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Thursday Morning: It’s Still Morning Somewhere

Fried. I am totally brain-fried after spending the night reading about flavivirus, rubivirus, arbovirus. So a morning post was not in the cards right away today in my time zone.

Things are fried elsewhere, too, as you can see from the global map above. These locations are suffering from drought:

Colombia – Drought has affected hydroelectric generation.

India – south – Heatwave coupled with drought cost lives

Malawi – Food crisis declared as crop yields fall off due to drought

Mongolia – Severe winter sandwiched between droughts devastates livestock

Morocco – Wheat crop output fell by 50% due to drought

Mozambique — Floods in the north and drought in the south damaged crops; a “red alert” now issued over food security.

Oceana (S Australia/Papua New Guinea) – Human trafficking reported, with girls sold in exchange for rice in Papua New Guinea due to drought-caused crop failures.

Venezuela – Country experiencing electricity shortages due to drought

Vietnam – Livestock are dying due to drought

Zimbabwe – Country is participating in a co-operative food aid program due to severe drought.

This is only a partial list of drought-affected countries; Mideast and Mediterranean countries, Thailand, more of the African continent, and the southwest U.S. also suffer from drought.

Some drought is due to cyclical trends like the current El Nino event, but much of the drought is deeper than the average cycle, and some of it is simply climate change. Many places are already facing agricultural crises, and others have been facing them for years now.

While the map above doesn’t reflect it, forecasts predict dryer-than-average conditions across the crop-growing region of the middle U.S. as well as a return to dryer conditions in California.

We are overdue for discussions about global food security as climate change worsens. We can start now.

Back to regular morning roundup programming tomorrow — see you then!

Wednesday Morning: A Whiter Shade

She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be

— excerpt, Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum
cover here by Annie Lennox

I’ve been on an Annie Lennox jag, sorry. I’m indulging myself here at the intersection of a favorite song which fit today’s theme and a favorite performer. Some of you will take me to task for not using the original version by Procol Harum, or another cover like Eric Clapton’s. Knock yourselves out; it’s Lennox for me.

Speaking of a whiter shade and truth…

FBI used a ‘gray hat’ to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone
Last evening after regular business hours WaPo published a story which made damned sure we knew:

1) The FBI waded into a fuzzy zone to hack the phone — oh, not hiring a ‘black hat’, mind you, but a whiter-shade ‘gray hat’ hacker;
2) Cellebrite wasn’t that ‘gray hat’;
3) The third-party resource was referred to as ‘professional hackers’ or ‘researchers who sell flaws’;
4) FBI paid a ‘one-time fee’ for this hack — which sounds like, “Honest, we only did it once! How could we be pregnant?!
5) A ‘previously unknown software flaw’ was employed after the third-party pointed to it.

This reporting only generated more questions:

• Why the careful wording, ‘previously unknown software flaw’ as opposed to zero-day vulnerability, which has become a term of art?
• How was the determination made that the party was not black or white but gray, and not just a ‘professional hacker who sold knowledges about a flaw they used’? Or was the explanation provided just stenography?
• However did Cellebrite end up named in the media anyhow if they weren’t the source of the resolution?
• What assurances were received in addition to the assist for that ‘one-time fee’?
• Why weren’t known security experts consulted?
• Why did the FBI say it had exhausted all resources to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone?
• Why did FBI director Jim Comey say “we just haven’t decided yet” to tell Apple about this unlocking method at all if ‘persons familiar with the matter’ were going to blab to WaPo about their sketchy not-black-or-white-hat approach instead?

That’s just for starters. Marcy’s gone over this latest story, too, be sure to read.

Volkswagen execs get a haircut
Panic among employees and state of Lower Saxony over VW’s losses and anticipated payouts as a result of Dieselgate impelled executives to share the pain and cut their bonuses. Germany’s Lower Saxony is the largest state/municipal shareholder in VW, but it’s doubly exposed to VW financial risks as nearly one in ten Germans are employed in the automotive industry, and VW is the largest single German automotive company. The cuts to bonuses will be retroactive, affecting payouts based on last year’s business performance.

