Natural Disasters Are Becoming Man-made Disasters

               With an alarming rate, natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes are occurring with more frequency and severity. There will always be natural disasters, it is part of being on a planet which is always evolving and changing. Earthquakes will always occur and may increase volcanic activity, which in turn creates another disaster. It is only with the spread of human civilization to almost every nook and cranny of Earth have natural disasters become a catastrophe which garners media attention and elicits a human response to help others in need. I’m sorry dinosaurs, but I’ve seen enough Jurassic Park movies where I’m thankful the asteroid helped eliminate you from the planet.

               How can we help reduce the severity of natural disasters? It is a simple question to answer, with an easy solution, but the implementation of said solution would be very difficult to carry out. There have always been natural disasters, very few which had global consequences or impacted hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of people at one time. That is until the spread of humanity to all the habitable continents of the globe. By spreading our wings, we have made certain almost every severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado, torrential rainfall from a series of storms or a hurricane with storm surges, can cause havoc and extreme destruction of our cities and infrastructure.

               I live in Nebraska, born and raised. And currently we are going through flooding which is slowly receding, which has caused at least a billion dollars in damage and lost revenue – though it is too early to know full extent of the damage and financial impact. Current estimates put just the agriculture damage at a billion dollars, including dead livestock, crop storage wiped out, and the possibility of not being able to plant crops for current season. Today’s disasters effect everybody, when California was facing severe drought, it strained the system because a large majority of America’s fruit and nut crops are grown in the Golden State.

               The impact of natural disasters will only grow as more people call Earth home, and our cities and towns expand horizontally. Climate change is the biggest disaster, one which is slowly unfolding. The biggest impact from climate change will be the rising of sea levels, which threaten every coastal city and billions of people. A temporary solution to battling the effects of sea rise caused by melting ice caps is to create massive sea walls to protect our cities and other areas. This is a massive feat and one which is unprecedented on a national scale, let alone a global scale. The other solution is to abandon or relocate cities which will be impacted by rising sea levels.

               I’ve written a lot about creating a new set of cities, a cluster of buildings called Sky Cities together, capable of housing a minimum of 40,000 people, schools, hospitals, businesses, and residents. These cities within cities will help locate humanity into a much smaller presence on Earth (and maybe other planets we eventually inhabit). The idea about mitigating impact of natural disasters is helping our species survive – and reducing the enormous cost of rebuilding and the emotional toll of losing family and friends. The task of creating these enormous Sky Cities is difficult.

               First, the technology to reliably build these megastructures needs to exist, we are getting close but have not quite reached the ability to build structures a mile high or taller. Possibly when graphene is mass produced, then we can conquer the first step of mitigating natural disasters and the man-made disasters of climate change. Secondly, finding geographic locations where the risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions are as low as possible. Though, it may be a moot point if we have the technology to build structures one to two miles high, we may have the technology to create buildings which do not crumble or sustain damage from earthquakes, tsunamis, and are resistant to molten lava.

               Once these buildings are built, the human challenge takes into shape, getting people to live in these new cities, one which I have briefly covered before and is also alluded to in my novel, Within the Grasp of Ordinary. There are a lot of elements which are controversial in getting peoples into the cities, and I’m not advocating for them – even though I thought of them. That is part of being an author, thinking outside of the box even if it does not fit your view/beliefs – you have to be open to new ideas and thoughts, even if they make you uncomfortable. Forcing people from their homes, like what happened in the story’s universe, is uncomfortable and highly unethical, but it occurred under the mantra of saving humanity from itself.

               In Within the Grasp of Ordinary, the mega structures which house humanity have a trade-off. The risk of natural disasters is small as humanity has technology evolved to make structures capable of withstanding disasters, moved away from areas vulnerable to rising sea levels, flood plains, earthquakes, etc. The risk comes from terrorist attacks, where when one Sky City structure is destroyed, the death toll is in the tens of thousands. Putting it bluntly, terrorist attacks like natural disasters will always happen but terrorist attacks right now are easier to prevent or foil through due diligence by law enforcement. Natural disasters aren’t preventable, but we can mitigate our risk by transforming the way we live.

               I’m no expert but I believe the current method within this country of denying climate change and its effects will only make us worse off. Tens of billions of dollars of damage are done every year in property to American cities and families, that’s not mentioning the emotional damage from the loss of loved ones. If we do nothing to change our behavior and mitigate our risk to natural disasters, we are stupid because we have seen countless film reels of destruction hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc. Natural disasters will always happen but humanity’s folly does not need to contribute to the innate destructive powers of Mother Nature.

