Friday, November 27, 2009

Back to the Land - And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog -

Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving.  You'll be pleased to know I am not going to engage in one of those, "what I have to be thankful for" monologues.  Instead, I want to redirect your attention to an article I ran across in the New York Times, by author Maira Kalman.  The visual is the opening from the article.  It's evocative, and there's nothing I can or want to say about it other than you won't regret reading it!   Back to the Land - And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog -

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Kind of Creatures Have You Created Us, Adonai?

I warn you, I'm about to go a little religious on you. I won't be trying to convert you, though, so you can wade in without fear.

Two evenings ago I found myself preparing something akin to the delectable sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls my grandmother used to make. While draining the fat from my sauteed kosher hamburger, I prayed the prayer I always offer up when I eat meat. Actually, the prayer comes across more like one of those respectful grillings Tevya in "Fiddler on the Roof" puts God through, whenever he is puzzling out the latest challenge the Lord has handed his family. One of those "Just what is your purpose here, anyway?" kind of discussions. I always pray, "You have confused me, Adonai, by creating creatures who take life in order to live." I have puzzled over the possible reasons our Creator could have fashioned our world in this manner, but I will not bore you with that here. Instead, I want to report that each time I engage in this dialogue with God, it crosses my mind that I could choose to be a vegetarian. It crosses my mind in the same fuzzy way it crosses my mind that I could write children's books if I wanted to. I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

I should mention that I was, for two short years at the frontish end of my life, a vegetarian. I worked briefly during college at a vegetarian restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, where I was more or less brainwashed into changing my eating habits. They made a nutrition monster out of me. Although I returned to a meat-eating lifestyle a couple of years later, meat no longer holds the place it held in my childhood - centerpiece of every meal - even if it was only a crowning meatball on top of a mountain of spaghetti. Don't sneeze. And the nutrition monster still resides deep in my heart.

So, every Thanksgiving, I hold a perfunctory and (so far) academic debate with myself. The me who knows I could choose to be a vegetarian engages in reflective dialogue with the me who thinks she understands what the Torah means when it says that God instructed the Israelites to bring sacrifices because they supply "a pleasing odor to Adonai" (Numbers 28:1–2). The me who finds irony in the fact that sentient lives are sacrificed so that we may celebrate our freedom. The me who is blown away by my recurring decision to choose the pleasing odor of roasting turkey (not to mention the sinfully delicious crisp turkey skin) over the chance to save a life. The me who has the chutzpah to even have this conversation in print, knowing full well that I am planning to cook a turkey for my daughter and her boyfriend. In fact, the bird is already in the freezer. What kind of creatures have you created us, Adonai, that you both wish us to aspire to holiness, and yet have created us nonchalant murderers?

Perhaps we were not always such nonchalant murderers. Perhaps when we were closer to the killing of the animals - when we raised the cow or knew the butcher or the butcher was us - we may not have been so nonchalant. It is something, but not much, of a comfort that these animals are kosher, slaughtered under the watchful guidance of trained rabbis in the sacred and (more) humane manner that makes each of them a sacrifice to the Lord of sorts. And maybe it's the fact that I've never encountered a turkey substitute that appealed to my taste buds, and after all Adonai surely created my tastebuds as part of the survival mechanism.

I know some of you are vegetarian. You are better people than I.

Maybe some of you, dear readers, are like me. Baffled but carnivorous.

But maybe some of you are betwixt and between myself and my vegetarian readers. Maybe, when you eat meat, you are more gutterally appalled by the trade-off of life for meat than as of yet I am. Maybe you are leaning in the direction of a new kill-free commitment.

Whichever you are, if you are willing, I would like to hear from you. I rarely ask that, but I am interested in the ethical, social and religious implications beyond my own thoughts. I hope you'll communicate with me here in the comments section - not on facebook, for those of you who come this way by that portal, but here.

And whichever way your palate leans, I have something for you. Three articles, two by Lou Bendrick, originally published in Grist. One from Amy's Gripping Commentary blog. The first Bendrick article is for those of you who either are already vegetarian, or are leaning that way. It's a report on a taste-test of vegetarian turkey substitutes. The tasters included vegetarians and meat-eaters, adults and kids (kids are the ultimate arbiters of what tastes good!).   A tasting of four meatless “turkeys” for the holiday table Grist.  To go with it, here is Amy, discussing her positive experience with a fake bird product.  The picture to the upper-left is Amy's fake bird, complete with real stuffing. The second Bendrick article is for carnivores, and published last year.  In it, he offers advice on greening up your turkey selection.