Fuzzy dust bunnies

  • Verizon workers on strike (Boston Globe) — Until minimum wage is raised across the country and offshoring jobs stops, we’ll probably see more labor actions like this. Should be a warning to corporations with quarter-after-quarter profits and offshore tax shelters to watch themselves — they can afford to pay their workers.
  • Facebook deploys bots across its services (Computerworld) — But, but AI is years away, said Microsoft research…meanwhile, you just know Amazon’s Alexa is already looking to hookup with Facebook’s chatbot.
  • Google’s charitable arm ponied up $20M cash for disabled users’ technology improvements (Google.org) — IMO, this was a great move for an underserved population.
  • Judge’s rejects Obama administration blow-off of apex predator wolverines (HGN) — Wolverines, a necessary part of health northern and mountain ecosystems, need cold weather to survive. Montana’s U.S. District Court ruled the administration had not done enough to protect biodiversity including the wolverine. Crazy part of this entire situation is that the feds don’t believe the wolverine warrants Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection and that they can’t tell what effects climate change has on this species, but the species is seen rarely to know. Hello? A rarely-seen species means the numbers are so low they are at risk of extinction — isn’t that what the ESA is supposed to define and prevent?

UPDATE — 12:10 PM EDT —
From @cintagliata via Twitter:

Back in 1971, researchers observed Zika virus replicating in neurons and glia. (in mice) http://bit.ly/1XvsD4d

I’m done with the pesticides-as-causal theory. It may be a secondary exacerbating factor, but not likely primary. In short, we’ve had information about Zika’s destructive effects on the brain and nervous system for 45 years. It’s past time for adequate funding to address prevention, treatments, control of its spread.

It’s all down the hump from here, kids. See you tomorrow morning!

Thursday Morning: Eye in the Sky

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind

— excerpt, Eye in the Sky by Alan Parsons Project

It’s not like I wanted to haul out all my high school and college music, but they sure seem to work well this week.

Speaking of the eye in the sky…

FBI and DHS circle overhead a LOT
Buzzfeed published its findings after looking into FBI and DHS surveillance flight records, finding a lot of planes circling over mosques. The results also looked at flights immediately after the San Bernardino shooting. You know what would be interesting? Comparing that information against the handling timeline for the Apple iPhone issued to Syed Farouk by his employer.

U.S. dealerships sue Volkswagen – but expand on Dieselgate
Not only are three family-owned dealerships suing VW for its fraudulent use of an emissions control defeat system in their diesel passenger vehicles — they are suing because of VW’s financing practices, which steered money away from dealership’s preferred financing while leaving the dealerships stuck with rapidly depreciated business value. The potential losses to VW just swelled by another magnitude.

Iceland’s new PM expects elections this fall
Rather than dissolving the government, the former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson’s coalition partners negotiated the appointment of Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson as his replacement after Gunnlaugsson’s Panama Papers-driven resignation. Johannsson said the coalition expects elections this autumn while continuing to focus on working on stability. That’s a nice way of saying the Progressive Party and the Independence Party are stalling for time to avoid a likely rout if elections were held today. Polling indicates the Pirate Party would stomp the other three major parties if a vote was held now.

MP and Official spokesperson of the Pirate Party Birgitta Jónsdóttir was interviewed by Democracy Now! about Iceland’s current political climate. Jonsdottir, a possible contender for PM, explained her country’s reaction to the Panama Papers’ revelations:

…What is in particular disturbing about the prime minister’s conduct in this matter is that the day before new laws took effect in Iceland about how you declare and how tax havens are dealt with, because Iceland is a part of a sort of a campaign, international campaign, to stop tax havens being a part of a solution on how to get away from participating in paying tax in your own country. He signed—his sold his wife his share for one dollar the day before the laws took effect. And that, in itself, seems highly dubious. And then, he has actually been using his wife as a shield and saying that people that are criticizing him are attacking his wife. I actually think that this guy is in some sort of meltdown, because his behavior in the last few days has been so outrageous that it seems like we are stuck in a satire by Dario Fo, you know, in a complete theater of the absurd. And I’m just so deeply humiliated on behalf of my nation that this is what the outside world is looking at. …

The feeling of betrayal is palpable. It’s a good read, do check it out in its entirety.

