Monday, June 27, 2016

Will Brexit spread?

The Full Monty, a film set in Sheffield England is a sad but whimsical account of how six unemployed steelworkers attempt to scare up some money by becoming strippers.  While taking off one's clothes is considerably easier than making steel, organizing an act that will actually pay is difficult enough and at the end of the movie when the steelworker-strippers are lustily cheered by a house full of drunken women, there is a sense of accomplishment that passes for a happy ending.

Of course, this happy ending is all fiction.  The real story of Sheffield is far more miserable.  This city had been the heart and soul of English steelmaking since they started making knives in the 14th century.  In the 1740s, Benjamin Huntsman perfected a superior method for making crucible steel and by the 1850s, Henry Bessemer had moved to town with his vastly improved steel process.  Steel was now a mass-produced product and by 1900, Sheffield's population had grown to 491,000.  In 1973, the UK joined the EU.  In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher "rationalized" Sheffield out of the steel business in an EU-wide restructuring of the industry.   Sheffield was probably targeted because of its long association with trade unionism. 120,000 people lost their jobs.  Sheffield lost its reason to exist.  And even if six of those ex-workers had managed a one-night payoff for going The Full Monty, that still leaves them suffering through an existential nightmare for over 30 years.

A.R. Heathcotes & Co - Steelworks

So guess what?  The people of Sheffield voted to leave the EU.  The vote was closer than in the surrounding countryside because Sheffield itself has become something of center for immigrant settlement.  But the folks who remembered what happened to their city and lives were still enough to carry the day.

The EU is failing for one simple reason. It is based on a ridiculously stupid idea—neoliberalism.  That idea set has been around since forever and can be directly implicated in such disasters as the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression.  You can fill libraries with solid evidence why these crackpot ideas don't work.  Well, they do work for a tiny few who can afford to buy the economic conversation.  Explain to me how someone in Sheffield whose life is as disaster can EVER relate to people who spout meaningless neoliberal platitudes that were so carefully drilled into their heads as part of their "elite" educations.

What EU doesn't understand is that most people, if given a chance, would gladly throw their smug butts into a dungeon, but will at least vote to get them out of their lives.  Because while most detest the arrogance of our precious "elites," what really infuriates people is that they are so utterly incompetent at building a Europe that actually works for its citizens.

Some pretty good stuff is being written about Brexit.  The ruling class usually gets its way.  And goodness knows, they have a good chance of getting their way this time.  But for a brief moment, they have caught a glimpse of what a world looks like where they don't pick the outcome even after buying up the economics profession, the newspapers, and damn near all the politicians.  It's getting harder to bullshit people.  This is a story worth writing about.
  • The first article today asks a most obvious question, "why does the so-called left defend the EU?"
  • Alexander Mercouris speculates on the spread of Brexit, The US, the EU and the Spectre of Brexit
  • Finally, Michael Hudson snickers about the vast fortunes lost by folks betting the wrong way on Brexit.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, oh my

As someone who has long held the EU with suspicion, if not outright contempt, I suppose I should be celebrating that the Brits have voted to leave that poisoned organization.  But mostly, I feel fear and resignation because these votes rarely change anything.  The EU has a long history of forcing countries to keep voting until they get it "right."  Worse, the EU's fatal flaw is that it is essentially a neoliberal project and merely getting rid of it won't change much because the UK is awash in committed, home-grown neoliberals—including many in the leadership of the Brexit campaign.  In fact, outside of the campus of the University of Chicago, it would be hard to imagine anyplace where neoliberalism is more widespread and more pure than the Sceptered Isle.  In any case, the mechanics of actually leaving the EU are so convoluted that it will require an absolute minimum of two years to accomplish the task.

If the EU was in fact NOT a neoliberal project, it would probably be the glowing achievement envisioned by it founders.  But it isn't.  So the great task in front of those who are horrified by what the EU has become is to come up with a replacement for neoliberalism, not trash the organizational structure of the offices in Brussels.  Keynes explained the problem best.
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Operation Barbarossa—75 years on

On Jun 22 1941, the Germans unleashed their by-now well practiced Blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union.  The result would leave nearly 27 million dead from USSR alone.  The destruction was mind-boggling.  If USA had suffered such an invasion, everything from the Atlantic to the Mississippi would have been destroyed.  And yet, because the Soviet Union is so large, they were able to fall back and mount a spectacular defense / counterattack that destroyed the greatest German Armies and eventually drove them back to Berlin.

