Choices People Make

This post is kind of hard to write. I am making the point that some things are inherently better than others. In doing this, I am claiming my membership in the “elite” class so many people wish to dismiss. Indeed, I am asking to be “owned” as a card-carrying lib.

First, let me address something that I hope is local to Appalachia, though I fear it has spread across much of the country. I think those who participate in, and attend “Toughman” competitions, represent a failed class of humanity. A bit of explanation, in case these events are not universal. These are competitions where untrained amateurs put on boxing gloves, and go and whale away on opponents who are likely as unskilled as they are. In between rounds, examples of Daisy Mae femininity parade around the ring, holding up the round numbers. In one fell swoop, this commercial enterprise manages to denigrate both the men and women of Appalachia, as only being capable of serving as cannon fodder or as sex symbols. Since these events have survived for decades in this market, I believe they serve to confirm the stereotypes hung on the residents of this region.

I believe classical music and jazz represents a higher capability when compared to rap, hip-hop, and country music. It is harder to make the notes on the scores come to life when you compare classical to these other forms, and as such, I believe it is better to have one’s music come from the classical repertoire. For jazz, the writing is minimal. You must internally improvise the chords and harmonies. Certainly you can write a memorable song only using 3 chords. But that does not mean you are a musician.

I believe most television is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Certainly the plethora of reality television shows represent some of the worst of humanity. Anything that allows mankind to exist vicariously and enable people to feel either envy at the lifestyles of celebrities, or wishing they had the physical abilities on certain reality shows, those shows further the misallocation of mental resources made possible by visual media. The popularity of TikTok videos, in five second increments, shows how the diminishing of the attention span is progressing quite well.

Even in our choice of weaponry, we seem to want to reduce our functioning capability while increasing our dependence on technology. Whereas shooting sports used to require skill, and superb hand-eye coordination, now we just get a semi-automatic weapon, point, and shoot aimlessly. Perhaps we are fortunate in that simply spraying bullets is normally less lethal than someone who is trained on their weapon. Let me just say that I do not measure my worth by the number of weapons I keep around the house. Those who seem to live in a permanent state of paranoia of the “government” coming to take their weapons are inferior to those who want to live in peace among their neighbors.

Let’s see, whose oxen can I gore now? We could talk about all of those who feel a perfect monoculture of grass is the highest form of landscaping possible. The ones who keep the landscape companies in business applying endless quantities of fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide all aimed at turning suburbia into a boring sea of grass. They are the ones who on a small scale are responsible for the loss of pollinators and birds we see around us. They will never have the joy of watching naturalized crocus bloom in their lawn as a harbinger of spring every year.

To all who not only are incapable of understanding scientific principles, but actively work at diminishing them and proselytizing against them, you have my scorn. It is amazing in this day we are still seeing state legislatures devoting time and effort towards implementing intelligent design (ID), but that is the current condition in West Virginia, where the ID camel has stuck its nose in the legislative tent. Of course, research has found a higher death rate in the counties where science denialism is more widespread as compared to those counties repudiating those anti-intellectual beliefs. Only a few more generations and mankind may evolve towards a belief in science. Too bad we have to deal with the idiots in charge in the interim.

I believe the underlying cause for all of the issues I’ve identified is money. People go where the money is. And unfortunately, people are willing to spend money on those things which tend to feel good, but don’t last when looked at from afar. If people didn’t buy rap or hip-hop, we would not find it infesting our culture. If there wasn’t peer pressure to maintain a “perfect” lawn, lawn chemical companies would find more useful ways to serve society. If people stopped contributing money to those hypocritical politicians who give voice to populism, but really just want tax breaks for wealthy people, then we might get a political class that wants to solve real-world problems. I am not holding my breath waiting for sanity to sweep over this land.

Some of these distinctions are real, and cause much of the division between people we find in society today. Some seem like minor irritants (like reality TV – no one is making you watch that). But there is a deeper meaning to be found in people’s preferences. In most cases, people go for the easy solution. That is a primary reason why people find it difficult to postpone gratification and save for the future. If you are lucky, you will win the lottery and never have to worry about the future.

Reduce Carbon Footprint? Ha-Ha!

I really wanted an opportunity to reduce my carbon footprint by getting rid of my gas stove and going to an induction cooktop. But alas, I live in West Virginia. Here there is no commercial option to replace methane with electricity generated without the aid of fossil fuels. In fact, in this state, we still receive 91% of our electricity from coal – the fuel source with the most possible emissions of carbon dioxide. In this state, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the current age, since we want to segregate ourselves in the past when America was great.

