Commuter Train Hits Some Bumps in the Tracks

Two weeks ago I talked about my experience riding the Sun Rail train to work here in Orlando, FL.  I was willing to give them a pass on the overcrowded conditions on the way home at night because we all knew that many people were just ridding the train during it’s free trial period to see what it was like and they just needed to get home for supper just like the rest of us working people.

Well that minor bump proved to be true and ridership this week is far less than it was last week. In fact, a friend of mine who got on the 5:28 northbound train from downtown said that there was still plenty of room and was able to find a seat at one of the tables on the second level. That is far better than the previous week when it was standing room only as the train stopped at the downtown station. This drop off in riders was expected. Hopefully though the number of riders will sustain the operation of the train. At least for the first few years the train is being supported with government dollars. But to be successful in the long run, it has to be able to support itself through riders.

Another bump (or perhaps two) were accidents that occurred during the first two weeks of operation. The first accident occurred when a truck pulling a trailer failed to completely clear the tracks at a road crossing. As the northbound train pulled around a curve immediately before the intersection, the train engineer saw the trailer hanging over the tracks and attempted to stop the train. However, even small commuter trains can take some distance to bring to a complete stop and the train did hit the trailer. Fortunately, no one was injured, not in the truck or the train. However, it did cause delays for people getting home as the accident was investigated. Ultimately, it was released that the engineer did everything he could to bring the train to a stop, but you cannot always avoid an accident caused by people who don’t release how long their extended vehicle with trailer really is.

Then only yesterday, Monday, there was another incident on the northbound train. This time a car apparently stalled while sitting on the tracks. Fortunately the driver was able to exit the vehicle for it was totaled by the train. However, the driver was still taken to the hospital to be checked as she fainted after seeing her Lexus destroyed (or maybe she just faintly because she realized how narrowly she escaped. I don’t know why the car was stalled over the tracks but I will say one thing. I’ve often seen people stop over railroad tracks during the peak of rush hour traffic when the traffic ahead of them stops for a red light. I guess they just don’t want to leave a space between them and the car in front of them (over the tracks) because they know someone will pull around them to fill in that space. Maybe it is because many of the crossing arms have malfunctioned in the past and have come down even when there was no train that some people tend to ignore the potential danger. However, I hope these two incidents will start people thinking twice about stopping over the tracks.

Of course the timing of the gate arms is another issue. There is a YouTube video that shows the gate arm at one downtown crossing coming down just a couple of seconds before the train goes by. That may be too short a time. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a train stopped at a station which sits in a block between two downtown streets and the gates on both roads remained down for the duration of the time the train was at the station, even when it was stopped to let passengers off and on. This led to significant car backups until the gates reopened. It even caused problems with some of the bus schedules.

While the timing of the gate issues are something that will undoubtedly work themselves out over the next several months, I’m more concerned about educating people about safety around railroad crossings. It would seem like it should be a simple thing, but too many people are in a hurry. Maybe the tracks should be above ground while in the downtown area. (Florida cannot really support a subway due to its high groundwater levels.) However, the decision to go the ‘cheaper’ route of using the old freight train tracks during the day has resulted in more trains crossing intersections than before and thus more delays and more chances to ‘catch’ vehicles extended over the tracks. This will be a more difficult problem to resolve. Perhaps if the current system is successful, they will consider an elevated track the next time they plan an upgrade through downtown or when they add additional lines. This would allow the trains to run more frequently and carry more passengers while not inconveniencing drivers. More frequent trains and perhaps a few more lines like an east/west line might encourage greater usage as well. For many today, getting to one of the current train stations is almost as difficult as driving from home to work in the first place. Therefore, it may take a combination of factors to give us a transportation system that people will really want.

In any case, I hope these few bumps in the tracks do not discourage riders early on so that public transportation as a combination of better bus and train service could make getting around town without a car feasible.

C’ya next time.

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Riding the Rails to Work

This morning I rode the new SunRail train to work. Our light rail commuter train just went into operation here in Orlando last week and for the next week or so is free. So why not try it? Right? If you have ever been to any major city with a great rail and bus system, you know the value of these types of system. For example, in New York City I’ve been able to get from the airports to downtown Manhattan and even get around town exclusively via the bus and train system. In Seattle, the light rail was able to get me from the airport to downtown where I was staying for less than $3.00. Taxi riders paid as much as $40. I even met a Microsoft employee who works in downtown Seattle who takes the light rail to and from work daily. So when they announced plans for a light rail in Orlando, I knew right from the start that I would have to try it.

