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ArchiveJANUARY 2021

 

JAN. 31, 2021    SOLAR ENERGY DEVICES



Some 45 years ago, while I was out West visiting my parents during their winter vacation, we drove down to Tucson one cool morning.

On the way, we stopped to see the saguaro cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which bears the names of adjacent states in two nations.  In front of the entrance there was an enclosure containing small desert lizards and large desert rocks.

The lizards were basking in the morning sunshine, something like this.  Being cold-blooded, the reptiles couldn't pursue their prey until their muscles were up to operating temperature, so they were taking advantage of the sun-warmed black basalt.

I like to think extinct creatures like Stegosaurus and Dimetrodon (below) likewise used solar energy to get moving in the morning.  When they faced north/south, their “fins” could absorb the heat of the morning sun.  Later in the day, they could face east/west to reorient those solar panels to radiate excess heat.

Why might it have been advantageous for large reptiles to have backplates and sails?

If a 35-foot monster gradually evolved into a 44-foot giant, its length would increase by 26%.  According to the square-cube law, its skin area would increase by 58%, but the volume of its body would increase by 99% — almost doubling! 

Length

Skin Area

Body Volume

351

352 = 1,225

353 = 42,875

441

442 = 1,936

443 = 85,184

With that much body mass, it would be helpful to have some thin appendages that could provide extra skin surface for thermoregulation, as do elephants' ears.  Of course, we weren't there to observe these ancient creatures' behavior.  Did they really turn sideways to the sun?

Paleontologists suggest another purpose for the mysterious features.  They might have been meant to impress a potential mate, like the crests and tails of their warm-blooded distant descendants the cassowary and the peacock.

 

JAN. 28, 2021   
THE MIDDLE

The Ohio city of Middletown, population nearly 50,000, was once in line to get a television studio of its very own.

It would be equipped with two CC-500 color cameras!  Count 'em, two.  Several other nearby towns would send their leading citizens here to be on TV.  And I would be in charge!

Alas, that dream lived and died in a single year, 1973.  I tell the story in a new article called The Studio That Would Never Be.

 

JAN. 26, 2011 flashback   WE'RE NOT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Is America exceptional?  The majority likes to think so.  Does everything happen for a reason?  The majority likes to think so.  However, many educated people know better.

John Brockman of The Edge asked his fellow scientists, “What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?”  Minnesota professor PZ Myers responded:

I'm going to recommend the Mediocrity Principle. It's fundamental to science, and it's also one of the most contentious, difficult concepts for many people to grasp.  And opposition to the Mediocrity Principle is one of the major linchpins of religion and creationism and jingoism and failed social policies.

There are a lot of cognitive ills that would be neatly wrapped up and easily disposed of if only everyone understood this one simple idea.  The Mediocrity Principle simply states that YOU AREN'T SPECIAL.

The universe does not revolve around you,

this planet isn't privileged in any unique way,

your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny,

your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate,

and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion.

Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance.

Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident.

Sean Carroll added:

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning, only that “purpose” and “meaning” are things we create — not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world.

The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value.

 

JAN. 25, 2016   HAVE WE THE WILL?

I’ve been revisiting some old speeches.  For example, when President George H.W. Bush took office, he said in his 1989 inaugural address:

We have work to do.  There are the homeless, lost and roaming.  There are the children who have nothing, no love, no normalcy.  There are those who cannot free themselves of enslavement to whatever addiction — drugs, welfare, the demoralization that rules the slums.  There is crime to be conquered, the rough crime of the streets.  There are young women to be helped who are about to become mothers of children they can't care for and might not love.  ...[But] our funds are low.  We have a deficit to bring down.  We have more will than wallet.

As I listened to that last line 27 years ago, I immediately objected.  No, Mr. President, it’s the other way around!  We have more wallet than will!

