Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wagon Wheel

The city of Troy is catching Old Crow Medicine Show, followed by Mumford and Sons, amongst many acts today.  Should be entertaining.

The Origin of Ritual

Jim Davies, via the Dish:
n 1948 the Polish born British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski published a book on a study he conducted of the fishermen of the Trobriand Islands. Sometimes they fished in an inner lagoon, where fishing was pretty predictable. Every time they fished there, they got pretty much the same kind of catch. But they also fished in the open ocean, where the fish were bigger and harder to catch. Sometimes people would get great catches, and other times, terrible ones.  The lure of the very rare great catch proved too tempting for the Trobrianders, so they ventured into the open ocean despite the odds—and developed a set of superstitions. These included rituals performed during fishing and the casting of magic spells.
The circumstance dictated the explosion of rituals. We might think this is a completely human adaptation.  But it turns out that the tendency to resort to ritual in an effort to manage a challenging situation isn’t exclusive to humans. In the same year that Malinowski published his experiment, American psychologist B. F. Skinner found that he could generate superstitious behavior in pigeons. He taught pigeons to press down on a bar in exchange for food. All animals can learn to do this, and this learning process is called reinforcement. But an interesting thing happens if the food is given at random intervals—that is, pressing the bar sometimes does, and sometimes does not, produce a treat, with no discernable pattern. Under these conditions, but not under reliable conditions, the pigeon will start repeating arbitrary, idiosyncratic behaviors before pressing the bar. It might bob its head, or turn around twice. The pigeon becomes superstitious.
It’s as though the pigeon believes, at some level, that there is a reliable way to get a food pellet. It is the pigeon’s experience that pressing on the bar isn’t enough, because that doesn’t always work. So when the food actually comes, the pigeon looks at what it was doing before and wonders if those arbitrary actions—turning the head, making a noise—had something to do with the food delivery. The pigeon tries those things, and sometimes the food does indeed come. But sometimes the pigeon performs the ritual and the food still doesn’t come.
One would think that this would convince the pigeon that getting or not getting the treat has nothing to do with behavior. Similarly, in baseball, the batter can’t point to a direct correlation between tapping their foot on home plate and batting a double. The brave Trobriand fisherman who ventures out into the open sea after practicing a particular ritual can’t rely on the spirits’ goodwill. Voltaire and the philosophers from the Age of Reason would want us to apply rational tools and to understand that there is no connection between cause and effect.
Yet—whether for humans or pigeons—the opposite turns out to be true. There seems to be something in the brain that, when confronted with no easily discernable pattern between one’s action and the outcome, seeks to forge a bridge and create a story that unites the two events—one an action that you can take, and therefore a reliable bet, and two, an event with a low probability of occurrence.
The pigeon shit is fascinating.  One thing I appreciate from being raised in Catholicism is the appreciation of ritual.  I remember the comfort I gained from the familiar rhythms of mass as I was mourning one of my best friends who was killed in a car wreck back when I was 20.  At that time, I gained some appreciation for the value of ritual to deal with the highs and lows of life.  Like the pigeons, we are all comforted by these actions.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Big To Do

Well, Troy's British Invasion is here.  Mumford and Sons brings their Gentlemen of the Road show to our corner of the world.  It ought to be a hell of a good party.  It just bugs me that you can't get the city fathers to do anything involving alcohol in public, but some Limeys come along, and they shut the whole town down and let 'em sell beer anywhere.  Hopefully, this is just the icebreaker we need.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Worst Idea In History

Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the main purpose of a business being to create shareholder value has to be one of the most pernicious ideas in the past forty years:
It used to be a given that the interests of corporations and communities such as Endicott were closely aligned. But no more. Across the United States, as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages.
Driving this change is a deep-seated belief that took hold in corporate America a few decades ago and has come to define today’s economy — that a company’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value.
The belief that shareholders come first is not codified by statute. Rather, it was introduced by a handful of free-market academics in the 1970s and then picked up by business leaders and the media until it became an oft-repeated mantra in the corporate world.
Together with new competition overseas, the pressure to respond to the short-term demands of Wall Street has paved the way for an economy in which companies are increasingly disconnected from the state of the nation, laying off workers in huge waves, keeping average wages low and threatening to move operations abroad in the face of regulations and taxes.
This all presents a quandary for policymakers trying to combat joblessness and raise the fortunes of lower- and middle-class Americans. Proposals by President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to change corporate tax policy, for instance, are aimed at the margins of company behavior when compared with the overwhelming drive to maximize shareholder wealth.
“The shift in what employers think of as their role not just in the community but [relative] to their workforce is quite radical, and I think it has led to the last two jobless recoveries,” said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Read the whole thing.  This idea and the anti-tax movement are behind 90% of today's economic inequality.  And the thing is, it is just an absolutely terrible idea.  Companies try to claim that they value their employees, but if the buy into the creating value for shareholders bunk as job number one, they really don't give a shit about their employees.  And to put a finer point on the issue, we have this story about fracking companies screwing landowners out of royalties:
But manipulation of costs and other data by oil companies is keeping billions of dollars in royalties out of the hands of private and government landholders, an investigation by ProPublica has found. An analysis of lease agreements, government documents and thousands of pages of court records shows that such underpayments are widespread. Thousands of landowners like Feusner are receiving far less than they expected based on the sales value of gas or oil produced on their property. In some cases, they are being paid virtually nothing at all. In many cases, lawyers and auditors who specialize in production accounting tell ProPublica energy companies are using complex accounting and business arrangements to skim profits off the sale of resources and increase the expenses charged to landowners. Deducting expenses is itself controversial and debated as unfair among landowners, but it is allowable under many leases, some of which were signed without landowners fully understanding their implications. But some companies deduct expenses for transporting and processing natural gas, even when leases contain clauses explicitly prohibiting such deductions. In other cases, according to court files and documents obtained by ProPublica, they withhold money without explanation for other, unauthorized expenses, and without telling landowners that the money is being withheld. Significant amounts of fuel are never sold at all – companies use it themselves to power equipment that processes gas, sometimes at facilities far away from the land on which it was drilled. In Oklahoma, Chesapeake deducted marketing fees from payments to a landowner – a joint owner in the well – even though the fees went to its own subsidiary, a pipeline company called Chesapeake Energy Marketing. The landowner alleged the fees had been disguised in the form of lower sales prices. A court ruled that the company was entitled to charge the fees.
There are several other crooked schemes employed involving shell companies and such.  So how could anybody ever justify such blatant lying and theft?  Yep:
“The duty of the corporation is to make money for shareholders,” [Owen] Anderson [ the Eugene Kuntz Chair in Oil, Gas & Natural Resources at the University of Oklahoma College of Law] said. “Every penny that a corporation can save on royalties is a penny of profit for shareholders, so why shouldn’t they try to save every penny that they can on payments to royalty owners?”
Really?  Companies are supposed to lie, cheat and steal to make money for shareholders?  Fuck those bastards.  And the kicker is that Chesapeake was paying much more in royalties before they overproduced gas, THEN they came up with ever more creative ways to fuck people over.  If there is a Hell, there is no way these guys don't end up there.

A Little Syria Sanity

British lawmakers on Thursday voted down a proposal to take military action against Syria, dealing Prime Minister David Cameron a blow in his push for a strong response to claims the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people.
Cameron said he would not go against the vote of Parliament.
"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons," the prime minister said, adding that the vote reflected the views of the people who do not want to see British military action.
"I get that and the government will act accordingly," he said.
News of the vote came hours after a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council ended with no agreement on a resolution to address the growing crisis in Syria, a Western diplomat told CNN's Nick Paton Walsh on condition of anonymity.
Hopefully, Obama doesn't go it alone.  It would be nice to see an actual debate in an actual, functioning legislature here in the States.  But that would require an actual legislature that actually functions and isn't on fucking vacation right now.  Some things just make me sad, but this vote wasn't one of them.

