Tackling The Power Problem

Power is the foundation on which a modern, civilized society is built. Technology, which is proffered as the basis of so many solutions to humanity’s problems, requires power to operate. Without electricity, lights won’t light, appliances won’t operate, computers won’t compute, heaters won’t heat and air conditioners won’t cool . . . and the list goes on and on.

You would have thought that, by 2023, the world would have solved the power problem. Instead, the problem seems to have gotten worse. Many of the 54 countries in Africa, for example, are experiencing terrible and chronic power problems that leave millions of people without power at all and others struggling with rolling blackouts, power grid collapses, and the need to conform their schedules to power availability. The problem is traced to limited and aging infrastructure that isn’t capable of reliably supplying power that meets the needs of people in the modern world.

Of course, power problems aren’t limited to Africa. Two of the most populous states in the U.S.–California and Texas–have experienced widely publicized power issues in recent years. Last year, California’s power grid was so taxed by a heat wave that residents were told to reduce their electrical use or face rolling blackouts–a situation that awkwardly arrived only days after California’s announcement that residents must transition to electric cars that are estimated to require the state to triple its existing power generation capabilities. The California power situation is so dicey that the state reversed its position on closure of its only remaining nuclear plant, which supplies 9 percent of the state’s power. In Texas, where many residents were left without power during a crippling winter storm in 2021, legislators are currently debating proposals to make the power grid more reliable.

These examples reveal an easily overlooked truth: power generation is one of those basic points that should always be on the agenda for modern governments. Before edicts are issued requiring people to buy and drive electric vehicles, or purchase smart technology, let’s make sure that we have sufficient power to reliably supply all of these devices–and let’s also look ahead at how the demands on our power generation capabilities and power grids will be equipped to handle the expected demand five, ten, or twenty years into the future. Nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, and offshore wind farms don’t get built and linked into power delivery systems overnight.

Live Fast, Die Young

A Chicago writer, Willard Motley, coined the phrase “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” in his debut novel. Unfortunately, American mortality statistics are echoing that sentiment–except for the good-looking part, The U.S. is doing worse than other wealthy countries, and last year, American life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row even as the statistics in other countries rebounded from the COVID pandemic.

NPR has an interesting article on this phenomenon that is worth reading in full. Among other things it discusses the “why” question–namely, how can it be that a rich, scientifically advanced country that spends buckets of money on health care fares so poorly in comparative mortality data? The NPR article cites a study done 10 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences called Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. The study tried to identify systemic factors that contribute to the bad statistics.

A few things stand out: first, Americans are more likely to die before age 50, thanks to factors like the opioid epidemic, suicides, other drug use, criminal gun violence, teen pregnancies, and highway deaths. Second, Americans are far more likely to be obese, to smoke, to have bad diets, and to have sedentary lifestyles that contribute to poorer health. These societal elements, which together mean that Americans are far more likely to die young, account for a big chunk of the difference in average life expectancy with countries like, say, Japan.

On the bright side, the U.S. has a better record than other countries in keeping people who make it to 75 alive–but that is cold comfort to those who don’t make it to 50. And when you look at the causes identified by the NAS study, you can’t help but think that a big part of the problem is socioeconomic. Americans who are fortunate to live in comfortable suburban neighborhoods, for example, don’t face the same mortality risks as those who have been born into the south side of Chicago.

The mortality statistics are embarrassing, but in the 10 years since its release the NAS study hasn’t made much of a dent in public consciousness. Regrettably, in America “live fast, die young” isn’t just a good line from a ’40s novel, it’s a summary of reality.

Aged Adjectives

The other day I ran across a story about a senior citizen. In one of the first few paragraphs, I ran across the inevitable, dreaded “aged adjective.” In this case, it was a double dose: “spry and sprightly.”

In case you’re not familiar with them, “aged adjectives” are words that are frequently used in human interest stories about old people. The idea is to describe the particular golden ager in a way that is contrary to what people would expect to see in a senior citizen. And, frankly, the general preconceptions about the lifestyles of the elderly are pretty grim. Most people seem to think that retirees are boring, completely sedentary, and hoping for nothing more than a nap and an “early bird” meal at the nearest Golden Corral. The roster of aged adjectives play against that sad stereotype.

Think about it: when have you ever seen the words “spry” or “sprightly” that weren’t immediately followed by “octogenarian” or “90-year-old”? These are words that are never used to describe a teenager or a thirty-something. But after the years have added up, a reporter assigned to write a feature story about a gray hair who is capable of walking unaided from point A to point B might think that surprising fact was worth communicating to the reader, and “spry” and “sprightly” predictably get hauled out again.

