Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Planet on the Precipice With Explosive Sub-Sea Permafrost Melting

The Geophysical Institute (center)  at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks,  (taken by me in March, 2005 - all rights reserved)

While I was at the Geophysical Institute at Fairbanks in 1986, one of the biggest discoveries made was by climatologist Dr. Gunter Weller, of the Atmospheric Sciences Dept. He found, using ice core analysis from cores obtained in Alaska and other polar regions, that ambient air temperatures had increased nearly 7 F in just a few decades and that Alaska was warming much faster than the lower 48.  Barely three years later Weller was featured on a CNN spot highlighting his discovery and also an imminent Siberian blast making its way toward the lower 48. (Weller noted the "Siberian blast' was an aberration to his general findings).

Now, new research shows massive leaks of methane gas from the Arctic Ocean with the potential to turn climate change to an even more catastrophic scenario.  (Note: Ounce for ounce, methane has an effect on global warming more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide ).

In an article which appeared last Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience, the authors state that the Arctic Ocean is releasing methane at a rate more than twice what existing scientific models predict.  Natalie Shakhova and Igor Semiletov at the University of Alaska- Fairbanks' International Arctic Research Center - after a decade spent researching the Arctic's greenhouse gas emissions- have found this unexpected result.

Shakhova, the lead author of the report, said the methane release rate is likely even greater than their paper describes.  In an interview describing the work in The Fairbanks News Miner, she said:

" We decided to be as conservative as possible. We’re actually talking the top of the iceberg.” 

This means there's probably a lot left below and that's the part we ought to all be concerned about.

The researchers focused on the continental shelf off the northern coast of eastern Russia - the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Underlying this region is sub -sea permafrost, similar in many ways to the subsurface permafrost I observed melting in and around Fairbanks in 2005, when Janice and I visited to do some auroral observing, dog sledding, and taking a small plane to Mount Denali.

In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, it existed as dry land until roughly 7- 15,000 years ago, when it flooded and became part of the Arctic Ocean. During its period as dry land, the shelf developed  a layer of permafrost that is now in danger of melting and releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

When visiting the Geophysical Institute in 2005 several climate scientists we spoke to told us they were much more worried about the impact of methane on the global climate system, than CO2.  This isn't surprising given earlier studies have shown that the boreal, forested dry land covering much of the world's Arctic and sub-Arctic contain more than 30 percent of the planet's stored carbon. This is mainly in the form of  stored CO2.

In addition, one has permafrost bearing methane. When the permafrost melts, the methane can be released. For example, the submerged East Siberian Arctic Shelf contains much of the same stored carbon as the dry tundra to the south but also at least 17 teragrams of methane. (One teragram is equal to one million tons).

The vast carbon stores in the Arctic are also protected by the layer of sub-sea permafrost, but the new research shows it's in danger of disappearing.   Core samples taken of the sub-sea permafrost by  Shakhova et al show now the temperatures are near the freezing mark (30-32F)  Meanwhile, both the top and lower levels of sediment have already thawed. (Some climate modelers had previously suggested this wouldn't happen for five to seven thousand years.)

Shakhova adds:

"What we’re observing right now is much faster than what we anticipated and much faster than what was modeled,”

Is there cause for worry? Shakhova replies: "Absolutely!"

She also says we need to study, but to me - the time for study is over. We need to press the politicians to take action before we're all for the high jump.

The consensus carbon budget estimates that more than half of carbon emissions are human-caused, but these estimates vastly underestimate the amount of carbon stored in the Arctic shelves,

According to Shakhova:

“I believe strongly the Arctic sources are understated and need to be paid more attention,”

What is even more sobering is that the UAF researchers found that the Arctic methane release creates a positive feedback loop: As temperatures increase, more methane is released, and as more methane is released the temperatures increase. In addition, the UAF researchers found an increase in Pacific storms the past decade and that these storms actually also increase methane release. (Much the same way as shaking a soda causes the carbonation to rise.)

But as much as the rest of the planet has to worry, the Arctic has most to lose. Shakhova again:

"When something is warming, when warming occurs, what, do you think, part of the globe will be affected first?  The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. ... This is what affects the number of cyclones. This is what affects the sea ice, which is shrinking.”

Which is similar to what Gunter Weller found in terms of the land-based permafrost melting when he did his own studies nearly thirty years ago. The difference now is that we're entering into a phase of climate criticality that I doubt Weller could have envisaged would arrive as fast as it has.

Friday, November 29, 2013

ISON Meets Its End With Close Solar Passage

Space Thanksgiving
Probably one of the last decent photos of ISON  (left) taken on Nov. 25 by NASA's Stereo-A spacecraft as it approaches the Sun. Alas, ordinary naked eye viewers will miss out on what had been billed as a big cosmic show.

