Sunday, July 31, 2011

Historical Precedent

Back in the 1970s, The Democratic Party had an extreme faction that went so far as to make bombs. Most of the party was mightily upset about the war in Vietnam. George McGovern, whose stand on ending the war was considered extreme by many, was the Democratic candidate for President in November 1972. He lost by one of the widest margins ever to incumbent President Richard M. Nixon.

And the Democrats didn't try to destroy the country's economy or end Congress's ability to govern.

Perhaps that makes them wimps by today's standards.

Or perhaps it makes them patriots.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Munguba or Pachira Aquatica

Mad World

Nation Calls Capital Mad, and It Agrees

If the rest of the country thinks Washington has gone mad this summer, that is pretty much the view in this bewildered capital, too, even in Mr. Boehner’s overwhelmed call center.

Among the bar patrons at the Old Ebbitt Grill worried about stock portfolios, the tourists anxious about disability checks and the current and former policy makers stunned by Washington paralysis, the mood was described variously as one of doom, disgust and disbelief...

At the Washington National Zoo on Saturday, Dean Thompson, 53, a Republican and a mechanical engineer visiting from Augusta, Ga., was filled with disdain for lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill. “They’re playing with people’s savings is what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s like a game to them.”
I realize that "Washington"for the rest of the country means the political-industrial-media machine complex, so as a decade-long resident of DC I've of course learned not to take too much offense at the constant assaults on "Washington."

If you think the impasse on the debt issue is completely bonkers, however, quit sending batshit insane Republican representatives here, Dean Thompson, Republican from Augusta, GA, et al.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

...Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, who said passengers had just started to applaud the touchdown "when it turned to screams," she said. She hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence, apparently suffering only bruised knees.

Nobody had yet showed up to rescue her, "but a taxi driver appeared from nowhere and charged me $20 to take me to the terminal. I had to pay, but in times of emergencies, you don't charge people for a ride," she said, sitting on a chair in the arrival area surrounded by relatives. She was returning to her native country for only the second time in 30 years....

Friday, July 29, 2011

Molycorp Comes to Sillamäe

I took this photo the same day I took the others. That nameplate is on the same building that, the first time I entered it, greeted visitors with a science-fictiony machine replete with lights and gauges said to be for radiation screening.

Molycorp, I am told, now holds a 90% share in Silmet. This makes a lot of sense. Over the past year, we’ve been hearing about China’s near-monopoly on the market for rare earths. Molycorp is reopening its Mountain Pass Mine in California. Silmet has been refining rare earths for a couple of decades now. I can’t find current numbers, but Silmet has, in the past, been the third-largest supplier of rare earths to the US market.

The plant is aging, and the equipment I saw a decade ago wasn’t of the highest quality. But Sillamäe has an experienced workforce whose wages are not as high as those in the United States. The plant already exists and is in compliance with environmental standards, a part of the development started in our NATO Advanced Research Workshop. Supply chains exist: I saw Russian tank cars of process chemicals in the Silmet yard. The equipment and buildings can be upgraded, although apparently Molycorp is planning to build a refining facility closer to its Mountain Pass Mine.

There’s quite a bit of information on rare earths and their uses at the Molycorp website, but nothing that I can find about the Silmet acquisition. Apparently Molycorp is the only western-hemisphere supplier of rare earths. So we will have China versus Molycorp.

It would appear that the acquisition of Silmet may be a stopgap measure for Molycorp until the California facility can be brought into operation. Given the continuing unemployment in Ida-Virumaa County, it would be a tragedy if Molycorp were to close the Silmet plant once its California plant is operational. We can hope that, with the increasing demand for rare earths in high-tech applications, both facilities will continue to operate and Molycorp will upgrade the equipment and employment in Sillamäe. But American industry is driven by profits, not worker well-being.

Environmental concerns also loom large. Molycorp will have to meet European Union standards, which are tighter than American standards. And parts of this article sound like Molycorp is learning from the waste-minimization practices developed at Silmet.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sillamäe Today

Sillamäe isn’t a normal Estonian town yet, but it’s getting there. This photo is of the town hall, just across the street from the park where the statue in my earlier post resides.

Sillamäe promotes itself to tourists as having a full range of Soviet architectural styles in a relatively small area. Here are Stalinist apartment houses along Mere Puiestee (Ocean Boulevard):

Khrushchevian apartment houses:

And Andropovian high-rises behind the market area. The area to the right was all there was when I first came to Sillamäe, but more modern stores are appearing on the left.

That’s what the Estonians called that tailings pond west of town, I eventually found out. Jäätme means waste, and hoidla is a place where stuff is stored. Veehoidla, for example, means reservoir, vee being water. So waste depository is not inaccurate, even if not conventional English.

The tailings pond has been remediated. Pilings were driven below the Cambrian blue clay, the shore was armored with boulders, the dam was cut back to a stable slope, and a deep trench prevents groundwater from flowing through the tailings. An engineered cover consisting of layers of sand, gravel, clay, and soil, arranged to shed rainwater, now supports an immense field of grass and presumably rodents hunted by the falcons I saw. The overall shape is domed to 13 meters higher than the steep-sided mesa I first saw. The waste lines from the plant have been cut off definitively; the plant now treats its wastes for safe disposal or further use. Here is the view from the foot of Mere Puiestee.

Sillamäe now has a port, which mostly handles cargo into and out of Russia. Oil and chemicals are the largest exports, and cars the largest imports. It also has a tax-free development zone for industry. Silmet, the company now operating the Soviet uranium plant to produce rare earth metals, is the largest. EcoMetal recycles 20,000 tonnes a year of batteries into 12,000 tonnes of lead alloys, plus scrap polypropylene and sodium sulfate, the product of battery acid which has several industrial uses. An area for trucks to wait until they get clearance to cross the border into Russia is also available. More photos at the port’s website.