Of course, “spry” and “sprightly” aren’t the only aged adjectives out there. Here are some others that come to mind:








Steady on his feet

If they are used to describe you you can be assured that you are viewed as a member of the Geriatric Brigade–which, incidentally, meets at the Golden Corral for dinner every Tuesday at 4:30, sharp.


As the fallout continues from the abrupt collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank and the closure of Signature Bank, the federal government’s response to those developments raises some serious questions.

Over the weekend, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation announced that all of the depositors in SVB and Signature Bank will be repaid in full, even if they kept more than the $250,000 federal deposit insurance limit in their bank accounts. In addition, the Fed announced that it would offer banks loans against the face value of their Treasury bills and notes and other holdings, even if inflation has eroded the actual worth of those investments.

The government contends that these actions don’t represent a “bailout,” technically, because the banks have been closed and those who owned stock in the banks will lose the value of those investments–but the actions sure smell like a bailout to many people. Some will praise the government for acting swiftly to avoid a potential panic and runs on other banks, but others will wonder about where we now draw the line on the full faith and credit of the U.S. government being employed in the wake of a bank collapse and whether the government’s action was motivated, even in part, by the fact that powerful people in California and elsewhere apparently had relationships with the banks.

President Biden, quoted in the Times article linked above, made an important point when he said that investors in the two banks “knowingly took a risk, and when the risk didn’t pay off, investors lose their money. That’s how capitalism works.” That is unquestionably true, but those who kept more than $250,000 in the banks also took a risk, because $250,000 is the limit for federal deposit insurance. Why should those people and entities be protected against what was a known, avoidable risk? And if the U.S. government is making every depositor whole, what is the point of having an announced limit for federal deposit insurance? Does this mean that, from now on, every depositor will be protected in full, irrespective of how much they have in their accounts? If not, what’s the distinction? And doesn’t this decision encourage risky practices by depositors and banks?

Left unsaid at this point is how the federal government is going to pay for acting as a backstop–again–for troubled banks. Banks have to be permitted to fail, and depositors have to understand that there is risk in going over announced deposit insurance limits. Otherwise, there is no point to having announced limits, and we are left in the untenable position of the federal government insuring every dollar deposited in a bank.

The Distracted Driving Epidemic

The National Safety Council released statistics last week about highway fatalities. The news about driving on the open road in America is not good: the NSC’s preliminary estimate is that 46,000 people died on U.S. highways in 2022. That’s a 22 percent increase over pre-pandemic 2019, and puts highway fatalities among the leading causes of death in the United States–especially for people under 30.

The NSC’s president and CEO, Lorraine Martin, makes the point that almost all crashes are preventable. She notes: “Words matter, and as a country, we need to learn and understand that there are no vehicle accidents. Each crash that occurs on America’s roads is entirely preventable and unacceptable. We must change the way we think about designing and moving around in our communities, understanding that people will make mistakes and the cost of those mistakes should not be serious injury or death.”

One of the mistakes that people routinely make is distracted driving caused by cell phone use on the road. It’s hard to estimate precisely how many crashes are caused by texting or other uses because reliable statistics aren’t being collected–but the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Bruce Landsberg, believes the impact is tremendous. He calls the problem of distracted driving caused by cell phones an “epidemic” and notes: “Everybody talks about fatalities, but there are hundreds of thousands or more life-altering injuries — broken limbs, brain injuries, horrible burns. This doesn’t have to happen. These crashes are not accidents. They are completely preventable.”

Experts believe that as many as one-third of crashes are caused by distracted driving–and if you’ve been on the road recently, and seen a driver drift from one lane to another for no apparent reason or passed a car driving erratically only to note that the driver is checking out their phone, you credit those estimates. People are addicted to their phones, and that fact is making our highways more dangerous than ever. Efforts to prevent distracted driving, like “text stops” along highways, don’t seem to be making a meaningful difference, either.

You wonder if the ultimate solution to distracted driving will be technological, achieved either through reliable self-driving cars, or through dampening fields or automatic deactivations that prevent the use of cell phones in moving vehicles, or through some other invention. Cell phone users seem incapable of voluntarily stepping away from their phones, even when they are behind the wheel. They just believe, mistakenly, that they can safely look at their phones and tap out a message when they are barreling down a highway at 70 mph–but when they realize in a split-second that they are wrong, it is often too late to recover.

