Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Clueless Conversations (A Look At The Country)

Once again, I am down in So. Cal. for Christmas. This time, I traveled by different means than I normally use. Heretofore, I had always driven straight from Portland to here and back, having developed something of an allergy to flying several years ago. (Who wouldn't be allergic, what with TSA checkpoints, pat-downs of grandmas and grandpas, full body scans, deferred maintenance on aircraft, and pilots who make less per hour than Pizza Hut drivers?) Unfortunately, driving from Portland to So. Cal. takes about seventeen hours, assuming that a driver knows when to judiciously drive faster than the speed limit, and that he doesn't spend more than the minimum time necessary at gas stations, coffee shops, and fast food joints. It takes a few hours longer if you decide to drive at or below the speed limit all the way, although you can shorten the time by driving a car with an extremely large fuel tank and doing without bathroom breaks. Good luck with that!

Last time, I was not judicious enough in knowing when to speed. I also made the mistake of believing that since I had never been stopped by the California Highway Patrol, they were therefore harmless. They got me about 25 miles south of Weed, California. My trip wound up costing an extra $200. At least the cop who wrote the ticket was a nice guy, or the trip would have been even more costly.

So this time I took the train, a choice which provided a good opportunity to study some of the features of mainstream American culture, as most of my fellow travelers were Anglo-Americans. I like to use traveling time to improve myself, so I brought my computer, my guitar, a copy of the Good Book, a graduate level text on HVAC system design, and a copy of the New Penguin Russian Course (Я ещё изучаю руский язык).

Most other people also brought computers and other hand-held data display devices, on which the majority were watching movies or playing video games. Occasionally I saw someone reading a book. In almost all cases, the books being read were popular novels. The man sitting next to me had his smartphone plugged into the AC power socket next to the window, and he was following a football game involving the Seattle Seahawks. A relative of his was sitting in the seat directly in front of him, and was doing the same thing on his own smartphone. Occasionally the two men exchanged comments on the progress of the game. About half an hour out of Eugene, an elderly man sitting in the aisle across from me looked over at my fellow passenger and said, “How 'bout them Seahawks! Too bad they don't have a TV on this train. Otherwise, we could watch 'em! I wonder if anybody has a TV or a laptop we could use to watch 'em!” Suddenly feeling uncomfortable in the presence of my company, I decided to move to the observation car, where I busted out one of my books and started to read.

I chose a seat across a table from a tall, thin, quiet blonde woman. She was also reading (her book was a novel), although from time to time she looked at her smartphone. She never spoke. However, most of the people in the observation car were quite talkative, and as I read, occasionally I focused my attention on the scraps of conversation reaching my ears. Two conversations stood out on account of their extreme banality. One conversation was between two men sitting at a table right behind me, and concerned brew pubs in Portland and the opening of a McMenamins pub out on the West Side (west of the Willamette River for those of you who are unfamiliar with Portland). This led one of the men to talk at great length (rather incoherently) about which brand of beer was his favorite.

The other conversation was between two young women at another nearby table, and concerned work and career. It seems that one of the women works at a Starbucks and the other works in a telemarketing call center, having worked in Starbucks for a while as well. Both women constantly used two particular four-letter words in describing the downsides and the high points of their jobs, which included getting lots of free coffee. One of them remarked to the other that she had wanted to work at a Starbucks ever since she was a little girl. Then they discussed their interest in creative writing and some of the writing classes they had taken, using one of their two favorite four-letter words as a noun to describe the things they wrote about.

The conductors announced that they were taking dinner reservations, so I signed up for a time slot. When my time came, I made my way to the dining car, where I was seated across from a quiet, middle-aged married couple. I also was quiet. For several minutes, I sat and continued listening to the conversations of others. A couple of tables down the aisle, there sat a big, burly young man wearing a baseball cap. Next to him was a cute young blond woman. They were obviously attached to each other. Across from them sat an elderly woman. The couple was in the midst of delivering a long lesson in things Americans like to the elderly woman, using lots of pronouns such as “I” and “we” as they went down the list of favorite foods, sports and other things. I wondered at them, because it had seemed to me that all three of them were Americans (whenever the elderly woman managed to get a word in edgewise, she did not speak with any obvious accent).

Directly across the aisle from our table was another table, at which two couples were seated. One couple consisted of an African-American man married to a Caucasian woman. Both were middle-aged. Across the table from them was a young Asian pair who were, I believe, at the boyfriend-girlfriend stage. The conversation shared between these four, and the conversation I had with my dinner companions, were the most thought-provoking ones I heard during the entire trip.

My conversation began slowly. The couple at my table started by sharing some ice-breaking information about themselves. I found out that they had recently sailed up the Amazon River in South America, and were now traveling from Portland to Klamath Falls. This piqued my curiosity and got me talking. “Klamath Falls? Isn't that where the Oregon Institute of Technology is? I know a bit about their renewable energy engineering program.” I informed them that I am an engineer. They then informed me that they had both worked in the engineering field, the husband as a civil engineer and the wife as a drafter. They asked me how I liked engineering, to which I replied that there were parts I hated – namely the attempt by employers to work us like dogs for 55 to over 70 hours per week, world without end. My comment led to a general discussion of present-day life in America.