Yes, we who were born after 1945 in USA have never been told this story.  This is a damn shame because without understanding Barbarossa, not much that happened in the next 50 years made much sense.

Interestingly battle for Russia was reported magnificently in a documentary by one of USA's best film-makers—Frank Capra.  The footage he uses was often shot under dangerous and dificult conditions.  It has been lovingly restored by the US National Archives and is on YouTube.  Or right here.  Watch this and see if it doesn't add a great deal to your worldview.

Monday, June 20, 2016

ExxonMobil CEO: ending oil production is 'not acceptable for humanity'

We want the oil companies to be more enlightened than they are.  Unfortunately, MOST of the criticism of Big Oil is mistaken to the point of goofiness.  Whenever I hear someone go off on oil companies, I want to shout, "If you think these folks are so evil, stop doing business with them."  Of course, that will never happen because people need energy to survive.  Most folks would be in terrible trouble if their energy supplies were cut off for 72 hours.  Fuels are used to grow their food and get it to their kitchens, keep them warm, heat their water, cook their food, etc!  And if their energy supplies were cut off at the wrong time, such as when they were in the middle of heart surgery, they would die in minutes.  Besides, a large number of people would lose their pensions if the oil industry were closed down.

Then there is the reality of the oil business itself.  It takes around 20,000,000 barrels per day to keep the USA running.  That folks, is a LOT of oil.  The people I know in oil are absolutely in awe of that number and spend most of their working lives scrambling to supply that vast ocean of fuels.  The oil companies almost never advertise because people come in to buy whenever that pointer goes to E.  And to get that oil, the oil giants travel to some of the most inhospitable places on earth and deal with some of the most violent and well-armed governments.  They know what they do is important and that it requires the dedication of hard-working, intelligent, and often extremely brave people.  And they don't suffer fools gladly.

The ONLY solution for burning fossil fuels is to come up with another way to power the society without them.  Now it would be nice if the oil companies were working on that problem, but considering the size of the problems they must solve on a daily basis, it is probably a bit much to expect them to take on another insanely difficult challenge.  And so we discover that the folks who figured out how to make affordable solar panels came from the computer industry—specifically the people who figured out how to coat glass with semiconductors.  I found out not long ago that the key actor was Applied Materials—the people who made the tools necessary to fabricate integrated circuits.  There is also an excellent Youtube on how all this was accomplished (about 30 minutes).

Monday, June 13, 2016

New journalism—what happens when mainstream media becomes hated by all?

The commercial "mainstream" media has been in trouble for quite awhile now.  I pretty much gave up on it in 1982.  After four years of microscopically examining the flaws of the Carter administration, I realized that the same "journalists" were going to give Reagan a free pass for policy and administrative decisions that were far worse than anything Carter had done.  I decided that watching such outright lying and abject stupidity was probably bad for my health and one day, I just stopped watching the newscasts and reading the daily papers.  As a news junkie since junior high, this was harder than I thought it would be.  Finding alternative news sources turned out to be difficult and expensive and the closest newsstand that sold what I was looking for was a 14-mile round trip.  So yes, I cheated.  I'd flip on CBS or PBS on occasion to see if I was missing something interesting or important.  Mostly I confirmed that infotainment was just as big a time-waster as I remembered.

There was also a fascinating outlet for my political and social curiosity.  About the same time, I stumbled across my maternal grandfather's reading list from the 1920s.  He was a regular customer of the output of a Girard Kansas progressive publishing house run by a relocated Philadelphia lawyer named Emanuel Haldeman-Julius.  His main product were these nickel and dime books for the working man called The Little Blue Books.  Soon, I met a guy who had boxes of these things and would eventually read over 400 of them.  It was the most incredible intellectual experience of my life.
The novelist Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) described the Haldeman-Julius publications in his autobiography and their potential influence:

