Wasting Tax Dollars — High-Speed Edition

They’re talking about building a high-speed rail connection between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.  Of course, they’ve been talking about that idea for years.  The difference now is that our government is seriously considering making a $4.9 billion loan — that’s billion — to help finance the project.

Amazing, isn’t it, that after the disastrous failure of Solyndra the federal government would still consider making any loans to private firms, much less loans of billions of dollars?  That’s not the only amazing thing about this proposal, however.

For those who aren’t familiar with California geography, Victorville is 68 miles from Los Angeles.  The concept for the “DesertXpress” train thus envisions L.A. residents bound for Vegas white-knuckling their way through the appalling southern California traffic and then, just as they reach the wide open spaces of the High Desert, getting off the road and waiting for a train!  If they want to play golf in Vegas, they’ll wrestle their clubs onto the train, too!  And then, after a ride that is only about an hour shorter than driving, the train will deposit them at a station in some remote part of Vegas, so they can catch a cab to get to the Strip!  And they’ll happily pay at least $50 one-way (or more than they would pay for gas, even at today’s high prices) for this privilege!

Nothing wrong with that well-conceived concept, eh?  Skeptics might contend that our leaders should follow a simple rule:  if a business plan is so fantastic that even venture capitalists won’t buy in, the federal government shouldn’t, either.  If DesertXpress can’t convince capitalists to invest, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fill the void — no matter what kind of phony feasibility studies or rosy projections of increased employment might be cited in support of the project.

Remember, too, that the United States doesn’t have money on hand right now.  If we loan money to DesertXpress, we’ll first have to borrow it from other sources and pay interest.  And when the DesertXpress goes toes up, as common sense dictates it must, our loan won’t be repaid, and we’ll have to dig even deeper into our own pockets to pay off what we borrowed.  Can our government seriously be considering putting us in such a position?  Seriously?

 

The Raccoon Beneath The Grate

A raccoon, and perhaps a family of raccoons, appears to live in the storm sewers in our neighborhood.

Once, on a morning walk, I saw a hunched shape scrabbling across the street and toward the sewer grate in the pre-dawn darkness.  The raccoon plunged into the sewer.  When we passed by a few moments later, it was there, wearing its mask, perched just beneath the grate, its beady black eyes glittering with the reflected light from a nearby street lamp.  The dogs lunged toward it, and it vanished.

The encounter gave me the creeps.  I have no interest in dealing with potentially rabid creatures, and I don’t like the idea of raccoons using the storm sewer as a kind of vagabond superhighway underneath our neighborhood.  Now, whenever I pass the sewer, I can’t help but look to see whether those black eyes are there, staring back.  Usually they aren’t, and I start to think that perhaps the raccoon is gone.  But every once in a while the eyes are there again, following our movements as we quicken the pace to get past the grate, and I shudder anew.

I don’t remember my dreams when I awaken, but I’d be willing to bet that those beady black eyes through the sewer grate have appeared in a nightmare or two.

 

Farmers On The Move

How did humans stop wandering and start farming?  It’s a crucial question, because farming allowed our ancestors to move beyond itinerant lifestyles into more permanent cultures.  When farming was adopted, and people saw the benefits of having food at the ready, early humans put down roots (pun intended), established long-term structures, and began to defend their territory and protect their possessions.  Civilization as we know it was the ultimate result.

There are two competing theories.  One is that early farmers migrated from their home area and brought their seeds, tools, and farming concepts with them.  The other posits that hunter-gatherers saw the benefits of farming and decided to adopt the farming lifestyle.  The latter theory seems a bit far-fetched, because it’s hard to imagine hardy hunter-gatherers appreciating the benefits of farming and radically changing their transient ways.

Now DNA studies have lent support to the former theory and indicate that farming was spread through Europe by migrants.  The study found that a Stone Age farmer was genetically distinct from hunter-gatherers of that era, and suggests that farming began in the area now known as Turkey and spread north and west, as farmers looked for tillable acreage where their crops could thrive.  The study also suggests that modern Europeans have more genes of the early farmers than they do of the hunter-gatherers.

In short, the farmers won the Darwinian contest.  Their lifestyle might have been boring compared to that of the hardy hunter-gatherers, but with their steady diets, domesticated animals, and focus on building for a better harvest next year, they were more likely to survive and pass down their genes.

Geek Squad In The ‘Hood

Yesterday I noticed that there was a Geek Squad truck in the neighborhood.  I should have realized that one was nearby, because the very air crackled with geekiness and several people were lying comatose by the roadway after having received needlessly technical explanations from Geek Squad members.

I like the Geek Squad idea, and I bet it works well for Best Buy.  After all, everyone — even the biggest frat guy or stud athlete, who would otherwise sneer at the citizens of geekdom — knows that there are times when you really need a geek.  Installing a home theater system, as this Geek Squad was doing, is one such instance.  And pretty much anything that requires you to talk about a “router” or “portals” also makes meaningful geek participation mandatory.

After I saw the truck, I realized that I have never seen a member of the Geek Squad.  They must be elusive, moving from one geek crisis to another with no waste motion, filled with geek excitement at the looming technological challenge.

I found myself wondering what the uniform of the Geek Squad might be.  I concluded it probably involved horn-rimmed glasses taped together at the nose bridge, a faded paisley short-sleeve shirt buttoned up to the neck, green pants worn at flood tide length, white socks, and black shoes.  Then I realized I had just described my appearance in my seventh-grade class picture.

Gray Brushstrokes Above

It was cold, wet, and overcast all day yesterday, and on this morning’s walk we saw that the last few clouds were being swept away, leaving a powder blue sky behind.  Low on the southern horizon the delicate wisps of clouds looked intentionally placed, as if The Great Artist had decided that the canvas called for a few deft, gray brushstrokes in the air in order to frame and complete the scene.

As we walked the high-altitude wind continued to work on the cloud shards, pushing them eastward and shredding them at the same time.  Five minutes later, the delicate brushstrokes were gone.

Cloud formations teach you to enjoy the moment.

I Really Don’t Care About The Money

We’ve got a hot U.S. Senate race in Ohio this year:  incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is looking to fend off the challenge of Republican Josh Mandel.

I’ll write more about the race as we get closer to the election.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m mystified by the tactics of the Brown campaign.  I get their e-mails constantly, and they all are about money.  How much money Mandel is raising, how much money “special interests” are contributing to support Mandel’s candidacy, how many TV ads have been purchased as a result of the money contributed to the Mandel campaign, and how much money the Brown campaign needs to make up for the cash landslide that is tumbling into Ohio.

Money, money, money!  Obviously, the Brown campaign believes that the constant drumbeat of news about what donors have contributed to Mandel’s campaign will spur me to open my checkbook, again and again, to give money to Sherrod Brown.  My question is:  why do they think that is what will happen?  Isn’t it equally plausible that I’ll just get sick to death of being hit up for money and immediately delete their e-mails, unread?  (After all, we’re still six months away from the election — how many more money-grubbing e-mails do they think I can bear?)  Or that I’ll just give up because the money lead for the Mandel campaign apparently is insurmountable?  Or that I’ll conclude that the Brown campaign doesn’t care about anything except cold, hard cash?

Political campaigns used to be about candidates, issues, speeches and rallies, now they are about money, money, and more money.  We are all the poorer for this.