The title of this post is of course a riff on the infamous remark made by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he praised his appointed leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the inept Michael Brown. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, the current president latched onto the unusually low death toll number of 16 as evidence the destruction was not all that bad and didn’t require the full measure of emergency response from the federal government. This week, a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine puts the death toll at a much higher number, possibly near 5,000, making Hurricane Maria the second deadliest hurricane to strike the United States or its territories after the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900 killed over 6,000.
A 1948 advertisement for paper towels in The Ladies’ Home Journal.
How did the number of fatalities related to Hurricane Maria climb from 16 to 5,000? A good part of those who died were victims of the dysfunctional infrastructure on the island after the storm, and they succumbed over weeks and months due to lack of power for medical equipment, poor emergency response due to destroyed roads, overstretched hospital facilities, and lack of wholesome food and clean water. Many of the dead were not accounted for in the first days after the disaster, and government officials were either negligent or overly optimistic in placing their faith in the early number of a mere 16 dead after such a major disaster. Some in government, like Supreme Leader no doubt, used the low number to justify their lackadaisical and incompetent response to the crisis.
Americans have short memories, and government leaders count on that trait in the near term after any crisis in which they might be held accountable. Put a rosy spin on things, no matter how unrealistic, and more often than not after some argument from the press the commotion will die down and eventually be almost entirely forgotten by the public. That’s how the Big Lie works. In the current American political climate, one third of the people will believe whatever lie Supreme Liar pops off, like paper towel rolls he tosses to his adoring fans, no matter how ugly and detached from reality those lies are, because they reinforce their own self-serving beliefs; another third of the people don’t care much one way or the other as long as it’s not their power that’s shut off; and the last third of the public sputters and fumes about the situation, but finds it can be an uphill struggle on a slippery slope to keep the lies in front of anyone who will listen, be outraged, and help refute them. The lies from this presidential administration keep piling up, a malodorous mountain of them, swarming with flies. It will take more than some paper towels to clean it up.
Two bits! There, that feels better now, doesn’t it? A sense of completion and the comfort of familiarity. The phrase “two bits” indicates twenty-five cents specifically, and can also mean something cheap generally. The digital currency bitcoin apparently derives its name from the old fashioned uses of “bit” to indicate parts of a dollar or other currency. At the current exchange rate of around 15,000 dollars to one bitcoin, however, a bitcoin itself represents anything but parts of a dollar. Quite the opposite.
From the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the irresistibility of finishing off “Shave and a haircut, — —-“.
The record high valuation of bitcoin may not stand for long, and in six months one bitcoin may be worth 30,000 dollars or it may be worth 150 dollars. No one knows for sure, and that’s what is fueling a lot of argument and speculation. High amounts of speculation in the market are what inflates a bubble, and the question with bitcoin is whether it is indeed a bubble and when it might burst. That generates more speculation. More small investors buy into the market. Historically what has happened in such cases is that something happens, a large investor or two gets spooked, dumping shares on the market, a selling panic ensues as everyone tries to get out of the market while the watch the value of their investment plummet, and that’s it, the bubble burst.
Bitcoin or something like it will be around for as long as there is an internet and a demand for a monetary barter system which is decentralized and doesn’t involve significant charges going to middlemen such as banks or credit card companies. As more people use digital currency and more merchants accept it in transactions, the volatility of its valuation will settle down. Tulips are still around, after all, and people still value them, just not to the unrealistically high degree they did when the bulbs were novel. The long term problem with digital currencies generally, and bitcoin in particular, will be in decreasing the horrendous energy demands of mining them and, to a lesser extent, processing transactions. The electricity demands of mining bitcoin are now equivalent to those of Serbia, and will soon be on a par with Denmark’s electricity use.
Much of the mining occurs in China, using electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. At a time when combating the effects of global warming is becoming a top priority, the mining of bitcoin could present an ecological catastrophe when it reaches the same level of energy consumption as that of the entire industrialized world, as it is predicted to do in the early 2020s. The digital currency genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no stuffing it back in. That leaves two options, or a combination of both – finding more energy efficient ways of mining digital currency, or using more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar.
