Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let's Tip One to Southwest Florida

As the ball drops, here's a countdown to the New Year -- a countdown worth a toast or two.

10 - That's the state ranking of the NCH Healthcare System by U.S. News & World Report. Hats off to the NCH hospitals, clinics and the thousands of healthcare professionals who keep us well. It's one of the many reasons southwest Florida is so special.

9 - The percent increase in Collier County property values, a bonanza for for homeowners. Not only is the weather great and the economy booming, but our property values keep on rising. I'll take a 9% return any day.

8 - The number of chamber music programs in Naples. That's right, eight! And that's just chamber music. Add to that local opera, church music, Stay in May and the marvelous Naples Philharmonic, to say nothing of jazz groups and even barbershop quartets. When it comes to music, there's something for everybody.

7 - Seven hurricanes hovered around Florida in 2016 and two, Hermine and Matthew, did some damage, about $1 billion worth. But, on balance, we fared pretty well. There were no direct hits of the magnitude of Wilma (2005) or Andrew (1992), and the state's response to flooding and electrical outages was exemplary.

6 - As in a 6% increase in tourists visiting Florida. Storms, Zika and the Orlando nightclub shooting had little effect as some 110 million made their way to The Sunshine State. The tourism industry accounts for more than 1 in 10 jobs in Florida.

5 - Unemployment dropped below 5%, as hospitality and construction pumped new jobs into Collier County. New home sales were up and commercial construction is booming. Looking ahead, Arthrex plans to add 560 high-paying jobs and over $60 million in new investment. Collier remains among the state's top counties for economic growth.

4 - Continuing the good news, Florida racked up two number fours: The 4th fastest growing state and the 4th best state in which to do business -- another check-off on the list of why companies should move here. The contrast to my native Connecticut, where businesses are leaving in droves, couldn't be greater.

3 - We have three new Collier County commissioners this year. Andy Sollis, Bill McDaniel and Burt Saunders join a board facing a ton of issues, the most important being affordable workforce housing, a problem that has gone unaddressed for years. But that's not all. There's the challenge of managing what is expected to be massive growth to the south and east, plus a host of environmental issues, not least the growing problem of water pollution. The new commissioners have their work cut out for them.

2 - The nearly $2 billion in federal money targeted for Everglades restoration. That's the good news. Less certain is the proposed $2.4 billion in state funds to buy sugar land to clean up Lake Okeechobee discharges to the south. Let's hope our state delegation can help push this through.

1 - It's getting to be old hat, but Naples scored another "best." In 2016, the Kiplinger Letter ranked us #1 among "Best Places to Retire," citing the weather, beaches, the growing cultural scene, low taxes and some 90 golf courses. Foremost of the benefits was said to be "healthful living."

So let's tip one to 2016 and drink another to the good news continuing in 2017.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Time for Invention

Has the world seen the last of life-changing inventions? Are we out of big ideas, breakthroughs that impact society?

Several science historians and not a few journalists have worried about this in a panoply of distraught columns, the latest a piece by Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal that claims science hasn't delivered much lately to improve our standard of living.

Ip cites a measure called "total factor productivity" that is said to capture the contribution of innovation to growth. That peaked at 3.4% in the 1950s as breakthroughs like electricity, aviation and antibiotics reached their maximal impact. It currently stands at 0.5%.

The invention worriers say there are reasons for this: Higher capital and regulatory hurdles. Fewer easy targets. A more risk-adverse economy. And so on.

There's no question we have benefited from a golden age of innovation. Basic research has provided a palette of drugs that prolong life. The digital revolution has changed the way the world communicates. New materials have transformed everything from spacecraft to underwear.

But here's the thing. These life-changing inventions are not big bangs. They don't come from a single epiphany. They come from evolutionary, step-wise advances -- incremental gains that over time can make an impact.

  • It took Thomas Edison hundreds of tries, painful trial and error, to invent a practical incandescent bulb. And then it took even longer to transport electricity and light a neighborhood, then a city.
  • George Mitchell didn't crack open shale one day and usher in the fracking age. He and his engineers built on years of experience, mostly failure, to find the right combination of chemicals, sand particles and hydrolytic pressure. Then it took horizontal drilling, another incremental advance, to give us the cheap natural gas that's transformed the 21st century.
  • Enrico Fermi didn't spawn the atomic age with one revelation. He built in stair-step fashion, drawing on the work of Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg and many others.
  • The Wright brothers didn't just happen upon flight one day on a North Carolina beach. As wonderfully told in David McCullough's book, Wilbur and Orville tried and failed and tried again until they overcame gravity. Then they and others spent years making it reliable and launching commercial aviation. There was no one, single eureka.
Science moves in increments. Breakthroughs are the result of building on what came before. Forget about big bangs.

In my working life, I saw remarkable scientists make remarkable advances, virtually all the result of bootstrapping on what came before. Groundbreaking antibiotics, light-curable paints, calorie-free cooking oils. An effective viscosifier to help coax oil out of depleted fields resulted from a simple process change. Sexy? Not at all. But enabling. And impactful.

We're not out of these incremental advances. Far from it. There will be many more, and they will benefit society big time.
  • Artificial intelligence holds promise for everything from real-time control of manufacturing to future modeling of thought.
  • Gene editing will dramatically increase crop yields, adapting agriculture to the stresses of climate change.
  • Offshoots of environmental research will trigger breakthroughs in green chemistry, leading to things like low-cost solar desalination of seawater and conversion of greenhouse gases to building materials. 
  • Gene therapy, long in development, is poised to launch personalized medicine and provide enabling tools for fighting cancer.
So there's no need to agonize about innovation decline. In 1899, Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

He was wrong then and the invention worriers are wrong now. American ingenuity is alive and well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember the Alamo ... and Pearl Harbor

It was a last-minute edit.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt crossed out some words in his speech and replaced them with "infamy." Thus came the iconic radio address to the American people about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- "a day that shall live in infamy."

I don't remember it; I was too young. But I do remember it changed things in a way even a child could understand. Blackouts, air-raid drills, rationing. Neighbors called into service, neighbors who didn't return.

It marked American's entry into the "good war," so named by those who could somehow differentiate a good war from a bad one. I remember hearing that a friend of my father was shot down over the Pacific and forced into the infamous Wake Island death march. He returned and brought me wonderful souvenirs -- or so I thought at the time.

Most Americans of a certain age will never forget the meaning of December 7th, of a sneak attack by an imperial power, a brutal dictatorship -- one every bit as racist and brutal as Nazi Germany. We are reminded of it in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, now a movie, "Unbroken."

The numbers on Pearl Harbor are sobering, even today: 360 Japanese warplanes attacking in two waves, 2,403 Americans killed, the entire Pacific fleet destroyed or disabled. Planes obliterated while on the ground at Ford Island. Merchant ships and passenger vessels sunk by Japanese submarines. Harbors in Hilo, Jahului and Nawiliwili shelled, with more loss of life.

My wife and I visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year, our first trip to Hawaii. It was for us, like many Americans, a pilgrimage of sorts. Now a tranquil tourist attraction, the peacefulness belies the horror of that fateful day.

I was struck by the makeup of the visitors, a veritable little United Nations. A Dutch woman said, "I always wanted to see the place that brought American into the war." Her husband added, "And won the war."

Later on that trip, returning from Kauia, our plane approached the Honolulu airport over Pearl Harbor. Looking out the window, I saw something I'll never forget: Four Navy warships lined up side by side, an eerie flashback, what it must have looked like to the attacking Japanese bombers.

If Pearl Harbor was the beginning, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the end. And I'll always be amused by the notion that we really didn't have to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, that those stellar humanitarians didn't deserve that kind of wrath. The American apologists would instead have had us invade the mainland, playing fair with conventional weapons and incurring another half million casualties. No thank you.

But the past is past. We will always remember Pearl Harbor, but we've moved on.

In my working days, I visited Japan many times, even Hiroshima. I have Japanese friends, also of another generation, business colleagues -- gracious and generous and professional. We have all moved on.

But we must never forget.

So happy Pearl Harbor Day -- December 7, 1941 -- a day that will always live in infamy.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Breaking the Academic Chains that Bind

I was struck by a recent column in the Wall Street Journal that parsed the anti-trade beliefs of president-elect Donald Trump. After reviewing the history of trade and its relationship to American workers, authors Phil Gramm and Michael Solon made a powerful point: "Mr. Trump's proposal to unleash the talent of students now trapped in failing public schools by empowering their parents with greater school choice will have a positive, significant and lasting effect -- bigger than any change in trade policy can bring."

Education matters. And good education matters most.

Florida has been a leader in school choice. To the horror of teachers' unions, the legislature passed bills in recent sessions making it easier for students to switch from bad to good schools. Tallahassee also boosted charter schools, a growing national phenomenon. There are nearly 7,000 charters in this   country -- independently operated public schools -- serving some three million children in 43 states.

