Monday, January 31, 2005

The Cornucopian Fallacy

Gregg Easterbrook has seen fit to slap the wrist of Jared Diamond, author of Collapse (a book I'll cheerfully confess that I haven't read). Easterbrook begins by praising Diamond for knowing things, and for writing well - one can see how even the most modest attainments in these areas might overawe Easterbrook - but soon enough his mood darkens. Diamond's work of history, we learn, has been insufficiently attentive to the future, that wide and infinitely pleasing land in which all things are possible and all wrongs righted.

If trends remain unchanged, the global economy is unsustainable. But the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends tells us patterns won't remain unchanged.
It seems like a very serious matter to run afoul of the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends, until you realize that Easterbrook invented the phrase specially for the occasion, and sprinkled capital letters over it like water from a baptismal font.

Which is not to say that trends are never interrupted, of course. And just in case anyone's skeptical about this point, Easterbrook is careful to offer an example of an interrupted trend:
[D]eforestation of the United States, rampant in the 19th century, has stopped: forested acreage of the country began rising during the 20th century, and is still rising.
This is true, and yet it's not true at all. In the East, deforestation peaked circa 1920. However, it continues in the West today. Regrowth has indeed occurred, but areas of regrowth comprise second-growth forests, which are quite different from old-growth forests, both in terms of composition and the types of animal life they'll support. We aren't returning, as Easterbrook suggests, to a former state; we're advancing to a new state which involves, among other things, a net loss of biodiversity.

But never mind all that. Easterbrook's got some exceedingly large fish to fry in that little pan of his:
Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity...
Considering Easterbrook's well-known impatience with postmodernism, it's odd to see him criticizing a historian for believing that "fate is set in motion in antiquity." Where should Diamond have sought the origins of the present, if not in the past?
[W]e're living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he [Diamond] seems not to consider society's evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now?
I suppose that depends on whether or not our society crashes when legacy commodities run out. If Diamond thinks forward only a decade or two, it's possibly because there are important decisions to be made within that period of time, and important challenges to be overcome. This may be fallacious reasoning on Diamond's part, but at least it's based on observation of current trends. Easterbrook, by contrast, simply plays leapfrog with any obstacles the future presents, and calls it "society's evolutionary arc" (while completely ignoring what arcs do). Don't like the looks of things today? Jump ahead 13,000 years, and rejoice in a Golden Age of peace and plenitude!

This, as everyone knows, is the Fallacy of Phantasmic Pseudotemporal Inanity, and it's a sin to which Easterbrook is very prone:
Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space.
That's a rather glib remark, and I'm not surprised that it's a bit light on technical details. Mars may have very real charms, but if we want a planet with oceans and lakes, we may have to go very far much further afield. The safest, most reasonable assumption is that we will find no planet able to sustain us, ever; this may be a sin against the science of optimism - that comfortable discipline which led Easterbrook's 19th-century doppelgangers to announce that "rain follows the plow" - but it's an eminently sound basis for current public policy. Unlike this:
If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten.
At which point, the dry chuckle of Easterbrook's ghost will be heard along the banks of the river Styx.

It's amazing to realize that Easterbrook objects to Collapse because it doesn't devote enough attention to the pleasures of an imaginary world that none of us will live to see in any case, especially when you consider that Easterbrook is so dismissive of our ability to know what life was like in 11,000 BC. Granting the difficulties of looking 13,000 years into the past, most sane people would still consider it a more tractable problem than looking 13,000 years into the future. And yet, Easterbrook's idle daydreams about what life will be like 13,000 years hence comprise almost the entirety of his critique of Diamond, as thus:
Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature's standards.
Indeed, man is like a vapor, which appeareth for a short time, then passeth away. Although Easterbrook's own span of years is immeasurably small when considered against the geological time scale, I assume that his existence nonetheless has some relevance to him, no matter how inexplicable that may seem to the rest of us. Diamond is writing to people who are alive now, about the things that cause societies to fail; I really don't see how the force or immediacy of his arguments is diminished by his refusal to discuss the possibility that we might someday emigrate to the Crab Nebula.

