Christmas Memories

hard-candy-750840_960_720  Hard candy cooling

It was the day that Christmas arrived from Indiana. Each year, my uncle from Indiana would drive the 500 miles from Rensselaer to Lincoln, Nebraska, and deliver Christmas. No matter how much we had decorated, or baked cookies, or shopped and wrapped presents, it was not Christmas until my Uncle Bill pulled into our driveway and delivered Christmas.

This was before my sister was born, so I shared the front bedroom with my two brothers. Late in the afternoon on the appointed day, I would begin a vigil, watching and waiting for him to arrive in the late afternoon of early winter. The sky would be streaked with purple and orange across the high clouds that reflected the last glows of sunlight. I would breath on the window, and my breath would condense on the cold surface of the single pane glass. Overnight, the window would show the spidery trace of ice crystals on the bottom of each pane, but during the day the ice stayed away.

I never knew what type of car my uncle would be driving, other than it would be a Chevy. He was a bachelor, never married after his service in Europe and Africa during the war, and it was his one luxury to buy a new car each year as the models turned over. So I kept my vigil as the shadows grew, and finally saw a car turn down our street from 33rd street, then slow and pull into our driveway. I would yell and race down the stairway, saying “He’s here”, and soon he would come up the steps towards our door. He always had a couple of big bags that he brought in first before he’d ever bring in his old suitcase.

There were the presents from him, and my other aunt and uncle, and my grandmother who all lived in the town of Rensselaer. That was the place we went to in the summer, to renew relationships forged decades ago. He always brought a weekly calendar from the Farmers and Merchants bank from his town, and that calendar with its space for notes for each day became the family planner for the next year. But the most important thing was the big box of chocolates that would soon have a place of honor on the table in our living room. It was like a 3 pound box of chocolates, and that was one of the highlights of our season.

Memories can be triggered by many things, but memories from smells are often the strongest. Of all of the smells of Christmas, nothing compared to the pungent cloud of anise-scented steam exploding out of the kitchen and permeating the entire house. As soon as the anise oil was poured into the sugar and water mix nearing hard crack, the mix would erupt in a boiling mass, and the smell escaped into the air. Anise candy was always dyed red in our house. Many years later I took to making it myself to bring back the memories of the aroma. I’ve added cinnamon oil for a cinnamon variety as well – the odor of cinnamon is almost as strong as anise.

Christmas eve dinner was traditionally chicken and noodles. No store bought noodles, though. My mother would make the noodles by hand, rolling them out and laying them on towels before they would be cooked. This year is the first Christmas since my mother died, so this piece is in honor of both my parents who helped to form the Christmas memories that bring back a sense of joy and longing.

 

Why Bother With Those Pesky People?

Delivery drone

I have seen the future, and in it I have totally freed myself from the need of having to interact with anyone at more than a superficial level. I need not familiarize myself with the grocery clerks at the local supermarket, because I have a service that takes my on-line order, and delivers it into my house when I’m not around since I gave access to my house through Amazon.

No longer do I need to go outside and venture into a restaurant for a meal. Instead, I can scroll through menu listings from hundreds of restaurants and select a meal, then wait for the service to come deliver it directly to my door. Still have to interact with a delivery person though – can’t wait for drone delivery to come so I don’t have to interact with anyone.

I never see my friends because I am so busy keeping up with my facebook friends, my twitter following, my instagram buds, who has the time to keep up face to face. Besides, if I went to see someone, I’d have to change out of my robe and slippers. No, online connections are so much better than having to put up with actually interacting with others.

Gas stations? Who needs gas stations? You can pay someone to deliver a set amount of gas to your car. Use Yoshi, and arrange for weekly fill-ups at work or home. It only costs a small delivery cost in addition to your gas purchase. Of course, I haven’t interacted with someone at a gas station for a long time since they put credit card readers out at the pumps. And I can arrange for someone to come to my car and do my basic maintenance, like oil changes. Pretty soon I won’t have to use a car at all.

Unless I really need some money to pay for all of these delivery charges I’m racking up. Then I can use my car and drive for the ride services. Yes, I do have to deal with the people I carry, but I never have to interact with a supervisor or co-workers. I don’t even have a supervisor, and I don’t know who my co-workers are, since we are all contractors.

I can’t remember the last time I set foot in one of our local stores. In fact, I was surprised the last time I drove through one of the shopping areas in town. Looks like most of the stores are either closed or are having going out of business sales. Well, no wonder. They can’t compete on convenience with ordering things on line and receiving it within one or two days. I do wonder what I’m going to do with the mountain of cardboard I’m accumulating.

My insurance company has this great new service. If I have a cold or some sort of minor issue, I don’t have to go to a doctor. I can connect with the service and go through a series of questions, then have a brief conversation with a doctor, and then they will arrange for an antibiotic to be delivered to my door for my sinus infection. How wonderful! You do know that 67% of all communicable diseases are transmitted through doctor’s offices. Not having to go out  – that’s wonderful.

I can get my dog walked, even if I’m home. Just have to pay that service. One thing I haven’t gotten rid of though – still have to make it to a vet. No remote app for that – yet.

I’m living the good life.

 

Note: It seems like the purpose of most technology advances and technology business offerings is to eliminate the need to interact with other individuals. Soon we’ll flit through life like dragonflies, unaware of any other life form. Maybe we hook up and have a brief fling in the air, but then it’s over and we can fly off to our doom unbothered by any other human contact.

Scholarly articles are written pondering whether technology is fueling depression and loneliness. I don’t need a graduate degree in sociology to enable me to say, hell yes it is, and the race to the bottom is accelerating. Just look at how many folks check out of the moment where they are, and look at their phone to catch up with the latest text or facebook post. I’m sitting in a choir rehearsal, and if there’s a break of more than 30 seconds, my neighbor pulls out his phone and gets an update. I will admit, I have looked for a sports score sometimes, but I’m not guilty of seeking constant status updates.

