28 May 2010

Articles of Faith: Parameters of the Last Ark — Pt. 3

(cont'd from previous posts)

Imagine this: You are a youngish person in, say, the prime of your life. Your doctor informs you that, through some mysterious, though infallible process he has determined that you have exactly two years to live—no more, no less. This is your certain destiny. There is no escaping this fate. What do you do?

End of life counselors might tell you: (1) to put your affairs in order; (2) to go to your loved ones and ask their forgiveness for whatever indiscretions you might have committed; (3) then to so forgive them; (4) to tell them you love them: (5) to thank them; and (6) to say 'good-bye'. Something like that. All well and good.

Your friends might tell you to come up with some sort of 'bucket list' of things you want to do before you die. Your own personal bucket list might include things like parachuting or climbing Mt. Everest or bedding a supermodel or tracking down and killing bin Laden or reading Proust or making sure your progeny are in good hands.

But beyond that, wouldn't you want to use the time you had left to come up with some sort of project? Something concrete to accomplish before the end arrives?

For example, you might pour your remaining time into finding a remedy for whatever it is that is going to kill you so that others might not suffer the same fate—on the off chance that you might, if successful, find some way of escaping your fate and possibly even save yourself.

It needn't be a positive project either. You might also opt to destroy all your belongings or go on a crime spree or seek revenge against people who've slighted you or create problems that make the lives of your loved ones worse or even devise some fiendish way to destroy your own life sooner.

It depends on who you are.

These are all 'projects', things you might want to do before you croak, but by no means an exhaustive list. Of course, you wouldn't necessarily have to have some sort of 'to do' list. You could just sit around and weep and moan about how unfortunate you are or turn inward and attempt to contemplate the meaning(-lessness) of it all. You could even pretend that you didn't have such a death sentence hanging over your head and just go on living your life the way you always have—purposeless and desperate, as if you're going to live forever. In denial. That wouldn't forestall things—and at some deep level you would know that.

Understanding that this is everyone's predicament, at some level, is what it means to be human. At some level we all know this; we all realize we are each of us mortal and, presumably, our animal friends do not. The attempt to deal with this realization and its accompanying sense of loss—the profound, existential sadness that comes with this blunt realization—was, if you'll recall, the theme I emphasized in my series of literary readings: Ur-story. In fact, it gave us a workable definition for getting at the essence of the works we were examining.

But more than that—more, that is, than the fate of each of us as individuals—this is the predicament of humanity and of life on Earth as we know it. (This was the notion I explored in the earlier posts in this series.)

That leaves us with the question: Do the same rules apply? How do we, as a species, cope with having to say goodbye to life and all that? Is there a 'bucket list' for us as a species? For life itself, for that matter? Something we need to accomplish? Something we were meant to accomplish? Something we want to leave as a legacy? A mark we can make in the vastness of the universe?

Shouldn't there be?

(to be continued)

21 May 2010


Some science-y stuff:

Was there a 'big bang' of life? These Spanish scientists believe they know how to compute when it happened by analyzing evolutionary divergences in protein sequences.

The question of synthesizing life in a laboratory is no longer hypothetical. J. Craig Venter and crew claim to have created a self-replicating bacterium from a synthetic genome. Ethicists sharpen your pencils.

Speaking of bacteria and microbes, does anybody remember reading about these naturally-occurring microbes off the coast of Galicia that supposedly eat crude oil. Seems like they might come in handy right about now. Anybody know where we can get out hands on a few gazillion of them? [Remember: You heard it here first!]


Some non-science-y stuff:

Seems like this guy ought to get some sort of degree in clever. Not only did he get in to Harvard fraudulently, he very nearly got its endorsement for a Fulbright and a Rhodes. Yo, that's impressive. Guy could've been a tremendous captain of industry or a hedge fund manager or a politician. Still might.

Big thanks to Daniel Green for putting me on to Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers. I'd read In the Labyrinth and Jealousy many years ago and periodically refer to R-G's For a New Novel. But I hadn't realized what Erasers was about—even though I had a dusty copy sitting on my shelf. It fits right into my current project involving an immersion in thriller genre fiction. I recently saw the movie "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and read the sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire by the Swede Stieg Larsson. Michiko Kakutani, who doesn't like much, really seems to like the third novel in Larsson's Millennium trilogy: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The trick here is to develop an appreciation for plot. Not everyone can write prose like, say, an Ishiguro or a Salter. Or create subtle characters like, say, a Roth. Or innovate like, say, a Beckett. And, by the same token, not everyone can plot like, say, a Ludlum or a leCarre.

