Sunday, November 23, 2014


"Marx said the opium of the masses was religion. For the USA, it's Netflix and Wal-Mart."

We arrived to rural México in time for the 104th anniversary of Dia de la Revolucíon. The dirt streets of this small village whose central plaza we sit in to write this were lined with people waving flags and singing Cielito Lindo to their children, dressed as revolutionaries, on parade.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,

cielito lindo, los corazones.

[Ay, yai, yai, yai,

sing and don't cry,

because singing gladdens,

my pretty little love (or our little heaven), the hearts.

The hearts here are not gladdened at the moment. México has just witnessed the largest street demonstrations in its history, complete with plainclothes agents provocateur smashing windows in Mexico City before being videotaped getting back into their police van (the official government line is that they were “anarchist infiltration”).

From the moment last September when six people were murdered and 43 students from Ayotzinapa joined the 22,000 disappeared in the past decade, the federal government took the line that drug traffickers were responsible. Even after it became apparent that the local police were responsible, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam embarrassed himself with a tired cover-up at a press conference November 7, as described by Miguel Ángel Ferrer @thenewsmexico:
The theory connecting the Iguala crimes and drug trafficking has faded, leaving room for only one theory: it was a state crime. Or, to call it by another name, it was an official crime, a crime committed under government orders and by government agents. Consequently, these are the only possible options: to investigate the state, or to cover it up.

If it was indeed a state crime, the attorney general’s job would be to cover up the government’s involvement. In doing so, he would be guaranteeing not justice and truth, but impunity and lies. There’s no doubt that was Murillo Karam’s role, which has yielded terrible results.

And so, another revolution is coming. In the Zócalo of Mexico City, constructed during the Aztec Empire as one of the largest public squares in the world, students built a 20-foot effigy of President Peña Nieto in a business suit with a clown nose and blood on his hands, then torched it as more than 100,000 gathered to shout for the president to resign.

Enrique Peña Nieto has 4 years left in his term but few here think his presidency will last much beyond the end of November. Were he to resign today there would be a popular election, but by waiting until December he throws the election to his political allies in the National Assembly. And so it goes.

It is often difficult for USAnians and Canadians, even those who come here often or live near the border, to understand the revolutionary character of México. The popular narrative in US culture is that "America" was where freedom-loving refugees immigrated, threw off the yoke of European monarchical economic feudalism, blazed a trail of liberty and constitutional democracy and today it selflessly sacrifices blood and treasure to bestow similar blessings upon the world with whiz-bang weapons concocted from the madcap illustrations of science fiction magazines of the 1930s.

México, viewed through a USanian lens, is a cultural and economic backwater, impoverished by a desert climate, endemic political graft and corruption, and utterly dependent on foreign aid, drug money and the money sent home by emigrants. Its people seek refuge in the North because there are no opportunities in South, life is brutal and squalid, and, lately, very gruesome, as civil order crumbles in the vice grip of up-armored police and ruthless drug cartels.

When the average Northern tourist blissfully vacations in all-inclusive enclaves on the Mayan Riviera, Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco, behind electrified alloy-steel fences patrolled by kevlared security guards in HumVees, their only human contact is with other foreigners and the occasional room-cleaner who changes their toiletries. Cocooned with CNN and Fox News, their preconceptions of this country remain intact.

Revolution Day is a reminder that the Northern narrative is a fairy tale.

There was undeniably a time in the North when a handful of US aristocrats in velvet frocks and tricorner hats threw off the yoke of European monarchical domination, blazed a bloody path to liberation (with assistance from France and Prussia) guided by the liberal thinkers of the day, and established a constitutional democracy protected by a Bill of Rights (unless you were landless, jobless, colored, female, gay or a whale).

That heroism is receding very quickly now. The Bill of Rights went through the shredder and was thrown as confetti out a Wall Street window when we digitized ticker tape. The millennially husbanded natural capital of the lower 48, Alaska and Pacific territories, after conquest, ethnic cleansing and the imposition of the industrial economic mandate (to export capitalism), brought great wealth to a few at a terrible cost, first to indigenous culture, the buffalo and the Carolina parakeet, and then, to the planet.

Today where once waved amber fields from sea to shining sea sprawls a string of tarmacked strip-malls and vacant storefronts. An emerging police state presides over glyphosated fields and GMO food factories.  The recent mid-term election was a popular vote for unfettered wiretapping, never-ending holy war, unregulated Ponzinomics and tap water that catches fire.

Marx said the opium of the masses was religion. For the USA, it's Netflix and Wal-Mart.

Dropping back a century, there was a time when 5% of the people in México, mostly descended from European conquerors, owned more property and made more money than the other 95%, those with regionally specific blood coursing in their veins. Any time in history you see these kinds of extremes, the social fuse is lit.

On November 20, 1910, México exploded.

Benito Juárez
As we travel back to antecedents for a fuller view, it is helpful to know that it was a Zapotec from Oaxaca, Benito Pablo Juárez García, who, two years before before Lewis and Clark set off for the Pacific Ocean, was born in a native village in the mountains. His parents, whom he described as "Indians of the original race of the country" died when he was three and his grandparents soon thereafter.

At the age of 12 he left his uncle's home to learn Spanish and attend school. A Franciscan took him in and placed him in seminary. Beginning at age 37, at a height of 4 foot 6 inches, he became a lawyer, a judge, then Governor of Oaxaca. When his political views clashed with then President Antonio López de Santa Anna, of Alamo fame, he was forced into exile in New Orleans, where he found work in a cigar factory.

In 1854, following the Mexican Cession of half of that country's land to the US and the retirement of Santa Anna, Juárez returned and was elected Presidénte on a reform platform. Politically naive, he curtailed the power of the Catholic Church and the military and attempted to create a modern capitalist economy based on the model of the United States. This triggered a popular insurrection that forced Juárez to relocate his government to Veracruz.

