Archive for December 2010

Make Mine a Manhattan

December 28, 2010

It seems that an honorary member of the Crow tribe has just signed on with the Black Helicopter brigade and is readying — now, as I write, in some secure undisclosed location (Berchtesgaden?) — the documents of transfer that will (at last!) restore its traditional owners to their rightful enjoyment of just a tiny piece of American soil.

That would be President Obama, getting ready to hand Manhattan back to the descendents of the Native Americans who first sold off the island to the Dutch.

No, seriously.

Via Jillian Rayfield at TPM, we learn that the Obama administration’s decision to reverse Bush era policy and support the U. N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People has so terrified folks that the usual suspects on the right are ginning up the reverb chamber to declare that yes, our Black, Kenyan, Muslim, Crow Usurper has taken the next step to obliterate liberty and subdue Americans terrified and ill-informed elderly white people under the yoke of — who is it this time? Oh yeah, Native Americans (getting in line after African American teenagers on buses, Muslims, Democrats and the Zerg Swarm).*

Rayfield documents the usual suspects getting on board with this nonsense:  the American Family Association (sic.  Not my family–ed.); WND; John Bolton — through whom, of course, our friends at Fox News are chiming in.  Bolton follows the “it would be irresponsible not to…” tack, all the way down to acknowledging the Declaration has no legal meaning in the US…but, but, but, “… there are enough judges who couldn’t care less about strictly applying the law.”

Yeah. Like these guys.

Look, this is fun and all, and yes, people spending even seconds seriously considering the notion that Barack Obama could or would just hand over chunks of the US to whoever he wants need medical help (where are those damn meds, honey?), but as usual, this isn’t about what the folks weighing in so ponderously on Fox say it is.

The Republican Party has only one genuine political goal now:  to destroy Obama’s presidency, and more generally the idea that the Democratic Party is a legitimate party of government.  Which is to say that our Republican friends**  elections in which the other side might actually gain access to power — actual democracy — as an accessory.  Such theater is fine as long it produces the desired result, the GOP on top. When it does not, then it is dispensible.

All of which to say that whatever the Republican party once was it is now a danger to the nation.  It seeks not to govern but to rule for the benefit of its faction, not the country as a whole.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*Yup. Proud parent of a ten year old boy…

**The actual party apparatus, of course.  I’m willing to concede that not all Republican voters are thus convinced.  Too many are, I think, but by no means every last one.

Image: Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolf, 1770.

Really, Teacher. I Read the Assignment. The Marvel Comics Version.

December 22, 2010

Cross Posted at Balloon Juice

I don’t usually bother reading anything Conor Friedersdorf has to say. While it is fun to watch in a kind of rooting-for-injuries kind of way, there are only so many times one can sit through the wrecks of his attempts to redefine the word “conservative” as the actual state of American conservatism rejects his blandishments, and while reality consistently demonstrates its well-known liberal bias.


It’s always seemed better (or at least more efficient) to fall back on a  general stance of benign neglect when confronted by his byline.


But for some reason, I stopped to look at this short squib in which  Friedersdorf declares, breathlessly, “If true what a tremendously consequential abstract.”


That link takes you to the cover page of a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (a non-governmental site, despite the name) written by Hoover Institute economist Eric Hanushek.


Here’s the passage that caught Friedersdorf’s eye:


A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Alternatively, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion.


Friedersdorf then links to Adam Ozimek, who calls the abstract “shocking,” and claims that the most important lesson to learn here is that


…we should place even less relative value on teacher well-being for it’s own sake (which is separate from teacher well-being to the extent that it improves outcomes) when considering reforms. I think this is something that some progressives aren’t as happy to hear, especially with regard to using the teaching profession as a middle class jobs program.


There’s only one problem.  Neither Friedersdorf or Ozimek admit to having read the underlying paper.  I’ll concede that it’s a hassle — one needs either the right kind of email address or a few bucks to do so — but still…


For my part, I did manage to track down the piece.   For the purposes of this post, I’ll go only so far as to say that Hanusek both writes widely on the economics of education and that he has plenty of critics on more or less every major line of inquiry.


But the issue isn’t whether Hanushek gets it right or wrong when he suggests that great teachers produce outcomes for the students that have cash value later in life.*


Rather, it’s that by wading into educational policy on the basis of reading a paragraph on the front end of a forty page paper (that itself lies at the tip of who-knows-how-many-thousands-of-pages of literature in this fiedld) one begins to show off one’s stupid pundit tricks.