Currently, each train only has two passenger cars, but each car has two levels. The lower level gets used mostly by people who bring their bikes to either get to the station from home or from the station to work. On the upper level seating is very comfortable and is arranged in groups of four seats. Some groups have a small table between them. The trains are very well lit. In fact, some people on the early morning train have asked if the lights could be dimmed so they could sleep, but that is not an option.

On the other hand, the trains all support free WiFi and even power outlets if you need them. So I pulled out my iPad and was able to get through both my work and personal email on the ride into work. You cannot do that in your car or at least you should not be doing that unless you are carpooling and someone else is driving. Another thing you cannot do in your car on the way to work is use the restroom facilities which you can do on the train (although I did not try that), but still, it is just one more reason to consider taking the train. Oh, and texting while you ride is definitely allowed on the train.

But the best reason to take the train was that: “There is no traffic!” One of the major corridors through Orlando from the north to the south is the multi-lane I-4. Even at 6 AM, the traffic can be quite heavy although it usually moves well unless there is an accident. In the evening, going home is significantly worse. But even when the traffic moves, you still have to contend with the Type A personality drivers who have hang onto your back bumper until they can find a small gap in the lane next to you to slip around and get a car or two ahead. And no longer will I have to worry about those crazy motorcyclists pulling wheelies at 65 mph going down the highway and weaving in between cars.

After the free period ends, the cost of riding the train will be $2.00 for a one way ticket plus $1.00 for every county you cross. However, there will also be round trip tickets, 7-day passes, 30-day passes, and even an annual pass. Discounts of 50% are offered to seniors, students, and disabled individuals. There is even an extra 10% bonus for buying a pre-paid card with $10 to $300 on it. You need to consider how much you spend on gas and wear and tear on your car. Maybe you even pay to park downtown. If most of your driving is to and from work, you may quality for a reduction in your car insurance by taking the train. But best of all you can arrive at work or at home at the end of day without having to deal with the stress of driving. And that last factor will only become more important when they start the new I-4 widening project later this year. Construction during the widening will make an already bad commute even worse in the interim. And for those environmentally conscious folks, every train rider is one less car on the road pumping out carbon dioxide.

Yes, I know that Orlando still does not have the infrastructure for public transportation like New York City, Philadelphia, London, and many other large cities, but this could be a step in the right direction. Kudos to Orlando for taking that step.

C’ya next time.

Monitoring the Media for the Public Good?

A group named Reporters Without Borders recently ranked the United States all the way down at 46th out of 180 countries in a ranking of press freedom. Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? Wasn’t there something in the Constitution about freedom of the press? No wait, that was in the Bill of Rights! In fact, the first amendment goes something like this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you just stop to think about it, there is a lot in those 44 words. I want to focus here on an even smaller portion of those 44 words related to “freedom of speech, or of the press”. It should be noted that the “press” referenced here no longer represents just newspapers or books, but has come to encompass many other types of media including more recently the Internet and blogs. But what does freedom of the press really mean? Does it mean you can say anything you want? Does it limit the opinions you can print or just guarantee the right to publish totally unbiased facts of the daily news?

A little over a third of a century ago in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miami Herald Publishing Co v. Tornillo that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish. While it does not specifically state anything about preventing them from publishing anything that they want to (coming from the opposite direction), it might seem like a logical extension to most.

On the other hand, the government already regulates some of the content of the media through the FCC, specifically in relation to radio and television broadcasting to restrict what it deems to be “indecent” material. What is “indecent” I guess they want us to believe that they will know it when they see it. But again, some may say that the definition of “indecent” has certainly changed over the last century with content being aired today that would never have been allowed just a few decades ago.

On a more personal level, the Ninth Circuit Court has recently ruled (2014) that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to protections under the First Amendment. So where is this going and why should it be the topic of this week’s rant?

Last year the FCC quietly announced that it will be monitoring newsrooms under the guise of determining how stories are selected, how stations set priorities, and the percent of news dedicated to different topics. Now I don’t know about you, but my management training says that you cannot control something unless you can measure it. So does the ability to measure something mean that you have the intent to control it? Now to be clear, nothing was said about the FCC ‘adjusting’ the content on the media they control or what those adjustments might be. Maybe they just want to measure things for the sake of measurement. After all, everyone knows that some media outlets tend to be more right wing while others tend to more left wing in the news they present and often the way that news is presented. The fact that we can identify them by their extremes merely says to me that the system is working. It allows for multiple points of view and lets the listener make up their own mind which to believe or even how much of each point of view they want to believe. Isn’t that what we want?

