Monday, September 25, 2006

We Have Met Big Brother...

An old sci-fi movie favorite of mine is “Outland” starring Sean Connery made back in 1981. Connery plays the new marshall in a mining colony on Io, a moon of Jupiter. The Marshall isn’t there for even a week when he begins to knock heads with the CEO of the mining corporation which really controls every phase of life on this remote outpost.
At issue is the easy availability of an illegal recreational amphetamine the miners are taking to prolong their work hours which is leading to an unusual number of deadly incidents on the settlement. When the Corporation discovers this cop can’t be intimidated into doing its will they import a team of futuristic hit men to eliminate him. With only two allies, a deputy and the colony’s medical officer Connery manages to prevail.
Corporate control of a local town is something some Americans are familiar with although the rest of us don’t always notice it until the company closes shop and a community sinks into economic depression.
We spend a lot of time nowadays worrying about privacy issues and government controlling our lives. Libertarians would rather let the marketplace and its forces determine what is important and leave the rest of us alone. I generally agree with that philosophy. This morning though while reading the newspaper I had a sudden revelation:
We have met “Big Brother” and he turns out to be..Now before you think I’ve gone completely off my rocker consider this. The major news story for the past seven days around here in Western Pennsylvania has been that a hillside in Kilbuck Township has collapsed and a major traffic artery route 65 northwest out of Pittsburgh has been blocked in the aftermath.. not only that but also the parallel Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks. The road and the rail aren’t expected to reopen until October 7 at the earliest. What caused the collapse? The alleged culprit is site preparation fill for a new Wal-Mart.My mom said to me a few days ago. “Do you know where they are taking the ‘fill’ they are cleaning off the road in Kilbuck?”
“Probably back to the top of the hill,” I replied. "They still need it for their shopping property."
What else was in the news in the last few days(?)…let’s see:
“Wal-Mart is organizing its 1.8 million employees into a political action force.”
“Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. will begin selling all its generic drug prescriptions for $4.00 each,” first in the Florida area with plans to extend the program nationwide shortly thereafter. (This particular announcement caused a pharmaceutical stock I own to jump 31% in price on that day..why(?).. because it’s a relatively new company and none of its products has a generic equivalent.)
Today the major story on the front page of USA Today is about how “Wal-Mart is going green”. Wal-Mart haters are viewing this cynically as a political move to get the public to take their minds off the low pay and benefits Wal-Mart associates receive and the tens of thousands of small businesses that have closed when a nearby Wal-Mart opened and undercut their sales with discounted merchandise.
The real focus of the article, however, is about how Wal-Mart in recent years has adopted various energy saving measures which it claims are paying off in reduced costs when applied over its massive economies of scale.
The company also promotes and stocks conservation products that have yet to catch on with the general public.
Here is the part which makes me nervous. Wal-Mart is requiring its vendors to adopt and practice similar policies as a condition for doing continued business with the retail giant. Fish vendors are required in the next three years to provide only fish from fisheries certified as “sustainable” by the “Marine Stewardship Council”. Packaging of items must be made from corn based PLA, a biodegradable plastic.
All tree huggers are worried that the US hasn’t signed the Kyoto Treaty. It’ll happened when the Board of Directors in Bentonville, Arkansas decides it’s time.
Fred Krupp President of Environmental Defense is quoted as saying, “Wal-Mart has as much or more potential to change the way the world does business.
He’s probably right…

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pillow Talk...

While the world is filled with gossip about the supposed romance between Condoleeza Rice and Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay Washington insiders continue to claim that the Secretary of State’s real paramour is a 30 year old gym rattress who sat behind Condi during her Senate confirmation hearings for the top diplomatic job in the world (not that there’s anything wrong with that).Nonetheless, if the chief Canadian diplomat and America’s highest ranking gal really are sharing leisure time together do you suppose the subject of the unfortunate Mr. Maher Arar has come up?
Mr. Arar is a Canadian Muslim who has been the subject of a three year inquiry by the Canadian Authorities over his deportation to Syria by the US government which lead to him being beaten in Jordan and tortured in Syria in 2002/2003.
The mild mannered Canadian engineer had gone to visit his family in Tunisia in September of 2002. On his way back to Canada his plane had a stopover at JFK. American authorities acting on information provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that Arar was an Islamic extremist with suspected links to al-Qaeda took Maher into custody and held and interrogated him in a detention center for twelve days.
When the US interrogators didn’t learn what the wanted from him Arar was shackled and deported to Syria (where he had lived before emigrating to Canada at age 17) by way of Jordan. After being beaten in Jordan Maher was driven to Syria where he was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months finally being released by the Syrians after signing a false confession that he had been trained in Afghanistan. There is no evidence that he has ever been to Afghanistan.The most obvious question MacKay might ask Secretary Rice would be: Why wasn’t Arar sent on to Canada where he was a passport carrying citizen and for which he had paid passage when he was removed from the plane?
Ms. Rice might ask why the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Mr. Ahar was an Islamist extremist with links to al-Qaeda when all the information they really had was that he had been seen briefly in the company of someone they were “shadowing”?
Something to talk about…

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bye Bye Buccos...

