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Category: General

Brazil Mining Disaster

[ 13 ] November 21, 2015 |


Horrible stuff going on in Brazil. Two mining dams have collapsed in the state of Minas Gerais, creating a slow-moving ooze of toxicity into the Rio Doce that has already killed almost everything within 500km of the dams. The company is a joint venture of Vale, a huge Brazilian iron corporation and BHP Billiton, the South African-Australian mining conglomerate that operates around the world extracting everything from oil to uranium. Of course the mining companies are claiming that this toxic mud is totally safe:

Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton and owner of the mine, has repeatedly said the mud is not toxic.

But biologists and environmental experts disagree. Local authorities have ordered families rescued from the flood to wash thoroughly and dispose of clothes that came in contact with the mud.

“It’s already clear wildlife is being killed by this mud,” said Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “To say the mud is not a health risk is overly simplistic.”

As the heavy mud hardens, Laschesfki says, it will make farming difficult. And so much silt will settle along the bottom of the Rio Doce and the tributaries that carried the mud there that the very course of watershed could change.

“Many regions will never be the same,” he says.

Researchers are testing the river water and results should be published over the coming weeks, giving a better idea of the contents of the mining waste.

One cause for concern is that compounds known as ether amines could have been used at the mine to separate silica from the iron ore, in order to produce a better quality product.

According to mining industry research and scientific literature published in recent years, the compounds are commonly used at Brazilian mines, including Samarco’s.

At least some of the compounds, according to the website of Air Products, a company that produces them, “are not readily biodegradable and have high toxicity to aquatic organisms.” They can also raise PH levels to a point that is environmentally harmful.

“There will be serious problems using the water from the river now,” says Pedro Antonio Molinas, a water resources engineer and mining industry consultant familiar with the region.

Brazil has issued a preliminary fine of $66 million and that will no doubt be higher in the end. But Brazil has also gone straight ahead with its modernization program that includes cutting down the Amazon for cattle ranchers and allowing mining companies to do basically whatever they want to. The government might act in a time of crisis like this, but it’s opened itself to resource extraction as its path to modernization, whether the government is right or left. So events like this are hardly surprising. From the link at the top of this paragraph:

The government itself has come under criticism for the sluggish nature of its response. Critics point out it took Rousseff a whole week to visit the region, while the conservative daily Folha de São Paulo pointed out that the state body responsible for monitoring the country’s dams, the DNPM, checked each of them only once every four years.

Despite the importance of mining to the Brazilian economy, the DNPM only has 220 inspectors charged with monitoring 27,293 sites nationwide. Last year, three workers were killed at a dam near the area of last week’s accident.

In 2012, thousands of residents of the town of Campo dos Goytacazes were forced to flee their homes as water starting leaking through a dam. Another breakage at a dam in the north-eastern state of Piauí in 2009 resulted in the deaths of 24 people.

Maurico Guetta, a lawyer for the environmental NGO Instituto Socioambiental , described the close links between the government and the mining industry in a blog post for the organisation: “Could it be that this tragedy would bring any lessons for our governors and legislators? Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of that,” he wrote.

Vale was one of the major corporate donors to both Rousseff and the main opposition candidate, Aécio Neves, in last year’s presidential elections. Fernando Pimentel, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais and another beneficiary of Vale campaign donations, held his first press conference in the wake of the tragedy at the headquarters of Samarco.

It would be nice if the voters held Rousseff accountable, but given the power of the mining companies, it’s unlikely that there are going to be any successful anti-mining political movements.


Unionize the Charters!

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |


One of the best strategies for dealing with the union-busting charter schools is to unionize said charters. That is happening, especially in Chicago. There are difficulties in reconciling an anti-charter position with organizing those teachers, but the unions can work that out. Unionizing these schools are the nightmare of Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown, Arne Duncan, and Scott Cowen. That alone should make it a top priority.

More here.

Erik Visits an American Grave (VII)

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |

This is the grave of Gifford Pinchot.


Like most Progressives, Gifford Pinchot’s legacy is deeply complicated. The nation’s first major forester, a process begun with his father felt terrible for all the damage he had caused to the American landscape, Pinchot fought to place some level of regulation over the nation’s forests. This was necessary because the modus operandi of the timber industry was to cut down every tree and move on, beleiving there was always another forest somewhere else and besides, the best way to use the land was to turn into farms anyway. This ideology became challenged with the disastrous experiment to farm the cut-over forests in the Great Lakes region. The Harrison administration placed the first extremely limited attempts to regulate forestry on the books, but it took until Theodore Roosevelt before some kind of larger attempt at forest regulation came to being. Roosevelt named Pinchot the Chief Forester of his newly created U.S. Forest Service in 1905, after Pinchot established the Society for American Foresters in 1900. He served in that position until getting into an argument with Taft’s Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the latter being a hack for the timber industry. When Taft fired Pinchot, it was the last straw between Roosevelt and Taft, leading to the 1912 Bull Moose run.

