Sunday, January 15, 2012

1/13-1/15

Really? Halfway decent regulations regarding the disclosure of fracking chemicals and water use in Texas?:
Starting Feb. 1, drilling operators in Texas will have to report many of the chemicals used in the process known as hydraulic fracturing. Environmentalists and landowners are looking forward to learning what acids, hydroxides and other materials have gone into a given well.

But a less-publicized part of the new regulation is what some experts are most interested in: the mandatory disclosure of the amount of water needed to “frack” each well. Experts call this an invaluable tool as they evaluate how fracking affects water supplies in the drought-prone state.
What's ultimately necessary is for the EPA to step in and issue some serious regulations, both with respect to full disclosure and also regarding protection of clean water and air; in the meantime, if Texas, of all places, can do it, there's no reason every other state that already has fracking can't follow their lead. The EPA will be issuing rules on dealing with wastewater soon, but there's more to regulate than just that. As the EPA pointed out to New York this week, workers and environmentally-sensitive areas need to be protected, too:
In its comments, the EPA pointed out that New York's current permitting system for water treatment plants doesn't include limits on pollutants frequently contained in drilling wastewater, such as radionuclides, which can cause cancer at high levels.

The EPA said it needs to be more closely involved in analyzing and approving any treatment plant's application to accept drilling wastewater. And while the DEC's proposed rules suggest limits on radioactive elements such as radium, the EPA said it's not clear who would be "responsible for addressing the potential health and safety issues" related to radiation exposure.

The EPA also flagged health risks to workers close to wastewater and other potentially radioactive materials, like the large amounts of soil and mud unearthed by drilling. "At a minimum, the human health risks to the site workers from radon and its decay products should be assessed along with the associated treatment technologies such as aeration systems or holding for decay," the agency wrote.

Environmental management works better when all stakeholders are involved, everyone's views are given legitimate consideration, and those that lose out due to regulations are given other options for maintaining livelihoods; otherwise, those who are negatively affected won't be particularly supportive of new rules:
Fishermen voiced concerns about the expansion during a 7-year planning process, but managers showed little interest in following up, says Stephen Sutton of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. Sutton also wondered whether media portrayals of fisher’s negative reactions were accurate. To find out, Sutton and his colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews and mail surveys with 114 fishers over more than two years, starting in 2007.The researchers’ affiliation with an independent branch of the university, the Fishing and Fisheries Research Centre, and their strong rapport with fishers, convinced many fishers to disclose sensitive details about their fishing spots and their perceptions of the new zoning restrictions, Sutton told Conservation.

Overall, most of the commercial fisherman surveyed did not favor the rezoning, but recreational fishermen – who do not depend on the park for most their income – were more supportive. And few fishers felt expressly engaged in what Sutton termed a “one size fits all” stakeholder involvement process. Although government planners had requested important fishing locations, for instance, he says many fishermen grew distrustful and didn’t participate fully because officials said little about how they would use the information. Since the sweeping laws were enacted, fishers said their access to productive areas, business profitability, and personal income all have dwindled. But the team also reports in Marine Policy that fishers adapted to new stomping grounds, mainly by moving their fishing efforts closer to home ports.

[...]

The Australian experience highlights the challenges faced by marine reserve managers in the United States, says Meg Caldwell, executive director of the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey, California. “It’s rare that fishermen are cheerleaders for the [reserve] system,” she says. “We may be asking too much of the survey to get positive results.” But the more honest planners are in engaging fishers and other stakeholders, the more straightforward their input will be, Caldwell says.

There’s no evidence, though, that happiness has any impact on whether fishermen comply with regulations, she notes. Instead, she believes “social cohesion” matters more, such as that created by having fishermen police themselves or enforcing strict penalties for violations.
Those working on governance of the commons and strategies like adaptive co-management have shown time and time again that factors like social cohesion and enforcement by those involved is more effective than top-down regulation in many cases. It's a bit disappointing to see that the lessons from Ostrom et al., which are grounded in reams of empirical evidence, are still not necessarily being incorporated into management actions.

