Seasons Change (And So Did I)

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The squirrels and birds will soon have to work for their living. No longer will their food be provided inside of a porch swing feeder handcrafted by my late brother, or suspended inside of a suet feeder. The seasons have changed, and spring obviates the need to provide supplemental food.

Oh, we will be bringing out the hummingbird feeders shortly, and giving away mealworms, but that’s not the same as the buffet we have provided during the winter months. The squirrels in particular, are enjoyable to watch. We have two who have claimed the feeder. No bird dares to swoop in for a bite while a squirrel perches in or on the feeder. But the second squirrel eventually becomes impatient, and jumps in itself, prompting the first squirrel to abandon the feeder and perhaps chew and swallow what it had placed in its mouth before it scampers off.

The suet feeder was where we saw some of the best birding action. The rarest of visitors is the pileated woodpecker, who visits so seldom we’ve been only able one time to capture a picture of this king of woodpeckers.

What has replaced the feeders of winter? The flowers of spring. Our yard is at its peak bloom right now with daffodils, hellebores (Lenten rose), and flowering trees. In the almost 30 years we’ve lived at this house, we have transformed our spring landscape by cultivating and spreading daffodils. We have literally thousands of them blooming right now, and when they fade, the jonquils will take their place in providing spring beauty. But we are most excited this year to see the blossoms burst out of our cherry tree. We’ve been babying this tree, trying to keep it safe from our ravenous deer, and whereas last year we had five lonely blossoms, this year it has burst forth gloriously.

The self-propagating hellebores are something that takes little care. They loves shade, which we have in abundance. Deer don’t like it, which makes it in high demand as a source of greenery that stands up to the deer’s predations. And pollinators of all types love its pollen-rich flowers. The only problem we have with it is that last year’s leaves flop over onto the ground when the tender strands arise with the delicate flowers. You have to cut them off and gather them up, trying not to get abraded from the raspy leaves, or else you just have a mass of greenery where the bottom leaves rot in place.

We like it when both of the Lenten rose and daffodils share the same slope. The Lenten roses are prolific in spreading their seed, and eventually you do have to ride herd on their spread, but this is their time of year.

It takes patience to transform a landscape. We’ve had nearly 30 years. Now the only thing we do beside cutting back the Lenten rose, is to look late in the summer and see where the daffodils are crowding the surface. When they do, I dig them up and spread the bulbs to share with others. Our bulbs are now found in 3 states, and in many places around Charleston. But the rewards come to those who have the patience to wait year after year and enjoy spring when it finally does come. Patience is a virtue we all need more of. Seems like the world now puts a premium on instant gratification, which does not usually work well.

History Rhymed

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail file photo

Long, long time ago. Back when cave men and women huddled for warmth in rock overhangs, and I was a baby, I used to wonder about why things were the way they were. Like, why was it that black people in southern states had fire hoses and police dogs turned on them in order to keep them from showing support for voting. I wondered how this country could have the cognitive dissonance (I didn’t know what that meant at the time) to express such high, lofty sentiments about freedom, and justice, and human rights, while at the same time denying so many people a basic right like the right to vote.

Later in my youth, I encountered a book by Mike Royko, a newspaper columnist in the city of Chicago. His book “Boss” chronicled the reign of Mayor Daley in Chicago. More than anything else, that book explained how the system was used to keep minority populations in their place, and that was the way those in charge wanted it to be. I was from a small city in the Midwest. At the time, I went to the high school in town with the most minorities. I think our class was about 5% Black and outside of a few schools in Omaha, we had the most Blacks in the state of Nebraska. Since I grew up, the city of Lincoln has become a mecca for immigrants, particularly Asian. The Vietnamese refugees were perhaps the first to come there, but they have been followed by many other immigrants from many different nationalities.

I don’t live in Lincoln anymore. But what I do know is that the population of the city has grown steadily since I left, and when I visit, it seems as it is a much more vibrant place than when I spent my youth there. I can compare it to my current home in South Charleston, WV. At the time when I moved here in the 1980’s, the metropolitan populations of both areas was about the same. Since then, the West Virginia population has shrunk, while Lincoln keeps growing.

Why has West Virginia struggled to keep the population from shrinking, while a portion of Nebraska keeps on growing? Perhaps the current legislature in West Virginia can provide some clues. The West Virginia legislature seems hell-bent on maintaining cultural purity at the expense of being a welcoming state. The highest priorities are to prohibit the teaching of any sexual nature within the public schools, prohibit cities and towns from implementing any regulations that are considered as more liberal than the state requirements, and enable all parents to withdraw their children from public school, while the state aid that would have accompanied their children is allowed to be sent to other entities for tuition or class supplies. Each year we hear about the reductions in school enrollment in our county. When this bill comes into effect, not only will you have population decline reflected in enrollment decreases, but an exodus of students into private schools, virtual private schools, and home schooling will exacerbate the decline of public school enrollment.

But I’m sure coal will come back any day now, and allow for new generations to raise their children in prosperity. A new pickup in every driveway, and an ATV to boot. That’s the WV dream!

