Power Elite = Total Conceit?

Since I got to law school, the idea of being a member of the ‘power elite’ has been tossed around liberally.  It makes sense in some ways.  I’ve totally already achieved.  I’ve proven I have a brain and know how to use it just by getting into a good school.  And law is one of those prestigious things to study.  But recent events have intruded to make me again aware of how this prestige can turn well-meaning people into…people who aren’t very nice.

To illustrate, I will give a totally unrelated example.  While I was still working as an administrative assistant, I met a man who we will name Mr. Mandolin.  In the course of our conversation together on a variety of interesting and diverse topics, I somewhat self-deprecatingly mentioned my job at that time.  He responded that he knew several admins, and that the job was a ‘necessary’ one, so I shouldn’t sell myself short.  He didn’t quite add that I could be replaced by a barrel of monkeys, but the implication was there.  Something in my face – perhaps the raised eyebrows, or the half-choked laughter – told him I thought he was being less than gentlemanly.  He quickly and angrily exclaimed that he wasn’t blanking conceited, which pretty much ended our conversation.

I’ve been in the real-life working world where people are not nice.  I’ve been in the rush-around-stressful East Coast business environment.  I studied four years as an architecture student.  I’ve been an admin who had to interact with bigwigs.  I think I have a pretty firm handle on pretension and how much egotism is actually warranted and how much I want to interact with swelled heads in my daily and professional life.

I am a realist.  I know that there’s always going to be someone who thinks they’re brighter/better/faster than me.  and I know that sometimes the idealists are the worst of the bunch.  Still, I chose a law school that was more laid back because I knew that’s the kind of environment I want to be in after I actually pass the bar.  I chose a law school with some ideals, so that I would be someplace where everyone knows there’s more to law school than backbiting competition, and that there’s more to the world than law school.  Still, I have this sinking feeling at the moment that perhaps that wasn’t enough.

I was fortunate enough in my last job to be in the kind of working environment I want to inspire and promote in others.  I had a good boss, now I want to be a good boss.  And so far most of my fellow students are the kind of good people I want to work with.  But I can already pick out those who will be less than comfortable to work with, and this worries me.  We still have years left of disillusionment and ideal-crushing stress, so those numbers are only going to increase.  So at the end of that time, am I still going to be the lawyer who realizes some admins are brilliant and that all people deserve respect and that social bonding and genuine care in the workplace increases employee dedication and work effort, or am I going to lose the half-wisdom I’ve so far gained?

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King Solomon’s Copper.

I’m not really up on my Biblical history.  This could be a flaw in my education, or perhaps just in my interest.  Somehow, the lineages of the Kingdom of Edom and when the Israelites were where don’t really pique my interest.  Despite this, occasionally I wish I knew a little bit more about the timeline, mostly in places where it would improve my knowledge of certain stories or would help in trivia games.

One of the areas where I have limited knowledge is about the ‘real’ reign of King Solomon.  This is probably partially due to H. Rider Haggard and various associated movies.  Why did the king bury bunches of treasure in a mine?  Who ends up dying as they leave?  Was there a previous lost love?  Is it a friend who is taken in the unfairness of African life?  Does a safari end in melancholy?

Well, archeology is trying to answer some of those questions.  A copper mine has recently been dated to the time of King Solomon.  It is possible that this mine, therefore, had some connection to the king and may even have been one of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’.  However, both the Bible (which is one of few written sources we have) and early archeologist linked the area to the Edomites at the time the site was dated to.  So to me this indicates that despite it being during Solomon’s rule, it was probably not under his direct control.  Edom was basically a vassal state, but I’m guessing that any mines in question would have been the governor of Edom’s, rather than Solomon’s.

However, that’s niether here nor there.  The real question is, how far will fact follow fiction?  In this particualr set of mines (which are probably not the only ones for an entire kingdom), is there any ‘buried treasure’?  or was that all relegated to other mines?  is there romance, or monumental loss, or ideal friendship that is about to unfold in this story of rediscovery?  And what about the Queen of Sheba?

A little coal in my stocking.

According to the Department of Energy, the US holds more than one quarter of the world’s coal reserves, an energy amount equal or greater to all of the oil reserves known in existence.  While the first question this might bring to mind is why we aren’t powering our cars with coal, other questions also surface secondarily.  A big one would have to do with mountaintop mining.

Mountaintop mining is a process of accessing coal which involves removing the uppermost layers of a mountain (usually by blasting) to access the coal beneath it.  Successive layers are removed to access lower deposits.  It’s a cheap, easy, quick, and reasonably safe way to get coal out of the ground.  But do we really need to get this resource out of the ground that quickly?  And what are the costs of doing so?  People near Coal River Mountain seem to think those costs might be too much.

