Friday, August 13, 2010

Meteors and Fog

Given what most of the U.S. has endured this summer, I'm not about to complain about North Coast weather. On those temperature maps, the only cool has been on a narrow strip along the West Coast, and that's us. But the same conditions that have given us August days and nights that rarely stray from the 50sF also provide plenty of fog, both high and sometimes low. And so tonight, when the absent moon makes the night sky perfect for the Perseid Meteor shower where skies are clear, it's no such luck here. Not that I've ever seen a really good Perseid, not even back in PA. But I keep hoping. It just ain't going to be this year, I guess. Good luck to you where you are!

Nightwatch: Trashing the Constitution

The tea partying Rabid Right is advocating trashing the Constitution and its Bill of Rights on behalf of numerous lunatic xenophobic cynical over-sugarified delusions. But the insidious but actual erosion--if not wholesale destruction--of Constitutional rights that got its big impetus with the Patriot Acts and other pandering- to- panic responses to terrorism, is continuing long past the last shadow of the Bushites cast on the White House lawn.

Some of that does get dropped at the door of the Obama administration, but a lot more is happening inside the Supreme Court, which used to be the prime protector of the Constitution because--remember those good old days?--that's supposed to be its job.

We all know about Citizens United which sells political speech to the highest corporate bidder, but a decision that completely got by me, for one, was Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, at least as interpreted in this article by David Cole in the current New York Review of Books. He writes that on June 21 the Roberts court"ruled that the First Amendment permits Congress to imprison human rights activists for up to fifteen years merely for advising militant organizations on ways to reject violence and pursue their disputes through lawful means."

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protected the right to advocate even criminal activity, including overthrow of the government, so long as one’s advocacy was not intended and likely to produce an imminent crime. In the Humanitarian Law Project case, however, the Court ruled—for the first time in its history—that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activity can be subject to criminal penalty."

If that's true, do I have to point out the many ways this is really really, frighteningly wrong?

In a not unrelated story, yet more statistical evidence that the threat of terrorism in the lives of Americans is way overblown: last year, dogbites joined the list of dangers that are more likely to kill or injure U.S. citizens.

In other news, the monsoon disasters in Asia, particularly in Pakistan, may not interest the U.S. media, but the U.S. government is on the job, helping out.

The Rabid Right pulled all the old strings to make the media jump by accusing Michelle Obama of doing a Nancy Reagan with a lavish vacation in Spain. The real story looks to be here: a combination of friendship, compassion, parenting and the necessities of being the First Lady. Not that they would be interested in the real story, of course.

NASA ain't pulling no punches in its report on this long hot summer, calling July What Global Warming Looks Like.

Following up on the continuing storm at Kos over "progressive" dissatisfaction with Obama and (re Robt Gibbs) vice versa, a popular post by blogger "puakev" documented liberal anger with FDR, something I've mentioned here once or twice, along with liberal anger with JFK, and (as this post documents) often in the same language as has been inflicted on President Obama.

Where I stand on all this in function terms I reproduce from my own comment on that post:

The constructive function of the left with a sympathetic president is to 1)advocate on particular issues and 2)build support for their positions, giving the president both ideas and political cover for moving towards their positions. But when the left personalizes their dissent, castigating the president and his administration in a global way, or piles up lists of imperfections, they do little that's constructive, a lot that's destructive. And a lot that is ultimately self-destructive.

Someday I may expound on that further. For now, it's back to third grade.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“What is genius but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us?...the greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources...every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things.”


Nightwatch: Tu to Wednesday

I guess I shouldn't be amazed--well, yes I should--that news of ongoing major disasters killing, poisoning, relocating, injurying, sickening etc. millions of people, are currently being highlighted only by Jeff Master's blog on Weather Underground. I quoted extensively from his Monday edition on Russia; Tuesday he wrote about the effects of monsoon rains in China, India, Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. "The number of people affected or needing assistance has been estimated to be as high as 13 million people--8% of the nation's population. The disaster is the worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history, and is rightfully being called "Pakistan's Katrina."

