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A Robert Moses for Bicycles?

[ 200 ] November 16, 2013 |

An interesting argument that we need Robert Moses and Le Corbusier-type architects to remake our cities to become bicycle friendly:

If Henry Ford were reincarnated as a bike maker, Le Corbusier as an architect of buildings and cities for bikes, and Robert Moses as their bike-loving ally in government, today’s bike plans would be far more ambitious in scope. Ford would be aiming to sell billions of bikes, Corb would be wanting to save the whole world, and, even if it took him a lifetime, Moses would be aiming to leave a permanent mark.

They would want to give bicycle transport a leg-up, like the leg-up the motorcar received from farmlands being opened for suburban development. So who are our modern-day, bicycle-loving Le Corbusiers? And what, exactly, is their task?

In any era, the preoccupations architects share with planners stem from whatever mode of transportation is on everyone’s minds. The Cooper Union Professor of Architecture, Anthony Vidler, describes the first half of the twentieth-century as a period when architecture derived its authority from machines; if we read Le Corbusier, we see ships and airplanes, but most often cars.

Designers were fascinated by cars for at least forty years, beginning with Le Corbusier’s 1925 plan to rebuild much of Paris, with towers in a park and sunken freeways. Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller and others designed car-centric buildings, and even some cars themselves, at a time when mass car ownership, freeways and sprawl, were still only fantasies.

Designers are at a similar juncture with their thinking about cycling today. Today it is mass bicycle transport that is a fantasy, but that doesn’t stop architects – including Ron Arad, West-8, Carlo Ratti, Bill Dunster, NL Architects, Atelier BowWow and Bjarke Ingels – from designing bike-centric buildings, and even some bikes.

I don’t necessarily have a dog in this hunt since I don’t bike as much as I should, but I think it’s an interesting argument, particularly given what I consider to be the overreaction against big central planning throughout society.


[ 41 ] November 16, 2013 |

The Harrisburg Patriot and Union issues an apology for its 1863 dismissal of the Gettysburg Address, which read:

We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burial ground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.

On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raise their voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers to discard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return to the wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to the compromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulers hearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.

Not sure that such an apology is exactly necessary. But it is worth noting how many Northerners hated Abraham Lincoln. This disdain, which led to the point of treason in the Ohio Democratic Party, is too often forgotten.


[ 31 ] November 16, 2013 |

This is not an acceptable decision from the EPA during a Democratic administration:

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection to change how toxic selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mines is measured for the purposes of determining compliance with the Clean Water Act. Selenium, which causes significant biological damage to fish native to the waters of Appalachia, is a toxic pollutant discharged from valley fills into rivers and streams below mountaintop removal sites. The EPA-backed changes to how Kentucky measures selenium pollution allow the state to rely on an impractical and complicated test of tissue samples from fish rather than the current practice of directly sampling the water discharged below mountaintop removal mines and other selenium sources. EPA’s capitulation gives a free pass to industry and will allow unacceptably high levels of selenium pollution to continue flow into Kentucky’s waterways.

If anything, Obama’s EPA should be cracking down on coal mining and making it harder for the mountaintop removal industry to destroy the mountains and ecology of Appalachia. There is no good reason not to directly sample the water. None. Except that the coal industry doesn’t like it. Because ultimately this isn’t about the poisoning of fish. It’s about the poisoning of people. If the fish are poisoned, the people probably are at higher risk as well. Of course, one expects nothing else from the coal industry; it’s spent the last 125 years treating the people of Appalachia like feudal serfs. But for the Obama EPA to actually weaken testing rules, that I don’t get.

Here’s some background on why this all matters:

Current selenium limits in states like West Virginia have helped the Sierra Club and other nonprofits force coal companies to hand over millions of dollars in fines and cleanup costs, but those standards are based on older EPA water criteria and guidance that hasn’t been revised in nearly a decade. New data has suggested less stringent requirements would be adequate and the EPA has said it is updating the acute and chronic freshwater ambient water quality standards for selenium, though the agency has yet to act.

Kentucky is now trying to move ahead while the agency drags its feet, having developed its own criteria with help from the EPA and submitted it for federal approval. The proposal would require that high selenium levels be present in fish tissue before triggering a violation, and it would likely be emulated by neighboring states if it gets the green light from the EPA.

In taking the initiative, Kentucky is hoping to put more regulatory control in its own hands on an issue that has been litigated frequently in other states like West Virginia, according to Crowell & Moring LLP partner Kirsten L. Nathanson.

“The environmental groups have been driving enforcement through lawsuits,” Nathanson said. “Kentucky is trying to find an instructive solution to these issues and avoid some of these ad-hoc enforcement actions by taking affirmative control of its regulatory program for selenium.”

Industry has always preferred state-led regulatory programs because the states are far easier for industry to control than the feds. Politicians come cheaper and they tend to be much friendlier to local industry.

