More Good News! VIDA Blocked; Invasive Species Kept Away From Great Lakes

Pictured: Joe Manchin

It’s water Thursday, and hopefully we’ll get to the roundup after work tonight, but wanted to bring you a rare bit of good news: the Vessel Incident Discharge Act, which would have removed needed protections against invasive species in the Great Lakes, was actually defeated in the Senate yesterday!

We talked about this last year, and were officially Not Optimistic, saying it was part of the GOP’s mad desire for “letting industry control their own regulatory regimes.” That’s a big part of this, and something we need to keep fighting against.

It’s also an interesting story, because it is part of the larger geological and hydrological history of opening up the Great Lakes to the world. The Niagara Falls was an enormous barrier to any creatures trying to make their way to the Lakes, if they could even get past the punishing downstream currents of the St. Lawerence.

But the building of canals and the invention of steamboats changed all of that, in ways that transformed not just the economy of our country, but the basics of geology. Global trade, in which huge vessels picked up ballast water from the Bosporus, teeming with life perfectly suited for that environment, brought that life here, where it wasn’t suited (and obviously vice-versa, this isn’t an assault against America or anything).

Trade is good. Connecting the world is good. They’ve brought enormous benefits. But there are huge risks and downsides, which we need to work against so that everyone benefits. That “everyone” should also include ecosystems, which are where we, you know, live. That’s why regulations about ballast water were important, and why trying to remove them was insane.

I don’t have to tell you that nearly every Republican voted for VIDA, right? But they also had some Democratic help.

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp(N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) voted with Republicans to advance the bill. Everyone, besides Jones, is up for reelection in a state won by Trump in 2016.

Casey and Donnelly are Great Lakes senators, which is particularly maddening. But think about what that says: it says that red (or reddish) state senators feel that any environmental legislation is so toxic, even one as obvious and benign as this, that they are siding against it for cheap political points. Even though I doubt that there are many people in landlocked West Virginia too damn concerned with inconvenience to oceanic freight, Manchin sided against clean water.

That’s nuts. One of the consequences of opening up the Lakes to the world is that every river system that is connected to them can can be infested with invasives. And since Chicago reversed the river, that means the Mississippi watershed, which includes the Ohio and all its tributaries, which includes the Kanawha and the Monagahela, which are in West Virginia. And I think the Missouri runs through North Dakota and, well, Missouri.

The point is, that thanks to geology and our economic choices, we’re all connected. It’s our politics that suffers a vast disconnect, where even pointing out that we should make it slightly harder for oxygen-killing mussels to infect every waterway, the source of our country’s strength, is some kind of commie tree-hugging bullshit.

But that can change. We can get better. Rejecting VIDA is a hopeful sign that sometimes the good guys can win. It’s not un-American to protect America. As we learn more, and as voices speak up, we’ll expand that idea of America to our land, our water, and ultimately, the people who live here.


Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.


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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.


It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

Wait, Mitch McConnell is actually the Worst


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This is not an unfair picture; nullification has always been the heart of the Mitch McConnell project


It’s easy to get lost in the bloated malevolence of Donald Trump, or the poor-killing piousness of Paul Ryan, but we shouldn’t forget about Mitch McConnell, who may, actually, be the worst.

I don’t know if there has ever been a more cynical politician in my lifetime, or maybe ever. Bill Clinton watched a mentally-handicapped man get execute to prove his tough-guy bonafides, and that’s unforgivable calculated cynicism. Ronald Reagan stoked every fringe anti-government group while climbing up the ladder of governmental power, which is pretty damn cynical.

Then there are guys like Tom Delay, who spoke the language of the Christian Right while using its gulls as a side-hustle, raking in cash and giving the money guys a free hand in the temple. You also have dudes like Newt Gingrich, whose cynicism is extreme self-righteousness, able to levy teary empurpled criticism at those who won’t respect the results of elections. That’s breathtaking.

But still, there’s no one quite like Mitch, and arguably, there never has been. Sure, there may have been people more cynical, but not in our media climate, and not with the right wing what it is. He’s able to do the most blatantly political actions, without any regard for a right or decent outcome, while blaming the other side for doing exactly what he is. He’s a master at it.

One of my “favorite” examples, which I described as nearly Escherian, was funding for research into the Zika virus. The Republicans blocked any funding for months, refusing to give Obama a “victory”, as if helping pregnant mothers from a deadly airborne illness was anything other than the baseline responsibility of the government. And then they finally put Zika funding in a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood and weaken environmental protections. Obviously, Dems would vote against that. Mitch?

(P)ut Hillary Clinton in the White House and I promise you this, she will double down on the cynical approach that Senate Democrats seem to revel in these days.

