Rainy Day People – Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot

With it raining cats and dogs outside tonight, this title has greater meaning. “Rainy Day People” is not necessarily my favorite Gordon Lightfoot song, but it describes my bride of 27 years. Why you might ask? Here is a glimpse of Lightfoot’s magical pen in this song:

Rainy day people always seem to know when it’s time to call

Rainy day people don’t talk…they just listen til they’ve heard it all

Rainy day lovers don’t lie when they tell you they’ve been down like you

Rainy day people don’t mind if you’re crying a tear or two.

My wife embodies rainy day people. She is a listener who people feel comfortable in being around; comfortable in confiding in. Gordon Lightfoot’s talent and the reason we both love his music is his ability to capture who we are. We saw him perform a few years ago. We enjoyed his music, but also his storytelling between songs. A man who could have many did not seem to have any airs.

His most famous song is “If You Could Read My Mind.” I think even non-Lightfoot fans could sing many of the lyrics of this song. Since it is so popular, I will skip over it to some of his lesser known, but also great songs. Another favorite is “Circle of Steel” because it tells a painful story of an alcoholic mother whose husband is incarcerated and who will lose her child in a week. The gripping, soulful lyrics include:

A child is born to a welfare case…where the rats run around like the own the place

The room is chilly, the building is old….that’s how it goes

A doctor’s found on his welfare round…and he comes and he leaves on the double.

The subject of the song is not heroic, but the words tell a story of how people struggle. Most of us don’t live in gated communities. Life is very hard for many.

For the romantic side in each of us, he write songs like “Beautiful” which has words like:

At times I just don’t know….how you could be anything but beautiful

I think that I was made for you and you were made for me

And I know that I will never change…’cause we’ve been friends through rain or shine

For such a long, long time.

He has written so many songs that were so well-loved others also recorded them. “Early Morning Rain” was sung by Elvis. “For Lovin Me” was sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. He also added a second song to the back of that one as the first part talked disdainfully to a woman scorned when the man said “that’s what you get for lovin me.” The added song he recorded had a lament “Did she mention my name” as the person who scorned his lover was feeling great remorse later on. Other great songs of his include:

“Whisper My Name”


“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

“Carefree Highway”

“Cotton Jenny”

“Old Dan’s Records”

“Summer Side of Life”

“Cold on the Shoulder”

And, countless others, that should not be construed less by my failure to list them. Yet, let me close with a self-portrait of Mr. Lightfoot, at least by my interpretation – “Minstrel of the Dawn.” In it he says:

The minstrel of the dawn is here….to make you laugh and bend your ear

Up the steps you’ll hear him climb….all full of thoughts, all full of rhymes

Listen to the pictures flow….across the room into your mind they go

Listen to the strings…they jangle and dangle…while the old guitar rings.

Words and music. To me this is what it is all about. Gordon Lightfoot would have been an excellent poet without his music. He was lesser known, but may have rivaled even Bob Dylan on his penning of songs. Maybe the fact one was from Canada and the other from Minnesota meant they had time to collect their thoughts when it was too cold to venture outside. Yet, with his music and armed with a better singing voice that Dylan could only dream of, he was the minstrel to all of us.

For our younger readers who may not know him as well, I would encourage you to take a plunge. You can start with the songs above, but that is only sticking a toe in the water. I invite other Gordon Lightfoot fans to offer their favorites whether listed above or not. “If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts would tell….just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstore sells.”


A Baker’s Dozen of Truisms

As I was reading the Sunday morning paper, I was reminded of a few truisms that seem to permeate today’s world. Yet, many are as old as time and have been refined for today’s world. Let me mention a baker’s dozen of these truisms and invite you to add some to the mix.