A very disappointing decision.

Lowering Biofuels Standards

[ 35 ] November 15, 2013 |

The corn industry’s hustle to force us to turn it into fuel may have reached its peak. Normally, one might not look well upon the EPA lowering a standard that could theoretically burn something more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. But ethanol is not only not particularly environmentally neutral, it’s a terrible use of land and comes with a whole set of additional problems. So at least in this case, the EPA ruling in favor of the oil industry is not per se a bad thing. It’s not exactly a good thing either of course. It’s more like a situation where every option stinks.

Learning to Live as a Civilization

[ 148 ] November 15, 2013 |

There’s a certain kind of environmental writing that drives a lot of people crazy. This is the jeremiad that tells us the world is failing, we are at a tipping point, civilization is doomed, etc. In principle, I don’t have a particular problem with the style, after all I do my share of it. Some say that sky is falling writing drives people to do nothing, stop listening, or give up hope, but I don’t know that there’s any real evidence supporting the assertion.

But I do have one very large problem with how these essays are usually written. They tend to erase inequality and differences between people, as if the writer is just discovering that things are bad in the world, a revelation the world’s poor would not find surprising. Take Roy Scranton’s essay in the Times about how we need to learn to die as a civilization, for dying is what our civilizing is doing as we take no action to mitigate climate change. It’s long and I’m just going to excerpt a couple small parts:

The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

The problem here isn’t that Scranton’s unaware that the poor exists. He mentions food crises, Hurricane Katrina, etc. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand that regardless of whether we are going to live or die, we are not going to do so together. As environmental writers do way too often, he leaves the power dynamics of society outside of his essay. There’s a lot of money to be made off climate change. A lot of new industries will develop, whether mining the newly accessible Arctic or providing water or who knows. The rich are going to be OK. They will move to higher ground, the poor will be left to lower ground. The rich will have air conditioning (and access to water if it becomes truly scarce). The poor will not. The rich will have homes that have a better chance of withstanding large storms. The poor will live in substandard housing that will kill them when the hurricane comes through. Of course, race, class, immigration status, and nationality will play a major role in determining who will be OK and who will not.

Essays like Scranton’s erase environmental justice from the definitions of the movement. If we aren’t going to center the power dynamics of capitalism, race, gender, and global inequality in our adaptations to climate change, it means that environmentalism remains a movement of the rich and the white, disconnected to the material concerns of the world’s majority.

In other words, if we are going to die as a civilization, it might be a good idea to live as a civilization first. Because while things for the poor will get worse when the impacts of climate change grow, they are pretty bloody bad right now. The sky isn’t falling for them with climate change. The sky never rose on their lives in the first place.

The Greatest Unfair Labor Practice Charge Ever

[ 28 ] November 15, 2013 |

The faculty at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law are upset because of their raises that are not only insulting, but evidently an insult with an extra dark message.

The AAUP Chapter at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the State of Ohio alleging that the law school retaliated against certain faculty in the award of merit raises in 2013 and 2014 because of their union activities. Faculty were placed in four merit raise bands — $5,000, $3,000, $666, and $0 — based on scholarship and scholarly influence (40%), teaching as measured by student evaluations (40%), and service (20%). The complaint alleges that eight AAUP organizers received raises of $0 or $666, despite “exemplary scholarship and teaching scores.” The complaint charges that the $666 raise in effect calls “AAUP’s organizers and AAUP Satan.” In a memo distributed to the central administration and copied to the entire faculty, one of the eight AAUP organizers alleges that:

[The $666 figure] is a universally understood symbol of the Antichrist or Devil — one of our culture’s most violent religious images. Implicitly, but unmistakably and obviously intentionally, [the Dean] used his powers to set faculty salaries as an occasion to brand his perceived opponents as the Antichrist.

The university denies it of course. And really, who knows.


[ 97 ] November 15, 2013 |

It should be blindingly obvious by now that no country is going to sacrifice anything meaningful, and especially economic growth, to reduce emissions enough to dent the impact of climate change. Not saying that such sacrifices would be easy or trivial. But the cost of not making those sacrifices is enormous, as the people of the Philippines can attest.

Then again, even talking about climate change can get you in trouble if you are in the Obama Administration. So maybe I shouldn’t single out Japan.

…..I’m sure some would be happy that domestic production of American oil has surpassed imports for the first time in 18 years. But given that this has nothing to do with a broader drop in oil use or restrictions on imports in order to fight climate change, we can pretty safely assume that this is yet another bad sign from a nation where working on climate change is not only not a top priority, it’s not a secondary or tertiary priority either.

But hey, gas prices are going down, so that’s cool. Time to trade in for that SUV.

Japanese Air Warfare Footage

[ 94 ] November 14, 2013 |

More Farley’s beat, but this footage of air warfare from Japanese archives in 1945 is pretty amazing to watch.

