Category Archives: Politics

Only in America

Americans are entitled to a lot of things.  Scratch that.  Americans are entitled to a lot of important things.  I’m talking things that people in other countries across the globe only dream about–we get to pick our religions (or ignore them completely), we can diss the government to our students, look at lewd photos of our Congressmen online.  Heck, we can even cheat on our spouses without the threat of getting stoned to death.  Oh, and if we don’t want to admit we stole a television from that electronics store, no one can force us to.  Our Constitution grants us these liberties.

Perhaps if air travel was around when our Founding Fathers put that document together, they’d have granted us all the right to cheap airfare, as well, but guess what?  They didn’t.

I know it’s shocking to think that in a world where you can get a hamburger for $.89 in under three minutes that somehow airfares might still be unaffordable for some people.  Not even some people.  A lot of people.  But, folks, the reality is that sending a jet into the sky to soar thousands of miles above the population at speeds that make birds drop their beaks is not cheap.  It’s not cheap because it’s infinitely more complicated than slapping some beef onto a grill. 

Yes, yes, we’ve come a long way in transportation.  Most people can afford cars now, to the point that we look down our noses at those who choose to take the bus.  And, oh, yes, you can take a bus ride across your town for probably under $3.  Some wonderful (East Coast) cities even feature trains that connect their cities to other cities, and that is a relatively cheap way to travel, too.  Cars, buses and trains have nothing on the complexity of an airplane.  

Look, I’m in no way qualified to dive into exactly how difficult it is for a jet to take off with hundreds of people (and baggage) aboard and stay aloft long enough to get to a destination and then land again.  But, I’ve been working with people who are qualified to dive into this for the last year now and let me tell you: it’s bloody difficult. 

We’ve come a long way in air transportation, too–of course, you all know that traveling by plane is the safest way to travel.  There are lots of highly skilled people in place at airlines to ensure that this remains true, but their expertise is costly.  The expertise of a well-trained pilot is costly, too.  Airplanes are really costly, and so are all the parts they contain.

The bottom line is that flying from one city to another (mind you, in usually less than half the time it takes to get there by car) is operationally expensive.  And because of this, regardless of what people now expect, flying is still a luxury. 

It’s a luxury because, unlike most buses and trains, airlines are not in the business of public service.  They are not (well, for the most part) subsidized by the government.  Airlines are in the business of making money, though even sometimes they forget that themselves.  Airlines are for-profit businesses–just like those companies that churn out quick and cheap burgers–and when they don’t make money, they close (well, or get a little bailout…but that’s for another time).

People feel entitled to cheap airfare.  I think public transportation helped this mentality or perhaps it’s good ole American entitlement at work again.  But the fact is that airfare has no right to be as cheap as it often is today (anyone remember $2000 fares pre-deregulation back in the ’70s?), and so instead of demanding that businesses drop their fares lower and lower and lower, some people might just have to accept that they can’t afford to fly.  I know, it’s a tough reality to face, but it’s reality nonetheless.  Because, I reiterate, hopping on a plane is NOT as simple as hopping on a bus.  (Disagree?  Please let me know and I will work to arrange for your morning bus driver to pilot your next flight.)  Look, I want to fill my closet with Manolos, friends, but it’s not gonna happen anytime soon, because I can’t afford it.  And, painful as it might be to accept, I do accept it. 

However, airlines recognize that everybody feels entitled to fly!  They realize that trying to explain the complexities of their planes’ engines will fall on deaf ears and instead have focused their collective attention on finding ways to make travel more affordable for more people.   Hooray!  The fact is that they need people to be able to afford to fly…or they go out of business (or get subsidized). 

So, post 9/11, airlines came up with a really easy way to drive down fares.  Get ready, here comes the buzz word: unbundling.  A few airlines tried it with a few services at first, and then a couple of new airlines came along that built their entire businesses on unbundling and showed legacy carriers that they could unbundle even more than they originally thought.  (Shhhh, don’t tell anyone they’ve been doing this in Europe long before American airlines caught on!)

Unbundling is when you pay for just your base fare, and then choose to add other services–like checked bags, early boarding, seat assignments, snacks–to the cost of your ticket either when you purchase your travel or at the airport. 

The great thing about unbundling is that if you don’t need to check a bag or if you can’t afford that mini Vodka, you don’t have to pay for it.  Only the people who want those services pay for them, and your fare is lower because the airline is no longer trying to cover all of its costs in all of its fares. 