We as a nation are now facing what we have become. Instead of integrating people fully into our culture, we seem to be freshly reinvigorating the racist memes I remember from my youth. All in pursuit of some idealized memory where whites ruled everything, and the odd minority we have to encounter all know their place. After all, according to Senator Ron Johnson, those who marched on the Capitol were decent, law-abiding citizens of the correct race, who would never consider breaking the law. Not like those Black Lives Matter and antifa marchers who spread anarchy. You would be scared of the latter, but not the former. All of the chaos and vitriol shown by those who broke into the Capitol building? A few plants helped to turn the crowd violent. They’d never have done the things they did if they weren’t instigated to do them.

Those who feign ignorance of history will be sentenced to relive it. In many ways, we have never left the Good Ole Boys territory in much of this nation. We are now in this state facing a new bill that will certainly pass which prohibits any removal of civic monuments (read civil war statues), or rename any public facility without the express approval of a State entity. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, our billionaire governor’s main priority is to replace a somewhat progressive income tax with a hodge-podge of sales and sin tax increases, aimed at reducing his personal tax rate at the expense of those who will pick up the tab in consumption taxes. That is on top of all of the cultural battles that the Legislature has chosen to take on in this session. I think we are making real progress in our state (cheek hernia intended).

Our two sons have joined the youth exodus out of this state. They reside in Maryland and Virginia, and have added to the vitality of those states. Somehow I don’t think they would be influenced to come back here if the income tax rates were lowered. I think there’s a whole lot of other considerations before they ever would decide to move back to this state. But then, you’d never know there’s a problem if you rely upon the signals coming from our legislature. We’ll reap the long term benefits of this philosophy after the release of the census results, when we move from 3 representatives down to 2. Back when the Kennedy-Humphrey primary battle was a thing, we had 6 representatives in the House. Looks like the trend we are trying to reverse goes back at least into the 1950’s. I don’t expect it to change any time soon, especially since this state seems to be willingly stuck in the same miasma it has wallowed in as this legislative session grinds down to its inglorious conclusion.

Superior? It’s So Much More Than A Lake.

Inflamed Trump supporters stormed the Senate side of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, after the president’s rally.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

A premise of white supremacy is that the culture created by whites is superior to that of any other ethnic group. I for one do not believe that, and to prove my point, I only have to refer to what seems to be the cultural beacons for much of the nation. Reality TV. Really. This genre is aimed at the lowest common denominator among TV viewers, as it allows people to vicariously share in the lives of those who are viewed as superior. And how are they superior? Well, many on the airwaves prove their merits by being the chosen one, that is, the one among the rest of the beautiful people who end up winning the affection of the ideal mate. How do they do that? Besides the natural advantage of beauty, they are able to manipulate the emotions and actions of their competitors, and ultimately the emotions and actions of the supposed ideal mate. Stabbing in the back is not only desirable, it adds to the drama for all those who turn in week after week to see the soap opera play out. Ah, yes. The superiority of white culture.

When I was in college, wrestling was big. There were many local television stations that broadcast the regional wrestling circuit. I even had my favorites, a father/son team that used real wrestling moves to subdue their opponents. Sad (and easy) to say, they didn’t have enough pizazz to be fan favorites. I moved after college to Memphis, and there I encountered Jerry Lawler as the local king of wrestling. Very appropriate for the hometown of the King to also serve as the site where the King of Wrestling held sway. But since I first moved to Memphis, the sport has morphed and ended up as a bloated corpse, floating in the flotsam of popular culture. What’s more, the world of boxing has devolved into the world of MMA, where both men and women can aspire to be the peaks of their species by knocking the crap out of their opponents. We know so much more about head trauma than we did when I was a child, it literally hurts to watch any of this, yet so much of what we as a nation desire is more and more mayhem. If this is the epitome of culture that whites can generate, then let me be the first to say it ain’t worth crap.

The US has survived its episode with a reality TV star in charge. This was the fulfillment of H. L. Mencken’s prophecy from a century ago, where he said: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” A moron who reached back into some poorly remembered recesses of his mind to a time when America was great.     I am so grateful that he is no longer in charge, and my hope is he becomes fully discredited as he wades through his morass of legal issues. But just remember, he is still the embodiment of the superiority of white culture.

What it seems to me is that America has lost its ability to self-motivate. We’ve lost the drive to succeed on our own, and because of that we do not have civic energy we need to embody greatness. Part of that is systemic, since big box stores replacing smaller establishments has reduced the opportunity to better yourself by running a small business. It becomes systemic when even the jobs offered at these establishments do not pay enough to sustain a minimal lifestyle. It is only the immigrants who still see the opportunity to better themselves by running a small business. How impoverished would our cuisine be if we had not been exposed to restaurants where local cuisines from across the world were available, thanks to the energy of our immigrant community. But we must maintain the purity of our race!

Our financial system has assumed greater and greater power over our lives. Basically, for any publicly traded company, Wall Street tries to ensure that the only consideration for that company is maximizing shareholder return. Lately this doesn’t even include profit, because so many companies borrow to enable stock buybacks enriching no one other than shareholders. I’ve seen the machinations a company will go through rather than face these individuals who try to impose their will on companies to “maximize shareholder return”. My old company ended up merging with its biggest domestic competitor, then forming three corporations out of the wreckage of the merger. Along the way it was necessary to divest many of the growth products due to anti-trust considerations. All of this was because an activist investor had targeted the company since he thought their costs were too high, and they spent too much money on research. I shudder to think of all of the wasted costs undertaken to make this misguided merger/demerger happen, costs that did nothing to improve customer service, or create new products, or reduce manufacturing waste and pollution.

