Saturday, June 28, 2014

Algae Editorial: First Draft

One Word: Plastics. No, That’s Not It: Algae

by Leon Czikowsky

Imagine if there were a new, emerging industry that could locate in Harrisburg that would solve all of its financial problems.

Now imagine if that industry could solve our energy problems. In addition, it could change our international business situation by ending our reliance on foreign oil.

Further, imagine this also helps solve the climate change problem.

One word: Algae

Shell Oil was researching using algae as fuel. Marvin Odum, Shell’s President, told me exciting things about algae. It produces more fuel than does any other known fuel producing process. It is also the least expensive. (See “Reinventing Fire” by Amory B. Lovins)

One acre of algae can produce 5,000 gallons of fuel. The closest any competing fuel source can do is palm oil. One acre of palm oil produces 800 acres.

Algae can grow just about anywhere. It can grow in dirty water. It would not need to be located in any existing croplands. 13 million acres of land would equal our current oil imports. 13 million acres is about three percent of current cropland. (See “Green Algae Strategy” by Mark Edwards)

Just about the least efficient means to obtain fuel is to drill in the ground for it. That is also the most expensive way to get fuel.

The least expensive manner of creating fuel is to convert algae into fuel. Unlike cane sugar (used in Brazil and other countries) and corn, (used in ethanol) which can grow once or twice a year, algae grows by itself, year round. It does not take much to grow algae. Ask anyone who ever owned a pool.

Raytheon was developing algae for fuel. It was successfully used for flying military jets.

Then something unusual (or usual, depending upon your level of political cynicism) happened. Congress cut funding for research for studying converting algae into fuel.

Although, I have to give my respects to the military. Their researchers keep going forward. The Navy has developed a way to use sea water for fuel. (See United States Naval Research Laboratory: )

We appear to be on the verge of developing algae for vehicle fuel. If planes can fly with it, surely we can figure out how to use it for cars.

We will have the least expensive means of producing vehicle fuel that is also the most productive way to obtain the most fuel. For some reason, we are set on using the most expensive process that yields the least amount of fuel.

The first to develop algae as fuel wins the economic game. The potential payback could be enormous.

State Rep. David Kessler is a visionary who saw Pennsylvania as the place where this could be achieved. He served two terms yet was defeated for reelection to a third term.

It is Pennsylvania’s heritage to find new fuel sources. The oil industry began here. Why not the next generation of fuel?

Some believe one of our major college research facilities, at perhaps Penn State or Temple University, could be the ones that find the final, missing pieces

How not Harrisburg?

There is great talent at Harrisburg University. There are sharp minds among its students who could be just the ones able to think through the roadblocks and develop algae for fuel.

Imagine if Harrisburg became the center for algae research and development. We have the affordable land and buildings. We are near an airport with a long runway to accommodate foreign visitors.

Now for the kicker: Growing lots more algae helps the climate change problem. 60% of our oxygen is produced by algae. Algae, which is one half of one percent of our planet’s plant biomass, produces a lot of oxygen. Algae absorbs carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a major cause of climate change. (If you are a recent contestant for the Republican nomination for President, you may wish to disregard this paragraph.)

It would be great to see Harrisburg academicians, business leaders, and community members get together and explore this. Obviously, this is a long shot. Yet the initial steps are not difficult. If this takes off, great.

Many cities have grown from one new idea. New York City is current expanding business investment by providing millions of dollars of investments in engineering research and development. Algae research and development, in my non-expert analysis, should not be that difficult to complete.

Perhaps algae is not the right fit for Harrisburg. In the developing fields of other emerging fields, such as nanotechnologies, perhaps our residents may find a better economic entrant that will improve our local economy. Yet, we should begin that search and see what we may create and attract.

We are on the verge of finding several means to radically improve our national economy. Wouldn’t it be great if it  happened in Harrisburg?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Can Anyone Spare a Dime, or a Municipal Bond?