The Vinyl Rebound

We got rid of our vinyl records decades ago. They were a pain to maintain, and little kids and turntables, toner arms with delicate needles, and easily scratched vinyl records are not a good combination. When CDs were introduced, I figured vinyl would inevitably go the way of the dodo.

But I was wrong–vinyl has made a comeback. Last year, for the first time since the 1980s, the sale of vinyl record units outpaced the sale of CDs. Of course, both physical forms are far behind streaming services in the delivery of music–but still, vinyl obviously has its fans.

Interestingly, no one knows exactly why vinyl is hot (or at least lukewarm) again. Some diehards insist that the sound produced by vinyl is superior to streaming services and CDs–richer, fuller, more robust, more nuanced. Others believe vinyl fans like the album as a kind of art piece, and clearly some classic covers, like that of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, look a lot better on a full-sized album sleeve than on a shrimpy CD box. Others believe that album lovers like the tactile sensation of playing an album and its related elements, like carefully removing it from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, keeping it clean to avoid those annoying skips, and deftly replacing it when the playing is done.

And here’s proof that the album renaissance has some legs: manufacturers like Sony and Victrola have started to produce new turntables again. Obviously, they think there is a market there, and one that is probably here to stay.

The Pulverizing Power Of Panic

Yesterday a bank failed. Silicon Valley Bank, one of the most prominent lenders to the tech industry and the 16th largest bank in the country, was shut down by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Company took over operations as the bank’s receiver. The collapse of SVB is the second largest bank failure in U.S. history.

Bank failures are never pretty. They often recall Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation that there are two ways to go bankrupt: “gradually, and then suddenly.” Banks operate on a foundation of trust in their stability and integrity, and when that foundation is undercut, failure can occur with breathtaking speed. That appears to be what happened with SVB.

As an interesting CNBC article recounts, SVB’s downfall took less than two days. On Wednesday, the bank advised investors that it needed to raise $2.5 billion. At that point, the bank was apparently still reasonably well capitalized; at the end of December, it reported $209 billion in assets and $175 billion in deposits. But underlying issues with the American economy had caused some start-up depositors to withdraw their assets to stay afloat, the bank found itself short of funds and was forced to sell the bonds it had available for sale at a loss, and when it announced it needed to raise additional funds the blood was in the water. The bank’s stock price plummeted, the tech investment community spread the word that deposits should be removed from the bank, and customers withdrew an astonishing $42 billion in less than 48 hours, leaving the bank with a negative cash balance of $958 million. With the bank insolvent and unable to find a buyer, regulators stepped in.

The CNBC article quotes one fintech investor as saying that the failure of SVB was “a hysteria-induced bank run” caused by venture capital firms. That’s often what happens–and the sad thing is that the people who panic, withdraw their funds, and precipitate bank failures usually end up safe, whereas the people who leave their money in the bank and trust that all is well often end up sorry. In the case of SVB, the people who kept their deposits in the bank will now have to deal with the FDIC, which insures deposits up to $250,000 per depositor. If you’re someone who had more than $250,000 on deposit at SVB, you might well find yourself out of luck.

For all of our thin veneer of civilization and sophistication, people are still prone to panic–especially panic about money. Let’s all hope that the failure of SVB, coming on the heels of cryptocurrency collapses and other recent negative financial developments, doesn’t provoke a stampede.

Our Optimistic IRS

America’s Internal Revenue Service turns out to be a pretty optimistic place. This may surprise people who associate the IRS with dense, bureaucratic prose, obscure tax calculations, and no-nonsense audits. But the irrefutable evidence of innate IRS optimism is right there for all to see, in Table III of IRS publication 590-B.

(That description of the document just screams “IRS,” doesn’t it?)

Publication 590-B tells you when and how you need to determine the mandatory “required minimum distributions” from your 401(k) plan and other individual retirement arrangements, because you eventually have to start taking those retirement funds that have been sitting in your retirement account in pre-tax form and start paying tax on them. As Publication 590-B explains at page 8, you figure your RMD “by dividing the IRA account balance (defined next) as of the close of business on December 31 of the preceding year by the applicable distribution period or life expectancy” set by one of the Tables.

Table III, found at page 65 of Publication 590-B, is the uniform lifetime table that many taxpayers will use. It gives a number for each year of expected longevity that you then use to complete that equation. And that’s where the optimism seeps in, because Table III includes numbers all the way up to age “120 and over.” That’s right: the IRS thinks there’s a sufficient chance that you might make it to 120 that it has formalized and published the appropriate retirement plan tax calculation if that actually occurs.