Don’t pretend that “we the people” are no longer able to keep our Constitutional promise “to promote the general welfare.”  America is the richest nation in the world.  Our wallet is bulging.  What we lack is the will to open it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, after his return from receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Scandanavia, reported:  “In both Norway and Sweden, whose economies are literally dwarfed by the size of our affluence and the extent of our technology, they have no unemployment and no slums.  There, men, women and children have long enjoyed free medical care and quality education. This contrast to the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me.”

Concerned about the U.S. government deficit?  Increase revenue.  Those of us who can afford it ought to give back more to the commonwealth.

The corporate lobbyists have convinced the fearful and angry among us to contribute tax money for armaments and never-ending wars, but many tightfisted Americans have no inclination to contribute tax money to improve their fellow citizens’ lives.

“The question is whether America will do it,” Dr. King said in Washington four days before his death.  “There is nothing new about poverty.  What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty.  The real question is whether we have the will.”

 

JAN. 23, 2021

  UNOFFICIALLY
  SIX MINUTES LEFT

When I was a young football fan, stadium scoreboards merely approximated the time remaining in a quarter.  This one was at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium.  Both the 49ers, “SF,” and the Oakland Raiders, “O,” called Kezar their home field during the first part of the 1960 season.

As a member of the upstart American Football League, the Raiders did use the scoreboard clock for official time, though the National Football League wouldn't follow suit until the 1970 merger.  Until then, television announcers kept reminding us that the official time was being kept by an official on the field.  It had always been done that way, for all levels of football.

In high school, I recall our superintendent Richard Fetter wearing a tan raincoat during home games and standing on the field of play about five yards behind the referee.  He had been entrusted with the responsibility of starting and stopping a handheld clock like this darkroom timer.  When it reached zero, a starter's pistol was fired.  There's the gun!  It's all over!

Because in those days the NFL's scoreboard clock was inexact, it might mislead the coaches.  Therefore, when the official time got down to two minutes left in the half, the referee would halt the game and run over to first one bench and then the other to inform them of that fact.

And now you know the origin of pro football's “two-minute warning,” an ancient custom that is still observed.  These days it's a marker that certain special rules are now in effect, plus an extra commercial break to build suspense if the score is close.

Of course, in almost every modern stadium even at the high school level, the original reason for the warning no longer applies.  An official clock operator in the press box now controls digital displays on the various scoreboards and TV screens. 







 

JAN. 20, 2011 flashback   THIS IS MY LIFE

Each year, the Social Security Administration prepares us for retirement by mailing us a lifetime summary of our annual earnings.  Out of curiosity, I graphed my numbers (blue line).  I also adjusted them for inflation based on what a dollar was worth in 1983; the following discussion refers to these “constant dollars” (red line).

I was employed for an entire year for the first time in 1971.  The next year, Marion CATV paid me $20,647 in constant dollars.  But then overtime was curtailed.  Although I continued working in local cable TV for the next decade, I never topped $20,000 again, and there was a dip in earnings in 1980 when I was between jobs for several months.

In 1982, as “local origination” job opportunities were fading away, I moved on to regional sports remote telecasts, the next level (yellow tint).  I’ve been fortunate to be employed in this line of work ever since.  My earnings peaked at $28,663 in 1988, the first year that I worked full-time as a freelancer.

 
UPDATE:  When first posted in 2011, this graph didn't include the green and purple line segments.  I added them after my 2020 retirement.

Total earnings in 1983 dollars over 50 years: $1,867,448.
Adjusted to 2021 dollars: $3,146,819.

I didn’t reach the third level of income (green tint) until the second half of the 1990s.  That’s when I traveled a lot for Fox Sports Net’s national telecasts, making $43,820 in 2000.

Since 2002 I’ve been working mostly around Pittsburgh (no tint).  The only year I approached the 2000 earnings record was 2006, when I traveled with the Pirates for ten weeks of nonstop baseball.

So there’s my 40-year career in one graph.  What does it all mean?  Well, if I retire a couple of years from now, Social Security will send me monthly checks totaling $24,000 per year (blue star), which will be worth about $11,000 in 1983 dollars (red star).  Until they run out of money, that is.

