War in Reverse

Happy Veteran's Day. Happy Armistice Day. Happy birthday to Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who taught me the difference between the two, and a big happy birthday to my friend Matt Sears, who first put Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five into my hands.

In this passage from Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut, a Veteran of World War II himself, describes a character seeing a war movie in reverse.

Today I hope we can honor the men and women who have gone into harm's way in service of their country, but even more, I hope we can, in the original spirit of Armistice Day, work together toward a lasting peace like the one in Billy Pilgrim's vision.

Solar Panels on City Hall

Solar panels on city hall

Last week the City of Adrian had an 20 kW array of solar panels installed on city hall. I had a few reasons for adding this project to the City's agenda. Fossil fuels won't last forever. That's why they're called nonrenewable energy. As they dwindle, their prices will go up. Fossil fuel companies are already reaching for more costly and difficult sources, like the tar sands in Alberta, Canada which are now being piped through our community and putting our water supply at risk. The transition away from coal and oil won't happen overnight, but it will happen eventually. I think local government should be a leader when it comes to adopting tomorrow's technology. Pollution and climate change may not seem like urgent issues in our little town, but we can still play a role in making a better world for our children and grandchildren. But the thing that really convinced our city council to act was the financial angle.

The solar panels on City Hall are an investment that will show an impressive return. After the rebate from Kansas City Power & Light, this will only cost the city $14,500. Over the lifetime of the panels they will generate more than $100,000 worth of electricity.

In 2008, Missouri voters overwhelming approved the Clean Energy Initiative, which requires power companies to get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021. KCP&L created a rebate program to help them reach this goal. As soon as our panels are operational, the utility will send us a check for $41,500, which is 74% of the project's total cost of $56,000.

KCP&L will also install a net meter. Like a regular meter, a net meter tells KCP&L how much power they're selling to us, but it also runs in the opposite direction so that they can credit our account when our panels are generating more power than we are using. In the past, City Hall has had electric bills around $340 per month. With the electricity we get from the sun, our bill will drop to nearly zero most months. The solar panels will pay for themselves in around five years, then they will provide us with free energy for another 15 or 20 years.

The City of Adrian is not alone in taking advantage of this opportunity. Citizens Bank has installed solar panels at several locations, including their Adrian branch. Last month, the City of Butler broke ground on what will be one of the largest solar plants in the midwest. The installer that Adrian hired, Roof Power Solar, is based in Rich Hill and has done projects on businesses and homes in Cass, Bates and Vernon Counties. The City of Adrian has other buildings that could be powered by future solar projects, including our public works building and our water plant.

Kepler

After an impressive mission, one of humanity's most amazing machines appears to be in trouble. The Kepler space telescope has found over 2,700 planets since it was launched four years ago. It stares at the stars in one patch of the sky (near constellation Cygnus) and detects when the stars dim or wobble a tiny amount, tip-offs that planets are orbiting the star. Now that the second of four stabilizing wheels has failed, scientists back on Earth are no longer able to control Kepler.

The most famous and prolific space telescope, Hubble, was repaired by NASA astronauts four times, but that's not an option for Kepler. While Hubble is in a low Earth orbit 350 miles above the surface, Kepler orbits the Sun, not the Earth. It's currently 40 million miles away. NASA can't even get into low earth orbit without hitching a ride from Russia, so a repair mission is out of the question. Kepler's cost was $600 million, a bargain compared to Hubble's $10 billion cumulative price tag (still worth it).

Kepler's work is the latest in a long string of discoveries that show humans that the world is much bigger than we thought. Twenty years ago we weren't sure whether other stars had planets at all. Now we see that planets are very common and there's probably an average of at least one planet per star throughout the galaxy. In its one little area, Kepler found 262 planets that appear to be habitable.

Here's hoping we can replace Kepler with a whole fleet of even more powerful planet-hunting telescopes.

Job Dreaming


If you asked me to describe my dream job, here are some things I would include:

Makes the world a better place

You only live once, and I want to spend my career doing something important. I'm not just in it for a paycheck, I want my work to make the world a better place. Three areas that I've thought a lot about are science, education and politics. I would much rather work in one of these than just helping a company sell widgets.

A fresh start

My seven years as a web developer have focused on maintaining legacy code. That means someone else wrote the app, making the decisions (and mistakes) that I have to live with every day. I've tried to keep up with new methods for programming, but they're hard to bolt on to an existing app with spaghetti code inside. Starting a project for scratch means I can do it right from the beginning (or at least I can make my own mistakes).

