Archive for March, 2011

“Chinese Professor” and political button-pushing

March 27, 2011 1 comment

Watch this chilling, sci-fi vision of American downfall:

You might be wondering; “Who are these heroic “Citizens Against Government Waste” and how did they scrape up enough money to get this important message to us? We’ll get to that in a minute but first, what ingredients are in the message?

  • Huge Communist symbols? Check.  (Do they still have big pictures of Mao all over the place in China today?)
  • Super-modern, economically powerful Asia?  Check.
  • Massive oversimplification?  Check.
  • Symbols of once-great America, lost in the fog of liberalism?  Check.
  • Tea-party talking points? (Health care, Wall-Street as “Private Business”, “Tax and Spend”?)  Check
  • Race-baiting?  Check.  It’s a little more sophisticated than a WWII propaganda poster, yes.  But the auditorium is full of young, well-educated, ambitious Chinese right out of Central Casting, all smirking at stupid, failed America.  All of them completely invested and united in a single nationalistic identity and a common vision of crushing us under their zero-sum success.

That’s an amazingly engaged room full of college students, by the way.  In real college classrooms, a goodly percentage of the students will be engaged in “non- class-related” activities.  But the Chinese kids in this video are, to an individual, enraptured by this professor’s simplistic lecture.  They laugh on cue.  The few that are using electronic devices are looking up additional information relevant to the lecture. None of them are texting their friends or checking their Renren pages.

Clearly the producers hope we won’t think about it too much.  Are they saying that by staying true to its Communist roots, China will beat slovenly America in the world marketplace?  Or what?

The “runaway spending that’s bankrupting America” is interesting. Do they mean spending on infrastructure, financial regulation, basic research, education, and public health? The US invested heavily in those things after WWII, with a top tax rate of more than 90%. The result was the emergence of a powerful and productive middle class, and economic superpower status for the nation.

Maybe they’re talking about runaway military spending; things like the X-35 jet that even the Pentagon says we don’t need, but which are impossible to cancel. Maybe they mean the bombing of Libya, where we spent five years of NPR funding in ten minutes.

What do they mean? The giveaway is the focus on “health care debacle” and Wall Street as “Private Business” that shouldn’t be regulated, lest we fall prey to the smirking, laughing evil yellow menace.

Of course, China’s economic advantage of cheap labor and lax safety standards (enforced by government oppression) wouldn’t have anything to do with Americans being out of work. Or the fact that China is outspending 1.8x on green energy development (despite a one-third smaller economy) and has become a net exporter of High Speed Rail technology. Nope, it’s NPR funding and food stamps whut sunk us. Or lazy teachers and their pension programs. Or even the merest whiff of universal health care.  No nation could take of its sick people and survive!

Where did the grassroots citizens of “Citizens against Government Waste” get the money and media savvy to put this ad together? Did hard-working farmers and small business owners tighten their belts and set aside some money to fight the Democrats who want to hand America over to the Chinese? Did they meet down at Mabel’s diner to pool their funds and share their concerns in the marketplace of ideas?

Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened, if the hard-working Americans you’re talking about are ExxonMobile, Merrill Lynch, the Altria Group, Ingersoll-Rand, and Jack Abramoff.  And if by Mabel’s Diner you mean a Madison-Avenue public relations firm.  It’s no mystery why they’d shell out for astroturf think tanks like CAGW; after practically sinking our economy and being bailed out by the government, they decided they really liked that arrangement.  It’s worked out really, really well for them.

The Right Wing wants to push several myths, and one is that we’re broke and can’t afford to do anything but throw the poor overboard and turn to big corporations for salvation.  If only we’d listened to Wall Street to save us from the Smirking Yellow Menace!

The United States will have some kind of future.  Will making the super-rich a little bit richer prepare us for it?  Or would investing in infrastructure, in education, basic research, clean energy and public health?


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When there are too many (thoughts on Fukushima and environmental catastrophe)

March 18, 2011 Comments off

Back in ’92 there was a spin-off of the 1972 TV series Kung-Fu, called Kung-Fu, The Legend Won’t Shut Up or something like that. Like the original it was a fun series, leaning more to comedy than drama. Both featured flashback scenes to the Shaolin temple where the Kung-Fu guy learned his Fu or whatever.

In one flashback he was learning to defeat several enemies at once. Surrounded, he sent five attackers to the floor and stood, exhausted, looking at his teacher.

“But Master,” he asked; “what if there are too many?”

The wizened old man replied; “When there are too many, you can… only die.”