If instead, we let the FCC or other government agency begin to control the media so as to force a ‘more balanced approach’, would we lose the ability to explore all points of view? Who will define this balanced approach? And even if it does start out being totally 100% balanced, can we guarantee that it will stay that way over time? If all the news you hear begins to slant to one side or the other, would our media, through government control and oversight, be guilty of guiding the thoughts of its citizens to a singular point of view? No wait! Isn’t that what we accused the press of the Soviet Union during the cold war (and maybe even a little bit today) of doing to their own people? If a person does not know what else is going on outside of the media news they are given, how would they develop a basis to decide whether their situation was good or bad? If media control was bad during the communist era why would we think that media control in any country today would be any different?

Does allowing even a little control open the door to additional controls being added later? Consider that a war on a political system does not necessarily require a shooting war if one can win over the minds of people a little at a time by shifting what they think or how they think. In fact, the changes can be so slow and subtle over time that most people are not even aware of them until it is too late. In the meantime, the changes disguise their real intent behind such grad sounding themes like ‘This new recommendation to the media will protect you and your children from hearing any news that may be offensive or might upset them.’ After all, who is going to argue against providing greater safety and protections to our children. Well, it is something to think about.

C’ya next time, …. Maybe.

Will 2014 be a Turnaround Year or Just More of the Same?

The other day I was listening to a podcast from Mike Huckabee that talked about the recently released index that ranked 178 nations with regard to their economic freedom. The source of the report was the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal so there is probably some credibility to the report. The disturbing part of the report was not that the United States was not in first place, not second place, not even 5th place. No, the United States no longer falls even within the top ten of these 178 nations. In fact, it is now in 12th place behind Estonia. I was shocked, not that we were no longer in the top 10, but that even Estonia has surpassed us. Some of the factors that have contributed to our decline are a surprise though. Things like the fiscal soundness of our economy and the size of government compared to the total economy have clearly hurt us over the last several years. The ‘recession’ since 2008/2009 has had a devastating effect on our economy as companies shrunk their workforce and many closed their doors entirely. In the meantime, the growth in the government and their attempt to infiltrate every aspect of our lives telling us what we can or cannot do by passing hundreds of new rules and regulations has undoubtedly been more effective at hurting our economic growth rather than stimulating the necessarily growth to pull us out of that recession faster and stronger. Some people would even say that the supposedly good unemployment numbers have dropped only because so many people have dropped out of the official job market and are either depending on government handouts or are working in the underground economy where wages do not get reported or perhaps both. If we are really at around 6.5 to 7 % unemployment, that might be considered in past times as full or near full employment with that percentage representing the constant ‘friction’ of people looking for new jobs, starting new businesses, or just not looking in the first place. Yet at the same time, the government is looking to extend unemployment benefits. Why would they do that unless they knew things were worse than they are telling us or to protect the bloated bureaucracies that they have built around all the government programs to ‘help’ the poor.

A couple of indicators I’ve been watching are not the typical indicators that most people might think of. In fact, while I did not perform an exact scientific analysis, I can probably say that as a whole most people feel a little more optimistic about their own personal future than they did a few years ago. The first factor I’ll mention is the number of people visiting the theme parks here in Orlando. My unscientific study indicates that more people are coming to the parks. Not only are the parking lots fuller than they have been in years, but the number of people I have to weave around getting from one point to another has increased. Lines for the more popular attractions at these parks have grown substantially along with their wait times.

Another indicator is the amount of traffic on the roads at 6 AM. It was not all that long ago that the main roads were almost empty at 6 AM. Getting to work was almost relaxing, but not anymore. Now the main highways are full this early in the morning. While the traffic is still generally moving at highway speeds unless there is an accident, the traffic is much heavier with barely more than a 2 to 4 car lengths between vehicles. Some mornings it is even less. Where is everyone going at 6 AM if it is not to a job? Or is it that they had to take a job far from their home just to get a job and therefore leave earlier to try to beat the worst traffic? In any case, the roads are fuller.

The third indicator is the increase in the number of people in restaurants, not just on weekends, but during the workweek as well. Not too long ago, it was possible to walk into a major restaurant chain between 6 and 8 in the evening and get seated immediately. No longer. We again have wait times sometimes as much as 45 minutes at the more popular locations. And then when you finally get seated at your table and open the ‘new’ menu, you are greeted with new prices which are generally about 10% higher than just a few months ago. In a way I don’t blame them. If the restaurants are now full again and people are waiting in line to get in, you are leaving money on the table if you don’t raise your rates. That is the same philosophy of the theme parks. As long as people keep coming and the parks are full, you can raise your prices and improve your overall profit margin. If the parking lots are full, raise the cost of parking as well until your net profit stops increasing because fewer people are coming.

