Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Alex Steffen says the key to revitalizing our economy is through building greener cities:
Cities at the cutting edge of this kind of development, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, aim to be carbon-neutral within 20 years. Change at that speed means not just doing things differently but doing different things and starting now. Top of the list: avoiding big investments in outdated projects such as highway construction in favor of concentrating resources on transforming key neighborhoods, extending transit systems, and upgrading infrastructure.

Carbon-neutral cities will also help uncage urban innovation, given that making them carbon-zero will involve a million opportunities to do things better in nearly every industry. I suggest new innovation zones: specific parts of cities (perhaps currently underutilized or abandoned) that can be turned over to small- and mid-scale experiments in carbon-zero work, commerce, and living. Think of them as seedbeds for new urban ways of life. Guided by clear, basic rules and fast-tracked permitting, and encouraged by connections with local industry and universities, such zones could quickly become hothouses for growing the kinds of city-building businesses that will feed the global economy as it surges into this urban century. If they bloom, they will draw the kind of creative young people every city is fighting for; what many of the brightest of the next generation want most of all is to participate in making a better future.

The People of Ecuador vs. Chevron:
During the plaintiffs’ portion of the tour, a local man named Donald Moncayo showed me around. Wearing white surgical gloves, he dug up a fistful of black mud and held it so that the sunlight caught the telltale blue-orange tint of petroleum. At one fetid pit in a jungle glade, he stepped gingerly onto the surface of the pool, where the solid matter in the produced water had congealed into a tarlike crust that was sturdy enough to support him. Smiling a little, Moncayo shifted his weight from one foot to the other, until the whole surface began to undulate beneath him. He looked like a kid on a waterbed. According to the plaintiffs, there are nearly a thousand of these pits in the Oriente, scattered across an area the size of Rhode Island.

Watching Moncayo, I had a sense of déjà vu. He is the regular master of ceremonies on the toxic tour; I had read accounts of his routine, and had seen it enacted, in nearly identical fashion, in “Crude,” the Berlinger documentary. But, if Moncayo’s cadences were rote, there was nothing feigned about his indignation. He led me down a steep ravine to a creek. In the gauzy light filtering through the canopy, the water, which was only a foot deep, looked crystalline. Moncayo drove a stick into the creek bed and churned the mud until the water grew clouded by sediment. At his encouragement, I skimmed my hand across the surface of the creek. My palm was coated in an acrid film.

Moncayo watched me with grim satisfaction. “We tell Chevron, ‘If you think this is O.K. for human consumption, then why don’t you drink from it?’ ” he said.

Jim Craig, a Chevron spokesman, took me around Lago Agrio. He told me that the company has taken its own water samples in the Oriente, and has never identified a positive reading for hydrocarbon contamination. He speculated that, in some cases, the plaintiffs may have “spiked” local water sources after Chevron did its tests.

Craig told me that the skin infections and gastrointestinal problems attributed by the plaintiffs to oil pollution were more likely caused by sewer lines that run into local streams and rivers. “You can imagine all kinds of stomach problems arising from the ingestion of that crap,” he said.

A few miles outside Lago Agrio, we stood on the lip of a waste pit, and Craig told me that the vile-looking residue on its surface was only a few inches thick. To illustrate this point, he picked up a rock and lobbed it into the pit. It landed, with a sickly thud, on the surface. “If we had a bigger rock . . .” he said, and threw a much larger one. It, too, failed to sink.
The rest of the piece details Chevron's absolutely brutal legal strategy (which seems to be nothing more than brute intimidation), which somehow is convincing enough to district judge Lewis Kaplan to force the plaintiffs to turn over nearly all their personal records to the company. (The pollution of Ecuador is covered in detail in Joe Berlinger's film “Crude,” which is definitely worth seeing.)

The prison at Guantánamo turns 10 years old today. Mohammad el Gorani details his detention:
For months, I didn’t know where I was. Some brothers said Europe. No, others told: ‘It’s the weather of Oman.’ Others told Brazil, also because of the weather. We arrived in February, but it was so hot in comparison to Kandahar. There we shivered night and day, especially when we were naked. After a few months, an interrogator told me: ‘We’re in Cuba.’ It was the first time I heard this name. ‘An island in the middle of the ocean. Nobody can run away from here and you’ll be here for ever.’ The older detainees knew of Cuba, but didn’t know there was an American base. I’d seen a lot of American movies, and arrested people always said: ‘I have the right to a lawyer!’ The interrogators laughed at me: ‘Not here in Guantánamo! You got no rights here!’