In this state, those companies who wish to insure they have a source of low carbon energy are viewed as radical woke environmentalists, and the legislature has made it extremely difficult to implement alternative energy sources. At the residential level, the state has left in place roadblocks against any form of community solar energy, which is about the only option I would have since our house alignment is not conducive to installing solar panels. See, we love coal in this state, and we will do our best to ensure we use this fuel source until we’ve stripped every minimal vein from under our feet. Yes, strip mining is still a thing, only we use explosives to rip off the tops of ridges in order to gain access to the black gold still in the ground. Putting the surface back into some semblance of the previous terrain? Yes, that is what the law says you should do, but even the most responsible companies kind of punt on this, leaving a slightly rolling surface good for – well, just what is this ground good for, once the top soil has been blasted away leaving behind only rubble. More on this later.

Coal mining is macho. The image in this state of a young, virile male coal miner leaving in the morning with their lunch bucket in hand, off to fulfill some companies plan to provide fuel for power plants. This image is strong and resilient. Why bother getting an education since you will likely be involved in extracting coal from the ground for a living? And make no mistake, it is a good living. It is the only job capable of sustaining a middle-class lifestyle in much of this state. But there is so much to coal mining that is bad. Since the veins of coal are so thin, any method of extracting the coal involves much more exposure to rock dust. Rock dust? Try almost pure silica. Increased exposure to silica is fueling an epidemic of black lung among the same young, virile miners mentioned earlier. Whereas black lung used to affect miners in their 50’s, this new variety is hitting younger miners, often in their 30’s and 40’s.

Black lung is not the only problem. Especially when engaging in mountain top removal, the tailings are pushed over the side of the mountain. Selenium is one of the components in the rock other than silica, and it leaches out of the exposed rocks and is released into the disturbed streams. There it can lead directly to fish kills, or indirectly lead to human disease via rudimentary water services requiring the use of the degraded water. And remember, in order to remove the rocks atop of the coal, explosives are used to blast off the overburden. The dust from these blasts settles down in the area, causing exposure to silica dust even for those who do not benefit from mining jobs. In all, a lousy way to free up a burnable resource.

Of course, we should not worry about the end product of coal combustion. Carbon dioxide is a necessary resource for plants, at least that’s what I read in anti-global warming tracts. But what is not stated (perhaps due to an antipathy towards evolution) is that existing plants are finely tuned to their current environment. Changing two of the components necessary for growth (temperature and carbon dioxide) at the same time is, as the movies have said, Risky Business. Of course, most of those who deny that climate change is real and caused by human emissions hold sway at local political levels. We see that in West Virginia where one of the State Senators with jurisdiction over coal adoration has called renewable energy a “fairy tale”. Well, sir, my education was as a chemical engineer, and in my pursuit of that education I took several semesters of thermodynamics and atmospheric science. For humanity to have the hubris to return much of the carbon sequestered over millions of years into the atmosphere in a geological eye blink and not expect any unanticipated consequences is indeed, folly. I do not care that carbon dioxide is only several hundred parts per million in the atmosphere. Greatly increasing that amount will not cause Eden to break out over all of earth. We will instead see instability of weather patterns (polar vortex invasions in winter), flooding events in summer (warmer air can contain more moisture and the increase is exponential), and an increase in what is considered clear weather flooding due to sea rise.

Earlier I referred to the land made mainly level after reclamation from mountaintop removal. What can such land be used for? Since the topsoil was scattered to the winds, the remaining soil makes a poor candidate for any growing activity. It is well suited, though, for solar farms, since this will not displace productive farmland. Can we adjust to a passive energy source after having depended upon land disruption for so long to feed the coal industrial complex? We will have to examine our soul as a state and summon the will to make legislative changes that support this change, rather than consider it a “fairy tale” suitable only for those with gossamer wings. This transition has started in West Virginia, but it is an exception, even at this late date.

The Blues of Memphis

The world has stared in horror on video screens at the murder in Memphis of Tyree Nichols. How could such an event happen? What type of culture creates people who could exhibit such a lack of human empathy when confronted with the beating death so many participated in?

