Thursday, March 31, 2011

That Left A Mark...

No, this isn't a photo of the Moon. That mark is the Debussy Crater, and this is a place we haven't photographed at close range before:
Caption: Astronomy Picture of the Day writes: On March 17, the MESSENGER spacecraft became the first to orbit Mercury, the solar system's innermost planet. This is its first processed color image since entering Mercury orbit. Larger, denser, and with almost twice the surface gravity of Earth's moon, Mercury still looks moon-like at first glance. But in this view its terrain shows light blue and brown areas near craters and long bright rays of material streaking the surface. The prominent bright ray crater Debussy at the upper right is 80 kilometers (50 miles) in diameter. Terrain toward the bottom of the historic image extends to Mercury's south pole and includes a region not previously imaged from space.

Image credit: NASA/JHU APL/CIW/Astronomy Picture of the Day

All those inner-solar system, airless planetoids look about the same, don't they?

MESSENGER has been a spectacular engineering and operational triumph already. It has to orbit one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, and as Tony Wikrent pointed out at Corrente a few days ago, it wasn't easy getting there:
Placing spacecraft in orbit may sound rather commonplace today, but getting something into orbit around the first planet is actually quite a feat of space engineering. A spacecraft traveling directly from Earth to Mercury would be accelerated so much by the sun's gravity that it would pass Mercury far too quickly to orbit it.

NASA's solution was to launch the spacecraft in August 2004, and perform a complex series of flybys of Earth (once), Venus (twice), and Mercury itself (three times), which allowed Messenger to be slowed relative to Mercury with minimal fuel, according to Wikipedia. This is one of the reasons I just adore NASA: they repeatedly and spectacularly disprove the wrong-wingers' shibboleth that government is, by nature, unable to get a job done right[.]

New pics from Messenger, first spacecraft placed in ORBIT around Mercury
Now the work of doing what we sent it there to do begins. The MESSENGER website explains what that is:
On March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011, UTC), MESSENGER became the first spacecraft ever to orbit the planet Mercury. The mission is currently in its commissioning phase, during which spacecraft and instrument performance are verified through a series of specially designed checkout activities. In the course of the one-year primary mission, the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation will unravel the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet.

First Color Image of Mercury from Orbit
At least, that's part of the mission. But, as with many trips, getting there is half the fun.

Click on the photo too see the full size version of this reduced image. Go to the image credit link, then click on the picture there, to see it at full resolution.

Friday, March 25, 2011

No Static Military Action For The Wicked

Caption: Here's some kinetic military action for ya, Baby:

U.S. Marine Corps tanks leave plumes of dust as they race towards their primary objective during a Combined Arms Exercise at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Feb. 1, 2000. Marines from the 2nd Marine Division's 2nd Tank Battalion took part in the exercise which is designed to involve all elements of the Marine Air Ground Task Force in a live fire, desert training environment.

Image credit: DoD photo by Pfc. Andrew A. Thornton, U.S. Marine Corps.

The Obama Administrations description of the military actions we're taking in Libya as "kinetic military action" caused James Ala to wonder:
Kinetic Military Action, are you serious Mr. Rhodes? As opposed to what, Inertial Civilian Rest? Sweet Baby Jesus on a Pogo Stick, these people can not be serious.
How “blowing shit up” became “kinetic military action” is a mystery best left to the PR flack that went there. Granted the possibilities are endless. The Lusitania was not sunk by a German sub, it was provided a submersive water experience. China did not suffer “The Rape Of Nanjing” it underwent a rapid urban clearing and renewal program. Pearl Harbor did not suffer a sneak attack, that was unannounced aggressive diplomatic messaging.

Mangled Wordsmithing
Having watched every presidential administration since Nixon's mangle the English language to obscure what they were really doing, I'd say that they really are serious. Of course, it does beg the question of what an opposite would be. Other possibilities that occurred to me:

Caption: An FA-18 Hornet breaking the sound barrier. It doesn't get much more kinetic than that, now does it? Wonder how many miles per gallon that bad boy gets?

Image credit: John Gay/Wikipedia

  • static military action: This could be a good thing. All that driving and flying around certainly burns up fuel, and isn't that what got us into this mess?
  • isometric military action: For when there's just no room for jazzersize.
I'm sure there are many other possibilities for a phrase this deliberately vague.