Well, the news is now in that Comet ISON will not be any "comet of the century" or any comet that can be seen at all, as had been hoped by many amateur astronomers and ordinary sky gazers. In that respect it appears the "pessimists" take has proven correct and ISON was over-hyped, perhaps because so many of us (stung by Halley's 1986 fuzz out) were feeling like we deserved better cosmic karma.

While NASA scientists, like Michelle Thaller yesterday, expected ISON to re-emerge from a slingshot around the Sun, they are now prepared to admit the Sun got the last laugh - and all that came out at the end of the perihelion pass was a meager trail of dust.  According to U.S. Naval Observatory solar researcher Karl Battams:

"It does seem like Comet ISON probably hasn't survived this journey."

Well, I more or less expected it as the estimates of ISON's nucleus diameter diminished - from several miles across to a factor 6 -7 less in the most recent assessments (The comet was two-thirds of a mile wide as it got within 1 million miles ). The decreased nucleus size meant much lower margin for error in making the perihelion pass. (Though some astronomers don't think nucleus size has anything to do with it since Comet Lovejoy's nucleus was 10 times smaller but it survived solar passage only to break up a few days later. But bear in mind Lovejoy approached 0.002c in slingshot speed by virtue of passing much closer, about 135,000 km, compared to ISON's 1.2 million km. So, the much higher velocity may have been the factor that spared Lovejoy).

This take of ISON's obliteration is pretty solid. Based on its dynamics, slingshot velocity etc. ISON was expected to show up in images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft at around noon eastern time (1700 GMT) yesterday, but almost four hours later there was "no sign of it whatsoever" according to NASA solar physicist Alex Young.

Young suggested that:

"Maybe over the last couple of days it's been breaking up,"

Adding:  "The nucleus could have been gone a day or so ago."

Which seems about right.

Meanwhile, images from other spacecraft showed a light streak continuing past the sun, but Young said that was most likely a trail of dust continuing in the comet's trajectory.

"The comet itself is definitely gone, but it looks like there is a trail of debris," Young  told the AP.

This morning as I went out speed walking at 6.30 a.m. local time I did see what appeared to be a 2-3 degree long 'trail' perhaps 5 degrees above the rising Sun. It looked almost like a short bright jet contrail but jets don't travel that direction in our locale. At the same time, I didn't think it could have been ISON, the brightness (I estimated -4) was too high. Later, I read the news reports of ISON's demise.

Oh well, we will have to await another comet to really make up for this bummer. At the same time, solar physicists ought to still be able to extract useful information on the solar wind as I noted two blogs ago.

Be Part of the 'Black Friday' Herds? Hell NO!

I watched with mouth agape on the CBS News this morning as Thanksgiving Day shoppers bashed each other in Florida to get some limited desired product. Their antics reminded me of the words of Erik Larsen in his book The Naked Consumer  , p. 167.   that "consumers" crowded into small spaces for limited buys emulated a herd of panicked cattle. Or "mindless sheep". 

Well, that means some 33 million Americans mutated into herds and "mindless sheep" yesterday - Thanksgiving Day - as they stormed big box stores and fought over TVs, Xboxes, Notebooks and what not.  Hmmmm......what does it show? That too many are prepared to destroy a day for family conviviality (so long as politics is avoided) to grab some more "stuff" they probably can't fit into their abodes anyway.

This morning I saw similar mobs massing toward the local Kohl's as I went on my usual morning brisk walk. They were likely among the played idiots that believe getting a 30% markdown is a "bargain" despite the fact that stores typically rig prices to process 30 percent as a net win. As Rebecca Jarvis reported on her news segment two days ago, shoppers would need to get at least 40-50% off to make any real gain. But illusions reign in the American consumer's head.

In another take, the scenes of shoppers run amuck this morning reminded me of  teens in the midst of a rock frenzy (like the infamous Stones' appearance at Altamonte, CA decades ago.)  Out of control, without any semblance of reason, proportion or judgment. This is backed up by Benjamin Barber author of : 'CONSUMED: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole'- which ought to be required reading for everyone.  Barber documented how consumption infantilizes Americans.

Rather than being wary citizens, attending to how our gov't is cutting our rights by surveillance, etc. we have been infantilized to just consume.....and it has to be the right brand. Let's get that new Ipad! Let's get that new  smart phone, HDTV or X-box video game!  We've descended into virtual babies with nappies as we've gotten toy after toy and embraced the "Gimme!" idiom. Barber demonstrated how this rampant consumerism degrades a whole society to limit its civic role and attention, and ultimately lose participatory democracy the corporatocracy. (The Neoliberal imperative, of course, applauds this.)