With the social media movement, business has finally found something more addictive than slot machines. We the users gleefully allow ourselves to be parsed, analyzed, and monetized for our commercial exploitation. We voluntarily expose our natures and our most personal thoughts and expressions, and release it willingly, just so we can see how many likes we got on our last post.

You know, I’m really amazed that Twitter expanded their character limit recently. With the ongoing shortening of the national attention span, I figured they’d cut it down to 100 characters (and you can have 20 additional emoticons in order to make up for the loss of bandwidth in cutting the character limit). How many folks have the time to read 280 characters! Sad!

 

Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold

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“A House divided against itself cannot stand.” These words from Abraham Lincoln as he began his campaign for the Senate seat in Illinois, are just as true today as they were nearly 160 years ago. For the US in 2017 is divided against itself in ways that are difficult to comprehend. Fault lines exposed in our society in the 1960’s have widened, and the shifting of the electoral tectonic plates threaten our stability as a nation.

In the 1960’s, Richard Nixon evoked the image of the Silent Majority. That is, the good honest working men and families who shared true American values, who decried the changes in society playing out on TV and in the streets. Yet the 1960’s proved to be the time when the belief that American society was a monolithic culture, came apart. The beliefs in monogamy and consumerism were challenged by the hippies. The belief that the Federal government always had good motives and would never lie were chipped away as the truths came out regarding Vietnam, and past programs like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Then Watergate revealed that even our top leaders were capable of deception and crimes. A schism grew between those who considered themselves anti-establishment, and those who represented the silent majority.

Fast forward through the decades. Societal changes continued through the succeeding generations. Some changes were evolutionary, such as those wrought by the 1965 immigration bill that removed the preference for white, European immigrants in favor of other groups that were not as prevalent in the US population. The fallout of our war in Indochina led to a large increase in Asian immigrants. Small cities that had been homogenous, like Lincoln Nebraska, developed a growing ethnic nature through the settlement of refugees, and later, their families.

One of the largest fault lines in US culture was created in 1973, with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade. Before that decision, abortion was legal only in a few states, and services to terminate pregnancies were spotty throughout the rest of the nation. Desperate women sought the services of unlicensed and often incompetent practitioners, resulting in many having to go to hospitals to repair the effects of a failed abortion. In 1962 alone, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City for incomplete abortions. This document from the Guttmacher organization from 2003 gives an excellent perspective on the nature of abortions prior to Roe v Wade.

https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2003/03/lessons-roe-will-past-be-prologue

Quite simply, throughout history women have faced the issue of unwanted pregnancy, and have sought extreme means to relieve themselves of pregnancy. Although the stigma of unwed motherhood has been reduced (are there any homes for unwed mothers still around?), abortion will continue to be sought by women. It is only in the past 44 years that it has been recognized in the US as a right for the would-be mother to choose to terminate a pregnancy within certain bounds.

Another of the tectonic plate slippages of the past few decades is the change in religious attitudes. We have seen the demise of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) leadership in society. The P’s have migrated over the years, over to E’s and C’s (Evangelicals and Catholics), or to Nones. Those who moved to denominations with more fervent beliefs have led the efforts to reverse Roe v Wade. Those who moved from P to None are often wondering why the religious right is looking to take away their freedom. Those of us who have remained behind in one of the standard P churches are wondering how to retain our relevance in a society that seems to actively align against our own choices. The chasm that exists between the Christian sects gets ratcheted up multiple notches when non-Christian religions are brought into the equation. Especially in the past few years, the hydra heads of anti-Semitism have remerged, and the internet overflows with references to the Protocols of Zion, about Jewish domination of the US media empire, and with conspiracy theories of various false flag operations aimed at deceiving the US into fighting Israel’s wars by proxy.

Then there is the issue of Moslems. To many in this nation, Islam is viewed as an affront to all that is good and sacred. For those who are against Moslems, the words of the Quran are parsed and spat back out, showing those portions where the texts call for Jihad. Those quotes are taken as emblematic of the entire religion, relegating Islam to be a religion of hatred. Never mind that one can find similar quotes in the texts of the Jewish and Christian religion, and never mind that the history of civilization has often been punctuated by battles over religious supremacy. The despising of Moslems has motivated Donald Trump to try multiple ways to permanently ban one fifth of the earth’s population from having access to this country, all in the name of preventing domestic terrorism.

At least in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we still had the vestiges of a common enemy to unite our population. Communism was our existential threat during that time, and we built up our military-industrial complex to face its menace. Then, within the blink of an eye, the entire edifice of Communism collapsed, and suddenly the economies of nations long suppressed through isolation of socialistic regimes was unleashed. China became everyone’s favorite supply chain partner, and the US began hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, especially low value-added jobs, and jobs in energy intensive industries like steel. Those were often the jobs that held together smaller towns and cities in fly-over land within the US. The phrase Rust Belt was coined to represent the decline begun when old manufacturing sites were shuttered and left to the elements to oxidize, since they had no economic value anymore. Entire regions where a good and honest living could be made through factory work, now had few options for advancement. Emotions began to boil as resentment built at the unfairness of life when those on the coasts were living the high life, while those in the heartland subsisted on fast-food jobs and big-box retail clerk jobs.