  1. Any horse’s ass can get elected saying they will reduce taxes. The problem is we have a whole stable of them. At some point in time, someone has to step up and pay for something.
  2. The “Haves” will always take advantage of the “Have-nots.” They always have and always will. This is the best commercial against Libertarianism I can think of. A role of government is to keep the playing field fair. Item #6 makes this hard.
  3. Have you noticed most elected officials leave office wealthier than they came in? Why is that?
  4. Just because you are a religious leader and pious, does not mean you cannot be full of shit. Most religious leaders deserve every bit of respect and admiration they get, but there are few who give the profession a black eye. The profession is bigger than the incumbent – when the incumbent dishonors the profession, then a change is needed.
  5. Have you ever noticed the biggest war mongers in a legislative body tend to be the people who never fought in one? Remember, former General Dwight Eisenhower said “beware of the military industrial complex.”
  6. With the cost of elections so expensive, we should not be surprised by the greater degree of influence the more signficant donors have. Lobbyists are not paid for their good looks and charm. They are paid to influence outcomes favorable to the donors.
  7. Why do reasonably smart male leaders think that no one will notice their infidelity? Everyone carries a camera in their i-phone and has access to the internet. Some even make it easier by sending their own pictures.
  8. Be wary of politicians who speak in absolutes. The only certainties in life are death and taxes – everything else is some shade of gray. Be willing to listen and compromise to get things done. Otherwise, you are just shouting at the wind.
  9. To me the worse form of bigotry is bigotry from the pulpit. As noted in #4 above, religious leaders are largely trusted advisors. When they misuse that power, it is worse than when someone else does it. Religion is at its finest when it is inclusive. It is at its worst when it is exclusive.
  10. People who are the least tolerant usually require more tolerance from others towards them. Ancillary to this is the person who shouts the loudest tends to have the worse argument.
  11. People need to walk in someone else’s shoes before they judge. Most people in poverty work their ass off, but minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty. Poverty does not mean you are less virtuous. Poverty is the lack of money.
  12. It is true guns don’t kill people. It is people with access to guns who kill people. Petty arguments end in shooting deaths more than ever before. That is the tragedy we need to work on more.
  13. You don’t fully realize how much your parents love you until you have your first child. This may be the biggest wow factor of all.

Well, that is a quick run through my “Baker’s Dozen of Truisms” for today. If I did this next week, I may add and subtract a few. What are some of yours? Please feel free to chime in. I would love to hear from you. Thanks, BTG

Gasland – A View of the Real Fracking Story

About this time last year, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Sandra Steingraber speak to a group brought together by Clean Air Carolina and the Catawba Water Conservancy. I had been aware of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and had concerns, but came away with an epiphany. Dr. Steingraber, a biologist, ecologist, bladder cancer survivor and mother of two, has written two books “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah” and has testified in front of Congress, United Nations and European Union Parliament about the impact of chemicals in the environment. And, she will tell you fracking is one of the worst things we can do on our planet, unless your goal is to poison people. Two days ago, I had a second epiphany on the subject when I saw “Gasland,” a HBO documentary on the real story on fracking.

If you have not seen “Gasland,” I would encourage you to watch it and draw your own conclusions. It was conceived and directed by Josh Fox, who is a resident of Pennsylvania (PA) where fracking abounds. Yet, his film does not focus only on PA, as he travels the country to areas where fracking has been in existence for a few or many years. For those of you who get Time Warner Cable, it is in the free on-demand section of HBO under Feature Film Documentaries as of this writing. The movie is more poignant given its independent, low-budget approach of a young man talking with people whose lives have been changed forever. Of course, he could not talk with people no longer with us or the spokespeople of the companies who made a fortune fracking at the expense of others who elected not to speak with him.

If you do not have time to watch the film and want to get a quick view of the concerns over fracking, you are welcome to click on a post I wrote back on April 22, 2012 called “The Perils of Fracking.” There are some other posts you could check out, but another post written on June 8, 2012 you may want to pay attention to came from Steingraber’s “Living Downstream” which is entitled “The Precautionary Principle.”

I don’t want to take away from the power of Fox’s movie “Gasland.”  These stories need to be seen and heard. These are the real people impacted by fracking that have been purposefully lied to and ignored and until they became a nuisance and were paid a pittance to be quiet as the fracking company moved on. Or, they may have been provided with some make-shift filtering system that could not possibly filter out the danger. I came away sad, mad and disillusioned that our country could let these people down like this. How could our country purposefully pass legislation giving fracking companies a “Get Out of Jail Free” card?

What do I mean by this statement? Our former Vice President Dick Cheney used to be CEO of Halliburton, the pioneer in fracking technology. In addition to having petroleum lobbyists lead the White House Council on the Environment, where they deleted any references to “global warming” or “climate change” in scientific papers, there were two major actions that gave free rein to the fracking companies, one of which was Halliburton. The first came when Cheney helped get a law passed the sold mineral rights on our public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. On our public land, fracking companies now had the right to come in a frack. This land was garnered in large part by Teddy Roosevelt to protect water sheds and create public parks open to the public. As we know, water is kind of important.

The second came as very brief provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed by President George W. Bush. Cheney was able to convince a friendly Congress to include a provision in the Act that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the frackers under the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. And, it was noted the fracking companies did not need to disclose the chemicals they added to the fracking water to make it easier to frack as they reduced friction, killed algae, broke down minerals and deposits.