Charters have delivered big time, most measurably in test scores that have risen dramatically for minorities. Witness Eva Moskowitz's high-performing Success Academy, which began in Harlem and now has 41 schools across New York City.

This is happening despite fierce political opposition. An example: The NAACP, joined at the hip with union-backed Democrats, recently voted to oppose charters, effectively ignoring a 2015 Stanford study that found urban charters provided 40 more days of math teaching per year and 28 more days of reading classes than traditional schools. And the youngsters, many from poor families, prospered. It's a sad day when the NAACP puts politics above the interests of black children.

On a more positive note, the Nevada supreme court upheld the state's Education Savings Account, the country's first universal school choice program. This allows Nevada parents who withdraw their kids from public schools to use state funds in ESAs to pay for private schools. With no cap on the number of participants, there's a huge backlog of parents applying for the accounts.

The news isn't all good. Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum that would have lifted the ceiling on charters, stranding 32,000 kids on the waiting list. And Georgia defeated a constitutional amendment that would have created a state recovery district for failing schools. Not to be outdone,  Eric Holder's Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Louisiana's voucher program for poor children.

But changes are afoot. During his campaign, Trump said, "I will be the nation's biggest cheerleader for school choice." How things turn out remain to be seen. But one thing is certain. With Obama going and Clinton gone, a lot of baggage is being off-loaded. For example, the National Education Association, though still loud and destructive, will get little attention in coming years. And the anti-religious bias that thwarted support for poor kids attending parochial schools will no longer be tolerated.

Lest we get too far down in the weeds on school choice, let's admit the real reason to champion better education is that our prosperity depends on it. We need well-educated workers, with skills matched to modern jobs. And many of those jobs, often unfilled, require STEM education -- science, technology (meaning computer skills), engineering and math. The good news is that Governor Rick Scott understands this and has put STEM front and center in Florida school policy.

We can count on better days ahead.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Let the Sun Shine In

The clean-energy folks worry that solar is doomed as a result of Donald Trump's election. But maybe not. It's unlikely Trump, a pragmatic businessman, would oppose a technology that could compete in the free market, particularly if there's consumer demand.

There are really two solar markets -- rooftop for individuals and businesses and solar farms for grid-based electricity. Advances, significant ones, are being made on both fronts.

One of the most important, at least for Florida, was the resounding defeat of Amendment 1, an attempt by the utilities to stifle competition. The defeat opens the way for third-party sales of solar, a big step toward open competition with other energy sources.

Lots of things are happening out west. One of the biggest is a plan to build the world's largest solar farm in the Nevada desert. California-based SolarResearch is proposing a $5 billion installation that would generate 2 gigawatts of power using thousands of mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a tower filled with molten salts, in turn creating steam to power turbines.

Less spectacular, but nonetheless impressive, is Texas's move to embrace solar. That's right, Texas! Deregulation broke the stranglehold of state utilities, resulting in a huge free-market surge, the most recent being installation of 450 megawatts of solar power near San Antonio. The Lone Star State is on target to generate 16% of its electricity from renewables this year.

Then there's Tesla's plan, a real headline grabber, to sell solar shingles for roofs. Addressing the ugly look of conventional panels, Tesla is offering solar cells embedded in glass with a color louver film. From the ground they're opaque and look like ordinary roofing. The downside is they're costly because of low energy conversion. They may or may not catch on.

More certain is the big bet in renewables by ten of the world's largest oil companies. Shell, BP, Saudi Arabian Oil and others have pledged to spend $100 million each over the next ten years on low-carbon technology. Total SA, one of the ten, already owns a solar company.

What about technical advances? Here are just a few.
 - Dye-sensitized solar cells have opened the way for "smart" windows, which let light into rooms,  
 while at the same time generating electricity.
 - Multi-layer hybrid cells have shown promise for using both light and heat from the sun for
 generating power.
 - Cells containing perovskite minerals continue to improve in conversion efficiency, now over 20%,
 pointing the way to significantly lower costs for solar panels.

There's even more action in battery research, important for developing affordable units for storing energy when the sun isn't shining.
 - Great improvements have been made in chemical flow systems, low-cost alternatives to
 conventional lithium batteries.
 - Air-breathing batteries with novel lithium electrodes and catalytic membranes may be a breakthrough for greatly increasing storage capacity.
 - Novel electrolytes now under development may allow solid-state batteries to operate at very high and very low temperatures.

All of this is promising, but the hurdles remain high. Shale gas is cheap, and fracking has slowed little. Large quantities are still being produced for grid-based power. (Florida's utilities are betting heavily on natural gas.) As yet, solar can't compete in most states without subsidies.

While it's true that rooftop solar is a winner for businesses -- manufacturing sites, warehouses, large retail operations -- it's less so for homes where resale is often hampered by the conspicuous panels. And vast solar farms have come under fire for "visual pollution." Many feel they're a blight on the landscape.

Then there's the political side. While I doubt the 30% subsidy for solar and wind will be rescinded, the environmental justification will almost certainly go away. In the Trump administration, climate change will not be front and center.

The key is to win the battle in the marketplace, to achieve cost parity with hydrocarbons without subsidies. And it's doable. Technical advances are on a high trajectory and costs are dropping. It's not a matter of whether, but of when. It will eventually happen. Never bet against American ingenuity.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

President Trump? Who'd a Thunk It?

How could we have gotten it so wrong? All of us. Especially the so-called experts, who have lost all credibility. The pundits, the analysts, the pollsters, all those wise men who saw what they wanted to see instead of what was actually happening. And what about the prima donna columnists and talking heads, the supposed shapers of public opinion who thought the voters would follow them like deranged sheep?

But forget about the experts. Few people, period -- Republicans or Democrats -- thought Trump had a chance. I predicted a Clinton landslide. Most people I know followed the returns to see how local candidates and referenda were doing and whether the GOP would hold the Senate. A Clinton coronation was a foregone conclusion.

We were all wrong. House Speaker Paul Ryan summed it up: "Trump's victory was the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime." I'm still reeling.

So what happened? Some voted for Trump, but many more voted against Hillary Clinton. Give credit, if belatedly, to the American people for disposing of this deplorable, lying, corrupt politician. She has what a Democrat friend calls the Nixon factor: She makes your skin crawl.

Clinton aside, some say Trump got there by riding a populist wave against the entrenched grandees, the Washington elite. His was a triumph of timing, of being at the right place at the right time. And that may be so. But I think it was more than that. I think it was also a repudiation of Obama and his failed policies. It was a call for a new start by an outsider who wasn't contaminated by the system, at least not yet.

Whatever the reason for Trump's win, the consequences will be historical. Let's consider a few of them.

  • Clinton will not be able to nominate Barack Obama to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. (Don't laugh. That was being considered.)
  • Our commitments to the Paris accords on climate change, never confirmed by the Senate, will be withdrawn. Global warming will get a fresh look. Science rather than politics will be applied.
  • The Pacific trade pact will be scuttled.
  • Obamacare will be dismantled to the cheers of the 80% of Americans who saw big reductions in their insurance coverage and huge spikes in their premiums.
  • Illegal immigration will be stopped, and legal immigration will be reevaluated.
  • Tax reform will get a serious look, and the crippling taxes on U.S. businesses will be sharply reduced.
  • The worst of Obama's regulations by presidential order will be rolled back, and few new ones will be imposed.
  • The absurd attack on natural gas will stop, and the mindless subsidies on wind and solar will be rescinded. Pipelines will be approved.
  • Our crumbling infrastructure -- roads, rail lines, bridges -- will finally be repaired, a welcome use of taxpayer money.
  • Conservative justices will be appointed to the federal courts, aided by a change to simple majority approval by the Senate.
  • We will have, after an eight-year absence, a coherent foreign policy and a renewal of friendship with Israel.
And all of this will happen in the first year!

Look for a new atmosphere in Washington. Negotiations will flourish and the my-way-or-the-highway mentality of Obama will be relegated to the dustbin of failure. There will be compromises, and government will at last get things done.

Though none of us saw it coming, a Trump presidency will be a welcome change. To my Republican friends I say, if Trump doesn't do everything to your liking, and he won't, just think of the alternative. Think of what Hillary would have done instead. And smile.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chicago, That Toddlin' Town

"Bet your bottom dollar you'll lose your blues in Chicago, the town Billy Sunday couldn't shut down." (Fred Fisher, 1922)

Billy Sunday couldn't tame the city by the lake -- at various times the country's railway hub, butcher shop and jazz mecca -- and neither could anyone else.

Chicago ages well, and some good things have been happening there lately. So here's a tribute, with all the passion I can muster, to the Windy City, where they do things they don't do on Broadway. Reminiscences are uneven at best, the highlights clear and most everything else airbrushed away. But here goes.

