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We are coming up on the Fourth of July, our national holiday here in America when we all get together to celebrate being American. Mostly we celebrate by blowing things up, eating fattening food, and getting drunk—but whatever…we are after all American and those activities suit our national character. Yet lately there are real troubles in the USA: everyone is always fighting with everyone else over everything. The rich and the poor apparently regard each other as separate species (most unwisely in my humble opinion, since those states, seemingly so infinitely distant are not nearly so far apart as one might suppose). Ethnic and racial groups are sorting apart and clustering together even as like-minded individuals enter into their own echo chambers on the web. Drivers hate pedestrians. Dog owners and cat owners tsk at each other (although both sorts of animals are lovely pets). And beyond everything else there is the yawning chasm down the middle—the chasm between blue and red. This widening political gulf between left and right is paralyzing our nation and leaving us all poorer—both financially and in terms of experience, friendship, and opportunities. I have been disquieted by America’s growing animosity and fractiousness and I really hope you share my unhappiness. This is bad.

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What is going to happen when the latest economic bubble breaks and all of these divisions are thrown into sharp contrast as the money all sluices off to wherever it goes? I am a West Virginian who grew up In southern Ohio, Mainline Philadelphia, and Virginia. I went to college in South Chicago. I have seen red and blue America and they aren’t even that different! I feel like this tribal nastiness is being manufactured just so a bunch of narcissistic freaks can cling to power.
We are going to talk more about how to deal with this in later posts. If our country was united we could solve all of these logistical, moral, and fiscal problems which bedevil us in short order and resume building a future of beauty, meaning, and wonder. We will get there, but to celebrate the Fourth, let’s flee into a starkly different political climate: the past.
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For the 4th of July I decided to peak back through the history of my congressional district, which today is arguably the most diverse in the United States (consisting of unimaginably rich burgher-paradise of Park Slope, the inner city ‘hoods of Brownsville, the vast orthodox Jewish enclaves of Midwood, and the Russian and Central Asian immigrant districts of Sheepshead Bay).
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The history of the 9th Congressional District of New York was hilarious and remarkable. This congressional district has changed shape, color, and composition again and again like a cuttlefish at a rave. It has been redistricted and torn apart and pasted into so many different coalitions and coteries.
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Although it has mostly been a Democratic stronghold (with some congressmen and women who became famous (or infamous)—like Chuck Schumer, Geraldine Ferraro, and Anthony Weiner), there have been a fair number of Republicans representing the 9th District too. However, if you go back far enough there were other affiliations as well: Federalists, Whigs, and more than one candidate who were simply Anti-Jacksonian or “Opposition”. All the first representatives had Dutch names!
Portrait Of Joseph Pulitzer
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The famous journalist Joseph Pulitzer was a congressman of the ninth district so was Thomas Bradley, a Tammany-era lawyer who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 31. There were remarkable beards and moustaches aplenty: there were weirdoes and heroes and forgettable placeholders. The only constant was change.
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We Americans aren’t just different in different regions: we change a lot not over time. If you are unhappy now, keep your chin up and keep lobbying to keep the democracy fair, civil, educated, and unbiased. Affairs will work out in the end so long as we remain democratic and bound by fair rules. History keep changing faster than you might think and mostly for the better. That trend will resume and we can start being the UNITED States of America again. We can build bridges instead of walls and canyons (which suits Brooklyn better anyway). Happy Fourth of July!
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The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

Welcome back NASA! Since the United States Congress reached a (somewhat pathetic) fig leaf deal to fund the Federal government yesterday, the national space agency is back in business!  The NASA website is up and running.  Furloughed astrophysicists have stopped sending their resumes to useless (but extremely lucrative) financial firms and are again exploring the fundamental nature of the universe.

He could be working on a warp drive...or he could be devising toxic equity instruments to plunder your retirement fund--you decide!

He could be working on a warp drive…or he could be devising toxic real estate loan derivatives in order to plunder your retirement fund–you decide!

To celebrate what I regard as one of the–if not the most–important things that humankind is working on, here is a list of current NASA projects which you can start looking forward to again:

BARREL is a series of about 40 super high altitude balloons designed to study the Van Allen radiation belts (which serve as a sort of force field that keeps Earth’s atmosphere from being destroyed).

Solar Probe+ is a robotic spacecraft designed to fly faster than any human made object to the outer corona of the sun and study our beloved star directly.

MAVEN is an orbital planetary satellite designed to orbit Mars and analyze its atmosphere.