Please re-read the bold language again as you likely did a double take as I did. You see the fracking water is so poisoned, it cannot be allowed to go back into the water table. But, water finds a way and it does get into the pure water shed. And, among many other toxic chemicals, glycol ethers are present which are as about as harmful chemicals to humans as you can find. According to Dr. Theo Colborn of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Colorado (she has degrees in pharmacology, epidemiology, toxicology, and water chemistry), these toxins cause the very maladies that have stricken the people living near fracking sites. And, she adds it is not just the water they drink. These people breathe the air 24×7 which is filled with the toxins released by the water blasted minerals. Ft. Worth, Texas has twice the level of air pollution that would be in evidence by their normal automobile traffic due to the thousands of fracking sites nearby.

Yet, with all of this said, I have even a greater concern over the use of water in the first place. It takes between 4 and 6 million gallons per fracking well per fracking episode. And, I learned from the movie that fracking wells are fracked up to as many as ten times. Water is very dear around the world and in this country. With the droughts in Kansas and Texas this summer, frackers were fighting farmers over water usage. People will say this does not affect them, but for you folks in Florida, your water was being trucked to Kansas to frack with.

At the end of the day, the Oil/ Gas Industry has a powerful lobbying effort and funds politicians in a significant way. That is why I asked you to read “The Precautionary Principle.” We need to do what other countries do and place the onus on the developer who will make the profit to prove that what they are doing is not toxic to humans. Their data, which is used in GOP led legislatures like in NC (who just approved in fracking) and  in wonderful TV commercials with an attractive spokesperson, is biased and misleading at best. These companies have a vested interest in the outcome. To state it simply, fracking is using our water with chemicals harmful to humans to do something. To have it not subjected to Safe Drinking Water Act is not only unethical, it is criminal and immoral.

So, please watch the movie and be diligent against more fracking. Water finds a way. So, do well compensated politicians. We have to be mindful of both.

Blowing in the Wind

According to one of our great songwriters, Bob Dylan, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.” His song was immortalized by Peter, Paul and Mary the day Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I do not want to take anything away from what those words mean and one of America’s greatest historical moments. However, I do want to build on Dylan’s legacy, by using his wonderful title and chorus, to answer another series of important questions.

– What is one of the most cost-effective renewable energy sources in the world?

– What renewable energy source industry has 75,000 workers in the US and could have 500,000 by the year 2030?

– What renewable energy source industry had only 30 facilities in the US  in 2004, but now has 472 in 2012?

– What energy source contributed to 44% of all new electic generating capability in the US in 2012 leading natural gas at 30%?

– What is the fastest growing source of energy in the world according to the US Department of Energy?

– What energy source could grow to providing 20% of all US energy by 2030 according to the Department of Energy?

The answer to all of these questions is truly “blowing in the wind.” Wind energy, along with solar energy, will be the two building blocks of an alternative energy future. Germany is abandoning nuclear energy and fossil fuels and moving strongly into wind and solar. Siemens is leading the way, but they are not the only company pushing forward. Siemens has built the state of the art offshore wind turbine called Siemens 6.0 MW. It has fewer movable parts and will have a longer duration as a result. Even with that said, the first offshore wind farm which was built with 11 wind turbines off the coast of Denmark in 1991 is still alive and well over 21 years later. And, as Bill Maher likes to say, “Do you know what happens when an offshore wind farm collapses (as opposed to an offshore drilling facility)? A splash.”

Yet, General Electric is into the wind turbine industry in a heavy way. They are making double-digit inroads in Siemens’ market share in Germany, which is the fastest growing alternative energy market. GE has produced a low wind velocity onshore wind turbine that is gaining a lot of market share in Siemens’ backyard. Warren Buffett seems to like what GE is doing as he has invested heavily in them. And, they are not just making inroads in Germany. They are helping move the US wind energy industry forward as well. Not that they are all made by GE, but 70% of all wind turbines serving those 472 facilities in the US are made here according to AWEA, the American Wind Energy Association.

Just to bring it down to a local level, Duke Energy just completed two more wind farms in South Texas, the Los Vientos I and II projects adding 402 megawatts of electricity. They now have three in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Pennsylvania. Los Vientos I will help power homes in San Antonio, while LV II will help power homes in Austin. Duke added 800 megawatts of alternative energy in 2012 bringing their total capacity to 1,700 megawatts, which can power 500,000 homes. Not all of this is wind energy, but it shows where the future is today. I mention Duke often as they are responding to a state of North Carolina mandate that 12.5% of their energy has to come from alternative energy by 2021. They are permitted to trade off by developing power and selling it in other states, just as they buy excess power from local solar and wind projects from the likes of Apple and Google.

