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Today BP announced that their “top kill” method of stopping the undersea gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is a failure. Previously they had tried to place a dome over the gusher to contain the oil and redirect it via pipes to the surface. But that was a failure. Then they tried inserting a small pipe into the gusher to suck out most of the oil to the surface.  But that was a failure. Now they admit that their “top kill” is a failure. So now they plan to place another dome on top of the gusher and redirect the oil to the surface through some pipes. Any predictions? Anyone? Anyone?

It is interesting to note that all of the methods that BP is using to try to stop the leak preserve the integrity of the well itself. The well is basically a hole in the ground (mostly rock) that starts one mile under the surface of the ocean. The hole itself is about two miles deep. Imagine how much money it must cost to drill through two miles of rock – and then you strike a huge gusher of oil. Would you want to shut it down? Of course not – this is literally money by the barrel coming out of the ground.  So, from that view BP is doing the right thing. Their first failed attempt to stop the leak would have still allowed them to pump oil from the well. Their second failed attempt actually involved pumping oil from the well with a small pipe – they just couldn’t pump it out fast enough. (We should all have such problems, right?) Their third failed attempt involved putting golf balls (really), cut up pieces of old tires (I’m not kidding here), and “mud” into the hole. I guess the “mud” is some sort of combination of drilling oil and concrete (maybe – I’m not too clear on whether the concrete was a separate attempt from the heavy drilling fluid kind of mud. Anyway, did you ever build sand castles by the seashore and then watch the waves come in and wash everything away?

The interesting thing about the “top kill” (sounds serious, doesn’t it) approach is that if it worked this sort of golf ball, old rubber tires, and “mud” combo would have solidified in the tube and created a plug – sort of how old soap and hair does that in your sink.  Then all BP would have to do is drill through the plug (in a controlled way of course) and voila! They’re back in business. Here’s the thing to note – in case you might have missed where I am going here: all of BP’s approaches to stop the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the world have been contingent on preserving their ability to continue to use this oil well once things are under control. – And after all, why not? Wouldn’t you?

Now, let’s suppose this was a real emergency – like maybe BP was being fined one hundred billion dollars a day for every day the well continued to pollute the world. Would there be a way to stop the flow then? You betcha.

It is my belief that pretty much any physicist in the U.S. or any mechanical engineer in the U.S. could come up with a very good way of permanently plugging the leak very quickly – and they could probably come up with the method in less than a day.  As a physicist myself, I feel pretty confident about saying that. So, one has to wonder… Since President Obama has now said he’s in charge of the whole thing, where is his team of physicists? Has he got MIT and Caltech and NASA on the phone? How’s his Tiger Team of the country’s best minds doing? They seem to be keeping pretty quiet. Maybe they are meeting in secret or something.  Or could it be that BP really does have the finest engineering minds in the universe? What happened to President Obama’s head of the Dept of Energy? Didn’t he win the Nobel Prize in physics? What is President Obama waiting for – Albert Einstein to come back?

Yeah, it’s a tough puzzle to figure out.  Not about how to permanently plug the leak – I’ll bet there are even quite a few plumbers who could tell you how to do that. No, I mean why isn’t the President stepping up to the plate and actually taking charge instead of just making speeches about how he feels our pain? Why is he standing by while this catastrophe continues? I’m not asking why BP doesn’t try to permanently plug the well – after all, they’re an oil company, need I say anything more? And please, let’s not bring in the military.  This is not what they do.  A team of physicists and engineers, given the mission to simply stop the leak  permanently, could have a solution in a day. It could be put in place within a week if priority were given to fabricating the necessary fixtures.  It’s just that nobody wants to do that.

So there you have it. Now, as one of my teachers used to say at the end of every lesson, “Any questions? No? Good.”

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A long time ago, when my first child was born, I found to my surprise and consternation that my employer-provided Blue Cross Blue Shield policy did not cover normal childbirth expenses in a hospital. I guess they rationalized that by thinking that normal childbirth wasn’t a disease, so why should health insurance  pay for it? Fortunately, credit cards had just been invented. I put the balance due on my BankAmericard.  When I returned to work, a couple of days later, I complained to my coworkers about our lousy health care insurance. One of the older men, probably only a year or two away from retirement, spoke up and said, “Who cares? I don’t want to pay for your babies.”