The discussion covered some familiar ground, such as the fact that people in most other countries – including many Third World countries – seem to be much healthier mentally than Americans, the fact that most immigrants to this country come here in much better mental health than most native-born U.S. citizens, and the fact that immigrant mental health deteriorates with increasing length of time in America and increasing Americanization. The wife then asked rhetorically, “Why is it so that we are so selfish here, so isolated from each other?” “I think it's because of the myths on which this country was founded,” I opined. “Other nations have realized for a long time that their citizens lived in a land of limits, in which everyone had to sacrifice certain prerogatives so that all might benefit. The dominant culture in the United States has always believed that there are no limits to what we can do or have if we want something badly enough. Therefore we haven't learned effective strategies for sharing limited resources with each other.”

That led us to talk about where we believed this country is heading as undeniable limits are beginning to bite us. It was also at this point that I began to tune in to the conversation between the mixed-race couple and the Asian boyfriend-girlfriend pair sitting at the table across the aisle from my table. The African-American male half of the married couple was relating what sounded like a belief that Asian (specifically Chinese) culture, intellectual power and economic might would bring about the end of American hegemony. It was with some effort that I managed to remain focused on my own conversation. At my table, we reviewed the spectrum of the most widely-held opinions concerning the future of industrial society, and of the United States in particular. Then a moment came when our food was all eaten, our energy spent, our words all said. We all excused ourselves and said our goodbyes for the night.

As I returned to the observation car, I saw several new arrivals, including some college-age guys enjoying a night of underage drinking. It occurred to me that they, as well as most of the passengers, were so typical of Anglo-American culture at present: unreflecting, sensual, incapable of articulating anything other than the cravings induced in them by our commercialized culture, and totally clueless about the future. Later, as I tried to sleep, my thoughts expanded to consider how the wealthiest and most powerful members of our society had become utterly incapable of giving ground or sacrificing assumed “rights” in order to benefit the common good. I was particularly mindful of the statement of the president of the NRA to the effect that guns were not the reason for the recent shooting rampages in this country, and that instead of restricting gun access, we should install armed guards in every elementary school in the United States. I was thinking also of the most recent shooting rampage, in which an older white male with a criminal history set some houses on fire and then shot volunteer firefighters as they arrived to try to put the fires out, before shooting himself. I thought of the lack of adult, intelligent, realistic conversations on the part of media figures or politicians to address the violent reality of mainstream American culture, or the multifaceted predicament we now face. We are forced by events to acknowledge that our society is killing us, yet nothing is done to effectively remedy the causes of the killing, because to do so would cause certain wealthy people to lose a lot of money, and would force most of us to live far more simply. And that's something that most people don't want to talk about.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Liberty of Addicts

...Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, “If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is the bondservant of sin. A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever. A son remains forever. If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
There is a myth widely taught in public schools today. (At least it was widely taught when I was a kid.) That myth goes something like this: The United States was founded by people who were pursuing liberty – especially freedom from governmental restrictions which violated their conscience, in order that each man might have full liberty to act in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and reason. Therefore the chief priority of free citizens of our glorious democracy must be to guard this liberty at all costs, and to prevent the encroachment of any governmental restrictions on this “liberty,” defined as I have defined it here.

But let write an equivalent definition of “liberty,” using simpler language. The United States has defined liberty as the freedom to do whatever you want. Plain and simple, isn't it?

Let me ask a question. If you live in a country where you can do whatever you want, are you actually free? Suppose you live in such a country, yet you are addicted to alcohol or heroin. Let's also say that you have ready access to however much alcohol or heroin you may desire. Are you still free? Are you free when you are so enslaved to your addiction that you can't do what you are supposed to do, and you can no longer avoid suffering the consequences of not doing what you are supposed to do and doing what you are not supposed to do?

I propose therefore a radically different definition of liberty: the freedom to do what you are supposed to do. Liberty is the freedom to obey moral “ought's.”

By that definition, America is not free. America is a nation of addicts run by addicts. The addicts who run the show are addicted to the continued accumulation of ever more unholy concentrations of wealth. And they continue to enrich themselves by pushing an addictive lifestyle onto the rest of us. The means used by these pushers include advertising, media capture, the promotion of dysfunctional trashy popular culture, and the dishonest manipulation of political discourse in this country. One particularly egregious example of that manipulation is the attempt to demonize any governmental restriction on potentially hurtful behaviors and policies of private citizens – especially when they are wealthy.

Thus we have incidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for which British Petroleum still has not been brought to book. We have blatant lying and misrepresentation of facts by Fox News. We have fraud and misinformation practiced by the Wall Street Journal. We have banking and investment fraud practiced by outfits like Goldman Sachs and MF Global. And no one goes to jail.