Eons ago I did graduate work in chemistry at the University of Chicago, where my wife got her undergraduate degree. We lived in a fourth-floor walk-up in a building that backed on the Illinois Central tracks. The building shook every time a train went by. Muggings in our courtyard were a common occurrence. Once, while driving a fellow student home, I witnessed a gun battle on Cornell Avenue. You can't make this stuff up.

Chicago was tough then and, I suspect, still is. I remember a wonderful lead in the Chicago Tribune: "The sound of gunfire echoed once again in the ears of Roger Touhy last night" (a notorious gangster gunned down on the west side). The last of the burlesque houses were still open on south State Street, complete with peeling paint, dirty saxophones and top-banana comedians with baggy pants.

Jazz was everywhere -- Louis Armstrong between movies at the Chicago Theater, Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note, Jack Teagarden at the Brass Rail. You could nurse a beer for hours and listen to the Dukes of Dixieland. German waiters at the Berghof made change right at your table from pockets full of money. Theater was ubiquitous -- from "The Sound of Music" to "Garden District" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Severn Darden, Alan Arkin and Anne Meara headlined at The Second City. The Art Institute was free and Ravinia only a short train ride away. A young black minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., mesmerized congregations at Rockefeller Chapel.

But why reminisce now? After so many years. Two reasons.

The first is the University of Chicago, a source of pride for its consistent ranking as one of the world's great universities. But I pay tribute for a much different reason: Chicago is taking the lead in upholding the tradition of free speech on college campuses. If that sounds like a no-brainer, consider what's been going on.

  • Yale students recently fought attempts by liberal faculty to ensure free speech because it wasn't liberal enough.
  • Wesleyan students tried to shut down the campus newspaper for printing an op-ed critical of Black Lives Matter.
  • Princeton undergraduates demanded renaming the Woodrow Wilson School because Wilson, a Democrat, was a segregationist in his youth.
  • Protesters at Amherst College decried free speech because of a lecture that offended their sensibilities.
  • Muslim students forced the University of Michigan to scrap the screening of "An American Sniper," arguing it propagated the myth that terrorism comes mostly from Muslims.
  • Campus riots forced the resignation of the University of Missouri's president because of his alleged insensitivity to racial slurs.
  • A Harvard professor's classroom was invaded by screaming students who didn't like what he was teaching.
Vetoing commencement speakers has become a cottage industry. Recent victims include Christine Lagarde, Colin Powell, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had the temerity to criticize Islam. Forget about diversity. Many elite schools demand a lockstep march to the left. Balanced dialogues are savaged. Political correctness reigns.

It may seem surprising that Chicago, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, is leading the fight for free expression. But that tradition goes back many years, reflected in comments by past presidents.

Robert Hutchins: The cure for objectionable ideas "lies through open discussion rather than through prohibition."

Hannah Gray: "It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or evenly deeply offensive."

Chicago's current president, Robert Zimmer, amplified the point: "Free speech is at risk at the very institutions where it should be assured. Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons."

Chicago's policy is made clear to entering freshmen: "Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others."

Hail to Chicago. That's my school.

The other reason for celebrating is, what else, the Chicago Cubs! World champions again -- after 108 years! Ending a drought that makes the problem in California look like a warm snap. Exorcizing demons, real or imagined. Lifting generations of self-inflicted misery. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football.

It happened with a lineup of mostly young players who had no sense of history. And it happened in dramatic fashion, as the gods would have it, with the Cubbies overcoming a three games to one lead by the Cleveland Indians, themselves without a world title since 1948. It happened despite some of the worst handling of pitching in recent memory; manager Joe Maddon made one hare-brained decision after another. But none of that mattered. The Cubbies won game seven 8-7 in extra innings. The curse has been officially lifted.

So, for two very good reasons, I lift a glass to Chicago. Van Heusen and Cahn wrote it and Sinatra sang it: "My kind of town, Chicago is." And it is indeed my kind of town. Here's to the Windy City. Bottoms up.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Political Lurch to the Left

Nobody cares about the political views of an obscure blogger. I know that. But I suspect, if truth were known, few pay much attention to the political views of The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal either. Big media reaches more people, but it has no particular corner on the truth or insight into how the election will shape the future.

So with that preamble, however shaky, I offer the following thoughts about what the country will look like after a Hillary Clinton victory in November. She will win, of course. By a landslide. And there will be a huge swing to the left, a bonanza for Democrats.

First off, let's examine Hillary Clinton. She's a disaster. Donald Trump says bad things, but Hillary does bad things. She has amassed a record of lies, deceit and failure. Her record as U.S. Senator and Secretary of State was mediocre at best, destructive at worst. In the private sector, you don't hire people like that. In government they thrive.

Obsessed with entitlement ("It's my turn to be president"), she lets nothing stand in her way. A political animal to the core, she has few principles and very little integrity. For the Clintons, the end always justifies the means.

While the email scandal is telling -- the FBI is reopening the probe -- the favors-for-cash debacle of the Clinton Foundation is downright criminal. People should be serving prison time. And the ad hominem attacks on Trump's womanizing is hypocrisy at its worst. Bill Clinton's presidency was a locker room joke. (Think Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick.) And Bubba isn't going away. He'll be Hillary's chief advisor on women's rights.

But here's the thing. Most voters don't care. They really don't. They shrug off the Clintons' immoral behavior. They ignore their corruption and flaunting of the law. They accept all of that to get the protection of bigger government, to get more safety nets, to shed reliance on the free market, which they think has failed them.

We're seeing a historic shift to the left because people want it. Most voters want capitalism contained. They want taxes borne by the rich. (Wealth redistribution isn't such a bad thing.) Most voters want little overseas involvement, no more body bags from unpopular wars. They want hegemony consigned to the history books. They want less stress and more family time. They want to be more like Europe. And why not? The Scandinavians, socialist to the core, are the happiest people in the world according to survey after survey.

And that's where we're headed. Here's what a Clinton presidency will look like.

  • The U.S. Senate, with a slight Democrat majority, will go nuclear and approve leftist Supreme Court justices by simple majority vote.
  • Unable to work with a still-Republican House, Clinton will govern by executive order (Obama has shown her how), and the newly minted Supreme Court will uphold the executive orders. Congress will no longer be needed.
  • Regulations will proliferate, upheld by the courts, further hobbling American business.
  • Demographics, already changing, will change further. To hasten the change, the government will loosen immigration restraints for Hispanics, Africans, anyone who will vote for liberal candidates. Clinton will deliver on her promise to "open the borders."
  • NATO will die, in fact if not in name. Taking her cue from Obama, Clinton will never send American troops to protect Lithuania or Estonia or even Poland. The U.S. will turn inward as never before. Defense funding will shrivel. 
  • Marijuana will be decriminalized. Religion will be marginalized. Law enforcement will be subjugated to racial correctness.
  • College will be free for everyone. Previous loans will be forgiven. Charter schools will be defunded. Educational standards will fall, but it won't matter. Government will take care of everyone.
  • With Obamacare costs spiraling out of sight, the government will turn to a single-payer system, the ultimate prize for socialized medicine.
  • Windmills and solar farms will proliferate, covering huge swathes of the landscape. The government will hold down energy prices by increasing subsidies for renewables.
  • Huge infusions of federal money will go to repair our crumbling infrastructure -- roads, bridges, rail systems. Our water supplies and electricity grid will receive more oversight and may be nationalized.
  • All of this will be paid for with revenues from higher and more progressive income taxes, with the top 2-3% carrying over 90% of the load. The middle class will pitch in, paying higher sales and property taxes.
I'm not suggesting any of this will take place at the point of a Democratic bayonet. It won't. The U.S. voter wants these things. Forget about Trump. He's just an excuse. The 2016 election with candidates named Bush and Sanders or any other pairing would turn out the same.

The country is turning to the left because it wants to. Maybe its reasons are good, maybe not. But it's happening.

To those who doubt me, to the conservatives who think this is just a bump in the road, let's see where things stand 12 or 24 months from now. Let's see if I was right.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Soundings in a Crazy Political Season

"Winning," Vince Lombardi famously said, "isn't everything. It's the only thing." The end really does justify the means. As the election season draws to a close, we're seeing this manifested big time -- in lies, smears and misdirection. Whatever it takes to win. And we're seeing some behavior that is downright laughable.

Here are some examples.

A group of letter writers to the Naples Daily News recently claimed they suffered ill effects from exposure to Naled, a pesticide used for decades to control mosquitos in Collier County. But not to worry, they say, all will be well if the voters just elect Andreas Roth and David Chapman to the Mosquito Control Board. That's right. Who needs science when you can invoke politics?

