Critics don’t have to make the painful choices

Posted in at 13:14 by RjZ

There are two sides to every argument of course, but at the end of the day, someone has to make a call about which side to choose. The company I work for delivers technology to help understand jet engines and the New York Times article  Mishap Raises Questions About Pratt and Whitney F-35 Engine caught my eye.

The Obama administration wants to cut funding for developing a second jet engine, claiming that it’s an example of government waste. Meanwhile, there are dozens of examples from history where having a back-up plan for a critical component has resulted in very significant savings over the long run.

From an engineering perspective, it is easy to be concerned that we might cancel support for other vendors during this trillion dollar development. Second vendors and designs make a lot of risk mitigation sense. From an economics perspective, that money isn’t going to waste. As GE performs similar work to Pratt and Whitney, the money the government spends flows into taxpayer’s pockets, and libertarian though I am, even I have to admit that government funding of incredibly expensive projects like this has made sense in the past. Isn’t creating jobs part of what the administration’s stimulus package is all about?

The Obama administrations critics correctly tell us that not funding a parallel development path for this critical military investment might well cost the United States loads of money in the long run. But let’s face it, as much as politicians would like to imagine it, there is no unlimited pot of taxpayer gold. We’ve already spent deep into the next generation and something has got to give. Where are the critics going to get the money? Build fewer roads? Stop funding education? Skipping the back-up plan for a jet engine may not make long term sense, but seems like it’s the only short term solution.

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Who’s side are you on?

Posted in Liberty at 18:19 by RjZ

Conservatives are usually closer to libertarians than democrats are when it comes to fiscal policy. That’s why it’s so surprising for me to see them coming out so strongly in favor of tort reform. Their idea, like this guy writing in to the Durango Herald is that the bulk of the ills in the United States’ health care system stems from doctors paying too much in medical malpractice insurance. Not only that, they’re prescribing ‘defensive’ medical procedures and worse, there are huge, headline grabbing, payouts costing the United States insurance purchaser “in excess of $100 billion” each year.

Mr. Aldrich doesn’t cite any sources for his price tag, and there are many more experts who disagree with him. The Washington Post cites quite a few in this piece, where they also mention the estimated $2.3 trillion that Americans spend on health care each year. Let’s give Aldrich the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows more than dozens of university professors and professional economists around the nation. Still, his frightening $100 billion would still amount to amount to a paltry 4.3% the year expense.

Tort reform hurts the individual. When I was 17 years old I was cleaning a balloon printing press after a day’s work. (Hey, it was a job.) The machine suddenly switched on, thanks, it turned out, to a faulty relay and poor design, and dragged my hand between two geared drums. Fellow workers were able to help me extract my smooshed hand after an excrutiating few minutes.

Two surgeries and a year of nasty physical therapy later, after everything had healed as much is it was going to, I sat in a lawyers office as he opened a large book and scanned the pages. Noting my age and my disability (1 finger, pinky, 90%, permanent; one finger, ring, 30%, permanent) he scanned the tables and compared the information in the rewards column and then arranged to have a check written to me for $2,200. (My medical costs were paid for as well.) The owner of the business had been at fault. He’d not only not maintained the presses, but he had been involved in their custom, not so awesome, design. California, however, is a no-fault worker’s compensation state and the rewards were fixed in this book. My hand still hurts sometimes when it’s cold out and the extent of his punishment for negligent design and maintenance? He had to continue to pay worker’s compensation insurance and I wouldn’t be coming back to work for him, thank you.

I should also mention, that had I come to work drunk that day, and fallen into the machine head first, worker’s compensation insurance would still have been required to pay (I wonder what the value of a crushed head works out to be?) And that’s how folks (usually liberals) defend no-fault insurance and other tort reform. It protects people, even when they’re at fault and saves money at the same time. I am glad I was able to contribute to the welfare of those who don’t have the sense not to come to work drunk.

But while you read about all those giant awards and, without knowing all the facts, and you cringe at what juries award some ignoramus who cries about the pain and suffering he endured when he had a hang nail removed from the wrong toe, ask yourself how you would feel if you were the unfortunate victim of some real, negligent mistake from a doctor or surgeon? Is it really worth less than 5% of all of our health care costs? Will this money really go to the taxpayer? (According that that Wash Post link above, Texas, which caps pain and suffering damages, didn’t save much after all.) Is this really the low hanging fruit that will rescue our health care system?