In 1861 Spain, Britain and France, angry over unpaid Mexican debts, sent a joint expeditionary force to seize the Veracruz customs house. France, under Napolean III, took advantage of the situation to invade, at first encountering a successful defense by Mexican forces (Cinco de Mayo) but later forcing a second retreat from the capital city, this time to what is now Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, was proclaimed Emperor Maximilian I of México.

Imagine, for a moment, what it might have been like if, during the US Civil War, Spain had invaded Washington, threw out President Lincoln, another man of humble birth, born 3 years after Juárez, and established a European monarch in the Great White Palace on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Juárez  is perhaps best known for not giving up at this point, but mustering support and militarily defeating Maximilian, restoring the constitutional government in 1867, and then suppressing counter-revolts by opponents such as Porfirio Díaz.

Although Juárez succeeded in subordinating the army to civilian control and separating church and state in public affairs, he also made important missteps. While expropriating church lands Juárez also liquidated the system of peasant communal land holdings, the ejidos, and in so doing sewed the seeds of later upheavals.

In 1876, following Juárez 's death, his nemesis, Porfirio Díaz, ousted the liberal government and brought about the period known as the Porfirato. He maintained control through his own private paramilitary force and gangs of thugs, Los Rurales.

Díaz sped up Westernization with construction of factories, roads, dams, industries and modern (petrochemical) farms, attracting foreign capital from the United States and Great Britain. He assured foreign entrepreneurs that their investments were going to be enormously profitable and secure. This resulted in the rise of an urban proletariat, enormous export of the nation's natural wealth, and loss of civil rights, such as freedom of press and assembly or restrictions on arbitrary detention. Most people in México were landless, laboring on vast estates or in mines or factories for slave wages.

The Porfiriato ended in 1911 with the Mexican Revolution. The people finally said, ¡Basta! (enough!). In 1909, Díaz and President William Howard Taft held a summit in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the first time an American president would cross the border into México. Díaz won support for his planned eighth run as president and promptly jailed his opponent in the election, Francisco Madero. Madero issued a "letter from jail" that declared the Díaz regime illegal and called for revolt, starting on November 20.

Madero escaped and fled to Téxas, where he raised an army consisting mostly of ordinary farmers, miners and the indigenous peoples. Early successes attracted skilled leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who brought their own armies. Madero defeated Díaz and became the next president, but in early 1913, acting U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, representing the lame duck Taft, conspired to assassinate Madero and install a military junta, events known in Mexican history as la Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days.

Incoming President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize the junta, recalled H.L. Wilson and tasked his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to aid the rebels. This led to a curious period during which the US supported Villa and Zapata (and Germany supported the military junta) before Villa went rogue by demanding deeper reforms, and Wilson sent Gen. John J. Pershing with 5,000 troops across the Rio Grande for a year-long game of hide and seek with Villa.

Columbus, New Mexico, after attack by Pacho Villa
Eventually the old Porfirian system was discarded and replaced with a multiparty system pitting PNR, now PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mr. Peña Nieto), against PDR (Party of the Democratic Revolution, the party of the mayor of Iguala who seems to have been the one who ordered the abduction of the 43 students) and PAN (the party of the last government, which had its own share of corruption). As in the North, business interests have the money to purchase democracies with the modern tools of corporate media.

So it is that when past-President Felipe Calderón seemed to be getting too corrupt he was replaced, not with a more serious reformer such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but with business-friendly millionaire Enrique Peña Nieto. On the plus side, Peña Nieto established net neutrality and limited the size of telecommunications monopolies, improved schools and stabilized the collapsing petroleum industry. On the other side, the national oil company was farmed out to transnationals, state-run monopolies are being privatized, and the ejido system of rural communal lands, restored in 1911, is once more being dismantled to make way for investments in tourism and second home sites for wealthy pensioners.

Mr. Peña Nieto is also ensnarled in a a private $7 million house deal bought on credit by his wife, who said she had her own millions from her career in acting but an audit showed she did not, from a company whose owner is a partner in a Chinese-led consortium for a bullet-train contract Mr. Peña Nieto abruptly canceled when the scandal broke.

But we digress. History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes, as Mark Twain said. We can see threads in the Mexican historical experience reverberate through the histories of many other countries. There is a revolution – some monumental change in the practices of governance – and then a period of gradual integration as the new system is reconciled with the old. Corruption creeps in, gradually at first, then more rapidly. It reaches a boiling point where injustice has become so rife and the ignominy of daily life so degrading, that people become willing to sacrifice what little peace they have, and even their existence, for the chance of making a change that will better the lives of their children. Perhaps a charismatic leader provides the spark. Perhaps it is some particularly horrible crime by those in power. The next phase of the cycle begins suddenly, usually violently.

It doesn't always go this way. Remember the Singing Revolution in Estonia.  In 1974 there was the Carnation Revolution in Portugal; in '86 the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and later a four-day popular revolt that peacefully overthrew Philippine President Joseph Estrada -  self-organized through SMS messaging. Solidarity in Poland, the toppling of the Berlin Wall by the people of the GDR, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were also organized by unstoppable new social media (back then, fax-machine bulletin boards). Most recently there was the Arab Spring, put together on smart phones.

Less successful, but still simmering, are non-violent revolutions in Bahrain, Bashkortostan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Spain, Ukraine, Uzbekistan; and, oh, lest we forget, Occupy Wall Street.

George Lakey in his 1976 Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution laid out a five-stage strategy for nonviolent revolution:
Stage 1. Cultural Preparation or "Conscientization:" Education, training and consciousness raising of why there is a need for a nonviolent revolution and how to conduct a nonviolent revolution.

Stage 2. Building Organizations: Affinity groups or nonviolent revolutionary groups are organized to provide support, maintain nonviolent discipline, provide a coherent vision, and recruit and train people into networks.

Stage 3. Confrontation:  Organized and sustained campaigns of picketing, strikes, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, die-ins, blockades to disrupt business as usual in institutions and government. 

Stage 4. Mass Non-cooperation: Similar affinity groups and networks of affinity groups around the country and world, engage in similar actions to disrupt business as usual.

