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Bin Laden, Quinctilius Varus, and Deathstroke

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

A number of years ago, I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about the Roman Empire, and the reign of Caesar Augustus in particular.  The segment that caught my eye related to one of the great military disasters ever suffered by the Empire — -the complete annihilation of three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Battle of Kalkriese Hill in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany.  The defeat not only marked the end of Roman domination of the Rhine, but it was one of the only times that an army of “barbarians” was able to deal a fatal blow to the mightiest empire ever to rule the world.  But what caught my eye and held my attention was not the savagery of the battle nor its implications for Roman rule across the Rhine.  It was the date of the disaster — -September 11.


I thought immediately upon hearing that date of the coincidence that it bore to our own September 11, a modern disaster of equal magnitude.  And I wondered whether Osama Bin Laden, sitting in his tent in Afghanistan, had chosen that specific date to send a message to the world that his army, like that of Arminius (the German prince who defeated Varus), was also capable of stopping an Empire.   Was Bin Laden that subtle?  Is he well-versed in his history?  More critically, if indeed he intended to attach his attack to a notable date in order to make a point, then what other dates lurk in the calendar that we should be paying attention to?  This last thought has seen me draw in a deep breath each 3rd of July and hold it until the wee hours of the 5th when I am free to exhale in relief that another critical date, July 4, has passed.


I have often thought that I should send the CIA a short letter calling this issue to their attention.  I have not done so out of fear that my memo would likely languish on some desk next to a letter from Phoenix or Michigan calling the department’s attention to the fact that some Arabs were taking flying lessons at local flight schools.  So instead, I have chosen to write this blog, confident that my use of Bin Laden’s name coupled with the word, “nuclear” (see below), will surely guarantee that this article will be spotted by one of our giant spying computers and bells will go off somewhere at a desk in Langley, Virginia where it will be read by someone whose specific job it is to look into these kinds of matters.


Again, the question I pose is that if Bin Laden chose September 11 as the date for his attack on the WTC to make an historical point, then what other dates are out there that we should perhaps be paying attention to?  I can suggest a few:


June 25th:  This was the date in 1876 when General George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry into a disastrous defeat in the Valley of the Little Big Horn in Montana.  Like the crushing of Varus in 9 A.D., the complete annihilation of Custer’s troops was accomplished by a down-trodden foe who no one expected to deal such a blow to such a powerful Empire.


August 15:  In 1281, the powerful Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan determined to mount an invasion of Japan after his first attempt had failed in 1274.  He gathered 4,400 ships and 140,000 men to attack the Japanese at Hakata Bay on the Island of Kyushu.  In the early hours of August 15th, a massive typhoon roared ashore, and all but a few hundred of the khan’s ships were sent to the bottom.  The Japanese samurai promptly slaughtered every Mongol warrior who had been able to survive the hurricane and crawl ashore.  The Khan never again attempted to invade the Japanese islands, believing that the Japanese were protected by a powerful supernatural force.  For their part, the Japanese agreed, calling the two typhoons (the one in 1281 and an earlier one in 1274 that had turned away Khan’s 1st invasion attempt) “kamikaze” or “divine wind”, a term they would reverently employ some 700 years later.  Bin Laden may well embrace this date for its emphasis on divine intervention against an overwhelmingly powerful Empire.


July 4th:  This is the one that scares me.  Bin Laden likes to fashion himself as the

reincarnation of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or, as we know him today, Saladin.  It was on the 4th of July, 1187 that the army of Saladin destroyed the armies of Guy of Lusignan and Raymond III of Tripoli at the Battle of Hattin, effectively ending the Crusades and assuring the return of Jerusalem to the world of Islam.  What other date could so satisfy an ego-maniac like Bin Laden, hungry for the adulation of the entire Islamic world?  And the double entendre would be unmistakable:  our day of independence would henceforth become theirs.  And on what other day (beside Christmas, perhaps) could so many of our first alert responders be counted upon to be seated in front of barbeques from one end of this county to the other? 


There are, of course, two other dates which should give us pause:  August 6th and 9th.  If Bin Laden gets his hands on an atomic weapon, then either of these dates becomes significant.


I hope that this exercise has made you feel a bit uncomfortable.  As the 2000th anniversary of Varus’ defeat at Kalkriese draws near, I hope that all I have said here gives you pause, and makes you think of the dangers lurking in the calendar.  But it is actually my hope that you might stop and consider another form of disaster — -one for which there will never be a date certain that we can point to and say that was the day it all happened.  It is the grave potential for planetary annihilation that lurks in the billions of tons of carbon that we, as a species, are pouring into the finite atmosphere of this globe we share with the rest of creation.  It is a disaster that even makes a nuclear Bin Laden look like a child with a box of matches. 


I do so fear the approach of a true Deathstroke.  No doubt, there will be a day in the future when we finally do realize the magnitude of the approaching disaster.  And, like Quinctilius Varus and his men, we may frantically attempt to erect barricades on the slopes of our own Kalkriese Hill only to find, as they did,  that it is all too late.




Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a report today stating that drivers of “mini cars” face an increased risk of injury in collisions with other cars. The accompanying New York Times headline declares: Study Says Small Car Buyers Sacrifice Safety. Both of these miss an obvious and important point: Smaller cars INFLICT FAR LESS DAMAGE ON THE CARS AND PEOPLE THEY HIT. If we were all to switch to driving smaller cars, there would be an immediate and massive reduction in the overall damage and injuries resulting from collisions.  The message shouldn’t be, “Don’t buy small cars.”  It needs to be, “Stop buying big ones.”

In conducting its study, the IIHS ran head-on collisions between regular-sized cars and mini-cars (ie. the Smart Car). They concluded that the occupants of the mini-car were more likely to be injured than if they had been driving larger cars. But what is missing in the press releases is any analysis of how much less damage or injury is caused  to the vehicle being hit by the mini-car.