I was taken aback by the his total and complete lack of concern about my plight, but somehow I was able to quickly retort, “Yes, and I don’t want to pay for your heart attack either!” The old man stood there speechless for a minute and slowly turned and walked back into his office without saying another word.

Today, as Congress struggles with the question of just slightly improving the U.S. health care system – certainly they’re not considering anything close to the health care that is provided in the civilized world – we find that we have become a polarized population. The Republicans are uniformly against the proposals at hand while the Democrats, true to form, are disunited but bumbling forward,kicking and screaming – not to mention dealing secretly.  It looks like the House Dems might actually vote “yes” at this time – but who knows, it’s not like all of our members of Congress are motivated by what is best for the country.

If one just steps back for a moment it’s easy to see what divides us. There are three groups of people, generally speaking, in this country. One group has no health care or very little health care and basically no voice in our government because they are the poor disenfranchised.  A second group has health care but is concerned about the people who don’t have it. The third group also has health care but doesn’t care about the first group in the least.  If they had their way the first group would just go away. The third group, of course, is the Republican Party. It is the party of “every man for himself” or “you’re on your own”.  It’s the party of “I’ve got mine and I don’t care about your problems. Take care of yourself.” They are the Party that aligns itself with the ” Christians” of America.

OK. Fair enough. The Democrats basically represent the method of living that mankind adopted a very long time ago in order to survive. It used to be called tribalism. Everyone was a member of the tribe and everyone contributed to the welfare of the tribe.  In turn the tribe took care of its members because every member was important. The Republicans, on the other hand, represent a newer, more modern point of view. They are the rugged individualists, the go it alone types. The can take care of themselves.  They are the philosophical descendants of the Calvinists who founded our original colonies  – people like the Pilgrims.  It was the early “pioneers” in this country who struck out on their own, with guns of course, and took the land from the Native Americans.  It was relatively easy to be on your own, living off the land, when you had all the firepower you needed and the American landscape lay there, ripe for the taking. And they took it.

Today, 95% of America’s wealth belongs to 1% of the population.  You can bet most of that 1% is Republican and Calvinist.  The question is this: why are so many other Americans also Republican when they have virtually no chance in sharing in the immense fortunes of the Elect?  Sadly, a big part of the answer lies in history.  When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he predicted what would happen: the “Solid South” that had always been the most dependable segment of the Democratic Party would turn Republican. And they did. The old Confederacy just couldn’t accept racial equality for blacks. That was half a century ago and much progress has been made in the old Confederate states, yet they are still the heart of Republican sentiment. Of course we shouldn’t ignore the cowboy states of the West – they are the rest of the Republican Party.

If one looks at the demographic of those poor people who have no health care there is one thing that stands out: they are mostly minorities.  They are largely blacks and Hispanics.  The message of the Republicans is clear: they already have theirs – and they have no interest in helping anyone else, and certainly not the blacks and Hispanics.  In the end, the health care debate in America is actually a debate about Civil Rights and ironically the Republican Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, is against the right of all the American people to have health care.

The right to health care is now recognized throughout the civilized world. It is only America that does not recognize this right.  The time has come for America to grant its people the same rights that are granted to the citizens of France and Ireland and Canada and Russia and Malaysia and England and Norway and Denmark and Germany and pretty much anywhere else you can name.  It is only the Republican Party that is united in denying this right to the American people because,  after all, they’ve already got theirs, and they certainly don’t want to pay for yours.

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It is not news that the Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in sex scandals for a good many years.  Most of these scandals seem to have involved priests taking sexual liberties with little boys and sometimes little girls.  There were major, and expensive, scandals in Boston, Los Angeles, Louisiana, in the U.S. and many others in many parts of the world. Recently, many cases of abuse were reported in Ireland going back many years. The problem now appears to be a worldwide issue for the Catholic Church.  Almost as horrific as the abuse itself was the systematic coverup of the cases by the Church. Now, the Church is facing accusations of coverup at the highest level.

Today, it was reported that a priest in Germany had been molesting little boys in the 1980’s. So why is that suddenly news? Isn’t this just one more of the countless cases of abuse and coverup by the Church? Yes, but there is a bit of a difference here. It turns out that the current Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, was the archbishop of Munich at the time and the abuse occurred in his archdiocese and on his watch.  It also appears that the priest who committed the abuse was returned to service after a stint of rehab while the Archbishop Ratzinger was still in Munich – before he became Pope.  Also, before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquistion).  It was during this time, in 2001, that he sent a letter to all Roman Catholic bishops, instructing them to send all cases concerning child sexual abuse to his office.