Limiting damages hurts individuals who actually deserve compensation and removes incentives to avoid accidents. It fails to address the problem (if there really is one, some of that $100 billion is rewarded for damn good reasons!) of juries and judges making unreasonable rewards and strips them of the freedom they once had by making the decisions even before the case has been heard. Libertarians seek to increase individual rights and freedoms, not limit them. I suppose Glenn Beck and friends are only Libertarians when they’re waving the flag, and not when it comes to actually promoting individual rights.

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Global warming increases graffiti

Posted in Society at 11:58 by RjZ

In Colorado, it’s easy to think that global warming (human caused or not) isn’t going to have much effect on your life. At worst, less snow in the mountains and maybe more water shortages (which are quite a big deal, but, hey, I just planted xeriscape landscaping and others could too.) Too bad it won’t be this easy.

I just returned from the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, where global warming is plain to see: bark beetle damage. Under normal circumstances the population of these little critters is limited by cold winters. For the last decade, they’ve been able to infest trees with impunity and the result is thousands of dead pine trees.

The aspens, meanwhile, are happy. They’re less sensitive to the bark beetle’s burrowing and they are likely to make significant advancements once these dead trees fall or burn and make way. While lugging my backpack through the high country and among the spreading stands of aspens, I began to speculate what the forest would be like as a result.

Aspens are beautiful. I’ve been told that they are the most photographed tree. Their white bark with strongly contrasting eye shaped markers where lower branches have fallen off as the straight trunked trees reach higher and higher are certainly stunning. Their golden, sometime fiery orange, fall color is legendary, as is the gentle quaking of their namesake leaves.

Still, I will miss pine forest. It’s shadier, for one. The thicker branches make hiking in even loose forests a cooler experience in summer and a warmer one in winter where the wind is blocked even at ground level. The acidic needles of pines, firs, and spruces also changes the forest floor; limiting tall flowering plants and favoring a delicate mix of lovely flowers, like the fairy slipper orchid, who have adapted to the sour soil. The aspen understory was filled, first and foremost, by more aspen, which grow like grass in dense thickets, and where trees weren’t sprouting, tall sunflowers and cow parsnip enjoyed the only slightly filtered light. Beautiful, sure, but try camping in it.
I saw a pair of pine squirrels vigorously fighting over territory and I imagined they’re not called pine squirrels by accident. They may not do well enough to be renamed aspen squirrels. I can only guess at the impact on other animals who depend on the eco-system that is so effected by the pines.

Is this how the forest will look?

Saddest, and silliest, of all, though, was the realization that the pretty white bark of aspen trees, which native Americans learned you could rub the powder from to use as a natural sunblock, is a perfect canvas for graffiti. Marked once, a heart surrounding John + Mary will remain right where the lovers put it, long after their divorce is final. Their testament does not, as some imagine, grow higher with the tree or grow over (except, perhaps, in very, very mature trees). If even one in a thousand visitors to the aspen forest think this might be a good place to record their love for posterity, the whole forest will be tattooed in no time.

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Prairie dog shade

Posted in Energy at 12:46 by RjZ

Smoke stacks and chimneys sprout frequently across the Chinese landscape and tourists passing in trains tsk tsk at the multi-hued gases streaming from them. While air pollution may have decreased in the United States and Europe over the last few decades, it’s primarily because we have exported it to China. The United States was a leading producer of steel, but doing so was blackening the skies around Pittsburg and the rest of the steel belt. Today, those cities are cleaner, but steel production, along with a wide range of heavy industries has departed for foreign shores, primarily China.

That’s likely part of the reason that instead of shaking their heads, or wagging their fingers, the Chinese people see all those stacks as one thing: progress.
Within 50 miles of my home in Colorado, there are recently three small fields slowly being covered by arrays of tilted aluminum infrastructure and black glass plates. Solar photovoltaic (PV) power. For now, all we notice are weedy fields they cover looking formerly fallow and unused, except by prairie dogs growing confused by the new shade above them. Drivers whizzing passed the new solar plants see one thing progress.

Today, fields of solar cells are shiny new beacons of a clean energy future, but their meager output will require them to cover field after field before they generate enough power to make a dent in our demand. The dirty little secret of photovoltaics, however, are the raw materials and processes it takes to make them. Thin film photovoltaics would cover every square inch of prairie dog towns across Colorado and still have trouble suppling enough energy for our state’s meager needs, and higher efficiency solar cells require rare earth metals and minerals. They’re not called ‘rare’ for nothing. Some scientists wonder if there will be enough of these elements on the entire earth to meet our needs. Better fund NASA’s trips to near earth asteroids soon

Let’s not forget that solar cells alone are no solution at all, unless, of course, you enjoy candle light dinners and never watch tv after dark. Solar energy, obviously, doesn’t make it to your home at night, and must be stored somewhere for use when it’s dark out. Several schemes exist (molten salt, pump storage, etc.) even if none of them are very promising from an economic viewpoint, but a new field alone, without storage, isn’t the progress it’s pretending to be. It’s barely a glass half full for a thirsty world.