But in this country, it's not just the extremely wealthy who can cause unspeakable harm to their fellow citizens. Ordinary people can get in on the act. We have seen two shooting sprees in the last seven days. The most recent shooting spree claimed 27 lives (20 children and seven adults), and happened within the last 24 hours. A few days ago, there was a shooting spree at the Clackamas Town Center (less than 10 miles from where I live); three people are dead. According to some reports I have read, there have been at least five random shooting sprees in the United States this year.

Predictably, the latest shooting spree has revived discussions regarding gun control. Predictably, the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association are gearing up to oppose any new restrictions on gun ownership, and to further weaken those restrictions that already exist. But it's funny how the number of shooting rampages in the United States has been increasing every year since 2007, when the Federal Government under President Bush allowed a number of gun ownership restrictions to lapse, and several state houses controlled by Republicans began to to allow just about anyone in those states to own and carry a gun. According to Mother Jones, there have been at least 62 firearm-involved mass murders in the United States since 1982, and 43 of the 62 mass murderers were white males. In the vast majority of cases, the weapons used were obtained legally. According to other studies, the United States is the most violent nation in the OECD, and the American South is the most violent region in the U.S.

It seems obvious that mainstream America is increasingly a nation of disconnected, antisocial individuals who are a menace to themselves and to each other. It also seems obvious that rectifying this situation will involve placing restrictions on people's access to technologies and devices that can be used to hurt a lot of people. Guns are at the top of the list of things that should have very restrictive access. But cars can easily qualify as well. Many people who buy large SUV's do so not because they need these vehicles, but because such vehicles serve as instruments of intimidation.

Finally, it seems obvious that unless this nation becomes truly free – free to do what we ought – many of us are likely to destroy each other in the pursuit of doing whatever we want. Trying to do whatever you crave doesn't work well in an age of economic contraction and energy descent.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Starving Google to Death

Hopefully this post will get the attention of some folks in Mountain View, California.

I hate to bring up personal business, but it seems that someone tried to hack my Google Gmail account today.  I have been trying to talk to a live human being at Google, either via email or voice, but it seems to be impossible.

If Google's security is so lax that I can be so easily hacked, and if Google's staff is so insulated and unresponsive that I cannot be helped by them, maybe it's time to ditch Google. has a much better blogging interface, and there are other email providers with much more secure email accounts.  Something to think about...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Riots In The Magic Kingdom

...If as a culture we can't imagine a history – any history – if history isn't a dimension of our quotidian daily lives, if history casts no shadow across our imagination, it is almost impossible to imagine consequences.

Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him on the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny.

I was down in Southern California last week, visiting family. At one point, I was driving my mom around. She likes making conversation while I tend to be much quieter (unless you get me on a subject I'm interested in ;) ). I was a bit sleep-deprived (on account of driving all the way from Portland to So. Cal. the day before), which made me even quieter. My mom likes talking a lot about what she sees on television – a subject which does not interest me at all usually. “Did you hear about the riots in Anaheim?” she asked. I thought, “What riots? Did someone get in a fight over a pair of Nike shoes?” Aloud, I was all, “Nope.” “Wasn't it on the news in Portland?” she asked. “Mom, Portland is a thousand miles away from here,” I said. “Well, down here we hear about what goes on in Portland,” she rejoined. I rubbed a fatigue headache away from my temples and kept driving.

I have to admit that I was a bit of a grump during that conversation. But later that night, after a meal and a chance to chill a bit, I said to myself, “Riots? What's this about riots?” So I busted out my laptop and Googled, “Riots in Anaheim.” I came up with things like this.

It seems that the Anaheim police department has shot a number of Latinos this year. At least one of these people was unarmed. It seems also that while Latinos make up over fifty percent of the population, they comprise only 33 percent of the electorate. And it seems that there are some unhealthy divisions in the city of Anaheim. The most densely populated parts of the city lie to the west of the 57 freeway. This region is mainly inhabited by the working-class and the working poor. Between the 57 and 55 freeways there is a mixture of working-class housing and light industry., East of the 55, one finds oneself in Anaheim Hills – the suburban/exurban haunt of sons and daughters of privilege. The majority of people living in the working-class sections are people of color. The majority of the people living in the Hills are white.

In the heart of the working-class “flatlands” are some of the crown jewels of Anaheim: Disneyland, Angel Stadium, the Arrowhead Pond, and a row of very big hotels (including the Disneyland Resort) along Harbor Boulevard south of Ball Road. Most of the menial jobs that keep these crown jewels shiny are held by immigrants and people of color. I can guarantee you that these people don't get paid much for their labors.