So, one must ask: what did he know and when did he know it? Actually, the world is about to ask this question. As countries with large Catholic populations come to grips with the extent of the scandal, and more and more previously repressed reports are made public, the Pope is facing a potential problem that could have an enormous impact on the Church.  Too many Catholics have already voted with their feet and left the Church in America and Ireland. It looks like Germany will be next.  At this time the Vatican appears to be in its normal take cover mode, determined to stonewall and tough it out.  Yet the secrets are already out. Who do they think they are kidding, except themselves?  In todays age of instant communications, the old coverup and stonewall tactics of the past are ineffective. How many of today’s politicians have been brought down by much lesser scandals using these same stalling tactics? The question now is this: Can the Pope survive? Or perhaps a more difficult question for the Church itself: “Should the Pope survive?”

These are difficult and dangerous times for the Roman Catholic Church.  Caesar’s wife, it was said, must be above reproach.  Shouldn’t the Pope be held to even a higher standard than the wife of Caesar?  Is it possible for someone to be one of the moral leaders of the world and also be under suspicion of a coverup of sexual abuse? No, it isn’t. It’s not even possible to be the moral leader of a troop of boy scouts with that hanging over you.

Today, the Vatican is claiming that there is a witch hunt directed against the Pope in Germany. Perhaps so. Maybe not. The facts are the facts and they will have to come out.  This is not the time for stonewalling. There is no longer anywhere to hide.  There can be no more coverups.  The Vatican and the Pope have to meet this mounting crisis head on with a full disclosure of what the Pope knew and when he knew it. A failure to do so can, and will, have disastrous consequences for the Church worldwide.

I wonder if they know?

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I suppose we should have seen it coming when China launched its own version of the Apollo spacecraft – three Chinese astronauts circling the Earth – a few years ago.  It was at a time when the U.S. space program was, at best, going sideways, partnering with Russia, making short trips to the Space Station with the Shuttle. Not a whole lot of new things have been done by NASA recently, and now NASA’s most recent brainstrom, a return to the Moon, has been canceled. But this Chinese high speed rail deal is different. We’re not talking about the Moon anymore.

It has just been announced that China is in negotiations to build a high speed rail network connecting Europe and Asia. The trains that China will build, the fastest in the world, will travel almost as fast as a jet plane. People will be able to take high speed rail, using Chinese technology, from London to Beijing. China is now in talks with seventeen countries, among them England, Russia, France, and India to build the system.

So, how did the U.S. do in the competition for the job? Let’s be serious. Nobody even asked us. And why should they? We don’t make high speed trains. Our so-called high speed train, the Amtrak Acela, doesn’t come close to the performance of Chinese trains. We don’t build real high speed trains because we can’t. We don’t have the knowledge or the manufacturing capability. We are simply not a player in high speed rail technology. China is the clear leader with Japan a fairly close second.

It’s interesting that the U.S. press, to my knowledge, hasn’t even covered this story. I found it in the Irish Independent. So, does that mean that this isn’t part of the news that is worthy of print in America? Or does it mean something else? Could it be that our news media is unaware of this development? Or, could it be that, for whatever reason, they would just rather not tell us about it? I know; it sounds kind of paranoid, but I just went through eight years of Bush/Cheney, so don’t we all have a right to be paranoid? In fact, it seems that at least half the country is paranoid now, debating things like whether health care for all of us is good or bad (does that question even make sense?).

Meanwhile, China quietly pushes ahead on all fronts.  China’s economy is booming. China is already the primary manufacturer of most of the consumer goods that are sold in America. Oh, but that’s OK we said. It’s just low tech stuff. We don’t need those jobs anymore.  We’re a high tech country now. OK. So what high tech stuff do we make? Airplanes? Sure, if you count military planes (we’re really good at making things that kill people). How about commercial planes? Well, we’re down to Boeing now. Everyone else – names like Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Convair – not to mention Wright – they’re not in the business anymore. Most of the planes you see in the sky in America these days are built by the European company Airbus, or by the Canadian company Bombardier, or by the Brazilian company Embraer. Boeing is fading too. My guess is that the 787 will be its swan song for commercial aviation. The last of the American commercial airplane companies.

