Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The New Eco-Devastation in Rural America

When workers drilling tunnels at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, began to die, Union Carbide had an answer. It hadn’t been taking adequate precautions against the inhalation of silica dust, a known danger to workers since the days of ancient Greece. Instead, in many cases, a company doctor would simply tell the families of the workers that they had died of “tunnelitis,” and a local undertaker would be paid $50 to dispose of each corpse.

A few years later, in 1935, a congressional subcommittee discovered that approximately 700 workers had perished while drilling through Hawk’s Nest Mountain, many of them buried in unmarked graves at the side of the road just outside the tunnel. The subcommittee concluded that Union Carbide’s project had been accomplished through a “grave and inhuman disregard of all considerations for the health, lives and future of the employees."

Despite the “Hawk’s Nest Incident” and thousands of Depression-era lawsuits against foundries, mines, and construction companies, silicosis never disappeared. In the decades since, as TomDispatch authors David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have repeatedly demonstrated, industry worked tirelessly to label silicosis a “disease of the past,” even while ensuring that it would continue to be a disease of the present. By the late 1990s, the Columbia University researchers found that from New York to California, from Texas all the way back to West Virginia, millions of workers in foundries, shipyards, mines, and oil refineries, among other industries, were endangered by silica dust.

Today, there’s a new silicosis scare on the horizon and a new eco-nightmare brewing in the far corners of rural America. Like the Hawk's Nest disaster it has flown under the radar -- until now. Read More

TED's corruption and rot

There was a bit of a scandal last week when it was reported that a TED Talk on income equality had been censored. That turned out to be not quite the entire story. Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist with a book out on income inequality, was invited to speak at a TED function. He spoke for a few minutes, making the argument that rich people like himself are not in fact job creators and that they should be taxed at a higher rate.

The talk seemed reasonably well-received by the audience, but TED “curator” Chris Anderson told Hanauer that it would not be featured on TED’s site, in part because the audience response was mixed but also because it was too political and this was an “election year.”

Hanauer had his PR people go to the press immediately and accused TED of censorship, which is obnoxious — TED didn’t have to host his talk, obviously, and his talk was not hugely revelatory for anyone familiar with recent writings on income inequity from a variety of experts — but Anderson’s responses were still a good distillation of TED’s ideology. Read More

The Next Asia Is Africa: Inside the Continent's Rapid Economic Growth

LUSAKA, Zambia -- The teenagers started arriving at the Arcades outdoor shopping center here just as the sun began to set. They took over the parking lot first, then the sidewalks. Within half an hour, the strutting and preening groups occupied just about every available pedestrian space.

Joshua Banda, a 15-year-old who wore green Converse All Stars with matching laces, sat with two friends at the edge of a gurgling fountain, surveying the crowds of girls. He proclaimed himself a fan of Lil Wayne and then told me he wants to be a lawyer.

Joshua's parents moved to a Lusaka shanty when he was small. His father is a watchman, his mother cleans offices. Seeing Joshua's education as the best guarantor of their own future, they saved from their measly earnings to pay for school for him and an older brother. Joshua has learned a bit about sacrifice as well, though of a different sort. Since he can't afford a cell phone on his own -- and since, in Lusaka, teenagers are nobodies without cell phones -- he shares one with his best friend. Read More

U.S. Airlines ‘Only’ Collected $3.36 Billion in Baggage Fees Last Year

Airline passengers in the U.S. collectively paid $3.36 billion in fees for carry-on and checked bags last year. The figure actually represents a decrease from 2010, when we dropped $3.4 billion on baggage fees. Chances are, you paid more out of pocket to fly last year anyway.

Upon the release of the latest numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Associated Press reports that “U.S. airlines’ revenue from bag fees fell last year for the first time since they started collecting them.” U.S. airlines collected $792 million in baggage fees in the fourth quarter of 2011, bringing the yearlong total to $3.36 billion.

In 2010, domestic carriers raked in $3.4 billion in baggage fees, the all-time high, up from $2.7 billion in 2009, and just $1.15 billion in 2008, the year that baggage fees more or less became standard. Read More

Record number of school districts in state face bankruptcy

Pummeled by relentless budget cuts, a record number of California school districts are facing bankruptcy, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced Monday.

The Inglewood Unified School District and 11 others -– most in northern California -- are currently not able to pay their bills this school year or next, according to a biannual report on the financial health of the state’s 1,037 school systems compiled by the state Department of Education. An additional 176 school districts may not be able to meet their financial obligations.

All told, the financially troubled districts serve 2.6 million children. And the picture could dramatically worsen if initiatives to raise taxes for public schools by Gov. Jerry Brown and others fail to pass in November, officials said.

“This is the kind of record no one wants to set,” Torlakson said in a statement. “The deep cuts this budget has forced -– and the uncertainties about what lies ahead -– are taking an unprecedented and unacceptable toll on our schools.”

Education officials blame much of the crisis on a double blow by the state: budget cuts amounting to 20% over the last three years and the deferment of millions of dollars owed to schools but not dispersed until months later. Read More

Tokyo’s dark underbelly: The poor. The drunk. The destitute.

There are many popular images of Tokyo, but extreme poverty generally isn’t one of them. In the east of the capital, however, in an area once known as Sanya, that’s exactly what you see.

