Archive for February, 2012

Leap Year Lite

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Feb. 27, 2012

Leap year only comes once every four years so we should make the best of it. Let’s make it lite this year. Not that lite though—better include some old man grumps.

Three weeks ago I paid our annual property taxes. Ouch. Like many retired people one of the few pleasures we have is taking our Cardigan Corgi for a walk. One of our favorite spots for the daily dog walk is the campus of Madison Area Technical College. One of my favorite daily grumps is seeing the shuttle bus (often empty) ferrying students and teachers from a nearby parking lot to the main campus. Jeepers! It would only be a three or four block walk for these strong young folks. I don’t mind paying high taxes for the education of youth (especially in Technical Colleges which I hold in high favor) but do I also have to pay extra for this contribution to obesity?

It may be that in her Parade magazine column Marilyn vos Savant had the best answer to this old man grump. A reader from Delaware asked how do you reply to a father who complains about the luxury of school busing and says that, “life was so hard for him while growing up that he had to walk 5 miles to school uphill both ways.”

Her answer, “You might try telling him how happy you are that life for him was such an improvement. In your grandfather’s day, it was also always snowing. And when your great-grandfather was young, he also had no shoes!”

This is not really an old man’s grump but just a word of thanks to my good friend and strong-hands dentist for removing an aching molar from my mouth last week. The bacteria that caused the ache seemed to be also dispersed and defeated at last. But then as he pointed out, and as I read in a NY Times report, “researchers recently found 37 new species of bacteria thriving between teeth and gum. The research brings the total known species of oral wildlife to about 500, some of which are permanent residents while other may just be passing through.” Ouch. Yuck. Is there any hope?

A few years ago a devaluation of the currency in Mexico was causing concern in El Paso, Texas. A reporter decided to see what six-year-olds thought of this. He went to a first grade class and recorded some of their opinions:

“The peso devaluation is something in Mexico. It’s in the comics. You can look at the pictures if you can’t read Spanish.” Adam Yardeni.

“The peso devaluation is a kind of wine. It looks black or blue. It tastes very sour. You can buy it in any store. Only parents can drink it.” Leonard Burnham.

“The peso devaluation is a game Mexican children play. They play it with spinning tops. The use pesos instead of pennies.” Rachel Amar.

“The peso devaluation is something I never heard of. I can’t imagine what it is. If you really want to know, ask my dad.” Josh Gordon.

“The peso devaluation? I couldn’t go there. I was absent.” Ysa Shapiro.

Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher take delight in skewering conservatives. The writer P. J. O’Rourke turns the delight on progressive liberals with books like Give War a Chance and Holidays in Hell: In Which Our Intrepid Reporter Travels to the World’s Worst Places and Asks, “What’s Funny About This”. In the latter book he travelled as “international affairs desk chief” for Rolling Stone magazine. “Each American Embassy comes with two permanent features—a giant anti-American demonstration and a giant line for American visas. Most demonstrators spend half their time burning Old Glory and the other half waiting for green cards.”

Are we alone in the universe?

If aliens are smart enough to travel through space, why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on earth?

Best beware of farmer’s markets this coming spring:

I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes.

Gardening Rule to remember when spring does come:

When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.

Advice for elders in any season:

The easiest way to find something lost around the house is to buy a replacement.

More advice for elders:

Never take life seriously. We’re all dead in the long run.

Advice for those who do take life too seriously:

A day without sunshine is like, night.

43.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.

Borrow money from a pessimist. They don’t expect to get it back.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; the steal from many is research.

If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving is not for you.

A Luddite is a person who hates factories and destroys machinery. The name comes from a real person, Ned Ludd, who was an apprentice in Yorkshire, England. In an attack on William Cartright’s mill a follower of Ludd was mortally wounded. A nearby clergyman stooped over him hoping to get names of other confederates. “Can you keep a secret?” the dying man asked. “Yes, I can,” said the clergyman. “So can I,” replied the man as he died.

Sorry, but I can’t resist adding a political gem to this potpourri. This quote is from Arthur Laffer, the supply-side economist Ronald Reagan liked and followed, and the one that progressives scorn and denounce. The quote is from an article titled “How to Fight Black Unemployment.”

“Some people actually believe government can create jobs by taxing and borrowing from people with jobs and then giving that money to people without jobs. They call this demand stimulus. To make matters worse, other people think these demand-stimulus ideas warrant a serious response.”

Happy leap year.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  We decided to extend our January and February sale of Hawkhill DVDs into spring (until Easter to be exact). Dirt cheap still. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate. You have another month to take advantage of the bargains.