GASP, you say! But those are fees!  I’m getting nickel and dimed to death!  The airline is passing its cost on to me!  Yes, the airline is passing its cost on to you, because that is what businesses do.  Well, at the least the ones that want to stay in business do.  I repeat: air travel is not a public service.  The shirt on your back was not free because someone made that shirt and passed the production cost on to you (plus some mark up to, you know, pay its employees and maybe make a little profit at the end of the day). 

What airlines have done is innovated a way to make travel cheaper for you while being able to stay in business (or not need a bailout). 

Some airlines, *cough*Southwest*cough, still claim their services are free so unbundling products isn’t necessary, but you aren’t really that naive, right?  We all know the cost of those “free” bags is now loaded back into your fare (oh, you didn’t notice the uptick in average Southwest fares in the last several years?).

Admittedly, these add-ons are not terribly convenient.  No one wants to feel like they’re paying fees ad nauseam, but this is the cost of cheaper airfare for all.  You pay to check your bags so the guy without any doesn’t have to subsidize you.  He’ll then pay for his own sandwich since you brought one from home. 

And let’s face it, everyone complaining about unbundling would still complain if these fees disappeared and airfare went back up–people will always find something to complain about, especially if an airline is involved.  Especially if they feel like air travel shouldn’t cost more than taking the bus.

It’s OK for airlines to make money, too, you know.  I know that’s a hard one to swallow, but you wouldn’t just sit at your desk all day working for free, right?  Of course not, and you shouldn’t be expected to.  And neither should your pilot.     

Oh, I just remembered one other thing the Constitution guarantees: you can choose to drive between San Francisco and New York any time you’d like and never have to set one foot inside an airplane or give one penny to those blood-sucking airlines who could get you there in six hours instead of five days for less than you’d pay for gas.  Here in America, that’s your choice.

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Wikileaks: I want the real story

I understand why Julian Assange and Wikileaks have been leading the news for the last several weeks.  But in all of these news stories, I’ve seen one rather glaring omission:  where is all the coverage on why and how these leaks happened in the first place?

There would be no Wikileaks without the leaks, after all. 

Make no mistake, I do not condone the posting of this classified information; I’ve worked in many positions, including for the government, that required the utmost discretion in handling certain information.   Perhaps it is because of my experience that I am far more concerned with plugging the leaks on the government’s end than shutting down Assange. 

What is being done to stop the leaks?  Are government employees getting remedial training in the importance of keeping classified information classified?  Is this a failure of employment screening processes/investigations?  How can a source hemorrhage so much information before it knows it’s bleeding and take some action to stop it? 

I’m not saying the government isn’t on top of all of these things.  I’m not saying that these leaks are the results of gross institutional failures.  What I am saying, however, is where is all the reporting on it?

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On Harry Reid and Sharron Angle

I’m not particularly pleased with any of my options for Senate in Nevada, and two days before the election I’m still unsure of who is getting my vote.

I do know it will not be Harry Reid.  He’s forgotten completely about Nevada since rising to leadership in the Senate, and now is not a good time for our representatives to have their focus anywhere but home.

Sharron Angle, I believe, has exercised poor judgment during her campaign, and it makes me wonder if she’ll continue her string of bad decisions if elected.

My inclination is to vote for a third-party candidate, but I realize that’s more a vote for Reid than anything else, and so I remain torn.

One thing I have considered is that Angle will be able to do far less damage in her six-year team than Reid.  If re-elected, Reid will return to D.C. with all of his current clout, probably more, and continue right where he left everything.  Angle, on the other hand, will be a junior senator, with little power and thus be able to accomplish less–good or bad–than Reid in the next six years.  So, while I absolutely dislike her, I feel she is likely to spend her term mostly impotent…other than adding a vote to the Republican side which, I admit, doesn’t upset me.

On a side note, I wish the Harry Reid volunteers would compare notes–they’ve called here no less than a dozen times and each time I tell them that we won’t be voting for Reid.  You’d think they’d stop calling here to remind us to vote, given they know we’ll be casting our votes against their candidate!

 

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A Quick Note on Healthcare Reform

It goes without saying that the healthcare reform bill that was passed this week has been the subject of much controversy.  My intention is not to further that controversy here, but to point out something of which everyone should be accutely aware. 

There is one thing about which I have not heard much discourse: most people seem to agree that the insurance industry needs to be reigned in somehow.  There is plenty of discussion about how this should be done, but I haven’t talked to very many people who think the government should ignore the way these insurance companies are treating their customers.

