Short takes on science, business, health, agriculture and possibly the kitchen sink

Robert Wise   email  
Pugilistic Politics
The savage imagery of political blather

Chris Matthews presented Joe Biden with boxing gloves during an interview last October, after Biden talked about taking Donald Trump "behind the gym." I wish he'd hand 'em out to other politicians. Few can go ten sentences without the word "fight," particularly in campaign speeches. Battle, struggle, fight, fight..after awhile you want to ask "How many rounds? Queensberry rules?"

And in the news, any criticism becomes an "attack," sometimes a "vicious attack" that may extend into "unrelenting attacks." Some friends of mine spent enough time in VietNam to experience both criticism and attack. They tell me criticism is better, every time.

The media reported lately that Russian President Putin was "Aiming his missiles at the U.S." I could just see the wily Putin slinking from missile silo to missile silo with a gunner's quadrant, checking the lay of each launcher.

And the Dem congressional caucus has a new plan of action, at least as reported: "hard-line, give-no-quarter", "scorched earth."

Let's see.. Our Cavalry troop is trapped in a box canyon, facing thousands of hostile Indians. We need a hard line of defense. But before we circle the wagons, we'll make sure to burn off all the grass. That way, them injuns won't be able to graze their ponies after the battle. That'll show 'em!

Recent headline: "Republicans rush to target transsexuals."
It's amazing what drones can detect with those multispectral sensors.

"Bernie Sanders Eviscerates Donald Trump on Trade and Taxes."
No way! Bernie fights, but not with a razor. And Trump looked pretty healthy on TV this morning.

I hope one day to hear a politician go literal, at least for a paragraph or two.

"Friends, you if elect me your Senator, I solemnly pledge that I will not fight. I will talk, I will listen, I will study proposed legislation and draft proposals of my own. I will try my utmost to persuade other Senators to my point of view, and if I fail, will do everything in my power to work out an acceptable compromise. And I promise you, if I see anyone fighting on the floor of the Senate, I will rise to a point of order and demand that the sergeant at arms eject them from the chamber."


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Boxing image from The art and practice of self-defence; or, Scientific mode of boxing: Got up under the superintendence of a celebrated pugilist 1820, reproduced in The Guildhall Library Newsletter, "18th and 19th Century Fight Club: The Beginnings of British Boxing"

Revisions to this post:
Feb 1: Removed references to Bernie Sanders in the first paragraphs. I may have exaggerated Sander's overuse of "fight."

Resist the Resistance
Don't let fear and anger blind us to new opportunities

I've stopped donating to certain progressive groups who are pumping the "Resistance" theme. I emailed them all to explain why; one actually replied. But it was a form letter expressing joy that I had "reached out to ask for more information." We seem to live on different planets.

"Resistance" calls to mind the struggles of civilians in occupied Europe: the French Underground, the Maquis, the Italian and Serbian partisans. I understand the metaphor and the fear that inspires it, but it's dead wrong. Our country has not been invaded. We've had an election, followed by a peaceful transfer of legitimate power.

We Democrats and Progressives face not just a Republican president, but a Republican Senate, Republican House and a Supreme Court soon to tilt in that direction. What's more, a good half of the electorate voted for this administration. To accomplish anything useful over the next four years, we need to work with these people. A "hard line" and "scorched-earth" won't cut it. We don't have that much earth left to scorch.

Republicans are keen to repeal some of the regulations enacted during the past eight years. New legislation, soon to be passed, will require any new regulations with high economic impact to be passed by Congress itself rather than enacted by Federal agencies. There will be many Congressional debates to come. If Democrats approach them as the new Party of No, we'll also become the Party of Perpetual Defeat. We will need honest discussion, fair debate, and a search for common ground.

We should not forget that two-thirds of Americans understand about global warming- that it's largely caused by human actions. That number includes a great many people who voted for Trump. (The poll question actually used the term "global warming", not the agnostic "climate change.")

About the same proportion of Americans oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, and an even larger proportion favor some kind of path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, rather than deportation.

A recent article in The American Conservative proposed an elaborate plan for Trump's infrastructure spending, including strong support for public transit and intercity rail. Their website covers New Urbanism in depth: walkable neighborhoods, non-branded architecture, local retail, multi-use zoning, etc.

There's at least one radical reform supported by both Progressives and Conservatives: replacing the Dodd-Frank law with the original Glass-Steagall act. The repeal of Glass-Steagall during the Clinton years paved the way for a host of financial rackets, including peddling mortgages to millions who couldn't really afford them- and often went on to lose their homes in foreclosure.

