Archive for 2013 November

A great essay on a great writer: Messud on Camus

A great review will not only change your mind, but make you see — and feel — afresh.

Such is Claire Messud's essay on Albert Camus' Algerian Chronicles, in the 50th anniversary issue of the New York Review of Books. Must read!

But if you don't, here are some reasons — from Camus — why you should.

On violence for the sake of overthrowning one's oppressors:

“I merely say that we must refuse all legitimacy to violence, whether it comes from raison d’état or totalitarian philosophy. Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable.”

On intellectuals who justify violence:

Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do, unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves.

On violence in politics:

“I am not made for politics,” he wrote in his notebooks in November 1945, “because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.”

On the eroticism of nature:

There is only one love in this world. To embrace the body of a woman is also to hold to oneself this strange joy that descends from the sky toward the sea.

[Camus with his publisher Gallimard, not long before his death]

Camus and gallidmard 1958

Must. Read. Camus. 

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The dark underbelly of the Thanksgiving turkey

For the holiday season, the greatly underappreciated Thanksgiving Play from Adams Family Values (the 1991 sequel) written by Paul Rudnick: 

Hard to take Thanksgiving sanctiomny clearly after seeing this one — thankfully.

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Justice for teen killers in the U.S…and Mexico

In Ventura County in Southern California, Alex Medina, found guilty by a jury of killing another Ojai teenager, Seth Scarminach,for the benefit of a street gang, was sentenced to twenty-six years to life this week.  

Eighteen-year-old Alex Medina received the maximum sentence today for the murder of an Ojai teen in 2009. Medina was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison, with the possibility of parole, by Superior Court Judge James Cloninger.

To a full courtroom, Cloninger expressed hope that if Medina ever applies for parole, the agents take careful consideration.

"I think the defendant is a psychopath and doesn't feel one bit of remorse for the crime or the people he's burdened," Cloninger stated just before pronouncing sentence.

Medina was fourteen at the time he killed a putative rival, slashing his throat, but was tried as an adult. 

In Mexico, a teen who worked as an assassin for a drug cartel, was released after serving the maximum sentence for a juvenile — three years. From the LA Times:

MEXICO CITY — He admitted being a salaried killer for a drug cartel, the kind of assassin who preferred slashing his victims' throats.

On Tuesday, after serving three years behind bars, he was released from a Mexican detention center and was on his way to the United States — where he would soon live as a free man. 

Or, rather, a free boy.

The killer, Edgar Jimenez Lugo, known to Mexican crime reporters as "El Ponchis," is 17 years old. He was 11 when he killed his first victim, and he was 14 when he was arrested, in December 2010, at the Cuernavaca airport, along with luggage containing two handguns and packets of cocaine.

The AP version detailed his crimes a little more fully:

In 2011, at age 14, Jimenez confessed to killing four people whose beheaded bodies were found suspended from a bridge.

He was born in San Diego, California, but was raised in Mexico by his grandmother. Authorities quoted Jimenez as saying he had been forcibly recruited by drug traffickers when he was 11 and confessing to working for the South Pacific drug cartel, led by reputed drug lord Hector Beltran Leyva.

But the LA TImes version delved into the political aspect, and the changing attitudes in Mexico:

Jimenez's release is likely to rekindle the debate about the justice system's treatment of minors who commit serious crimes. In 2005, the Mexican Constitution mandated the creation of separate justice systems at the state and federal levels for offenders younger than 18.

More recently, there has been a push to take a harsher stance, exacerbated in part by the drug cartels' habit of drawing from the country's vast pool of poverty-stricken, poorly educated children to form their ranks.

In March, Morelos lawmakers increased the maximum sanction for children who commit serious crimes so that a suspect like Jimenez would serve five years, not three, behind bars, a change that came about as a result of his case. In July, the state of Veracruz went further, raising the maximum penalty for 14- to 16-year-olds from four years to 10 years of incarceration, with 16- to 18-year-olds now facing the possibility of 15 years.

Such changes have concerned some children's rights groups, but the clamor is not likely to die down. Javier Lozano, a senator with the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, sent a series of Twitter messages on Tuesday asking Mexicans to consider lowering the minimum age for trying children as adults.

"The liberation of 'Ponchis' speaks of a perverse system in which under the pretext of being a minor, one can be an assassin, but not a criminal," he wrote.

In the trial of Medina [which I covered] the focus was on his psychology: Was he a victim of abuse, as the defense tried to show, or a psychopath, as the prosecution alleged?

The answer from the judge and jury: Psychopath.

