Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not." -- Millard Fillmore
A scathing review from Roger Ebert could persuade millions of Americans not to buy tickets to a new film. This man has done him one better: a film that he doesn't like won't even make it to the big screen.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who's served in the House since 1979, told the press this week that he opposes President Obama's decision to lower the United States flag to half-staff in honor of the late Nelson Mandela, because, in his words, "Lowering the flag should be for mourning Americans and not foreign leaders." He's made it clear that he respects Mr. Mandela's legacy, saying: “Nelson Mandela deserves international praise for defeating apartheid, fighting for equality and uniting South Africa. While I think the American flag should only be flown at half-staff for Americans, I join the rest of the world in mourning Nelson Mandela`s death.”
I haven't found any record of Mr. Sensenbrenner criticizing the decision of the younger President Bush to lower our flags in honor of Pope John Paul II in 2005, nor of President Reagan's order to lower our flags in honor of the assassinated Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, though he was in Congress for both deaths.
Even if Mr. Sensenbrenner's is a late-found principle, I applaud him for expressing it so clearly. I'd like to suggest that if he believes that Americans should not honor foreigners in this way, he might introduce a bill to eliminate Columbus Day as a national holiday. Surely he must believe that if we should not lower our flag in tribute to the passing of inspirational foreign leaders, we shouldn't close the entire government for a day to honor a foreigner who wasn't a national leader.
As the Obama administration considers lobbing a few missiles at Syria to punish the Syrian regime (which we used to call the "Syrian government," or just "Syria") for allegedly using chemical weapons on its citizens, the New York Times this week posted a graphic (which we used to call "gory") video showing rebel soldiers executing seven Syrian soldiers. The video, which turned out to be not fresh news but 17 months old, sparked an argument that if the rebels are this brutal, then we shouldn't be supporting them by lobbing bombs at the government.
Two days ago Secretary of State John Kerry explained to MSNBC why the video should not deter our government from attacking Syria from a safe distance. I noted this quotation particularly:
Here is my translation of Secretary Kerry's statement:
If we do not kill some Syrian soldiers and nearby civilians with safe and effective American missiles in the hope that the Damascus PTA will take over running Syria, we will see more pictures and videos of Syrian rebels killing the same Syrian soldiers and nearby civilians that our missiles would kill more efficiently. If we do kill some Syrians with our missiles, their survivors will applaud our willingness to intervene in their domestic conflict and will become our friends when the war ends.
This is not striking me as a good reason to get involved in a war. I know the government is saying that we are not getting into a war with Syria, but I also know that our recent history suggests that, as with the famous brand of potato chips, we don't often stop with just one.
Yet another encounter with the ubiquitous phrase "carbon footprint" (hopelessly vieux jeu) and a chance remark by Mrs. Laquedem spurred me to consider the effects of humankind on the other ninety-plus naturally occurring chemical elements. Two years ago I wrote about China using its near-monopoly over the element neodymium as an instrument of foreign policy, so let's start there.
Neodymium is one of the lanthanide series of metallic elements, commonly called "rare earths" although they are neither rare nor earthy. Neodymium's main use is as an ingredient in powerful magnets, including those in earphones. If you're listening to your iPod while you read this, you have some neodymium in your ears right now.
China has been the only supplier of neodymium from 1998 when a rare-earth mine in Mountain Pass, California closed for environmental reasons (here's some talk about that); the California mine reopened a few months ago.
Mining and refining the rare earth metals is a messy business: Bloomberg reports that China's rare earth mines produce five times more waste gas a year than all of the mines and oil refiners in the United States, and that waste gas is part of our neodymium footprint.
What else is in our neodymium footprint? Electric cars, for one thing; a Toyota Prius contains about 2 pounds of neodymium. Wind power, for another; Vestas uses 180 pounds of neodymium in its 3 megawatt wind turbine. Vestas may be efficient: The USGS, relying on an outside source from 2008, said that a wind turbine uses about 1 tonne of neodymium for each megawatt of generating capacity.