Stage 5. Parallel Government: Developing parallel institutions to take over functions and supplant former practices of government and commerce.

In each of the non-violent revolutions we mentioned there were common goals that were not difficult to comprehend or appreciate. In each case, violent or non-violent, there is a desire to create a new society. If the change is accomplished with violence, it will become a mostly futile gesture; "moving the furniture around," as Stephen Gaskin said. Accomplished without violence, its own act of birth expresses the values it wishes to see institutionalized and it may endure a bit longer.

Class oppression, environmental destruction, discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender or other criteria all drive revolution. A future that is environmentally sustainable, democratic, tolerant and fair is a worthwhile goal, even if it only lasts a few years at a time.

The one thing that México learned from history, that the US apparently forgot, is that revolution is better, less bloody and more forgiving when it comes with some frequency. It nearly came again to México in the early 2000's, but the Zapatistas, after popular consultas, listened to the peoples' wish for peace with development, chose to participate politically and were absorbed.

In the North, the American Revolution is celebrated with fireworks and the Boston Pops playing John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever.
Hurrah for the flag of the free.

May it wave as our standard forever

The gem of the land and the sea,

The banner of the right.

Let despots remember the day

When our fathers with mighty endeavor

Proclaimed as they marched to the fray,

That by their might and by their right

It waves forever.

Gandhi said the first principle of strategy is to stay on the offensive. The difference between the mantras of John Philip Sousa and that of, say, Russell Brand, could hardly be more stark. Shedding blood is entirely unnecessary —  and ultimately counterproductive. When its time has come, nothing stands in the way of a good idea.

Russell Brand's latest book, rEVOLution, is climbing the charts as the comedian and one-time actor is making rounds of all the talk shows. Revolution is funny, full of charm, and engaging. Does it describe a coherent alternative new society? No, but as he flitters from interview to interview, Brand teases out the central precepts of any agenda — debt jubilee; living wage and pension; cap on personal income; labor safety and environmental protections; clean energy. Not exactly The Transition Handbook, but Brand is more about the whys than the hows. His pithy skewers could float a political campaign if he were not evangelically anti-politics.

Like Naomi Klein, whose This Changes Everything was long on dirty laundry and short on detergent, Brand breaks down the things that stand in the way of real change: fiat money manipulation, dollared democracy, incest between the government, media and banking interests. What we're left with, Brand argues, is "a man-made system designed to serve us, an ideological machine. It has gone wrong and is tyrannizing us. We wouldn't tolerate that from a literal machine. If my vacuum cleaner went nuts and forced me to live in economic slavery … I'd fuck it off out the window."

Brand and Klein are both at Stage 1. The Transition movement has already moved on to stages 2, 4 and 5. It skipped stage 3 because confrontation was viewed as unnecessary, and Transition's stage 4, non-cooperation, is very selective. Like Permaculture's David Holmgren,  Transition's Rob Hopkins is making revolution without breaking glass. They are termites, gnawing at the foundations of death-wish winner-take-all dying empire, while drawing up blueprints for the giant earthen mounds that will replace the crumbling plastic and tinfoil edifice of globalized consumer civilization.

"We are having a revolution here, make no mistake. But it is going to be non-violent." — Peter Schweitzer, Forty Years on The Farm


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is this all we get?

As we endure the kind of 11-day Arctic blast of all-powerful Rossby Waves that will define our childrens' future, we note a sudden uptick in interest in climate. Unfortunately, the new US-China bilateral climate deal leaves us feeling like that T-shirt that says, "I went to Beijing and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

To re-cap for those living under rocks the U.S. and China announced this week a surprise breakthrough in negotiating a secret bilateral deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Queue confetti.

China is the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution, at 25% and growing. The U.S. is No. 2 with about 15 percent and dropping (ignoring, for the moment, fugitive fracking emissions). The two countries are often adversaries at UN climate talks where finger pointing is the international sport. 

Last month, the European Union said that its 2030 emissions would be 40 percent lower than in 1990. With pledges from the top three emitters on the table a year ahead of the Paris climate summit, pressure now builds on countries like India, Russia, Brazil and Japan to present their own targets. This is good news for Paris partygoers. The mood will be festive. Start ordering your French language Rosetta tapes.

Don't expect much from India.
White House Senior Science Advisor John Holdren, a courageous climate crisis nag always looming darkly in the Oval Office shadows to dampen the President's sense of bonhomie, was probably the midwife to this deal. Appearing on national TV, he tried to put a smiley face on the baby, repeatedly using the word, "ambitious" and saying that if the two largest polluters can set reduction goals, no other country has an excuse to shirk (elbow to the ribs of India).

Coal Smog in India
Reality check: the International Energy Agency now says the world has to stop building all new fossil plants by 2017.  Price Waterhouse Cooper now says you have to decarbonize the economy at the rate of about 6 percent per year starting now. Meanwhile, scientists such as Kevin Anderson at Tyndall Centre are saying we have to slash emissions 10% per year starting now if we want a chance of still having a habitable planet after about mid-century.

Bill McKibben responded to the announcement by saying:

"It's not, in any way, a stretch goal. These numbers are easy - if you were really being cynical, you could say they're trying to carefully manage a slow retreat from fossil fuels instead of really putting carbon on the run. The Germans, for instance, will be moving in on 60% of their energy from clean sources by the mid-2020s, when we'll still be cutting carbon emissions by small increments.

"It is not remotely enough to keep us out of climate trouble. We've increased the temperature less than a degree and that's been enough to melt enormous quantities of ice, not to mention set the weather on berserk. So this plan to let the increase more than double is folly -- though it is good to see that the two sides have at least agreed not to undermine the 2 degrees Celsius warming target, the one tiny achievement of the 2009 Copenhagen conference fiasco."

Asher Miller of the Post Carbon Institute compares the deal to a patient being informed that they have terminal diabetes and so they commit to changing their diet as soon as they have lost two legs. We would compare it to a cancer patient who decides to take up smoking after being diagnosed and we would compare India to a start-up company planning to grow all the tobacco for those new smokers.