Out there and in here

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Feb. 20, 2012

One of my more vivid memories from teaching science was the day in 1957 when we learned the Russians had lofted the first space satellite, Sputnik. Another was five years later, 1962, when the U.S. put our first man in space, John Glenn. Both times we sidelined the physics and chemistry lessons for the day to talk about space and human progress.

I don’t think we had a hint in those days of what was to come. At least I didn’t. I don’t think any of my students and fellow high school teachers did either.

There was a story last month that did not get nearly the international publicity of Sputnik or John Glenn’s flight. In its own way it may be as important.

Russian scientists led the way again as they did with Sputnik. They succeeded in drilling a two-mile hole in the Antarctic ice to reach a fresh water lake the size of Lake Ontario!

It is called Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it. Sputnik was a pioneer out there. Vostok is a pioneer in here. The mysteries and the riches under our oceans, ice, mountains, deserts and plains may turn out to be as surprising as the riches we have found out there—satellites, computers, cell phones and Internet clouds for starters.

Apparently Vostok is only one of at least 280 other fresh water lakes under the immense ice blanket of that frozen continent! American and British teams are drilling to reach some of the smaller lakes, all of them unknown and untouched for twenty million years! It is impossible to imagine how much knowledge about the evolution of life, changes in continents and climate, and … who knows what … is waiting to be discovered in those 280 lakes.

The technical and human details of how the Russians managed to drill through two miles of solid ice are important and interesting. The potential wisdom we may gain in basic science from these ancient lakes is even more important and interesting. And the implications for our natural resource future are as unpredictable and interesting.

The largest supply of fresh water we knew about before Vostok and the 280 lakes discovery was our own Great Lakes. The five Great Lakes today have 5,439 cubic miles of fresh water. That makes up 21% of the world’s total supply. We used to think it was 21%. With this new discovery we will have to revise that figure down substantially.

It obviously would be economically prohibitive (as well as illegal) to think of using any of that huge store of fresh water in Antarctica to help arid regions of the earth in the near future. But in the more distant future—who can say? In the recent past there were schemes proposed to float icebergs from the Arctic to provide safe clean water supplies to dry coastal regions of the U.S., South America, Africa and Asia. Apparently the idea didn’t make economic sense then. If anything the demand for fresh water is even greater today. Floating icebergs may well turn out to be feasible the day after tomorrow.

In the not too distant past remember it was considered implausible to prevent smallpox, to cure infections, to fly across oceans, to air-condition houses, to use automobiles instead of horses to travel, to communicate, control and calculate by wires, radio waves, space satellites and Internet clouds.

Besides fresh water there are also vast mineral and fossil fuel reservoirs in Antarctica, as we know there are in the Arctic. Both the Arctic and the Antarctic once supported lush living ecosystems of tropical plants and animals. There is an international treaty in force now that prohibits any nation or private company from mining in the Antarctic. Apart from the illegality, no doubt it would be also be too expensive in the near future. Just as it would be too expensive to mine the moon or the asteroid belt out there.

Remember though—in the not too distant past it was also considered impossible (in some cases immoral and illegal too!) for humans to prevent smallpox, to cure infections, to fly across oceans, to air-condition houses, to use automobiles instead of horses to travel, to communicate, control and calculate by wires, radio waves, space satellites and Internet clouds.

Some think we should change the very name of Earth to Ocean. The oceans after all cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface. Another potentially rich source of natural wealth that we at present are in near total ignorance of is the depths of the ocean. We do know that there are very strange ecosystems miles below the surface. Ecosystems there obviously do not depend on the sun for their basic energy supply. Where do they get their energy then? We may find these deep-dark ecosystems of interest in our current search for clean energy.

Many today are concerned about peak oil. We know now that there are far greater supplies of oil and gas under all continents and all the oceans than we suspected just a few years ago. Chronically oil-deficient Israel (surrounded by so many oil-rich Arab nations) has just discovered large deposits of natural gas in its coastal waters off their Mediterrean shores. We are just beginning to mine the enormous supplies of natural gas under Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Dakota, Nebraska and Canada.

Remember too—it was only a hundred and fifty years ago that whales were supplying most of the oil used in the U.S. and the world. Virgin forests were supplying most of the building material, as well as most of the energy to run steam engines and heat the homes, factories and mills of the U.S. and the world. The evidence mounts that in natural resources as in so many other things, as my new book claims, we are barely at the dawn, not the twilight of the new era.

