Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lac Mégantic inferno: Transport Safety Board's damning report indicts deregulation

           The following article gives a neat, concise overview of the Transport Safety Board's report on the Lac Mégantic, Québec, train derailment of July, 2013, which killed 47 people.

            Basically, as we have harped upon repeatedly in this blog, the neoconservative ideology and it's obsessional deregulation policies have created a situation in which the costs of deregulation are beginning to outrun whatever savings they initially provided.

            Koan: deregulation is like salt, too little you die, too much you die.

               Here's the trick for the koan. Because our bodies need sodium and chloride, if you don't get enough salt, you die young. But past a certain dosage - which varies from one person to another - too much salt can cause you heart problem so with too much you die young. It's the same with deregulation. Too much and you stifle creativity and innovation, etc. Too little and 47 innocent people die in an absurd conflagration in the middle of a Saturday's night's dancing..

                   The implication: for each industry there is some, broadly defined, "optimal" level of regulation (see Figure above). There is not so much red tape and bureaucracy that creativity and investment are stifled, taxes are not wasted in nested bureaucratic loops and people do not die needlessly from accidents or intoxications that need not have happened..

internal blog links, keyword: budget cuts - 13 entries

here was a truly wonderful program axed apparently for purely "ideological" reasons although the reasoning rather escapes me. The young people working for Katimavik were learning to develop personal initiative while building a strong bond of national unity across the country, supposedly Conservative values!!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Deregulation blues: anatomy of an inferno

          Lac Mégantic, Québec, July 6, 2013: a driverless train carrying highly volatile crude oil from Bakken (N. Dakota) shale oil deposits, careens into the town center at high speed in the early morning hours. It derails, spilling oil. The oil ignites during the crash and 47 people are burned to death in the conflagration.

internal blog links: keyword - Lac Megantic (6 entries), the most pertinent being:

              The federal Transport Safety Board recently released a report with recommendations. Some improvements in rail security - affecting the entire integrated Canado-american rail system have already been implemented:

"Changes have already been enacted, including tougher standards for the DOT-111 tanker cars that were involved in the Lac-Mégantic crash. The DOT-111s are considered the workhorse of the North American railway system." 

             However all is not as rosy as might appear at first blush. Attempts by journalists to obtain details about the circumstances leading up to the crash - records of inspections of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic rail (MMA) in particular - through freedom of access to information legislation have met with bureaucratic stone walls. Accessed documentation is heavily redacted on the basis of "confidentiality of third party information" or a desire "not to interfere with ongoing judicial proceedings". What has been obtained, though, paints a picture of an industry suffering from a lack of adequate regulatory procedures. MMA was found to be in dereliction of various safety and maintenance codes on a number of occasions. Fine, OK, no one is perfect - but why the hell didn't the government take action against MMA's owners to enforce compliance? We are talking about regulations to assure public security, after all. Is this more blowback from the Harper government's neoconservative ideological stance of laissez-faire capitalism: any goddam thing industry wants is OK? Including - perhaps - burning 47 people to death.. (until the people have had enough, of course..)

               An investigation by Radio-Canada (the French language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) revealed what I personally consider to be shocking dereliction of duty on the federal officials charged with regulating rail safety. The investigation even raised the troubling question of who, exactly, does the government of Canada receive its marching orders from. "The two person rule" in the following quote refers to the traditional practice of having two engineers per train so that each can monitor the other's compliance with safety regulations. The idea is to reduce the probability of human error.

"A Radio-Canada investigation by Enquete has shed new light on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that gave MMA its exemption from the two-person crew rule.

MMA applied to Transport Canada in 2009 for permission to operate with one-person crews as it was doing across the border in Maine. Transport Canada officials opposed this request because of the company’s history of safety violations.

A year later, a Transport Canada audit of MMA revealed major deficiencies in its performance and procedures, including train inspections and brake tests.

Yet MMA returned with the same request in 2011. Transport Canada’s Montreal officials again opposed the request saying, 'We consider that this major change in its operations would expose the crew and surrounding communities to greater risk.'

At this point the CEO of MMA’s Canadian subsidiary wrote to the industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada, complaining about Montreal office opposition. A senior RAC official promised to “make some calls.” This intervention apparently succeeded because MMA got permission in 2012 — over the objection of public servants and the union — to run its trains with one-person crews.

Who made this decision and on what grounds" (emphasis added)

           Sooo... If I get that correctly, Ed Burkhardt, the former owner of MMA, did not like the fact he was refused the privilege of running trains carrying dangerous cargoes on decrepit rail lines with only one engineer aboard. Ed called his buddies at the Railway Association of Canada - an industry lobby group - and these dudes "arranged things" with "some calls" - presumably to federal regulators (??) and Ed got his way. That's neat! And 47 people burned to death. Obviously, one cannot prove cause and effect, any more than one can "prove" that a given freak weather system is due to global warming. One can only assign probabilities..