Harrisburg city government faces a challenging financial future. If there are lessons to be learned from studying how other cities emerged from the brink, or reality, of being bankrupt, one lesson stands out: No city ever solved its financial crisis on its own.

Some cities that turned around their economic misfortunes did so by merging services with their suburbs or even incorporating suburbs, with their stronger tax bases, into city boundaries. Other did so with assistance from state and / or Federal governments. In rare cases the city government was able to act to save itself, yet it did so by attracting a major private employer or investor whose resources pulled it to solvency.

Harrisburg city government is functionally bankrupt, in that it can not pay all that it owes. It is not legally allowed to be bankrupt. The laws protect the bond holders from bankruptcy action. Harrisburg appears to be drifting into an uncertain long term future while hoping that a way to survive will be found.

There are short term solutions. It is ironic, though, that items that produce long term revenues, such as parking and even the incinerator, which began showing signs of being able to be operated profitably, are traded for short term revenues. In the long run, these revenues to Harrisburg will likely be reduced.

There are also serious concerns that the new higher parking rates may drive customers and even residents away from Harrisburg. This is the opposite of what is needed for a city’s economy to grow.

New York City was saved from near bankruptcy in the 1970s to 1980s due primarily to assistance from the state and Federal governments. (Link to “The Year the Big Apple Went Bust”, a book by Fred Feretti). Congress, and President Ford approved loaning New York City $2.4 billion. The Ford Administration, despite the famous misquote that President Ford supposed told New York City to “drop dead””, provided New York City with critically needed loans. The Carter Administration continued this assistance,

New York’s Governor and the state legislature advanced New York City $400 million. The Governor personally helped convinced bankers and union pension funds to invest in bonds that balanced the city’s budget. (Link to “The Man Who Saved New York” by Seymour Lachman.)

As in 1933 when New York City also faced bankruptcy, a state government assistance agency was created. This agency purchased New York City’s short term debt which helped save the city government financially.

Others cities were saved from the path of financial ruin by large infusions of Federal government funds. These include Philadelphia and Boston. It should be to noted that many of these Federal government programs no longer exist. Thus, this option is extremely limited.

Cities such as Indianapolis and Denver survived financially by annexing their suburbs. That is not an option as Pennsylvania law prohibits annexations. The state law could be changed.

At this time, there are few leading the way for this state law change. Such a proposal would likely be resisted by suburbs who wish to keep their wealthier tax bases within their own communities. Passage of a law allowing annexation will probably require a realization from suburbanites that their communities’ financial futures are directly linked to the futures of their cities’ finances. Today, such recognition does not appear to be widespread.

Another possible change in the law could allow Harrisburg to declare bankruptcy. While this is not what bond holders want to hear, Harrisburg needs to become a city that grows economically. If constantly paying for debt halts improving the city, it may be better that the city defaults.

In an historic analogy, both France and Great Britain had large debts in the mid-18th  century. France defaulted on two thirds of its debt in 1797. Free from this debt, France engaged in an era of more rapid economic development.

Great Britain, on the other hand, let its debt grow to twice its Gross Domestic Product. It took a century for Great Britain to pay that debt. This drained its ability to grow its economy. Paying the debt benefited the wealthy British bond holders. This contributed towards national wealth inequities that helped slow economic growth even more. Money in the hands of the middle class and poor is spent more quickly and increases demand leading to the creation of more goods. (Link to “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” by Thomas Piketty)

Once a city averts a financial crisis, it then needs to improve its economic situation. Cities do this by improving their infrastructures and creating quality mass transit systems. This attracts new investors and residents, according to a study at The Brookings Institution. (Link to “The Metropolitan Revolution” by Bruce Katz.)

It seems highly questionable that Harrisburg has the resources within its tax base to accomplish what is needed to economically improve itself. The amount of tax free property within Harrisburg and the relative lower incomes that Harrisburg residents have compared to other municipalities makes it difficult to raise the required revenues.