 

JAN. 18, 2021    ON DAY ONE

Politicians on the campaign trail traditionally promise to act as soon as possible on their highest-priority policy issues.  They tell us what they'll do immediately, on their first day in office.  President-Elect Joe Biden has a list of about a dozen executive actions planned for Wednesday.

Four years ago, what were Donald Trump's top priorities for January 20, 2017?  A website lists his promises, including the following excerpts from speeches:

Day one of my administration, we're getting all of the criminals out.  Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone!

I will immediately suspend the admission of Syrian refugees.

I will get rid of gun-free zones in schools.  My first day it gets signed.  My first day.

Cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum, and order issued by President Obama.  Believe me, they're gonna be unsigned so fast, they'll be unsigned the first hour I'm in office.

You may not be surprised to learn that not all of that happened.  Trump's real top priority was himself, of course — specifically, staying in office as long as possible.  One thing he did accomplish on Day One was to file a form with the Federal Election Commission declaring that he qualified as a candidate for re-election in 2020.

Then on Day 30, nine thousand supporters attended a “Keep America Great” event in Florida.

No incumbent president had ever held a re-election campaign rally that early in his term.  It almost worked.

 

JAN. 16, 2021    LIMITED ACCESS

In most respects, daily life is easier now than when I was growing up.  But dealing with packaged products has become more difficult.

It all started in 1982 when some evil person bought bottles of Tylenol acetaminophen, opened the capsules, inserted cyanide, then replaced the bottles on store shelves.  Random purchasers died.  Johnson & Johnson had to recall 31 million bottles, discontinue capsules in favor of one-piece “caplets,” and protect their bottles with tamper-evident safety seals.

I bought some macadamias the other day.  In olden days, I might have scooped the nuts from an open barrel and dumped them into a paper bag, but since the Tylenol incident, precautions have been added.  The nuts were sealed inside a plastic tub.

Ater bringing them home, I needed to remove the lid from the tub.  However, I discovered, first I had to remove a safety ring protecting its perimeter.  Using the scissors I always keep handy in the kitchen, I cut a slit into the plastic ring so I could grab a little bit of it and peel it all away.  Now the lid was unlocked and I could snap it off.  But could I reach the nuts?  No way.  There was a sheet of plastic film glued across the top of the tub, with a little flap for pulling it off.  I did so, only to discover there was a second layer of clear plastic underneath, this time with no tab.  I stabbed it with my scissors, reached into the slit, and peeled it off as well.

Total time:  about two minutes.  (Total time to create this illustration, grumbling:  about forty minutes.)  Was all this necessary?  Well, I suppose so; the macadamias were delicious, and no one had poisoned them.  On the other hand, opening a six-ounce box of raspberries required no special procedures at all.

 

JAN. 13, 2021    LET'S SPEND ANOTHER $900,000,000

For two long months, donors from across the nation poured their hard-earned dollars into an effort to influence Senate elections in a single state.  And they may have succeeded, because the U.S. Senate will now be under the control of a different party.

In my new article titled Sluggish Georgia, I tell how segregationist legislation in 1963 led to this year's runoffs.  Also, I explain how a procedure called RCV could have ascertained the winners much more quickly and economically.

 

JAN. 10, 2011 flashback
ALL PART OF THE PLAN

Here are a couple of photos I took today, only five miles from my apartment.

A Marcellus shale natural gas well has recently been drilled on a hillside farm overlooking the Pittsburgh Mills shopping mall.  The fracking process has been completed, gas is flowing, and now the wellhead is being flared. 

The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:  He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.  Exodus 13:21-22

Looming ominously over the shopping mall is a brilliant pillar of fire.  By night, it illuminates the parking lots with its flickering orange glow, which can be seen from many parts of the valley.  Gases escaping at high speed produce a constant roar like a taxiing jet aircraft.  But we’re told it’s all under control.