The solar energy option is immediately attractive because it would help defray installation costs of solar arrays more quickly and because poorer countries, which are generally nearer the equator and hence in sunnier climes, could see income from a source that is neither environmentally nor socially destructive the way production of sugar or other cash crops has been for them. Puerto Rico, the United States territory that recently had its conventional power grid devastated by Hurricane Maria, could benefit by rebuilding with the intention of using solar energy at least partially for the profitable production of digital currency. Surplus energy from the arrays built with money from bitcoin mining would power homes and businesses at subsidized rates for people who could not afford it otherwise in very poor parts of the world. Smaller, locally owned solar arrays would be a better way to produce power because of the inefficiency of transmitting solar power long distances either in the form of direct current, or after inverting it into alternative current. Decentralization of the means of production would also serve to keep power and money in the hands of locals.
Bitcoins accepted at a café in Delft, The Netherlands, in 2013. The Netherlands became a center of the tulip trade in the seventeenth century during “The Tulipomania”, and remains a primary grower of the bulbs to this day. Delft lent its name to a particular kind of pottery and the shade of blue it is renowned for, which has also been applied to some flowers bearing the same shade of blue. Photo by Targaryen.
Should you invest in bitcoin? That depends on your outlook. In the currently volatile market, investing in bitcoin should be treated like gambling. In other words, don’t invest any more of your government backed (in the United States the currency is actually backed by the Federal Reserve System, a private institution of the banking industry, though it is insured by the federal government) currency than you can afford to lose. For some people that can be quite a lot, but for most people that would amount to very little.
Should you get involved in bitcoin mining and processing of transactions? At the current valuation of bitcoin, that could be quite profitable. Tomorrow its valuation could drop below the cost of the electricity required to mine it. At any rate, the “mining” simile is somewhat inaccurate, since in a comparison of the digital currency market to real world mining, the people with computer equipment engaged in its production and in the processing of transactions are actually more like the merchants in a nineteenth century American mining town who sold goods to the miners who were hoping to strike it rich.
The opening scene of Powaqqatsi depicts working conditions at the socially and environmentally disastrous Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. This 1988 film by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass, is the second in his Qatsi trilogy of meditative documentaries.
A very few of those miners struck gold, and most went bust, while the merchants usually did consistently well, a few becoming household names still known today, like Levi Strauss. If you do get involved in bitcoin “mining”, it might help to connect the equipment to a solar array rather than the conventional power grid, because then when the bubble bursts and the valuation of bitcoin drops to the floor, you can possibly still operate at a profit when others cannot, or at the very least you will have an inexpensive, environmentally friendly source of power for your other ventures.
The crudity and vindictiveness of Supreme Leader’s response to criticisms of his lackadaisical leadership in disaster recovery efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has been startling even for him, a crude and vindictive man. Certainly racism and sexism play a part, as they do in much of his behavior, but in this case there is the disquieting sense there is something more at work, and as is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow, a 1905 painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) used as an illustration in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main.
Supreme Leader dropped the clue himself when he referred to Puerto Rico’s high debt load, adding that the Puerto Ricans must nonetheless continue to repay their debts despite their currently dire situation. What an odd thing to mention in discussion of relief efforts for a population struggling for survival! Did he mean those words to be taken to heart by the Puerto Ricans, who now have more pressing worries? No, not as much as he meant his words to reassure the holders of Puerto Rico’s over 70 billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes on Wall Street.
At the 18th hole of the AT&T National Pro-Am Tournament in 2006, Supreme Leader (not his title then) leans on his golf club. The pirates have exchanged their muskets for golf clubs. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
Puerto Rico has no representatives in Congress and no votes in the Electoral College. It is a territory, and while its people are citizens of the United States, they have no say in federal matters relating to their island. On June 11, 2017, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, but the decision to make Puerto Rico a state still resides with Congress. Most Puerto Ricans identify as Democrats, and since both house of Congress currently are controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will see a change in its political status anytime soon. The island’s people are effectively second-class citizens; to become first-class citizens, they must either make their island one of the United States, or entirely independent.