I am using Dylan’s song to highlight a key answer to our future energy concerns and address head on the impact of man-influenced global warming. I also want to point out that between Siemens, General Electric, Duke Energy, Nordex and other companies, there are real jobs in alternative energy which will grow in number. One of the benefits of the recent fiscal cliff bill was to extend the Production Tax Credits and Investment Tax Credits for this industry for one more year. This action saved 37,500 wind energy jobs. This is where our subsidies need to be as these industries build to scalability. Solar energy continues to get cheaper, especially with what companies like Semprius are doing as reported a few weeks ago in my post “Here Comes the Sun.”  And, a key answer to our cleaner energy future is truly “Blowing in the Wind.”

How do you know who the good guys are?

There have been many excellent posts on the need to lessen gun deaths in the United States. I have been thoroughly impressed by many blogging friends, in particular Amaya at www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com who in the face of well-armed relatives will not back down on the need for smarter gun control. Yet, the purpose of this post is to address a series of questions I have, one in particular, in response to the infamous comment by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.

“The only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

My simple question is how do you know who the good guy with a gun is as opposed the bad guy? The answer to this question is not that simple, as we are all varying shades of gray. There are very few, if any, all good or all bad, people. Even Mother Teresa confided in her journal how tempted she was and how hard she prayed to do the right thing each day. You would be hard pressed to find a better person than Mother Teresa. Yet, since we are not all Mother Teresa’s, let me quote Kevin Horrigan of the St. Louis Dispatch who said this week about athletes who lie and cheat – Social scientists who have studied the issue generally agree that 10% of people are honest all the time, 5% will lie and cheat any time it’s in their interest and 85% of people are basically honest, but depending on the circumstances, will cut a few corners or shave the truth from time to time.

Using the above as a proxy, we could say that 85% of people are in the category of the varying shades of gray. We are human and not bad people, but we will err, sin and use bad judgment. So, let’s place a gun in the hands of the 85% and see what happens on a daily basis. As I noted in earlier blogs, as tragic as Newtown is, the greater tragedy occurs every day. A 16-year-old kills a 13-year-old for showing him disrespect. A distraught son gets mad at his mom and kills his three siblings and parents. A person gets mad at a pizza parlor, goes to his car and comes back to kill the person who slighted him. A mother shoots her son over an American Idol argument. A football player shoots his girlfriend in front of his mother as he is mad at her for staying out late. A man goes home to get his gun after being confronted about his dangerous driving in a parking lot, then returns and shoots two people. A man takes a gun to sell at a weapons show and it discharges and hurts someone.

A gun in the hands of a perceived good person does not make things safer for many reasons. Our society has become less civil to each other, so arguments become more hostile than they need to be. Without a gun, you may have seen a fist fight or someone leaving the scene. With access to a gun, the good guy will be more prone to use it to preserve his honor. So, acting impulsively, a death occurs and he is charged with a crime and will go to jail.

Acting on impulse gets worse when you mix guns, alcohol and testosterone. Good men when tipsy or drunk will throw good judgment out the window. If a gun is handy and offense is taken, whether intended or not, someone will get shot. “Oh, but he was such a good man,” his neighbors would say. When I hear about people who want to take a concealed weapon into a bar, I truly think that is the most asinine action one could do. And, if you don’t believe me, please ask your wife, mother or sister about what good can possibly come from mixing guns, alcohol and testosterone.

But, let’s set that aside and talk to Mr. LaPierre’s thesis in a mass shooting situation, since that is the only crisis he wants to address. Let’s say we arm the 10% who are honest as the day is long. Police officers and soldiers will tell you, no matter how much training you have, it is a totally different ball game when you are shooting at someone who is shooting at you. Would a teacher better serve her students to get them out of harm’s way as practiced or attempt to be Dirty Harry? Once he or she is shot, the children have no prayer. And, to further embellish this point, there was someone armed in the Aurora theatre. He said it was so dark and smoky, he did not know who to shoot. This is someone who knew what they were doing and chose not to fire.

I am delighted the President asked his Vice President to discuss openly with lawmakers what to do about our nation leading the civilized world by far in gun deaths. With 80% of the gun deaths out of the top 23 nations combined, we hold an infamous distinction. I detest that this has become a wedge issue, but one side has to disagree with the other side because the other side said it. So, the recommendations made by the President based on the VP led committee are meritorious. They should be considered each and every one. I for one am against assault weapons in the hands of civilians. I think any civilian that has an assault weapon has the potential to do great harm given the above.