Happy Birthday to The Onion

25 great years:

Before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert became establishments in news satire, there was The Onion. Thursday, "America's Finest News Source" turns 25. Two college students founded the fake news organization, which began as a newspaper in Madison, Wis. "It really started as something very local that was intended mainly to ... sell pizza coupons," Editor-in-Chief Will Tracy tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne..
It still has that Midwestern touch, he says.
"We still have a lot of Midwesterners writing for us, and I do think that there is a distinctly Midwestern aesthetic and voice to the paper," Tracy says. "It's sort of an unflashy, flat, unpretentious sort of voice that we have."
Part of that regional bent comes through in The Onion's daily-life humor and its stories about "" (who Tracy says seems to be a Midwesterner).
"I think that's one of the things that separates us from maybe other fake news outlets is most of what we do, actually, is focusing on the everyday minutiae, more so than what's happening in Washington," he says.
Stories like the one with the headline "" is funny "because you know somebody like that," Tracy says, "and it's put in that sort of news voice which elevates it to a certain level of importance that it doesn't actually merit."
The Onion takes on subjects with serious weight, too, making political points. These can be painfully funny stories. Take this headline from 2009. "U.S. Continues Quagmire Building Effort in Iraq."
It is amazing how often The Onion satirically predicts actual news.  Amazing and somewhat sad.  Anyway, keep the fake news coming.

Also, my all time favorite Onion piece:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When it Rains...

Actually, it probably ought to say, when it doesn't rain, because we're getting pretty dry right now.  The best year ever is starting to look like the best corn crop with an average bean crop.  But to go back to the title of the post, things have seemed to be falling apart the last few weeks.  Not only with the weather, but with work.  We've lost two folks in our engineering department, in which I do some work.  Then, today was the last day for my immediate boss in the environmental and safety side of things.  He handled all of the safety for three companies while I helped him out with the environmental side of things.  I've tried to let people know that I am not qualified to handle any of his duties, but I haven't really heard how they plan on taking care of things while they work to find a replacement.  Probably some of that work will devolve to me.  And I won't even get into where I really am killing myself.  Anyway, under normal circumstances I'd say that the sun will shine again, but right now, I'm looking for a rain cloud as a positive outcome.  Actually, for the vast swath of humanity, I'm still sitting pretty good.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Really? A Shale Bubble?

Say it ain't so:
Many US shale companies that have been beating the drums of shale “revolution” are now facing oil and gas well depletion. In February 2013 the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) warned that “diminishing returns to scale and the depletion of high productivity sweet spots are expected to eventually slow the rate of growth in tight oil production”. It was a cautious but intriguing statement.
Arthur Berman, a prominent shale skeptic who runs Labyrinth Consulting firm in Sugarland, Texas, is not surprised. “The shale gas phenomenon has been funded mostly by debt and equity offerings. At this point, further debt and share dilution are less feasible for many companies” – he wrote in The Oil Drum blog several months ago.
Just like the famous Gold Rushes of the 19th century US shale gas development turned out to be a limited and regional market opportunity.
The average depletion rate of wells in the Bakken Formation (the largest tight oil play in the US) is reported to be 69 percent in the first year and 94 percent over the first five years (37 percent and 50 percent in the Barnett Formation). Due to the lack of reliable data on shale industry many experts (for example, Deborah Rogers from Energy Policy Forum) await possible future write-downs in shale assets. Naturally smaller investors will not hear about the write-downs in the news.
Rock-bottom gas prices on the American market make it extremely difficult to drill more wells and maintain current levels of production, unless technology radically changes.
“The cheap price bubble in the US will burst within two-to-four years,” believes David Hughes, a geoscientist and former team leader on unconventional gas for the Canadian Potential Gas Committee. “At a high enough price, the supply bubble will burst perhaps 10-to-15 years later, when drilling locations become sparse.”
There are also sensational industry reports that reveal how investment bankers promoted shale bubble in order to profit from a short-lived energy boom. Subprime mortgage crisis has shown that the Wall Street is very good at creating financial bubbles.
A lot of the small investors now being solicited by respected investment publications may lose their money, forecasts Professor Robert U. Ayres in Forbes. The shale gas boom was profitable in 2009 but now small players are late for dinner.
Wait, investment bankers may just be selling shit to muppets?  No! Who would have ever guessed that?   I don't know what the shale plays hold.  Apparently, there is a hell of a lot of gas there.  The problem is that it can only be produced right now for more than what it sells for.  I think we'll find that shale oil is overhyped and that the peak in production will come sooner than most folks think.  I will predict that we probably won't here many Chesapeake Energy ads on the Ohio State radio broadcasts this year, unless they were dumb enough to sign a multi-year deal.

