Friday, February 15, 2013

Chicken Little Was Right

Millions of years ago, before man or his predecessor ape walked the planet, dinosaurs ruled the earth. They were enormous and fierce, and these fearsome creatures’ reign was undisputed. No living creatures rose to challenge them for dominance and they would still be the sole occupants of our world were it not for a few rocks.

Yes, the most powerful creatures in existence, lords of the planet, were obliterated from the face of the earth, relegated to illustrated history books and occasional skeletal remains unearthed in archeological digs. The proud dinosaurs, complacent in their arrogant conquest of this planet, paid for their hubris when they were wiped out by meteors.

Space rocks are deserving of respect. They are fast. Asteroids travel 15 miles per second. Meteors, asteroids’ smaller cousins, travel 100 time faster than a rifle bullet, up to 46 miles per second. The dinosaurs never saw it coming.

Today, in unrelated events, an asteroid sideswiped the Earth and a meteor struck the planet. Asteroid 2012 DA14 skimmed closer to our planet than any other known asteroid in recorded history. The 55-foot-long, 130,000-ton asteroid came within Earth’s geosynchronous orbit. Our geostationary satellites orbit the Earth 22,300 miles above the planet; Asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed us, zooming by at only 17,100 miles above the ground. In space terms, that’s a close shave. But there was no need to worry. You see, Asteroid 2012 DA14 has a name. Astronomers spotted it last year, named it, and tracked it. In fact, scientists have studied this asteroid so extensively they can predict its path for most of the 21st century. NASA has a space probe tracking asteroids and international observatories send NASA's Minor Planet Center their findings to add to its database of all known asteroids in our solar system. Had Asteroid 2012 DA14 appeared on a trajectory to strike the Earth, we had the time and the means to launch a man-made projectile that would nudge an asteroid enough to make it miss us. Which is a good thing, because if an asteroid did hit the planet, it would strike with the force of a 1 million megaton bomb and wipe out everything on Earth. 

Meteors are another story. Being smaller, meteors weigh less than asteroids, so unless we get struck by a meteor storm, a single meteor will do limited damage. The one that hit Russia’s remote Ural mountains today weighed only 10 tons. Still, the shock waves from the sonic boom in its wake injured 1,000 people and damaged homes and businesses in the Chelyabinsk region. By the time it had breached Earth’s atmosphere, the meteor’s speed had slowed to a paltry 33,000 mph. But in space, it was much faster, traveling up to 46 miles per second. A lot faster and a lot smaller than an asteroid. That’s why it never had a name — we never saw it coming. Our space agencies are not set up to detect meteors approaching Earth. We could do it; the technology exists. But our government has not provided the funding required to build and calibrate the equipment to do so.

Meteorites fall to Earth several times a year, but large meteor crashes like the one in Russia are rare (It was the biggest and most destructive since the 1908 Tunguska, Siberia meteor crash). The government is gambling on that, so it can save its shekels for wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. Of course, had that meteor struck New York City, Manhattan would have been obliterated. Still, we are the dominant life on the planet, too big to fall. We can afford to be parsimonious with our tax dollars.

Such hubris is worthy of the dinosaurs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

 A paranormal coming of age story. Brendan has a hard time fitting in as the new kid in town, especially on Valentine's Day. Although he hasn't made any friends at his new school, there is one girl he hopes will be his Valentine. But will their holiday end in newfound romance or heartbreak? A short story for young adults by Keith B. Darrell. 2,564 words.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Death of the Pony Express Redux

I first published this article more than a year ago but, in light of the announced termination of Saturday mail delivery (effective August 2013), several readers have asked me to reprint it in a more prominent spot on the blog.

Death of the Pony Express

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" reads the inscription on the James Farley New York City post office. Herodotus penned those words describing the expedition of the Greeks against the Persians around 500 B.C, but the saying has become synonymous with the U.S. postal service. Nothing can impede delivery of the U.S. mail… except a Republican Congress hell-bent on destroying it.

Everyone gripes about the post office, but I find it to be an amazingly efficient operation. Even as a child, I was awed by the notion that I could drop a letter into a metal box on my street corner and a few days later it would be delivered anywhere in the world.  The postal service will deliver a letter to the North Pole; by mule to an Indian reservation at the foot of the Grand Canyon; to an inmate at a maximum security prison; to the Alaskan tundra; by parachute; by hovercrafts; and through pneumatic tubes. And it does so for mere pocket change (six cents when I was a boy, 45 cents in 2012).

In the 1970s, the Postal Reorganization Act converted the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, making it a quasi-governmental organization. Since then, it has been self-supporting. Not a single dime of taxpayer money is spent on the postal system! All of its revenue comes from the sale of stamps and related products. For the most part, it has been profitable. It is also the country’s second largest employer (Wal*Mart is number one), has the largest fleet of vehicles on the planet, and processes 40% of the world’s mail.

Even with e-mail, online bill paying, and private competitors like FedEx, UPS, and DHL, the U.S. Postal Service performs a vital function. Its mandate demands it service everywhere in the nation… especially place its competitors refuse to service because they find it unprofitable to do so.

Yet today, the postal service is near bankruptcy and facing unnecessary Draconian cost-cutting measures: closure of half of its mail processing facilities; closing between 3,700 and 15,000 post offices; ending Saturday delivery; and firing tens of thousands of employees. That’s right: the Republican Congress thinks forcing the nation’s second largest employer to fire tens of thousands of employees in a depression is a good idea. Those jobless employees will not be spending their paychecks next year, further reducing the amount of money circulating in the economy. The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and others they would have paid will have less income to pay their employees and keep their businesses going.

So why is this necessary? The postal service was profitable -- during the worst recession in 80 years, from 2007 to 2010, the postal service turned a net operational profit of $611 million -- until the Republican 109th Congress decided it was so profitable that it should prefund its employee retirement accounts… for the next 75 years! Say what? Congress demanded the postal service build up a retirement reserve fund that would cover health benefits for the next 75 years, and gave the postal system only 10 years to fund it. A near impossible burden for any business in the best of times. Need I add, these past few years have been far from the best of times?

That unnecessary financial obligation forced on it by Congress accounts for 84% of the postal service’s shortfall. This is a manufactured crisis created by a Bush era 2006 law passed by the Republican Congress, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act which forces the postal service to put aside billions of dollars to pay for the health benefits of employees it hasn't even hired yet, something no other government or private corporation is required to do! Without this stupid law, the USPS would not be nearly bankrupt… it would have a $1.5 billion profit!

Annoyed? You should be.   Apathetic? Leave now.   Angry enough to tell your senators and representatives you want them to rescind this insane statute and allow the USPS to operate as it had prior to 2006? Then click here to contact your Congressman. The U.S. Postal Service has a long and proud history, dating back to Benjamin Franklin (the first Postmaster General) and the days of the Pony Express carrying mail by horseback in relays to stations across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. Then again, they shoot horses, don't they?