Odd lots

  • Massive breach exposes 55 million Philippine voters’ identities (The Register) — That’s Philippines’ Commission on Elections (COMELEC) *entire* database, which COMELEC claims doesn’t contain anything sensitive. Except for stuff like fingerprints and passport numbers. Oh, and all the information for half the entire country’s population.
  • China’s ‘Great Firewall’ architect reduced to using VPN during a speech (Shanghaist) — Oops.
  • Adobe patching a Flash zero-day (Naked Security) — Again. I know, I know, when will Flash die?
  • Climate change could lengthen Europe’s dengue fever season (Science Daily) — Longer, warmer summers will extend the season for Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito populations, the disease’s key infection vectors. Hey, you know what else might show up for longer periods of time, too? Zika, since it’s carried by Aedes aegypti.

Wow. It’s coffee break time already? Have at it. Catch you tomorrow morning!

Tuesday Morning: Changing the Tenor

Once in a while, I indulge in the musical equivalent of eating chocolate instead of a wholesome meal. I’ll listen to my favorite tenors on a continuous loop for an afternoon. I have a weakspot for Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Correlli, though the latter isn’t one of the Three Tenors.

Speaking of which, this video features a really bizarre event: the Three Tenors performing at Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium in 1994. Poppy and Barbara Bush are there in the audience, too. What a supremely odd venue! And yet these guys did a bang up job in such a huge, open space. Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma at ~1:05 is my favorite cut, but it’s all fun.

Now let’s change the tenor…

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates sides with FBI against Apple
Gates isn’t the best salesman for this job, promoting compelled software. Given Gates’ role as technology adviser to Microsoft’s current CEO Satya Nadella, how persistently invasive Windows 10 is, and Microsoft software’s leaky history, Gates comes off as a soldato for USDOJ. Do read the article; it’s as if Gates was so intent on touting USDOJ’s line that he didn’t bother to read any details about USDOJ’s demands on Apple.

UPDATE — 10:25 AM EST — Poor Bill, so misunderstood, now backpedaling on his position about Apple’s compliance. This, from a Fortune 100 technology adviser…~shaking my head~

Gates talks out of the other side of his face on climate change
Unsurprisingly, Bill Gates also looks less than credible when he pleads with students for an ‘energy miracle’ to tackle climate change. This is shameless: first, guilt-tripping minors in high school, second for the blatant hypocrisy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continues to hold investments in ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell because of their yields. Not exactly a commitment to alternative energy there. How’s that investment strategy working for you now, Gates?

Fossil fuel-based industries: wall-to-wall bad news
Speaking of crappy investments in dirty hydrocarbons, conditions are just plain ugly.

Office of Personnel Management’s CIO steps down
Donna K. Seymour stepped down from her role, the second OPM management team member to leave after the massive hack of U.S. government personnel records. She was scheduled to appear before Congress this week; that hearing has now been canceled by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Jason Chaffetz. Huh. That’s convenient. Wonder if she would have said something that reflected badly on a previous GOP administration? This bit from the linked article is just…well…

FBI Director James Comey called the hacks an “enormous breach,” saying his own data were stolen. U.S. authorities blamed China, which strongly denied the accusation before it said in December that it had arrested several “criminal” Chinese hackers connected to the breach.

Wow, I wonder what China could do if they had access to every U.S. government employees’ iPhone? Anybody asked Comey what kind of phone he carries?

That’s a wrap. I’m off to listen to something sung in a sweet tenor voice.

Friday Morning: Thank a Goddess

[image: Frigg Spinning Clouds, c. 1900, by John Charles Dollman via Wikimedia.org]

[image: Frigg Spinning Clouds, c. 1900, by John Charles Dollman via Wikimedia.org]

Yeah, you can thank Frīġe for her dæġ — Friday is her day. Frigg, Frea, or Freyja, has been lumped into sky-and-weather-goddesses category though I don’t recall running across a folktale about her actually doing weather-y stuff.

