Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Growing Older

Received from a friend:

"Growing Older is Mandatory; Growing Up is Optional."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is It a War or a Squirmish?

The former half-term governor of Alaska has apparently blessed us with another coined word.

Just as a reminder: the first United States military action against Tripoli began in 1801 and continued for the entire first term of Thomas Jefferson. We did not declare war, though Tripoli did. The only military forces we deployed in this First Barbary War were the Navy and Marine Corps.

Was that a war or a squirmish? For that matter, what do we call our two-year long conflict (1798 - 1800) with France under our second president, John Adams? Historians frequently refer to it as our "quasi-war" with France. Is a quasi war something like a squirmish? Both words have a "qu" in them.

From the beginning of our republic in 1788 until after World War II, we have often dispatched the Navy/Marine Corps team abroad to deal with crises, many times for extensive, protracted engagements. We never declared war in any such case.

March 8, 1965, my ship's guns (I was Weapons Officer of USS Higbee (DD-806)) stood by at Danang, Viet Nam, to provide gunfire support (if needed) for 3,500 Marines who went ashore there. These were our first combat forces, later reinforced by another 20,000 Marines.

Had our intervention remained at that level, using the Navy and Marine Corps, we would probably have been better off.

Twenty years later, using the Navy/Marine Corps team was no longer an option. Not that they couldn't have handled Panama and Grenada just fine, but the policy of the day required that it be a "joint" operation, whether needed or not. So the Pentagon jumped through hoops to find something for the Army and the Air Force to do.

Let's not go down that path in Libya.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Inherently Safe Nuclear Reactors

A few days ago I mentioned that China is proceeding with an inherently safe nuclear reactor design called the "pebble bed" reactor.

Today's New York Times has an article with details and illustrations of the design here.

But China isn't putting all their energy pebbles in one basket. They are building more conventional reactor designs and moving ahead vigorously with other energy alternatives as well, including wind and solar.

A further benefit of the pebble bed reactor design is that it operates at much higher temperature than the boiling water reactors like the ones in Japan. The higher temperature is not only more efficient for generating electricity, it may also be used to produce vast quantities of hydrogen - sufficient for fueling automobiles. This could free the automobile from dependence on petroleum, while abolishing exhaust pollution. When you burn hydrogen, the only waste product is water.

Critics of each of the above approaches often complain that "[fill in the blank]" isn't the answer. China seems to say, "no problem - we'll just try them all."

Who do you suppose has the best chance of leading the way into the world's energy future?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Not Declare War?

Earlier today I watched talking heads debate whether President Obama exceeded his authority by committing US forces to military operations in Libya.

This is a continuation of what seems a perpetual argument over executive authority and the provision of the US Constitution granting Congress the authority to declare war.

The contention that the president must get a declaration of war before commencing military action is as bogus as the contention that the Second Amendment grants individuals the personal right to own firearms. In fact, there is a long-forgotten connection between the two provisions of the Constitution.

Since 1798, the United States has intervened with military forces in overseas conflicts or potential conflicts about 250 times. The US Navy History Center provides a partial list here. Of those conflicts, only in five instances did the United States issue a declaration of war.

Our first armed conflict overseas was our quasi-war with France from 1798 to 1800. The action was mostly at sea, but we landed naval and marine forces on some Caribbean islands of France.

Our second overseas military action was the First Barbary War (against Tripoli) from 1801 to 1805. ("From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli....")

So why was there no congressional declaration of war in either of these two conflicts, both undertaken under presidents who were founding fathers? The answer is so simple and obvious, you may think it can't possibly be true.

From the beginning of the American Republic, we had two military departments: the Department of the Navy (including the Marine Corps) and the War Department. If the military action required significant forces from the War Department, there was a declaration of war. If it could be handled by the Department of the Navy by itself, there was no declaration of war.

There was a logic to this. From our founding in 1789, Americans had a deep distrust of standing armies. We based our defense policy on state militias consisting of "the people" trained to bear arms - or at least all white males aged 18 to 45 years. All members of the militia were required by federal law to provide uniforms, weapons and powder at their own expense. Procedures were first spelled out in the Militia Act of 1792.

One of the purposes of the first federal census of 1790 was to determine, state by state, how many citizens there were of military age.

With a small standing army, the only way to mobilize for an expeditionary force was to call up forces from the state militias. A formal declaration of war laid the foundation for such a call up.

This was done for the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II.

Now we have a large standing army and a national guard integrated with that standing army into the "total force concept." The struggle against a large standing army, reflected in the Second Amendment, has been lost. Is it time to rethink our constitutional arrangements for defense?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Radiation is Scary - But It's All Around Us

Like most folks, I've been watching the TV reports of the disaster in Japan. I'm in awe of the courage and persistence of the nuclear plant workers. They didn't give up, despite the hazards, and they seem to be gaining the upper hand. And the populace hasn't panicked.

What about those face masks so many Japanese are wearing? They won't do any good against gamma rays, but they can be very effective against alpha particles. You don't want alpha particles to get inside your body.

Does all this mean we must abandon nuclear power?


How hazardous is nuclear power?

Today's Dot Earth blog on the New York Times site addresses the issue of "Dread to Risk." The article is worth reading. The most interesting link is to a chart comparing radiation dosage in various circumstances. It shows, for example, that eating a single banana exposes one to more radiation than living for a year in the vicinity of a nuclear generation plant. Living near a coal powered generation plant exposes you to three times as much radiation as living near a nuclear plant. Take a look at the table.

The risk is low. But clearly not zero in case of a major disaster such as an earthquake and tsunami.