Neither do the inhabitants of the working-class “flatlands” get to enjoy much of the benefits bestowed by City Hall. For while most of the population (83 percent) lives in the working-class flatlands, the nicest parks, schools and libraries are to be found in the Hills. And there is a disproportionate number of these amenities to be found among the sons and daughters of privilege, who have the finances required to get candidates elected to City Hall. Candidates are chosen in city-wide elections rather than district elections, so one has to campaign throughout the entire city in order to be elected.

Anaheim sparkles like a jewel in the American imagination, in much the same way New Orleans must have sparkled right up until Hurricane Katrina. And as in the case of New Orleans, Americans are shocked to discover the ugly fault lines of inequity that run through such a jewel. But Anaheim and New Orleans are merely part of an American pattern of a privileged minority capturing a disproportionate share of resources for itself while waging war against those less privileged (or, in some cases, trying to sweep the less-privileged under the rug). (You may not realize this, but the same pattern can be seen in Portland, Oregon. A disproportionate share of urban renewal money has gone to benefit wealthy business owners and residents of the affluent West Side, whereas most of the lower-income households are on the east side of the river – especially North and East Portland.)

The course now being pursued by American sons and daughters of privilege cannot last forever, however much the sons and daughters might wish for it to last. The resource base required for extravagant, privileged life (namely, material resources and people willing to endure being exploited) is failing – both here and abroad. And the mechanisms of oppression no longer work as well as they used to. America is finding this out now in international affairs. The privileged among Americans are also likely to find this out on their own home turf. Maybe it's time to make peace with one's adversaries. (Maybe it's time to stop making enemies in the first place.) “Can't we all just get along?”

P.S. The Anaheim riots happened over a month ago, yet I first heard about them last week – and not via the mainstream news media. It seems that KPOJ and the Oregonian and Fox News didn't think it was important to let people in this part of the country know about something happening in Anaheim – or if they did, I guess I must have been sound asleep. I know the riots were not given prominent coverage. This seems to be part of a disturbing pattern in mainstream media coverage of our country lately. Those who want an accurate picture of what's going on in our country might want to build and maintain networks of long-distance friendships.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The World, According To Me

I've been busy. That is why I haven't been blogging over the last six months. Ironically, my busy-ness has consisted of me scrambling to find ways to become less busy while still paying the bills. At my last office job, I found myself being worked a bit too hard for my liking (they wanted me to be available between 50 and 60 hours a week). So I've been teaching a bit and trying to freelance. And I've been exploring ways to lower my “burn rate.” It's the teaching and the scrambling to freelance that has been keeping me busy.

My abstinence from blogging has made me aware of the divide that exists between those who have a powerful voice in our society and those who have no real voice. Being a blogger, by the way, does not automatically grant a powerful voice to a blogger. After all, I have to admit that there are probably not that many people who read my blog. Even as an active blogger, therefore, my voice has been very small. But having taken my place for a few months among those who have no voice, I have been observing how much effort, how much money and how many words have been expended by those whose voices are powerful. All that effort and all those words have been expended in order to inculcate in ordinary people a world view that just happens to be convenient for those with powerful voices. I thought it might be good to let these people know just how an ordinary person without a voice views the world, so that they can see whether they have been wasting their time and money. I can't speak for all ordinary people, but I will speak for myself.

To sum up what the people with powerful voices have been saying, I think they've been trying to convince ordinary people that the United States is still a first-rate nation, that the U.S. is the blameless and pure defender of freedom and democracy, that we still live in a world of abundance un-threatened by shortage of any kind, that the “free market” can be trusted to distribute said abundance to any and all who are worthy of it, and that our mad scramble for material abundance is having no effect on the earth. The most pressing thing that ordinary Americans should worry about, therefore, is which teen star is getting divorced.

If this is what the loud-voiced have been trying to communicate, I'm afraid they haven't succeeded with me. The disconnect between their message and my world-view can be summed up under four general headings: oil, geopolitics, climate change, and economics. There is also a fifth heading, which I call “the proliferation of sheep dogs.”

A lot of well-placed people have been insisting over the last year that Peak Oil is a fallacy, and that the world has plenty of hydrocarbon resources to last for several decades more. Even people who pretend to be members of the counterculture have said things like this. (See, for instance, what George Monbiot and Noam Chomsky have been saying.) For me, however, the Bible on Peak Oil has been the 2007 Oil Report, titled, “Crude Oil – The Supply Outlook” from the Energy Watch Group of Germany. That report made a number of bald, blunt statements and predictions: first, that global oil production peaked in 2006; second, that global oil production would experience steep declines post-Peak, and third, that the steepness of the declines can be quantified (for instance, the authors asserted that production would decline from a 2006 high of 86 million barrels per day to 58 million barrels per day in 2020).