Thoughts on Higher Education (Part 1)

It feels stupid to reiterate this point, but I’ll say it again. Higher education is important. If you ever truly believe education ends once you graduate high school, technical school, college, graduate school, etc., you are wrong. I am an avid reader and by reading an assortment of books, mostly non-fiction, I am still learning. Reading is paramount because it helps a person by exposing them to new words (increasing vocabulary), new ideas, critical thinking and comprehension, and provides them an imagination.

Education never ends and while some forms of education are relatively free, like the public library (yes, I know my taxes help pay for it, but it is inexpensive). However, the education which provides a significant boost into a career path is not prohibitively expensive. Technical schools are a cheaper alternative and I highly encourage them because for the foreseeable future there will always been a need for electricians, plumbers, maintenance personnel, etc.

What is not cheap is the path towards a bachelor’s degree. The University of Nebraska at Kearney, where I went, is one of the cheaper public schools in the state. The current tuition cost for two 15-credit hour semesters is just under $6,000. Fees add another $1,500. Want to live on campus? Cough up another $5,000. Like food? Well that will be $4800 dollars. Total billing, around $17,000 a year, for instate and nearby Colorado and Kansas residents. Follow this entire plan for four years you will graduate and begin your career with $68,000 in debt. Yes, there are a plethora of scholarships, Pell Grants, and other financial aid offers, but even with those accounted for, you are most likely to graduate with 30-40 thousand in debt.

You can get a head start at a community college and transferring the credits over, but it doesn’t completely reduce the costs. The problem is, education has become expensive and the current system of paying for higher education is failing the nation (and by extension the world).

America is falling behind in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These four broad fields are not the sole reason to go college, there will always be a need for future educators, political scientists, agriculture, etc. Why exactly we are falling behind is not easy to answer, and one which would require a lot to time to research, write up, then make present it in a comprehensible to the general public, (I do apologize if I’m sounding elitist, I’m trying to get a point across). Today people want an easy answer, a talking point. An issue as big as higher education cannot be broken down into ten-second soundbite. Addressing the issue requires a study, solutions, and the critical thinking skills offered by college (especially English courses and from reading in general) to understand the issue.

At a future time, I may write more about higher education, but I’m focused on the costs right now. The cost of higher education is hurting the nation (and again by extension…the world). I strongly believe every citizen deserves a shot to earn up to a bachelor’s degree, tuition and fees, covered by the government – housing and meals are a different ballgame.

Why is the lack of affordable higher education failing this nation? I believe because without an educated electorate, we get elected officials who have no concept of reality and the world around them. We get elected officials who embrace scare tactics rather than honesty. We get elected officials who appeal to the lowest common denominator and our worse, primal instincts instead of debating the issues which affect us. We get elected officials who instead of caring about all people, only care about themselves and the people who got them elected. Higher education can help people understand why fascism and authoritarianism is bad. It can help people understand that anecdotal evidence (ie. it is snowing outside so global warming/climate change is a myth) is not the way the world really works.

Why is the lack of affordable higher education in America failing the world? Looking outside of the United States, we are a small portion of the world’s population, only about 325 million of the 7.5 billion people. However, the nation is one of the top producers of carbon dioxide, methane, and other toxic chemicals which are spewed into the air and water. A college education with critical thinking (and imagination helped by reading) can help people understand our current ways cannot be sustained. All other nations in the world can move toward a goal but it will no matter if the United States does not partake in the action. By electing foxes to run the henhouse, we have hurt ourselves.

It is my hope if we change the affordability of college education, we can prevent foxes (complete idiots) from getting elected, or at least reduce their number to a point that they have no say on what legislation is proposed and how it is enacted.

Political Reform

               Talking politics and how government work is not sexy, but when you studied political science and write a political thriller, it is kind of necessary to explore.

There tends to be two types of democratic systems of government, the presidential system and parliamentary system, both have their strengths and their weaknesses. There are aspects of both forms of government which are good. From the presidential system, fixed terms allow for in theory a stronger continuity of government, with no official votes of no confidence or immediate or surprising resignations of prime ministers. From the parliamentary system, allowing the chief executive and ministers are held accountable by the legislature, however there are no set terms. There is an additional problem with the parliamentary form of government, is the members who are selected as executive ministers are still responsible for executive and legislative duties.

               In the United States, our system of government was created to have, in theory, three equal branches of government, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. However, our system of government is at least in the modern era not achieving much. People elected to the House of Representatives are there for 2 years before having to face re-election. In practice, if they are elected in November 2018, they are sworn in January 2019 and by January 2020, they are in an election year. In theory, the 2 years to a term is supposed to allow the electorate to have a say in who represents them but in reality, 90% of incumbents win re-election.

