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I remember the early moon probes, and watching the pictures return from a moon growing ominously closer, until the picture went dark upon impact. Now, the discoveries from Saturn, and Jupiter, and Pluto, and even from asteroids and comets keep coming as we expand our exploration horizons.

But for humanity to really create a new frontier, it will be necessary for humans to venture back beyond our own planet, and onto suitable surfaces elsewhere in the solar system. There are very few locations where we could exist, even for a short while. One would not want to land on the Jovian volcanic moon of Io, which continually sends plumes of material up from its surface in response to the intense tidal energy released from rotation around Jupiter. Europa would be a candidate, but the crevasses in the icy surface covering it’s moon-girdling ocean would be risky for someone to navigate. The outer gas planets themselves offer no solid surface at all – just an atmosphere that keeps growing thicker and thicker until it turns into a sticky liquid. Really, we have only the moon and Mars as candidates for humanity to set up any sort of outpost.

So I am firmly in favor of continuing human exploration of space, even though the additional scientific payback from human observation may not be justified financially. No, it is because we as a species wish to continue to explore, to see what lies beyond the next ridge, to satisfy the itch that comes from too much stability and comfort, that is why we must keep extending humanity’s reach. Otherwise we will become jaded, and will gain a mindset that says we can only win if others lose. Western civilization has shown for the better part of a millennium that the payoff for exploration activities always exceeds the input costs, even when the act of exploration creates martyrs along the way. It certainly has a better record of payoff than various economic theories implemented over the past 38 years can show.

There’s yet another reason for humanity to return to space. The exploration of space has become internationalized over the years, and those who staff the International Space Station have come from an increasing number of countries around the world. All who see the Earth from space come away with a firm belief that we are fortunate to live on such a hospitable planet, and that you cannot see borders from space*. We on Earth need to regain the perspective that we had back in December 1968, when the first Apollo flight to circle the moon broadcast that magical image of the moon, accompanied from the words of Genesis .  For those of us who remember that moment, we will never forget it. If you truly wish to make America great again, then we should reach once more for the stars.

 

* You can actually see the borders of North Korea at night, when the line of demarcation shows the difference between North Korea’s neighbors and their surplus of electric lights, compared to the darkness inhabiting the hermit kingdom.

 

 

Of Venn Diagrams And Current Events

Trump venn diagram

So many people shout on the internet about socialism seeping into the psyche of this country, supplanting the natural urges for rugged individualism that made this country great. “If we only went back to the principles of the Constitution” they exclaim, as they gleefully ignore any reasoning why it sometimes feels like applying a straitjacket in trying to fit the modern world into the confines of that same Constitution. It is pointless to try to describe the difference between a nation perched on one edge of a continent, with an ever-opening frontier to the west offering a fresh chance to all who wished take it, and our modern nation, with the former frontier areas becoming depopulated as more and more people pour into the urban meccas.

At the same time, voices stridently denounce taxation as theft. It is the ascension of the cult of selfishness as defined by Ayn Rand. The rugged individualist is the highest expression of humanity, and all must strive to achieve that measure of greatness. If they fail, or are unable to find a place in modern society, then they should be judged harshly by Darwinism and cast aside without any assistance from the rest of humanity.

If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject – Ayn Rand

So an entire sub-group of our society has adopted not the morality of Christianity, but instead the amoral selfishness of Ayn Rand as the driving principle for our society. And in 2016, enough of them managed to seize political control with the assistance of others who were discontented with both their own economic circumstances and the choice of candidates. For better or worse, they judged Donald Trump as the preferred choice, and allowed a shyster from Queens to take office.

Forget the parable of the Good Samaritan when it comes to the aliens among us. Instead, inject fear of the other into the conversation in order to demonize any and all who have not met all hurdles for legal residence, and soften up the sphere of public opinion to enable their dehumanization. Forget the commandment about not bearing false witness. Instead, boldly contradict something you said yesterday that was recorded by all of the various media sources you decry as fake. Forget all prohibitions against adultery and fornication. Instead, judge someone by how effectively they set up their non-disclosure agreements with their various extra-marital partners. Forget any sense of shared sacrifice to rebuild the infrastructure of this nation. Instead, pitch a tax reform plan with 95% of its benefits aimed at corporations and plutocrats, and falsely pitch it as the greatest middle-class tax cut of all time. Time and again we can point to the times when the actions of this administration have been aimed at the degradation of those who voted for it. Yet even now, 18 months after taking charge, those who were hypnotized into becoming true believers of the cult of personality still see their leader as walking across the Sea of Galilee, unencumbered by the laws of physics. Kind of reminds me of his hair.