NYPD is Worse than NSA

New York Magazine:
Every day, the rakers set out from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the Demographics Unit was based, and visited businesses in teams of two. Their job was to look like any other young men stepping in off the street.
The routine was almost always the same, whether they were visiting a restaurant, deli, barbershop, or travel agency. The two rakers would enter and casually chat with the owner. The first order of business was to determine his ethnicity and that of the patrons. This would determine which file the business would go into. A report on Pakistani locations, for instance, or one on Moroccans. Next, they’d do what the NYPD called “gauging sentiment.” Were the patrons observant Muslims? Did they wear traditionally ethnic clothes, like shalwar kameez? Were the women wearing hijabs?
If the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera was playing on the TV, the police would note it and observe how people were acting. Were they laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they talk Middle Eastern politics? If the business sold extremist literature or CDs, the officers would buy one or two. Was the owner selling fake I.D.’s or untaxed cigarettes? Police would note it. If customers could rent time on a computer, police might pay for a session and look at the computer’s search history. Were people viewing jihadist videos or searching for bomb-making instructions? Who was speaking Urdu?
On their way out, the rakers would look at bulletin boards. Was a rally planned in the neighborhood? The rakers might attend. Was there a cricket league? The rakers might join. If someone advertised a room for rent, the cops would tear off a tab with the address or phone number. It could be a cheap apartment used by a terrorist.
Great, I'm sure that would be useful.  So after doing this for years, what did they have to show for it?  Not much, according to one of the participants who soured on the program:
But as the years went on, Berdecia’s enthusiasm for the program gave way to frustration. As a young detective in the Bronx, Berdecia had worked the streets, building informants and dismantling violent drug gangs. Yet his rakers spent their days sipping tea in caf├ęs.
The Demographics Unit had thousands of dollars to spend on meals and expenses so police would look like ordinary customers—costs known as “cover concealment.” Berdecia felt that his officers could eavesdrop just as well over a $2 cup of coffee as over a $30 meal, and he started asking questions about businesses that kept popping up on expense reports.
One frequent destination was the Kabul Kabob House in Flushing, Queens, which was owned by a soft-spoken blonde Persian woman named Shorah Dorudi, who fled Iran after the revolution in 1979. When Berdecia asked officers whether they suspected a threat that should be reported up the chain of command, he was told they were conducting routine follow-up visits. But a look at the reports showed nothing worth following up.
That’s when Berdecia realized that, in the hunt for terrorists, his detectives gravitated toward the best food.
Occasionally, Berdecia would see receipts for up to $40 at Middle Eastern sweet shops. Sometimes, the receipts showed detectives buying a bunch of pastries just before quitting time.
There's a shocker, cops gravitate to the food.  The whole article is worth reading.  To be honest, I can understand the desire to go undercover and try to glean information, but the real lesson is that there are almost no damn terrorists out there, and pretending there are is a waste of damn time and money.  But probably good eating.

U.S. Job Trends in 2 Charts

From Brad Plumer:

First, job growth and income:

Then, the same stuff, laid out another way:

Peak Water Out West?

Peter Gleick thinks so (h/t nc links).  A few of his data points:
  • Groundwater is disappearing in California; the Great Plains; Texas (tables in this report (pdf) show continuous and often massive declines in almost all Texas groundwater systems); and elsewhere in the West, because our laws and policies ignore the fact that surface and groundwater are connected. Contributing the problem, water managers and legislators typically put no restrictions on groundwater pumping, leading to inevitable, and inexorable, groundwater declines.
  • In the Lower Tule Irrigation District in California, demand for water has grown over the past two decades from 250,000 AF/year to 450,000 AF/year, much of it supplied by overpumping groundwater. In parts of the district, the average depth to groundwater in 1983 was 50 feet. In 2003, groundwater levels had declined to 75 feet. Today it is 125 feet, and some wells 300 feet deep are going dry.  In April 2013, John Roeloffs, a farmer and member of the Lower Tule Irrigation District Board, noted “Some guys are drilling wells 800 feet deep.”
  • There is more and more and more evidence of declining snowpack in the western US as the climate warms.
I would anticipate that we have peak combined population and agriculture out there.  I'm not sure what will happen, but I think he's right about this:
 Maybe it is time to grow less rice, alfalfa, cotton, and pasture with flood irrigation. It is past time to retire the green lawn as an acceptable landscape option in arid climates.
Yeah, growing alfalfa in Arizona doesn't make much sense to me.  Putting on inches of water between cuttings just doesn't seem like the thing to do in the desert.  I would say some of those acres will be going fallow pretty soon.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder from The Upthink Lab on Vimeo.

