I Had a Dream…

Like most literates these days I’m watching the political battle unfold over the future status of children who ended up in the United States because their parents decided to come here illegally.  These kids, many of whom are now adults, are known as DREAMers, as much for their dream of being real Americans as for the failed legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would have made their dream a reality.  Dueling Executive orders and a recalcitrant Congress have left them in legal limbo, sitting on a ticking deportation bomb set to blow up their lives in less than six months.  Many Americans seem indifferent to this outcome and many more seem eager for it.

As children we all had dreams.  Let me tell you about one of mine.

I have almost no memories of the first couple of years of my existence, only a few fleeting images that family members helped me pin down to year two or three.  What I do remember is how terribly dependent I was on my mother.  My dad left us shortly after I was born, and I doubt that I have to elaborate on the emotional effects of that.  I don’t doubt that some of those effects manifested themselves in this particular nocturnal excursion that appeared when I was four or five.

In this dream I am alone on a dark, empty street, watching my mother walking resolutely away from me.  I could see her slender form, dimly lit by a fading streetlight, her heels clicking on the pavement.  It was graphic and frightening, one of only two nightmares I can recall from my childhood (the other one involved being treed by elephants in my backyard – a subject for another post).  I couldn’t understand why she would leave me, and I was terrified.  My most overwhelming impulse was to follow her, wherever she was going.  It wasn’t a choice, it was an imperative.

I still remember that dream clearly, 67 years later, and I can’t avoid thinking of it whenever I hear about the DREAMers and their quandary.  Based on my experience as a very dependent child, I have to ask:  What else could these kids do?  Let mother or dad walk away?  Stand alone and watch them disappear into the night?

The answer coming from far-too-large a fraction of the American public makes me wonder what sort of superhuman childhood they must have had.  Were they totally independent by age four?  Did they have the maturity and presence of mind to recognize and correct their parents’ legal missteps, piping up a reprimand from the back seat whenever daddy edged past the speed limit or mamma forgot to put on her seat belt?  Were they all, as pre-adolescents, fluent in US immigration law?  How else to explain their apparent belief that these immigrant children possessed the wherewithal to persuade their parents not to enter the United States illegally or, failing that, to say, “Fine, mom and dad, hit the road.  I’ll be just fine staying right here.”

How these budding Einsteins all grew up to become so hard-headed, unempathic and ultra-susceptable to every bogus anti-immigrant bloviation on the web is beyond my ken.  How wonderful to have been so precocious.  And how unfortunate to have regressed so completely  to the mean.

These supposed savants are focusing their ire on a group of young people who, by and large, represent exactly the type of immigrant that most countries are pining for; smart, well-educated, well-behaved, articulate (most of them probably speak better English than I do) and either primed to contribute to or already contributing to the society in which they were raised.  Many have graduated college with honors in spite of the extra burdens placed on them by their status.  Criminals?  A much lower percentage of DREAMers has had brushes with the law (discounting ICE) than has the general populace.

Our universities and corporations go to great lengths, and considerable expense, to recruit high-quality foreign students and workers.  How does it make sense to toss out the ones we have already educated and assimilated on what surely has to be the most shameful of legal technicalities?  Were they remiss in not coming forward and applying for citizenship?  In reality, all that action would have done is sentence them to 13-odd years in the meat grinder of this country’s capricious and incomprehensible immigration system.  Almost as scary as being treed by elephants.

Anti-immigrant emotions run high and hot these days, threatening to incinerate any attempt at setting a firm, fair policy for dealing with our DREAMers.  But if we let our lesser selves deny these victims the chance to stay in, and contribute to, the only country they have ever known, we deserve to have our sleep disrupted by marauding pachyderms – or worse.

Social Security Changes

I ask that you accept that I’m a day late in my usual posting. My wife of 53 years passed away yesterday. She will, of course, no longer receive Social Security benefits.