We are far richer than we think in natural resources today. And we are far more ignorant today than we acknowledge about the earth, oceans and space. Despite the prophets of doom who continually complain that we are about to run out of resources, we never seem to. Religious doomsayers tell us the world will end soon. So far they have been wrong. They say, “wait till next year.” The scientific doomsayers say when you fall from a fifty-story building and reach the 20th floor you can still say “okay so far.” So far neither batch of doomsayers have proved to have much credibility.

I have told the Chinese proverb on resources before, but I like it so much I will tell it again.

“A peasant must stand on a hillside with his mouth open for a long time before a roast duck flies in.”

For those who stand and wait, resources are scarce. For those who search and work, resources are abundant and full of surprises.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget out January and February sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate. You have only a week and a half more to take advantage of the bargains. None of these programs include news of Lake Vostok but I do have some good ones on Resources.

“It ain’t necessarily so”

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

“It ain’t necessarily so”

George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess has a lot of great songs. One of my favorites is …

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,

Fo’ he made his home in

Dat fish’s abdomen.

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.

It ain’t necessarily so

It ain’t necessarily so

The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble

To read in de Bible,

It ain’t necessarily so.

I’m a bit of a preacher myself. Here are some verses from current secular bibles that ain’t necessarily so.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Not always. True for childhood vaccines and pre-natal care. But many government regulations aimed to prevent troubles cost more than they cure. Lawyers are happy to make prevention still more costly—see asbestos removal, radiation dangers, lead in paint, and preventive medical procedures designed primarily to prevent future time in court rather than cures in the hospital.

Chemicals in foods are bad.

Food is made of chemicals. So are your mouth and your stomach and your brain. I realize that when they hang signs at farmers’ markets that say “NO CHEMICALS,” they mean no laboratory-made chemicals. Organic farmers use only natural chemicals. But these are often as toxic, if not more so, than synthetic ones. If synthetic ones are so bad why not ban aspirin, anesthetics, vaccines, insulin (used to come from cows, now made synthetically in labs), AIDS cocktails, and Gleevec?

The worst poisons come out of chemical factories and laboratories.

Not true. One of the deadliest chemicals known is a natural protein called risin, which is found in castor beans. One of the deadliest poisons is Botulinium Toxin A, a substance produced naturally by bacteria. It is roughly one trillion times as poisonous as cyanide. “A few teaspoons of it in a reservoir could kill an entire city.”

A vegetarian diet is healthier than an omnivorous one.

Maybe. Vegetarians (and vegans) can get enough vitamin B12, amino acids, calcium, etc. but they have to work harder at it than people who eat fish, dairy products and meat. Some studies show advantages to a vegetarian diet but are suspect because they don’t correct for things like gender (women are vegetarians more often than men and women live longer), intelligence (vegetarians on average have higher IQ’s), education (vegetarians on average have more). My wife and I, smart and educated, have been eating an omnivorous diet for 85 years. Okay so far.

Demand is the most important thing for economic growth.

How come when I was in Moscow during the communist days I saw such long lines to buy oranges from Cuba? Visiting Cuba, same thing. A lot of demand, a pathetic supply. No profits means no progress.

Green is the way to go.

Despite its popularity in commercial ads and school curriculums green is not always good. Light green (improving efficiency) is usually good. Dark green is usually not good. Dark green means living simpler in smaller houses, using less energy and fewer resources, traveling less, avoiding big box stores to buy local, going by public transportation instead of private vehicle, moving to a denser urban environment from a sprawling suburban one, driving an electric car (see below). Light green creates wealth and progress. Dark green kills jobs and increases poverty.

Requiring automobiles to get better gas mileage helps save energy and the environment.

Better gas mileage leads people to drive more, with less safety. Turning to electric cars means more pollution from coal-burning power plants.

Wars killed more people in the wars of the 20th century than ever before in history.

Wars of the 20th century killed approximately 35 million people. Not counting war dead, totalitarian nations in the 20th century (mostly communist) killed over 100 million of their own citizens. The Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in the 17th century killed one third of the inhabitants of northern Europe. In hunting/gathering times one out of every three died a violent death at the hands of neighbors.

Genetically altered food is bad for you.

Don’t be a vegetarian then (or an omnivore) since almost all vegetables (all animals too) have been genetically altered for thousands of years. In the distant past our ancestors did the selective breeding old-fashioned ways. Biotech laboratories are doing it more safely today.

Columbus was an evil man because he brought disease and death to native cultures when he “discovered” America.

