Saturday, May 30, 2015

Obama still approves coal leases on public lands, whatever climate change

Vox is reporting that the Obama administration has opened a lot more public lands to coal mining, contradicting its concerns with climate change.  We’ve covered mountaintop removal extensively here before, but the latest concerns are with lands in Wyoming and North Dakota.   The link is here

The US benefits from much less dependence on foreign (outside North America) sources of energy, especially in a national security sense.  On the other hand, the issues with fracking and emissions continue.  The Pickens Plan, of use of natural gas, seems to be going into effect.   
"Deckers coal mine in Montana" by Photograph by R. B. Taylor, U.S. Geological Survey, public domain, Wikipedia attribution link here , my most recent visits in 1994 and then 1998.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bill Nye stirs up controversy about climate change and Texas floods

Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”, has stirred controversy saying that the huge flooding in Texas is the result of man-made climate change.  Salon has a piece on him here 

A vacuum cleaner of persistent low pressure, associated with a dip in the jet stream, has helped fuel relentless storms.  As the soil is more saturated, more water evaporates and becoming fuel for more big storms.  The geography of the Hill Country (a very scenic area) tends to funnel water quickly into narrow streams that converge (even more so than in Appalachian areas).  Bayous in Houston can overflow because of overbuilding and concrete. 

Dallas, where I lived from 1979-1988, is, I hope, more resilient.  But my last three years, I was in a condo a half mile from a stream that has overflowed since I left (in Pleasant Grove – I was on Lake June Road).  The Trinity River is enclosed by flood walls, which I have seen close to full, and there used to be low income housing in the flats – don’t know if it is still there.   In the summer, we usually had extreme drought, with three months without a drop of rain.  There was one close call with a tornado in December 1987.  Large tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were not as frequent as farther north in Oklahoma.  But an unusual microburst from a thunderstorm (more common in the mid-Atlantic, a kind of mini derecho) contributed to a big Delta plane crash in August 1985 at DFW. 

The flooding in Houston and the Hill Country has destroyed hundreds of homes, but I don’t think it is close to the scale of Katrina.  I hope the homeowners had bought separate flood insurance.  Otherwise, they will be needing handouts, or start over. 

After Katrina, I volunteered at a Red Cross call center in Falls Church occasionally for a few weeks (in September 2005), but there was little we could do in most cases but refer people to FEMA.  Some people were housed as far north as Washington and Baltimore.  I don’t know it is likely this time. 

The insurance industry says that 25% of flood clams come from homes not on flood plains or in coastal areas or river valleys.  If you are within 50 feet of elevation of any stream, you need to consider flood insurance.  If you want to live in NYC, you’re safer north of 34th St, or in the northern half of Brooklyn or in most of Queens.  (The city is lower than most people realize when visiting it.)

Another risk can be a buried stream, following a civil engineering practice done in many areas even back in the 1940s.  You may not know about it.  There is one near where I live, and it has never ruptured in 65 years, even with hurricanes like Agnes in 1972, or Isabel in 2003 or Sandy in 2012 (which did very little damage in the immediate area).  But there is always a first time.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Minimum wage workers make less than half of what is needed for a one-bedroom apt in many places

In no state can someone who works for minimum wage qualify for a one-bedroom apartment on his or her own, as a Vox Media map (article by Ezra Klein), link here
The best state in this regard seems to be Montana, where it would take 54 hours. 
The rule of thumb used to be, you have to make in a week what your rent is a month (gross).  That seemed to be OK when I was working.  But you generally had to be a “salaried professional” if young to be in this category.
On my first job with RCA in 1970, my rent near Hightstown, NJ was $165 (one bedroom, ample, garden) and my salary was $13,800.  By the time I moved to NYC in the fall of 1974, my rent for a studio in the Cast Iron Building was $270 and salary was $16,500 at NBC.  It was comfortable enough.  The apartment was a studio, but the odd trapezoidal shape helped extend the shelf wall space and provide a little sleeping alcove.  I still kept an entire classical record LP collection in the place.   
Now, people are settling for 200 sq ft apartments to live in Manhattan.  Murphy beds help.
Generally, in Arlington, young adults often rent “group homes” with about four people in an older house, each with a room.  There is some advantage to this arrangement;  usually someone is home, and that makes belongings more secure.
I understand the call for the $15 minimum wage.  Home health workers really have issues.  But after my end-of-2001 layoff, I went back to $6 an hour plus commissions.  But I had savings, unemployment, severance, various components of a cushion (and no debt), so I could continue my same “lifestyle”.