An even more trenchant take on the devolution of the American citizen to "consumer' is provided by Neil Postman in his book,  The Disappearance of Childhood’ . In his Chapter Seven ‘The Adult Child’, Postman lays out a summary of his thesis on the disappearance of childhood (and adulthood)  in tandem with what it has evolved (devolved?) into after the emergence of video culture. Basically his premise is video culture puts children and adults on the same mental footing, with the net effect of regressing the adult to the child level.  In the 50s adults read books like Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"  and children watched "Mickey Mouse Club" and Davy Crockett.  Today both play Xbox games, work Ipads and tweet. Where's the distinction? The adult had become melded with the child.

Postman defined a number of truly adult attributes which include:

- A capacity for self-restraint

- A tolerance for delayed gratification

- A sophisticated ability to think sequentially and conceptually

- A preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future

- A high valuation of reason and hierarchical order

He then goes on to warn that as electronic (visual) media have assumed center stage “different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new, diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge”. This new stunted version of the adult which reaches its apotheosis (nadir?) in the adult child has arrived with the television-video- computer- Twitter age which flattens out all differences between all ages.

What I beheld this morning with store mobs pushing and shoving and running over each other to grab an Xbox or Ipad showed me 6' tall, 190 lb. "children" who lacked every one of the attributes above. As I envisaged the future I can see not only that Thanksgiving will be sacrificed to consumer culture but probably Halloween in the next round.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

SO What Happened to Comet ISON? ANS. It's Still Too Close to the Sun

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this view of Comet ISON, C/2012 S1 (ISON), on May 8, 2013.

 In my Nov 1st blog post I noted that Comet ISON (an acronym for the International Scientific Optical Network in Russia, which discovered it in September 2012) was not yet visible. Earlier, I invoked temporary forecasts to say it ought to be brilliant by the dawn of Nov. 28, today. Well that didn't happen either. Why? The reason is that the comet is actually grazing the Sun's corona today - at a distance of about 730,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers). 

Nor is there any guarantee it will survive this close passage because at such proximity it will be subject to the Sun's heat and gravitational forces, the combination of which could see it disintegrate.  This is the fate forecast by Carey M. Lisse, a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory during a press conference on Tuesday.

 Readers may recall in my October 19 blog post I cited an ASTRONOMY magazine article ('Comet Ison Blazes Into Glory', November, p. 54):

"Optimists tout numbers that have  many amateur astronomers giddy with excitement. If they're right the comet could rival the full Moon when it passes closest to the Sun at perihelion November 28 and remain as bright as the planet Jupiter for several days around then."

In retrospect and as I will show below, "bright as the full Moon" at perihelion-  was not likely to be a reality after later observations. However, the comet did undergo some brightening as noted at the website: 

"From Nov. 13 to 21, Comet ISON brightened by 3.5 magnitudes on the scale used to determine the brightness of objects in space. That's a 25-fold increase in brightness to the observer! Between Nov. 19 and 21 alone, ISON more than doubled in brightness"

For those who want to observe the comet, the new advice from many websites is to be watching just before sunrise or just after sunset for the 12-14 days after its solar perihelion passage today. I likely won't bother to dig out my binoculars until at least Tuesday or Wednesday. I suspect earlier than that will not likely allow a decent sighting since ISON is still too close to the Sun.

Why the scientific interest in ISON? Mainly because it's an Oort Cloud comet, formed a few million years ago, probably by the gravitational nudge of a passing star. That 'nudge' sent it hurtling toward the inner solar system for the first time and quite possibly the last.   Scientists have never before been able to watch an Oort Cloud comet dive past the Sun.

In all probability - from the data we now have- the early ASTRONOMY estimates of a 'full Moon' brightness at perihelion was overblown. 
As one report noted yesterday, scientists at first thought ISON was several miles in diameter and would become the “Comet of the Century,” "rivaling the brightness of a full moon."   But as the comet passed Mars, the NASA orbiter took pictures showing that it was three-quarters of a mile wide at most, smaller than most comets.   In this case, the comet wouldn't reach the brightness forecast, i.e. in ASTRONOMY.

Michelle Thaller, a NASA astrophysicist appearing this morning on MSNBC, gave an exuberant depiction of the comet from an "optimist's perspective". So she is hopeful it will survive it's close passage.  She compared it to Comet Lovejoy, which also made a close solar pass, and noted that it survived its passage. She said ISON is "quite a bit larger than Lovejoy" was - thereby implying a much better chance at survival. However, with a puckish look on her face he wryly noted "that if it breaks up it's in some ways better for NASA because we'll get to see what's inside".  She added we will have clues to what happened in our early solar system from 4 1/2 billion years ago.  Heady stuff indeed, but I suspect most ordinary folk will be hoping that break up doesn't happen!

As to the observing basics, and assuming it survives, Thaller noted it will be visible just before dawn and very near the Sun. As December progresses, she noted, it will be displaced farther and farther away from the Sun- until by Dec. 17 it will be in the East-southeast sky and also be visible at night. She said that "by the time you get to late December it should be roughly where the Big Dipper is in the sky. So assuming it survives you might be in for a very nice show in the sky".