The relative advanced age of the Harrisburg’s infrastructure makes repairing it an expensive item. Sadly, the lack of a good infrastructure can prevent growth and even contribute to an exodus from the city,

Some cities have had an outside venture help save its city government. Cleveland saw tourism help its economy when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, three new sports stadiums, and a Science Center located there.

Other cities have had their business, community, and government leaders work together to find ways to attract new investors. Boston, Seattle, and New York have taken different paths to attract entrepreneurs, engineering ventures, residential investors, etc.

There is no one set plan that guarantees urban economic growth. Each city founds its own process that helped its’ own city.. Yet each city did plan and act. Again, it was important that certain things were in place to attract this growth, such as a strong infrastructure, good schools, solid mass transit options, etc.

Perhaps Harrisburg will develop a strategy that will attract a financial savior.

Or, maybe the Federal and / or state government will create new programs that will pull Harrisburg out of its economic troubles and push it towards economic growth.

Or, perhaps the suburban residents will realize that the life of Harrisburg determines their continued economic vitality?

Harrisburg supplies the region with much of the region’s arts, museums, professional athletics, etc. It is where major employers such as state government, hospitals, and numerous businesses are. The suburbs resulted from government investments in highway systems that allowed more affluent urban residents to flee urban areas and create suburban communities. The suburbs have fewer per capita social needs and operating costs compared to cities The social needs and costs of cities increased.. It is time for urbanites and suburbanites to work together on regional economic planning and actions.

Or, will the state government leaders realize they rely upon Harrisburg for their very functioning? While state government makes payments in lieu of taxes, those payments are much less than what would be paid if the properties required city taxes payments.

A declining infrastructure makes it more difficult for state government to operate. If the state government continues to ignore Harrisburg, the alternative may be that the Commonwealth finds itself forced to accept Harrisburg as its financial ward. It would be less expensive, as well as allowing Harrisburg residents to better determine their own policies, if Harrisburg is allowed to continue operating on its own with the state government’s help.

Will an outsider rescue Harrisburg? That depends upon an outsider. What Harrisburg can do is create the conditions to attract an outsider.

Harrisburg requires help. Let’s see who answers its’ call.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Republicans Believe It Would Be Cool to Glow in the Dark

It is a good idea that Harrisburg residents receive regular cancer screenings and tests. This is a smart idea for everyone. Harrisburg residents have their own particularly good reason for taking extra precautions. We have, compared to most others, increased exposure to radiation.

I am not out to create a panic. These higher levels of radiation exposure have been going on for decades now. Most of us seem to not be noticeably affected by this. I know there are readers out there who will be quick to point out there do not seem to be any statistically significant increased rates of most cancers in Harrisburg.

I even observed one politician claim that radiation is good for you. I suspect this politician found those paint chips he ate as a child were delicious.

There is much debate in the scientific community as to what actually causes cancer. There are numerous things that have been proven to increase cancers. Harrisburg is full of them: water traveling through lead pipes, people eating yummy burned red meat on our many restaurants, smoking those addictive cigarettes found in a few stores, drinking tasty chemicals in diet soda, etc.

Everyone is different. Some people have brief exposures to carcinogens and develop cancer. Others work and live in conditions surrounded by carcinogens and never develop cancers. Developing cancer could involved exposure to several different risks rather than just one. Genetics can be a factor. (Link to American Cancer Society at for more information.)

There is one particular potential cancer source that is fairly unique to Harrisburg. Perhaps you have heard of it. It is called Three Mile Island. If you are not familiar with it, you may be alone from a lot of the rest of the world. When traveling to foreign countries, an oft heard response when declaring one is from Harrisburg is “You’re from Three Mile Island!” Some foreigners appear disappointed that we do not, as rumored, glow in the dark.

If you seriously have not heard of it, I recommend you look up “Three Mile Island” in your favorite search engine and read about this bit of local history. It helped publicize a Jane Fonda movie.