Here’s another important topic, homeowner’s insurance and renter’s insurance, which some apartment complexes actually require (and sometimes provide referrals for), link here. Many people don’t have (adequate) separate flood, earthquake and sinkhole insurance, which they need (and for which the need for is getting more unpredictable, with climate change, huge storms, and even fracking).  Flood insurance has to be a big issue in Texas now.  As with auto insurance (mostly for liability), there is the idea of umbrella insurance, on top of it, which might get difficult to underwrite properly in the Internet world (like for the issues posed by "review sites"), link

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Concerns about Yellowstone supervolcano increase recently

CNN has issued a few videos warning that the magma chamber (which is quite deep, maybe extending hundreds of miles into the Earth) underneath Yellowstone, could be getting closer to exploding as a supervolcano, which would, at the very least, spread ash over half of the US.  The latest video is here.

There are reports that springs are getting even hotter, and some levels are changing.  Small earthquakes are common.
I was in Yellowstone myself in May 1981. I did walk among the hot springs on a cloudy, cool day. 
In October 1998, I went on an Outwoods hike 30 miles from Minneapolis, where a U of M geology professor warned that a supervolcano eruption was already getting more likely.

The last such eruption happened 640,000 years ago.  There is an eruption about every 700,000 years, and subsequent eruptions have moved farther East.  This would tend to make the next eruption in northern Wyoming and southern Montana, perhaps. 
A cloud from a supervolcano could oppose global warming for several years.
Dutchsinse has been warning of this possibility on his YouTube videos and Facebook page. Media reports indicate that the Park Service has closed trails because of weather and bear behavior, but many believes the Park Service isn't "telling the truth".  There are a lot of comments on Facebook right now. 

What would happen with “refugees” from such an Event?  Would the rest of us house them (with “radical hospitality”)?
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Mammoth Hot Springs by Brocken Ingalory, Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike License. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

The teen brain isn't fully grown until age 25: what about prodigies?

Scientific American has a big article, by Jay N. Giedd, about the “teen brain” or adolescent brain, which is recommended reading, in the May 2015 issue, link (paywall) here. This article seems to update an early piece back in 2007.  Related is a New York Times piece, "Challenge highly talented children", by Camilia P. Benbow, May 20, here. 
Evolution has provided humans a complicated and cyclical brain growth and “pruning” process.  The latter, which starts in late childhood, allows the brain to focus on its particular gifts and skills so that the person can become as individually effective in a social group as possible.  But adolescence, especially for males, involves an uneven process involving risk taking, adventure, and only later learning to evaluate harm and (as Der. Phil says) “see around corners.”  That becomes particularly significant with online behavior, since teenagers can’t possibly grasp the long-term consequences in the adult world of some reckless social media posts.   
Girls seem to mature sooner than boys, but with prodigies, the appearance of gifts seems to disregard gender, race, sexual orientation, and everything else.  Consider Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Andraka, but then consider Taylor Swift.  (OK, add Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to the history.)   But is a teen prodigy able to develop a cancer test or a social media platform able to see the long term consequences better than average?  Probably, yes.  There’s some evidence that Mark Zuckerberg did understand the implications of user-generated content on the Internet as early as when he was a freshman at Harvard.  Ironically, he would have learned about the controversy over military recruiting on campus at the time over the now repealed “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and what that would mean online.  
Generally, male prodigies are not behind norms in physical strength and fitness.  I wonder if I missed being a music prodigy because, ironically, my own brain started pruning normal male physical skills too early.  Sometimes, prodigies (especially men) do demonstrate very mild autism spectrum or Asperger’s (and seem distant from more typical social connections and bonding), which they learn to deal with socially “in their own way”, leading to unusual innovations.  On the other hand, many young males, especially in disadvantaged backgrounds, never learn to "think ahead" and "connect the dots" for their own best interest at all. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"The Sub II": substitute teacher in Maryland gets very overzealous with discipline

