Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday photo

Kaweah Valley from Moro Rock. Sequoia National Park, California, June 2005.

Moro Rock
is an impressive chunk of granite which, if I understand the process, formed deep underground, got pushed up toward the surface during the uplift of the Sierra Nevada, and was then exposed when softer material eroded away. As you drive up into Sequoia National Park, you'll see it rising impressively above you. But you don't get the full effect until you take the 800', 400-step climb to the top, when you see the Kaweah Valley falling away, some 3500 feet below. That contrast is the primary feature of this photograph here. If you were to try to hike down, you'd find it three times steeper than the Grand Canyon, which is probably why Moro Rock prefers to sit where it is and just look around at the crest of the Sierra.

Moro Rock has a special meaning for me because it is, as best I can recall, the very last place on Earth that I ever tried to pray, on a late September evening when I pleaded with God to convince me he was there and was listening to me. When you have it all to yourself, Moro Rock is a very quiet place.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sky diving elite

I just might never have seen anything quite this awesome:

We earth-bound schmucks can scarcely appreciate what's going on here, because we have the ground to help us control our motion. In the air, there are six degrees of motion these guys need to control: three for movement (up-down, left-right, and forward-backward) and three for rotation (forward or backward roll, spinning left or right like a skater, and rolling left or right like a cartwheel). If you ever made the mistake of watching that forgettable Space Camp* movie, you might recall the spinning chair that combines all three degrees of rotation in a bewildering fashion, and how hard it was to sort them out and gain control. These guys have mastered that and movement through space.

It's hard, really hard. That's why the Wright Brothers spent years working with gliders a few feet off the ground before building their airplane. They knew that learning to fly was going to be far harder than figuring out how to get the machine in the air.

The way these guys exit is just beautiful.

Via Daily Dish

* Not only a forgettable movie, but one which had the bad luck to be released all too soon after the Challenger disaster.

Friday photo

Surf. Humboldt County, California, July 2005.

There are rumors, no doubt fueled by Hollywood boosters, that California is a land of sunshine. I think they forget there's a northern California, too. The last time I drove north out of San Francisco, the clouds moved in just as I reached Eureka and I decided, This is where the pacific Northwest begins. Good to know.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday photo

Turkey Run State Park, Indiana. July 2007.

I wrote a small blurb about Turkey Run here a while ago. I'm gone this weekend, so you'll just have to reread that one.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Baring the soul (eHarmony spoof)

This brought tears to my eyes ....

... while laughing out loud.

Via the Daily Dish

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Knowin' my history ....

In the wake of Sarah Palin's defiant defense of her description of Paul Revere's ride, a lawyerly defense that she certainly must have needed explained to her after her sycophants dreamed it up for her, I'm trying to imagine her book report on George Washington. I picture it going something like this:

He who chopped down those cherry trees so that we could have homes and towns and, um, making sure while he's standing in that boat fathering our country that, uh, we're not going to lie about defending free enterprise and we're going to develop our country.

Makes as much sense as her comments on Revere, I'm afraid, except that the cherry tree story isn't at all factual. Doesn't matter; neither was Palin's portrayal of Paul Revere. Oh, sure, if you tear her paragraph limb from limb, you could overlay each part onto an accurate version of the event, but that's not historical knowledge. Poor students do this all the time and anyone who's taught history has seen it in exam booklets over and over: disconnected facts dropped almost randomly on the page, with no sensible connection between them, which read like a 2-year-old playing with a jigsaw puzzle. It's simply not possible for someone with any adequate understanding of the night of April 18, 1775, to have uttered that phrase.

Palin is that student who sat in the back of the class without listening, absorbing a few scraps of information without understanding any of it. She knows Revere rode a horse, she knows it was during the Revolution and that the British were the enemy, she's been told something about bells being rung in warning, and she even knows that it somehow connects to the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World," although she doesn't know how. And she hurriedly assembles these random facts and comes up with a mental image that's completely wrong: Paul Revere riding through the streets of Boston ringing bells and firing warning shots.