One other remark of Thaller's is somewhat suspect, when she claimed a comet like ISON could be a "very nice probe of the Sun" adding that when such a comet gets very close it "interacts with the Sun's magnetic field, with the solar in some ways we're doing an experiment".

However, as a recent article in Physics Today ('Comets as Solar Probes', October, p. 27) has pointed out, ISON's perihelion distance of 1.2 million km puts it much farther out in the Sun's corona than Lovejoy's (135,000 km) passage. Since plasma density drops rapidly with altitude in the corona  ISON's solar interaction will be more dominated by waves and turbulence than by collisions and Lorentz forces, i.e. F = q(E + v X B). It is the latter which is truly useful in assessing key parameters for solar MHD or magneto-hydrodynamics.  However, as the the article notes, ISON will allow us to probe a region in the "nascent solar wind". Not as terrific as the denser corona, but not to be sneezed at.

We will wait to see what happens after today!


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bravo to Pope Francis for Warning of Capitalism's Tyranny and Consumerism!

Pope Francis: Gives a much needed shot over the bow to capitalists!

Once again, Pope Francis has shown himself percipient and also with the courage to call out the real culprits in our midst - now including Neoliberal capitalism and wanton consumerism.  This he has now done in an 84-page document known as an apostolic exhortation, headed "Evangelii Gaudium" of the Holy Father. which makes official the platform for his papacy. It also is such a formal document that makes it impossible for any claimed Catholic intellectual or moral philosopher to ever again turn a blind eye to economic inequality and suffering that ensues from it. Most especially, it makes clear that NO moral theologian can embrace "trickle down" supply side" economics or the Pareto model that it's based upon.

Readers will recall in an earlier (Nov. 12) blog post on Francis not being appreciated by the conservatives in his flock (the same breed that also like "trickle down" in the general population) I quoted his earlier words: "Everyone has his own idea of good and evil".

And added:

"Which is, of course, true. A starving child or parent of that child will, for example, regard evil as the gross systemic inequality in a supposedly rich nation that permits such a travesty to occur."

Resonant with my own take earlier are Francis' recent words from his document:

"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

The shot at "trickle down" is spot -on and we've been saddled with this bollocks ever since one Arthur Laffer dreamed it up,  later deployed during Ronnie Raygun's tenure. (And also in Barbados in 1986, which nearly sent the country to the international poor house). The story goes that the pivotal event was the invention of the "Laffer curve" (see diagram below) on a napkin and on the fly, by a hyper-excited Laffer in 1974. Laffer was then an economist at the University of Chicago and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford's then chief of staff.                                                                                                           

Based on this Laffer hatched a new theory on why tax rates were inefficient and high, or one might say "inefficiently high". The story then goes that one interested nabob from the WSJ asked Rumsfeld to meet with Laffer on the issue. As it happened, Rumsfeld had other commitments so dispatched Dick Cheney instead to a bar, where the meeting took place. (See, e.g. Economics for the Rest of Us by Moshe Adler, Ch. 6) Laffer then proceeded to sketch his infamous diagram on a napkin on why the rich could be said to be "over taxed".

As drawn, it was totally convincing! Especially for a guy like Cheney with minimal math skills. Note the line defining the highest marginal tax rate of 70% for Gerald Ford's presidency. What Laffer's curve sought to show is that by cutting that rate down, say to 50%, one could increase the revenues by nearly 35%! Of course, the 50% turned out to be wholly arbitrary and in fact after Reagan became President in 1980 the rates were cut down to 50 by 1981, then to 28% (by 1988). After all, if one could increase revenues by cutting taxes 20%, imagine what one could do by cutting them more than 40%!

Thus did Laffer's curve become the basis of Reagan's tax cuts and the whole tax cut meme ever since, despite the fact that in reality no community or even human body has managed to GROW by virtue of starving! But try to tell the bulk of Americans, who continue to buy into this codswallop at a mind-boggling rate! Despite the fact there's never been evidence it's actually worked!  Even the Obama administration played into this by extending the Bush tax cuts when ALL ought to have been sunset 3 years ago!

Financial Times Analysis (9/15/10, p. 24) of the Bush tax cuts found:

The 2000s- that is the period immediately following the Bush tax cuts – were the weakest decade in U.S. postwar history for real, non-residential capital investment. Not only were the 2000s by far the weakest period but the tax cuts did not even curtail the secular slowdown in the growth of business structures. Rather the slowdown accelerated to a full decline

For reference, the top marginal tax rate during the Bush years (for income tax) was reduced to 36% from the 39.5% during the 1990s Clinton Years. Over the 1950s and into the 1960s (until about 1964) the top marginal rate was at 91%, going down to 65% by the mid -60s. The lower level of 50% wasn’t hit until Reagan arrived in 1980, and passed his tax cuts. And we've been piling up deficits ever since.