This over-financialization of the business world is yet another example of what white culture has done, since the world of finance is still mainly a white bastion. Yet another case where whites are causing great harm as they run roughshod over the employees of their enterprises.

All of these are examples of why I find the arguments of those who invoke white supremacy to be faulty at best, and evil at worst. It seems that those who believe in white supremacy are willing to demean any other race and culture, all in the misguided belief that only they can solve the problems. Yeah, we saw just exactly how well that went over the past four years. Unfortunately, that attitude is not shared with many who supported the last presidency. Their only complaint was that he didn’t go far enough, just like his supporters on the January 6 picnic at the Capitol who wore attire that indicated Hitler did not go far enough. But since it was white demonstrators, at least Senator Ron Johnson wasn’t worried.

What Happens Next?

Despair creeps in when hope is exhausted. For so many during this long pandemic season, despair has been a constant companion after the shock of the first few weeks passed. But now, along with the seasonal change, hope is returning. For some, the financial boost coming from the COVID relief package will enable them to hang on until the economy fully recovers, and they can go back to a service economy job that pays just enough to squeak by. For many others, the opportunity to abandon the prison of their home with the onslaught of vaccination, will bring back essential socialization and family interactions. Still, it is hope that is omnipresent in this time of rebirth in nature.

As a nation, we begin to crawl out of our foxholes and survey the landscape around us. Some things should come into focus, even if they were visible prior to the pandemic. Though visible, they did not register as urgent problems in the before times. Will we have the collective will to address these problems now? We will see. The COVID relief bill has taken a first step towards solving some of these problems. But it is time-limited relief, and its provisions are for only one or two years. The problems, like child poverty, have existed for far longer. It was only during the nadir of the pandemic that we realized how interconnected we all are, and how we need to solve the problems of our brothers and sisters in need, or we will be swept under the tide of humanity crying out for aid.

We had a foretaste of what can happen when we ignore these problems for too long. Demonstrations aimed at protesting excessive use of force by law enforcement, were coopted at night by those who favored direct action and anarchy. It is important to recognize that the demonstrations were instigated by acts of violence, but the economy was also a significant factor. When people do not see hope in their lives, despair can overwhelm them and it is a small step to violence. Of course, those who saw only the violence in the streets were convinced that the source of that violence was organized, and financed by an evil cabal. Then we saw what could happen when those who decried violence, decided to perpetrate violence themselves on January 6. Certainly we all were living in a state of despair at that time.

Will we learn our lessons? Will we let the siren song of substance abuse wrap its embrace of slithering tentacles around us? Will we continue to insist upon punitive actions only as the sole treatment method available to those who succumb to its fatal attraction? Will we realize that the costs of maintaining our prison complex are vastly greater than the costs of providing real treatment? That’s just one of the problems that existed long before the pandemic, yet shows up now in greater relief.

Will we be willing to invest in improved facilities for schools? In some states, the disparity between school facilities and achievement is immoral. The zip code you live in should not be the primary determinant of your educational outcome. Yet it is in far too many states. But of course it is the greedy teachers’ unions that are seen as the source of poor student performance.

Will we continue to accept that in the service economy we now have, it is not moral to allow those who look after the most vulnerable in our population to work full time for wages that do not provide enough money to live in dignity? We’ve lost many of the jobs we had in small towns, where a manufacturer could take those who did not pursue advanced education and provide them jobs where they could support a family. We may decry the global shift of labor and capital, but it will not reverse and provide those jobs in the future. Any manufacturing that returns, will use smaller amounts of labor, and require advanced education in order to control and maintain the machines that actually perform the manufacturing. We can wail and moan about this change, or we can accept it and try to fashion our real world into one where we’d like to live.

We’ve just gone through a period where we tried to squeeze out testosterone as a grease for our economy. Witness the frantic push to grab the last bit of fossil fuels out of the public lands. Because, you see, drilling for oil is manly. And we need that image of the roughneck out there in his domestic pickup, living his life out in the frontier towns of the Dakota’s, or among the tumbleweeds of Texas, showing the best of what America has to offer. Yes, doesn’t require much education to be a roughneck. Just what we need to Make America Great Again. But the investment required to keep the oil and gas flowing through the fracking fields won’t just keep coming, since it is nigh unto impossible to make money when the output from the wells declines so precipitously. So will we turn from the allure of fossil fuel towards a cleaner future?

The Texas freeze has shown us just how vulnerable our energy infrastructure is. Will we have the will to require investment in upgrading facilities and making it possible to integrate periodic sources of energy generation (i.e., renewables) into our delivery systems? The next failure may not just be in Texas, but can be global in nature, especially if we get smacked by a coronal mass ejection from the sun. Are we willing to spend money now to protect against something that may not happen for 100 years?