Riding a freight train out of El Paso, I had my first contact with the Little Blue Books. Another hobo was reading one, and when he finished he gave it to me. The Little Blue Books were a godsend to wandering men and no doubt to many others. Published in Girard, Kansas, by Haldeman-Julius, they were slightly larger than a playing card and had sky-blue paper covers with heavy black print titles. I believed there were something more than three thousand titles in all and they were sold on newsstands for 5 or 10 cents each. Often in the years following, I carried ten or fifteen of them in my pockets, reading when I could. Among the books available were the plays of Shakespeare, collections of short stories by De Maupassant, Poe, Jack LondonGogol, Gorky, Kipling, Gautier, Henry James, and Balzac. There were collections of essays by Voltaire, Emerson, and Charles Lamb, among others. There were books on the history of music and architecture, painting, the principles of electricity; and, generally speaking, the books offered a wide range of literature and ideas. […] In subsequent years I read several hundred of the Little Blue Books, including books by Tom Paine, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Huxley.
So no, I did not miss being lied to by folks who were turning CBS News into light fiction.  And when I got connected to the internet, any reason to look at commercial news utterly vanished.  As I say these days, "Ignorance is a choice!"  But the internet is not an unvarnished blessing.  In fact, most of what's there is crazy and ignorant.  But here's the deal—even if the internet is 98% rubbish, the remaining 2% is worth knowing.  And 2% of all of human knowledge is more that the brightest among us can hope to absorb in a lifetime.  So the bigger question is, "How do you find the worthy 2%?"

Actually, I have a BS filter that works so well, I barely think about it any more.  But recently, I had a young man ask me how I felt so sure-footed in separating the wheat from the chaff.  My answer had two parts.
  • Even with the internet, it still helps to read the books written by those who were there when the great human ideals were invented.  
  • Never scorn as unimportant the little factoids that describe how the world works.  It may not seem a big deal to know that water runs downhill or that the suns rises and sets in a different place each day with a certainty that can be predicted for centuries in advance. But you would be astonished at how many arguments fail to meet such simple intellectual standards.  Even better, large complex arguments can be constructed from a multitude of smaller facts that are beyond rational debate.
Predictions of the death of mainstream journalism have been around for a couple of decades now.  I figured the time for these dinosaurs was past when I saw of survey conducted by the Washington Post where over 30% did not want delivery of the Post—even if it was free.  Of course, Washington is a town where people still use fax machines and the nation's nuclear arsenal is controlled by an ancient computer system that uses 8" floppies.  So I would imagine that the pundits who share the inside-the-beltway thinking will be the very last to know that the Post is not a useful and reliable news source.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Political update—is this the best we can do?

Politics is beyond depressing these days.  Yes I know, I am the one who argues that the big problems can only be solved by putting the Producer Classes back to work.  The best that politics can accomplish is to make it possible for the Producers to organize into a major problem-solving mode.  The worst they can do is divert all the community's spare change into their own bank accounts—they certainly can get in the way.

The idea that we can afford to waste another four years diddling while the earth burns is beyond obscene.  We just wasted the last eight years getting almost nothing done and since Hillary promises to be four more years of Obama, there is little hope for improvement.  And Trump is a climate change denier.  The guy owns some expensive Florida beach-front property so the evidence that the climate is changing is set to wash up on his lawn.  And since he does have a few Producer tendencies, he might be open to some enlightenment if he could be convinced that doing something was up his alley, but that is expecting a big conversion.

The good news is that Bernie Sanders has demonstrated just how large an audience there is for a Progressive / Populist message and how possible it is to access them with a combination of the internet and live appearances.  That he got so many votes is miraculous.  Here in Minnesota he won 60-40.  And I am pretty sure that not one person made a pro-Bernie voting decision reading the Minneapolis Tribune or watching WCCO.  Sanders did run some professionally-produced ads on local TV but I am not sure those moved votes either.  Changes in communication technology tend to lead to major social change like the printing press in Germany leading to the Protestant Reformation.  I keep waiting for digital communication to lead to significant social shifts.  The Sanders campaign may be what I have been looking for.

Even so, I look at the disaster that is the neocon / neoliberal loonie Hillary Clinton and feel genuine despair.  How could it come to this?  It wouldn't be so bad if there were plenty of time to solve the big problems rolling towards us with the certainty of gravity and arithmetic.  But there isn't.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Upgrading lighting

There is no easier or better way to upgrade one's energy efficiency than by swapping out light bulbs.  That doesn't mean it's easy because the whole lighting market has been a moving target for several years.  It has been confusing enough so that there has been political blowback against energy-efficient bulbs.  I know someone who bought a whole big box of tungsten incandescent bulbs because he thought the energy efficiency standards were going to fail.  Our resident political nutcase, Michele Bachmann, even made her war on energy-efficient lighting part of her run for the presidency.

