On the last day of the term Monday, the Supreme Court issued a flurry of hotly contested 5-4 decisions, including the much awaited ruling in McDonald v. Chicago, which basically extends to the states the court's holding in the Heller case two years ago that the 2nd Amendment provides an individual right to bear arms. The ruling, long expected, may all but obliterate what's left of the country's gun control laws, a ramification that may explain why Justice Stephen Breyer read his dissent from the bench. Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that the decision was binding on state and local governments, but still seemed to believe that his jurisprudence was not going to produce much bloodshed. He wrote that the decision "limits (but by no means eliminates) [cities'] ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."
In other court news, former Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr wins a major victory in a ruling that will help corporate America get rid of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB)--jokingly referred to as the "peek-a-boo" case. The board, created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the wake of Enron, Arthur Anderson and other corporate accounting scandals of the early 2000, was set up as a private entity that is supposed to keep corporate auditors honest. Its members are appointed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Starr sued the board on behalf of a business group called the Free Enterprise Fund, arguing that because it's got some executive functions, the PCAOB was unconstitutional because its members are appointed by the SEC and not the president. In a complex ruling, the court sort of agreed in a decision that will make it easier for businesses to defang the board. The case was pending last year when Starr publicly endorsed Justice Sonia Sotomayor shortly before her confirmation hearings. Cynics suggested that he endorsed her to hedge his bet in the case, but as it turns out, Sotomayor didn't see fit to return the favor. She was in the liberal minority on this one.
The most remarkable news from this morning's end of the term opinion dump is that it was attended by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who even read an opinion from the bench. Her husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsburg, died yesterday, at the age of 78. Chief Justice Roberts opened the session with a tribute to Ginsburg, who was a well-known Georgetown University tax law professor.
Via the New York Times, which reports the shocking news that among Supreme Court nominees, "female and minority nominees are questioned more closely than white male ones," here's a chart showing the number of comments made by senators and nominees during confirmation hearings between 1939 and 2009. (Full study here.) Aside from the fact that certain nominees were obviously more controversial than others, the most noticeable thing is that starting in the early 70s the sheer volume of babble has increased dramatically. Just eyeballing the chart, it looks like the average number of comments from senators has gone up from around 200 to 1000. But does this also mean that the quality of Supreme Court confirmation hearings has gone up 5x? The question sort of answers itself, doesn't it?
Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) died early Monday morning. No one has served as many years in the US Senate as he did: 51. And perhaps no other senator has quoted as many Greek and Roman statesmen as did Byrd. He leaves behind a long and storied legacy. He was once a member of the KKK and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a move he later said he regretted. But he did back the Civil RIghts Act of 1968. He brought the bacon home to West Virginia in truckloads.
One of the finer moments in his historic legislative career came on March 19, 2003, when he delivered an impassioned address opposing George W. Bush's imminent invasion of Iraq. A fitting way to remember Byrd is to watch it:
And here's Byrd in October 2002, as the Senate debated a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. (He was among 23 senators who voted against it.)
Byrd never let up with his protestations against the war. Mother Jones compiled a list of his admonishments during that first year of war, including the following:
February 12, 2003:
"This is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.… The doctrine of pre-emption…is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the U.N. Charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our—or some other nation's—hit list....
"To engage in war is always to pick a wild card. And war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. I truly must question the judgment of any president who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50 percent children is 'in the highest moral traditions of our country.'"
February 26, 2003:
"We cannot treat the citizens of this nation as if they are children who must be fed a fairy tale about fighting a glorious war of 'liberation' which will be cheap, short, and bloodless."
March 19, 2003:
"Today I weep for my country…. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent, peacekeeper.… We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat U.N. Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet…. This administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war."
May 6, 2003:
"This is not some made-for-TV backdrop for a campaign commercial. This is real life, and real lives have been lost. To me, it is an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq for the president to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech. I do not begrudge his salute to America's warriors aboard the carrier Lincoln, for they have performed bravely and skillfully…but I do question the motives of a desk-bound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech."
June 5, 2003:
"What amazes me is that the president himself is not clamoring for an investigation. It is his integrity that is on the line.… And yet he has raised no questions…expressed no anger at the possibility that he might have been misled."
September 10, 2003:
"The president has now stated that the war in Iraq is the central front on the war against terrorism. But it was our invasion of Iraq which has turned that nation into a staging ground for daily terrorist attacks against our occupation forces. If we are serious about protecting our country from terrorism, shouldn't the central front be the war on Al Qaeda? But at the White House…the president waves the bloody shirt of 9/11 and then subtly shifts the conversation to Iraq."
