Teapot Dome, second edition

It seems clear that the incoming Trump Administration has already figured out how to make the country “great again”. Key to its strategy is the sale or “gift” of public assets to private interests, mainly “friends” of Trump and his pals.

Certainly whatever token amount can be worked out for this fire sale of the heritage of our country will temporarily boost revenues, but in the long term (too late, of course) we will learn the consequences of the election of 2016.

The other part of this festival of greed will be what are called “usage charges” for literally everything essential to life and sustenance,  essentially the conversion of freely traveled highways to toll roads, escalating fees for privately owned frequency spectrum and both surface and subsurface water.

Actually we will see a replay of the scandals of the Harding Administration of the 1920s, such as the Teapot Dome bribery case involving the only Cabinet Officer (so far!) convicted of a crime in office, a character well known in New Mexico (and reviled by history!), Albert B. Fall.

Complicit in the Harding greed-fest was Republican lock on Congress, lasting from 1919 to 1930, during which the slide toward Depression and war was launched—another similarity to today.

Sadly, responsibility for this election result belongs with all the eligible voters who, by their indifference, failed to exercise their responsibilities by voting in the 2016 election (final total, 53.1% voted, 46.9 % stayed home). I hope they’re happy.

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Election 2016, or will Trumpriots suffice?


 May 7 2016

     Two “affluenza” sufferers occupy the world’s attention today. One is Kim Jong-un of North Korea, strutting his bulk before his “adoring masses” to orchestrated applause; the other is Donald J. Trump, basking in his reflection on stadium size video displays, buoyed by “believers” hanging on his every syllable. Neither man has any doubt that he is infallible, omniscient and omnipotent.  

       Those who can are, in effect, stocking their shelters and burying their gold while the performers play their roles to uncertain outcomes.

      With the possibility that Trump may “fire” the Republican Party (or be “fired” by party leadership) and either form a 3rd party ticket or provoke an electoral college deadlock, two little known amendments to the Constitution, the 12th and the 20th come into play.

      If both the House (tasked with selecting the President) and the Senate (tasked with selecting the Vice-President), both fail to act before the January 20th Inauguration day, the Speaker of the House becomes the President until the legislative bodies perform their mandated duties.

       Since there is no penalty in law for failure of the House and Senate to perform their electoral tasks, in effect, Paul Ryan could be the President for the full 4 year term, assuming that he is re-elected to the House.

         Speaker Ryan’s “Vice President”, in the absence of an elected VP, would be the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, presently Orrin Hatch. Succession beyond those two proceeds down the list of Cabinet Members, starting with the Secretary of State.

         I suspect that this may be a better option than others for which riot control gear are now being stockpiled, starting with the City of Cleveland tasked with hosting the Republican Convention in a few weeks.

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Questioning and Curiosity

“Today, we can’t afford to become adults”

Thoughts on change, questioning, and childlike wonder from MIT’s Joichi Ito

Joichi_ItoIn recent weeks, I’ve been sharing some of the fuller versions of interviews conducted while I was researching and writing A More Beautiful Question. Here are some quotes from my talk with Joichi Ito (@Joi), one of the world’s most respected technologists and the current director of that hothouse of innovation known as the MIT Media Lab.

Ito on why questioning is becoming more important than ever

“There are two important differences in the world now. First, it’s a time of exponential change, so things are different every day. The old model of learning—that you do a lot of it when you’re young and then become an adult who doesn’t learn as much—that just doesn’t work as a productive way of living now. You have to learn new things all the time. And you learn by being curious and by questioning

“The other important difference: in addition to increasing change, you’ve got increasing speed and complexity. In a world that’s complex and fast, things aren’t as predictable as they were before. You must be much more resilient—to change, to failure, to the unexpected. Now you must maintain some of that childlike wonder and that ability to keep questioning and learning through doing.”

On questioning and learning

“If the learner is doing the questioning, it’s very different from when an examiner (or teacher) is doing the questioning. When you have the examiner doing the questioning, you’re in what I would call education mode. I think education is something other people do to you, whereas learning is what you do to yourself. You don’t learn unless you question—but we often don’t teach our kids to question; we teach them to answer our questions, forcing them to learn facts and skills. But since we may not know what facts or skills that kid’s going to need in the future, what you really want is to empower them to be able to find their own answers when they need them.

“Through questioning, we can also find more than answers—knowing how to ask the right questions can help you to pull support from a network of people or communities as you need it. You pull from the network by querying it, but you need to understand how to frame the questions. So it may be a matter of, how do you formulate the query to Google, or to an online community, to get the support or resources or answers you need. And if you have that skill, you may not need to know anything, other than people; it’s more about understanding the context of the network and how to traverse it.”