Hope you were prepared for snow if you live in eastern U.S.; Frigg won’t be as much help to you as a decent snow shovel. Same with keeping the kids busy on a snow day. Maybe you could coax them into writing a story about Frigg calling up a snow storm, replete with drawings?

Speaking of weather…and climate…
These news stories suggest snowpocalyptic events here in the U.S. aren’t the only unusual conditions affecting the way we do business today.

  • South African’s wine production will be affected by recent wildfires. Wonder if Australia’s will be, too? Oh definitely, by too much rain as well as drought and bushfires.
  • Milder than usual weather hurt retail spending in UK. Lucky for our former British overlords we’ve exported our Black Friday to give them a temporary boost in sales.
  • The worst drought in two decades spurs Zimbabwe to seed clouds. Ugh. Not good. If they’re seeding there, what happens to rainfall in Mozambique, Malawi, and Madagascar?

Note: My spell check app offers “snowpocalypse” and “snowpocalypses” after I wrote “snowpocalyptic” — even spell check insists mega-sized snowstorms are now a regular occurrence.

Dutch tech firm Philips’ sale of Lumileds division halted
No specific details were shared, but the Senate Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) blocked the sale of Philips’ California-based lighting component manufacturing subsidiary. Note the article refers to “Asian buyers,” and mentions further down the story that Chinese firms were involved in the buyers’ consortium.

Seems odd this sale was blocked by CFIUS, but not that of chipmaker OmniVision Technologies last May, or Freescale Semiconductor in March (though perhaps the previous owners of Freescale may have been a factor).

Military vendor for AV and building systems sold devices with backdoor
Not only a hidden backdoor, but packet sniffing capabilities found in the AMX brand NX-1200 model building controls device.

But backdoors are a good thing, right? No?

That’s a wrap on this week. Hope those of you along the east coast expecting heavy snow are prepared with ample alcoholic beverages for what appears to be a long weekend. Make an offering to Frigg and see if it helps. Offer another to the person who shoveled your snow.

The Great Transformation Part 9: The Rise of Fascism and Conclusion

Previous posts in this series:

The Great Transformation: Mainstream Economics and an Introduction to a New Series

The Great Transformation Part 1: The Market

The Great Transformation Part 2: More on Markets

The Great Transformation Part 3: Neoliberalism Before It Got Its New Name

The Great Transformation Part 4: Reaction and Counter-Reaction To Self-Regulating Markets

The Great Transformation Part 5: Polanyi on Marxian Analysis

The Great Transformation Part 6: Labor as a Fictitious Commodity

The Great Transformation Part 7: Land as a Fictitious Commodity

The Great Transformation Part 8: Money as a Fictitious Commodity
karl-polanyi
Chapters 17-19 of The Great Transformation discuss the increasing strains in society brought on by the self-regulating market through the 1920s. In the wake of WWI, the dominant industrial nations attempted to restore the institutions of the self-regulating market, including the gold standard. The demands of maintaining the gold standard in the face of rapid economic growth in some of those countries culminated in the Great Depression. I won’t discuss this part in detail, but two points. First, the central feature of the debacle was the impact of the gold standard, which prevented nations from acting to protect themselves and their citizens from deflation. Second, Polanyi does not discuss one of the most important causes of the debacle, the astonishing level of corruption and fraud in financial markets, levels that were not reached in the US economy again until the George Bush administration.

In Chapter 21 Polanyi tells us:

Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function. Hence, it was worldwide, catholic in scope, universal in application; the issues transcended the economic sphere and begot a general transformation of a distinctively social kind. It radiated into almost every field of human activity whether political or economic, cultural, philosophic, artistic, or religious. And up to a point it coalesced with local and topical tendencies. No understanding of the history of the period is possible unless we distinguish between the underlying fascist move and the ephemeral tendencies with which that move fused in different countries. P. 248, emphasis added.