Thousands of people around the United States gathered on their local beaches on Saturday for Hands Across the Sand, in protest of offshore drilling. In Florida, hundreds gathered on an oil-slicked strip of Pensacola Beach, including Gov. Charlie Crist.
Martin Feldman, the federal court judge who blocked the Obama administration's moratorium on new offshore drilling sold off his stock in a number of energy companies, including his investments in Transocean. But he waited to sell his stock in ExxonMobil until just five hours before he ruled to overturn the six-month drilling pause.
The National Weather Service raised the classification of Alex, the season's first major Gulf storm, back up to a tropical storm on Sunday evening. While it does not appear likely to hit the oiled region of the Gulf at this point, the storm has raised anxieties about what a severe storm might mean for residents.
An Alberta judge has found the oil company Syncrude Canada, the biggest producer in the tar sands, guilty in the deaths of 1,600 ducks. The ducks met their untimely end in 2008 after landing on a toxic pond.
Look closely: This isn't a CD. It's actual circuitry embedded in a jewel case. Awesome! If you're a musical artist struggling to grab the notice of busy reviewers, here's one way to do it—so long as the postal authorities don't mistake your thing for a bomb.
Now I must admit to having a small issue—literally—with the actual music. There are severe limitations when you're composing 1-bit ditties. By necessity, it's pretty cold, spare stuff: nitrous music for robot videos. (What's nitrous music? It's what I call stuff like this.)
Sure, 1-bit is kinda neat—even nostalgic for those of us who once ran out and bought the 8-bit Casiotone-VL1. (Here's a blurry 15-year-old me holding one—wish I still had it.) But despite the brief success of German band Trio, even 8-bit doesn't encourage repeat listening—and 1-bit can be downright harsh. Just compare Fischerspooner's original "Just Let Go" with Tristan Perich's 1-bit rendition. (You might want to lower the volume just a tad.)
I do love the concept, though. Perich has been experimenting with the form for a number of years now. This particular—uh, what to call it?—circuit is billed "1-bit Symphony." It will be offered in August by Cantaloupe Music, a New York label that puts out what was once called "experimental" and has been rebranded "new music": acts like Matmos, which plays on found objects including—wow—cow uteruses. (Where does one even find a cow uterus?)
Onstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Ben Sollee paints an unassuming portrait. He's small in stature, with the baby face of a teenager—despite being in his twenties and married, with a son. He sits on a low stool with only his cello as a companion. But as soon as he starts singing, his voice, silky with a touch of smokiness, fills the field where we sit and slides up the sheer peaks behind us, quieting the chatter of the crowd until all eyes are upon him.
A Kentucky native—his father a guitarist and grandfather a fiddler—Sollee was raised amid the musical traditions and culture of Appalachia. He studied classical cello and then teamed up with three musicians, including the legendary banjo player Bela Fleck, to form The Sparrow Quartet in 2005. Two years later, NPR's Morning Edition named him one of the "Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of the Year."
Is it environmentally efficient to wash all of our Ziploc bags for reuse, or do we use more resources than it is worth? And do the bags maintain their integrity for continuous washing, or does the hot water affect their chemical structure? —Econundrums reader Susan B.
I've often wondered the same thing: It'd be nice to have an excuse to do away with the annoying task of washing and drying sandwich baggies. Unfortunately, the poor Ziploc bag doesn't receive nearly as much attention as its politically polarizing cousin, the plastic grocery bag: While countless studies have weighed the pros and cons of shopping bags, as far as I can tell, no one has ever published a single life-cycle analysis of the Ziploc baggie. (SC Johnson, owner of the Ziploc brand, conducted one when they were formulating their new Evolve bag, but they didn't share it with me.)
What we do know is that like grocery bags, most sandwich baggies are made of polyethylene, a substance derived from natural gas. Although sandwich bags are smaller and denser than grocery bags, the two kinds actually weigh about the same: .01 pounds each. So allow me a back-of-the-napkin calculation: One study (PDF) showed that 58 gallons of water were required to produce 1500 plastic grocery bags—about .04 gallons of water per bag. Let's say it takes you five seconds to wash out a baggie. Since most kitchen faucets flow at about two gallons per minute, that's roughly .17 gallons of water per washing, or four times the amount required to make a new plastic bag.
