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The Palisades and Privatized Nature

[ 58 ] March 25, 2014 |

I think one of the most telling environmental issues of the decade will be the question of whether LG will be allowed to build an office building in the Palisades, the area of New Jersey just north of New York and an unspoiled viewshed for millions of people driving across the George Washington Bridge. Four New Jersey governors, including 2 Republicans, are opposing the project.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, one way William Dean Howells paints Lapham as both a man of his Gilded Age times and something of a uncouth newcomer is his attitude toward nature. Lapham believes the natural world is for any man to use for his own personal gain, particularly when it is Lapham’s personal gain. So he paints rocks with his paint, advertising himself in places of great natural beauty.

In effect, LG’s plans to build the office tower, openly articulated by the company as claiming the view for itself and its employees, is the New Gilded Age version of Lapham’s world view. Beginning in the Progressive Era, government began claiming

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the natural world for the public. Even if the actual people were often ignored in land management over the years, it became much harder for private companies to engage in simple land grabs for private benefit.

Today, we are moving into the New Gilded Age with aplomb. As part of this, conservative forces are articulating their true beliefs about labor and nature, beliefs often subsumed behind socially responsible rhetoric for decades. Will LG be allowed to engage in a Lapham-esque appropriation of the natural world for its own business purposes? This is a very important question that may go a long ways to determine the future of public lands in the U.S.

I’m Sure This Will Be the Technological Solution That Will Finally Allow Us to Conquer Nature

[ 96 ] March 25, 2014 |

Agriculture has spent over half a century fully committed to better living through chemistry, using massive applications of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to produce enormous harvests. In the short term, it has worked, but the long-term success of this plan is far from assured. The biggest problem is that humans may try to control nature, but they can’t control nature. To borrow a central theoretical term from my professional field of environmental history, nature has agency and it pushes back against human domination. Specifically in this case, plants develop resistance to chemicals, forcing agribusiness to create ever more powerful poisons that weeds will soon again resist.

So the new strategy is biological engineering, creating a sort of Weed Genome Project to eventually create more effective herbicides. Which I am sure will not work in the long term, but I suppose at this point agribusiness will keep doubling down on profitable chemical applications until the entire system collapses under the weight of declining petroleum supplies.

Our New Overlords Make Their Move, Show They Hate America

[ 69 ] March 25, 2014 |

The jellyfish are on the march:

But CSIRO Wealth from Oceans research scientist Lisa-Ann Gershwin says more research needs

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to be done around potentially deadly jellyfish becoming even more toxic.

She says this is more of an immediate problem than jellyfish migrating south from tropical waters.

“For a population to migrate, its whole habitat has to migrate with it, so we’re talking some time.

“We do know that warmer water does trigger some species of Irukandji to be more active and more toxic.

“It’s highly likely that smaller increase in temperature will trigger resident jellyfish to become more pesky, than to trigger far away jellyfish to migrate down.”

Great, climate change will not only make jellyfish the dominant animal in the oceans, but it will make them even more deadly, no doubt just part of a process of preparing for land-based invasions where they will unite with the robots to enslave all humans. Or maybe they will just turn their powers against America:

In 2006 jellyfish were sucked into the intakes of the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan in Brisbane during its maiden voyage.

Whoa, they attacked Reagan? I knew jellyfish were Democrats! You’d think this alone would get McConnell and Boehner on board for some climate change legislation. Oh well, let’s just all have some nightmares tonight:

One bloom of sea tomato jellyfish travelled from Broome in August 2012 to Exmouth in May 2013 in Western Australia.

“They were so huge you could see them from space,” Dr Gershwin says.

Some jellyfish have hundreds of mouths.

Curling up in corner, weeping.

Dan Snyder’s Trolling

[ 58 ] March 25, 2014 |

Dan Snyder may be America’s biggest troll:

The owner of the Washington Redskins, who adamantly refuses to change the team’s controversial name that many believe to be a racial slur, announced Monday he was starting a new foundation to aid Native Americans called the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.”

“The mission of the Original Americans Foundation is to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities,” Dan Snyder said in a statement. “With open arms and determined minds, we will work as partners to begin to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country. Our efforts will address the urgent challenges plaguing Indian country based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need most.”

Snyder said he reached the decision to create the foundation after visiting 26 reservations where he learned “first-hand about the views, attitudes, and experiences of the Tribes.” The initiative has already begun providing coats and shoes to poverty stricken communities.

“The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation will serve as a living, breathing legacy – and an ongoing reminder – of the heritage and tradition that is the Washington Redskins,” he added.