To be clear, at the 1997 Kyoto conference, Al Gore committed the U.S. to reduce GHG emissions 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012, including by adding sinks such as afforestation and "clean coal." The Senate then voted 95-0 against any agreement that "would seriously harm the economy of the United States." Clinton never forwarded the Kyoto Treaty for ratification. President Bush offered voluntary actions to reduce the “greenhouse gas intensity” (ratio of emissions to economic output) of the U.S. economy by 18% from 2002 to 2012. This was accomplished, primarily by shifting to risky financial gamesmanship as a larger component of the U.S. economy, and growing that exponentially, rather than by reducing carbon emissions. Actual emissions during that period increased 11 percent.

Had the US met its Clinton/Gore Kyoto goal, it would have emitted 7 percent less in 2012 (5.573 GtCO2  - billion metric tonnes or petagrams - equivalent, net with sinks) or 5.183 GtCO2eq.  In 2012 it actually emitted 6.526 GtCO2eq, a gain of 1.343 or 26%. So much for Kyoto pledges.
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research reported in 2001 that, "This policy reversal [to voluntary pledges over legally binding commitments] received a massive wave of criticism that was quickly picked up by the international media. Environmental groups blasted the White House, while Europeans and Japanese alike expressed deep concern and regret. [...] Almost all world leaders (e.g. China, Japan, South Africa, Pacific Islands, etc.) expressed their disappointment at Bush’s decision." Bush responded, "I was responding to reality, and reality is the nation has got a real problem when it comes to energy."

He might have added that the nation has got a real problem when it comes to politics.

The new bilateral deal with China – 26-28% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025 – is strictly voluntary and still subject to the tender mercies of the Republican-controlled Senate, dominated by coal-funded Tea Party fossils who say climate change is a hoax.

The US-China deal would not stabilize atmospheric concentrations at 450 ppm or even 750 ppm. Unless the remaining countries come forward with even greater ambitions, probability of exceeding the 2-degree goal set at Cancun COP16 in 2010 is certain and the probability of exceeding 5 degrees something like 50%. (Stabilization at 450 ppm, the UNFCCC treaty goal for Paris, would mean a 26 to 78% risk of exceeding the 2°C target.)

Peter Lee, editor for China Matters, writes:

The United States showed up at Copenhagen with the conviction that Kyoto had to go, that the United States, even though it had no prospect of passing binding domestic legislation, would claim to have enough leadership juice to create a viable successor system… and the PRC would be the designated fall guy in the necessary but politically wrenching drama of knocking off Kyoto (and spurning the needs and moral claims of the at-risk nations that had not contributed significantly to global warming but would bear the brunt of its effects, and were a major focus of the Kyoto treaty).

I harbor the suspicion that the United States deliberately framed its monitoring, review, and verification requirements on China to be as intrusive and repellent as possible — and dishonestly tied $100 billion annually of adaptation relief for poor at-risk countries (that the United States had no ability to fund) to Chinese acceptance – so that the PRC would be sure to reject them.


In 2012, Kyoto was extended to 2020, and a meeting planned for Paris in 2015 to try to get the treaty and a global response to climate change on a viable track.

The significance of the US-China agreement, and why I’m assuming it is trumpeted with such desperate enthusiasm in the US, is that the PRC, by bilaterally coming to climate change terms with the United States, has simultaneously spurned the Kyoto Treaty, the BASIC bloc [Brazil, South Africa, India], and the at-risk nations (known as the G-77 bloc).

So, instead of demanding that the United States help reform the binding Kyoto regime, the PRC has now acquiesced in the US strategy of Kyoto destruction without making provisions for a binding successor agreement.

On the positive side, the commitment made by China, which is something they need to do anyway to arrest killer coal smog, will require them to build more renewable energy infrastructure in the next 15 years than the entire combined energy infrastructure of the United States. Given the relative size of their economies, it leaves the US with no excuses to restrain its renewables build-out or to add any new fossil infrastructure (like the Keystone pipeline).

This knocks the Republican energy plan (frack baby, frack) into a cockeyed hat. Trying to put a game face on this disaster, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell went on TV to ask why the US should have to sacrifice its coal industry to meet these goals while the agreement “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” Senate Environmental Committee Chair James Inhofe took a vastly different view, arguing that the Chinese commitment is so challenging, the country will never be able to fulfill it. He called the promise “hollow and not believable” and a “non-binding charade.” One of these themes will be the Republicans' mantra going forward, as soon as they decide which.

Joe Romm of Climate Progress writes:

When you add the recent European Union (EU) pledge to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, we now have countries representing more than half of all global emissions making serious commitments — and that in turn puts pressure on every other country. If the developing countries were to all follow China’s lead, and the non-EU developed countries follow ours, a 2015 global deal would slash carbon pollution this century by a whopping 2500 billion tons of CO2 (see figure).

Playing for the cameras in Beijing, President Obama said the US intends to get at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. By cleverly ignoring the monitoring of escaping fracked methane from wells, pipelines and refineries, the Energy department reported GHGs in 2012 were 10 percent below 2005 levels. Dropping another 16% in the next 10 years with the same 3-Card Monte fits smoothly within the Republican plan to frack its way to energy independence.

The toxic smog driving China's commitment and the toxic smog at the wheel in the US Congress are of a different type but in both cases the poison is already diminishing brain functions. What we are watching now, as we ride the latest round of Rossby waves, are the hallucinations all this smog produces.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


"In the event of the worst case - where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors."

Many of our friends have been urgently sending us warnings of an impending nuclear catastrophe unfolding in the mountains of East Tennessee. We have been watching the situation but it is almost more interesting to watch the watchers because their overreaching reaction has many tendrils in pop culture, prepping, panic, and how we get our news in the internet age.