It may have been inappropriate that I thought of this scene as I learned about the Fukushima Daiichi reactors being hit by a huge Earthquake and a giant tsunami. I can imagine the engineers at the plant looking out to sea and exclaiming; “Aw, come on!” It just seemed… unfair. The diesel generators were put out of commission, and cooling pumps failed.

Despite their preparations, it was… too many. Now the plant teeters on the edge of utter catastrophe while heroic plant workers try to get water back onto reactor cores.  They might succeed, they might not.

There are apparently twenty-three reactors in the US like the ones at Fukushima. I hope someone at each one is doing some forward thinking, especially the four in Illinois. Not necessarily for tsunamis but for possible catastrophes in the locale where they are. Could an Earthquake at the New Madrid fault, for instance, re-route the Mississippi over to the ones at Moline?

I’ve seen a lot of noise about moving away from nuclear power because stuff can go wrong. As some wag commented, though, nuclear causes catastrophes when it goes wrong, and coal causes a slow-motion catastrophe even when it works exactly as intended. It’s just that the coal disaster is more diffuse, in the way people are afraid of terrorism when they should be worried about auto accidents.

We’ve really painted ourselves into a corner with fossil carbon energy. In the long run, we’re going to need to transition to all-sustainable energy for pretty much everything. And “sustainability” means “something that you can keep doing as long as you want“. You won’t run out of whatever it is, and whatever damage it does won’t exceed the environment’s ability to repair on a constant basis.

That’s conservation, wind, some biofuels (not corn ethanol), tidal power, solar (photovoltaic and concentrated), stuff like that.

But we have to get there from here. It won’t be risk-free, and it will involve bridges and transitions. Before we have more electric trains and electric cars powered by windmills, we’ll need drop-in replacements for gasoline and stuff like that. In particular, we will need every low-carbon mains’ power source we can find.

The General Electric Mark I plants like the one at Fukushima are a 40-year-old design. We already know how to build better plants and there are plans for inherently safe ones awaiting approval.

If we don’t get ready for the future that’s coming, we’ll be facing peak oil, spreading desertification, depleted aquifers, higher sea levels, ocean acidification, and stormier weather – a combination capable of sinking the global economy in a way that would make the Great Depression look like a picnic. Despite denials from such reliable sources as Fox News, unfortunately, this outcome is supported by the scientific data.

It could be a civilization-crashing “too many”. But the Kung-Fu master was wrong about dying as the only option. There is another strategy: plan ahead, move carefully, and make peace before it comes to battle. As true between a civilization and its environs as between nations or between a TV Shaolin monk and his enemies.


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Rand Paul’s toilet

March 13, 2011 8 comments

Here’s Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, comparing his choice of light bulbs and toilets to a woman’s control over her own body:

Paul is upset at meddling, nanny-state liberals telling him what toilet to buy! Why do women have the choice to have an abortion, but he can’t choose what light bulbs to buy?! They’re limiting consumer choice! Externalities be damned!

“Call it what it is: you prevent people from making things that consumers want. I find it really appalling and hypocritical and I think there should be some self-examination from the Administration on the idea that you favor a woman’s right to an abortion, but you don’t favor a woman or a man’s right to choose what kind of light bulb, what kind of dishwasher, what kind of washing machine…”

Yeah, because “consumer choice” is the most important thing in the world. Literally nothing else matters. Or at least, not enough for the public to bother protecting itself from the consequences. Paul says he is “all for energy conservation” but says it should be voluntary, and that we should convince him.

“I find it an affront to the notion of a Free Market, of Capitalism, of Freedom Of Choice. It’s not that I’m against conservation; I’m all for energy conservation. But I wish you would come here to extoll me, to cajole, to encourage, to try to convince me that it would be a good idea to conserve energy…”

Where to begin…

First, not all “choices” are equal. When you start favoring a social safety net like they have in countries with low abortion rates, Senator, I’ll take your objections to abortion a little more seriously. Until then, you have no business telling a woman in an abusive relationship, and/or facing poverty, that she must bear a child. To equate the choice she faces with your dislike of efficient light bulbs is just sickening. Go screw yourself, Senator.

Second, voluntary management of the commons has been tried, and it does not work. The free market simply won’t act in the interests of the commons on which it depends. Like it or not, that is what government is for.

There’s economic catastrophe lurking in falling groundwater, warming climate, and drying rivers.  Those things are “the commons” on which our economy depends, and government is the corporation of the people for the protection and management of that commons.

The meddling regulations Paul hates so much can be stunningly effective.  For a moment, consider building codes.  That’s government establishing materials and engineering standards for the construction industry.  As Rand Paul says; “there’s a cost!” to those regulations.  Everything becomes more expensive.  What if the rent in a non- Earthquake-resistant apartment were cheaper?  Shouldn’t consumers have the choice?