Bernie Sanders promised to bring back Glass-Steagall. The Republican Party Platform recommends it. We could do it!

A lot of ink and electrons have been spilled over President Trump's character. He's been called everything from misogynist to an incarnation of Loki. But it doesn't matter any more. Whatever his character is, we own it for the next four years.

During the W. Bush years, Bush-hating was a pastime for many in our local Dem executive committee. Lots of emails and shared articles expounded on W's ignorance, malevolence and distinctive way with words. In terms of practical politics, this stuff accomplished nothing except to alienate Bush supporters. For Dems, it wasted time and energy that could have been better used.

Given President Trump's volubility and the allegations about his past, Trump-hating could be like Bush-hating on steroids. Let's not cultivate it. If you hate the guy, OK, but don't make a hobby of it.

Progressives need to accomplish more than marches and demonstrations during the next four years. We need to help shape new legislation and help preserve vital laws and regulations that may be brought up for repeal. Politics is the art of the possible. To practice that art, we should begin by assessing what may be possible.

NOTE: I published this post during the weekend when Trump's immigration ban took effect. His inner circle developed this executive order without consulting the Justice Department, without the normal coordination with Homeland Security or the State Department, and with very little advance notice to the HSA officials who had to implement it. The administration reversed itself on the status of green card holders between Friday and Saturday; first they were exempt, now they are to be admitted only on a "case by case" basis. A Federal judge had to intervene with a temporary stay for visa holders who were in transit or who had already arrived.

The new administration may not have created any new jobs yet, but they've created a lot of new work for lawyers. After the confusion and anguish of this past weekend, they will probably be much more careful with new executive actions.

None of these developments change the points I made above, or my conviction that Democrats need to work with their fellow citizens on the right to change this country for the better.

Jan 31, Subject: Global Warming
I disagree with your statement that GW is caused by humans. I agree that the earth is warming but the "scientific " evidence is produced by the same people who force evolution to be taught without a difference of opinion. I believe these same scientists have allowed their political agenda to eclipse their honesty in the presentation of the truth.
-- Ron

Hello, Ron,
Thanks for commenting. You've touched on some big topics, and I want to give you a good answer. But please bear with me, because it goes on for awhile.

I think global warming is mostly caused by humans because that's the consensus of the scientific community, including the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the World Meteorological Organization.

Some of the scientists researching this phenomenon were in grad school with me in the 1970s. I'm familiar with the kind of research they do, and I trust them as honest scientists. True, someone decides who gets research grants, and may be biased toward global warming vs some other topic. But no one gets rich on a research grant.

Global warming appears to be caused by the greenhouse effect, which is driven by atmospheric chemistry. Like red wine, it's beneficial in small doses- in fact necessary to life on earth. The planet would be much colder without it. This effect- the trapping and re-radiation of heat back to the earth's surface- is exerted by molecules of carbon dioxide, methane and other "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere.

Over the past 200 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 40% (more than half that increase came after 1979). More molecules mean more heat trapped and reradiated back to earth's surface- a stronger greenhouse effect. I don't see how it could be otherwise.

As for forcing evolution to be taught, I think the force comes mainly from local school boards, who have to decide on the curriculum to be taught. You can talk to your local board if you want something added to the curriculum, but you'll need to show them that it's important enough to displace other subjects.

There's a lot more under the heading of "evolution" than theory. It involves all of earth's history: the successive layers of rock laid down over millions of years, the different species of plants and animals whose fossils are found in the rocks, and the progression from simpler organisms to more complex ones. At first, geologists guessed at the dates of various layers from observed rates of sedimentation in the oceans. They could identify distinctive layers by the species of fossils found in them. Later, radio isotope dating allowed approximate dates to be assigned to different layers, and to animal and plant fossils. Theories of evolution attempt to explain how animal and plant species changed over the eons.

Many people are uncomfortable with the subject of evolution because it appears to contradict their faith. You might be interested in Pope Francis' remarks on this; I ran across them trying to find out what the Catholic Church taught about this topic. Here's a quote with some paraphrasing:

“When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything,” he said. “However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness.”

The creation of the universe, Francis said, was not a singular event, but rather “went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today.”

Personally, I don't know if God exists; I don't think it's very likely, based on what we know about the world. But there's plenty we don't know and will never know. I respect everyone's faith because it concerns the unknown and the unknowable, and also because it's bound up with their highest ideals.

Pardon me if I've been telling you too much that you already know; just trying to cover the subjects.