World Oil Consumption Since 1980

From EIA:

The world's consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today's article extends that analysis through 2012. Petroleum use in North America, which is dominated by consumption in the United States, has declined since 2005. Declines in petroleum consumption in the United States in 2008 and 2009 occurred during the economic downturn. Increased consumption in 2010 reflected improving economic conditions. In 2011 and 2012, higher oil prices and increased fuel efficiency of light-duty vehicles contributed to reduced U.S. consumption. Motor gasoline consumption, which makes up almost half of total U.S. liquids fuel consumption, fell by 290,000 bbl/d between 2010 and 2012 as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards led to improvements in vehicle fuel economy that outpaced highway travel growth.
 It is good U.S. consumption has decreased since 2005, but we have a hell of a way to go.  Our oil consumption is just burning money with no real gain, as the fuel is used to support unsustainable land use patterns.  In the future, we will become significantly more urban, as the outer suburbs quit growing and begin to contract.  The global pinch will continue as our conventional oil continues to decrease in production, and the shale oil doesn't last as long as predicted.

Five New Salinger Books on the Way?

That is what the rumor is as to the big reveal the director of the upcoming documentary, Salinger, has promised:
This is like spoiling the end of a movie — Weinstein was strangely right — but the news is too great not to share. According to new reports from The New York Times and the Associated Press, there will be new published works by the notoriously reclusive author starting in 2015. There are five new pieces in total, they involve some of Salinger's most beloved characters, and this delayed schedule was Salinger's plan. Before his death, Salinger instructed his estate as to when and how to release the works. The Times has the most detailed summation of the forthcoming stories:
One collection, to be called “The Family Glass,” would add five new stories to an assembly of previously published stories about the fictional Glass family, which figured in Mr. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and elsewhere, according to the claims, which surfaced in interviews and previews of the documentary and book last week.
Another would include a retooled version of a publicly known but unpublished tale, “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” which is to be collected with new stories and existing work about the fictional Caulfields, including “Catcher in the Rye.” The new works are said to include a story-filled “manual” of the Vedanta religious philosophy, with which Mr. Salinger was deeply involved; a novel set during World War II and based on his first marriage; and a novella modeled on his own war experiences.
So this is Salerno and Weinstein's big reveal, the secrets teased in the intense lead-up to the release of the book and movie next week. They kept everything under wraps until now, as is only appropriate for a Salinger project.
More from the Glass family and the Caulfields?  That would be interesting.  Just a little speculation on my part, but I'm guessing that Salinger wouldn't release any of the stories during his life because he didn't want to deal with the buildup and then probable disappointment those works would engender.  After so long without producing anything, whatever he wrote would be eagerly anticipated, and probably couldn't live up to the hype.  But maybe we'll find out whether that is the case in a few short years.

The first review of the book accompanying the documentary's release is not extremely flattering.

War With Syria?