But despite the water cost, the other benefits of reusing baggies—savings on raw materials, emissions from shipping, and landfill space—make washing worthwhile, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "When plastic bags are reused, fewer plastic bags need to be produced," writes Hoover. "The production of plastic bags uses energy, water, and in most cases a non-renewable resource (fossil fuel-derived); reusing bags, even when you use water to wash them out, saves resources overall."
As for using hot water for washing: There's been some concern that chemicals from bags leach into foods at high temperatures (and Ziploc doesn't recommend microwaving or boiling its standard sandwich bags), though I haven't seen any studies about whether hot washing changes the chemical structure of a bag. If you're worried, you could always use cold water and a little soap. But "if they change color or opacity, I’d say that to be on the safe side, you should discontinue using them," warns Hoover. "I’d also caution against reusing bags that have held raw meat, greasy food, or anything else that might be difficult to rinse out entirely."
Depending on where you live, you might be able to recycle old baggies. Better yet: You could invest in good quality reusable baggies instead. ReusableBags.com sells a bunch, in all different sizes and patterns.
Got a burning question? Submit your environmental dilemmas to email@example.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.
Can it rain oil? A video shot after a recent storm in River Ridge, Louisiana, which has been making the rounds online in recent days, purports to show exactly that. "You can see that this is oil," the narrator says, sweeping a camera over puddles and patches of road bearing a telltale rainbow sheen. "Isn't that crazy dude… It's oil everywhere. And it's thick over there, like we're seeing in the Gulf." The video should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it does raise an interesting question. Is such a thing even possible?
For the most part, oil itself doesn't actually evaporate, though some of the chemical elements in crude oil can. (The sticky tar balls washing ashore are the remnants.) That hasn't stopped some from hypothesizing that, given the dispersants BP has been applying in unprecedented quantities in the Gulf and the lack of information about how they work, it's possible that dispersant-altered oil may indeed be entering the atmosphere. The EPA says this isn't the case. "EPA has no data, information or scientific basis that suggests that oil mixed with dispersant could possibly evaporate from the Gulf into the water cycle," the agency said in a statement. (But then again, the EPA also has very little science on the environmental or health effects of dispersants, as it has admitted previously.)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says largely the same thing:
The notion of oily rain is a myth. Oil as a whole does not evaporate—it is not possible that it would be in the clouds or coming down in the form of rain. Oil is made up of component parts, some of which are volatile and do evaporate into the atmosphere, but these separate and diffuse out into the air. Other component parts do not evaporate and are left behind as weathered oil, residue or tar balls.
There's a bigger concern than oil visibly raining from the sky; it's the toxins you can't see. Gases in oil that can evaporate are known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. A 2003 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report notes that light crude can lose up to 75 percent of its initial volume due to evaporation of VOCs after a spill. That study also notes, troublingly, that "despite the importance of the process, relatively little work has been conducted on the basic physics and chemistry of oil spill evaporation."
The most problematic VOCs in oil are hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and naphthalene, writes NRDC senior scientist Gina Solomon, though she lists a number of other troublesome compounds in oil as well. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and can cause headaches, confusion, and respiratory problems. Benzene and naphthalene are known carcinogens. The bigger concern than rain is that these VOCs are being carried ashore by wind currents. The EPA is monitoring the VOCs in the air, and Solomon says that her study of that data finds "some levels that could raise health concerns." Exposure to the crude oil itself, either on land or in the water, is also not particularly good for humans. There's also concern that storms in the Gulf could sweep up the oil and push more onto land, and hurricane season is already upon us.
We also know that one of the dispersants that has been used in the Gulf carries its own health concerns. Corexit EC9527A contains 2-butoxyethanol, which can cause headaches, vomiting, reproductive problems, and "liver and kidney effects and/or damage." More than 300 cleanup workers have already reported feeling ill, describing symptoms ranging from vomiting and stomach pain to headaches and chest pain.
Point is, there are plenty of serious health concerns posed by the spill and the widespread use of dispersants that have nothing to do with oily rain.
So what to make of the video? I'd guess we're probably seeing the sheen of runoff from roads, parking lots, etc. (Let's not forget that the cars we drive every day are burning and sometimes leaking a refined version of what is currently spewing into the Gulf.)
Twenty pallets of supplies float down over Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan for Red Tank, 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion 4th Infantry Regiment on June 13, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay.
Kevin's back on Monday. Thanks for all your attention over the past few days--and thanks to Kevin for having me here. You can find me back on MoJo's main news and politics blog and on the "Twitters" over here. Peace.