Now maybe the letter writers did have a negative reaction to Naled, an organophosphate approved by the EPA long ago and used largely without incident for over 50 years. But why did the letter writers wait until now, just before a critical election, to tell their stories? Why didn't they alert their neighbors to the threat last year? And why tie their maladies to endorsements of political candidates? Those are, of course, rhetorical questions.

Here's another grabber. Roth and Chapman imply they have a better way of controlling mosquitos than using those bad chemicals -- but they're not telling us how. You have to elect them to find out!

Then there's the bare-knuckles fight in the North Collier Fire District. That's hardly news, given the fractious behavior we've come to expect from that bunch. But the current election has shown you can always reach new lows.

Four of the five commission seats are being contested (one candidate is running unopposed), and the majority will determine whether cost allocations are fair and whether further consolidation is to be even considered. Each pair of competing candidates offers huge contrasts -- in experience, in outlook and, yes, in honesty.

But that's not enough of a stew for North Collier. The local firefighter's union has to get involved. That's the group that sends out big, uniformed firemen to intimidate voters on election day.

The union wants to to protect the status quo; further consolidation would dilute its power. As such, it has endorsed the circle-the-wagons candidates, those far-sighted folks who want nothing to do with the county, with EMS or with further mergers -- Chris Lombardo, Norm Feder, Christopher Crossen and Ramon Chao. Mailers supporting the hunker-down slate were signed "Pelican Bay 20/20." The problem is no one in Pelican Bay had anything to do with it!

Okay, that's just a small lie. At least the union head was upfront in his attack on Jim Burke, a fire commissioner for 8 years who dares to think progressively and buck the union. Also anathema to the union is Richard Hoffman of Big Corkscrew, a candidate whose accounting skills are a big threat.

But wait, there's more. An ethics complaint has been filed with the state over illegal signs on fire district property promoting ... guess who? And, as a capper, a barely literate email blast just appeared from some courageous soul who won't sign his name: "Why would anyone vote for Burke (The People's Liar) and or Hoffman (In Need of Medical Insurance). They are controlled by the puppet master Naegele." (Bob Naegele is president of the Pelican Bay Property Owners Association and, to my knowledge, knows nothing about puppetry.)

Then there's Tamara Paquette, a candidate for Collier County Commission, District 5, calling her opponent a "terrorist" in a recent forum.

And the state utilities pretending Amendment 1 is pro-solar when it's anything but.

And John Morgan, the primary force behind Amendment 2, invoking God in support of medical marijuana. Synthetic drugs with their terrible side effects are made by man, but good, natural marijuana is made by God. (You can't make this stuff up.)

But don't be disheartened. There's a bright side. This will all be over soon. Just hang on until November 9.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Country Down Under

If you think we've got political problems here (and we have), you should visit South America, where things are immeasurably worse.

Take, for example, Columbia, where there's both rampant corruption and a curious kind of political disconnect -- like the sick irony of Columbian President Juan Manuel Santo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the very time 83% of his constituents rejected his cozy settlement with the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, a vicious gang of thugs that's terrorized the country for years.

The situation in Ecuador is only slightly better. My wife and I just visited there and got to experience both the good and bad of that beautiful country.

The good is the Ecuadorian Andes, a string of massive volcanos, some still active, that runs down the center of the country, presenting photographic vistas of remarkable proportion. On our fourth day, near Riobamba, the rain stopped, the clouds lifted and mighty Chimborazo, covered with snow, made an appearance against a blue sky. Because of the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo, at 20,700 feet, is the highest mountain in the world when measured from the center of the earth. I'll never forget the sight.

Less spectacular but no less photogenic were the native Ecuadorians, euphemistically called indigenas, with their brilliantly colored ponchos and brimmed hats worn by both men and women. Made locally by hand, the hats designate their regional home. The highlight was a visit to Guamote on market day, a kaleidoscopic treat of colorful dress, hats galore and native wares. This was the real thing; we were the only tourists in sight.

In the high country, we saw llamas, alpacas and even vicunas running free, and shaded farmland that  produces roses and carnations for overnight shipment to the United States.

Then there was the remarkable indoor market in Sigsig, where Ecuadorian women multi-tasked by selling fruit and vegetables, while at the same time weaving Panama hats by hand!

Finally there were the Galapagos Islands (most visitors to Ecuador fly directly there), and everything you've heard about them is true. Exotic wildlife everywhere. In Puerto Ayora, a sea lion came out of the bay and took a nap on our chaise lounge! And the namesake Galapagos tortoises, land and marine iguanas, flamingos in the wild, masked and blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, lava herons, zayapa crabs, swallow-tailed gulls, huge rays, sharks and more pelicans than in Pelican Bay.

That's the good. But Ecuador is struggling. Heavily dependent on oil, it saw its economy tank when the price of petroleum fell. Light industry couldn't make up the difference. Neither could its lush Pacific lowlands that grow bananas (Ecuador was the first "banana republic"), sugar cane, broccoli, cabbage, mangos, papayas and huge tracts of cacao.

But worse than a shaky economy, Ecuador's political freedom is all but gone. In Quito, the capital, we saw the festive changing of the guard and a balcony appearance by El Presidente, Rafael Correa. He was cheered lustily, perhaps by plants, but we were told he's immensely unpopular. And there's little people can do about it.

As the case with other Central and South American heads of state, he has co-opted the military, muzzled the press and neutralized the courts. He and his cohorts run the show, we were told, with little political opposition. Chances for fair elections were said to be little or none.

His constituents, at least most of those we saw, are poor, with the middle class apparently disappearing. Ecuador's GNP was said to be in the lower third of South American countries. The cities, with the exception of Cuenca and parts of Quito and Guayaquil, are shabby, as are most of the rural villages.

Our mainland guide complained about widespread corruption. He and his wife, he said, are owed $35,000 in tax refunds and have virtually no chance of collecting. And they're facing higher taxes next year. With no recourse, they and others we spoke to were understandably frustrated. Their options are limited. Family ties and traditions are strong, and moving elsewhere is a last resort.

Meanwhile, tourists will continue to come, hoping for a glimpse of Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, and ensured of a wildlife bonanza in the Galapagos. That's a certainty. Less certain is the fate of the creative and generous Ecuadorian people. We can only hope for the best.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Shouting "Fire" in Collier County

Debates about fire protection and ambulance service are always fulsome and often contentious. And that's as it should be. After all, lives and property are at stake.

So it was helpful that two public forums were held this past week, forums that gave voters a chance to see and hear commission candidates for Collier County's two largest fire districts -- Greater Naples Fire & Rescue (the product of merging the East Naples and Golden Gates districts) and North Collier Fire & Rescue (formed by consolidating the North Naples and Big Corkscrew districts).

The debates were a big deal. They highlighted differences in the candidates, in their outlooks and beliefs and gave stark indications of how our safety and pocketbooks will be affected by the November elections.

Sound overly dramatic? It's not.

Let's look at some of those differences.

First off, the contrast between the districts themselves couldn't be greater. The Greater Naples crew is collegial and productive, with a history of working together to improve service and save money. North Collier, on the other hand, is fractured, a brawling bunch with huge differences among themselves on policy and future direction.

Greater Naples, having absorbed Isles of Capri and approved an interlocal agreement to manage the sprawling Ochobee district, is committed to countywide consolidation. It has worked effectively with the county on EMS and everything else.

By contrast, the current North Collier board wants little to do with further consolidation, touting its superiority as a standalone district. It has fought bitterly with the county over who should control Advanced Life Support training for its paramedics. The November election will decide whether this circle-the-wagons policy continues.

Here are two of the most contentious issues.

(1) Timing and cost of further consolidation. Most in Greater Naples and some in North Collier favor moving ahead. Many say you have to merge fire districts first -- focus on that -- and then consider sweeping in EMS. The cost of swallowing EMS is a concern. But Tom Henning, a county commissioner and candidate for Greater Naples fire commissioner, says a shift of EMS from county control to a consolidated independent district would almost certainly be accompanied by a shift of EMS funding from county coffers as well, avoiding an extra burden to the taxpayer.

Opponents, many of the North Collier incumbents, say forget about EMS costs. The bigger issue is a jump in North Naples millage, now 0.95, the lowest in the county. Would the rich folks in North Naples stand for a millage increase to grease the skids for further consolidation? They would get little for their money, since the existing service is already very good.

What's the next step for further consolidation? Start discussions between Greater Naples and North Collier. Analyze the pros and cons. Find out if the metrics are favorable. Of the North Collier candidates, Jim Burke, Richard Hoffman and Meg Stepanian favor taking this next step. Burke says, "We have one sheriff in Collier County. We should have one fire chief."