With the advent of the internet and the shattering of the old system of 3 television networks showing only what they wanted you to see, came the next stage of this nation’s partition. The media fragmented into self-reinforcing segments, and for those who stay within their media world, it becomes impossible to understand those who listen and watch the other side’s media. Fox News and Breitbart fans do not believe that old-time media outlets can report the truth. Thus the allegations against Roy Moore are viewed as part of the plot of the deep state to take down the leadership of Donald Trump. Similarly, those who follow the elite media and liberal television networks cannot comprehend why those who support Roy Moore are ignoring the facts. We are now in an age where facts are irrelevant if they don’t agree with your preconceived notion of the truth.

In 2017, the fault lines of this nation have split off both sides of the spectrum. On the left you have the remnants of the counter-culture of the 1960’s, with calls for radical redistribution of wealth across society. The right itself has fragmented, and what has emerged is the Donald Trump manifestation of nationalism and ethnocentrism taking over the Republican party in a hostile takeover. This segment of the population has assumed the anti-establishment role that hippies played in the 1960’s. They have a deep distrust of all things related to social elites. Even though they have seized the reins of power, they have not yet been successful in exerting their will to move the ship of state to their liking. The events of the next year will likely determine the eventual fate of this movement. Will they be reaffirmed by continued electoral success, or will the segment of the population still residing in the center of the political spectrum end this attempt to hijack the American experiment?

 

Holy Grail of Growth!

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Economic growth as far as the eye can see! A thundering flood of growth, enabling total tax revenues to increase while cutting the absolute share of income going to taxes. That is what Congress in the US have pledged will happen by their adoption of yet another version of trickle down economics. This post is not intended to discuss the merits of the tax bill. Instead, it is intended to discuss the holy grail that we seek – economic growth. What is it, and how is it different now than it was during the time period that Donald Trump seeks to return us to – when America was great.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the economic cycle was centered directly on manufacturing things. When the economy was good, factories that made things expanded. Capacity of making things kept increasing. Eventually, capacity exceeded demand, and the manufacturers of things cut back on production, procurement, and people. Layoffs would occur, and since the economy was in synch, cutbacks in one segment caused cutbacks in others. Within a few months, or a year or two, the imbalance in supply and demand would favor production, and the economy would reverse its downward trajectory and start expanding again.

This cycle held firm through the post war period, until the 1980’s. The byproduct of these economic cycles was inflation, especially when it was accompanied by deficit spending from the Federal Government. Severe fever medicine was supplied to the economy through crippling interest rates. I remember buying my first house in 1982, when I assumed existing mortgages. One was a smaller second mortgage with a 15% interest rate. The inflation fever broke, and the economy of the US began a glide path enabled by falling interest rates.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the economic cycle began to change. US manufacturers, having grown complacent servicing their captive market, began to lose market share to those who paid attention to the voice of the customer and improved the quality of their products. Often those were foreign producers. Auto manufacturing was the poster child for this transition. But the change to the economic cycle accelerated due to the end of the Cold War, when the entire world became open for production. Now began the exodus of manufacturing jobs to lower wage nations as China became everyone’s favorite supply chain partner. No need to worry about those union workers and the environmental regulations – we will outsource both our labor and our pollution.

But a strange thing happened in the 1990’s – the economy grew even though the manufacturing sector declined. How was this possible? It was because an increasing portion of our economic output depended not upon the manufacture of things, but upon the manipulation of electrons. With the advent of the internet, it enabled generation of economic activity that relied much less upon the manufacture of things. Compare and contrast the economic activity of the old Ma Bell phone company, with their offspring, the cell phone and internet service providers. Since phone service was viewed as an essential public good, the old phone company received a monopoly to service a region. They were regulated so they would be ensured of operating at a profit, but not so much that their fees would generate a backlash. Then they had to maintain their system of copper wires and switching centers, and received payments from each household for renting their phones, for local service, and charges for each long distance call made by a subscriber.

Now look at the telecommunications sector today. Cell phone service is rapidly replacing land lines, and in order to provide cell service, it requires dispersed cell towers instead of a distribution network of fibers and poles. Much less stuff is required to maintain a network, meaning that manufacturing and resource use decreases, while the economic activity from cellular services grows exponentially. Then you have the alternative service providers, like those who bundle internet, cell service, and TV in one package. And then there’s the lucrative practice of selling data. Quite literally, the economic activity generated by electronic waves means that money is being plucked from the air. If you compared the fraction of income that was spent on phone service back in the 1970’s, with the fraction of income spent on cell service, data features, and internet service now, far more economic activity is occurring in the telecommunications sector now than in the era of Great America.

If you examine the economy over the last 50 years, manufacturing still maintains a high share of economic activity. But that share is spread more thinly across the landscape, since manufacturing productivity has increased so much, and manufacturing employment has declined precipitously. We are now at the cusp of yet another inflection point in productivity. Robotics and the use of Artificial Intelligence will replace the human worker at an increasing rate. In fact, one unintended consequence of the tax bill may be that companies who repatriate money from overseas and invest it in the US, choose to invest it in automation that further reduces the human input.

So it is possible to increase economic activity while decreasing physical inputs into an economy. We live better by consuming less. That is undoubtedly good for the environment, but how does that affect the world of labor and enable those who work to have motivation to improve their lot in the future?

The premise of the Make America Great Again movement is that we can withdraw into our own borders and internalize manufacturing, thus unleashing the ability to generate economic activity in every town in the nation. Manufacturing is viewed as the panacea that serves as a labor force relief valve for those who choose not to continue education. Yet now, manufacturing labor requires significant knowledge skills beyond that of a high school graduate. Many manufacturers despair of finding qualified candidates for their openings. Even if a candidate is able to pass drug screens, they are not willing to commit to a rotating shift lifestyle. And despite the desires of leadership to isolate the US economy, we are competing globally, and no one else owes us any economic favors now.

