Sunday, November 22, 2015

From Kunduz to Paris, with Love

No one wants to be an innocent victim of human violence. The recent attacks in Paris, Mali, Lebanon and elsewhere show that if nothing else is prospering in the world, hate is. But, if you can gain the perspective, these all represent small scale violence by weak players in the world's political and religious arena.

I just received a reminder from Doctors Without Borders about the tragedy at Kunduz. You may recall that Kunduz is a city of about 300,000 people in Afghanistan to the northeast of Kabul, not very far from the Tajikistan border. The Taliban briefly occupied the city in September. The "central" government took it back fifteen days later in October, with help from American troops and warplanes.

The hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders was struck by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship, an awesome weapon of war and successor to the AC-47 used to mass murder peasants during the Vietnam War.

Hospitals, as long as they function as hospitals, are never fair targets in war, the same as trucks and tents marked with Red Cross identification. For details on why the Kunduz massacre was a war crime, see Protection of Medical Services Under International Law.

This is not the sort of incident that happens by accident, nor do the circumstances around the massacre look accidental in any way. This is not a case of stray bullets from the AC-130 missing a legitimate target and then hitting some doctors, nurses, and patients. The Hospital Was the Target.

And that is the kind of thing that is controlled from the White House Situation Room. Whether President Barack Obama was actually in the situation room and made the call will probably become publicly available in about 60 years.

I have no sympathy for anyone who kills civilians, whether Presidents of the United States (or other nations) or freelance Islamists or any other political/social/religious group. So I have sympathy with the victims in Paris, and no sympathy for the perps, including the chain of command above them, right up to the Caliph.

The difference I have with most Americans [Trigger alert: prepare to be shocked by an opinion] is that I don't think the victims of American President Barack Obama (and the many war criminal President predecessors) are in any essential way different than the victims of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Osama Bin Laden, or for that matter Pol Pot, Trotsky, General Franco or anyone else. The government of the United States was established by violence; almost all governments are. It does not matter to me whether violence is used to establish a republic or an Islamic State, it is wrong because it is violence, and particularly wrong when it is violence against civilians.

In particular, I am not a fan of the French government. To me the French monarchs starting with Charlemagne, Napoleon, the French imperialists who conquered Vietnam and other colonies, Philippe Petain, and the leaders who recently bombed Raqqa are just slight variations on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi theme.

The American people have no learning curve. They are not told the facts, and if a few people learn a few facts, they are swiftly swept aside by a torrent of daily woes. We could have learned a lot from the Somalia disaster, but most Americans don't even know there was a Somalia disaster, much less how American foreign policy and military stupidity drove that nation to disaster, step by step. Somalians can now choose between a corrupt and inept U.S. puppet government and an al-Qaeda aligned opposition.

Which is not much different than choosing between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There was a time when I thought the people of Mendocino County, California, would find their way out of that trap, but with the Bernie Sanders phenomena, I see that too much marijuana and too-little fact checking, and thinking things through, makes escape impossible. Bernie has vowed to destroy the Islamic State. And how does that differ from every other power-hungry American politician?

It can be tempting to say that the victims in Paris were is some sense fair targets because they allowed their government to bomb Syria in the preceding weeks. This is the type of argument used by the British Empire and the American Empire during World War II to justify carpet bombing Japanese and German civilians during World War II. This argument leads to the excusing (by the perpetrators, anyway) of all killings of civilians.

Every nation should police its own government to prevent war crimes. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and all their gang should be tried for war crimes and, instead of being hung by their necks like the Nuremburg criminals, spend the rest of their lives in prison. To some extent the American people are to blame for allowing the crimes. But our lack of power to change the system is really no different than the situation of those living under the Islamic State. Hopefully the governments of Syria and Iraq will be able to defeat the Islamic State, but will respect the lives of civilians. And spare the lives of any soldiers that surrender, as per international law of prisoners of war.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Natural Gas Solution to Global Warming?

Can Technology Save us from an Environmental Apocalypse?

