Sunday, February 7, 2016

Community in Death

"Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings."

 
When a person you know dies, a part of you must go too, like a thread being cut and a part of yourself unraveling. We are a weave of such threads, we two-leggeds, and our knits are a biochemical, emotional, electrical and microbial gestalt. We interweave with each other in ways that are seen and unseen, forming a fabric that we call, for lack of precision, "community."

We have been spending some winter months in recent years in a small village on the North coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. When we first arrived it was a not atypical coastal town with dirt streets and thatched or tin roofs. It is secure within one of Mexico's largest nature preserves, and it is here because the village pre-existed the reserve, so it was allowed to remain as long as it behaved, and then even when it didn't. Development has been very cruel to this region in recent years, has made it socially, economically and ecologically more fragile, and has set it up for a big fall in the not very distant future. 

We are much more comfortable wintering here than in the cold north, in Tennessee, or in touristy trendy spots like Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas or Playa del Carmen. Here we can find the quiet time we need to gather and sort our lost or jumbled thoughts, recover from our summer labors and travels and prepare for the work to come. We have written 5 books here and substantially contributed to at least twice that many more.

Before there was Cancún or the state of Quintana Roo, this had been just one more fishing village — a few hundred souls. It was known mainly for the quality of its hammocks and the beautiful seashells that washed up on its beaches. Because of its position along Cabo Catoche and the Straits of Cuba, it receives annual migrations of fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals and the biodiversity runs deep. The name of a nearby town is the Mayan word for manatee. The name for this place in Mayan is "black hole," a reference perhaps to the freshwater Yalahau cenote that for more than five centuries attracted whalers, pirates and explorers to refill their water casks. Among the older family lines you can recognize Russian, Nordic, Moorish, Maori and Portuguese lineages in facial hair, skin complexion, physical build and other features that are neither Yucatec nor Mestizo.

Here, where it is so full of life, is a strange place to think of death, but there come times when everyone needs to. Mexico has very different customs regarding death than its neighboring countries to the North. As Octavio Paz wrote in Labyrinth of Solitude:
"The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

When Hernan Cortes conquered the region that is now Mexico City, his conquistadors noticed a local ritual of making offerings to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen regnant of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife. In the Aztec codices, Mictecacihuatl is represented with a defleshed body, jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day. Cortes' priests were quick to link the Aztec rituals to the Catholic observances of All Hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, just as they brilliantly connected the dark-skinned indigenous Madonna, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the corn goddess, Chicomecoatl. Unlike the masses for the dead celebrated elsewhere, however, Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasion, with a carnivalesque atmosphere.

For the south of Mexico and in rural areas, death holds far greater social and cultural significance than in the north and large cities; families and communities may spend large parts of the year in smaller rituals and processions and it is not uncommon to find an altar in every home with images of the departed. The pre-Columbian concept of life and death was as part of a broader, never-ending cycle of existence, which dovetailed neatly with Christian and Asian traditions of veneration of the deceased, afterlife and reincarnation. In places and periods where unnatural death is a regular feature, as it was in much of Turtle Island after European contact and for 500 years, death becomes engrained as a cultural expression. As the artist Diego Rivera said in 1920: "If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and color."

Our neighbor across the way on Calle Gonzalo Guerrero is Capitán Carmelo, a fisherman and whale shark diving guide. He is part of an old family in the town and an "abuelo" now, with grandchildren in their teens. A day ago his wife, Maria Coral de Sabatini, died and today the community laid her to rest. We are going to spend a few moments now describing that process, because it has a lot to say about the power of community, how it is built, how it is held, and how it passes between generations.

We started noticing Maria's cough a few years ago. She sort of shrugged it off, sitting as she did in her chair in front of her home every day, but we couldn't help but notice as it became deeper, more throaty and more painful. We suspected that because she and Carmelo neither drink nor smoke and neither does anyone else in their house, that it was not likely lung cancer but more probably tuberculosis. Her family simply called it las garras (the claws, or what we might call the grip). When we returned last year it had gotten so severe that she had lost a lot of weight and could not sit outside on dusty days. When we returned this year she was gone. We asked after her and Carmelo said she was in the hospital.

Then on Christmas she returned home. We asked her about her health and she said she lived day to day, “poca a poca,” little by little. We understood her to be dying. She had come to do that at home, among friends.

The knowledge that a person will die, combined with the uncertainty of not knowing when the event will happen, can be very stressful for family members and we witnessed this as the family drew together over the holidays. Then she seemed to recover, was up and about, and we were happy to see her walking to the corner store for eggs or fruit again, frail but smiling. The family dispersed again, the kids back to school, Carmelo and his son-in-law to fish each morning before sunrise.

A few days ago Maria's condition worsened and the family was pulled back together. Then one morning she suffered an arrest and the paramedics were summoned, followed by the police with the village pickup truck that doubles as an ambulance. We watched from our home and after an hour or so, the medics and police left and soon the village priest arrived.

Maria was given last rites by the priest and anointed with holy oil. If she was able, the priest heard her final confession, provided communion and offered absolution. Then began the vigil.

The vigil was attended mostly by immediate family, close neighbors and friends and lasted a day and a night, until Maria passed, peacefully, in her sleep. In the morning the family closed off the street and erected a tent. Chairs were brought and placed in a circle. A white coffin arrived, and Maria was bathed, dressed, and placed in it, on a pedestal in the front room of her home. For the next 24 hours, everyone who knew her came to pay their respects and say goodbye. They filed into the home and then out to the tent, where they sat, told stories, ate, sang. Musicians — different ones, separately and in groups — came with instruments, some several times. Choirs appeared and serenaded. Prayers were recited. Children came and sat with their elders or wandered in to stare at the body in the open coffin. Candles were lit. Elders were helped in, touched her, held her hand, said a prayer and were helped back out to the street. More candles were lit. More hymns, more prayers.