For several decades now, radiation trapped in Three Mile Island nuclear plant has been deliberately slowly leaked out to alleviate adverse pressure. This is well known. It was joked decades ago that today people in Harrisburg would become mutants. We would all look grotesque. Sadly, our careers in zombie movies never materialized. Other than a few photographs of Harrisburg residenst taken after over consumption on Second Street bars, a quick visual survey of our residents confirms most of us look alright.

Most of us have become either accepting or ignorant of any health threats from nuclear energy radiation leakages. After all, the President of the United States went inside Three Mile Island and declared it safe.

I always liked the progression in those proclamations that Three Mile Island was safe. They sent the Lieutenant Governor in first to proclaim it was safe. After the Lieutenant Governor appeared alright, they sent the Governor in to proclaim it was safe. After the Governor seemed alright, then the President went inside Three Mile Island.

An interesting irony is that it was not always felt that nuclear power was so safe. In fact, just before Three Mile Island, there was growing evidence from the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere that it was not safe. The interesting result of Three Mile Island being unsafe is it seems to have created the forces that quashed the very studies that may have shown it was not safe.

Ernest Sterglass, a University of Pittsburgh Professor who led their Radiation and Public Health Project, was finding data, just prior to the Three Mile Island incident, that cancer rates may be affected by radiation leakages occurring at other nuclear power plants. The cancer rates increased the closer people were living near the nuclear power plants. There was a strong hypothesis that the spikes in cancer rates were attributable to the nuclear power plants’ radiation leakages. (Link to “Secret Fallout” by Ernest Sternglass, available for free download at

These studies were preceded by ones conducted by Alice Stewart, who headed Oxford University’s Social and Preventive Medicine Department. She had discovered health risks to children exposed to low levels of radiation. She then studied nuclear power radiation risks with Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh. Sternglass followed with his own research.

After Three Mile Island, there emerged an effort to reassure the public that nuclear radiation is safe. I recall speaking with Environmental Protection Agency employees who spoke about the changes in attitude.  A new President Ronald Reagan was supportive of nuclear power. Reagan was elected defeating Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and John Anderson, who sponsored the Price-Anderson Act that limited the liability of nuclear power companies for losses from any nuclear accidents. The new attitude among many public officials was to declare nuclear energy as safe to our heath. The result of Three Mile Island was not massive public objections to nuclear power. The result was general public acceptance of nuclear power.

Funding for research showing the problems of nuclear energy began disappearing. Industry researchers began questioning the past data. They used different radiation levels to show different results. They conducted different analyses. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims there were “no detectable” health consequences from the Three Mile Island incidence. Or, at least none they could find. (Link to: U.S. Nuclear  Regulatory Commission, “Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident” at

When local residents, suspicious of local cancer rate increases, attempted to take the issue to court, it was the court findings that the cancer rates for the metropolitan area showed no increases. A Pennsylvania Health Department Select Committee found that months after the Three Mile Island crisis the rates of hypothyroidism increased twelve times above normal downwind where the leakages traveled. (Link to: Gordon K. MacLeod, “A Role for Public Health”, American Journal of Public Health, March 1982, at Yet, considering the entire area and not just those fewer “downwind”, our court system determined these rates were inconsequential.

I am not a radiation researcher. I would expect that using a larger population data drowned out any localized cancer rate increases. The courts, in their wisdom (or lack thereof) made a legal conclusion there were no health risks from the radiation leakages .

The U.S. Labor Department reached a different conclusion. They concluded that employees at nuclear weapons facilities, due to their work, have higher risks for cancer than do people who worked elsewhere. There will be readers who will argue these facilities were different. That is the point. These were not facilities leaking as much radiation as does Three Mile Island. The Labor Department has paid over $65 million compensation to over 1,000 employees. (Link to Hartford Business Journal at hartfordbusiness,com/article/201406109992 and to the Division of Energy Employees Occupational Compensation at

A legal determination is not a scientific one. Some studies that hypothesized there are health concerns from radiation leakages were not allowed to be completed. This research should be revitalized. We must let proper research determine the health risks, if any, from the radiation leaking from power plants.