Does this mean that we are out of the recession? Or is the gap between those that can afford vacations, eating at restaurants, or going to sporting events and those that cannot afford to do any of those things is just widening? But as I mentioned last week, just raising the minimum wage will not solve the problem if that causes employers to higher few workers, cut worker hours, or go out of business. You cannot legislate equality, but you sure can legislate inequality. The economy is controlled not by one or two factors, but hundreds of intertwining interactive components which are difficult to model. As a result, attempts to modify the direction of the economy often leads to unexpected consequences like squeezing a water balloon in your hands.

Can we expect a Congress that cannot even pass a balanced budget and begin to pay down our debts to lead us out of a recession into prosperity rather than spend us into a deeper hole, a hole where our nation’s debt and future is held in the hands of other countries, countries that may not always have our best interests at heart? Again, such a decision to continue on this path or even to change paths might be fraught with unintended consequences. (Remember the water balloon.) I suppose I am looking for new bold leadership who can return America to the land of economic freedom that it once was, a time when the nation was prosperous. It was a time when you did not have to write or read tens of thousands of pages to understand a law. One law would serve where now ten now take its place. The laws were simple and easy to follow. People were free to start business as long as they did not hurt anyone else in the process. It was a time when politicians worked for the citizens they represented, not a time when the citizens worked to support the politicians. Will the next election cycle turn us in this direction or will it be more of the same?

C’ya next time.

Why a Minimum Wage Increase Is Like Chasing Your Tail

By now you all know about the efforts by the president to increase the minimum wage for people.  He is doing this because he thinks this will level the playing field between those who earn a lot and those who don’t.  But it is disillusioned dream on many levels.

First, if employers are forced to rIse wages on top of the already heavy burden of increased health care costs that have been mandated, many small employers, of which employ the vast majority of Americans, will be increasingly forced to cut back staff expenses.  They may do this by laying off staff, cutting their hours, bringing in more automation or even relying on more foreign labor, even if that foreign labor is in this country illegally.

But it goes deeper than that.  When the bottom rung of low or unskilled jobs command more money per hour, it puts pressure on jobs at a higher level to pay more as well.  This creates a ripple effect up through the job tiers as people with more skills, more experience, more education, and more at risk require higher salaries to justify the effort they put into getting where they are and staying there.

This applies especially to small business entrepreneurs who risk not only a large amount of their own money, the money of other family members, friends, neighbors, and others, but also much of their time and lives, especially time they could have spent with family.  Why do that except for the potential of much greater reward?  If America is to remain the land of opportunity, there must be compensatory reward for an individual’s efforts.  Don’t think for a minute that these business creators would put forth this level of effort if they merely received the same income and benefits as the unskilled workers they hire.

Why would a young adult want want to become a doctor, surgeon, engineer, lawyer or any other professional if they did not make substantially more than the unskilled burger flipper who did not go to school for 4 to 8 years (or more), paid out thousands of dollars or took on large amounts of debt to get the training and degrees they needed and sacrificed  for years after graduation to pay back that debt?

This does not go against the concept of fairness, but is the very definition of fairness.  Fairness must consider the whole, not just the salary of a person.  Salary has for the most part always represented the level of skill, the amount of effort and the degree of risk required to perform any job.  These factors are not something that can be ignored by dictating a new salary without expecting a corresponding ripple throughout the rest of the economy.

What does that mean?  Well if the lowest level jobs get an increase in salary, the jobs atr the next level up will demand a corresponding increase to justify the effort they expended to meet the requirements for that job.  And if one employer doesn’t raise that group’s salary, another one will, one who needs those higher skilled employees to achieve their goals and dreams. However, then the demand for more money ripples up to the next level to those employees who are required to have even more skills, education, and/or responsibility.  And on it goes all the way to the top because why would a person risk their money and devote their time to advance their education, some would say life, if the return was hardly more than that hourly worker?

Of course the business can counter the higher salary demands by cutting staff, reducing hours or making full-time positions part-time.  They can subcontract work out to lower salary countries.  They may even be able to raise prices of their products or services.  They may even decide to close their doors and then everyone suffers.

But in the end, the results are the same.  Those same people at the bottom of the wage pool begin to cry out for higher wages to keep up with increasing costs.  Eventually, one political group or another hears them and decides to take on their cause.  Not because they truly believe in income equality because if they did, they would lower their own salaries as a show of support.  Rather, they take on the cause to divert attention from other problems.  Maybe they are behind in the public opinion polls and figure that they can get a quick surge in their popularity by appealing to the lowest income classes with their ‘quick fix’.  And thus we have come full circle.