But hey, that's not as important as a ticked off air attendant, or Sarah Palin's latest tweet. Or Robert Gibbs' inartful comments.

Daily Kos was all shook up today over comments made by the White House Press Secretary. Marc Ambinder puts them in context.

Primaries in Colorado, Conn. and some other states had the kind of mixed and mixed up results we're likely to see in November. At least one observer says they were good for Dems. And the NYT, coming around to my POV, sees a more complicated November with maybe even something for the hopey-changey thing as suggested in Colorado. The Washington Post has an interesting take on the possible roles for Michelle Obama in 2010 Dem campaigns. She's been specifically requested by Barbara Boxer in CA and Joe Sestak in PA.

An uptick in calls for bolder action on the economy, not just on cable Tuesday but in the Wednesday New York Times, in separate columns by Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman. Herbert writes about how dire the employment situation really is, and Krugman about how dire the infrastructure situation is as well as state and local governments' ability to function. Put them together and what do you get? WPA, anyone? Yeah, Robert Reich uttered those letters on Tuesday, too.

Meanwhile, President Obama signed the $26 billion emergency aid to states bill. And here's an interesting poll, from Public Policy: 51% of undecided voters pin the bad economy on Bush, 27% on Obama. Presumably the same 27 (actually 28%) pine for GW, while 55% are happier with Obama. Not happy, exactly, but happier.

In Obama hoop news, more word getting around about the Dream Team pickup game for injured troops, involving current and past NBA greats. Magic Johnson was one, and though no video/photos or accounts and descriptions of these games have surfaced, Magic let it slip that in one of the games, President Obama hit the winning shot.

Finally, on the pop psych front, a study concluding that your personality in first grade is--your personality, forever.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Global Significance of the Russian Heat Wave

This is a weather map of North America (I think) from Weather Underground that has almost nothing to do with what follows. I just liked how it looks. But it is part of a discussion about a new storm building in the Gulf that may affect the U.S.

It's not entirely clear to me all of what the Russian Heat Wave implies, especially its relationship to the fires that are raging in the area. But Jeff Masters' blog yesterday at Weather Underground did say this:

"The Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 brought temperatures of 37°C (99°F) to Moscow today, and smog and smoke from wildfires blanketed the city for a sixth straight day. Air pollution levels were 2 - 3 times the maximum safe level today, and peaked on Saturday, when when carbon monoxide hit 6.5 times the safe level. The death toll from heat and air pollution increased to approximately 330 people per day in Moscow in recent days...

A plot of the departure of July 2010 temperatures from average (Figure 1) shows that the area of Russia experiencing incredible heat is vast, and that regions southeast of Moscow have the hottest, relative to average. Moscow is the largest city in Russia, with a population just over ten million, but there are several other major cities in the heat wave region. These include Saint Petersburg, Russia's 2nd most populous city (4.6 million), and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's 5th most populous city (1.3 million people.) Thus, the Russian population affected by extreme heat is at least double the population of Moscow, and the death toll in Russia from the 2010 heat wave is probably at least 15,000, and may be much higher. The only comparable heat wave in European history occurred in 2003, and killed an estimated 40,000 - 50,000 people, mostly in France and Italy. While the temperatures in that heat wave were not as extreme as the Russian heat wave, the nighttime low temperatures in the 2003 heat wave were considerably higher. This tends to add to heat stress and causes a higher death toll. I expect that by the time the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 is over, it may rival the 2003 European heat wave as the deadliest heat wave in world history."