I have been driving a hyper-shortened electric car for 11 years now. Though “Sparky” is faster than most gas driven cars, I have learned to drive it defensively (those of you who ride motorcycles knows what I am talking about). But in all, I am comforted by the knowledge that if I flub up and broadside someone, they are going to be able to jump out of their car and yell at me about the damage I just did to their door. If I were driving a Buick or a Lincoln, it would probably require the local fire department to remove them from the wreckage.

The real injury being done by this one-sided report and the way the media is presenting it is the impact on the critical need for all of us to be switching to smaller cars to reduce carbon emmisions. We need to be actively encouraging people to buy more fuel-efficient (smaller) cars rather than scaring them away. To declare that switching to a mini-vehicle involves “a sacrifice of safety” is to cripple this very important movement in its very infancy.

The IIHS should revisit their data and evaluate the significant reduction in damages and injury that results from being hit by a smaller car. That’s the big news that should flow from these tests. Perhaps, then, the New York Times headline might read: Smaller Cars Save Lives.


For Judy

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My wife died ten weeks ago today.  I promised myself that I would wait this long before I tried to put my thoughts onto paper about what happened to us over the last three years.   It may take ten more weeks to say everything I feel.


Judy had cancer.  It started as a single mass in her breast (which our first doctor passed off as inconsequential), and it eventually spread to her brain.  “Welcome to your new full-time job,” the second doctor said when the correct diagnosis was finally made.  And so it was.  We spent the last three years of Judy’s life driving up and down the I-5 corridor, going to this examination or that, this chemo session or that radiation treatment regime.  It was long…it was difficult…and it was stunningly expensive.  In the end, my beloved wife died in my arms in the waning hours of Christmas day.


Those of you who have followed my blogs know that my statements have all been linked in one way or another to solar energy, and to the climate crisis generally.  How, then, does the passing of my wife find its way into the Deathstroke Blogs?  It is because I have just experienced firsthand how our medical system is driving our nation to its knees, and which, if left unchecked, will likely doom any hope this country has of being financially capable of undertaking a global transition to alternate energy.


I knew a little about cancer before Judy was diagnosed.  I had a very treatable kind of cancer the previous year (my diagnosis came one year to the day before Judy’s).  A quick surgery removed the offending tumor, and a series of follow-up MRI’s showed that there was no recurrence.  There was no chemo, no radiation, just a stack of unpaid medical bills that slipped by unnoticed until my time limit to appeal the insurance company’s rejection of the claims had passed.  More of that later.


Judy’s cancer was nothing like mine.  “Inflammatory Breast Disease”, the doctor said in that first meeting, “Stage 4”.  We didn’t know it then (or for years to come), but those words were in essence a death sentence on day one. 


I could say much about those first hours…that first week.  Those heavy hours became the foundation of a new and powerful bond between Judy and I, and our relationship with God.  It’s a highly personal aspect of the journey I have just finished, and, if you don’t mind, I will keep it in the realm of privacy.  It is the all-too-real world of money, and the cost of fighting a disease like cancer that this post is directed to.


Within a day, our “new, full-time job” found us sitting in recliner chairs in the chemo ward of Seattle’s Swedish Cancer Center.  There, dozens of patients sat quietly while opaque IV tubes led downward from bags of liquid suspended from stainless hangers behind them.  I remember well that first day, and the routine that was to become so common for us — -“What is your name?  What is your birth date?” a pair of nurses would ask as they double-verified which treatment regime had been designed especially for Judy.  But what struck me most that afternoon, was the obsessive care with which one of the nurses was treating a hypodermic needle as she prepared to give Judy her first injection.  “Must be a new nurse,” I thought.  But then she let slip a statement that was to be a harbinger of a new reality about to fold in upon us — -“If I drop this needle, it’d be half a year’s salary!”


Welcome to the big league world of do-or-die medicine.


The bill for just three different containers of liquid given to Judy that day was a staggering $25,000 — -$10,000 for the chemo drug, $10,000 for a single hypodermic needle of something that was to do something for her blood, and $5,000 for a needle-full of something else that was supposed to do something else for her blood.  And this was just day one!


I asked the nurse why the drugs were so expensive, and her reply was a matter-of-fact, “Because they are the only companies allowed to make those particular drugs.”


“That’s an answer?”


Enter one of the ugly realities of American medicine.  Think back to January 24, 1848…Sutter’s Creek, California.  A millwright named James Marshall discovered a handful of gold nuggets lying in the bed of the creek and in doing so, fired off the starting pistol in the second largest gold rush in human history.  I say “second”, because at the present rate, the pharmaceutical gold rush of the 21st Century promises to dwarf all of the bullion ever dug up by an army of ‘49er’s plying the California hills.  The concepts are not far removed:  a bedraggled would-be miner would stake out his claim, while a modern pharmaceutical miner files a patent.  If the miner hits the “The Mother Lode”, it’s all his.  If ABC Pharma hits on a cure, it’s all theirs.  But there, the analogy breaks down.  When the 49er pulls an ounce of gold out of the ground, it can only be sold at the market price.  When ABC pours an ounce of cancer drug into a plastic baggy, it can charge whatever it wants for it — -whatever the market will bear.  In Judy and my experience, that price was unbearable.  If one thing came clear to us, it was that every ounce of the liquid they were pumping into her body was worth far more than an equivalent ounce of gold…ten times more.


There is no question but that there is a “gold rush” taking place today in the pharmaceutical hills of the United States.   The goal is the same as it was 150 years ago — -stake a claim to a Mother Lode. 


I ask a simple question: “Is this right?”


Or perhaps, it should be stated like this: “Is it appropriate to destroy a nation financially in order to save or prolong the lives of a portion of its population?”


I happen to believe that it is entirely possible to save or prolong those lives without destroying our nation.  We simply need to go about the whole thing differently.   I have come to believe that the swamp we now find ourselves in has a name: Profit.


Did anybody ever stop to ask whether it is morally defensible that a society should organize itself so that there are massive profits to be made off of the sickness, suffering and death of its members?  It seems to me that that very same society could organize itself to treat those same illnesses without having to devote an extraordinary share of its capital to the profit of those involved in the undertaking.