And if you happen to be Jewish and curious, or just curious, I've included a couple of websites that ponder God's reasons for requiring animal sacrifice, and why it is that the pleasing smell of the sacrifice is so important to God that it is mentioned multiple times in the Torah.  I hasten to say I have not adopted or rejected the views in these articles. I simply wander through them, Jew that I am, looking for answers.

There is much to be thankful for, so long as you are not a turkey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Won't Temperatures Everywhere Be Warmer?

Kansas City has enjoyed a very temperate fall this year - three 80 degree days in October!   While we used to call this stroke of luck an Indian Summer, now, everywhere I go, I hear people saying we're reaping the rewards of global warming. So it did not surprise me when I received this question from one of my students:

"I just have an off the wall question and I have always wondered this but have not found an answer just yet. To my understanding, an indication of global warming is abnormal temperatures within seasons...i.e., 70 degree weather in November :) Global warming is supposed to be a "new age problem" and when I say new, I don't mean last year, but within the past 30-40 years. Well, how is it when I look at the news, it will say "Record High 87 in November 1917" LOL? Has global warming always existed? I think I read it somewhere but if that is the case why are people making it seem as if people that drive cars "created" this problem?"

I don't think her question is off the wall at all, and from what I can tell, I think her confusion is pretty widely shared.  I think the term "global warming" implies certain things, like warmer temperatures everywhere, or as this student misunderstood, unusually seasonable weather.  So, knowing that when one student asks, many have the question, I thought I'd clear this up a little bit for anyone else who's wondering.

The answer to this question is multi-layered, something that no doubt adds to confusion.  Weather patterns are effected by local events, meaning weather events that arise extemporaneously from local conditions, and also more generally by changes in global weather patterns.  El Nino, for example, was a blip - a local phenomenon, while temperature trending is considered to be a result of global warming.

To further confuse the matter, "Global warming" is one of those terms with a scientific meaning different than everyday language use might suggest.  While temperatures impacted by global warming are predicted to be warmer in some locales, they are simultaneously predicted to become significantly cooler in other locations. The warming part has to do with what happens, particularly at the poles, as greenhouse gases trap the sun's heat (that would normally "bounce" or be reflected off the earth's surface but instead are caught within the gaseous layer), causing ice caps to melt into the sea and other atmospheric changes.  The influx of cold water, in turn, cause a domino effect of change in temperature and density of ocean currents, and changing weather patterns.  So the greenhouse gas effect is just a trigger that starts a weather change ball rolling. Other factors have to be explored to understand the end result. Probably the biggest weather impacts will be the result of deep ocean current changes, which I'll explain in a minute.

Interestingly, the impacts of these trapped gases will not result in uniformly warmer climates. Using the term "climate change" would be somewhat more accurate, because the wind and the ocean's currents will move heat around the globe in ways that change snowfall and rain patterns, as well as heat and cooling patterns.

As for "hottest year" or "record high" data, there have always been cycles and "events." The ash from a rupturing volcano can change the atmospheric conditions in ways that temporarily cool.   El Nino caused a record high temperature in 1998 (some say a hotter temp occurred in 2005).  Those who don't agree with global warming theories point to that peak temperature (which has been followed by lower temps) as proof that global warming doesn't exist. Those who do agree with global warming theories just say El Nino, overlayed on top of warming patterns, created the blip on the temperature map, but the overall pattern is still trending up.

However, despite the fact that temperatures are trending up, there will be some places on earth that experience cooler temperatures over the long-run.  This is different than extemporaneous temperature events. A longer term cooling trend will be localized to certain areas of the globe, a result of changes to the movement of ocean currents - both surface currents driven by wind, and deep subsurface currents that move as a result of temperature/saline density changes - which distributes heat around the world.  Changes in heat distribution patterns will result in both warmer and cooler patterns, depending on the location.