OSIRIS-Rex is a probe designed to visit a 500 meter long carbonaceous asteroid and return a sample to Earth for study.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an orbital infrared space telescope with a large super the designated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Congress deserves credit–I may be the first person in America to type those three words during the last fortnight–for restoring funding to the James Webb Space Telescope in 2011 after its budget was slashed (even though 75% of the hardware was already built or in production).  Sadly a number of the more important and exciting NASA projects for the upcoming two decades have been cancelled due to budget gaps and to the budget sequester (which has cruelly cut into scientific spending as well as research and development).  There was a project to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the moon which seems to be permanently canceled.  A planned probe to Jupiter’s icy moons that was suspended as was a Terrestrial Planet Finder.  The list of canceled projects goes on and on.

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer--a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer–a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

All of this will become much more problematic if our elected leaders continue to be unable to plan for the larger long-term structural changes going on in the economy and society.  The federal budget consists of two sorts of funds: appropriated entitlements (which can never be cut) versus discretionary spending, which must be squeezed when the budget is not met.  As the former grows larger, the latter (which contains all of our research and science programs) will shrink unless we can work together.  Some shortsighted people do not understand the purpose of NASA or other blue sky science research institutions, but that is where our innovations and breakthroughs come from.  If NASA and scientific funding continue to be chopped in favor of ever ballooning entitlements then it will mean an age of ever more grasping people with fewer ways to help them live together and learn about the universe… plus we’ll never get to colonize Venus!  Come on everyone!

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus' surface, held aloft by both the station's breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from orbitalvector.com)

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus’ surface, held aloft by both the station’s breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from orbitalvector.com)

Hmm...

I seriously contemplated joining the nationwide protest against internet censorship by blacking out my blog for a day.  As far as I understand them, the SOPA and PIPA bills are flawed bills, which, like most congressionally mandated regulation, necessitate huge unwieldy compliance requirements.  This benefits giant corporations (which can afford whole wings of lawyers, testers, and bureaucrats) while effectively crushing smaller players.  As a toy manufacturer, I recognize this strategy!

However there is a self-crucifying element to today’s internet strike which reminds me of melodramatic high school logic: “If adversaries want to hurt me or take advantage of me, then I’ll hurt myself worse!”  Yeah, that’ll show ‘em.

So instead of blacking out my site, I am advocating a more direct strategy.   All American voters should utilize our democracy more intelligently and simply vote against all incumbents this year. I know that most of my American readers are somberly nodding their heads and thinking, “That’s right, everyone else should vote out the crooked elected officials whom they have stupidly chosen…but not me. My elected officials are greedy and self-serving–but they do look after this district and they are better than the alternatives.”   This article summarizes  how most American voters feel exactly that way.  Argh!

Opinion: Everyone else's incumbent versus my incumbent

Reality: Everyone else's incumbent versus my incumbent

To illustrate my point, here is an anecdote involving my grandmother, who is one of the toughest & most all-American mavericks I know. Grandma ran a bar in the small wild town in West Virginia where my family is from. She kept a .357 under the bar and a profane quip on the tip of her tongue and generally exemplified all-American concepts of personal freedom.

Yeah!

When I was in high school I remember talking with Grandma about the county sheriff of that era.  Grandma thought the sheriff was both incompetent and crooked.  She gave me a long (and compelling) list of reasons to believe these claims.  Appalled, I inquired how the sheriff obtained his job.  She said he was elected!  Problem solved!

No!

“Just vote against him, Grandma,” I earnestly advised.

“That’s impossible!” she snapped.

“Well is the other guy even more corrupt?” I asked (my mind boggling at the concept of such a bad cop).

“No, he’s a republican,” she replied.

Just fill in the blanks differently and that is how everyone feels.  We have all been carefully districted and gerrymandered into such a shape that it is almost impossible for the candidate from the other party to win in your district. It’s supremely difficult for a lot of us to even think about voting for the other candidate.  But if we all did we would suddenly have a congress full of socially progressive republicans and fiscally conservative democrats

I don’t know a great deal about my current congressional incumbent, Yvette Clarke,  because I just moved.  All I can say is it looks like she takes most of her donations from public sector unions, lawyers’ associations, and health care professionals and…you know what, that’s enough for me.  I want her out.  And I have long disliked New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer–his staffers never even wrote back to me about toy legislation. They could have at least sent me a photo and a sticker (although both NY Senators just got reelected in 2010 so it’ll be a while before I can vote against him again).  Courageously join me! You don’t have to shut down your website.  Just vote against whoever is in office during the election of 2012.  Most elected officials probably don’t even know what an internet is, but they have heard of voters. We’ll have internet freedom in no time flat.  Or even better, we’ll be free of the wretched clowns who are ruining the country.

Or maybe the elected reflect the electorate...