(2) Lying to the voters. A bare-knuckles issue is the allegation that North Collier commissioners failed to keep their promise to North Naples taxpayers that they would not have to subsidize Big Corkscrew, a financially strapped district. Separate books have been kept, but candidates differ sharply on whether North Naples is paying more than its share.

Hoffman, Burke and Stepanian say yes. Norm Feder, Chris Lombardo and Christopher Crossan say no. Lombardo says the difference is only 1.3%, so what's the big deal. Ramon Chao denies any promises were ever made. Gail Nolan says North Naples should get over it. We're North Collier now, one district. Forget about the past.

In another twist, perhaps not surprising, we hear that the struggle in North Collier is fueled by the self interest of the firefighters' union, which funds candidates who support the status quo. Apologists say that's not all bad when the status quo means operating in the black and providing top-notch service.

However you see it, the differences in North Collier are real, and the election will impact both costs and services in the years ahead. And, importantly,  it will determine whether countywide consolidation moves ahead.

The public has the whip hand. Use it. Be sure to vote on November 8. It's a long ballot, but nothing is more important, at least locally, than selecting the right fire commissioners.

Monday, September 5, 2016

You Get What You Vote For

The primaries are over, and the die has been cast for a good many local and state offices. Even in cases where the results won't be official until a token Democrat loses in November, we pretty much know the outcome. This is, after all, very red Collier County.

The recent elections were particularly important, the outcomes certain to shape local education and governance. Let's look at some of the fallout.

The School Board races, some of the most bitterly contested in memory, pitted agents of change, right-wing reformers, against establishment candidates. And the establishment candidates won big. Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter, backed by moderates of both parties, thumped Louise Penta and and Lee Dixon, endorsed by the county Republican Executive Committee, which bet and lost its credibility by an all-out push for their election.

What does this mean?

  • It means there will be more of the same for Collier County schools, a continuation and likely strengthening of Superintendent Kamela Patton's policies.
  • It means we will continue to accept government money, obviating the need to raise taxes.
  • It means we will continue standardized testing as mandated by Tallahassee and, as a result, be able to measure real progress of K-12 students and compare the results to those of other counties and states.
  • It means there will be little leverage for fiscal accountability -- little interest in risk assessments and internal audits.
  • It means Blue Zones will proliferate in school cafeterias, trumping the dietary wishes of parents.
And it means Erica Donalds and Kelly Lichter, who will remain on the short end of 3-2 votes, will be vulnerable if they seek reelection in 2018.

The Clerk of Courts contest was another donnybrook. Incumbent Dwight Brock won, ensuring ongoing battles with the Board of County Commissioners. Brock's refusal to pay bills is said to be the biggest single reason new businesses won't come to Collier County.

Voters had a chance to elect Georgia Hiller, who decried Brock's gun-slinging approach and vowed to work constructively with the county commission. But the voters didn't elect her. The chose Brock. It's axiomatic you get what you pay for. You also get what you vote for. And the voters will get more discord and higher legal bills.

One new County Commissioner was chosen, and two Republicans were picked to face off against Democrats in November. Voters tapped a part-time commissioner for District 2 -- Andy Solis, a busy attorney with a full-time day job. Good luck to constituents trying to reach him on short notice!

Republican winners in District 3 (Burt Saunders) and District 5 (Bill McDaniel) were a further repudiation of the Republican Executive Committee, whose ill-advised endorsements influenced voters not at all. Saunders and McDaniel, both expected to win in November, have the experience and wherewithal to deal with growth management, affordable housing and other issues facing the county.

What about state and federal races? With winners Kathleen Passidomo (Florida Senate) and Bob Rommel and Byron Donalds (Florida House), we can expect a continuation of conservative voting in Tallahassee, voting that reflects the values of much of Southwest Florida. The same applies to Francis Rooney, who will replace Curt Clawson in the U.S. House. Don't expect too much from Rooney. As the new kid at the very bottom of the Congressional heap, he will have little or no influence in Washington.

The bottom line? As in most elections, the outcomes were mixed. Some inspired choices and some appalling ones. On balance, the results portend little change for Collier County. We remain secure in our protective cocoon

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Blowout on the Bosphorus

Turkey used to be on everybody's bucket list. Particularly Istanbul. Straddling Europe and Asia, terminus of the Orient Express, former seat of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul for years has been among the world's top tourist destinations.

And it doesn't disappoint. The first impression upon disembarking a cruise ship is not to be forgotten -- a skyline silhouetted with massive mosques, a dream scene particularly at dawn or dusk. There is no other sight like it in the world.

Istanbul has the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, Galata Bridge, wonderful Ortakoy, Leander's Tower, trips on the Bosphorus and the Hagia Sophia, where kings were crowned for centuries.

Istanbul has it all. It's big and prosperous and vibrant. And it's self destructing.

It's no longer safe to travel there. Between terrorist attacks and abortive coups, it's simply not worth the risk. Always expensive, Istanbul now require you bring body armor along with lots of money. A random bomb could go off anywhere.

In the past nine months, there have been four separate terrorist attacks at sites my wife and I had previously visited. It's a chilling feeling. "We were there, right there, just a few months ago!"

Istiklal Caddesi, the heavily traveled pedestrian street. A staging area near the iconic Blue Mosque. The university neighborhood where a rogue taxi driver unceremoniously dumped us after a dispute about the fare. And Istanbul International Airport, one of the busiest in Europe.

With enemies on all sides, Istanbul has become a bulls-eye for terrorist groups -- the Kurds, the Syrians and all sorts of surrogates for the Russians.

But the greatest enemy is not from another country or from a terrorist group, but from within Turkey itself. The real battle is between the Turks who want a secular country (think Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey) and Turks who support the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his quest for a full return to Islam. Erdogan and a good many of his followers want a rebirth of the Ottoman Empire. It's a bitter push-pull, and Erdogan is winning.

We saw the change first-hand. On our first visit there in 2009, the dress was largely Western. On our second visit, in 2015, there were hijabs everywhere and many women were completely covered, a striking turnabout.

The move toward Islam reached a climax -- or at least a climatic milestone -- when a splinter military group attempted a coup in July. It was a gift to Erdogan. The failed coup gave him the excuse (a situation not unlike the 1930s turmoil in Germany) to turn a repressive regime into a de facto dictatorship.

Even before the coup attempt, dissent was not tolerated. There were said to be more journalists imprisoned in Turkey than in China. Dissidents who questioned government policies were jailed or killed. After the abortive coup, things got even worse.

  • Some 20,000 public school teachers were fired and thousands of government officials were jailed.
  • The media, already heavily censored, was completely suborned.
  • Hundreds of military dissenters were killed, and thousands more were held for trial.
Erdogan saw subversives everywhere, and the legislature gave him free rein to crush them, declaring a three-month state of emergency during which all democratic constraints were removed. He wasted little time. In a chilling development, Erdogan purged universities throughout Turkey, firing 27,000 teachers and staff and forcing all deans to resign. -- the first step in an open campaign to muzzle the intellectuals or simply drive them out of the country.

Right now there's little to stop Turkey from becoming a full-fledged Islamic dictatorship, another in a long line of failed democracies in the Middle East.

The take-home message? There are actually two. First, unless you like living dangerously, don't travel to Istanbul, and be careful everywhere else in Turkey. Second, hold out hope that this magnificent country with its rich heritage does not succumb to totalitarianism. It would be a terrible waste and a huge loss for all concerned. And it's almost certainly going to happen. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Here's to the Olympics, Warts and All

The Rio Olympics are over and everyone, it seems, is doing a postmortem. Some extol. Some complain. A few even make useful suggestions.

As an old Olympic observer and sometime attendee (the operable word is old), I draw on my shaky credentials and offer the following thoughts.

First off, the Rio Olympics were a smashing success for the United States. We led in total medals -- 121, the most ever -- as well as in golds, silvers and bronzes. The games showcased our swimming supremacy, our international power in basketball (we invented the game, after all) and, despite the Jamaicans, our continuing dominance in track & field (more on that later).

Our women athletes were marvelous. From shooting and cycling to gymnastics and boxing, the U.S. ladies were the belles of the ball. And for the UConn fans among us, there was nothing better than seeing Taurasi and Moore and Bird and Charles -- some of the greatest ever to play the game -- on the court at the same time. Basketball will never look better.

There were two real surprises. Unhappily, the U.S. women's soccer team, defending Olympic and World Cup champions, didn't look champion-like at all and got knocked out early. The sad truth is they are not very good, at least not any more. A happy surprise was the U.S. track performance in the middle and long distances -- an area of perennial weakness. Matt Centrowicz won the 1,500 meters (the first U.S. gold in the metric mile since 1908!), Galen Rupp was third in the marathon and Paul Chelimo took a silver in the 5,000 meters. But here's the real shocker: In the steeplechase, where we usually finish behind two dozen Africans, both a man, Evan Jager, and a women, Emma Coburn, won medals for the U.S.