The wake continued through the night. A heavy rain fell, the heaviest of the winter so far. The songs got louder to drown the rain. Because Carmelo and Maria were teetotalers, there was no alcohol. This was a time for friends and family members to share memories of the past, to speak of their concerns for their own families, the village, the future. It is a moment when the fabric of the tribe is being woven. Lost threads are recovered. Wrongs are forgiven. Apologies are made. Expressions of friendship, kinship and love patch tears in the fabric. The children witness it all. This is part of their formative experience.

Maria was royalty. She bears the family name of José María Sabatini, for whom the annual fishing tournament is named. Her family, and the family of Carmelo, go back to the group that endured the great hurricane that swept away the original village on the Southwest point of the peninsula and made new islands there. They migrated their ejido southeast and built the village that is here now. There are a few names that appear most often in the cemetery that mark these families: Moguel, Ancona, Betancort, Avila, Nuñez, Rosado, Coral, Sabatini. Notice that these are not Mayan names and some are also not Spanish.

At sunrise a pickup truck fords the deep puddles and backs up to the house. The coffin and flowers are raised into the truck bed and the procession of mourners follows it at a walking pace to the church. There the coffin is unloaded, brought to the front of the nave and opened for viewing again. It is 8 am. Now the village gathers.

Capitan Carmelo is a vicar in the church and normally it would be his duty to prepare the way, usher the family to seats, read part of the scripture, and make the collection. Instead, he takes his position in the front row with his family while his fellow deacons, dressed in white, perform those functions. A choir forms at the vestry door and sings energetically at various points in the service. Loudspeakers in the nave make their small number seem larger than it is, but they sing in a style that is definitely homespun and authentic, not canned.

The cement angel motions the dead to hush up and sleep
Midway through, the town's power is lost, a not uncommon daily occurrence in this place. The priest does not even pause to acknowledge the loss. Lit through stained glass and with acapella choir, his mass does not miss a beat.

After communion, the pallbearers return to stand beside the coffin and Carmelo leans in to plant one last kiss on Maria before the lid comes down. It is a touching moment.

Then the coffin and flowers are carried back onto the bed of the pickup, which gets stuck turning around in the mud, and once unstuck, the long procession passes slowly through town and out to the cemetery in a light rain.

In Mexico it is said the dead return on certain days of the year. Those days they are remembered through special ceremonies. The body must be buried, not cremated, for their return to occur. Because we are on the sandy coast, the cemetery consists of aboveground vaults, cemented and tiled to protect from the sea. During Hurricane Wilma, the entire cemetery, and the town, went a meter or more under the waves and although the cemetery wall had to be repaired, relatively few of the vaults were badly damaged. Maria's family names, Coral and Sabatini, are on several of headstones.

Afterward, the mourners gather back in our street for a meal and reception. This is a time for levity, good food, and comforting those who are still dealing with their grief. Then, after two or more days awake, the family gets to sleep a short while and Maria Coral de Sabatini is gone but not forgotten.

The tent remains for the next 8 days, and each day there are visitors. Twice each day the front room of the house is filled with voices raised in hymn and the recitation of the rosary. On the final day, it is an all-night ceremony.

The cemetery is particularly poignant because this is a town that is built on the coral sand of a barrier island. The highest point of land is no more than 3 meters above the sea. Wetlands approach the edge of the cemetery and trash is being dumped there to fill the sinkholes. Some of that trash includes old monuments and broken crypts of the departed whose names have been forgotten, the marks on their stones and crosses rubbed out by time and salt air.

It might be denied by the government or wishful thinkers, but this is an entire town on death watch. The vigil begins every June, when it enters hurricane season, because one more Wilma could erase everything but the memories. Already regular tides that coincide with the moon are bringing seawater inland to places it has not reached in the memory of the elders. Many seawalls that were constructed after Wilma are now nearly obsolete. The population here continues to grow on the strength of tourism and Catholic fecundity, but where it will go when the town vanishes is anyone's guess. It is likely that many of these families could break apart. This is a community of place.

How long does it have? That's anyone's guess too. It could be a decade. Maybe two. Three seems unlikely, because both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are warming dramatically and molecular thermal expansion of the water, combined with the westerly currents at this latitude which dictate that sea level rise here will be stronger and faster than most other parts of the Earth. Southeastern Mexico, Galveston, New Orleans and Miami are on the front lines of climate change. Miami Beach, like here, has been sinking one inch each year, one foot every 12 years, and that is accelerating.

Some here believe that some supernatural event will spare this place its preordained fate. Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings. Still, not even the most hopeful provisions of The Paris Agreement can alter the fate of coastal cities and low islands now.

In the not-too-distant future the only way to visit Maria will be with a mask and snorkel. Unless the government decides to relocate everything, an unlikely prospect, she will still be here, and probably alongside Carmelo, when the rest of us have moved to higher ground. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

President Trump

"From here this presidency sure looks like an unqualified success."


  It has been more than a year now since The Donald moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and he continues to be thwarted at every turn by that do-nothing Congress and the Democrat Party.

We all had expected that by now the Asian countries that have dumped their goods here and almost bankrupted our country by causing our trade deficit would have felt the bite of tough new rules, but the Trans Pacific Partnership tied Donald's hands on that one.

Mexico still won’t keep its illegals — the source for Americans’ drugs — on their side of the border. NAFTA prevented the border closing there. It wouldn't even take those Mexican tractor-trailers off our roads, and who knows how many of them are filled with illegals being dropped off in Ohio and Pennsylvania? Still, we are pouring concrete for a bigger wall all the time, whether Mexico pays for it or not. They should because they created this problem, but so far Donald has not gotten a single peso from the ingrates.

And, of course, the Muslims have always been fighting us when they are not too busy squirmishing between themselves. The Donald's executive order closed all our borders to refugees from Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan; countries populated by still more ingrates who are unwilling to pay for the wars that we started on their behalf. And wouldn't you know? That is now going to the Supreme Court, challenged by the Democrat Party as unconstitutional. As if the President of the United States, as Commander in Chief, doesn't have the power to keep all the riffraff out. That wishy washy Supreme Court is not conservative enough! The Donald will get his chance to change that, soon, with real right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religion, and our Constitution.