Pay no attention to the fact that records indicate that precisely one person in modern world history–Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to age 122 before dying in 1997–has made it to their 120th birthday! Some scientists think you have a shot of hitting that milestone, and now you can be confident that the IRS does, too.

By the way, if my understanding of Publication 590-B is correct, if you make it to 120 you’ll have to take half of whatever remains in your retirement account as income at that point, and pay tax on it. Think of the birthday party you could have!

The Bear Friendship Test

Somebody at the National Park Service apparently has a sense of humor.

The NPS Twitter account published some bear safety tips as we move from hibernation season into spring, a period where famished, reawakened bears living in national parks can expect to be much more active. One useful tip was: “If you come across a bear, never push a slower friend down, even if you feel the friendship has run its course.”

A bear encounter under such conditions would be a pretty good test of a friendship.

The real advice was to travel in groups, keep your distance from any bear you see, not surprise a bear that hasn’t noticed you, and “identify yourself” as a human to any bear that notices you by standing still, talking calmly and waving your arms. I’ve seen exactly one bear in the wild, when I was hiking in Glacier National Park, and my approach was to quietly turn around and skedaddle in the opposite direction. That worked for me.

The Power Of The Crime Issue

Chicago’s incumbent mayor lost in her bid for reelection last night. Mayor Lori Lightfoot finished third behind two challengers, garnering only 16.89 percent of the vote.

The consensus view is that the outcome-determinative issue in the Chicago mayoral race was crime. The Windy City experienced a 41 percent increase in overall crime from 2021 to 2022, and the candidate who received the most votes in yesterday’s election, Paul Vallas, campaigned on the theme that crime in Chicago is out of control. Vallas, who is backed by Chicago’s police union, ran on a law-and-order platform and calls for adding hundreds of new officers to the city police force.

Interestingly, the second place candidate, Brandon Johnson, takes a sharply different approach, arguing that Chicago doesn’t need more money for police, but instead should increase funding for mental health care, education, jobs and affordable housing. Other candidates, including Lightfoot, accused Johnson of wanting to “defund the police.” It therefore looks like Chicago voters will be presented with starkly different approaches to the crime issue as the candidates move toward the final runoff election on April 4.

Mayor Lightfoot’s loss in the Chicago mayoral race shows, once again, that crime is an immensely powerful political issue, especially on the local level. If voters don’t feel personally secure as they go about their lives, they aren’t going to pay a lot of attention to other matters. In American cities, that’s a lesson from Municipal Politics 101.

Redefining “Cooperation”

I’m sure the job of a TSA agent isn’t an easy one. They’ve got to remind travelers of the ever-changing rules for screening, enforce the security standards, and review the x-rays of countless suitcases and computer bags every shift. They are also regularly dealing with stressed-out people who left too late and are now are trying desperately to get through security and catch their flights. There’s bound to be some friction.

Still, I thought this sign that I saw in an airport recently in the TSA checkpoint area was an interesting juxtaposition. After announcing in bold letters that any threats, verbal abuse, or physical violence against TSA agents are strictly prohibited and could give rise to criminal charges and thousands of dollars in fines, there’s a polite thank-you to travelers for their “cooperation.” Typically, you wouldn’t think of “cooperation” as describing compliance with instructions in the face of monetary penalties and criminal prosecution.

Don’t get me wrong: I think TSA agents are just doing their jobs and should be treated with respect and consideration–which in my traveling experience is exactly what happens. I’ve never seen any kind of incident in the security area, and I hope that I never do. But the TSA’s definition of “cooperation” is a bit more elastic than mine.

The Road Home

Yesterday I got up early and drove from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interesting ride that took me on I-95, then I-26, then a long stretch on I-77–one of the major north-south arteries in the eastern part of the country, running from the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio to Lake Erie–before finally rolling through southeastern Ohio on Route 33.

My journey began in the coastal low country, where the roads were flat as a pancake. The roads were so flat for so long, in fact, that it was mildly startling to encounter my first hill in inland South Carolina. But the countryside quickly becomes hilly, and then mountainous, as you intersect with I-77 and head north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and and later the Appalachian Mountains. Before you know it you are dealing with numerous switchbacks and driving through the long tunnel at Big Walker Mountain.