Why is it so many have swerved from acceptance of reality, onto a path leading starkly towards authoritarianism? How is it that we now have an administration that feels any challenge to its power by the press is grounds for exclusion of the representative of the press who dared to raise her voice in a question? How is it that an administration can be emboldened enough to falsify transcripts of the Helsinki press conference to eliminate all reference to a question as to whether Putin favored Trump’s election, even though millions heard the question and answer either in real time or replayed later?

How many times do you need to hear “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” before you realize that this administration is trying to cut itself free of reality? In the speech to the VFW on July 23, President Trump said:  “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” That is a direct appeal to believe only the words of the great leader, and ignore any and all evidence to the contrary that may be presented by any person or group who dares to disagree with the temporary delusion of the leader. A delusion that will be walked back the next day, only to be reaffirmed the following day.

Still, those who have become addicted to the sugar high of red hats and “Lock her up” chants refuse to accept the evidence of their eyes and ears as to the incompetence and greed of this administration. The one overwhelming success of the Trump movement has been to commandeer the complete support of a minority of the American public. Body and soul, they still believe that the man is only in it for them – they know that the discomfort they are feeling due to farm markets unraveling under the influence of a trade war is only temporary. They remind me of the black knight in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie, who after having had both arms and legs shorn off, kept saying “It’s just a flesh wound”.

During the last administration, the same corps of true believers were convinced that Barack Obama was destined to implement martial law, that FEMA had ordered millions of death shrouds to handle the violence that was sure to come due to the overreach of the Obama administration, that the Muslim brotherhood was just waiting for the signal from their leader in the White House in order to unleash ferocious jihad upon hapless American citizens. Funny, it seems to me that none of those things ever happened under Obama, nor were we ever in danger of any of those things happening. But if you took a Venn diagram of those who believed Obama was the epitome of evil, and mapped it on those who believe Trump is actually Making America Great Again, you will have a significant overlap. It is clear there is a minority within this nation who actively resist the reality of life in the 21st century. The question to be answered during the upcoming mid-term election is whether that minority will be allowed to hold the rest of the nation hostage, actively thwarting all efforts aimed at improving the lot of the American people while enabling the groper-in-chief to continue his self-aggrandizing swagger while he cedes control of our foreign policy to those who wish us ill.

The message sent in 2016 was that there is profound discontent in the economic maldistribution within this nation. Entire swaths of the population found themselves bereft of hope, and they hitched their wagon to the candidate whose words addressed their fears. Three years after the announcement that this misogynistic racist was mounting a serious run for the presidency, one can only hope that the scales are beginning to fall off of the eyes of those who have been deceived. We can only hope that soon the Trump rump will be a vestigial tail upon the national dialogue, as its elected enablers are swept from the scene.

Modern Medical Morass

Medical maze

I had a very interesting discussion with my orthopedic physician a while back (as I age, I seem to collect more and more physicians of different specialties). He was helping me to decide a course of action to take with my balky knees that have deteriorated over the course of my lifetime, and as we discussed the specifics of my knees, we diverged and ended up discussing a wide range of topics concerning the US health care system.

He was of the opinion that the current system we have for health care is incredibly inefficient, and shared an anecdote to illustrate his point. A woman came into his office complaining of leg pain and weakness. She had been to multiple physicians in the past but had found no relief. As his assistants were taking her history, and conducting an initial assessment, they sensed that her problems were not in her legs, but were caused by back problems. They discussed this with the doctor, and he agreed that an x-ray of the back was justified.

The x-ray revealed that the patient had significant arthritis in the back, resulting in bone-on-bone contact for at least one set of vertebra. This had caused impingement on nerves going down the legs, accounting for her symptoms. The normal progression of the diagnostic process would call for a MRI exam to confirm the extent of the back issue.

But. The insurance company response to this type of diagnosis is firm and consistent. No MRI will be authorized until the patient has exhausted all other options. In this case, it means that the patient was referred to physical therapy for a 6-week course of treatment. So the insurance company was willing to spend $3,000 on a course of therapy in order to avoid a MRI expense (I have no idea what an MRI costs), with its potential diagnosis of a need for back surgery at much greater cost.

The doctor had referred the patient to therapy, and the course of therapy had not yet been completed. He said that he fully expected that the patient will have no improvement from this expensive course of treatment, and then he will be able to get the approval for the diagnostic tool he knows is necessary for this patient to finally find relief through treatment. He speculated on the reason why insurance companies would go this route – refusal to fund an expensive diagnostic tool but approve an even more expensive course of treatment. His speculation is that actuarial analysis shows that if even a few patients do receive help from physical therapy, or a few patients die during the course of therapy, or a few patients give up on the process and just keep suffering with their ailment, then the avoided surgeries more than offset the cost of the therapy.

