Flying over the Bakken

Ecoflight is a non-profit that uses light planes in the service of wildlands conservation. (I got on their mailing list a couple years ago after I took one of their flights over the California desert with pilot Bruce Gordon.)

Today’s offering from EcoFlight’s mailing list included a link to this video of oil drilling in North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. It’s sobering.

Californian that I am, my grasp on North Dakota geography is a little tenuous. I’ve visited the state, but just once, and that was way back in 1996 when Zeke, my ex-wife, and I were all still puppies. I’d imagined the Bakken development as mainly happening in the northwest corner of the state, and we’d visited the southwest corner, near the south unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park near the bustling micropolis of Medora, where Zeke and I shared a bison burger.

Apparently, despite my assumption, you can see the oil wells flaring at night from the south unit of the Park. One more landscape changed irrevocably in the service of human society.

Go frack this poll

The Ventura County Star has a poll up on hydraulic fracturing in California:

How concerned are you about fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in California?

  • I have little or no concern about it.
  • I’m concerned about its effects on water and the environment.
  • I’m concerned about a possible link to earthquakes.
  • I’m concerned that overregulation of it will kill jobs.

Fracking’s increasingly big news in California. My KCET colleague Char Miller has a good California fracking backgrounder here, but the short version is that the fossil fuel industry is eyeing the Monterey Shale, a Miocene marine sedimentary formation thought to hold as much as 15 billion barrels of oil. That’s twice what the Bakken holds in North Dakota. The stakes are high for the oil industry.

I’ve been informed by one of my geopals that the Western States Petroleum Association has quietly put the word out to its fanbase, asking them to swamp the poll. Right now votes of fracking opponents are about equal to those who either support fracking or don’t care, though the way the answers are phrased makes it look like opponents are well ahead.

I suspect there’s a diversity of opinion on fracking here. That’s fine. (Though those of you who disagree with me are wrong.) To its credit, the Star admits it’s a pointless exercise:

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

But the oil lobby does seize on spurious polls like this for PR spin purposes, so whatever your viewpoint, go add some noise to the signal.

Diversity building at Network

USA HDR 2012-08-10 (12)

I’ve been in work and personal overload lately, and I apologize for not annoying people here nearly as frequently as I’d like. The work overload, at least, will likely lift soon. In the meantime, I wanted to pass something along about an opportunity for biodiversity-oriented bloggers. It’s below the fold. For you non-fold-looking-under Hordelings, here are some cuddly cacti:

[Read more…]

Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, you’ve got some explaining to do.

23 years ago yesterday, as my friends Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were driving through Oakland, California on their way to appear at a Santa Cruz rally against clearcutting California’s remaining old-growth redwoods, a bomb exploded beneath the driver’s seat. Judi was in that drivers’ seat and nearly died of her wounds. She lived in constant pain until cancer took her life seven years later. (Thankfully, Darryl’s injuries were not as severe.)

The bomb was a home-made nail-filled pipe bomb with a motion-sensitive trigger. (The explosion happened as Judi and Darryl were driving past a middle school’s bus stop at Park and Macarthur boulevards in Central Oakland: it’s a wonder no one else was injured in the blast.)

Judi and her daughters after her release from the hospital. David J. Cross photo

At the time of the bombing, Judi, Darryl, and their fellow Earth First! activists in Northern California had been the targets of a campaign of sustained harassment, including death threats. Mailed leaflets featuring Judi’s face with superimposed crosshairs, for instance. A few weeks before the explosion, Judi had been run off a rural Northern California road Silkwood-style by a logging truck. The local cops told her “if you get killed, then we’ll investigate.”

The context for this was that some time earlier, a local timber company — Pacific Lumber — had been bought out leveraged-style by junk bond trader Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz  and his shell company Maxxam then started to liquidate PL’s holdings to generate cash. Among those holdings were some of the 5 or so percent of remaining old-growth redwood forests in California, which PL had previously been logging slowly enough that some people actually called the company a sustainable timber firm. Those trees started getting cut really quickly, endangering wildlife, the safety of timber workers , and the lives of people who lived downhill from the clearcuts.

Activists countered with a campaign modeled on the Civil Rights movement’s sit-ins, originally called Mississippi Summer In The Redwoods. Before long Judi and Earth First! had become central to the campaign, whose name was quickly shortened to Redwood Summer.

