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Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.


Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

The Inner and Outward Gaze

Ever seen those delightful Russian matryoshka dolls, the ones where each doll opens to reveal another, smaller but identical doll, which opens to reveal yet another smaller, identical doll, and down it goes to a doll the size of a peanut?

Likewise, the films Inception and the Matrix portray realities within realities within realities, scrambling our perception of reality.

There’s an everyday analogue to this – a simple mirror. You gaze at the mirror through your eyes, which are reflected in the mirror, so your view includes the thing you are viewing through.

Both are real, the view and the reflection, and neither can exist without the other.

This image is another example, taken from the International Space Station.

What you see is an orbital sunset, looking out the back view as the ISS circles the globe. Two Russian ships can be seen docked with the sun’s glare between them, a Soyuz crew capsule in the foreground and Progress cargo capsule in the background, with the earth’s horizon outlined by a thin layer of atmosphere.

You can also see the dim outline of a camera lens. This can only be seen when the angle of the sun’s light is such that the transparent cover over the camera acts like a mirror and reflects an image of the camera.

And so it is that the instrument we use to see the earth is mirrored back to us. Our own eyes gaze back at the manufactured eye we ordinarily look out from.

This demonstrates in a concrete way something that a wise man once noted:


Written by Influential Prose

September 19, 2016 at 6:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Profit-driven Prisons: Path to Prison Labor?

[One of series written for in 2012. Original article.]


Every year public companies must file what’s called a 10k report with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). This is a summary of the firm’s financial performance. There are stiff penalties for lying to the SEC, and investors aren’t too thrilled with less than the truth either.

These are powerful incentives for honest accounting, so you can accept 10k statements as reasonably credible accounts of what a firm really thinks.

Here’s what the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison management firm in America, had to say in its 10k about the risk to their profitability:

“A decrease in occupancy levels could cause a decrease in revenues and profitability.”

Well, duh.

Similarly, the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut), the second-largest American prison management firm, reports in their 10k:

“…most of our revenues are generated under facility management contracts which provide for per diem payments based upon daily occupancy.”

Right away, we see a problem. The costs of prison management are borne by you and me, the taxpayers. We want this done effectively at reasonable cost with minimal overhead expense, like a non-profit organization.

Private prison management has a different goal – to make money. They provide a service, and expect to make a profit over and above their costs. Here’s a clear misalignment between the wishes of the taxpayers and the wishes of private business.

Profits can come from cutting costs or increasing income. Private firms can be expected to attempt both.

Cutting costs too steeply has consequences. Here are some of the cost-cutting techniques that private firms have implemented at prisons:

Lower Pay

In 2008, private prisons in Texas paid their corrections officers $24,000/yr – that works out to $12/hr  – which was $2,000 less than the lowest salary earned by personnel doing the same work at public-run prisons. Result? A sky-high staff turnover rate of 90 percent. Imagine the chaos in your workplace if 90 percent of your co-workers left each year.

Weaker Security

The U.S. Department of Justice notes that public prisons average 5.6 inmates per officer, whereas private prisons average 7.1. A point and half difference might not seem like much at first glance, but remember some of the population we’re dealing with here has a history of violence and aggression. The lower ratio exists for a reason. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has observed, “the greater the inmate-to-staff ration, the higher the levels of serious violence among inmates.” If security becomes too lax, prisoners escape. It does happen.

Cherry-Picked Inmates

Some prisoners are more expensive than others. Some due to health care, some for behavioral management. Troublesome inmates tend to get transferred out to state facilities, so taxpayers pay twice – once for the inmate, and again to sustain the private firm’s profit margin.

The other strategy – increasing income – requires more inmates, creating a powerful incentive to generate high incarceration rates. That strategy is part of CCA’s proposal to buy and operate state prisons:

“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”

Now think about that. It creates a contractual obligation to keep the prisons as full as possible. How would that obligation be fulfilled?

CCA already has some ideas. They’ve hired several lobbying firms to support legislation that will – surprise! – likely result in more inmates.

The current focus is on immigrants. After 9/11, the industry saw opportunity in the new anti-immigrant sentiment and spent millions in support of legislation that would increase detentions. Since 2002, CCA alone has spent more than $17 million to lobby Congress.

The Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) saw the value of their contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expand from $33.6 million in 2005 to $163.8 million by the end of 2010.