               The Senate is a bit different as senators are elected to 6-year terms, and 1/3 of the seats are up for re-election every 2 years, compared to every 435 seats in the House of Representatives. This sets up in every non-presidential election year a “mid-term” election, which is seen as a referendum on the current presidential administration, generally the President’s party loses some seats in the Legislature.

               It generally takes a year or two for a newly elected lawmaker to get the hang of the way the House and the Senate works. In the House, this means their first term is pretty much spent learning the ropes then facing re-election. A good alternative would be to expand the term of a Representative from 2 to 4 years, but every 2 years one-half of the house would face re-election. This would still preserve the traditional “mid-term” election and referendum of the current political party in power.

               This is only one alternative to current government. In Within the Grasp of Ordinary universe I created, there is a mixed presidential/parliamentary system. There are three branches of government, the Executive, Legislative and Judicial. The Executive is headed by the President who is elected to a six-year term, the Legislative is divided between a Senate and House of Representatives, but executive responsibility does lie in the domain of the Senate. The Senate advises and consents on the President’s nominations for filling Executive Branch positions and Judicial nominations. In addition, the Senate has a special committee the Senate Executive Committee, whose chairperson is in the Presidential Chain of Succession. There is the Judicial Branch, which really isn’t much changed from how it currently works in the presidential or parliamentary forms of government.

               Another contentious debate in the modern system is the call for term limits, I’m in the middle of the road on this issue. I believe the President is rightfully term-limited at two 4-year terms, though a President can technically serve close to 10 years. If President A were elected and started his term on January 20, 2017, the halfway point would be January 20, 2019. If President A were assassinated on January 21st, 2019, the Vice President would be sworn in and finish out his term – without the term counting against them for term-limits. However, if the President was assassinated before the halfway point of their term, the Vice President would have the rest of the term count against their term-limit.

               Getting back to term limits, for lawmakers it is generally good to have experienced lawmakers, who understand the system and how to craft legislation. It is also good to have young, inexperienced people get elected and bring new or different ideas into the legislative body. This rarely happens under the current political system in the United States since 90% of incumbents are re-elected. The idea is to impose term limits to force change. While I don’t disagree with the need for change, I believe the background of a lawmaker needs to be changed. It currently requires hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to get elected to the House or Senate, there is no real publicly funded election system. If there was, there would be more candidates from less well-off or poor economic backgrounds. I think having a more economic diverse Legislative body would do the nation wonders.

               In the Ordinary universe, all Executive and Legislative positions are capped at a total of 24 years, with Representatives serving 4-years and Senators at 6-years a term. A person can be elected as a Representative for 3 terms, total of 12 years, then decide to run for Senate and serve 2 terms. If the person decides to serve 4 terms as a Representative or 16 years, they can still serve 2 terms as a Senator, they aren’t just kicked out after hitting 24 years, they will serve the remainder of their term but won’t be eligible for re-election. The President is capped at two 6-year terms, and a person can easily serve 24 years as a Representative or Senator before deciding to run for President.

               I know it’s not fully in-depth about how the full political system in modern America needs to be reformed (that would be a very long, time-consuming project) or how the whole political system in my Within the Grasp of Ordinary and sequel novel works. It’s just a small glance at the system and there are parts which are there to be explored – by reading the book(s).

Guns: The Past and the Future

There are over 300 million guns in America or roughly one gun per person. The world average for guns per 100 people is 10.2, the United States average is 101 per 100 people. A large majority of American citizens do not own guns. Rather a small minority of the citizenry own multiple guns. This is not a blog about taking away a person’s Second Amendment rights, rather it is about the absurdity of owning a gun in defending yourself against a “tyrannical government”.

The average citizen is not well trained in firearms, I highly doubt they can hit 23 of 40 targets which range from 5 to 300 meters (8 to 327 yards) away. There are 3 positions in which to shoot from, supported prone, unsupported prone, and foxhole. Twenty-three shots is the bare minimum in order to receive a passing grade, which is 57.5% of rounds fired hitting target. NYPD is reported to have around a 30% chance of a round being fired, hitting the intended target. If the people who are trained to specifically handle guns have an abysmal hit rate, the average citizen is bound to have far worse percentage.

A common claim in owning a gun or an arsenal of guns is to defend oneself against a tyrannical government. The concept of everybody having the right to bear arms (a musket) worked in the days when the army carried a musket. Yes, the army had a few cannons but cannons can be easily captured and learning how to fire a cannon is not a difficult skill to master. Even with their own weapons, the American Revolutionaries were unable to defeat the British Army without the massive financial backing of France, along with the military support provided.