So while Democrats cheer the passing of this bill, it needs to be pointed out that the biggest winner of this bill is not the American people, it’s the insurance industry.  The bill forces every single person in this country BY LAW to become customers of the insurance companies almost everybody seems to hate. 

Thank you, Congress and President Obama, for demonstrating just how deep this lobby is into your pockets by passing a bill that will generate millions of dollars in revenue for an industry that makes it a standard business practice to act unethically and immorally. 

While I may not agree with the philosophy, I understand why liberals have been so eager for healthcare reform to be passed.  However, in their haste, have they only created a bigger problem?  Is this really the bill they wanted?  How many of them realize what they’ve really supported here?

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Nuclear/Nucular

President Bush (43) got a lot of grief for routinely mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nucular,” yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about Jack Bauer making the same mistake. 

If President Bush could break people’s necks with his legs, would he have been excused from criticism, too? 

I guess, in thinking about it, that Jack Bauer kicks so much ass that even I–the word police that I am–am willing to forgive this.  Well, mostly.

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An Interview on Climate Change

The record-setting East Coast blizzards of the last several weeks have added fuel to the fire in the debate over global warming/climate change.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I love a great debate, but prefer to stay dispassionate–that is, I prefer to debate the facts and leave my personal opinion out of the discussion.  However, you can’t have a fair debate when the facts are being skewed or ignored.

Specifically, I’m referring to the politicians and pundits who have used the blizzards as an example of why global warming is a farce.  I’m not saying they’re wrong or right, but I am saying they are ignoring (purposely or not) scientific facts on climate change that deserve to be a part of the discussion.

So, I asked a scientist to provide some background on the debate and insight into why the blizzards might actually be another example of the global warming phenomenon without trying to influence your opinion one way or the other.  This scientist, Ben McGee, also happens to be my husband, so I’ve asked him to provide some of his qualifications so this whole thing doesn’t look too conflict-of-interest-y.

Ben, please tell the readers a little bit about your professional experience.  What makes you an authority on climate change? For starters, I should say that I’m a geologist and a planetary scientist by training.  The relationship there to climate change may not be immediately obvious, but did you know that the way that Earth naturally removes CO2 from the atmosphere is by the creation of limestone rocks?  It’s true–Geology is an often overlooked (at least popularly) component in the climate change system.  Because of this and my training, I’m inclined to see climate change as a planetary problem, involving geology, meteorology, solar physics, and anthropology, not just a problem with the atmosphere.  I spent a great portion of my time in college studying the way planets work (including their climate systems), and did side coursework in meteorology and environmental science.  That’s the schooling side.  As far as practical and professional experience goes, I studied glaciers in Alaska for a year (big climate change indicators), worked for a couple of years as an environmental scientist for the government and did work specifically relating Mars meteorology to Earth meteorology, and I’ve spent the last two years working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority on researching how the recent extensive drought in the southwest has affected rainfall and streamflow in Nevada so we can attempt to supply Las Vegas with the water it needs to survive.  All of the work I do now is directly related to climate change.  So, in short, you could say I’ve been trained to study how planets work, and I’m also deep in the trenches of practical climate change research right now.

How did the phrase “global warming” come about?  Isn’t “climate change” a more accurate term if cooling can be involved in the phenomenon? When scientists first identified the potential problem of the “greenhouse effect” related to our CO2 emissions, they coined the term “global warming.”  The idea there is quite simple: You release a heat-storing molecule into the atmosphere, like CO2, and everything will warm up like being in a greenhouse.  However, when our understanding became more sophisticated, we (scientists) realized that the process is much more complex and subtle than that–adding more heat to the climate system can trigger all sorts of effects, from shifting climate zones and increasing cloud cover to slowing ocean currents, which themselves might actually have a cooling effect in some places.  So, there was a push back in the ’90s to change “global warming” to “global change” or “climate change,” which is more accurate.  The problem was that the term “global warming” was just too catchy, and the “change” wording refused to catch on with the public and in the media.