Diversity and questioning

“If a group is asking a question or challenging itself to come up with an answer for something, there’s a great body of work that shows diversity is extremely important. Everybody has different frameworks or models to ask the question; and it turns out that having a large number of very smart people that are similar is not nearly as useful as having maybe less smart people but with diversity of background.

“Then the issue becomes, how do you have a constructive conversation when everyone’s frameworks and backgrounds are different? At the Media Lab, we do what I call practice over theory. So, if an artist and a mechanical engineer are working together, it might be difficult for them to write a rigorous academic paper together, but they can build something together… and it either works or doesn’t. Often, academics create theories and test them and if it doesn’t work they start questioning the reality, the data. We’re the opposite; we build a robot and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And if it works but we don’t understand it, we can study it. Being able to “build the robot” is a really essential in this kind of environment where you’re searching and trying to discover things.

“At the Media Lab, we try to discover answers to questions we don’t know to ask yet. And that’s actually a harder kind of questioning because what you’re doing is asking, What is the question? That’s a harder thing but it’s where you get the really disruptive changes and discoveries. Some people would say we’re a pile of answers looking for questions.”


Why companies need to experiment more

“At the Lab, usually the costs of trying to figure out whether or not we should try something is more than just going ahead and letting people try it. For most things, the costs of experimenting, of building and trying things, have gone down. If you look at the people who started Facebook and Google, none of these guys asked permission, they just tried things out—because it didn’t cost them much to do it. And in companies today, I think people really need to think about that. Because in many companies, it’s still very difficult to do things without permission—and the permission-getting process can be slow. It’s important to lower the friction on innovation by allowing people to explore.”

On “neoteny”

“I was introduced to the term by Timothy Leary when he and I were writing a book together, and I kind of fell in love with it. Neoteny is about the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood; curiosity, playfulness, imagination, joy, wonder. This brings us back to the point that today, we can’t afford to become adults—meaning, we can’t afford to fall into that trap of being in repetition mode. Those childlike attributes, somehow you need to keep them. There are some people in our society who are allowed to remain creative, but for the most part, creativity isn’t considered an adult thing—you’re not supposed to fingerpaint. Neoteny is a word that gives you permission to keep that childlike creativity as an adult. To encourage neoteny, I think what’s needed is a culture that encourages playfulness and experimentation. That’s the culture we have here at the Media Lab.” (More on this site about neoteny.)

 On getting better at questioning

“To question, I think you have to have courage and confidence. A lot of times, if you’re sitting there and you think about something in the bathtub, you might say, “Oh, I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it”—and then you stop thinking about it. But the world is changing so fast and so much, every day, that things that weren’t true in the past are true now—so you should assume that what you’re thinking may actually be an original idea and pursue it. Have the energy and the courage and creativity to think through these ideas and try them out. And even if you fail you’ll have learned a lot more than if you just gave up.”

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Alcohol fuel for the New Mexico Spaceport

Your opinions (printed March 18, Las Cruces Sun-News)

                                     NEW SPACEPORT BAR LIKE OLD BOOZE SHIPS

A burst of creativity from the crew piloting New Mexico’s ill-starred spaceport resulted in a need to obtain a liquor license, authorization for which was signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez. (Senate Bill 147) This “need” has a basis in history. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, grand ocean liners such as the Ile-de-France, Windsor Castle and Bremen kept their on-board bars open while docked at New York piers, as the liners stocked and fueled for the return voyage across the Atlantic to Europe.

Through a quirk in the law, well-heeled visitors to shipboard bars were not technically on the soil of the United States, and thus were free to imbibe in unlimited quantities the premium booze (far superior to the mob-produced bootleg gin available on land) before staggering down the gangway to a waiting limo or cab.

So impaired these bar patrons were, that many could have been convinced they had traveled across the ocean and returned during their boozy episode.

In the same way, fogged-up patrons of the spaceport’s bar could be led to believe, with a little creative stage-craft, that they had launched into space and returned as their glasses were speedily refilled one after another. All such patrons, when suitably pickled, (no doubt enhancing the bottom line of the spaceport in the process) would be loaded into a stretch limo for the trek home to make sure none got near the wheel of a car until thoroughly sobered up.

The genius of this plan is that no longer do we have to bother with the empty promises of Sir Richard or his fellow space-venture hype artists or the technical issues of an actual orbital passenger rocket ship to provide a revenue stream for the spaceport.