Speaking of Ostrom and the extensive literature on managing common pool resources, she and co-authors discuss best practices on managing for ecosystem services in a recent issue of Solutions:
Two decades of research into the management of what economists call common-pool resources suggests that, under the right conditions, local communities can manage shared resources sustainably and successfully. These revolutionary findings challenge the long-held belief in the “tragedy of the commons.” Instead, we have found that tragedy is not inevitable when a shared resource is at stake, provided that people communicate. In many places—from Swiss pastures to Japanese forests—communities have come together for the sake of the environment and their own long-term well-being.

Common-pool resources have two features: first, they are shared resources whose use by one person makes them less available for use by another; second, it is typically very difficult to limit the public’s access to them (through laws or physical barriers). Many, but not all, ecosystem services can be categorized as common-pool resources. Consider, for instance, the clean water provided by an intact watershed, the pollination provided by a community of bees, or the carbon sequestration provided by a healthy forest. These are public goods, but individual use can degrade a watershed or strip a forest, compromising these benefits for all. As we look to develop institutions to better manage ecosystem services, and ensure their resilience over time, we can benefit from the lessons learned in the management of common-pool resources.

[...]

Policymakers often gravitate toward one-size-fits-all solutions and static institutions. However, when it comes to the complexity of managing human-natural systems, a more adaptive approach is required. A key to success is understanding each unique place and the people who depend on its ecosystem services. Clear communication and storytelling at all scales not only will engage necessary participation but will help determine which successful strategies can be translated across cases and which are not translatable. Cost-benefit analyses are helpful but limited in describing how social values will ultimately result in a particular decision.

Just as natural systems evolve, so must our strategies and institutions. Like a durable good that reaches the end of its life and is then recycled, so too must we periodically evaluate and anticipate obsolescence of our management structures and tactics.
(Interested in more on Ostrom's work and getting a good summary of the literature on common pool resources and what it tells us? Check out her Nobel speech, as modified for publication in AER here.)


Is Microsoft's “unsafe neighborhood” avoidance patent problematic? Yes, it is; let us count the ways:
  • Codifying something matters. Banks always discriminated against people of color and poor neighborhoods, but it got much worse when redlining became official policy. Since the advent of the Internet, technologies that are widely used by major corporations have a form of codifying power. This app will further mark some communities as places to avoid, exacerbating abandonment and creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  • Folk knowledge is absent. "Street smarts" is often about relationships with people you know, specific incidents and particular places, not about raw data in GIS. As author Sarah Chinn wisely points out in the AOL article, most violent crime occurs between people who know each other. There is simply no way to create an exclusively "data-driven" application for street smarts in a way that actually makes people smarter. Note to IBM: The pathway to "smarter cities" involves smarter citizens, which goes beyond access to "data." This app would not teach us how to read, live in or navigate a city — it would simply chop the city up into "safe" and "unsafe" areas.
  • This is a practice we want to undo, not replicate. All of us, especially if we are white and not poor, have avoided places based on some "sign" or reputation. Sometimes this is probably quite wise — I've been mugged, and I now know why I should have avoided that place. But we have all likely avoided places based on unfounded fear, one that permeates our society and constantly helps reproduce spatial inequality. We should be looking for ways to reduce the "automatic avoidance" instinct, not build it into our cellphones.

States running their own high-risk pool insurance programs are finding the programs cost more per enrollee than expected. Fortunately there's still more than enough money allocated to the PCIP to cover costs through 2014, when insurers can no longer discriminate against those of us with pre-existing health conditions:
Because nationwide enrollment has been far less than expected, federal funding for the program established under the health overhaul appears plentiful: $5 billion was set aside and less than $500 million has been spent in the first 16 months. The program is scheduled to end in 2014 when insurers can no longer deny people coverage for pre-existing health conditions.

But funding allotments for a few states are beginning to run low, largely because health costs have been higher than expected.

Carl Zimmer points to a new study showing how cancer can evolve:
[T]he same forces that drive the evolution of free-living organisms can also drive cancer cells to become more aggressive and dangerous. Evolution becomes our inner foe if mutations disable a cell’s self-restraint. The cell multiplies. Sometimes a new mutation arises in its descendants. If the mutations allow the cancer to grow faster, the cells carrying it will take over the population of cancerous cells. Natural selection and other processes that drive evolution on the outside start driving it on the inside.

[...]