My doctor was very generous with his time with me. We did discuss my options, and my preference for lower levels of intervention. Right now I am receiving periodic injections of cortisone. More intrusive means of treatment are available if I don’t have relief from this level of treatment, up to and including knee joint replacement. I am very grateful that my doctor has allowed me to have enough information to make an informed decision and to be an active participant in my treatment.

We discussed the problems that the current insurance-based systems impose upon doctors being able to provide options to patients. He presented a hypothetical case where a patient with a high-deductible insurance policy, but with a health savings account, would come in with symptoms that indicated a need for further investigation. The two choices would be an MRI (expensive, but comprehensive), or an ultrasound (less-expensive, but not as sensitive and potentially could miss rare issues that an MRI would pick up). The current environment would indicate that the standard of practice is to insist upon an MRI, and if the physician should ever be in the position where he / she went with an ultrasound, and that patient happened to have that obscure condition that only an MRI would detect, he / she would be liable under malpractice litigation for not following the standard of care.

But if the doctor and the patient could enter into an agreement where the patient accepted the risk of a potential for a missed diagnosis for a rare condition, in exchange for a lowered payment for the test, then overall costs for the medical industry would be reduced. That is just not possible right now, but with the huge increase in insurance deductibles, it may be coming back. No, my doctor said that at present, he has the need to reduce his liability risk to zero by over-prescribing diagnostic tests since there exists no mechanism to transfer the risk for a missed diagnosis to the patient. This is where my doctor says that the malpractice industry has raised medical rates, by insisting that all illness can be detected or treated if only the patient is tested for all potential conditions related to their symptoms, regardless of the likelihood of a rare condition. Thus a huge cost results from the excess diagnostic tests required to detect the condition that afflicts a few tenths of a percent of the population.

My doctor expressed hope that a single-payer system would emerge out of the morass of the current health-care system. He acknowledged that any such system could have its own set of problems, but he seemed to be comfortable to accept standards such as Medicare has established for treatment to be extended to the population at large. Insurance companies would still have a role in administering claims, but the ability of doctors and patients to have a say in the treatment protocol would be greatly increased.

During the uproar with the Affordable Care Act, much was made of the imposition of “death panels” who would represent government imposing life and death decisions upon poor helpless upright citizens of the US. What opponents of the Affordable Care Act have always refused to acknowledge is that the “death panels” they feared have always existed, and they belong to the faceless bureaucracy of the insurance companies, doing their darnedest to increase both the complexity and costs of the medical profession, and actually harming patients in their insistence to adhering to rigid and often obsolete standards of diagnosis and treatment.

But what do I know? I’m only a consumer of the medical industry, with very little input on treatment options and zero input on the cost of the approved treatment. I am very thankful for physicians like my orthopedist, who is treating me as a full partner in my own treatment, and who is willing to share his thoughts on the medical system.

 

What Country Actually Manufactured This Product?

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The issue of international trade is in the headlines with the imposition of tariffs by the US administration, followed by reciprocal tariffs from the trading partners of the US. I am in a unique position to comment on international trade issues, because for years I worked for a large multi-national corporation on global supply chain issues. In fact, I helped to implement the computer infrastructure that enabled my employer to minimize global taxes on shipments that went from continent to continent. It makes it very difficult to determine, where is a product actually made? I will try to explain one supply chain I was involved with and hope that the readers can follow the product trail.

This particular supply chain started with an intermediate chemical compound. That is, one that took a good bit of chemistry to create, but was not a finished product. We either produced that material within our company in the US, or purchased it from a third party located in China.

That intermediate chemical was shipped to our affiliated company legal entity in Puerto Rico. This requires an understanding of what constituted a legal entity in our company. A legal entity is a wholly owned subsidiary that is incorporated under the laws of its location. Since Puerto Rico had different tax structures and tax benefits than the rest of the US, we had established a Puerto Rican legal entity for the manufacturing plants we used there. Our intermediate chemical underwent a complex reaction there in order to become an active herbicide. Then the active materials were packaged into bulk containers (mainly drums), and were set to be exported to other locations where they would be formulated into finished products.

But. It was not as simple as shipping directly from Puerto Rico to our locations in France, and Australia. For the product going to the US, it was shipped directly, but for the others, the transaction was done through a legal entity located in Switzerland. That legal entity assumed responsibility for securing the transportation of the chemical and dealing with all customs payments. All in exchange for a markup fee, which raised the price of the active chemical in the formulating location. Since the price at the formulating location is higher than the cost of the chemical plus transportation fees, the Switzerland subsidiary booked a profit. Did I mention that Switzerland has a low tax rate? So for the corporation as a whole, a portion of the profit for the material was taxed at a very low rate, thus benefiting the economics for the company as a whole.