The socialist solution was to apply human thought to the organization of society, trying to enact legislation and rules to control some of the worst effects of the self-regulating market, including fraud and corruption, and to increase the power of labor as a counterweight to corporate capitalism. This worked more or less in the US, where eventually the Great Depression wore off, leaving a superstructure of regulatory power that protected society from the worst excesses of capitalism. Of course, the US never adopted socialism, and the elites continued to work to reduce the power of labor and of the working people generally beginning immediately after WWII with the Taft-Hartley Act.

Polanyi says the fascist solution was to restore the market by means of rooting out democracy and democratic institutions and replacing them with totalitarian government. The citizens of fascist countries were stripped of their role in government and society, and became mere tools in the operation of the totalitarian movement.

This reeducation, comprising the tenets of a political religion that denied the idea of the brotherhood of man in all its forms, was achieved through an act of mass conversion enforced against recalcitrants by scientific methods of torture. P. 245.

There were fascist movements in most countries, regardless of religion, wealth, level of industrial development, form of government or any other factor. Whether they were successful, as in Germany and Italy, or not, as in the US, depended on a number of factors specific to each country. Polanyi says that the first signs of a movement towards fascism were:

… the spread of irrationalistic philosophies, racialist aesthetics, anticapitalistic demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the “regime,” or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic setup. P. 246.

In retrospect, these were symptoms of the crackup of the 19th Century global order and of the damage done to citizens and society through self-regulating markets. Polanyi says that Germany under Hitler was the first to recognize that the global structures created under the banner of the self-regulating market were falling apart, and set about helping in that destruction. Germany armed itself, and rejected all its obligations, both financial and under treaties, created under the previous global system. The other nations of the world, especially England, strangled themselves trying to restore that dead system. Among other things, Polanyi points to cuts to the army and navy, justified in the name of fiscal responsibility. It’s a fascinating story.

There is no point in discussing Polanyi’s conclusion, that in the wake of WWII there would be a great transformation from the dead structures of the 19th Century into a new form of world relations, one not based on markets. That didn’t happen, and we are still living under a system based on what Polanyi called the self-regulating market, Keynes called Lasissez-Faire, and Milton Friedman called classical liberalism. Today we call it neoliberalism.

——-

I’ll conclude this series with a couple of thoughts. First, it’s easy to compare Polanyi’s conditions supporting the rise of fascism in the early 30s to the changes in US society in the last 35 years. Several of the conditions are rampant in the US and other countries, encouraged by a large number of media, religious leaders, and political sources. For those of us who spend too much time reading this stuff, it is unnerving on its own, and Polanyi’s theory just adds to the upset.

Second, the neoliberal goal is to reduce citizenship to consumerism. The individual is stripped down from a participant in a society, with a role to play in government and in planning for the future. This is remarkably close to Polanyi’s statement about the reeducation of the citizen away from ideas about the brotherhood of man, which in turn bears an elegant but ugly similarity to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society. Even in context, Thatcher’s denial of the importance of relationships beyond home and family, her denial we citizens bear a joint responsibility for the shape of the future, is just as chilling as Polanyi’s description of reeducation into fascism.

Third, in several places in The Great Transformation Polanyi acknowledges the material benefits that have come from industrialization, and recognizes that the miseries previously inflicted on humanity as a whole in the frantic transition cannot be undone. That does not mean that we are prisoners of the elites, that we have to accept their demands for specific changes or for immediate change. It does not mean that we have to continue to inflict misery in search of more capitalist growth. We always have the option to choose other paths to the future. For Polanyi, writing in 1944, slowing the pace of change might have sufficed. Today there are more important things than the pace of change, such as global warming, which requires a completely different approach to our production system. It’s more important to our interests as a species than the accumulation of more wealth in the hands of the fabulously wealthy. But finally:

It’s hard to miss the optimism in Polanyi’s book. He is convinced that society can heal itself, ameliorating the damage done by unrestricted economic growth. It’s really hard to feel optimistic today.

Ten Billion: A Kick in the Ass We’ve Needed

[Note: You can join Professor Stephen Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST.]

If we learned a cataclysmic, extinction-level event was hurtling toward our planet, how would we respond? How should we respond if we know we can minimize the threat?