It appears the U.S. is moving closer to some sort of military strike:
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it is clear the Assad regime used chemical weapons last week and that Obama believes such action should lead to consequences. He made his remarks from Jordan as United Nations inspectors were investigating the site where the alleged chemical weapons massacre happened outside of Damascus.
"President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use chemical weapons," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious."
The attack should "shock the consciousness of the world," Kerry said. "This is about the large scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago agreed should never be used."
U.S. officials have said Obama is considering military options after the gas attack last week left as many as 1,300 people dead. French and British officials have said a limited, punitive strike is under consideration.
A limited strike would allow Obama to say he's following through on his warning a year ago that Assad would incur U.S. "game changing" action if he used chemical weapons, but it would also allow Assad to continue prosecuting a war that has already cost more than 100,000 Syrian lives, caused radicals to stream into Syria and spread violence into neighboring countries, said Tony Badran, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
I don't think there is a winning outcome for the United States in this mess.  Do we want Al-Queda or Hezbollah to win this mess?  My guess would be neither.  If 100,000 people have already been killed, this is already much worse than the Iraqi civil war during our occupation, because Syria has only 2/3 of the population of Iraq, and that was the estimate for the number of Iraqis killed since we invaded.  I guess if we are going to do something militarily, I am hoping for more like Libya and less like Iraq and Afghanistan, even though Libya hasn't exactly worked out peachy.  I'd much rather have an anarchic hellhole without U.S. troops on the ground for 8 or 10 years, as opposed to having an anarchic hellhole with troops on the ground.  But, then again, nobody but the most insane loons want troops on the ground.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Joshua Tree during the 2013 Perseid Meteor Shower

Joshua Tree during the 2013 Perseid Meteor Shower from Henry Jun Wah Lee / Evosia on Vimeo.

NASA Photo of the Day

Video, actually:

Noctilucent Clouds and Aurora Over Scotland
Video Credit: Maciej Winiarczyk; Music: Jolanta Galka-Kurkowska
Explanation: Why would the sky still glow after sunset? Besides stars and the band of our Milky Way galaxy, the sky might glow because it contains either noctilucent clouds or aurora. Rare individually, both are visible in the above time lapse movie taken over Caithness, Scotland, UK taken during a single night earlier this month. First noted in 1885, many noctilucent clouds are known to correlate with atmospheric meteor trails, although details and the origins of others remain a topic of research. These meandering bright filaments of sunlight-reflecting ice crystals are the highest clouds in the Earth's atmosphere. The above video captures not only a variety of noctilucent clouds, but also how their structure varies over minutes. Lower clouds typically appear dark or fast moving. About halfway through the video the clouds are joined by aurora. At times, low clouds, noctilucent clouds, and aurora are all visible simultaneously, each doing their own separate dance, and once -- see if you can find it -- even with the Big Dipper rotating across the background.

Makeshift Refineries in the Niger Delta


Throughout the Niger Delta, rogue syndicates engage in industrial-scale crude-oil theft, known locally as bunkering, sell stolen oil in remote creeks and swamps -- where makeshift refineries, such as this one, distill it to diesel -- then ship it downriver to be sold on the black market.
More info:
Nigeria is the largest oil-producing country in Africa and the continent’s biggest supplier of crude petroleum to the United States. More than 2 million barrels of oil are extracted from the Niger Delta, the main oil-producing region, every day. This output is achieved through operations that are racked by pollution, corruption and violent economic dispute.
Samuel James, a New York City photographer, traveled to Nigeria in 2012 to document the ongoing environmental and social problems tied to the country’s oil industry. For his series The Water of My Land, James went deep into the creeks of the Delta to document the illicit theft and refining of crude oil by locals who are drawn to illegal activity against a backdrop of dire poverty in the region.
“Billions of dollars of oil are pumped out of the delta each year but the economic conditions on the ground have really remained the same. There’s been little effort to develop these areas in which the oil is being extracted,” says James, who laments the fact that not enough of the profits from oil have been used to improve basic services such as roads, healthcare and education. “The local population has been pushed to the wall. Bunkering is very hot and very toxic. It’s not work anyone would want to do. I’m just trying to make that point.”
Illicit refining, or bunkering as it is commonly known, is a viable activity for people in a region which has up to 50% youth unemployment. But it is not easy work. As James’ photographs show, the DIY refining of crude is toxic and dangerous. Temperatures must be kept high and the fires stoked continuously. The billowing smoke — which during daylight hours would be a sure giveaway of their location — means teams work through the night to avoid detection. Cooking the oil in open pits often leads to explosions. These scenes of economic opportunism and survival appear apocalyptic.
What an ugly scene.  In the history of bad ideas, do-it-yourself oil refining is right near the top of the list.  It even beats out some of my bad ideas.