I was involved in the first setup of what were called trading companies. When we in the SAP (SAP = business enterprise software used to transact business globally) group first heard about it, our legal antenna went up, and we specifically asked “Is this legal?” Because to us, this seemed like a lot of work in order to avoid paying taxes in the countries where we really did physical work on the material. We were assured that it was legal, and we went ahead and set up the first of several trading companies. When you hear about the use of low tax countries to shelter profits, this is one way it is accomplished.

So the material has been shipped from the last manufacturing location to the country where it is formulated. The transaction to move the material was handled by the Swiss entity, but the material never touched Swiss soil. Instead, the material was unloaded at our plant in France. Now any agricultural herbicide or pesticide is a combination of one or more active ingredients, blended together with inactive ingredients, or adjuvants. These materials help in the dispersion of the product so that it may be applied, or dissolved within a spray tank, and then applied to farm fields. This process is known as formulation, and can be very involved with may different ingredients involved. The plant in France then packages the material. first in a large container (for us, multiple kilogram containers). Then, for countries close to France, they will package the material into finished products at the French plant which contain all of the country-specific labeling and use instructions, and then the materials are shipped to the countries in pallet quantities for distribution and sales. The trading company is not used for these transactions.

Logistically, it may make more sense to ship the larger containers to another country directly, where it may be transferred to country-specific packaging. Often contracters are used to accomplish this. Where an individual country market is large enough, like Russia or Ukraine, this is the preferred method for the final stage, where a finished product that will be purchased by a consumer is created.

Given all of these steps, where is the product manufactured? You can see that this becomes a difficult question to answer definitively, because with the exception of the trading company, there were manufacturing operations at all of these locations. The first two manufacturing steps where the intermediate was produced and then converted to the active ingredient added the most value to the finished product, but then even that material may have been originally manufactured in the US, or it may have been sourced from China. So take today’s situation – a tariff may be applied to a material if it were sourced from China, but not if it were manufactured in the US. Then a material is exported from Puerto Rico to Europe. Is Puerto Rico considered part of the US for the application of tariffs in Europe?

For the product I’ve traced, the system is easy in the US. The material is sent directly from Puerto Rico to the US without involving the trading company. It then is formulated and packaged for the specific US market at our plant in Illinois. By the way, did you know that there are multiple packages for use within the US? Often with herbicides and pesticides, it is necessary to have product labeling and use instructions for specific states, since some of them have requirements that are in addition to those from the Federal government. Each of these finished products have a specific bill of material, and each piece of paper or cardboard box used to hold the product had its own SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) that was included in the bill.

That was the world I worked in for the last 15 years of my career. Looking back on this process, I realized I was gaining quite a sophisticated knowledge of international business. I could look at the requirements by country, and I realized that those who complain in the US about overweening regulations stifling business activity, had never done business in Brasil. In that nation they require tracking of everything – copiers, pens, paper, costumes for demonstrations of insects, scientific instruments. Each of those things gained a material number so that they could be tracked coming into and going from their locations. I joked that I was surprised that they didn’t require bar codes on items flushed down their toilets. I was joking, but barely.

The world has become integrated by trans-national corporations. Supply chains stretch across multiple continents, and the systems are legally gamed to minimize taxes. Given all of these conditions, it is very questionable whether you could return to a process where a product is manufactured in a single country, out of components manufactured in that country, and sold not only in the country of manufacture, but exported to other countries and regions for the benefit of the country of manufacture. With the products I’ve described, I have difficulty in stating where the product was actually manufactured. Was it the last step where the product was packaged for the individual farmer? Or was it the location where the complex chemistry was performed? Or was it at the location where it was blended with its other inert ingredients? Each of those steps is a manufacturing operation. You tell me if it makes sense to identify a single origin for this material, and apply taxes and tariffs accordingly?

 

So! Much! Winning!

Trump's world

The Rubicon was crossed on July 11 in Brussels. Donald Trump laid bare the façade about the ambitions of the United States. We have officially become an imperial power, exacting tribute from those whom we enfold within the protection of our magnificent arms. Acting unilaterally, and against the advice and wisdom proffered by those in his administration who possess a brain, he demanded that NATO members not only meet the level of a 2% defense spending level, but instead that needs to be doubled to 4%. One can only assume there will be a Paypal account set up to forward delinquent accounts to US coffers.

I can understand “shaking things up” as being a necessary step in order to bring about a change in behavior. We may agree that some sort of action was needed in order to prod reluctant allies to meet their commitment to fund the common defense. But the behavior of bullying that was on exhibit in Brussels goes far beyond what a prudent person would do in order to maintain workable relations with our allies. What we have is a belligerent toddler who is sadly in need of a nap, berating Germany for maintaining a commercial relationship with Russia for natural gas that they’ve had for 45 years, including 15 years before the reunification of Germany.