As the remediation drew toward its close, port development started. There were a great many more holding tanks for chemicals and petroleum than there were on my last visit, and more were under construction. They are for holding petroleum and chemicals. A large area by the sea has been filled in for temporary storage of automobiles. The next step for the port is a container terminal.

Russia is not pleased to have to ship cargo through Estonia and is developing a port on their side of the border, at Ust-Luga. After the Bronze Soldier was removed from central Tallinn in 2007, Russia stopped sending petroleum through Sillamäe for two years. That export has been resumed. Here are two articles on the Bronze Soldier incident, the second from an Estonian viewpoint (first, second).

For some contrast, here’s one of my earlier posts. My photos from before the remediation are all on film and at home.

Unemployment is high in Estonia and increased in the first quarter of 2011 to 14.4%. I don’t have a breakdown by county, but Ida-Virumaa County, which includes Sillamäe and Narva, has historically had much higher levels of unemployment than the rest of the country. Many more jobs are needed.

Update: I forgot to insert the top photo the first time around.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


One of the reasons for my trip to Estonia is to check up on Sillamäe. Sillamäe brought me to Estonia for the first time in 1998.

Sillamäe was once a rather ordinary Estonian resort city. It is on the Gulf of Finland, about twenty kilometers west of the border city of Narva/Ivangorod. Wealthy Russians and the German nobles who ruled Estonia during the nineteenth century enjoyed the fresh sea air. I have a rather nice German etching of Die Badeort Silamäggi from the 1860s that I found in Stockholm. It shows large trees, a log building, and some happy-looking people wearing the clothes of the time. Its vantage point is probably in the park at city center that I walked through yesterday. I even saw some foundations in the ground that might have belonged to that bulding. Many of the trees were cleared in 1860, giving a nice view of the cliff and coast to the west.

I first heard about Sillamäe in 1992. I was given a brochure by a Los Alamos manager about a production plant for rare earth metals and oxides in Estonia. The brochure also said quite a bit about a “waste depository.” None of us could quite figure out what that “waste depository” referred to.

As I researched the site, I found other stories, surmises about Sillamäe. The most common, repeated in some of the DOE reports I consulted, was that it was a uranium enrichment site. Another was that it was a pit production facility. That was unlikely; the Soviets would hardly build the central parts of their nuclear weapons outside Mother Russia.

But still. Sillamäe was repopulated after World War II by Russians and others from the Slavic Soviet Republics and was closed to Estonians, a secret city. Occasionally, alarms were raised prohibiting swimming and fishing within some tens of kilometers of the facility. Scary, especially to the Estonians.

In late 1997 there was another contact, I was the only one at Los Alamos who knew anything at all about Sillamäe, and so in short order, I was on my way to Tallinn to a meeting of the Sillamäe International Expert Reference Group. A bus took us to Sillamäe, where it was obvious from the types of buildings and eqiupment that enrichment had never been part of what was done there. One dark sleety evening that January 1998, I worked with Mihkel Vierderma, vice-chair of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and Tõnis Kaasik and Anti Siinmaa of Ökosil Ltd., to develop a proposal to NATO for one of their Advanced Research Workshops.

The waste depository was the focus. A giant tailings pond a kilometer long and half as wide, the obviously poorly-constructed 23-meter dam not 50 meters from the Gulf of Finland, all of it sitting on the unpredictably weak Cambrian blue clay. It contained waste from the processing that the plant had done over the years. Rainwater leached metals, including thorium and uranium, through the pond and into the Gulf. At worst, the dam or the blue clay could give way catastrophically, dumping the whole thing into the Gulf. The purpose of the NATO workshop would be to discuss potential solutions.

When the Russians left Sillamäe, they left behind a roomful of classified reports. Ello Maremäe and Hain Tankler worked through those documents as part of Estonia’s joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non nuclear weapon state. Sillamäe’s nuclear history goes back to just after World War II. Although, as Maremäe and Tankler note, a great many documents relating to Sillamäe still reside, classified, in Moscow, I think they’ve got the story pretty much right. I’m summarizing from their report.

Oddly, with all its mineral wealth, Russia has relatively few uranium deposits. At the end of World War II, the leaders of the Soviet Union knew they needed uranium to compete in nuclear weapons. One of the possible sources was a black shale found in northeastern Estonia. A mine was opened at Sillamäe, and a pilot plant was built at Narva. There had been an oil-shale rendering plant at Sillamäe, and a full-scale uranium ore-processing plant was built on that site. It’s difficult to separate uranium from black shale, but by 1952, Sillamäe had separated several tens of tons of Estonian uranium.

Production eventually shifted to higher-grade, easier-to-process ores from central Asia, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Some of the input materials were ore concentrates. Some uranium was recovered from rejected reactor fuel elements. Processing this material, enriched in U-235, may have been the basis for rumors about uranium enrichment at Sillamäe. Or, like so many of the rumors I heard about wastes at Los Alamos, it may just have made a good story.

In 1989, the Soviets planned to move yellowcake production and uranium recovery from fuel rods from Sillamäe. And that indeed happened, but not in the way expected. By then, the Estonian government was moving away from status as a Soviet republic. Production at Sillamäe was converted to rare earth metals. That brochure I received in 1992 was part of its advertising.

The priority in 1998 was to deal with the tailings pond. The other countries around the Baltic Sea wanted its leakage stopped and the dam stabilized. Our proposal to NATO was successful, and our conference was held in early October of that year: people who could evaluate whether the tailings were worth mining (they weren’t) and people who had experience in remediating uranium mine tailings, and people who could help start thinking about how to end the emissions from the plant as procssing continued. We published a book of the proceedings.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Word of the Day

Trypophobia: an irrational aversion to the sight of clustered holes.