The FT conclusion was blunt:

“Business investment data demonstrate the Bush tax cuts failed to achieve their goal of spurring productive U.S. investment and that failure has contributed to the poor performance of U.S. stocks”

And because of this misguided foolishness, income -economic inequality has been ratcheting up ever since - with NO politician on the left even remotely able to marshal a strong narrative on why higher taxes are needed.

But we who follow these things know this is all part of the Neoliberal free market idiom, especially the sort of "market populism" nonsense that author Thomas Frank excoriates in his excellent book, 'One Market Under God'.   Interestingly, in 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was underway, the Vatican’s Justice and Peace agency called for the establishment of a “global public authority” and a central global bank. The document condemned “the idolatry of the market.” We know also that ever since the 1980s and Reaganism, this idolatry has been on steroids and became endemic in both parties. In this mutation, Neoliberalism declared the only way to "true democracy" and "freedom" was the absolute reign of markets - and in addition, no nation could afford to dispense any security to citizens not market contingent.

To illustrate the perversion of this sort of thinking, Laffer argued that higher tax rates on the rich would only cause them to work fewer hours, or if REALLY rich, invest in fewer projects, enterprises, hence create fewer jobs. Thus, revenues over all would decline, first from the working rich because Uncle Sam would get less taxes by virtue of their reduced work, and also from the investing rich because they'd create fewer jobs and thus no workers would be around to pay the taxes Uncle Sam wants. Thus, Laffer argued, the higher tax rates were Pareto Inefficient! In addition, because of this the common Mickey D or Walmart worker would also suffer.

The argument was further reinforced (mainly in Bush II's 2nd term) that Social Security payments undermined market democratization by providing a stream of income that didn't depend on actual market behavior.  This prompted Ayn Rand acolyte and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to go on record (in an appearance before congress in 2003) to assert that "Social Security benefits need to be cut to pay for Bush’s tax cuts."

Social Security payments, especially with COLAs, do everything the Fed Chairman didn’t want. They pour more money into the economy, but not via productive labor or market indices, returns. People receive their checks merely by existing and breathing day to day, and having paid into the system with FICA deductions. Even then, they receive far more in benefits than actually paid in, making a total mess of Pareto utility.

Since the Bush tax cuts have continued, especially for the Middle class - the supply siders - mainly emerging from the 'Fix the Debt' parasites, have demanded Social Security cuts in the form of COLA revisions i.e. the "chained CPI". The only way to have avoided that would have been terminating the Bush tax cuts for ALL.

Does supply side work? No, not ever - as Francis has clearly observed in his statement,

This opinion.....has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power

And the facts bear him out! Not only the FT analysis (above summary) of the Bush tax cuts, but also the tax cuts in Reagan's administration.   first full examination of the empirical effects arrived in James Medoff and Andrew Harless, The Indebted Society, 1995, wherein they found, p. 23:

"For the health of the economy, Reagan's policies turned out to be just about the worst thing that could have happened: investment did not increase, growth continued to stagnate, and the federal deficit ballooned to new dimensions....

In 1981, the year Reagan took office, the public debt was 26.5 % of the gross domestic product (GDP)....In 1993, the year that Bush left office, the public debt was a staggering 51.9 percent of the GDP."

Thus, we have the first evidence that Laffer was plying bare bunkum not sound economic policy! Yet conservatives continue to embrace this horse shit!

This is all the more reason Pope Francis is to be applauded for specifically calling out one of the most egregious facets of market populism and Neoliberal capitalism overall. While previous popes (e.g. Pope John Paul II, Benedict)  discussed the disenfranchised, they didn’t single out the issue the way Francis has. He has not only done so with his words, but in his actions, such as paying his own hotel bill in person or affectionately embracing a man disfigured by disease.

And he has insisted parish padres do the same, getting their "shoes dirty" instead of remaining in their little domeciles  or rectories, untouched by the world.

He has also condemned over the top consumerism such as will be manifested in the US of A this Friday. I believe his subtext is that any professed "Christians"  who'd let themselves go nuts tomorrow in a shopping frenzy (forsaking family traditions)  or on Friday,  actually worship the god of Mammon and not any true God.

With that sentiment, I couldn't agree more!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Are Banks Picking the Pockets of the 99 percent?

Two blogs ago, I noted the Financial Times article warning that banks may soon begin charging customers for bank deposits. The reason for this was yet another Fed yen to "juice" the economy, this time by cutting interest on the banks' money reserves. For example, if the Fed were to cut the bank interest 0.25% then account holders would see perhaps $25 paid in new "deposit" fees to offset the costs to the banks.

Now, according to Project Censored, one of the top ten untold (by the corporate media) stories ("Bank interest inflates global prices by 35-40 Percent")  is that banks are picking the pockets of most us by way of interest.  The story cites Prof. Margrit Kennedy whose research has shown that 35 percent of the cost of everything bought in the U.S. goes to interest. In other worlds, if consumers spend $400 m on Xmas gifts this year, up to $140 million will be burned up in interest payments.