Everything is transactional for Donald Trump. He does not even seem capable of recognition that true trade deficits consist of both merchandise and service balances. He continually bewails the merchandise trade deficit as exemplifying unfair practices. I have yet to hear him complain about the trade surplus we run in services with most countries in the world. The economic knowledge of Donald Trump could be condensed into the following points.

  1. We are the best nation in the world. Everyone should be grateful that we buy other countries products.
  2. Every other country manipulates the value of their currency so that their products are cheap and ours are expensive.
  3. Screw this idea of economic interdependence. We must maintain domestic manufacturing capability for all products because our national security depends upon our ability to manufacture Depends©.
  4. There are no unforeseen consequences in trade wars. Once our trade adversaries see that we’re serious, they will lay on their bellies before our alpha dog posture. These wars are easy to win!
  5. I’m doing all of this for you, the American worker who has been deprived of his rightful position in this global economy, by all of my predecessors, who negotiated the worst deals ever in the history of history, just because they hated America!

It is amazing, but I must finally say that Donald Trump has exceeded my own expectations. I expected him to be a disaster. But as time rolls on, the brazen attempts at imposing the will of his overgrown colon (his gut instinct!) upon the world make me incredulous. The utter failure at doing any sort of planning for the implementation of his zero tolerance policy at the border, thus leading to the inability to reunite parents or guardians with children. The childish attempts for Nobel notoriety in Singapore, enabling the North Korean leader to play pat-a-cake upon the drum of Donald’s extended stomach. The ongoing denigration of the allies of the US, allies we earned through the blood sacrifice of the US military through two world wars in the 20th century. The completely incompetent attempt to alter trade balances through the imposition of broadening tariffs. This is only the first tier. The book has yet to be written that encompasses all of the incapability of this administration at accomplishing any significant goal (other than naming judges from the list provided by the Federalist society).

And through all this, the sycophants in Congress who bear elephant tattoos are silent. The once great Republican party, one that stood for liberty and balanced budgets and accountability in government, now is mute in the face of the personality cult of the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. They sold their souls for their tax cut, now they wander aimlessly, sending delegations to visit Russia and saying, “After all, both sides can make recriminations.” They are mute in the face of all of the descriptions of the inhumanity of their forced separation policy, now bearing fruit in the inability to reconnect families. They are silent in the face of the trade war escalation, apparently uncaring about the collateral damage being done to our economy, all in the name of “being tough.”

And yet, there is still a significant minority in this nation who sing this man’s praises, who believe that his actions are totally consonant with that of a man who is acting on behalf of the interests of the people of this nation. Those who would not deviate from their support should their leader start to machine gun the pedestrians walking down Fifth Avenue by his eponymous tower. After seeing episode after episode of his incompetence and venality laid bare, I wonder what world his supporters live in. Clearly, they do not seem capable of self-reflection or analytic thought.

I guess Fox News is proving to be a better mind modifier than even I had considered possible.

 

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

 2018 flood

The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

2018 tomatoes.jpg

The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

2018 flicker.jpg

Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

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Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses – Yeah, we’ve heard that already

Yankee Stadium

When can you feel a shadow? When the shadow is cast from a team pennant flying over Yankee Stadium in the hot summer sun. I felt the coolness when the flickering flag blocked the sun’s rays momentarily. I went to the descendent of the House That Ruth Built for an afternoon game with Seattle, while the orchestra that I came to see was busy with other tour activities. I braved the NY subway system, trying to find the right side of the platforms to head on out to the Bronx. On the outbound leg, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a group of middle-school students coming onto the train, along with a beleaguered teacher. The energy and interplay of this group of students was intense, and I enjoyed watching it, while I did say to the teacher that I thought she had her hands full. They left on one of the stops in Harlem.

The game itself was exciting, but most of the action happened in the first two innings. By the end of the top of the 2nd, the score was 4-2 Yankees. The game ended at 4-3. I saw three 2-run homers, including one by the Judge. I saw another home run taken away by a remarkable catch in center. And then the game settled into a pitcher’s duel.

Aaron Judge

One of the activities the orchestra went on was a harbor cruise. This tourist staple was complete with a guide who gushed about the history of immigration on Ellis Island, and gave glowing praise to the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty. We heard about how the nation became a nation of immigrants, welcoming all to our shores, our nation being the embodiment of an open society. The passengers on the cruise represented the diversity of the world, with large groups of Asians, and many other passengers from throughout the world. Our group of 50 West Virginians added to the mélange of cultures on the ship.

