Friday, October 26, 2007

Footprint in Randomness

Nonny Mouse has recently ventured into the world of blogging and discovered the joy of having her very own internet troll. Having written a well thought out entry on the NASCAR immunization furore, she was soundly attacked by a member of what I like to call the Holier Than Thou EnviroNazis. I commented then, and now I think I will address the issue of carbon footprints here.

Everyone -- yes, everyone -- leaves a carbon footprint.

Some try to clear their consciences by purchasing offsets. This is hardly the solution that some seem to think it is. Buying offsets only means that the amount of CO2 remains the same, it rarely means that the commonly called greenhouse gases are decreased by any sizable amount.

Others get on the "Man Powered Transportation" kick and then on everyone else's nerves as they spout off on how much better their lifestyle is for the environment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those folks who deny that there is the possibility of global warming; I'm just not interested in having someone else's lifestyle forced on me.

In one of my courses, I pose the following question: Is it better to have a good decision imposed on you or to have the freedom to choose the wrong one? Almost universally the students choose the freedom to make the wrong decision. I may be only guessing, but my feeling is that most folks -- whether in college or no -- would pick the same option. I choose to drive a car, which I bought second-hand. I also choose to recycle. I've chosen my lifestyle and I'm comfortable with the amount of carbon dioxide that that lifestyle produces.

Which is very little.

I know this because I've used the Friends of the Forest Foundation website for calculating the amount. According to the site, I produce 3.62 metric tonnes per year. That's a little over 1/3 of the amount produced by the average American.

The truth of the matter is that even the best of calculators do not factor in all of the impact caused by human activity. Let's take a look at that average "My bike is better than your car" cyclist.

First, the bike frame. The traditional kind is made out of metal that had to be mined, transported, smelted and forged, then transported again. Last time I checked, those activities caused CO2. Then there are the paint, the rubber for the tires, the petroleum byproducts of helmets and biker shorts -- which, if you ask me, can be far more offensive than any carbon belching sedan -- and the various other components; the production of which causes the release of gases.

I've been accused, when presenting the above ideas, of making a "specious" argument because I own a car that is made of more of those same components. I am not arguing that my choice of transportation is better than that of the cyclist, rather that all human activity impacts the environment.

Let us then take up the issue of the ground on which the cyclist rides. The push lately has been to create special bike trails so that cyclists and cars need not share the road. To build these trails, miles upon miles of concrete must be laid. Each mile takes up a goodly amount of cement to make up that concrete. Just one tonne of cement generates about 900 kilograms of CO2. That makes the cement industry worse polluters than the airline industry, as airlines as whole produce half as much in a given year. In other words, my flight to Japan last year put out less in the way of greenhouse gases than the cement used to build -- and let's not forget repair -- the bike trail Mr EnviroNazi uses to get to his office.

I don't have a problem with cyclists and their bikes and trails; I do have a problem with the "I'm Better Than You" attitude that a few of them project. The EnviroNazis of the world like to say that I would change if only I knew what harm I was doing to the world my grandkids will inherit. I know. The choices I make are informed choices; I am aware of the impact of living my life has on the environment. If I have one more person attempt to tell me what a horrible person I am because I drive a car that uses regular petrol, they will feel the impact of my footprint.

Exhaling causes the release of carbon dioxide into the air. If one is so concerned with the release of such gases, one need only to stop breathing out.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mercenarily Random

Machiavelli is God, The Prince and The Discourses are the Old and New Testaments.

Heed the Word of Machiavelli:

"Mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and any ruler who keeps his state dependent upon mercenaries will never have real peace or security. ... Experience shows that only princes and republics with troops of their own have accomplished great things, while mercenary forces have brought nothing but harm." (The Prince, Chapter XII)

The use of mercenaries can only harm a country, never really serving its interests. This is the real reason why Blackwater U.S.A. should never have been used in Iraq by the United States government. While I do have concerns about the company's owner, Erik Prince, because of his tight connections with ultra-religious conservative groups, I have no real complaints about the existence of such a company. My problem is with the U.S. government using, often without a competitive bidding process, these mercenaries, for I have read the Word of Machiavelli.

At the beginning of this month, the Washington Post wrote on the "steep price" that the U.S. is paying for having Blackwater U.S.A. provide "security" in Iraq. Let us follow just one money trail. The primary contractor to the Department of Defense is Halliburton. The subsidiary of Halliburton in charge of the contracts in Iraq is KBR. KBR, in turn, subcontracted ESS Support Services Worldwide to provide catering and support to troops in Iraq. ESS parted out some of that contract to Regency Hotel and Hospital of Kuwait, who contracted Blackwater for a 34-man team to provide security for ESS personnel as they travel through Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. Blackwater charged Regency an average of $876 per day per person on that security team. Regency, because it too needs to make a buck, charged ESS an average of $1,100 per day per person. Because ESS charged KBR on the basis of per meal, it is not easy to know how much KBR was charged per day per person, but it would not be unreasonable to say that it was more than $1,100. Telling is how much the average mercenary on the ground got: $800 per day.

Hardly cheap, given that the average unmarried non-com gets one-tenth of that each day. General Patraeus, the commander of the forces in Iraq, gets just over half of that rate.

Some would argue that these mercenaries are not really mercenaries because they are Americans who are fighting America's cause as civilians. I'd buy that if it weren't for the fact that, in true mercenary form, Blackwater has sent a great deal of personnel hired from Chile, the Phillippines, Bosnia, to name but a few states outside of the 50 belonging to the United States. The worst part of this is that many of those from Chile were commandos trained by Pinochet's corporatist regime.