I lived in Memphis for nearly 10 years. It was where I had my first job, at a chemical plant north of the city, and I lived in two apartment complexes and a house near the University of Memphis campus (I’ll always want to describe the school as Memphis State.) I was a part of the city, but I see now how much of the city I did not visit. At my plant, the racial divide was there, but it seldom was a primary concern. I can only recall one time where the violence and crime affected us, and that was when one of the operators didn’t show up for his shift. Turns out it was because he had been abducted by some folks as part of a drug transaction gone bad, and he had been locked inside of a trunk for over a day. From what I know, he was fortunate to ever leave that trunk alive. But that turned out to be only one of many instances of him not complying with corporate expectations, and he was fired shortly afterwards. This was the guy who went in and plugged up a hole on a leaking ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. It was clear that he was fearless. But. He was ultimately not a good fit for working in a chemical plant.

I crossed paths with different parts of Memphis society from time to time. I coached our company team in basketball in the city rec league one year. Now, you must understand that Memphis is crazy for basketball. That’s why the NBA franchise there has done so well. And we did have several good players on our team, including the intern whose brother was on the Memphis State team. The only reason why Alfred was not playing major college basketball was that he was only 5’7”. When he went back to school, we picked up another guy from the drafting and blueprint room, who was about 6’4” and a professional kick boxer. He was a terror on the boards and on defense. Sometimes I think the only reason for me to coach was to allow me to call my own number, and play my 2 minutes per game where my only skill was standing still and letting someone charge into me. There was once where a guy who resembled a matchstick, about 6’6” and 66 pounds, came at me, and I distinctly remember his knees clipping my shoulder. He went down and I’d thought I’d killed him, but except for the foul he got, there were no consequences. Our team was undefeated going into the playoffs, where we encountered an older white referee, who immediately perceived any deception as traveling. I was very upset with that ref who took us out of the tournament. But that was only a partial meeting across cultural and racial lines, and I left the games to go back to my almost exclusively white apartments.

I let race wash over me during my years there. When I bought a house (back in the days of 15% interest rates), I ended up in the white neighborhood between a country club and Memphis State.  It was a nice neighborhood, and I never had any concerns about walking at late night down to the bars that a major college attracts. I would imagine my concern level would be elevated now, with an increase in street crime and the general decline occurring in the nearly 40 years since I lived in the city.

That was the thing. I lived in Memphis, but there was a whole part of the city I never set foot in. I remember driving through one neighborhood, where I saw the sign on a diner advertising the bologna sandwich. I could only wonder about a restaurant that thought enough of bologna to feature it

To say that I lived a life of white privilege is easy to see now. I participated in the party scene in the Nutcracker Ballet, and was asked back to be the king in the following production of Sleeping Beauty. There I was actually on the stage with members of the American Ballet Theatre. These are not the type of cultural events frequented by the majority race in Memphis. I lived in the city before the renovation  and resuscitation of Beale Street. So I had to make do with the Overton Square area for bars and restaurants appealing to my demographic (white, male, aged 25-34 at the time). For heaven’s sake, I saw more bluegrass bands than I did blues bands. How much more can you deny the local culture.

I lived in one apartment complex for over 5 years. Back then I would explore on my bike. Just on the outside of the complex was a street that could have been taken directly from the pages of William Faulkner. Henrietta Street it was named, and the contrast between the then new apartment complex cheek to jowl with the houses of sharecroppers was jarring. I only remember riding my bike down that street once. Not because I was scared, but just because I had so little in common with those who lived there.

With the recent beating death by police in Memphis, it is evident that the divides I saw in my time in the city have deepened over the decades.  I will always love the city and remember well the smell of hickory smoke down by the Mississippi river during the Memphis in May barbecue fest. There was something powerful in hearing Old Man River sung by a black performer as part of an outdoor orchestral concert. This city is where I learned how to barbecue, and how to be a responsible homeowner. But there was much I failed to discover, mainly because I never really shared my life with the majority of the residents. Now I can only shake my head in dismay at the actions shown repeatedly on television.

Slimey Works For George Santos

I was ambling down the sidewalk when I spied a familiar form speeding along coming towards me. It was none other than my old friend Slimey, the original DC swamp monster. His 8’ reptilian form was hard to miss, even if he tried to disguise it with clothing.

“Slimey” I shouted, as I attempted to intercept him before he could race past me. It was obvious he was in a hurry, but he did stop as soon as he heard my voice.

“Friend,” he called out. “You are just the person I was looking for. You may be able to help me out,” Slimey hissed in that distinctive accent of his. Amazing what a reptilian accent sounds like. Some of the consonants just don’t come across completely.

“What can I do for you?” I responded. Most of the time, I scarcely knew what to do with Slimey’s issues. I could guess this was going to be another time where I would be at a loss.

“You may be able to help me out with a situation concerning my employer. See, I’ve taken a position in a Congressman’s office.”