           And that's where things get sticky. Generally speaking, post mortems of major accidents like the Lac Mégantic conflagration reveal that such accidents are the results of rare combinations of events occurring in a fortuitous chain ("bad luck"). Safety therefore should involve reducing the probability of error at each potential step of error. Thus two engineers versus one so that one can check on the work of the other. In some cases, safety involves pre-emptively removing entire links in the potential chain of error. The MMA train that crashed into the Lac Mégantic town center was left unintended and on a slight incline. It's brakes failed - after firefighters had put out a small fire aboard the engine and left the scene - causing it to roll downhill several miles, gathering speed.. One could have eliminated a link or two in the chain of errors by assuring, for example, that trains with dangerous loads are not left unintended overnight and that they are not parked on a gradient. But neoconservative "business-is-always-right" ideology cuts corners on safety measures to maximize profits in privatized industries (like the rail industry). But now we are beginning to discover the "hidden costs" - the "externalities" as the economists like to say - of neoconservative policies. 47 people died. 

"Why did Transport Canada — despite repeated Transportation Safety Board warnings that DOT-111 tank cars, which punctured and exploded at Lac-Mégantic, were unsafe for transporting crude oil — not take strong measures to mandate their replacement?"

               And be assured, things will only get worse, not better unless the public demands better of our elected officials:

"The recent federal budget contains no increase in regulatory resources.

To my knowledge, as of mid-September 2013 there were 35 transportation of dangerous goods inspectors for all modes of transport.

Meanwhile, crude oil shipments increased from 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. They’re projected to double by the end of this year. 

This is the equivalent of one inspector for every 4,500 carloads of crude oil, up from one per 14 in 2009. By the end of this year, it will be one per 9,000 carloads." 

                 Deregulation blues: cuts in regulation cause errors to pile up on errors.. 

                  When will the public decide that it has had enough of this madness..

Thursday, August 14, 2014

breaking news: robots inculpated in Federal election scam

               Remember the robots who called Liberal party members during the last Federal election and misdirected them to non-existent voting stations? Well, we were beginning to think it had dropped off the radar screen and into a black hole. But if the wheels of Canadian justice turn (too) slowly, they at least still turn..

               Conservative party staffer, Michael Sona, shown above with PM Steven Harper, was, as they say, hung out to dry by the party. A mere whelp of 22, he was  obviously the man to throw under the bus, letting the true instigators run free. My hope: that justice will be done and the court begins tracing back the chain of command to, if not the instigators - that WOULD be asking too much! - at least to their first lieutenants. Ah but we dream, we dream..

              Mr Sona, now aged 25 and looking definitely more mature, faces charges of interfering with the right to vote and a maximum of 5 years in prison (rather unlikely).

internal blog links:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: End of the world at the end of the world..

Fen Montaigne: Fraser's penguins, a journey to the future in Antarctica. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010. 255 pages, index, bibliography (extensive), maps, photographs.

"What we're looking at here is an entire ecosystem that is changing, and it's not changing in hundreds of years. It's changing in thirty to fifty years. To me this is foretelling the future across major parts of the planet. All those places we cherish are going to change." - Antarctic researcher Bill Fraser

          Fraser's penguins is a veritable cri du coeur, as the French say.

cri du coeur: a passionate outcry (as of appeal or protest), literally, "cry from the heart". 

          Montaigne wants to get a shout out to the world: clean up our environmental act or there will be hell to pay.

Abbreviations used in this article:

CC - climate change
F - degrees Fahrenheit
GW - global warming

                           Adélie penguins, Antarctica

           Fraser's Penguins is the story of human caused climate change (CC) and its impact on a particularly vulnerable ecosystem, that of the Adélie penguin colonies on the offshore islands of the Anvers Island archipelago, off the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Contrary to (recently debunked) global warming (GW) denier propaganda, the Antarctic is warming too. In 35 years, for example, the Marr Ice Piedmont, a large Anvers Island glacier, has retreated 1500 feet from the US operated Palmer Station. Mean winter temperatures have shot up 11 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and annual mean temps by 5 F.

                          Torgensen Island is one of the major adélie nesting sites

                  Montaigne, a journalist and author, picked the mind of ecological researcher Bill Fraser to write this book as well spending the spring and summer of 2005-6 at Palmer Station observing the changes in situ for himself.