This is the same argument that condemns many of our founding fathers because they had slaves. It is like saying lions (or Native Americans) are bad because they protected their territories and killed other lions (or members of neighboring tribes) who dared to wander onto their land. That was the way it was done by all predatory animals (including humans) in all eras and on all continents before science, technology and modern Western civilizations made possible economies that were not zero-sum. Columbus, Washington and Jefferson (among others) were leaders in changing these ancient patterns. That they didn’t change all of them at once is not surprising. To condemn them for what didn’t do is unfair.

People before profits.

One of the more idiotic bumper stickers and leftist slogans. If cave women had paid attention they would have never have discovered agriculture. If a couple hundred years ago our ancestors had paid attention we would still be peasants, serfs, or slaves. (More likely, we would never have been born.) If we pay attention today jobs will be sucked down the non-profit sink and the economy will crash.

We are the 99%.

Idiocy on the 99% level.

It’s all about freedom! (slogan of anti-Walker union demonstrators)

Right. The freedom to force the government to collect dues to support a union that denies workers the right to work unless they join the union.

Recall Walker!!! (Wisconsin’s governor is Scott Walker)

Make Wisconsin more like Illinois where their governor just raised taxes 67%. Companies are fleeing, pensions are grossly underfunded, unemployment has increased, debt is going through the roof (Moody’s gave Illinois the worst credit rating of all 50 states), tax revenue is going down despite the increase in tax rates, and schools are suffering more than ever.

Recycling is saving energy and materials.

We aren’t running out of energy and materials. Recycling in factories makes sense because it saves money. Recycling in cities and towns doesn’t make sense because it usually costs more in energy and materials than putting wastes in a landfill. And it wastes still more money when the recycled plastic, metal and paper is such poor quality it is virtually worthless.

High-speed rail will save money, time and our environment.

A recent advocate (Marc Eisen, editor of Isthmus in Madison) claimed it would take only six and a half hours on a comfortable high-speed train to go from Chicago to Minneapolis. (He didn’t mention that it would cost taxpayers a few billion dollars to build and billions more to maintain and subsidize.) Eisen apparently didn’t realize that people today are flying from Chicago to Minneapolis on comfortable jetliners, many flights a day, in one hour and twenty minutes. At no cost to taxpayers.

Buying local will save energy and be good for our wealth and our environment.

Not so. It will mean more expensive food and goods, less variety, less quality, fewer jobs in American factories and farms and more poverty in China, India, Africa and South America. In short, less wealth for everyone everywhere. With less wealth it will mean a poorer environment for everyone everywhere.

The world is overpopulated. The world is more polluted than ever before. We are running out of resources. Inequality of wealth is a terrible thing. Global warming will be the most catastrophic event in the history of the earth.

Check my previous blogs.

It’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you know that ain’t necessarily so.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget out January and February sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain, educate and explain why so many things ain’t necessarily so.

Catherine and George

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Feb. 6, 2012

I got a Kindle for Christmas and am in the middle of my first e-book, Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. Catherine was the Empress of Russia at the same time George Washington became the first President of the United States.

Catherine was born in 1729 and died in 1796. George was born in 1732 and died in 1799. Both led their 67-year-long lives in agricultural-age countries about to enter the modern era. German-born Catherine was the supreme Empress of Russia for 34 years. George served 8 years as elected President of the new country, the United States of America.

Russia in Catherine’s day had around 20 million people. Half of them were serfs, tied to the land and bought and sold like cattle. The U.S. when Washington was President had around 3 million people.  90% were farmers and 20% were enslaved, tied to the land and bought and sold like cattle.

Catherine the Great was very rich. Riches in agricultural societies were measured in gold, land, and workers (serfs, peasants or slaves). Catherine inherited half a million serfs, hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and mountains of gold, silver and diamonds. She was richer than Bill Gates, George Soros, the Koch brothers and Warren Buffett added together.

George Washington was also rich—our richest president—though not in Catherine’s league. Accountants today have estimated his wealth as the equivalent of $525 million in 2010 dollars. Like Catherine his wealth was mostly in land (8000 acres) and slaves (316). Like his rich friend Thomas Jefferson, he was often short of cash. In fact he had to borrow money to attend his own inauguration in New York City in 1789.

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries profoundly influenced both Catherine and George. The French writers Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire were favorites of Catherine. George (along with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers) preferred the English and Scottish sages John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume and Adam Smith. Catherine was an intellectual monarch who read widely. George was an intelligent president but not an intellectual. His genius was in leadership, military campaigns, and administration.