I shuddered to think of any representative who would employ an 8-foot tall reptile who crawled out of the Tidal Basin. Then it came to me.

“You are working for George Santos!” I exclaimed.

“A very good guess.” Slimey confirmed my suspicions by his nodding of his enormous head packed full of razor-sharp teeth. “Now, I need your help with a problem he has.”

I thought for a moment about the massive fraud that is George Santos. How he was elected to office as the epitome of a volleyball-playing, large bank lackey, college graduate, with parents who survived the holocaust but somehow didn’t survive the consequences of 9/11, only to be discovered after election as a member of the checked box “None of the above” club. It seemed George Santos didn’t need any of my ideas about how to deal with his issues. Still, I owed it to Slimey to at least provide an effort at a response. “What exactly is George’s problem.”

Slimey took a second before answering, stretching his neck as his head surveyed the heavens, then he said “George really doesn’t need his glasses. He wears them strictly for effect. He’d like to alert the world about this, in order to give up having to remember them, but no one is ready to believe the truth coming from his mouth.”

It took me almost no time to form a response. “You say he’s having a problem since no one would believe anything he says is the truth?”

Slimey shook his head in affirmation. “Yes, that’s his problem in a nutshell.”

I walked along the Washington street in silence, trying to come up with a response that would be practical but also represent my deep concern about this fraudster polluting the halls of Congress. “Can I ask just one question? Given his proclivity to, er, enhance his resume on serious matters, why is he concerned about something he wears?”

Slimey looked down at me, and even though his face was mainly frozen due to his massive jaw and rapier-like teeth, it seemed as if he was sneering at me. He said, “I can’t believe you are diminishing his problem so much. This one item is occupying his mind full-time, and it’s up to me to come up with a solution.”

I nodded my understanding, and stood still in silence. Around us, the hordes of K Street denizens barely took notice of our presence, save to slightly swerve around us, Everyone was engaged with their phone. Indeed, I wondered whether Slimey could have existed in the pre-cellphone days. Someone would have noticed his enormous form.

I finally said, “Maybe you could try this. Since everyone is convinced what he says is a lie, try just one more lie. Say that he has contracted an eye disease requiring him to expose his eyeballs to full air flow. That way he can take off his glasses, and everyone will think, yeah, just another one of his frauds, er, enhancements. He won’t have to worry about carrying those glasses along, and this will slide down to the bottom of the list of items for the press to be concerned with.”

Slimey stood staring at me. Then he went, “Why didn’t I think of that? That is a brilliant solution. I can’t wait to tell him about it.” And he turned away from me and went on down the street, leaving me alone.

All I had to do now was try to remember what I was doing before Slimey showed up, Fortunately, my stomach chose this time to emit a rumble, reminding me I was in search of the perfect chili dog before I was interrupted.

For a previous look at Slimey in his DC abode, see this:

What Do We Do Once We Catch the Car?

So the great speaker chase is over. Kevin McCarthy caught the prize, although the actual prize differed greatly from what he originally sought. Rarely have I seen such naked ambition overwhelm common sense and a sense of self-dignity, but then what do you expect in this, the age of the TikTok 5 second video receiving millions of views. The national attention span has gotten smaller and smaller as social media has gone through successive generations. Pretty soon we will be reduced to subliminal messaging serving as the primary exchange medium for philosophical insights.

There is no doubt but that this is a different world from the one I grew up in. I grew up knowing it was necessary to pay for my debts, not to foist them off on future generations. And so I ended up being a saver, and was fortunate enough to find a life partner with a similar sensibility. As a result, we will not have to worry about our retirement. Heck, it’s now been 8 years since I’ve worked for a salary, and our savings just this year declined for the first time, but that was due to general market conditions and not due to withdrawals. My former employer allowed me to retire and keep family medical coverage, paying a pension in addition. On top of that, we had a savings plan even before the advent of 401k’s which transitioned neatly into a tax-deferred plan later on. As such, I realize how lucky I’ve been when compared to the average person of my age.

Unfortunately, at a national level, we’ve found it extremely difficult to pay for our debts. One political party has insisted reducing taxes for the wealthy is the best way to ensure prosperity for all. Though experience has shown the futility of this practice, it is the original “big lie” we’ve lived with for over 40 years. Only once in my lifetime has the national tax / spend account been balanced. I can still remember the dismay as pundits feared a loss of government paper for all entities who needed a guaranteed income stream. They were certain that the temporary excesses of income over expenditure by the federal government would become a permanent condition. Thus the haste in ratcheting down tax rates as soon as the Republican administration took office in 2001. Then the war on terror happened, and the need to pay for the increased military expenditures never crossed the minds of the party in charge of this national budget.

