See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Another Guest Post, by Jim

Jim got so much response to my last post of his, he wanted me to do this one. So here it is...

Another look at the almighty dollar

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It seems like only yesterday the Federal debt reached $8 trillion (Oct. 18, 2005). For those of you counting, we are about to pass another dubious milestone and reach the unheard amount of $9 trillion. Adding another trillion in record time prompted the Economist to dryly remark, "At least it hasn't hit a zillion yet.

"The impending crisis caused by the exploding federal deficit and debt is something that raises its ugly head in the press from time to time. Ever so often, some politician, economist, congressional committee or think tank reminds us that we are looking at a financial meltdown of unprecedented proportions.

But when it comes to money, there is something worse to worry about: The collapse of the fiscal system brought on by currency that can become worthless overnight.

A financial collapse brought on by debt is like an organism infected by a cancer it couldn't control. On the other hand, a fiscal collapse is more like a massive coronary. Uncle Sam may be dead before he hits the floor.

It has been said that "he who holds the gold rules." Throughout the ages, when gold was used, and laws protected honest commerce, productive nations thrived. However, when wealthy nations -- those with gold and powerful armies -- lived beyond their means, they had to strive for empires of easy fortunes.

Those nations failed.Today, gold no longer rules. Instead, "he who prints the money makes the rules." And the rules are similar: Compel foreign countries to produce and subsidize the country with military superiority and control over the monetary printing presses.

Dollar dominance began in 1944 with the Bretton Woods agreement. Due to our political and military muscle, and because Fort Knox held a mountain of gold, the world accepted the dollar as the reserve currency with its value set at 1/35 of an ounce of gold. With no controls, the Federal Reserve printed more money than we had gold for the next 27 years. This sham was exposed in 1971 when the French wanted to cash in their surplus dollars only to find there wasn't enough gold. On Aug. 15, Nixon essentially declared insolvency until we could come up with something new.

To rescue the dollar, it had to be backed by something of value before becoming interchangeable with Monopoly money. In 1973, the Nixon Administration struck a deal with OPEC to price oil in and only accept dollars for all transactions. We in turn promised to protect various oil-rich kingdoms from any internal or external threat. Thus the birth of the petrodollar.

The agreement with OPEC has allowed tremendous artificial demand and strength allowing the Federal Reserve to print money at will. Since most nations need to import oil, they needed dollars. This arrangement kept the third world mired in poverty: To get dollars, they had to keep their natural resources and labor cheap.

The problem is that this arrangement can't last.

There are several ways to bring these ethereal days to an end, and one is if OPEC decides to accept currency other than the dollar for oil. This could bankrupt us in a very short time.In November 2000, Iraq demanded euros for oil. The first Bush Cabinet meeting (January 2001) was dominated by how to get rid of Hussein and Iraq back on the dollar. There was no concern of his military or terrorism prowess. It was instead about his attack on the integrity of the dollar.Concern for pricing oil only in dollars helps explain our willingness to drop everything and teach Saddam a lesson for his defiance in demanding euros for oil after 9/11.

Another example was when Venezuela floated the idea of switching to the euro in mid-2001. Immediately, there was a coup attempt against Chavez, reportedly with CIA assistance.

Real threats come from countries who are incapable of threatening us militarily but able to dismantle us economically. This is the threat we see from Iran.Since 2004, Iran has been talking of switching to the euro, and we have repeatedly put Tehran in our cross hairs. The fear is not a fundamental Islamic revolution causing Middle East countries to fall like dominoes, but that there may be a domino effect where they will all stop taking dollars.

The truth of the matter is this: Our currency is backed by our military in the sense that anyone choosing to not accept it will get a thumping by our armed forces. Dollar superiority depends our strong military, and our strong military depends on the dollar. Ironically, no outside military force is needed to tear this relationship apart, and with it would go the economic engine that powered what was the American Century.

There's a new world awaiting us, and it is not promising.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Guest Blog, by Jimmy Lydecker

Jimmy Lydecker is one of my best friends of all time; he and I see things pretty much the same. I was engaged to his sister at one time; 'nuff said, except that we didn't get married, which is probably the best for both of us. He lives in Marin County, CA. He is also probably a better writer than I am; you judge.