Working in a team

I've telecommuted 100% of the time for the last 5 years. I loved avoiding the long drive to work, but it got lonely at times. Worse than that, I was the only PHP developer in the company, so I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of and learn from. Working with other developers would be ideal, though I would still want to have some creative control.

At least some telecommuting

Spending two hours a day in the car is a real drag. I've done it before. While there are advantages to spending some time in the office with the rest of the team, I would prefer to do most of my work in the quiet of my home office.

Benefits

Working as an independent contractor has its upsides, but it also meant that I got no benefits from my job and no paid time off. The ideal job would include generous benefits, vacation and sick time.

A bitchin' computer

I'm currently using a 2010 iMac with a 27" display. I love it, but as long as I'm dreaming, the ideal job would provide me with the latest and greatest Mac. The Macbook Pro recently got updated and now includes a retina screen and a lighting fast SSD instead of a hard drive. That should do nicely.

The job I started this month fulfills all of these requirements. I'm a software application developer for the National Higher Education Benchmark Institute. It's part of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, and it exists to collect data from community colleges around the country and create reports and analysis for colleges and policy makers. We work to help make education more cost-effective. Given the importance of education to the future of the world and the budget difficulties faced by educators and students, this seems to fit my first requirement. I have a real chance of making the world a better place.

I will get to create a project from scratch, assembling state-of-the-art tools rather than battling with legacy code. The project I was hired for is called Maximizing Resources for Student Success and it is funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I will be working with a team that includes other developers and researchers. So far they all seem like interesting and talented folks. And the atmosphere on a college campus is nice, too. I love how I can walk through the halls and hear different languages being spoken.

Though I'll drive to the office for the first few months, the plan is for me to telecommute three days a week after that. This should be a good mixture of concentrated coding sessions and team interaction. I think I can handle the drive twice a week.

The JCCC benefits are by far the best I've ever been offered. Health, dental, vision, retirement, KPERS (Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, I'll be vested in 5 years), federal holidays, paid Xmas break, vacation, personal days and sick days.

Oh, and the SSD and retina equipped Macbook Pro is gorgeous. The fact that it was purchased with Bill Gates' money is a funny little bonus.

Emma and Beauty

MLK on "right to work"

We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Senate Votes on Afghanistan, Detention and Gitmo

Originally posted at ShowMeProgress.com

This week the US Senate considered several amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including one on accelerating the end of the war in Afghanistan, one on detention of US citizens and one preventing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Senate Amendment 3096 is a non-binding vote that expresses the Senate's endorsement of the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and calls for that timeline to be accelerated. It passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support (62-33), though neither of Missouri's Senators voted for it. Republican Roy Blunt voted no and recently re-elected Democrat Claire McCaskill was one of 5 Senators that didn't cast a vote.

The war in Afghanistan has now dragged on for over 11 years, the longest war in the history of the United States. Over 2,100 American troops have been killed and thousands more wounded. A poll in March of 2012 found that 69% of Americans thought we should not be at war in Afghanistan, up from 53% four months earlier. With the public increasingly ready for this long war to end, it's time for officials from both parties to act. This week's amendment is a start and it's a shame that our Senators failed to get on board.

Another amendment (3018) to the NDAA made clear that the government is not authorized to detain citizens or lawful residents without charge or trial, even when we are at war. Though the right of habeas corpus is already guaranteed by the Constitution, it is good to see the Senate making this point after years of war and terror have eroded this fundamental right. Both of our Senators, McCaskill and Blunt, voted in favor of the amendment, which passed 67-29.

Though President Obama has made efforts to close down our nation's offshore prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Congress continues to prevent him from doing so. Amendment 3245 to the NDAA prohibits the use of funds to transfer or release the 160+ prisoners still held there with murky legal status. It passed (54-41) with McCaskill voting against it and Blunt voting for it. Though the legislation hasn't been passed yet, and though the White House has made noises about vetoing the whole NDAA, the Republicans seem on track toward getting their wish to keep the prison at Guantanamo open.

Final scores: Blunt gets 1 out of 3 right, and McCaskill gets 2 out of 3 right with a disappointing abstention on the Afghanistan amendment. But hey, at least we don't have to worry about out how Todd Akin would have voted on these.

Ed Emery Will Continue to Accept Lobbyist Gifts

As the 2013 Missouri legislative session draws near, several elected officials from both sides of the aisle are calling on lawmakers to reject gifts from lobbyists, either voluntarily or through new ethics reforms. State Senator-elect Ed Emery (R-Lamar, MO) does not appear interested in joining this movement.