A substitute teacher in Prince George’s County MD is accused of hitting six grade students with a belt, and there is video, as on Fox, which went viral, link  It’s not clear if he will be prosecuted.
Sixth grade is normally the youngest grade in middle school, at age 11 often. When I grew up, “junior high” started at 12.  As I’ve related on these blogs before, I had a lot of issues with discipline of younger students, or those from low-income or non-English backgrounds.   But my issues seem to be less common among substitute teachers than the opposite, which is over-zealous discipline. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Supreme Court KO's Maryland's "double taxation"; IRS abuses "civil asset forfeiture", as with a case of a NC convenience store owner

The Supreme Court has just ruled a portion of Maryland’s “double taxation” scheme in the case of Maryland v. Wynne, with slip opinion here. Maryland did not allow a deduction for taxes paid to other states for income earned in other states in the “piggyback” portion of its income tax paid in 23 counties and the city of Baltimore.  Generally, this tax makes local income taxes higher in the Maryland suburbs than in the Virginia sububrs of Washington DC. The Washington Post has a story by Bill Turque here

In another story about taxes, the IRS has sometimes seized assets of taxpayers who it believes are trying to circumvent reporting requirements by dividing their deposits into smaller amounts so they aren’t individually reported.  The Washington Post story is by Christopher Ingram, here. The DOJ says that this is a civil seizure of property not requiring a criminal charge.  Litigation may be prohibitively expensive, and sometimes the IRS makes deals to keep some of the money without litigation (“extortion”).  The particular case had to do with North Carolina businessman Lyndon McClellan, who owns L&M Convenience Mart in Fairmont.  Much of his business is cash.
In my own circumstances, with an estate, it is very difficult to keep track of some pieces of income and know what is reportable. 
I think that the IRS should send taxpayers of copy of what it has received reports on.  That would make a checklist that automated software programs (HR Block, RurboTax) could check   I have no problem with paying taxes on legitimate earnings according to the law, but it is very difficult to determine how some items should be handled, even with a tax preparer. 
In 2008 and 2009 (while Mother was still alive), there was a lot of “pressure” on me to learn to become a tax preparer.  This is not my course in life, but I can see the argument.  In my position, I have a responsibility to “know”.
Police seizures of cash from motorists are another aspect of the civil asset forfeiture problem.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Do churches really serve the poor?

“Do churches fail the poor?”  That’s a Sunday morning op-ed by Ross Douthat in the New York Times Sunday Review, p. A 11, link here. There’s a related op-ed by Peter Manseau, that lack of formal religious affiliation doesn’t mean lack of faith (p. 4).
Yesterday, I did volunteer at the monthly Community Assistance at a local church (similar to March 21).  I didn’t do a lot; I sat at a clothing room entryway and handed out the plastic bags (hope they don’t wind up on the Anacostia).  The number of people making the trip was lower this time, because the allowance was lower, given some budget issues. 

As the pastor admits, this monthly "organized chaos" is controversial in the neighborhood with some people.
It actually takes a lot to “be in the loop” as a regular volunteer anyway.  Hit-or-miss isn’t all that effective, and I have my own projects.  There’s setup, there’s paperwork, there’s administration, there’s manual labor and lifting, and there’s an interpersonal aspect.

Really, how should one interact, if at all, with a street panhandler with his or her repeated chant? We do have a culture that drops a lot of people on the floor.

The Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance now supports the Arlington Food Assistance Center with volunteers. There is a tendency for many needing food to be obese, so it seems as though the quality of food matters (like community gardens would help). 
The book “The Great Divide”, by Canadian William R. Gairdner, reviewed on my books blog Friday, seems relevant. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Vox warns that global warming is getting worse quickly; libertarians wonder about their property rights and climate change

Vox Media has upped the ante in the global warming debate with a story by David Roberts, about an “awful truth nobody wants to talk about”, link here.  Vox writes that we will have to reduce emissions to almost zero eventually and take carbon out of the air.  There are plenty of line graphs to illustrate.  This is an AP differential calculus lesson;  the rate of increase is itself an issue. 
Some libertarians (two articles, one and two) are beginning to see that paying attention to climate change makes sense because of the importance of property rights.  Some coastal properties could become worthless as sea levels rise. This could become a big financial issue.  I’m told that high-end condo buildings in south Florida are built to withstand Category 4 hurricanes now.  But that doesn’t cover land under water.  But national security in general would affect property rights.  A radiation dispersion device could be motivated by an idea of making land worthless and creating economic chaos.
There’s a lot of attention to little things, like planting trees.  But I don’t want big trees next to houses when they can fall on them.  There’s a lot of attention to lifestyle habits, like instant mobility. That’s not quite so critical in a lot of jobs where telecommuting is possible, except that the later raises new cybersecurity issues,  But climate change is getting serious, and it's hard to believe that the Baby Boomers can "get away with it." 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Four Quarters Interfaith, sustainable community in southern PA, a quick visit today

Today, I made another quick visit to an intentional community,  This one is called Four Quarters, and it is located in southern Pennsylvania, about four miles from the Maryland Line, off PA 26.  You access it from Exit 68 on I-68 in Maryland, Orleans Road, which goes East on US-40 for a little and then turns north into PA.  You make the first major turn off 26, and then turn a sharp left along a one lane gravel road that becomes a very gutted clay road, requiring a 4-wheel drive or else very slow driving, for a few hundred more yards.

The Washington Post has a big story May 6 by Nicole Crowder.  A Facebook friend had shared it.
Unlike Twin Oaks and Acorn in Virginia, this one does follow a religious practice.  The group’s own site is here

The 250-acre spread has a variety of farm and simple residence buildings, and appears less structured than perhaps Twin Oaks.  I was greeted by a most sentient dog.  


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Homeless could live in vacant homes in many cities, but building contractors would have be prodded to do the heavy lifting

The Washington Post, in an article by Terrence McCoy, notes that Baltimore has 16,000 vacant homes, and asks why the homeless can’t be allowed to move in.  The article is here
Of course, there would have to be an effort to rehab them and bring them up to code, make them safe enough, get electricity and plumbing working, get rid of lead paint and asbestos (particularly). Who would do the work?  Volunteers?  Perspective homeowners by sweat equity?  Habitat for Humanity?
Particularly with toxin abatement, it sounds like the effort would need professional builders and contractors (and abatement is labor-intensive and expensive). Still, this sounds like an effort for which funds could be raised.  But it’s a lot more than a Kickstarter or GoFundMe.  It would take political will.
The same issue could obviously be raised in most cities. How about Detroit?
Other questions about how to help the homeless come up, as with the Community Assistance program I discussed before (March 21).  How to communicate when approached.  Should the more “fortunate” (or inheritors of an estate) be expected to personally house people?  Possible question. A corporate solution like in the newspaper story sounds easier,  You don’t have to “walk the walk”.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

There was some damage from riots in Baltimore's classy Mount Vernon area

I made one more day jaunt to Baltimore Sunday for the Maryland Film Festival.

I talked to some more businesses, who lost income from the curfew last weekend.  I had brunch at Mount Vernon Stables om Charles St., and the manager said they had business interruption insurance, it had to close around 9 PM Friday and Saturday nights.  The gay clubs a few blocks north also lost a lot of business (today, LGBT blog).

The Baltimore gay paper “Baltimore Outloud” has a detailed story on the damage to some businesses in the Mount Vernon area, generally South and West of the Washington Monument.  The area right around the gay bars was not affected.