Jimmy Journal

San Rafael, California
May 14, 2007

I woke up this morning to the sound I fell asleep to last night: The whooshing of cars going north and south on 101.

Actually, the whooshing is being replaced by a huge sucking sound... It is the sound of crude oil being sucked out of the ground to allow those cars to go flying by.

In America, unlike the rest of the world, 1/2 of the oil we use goes to the production of gasoline. Each day, the world uses over 80 million of barrels of oil. The United States, with 7% of the world’s population, uses over 25% of that 80+ million. That’ll happen when a nation of 320 million has more cars and trucks than people.

I laid in bed thinking of all the other things oil and its cousin, natural gas, are used for and how today would go if they were non-existent. This little exercise has been done before and everyone should think about it.

Living in Northern California, we have a fair amount of electricity generated by hydro, but not enough to keep all of us out of the dark all the time. Since it is 6:30 and still dark, I roll over, turn on my light and hope my section of the grid was not blacked out.

The light, in a fixture circa 1890, lit. I noticed the wire from the light needed attention as the fabric covering it was coming frayed... remember, no oil means no rubber insulation.

I roll onto the wood floor. My Dupont Stainmaster rug is no longer there. It was made out of oil.I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and decide I need to shave and get ready for another day in San Rafael. This is not going to be as easy as usual. Without oil, all my toiletries are history. There is no disposable razor as it is primarily plastic. Without oil, there’s nothing plastic.

Even if I had one of those old fashioned straight razors, I’d have no shaving cream: The lather is oil based.

For that matter, I have no shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, soap, toothbrush or toothpaste as they are all made from oil.

I look into my empty medicine cabinet and wonder where did my vitamins, aspirin, Zantac and antibiotics go? Oh, yeah, they are all made from oil. Even the moisturizing cream I use is no longer there.I decide to jump into the shower. At least the cold water will wake me up. But then I’ll have a hell of a mess to clean up as the water will splash all over without my shower curtain. It, too, is made of oil.It is au natural for me today.

Luckily, I am a cotton guy. I pull on a pair of Levi’s, t-shirt and socks. The socks suck because without oil, there is no elasticity to them and they keep falling down to my ankles.

I look for my Nike’s. They are not here! God, that’s right! Sneakers, one of the best inventions of all time, are non-existent. They are primarily oil based. I have to wear these uncomfortable clodhoppers with thick, stiff leather soles. Uncomfortable and just plain ugly!

Still cool outside, I look for my familiar multi-use Patagonia jacket. It is no where to be found. Ahhhhhh!!!, now I remember! It is made from oil. Instead I reach for my denim jacket.

Leaving my house on Hammondale Court, I am surprised by all the dust caused by the occasional horse or carriage going downtown on Lincoln Avenue. Without oil, there is no asphalt and the streets are dirt.I traipse the mile downtown to 4th Street where there are a number or restaurants. The trick is to find one that has what you want to eat. Today I decide to keep it simple: Eggs, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee.

Eating is the most challenging part of the day as nothing in our lives is more affected by a contraction of oil and natural gas supplies than agriculture. In 1859, when we entered the oil age, we were an agrarian nation where 90% of the population produced our food. Oil and natural gas, from which all pesticides and fertilizers are produced, are directly responsible for the Green Revolution. Today, 2% of the population produces the food for the other 98%.

Without pesticides or fertilizers, crop yields plummet. Without oil, there are no tractors, combines, threshers or any other of the mechanized methods we now take for granted. And the transportation of our agriculture products becomes a nightmare at best without reliable refrigeration.

Curse those futurists, I think, those that said we can get by using ethanol and other crop-derived energy sources. Haven’t they thought of Jevon’s Paradox? I guess not! Jevon’s Paradox is when you attempt to get yourself out of a progress trap by doing something that makes everything worse.

In fact, every alternative source for oil or oil based energy is ruined by Jevon’s Paradox.To switch to ethanol would consume what is left of oil and natural gas faster than just continuing on our present course.

Hydrogen? We’d need an additional 300 nuclear power plants to produce it for 300+ million people. Before the first 50 were built, we’d reach Peak Uranium and be in South Africa fighting for control of the world’s uranium.

And replacing 10% of our cars with fuel cells would use up the world’s supply of platinum.

