2010 - %3, May

Mississippi Beaches: The Last Beautiful Day?

| Mon May. 31, 2010 6:57 PM PDT

Mississippi coast, Memorial Day. The NOAA surface oil forecast is calling for the slick to come ashore on the Mississippi and Alabamba coasts sometime within the next 72 hours, so we head out that way today to see if anything was arriving early. And also to see just what is at stake when the oil does make landfall.

This is a place that knows all about bad landfalls.

It couldn't have been a more beautiful day, full of the poignancy of something so ephemeral, something likely to be gone soon. It was very quiet for a Memorial Day. People are staying home, we heard. People are staying away.

But not the birds. Where are they going to go? It's the height of the nesting season for this mixed colony of least terns and black skimmers. 

Both species breed on sandy beaches and forage just offshore for small fish and invertebrates.

The skimmers make their living skimming the surface with their longer lower bill. A bad occupation in the company of oil.

The terns were working hard, foraging at sea and ferrying their catches back to their chicks. In the photo above you can just make out through the grass the two chicks cryptically nestled in the sand beneath the parent and the dinner he or she has brought home.

The spill hasn't made landfall. Still, we wondered how many birds went out to fish today and didn't make it back.

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BP's Next Tactic: Plume Denial

| Mon May. 31, 2010 1:32 PM PDT

Several independent teams of scientists monitoring the impacts of the Gulf oil spill have found huge plumes of undersea oil extending miles from the spill site. A first team of scientists reported a plume two weeks ago and last week teams identified two separate plumes extending in opposite directions. One plume is estimated to be 22 miles long, six miles wide and more than a thousand feet deep, made up of globules of oil of varying sizes.

How has BP CEO Tony Hayward responded to these findings? Seems he's decided to go the denial route. "The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "There aren't any plumes." The company's own tests, he said, have found "no evidence" of such plumes.

This is, of course, the guy who for weeks argued that the spill was "tiny" compared to the "very big ocean." Last Friday he finally acknowledged that this is "clearly an environmental catastrophe." But now he's set to work to convince the public that the oil, which the company has tried so hard to keep below the water, doesn't exist if we can't see it on the surface.

The existence of the plumes is a new phenomenon; oil generally floats to the surface, given its natural buoyancy. But some of the scientists believe that the record volume of dispersants used at this site is keeping the majority of oil under the surface and causing it to form these plumes. That's what dispersants are designed to do—break up the oil into smaller globs so it sinks and can biodegrade more rapidly. As of Monday, a total of 920,000 gallons of dispersant have been used on the spill—720,000 on the surface and 200,000 at the spill site. Critics of dispersant use note that while the chemicals solve the problem of oil hitting land, they keep it under the water, where it's less of a PR issue for the oil company but still creates its own set of environmental problems.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday sent a letter to BP America president Lamar McKay asking for more information about BP's plume denial. The letter requests "copies of all measurements, calculations or other supporting materials on which Mr. Hayward based his statements regarding the existence of sub-surface plumes of oil (including indications of BP's methodology or any observational equipment used)."

BP has shown it can't be trusted to give an accurate estimate of the spill size. Now it looks like the company doesn't plan to be honest about where all that oil is going, either.

Shaking the Federal Money Tree

| Mon May. 31, 2010 10:16 AM PDT

Lots of lefty econ bloggers have suggested that the answer to our financial woes is a walloping big second stimulus. But we aren't getting one. Tyler Cowen thinks that should tell us something:

Reading the Keynesian bloggers, one gets the feeling that it is only an inexplicable weakness, cowardice, stupidity, whatever, that stops policies to drive a more robust recovery. The Keynesians have no good theory of why their advice isn't being followed, except perhaps that the Democrats are struck with some kind of "Republican stupidity" virus. [...] The thing is, that same virus seems to be sweeping the world, including a lot of parties on the Left.

Romer, Geithner, Summers, et.al. know all the same economics that Krugman and DeLong and Thoma do. If a bigger [aggregate demand] stimulus would set so many things right, they'd gladly lay tons of political capital on the line to see it through and proclaim triumph at the end of the road.

Except they expect it would bring only a marginal improvement.

Now, there are a few things to say about this. First, Tyler's definition of "marginal" might be different than, say, Krugman's. Would a two-point drop in unemployment be marginal? Or dramatic? Second, it doesn't have to be weakness or cowardice driving the Obama team's actions. If, for whatever reason, they've concluded that a second stimulus is simply politically impossible, then they're going to turn their attention elsewhere no matter what they think about it. That's just common sense. Third, even if a ton of political persuasion might (barely) push a second stimulus bill through, it might be too late. They might disagree with Krugman et. al. not on fundamental grounds, but simply on timing.