Japan was just hit by the seventh-largest Earthquake ever recorded; the entire island moved eight feet from its former location. Then it was hit by a massive tsunami. The country has 127 million people, 95% urban.

Today’s headline? Japan death toll likely to top 10,000. In other words, this inconceivably huge catastrophe produced a death rate of a bit less than one-hundredth of one percent. Buildings mostly held, fire-control systems mostly worked, and evacuation plans were mostly effective.

Here’s a thought exercise: suppose Japan were run by Libertarians who insisted the free market should determine what Earthquake resistance standards should prevail. Maybe consumer choice should dictate whether public funds were spent on tsunami evacuation drills. What do you think the Japan fatality rate would be?

Libertarians elevate personal choice over common good, then claim to want to be convinced of the common good. I don’t think they want to be convinced; in my experience, they don’t want to hear it at all. The problem is, nature won’t wait for Ron Paul to catch up on his science lessons. When peak oil triggers mass famines, when LA runs out of water or when the glaciers melt and flood coastal cities, it won’t be any comfort to hear; “Oh, I guess you were right after all.” Because our economy will be in Rand Paul’s toilet.

It’s true that Libertarians get a chilly reception on this blog; I am disgusted, nauseated by Libertarian ethics. Instead of the divine right of kings, they pitch the divine right of free markets, which is almost a distinction without a difference. We humans have potentially a great gift: we can think about the future. If we try.


  • Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes
  • Rand Paul complains that his toilet doesn’t work, that he has to flush it 10 times.  Rand, baby, what do you eat? Try one of these toilets.
  • Rand Paul’s Confession: constipated for years, he still can’t see the light.
  • We’ve had a low-flow toilet for about 20 years. It was made in Sweden or some other Socialist hell-hole. It works just fine and has paid for itself many times over.
  • Because of supply-line inefficiencies, saving x amount of energy at the point of use is equivalent to xn increase in total generating or production capacity, where n is greater than 1.  It’s the closest thing anywhere to a free lunch.
  • Paul’s new budget eliminates the agency that regulates nuclear safety.
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Guest post: Kent Ashcraft on Rep. Peter King’s “Radical Islam” hearings

March 10, 2011 Comments off

Kent Ashcraft is best known for “Dear Dr. Laura”, a satirical screed on the application of Leviticus to modern life.  Yesterday I got this from him:

First of all, thanks to all who sent me happy birthday messages. Facebook has its uses (and abuses).

Today’s topic has to do with the late Senator Joe McCarthy, who has been technically dead for half a century, but is still alive in spirit. To McCarthy, communism was such a grave threat that he felt the need to investigate any and all Americans who were suspected to have communist sympathies. In the process of doing that, he ruined many lives and wasted untold millions of dollars in a useless and unconstitutional exercise. It was one of the most shameful periods of American history, and spawned the term “McCarthyism.”

McCarthy’s spiritual heir is Rep. Peter King of New York, who starting tomorrow will chair a series of congressional hearings regarding “radical Islam.” Presumably this is necessary because certain people have committed terrorist acts in the name of Islam. Of course, the most prolific and deadly terrorist group in the history of our country has been the Ku Klux Klan, who have claimed Christianity as their inspiration. Yet I’ve never heard anyone, even in hindsight, suggest a that a House committee investigate “radical Christianity,” despite the fact that Timothy McVeigh and virtually every anti-abortion terrorist have also claimed to be Christians.

Add to this hypocrisy the amazing fact that in the 1980s Rep. King was an ardent defender of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group that killed over 1,700 people in the United Kingdom. The IRA operated under the banner of Irish Catholicism, and evidently that was okay with Mr. King because he happens to be an Irish Catholic. This takes McCarthyism to a new level – McCarthy was at least consistently against communism, but Mr. King is only against religious terrorists if their religion is different from his own.

I am deeply ashamed that in my country, which was founded in part on the principle of freedom of religion, we are now having congressional hearings to investigate what people believe. I can only hope that in these hearings someone has the courage to ask, “Have you no sense of decency?”



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Decimal points matter

March 8, 2011 Comments off

After my dental insurance company and my health insurance company each managed to definitionally wriggle out of paying for my recent surgery (they covered a total of $126), the “Oral and maxillofacial surgeon” sent me the bill in total today. It was $129300. I will be calling the surgeon’s office tomorrow.

That had better be an error of two orders of magnitude in my favor, or the surgeon’s accounts’ person will have to figure out how to do CPR… over the phone.