In the most recent report available, “Prisoners in 2010”, the U.S. Department of Justice graphs the growth of federal and state inmate populations since 1990:

1990 was the first year that CCA contracted with the federal government to handle immigrant detainees.

Can you think of other areas for prison growth? Remember, the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and at this writing most prisons are still owned and operated by the public. What could happen to prison growth fueled by the profit motive and contractual obligations to keep prisons full?

Take that thought one step further. What if cheap labor became available in prisons? It’s already happening. The America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted, and the Department of Justice implemented the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).

The lion’s share of income from the program pays for inmate’s room and board. An obvious strategy looms — fill prison beds, get the inmates to work off a big chunk of their own costs, and pocket the difference.

Good business? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. A column by Liam Denning opens with the business perspective:

“Imagine a real-estate business where your tenant finds it hard to move and you provide the barest of amenities. No, this isn’t the world of the New York apartment landlord. It’s the private prison business.”

I’ll leave you with a final question.

If private prison firms succeed in replacing public prisons and expand beyond immigrants, where will they look for further growth?

Written by Influential Prose

August 2, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Why We Fight

[One of a series written for in 2012. Original article.]

“The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads.

“And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials …

The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America – except whether we are proud to be Americans.”

– Robert Kennedy, 1968

Money in politics is nothing new — corruption has always been part of governance. It accumulates like rust on steel and barnacles on boatsides. Without regular maintenance, the decay grows and overwhelms the structure it builds upon. We recognize the problem, we understand we must deal with it — especially when there comes a point where corruption crosses a line from gaming the system to being the embodiment of evil.

Case in point: The Red Light Cam Scam. Traffic cameras — specifically the timing of the yellow lights — have been manipulated to optimize the chances drivers will cross the stop line at red lights. Here we have a system of traffic lights, designed to protect the safety of all — ALL, mind you, including children — and it’s being shamelessly perverted to generate money. If that’s not evil, what is?

In Orlando, courts are administering disparate treatment to citizens who fight back against unfair red-light camera tickets and those who passively accept the status quo.

We see a similar pattern emerge in lobbies to defeat efforts to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthier food. While the First Lady is advocating change in how food is created and marketed to children, food industry representatives are working to thwart movement in that direction.

For example, Reuters reports that 24 states and five cities contemplated taxes on soda to discourage consumption. Every single proposal failed, save one in Washington State — a tax of two cents per can. One win in 29 tries. But even there, an industry consortium mounted a $16 million referendum drive that defeated the tax proposal. Zero for 29. All this in direct conflict with a clear good — the health of our children.

There were congressional consequences as well. Supporters of the food and beverage industry saw contributions from PACs increase. Senator Tom Harkin, who supported tougher food standards, got nothing at all from the food and beverage people. That’s how Washington works.

The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC — is now working with industry leader ExxonMobil on disclosure rules for the fluids used in gas extraction. Why should you care? Because the ‘fracking’ technique injects these fluids into areas that may also contain groundwater used as drinking water.

If gas extraction products might be contaminating your drinking water, wouldn’t you want to know about it? ExxonMobil wants to limit disclosure by invoking a trade secrets clause in relevant law. And as far back as 2005, at the behest of energy interests, Congress exempted the practice of fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Corporations have, by law, a fiduciary duty to maximize profits. Moreover, CEOs, shareholders, and management all have ample incentive to bolster their income. Everyone wants the best deal. But when business effectively substitutes dollars for votes in our representative government, when it actively subverts our health, safety, and natural resources in the pursuit of endless growth, it has embraced evil.

This is why we fight.

Written by Influential Prose

August 2, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Negotiated Limits

No matter what the limits are, there’s always someone trying to negotiate it.

This is one of the basic laws of managing a building full of teenage boys. This is why my boss is a hardass about limits. He knows – give an inch, take a mile, and away it goes. He’s the wall, the policy. And that’s a very useful role in an environment of constantly tested limits.

What we have now in the American financial sector is the equivalent of the cool kids having overrun the wall and now managing matters on their own. Glass-Stegal set limits. They were removed.

We’ve seen this twice now, through the Depression and the Great Recession. We can’t take another hit like that. It might be survivable, but it won’t be the same country when it’s over.

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate running now who isn’t subservient to the forces running rampant on Wall St. He understands that capitalism can work well, but requires close supervision. That’s what’s needed, sooner the better.