The Rugged Individual and the Government

A reader of James Fallows comments on the great myth of the West, that individuals succeed there without government intervention:
Worster goes on to argue throughout the book, similar in this respect to Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, that the control of water in the arid west led to the creating of the massive federal bureaucracy in the 20th century. Thus:
"Beyond the hundredth meridian the necessary goad was more starkly, emphatically present--a dry throat, a daily uncertainty, always the danger, the anxiety, of life in a desert or near desert. Travellers found themselves in an even more awesome space, grander by far than any Appalachian vista, one big enough for dreaming, all right, but a land too empty, barren, dusty, and austere, to invite the soul to loaf and take its ease....
"How could deprivation be translated into wealth and power and influence? That was the problem posed to the arid region from the beginning. The answer . . . was that people had to bend themselves to the discipline of conquest, had to accept the rule of hierarchy and concentrated force. That acceptance they seldom acknowledged, at least publicly. Again and again, they told themselves and others that they were the earth's last free, wild, untrammeled people. Wearing no man's yoke they were the eternal cowboys on an open range. But that was myth and rhetoric. In reality, they ran along in straight, fixed lines: organized, regimented, incorporated men and women, the true denizens of the emergent West. It might have been otherwise, but then they would not have made an empire."
I apologize for the long quote, but it is something to think about, I believe, as you continue your journey across the trans-Mississippi West. How has the lack of water shaped the lives of the inhabitants? Is there a stronger federal presence in the states of the arid west, the lands beyond the 98th, or 100th meridian, to use Wallace Stegner's famous phrase, than one finds in the east? What do the realities of the west say about the mythology of place?
And, perhaps equally important, do they teach us something about the "sagebrush rebellion" and the emergence of the modern Republican Party? I know that journalists and public intellectuals often make a strong case for the southern strategy, as the origin of modern conservative politics, but if it was a southern strategy, it was a southern strategy with a western face. Not to oversimplify the point, but every successful Republican presidential candidate, with the exception of Gerald Ford, from Barry Goldwater to Mitt Romney, was either of the West, or as in Romney's case held strong ties to western modes of thought: the Mormon Church, is after all, headquartered in Utah, and was one of the early sponsors of irrigation in the nineteenth century.
Rick Perlstein makes a similar point in his book Before the Storm, on Barry Goldwater and the rise of the conservative movement.  The story of the rugged individualist living off of the land in the West takes a hit when one considers how much federally funded infrastructure had to be constructed to provide water to cities and agriculture.  The water projects made the west habitable, at least for a while.  Climate change may force populations down in some of these areas, and will greatly impact agriculture, as the debate comes down to water for food or water to live.

Reggie Williams Fights a Football Legacy

Paul Daugherty:
You might remember Reggie Williams. He hopes you do, but he’s cynical about such things. “The forgotten linebacker,” he calls himself. He played 14 years and 206 games, 1976 through 1989, all for the Bengals. That’s more games than any Bengal but Ken Riley, who appeared in 207.
Reggie has more career tackles than any Bengals linebacker, more sacks, more interceptions, more fumbles forced and recovered. He’d like you to know this, and is somewhere between bemused and irritated that you don’t.
“I went to Paul Brown Stadium once,” he says. “Not even a picture of me.”
He started both Bengals Super Bowls, in 1982 and 1989. He is haunted by each. The outcomes left him incomplete. The second defeat caused him to leave town, so he wouldn’t have to explain why he lost. Reggie took it personally; he told Bengals fans he’d win. It was an integrity thing.
Reggie would also like you to know that he was a good citizen, one of the best, a city councilman, an enthusiastic volunteer, a football player who lived in town and became a prominent stitch in the local fabric....
It doesn’t look like a knee. It has no cap. It has no defining, oval-like shape. It has hills and valleys, and scars like train tracks. It’s a package of dinner rolls. It’s at least twice the size of a normal knee. It bulges on the sides.
In 2008, when doctors operated on Reggie’s knee eight times in five months, he took photos of the knee, splayed open and ungodly horrid, with his cell phone. He must have 50 of them.
Picture a sweet potato, fresh baked and split down the center, awaiting butter and brown sugar. That’s what the open wound looked like. The skin on each side parted from the canyon, its dark brown-ness a ready accent to the exposed orange flesh. “I can say I know the torture of having your skin ripped off,” Reggie says.
There were patches of green in the pictures, too. “Necrotic tissue,” Reggie explains. “Dead leg.”
Even now, the knee has tiny pimples. Reggie says if he opened them, bits of stitching would appear, from his first surgery, in 1979. The knee comes with its own irony, too: Turf-burn scars from his playing days are still apparent. They survived all the incisions.
The picture in the story is just plain ugly. Reggie is one of the Bengals from the Paul Brown days, as opposed to the Mike Brown days.  You know, a good citizen and not a troublemaker.