Solving our trade deficit wasn't as simple as ending the supply of cheap Chinese stuff. Donald got around Congress and the TPP by calling that retailer CEO summit at the White House. But it still comes in from places protected by those bad trade deals negotiated by idiot presidents who didn't know the first thing about the art of the deal. Now the Chinese stuff goes to Australia and gets rebranded before the container ships take it to WalMart. That is why the prices we pay didn't change much, so I guess we can be grateful. The Chinese and Koreans should be too, but are they? No way.

When the Donald sent the marines to grab Iraq’s oilfields last month there was a big uproar at the UN but what could they do, the toothless liberals? Donald just vetoed any Security Council resolution they passed. Now we control a significant supply of the world’s oil and can set prices where we like, and not just where the Saudis want them, in the basement. We all have to put up with higher prices at the pump now, but rising crude prices have stopped the slump in fracked gas futures and got us back on the path to the energy independence that made America strong.

If the Saudis gripe about that, Donald says he is ready to send a bunch of oil sheiks to his reopened Guantanamo just to let them know who's in charge. Sure, he hasn't gotten rid of ISIS yet, but give him time. He will get their oil too, and you can take that to the bank. The marines are just settling into Iraq now. Syria is a quick hop.

Donald's poll numbers are quite good, and it is long past the honeymoon stage. People are calling him the Second Great Communicator. Doubters have to eat crow. Our military is stronger than ever, and we are respected again, whether foreigners like it or not.

We will know soon whether that do-nothing Congress passes the President's energy plan and American builders can get started on those 100 new nuclear plants. That will be a real shot in the arm for the economy, as well as making energy cheap again. People say the President is a climate denier, but those new nukes will do more to stop climate change than anything Obama did in Paris. Put a trillion dollars into nuclear power, like we will, and your other countries can be energy independent too, you UN people.

People criticize the President for ordering the National Football League to move the Super Bowl to New Jersey, but now that more than a third of the teams have relocated to California, it seems only reasonable that the East Coast should get its share of the action. Some of the best football we've ever seen was played in snow.

When the Donald took office the economy was in shambles. Stocks were getting schlonged. Oil, coal, and car companies were talking bankruptcy and wanting bailouts. The Donald doesn't do bailouts. How about that?

The Donald met with all the banks and cut them checks. He refinanced the country. Remember: this is a guy who knows what it is to go bankrupt and still wind up with high-rise penthouses and golf courses. That's exactly what he did for America. Who cares what the dollar is now worth in Timbuktu? We will soon have legal casinos in every city and every state, and they won't be run by Indians, either.

We are still only a year into this presidency, but from here it sure looks like an unqualified success. We guess that's only to be expected when you buy the best.

“I’m Donald Trump and I endorse this message” — Trump for President 2016 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Paris Gravity Well, Part II: Trillionization

"We will not suddenly convert steel mills, cement kilns and road surfacing machines to operate on sunbeams."

Charlie said, "That's the trouble. You see it the way the banking industry sees it and they make money by manipulating money irrespective of effects in the real world. You've spent a trillion dollars of American taxpayers' money over the lifetime of the bank and there's nothing to show for it. You go into poor countries and force them to sell their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops. Then, when the prices of those crops collapse, you call this "nicely competitive" on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered their economy….

"You were intended to be the Marshall Plan, and instead you've been carpetbaggers."
— Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting: Science in the Capitol (2007).

“With fundamentals changing slowly and risk appetite falling rapidly, the stage is set for a longer period of risk asset underperformance,” Jabaz Mathai, a strategist at Citigroup Inc., said.  “There is no quick fix to the headwinds facing global growth.”
"Similar periods of weakness have occurred in only five other instances since 1985: (1) the majority of 1988, (2) the first half of 1991, (3) several weeks in early 1996, (4) late 2000 and early 2001, and (5) late 2008 and the majority of 2009 … all either overlapped with a recession, or preceded a recession by a few quarters."
There has been a storm brewing since the last trifle with full-on collapse in 2008-2009. The extend-and-pretend debt balloon was reinflated and stretched to new enormities as Keynesian cash infusions fueled a Minsky Moment, if not a Korowicz Crunch.

The instability in finance is compounded by the instability in demographics. In Mexico City, Bogata and Rio they call them NINIs — the millions of youth between 15 and 24 who neither study nor work. They are now about a fifth of the population in the underdeveloping world, responsible for higher rates of homicide, gangs, and unwed pregnancy. Of those born to NINI mothers, there is a 22.3% greater likelihood of becoming a NINI, according to the World Bank. All this tinder simply builds, bides its time, wanders the streets, waits for a revolutionary spark.

As we said here last week, the trigger for the markets' sudden move may have been what happened in Paris but could not stay in Paris. When it filtered out from the December summit that 195 countries had actually done the unimaginable and set a goal of carbon neutrality, meaning phasing out net fossil fuel emissions by 2050, the financial sector was at first caught dumbfounded. The World Bank guys flinched.

Now it has sunk in. The Guardian reports:
Former OMB Chief David Stockman's recap
Investors face a “cataclysmic year” where stock markets could fall by up to 20% and oil could slump to $16 (£11) a barrel, economists at the Royal Bank of Scotland have warned. In a note to its clients the bank said: “Sell everything except high quality bonds. This is about return of capital, not return on capital. In a crowded hall, exit doors are small.” It said the current situation was reminiscent of 2008, when the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank led to the global financial crisis. This time China could be the crisis point.
Government subsidies are about to undergo a titanic shift. Many governments spend more on fossil-fuel subsidies than they do on health and education, more than a trillion dollars. Consumer benefits such as subsidized fuels and cheap finance add $548 billion per year. Government support for companies to expand production add another $542 billion just in G20 overdeveloped countries, and a mere top 8 of those will spend $80 billion of this kind every year, four times the investments going to renewables globally.

Tomorrow those same Big-8, and 188 others, will begin spending several times those trillions subsidizing renewables. Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solar Aid and Solarcentury, calls it "trillionization." It won't begin to fill the energy gap that the switch will create, but the psychology of sunk investment will be in charge from thereon out.