As the saying goes, historians never miss a chance to miss a chance to educate the public on historical knowledge. It's depressing to see some historians, however reluctantly, declare that if her isolated factoids aren't entirely bogus, than her whole story has to be considered historically accurate. It does not, any more than a NAPA store is an automobile. That's why history exams include essay questions, where you can't make the lucky guess that might win on Jeapordy! You have to show you understand what your facts mean. By letting Palin's comments pass for "historically accurate," the whole concept of historical understanding gets short-changed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday photo

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. May 2005

Here's a nice little view of Mammoth Hot Springs, the headquarters for Yellowstone National Park. It's just inside the northern boundary, 50 miles from Old Faithful and even farther from the more remote reaches of the park; it was selected more for its convenience to the outside world than to the rest of the park. The first government building1 in Yellowstone was a blockhouse built in 1879 on Capitol Hill (the slope you see extending out of the upper right of the frame in the photo); the superintendent was still worried about the possibility of Indian raids (the Nez Perce, fleeing the US Army, had come through just a couple years previously and had killed a couple of tourists).

The red-roofed buildings in the distance are stone officer's barracks from the Fort Yellowstone days, when Yellowstone was an army post between 1886 and 1918. The US Army had been given control over the park after understaffed civilian administration failed to prevent poaching and other destruction. By all accounts, the Army did a commendable job, policing the tourists effectively and reducing poaching to levels that the wildlife could survive.

Those officer's barracks are still in use, most of them serving as residences, while the one nearest the main road is now the Visitors Center. The cottonwood trees lining Officer's Row were planted with, shall we say, military precision: they form a perfectly straight line from one end to the other. That flat area between Capitol Hill and the yellow hotel and restaurant on the left was a parade ground for the cavalry troop stationed there -- even though it's prone to sinkholes. In the winter, the parade ground was sometimes flooded to form a skating rink.2

The Army gave up command in 1918, when the newly-minted National Park Service was up and running. They were ready to go, since it no longer made sense to station soldiers along the former frontier when they were badly needed elsewhere. But they left behind some solidly-constructed buildings and a helluva lot more wildlife than there would have been without them.

More reading:
Bartlett, Richard A. A Wilderness Besieged
Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story

1. There was already a hotel at the site, to serve tourists who wanted to explore the hot spring terraces before heading off into the interior.

2. This is still done today, but behind the hotel and not on the parade ground.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Alexander Hamilton, borrower and taxer

Dragooning the Founding Fathers to fight contemporary political battles is a time-honored tradition. Without a doubt, if Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were all here, they would ... well, they'd agree with me and take my side on every question. And since their word is Holy Writ, that proves I'm right. About everything,

Okay, not really, but I do sometimes find myself wondering what the FF's would think if they could suddenly be transported from their day to ours. I tend to imagine them stumbling around dazed for a few days, loading up on hard liquor, and then, when that runs out, quietly going off to kill themselves, James Madison perhaps muttering darkly “I told you it would never last.” Only Alexander Hamilton, I suspect, would recover from the dizzying shock and slowly come to think, “Hey! It worked! Commerce! Wealth! Power! Oh, it's everything I wanted!”

Hamilton, as the man most responsible for putting the United States on a sound, capitalist-friendly fiscal footing, has long been a favorite of conservatives. A historian whom I can't recall once noted that one can trace the relative ebb and flow of conservatism and liberalism by counting the rise and fall in biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. It's no coincidence that one popular biography of Hamilton was penned by a senior editor of National Review.

So, while the question of the day is about our national debt, and whether or not the GOP is bluffing about be willing to default, if I could conjure up just one of those Founding Fathers, I would want to hear what Hamilton had to say. Because if there could be such a person as the patron saint of the national debt, Hamilton is the man. He believed in a national debt. More importantly, he believed in timely, reliable payment of that debt. That last point is crucial; in fact, Hamilton actually advocated having a national debt just so that the government would need to make timely, reliable payments. Long before there were any guitar-playing pirate-waiters to make the point, Hamilton preached the value of a solid credit rating.

Hamilton knew that, whether they like it or not, governments sometimes have to borrow money. Emergencies happen, mainly unexpected wars when the country would need to quickly raise, train, and equip a larger army than it could afford to maintain permanently.1 The kings of Europe had found themselves borrowing money from banks for centuries and the US would be no different. It couldn't be helped.