But despite all this, there's one pretty good reason to think that Tyler is basically right: tax cuts. Lefty economists might generally believe that increasing spending is a more efficient way of stimulating consumption than reducing taxes, but they'd almost certainly accept a big tax cut as an almost-as-good substitute. And tax cuts have two big advantages over spending. On the substantive side, they work faster. Spending takes time to work its way through the economy, but a tax cut (for example, a payroll tax holiday) boosts the economy almost immediately. And on the political side it's quite doable. Republicans would be persuadable because they love tax cuts and Democrats would be persuadable because it would help the economy. For Obama, then, it would be the best of all worlds: a fast stimulus that gets bipartisan support, something that boosts the economy while dampening the inevitable criticism he'd get for blowing up the deficit.

But he's not pushing for this. Not even quietly. And this suggests that Tyler is right: Obama's advisors might be in favor of further fiscal stimulus, but not by much. And the best explanation for this is that lefty or not, they're genuinely afraid, as Tyler says, that it would bring only marginal improvements at the cost of significant problems down the road.

But would it? I'd like to hear more about this. I feel like the liberal economic community is largely getting a free pass on this because the opposition has been so stupid: if you're arguing that inflation (or hyperinflation!) is a near-term threat that needs to be vigilantly opposed, it's pretty easy to explain why this is wrong. But the better argument is that inflation is a long-term threat that has to be contained early, because once the genie pokes its head out of the bottle it's very, very hard to stuff it back in. And the medicine it takes to do the stuffing is painful indeed.

Now, that argument might be wrong too. But because conservatives mostly aren't making it, liberals mostly aren't taking it on. But they should. Political realities being what they are, reining in the federal deficit will be hard even under the best of circumstances, and if we decide to make it worse now it's going to become even harder to rein in down the road. That's not a problem for today or tomorrow, but it might well be a problem in 2015. Right?

Griping About Obama

| Mon May. 31, 2010 9:18 AM PDT

Matt Steinglass reins in his temper better than me today and writes lucidly about the moronic critiques of Barack Obama's emotional response to the BP oil spill, culminating in Maureen Dowd's angst this weekend over Obama's "inability to encapsulate Americans' feelings":

Ms Dowd's involvement is fitting, as this may be the sorriest spectacle of content-free public hyperventilation since Al Gore's earth tones. The difference is that in this case the issue is deadly serious; it's the public discourse that is puerile. There is plenty of room for substantive critique of the flaws in governance and policy uncovered by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. You could talk about regulatory failure. You could talk about corporate impunity. You could talk about blithely ignoring the tail-end risk of going ahead with deepwater drilling without any capacity to cope with catastrophic blowouts. Precisely none of these subjects are evident in the arguments our pundit class is having. Instead we have empty-headed squawking over what the catastrophe is doing to Barack Obama's image.

Look: no one knows how to stop this spill. It's not a matter of effort, it's a matter of the current state of human knowledge. As Matt says, the substantive critiques are fine (Obama should shut down all offshore drilling, he should send more workers to clean up the shore, he should use this as an opportunity to talk about clean energy, etc.), but witless griping about Obama's emotion level or his need to "take charge" is just dumb. Knock it off, everyone.

On Memorial Day in Normandy, Reminders of What We Won--and Lost

| Mon May. 31, 2010 8:21 AM PDT

On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where U.S. paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.

For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond  comprehension--save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.

At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was 12; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.

Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast.  And he’ll gladly trades war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.

Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war--half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves--are far outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists--and a place in history--with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate  the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck.  They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.  

Adorable Hybrid Musical Animals

| Mon May. 31, 2010 4:02 AM PDT

So there's this wonderful website called Worth1000.com that, consistent with its title, holds little contests encouraging people to create photo illustrations on all sorts of themes. I caught onto W1000 via this blog item, which showcased Worth1000's collection of Photoshopped animal hybrids—which I want as pets! (And you can't get mad at me for this, because they're not even real—not like ligers and zonkeys!) Anyway, while browsing W1000, I discovered a collection of animal-musical instrument hybrids and thought I'd share it with y'all. There are three Instranimal contests here. Some entries are feeble, but there are enough good ones to make it worth browsing. I pasted a few more below. (See the latest contest here, and click at the bottom for past ones.)

 

Trumpeter Swan: By dollyllamaTrumpeter Swan: By dollyllama

 

   

Lute Beetle: By ZTNiKrO

 

 

Froghorn: By multichannelerFroghorn: By multichanneler

 Click here for more Music Monday features from Mother Jones.