The present disaster in Japan is a result of the 40-year old design, which requires a very complex cooling system with backups.

What this suggests is that we should investigate other types of nuclear reactors. The most dangerous kind of reactor is the graphite moderated reactor of the Chernobyl variety. Next most dangerous are the boiling water reactors like Three Mile Island and like those used in Japan. A better reactor type is the pressure water reactors like many of our newer reactors.

All of these reactors require intact and functional cooling systems to insure safety.

China is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to mass produce an inherently safe reactor design, known as a pebble bed reactor. There are other candidate designs that will not overheat and explode if cooling fails.

It is past time to invest in safer designs.

One thing to remember: there is no risk-free way of producing and using the large amounts of energy needed for modern civilization.

Each year, about 2500 Americans die in residential fires. Many of these happen in winter and result from use of kerosene heaters.

Let's put our hazards in perspective.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japanese Serenity

It has been 45 years since I lived in Japan.

Much has changed, but much remains the same.

Forty-five years ago, it was not clear that Japanese would accept nuclear power.

What was clear even then was the ability of Japanese society to pull together.

American newspapers write of panic in Japan. As I watch the coverage, I see no signs of panic. Everyone is going about their business with purpose, and the purpose is to help each other.

It reminds me of Reinhold Neibuhr's Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On, Wisconsin?

My high school fight song was sung to the tune of "On, Wisconsin!"

That was probably appropriate, since many if not most of my teachers and many students were from Wisconsin. Probably because of the climate, since my High School was in Anchorage, Territory of Alaska.

It was sixty years ago in Anchorage that I discovered The Progressive, founded by Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette in 1909. When I encountered the magazine, I was impressed that it pulled no punches in attacking the controversial issues of the day. I was also impressed at the magazine's dedication to democracy and free speech. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was a frequent target.

I don't remember ever subscribing, but I would pick up the latest copy whenever I saw it at a news stand. The articles were always thoughtful, probing and perhaps a bit edgy.

It hasn't changed a lot.

To get a flavor of it, check it out here.

Maybe it's time I subscribed.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brains, Education and Jobs

My favorite economist, Paul Krugman, has just begun to address computerization and its effects on employment. Today's column addresses the "hollowing out" of the distribution of jobs. He includes an interesting graph comparing job distribution by skill level in the 80's the 90's and the first decade of the current century.

In a nutshell, mid skill level jobs are disappearing. In the past decade, so are jobs at the higher skill level. In another post, he shows how the ratio of pay for college graduates compared to high school graduates stabilized more than a decade ago.

If your children and grandchildren want an occupation with a reliable future, they need to find something that isn't easily replaced by computers and can't be readily outsourced offshore. Crafts such as plumbing, cabinet making and welding might be good candidates.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Computers and Lawyers

About three weeks ago I called attention to the effect of computerization on jobs in my post at:

Today the New York Times reports on the ability of computer software to replace entire platoons of lawyers with software in complex litigation cases. The article here explains how new advances in software allow firms to screen vast volumes of computer files for relevant documents responding to discovery requests. The impact is substantial. In some cases provided as an example, five hundred attorneys can be replaced with a single attorney.

Experts familiar with the developments suggest that the effect will be that in the future there will be fewer legal jobs, not more. Similar effects are being felt among loan and mortgage officers and tax accountants.

Ironically, computers are also replacing computer engineers who once worked designing computer chips. In fact, unemployment in information technology leads the list of fields tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in unemployment.

The bottom line: the United States economy is being “hollowed out.” New jobs are coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid, jobs in the middle are being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing.

The only thing left to do seems to be to replace the financial manipulators at the top of the pyramid with software.

Let them look for a job.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Census and Elections

The Census Bureau has just released additional data for local jurisdictions in North Carolina. The data for municipalities is posted on the North Carolina League of Municipalities web site. Below are population figures for municipalities in Pamlico County, along with voter registration numbers for each municipality (from Pamlico County Board of Elections):

2010 census Voter Reg
Alliance 776 469
Arapahoe 556 330
Bayboro 1,263 519
Grantsboro 688 459
Mesic 220 154
Minesott Beach 440 408
Oriental 900 870
Stonewall 281 187
Vandemere 254 200

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Country Is Broke?

Are we really broke? Some of my recent posts on the economy make reference to "starve the beast" and other efforts that have been pursued over a sustained period. The obvious goal was to increase the power and wealth of the powerful and wealthy. It seems to be working, to the detriment of everyone else.

Today's New York Times has a different (and clearer) take on the same process here. It is worth reading.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What's the Hurry?

A local media outlet described the pending amendment to Oriental's Growth Management Ordinance as including "a provision to grant automatic rezoning approvals."

This is not completely accurate. In fact, the draft amendment to GMO Article XV would apply to any amendment to any provision of our zoning regulations, not only amendments to the growth management map. It would apply to changes in setbacks, for example, to height limitations, to density provisions or any other zoning rule. The proposal would provide automatic granting of any application for any amendment if the Board of Commissioners fails to take final action on the application within 95 days of their first meeting to consider the application.

What's the hurry?

The good news is that the Board of Commissioners has returned the draft to the Planning Board.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Zoning - On Getting It Right

Oriental's March 1 meeting of the Board of Commissioners decided to send the present draft amendment to the Town's Growth Management Ordinance back to the Planning Board for further work.

This is one of those times it seems best to make the effort and take as much time as necessary to do it right. The issue under consideration is how to proceed with amendments to the Town's zoning ordinance.

There seem to be no urgent projects on the horizon at present. The Board has apparently decided it is more important to get it right than to rush forward.

Good decision.