They've certainly set the bar at a new low when it comes to obfuscatory phrasing, but if I know our White House press corps, they'll still be able to bump into it. We'll be hearing about "kinetic military action" for months, if not years.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yet Another Sign Of The Spring

Today's high was just shy of 60° Fahrenheit, and baseball season is almost upon us. At Celebration Park, in Federal Way, Washington, they were smoothing out the dirt on the infields today, and mowing the grass:

Of course, as I wrote a year and a half ago, I'm becoming less interested in baseball as time goes on. It's a fun game to watch, but you need either cable television or proprietary (and somewhat unreliable) software to watch the professional version these days. Yes, the Phillies are saying they have the best pitching rotation in baseball now that Cliff Lee is back. Some might observe that the starting rotation wasn't the big problem last year, which was mostly that the batters couldn't hit their weight. That person might also observe that back in 2009, when they had both Lee and Pedro Martinez pitching for them, they still couldn't win the World Series, so maybe they have bigger problems than Cliff Lee can fix. Or he might observe that now that Jason Werth, their one right-handed power hitter, is gone, they might have even more to worry about in their half of the inning unless Ryan Howard continues to refine his concept of what the strike zone is.

But that would be someone else talking - someone who was paying more attention than I am.

Click the photo to enlarge. Have a good day.

Quote Of The Day

Taylor Marsh, after discussing the first anniversary of the health care "reform" law, known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with its effect on health care, and Sarah Palin's effect on the effort to pass it:
The only thing more unpopular and polarizing than Obama’s Affordability Care Act is the woman who helped scuttle Democratic efforts to make it successful.

One Year Later, People Still Hate the Affordability Care Act
While Palin's nonsensical criticisms of the ACA had little to do with what the bill turned out to be, her effect on it certainly does point out how stupid our national discourse has become. The woman isn't qualified to judge the merits of anything, as near as I can tell. She certainly never came up with a legitimate reason to object to the ACA. There were no death panels in the bill. It wasn't more expensive than what we had before, according to the most thorough estimates. It just shifted the burden of who pays for it. It didn't limit anyone's choices in health care any more than they were limited already. Yet this woman had a profound effect on the debate, for no more reason than that she seemed to share the same prejudices as the people who believed her.

The effort to pass this bill, though, shows something even more depressing than Palin's effect on America's vast reservoir of stupid people - it showed that progressives, as a group, can be just as stupid. Read that last paragraph. Notice how I keep saying how the ACA had no effect on this and that? That's the real problem here. The ACA had no effect on the cost of health care. It had no real effect on the choices that many of us have in that area, which are far too few. It expanded Medicaid eligibility, which is almost certainly going to be contracted again, thanks to the government's current "austerity" fetish. It fixed some problems with Medicare, including making a pass at fixing the drug benefits issue. Those changes might actually last, who knows.

On the whole then, it didn't fix much of anything, and it made us even more dependent on the component of our private health care that is its biggest failing - health insurance. It also effectively eliminated coverage for family planning services, thanks to the Stupak Amendment.

This is why progressive proved themselves to be stupid - this law didn't fix anything, if one takes it in total. The bad, at best, balances out the good, and I think I'm being very generous to put it that way. It is not, to quote the damn fools who said this, a step in the right direction. It's another step in the direction we were already headed. Yet far too many progressives supported it, because they were afraid they wouldn't get anything. Instead, what they got is something that will be undone eventually, and for which many in this country will be glad when that finally happens.

Progressives settled for something that wouldn't work, and they called themselves realists for doing so. A lot of people, including me, explained why it wouldn't work, yet they chose to believe otherwise. People who can believe something that stupid are just as foolish as the people who believed there were death panels in the bill. They'll continue to do things that are equally foolish, because the root cause of such stupidity is not wanting to face facts.

If the health care reform debacle showed anything, it's that we may be too stupid to govern ourselves. Sarah Palin isn't the reason for that. She's just one of the many symptoms.