For example:


How “shocking” are these results?


That jolt would be a little less if you read — hell not the primary literature — but, say, just blog posts written by the New York Times’ best economics writer, David Leonhardt, who in the distant obscurity of … oh, this summer, reported on another study that looked at the impact of a good kindergarten teacher on future earnings and other social outcomes.**

Anyone who is stunned by the specific result or the broader claim that educational outcomes have an impact on economic success simply hasn’t been paying attention…which evokes, of course, the inevitable Captain Reynaud moment:

I\’m shocked, shocked…

And now for the next trick:

If you only read the Cliff’s notes version blurb (h/t NonyNony) for this paper, then you get that breezy “replace the bottom 5-8%”…but you miss all of Hanushek’s discussion within the paper about how difficult it is actually to identify good teachers in advance of observing outcomes from the classroom, and how hard it is to incentivize them if you do.

But that doesn’t stop Friedersdorf from kvelling to the headline “Pay The Best Teachers More And Fire The Worst.”  Too bad he didn’t get to this line from the concluding passages of the article:

Unfortunately, we know little about the supply function for teacher quality.  Thus, it is not possible to predict what kinds of pay changes would be needed to ensure any given quality of teacher force.

Again, I’m not calling for rocket science here.  I don’t expect Friedersdorf to be a credentialed expert on everything he writes.  (I’m not, on anything.)  All I want here is minimal curiosity, and enough of both self-regard and respect for his audience to go past some quote he reads somewhere on the web and check out the primary source.  Am I crazy?

Oh, and what about the fine moral dudgeon expressed by Ozimek, who informs us weak-willed, soft-headed and pernicious progressives that we’ve just got to get over ourselves and stop treating teaching as a jobs program for the otherwise-unemployable middle class?

(A) This is pure asshattery.  Here I’m going to treat anecdotage as data, and speaking as the father of a ten year old who has experienced private school and is now in a public one, I cannot get over the fact that even the weaker teachers (and my son has seen one or two) work sixty hour weeks, in a state of continuous intellectual and emotional alert, with a level of physical and mental effort that would crush any mere blogger (or this wayward university professor, for that matter).

Teaching kids is hard, which is mere prologue to the more on-point issue…

…which is that (B) If teaching is some royal road to indoor work and three squares a day — this job program of which Orizek speaks — then it is hard to reconcile that sense of unmerited employment with figures that emerge ( yup, again) from the body of the paper whose abstract so stunned some folks capacity for further inquiry.  Hanushek writes,

the U.S. has have for a long time trained considerably more teachers than the number of positions that annually become open in schools.  For example, in 2000 86,000 recent graduates entered into teaching, even though 107,000 graduated with an education degree the year before


That is:  as it really exists, as opposed to the form it takes in the minds of those whose sunlit minds are seemingly unsullied by experience of the world the rest of us inhabit, teaching is no soft-option safety-net occupation into which any liberal-arts drifter may come to rest as an alternative to asking “would you like fries with that?”  Rather, it is one more tough occupation in which the supply of labor exceeds the current labor market demand.

And in fact, given the decline in the economic value we place on the education of the young,***  the search for first class teachers  increasingly turns on the hope that enough people will see it as a calling, and not as white-collar sweat-shop labor.

That devoted, expert, effective teachers can be found as often as they are (and thankfully, emphatically, in my son’s classroom) is testimony to the fact that money is not the sole measure of value for all things and all people.  But that also suggests that whatever the answer may be to the question about how to get more of such folks distributed through American schools, it seems to me vanishingly unlikely that a blithe disdain for the well-being of such teachers (outcomes or no) will do the trick.

Please note:  I’m not saying that the US does not have a huge education problem to address.  I’m not saying that there aren’t giant issues of both social justice and pure efficacy to deal with.  I’m not saying I have any better idea than anyone else about what to do.  Figuring out how to make sure our kids iz lernign gud is as important as anything I can think of.

But as Friedersdorf and Ozimek remind us, this is why it is so difficult to hear the phrase “conservative public intellectual” without both weeping and snorting.  Seriously — if the best they can do is trot out a f**king abstract in defense of a bit of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger union bashing, then they have only themselves to blame when we mock them.  And on the flip side — if we leave such fecklessness unsnarked then we may blame only ourselves when such miserable stuff becomes revealed truth.