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How to Talk to Your Teen Headbanger

| Mon May. 31, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

So you want to communicate better with your sullen, alienated teen, whose earsplitting music just sounds like so much godawful noise? Well imagine how 16-year-old Tommy's jaw will drop to the floor when, sitting around the dinner table, you casually say, "Oh, I don't know about you, but Gorgoroth shreds so much harder than that weak death-metal stuff, you know, like Fleshrot."

"But, but what about Mastodon?" Tommy stammers, disbelieving.

"Meh," you say. "I'm not so into the progressive crap. Gimme some good thrash, you know, Kreator 'n' shit."

In three short minutes, your relationship is back on track thanks to Raz Ben Ari's recent video, which will teach you—and your mom—to recognize various metal subgenres, distinguishing glam from thrash from power metal from black metal. The takeaway message, at least for me, is that subgenres are plain stupid. Why would any band limit itself when it's so much more fun to string 10 subgenres together within one song, as RBA does here? Okay, listen and learn. Quiz after.

Okay, now it's quiz time. Name the following subgenre(s):

P.S. Don't forget to study for next week's quiz: riffs (see below). And fer Lucifer's sake, buy your kid a helmet!

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Obama Adviser: Gov't "Prepared for the Worst"

| Sun May. 30, 2010 1:33 PM PDT

With the top-kill now declared a failure and another risky operation to cap the oil well gushing into the Gulf of Mexico just getting started, Obama's top environmental adviser on Sunday said the administration is "prepared for the worst."

The latest plan to cap the well resembles previous failed attempts at placing a containment dome over the gusher. But this version requires cutting through the broken riser, which might unleash even more oil—possibly as much as 20 percent more. Even if it does work, it likely won't catch all the oil.

"What our experts are saying is that when you cut the riser, the kink may be holding some of the oil in, and so we could see an increase," energy and climate adviser Carol Browner said Sunday on "Face the Nation." The only real solution appears to be the relief wells, which will take at least two months to complete.

"The worst is that we have oil leaking until August, until these relief wells are dug," said Browner. "And we will be prepared for the worst."

And these relief wells? Those, too, are a difficult, risky undertaking. As David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, told me several weeks ago, these wells are not often used and are especially difficult to drill at such a depth. Basically, BP hopes to drill  down to intersect the leaking well in order to inject cement and plug it. But the leaking well is only 7 inches in diameter. Experts compare it to a nurse trying to locate your vein to to draw blood—except the vein is a mile below water and then another three and a half miles under the seabed, and the operation has to be carried out with remotely operated robotic devices.

There are also concerns that trying to tap the well could make the situation worse. In its application for the permit to drill the relief wells, BP warned that an additional blowout could cause 240,000 barrels of oil a day to spew into the Gulf.

If that fails? The Gulf well could continue spewing oil for years.

As the situation in the Gulf grows ever bleaker, new evidence came to light Sunday that BP had plenty of warnings about the Deepwater Horizon rig and this well. The New York Times reports that as far back as 11 months ago, the company knew about concerns with the well casing and the blowout preventer, both of which have been fingered as likely causes of the explosion that brought down the rig.

The Secret of Buoyancy

| Sun May. 30, 2010 9:23 AM PDT
 
Reposted from my blog Deep Blue Home:
 
 
 
Wonderfully interesting news out of science this week about the buoyancy control of the lovely travelling octopuses known as argonauts, or paper nautiluses. Aristotle himself wondered about their talents—and no one since then has  deciphered just how these little bobbers move through the water column... Until now. Here's the abstract of the findings from a new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B:
Argonauts (Cephalopoda: Argonautidae) are a group of rarely encountered open-ocean pelagic octopuses with benthic ancestry. Female argonauts inhabit a brittle ‘paper nautilus’ shell, the role of which has puzzled naturalists for millennia. The primary role attributed to the shell has been as a receptacle for egg deposition and brooding. Our observations of wild argonauts have revealed that the thin calcareous shell also functions as a hydrostatic structure, employed by the female argonaut to precisely control buoyancy at varying depths. Female argonauts use the shell to ‘gulp’ a measured volume of air at the sea surface, seal off the captured gas using flanged arms and forcefully dive to a depth where the compressed gas buoyancy counteracts body weight. This process allows the female argonaut to attain neutral buoyancy at depth and potentially adjust buoyancy to counter the increased (and significant) weight of eggs during reproductive periods. Evolution of this air-capture strategy enables this negatively buoyant octopus to survive free of the sea floor. This major shift in life mode from benthic to pelagic shows strong evolutionary parallels with the origins of all cephalopods, which attained gas-mediated buoyancy via the closed-chambered shells of the true nautiluses and their relatives. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Illustration from Discover.
 