So when a real economic emergency happened, in 2008, the only solution available was incremental borrowing and throwing money at financial institutions. Of course, we had to pretend we cared about the budget, so a series of machinations took place to keep discretionary spending level. Meaning that we had no money available to deal with the infrastructure needs that kept getting deferred. Then we had a new administration who represented the worst of all possible worlds. A faux-populist who was manipulated into pretending we had short-changed military spending, while insisting on adhering to the mantra of increasing prosperity through lowering tax rates for individuals and most of all, for corporations. Then, when COVID hit, the only weapons available were to: 1) Ignore the pandemic, hoping it was just a ploy that would soon be a minor irritant, and 2) Throw lots and lots of money at the economy in the hopes of keeping personal spending alive.

Now, three years later, we have no clue how to return to normality. Increasing tax rates is still off the table, though experience has shown increasing rates up marginally does not reduce economic activity. Indeed, government sometimes has had to be the first investor in an area in order to spur increased economic activity. Only the government is able to spend money which will not pay off fully for a generation or longer. The private sector cannot operate on that long of a payback period. No, activist investors will instigate a corporate takeover for any public corporation trying to improve the public good rather than maximizing short-term payback. But the insistence on quantifying the 10-year spending for any program lends itself towards propaganda, making it appear to mathematically-impaired citizens that all of the money is being spent right now, and of course, that is why we have inflation. It’s all Biden’s fault!

So how do we get out of the dilemma we find ourselves in? Early feedback from the House Speaker race is not hopeful. We will anticipate the upcoming federal government shutdown as these inept representatives strut and preen pretending to save the nation from overspending. Yet still none will consider any solutions involving an increase in taxation. Look, the ship on adhering to the letter of the constitution sailed long ago. In the name of the commerce clause, and in the name of addressing the general welfare of the nation, we’ve developed an entire series of programs which would be impossible to remove from the fabric of this economy. Imagine how this nation would function without social security? Yet you will not find a single phrase in the constitution authorizing a national pension program.

We will be entertained with a call for a new constitutional convention. Those loudest in this call are those who wish to return to the original intent of the founding fathers. Meanwhile, the world has long gone past the strictures of the 18th century. In order to compete in the marketplace of ideas and economies, we do need a new social contract developed. Can those who favor a more expansive view of allowable government activities ever reach an agreement with those who believe all government is bad? That seems to be the battle of our age.

Further and Further Away

I’ve been thinking lately about what it takes to make a society work. Though on a political level, we can point to many examples where dysfunction reigns supreme, within the US, basic functions still are functioning at a high level. Much of the rest of the world wishes they had such well-functioning services, like fire crews, and drinkable water, and sewage, and trash pickup, and law enforcement. So we are doing something right at a basic level, even though the supervisory organizations which are supposed to function at an adult level are seemingly in an intractable downward spiral.

But. All of this depends upon the people performing these functions having a large enough salary to afford to live within a decent commute of their place of employment. . And more and more urban centers are now becoming impossible for essential workers to live without having to commute hours each way. Look at California. Whole swaths of real estate fail the test of whether someone living on a public employee’s salary could afford to live there. And any attempt at resolving this issue, is hammered down by those who don’t wish their property values to be brought down by allowing for housing density zoning changes. NIMBY can apply to many situations. This just happens to be one which stands out egregiously.

I live in an area with exactly the opposite problem. As with many formerly prosperous small cities, the capital environs in West Virginia are hemorrhaging people. We suffer from reduced property values due to the inexorable supply / demand conundrum. Prices are low since demand is low, and there is a glut of extremely low-value properties around here. To anyone out there reading: if you can work remotely, the property values in West Virginia allow for a great improvement in your quality of life, should you choose to move here.

I hear from my brother, who lives in the constantly growing Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. His construction company is constantly building municipal buildings, whether they be schools, or fire stations, or police stations. But I’ll wager that it is becoming more difficult for anyone who works in one of the suburbs surrounding the core cities from being able to afford any sort of living within the suburb itself. Just looking at apartment listings in the area, rents are about $1400 per month for a one bedroom, and $2500-$3000 per month for a three bedroom. Using the standard guidance of spending no more than 30% of income for housing, it takes about $4700 per month to afford even a one-bedroom apartment. The larger apartments would require a $100,000 per year salary to make them affordable. I have not looked up wages for these types of jobs, but I doubt that they pay a wage that would allow someone to be employed by a suburban community, and enable someone to live there as well. There are two implications to this. One, sprawl is guaranteed as people keep going further away from the urban core in order to discover affordable housing. And second, your civic employees have no skin in the game. They are not emotionally invested in a community they do not live in.