All the best,
-- Bob

February 1, Subject: Re: Global Warming
Thanks for your reasonable response. I still disagree that man causes global warming. I am a Christian who belongs to the family of God through faith in the substitutionary work of His Son on the Cross. I am not trying to get all "zealot" on you, I am just saying that I have a different world view because of what I believe. I also believe in live and let live. I respect your right to believe whatever you wish. I especially appreciate your response given the recent events in the US after the election. People seem to have gone off the rails. Investigate the evidence.
In friendship,
-- Ron

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Gallup poll on Trump policy proposals

Gallup poll on global warming.

Politico: Democrats launch scorched-earth policy against Trump

Republican Party Platform at
"The Dodd-Frank law, the Democrats’ legislative Godzilla, is crushing small and community banks and other lenders..We support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high-risk investment."

William Lind and Glen Bottoms, "An Infrastructure Fix", The American Conservative

Joel Stronberg, "Accountable to Whom, Exactly?",

Joel Stronberg, "Environmental and energy rule making in the age of Trump",

Revisions to this post:
Jan 30: Added note at end, changed some wording.

The Joy of Something for Nothing
Expecting it may be delusional; refusing it may not be wise

Americans are conditioned to expect something for nothing, an attitude that reaches its logical conclusion in the gambling culture. And it's official: state governments, preempting the mob's "numbers" racket, now promote their own lotteries: "You could win millions!" they say. Though most likely you'll just lose another dollar.

The something-for-nothing meme forms part of a pattern of magical thinking, according to James Kunstler, that predisposes us to expect sudden, miraculous solutions to complex problems, usually from new technology.

We are conditioned by a constant torrent of sales pitches, all including, if not built around, the something-for-nothing theme. We hear of big savings and giveaways, promises of bigger savings and giveaways, and combinations of loyalty "rewards", rebates and rollbacks that create a fog of confusion.

Yet a few individuals manage to cut through the confusion and false promises to turn this marketing madness to advantage. Not some countercultural avant-garde, but careful, methodical shoppers like my wife Kae or our neighbor Rita.

If you simply walk into a store and select the items you need, ignoring the sales ads and the marketing blather, you pay significantly more than you need to. In the immortal words of the scratch-and-dent appliance ad, "You paid TOO MUCH!"

Depending on your needs, you might want to shop the scratch-and-dent store. But your most useful shopping tools are coupons and sale ads. Loyalty cards and bonus bucks are also useful, and a selected subset of pitches for timeshares, vacation clubs and the like might be worth listening to.

Using these tools takes some time, and it's a judgement call whether the savings are worth it in your own situation. Yet time spent this way does pay off. Shopping for a specific list of groceries at a dollar store recently, we saved about 25% off the marked prices, which were already well below average.

Kae spends about an hour, total, each week clipping or downloading coupons. They come in the newspaper, in the mail, sometimes in email, and are displayed on certain retailer's web sites. She clips coupons for any item we regularly buy, filing them by category in a little expandable file bought at a dime store years ago. Some retail web sites allow her to select coupons, which can be retrieved later by a cashier at the store. She passes unused coupons on to Rita, who doesn't take the newspaper.

She checks the coupon file while making her shopping list, clipping paper ones to it and marking items that have an electronic coupon. Her shopping trips take her to several stores: dollar stores, a small discount grocery with a limited range of merchandise, a big-box store with a supermarket- even an upscale supermarket, for a weekly loaf of fresh bread. She minimizes the extra driving by including two or three stops on every shopping trip.

Kae also clips restaurant coupons, which I file in two plastic bags in my car's glove compartment: one for restaurants, one for fast food. Two-for-ones are rare these days, but we have two good local restaurants that offer them weekly.

One short-order restaurant publishes great sheets of twenty or more coupons. Rather than try to scan them all, we bring a whole sheet in and tell the waitress what we want to eat. She can usually show us the best coupons to use.

No other mortal has the patience of a discount drugstore clerk. He will sift through a handful of coupons, applying each one, politely telling us which items have to be switched for a different size or brand, and doing multiple transactions so the bonus bucks accumulated on one can be applied to the next. I clerked in my father's drugstore half a century ago, but never had to deal with this stuff. I would have run out of the store screaming at about the tenth bonus buck.

Kae shops for clothing at a few chain department stores that are always running a sale. You try not to buy anything here until it's been marked down at least 40%. Most of their merchandise goes through a series of markdowns that eventually reach 70%-90%. There are loyalty cards for further discounts, plus a little gambling from time to time.