The Norway Attacks: A Personal Reaction

I've just watched the judge's statement and an interview with the Norwegian Prime Minister on BBC. That's the only English-language news television I've had available during most of this trip.

I keep being impressed with the Norwegian government, the Prime Minister in particular. The reporters badger the officials with their cheap attempts to elicit statements of blame or recriminations, and the officials will not play that game. The police are investigating, and we must wait for their results.

I'm particularly grateful to the BBC for televising the entire service from Oslo Cathedral Sunday morning. I no longer consider myself religious, but I was brought up Lutheran, and I find high-church ritual moving. Sunday morning I came back to my room from a quiet morning on the beach and turned on the television to find the service just starting.

The theme of the service was compassion and comfort. There was even a tiny hint of compassion for the perpetrator, but mention of him was mostly absent. The emphasis was on sharing the grief and helping one another to get through a terrible time.

Do not give in to fear. That was another theme, repeated many times in the Archbishop's homily.

In a way, the service gave me what I had been missing in the response to 9/11. Not macho jumping onto the ruins with a bullhorn. Not telling us to go shopping, but a candid recognition of the horror of the act and the mixture of feelings it provoked. Then reaching out to those most hurt so that healing can begin. Compassion and support.

Monday Cat Blogging

No, this cat is not dead. He is lying on the side of the entry where the door doesn't open, and he doesn't move at all when someone walks by him. He does move from time to time, though, because he also assumes strange still poses on the chairs in the hotel lobby. He does allow people to pet him, even in his more active postures.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The View From My Window

I just realized that I can connect to the hotel wireless from my room.

Also, I have been hearing a rukkirääk (corn crake) in that field.

Friday, July 22, 2011

United States of Norquist

Let's say that through a combination of fund-raising prowess, ideological militancy, and personal charisma, Jesse Jackson Sr. is able to assume a position of considerable behind-the-scenes power in the Democratic Party. His sway over elected Democrats is such that he manages to get 95% of the Democratic Congressional delegation, House and Senate, to sign an oath of personal loyalty to his policy goals. Specifically, they pledge that under no circumstances will they ever support cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs. Jackson believes that any such cuts will affect the poor and people of color disproportionately. Throughout the debate over the budget and debt ceiling, House and Senate Democrats refuse to even consider any proposal that touches any of those programs. It is a non-starter. Full stop. Because they swore an oath to Jesse Jackson that they wouldn't.

I'm sure you can see through this thin shoe-on-the-other-partisan-foot analogy to Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" that currently holds sway over the GOP. I do think it's interesting to draw out the hypothetical scenario, though, to underscore a point: Can you even imagine the sheer violence of the pant-shitting that the GOP, Teatards, and Beltway media would be engaged in if the shoe really was on the other foot? If every Democrat had signed a personal oath to an interest group and private citizen that took precedence over their oath to the American people and Constitution?
Gin and Tacos (via)


Arizona's Muslim Dust Storms - Punishment from Allah?

The blinding waves of brown particles, the most recent of which hit Phoenix on Monday, are caused by thunderstorms that emit gusts of wind, roiling the desert landscape. Use of the term “haboob,” which is what such storms have long been called in the Middle East, has rubbed some Arizona residents the wrong way.

“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”...

“Meteorologists in the Southwest have used the term for decades,” said Randy Cerveny, a climatologist at Arizona State University. “The media usually avoid it because they don’t think anyone will understand it.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Murdoch Overload for Today

From Columbia Journalism Review:
Perhaps then it would be a good exercise to run through all the wrongdoing—including rampant, institutionalized criminal activity—that is already in the public record as having been committed in the hacking scandal.
There then follow four big paragraphs.

Plus lots more links at the end of the article.


Tuesday I went to Vastseliina. That name has been calling to me for some time now, lovely in my mind.

South Estonia has its own dialect, in which, among other things, the letter õ substitutes for most northern Estonian es. There are other changes, too. Vastseliina becomes Vahtsõliina. Estonians have a full armamentarium of nine vowels, each in short and long (signified by doubling) forms. Õ is the most unfamiliar to English speakers, but we use it. It's even in my name - the y in the last syllable is similar, maybe even the same.

That language is being acknowledged on the road signs, which have both versions of place names.

I headed southeast. I decided to keep a distance from the border with Russia; TSA has convinced me to stay away from bureaucrats in jobs like that. So I turned back when I saw a sign for piirivalve (border patrol). I had driven into Vastseliina on my way out; the major streets were all being resurfaced. I would have liked to have taken a photo of the very attractively painted and massive town hall, but everything was much too much of a mess to try to park. There had been a rather attractive church just visible that I decided to stop at on the way back. So I turned at the Vana (Old) Vastseliina sign.

Good choice. There were the ruins of an episcopal castle from the fourteenth century there. Vana indeed.

The Germans launched a northern version of the Crusades in the twelfth century, to civilize the pagans living along the shores of the Baltic Sea. So they had to plant castles for the defense of the faith and those faithful they managed to convince to their side. We Americans really don't learn much of this in our history, and there aren't a lot of books on the subject. Eric Christensen's The Northern Crusades is pretty much it. Here are a few more references.

This was a seriously defended castle, on a steep-sided promontory with a ditch dug on the other side. Piirivalve.

