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31 March, 2013

Is This What We Want?

A dispute rolled into the Northwest a few years ago, and the rumblings grow louder. On one side, mining and railroad interests with some union support, advocating for ports where coal from the Powder River basin can be put onto boats headed to China. On the other, environmentalists and local residents who don't want the pollution and headaches that would come from a major coal port. 

Several locations from Oregon to British Columbia are vying to get the port. There will be jobs as it is constructed, and a smaller number of jobs to operate it once it is built. Industry never tires of pointing to these jobs, and unions have been hit hard enough that they chime in with support, but there is little evidence that ports--which are increasingly mechanized--will make much of a dent in long term unemployment. Advocates of any one location prey on citizens' fear that the jobs will go elsewhere if locals do not welcome this development; the NIMBY urge lives in tension with "Well, if it's gonna happen somewhere anyway..."

The question is whether the trade-off is worth it. Jobs and perhaps some revenue (if the local governments don't dangle too much tax relief as a lure) balanced against traffic delays, noise, and the local environmental effects of the development and operation. Coal dust and blaring horns will fill the local air, locals will spend more time idling as mile-long trains pass through, trees will be cleared and archaeological sites obliterated. A leading candidate, Cherry Point in Washington, has long been a herring fishery important to the Lummi and other tribes, including the salmon people who need forage fish; nobody expects the underwater residents to fare well with a massive increase in development, dust, and boat traffic. 

I've never lived by a coal port, and Olympia is too small to be in the race. But I do drive Route 14 up the Columbia from time to time, I have tried to sleep in Stevenson as the plains rumble through, horns blasting, and it's hard to imagine how a massive increase in traffic would be tolerable. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where trainloads of Appalachian coal would pass by on their way to the port of Norfolk (location of these photos). The last time I saw that port was a decade ago, mountains of coal feet away from Chesapeake Bay, grime everywhere. 

And not just the immediate everywhere, because this issue reaches beyond the effects in Bellingham. All along the coal train tracks, localities will experience the dust, noise, and traffic. At the source, miles of earth ripped apart never to be the same. Carbon now in the ground, stable, not contributing to global warming, will be torn out and put on the market. Once in China, it will be burnt without even the weakened environmental controls that exist here. The smoke and pollution will move downwind to visit the US again, and the global atmosphere will get tauntingly dirtier, warmer. These consequences will visit the people who welcomed the port, yes, but they will hurt everyone else as well. If and when the Chinese plants burn all the US coal, they will fall back on their own reserves, and keep on burning.

If a coal port happens--and the relentlessness of North American capital suggests it will--the lucky winner will likely learn some hard lessons. Many of the construction jobs will go to outsiders, and operations won't generate the employment or revenue expected. At Cherry Point, we've already learned that the proponents' initial statements about the volume were a fraction of what they really plan, that there will be twice as much traffic and pollution. Friendly promises will be reneged. Coal, being a global commodity, may become more profitable (leading to increased shipping), or the bottom may drop out (causing jobs to disappear from time to time). Even if you support coal power, does it make sense to sell our reserves to China, whose import policy is partly to protect their own for the future?

26 March, 2013

That Portsmouth Project

Since I needed to write a conference paper this week, I spent some time procrastinating, eventually searching out the one place I did any real archaeology in Virginia. A couple of weeks digging shovel probes in 100-degrees, poison ivy and snakes all around, an employer jerking us around and housing us in a crackhead hotel was enough to send me as far away as possible. 

The location was what must have been the last agricultural remnant north of Portsmouth, and subsequent development has insured that there are no animals or plants surviving. In their place is the largest privately funded marine container terminal in the US, capable of handling 1.44 million containers. Archaeologists in the private sector know that they are often the last to see a place before it is developed, but I had no idea that this would end up being hundreds of acres of barrenscape.

Besides the wildlife that had clung to this refuge, all of the archaeology there was obliterated. My job was to run a crew that would dig a hole, walk 25 feet, and dig another, looking for artifacts. With 300 acres to cover in a couple of weeks, that meant giving up at the outset on some areas, so there are parts of the project that were never tested. I concentrated on the shoreline, and although there was more recent stuff mixed in often as not, we found prehistoric artifacts. There was a concentration of quartz cobbles that tribes had used forever as a raw material for tools--this is a rarity in tidewater Virginia.

My memory of what exactly we found a decade ago is fuzzy, but it seems like it was more than the report ever mentioned. The company that hired me forgot their promise to have me to some writing, and I never saw the report. They cashed in on data recovery excavation at the two sites they acknowledge to the tune of $300,000, and brag about it to this day on their website (it sounds like a lot, but the terminal cost $509,000,000). I got $15 an hour and poison ivy; the crew got less money, but about as much poison ivy. Maersk got a terminal that can bring in ships carrying 9,000 standard containers and transfer them to rail or trucks.