So the American model is to continue this sprawl as long as an area’s population grows. It goes without saying that another effect is the replacement of affordable housing in the urban cores with market-rate gentrification. We seem addicted to our sprawl, and all of its other social ills.

This bifurcation in living conditions is continuing to grow. We have become a society divided by incomes, where you are either a high-wage earner who does not need to worry excessively about rents or mortgages, or a low-wage worker finding it necessary to travel further and further in order to afford living space. Acknowledging that this is an untenable situation is the first step to resolving it. Or else we will find ourselves no longer enjoying the services we’ve come to expect, since not enough people are willing to compromise their lives to work in places they cannot afford to live. What steps can we take to remedy this? A market-based solution would enable private investors to finance appropriately dense housing, which will necessitate overcoming the NIMBY bias. Or, we can subsidize a portion of housing for public employees, ensuring that those who benefit do not have to pay additional taxes on their subsidies. Or, we can continue to drift with the status quo, where more and more people live further and further away from their jobs, and urban sprawl just keeps on keeping on. But we must understand that to stay with the status quo is a conscious choice, and we bear the responsibility for any adverse consequences.

Thus Endeth This Cycle

 So the mid-term elections are over. We hear all of the pundits now either crowing about their prescience on their absolute knowledge of the coming lack of a red wave, or bemoaning the fact that the electorate did not wish to continue the trek towards authoritarianism represented by the MAGA wing of the Republican party.

Some trends continued. In North Carolina, which voted 50% Republican to 49% Democrat in the 2020 election for state legislators, but had a 69-51 margin in legislative seats, continued their trend of unrepresentative selections. Republicans won 71 seats in the North Carolina house in this election, although the actual votes for the two parties is not yet available. In my state of West Virginia, almost a complete wipeout of Democratic legislators occurred. 16 of the 17 Senate seats in this state went to Republicans.

But for those of us who like to live in a democratic republic, the national election results did provide some hope. We saw what happened when a drop of Trumpism was placed in a peach tree dish, causing the Republicans in the dish to flee. All Secretary of State candidates who pledged to overturn election results if they were not to their liking, ended up on the scrap heap of electoral losers. We shall see if the Democratic lead holds up for Arizona, where Katie Hobbs is holding on to a razor-thin margin over everyone’s favorite Trump toady, Kari Lake.

In the US House, Kevin McCarthy (or whoever takes the speakership) will find out how difficult it is to herd cats. The House under Democratic control was a messy place, but the Progressive Caucus at least found it possible to hold their noses and vote for policies which they disagreed with. Somehow, the Freedom Caucus does not seem inclined to follow the lead of the Progressives, and have pledged always and every time to put ideology over governing. Good luck on holding a majority together. Expect to see one or two changes in party over the next several months as it becomes evident how difficult it is to govern the rowdy crowd of Republican legislators.

It was in the US Senate where the most interesting results were recorded. Not only did the Republicans fail to take over control, they actually have the potential to lose one seat due to the “quality” of their candidates. It certainly appears that the only ability Herschel Walker possesses is his ability to hit the hole. We will find out in early December whether the Republican denunciation of intellect and ability will overcome the erudition of Rafael Warnock. I’ve had just about enough of the Republican’s overt campaign against people on the right hand of the intelligence bell curve. Republicans do believe in affirmative action. They gather as many as possible who lack mental capabilities. Witness Ron Johnson, Tommy Tuberville, Marjorie Taylor Green, and Matt Gaetz as poster children for needing affirmative action. It is only due to fortune that they will not have to share the stage with Louie Gohmert, and Madison Cawthorn.

So we will end up with nearly the status quo on the national level. Yes, the Republicans will likely have the ability to stuff the House agenda full of nonsense legislation and pointless investigations, but the flame of Trumpism does seem like it is flickering, threatening extinguishment. Just remember. The embers will stay hot for a long while, and it is very possible for flames to reignite from the remains.

Quiet Time In West Virginia

There are times when it is good to live in West Virginia. We are only subjected to the fringes of political advertising, mainly because there are no large-scale political contests within the state. The closest we have come to a political kerfuffle is the argument between two wings of a single political party over who we give power to in order to reduce our taxes. It is hard to believe the changes in legislative representation within the past 40 years. My wife worked for the Senate Republicans when there were exactly 3 members of the WV Senate who were of that party. Now, it is a super-majority of Republicans who have control of the Legislative agenda.

