Wingtips On The Beach

The picture of President Obama, wearing dress slacks, a white shirt, and dark shoes as he “checked for tar balls” on a Louisiana beach, gave me an unexpected chuckle. 

I suppose the White House wanted to have a photo op that conveyed in some visible way the President’s concern about the oil spill, but why would the Leader of the Free World use a few minutes of his three-hour visit to beachcomb for a few tar balls?  Surely he could have used his precious time more productively.  And didn’t he feel a bit silly looking profoundly at a tiny tar ball, as if it held some meaningful secret on how to stop, or at least minimize, one of the worst environmental disasters our country has ever experienced?  I bet he was thinking: “This is ridiculous.  What kind of look am I supposed to have on my face right now, anyway?  Concerned?  Scientifically curious?  Angry?  Sad?  Why did I let Gibbs talk me into this idiocy?”

The photo of the white-shirted, dark-shoe-wearing President on the beach also reminded me of the classic shot of Dick Nixon relaxing on the beach, as he strode purposefully by, leaving wingtip prints in the sand.  Why do most Presidents look like nerds when they are on the beach?

Electronic Christmas Cards

Every year I choose from among the firm’s holiday cards and then individually write, address, and mail the cards to clients. I send the cards as a personal expression of appreciation and good will, with a handwritten note and signature. I occasionally get Christmas cards where the “sender’s” name is embossed on the card and there is no sign that the card has even been seen, much less touched, by a human being. What is the point of such cards? If you can’t take a few moments to write a message expressing your thanks or extending your good wishes for the holiday season and the coming year, what is the point of sending a card in the first place?

This year the firm is strongly encouraging all attorneys to send electronic cards, because they are “greener.” I want to support the firm’s efforts to be environmentally sensitive, so for the first time I will be sending out electronic cards this year. I have to admit, though, that I am having some doubts. Although you apparently can type a personal message with your card, I am not sure it conveys the same degree of holiday cheer as a paper card. Greetings that you can send out with a few keystrokes and a tap of the “send” button don’t seem as meaningful as holiday wishes that are handwritten, hand-addressed, licked, stamped, and put in the mailbox. Will the people who get the electronic cards feel like they have gotten short shrift?

Readers: What do you think?

What If India Won’t Play Ball?

India not only is balking at agreeing to limitations on carbon emissions, it also apparently is challenging the science underlying global warming theories. This development is noteworthy, because if India and the other growing economic powers — China, Brazil, and Indonesia — refuse to participate in some kind of binding worldwide effort to reduce our carbon footprint, it puts the United States in a terrible predicament.

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions involve both a scientific component and a geopolitical one. As I have written before, I am skeptical of the science underlying global warming and its heavy reliance on computer modeling. In any case, the geopolitical component is at least as important as the scientic. I do not mean to downplay the significance of getting agreement from countries like Germany and Japan on capping and eventually reducing their emissions, but at least part of that reduction will be achieved by the ongoing general population decline in those countries. Japan’s population, for example, is projected to decline from 128 million in 2008 to 95 million in 2050. Germany’s population is forecast to fall from 82 million in 2008 to 71 million in 2050. If a country is going to experience significant reductions in the number of people who drive cars, it is necessarily going to reduce its carbon emissions, without making any lifestyle sacrifices or handicapping its industry with regulations that raise costs and therefore prices.

What about China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those four countries and the United States are the five most populous countries in the world. And, unlike Japan and Germany, the populations in those countries are growing rapidly. India, which had about 1.1 billion people in 2008, is expected to become the most populous country in the world by 2050, with 1.7 billion carbon-consuming and carbon-emitting individuals. During that same time period, China’s population is projected to grow from 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion, Indonesia’s population is expected to grow from 240 million to 343 million, and Brazil’s population is forecast to grow from 195 million to 259 million. The population of the United States, on the other hand, is projected to grow from 304 million in 2008 to 438 million in 2050.

If countries like India and China refuse to agree to reducing greenhouse gases because they don’t want to saddle their growing economies with the costs that would accompany that effort, the impact of those decisions would obliterate any carbon emissions reductions achieved in Germany and Japan. Obviously, if any significant percentage of the 600 million new Indian citizens uses electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, wears clothing produced in smoke-belching factories, or drives a car powered by fossil fuels, the impact on India’s carbon footprint will be tremendous.