The night I arrived, I was still tired from the flight, I had a first interrogation. The old man started by saying: ‘We have two faces, one nice and one ugly. We don’t want to show you the ugly one.’ He carried on with questions: ‘What were you doing in Afghanistan? Are you from al-Qaida? Are you a Taliban? Have you been in training camps?’ My answers were just: no, no, no! He started to shout and he sent me back to my cell. I was tired and scared. Prisoners were tortured somewhere. When you heard them crying, you were really scared – you thought you’d be next.In the beginning there were interrogations every night. They tortured me with electricity, mostly on the toes. The nails of my big toes fell off. Sometimes they hung you up like a chicken and hit your back. Sometimes they chained you, with your head on the ground. You couldn’t move for 16 or 17 hours. You peed on yourself.
A fellow victim of Gitmo, Murat Kurnaz, describes his experience there in the NYTimes:
I was taken to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, where American interrogators asked me the same questions for several weeks: Where is Osama bin Laden? Was I with Al Qaeda? No, I told them, I was not with Al Qaeda. No, I had no idea where bin Laden was. I begged the interrogators to please call Germany and find out who I was. During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.

At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable.

After about two months in Kandahar, I was transferred to Guantánamo. There were more beatings, endless solitary confinement, freezing temperatures and extreme heat, days of forced sleeplessness. The interrogations continued always with the same questions. I told my story over and over — my name, my family, why I was in Pakistan. Nothing I said satisfied them. I realized my interrogators were not interested in the truth.

Despite all this, I looked for ways to feel human. I have always loved animals. I started hiding a piece of bread from my meals and feeding the iguanas that came to the fence. When officials discovered this, I was punished with 30 days in isolation and darkness.
Another innocent victim of torture, Lakhdar Boumediene, discusses his unjust imprisonment and treatment:
The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.
And, of course, all three were wrongly imprisoned and eventually released since they weren't terrorist threats. But since Congress is being intrasigent and has given in to NIMBY concerns, the answer to ending this sad, shameful chapter in American history may be to give Guantánamo back to the Cubans:
In the 10 years since the Guantánamo detention camp opened, the anguished debate over whether to shutter the facility — or make it permanent — has obscured a deeper failure that dates back more than a century and implicates all Americans: namely, our continued occupation of Guantánamo itself. It is past time to return this imperialist enclave to Cuba.


If President Obama were to acknowledge this history and initiate the process of returning Guantánamo to Cuba, he could begin to put the mistakes of the last 10 years behind us, not to mention fulfill a campaign pledge. (Given Congressional intransigence, there might be no better way to close the detention camp than to turn over the rest of the naval base along with it.) It would rectify an age-old grievance and lay the groundwork for new relations with Cuba and other countries in the Western Hemisphere and around the globe. Finally, it would send an unmistakable message that integrity, self-scrutiny and candor are not evidence of weakness, but indispensable attributes of leadership in an ever changing world. Surely there would be no fitter way to observe today’s grim anniversary than to stand up for the principles Guantánamo has undermined for over a century.
Glenn Greenwald has some powerful words about the gross injustice of indefinite detention. And an ACLU infographic shows just how wrong-headed Guantánamo has been. (h/t Parady the Elder) Amy Davidson also rounds up some links of interest on the Gitmo anniversary here.

The death penalty isn't just wrong, but it's also carried out with complete arbitrariness:
In 2011, the number of new death sentences imposed in the United States fell by 25 percent to 78, the lowest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. This “freakishly” rare application — among the thousands of murder cases a year — is strong evidence that every state system is arbitrary and capricious. 

A look back at Cesar Chavez and the UFW and why the UFW is no longer a major player:
What is the significance of this story for what’s left of the labor movement today?

There’s no substitute for democracy. That’s the major lesson of the UFW experience. Democracy inside unions might be difficult and seem like a waste of time, but it’s only through democratic debate that people build the kind of commitment that is necessary to stand together. The UFW had no locals. That was a tremendous mistake. There’s no substitute for face to face debate, people having direct control over their local union affairs. That’s the way you build strength.

A long piece in Outside examines the somewhat questionable expenditures of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation:
Livestrong prides iteself on the fact that—on paper, anyway—it spends 81 percent of every dollar on programs. This is a big improvement over 2005, when the American Institute of Philanthropy took Livestrong to task for spending 45 cents of every dollar on fundraising. Now AIP gives Livestrong an A-minus, while Charity Navigator rates it three stars out of four.

But the foundation’s financial reports from 2009 and 2010 show that Livestrong’s resources pay for a very large amount of marketing and PR. During those years, the foundation raised $84 million and spent just over $60 million. (The rest went into a reserve of cash and assets that now tops $100 million.)

