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A more realistic view of the Gulf after the BP oil spill

Posted on October 29th, 2010 in Climage Change,ecology,Environment,Nature,Science by Robert Miller

The BP Macondo oil well that ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, was capped on August 5, 2010, after five million barrels of crude were added to the waters of the gulf, fouling 632 miles of Gulf beach, including parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. This oil spill, the largest oil leak in our history, will have an incalculable impact on the indigenous animal life, including the humans that populate the region or attempted to take a vacation in the area during the malevolent, visible violence of the oil surge. But, what our mainstream press want us to believe is “out of sight, out of mind,”  which doesn’t actually work when you live in the region and try to make a living from the traditional mode of fishing and shrimping. According to the reports we hear, the oil  is gone now thanks to the cleanup crews and the dispersant Corexit, which was liberally applied both deep, at the site of the oil leak, and on the surface. Writer Terry Tempest Williams spent time, beginning July 28, 2010 visiting the region, particularly Louisiana, which was hardest hit by the continuous movement of oil from the site of it’s release. Williams has written a searing piece in Orion Magazine describing her own experiences in the region and how she and her small crew got contaminated and had to go through detox process. Her article is entitled The Gulf Between Us.” It is a passionate and well written account of her experiences and views as an environmentalist and activist. The reason we don’t hear more stories about the downside of the Gulf is that BP demands a confidentiality agreement from everyone they compensate, and since just about everyone in the region was affected in one way or another, there is a wide, effective gag order imposed on the very people that have to continue trying to make a living in a region damaged in ways that we may never understand. Yet these are the people that know most about the impact of the spill and Williams gives them voice in her article.

So, if we wanted to conduct an experiment on the environmental impact of a major oil spill–now is our chance. But BP is attempting to silence the scientists who are examining the impact of the spill, as I wrote earlier. Whatever we have done to the ecology of the region will not be known for decades and many issues will probably never be fully understood. Right now, thanks to the use of Corexit, there is a layer of oil on the bottom of the Gulf, the magnitude and distribution of which is presently unknown: I seriously doubt there is any method that can measure it.  But that is the area where many fish breed (including some species of blue fin tuna), so the future of fish that spawn in the gulf is unknown and since the number of fish caught is rapidly diminishing world wide (virtually all Atlantic salmon that we buy in the store is farmed fish), it will be hard to pin any change in fish numbers on the Gulf oil spill of 2010.  Not entirely unrelated is how we destroyed the cod fishing in the North Atlantic: once fishing trawlers came along that could reach with their nets down to the bottom of the ocean, the cod started to disappear because that’s where the big cod go down to breed and where the newly hatched cod stay to grow. So, while cod was once considered to be an inexhaustible source of seafood, and built the early economy of New England, the major cod fisheries have been closed since the early 1990s. Will oil on the bottom of the gulf achieve what the trawlers did to the cod fishing industry in the Atlantic?   Williams’ article also reveals that many residents of the Gulf region have been tested for contamination and show up with elevated levels of benzene and cadmium. So, we haven’t just intoxicated the wild life of the region, we must also think about the long-term impact on humans. Williams adds another point that should spark instantaneous sobriety: the five million barrels of oil spilled into the gulf would have provided the United States with about four hours of our daily oil diet. It is government collusion with the oil industry that produces this kind of outcome, though many feel that BP is an outlier when it comes to safety issues. The PBS program FRONTLINE did a major documentary on the safety record of BP and its convoluted history. You can watch it here. I have also commented on BP and the Gulf oil spill in articles here and here.

Who can lead us out of this toxic quagmire of excessive, American-style capitalism that puts humans below profits and stock values over human safety and protection of the environment? It is as if our frontal lobes, the region of our brain where we stand the best chance of evoking some longitudinal thinking and perhaps realizing that we are on an unsustainable path–that region of the brain has died of the atrophy of disuse, especially by our government and its collusion with international corporate objectives. But, as the saying goes, “we have met the enemy and it is us.” If we demanded a change and forced refocus of our culture on a sustainable path, compatible with the environment and the other animals that live within it, we could change things beginning now. We are too late to avoid impact from global climate change and we are too late to avoid a rise in sea levels, but we are not too late to save the planet from an insurmountable catastrophe that lies in our path if we do nothing. If we should lose the Greenland, Antarctic and Arctic ice, the ocean levels will rise by about 70 meters, Florida will be completely underwater and the Mississippi River will drain into the Gulf at Tennessee. While the earlier projections did not foresee this kind of catastrophe during the 21st century, the ice is melting faster than we thought, by mechanisms we cannot yet model, nor do we understand. So, while it is still true that we control our own destiny, that is probably only true today for a subset of the global population. It doesn’t mean we can’t improve, but we are already late.


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The new Chinese supercomputer champion!

Posted on October 28th, 2010 in Science,Technology by Robert Miller

For what it’s worth, one of the lead stories carried on the front page of the New York Times this morning, describes how the Chinese have surpassed the Americans as owners of the world’s fastest supercomputer. The Tianhe-1A has 1.4 times the horsepower of the current top U.S. supercomputer which resides at a national laboratory in Tennessee. What makes this computer much faster than the top American computers is how they integrate and link many different computers into a workable array, each member of which is assigned a task in a multitasking environment. Part of this is hardware and part is software. The current Chinese champion has succeeded in putting together Intel and Nvidia chips in a new way that provides about twice the communication speed of their American competitors. This is not the first time American supercomputers have lost out in the speed contest. In 2002 Japan announced a supercomputer that was faster than the top 20 American machines. But the U.S. Government staged a comeback and regained the crown in 2004 and has kept it until the new Chinese machine was announced. Their machine is housed in the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin. A spokesperson for the Chinese commented that up until now, they have relied on American computer chips to fabricate their new champion, but in the near future, they promise to build their own chips, which should begin to appear within the next year or two.

