Friday, December 26, 2008

Interesting, but call me skeptical

The idea of making biodegradable plastic from plants seems okay, but I have to wonder where the alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides for the corn crops will come from. Until then I'm skeptical about how effect these new plastics will be at reducing dependence on oil.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wow - a couple miles from where I lived as a teen

Rancho Cordova site closed and reopened again:

Earlier Thursday, PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said the investigation was transferred to the NTSB "because the gas pipelines run underneathe the streets."

A NTSB spokeswoman confirmed Thursday morning that investigator Karl Gunther will arrive in Sacramento on Monday morning to begin the investigation.

The cause of the blast has not been determined, though local authorities said they suspect it was fueled by natural gas.

PG&E crews had been searching for a natural gas leak on Paiute Way in Rancho Cordova since Wednesday morning before a violent explosion leveled one house, leaving one man dead and five people injured.

A Sacramento County coroner's official said Wilbert Paana, 72, died from injuries Wednesday night. Two other victims remain in critical condition.

Neighbors said residents on Paiute Way had been calling PG&E through Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, complaining of a strong scent of gas in their homes and outside.

"Nobody did nothing about it until this morning, and it was too late," said Gigi Lopez, whose home was one of two damaged by the 1:40 p.m. blast.

PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson said the utility received its first complaint a 9:15 a.m. Wednesday. He said PG&E sent a worker to the neighborhood at 10 a.m. He said second person was sent to relieve the first worker at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

The workers tried to locate the source of the leak, but could not shut off gas in an isolated area until they pinpointed the leak's exact location, Swanson said.

"We didn't get to that point," Swanson said.

The second PG&E worker at the scene of the blast – 10708 Paiute Way – was taken to a hospital with minor burns and lacerations. Swanson said the worker was treated and released.

Paana was one of three victims who suffered third-degree burns and were taken to UC Davis Medical Center. The other two patients remained in critical condition Wednesday night, according to hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Brown.

According to Brown, they are Kim Dickson, described as in her mid-40s, and Sunny Dickson, a 17-year-old who was being transferred to the burn unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California.

Brown said she could not confirm that they are related to Paana. A neighbor, however, said the residents of the home were a family.

State records list Kim Dickson, 44; Wilbert Paana, 72; and a 21-year-old man as adult residents of the home at 10708 Paiute Way. County records show the property was owned by Paana.

Words escape me, and I wouldn't have known anyone involved in the blast. At bare minimum, PG&E's response to the initial complaint prior to the explosion was - to say the least - sluggish.

New tools of torture for US police?

I would say that this is something to watch out for:
The research arm of the US Department of Justice is working on two portable non-lethal weapons that inflict pain from a distance using beams of laser light or microwaves, with the intention of putting them into the hands of police to subdue suspects.

The two devices under development by the civilian National Institute of Justice both build on knowledge gained from the Pentagon's controversial Active Denial System (ADS) - first demonstrated in public last year, which uses a 2-metre beam of short microwaves to heat up the outer layer of a person's skin and cause pain.
Presumably these would be "nonlethal", but we know the track history of "nonlethal" weapons has been far from reassuring. Further:
The effect of microwave beams on humans has been investigated for years, but there is little publicly available research on the effects of PHaSR-type lasers on humans. The attraction of using a laser is that it can be less bulky than a microwave device.
Human rights groups say that equipping police with such weapons would add to the problems posed by existing "non-lethals" such as Tasers. Security expert Steve Wright at Leeds Metropolitan University describes the new weapons as "torture at the touch of a button".
"We have grave concerns about the deployment and use of any such devices, which have the potential to be used for torture or other ill treatment," says Amnesty International's arms control researcher Helen Hughes, adding that all research into their effects should be made public.
In all likelihood, such weapons would be used in an attempt to suppress public displays of dissent (given the turbulence caused by the on-going financial meltdown caused by neoliberal policies, such dissent is likely to increase and the ruling class is antsy about that possibility), and that if the Taser's usage history is a reliable indicator, such weapons will be abused, with those who are mentally ill and/or belong to scape-goated minority groups will be the ones victimized, along with citizen watchdogs attempting to document or film police abuse in progress. The potential for people to be literally tortured to death, as with the Taser, is one that should not be dismissed lightly.