Afterword: In contrast to my usual practice, I didn't provide links supporting many of the assertions in this article. I included links I could remember easily, and left it at that. Frankly, the rest wasn't worth finding, because, despite my assertions to the contrary, I really don't enjoy belaboring the obvious. I also don't enjoy saying "I told you so", because to me that's one of the saddest phrases in the English language. Sometimes the reasons I predicted something are interesting or informative, but in this case, as I said, people just don't want to know.

For anyone who is interested, I'd suggest going to the health care keyword, and then following links from there. A particularly succinct link is this one that FireDogLake did on the myths of health care reform.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Sign Of The Spring

Yesterday was the first day of spring. As this photo of the Redondo boardwalk at low tide shows:

Image credit: Cujo359

it was looking mighty spring-like on Saturday.

As always, click on the photo to enlarge.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Yet Another Sign Of The Fall

It's sad to realize, but I didn't even think about this issue when I read about the start of U.S. military action against Libya:
The U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing military force in Libya does not, on its face, compel U.S. involvement, but news reports (and common sense) suggest that American participation is likely. That has led to debates over whether the President is constitutionally empowered to order military action in Libya without Congressional approval, whether it be in the form of a declaration of war or at least some statutory authorization to use military force (my views on the substance of this new war are here).

Obama On Presidential War-Making Powers
I understand that there might be times when military action is required on short notice - far shorter than Congress can manage to decide in. That's not the case here. The Libya situation has been in the news for weeks now. The President could have asked for a preliminary authorization to use force, contingent on United Nations approval. That's what George W. Bush did before the Iraq War, albeit just barely.

This time, the President didn't even bother to ask.

What I find really sad about this is that I didn’t even think about this when I read that we’d started military action. It’s been so long since I can remember that Congress even asserted that it had this right that it’s scarcely worth thinking about anymore. Progressives don’t care, because it’s “our guy” doing the lawbreaking. Conservatives don’t care, because they’re not real conservatives, and they just loves them their defense spending even more than Democrats do.

As texan4hillary points out, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both said that a President could not take this kind of action without the consent of Congress when they were running for President.

So, you see, elections really do matter.

Even though we have a House of Representatives that’s controlled by the opposition party, whose leaders mostly can’t contain their contempt for the current occupant of the White House, there won’t be impeachment hearings on this apparent usurpation of Congress's power. That’s how far gone we are on this issue.

No wonder I didn’t think about it. It's like just about everything else in politics these days - the people who are supposed to care don't, and too few Americans seem inclined to make them.

Some Follow-Up

Caption: Ask Google for a picture of a Toyota assembly line that doesn't have a burdensome copyright, and this is the best it can do. I like it, though.

Image credit: dentarg/Flickr

A couple of follow-ups from thoughts expressed earlier in the week...

First, on the subject of what disasters mean, this Bloomberg article provides another example, thanks to the problems that Japanese manufacturers Sony and Toyota are having with production thanks to the quakes:
Sony and Toyota’s efforts to resume production are complicated by the need for hundreds of different components to build TVs and cars from a variety of different suppliers that may have suffered plant damage in the earthquake and tsunami. Japan is also facing electricity shortages because a nuclear- power plant was crippled by the temblor.

“This will be played out not in days, but in weeks,” said John Hoffecker, head of the automotive practice at consulting firm AlixPartners LLP in Detroit. “Nothing on this scale has really occurred before.”

Toyota, Sony Disruptions May Last Weeks After Japan Earthquake
To understand what all this means, it's probably best to think of large manufacturers of the magnitude of Sony and Toyota as being like very large networks of manufacturers. Any one of them failing to deliver can make it all but impossible to produce a product, at least in the short term. The problem is, keeping with our illustration theme, when this happens to the electrical plant that powers your capacitor factory:

Caption: According to this live blog of the Fukishima reactor shutdowns and related issues, this is a model of one of the plants that were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami that was used by the NHK television network to illustrate the problems.

Image credit:

Then the BFCs don't get to your power supply factory.

Caption: A 2000 uF, 200V electrolytic capacitor. Four inches (10 cm) tall and almost two inches (5 cm) in diameter, these are sometimes referred to as a "can" or a "BFC" (the 'B' is for "big"). This sort of capacitor might have been used in large DC power supplies a few years ago. (In the age of universal power supplies, the voltage rating would have to be higher.) This particular example is clearly old. You know that because it was manufactured in the U.S.A.