 It's an amazing facility. Cranes on rails move back and forth offloading containers, and smaller machines grab them and take them to the right place, eventually loading them onto trains or trucks. And off they go to walmart or wherever all that stuff is needed. It's immense, and a high achievement of efficient logistics. But it's also inhuman. When everything is in containers moved by machines (I think there are human operators for the time being, but would not count on that for toomuch longer), there are not many jobs. Row after 200-foot row of containers stacked high is not a landscape for soul-endowed primates. I don't long for bugs and snakes and poison ivy, but it still looks like a net loss to me, and strengthens my resolve to buy as few shipped goods as possible.

12 March, 2013

Sole-less Corporations

I'm pretty down-to-earth, and the most down and earthiest part of anyone is the soles of their feet, or the strip of rubber or leather or plastic that forms the soles of their shoes.

I've obsessed before about boots, from their importance to punk rock kids to their evolutionary diversification, to my propensity to buy cheap boots and leave their used-up husks as offerings in various places I worked. I've also ranted about the crappiness of corporations.

Now's the time to lay those threads together into a rope of righteous rage that I can use to flog the boot industry.

A year or so ago, having decided that not all my money is earmarked for food and housing and having run through my supply of hand-me-down boots from my dead dad, I decided to abandon my old policy of buying cheap-ass boots. I'd gotten some hand-me-down shoes from a cousin's boyfriend (who has better consumer awareness than I do, and apparently a larger clothing budget) that had held up pretty well, and there was a new REI store in town, so I went there instead of dropping the usual $35, and bought a pair that cost $130, the logic being that maybe they'd hold together 4 times longer than the cheap Hi-Techs (whose quality had diminished noticeably the last time I'd bought them), putting me ahead of the game. 

What I bought were Keens, famous for being able to handle large-caliber feet like mine (I have what Hawaiians call 'Luau feet,' and Americans generally refer to as 'duck feet,' wide if not clownishly long). The sole began to peel away the first time I wore them. To REI's credit, they allowed me to return them slightly used simply because they suck, no further explanation required.

Boots by Robber Soul, be sure to avoid this patent no.
Having returned my unintentional flip-flops, I turned around and chose a similarly priced pair of Merrills. I know that 130 bucks is not even halfway up the price scale, but I still held hope that they would not be utter crap. But they were. The first photo of this post shows what happens to the sides, which I suppose the corporate PR tools will try to spin as the result of my girthy feet, but I ain't buying that. Besides, the shot above shows what happened to the soles weeks after buying this pair: chunks of sole missing, red stuff wearing away to reveal sof grey foam less than a millimeter below. Besides which, the "waterproof" label is a lie, even before the sides split. 

I guess I could have taken this pair back to REI, but I was busy and the laces still worked, my feet still held within the boot more or less, and I had another newly acquired pair of boots that I could use in situations rougher than cubicle floors and long plastic hallways. Because the new pair were steel-toed, they were considered safety equipment, and therefore part of the $250 or so that they cost was reimbursed by my work. Hiking for miles in high-rise steel-toed boots sucks, though, and inevitably, the soles have started to do this:

"Hi, I'm Dick, spokesman for the Outsourced Sole Council of AmeriCo"
This most expensive pair, by the way, are Danners. I lack the funding to sample all of the boot manufacturers in America (by which, I mean China), but it seems like I will find nothing better without taking out a mortgage. This is a central commandment of life in 21st Century Americorp: Thou Shalt Pay Exhorbitant Prices for Premium Products. [The corollary to which is, All Non-Premium Products Are Shitty.]

Some would say that I should not blame Keen, or Merrill, or Danner, but the sole manufacturer, which happens to be Vibram. Long ago, that name was the gold standard of boot-soles. Rugged, oil-resistant, non-slip. The Danner's Vibrams may live up to that promise, but it won't do much good if they cannot stay attached to the midsole. The ones on the Merrills were slippery as hell even in light rain, and wore out after a few miles. I would not let Vibram off the hook, but neither will I blame them entirely.

Our system of manufacturing--by which I mean our system of contracting the lowest bidder somewhere across the globe and then slapping an American label on it--has lost its soul. If it were just boots, it would be bad enough, but this extends all the way up to the Boeing 787. If you are a middle class or lower consumer unwilling to mortgage your future, you are doomed to getting sub-par goods while the owners of the companies that 'make' them try to make par on some tropical golf course. Maybe it's time to re-aquaint these soul-less robber barons with the steel toe.