A surprising $4.2 million of that went straight to advertising, including large expenditures for banner ads and optimal search-engine placement. Outsourcing is the order of the day: $14 million of total spending, or more than 20 percent, went to outside consultants and professionals. That figure includes $2 million for construction, but much of the money went to independent organizations that actually run Livestrong programs. For example, Livestrong paid $1 million to a Boston–based public-health consulting firm to manage its campaigns in Mexico and South Africa against cancer stigma—the perception that cancer is contagious or invariably fatal.

Livestrong touts its stigma programs, but it spent more than triple that, $3.5 million in 2010 alone, for merchandise giveaways and order fulfillment. Curiously, on Livestrong’s tax return most of those merchandise costs were categorized as “program” expenses. CFO Greg Lee says donating the wristbands counts as a program because “it raises awareness.”

This kind of spending dwarfs Livestrong’s outlays for its direct services and patient-focused programs like Livestrong at the YMCA, an exercise routine tailored to cancer survivors available at YMCAs nationwide ($424,000 in 2010). There’s also a Livestrong at School program, offered in conjunction with Scholastic magazine ($630,000 in 2010). “Explain to students that Lance was very sick with cancer but that he was treated and got better,” begins one sample lesson plan for grades three through six.

Livestrong spends as much on legal bills as on these two programs combined: $1.8 million in 2009–10, mainly to protect its trademarks. In one memorable case, its lawyers shut down a man in Oklahoma who was selling Barkstrong dog collars. Meanwhile, “benefits to donors” (also merchandise, as well as travel expenses for Livestrong Challenge fundraisers) accounted for another $1.4 million in spending in 2010.

There’s still a research department, but now it focuses on things like quality-of-life surveys of cancer survivors. During my visit, I was plied with glossy reports and brochures, which are cranked out by the truckload. The foundation’s 2010 copying-and-printing bill came to almost $1.5 million.

But Livestrong’s largest single project in 2009—indeed, the main focus of Armstrong’s comeback—was the Livestrong Global Cancer Summit, held in Dublin in August. The summit ate up close to 20 percent of the foundation’s $30 million in program spending that year.


In one case, Armstrong himself stood to profit from the sale of a major Livestrong asset: its name. Most people are unaware that there are two Livestrong websites. is the site for the nonprofit Lance Armstrong Foundation, while is a somewhat similar-looking page that features the same Livestrong logo and design but is actually a for-profit content farm owned by Demand Media.

In 2008, the foundation licensed the Livestrong brand name to Demand, the online media company behind eHow and, among other properties. was positioned as a “health, fitness, and wellness community,” offering an online calorie counter, exercise and yoga videos, and articles about such topics as “What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Rejecting Belly Button Rings?”

As compensation for the use of its name, the foundation received about 183,000 shares of stock, which it sold for $3.1 million when the company went public in January 2011. Armstrong also received 156,000 shares of his own as part of a spokesperson agreement. (His agents, Bill Stapleton and Bart Knaggs, also received shares.) After the deal was criticized in the media, Armstrong donated his initial sale proceeds—roughly $1.2 million—to the foundation and said he planned to donate the rest, too.

Livestrong executives describe the deal as good for everyone, a way to spread their message of healthy lifestyles to a wider audience. Under the agreement, Armstrong provided blog entries, videos, and other content to “I actually have to do work for them,” he told me in an interview.

Adds Ulman: “They guaranteed us certain levels of traffic. They said, ‘We will build a site, and we will ultimately send people to the foundation.’ ” But traffic to the for-profit Demand Media site has surged, in part thanks to Lance’s promotional work, while the foundation’s traffic has remained essentially flat. And it was the foundation that paid to defend their joint trademark against the Barkstrong dog-collar salesman.

“It’s definitely questionable,” says Mark Zimbelman, the Brigham Young University professor behind Fraudbytes. “Imagine if the American Red Cross sold its name to, and you can go there and buy vitamins. You think you’re donating or helping the American Red Cross, but you’re really not. It’s unheard of.”

Willard Mittens Romney, Job Creator? Not so much. Of course, creating jobs was never the point; Mitt's job was "wealth creation," not job creation. To make money, it was always about screwing over employees and anyone else — taking money from others and calling it his own was what Mitt's callous version of capitalism always was:
For 15 years, Romney had been in the business of creative destruction and wealth creation. But what about his claims of job creation? Though Bain Capital surely helped expand some companies that had created jobs, the layoffs and closures at other firms would lead Romney’s political opponents to say that he had amassed a fortune in part by putting people out of work. The lucrative deals that made Romney wealthy could exact a cost. Maximizing financial return to investors could mean slashing jobs, closing plants, and moving production overseas. It could also mean clashing with union workers, serving on the board of a company that ran afoul of federal laws, and loading up already struggling companies with debt.