At the risk of plagiarism—or the blogland equivalent—I'd like to put up this poem that I cadged from BDR's BlckDgRd site. The reason I do so is so I won't forget it; I save my posts to my hard drive, kind of like a writer's notebook or diary. It hit some ideas that have been percolating hereabouts. And it uses my name, too. Thanks, guy!


James Tate

Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, "Let's go get those tools, Jim."
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, "What is a garden, anyway?"
And thoughts about a "modernistic" garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
"Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained, babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shriveling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind."

By the way, look for more development of the Corporatist vs. Statist meme. I think I might be onto something there. Let's go get those tools.

17 May 2010

Paradise Lost

Greece's economy seems to be imploding from debt. People are upset, rioting. The Euro is dropping to long-term lows as the larger economies feel the need to step in to avert a larger European crisis.

Did no one read this book: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins? Or if they did, did they just ignore it? This sounds like (a) a chance for some hedge funds and speculators to short the Euro and make a killing, and (b) an economic 'invasion' of the unified European Union.

Oh yeah, U.S. debt is at an all-time high.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm still not convinced that last week's instantaneous market plunge wasn't some form of pump-priming financial sabotage. A case study. A test run. Setting the stage for what?

Again, did no one read his book? What about Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded?

Let's stop playing innocent. Enron engaged in an act of economic terrorism, if not outright warfare, against the state of California from which California has yet to recover, and its contagion spread to the greater U.S. economy during the eight laissez-faire years of the Bush crony regime. This is merely the playing out of the strategy of Grover Norquist, implemented during the Bush years, to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Here's another consequence of the hands-off approach: the debacle in the Gulf of Mexico. The approach of some, encapsulated by FoxNews's outrageously obtuse Brit Hume, is to deny its environmental impact until it hits land. Let the ocean absorb it. It's not real unless it damages us (politically, he means). Others, of course, insist this disaster means we should drill more.

Meanwhile, "computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean."

I don't believe this was a deliberate act of sabotage. But I do believe that the sort of deregulatory and tax-cutting fervor of the American right which held political sway for most of the first decade of this century leads to the sort of carelessness, negligence, and outright calumny that resulted in these sorts of consequences. And, if we read Norquist aright, this is precisely the sort of world the American right envisions: corporate power allowed to run rough-shod over political power—just the sort of thing the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 conservative bloc legitimized in its recent Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission decision.

So here's how things stand: we have State power and we have Corporate power. Their interests are never symmetrical, though sometimes they are aligned. Neither is pristine. More and more, nowadays, we see the two coming into conflict.

In the modern era, state power is theoretically accountable to the governed with whose implied consent its managers claim legitimacy. Of course, this is only theoretical. So much of contemporary governance is so complex and so esoteric that the governed have no inkling of what their managers are up to, so that the idea of consent is at best merely rhetorical. Yet, the constraints are there and the biennial and quadennial and sexennial goon shows we call elections at least still pay lip service to this ideal.

Corporate power, on the other hand, is accountable only to the bottom line. Its managers are not accountable otherwise. Their power derives merely from their ability to turn a profit—often exclusively quarterly, but certainly annually. The current lax regulatory environment in the U.S. (in the energy and financial areas especially), sometimes termed the 'new world order' and justified by globalism, represents a victory for corporate interests over the interests of the state (and thus over the governed).

The problem is there is no effective counter-balance to these two powerful interests.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat op-ed columnist of the New York Times seems to have intuited the conflict between these two powerful behemoths, but characteristically sees their consolidation and confluence from a corporatist (i.e., anti-government) point of view. Don't be confused. Yet, in this, his piece is instructive w/r/t my analysis.

My point is more wide-ranging: these are the two forces at work in the world today—to the practical exclusion of any other force. Sometimes their interests coincide, other times they conflict.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels once wrote: "The [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle". To my mind that was a relatively non-controversial analysis in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays and henceforth, all history that is being written will be the history of the Statist/Corporatist struggle. Mark my words.

11 May 2010

Stormy Weather

R.I.P. Lena Horne. (h/t for pointing out the video) I still shudder when I hear this. NB: My kids' choral group sang this song just this past weekend at their year-end concert.

06 May 2010

Pay Attention

You may not be aware, but Great Britain held an election today. Results here. Pay attention.