Between 2002 and 2010, when he was a State Representative, Emery accepted over $5,800 worth of meals and gifts from lobbyists, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Missouri is the only state in the nation where legislators are allowed to accept unlimited campaign contributions and unlimited gifts from lobbyists. Each year lobbyists spend hundreds of thousands of dollars buying alcohol, food, tickets, trips, and other gifts for our elected officials.

While current state law allows lobbyists to wine and dine state officials, several Republican and Democratic legislators are calling for banning the gifts outright and have promised to refuse all gifts and meals from lobbyists.

Senator-elect Scott Sifton (D-Affton) campaigned on the issue, pledging to refuse gifts from lobbyists and criticizing his opponent, incumbent State Senator Jim Lemke (R-Lemay), for accepting nearly $30,000 worth of lobbyist gifts over the last decade. Sifton won the race 50.9% to 49.1%.

During his time in the General Assembly, Jason Kander (D-Kansas City) sponsored an ethics bill that would have banned lobbyist gifts, and this fall Kander was narrowly elected as Secretary of State, despite his opponent's flood of campaign cash from St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefeld.

Senators from both parties see a need for reform. John Lamping (R-St. Louis) is refusing all gifts from lobbyists and calling for an outright ban on the gifts.

Shortly after the election I asked Emery if he planned to join Lamping and Sifton in working to curb lobbyist gifts. Here is his response:

Danny Ferguson: Mr. Emery, will you join senator-elect Scott Sifton in calling for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to legislators?

Ed Emery: Danny, transparency and attentiveness are the most effective means to empower citizens. It is not more government. You and Scott must trust government a lot more than I do.

Ferguson: A government is only as trustworthy as the people serving in it. Banning gifts from lobbyists is a way to remove one potential source of corruption, which would make it easier for us to trust that you're working for the best interests of all your constituents rather than the financial interests of a few people who have given you gifts. This could even be a voluntary ban, at least at first. Would you consider committing to rejecting all gifts from lobbyists as John Lamping (R) and Scott Sifton (D) have?

Emery: Danny, If you confine politicians to the Constitution that will give lobbyist little to lobby for. When government is no longer allowed to pick winners and losers the bidding for power will cease or be greatly diminished. I would prefer limiting government to expanding or empowering it.

Ferguson: So, in other words, you're going to keep accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists. Is that correct?

Emery: [No response given.]

Fire Vicky Hartzler, Hire Teresa Hensley

In 2010, Missouri replaced moderate Congressman Ike Skelton with a far-right candidate named Vicky Hartzler. In her two years in office she's veered even farther to the extreme right and proved herself incapable of getting things done. Now we have a chance to replace her with a moderate, law-and-order Democrat who will better represent the 4th District: Teresa Hensley.

Teresa HensleyTeresa Hensley is the person we need in Congress to get things done. Hensley has an impressive record as the Cass County Prosecuting Attorney. She has sent murderers, child abusers and wife beaters to prison. She knows how to bring different agencies together to accomplish goals and she knows that the most vulnerable among us need understanding and support, not vilification.

Teresa Hensley comes from a working-class family and will fight for a stronger middle class. She will get things done where Hartzler has only produced more partisan gridlock and petty attacks. Teresa has been endorsed by the Kansas City Star and the Columbia Tribune. Let's send a common-sense moderate to Congress, someone who will really represent the values of hard-working Missourians.

One of the strongest signs that Vicky Hartzler has taken leave of her senses came in a town hall in April of this year. Responding to a constituent's question about the President's place of birth, she said, "I have doubts that it really is his real birth certificate." Did I mention that this was almost a year after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate? This conspiracy theory is embarrassing to her constituents and an unmistakable sign of bad judgement.

Hartzler also voted for the Paul Ryan budget that would replace the guaranteed coverage of Medicare with a voucher system. Under the plan that Hartzler supported, the next generation of seniors would be given a coupon and left to the whims of the private insurance market. Seniors would be responsible for around $6,000 in extra costs under this plan.

Though Hartzler claims to be very concerned about federal budget deficits, she has refused to consider many options that would actually help the budget gap. Rather than putting top tax rates back to where they were in the surplus days of the Clinton administration, she wants to cut them. This trickle-down approach would make the deficit worse, not better. The spending cuts she supports are almost exclusively aimed at the less fortunate among us. Hartzler voted to cut food stamps while preserving the farm subsidies that have put over $820,000 of government checks into her pocket.

At every step, Hartzler has shown herself to be a comforter of the comfortable and an afflicter of the afflicted. She reliably sides with the polluter, the corporation, the investment banker, the defense contractor and the 1%. At a time when we need government to come together and move the country forward, Hartzler has been extremely partisan and ineffective.