This is in essence the question asked of us by Ten Billion, a film based on Professor Stephen Emmott’s eponymous book. The film premieres this Saturday at 22:00 UTC on SkyTV.

I was fortunate to screen Ten Billion recently. Crafted by director Peter Webber, it deftly evokes Koyaanisqatsi (1982), its name based on the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Ten Billion similarly shows us a world even more off kilter, its resources relentlessly consumed by humans. Where Koyaanisqatsi‘s Philip Glass score was reflective and elegiac, Ten Billion‘s Alex Heffes’ score underlines the mounting urgency of crises.

These crises are many, pegged directly to population growth and its corresponding rate of consumption. The film’s use of a timeline depicting past and future projections of population are effective, like watching the tipping point of a virus infecting its host.

Effective, too, are comparisons between recent and archival photos depicting the changes wrought by humans. Evidence of glaciation loss is horrific, as one example.

Photos of earth from the International Space Station remind us that we are all in this together. There is no escape, no way around this; this is home, and we must work together to save it.

My sole critique is about the diversity of “climate migrants” — so-called in the film, but we know now that many who flee political instability are really “climate refugees.” Ten Billion depicts the plight of peoples affected most by climate change. Most live closer to the equator, and are therefore darker skinned. They have been too easily ignored by light-skinned northern cultures. We see that now with the response to Syrian refugees, whose home country began to fall apart due to severe drought long before overt military action began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.

We also see the same blindness in western response to world-record typhoons Bopha, Haiyan, Hagupit, Koppu hitting the Philippines year after year; cyclone Pam nearly wiping away Vanuatu this past March; and the combination of severe drought and catastrophic flooding affecting Chennai, India even now. There is little if any news coverage here in the U.S., and a nominal amount in the U.K. and EU, as if Asians and Pacific Islanders don’t even exist though they number in the billions. We ignore our role in exporting not only manufacturing jobs but associated air pollution to India and China.

Ten Billion would have been more effective holding a mirror up to the pale faces of northern climes, forcing them to see they, too, are affected. Whites fled both New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ahead of hurricanes like Katrina. They fled the coast of New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy — some who stayed and returned to the affected area are still dealing with post-storm damage years later. There will be more internal climate refugees again whenever the next Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits U.S.

And there will be refugees from drought, when the need for water in states like California finally exceeds the ability of other states to sell and ship enough to meet the shortfall. We are not prepared to deal with this generation’s version of the Okies fleeing a new Dust Bowl.

Until the west — especially the U.S. based on its consumption habits and political reach — realizes its own pale skin is invested in these crises, it may continue to look the other way while making idle greenwashed gestures like COP21 in Paris this week.

I am on the fence about Emmott’s understatement about his own background in this film. If he had been more explicit about his role as a scientist, would the public take his plea in Ten Billion more seriously?

It’s important to note this film may be part of a growing trend — scientists bypassing the suffocation of politicized corporate media, in order to reach the public.

We’ve seen this recently with the op-ed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech senior water scientist Professor Jay Famiglietti, warning California only had one year of water left in its reservoirs. Famiglietti didn’t wait for a report issued from either NASA or academia to filter its way into the stultifying news reporting process. He cut out the middle men and wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times to convey urgency and effect immediate action.

Some will criticize this film as expository and hortatory, failing to provide solutions to the crises we’ve created. This is not that film. This is not meant to guide us toward help, when so many other scientists have already told us for decades what is wrong and what action we must take to minimize the threat to our planet and ourselves.

This film is meant to be a much-needed kick in the ass, to propel us to action appropriate to a cataclysmic, extinction-level event.

Because as Emmott says, in concise terms familiar to civilians and scientists alike, we’re fucked if do not take immediate, appropriate action.

You can join Professor Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST. Emmott also has an op-ed today in The Guardian.