Early some Saturday mornings, they'll be handing out coupons at the door for "$10 for $10", "$20 for $20", or even "$100 for $100". They're sealed, so you have to open the packet to see what you got, like a scratchoff lottery ticket. Once in a while I go out before breakfast to collect one of these for Kae.

There must be some "fair price" for each one of these stores' items, that would cover wholesale cost, store expenses and a reasonable profit. But that price is an imponderable mystery to me.

Care for some free intercity travel? You can come close with Megabus, where you can get a 300 mile trip for as little as $1, depending on how early you book.

"Free gifts" is the usual subtext for invitations to hear a pitch for timeshares, travel clubs, discount buying clubs and the like. If you have time on your hands and are willing to listen to a long sales pitch in return for one of the gifts offered, this may be for you. But don't expect to actually receive any gift worth more than about $50, no matter what's promised.

Kae's shopping procedures may seem at odds with my principle of shopping independent local retailers. But there's little conflict, because we have no independent local supermarkets or clothing stores (They do exist elsewhere- see here and here). I still take my prescriptions to an independent pharmacy, and buy most of my pool and garden supplies at independents.

This essay may make a good entry for the Encyclopedia of What You Already Know. But if not- if you've never watched an expert shopper at work- I've given you a brief sketch of how they operate.


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Revisions to this post:

Two Years on at the Soup Kitchen
It's nothing like those depression-era photographs

"What's the count, Mr. Bob?" Andy called out from the steam table.

"Seventy-eight," I replied, checking the pile of numbered wooden "tickets."

"Seventy-eight. Not bad at all, y'all!"

We had served meals to 78 patrons and several volunteers in the first hour of luncheon. The second hour would bring the total near 150.

Andy, a tall, youthful looking black man, filled plates with a cheese rollup and a hot dog each. Sally, a short black lady who started work here the same day I did, added green beans and pork'n'beans. Consuela, a very short Hispanic volunteer in her 70s, offered patrons their choice of salad or fruit cocktail. Standing to her right, I exchanged a glass of kool-aid for each ticket, and offered a choice of desserts from a dozen-plate tray.

I should have been shorter than Consuela to continue the trend, but instead I'm tall enough to have to adjust the pots on the overhead rack to keep from banging my head. I had worked as a volunteer Thursday mornings since February, 2015. I could recognize about a hundred of our regular patrons. I knew a few names and nicknames and a little of their backgrounds from conversation and hearsay, though not closely acquainted with any. (The names mentioned here are fictitious.)

We used to call the cheese rollups "lasagne rolls", and sometimes joked that they were lobster rolls, but the real name eventually won through. Though originally frozen, they were not bad; I've had similar pasta entrees in Italian restaurants. The kool-aid today was cherry, which for some reason is messier than any other flavor.

Consuela and I worked at a counter in front of a large pass-through window facing the inside dining room. Patrons entered from a covered porch outside, passing through a breezeway between the kitchen and stockroom. The porch doubled as an outdoor dining area with picnic table seating. Behind us, the radio was playing at a moderate volume, tuned to a station with a mix of rock, pop, blues and country.

"Sally, we got a lady in a wheelchair," Joe called from the kitchen door.

Joe was the head cook, a short black man with a deep, throaty voice and a southern accent stronger than mine. I couldn't always understand him, between his accent and my lousy hearing, but we managed to communicate. He had left Andy to manage the serving line, and was moving stock around, checking the dining areas and cleaning occasional spills.

Sally checked where the lady was sitting, then collected a plate, dessert, drink and plastic ware to carry out to her.

A chunky young white man appeared at the window, followed by his wife or girlfriend, both in baseball caps.

"Here you are, sir," I said as I placed his drink on the counter, "Which dessert would you like?"

After some discussion with his lady, he chose a piece of apple pie. Consuela was holding his plate.

"You want salad or fruit?" she asked.

He pointed to the salad. She added it, then pushed the plate onto the window shelf.

Consuela was too short to reach all the way to the shelf. During the first few days we worked together, I took plates from her and put them on the counter, but this meant watching her progress on each plate, and I would get behind on pouring drinks or stocking the dessert tray. So I stopped trying to help, and she managed well enough on her own.

The young man began to salt and pepper his plate, from the condiments arrayed to the side of the pass-through shelf. We didn't keep any on the tables.

"Remember, you guys," said Andy, "Don't put another plate out until the last person has finished seasoning his food. We don't need to be in a hurry. I don't say it loud, 'cause I don't want to be mean, but ain't nobody in here gonna be late to work."