Given the problems we face, Easterbrook's recourse to the Astronautical Sublime is utterly childish, and potentially destructive. If he had any common sense at all, he'd realize that cornucopian thinking doesn't pose a coherent reproach to arguments like Diamond's; in fact, it's a major cause of the cultural problems Diamond's describing.

Link via Atrios.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging



Surfdork demanded more hot nudibranch-on-nudibranch action, and here it is. Without so much as a "hello," these saltwater sex addicts are getting down and getting off. Don't bother wondering who's sticking what where, 'cause "any port in a storm" is the motto of these meat-hungry molluscs. In other words, you're looking at down-and-dirty, wall-to-wall, no-holes-barred triple-X SEXXX, like you've never seen it before! CAN YOUR HEART STAND IT?????

Friday Optimism Blogging

There's all sorts of good, interesting news from Australia. First up, Treehugger reports on Ozmotech, an Australian company that's taken a remarkable approach to dealing with plastic wastes:

Apparently 20% of the waste in our modern landills is non-degradable plastic. The Ozmotech solution is to convert this into diesel fuel. Their patented process uses liquefaction, pyrolysis and catalytic breakdown to render 1kg of waste plastic into 950ml of oil or Green Fuel. This contains the same energy content as conventional diesels, but with "significantly reduced emissions levels". Existing diesel engines are said to run fully effectively on these fuels with no engine modification. It works best with PP, PE and PS plastics.
Meanwhile, Australian scientists have discovered that removing nitrogen and oxygen bubbles from water - by means of a hydrophobic, gas-permeable membrane - greatly increases plain water's ability to break up oil and dirt:
This could reduce our use of detergents, which create environmental problems when they are washed into the water system: detergents can fertilize algal growth so much that animals in swamps and lakes are harmed.

Pashley and his team tested normal distilled water and degassed water by filling oily test tubes with water and shaking them for several seconds.

The tubes of degassed water became much more turbid, the team reports...this shows that the oil was dispersed throughout the water as tiny droplets, and suggests that degassed water could lift oily stains off clothing.
And just to round things out, a solar car designed by the Aurora Vehicle Association of Melbourne has just broken another record, by traveling 1255 kilometers in 24 hours (which does indeed mean that it was running at night!). Again, thanks to Treehugger for that link.

These stories offer a microcosmic view of the design revolution that's happening in countries all over the world. (And not just first-world countries, either; the trend towards leapfrogging can allow poorer countries to make environmentally sound technological gains, often by virtue of the fact that they're not hampered by reliance on an outdated, transitional industrial infrastructure.)

The Greatest Country On Earth

Effect Measure continues to do a terrific job of reporting on H5N1 avian flu, which increasingly seems pertinent to just about everything. Bookmark them now, under pain of my displeasure.

I know I said I was giving the subject up, but as I was saying the other day chez Echidne, it presents a perfect example of why the Republicans are wrong about their concepts of individualism and patriotism. If I make sure that everyone in my community is vaccinated against a viral disease, then I'm safer even if I'm not vaccinated myself; that's the basic epidemiological concept of herd immunity. But if I am vaccinated, I'm still safer if everyone else is vaccinated. For one thing, vaccines aren't 100-percent effective, so one can't simply say "I got mine, the hell with you." And even if the vaccine does protect me, a hospital that's not overwhelmed by flu cases will be much better able to meet my needs if I have a different ailment.

With all that in mind, here's a quote from the new Effect Measure post:

Japan is stockpiling the antiviral oseltamavir (Tamiflu) sufficient to treat 20 million of their population of 127 million people. The US reportedly has a total of 6 million doses for our 300 million people....
This raises an interesting question: if the United States is really the greatest country on earth, why is it so unwilling to protect its citizens from sickness and death? If American lives are the most important ones in the world, as current conservative thought asserts, then why do we hold those lives so cheap as a matter of principle? Kill a few thousand Americans in a terrorist attack, and it means war for the foreseeable future; kill a few thousand with substandard or unavailable health care, and it's sound public policy.