Massive Wildfires in SoCal Months Ahead of Season, But Al Gore is Still Fat

I remember moving to Pasadena in September of 1979. I was told that our cheap student apartment had a good view of Mount Wilson out the living room window, but smoke and smog obscured it until nightfall, when flames on the ridge brought it into view. That was actually a very small fire, but the memory of those flames and the falling ash persist as my introduction to living in California. Throughout my years in California (we moved to the northern part of the state in 1983 and stayed there for ten years), I recall the rhythm of reliable late winter storms and spring showers giving way to dry summers that eventually turned into wildfire season late in the summer as the spring flush of growth in the hills dried out.

But that reliable rhythm in California faces serious disruption. The state is in its third year of extreme drought and fires are raging several months ahead of schedule. Consider this from the Governor’s Office, published on May 5, before the current outbreak of severe fires:

It is dry in the foothills and southern California as during a typical July or August, the peak of the fire season. Even in a region used to wildfires, this year appears poised to be especially destructive. California is facing its third dry year; thirsty grasses, parched brush and trees are more susceptible to burn, so fuel is ready.

/snip/

“The historic drought that is upon us makes Wildfire Preparedness more critical than ever,’ said  Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci. “There’s a very high likelihood of well-above-normal fires and perhaps a chance of longer-lasting fires, which require more resources in order to fight them.”

But it’s not just the current drought that is causing fires in California to be worse than ever:

So far this year, California has already experienced more wildfire activity than normal. As of April 26th, the state has recorded more than 1,100 fires; that’s more than double the average of the previous five years. Even before this year’s drought, forest officials were reporting a longer fire season and more catastrophic mega-fires in California and other western states. More than half of California’s worst fires in recorded history have occurred since 2002. 

Think about that. The state’s list of worst fires can be found here (pdf). The records go back to 1932, but in the more than 80 years of those records, 11 of the worst 20 have occurred in the 11 years from 2002 to 2013.

The current outbreak is worst around San Diego. From CNN:

San Diego County is hoping for a break Thursday, a day after wildfires ravaged the landscape, threatening homes, universities, a military base and a nuclear power plant.

“Let’s hope for a calm day,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who marveled at the outbreak that saw San Diego go from one wildfire to nine, charring more than 9,000 acres.

That hope for a calm day is unlikely to be met, as forecasters are saying today will be the hottest day this week. And yesterday was a flurry of activity for emergency services:

Alert San Diego, a countywide notification system, sent out nearly 122,000 emergency telephone notifications on Wednesday as the wildfires sprang up.

Carlsbad alone issued 23,000 evacuation notices. Thousands of students won’t have classes on Thursday due to the continuing threat; California State University-San Marcos canceled all activities through Friday, including commencement. Students in the San Diego Unified School District will also get a break from the books.

Numerous roads have been shut down while others have become clogged with people trying to escape.

/snip/

Another fire ignited around Camp Pendleton, a mammoth Marine base and training facility for multiple military branches, prompting evacuations of the O’Neill Heights Housing, the De Luz Child Development Center and Mary Fay Pendleton Elementary School, the Marines said.

Another blaze burned in the community of Fallbrook, adjacent to the military post, which is the West Coast boot camp for enlistees.

Cal Fire said the wildfire charred 6,000 acres around the military facilities.

A precautionary evacuation was ordered at the nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant, which has been offline for two years because of another wildfire. Southern California Edison spokeswoman Maureen Brown said “there is no safety threat,” though.

Isn’t that something? San Onofre got knocked offline over two years ago by another wildfire and is under attack again before it can get back up and running.

But don’t you dare blame these developments on climate change. Don’t you know how fat Al Gore is?

John Galt Contaminates West Virginia Water Supply Because Industries Demand Freedom

Structure of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol via Wikipedia.

Structure of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol via Wikipedia.

Some of the more than 300,000 residents of West Virginia who could not drink or bathe in their tap water derived from the Elk River have been told that it is now safe to do so. Considering how flawed the process was for coming up with the standard for a safe level of the contaminant, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), it should come as no surprise that residents are not buying the claim that the water is now safe:

Eric Foster got the call last night. West Virginia American Water said the water at his South Charleston home is safe.

But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to use it again.

“The water smells like licorice, and I don’t really think that’s safe,” Foster said. “I’ll never drink it again.”