What could be helped, however, was the rate of interest that the government would need to pay when it did borrow. Governments needed a good credit rating at least as much as merchants did. Hamilton had closely watched how the British government operated and was deeply impressed. The British borrowed constantly, repaid promptly, and by proving itself the pinnacle of safety, could borrow at the lowest possible rates. Hamilton had come away deeply impressed with England's ability to leverage money and, as the first Treasurer of the United State, he wanted his new country to do the same.

To do so, however, was going to require a hard-core sales job. The Continental Congress had borrowed outrageous sums of money financing the War of Independence, still owed soldiers their back pay, and was hard-pressed figuring out how to pay off everyone they owed. Millions of dollars in loans were owed to private individuals, but many of those people were not the original lenders. Over the years, as the nation's poor financial standing became increasingly apparent, many people had sold their securities to speculators, at a substantial discount (often as low as 15% of face value). To many traditionalists in Congress, men who approached financial matters from a moral perspective, it stuck in the craw to simply pay the current owner full value. Hard-working, patriotic Farmer Brown, who had risked his scarce capital to aid the struggling Revolution when the outcome was uncertain, would never get more than his 15¢ on the dollar. The sharp speculator who bought the loan from him would succeed in making a killing off Mr. Brown's distress.

Hamilton did not say, “Morality be damned, we have bigger fish to fry,” but that is the gist of his 1790 Report on Public Credit. At all costs, the United States must demonstrate good faith in paying its debts. "Credit rating,” although the term hadn't been coined yet, but the concept is foundational to all of Hamilton's policies. The people with money should be willing to lend it to the government. No, they should be eager to lend money to the government. They should be so certain that their investment is rock-solidly safe that they will lend at the lowest possible rates. Anything else, any policies that shake the confidence of investors in the reliability of the Treasury, will end up increasing costs, squandering treasure, and draining investments. Everyone loses, both as individuals and as the Public.

But why was it necessary that the current holder get the full payment, and the original purchaser nothing beyond what he had sold the bond for? Hamilton made a feeble effort to defend the speculators on moral grounds, arguing that he too had risked his money on an uncertain outcome and demonstrated his faith in the nation. Given the way government officials were moving to profit off a scheme that looked less and less risky,2 it was an unconvincing argument. Hamilton may have advanced it only half-heartedly anyway, since it was beside the point. Again, he was looking to the future and the future he wanted was one where investors not only could loan with complete safety, but could sell their bonds at full value anytime they needed to. The bonds would be easily traded because the purchaser would know that he could redeem it at full value. With that kind of value, a government loan would be as good as money. It would be money, for all practical purposes, and those practical purposes were uppermost in Hamilton's mind.

Specie, that is, gold and silver coin – the original cold, hard cash – was scarce in North America and hard to increase without discovering more metal. A growing economy needs a more flexible money supply and rock solid government bonds would fit the bill nicely. If money is more plentiful, it can be borrowed more cheaply, to the benefit of everyone attempting a profit-making venture. Settlers could purchase homesteads; merchants could fill ships with goods. Again, everyone wins.

A solid, reliable national debt was an essential foundation to it all. It meant cheaper borrowing for the government, and ultimately lower taxes to pay for it. Entrepreneurs would have access to cheaper money, too, removing an impediment to trade and development. Hamilton was the great advocate of capitalist development, but it all depended on a government that was scrupulous about meeting its obligations.

No doubt Hamilton would have abhorred the way we spend tax money; I can't imagine him approving of Social Security or Medicare. But would he have been willing to gamble the nation's credit rating, even to eliminate the evils of social spending and high taxes?3 Perhaps, if he had to choose between modern levels of government spending or toying with default, he would tell Madison to move over and also drink himself to death.

1. If I had to list the number of ways in which the United States departs from its founding ideals, the modern military would be at the top of the list. A large standing army, it was believed, would almost inevitably be used to control the public; it would tempt Presidents to seek glory in foreign adventures; and if neither of those happened, it would still be an enormous financial burden. Of the three, only the first danger has failed to emerge. On the other hand, we've so militarized our police forces that it hardly makes a difference.

2. Several Congressmen, and at least one Treasury employee close to Hamilton (although apparently not Hamilton himself) were sending agents scouring the country for loans to buy up before word got out and the price began to rise. Such insider trading is, of course, illegal today.

3. High to him; current tax collection is, overall, a bit low compared to late 20th Century norms.