But Pinchot definitely did not believe in preserving forests for forests’ sake. Rather, he wanted their efficient use and replanting. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Pinchot was a major supporter of the plan to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to send water to that city. When John Muir and the Sierra Club challenged this, Pinchot and Roosevelt thought of Muir as a loon. Pinchot was all about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So one assumes that he would be totally cool with us today flooding his graveyard and sending the water to New York City. Have to be consistent after all.

Pinchot, a prohibitionist, also has some responsibility for Pennsylvania’s ridiculous liquor laws. He was governor when Prohibition was repealed and so led his state to create restrictive laws such as the state-run liquor stores and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, both of which are still around today. Of course, he’s not responsible for those laws still being so restrictive, but still. He also supported big public power plans while governor, with his pre-TVA calls for major dam systems leading to accusations of socialism.

Gifford Pinchot is buried in Milford Cemetery, Milford, Pennsylvania.

Today in Small Government Conservatism

[ 104 ] November 21, 2015 |
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich arrives on stage to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein (TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich arrives on stage to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein (TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

By “us,” they mean “white Christians”

John Kasich says his proposal for a new agency that would promote “Judeo-Christian values” abroad would totally not be government expansion because he is opposed to government expansion so obviously anything he proposes would not be expanding government. I’m sure the same will exist for his likely proposed agency promoting said values at home as well, which may or may not include Trump’s proposal for a federal registry of Muslims, which say what you will about it, is surely not an expansion of government into people’s lives!

…..Allow me to also say how overwhelming the support of American conservatives has been toward the people of Mali……

Thanksgiving – Oh, to hell with it

[ 40 ] November 21, 2015 |

Let me start by extending my deepest sympathies to those of you who will soon sit down to a holiday meal with wingnut relatives. Especially this year. Wow. (Based on some of the comments you all have shared, I must ask: Have you considered earplugs and some sort of face shield?)

Or really, anyone who will attend a family gathering that contains one or more people you could happily go without seeing until after the heat death of the universe.

It’s a difficult time of the year for people who didn’t draw the Idealized Family card. One of the more noxious beliefs about the holiday season is that any differences family members have are a) Relatively minor and/or b) Should be put aside. [Begin quavery violins.] Because holidays are about family and gratitude and love and giving and togetherness.


Even those evergreen articles about Coping with the Holidays that do address stress triggered by family lack one very important suggestion. A suggestion that I’m going to share with you right now:

If you have family members you normally avoid like the plague, continue to do so. Square that if you have health issues that lower your tolerance for additional stress.

But what if that means spending a holiday alone? Well gee, let’s consider the implications of spending a holiday alone. If you spend a holiday alone, you get at least one obligation-free day all to yourself.

And on Thanksgiving that means no one will interrupt while you’re listening to Alice’s Restaurant.

Question answered, I think.

And then there’s Thanksgiving Day for two. It is important that couples have a full and frank conversation about what they want to do on a holiday that is associated with a large meal. They should weigh their desires and expectations against the financial, physical and mental effort involved in making the meal Special, and possibly decide – To hell with it.

Here’s a transcript of one such conversation:

A: So, do you want to have anything special to eat on Thanksgiving?

B: Eh, I’d rather just enjoy the day off. But if you want to cook something special, you can.

A: I was going to make a butternut squash pie*.

B: O.K.

*Update: I’ve never made one before and want to try it before Christmas with the in laws (great people, high baking standards). I will work from at least one recipe I find on the internet. Since I assume it will be sortofish like a sweet potato pie, the crust will be gingersnap crumb.

Satoko Fujii’s Tobira

[ 15 ] November 21, 2015 |

I was lucky enough to see Satoko Fujii’s quarter Tobira, starring my college roommate Todd Nicholson on bass, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven this evening. This is a clip from a recent show in Buenos Aires. They have one last stop on a tour that can only end in one city if you start in Buenos Aires and that’s Troy, New York. That show is tomorrow and you should go if you live in the Capital Region.