But some businesses along W. Centre Street, near the Walters Art Museum were damaged (like the 7-11), although many have done full repairs already.

There was more damage along Read Street, west from Cathedral to Howard. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Baltimore, somewhat quiet today, but why is a volunteer center burned down?

I did a follow-up visit of Baltimore today, to attend the Maryland Film Festival (see Movies blog).
I wasn’t aware of the peaceful demonstrations in NW Baltimore.  But I did find the City Hall by car – it’s easy to see from the end of I-83, but is obscured by a lot of building when you’re on the side streets.  Ironically, it’s easy to get to from “Gay Street”.  The War Memorial is across the street.

Near City Hall, a volunteer center seems to have burned down.

I drove past the old "Block" from the 1960s, mentioned early in my novel. 

There’s bit of a problem in how some people on the streets behave around motorists, walking almost in front of them when the motorist has a green light.  No, that’s not the way to prove that “black lives matter”. 

Michael Smerconish of CNN discusses a Harvard study showing where you grow up affects how much you earn, especially for minority or lower income families.

There is a lot of talk about this, as in a Vox piece by Michael Yglesias, about moving poor kids’ parents to better neighborhoods.  That’s because the well-off won’t come into an area and walk in someone else’s shoes – they’ll raze a neighborhood and gentrify it for themselves. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

CDC becomes more concerned about true bird flu (only avian) in the Midwest; Ebola virus recurs in the eyes of some recovered patients

Vox media has a major story about the bird flu epidemic, just among birds for now, in the upper Midwest, by Julia Belluz, link here. The outbreak appears to affect both domestic poultry and some wild birds, but not mammals yet. 
Three viruses (H5N1, H5H2, H5N8 have occurred in 18 states and two Canadian provinces.  So far, these have not affected humans, and are somewhat different from H5 viruses in Asia (which also has H7N9). A jump to humans could occur through an intermediate host, like a pig (“Babe”), or through slow mutation.

CDC is concerned about this, but we don’t seem to have a lot of work going on to develop H5 vaccines for people. 

Update: May 8

There are cases of people who recover from Ebola developing eye symptoms from residual virus hiding in the eye fluids.  It does not seem transmissible.  CNN story about Ian Crozier is here

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Would the GOP really embrace a so-called "Fair Tax"?

Yesterday, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (not Kansas) ruffled some feathers in his candidacy announcement speech.  He talked about the dire threats of EMP and cyberterror in the same sentence, practically, as gay marriage and the demonization of Christianity (and not just by Islam). 
But he is also credited with promoting the Fair Consumption tax (or Fair Tax”, here, mentioned in a Washington Post editorial Wednesday morning here.
A Fair Consumption Tax would tax income after income you have saved is taken out.  Income you take out of savings would be put back in.  Tim Worstall explains the process in an article in Forbes in March 2014, link here  and notes the support of “progressive” business leaders like Bill Gates. It seems that we have some elements of that concept today, with tax-deferred 401(k)’s and IRA’s.
It’s a fair question, how this applies to retirees (me), who are in a “spend” mode.  It’s too bad that after about age 60 many find it hard to make a living without turning to hucksterism – and promoting superficial consumption by others.
I can remember, though, radical thought, back in the early 1970s, like from the Peoples Party of New Jersey, that the only “fair tax” is a “single tax” and that had to be an income tax.  I would wonder, why not an accumulated wealth tax, if you’re really in the mood for revolutionary expropriation?
On the other hand, Larry Browne’s mantra with the Libertarian Party back in the 1990s was, “end the income tax and replace it with nothing.”