Supercomputers in America are now commonplace and exist in many universities and national laboratories. The supercomputers we have at the University of Minnesota are housed in a special Supercomputer Institute and can be accessed by faculty and large corporations. I have used our supercomputers several times to carry out computations related to modeling nerve cells and my colleague uses it continuously for that purpose. However, the improved speed and design of desktop machines and innovations in software, have allowed many intense modeling applications to be successfully carried out on personal computers. Fast graphics processing cards also provide access to things such as 3D visualization, something that was stimulated by the advances in the 3D gaming industry (I happened to visit the Seattle Convention Center earlier this year, when Microsoft was having a meeting for their XBox gaming machine programmers. All the attendees looked like high school kids–they are the ones writing the gaming software–not all of them are nerds).  Then too, software tools allow individuals to form computational clusters, so that you could donate your machine or use other non-campus machines to carry out special parallel processing tasks that rival in speed and complexity what a supercomputer can do. Such massively parallel systems are not housed in a single building, but made up of personal computers distributed throughout the country or the world. The internationalization of supercomputing is upon us and complex tasks can now be done through that route–you just have to spread the word!

Undoubtedly, American computer engineers are going to take the challenge from the Chinese success very seriously and new resources will flow to make American supercomputers the fastest on the planet once again. This is easy to justify, as models of the environment centered around global climate change require very fast machines and lots of CPU time. I doubt however that this single effort will generate what the country really needs–a well focused stimulus package that starts a new economy and educates, at low cost, the students we will need to generate new jobs and keep them here in America. The Tea Party people that are going to the polls this November with outrage as a motivating factor, should refocus their anger towards the people who allowed our manufacturing base and their jobs to dwindle and our future to appear more cloudy. It was a combination of the Cold War trade policies (in which we allowed countries like Japan to access our markets to keep them in our global hegemonic column) and the Republican anti-labor movement, which delighted in destroying American companies that were unionized, sending them off to China. As a result, the Chinese can not only fund their own march to supercomputer supremacy, but in the process fund the silly, but disastrous wars we fight for reasons that no one can quite remember–the wars are simply too long for secure institutional memory. If you remember, it was that way in Vietnam, though on  a far shorter time scale–first we thought we were fighting the Russians, then the Chinese and finally it was the domino theory proposed in such a way that we were simply fighting evil.

For economic comparisons, we should all watch the British, who have embarked on an anti-Keynesian economic experiment along the lines that Republicans over hear are talking about–severely cutting spending. But we already tried that–when Hoover was President and it predictably worsened the economy and deepened the depression.  It’s as simple as this: with high unemployment, reduced Federal spending causes more unemployment and reduces the tax revenues, causing more spending cuts in a downward spiral that doesn’t end until massive unemployment and hardship arrives on our doorstep. It is true that Obama didn’t do a lot of things quite right, with perhaps the lack of “Medicare for all” as the most egregious omission in the healthcare bill. But his errors, which can always be corrected and improved upon,  pale in comparison to the disastrous Republican strategy, should they be able to implement it. You see, the constituencies for the Republicans are already making money and what they don’t want to get stuck with is helping to payback for the damage they caused in the first place. If you don’t believe me, listen to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. His comment is that anyone who doesn’t understand this simple principle doesn’t know the first thing about economics. Dreaming in America continues, with or without medication. Globalization of the American casino, freemarket economy is anti-labor and anti-middle class. Vote accordingly.


Can Meg Whitman save California based on her performance at Ebay?

Posted on October 27th, 2010 in Politics by Robert Miller

Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for Governor of California, is running on a platform in which she emphasizes that, as a successful businesswoman, she knows how to create jobs and balance a budget, all acquired from her previous years, the most successful of which was when she was at Ebay, where she became a billionaire overnight without really lifting a finger. At Ebay, she just happened to be in charge when the company went public and sold her $.07 per share stock for $170 per share. That should do it. AlterNet’s Mark Ames and Yasha Levine have written an account of her years in the corporate world and her disastrous decision at Ebay to purchase Skype for $4.1 billion, without getting the rights to the technology for Skype, held by another company. It was and still is unclear what she actually bought for such an astounding amount of money. In the process, she put Ebay into a disastrous position and lost market share to Amazon.  Is this the sort of businesswoman we want in politics? You can read the story here. Is there a story left in America of a successful business person that doesn’t destroy or nearly destroy the company and imperil its workers in the process? In far too many examples, and one wonders whether this might be the majority,  we see a few people within a company get rich, while the company is sold off or moved to China, leaving the workers  holding an empty bag, with depleted or lost retirement packages and an already downsized work force. Productivity for the company historically goes up, but it is used to benefit executive pay and jack up the value of the stock.The CEO sells his/her stock options (some of which get back dated to satisfy the ever-increasing urge for greed), the company disappears and the workers find employment at McDonald’s. When will the mystification of American business catch up with reality?



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