There were also downsides. The big one, doping, is like the uninvited uncle who won't go away. Most  Russian athletes were banned from Rio because of widespread doping, and all of the Jamaican sprinters, many of them medalists, are suspect. Jamaica has no independent random testing, and this tiny island country unaccountably turns out sprint champions in production-line fashion. If that sounds implausible, it's because it is. So don't celebrate Usain Bolt just yet -- not until drug tests catch up with steroid and growth hormone innovations. Urine samples from Rio will be saved and  subjected to increasingly sensitive testing over the next four years, and the cheaters will be stripped of medals.

It's noteworthy that random retesting of samples from the 2012 London Olympics turned up 45 times more positives in 2016 than were originally found! The cheaters will eventually be caught. Consider the medals on loan until then.

But even that's not enough. We will never have clean competition until unannounced sampling by independent officials is allowed in all countries anytime during the year. Most doping is done during training to boost endurance and speed recovery from injury. Cheating athletes rely on drugs clearing their systems before the actual competition when everyone is tested.

What about countries that refuse year-around random testing (there will be others besides Russia and Jamaica that claim their national sovereignty is being violated)? Simple. Ban them from the Olympics.

Of course, that won't happen. It won't happen because the Olympics depend on money from major countries like Russia. It won't happen because the politically correct want all countries to compete -- a kumbaya gathering. It won't happen because NBC and its major sponsors want to pump sunshine and sell products. It won't happen because the anti-U.S. crowd, including most of the media, would rather savage Ryan Lochte than talk about the real issues of doping, poverty, pollution and crime.

And that leads to the second downside -- rotating the games among cities that have no business hosting them in the first place. Why in the world did the International Olympic Committee insist on luring nearly bankrupt Athens and impoverished Rio de Janeiro into bidding for the games? Montreal took a huge hit in 1976. Costs are already spiraling out of sight in Toyko for 2020. The quaint notion that hosting the Olympics boosts national pride and pumps tourism has long been discredited. Facilities built are never fully utilized after the games. The Olympic Stadium in Athens sits unused among weeds. In Atlanta, the 1996 stadium, first converted for use by the Braves, is now being demolished.

A better plan -- really a no-brainer -- is to have permanent facilities for both the summer and winter games. Think about it. Beautiful state-of-the-art tracks, pools, ranges, courts for the summer games -- paid for and maintained by participating countries, all of whom would save a bundle by not hosting the games themselves. And for the winter Olympics, first-rate ski jumps, skating tracks and downhill and cross-country skiing venues. Three-star accommodations for athletes, media and the public. Good restaurants. Dedicated security.

Where would the permanent site be? My vote would be Switzerland, a clean, prosperous, neutral country that could accommodate the summer games in the flats and the winter games in the mountains. And Switzerland is a great place to visit, picturesque and safe, with excellent transportation.

Those who want variety, who want to sample different cultures, try different cuisines would be free to do so, unfettered by the crowds, turmoil and staggering cost of the Olympics. (My wife and I returned to Barcelona in 2014, a relaxing visit compared to the frantic Olympics there in 1992.)

It's logical and makes financial sense. Moreover, a permanent site would do away with the bribes and kickbacks seemingly required to land the games. But it would also gut the IOC and weaken federations for the individual sports. It would endanger bureaucracies and threaten jobs. A change of this magnitude would require vision and real leadership, and it almost certainly won't happen.

So where does that leave us? We're left with pervasive doping and PR-driven ballyhoo -- scandals and hokum that will venture from city to city every four years.

And we're left with the greatest sports entertainment on earth. Warts and all, there's nothing like the Olympic Games. On TV or in person, wherever they're held, I wouldn't miss them for anything!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What's New in Solar Power

The sun is the gift that keeps on giving. It showers the earth with more energy in one hour than all energy consumed globally in an entire year.

It's there, it's free and it's non-polluting. The question is how to capture it economically and store it efficiently.

Solar is of particular interest to Florida, "The Sunshine State," where we have not one, but two constitutional amendments on the ballot this year that provide incentives for using photovoltaic power.

Despite the potential and billions of dollars poured into the technology, solar has made scant inroads in the U.S. market. The Energy Information Administration estimates only 0.6% of U.S. electricity comes from solar. (In Florida, the number is only slightly higher.)

Overall, coal provides about one-third of our electricity, natural gas another third, with the remainder coming from renewables -- mostly nuclear and hydroelectric. Renewables are expected to supply 50% of new energy capacity by 2040.

How much of that will be solar remains to be seen, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

  • The Feds agreed to extend the 30% investment credit for solar, a massive subsidy that will keep marginal operations afloat.
  • Congress plans to pump more money into solar research and battery storage technology through 2020.
  • Huge advances in the science are being made, both in universities and in the private sector -- not just in the U.S., but literally around the world.
But will it be enough to propel an industry now largely confined to rooftop units and hampered by pushback from communities opposed to massive solar farms that blight the landscape. (Supplying all of Florida's electricity needs today, experts say, would require solar farms that would cover 25-30% of the state's surface.)

The challenges for solar are essentially three-fold: (1) Reduce cost to allow free-market competition. (2) Increase efficiency of converting sun to electricity, in turn reducing the surface area required for energy generation. (3) Improve efficiency of batteries to store energy when the sun isn't shining.

Advances are being made on all fronts. Here is where things stand today.

The vast majority of solar power, some 90%, comes from workhorse silicon panels, a mature technology whose cost has been driven down by volume-produced cells from China. Conventional panels are thick, heavy, inflexible and dependent on direct exposure to sunlight. Sun-to-electricity conversions are 20-25%.

The next generation of panels will be thin, lightweight, flexible and potentially lower in cost. Efficiencies may also be lower, currently ranging from 10-20%. All will require multiple layers, but will have the capability of being fabricated into thin sheets by conventional milling.

Dye-sensitized solar cells, pursued in Switzerland, South Korea, Wales and the U.S., utilize photo-absorbing dyes that create charge separation in electrolytic solutions. Unlike silicon cells, they can operate in diffuse light, even indoors. Current uses include fabrication in windowpanes to provide electricity in adjoining rooms and continuous powering of small electronic devices, e.g., computers. Rooftop use or mass generation of electricity is many years away, if possible at all.

Organic photovoltaics rely on light-sensitive polymers to drive charge separation in a mini-particle mix. Like dye-sentized cells, the organics are used where flexibility or thin films are important -- windowpanes, backpacks, phone chargers. Start-ups in Denmark and Germany plan to begin production in 2018. As with dye-sensitized cells, the organics would require major breakthroughs to go beyond niche uses.

Perovskite cells are the rock stars, the sexy contenders for the future. With 22% efficiency already booked, they have the potential for eventually replacing silicon. Based on organolead halide minerals, the perovskites are cheap to produce, but are inherently unstable, a shortcoming receiving much attention in start-up companies in England and Poland. Perovskites may initially be paired with silicon cells, a tandem arrangement that would capture a larger portion of the sun's spectrum, jacking efficiency and cutting cost. But don't expect any commercial use before 2019 at the earliest.

Other things are happening as well. In a big attention-grabber, an aircraft powered solely by the sun just completed a one-year around-the-world trip. Swiss-engineered, the plane used over 17,000 solar cells and ran on lithium batteries at night. It's cruising speed topped out at 56 mph.

And in a big advance for battery design, Missouri academics used atomic-layer-deposition techniques to upgrade the charge capacity and operating voltage of lithium batteries. If verified in scale-up, it could cut costs for storing solar energy and powering electric cars. 

What's the bottom line? There's a lot going on. Challenges are being met, and new applications are emerging. Rooftop solar and niche uses will continue to grow. But large-scale electricity generation from the sun is still many years or even decades away. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Battle for Marijuana

With important issues facing Florida, you'd think legalizing marijuana wouldn't cause much of a stir. But that's not the case. It's just as inflammatory and polarizing as it was two years ago when a constitutional amendment barely failed to get the 60% vote needed to pass.

A lot has happened since then.

The legislature passed two bills -- one legalizing non-euphoric pot, so-called Charlotte's Web, for severe forms of epilepsy, muscle spasms and cancer, and the other allowing use of full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients.

Both bills are highly restrictive, requiring all makers and users to register with the state. Both bills forbid smoking pot, which can be dispensed only in capsules, oils or vaporizing cartridges. And both allow localities to regulate dispensaries where weed is sold.

Despite these limitations, the bills caused a stampede by growers seeking approval from the state. At this writing, two of the six approved nurseries have produced and packaged pot, making Florida the 30th state to offer marijuana for at least restricted medical use. But so far only 15 doctors have signed up, and no patients are registered on a statewide database of Floridians eligible for the drug.