Time magazine recently featured Bernie on its cover, paired with a laudatory profile of the man, but it dismissed his chances of winning. Nice guy, can’t win, end of story.

Is there really a limit to Bernie’s appeal?

That is now being negotiated.

Written by Influential Prose

September 21, 2015 at 9:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

How to Pop a Parachute on Another Planet

The Martian atmosphere lies low and thin. There’s not enough of it to land softly by parachute alone. But when you come screaming in a little over 3.5 miles per second, it’s almost more like water than air.

The Mars Science Laboratory hit the atmosphere at 13,000 mph and slowed to 900 mph on atmospheric friction alone. Peak heating during this period is twice as hot as melted rock, or lava.

Then it popped a parachute. There’s enough atmosphere at the altitude of six miles – about the same height as a jet airliner over Earth – for a parachute to slow everything down a lot.

Here’s that parachute during indoor testing on Earth:


Even in a very thin atmosphere, popping a chute at 900 mph creates a lot of stress, about 9 Gs. How do you test for that? With a helicopter, a rocket sled and a lot of very strong cable. Watch to 4:00 to see the big picture:

The parachute worked. It was used less than two minutes. But that was long enough for the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter to capture a photo of the rover under parachute with the HiRise camera:


You can do more than see this parachute. You can ride it down. Twenty seconds after the parachute was deployed, the heat shield was dropped while the rover was 5 miles above the surface and falling a bit over 500 mph. That’s where the ride begins:


Images have been captured of the parachute in its final resting place.

It’s still blowing in the Martian winds.

Written by Influential Prose

July 3, 2015 at 4:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Physics for Curious Teenagers

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Physics is often an intimidating subject because it encompasses so much – it is the foundation for how everything else works. Our understanding is advanced and growing, but not yet complete. There are still holes, and this is where the excitement lies – exploring the unmapped territories, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing farther than any have seen before. The easy parts have been mapped, and the hard parts beckon. Teens with the academic capacity for this subject can benefit from strong parental encouragement and support. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs are proliferating, and physics provides a reliable foundation for these areas. Check your teen’s school to learn about local courses.

Particle Physics
The most fundamental questions have been asked for centuries. Where are we from? How did we get here? Physics is part of our pursuit for answers. By examining the most basic building blocks that everything is made of, we discern the properties of both matter and energy, and how matter is essentially a form of energy. Chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry, the basis for life, all originate in particle physics. It’s like the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” shows, but this is the detective work of reality – physics underlies a lot of criminal investigative work.

Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s powerhouse of particle physics, offers a solid list of books on physics for regular people, and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh offers a selection of engaging physics books for teens — such as the “Manga Guide to Physics” — that are accessible without being dumbed down.

Fundamental particles carry positive and negative electrical charges, and these charges regulate the interaction of matter. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, at the particle level electrical charge is so powerful that the absence of only one electron out of every billion molecules in two 70-kilogram (154-pound) persons standing two meters (two yards) apart would repel them with a 30,000-ton force. If you want to understand how that works, “Physics for Idiots” has good explanations, even if you’re not an idiot. Teens looking for the story behind the science can also enjoy “Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World,” an overview of the history and human drama behind electromagnetism’s discovery.

Physics of Motion
Energy and matter together becomes motion. Isaac Newton formulated the Three Laws of Motion on an English sheep farm in the mid-17th century and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. He worked out how the motion of the moon affects the oceans on Earth and creates tides. The same laws that govern the fall of an apple from a tree form the basis of our understanding of orbital mechanics – how the planets orbit the sun through the principles of inertia and mass. The online Physics Classroom presents these laws in a clear, accessible way for teens.

Physics of Relativity
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity picked up where Newton left off by showing that space itself is warped by gravity, and that even light is affected by it. This effect is so powerful it enables us to see galaxies hidden behind clusters of other galaxies because the galaxies in front create a lensing effect, warping the light around them. Relativity also gave us light’s speed limit – 186,000 miles per second. By this measure, the sun is 8 minutes distant, Saturn is 15 minutes away, and the Voyager 1 space probe at the edge of the solar system is over 17 hours out. Cornell University, the workplace of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, has a good overview of Einstein’s theory, and yes, there’s a “Manga Guide to Relativity” too.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:24 am