I wrote about my own encounter with an argonaut during a magical morning in the lagoon surrounding the island of Mo'orea in French Polynesia. From The Fragile Edge, an excerpt:
She is bobbing through the calm waters inside the barrier reef, near the swift channel between two hoa (passes), where a pair of streams enter the sea. I am loitering in the calmer water myself, dipping and fluttering my canoe paddle and trying to steer a straight course. It’s just after dawn. The air has not yet awoken to the convection currents that will drive it later this day, and the lagoon is motionless, almost oily looking, with a glycerin sheen as absorbent to color as a paintbrush. In the ripples to my left, the peridot green of Mount Rotui blooms. In the ripples to my right, the obsidian blue of the open sea. Between the two lies a surface as good as a window, through which sergeantfish, anthias, and lionfish drift above little islands of corals and gatherings of stingrays.
From afar, she looks like one of those ubiquitous pieces of oceangoing flotsam washed from shore or ship and plying the ocean with indestructible endurance. I paddle towards her, bent on litter collection, only to discover that she is not a styrofoam cup or a plastic sandal but a living creature roaming inside her own home—an argonaut, or paper nautilus, probably of the species Argonauta argo. She is a member of a genus of octopus that long ago abandoned life on the seafloor in favor of roaming the open seas. Unlike her namesake, the chambered nautilus, her delicately coiled shell is not an external skeleton that she is attached to as we are to our fingernails, but a mobile home that she can come and go from like a hermit crab.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Illustration from here.
I have never seen an argonaut alive in the sea before, and with fumbling hands I don mask, snorkel, and fins and slip over the side, dragging the va’a canoe by the float so as not to lose it. She is a timid creature and this may be the only opportunity that ever comes my way to see her in the wild. The thought going through my mind as I waft my fins is that I must approach as softly as a ripple.
It doesn’t matter though. She is engaged in one of those acts of violence that nearly preclude thoughts of personal safety. She is half out her shell, pulsing in bright red and yellow, the colors literally tumbling through her like reflections from flashing police lights. Her colors are so strong they bleed beneath the skin of her paper-thin shell, bruising it. She is administering the coup de grâce to a pteropod, a sea butterfly. Her eight arms are flared open, an umbrella turned inside-out, exposing the parrotlike beak. The pteropod is flapping its transparent wings in hopes of escape but the argonaut is reeling it in on the sucker disks of her arms, biting it, then tucking it under her bell, and rolling herself back into her translucent shell, where the flames of her hunting colors soften to pink.
Quietly now, her big eyes innocently wide, she floats a foot below the surface, arms wrapped over her head, the tips of them tucked daintily into her shell, leaving most of her sucker discs exposed. She observes me from a safe distance, one orange eye watching as she feints towards shore, the other watching as she tacks towards her home in the open sea.
 As with every female argonaut octopus, she has fabricated her shell herself, using calcium carbonate secreted by the two large, flattened dorsal tentacles unique to her genus and gender. She has invited a much smaller—no more than an inch long (invisible to me)—father-to-be aboard. Now, with her head and tentacles protruding, she sails herself, her mate, and eventually her brood around the tropical and semitropical oceans of the world. Carrying the family on the currents, her shell is as fragile as a parasol of bone china, yet strong enough to shield its occupants from the ultraviolet radiation present near the surface of the oceans.



Lithograph of Argonauta nodosa, The Tuberculated Argonaut, or Paper-Nautilus, Argonauta oryzata; Artist: Arthur Bartholomew (1870s). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Congressmen Investigate Gulf Emergency Response Plans

| Sun May. 30, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

With oil still gushing into the Gulf and the ability of BP to respond to the environmental devastation it has unleashed in question, congressional investigators are now taking a closer look at the company's emergency response plans. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) have requested information from four companies that provided services or consultation for emergency response to BP and rig owner Transocean.

The congressmen sent letters to the heads of the National Response Corporation and the Marine Spill Response Corporation, two companies that had service agreements with BP. They also sent inquiries to the Marine Preservation Association, which funds the Marine Spill Response Corporation, and the O'Brien's Response Management Inc., which served as a consultant on emergency response issues to both BP and Transocean. The congressmen request all information related to the companies' response plans for an emergency at the Macondo well site, correspondence with the companies, and "all documents relating to failure to control an oil well on the seabed."

More attention is being paid to how much, if at all, these companies paid to emergency response planning. Clearly not enough, as we're seeing very clearly in the Gulf. Numerous attempts to stop the well have failed, and the company has been unable to control or contain the oil gushing into the ocean. On paper, the company's plan might be funny if the company's failure to anticipate this kind of situation wasn't so tragic.

A Senate committee has also asked the Department of Justice to look into whether BP made false claims about its ability to respond to a disaster in plans submitted to the government. The DOJ says it is "examining the full range of affirmative legal options that may be available to the United States" in dealing with the companies found to be at fault in the Gulf.