Not so long ago news travelled very slowly. In 1845 it took President Polk six months to get a message to California. Thanks to the Pony Express, details of Lincoln's inaugural address covered the distance between the end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearny and Sacramento in seven days, 17 hours. Lag time like that made a significant difference in events because it offered more time to ponder risks and consequences. Mail lag even had a role in keeping California out of the War of Northern Aggression.

Today we hear a beep from our phone and glance down to see what a Facebook or Twitter friend on the other side of the planet is laughing about. We can glance at our tablet to see development of a superstorm in the Bering Strait as viewed from a weather satellite. If we want to get the lowdown on something not in our news stream, we google it, fully aware that Google is filtering our results based on our particular confirmation bias.

Newspapers and the big broadcast news channels are so slow, bland, geriatric and clueless that it is no wonder their business model is circling the toilet bowl of communications history.

But at the edges of the new media map there be dragons. We cocoon within psychographic cabals of those who share our views, seldom venturing out to listen to those who disagree. Social rifts are widening. In the last US election, as earlier in Australia, Canada and the UK, conservative media trounced liberal media. That was no accident. Elections were purchased by Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and consortia of K-street lobbyists funded by repatriating Citizens United petrodollars from Riyadh and Beijing.

Sinkhole, Guatemala
The emerging insularity is ominous. Jim Inhofe, who thinks that global warming is a hoax because God has a plan for us, was elevated this week to Chairman of the most powerful environmental Senate Committee. The fossil fuel industry won virtually every election, national and local. More subsidies for drilling and burning and repeal of EPA restraints are virtually assured. Any gains made by and NRDC in the past 5 years will be reversed as certainly as night follows day.

So, naturally, when we read something in the press about a pending man-made disaster, we have to wonder. Whose ax is being ground here?

According to the Tennessee Valley Authority's news release, published in Hydroworld on November 5th:
During dam inspection Oct. 20, engineers at the South Fork Holston River facility [Boone Lake Dam] became aware of a sinkhole at the base of the 160-foot-high (49 meters) by 1,532-foot-long (467 meters) structure. The sinkhole was repaired, but on Oct. 26, inspectors discovered seepage near the location of the original sinkhole, underwater in the rip rap rocks – a foundation or sustaining wall of stones or chunks of concrete used as armor – near the shoreline. TVA said the seepage included “a small amount of water and sediment seeping from the riverbank below the dam.”

The Appalachian Mountains have a karst terrain that is especially susceptible to sinkholes. This region is also the high ground in the TVA system of 29 hydroelectric dams and pumped-storage. In karst domains – underlain with carbonate bedrock such as limestone or dolomite  rainwater percolating though organic soil becomes slightly acidic and slowly dissolves the bedrock.  Over time, it creates extensive systems of underground fissures and caves. East Tennessee is pocked with chains of sinkholes, or solution valleys, where streams mysteriously disappear underground.

After discovering the leak below Boone Lake Dam, TVA immediately began a drawdown to lower levels of the lake so it could better examine the problem. Sinkholes are not uncommon and TVA has had to deal with them before. It dealt with a similar hole at Bear Creek, Alabama in 2007 by backfilling with concrete, but the leak discovered in October has been termed "an uncommon occurrence" because of both its size and location.

TVA will be bringing down the water level about 20 feet to the necessary mark of 1,362 feet (elevation), the “winter pool” level. The rate at which the TVA can drop the lake maxes out at 2 feet per day and it expects to have the drawdown done by November 10. Jennifer Dodd, a TVA dam safety officer said it could turn out that the cause of the sinkhole and seepage is a broken pipe or drain, but they won’t know until the water’s low enough.

TVA normally lowers its lakes and reservoirs in winter to provide better flood control above cities like Chattanooga. TVA can store about 5 million acre-feet of water during the winter flood season to protect that city from extreme storms, something we may see more of in the future unless Chairman Inhofe puts in a good word with God. Chattanooga's river storage capacity can and has been used to reduce flood crests on the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois by as much as 3 feet.

All this is very reassuring until one digs a little more. Boone Lake is a V-shaped reservoir that extends for 17 miles up the South Fork Holston and for 15 miles up the Watauga. When it was filled for the first time it submerged 154 homes, 104 graves and 18 miles of roads. It holds 25 billion gallons of water. Although the dam is more than half the length of a football field tall, when full the water behind the dam is 35 yards above the normal level of the river below.

If the dam were to suddenly break, that 100-foot high wall of water would gradually diminish in height over distance. It would almost certainly sweep away the state highway bridge only a mile downstream and most likely would overflow and demolish other cross-river structures between Kingsport and Chattanooga.

The Army Ammo Dump is one of 9 Superfund sites near the river.

Kingsport would be hardest hit, because it is close to Boone Lake and has lots of vulnerable low-lying riverside infrastructure such as natural gas, oil storage depots and sewage treatment plants. There is plenty of new, high-priced development along the river shore below Kingsport, and some schools and prisons, too.

Eastman Chemical is the largest toxic waste Superfund site in Kingsport
Fifty miles downstream from Kingsport is the Cherokee Dam, hastily erected (just 16 months to build) on the Holston in 1943 to power uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. Although now retired from generating power, the Cherokee's old cement face, masking three earthen saddle dams, stands 170 feet above the river to hold back a 59-mile reservoir. If Cherokee's 75-year-old Corps of Engineers earthworks fails, it would add 244 billion gallons of water to the 25 billion gallons brought along from Boone Lake and send it all crashing down to scour the river banks at Jefferson City and Knoxville. Jefferson City has 4 Superfund sites, Knoxville 39.

Fifty miles below Knoxville stands the Fort Loudon Dam, another monument to wartime Corps of Engineers speed records for dam construction (just 12 months from start to finish). Ft Loudon holds back another 36 billion gallons, not including the channel that brings in overflow from the Tellico Dam. If Ft Loudon is destroyed or even overtopped by the wall of inrushing water, its waters dump into those of Watts Bar Lake, just below and contiguous.