An Explanation of Oppenheimer

Freeman Dyson reviews a new biography of Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk, and gives some interesting perspective on his interactions with Oppenheimer (h/t Ritholtz):
The second occasion for me to talk with Oppenheimer about bombs came a few years later, when I was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a political organization of scientists concerned with weapons and arms control. The federation was opposing the US deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in exposed positions in Europe and Asia. We considered these deployments to be unacceptably dangerous, because nuclear-armed troops involved in local fighting could start a nuclear war that would quickly get out of control. When we examined the history of tactical weapons, we learned that Oppenheimer himself had flown to Paris in 1951 to persuade General Eisenhower, then in command of American forces in Europe, that the United States Army needed tactical nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. Oppenheimer had been enthusiastically promoting the production and deployment of tactical weapons.
After learning this, I went to see Oppenheimer and asked him directly why he had thought that tactical nuclear weapons were a good idea. This time, he answered my question. He said, “To understand why I advocated tactical weapons, you would have to see the Air Force war plan that we had then. That was the God-damnedest thing I ever saw. It was a mindless obliteration of cities and populations. Anything, even a major ground war fought with nuclear weapons, was better than that.”
I understood then how it happened that Oppenheimer came to grief. He was caught in a battle between the Army and the Air Force. The Army wanted small bombs to destroy invading armies. The Air Force wanted big bombs to destroy whole countries. The Army wanted fission bombs and the Air Force wanted hydrogen bombs. Oppenheimer was on the side of the Army. That was why he promoted tactical weapons. That was why he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.
The Air Force took its revenge on the Army by helping to drive Oppenheimer out of the government. Air Force General Roscoe Charles Wilson was one of the witnesses against Oppenheimer at the security hearing. General Wilson said, “I felt compelled to go to the Director of Intelligence to express my concern over what I felt was a pattern of action [on Oppenheimer’s part] that was simply not helpful to national defense.” In the eyes of the Air Force, anyone who opposed the hydrogen bomb was opposing national defense. The Air Force won the battle, and Oppenheimer’s friends in the Army could not help him. The hydrogen bomb development rushed ahead with the highest priority. But in the end, both the Air Force and the Army got all the bombs that they wanted.
In the end, Dyson is brutally critical of Oppenheimer's contributions to science.  But, as he mentions in the review, Oppenheimer was at the center of things throughout the early to mid 20th century.

Potential Frack Sand Quarry Angers Residents

Des Moines Register:

The mining is so controversial, residents of Bridgeport, Wis., just across the Mississippi River from Iowa, on Wednesday sued to block a local mine run by Iowa-based Pattison Sand Co....
There is no fracking for oil or gas in Iowa, but the state is home to one of the nation’s largest deposits of silica sand used in fracking. The sand is in high demand, so mining companies have scouted the Midwest for new spots to dig.
Environmentalists fear water pollution, and neighbors of the mines in Minnesota have complained of dust, noise and traffic. The Wisconsin lawsuit contends the county violated zoning ordinances by ignoring possible negative effects of the project, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Pattison officials declined to comment because they had not reviewed the lawsuit.
Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa each passed an 18-month moratorium on frack sand mining permits, Allamakee in February and Winneshiek in June. Residents had filled school auditoriums earlier this year for blistering debates over the growing industry. Fracking has fed a boom in natural gas extraction in North Dakota and other parts of the country.
I guess that of all the things to get fired up about with fracking, mining sand seems like one of the more minor issues.  I'd say water pollution from the fracking, and from the stoarge and disposal of wastewater, and small earthquakes resulting from injection wells are more disconcerting.