See all of my posts on Tasers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A blast from the past

I was looking around at Dennis Perrin's blog for the first time in about a week and noticed his review of the SNL fourth season DVD set. If I recall correctly, I'd become pretty hooked on SNL's third season, 1977-1978 (I was already showing signs of being an insomniac and a night owl), and the 1978-1979 season would be one of the few constants I could count on during a turbulent period in my early adolescent life - a period marked by dad's layoff from his previous job, a move to a completely different region of the US, adjustment from suburban to (briefly) urban living and back again, and of course the usual physical and psychological changes that go hand in hand with the teenage years. I'd always had a passion for comedy and satire, and the SNL cast and writers were incredible.

To be honest, I haven't even caught SNL reruns in ages. There were a couple seasons in the 1980s and again in the early 1990s that were sort of interesting, but for the most part once the last remnants of the first cast had vanished, SNL was as bland as much of whatever else was on the tube at the time (Eddie Murphy's brilliance notwithstanding). Not surprisingly, until reading Dennis Perrin's reminiscences, I had forgotten much of what apparently attracted me so heavily to that particular SNL season. I was still just young enough for a fair amount of the drug humor to go over my head (that wouldn't last much longer), but in retrospect that the writers and cast were snorting up mountains of snow makes sense: cokeheads tend to be, shall we say, an aggressive lot when high and the humor definitely had an aggressive edge to it. After weathering two substantial moves in a matter of months - from a southern suburb, to a west-coast inner city environment (which was turning out to be pretty interesting), and then to a very barren west-coast suburban wasteland - I was walking around with a fairly substantial chip on my shoulder.

Gilda Radner's characters were consistently interesting - Candy Slice (pictured above) was certainly one of the more memorable ones: funny that as soon as I saw that picture I could recognize that one right off the bat. That was the season Peter Tosh performed an old Beatles tune, "Here Comes The Sun" (I ended up liking his version of that tune much more). I've really gotta revisit those Al Franken and Tom Davis sketches. Perrin's description jogs the memory a bit, but not quite enough. The Scotch Boutique sketches were also ones that resonated with me at the time. I'll let Perrin describe them:
Scotch Boutique displayed even more precision. A store that sells only scotch tape opens in a dying mall. At first seen as a ridiculous idea, the Boutique soon prospers, selling tape to the other store owners so they can put up their Going Out of Business signs. These pieces ran through the entire season, forming an extended narrative as opposed to recurring one-liners and character turns. Scotch Boutique was an intelligent look at people confronting failure and loss. There were no jokes, only situations, each more dire than the last. Those pieces are perhaps the most poignant work to ever air on SNL.
The apartment complex I lived in for a few months from late 1978 until late spring 1979 was situated next door to a dying shopping mall - one complete with more empty store spaces than occupied, and where guys wearing old trench coats walked around aimlessly carrying bottles wrapped in paper bags. The Scotch Boutique could have easily existed there. Of course, given the current economic realities, something tells me that the Scotch Boutique sketches are once again quite relevant.

If I run into some money again (always an iffy proposition these days), maybe I'll pick up that DVD set. I never could run with the cokeheads (just didn't like what the drug did to people), but I could certainly appreciate what a handful of highly talented cokeheads could offer in the way of humor and commentary. Perrin's capsule summary of the season is probably pretty dead-on (keep in mind, I'm relying on memory here), and I suspect that had my parents realized just what SNL was up to I would have never been allowed to watch it. Instead, that ended up being one of my influences during some early formative years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Festivus!

The holiday for the rest of us appears to be catching on.

There's room for all of us under the bus

Now there's the change we can all believe in. Pic found over at Scary ShIt.

Say Hello To

Useful Activism.

Oh, and Scary Shit is back too. Looks like a blogroll update will be in order.