Image credit: Cujo359

If the power supplies, in turn, don't get to your television factory, you can't make TVs. As someone they interviewed for that article said, televisions and cars each have thousands of parts in them, and you need all those parts, or you can't make them. That's a problem that we can see in any number of processes and systems in a complicated society like ours. Lose the ability to communicate, to make something, or send things back and forth to where they're needed, and lots of other things don't work as well as they used to, and often they don't work at all.

The other follow-up was inspired by my purchase of this item today:

Image credit: Photo by Cujo359 (see standard disclaimer)

Normally, these things are something like $3.00 each. It contains what I often eat when I make my own breakfast - eggs, potatoes, cheese, and vegetables in sufficient quantities to be decorative. I say "something like $3.00", because I refuse to buy something I can make for a buck or two in materials for that kind of money. At least, I don't buy it very often. But, when the local stores drop the price below two dollars, I tend to buy them.

Which goes to show that occasionally we ordinary consumers actually do consider a form of maximum utility, which I'd argued Friday that we didn't. The truth is really more complicated - we buy different things for different reasons, using different methods. I buy cars differently than I do frozen breakfasts. The point remains, though, that you can't model consumer behavior based on this one idea of how we buy things. We don't usually buy a great many things that way, and if you assume otherwise you'll be wrong more often than not.

Standard disclaimer: Weight Watchers is a trademark of, umm, let me look at the box ... WW Foods LLC. The use of the picture here is not intended to be an endorsement of this product over competing brands, nor does it represent any sort of collaboration on or endorsement of this article by (you can sing along to this now, right?) WW Foods, LLC, or anyone else who isn't me. It is used strictly for illustration of the ideas expressed in this article by (I repeat) me.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quote Of The Day

Caption: A salt lick. Recommended dining when economists are talking about the economy.

Image credit: Tomasz Przechlewski/Wikimedia (Full picture and explanation at the credit link.)

New York Times columnist and Princeton economics Professor Paul Krugman gets quote of the day honors for this one:
The point is that while economics certainly did have some of the characteristics of a science three decades ago, you can make a good case that significant parts of the field have lost those characteristics since then.

Economics as a Science: A Bad Example
No shit, Professor.

Actually this is one of the problems with much of economics. The classic example of this is the idea of maximum utility, the idea that a consumer can buy things to get the maximum amount of stuff. No, I don't think I've simplified that very much. Typically, they'll use an example in economics textbooks of the "Sally and Fred have ten dollars. Pizzas are $1, and paintings are $2. How many of each should they buy?" variety. What this is meant to imply is that if these things are useful to you in any quantity you can purchase, then to make the best use of your money you buy X number of pizzas and then you'll have enough money to have a certain number of paintings.

The problem with this, of course, is that practically no one buys things this way. The way people typically buy things is something like "I need a pizza and a painting, and I'll have $7 left over.", or "Why do I need to buy a painting? The blank wall looks just fine." We buy based on need with what we can afford and how much we need as constraints. We do it that way because, often as not, that's what makes sense.

This would seem to be obvious to just about everybody who isn't an economist. As if to prove that point, though, AmosWeb, a website about economics, has this to say on the subject:
Utility maximization is the guiding notion underlying consumer choices analyzed with consumer demand theory and utility analysis. It makes sense to think that people are generally motivated to do what is best for them, to purchase the most satisfying goods, to make the decisions that do more good than harm, to improve their overall living standards and well-being, that is, to maximize their utility.

Utility Maximization
It's a wonder they get anything right at all.

As an economics textbook I read recently explained, one of the guiding principles of the science is cetus paribus, first articulated by English economist Alfred Marshall. Marshall's idea was to reduce all the possible variables in a problem to just one, then see how things work out when you change that one variable. In a sense, this is one of the oldest principles of experimental science applied to economics, and not a foolish one, either.