The factor of toxic air may not occur to everyone as a product of such a prolonged period of intense heat, especially the carbon monoxide. Some other non-obvious consequences are raging peat fires and the danger of nuclear radiation, according to this story. After noting that other nearby nations like Belarus are also experiencing extreme heat, Masters goes on to relate this event--which Russian officials are saying is unprecedented for at least a thousand years--to the Climate Crisis:

"These nations comprise 19% of the total land area of Earth. This is the largest area of Earth's surface to experience all-time record high temperatures in any single year in the historical record. Looking back at the past decade, which was the hottest decade in the historical record, Seventy-five countries set extreme hottest temperature records (33% of all countries.) For comparison, fifteen countries set extreme coldest temperature records over the past ten years (6% of all countries). Earth has now seen four consecutive months with its warmest temperature on record, and the first half of 2010 was the warmest such 6-month period in the planet's history. It is not a surprise that many all-time extreme heat records are being shattered when the planet as a whole is so warm. Global warming "loads the dice" to favor extreme heat events unprecedented in recorded history."

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Most Unpopular Post in Blog History

Nobody wants to hear bad news, and the worse it is, the more we don't want to hear it--except we do, we need to. Right now there is a lot of bad news the news media is not bothering with, for various reasons: the flooding in Pakistan that affects at least 13 million people, and the heat in Russia that Jeff Masters now estimates has killed at least 15,000 people. Here is one of the few stories to document some of the impact of these and other climate-related disasters.

Then there are the less apparent but equally ominious signs of the Climate Crisis future: in addition to this sudden hit on the Russian wheat crop, rice crops in Asia are generally declining.

All of this bears on a likely aspect of the future that nobody--and I mean nobody-- wants to talk about, including those in the forefront on the Climate Crisis and in the environmental establishment generally. For example, the new books I've praised by Bill McKibben and David W. Orr make veiled references to it, but never say it out loud.

What nobody wants to talk about is that climate emergencies are going to kill a lot of people, and that in both measurable events and over the long run, that could mean millions and even billions of people.

That's partly implicit in the fact that the planet cannot possibly sustain its current population, let alone the population projected for the next several decades, with the standard of living that the West enjoys and huge growing economies like China and India are fast approaching. There are those like engineer and innovative inventor of renewable energy-related technologies Saul Griffith ( profiled by David Owen in the May 17, 2010 New Yorker magazine) who have done the math and can't come up with any combination of known energy sources and even near-term technologies that can fuel societies at this level of consumption.

We kind of know something like this is implied. It's even there in disaster movies in which the focus is on the small group that is saved, ignoring that millions have died off-camera, in addition to the thousands in those exciting disaster scenes. The concept of die-off is out there, but nobody really wants to talk about it.

I think it has to be acknowledged. It's the elephant in the room, and it's not pink. Allowing it to remain invisible doesn't help realistic planning as a society, or helpful attitudes individually. To acknowledge that life is going to change, and that there are going to be a lot of victims, is a more realistic way to get to the fact that some people are likely to survive, that even in times of terrible change, life will go on.

How to Become A Foreigner

We'd like to think that the investigations and prosecutions in the so-called War on Terror are as efficient as we see on NCIS or other TV dramas, and if there are corners cut it's justified by how bad the bad guys are. But even figuring in recent examples of what look like very good results of investigations into groups planning terrorist acts, a review in the NY Times of a new book reminds us that the abuses of the Bush years aren't necessarily over.

The case is made in this book by A. Kumar that the same sort of xenophobia currently rampant in U.S. politics also is present in the ham-handed approach to enforcing terrorism laws. It's the same profile of foreign poor, swept up in the careless need of the rich to protect themselves.

Mr. Kumar writes about many such men in this book, most of whom aren’t terrorists at all but bunglers and fools who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were, quite arguably, the hapless victims of entrapment. Mr. Kumar doesn’t deny that there are bad men in the fundamentalist Islamic world, men worthy of the American military’s attention. The problem is that we seem to be filling prisons with very minor characters.

He describes one man, imprisoned at Guantánamo, who was a cook’s assistant for Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Kumar quotes one observer’s bitterly funny observation: “O.K. We have the assistant cook. Where is Mr. Big? Where is the cook?”

It goes beyond individual injustices, as corrosive as they are. Despite the hope engendered by the election of Barack Obama, international anger with the U.S. is again increasing, due in part to the pattern of injustice, and the attitudes behind them, as well as other notable and obvious manifestations of xenophobia, and particularly a sudden spike in anti-Muslim prejudice that seems to be responding to no particular new event, but to a mood fostered for political gain in a time of economic anxiety.

Yet the underlying message of this is more universal: the non-rich don't count. Even if the success of politics and policies based on this apparently growing assumption are based on some of the non-rich identifying with this proposition, without looking at themselves. The way to become a foreigner is to not be rich, and therefore unprotected against the whims of circumstance.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Terror in the Age of Consequences

An object lesson in global heating: a tragic heat wave in Russia means bread may cost more in America. Responding to the loss of at least a fifth of its wheat crop due to unprecedented heat, Russia has banned wheat exports. That's what captured international attention (briefly)--but the extreme heat in Russia has also claimed the lives of thousands, although no exact count has been published. These heat waves, which Weather Underground's Jeff Masters calls "one of the most extraordinary weather events of my lifetime," have also touched off devastating fires that claimed more victims. "...soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years," Masters writes.

There may be many reasons that we don't have an actual count of heat-caused deaths in Russia. But it's worth mentioning that I can't find an accurate tally of heat-related deaths this summer in the United States, where heat waves continue, and have been experienced in nearly the entire country. When I googled this, the most recent national count I got was 150, but simply adding up reports from individual cities and states comes to more than that: 132 in California, 27 in the Washington DC area (as of July 27), 19 in Maryland, 13 in Memphis, 11 in Philadelphia, 10 in Oklahoma, etc. And apparently in many places, quantifying those deaths in a google-capable newspaper story isn't important enough to do.

I also came across an article in Slate from 8 years ago noting that heat-related deaths outnumber deaths from floods, tornadoes and earthquakes in an average year--in fact, heat-related deaths are double deaths from all the others combined. Yet, writer Eric Klinenberg asserts, Americans ignore heat-related deaths and illnesses. More than that, in at least one major case, many deny these deaths took place. A Chicago heat wave in 1995 killed 739 in one week, more than twice the number of people who died in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Yet---

"From the moment the local medical examiner began to report heat-related mortality figures, political leaders, journalists, and in turn the Chicago public have actively denied the disaster's significance and questioned whether the deaths were—to use the popular local phrase—"really real." Although so many city residents died that the coroner had to call in nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies, skepticism about the trauma continues today. In Chicago, people still debate whether the medical examiner exaggerated the numbers and wonder if the crisis was a "media event" that the press had "propped up somehow." The American Journal of Public Health definitively established that the medical examiner's numbers actually undercounted the mortality by about 250 since hundreds of bodies were buried before they could be autopsied. But how many people read the American Journal of Public Health? For now, the heat wave stands as a nonevent—perhaps a footnote—in the grand narrative of affluence and revitalization that dominates accounts of urban life in the 1990s."

One possible reason that the Slate writer suggested for this disbelief was that people who die from the heat usually live alone--they are typically old people. While that's undoubtedly a factor in why they died and why people don't know the people who die from the heat, this phenomenon of denial seems so close to how some people deny global heating that I wonder if something similar is going on. Are the roots of the denial the same?

It's worth exploring, especially considering the much more visceral response to the kind of attacks officially lumped together as terrorism. Is it possible that the spectre of excessive heat, of persistent excessive heat and its effects caused by global heating, is so much more terrifying that denial is the first defense?

It is terrifying. It is painful to contemplate-- at times overwhelmingly so. My insistence on confronting it here has probably limited this site's readership significantly. But I believe that there are ways to prepare for such new realities, beginning by dealing with heat-related problems right now. And by understanding that the most pervasive source of terror is going to be global heating, if it isn't that already.