Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rapture

Lots of rain lately in this area. No deluges like those that have been occurring in other parts of the country but enough rain to keep the ground wet, especially in the morning, and keep the grass growing. Unfortunately, it also means I am using a lot more bags to deliver papers. This, along with the high amount of gas I must purchase, continues to bother me. I imagine that these concerns will push me to find another source of income, but I will miss the "musing" time that this early morning endeavor provides.

This past weekend, Saturday evening to be precise, was identified as a possible day to mark the beginning of an "end of the world" process that would culminate in October. Apparently, a man named Harold Camping, a fundamentalist, radio talk show host, had predicted this end some time ago. To give him credit, he included some pretty specific details so it would be obvious if he was wrong or right. And, as has been true of all previous prognostications concerning the end of the world, Mr. Camping was wrong in this case.

As a result of this not-end-of-the-world event, there were many jokes directed at both evangelicals like Harold Camping who continue to make their living by scaring people into believing their particular viewpoint is the ultimate one, and, of course, the believers themselves. But despite the fact that the sun came up on May 22nd disproving this week's end of man prediction, there will soon be another prophesy, and another end date revealed.

Science tells us that the earth has existed for a few billion years while man has only been present on earth for a few million years. A simple calculation indicates that the world (Earth) has existed without man for well over 99% of its existence. Chances are the Earth will continue rotating and revolving for quite a long time once all traces of mankind are gone so to me, all this end of the world talk should more precisely be labelled end of man talk. Perspective can be a funny thing.

Yet there is a serious side to the never ending end-of-man talk. Because the fact is, Saturday, May 21st did mark the "end of man" for approximately 150,000 humans on earth as that is the number of people who die everyday. This number includes mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and good friends. For them, the prediction was all too true. And for their families, while
May 21st may not have marked a global end, it certainly changed their lives forever.

So, perhaps end of man talk can serve a positive purpose. Not by scaring us to adopt a certain faith but by reminding us how precious is life and how important are the people who share our lives. The end of man will certainly come some day, but in the meantime, the end of particular men and women will be grieved and lamented, 150,000 times a day. Perhaps we would be better prepared for that "end time" if we lived our lives by doing more to demonstrate our love, first, for those most important to us, and second for all those other fellow travelers who share our time on Earth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The company you keep

What does China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States have in common? According to Amnesty International, these five countries lead the world in use of the death penalty with China far outpacing the other four, combined.

The reason for my research into this topic was Monday's lead article in the Inquirer which detailed a diatribe by Pennsylvania's Chief Justice Ronald Castille concerning the federal defense attorneys who recently filed a motion to stay the execution of a death row inmate. Justice Castille concluded that the exhaustive efforts being put forth by these attorneys to keep their client alive were politically motivated and represented a concerted effort on their part to sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

I sent the following letter to the Inquirer that evening.

To the editor:

Chief Justice Castille is right to be frustrated over the seemingly endless motions and appeals that occur with any ongoing death penalty case. But his anger is misdirected. Those federal defense attorneys that he accuses of engaging in "the zealous pursuit.. to impede and sabotage the death penalty" do so to guarantee their client's being treated fairly; I am sure he would expect the same dedication to duty of those on the prosecution side. Does he think these attorneys should just give up? In light of the numerous examples of death penalty convictions being overthrown due to subsequent DNA evidence, I think their continued doggedness is warranted.

The Chief Justice should be directing his anger at politicians who use support of capital punishment to project a "tough on crime" mentality to voters, the district attorneys who pursue the death penalty, and the Pennsylvania legislatures who have failed to pass a bill banning the death penalty in our state.

The death penalty has been proven over and over again to be ineffective in deterring capital crimes. That is why 15 states plus the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty while two more (including New Jersey) have placed a moratorium on executions. Not to mention the 95 countries worldwide including virtually all of Europe which have ceased its use.

And then there is the expense. Seeking a death penalty conviction increases the cost of trial tenfold, relieving a disproportionate amount of money from already strapped city, county and state budgets while resulting in very few actual executions; only three in PA since 1976, none since 1999. Seeking life sentences instead produces the same effective result - the removal of dangerous criminals from the streets - while freeing up money that an be used much more efficiently in the fight against crime.


So, in this case, the United States shares this dubious characteristic with four of the most repressive regimes in the world, two of which are 2/3 of the "axis of evil". I imagine that we might be more aggressive in decrying the Saudi Arabian government if it wasn't for oil and the Chinese government if it wasn't for corporate America's need for cheap labor but that is grist for another blog.