Ellis Island

As we cruised on our return past Ellis Island, I was struck by the stark difference between the canned words of the tour guide, with the situation on the southern border of this country. Here was our administration, deliberately causing trauma in families by pulling children from parents, then separating them and keeping them in different facilities, sometimes thousands of miles apart. This administration that has been in control of the reins of government for 16 months, suddenly implementing a drastic escalation of the zero tolerance policy. What was abundantly clear was that the amateurs who are running our government had given scant thought about how to ensure there was a system to link parent to child, so they could be reunited. The amateurs had not built facilities that could handle the huge increase in detentions. Instead, they implemented it and then were incredulous when there was a backlash against the cruelty inherent in this forced separation policy. Even this week, we saw Jeff Sessions attempting to make light of the situation by claiming that all those who objected to the policy were to be found in gated communities, and they would gladly separate trespassers to the gated community from their families. I heard the echoes of “Let them eat cake”.

Statue of Liberty

Whatever your feelings are on the increased prosecution of illegal immigrants, even of those who try to follow the rules and are claiming asylum at recognized crossings, I cannot see how you can be in favor of the splitting of families for what is in essence a misdemeanor crime (first time offense of crossing border illegally). This is not what we as a nation represent. Our national mythology is that we welcome the immigrant, and are willing to evaluate each immigrant’s story based upon well-established principles for admission to this nation. I heard that mythology reflected in our tour guide’s script that she probably repeated 5 or 6 times a day. It is clear, though, that any more it can only be found in mythology, since it no longer represents the present state.

This nation has always had a conflicted history regarding immigration. At various times, it has been the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the southern and eastern Europeans, the Chinese, all of these groups have been savaged as they were allowed into this nation. Each time, the new group came in and established their own civic traditions, and eventually those traditions merged into the national culture with the passage of generations. Now we are in a world where the potential number of migrants greatly exceeds our capability of assimilating them. Combining that with a leader who evokes fear of others, who can only see the bad in those from outside instead of the good, and you end up with a perfect storm for those who were unfortunate enough to have bought into our national mythology and believed they would be welcomed into this nation.

The recent history of trying to resolve the immigration system, and the status of those already in the nation illegally, is replete with outlandish partisanship. Especially since the election of the Tea Party fanatics who view any mention of a pathway to citizenship as being traitorous, the well of bipartisanship has been poisoned. Now we have efforts from the House of Representatives at forcing a discharge petition to allow free and open debate upon the House floor. The beleaguered House leadership, not wanting to cede control to the possibility of bipartisan legislation, instead tried to force consideration of two different proposals depending only upon Republican votes for passage. It was heartening to see both of those efforts smashed into bits by the final votes. I can only hope that those who were pursuing the discharge petition renew their efforts, and attempt to develop a bill that can find supporters from both parties. Only then will we take the first steps towards healing the national divide on immigration. Only then can we hope to deal with the root causes of the problem, rather than dealing with the symptoms when they arrive on our border. And only then will we possibly develop a sustainable system for bringing new residents into our country, where their skills and energy can help to revitalize this nation’s communities and economy. Only then can we Make America Great Again!

All photos by author.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Take a Bus!

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There are locations that are sacred for practitioners of the arts. For musicians, one of these locations is Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia). It has served as a mecca of music for over 125 years since its opening in 1891. Last week, I had the great fortune to attend an orchestra festival, seated in a box seat just above the main floor, and listen to three youth and community orchestras perform. I came to see the Charleston Chamber Orchestra, which was the last of the three groups to play. They played three pieces, with the centerpiece being a movement from the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. The pianist exuded sensuality as she pounded the keys, expressing through her fingers the quintessence of Russian soul music, flinging back her mane of curly hair as she bounced on the bench. And complementing and contrasting the piano, the high notes of the piccolo played on, providing piercing punctuation to the percussion of the piano. My wife was on stage of Carnegie Hall, sounding the high notes that as she says, “Only the dogs can hear.” Well, my high frequency hearing still must be in good shape, because the night before in a smaller venue, those same notes actually hurt my ears.

The Charleston Chamber Orchestra exists due to the vision of its founder, Dr. Scott Woodard at West Virginia State. When the resident string quartet for the West Virginia Symphony was cut loose in a cost cutting measure, Dr. Woodard was able to offer employment, and an opportunity to participate in his dream, a symphony orchestra of the community. Music students at State, high school students from the Youth Symphony, professional musicians both past and present, and members of the community who have the ability to tackle a symphonic repertoire, all are members of this orchestra. This includes a blind flutist who sits next to my wife, who is able to play despite never seeing the baton beat the tempo. The orchestra has existed for fewer than three years, but this year they were invited to a festival in Carnegie Hall based upon an audition tape (we still call them tapes even though no physical media is used to record). The orchestra has a fairly full wind section, is light on strings, but is capable of tackling serious symphonic pieces. Well enough to receive a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall.