So we’ve been spared of the endless procession of political advertisements on television. We can still worry about the side effects (excuse me, contraindications) for the endless procession of pharmaceutical products we are supposed to pester our physicians into prescribing for us. I’m glad we don’t have to obsess over obvious falsehoods in the political ad landscape.

It is amazing how one party has rid itself of shame in lying about matters political. One party seems determined to spread as many falsehoods as possible, while distancing itself from all semblance of morality. Once upon a time, there was a serious discussion about whether the electorate could ever accept a divorcee as its choice for the Presidency. Now, we rhapsodize over a thrice married cad who found it necessary to pay hundreds of thousands in hush money in order to cover up yet another dalliance while his newest wife recovered from childbirth. Or, at least the followers of one party wax rhapsodic over this pitiful snowflake.

Anyway, in West Virginia, we’ve avoided all of these petty squabbles. We only have to determine whether we give the Legislature power over all matters scholastic, all matters judicial, and all matters concerning revenues for local services. Somehow, there is also a question about incorporation of churches on the ballot, but it has received no discussion. The only commercials this season has spawned concern the tax issue (follow the money). We’ve somehow avoided the culture wars over book availability, we’ve already cast out those who would change their gender in order to gain advantage in high school athletics, and our Attorney General has already been successful in telling the evil EPA to limit itself. So our airwaves remain relatively unpolluted, unlike our waterways which will continue to receive effluent from untreated industrial sources.

Next election cycle, we will reenter the noise of the election cycle. No, not from the elections for the two representatives for the US House, where our illustrious representatives will undoubtedly continue their content-free reign as our anointed choices. No, we will be subjected to a US Senate race, a Governor’s race, and our Attorney General and Secretary of State offices. Maybe we can do as well as Arizona is now, with armed “patriots” guarding all of our early voting locations, in order to prevent multiple ballots per person. Having voted in the dense urban environment of South Charleston for 30 years, where I at least recognize the poll workers as the same ones who have been there forever, I somehow doubt that we are capable of election fraud. However, that doesn’t seem to matter to one party, they are more than happy to make claims about election fraud even when their side wins by 30%. I can’t wait till then.

Nobel Prizes for 2022

The week is over. That first week in October when the world celebrates achievements in certain scientific fields through the awarding of the Nobel prizes. The week when stories of scientists living in the US being awakened by phone calls from Stockholm announcing the prize get their obligatory mention in the US media. The week when esoteric concepts are recognized for their impact on physiology, chemistry, and physics. All those who are not experts in the field nod in understanding, then silently acknowledge with gratitude that at least they didn’t have to really understand the achievements leading to the prizes. And then it is over. The nation’s attention span can morph to considering what the Kardashians are doing, or how the latest football sensation is making a fool of themselves on social media, or how the national political discussions have taken yet another turn towards nastiness.

In 2022, the awards in these areas showed that ongoing trends in diversity are not going to change soon. There was only one woman honored as part of a triumvirate for chemistry. Carolyn Bertozzi joined Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless for their contributions on implementing “click” chemistry. This is a way to create molecules which normally would not exist in nature. Meldal and Sharpless tried to get two types of molecules to react, molecules that act like a loaded spring with much energy to release, and found that using copper as a catalyst would cause the reaction to take place without excessive heat or other reaction conditions. Bertozzi wanted to use the reaction inside of cells, but copper is toxic. So she used a method that cranked up the spring-loading of the molecules further, and enabled reactions to take place inside of a biological cell. The application of this discovery has led to the development of a potential drug for cancer, now in clinical trials. But these discoveries have also led to development of a wide range of materials, including antimicrobials, herbicides, corrosion retardants, and many other potentially useful products. One never knows what will result from a new basic discovery.

The Nobel prize this year in Physiology, or commonly known as Medicine, went to Svante Pāābo. Normally a prize is awarded to multiple recipients, but Svante’s discovery was deemed so consequential that the prize went to him alone. He developed the methods and techniques to allow DNA to be sequenced from ancient fossils. Single-handedly he developed these techniques, ensuring that modern DNA did not contaminate the ancient bones he worked on. Now, you often may read that humans contain certain genes from Neanderthals. It was Svante’s techniques that have allowed for full expression of Neanderthal DNA from the remaining bones discovered in caves and other pre-historic sites. His contributions in this area are used by many researchers today, so eventually, it may be possible to reconstitute ancient animals from limited remains. Jurassic Park, anyone?