*Given that a fair amount of what economists do when they are performing well is to quantify the obvious, I’ll go out on a limb and say the conclusion that good teachers help their students do well in life is not exactly stunning.  Not that it isn’t worthwhile documenting, or examining in detail…just that, pace poor, easily stupified Mr. Ozimek — I can’t claim to be shocked by that part of Hanushek’s research.

**One interesting aspect of this study is that it suggests that test scores may be a less than wholly reliable indicator of real-world success.  (I’m stunned.)  But that’s for a different post, and a lot more work.

***Hanushek writes,

Perhaps the most notable recent pattern in teacher salaries is that they have fallen dramatically in relation to the rest of the economy.  The changing position of teachers is clear in salary trends since the beginning of World War II.  Compared to the earnings of male college graduates, the average male teacher was slightly above the 50th percentile in 1940.  The average female teacher was close to the 70th percentile among college-educated females.  But then male teachers fell precipitously to the bottom third of the earnings distribution for college graduates, and female teachers were below average during the 1960s and close to the relative male position by 1990.  In 2000, less than 30 percent of young males and less than 40 percent of young females with a bachelor’s degree earned less than the average teacher

Images: Krzysztof Lubieniecki, School Teacher, 1727.

Kasimir Malevich, Unemployed Girl, 1904

…Til It’s Gone

December 15, 2010

(Cross-posted at Balloon Juice)

This is a follow up to John Cole’s Thug Nation observation.

He’s right, of course: we’ve allowed our fears, and the cynical manipulation of those night sweats, to lead us to surrender rights and values that a decade ago we might have thought untouchable.

It is funny – in a tragic kind of way — that someone like the odious Ken Cuccinelli can claim that a mandate to purchase health insurance is an assault on liberty, while actual, unequivocal, physical and mental tyranny passes without comment.

Which is not to say that I am unsurprised that the Big Lie party plays in that particular sandbox.  Rather, it is the fact that we don’t deny such folks the regard of civil society just shows how far we’ve sunk.

That is:  horrible as the story of Private Bradley Manning’s incarceration is, it should come as no surprise to anyone.

I say so so baldly because of a meaningless coincidence.  Just yesterday, I happened  to finish Dave Eggers’ remarkable book Zeitoun, a work I recommend to anyone reading this.

There, Egger tells the story of one family’s experiences during Katrina.  The title character, Zeitoun, a Muslim from Syria moved to New Orleans, where he met and married Kathy, a convert to Islam, and with her, put together a successful business as a painter, contractor, and property owner/manager.

When Katrina came, Kathy and their children left the city before the storm, eventually reaching friends in Phoenix.  Zeitoun stayed, feeding abandoned dogs, rescuing those he could with a canoe he’d bought at a yard sale, checking on his property around town – until he was arrested without warning or explanation, denied a phone call, and disappeared into a makeshift prison system set up by FEMA, in which all normal recourse to courts and process disappeared.

Here is Egger’s description of the first makeshift outdoor prison in which Zeitoun found himself, set up withing  a couple of days after Katrina hit in the New Orleans train and bus station:

…The parking lot, where a dozen buses might normally be parked, had been transformed…

Chain-link fences, topped by razor wire, had been erected into a long, sixteen-foot-high cage extending about a hundred yards into the lot.  Above the cage was a roof, a freestanding shelter like those at gas stations.  The barbed wire extended to meet it…

It looked precisely like the pictures … [Zeitoun had]seen of Guantánamo Bay.  Like that complex, it was a vast grid of chain-link fencing with few walls, so the prisoners were visible to the guards and each other….

The space inside [each] cage was approximately fifteen by fifteen feet, and was empty but for a portable toilet without a door.  The other object in the cage was a steel bar in the shape of an upside down U….

[Prisoners] could stand in the middle of the cage.  They could sit on the steel rack. They could sit on the ground.  But if they touched the fence again there would be consequences….

The men were not given sheets, blankets or pillows…They asked [the guard] where they were supposed to sleep. He told them that he didn’t care where they slept, as long as it was on the pavement, where he could see them.

It gets worse from there.  With Zeitoun’s arrest, the rest of the book reads as if Kafka met Cormac McCarthy in some dive in the French Quarter.

As Eggers documents, Zeitoun was both a witness to straight physical torture, and, if being forced to dig out an infected splinter with the shards of a broken Tobasco bottle counts, was a victim of it too.