Consider how much of our health care dollars are not going to health care.  Before Judy died, I was spending over $800/month on health insurance.  Where did those dollars go?  Let’s examine the dollars that did not go to health care:


1)      Advertising:  Because my insurance company is in business to make a profit, it advertises to attract more customers.  So it spends part of my $800/month on advertising.  That means:

          a)      That it pays some of my money to an advertising firm to create ads for both print and radio/TV commercials;

          b)      That it pays for space in newspapers and magazines to show their ads;

          c)       That it pays for air time on both radio and television to air their ads.

          d)      Profit:  Each of these entities (the ad agency, the newspapers and magazines, the radio and television stations and networks) is in business to make profit.  So a sizeable chunk of my $800/month goes to pay for things that have absolutely nothing to do with health care. 


2)      Profit for the Insurance Company:  My health care insurance company makes money for its investors.  So, like every business, a very big chunk of my $800/month goes to pay for “executive compensation” (the more profit that can be squeezed out of the system, the bigger the compensation).  It also goes to meet the demands for return on investment of the stockholders.  Not one of these dollars goes to buy a drop of chemo drug or even a bandage. 


But more ominous than this, is what it causes an insurance company to do in order to maximize its profits.  It has two options:  1) it can increase premiums, and/or it can 2) reduce what it pays out for claims.  I have had the unhappy experience of being on the receiving end of 2) for the past three years. 


My Experience:  When you are confronted with a catastrophic illness like cancer, your “full time job” becomes immersed in treating the disease.  What is not well known is that your other “full time job” becomes plowing through a mountain of paper in order to find out if your insurance company is actually paying your bills. 


I had an MRI to screen for the recurrence of my cancer.  It was the normal course of treatment for my type of cancer.  The MRI was done in January.  I received an “E.O.B” (Explanation of Benefits) form from my insurance company which listed the MRI.  I thought it meant that the bill had been paid (after all, it came on a document called “explanation of benefits”).  But in reality, there was a code on the form that, had I understood it, would have informed me that my insurance company was denying the claim (because the MRI wasn’t performed on the same day as my doctor’s appointment — -one of the many fine print exclusions under my policy).  The problem is that my insurance company didn’t inform the MRI company that it was denying the claim until the end of May.  The MRI people didn’t get back to me until late July.  By then, my 6 month period for appealing the denial had passed.  I went ahead and appealed anyway.  A year later, after two rounds of appeal, the insurance company acknowledged that they should have paid the bill, but said that since my appeal was not timely filed, they would not pay it.  And to rub salt in the wound, I had to pay the bill at the full rate, whereas, if my insurance company had paid it, the MRI company would have accepted 50% of the full price.


That was just one bill.  For Judy’s three year ordeal, the denials came fast and furious.  One example was particularly infuriating.  When Judy developed headaches (a sign that the breast cancer had spread to her brain), her doctor ordered an immediate brain MRI.  Because the hospital MRI was not available, they sent her to another MRI facility across the street from the hospital.  My insurance company denied the claim because the MRI was not performed in the hospital.  That one took a year and a half to resolve with the insurance company.  Eventually, after three rounds of appeal, the company agreed to pay the bill under duress.  They sent me a letter stating that they would pay the bill but admonished me not to allow it to happen again (as though I were some sort of a criminal policy holder).


My point is this:  As a society, we have turned our medical care over to a system that is based on profit.  I have come to see quite clearly that this produces a system that seeks to actively reduce its payments for treatment by 1) putting a mine field of fine print exclusions in the policy language, and then 2) refusing to pay claims and then hide that refusal behind outright deception and a wall of appeals that will exhaust even the heartiest of policy holders.  All of this takes place because PROFIT encourages it.  Indeed, PROFIT DEMANDS IT.  Without profit, there would be no incentive to cheat the policy holder or deny the payment of his or her just medical bills.


President Obama said that his grandmother spent the final months of her life locked in a battle with her health care company over bills that they would not pay.  Having just spent the last three years locked in the same battle, I wonder why our lawmakers are seeking to address the health care crisis by making sure that every American can afford insurance!  I believe that this is the wrong solution.  You can’t solve a crisis by pouring more gasoline on the fire.  Unless and until we come to grips with the real source of the problem — -that a health care system that is based on profit will devour the country that employs it — -we will never find our way out of this swamp.


Much of this has been directed to insurance companies.  But other profit centers are found in the pharmaceutical board rooms of this nation.  I sat week after week watching the nursing staff pour $25,000 worth of liquid into my wife.  As I looked around, I could see dozens of other patients receiving the same or similar treatment regimes, while dozens of others waited in the lobby.  And this was just one chemo room in one hospital.  I know the same scenario was being played out over at Fred Hutchison Cancer Center across town, and at the University Hospital…and In Tacoma, and Olympia, and Yakima and Spokane.  $25,000 for a few ounces of liquid!  Isn’t anybody ashamed of this?  It is not just profit gone wild — -it is profit gone insane!  We are all outraged at what is taking place on Wall Street.  Well, I’m here to tell you that a similar outrage is taking place in every cancer center in the United States.  And the source of the disease is the same in both places: Profit.


A SUGGESTION:  It seems to me that the only way out of the swamp is to nationalize our health care system like almost every other nation in the western world has done.  But I realize that this is virtually impossible given the power of the health care industry in Washington (yep, a big chunk of your health care dollars is spent in that city making sure that the system is never changed).   But we face a true looming disaster:  the baby boomers are coming!  My generation (I was born in 1945) is going to inundate the health care system and the social security system with it.


I suggest that we train doctors in geriatric medicine.  Every year, 9 out of 10 applicants are turned away from medical school.  Why don’t we scoop up a slew of those very qualified would-be doctors and train them at taxpayer expense.  In return, they will go to work for us by treating the elderly at a very substantial reduction in cost.  It would be a first step — -a toe in the water of “socialized medicine”.  Maybe we would find that we could put our entire foot in over time.


We need to drain the swamp before we drown in it.



