The Unbearable Lightness of Billions

Of course we’ll rebuild it, bigger and stronger than ever, but with what? (U.S. Navy photo of Hurricane Sandy aftermath by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade/Released)

I have been trying to apply arithmetic to the problem of hurricane relief. I know, this is like translating computer code to cuneiform tablets, but bear with me — ancient learning was, after all, learning. The costs of recovering from Hurricanes Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico) are now estimated at about $220 billion. Congress has thus far appropriated $15 billion for the purpose, acting on September 9, the very day FEMA was expected to run out of money.

By its timely action, Congress solved seven per cent of the problem. With a burn rate of two million dollars a day, FEMA will be broke again in 75 days (from September 9). Nobody’s talking about this. At least, not in any way that makes sense. In a cheery piece claiming that FEMA can never run out of money, the explainer website HowStuffWorks says it can’t happen in the future because in the past, Congress has always bailed it out in time, just like it did with its seven-per-cent solution of September 9. Continue reading

Resilience is Illegal in Florida

Let’s say you live in Florida. Yes, I know, that requires us to assume you are pretty oblivious to the rising seas and corrosive stupidity assailing the state from every direction, but let’s just say you live in Florida. No offense.

You’re smart enough to know that life in Hurricane Alley could get difficult, and you live after all in the Sunshine State, so you installed solar panels on your roof, enough to run your house, just in case. Now, we just assumed you were dense enough to choose to live in Florida, so let’s assume, on the other side of the ledger, that you are smart enough to have avoided some of the major pitfalls of the rooftop solar business.     Continue reading

Fresh Vegetables and Staple Crops are Turning into Junk Food

Even when it’s plants, bigger is not necessarily better. (Wikimedia photo)

A small but growing number of beleaguered researchers is challenging the mightiest financial powers on earth to proclaim an increasingly obvious fact: worldwide pollution is robbing all growing crops of their nutritional value. It has been well known for a while — and argued vehemently by climate change deniers — that elevated levels of carbon dioxide pollution in the air stimulate the growth of plants. (“See?” the deniers said gleefully, “pollution is good for you!”) But what is now becoming apparent is that at the same time the carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, it reduces plant nutrition.  More, it turns out, is not necessarily better. Who knew?

The man who is now the leading proponent of this idea, Irakli Loladze, is now at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska. He first stumbled on the concept in 1998 when he was a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He encountered some biology researchers who were finding that when they stimulated the growth of algae in a closed system, the zooplankton, the little critters that fed on the algae, did not flourish, but actually declined. Loladze desperately wanted to find out why, to see if the problem had wider implications, but there were two big problems. Continue reading

Irma Coverage: Slinging in the Rain

Breaking news: it’s raining here, too. (Wikimedia photo)

The history of humanity is a succession of stories of triumphs over disaster. That’s why they call us homo sapiens sapiens, which translates as “really, really smart dudes.” (Oh, wait. That’s not what they call us, it’s what we call ourselves. Still.) This past weekend, yet another triumph over yet another disaster. And I’m not talking about the resilience of the people of Florida, or the bravery of first responders or the fiendish cleverness of global-warming hoaxers; I’m talking about modern TV journalism as applied to disasters.

For days now, the best available satellite technology, fiber-optic communications, digital electronics and state of the art rain hoods have been deployed to provide us, the viewers, with unparalleled views of people who are too dumb to come in out of the rain. There are, apparently, hundreds of these people working in television. They are marvelously diverse, they come in all colors, genders, races and religions — although there are probably no conservatives, because they don’t believe in hurricanes. Continue reading

Bloomberg Business: FEMA Will Be Broke by Friday

Requests that Hurricane Irma hold off for a few days while Washington figures out how to pay for Hurricane Harvey have not yet had any effect.

Bloomberg Business News, relying on anonymous staffers in the US Senate and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reports that FEMA is burning cash at a rate of $9.3 million an hour, and will be broke in about 48 hours (as of Wednesday, September 6). This spending is in response to Hurricane Harvey’s assault on southern Texas, the costs of which are just starting to come in. Just about 72 hours from now Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes in history, will slam into Miami.

According to Bloomberg’s sources, FEMA had only $2.14 billion on hand last Thursday morning, and by Tuesday morning had spent over half of it. Of the billion dollars left, only half of it was available to spend. Presumably, if this liquidity problem cannot be solved within hours, FEMA will be out of money even sooner than Friday. Continue reading

Forget Korea: Irma is the Existential Threat to America

Meet Hurricane Irma. Her cloud is not mushroom-shaped, but it’s a greater threat to our well-being than Korea. (Wikimedia photo)

For years a gathering storm of mortal threats to our well being, threats obscured by the Kabuki Theater of national politics, threats ignored by the Keystone Kops who pretend to be our leaders, threats fueled by the Masters of the Universe who are happily burning the world to stay rich a little longer, threats to our food and water and air and shelter and climate — all these threats have gathered, and worsened, and all this time we’ve wondered: where’s the breaking point?