The castle was active in the fourteenth century. Further north, the Narva River and Peipsijärv (Lake Peipus) formed a natural boundary with Russia, but the land is pretty much the same down here from Võru to Pihkva (Pskov) to, probably, Novgorod. Which was more or less the capital of Russia at that time. The bishops liked to push forward, irritating the Russians no little bit. Hence the need for a strong, defensible castle. Alexander Nevsky had stopped the Germans in 1242, a little further north, on Peipsijärv, but they didn't go away until Hitler called them back in 1939.

I munched the seeni- and porgandipirukad (mushroom and carrot pies) that I had picked up at a supermarket and walked around. There were new inhabitants.

White storks - two chicks almost ready to fledge. The parents were still flying to get food for them.

And plants were taking over the ruins.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unlabeled from Sumatra

Narcissism, Meh

Lately, the conventional wisdom is that young people think far too much of themselves—they’re coddled little zeppelins of ego in desperate need of shooting down. The cover of July’s Atlantic is emblazoned with the headline how THE CULT OF SELF-ESTEEM IS RUINING OUR KIDS; inside, quotes from psychologist Jean M. Twenge explain how we’re producing generations of feckless narcissists. Earlier this year, the online equivalent of applause greeted a study of pop lyrics from 1980 to 2007 in which a whole team of psychologists, Twenge included, claimed there’s been a rise in narcissism, self-regard, and antisocial hostility at the top of the Billboard charts: Songs have moved from we and us to me and I, and come over all ornery in the process. Surprised? New York Times columnist David Brooks, for one, already saw that as self-evident: “It’s nice,” he wrote, “to have somebody rigorously confirm an impression many of us have formed.”

“Rigorously” is a stretch. The study consists of little more than running ten lyrics per year through a word-counting computer program, which I can’t imagine taking longer than an afternoon. The study’s authors aren’t much interested in music, either: They’re merely using it as collateral evidence of some decades-long cultural slide into self-­absorption...

Most of narcissism’s critics, however, do not evince much concern for its sufferers, whom they regard with more Schadenfreude than pity. They just find all this expression of ego to be grating, gauche, and borderline immoral—like wearing tights as pants, talking during movies, or being ­Snooki. This is our new cultural mini-­monster, somewhere down the scale from terrorists and pedophiles, in the general vicinity of Charlie Sheen and those people who go nuts during American Idol auditions: the Raging ­Narcissist....

Charismatic Megafauna in Danger

[...A] new study from researchers at the United States Geological Survey and the World Wildlife Fund indicating, after tracking a small sample of bears wearing radio collars, that the swims have indeed grown longer over the last six years. Five of the 11 mothers swimming with cubs lost the cubs along the way, and one bear even swam about 427 miles to reach sea ice.

The study’s conclusions, that bears are swimming longer distances to get to the sea ice they use as a platform to catch seals, were in line with earlier work in the area, but its six-year duration gives it more heft. Scientists put global positioning system collars around the necks of 68 adult females to focus on swims of more than 30 miles.

...full text of the study, being presented at a meeting of the International Bear Association....

Bits and Pieces - July 20, 2011

Murdoch’s Watergate? Carl Bernstein makes the comparison.

Murdochs Caught a Break at Hearing, Stock Analysts Say. That's from the New York Times. Check out The Guardian: News International 'deliberately' blocked investigation. There's a cheery willingness to see Murdoch as fully in charge, no problems, that seems to pervade the financial community. But the MPs seem to be seeing it quite differently. Their report is here.

Meanwhile, back in the US, President Obama is sounding like there's progress toward a budget deal. Good thing; with some of the Euro-zone countries on the brink of default, we really don't need Republicans playing financial mumblety-peg. Long-time congress-watcher Norman Ornstein just holds his head in his hands.

John Bolton extols the virtues of military destruction.
We should hope that Russia fails. Mediation was never the correct answer here. NATO, once committed, must prevail by force of arms, as it still could with a modest demonstration of American leadership.
He's talking about Libya, but that quote struck a chord with me that I may expand on later.

The Cost of That Allegedly Free Enterprise

I heard a commentary, I think it must have been on the BBC and I was only half listening, on the end of the US space program. The general drift was that the end of the government program now meant that the way was open to private industry to develop much cheaper modes of space travel. Presumably the very presence of a government program has been inhibiting the robust growth of private industry in this area.

This seemed to me to be one of the more extreme justifications for ending a government program that might be subject to any number of criticisms but that provided developments that inspired the world. If the program was ended, maybe private industry could do a better job.

Now I suspect that the immediate causes of the end of the space program are the lack of money occasioned by neverending tax increases without reason, plus a NASA bureaucracy incapable of presenting a generally supportable program. But the ideological justification has been used over and over again on government programs. Not that there is a private program that is comparable and less expensive, but that somehow (never explained) one might grow up if we destroy the government program.

I've given you the story of Peter's pig before...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today's Photo

Just a very Estonian-style photo. I have a few others, but I want to give the Estonian names for birds and flowers and don't have them just now.

I probably should be listening to Rupert Murdoch's testimony before a committee of Parliament. The tweets of those who are are quite entertaining. Just felt like I'll be happy to see the summaries. It doesn't seem to be going well for Murdoch.

Bonus: Stephen Walt on the Murdoch scandal.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Nothing To See Here...

I'm finding it hard to assimilate how uninterested Americans seem to be in the news from Britain of the phone-hacking scandal. It's hard to know what to call it; I'd like to make it The Great Murdoch Unraveling, but we're not there yet.

Two threads on the subject totally fizzled in a listserv I subscribe to, mostly populated by people who consider themselves liberals. Freedom of the press, y'know. Rupert can print anything he wants, nothing we can do about it.

Dean Starkman offers me a sanity check when he calls the story "a five-alarm business story if there ever was one."