Oil producing states and countries are aghast. The "clear signal" that Paris sent was not what they were expecting. In Alaska, the Permanent Fund has been running in the red and the legislature is talking about an income tax. Had the Paris Agreement not come together, they might hope for a rebound of fossil prices and investments in drilling the North Slope and Arctic Refuge.

Petroblas, the national oil company of Brazil and wellspring of the Brazilian Economic Miracle, is now cash negative. It will be forced to turn to the government for a bail-out, but to where will its government turn?

In Mexico, the deficit is running 100 billion and the peso has dropped from 12 in 2014 to soon-to-be 20 against the dollar. If you have dollars you can get a meal in a good restaurant or a room for the night for 5 or 10 of them. So far in January the price rise of food for the average Mexican is alarming. Onions are up 19%, poblanos 15%, bananas 10%, tomatoes 9%.
 
The national oil company, PEMEX, came out on Monday saying it is not true that its operating with losses, but below the $26 per barrel it would be. On Tuesday the price dropped to $24.74. It closed the week at $22.77 but as we write this you can buy a barrel in Mexico City for as little as $20.32. Mexico's federal budget is entirely dependent on oil money and don't look now but Mexico, when it was petrodollar flush, became a net importer of most staple foods and many other essential commodities, which helps explain the grocery dilemma. Mexico now buys onions, poblanos, bananas and tomatoes from California. Also beans, corn and rice.

Gotta love those World Bank guys.

Venezuela, which surprised everyone by signing the Paris Agreement at the final hour, declared an economic emergency on January 15. France, which foolishly drank too much atomic kool aid thinking it might spare itself from petrocollapse, has a budget shortfall of 2.2 billion dollars and declared national economic emergency on January 17. The jobless rate in France, the eurozone's 2d largest economy, is above 10%, compared with a 9.8% EU average.

Andrew Roberts, RBS’s credit chief, said:
European and US markets could fall by 10% to 20%, with the FTSE 100 particularly at risk due to the predominance of commodity companies in the UK index. London is vulnerable to a negative shock. All these people who are long [buyers of] oil and mining companies thinking that the dividends are safe are going to discover that they’re not at all safe.

We suspect 2016 will be characterized by more focus on how the exiting occurs of positions in the three main asset classes that benefited from quantitative easing: 1) emerging markets, 2) credit, 3) equities … Risks are high.

Zero Hedge reports:

"For dry bulk, China has gone completely belly up,” said Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an analyst at Arctic Securities ASA in Oslo, talking about ships that haul everything from coal to iron ore to grain. “Present Chinese demand is insufficient to service dry-bulk production, which is driving down rates and subsequently asset values as they follow each other.”

“China’s slowdown has come as a major shock to the system,” said Hartland Shipping’s Prentis. “We are now caught in the twilight zone between shifts in China’s economy, and it is uncomfortable as it’s causing unexpected slowing of demand.”

The continued collapse of The Baltic Dry Index remains ignored by most.

According to  Zero Hedge:
The North Atlantic has few to nil cargo traveling in its waters. Instead, the giant container ships are anchored. Unmoving. Empty.

Commerce between Europe and North America has literally come to a halt. For the first time in known history, not one cargo ship is in-transit in the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. All of them (hundreds) are either anchored offshore or in-port. NOTHING is moving.

This has never happened before. It is a horrific economic sign; proof that commerce is literally stopped.

The slow response to the Paris outcome has been a complete portfolio review by every actuary and bean-counter in the biggest banks and investment houses, pension funds and mutuals. Hedge fund managers are scratching and sniffing for places to park billions being lifted from soon-to-be-stranded fossil assets. The clean-tech market, signaled first by China, is reacting by recycling cash out of fossil holdings.

Peter Sinclair of ClimateCrocks.com reports:
The Energy Information Administration calculates in its 2015 analysis that the average U.S. levelized cost for new natural-gas advanced combined cycle plants is 7.3 cents per kilowatt-hour — the same as solar.

However, to compare accurately, we have to add about 10 percent to the cost of solar to firm up this variable resource. So we’re close to cost parity, but not quite there.

At $1 per watt, the levelized cost falls to just 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below cost parity with new natural-gas plants. With two-axis trackers and the best solar resources, which increase the capacity factor to 32 percent, that cost falls to just 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. We’re headed to $1 per watt as an all-in cost in the next five to 10 years.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported last summer that wind power was the cheapest source of power in the U.K. and Germany in 2015, even without subsidies. The article’s tagline reads: “It has never made less sense to build fossil fuel power plants.” The same article highlights the feedback loop that solar and wind power have in terms of reducing the cost-effectiveness of fossil fuel power plants due to the dispatch order of renewables versus fossil fuel plants.

The solar singularity is indeed near (here?) in the U.S. and increasingly around the world. I described previously that 1 percent of the market is halfway to solar ubiquity because 1 percent is halfway between nothing and 100 percent in terms of doublings (seven doublings from .01 percent to 1 percent and seven more from 1 percent to reach 100 percent). The U.S. will reach the 1 percent solar milestone in 2016. We’re halfway there. Buckle your seatbelts.
There are plenty of unemployed oil workers ready for retraining. James Howard Kunstler: 
So, in 2015, the shale oil companies laid off thousands of workers, idled the drilling rigs, and kicked back to pray that the price would go back up. Which it didn’t.... The landscape of North Dakota is littered with unfinished garden apartment complexes that may never be completed, and the discharged construction carpenters and roofers drove back to Minnesota ahead of the re-po men coming for their Ford F-110s.
To see what does well in the new, post-Paris domain, watch stocks like First Solar (FSLR), Renewable Energy Group (REGI), SolarCity (SCTY) and Siemens (SIE) over the next quarter, and mutuals like Firsthand Alternative Energy (ALTEX), New Alternatives (NALFX) and Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy (GAAEX). Some of these know their audience and have vowed to screen for social justice. Gabelli SRI AAA says, for instance:
The fund will not invest in the top 50 defense/weapons contractors or in companies that derive more than 5% of their revenues from the following areas: tobacco, alcohol, gaming, defense/weapons production....
There is a psychology that sets in once the corner is turned on fossil investments that may make a big difference in the political debate about climate change. For more than half a century the GOP, the Fossil Lobby and Wall Street have blocked, cut or delayed investments in renewables and papered it over with greenwash. Forced by pledges made in Paris — and a legally-binding agreement with the word "shall" used 143 times — and the emergence of a huge new global competition to begin not only unchaining the clean-tech sector, but to actively promote it with subsidies, research grants and moonshot-scale deployments, the psychology of chasing after sunk investments will drive an apolitical energy conversion.