What does this mean for America? Perhaps it means that we should not charge blindly ahead with legislation designed to force our industry to comply with difficult regulations that can only increase the costs of the goods they produce and try to sell in the global marketplace. Our businesses already have to comply with significant wage and hour, safety, and environmental regulations that are not found in other countries. If we add carbon emission regulations that are rejected by other economies, the only immediate impact will be to make our companies even less competitive with those in India, China, and elsewhere. In an era of significant global economic challenges, taking unilateral action that cripples our industries and makes them less capable of employing Americans seems ill-advised — indeed, almost suicidal.

A Gooey Ocean Mystery

I enjoy stories about unexplained natural phenomena, so I very much like this story about miles of a thick gooey substance floating in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska.  Apparently the tests have ruled out any kind of oil or hazardous substance and have indicated that the material is “biological.”  What, then, could it be?  Could some kind of heretofore unknown plant or aquatic life form from the deep crevices of the ocean have floated to the surface, for example?

It is always exciting to realize that there are still things that we do not know, and still discoveries to be made on planet Earth.

Burn On, Big River

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

On June 22, 1969 — 40 years ago — the Cuyahoga River caught fire.  It was, I think, the third time that had happened over the years.  People will say, in retrospect, that the fire helped to increase environmental awareness, led to the passage of the Clean Water Act and various environmental regulations, and therefore ultimately was a positive thing.  As a kid growing up in Akron at the time, I didn’t think about any of that stuff.  It was just another black eye for Cleveland and northern Ohio, and it hurt to hear comedians make jokes about the city.  But, who could blame them?  What could be more outlandish than a river catching fire?

I knew that the river was a mess, because I had visited it with my Akron City Schools grade school class for a cruise on the Good Time II.   The river smelled horrible and looked horrible; it was a black, oily mess that flowed sluggishly and was chock full of debris.  At one point on our cruise we passed a police boat that we suddenly realized was fishing a dead body from the river.  The teacher made us all go to the other side of the boat so we wouldn’t see it.

The PD has a good story today about the fire and its aftermath.  The picture of the man’s oily hand reminds me of the Good Time II cruise.  Interestingly, the river story has a happy ending; the regulations have worked, the river is clean again, and is the home to fish and the site of pleasant recreational activity.  But, when many people think of the Cuyahoga River, they will think of Randy Newman’s Burn On, which provided the title for this posting.  The facts have changed, but the city’s embarrassment still lingers.

Where Have All The Lightning Bugs Gone?

Lightning bugs, doing their thing

Lightning bugs, doing their thing

Has anyone else noticed an apparent drop in the population of lightning bugs on sultry evenings? When I was a kid, catching lightning bugs was one of the fun things to do on a summer night. When they came out, you’d go inside, get a glass jar, punch some holes in the tops with scissors or a screwdriver, and toss some grass into the bottom of the jar. Then, you would go out, catch as many lightning bugs as you could, and then drop them into the jar and screw the top back on.  After a while, the lights from the bugs in the jar helped you hunt.  The bugs were perfect prey, being oblivious to the shouts of children and willing to light up again and again even after narrowly escaping a capture attempt. They were easy to catch once you got the hang of seeing them, and the best conditions occurred about 45 minutes before the sun went down, when there were deep shadows but enough light to see the bugs after their lights went out. Once it became dark, you could see the bugs when they were lit, but once they deilluminated you would quickly lose track of them. Kish and I took a walk tonight at prime time for lightning bug viewing, and the showing was pretty weak. We saw one or two of them in the low-lying, shaded areas where you would expect to see a dozen. What has happened?