I think of all the promises made about the oil sands of Canada... Oh, that’s right, the problem is the same as making synthetic oil from coal. It is a big problem with a big acronym - EROEI: Energy returned on energy invested.

If the EROEI is a negative number where you have to invest more energy into getting the same amount back, then what is the sense? This is the ultimate Jevon’s Paradox.There was a time when the EROEI from Middle Eastern oil was a staggering +30. At best now it is +10.

The best we can do with oil sands is about -5. The only way the industry stumbles by now is because of huge subsidies from the American and Canadian governments. Since it requires huge amounts of natural gas, the EROEI will keep heading south as natural gas is depleted.

Wait a second! What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be contemplating this over as I’m in the middle of my oil-free exercise.

Quietly I finish my single egg, piece of bread (no toast), potato and wish I had some coffee. Coffee is difficult to come by without reliable shipments from South America.And I don’t know about that glass of milk I drank. The waitress said it was pasteurized but...Sheeeeesh, I sigh as I begin the mile long hike back home. I figure I’ll kick back the rest of the day and relax.

But what to do in a world without oil? I can’t watch the tube or listen to the radio. They both require massive amounts of oil to manufacture.

Watching a DVD or listening to CD is out as well! In fact, I won’t even be writing this little exercise of mine now as computers will be non-existent.

Despite it all, I look around and notice the world around me seems cleaner. Probably something to do with our disposable society that no longer exists. And the air is cleaner without all those cars on 101 - Hey! It is quieter, too. I can actually hear birds singing up above and children playing in backyards.

But it is not going to a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse. The world’s population has become unmanageable to exist without oil.

I always tell people to go to YouTube and type “post-oil man” into the search bar. It may be the most eye-opening 4 minutes you’ll spend in your life.As I reach home after my dusty walk from breakfast downtown, I look around and know at least it’ll be light today even if PG&E turns off the power on Hammondale Court. Nope, a rolling blackout won’t affect the light or temperature indoors.Up above, our familiar ol’ friend, the Sun, shines bright and warm.

Jim Lydecker
Jimmy Journal
OF EINSTEIN, BEES AND PEAK OILMay 13, 2007San Rafael“A crisis is a problem that was ignored. All great crises were ignored until it was too late.” - Matthew Simmons.

Walking to my weekend bookkeeping job early this morning, I reflected on two issues that challenge us now. These are problems at our doorstep that, as Matt Simmons says, can become very large crises very quickly.

“Bee Colony Collapse Disorder - Where is it Heading? Filed under Agriculture & Food by Craig Mackintosh) … There’s still no concrete evidence about what is killing the billions of bees around the country, but there are a lot of guesses. If we don’t figure this out real quick, it’s going to wipe out our food supply…”

From Science Daily: “Honey Bee Die-off Alarms Beekeepers, Crop Growers And Researchers… An alarming die-off of honey bees has beekeepers fighting for commercial survival and crop growers wondering whether bees will be available to pollinate their crops this spring and summer. Researchers are scrambling to find answers to what's causing an affliction recently named Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated commercial beekeeping operations across the country…”

The US Department of Agriculture has placed CCD at the top of their priorities. UC-Davis and Texas A&M have been given million dollar emergency grants to figure CCD out. A spokesman at Davis said we could be looking at “a precursor to famine.”

A chilling prediction about the importance of bees to mankind comes from none other than Albert Einstein. When at Princeton, Einstein learned to relax from academia by gardening in the backyard of his New Jersey home. One day he mused, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

A Davis scientist on Coast-to-Coast AM last week said we have no more than 4 years to do something about CCD; two years beyond that and things will become dire.

Einstein has been a dead dude for 52 years but he still walks among us.

It is impossible for me to go very long and not worry about Peak Oil. My place here in San Rafael is a stone’s throw to 101 and the non-stop whooshing of cars never stops. I was unable to sleep the first few nights after moving in until I deluded myself into believing I was actually at the ocean listening to the sound of crashing waves.

Well, not really…

You’d have to be a three-toed sloth hanging upside down from a tree in the Amazon to not be aware of how expensive gasoline is.Most people want to lay blame on Big Oil, OPEC, lack of refining capacity or any other of the usual suspects.