Hartzler has trumpeted awards from groups like the NFIB and RetireSafe, who gave her an award called "Standing Up for America's Seniors." On the surface that sounds nice, but people familiar with Hartzler's record knew something smelled fishy. A closer examination of this organization shows that RetireSafe is a corporate-backed group founded with the stated purpose of privatizing Social Security, a move that would be devastating to the financial security of seniors. An award from that group is nothing to be proud of.

Let's choose a Representative who will work to strengthen the middle class and protect our seniors. Vote for Teresa Hensley on November 6.

Barack Obama 2012

Barack ObamaIn 2007, before the Presidential primaries had started, I endorsed Barack Obama. Now I'm endorsing him again in his run for reelection. In order to explain why, I'd like to revisit the 6 reasons I listed back in 2007.

Iraq

Obama was against this war from the beginning and pledged to bring it to a close. On December 18, 2011, the last U.S. troops left Iraq. Promise kept. This was and is one of the most important reasons I support President Obama.

Diplomacy

The US was engaged in two land wars when President Obama took office and now we have one. Not only did he end the Iraq war, but he hasn't started any new ground wars. I'm not entirely comfortable with our expanded use of drone strikes, the (now ended) escalation in Afghanistan or the bombing in the Libyan civil war, but I'm afraid that Romney or McCain would have done even worse.

Health

I knew Obama's proposals in healthcare reform would be more modest than I would like and that was true. After months of haggling with Congressional Republicans, the final version of the Affordable Care Act was even more moderate than I expected. The public option was stripped out in an attempt to get at least some GOP support. Many elements of the plan were modeled on proposals from Republicans like Mitt Romney and the Heritage foundation. Despite his compromises, not a single Republican voted for the bill. Stranger still, they all decided that their own ideas were unconstitutional and socialistic once Obama had embraced them. Though far from ideal, the AFA is an improvement to our broken healthcare system. More people are getting coverage and the insurance companies have fewer tricks for denying healthcare to their customers.

Energy

The CAFE Standards that set the pace for vehicle fuel efficiency have been improved as promised. We're importing less oil and producing more energy at home. The electricity generated from renewable sources has nearly doubled in the last 4 years. Increased used of cleaner-burning natural gas has meant that we're burning less coal and putting less pollution into the air and water. We've still got a long way to go, but we're moving forward.

Lobbyists, corruption and open government

Congress is weaning themselves off of the opaque appropriations process known as earmarks. The Obama administration has supported this change and they've continued to push for transparency for government spending, moving more information online and making it accessible to everyone. We need to know how the money is spent if we're going to be informed voters. The President hasn't been as firm as I would have liked when it comes to lobbyists, but he still wins this category by a country mile.

Experience

In 2007 Obama had more experience in public office (10 years) than most of the primary candidates, including Mitt Romney who has only served one 4-year term as governor of Massachusetts. Obama has now served 14 years, including nearly four as President. He has calmly faced natural disasters, financial crisis, war, uprisings in the Middle East and an obstructionist Congress.

And here are a few more reasons I support Obama that didn't make my 2007 list:

Equality

Obama oversaw the repeal of Don't Ask Don'T Tell, the policy that Bill Clinton put in place to bridge the gap between the strict ban on gays troops and a more open policy. Under DADT the military discharged over 13,000 troops at a time when we could ill afford to turn away patriotic young people who want to serve their country. Now anyone can serve in the military regardless of who they love.

The President has also publicly supported marriage equality, a first for any President in the history of our nation. This position is supported by a majority of Americans, led by a huge majority of young people.

bin Laden

After years of the Bush administration's stance of not really working toward capturing the 9/11 mastermind, Obama pursued the evil bastard, personally pushing for the spare helicopter that allowed the daring mission to succeed. Of course the brave troops who actually put boots on the ground deserve the lion's share of the credit, but it was a victory for the President and the nation as a whole.

Economy

In 2007 no one knew just how bad the economy would get. When things started getting really awful in the fall of 2008, the electorate turned to Obama and the Democratic party to clean up the mess. Years of trickle-down economics, irresponsible wars and financial deregulation led to the worst recession in 50 years. Within months of taking the oath, Obama oversaw a reversal of soaring unemployment and the beginnings of a recovery. We still have a long way to go, but it's way to early to give up and return to the failed policies that got us into this mess.


Sources and further reading:

Key features of the Affordable Care Act
Romneycare and Obamacare Differ Only in Inconsequential Ways
Renewable electricity
Comparison of Obama and Romney energy policies

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