We Are All Guilty

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009


A few weeks ago, Rick Santelli, CNBC’s commentator from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, went on a tirade against government assistance to people who find themselves facing mortgage foreclosure in these troubled times.  Like a high school cheerleader, he lead a chorus of Board traders in a rousing chant against those whom he claimed had bought houses they couldn’t afford, or failed to read the mortgages that paid for those houses.  Why, he asked, should responsible people like himself (who pay their mortgages on time) be asked to bail out these over-extended, ignorant ne’er-do-wells.  To a thunderous applause, he turned and faced the camera and exclaimed, “Are you listening Mr. President?”


His ranting tirade got me thinking.  Two summers ago, I sold a house I owned at considerable profit to myself.  Looking back on it, I now realize that the handsome price I got for it was due to “housing bubble money”.   Be that as it may, I used part of the profit to build a stunning brick wall around my home.  The contractor who built the wall took his share of my bubble profits and went out and bought a shinny new truck, made I’m sure of steel, and copper wire, and big fat rubber tires. 


My point is this:  my bricks and cement, and my contractor’s steel and copper and rubber quite likely all passed through Mr. Santelli’s Board of Trade in one form or another.  Mr. Santelli bought and sold those items, and countless millions of tons of other commodities that flourished on bubble money, from which he derived the paychecks that allowed him to pay his mortgage on time.  It seems to me that we are all guilty of this mess, and that it is disingenuous for Mr. Santelli, or any of us, to point an accusing finger and self-righteously claim that it is all the other guy’s fault.


Are you listening, Mr. Santelli?




PS.  And as for not having read the fine print of the mortgages that now ensnarl millions of our fellow Americans, I have to say that after buying and selling countless homes and rental properties, I, an attorney, admit that I never read a single page of any of those mortgages.  And in all of this, I am comforted in the knowledge that apparently not a single congressman or senator ever read a single page of the stimulus bill that committed all of us to nearly a trillion dollars in future tax obligations.


I say again, “We are all guilty”.


Friday, March 13th, 2009

When I was growing up, we gassed up at “service stations”.  I can still remember Mr. Anderson at the Chevron across from my school wearing a uniform with a little white hat.  Whenever a car would pull up for gas, he’d come at a quick pace, ask you what you needed, and start the gas pouring into your tank.  While he waited for the gas to finish, he’d check your water and oil, clean your windshield and, if there was time, check and fill your tires (there used to be little air and water hoses sticking out of the end of the gas islands in those days). 



I don’t know whatever happened to Mr. Anderson, but wherever he went, the “service” went with him.  Now, we all fill up our own tanks, clean our own windows (if we’re up for it), and pay with a swipe of a plastic card.  I seldom if ever check my oil, or my water.  I almost never check my tire pressure because I don’t carry around one of those gauges, and even if I did, an air pump is kind of hard to find these days.  As a consequence, I simply go on the belief (more hope, actually) that my water and oil are O.K., and all too often, my washer fluid runs out.  Worst of all, I drive around on sloggy tires.


Now sloggy tires are not a good thing.  First off, they wear out more quickly which means that we spend more energy making new ones, and the land fills fill up more quickly.  More importantly, sloggy tires reduce a car’s mileage per gallon of gas.  I’ll bet that more than one super tanker a year crosses the Atlantic Ocean just to make up for what sloggy tires siphon off the top of our national energy needs.


So here’s my suggestion.  Pay people a nickel a gallon to pump gas.  Let’s bring back Mr. Anderson.


Here’s what we get for our nickels:

1)      There are a lot of people out there who are really hurting right now — -good, decent people who could use a job in these tough times.  I think this would really be a life-saver for maybe a million or so people for whom it could make a real difference on whether or not they can make ends meet.  And what would it cost you and me?  Just a buck for every 20 gallons of gas.

2)      We’d all drive around with clean windshields.  I’ll bet you anything that it would end up preventing an accident or two in the process.

3)      Some of us would have our engines saved by finding out that we’re running 4 quarts low and the indicator light wasn’t working.

4)      A super tanker or two (or three) would have to drop anchor off Galveston and wait for a real demand for the oil in their bellies.

5)      It doesn’t require the government to spend any money putting those people to work.  In fact, they’d end up paying taxes on their new jobs.

6)      By raising the price of gas, it would add incentive to people to think about getting more economical cars, eventually causing even more tankers to drop anchor off Galveston.


I know this can all work.  I have a home in Mexico.  Down there, your gas is pumped by an army of waiting attendants who will also check your oil, water and air.  I also know that Oregon had just such a law for years that mandated this exact thing (I don’t know if it is still required there).  


It’s another one of those win/win things.  So let’s make it happen!




OK, I know that there aren’t as many air pumps out there as when Mr. Anderson was doing it.  But at least our new service attendant can still check out tires and tell us if we needed air.  We could all feel suitably guilty about it until we made the effort to seek out a pump and fill our own tires.  (Hint: there’s one beside the Mercantile on Boston Harbor Road).


Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve been driving an electric car for the past 10 years.  It’s fast and reliable, and it’s very gentle on Mother Earth.  Ten years ago, we electric car owners were considered weird ducks.  Today, everyone is eagerly awaiting the new generation of plug-in hybrids.  Ah, what a difference a decade makes.

When the auto industry began to seriously focus on the prospect of producing electric cars, you can easily trace the path that their thinking took (I call it “auto-think”).  First off, they took one look at lead/acid cars like my Sparky and immediately crossed them off the list of viable options.  A 40 mile maximum range, a 4-hour recharging time, and, for some of them, a 25 m.p.h top speed restriction.  Dead on arrival, right?

Well, not so fast, guys.  To begin with, Sparky can blow the doors off your Toyota.  He’s very, very fast (you other electric car driver know what I’m talking about), and he can cruise the freeway with the best of them.  The only thing he can’t do is drive from Olympia to Seattle (65 miles) without stopping.  Range — -that’s the single reason why the auto industry went looking elsewhere for an answer to its gas problem.