It was a really tense time in Northern California. Maxxam/PL managed to persuade some workers that the hippies were threatening their jobs, and the consequent conflict was ugly. That ugliness made the press fairly often. What didn’t make the press was the fact that Judi was an old-school union organizer: she identified more with the loggers than did most enviros, and she built some serious bridges between the two camps. Among other things, she got Earth First! in Northern California to renounce tree-spiking. She helped unionize a timber firm. Above all, she worked with timber workers to point out that sustainable logging meant sustainable employment, and that Maxxam’s cut and run practices meant mills would be closing as soon as the last tree was cut.

Still, those threats were out there and continuing. As horrified as we were when the bomb went off, it wasn’t particularly a surprise. What was a surprise was that the FBI arrived at the crime scene within minutes, and that the Oakland Police Department arrested Judi and Darryl before they’d been extracted from the ruins of Judi’s Subaru, charging them with transporting an explosive device.

The interior of Judi’s Subaru, the blast damage showing that the bomb was directly beneath the driver’s seat and not in the back footwell. Oakland Police photo.

The architect of this legal strategy? Mythbusters’ bomb expert Frank Doyle, then a special agent with the FBI.

Four weeks before the explosion, Doyle had run what was called a Bomb Investigator’s Training Course in Eureka in which law enforcement agents blew up cars with pipe bombs and then examined the wrecks for forensic evidence. There are two things that are especially spooky about this confluence of events. First was that Doyle, on arriving at the corner of Park and Macarthur, told his fellow first responders — four of whom had attended that course — “this is your final exam.” His statement was caught on tape.

The second spooky coincidence was that the bomb’s construction closely paralleled that of the practice bombs used at Doyle’s “bomb school.”

Doyle told the press that the damage to the car showed that it had been carried behind the driver’s seat, therefore was visible to the passengers, therefore they knew it was there and were deliberately transporting it. That lie was thoroughly shredded in a later court case, but at the time the press ran with it. Within two months all charges against Judi and Darryl were dropped for lack of evidence. You still hear people refer to them as the “people who were carrying that bomb.” The act of character assassination worked — a sentiment with which a Federal court judge and jury agreed.

Judi died of metastatic breast cancer in March 1997, leaving behind two young daughters. In 2002, that federal judge ordered Oakland cops and FBI agents to pay $4.4 million to Darryl and to Judi’s estate for violating their civil rights. During the trial agents admitted tracking Judi and Darryl for weeks before the bombing. The forensic evidence was clear. It was pretty much an open and shut case.

I am not saying that Frank Doyle had  other than an after-the-fact a role in the attempted murder of my friends, though it wouldn’t shock me if I found out that he did. But Doyle absolutely did thwart an effective investigation of that attempted murder. That’s a matter of established record. He ignored obvious leads, misrepresented evidence, and worked to frame activists for a horrible act of violence against them.

And nonetheless, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman decided to use Doyle as their go-to guy for explosives on Mythbusters. Despite the fact that Doyle tried to destroy two lives with a myth of his own concoction.

Let me be clear about one thing. Judi was not just targeted for being an environmental activist. The worst harassment, the worst threats that Redwood Summer activists received were directed at women. My friend Karen Pickett got some of those threatening letters too, and they were rife with misogyny to the point of being nearly laughable, before the bomb went off. (The accusation that women Earth First! activists were “box lunch eating lesbians” got used a lot.) One of the prime uninvestigated suspects in the bombing, a blithering godbag calling themself the “Lord’s Avenger,” claimed responsibility for the bombing and said it was in retaliation for Judi doing clinic defense at the Ukiah office of Planned Parenthood. That may or may not be true, though the Lord’s Avenger did apparently possess some interesting knowledge about the bomb’s construction.

Either way, Judi’s feminist activism definitely played a more than significant role in her being targeted. Male Earth First! activists got threats, and some of them were scary indeed. But it was the women who bore the brunt of the threats and harassment, and Judi paid the biggest price.


The film “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” screened on the outside of the Mythbusters building in San Francisco, May 24 2013

Which raises a question. For all the criticism it has received for being sensationalist and superficial, Mythbusters essentially serves as a public face of Skepticism to viewers who have never heard of Skepticism. Yet apparently it’s no big deal for Adam and Jamie to support, employ, and publicize a man who may have helped target a feminist environmental activist for unbelievably painful harassment, and who certainly provided effective cover for the people who tried to kill her.