The local newspaper explains that flaring is a safe way of burning off the initial gases rather than letting them vent into the atmosphere.

Testing should be complete in another day or so, they tell us.  Then they’ll start collecting the natural gas for use, rather than just letting it escape, and local shoppers will no longer cower in fear beneath the Olympic-size flame.


JAN. 8, 2021    MARRYING?  ARE YOU CRAZY?

I grew up in Ohio's Union County.  From a January 8, 1945, article in my old hometown's newspaper, the Richwood Gazette:  “The annual report of Probate Judge John W. Dailey, forwarded to the state departments, shows that an even 100 marriage licenses were issued during the year.  Six were committed to the state hospitals for insane.”

 

JAN. 5, 2021    LOSING THE EARLY LEAD

It's been nine contentious weeks since the Presidential election.  Long before that, Donald Trump was complaining about the way television was going to report the results.  Sure enough, he seemed to be winning on Election Night, largely on the basis of in-person voting.  But then it came time to tally the mail-in and absentee ballots.  After millions of Joe Biden votes had been added — illegally, Trump's supporters claim — Biden was declared the winner.

Once I was broadcasting election returns when a similar situation developed.  Conservative precincts were reported first, but I warned my radio listeners that the ranking of those partial totals could change as the evening went on.  Sure enough, the late-reporting “radical” enclaves dramatically turned the tide.  Was this scenario the result of manipulation?  Who's to say?

I'm referring, of course, to the 1968 Oberlin College Student Senate elections.  The story is this month's 100 Moons article. 

 

JAN. 3, 2021    THE RICH GET RICHER

Investors alternatelyandas the “Standard & Poor's 500” stock market index fluctuates up and down from day to day.  When the market plunges, should they get out?  Certainly not, writes Sam Ro in the Yahoo Finance Morning Brief.  “Panicking is a horrible investment strategy that results in missing out on much of what's historically been an upward trending market.”

Taking the longer view as charted on the right, in some years (red) the S&P closes lower than it did the year before, but in most (green) it closes higher.  Since 1928, two out of three years have been green.

At the end of the extraordinary year just ended, the S&P was up more than 16%, having recovered more than 60% since its March 23 low.  Why?  “Investors see brighter days ahead for corporate profits,” writes Myles Udland.

I'm amazed by the graph on the left from Deutsche Bank strategist Jim Reid.  It smooshes the years all together.  The blue line consists of 365 points.  The leftmost point represents the average S&P 500 on New Year's Day, averaged over the last nine decades. The next point is for January 2nd, the third January 3rd, and so on. 

According to Ro, “on average, stocks start the year at a level and embark on a bumpy path only to end the year much higher.”  To be precise, 12% higher on average.  In 20 of the last 90 years (as shown on the first graph), at least 25% higher. 

Perhaps one can try to “time the market” for individual stocks, but for broad-based funds, buy low and hold!  That's what I do.  If some components of the fund are underperforming, the fund's managers will replace them.

However, I'm almost ashamed to admit that, as the only child of a successful businessman without dependents of my own, I've been able to comfortably invest in the market while so many of my fellow Americans can't afford it.  Many are jobless.  Many are having to burn through whatever savings they may have had.

The top 1 + 9 = 10 percent of us, by income, have cornered all but 7% of the market, by share value.  And according to the Washington Post, 45 of the 50 biggest U.S. corporations have actually turned a profit since the pandemic began (largely by cutting staff) and have given the bulk of that profit to — whom else? — shareholders like me.

We need a more equitable distribution of wealth.  As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted recently:

The stock market is not the economy.  There is no longer one American economy.  There are two.

1. 

Managers and professionals who work from home.and have invested in the stock market.
They're doing great.

2.

Everyone else. .They're in free fall.
American families hit the highest rate of hunger in 22 years.

American capitalism is totally off the rails.  From now on, all policies must be judged by how well they help 2.

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