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

I was able to hear this group’s improvement from its inception. My wife got in on the ground floor, having grown acquainted with Dr. Woodard when she served as adjunct faculty. The group has another performance scheduled early next year in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and a dream about collaborating with an orchestra in Vienna. In my own life, music has allowed me to sing in music festivals in Charleston S.C. It has allowed me to perform on stage with Jennifer Garner. It has allowed me to accompany my sons when they were with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus on trips through central Europe, and to Oahu. And now, music allowed me to have the experience of being seated in a box in Carnegie Hall, enjoying the sounds not only of my friends, but also to hear youth orchestras from Green Bay and from the Bay region in California. You don’t have to be a professional musician to allow music to expand your range of experience in a lifetime. But it does take time and effort, and at least a moderate amount of talent to ensure that you don’t make a fool out of yourself. The musicians in this orchestra? Let me replace the word moderate with the word plentiful, and that comes closer to capturing their performance.

The day after the performance, we boarded a bus back to Charleston. It was ironic that the first movie that was played on the return trip was “The Bucket List”. Many of those in the orchestra had just completed checking one or more items off of their personal bucket lists.

 

The Amateur Hour

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Amateur – 3. A person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity

The United States is conducting an experiment. An experiment that affects each and every person inside of the country, and many others around the world. This experiment involves turning over the operation of the executive branch of government to a group of amateurs, and observing what happens when amateurs are turned loose upon the gears of diplomacy, economics, and the military.

So far, the results have not been catastrophic. Taking the issue of the economy for example, the trends established since the economy bottomed in 2009 are continuing to result in gains in employment, and in measured economic growth. Despite claims of exceptional performance under the current administration, GDP growth averaged 2.2% from 2010 through 2016, while GDP growth during the current administration has been 2.6%. Using the statistical t-test, the two sets of data (past administration vs. current administration) are equivalent. There is not a statistically significant difference between 2.2% and 2.6% growth. But the one knob that this administration has turned, the tax cut, has yet to factor into the performance of the economy. The tax cut does have the potential to increase the rate of GDP growth significantly. However, the tax cut comes with a cost that has yet to be reckoned. The estimated deficits will increase greatly due to reduced tax revenues, and if there is an economic downturn in the next few years, the normal response of loosening fiscal policy to boost the economy will likely not be available. So we are at the mercy of the amateurs in the administration who believe it to be prudent fiscal policy to significantly cut taxes at a late stage in an economic recovery that has entered its ninth year. But what do experts know, anyway?

If you consider diplomacy, there is certainly a mixed bag to date. It does appear that twitter tirades and brazen bluster did result in at least enabling an initial meeting between North Korea and the US, with a generic agreement being signed. If this is indeed a first step towards a ratcheting down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, then this administration will have accomplished a worthwhile and noteworthy goal. But if the North Koreans continue playing Lucy with the football to the US’s Charley Brown, then relations may end up worse off than if there was no meeting.

That is the good news on the diplomacy front. Elsewhere, it is evident that this administration has zero respect for, and zero admitted need for diplomatic experience and expertise. Witness the exodus of State Department veterans over the first year of this administration. As of last November, 60% of the top management of the State Department had left government service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A hiring freeze instituted under Rex Tillerson has been lifted by his successor, but nothing will replace the institutional memory and experience of those who were driven out by the bias of the current administration against subject matter expertise. The supporters of this President would say that this reduction in long-time employees is “draining the swamp”. What they do not realize is that this world is complex, and the diplomats at the front line in embassies around the world are essential in preventing US interests from being damaged. There will be costs, some of them severe, in the years to come due to the sabotaging of the diplomatic corps.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic style of this President was fully on display at the recent meeting of the G-7. The petty nature of the response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference, replete with the denunciation of Trudeau as having “stabbed the US in the back” by declaring that Canada would not be bullied by the US, shows how much of this President’s actions are guided by his personal perception of slights. The threats unfurled against the strongest allies and trading partners of the US show that he has a vanishingly small knowledge of international trade and the risks to the economy of the world, by insisting on retreating to an era when America may have been great, but by imposing tariffs, we helped to drag the world into depression shortly thereafter.

Militarily, we are repeating the follies that have bedeviled military planners ever since military technology began changing year by year. That is, we are fighting the last war, not the next war. Thus the huge increase in the military budget over the coming years is earmarked for more ships, more fighters, more bombers, more in-air refueling capabilities, and keeping older hardware systems running. Meanwhile, the funding for cyber security ends up with a scant 4% increase when all of the ups and downs of spending by department are added up. Undoubtedly, there is a need for building ships to replace those that are near the end of their useful life. Likewise, replacement aircraft are needed. But the budget funds multiple generations of new weapons systems with no apparent overall strategy on what the military force of the future should look like.