Lightning bugs are actually nocturnal beetles, members of the family Lampyridae. They love moisture and thrive in wet, humid areas. According to National Geographic, their blinking pattern is designed to help them attract mates, and each species has a unique flashing pattern. The males apparently are the ones who fly around blinking, while the females hang out on leaves, and only flash when they see a male who catches their fancy. The pair then exchange signals until the guy finally knows he’s got a legitimate shot. (This explains, I suppose, why flying lightning bugs are single-minded in their flashing and uncaring about noise.)A lightning bug

Internet research indicates that scientists are concerned that there is a worldwide decline in the population of lightning bugs. A conference of entomologists and biologists last year in Thailand addressed the problem and concluded that the reasons for the population drop is destruction of natural habitat and light pollution. The moist areas where lightning bugs used to thrive have fallen prey to urban sprawl, and I believe that many people also have consciously tried to get rid of the wetter areas because they attract not only lightning bugs, but also pesky and often disease-carrying mosquitoes. Some scientists hypothesize that artificial lights may be interfering with the mating patterns of the beetles. And, as someone who fancied himself a skilled lightning bug hunter, I like to think that their population may have been thinned somewhat, even if only a bit, by the rigorous backyard hunting efforts of 10-year-olds.

There are still some damp lowlands areas of our corner of New Albany, in the area around Rose Run Creek. Let’s hope there are still lightning bugs down there, waiting for the next hardy hunter. It would be tragic if such an innocent element of summertime fun were to disappear.

A lightning bug

ASB Part II

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Carrying the toilet out of the house

Carrying the toilet out of the house

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

Here’s my long-awaited second post about the ASB trip I took last spring break.

The day after we destroyed the house, we got up early again, as usual. One of the worst parts about the trip was using the bathroom in the church we stayed in. Only the girls bathroom had showers, three of them. The bathroom floor flooded whenever we used them, so after a day the tile floor was a mess of fallen hairs, wet towels, and loose clothing. The showers were so small a guy my size couldn’t turn his body around without hitting the walls. The dividers between the showers were so short that when the guys used them they could see each other’s heads. The conversations the guys had in the showers became one of the running jokes in the trip. I didn’t participate in the conversations though – everyone on the trip took their showers at night, but I can’t stand that, so I got up ten minutes earlier than everyone else to shower in the morning.

We drove an hour to get to our site. It’s too bad we had to stay an hour away from where we worked. We debated a few times whether or not the trip had a net positive environment impact, considering all the driving we did.

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Jeray put us to work trimming some palm trees growing outside a museum in the national park. I took a lopper and cut down branches that were too low or went out too far. Some of the girls took the cut branches and put them in piles. Then a ranger brought a pickup truck and we threw the branches into the back. It got full fast, so I climbed on top and compressed the pile of branches by stepping on them. It was fun.

The next day we finally got to do what we came to do – real environmental work. We drove to the ocean, where we got onto a boat that took us to a little island. The floor of the island was comprised of crushed sea shells in many places. Jeray told us the island was once inhabited by natives, then by a wealthy family who built a house there, the stone foundations of which were still standing near where we docked. We walked through some wilderness to a barren area. It was very hot every day we were there (I forget if it was two or three days). There was little breeze at the center of the island, and the white sea shell fragments seemed to reflect heat. We made sure to drink a lot of water.

On the boat

On the boat

Our job on the island was to remove an invasive species, the Agave plant. Actually, there were native Agave plants on the islands that were distinguishable because they had ridges on the edges of their leaves. Let me tell you, there are few non-poisonous plants you want to stay away from more than Agave plants. There are painful spikes at the tip of each leaf that hurt like hell if you ran into them, which you inevitably did. Actually I’m not sure whether they should be called leaves. They were more parts of a cactus: firm, with a watery inside. Their firmness made the spikes hurt even more. It was important to cover as much skin as possible, and we all wore sunglasses so our eyes wouldn’t be poked.

Some people spent the entire day going ahead of the group and cutting off all the spikes was loppers, and the rest of us would tear the plants out of the ground. The roots often went deep and were tangled with other roots, making this difficult. When we finally uprooted the plant, we either threw it into a big pile, rested it on a branch, or threw it onto an area of ground that was so salty there was no threat of the plant taking root there and growing again.