One of the main factors impacting our weather is something called the "Ocean Conveyor," the system of surface and deep currents that moves heat from the tropics to the northern waters, where heat releases, moderating northern weather.  Rather than try to describe this myself, let me quote a pretty simple description from Woods Hole:

"The equatorial sun warms the ocean surface and enhances evaporation in the tropics. This leaves the tropical ocean saltier. The Gulf Stream, a limb of the Ocean Conveyor [what scientists call the current patterns that circulates heated water around the globe], carries an enormous volume of heat-laden, salty water up the East Coast of the United States, and then northeast toward Europe.

This oceanic heat pump is an important mechanism for reducing equator-to-pole temperature differences. It moderates Earth’s climate, particularly in the North Atlantic region. Conveyor circulation increases the northward transport of warmer waters in the Gulf Stream by about 50 percent. At colder northern latitudes, the ocean releases this heat to the atmosphere—especially in winter when the atmosphere is colder than the ocean and ocean-atmosphere temperature gradients increase. The Conveyor warms North Atlantic regions by as much as 5° Celsius and significantly tempers average winter temperatures.

But records of past climates—from a variety of sources such as deep-sea sediments and ice-sheet cores—show that the Conveyor has slowed and shut down several times in the past. This shutdown curtailed heat delivery to the North Atlantic and caused substantial cooling throughout the region. One earth scientist has called the Conveyor “the Achilles’ heel of our climate system.”

Global warming effects are predicted to result in significant change to water temperature/saline constituency, enough to bring about yet another change in these historic current movement patterns and the weather accompanying the currents. The results would impact both land habitat, and ocean ecosystems.  Slowing the movement of the conveyor system can mean colder winters in the northeast U.S. and Western Europe. But that is a result of the heat gains from greenhouse gas concentrations, not a negation of global warming.  Click this sentence to see Woods Hole's great set of frequently asked questions on frequent misconceptions about climate change.  It goes into much more detail than I have.

I hope this clears up some of the crazy inconsistencies between the words "global warming" and some of the stuff we experience. Here are some links, if you want to read more:

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Feel A Rant Coming On: Health Care, Illegals, Geo Metro NO

Hi all,

I've been swamped.  My daughter was in a serious car accident, I went into a serious funk over it, and my work piled up in the meanwhile.  A deer jumped in front of the car of 24-year old husband, father and Templeton police officer Jeremy Hempel.  He hit the deer, lost control, jumped the median and collided with my daughter head-on at 70 mph. Here's the story and a video.

My daughter's car is the blue Mazda with side airbags and a front-end propensity to collapse upon impact.  The other car - a red Geo Metro - did the thing where the front-end proceeds into the passenger compartment.  Jeremy suffered two broken legs, and extensive internal injuries that required multiple surgeries. He is still hospitalized, while my daughter, thank God, got away with extensive soft tissue injuries and some slight, temporary fuzziness.  She worked her first return shift yesterday - albeit slowly and not without pain.  The deer, btw, is dead. The moral of this story is...side airbags YES.  Geo Metro NO.

Sorry for the absence.  I can't say things have eased up yet, but my daughter seems to be recovering nicely, and it seemed time to return to the rest of the real world.  And I do have something to set before you today.

This morning I ran across a report issued by the Health & Human Services Department's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' chief actuary, Richard Foster.  The document is 31 pages long, and a lot of it is statistical analysis.  But parsing through the explanatory materials (all I had time for) yielded a few pieces of information that I want to share.  The link to the entire report is below.  Source:

1. This is non-tax financial cost estimate for the program, for the years 2013 through 2019:  $935 billion overall cost; $529 bil net "reform" savings for medicare, medicaid etc, for net cost of $406 bil.

2.  Surcharges and other revenues generated by the legislation would approximately offset the $406 bil., for a very small net reduction to the Treasury.

3.  The bill would reduce number of uninsureds from 57 million to 23 million (e.g. add 34 mil to insured rolls).

4.  Of the 34 million newly insureds, 21 million would be newly added to the expanded medicaid eligibility rolls (legal residents making under 150% fed poverty level).

5.  Significant revenues expected to offset the costs will come in from businesses who pay a penalty rather than offer required insurance, and individuals who opt to pay a penalty rather than purchase required insurance.  It is assumed that the main body of individuals opting out will be young, healthy people for whom the penalty is less expensive than the premium.

6.  Approximately 2 million people who are currently insured by employers will be transferred to the exchange when employers decide to stop offering coverage.