I admit, I currently have access to limited English-language television, so it occurred to me that maybe I'm reading all this wrong, in collaboration with my wish that Fox News would disappear from the face of the earth. But most of the editorial staff of the suddenly-defunct News of the World has now been arrested for complicity in the phone-hacking, and two London police officials have resigned as the news seems to imply serious police help with that hacking, for which they were paid by NOTW. That seems to me to be pretty serious and potentially wide-ranging corruption.

James Fallows seems to be stuck on a single Fox News segment. Outrageous as it was, it seems to me that the bigger picture is much more important.

Will Hutton does the best job I've seen so far of explaining why that big picture includes the Murdoch empire in America.
There has always been this fundamentalist strand in US life, but what has inflamed it over the last decade is a twofold process – a wrong-headed understanding of why US economic pre-eminence is being challenged, closely linked to the breakdown of a public realm in which ideas are discussed, traded and exchanged in a climate which respects argument. The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which required all broadcasters fairly to represent all points of view, has created a mass media shouting, ranting, sloganising and overwhelmingly from the political right.

The leader in the charge is Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, a TV channel with an audience of 100 million in which all news and comment have to be shoehorned – subtly in its news operation and overtly in its commentary – into a conservative worldview. It operates, as the former White House communications director Anita Dunn has said, "as either the research or communications arm of the Republican party". Leading Republican stars such as Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin are on its payroll. Its political shows pull no punches: the hosts are hard-line Republicans. If Fox News were to permit the case for tax increases to be fairly reported or discussed it would not be doing its job. Murdoch, refusing in a Fox News interview last week even to discuss the News of the World, would be displeased.

No explanation of the Tea Party "Real Republican" intransigence over the debt talks is possible without understanding how its political base has been constructed and sustained. But the damage goes well beyond the US getting so close to debt default. It makes rational discussion of wider US policy options close to impossible. Like reporters in the Soviet Union or China, Fox News journalists have to parrot an ideological line: the US economy's dynamism is rooted entirely in sturdy, enterprising, God-fearing individuals threatened only by federal taxes and regulation. Thus the Republican negotiating stance.
Read the whole thing. It is extremely well done.

More about why this could be important to America.

The New York Times is doing a good job of covering the action, here and here for example.

Bloggers who are obsessed with this as I am can be found at The Reaction and Balloon Juice. Jim Sleeper, too.

Finally, a couple of big articles for background:

How We Broke the Murdoch Scandal

Inside Rebekah Brooks' News of the World

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Walk Through Tartu

Tartu is much quieter than Tallinn was. It has the advantage, although I suspect not all find it such, that it is not on the Baltic Sea and therefore not susceptible to tour ships. And it's summer, so the university is out of session, although some students remain.

Estonia changes every time I visit. Every time it becomes a bit more like the rest of the world, Europe in particular. And I become more accustomed to its peculiarities with each trip, narrowing the level of difference.

Bringing my laptop with me also makes a difference, a small environment that changes not at all (well, the Google start page is in Estonian) and keeps part of my mind at home.

The central market here in Tartu is still operating, although it becomes less crowded as business moves to the supermarkets.

I had a bit of a scare last night when I thought that the vegetable market had been superseded by a glassy shopping center. I have been looking forward to buying strawberries. They are getting to the end of their season, and the wild blueberries were calling to me when I finally walked along the river and realized that the vegetable market was still there. Lots of stuff I'd like to buy if I had cooking facilities, like beautiful potatoes, but they're good in the restaurants too.

When Santa Fe Farmers' Market built a building, I expected it to have booths something like what you see in the photo. But they just built a big building, no booths. The farmers have to set up tables and, outside, umbrellas. Altogether less advanced than Tartu.

I picked up a pastry full of kohupiim, a milk product that we don't have in the US. It's cottage cheese curd, but in a continuous form. Very nice for pastries and cheesecake-like delicacies.

One of the hazards of the outdoor market was jackdaws (Estonian: hakk) snatching goodies. One flew right in front of me to seize a peapod, nearly hitting me and other customers.

I also bought some chocolate and a candy that is somewhat like the Mr. Peanut bars (do they still have those?), but with sunflower seeds instead of peanuts. I like sunflower seeds. This is more a Russian treat than Estonian, but at least, unlike the tourists who must be buying all those matryoshka dolls in Tallinn, I know that.

Probably a single random souvenir store in Tallinn now contains more amber than all of Tallinn did when I first visited, in 1998. But it's not as interesting: spherical beads, all pretty much the same color. And lots more just like that. Little dangly slivers of amber earrings. And of course refrigerator magnets and bags that say Tallinn over and over again. Not too many t-shirts and baseball caps, though.

Some genuinely nice linen goods, and many sweaters with Estonian pictoral and geometric designs. None with the handwork that I acquired. A few art shops doing interesting new things with Estonian designs. And some yarn I will take back with me, unless I find better during my travels.

Not surprising, of course. The many cruise ship passengers who know little or nothing about Tallinn and Estonia are happy with refrigerator magnets or a not-too-distinctive-by-my-terms amber necklace. And a photo of them smiling with some landmark in the background.

One of the things that pleases me is to be taken for an Estonian. James Fallows has written about the phenomenon of being able to recognize people of various nationalities. I used to be more convinced I could do this consistently, but I would now claim it only occasionally. I think that there are some people who feel they must broadcast their nationality; probably part of this is defensiveness, a response to an environment in which they are uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar. In Tallinn, I recognized Russians, Germans, and Americans of this species.

Conversely, one of my points of pride is to be taken as Estonian here. One woman at the market conversed at some length with me in Estonian. I understood enough to murmur and move my head persuasively. The illusion disappears when I speak. I have a strong enough American accent when I use Estonian that I am no longer persuasive. Or I give up and ask if they can speak English if I need a more complex communication.