In her 2012 book, 'Occupy Money', Kennedy, of Germany's University of Hanover, asserted this provides a major vehicle for funneling money from the 99% to the one percent. She wrote that tradespeople, suppliers, wholesalers and retailers along the chain also rely on credit.

Though her figures were initially drawn from the German economy, Ellen Brown -  of  'The Web of Debt' and Global Research found similar patterns in the U.S.  Kennedy has argued that this "hidden interest" has sapped the growth of multiple industries  while lining the pockets of the financial sector.  The effect is that the bleed off of interest going to an elite sector aggravates the problem of low aggregate demand while also setting up the country's financial system for another credit meltdown - that could lead to a depression.

Of course, it ought to be 100% obvious to anyone that if austerity measures are now superposed on this, we may be looking at a total calamity. In that case spending would be strangled even worse that the existing "sequester') measures, and if Social Security and Medicare are also hit, growth would plummet by 4-5% a year, in fact hurling us into a recession.

Already, the House Republicans have cut an effective $36 a month from the Food stamps program sending millions to food banks to try to make up the difference. A new Farm Bill is pending but the Repukes want $39 b cut over ten years which would send nearly 25 million kids into a state of hunger and malnutrition. The Dems aren't as bad, but even they are asking for $4.1b in food stamp cuts. Have these people never been hungry?

Now, add to all this the news the banks are thinking of adding fees to depositors if they get a measly 0.25% cut in interest on their reserves. What the hell is wrong with this picture? The problem is we are letting the banksters hold us all hostage and do whatever they want. Even as I write many of them are still dallying in the sort of toxic derivatives that nearly brought the whole house down in 2008. But what did they get? A slap on the wrist!

 Some GOP and Tea Party idiots whined about "socialism" when Obama's 2009 stimulus was enacted -but let's not play games with words here. A real socialist would have not just bailed out the banks but would have nationalized them, then kicked all of their CEOs, and other honchos to hell off, and replaced them with government financial specialists. (People like Liz Warren).  In a real socialist environment, the banksters would be howling "Uncle!" and worse.

Of course, few economists (most invested in the Pareto model of economics, see e.g.

have endorsed Prof. Kennedy's views or emerged to reinforce her assertions. Most are just fine with interest bleed off since they're often the beneficiaries of its bounty - as when they (e.g. like Glen Hubbard - the evil genius behind the Bush tax cuts) when they advise large financial outfits.

Thus, since interest adds to the balances of the top 1 percent it reinforces the meme that wealthy dollars have 'higher utility' - as opposed to say Social Security dollars  - where people in old age can collect it merely for waking up and breathing each day. In this case, rational solutions - say like cutting interest rates on student loans (say down to a reasonable 2%) , would not go over well because it deprives the finance mavens of much more money to build giant haciendas with Olympic size pools, or more personal jets and blood diamonds.

Why aren't the media raising the issue? Well, because they are averse to being seen as "ideological". Media specialist Robert McChesney argues that any mainstream journalist would be going out on a limb to pursue this story - for the same reason he would if he pursued a story that the Warren Commission is all hogwash and Oswald had nothing to with it. In either case, he'd be seen as "having an axe to grind, ideological or some sort of a hack". 

Rather than that better to pose as being "objective" so you give the anti-global warming blowhards the same space as climate scientists, while you deny any space for anti-Warren Commission journalists since - god forbid - that would be like supporting a "commie lone nut". And to go against credit and INTEREST! That'd be like arguing against Mom, apple pie and the flag!

But this attitude, as McChesney observes "makes journalism worthless on pretty important issues."

I totally agree, which is why I read widely outside the narrow and biased corporate media orbit.

Newflash: Don't Give Guns to an Aspergers Kid!

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As a cub scout in 1954 Milwaukee - it helped to reduce my Aspergers' tendencies.

Back in 1954, there was no such thing as "Aspergers syndrome" and indeed most of the conditions that now appear in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (the 'bible' of the psychiatric profession) didn't exist back then.  Nevertheless, it was pretty evident that looking back now using the Aspergers' diagnostic I at least displayed plenty of tendencies.

One could say I was "wrapped up in my own world" literally. By age 7 I had created an entire imaginary planet and - after plumbing through maps in 'The Book of Knowledge'- mapped out this planet, continent by imaginary continent, from the north pole to the south. Not content with mere maps, I then began using wooden blocks to replicate the cities on the maps including using small toy soldiers and other plastic creatures to populate them. Finally, by age 8 I'd created a 24- page illustrated book detailing the creatures there - mostly brutal predators and aliens that had no use for humans. Some of the gorier drawings I'd produced appalled my mother - who if she were driven by today's memes - would likely think a serial killer was being raised.