The kind that leaves less marks — that too.  Certainly, if you run the simplest of tests:  what would one say of such treatment if it were documented in Iran, say, or North Korea, then what Zeitoun suffered- along with hundreds of others, American citizens and legal residents — was a gross violation of basic human rights.

And all of this was done through a “system” that most closely resembled the arbitrary exercise of the state monopoly on violence we associate with tinpot dictatorships.

Which is to say is that the transformation of America into anything  but a shining city on a hill has been unfolding for a while.

It was happening right in front of us back their in the Big Easy, when an incompetent and often criminal administration sought to mask their grotesque failures in fights against a mythical terrorist threat along the levies.

It was happening before that, when the GOP fought the 2002 election on the “with us or with the terrorists” platform.

It is sure as hell with us now.

I drove home tonight through the pleasant neighborhood in which I am privileged to live.  I looked at the quiet streets, the trees, the lights in ground floor windows as folks got ready for dinner.  And I thought of a friend of mine who lives a few blocks from me, a rich guy, who told me recently that he was moving a significant chunk of his money to Canada – that he actually went to Montreal in person to open the account – because as an old Jew whose dad had raised him in the memory of the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was the whiff of those times coming round again.

Travelling along these streets, there’s no visible sign that my friend might be right, that the banks may continue to go sour; that some crazy act in New York or Chicago or Dallas might set off another round of Hunt The Other; that passports might not work so well; or, as Eggers writes of Zeitoun, that men and women in black vests may burst into your own building and heave you down a hole into which you simply disappear.

But it could happen here.  To anyone, to any of us.  We know it can.  It already has.

Images: Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Emperor Valerianus, 1447-1450

Gustave Doré, Newgate Exercise Yard, 1872

Master E. S., Temptation of Despair, c. 1450.

Captain’s Blog: Gulf of Mexico Oil Damage/Worse Than You Thought update

December 7, 2010

In blogging, as in much else, marrying well can make life a lot easier.

Case in point:

Through marriage to my wife I gained cousinhood with Captain Peter Wilcox, who at this point in an adventurous, well-lived life, is master of the Greenpeace ship M.V. Arctic Sunrise.

Which means that because of the family connection, I get Peter’s episodic updates, his Captain’s Blog.

What follows is his latest, from a Gulf of Mexico cruise designed to assess both the damage and decision making about the Deep Horizon disaster that will define the Gulf ecosystem for decades.

First, a work about Peter:  He grew up on boats (next door to my wife-to-be, as it happens in a lefty, multi-racial sort of cooperative housing development in Connecticut, right on Long Island Sound. It was the kind of place where children learned how to sail at about the time they started walking and were allowed to skipper on their own from the moment they proved competent enough.

From there, Peter got involved in water-borne environmentalism on the queen of the Hudson River, the sloop Clearwater (one of Pete and Toshi Seeger’s many give-backs to the community), and then he joined up with Greenpeace.  There he rose to become  captain of the Rainbow Warrior — and was in command when French terrorists spies government-employed-murderous-thugs sunk the ship with two limpet mines, killing one crew member, Fernando Pereira.

In other words, Peter has been there and back again, and has some very hard-won knowledge of what the real world is like — a view barred to those who cannot tear Galt’s glasses from their eyes.

So — what’s in the latest of Peter’s dispatches?

Nothing to make one happy.

Here’s a sample:

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

The whole thing is below the jump.  Don’t read it if you have a short fuse.  You will detonate.


One last note: Peter isn’t a journalist and doesn’t claim to be one.


He’s an environmentalist, one with decades of experience with ocean issues.  You can judge for yourself how well he gets the story below. FWIW, here’s my take, as a sometime journo:


Peter lays out not just what he knows, but also from whence he gets his data. He distinguishes between that data and interpretation. He makes no secret of his presumptions, his starting point, and he clearly sees players who fill the roles of villain and fool.  I’m passing on this report both because it looks to me to be solid (and troubling as hell) and because Peter has given us all the apparatus we need to dig into his claims if we are so minded.

This is, if you were wondering, very different from what much more “credentialled” MSM pundits do. As soon as I have time, I’m going to write up a couple of recent offenders to illustrate the point, but truth is, no one reading this blog needs the crayon sketch.

Read on.  Peter’s got some serious sh*t to say.

What follows is Peter Wilcox’s most dispatch.  It’s a shipboard update, and you are getting it as is, with minor proofing from me.