Saturday Links

[ 25 ] November 21, 2015 |

Oh Yeah…It’s Another Music Thread (Don’t Worry–It’s Unisex)

[ 121 ] November 20, 2015 |

A few weeks ago I learned that my music library was pathetic. A good portion of the music in it is 5, 10, even 20 years old. I used to be fairly good about trying to keep at least somewhat current and trying to search out new artists, but when my son was born I suddenly had a lot less time to geek out to music. Well, he’s in pre-k now, giving me at least a little time to think about rebuilding my library. But, geez, I’m having a tough time doing it. So could you help Uncle Ebenezer and me and out and recommend a song or two that you’re currently loving (no more because then that just gets overwhelming) for us to check out? I’m anxious to fall in love again.

…aaaaaand, finally…a word on MIX TAPES. You may find this hard to believe, but girls make them too!

New Hampshire, the Establishment, and the Base

[ 181 ] November 20, 2015 |


Nate Cohn:

The last two Republican presidential primary contests have followed the same script: A conservative candidate wins in Iowa, a relative moderate wins in New Hampshire, and the latter — with broader appeal and all of the establishment’s resources — outlasts the former in a protracted fight for the nomination.

But so far this cycle, New Hampshire’s voters aren’t playing along. Donald Trump has led every poll in New Hampshire since June. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have struggled to get out of the single digits.

There is, however, one significant twist. Trump is the non-Establishment candidate, but he’s also the relative moderate. On issues like Social Security, Trump has shrewdly exploited gaps between Republican elites and the Republican base by moving to the left. His xenophobic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any substantive differences with the other major candidates.

It is time for me to concede that the people who saw Trump as a real threat to win the nomination (including Paul) were onto something. I would still rank this as less likely than Rubio or Cruz winning. And I’m not backing off at all on Carson — I don’t think a 70% burn rate and campaign skills scarcely better than Rick Perry’s are propelling anyone to the nomination. But is it possible for Trump to be the Republican nominee? I have to say that it is. If they were held next week he would almost certainly win Iowa and New Hampshire, and it’s hard for me to say that someone who can do that can’t win.

The New Fake Meat

[ 144 ] November 20, 2015 |


I wonder about this new idea of laboratory-grown meat that could replace cows. I confess I’m almost as skeptical about this as I am about Soylent, although I guess at the least some sort of substitution for the horrors of eating would make Dylan Matthews happy. Would Americans eat this? They say no at this point. But then Americans eat all sort of artificial, laboratory-created food. I mean, what the hell is in a Hot Pocket? What is the blue in the blue Gatorade? Frozen veggie burgers? Aerosol cheese? I could go on for weeks with these questions. But meat is a different beast than processed meat products. An actual burger made of lab-meat may well be a bridge too far. There are however certainly good reasons to support the research, which is the impact of cows on the environment is really harsh:

While companies like Modern Meadow and Muufri are still in the proof-of-concept stage, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of displacing the cow. The livestock sector uses 30 percent of the planet’s entire land surface and consumes one-third of the world’s fresh water. The industry also claims 20 percent of global energy consumption, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, trains, and automobiles combined. The massive consumption of water and crops for meat production has a dramatic effect on the environment, exacerbating erosion, habitat and biodiversity loss, and water scarcity.

With the human population set to hit nine billion by 2050, it’s no wonder that livestock is the fastest-growing agricultural sector on the planet. Removing the cow from the global food system, then, seems like an obvious solution to the looming challenges of feeding the post-industrial world. A comprehensive University of Oxford assessment suggests that popular adoption of cultured meat production in Europe could yield approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use and 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventionally produced meat. For a world wracked by growing systemic crises like hunger and water scarcity, ditching the world’s approximately 1.3 billion cows for less resource-intensive sources seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

That’s a big deal. The article goes on to focus on some local organic farmer who puts her buyers in touch with the land and the food cycle through holding burger nights on the pasture, which is fine and all but I think goes farther to demonstrate the disconnect between the modern food movement and the need to feed 7 billion people. But the questions of fake meat and the need to replace cows on the planet are interesting and important ones.

Southwest Negotiations

[ 20 ] November 20, 2015 |


An interesting summary of the labor tensions at Southwest, where pilots have rejected a contract that included a big pay raise. Despite what some people think however, a union is not just about pay and there are a lot of issues that Southwest has not been willing to deal with, including an unwillingness to pay retroactive checks to the pilots for the years they were without a contract. Southwest pilots are also concerned that the airline entering into codeshare agreements will undermine their union. But a big issue is, as is often the case, work rules and working conditions:

Southwest is also seeking substantial changes in work rules. Starting around 2007, Southwest’s major competitors won far more flexibility in scheduling their pilots’ workdays, improving productivity. By contrast, Southwest was thriving while its rivals were re-working contracts in bankruptcy. So, it kept raising the pay it offered and did nothing to bring its highly restrictive work rules in line with the new freedoms aiding Delta, American, and United.