Here’s what I mean. As we sit here tonight, a terrifying mosquito born illness threatens expectant mothers and their babies along our southern coast. And, just last week, just last week, Clinton Democrats in the Senate blocked a bill aimed at eradicating that virus before it can spread.

I mean, what can you do? It’s breathtaking, especially when he describes the Dems as using a “cynical approach”. And that’s far from the worst. This quote, during the hearings for Neil Gorsuch, reveal a pathological depth I can barely comprehend.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said after describing Democratic opposition in the past to Judge Robert H. Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. “And it cannot and it will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for the nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominee of a Republican president.”

This, of course, after a year of blocking Merrick Garland, whom Barack Obama nominated for the Supreme Court during his four-year term.

That’s why Mitch is actually the worst. It isn’t that he is frustrating, or just that he is deeply cynical. It’s that he is actively working against our democracy, destroying the norms that are far more important than laws in keeping our country together. He has no baseline decency, and does literally anything for his side to win.

The Merrick Garland blockade wasn’t merely a power play. It wasn’t just a maneuver. It wasn’t clever, and it wasn’t about winning elections. What Mitch McConnell did (with, it should be said, the entire party and surrounding media environment parroting his squawking righteousness), was nullify the re-election of Barack Obama.

There can’t be any other word for it. Obama was elected for another 4-year term, resoundingly. Part of that is being able to nominate justices, especially on the Supreme Court. There has never been an election in our history where people didn’t talk about its ramifications for the Court. Everybody voting knew what was at stake, knew that Presidential perogative, and we voted for Obama.

And McConnell said no. He said no because he knew that, ultimately, there was nothing that could stop him.

He realized this after Obama’s first election, when he could be as obstructionist as he wanted, and take away all Presidential rights, because he’d be supported by his party and media. He realized that there were no real mechanisms outside of decency to compel him to follow the spirit of the law. And that’s been his whole career.

His entire career, both as minority and as majority leader, has been to shred everything that makes our government work. And in doing so, he’s ripped to pieces the idea of a self-governing people. By breaking these norms, he’s accelerated the devolution of politics, which is really nothing more than the decided self-expression of a free people, into face-painted bloodsports.

When he does whatever he can to delegitimize a party, to nullify an election, to ruin our norms, he is just as much an anti-democratic tyrant as Donald Trump. Which brings me, 800 words later, to the point of this.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has said he will not allow a vote on a bill that would protect the special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by Donald Trump, despite bipartisan concern that the president will act on an impulse to end the Russia investigation.

McConnell said on Tuesday that he did not believe legislative action was necessary because Trump would not fire Mueller, who is overseeing the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

“I don’t think he should fire Mueller and I don’t think he is going to,” McConnell said during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. “So this is a piece of legislation that’s not necessary, in my judgment.

That’s right: he won’t even allow, because he doesn’t think the President is going to fire Mueller. That would be considered optimistic, if you had any notion he believed it, or particularly cared.

He doesn’t care, of course. Sure, he couches it in the language he has to, that he doesn’t think Trump should fire Mueller, though you can almost physically feel his slump-shouldered shrug through the computer. And he later says that Trump would veto any bill, so what’s the point?

This is rich, of course, coming from a man who sent Obama bills to overturn Obamacare. That was also a probably veto! But the outcome didn’t matter; what mattered was letting his members vote on repealing. And that’s what matters to Mitch here.

Because, make no mistake, even if the bill is “bipartisan”, its Republican sponsors represent a very small minority in their caucus. McConnell doesn’t want the bill to come up not because he is afraid of it passing, but because he knows most of his party would vote against it. And he doesn’t want that on their records, because he knows it would be terrible.

There’s no leadership. There’s no attempt to persuade. There isn’t even the recognition that he has a slight duty to protect the country from Trump, or from encroaching authoritarianism. There’s only the desire to protect his party from taking a vote that he knows will make them look awful.

Mitch McConnell, no less, and probably much more than Trump, has broken our democracy. His entire project has been too degrade the fragile bonds that keep our system together. And he’s been successful.

Trump saw and rode anger and discontent and outright racism to the top. He understood it, lives in it, and knew it matched the rot of his own character. He saw that fundamental American disease, saw it is a weakness, and used it.

Mitch saw something different. He saw that we were more than our Constitution. He saw that we weren’t really a nation bound by laws, but that we were an ongoing experiment in how to create a self-government. We were meant to keep changing, and that meant accepting and participating in unwritten rules that bind us together.

For most people, that’s a strength. That America is an experiment, that it is meant to evolve, that we are bound to our political destiny with each other, and not holy script, is a strength. But Mitch McConnell uniquely saw it as a weakness, and used it against itself. He perverted the experiment. He made it in his own impossibly cynical image, and the country is now the monster he created.