Here in the States, the out-of-power party is plotting its comeback. Karl Rove is putting together a shadow Republican party apparatus. According to Mike Allen's POLITICO Playbook:
‘Karl has always said: People call us a vast right-wing conspiracy, but we’re really a half-assed right-wing conspiracy,’ he said. ‘Now, he wants to get serious.’ While separate, the five entities are so closely related that three share an 11th-floor office near the White House. The groups are:

--“American Crossroads is a 527 designed to counter spending by labor and progressive groups, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU and MoveOn.org. Its president and CEO is former top U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive Steven Law; its political director is veteran GOP operative Carl Forti. The chairman is Mike Duncan, former RNC chairman; the treasurer is Jo Ann Davidson, former RNC co-chairwoman; and the secretary is Jim Dyke, former RNC communications director. To try to avoid undercutting RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who has alienated some givers, Duncan tells prospective donors that the party structure is “an important part of winning” and that he is looking for people who “want to go above and beyond.”

--“American Action Network, modeled on the Center for American Progress, will conduct polling in key races, and plans to put up TV advertising since it is allowed to engage in explicit political activity as a group organized under Section 501c(4) of the tax code. Former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota is the CEO; Fred Malek, a longtime top GOP financier, is chairman; and Rob Collins, a former top aide to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, is president. Board members include former U.S. Sens. George Allen and Mel Martinez and former House Reps. Tom Reynolds, Jim Nussle and Vin Weber.

--“American Action Forum, a policy institute linked to the American Action Network, also will mirror CAP. Coleman is also chairman of this group, which as a 501c(3) organization, is prohibited from directly endorsing or opposing candidates. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain, is the president. Board members include former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.

--Resurgent Republic, co-founded a year ago by Gillespie and Republican pollster Whit Ayres, says in its official description that it is “modeled on Democracy Corps, which has made important contributions to the public debate from the left and has proven to be a valuable resource for labor unions, environmentalists and liberal congressional leaders.” The group has released a series of polls and offers itself as a message-testing laboratory to help GOP lawmakers develop policies.
Pay attention.


Watch this one: today the stock market plunged nearly 1000 points purportedly because of a typographical error made by a trader. Sounds like a cover story to me. Sounds like a war game scenario to me. Or sabotage. Don't know; I'm just sayin': Pay attention.

Word of the day: cofferdam. Looks like the first one might be working. Let's hope so. Apparently the on-shore winds have subsided, and the oil slick has made first landfall. I feel so impotent in the face of this catastrophe. Pay attention.

03 May 2010

Fouling the Nest

[credits: Dan Swenson, The Times-Picayune]
"This animation of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was created using actual overflight information and forecast models from the NOAA and Unified Command.

The red dot is the location of the Deepwater Horizon oil well, which exploded on April 20, releasing oil into the Gulf near the Louisiana coast that has yet to be contained. Eleven rig workers died in the explosion.

The animation begins Aprill 22, the day the first image of the spill via flyover was released."
I'm heartsick. And angry.

Here's why. Let me introduce you to some new words. 'Waiver' 'Indemnity' 'Reorganization'.

After what may turn out to be the worst human-caused environmental/ecological disaster in U.S. history, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon deep-water oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico (here's the timeline of events), we read that BP, the lessee of the oil rig, is seeking waivers from coastal residents. The oil giant is offering up to $5000 to residents of Alabama if they give up their right to sue the company. Apparently, the AG of Alabama put the kibosh on this maneuver. No word yet about residents in Lousiana, Mississippi, Florida, or Texas.

BP knows that the real disaster—the one to their bottom line—is yet to come. And this is their first line of defense. It will not be their last.

Other maneuvers are starting to take shape, even as the giant oil spill heads toward the fragile wetlands that protect the city of New Orleans from storm surge and the pristine beaches of the Emerald Coast—America's third coast. [Full disclosure: As my regular readers know, I make an annual pilgrimage to the Gulf of Mexico, St. George Island, a barrier island off the coast of Apalachicola, FL. Pictures of its beauty are just a few posts down from this one. I love this place.]

BP, on its website, is already starting to shuck off the blame.
'"We are responsible, not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and cleaning the situation up," Hayward said. He said the equipment that failed on the rig and led to the spill belonged to owner Transocean Ltd., not BP, which operated the rig.'
Transocean, the rig's owner, a Caymans Island company, is the world's largest offshore drilling contractor. Halliburton, the oil services company that sponsored Dick Cheney's political ascendancy which, by all rights, should be a Dubai company, is apparently involved as well in the maintenance of the rig.