— Dan Townsend, Las Cruces

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Success in school explained

Starting at the school door is not soon enough

Recently I read an open letter from Michael Hays to Senator Lee Cotter concerning how to fix the 79% deficit in student reading performance in the fourth grade. As I see it, Hays believes the fix for NM is to upgrade colleges of education as opposed to Cotter’s support of widespread third grade retentions. Both are ideas for serious discussion but they don’t address the single factor that has been found to be the most important for student success.

Let’s step back and put the whole situation in perspective. Five years of life experiences have gone by before a child gets to school. Brain development in the first few years are the foundation for all learning that follows. What happens at home during this time has more influence on future success than anything that comes later.

Think of something you learned to do well. Maybe you are a great cook, play on a baseball team, or consider music an important pleasure in your life?

What is your very first memory of that experience? Quite likely, you can remember back to when you were three years old.

Now think of your best subjects in school. Is there a connection between your earliest memories and your school experiences? If you never touched a ball, how did you do in P.E? If your family didn’t dance or sing, how was your aptitude for music class?

For the first five years of life, every child’s first teachers are their caregivers. During the time when the brain is growing fastest and making crucial neural connections, a child is attaching emotionally, emulating, and trying to please the primary caregiver in the family.

Yes, educational excellence is of paramount importance and colleges of education are charged with the responsibility to train and produce the very best Reading teachers. Of course, public schools need to be accountable to standards, and milestones must be met to insure that learning is provided in a developmentally appropriate sequence for most of the children. I won’t argue with any of this. But, when looking for solutions, starting at the school door is not soon enough.

What happens at home between birth and the first day of kindergarten has much more to do with academic achievement than the number of years spent in third grade.

If a child grows up in a home where family games are played around the kitchen table and in the park, where throwing a ball, watching and talking sports is a favorite pastime, if music permeates the air, that child will enter school ready to excel at recess, PE, Music and even Math. Add books and shared family reading time to that mix and now our theoretical little kid is on a level playing field for Reading which opens the rest of the curriculum as well.

Lots of talking, naming, explaining, telling stories, and reading books together for pleasure, along with opportunities to ask and answer questions are fundamental learning skills. Starting school with these experiences make it much more likely that the curriculum in each grade will be developmentally appropriate and the transition from one grade to the next will be seamless.

Parents need to know that Kindergarten is changing to keep up with a fast paced world:

Children are expected to come to school able to recognize their own names as well as the names and sounds of letters and be able to print many of them in both upper and lowercase, count to 20 and see the one to one correspondence of numbers to objects, retell a story they have heard, and draw a picture to tell about an experience. They need to be able to concentrate on a task for five minutes, participate politely in group activity, and be flexible enough to adjust to new people and situations.

If 79% of our community’s children are not reading at grade level, there are lots of things that need to be done, including teacher training and school reform, but first parents need to be informed of what society’s expectations are and how easily they can be addressed at home in the earliest years. Finding out after school starts is entirely too late.


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Sayonara 2015

(printed in the Las Cruces Sun-News, December 31, 2015)

Good riddance 2015, hopes for better 2016

If I could, I’d give 2015 a swift kick in the pants as it made way for 2016. Consider what went on during the year now ending: a mother who gave her six-month-old child a bottle, then suited up and joined her husband on a killing spree at a holiday party; a group of thugs in the Middle East who “inspire” others, (not themselves, oddly enough), to blow themselves up in various parts of the world expecting to get to paradise before anyone else; “low information voters” who become low information candidates for president of the U.S. — along with assorted sneerers and overstuffed billionaires. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

How about the “smart money” guys of 2015 who pride themselves on sending young people out on international soccer and (U.S.) football fields to beat their brains out to generate bribes, payoffs and lucrative TV contracts for their handlers. Or the characters who buy up drug companies to enrich themselves on the pain and suffering of others — not to mention congressmen enjoying the best medical care in the world seeking to deny health care to the working poor.

How about the makers and marketers of the guns spewing ammunition out of car windows; within classrooms, clinics, hospitals and churches; into playmates from other playmates; and, at close range, into the bodies of tortured souls afflicted with suicidal impulses.

Finally, 2015 saw another bump in the profits of predatory loan stores now on street corners around poor neighborhoods and military bases — so much for military preparedness.

Hope springs eternal, goes the expression. Will 2016 give hope a chance?

Dan Townsend,

Las Cruces

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The Consequences of Denial

April 25, 2010

Suppose that an airline pilot, doing his pre-flight checks at Denver’s International Airport, got a printout of weather data which reflected not metropolitan Denver 2010, but  the  same area as it was in 1800.  The occasional native American cooking fire would have been the only contribution of man to the area temperature in 1800. Metropolitan Denver, like all 21st century urban areas, contributes by means of the well-known “heat island” effect, several degrees (as much as 22 degrees F.), depending on the season/time of day, etc., to its area temperature.  This is in addition to global climate change and other factors.

