Small Things

This morning’s air was full of the barely visible.  Clouds of infinitesimal gnats hovered above the lawn.  Puzzling threads of rainbow drifted past, shimmering in the early sun.  At last I saw the tiny spiders hanging at the end of each one.

The Vision Thing

This is my response to a post on New Geography to “Take the funding decisions out of the hands of elected officials and policy makers, and place it unfettered in the hands of a blue-ribbon panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines.”

The transcontinental railroad did not come from a presidential vision or from a contest for the best idea to unite the nation. Neither did public high schools, which developed over generations. No-one said “If we send returning veterans to college, it will create the largest middle-class in history.” The interstate highways came from Eisenhower’s vision, true, but it was a vision for better military supply lines, not a vision of California lettuce in New York.  Who knows what Kennedy’s vision really was for the moon program?  It was a response to the imminent Soviet domination of space.  It gave us Tang, but the computer revolution was well under way, fueled by business as well as military needs, long before the space program.

Kennedy is not remembered for envisioning specific innovations – he is remembered for saying “Ask not…”  Even FDR’s New Deal was not a specific vision for the future; the various programs built or repaired infrastructure, physical, regulatory, and social, that eventually enabled individuals and businesses to build and innovate.

The end of the sentence “Take the funding decisions out of the hands of elected officials and policy makers, and place it unfettered in the hands of a blue-ribbon panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines” should instead be “in the hands of the people.”  The current stimulus efforts put funding, for the most part, in the hands of state and local governments, who are responsive to local needs, to a wide variety of  “bureaucrats,” many of whom  are experts, and individuals.  Little by little, and sometimes with blinding speed, individuals will build the future, meeting the needs that they see with innovations.  The Internet was built on an infrastructure funded by the Federal government, for military purposes.  Individuals all over the world took the initiative in a thousand different ways to use the new facility and add value to it, to meet the needs they saw.  No blue-ribbon panel nor president laid out a detailed vision of on-line discussions, electronic commerce and banking, e-books, e-music, e-video.  And no blue-ribbon panel of experts said “If we put cell-phones in the hands of African farmers, they will be able to find out prices in the market.”

Obama’s role, every president’s role, is to remind us of this, encourage us, remove barriers and provide infrastructure.  It is to give us the materials, not the blueprint.

Mountaintop Removal – A Major Step Forward

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued letters to the Army Corps of Engineers recommending denial of permits for two mountaintop removal mines in Pike County, Kentucky and Logan County, West Virginia and calling for further mitigation plans and environmental review.  The letter for the West Virginia application emphasizes that the EPA has “the authority to prohibit the issuance of a permit to fill waters of the United States if it is determined that such a discharge will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.”  The Kentucky letter calls for permanent conservation easements or deed restrictions “to cover all waterways in avoided valleys within the permit boundaries as well as all restoration stream reaches to prevent future impacts from coal mining.”

The EPA will be reviewing more mining permit requests.

See the press release and the letters for more information:

Logan County, West Virginia

Pike County, Kentucky


Today was cool, but bright and sunny.  The yard was full of juncos, the first we’ve seen. In my childhood they were winter birds at the feeder with the titmice and chickadees.  The first daffodils are blooming, down over the hill in the far corner of the yard.  I think I spotted the groundhog, and a doe was grazing.  All were a nice break from patching the plaster (finally – I had been procrastinating)  in the soon-to-be library.

Almost Heaven (6)

While discussing public records and identity theft with a friend, I discovered that West Virginia has one of the lowest identity theft rates in the country.  In 2006, the top five states were:

Total Victims
1 Arizona 1427.8 9,113
2 Nevada 120.0 2,994
3 California 113.5 41,396
4 Texas 110.6 26,006
5 Florida 98.3 17,780

The bottom five were:

46 West Virginia 30.3 715
47 Iowa 34.9 1,041
48 South Dakota 30.2 236
49 North Dakota 29.7 189
50 Vermont 28.5 178

Mountaintop Removal

The New York Times today has an editorial calling on President Obama to suspend mountaintop removal until the regulations are revised to end it.

It points out that the coal companies (and Senator Bobby Byrd) insist that “there is no other cost-effective way to dispose of the waste.”

That depends on your definition of “cost-effective.”  I am sure it would be more cost-effective for me to dump my garbage into my neighbor’s back yard rather than pay for trash collection.  My neighbor might not think so.

Only about a third of the value of coal produced in West Virginia is from surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines.  Stopping mountaintop removal is a good first step, but there are many other environmental costs being paid by the rest of us, to the profit of the coal and power companies.

Underground mines produce toxic waste; all mines produce toxic waste-water from washing the coal; and the solid waste from burning coal for electricity is the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal garbage.  And then there is the CO2, which is the focus of “clean coal” initiatives.

Coal produces half of the country’s electricity, but other alternatives would be more “cost-effective” if the true costs were all included in the cost of coal and electricity.  Increasing efficiency could cut our electricity use by more than a quarter. A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute showed that there is a huge gap between the most and least efficient states in their use of electricity.  If all states were as efficient as the top states, we would save 30% of all electricity (which would be equivalent to 62% of coal-fired electricity).  Natural gas produces half the CO2 per BTU, little toxic waste, far less destruction of the surface, is already in use for electricity generation, and could bridge the gap until we can bring more renewable energy on-line.  In both cases, the ability is there and being done in some places.  We are not already doing this because coal is cheaper, mainly because the coal industry is not paying its garbage bill.

Almost Heaven (4)

Housing costs in West Virginia are among the lowest in the country.  Since at least 1980, a higher proportion of people in West Virginia have owned their own homes than in any other state.  Three-quarters of West Virginia families own their home, compared to only two-thirds nationwide.