Hurricane Irma may well decide. If she fulfills the worse expectations of her — and recent storms such as Harvey have wildly exceeded the worst expected of them — she will barrel into Miami, or close along the vulnerable Florida Coast, as a monster Category Five hurricane. If she does, she could well break us.

Before Harvey hit, FEMA was bankrupt, by any normal measure, it was holding $20 billion in debt that it has no possible way to repay. The fact that this debt is to the US government does not alter the fact that it is debt which, if not repaid, could ruin the deeply indebted creditor. Now, the governor of Texas says his state will need $120 billion to rebuild. Continue reading

A Gift from the Great Predator

The Great Predator makes a selection. Does he also bring a gift? (Photo by featherlightphoto.com)

I have not lately spent as much time afield in search of nature’s lessons as I once did. Nature has responded by striding up to my recliner and dumping lessons in my lap. She’s like that: maddeningly impervious to urgent investigation, then suddenly extroverted when your attention wanders.

The other day I was observing the one ritual that remains inviolable in our household — happy hour — from my perch on the second-floor deck that overlooks the east pasture. It has been a remarkable summer here, with no heat waves (half the days in August we did not even turn on the air conditioner), and rains frequent enough that the grass is lush and the roads are not dusty. This long spell of perfect weather, I have decided, has been given to me by the universe so that I can think and write more objectively about global warming. Continue reading

You Might be a Democrat! Take the Test if You Dare!

[I have graduated from clickbait headline school See the difference?]

Who, me? A Democrat? You’re kidding. (Flickr Caricature by Donkey/Hotey)

If it makes sense to you, after seeing a riot in Charlottesville staged by gun-toting, swastika-wielding, white-hood-wearing psychopaths, to propose as a remedy the removal of pigeon-stained, previously unnoticed statues from town squares across the country — if you think the country will be much better off once all those statues are gone — you might be a Democrat.

If it seems right to you, after seeing the opposition party blow itself up trying to get rid of Obamacare, after seeing the massive eruption of popular support for Bernie Sanders during 2016, after reading the polls that say most of the people in general, even most of the people in Congress, are ready for single payer health care insurance — if your response to all of this is to propose sticking a few band-aids on the sore spots of Obamacare and to resolutely ignore the prospects for single payer — why, then, you must be a Democrat. Continue reading

The Global War on Tourism Intensifies

This is the enemy army, just disembarked from its troopship in the background. We must stop them on the beach. (Wikimedia Commons photo.)

“Tourism kills what tourism touches,” Buckminster Fuller is supposed to have said. He said it a long time before Airbnb, Uber, cheap cattle-class airfares and $100 cruises, the advent of which has made what he said even more valid. Now, across the world, a backlash is rising against militant tourism and the suffering it inflicts on the innocent. Some disgusted locals in Barcelona inscribed on a wall this summer, “Why call it tourist season if we can’t shoot them?” Other Catalans vented by temporarily hijacking tour busses and slashing their tires.

Similar outbursts have occurred across Europe this summer as besieged residents of quaint destinations reacted to the overcrowding, pollution, inflated prices and hideous clothing of foreigners wandering around their streets at leisure. In addition to Barcelona, Mallorca, San Sebastián, Dubrovnik and Venice saw anti-tourist demonstrations this summer. Continue reading

Digital Advertising: The Rise and Fall of Crappy Crap

Loud, obtrusive, surgically targeted, and, apparently, utterly worthless: digital ads.

A funny thing happened at Procter and Gamble in the last quarter of 2016. P&G manufactures hundreds and hundreds of consumer products, and with annual revenues of over $65 billion a year is one of the largest advertisers in the world — it spends something like $8 billion a year — and in the final quarter of last year it made a significant change. It cut $140 million from its budget for digital advertising, just in that quarter. That amounts to a reduction of $1.5 million per day. And nothing happened.

Let’s be clear about what digital advertising is. It’s the ad that pops into view in the middle of your Facebook page, or your Google search, or that suddenly obscures an article you’re reading until you can figure out how to get rid of it. Or, and this is my personal favorite, it’s the video that starts playing loudly despite the fact that you have your computer sound muted; and after you mute your sound again, the ad simply unmutes it and carries on. It’s the ad for a new refrigerator that appears on just about every page you look at, right after you send an email to a friend about looking for refrigerators. Continue reading