Wednesday Good Reads: SETI, El Faro, and Labor


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“Go to the one about organized labor, Madison


A few good reads from the last few days. What’s stopping you? You have nothing to lose, and everything (or, well, three things) to gain.

Searching the Skies for Alien Laser Beams, Marina Koren, The Atlantic

Some scientists believe that the best way to find alien life is to look for pulses of laser beams shot out across the dark eons. While SETI doesn’t always get priority for telescope use (understandably), researchers have found a workaround: poring through data collected by other observations and looking for anomalies. Of course, this presupposes that aliens have seen our planet, want to send some form of contact, and have also decided that laser pulses are the best way, but that makes some sense. It’s easier than sending, like an expedition, and it isn’t really committal (“Oh, jeez, sorry, we were sending that to Rigel 7.”), but there’s something very romantic about it. It’s like being at camp and blinking your flashlight across the lake, wondering if there were campers over there, wondering if you were somehow making a connection through the darkness.

(Granted, I doubt the aliens are hoping, as we campers did, just to make contact with girls, but the general principle holds.)

Democrats and Labor: Frenemies Forever, Erik Loomis, Boston Review

I don’t think there is anyone concerned with labor and with unions (the only thing that can bring back any form of rough economic equality) that isn’t frustrated with the Democrats. Even a very pro-labor government like Obama’s saw labor decline. But as Loomis argues, deciding the abandon the Democrats is ridiculous. A labor-driven third party can’t work, and the Republicans are fully committed to destroying what’s left of unions.

Loomis diagnosis how, oddly, the grassroots/progressive liberal wing helped to strip unions of their power, which accelerated the Democrats no longer needing them as much for votes, and relying on small donors/huge corporate cash, which pushed them toward unfettered free trade, which helped destroy the unions. It’s a complicated story where good guy/bad guy is pretty blurry, but there are ways to get back. The alliances that shattered unions can be used to build them back up.

Other unions have embraced grassroots activism to elect liberal and friendly Democrats. The latter is unions’ best answer if combined with committing as many resources as possible to organizing. Because, paradoxically, unions have little choice but to continue tying their fate to the Democratic Party. Indeed it is even more important now than five decades ago. Even though Democrats have helped create their demise, unions’ only chance against a full-on war with the Republican Party is a moderately favorable relationship with the Democrats acting as a kind of political bulwark.

The whole thing is worth the read.

‘I’m a Goner’: El Faro’s Last Hours as Ship Sails Into StormJason Dearen, AP

The El Faro was nearly 800 feet long and could carry 31,000 tons. It wasn’t one of the neo-Panamax megaliners that are transforming global shipping, but it was a beast. It also had bad boilers which could hurt its engine, and old-fashioned lifeboats that were essentially useless in a big storm. On Oct 1st, 2015, it

On Oct 1st, 2015, it rushed headlong into a big storm. Hurrican Jaoquin, near the Bahamas, a Category 3 with winds up to 130 mph. Battered by waves, unable to turn, the ship broke up and sank, taking its crew of 33 with it to the bottom.

In the AP, Jason Dearen crafts a story out of transcripts recorded on the bridge, and they tell a harrowing story of calm professionalism over growing terror. The list of things that went wrong is terrifying and maddening. The ship listed a bit, which meant the parts that brough oil to the engines didn’t quite reach the reserves, which made the pumps not work, which brought on more water. It couldn’t steer into the waves, and so was pummeled by them, hundreds of feet high. They couldn’t even call for help, since the company that owned the boat (the one that signed off on the boilers and the lifeboats) had an answering service set up after hours. There was no way to contact them directly (though it might not have mattered in the face of a hurricane, that’s still pretty cold).

They do their jobs and try to figure it out. But eventually, there is no way out. The ship is sinking. Some panic, some try to just find the next way to survive. None do. It’s a terrible story, written with a modest and removed reserve, which heightens the true natural terror. And that boat, that human immensity, carrying with it the dreams and memories of dozens, disappears, swallowed unremarkably by a roiling sea.



Yukon River Rerouting Shows Sudden Impact of Climate Change; Is Bonkers Crazy


This river is younger than, say, “Lemonade”


There are few things that can change the course of a river suddenly. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi by suddenly shoving millions of tons of water in northward, but that was temporary. Normally, (unless like in Chicago you do it intentionally) rivers change directions or reroute their course very slowly, through generations of erosion as it pokes and prods and tries to find the easiest way to flow, a grinding process that eventually levels everything in its path, though never on the mere scale of a human lifetime.

Thanks to climate change, that might not always be the case. Times?

In the blink of a geological eye, climate change has helped reverse the flow of water melting from a glacier in Canada’s Yukon, a hijacking that scientists call “river piracy.”

This engaging term refers to one river capturing and diverting the flow of another. It occurred last spring at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of Canada’s largest, with a suddenness that startled scientists.

A process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016.

Much of the meltwater from the glacier normally flows to the north into the Bering Sea via the Slims and Yukon Rivers. A rapidly retreating and thinning glacier — accelerated by global warming — caused the water to redirect to the south, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year’s unusually warm spring produced melting waters that cut a canyon through the ice, diverting more water into the Alsek River, which flows to the south and on into Pacific, robbing the headwaters to the north.

Think about that. If you lived there (or, I guess, if you are a tremendous liar), you could say “I remember the days when these waters flowed north, onward to the Bering Sea”, and you’d be talking about last summer.

Now, to be fair, this was a perfect confluence of conditions: the way the land was shaped there didn’t have to be too much melt and erosion for the higher ground to make its way to the lower; the channels cut my newly melted water didn’t have far to go. We’re not going to wake up one day and see that the Ohio is charging back toward Pittsburgh. But it is still a stark and terrifying reminder that climate change isn’t something happening in the distant future. It is happening now, and it is really unpredictable.

In essence, we’ve decided as a species to enter a vast generational experiment where we see what happens when we accelerate natural processes and introduce unnatural ones. The earth heats and cools, glaciers advance and melt, rivers change their courses. These things happen on unimaginable time spans. They don’t happen over the course of a century, or the life of a summer. But, thanks to our desire to turn nature into capital, that’s what’s happening.

We don’t know how it will turn out. Things will happen that we can barely even guess. But it seems short-sighted to say it won’t be enormous.

I’ll leave this with an example of what retreating glaciers mean. We all know that the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and completely wiped out the landscape that came before them. And we know it was cold as hell. But I don’t think it is generally understood how much their immensity impacted geology, and not just topography.

They pressed down on the earth’s surface, slowly impacting it under their enormity. And as they retreated, the surface slowly started to rebound. This is a process that, tens of thousands of years later, is still happening. The impact of this can be felt right around here, in Chicago. When the glaciers first retreated, and the lakes took their present form, the ground was low enough that Michigan (and Lake Chicago before it) flowed southwards, toward the Mississippi Basin. But as the land rebounded, and glaciers cut more channels, eventually the whole Lakes basin made its way to the ocean.

Until, of course, the city of Chicago, disgusted with and sickened by the filth of its residents, reversed the course of the Chicago, turning southern Lake Michigan into an extension of the Mississippi Basin. That happened in a geologic instant. The reversal of the Yukon rivers was even quicker. It was instant.

Our impact on the planet might mimic the planet’s own cycles, as somewhat more sophisticated climate deniers claim, but that’s wildly misleading. It’s a gruesome imitation, at high-speed, a janky cassette player that suddenly turns your music into a screeching cacophony, with little regard for the consequences. It’s like jumping off the Empire State Building and saying you’re imitating the gentle swaying of a leaf on the wind. Same general direction maybe, and with the same end point, but brother, you’re fucked.