Yet, if we set that aside, as it gets included in the eternally mentioned and misunderstood Second Amendment rights basket, let’s focus on a couple of things that should be as close to no brainers as possible.

All guns purchased need to have a waiting period and background check, period. There is no reason not to require this. There should be no gun show loophole as to have one defeats the purpose. This is not a fishing license, it is for a weapon that is designed to kill. You can wait 30 days for it James Bond.

– All weapons and bullets need to be traceable. The police have long advocated for this. If you have an unlicensed weapon or bullets, you should lose your weapon, be fined or go to jail if you continue to be non-compliant. If you have no malintent, then you should not be threatened by this requirement. That car you say that also kills people has a VIN number and the driver has a license. And, the driver could not drive it until he or she showed evidence of insurance.

– Guns should not be around alcohol. We must address civil disagreement as a society, but when judgment is impaired due to alcohol, people die when guns are around. Again stating loudly, mixing guns, alcohol and testosterone is assinine.

I am for armed guards in school. To have at least the illusion of better security to dissuade mass shooters, we need security guards who know what they are doing. But, I do know many public schools cut back on teachers, counselors and security guards due to budget reasons. I have witnessed on many occasions, people cry out to cut back big government and then when positions are reduced, the same folks cry foul when something bad happens. This is important, so let’s fund it and more teachers with it.

– We must make mental health services more accessible and get over the stigma. One in five people will have some issue with mental health in their lifetime. One in 10 people in a company’s medical plan will be taking drugs for a mental health issue. In today’s world, we can live normal lives with mental health issues. Yet, with that said, when people do get depressed, the availability of a weapon increases the likelihood of suicide. This is why having guns on college campuses is a horrible idea – college kids have a higher degree of depression than general society and these kids will act impulsively. And, once acted out, it is over. There is no do over.

–  Finally, we must take responsibility for our actions. If we own a gun, we need to be like the many responsible gun owners who are rebelling against the NRA. We must also teach civil disagreement approaches in school. There are some forward thinking programs that are doing this, but it should be a routine part of the schooling and preached routinely by teachers and reinforced by parents, mentors, etc.

I guess if there is an appropriate prayer to the God of your own understanding, it is something like the following – Lord, please help me do the right thing, even when I am tempted to do otherwise. Please help me use good judgment and be accountable and responsible for my actions. And, help me treat others like I want to be treated. But, since I cannot always do the above, using the famous words of President Ronald Reagan, “trust but verify.” Make sure that if I own a gun, it is registered along with its bullets and I had to go through a thorough background check to get it. Therefore, I will make damn sure I am using it to a good purpose.

Luck was also involved – Warren Buffett

Yesterday, Charles Osgood hosted a segment on his “CBS Sunday Morning” show which was an extended interview with Warren Buffett, the third richest person in the world. I have always been a fan of Buffett’s and was delighted to see the interview with the very down to earth “Oracle of Omaha.” I felt a key part of his message was worth highlighting today to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King and the inauguration of our president for the second time.

Many know the story of one of the most successful investors in history. He made his first investment at age 11 and would have done it sooner, but it took some time to save $120 for the investment. While being interviewed, he was joined by a very good friend and his biographer. When they were asked what was Buffett’s greatest attribute, his biographer said very quickly his “rationality.” He understands the volatility of the market and he says the key is to buy stock in companies with good value, but be patient enough to buy them at the right time.

Yet, a very telling answer to a later question is the reason for mentioning Buffett today. He was asked was luck involved in his success? And, his answer at first is surprising as many very successful people today believe their success is entirely due to effort and intellect. Of course those play a heavy hand, yet Buffett said the following which I will paraphrase:

I was lucky. I was born in the right country and with the right demographics. I was born a white male. My sisters did not get the same opportunity and they were just as smart. Women did not get the same opportunities I received. If I had not been born white, I would never have gotten the same opportunities due to lack of civil rights for African-American people. So, yes there was luck involved.

I put these comments in bold as I want them highlighted on today of all days. This is the third richest man in the world who said this. To achieve these same opportunities and fairness is for what  Martin Luther King and countless others marched, rallied, absorbed indignities, suffered injuries and even died. King was more than just a great orator; he was in the midst of this pushing the envelope and suffering just as much if not more than his followers. When Beyoncé sang Etta James’ famous song “At Last” at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, there was no more appropriate titled song to sing.

But, as Buffett pointed out we are nowhere near being done. He has been a broken record about the economic disparity in this country. In a nation of 315 million people with the resources we have, it is a crime that we have people in poverty. Our wealthy have never had it so good. Yet, we cannot continue to thrive as a country unless we do something about the economic disparity. We have to provide opportunity to people, so that they can live a life they can manage economically.