The chemotherapy knocked down all the clusters of cancer cells to such low numbers that doctors couldn’t find them any more. But they were still there. And when exposed to chemotherapy drugs, the most successful cluster was not the one that had been most successful back when the cancer was diagnosed. It was the relatively rare Cluster 4. Apparently, it had mutations that made it better able to withstand the chemotherapy drugs. Some its descendants later picked up new mutations, which enabled them to reproduce quickly and take over the cancer population, as they resisted new chemotherapy drugs as well.

“The AML genome in an individual patient is clearly a ‘moving target,’” the scientists right conclude. “Eradication of the founding clone and all of its subclones will be required to achieve cures.” Easier said than done, of course. The parallels between this research and studies on antibiotic resistance in bacteria are sobering. But at least now we’re starting to see what kind of evolutionary challenge we’re really up against.

Mike Konczal interviews Josh Kosman, author of The Buyout of America: How Private Equity Is Destroying Jobs and Killing the American Economy, about private equity firms, Bain Capital, and the way the tax code is structured to encourage leveraged buyouts:
Private equity and buyouts started as a way to take advantage of tax gimmicks, not as a way of saying “we’re going to turn around companies.” And now it’s out of control. I look at the 10 largest deals done in the 1990s, during ideal economic times, and in six cases it was clear that the company was worse off than if they never been acquired. Moody’s just put out a report in December that looked at the 40 largest buyouts of this era and showed that their revenue was growing at 4 percent since their buyout, while comparable companies were growing at 14 percent.

In January — so just in the past 12 days — Hostess, the largest bakery in the country, just went bankrupt. Coach, the largest bus company, just went bankrupt. And Quizno’s is about to go bankrupt. All of these were owned by private equity.

[...]

What I’d like to see Mitt Romney do is to show an example of a buyout that went well. The only success stories he’s talking about on any level are venture capital investments — Staples and Sports Authority. Personally I like venture capital, I think it provides a lot of value, but that’s not what he did mostly, and that’s not what these takeovers are about.

The big fix I’d encourage is an end to interest-tax deducibility for leveraged buyouts. The tax system encourages companies to borrow as much as they can. For certain industries, like telecom, these deductions might make a lot of sense. But it was never intended for financing leveraged buyouts. If you put a cap on this you would find buyouts and private equity firms that were much more focused on building companies.

Amazing pianist and bandleader Vijay Iyer suggests we rethink what jazz means and stands for:
I said the other day, if we’re going to use what’s now being called “the J word” — there’s kind of a movement to jettison that word in fact — but if we’re going to use it, we have to understand it not as a style of music but as basically a strategy of transformation. Because it’s about transforming yourself and your surroundings and people around you, working with materials you have at hand, what you have at your disposal. When we talk about improvised music, it’s improvised not just in the sense that I’m choosing what notes to play, but I’m also choosing everything about it and putting it together because it’s what we have. If you were stranded in the forest overnight, you might improvise a tent out of some branches and a blanket. And when you think about it that way, that’s kind of what this music is. It’s a strategy for survival, a strategy for transformation and connection, and a strategy for creative becoming, I think is the best way to put it.
Watch and/or hear a recent performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio here.


Two neat interactive features over at the NYTimes: Who are the 1%? And what % are you?

Vanity Fair offers a lengthy oral history of .the prison at Guant√°namo Bay.

In his misguided attempt at “balance” (which just generally reflects his unwillingness to take a stance on issues beyond the confines of the comfortable middle ground, in which he decries the extremism of both sides equally), Andy Revkin refuses to recognize that making the supply chain more efficient isn't enough to green Wal Mart. The simple answer to the question he poses is “no”; the reality of the situation that Revkin finds too extreme to acknowledge is that a society built on cheap, disposable mega-consumption — i.e., the very model that Wal Mart depends upon — cannot and will not ever be sustainable.

A study of 15 fisheries managed using catch shares shows generally positive outcomes for both fishers and communities, as well as the managed stocks.

Rawls, justice, and regional economies.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop decodes Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The Jayhawks stop by the studio of public radio's very fine Sound Opinions. And Jim and Greg give a shout-out to German experimental masters Can. Check out this absolutely mindblowing performance of their fantastic tune “Halleluwah”:


Heather's Happy Link of the Day: snowboarding crow.

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