Photographs from Sanya have appeared on Tokyo Times before, but at the time I was under the impression that it was home to a large population of day labourers and the desperately poor. An equally destitute little sister of sorts to Osaka’s much larger, Kamagasaki district.

But I was wrong, at least in regards the work aspect, as it seems there simply aren’t any jobs to be had anymore. The gradual ageing of those who scratch out an existence in the area means there’s not much they can physically do, so instead the men must attempt to get by with what little money they may be entitled to — or at worst with whatever handouts are available.

Thankfully there is at least a small clinic run by an NPO. A place where the men can get help, as well as help out. Read More

Why do Chinese leaders lack confidence in the country's future

In the heyday of the Soviet era, Communist leaders were described by the dissident Yugoslav theorist Milovan Djilas as the "New Class", whose power lay not in ownership of wealth, but in control of it: all the property of the state was at their beck and call.

There was the apocryphal, but appropriate story of Brezhnev's showing his humble mother around his historic office, his magnificent collection of foreign luxury cars and his palatial dacha with its superb meals, and asking for her impressions - to which she replied: "It's wonderful, but what happens if the Bolsheviks come back?"

But if even a fraction of the stories about the wealth and lifestyles of China's "princelings" - the descendants of Mao's revolutionary generation - are to be believed, China's New Class wants not only control, but also ownership. Few of China's netizens are likely to believe that Bo Xilai, the Politburo member and party boss of the mega-city of Chongqing who was ousted in March on corruption charges, was an aberration.

Why has ownership of wealth become so important for the Chinese elite? And why have so many Chinese leaders sent their children abroad for education? One answer surely is that they lack confidence about China's future. Read More

Hospital meals less healthy than Big Macs: study

A Big Mac burger is healthier than 75 percent of NHS hospital meals, a recent study conducted in the UK has revealed.

The study examined twenty five different meals provided by an NHS food supply chain to find that sixty percent of hospital food contained more salt than the popular McDonald’s burger. Seventy five percent had more saturated fat.

The survey was carried out by Sustain, a campaign group demanding that the government bring compulsory minimum food standards into the NHS.

“Without standards, many meals will remain unhealthy and unappetizing,” said Alex Jackson, a Sustain member. “It’s staggering to think sick patients could be better off eating at McDonald’s.” Read More

South Korean clothes taking North by storm: Will culture, and not bombs, unite the Koreas?

The popularity of South Korean culture is so high in North Korea that dramas aired on one day in the South are being made into DVDs in northeastern China the next and, by the third day, are cropping up on the fringes of North Korean markets. The North Korean people are then watching these dramas over and over again, sharing them with close friends and swapping them for others with trusted confidantes. In the process, the fashions worn by the stars of these dramas become objects of considerable envy.

It is thus inevitable that South Korean clothes would be popular among the North Korean people more generally. As a Yangkang Province source told the Daily NK recently, “Even households that are not doing that well are going out in South Korean clothes, while the demand for Chinese goods is more limited.”

In particular, the source went on, “Since the start of this year, there have been noticeably more people selling South Korean clothes in the markets, because that is what people want to buy.” Prices reflect this, the source said; for example, South Korean t-shirts sell for nearly double the price of the Chinese equivalent. Read More

The Attack of the Killer Drones

Does Facebook Turn People Into Narcissists?

Recently I tried to persuade a friend, a professional woman in her 40s, to create a Facebook account. Like many people, I’m a regular user, usually to post photos and updates of my daughter’s sports and academic accomplishments — and to keep track of friends and family. But my friend believed Facebook would drain her time. She said that if she couldn’t maintain friendships in the real world, she wasn’t interested in keeping up with the small details of people’s lives.

There has been a lot of scholarship devoted to the study of Facebook, sparking debate about the mental health and personality traits of frequent users. Most recently, research from Western Illinois University suggested, like other studies before it, that Facebook appeals to our most narcissistic tendencies. The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, asked 292 people to answer questions aimed at measuring how self-involved they were.

Those who frequently updated their Facebook status, tagged themselves in photos and had large numbers of virtual friends, were more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits, the study found. Another study found that people with high levels of narcissism were more likely to spend more than an hour a day on Facebook, and they were also more likely to post digitally enhanced personal photos. But what the research doesn’t answer is whether Facebook attracts narcissists or turns us into them. Read More

1 in 4 Teenagers now at risk of Diabetes

Nearly one in four American adolescents may be on the verge of developing Type 2 diabetes or could already be diabetic, representing a sharp increase in the disease’s prevalence among children ages 12 to 19 since a decade ago, when it was estimated that fewer than one in 10 were at risk for or had diabetes, according to a new study.

This worsening of the problem is worrying in light of recently published findings that the disease progresses more rapidly in children than in adults and is harder to treat, experts said.

The study, published online on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, analyzes data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has a nationally representative sample. While it confirmed that teenage obesity and overweight rates had leveled off in recent years and that teenage rates of high blood pressure and high cholesterol had not changed greatly, it found that the percentage of teenagers testing positive for diabetes and prediabetes had nearly tripled to 23 percent in 2007-8 from 9 percent in 1999-2000. Read More