There is a difference between companies run by buyout firms and those rooted in their communities, according to Ross Gittell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business and Economics. When it comes to buyout firms, he said, “the objective is: Make money for investors. It’s not to maximize jobs.” Romney, in fact, had a fiduciary duty to investors to make as much money as possible. Sometimes everything worked out perfectly; a change in strategy might lead to cost savings and higher profits, and Bain cashed in. Sometimes jobs were lost, and Bain cashed in or lost part or all of its investment. In the end, Romney’s winners outweighed his losers on the Bain balance sheet. Marc Wolpow, a former Bain partner who worked with Romney on many deals, said the discussion at buyout companies typically does not focus on whether jobs will be created. “It’s the opposite—what jobs we can cut,” Wolpow said. “Because you had to document how you were going to create value. Eliminating redundancy, or the elimination of people, is a very valid way. Businesses will die if you don’t do that. I think the way Mitt should explain it is, if we didn’t buy these businesses and impose efficiencies on them, the market would have done it with disastrous consequences.”

2011 was not a good year for a woman's right to control her own body. And it could get even worse, as Republican candidates are now questioning the right to privacy established by Griswold; so much for small government conservatism:
Over the years the modern Republican Party has reflected both libertarian and authoritarian tendencies. Both survive, in a way. When it comes to taxes and regulation, the libertarian side of the party is ascendant. Even the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism has faded from view. But with regard to civil liberties, the G.O.P. has embraced state power with a vengeance. Whether it’s the rights of wartime detainees, or abortion rights, or the rights of gay people to marry (or to be free from discrimination), contemporary Republican leaders reflect clear moral disapproval. (Even Ron Paul, who is often described as a libertarian, is a fierce opponent of a woman’s right to choose abortion. And Rick Perry recently announced that he’s against a right to abortion even in cases of rape or incest.) Privacy is often described as “the right to be left alone,” but that’s not a value that seems terribly important in the G.O.P. right now.

The old cases of Pierce and Meyer show how important that right is. Though we may live in sex-obsessed times, these cases serve as useful reminders that an overbearing state can also assert itself in other ways. Republicans, and conservatives of all kinds, should be especially attuned to the possibility of governmental overreach. As Romney and Santorum illustrated last weekend, they’re not.

An excellent round-up of recent posts on scholarly publishing, Open Access, and the odious Research Works Act. It's a shame to see that a bipartisan group of legislators is willing to carry Elsevier's water for them. (h/t Andy J.) Michael Eisen takes the case against the Research Works Act to the pages on the NYTimes op-ed page and calls on both Congress and scientists and the rest of the academic community to take action to preserve the open dissemination of scientific research:
Rather than rolling back public access, Congress should move to enshrine a simple principle in United States law: if taxpayers paid for it, they own it. This is already the case for scientific papers published by researchers at the N.I.H. campus in Bethesda, Md., whose work, as government employees, has been explicitly excluded from copyright protection since 1976. It would be easy to extend this coverage to all works funded by the federal government.

But it is not just Congress that should act. For too long scientists, libraries and research institutions have supported the publishing status quo out of a combination of tradition and convenience. But the latest effort to overturn the N.I.H.’s public access policy should dispel any remaining illusions that commercial publishers are serving the interests of the scientific community and public.

Researchers should cut off commercial journals’ supply of papers by publishing exclusively in one of the many “open-access” journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review (like those published by the Public Library of Science, which I co-founded). Libraries should cut off their supply of money by canceling subscriptions. And most important, the N.I.H., universities and other public and private agencies that sponsor academic research should make it clear that fulfilling their mission requires that their researchers’ scholarly output be freely available to the public at the moment of publication.

These steps would not only accomplish an important public good — unlimited access to the latest scientific and medical findings — but they would also send a powerful sign of gratitude to the taxpayers, on whose continued support our research depends.

The fascinating history of Crisco. (h/t Katelyn)

A joint a week won't hurt you. Occasionally smoking weed might even help your lungs:
In fact, those occasional pot smokers actually had improvements in some measurements of lung function. That may be due in part to the stretching involved in the deep tokes typical of marijuana use. By contrast, both past and present cigarette smokers had impaired lung function.
 It's all in your head, or is it?: an ontology of color. (h/t Katelyn)

Recording and the production of knowledge. (h/t Benny)

Nick Zammuto, formerly of The Books, has a new band. Hear their new EP, Idiom Wind, below:

Speaking of new streaming music, Leonard Cohen shares a second tune from his new record:

In shameless self-promotion news, after a brief hiatus, my song-of-the-day blog is back in business.

And in Heather's Happy Link of the Day, Wifey discovers the joy of roasted carrots and declares 2012 to be The Year of the Vegetable.

No comments:

Post a Comment