All of the Enlightenment thinkers advised breaking away from ancient regimes inherited from medieval times. They favored science, tolerance in religion and equal justice in society. As Jefferson put it, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Catherine’s teachers Voltaire and Rousseau were not friends of democracy however.

“Why is almost the whole earth governed by monarchs?” Voltaire asked.  “The honest answer is because men are rarely worthy of governing themselves … Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude … I do not like government by the rabble.”

Voltaire believed in a benevolent monarchy, an enlightened autocrat. Catherine was a huge fan of Voltaire and when he was forced out of France she invited him to live and write in her palace in St. Petersburg. He chose Switzerland instead but the two remained avid pen pals for many years.

Rousseau thought there should be a “great leader” who somehow represented the “general will”—a kind of collective anarchy that would satisfy the “social contract.” His ideas were powerful in his day, and they still resonate in ours. (See Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and Occupy Wall Street activists.)

Russia in the 18th century was behind the rest of Europe. Under Catherine the despotism was enlightened and benevolent. Under the Czars after her, Russia lost some benevolence and enlightenment, but increased the despotism. In the 20th century it turned into a totalitarian nightmare under Lenin and Stalin.

Russia’s European neighbors followed similar paths. Prussia (later to expand and become Germany) had an enlightened monarch, Frederick the Great. Frederick gave way to benevolent authoritarians like Bismarck in the 19th century and then to totalitarian ones like Hitler in the 20th century. Austria-Hungary, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, France, Spain, Italy, and Britain were all influenced by the Enlightenment to promote science, distance religion, and (with as assist from Karl Marx) stress benevolence from above for the common man (social democracy).

Some theorists, including me, think this is a major difference today between America (the U.S. and Canada) and Europe. We tend to favor freedom and entrepreneurial achievement. Europe tends to favor equality and social democracy.

The transition from agricultural ages to modernity proceeded at its fastest pace in North America, somewhat slower in Europe. Today it is taking rapid strides in the China and India. Islamic countries in the Middle East are still struggling. Some are trying to recreate the ancient clerically-dominated regimes that Christian countries left behind five hundred years ago.

All agricultural states and communities (including the native American tribes) lived in zero-sum economies where the only way to survive and prosper was to prey on your neighbors. Catherine’s neighbors were powerful countries like Turkey, Prussia, Poland, Austria, Sweden and Denmark—all competing with Russia for land, peasants and gold. Enlightened as she was Catherine could not escape from the patterns of her predecessors. She too led armies against Turkey, Prussia, Austria, Poland, Sweden and others in frequent wars to gain more land, more serfs, more gold and more access to profitable trading routes.

In one of many wars Russian was allied with Prussia and Austria against Poland. After the allies won the war the Prussian ambassador commented to Catherine, “It seems that in Poland one only has to stoop and help oneself.” She answered in a classic zero-sum way, “Why shouldn’t we both take our share?”

Washington too could not escape all of his agricultural age ancestry. His neighbors were Native American tribes. Some had a little agriculture but for the most part tribes in North America were still in the hunting/gathering era with zero-sum economies and limited trade. Like more advanced societies in Europe, Africa and Asia, American tribes fought constantly with each other to get more land, better hunting and gathering grounds, and more security.

Washington’s tribe was no exception. He personally led wars to “help oneself” to the land of the natives. He also looked the other way when ships brought people from Africa to till southern plantation fields as enslaved farmers.

On the progressive side Catherine wrote a great book called the Nakaz: Instruction of Her Imperial Majesty Catherine the Second for the Commission Charged with Preparing a Project of a New Code of Laws. It had 20 chapters and 526 articles. It featured many progressive ideas from the Enlightenment scholar Montesquieu (who also influenced our founding fathers when they wrote the U.S. Constitution). The Nakaz was purely advisory, never meant to be and never enacted into law.

George Washington led a group that wrote and put into practice a new Constitution for the United States. It was much shorter than the Naka and proved to be more practical and revolutionary. It included provisions that the Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith recommended if you wanted to become a wealthy nation—protect private property, enforce contracts and promote free trade.

George’s friend Thomas Jefferson made it more explicit when he wrote, “Agriculture, manufacture, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are most thriving when left free to individual enterprise. A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

This new Constitution brought the best of Enlightenment ideas—free speech, free press and freedom of religion, encouragement of science and commerce, and commitment to pragmatic democracy—into the reality that has made the United States of America the exceptional country and world leader it is today.

George was not as wealthy or as intellectual as Catherine. In the long run he was more successful.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S.  Don’t forget our January and February sale of Hawkhill DVDs. Dirt cheap. $9.50 apiece for programs to entertain and educate.