Of course, there’s the potential environmental impact.  Coal extractors say they replant and try and regrow the landscape a bit after they are finished.  Critics say any real regrowth will take years, if not decades.  I say, you had a wooded mountain with valleys, and now you have a big flat space with grasses and maybe shrubs.  I don’t know what true impact that may entail, but it’s definitely a big change, even if the same exact types of trees grow back and the wildlife is not disturbed.

Second, there’s the local economic impact.  Sure, coal mining has been improving to an extent that great heaping swaths of it are technologically powered, rather than man-powered, but it still takes some people to run equipment.  Mountaintop mining takes less manpower per amount of coal extracted, which means workers have less say.  Usually it results in lower wages and fewer jobs in areas that are already economically depressed.

But it doesn’t end there.  The second largest user of coal in the world, China, is picking up our fast and dirty habits.  With the economy booming and the subsequent demand for electric power exploding, it is estimated that 3 or 4 plants powered by coal are revving up every week.  That means plants are almost instantly rivalling each other for supply.

Though each of these plants has to meet certain environmental safe practices enforced by the national government, pollution is still exploding as fast as power.  Why?  A recent study shows it may be due to the use of low-grade coal when price and availability make it the only feasible option.  The study also claims that with government incentives and other cost-saving mechanisms, each plant would be able to reduce its noxious output without a loss of power supply.  In particular, since the controls on what each plant builds were already in place, most have the air scrubbers and other pollution-reducing devices in place – they just aren’t yet being used.

But let’s throw a little political maneuvering into the picture.  The ‘higher grade’ coal (anthracite) which burns with less sulphur is only available in certain areas of China.  That means if it’s not close to you, add the cost of shipping to the already higher cost of the higher-grade coal.  But those certain areas happen to be in the ‘northwest’ regions of China.  i don’t know exactly which regions, as anything west of Beijing is considered a ‘western region’, but it does put Xinjiang in mind.  It does make me think of rebellion, resistance, historical oppression, poverty, and differing belief systems.  It makes me wonder if others realize what might happen in an area like this had a resource that would fetch a high price.

Oh, and since this didn’t get published quite when i wanted heres a political update on clean coal.

Next time, Jared Diamond, NEXT TIME!!!

Some of you may be familiar with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has been recommended to me by several people who I trust and who have decent judgment. It is a monster of a work, in a style that the specialists of modern day can’t really match. It’s meant to be a broad analysis of general historical trends, chronicling some ideas of why modern society developed in the place and manner that it did. And I’m sure it accomplishes this well and was interesting and informative for many highly intelligent people. But I couldn’t read it.

I am not typically a non-fiction reader.  I like the flexibility of fiction.  I feel like it allows language to be used more fully.  I feel like it’s more of an art.  But of course, that’s not always the case.  And some fiction pays no attention to language or craft.  Ultimately however, I tend to like it better for its hint of truth.  Fiction can be truer than fact.  It can also be a starting point for factual exploration.  How many times have I been reading some historical novel and wondered if an event or situation actually took place?  The interaction between creative expression and factual dates, times, and places intrigues me.  In addition, fiction avoids the perils of being proven wrong.

So, was it just the non-fiction structure of this particular book, in addition to its length, that put me off reading the whole thing?  Not exactly.  I mean, the small part of it that I did read was well-written.  However, amidst the sweeping generalizations of the early introductory materials, I found the bane of a non-fiction books – a fallacy.  While I can understand discrepancies regarding the movement of people into North America considering new information that is constantly being revealed and tested, other small details I could not ignore.  Where was steel first invented?  And if the author is wrong about one such detail, how can I trust the other assertions that are outside his specialty?

I eventually gave up on reading the book – it would take too long to check every point he made. however, the book again caught my eye on the train today when I saw a picture of the Phaistos disc inside it.  I saw the picture first – recognizing one of the most interesting and rare undeciphered scripts in existence, I was intrigued enough to lean over the poor girl reading it and look at the book title.  For those of you who are not familiar with this disc, it is the only example of what we think is a writing system (or at least some record-keeping system using characters for a discrete meaning).  We don’t know what language it may record, or what culture it is associated with, though there have been multiple guesses.  Since the disc was found in a Minoan palace, many think it originated there, but we have no evidence that it was not made elsewhere.  What could such an enigmatic relic of past civilization have to tell us about the advancement of current people through guns, germs, and steel?  Not much.  And the sensational nature of such a mysterious object included in what’s supposed to be a highly logical argument of a book does little to placate my questions about the authorial intent or accuracy of the book.  However, since I did not actually read the text associated with the disc, I cannot say that it does not add another layer of meaning to teh author’s argument.  I will have to be resigned to my unanswered questions and doubts.