Moreover, 350.org and Greenpeace are ramping up campaigns to make sure the promises made in Paris are kept.

No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!
No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!
No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!

Clean energy will not deliver a 1:1 replacement for fossil fuels. Get over it. We will not suddenly convert steel mills, cement kilns and road surfacing machines to operate on sunbeams. But the investments we do make, and the worsening weather, will drive us to make even more and ever larger investments, in a forlorn search for a full replacement. While wasteful, it is not nearly as wasteful as the industrial and military investments of the past century or more.

Persian Gulf wars, going back to antiquity, have never been fought over sunlight. As David Stockman recently recalled:
[A] 45-year old error ... holds the Persian Gulf is an American Lake and that the answer to high oil prices and energy security is the Fifth Fleet.
***
That doctrine has been wrong from the day it was officially enunciated by one of America’s great economic ignoramuses, Henry Kissinger, at the time of the original oil crisis in 1973. The 42 years since then have proven in spades that its doesn’t matter who controls the oilfields, and that the only effective cure for high oil prices is the free market.
The switch to sunlight will make the lives we are living better for many, especially those on the front lines of the oil wars, even as we continue towards an Anthropocene Armageddon with little sign of being able to change that trajectory.

Guy McPherson is fond of reminding us, after University of Utah professor Tim Garrett's deft analysis, that industrial civilization is a heat engine.

In a well-read article in Climate Change in November 2010, Garrett ran the simple arithmetic:
Specifically, the human system grows through a self-perpetuating feedback loop in which the consumption rate of primary energy resources stays tied to the historical accumulation of global economic production — or p×g — through a time-independent factor of 9.7±0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar.

If civilization is considered at a global level, it turns out there is no explicit need to consider people or their lifestyles in order to forecast future energy consumption. At civilization’s core there is a single constant factor, λ = 9.7 ± 0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar, that ties the global economy to simple physical principles. Viewed from this perspective, civilization evolves in a spontaneous feedback loop maintained only by energy consumption and incorporation of environmental matter.

Unsold cars sit on receiving docks all over the world
Because the current state of the system, by nature, is tied to its unchangeable past, it looks unlikely that there will be any substantial near-term departure from recently observed acceleration in CO2 emission rates. For predictions over the longer term, however, what is required is thermodynamically based models for how rates of carbonization and energy efficiency evolve. To this end, these rates are almost certainly constrained by the size and availability of environmental resource reservoirs. Previously, such factors have been shown to be primary constraints in the evolution of species

What this means is the same thing that Gail Tverberg, Richard Heinberg and many others have been saying for a very long time — modern economies are a product of cheap energy. Take that away and they crash and burn. That’s the good news. Garrett says there is no other climate remediation model that works. Civilization is a heat engine whether it is powered by nuclear fusion or photovoltaics. The global economy must crash for humanity to stand a chance. McPherson would take it a step farther and say it is already too late, enjoy what time you have.

The famous Fermi paradox raises the question: why haven’t we detected signs of alien life, despite high estimates of probability, such as observations of planets in the “habitable zone” around a Sun-like star by the Kepler telescope and calculations of hundreds of billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy that might support life. To produce a habitable planet, life forms need to regulate greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide to keep surface temperatures stable. Early extinction, before interstellar communication, solves the Fermi Paradox. So does merely the extinction of civilization capable of interstellar communication without the same degree of trauma. No civilization, no heat.

But wait! Can that excess heat civilization is producing be turned into air conditioning for the planet? Is there a permacultural decroissance that could rescue our genome? Stay tuned, but first, next week, we play the Trump card.



Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Paris Gravity Well, Part I

"The idling of rail, barge, ship and pipeline traffic is the biggest change of its kind in 30 years."

   The World Bank Guys talked about rates of return and the burden on investors and the unacceptable cost of the doubling of the price of a kilowatt hour. Everyone there had said all of this before, with the same lack of communication and absence of concrete results.

Charlie saw that the meeting was useless. He thought of Joe, over at the daycare. He had never stayed there long enough even to see what they did all day long. Guilt stuck him like a sliver. In a crowd of strangers, 14 hours a day.

The bank guy was going on about differential costs. "And that's why its going to be oil for the next 20, 30 and maybe even 50 years," he concluded. "None of the alternatives are competitive." Charlie's pencil tip snapped.

"Competitive for what?" he demanded. He had not spoken until that point and now the edge in his voice stopped the discussion. Everyone was staring at him.

He stared back at the World Bank guys. "Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 per ton. But in your model, no-one pays it. The carbon that British Petroleum burns per year by sale and by operation runs up a damage bill of $50 billion dollars. BP reported a profit of $20 billion so actually its $30 billion in the red, every year.

"Shell reported a profit of $23 billion but if you added the damage cost it would be $8 billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support their exteriorizing of costs so your accounting is bullshit. You are helping to bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history.

"If the oil companies burn the 500 gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable, because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered, including humans. But you keep talking about fiscal discipline and competitive edges and profit differentials. It's the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible."

The World Bank guys flinched at this. "Well, we don't see it that way."

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting: Science in the Capitol (2007).