Unfortunately, whenever you simplify something you potentially are making your model of reality less accurate. It might even be, for instance, that in something as complex as a real national economy you can't just change one variable without others being changed as well. Things you thought were independent of each other may actually be tied together somehow. That's why it's important to validate that model against reality - check to see when it works like reality and when it doesn't. That's what many economists seem to forget. They talk about things like the magic of the free markets as if that really means anything. In reality, individuals, and the markets they are a part of, often don't work the way those economists think they do.

This is why, while on the one hand I read or listen to what economists have to say on an issue, I have learned to take them with a large grain of salt.

What A Disaster Really Means

The BBC has a Flash graphic of the recent earthquake near Sendai, Japan, and the aftershocks over the past week. This is a screenshot of one hour on the following day:
Image credit: Screenshot of this BBC video by Cujo359

[click on the graphic to enlarge]

That's two aftershocks of more than magnitude six on the Richter scale. Any earthquake above six is likely to be a bad day. The Nisqually Quake, which happened here in the Puget Sound region, was a 6.8, and it managed to do a lot of damage to old buildings despite being more than ten miles from the nearest city.

Don't forget, this is just one hour of one day. The blobs that look like nicotine stains are afterimages of previous quakes. By the end of the week, the graphic looks like an ancient chain smoker's ceiling.

Disaster management on this scale is rather like being an invading army, minus most of the weaponry. To be successful, an invader has to assume that there will be nothing of use in whatever territory it conquers. The U.S. Army has a whole command dedicated to figuring out the logistics of such things, because, as they put it, prior planning prevents poor performance. They literally figure things down to how much to give a soldier to take with him each day. They have to.

When you don't do that you can find yourself on the Russian front without your coat.

After a disaster like this, nothing much works. Roads and rail lines are broken, which means that even if an airport survives the shock, it will soon run out of fuel and other things it needs to operate. Electricity and fresh water are almost entirely gone in many areas, which means that there are lots of survivors whose long term chances aren't good. Because electricity is gone, nearly all forms of modern communication will be gone. Communication, if it can be done at all, will likely have to be done by messenger at first, at least until folks can set up radios or re-establish phone lines.

Many places will have backup power supplies - generators, uninterruptible power supplies, and the like, but after a time the fuel will be gone and the batteries will be dead. Until transportation is restored, the fuel can't be replaced, and the batteries can't be recharged until either that happens or electrical service is restored.
Caption: The Japanese city of Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit when a powerful tsunami swept ashore on March 11, 2011. When the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired the bottom image three days later, on March 14, water still inundated the city. The top image, from August 8, 2008, shows water levels under normal circumstances.

Water is dark blue in this false-color image. Plant-covered land is red, exposed earth is tan, and the city is silver. Standing water is most evident in the flat, open places that were once fields. The most extensive flooding is around the Matsushima Air Base in the lower left corner of the image. According to news reports, several airplanes were damaged in the tsunami. The neighborhoods immediately around the airstrip are also flooded.

Dark blue fills in the spaces between buildings in sections of Ishinomaki near the harbor in the center of the image and by the river in the upper right. These areas are probably flooded. Survivors in parts of Ishinomaki were being rescued in boats, reported CNN. The large image shows additional flooding near Ishinomaki and farther south in Sendai.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team (via Flickr)

Caption: An M1097 High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) carrying a shelter for electronic equipment. The US Army places these all over the battlefield to provide communications between the various headquarters and logistical units. They also may contain systems that are used to analyze and organize army assets, and the status of a battle and the friendly and enemy units involved.

Disaster relief efforts can often have similar communications needs, at least in the short term.

Image credit: Harold Hansen/Wikimedia

Invading armies bring their own communications systems these days. They do that because, even assuming they've brought enough supplies, without communications you can't get them where they need to be. Even dropping supplies by air, as limited a help as that is in practice, requires that you know where they are needed most. That requires both communications, analysis, and coordination. In a disaster, that means that there have to be disaster management specialists who can, and do, communicate with the appropriate experts in the technologies and systems affected, and with the people who need what those systems normally provide.

Another thing that most modern armies are used to is the idea that they will lose some of their support assets, whether through accident, disaster, or hostile action. That’s another thing that Japanese emergency workers are having to deal with, thanks to all those aftershocks.

That's a small taste of what it can be like in such a situation. The Japanese have a reputation for being methodical, but as we've seen, that isn't always true in practice. If they haven't thought things through down to a level similar to what the Army has, then they're making some of it up as they go along.