Mainland political interests are against Puerto Rico statehood, and there are also economic interests against it, such as large corporations and Wall Street banks that seek to continue plundering the island, an activity made easier by Puerto Rico existing politically between the devil and the deep blue sea. Who cares if the Puerto Ricans are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which have piled on to an economic recession which started for them over ten years ago and has continued to worsen? Certainly not sociopaths like Supreme Leader and his economic advisors Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, both formerly of Wall Street.
The damage caused by Supreme Leader, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, and other members of our ruling class is far more deplorable than what Monty Python depicted in this TV sketch, but still it helps to ridicule them.
It’s not as if Puerto Rico has 38 electoral votes like Texas, where Hurricane Harvey landed, or 29 like Florida, where Hurricane Irma continued its devastation after leaving the Caribbean islands, or even 3 votes like the District of Columbia, with its population otherwise shut out of federal representation but for those 3 measly electoral college votes. Puerto Ricans have zero votes. Not one vote in the electoral college, in the House of Representatives, or in the Senate. No one speaks for them. Thanks to its colonial relationship to the United States, however, there is money to be pillaged from its poor and working class people, and what’s left of its dwindling middle class. That’s why Supreme Leader acted the way he did, and tweeted what he tweeted, because he was looking out for himself and his cronies, and that’s his real constituency. Why would he care one way or the other about the Puerto Ricans?
Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt. [Thunder.] Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.
After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida earlier this month, some stories surfaced about Florida homeowners with solar panels being unable to use their power in the power grid outages that followed. Like many stories, there was some truth to them, but not the entire truth. Due to intensive lobbying from utility companies, Florida has enacted more obstacles to solar energy than most states, despite the fact that its weather and latitude make it better suited than most to take advantage of solar power. Homeowners with grid-tied solar panel arrays without batteries or transfer switches were legally barred from using their solar power while the grid in their area was off line.
That in itself is not unusual compared to arrangements in other states, and should not have been the source of stories making it sound as if Big Brother was interfering in individual initiative. The problem was the stories focused on that part while at the same time ignoring the real story of how Florida legislators have systematically made business difficult for the solar power industry. It is usual practice to ensure grid-tied systems have safety measures in place such as transfer switches to prevent power from back-feeding on the grid lines and endangering utility workers as they try to restore electrical service. In Florida, however, it appears legislation has been enacted at the behest of the major utilities to go beyond this to ensure that grid-tied solar power systems could not be legally used at any time during a general power outage.
The MGM Tower in Century City, Los Angeles, with solar array atop the adjoining parking garage. Photo by SolarWriter.
So there you are sitting in the dark after Hurricane Irma came through, just like all your neighbors, despite the array of solar panels on your roof. If you had disassociated your solar array from the grid entirely, you might have had better luck, though that would depend on local building codes or homeowners’ association rules. But since you tied into the grid with your solar array out of economic necessity and convenience, you may find out belatedly you signed a bargain with the devil. It’s like that natural gas powered fireplace which turns out to be useless when severe winter weather has cut off all services. Lighting candles won’t do enough to keep you warm.
The invidious corruption of the Florida utility laws, pervaded as they are by money from the Koch Brothers and entrenched fossil fuel interests, has had the unusual effect of forging an unlikely coalition of Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists, known as the “Green Tea” movement. The Tea Partiers are motivated by their distaste for government telling them how they can power their own homes, and tilting the playing field against them should they decide to sell surplus power on the open market, all because of the undue influence of utilities on the government. Environmentalists decry the same government corruption, but see it as unfairly limiting options for homeowners to leave a greener footprint, besides getting in the way of individual exercise of freedom.
The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates, had many great moments, and this match cut from flame to sun is one of the most renowned.
Florida is an excellent test case for how we will cope with a warming climate, much as some people don’t want to look at it that way. Florida is hot and humid. Before the invention and widespread use of air conditioning in the twentieth century, Florida was lightly settled precisely because of its challenging climate. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Florida’s population has boomed. Florida’s energy use is 40% higher than the national average, largely because of the extensive use of air conditioning. Look at Puerto Rico now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That could be Florida in a worst case scenario, which the state dodged as Hurricane Irma played out, as opposed to how an earlier forecast showed it might work out. Considering all that, it seems making solar power easier for all homeowners to implement rather than more difficult is the sensible option, no matter the arrangement of strange bedfellows.