Or maybe, something less drastic, something less demanding of my tired and aching feet. Last week, finding myself in a far-flung place (the northwestermost portion of the lower 48, but not the contiguous 48), and done with fieldwork for the moment, that old urge to sacrifice a pair of spent boots struck again. And so somewhere in the 6 square miles or so of Point Roberts lies the pair of Merrills. As I placed them in a thorny thicket, I had no particular prayer--bunions for the 1% and bankruptcy for the offending companies, or even return of the soul of American industry--just a sense of relief, of ditching the silly dream that I could spend a middling amount and get a decent product. 

Back home again after the trip, I bought another pair of cheap boots. Let's see how long they last, and where they end up...


07 March, 2013

NPR Edited my 15 Seconds of Fame

You edit me, I'll edit you.

Irked by an All Things Considered story touting a new record on the stock market, I posted about the Dow Jones Industrial Average and it's faults. NPR, of course, fell in line and had their Planet Money guy do a related story the next day.

So I wrote 'em a letter, congratulating them on the second story and calling them to task on the first.

Today, stuck in traffic, ATC got to the part where they read listener letters, and vain dude that I am, my ears perked up, somehow thinking that my first letter ever to them would be one they would read on air, especially when the intro featured one of the Dow Jones stories.

Then they read a letter from a guy in Portland, Oregon, and I figured they'd filled their NW quota, and pretty much stopped listening. Because yes, it's all about me.

And then they announced my letter! I think you can still hear it here.

The announcer started reading my words, "Thank you, thank you, thank you! for Adam Davidson's doing the math and lamenting the media's ridiculous fixation with the Dow Jones Industrial Average." They read the part where I called it a proxy for overall economic performance that dissolves with the least critical attention. Blah blah blah.

Or actually, just blah. Because they cut out the part where I said the Dow is a bad proxy because it will rise on news of 10,000 layoffs. As well as the whole second half, in which I critiqued the previous day's report for it's lack of critical attention, pretty much the same points I made in the original post.

It's no surprise to me that my letter was edited, but I'd always thought they would do that for the sake of time, and in my case their edit transformed my letter from a mixed bag to a kiss-ass praise. Seems dishonest, especially since I'm guessing they could have found another "You're story was great!" comment in the mail.

I also learned a couple of other things. One is certain: that the "Help us pronounce your name" part is completely ignored when you write ATC a letter. My name is not pronounced like it is spelled, so I offered a phonetic version, to no avail. The other lessons are more speculative. Having sent the message immediately after the story I commented on (ATC begins at 3PM here, so admittedly it was delayed from the original air-time), I suspect they snatch the letters they read from the initial comments. Also, I suspect that beginning with the suck-up repeated thanks increased my odds.

My geek-fame is over now, but it was kinda cool that right after that I walked into a class and the prof had heard the letter. Maybe someone else did too. Lemme know, because yes, I am that vain.

05 March, 2013

The Profundity of Throw-Away Lines

Looks like the Socialist president may be a Capitalist after all.

Critical thinking is not dead yet, but we're getting close. 

Witness this evening on NPR's flagship news show: while discussing the history of the DJIA (the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index of stocks used to inform/dupe the financially interested but illiterate populace), the reporter was clever enough to point out that there are very few Industrial companies listed any more. True--just like the fact that nearly all of the DJIA companies of a century ago have been dropped--but it ain't news.

But then an expert noted that the companies dropped since the onset of the Great Recession were eliminated due to "government takeover." Had the late Presidente Hugo nationalized AIG or GM, I would understand, but that's not even close to what happened. Had the reporter followed up with, "Well, isn't the government part of our economy?" I would have felt like NPR was paying attention. 

Companies from the biggest defense contractors on down owe a good part of their fortunes to the tax code, federal policy, and orders placed with taxpayer dollars; the fact is that a large part of our allegedly capitalist economy would dry up an blow away without the socialism of our government. But if the feds take on a temporary ownership role (implementing a tightened management, in a massive upending of the conventional wisdom that business knows better), GM must be purged? Why? Hogwash,...gulped down eagerly by the allegedly liberal media.

But another throw-away comment ended up being even more informative (and funny, if you are morbid): "Kraft Foods was eliminated in favor of United Healthcare.*" Mac-n-Cheese and High Frustose Corn Syrup had their run, this aside implies, and now it's time for cardiovascular and diabetes treatment to step in. It's a logical progression, and whether or not NPR intended it, I applaud it's profound commentary on our society.

* Or maybe some other corporate name for a health industry company. I don't give enough of a damn about recognizing one corporation to look it up.