Less than a minute to serve each patron, but we didn't rush them. Andy had prepared meals for thousands on the Nimitz, so feeding 150 in two hours didn't seem much of a challenge to him.

After the young lady came Barbershop, a tall, middled aged black man with a graying beard, who I sometimes passed bicycling on the sidewalk.

"How you-all doing today?" he asked.

"Just fine," Consuela and I said, almost in chorus.

"Like some cake or pie?" I asked.

"Let me have that piece of pound cake, in the middle, in back," he said, reaching a hand in the window to point.

"Don't put your hand through the window, please," I said, passing him the pound cake.

"Barbershop!" Sally scolded, wagging a finger at him, "Can't you read that sign? It's been there ever since you started coming here."

An 8"x11" sign in one-inch letters told patrons not to reach beyond the glass partition. Barbershop grinned and feigned putting his hand through again. Sally grimaced and pointed an accusing finger at him.

The ice was thinning out in the 10 gallon vat of kool aid.

"Consuela, can you watch the drinks and desserts for a minute while I get some ice?" I asked.

"Sure," she said.

I rolled my cart, with the kool aid vat and sleeves of cups, back to the ice machine in the stockroom. The sheets of little ice cubes had to be broken up with the scoop before adding to the kool aid. I would be dipping kool aid from the vat with a pitcher, then pouring cupfuls; a sheet of four cubes had to be watched, and larger ones would be too big for the cup.

"Hey, Andy! You cooking today?" came a voice from behind me.

Pig Man was standing in the kitchen door- a tall, tanned white man with a bushy moustache and slightly bulbous nose. He hunted wild hogs and sold the meat. Also fed a domestic hog or two on his home property. Joe sometimes gave him spoiled food for the hogs.

"Hey, Pig Man! Sure, I'm cooking"

"I just wanted to make sure Joe wasn't cooking," said Pig Man with a grin.

Joe yelled out something from the dining room, drawing a laugh from everyone who understood him (everyone but me).

Pig Man was the only patron who would never choose a dessert.

"It don't matter," he said, "Any one of 'em will do."

I passed him a slice of apple pie. There were no more patrons behind him. I poured a few cups of kool-aid, rounding out the nine I liked to keep lined up, and waited.

Lifting a single cup off a stack of fifty takes a light touch, just the slightest friction. Apply any pressure, and you get two cups or more, which means you have to put down the pitcher and use both hands to separate cups.

"I didn't see Stu today," I said to Andy.

"I haven't seen him for a few days. I hope he's OK."

Stu was usually first in line. A tall white man with a bushy afro haircut, he always arrived early in the morning. He seemed in good health, always cheerful, and would help unload the boxes and shelve the bread and desserts when carloads of donations came in.

I heard that he lived with his mother in a tent, in a former hobo jungle along the tracks about four miles north. I'd often see him riding his bike in that part of town or near the library.

I often wondered why he was here. Like many other patrons, he looked to be able-bodied and capable of holding a job- would make a good employee, in fact, with his attitude. Disabilities aren't always visible, of course. But he didn't appear to be an addict, showing up alert and active early in the morning after a 20-30 minute bike ride.

A young black man in sunglasses, cell phone in hand, came to the window.

Asked about dessert, he said something I didn't understand and pointed to a big slice of gingerbread.

"You didn't hear what he said," said Sally. "He said he wants the one that's darker than you."

I laughed. "They're all darker than me, man- what you want?" I asked.

He kept pointing at the gingerbread, grinning.

"I want the one that's much darker than you."

I passed him his gingerbread, and he thanked us all for the meal.

"Good morning!" came from the window.

It was Mrs. Jones, an elderly black woman leaning on a rolling walker. She handed an insulated jar in the window and I filled it with kool-aid. Sally assembled two meals on a tray, took them out to the dining room and help her arranges the plates in a box to carry home.

We had a firm rule against patrons taking food away. They could do it, but we didn't provide wrap, covers or anything to help. Mrs. Jones was an exception because her husband was bedridden.

"God bless you-all," she said on leaving. We blessed her in return.

Next at the window was Ms. Stearn, a tall black lady with short cropped hair and a severe expression.

"I don't want no hot dog, and no bread," she declared.

"Which dessert would you like, Ma'am," I asked.

She looked over the desserts and shook her head, wrinkling her nose.

After her came one of our regulars who could not eat pork: a soft-spoken middle-aged man with short, graying hair, who I guessed might be Iranian or Turkish.

Andy set up his plate, taking an all-beef hot dog from a small pot on the stove.