Weapons have significantly advanced since the Revolutionary War, muskets gave way to repeating rifles, the semi-automatic, full-automatic rifles and machine guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition a minute. Let’s not forget armored fighting vehicles, helicopters, aircraft, and nuclear and non-nuclear missiles. None of the weaponry of war are easily mastered by citizens, it takes dozens of weeks of training be labeled minimally proficient at the task of controlling one of these weapons.

But wait, insurgent movements have defeated (Vietnam, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) or caused significant headaches in occupations (US in Iraq and Afghanistan). Yes, but the issue of average citizens dealing blows to powerful militaries is way more complex. In Vietnam there was a vested interest by China and Soviet Russia to weaken the United States, thus both countries provided weapons and training on said weapons. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US returned the favor it received during Vietnam. In the US occupations of Afghanistan, the Taliban government had been hardened by war and along with Al Qaeda had a strong cadre of fighters which to train new recruits to fight the US. In Iraq, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army left well-trained people willing to be mercenaries and fight against the US forces.

It is capable to defeat or significantly harm government forces but owning a single gun or multiple guns will not even make the fight remotely fair.

In the Ordinary series, guns are present but they are not commonplace amongst the civilian population. There are a few criminals who have guns, there are terrorist organizations which can compete against the military. Law enforcement is well trained in non-lethal maneuvers and uses guns as a last resort. A civilian can own a weapon but there are stringent requirements to own one. There is nothing wrong with owning a weapon, it is your Constitutional right, but there needs to be an equal responsibility by the gun-owner to make sure they are proficiently trained in handling their weapon(s).

Reform, Centralize, (un)Militarize the Police

            I recently tweeted:

            “Watching Flint Town and I cannot help but think of respect. Respect towards the citizens that law enforcement are sworn to protect and serve. Then respect of citizens toward law enforcement. But respect is not automatic, it has to be earned by both sides.”

            Growing up in today’s age, it is not hard to see civility between public organizations and the private citizens they serve is at or close to an all-time low. The citizens, especially people of color, are rightfully concerned about if their actions will get them killed. The police are rightfully concerned about when going out on patrol if this will be their last patrol. Citizens and police get into heated verbal clashes. There are neighborhoods out there that when the police show up, the first words out of the citizenries’ mouths is “Fuck the police,”.

            There is a systemic problem in how citizens and law enforcement act towards each other, while the first amendment protects free speech like saying “fuck the police,” it will not earn you accolades or respect when dealing with law enforcement. When it appears that people with white pigmentation get treated more fairly by law enforcement, it easy to see why people of different pigmentation act apprehensively when police are around. The culture between law enforcement and citizenry needs to change. I don’t know all the answers and won’t pretend to but here are some ideas.

            The first simple one fairly simple, the amount of training the average US police department receives is 13-16 weeks of “basic” training then the rookie gets partnered with a veteran cop for an average of 21 weeks. Overall, a cop receives less than 1 year of training. This varies by department (local town, city, state). I believe the US police departments need to borrow from a few western European countries which require lengthy training times of the police and offer them specialized training in how to deal with all citizens. I personally believe all police should receive a degree in psychology so they can understand how people react.

            Riding off the coattails of the first idea, I think the number of police departments needs to be drastically trimmed, remove small town and county police departments. I grew up around Fort Calhoun, Nebraska (about 800 people at the time). We did not have a local police department, county sheriff department provided the town’s needs. Where I live now, there is a nearby town about the size of Fort Calhoun, which has 3 full-time officers and 2 part-time officers, on top of county sheriff and state troopers.

            My adolescent years were spent in Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city and largest law enforcement department (bigger than the State Patrol also). Omaha covers most of Douglas County, which still maintains a sheriff’s department that covers what the OPD does not. The state trooper’s still assist. Either way, there is still 3 police departments which operate in Omaha.

            I would suggest a consolidation of departments, closer to the Canadian model where the RCMP is “leased” out by a lot of the provinces to act as the law enforcement – but large cities maintain their own police departments which assist the RCMP in that area. In America, this would be the State Patrol / Troopers as the “primary” police force and large cities maintaining their own police departments. The state and city police would have to maintain equally rigorous training regimen and standards, including how to deal with mental health issues.

            In fiction, the police in my universe of Within the Grasp of Ordinary are a completely federalized service. There are no local or regional police forces, everybody is part of the same organization which is obviously broken down into sub-sections etc. This crafted world is far more ideal, the ordinary law enforcement officer does not carry a gun, rather is well trained in non-lethal means in how to perform crowd control and take down a suspect. The guns are left to a specially trained sub-section, basically SWAT.