Fallows and his readers have opined at some length on what makes a person seem to be one nationality or another at some length, and I haven't found any of it particularly persuasive. I have a generic northern European look, which does not transfer into Russia. I am quiet, and many Estonians are quiet. I have been told by American friends that I walk like a European. And I say "tere" with the unaspirated t and rolled r

There was also a flea market in the park.

It was the usual flea market assortment of things, a lot of clothing, some handicrafts, and old Soviet pins.

But this photo could go back to the nineteenth century or earlier.

Finally, I do enjoy the sense of humor that Estonians apply to their concrete vehicle barriers. Department of Homeland Security, are you watching?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small Icicles of Fear In Their Hearts

Timothy Garton Ash takes a particularly excellent look at the scandal that is bringing down the Murdoch empire in Britain. (h/t to John Ballard)

Garton Ash examines the variety of small icicles of fear:
But at the apex of British public life, there have been men and women walking around with small icicles of fear in their hearts, and fear is inimical to freedom.
This is a very important point, and there are far too many of those icicles in American hearts.

I'm writing from a place where, up until about twenty years ago, hearts carried even colder icicles of fear: the fear of the Soviet government. Soviet icicles were even worse than Murdoch icicles. Do as we say, or you will be sent to Siberia. There were lesser punishments, too, like those meted out by the Murdoch empire, and small satisfactions to be gained in following the approved pathways. But people here overcame that fear; some entered government with the purpose of changing it to a more humane form; some formed forbidden political parties, some demonstrated in the streets, some flew the flag of independent Estonia. With that pressure, here and in other parts of that empire, the Soviet Union, rotted at the core, fell.

What do the icicles of fear in American hearts consist of? Many things, I think. The idea that Terrorists Want to Kill Us is one that affects many. It provides support for the prison-like screening required at airports and could, ultimately, provide support for more curtailment of American rights. The real fear of unemployment is another. Media icicles force compliance with the rightwing line: fact-checking has disappeared from reporting on Republican and Tea Party policy demands. As a result of these two, politicans' hearts carry icicles of can't be done. We can't consider what the country needs now because we must bow to the government-destroying budget demands of the Republicans, and far too many fearful people, egged on by the erroneous media, will rise up against anyone who slights those demands.

So now we can look at how those icicles have been spread in Britain, as Garton Ash so clearly lays out. Murdoch has his way with the media, with the police, and with the politicians. He will say, of course, that it is the people who worked for his empire who did wrong, but the idea that money is the measure of all, that favorite of the right wing, inevitably leads to the ignoring of the law and eventually human decency, if you can make a buck on it.

And we have to wonder: is spreading that fear the goal of the lies that Fox News constantly promulgates? That its viewers be the most poorly informed of news viewers? The Tea Party had enormous support from Fox as it started up; some say that it is an invention of Fox. Murdoch seems not to have had time yet to corrupt the Wall Street Journal, or perhaps his purpose there was to give his empire a veneer of respectablity.

Is the deference of the American media in all forms to rightwing claims a result of the same sort of fear of Murdoch that Garton Ash describes for Britain? That's something to think about now.

As Garton Ash says, there is an opportunity here. Let us hope that it is an opportunity for America as well as for Britain.


Wild blueberries from the Tartu market. The largest are maybe 5-6 mm.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Bits and Pieces - Helmut Random Link Edition

Saving dying languages: very cool tool (via).

Guardian series on North Korean pop.

In Mexico, towns fight back against organized crime's increasing incursions into illegal deforestation.

Immigration is not the issue you think it is. Two interesting pieces: here and especially here (via/via). Plus, an important read on illegal immigration and the assaulted hotel housekeeper.

Political and corporate elites now publicly asserting that the ignorant huddling masses aren't sacrificing enough for the US economy and debt reduction (here and here [via]).

Stiglitz on the "Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism."

Hungry China must reduce food production or die of thirst. See: Africa. (More on China's dire water problems - here, here, here, here, here, here, here - and limited successes [and here]).

Eating insects can reduce GHG emissions.

Four surviving Khmer Rouge leaders on trial in Cambodia (more and more and more).

Cy Twombly passes on. (Images here by Twombly - via here and here and here)

Grape Varieties

Thursday, July 07, 2011

News of the World to End Publishing

American media haven't had much about this, but if you want to see Twitter go crazy, search for #notw. Rumors, accusations, joy, bitterness, a rich array of emotions.

For a couple of years now, there have been desultory investigations of voicemail hacking of the royal family and others in Britain by News of the World reporters. The police weren't much interested, but finally agreed that maybe investigating this sort of thing might be part of their job. This week, it came out that NOTW reporters had hacked into the voicemail accounts of a teenage murder victim and her family, giving the family false hope and probably destroying evidence. Now the police are trying to contact 4000 people whose voicemail accounts may have been hacked. And, oh yeah, the police are accused of having been paid by NOTW reporters to help them with the hacking.

Altogether an ugly story, fiercely disavowed by the editor at the time of the hacking, Rebekah Brooks, now the chief executive of News International, Rupert Murdoch's newspaper fiefdom in Britain. Murdoch hasn't commented and seems to be hacking off the diseased limb before the gangrene spreads. His son, James, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, said it was "a matter of serious regret" tha he had authorised a six-figure payment to a phone-hacking victim several years ago, but blamed others at the company for his decision.

Yes, News of the World and its corrupt practices are part of the Murdoch empire. No reason for surprise there: Murdoch has long been clear that making money and political influence, not necessarily in that order, are his passions in life. And undoubtedly he communicated that to those who work for him.

The abrupt closure of NOTW has undoubtedly damaged the loyalty of its employees toward Rebekah Brooks and the Murdoch family, so we can expect to hear more from them. It will be interesting to see how far up the chain the corruption goes.