I-77 is apparently notorious for truckers; it is ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in the country for drivers of the big rigs, primarily because of its unpredictable weather. The weather is so unpredictable that I-77 has its own weather tracker website, which provides information like that shown in the screenshot above. I got a taste of the squirrelly weather yesterday, when I hit a significant amount of thick fog in one of the mountain passes. The drive also features lots of steep inclines and declines and significant curves as you maneuver through the mountains. It’s impressive work by the traffic engineers and road builders, but surely no treat for tractor-trailers.

As I drove, I once again appreciated the investment in our national road system, which allowed me to make a reasonably straight-line drive back home and complete the trip in a single morning and afternoon. The only sour taste came when I hit two “pay to drive” stretches–a paid “express lane” option in North Carolina, and three toll booths, requiring payments of $4.25 each, in southern West Virginia. The express lane option would have really irked me if the traffic was heavy, but fortunately it wasn’t. The toll payments in West Virginia made me wonder why tolls were required there when the rest of I-77 was, literally, a freeway. The road went through rugged country at that stretch, and at least it seemed that my toll payments were keeping the road in good repair. In the grand scheme of things, paying $12.75 and buying a few tanks of gas to complete a 670-mile journey is a bargain.

The Low Country

They call the coastal area around Savannah Georgia, extending up the coast to South Carolina, the low country. Crisscrossed with rivers, creeks, and other waterways, it is flat country where the live oak trees sport thick beards of Spanish moss.

This is an area where people pay attention to the tides. This is not surprising when you literally live at sea level, and an especially high tide could wash over the coastal properties. Much of the seaside territory is salt marsh that stretches for miles, as seen in the photo above. At high tide, the reeds are largely submerged; as the tide recess, the reeds are exposed. In the distance you can see the barrier island that separates the area from the open sea.

We live in a big country with lots of different environmental areas and zones. The low country area is a good example of our ecological diversity.

The Driving Option

Like many people, I’ve had some evil luck traveling by air over the past year or so, and have had to deal with delays and outright cancellations of flights that have left me stranded. In view of those unhappy experiences, I’ve vowed to use the driving option as an alternative method of transportation when I think it makes sense to do so. Yesterday I put the driving option to the test by driving from Columbus to Atlanta for a meeting.

The stated flight time for travel from Columbus to Atlanta is one hour and 40 minutes. Build in the time needed to get to the airport and get through security to your gate with time to spare and the time needed to get out of Atlanta’s airport, which is one of the nation’s largest and busiest, and you’re probably looking at about five hours, all in. In contrast, the drive time is about eight and a half hours, door to door. That’s at the outer limits of what I would consider to be a reasonable driving alternative zone–that is, anything within an eight-hour drive should be considered for a visit by car rather than by plane.

If you’re interested solely in speed, the airline flight is the obvious choice. Of course, there are other advantages to driving (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective). With driving, you are an active participant in the process, rather than a passive passenger. With driving, you control when you leave and arrive, rather than being subject to flight schedules. With driving, you take the weather, technological, and scheduling snafus that have affected airline flights over the last year out of the equation–although of course you might hit a traffic jam. And there’s always the chance that, GPS system notwithstanding, you might get lost.

The drive from Columbus to Atlanta is a pretty straight shot: you head down I-71 to Cincinnati, join up with I-75, cross the Ohio River, and then follow I-75 through Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia all the way to Atlanta. I left a bit before 7 and got in a bit after 3 p.m., and in the process I got a taste of the country that I would never have experienced from above 10,000 feet.

I knew I had left the Midwest behind when I rolled past Florence, Kentucky, where the water tower says “Florence Y’all.” That perception was confirmed when I got a chicken sandwich for lunch from a Bojangle’s (a chain we don’t have in Cbus) somewhere in Tennessee and the woman staffing the drive-thru kept calling me “darlin'”. The drive takes you past cities (Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, and Chattanooga) with a lot of countryside, and Civil War battle sites, in between. My Ohio sensibilities were touched when I saw that “Cleveland” and “Dayton” are also places in Tennessee. I listened to music and reflected on the fact that I am fortunate to live in a big, diverse country with an interesting history.

I like driving, and for me the journey from Columbus to Atlanta showed that the driving option is a viable one. I’d do it again.

Atlanta Skyline

I’m in Atlanta for meetings. The meeting site is some distance from the “main” downtown, shown above, but is next to a kind of second downtown with a few tall buildings. In this respect, Atlanta is like Houston or Phoenix, each of which has multiple downtowns.

In the Midwest, we try to concentrate the taller buildings in one downtown area. I like that approach.