Factoring the spurious data he was supplied into the “density altitude” calculation critical to successful take-off, the unfortunate pilot and his passengers risked  winding up being mixed with fiery wreckage just across the freeway marking the end of the runway—another tragedy based on faulty data.

Another example: the trainee helmsman on duty as the Exxon Valdez wallowed  fully loaded  through Prince William Sound Alaska one night in 1989,  failed to realize that the fully loaded vessel handled very sluggishly to its controls compared to its handling, empty, on the trip to Alaska.  Pushed by cost-cutting management to shave time from the voyage by charting a course near Bligh Reef, the unfamiliar feel to the controls drew the vessel onto the reef, and on to front pages around the world.

In 1964, my wife and I visited the beaches along New Jersey’s Atlantic Shore. Wondering why so few were present on a beautiful summer afternoon, we soon discovered tar balls and oily goo along the water’s edge. The locals told us that an upwelling of the sea  had brought up oil from the bottom placed there as Nazi submarines, organized into “Wolf Packs” sank hundreds of merchant ships, many of them oil tankers, during the early years of WWII, many within sight of shore (wreckage and bodies were a regular sight along our Atlantic beaches at that time. The massive effort to stop this carnage was a well-kept secret during the war). The  waters of Gulf of Mexico are presently unwilling recipients of enough oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blowout, underway as this piece is written,  to fill each of the sunken tankers of the WWII era in a few minutes. Leadership of the communities  which came to depend on revenue from the undersea oil resource are already in denial, for the usual political reasons.

Natural systems are a lot like the fully loaded Exxon Valdez.  As a helmsman on various ships on several occasions, I am well aware of the need to anticipate the reaction of a vessel to its controls as currents, winds and cargo loading mix with steering commands to produce the vessel’s actual course. Reductions  in, for example, CO2 contributions by man, will not be fully felt in terms of global warming, for decades. Does this mean that we should deny that Bligh Reef, or its climatic equivalent, exist?

Obviously waiting until the Exxon Valdez is within a few feet of the reef to correct its course would be disastrous, as history shows. When do Global Climate Change skeptics plan to take corrective action, should the extremely complex variables at play in man-caused climate change finally produce a definitive result with which all could agree?

The good part is that I am unaware of any global climate change skeptics piloting commercial aircraft or ocean-going ships. We can all be thankful on that score.

Dan Townsend

(Re: the above article: I was a resident of Alaska for 35 years, during the “Pipeline era” and the Exxon Valdez tragedy and its aftermath. At different times I was a helmsman on three ocean-going vessels: the MV Stevonia {Ellerman Wilson Lines, UK}; and  the fully rigged sailing vessels “Western Union” and “Wolf” home port, Key West Florida. I was also, among other duties, a “cockpit observer” for the Federal Aviation Administration.)

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THE 2015 REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN PROGRAM (only the names have changed)

Loony tunes

February 22, 2012

The Republican primary brings up many possibilities. Suppose, for example, Rick Santorum becomes President. Added to his titles will be “Messiah in Chief.”
How about Newt Gingrich. His new title, borrowed from Native American custom, would be: “Chief-He-who-kisses-his-mirror.”
Mitt Romney would have the title: “He-who-fires-(and enjoys it!)-before-he-sees-the-whites-of-their-eyes.”
Dr. Ron Paul would pioneer a new health care program. Suppose, for example, you were faced with a life-threatening medical problem. Under his program, your next move would be to take two aspirins, pick out your headstone and gravesite, put on a blindfold and jaywalk across the busiest road in your area at rush hour.
All four of the above characters, should they be elected, would reform education. A compulsory subject for all students would be: “HYPOCRISY FOR FUN AND PROFIT.”
The Justice system would also be reformed. All Federal judges considered “liberal” would be removed. In their place, candidates for judgeships would be evaluated on whether they: would convict, on flimsy evidence, (1) every woman seeking or obtaining an abortion, or anyone offering aid, comfort or medical care to such a person; and (2) every person who even thought about environmental regulations or making robber barons accountable.
Foreign policy would be even more interesting. A wall and a moat would be erected completely around the 48 states. All persons who didn’t fit the mold would be hounded out of the country. We withdraw from all international organizations, and refuse to talk to any foreign leaders in any language except English. The dollar ceases to be a convertible currency. Gold goes to 10 thousand dollars an ounce, and martial law is declared to control the growing homeless population.