Economic expansion in the era of technology requires making a commitment to provide the labor force for high skilled manufacturing. This appears to be a requirement of the public sector to provide the training required, due to the failure of the private sector to serve as a competent trainer for skills. Think ITT technical and other private educators who delivered only excess debt instead of marketable skills. Community college needs to serve both as the foundation for trades education, and as the entry level for bachelor degree programs. It will require close coordination with industries so as to deliver potential employees with enough knowledge to be worth hiring. This increased support for community colleges is essential if we want to benefit from the leveraged growth that new manufacturing jobs can provide.

The other area where growth can be generated is in developing an extended plan for upgrading our deteriorated infrastructure. There are some places where private / public partnerships can be created to build new features, but that will result in ongoing expenses to ensure investment return to the private entity (think more and more tolls). Still, the huge unmet need in renewal of our existing infrastructure must be met by government expenditures. Again, this can be funded by the users of the infrastructures, but the traditional techniques like a gas tax will not work in the era of electric vehicles. At some point, those who keep trying to shrink government will have to realize that targeted tax increases are required in order to keep our civilization vibrant and productive, and to increase economic growth. The recent tax bill where simplification was touted, but the net result was to redistribute income up the income chain, shows that we as a nation are not ready to address the real issues facing our country. Maybe when multiple bridges collapse due to neglect we will realize our folly.

 

Had Enough Winning?

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You’re a mean one, Mr. Trump

You really want to steal

You are twitty as a tweeter, you just want to cop a feel, Mr. Trump

You’re a bad example with no sex appeal!

A French philosopher of the 18th century, Joseph de Maistre, created the quote for our times. “Every nation gets the government it deserves”. If that statement is correct, what does it say for the United States that we have ended up with two competing parties in Congress who see only evil in the opposition, and will not ever compromise with the enemy. Then add to the top of this noxious mess a flippant amateur provocateur who believes whatever image was shown to him on the TV during the past 5 minutes. To me, it says that we’ve arrived at the perfect reflection of the American character.

You’re a monster, Mr. Trump

Your soul’s a lump of coal

Your lies ooze out like butter, your conscience is a black hole, Mr. Trump

I wouldn’t trust you with a nuclear code at your control!

George Orwell was incredibly prescient. “War is Peace, and Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.  For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” The current administration clearly states its belief in alternate facts. Who cares if photographic evidence shows his inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s? Fake news! What does it matter if the President tweets videos that have been debunked because they fit his preconceived idea of the enemy! It’s not the videos that are important, it is the threat that they represent. So much falsity being slathered upon the national sandwich, day in, day out. And still his unthinking supporters celebrate each put down of the elite, reveling in their strong ignorance that sustains their belief in their dear leader.

You’re a foul one, Mr. Trump

Your hair is an orange pile

Your support has been expressed for an accused pedophile, Mr. Trump

Given a choice between the two of you, I’d curl up in a ball of denial!

Donald Trump has succeeded in establishing an agenda for his peers. Forget the pledges of the campaign, where he promised to sustain and never cut the programs depended upon by his supporters. Forget his pledge to give Americans really, really good health care. “It’ll be better health care, much better, for less money.” Then he abdicated his power of the bully pulpit to the machinations of the Republicans in Congress who tried to demolish all aspects of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with an ersatz version that would enable the reestablishment of inadequate insurance plans whose only benefit was a lower premium cost. He became fixated upon the prospect of giving the American people the most massive tax cut in history, only to again delegate all details to the slim Republican majority in Congress. Their baby, being birthed through a c-section since they can’t afford the time for a normal delivery, showers the GOP donor class with huge windfalls, while leaving very little golden shower to tinkle on the normal taxpayers of this nation. But to hear the cheerleaders in Congress, the rocket fuel given to the economy will cause economic pyrotechnics to stimulate the US economy in an orgy of growth. As far as trickle-down economics go, fool me once, shame on you (Reagan tax cuts). Fool me twice, shame on me (GWB tax cuts). Fool me 3 times, what the hell is going on here anyway?

You’re a vile one, Mr. Trump

You won’t even leave a crumb

You take thousands from your students while considering them dumb, Mr. Trump

The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote

“Skim, scam, scum”!

One campaign pledge Donald Trump made has been fulfilled. He has upset the order in Washington. In so doing, he has revealed that much of the overhead of the Federal Government really is needed in order to prevent chaos from overwhelming this nation. Through his unmitigated folly in denigrating the State Department, and in attempting to ghost this agency by neglecting to nominate diplomats, we are now celebrating all of the winning we are doing in international affairs. North Korea has been pacified by the bellicosity of the fire and fury style unleashed against them. Saudi Arabia has settled long-term issues with its neighbors Qatar and Yemen. Our long-time allies in Europe are hailing the improvement in relations with Washington after the years of neglect from previous administrations. Oh, I’m sorry, I thought today was opposite day.

You’re a rotter, Mr. Trump

You love to share weird plots

You deny that you’ll get richer but we connect the dots, Mr. Trump

Your soul is an appalling mixture of conceit shot through with hypocrisy,

Vanity, and insecurity all mangled up in tangled up knots!

Now it’s been more than a year since the election. The true believers see only unsullied fulfillment of their dreams, though their leader has turned their dreams into nightmares. Still, they cannot see through their Fox induced haze to notice that not only is the Emperor buck naked, he’s leading a parade of those who are taking off their clothes to follow his example. Meanwhile, those of us who use objective criteria to analyze performance, are concerned that the inconsistency, the depravity, and the rashness of our leader will end up destroying our democracy and will result in mass loss of life due to the wars he will call forth. Not even the Greeks could imagine a tragedy of such immense proportion due to hubris. May we live in interesting times.

We’ll let Mr. Geisel have the last set of words.

You nauseate me, Mr. Trump

With a nauseous super “naus”!