Republicans have steadfastly ignored the remarkable extent to which individual safety depends on group safety. If you want to protect a country's population, you can't do it by apportioning medical care to the economically "worthy"; a country in which fifty percent or less of the people "deserve" health care is an insecure country, a country divided against itself. If you worry about war and invasion and "defending freedom at home and abroad," as Republicans claim to do, then you have to accept that your country is only as strong as its weakest links. That may sound like "collectivism," but a country is nothing if not a collective. Universal health care is literally a national security issue; free-market dogma that denies this fact endangers us all, as I argued here:
As influential as game theory is supposed to be among the economic elite - and as well known as the Prisoner's Dilemma is - the basic lessons don't seem to have taken hold. You cannot allow the Invisible Hand to make public-health decisions; it doesn't work, and it never will. The temptation to cut costs and corners in public health, and to take huge risks in order to maintain the bottom line, is a recipe for disaster, but it's a course the free market tends to favor strongly.
So there's one implication of H5N1 for domestic policy. Arms Control Wonk recently wrote an excellent piece on its implications for foreign policy, which everyone ought to read in full:
Arms control is founded on the idea that the preoccupation with deliberate aggression leads goverments to jealously guard their soveriegnty, eschew cooperation and obssess about the balance of power, often at the expense of coordinating international responses to more dangerous threats to human security.

Deliberate aggression does occur. But other threats to human security, like deaths from natural disasters, too often get short shrift. Nothing demonstrates the declining relevance of sovereignty and the need for greater international cooperation than the HN51 virus.
A truly great country, I think, would be one whose leaders understand these basic concepts, and act on them.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Liars Figure

I usually make a point of scanning the headlines at Science Daily at least once per day. Today, I was annoyed to see that they've posted a thoroughly unscientific article by the deranged PR flack Alan Caruba, whose intolerably smug "debunking" of alternative energy relies primarily on unsubstantiated claims by such like-minded fanatics as Ben Lieberman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Like most members of the anti-environmental goon squad, Caruba fancies himself a formidable ironist...a modern-day Swift who wields a goosequill dipped in venom. In other words, he relies on the sort of grueling, leaden sarcasm that most of us grew out of (or had beaten out of us) by late adolescence.

That's by the by, though. His larger problem is that he's pathologically dishonest:

And surely the world is running out of oil, right? Wrong! The world has plenty of oil, enough says the US Geological Survey to last for at least the next several hundred years or longer. Worldwide, there are 14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves. In its "World Petroleum Assessment 2000" report, the global reserves of crude oil were estimated to be some 3,000 billion barrels.
Let's go over this carefully. Caruba declares that the USGS says we have at least "several hundreds of years" of oil left. Then, he states categorically that there are "14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves." A moment later, he says that in 2000, the USGS estimated reserves at a mere 3,000 billion, implying (apparently) that they've since revised the number upwards. (They haven't.) I've seen no evidence that the USGS has ever said that there are several hundred years of oil left. Also, the USGS calculates on a probabilistic basis, settling on a mean figure between maximum and minimum estimates of discoverability and recoverability. Some experts think the maximum figure is utterly implausible, which, if true, would obviously affect the mean figure.

The world consumes roughly 30 billion barrels of oil per year. If Caruba's higher, but unsourced, figure is correct (and please bear in mind that he presents this figure as though it represents proven global reserves), we're looking at about 500 hundred more years of oil, assuming - as I'm sure no good conservative actually would - that there will be no oil-intensive growth over the next century. (Just for the record, China's demand for crude oil grew by a whopping 30 percent in 2003 alone.) We must also assume that there will be no periods of exceptionally high demand, like...hmmm, let's see...wars, for instance.

But where did this figure of 14,000 billion barrels come from, and does it actually refer to proven supplies? If you Google the figure, you get a couple pages' worth of largely unsourced cut-and-paste newsgroup posting by wingnuts, most of which use roughly the same language, as thus: "Oil shales, for example, could easily be as large as 14,000 billion barrels." In other words, Caruba's talking about an estimate, not a fact.

It's worse than that. The prospective figure of 14,000 barrels of oil has been fervently disseminated by David Deming of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a far right think-tank funded by the usual big-business suspects. Deming sources the figure to a 1995 American Petroleum Institute policy paper by senior API analyst Ed Porter. The figure, however, refers to unconventional oil with high environmental and financial extraction costs, not to conventionally exploitable crude reserves. Thus, when Caruba says that there are literally 14,000 billion barrels of crude oil reserves in the world, he's being dishonest.