And yes, that's the same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Nuclear Trade with India – And Pakistan?

A week or so ago, before the fire, I tried to show that there are many levels of detail at which one may study history. All are important, but which level a policy-maker focuses on can make a difference to the policy that results. There’s a failure of American policy on multiple levels, coupled with similar failures by its critics, that has been bothering me for a few years now.

Back in 2006, George Bush pushed through a nuclear trade deal with India. This was extraordinary because India, along with Pakistan and Israel, has never joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits nuclear trade with countries that have not agreed to its provisions. The deal was even more extraordinary because the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) had to endorse it. The NSG was formed in response to India’s detonation in 1974 of a nuclear device fabricated with plutonium from a reactor supplied by Canada for peaceful uses. Immense political pressure must have been applied to NSG members.

Michael Krepon is also considering the history and consequences of this agreement. His summary is excellent, and I have no serious disagreements with it. I strongly urge you to read both posts. As a bonus, commenter neel123 provides a very typical Indian response.

As Krepon points out, the agreement was highly flawed, in terms of the goals of both the Bush administration and the arms control community. None of the good things that were promised have come to fruition, and a number of unfavorable consequences have ensued. Krepon gives some of the reasons for that, but it’s not what I want to consider in this post.

What I want to consider is the opposition to the deal as it was being worked out. I believe that one reason the opposition was so ineffective is that it approached the deal from a perspective at the wrong historical level.

The response of the arms control community to the deal was NO. No deal with India, no approval by Congress, no approval by NSG, no breaching of the NPT. These are all honorable and important goals. They were the wrong basis for this fight; they are at an overarching and relatively abstract level. The fight needed to be engaged on the specifics. The arms control community was looking at the wrong part of history.

Only four nations are outside the NPT: India, Pakistan, and Israel never joined, and North Korea removed itself. It’s taken some time to reach that level of international consensus. The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and gained enough signatures (three nuclear weapon states and forty others) by 1970 to come into force. But the fifth nuclear weapon state to sign, China, waited until 1992, and Brazil brought up the rear in 1998. A number of states joined during the mid-1990s.

Arms control thinking developed during that same time period. The four outside the NPT have nuclear weapons. The NPT says that only nations that tested before 1968 can continue to hold nuclear weapons. So the only way these four could join the NPT would be to give up their nuclear weapons, argued the arms controllers. The probability of that happening now is zero. So, according to the arms controllers, they cannot join, there cannot be nuclear trade, and the NPT remains whole.

But the strategy of the end-game is different from the strategy of the mid-game, and three, maybe four, states with nuclear weapons remaining is the end-game. When many nations, as was the case through the seventies and eighties, were considering whether to join the NPT, the community’s mid-game response was appropriate. But those outside the treaty now require different approaches.

Something like that was part of the Bush administration’s argument, but it appeared to be more a sop to the arms control community than a well thought-out strategy; their primary focus, as Krepon notes, was elsewhere.

What the arms controllers sacrificed by continuing a mid-game strategy was that it would be desirable to bring the nuclear programs of the outlier nations under closer scrutiny. Some of the four have a relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but none allows the same level of oversight that NPT members do. The Bush administration seemed to hope that maybe something like this might happen for India if it got its trade deal, but the negotiation on the American side was shoddy, and little oversight has been gained.

If the arms controllers had recognized that it was the specifics of the situation, rather than the broader historical flow, they might have made a more effective argument. India wanted nuclear trade, a potential inducement to accepting greater controls. The objectives of the NPT are precisely those sorts of controls, so such an outcome would be consistent with the NPT. The exception to testing before 1968 would have to be dealt with, but it is less important than the controls.

But the arms controllers stuck with the arguments they had used before, and they got nothing of what they asked for. There is some increased inspection of Indian nuclear facilities, but far from what is required of NPT signatories.

In contrast, Toby Dalton, Mark Hibbs, and George Perkovich address the specifics of Pakistan’s situation in a white paper, “A Criteria-Based Approach to Nuclear Cooperation with Pakistan.” Since the deal with India, Pakistan, historically closer to the United States than India and consumed with its rivalry with that nation, has been asking for a similar deal. This white paper addresses the motivations that China might have to help put pressure on Pakistan to accept NPT-like requirements.

But Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, doesn’t like that idea at all. He is sticking with the same arguments that didn’t work against nuclear trade with India.

India would now like membership in the NSG, to help decide what nuclear-related items can safely be traded. That won’t happen quickly, nor will a US nuclear trade deal with Pakistan. There’s much more discussion to come.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Bits and Pieces - July 5, 2011

Perhaps the best map out there of the Las Conchas fire over time. (h/t to John Fleck) I just saw a tweeted photo of a big smoke plume going up. The fire only (only!) increased by 2300 acres overnight, but there will be more tomorrow. It's still only 25% or so contained.

George Monbiot on the downsides of the nuclear industry. I tend to agree with most of this; we need nuclear to supply the increasing electrical power that the world needs, and it doesn't send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the way fossil fuels do. But the people who run the plants are out to make a buck, and safety often comes second. That's why we need government regulation - of all sources of energy.

Page van der Linden quotes my post on the drums at Area G and provides a lot more information. Some good comments too. Mark Gubrud, in particular, highlights something that has bothered me: the willingness of some to just make stuff up if it suits their purpose.

This is a continuing story in Britain. We don't hear so much about it here. It seems that reporters at News of the World were hacking voicemail accounts of the famous and not so famous at a startling rate. It almost seems to have been standard practice. The latest is that they tampered with the voicemail accounts of a family whose daughter had gone missing, giving them false hope (so they'd provide better interviews?) and possibly destroying evidence. News of the World, of course, is part of Rupert Murdoch's news empire. Just like Fox News. More from Marcy Wheeler.