The real problem is that any gains by boosting the minimum wage are short term as described above and merely create a cycle.  No real productivity improvement has occurred to increase the overall value of the economy.  No new products or services have been developed.  No new markets for their products and services have been opened.  So the result is a vicious cycle.

The only way an individual can get out of that cycle is by investing in themselves to develop new skills, learn new techniques and concepts, create a new product, service or company.  You could also say that the reason the rich fall back to middle class the middle class descends to poverty occurs when they lose the drive, the incentive to make things better.  Thus society as a whole could be viewed as a pot of boiling water with some of the poor and middle class rising to the top as they get hot while others fall back down as their drive cools off.  Through all of this, it is not the artificial support of individual wages, or company bailouts that determine success, but their collective efforts to make a difference and grow the economy as a whole.

C’ya next time.

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Droning On and On

Earlier this week Jeff Bezos of Amazon announced their ambitious plan to deliver products ordered online to the customer within 30 minutes.  Of course this promise comes with a major caveat, that being that the customer must live within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon distribution center.  I guess that means that they will need to build distribution centers around the country like Walmart builds stores.  Anyway, how is Amazon planning to achieve this 30-minute goal?  By using drone aircraft of course.

Drone aircraft?  I’m not sure if these will be remotely piloted or whether they will have artificial intelligence to avoid things like bridges, fly balls over ball parks, other drones, tall buildings, or even Superman.  I’m sure some of these details remain to be worked out.  Jeff did say that one hurtle is getting FAA approval for low flying aircraft.  I suppose that includes concerns about sharing airspace with things like traffic helicopters, news helicopters, and emergency helicopters.  Maybe they will define different altitudes for travel in different directions like they do for commercial flights.

Jeff also stated that the program would be piloted (pun intended) in New York and Los Angeles, two densely populated cities which would cover a lot of potential customers using the 10-mile radius limitation.  But my question for such densely populated areas is how does a drone deliver a package to a customer on the 10th floor of a high rise apartment building?  Do they drop the package by parachute or just try to shoot it through an open window?  Perhaps the customer lives in a townhouse instead.  Will the GPS be accurate enough to deliver the package to the right doorstep and not allow it to drift in the breeze to a neighbor’s door?  And if the package is delivered to the wrong doorstep, who is responsible?

Another thing to consider is what happens when the mechanism that grips the package, which by the way could weigh up to 5 pounds, fails and the package falls from the drone onto your car are you drive down the street or on a person walking around the block or on two young lovers kissing in the park?

What if these drones are remotely piloted and the ‘pilots’ start to play ‘war games’ and start competing with each other earning points for what they hit with their packages?  Once they start doing that, it is a small step to begin arming their drones with little guns or perhaps even a small high powered laser.  Soon we might have dogfights in our sky with Amazon trying to shoot down Overstock who is trying to laser NoMoreRack who is trying to crash into Land’s End and on and on.  The fallout, literally, from these dogfights will rain down on pedestrians as millions of dollars in merchandize goes undelivered to the sound of crying children on Christmas morning when their toys, ordered by their parents (or guardians), fails to show up because they were shot down a mere two blocks from a safe delivery.

Extreme?  Yes! But it is the Christmas season where people stay up all night or even camp out by their favorite stores to get the latest ‘got-to-have’ toy or electronics.  So is it that hard to believe parents going out to shoot down drones carrying the latest Play Station 47 or Xbox GX9 before it can be delivered to the Jones family down the street?

Well it is the Christmas season, the time of year retailers live for.  So who knows what will happen when Amazon launches their drones.  Tis the season to think and be wary, fa-la-la-la-la…..

C’ya next time.

Do or Not Do…There Is No Try

For those of you who are Star Wars fans, and I know you are out there, the title of this article is actually a quote from Yoda, but it seems appropriate to the current world situation.  Should we or should we not intervene in Syria?

The situation in Syria has been deteriorating for some time.  I will not here try to debate which site is right or wrong.  Rather I want to examine the dilemma it puts President Obama in.  In case you don’t remember, when Obama ran for president the first time, he argued strongly that America needed to get out of the Middle East.  He wanted to pull all troops out of Iraq on the basis that they never found any weapons of mass destruction in Iran.  He also has been strongly pushing to pull all of our troops out of Afghanistan.  Now he may be contemplating military action against Syria because it is claimed that there is credible evidence that Syria has used chemical warfare against the rebels and the citizens of the country.

To put this one point in perspective, at the time that then President Bush decided to attack Iraq, there was also ‘credible’ evidence that Iraq had and may have used weapons of mass destruction against its own people as well.  Whether those weapons were ever found or as some conspiracy theories suggest that the weapons were ‘relocated’ outside of the country may never be known for sure.  Care to guess to which country they may have moved their weapons of mass destruction?  If you guessed Syria you win the prize.