In the case of Jiminez, the boy's psychology — judging from the reporting — seems to have been besides the point. Although evidence suggested that Lugo's parents fought, neither story said he had been abused himself, and with a million underage youths at risk of being recruited to work for drug cartels, amidst much poverty, perhaps psychology doesn't matter so much.  

Not sure which nation has a better grip on the question of how to handle boys who kill. But I can't imagine freeing after a short sentence anyone who confessed to beheading four people.

[Here's a file photo of Edgar "El Ponchis" Lugo in custody.]

El Ponchis


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Global warming conference in Geneva “fizzles”: LA Times

Sometimes a picture is enough:


The AP photo depicts the French president, the Japanese Prime Minister, the American President, and the German Chancellor unable to agree. 

An LA Times story tells of how the conference "fizzled to an inconclusive end," but allowed the conferees to avoid the embarrassment of total failure. 

Nice puppets, tho. 

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The “monstering” of tamarisk: How the government “found” water for a big copper producer in wartime by vilifying a plant

In her recently published book, The Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris blithely whirled readers through a whole new world of ideas about conservation. 

She wants us to give up on the notion of a pristine world untouched by man, and accept nature's half-wild state today — as long as we are half-wild ourselves. 

Along the way, she introduces all sorts of fascinating people, New Conservationists one might call them, and plenty of startling new ideas. 

An example: Tamarisk, or salt cedar, widely accounted a villain today, according to scientists and government bureaucrats, but scientists working for the government introduced this plant to the Southwest in the 19th century, and advocated for its propagation for three quarters of a century, before abruptly changing their minds for a particular reason involving the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Marris points out the irony — and the hypocrisy — and suggests maybe tamarisk deserves compassion.   

And she points out a paper, The Monstering of Tamarisk: How scientists made a plant into a problem, by Matthew Chew of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University

This paper turns out to challenge a central tenet around which a wilderness group of which I am a member has been organized — the journeying into the wilderness to remove and eradicate by violent but non-chemical means the plant tamarisk. 

So I read the paper, and it changes my mind. This is the rarest sort of scientifc paper; more than readable, it's startling. Data, history, facts, sources — this paper has all the academic credentials. 

And it's well-written. Examples? Glad you asked….

The story of tamarisk (Tamarix spp.), flowering trees and shrubs imported to New England sometime before 1818, provides an example of scientific "monstering" and shows how slaying the monster, rather than allaying its impacts, became a goal in itself. 

This is an account of scientists creating a monster; not by asesmbling and reanimating one as envisioned by Mary Shelley, but by declaring that an organism one presumed tractable was flouting human intentions, and recasting it as malevolent. 

Today when unhappy outcomes arise [from the re-dispersal of biota] we are used to specialists blaming the biota by labeling them "alien" and "invasive," declaring that taxa refusing to defer to putative prior claims are unbelonging and even morally defective, reconfiguring both the discourse and objectives of science. 

My purpose is to iluminate episodes in the process by which a plant taxon once valued for particular inherent qualities was subsequently devauled and disparaged for very nearly the same reasons. 

Thousans of acres of tamarisk had to be using lots of water, so eliminating them had to yield some benefits, however hard to predict. Pecos personnel knew of some ways to kill tamarisk, and their knowledge was visible and measurable in acres of dead vegetation. A water pumping, water-wasting monster was attacking the Pecos River. In some minds, confidence was high that it could literally be slain. However, confidence was lower that the water it was stealing could actually be recovered. as a result. 

[Turns out, Chew says, that tamarisk colonized the Pecos River, and it turned out that the Phelps-Dodge Corporation wanted to develop a huge copper mine on the river in the l930's that needed water…which they "found," with the government's active assistance, by destroying tamarisk, using flame-throwers. Not to mention 2.4.5-T, aka Agent Orange. ]

The monstering of tamarisk required the kinds of organizaiton and impetus that only the federal government could provide in that era. 

Tamarisk was a convenient scapegoat for the complex problems encountered by government water managers, be they true believers in the monster or otherwise. Even so, it does not seem to have mattered strongly to the principals whether suppressing tamarisk ever made more actual "wet water" available. They could demonstrate productivity in acres of vegetation laid waste, again and again, while suppressing or simply ignoring the substantial doubts lingering over their theories, methods, and mandate. Monstering tamarisk was far from a superstitious exercise. It was an effective way to perpetuate a program. 


Hard to believe a plant so beautiful could be so evil. 

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Sexy “rock art” in the Sespe wilderness: 2013

While I'm working up a post on "invasion biology," the monstering of tamarisk, and what it means for us to care for our local wilderness in the 21st century, I cannot resist posting this daring "rock art" photographed just this week in the Sespe Wilderness….


I wonder who the anonymous rock artist is — I took this picture on Monday in a canyon above Fillmore, so he or she or they live amongst us, almost certainly, right here in Ventura County.  