Much has been written about when Social Security will run out of funds, and President Trump has taken the position that his policies will bring in more income to the fund based on a more vibrant economy. However, there are some changes that will occur to the program without any government action. First, according to the Motley Fool, is that the “full retirement age” will increase from 66 years and 4 months (an increase of 2 months) because of a law signed into effect in 1983 to account for increasing life expectancies. The second anticipated change is that beneficiaries will receive the largest Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in recent years because of economic data.

The final change is that the “rich” will pay more. All earners are paying Social Security taxes on income from $0.01 to $127,200. Most pay 6.2% of their income while the employer pays an additional 6.2%. Self-employed people pay the entire amount. The Motley Fool predicts that total taxable amount will increase by about 3% to somewhere above $130,000. (Note that the amount extracted from your paycheck is not deductible when you file your federal and state income tax reports!)

A message to all of those who are hoping Trump will fail: If he fails to improve economic conditions, all wage earners will be required to pay more to rescue the Social Security program. Perhaps that outcome is preferable to you when you must pay more to keep benefits from being reduced? For those new to this site, I am not a fan of Trump. However, I don’t understand why doing everything possible to cause his policies to fail is good for the country or you?

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Climate Change

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

My Facebook feed has been abuzz lately with postings from a Progressive friend about climate change. As one might expect, the view from that side of the political street is not looking good.  One particular article put forward the ultra-gloomy contention that human-caused global warming is likely irreversible and most of the world will soon become unfit for human habitation even if we exceed the most ambitious goals proposed in the Paris Accords to curb our carbon emissions.  The crux of the authors’ hypothesis is that present CO2 levels are already so high that vast areas of permafrost in the sub-Arctic are starting to melt.  Permafrost contains huge amounts of methane, a gas with almost ten times the heat retentive capacity of CO2.  Release of even a small portion of this entrained methane will cause a warming feedback loop which will raise global temperatures at an exponential rate, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane.  The result?  Catastrophic warming that may very soon and very quickly progress beyond our ability to slow it down, let alone reverse it.

As is usually the case with climate change literature, the dire outline of the scientific problem is followed by a proposed political solution.  Our slim chance of survival, say the authors, hangs on humanity  suddenly acquiring the wisdom to reject the nationalist, capitalist economic/political model that has landed us in this frying pan and put Big Government in control of, well, everything.  The Ship of State needs to make a sharp turn, and we mean right now!

Hmm!  Putting aside the obvious inconvenience that ships, especially the State variety, are seldom capable of sharp turns no matter how urgent the need, what exactly would this course correction look like?  A possible answer comes from another Facebook post, from the same source.  It linked to a group calling itself The Climate Mobilization.  Their stated goal: To transition the US to 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years, by whatever means necessary.  I paid a visit to their website for a look at these  “means” and found they are right out of the Radical’s Handbook; boycotting and blockading businesses and whole industries, general strikes, massive protests and other “non-violent interventions”.  Their timetable warns of their intention to “escalate until we win!”  Does this sound like anarchy itching to be unleashed?  I thought the idea was to turn the Ship, not sink it. Continue reading

When Morals and Markets Align, Worlds Move

WindFarm_Fluvanna_2004Life’s too short to constantly revisit decisions made long ago, and it’s easy to root for your favorite team or stick with familiar – comfortable – old enemies.

It’s been noted before that people know some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and tainted. You don’t need a steeple-topped building to figure this out- we each have a spiritual side.

Unfortunately, we don’t all agree on what that means in practice, and it’s easy to label others as misguided, evil, “them.” Even when people do agree, it can be hard to sacrifice today for a (possible) improvement tomorrow. “You should” is always a hard argument to win.

Which is why this recent nationalgeographic article is so encouraging.

Falling prices for renewable [energy] and a growing sustainability movement from the bottom up have changed the global picture…

Solar and wind are now so competitive that they are crowding out coal in many countries. In the U.S., electric generation from coal dropped by more than half in the last decade. Utility scale solar, meanwhile, rose 5,000 percent during that same period… The pace is quickening because the transition is now driven by economics.