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

More on the baby bust among the "better off"; employers get creative with paid maternity leave

Catherine Rampelll weighs in in the Washington Post on Tuesday May 5, 2015, “The specter of a new baby bust”, p. A15,   but online it seems directed at retirees (for whom I have a separate blog, where I talk about the Social Security and pension issues a lot), “Bad news for older folks: Millennials are having fewer babies”, link here.
People (especially minorities) are having fewer babies out of wedlock, and teen pregnancy is down.  All of this sounds good. But young adults, saddled with college debt, are waiting to have children. Many young couples say they want larger families but can’t afford them and so won’t have them.  The gay marriage debate becomes relevant. A few gay couples may say they want to try surrogate parenting, which is problematic, and others may say they are ready to adopt unwanted children, which is necessary.
The consider this New York Times story, Sunday Business, by Noam Scheiber, “A law firm that lets parents be parents”, talking about the Geller Law Group, a six-woman law firm in northern Virginia. The firm uses a “virtual office” concept and encourages telecommuting and working from home, and is trying to use short term disability insurance creatively to offer paid maternity leave when it becomes necessary.  The article really does lay out the challenges for professionals – especially women – who don’t want to have to “outsource” all of their parental responsibilities. The link is here 

In the 1990s, I began to notice in my own career the tension between those who had “chosen” parenthood and all of its responsibilities, and the childless, with disposable income.  At the time, “gay” was still a proxy for “single and childless”, a notion that has since evaporated.  But in earlier decades (especially during the Reagan years, with all the threats of hostile takeovers), there had been less tension.  Employers had simply expected everyone to do his or her own job, all the time. 

Update: May 10

The New York Times has an article in "The Upshot", "demographic divide", titled "Single motherhood, in decline over all, rises for women 35 and older", link here

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sermon today recalls the sacrifices associated with conscription in the past (especially triage and deferments)

Today, a sermon at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC by guest Dr. James Langley (“It was for Me, the Bitter Tree”) conveyed a story about military service that touches on the concerns over sacrifice that I have presented before.
Langley was apparently born around 1924 and tried to enlist in the Navy around 1943.  He was turned down medically, but drafted into the Army anyway shortly thereafter.  That was possible then.  After Basic, he got a special training assignment at MIT, but eventually wound up in a medical-related duty station at Fort Jackson, SC, which is where I took Army Basic Combat Training myself in 1968. There he met a particular officer named Kaufman, with a headstrong personality.
He was soon shipped to England, and his command drew up a list as to how men would be deployed for the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944, after D-Day.  There was a triage system where unmarried men, or men without children, or under 21, were more likely to be sent into the most dangerous area of combat.  Again, this plays into the theme that I have often written about, where the unmarried or childless are expected to be the first to sacrifice (in connection with today’s gay marriage debate).
He got orders to go into combat himself, but at the last minute, Kaufman was sent instead. This was seen as dicey because Kaufman was a Jew, more likely to be exposed to capture by the Nazis.  (By the way, as I recall, this theme comes up in a 2002 short film called “The Retreat”, filmed in Minnesota, which I actually auditioned for in January 2002.)  Langley then got to the point of the sermon, of Jesus himself being a Jew making the supreme sacrifice for everyone.
Langley read from a poem he had authored, I believed titled “Torment, Mystery, Reality”.  (Related post, April 23.) 

Friday, May 01, 2015

Baltimore situation proves a challenge to libertarians

Danielle Allen has a disturbing op-ed on p. A19 of the Washington Post today, “Land of the free?  Don’t be so sure”, are online, titled more bluntly “Why the dispossessed riot”, link here

The article takes exception to the “libertarian” conception of liberty, as emphasizing spontaneous order and freedom to contract, the way the Cato Institute puts it. Her characterization of natural liberty is a lot wordier, before she comes to discuss “civic liberty”, which she connects to equality and group-influenced democratic decisions.  Her reasoning is driven by rapidly increasing wealth and income inequality, driven by regulation but also a lingering but inherited effect of legacy history (segregation), and which she thinks has re-ignited racial and class tensions, which should be diminishing now decades after the Civil Rights movement.

Libertarians, especially Charles Murray and to a lesser extent David Boaz, have been noting that people really do need intact social structures, and as individualism increases, don’t always offer “hands up” to others (through civic association as people like Murray and even Santorum have described it) in a manner now necessary.
Media has covered the rapid charging of six police officers, and then of curfew violations Friday night in Baltimore.  Let’s end this curfew as soon as possible.