I like predictions and statements like this, because it's easy to tell whether the predictor is right or wrong, and you don't have to wait very long before finding out. (Which is easier to verify – a predictor telling you that you will meet someone famous at some time in your life, or a predictor telling you that you will meet Genghis Khan and his Mongol army tomorrow morning at ten?) I believe the Energy Watch Group report. I believe it because, from 2007 until now, the world has been acting as if the report's predictions are true. Everything that has happened from 2007 to now makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of those predictions, from the oil price spike and economic crash of 2008 to the slow bleeding economic death of the West and the OECD at present (and the frantic attempts to rob oil-producing countries like Syria and Iran by means of “regime change”).

That means that an ordinary person like me regards as liars those people who deny that we are living post-Peak. This includes people who made a name for themselves writing for sites like The Oil Drum and who are now writing articles claiming that global oil production is still growing, albeit slowly. Whenever someone posts an article like that on the Web, they are wasting their breath (and keystrokes) as far as I'm concerned, because I'm not going to read what they write. I also regard as suspect those articles which dismiss the peak of conventional crude production by pointing to steady levels of “total liquids” production. (Just such an article appeared here, of all places. Suffice it to say that the production of many of these “liquids” yields either a very poor positive return or an actual negative return on energy invested.)

The decline of the energy resource base of the industrial world has, of course, led to a mad scramble for the world's remaining energy resources. This is paralleled by the scramble for the other raw materials needed by a modern industrial society. This is the reason why Syria has been branded a rogue regime, and the reason why the West has instigated and is financing the insurgency against the Syrian government. This is also the reason why the West is trying to destabilize Iran.

I normally don't save newspapers, but I have a copy of the Oregonian from 2007 in which there is an article describing a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate of the Iranian nuclear program. In the view of the U.S. intelligence community, there was no evidence that Iran was trying to build a nuclear weapon. Therefore, anyone who writes an article claiming that Iran must be prevented from building nuclear weapons is regarded as a liar by an ordinary person like me, along with people who say that we have a moral obligation to remove Hafez Assad from power in Syria, or those who say that the 10,000 well-fed American troops who went to Haiti after their most recent earthquake were sent to help the Haitians, or those “compassionate conservatives” who insist that America has a “responsibility to protect” the citizens of other nations from using their resources as they see fit.

Climate Change
Need I say anything about this? Many well-funded voices in America, both secular and religious, have insisted that climate change is a hoax by the liberal Left who “hate our freedoms!” and want to hinder the prosperity promised by free market capitalism.

To those who have said such things, I have a question: How do you like our summer so far? Have any of you keeled over from heat stroke? How many of you have lost your homes to wildfires so far? How many of you will be starving due to crop failures? I'd like to weep for you all, but the heat has dried up my tears.

I'm struck by something the Governor of Oklahoma said recently when questioned about the climate change-induced drought gripping her state. She asked people to “pray for rain.” Now, I am a Christian, and the Bible does command Christians to pray for their needs. But I am a peculiar type of Christian. I believe that the chief thing God wants to do with Christians is to transform us into decent people. The main point of our earthly lives is our moral development, not the satisfaction of all our earthly cravings. Therefore, God frequently allows us to suffer the consequences of our stupidity – in order to teach us a lesson or two. In asking prayer for rain, this Republican ditz makes it seem as if what Oklahoma is suffering is some supernatural judgment, and not merely the natural consequence of ignoring very simple physics and chemistry. (Let me ask you, if you play on the freeway and get run over by a semi truck, was it due to a supernatural act of God or your own stupidity?)

Unfortunately, I suspect that Governor Mary Fallin's “request for prayer” will be typical of the responses of a large majority of Americans to the age of limits, as they chuck adult reasoning in favor of appeals to magic.

Economics (and Sheep Dogs)
The loud voices which dominate public discussion in our country are all preaching the same message: namely, that the chief aim of our society must be to pursue economic growth at all costs. Selfishness and greed are exalted above all virtue, while frugality, community spirit and altruism are demonized. Above all, the message has been that economic growth is still possible, and that there are no structural, functional limits to growth. Therefore, everyone can be rich if he wants to be, and everyone should want to be.

By contrast, a counterculture has arisen in the United States and other countries. This counterculture recognizes that economic growth has ceased throughout the industrial world, and that those things that look like growth are merely zero-sum transfers of wealth from one group of people to another by means of swindles. Many people within this counterculture are able to accurately trace the reasons for the cessation of growth to the decline of our resource base and the pollution of our environment by economic activity.

However, a funny thing has happened as certain members of this counterculture have become more popular and have acquired powerful voices of their own. What has happened as time has passed is that the message of these “powerful voices” has changed to resemble the message of the mainstream which this counterculture is supposed to oppose. In other words, the supposedly countercultural voices have been turned into “sheep dogs.”

Let me define the term “sheep dog.” In a society dominated by privileged ruling elites, there are certain people who become popular and well-known spokespersons for those exploited and oppressed by the elites. These spokespersons are tolerated as long as their popularity and influence is not great enough to threaten the established order. However, once they achieve a critical mass, both they and their message are usually co-opted by the ruling elites in the hope and expectation that the energy of both the spokespersons and their followers may be turned in directions that are harmless to the ruling elites. They become the sheep dogs of the elites. Sometimes these sheep dogs are manufactured by the elites. (This process occurred in the ancient Roman Empire, by the way. There's a book that describes the process – I think the name of it is Subversive Virtue.)