Of course, I know there is a big distinction between our use of the death penalty as part of our judicial system and the use of the death penalty in those other countries for political dissidents as well as criminals. Yet, the fact remains that 95 countries in the world do not have a death penalty, including virtually all of the western world of which we claim the most similarity. We are the only NATO country still using the death penalty.

More data to consider.

Pennsylvania has 222 death row inmates (fourth highest state total), over 100 of them placed there during Lynn Abraham's tenure as district attorney of Philadelphia. As I mentioned in the letter, only 3 executions have occurred in PA since 1976, none since
1999. During that time 22 death row inmates died of natural causes.

Governor Ed Rendell signed over 100 death row warrants during his two terms as governor, despite the fact that he was aware of its lack of use. (See politicians who need to appear to be tough on crime in my letter above).

Since 1976 there have been 1251 executions in the US with Texas far out in the lead with 467 of them (about 37%). Of the 34 states which have executed criminals since 1976, Texas has put to death more than the totals of 29 of those 34 states combined. Makes you wonder if Texas has more capital crimes, more evil people or an easier path from conviction to execution.

Actual death sentences in the United States has steadily fallen since 1994 so that by 2009 it was about 1/3 of the number of 1994 (from 313 to 112).

138 death row exonerations have occurred since 1973. Remember, these are people who were convicted, sentenced to die and later found to be innocent and released. Partly as the result of research, motions and appeals by defense attorneys just like those that Chief Justice Castille railed against.

As of deterrence, there is a huge difference between number of executions in the south compared to the other regions of the US, but very little difference between murder rates. In fact, the south has one of the higher regional murder rates.

Finally, the cost is astronomical. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to prosecute and house the few thousand death row inmates. Again, money that could have been spent to combat crime.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Energy Conundrum

I have had this story in my head for about a month now. I would hope it scares and inspires us to realize that by maintaining the energy status quo we may be forfeiting any energy independence we could gain if we don't begin the arduous path towards maximizing our energy efficiency, and seeking, supporting and perfecting alternate ways to provide our energy needs.

The Energy Conundrum

King Nayef waived nonchalantly to his royal guard, indicating his permission to allow entrance for today’s visitors. The king sat comfortably at the small but elegant, hard-wood table which dominated the otherwise impressively furnished meeting room, one of six similarly fashioned meeting rooms on this floor. Only royal insignia engraved on the high-backed chair on which he reposed revealed the special nature of this particular room.

Strange Americans, the king thought.

From the days of the early struggles to find, tap and release the vast quantities of oil that lay buried in the Saudi Arabian deserts, the American companies’ superior technology and relentless work force combined with a bottomless source of government financial and military support, had tamed the harsh environment, providing the energy for the world’s industries and economies to prosper. It was a win-win situation that changed the face of the planet and made possible countless advances in the lives of everyday people, while, of course, enabling the desert nations of the Middle East and their royal rulers to attain riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Even through the oil embargo days of the 1970’s and the severe highs and lows of the cost of oil in the early part of the 21st century, the Americans and their western allies expended massive amounts of resources to keep the oil flowing. Despite repeated warnings from their own scientific community that the burning of fossil fuels was damaging the earth’s ecosystem, they continued their dependence on oil, continued their astronomical thirst (and waste) of energy.

The king thought of that curious American toy called the yo-yo that he had played with endlessly one summer as a child. Down goes the price of oil, up goes the sales of gas guzzling cars, SUV’s and trucks. Up comes the price of oil; up goes the sale of energy efficient and alternative energy vehicles. Down goes the price of oil again, up goes the sales of those same cars and trucks that nobody wanted just a few years before. Then, up goes the price of oil again. Up and down, up and down like a yo-yo, the pattern repeated, the gnashing of teeth when the price was high, the profligate waste when the price was low.

The king smiled. For, despite the ups and downs of cost and supply, the money flowed continuously for his country and his family. And, when a real threat occurred to the supply of oil, the Americans were the first on the scene allocating even more resources on military interventions which toppled governments in the name of freedom all the while continuing to support those nations which guaranteed the flow of oil despite its humanitarian record or suppression of dissidents.