Watts Bar is named for a large sandbar in the Tennessee River
The cities of Kingston, Spring City, Harriman, Loudon, Rockwood, and Lenoir City all have waterfronts on Watts Bar Lake.

This secret NRC internal report, performed after Fukushima by the agency's nuclear reactor safety division and labeled "Not for Public Release," describes what happens when such a wall of water arrives from Watts Bar Lake to Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, north of Chattanooga. It begins by describing the scenario for another facility, Duke Power's Oconee Nuclear Station, should the dam at Jocassee fail:

"Studies that are more recent have also computed flood heights that exceed the flood protection elevation of the Standby Shutdown Facility (Duke 2009, Duke 2010). The following timeline (which begins with dam failure) is an excerpt from a Duke letter, which is based on results of the 1992 study:

Notification from Jocassee would occur before a total failure of the dam; however, for purposes of this timeline, notification is assumed to be at the same time the dam fails. Following notification from Jocassee, the reactor(s) are shutdown within approximately 1 hour. The predicted flood would reach [Oconee Nuclear Station] in approximately 5 hours, at which time the [Standby Shutdown Facility] walls are overtopped. The [Standby Shutdown Facility] is assumed to fail, with no time delay, following the flood level exceeding the height of the [Standby Shutdown Facility] wall. The failure scenario results are predicted such that core damage occurs in about 8 to 9 hours following the dam break and containment failure in about 59 to 68 hours. When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result. (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10)

The above timeline assumes that Oconee Nuclear Station is notified at the same time the dam fails. The licensee considers this assumption to be conservative because the plant expects notification before the dam fails (the dam is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The licensee notes that the above timeline does not account for the recession of floodwaters, which is postulated to occur 10 hours following dam failure (5 hours following onset of flooding at the site) (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10).


There are 12 major dams upstream from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (the locations of six of these dams are shown in Figure 10). As indicated above, Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is located less than 2 miles from Watts Bar Dam. The remaining 11 dams are located at further distances. In the plant UFSARs, seismically-induced dam failure is considered under the operating basis earthquake coincident with one-half the PMF [presumed maximum flood] as well as during a safe-shutdown earthquake coincident with a 25-year storm. … Under this event, the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam would be overtopped and breached (WBNP 2010, p. 2.4-38, WBNP n.d., p. 2.4-31). The licensee provides results that indicate arbitrary removal of Watts Bar Dam during a 25-year flood would result in a flood elevation of 723 ft MSL (5 ft below plant grade).

In light of the concern about potentially high flood levels at Oconee Nuclear Station resulting from the failure of Jocassee Dam, it may be reasonable to understand the consequences of high flood events at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resulting from failure of Watts Bar Dam and other upstream dams during an extreme precipitation event. Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is flood protected up to an elevation of 728ft and requires plant shutdown for flood elevations above this level. Given the close proximity of Watts Bar Dam to the plant site (Figure 11), very little warning time exists between the time of dam breach and the arrival of floodwaters at the site. The safety-related systems and components necessary for the maintenance of safe shutdown are protected up to the aforementioned design-basis flood level, which does not include a dam failure event (other than the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam).
Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga
In the event of the worst case - something like NRC describes above, where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors. The emergency plan for a dam failure at Watts Bar, based on the 25-year flood, assumes the waters will stop 5 feet below the reactor building's apron. It assumes it will not reach the diesel generators, the offsite power switchyard or the spent fuel pools. In other words, it assumes something like Fukushima cannot happen.

As the Duke study says, "When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result." Chattanooga and Knoxville will be the most directly impacted, but unlike in Japan where most of the fallout blew out to sea, under normal Tennessee conditions the prevailing wind currents will carry Watts Bar and Sequoyah fallout up the western side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley, and then up the eastern seaboard of the United States, raining down transuranic elements on the people and water supplies of Roanoke, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Hartford, Boston and Portland, Maine.

This fate is not set in stone. TVA is prepared for sinkholes and discovered this one in time to excavate and plug it. What the sinkhole in Tennessee revealed, however, is an underlying pattern of deception and corruption. The US Congress has been spending money first to arm and train ISIS and then to arm and train its opposition but has delayed spending money on decaying infrastructure such as roads and bridges. For all we know ISIS is a false flag operation being run by ex-Navy Seals, in which case we would be arming and payrolling both sides. It would not be the first time.

After Fukushima the nation should have followed the lead of other countries and begun retiring nuclear plants, starting with the most vulnerable, and replacing them with cheaper, safer and more reliable renewable sources (carefully avoiding siting large hydro dams in karst terrain). Would that not be better Homeland Security than irradiating the entire population in airports? Instead, in the name of energy independence it relicensed old nuke plants, ignored the warnings of engineers that many are as vulnerable as Fukushima, and also increased the earthquake risks by promoting fracking in the Appalachian shale belt. Madness.

The internal NRC report says:

Like many sites in the U.S. inventory of nuclear power plants, flood levels at these two stations were based on relatively outdated flood estimation methods and/or probable precipitation estimates. The evolution of hydrological modeling — including dam break analysis — and the availability of updated meteorological data are likely to yield flooding estimates that are different than those considered during the initial licensing reviews or IPEEE studies.

What happens almost invariably is that the engineers who write words like these are relieved of their duties and shuffled off to less important work in some dimly lit boiler room office. The administrators to whom the findings are addressed stamp them as "Secret," and make sure they never see the light of day. Some clever whistleblower then posts them to the internet, where they are only read by those whose confirmation bias supports catastrophe by conspiracy.

Daniel Boone, for whom Boone Lake was named, said "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”

Perhaps if Chairman Inhofe can just put in a good word with God we will all be spared the scenarios depicted in these reports. Until then, a quiet fear of Boone will keep it interesting. 


View Video Post by The Farm Band from the Reactor album.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Rough Beast Is This?

"A globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break."

We are recently returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Kansas where we spoke of the promise of permaculture and carbon farming to reverse global weirding. We are always happier after attending these events because they are so grounded in real skills and vocations and full of hope for the future.

Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, Utne Reader and Grit and author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want,  kicked off the event with an inspiring talk on the power of vision, and how to get it going in society.

Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Lately some of the most sane and foresighted preppers we know are beginning to question their own assumptions, if not their sanity. Oil production did peak in 2006, after all. All conventional liquid fuels, including biofuels, peaked shortly thereafter. This is 2014. We just filled up at the pump and paid less than $2.80 per gallon. Whatever happened to The End of Suburbia?

By sole dint of mass hypnosis, the United States had a good 3Q14 GDP, sending the stock market and the dollar to new heights. Gold closed Friday just below $1180/oz, ridiculing Goldbug warnings of sovereign default and hyperinflation. The two gold share indexes closed just above their 2008 lows and are poised to go lower Monday. Most analysts described this as a reaction to the QE program just launched by Japan. Outlier David Stockman (former Nixon OMB Director) described it this way:

In fact, this was just the beginning of a Ponzi scheme so vast that in a matter of seconds its ignited the Japanese stock averages by 5%. And here’s the reason: Japan Inc. is fixing to inject a massive bid into the stock market based on a monumental emission of central bank credit created out of thin air. So doing, it has generated the greatest front-running frenzy ever recorded. The scheme is so insane that the surge of markets around the world in response to the BOJ’s announcement is proof positive that the mother of all central bank bubbles now envelopes the entire globe.

The human mind, apparently unlike that of other primates, can hold two different explanations for experiential phenomenon at the same time. That does not always produce cognitive dissonance. We are unique among primates in having a frontopolar cortex that permits multitasking, including undertaking countersurvival activities such as simultaneously driving and texting.

This helpful anatomical asset allows us to hold contrary explanations for our experiences until at some point we find evidence to support one explanation over another. We do this by categorizing features like the redness of an apple, the sweetness of honey, or the sound of an owl but withholding the conclusion that what we are experiencing is an apple, honey or an owl. Instead, we hold the experience at the initial layer of our epistemic contact with reality, a layer we can then use as the basis for more sophisticated categorization into our beliefs and theories. That is where the mischief is done.

As Professor David Orr recently wrote for Solutions:

The plow, for instance, represented the ingenuity of John Deere, but also an emerging, yet seldom acknowledged agro-industrial paradigm of total human domination of nature with commodity markets, banks, federal crop insurance, grain elevators, long-distance transport, fossil fuel dependence, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, crop subsidies, overproduction, mass obesity, soil erosion, polluted groundwater, loss of biological diversity, dead zones, and the concentrated political power of the farm lobby representing oil companies, equipment manufacturers, chemical and seed companies, the Farm Bureau, commodity brokers, giant food companies, advertisers, and so forth. The upshot is a high output, ecologically destructive, fossil-fuel dependent, unsustainable and brittle food system that wreaks havoc on the health of land, waters, and people alike.

Many farmers are now forsaking the plow for these very reasons. Their beliefs about the not-immediately-apparent realities have changed. They are planting perennials and using no-till organic techniques that turn back the clock to the way societies functioned before agriculture. With that shift comes a return not merely to nutrient-dense and more delectable seasonal cuisine but to steady-state economies, redefined gender roles, and abandonment of faith in wage slavery, or student loan and health plan indenture systems.

The re-examination of agriculture is long overdue. It is, to borrow from Yeats, twenty centuries of stony sleep vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.

In 2006, when we published The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, we assumed the post-peak decline slope would be steeper than it has been now, 8 years after the peak. What we are holding in our frontopolar cortex is not peak oil per se. That is already a fait d'accompli. What we are holding there are different explanations as to what has happened and what happens next.

 Of course, there are many things that we cannot know because they are hidden from our view. So, for instance, there is a popular narrative, put forth by the White House and captive media that Russia fomented popular unrest in Ukraine to enable it to seize Crimea and now to threaten Eastern Ukraine with annexation. We know that is a complete fabrication thanks to Wikileaks-exposed secret State Department cables, courageous reporters like Maria Finoshina on RT-TV, and observers on the ground whose accounts are self-validating. It makes us suspect everything the State Department blames on Vladimir Putin; fantasies such as training Edward Snowden as a spy, the downing of the Malaysian MH17 passenger jet, or the recent hacking of White House computers.

US claims jet was shot down by Russian-backed missile (top). Russia claims plane was shot down by US-backed fighter jet (bottom). Dutch investigators await radar evidence from both countries before deciding.

Low Gas Prices

The costs of oil extraction are rising at over 10 percent per year due to the depletion of conventional oilfields and replacement with much more expensive unconventional sources such as deepwater, Arctic, and fracked shale and gas formations. Since 2008, however, wholesale prices have dropped nearly 50% and retail prices even more, thanks to the generosity of oil refineries that have taken advantage of the global lows to push inventories to greater supplies than can be quickly sold, especially in a weak economy.

"Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers," writes Gail Tverberg.

If you were to ask why that is, Daniel Yergin and The Wall Street Journal, the Koch Party lobbyists on K-Street, or Stewart Brand's cabal of technocornucopians will sing a chorus that, as they have long predicted, increased returns from technology, whether it be horizontal drilling, mini-nukes or the latest new consumer gizmos that save energy, have more than substituted for declining recoverable resources. The logic flowing from this doctrine in every business school in every country is that peak anything is a myth. The best of these Ivory Tower economists lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
If you were to ask energy/ecology aware economists – Nicole Foss, Steve Keen, or Gail Tverberg for instance – why 2006 Peak Oil did not change business as usual (yet) they would tell you that by exponentially multiplying debt, using the 2008 financial crash as a pretext, it was possible to book imaginary profits that will be earned in the future in order to persuade gullible Main Streeters to work and spend – and to part with their life savings, homes and pensions. Massive and unrepayable debt is used to fund risky current expansions (such as for private space races, energy-intensive factories or foreign military bases) and current purchases (such as student loans and iPhones) that can float consumerist delusions ("Nothing to see here, move along") just long enough to make it through another year.