Yesterday I heard about something of a technological miracle. A company that makes alternative engines for transportation vehicles (a Green Investment, if you will), reported that the State of California has certified one of its natural gas engines as being cleaner than electric car engines. Westport Innovations is introducing the "ISL G Near Zero (NZ) NOx natural gas engine" for medium duty trucks and busses.

"The engine was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Air Resources Board (ARB) in California that meet the 0.02 g/bhp-hr optional Near Zero NOx Emissions standards. . . Cummins Westport ISL G NZ exhaust emissions will be 90% lower than the current EPA NOx limit of 0.2 g/bhp-hr and also meet the 2017 EPA greenhouse gas emission requirements. CWI natural gas engines have met the 2010 EPA standard for particulate matter (0.01 g/bhp-hr) since 2001." [Westport ISL G press release]

Vehicles equipped with these engines will create less smog and greenhouse CO2 than electric vehicles. Why? Because electric vehicles must get their electricity from somewhere, and in California most electricity is produced from natural gas fired plants.

Natural gas is preferred to coal, for anyone wanting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because it has a lot of hydrogen in it. Petroleum gasses consist of molecules that have a chain of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Burning hydrogen creates water. Burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. So burning coal, which is almost entirely carbon, produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than burning natural gas.

Most environmentalists, both of the ordinary citizen kind and paid non-profiteers, are very enthusiastic about solar energy (and wind). In theory solar energy produces no pollution of any kind. So in the ideal green world, solar panels capture energy, and electric automobiles and trucks would run on that energy. Most environmentalists advocate for moving to all solar and all electric vehicles as soon as possible, which would still take a while, given that solar currently creates only about 1% of U.S. electricity.

Of course the real world is more complicated than the imaginary utopias of environmentalists, or the imaginary utopias of climate change deniers.

While waiting for solar, let's think about the thesis of natural gas being better than coal. The first objection of environmentalists is that natural gas is cheaper than coal (the real reason coal plants are being abandoned in the U.S.) only because of fracking. Environmentalists hate fracking. They hate mountaintop removal for coal too. How does one fairly compare the side effects of natural gas extraction versus coal extraction? [a question I can't answer here]

You can see why environmentalists want to go straight to solar. But environmentalists are in denial about the complications of solar. The main active component of solar cells is silicon, but that has to be supported on some long lasting, strong material like aluminum or steel.

Producing a commercially usable solar cell requires separating silicon from silicon dioxide (sand or quartz) and extracting aluminum or iron from their ores. That involves huge amounts of energy, which comes from coal fired plants in China. It involves building massive plants to shape the raw silicon and steel into panels. Those plants are mainly in China, so the tons of panels have to be transported to the U.S. first by ship, then trucked to distribution centers. If they go on roofs it takes energy to life them up there. Even when installed they are not care-free. Cleaning them requires energy, and if they are covered with dust they produce no electricity. Also, they take up space that could be used for rooftop gardens.

Solar panels have high upfront costs. A single panel generates surprisingly little electricity. That is why it take years, perhaps two decades, for a panel to pay for itself compared to just buying electricity from a utility company.

That is no reason to not install more solar power. But it does bring us to the essence of the global warming problem: the size of the human population.

In The Martian the lead character says something like he is going to "science the hell out of the problem." I like science, I liked the movie, and I think we should science the hell out of the global warming problem. And other environmental problems like habitat destruction and lack of clean water. But the real solution involves the Secret Sauce.

Very few people want to talk about the Secret Sauce. I have noted that in the United States even the Green Party politicians don't want to talk about it, much less the Democrats.

The Secret Sauce is reducing the human population. Reducing it in California, in the United States, and in the World.

The science is available, but not the culture or technology, much less the political will. The science is birth control.

The governments of California and the United States encourage people to have children. They do that many ways, most notably through the income tax exemptions for children and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

We need a One Child Policy, to be in effect for about 3 generations until the human population has reached sustainable levels. 3 generations is 60 years, which should allow us to better understand what is really long-term sustainable for the Earth.

I believe in making such a policy as minimally coercive as possible. By eliminating tax credits for children, after the first child of a couple, we could probably get a good balance. Some religious crazies would probably insist on having more children than they should, but some couples (or singles) will have none, so it should balance out.