Within the Peak Oil/climate change/limits-aware counterculture, a fair number of sheep dogs have arisen. I have time to mention only two just now. I think of Tom Whipple, a retired CIA analyst whose first involvement in the Peak Oil scene was commendable, in that he raised the issue in an intelligent, easily understandable manner. But Tom has lately seemed to run off the rails – on the one hand, foaming at the mouth about how Syria and Iran are rogue states which must be overthrown, and on the other hand, raving about how new breakthrough technologies like cold fusion will enable us to continue to lead an opulent life for decades to come. (Earth to Tom: even if “cold fusion” was a viable physical process (which it isn't), scaling up a fusion power plant to produce the amounts of energy our society demands while keeping the physical size of the plant at a reasonable scale would quickly turn the “cold” fusion plant into a “hot” fusion plant, with all the problems that entails.)

Then there's Jay Taylor, a supposed finance “whiz” who hosts an Internet radio program, “Turning Hard Times Into Good Times.” In his radio show, he claims that he will guide you into keeping your money from “Wall Street” by giving you information on stocks that's not found in the “mainstream media.” He can show you how to grow your money by smart investing, yadda yadda. According to Mr. Taylor, America is in its present jam because we have let the Government get too powerful, rather than letting the free market work its wealth-creating magic.

(Earth to Jay Taylor: if you claim that you're trying to keep me from being robbed by Wall Street, why are you then telling me to invest in mining stocks? The age of “investment” characterized by people getting something for nothing merely by purchasing the right stocks is over. Our entire debt-based economy is running off the rails. You are not the counterculture. You sound just like the Wall Street Journal.)

Yes, indeed, that's what Jay Taylor sounds like. (For that matter, even Max Keiser has lately joined the cheerleaders of “free market” economics.) Such people appeal to the greed of those members of the upper middle class who seek to hold on desperately to unearned privileges and prerogatives. To this class such people say, “Yes, the world is a dangerous place and your wealth is under threat! Come here and we'll tell you how you can guard all your stuff from the coming zombie apocalypse! We're trustworthy; we're not the mainstream!” But I've got something to say to anyone who claims to be countercultural, yet allows himself to be interviewed by one of these bozos: Don't grant them interviews anymore. But if you do, tell the rest of us exactly when you start talking on the show and when you stop so we can skip the ads for stocks and the free market rah-rah. Otherwise, people like me may not bother listening to you anymore. My cat can beat up your sheep dog.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How I will Save Money if PIPA and SOPA are passed

I guess Congress is trying once again to pass laws that would make the Internet no longer free. These laws are being pushed by lobbyists for large media corporations such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, media providers and providers associations like the Recording Industry Association of America, credit card companies and even Nike, a maker of athletic shoes.

I don't have time here to spell out all the provisions of these laws, but I can say that if they pass, I stand to save a ton of money. It's very simple, really. I will find other ways to communicate with friends and sympathetic acquaintances. Then I will cancel my Verizon internet access account. My contract has already expired, so I can't be penalized.

That's it.

So go ahead. Make my day.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Stratification, Germination And Climate Change

We are finally getting a bit of snow here in the Portland metro area. Snow levels are quite meager; it's as if someone decided to bake a cake and got very stingy in applying the frosting. Today our snow is melting as soon as it hits the ground. By Wednesday, there will be very little evidence that it snowed at all here.

Otherwise, the snow drought of 2011 seems to be continuing into 2012 throughout the Pacific Northwest. We probably won't see any more snow this winter. This same snow drought has also affected most of the United States and Europe. A mounting body of increasingly plain evidence continues to point to a deranging global climate, a climate that is being wrecked by human activity.

In response, someone recently wrote a somewhat denialist piece about weather in Maine. In his piece, he wrote that “a little global warming would be a gift for Mainers paying for heating oil. Somewhere in New England, the climate may actually improve because of greenhouse gases.” It seems odd that this guy's piece made it onto the Energy Bulletin website, but then they've done a few odd things over the last several months, such as publishing Tea Party propaganda and articles by shills praising Ron Paul.

Being the contrarian that I am, I thought I'd point out a few disadvantages of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. I'd like to point out something else as well, namely, that while most mainstream media either does not acknowledge climate change at all, or relegates its worst effects to a time frame around 100 years from now, I think we can start looking for serious adverse effects right now.

One of the adverse effects I see – a phenomenon that is probably starting to affect us now – regards the effect of warmer weather on seed germination of valuable trees, shrubs and other plants. Right now I have in my refrigerator a packet of currant seeds. The planting instructions on the currants say that to prepare them for planting, I am supposed to stratify them by leaving them outdoors in pots all winter or by putting them in the fridge for at least 60 days prior to planting. Last winter or the winter before, I would probably have left the seeds outdoors. This winter I was not certain that the weather would be consistently cold enough for successful stratification. Hence, the fridge.