Captain’s Blog
Gulf of Mexico 2010

That’s a wrap!  One more tour in the bag.  The panic filled weekend at Galveston, trying to get ready for that leg is slowly becoming a memory.  The near sleepless nights of doing multiple CTDs are fading away.  And, we saved the best for last!

After we unloaded the EARS gear in Gulfport, we waited a couple days for the truck to show up from California with a submarine.  We expected them sooner, but it took a day for someone in their logistics department to realize that Gulfport is in Mississippi and not Arizona.  A supporter loaned us his sub for the work.  A very nice supporter!

The Deep Worker 2 is the big brother to the Deep Worker we used in the Bering Sea three years ago.  Its really just two Deep Workers bolted together.  The advantage is you can take down a less trained person in the other chamber. I say less trained, because the “passenger” is still responsible for maintaining her or his own life support.

The idea is to take mostly scientists and a journo or two down to the bottom to see what — if any — damage was caused by the BP oil spill.

The sub crew cleaned up the sub from its cross-country ride in a container.  We then gave it a couple test dives in Gulfport harbor to make sure it was working.

Our first dive was a bit of an eye opener.  Many years ago, when I was on the Sirius, we bought a large jet rhib called the Hoolie.  It weighed close to 2.5 tons I am guessing.  Now the Sirius was a great roller. That boat could roll you head off your shoulders, and needed extra lines at the dock to keep her steady.  It was there I realized that for moving weights of more than one ton around on deck, four tag lines are required, not two.

The first launch / recovery we did with only two.  But give us credit of learning, or remembering fast.  The rest of the time, we used four tag lines, and we were all able to breath a lot easier (as in breath at all).  The first dive was plagued by bad visibility and poor communications.

Arctic Sunrise is a noisy boat.  I am not referring to what those of us living on board have to listen to.  I am referring to the underwater noise generated by the ship’s equipment.  When we were on the Espy in the Bering Sea three years ago, we were able to mount the comms antenna on a long pole that went in the water to a depth below the keel.  But it turned out the Sunrise was too noisy for this.  We used our pole (made in Galveston) to hold the sonar for location of the sub, but had to shift the comms to the jet boat.

The vis got better, the comms got better, and most of the dives were very successful.  I am happy to report that the Alabama Alps, the underwater ridge about twenty miles north of the BP accident did not show any signs of being damaged by oil.  There is more testing need to be done before the scientists are confident about their conclusions, but this is what our first looked showed.

I wish I could be as optimistic about everything else in the Gulf.  My biggest worry now is for the people who live near and work on the Gulf.

Maybe the biggest impression I got from the spill is that BP was very quick out of the gate in protecting its interests, without any concerns what so ever for the health of the people living on the Gulf.  As fast as BP was at controlling the damage, our governments, State and Federal, are completely clueless, and still do not know what they are doing. Still,… today.

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

When you try to get precise numbers on the spill, it is tough.  Lots of numbers exist.  But what I have found indicates 275 million gallons of crude oil leaked out of the busted well (Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million).  BP used 2 million gallons of Corexit.  On May 20th, the EPA told BP to stop using Corexit.  BP at that time said that they had a quarter million gallons in inventory, and they were going to keep using it.   This is going to be a fatal decision.

So not only should have the people who made Corexit know better, but so should have our government.  Why did not anybody think to call up someone in Alaska, and ask, “what happened when you tried to clean up form the Exxon Valdez spill?

Bob Naman is a chemist at the Analytical Chemical Testing Lab in Mobile.  According to Naman, the poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from this toxic mix are making people sick.  PAHs contain compounds that have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic (an agent that tends to increase the frequency or extent of mutation), and teratogenic (of, relating to, or causing developmental malformation). (I am afraid we all know what carcinogenic means.)   BP sprayed Corexit out of airplanes and injected it into the geyser where the oil was gushing out of the bottom.  Says Naman,”the dispersants are being added to the water and are causing chemical compounds to become water soluble, which is then given off into the air, so it is coming down as rain, in addition to being in the water and beaches of these areas of the Gulf.”

The second week of August while we were checking sponges at Dry Tortugas, WKRG New 5 took a water sample from the area to test for dispersants.  The sample literally exploded when it was mixed with an organic solvent separating the oil from the water.  Naman, who analyzed the sample said: “We think that it most likely happened due to the presence of either methanol or methane gas, or the presence of Corexit”.


Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower and analyst, has reported this of the effects of the toxic dispersants:
“We have dolphins that are hemorrhaging. People who work near it are hemorrhaging internally. And that’s what dispersants are supposed to do … And, for example, in the Exxon Valdez case, people who worked with dispersants, most of them are dead now. The average death age is around 50. It’s very dangerous, and it’s (Corexit) an economic protector of BP, not an environmental protector of the public.”

By the middle of last summer, the Alabama Department of Public Health said that 56 people in Mobile and Baldwin counties had sought treatment for what they believed were oil disaster-related illnesses.  Have you heard the expression “tip of the ice berg”?

Yesterday morning, NPR said 1/3 of Gulf residents are showing some sign of trauma.  People lost jobs, their homes, and their lives.  And if BP is as good as Exxon was in fighting judgments, it will be years before some deserving people see any money.  When I was up in Alaska three years ago, some people still have not bee paid (20 years later).  Health care professionals see problems with anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression.

This morning NPR did a piece on the difficulties faced by people in the small fishing communities.  They drew similarities between the Exxon spill and the BP spill as opposed to natural disasters like Katrina. The report claims that natural disasters tend to pull communities together, while man made ones divide communities.


Katrina did not cause people to lose their way of life.  An Iraq veteran who had been shrimping, lost his family when after he lost his job, the BP compensation payment only came to $1,700 for six month.  He had been paid mostly in cash, and was unable to document his income.  He feels like a failure, and has contemplated suicide.

Steve Pico tracked the problems of the Price William Sound communities after the Exxon spill.  “The communities were blindsided, they did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started, divorces started and domestic violence became acute.”  Now he is seeing the same issues start sooner in the Gulf than they did in Alaska.  After four yeas in Alaska, there were seven suicides.  There are already two in the Gulf.

And all while this was going on, our governments were saying: “come on down!  The water is fine”.  President Obama went swimming for the cameras.  What was he thinking?  It was this type of attitude that caused scenes like this one:  families swimming and sunbathing on a beach, while ten meters away, people in has mat suits were digging up the beach to try and get to the oil.

Instead of protecting us, and talking about the dangers of the over use of dispersants, our governments were saying: “the BP spill is no big deal!  You can swim in the ocean!”  I ask again, what could they have been thinking?

I think we can all understand that BP’s complete aim was to limit their exposure to liability.  This is a company that has shown repeatedly it gives not a damn for the public health.  But where was our Surgeon General?  Where was the EPA?

But it is not just people who are suffering.  The toxicity levels of the petroleum found in Pensacola Bay at frightening.  In referring to Pensacola Bay, Heather Reed, the environmental expert for the city of Gulf Breeze said, “the numbers are off the chart. It’s extremely toxic to human health.”


Lab workers had to dilute the sample 20 times just to get a reading. Reed said samples are usually diluted only once.
“The oil is very well preserved,” Reed added. “It smells very strong when pulled out of the water. It made me nauseated.” Reed in late September discovered a significant amount of oil buried in submerged sediment near Fort McRae in Escambia County while conducting independent research.


“The oil was in about 3 feet of water and was buried pretty deep in the sediment,” Reed recalled. “The mats where between 6 inches and a foot in diameter, but some were more than 2 feet in diameter. I kept digging and finding more and more.  “Finding this submerged oil is very alarming to me because it’s in such large mats,” Reed explained. “I believe it came into (the bay) in June with the initial impacts.”

Reed on Sept. 30 revisited the site and another near Barrancas Beach with BP and Coast Guard officials to inform responders of her discovery. She also discovered oil present at Johnson Beach, Fort Pickens and Orange Beach through research she conducted in September.  The topography near Fort McRae helped preserve the submerged oil. Because the area is a secluded cove, very little water flows through it – resulting in low oxygen levels.  “(The oil) is in an anaerobic environment, so there is not a lot of bacteria to break it down,” Reed explained.

Reed said that similar samples that might possibly remain submerged in the Gulf of Mexico could be extremely damaging to the marine ecosystem.  “I am concerned about upwelling events,” Reed said. “Strong currents draw up nutrient rich water and sediment from the sea floor that nourishes plankton and other organisms that are the foundation of the marine food chain.
“If an upwelling event brings up any oil material with these toxicity levels, it could be harmful to any animals near the upwelling plume.”


“I would not recommend going into the water”, she said.


She explained that the effects near the beach would be different because of more aeration.  Though no oil has been reported on Gulf Breeze shores or in local bayous, those areas could be at risk.