 While the story coming out of the White House Press Room this week was phrased as a temporary moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands, the bigger story was in the details of the review that the President had ordered. Like Robinson's character in Sixty Days, the White House recognized that the real cost of coal is not currently accounted for in its price, so the new review will tally the environmental impacts, including destruction of public lands from air and water pollution from strip mining and failed mine reclamation, public health impacts from transporting and burning coal, damage from ash spills, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It will set a price on future leases based on this thoroughgoing review that brings the cost of coal in line with the reality of the actual costs.

If this had to be run through Congress, powerful coal-state Senators like Mitch McConnell would derail it before it got out of committee. As merely Bureau of Land Management regulatory policy, it falls under the Executive Branch, where the President's is the only opinion that counts.

Tomorrow senior politicians, digiratti activists and Hollywood stars ski into the Swiss resort of Davos for the annual World Economic Forum. The theme was to have been the 4th Industrial Revolution – robots, AI and the  biotechno singularity — but the buzz is all about the latest crash of the world economy.

The trigger for all this change may have been what happened in Paris but could not stay in Paris. In December we reported from the United Nations climate meeting where many of these same characters — John Kerry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel — were on stage. We described then how an amazing role reversal was in progress and how it had transformed COP-21, midway through the second week of deadlocked negotiations.

The roles that switched were between the dominants, like Exxon-Mobil, Shell and BP, and the submissives — the entire renewables industry. Renewables are largely a digital world, enjoying advancements in crystal structure, solid state controllers, neodymium and other rare earth metallurgy that follow the proscribed arc of Moore's law, doubling in efficiency and halving in cost at close intervals, driving exponential adoption and dissemination.

Fossils, in contrast, are an analog industry, trying to wring the last drops of intoxicating elixir from the carpet of the pub after closing time. In 2015 those two curves crossed, and renewables are now cheaper (even free at some hours for select consumers in certain markets) while coal, oil and gas are queuing up outside bankruptcy court.

Salvaging beer from the bar floor after last rounds
The US Department of Energy reported this week:

The Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) released on January 12 forecasts that Brent crude oil prices will average $40 per barrel (b) in 2016 and $50/b in 2017. This is the first STEO to include forecasts for 2017. Forecast West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices average $2/b lower than Brent in 2016 and $3/b lower in 2017. However, the current values of futures and options contracts continue to suggest high uncertainty in the price outlook. For example, EIA's forecast for the average WTI price in April 2016 of $37/b should be considered in the context of recent contract values for April 2016 delivery, suggesting that the market expects WTI prices to range from $25/b to $56/b (at the 95% confidence interval).

The decline in oil price is too little, too late. It cannot keep pace with the price decline we are seeing in the clean tech revolution. Consequently, more people now work in the US solar industry than in oil and gas at the wellhead. In 2015, for the third straight year, the solar workforce grew 20 percent. Clean tech employs far more women than fossil, and 5 percent of the workforce is African American, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

At the same time, rear-guard action by the Coal-Baron-selected legislatures in Arizona and Nevada —  states that could be leading the nation in solar power production — have led to layoffs in the renewables sector. The pushback over solar and wind fees by grid owners, punitive taxes, and net metering promise to keep those states in the Dark Ages, as they did the United States for the past four decades.

In a famous L'il Abner cartoon, Pappy Yokum tells L'il Abner, "Any fool can knock down a barn, it takes a carpenter to build one." To which L'il Abner replies, "Any fool? Let me try!"

Listening to the Republican presidential candidates debate is like watching a Fox-den full of L'il Abners.

US Solar Power 2010-2015
So it is not surprising that at the stroke of a pen, three Republican appointees on the Nevada Power Utility Commission decided the fates of millions of ratepayers when they killed solar feed-in-tariffs in that state. It was not unlike Michigan governor Rick Snyder deciding to kill and maim thousands of Detroit residents by switching their water to a polluted source and then covering up the damage. You might say no-one gets killed or maimed from solar energy, and that's closer to true, but plenty more get poisoned every year from the fossil alternative.

The numbers being parsed in Davos will be puzzling to many attending that meeting. From a peak in January 2015 to last October, movements of crude by rail declined more than a fifth. The research group Genscape said rail deliveries to US Atlantic coast terminals continued to drop to the end of the year and the spot market for crude delivered by rail from North Dakota’s Bakken region “is at a near standstill.”

Just 5 years ago investors clamored for more tank cars to pick up the slack from overwhelmed pipeline capacity. Now those cars sit idle on sidings and no one is ordering more. Pipelines are idle too, as refineries on the coasts have found that it is cheaper to buy crude of higher quality than shale oil, shipped by ocean tanker from Canada, Nigeria and Azerbaijan.

Junk bond sales are all that supports
the fracked gas Ponzi scheme.
A Congress desperate to please its oil masters in an election year abolished four-decade-old restrictions on exporting domestic crude. While some tankers now take crude from the Gulf Coast to refineries in Venezuela, where the heavy sludges and half-formed keragens can be more economically processed because of fewer environmental restrictions, the US then imports back the finished products at a hefty mark-up.

The idling of rail, barge, ship and pipeline traffic is the biggest change of its kind in 30 years. And while the shift away from coal-powered energy, the long recession, and the petering out of the fracking and shale Ponzi real estate play would obviously lead to fewer tons, barrels and cubic feet being moved, it doesn't explain the full depth of the stoppage. The rail and barge slowdown is now spreading to more consumer-oriented segments. Intermodal carloads typically related to consumer goods fell 1.7 percent in the final quarter of last year.

"We believe rail data may be signaling a warning for the broader economy," the recent note from Bank of America says.

"Carloads have declined more than 5 percent in each of the past 11 weeks on a year-over-year basis. While one-off volume declines occur occasionally, they are generally followed by a recovery shortly thereafter. The current period of substantial and sustained weakness, including last week’s -10.1 percent decline, has not occurred since 2009."