The prize in Physics this year went to John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeillinger for their work on quantum entanglement. Let me say that in college, I studied quantum effects. Nevertheless, I share many feelings with Albert Einstein, in that I find it weird that pairs of electrons can be linked at a distance, and determining the condition of one electron automatically determines the state of the second electron. But that is exactly what these physicists determined, quantum effects are real, and can lead to such things as eventual development of a quantum internet. This work spanned the decades between the 1970’s through the 1990’s, based upon the thought experiment developed by John Bell in the 1960’s. If John Bell were still alive, he undoubtedly would have shared in this prize. But the Nobel committee will not honor someone who is already dead. The implications of this work? Still in development, but eventually we will have quantum computers capable of solving problems a digital computer is not able to resolve. Much like fusion energy, quantum applications seem like they are always just around the corner, but this is an area I am confident will remake our lives in the decades to come.

All of the work of the Nobel team, and those who win the prizes, is reliant upon the statistical principles developed in the 19th century. Since Alfred Nobel did not see fit to recognize this field of study when he endowed his awards, it has fallen upon another person to set up an award for statistical methodology. This is a new award, and there were five collaborators who won the prize for this year. Eventually we may see the Rousseeuw prize as significant as a Nobel, but until that time comes, this is a simple shout-out for a new award. Statistical methodology is fundamental in all fields of science, and is used to determine whether observed effects are real, or potentially due to chance. When we say believe the science, it is because the effects were statistically significant.

Sources:  Science magazine, 14-Oct. and 7-Oct. issues.

It Is Happening Here

Original gerrymander

I will admit I am more than a bit puzzled over the direction politics have taken in this country. Not just since 2015 when Trump rode the escalator down to begin his campaign, but beginning back after Barack Obama was elected. I saw the Rick Santelli rant live in early 2009 that began the tea party movement, and realized at that time how prescient and how divisive his words were. They were prescient since they acknowledged this country was not of one mind, but had become a bimodal distribution, where one group had grabbed all of the growth in the economy, and one group had lagged behind, suffering competitive disadvantage as the world’s manufacturing was reconfigured to arbitrage labor and regulatory costs. The words were divisive since a sub-group of Republicans used the energy released from Rick’s rant to grab onto elective power, leading to such eminent personalities as Marjorie Taylor Greene.

We now have one of the two political parties in this country who have completely adopted a nihilist philosophy. This party believes our federal government is totally broken, and violence is justified in breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces, leading to its dissolution. That is why so many folks do not recognize 1/6/21 as an insurrection. To true believers of this philosophy, they internalize what Barry Goldwater claimed nearly 60 years ago.  “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” were the words Barry said in his acceptance speech for his presidential nomination in 1964. It has taken nearly 60 years, but that is now the mantra shared by far too many of the followers of Donald Trump.

What is worse, this philosophy has been successful at the state level far too many times. While Democrats were congratulating themselves over their success at a national level, the real power was slipping between their fingers at the state level. Indeed, we are about to see the fruits of two rounds of redistricting solidify control of Red legislators at the state level. You now have states like North Carolina, which had a 50% (Republican) to 49% (Democratic) result in voting for state legislative seats. Due to just one round of gerrymandering, this resulted in a 69 (Republican) to 51 (Democratic) margin in the North Carolina house. What will happen this year after a second round of gerrymandering? It will probably increase the margin of Republican legislators despite what the voters of the state really want as reflected by their votes.

So the Republican Nihilists are not yet resting on their laurels. They have discovered another tier of government they can eat away at like termites chowing down on a stack of 2×4’s. The down ballot races at the state level, like Attorney General, and Secretary of State, are actively being devoured by deniers. Soon these false prophets will have us writing out our choices for any office in cursive, and woe be to those whose script is deemed illegible. These luddites do not accept that machines have an error rate orders of magnitude less than humans. They realize they only need one cycle of elections to break the habit of citizens to vote. So much of our democracy rests on the premise that our votes count, even if candidates we support are unsuccessful. If an election cycle goes through where it becomes obvious that inconvenient votes do not count, millions who are only tangentially connected to the voting process will make the decision to skip any future elections.

That is when the Republican Nihilists will have truly won. What travesties they will attempt to institute when there is no one to provide a counterbalance, one can only guess. All I keep thinking about is the question I heard growing up – how could the Germans have supported a system that led to Hitler taking power? In future years, after I am gone, I can only hope we do not have future generations asking how we in the United States could have gone so wrong. It can indeed happen here.