Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tech Fails in Nuclear Plant

I know, this is depressing, and it's probably exploitative to write about this, but a lot of my thought recently has involved the Daiichi Power plants in Japan, which are extremely damaged from the recent earthquake and tsunami. I read today that 27,000 people perished or are missing just from that natural disaster. The nuclear plants have received such extensive damage, they're no longer adhering to their disaster protocols, because the plans in place were inadequate in never addressing the problems they're having. Multiply redundant systems are failing, and unpredictably. The situation is beginning to resemble a less well-scripted version of the Apollo 13 story, with engineers brainstorming, and a rotating team of technicians doing much of the work, who are reported to understand they are likely to die of radiation exposure within months. There's definitely a movie in this disaster.

Among the suggestions for managing the situation is to spray resin glue on the contaminated soil around the plant to stick the radioactive particles down, and large tarps to cover the buildings and the grounds. People have been evacuated for 12 miles, and if the US recommended 20 miles is evacuated, it will involve moving a quarter of a million people from their homes.

Interestingly, this situation will likely have a sobering effect on nuclear development in the US, though it's sure to galvanize the support of some corporate zombies. Years ago Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute predicted no new nuclear plant would ever be built in this country, not because of the inherent risks of nuclear, but because they made no economic sense. Anyone who analyzes the costs vs. benefits invariably finds it's a bad deal! I will always remember his quotation, (paraphrased here and possibly inexact, from the 70's when people were finding it expensive to heat their homes with electricity and nuclear was proposed as the solution to that), that it's illogical to heat poisonous metal to 1200 degrees to heat steam to 600 degrees in order to heat your home to 70 degrees. Even with the $8 billion (or was it $80 billion? I lose track of quoted monetary costs by orders of magnitude these days... oy) that Barack Obama offered the industry last year, no one seems to be eager to invest. I wish the USA built those batteries they put in the iPad.

I guess this is to say it could be a lot worse. There's a huge reaction worldwide, from governments and citizens clamoring for reassurance that safety precautions used at nuclear plants are adequate. New licensing and construction will be viewed skeptically. Reason has a good chance to prevail in this situation.

And most especially, my heart goes out to the Japanese people who have, who are, and who will suffer from the effects of this disaster. For a country to experience such an earthquake, tsunami, and now a nuclear disaster is saddening and sobering. I wish them peace.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yet more class war coverage

I heard this story on the radio on Thursday, but didn't get the details, and just found this link. In the US House of Representatives, Republicans have buried language in the Food Stamps rules that mandates cutting off all members of a family from Food Stamp benefits if any one member of the household is on strike against their employer. This is proposed to be added to a federal budget which has a good chance to pass. "Everyone in the household! Cut them off at the knees, crush them to the pavement, and then be sure to crush everyone else in the family. Starve them out". It's kind of a siege thing.

One hundred-plus years of labor struggle has guaranteed Americans the right to organize and press their employers for better working conditions and a livable wage. This regulation will ensure those who actually exercise that right will nevertheless feel the cold sanction of the law-- as it strikes their family.

When did our legislature become so callous and grasping? It makes me feel deeply ashamed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

More Class War, Unions attacked from several more directions

This will be short because I have to go to work. I'll fill in the links over the weekend. I just want to note two new and very disturbing battles that have broken out in the escalating struggle of the USA vs. organized labor.

The front page of yesterday's paper in Portland, ME showed a smirking Gov. Paul LePage, surrounded by panels from a mural commissioned and painted in 2007/2008 for the lobby of the Maine Department of Labor building, which depicts 150 years of Maine labor history. The mural has been deemed too "pro-union," and will be removed at the governor's decree. It's good to see the governor's deep insight into what are Maine's real priorities.

The other story (I still have to research this-- I heard it in passing on a progressive radio show) is at least one state legislature is in the process of implementing a new rule which mandates cutting off food stamps for any household in which there's a union member on strike. Yup! This isn't about budget control, it's just a nasty vindictive rule targeting a made-up scapegoat-- labor unions-- for the purpose of shifting the blame for our destroyed economy onto people who had nothing to do with it.

This is war. Stay tuned. The TV networks will have a new logo, theme song, and sub-title for it any day now. I predict no one will care much, as long as it doesn't interfere with the up-to-the-minute coverage of American Idol.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oy vey, another Tea Partier forced to publicly remove foot from mouth

This is more sad than funny. This woman, Michele Bachmann, has learned history as marketing slogans. She was in New Hampshire, possibly in Concord, got carried away with an "extreme love of liberty" theme among the gathered patriots, and thought it was Lexington and Concord, NH that were the cradles of the armed insurrection which gave birth to our country. Well, except it wasn't. That all happened in Massachusetts. She was close.

The reason I call it sad is this level of disorganized reasoning is the norm for many supposedly educated adult Americans from her generation. I believe she's in her mid-to-late-40's, which is the same age as many people in positions of influence over everyday speech, professional writing, newspapers, TV, and the like. What I see is a lot of badly thought through, poorly edited, non-proofread writing in the news, in advertising, in print magazines and books, in business communications at work, and especially on the internet. Facebook has no way to edit posts. Supposedly you can delete them, but once they're published there's no getting them back reliably. The message is why even bother to edit? Texting promotes bad usage, and TV promotes bad thought formation. We learn to live with it, with poor communication.