However, he concluded with a strong message of hope. He said we live in the greatest country in the world. There are so many good things happening every day which dwarf the negative things. He said don’t let the ineffectiveness of 535 people (in Congress) stand in the way of the successful things that are happening. We can find a way to fix this, but we have to be open and honest with what is wrong.

In my paying and volunteering jobs I have been around all kinds of people – from the presidents of companies to people making the minimum wage and some looking for work. I have seen presidents who felt they were entitled to whatever monetary gains they received, even when they had little to do with its creation and actually were value destroyers. I have also seen the most gracious of people as presidents who realize they are the stewards of their company – its people, customers and shareholders. They inspire others by being down to earth and showing the value of teamwork. Someone once said, a great leader deflects credit to others, while a bad one will assume more credit than due. Buffett falls in the gracious portion of this group. Like them, he took advantage of opportunities and worked hard, but he was given the chance by being born in the right place to the right parents and with the right gender. He is down to earth and shares the credit.

On the lower end of the economic scale, when I have helped homeless and impoverished people, I see people who did not get the same opportunities and don’t have the same kind of network looking out for them. For African Americans it goes even further; we have made strides in many respects, but we are not near where we should be. By any measure, the economic disparity is significant for this demographic group. This is a key theme of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” Buffett realizes he had opportunity and made more than the most of it. He also sees that others need this kind of chance as well. Let’s work in a concerted manner to give people opportunity to climb the ladder out of poverty.

The United States of Entertainment

While watching “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” during the year-in-review show, one of the reporters (it was either Bernard Goldberg of Jon Frankel) made the comment we as a country do not care about news or the real issues. He then made an interesting observation – “We are the United States of Entertainment.” Last night on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” a Palestinian American reporter named Rula Jebreal, who may be one of the best guests I have seen on the show, made the comment about the US – we are one of the most highly entertained and least informed countries in the world.

These two quotes are so very telling. America does not have the patience to be well-informed and some choose venues of news that lightly cover issues of import, but even worse, misinform or disinform in a Machiavellian sort of way. Fox News would be Exhibit A for the last two categories of misinformation, as they do not resemble a credible news source anymore. They have been more propaganda than news, but they have lately gone postal on some of the stuff they have been running. Yet, there are many Americans who never read or watch news, unless it is about sports or entertainment. So, they would be representative of the new normal in America. We are the United States of Entertainment.

By being so ill-informed, we easily panic about things that we need not panic over. Bill Maher made this observation on the same show last night, the newscasters make us panic over everything, but are overlooking the obvious things we should panic over. He made a keen observation saying we should be panicked over climate change. To prove his point, Michele Caruso-Cabrera, a conservative bent reporter (by the way, why must reporters have a bent?), started blathering about not believing in global warming because Al Gore sold one of his businesses to an Arab interest. What in the hell does that have to do with anything? Gore does not personify global warming, he just helped make it more of a known problem. What happens to Gore does not affect the rising sea level or increasing numbers of forest fires, droughts and floods.

In one of my favorite movies, “The American President” with Michael Douglas as the president, his character made the comment which I will paraphrase – America is advanced citizenship. You have to want it real badly. It means letting someone shout at the top of their lungs against the very thing you have been shouting at the top of yours in support. It means the flag has to be more than a symbol. It means people have the right to burn that flag in protest over grievances. This is one of my favorite lines about America that reveals our greatness as a country.

Yet, to the point made by this fictional president, we have to want it real badly. We have to be more informed citizens. Jebreal’s follow-up comment on Bill Maher last night, is you have the most powerful military in the world. She added you owe it to the world to be informed. So, what do we do about it? Today is supposed to be day of citizenship, a National Day of Service. And, on Martin Luther King Day, an African-American President will be sworn in for the second time. This more than anything else we could do represents that America is the land of opportunity. So, on this day of service let’s commit to do several things which should not be hard to do in the greater schemes of things.

– Listen to each other more. Then ask questions about why someone believes the way they do about an issue. Try not to judge. A good example is the Affordable care Act. It is far from perfect, but has already done some good things and will do more. Yet, many have been told to be against and cannot articulate why. If you share some of the good things that it does, people may warm up to it a little.

– Read and watch reliable sources of news. I personally watch BBC World News America and the PBS Newshour. Their reporters are more informed and the subject matter experts are just that. Read varying points of view as well. Do not only read or listen to people who cocoon themselves with people who feed them what they believe.