Government support, including tax incentives, helped get the ball rolling, but the market is taking over. Government still plays a role – California, for example, is pushing for electric cars and paying to retrofit buildings to be more energy-efficient, while demonstrating that curbing greenhouse gases doesn’t bust the economy.

But from China to India to Texas, people are discovering renewable energy is economically sound. It doesn’t matter if you’re Red or Blue when the Green makes sense.

Falling prices of renewable energy have dramatically improved the global outlook. Just two years ago in Paris, the world’s top two polluters outside the U.S. insisted they’d need lots more coal. That was especially true in India.

Today, entire regions across India are seeking 100 percent renewable power. India’s new plans for meeting future energy needs now call for far fewer coal-fired plants. China, too…

[America] withdrawing from the world stage on climate could also cede new markets, industries, and leadership on everything from international trade to geopolitics to China. That could be costly.

I believe that cutting pollution and greenhouse gases, and preparing mitigations for the changes already underway, are the right things to do for posterity. How wonderful if they become the right thing to do for me today.

And for you.

Driverless Cars? Not So Fast

Driverless cars (DCs).  The concept is everywhere these days, and according to many futurists the actual cars soon will be, too.  Every tech outfit worth mentioning has a finger or two in the DC pie and several big-name consortiums already have prototypes rolling.  A few cities have okayed test programs, and Colorado legislators, ever alert to the chance to lure more technology dollars to the state, are proposing a friendly set of regulations designed to make our admittedly deteriorating roads more attractive to robot rides.  A bill being considered in the legislature would set state standards for testing of DCs and preempt Colorado cities from enacting more restrictive rules (Boulder, for example, is rumored to favor allowing only electric vehicles; each powered, one might suppose, by its own wind turbine).  The most optimistic press releases have the technology highway-ready in five years or less.

As a lifelong technophile, I’m usually excited about this kind of forward leap.  But as a pragmatic Dilbert-type, experience has taught me to be skeptical of anyone touting some revolutionary breakthrough that will forever change the way we get around.  After all, I’m still waiting for my flying car.  So let’s take a clear-headed look at the promise of the DC.

State Sen.Owen Hill is one of the sponsors of the Colorado DC initiative.  In a recent interview, Hill hyped the safety angle of going driverless, allowing that DCs could prevent nearly all of the 40,000 highway deaths that occur each year by “removing  human error” from the equation.  This kind of statement could only come from someone blithely ignorant of the level of complication involved in building such a system, one created, initiated – and debugged – by humans.  The human error factor won’t be eliminated.  It will only be moved to another part of the process.  And humans, at least when it comes to driving, are a lot more capable that we get credit for.  Navigating an automobile through the real world is an extremely complex and variable undertaking, but 99% of human drivers handle it well 99% of the time.  The explanation for that is our ability to learn from experience.  Every mile we drive adds to our experiential library, and we have the unique ability to not just remember events but to absorb and reconstitute them to meet and deal with new, unprecedented situations.  It’s called intelligence.  We have it.  Computers, at least for the moment, do not.

So what is called for in the DC is AI.  Yep, artificial intelligence: the Holy Grail of technology, enabling a computer to do what 16-year-olds with learner’s permits have been doing since the 1920’s.  When we drive a car, we (most of us, at any rate) think and reason.  Computers in DCs execute their programming.  Staying in a lane, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead, stopping at red lights (a novel concept), avoiding old ladies walking their Pomeranians, all these actions are relatively easy to program.  Experienced drivers do them reflexively, often while texting, digging a Tic Tac from between the seat cushions, yelling at the kids or applying mascara.  But sooner or later a situation will arrive that demands who or whatever is in control of a vehicle to make a split-second decision based on maybe 10 data variables.  If the programmers have missed even one of these, tragedy will ensue.  A human driver is equipped to take in all 10 and respond effectively.  Computers are not there yet.

Continue reading

Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.