“We don’t have any barriers, the Coastwatchers aren’t patrolling anymore, and there has been no communication to the city of this oil entering the bay,” Reed said.  If oil entered any of the Gulf Breeze bayous, Reed explained that it would sink and become submerged just as it had near Fort McRae.  “It would definitely sink and be preserved,” Reed said. “And it would be very difficult to find.


This has been a very difficult letter to write.  I am not a dispassionate journalist.  Writing this drives my blood pressure up 20 points easily.


I have seen many ugly situations during my life.  Many of them, like the U.S. Government’s purposely experimenting on Marshall Islanders to study the effects of radiation, I have partly shrugged off because they happened so long ago (50 years in that case).  But the BP spill and its effects on the people of the Gulf are happening now.  Today.  And tomorrow, and for the next 20 years.  There are people there who need help right now.


And we know it.  We know that like the Exxon Valdez spill, the people who did the actual clean up will pay for it with lost years of their lives.  And BP will give out some money now, and then spend 20 years keeping itself and its lawyer’s rich, while the people of the Gulf suffer.  And if their track record is anything to go by, this won’t be the last time.


My last night at sea, I went up to the bridge tonight at 18.00 to relieve Ivo, our chief mate from Croatia for dinner. I looked back on the deck, and Wendy, our cook is writing in her journal.  She is not cooking dinner, because Neil, the world’s coolest R.O. is making pizza.  Johanne from Denmark is re-sizing the pilot ladder; until (on a Sunday evening) it is so dark she cannot see any more.


The rays of sunset are making spokes across the sky from the higher cumulus clouds. This is such a beautiful place, despite man’s best efforts over the last six months.  I really want to go home and see my family.   This has been one of my toughest tours in many years: the constant organizing for the next day’s activities, a crew who all worked very hard, without enough down time to catch their breath.  And in the backs of our minds, constantly the knowledge that while we were not always seeing oil float around on the surface, we were witnessing a huge disaster.


But in spite of all that, I do not want Veracruz to poke its head over the horizon after lunch tomorrow.  I could do this job forever.

Images:  Joseph Mallord William Turner, Shipwreck, 1805.

George Seurat, Bathers in Asnières, 1883-1884.

Marijuana Nukes or Why We Miss Adult Republicans

December 3, 2010

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice

Just what you want in that first email check waiting for the shower to heat up.*  That would be the item in this morning’s email feed from Harvard’s news office featuring loose-nuke expert Graham Allison and his panel on the future of nuclear weapons that I missed in meat-space last Wed.

Tons of depressing stuff to choose from…like this:

There  is a crap load of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium floating around.  Leaving aside the good stuff contained in 23,000 nukes already in national arsenals, there is enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium around and about to build 100,000 more. The knowledge needed to do so is widespread.  Which means that any paranoid scenario you can think of is plausible.

Here’s one of Allison’s:

…Size is not a limiting factor. The enriched uranium needed to detonate such a weapon would fit into a six-pack of beer, said Graham Allison, one of a coterie of analysts at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) who specialize in security and nuclear terrorism. Shielded in a lead container, he said, such a weapon could be smuggled into the United States “in a bale of marijuana.”

Lot’s more good cheer in a pretty short piece.  Try this one on the prospect of an attack on the US with a “mere” dirty bomb.  That one got me going — because

Even just one “dirty bomb,” an explosive that disperses radioactive material over a wide area, could “evaporate” American civil rights, said [nuclear proliferation expert and former Cheney stalkee Valerie Plame] Wilson. A dirty bomb is more a “weapon of mass disruption” than destruction, said [Harvard Kennedy School Prof. Matthew] Bunn, though the costs could still be high, and the materials to make one are available in any Western hospital.

The event was part of what has become a theme of Allison’s advocacy — he’s a leader in the Global Zero movement that aims for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.


I must confess to a mild sense of deja vu on this.  I was in the room back in 1984 (I think) when Carl Sagan and others did the first big public nuclear winter announcement, in which a very distinguished group of scientists and policy people followed the implications of simple  (one dimensional) climate model analyses of what would happen after a nuclear exchange flooded the atmosphere with smoke from burning cities.  (The first Science paper from the modeling group, known as TTAPS from the author’s initials, came out on Dec. 23, 1983.)

Those results predicted that a nuclear war would produce a massive sustained cooling that would drive the earth into a prolonged “nuclear winter,” which would obviously harm any survivors, possibly to the point of near or complete human extinction.