This is precisely what Native Americans need–a rich white guy donating a few coats to charity. This totally makes up for centuries of racism against Native Americans that said rich white guy openly continues.

Also, “Original Americans?” He couldn’t just say Native Americans? Borrowing First Peoples from Canada would have been fine too. Or “indigenous.”

…..Yesterday was also the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the last group of Cherokees to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Makes Snyder’s announcement extra special.

Méliès Monday: The Doctor and the Monkey

[ 23 ] March 24, 2014 |

Georges Méliès, The Doctor and the Monkey, 1900

Texas’ Pathetic War Record

[ 147 ] March 24, 2014 |

The Texas Republic was really terrible at war.

But the idea of Texas being born from military achievement is variously true and also blown out of all proportion to reality. With the exception of the coup at San Jacinto, Texas’s early military history was a series of overlooked disasters, led by men who blundered their way into defeats. It’s also a fascinating overview of how warfare—especially when canonized—is almost invariably a series of tragedies and screw-ups.

Texas has plenty of both.

This isn’t even controversial. More than a decade ago, Texas Monthly declared the suicidal decision to defend the Alamo against vastly superior Mexican forces “a military mistake of mythic proportions” and that its “contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative.”

In its brief, 10-year existence as an independent state, Texas would launch two failed invasions—one in southern Texas and another in New Mexico. It also failed to stop two more Mexican invasions. And then the Lone Star state would fight several minor wars with itself and almost come to blows with the United States.

Of course, the ability of Texans to lead the U.S. in war since it joined the nation has never been questioned.

The End of the Asian Forests

[ 23 ] March 24, 2014 |

The burning of Asian forests, particularly but not exclusively in Indonesia, continues unabated. This is usually reported on for the public health aspects of it since the smoke from Sumatra wafts over the rest of southeast Asia. That’s a huge problem, but of course there is also the destruction of the ecosystem. When I traveled in Sumatra in 1997, I saw some of this and it was mostly poor people engaging in slash and burn farming. That’s not the case anymore. Today, it’s big landowners burning land for palm oil and paper plantations. The method of clearing land is horrible because of the environmental cost to people’s lungs, but that’s not what I want to focus on here.

In the 1980s, as environmentalists rallied to save the last ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, workers, who considered themselves environmentally responsible stewards of the land, were angry because of their lost livelihood. Of course, the companies were lying to the workers as they were already moving operations to other forests, but leave that aside for now. One point the two timber workers unions made repeatedly was that the United States was now exporting its forestry to countries with far fewer environmental restrictions on forestry than the U.S. By moving timber production to Brazil or Indonesia, we were dooming other forests while doing nothing about consumption in the United States. And that’s basically a correct analysis of the situation. That doesn’t mean that we should have cut down the last old-growth forests, in fact environmentalists were completely correct on this. But the saving of American forests in no way reduced consumption of forest products. The transformation of tropical forests into plantations for the export market is one result of this.

Exxon Valdez

[ 42 ] March 24, 2014 |

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Those were some good times. What did biologists discover from it? That the oil industry is horrible for wildlife:

Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.

For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.

“The understanding that lingering oil could have chronic effects on wildlife populations was a new and important finding, and one that we did not anticipate at the time that we started the research,” Esler says.

Through years of research, scientists discovered another unexpected effect, this time related to fish eggs. The clue came from pink salmon, which weren’t doing well even years after the spill. To figure out why, Rice’s team exposed pink salmon embryos to tiny amounts of oil.

“We were dosing them with oil that you couldn’t see [and] you couldn’t smell. But we were doing it for a really long time,” Rice says. “And six months later, they had abnormalities.”

Rice says it was one of the many “wows” that came from his years heading up a NOAA team researching the spill’s effects.

But hey, I’m sure everything is back to normal in the Gulf after the BP spill and that we should continue right on drilling like nothing ever happened.

The Answer is Class

[ 132 ] March 23, 2014 |

This Times op-ed on why people born in certain counties dominate Wikipedia entries spends a lot of words to miss the obvious answer. An excerpt:

The first striking fact in the data was the enormous geographic variation in the likelihood of becoming a big success, at least on Wikipedia’s terms. Your chances of achieving notability were highly dependent on where you were born.

Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.

Why do some parts of the country appear to be so much better at churning out American movers and shakers? I closely examined the top counties. It turns out that nearly all of them fit into one of two categories.