You’re a crooked dirty jockey and you drive a crooked hoss, Mr. Trump

You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!

 

Gold Fever

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Carl Sagan famously said “We are made of starstuff.” That is, the elements of life, the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, and of course hydrogen, all come from the life processes of normal stars. Through fusion, there is a progression in the atoms that are forged within stars. Hydrogen begets helium, and later on in a star’s life, helium begets carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Further fusion reactions occur within a star’s core, releasing energy until iron predominates at the core of the star, where the fusion reactions proceed. Iron, though, represents a dead end in the fusion process. Iron cannot undergo a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it takes to react. So the swollen mass of the red giant star that was inflated by the energy released from fusion reactions, suddenly collapses upon itself. The in-falling matter creates critical masses in the outer layers of the star, exploding in a new pressure wave that expels the outer shells of the star. Thus, a typical nova occurs in a galaxy far, far away (even novas in this galaxy are far, far away).

A typical nova (or even a supernova) does not have the capability to create the large number of high atomic weight elements like gold, or uranium, or platinum. To create these elements, it takes an even more spectacular event. One such event, the spiraling collision of two neutron stars, was observed on August 17, and three separate types of instruments observed the event. First, the new gravity wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state, and one in Italy, picked up the signal of gravitational waves rippling through space. This was followed within seconds by the detection of high energy gamma rays by the NASA Fermi space telescope. Then, with the directional information available from these instruments, optical telescopes were able to pick up the visible light emanating from the collision of two neutron stars, creating nuclear synthesis of myriads of elements in a blaze of electromagnetic radiation.

For those who are not familiar with astrophysics, neutron stars are the remnants of a certain type of supernova that lost their outer shells in an explosion, and contracted into small balls of condensed neutrons. Imagine a star about 1.5 times the mass of our sun, but contracted into a sphere about 12 miles in diameter. The density of this material is incredible. A cubic centimeter (about the size of a sugar cube) would weigh 100 million tons on Earth. Neutron stars are not black holes, though. They emit both light and radio waves. In fact, the first neutron stars were detected because they rotate incredibly fast. Slow ones rotate in little more than a second, while fast ones rotate hundreds of times per second. They can be detected by the radio waves they send out with each vibration. These types of rotating neutron stars are called pulsars.

So two of these neutron stars began a death dance spiral 130 million years ago on August 17. They spin together, faster and faster, until they actually collide, and then all hell breaks loose. Megatons of gold, platinum, uranium, and all of the heavy elements are formed from the intense bombardment of neutrons. These atoms form, cool, undergo nuclear reactions and form more stable isotopes that stream out into space. All of this matter spreads out, and settle inside of gas and dust clouds where gravity attracts them. Eventually, the gas cloud gains enough mass to start to collapse into itself, and a solar system with a new star emerges. The heavy elements from the neutron star collision are incorporated into the new planets. If there are enough of these elements in the gas cloud, and if intelligent life evolves on one of the planets, they discover these elements, and perhaps fashion them into rings, or necklaces, or fission bombs.

The detectors of the gravity waves are magnificent structures that bear homage to science and to the spirit of the countries that devoted resources to these instruments. Within the US there are two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities. These facilities are situated thousands of miles apart, in order to eliminate any local vibrations from giving false signals. They are L-shaped structures, and the lengths of the arms is 4 kilometers per side. The core of the instrument is a vacuum tube, with lasers and mirrors situated inside to cause a laser beam to split and bounce back and forth for hundreds of times before it is sent to the detector.

Normally, laser beams that are split in two and then travel identical path lengths, and then recombined can be positioned so that the beams interfere with each other perfectly, and no light is detected by an instrument at the end of the beam path. But if something affects the length of the path of one of the beams, then the total path length of the two split beams is not the same. When that happens, the photodetector sees a beam. The beam that is detected is affected by the difference in distance between the two paths. Gravity waves cause the length of the path to differ slightly and as the wave sweeps over the two detector beams, first one beam moves with the wave, then the second beam moves. How much is the movement that is detected? One ten thousandth of the width of a proton is the amount of displacement that is caused by a gravity wave.

Since there are now 3 gravitational wave observatories located in different parts of the globe, each observatory detects gravity waves at slightly different times. By comparing the time differences between the signals, scientists are able to triangulate and determine where in the sky did the cosmic event happen. Scientists had detected the merger of two black holes several times with the LIGO detectors, but the events of August 2017 was the first time that they were able to see an event occur in the electromagnetic spectrum as well.

At this time of year, you will see many ads extolling the virtues of giving a gift of gold. If you do buy a gift of gold or platinum for someone, take a moment to realize that the metal you are buying was formed in a cataclysmic collision billions of years ago, before our sun and planet were born. And marvel that we now have the ability to detect and understand our universe and the wondrous events that shaped our world.

 

You’ve Been Had!

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A bill of goods. That is what this nation has been sold by the person of the current President of the US. We’ve been deceived, swindled, and taken advantage of by the administration as pledge after pledge has been negated by the actions taken by this President and his henchmen. And yet, his loyal followers hold out their bowls, and plead, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

How have we been deceived? Let’s examine a few areas where the actions of the President after inauguration are in complete contradiction to the pledges made during the campaign. First, let’s tackle the series of statements he made about the obscene influence of Goldman Sachs upon his opponents in the primary and general election. In January 2016, Donald Trump declared Ted Cruz to be under the control of Goldman Sachs, due to a million dollar loan Cruz had obtained from the bank, but hadn’t disclosed on a financial disclosure form. That was followed by Donald Trump declaring that Heidi Cruz, Ted’s wife, was also complicit and a creature of Wall Street since she was also employed by Goldman Sachs. This was followed by the general election, where we were treated to the image of Donald Trump berating Hillary Clinton for being paid for speeches to Goldman Sachs prior to her run for the presidency.