Darryl Cherney, who has plowed some of the proceeds from the court settlement into making a film about Judi, is trying to get Jamie and Adam to explain why they employ Frank Doyle. They’ve been reluctant to answer, even though Darryl went so far as to offer a free screening of the film on the wall of Mythbusters’ building this weekend.

Anyone concerned with the role of women in the Skeptics’ movement ought to ask them for an answer.

Help This Desert Kit Fox Study Get Moving

This Indiegogo science campaign is wonderful.

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

Desert kit foxes are in trouble. They’re shy, they’re faced with competition even when things are good from other carnivores such as coyotes, and they’re increasingly being displaced by human industry. One recent distressing example of that last: builders of the Genesis Solar Project were trying to evict a population of desert kit foxes from the construction site in the Mojave-Sonoran transition zone. The foxes suddenly started dying of distemper, which disease hadn’t been known in desert kit foxes before.

Enviro groups petitioned this year to protect the desert kit fox, Vulpes macrotis arsipus, as Threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Sadly, that petition went nowhere.

Here’s a quote from that piece of mine in the last link from Ileene Anderson, a desert biologist working with the Center for Biological Diversity, that pretty much sums up the kit fox’s situation:

At present, more than 114,000 acres of desert kit fox habitat are approved for largescale industrial solar and wind development and close to 1 million acres of desert kit fox habitat are currently under environmental review or application for large-scale industrial solar and wind development as of January 2013. Key threats from large-scale industrial energy development to the desert kit fox include habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, and loss of connectivity, as well as direct and indirect impacts resulting from reduced ability for movement, increased competition and depredation, increased in non-native cover, mortality from roads, and displacement of foxes from den sites. In addition, a recent outbreak of canine distemper centered at a large-scale solar project site in the southern California desert highlights growing anthropogenic disease risks for the desert kit fox associated with habitat loss and development. Unfortunately, industrial-scale energy development projects approved to date have not properly considered the impacts and risks to the desert kit fox and the need to avoid, minimize and mitigate those impacts and risks to protect the species’ long-term survival.

One of the problems is that there just hasn’t been a lot of baseline science done on desert kit foxes. We know a few things. They’re nocturnal. They like to eat kangaroo rats. The will grudgingly eat other prey, including jackrabbits that can weigh more than they do, but without kangaroo rats they suffer population declines. They don’t like people much, though they seem not to be bothered by low-flying aircraft. We know a few other things about their behavior and sociality, but not so much about their choices of habitat. What distinguishes a stretch of alluvial fan covered in cresosote bush that the kit foxes like enough to move into, from a seemingly identical one across the valley that they don’t bother with?

It would be good to know that kind of thing as we develop the desert. That way, we can know where the really prime kit fox habitat is, and have a better idea of how our projects are likely to affect its viability.

Duke University grad student Dipika Kadaba wants to do the fieldwork to start developing that base of knowledge about desert kit fox habitat. I’ll let her explain:

For the tl;dw folks: Kadaba and her colleagues are trying to raise funds via her Indiegogo campaign to support four biologists in the field for a summer not far from here. They’ll use small drones to survey about 200 square miles of desert for kit fox dens. They’ll then conduct ecological surveys of plots both with and without kit fox dens to see what the differences are between kit fox habitat and not-fox habitat.

They’re looking for $8,000 to conduct this study, an eminently reasonable amount. It’s a really cool project and I encourage you to check it out and consider donating. For those of you who partake of the Great Blue Evil, Dipika has set up a Facebook page for her Desert Kit Fox Project where you can keep track of what they’re doing. Update: The project also has a blog for you Facebook objectors.

There are just so many aspects of this project I like, including finally having a reason to be glad drones exist. Check it out.

Did a bat land on you at the Kelso Depot in the Mojave Desert?

Boosting signal on this, because it’s potentially very urgent and the person at risk could be anywhere in the world at this point.