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

You can see the chopped-off tips

You can see the chopped-off tips

On the last day on the island, another girl on the trip and I walked around with a woman who was working for the park. She had just graduated from college and was eager to be around people her own age, because usually she worked alone. She had a plastic canister of some sort of plant killing solution on her back, and our job was to clear the way so she could spray it on the center of an invasive tree species. Her backpack started leaking and the toxic orange liquid got all over her shirt.

At the end of the last day, all the guys got together to work on the biggest Agave plant we could find. It looked like something out of Land of the Lost. It had grown to the height of a tall tree, with the center branch turning into a trunk about six inches thick. We rocked it back and forth until it finally fell. Jeray told us it was already dead, but we were proud anyway.

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

We only worked three hours or so a day, due to our long drive, the heat, and frankly the lack of much work to be done. The work could be hard sometimes, but it was fun. Honestly, it seemed more like a vacation than a service trip for me, and I think most students treat ASB that way.

Observing the alligators

Observing the alligators

Most nights, we drove to an area of the park with a boardwalk that allowed us to view alligators and other species common to the everglades. We got pretty close to the alligators. We must have seen dozens, but they almost never moved, even blinked. One girl shone a flashlight into the open eye of one of them at night for at least a few minutes, and it did nothing. Seeing one actually glide through the water was rare, and I never saw one walk on land. There was a dead alligator in the water that turned a disgusting white and smelled horrible. Perhaps the most exciting alligator moment happened when another alligator came up and bit the body.

At the end of the week, we packed our possessions into the vans and started the drive back. There was a little dispute over what to do with the half-day or so we had for recreation. About half of us, including me, wanted to lounge around on the beach in Miami. The others were obsessed with seeing a manatee and wanted to go to the manatee park. We took a vote, and the beach option won.

On the beach in Miami

On the beach in Miami

We ate lunch at a bar in Miami with a surly Australian waitress, then we spent some time at the beach. The people who wanted to see the manatee were making it clear they weren’t enjoying themselves, sitting on benches near the entrance of the beach and watching us lay there. Finally, the site leader who led the manatee faction pressured us into leaving the beach to see the manatees, and we did. We drove an hour or so to a manatee park, but there were no manatees to be seen. We left and drove north.

I don’t remember where we slept that night. The next day, we drove through a big storm in Georgia. We ate at a Waffle House because one of the guys on the trip was curious what it was like. I think I was the only one who had been to a Waffle House before. Since Waffle House is predominantly a southern chain, and Columbus has Waffle Houses, they joked that this made Columbus part of the south.

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

We were so eager to get home that we ignored ASB rules and drove through the night, arriving in Evanston around one or two in the morning. We slept on the floor of the apartment of one of the site leaders. When we woke up the next morning, there was snow on the ground.

ASB Everglades

ASB, or Alternate Student Breaks, is a program that sends students to service opportunities all over the country (and, recently, the world) over winter break, spring break, and the end of the summer. There were lots of ASB programs for Northwestern over spring break. I don’t remember most of them, but one was in the Bahamas, I think, and I know there was one in St. Louis that involved homeless people. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the group going to the Everglades!

Unfortunately I lost most of the pictures I took, but I’ll include some taken by my friends.

We left Evanston very early on the Saturday morning after finals week. 6:30 was the meeting time, I believe. We waited for everyone to show up, then we drove south into Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We stopped for the night in a suburb close to Atlanta, Georgia.

Driving worked like this. If you took a driver certification test before the trip, you got a ten dollar discount (the trip cost a relatively cheap $275 overall). I’d already taken this test to become a Saferide driver. Only people who took the test could drive, and we were only allowed to drive two hours between stopping and switching drivers. We had to buy something when we stopped to prove to the university that we did. We were only allowed to drive, I think, between 9 AM and 6 PM.

We were encouraged to bring mix CDs and almost everyone did. I burned about 6 or 7 of them, but they quickly fell on the floor of the front seat and got scratched up. A guy on the trip burned a CD of Ukrainian folk music that everyone hated.

It felt great to get out of the car in Georgia. It was early evening and the temperature was perfect, just warm enough to be outside comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt. We parked our van outside the church we were staying in for the night, then we drove around looking for a restaurant. We settled on a 50s diner type place. The portions there were huge, and I couldn’t help but notice that an unusual number of people eating there were fat. I got the country steak and I couldn’t finish it.