Now, over a hundred years after the first oil wells of the 1930’s, the American president and his delegation were waiting for an audience to ask for an increase in the flow of energy. Again. It was as if their incredible ability to invent, perfect and bring to market the technologies that provided the mechanisms to create and harness energy was equally limited by their political will to force the citizenry to embrace the changes needed to move forward. Again, the king smiled to think that democracy was a wonderful political concept, a truly enlightened way for people to govern themselves, but nothing beat a dictatorship for making people do what was necessary to achieve a nation’s security.

The meeting room door opened and in walked the president, his secretary of energy, the Senate majority leader and three of the most influential business leaders of the United States. The best men and women from the most powerful country in the world, and all here to promise the king anything and everything to slate their country’s never ending needs for energy.

“Welcome my friends”, the king began. “Please, make yourselves comfortable”.
The American delegation found their chairs but barely heard the king’s words. They were too distracted by the immense pictures that covered the walls on all sides of the room. First distracted, then awed when the realization struck them that these weren’t pictures but monitors. Monitors that displayed the vast solar collection fields that existed for hundreds of miles across the Arabian Desert.

“I see you are impressed by the view”, the king said.

Huge solar collectors converting the almost constant light of the sun into clean energy. Collectors invented by American companies, installed by American technicians, monitored by American engineers who controlled the transmission of the billions of megawatts through power lines invented, installed and maintained by American and German contractors. Energy which required no digging in the earth, no processing in pollution producing factories, no pumping of millions of gallons of chemically treated water into the ground.

Solar technology bought and paid for with the money of the very customers who traded their dependence on oil and fossil fuels for a new dependence on an energy source that shines down for free but was deemed too costly, too ugly, and too futuristic to pursue with any conviction.

“What can I do for you”? the king began.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

A thumbnail moon rise this past weekend followed by dramatic sun rises. I don't know why experiencing the start of a new day continues to effect me, but I certainly recommend that everyone get out of bed and watch a sunrise every once in a while. Perhaps together, we can figure out its attraction.

Clearly, the news of the day is the death of Osama bin Laden. To the brave special forces unit that executed such a daring, dangerous and precise operation, we all owe a great debt and sincere congratulations. I was especially touched by the people interviewed that lost loved ones on 9/11 and who exuded a sense of relief and closure upon hearing the news. The spontaneous celebrations in Washington DC and at ground zero, among other places, speak to the deep seated sadness that Americans have suppressed since that scary day almost 10 years ago. As is the case with all momentous events, we will all remember for the rest of our lives where we were on 9/11 and now, where we were when we heard the news of the killing of bin Laden.

Despite the realization that bin Laden may have been less involved operationally with the designs of al-Qaeda he was still the face of this movement and its spiritual leader. While his memory may still be used to inspire suicide missions, violence and destruction, his charisma and connections with those that loved him will not be easily replicated. The famous and infamous alike share a certain trait that elevate them to a unique place in history. Bin Laden had this trait which is why he generates such extreme love, and extreme hatred.

For me, the removal of someone so misguided as to think that violence and destruction somehow conformed to his religion and was blessed by his God is a good thing. Many commentators I heard today mentioned that they thought that bin Laden not only suffered a deserved, violent death and less than desirable burial, but that he certainly faced an eternity of torture at the hands of his creator. It is hard to disagree with this assessment.

Perhaps though, there is a lesson for all of us in his example. Righteous violence, whether to deal with a terrorist leader or the neighborhood bully can be a seductive activity and so easily condoned, even cheered. But where does it end? In the case of bin Laden, "justice has been served" as President Obama said. We spent untold dollars and countless lives to hunt down bin Laden and I would imagine that the vast majority of Americans would feel the price was worthwhile to avenge the death of the victims of 9/11.

But what about invading a country to remove its leader? Or firing missiles into foreign cities to force those in charge to relinquish power? When does violence in an effort to fight a brutal dictator or an "evil" nation cross over the line of righteousness and become the very thing it claims to abhor? Is it possible that by spending almost 1 out of every 3 dollars of our national budget on the military that we have stepped over the line of rightousness?

In light of the dramatic raid and killing of Bin Laden, one might argue that we don't need to spend over $700 billion each year on the military when superior intelligence, patience and precision are all we need to strike a blow against our enemies.

We are currently debating the causes and solutions of our growing national debt. Our colossal military budget is a factor in this growing debt. Perhaps, as part of this debate, we should be questioning our desire to be the world's police force, the cost of such a desire, and the moral certainty that this path is the will of our God.