So how much evidence is needed to justify the United States and its allies to send in troops?  And what happens if that evidence is moved out of the county or destroyed.  Will the next U.S. President condemn the actions of Obama much like Obama condemned the actions of Bush or did Obama find a way out?

So I understand that making a decision to attack another country is a difficult task.  Countless lives could be lost or saved depending on the success or failure of the action.  No matter what you do, people will second guess you.  On the other hand, ignoring the actions of a country like Syria or Iraq and hoping that they will come to their senses is not a good choice either.  Look back to the start of WWII.  While Hitler was taking over neighboring countries and sending Jews to concentration camps, the United States sat back and watched for a long time hoping that with each military action, Hitler would be satisfied and stop trying to take over more neighboring countries.

Well, hope is not a plan.  Hope is a dream.  A dream without a strategic plan on how to accomplish that dream is just a fantasy.  So now may be the time for the president to put forth a plan of action.  After all, he is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.  More than forcing government run insurance down everyone’s throat, more than increasing the government’s ability to spy on and interfere in the lives of our citizens, and more than apologizing to every other country about the ‘bad’ things that the United States has or is doing, this ability to send in troops is something the Commander-in-Chief can do on his own.

But what has he done.  While condemning the Syrian government and its use of chemical weapons, he has passed the ball back to Congress to decide.  Perhaps he is hoping that Congress will again show their inability to act on anything (like getting a budget passed).  Then Obama could always come back and say that Congress was at fault for not acting if later the situation worsens and the American public begins to wonder why we did not step in to prevent further bloodshed.  On the other hand, if Congress does vote on attacking Syria and those weapons of mass destruction are never found, Obama could always say that it wasn’t his fault.   He did not authorize the attack, Congress did.

This is where leadership is needed if a country is to remain a world power.  Sitting back and watching from the sidelines may feel safe, but it also means that you are not in control.  It’s time to get into the game Mr. President.  Make your own decision.  Own your decision.  But once you get into the game remember to play to win, not play to a draw and then walk off the field.

Yoda said, ‘Do or not do.’  That is what a true leader lives by.

C’ya next time.

Is It The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

I just read a story about the decrease in the number of amphibians.  Yes, I talking about those frogs, salamanders and lizards.  Although living here in Florida, it seems like there is an over abundance of those tiny lizards that live in your garden and your lawn and sun themselves on the sidewalks until you get close when they scamper away.  In fact, I’ve noticed a lot of little baby lizards, no more than an inch long (full size can be four inches or more).

But the news article specifically pointed to only a few species that appear to have decreased in populations by 50 percent or more within the last decade.  Although scientists are still not sure of the cause of this decline, they cite factors such as disease, new preditors, the increased use of pesticides, and yes, of reason behind all negative change in the world, climate change.

If this story was an isolated report and only about a few frog species, perhaps the majority of people would take little notice of the warning.  However, could it be a part of a larger pattern?  Digging around the internet, it does not take long to find reports on the loss of honeybee colonies, bats, and the decrease in marine animals and especially the shrinking of coral reefs.  You could also look at the loss of many species of plant life especially those that grow only in tropical rainforests which are being cut down at an alarming rate.  How long will it take until the loss of these species directly effect us, our food supplies, our environment?

Of course, the other side of the argument is that species come and go all of the time.  It is called evolution.  The troubling fact is the rate of extinction may be accelerating.  Such mass die-offs of species has happened several times in the past.  Mass extinctions have occurred several times in the past and each time, the extinction seems to be related in some way to climate change, either warming or cooling.  Sometimes the climate change may be initiated by an external factor such as the meteor that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Note that I did not say that the meteor caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Most scientists today believe that other than dinosaurs living in the immediate area of the meteor strike somewhere off the Yucatan peninsula most dinosaurs died over hundreds if not thousands of years.  Scientists have modeled the effect of the dust and dirt kicked up into the atmosphere by the meteor and possibly volcanoes that erupted shortly afterward.  While the dust could have lead to cooler temperatures as the sun’s rays were blocked, gasses from the volcanoes could have led to a greenhouse effect much like the one around Venus trapping heat and raising temperatures on the surface.

In any case, most species did not survive.  While the die-out may appear instantaneous from a geological point of view, it could still have taken decades or even centuries for some of the species to die off completely and then slowly be replaced by other species who could cope with the climate changes and adapt.

So if most of the extinction events can be associated with some type of climate change, does it follow that today’s climate change and loss of dozens of species in the last century mean that we are at the start of the mass extinction?