So, good then. One would imagine that the administration of Donald Trump would be devoid of the evil influence of Goldman Sachs, since it was integral to the efforts to destroy this country’s economic might through its globalization efforts. Let’s check the record:

Steve Bannon – Chief strategist. Former Goldman Sachs banker, left the organization in 1990 as a vice president.

Steve Mnuchin – Secretary of the Treasury. Goldman Sachs banker for 17 years, left as Chief Information Officer in 2002 before forming various hedge funds and purchasing IndyMac bank in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

Gary Cohn – Director of the National Economic Council. Served as Chief Operating Officer for Goldman Sachs from 2006 until his appointment in 2017.

We could go on with links with the underlings in the administration who came directly from Goldman Sachs, but this should suffice to show that instead of purging the evil Wall Street influence from the administration, this President has infused fresh banking blood into the halls of government agencies where the levers of power are rigged to favor the wealthy instead of the typical Trump voter. You’ve been had!

Ok, then, maybe Donald Trump wasn’t able to accomplish his campaign goals of ridding the swamp of its evil banker’s mantle. Let’s look at another promise of this President, to hire only the best people for positions in his administration.

“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he told Robert Costa in a phone interview at the time. “We want top of the line professionals.” This quote was from a  Sept. 2016 story in the Washington Post referencing an August 2016 interview. In campaign speech after speech, Trump boasted about knowing the best people and hiring only the best.

So how is this pledge working out? Well, splendidly, if your criteria is shortness of time within a position because one or more of these best people just didn’t work out. Let’s look at a few of the truly inept people that Donald Trump hired, only to busify them (busify – the act of throwing someone under the bus) within a few weeks or months of hiring.

Michael Flynn – the poster child for a Trump pick. Even while working on the campaign and after the election, this extreme version of incompetence was working with foreign players to enrich himself. When caught lying to the Vice President, his last lifeline was spent and he had to forfeit his National Security Advisor post

Tom Price – Supposedly his prescient knowledge of stock movements in a certain medical device stock had nothing to do with his position in the House as he introduced an act after the stock purchase that would have greatly enriched the company whose stock he had purchased. No, that type of dealing would have been welcome in the company of billionaires and wanna-be billionaires. Tom’s fatal flaw was having a predilection for chartered private jets that even the Trump administration could not stomach, after bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars emerged in the press. He was forced to leave his position as head of Health and Human Services.

Anthony Scaramucci – Mooch, we barely knew ye. Your tenure as the White House Director of Communications ended before it officially began. Over two weeks before he would have been sworn in, he was forced to not officially become the Director after giving an interview to a New Yorker reporter where he castigated several members of the administration in, shall we say, rather colorful language. One could make the case that he was actually communicating the occupant of the oval office’s feelings extremely well, since the targets of his language (Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon) were forced to leave White House employ shortly after the interview. Still, getting fired before you actually began the job represents a new peak in the (in)competence of Trump officials.

Sam Clovis – when you have a government agency that is responsible for billions of dollars in scientific research, involving the safety and integrity of the food supply, whom would you choose to lead this technically demanding position? Why, a former radio talk show host and a Doctor of Public Administration who happened to be the co-chairman of Trump’s campaign, of course. The fallacy of having a non-scientist appointed to a key scientific post never came to fruition, though. Unfortunately for Sam, he became associated with the self-admitted felon, George Papadopoulos. Sam becomes just another example of the best people that Donald Trump was able to attract.

Brett Talley – a name you may not yet be familiar with, but certainly a nominee for this august group of unqualified individuals appointed to government positions by Donald Trump. This individual has been nominated as a judge in the middle district of Alabama, and he has the unique qualifications of never having taken part in a trial, either as a judge, attorney, plaintiff, or defendant. Thus he is a complete tabula rasa, able to perform judicial duties without any preconceived notions. That must be why the American Bar Association gave Brett a rating of Not Qualified to be a judge. But did that matter to Donald Trump? No, especially since Brett’s wife is the chief of staff to the White House Counsel. Who needs stinkin’ qualifications when you’ve got the insiders track to the Donald’s ear? Just think, he may end up ruling over litigation affecting Roy Moore in the future.

 

Well, that’s just a partial listing of those folks who are excellent examples of “the best and most serious people” that Donald Trump pledged to attract to his service. We could give many more examples but space and time limitations prevent this.

To those who are Trump supporters, this is only the very first listing of the ways in which you’ve been had. There are many more examples of where Trump’s campaign pledges about helping the forgotten citizens have been turned on their head, and the policies being followed are harming the forgotten citizens, while enriching Trump’s true social class, the 0.01% club. This, the first missive in a series of posts about this administration, examines some of the personnel decisions that reflect the abysmal performance of our current President. You’ve Been Had!

 

Requiem, Aeternam

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 Photo of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus.(from the WVSO web site)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to want to sing in a symphony chorus when you are over 60. We just completed performing the Verdi Requiem with the West Virginia Symphony, and over the past 3 days, we sang the choral parts or performed the 85 minute requiem a total of 5 times. Sat in the back of a bus going from Charleston to Morgantown, a 3 hour ride each way on Friday. Was shoehorned into seats on the stage – we had nearly 320 singers, soloists, and symphony members on the stage for last night’s performance in Charleston. About 250 of those were chorus members, waiting for their chance to sing Verdi’s dramatic and poignant melodies.

For us, the work on the Requiem began last spring, as we were finishing up the chorus year and received our copies of the work. We familiarized ourselves with the scores then, and followed up our introduction with a late summer workshop where we went through the entire work. Then each Monday evening after Labor Day we had rehearsals, up through this past Monday (November 6) for two hours. All of us undoubtedly put in extra time cuing up the Requiem on YouTube, working with our scores to help ensure familiarity with each difficult part. Then came the Thursday through Saturday marathon where it all came together.