Here's how it will go down: there will be tons of lawsuits, civil and possibly criminal. It will take years, if not decades, to organize and coalesce them; class actions will have to be certified, individual actions will be merged, etc. BP and the others will use their phalanxes of lawyers to fight each and every maneuver tooth and nail—much the way the Republicans fought the health care reform bill—delaying everything, conceding nothing, not even dates for depositions and meetings. They will seek extensions of each and every deadline. At every opportunity, the lawyers will take 'interlocutory appeals' which stop the entire process until an appellate court decides some small matter. Everything will be a fight. And lawyers will rake in tons of money. And no one will see a penny of damages for years and years.

Then, once a gazillion procedural hurdles have been surmounted—again, after years and years of wrangling—issues of who's really liable will start to be addressed. Halliburton, Transocean, and BP will turn on each other. Blame will flow as freely as the oil from the bottom of the Gulf. Some small company which supplied a pump or a winch or a derrick and which can't afford so much legal activity will be found to be the ultimate culprit. Or some sub-contractor which supplied labor or tools and equipment or some other service (say, consulting) to the bigs will have been found negligent. And their contracts with the bigs will have indemnification clauses. Responsible parties will be absolved of liability.

In the meantime, the corporate shell game will get underway. Companies in the industry will merge and reorganize. New entities will form. Some will be subsidiaries, some shells, some holding companies. Profits will flow to some of the reorganized companies and liabilities to others. The profitable companies will continue on about their business and the companies that assumed the liabilities will mysteriously fold.

If there is any liability left at the end of this process, then, and probably only then, the company or companies taking the biggest hits will turn out to have 'caps' on their liability (even though they didn't put caps on their well!) or will file for bankruptcy or reorganization so that they won't have to pay off those debts—or at least only have to pay a part of them.

The bigs will probably share some portion of liability, but it will only be contributory. And they will make PR hay about how they've done their civic duty. Meanwhile, their managers—the ones who made the fatal decisions that led to the negligence and liability that caused this disaster (such as the failure to install an acoustic switch or pressure shutoff valve—will have moved on to other ventures and other companies or retired wealthy.

And the damages? Well, some clean-up and containment costs will certainly be a part of the damages incurred by the bigs. But it will be minuscule in comparison to the total costs of this disaster.

Who will pay the costs of the shrimpers, fishermen, oysterers, etc. who've lost their livelihoods? Who will pay to remediate and reconstruct the lost wetlands? Who will pay for the lost revenue due to the decline and demise of area tourism? Who will pay for the devastated cities', parrishes', counties', states' economies? Who will pay to repopulate the fish, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, sea birds, and other wildlife destroyed by this environmental catastrophe? Who will pay to rebuild their habitats? And what will happen if, as some have predicted, this giant oil slick gets caught up in the Gulf Stream and meanders around Florida and up the East Coast fouling everything in it path? Who will be liable for those costs?

Probably NOBODY.


BP and Halliburton and the oil industry, in general, are some of the biggest whiners about government regulation (see this post about Tax Time and the Tea Party 'movement' and the Koch brothers), but as soon as something goes wrong they want the government to step in and save the day. And hey, let's not forget that eleven people died in the initial explosion. Add those lives to the 29 miners who died in the West Virginia coal mining disaster to begin tallying the costs of our society's reliance on carbon-based and fossil fuels and those industries' recent successes in obtaining deregulation and lax enforcment of safety regulation during the Bush administration.

This Gulf disaster will turn out, once again, to be another case of corporate welfare: socialize the risk, privatize the reward. We taxpayers will wind up paying the vast majority of consequential damages from this disaster and the big oil and oil services companies will continue trying to game the system and squeeze every drop of profit they can from our public natural resources.

BP, Transocean, and Halliburton will get off by paying as little as they possibly can, and if that amount becomes too great, they will simply reorganize and go on about their business under another name.

And by that time, once this disaster is off the front pages of the news, the political chorus of 'Drill, Baby, Drill' and 'Drill Here, Drill Now' will perk back up. Never forget: this was one of the primary themes of the 2008 Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Steele all chanted this refrain.

Nor is President Obama blameless in this. Less than one month before the explosion, he caved to the oil industry's pressure and opened up even more areas for offshore drilling. We can only hope he will reconsider.

It's enough to make you sick.