“When people get hungry, governments fall” — Stuart Scott, Through A Dark Portal, Radio Ecoshock, January 13, 2016

If you can read the tea leaves, or even if you can't, we are now in the long slide. We will examine the financial road ahead, and the Paris Effect on that, in greater detail next week.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Antifragile Food Systems

"The alpha person at a gathering of "high status" persons is usually the waiter. "


  In the film, No Escape, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell's characters play a stereotypical USAnian couple, Jack and Annie Dwyer, cast abroad like fishes out of water. He is a corporate engineer in charge of putting a water plant into a fictional Southeast Asian country. She is the dutiful wife, bringing along to the temporary assignment two young children and their favorite kitchen appliances.



When civil war suddenly erupts before they have even gotten past jet-lag and they find themselves in an urban killing field, hunted by machete-wielding guerillas who are really angry about the way Jack's corporation has stolen and monetized their water rights, they must run for their lives, which they do for the next hour or more of screen time.



That's the plot, but the film is less about why the couple got into their predicament or why this small country has decided to murder all its foreign tourists than how Jack and Annie and their children absorb the changed circumstances, adapt to their precarious situation, and do what it takes to survive. Theater audiences are rooting for them, despite their complete lack of preparation.



In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb distinguishes antifragile from words like robust or resilient by saying that when something is antifragile, it benefits when things go bad. Taleb is a recovering Wall Street quant trader. He understands hedges and shorts, and indeed, wrote the textbook on dynamic hedging in 1997. His subsequent books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) redefined at how traders look at risk and how people should think about risk in life choices.



If Jack and Annie had read either Fooled by Randomness or The Black Swan, they would not have been thrown into such profound stupor when the country they had landed in suddenly dissolved into anarchy and savage brutality. These things, or equally unpredictable things, are to be expected, even predicted.



Antifragile goes a step beyond and asks how one can be prepared to benefit from Black Swan events. Taleb gives the example of biological and economic systems. Efficiency and optimization are the final stages of succession — a mature ecology. They are also fragile. Inefficient redundancy is robust. Degeneracy is antifragile. The early sere following some disturbance is filled with fast-growing, thick-stemmed "weeds" that require few soil nutrients or supporting microbial diversity. If there is not much sun, too much wind or rain, poorly suited pioneers will fall aside and those better selected will dominate.



Fragile systems hate mistakes. Antifragile systems love them. Postmodern thinking, almost completely divorced from nature, is built on a scaffold of prior delusions. Medieval Europe, grounded in a theological storyline that is unwavering (like hard-core Evangelical Christianity or Sunni Islam) is more robust. But the pre-European Mediterranean seafaring cultures — pantheistic, surrounded by random dangers and ubiquitous risk (pirates, police states, conscription, volcanoes) and utterly free enterprise, was antifragile. People in that time exchanged rites and gods the way we do ethnic foods. Like Silicon Valley, ideas and gods failed fast, failed often, but occasionally winners emerged.



Taleb casts this into mathematical metaphors: the fewer the gods the greater the dogma and higher the risk of conflict and loss. For atheists n=0; Sunni purists n=1; monophysites n=1-2; Greek Orthodoxy n=3-12; pagans, wiccans and most native peoples n=infinite. Whose religion is more fragile and likely to occasion bad things happening?



Jack and Annie Dwyer are in the fragile, corporate employment class. They are pampered. They did well in school. They don't need to know a word of the language of the country they have been sent to. They complain if there is no a/c in the room or the limo doesn't arrive on time. They are intellectual tourists. Their antifragile counterpart is a slacker — fläneur is the word Taleb uses — the creative loafer with a large library or an X-box. Taleb says the alpha person at a gathering of "high status" persons is usually the waiter.



Engineering and corporate middle management are fragile professions. Financially robust professions in the run-up to ponzicollapse would be dentists, dermatologists, or minimum wage niche workers. Antifragile jobs in the overtopping and onset of decline are payday check cashing tellers, taxi drivers and nomadic fishermen. The Roma, living parasitically at the urban edges of European cities, are antifragile, but have vulnerability to travel restrictions. When Sweden closed its border crossings and started doing screening of incoming migrants, Denmark had to follow or risk being swamped with migrants denied entry to Sweden. Holland, Germany and France did the same. This is not a good thing for gypsies, but they are resilient enough to make do with one country at a time and antifragile enough to exploit weaknesses in border security and even turn that into new opportunities and enterprises.



What is an antifragile food system? This becomes especially important as we enter an era of rapid climate change and civil disintegration. A decade ago in "From Foraging to Farming, Explaining the Neolithic Revolution" (J Econ. Surveys 19:4:561-586, 2005), Jacob Weisdorf at the University of Copenhagen reviewed the main theories about the prehistoric shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The transition, also known as the Neolithic Revolution, was necessary precursor for capitalism, industrialization and the monotheistic religion of economic growth. Hunting and foraging societies were egalitarian and communal. Farming and herding societies are vested, competitive and hierarchical.



The Neolithic Revolution augured slavery, which began as agricultural serfdom and abides today as the "jobs" system. Taleb opines that in the days of Suetonius, 60 percent of prominent educators (grammarians) were slaves. Today the ratio is 97.1 percent and growing.



Charles Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) said:


The savage inhabitants of each land, having found out by many and hard trials what plants where useful ... would after a time take the first step in cultivation by planting them near their usual abodes.... The next step in cultivation, and this would require but little forethought, would be to sow the seeds of useful plants.



Did it really take several million years for our upright hominid ancestors to get the idea they could domesticate plants and animals, or had they known that much longer and invariably decided it was a bad idea?



One hypothesis is that the extinction of large herding animals by Paleolithic hunters led to farming. This is discounted by the fact that the loss of the former did not coincide with the gain of the latter, either geographically or chronologically. Another theory is that we were forced into farming by population pressure, but that is countered by the fact that the first domestications took place in resource-abundant societies. Moreover, dietary stress would have marked the skeletons of foragers and studies have failed to show any nutritional stress immediately prior to plant domestication.



Another theory is that the rise of agriculture came from ‘competitive feasting;’ the idea that culinary diversity conferred social status and therefore resulted in competition to create delicacies. Let's call this gourmetgenesis. Unfortunately for foodie anthropologists, it appears that early domestication unambiguously consisted of a small number of important staples rather than appetizers, pastries and confections.