All of these problems (and many more) have existed for decades if not longer. The virus has shown us that we are all living on borrowed time if we expect life to continue blissfully ignorant of the risks we run. Somehow we need to change our mindset from a heedless rush for maximum profits by corporations, to a model where some of the excess profits are recycled into system improvements that ensure continuity of service. Can such a change in mindset happen without government mandates? Texas may be our canary in that a completely deregulated environment did not ensure continuity of service to cover a once in a hundred-year weather event.

Since the 1980’s in the US, we have seen government put down as being the worst enemy of true Americans. It is past time to put that phrase into our history books, as we see what that philosophy does to a society after over 40 years of implementation. You end up with massive inequality in the economy, a bulging underclass that does not share in the overall prosperity of the nation, and facilities that all depend upon that have grown increasingly frail. It is time to change our perspective and look at what can be, and work to create that future for all of us.

Halfway There!

Photo by author

The crocus have bloomed in our lawn and garden slopes. The first signs of spring, these most hopeful of flowers often will bloom through the snow as they let us know that warmer temperatures are coming. We look for the first signs of spring and cherish them.

I just received my first dose of the coronavirus vaccine today. Like the crocus, the increased spread of the vaccines offers hope that the world may emerge from the doldrums of winter into the bright sunlight of summer. Perhaps we can look forward to those things we once took for granted, like enjoying a meal at a restaurant, or singing in our various choirs without fear of contagion.

Being the science nerd that I am, I am glad that I received a dose of the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. There is no better example of technology to demonstrate how far we have come to understanding the genome and how to influence the biology of life. To think that we can now introduce fat particles in a vaccine that are designed to penetrate cell walls. There they will deliver their dosage of mRNA that causes the immune system to recognize, and attack, invaders that have the distinctive type of latching mechanism of COVID. No longer do we need to rely upon killed versions of the whole virus (although the Johnson and Johnson vaccine does rely upon a killed virus other than the COVID to produce immunity). Most of the arguments against vaccines, like they rely upon cells from aborted fetuses, or contain aluminum or mercury, are rendered moot by the nature of the mRNA vaccines. They contain no items that were ever alive, and thus avoid most of the qualms that the anti-vaccination crowd should have.

But never doubt the ability of those who do not understand the underlying science to sow doubt even with this brand-new mode of vaccine delivery. No, since the scary boogeyman of DNA is invoked, those who must protest medical advances to justify their own superiority have declared that these new vaccines will hijack your DNA, and cause unspeakable mutations that will show up in later years to enable the goal of population reduction to be achieved. Whose goal? Why, Bill Gates of course. It is he who has taken the place of George Soros in many regards as the face of evil for those who refuse any scientific advance. Bill has mandated the insertion of microchips into the vaccine, so that the vaccination status of all may be determined by a simple scan, and your access to travel, recreation, and money can be held hostage to your vaccination status. I’ve even seen discussion about ingesting a horse de-wormer (Ivermectin) as a treatment regimen rather than subject people to the vaccine.

Since I was trained as a chemical engineer, and have studied biochemistry and other related fields, I have much less fear of products developed through adherence to the scientific method. I wish there were a way I could convey the knowledge I have gained to those who are insistent upon believing the pure BS that is spread through on-line media. But I should not be surprised. Those who believed in the past president as being a great businessman have proven to be remarkably recalcitrant in abandoning their adherence to worshiping the great one. You need look no further than to see the adulation given to the golden statue of their chosen leader this past weekend at CPAC. Those who have been taken in by a scam artist, are loathe to admit their own folly. It has been said the mankind goes mad in herds, but come to their senses one by one. We who believe we are the rational ones, will never go and win an argument with those who are still in the throes of their delusions.

Anyway, I’ve now had the first dose of the vaccine. I anticipate that when I receive the second dose in about four weeks, that my immune system will already recognize the new dose as an interloper that must be attacked, and I expect to feel like crap for a day or so. That is one small price to pay compared to the price that can be exacted from full-fledged infection with the virus. I’ve been following the progress of a friend who was severely infected, with pneumonia from the virus. Just the stories of his near brush with death, and the tenacity he’s had to use to battle back, let me know that I don’t wish to share his experience.

In some ways this pandemic has served as a wake-up call for the world. Imagine if this airborne virus had the lethality of Ebola? I think that’s what some deniers are maintaining, that if people aren’t dropping dead on the streets, then this is not a disease worth fearing. I really am hoping that those in charge of political power decide it is worthwhile to pay for insurance policies for the future. What does that look like? It looks like scientists from multiple nations working at facilities across the globe, ready to sound the warning when they detect a disease of concern. It looks like adequate stocks of protective equipment kept on hand. It looks like an analysis of supply chains, and investment to harden those supply chains, so that we are not subject to interruption of those supply chains for vital supplies when the world shuts down for the next pandemic. Because one thing we know. As long as mankind keeps impinging upon virgin territory, we will come into contact with new and more deadly diseases in the future. May we have the wisdom to actually learn from this episode, instead of adopting amnesia as a coping mechanism.