7.  Premiums for those under 150% FPL will be subsidized; premiums for those between 150-400% of FPL are capped at 12% of the payee's income.  DOES THIS MEAN OUR INSURERS GET TO COLLECT OUR INCOME INFORMATION?

8.  Individual penalties for failure to purchase insurance would be 2.5% of modified adjusted gross income above exemption amount; Public plan coverage would average 4% less cost to run, but for some reason, premiums are expected to be 5% HIGHER????

9.  The report does not identify a specific penalty amount for employers failing to offer coverage, but suggests that firms with many part-time, or low-earner employees would be doing their employees a favor to opt out, making the employees eligible for the heavily subsidized exchange insurance. $118 billion in employer penalties are estimated.

10.  Statistics on remaining 23 million uninsureds: 5 million undocumented illegals (who would still, i assume, utilize emergency room health care); 18 million will be opt-outs, prefering to pay a penalty over the higher premium. Some of these, too, will find their way to the emergency room.

11.  These statistics represent the meat from just the first 8 pages of this 31 page report. The figures are for the implementation years 2013-2019.

This is just a snapshot of the Health Care bill's financial impacts.  This is critical data for Medicare/Medicaid.  The agencies will have to gear up for an immediate and huge influx of new clients if the bill passes.  I am personally less focused on the costs and revenues generated by the bill than I am on the impacts for individuals - e.g. whether the bill will result in more, less, or different types of coverage.   I'm concerned about the fact that 5 million illegals will be without coverage, all because some Dems feel the need to pander to an ideological crowd hell-bent against tax-payer support of illegals in order to get the necessary votes.  This, even though our economic system is dependent upon the labor of our south-of-the-border brethren.  And even though these illegals will surely need health care, and we will be paying for it anyway when they show up at emergency rooms everywhere.  It seems to me to be nothing more than empty rhetoric to insist that we not use "federal dollars" to support health care for illegal residents, when taxpayer dollars will subsidize those emergency room visits anyway.  And emergency care always costs more, so technically, we'll end up paying MORE for those illegals' health care than we would if we'd included them.  So who benefits from including them?  Politicians who cowtow to the ideologues who support their campaigns.  Not real men and women.  Real men and women would stand up with real solutions, not succumb to political ones.  Where the hell is Barry Goldwater when you need him?  And where the hell is the business community?  I know a local business owner whose primary work force is Hispanic.  They do collect the documentation they're supposed to collect from their employees, but they also know there's underground traffic in forged documents.  This business last year lost a husband and wife team who were sent back to Mexico after they'd worked the shop floor for many years.  Where are these business owners?  Why doesn't the business community ever rise up and defend and protect their workforce?

It's hard for me to forget that my grandparents were immigrants.  Unless you are a Native American, you, too, are descended from immigrants.  They work hard, they pay taxes, they contribute.  What is your problem, America?  Oh, I forgot.  You're worried we're going to end up with an Hispanic majority and then what kind of country would this be?

Whoa!  Somebody pull me off this soapbox.  Sorry...

Ok, ok.  Breathing deeply and getting back to business.

And what about the other 18 million opt-outs?  They will be paying a penalty and yet, receiving NO coverage.  I hope these penalties will be adequate to subsidize emergency care services for the 23 million who still won't be insured.

This is far from the extent of my concern.  I personally would have liked to see an Administration with the cajones to set up a universal health care option to truly cover everyone.  It's not that it would have cost more.  The cost of a tetanus shot is the cost of a tetanus shot, no matter who administers it.  It would simply have shifted the revenue sources.  It will always come out of our pockets one way or another. 

And I would have liked to see Obama stand up like the Commander-in-Chief that he is supposed to be and keep the Health Care bill off the abortion battle field.  Instead, we have the the anti-choice Stupak amendment that not only makes the Hyde amendment (prohibiting federal dollars from use to subsidize abortion services) permanent, but as a practical matter will also reduce privately-funded insurance coverage for abortion - thus changing the abortion-availability landscape as a cost of passing the Health Care bill.  Where the hell is Barry Goldwater when you need him?

Well, that felt good.  What pieces of the Health Care bill do you love and hate?  I'd love to hear what you think.

And remember, side airbags YES.  Geo Metro NO.