Most important, those early studies suggested that there was a threshold level of nuclear destruction that would produce this effect.  I don’t have the transcript of that meeting in front of me, but I recall that the modeling group reported that an exchange as limited as 100 megatons could generate enough smoke to drive the earth into the freezer.

The point Sagan and others made at that early public announcement was that given the potential existence of such a threshold, the only long term guarantee of human survival would be to drive global nuclear arsenals down to below that 100 megaton inventory.

Didn’t happen of course, or more properly, hasn’t happened yet.   Nuclear winter research has had its twists and turns since the ’80s, the most important long term take-away being that there would likely be major environmental and climatological impacts from a significant nuclear exchange, even if those early predictions of utter disaster have been modified.


But we’ve still got buckets of nukes out there, and thanks to our GOP friends, arms reduction efforts are at least a temporary stand still.

So I’m cynical a bit on two levels:  first, I distrust proclamations of the apocalypse — or rather, I think that the natural tendency to seek some reason beyond the obvious that could actually “force” us to do the right thing leads people to overstate threats.


If the fear of nuclear devastation on its own terms is insufficient to bring about proper controls on the material essential to the construction of an al Qaeda bomb, then how can we expect that yet more elaborate risk scenarios will produce the necessary response.  Back in the ’80s I asked in print why someone thought if 2 billion dead of blast and shock and prompt radiation weren’t enough to scare us straight, the extra billions slowly shivering to death in the dark would somehow tip the scales.

This time it’s different, of course.  I fear that Allison and his colleagues are right:  nuclear terrorism is a real threat on the scales they suggest.  If I have my doubts on the real-world feasibility of the demand for zero nukes…it still makes sense as an aspirational goal and as a rhetorical device to get us to focus on the buttloads of U 235 and Pu lurching through what we laughingly call “the system.”

But that still leaves the second bit of depressed world-weariness. This challenge seems to me to be beyond our capacity to deal with as long as one party in this country has decided that there is no such thing as governance — just politics in which success is defined by making sure that the other side fails…on everything. If we can’t even address a START treaty that is obviously in the US interest, it’s impossible to imagine we’ll get any of the hard (and expensive) work done on the control of wandering nuclear materials.  After all, ho cares about loose nukes when a tax hike of a nickle or so on the marginal dollar of a zillionaire’s income is the final descent into Kenyan-Islamo Socialist Facism.

That’s the wrong attitude, I know.  The issue of uncontrolled fissionables really is a big f**king deal.  Losing a city or few some years down the road because we just couldn’t get our acts together now is unacceptable, and the work being done by Allison and Plame and the others connected with Global Zero is the right thing to do.


That won’t persuade our friends across the aisle, of course — the START posturing tells us that.  But in the end, that doesn’t leave those of us who actually love our country (and the world) off the hook.  It’s a deep problem when one major party in a democracy chooses pure nihilism as its platform and practice.  But we still have to find ways to be effective as the grown ups in the room.

Frankly I’m not sure what that would lead us to do right now on this particular issue.  Here’s where Wednesday’s panelists ended up:

Eliminating nuclear weapons would require tools that are not yet available, said Mowatt-Larssen, including a “global intelligence capacity,” along with the willingness of nations to share information, and better technology for detecting smuggled nuclear materials.


Currently, said Wilson, detectors have to get within inches of hidden enriched fissionable materials that are shielded by lead.

Maybe the answer to nuclear disarmament is just to get close to the goal, said Bunn. He offered one proposed scenario among many: Reduce each nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons to 50, all of them disassembled and guarded by U.N. overseers. “We’ve got to think harder,” said Bunn, “about what we think of as zero.”

I won’t go charging off on yet another tangent — but while I think that particular idea has about an ice cube’s chances here, its essence is a call for transparency in nuclear security.  A notion of such openness lay at the heart of some of the first ideas about eliminating nation-state control of nuclear weapons.  We’ve been talking a bit about secrecy and its costs/dangers lately, I believe, and without adding yet more verbiage on Wikileaks, I’ll just stop by saying here that while the costs of revealing secrets are often weighed, the various dangers of keeping them must be as well.


*Yes I am that pathetic — iPhone in the bathroom checking email before my third eyelid opens.  A 12 step program beckons.

Images:  Study for Heinrich Schlitt “In the Magic Forest (Im Zauberwald)” 1902,

Jheronimus Bosch “The Ship of Fools, or the Satire of the Debauched Revelers,” betw. 1488 and 1510.