               The psychology of Bill Fraser and others who fell in love with Antarctica is interesting. In it we may discern, perhaps, the reasons for our world's indifference towards its own fate and that of the other living creatures we share this globe with. These men - to date, by the vicissitudes of patriarchal culture, most of those who had intimate contact with the lost continent have been men - these men who love the antarctic are simply of a different breed (which of course does not auger well for our wild spaces nor our long-term geopolitical stability..)

 "The scene was eternal and untouched and I, like many people who have spent time in Antarctica, was overcome with an exhilarating feeling of insignificance."

"Observing this chinstrap (penguin) metropolis leads to an almost euphoric appreciation of the bounty of the wild world when left unmolested by man."

"Fraser reveled in carrying out groundbreaking work in a majestic setting. 'I absolutely fell in love with the landscape and the feeling of sheer wildness that existed here - just the overwhelming sense of being in a place what was utterly empty of human beings' he said. 'it hooked me badly'".

Lieutenant Kristian Prestrud, member of Amundsen's 1910-12 expedition: "One's dear self becomes so miserably small in these mighty surroundings." Freud's "oceanic sentiment"?

William S Bruce, Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-4: "Isolation among the fastnesses of nature does not bring loneliness: that can perhaps be only felt in its full extreme among the busy haunts of men."

"One evening, with the shadows lengthening, I stood on one of the highest points on Norsel and could see all the area's seabirds either nesting or in flight, from the tiny Wilson's storm petrel, to blue-eyed shags, to Antarctic terns, skuas, and, of course, penguins. Widely scattered clouds passed overhead, subtly transforming the panorama of mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and ocean. It was almost the New Year, I had been at Palmer Station for two months, and gradually I was coming to realize why this place, and this work, exerted such a pull on Bill Fraser. The magnificent landscape and seascape changed by the minute. You spent your days working with wild birds in terrain virtually untouched by man. No day in the field was ever the same, and each left you with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. Where else, in the modern world, was such a life possible?" - nostalgia for our hunter-gatherer origins? 

Antarctic researcher Bill Fraser: "It always seemed intuitive to me that the only way to really understand something is to live in it. What became really apparent to me was that the system on the Antarctic Peninsula was so incredibly variable that the only way to get a handle on understanding how that ecosystem was operating was to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, collecting the same data year after year. Some of the best ideas I've had in my career have come because I have spent so much time here. You develop a sense for what the rhythms should be, the  flow of things. And that's what has allowed me to pick up things that don't make sense, the anomalies. You've got normality and all of a sudden something happens that seems out of place, and those are where the windows suddenly open up. It's the anomalous years that really cue you in as to how this system is operating, and if you don't spend a lot of time there, then how would recognize the anomalous years?"  If that's not the traditional hunter-gatherer psychology, what is?? Ancient wo/man had to develop a "holistic" sense of the "flow of things" in order to recognize - and above all anticipate! - changes (positive or negative) upon which their survival depended. The degeneration of this holistic "sense of place" in modern industrial societies - with their fragmented, atomized consciousness - may account both for much of our modern psychopathology and for our inability to respond to the clear signals nature is giving us that our planet is in trouble. For researcher Bill Fraser the Adélie penguin colonies he studies are "canaries in the coal mine". Their recent rapid decline signals that something is rotten in the state of Antarctica.

And most tellingly of all, "(Fraser) relished living on the edge, and .. his work there was the defining aspect of his life: like many earlier explorers, he also seemed happiest in Antarctica and felt out of place in fast-paced civilization. I once asked Fraser if he could live in a city. He replied, 'No way. I would die there. It's like oil and water. When I have to spend four or five days at a conference in a big city, I wither away. I become lethargic and depressed. It drives me insane. I hate it when I can't see the horizon.'"

                     the peninsula is shown in the box. Anvers Island is near the NW tip

          During Bill Fraser's 40 years long career, he has watched the Adélie penguin colonies around Palmer station go into rapid, and apparently terminal, decline. Fraser attributes this to GW which if pushed to extremes could be lethal to our technical civilization. If ALL of Antarctica's ice were to melt, sea levels would return to historical high levels, more than 200 feet above contemporary levels! At least half the world's population would be displaced (and our world is already overpopulated and barely able to grow enough food..)

           For the poor Adélies around Palmer Station, though, their hour has already come. However, in the GW sweepstakes there are losers (the Palmer Station Adélies) and winners (local colonies of gentoo penguins in particular). As the Palmer Station microclimate warms, local conditions begin to favor gentoos over Adélies. (Adélies are more cold adapted.) Gentoos are pushing further south each year and their population around Palmer expands rapidly. Further south, where it's colder, Adélie colonies are actually beginning to flourish as warming conditions open regions that formerly were too cold even for Adélies.