Studies need to realize that the population to be studied is mobile. I recall listening to a number of women were were 17 years old when the Three Mile Island crisis happened. They all lived near Three Mile Island. They returned for a reunion, many living in various places around the country. It seemed quite coincidental that several mentioned they were sterile and that physicians could not find a reason why that was.

No scientific conclusion can be drawn from that. I do recall some area veterinarians commenting that, after the Three Mile Island crisis, there appeared to have been an increase in still births and infertility among cattle and other mammals. Humans are mammals. Few studied the effects on animals after Three Mile Island beyond testing milk, so I admit this is all conjecture. Proper scientific studies should determine if these serious concerns are real.

If studies do reemerge that look at health risks of those exposed to radiation leakages, we must consider some data challenges. Looking at the cancer rates of people currently  living in the Harrisburg area muddles the figures. Many of those who were here when the Three Mile Island incident have moved away. Many people have moved in since. Area residents have had different years and levels of exposures to the subsequent radiation leakages. This needs to be taken into account.

So, to be safe, just in case the old hypotheses are correct: Watch out for signs of cancer. See a  physician regularly. Harrisburg residents may or may not be at higher risks for some kinds of cancer. So protect yourselves.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Autobiography of a Great Gerald Ford Supporter

James Webb. I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Webb was not recruited to run for the U.S. Senate. He wanted to run because he “could not accept the idea that a country such as America should be governed by a club of insiders who manipulate public opinion in order to serve the interests of hidden elites who hold the reins of power. I did not solve this problem in a mere six year, but I did nudge it here and there, even as my concerns about it only grew stronger.”

During his one term in the U.S. Senate, he had 5,005 official office meetings, 2,400 personal meetings, 675 media interviews, attended 1,078 committee hearings, appeared at 264 formal speaking engagements, spoke at 358 political events, and cost over 1,800 roll call votes.

Webb served as Assistant Defense Secretary and as Navy Secretary. Family assistance programs became one of his priorities. He wanted an al-volunteer military to have good housing and education for their children. His family was a career military one who often did not see his father for long time periods.

Webb interviewed in high school for a Navy ROTC scholarship. He was selected to receive a full Naval ROTC scholarship at any of 52 colleges. He went to the University of Southern California. He spent a year than and was then accepted to the Naval Academy, from which he graduated.

Webb saw combat in Vietnam. He observed the Viet Cong successfully engaged in psychological battles that advanced their cause. They assassinated pro-American village leaders. This tactic broke the spirit of the villagers who are the Viet Cong as in command. The U.S. bombed randomly, often killing some of the very villagers whose support was sought. Many villagers turned against the U.S.. Areas were declared as Viet Cong territories and civilians were ordered to move to resettlement villages. The Viet Cong would try and shoot people who left for the resettlement villages. American bombing would then kill many of these villagers, This became an un-winnable strategy for the U.S.

Webb once tried to help locate civilians to resettlement villages. He was told they will full even though he knew they were not. He learned that resettlement officials declared on paper their villages were full in order to sell extra rations on the black market.

After receiving two Purple Hearts, Webb was ordered out of combat He was sent to the Navy Secretary’s Pentagon office He was one of 16 selected early, out of 12,700 First Lieutenants, to be promoted to Captain. He wrote fact sheets and other official writings as well as handled casework.

Webb advocated for shortening logistical lines by concentrating more forces in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. This report proved useful when he was a U.S. Senator and the need for this had grown.

Webb published a controversial article recommending the Marine Commandant be made a member of the Joint Chiefs.This controversy later would be resolved by making this inclusion.

Webb was medically retired from the Marines He then went to law school. He also wrote novels

Webb became National CoChair of the Vietnam Veterans for Ford in 1976. In 1977, he became counsel to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He soon became Chief Minority Counsel. As he built Hill experience, he later would be elected to the U.S. Senate.