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Goodbye, old RJ-11…

March 7, 2011 1 comment

I spent the better part of the day installing VOIP phones in our offices today. They work over Ethernet lines; you unplug the computer connection, plug it into the phone, then use another cable from phone to computer.

Ethernet cables use an RJ-45 connector; it looks like a phone plug (RJ-11) only with eight lines instead of four. This means the phone has two fat, relatively inflexible cables coming out of it instead of one thin, flexible phone line. Our building, 6 years old, is the last “new” building on campus to be wired with RJ-11 wall jacks; from now on it’s all VOIP and CAT-6 Ethernet.

I have cable crimping and testing tools for RJ-11, RJ-45 and coax. Where copper is concerned, it looks like RJ-45 is the last one standing and will be around for a long time. Guess I should also learn how to terminate optical fiber. Which is interesting stuff, by the way; it is made from two kinds of glass having different refractive indexes, supported in a plastic tube.

Today I got a chance to look at some CAT-6 Ethernet cable. Very cool: it uses four twisted pairs of different periodicities, which are in turn twisted around a spiral plastic core that separates them to limit crosstalk. It should be able to carry a hell of a lot of signal. And I love the way the standard describes maximum run-length (37m) when used as 10GBASE-T; “Hostile Alien Crosstalk Environment”.

Traditional POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) lines, as simple as they are, have traditionally been one of the most reliable technologies in our lives. Not as reliable as a hammer, maybe, but almost. Ethernet networks are less reliable. If the power goes down, we have only about 15 minutes of phone service before the UPS in the telecom rack goes dead.

But it isn’t as bad as all that. Most people have cell phones today, so a power outage won’t likely cut them off. And the VOIP phones can integrate with software phones. Faculty and staff can load a mobile application on their laptops, and re-route their office phones directly to the laptop. Because you know, we never want anyone to take a day off for any reason. Sick? Don’t stay in bed; work at home!

By the end of Spring break, we’ll have all our phones converted. The old Erikson phones are stacking up in a room somewhere on campus – probably tons of them along with obsolete switching equipment. They served very, very well. I just hope they’ll be properly recycled; that’s a hell of a lot of plastic, lead, and other toxic stuff. It puts me in mind of the huge numbers of TV sets I saw put out for trash after the switch to digital.

Think we’ll ever learn to plan for proper disposal/recycling as part of tech changeovers?

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The myth of choosing your own doctor

March 6, 2011 5 comments

One of the anti- universal health care tropes is that “you wouldn’t get to choose your doctor” under single-payer medicine. Presumably this means you DO get to choose your doctor under the private insurance schemes that we Freedom-loving Americans favor. My estimation is that “doctor choice” is probably limited under any system.

Health-care events sometimes span years. I had an accident a few years ago and fortunately my health insurance covered most of it except the four broken teeth, which they excluded as “dentistry”, and which was excluded as “reconstructive” dentistry by my dental plan. So I paid for most of those crowns myself.

One of the teeth in my upper jaw had cracked lengthwise – perhaps – or maybe the root canal made it brittle over time but in any case it eventually became a conduit for an upper-jaw infection. And I didn’t feel that infection because one of the first things the infection did, apparently, was destroy the relevant nerve. Maybe there were a few days of toothache; I don’t remember. Sinus infections give me toothaches too so it’s possible I missed it.

Anyway, there was this painless infection chewing away at my upper jaw. It was so high up in the jaw that it didn’t quite register on routine dental x-rays. By the time we could detect it, enough bone had been destroyed to make the adjacent teeth wobbly.

My dentist referred me to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who took one look at my new x-rays and said; “Nuh-Uh!” and sent me to the only guy in town who would tackle it. And somewhere in all that referring and bouncing back between the fussy definition of “dental” and non-dental, I slipped “out-of-network” unawares.  (Your choice of doctor, you see, is very much tied to your insurance network. One wonders if a continent-spanning single-payer network might not, in fact, result in more choice.)

Finally the big day came, and they took out one of my front teeth, excavated “about twice as much bone as we expected” and packed in synthetic bone matrix in hopes my osteoblasts would know to move in and make a foundation for the remaining teeth, and someday hopefully, a titanium anchor.

The dental insurance company doesn’t want to pay for the anesthesia; apparently Andrew Jackson or somebody would just have taken a few hits of whiskey and said “Do it!” And today my health insurance company flatly denied my claim on the rest of the charges. So it’s all on me.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a job and some money saved up. In spite of these bills I should still be able to replace the leaky roof on my house this year. Not everyone is so lucky.

