400 (18 December 2019)

Welcome!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  What are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription.

(6 December 2019)Can a Coal Town Reinvent Itself?The New York Times

——–[Dateline Grundy, Virginia, roughly 123 as-the-crow-fly miles NNE of Asheville, North Carolina]  “This corner of southwestern Virginia has long sought alternatives to coal as a source of sustenance.  The Appalachian School of Law, which opened in the 1990s in the shell of Grundy Junior High School, was heralded as a new economic engine, lubricated—of course—with taxpayer funds.  So was the Appalachian College of Pharmacy, founded in 2003 some 20 minutes down the road in Oakwood.  County officials considered a dental school, but figured it was too expensive.  They still get grumpy about the optometry school, on which they spent $250,000 in feasibility studies only for it to open across the state line in Pikeville, Ky.  Then there is downtown Grundy itself, much of which was moved up the hill to avoid periodic floodwaters from the Levisa Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River.  Virginia estimates that the relocation and flood-proofing projects, started almost 20 years ago, cost $170 million in federal and state funds.”  And that is only part of the story.  Despite all these efforts, the “economic engine [of the area] is still the one that carried this corner of Appalachia through the 20th century.”  As Jay Rife, head of the county Industrial Development Authority, notes: “We are a one-industry community, and that’s coal.”

********The graphs accompanying the article clearly show how important transfer payments such as social security and Medicare, among others, are as a share of personal income in the area.  These transfer payments have fallen far short of what used to be received by coal workers.  The principal of Grundy High School “recalls Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes parked in the high school lot when she went to school there.”  Economist Lawrence H. Summers noted at a recent conference of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “There is probably no issue more important for the political economy of the next 15 years, not just in the United States but around the world, than what happens in the areas that feel rightly that they are falling behind and increasingly left apart.”  Drawing attention to the lack of opportunity in areas such as Grundy, one resident notes: “There are not many jobs around here . . . Just teachers, state troopers and coal.”

            A dramatic illustration of Grundy’s situation and the point Summers made is provided by “A Third of America’s Economy Is Concentrated in Just 31 CountiesBloomberg.com.  Once you look at the map, there will be little surprise where these counties are located—they tend to be in large metropolitan areas; Los Angeles has the largest county GDP.

(8 December 2019)It’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace.  We Made It VisibleThe New York Times

********This article is about methane, its detection, and deregulation.  Methane, of course, is a potent greenhouse gas, the levels of which “have soared since 2007 for reasons that still aren’t fully understood.  But fracking natural-gas production . . . is a prime suspect.”  The detection dimension of the article relates to the use of a special infrared camera, with “a lens made not of glass but metal.”  That camera revealed methane plumes that would otherwise be invisible.  Finally, there is deregulation.  As is well known, the Trump administration is engaging in an “historic effort to weaken environmental and climate regulations.”  In fact, “this August, the E.P.A. had proposed a broad rollback, including rescinding direct regulations of methane emissions completely.”  The article pointed out to me, in addition to methane emission issue, how important it is to extend detection beyond the narrow bounds of human perception.  Methane detection is only a start.

(10 December 2019)One more year on the farm: A visual narrative of one [Minnesota] family’s fight to save their landThe Washington Post

********This article, mostly images with an ongoing narrative, takes one through a year at a Minnesota farm, sketching some of the challenges confronted during the year, some market driven, others driven by weather.  One thing that comes through powerfully is a sense of not being in charge of events, a thought captured by the expression “a hope in the unseen that most farmers need.”

(13 December 2019) [SR]Donkeys face worldwide existential threatScience

——–“Over the past 6 years, Chinese traders have been buying the hides of millions of butchered donkeys from developing countries and shipping them to China, where they’re used to manufacture ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine. The trade has led to an animal welfare nightmare, along with a threat to donkey populations, the severity of which is only now emerging. Without drastic measures, the number of donkeys worldwide will drop by half within 5 years, according to a recent report. The crisis threatens many of the world’s rarer donkey breeds and a vital means of transport for the poor. But it is also spurring new studies of donkey biology—including how to speed their reproduction.”

********Personal note.  The Larsons have a donkey, which we acquired to be a companion animal for our mule.  We don’t horse around.  When we purchased it, some other potential buyers were interested in it wanted to butcher it.  Perhaps it would have been used to manufacture ejiao, too.  We will never know.  This two-page article provides a marvelously concise discussion of the consequences of a substantial increased demand for the body parts of a sentient being and its global consequences.

(15 December 2019)From Canada’s Legal High, a Business LetdownThe New York Times

——–“When Canada became the first major industrialized nation to legalize recreational marijuana, visions of billions of dollars in profits inspired growers, retailers and investors, sending the stock market soaring in a so-called green rush.  A year later, the euphoria has vanished.”  The principal problem is that “the provincial governments in Ontario and Quebec, whose residents account for about two-thirds of Canada’s population, have opened or licensed legal pot shops at a glacial pace—despite a clear demand.  Potential customers are still underserved with just 24 legal marijuana shops for Ontario’s 17.5 million residents.  So many are still buying on the black market.”  Contributing to the persistence of the black market is its freedom from taxation, and “the elaborate regulatory structure for legal cannabis [that] has been an impediment to sales.  Canada’s regulations were designed only to decriminalize marijuana use, not necessarily to encourage it.  The result is a system that mimics the country’s approach to tobacco, and largely blocks marketing and advertising.”

(17 December 2019)VanillanomicsBloomberg Businessweek

********This island of Madagascar in larger than France and its northeast region “is the world’s largest producer of natural vanilla.”  This article provides an on-the-ground look at how vanilla is grown and sold.  A journey into a region where each vanilla bean is touched by hand hundreds of time during its life cycle.

(17 December 2019)How Families Cope with the Hidden Costs of Incarceration for the HolidaysThe New York Times

********This article summarizes some of the many costs that the families of the incarcerated bear in order to maintain the mental and physical health of their loved ones.  These costs have increased as prison services have become more privatized.  The “Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the United States sends more than $80 billion each year to keep roughly 2.3 million people behind bars.  [But] Many experts say that figure is a gross underestimate . . . because it leaves out myriad hidden costs that are often borne by prisoners and their loved ones, with women overwhelmingly shouldering the financial burden.”

(January 2020)Click Here to Kill: The dark world of online murder marketsHarper’s Magazine

********This is a dark, dark article, taking a stroll through the Internet where the “assassination marketplace of the dark web” lurks.  The story of a young woman in Minnesota is truly sobering.

May you have a good week!  


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