A sign of the times perhaps

Uprisings in Europe are now being referred to as the "Greek Syndrome." Referring to the recent French student protests against some "reforms" to its education system was this bit:
But behind the unrest lie three other factors: a deep disaffection from the French political system; a hostility to capitalism and "globalism" and the ever-simmering unrest in the poor, multiracial suburbs of French cities.

[snip]

President Sarkozy agreed to give way. The lycée protests went ahead anyway. There were more students on the streets of French cities on Thursday, after the government backed down, than there were last week when the education minister insisted that he would press ahead. A few cars were burnt and overturned in Lyons and Lille and a score of protesters were arrested but the marches were mostly peaceful.

Students interviewed on the streets of Paris refused to accept that the reforms had been withdrawn. President Sarkozy was not in control, they said. He was "under orders from Brussels and Washington". The real motive was to take money out of the French education budget to "refloat the banks".

They are not alone in their suspicion that there is an effort by the governing elites to undertake a massive redistribution of wealth - from the social services that many depend upon to the pockets of the wealthy and the banking industry. Now for the last paragraph:
The Greek, French and Swedish protests do have common characteristics: a contempt for governments and business institutions, deepened by the greed-fired meltdown of the banks; a loose, uneasy alliance between mostly, white left-wing students and young second-generation immigrants; the sense of being part of a "sacrificed generation".
It's pretty safe to say that there are quite a few nations with burgeoning "sacrificed generations" who are becoming increasingly, and understandably, frustrated with the raw deal they've received.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Could you imagine a life without bubbles?

Paul Krugman can. It will require American elites to do something that they are not inclined to do: ditch Friedman's neoliberal orthodoxy and see it for what it is - a late 20th century version of Social Darwinism, which had been abandoned after the previous bubble economy burst in the late 1920s. What we can expect is that it will be years before a new economic architecture takes shape, and that the intervening period will be difficult.

The O-Man will find himself pressured to return to "business as usual" as soon as the worst appears to be over. His choice of economic advisors during his campaign and his cabinet choices do not bode well; they are adherents of Friedman's neoliberal philosophy who seem more inclined to return to the Clinton era's "neoliberalism with a happy face." If they act as I expect they will, we can look forward to a further bursting of the legitimacy bubble. We've seen how that has been playing out in Greece, and can look at that situation as a harbinger of things to come anywhere Friedmanism has taken hold.

The economic and political situation currently unfolding is one that could be seen a mile away. Here's something I wrote nearly a couple years ago, that not only describes the problem, but points to some tentative solutions:
Those of us who are on the bottom rung of the so-called "middle class" and points lower on the economic food chain have been feeling the pain for a while now. Consumer culture as we know it now is functioning by smoke and mirrors, folks. In the long run that won't be a bad thing, as what we as a society have done is to live way beyond nature's means. The birds are gonna come home to roost, if they haven't started already. Those who are relatively well off, including those who hold elected offices, seem perfectly content to remain in a delusional state. That delusion may or may not get shaken if the threatened war against Iran transpires, and the oil tap gets cut off; or if our government's creditors (China & Japan) decide they've had enough, and expect ol' Uncle Sam to settle those outstanding debts (given ol' Uncle Sam's gambling and spending addictions, the scene will get ugly fast).

Something I read a couple months ago seems quite pertinent, to the extent that I accept the premise that the US in its present form is doomed to crumble like all past empires: Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for peak oil than the US. Now let's be optimistic for just a second and pretend that what passes for our government for once tries to be useful. The author Dmitry Orlov has some advice:
There are some things that I would like the government to take care of in preparation for collapse. I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles, and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. I am also worried about soldiers getting stranded overseas – abandoning one's soldiers is among the most shameful things a country can do. Overseas military bases should be dismantled, and the troops repatriated. I'd like to see the huge prison population whittled away in a controlled manner, ahead of time, instead of in a chaotic general amnesty. Lastly, I think that this farce with debts that will never be repaid, has gone on long enough. Wiping the slate clean will give society time to readjust. So, you see, I am not asking for any miracles. Although, if any of these things do get done, I would consider it a miracle.
In short, face up to the impending collapse and plan ahead. Will our Congress critters in DC be up to the task? Ho ho. I'm not betting my life savings on it (and I don't bet that nickel lightly, folks). The folks occupying the White House are so clueless as to preclude them from any useful activity. Whatever regime replaces Bu$hCo in the aftermath of the 2008 "elections" will not be much better (I'm sure that some of my partisan Dem friends would beg to differ, and that I'll continue to find their protestations and candidate cheerleading to be a source of amusement). More Orlov:
It's important to understand that the Soviet Union achieved collapse-preparedness inadvertently, and not because of the success of some crash program. Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. The last thing we want is a perfectly functioning, growing, prosperous economy that suddenly collapses one day, and leaves everybody in the lurch. It is not necessary for us to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning to match the Soviet lackluster performance in this area. We have our own methods, that are working almost as well. I call them "boondoggles." They are solutions to problems that cause more problems than they solve.