Now, I am not an expert like Mathew Simmons but over these past several years I have become extremely knowledgeable on oil and think Simmons is correct. Remember, Mathew Simmons owns the world’s largest energy investment bank (Simmons International, Houston), is an oil geologist and insider who also is principal advisor to both the Bush and Cheney families on…oil.
Simmons has intimate knowledge of what lies under the Middle East sands since he was one of the last booted out from Saudi Arabia after OPEC nationalized the oil industry.

Simmons is also the one screaming loudest about Peak Oil and how it is upon us.Last week the Department of Energy and International Energy Agency posted some scary numbers that shed light on gasoline’s unprecedented upsurge.

First, world supply of crude, gasoline and various distillates is at the lowest level in four years and continues to draw down.

Second, world oil production is at the lowest level in 5 years and producers, particularly OPEC, say they are coaxing as much out of the ground as quickly as possible.

Remember, the North Sea and Mexico’s giant Cantarell oil field, the eighth largest in the world, are suffering from “severe premature declines of unprecedented proportions.”

The real question is the health of Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, the largest oil field of all time. Ghawar has been producing an average of 5 million barrels of crude a day since 1951. When Simmons left Saudi Arabia in 1979, the Saudis were pumping over 9 million barrels of sea water into Ghawar daily. Rumors creeping out of the Saudi Arabian Empty Quarter are that Ghawar’s water cut has reached 60%, an unacceptable amount.

Simmons says we are in trouble when Ghawar winds down. And how will we know? Most experts say when Saudi Arabia announces it is going to open up Manifa for drilling, which is exactly what they said last week. But here is the latest on Manifa:-After OilBy David Fleming(C) Prospect Magazine “Beneath the seabed off the coast of Saudi Arabia is an oil field called Manifa. It is giant, and its riches are almost untapped. There is, however, a snag. Its oil is heavy with vanadium and hydrogen sulphide, making it virtually unusable. One day the technology may be in place to remove these contaminants, but it will not be for a long time, and when, or if, it becomes possible, it will do no more than slightly reduce the rate at which the world's oil supplies slip away towards depletion. Even this field has one advantage over the massive reserves of oil which Middle East suppliers are said to hold, ready to secure the future of industrial civilization. Unlike those fantasy fields, Manifa does actually exist.”

Consider us lucky for paying what we do for gasoline because the problem is much worse. According to a report two weeks ago from the CIA, virtually all oil producing nations are quickly going broke. Every nation in OPEC, except Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are borrowing tremendous sums from the World Bank and other sources to stay afloat. (Iran’s financial position is so precarious that it will be unable to fund their nuclear ambitions much longer, says the report.)

Since they are hurting so bad, they are underbidding each other while pumping as fast and as much as they can. They still are unable to keep up with demand.

With Peak Oil and the bee Colony Collapse Disorder, I find myself humming that REM song over-and-over again: “It’s the end of the world as we know it…”*I’ve got to give credit for credit due… Ernie, my brother, turned me onto the dead dude Einstein antidote. Nice story, I thought until checking it out.

Most sources accept it as true.

Jim Lydecker

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Greta the Beagle

As may have figured out, I've been too busy with various and sundry activites to have any time left to spend on this blog; so, let me present for you enjoyment, my latest cell phone video of Greta the Beagle being petted by me.

Various and sundry activites include working on the Nashville Buddhist Festival website, including adding a new slideshow of the first Festival in 2003; my new workout schedule, including some excellent yoga classes at the Green Hills Y; and reading For a Few Demons More by Kim Harrison. Soon I'll get around to telling you why all these things are important, but for right now, it's been a long time since I've been this busy.

More soon, I promise.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kozan Update

I just got back from the ASZC again, my seventh weekend down there since my first in April, 2006. As you may recall, my Buddhist initiation was this last September, at which time I received the Buddhist name, Kozan. This last weekend was the 2007 Initiation ceremony (Zaike Tukodo), at which seven new Buddhists were named. I keep getting emails asking me what my newest posting name, Kozan Bob, is all about. This answers the question at least for you Ratzaz Diaries readers; the rest will have to suffer. I started using Kozan Bob because I can't get away from this silly image it gives me of a Japanese guy in a cowboy hat, for some reason.