We're used to a world where you can talk just about anywhere on a cell phone. If that doesn't work, there's a land line or the Internet. The electricity works, or it's out for just a short time, and we can just hop in the car and go down to the store to get what we need. In and around Sendai right now, none of that is true.

Just something to keep in mind while you think about those people trying to deal with the reactor problems, and rescue people. I've encountered accusations of coverups and such about the reactor problems already. It's possible there really have been some, but it's also possible that a lot of the confusion, particularly in the early going, had to do with lack of communications and lack of planning.

Considering the scale of this disaster, they could be spending a long time catching up.

UPDATE: Added the picture and caption of the HMMWV and electronics shelter. Vehicles like this are a vital part of any modern army, because without them, those in charge of a war will have a very limited idea of how it's going.

UPDATE 2: Added the paragraph about how armies are used to planning for their stuff being destroyed, to make it consistent with the FireDogLake edition.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

And Why Do I Care If NPR Disappears?

Not too long ago, many of us were hearing from concerned progressive organizations about how National Public Radio (NPR) was in trouble, because Congress might take away its funding. I wasn't too terribly concerned, and Dean Baker provided an example yesterday of why:
NPR ran a piece that largely accepted untrue or misleading Republican assertions about Social Security. The piece told readers that:

"Republicans also believe [emphasis added] the very best time to fix Social Security is now, during a time of divided government when both Democrats and Republicans can share ownership of any changes."

Actually, NPR's reporters/editors have no clue what Republicans "believe." They are just making this up. The Republicans in question (like Democrats) are politicians.

NPR Joins Drive To Cut Social Security
I'm glad he pointed this out, because I read this sort of thing in news that covers DC all the time. "Republicans believe", "the Administration believes", or whatever, what is actually true is that some politician said something, usually off the record, and they're just passing it on as though this was what was keeping those politicians up at night. They don't know any such thing. Heck, you really can't even assume that I believe what I'm writing here. Were you to report what I wrote here to someone else, the most accurate thing you could say is "Cujo359 says he believes", or something to that effect.

This sort of thing is often referred to as the logical fallacy of mind reading, sometimes as a form of jumping to conclusions. It's so common in the news these days that you'd think it was a virulent mental disease.

The other point that Prof. Baker makes is a more technical one, but not by a lot:
It is also not a fact that Social Security needs to be fixed in any meaningful sense of the term. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the program can pay all benefits for the next 28 years with no changes whatsoever and can pay nearly 80 percent of projected benefits indefinitely into the future, even if nothing is ever done to change the program.

NPR Joins Drive To Cut Social Security
Baker goes on to explain how Social Security has been financed, and how the government borrowed money from the Social Security Trust Fund (it did this by selling bonds to the SSTF, just like how it borrows money from you and me).

Which is why I'm not concerned about what happens to NPR. No competent news organization would have failed to mention these things, yet they manage to not mention this sort of thing every time some DC politician lies about pretty much anything. Not all of us know things like where the government is borrowing money from. That's why we have news organizations - to try to tell us what the relevant facts are. NPR failed utterly to do this, as it does far too often these days.

Why would I be concerned if another worthless news organization goes down the tubes?

UPDATE: In comments, One Fly made an interesting point. NPR is more than just its news component, and some of those other parts of NPR help local public radio stations keep going. Still, it's pretty clear that NPR has forgotten that it works for us, and instead works for the politicians and other big donors who can cut off large chunks of their funding.

Frankly, if their news unit didn't take every opportunity to lie to us, issues like that would be easier to see.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Photo(s)

On U.S. Route 180 about an hour east of El Paso, in the Guadalupe National Park, there's a roadside marker that appears out in what looks to the uninitiated traveler like the middle of nowhere:

Image credit: All photos by Cujo359

The first time I'd seen this, back in the 1990s, I was intrigued that there could be anything of historical interest happening out in this territory. Turns out, it was another example of what makes this country great:

Just to put that inscription in perspective, here's another view of that landscape, that includes a new plaque with some more information that's been put up more recently:

See all that white stuff out there? That's salt - lots of it. It's a salt flats, as the inscription on the new plaque explains:
Over one million years ago a large, shallow lake occupied this area. Salt deposits left behind as the lake dried up became an extremely important resource to the people of the El Paso Valley.