A Few, Um, Sparks of Hope

I try to look on the positive sides of events, for my own mental health as much as anything. So I was encouraged last night to see very few fireworks popping off as accompaniments to the main event at Santa Fe High School field. Last year they were everywhere, but this year I saw maybe a dozen, none in my immediate neighborhood.

The City Council passed an ordnance against aerial fireworks and threatened strong enforcement patrols. There has been a grass-roots campaign against fireworks. Santa Fe has had less than an inch of rain this year. In the past week, with the start of our monsoon, we may be up to almost an inch. Usually we have had almost six inches by now. Our spring winds extended into the warmer season, dessicating the soil and killing even drought-resistant plants. So when an aspen tree fell on a power line a week ago Sunday, it took only a few hours to torch 44,000 acres in the Las Conchas fire. It's up to about 124,000 acres now, having burned the entire eastern rim of the caldera that forms much of the Jemez Mountains.

It looks like people really don't want to burn down their homes and believe in the rule of law. The question is whether the country will have to go through the economic equivalent of the Las Conchas fire before the Republicans decide they really don't want to burn it down.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

The good news around here is that the evacuation order for Los Alamos has been lifted, and people are headed home. It's also not as smoky as it's been, at least in Santa Fe and Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, our British overlords are rethinking this independence thing:
Being a generous people back in 1776 we British agreed to a period of probationary independence. The kind of thing one does with less mature teenagers. But, frankly, recent events make one wonder if one is in a position to extend said probation, let alone confirm independence.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Those Drums at Area G

The Las Conchas Fire has become less threatening to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and, as I write, the director, Charles McMillan, is talking about how the Lab is planning its restart. So the scaremongers will have to move on from the drums containing low-level waste at Area G to the next sensation. Yesterday I talked to someone who has actually repacked some of the drums and has dealt with the paperwork. I learned some things I didn't know.

The drums are not just any old things from Joe's junkyard, but are manufactured to a list of specifications, including the fit of the covers and closures. Each one has a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter so that air can move into and out of it with changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure without carrying waste materials out.

There are no mysterious sludges and uncontrolled chemicals in the drums.

The fabric buildings have fire suppression systems. I realized, some time after yesterday's conversation, that this must be the foam that was mentioned in a few accounts of the drums, frequently disparagingly. Foam is a standard fire-suppression agent. The accounts I saw made it sound like a joke. I don't know whether this was because of the way it was presented by Lab representatives or the way it was reported by people who didn't know what they were talking about.

I'll add a bit about fabric buildings. I'm thinking that they must be made of fire-retardant fabric. There have been too many deadly tent fires, and I think that the laws about such buildings have long been that they must be fire-retardant. They have, however, been standing for some time now, and those properties can change with exposure to the weather. (Also see comment from Anonymous below.)

The drums are there because some of the scaremongers who are saying the drums should be in WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, NM) are the same people who fought and delayed the opening of WIPP and fought and delayed transporting the waste there.

I'm wondering why the Lab didn't say all these things, perhaps issue a fact sheet, in response to media inquiries. Early Lab responses on the subject were a refusal to comment. But this has long been the way the Los Alamos National Laboratory has handled such things. That's too bad, because it allows the scaremongers to get their fantasies publicized.

Update: Here's a photo that shows Area G and the fire. And another looking away from the fire.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Ha Ogen Melon

Just A Speck of Plutonium...

will give you cancer/kill you.

Well, no. A number of people breathed in plutonium dust during the Manhattan Project. I don't have the numbers right here, but they didn't all contract cancer. They did all die, but from other causes, like old age.

So those two statements, which have risen from the ashes of the Las Conchas Fire, are false.

How about this? Just a speck of plutonium can give you cancer/kill you. That changes the statements quite a bit. Can covers a large universe of possibilities. Just a speck of the carcinogenic dust that's floating around New Mexico this morning from the fires can give you cancer/kill you. Just a glass of water, stuck in your lungs, can kill you.

Your body is designed to keep out small specks of anything. The hairs in your nose, the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, stop particles and flush them out. Very small particles, smaller than about 10 micrometers (I'll believe Wikipedia on this), can get past the defenses. The lungs still have some flushing action and may remove them. But let's say that that plutonium particle stays in the lungs. What then?

The radiation from the particle will damage cells in its vicinity. There are several possible kinds of damage and cell response: the cell may die, it may correct the damage, or it may become cancerous. Even after it becomes cancerous, the body seems to have ways to destroy it. These cell-level processes are still not well enough understood to define specific pathways. If we believe the Wikipedia article, however, these same things happen with many kinds of particles. In particular, the smoke we New Mexicans are breathing contains condensed-ring hydrocarbons, well-known carcinogens. So I'm increasing my cancer risk as I write.

A large number of people have done some experiments for us on the effect of junk in the lungs. Those people are the ones who have been smoking cigarettes. They have been taking condensed-ring hydrocarbons into their lungs, and polonium as well. Polonium, which seems to concentrate in tobacco, is radioactive and decays in much the same way that plutonium does. Some of those people have developed lung cancer, whether from the hydrocarbons, the polonium, or the small particles is impossible to say. But others have not developed cancer. When we learn more about the cellular origins of cancer, we'll be able to sort these effects out.

It bothers me that pundits who supposedly respect science keep getting this wrong. It even bothers me that advocates against anything nuclear keep getting it wrong.

There's more that they're getting wrong that I hope to address later, after I talk to some people who have more recent experience with the drums at Area G than I have. Whatta concept, hey guys?