A week ago, on April 30, a visitor to the Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve had a bat land on his neck. The bat — a Myotis lucifugus a.k.a. little brown bat — has since tested positive for rabies, and now San Bernardino County officials are trying to find the man. They don’t know if he was bitten or scratched: it wouldn’t take much of a bite to transmit the disease, and if that happened he’s got to get vaxxed.

Details on the incident and public health contact info are here. The guy doesn’t have a lot of slack before getting to the doctor at this point: onset of symptoms can start mere days after a bite. (Or years, which has caused people to falsely assume they’ve dodged a bullet.) Before symptoms start prevention is straightforward and no longer arduous. I’ve had rabies shots and they weren’t the worst injections I had that year. (Individual mileage varies there, but they’re way better than they were back in the day. Mine were a breeze.)

And it’s a good opportunity to remind people in bat and rabies country that while transmission of rabies from bats to humans is quite rare, bats exhibiting unusual behavior (like not being shy or nocturnal) should be given a wide berth and reported to local authorities.

Confession time: dental hygiene edition

In comments on PZ’s “divorce” post, Antiochus Epiphanes sez:

Skepticism™ the movement and skepticism, the practice of thinking critically, shouldn’t be conflated. The latter is no great intellectual achievement and should be in the skill set of grade schoolers. That it isn’t may be the motivation of the former, but we shouldn’t expect any intellectual advances to emerge from the movement, because what it’s doing is necessarily remedial.

I wholeheartedly agree with the above, and a couple years ago it struck me that skepticism (small-‘s’) is essentially a form of basic intellectual hygiene, something that everyone is capable of to varying degrees and something that everyone should do.

“Kind of like brushing your teeth,” it occurred to me back then, and ever since I’ve quietly replaced references to Skepticism Writ Large with “Tooth Brushing” in my mind.

alessi otto

Don’t forget to keep those deep rifts flossed

Though it might seem to trivialize skepticism to compare it to brushing your teeth, that’s not at all what I intend. Brushing your teeth is incredibly important. Most people don’t do it diligently enough, and when they do many of them get it wrong. Failing to engage in proper dental hygiene can shorten your life significantly — not only can bad teeth consign you to somewhat less healthy diets, but gum disease and heart disease have been conclusively linked. And not brushing your teeth has certain social ramifications too, not to mention a likely legacy of personal discomfort.

So dental hygiene is crucial for proper health, and while we can rely on experts for some advanced treatment the responsibility is on each and every one of us to take responsibility for our own teeth.

Skepticism is to the intellect as brushing is to teeth. Sometimes we need expert assistance, but the only way it really does us any long term good is if we engage in the practice of mental hygiene as a  habit, preferably after each bout of consuming something that might cause problems down the road, whether it’s a bag of chips or an article in the New York Toast.

As A.E. says in the above-blockquoted blockquote, that’s pretty basic stuff. We really ought to learn the basics of each at around the same time in our lives. Basic doesn’t mean unimportant, as I’ve said, and there’s nothing at all wrong with devoting a substantial portion of your life campaigning to educate people who aren’t quite where they should be in their hygienic practice. People concerned with better tooth-brushing have associations and conventions. They devote a lot of time to the topic, some of it paid (and likely quite well, depending on location) but some of it on a volunteer basis spurred by their personal commitment. Again, much like skepticism.

But I’m not aware of too many people who describe themselves as “toothbrushers.” Dental hygiene seems to be something that even its most fervent advocates do, not something that they are. There seem to be no videos on YouTube by users with names like W0ndert00th decrying other Toothbrushers for getting Toothbrushing wrong, diluting Pure Toothbrushing, or threatening to destroy the Toothbrushing Movement.

It’s a trivial exercise coming up with ways in which the practice of skepticism is important in daily life. People who work in the sciences constitute one large, obvious example. As someone who writes about environmental issues and is beset by not only the whole chemtrail and HAARP crowd but also non-comprehension of basic math and science, skepticism is something I find opportunities to use every hour of my life. The same was true when I worked as a landscaper and as an (accidental) IT person. Directed at my own feelings and motivations, it’s helpful in getting through troubles in interpersonal relationships. It helps keep me from buying sugar pills when I have a cold. It’s crucial practice.

But I have to confess that for the last couple of years, every time I hear someone announce that they’re A Skeptic™ as though no further explication is necessary, this is how my brain parses that. Tell me what you actually do with your skepticism, and I may well be really interested. But claiming that the practice itself is enough to define you? Call me skeptical.