It should also be pointed out that Blackwater is not the only security firm on the ground in Iraq. There are two other contractors, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, but Blackwater is the one with the most private security "soldiers" there. As a group, it has been involved in more than 200 shootings in the past one and a half years. Most of those shootings were from moving vehicles, and Blackwater has the reputation of shooting first and not bothering to stop and ask questions second. That is hardly serving American interests.

Especially given the lack of communication and coordination between the private contractors and the military. Case in point, in March of 2004, four Blackwater contractors were ambushed, burnt and hung from a bridge in Fallujah; the commanding military officer in the region had no idea that the contractors and the convoy they were protecting would be in the area, but had to put aside his own plans and strategies in order to invade the city in pursuit of the insurgents who had executed the attack. This lack of coordination is made worse by the fact that for every 10 military serviceperson on the ground, there is one contractor. In Dessert Storm, that ratio was 50 to 1. This means that for every 10 of our guys trying to put an end to violence and insurgency, there is one guy -- with the probability of not being American -- shooting at the same people our guys are working with in order to get the job done.

It is a sad state of affairs when America begins to outsource its military. It's an even sadder state of affairs when Americans think it's a good idea. It's truly scary when some are saying that the government should be giving Blackwater bonuses, that the unprovoked shootings by those contractors are perfectly okay; after all, "Who says we have to fight fair?". Machiavelli points out that "men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future" (The Prince, Chapter XIII). Not fighting fair will hardly allow for the peaceable establishment of a secure Iraq, which presumably is in American interests. As the Blackwater employees enjoy immunity from prosecution for their actions in Iraq, the well of future peace in the Middle East is indeed being poisoned by imprudent men.

When America starts to depend on mercenaries abroad, it is only a short while before it depends on them domestically. With so many of the National Guards serving in Iraq, the usual duties of those soldiers -- disaster relief, prevention of civil unrest -- are being contracted out. In the wake of the Katrina disaster, a $73 million contract from FEMA was given to Blackwater for their 600 employees' help in the recovery operation. Blackwater's logic is simple enough: the war in Iraq will not last forever, even if it seems like it will, and so they must branch out into domestic service. The problem here continues to be a lack of accountability; under whose authority would the group fall, should their "shoot first, don't ask questions later" attitude make a reappearance in a domestic situation, is a question neither FEMA nor Blackwater seems willing to discuss.

It should be remembered, "anyone searching for the first cause of the ruin of the Roman Empire will find it began with the hiring of mercenaries" (The Prince, Chapter XIII).

Thus ends the lesson for the day. Go with Machiavelli my children.

Quotations: Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Daniel Donno. The Prince. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Serving Randomness

La Professora is the daughter of a sailor who served his country well in the late '40s and early '50s. Equally, I have proudly taught a number of students in uniform. It was with no little aggrievement that I felt when reading the news today that 1,162 of the 2,600 Minnesota National Guard -- the longest serving ground combat unit in Iraq -- will be denied full education benefits because their posting was one day short of the necessary 730 days. Twenty-two months these soldiers have been serving their country, and someone screwed with their orders to save money.

Representative John Kline, of Minnesota, has introduced a bill to get those soldiers' their benefits. There's a good reason for the effort: the difference between partial and full education benefits is significant. Full benefits pay $800 per month, while partial benefits provide only $282. Because these soldiers served one day less than the full 730 days needed, they lose out on $518 per month. Being that a semester is about 3 months long, that works out to $1554 lost per semester.

These soldiers put their life on hold and then put it in jeopardy, yet the Pentagon cannot see clear to give them the education benefits they so rightly deserve. There is a pattern here, if only you were to look. On the health side, there were the scandal involving Walter Reed hospital, and the reports of veterans being poorly treated by the VA. Representative John Murtha, once a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and a 37-year veteran of the Marine Corps, changed his position after meeting with injured veterans of the current conflict. There is plenty of money for the ongoing combat operations, but seems that there's little in the way of funding for care for the current 185,000 injured soldiers -- a number that is estimated to rise to 700,000. The battlefield has gone techno and so more are surviving, but only by leaving a physical part of themselves behind.

Not many remember that when combat operations started in 2003, President Bush threatened to veto any spending bill that would have made permanent a raise in combat pay. Seems that the government couldn't afford an extra $75 a month for people who were putting themselves at risk. Sorry, your mortal danger is only worth $150 per month in hazardous combat pay, not the $225 we thought we could afford. Oh, and if you die, your family should only get $6,000. Thankfully, the veto threat was very short lived and soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq get $225 per month in extra pay for putting their lives on the line, and should they die, the families will get $12,000 each to help cover some of their immediate needs.

There are some who say that the war in Iraq has kept the all volunteer military from recruiting enough soldiers. That is only partially the truth. The reality is that the pay is awful: tens of thousands of soldiers and their families are on food stamps. The average soldier in the U.S. gets roughly half of what a British soldier in the same pay grade would get. Sometimes the education benefit is the only real reason why some sign up -- they see it as a opportunity to serve their country and get funding for college.

When soldiers came back from Viet Nam, they were spit upon by U.S. citizens who saw them as the embodiment of the hated war itself. In the 30 years since then, the nation has learned to treat the war-battered soldier better than that. There are a number of cars with stickers saying "Support the Troops, Bring Them Home." As a nation, we now know that soldiers should be treated with respect and honored for their sacrifices. We know that it is only fair that, having served honorably for so long, those soldiers should have their rightful education benefits.

Too bad the current administration is too busy spitting on them.
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