I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore

West Virginia Capital Building

In January 2011, the State of Kansas embarked upon an experiment, where they deliberately slashed tax rates without a plan to replace the revenue. The revenue would be replaced, and indeed it would grow, due to the influx of investment and residents responding to the reduced tax rates. Alas, this plan ran afoul as reality intruded, and in order to maintain a balanced budget, the state had to cut spending for education and other expenses. Finally, the state legislature had to wrest control back from the governor, and raise tax rates back to their previous level in order to keep schools from imploding, and get the state’s bond rating back to an acceptable category. Governor Brownback ended up resigning his office, only to land on his feet when the President nominated him to be the US Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom. Governor Brownback was so toxic that it took two congressional sessions for his nomination to be approved, and it was only approved when Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie to place him in this newly-created office.

Never one to learn from the experiences of others, the West Virginia legislature this year is treading much of the same path that Kansas did a decade ago. Flush with cash from COVID legislation, the governor of West Virginia has proposed slashing the state income tax in half this year, with a view at eliminating it altogether in the future. He is proposing to replace the revenues with a combination of sales tax increases, and expansion of items that will be covered by sales tax. He also is proposing increases in certain sin taxes. But his plans are bereft on guidance on how the basic needs of the state will be met when eventually 41% of the taxes funding the state budget are eliminated.

At the same time, the state legislature is proceeding to add another layer of bureaucracy in the state judicial system, by instituting an appeals court system. Considering that the workload for the Supreme Court of the state has declined precipitously over the past decade, the addition of the new court layer is aimed at pleasing the corporate clientele of the legislature, as they enable another opportunity to delay and perhaps overturn verdicts from lower courts. And at the suggestion of the Governor, two new cabinet posts have been created, and given the natural tendency of bureaucracies to grow over time, state government appears to be growing instead of shrinking.

Now, looking ahead a few years, one can envision a future where it becomes obvious that the revenues lost from the income tax rate reduction have not been replaced from the consumption tax increases. Since there is no more coverage of state expenses from federal appropriations, the state will have to look for opportunities to cut. Indeed, the targets have already been floated for a significant portion of the cuts. It’s in higher education, where the flagship universities of Marshall and WVU offer the chance to reduce expenditures and force the increased expenses upon the students in the form of higher tuition and fees. Oh, by the way, the program that the state has to off-set tuition, the Promise Scholarship? That is also in the gunsights of those who would plow ahead and reduce the income tax rates to zero.

What would be the potential gain for making these cuts in tax rates? Why, the increased revenues coming in from the flood of business investment, and the in-migration of residents who react solely to tax rates as a way of making a decision about where to live.

Look, this state has a well-deserved reputation for refusing to value education. We are the lowest in the nation regarding post-secondary graduation rates. We have difficulty in providing potential employers with an educated work force already. To put the screws further on the universities of this state is self-defeating. Instead of cutting education further, we need to enable students to attend community college, and to improve the offerings of community colleges to better match up with the needs of employers. The last thing we need to do is cut aid to the institutions that offer us hope of moving ahead in the world.

By the way, most people do not make decisions about where to live solely based upon tax rates. Maybe in the case of New York, and California, where income and property taxes are significantly higher than in West Virginia, tax rates are a factor, but in a state with competitive total taxation, the little bit of tax reduction we can offer will not be a significant driver of behavior. A better determinant will be whether broadband access is adequate (it’s not in much of the state), and whether the local roads are adequate (they are horrible once you get off of the interstates and Appalachian corridors). And also, the issue of schools and support for the same comes into play. Needless to say, this legislature is also toying with the idea of cutting funding to local schools in the future by proving vouchers for homeschooling or private schools (in person or virtual). Just what we need, an opportunity for the next generation of this state to be able to marinate in their petri dish of ignorance and intolerance rather than be exposed to the real world through the public school system.

Speaking of the reputation of this state, our legislators seem bound and determined to uphold our perception of being a bunch of yahoos who don’t belong in civil society. After all, it is not every state legislature that has a newly elected member film himself entering the Capital during the January 6 riot. It certainly is not the case where several members of the legislature wear masks made of mesh on the floor of their chamber so as to comply with the letter of the regulations concerning face covering. It is not every state that has multiple bills being offered to pull back on sex education in the schools, and eliminate any chance for providing protection to those who do not choose to use the missionary position to procreate. Yes, the national media does not tire of holding up examples of West Virginia politicians in order to feed the stereotypes to the national audience, and we keep giving them ammunition. This past election has resulted in Republican supermajorities in both houses of the WV legislature. The members certainly seem to be having fun as they dance upon the shredded remnants of decency and hopes that this state can ever float the ship of state off of the shoals we foundered upon many years ago.

Weather – We Like It Or Not

In January 1982, I worked at a chemical plant in Memphis when we suffered through a spell of bitterly cold weather like Texas went through last week. Chemical plants are like other similar facilities, such as oil refineries and power plants. Memphis is not in the deep South, but our plant was not designed for an extended period of extremely cold weather.

So I can understand why Texas has suffered as much as they have in their current cold snap. And the longer temperatures remain so much below freezing, the worse the damage will get. When we suffered our freeze in Memphis, our first priority was to shut down in a safe way and prevent leakage of hazardous materials. Once that was safely completed, all we could do was settle in for the inevitable thaw that would come.

But when the thaw came, that is when the true damage was revealed. All of the water and steam piping that froze, often burst. The sound of dripping water showed how much repair was needed before we could start up again. In our case, large diameter cooling water pipes had frozen solid and burst, which delayed our restart for weeks. This was certainly a contributing factor in the decision by Du Pont to close the process a year later.