Those who study the evolution of consciousness suggest that the shift may have occurred, with or without sacred plant intervention, about 10 millennia ago when the brain had a hundredth monkey moment and, like Kubrick's apes before the shiny monolith, transformed bone shillelaghs into plows and space stations.



More recent work suggests that climate shifts not only contributed to the Paleolithic large mammal extinctions and may have caused psychedelic mushrooms, vines and cacti to extend their ranges and abundancies, but also permitted more reliable predictions about weather, which allowed crops to be grown more consistently.



Some ancient Greeks thought that this process was cyclical, and that eventually good weather would lapse and we would return to hunting and foraging. Medieval Christianity embedded the meme that the process is linear, an inexorable progression of human civilization from brutality to refinement.



Weisdorf notes:


Farming [is] still assumed to have been clearly preferable to foraging. But, in the 1960s, this perception was to be turned upside down. Evidence started to appear which suggested that early agriculture had cost farmers more trouble than it saved. Studies of present-day primitive societies indicated that farming was in fact backbreaking, time consuming, and labor intensive.



In the 1960s, "a picture began to emerge that showed that foraging communities were able to remain in equilibrium at carrying capacity when undisturbed." Where the ratio of population to productive land area is favorable, foraging generally provides greater return on labor invested than tilling and herding. Once the ratio becomes unfavorable, tilling and herding are not only more effective, but necessary. To any foraging society, therefore, two disciplines are required. They must regenerate land resource and restrain population growth. Soil fertility sí, human fertility no.



In Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems in a Changing Climate (New Society 2015), Laura Lengnick gives her take on the progression from foraging to pastoralism to agriculture:


Foraging and the early farming systems that followed it propose very different solutions to the same basic question facing all animals: How best to allocate the available time and resources to acquire food? All things being equal, animals (including humans) tend to solve this effort-allocation problem by maximizing the capture of calories, protein and other desired foods in a way that yields the most return with the greatest certainty in the least time for the least effort. Moderate, reliable returns are usually preferred over fluctuating high returns. It turns out that, for a long time, foraging was a good solution to the effort-allocation problem facing early humans. But climate change changed everything.


Lengnick, Resilience Design Criteria for Agroecosystems
Lengnick describes the strategies employed by native peoples of North America. They foraged and hunted, sustainably used irrigation, amended with fish scraps and animal manures as fertilizers, rotated grain and legume crops and selected and improved their seeds. She looks at the Mohawk, Cherokee, Mandan and Hohokam as representative of the North American Northeast, Southeast, Northern Great Plains and Southwest. She then turns to the practices brought by European colonists, before and after the arrival of petroleum, modern machines and chemicals. Regional specialization continues today, based more on industrial infrastructure than soils or suitability, but climate has thrown in a monkey wrench, much the way it did 8-12,000 years ago.

From the summer of 2013 through late winter 2014, Lengnick interviewed 25 award-winning sustainable producers from across the United States. All had been farming in the same location for at least 20 years, many for 30 and some for 40 years or more. Many expressed concerns about the path the food system has taken over the last 50 years and their frustrations with scientific, economic and regulatory policy. Listening to their stories is like sitting around a campfire with two dozen Joel Salatins.


At the Happy Cow Creamery, artisanal dairyman Tom Trantham told Lengnick,


Really, we see some drought and hot temperatures every year. This year (2013) is the first year that we haven’t really had a drought. This year it has been really wet. We had the rain, but we also didn’t have the sun, so we had two big problems. I’m 72 years old, and I’ve never seen as much rain in a year in my life, anywhere. It really affected my crops. Our hay was 9 percent protein. It would normally have been 18 or 20. Like I say, never in my life have I endured that much rain.



Lengnick, Resilience Design Criteria for Agroecosystems
Lengnick's distillation of their advice is sage. Produce food as part of an ecosystem. Adapt by going back to letting nature do what nature does best. Lengnick calls this "adaptive management," but what she is speaking of is what the UN has been calling "eco-agriculture, and it contains a suite of tools and practices that not only provide greater food security but can, scaled quickly enough, undo the worst of the Fossil Age's climate karma.



For Lengnick,


Functional diversity and response diversity describe the capacity of the agroecosystem to maintain healthy function of the four farming system processes (energy, water, mineral, community dynamics) and other ecosystem services. Functional diversity describes the number of different species or assemblages of species that participate in agroecosystem processes to produce ecosystem services. Response diversity describes the diversity of responses to changing conditions among the group of species or species assemblages that contribute to the same ecosystem function. Agroecosystems designed with high functional and response diversity have the capacity to produce ecosystem services over a wide range of environmental conditions.



Like Taleb, Lengnick identifies the fragility of monocultural, industrial farming practices:



Appropriately connected agroecosystems will build relationships that enhance functional and response diversity. Many weak (i.e., not critical to function) connections are favored over a few strong (i.e., critical to function) connections. Agroecosystems that rely on a few strong connections for critical resources reduce their resilience to events that disrupt those connections; in contrast, many weak connections enhance response capacity.



In permaculture, we speak of harmony and stress and some see those as opposites, but in a more tantric Buddhist interpretation they can be viewed as a symbiotic pair. Stress is the bending of a system away from its natural pattern, making it fragile. Harmony is the restoration of balance and connections, inherently antifragile. Natural succession is a cycle of disturbance, experimentation, and equilibrium. There is no steady state, there is only the constancy of change.



In another month we leave for Belize to teach the 11th annual Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm (seats still available here). Personally, it will be our 50th time instructing the standard 72-hour Design Course. We often say, when we teach in such places, it is not the people that are the instructors there, it is the land. In this case it is land that has been refined, articulated, complexed and restored to if not the Paleolithic model, then to a Neolithic transitional stage, where both domestic and wild systems co-exist in a riot of cascading productivity.



If the Dwyer family had taken this workshop, or read Lengnick's book, they would not have been caught by surprise when their world of modern illusions suddenly dissolved. They would probably never have gotten into that situation to begin with.








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