            As Bill Fraser has grasped, the ecosystems around Palmer Station are in a critical zone: a little warmer and they tip over into one type of organization (gentoo dominated), a little cooler and they tip into a different mode, Adélie dominated. The reason for this local sensitivity lies in the fact that, at the Palmer Station latitude, the presence of sea ice is highly temperature dependent. The presence of ice allows algal blooms to occur under ice which, in turn, feed fish and other organisms Adélies feed on. Less ice means less food for Adélies and lowered breeding success. A decade of relatively low breeding success produce a downstep in Adélie population.

                 Predator / prey interactions tend to amplify the above fluctuations in Adélie population. The guy above is one of the Adélies' worst enemies, a brown skua (seagull evolved into a hawk-like predator. Note the pointy raptor beak). As Adélie nesting colonies decline in size a greater proportion of the nests will be located on the periphery, making them vulnerable to skua predation: teams of skua separate chicks from inexperienced parents. Thus as colonies decline they become more prone to skua predation, accelerating the decline (positive feedback). 

                All of these - and many other - feedbacks make the Palmer Station Adélies a particularly suitable "canary in the coal mine" for GW tracking.

                                leopard seal going after an Adélie

             Fraser's penguins is very well written, an engrossing read. Even with its message of urgency, the glory of untouched nature suffuses the entire text. And not just nature's glory, there is a lot of good interesting science for the nerd, too. This is a good book to give to a young person old enough to pose questions about the nature of the world they are living in and where it is headed. Give it a 9 on 10..

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture

Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. W W Norton and Co., New York, 2000. 183 pages, references (incomplete list)

            Prof Berman's book begins with a common observation today: our civilization appears to be failing. The words "crisis", "transition", "End Days" appear often in public and private discourse. We appear no match for the problems we've created and leave to our children to solve: global warming, climate change, overpopulation, increasing disparity of wealth and opportunity within and between nations, energy and resource depletion, endangered species, habitat destruction.. Even the American Dream recedes as the middle class economically stagnates or declines while its children find it harder to advance than their parents (or even grandparents) did. Despite the promises of technology to liberate us from drudgery, techno-utopia - like the American Dream - recedes. American middle class families find themselves forced to work two or more jobs simply to "make ends meets" (lower middle - or "working" - class) or to "enjoy the good life" (upper middle class). 

           Our values seem to have become debased and ignoble. "Worthiness" increasingly seems to mean either pandering to the mob or despising those less "well off" from ourselves. Political leaders and people in general seem increasingly unworthy of trust, respect or commitment. Political apathy is rife; cynicism is the new norm. I recently heard a Japanese student comment in a radio interview that the fastest way for a young person in Japan to make themselves unpopular is to take an interest in politics. The recent scandals  involving pedophile Catholic priests is typical of the Zeitgeist of decadence, decay and drift. Expectedly, fanatical - and increasingly violent - sects and movements have arisen to recruit disillusioned youth, thereby perpetuating further cycles of atrocity / repression / further disillusionment..
               Berman provides a "decadence check list" (page 19), based on centuries of observations by historians and social commentators, against which we can judge our present culture's state of health. We show signs of advanced declines using his criteria:

1- accelerating social and economic inequality

2- declining returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems

3- rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness

4- spiritual death.. the emptying out of living cultural content and  its reduction to dead formulas - kitsch (footnote 1)

           Several questions remain. If our civilization is sick in some way, is there any cure? Is the condition terminal?

            On the latter point Berman waffles a bit. Several times throughout the book he speaks of "inevitable historical cycles" of ascension, decay and collapse. There is, it should be noted, a fair amount of evidence to support such a view.  What is history but the record of the rise, decline and fall of dominant societies? Even the biological world seems to follow this universal (??) pattern: primitive dinosaurs duked it out with other vertebrate contenders (synapsids, reptiles..) at the beginning of the Mesozoic ("Age of Dinosaurs"). Dinos reached their peak in the middle Mesozoic - TRX, aptosaurs, gigantosaurs.. , then went into some kind of not fully understood decline in vigor near the end of the Mesozoic. Finally, a combination of factors - climate change, large sea level changes, vegetation changes, ecosystem readjustment in response to the above changes, an asteroid strike.. created a perfect storm and the dinos died (except for the theropods that had evolved into birds).

            However, writes Berman, all is not lost! If we look to the fall of the Roman Empire and its aftermath, we see that the Christian monasteries preserved much of ancient learning in their libraries and scriptoria (text copying rooms). This preserved wisdom later assisted and accelerated the (re-)birth of a new civilization during the European Renaissance.