Dan Townsend

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ROBBER BARONS OF THE 19TH CENTURY, chapter 2? (also gun logic, per Bob Libby)

Las Cruces Sun News 11/04/2015, Page A04

Your opinions

New chapter of robber barons in Las Cruces

Early in 2007, Las Cruces’ movers and shakers were giddy with the announcement of “Vistas of Presidio” and its prospect of doubling the city’s population. The developer of this project seemed to have a Midas touch, passing out money to state officials, local candidates for office and various local “good causes.”

The unraveling of this bounty occurred in slow motion, coinciding with the barely averted meltdown of the U.S. banking system in 2008 caused by “liar loans,” fraudulent mortgage marketing and an earlier loosening of banking regulations.

Sadly, our movers and shakers never got over their gold fever, expecting their chosen candidates for local office to deliver them another bounty, coupled with the return of “drive-by building inspections” and other delights of the Las Cruces of 20 years ago.

It’s not surprising that local second-generation wealth seeks to leverage its way to even greater wealth by, in this case, orchestrating barriers to wage growth among struggling workers in the area and agitating against community improvements because, of course, wealth lives within its own bubble.

One path to greater sustained growth of the local economy is to welcome new business with favorable commercial space lease rates in our abundant local inventory. Sadly, as soon as demand for commercial space develops, lease rates go up, disadvantaging established businesses and discouraging new ones. Government can’t help this problem, but the private sector can.

Of course, what can we expect locally, when on the national stage, a billionaire seeks to buy the office of the president, and a couple of billionaire brothers seem to have already bought Congress and are lusting after the judiciary.

Welcome to the Robber Baron era of the 19th century, Chapter 2. 

— Dan Townsend, Las Cruces


Regulate gun ownership more like we do cars

When I was a child, I remember my grandfather telling me how he learned to drive on his way home from buying his first car. Boy, have we come a long way since then.

Now roads are paved, there are guardrails, seat belts, licensing, registration and mandatory insurance. The death rate per million miles driven has decreased substantially due to all of the above, and more.

Now our country is faced with a gun death crisis. More than 30,000 people die each year from handguns. Many are suicides and a great number are accidental. What we need now are new safety guidelines. These should include new “smart gun” technology, which consists of guns that will not fire unless the owner has a remote key similar to that of some new cars. Alternatively, there could be fingerprint recognition or use of a pin. One important safety feature is to make guns inoperable without the magazine inserted. This alone could prevent many accidental deaths. Almost everyone accepts the wisdom of a driver’s license, which is obtained by passing a written test and a driving exam. It seems reasonable to me to require this for the operation of guns, too. This, incidentally, may provide the examiner an opportunity to evaluate the applicant’s mental state.

Guns, like cars, should be registered so that a chain of ownership can be determined. This would help identify unscrupulous dealers who may be supplying undesirable owners, i.e. criminals, minors or mentally incompetent buyers. Lastly in seems to make perfect sense that, like motor vehicles, liability insurance should be required of the owners, too. In this way accident victims could be fairly compensated. I hope you will agree that the above suggestions will lead to a safer society by implementing rules no more onerous than those required to drive. 

— Bob Libby, Las Cruces

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Las Cruces Sun News 08/09/2015, Page C05

Your opinions 

The Devil’s Paintbrush is still doing damage

The human weakness for mayhem and murder has been a consistent source for profit through the ages, a fact well known to the arms industry behind today’s National Rifle Association.

Armories of Germany, Britain, France, Belgium, Russia and the United States at the end of the 19th century produced versions of the “Maxim Gun,” referred to as the “Devil’s Paintbrush” due to its use in conflict since the original 1883 patent by its inventor, Hiram Maxim: “In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He said, ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.’” Ninety percent of those felled in the battlefields of WWI from bullet-related injuries died from Maxims and clones employed in that war. Similar numbers succumbed in WWII and subsequent wars from land and airlaunched ordnance fired at a rate of 600 rounds per minute and higher.

Sprayed ordnance at up to 1,200 rounds per minute is available from the muzzle of the Glock 18, a 2-pound gun that occupies the space within a lady’s handbag.

Trust the NRA, its network of craven politicians and infotainment jockeys to make such toys available to whomever wants one — presently available only to our increasingly militarized police forces — but stay tuned!

Imagine the result of a suspected attack inside a darkened theater answered by vigilantes in the audience with fire, the walls echoing from all directions and lit cell phone screens confused with muzzle flashes — enough body bags for the outcome?

Back to the NRA and its sponsors — Sir Basil Zaharoff, the most notorious arms dealer of all time, was known as the “Merchant of Death.” I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing the honor.

Dan Townsend, Las Cruces 

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