Salt was considered sacred to the Apache and Tigua Indians, who used it in the tanning of animal hides and as a condiment and food preservative. Hispanic populations depended on salt to supplement their limited income from farming.

In the late 1870s, the El Paso Salt War erupted as El Paso businessmen attempted to take control of the salt beds from the local Hispanic and Tigua communities. The short-lived war resulted in several deaths and injuries, loss of property, and nearly caused an armed conflict betweend the U.S. and Mexico. Eventually the salt flats were claimed and Hispanic communities were forced to pay for the salt they once collected for free. Today, only the wind blowing across the barrent flats remains to remind us of this turbulent time in history.
Yes, out in the middle of the desert, where there was enough salt to keep all of North America in potato chips for a century if not a millenium, people were killing each other over salt.

Call it free market economics in action, as Wikipedia sums it up:
The San Elizario Salt War, also known as the Salinero Revolt or the El Paso Salt War, was an extended and complex political, social and military conflict over ownership and control of immense salt lakes at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. What began in 1866 as a political and legal struggle among Anglo Texan politicians and capitalists gave rise to an armed struggle waged in 1877 by the ethnic Mexican inhabitants living in the communities on both sides of the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas against a leading politician, supported by the Texas Rangers. The struggle climaxed with the siege and surrender of twenty Texas Rangers to a popular army of perhaps 500 men in the town of San Elizario, Texas. The arrival of the African-American 9th U.S. Cavalry and a sheriff's posse of New Mexico mercenaries caused hundreds of Tejanos to flee to Mexico, some in permanent exile. The right of individuals to own the salt lakes previously held as a community asset was established by force of arms.

San Elizario Salt War
One thing that paragraph doesn't mention is that one of the "businessmen" was also a local judge:
In 1877, two local political factions struggled for control of the deposits; these were the so-called "Salt Ring" led by District Judge Charles Howard, the group that tried to gain private control of the mines, and the "Anti-Salt Ring" of Antonio Barajo and Luis Cardis, which opposed privatization.

El Paso Salt War, 1877
Isn't that a story that just warms your heart? People who have lived and worked there for ages are driven off the land by rich newcomers, their bought-off public officials, and a bunch of mercenaries. It's the American Dream come true.

Happily, there are other things to see in the area besides this reminder that things never seem to change in America. Go about another half hour or so and you can see this:

That's El Capitan, one of the more recognizable mountains in America.

Click on the pictures to enlarge. Have a good Sunday.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Another Climate Change Update

Caption: The Climate Change Cherry Tree, in a strip mall somewhere in Federal Way, Washington. It's way behind last year's pace, proving that there's no global warming this year. Click on the image to verify the data.

Image credit: All photos by Cujo359

Since the last time I reported on the state of climate change, the weather has been rather ugly on the rare days when I could get out to look at the climate change cherry tree. As all right wing gasbags and and most climate change deniers could tell you, whether there is climate change or not isn't a matter of recording the temperature all over the world and then seeing if the average is rising or not, but instead is a matter of checking conditions in one's own area and assuming that this how things are in the rest of the world, I thought I'd post another update based on conditions in the Pacific Northwest.

Caption: Close up view of CCCT blooms. Things are right on schedule.

You'll be happy to know that the world is not getting warmer this year. As you can see from the state of the Climate Change Cherry Tree (CCCT), it's blooming at least three weeks later than it was last year. Here is a close up of the buds. This is about the schedule I'm used to - the cherry trees usually bloom in mid- to late March, and that looks to be about what will happen this year.

Caption: Outside the state liquor store, this tree proudly shows all those tree-hugging hippie scientists that things are back to normal in the world.

Here are a couple more trees from that same area. Historically, these trees have been a week or so ahead of the CCCT, and they're almost fully in bloom now.

Caption: Nothing says "Averages? We don't worry about what's average around here!" like a cherry tree blooming at the usual time outside a Hallmark store.

Anyway, what with all the bad news these days, I thought everyone could use a little cheering up.

Click on the pictures to enlarge.