           In effect, Berman is asking us to consider a new version of monasticism, adapted to the needs of our current situation. The ancient christian monks renounced and withdrew from a doomed world, waiting for God's Kingdom on Earth to manifest in glory. The doomed secular world of today which Berman wants to renounce is kitsch and the corporate "value" system. Berman equates the latter with cynical, profit driven manipulation of dumbed-down masses. Like myself, Berman feels that Profit has become our de facto god, a moloch to which all must be sacrificed: healthy ecosystems, a sustainable future for unborn generations, nature, dignity, culture (as participatory act), autonomy, the future and even - in extremo - the very life of the earth itself.. Moloch is a Jealous God!

             For Berman, the "New Monasticism" is, above all, humanism, a profound personal dedication to the Enlightenment values which, he feels, lie at the heart of our civilization:

- disinterested pursuit of the truth, 
- cultivation of art, 
- commitment to critical thinking, 
- quest for social justice and equity within and between nations, 
- an educational system designed to transform children into autonomous , self-respecting citizens involved in the collective life of their community, nation and the world.. 

              On the whole, many would feel these are laudable goals..

             My problem. My problem is that Berman's analyses, brilliant and cogent they may be, remain on a purely "cultural" level ("cultural", in Berman's usage, includes the sense of "ethical" or "moral"). In fact he even rejects all attempts to - as he put it - "institutionalize" New Monasticism. To invest public money in alternative schools which try to empower inner-city black kids would, claims Berman, effectively eviscerate the soul of those schools and transform them into parts of the life destroying System. One must truly remain "above" the fray, one must not become "contaminated" by the System's corrupt - and corrupting - values. By taking the System's  money, by working within its rules, all "monastic" efforts at culture building or maintenance are vitiated or negated.

              The real problem, I suspect, is that while Berman's arguments about the decadence of modern technological civilization are, on the whole, correct, they fail to grasp the full measure of our crises. He intellectually seems to grasp what the last Dark Age in European history involved. But he fails to translate this knowledge into concrete physical probabilities when it comes to assessing our current situation.

             Berman's ideals are basically laudable, as I wrote above. We should all cultivate the best of the Enlightenment's values: toleration, universalism, humanism, criticism of authority, personal autonomy, humility before facts.. But such measures are patently not sufficient! Berman ignores - for example - that the early monks withdrew from society into deserts and wild places to contemplate God and live holy lives. They were autonomous: they grew their own food and brewed their own beer and wine, they raised their own wool sheep, produced their own charcoal and even smelted their own ironware.. They were proficient farmers and at times gave substantial portions of their surpluses to aid the poor. Berman also appears to ignore just how socially disruptive the Hard Days ahead promise to be. If we are to weather the storm, if we are to provide seeds of renewed growth for those who follow us, we will need to assure those values Berman treasures have  physical spaces - living communities - in which to take root and flourish.

              In times of maximum danger like these, both precaution and judicious risk are required. We cannot stay where we are - the ship is sinking. We must jump - but we need look before we leap. We need to leap with wisdom.

            The wisest way to prepare for the many great leaps humanity will be forced to take is to build resilient communities. Small, well organized communities capable of weathering the storm and providing haven for the Enlightenment values Berman treasures and wants to preserve. The new shoots must have fertile ground in which to root. The New Monks must have land to till, abbeys to live in..

             I believe that "volitional" communities - consciously organized to promote conviviality and resilience - such as those proposed by Permaculture or Transition Initiatives (TI) offer the best hope we have of preserving Berman's Enlightenment values. In the New Monastic Age I envisage, those values, rather than retreat from the world of economics, of politics, of social organization as Berman claims, must engage the world frontally, full on..

             Consider, for example, the issue of social stability in the difficult transition to a post cheap fossil fuel energy world. We must expect, at the least, economic decline, social and political destabilization, war. By rebuilding community resilience, by relocalizing the bulk of economic activity at the local / regional level - "deglobalization" or "re-regionalization" - movements like Permaculture and TI will provide islands of relative stability in an increasingly chaotic sea. Such stabilized zones, in turn, provide both an economic base and a "stabilized" population in which a Local State can take root. Maintaining a local state as a police force will be necessary in the coming period of transitional turmoil. Otherwise society will simply degenerate into anarchy and the rule of the strongest. Perhaps, as Marx held, in a decentralized world, the state will "wither away" but during the breakdown of large centralized structures (the global economic system, large national economies, megacorporations..), having a cop on your block to prevent the gangs taking over will become a crucial matter.

Prof Berman's socially critical blog, salty, a bit abrasive for some tastes: