August 29, 2007

Now We're Skeptical!

When the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq, hawks aplenty talked about the "humanitarian benefits" of liberating all those Iraqis from Saddam's clutches. They never stopped to ask whether all the money that would be spent on the war could have been put to even better humanitarian ends elsewhere. It certainly could've, though: Even if the war hadn't been a total fiasco, spending those hundreds of billions of dollars on malaria nets and vaccines in the Third World would've helped far more people and saved more lives, if that was your main concern.

Then we have the War on Drugs, a multi-billion dollar endeavor that has accomplished absolutely nothing of value. Again, few conservatives ever ask whether it would be "more cost-effective" to spend that money elsewhere. The same goes for the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year on enough military hardware to destroy the earth ten times over. The most efficient use of our resources? Of course not. Is there a big outcry about this fact? Not really.

But wait! Liberals are now talking about trying to tackle climate change. And all of the sudden conservatives are rallying around Bjorn Lomborg and saying, "Dear god, man. Stop! Don't you know that spending money to prevent global warming isn't the absolute most cost-effective use of those dollars? Why, it would be immoral to proceed." Now isn't that a cute trick?
-- Brad Plumer 12:34 AM || ||

August 23, 2007

Opening Moves

Roger Boylan has a nice little appreciation of Vladimir Nabokov in the Boston Review. The occasion, I suppose, is the 30th anniversary of his death. Or, perhaps anytime's a good time for an appreciation. In any case, the usual temptation here is to quote some particularly lovely passage or other, but my favorite thing Nabokov-related--and I'm stealing this conceit from Anthony Lane--is still the various opening lines of his stories:
When the curved tip of one ski crosses the other, you tumble forward. ("Wingstroke")
The last streetcar was disappearing in a mirrorlike murk of the street and, along the wire above it, a spark of Bengal light, crackling and quivering, sped into the distance like a blue star. ("Details of a Sunset")
In front of the red-hued castle, amid luxuriant elms, there was a vividly green grass court. ("La Veneziana")
My charming, dear distant one, I presume you cannot have forgotten anything in more than eight years of our separation, if you manage to remember even the gray-haired, azure-liveried watchmen who did not both us in the least when we would meet, skipping school, on a frosty Petersburg morning, in the Suvurov museum, so dusty, so small, so similar to a glorified snuffbox. ("A Letter That Never Reached Russia")
Actually, his name was Frederic Dobson. ("The Potato Elf")
In the second place, because he was possessed by a sudden mad hankering after Russia. ("The Circle")
The growth of his power and fame was matched, in my imagination, by the degree of the punishment I would have liked to inflict on him. ("Tyrants Destroyed")
Do you remember the day you and I were lunching (partaking of nourishment) a couple of years before your death? ("Ultima Trufle")
Dear V.—Among other things, this is to tell you that at last I am here, in the country whither so many sunsets have led. ("That in Aleppo Once…")
And so on.
-- Brad Plumer 11:44 PM || ||
Blast Off

Apart from razing the Appalachian landscape, polluting thousands of rivers and streams, devastating local communities, and increasing erosion and flooding in the surrounding areas, there's really not a whole lot to love about mountaintop-removal mining. But here's the latest in a long, long line of White House moves to bolster the technique:
The Bush administration is set to issue a regulation on Friday that would enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. ...

The new rule would allow the practice to continue and expand, providing only that mine operators minimize the debris and cause the least environmental harm, although those terms are not clearly defined and to some extent merely restate existing law.
Love those caveats. No doubt the administration can find some former industry exec to head up oversight and "make sure" those mine operators actually minimize the debris. Better yet, the new regulations expect mine operators to reclaim the headwaters and streams they pollute, despite freely admitting that such efforts "have achieved little success to date." So the environmental impact will be minimized if you assume... lots of magic.

Anyway, most of the complaints about the world's growing coal addiction--the stuff still provides over half of America's electricity and is being burned at a staggering rate in China, etc.--focus, understandably, on the carbon-emissions angle. But the way that coal mining is literally destroying broad swaths of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee can't be taken lightly, either. On that note, Orion had a good piece about local efforts to fight back against mountaintop removal that's worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 4:57 PM || ||

August 19, 2007

You. People. Are. Crazy.

Talking about New Yorker articles that aren't online is a cruel tease, for sure. But the intro to Burkhard Bilger's piece from last week on extreme skydivers—that is to say, people who hop into giant balloons, float twenty miles up into the atmosphere, and then hop out—is too good not to quote:
Somewhere around sixty-three thousand feet above the earth, our body fluids begin to boil. They do this not because the temperature is so high but because the atmosphere is so thin. Water, kept liquid by air pressure on earth, turns to gas as the pressure drops, bubbling noticeably on the tip of the tongue. Physiologists call this altitude Armstrong's Line, after the Army Air Corps doctor who defined it, in the nineteen-thirties, and it may be the greatest barrier to our survival in space. But there are plenty of others.

Above ten thousand feet, pilots without air tanks begin to suffer hypoxia: their brains get so little oxygen that they start to speak gibberish and make foolish errors. At forty thousand feet, temperatures can drop below negative sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit. At fifty thousand feet, any gases trapped in the body expand to more than eight times their volume at sea level, swelling intestines, rupturing lung tissue, and distending the abdomen until it hinders breathing. In 1959, when a Marine lieutenant colonel named William Rankin bailed out of his fighter jet at fifty thousand feet, he barely survived the fall, bleeding from every orifice. Had he stayed at that altitude without an oxygen mask, he would have blacked out within ten seconds and suffered brain damage within minutes.

Michel Fournier has fallen from thirty-nine thousand feet-he holds the French record for high-altitude skydiving-but he longs to go much higher. His record jump was just a warmup, he says, for what he calls le Grand Saut, the Great Leap: the highest, longest, and fastest jump ever attempted. Later this summer, weather and equipment permitting, Fournier will don a pressure suit, climb into a space capsule attached to a vast helium balloon, and rise twenty-five miles above the plains of Saskatchewan-more than twice the height of Armstrong's Line. Then he'll jump out.
Here's a little bit more on Michel Fournier, as well as a brief bit on Joseph Kittinger, the Air Force colonel who holds the current skydiving record (102,800 feet, or about 19.4 miles). On that jump, in 1960, his right glove failed to pressurize and his hand swelled to twice his normal size. But that wasn't as bad as his first big jump (76,000 feet), when his first parachute wrapped around his neck, knocking him unconscious, his second parachuted got tangled around his body, and he was lucky the reserve chute managed to do its thing. And that wasn't as bad as what happened to the poor bloke who tried to break his record in 1966.

Here's a somewhat-confusing video of Kittinger's 19-mile jump. It mostly looks like he does a lot of spinning around. So, I'll just casually mention that the Bilger piece is my favorite New Yorker piece of, like, the last four-and-a-half months, and tell everyone to go read it (or, hell, email me for a bootleg copy). Once upon a time I had a physics teacher who marveled at the fact that kids were getting high off whipped cream chargers, saying, "Ach. The human spirit is indomitable." Well said.
-- Brad Plumer 4:18 AM || ||

August 18, 2007

Tipping Points

Tim Fenton's paper on climate "tipping points" is a nice little summary of the subject. (Via.) Basically, he's identifying seven tipping points that could be reached by the end of the century, if the planet continues to warm, with the most worrisome--in the short term--being the point at which the Greenland ice sheet will start melting irreversibly. All told, there's enough ice there to raise sea levels by around 7 meters, should it all slide into the ocean.

Now, the latest IPCC report suggested that we could reach that tipping point once global temperatures climb 1-2 degrees above pre-industrial levels (we're already locked in for about 0.7 degrees), at which point the Greenland ice sheet would start vanishing and take about 1000 years to disappear completely. Fenton thinks that the IPCC tends to be cautious about tipping points, and notes that the ice sheet could melt in as little as 300 years. Not fun. And, as he points out, if we limit global warming to under 2 degrees C, we could probably avoid most of the major tipping points, although even that's not guaranteed. (Especially since it's possible that we've already passed several--including one for Arctic sea ice.)

On a related note, Gavin Schmidt had a nuanced discussion of "tipping points" that's useful. It comes up often enough in the news that it's worth being clear about the concept. Personally, I've always filed this under "Scary Shit," but I guess that's what makes me an alarmist, eh?
-- Brad Plumer 8:04 PM || ||
Adventures in Proofreading

Now that I'm doing some part-time copyediting, there are a few things I have to obsess over. Like "OK" vs. "Okay." My rough intuition is to use both in different situations: "I'm OK, it was just a bruised kidney," but also, "Okay, let's get this borscht-eating contest over with." I could also see how some writers would be more suited to "OK" and others to "Okay"--they give off different atmospherics. But I can't really put my finger on it.

For that matter, I have yet to resolve "borscht" vs. "borsch." Neither has the clear edge on Google, although the extra "t" really is a nice touch.
-- Brad Plumer 4:06 PM || ||
Parole Reversal

Speaking of prison, a few years ago I reviewed a book by Michael Jacobson, a former corrections commissioner for New York City, who argued that one of the easiest (and politically realistic) ways to downsize prisons was simply to fix the parole system. That argument still makes a lot of sense to me. A 2002 Justice Department study on recidivism found that 52 percent of criminals end up back in prison after three years, and of those, over half are sent back not for committing real crimes, but merely for technical violations of their parole. Most parole officers are under-funded and overworked, and it's easier (and safer) simply to send violators back to prison.

Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman reported on a variation of this theme in TAP a few months ago, discussing a new probation program for drug users in Hawaii that "cuts recidivism and curbs [the flow of probationers] to over-crowded jails and prisons." The idea is that quick, mild sanctions for probationers work better than sporadic, draconian punishments. It's not an ultraliberal program (that label goes to the treatment-diversion program passed in 2001), but the early reports are encouraging. It does require more money upfront--to pay for the extra probation officers--but saves money in the long run.

I'm not sure we'll see more than scattered efforts along these lines, though. There have been a few stories lately about how even conservative Republicans are now thinking about ways to reduce the U.S. prison population. And a Pew survey in 2005 suggested that crime had largely disappeared as a top voter concern, suggesting the frenzy has subsided (or found other targets). But progress seemed more likely a few years ago, when state deficits were exploding, and that momentum seems to have waned. Jacobson points out that many governors can unilaterally change their states' parole policies, so that seems like the most fruitful path, but the trouble is that all it takes are one or two high-profile crimes by parolees and, voila, reform is dead.
-- Brad Plumer 3:46 PM || ||
Why the Prison State?

Like so many facts about the U.S. prison population, this one is eye-popping: "With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has close to a quarter of the world's prisoners." So is this: "We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart." Indeed, California spent half a billion dollars last year merely on overtime for its prison staff. The word "staggering" doesn't begin to describe it, nor do any of its synonyms.

Recently, Daniel Lazare and Glenn Loury wrote a pair of excellent essays on the U.S. prison-industrial complex. Some of the recited facts are familiar, but worth repeating: "In 2002 just 19 percent of the felony sentences handed down at the state level were for violent offenses." Loury, in particular, argues that imprisonment rates have risen while crime rates have fallen "not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment":
One simple measure of punitiveness is the likelihood that a person who is arrested will be subsequently incarcerated. Between 1980 and 2001, there was no real change in the chances of being arrested in response to a complaint: the rate was just under 50 percent. But the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. And because the amount of time served and the rate of prison admission both increased, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite the decline in the level of violence.
This isn't crime control so much as social control--twisted morality masquerading as policy. The racial disparities at work offer one signal: Black drug users are twice as likely to be arrested for drugs--and get tossed in prison once arrested--than whites, despite the fact that they don't use drugs any more than whites. (Between 1979 and 2000, white high-school seniors actually reported using drugs at a higher rate than black high-school seniors.) Loury, meanwhile, churns up this alarming study:
Analyzing arrests by residential neighborhood and police precinct, the criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues Valerie West and Jan Holland found that incarceration was highest in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, though these were often not the neighborhoods in which crime rates were the highest.
There is no logic here. And the growth in the prison state has huge consequences. Bruce Western has pointed out that one reason U.S. macroeconomic policies can look "good" compared to Europe's is because we omit our 2 million prisoners from our unemployment and poverty rates. Studies have shown, meanwhile, that prison only breeds further crime: I've discussed one such study here, while Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues found that "higher incarceration in a given neighborhood seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later." Again, this is not crime control. Not even close.

And that's not to mention the fact that ex-felons have utterly dismal job prospects, and, of course, can't vote: In 2000, 3.9 million Americans--one black man in seven--were disenfranchised. How many of those were black, non-violent drug users who were arrested and then barred from the polls while their white counterparts were free to toke up and continue voting for "tough on crime" politicians?

One major question here is how and why this state of affairs came to pass. Loury argues that our draconian crime-control policies are explicitly and intentionally racial in nature. He cites Vesla Mae Weaver's work, which suggests that after the Civil Rights era, opponents of racial equality focused their energies on crime policy as a way to preserve their master-race lifestyles. To this, Loury adds data showing that public attitudes on welfare and race became inextricably linked after 1965: "The association in the American mind of race with welfare, and of race with crime, has been achieved at a common historical moment."

That's persuasive, but it still seems incomplete. The War on Drugs, which has contributed more to our mass-incarceration orgy than anything else, strikes me as more than just Jim Crow for the 21st century. After all, in 1989 even Jesse Jackson was talking about using "antiterrorist policies" on drug users and traffickers, and Charlie Rangel was constantly savaging Reagan for being too soft on the drug menace. The media hyped to high heaven an article by Robert Martinson showing that rehabilitation doesn't work, and yawned five years later when he recanted. (Martinson, depressed over what he had wrought, killed himself in 1980.) There seems to be a mass frenzy at work here that goes beyond race, even if that's how it started. Sasha Abramsky's new book is called American Furies, which, I think, captures the sentiment, even if that's not a full explanation.
-- Brad Plumer 3:31 PM || ||

August 17, 2007

Yellowstone, Yosemite... the DMV?

Okay, I'll quote just one more bit from Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, and then I'm done. Apparently, the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that stretches between North and South Korea has become, inadvertently, a major wildlife refuge:
Much of the DMZ runs through mountains. Where it follows the courses of rivers and streams, the actual demarcation line is in bottomland where, for 5,000 years before the hostilities began, people grew rice. Their abandoned paddies are now sown thickly with land mines. Since the armistice in 1953, other than brief military patrols or desperate, fleeing North Koreans, humans have barely set foot there.

In their absence, the netherworld between these enemy doppelgangers has filled with creatures that had practically nowhere else to go. One of the world's most dangerous places became one of its most important—though inadvertent—refuges for wildlife that might otherwise have disappeared. Asiatic black bears, Eurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, an endangered mountain goat known as the goral, and the nearly vanished Amur leopard cling here to what may only be temporary life support—a slender fraction of the necessary range for a genetically healthy population of their kind. ...

As the Korean naturalists watch, cameras and spotting scopes poised, over the bulrushes glides a dazzling white squadron, 11 fliers in perfect formation. And in perfect silence. These are living Korean national icons: red-crowned cranes—the largest, and, next to whooping cranes, rarest on earth. They're accompanied by four smaller white-naped cranes, also endangered. Just in from China and Siberia, the DMZ is where most of them winter. If it didn't exist, they probably wouldn't either.
Who would've guessed? But this also raises a question. Say the North Korean state collapsed tomorrow, and the two countries reunited. (Maybe it wouldn't be so simple: I gather it's debatable as to how warmly many South Koreans would welcome such a move.) What would happen to the area? One possibility is that it would get swallowed up by rice farmers, and all those endangered species would eventually die. Alternatively, some Korean naturalists have proposed turning the area into a "peace park," a protected wildlife area. At least once the landmines are cleared away.

As a side note, Weisman reports that the South Korean positions have loudspeakers that blast "regular insults, military anthems, and even strident themes like the William Tell Overture across the divide." The William Tell Overture? Why?
-- Brad Plumer 7:09 PM || ||
Little Plastic Crumbs

Judging from his Amazon sales rankings, Alan Weisman certainly doesn't need me to hype his new book, The World Without Us. But it's an excellent read, and much recommended all the same. Just about every page would make for great blog fodder, but let's go with the part about a sailor who finds a massive floating whirlpool of garbage in the middle of the Pacific:
Capt. Charles Moore of Long Beach, California, learned that the day in 1997 when, sailing out of Honolulu, he steered his aluminum-hulled catamaran into a part of the western Pacific he'd always avoided. Sometimes known as the horse latitudes, it is a Texas-sized span of ocean between Hawaii and California rarely plied by sailors because of a perennial, slowly rotating high-pressure vortex of hot equatorial air that inhales wind and never gives it back. Beneath it, the water describes lazy, clockwise whorls toward a depression at the center.

Its correct name is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, though Moore soon learned that oceanographers had another label for it: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore had wandered into a sump where nearly everything that blows into the water from half of the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly toward a widening horror of industrial excretion.

For a week, Moore and his crew found themselves crossing a sea the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse. It was not unlike an Arctic vessel pushing through chunks of brash ice, except what was bobbing around them was a fright of cups, bottle caps, tangles of fish netting and monofilament line, bits of polystyrene packaging, six-pack rings, spent balloons, filmy scraps of sandwich wrap, and limp plastic bags that defied counting.
In 2005, the gyre was estimated to be 10 million square miles—roughly the size of Africa. Moore has calculated that there's about 3 million tons of plastic junk floating on the surface of the gyre, with nearly six times that much bobbing underwater, weighted down by barnacles and algae. And there are apparently six other major tropical gyres filling up with plastic debris. (See here for an earlier article on Moore's research.)

As unsightly as it is, though, the floating garbage is less troublesome than the fact that so much plastic in the ocean keeps crumbling into tinier and tinier particles without ever biodegrading. The particles then get eaten by various sea creatures—when they get small enough, even zooplankton will swallow them—and no one quite understands what effect that has on sea life, although the fact that plastics act as "sponges" for toxins offers one hint. These particles are literally everywhere in the ocean, and they'll remain for hundreds of thousands of years, until some super-microbe comes along that can actually digest plastic.
-- Brad Plumer 6:57 PM || ||