I was also fascinated by guns, and began depicting them in the book. I also began collecting them: Colt .45s, derringers, you name it. No, not literal real guns, but rather ordered from the back of Kellogg's cereal boxes:

Enter my Aunt Lil to whom Mom showed my book and assorted 'guns'. Lil informed her:  "that boy needs to get out of that shell and the sooner the better".  To that end, and bear in mind this was the 1950s so there was no coddling of kids or giving them any final says - she enrolled me in Pack 124 of the Cub Scouts under Mrs. Sage, the Den Mother. Within a week I was out of the house going to "den meetings" with 15 or so of my peers from St. Sebastian School. She then went further, asking my 3rd grade teacher to please put me in the school play, 'King Arthur's Court'. 

Oh yeah, I pitched a fit all right! Cub Scouts was one thing but to have to be on public display in a play, that was a whole other scene. Literally! (Fortunately, the only part left was a minor one, a page - so I had some relative degree of obscurity.)

I recall all this especially after the report issued yesterday concerning Adam Lanza, the Newtown mass killer. According to an article appearing in today's Denver Post (p. 13A) Lanza "wrote a book in fifth grade that included tales of children being slaughtered and a son shooting his mother in the head". Of course, in view of last year's massacre we now know Lanza (an Aspergers sufferer) carried it out.

The Post report goes on to observe that in the years following his book,  Lanza - as opposed to being forced out of his solipsistic world- was allowed to wallow in it:  given dozens of violent video games, while also allowed to collect articles, photos, books, footage from previous school massacres especially Columbine. The mistake made by his mother - a serious one- was further feeding this obsession by actually giving him real weapons.

Look, if a kid (especially with the self- absorbed tendencies of Aspergers),   is already locked in a world of violent massacres,  the last freakin' thing you do is give him real guns to translate his phantasmagorias into reality.  You do not give guns to a kid obsessed with Columbine, Paducah, Ky, Jonesboro, AK or any other school killings.  And btw, you shouldn't be letting him post hundreds of clippings about them all over his black-draped walls.

What Lanza's mother ought to have been working on is getting the kid out of his room (all cloaked with black drapes) and out into the real world. Get him signed up into something constructive - like I was- so he couldn't wallow in his mini-cosmos of violent massacres..

According to my sister-in-law, Krimhlde, an Eckist, see e.g.

whatever is one's focus becomes one's reality. If a person focuses on hate and violence, these are what his life will reflect. If he instead seeks enlightenment, or at least aspires to hold and focus on enlightened thoughts - as opposed to debased ones- then these will be embodied in his or her outer life.

Severe mental disability or adverse conditions can, of course, impair one's ability to see beyond his self-absorption to make choices. This is why an external helping hand is essential to bring the afflicted person to the stage he can see choices and,  if necessary, make those choices for him. Lanza's mother ought to have made those choices for him early - like my aunt did for me. She didn't, and 26 people paid the price.

Lanza's world, unstable as it was, needed only the tinder of his violent imaginings to be ignited by the availability of real weapons - and his mother provided them.  What he ought to have received instead is her interest, affection and care to steer him towards the potential of emerging from his self-confected hell.

Had he so emerged, those Sandy Hook 20 kids and five teachers might be alive today, along with Lanza's mother.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pay To Deposit Your Money in Banks? It Could Happen!

The news in this morning's Financial Times was not too agreeable for safety-minded,  ordinary bank depositors. You know, those of us who look at the spiking DOW and see only a major meltdown about to happen since it is WAY out into massive bubble territory.  Recall the stat Guru Nate Silver, in his book, The Signal and the Noise- Why So Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t  observed (p. 347):

"Of the eight times in which the S&P 500 has increased at a rate much faster than its historical average over a 5-year period , five cases were followed by a severe and notorious crash, such as the Great Depression and the Black Monday crash of 1987”.

So pardon us while we remain conservative with our money market accounts, bank deposits while the rest of the investor universe goes batshit nuts over the rising DOW. (We will want to see their faces when it crashed by 45%).

Anyway, The Financial Times piece noted the Fed (Federal Reserve) is considering reducing interest paid to banks on their reserves. This is to be an alternative to quickly cutting their $85 million a month juicing (via quantitative easing) which has kept stocks artificially high and banks sitting pretty too. 

After getting word of this change, the bank execs cited in the FT were not amused, and - after arguing that bank deposits weren't "free" - threatened to make up any money lost by charging bank depositors. If, for example, banks saw the interest on their reserves cut by 0,25 percent, then they'd make it up by charging customers making deposits fees to offset that loss. If say you have a deposit account of $10,000  balance on average held per year, then you'd be expected to cough up $25 a year in fees or about $2 a month.