My excuse for not blogging much lately, this time, is just that I've been happily busy. Happily, because I've got a lot of stuff to do that I consider worth doing, so that some other stuff has been falling by the wayside until it screams for attention. My lawn seriously needs mowing, and my floors haven't been vacuumed in a month; the cat mess from the kitchen is starting to take over the house again. There are dozen of Nashville Buddhist Festival t-shirts from the Second and Third Festivals sitting in my living room that really need to be sold or moved somewhere. There are unwatched DVDs and unread books everywhere. But no matter what else I do, at this point I have to work eight hours a day and I've rededicated myself to my exercise schedule (which includes more and more yoga, since I've lately found more good Yoga instructors and classes at times I can do them than anything else), so that as I write this blog entry I really should be working on an "About Us" page for the Fourth Nashville Buddhist Festival. I'm finding that page hard to do because it's very hard to me to write a straightforward promo for Nashville Buddhism. First, it's hard for me to get my tongue out of my cheek in the first place. Then, it's kind of ironic that I wound up as the Nashville Zen Center representative to the Nashville Buddhist Festival, because I'm probably the least ecumenical Buddhist I know in Nashville.

Yep, I finally wound up conservative on an issue. Certainly not in a political sense. If you've been following my return-to-Buddhist experience, you know that Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen was the book that finally brought me back to Zen, and I'll stick to that decision, and to that book. Brad, incidentally, has a new book just out, Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye which I haven't gotten around to reading yet, and is apparently on a heavy speaking and appearance schedule behind it; good for him! And yet he opines about the lack of attendance at his weeky zazen sessions.

Which in unfortunate, because not only is Brad the real deal (and there are lots of fake deals out there attracting throngs of people), he is a genuinely nice guy. He's not nearly as iconoclastic in person as he comes out in his writings. And his idea of a sesshin is much lighter on sitting than most others I've tried. His teaching is light on the Sutras, heavy on, just sit and look at the wall. And most of the Buddhists I've met in Nashville are more fascinated by robed unintelligible foreign monks, or by counsellors disguised as Zen masters spouting platitutes for big bucks, than by guys from Ohio who'd rather talk about music and movies and then actually do zazen instead of talk about it.

Which is why I found the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in the first place, of course. Overall, I get the most benefit from educated intelligent, caring people with backgrounds and experiences similar to mine who happen to have twenty or thirty years of authentic Zen experience behind to help me out. But that's just me.

Anyway, this time I did get a chance to talk to Gakusan Terry Sutton, who picked my Buddhist name, and found out who Kozan was. He is a character, if you want to put it that way, from the Lotus Sutra, one of the bodhisattvas who show up on the mountain to hear the Buddha preach the Sutra that is usually regarded as his ulimate teaching. It is again interesting that Terry picked this name for me, since although Zen is usually seen as a teaching outside the sutras --the dharma of mind-to-mind transmission, my most extensive Buddhist background prior to my return to Zen in 2004 was with Nichiren Buddhists, who chanted the Lotus Sutra, or portions thereof, twice a day. So it's very appropriate for me. (I haven't yet found out whether Kozan was one of the Bodhisattvas of the earth, who arise in the sutra, and the SGI sees as the agents of Kozen-rufu, the triumph of Buddhism on earth; anyone with a copy of the Sutra where the bodhissatvas are named in Japanese, research that for me please....)

Interestingly a lot of the new Buddhists I talk to, or the people who come to the newcomers' meetings in Atlanta, or show up randomly at the NZC here, or whom I met at the MTAC, have read Brad's stuff, and are fascinated by it. The ultimate measure of Brad's success as a teacher will be how many of these people actually take up a lifetime practice of zazen; I'm sure that to him this is the reward, not the books or the interviews. It can be a little hard to make the transition from punk to monk; it appealed to me just because I'd had a little taste of Zen and a lot of time listening to rock music. By the way, I can't let the opporunity pass to recommend the teaching of Brad's teacher Gudo Nishijima; you can buy A Heart to Heart Chat on Buddhism with Old Master Gudo from Amazon for about $13, and it's the most straightforward guide on how to practice Zen Buddhism I've ever seen. He does not dodge the questions nor answer them with poetry. If you want to know how it's done, read this book.

More soon, I promise. After I mow the lawn, and write that page for the Buddhist Festival.