            The civilian side of the imagined universe is a lot more respectful towards police, everybody is treated equally but there are instances where the system may be abused – (not spoiling that, must read the book to find out).

            One of the core problems America faces right now, which I think is glossed over in most science fiction environments, is the lack of respect between law enforcement officers and the civilian population they are sworn to protect and serve. There needs to be a bigger discussion about reforming the system, one which will not be changed overnight but through gradual change into how policing is performed. I look forward to a time when all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, their skin pigmentation, and all other differences, are treated equally before the law and our encounters with the police. No matter our differences, we are all human and deserve to be treated as such.

Political Ideology and Writing

            I best define myself as a person who is center-left, a progressive, a liberal, however my ideology is not a firm hard stop. I have read many different works by authors who have different political beliefs than me and their works and thoughts do influence my thought process – if their arguments are made using facts from reputable sources. My father is a diehard Republican and him and I have had numerous civil discussions. My former step-dad is a moderate Republican, a principled one, which though I have disagreed with, deeply respect. He is challenging of my beliefs and supportive of a wide world view.

            When it comes to writing, I do not favor one political ideology over another. I’ve written a character who works with the Nazis but plots to overthrow them. His own political viewpoint is constitutional monarchy like Great Britain’s. I’ve delved into the inner workings of Hitler’s regime and style of government which was highly fractured and everybody in the inner circle battling to get a bigger slice of the pie. Hitler ruled by a whim, which is no way to run a government efficiently.

            In the Ordinary Universe, major and mid-major characters’ political leanings are slowly revealed through the chapters. There is a General who once believed in democracy but has become disillusioned by it and wants to install a government very similar to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where only veterans can vote and run government. A Senator running for President, strongly believes in democracy and believes while it has flaws, it can only be made a better system of government through reform. Meanwhile, the current President (in the story) battles against the limitations of democracy while fighting off a insurgency movement clamoring for planetary independence.

            There are characters who harbor no political leanings, like Nathan, the youngest son of Senator Welch, but is trotted out to help his father attempt to win the Presidency. There is Philip, who is just beginning to develop his own sense of political views before his career military father trots in and attempts to reconnect. There are people who harbor different political ideologies who work together (shocking in this day and ages environment).

            The point I’m trying to make is, it is okay to harbor political leanings – we are entitled to our thoughts and opinions. We can share them and if people want to listen, that is their right. It is their right not to listen. As an author and writer though, when I make a work though, I don’t right from one ideological position because the world is simply far more complex than that. We will never be a species which sees eye to eye on everything and the stories and worlds which we create should reflect that.

Sustainability

            The world we currently inhabit is not sustainable. Our recycling efforts though far improved from years before, are not enough. Non-governmental organizations, government at the local, state and federal level need to step up and heavily encourage recycling and better sustainability projects. An old professor of mine stated, he was prohibited from catching the runoff rain from his gutters. Him and other like-minded citizens succeeded in getting the local regulation overturned.

            Plastic bags are everywhere and though few cities and one state, California, has banned them, here in the Midwest they are still widespread. On a few occasions, I can see plastic bags dangling from trees of roaming across the plains like a tumbleweed. California in 2016 handed out 13 billion single use plastic bags – the national average is 100 billion. More information: www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/expect_more_bag_less/facts.html.

            Plastic bags are not recycled or widely reused. I will admit to using plastic bags for my groceries, which then are used to store my lunch. After my lunch is consumed, the plastic is put into our recycling bins at work. Plastic is not the only thing we are terrible at, batteries, electronics, furniture, food. A lot of food is thrown out because people believe it is bad after a subjective “sell by or best by” date. There are quite a few people I know who are not a fan of leftovers, though the it helps with keeping the food budget low and reducing food waste.

            Being sustainable and environmentally friendly is a worthy endeavor because there is no other planet we can flee to. There is no reset button or imaginary figure who will wisp us away because we believe in them. In Within the Grasp of Ordinary, one of the ways sustainability is dealt with is removing ourselves from plowing acres upon acres of land for new urban sprawl, rather the cities have gone miles high rather than miles wide. Land which was once occupied by cities has been reclaimed by nature. Oil and coal do not power the future. Rather the Sky City structures which Philip, Tristan, and the rest of humanity live in are constructed with a very durable material which also acts like a solar panel.

            In the present, there is much more that needs to be done. We need to set aggressive goals to get more of our energy demands met by solar, wind, and geothermal sources. We need to reduce our food wastes. We need to be better stewards of the planet we all call home. It is the only home we have now, the only home we have in the near future, and in the future, we still must maintain preserving our planet.