Cold stratification is necessary for a number of plants of economic, agricultural and medicinal interest. Echinacea, evening primrose, and a number of other medicinal perennial herbs and flowering plants all require a period of cold stratification to achieve a high degree of successful germination. Without this cold stratification, most of these seeds will not germinate. This also applies to fruit-bearing shrubs such as juneberry, pawpaw, quince, crabapple, and the shrubs of the hawthorn family. Some species of maple trees also require cold stratification for successful germination. Speaking of trees, there are several species of stratification dependent trees that, while not useful to humans for food, are useful for their wood. Interestingly, some of these trees and shrubs are native to the American South, and typically require a few months of temperatures averaging around 40 degrees Farenheit for successful germination of a large portion of their seeds.

This brings up a pertinent question, namely, how man-made climate change will affect the continued cultivation and survival of these plants. As I said earlier, it's something to worry about right now. Some other questions:

  • What non energy-intensive processes can be used in place of cold stratification where the climate is becoming too warm to guarantee successful germination of valuable cold-dependent seeds? (We can't rely on refrigerators forever.)

  • How will agricultural and horticultural climate zones evolve and shift over the next ten to fifteen years?

  • How will man-made climate change affect small farmers and urban gardeners over the next ten to fifteen years?

  • Is there any research being done, either by formal institutions or by talented, well-organized volunteers and amateurs, to formulate and document effective adaptive strategies for small farmers and urban gardeners to employ over the next ten to fifteen years?

These questions can serve as a homework assignment for some enterprising souls. I'd tackle them myself, but I am already teaching one class and preparing to teach two others, so I'm about as busy as a cat with a long tail in a room full of rocking chairs. Maybe I could threaten to interview an urban farmer to find out how he would answer these questions. That might provoke someone over at the Energy Bulletin website to try to beat me to the punch. If I were beaten to the punch, it wouldn't break my heart. (It might also make up for some of the er, recent er, lapses on that site.) These questions are too important for one person to sit on them. Failure to consider these questions might leave more than a few of us without much to eat for dinner over the next several years.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Sheep Dogs, Werewolves and Dog Whistles

(Note: this post is something I have intended to write for the last several weeks. Today Dmitry Orlov of Cluborlov stole some of my thunder, but that's okay. I had left a few comments on some recent posts on his blog, and he responded with a brilliant, succint post that states some points that should be obvious to an intelligent person. I'll say what I'm going to say anyhow, but please read his latest post as well. He says it better than I could.)

I hate election years in this country. From 2000 onward, I've begun to hate them, and my hatred of them has only increased with the passing of time. There are two objects of my hatred: first, candidates who genuinely scare me to death, and second, the scary fans and followers of these candidates.

I have to admit something: in 2000 I was still a card-carrying Republican. (I'm sorry for that; all I can say is that I had drunk a lot of Kool-Aid.) By 2005, the Kool-Aid had largely worn off. In 2006 I quit the Republican party. In 2007 I first heard about Peak Oil and the other resource constraints facing our society.

For a rather brief time in 2007, I thought that it might be possible to induce governments in the United States at all levels to create policies that would help our society to gracefully deal with resource depletion and mitigate the environmental damage caused by our way of life. But by the end of 2007, I gave up that hope.

I distrusted Obama at first, believing that there was just a bunch of sloganeering and not much substance to the man. But the Democratic primaries were so vicious that I thought that there might be something to the man after all, for his chief rival to attack him so viciously. Then he won the Democratic nomination and began to back off from some of the positions he had espoused – such as a swift end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – and I lost hope again. The only reason I voted for him – or even argued in his behalf – was that his opponents, McCain and Palin, were acting like serial murderer schizophrenics who had lost their meds.

Obama won, of course, and from that time to this, the American Right has waged a tireless campaign to discredit and oust him. The energy, vehemence and enthusiasm of that campaign is something that hasn't been seen in American politics for a long time. Even when Bill Clinton was president, there was not so much energy put into removing him as there is being directed toward removing Obama. This is so even though Obama has done pretty much everything his corporate masters wanted. I believe that one can trace an unbroken trajectory of presidential policy all the way from Reagan through the first Bush and Clinton and the second Bush to Obama. That is because the Presidency, the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress have been captured by the very wealthy. No matter who wins this year, that presidential policy will remain the same. And most people would admit this, if they were willing to be honest with themselves.

So why the right-wing hatred of Obama? To me it's a case of dog whistle politics, plain and simple. No one in political power wants to admit it, but we still have a race problem in the United States. It exists, just below the surface of many conversations about the future of our country. And let's be blunt: the race problem now consists of a great deal of angst and anger among certain Americans over the fact that a.) a Black man was able to become President, b.) White America is losing its hegemony and preeminence in the world, and c.) immigrants (many of whom are dark-skinned) are carving out a happy life for themselves in our country.