No one seems to care, though for a time there was a brave blog at the New York Times that discussed lax and bad usage, mostly on the Times' own website. [Ed. I looked for it to link, but I can't find it with the Times search function. I shall keep trying.] It was heartening to discover there one small community of people, both writers and commenters, who care about writing-- the diction, the usage, syntax, spelling.

Ugly new usages have crept in into our language over the last couple of years. To "beg the question" is being used a lot, and not at all correctly, at least not as my philosophy professor taught me in 1975. Back in those rough and rowdy times, people knew the difference between compliment and complement and, their "ary" suffixes too. No more. People are trying to use the language "democratically," which means usage trumps tradition, and usually to the detriment of clarity and concision. It's hard to complain; my generation coined "cool," the next generation created "rad," and I believe my childrens' generation popularized "epic."

I know I risk sounding like a grumpy old man. I've pointed out the same sort of thing before, specifically on that "bewitching" Tea Party senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell, who really loathed the establishment Republicans who always voted with the Democrats, "lock, step, and barrel!" This indicates sloppy thinking and low intellectual standards. And I don't think this malaise is confined to political speech. It's everywhere. (Instead of grumpy, maybe this post sounds paranoid.)

I have one other note.  I believe language is important, and its correct and fluent usage is a source of some power. Effective communication is important in many ways, whether spoken or written, formal or personal. We steer our way in our society with communication. We can judge a fraudulent email-- it can be spotted by the bad grammar. When my bank sends an email, there are no formatting or spelling mistakes. If there were mistakes, it wouldn't be from my bank. People who can string together several paragraphs of information verbally are more likely to make their point persuasively. Professional communication requires clarity, brevity, and the ability to not only spell check and edit, but to know what to leave out. It's a talent that's learned, partly in school, and partly "on the job: as it were. We de-emphasize a Humanities education, history and language, at our own risk.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bank Job: cross posting a comment

I've been reading another blog lately, that is both interesting and entertaining, called The Daily Bail. I am drawn to the issues discussed on this site (banks, economics, corporate power) because it crosses party and other ideological lines in US society. It's Libertarian and anti-corporate. It seems to me this is the only mindset that's going to allow us to drag ourselves out of our current dreary political situation. A bit of humane skepticism, unhindered by any strident ideology, is the only perspective from which we'll ever be able to re-engage in fruitful national debate. And the only way to fix anything, like the deficit, the economic structure of our society, and assign priorities is with skepticism, resolve, and some genuine care for our fellow humans.

Here's a comment I left there, my new favorite blog, on an article about the debate about a banking regulation bill in Congress.
If I'm allowed, I'll stick my neck out and momentarily defend the banks' position in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune article above on the JOBS link [Ed. the link is here.]. The banker's point about reducing the per-swipe fee they charge merchants by "70%" (I didn't do the math) is a fair point, and certainly a place for Congress to start a negotiation. What has been forgotten is how the whole bank regulation bill started, with a loud protest against predatory practices (high-risk mortgages) and excessive fees and other punitive practices they applied to their most financially distressed customers.

Under the GW Bush administration the banks got tougher and more punitive procedures for personal bankruptcy, and the banks have no controls on late fees, punitive interest on credit cards, over-draft fees, an intrusive credit rating system, interlinked credit tracking (if you pay one of your ten cards late, the interest goes up on them all!). These products were designed with the same mindset that conjured half-a-trillion (I admit I pulled that figure out of my hat) in high risk, balloon payment, reverse amortization mortgages, $500K mortgages for a $40K income, with no supporting paperwork, and the like, all at astronautical prices. And it's probably preaching to the choir here, to observe they decimated neighborhoods and whole cities, gutting property values and strangling tax revenues. This is the same mindset that's made pawnshops, payday loans, rent to own, storefront check-cashing and other low-rent financial services one of the fastest growing sectors in the US economy in the last few years. The reason the banks are so determined to process foreclosures, and why their victims are forced to fight back in courts and the press, is because a whole army of mortgage servicers, as well as the banks, profit from the draconian fees and penalties. Being foreclosed is ridiculously expensive, with endless paperwork, filing, and processing fees, penalties, collection costs, legal fees, etc. If you weren't ruined already, the vultures will figure out how to finish the job. Any money the foreclosure victim ever makes in the future is at risk.

Government, banks, many businesses, courts, and the press (to say nothing of the penal system) profit from the financial injustices perpetrated on the poor and disempowered. The financial reform bill was conceived to address some of these pressing issues, but it's been co-opted. When the bankers (or their lobbyists) can turn the discussion to "threatened jobs," and blame "price controls" they've got the upper hand again. The rate issue is related to their being monopolies. The businesses, some very large, who pay the fees have their own lobbyists, who like the way this law cuts their rates.

No one is explaining to legislators how the law must address rapacious financial service practices that pauperize millions of Americans, not how much they charge BestBuy to process a card-swipe. By diverting the conversation to how they price their most fair and sustainable product (debit card processing), instead of discussing their exploitation of the poorest Americans, and their efforts to create more of them, Congress is missing the main point. It's too bad I can't afford a lobbyist.