Fortunately for Matt Yglesias, Lindsay Beyerstein only leaves him in a metaphorical smoking crater.

A couple of commenters here have persisted in defending Matthew Yglesias’ odious bleat that life is cheaper in Bangladesh because it ought to be because reasons, and that any anger we Westerners might feel about the horrendous loss of life in the recent factory collapse ought more helpfully be directed to buying clothes made in those collapsing sweatshops so that eventually the people making a few hundred dollars a year will have flat screen televisions just like us.

Yglesias is doubling down. In a followup post, he stands by his conclusion that poor countries need to have less stringent workplace safety standards, and adds, as a prelude to accusing his critics of “poisoning the atmosphere,” [see update at end of post]

I’m not really sure what Americans can constructively do to get better enforcement of building codes in Bangladesh

As it turns out, Lindsay Beyerstein has a possible answer:

A group of Bangladeshi and international trade unionists put forward a bold plan to make the garment industry in Bangladesh safer. A surcharge of 10 cents per garment over 5 years would raise $600 million a year, enough to radically transform the infrastructure of the garment industry in Bangladesh. Walmart and the Gap rejected the proposal in 2011.

So that’s pretty handy: All America has to do to make sweatshops in Bangladesh safer is to stop fucking obstructing their being made safer. It’s win-win!

Oh, and a protip to Yglesias: If you persist in discussing the worker safety aspects of US investment in South Asia, you might want to consider not using “poisoning the atmosphere” as a way to tone-troll your critics. We have a 30th Anniversary coming up late next year that will turn that phrase a bit unfortunate.

Updated: in comments, nialscorva correctly points out that I misread Yglesias’ reference to “poisoning the atmosphere.”  My bad. Leaving the post as it was for transparency’s sake.

It’s Matthew Yglesias’ world: we just get blown up in it.

I haven’t had much use for The Lizard of K Street since he posted this sociopathic little gem in 2004:

Did the president really gut the Endangered Species Act yesterday while no one was paying attention? So I’ve heard, at any rate. If so, good riddance. You’ll all yell at me, I suppose, but really: Who cares? Species die, shit happens, get over it.

It is not exactly news that Matthew Yglesias is a tepid thinker. Poking holes in Yglesias’ vacuous, self-absorbed puffery has long been a popular pastime among bloggers from the progressive left to the hard right. He’s got himself a cushy gig these days, squirting out incontinent posts with no detectable logical or factual value, and as long as people give his outlets page views it’s all good. Eyeballs are eyeballs, and it doesn’t matter much if those eyeballs are rolling upward hard enough to burst blood vessels.

But this shit? This shit is inexcusable.

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.…

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody.

There are three main problems with Yglesias’ argument.

  1. Yglesias’ argument is profoundly immoral. People are willing to take bigger risks to feed their families when they’re burdened by poverty, yes. But arguing that we should use that unfortunate fact as a basic design feature of global workplace safety regulations is vile.
  2. Yglesias’ argument is profoundly ahistorical as well. Workplace safety regulations — and environmental laws, and education for women, and all of the thousands of other social goods we fight for — don’t magically appear when societies’ wealth passes a certain threshold as a result of the airy  fapping of the invisible hand. Those regulations come into being because people fight for them, often dying in the process, against the opposition of the entrenched powers that make the regulations necessary in the first place.  And here Yglesias is on the side of the entrenched powers, willing to wave away yet another workplace disaster so that he can continue to enjoy the cheap cotton shorts, running shoes, and tablet computers he sees as his birthright.
  3. Yglesias’ argument is essentially plagiarized from a 1991 memo by Laurence Summers written when the latter was the chief economist at the World Bank. A salient sampling from that memo:

I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. … The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate[sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate[sic] cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand.

An individual human life is worth fewer U.S. dollars in Bangladesh, and so betting that lower-value life against the possibility that you might actually survive your $432 per annum minimum wage job just makes better sense there than it does here, eh Matt? Hell, if the typical Bengali minimum wage worker survives his or her job for three or four years before they get crushed to death by an unsafe building, they may actually have come out well ahead of the game!

It’s a repugnant argument.

Matthew Yglesias should be ashamed of himself.