What's the problem? For medical purposes, it makes sense to go with a form of cannabis that doesn't give you a high. But Charlotte's Web, pot enriched in cannabidiol, the ingredient thought to treat symptoms and reduce pain, may simply not work. Tests on epileptic children in Colorado found it was beneficial in 33% of the cases, but actually worsened symptoms in 44%. Brain-wave tests showed it had little effect.

Despite that, interest remains high. Clinical tests have begun in Ohio on an ultra-pure CBD extract, and parents of epileptic children are clambering for supplies. And clinical testing of full-strength pot is underway in several states.

The FDA remains skeptical. Spokesman Michael Felberbaum said the FDA has yet to find any botanical form of marijuana to be safe or effective to treat any disease or condition. That's a powerful indictment. Two synthetic cannabinoids, Marinol and Casamet, have been approved.

But science aside, increasing numbers have come to believe in marijuana's healing powers, or at least they say they do. The proof is mostly anecdotal. ("It did wonders for my Aunt Nettie.") And with growing public support, proponents are plunging ahead.

There's certainly big money to be made. Experts say wide-open medical use would create a $3-4 billion market in Florida. And Amendment 2, which will appear on the November ballot, will provide that wide-open use.

Amendment 2 is the big kahuna. Bankrolled largely by Orlando attorney John Morgan, the amendment would steamroll the timid laws now in effect. Here are some of the provisions.

  • The amendment would allow use of all forms of weed for "debilitating medical conditions" as determined by a licensed Florida physician.
  • Those conditions include a litany of diseases plus "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class or comparable to those enumerated and for which a physician believes the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." In other words, just about anything.
  • It would exempt doctors (who act with "reasonable care"), growers, dispensers and caregivers from liability.
  • Caregivers must be at least 21 and have an ID issued by the state. That's it. No special training is needed. 
  • Unlike laws now in effect, there are no provisions for localities regulating pot shops. It would be open season. California, here we come.
To backers the amendment is, in basketball parlance, a three-point play.
(1) It will boost turnout of young voters, mostly Democrats, in November -- possibly tipping the scales in a close election.
(2) It will tee up investment for growing and packaging all forms of weed dispensed in all kinds of ways -- in food, reefers, pipes, bongs, the whole lot.
(3) It will set the stage for marijuana malpractice lawsuits (those unfortunate doctors who didn't act with "reasonable care"), a lucrative new market for tort lawyers.

Not everybody loves Amendment 2. Enforcement would be next to impossible. Illegal certifications (think Florida pill mills) are a near certainty, opening the door to street use. Law enforcement sees impaired drivers and criminal behavior. Employers see impaired workers. The health care community sees a gateway to hard drugs.

Money is pouring in to defeat the amendment: $1 million from St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, $800,000 from Publix heiress Carol Bennett. Medical groups, sheriff's associations, chambers of commerce are joining hands in opposition. Drug Free Florida is girding for battle.

But it's probably a lost cause. Passage seems all but certain. Polls show 80% favoring the amendment, with most looking for legal recreational pot within four years.

And why not? Let's all be happy. These are stressful times. In fact, I feel a debilitating medical condition coming on.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Doing Battle with the Zika Mosquito

There's some good news on Zika.

Thanks to the foresight of the Collier Mosquito Control District, much of Southwest Florida is ready and able to fight the mosquito that carries the Zika virus. And not just Zika. CMCD has the capability  to detect and control other emerging threats from mosquitos -- like Dengue, Chikungunya and even a reemergence of Yellow Fever.

Here are some of CMCD's tools:

  • Special monitoring traps for Aedes aegypti, the Zika mosquito.
  • Analytical capabilities, including viral RNA testing.
  • Effective insecticides for both adult mosquitos and larvae.
  • Unique spraying devices on helicopters that create tiny-droplet aerosols, minimizing the amount of insecticide needed for effective treatment.
  • A first-of-a-kind ground-level blower to distribute larvicide granules over infected areas.
Dr. Mark Clifton, a CMCD Research Entomologist and national expert on Aedes aegypti, explains that all mosquitos are not the same. Most encountered in Southwest Florida are so-called "wild mosquitos" -- carriers of West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, Eastern Equine encephalitis. When the number of mosquitos exceeds statutory limits in traps scattered about the area, the infected section is patterned-sprayed by fixed-wing aircraft. (CMCD has three such planes.)

Aedes aegypti, on the other hand, is generally not found over wide areas. It's an "urban pest." It's found tucked around homes and businesses. Treatment of Aedes aegypti is tight and surgical -- spray from low-flying helicopters and even from the ground.

Here's how CMCD would go after mosquitos carrying the Zika virus. If a person was diagnosed with the virus, special traps would be placed in the vicinity of that person's home or business. Aedes aegypti caught in those traps would be tested for Zika. If infected mosquitos were found, people would be notified, and the area would be sprayed with an adult-kill insecticide and, optionally, with a larvicide. Then the area would be monitored to ensure the treatment was effective.

The challenge is finding the infected mosquitos. (At this writing, none have been found in the Miami area where the first locally contracted Zika cases were reported.) In Southwest Florida and elsewhere, Zika-infected mosquitos must be found before eradication can begin.

What about transmission of the virus? Clifton explains that Aedes aegypti mosquitos travel less than 100 meters. So Zika will be spread, not by infected mosquitos, but by infected people traveling and being bitten by mosquitos in other parts of the state. Those mosquitos, in turn, can multiply, bite other people and continue the cycle.

CMCD points out the best defense is not to be bitten in the first place. There are a number of sensible precautions.
  • Eliminate sources for Aedes aegypti -- standing water in places like waste tires, cans, birdbaths, buckets, gutters, flowerpots and saucers. Swab out bromeliad cups. Seal septic tanks.
  • When outdoors, especially at dawn and dusk, wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Apply an EPA-approved mosquito repellent, e.g., one containing DEET.
If infected mosquitos are found, do we have the chemicals to knock them out without harming people? Yes. Sprayed from aircraft, available insecticides typically have a kill rate of 80-90%; that's considered effective control. The chemicals are oldies, workhorses approved long ago by the EPA. Naled and Malathion are organophosphates, effective against adult mosquitos. Methoprene is an unsaturated fatty acid ester, used to treat larvae.

The problem, Clifton says, is not with the existing products, which do fine. The problem is there are few, if any, back-ups available in the event Aedes aegypti develops resistance to the current insecticides. But that's a concern for the future.

For now we're in good shape. Dave Farmer, a CMCD commissioner, says, "Between our state-of-the-art DNA testing capabilities and our professional staff, we are well prepared to fight Zika. Mosquito control has never been more important."

CMCD has a new smart phone app that provides information about mosquitos, including spraying schedules. The app can be downloaded for free. See www.CMCD.org for details. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cheating on an Olympic Scale

Pity poor NBC. The network paid a ton of money to get the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and the trailer for the games looks like a Greek tragedy, or maybe a French farce.

Every day we read about an unfinished venue. There's no certainty even the Olympic stadium will be ready on time. Cost overruns are rampant in a country on the brink of economic collapse. The government, serially corrupt, is barely functioning.

There is poverty and crime behind the beachfront facade, more places to avoid than visit. Security is said to be lax, with untrained novices manning terrorist checkpoints. Pollution is everywhere, the harbor laden with untreated sewage. And, to top it off, Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. Young people of child-bearing age -- athletes and spectators alike -- are staying away in droves, avoiding Rio like the plague it apparently is. Tickets are being given away to fill empty seats.

Could things possibly get any worse? Actually, yes.

The integrity of the games themselves is being challenged. In a stunning development that has unfolded over the past several months, Russia was caught red-handed running a government-controlled doping program. Under pressure to boost its medal count, a Russian agency was instructed to shoot up its athletes, particularly the track & field team, but others as well. This is not a few zealous trainers. This is wholesale cheating orchestrated by Mother Russia herself.

Now lest this sounds sanctimonious, let's admit doping is not new. The East Germans did it for years, putting asterisks beside track and swimming records set in the Cold War era. And in front-page news, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught in Seoul, testing positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters.

To some degree, everybody does it -- usually individuals, not countries. U.S. shot putters and weight lifters often get caught. My wife and I cheered Marion Jones to victory in the 100 and 200 meters in Sydney in 2000, only to see her stripped of her medals for doping. Some of our best male sprinters have served suspensions for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

What country does it best? Outside of Russia, my guess would be Jamaica. Testing there is lax, and its runners are always under suspicion. How can you tell? Historically, track times are reduced in small increments, tenths of a second in middle distances and hundredths of a second in the sprints. Runners toil for years to gain world-class status. When an unknown bursts on the scene with absurd times or when a pedestrian sprinter suddenly muscles up and starts breaking records, chances are he or she has been juicing.