An Accident a Day Keeps the Doctors Well Paid

[ 19 ] November 14, 2013 |

Were one to want to work a job where your life and safety are consistently in danger and where you can live with the constant threat of pollution, one could do far worse than heading to Louisiana for a job in the state’s many oil refineries. Full report is here. Well worth your time.

Well, OK, Louisiana’s oil refineries don’t have accidents every single day. Just six days a week on average. Actually, to be specific, 6.3 days a week.

Last year, the 17 refineries and two associated chemical plants in the state experienced 327 accidents, releasing 2.4 million pounds of air pollution, including such poisons as benzene and sulfur, and 12.7 million gallons of water pollution. That’s according to a report published Tuesday [PDF] by the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which compiled the data from refineries’ individual accident reports.

One example involves a release of materials at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge facility where there was an initial report of at least 10 pounds of benzene as required by law within an hour of the release.

It turned out the release was more than 31,000 pounds.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association responded by questioning the credibility of the report and saying the industry is “making strong environmental progress.”

10 pounds, 31,000 pounds, it’s just a few zeros, amiright?

Let’s be clear. While there will probably always be a certain amount of risk laboring in a refinery, these facilities could be far safer. But, beginning with the Reagan Administration, the United Sates made a decision to deemphasize workplace safety and health in favor of corporate prerogative and profit, using terms like “burdensome regulations” and “small government” as euphemisms for the ultimate goal of rolling back decades of gains by the labor and environmental movements that made Americans healthier and safer, both on and off the job.

And the collective cost of all these accidents and emissions? Well, they don’t call that area of Louisiana “Cancer Alley” for nothing.

Rare Not Horrible News on Labor from the Supreme Court

[ 10 ] November 14, 2013 |

I was not looking forward to the new Supreme Court term. There are two major labor cases on the docket. Given the plutocratic nature of the 5 Republican members, I was not confident. And while I’m still not, there was surprisingly hostility throughout the Court for the plaintiffs in Mulhall v. Unite-HERE Local 355. This case challenges the constitutionality of card check agreements between business and labor for unionization, calling them a violation of the National Labor Relations Act as they are a “thing of value,” something that would make a card check a felony for those involved since it would basically be a bribe.

Like myself, Josh Eidelson was extremely worried that this case would undermine workers’ rights in unprecedented ways. But even Scalia and Alito were quite hostile (here and here) to the case in yesterday’s oral arguments, at least at its logical extreme. Since this would undermine business rights to run its own affairs, I assume that would be the basis of a conservative opposition, although I am certainly no legal scholar. At the very least it seems more unlikely that a sweeping ruling will come down than it did yesterday. We will see.

Suffering For Thee But Not For Me

[ 148 ] November 14, 2013 |

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is a sociopath:

What we’re hearing from the Boeing Machinists right now isn’t just the usual labor-management posturing. It’s a primal scream of the middle class.

When a union boss the other day called Boeing’s offer to do the 777X jetliner work here a “piece of crap,” he was of course referring to the gory details of that contract: the canceled pension plan, the slashed benefits, the appalling 1 percent pay raise issued only every other year.


It’s a race to the bottom. Or rather, a slog to an era when workers will be more reliant on Social Security than ever.

So what’s most galling is that Boeing’s CEO is out pushing to cut back on the nation’s retirement plan as well.

In recent years Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has headed the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of top U.S. corporations. Earlier this year that group called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 70 years old, as well as crimping back on the benefits (by reducing the index of inflation used to calculate payouts.)

“We are going to need our employees to work longer just to fill the needs that we have in the work force,” said a Roundtable suit, helpfully explaining why all Americans should willingly retire later, for less.


Speaking of expanding, that’s what keeps happening to the pension of Boeing’s CEO. According to the company’s recent annual reports, McNerney’s pension holdings soared by $6.3 million just in the past year.

If McNerney retires now he will get $265,575 a month. That’s not a misprint: The man presiding over a drive to slash retirement for his own workers, and for stiffs in the rest of America, stands to glide out on a company pension that pays a quarter-million dollars per month.

But no doubt he’s earned his salary because of his sobriety and hard work, unlike his employees who are lower on the food chain because they are lesser people. Or at least this would have been the logic of the first Gilded Age. At least Henry Clay Frick was honest in his ideology. But McNerney is moving in the direction of such honesty. Why bother hiding the fact that you are loaded and want to become even more rich by eviscerating not only the safety net of your employees but of the entire working and middle classes of the United States? You have the power, it’s not 1950 anymore when Republicans had to pretend like they respected the existence of labor unions.

Impalement Arts

[ 23 ] November 13, 2013 |

Tonight’s look at the past is even weirder and more unsettling than usual. This is a 1950 newsreel clip of Austin woman Louella Gallagher, who put on public knife throwing shows that featured her own daughters.

I wish I could find a way to work this into a class.

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