– Try to understand the source of information. Here is a simple example. The NRA, Defense Industry and Fossil Fuel Industry are three of the most powerful lobbyists groups in the US. The make a lot of money off legislative decisions. So, they have a vested interest in the outcome. At best, they are subjective on related issues. So, study more closely data from those entities supporting their arguments.

– Try to understand the context of things. Anyone can be made to look stupid if a quote is pulled out of context. Also, note when something was said. Someone saying something for shock value as a youth is far different from someone saying it as a 45-year-old. Also, my friend Amaya reblogged an article written by Mayor Cory Booker while at Stanford. If you only read the first part, you would have said he is bigoted against gays. Yet, the point of the article was his epiphany that he was wrong in his earlier bigotry and had changed.

– Talk about news around the dinner table. Encourage your kids to voice an opinion and read more about what is going on. Help them understand others’ points of view. Dr. Wayne Dyer calls this “defending the absent.” As a parent, I love it when teachers ask the kids to read the paper and find an article of interest.

Folks, I realize fully life is short and we crave entertainment. Yet, we have many who do not have the same options and opportunities as we do. So, we must be informed. We owe to ourselves, we owe it to our neighbors, we owe it to fellow Americans and we owe it to our fellow human beings on this planet.

Here Comes the Sun

I planned this post a few days ago, but in the interim two things have happened which will heighten its relevance. First, our fellow humans in Beijing are having a hard time breathing, much less seeing the sun. When George Harrison of The Beatles first wrote this song, his intent was some variation of the sun will come up tomorrow and everything will be alright. He most likely did not envision the needed utility from the sun to help power our planet without damning us to a tougher life in a toxic environment. Second, my friend Amaya republished an article from The Grist on her excellent blog www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com called “The 32 Most Alarming Charts from the Government Climate Change Report.” Please check out this post and its charts.

To remedy our climate change dilemma which is progressing at a rate worse than expected, we must move in a concerted manner away from fossil fuel energy sources and to alternative energy sources. And, for those who tout all the jobs in the fossil fuel industry, I keep reading about the vast number of jobs created by those in the alternative energy field which is growing, but needs to pick up the pace with greater funding. Yet, the fossil fuel industry has done an excellent job of discrediting the alternative energy approaches that the successes are still somewhat of a mystery to many. The two greatest sources of alternative energy are wind and solar energy, but they are only two of several. I have spoken about both and will save wind energy for another day, but I would like to highlight a few solar energy success stories that would do justice to George’s song.

Last week, it was announced that the state of California has reached 1 Gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) of electricity from solar energy. That exceeds the level of solar energy produced by any of the other 49 states and is a level few countries have achieved. It is the equivalent of the electricity produced by two conventional power plants. It is part of the California Million Solar Roofs Initiative which has $33 Billion worth of incentives. Per a spokesperson, “The costs are going down as we hoped and the market is getting closer to self-sufficiency.” This last quote is important as many have believed the market must continue to be propped up, but the technology continues to improve and is three times more efficient today than it was a few years ago and further improvements are possible.

To this point, in an earlier post I referenced a Durham, North Carolina company called Semprius, who is a joint venture funded by the Department of Defense, Siemens and Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR). Semprius has the state of the art photovoltaic solar panel that can convert 33.9% of the sun’s energy to electricity. Before the rate of conversion was around 24% at best. That is almost a 42% rate of improvement. The DOD has sanctioned the Sempruis technology to be deployed at Edwards Air Force Base to produce 200 kilowatts of electricity. This solar panel system can power about 40 homes. A spokesperson said, “Having spent several years evaluating emerging photovoltaic technology, we have selected Semprius because of the potential of the technology to drive down costs of solar electricity significantly.”

Finally, Duke Energy, the largest US energy utility, has developed a 12.5 megawatt solar project in Beaufort County’s Washington White Post Solar Farm. This project can power 3,000 homes and involves several NC companies such as SunEnergy1, Deatwyler Clean Energy, Bosch Solar Energy and Sustainable Community Development Company. I mention these companies not with the purpose to name drop, but to illustrate there are viable enterprises that employ solar technicians, construction managers, solar thermal installers, software developers, etc. to develop and maintain alternative energy.,

The beauty of the solar energy industry is not just the clean source of energy. It is also in its elegance – most of these projects are small in nature. They need not be large-scale. Yet, development is going on around the globe and in the US which will do large-scale solar energy projects. This solar technology when partnered with wind and other forms of alternative energy and conservation measures such as the miles per gallon car standards, will be the much needed wave to address our global warming crisis.

In the US, we need a long term strategy that will accelerate the decline in fossil fuel energy and let us move forward into more alternative energy. Solar energy is a key part of this strategy. George Harrison is no longer with us, but given his bent for the pursuit of a simpler world, he would be singing “Here Comes the Sun” with new meaning.