Just look around you, and you will see boondoggles sprouting up everywhere, in every field of endeavor: we have military boondoggles like Iraq, financial boondoggles like the doomed retirement system, medical boondoggles like private health insurance, legal boondoggles like the intellectual property system. The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground floor window. We just have to help this process along, or at least not interfere with it. So if somebody comes to you and says "I want to make a boondoggle that runs on hydrogen" – by all means encourage him! It's not as good as a boondoggle that burns money directly, but it's a step in the right direction.
There may be some wisdom to that - today's incompetence may well be our friend when we look back at this bleak decade. Further:
Certain types of mainstream economic behavior are not prudent on a personal level, and are also counterproductive to bridging the Collapse Gap. Any behavior that might result in continued economic growth and prosperity is counterproductive: the higher you jump, the harder you land. It is traumatic to go from having a big retirement fund to having no retirement fund because of a market crash. It is also traumatic to go from a high income to little or no income. If, on top of that, you have kept yourself incredibly busy, and suddenly have nothing to do, then you will really be in rough shape.

Economic collapse is about the worst possible time for someone to suffer a nervous breakdown, yet this is what often happens. The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.

If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.
Increasingly, over the last few years, our family has been doing just that: finding a niche in the margins. The old habits have been hard to break, to be sure. But aside from the habit of buying an inordinate amount of reading material, it's all necessities (food, rent, clothes, etc.) and maintaining ties with friends and loved ones. All of that, by the way, is done cash on the barrelhead. Haven't had a credit card in something like six years - initially out of necessity, and now out of choice. Reinforcing what Orlov is saying, stay out of debt, get used to living on a less-than-steady income, get away from the whole workaholic scene (instead maximize free time - think of that valuable time spent with the kids, etc., instead), minimize participation in the current economy. In other words, don't contribute to the present system any more than is absolutely necessary.

The world that my generation is leaving behind for our kids and grandkids will in many ways seem much harsher than the one that we inherited. The thought used to drive me to depths of despair. The older I get though, the more stoic I have become - instead I'm realizing that those who've survived previous collapses find opportunities for finding meaningful existences, and even a measure of happiness. With crisis comes opportunity. I have little choice but to hold out hope that my kids' generation will seize that opportunity to create the beginnings of something beautiful out of the ashes of what we gave them. Hopefully a few of us middle-aged gen-x-ers can live long enough to pass on the lessons we learned of the folly of American Exceptionalism, and of the predatory capitalism that myth enabled. Maybe they'll take those lessons to heart.
The main bulletpoints from the above are to:
  • Ditch consumerism: learn to live with less stuff and more friends and family ties
  • Stop the wars currently being waged, and cease all plans for new wars - AND begin dismantling those 700-plus military bases in earnest. Like Orlov, the thought of leaving soldiers stranded is not acceptable.
  • Rebuild the infrastructure with an eye to life after the oil supply peaks. A functioning rail system will be a necessity if what we call the US is to remain even remotely viable.
That's a start.

Cheney's Chutzpah

If nothing else, the dude speaks like a war criminal who knows he'll get away with it. In Cheney's world, dissolving the Constitution is "protecting" the Constitution. Go figure. After all, it's just a "goddamned piece of paper."