First, and this surprised me, many of these counties consisted largely of a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Mich., I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor, Mich. The counties graced by Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Columbia, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Ithaca, N.Y., are all in the top 3 percent.

Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart. And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there.

But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople.

Or, it’s because you are born rich or you are born poor and that fact goes a very long ways in determining your future in this nation. Even his discussion of African-Americans and immigrants shows this–his examples are people born into the elites of these groups. It’s remarkable how obvious this is and how he totally misses this in a 21st century America where class-based analysis is unfashionable.

The mention of “genes” is basically playing with eugenics, although I’m sure this is unintentional.

The Foxes

[ 152 ] March 23, 2014 |

I should start this post by saying that I couldn’t care one way or the other about the success of FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver has done good work on both sports and elections, but that doesn’t mean that he is inherently better at reporting or shaping news than a lot of other people. I certainly don’t wish him bad luck because I want quality analysis to read. But it’s notable how strongly negative the response to the rollout of the new site has been. Krugman has perhaps the most important run-down, if for no other reason than that’s the type of writer to whom Silver is supposed to appeal. First, there was the ridiculous manifesto. Then there was the bizarre idea that one could somehow be objective about data and therefore non-ideological, an absurd claim. But whatever. A lot more problematic is the idea that all subjects are equally reported poorly and thus he needs to save the day by hiring people who can bring data to the problem. Silver has brought known climate skeptic Roger Pielke on board to write about climate. Pielke’s first article basically says that natural disasters aren’t increasing and not to worry about climate change caused disasters in any case because the world’s getting richer so we can clean them up. The final paragraph:

When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers and instead focus on what we can control. There is some good news to be found in the ever-mounting toll of disaster losses. As countries become richer, they are better able to deal with disasters — meaning more people are protected and fewer lose their lives. Increased property losses, it turns out, are a price worth paying.

A price worth paying for what precisely? And what are the limits of this price? This is the kind of data-centered reporting we were promised by Silver? Uh…. People who actually know climate data, i.e., the kind of data Silver is supposed to provide, are more than unhappy by Pielke’s article and worried about what FiveThirtyEight is going to bring to climate reporting. Given Silver’s prominence, these sorts of stories could do real damage to the battle to build support to fight climate change. Bad stuff.

Silver probably should understand that there are some fields where ridiculous fact-free bloviating dominates and some where it doesn’t. It exists in politics because of the need to fill 24 hours of cable content and generate website hits. It does in sports because sports don’t really matter that much. It does not in climate science–except from the kind of people Silver himself is hiring. If Silver wants to be serious about climate data, it’s there in a gigantic literature that pretty much all agrees on what’s happening. Allowing sketchy climate skeptics to present “data” to question the actual data is basically him becoming what he says he hates.

In the end, creating a website primarily to massage your own enormous ego may come with problems.

Molly Pitcher

[ 22 ] March 23, 2014 |

Like you ever thought Molly Pitcher wasn’t the Kool-Aid pitcher.

English Oceans

[ 11 ] March 22, 2014 |

If you saw the Drive-by Truckers last night at the House of Blues in Boston, well, consider yourself unlucky enough to have been in my presence. It was a pretty great show as always, although the one downside of seeing a band touring to support a new album is that they play most of it, including the tunes that maybe aren’t as strong or that don’t translate as well live. As for the album, I’d say it’s decent. Like the last couple, it has a few really good songs. Cooley’s contributions are much stronger than the last two, but Hood’s aren’t quite his best work as a whole. One of the stronger cuts is “Made Up English Oceans,” which also led off last night’s show.

The set list:
1. Made Up English Oceans
2. When He’s Gone
3. Marry Me
4. Do It Yourself
5. Pulaski, Tennessee
6. Sink Hole
7. Uncle Frank
8. Pauline Hawkins
9. Shit Shots Count
10. Lookout Mountain
11. Primer Coat
12. The Part Of Him
13. Til He’s Dead Or Rises
14. The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town
15. Where The Devil Don’t Stay
16. Puttin’ People On The Moon
17. Hearing Jimmy Loud
18. Hell No, I Ain’t Happy
19. Birthday Boy
20. Girls Who Smoke
21. Zip City
22. Ronnie and Neil
23. Shut Up and Get On The Plane
24. Grand Canyon

This was the 8th time I’ve seen them and Do It Yourself is an old song, but this was the first time I’d heard it live. So that takes one off that list, although I’ve still never managed to see a live version of 72 or Space City or Birmingham. This was also the first show that I didn’t get to hear Women Without Whiskey, but such things happen when touring behind a brand new album.

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