The current crop of Republican presidential candidates are all – to a man – playing on this angst and anger in order to get elected. Yet the angst and anger are both unrealistic and immoral. So America is losing its preeminence. So the world is becoming a much bigger place. So “we” are all going to have to learn to share with each other. Is that the end of the world? Deal with it and move on. In the process of learning to live harmoniously with others, many Americans might actually become better people. But no, that is unacceptable to a nation whose vice president once said that the American way of life is non-negotiable. “We can't be happy unless we have everything, and unless everyone else is either enslaved by us or wiped out by us! Support our troops!”

So what about the sheep-dogs? Well, over the last several years, many wealthy people have spent vast sums of money trying to fashion public opinion in this country to suit their interests. The efforts of Fox News and other media outlets have been bent toward creating a right-wing culture of intolerant selfishness in this country, in order to legitimize the wealthy and the government policies fashioned in recent years to increase the power and wealth of the wealthy. The Obama presidency wasn't supposed to happen, and I think it caught these folks by surprise. So they manufactured astroturf populist movements like the Tea Party in order to get their lackeys elected.

The funny thing is that the policies enacted by these lackeys did not just target people of color or immigrants. Rather, they had the effect of bleeding the entire “middle class/working class” to death. They were like a broad-spectrum antibiotic in that regard. An increasing number of people began to suffer, including working-class Republicans and former supporters of the Tea Party. (How ironic!) The media mouthpieces were quick to blame the suffering on “the Gummint” and “the evil Obama,” but that tactic stopped working after the 2010 elections, in which a lot of Tea Party candidates were elected to governorships, state houses and the U.S. Congress, and instantly began a cannibal feast of gutting the remnants of the “middle class/working class.” (Why the quotation marks? Because the terms “middle class” and “working class” are artificial distinctions created in order to keep us alienated from one another. Nowadays, most of us are merely different shades of “poor.”)

In response, the Occupy movement sprang up spontaneously, both in the United States and in many English-speaking countries. It was genuine, bona fide populism and not astroturf, and it too was something that was not supposed to happen. It took the wealthy by surprise.

The initial media response to the Occupy movement was either to ignore it, to marginalize it or to criticize it. However, it soon became apparent to those who actually run our country that the Occupy movement was too popular to ignore, to crush or to sweep under the rug. Hence “sheep dogs” were employed in order to turn public anger over exploitation by the wealthy into harmless directions. The usual sheep dogs were employed – so-called “progressive” radio and television personalities like Rachel Maddow and “progressive” radio stations like KPOJ, as well as Democratic politicians. But these were joined by a rather unlikely cast of sheep dog “extras” on the Right. It is rumored that even Glenn Beck tried to cast himself as sympathetic to some of the grievances of the Occupiers.

By far, one of the smoothest and suavest sheep dogs has been Ron Paul, the congressman with big ears from Texas who has tried for years to cast himself as an “outsider” who is opposed to corporate power and corporate influence in politics. It seems that Mr. Paul has picked up the endorsements of a few old, toothless ex-counterculture figures like Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and Noam Chomsky. Ron Paul has sided with many who warn of America's imminent collapse. Ron Paul has denounced American militarism. And Ron Paul has even praised the Occupy movement. He sounds like the real deal, doesn't he?

Except he isn't. Not to me. Part of the problem is that I'm a black man. Ron Paul has denounced Abraham Lincoln for waging the Civil War and ending slavery. Ron Paul has denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act that, among other things, ended racial discrimination in schooling, employment and voting. Ron Paul has stated that while he believe discrimination is wrong, he doesn't believe the Government should prevent it. (Rather like a fire chief who says that while he believes that house fires are terrible, he doesn't believe that the fire department should put out fires.) Ron Paul ran an organization that for years published newsletters that made outrageously racist claims about people of color. At times, when questioned about these letters, he has denied having any control over their content. That's about as plausible as saying to someone, “I didn't realize that my fist was trying to punch your face. A body is a complicated thing to control, you know.”

But another part of the problem is that no matter my color, I'm part of the 99 percent. And Ron Paul's libertarianism is no comfort to me. One of the things governments are supposed to do is to protect the weak from the strong. This includes not only ethnic minorities, but also people without wealth, as well as the ecosystems on which we all depend. Protecting the weak from the strong reduces the total loot available to the strong, so the strong (in this case, the very wealthy) have systematically both weakened and bought off our government to serve their interests.

The strong are using their media mouthpieces to amplify the distaste many of us without strength feel toward a government that no longer protects us. The message of the strong is, "See, you all are suffering because you rely on a government at all!" The truth is that we all are suffering because the strong have broken the government we had. The aim of some of the strong is to abolish the government entirely. That will leave the weak with no protection against the strong.

And that is my problem with Mr. Paul. Ron Paul is a werewolf.