Like every lead/acid driver, I have spent considerable time thinking about the range issue.  How can I get from Olympia to Seattle without stopping (or stopping only for a few minutes — -like for a cup of coffee or something)?  Let’s address the second idea first.

There is a little-known phenomenon in the electric car world called “dump charging”.  It’s used in the electric vehicle racing circuit where a quick charge is needed for the next race.  It is simply a DC to DC charge (one set of batteries simply “dumps” its charge into a depleted set of other batteries).  It takes about 7 minutes to accomplish, and restores the depleted batteries to about 95% of capacity. 

Now let’s assume, for example, that I left Olympia with the morning commute, headed for Seattle.  I’d be looking for a charge along about the time I hit the Tacoma Mall (about 35 miles from my house).  For years now, I have looked over at the Krispy-Kreme outlet at the Mall and thought,  “If only they had a set of batteries over there, I could scarf down a couple lemon-filled donuts while Sparky took a dump.”  What would happen, I have thought, if not only Krispy-Kreme, but Starbucks, and Jack-in-the-Box had DC charging stations all over the place?  I could go anywhere and everywhere in my spiffy little bug.   

But actually, there’s a better way.  Think: bumper cars.

We’ve all ridden in bumper cars at the fair.  What a great way to release all that pent-up aggression.  But did you ever wonder why those cars had antennas sticking out of them?  When I was a kid, I always thought that it was strange — -there weren’t any radios in the bumper cars, and the antennas were always too tall for the ceilings.  It wasn’t until much later that someone explained to me that there was another antenna dragging on the floor under the car, and that that was how the car ran — -that it takes two wires to make their motors run (one from the floor and one in the ceiling). 

Actually, in Seattle, we have busses that operate that same way, only they go around town with their two antennas attached to a pair of overhead electric wires..  Those busses have been crisscrossing the city since long before I was born (1945). 

That all started me thinking:  why don’t they install a couple of electric wires of some sort along the freeway from Olympia to Seattle — -or all the way from Seattle to Portland, for that matter?  Or everywhere the freeway goes.  You could start small — -Tacoma to Seattle, for instance.  Sparky’s batteries can get me from my house to Tacoma.  From there, I’d just hook up and head for Seattle.  It would be great!  As demand increased, you could extend the lines in both directions — -say, even to Canada. 

And here’s the really cool part:  not only would the freeway lines allow Sparky to make it all the way to Seattle, but Sparky’s batteries would get recharged in the process (very quickly if  the power supply were DC).  That means that I could leave my house and hook onto the freeway grid within 35 miles.  I could then drive to Seattle, unhook, and go anywhere within a 35 mile radius without needing a grid — -farther if there were a Krispy-Kreme out there offering a dump charge.  Heck, I could even drive to Arkansas once they extended the grid there. 

Come on, it can’t be all that hard.  I mean, aren’t we going to create some fancy new electric grid anyway?  We don’t have to extend the Sparky grid everywhere right away (though we would over time) — -we could start slow and grow.  And we wouldn’t end up becoming slaves to Bolivia.

Bolivia?  What does that have to do with anything?

Well, guess what, Yankee fans?  Our great auto industry channel-lock thought process is about to switch our present pusher/addict balance of trade from the middle east to a land-locked little country in South America.  It’s all because of something they have and we don’t:


When the auto thinkers decided that the lead/acid range issue was too much of a problem, they started to look for a battery that could give you much more mileage.  That line of thinking leads to just one place: the lithium-ion battery — -you know, that expensive little thing that runs your cell phone and your computer and occasionally catches on fire.  It’s the only battery now available that offers the promise of extended range in an electric car.  One electric car, the Tesla Roadster, claims a 220 miles/charge range.    But that battery pack can set you back a lot of money when it has to be replaced.

But the auto thinkers have struck a compromise:  they’ll get you 40 miles on a smaller lithium battery pack, and then a good ol’ gas engine will kick in and take you the rest of the way.  It’s the logical end product of the auto-thought process.  They’re hoping that you and I will be happy thinking we’re really helping Momma Earth by cutting down on our gas consumption, and at the same time, the auto companies will be able to keep building gasoline engines.  The problem is that the Suadis will just keep pumping it out of the ground because our ever-growing population will rise up and take up the slack.  End result: nothing really changes — -except the climate. 

But what does all this have to do with Bolivia? 

Well, Bolivia happens to be where the lithium is.  And guess what?  Just like the Middle East, the Bolivians don’t like us very much, either.

The sad truth is that most of the world’s lithium is found in just one place, Bolivia.  Kind of sounds like oil all over again, doesn’t it?  To be sure, it can be found in other places (like Tibet — -maybe that’s why the Chinese decided to annex the country and kick out the Dali Lama).  We even have some here at home, but not very much.  You can read about this most vexing question in a recent New York Times article.

My point is this:  we need to rethink this whole electric car thing.  We have an entire infrastructure already pumping out lead/acid batteries — -made by American workers, I might add (did I mention that lead/acid batteries are one of the most re-cycled products around?)  And since they are only planning on getting 40 miles from the lithium pack in the new hybrids, why not settle for the same thing from lead /acid?  

And where do we find the energy source for Sparky’s new freeway grid?  Well, I know of a nuclear power plant about 93 million miles away that can supply our entire planet with an endless flow of truly clean energy (did I mention that it already comes in DC?). 

So, perhaps we should all stop and think this thing through before we rush out and embrace the auto-think solution to our energy problems.    



Fear, Damage, and Barack Obama

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Dear Mr. President

Please stop using the “C” word: Catastrophe.

I’m very serious.  While such a hyperbolic word may be useful in drumming up support for the stimulus package, it (and other words like it) run the very real risk of unleashing the “F” word:  Fear.

Everything that has taken place to this point in time can be characterized as true concern — -our country, indeed, the entire world, is having to swallow the bitter medicine of our own reckless behavior.  By and large, people are still acting rationally.  They are pulling back on their spending (which is understandable in this climate), and otherwise acting out of concern, even wariness.  But not unbridled fear.