Even if that is true, does that mean that mankind is doomed to become extinct as well?  Keep in mind that with every past mass extinction, some species did survive and even thrive in the new climate conditions.  The more adaptable, the more likely a species might survive.  Mankind, if nothing else, is adaptable.  With our increased use of technology, we may be able to survive any mass extinction even to the extent of manufacturing our own organic food in factories in petri dishes rather than farms.

However, the world could be very different in a few thousand years as more species die and perhaps new ones come to the forefront to fill in the gaps in the ecosystem.  If you could hibernate for the next thousand or perhaps five thousand years, what type of world would you wake up to?  Would you recognize anything?  Yet that new ecosystem could over time become just as vibrant as the one we have today.  In effect, the end of this era might be nothing more than the start of the new era.  The only question I would have is how mankind would fair during this transition.  While we may survive due to technologies we already have today, will mankind fall below a critical population level in which science and technology become unimportant compared to the daily needs of survival?  Will we slowly lose the ability to develop new technology?  Will we even be able to continue to maintain the old existing levels of technology?  Will mankind revert to living in caves?  Will all written record of our great society be lost as the records deteriorate?  Will the knowledge and technology lost over time become the substance of myths and legends?  Will future archeologists ponder over how their primitive ancestors were able to develop the skills to make the strange discoveries they unearth?

Could this have happened before?  Could our current society be just one of several that rose and fell in the past?  Such concerns give more validity to the arguments why we need to explore space and establish colonies elsewhere so that mankind may survive any disaster to this vulnerable planet.

But then just perhaps, this has happened before.  Perhaps the people of Atlantis really did have flying ships.  Perhaps they did explore space and leave colonies elsewhere.  And for the real conspiracy theory advocates, maybe some of the UFOs reported today are nothing more than our ancient ancestors who survived their mass extinction returning to see how the new life on planet Earth survives this one.  So could the beginning of the end of this cycle simply be part of the end of the beginning of the next cycle?

Ok, I would guess you did not expect this story to take that twist.  However, remember when a science fiction fan lives inside a writer, all bets are off.

C’ya next time.

So Area 51 Exists. Big Deal!

Last week the CIA officially announced that Area 51 exists.  Wow!  Where is the surprise?  Pictures of the area have existed for a long time.  It has been rumored to be the home of everything from advanced avionics research include spy plane and stealth technology to the home of alien spaceships and even captured or voluntarily visiting aliens.  So what did they really tell us that was new?  Nothing.  Of course they hope that everyone believes them just we all believe that the government would never spy on citizens or that universal health care will be cheaper or that they target political groups or that they allow US citizens abroad to die without at least attempting to save them or even the biggest lie, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

Of course the press made it sound like such a great revelation that Area 51 really exists.  One thing you can believe, if anything ever was beyond top secret at Area 51 it has long been moved to another location and there is nothing left to see in Area 51.  Of course they will still keep up appearances and run off anyone that comes near the area just to keep up appearances.  In all likelihood, any top secret projects (including any alien spacecraft or even aliens themselves) have been relocated to a more secure area that is not under surveillance by UFO hunters or the curiosity seekers.

Of course Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are pretty big states with lots of open area with nothing around for miles.  Large military bases are scattered across all of these states and a ‘new’ secret area could be anywhere, maybe even those large bunkers in part of Nevada near where nuclear weapons were tested.  Or maybe those were just bunkers for the testers.  In any case, it might not even be in those three states.  It might be in Colorado, Montana, Idaho or deep in the abandoned mines of Appalachia.

Just because there is nothing to see in Area 51 now does not mean that there never was.  The only real question is whether anything that was ever there came from somewhere other than this planet.  The problem is that the government has lost so much credibility that even if they came out and said they had aliens, people would think that they were just making it up to feed the egos of the UFO hunters and believers.

All this clouds the real issue as to whether there is other life in the universe.  Growing up, anyone who believed that there was life on other planets was considered a little crazy.  One scientist even postulated that even if there was only one other advanced life form in our galaxy and if it had developed a mere million years ahead of us (which is nothing on a cosmological scale) that they would have by now spread throughout the galaxy and would have contacted us or conquered us or eaten us.

Others believe in the Star Trek based Prime Directive which prohibits the Federation from contacting civilizations that have not at least developed warp travel under the theory that until they develop warp travel, they will never get to another star system anyway much less one with life.  But more recently the real world of astronomy has been rocked by the ‘discovery’ of planets revolving around dozens of local stars.  Some of these planets are theorized to be within the star’s habitable zone.  Our abilities to determine the chemical signature of these planets is still not refined enough to tell us whether any of these newly discovered worlds have gases in their atmosphere that would indicate some type of life on them.  Still, the ability to detect those chemical signatures is not too far off.