We slept on the floor of the basement in the church. Before we fell asleep, we played a few “bonding” games, like telling everyone the story behind your first name. We also played a game called “High, Low, Ha,” in which everyone said what the highest, lowest and funniest part of the day was for them. We played this game at the end of every day. I forgot to bring a pillow, so I wasn’t very comfortable and I had trouble falling asleep. I later bought a cheap pillow at Wal-mart.

We got up early the next day and drove through Florida. It was great to see the change in scenery, which seems to happen immediately after entering Georgia. I wondered when I would see the first palm tree, and it ended up being right inside Florida’s border. I actually enjoyed driving a lot.

In the evening we arrived at the church in Homestead, Florida we stayed at for the rest of the trip. Then we went to Wal-mart to buy food and supplies. They split us up into four teams, each of which would cook dinner one night of the trip. Each group was given thirty dollars to buy the food. My group decided to cook cheeseburgers and fries. We had ice cream for dessert. We cooked our meal Thursday night, the last night we were there.

homestead_fl

The next day we woke up early and drove about an hour to get to Everglades National Park, where we did our service work. We met a really cool and funny, kinda weird volunteer park ranger named Jeray, who was basically our guide/leader/helper the rest of the week. He was always there to supervise our work. He was originally from Arizona, but he signed up for a three-month volunteering stint in Florida after being laid off. They provided him with free housing and a stipend, I think.

We were all waiting around before work, so Jeray showed us how to knock coconuts out of a palm tree and hack them open with a machete. It was much harder than you would think. Here’s a picture of me doing it.

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He set us to work taking apart an old house on stilts they were about to demolish. The girls grumbled because they expected to do more nature work, but I and the other guys on the trip, I think, had a blast. We got to rip out windows, toilets, doors, and water heaters with as much recklessness as we wanted, then we got to throw them in a dumpster. I really regret losing the pictures I took on this day. During a break, all the guys destroyed a wall in one of the rooms by kicking it and hitting it with a crowbar. It was a great day, and the temperature was really nice.

I’ll write the rest of my account of the trip later, when I have more time. Here is a picture of the entire group:

n1167060180_30428336_5104448

TMI, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, hit the news. I was a college student at the time, and I recall that the stories about the incident had a very panicked, sci-fi quality to them. The nuclear core could reach extraordinarily high temperatures and melt down, burning through the concrete bed and tunneling into the bowels of the Earth, to spread radiation everywhere! Or, radioactive steam could spew from the cooling towers and be carried on the winds, to spread radiation everywhere! Or maybe both of those things could occur and other bad things, too! The TV reports always seemed to show the worried reporter a great distance from the Three Mile Island facilities, with the massive cooling towers looming ominously in the background. Given the alarmist nature of the reports, you almost expected the reporter to suddenly grow a third arm or develop superpowers. Of course, none of that happened — and it is not even clear if what did happen had any discernible health-related effects on anyone exposed to any emissions from the Three Mile Island facility.

Viewed from the perspective allowed by the passage of three decades, it seems clear that the Three Mile Island incident had good and bad effects. No doubt it caused government regulators and industry groups to examine nuclear facility procedures and processes and to introduce additional safety steps, devices, and checks. In the 30 years since Three Mile Island hit the news, there has not been any significant nuclear power mishap in the United States (Chernobyl is another story, of course). At the same time, the quasi-hysterical reaction to the incident made such an impact on those who lived through it that many people have an almost instinctive belief that nuclear power is extraordinarily dangerous — notwithstanding the safety experience of European countries, which rely much more heavily on nuclear power than we do, or that of the U.S. Navy, which relies on nuclear generators to power many of its warships and submarines. As a result, in the United States we have built very few nuclear power facilities in the years since Three Mile Island.

If our country hopes to move away from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels for its energy, nuclear power clearly must play an increasing role. Perhaps this 30th anniversary will cause people to take a new and dispassionate look at the Three Mile Island incident and nuclear power power generally, and we can move forward with a more mature approach to our power generation needs that welcomes nuclear power as part of the solution.