One metric ton ('tonne") of neodymium is enough for 1100 Priuses -- but then Toyota sells 500,000 Priuses a year, so it uses about 450 tonnes of neodymium a year, about 1/40 of the world's annual production. Neodymium is also in the Chevrolet Volt engine as well as in its Bose speaker system.
So who knew? When we drive our electric cars through the gorge and look at the wind farms, somewhere in China a hillside is crying because we stepped on it with our neodymium footprint.
When I first saw this story a few months ago, I mistakenly thought it was a bit of British whimsy, cooked up by the people who brought us Monty Python and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster as a way to poke fun at their Continental counterparts.
It's real. The European Union has banned marketers of bottled water from claiming that their product (water) can fight off dehydration (lack of water). Great Britain's government doesn't like the EU edict, but can't stop it from going into effect in their nation.
The water that the English appreciate most may not be the overpriced stuff that comes in plastic bottles, but the 20 miles of the English Channel that still separate them from their daffy European neighbors.
To mark the 212th anniversary of the birth of Millard Fillmore, what better than to revisit his policies? Here is a bit from his second State of the Union address, in which President Fillmore describes his view of American foreign policy:
Our true mission is not to propagate our opinions or impose upon other countries our form of government by artifice or force, but to teach by example and show by our success, moderation, and justice the blessings of self-government and the advantages of free institutions. Let every people choose for itself and make and alter its political institutions to suit its own condition and convenience.
Our addiction to changing the forms of government of other nations hasn't, on the whole, worked out very well. We've provided some excellent training to our military, but we haven't been exemplifying "success, moderation, and justice."
Inspired by a link from Professor Bogdanski showing a water bridge over a river -- a bridge that carries a ship canal over a river -- I have solved the Columbia River Crossing problem. Pictures of the bridge itself are here, at Amusing Planet.
The problem of the bridges themselves is not that their lanes are narrow -- they aren't -- nor that they don't have enough lanes. The current bridges have just as many lanes as the freeways to the north and south; they're choke points only because so many entrances feed into them on both sides without enough room for merging. Besides this problem, the existing bridges pose another problem: they are drawbridges, and they are lifted 425 times a year to make way for river traffic, or just to keep the machinery working. With more clearance over the water, they would have to be lifted less often, or not at all if they are replaced with fixed bridges.
So far the highway people at ODOT and WSDOT, being highway people, have limited their concrete solutions (sorry) to plans to replace the bridges with a new and higher bridge, in effect, to raise the freeway. The Magdeburg Water Bridge of Professor Bogdanski's post suggests another and cheaper way to solve this problem. Instead of raising the bridges, lower the water.
"Huh?" I think I heard you say, possibly spewing coffee over your keyboard. No fooling: let's lower the water to provide more clearance. Here's how: Build a lock underneath the bridges, with a chamber a little more than twice as long as the longest ship or barge tow that now requires the bridges to be lifted. Extend the lock, possibly, underneath the railroad bridge. The lock does not have to cross the entire river, but only the space between two of the bridge supports. (Fish and small craft can still use the rest of the river without going through the locks.)
Dredge out about another forty feet or so , reinforcing the bridge supports as necessary. Again, the dredging is just in the lock chamber, not across the entire river. Barge tows will then be able to enter the lock at one end and wait while the water is pumped out to lower the tow as far as necessary to clear the bridge. When the water is lowered sufficiently, the barge tow will cross beneath the bridge to the other side. The lock operator will then raise the water level and open the gates so that the barge tow can proceed upstream or downstream, as the case may be.
The result? No more bridge lifts, no ridiculous reworking of the ramps, no destruction on Hayden Island. Light rail, if it should ever go to Vancouver, can use the railroad bridge.
I've overcome my usual faith in the rule of law just enough that am not going to lose any sleep tonight because Osama bin Laden isn't going to get a civilian trial in the Southern District of New York, nor even a military trial at Guantanamo.
The administration said that one helicopter crashed during the bin Laden mission in Abbottabad, with no loss of life. This news story, telling of a helicopter crashing in Abbottabad Sunday evening near a Pakistani army base, may be that crash, plausibly covered up as having been of a Pakistani helicopter instead of an American one. Here's another report of the same crash. Coincidence? Abbottabad is not known for helicopter crashes.