So yeah, he’s probably really the worst of the bunch. But what he broke can be repaired. This isn’t a call for bipatisan decency or anything. That’s a weakness McConnell exploits. It can be repaired by crushing them in November, and then in 2020, and getting rid of all the miscreants. It can be repaired by actually taking back the government, and remembering that it can be the very best of who we are, instead of befouled by the very worst.

God Help Me, I Agree With Donald Trump about Comey

Of all of Donald Trump’s various unhinged tweets about James Comey on Sunday, this one was probably the most mocked. It was certainly mentioned more than the ones where the President of the United States twice called for Comey to be jailed for 1) taking notes; and 2) saying things Trump believes are lies. That’s par for the course, now.

But it was the above tweet that caught most people’s attention, for how deeply removed from reality it was. It was in reference to this section of Comey’s book.

Comey worries that his belief that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election may have influenced how he handled the investigation of her email practices while secretary of state. “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in the polls.”

The referent here is when the FBI opened up Anthony Weiner’s laptop (and I will never, ever get over the fact that this goddamn dummy’s gross horndogging had world-historic impact), and notified Congress that it was investigating more Hillary emails. Obviously, Congress leaked that to the press in less than 1/10th of a second, and that helped tank Hillary.

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The fact that this was guaranteed to hurt her, and was completely pointless (why would there be incriminating emails on his laptop when there weren’t on anyone else’s?), is why Trump’s tweet was opened up to mockery. Hurting your boss seems a weird way to ask for a job.

But I think that actually makes a certain amount of sense. After all, Comey had over the summer of 2016 publically delivered a tongue-lashing to Clinton, altering the dynamics of the race. But she was still going to win, it seemed. And she had reason to be angry at him.

So how do you guarantee job security? You announce an investigation. You show that you aren’t kissing up to power. And you therefore make yourself unable to be fired. After all, Comey knew as well as anyone that the GOP was already gearing up to nullify the election with phony investigation after phony investigation. If Hillary dare fired the FBI director who had investigated her emails, well…let’s just say impeachment would have happened in a heartbeat.

I mean, you can see that, right? WHAT IS SHE HIDING headlines would be all across the every paper in the country. Maggie Haberman would write so many articles about “the appearance of smoke” that she’d spontaneously come down with the first case of above-ground miner’s lung. And while the howling on the right would be deafening, the mainstream media would be just as loud.

Comey knew all that. He was a canny Washington player, for as much as a sanctimoniously-smirking Boy Scout he is. I don’t actually think he was trying to throw the election to Trump. It isn’t just that the FBI was already investigating the campaign. It was clear to anyone that Trump was a deeply unqualified fool, and venal as he is stupid, and both immoral and morally compromised. I doubt that Comey actually wanted him to win.

But hey, if he did, Trump would owe him, right?

Of course, you can never bet against Trump doing the very worst thing, which in this case is exactly what Comey assumed Hillary wouldn’t do: risk an obstruction of justice case. So don’t feel too badly for Comey. Sure, he justified his actions with dewy blatherings about protecting the Presidency, but the truth is he played politics, looking out for himself, and paid the price. But we all payed a much steeper one.

I’m glad his book is getting bad reviews, and I’m glad that, for the most part, the real anti-Trumpers (as opposed to the clannish Green Room parasites) are treating Comey with the contempt he deserves. I’ll be very happy if he helps to end this nightmare, but it isn’t absolution. The long-term effects are far too great.

So yeah, at the end of day, I agree with Trump that for Comey, this was about a job. Of course, Trump is wrong in his reasoning. He thinks that Comey helped Hillary by not throwing her in jail, because Trump is unable to see that Comey helped him or that he hurt Hillary, because then he wouldn’t be able to see himself as both the world’s greatest conquering hero and the world’s most aggrieved victim. He’s wrong about everything, is what I’m saying.

But man, what dumb times. Comey made one of the biggest mistakes in history. He gambled with all our futures, and lost. Because of that, he will (or should) go down as one of the most consequential FBI heads in history, and not in a good way. That he might get rehabbed as a hero for saying that Donald Trump is a bad person, while getting rich for justifying all his actions, is a pretty good sign of our idiot times.


War for 16 Years, Redux


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I hope it isn’t churlish to point out that these are terrifying weapons of death, and the people who see them screaming across the sky are no different than you or I. 


I know below I reposted something from last year’s bombing. I’m going to do the same thing with another post from last year’s bombing which, again, could have been written today. The media reaction was, in the main, sickeningly the same. We’re so susceptible to war footings and being cheerleaders for violence. The media loves images like above. We’ll probably be at war forever.



This is what I was getting at in today’s first post, when worrying that CBS was trying to reassure its viewers that the only reason Colbert was making fun of the President is that he didn’t know we had struck Syria.

One can see the telltale signs of a media gearing up to make war normal. Flashes of missiles launching through the darkened foreign night, the President huddling with advisors, reading a stern statement with a serious face, maps and graphics across innumerable cable screens, “experts” who just heard of Idlib this week talking about the strategic importance of sending a message.