Our economic system would need some alterations as well, but then it needs alterations anyway. Average people could have a higher standard of living if there were less people competing for what little is left of the world.

Meanwhile, hurray for converting trucks from diesel to natural gas. Hurray for solar. But let's no be naive. The human population can be brought down gently and humanely, or Nature will bring it down in a crash. Talk about it. Ask politicians and environmental groups and churches about it. We are out of time. We we be far better off if we started a One Child Policy a generation ago. We have the tools, let's use them.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rich Lives Matter More: How Robert Kennedy Got to be U.S. Attorney General

A 19 year old black man hits another man over the head with a bear bottle. He is arrested by cops, charged with assault or even attempted murder. He is convicted and serves 2 years in jail. After that he is a felon, and so can't get a job, and ends up in a life of crime.

That is a believable story in the United States of America. Some variation of it has happened millions of times in our history. It could have been a true story in the 1920s, or 1950s, or in 2015.

Now consider this quote from The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

At a bar "Magnuson, happened to be already celebrating his birthday there, and his friends began singing Happy Birthday to him. Infuriated over what he apparently regarded as an intrusion into his celebration, Bob walked up behind Magnuson and hit him over the head with a beer bottle, sending him to the hospital for stitches." This was just an example of a pattern of illegal, criminal, violent behavior. In another fight friends said "Bobby would have killed him if we didn't pull him off."

Now there are many reasons an act of violence does not result in jail time. Much violence is simply hidden, as when the victim can't ID the assailant, or has his or her own reasons to avoid the police.

Anyone who thinks all white men and women carry get out of jail free cards with them, should take a look at prison statistics (there are about 120,000 white males in federal prison on any given day in the USA with about 77,000 black men).

Some times violent men avoid jail because they have good lawyers. Some times that may be a public defender, but more generally for serious violence only a private lawyer will do. As a result, black or white, having money for lawyers is the main prerequisite

Some violent men get off scott free because they are part of a system of corruption. That would include cops, friends of cops and judges and politicians, and other connected people.

The Bob above is better known as Bobby or Robert Kennedy. He is better known for being the brother and United States Attorney General of President John F. Kennedy. Bobby was assassinated and died on June 6, 1968. President Kennedy was assassinated and died on November 22, 1963.

Are you surprised? I am. I thought I knew quite a bit about the Kennedy family. Only recently I read Robert Kennedy's The Enemy Within, which is mostly about his (later successful) attempt to jail Jimmy Hoffa. Robert did not mention that he acted like a psychopath at least as late has his college years.

In this particular case the violent criminal was the son of one of the most powerful men in the world, Joseph Kennedy, a billionaire (when there were only a few in the world) who maximized profits by dancing back and forth over the imaginary line separating business from organized crime. Apparently no charges were every brought against Bobby for anything he did. The American Bar Association found nothing objectionable about his ethics. He joined the Justice Department, then became Joe McCarthy's henchman in his anti-communist crusade. And at last, through nepotism, the highest figure in American law enforcement.

My own, anecdotal experience in life confirms the picture. Mainly I stay away from criminals and crime. I figure being a political dissident in America is dangerous enough. But three friends of mine have been involved in crimes that were slightly more than petty. Two, probably binging on drugs, copied a scene out of Cool Hand Luke and one of them was caught. One friend, a cook, punched the restaurant owner in the face during an argument.

All three were white. The cook was charged with assault, convicted, and spent over a year in jail. One thief, as I said, got away. I later learned he followed Bobby's path, getting a law degree and a job at the Justice Department. The one who was caught was quickly released and only orally reprimanded by a judge. I don't know what he did for a career.

The difference? The cook was poor and had poor parents and a public defender. The thief had rich parents, with connections to the intelligence community, and an expensive lawyer.

I know black and hispanic and Native American Indians all get treated worse by law enforcement and the courts. But being white and poor or working class is no picnic.

One more anecdote comes to mind. If you are going to be a terrorist, it pays to be from a rich, powerful family. Ask Patty Hearst.

Black lives matter. We need to do more to end all forms of racism. But we also need to give the same justice to people who commit crimes regardless of their economic status and ability to hire lawyers of various levels of competency.