Solar energy holds huge promise, of course. My roof would only look better with a few of these black panels on top, and I doubt anyone would care of the whole neighborhood, city, or state, followed suit. Home and other distributed sources of electricity reap a double benefit, sparing us the power distribution losses that steal as much as a quarter of the power we generate before it ever gets to our high definition televisions. Roofs everywhere aren’t being used for anything other than keeping the rain and snow off of furniture. Prairie dogs and farmers, and I predict, anyone who enjoys to the view may feel differently about all those fallow fields.

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Find something real to complain about

Posted in Society at 15:15 by RjZ

I really intended to reduce the amount of political nonsense I write here, but, well, it’s easier then having to constantly come up with travel stories and, well, lately, I am annoyed. I’ve already mentioned earlier how it seems to me that the political right in the U.S. is really going pretty nuts about Obama and, biased as I may be (hey, I didn’t vote for him either) it just seems ridiculous. There are so many examples, I could make a new category and blog daily about it. This may explain how news channels and political blogs stay in business.

Latest blast? Obama is indoctrinating our kids through a back-to-school address. Really! Check out some of the comments in the link, including this one from Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer:

“As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology,”

Is he serious? This is just embarrassing. I’m appalled that this paranoid nut is indoctrinating his four children about how not to be critical thinkers. The president was elected, by more than half of the nation. The last time we elected someone our Commander in Chief could barely make that claim, and we let him talk to school children. Bush was busy reading schoolbooks upside down while the towers were coming down, and I didn’t hear the GOP chairman complaining about wasting taxpayer dollars then. He’s the president. We don’t have to like him or agree with him, but speaking to school children is hardly indoctrination. At a minimum it’s civics.

It’s even more embarrassing that many of the same people complaining have no problem with indoctrinating our children into the Christian faith, using tax dollars and government programs. These members of the GOP are, doing one useful thing; they’re making the best argument yet for small government. I, for one, sure don’t want any of them involved in making decisions.

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It’s only bad when you say it

Posted in Society at 12:08 by RjZ

“Somewhere in Texas a villiage is missing its idiot,” “National Embarrassment, International Disaster,” “Fuck Bush.” Do you remember them? Plenty of cars are still driving around with these stickers on their rear bumpers. A few of them can be seen peaking out from underneath “Obama08″ and “Hope” stickers.

Racist NObama sticker

Racist NObama sticker

I was never a fan of Bush’s religious inspired adventurism, curtailing of privacy and individual rights, and general inability to articulate a clear thought. I agreed with many of the sentiments implied by the bumper sticker conversation.

On the other hand, I am not a huge fan of Obamanomics and I am quite afraid of the giant Keynesian experiment going on right now. And yet is it me, or is the U.S. right wing even more shrill than the left? Calling Bush an idiot is a personal attack that might not be the most polite or appropriate thing to do to the president of the United States but it claiming the president wasn’t even born here (against all evidence to the contrary) in an effort to get him kicked out (sounds desparate); calling him a (reverse racist) as Fox commentator Beck has done strikes me as a stretch, even if the same shrill conservatives are happy to jump on it.

An acquaintance of mine called the Bush era democrats “treasonous” because the offered dissent about the war. Under that silly argument , couldn’t suggesting Obama is a Marxist socialist be categorized the same? Shoe doesn’t fit so well when it’s on the other foot, does it?

And then there’s the sticker I saw on the back of a truck parked at the Denver Airport. (You didn’t think it’d be on a Prius did you? Stop stereotyping!) Clever isn’t it? A slight modification of Obama’s graphic promotional graphics and we’re lead to believe the owner of the car thinks Obama might be a Muslim and that’s perhaps why we shouldn’t vote for him. It’s difficult to know for sure (the Census Bureau does not count religious affiliation) but there are something like 2 million Muslims in the United States, or around 0.5%. That’s round about the same as the number of Jews. Just a guess, but it’s not as fashionable to be anti-semetic as it is to be anti-Muslim.

It’s too easy for me to be biased, after all, I thought at least a few of the Bush bumper stickers were right on, and I don’t believe, as many conservatives claim(ed…during the Bush administration), that it’s not patriotic to bash the president, but don’t you agree that stickers like this are just shrill, racist, crap and really only succeeding in making the far right look stupid? (Except it’s doubtful that this sticker was on some racist, radical’s car…I’ve seen too many similar sentiments to assume this is just a rare case.)

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