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What’s it like to be followed by the US government?

Never thought I'd say anything like this, but I kind of enjoy….

Rocky Mountain NP

…being followed by the US Department of the Interior.

[pic of Rocky Mountain National Park, tweeted by the agency]    

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New National Weather Service term for extreme weather

Particuarly Dangerous Situation

For example, from today, via Jeff Masters

A dangerous day in Chicago
Most of Illinois, including Chicago, has been placed under a special "PDS" Tornado Watch: a "Particularly Dangerous Situation." Severe thunderstorms spawning tornado warnings have already erupted over Southern Wisconsin and Western Illinois as of 10:15 am CST. Severe thunderstorms are likely to sweep through Chicago in the early afternoon during today's Ravens – Bears game, which starts at noon CST. According to NBC 5 in Chicago, loose objects are being removed from the stadium in anticipation of high winds, and officials are prepared to evacuate fans, if necessary. 

The Wikipedia entry suggests that this is a new phrase. The National Weather Service states:

PDS watches are issued, when in the opinion of the forecaster, the likelihood of significant events is boosted by very volatile atmospheric conditions. Usually this decision is based on a number of atmospheric clues and parameters, so the decision to issue a PDS watch is subjective. There is no hard threshold or criteria. In high risk outlooks PDS watches are issued most often.

Could use of this word serve as a metric for the extreme weather of this century? 

Regardless, here's such a story from the NY Times today, which is a lot tougher to take than a new word:

Severe storms moved through the Midwest on Sunday, leveling towns, killing at least five people in Illinois and injuring dozens more, and causing thousands of power failures across the region.

Officials warned of a fast-moving, deadly storm system on Sunday morning and issued tornado watches throughout the day for wide areas of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. By the time the storm had passed on Sunday evening, tornadoes — scores of them, according to the National Weather Service — had left paths of destruction.


Kinda reminds me of another set of post-storm pictures recently. 

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“Sheepwrecked” in Yosemite, Santa Cruz I., and the UK

140 years ago sheep were devastating the slopes and meadows of the Sierras and John Muir launched an effort — which took decades — to remove them. He wrote:

It is impossible to conceive of a devastation more universal than is produced among the plants of the Sierra by sheep…The greass is eaten close and trodden until it resembles a corral… Where the soil is not preserved by a strong elastic sod, it is cut up and beaten to loose dust and every herbaceous plant is killed. Tees and bushes escape, but they appear to stand in a desert very different from the delicately planted forest floor which is gardneed with flowers arranged in open separated groups. Nine-tenths of the whole surface of the Sierra has been swept by the scourge. It demands legislative interference. [from his journals for September 19, 1873]

Recently the well-known environmental columnist for the Guardian, George Monbiot, has launched his own campaign against the destruction wrought by sheep on a landscape, bY opposing — in a contrarian fashion — the designation of England's famous Lake District as a World Heritage site. He writes:

The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked: the forests which once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green. By eating the young trees that would otherwise have replaced their parents, the sheep wiped the hills clean. They keep them naked, mowing down every edible plant that raises its head, depriving animals of their habitats. You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham. Their sharp hooves compact the soil, ensuring that rain flashes off, causing floods downstream. This is the state which the bid would help preserve in perpetuity, preventing the ecological restoration of England’s biggest national park.

This is part of Monbiot's rewilding campaign, as he states in a manifesto:

Through rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – I see an opportunity to reverse the destruction of the natural world. Researching my book Feral, I came across rewilding programmes in several parts of Europe, including some (such as Trees for Life in Scotland and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) in the UK, which are beginning to show how swiftly nature responds when we stop trying to control it (18,19). Rewilding, in my view, should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the Biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.

It's so difficult for us to imagine a landscape before the arrival of us and our domestic animals. Monbiot quotes a forester named Ritchie Tassell sarcascitally wondering: "How did nature cope before we came along?"  

Herdwich sheep lake district large


"Rewilding" is a concept introduced in this country by Dave Foreman, of Earth First! fame.  I think it's best-known example in the U.S. is the idea of a route built over or under a highways to allows animals, especially migrating animals, to pass safely

But removing the sheep from the Lake District sounds like a start.

Anyone who has been to Santa Cruz Island, in a national park off the coast of Southern California, can can readily imagine how different and pleasant that island would be with hills of vineyard, producing tens of thousands of gallons of wine, instead of the unimaginably huge sheep farm that took over. 

For many years, dating back to the Spanish era, Santa Cruz island produced wine for the entire state, until a rancher named Ed Stanton took control, idled the vineyard, and imported thousands of sheep. A sucessful sheep operation resulted, and produced revenue while devastating the island, but eventually was bought out by the parks service. The sheep were eradicated in recent years. 