So what happens if (or when) we discover other life in our galaxy?  What will that do to society?  Will religion collapse as we know it or will religion adapt to the fact that “my father has many rooms in his house” (John 14:2) meaning that there are many habitable planets in the universe.  In fact, the Vatican has stated that aliens do exist on other planets and they are all part of God’s greater plan.  HHhmmm, wonder how they know that?

So if aliens exist, the next big question is where are they which is quickly followed by what will they do?  Again science fiction has given us a lot of different possibilities which we do not have time to go into here.  Check out the Internet on this topic for the various possibilities.  Maybe we are not interesting enough.  Maybe we have nothing to offer the galactic confederacy.  Maybe they are waiting to see if we can get past our violent stage.  Maybe compared to them, we are as unintelligent as we think animals are compared to us.  So why aren’t we their pets?   Or is that what the alien abductions are?

As you can see, it is too easy to come up with conspiracy theories about what the government isn’t telling us when they wait years to tell us a secret that we already all know about.  So, to the CIA, thanks for nothing.  When lies are built on top of lies surrounded by lies and filled with deception, where do we go from here?  And maybe that is the real reason the aliens will not welcome us into their little group.

C’ya next time.

Is There A Better Way?

Today I want to talk about a news item I pulled off the Internet.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that the number of U.S. citizens spending time in our prison population has been growing.  Today U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech in California that our prison system is “outsized and unnecessarily large”.  Most people don’t realize just how out of control our prisons have become though.  According to statistics on Wikipedia (take that for what it is worth) the number of adult in our U.S. prisons was 2,266,800 or about 0.7% of the adult population.  When you add in 4,814,200 more adults that were on probation or parole, the total comes out to 2.9%, almost 3% of the adult population.

The real surprising number is that the total has increased by 4 fold  from about 500,000 in 1980 while during the same time, the population did not increase by 4 fold.  There is a ton of additional statistics on the Wikipedia site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States) but my point is not to go through the statistics.  Rather, my point is more aligned with Eric Holder’s question as to whether we are incarcerating more offenders just to simply “warehouse and forget” about them or if we should have a judicial system that focused on the cause of crime, the just punishment for the crime, the deterring of criminal offenses, and the rehabilitation of those found guilty.  Mr. Holder also states that we cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way to a safer nation.

But….

We cannot simply turn every criminal loose just because we want to keep the size of our prisons down.  Without punishment as a deterrent, what would cause people to hesitate before committing a crime?  Some say that many criminals are not deterred by punishment anyway.  So maybe, we as a nation need to focus on determining why people turn to crime.  Is it due to lack of good job opportunities?  Are those opportunities reduced because our education system has resulted in workers that are inferior to foreign workers?  What affect, if any, does the challenge to our work ethics by all of the government programs that promise free money, free services, and free food, destroy the very fabric of our society?

Then once a person is labeled as a criminal, where is the rehabilitation?  Where is the opportunity to start over?  Would you want a criminal living next door to you or your children?  Why is the immediate reaction, ‘No’!  Is it because we all know that criminals in prisons are not rehabilitated as much as prisons are a training ground to how to commit other crimes?  Even if a person was sent to jail for a non-violent offense such as unpaid debt, stealing money from their employer, or simple shoplifting which they did because it was the only way they could provide for their family, what can they do when they get out?  They now have a record.  That record is worse than a scarlet ‘A’ on their chest.  No one will hire them.  No one will trust them.  No one will give them a chance to show that they will work an honest job for a fair pay that will support their families.  Where is the rehabilitation?

Again, not everyone charged with a crime should be released.  Mass murderers, kidnappers of children, and dozens of other crimes sometimes need to be warehoused and forgotten.  However, how much better for everyone would it be to provide non-prison sentences that may include community service, work projects, or other activities be for low-level nonviolent crimes?  Perhaps even having minor offenses expunged from the records for some low-level crimes to give that person a chance at a new law-abiding life.

It will be interesting to see if this speech made to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates will make a difference or whether like so many other grand speeches it falls on deaf ears. Just for the record, the United States has the highest incarceration rate per 100,000 people of any other country in the world.  That number is 716.  Even Cuba is only 510, Russia is 484 and England is a mere 148.  The current estimate is that it costs around $22,000 a year to keep a person in prison.  According to CNN, we spend an average of only $10,615 per student per year to provide public education.  Granted, variations exist by state and of course there are far more students than criminals.  However, it is not the total spent, but the amount spent per person that seems out of line.

Anyway, I just wanted to give you something to think about thanks to Eric Holder’s speech.

C’ya next time.