It’s not clear if the pilots’ union is opposing Southwest’s work rule proposals, or if they will eventually agree to them.

By around 2012, Southwest had gone from parity in overall costs to a 20% disadvantage compared to its competitors. As profits soared across the industry, the gap in compensation between what Southwest and its competitors offered narrowed substantially. What remained was the chasm between Southwest’s highly restrictive work rules and the flexibility offered by other carriers like American and United.

Today, the other big airlines can generally assign their pilots to a maximum of 13.5 hours of “duty” per day, which includes the duration of the flight and the time required to prepare and lock up the plane. (That duty period can be shorter if, for example, the workday begins at 11 p.m.) But under Southwest’s rules, the duty day is isn’t nearly as long. In part, that’s because the carrier traditionally specialized in short-haul routes of one to three hours. Today, though, Southwest is challenging the other major airlines in coast-to-coast and other long-haul routes from Atlanta, La Guardia in New York, Washington Reagan, and other airports catering to lucrative business travelers. It’s also entering the international market for the first time, with flights to the Caribbean and Central America. As Southwest goes long-haul and overseas, its needs a longer duty day for pilots.

The tighter cap on hours substantially raises its labor cost per mile flown. And during negotiations, the airline’s executives aimed to move the pilot schedule regulations closer to the industry norm. They were willing to boost pay to get there.

My own belief is that eventually enough pilots will accept the pay raise–or perhaps a somewhat higher one in the next round of talks–to pass this through. But regardless of whether you agree with the pilots demands, this is a useful lesson that unions are not solely or even primarily about wages. They are about workplace dignity and giving workers a voice in their own employment. There’s no good reason that the pilots should give all this back to Southwest, even if the pay raise is an incentive to do so. But for about 60% of the pilots, that’s not enough. This will be an interesting case to watch.

The Unbearable Lightness of Antonin Scalia

[ 61 ] November 20, 2015 |

Scalia gesture

As always, what’s particularly offensive about Antonin Scalia’s PROVOCATIVE comparisons of the rights of gays and lesbians and the rights of child molesters is that the underlying arguments are ludicrously incoherent:

If your theory leads you to the conclusion that Brown v. Board of Education was incorrectly decided, you need a new theory. Of course, Scalia has said elsewhere that he would have voted with the majority in Brown. But this just makes his theory less coherent than Rehnquist’s. “Judges cannot determine which minority groups are entitled to heightened protections under the equal protection clause except when they can” loses quite a bit of force as a critique of the Supreme Court’s holding that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right.

How can Scalia justify making an exception for Brown? It certainly cannot be derived from the text of the 14th Amendment, which does not mention race. Instead, Scalia has to argue that the equal protection clause was originally understood as applying to discrimination against African-Americans, and only this form of discrimination.

This argument, however, quickly collapses. Cases in which Scalia has interpreted the 14th Amendment as forbidding racial discrimination have generally not concerned the rights of African-Americans. Rather, these decisions have done things like shut down integration measures pursued by local school districts or protected the alleged rights of mediocre white college applicants to attend their first choice of school.

These applications pretty much destroy Scalia’s allegedly “originalist” reading of the 14th Amendment. There is no evidence that the 14th Amendment was originally understood as forbidding affirmative action programs, and Scalia has never even tried to make such a case. Scalia can try to escape from this by saying that the 14th Amendment forbids a broader, more abstract principle of racial discrimination than it was originally understood as doing. But once you’ve started down that road, there’s no principled reason to deny that the amendment forbids invidious discrimination against groups Scalia does not think are protected by the 14th Amendment, like women and gays and lesbians.

And, of course, it’s worse than that for Scalia. For all his bluster implying that he’s America’s Last Honest Judge, we shouldn’t forget that Scalia joined and has aggressively defended Bush v. Gore, the nakedly partisan resolution of the 2000 presidential election that, as it happens, was decided based on the Equal Protection Clause. Scalia would have us believe that it’s absurd to think that discrimination against gays and lesbians is forbidden by the 14th Amendment. But, apparently, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that the 14th Amendment forbids counting votes without a uniform state-wide standard if the count threatens to result in George W. Bush losing an election… and not in any other case (including the non-uniform count that awarded Florida’s electoral college votes to Bush.) Scalia has never offered an “originalist” defense of Bush v. Gore, and I’m pretty confident we’re never going to get one.

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