"Miss Betty," he said, "Give him two servings of the green beans, please."

"I can't give you the pork'n'beans because there's pork in it," he told the man. "I'm giving you two helpings of green beans, and the hot dog is all beef. Do you want a whole-wheat roll?"

"Yes," he replied, "Thank you very much."

Four small brown faces appeared at the counter, one a young boy asking for apple pie.

"Who are you kids with?" asked Sally. "You can't come in without your parents or an adult."

Ms. Stearn stood up from the table.

"Here, you kids!" she called. "You come with me."

She led them to the registration table and got each one signed in for a meal ticket.

Next up was a familiar Hispanic couple, who never wanted drinks or dessert, and always thanked us for the meal. Then came a pretty, chocolate-brown girl, absent mindedly singing to herself in time to "Girls just want to have fun" on the radio.

She gave an embarrassed giggle when I asked her about dessert. Later on, she stopped at the kitchen door to scold us.

"Y'all put ten pounds on me today!" she called, standing there for a moment in her skin-tight jeans.

Andy echoed my thought: "I don't know where she put it."

A young white man, new to us, collected his meal, stacking everything precariously, and edging away from the window.

"Thank you all, very much!" he said.

"You're welcome, my brother, enjoy it," called Andy.

He hesitated in surprise for a moment, then moved on to a table.

"He was surprised I called him 'brother'," Andy laughed, "But every man is my brother."

The words sound pretentious, but he spoke them as if commenting on the weather.

With only four desserts left on my tray, I moved them to the side and picked up the empty tray. Joe was washing dishes at the sink.

"Joe, can I give you this tray?" I asked.

"Thank you," he said, reaching to take it from me.

I turned to go the bread rack, but Consuela had already pulled out the next dessert tray and passed it to me.

"Thank you, Consuela,"

"You're welcome, Mr. Bob."

Three school aged children came through, shepherded by an elderly grandmother.

"Their mother's been missing for two weeks," Sally told me after they passed. "It's been on the news and in the papers."

"Gee. I hope she turns up OK," I said, though it didn't sound hopeful.

I must have missed that report. It would have been easily overlooked in our TV news- usually an hour of crime stories from around the region, punctuated by previews and weather reports.

Another new patron thanked us heartily after picking up his plate.

"It's great to be poor in America!" he said. "I used to travel all around on business. You wouldn't find this in Guatemala or Ecuador."

I knew we were winding down when a tall white man in glasses, made taller by a high peaked baseball cap, appeared in the window.

"Care for dessert today," I asked.

"No, thank you."

He never wants dessert, but I always ask- it's part of the meal, if he wants it. He's the point man for a half-dozen white men I think of as the "Elk's Club" - guys around my age who look like they could have walked out of the same social club.

They're not Elks, of course, and they probably don't know each other, but they all come in during the last half hour, wearing the regulation baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt, the shirt often proclaiming the military branch they served in. If I was coming in for lunch, I'd fit right in with them. (Need to get an Army T-shirt.)

Twenty patrons later, the last "Elk" appeared, in sunglasses and a moustache.

"Double scotch?" he asked, as I set his drink on the counter.

"Nope, this is one of those flavored vodkas- cherry, I think."

"Good enough!"

We pass some version of this joke every Thursday.

It was almost closing time when a tall, elderly black man appeared at the window, wearing a dress shirt, tie and straw Fedora. I'd heard Joe call him "Reverend Ketchup."

"My, my," he said, smiling down at the array of desserts.

After some deliberation, he indicated a slice of chocolate cake. On his dinner plate, he split a large bun and slathered both halves with ketchup.

"Thank y'all, and God bless you," he says in parting.

It's fun to work a morning with the kitchen crew, though it tires me out. I'm glad to have spent some of my time helping make sure no one in the community has to go hungry.

Nothing I see on these mornings looks like those depression-era soup lines. Few of our patrons are ragged. Few appear to be homeless. I would guess many are working some part-time job. Sometimes we see men from a city street maintenance crew or a dishwasher from a fancy restaurant.

I'm still puzzled, though, that so many people need a free meal in a relatively prosperous county. If I can develop something worth saying about our local situation, I'll cover it in another post.


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Revisions to this post:
Jan 17-19, misc. rewording, corrections and additional detail.

Energy Independence: Why Bother?
It doesn't make economic or geopolitical sense

In a global economy where we drive cars built in Japan, work on computers made in China and eat shrimp caught and peeled in Thailand, why do we hesitate to use oil pumped in Saudi Arabia?