The wars of the future will increasingly be economic or cyber in nature, and seeing funds spent on hardening the electric grid, purchasing large numbers of replacement transformers that could quickly be put in service should a grid disruption occur, these funds would be well invested for our economic and physical security. In fact, just as we used to have strategic metals reserves in case our supply got cut off, we should have a strategic transformer reserve, where these substation-level transformers that will be fried in an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) event can be quickly replaced. The best way to provide such a reserve was investigated by the Department of Energy and the report was issued to Congress in March of 2017. It does not call for a Federally owned reserve, but calls instead for increased coordination across utility companies. It does call for an increased reserve but one that is maintained and controlled by utility companies. Will such a program work when it is called upon? No one knows. But we do know that the huge increase in military spending is not going for what can happen in the present or future. No, it is going to the weaponry of the past.

Once again, the amateurs determining the strategy for national defense are insistent upon spending large to procure the weapons of the past, while ignoring the needs for the defense of our nation and our lifestyle from the real threats that we face.

The concept of amateurism is good. In athletics, we maintained the façade of amateurism for many decades, but eventually it was broken down. In tennis, in the Olympics, in all sports, it is recognized that if you wish to have excellence in performance, it is necessary to have people who can dedicate their lives to the sport by being paid for their efforts. We followed the same principles in our government. Those who were willing to sacrifice much larger private sector paychecks for the limited compensation of government positions were recognized and honored for their expertise and their service. But in this misguided administration, we have sacrificed those who developed their expertise over decades, in order to promote the agendas of the amateurs who struggle against the current of events in their fields. The problem is that there are real consequences that come from having amateurs deal with issues that can cost real money, and real damage to international relations, and cost lives when dealing with the military.

 

Three Degrees of Separation

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I claim to be only 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I make that claim due to a play I did 29 years ago this summer. The Charleston Light Opera Guild always had a summer show, and that year the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The summer shows were an opportunity for some of the high school dancers who were in our director’s dance studio to have roles on stage, and see if they wished to pursue dancing and acting further. Well, one of the high school dancers played a courtesan, and I remember her distinctly as she had a blue jewel in her belly button. Her name? Jennifer Garner. But I cannot bring many other memories of her back over this time period (btw – that gives you a good idea how old she is now as you see her on the Capital One ads).

No, this tale is about another of these high school dancers, who contributed to the single best moment I ever had while either on stage, or in an audience watching a play. First, a bit of background on Forum, as it was known. This was a slapstick musical comedy set back in Roman days, where a cunning slave named Pseudolus was continually plotting to gain his freedom. He belonged to my character, Senex, an older man who was dominated by his wife Domina (subtle this play ain’t). Meanwhile, my son Hero was in love with a courtesan-in-training who was owned by the brothel owner Lycus, who just happened to live next door to me. The play is a series of comic scenes ending up with a family reunion, Hero being able to marry his love, and Pseudolus able to gain his freedom. On Broadway and in the movie, Zero Mostel played Pseudolus. It was the funniest show I’ve ever been in, even without the events I am about to relate.

Now, of the courtesans, Jennifer already was decently endowed. But another of the courtesans needed a bit more augmentation in the breast area. This was accomplished through the means of two water balloons strategically placed in her upper costume. We had done many rehearsals, and several performances, and the water balloons served their purpose admirably.

Except, for the one night, where one didn’t. Our dancer (whose name will remain anonymous to protect her), was out shaking her booty as she displayed her wares for a potential buyer. That night, one of the water balloons escaped its bondage, and bounded on down to the floor.

Now odds were that the water balloon was going to burst once it hit the floor. This being Forum, of course that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the water balloon bounced, then rolled to a stop halfway across the stage. When it stopped rolling, one of the eunuchs pranced over to the water balloon, went “Oh! Oh!”, scooped it up in his hands, and presented it back to the unbalanced courtesan. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but the audience and most of the cast broke up, eventually leading to the show going on.

If we ever could have been assured that the water balloon would not burst, we would have built that into the blocking and it would have been the funniest thing ever in a scene. So it is ironic that in my one legitimate attempt to be a name dropper on one of my acquaintances, it was her friend, who never made the trip to Hollywood and became a big star, who left the greatest impression on me. As it turns out, that was the last big play I’ve been in, as I had just gotten married, and life in the form of children interrupted for a long time. But if that was my swan song for the musical stage, what a way to exit.