We need to understand the significance of this new announcement about a Chinese trans – Europe and Asia high speed rail system. The handwriting is on the wall. We have been eclipsed.  China is about to become the technological King of the World.  Under Bush we were obsessed with military attacks and military expenses and nothing else.  Not even Katrina could capture his attention for a microsecond. We have built the most efficient killing machines in the world, but we have an economy that is struggling to recover from banking disaster and a seriously decayed civilian technological manufacturing infrastructure that can’t begin to compete with China. Our only hope is that there will be a need for financing for this magnificent rail system. Our banks could make the loans and then package them as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and then, just in case the borrowers don’t pay back the loans our banks could buy credit default swaps from our insurance companies and, of course, then sell the swaps on the derivatives market. Or at least create an options market for the CDOs and swaps. We’re pretty good at that.  We just need to figure out how the average citizen makes money this way.

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There is a very old joke that goes something like this: a man is walking along the street at night when he sees another man on his hands and knees crawling around beneath a street light. He walks over and asks the man, “Did you lose something?”

“Yes,” the man replies, “I lost a quarter.”

“Oh. Well, just where did you lose it?” the first man asks.

“Over there,” the other man says, pointing down the street towards the darkness.

“Well then, why in the world are you looking here?” the first man asks.

The man on his hands and knees just looks up impatiently and replies, “Because there’s more light over here!”

Today, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is in the midst of a major battle. The target of the coalition (mostly U.S.) forces is the Taliban in Helmand province – a Taliban stronghold. The U.S. Marines are attacking with full force and driving the Taliban out of the cities and into the hinterlands of Afghanistan. The idea is that this will allow the Afghan government to exert more control over Helmand. It will also help destroy the opium crop, which is said to be a way the Taliban raise money.

I suppose it is easy to forget, in all the turmoil of war, that it wasn’t the Taliban who attacked the U.S. It was Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  At least that’s what the NSA says, based upon their communications intercepts that preceded the 9/11 attack.

Apparently the people of the Netherlands have come to the conclusion that this war with the Taliban doesn’t make a lot of sense. They are going home. Their sentiments are not much different from a lot of Europeans, and that has Secretary of Defense Gates worried. He says the European anti-war mentality is a danger to peace.

Dick Cheney was right about only one thing in his entire life. When we first got into the war against Al Qaeda he said it would have to be a different kind of war, a clandestine war. He also said we wouldn’t be hearing much about the war because it would be waged in secret. He was wrong about the second part, we hear about the War on Terror all the time. But he was right about the first part – this kind of war has to be different. It’s not the kind of war an army can win. It has to be more like a police action – a secret police action. Maybe a CIA kind of thing or a job for something like Israel’s Mossad.  It’s simply too easy for a nimble organization like Al Qaeda to evade a slow-moving army or the Marine Corps. That has been effectively demonstrated for the last nine years in Afghanistan.  Pretending that the Taliban is our real 9/11 enemy doesn’t help in countering the true threat from Al Qaeda.

The would-be captured terrorist Najibullah Zazi has said recently that he was close to launching a new attack on the U.S. It’s worth noting that his capture had nothing to do with the U.S. Army or Marine Corps or Air Force or Navy.   Al Qaeda is planning more attacks – not spectacular attacks like 9/11, but smaller ones – deadly but smaller.

One must ask: is our attack on the Taliban really an effective way to fight Al Qaeda? The answer has to be: “No”.  The problem we have is that this is the type of fighting our military is trained to do, but warfare has changed and we have not adapted to the change. We still haven’t learned the lesson of Vietnam. You can’t fight unconventional forces in a conventional way. The tactics of World War II, even though they were gloriously successful, just don’t apply here. But, that’s what our generals are trained to do, so we do it.

We’ve been lucky. Our FBI or CIA or some other quasi-police agency caught Najibullah Zazi. However, there are probably others like him: sleeper agents and spies. Infiltrators.  The question our military should be addressing is how to counter these clandestine agents because that is the real military threat we face. The Taliban do not pose an imminent threat to America. We all know are not nice people, in fact they seem to be really nasty people.  But they are on the other side of the world and their primary concern is Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s primary concern is America. The Taliban is not Al Qaeda, and that is exactly the problem with our defense against Al Qaeda.

We’re like the guy looking for his lost quarter under the street light.

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