I ultimately don’t think much will come of this. Trump is too chaotic and unfocused, and too deeply unpopular. I don’t think there will be much flag-wrapping across the country. I don’t think he’s going to grow significantly more popular because of this, except in a very few knee-jerk quarters. In a week, we may forget this even happened (though it did, with real consequences, but I am just talking domestically for this post).

But it is broadly disturbing how quickly the media gets on its own war footing, which not only has the effect of making Trump seem like a normal President, but shows something dark about our character, and about the last 15 years.

We’ve been at war since 2001 in one country or another, and usually several on some level. But most of those go unnoticed. They don’t get the banner treatment or the blaring chyrons. This is different, because it is against a President, which means it is against a real country, which means it is a real war (regardless of how limited). That’s exciting! That’s newsworthy. The rest? Background noise.

It’s really a dual danger. The first danger is that we get so excited to be at a real war, because that is what stirs the American character. It does so in other countries as well, though America seems particularly susceptible, at the same level as, say Russia. The idiot media is a reflection of that. It doesn’t just prime the pump. But the other danger is that war is so entrenched in our story, and so inextricable from the present moment, that it takes something extraordinary to even stir out attention. It’s ingrained now, in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We’ve always been at war, and always will be.


Syria, Redux


When news that the US was bombing a different part of Syria last night, there was talk of this being a dramatic escalation, which made me wonder if I was crazy? Because didn’t we just do this last year? Asad uses chemical weapons, the US sends a few missiles, we make sure the Russians are out of harm’s way, and everyone agrees to pretend something was accomplished.

This is probably even less worthwhile than before (and here I’m stipulating that this isn’t just “a distraction” from the swirling criminality of his administration). That the Pentagon today basically said this was going to be the extent of the operations, save for a vague promise from Nikki Haley that we’re “locked and loaded” to go again, if need be, was a clear tell.

There is no real goal here, and no real plan. The military had to react to a Trump tweet, and took the least actionable action. We carefully avoided triggering war with the Russians (which is good!) but will not involve ourselves in any other way, and will do nothing to stop Asad’s more routine atrocities, nor do anything to end the civil war.

Basically, Russia and Iran know that Trump is hollow. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not in favor of escalation in Syria, and certainly not in favor of war with Russia or Iran. But it is quintessentially Trumpian that a “mission” meant to “show resolve” really shows the exact opposite. It shows that Russia and Iran are free to have Syria so long as ISIS is sort of contained, and that Asad has a free hand, so long as that hand isn’t holding chlorine.

I think it is good to show that what happened last night is no different than what happened a year ago, save for different people dying (which, to the American press and politicians and, really, the public, doesn’t matter a fig). It’s all theater, and will go back to the same carnage, until Trump shoots some more missiles again, and becomes President.

So after the jump, here’s last year’s article on bombing Syria, from 53 weeks ago. Except for the part about Don Rickles dying, it could have been written today.

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Nearly Spring Quick Hits and Good Reads

This is not what it looks like outside. But a fella can pretend, right?

It’s Friday, and after a day of false spring here in Chicago, we seem destined for another spell of cold drear. But dammit, I enjoyed yesterday, and I’ll enjoy today, even if the sun is fleeting. What does today care for tomorrow’s Smarch?

Nothing, brother, that’s what. These are strange and terrible times, where every day brings some numbing horrors. But that makes taking the brief burst of spring when you can, and sine-waving your arms in the warming wind.

So dammit, let’s do some quick hits, and gird ourselves for the battles to come.

Patricia Lockwood on the troubles of writing now

Writing about politics in deeply political times is pretty easy. Writing about other things isn’t, because politics seeps into every nook of our brain. And it isn’t just politics: it’s the leering dumbface of our lowing idiot, and the carnival of horrors his cheap victory opened in town square.

It is omnipresent, amplified of course by our ever-present media, the supercomputers in our pockets, which even in the best of times (2015) was impossibly distracting. All of this makes it difficult to practice the serious slow thinking that serious writing deserves.

In an essay/lecture in TinHouse the poet Patricia Lockwood tackles this problem, capturing precisely the weird recursive anger that any thinking person has these days. She is asking, titularly, how do we write now? How can anyone really write in this moment?

It’s funny, angry, depressing, uplifting, and never saccharine. In the end, the advice is just to read things that slow you down, which I think we can all do. Here’s a good sample.

Read diaries, which make the day permanent. Read anything that slows you down to the pace of real life, like Zora Neale Hurston’s preservations of dialect that walk in dresses down dirt roads. Read one of those Annie Dillard books where she watches an ant fuck for like fourteen straight hours and at the end of it somehow believes in God even more than she did already.

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