What we have not seen yet is panic.  History has taught us that events like those taking place today contain the very real potential to literally explode into a most irrational (and uncontrollable) tsunami of fear.  Ask Franklin Roosevelt — -by the time he got to where you are, the horse had left the barn (straight through the side wall).  If that happens again, Mr. President, then you’re really going to have a mess on your hands.  Fear creates its own severe and complete disaster — -far more pervasive than the damage caused by the factors which give birth to it.

So, Mr. President, please be very careful in choosing your words.  I fear that you are jabbing the balloon with a pin.



PS:  For an historical review of what I am talking about please see “Fear, Damage, and Big Ben Rothlisberger” at


Monday, December 22nd, 2008

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” — -Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“Greed, for want of a better term, is good.” — -Gordon Gekko’s speech to the shareholder’s meeting of Teldar Paper, Inc. (played by Michael Douglas in the movie, “Wall Street”).

These two statements define the polar bookends within which humanity has sought to advance from the campfires of the Stone Age to the skyscrapers of the Modern World.  Today, we stand beneath the victory arch of Capitalism, its competing rivals lying discarded along the road of history — -Communism, National Socialism, even the humble commune of the 1960’s.  But if you look closely, you will see that today, we are also standing in the rubble of Gekko Gone Wild — -we are being  treated to the spectacle of  a shattered world economy that has been brought to its knees by exploding greed.   The problem is that the infant seeds of renewable energy must hope not just to germinate in this rubble pile, but to take hold and prosper.  As a nation, as a planet, and as a species, we must ask ourselves the critical question:  Can we afford to place solar, and wind, and all of the other renewable seeds in Gordon Gekko’s hands?

The answer is:  “Not a good idea.”

I first began my involvement with solar energy in the spring of 1974.  I was part of a small group of dreamers (Solar Steam, Inc.) that thought we could solve much of the world’s ills by creating a cost-effective solar energy collector.  To that end, we built a 28 foot solar concentrating dish which was completed in 1979.

 (Note the 30 year-old version of yours truly, complete with brown hair and beard).

A second, larger 40 foot dish was completed in 1985.  The dish was highly innovative and effectively converted sunlight into high grade industrial process steam. 

(That’s high-grade, industrial quality steam pouring out the end of that hose — -a very marketable product for which millions of dollars are paid annually by American industry.)

We unveiled our marvelous invention to the world that same year and stood back, waiting to sign up the investors and customers.  No one came.  The investors were too busy making larger profits elsewhere, and the customers needed the cost savings of “economy of scale” production (which required investors to achieve).

In April, 1988 I created United Solar Technologies.  My goal was just what the name implies: an attempt to unite a number of competing solar companies into a single effort so that investors would recognize that somewhere within the company’s participants there was a true winner.  Our first project was to establish that solar energy could compete with any source of energy on the planet, whether it be coal, oil, or even natural gas.  To this end we went looking for a suitable site for our demonstration.

We settled upon Tehachapi Prison in California.  With laudable assistance from both the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Corrections, we were able to enter into a long-term (30 year) energy purchase agreement with the DOC.  Under its terms, we would be paid 95% of the money the state would have paid for the same energy from burning natural gas.  This point cannot be stressed enough:  Tehachapi has demonstrated that solar energy IS CHEEPER THAN BULK-RATE NATURAL GAS (THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP)!

The entire purpose of the Tehachapi project was to demonstrate to the FINANCIAL COMMUNITY (the Gordon Gekkos of this world), that they could make a very respectable return on their investment by installing solar projects.  We were able to show that Tehachapi could return more money than an equal amount invested in the U.S. Treasury “long bond” (the 30-year bond — -then at 8.3%!) by competing directly with bulk rate natural gas (then at $4.30/MMBTU).  Right out of the starting gate we established ourselves as the world’s cheapest source of energy!

Once again we turned around to take the orders from the investing community.  Once again, no one was there.  As one high-roller explained to me later, “Why would I want to tie my money up for 30 years when I can get 20% a year or better right now?”  Remember those heady days of the mid-90’s?

We tried to do follow-on projects with the DOC, but the initiative eventually fell victim to bureaucratic red tape, and no further prisons were ever solarized.

Taking my cue from the Tehachapi experience, United Solar reloaded and dove into the creation of the ultimate solar collector, the PVT (photovoltaic/thermal concentrator).  The upshot of this unique collector is that it produces both electricity and industrial process heat simultaneously.

Again, with the help of the California Energy Commission, our first prototype was unveiled in the spring of 1995.  It held the clear promise of amortization in under 5 years (sooner, if the electricity is used to displace gasoline in an electric car like Sparky).  For a detailed examination of the PVT and the ECONOMIC thinking that went into it, see the final report to the California Energy Commission.

Once again we turned to the line-up of investors.  Gone — -off to lay their money on, Inc.

All of this brings the focus to the impact of the investment community on the whole issue of renewable energy, and solar in particular.  Right now, you can hear the sound of a stampede heading our way as people are waking up to the realities of a world caught on the dual horns of a global climate crisis and a finite oil supply.  Let me share with you some of my concerns as the Gekkos approach:

1.  The price of the land:  Right now, the best solar land is virtually worthless — -it’s made up of hard-scrabble desert land that nobody wants and no one can use.  That is going to change once solar energy rises to its feet.  Gordon Gekko is going to see “gold in them thar hills”, and he will buy huge tracts of land at pennies an acre only to turn around and wring agregious profit from his far-sited investment.  My point here is simple: solar can rise to meet all of our planet’s needs if it is carefully and thoughtfully deployed.  DO NOT SADDLE SOLAR WITH THE BURDEN OF BUYING THE LAND IT SITS ON, especially at inflated Gekko prices.  In my mind, it is imperative that government act to acquire prime solar land (by eminent domain if need be).  It must be held for the common benefit of all of us.