Do we fear oil shortages or embargoes? We've weathered those before. The oil exporting countries can only hold back so long- they have to sell the stuff. Camels won't drink it, and you can't make vodka from it.

A nation prospers in global trade by exploiting its comparative advantage, exporting the goods it can produce better and cheaper than others. For the U.S., that's not oil. Of twenty major oil producing nations, our production costs are in the top three, and the range is wide. It costs nearly twice as much to produce oil here as in Russia; more than three times as much as in the middle east.

Data from CNN Money, reference below.
Notes: Other oil exporting countries not shown. Production cost figures vary from source to source, but the contrast between US and the lower cost producers always shows up.

Our president-elect has pledged to boost the tight oil (fracking) industry by removing virtually all federal regulation- a giant subsidy, paid not in dollars but in damage to our land, waters and atmosphere. Fracking is so destructive that New York, Maryland and Vermont have banned it, and Pennsylvania has it under a moratorium. Many counties and cities have enacted their own bans.

Rather than sacrificing air, land and waters to try to compete in the oil trade, we should work to strengthen our industries, possibly bringing back some that have offshored. Boosting industry will give us more jobs as well as more goods to trade for oil. Mr. Trump has made some progress in this direction already.

From a geopolitical point of view, energy independence is a fallacy. "Independence Now" assures dependence later, as Howard Odum pointed out decades ago:

"Such efforts made by nations which are short of energy will have the effect of using up what energy they have even more quickly..By becoming more independent now, these nations would certainly run out of resources even sooner and become even more dependent on others."

Many energy and foreign policy analysts are equally skeptical. In a 2012 poll of 57 energy experts, nearly two-thirds said energy independence was not a sensible goal. Daniel Yergin, summarizing the survey, called energy independence "A chimera which has been invoked by every U.S. president since 1973."

An article in Foreign Policy magazine that year traced the history of the concept, calling it "A century and a half of an idea whose time has never come." A defense department report, also published in 2012, criticized the concept.

Let those vast reserves of tight oil stay underground in the fracking plays, for now. Later on, if we desperately need the oil, we can decide whether it's worth the cost and trouble to extract it: Paying $4 or more for gasoline; polluting ground water and coastal waters with acids and carcinogens from fracking fluid; triggering earthquakes in vulnerable regions; creating millions of tons of radioactive solid waste; adding vast volumes of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere.

In desperation, we as a nation might decide to pay these costs. But we certainly aren't desperate now, with oil in the $50 range and gas around $2 a gallon.

Comments Jan 9
Energy independence never seemed like a realistic goal. If the major buyer of oil stopped buying, the world's other oil-producing nations would find themselves in a pretty bad economic fix. So why is it a good idea to eliminate the world's most reliable oil consumer?
Besides, as your graphic shows, the U.S. has nearly achieved independence, and yet prices remain relatively high and various lobbying groups are working feverishly to limit energy alternatives while Mr. T. pledges to revive the coal industry since the climate change thing is a Chinese myth. Ah, if only our theories operated in vacuums.
Tampa, Florida

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

CNN Money, table titled "The Cost to Produce a Barrel of Oil",

Kai Wang, "Energy Independence, Yes? No? and How?", University of Pennsylvania Public Policy Initiative,

Howard T. Odum and Elizabeth C. Odum, Energy Basis for Man and Nature, 1983, McGraw-Hill Inc.

Foreign Policy, "Energy Independence: A Short History,"

Daniel Yergin, "How is Energy Remaking the World", Foreign Policy magazine,

Energy Security Leadership Council, The New American Oil Boom: Implications for Energy Security,

Revisions to this post:
January 11: Added reference for data from CNN Money used in graph.

Nibbling at the Margin
Thoughts toward a New Year's resolution

I've never been enthusiastic about reducing my carbon footprint or energy consumption. It would have real effects, I know, and you can make extreme reductions, as the Riot 4 Austerity folks and others have demonstrated. But I can't help saying to myself, "Unless everybody does it, the effects are marginal."

Yet recent news got me thinking about that term "marginal." After a year of remarkably low oil prices, a few months of chatter about an OPEC deal to limit production started prices edging up again. Tight oil production had seemed to be in permanent decline, but rig counts started to climb, and climbed still more after the actual deal was announced.

The nub of all this excitement was a deal to cut production by 1.8 million barrels a day, against world production of about 93 million barrels a day. The prospect of a two per cent cut in supply was enough to lift investors' spirits and bring some of the most expensive, dirtiest extraction activity back on line.