Basa in a Bucket

I have been writing a great deal about catfish–by which I mean any of the ray finned fish of the order Siluriforme.  There are literally thousands of individual species within this order—all united under the taxonomical rubric by certain shared features such as lack of scales, a well-developed Weberian apparatus, and a reduced gas bladder.  Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, only a tiny number of the Siluriformes are actually “catfish”.  What’s going on here?  Have I been lying to you about all of these fascinating catfish?

No.  Here is the ridiculous story of what happened.

During the 1990s, Vietnam began a widespread reform movement towards a market-driven economy.  The reforms were an instant and immense success:  the number of people living in poverty in Vietnam dropped from 70% of the population to 30% of the population.  Vietnam’s standard of living rose dramatically and the nations leaders began courting the United States as both a trade partner and an ally against the rising regional hegemony of China. One of Vietnam’s top exports was basa, freshwater catfish raised quickly and cheaply on fish farms along the tributary rivers of the Mekong. “Basa” can be used to describe several different catfish, usually Pangasius bocourti, Pangasius hypophthalmus, or Pangasius pangasius.  These fish are truly omnivorous and their ability to take sips of pure air means huge numbers can be raised in small spaces.

Pangasius

Vietnamese catfish exports to America exploded.  Thanks to cheap labor, inexpensive farm techniques (which probably involve a level of abuse to the Mekong river), and superior tasting flesh, basa quickly outcompeted channel catfish from the moribund catfish farms of the American South.

That’s when Catfish Farmers of America (an agricultural lobbying organization) lobbied Mississippi’s then Senator, Trent Lott, to act against the Vietnamese imports.  Lott duly appended a rider onto an important appropriations bill. This rider mandated that out of the thousands of catfish types, only the North American Ictaluridae could henceforth be called “catfish”. In the subsequent debate John McCain lashed out at this anti-free trade (and anti-ichthyology) legislation calling it, “a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons.” Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas, responded (and demonstrated a deplorable lack of taxonomical savvy) by stating that, “Vietnamese Basa is no more related to the Southern catfish than a cat is to a cow.”  [It is well known that cows are even toed ungulates and hence members of the order Artiodactyla, whereas cats are a member of an entirely different order of mammals, the Carnivora.  Both basa and chanel cats are in the same order of fish.].  Unfortunately the Senator’s failure to grasp biology was no bar to passing the anti-trade legislation and, in 2003, Congress passed laws preventing all non-Ictaluridae catfish from being labelled as catfish (as well as imposing additional tariffs on Vietnamese basa).

Say what you like about anti-trade agricultural lobbyists, but they have a neat logo and a great website.

There was a silver lining for Vietnamese fish exporters: basa is completely delicious and has continued to outsell “catfish”.  Indeed the Vietnamese began to rake in windfall profits because, despite punitive tariffs, their product was still cheaper than American catfish which soared in cost due to increased corn prices (corn, a catfish feedstock, became more expensive thanks to Congressionally mandated ethanol subsidies–but that is another story).  Also thanks to the noise and drama produced by Congress, basa acquired its own “brand recognition” and picked up a group of devoted consumers both here and abroad.

Pan-cooked Basa with Herbs

Indeed, when I buy catfish, I buy basa.  American catfish, particularly in the early days of aquiculture, could sometimes taste musty and dirty, whereas I have always found basa to have a clean, delicate flavor and wonderful light flaky texture.  After trying out a number of smear campaigns against basa (most of which ricocheted and cost consumer sentiment against all catfish) the Catfish Farmers of America have decided to rebrand their own product as “DELECATA™”.  This is (apparently) plain old channel catfish which has been rebranded and renamed.  To quote Saveur magazine,

Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. ‘Let’s face it, catfish is not the best name, especially for people outside the South,’ says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover.

Astonishingly the Ramey Agency, a corporate consultant, worked for three years coming up with the DELECATA™ concept and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing so.  Having said this, DELECATA™  looks pretty tasty and will probably actually sell in a world filled with dim consumers willing to pay for organic potatoes.  I’ll happily try it if I win the lottery (or ever see it in a Brooklyn supermarket).

I guess we’ll see how DELECATA™ works out.  In the mean time the catfish wars continue.  Both American producers and Vietnamese producers are coming under the shadow of Chinese catfish exports.  China is enormous and, as anyone trying to do business anywhere knows, Chinese producers can undersell anyone (unless the products in question require extraordinary technological finesse).  The Chinese are capable of flooding the catfish market and crushing both Vietnamese and American producers.  An intriguing idea being floated by the Vietnamese catfish farmers is to create a super hybrid between the more humble species of Pangasius being farmed today and the Mekong’s elusive giant catfish (which is a close relative).   So it looks like giant mutant catfish lie in our near future.  In the mean time enjoy a plate of tasty catfish/basa/delacata/whatever.

A Pangasius Processing Line–Feeding the planet is ugly work

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