There really is very little time to put together a massive work like this. The main reason is money – each session with the orchestra for rehearsal or for a performance must be paid. The orchestra musicians put in much more independent time with the scores, since they are professionals and are compensated for their work and time on stage. But the amateurs who are chorus singers had no opportunity to come together until our first rehearsal with the orchestra. We had 5 different choruses join forces for this work. Our Symphony Chorus, and the choruses from 4 different colleges and universities across West Virginia were all represented on the stage.

So on Thursday, we had little more than an hour to practice together without an orchestra, then the orchestra players came in after their contractually mandated dinner break. A 2 1/2 hour session on Thursday, then an afternoon session on Friday after our bus drive up. Two rehearsals was all that we had together as an ensemble to piece together this exquisite work.

Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit? I’ve seen much writing about music, and its energizing and motivating force. Let me just say that you’ve never felt music’s full power until you are sitting directly behind a professional orchestra, playing some of the most lyrical and powerful music ever written. Then you are invited, nay, urged to lend your voice to the mélange, and not only that, but to sing with full expression and full power as you plead with God to keep from sending you to the pits of hell.

This type of music is difficult. It is always a challenge to sing a fugue, where each vocal part is echoing the other sections, melodies intertwining throughout the section, and it can be devilishly difficult to keep on tempo, and have the correct Latin words come out of your mouth. The challenge is one of the main reasons for doing this – it is because you can, and you are confident enough in your own abilities that you believe you will not crash the concert due to your own mistakes. For although you as a chorus singer cannot make the concert wonderful on your own, each of us had the ability to create huge mistakes that would have ruined at least a part of the performance.

It is difficult to describe the connection between a conductor and a chorus, when both are in synch. The conductor has control of everything going on, and with a dramatic work like the Verdi, our conductor played up the dramatic pauses. We watched, totally engaged and concentrating, as he demonstrated when to begin a phrase where we sang a capella, and when to stop and place the final consonant. That is another reason to do a work like the Verdi, it forces you to concentrate and be fully alive in the moment. There’s not many experiences in life that engage you to that extent.

The main reason, though, that I continue to perform music like this is because it allows me to participate in the creation of beauty that represents the peak of Western civilization (in my opinion). Choral masterworks, especially those of a sacred nature, touch at human emotions in their most naked form. Pathos and pleading to God for mercy for our sinful nature. Lyrical melodies that will stay in my head for months and years as we sang about the lamb of God. Verdi was an opera composer, and is acknowledged as one of the best of all time, but many say that his Requiem was his greatest opera. To be a participant in a performance of such a work is exhilarating to the soul, even though it saps the body and causes knees to ache and feet to throb. That is why I said at the start that you have to be a masochist to participate in such a work, especially if you have a bit of wear and tear on your body. Singing is a physical activity, and the young, especially college students, are best suited to deal with its demands. I do not know how long I will be able to stand its challenges myself, but the rewards of creating and hearing beautiful music from the center of its creation is still worth the pains it creates.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Verdi Requiem, please go to YouTube and enter it. You will see hundreds of performances that have been loaded to the web. Try it, and if you have an ear for romantic music, you will fall under Verdi’s spell as I have.

 

Balanced Between Summer and Winter

fall Summer is hanging on doggedly, not wanting to surrender the stage to the coming frosts and freezes. We were able to enjoy cafe society and eat al fresco on November 5 in South Charleston, WV. Normally the tables and chairs are stacked up awaiting spring by this time at our favorite Mexican restaurant. We even followed our dinner up with a pitcher of frozen drinks in the early evening on our front porch, a bit of our own farewell to our rituals of summer. But each time I say that, along comes yet another warm spell, and we extend our outdoor living room’s life just one more day.

No, it is true, we are sliding inexorably into our cold season. This weekend was the peak for leaf color for us. The picture on the top of this post shows maple trees through our bay window. The plants we had on our front porch have migrated inside, where they will stay cozily on the wood of our bay window. All of the plants had grown significantly during the summer. We barely had enough room to place all of the foliage.

The cats have definitely noticed the change. We didn’t have the heat on until about October 20, but as soon as it came on, our cat Blinky assumed his post in front of the heating vent. It is this time of the year when the cat reminds me of my thermodynamics course describing black body radiation. He absorbs the heat from a warmer temperature, then reradiates the heat back into the room at a lower temperature once the furnace stops.

blinky

The cats are definitely slowing down with age. They are both just at 12 years old now, and they sleep much more, and are less eager to head outside, although yesterday they did share the warmth of the evening with us. The cats are about to have their lives upended, because on Thanksgiving week our younger son will be coming to visit, and will be bringing his 8 month old kittens with him. As my wife has said, there will be much weeping and gnashing of kitty teeth during this time. Should be fun.

The leaves are at peak, and since you can’t ever stay balanced on such a peak of color, the rain that we had overnight seemed determined to start stripping the golds and reds off of the branches. This is the time of year when I have to make the decision of whether to rake the same area multiple times, or wait for the large mass of leaves to fall before tackling the removal process. Since I abhor leaf blowers, it is the old fashioned arm power that gathers the leaves and carries them to the compost pile. I keep two piles going back behind the fence. One pile holds last year’s leaves and this year’s weeds, and it has decomposed down to a good powdery dirt. The leaves from this fall will enrich the vegetable gardens in 2019.