Your health insurance company, if you are so lucky as to have one, doesn’t have a “Whatever happens, make sure you receive care” ethic. They want your monthly payment, but denying (your) claim is what they call “containing costs”. They have entire departments full of people who do nothing but try to deny care. If they can pin it on Workman’s Comp, or another insurance company, or if there’s somebody who can be sued (your task, if so), or if they can re-define it as being some part of your body they don’t cover, or if the medicine that worked for you seems just a bit too luxurious to them, it will pretty up their annual report. But it certainly won’t improve your annual report.

The result is that every doctor you know must employ an entire staff of qualified people who do nothing but navigate that minefield in hopes of getting paid. They don’t want to (but will if they have to) send collection companies after you.

And that’s just for people who have insurance. If I lost my insurance – for instance if I lost my job – no company would touch me. I’d be totally screwed.  I wouldn’t get to “choose” any doctor.

Somehow this bureaucratic death-match is supposed to be more efficient than single-payer – and deliver better care in the bargain. But it doesn’t. We spend WAY more per person on health care but we get worse results from it. I would just dearly love to tell members of Congress that we won’t give them government health insurance, but we’ll give them an allowance to go buy it for themselves on their precious free market – if they can. Since the majority are older males, many of them would be in for a rude surprise. It might not change their minds, but it would make a damn good reality TV show.


  • I do wish someone would explain to me why teeth are not considered part of your body for health purposes. The connection between periodontal disease and heart disease, for example, is well-known. The same bugs that live in the ligature space between teeth and jaw are just as happy munching on a heart valve or starting an arterial plaque collection. Given the cost of a heart attack, you’d think health insurance companies would be more proactive about dental health.  Maybe they think adding “See your dentist twice a year” in their newsletter is being proactive.
  • Your eyes are not part of your body either, apparently.  Except my eye doctor does a number of general health screening tests when he looks at my retina.  It’s very complicated, I guess we can’t be expected to understand.
  • Although I dislike pain as much as the next person, I’m not a wimp when it comes to most dental care.  I had all four wisdom teeth out using local anesthesia, and one of them needed to be split with a chisel and taken out in pieces.  Afterward, I drove myself home.  But I had major abdominal surgery just eighteen months ago.  It was quite traumatic and as a result I went into this procedure suffering extreme anxiety.  Being knocked out for this recent procedure meant the surgeon could take his time and be methodical.  In removing infected bone, it’s important to be thorough.
  • An entirely separate issue is whether “doctor choice” is as critical as we think.  Beyond avoiding the obviously incompetent, it might not matter all that much.  Do you need Marcus Welby to tell you to eat better food, exercise and lose weight?  And in the more specific cases like the one detailed here, any competent doctor will refer you to one who can handle the case.
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Where Winter Goes

March 5, 2011 Comments off

Snow pile melting weeks after Snowpocalypse 2011

Snow pile melting weeks after Snowpocalypse 2011 (click to embiggen)

Melt water going into a storm drain

Cold down there, I reckon

The 2011 Snowpocalypse had potential for heavy flooding (covering as it did almost the entire Mississippi drainage basin) but fortunately the rise in temperature was somewhat gradual.

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The beat of mind

March 1, 2011 Comments off
This truck went right through downtown.  1017 is chlorine, and 1079 is liquified sulfur dioxide.

This truck went right through downtown, past the Children's Museum, ran over a sidewalk turning South and didn't even slow down for the railroad tracks. 1017 is chlorine, and 1079 is liquified sulfur dioxide.

The blogging brain works a little like a heartbeat, taking stuff in, then pushing it out, repeat.  Well not exactly like a heartbeat; there is some processing that goes on, or should be.  In any case MrsDoF points out that I have not been blogging much in the last month.

Last week I had a wonderful visit from my son, who flew from sunny California to spend a couple days here in Illinois.  In February.  He always makes me think – and he gave me the second season of Breaking Bad to watch!

The book stack has some ebb and flow too.  I finally finished reading Zombie Economics by John Quiggen (liked it very much), so the stack got a little shorter.  Now I’m reading Written In Stone by Brian Switek and next up is Traffic; why we drive the way we do and what it says about us, so it’s taller again.  (Read the author interview at the link for Traffic.)  During my lunch hours I’m studying HTML5, Up And Running. Feeding the brain, yes; but chewing carefully.

Last night MrsDoF and I attended a symposium on business ethics and the Bhopal disaster.  I live-Tweeted it and will write more about it soon but here’s a point that struck me: it took the Bhopal disaster to generate enough political will to pass EPCRA (the Emergency Planning Community Right-To-Know Act) in our own country.  Because of that catastrophe halfway around the world, you can find out what chemicals are being stored and transported in your area.  Many companies responded by looking for less toxic ways to do what they do.  They never wanted us to know in the first place…

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