KDKA Pittsburgh
On your dial at 1020

There’s always something happening
on 1020 just for you
It’s the right stop
It’s the bright spot
It’s the pioneer station of the World

KDKA Pittsburgh

It seems silly to me to get nostalgic about a radio station. I’ve listened to this 50,000 watt broadcasting giant consciously for over 50 years. Because it has no other powerful radio stations on its frequency between sunset and sunrise it can be heard all over the northern hemisphere after dark. Why during the summer evenings in Florida one could often hear …PIRATES!
Not any more after October. Yesterday the Pittsburgh Pirates announced they had awarded their broadcast rights to a local station (WPGB FM 1047) which has been owned by Clear Channel Communications for about two years.
Business is business. Forget that KDKA was the first to broadcast a major league baseball game in 1921. Or that they’ve done all the Pirate games for the last 51 years. Those of you who still listen in distant parts of this land can get all the games if you’ll subscribe to xm satellite radio for about $14 a month although you’ll only get the Pirate announcers for home games.
I only have one other reason to listen to KDKA anymore. That would be a semi “infomercial show” heard on Sunday mornings between 9:00 and 11:00 AM called “Your Money and You”. Hosted by Hefren-Tillotson’s financial guru Jim Meredith it’s the best two hours of radio available anywhere for those who want to learn how to plan for the future and invest wisely while doing it.

There’s always something happening..

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day Rant

It’s Labor Day and out of habit I got up early and read a newspaper.
For those of you who were wondering when I was going to post something again I thought I’d rant this morning about some thoughts that were provoked by reading that paper, one I don’t usually read (the Pittsburgh Tribune Review) unless Ohligarch links to it.


The Iraqi National Security Advisor Mouwafak al-Rubaie has announced that “the number two Al Qaida in charge in Iraq”, a terrorist known as “Hamid al-Saeedi” has been captured and arrested.
I suppose I wouldn’t be cynical about this if it weren’t for the DOZENS of times we’ve been informed that the “number two” Al Qaida guy has been killed or captured.
I guess one should surmise that the worse job in the World is to be the chief operating officer of Al Qaida unless your name is al-Zawahri who coincidentally released another one of his “professionally produced videos” this time featuring an American traitor Adam Gadahn (who like John Mark Karr couldn’t find fame as a rock star and thus embraced the dark side).
Of course we are constantly reminded that the number one Al Qaida and the number one Taliban are still at large.

Pluto Gets No Respect:

As you’ve probably heard already, at the big Prague astronomers’ conference mentioned in my last post those assembled reduced Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet” in a voice vote going against the recommendation of its own blue ribbon panel. One of the several cited reasons for the demotion was that Pluto (through its own gravitational pull) had failed to clear its own orbit of other celestial objects.
Now a group of American astronomers primarily based around the University of New Mexico (where Pluto was discovered) has seized upon this particular flaw to declare that by that definition the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune don’t qualify as planets either.

Unfortunately this group has failed to deal with the contention that Pluto (and its companion Charon) is just a big CHUNK of ICE something unobservable eighty some years ago.


Then there is the matter of SMART-1, something I’m not so sure means much.
Do you remember the scene near the end of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones where Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee) hightails it out of town after his duel with Yoda? He escapes in what appears to be his own personal craft which once in space suddenly transforms itself into a solar sailer which carries him to his meeting with Darth Sidius on a distant planet.
The technology involved in Smart-I is a primitive form of that craft. Energy is collected by solar panels and then converted by an ion engine into thrust which propels a 27 cubic foot object (with solar arrays attached) through space.
Summarizing SMART-I’s space trip by analogy: Three years ago you sent a box about the size of a washing machine on a journey from your home. It travels around the earth by solar power about 2000 times and returns to crash into your detached garage going 4,475 mph (approximately mach 6)... What a mess!We won’t be seeing the original Smart-I in a space museum anytime soon. Yesterday, the European Space Agency scientists (French) who created it allowed it to crash into the moon where it instantly became just another piece of man made junk after it had traveled on a 62 million mile odyssey . The moon is only 250,000 miles from Earth.
Still, they showed that a solar powered engine would work.

Speakeasy Speed Test