How did this whole climate change controversy get started anyway?  What started raising scientists’ red flags? This is a subject of some debate, but in my view, it actually all started with the ozone hole in the Antarctic.  Back in the ’70s, we had been regularly releasing large quantities of CFC gas (a chlorine-containing chemical compound) into the atmosphere.  We were shocked to discover that these CFCs were actually chemically eroding away at our atmosphere’s protective ozone layer, and that this depletion was happening very quickly and migrating toward one of the planet’s poles.  (Namely, the southern one.)  This ozone hole, which was entirely caused by our pollution, was letting in gobs of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.  If we didn’t stop, the hole would continue to grow until it endangered human settlements.  That’s really when we realized that our activities could make an almost immediate and lasting effect on the planet’s atmosphere and climate system, and we started looking at other things we were doing.  Our practice of releasing CO2 gas was a natural next place to look, and at first glance it looked like things started warming up right after the Industrial Revolution revolution took off…

What about the claims that we’re in one of Earth’s natural warming cycles and that’s what’s causing the apparent warming trend versus anything man-made? They’re legitimate.  Or, I should say, the Earth has had regular warming cycles throughout its history (this is the geologist in me talking).  When dinosaurs were walking around, the Earth was a warmer place in general than it is now.  So, it’s true that this is not the warmest the Earth has ever been, and that’s what makes the research tricky.  There is good data to show that CO2 emissions are affecting the Earth’s atmosphere, and there is also data to show that the Earth might be in the process of a Sun-driven natural warming trend.  (The temperature of Mars has gone up slightly, and our CO2 emissions certainly aren’t affecting Mars.)  The responsible thing to do is call it like it is, which no one, not the politicians, the media, or the “talking heads,” ever seem to do:  We have tripled the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.  CO2 stores heat.  So, we would be idiots to presume this won’t manifest somehow in the climate system.  However, the Earth is a big girl and has developed strategies to deal with similar things in the past, like big volcanic eruptions, but those mechanisms take thousands of years to work.  That’s the most accurate metaphor for what we’re doing – humanity is a great CO2 volcano that is injecting all of this gas into the atmosphere.  But unlike regular volcanos, what we’re doing is without the sulfur and other particulate compounds that usually accompany an eruption, and we’re not erupting from one point – we’re erupting from everywhere at once.  We don’t really know how Earth responds to something like that.  However, to assume it will not respond at all is ridiculous.  So, I don’t ascribe to a doomsday view of climate change, yet…  The Earth has had plenty of volcanos go off in the past and the climate has bounced back.  The real question relates to the “bounce” itself – how bad is a bounce for such a strange CO2 volcano as modern humanity?  The rebound may happen in the blink of an eye geologically, but if the “bounce” takes us to a horrible place for a few hundred or a thousand years, then while the Earth itself may not really notice, that’s certainly something we want to head off before it happens.  We like our climate zones where they are.  A global reorganization of our agricultural systems is not something anyone wants to tackle.

Many politicians and pundits have been using the recent record-breaking blizzards on the East Coast as an example to support their claims that global warming isn’t real.  Isn’t it true that cooling trends are also consistent with the global warming phenomenon? Absolutely.  Anyone who says differently has no modern understanding of climate systems or climate change research.  No one has seriously believed that “global warming” means warmer everywhere for nearly thirty years, but the talking heads keep perpetuating this idea for apparently political reasons.  Let me give you an example of global warming = cooling: If you warm the air over the oceans, you increase evaporation, which leads to more water vapor in the air.  More water in the air leads to the formation of more clouds, which actually bounce sunlight back to space and cool everything down underneath (you’ve all felt this under a cloud on a sunny day), not to mention that more clouds can also mean more rainfall and snowfall.  If we play this scenario out a little farther still, increased rainfall over the oceans by this process can even dilute the saltiness of the water and slow down critical ocean currents that bring warm water from the tropics up toward the arctic.  Then we’d have new glaciers forming across Europe at the same time that deserts in the American southwest and Africa and Asia are expanding and getting even hotter because there is more energy in the atmosphere.  Droughts would continue to worsen.  So, these are just a couple of the complex interactions that adding more heat to the climate system can trigger.  The only thing anyone can responsibly say with certainty right now is that if we continue to supply more energy (via CO2) to the system, things will continue to change.  Not necessarily warmer everywhere, but things will get more different as time goes on.  Expect more records to be broken on all fronts in different areas;  Higher highs, lower lows, more snow, more rain, greater and longer droughts, more floods – these are all symptoms of the planet potentially reacting to and adjusting to our influence.

Anything else you want to include? To anyone truly interested in global warming and climate change:  Use your grains of salt frequently.  The planet’s climate system is highly complex and we don’t have a complete handle on it, yet.  So, anyone who says with certainty that this or that outcome will happen is speaking ahead of the science.  However, anyone who says that nothing will happen in response to our activity on Earth (like emitting CO2) – that we’re too small to have an impact on something as big as the Earth – is speaking well behind the science.   Reality is somewhere betwixt.

If you’d like to read more on science from Ben, you can do that here.

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