For facilities in Texas, often it’s the smallest components that cause the biggest issues. Pressure sensors have very small diameter piping that leads to a gauge and signal transmitter. That little bit of piping is often what freezes, leading to a loss of the sensor. Faced with the option of running their process blind, operators shut down their facility. Then the loss of heat from combustion or chemical reaction leads to more freezing. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are other factors that exacerbated the situation in Texas. By isolating themselves from the national power grid, they were able to claim that their utilities were not engaged in interstate commerce. That freed them from Federal regulation, and enabled them to rely solely upon intrastate regulation. For Texas, that is a prime motivating factor, and one reason why the situation has been so dire during this time. The few corners of the state that are tied into the national grids (El Paso and Beaumont) appear to have come through this crisis with minimal damage, since they were able to import electricity from outside of the borders of Texas. But everywhere else has been held hostage to the native stubbornness of the state.

To many on the outside looking in, it is inconceivable that Texans would willingly put themselves through a disaster just to continue to be free of external regulation. But that would not be a true assessment of the state of Texas. I first visited Texas nearly 50 years ago, and was struck by the attitude I encountered there. If any place in the US could be an independent country, Texas was that place. In the intervening decades, it seems this feeling has only strengthened. What Texas will find out is that there are real benefits to be had in integrating with the rest of the country. What I fear is this most recent incident will only serve to ossify the attitudes of true Texans, and perhaps send the secessionist movement into overdrive. It seems as though the tendency in Texas, and through much of the country, is that it is much better to go it alone. As if someone could wall themselves off from the rest of the world and still maintain a standard of living better than anyone else.

This was the motivating factor leading to the building of “the wall”. If we could just put up a barrier and prevent the others from diluting our genes, we would solve many of the problems of the nation. Funny thing, though. In Texas the concept of private property rights proved ascendant to the need to build a barrier. In many of the border lands adjacent to the Rio Grande, families that had owned the land for generations objected to their property being broken in two by a barrier wall. Civil litigation has held up construction for years, and there’s no end in sight.

So the tragedy unfolding in Texas is both of natural and human making. The cold they’ve been subjected to is certainly something that would cause much suffering by itself. But it was due to the nature of the power business in Texas, where no one enforced requirements to maintain back-up capacity, or winterize their facilities, that made a natural disaster an order of magnitude worse. Keep the situation in Texas in mind as Republicans keep insisting on a steady drumbeat of deregulation. Maybe regulations are more expensive. Maybe we pay a little more each month to ensure continuity of service. I know that it is a bitter struggle each time a utility in our state tries to recover funds spent on upgrading infrastructure. But as Texas has shown, you can pay me now, or pay me later. For Texas, later has arrived.

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I’m not a normal American. I know that. I always have. Ever since I was in the first grade, and I stated my strong preference that it was a big bang that created the universe, not a steady state universe. Maybe I thought explosions were cooler, but that’s what I thought. In first grade!

I thought I could be a great athlete as a kid, but didn’t have the fast-twitch muscles needed to be good at any sport. No, I found plays and musical theatre as an outlet for my energy. That, and choral singing. The latter I still do at age 66, which is one way in which the pandemic has robbed me of a creative outlet.

I fancied myself as a potential novelist, but when I tried it, my dialogue came out like stilted lettuce. I found my real skill early on, when I competed in Informative Public Address in high school forensics. One time, when visiting my high school, I realized that a trophy in a trophy case was partially due to my efforts. It made me realize that I hadn’t wasted my time back then.

I really diverged from being normal when I went to college. Majoring in Chemical Engineering, I toured all of the hard sciences and math courses. I had to add in one choral group each year in order to maintain my own sanity by sustaining a creative outlet. Looking back, it was amazing that I didn’t end up in legal trouble in those days, due to a certain prohibited substance that is only now gaining legitimacy in many states.

When I got a job after college, I moved away from Nebraska and moved to Memphis. A bit of a cultural shock, I found a niche and not only grew at work, but also continued with musical theatre. The one show I was in at the premiere theatre in Memphis where I did a month with 7 shows a week (matinee on Sunday) and still maintained my work showed me I did not want to do this sort of thing for a living. Not that I had the talent for it, but there are plenty of opportunities for us abnormal people to find creative outlets if you let yourself open to those opportunities.

The opportunity came for me to transfer to a sister plant in West Virginia. Despite all of the stereotypes about hillbilly culture, the capitol city of Charleston offered very good cultural fare. I continued to seek out opportunities for musical theatre, and was rewarded with a leading role (for a male) in what is really a tour de force for the female lead (Sweet Charity). I met my wife during those days at a cast party. She was in the orchestra, and at that time I played as a table in Evita (along with many other chorus roles). After we got married, I had one last opportunity with the local theatre group, and can say that I was in a show with Jennifer Garner when she was in high school.

Children came along, and the time to take to rehearse and perform theatre went away. But it was replaced by singing in church choirs, and in a select choral group. It was through doing these abnormal things that I had opportunities to sing in churches in Scotland and Yorkshire, and perform multiple times at Piccolo Spoleto festivals in Charleston, SC. Later as our children grew and performed in vocal ensembles, we accompanied them to Europe and Hawaii. All of these opportunities came about because we were not normal, and never could accept being merely passive consumers of mass culture.