We are not advocating loitering Yergin and Foss in the same holding zone of our forebrain. Yergin is clearly wrong. Foss is clearly right. But the holding zone will be useful as we go along, so let's keep it in mind.

Instead of making more pie to be divided among ever more people needing ever more and better paying jobs, "extend and pretend" piles up more impossible-to-repay claims upon the finite underlying real assets, and most importantly, Earth's steadily declining energy resources. As David Korowicz assures us, a globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break.

"Let’s get real," says Richard Heinberg,

"The Earth is a bounded sphere, and the human economy is an engine that extracts raw materials and produces waste. If we keep that engine’s operation within the bounds of what our planet can absorb or replenish through its normal ecosystem functions, all is well. But if the economy continues to grow year after year, at some point the planet’s systems will be overwhelmed—even if we’re using renewable energy to extract and transform raw materials. Our uses of energy and materials can be made somewhat more efficient, but only up to a point. If the Earth itself were expanding at an ever-increasing rate, perpetual economic growth would pose no problem. Yet last time I checked, the planet hadn’t gotten any bigger — while our demands upon it continue to increase."

A reckoning is overdue. As Ellen Brown puts it,

"The too-big-to-fail banks have collectively grown 37% larger since 2008. Five banks now account for 42% of all US loans, and six banks control 67% of all banking assets."

These same few banks each have more than 40 trillion in derivatives on their books. Knock those down to market value and ripples of insolvency cascade through the entire system. This is why the prepper movement is growing, not shrinking.

One cause for Peak Oil self-doubt is that Hubbert linearization – that nice bell-shaped curve – that may correctly model growth and decline in individual oil wells and coal mines, or whole fields and provinces, and even, perhaps, estimated national reserves, does not correctly model the more complex global economy that is partly a product of market psychology involving both human aspirations and crass manipulation for nationalistic and profit purposes. A more thorough model might pull in neglected externalities such as price demand destruction, fertility rates and the corporate consolidation of media.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that the more certainty we can ascribe to one variable (the inevitability of oil depletion, for instance) the less we can hold for some other variable (timing, price, market regulation). That fits well with what we understand of neurobiology. Our simian brains multitask, but only to two things at once, and then only by microseconds. Increase the focus on one task and all others lose focus.

What happened in 2008 is that "Extend and Pretend" became the consensus government strategy, based on reliance in economic theories equating market logic with natural law. Psychology was seen as not only capable of gaining infinite extensions, but susceptible to manipulation by mass media. Keynesians assured governments that you can buy your way out of recession.

Sadly, the multi-trillion-dollar purchase begun in 2008 was only good for a short block of time, and has now grown too expensive to repeat. We might have used that purchased time to switch rapidly to solar energy, mass-transit and walkable cities, or to put greater attention into dismantling the most dangerous threats in a sudden collapse scenario (nuclear weapons and power, GM terminator crops, pandemic-response inadequacies) but our governments decided it was more important that bankers fatten up their offshore accounts and get a summer home in the Hamptons. Maintaining the illusion of normality was paramount.
Why $2.79 gas? One guess would be that offered by Tverberg, Heinberg and others to the effect that we are in a deflationary economy, pummelled by layoffs, business failures and other indica of recession and demand destruction has driven down the price. Another explanation might be to thank our loveable Saudi friends – you know, the ones who took the Cheney-Rumsfeld contract on 9-11? Now they are playing the long con against their Empire-addled Western partners. By driving down the price of Brent Crude, they can successfully undercut the razor thin capital margins of wildcat frackers, who are now pulling the ripcord on hundreds of giant projects. Gaslanders with high market cap or being supported by heavily sedated governments like Australia and Canada's will survive to try again. For now, it is an abattoir.

Two-dollar-and-change high octane is Big-New-Gas-Play speculator blood washing into the storm grate. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

From the Deutsche Bank Commodities Quarterly:

“While we would expect an OPEC quota reduction to occur before any non-OPEC curtailments, it has been suggested that OPEC may refrain from immediate cutbacks in order to assess the price sensitivity of US tight oil production. In this unlikely event we would regard US production to be more price responsive than higher-priced (when measured on investment breakevens) Russian or Canadian supply because of shorter drilling contracts. Although the weighted average cost of US tight oil is US$ 72/bbl, close to 200 kb/d (or 9%) of 2015 expected production would not attract new investment below US$ 90/bbl, and a further 650 Kb/d would become unattractive between US$ 80-90/bbl.”

Follow the Absence of Money

Conventional wisdom holds that below $80 per barrel new fracking wells and similar unconventional plays – shales, tar sands, kerogens will not occur.  For the Saudis to keep their place as one of the top three providers of oil to the Empire and also their favored market position at Asian oil refineries, including China's, prices so low that your competition is squeezed out of business is very desirable. More importantly, that market share is something the exponentially expanding Saudi royal family desperately needs to support its acquisition of London townhouses, what with skyrocketing prices in the posher parts of town.

When there is a contest between fantasy and reality and fantasy wins, there is a tendency to see that as a rebuff. In actually, fantasy will often succeed in the short term.

Reality gets its way in the end. Looking back at the Mother Earth News Fair, we can ask again, Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Living now, this year, this month, with earth-based economies, where food comes from local no-till organic sources, water and air are unsullied, and the whole capitalist enterprise seems so quaint and distant, anyone can happily join the swelling ranks of anarchy. We don't need your old dystopian paradigm, thanks all the same. Everyone who wishes to can be happy living as we all should, for as long as we possibly can.

Except… this is not as true in the slums of earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince or in ebola-plagued villages in Sierra Leone. The natural world has no borders. With knowledge comes obligation. Information and tools to shift paradigms need to travel faster than plagues. Prepping in isolation is shirking. A lot of trouble down the road can be spared by a little more willingness to offer a friendly hand up, now. This is the role of permaculture. It's the responsibility of greater awareness.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

W.B Yeats, The Second Coming




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