2.   “Return on Investment”:  At the heart of Gekko’s world is the concept of “return on investment”.  It is this single concept that has hobbled solar energy from its very inception:  “Why should I invest in solar when I can make 20% on something else?”  Over the course of the last several blogs, I have tried to raise an awareness of the true power of solar energy as the path to energy freedom.  In “Suggestion No. 5: Try Solar Alchemy”, I pointed out that a solar device starts to produce real capital the very minute it is deployed — -dollar bills drop to the pavement the moment the sun rises.  But the problem is:  where  are the dollar bills going to go?  My personal experience from Solar Steam, through Tehachapi, and finally the PVT is that Gordon Gekko is going to want the first dollar…and the second…and the third.   In fact, Gekko is going to want assurances that he is going to have a guaranteed return on his investment BEFORE HE EVEN AGREES TO INVEST HIS MONEY.   It is this very fact that has prevented solar energy from rising to take its place as the primary energy source for the planet.  The real truth is that solar cannot effectively come to our rescue as a species if it has to do it by riding through the Valley of Gordon Gekko.  The greater the demands that you put on those infant solar collectors, the less able they are to rise to their feet.  When you ask a collector to pay off the land it sits on and then satisfy the demands of “greed is good” Gekko, you will find that, like the Solar Steam dish, the Tehachapi trough, and the PVT, it will never come into existence in the first place.

Yet there is another way.  Plug in the Sermon on the Mount.  To give, for want of a better word, is good.

I touched on this in my last blog, “Suggestion No. 7: Pennies from Heaven”.  If I were to buy a solar collector and place it in the desert, and just let go of it, those dollars that drop to the ground when the sun rises CAN GO TO CREATING MORE SOLAR COLLECTORS.  It is as simple as that.  Just imagine if every man, woman and child in this country were to GIVE a solar collector to the cause — -a mighty field of collectors would begin to rise up like a conquering army, producing more soldiers by the minute, each of which would go to work immediately producing more soldiers.  We would become awash in energy.  Eventually, there would be more energy produced than we could use, and all of those solar dollars would have to find a new purpose — -like cleaning up the earth of all of the petro-pollution that has taken place over the past century, or, perhaps, providing free health care.

And all of this because we choose to sit on the slopes of the Mount of Olives as opposed to the boardrooms of an island beside the Hudson.



Sunday, December 14th, 2008

I started out my last blog, “Fear, Damage, and Big Ben Rothlisberger”, with the intention of pointing out that the natural human reaction to a severe economic downturn is fear — -that the inclination is to pull our money out of the market and then run to the bank and turn our cyberspace dollars into real greenbacks.  I wanted to note that when one person acts like that, it’s called fear.  When everybody acts that way, it’s called a panic.  In pursuing that end, I did some mild research into the historic “Panics” that have reared their  ugly heads over the past century and a half.  I was quite stunned by what I found.

First and foremost, the panics seemed to come with regularity, like some sort of a viral financial flu.  1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929….not exactly clockwork, but regular enough to recognize that they seem to be an unwelcome fact of life in a free-market reality.

But what struck me nearly speechless was the repeating pattern in the causes of the panics, and the extreme similarity to what is taking place in our present dilemma.  Every single one of them was brought about by undue speculation of one sort or another, most of them by speculation in real estate fed by a willing flow of capital to feed the frenzy.  Speculation lights an ember, excessive profit blows the ember into a flame, and eventually a stampede of greed whips the flame into a raging forest fire.  When the bubble finally bursts, houses are burned up in foreclosures and people are left to stand in unemployment lines and food kitchens.  Untolled damage is done.  But eventually people start to rebuild their lives until a new ember appears just beyond the conscious memory of those who lived through the last one.

As I reviewed the history of the panics, I kept asking myself why a supposedly intelligent species would allow such a thing to keep happening.  Do people get so blinded by the lure of profit that they can’t see a bubble when it’s staring them in the face?  I have to say that that is precisely the case.

Think back to our own experience over the past decade.  Remember the “ Bubble”?  There was a time when I probably could have created a company called and made a killing off it.  It was crazy!  Then, “Pop!”

Then came the real estate bubble.  I have to say that I was a participant in this one — -at least I was on the winning side of the equation.  While others were salting away their retirement cash in stocks, I was buying cheap rental units.  My plan was to fix them up, one at a time, and sell them off as needed to meet my needs in my “golden years”.  I started the fix-up stage just about the time the remnants of the cash started looking for another place to land — -and land was the place to land.  Infomercials began to extol the virtues of buying cheap houses, tossing on some paint and “flipping” them for massive profit. 

I recall clearly my first rental to be harvested:  I had paid $37,000 for it in the 80’s.  When I started the repair phase, I intended to put about $20,000 into it (plus a lot of free labor on my part).  I had visions of putting it out at $85,000.  That’s when the trash heap down the block sold for $110,000.  With a smile on my face, I began to think of a “For Sale” sign in front of my gem in the $125,000 range. While I labored diligently over a six month period, I saw houses exploding in value like popcorn all around the neighborhood.  I was only vaguely aware that the Federal Government was flooding the market with an ocean of cash that made it possible for anyone without a needle in his arm to buy a house.  All I knew was that my humble rental unit was taking off like a NASA shuttle.  I eventually sold it for $165,000.  I was ecstatic!  I couldn’t wait to get the other rental units going.

This went on for years!  I was able to pay off all my mortgages, tear up the credit cards,  buy a badly-needed dump truck for all my projects, and stash away a stack of bubble bills.  I even started looking for more of those dirt-cheap fixer-uppers.  And so was everyone else.  They didn’t exist any more.  The bubble popped some time in late spring of 2007, I think.  I was lucky — -I had a seat when the music stopped.

The rest is history.  We are all now standing in the middle of the bubble rubble.  And, of course, when the real estate bubble popped, the remnants of the money rushed over to the new gold rush: oil.  $60/barrel, $75/barrel, $100/barrel…$145!  “It’s gunna hit $250 by years end!”


I ask again: Why can’t we see a bubble coming?  And I answer again: We get totally blinded by the profit of the moment.  There’s just something about having more money — -after all, we’re the species that puts melamine in baby formula. 