To the conservative investor, of course, it appears the Fed is trying to have it's cake and eat it. Bernanke and his  QE 2 boys have clearly recognized that they can't go on indefinitely inflating the existing stock bubble with their cheap money policy - but also recognize if the Fed cuts it outright a disaster could ensue. Hence, their alternative, using the interest rate cut on bank reserves.

But at the same time, these guys need to understand that it's one thing to be getting a return on our money next to zero, it's quite another to be getting a negative return - which banks charging us for deposits would amount to. "Oh but you ought to then go into the market and get your yield!" Uh, how can I say this so it's clear: 'FUCK NO!'

What is the solution? Instead of seeing ordinary depositors gouged even more with fees, how about the Fed increase bank interest rates from their current absurd level to at least one percent? This would also reflect the real cost of goods, such as one can plainly see at the supermarket. (Again the existing cost of living index is totally bogus)

If the banksters really want to hear and see some outrage, let them even try to get away with imposing fees on ordinary bank deposits!

Should This Gynecologist Be Allowed to Examine, Treat Male Patients? Of Course!

Dr. Elizabeth Stier - wants to continue treating the men in her practice.

Dr. Elizabeth Stier isn't asking for much, only that she be allowed to continue examining and treating male patients  at risk for anal cancer. The disease is rare, but it can be fatal and its incidence is increasing, especially among men and women infected with H.I.V. Like cervical cancer, anal cancer is usually caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is sexually transmitted.  (One of the last major media notices put out about it was a few years ago, when Farrah Fawcett described her ordeal.)

As a New York Tmes piece described Saturday, though most of Dr. Stier's patients are women, (she works at Boston Medical Center), she also treated about 110 men last year, using techniques adapted from those developed to screen women for cervical cancer.  

But in September, the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology insisted that its members
treat only women,
with few exceptions, and identified the procedure in which Dr. Stier has expertise as one that gynecologists are not allowed to perform on men. Doctors cannot ignore such directives from a specialty board, because most need certification to keep their jobs.  Doctor Stier expressed shock to learn that she would lose a vital credential, board certification as a gynecologist, unless she gave up this important part of her medical practice and her research: taking care of men at high risk for anal cancer.

Now Dr. Stier’s studies are in limbo, her research colleagues are irate, and her male patients are distraught. Other gynecologists who had translated their skills to help male patients are in similar straits.  Worse, this comes at a time when researchers are about to start a major clinical trial that is aimed at preventing anal cancer (increasing at new, alarming rates), with $5.6 million from the National Cancer Institute. Observers say the Dallas' board’s decision will keep some of the best qualified, most highly skilled doctors in the United States from treating male patients in the study.

Though Dr. Stier and the Director of the planned study asked the Board to reconsider their decision, they remain adamant. According to the Times article, they are convinced such practice amounts to "money making" and is "tarnishing the specialty's image. . But  Dr. Mark H. Einstein, a gynecologic oncologist at Montefiore Medical Center  said, “The board’s approach is to be rather dogmatic and to draw a line in the sand.”

In many ways it reminds me of a fierce debate that erupted in an Astronomy meeting some years ago when one purist decried planetary scientists calling themselves astronomers. "How can they be astronomers? " he asked, "when the very name is based on 'astro' referring to stars, not planets!"  Presumably, if this person could be transported to the present context, he'd argue "gyne" refers to females so can't be applied to males.

But he'd miss the point that many of the techniques are the same and are medically transferable. For example, the technique entails the use of Anoscopy. .  This involves using 4-5 cm long lighted tube (anuscope)  to examine the anal canal which is 4-5 cm long. A high resolution version also adds a magnifier to look for abnormal growths much the same way as is done in a colonoscopy. These growths may be cancers or precancers, with the latter requiring surgery  though doctors can burn off precancers in much the same way gastro-enterologists can excise polyps during a colonoscopy.

The point is that Dr. Stier has been an expert in the high resolution method and her patients - males especially  - have come to depend on her. Though she has been treating men for 10 years, she will now be able to see only women and this worries her.  What most concerns her is what will become of the men she's been treating. As she points out in the NY Times piece, the procedures are embarrassing and uncomfortable for patients, and it takes time for a doctor to gain their trust.  Now, they will have to seek treatments and care at other hospitals, with other medical practitioners with whom that same trust may not be possible. It is possible that they won't even bother.

Dr. Joel Palefsky, a specialist at the UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco(where I had my prostate cancer high dose treatment) said:

"We need as many trained people as possible. The assumption all along has been that many of the gynecologists we trained would participate in the study and would see both men and women.”

Sadly, however, definitional absolutism and semantics has crept into a field which can ill afford it. If we are ever to win the battle against cancer - especially against the "squeamishness-inducing, embarrassing cancers" that make people's skins crawl - we will need all hands on deck and as many different resources and high level skilled professionals as possible!

Bravo to Dr. Liz Stier for trying to do her part!