Five days after a chemical spill into the Elk River left water unusable for 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers in nine counties, some residents are still wary of using the water even after officials say it’s safe again.

Water company and state officials say the water consistently tested below 1 part per million of the chemical, and have been lifting the water-use ban zone by zone. Six zones, mostly in Charleston and South Charleston, had been lifted as of Tuesday evening.

Here’s a summary of the flawed process for coming to that one part per million “safe” standard:

Unfortunately, the science behind this standard remains unclear.  Based on what we do know, there are good reasons to believe that officials are overlooking significant health risks.

We know, for example, that the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that officials say they are using as their primary source lacks any information about chronic health impacts. The major federal databases we consulted suggest such data simply do not exist for this chemical.

It also appears that officials made significant leaps in their calculation of a “safe” exposure level – including assumptions that deviate from generally accepted practices.  As a result, these estimates fail to adequately account for either acute or chronic health effects from ongoing exposure to water contaminated at the 1 ppm level.

At a bare minimum, the public deserves to know a lot more about the calculations behind officials’ insistence that a 1 ppm level in drinking water is safe.

But how did we get to this situation in the first place? The event that caused the ongoing contamination of the Elk River was a leak of thousands of gallons of MCHM from a facility owned by a company with the wonderfully Galtian name of Freedom Industries. Of course there is a bald eagle anchoring their website! Would you expect anything else?

How is the chemical used? It is used to perpetuate the myth of “clean coal”. Our government is even a leading crusader for this myth and boasts a nifty gif to show us how coal can be “cleaned”.

Scrub that coal!

Scrub that coal!

One of the main methods of producing “clean coal” is to remove particles of sulfur. From the DOE website with the nifty gif:

Take sulfur, for example. Sulfur is a yellowish substance that exists in tiny amounts in coal. In some coals found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other eastern states, sulfur makes up from 3 to 10 percent of the weight of coal.

/snip/

One way is to clean the coal before it arrives at the power plant. One of the ways this is done is by simply crushing the coal into small chunks and washing it. Some of the sulfur that exists in tiny specks in coal (called “pyritic sulfur ” because it is combined with iron to form iron pyrite, otherwise known as “fool’s gold) can be washed out of the coal in this manner. Typically, in one washing process, the coal chunks are fed into a large water-filled tank. The coal floats to the surface while the sulfur impurities sink. There are facilities around the country called “coal preparation plants” that clean coal this way.

It appears that the MCHM is used sometimes instead of water in this process. But even after this “washing”, the coal is far from clean: Read more

Winter™ — Property of The Weather Channel®

(photo: Blizzard 2010 by *Low* via Flickr)

With a lot of self-justifying, back-patting hoopla today, The Weather Channel announced it’s decided unilaterally to assign names to winter storms.

During the upcoming 2012-13 winter season The Weather Channel will name noteworthy winter storms. Our goal is to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events. The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation.

Yes, fewer surprises. Just the one about winter’s natural disasters being branded by The Weather Channel.

There’s no indication that any federal government entity, including NOAA, has sanctioned this scheme let alone the names.

…until now, there has been no organized naming system for these storms before they impact population centers.

One of the reasons this may be true is that there is no national center, such as the National Hurricane Center, to coordinate and communicate information on a multi-state scale to cover such big events. The National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s Hydrologic Prediction Center (HPC) does issue discussions and snowfall forecasts on a national scale but it does not fill the same role as the NHC in naming storms. …

At this point The Weather Channel’s management breaks their arms with back-patting, lauding their efforts while calling it a bunch of euphemisms for team-playing:

…it would be a great benefit for a partner in the weather industry to take on the responsibility of developing a new concept.

This is where a world-class organization such as The Weather Channel will play a significant role. We have the meteorological ability, support and technology to provide the same level of reporting for winter storms that we have done for years with tropical weather systems. …

In the absence of any government inputs, the selected storm names for this season appear to be intellectual property of The Weather Channel.

Bet you didn’t think that natural disasters could be co-opted, branded, and marketed!  Read more