Here's an example. In the 2012 London Olympics, the Jamaican men, two of them virtual unknowns, swept the 200 meters. With a world full of very fast runners, what are the chances of a tiny Caribbean island going 1, 2, 3 in a headline event without serious chemical help?

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican world record-holder at 100 and 200 meters, was recently interviewed about the Russian doping scandal. He said, "If you have the proof and you catch somebody, I definitely feel you should take action." Not whether they did it, but whether they got caught.

How does doping work? It helps athletes train longer and harder and speeds recovery from injury. And Bolt is right. The key is not getting caught. Stay ahead of the testing by using drugs for which there is no analysis (an extra methyl group on the steroid) or, even better, know when blood or urine sampling is scheduled and stop doping in time for the drug metabolites to clear your system. Or, if all else fails, switch samples.

The problem may be getting worse. We recently learned 45 more athletes, 31 of them medal winners, were caught, testing positive after samples from the 2008 and 2012 summer games were reanalyzed. Little wonder there's cynicism about international sports.

What will happen in Rio? The Russians will be there, at least some of them. Confronted with evidence of national cheating on an unprecedented scale, the International Olympic Committee ducked responsibility and left decisions on who can compete up to individual sports federations -- swimming, track & field, gymnastics, etc.

It was a cowardly punt, but not unexpected. Russia is a global power and a big Olympic spender. Putin threatened to withhold funds if Russia was excluded altogether, and the IOC backed down.

In the weeks ahead, expect platitudes about protecting clean athletes and lots of huffing and puffing about the integrity of the games. But also expect a big Russian contingent in Rio.

NBC will have its work cut out for it. Its cameramen will have to crop out the poverty and pollution, and its announcers will have to sugarcoat the cheating.

And I'll still watch it on TV. All of it. Like the IOC, my standards aren't very high.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Fracking and Common Core

Common Core has become a rallying cry for the right. Fracking has become a rallying cry for the left. Red flags in front of political bulls. The sad thing is that neither side understands what it’s opposing.
Most Republicans don’t understand Common Core, except that President Obama favors it (that must make it bad), and most Democrats don’t understand fracking, except that environmentalists tell them they should oppose it (it causes climate change and poisons our drinking water).
The willful ignorance on both sides is astonishing. Let’s look at some facts.
Common Core was developed by Republicans. Crafted by governors (largely Republican) for the benefit of American business (largely Republican), it is not and has never been a federal mandate. Washington has nothing to do with it.
Here’s the background. Faced with declining quality in public education and a hodgepodge of state criteria, the National Governors Association in 2009 set out to develop a single set of rigorous standards: the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The goal was to make all children “college- and career-ready,” using the same yardsticks in Mississippi as in Massachusetts.
The key was establishing a common denominator in learning — what students should know at each level in math and English language arts, the “common core” of education. Standardized tests were meant to track progress toward meeting those benchmarks.
What Common Core has never done is tell states or school districts how to get there. That’s up to them. It doesn’t establish curricula or prescribe textbooks.
Embraced by most educators, Common Core was adopted by 45 states in 2011. Then the trouble began. In an effort to boost public education, the Obama administration underwrote a portion of the funding to draft standardized tests. And it provided grant money, 14% based on efforts to “enhance standards and high-quality assessments.” A gentle push toward improved learning.
For the far right, that was all it took. The Tea Party had a new cause. “Government dictating what our children read.” “Obama usurping local control.” “Obamacore.” “Government lobotomizing our students.” And worse. It became a snowball rolling downhill.
Staunch supporters of Common Core began to bail. Business leaders hid under the table. States, including Republican strongholds like Texas and Oklahoma, withdrew approval. And Common Core became a rallying cry for the right: “a national takeover of our schools.”
You hear it today. Conservative groups in Collier and Lee Counties equating Common Core to government brainwashing. The Collier County Republican Executive Committee putting all of its chips on school-board candidates sworn to oust Common Core.
Where do things stand? Nationally and in Florida the pendulum has swung back. Today 45 states have Common Core-like standards (the name has been changed in many states to provide political cover). In Florida, the dreaded Common Core name was dropped in favor of Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. Some 90% of the standards and testing criteria are the same.
Okay, enough on Common Core. What about the other bogeyman, fracking, a celebrated cause of the left? Like Common Core, fracking evokes a knee-jerk response. It has become synonymous with air and water pollution, a driver of climate change.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First, let’s understand what fracking is. It’s shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — use of water, slurried with sand and a small amount of chemicals, to fracture under high pressure and hold open tight underground formations to free trapped oil and natural gas. It is often accompanied by horizontal drilling — turning the drill from vertical to horizontal to extend the production reach from a single platform.
Fracking isn’t the only game in town but, rather, one of many “enhanced-recovery” possibilities. Others include acidizing in carbonate formations, microbial treatment to fluidize heavy oil, carbon dioxide injection to cut oil viscosity, surfactant/water sweeps to scrub residual oil, gel emplacements to enhance oil and retard water production, and many others. Most of these procedures have been used for over 50 years.
The point is “fracking” doesn’t cover everything. To ban fracking and allow everything else makes no sense. It’s important to know what you’re opposing.
How widely used is fracking? Economical since 1998 and now a common tool in the oil patch, fracking will provide “the majority of U.S. oil and gas produced over the next few years.” It has revolutionized the energy business.
Early on there were serious pollution problems. Most of those have now been addressed, and many have been solved.
- Proper completion procedures have sharply reduced methane leakage.
- Improved containment has cut spillage runoff.
- New filtration systems have allowed recovered water to be reused for fracking, reducing strain on freshwater supplies.
- Green chemicals, including food additives and biodegradable polymers, are increasingly used in injection recipes.
Fracking has neither led to widespread harm to drinking water nor promoted global warming. In fact, replacement of coal-fired power plants with those using natural gas from fracking has led to a huge drop in carbon dioxide emissions. Locally, no environmental damage resulted from acidizing the infamous Collier Hogan well (the well was never fracked).
Still it’s wise to be cautious, particularly in Southwest Florida, where any drilling upset could damage our quality of life and chase away tourists.
The answer is not to demonize, but to understand. The sensible approach is a moratorium on all enhanced-recovey procedures until a study of effects on local groundwater can be carried out, preferably by the Department of Environmental Protection. Then stringent statewide regulations should be imposed.
We’ll all benefit from a better understanding of Common Core and fracking. And who knows? It may turn out neither one is so bad after all.

Algae and Politics, Florida Style

The latest outrage in the Lake Okeechobee mess is not the algae bloom — which is widespread, toxic and damaging to health and tourism alike. No, that was predictable.
The latest outrage is Governor Rick Scott’s assignment of blame. In a remarkable political tanda, he blamed septic tank runoff. That’s right! Septic tank runoff that just happens to be in the sugarcane fields of Clewiston.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Scott’s allegations would be laughable if this were a laughing matter. But it’s not. It’s a massive problem that is being politicized, and everyone in South Florida stands to lose.
Let’s consider three things, all factual.
1. The pollution problem in Lake Okeechobee is not caused primarily by septic tank runoff. It is caused by the agriculture industry. It is due almost entirely to high nutrient levels — dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus — in fertilizer runoff, fertilizer needed to make sugarcane and other crops grow in the nutrient-poor soil of South Florida. The nutrients feed the algae and, voila, you have coagulated blooms that spread and clog and poison. And they don’t go away. They sink into the sediment of waterways and then reappear.
2. Buying land around Lake O — enough of it to make a difference — is not going to happen. That’s tilting at windmills. The environmentalists want to buy some U.S. Sugar land south of the lake, create reservoirs to hold water outflows, clean up the water and send it into the Everglades — nice and tidy, a three-point play.
All it takes is money. If only the feds would ante up or Tallahassee would release funds from Florida Forever, then our problems would go away. But it’s not that simple. The pollution isn’t coming just from land south of the lake or even from the east or west as well. Nutrient pollution is also rampant to the north. To make an impact, a massive land purchase would be needed, costing billions of taxpayer dollars.
And not all of that land is up for sale. An option for 47,000 acres south of the lake expired in October 2015. Another option would require an all-or-nothing purchase of 184,000 acres south and east of the lake at market prices — a staggering expense.
3. The only realistic hope is to tighten and enforce water-quality standards. That doesn’t take billions of dollars. What it does take is action by the state Department of Environmental Protection and some political will. Requirements to maintain low nutrient levels in all state waterways, if enforced in Clewiston and the surrounding area might, just might, cut pollution in Lake O and reduce algae buildup in South Florida.
Is it likely to happen? No. Big sugar has a lot of political clout. And the balance of power in Tallahassee is not going to change anytime soon.
What is likely to happen is more cries for federal aid, more calls for land purchase and more finger-pointing — none of which will lead anywhere.