OPEC is powerful, but in America it's selling into the biggest national oil market in the world. American drivers in their personal vehicles use roughly ten per cent of world oil production. And about two-thirds of those drivers are concerned about global warming and understand the basic facts about it.

If American drivers cut their mileage by 20%, they would reduce world oil consumption by nearly as much as the OPEC cut- apparently enough to reverse market sentiment. It could keep the fracking industry in decline, keep oil prices low, and keep gasoline prices around $2 a gallon in the near term.

Even if half those drivers cut their driving by ten per cent, it would save about half a million barrels a day, cooling demand significantly.

Impossible? It's been done before. Starting in 1976, Americans reduced their petroleum consumption by twenty-plus per cent (see graph below) within a year or two. Some of the cut came from industry, but much came from individuals using car pools, public transit, bicycling or walking. My experience was typical: I traded a late model gas guzzler for a more economical clunker, then commuted by motorbike for a few months, then organized a car pool.

USEIA, graph from Annual Energy Review 2009

What would it take to revive the Spirit of '76? Back then, we were motivated by high gas prices and shortages. Today's motivations are subtler: some of us are concerned about resource depletion, a great many are concerned about global warming; few are sure what to do about either. But nearly everyone is happy about $2 gasoline.

Paradoxically, that $2 gasoline is like any other limited resource: the best way to keep it around for awhile is to conserve it. We should remember, and teach our children, that any resource is valuable and should be conserved, even when it seems cheap. And conservation is our best source of clean energy. We know it works, and it's available right now.

Americans' devotion to the automobile is not entirely dictated by the layout of our freeways and suburbs- it's also a matter of habit and preference, as a thoughtful comparison with Europe will show. Even in sprawling motor cities like Atlanta or Orlando, public transport networks operate alongside the legions of automobile commuters, and there are bicycle paths and walkways that could take some commuters to work.

Using public transit has an added benefit: additional ridership helps to keep the system operating and expanding, so it will be there when you and others need it. (For that reason alone, I think we who believe in public transit ought to use it when practicable.)

Even when there's no way but the highway, car pooling can cut your personal gas consumption by three-quarters (plus you get to drive in those restricted lanes). Just combining errands saves time and gasoline- try to avoid single-destination trips.

If you live in the country and need your pickup truck to get around, you could consider joining a neighbor for trips into town. The timing might work out; tradition has it that farmers go to town when it rains.

I've cut my family's gas consumption more than 20% by using bicycle and bus for personal errands. But I'm retired, so it's fairly easy for me. If you're commuting to a job and/or taking kids to after school activities, you have many more constraints and fewer choices. Reducing gas consumption will take careful planning and extra effort. (If you're driving kids to and from school, think again about the school bus.)

The nifty thing about personal action is that 100% of your effort goes toward your intended goal. You don't have to donate to some big organization with lots of overhead, don't have to join the "Trump resistance" or the Trump supporters, don't need to argue with anyone about global warming or peak oil. Just use your time and effort to take some measures that make sense.

It isn't "just", I know. It takes planning, time and effort. But for many of us, it's doable. If you can see a way to cut your driving by even a few per cent, it's worth doing. In a small way, you'll help to slow global warming, to slow oil depletion, even to keep gasoline around $2 for awhile. And by visibly practicing conservation, you'll help to nudge the nation in the direction it needs to be going.

If you're already conserving, or even Rioting 4 Austerity, good for you. Riot On!

Jan 2
I've cut my gas consumption, but it's mostly because I've gotten older and have a more fuel-efficient car. Old farts don't cruise Jerry's Drive-in like younger guys do. I've long been a fan of trains. But I've found air travel to get worse and worse every year. Honestly, I think the appeal of mass transit of all kinds lies in its marketing. Make it cool, and folks will take it.
Tampa, Florida

I seem to drive as much in retirement as when I was commuting- or did before my recent cuts. With grandchildren in Orlando and DeBary, we do a lot of day trips.
-- Bob

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Oak Ridge Nat Lab Transport Data Book Ed. 35, 2016, Table 1.16

U.S. Energy Information Agency, "History of energy consumption in the United States, 1775-2009"

Gallup, "U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High"

Recent discussion on energy conservation:
Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017: Part I, Taking Stock

How we went on an energy diet, and what we lost (and gained!)

Meet the Scrapers: reducing energy use on the cheap

Robin Hill Gardens archive: Recent Riot Posts (2014-2015)

Revisions to this post:

Previous Post: Living with Heat II: Clothing and Accessories


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