I’ll be making an investment in a deeper raised bed in one of our vegetable gardens. When I designed the gardens, I put in three 4’x4’x4″ beds in the space allotted. That did not leave enough space between the beds, and 4″ is not high enough to alleviate knee and back pain. So I will order a 3’x4’x15″ bed for the middle slot. One thing is for sure, you do not plan for a positive dollar return on investment with back yard vegetable gardens. The gardening infrastructure is pretty much just a sunk cost, but the benefits of picking your own produce makes it worthwhile. I figure out that if I get enough produce out to offset the cost of the seeds, it’s a good enough return for me.

I completed my annual task of digging up daffodil bulb clusters that had worked up to ground level. I spent an hour or so dividing them up into plastic bags holding a dozen bulbs each, and offered them to whoever wanted them after church one Sunday in October. I figure that I distributed about 750 daffodil bulbs this year, and hope that they bring smiles all over the valley once they bloom next spring.

In another week or two, the trees will be bare. They will hold no memory of what they looked like with their mantle of greenery. Their bare fingers extend into the air, awaiting the falling snowflakes they know are coming. And the earth will sleep until it awakens again in spring.

With Deregulation You Get – RINO’s?

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General Kelly enunciated a list of things that American’s used to hold sacred back in the days when “America was great”. I do believe he missed one important item. We used to hold sacred the responsibility for our broadcasters to present a balanced and unbiased perspective. But in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine, which required maintaining a balance in broadcasted opinions. This was part of the first Republican deregulation wave, during the Reagan Presidency. Now, with the benefit of 30 years of experience, we can see the effects of this phase of deregulation.

Once the airwaves were unshackled, broadcasters searched for ways to remain relevant. AM radio in particular needed resuscitation, since it had become much less relevant with the advent of FM radio which had poached its music monopoly. Experimentation began, with syndication of certain voices becoming more frequent. First among his rivals, Rush Limbaugh began syndication in 1988. He found a loyal following among those conservative listeners who began their political involvement by their adherence to the principles espoused by groups like the John Birch Society. This right fringe of the political spectrum found its way to the AM radio dial, and by serving as a dedicated audience, provided the opportunity for others to start their own talk show empires.

It was not long before these purveyors of group think began to affect the popular culture. Dittohead became a common descriptor for those who followed Rush, and people wore it as a badge of honor. It served as a symbol of their liberation from having to think for themselves. Now they could outsource their own need to analyze anything for themselves, allowing the radio to establish their own beliefs. On reflection, it is not surprising that many followers of conservative talk radio are also Evangelical Christians. In their church environment, they also are relieved of having to think about their principles and beliefs. Instead they are told in no uncertain terms about the fifty shades of black and white. The two populations (Evangelical Christians and conservative talk radio listeners) would have a significant overlap if analyzed via a Venn diagram.

Meanwhile, the left or progressive side of the political spectrum did not have a similar movement develop in the broadcast media. For whatever reason, liberals tend to form their beliefs through self-reflection, or through their experiences in the world, rather than have their beliefs spoon fed to them by a larger than life figure. As a result, the language of outrage that developed in conservative talk circles was allowed to serve unopposed as the descriptors for liberals over time. Liberals abdicated the field of linguistic battle, and by the time they noticed the language being used against them, the battle had been won by the conservatives. Witness the common descriptions for liberals and progressives today: libtards; snowflakes; and SJW. These are used as terms of disparagement, intended to insult those to whom the comments were directed.

The final piece of the media establishment that created a haven for conservatives was the birth of Fox News in 1996. In this comfortable environment, conservatives could feel their egos being massaged by a plethora of hosts and guests, all reinforcing the belief systems of the conservatives that they alone were God’s chosen. It reinforced their world view that their steadfastness to the principles and beliefs broadcast on a Fox tape loop was all that stood between them and the chaos that would result if liberals gained ascendancy. More and more people became adherents to the world view of the Foxes and Rushes, and they continued the demonization of the left via the bastardization of the language that they celebrate. They formed what I call the radical right.

The Republican establishment encouraged the growth of this new group that seemed amenable to their party. The establishment offered a wink, wink, nod, nod at the radical right, feigning lip service to the goals of reversing Roe v Wade, pretending to open their arms to welcome the cultural conservatives who ruled the talk show and Fox circles. All the while, the establishment’s true agenda of cutting taxes on the donor class got carried out under W when the surplus amassed under the Clinton years was squandered in the Bush tax cuts compounded with the war on terrorism conveniently left outside of the budgetary process.

This fake adherence to the goals of the radical right festered within the souls of that group. The resentment exploded after the near collapse of the economy in 2008, and with the failure to seek criminal prosecution of the Wall Street collaborators who steered the economy into the iceberg. The Tea Party emerged as an inchoate political movement, seizing on the opposition to big government solutions as being failed policies that landed so many people into an economic morass. That the new leader of the Federal government was a half-black interloper who dared to have an international background, allowed the Tea Party to frame their opposition to the establishment as opposition to President Obama.

The radical right never forgave the slights from the Republican establishment. Thus began the movement to classify establishment Republicans as RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. Indeed, the vocabulary of the radical right against their own supposed allies was as vindictive as the names they invoked against the left. So we have cuckservatives and RINOs and cucks as derogatory terms used against those establishment Republicans.

At this time, it appears that the radical right wing of the party formerly known as Republicans is rising ascendant. This group does not seem to realize that they are truly a small fraction of the total population of this nation. Instead, they are reveling in each victory against a Flake, or a Corker, as evidence of their superiority.

What I find supremely interesting is that a direct association can be drawn between an act of deregulation (ceasing enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine), and the wave of political polarization washing over this nation thirty years later. As this administration keeps working to roll back regulations developed over decades, it is instructive to keep in mind that these actions can have unintended consequences. And those consequences can be quite destructive, but it may take 30 years for the effects to be fully developed. Be careful what you ask for – you may just get it.