So this brings me (at last) to my simple point.  The new Administration and the new Congress are poised to appoint czars to govern everything from energy to the automotive industry.  I think what we really need is a Bubble Czar.  We should appoint some well-educated guy to the post and put him in an isolated room with a computer that feeds him information about where all the money’s going.  He can’t be allowed to buy anything himself — -just watch what’s going on.  A bubble can’t be that hard to spot.  I’m not saying that he should be ready to do anything about it — -that should be up to the policy makers.  His sole task should be a blow a whistle or sound an alarm or something.  Whatever it is, it should be an “Official Alarm”, requiring the policy people to do something — -like put a bubble tax on the transactions in the alarm zone. 

The point is that bubbles are bad for humanity.  Bubbles lead to bubble rubble.  It’s time we stop them before they grow.  I am particularly concerned about an “alternative energy” bubble laying waste to our very real need to accomplish a global transition in this critical arena.



Wednesday, December 10th, 2008



When I get frustrated, things in my immediate vicinity are at risk of being broken.  That is why I don’t allow golf clubs or baseball bats in the computer room.  That %&#@! machine is a constant source not just of frustration, but outright rage at times.  For me, the equation can be written: frustration = broken things.


I bring up this personal failing because, right now, there’s another emotion out there preparing to unleash untold wreckage from one end of this globe to another: FEAR.  The Dow is tanking, unemployment is headed through the roof while property values go through the floor.  World governments are running around frantically throwing money they don’t have at every wobbly institution that’s big enough to wear the label “indispensible”.  Fear is in the air, and it holds the very real possibility of giving way to an escalated emotion: PANIC.


Historically, what’s happening today used to go by that very name: panics. 


The Panic of 1819:  This was the first of a succession of financial crises that shook the country from 1819 through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.   It was brought about by factors which may sound uncomfortably familiar:  a flood of easy credit  from the banking industry (and backed by the government) led to reckless land speculation and rapidly increasing real estate values.  A deluge of imported goods entered the country, outpacing exports, resulting in a precarious balance of trade that siphoned off massive capital from  the nation.   When the bubble finally burst, the result was a tidal wave of bankruptcies, mortgage foreclosures, bank failures, and massive unemployment.


The Panic of 1837:  The 1819  pattern was repeated 20 years later.  Once again, rampant land speculation was spurred by reckless lending practices of the banking industry.  The result was the same: bank failures, mortgage foreclosures and mass unemployment.


The Panic of 1857:  Once again, reckless land speculation fueled the crash of 1857.  The crisis was actually brought about by the failure of a large insurance company, Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company (can you spell AIG?)  Foreclosures and unemployment followed until the outbreak of the Civil War brought an ocean of government spending to the rescue.


Is any of this starting to sound familiar?


The Panic of 1873:  This time, it wasn’t land speculation but railroad speculation.  The bubble popped on September 18, 1873 when a large banking establishment that was promoting stock in the Northern Pacific Railroad declared its insolvency.  The same results followed.


The Panic of 1893:  Speculation again — -this time in industrial stocks.  Same results.


The panic of 1901: More of the same, this time fed by pyramid stock schemes that created fortunes out of thin air.


The Great Depression:  We all know about this one: stocks bought on margin, millionaires in every office — -th is bubble of bubbles spawned mass unemployment, home foreclosures and  bank failures.  All of it was so easy to foresee to anyone who had taken a look backward.


“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”


Isn’t that the phrase?  Well, it kind’a looks like we didn’t do much looking back either — -land speculation based on easy bank credit, stocks (even whole companies) bought on margin (we called it leverage this time), millionaires on every corner, a world awash in funny money.  And now our bubble has popped. 


It is not the intent of this blog article to point fingers or to go on ad nauseum about what has brought us to this unpleasant reality.  It is not the causes that concern me right now, it’s the effect.  It is the emotional reaction to this financial crisis and the potential for damage that is caused by that reaction.   Roosevelt’s oft-quoted phrase, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” has been told and retold so many times that we have forgotten what he was trying to say — -that it was fear that was doing all the damage in 1932-33.


We, too, stand poised to start breaking things.  And right now, the principal candidate for damage is the automobile industry.  Everyone seems ready to allow our nation’s ability to produce vehicles to go down the drain.  We must not allow this to happen.  We are going to desperately need an infrastructure capable of producing non-carbon burning cars.  Our future and the future of our children depends upon our ability to turn a corner on this critical issue.  If we trash the only industry we have that knows how to build cars (not to mention the tens of thousands of workers who actually do the work), we cripple our ability to create the very cars and trucks we will need to carry us out of a looming carbon holocaust. 


Enter Ben Rothlisberger. 


I’ve been watching the Congressional hearings on the “Big 3” automotive “bailout”.  And I’ve been reading the vitriolic emails that the general public has been sending to the networks:


          “Those (expletive deleted) C.E.O.’s were warned that they needed to build smaller cars, and they chose to go on building Hummers!” 

           “Let them go bankrupt!” 

           “Those %#@*&!!s deserve everything that’s happening to them!”


Well, Ben Rothlisberger, the quarterback of the ‘05 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburg Steelers, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in June of ’06.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet.  Is there any doubt that he had been repeatedly warned that about riding a motorcycle without a helmet?  Of course he knew.  And it’s equally clear that he chose to ignore the warnings.


My point is this:  if you had come across his mangled body at the intersection of the accident, would you have stood there and yelled, “You idiot!  You were told to wear a helmet!  You brought this on yourself!” If you had been there, would you have let him bleed to death?


The truth is that someone went ahead and put him back together, and he’s been a pretty good quarterback ever since.


Our auto industry hasn’t been wearing a helmet either.  Now we can all stand here and yell, “You idiots!”, and let the entire industry bleed to death from its self-inflicted wounds.  Or we can remember Ben Rothlisberger, and give the industry an I.V.  Maybe they won’t win any Super Bowls for a while, but they will be in the running.  And if they’re in the running, we’re all going to be winners.


It’s a bit scary out there right now. But let’s not let our fears turn to anger and panic.  It’s time to start the IV’s,  not kick the bleeding dummies.