And hard as it is for me to admit it, Bachmann had a point.  The interim "solution" was the compact fluorescent bulbs (the curly-tails).  They were generally affordable but had significant problems shared with the rest of fluorescent bulbs—mostly they contained mercury.  But the other big problem was that they had an unpleasant color—fluorescent bulbs start out green.  In order to make them look like incandescent lights (which everyone loves because they resemble fire light) an orange-yellow coloring had to be added.  Since the original green was never fully covered, the resulting light could make skin look jaundiced and most folks object to looking like they may be suffering from liver disease.

The real solution was the Light Emitting Diode (LED).  These utterly clever devices were astonishingly energy efficient.  But in the early versions, they didn't put out a lot of light and were EX-PEN-SIVE.  The first bulb to replace a 40 watt incandescent I saw at Home Depot about eight years ago cost $40.  Now there were calculations that in 10 years or so, you could pay for one of these with electrical savings but $40 was still too much sticker shock for me.  And seriously, this so-called 40 watt replacement only put out about 80% the light of a $1 tungsten bulb.

Two years ago, I went shopping for replacements for the 50 watt GU-10 halogen bulbs in some track lighting.  There were  LED replacements at the local big-box building supply but they still wanted $25.  I was able to find some on Amazon for less than $7 so that's what I bought.  The LED replacement uses 6 watts.

A month ago, we decided to finally strip some truly ugly wallpaper off the dining room wall and paint.  My SO had purchased a lovely George Nelson bubble lamp about three years ago to replace an ugly brass chandelier, but she has been sick and so this project sank to the very bottom of our to-do list.  But one morning I heard her cursing at the wall paper steamer so I knew the project was back on.  And I was going to have to make some decisions about installing this wonderful light fixture.

The instructions said the fixture could accommodate up to a 150 watt incandescent.  While LEDs have come down considerably in price, there was still really nothing that big and even two 75 watt lamps would cost about $80.  However, the 60 watt replacements are now running in the $3-5 range—the more expensive ones are dimmable.   So I chose to put two 60s (9.5 watts) in the bubble knowing that this was already a lot of light.  The other choice was color.  The replacement for incandescent bulbs are usually listed at 2700°.  And unlike the curly tails, they really are 2700°.  But there are also many LEDs at 3000° and it is a color I really like.  It is close enough to the old tungsten color but it is just enough more "white-bright" to make reading easier and food look better.

About those dimmers.  In the old incandescent days, a dimmer merely changed the amount of electricity flowing to the bulb.  With LEDs, the dimmer must control a diode.  The bad news is if you want to control your light levels, you must replace that too ($25).  The good news, in my humble opinion, is that with an LED, the light output changes but the color does not.  I find this cool beyond words.  But apparently, not everyone agrees because there are now LEDs that DO change color as they are dimmed.  In fact, I saw one LED that allowed you to dial up the color from candlelight (2100°) to high noon sunlight (6200°) with an app on your smartphone.

So the lessons I learned about the brave new world of LEDs include:

1) The most common bulbs are dirt cheap already.  These include 40 and 60 watt replacements and the recessed can lighting bulbs.

2) The great prices can be had at Costco, IKEA, and Amazon (and probably others.)  My local big box store has a brand new LED section with prices as low as IKEA.  Price is no longer an excuse to not buy these truly amazing bulbs.

3) There are reasons for installing LEDs beyond costs.  Best example might be replacing tube fluorescents.  The replacement for a 40 watt tube currently costs around $12.  The difference in efficiency is small compared to swapping out an incandescent—the LED requires 21 watts so the energy saving is less than 1/2.  But I know someone who works under those tubes and recently they were replaced by LEDs.  Instant on.  No flickering (no headaches).  No hum.  No mercury.  Great color.  Changing the light source has changed his work environment.

So here it is—our new dining room fixture.  Designed in 1952—it became an icon of Modernism.  It has been described as a paper lantern crossed with a flying saucer.  The amazing exterior is a plastic once used to mothball Liberty ships.  And I am willing to bet that this classic has never looked better than with LEDs providing the light.  We are extremely pleased with the outcome.  I had a blast learning the possibilities of this new world of lighting.  And when I get done converting the house to LEDs, we will use less than 20% of the electricity of the old lights.