So, since we are both a bit iconoclastic, we’ve been a good match. We both are liberals in this most conservative state in the nation. Fortunately we’ve found an Episcopal church that believes in social programs, and we lend our support to those.

But we’ve become aware of just how out of the mainstream we’ve become. We don’t do Amazon. We don’t shop at WalMart. We don’t watch reality TV. We don’t stream. New forms of social media are created, flower, and die before we even become aware of them.

We try to keep our cars for 15 years. We’ve never owned a SUV. Commercialism is lost on us, though we’ve plenty of disposable income. If the economy had to depend upon consumers like us, there are entire industries that would become a tiny fragment of their current size.

What’s really important, is that we believe it is of utmost importance to use creative talents to entertain others, rather than always have the cultural exchange be solely one way. We find it difficult to live in a society where so much of your “worth” depends upon how much of your net worth you are willing to flaunt. And we especially find it difficult to live in a world where the definitions of Christianity are perverted into displays like the prayers offered by the QAnon shaman on the floor of the halls of Congress.

We know that we will never be pacesetters in the world. But by being consistent to ourselves, and continuing to create through instrumental music, choral music, quilting, and writing, we may serve as examples for those who also wish to tread a path less traveled. A secret here – often the path that is used less has softer grass growing underfoot. It makes it a more pleasant journey as compared to the thoroughfare trodden by the masses.

Fossil Fuels? What a Quaint Notion

Fossil fuels are responsible for the huge advances in living standards over the past several hundred years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the economy has depended upon concentrated sources of energy which is converted into useful work. Coal was the first source of energy meeting this need. Once extracted, and moved to its point of use, a lump of coal when burned expanded man’s capabilities through the turning of turbines and through the production of steam, which could move large machinery.

Then we discovered liquid petroleum. That was an even better source, and quite literally, it seemed to jump out of the ground once we poked a straw into its hidey-hole. Now you could use liquid hydrocarbons to fuel the transportation revolution that unfolded in the 20th century. Humanity grew used to its availability and deemed it as a birthright to maintain access to inexpensive forms of liquid hydrocarbons.

But then the 1970’s happened, and the producers of liquid hydrocarbons realized they controlled the production of a substance the industrialized world was addicted to. Quite logically, they withheld their product, saw the reaction from the rest of the world as of an addict writhing in the agony of withdrawal, and then resumed selling, but at a higher price. Thus the US began a period where the foreign and military policy of this nation was directed to protect the producing nations and protecting the transportation lanes. The military cost for this was never factored into the price of oil, which stayed high but never reflected the full cost for the fuel.

Just when the US grew accustomed to the external costs associated with securing petroleum supplies, technology threw the US a lifeline. See, the true reserves of hydrocarbons greatly exceeded the stated volumes, but much of those extra reserves were locked up in sedimentary rock, instead of pooling in geologic formations. And those oil and gas bearing sedimentary rocks could be found in many areas of the country. Technology gave the tool to unlock these hydrocarbon reserves in the form of fracking.

So the great fracking revolution was unleashed. Since about 2007, fracking has resulted in significant increases in production. So much so, that for several years, we’ve been able to forego much of the imported petroleum we once depended upon. The new solution of fracking was going to replace our old sources of energy, and we could rely upon a new generation of American wildcatters going out and perpetuating the stereotype of macho men dealing with steel and oil.

There is just one problem with fracking, though. The input costs to get the energy out are a more significant portion of the energy produced when compared to standard oil wells. See, in energy production there is the little matter of energy return on investment (EROI). Similar to a financial ROI calculation, this ratio shows the energy return for any form of technology. And fracking has a lot of inputs that a standard drilling rig doesn’t have. The inputs for fracking are sand, water, and chemicals, and a large amount of excess water produced from fracking has to be disposed of. Anyone who has lived in or visited an area with active fracking can attest to the volume of trucks going to and fro dealing with the water from the wells. Plus, another secret with fracking is that the amount of oil and gas produced declines much faster with a fracked well as compared to a standard well. Declines of as much as 60% from year to year are noted in fracked wells, whereas a standard well may decline only at a 5% per year rate. Thus to maintain or improve production requires ever more drilling, and this vicious cycle perpetuates through the lifespan of the producing field.

The chart below shows expected EROI for various forms of energy. Note the steep drop off once you get below an EROI of about 10. In particular note the figure attributed to biofuels. Since corn-generated ethanol is the main source of biofuels, it is evident that it takes about as much energy to produce it as it releases. The original reason for the corn conversion to ethanol  was to reduce US dependence on foreign oil. But when all of the inputs are considered, it is obvious that ethanol from corn is strictly a political beast that has developed a constituency far beyond its original intent. That is a subject for a separate post.

Looking at this chart, one would think that fracked oil and gas offers a significant increase in the available hydrocarbon supply. It does, but not as much as standard reservoir wells. And the steep depletion rates for these wells masks another issue with fracking. The cost of hydrocarbons needed to produce a positive ROI is higher than the current price. In other words, fracking does not make economic sense while the cost of oil is near $50/barrel. At $80/barrel, you can show a positive cash flow, but not at the price we’ve seen for many years. So we now are in the situation where the technology we’ve used to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, is shown to be an endless dollar pit.