Point being: the Lake District too could benefit from a rewilding — and sheep removal. 

[We have no pictures, apparenlty, of Ed Stanton having the wine casks emptied and 26,000 gallons of wine poured out on the ground, but we do have a history of his operation. ]

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What the heck happened with Super Typhoon Haiyan?

After the strongest hurricane ever hits, it's natural to ask what happened.


What made this storm so strong? 

Climatologists have ideas on the subject. Eli Rabbet looks at a graph from the NOAA Environmental Visulaization Lab. Darkness indicates warmth in the ocean, fuel for a potential hurricane.

Super Typhoon Haiyan ocean heat content

Here's the commentary from the lab at the time: 

The intensification of Super Typhoon Haiyan is being fueled by "ideal" environmental conditions – namely low wind shear and warm ocean temperatures. Maximum sustained winds are currently at 195 mph, well above the Category 5 classification used for Atlantic and East Pacific hurricanes. Plotted here is the average Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential product for October 28 – November 3, 2013, taken directly from NOAA View. This dataset, developed by NOAA/AOML, shows the total amount of heat energy available for the storm to absorb, not just on the surface, but integrated through the water column. Deeper, warmer pools of water are colored purple, though any region colored from pink to purple has sufficient energy to fuel storm intensification. The dotted line represents the best-track and forecast data as of 16:00 UTC on November 7, 2013.

Greg Laden, of Science Blogs, has a fine-grained description of the heat to energy transfer: 

Warmer seas can make bigger or stronger storms, and as the storm passes over the ocean, the temperature of the sea surface has a strong influence on whether the storm increases or decreases in strength . As the storm moves over the sea, the interface between the windy storm and the roiling ocean becomes something of a mess, as though the surface of the ocean was in a blender, and there is a lot of exchange of heat across that interface. Also, deeper, cooler water is mixed with warmer surface water. A powerful storm moving across the ocean will leave in its wake a strip of cooler water. 

Another way to look at heat content in the ocean is to look a chart for relative sea level, because, counter-intuitively, sea level is not exactly uniform the globe over.

Warmer regions tend to be elevated, and as a recent IPCC chart and discussion indicate, the waters near the Philippines are the warmest on the planet.  


Jeff Masters describes what happened:

A remarkable warming of the sub-surface Pacific waters east of the Philippines in recent decades, due to a shift in atmospheric circulation patterns and ocean currents that began in the early 1990s, could be responsible for the rapid intensification of Super Typhoon Haiyan. Hurricanes are heat engines, which means they take heat energy out of the ocean, and convert it to kinetic energy in the form of wind. It's well-known that tropical cyclones need surface water temperatures of at least 26.5°C (80°F) to maintain themselves, and that the warmer the water, and the deeper the warm water is, the stronger the storm can get. Deep warm water is important, since as a tropical cyclone tracks over the ocean, it stirs up cooler water from the depths, potentially reducing the intensity of the storm. When both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita exploded into Category 5 hurricanes as they crossed over a warm eddy in the Gulf of Mexico with a lot of deep, warm water, the concept of the total heat energy available to fuel a hurricane–the Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP)–became one that gained wide recognition. The Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines has the largest area of deep, warm water of anywhere on Earth, and these waters have historically fueled the highest incidence of Category 5 storms of anywhere on the planet. Super Typhoon Haiyan tracked over surface waters that were of near-average warmth, 29.5 – 30.5°C (85 – 87°F.) However, the waters at a depth of 100 meters (328 feet) beneath Haiyan during its rapid intensification phase were a huge 4 – 5°C (7 – 9°F) above average, judging by an analysis of October average ocean temperatures from the Japan Meteorological Agency (Figure 1.) As the typhoon stirred this unusually warm water to the surface, the storm was able to feed off the heat, allowing Haiyan to intensify into one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever observed.

Masters then adds a phenomenal plot from a Japanese meteorological agency that shows how closely the monster storm lined up with the warmest waters. Click if you want it bigger and clearer.  

Haiyan-track-100m-sst (1)

Figure 1. Departure of temperature from average at a depth of 100 meters in the West Pacific Ocean during October 2013, compared to a 1986 – 2008 average. The track and intensity of Super Typhoon Haiyan are overlaid. Haiyan passed directly over large areas of sub-surface water that were 4 – 5°C above average in temperature, which likely contributed to the storm's explosive deepening. Image credit: Japan Meteorological Agency. 

As Kerry Emmanuel, of M.I.T., the leading expert on these storms, put it this week in the NYTimes: 

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