Les Miserables and Social Injustice

My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy  of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.

I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.

There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.

Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.

Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.

Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.

If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.

This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”

Stop Posturing and Try Governing

I think one thing that most Americans can agree on is their frustration over our Congressional leaders. With a lower rating than a bucket of spit, you would think they would be looking for ways to improve on that image. Yet, I continue to see posturing for the sake of political gamesmanship that I find truly annoying. Both political parties deploy these tactics, but I find a much higher percentage of posturing from our more conservative brethren. One reason is the antagonism they feel must be hurled at the President from the opposing party. The Democrats likely had a higher propensity to do this when President Bush was in the White House. But, I find a higher degree from the GOP given the propaganda that is emitted from their news network.

I had noted before that the hatred toward the Affordable Care Act is ironic as it is largely a Republican idea being spawned by the Heritage Foundation and advocated by Senator Bob Dole in the 1990’s as an alternative to Hillary Care, which was a national insurance program. Yet, the posturing I found most amusing even beyond that of Mitt Romney who helped pass a version while Governor of Massachusetts, was that of Senator Jim DeMint, known by many as the leader of the Tea Party. He wrote a letter to President Bush advocating what Massachusetts had done for the whole country and in particular, the individual mandate. Other GOP senators agreed. However, when you scroll forward three years and President Obama gets passed a variation of Romney Care, DeMint and these senators lambasted it as heresy. Senator DeMint, you sent a letter advocating the healthcare act and now you reverse your position because the other guy took your party’s idea and passed it.

We had another example of this kind of posturing this week when Senator Mitch McConnell started deriding the choice of fellow Republican and former Senator Chuck Hagel as the nominee for Secretary of Defense. Senator McConnell, this is the same guy you are on record as raving about four years ago. This former Vietnam veteran has done nothing in the intervening four years that would change your thinking, except for garnering one new advocate. He was nominated by the President of the other party who took your candidate and said I like him. When I see the former Senator’s credentials, I come away very impressed. He is not perfect, but he looks a lot less imperfect than some of the other names mentioned in this post.

In fairness to my conservative friends, let me reiterate my disdain for Senator Harry Reid, who postures with the best (or in this case worst) of them. I think he and McConnell are the poster children for what is wrong with Washington. Yet, I must give credit to McConnell for working with the Vice President to get a bill passed to avoid the fiscal cliff. It was not close to where I wanted them to come out. I wanted more tax increases and some spending cuts. So, I am glad something happened as something needed to happen and the markets reacted favorably, but we did fall short of a better outcome. And, of course we fell short because of the posturing made by Speaker Boehner. He was close to a deal with the President  that would have accomplished more and he did a misdirection with his Plan B. When that failed, McConnell had to pick up the dropped ball. So, I think we ended up with a lesser bill as do others.

As a result, our leaders have set us up for more last-minute haggling that will result in acrimony and, very likely, the downgrading of US debt. I am firmly convinced the posturing will prevent the debt ceiling from being raised and the markets will react very negatively. If these folks had hashed out a better fiscal cliff avoidance deal, we would not be as perilously positioned. In spite of what both sides say, here are a few road map keys from where I sit:

– tax revenue needs to still increase (the data shows the math won’t work otherwise) and we should revamp the tax code per Simpson-Bowles;

– defense spending needs to come down – find the dollars – as there are surplus areas of spending;

– social welfare spending needs to come down as well – we need to become more empowering where we can and use a scalpel on many programs; Americans talk a big game, but when cornered they don’t want cuts to programs that affect them, yet cut them we must; and

– infrastructure spending needs to go up (we must cut and invest) as our bridges, roads, electric rids and gas lines, etc. are in need of upgrading. The stimulus bill worked in many areas, yet all people heard about was where it did not. Senator Richard Burr could not recall an infrastructure investment from the Stimulus Bill, yet I drove over a bridge today on I-85 in NC that is 30 miles from his home which has two large signs that it is funded by the American Recovery Act (aka the Stimulus Bill) – how is that for posturing?

Mr. President, Senators and Congresspeople, we have only two months to make major strides on these complex topics. Do not wait until the last minute as something inferior will be passed. And, if you do nothing, you will have the pleasure of seeing the sequestration cuts hit home and our debt being downgraded again. The President has proposed some very good, but imperfect Secretaries. If you have a real problem with them, then state your argument. If you are just posturing, do not waste people’s time and get busy on the deficit deal. Time is of the essence. Stop posturing and try governing.