So now, as almost all problems go, this has become a political issue. One party in the US wants the fossil fuel party to continue, noting that our lifestyle is dependent upon an ever-increasing supply of hydrocarbons. And one side has looked into the future, seeing that the only way to keep the fossil fuel party going is to increase the cost of that fuel beyond the ability of the population to handle. So we should deliberately speed up conversion of the economy towards renewable sources of energy, in order to avoid falling off of the energy cliff.

You might bring in concerns about global warming into this discussion, but in my opinion, that is icing on the cake. It is a straight-forward economic calculation that will dictate our migration away from fossil fuels. By the way, one final thought on the EROI charts – if you are using a fossil fuel to convert it into electricity, you run into thermodynamic losses. Even in an extremely modern power plant, 40% of the fuel goes into waste heat, which greatly reduces the EROI of the fuel source. So wind and solar, even though they show up as lower on the chart than fracking, they have the advantage of having converted input energy directly to electricity, thus avoiding the thermodynamic losses.

We in the US are at the mercy of our political class understanding these issues and making decisions that are better in the long run. Given the track records of the parties, skepticism is warranted.

Visions for the Nation

I find it more than ironic that one party in the political spectrum has so closely aligned itself with a proven loser now holed up at a resort in South Florida, that it cannot shed its skin even when the loser has left office. We see the examples of state Republican parties castigating its members for inadequate fidelity to said loser, censuring the apostates in Arizona, in Oregon denouncing the betrayal of the 10 Republicans in the House who voted for impeachment, in Wyoming where rallies are planned decrying Liz Cheney’s act of independence, and supporting the QAnon-supporting elected member of Congress (Marjorie Taylor Greene) in Georgia. At the same time, they are vociferously calling for unity in their desire to not call the ex-President to account for his actions in inciting the crowd to storm the Capitol on January 6.

Though the party in control in Washington has changed, the tone of the discussion has not. Fox News and those on the extreme right of the political discussion now claim that any utterance from a Democrat is evil, socialistic, and reprehensible. Thus the sincere efforts to reach a bipartisan solution seem doomed before they start. If the proposal for additional relief due to the pandemic is shoehorned into a reconciliation bill, then maybe at least the Biden administration will be ahead of the Obama administration. It took a long time before Obama ever gave up on trying to include Republicans into signing on to legislation. Even 14 months after his inauguration, Obama tried to gather Republican support in favor of his Affordable Care Act legislation. If President Biden learns within the first month that it is not possible to seek agreement on a bipartisan basis, then he will be more than a year ahead of his predecessor in recognizing political reality, and dealing with the actual landscape instead of the idealized vista one could hope for.

In the long term, it is not Trump that is the problem. He is the nucleating center around which the precipitate of the party came crashing out of solution. But it is the toxic solution that is the problem, rather than the current center of attention. In the short term, even if Senator McConnell wants Trump neutralized, the belated second impeachment trial is unlikely to serve as an adequate repudiation. Maybe the two sides will at least agree to a censure, which will have as much impact as being repeatedly poked with soft cushions. But don’t look for any resolution to come from the trial in the Senate, because the upcoming failure to convict will only have the effect of validating Trump’s actions in the months after his defeat in the election.

The real question is how to detoxify the solution that resulted in Trump’s elevation to the Presidency. That solution has grown more concentrated as continued exposure to lies has convinced many more to identify with the conspiracies that drip with ease from the mouths of those whose only goal is to manipulate. I almost feel sorry for the followers of Q who had to face severe disappointment when the storm was not released on the day of Biden’s inauguration. To have such a strong belief ripped apart before their eyes as the A-list stars lent their voices to the inauguration, that dissolution of their belief system physically hurt many who had burrowed deeply down the Q rabbit hole. It is no wonder that there is a small remnant who have latched onto the Sovereign Citizen movement, and still expect Donald Trump to be inaugurated in early March as the successor of the true Republic of the United States. This is instead of the corporation we became as we signed our control over to the banks of London and the Rotschilds. (I’d better watch it or I’ll give myself a cheek hernia.)

In a way, it will be better if Donald Trump attempts the formation of a new MAGA party, aimed at perpetuating his hold on a segment of the population. We could become the new Argentina where we reminisce 60 years from now on how good things were under the Perons, and reach for each new generation’s version of a Peronist.  But realistically that would result in even more politicians like  Marjorie Greene being elected, thus legitimizing the totally ludicrous belief system she espouses.

No, right now it is instructive to see those elites in the political right stir up the emotions of their true believers. According to them, we are only weeks away from rounding up all dissenters on the right, forcibly removing their guns, and sending them off in boxcars to the nearest FEMA camp.

In this day of images substituting for content, one image stands out. On one side, the title says Young Democrat, and under it is an image of Amanda Gorman. On the other side, it says Young Republican, and beneath it is the image of Kyle Rittenhouse. Nowhere else can you find a more succinct description of the dichotomy we see here today. One side believes only in the power of their weaponry, and its ability to sow destruction, and the other side believes in the power of their words, and the ability of language to bring about unity around an ideal.