Not everyone finds Porter's logic compelling, either. For instance, geologist Dr. Colin J. Campbell wrote an open letter to Mr. Porter, which is worth quoting at some length:
I started reading your paper thinking that here we would have an authoritative statement of this important subject. I began to jot down notes and comments on points of detail, but by the time I was about half way through, the penny dropped. I realized that it was not an objective and analytical study as it appeared to be, but a "lobbying" document to deliver a predetermined message and discredit any counter arguments. In some ways, it reminds me of a trial in which counsel tries to undermine the evidence by subtle innuendo and inference. I will comment only on the main flaws in the logic.
Among the "flaws in the logic" uncovered by Dr. Campbell is a rather flexible interpretation of what "reserves" means:
Proved Reserves have a high probability of occurrence (90-95%) whereas that the USGS "Identified" reserves have a low probability (5-10%), being notional geological amounts unconstrained by economic, technological or timing factors. "Reserve Growth" is treated as if it were a dynamic akin to discovery, when it is mainly an artifact of the reporting process.
Dr. Campbell goes on to say that technically speaking, we're not running out of oil; we're merely running out of reserves that are cheap and abundant enough to support us in the style to which we've become accustomed. In the case of unconventional reserves like those trumpeted by Caruba, it may take more energy to extract the oil than is actually recovered. There's no reason to assume that the cost of such oil will be sufficiently low to run a civilization anything like ours.

All in all, I find it extremely disturbing that Science Daily would post Caruba's bad-faith, demonstrably dishonest op-ed piece. Scientifically illiterate shills for energy companies churn out these cookie-cutter opinion pieces constantly; there's nothing about Caruba's that makes it worthy of special consideration.

(By the way, I'm not an expert on this subject, but I know that a couple of people who read this site are. If I've misrepresented the facts here, I hope you'll be kind enough to correct me!)

Image Inhibition

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but it seems to me that this technology is problematic:

A recent patent application from Hewlett-Packard labs describes a system in which digital cameras would be equipped with circuits that could be remotely triggered to blur the face in any images captured by the camera.

The technology would address privacy concerns without resorting to more draconian measures such as banning cameras. The patent covers technology that would have to be incorporated both into cameras and the "image inhibitor modules" that would signal "No photos of me, please,"...
It's easy to imagine "image inhibitors" being standard issue for, say, riot-control cops at protests. Or possibly even Republicans at swing clubs.

The Holy Grail of Security

Oklahoma State Senator Charles Wyrick (D-Fairland) has proposed legislation that would exempt the Office of Homeland Security from Oklahoma's Open Meetings and Open Records acts. Wyrick says he's proposing the legislation specifically at the request of DHS.

Mark Thomas, of the Oklahoma Press Association, takes a dim view of the proceedings:

I don't know why all of a sudden the holy grail of security and safety is now closing records," Thomas said. "It seems to me we would be more secure if we knew what was going on around us. Apparently there are those in government who want to close all these records and say, 'we'll keep you safe, trust us.'"
Apparently so. Here's an earlier example of the same sort of thinking.

Just FYI, Oklahoma's Open Meetings Act was enacted in 1959, as "an attempt to regularize and monitor the actions of elected and appointed officials and prevent the abuse of power." But of course, those were more innocent times.

(Link courtesy of Behind the Homefront.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Conservative Precautionary Principle

I've been avoiding any discussion of Michael Crichton's new book on climate change, mainly because I consider him to be a sensationalist and a crank. Among other things, I have to laugh at complaints against fearmongering from someone who's devoted his career to promoting public paranoia about everything from gorillas, to unmanned space probes, to nanotechnology, to the Japanese. If fearmongering were made illegal, Crichton would be looking at 25 to life.

That said, Chris Mooney has an excellent post on Crichton's more bizarre pronouncements about "science." For instance:

We can't "assess" the future, nor can we "predict" it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. An informed guess is just a guess.
It's pretty amusing to imagine Crichton standing before the American Enterprise Institute (as he will on Friday) and declaring that it's pointless to predict the future. If we really must give up "assessing" the future, under pain of Crichton's displeasure, then what on earth are we to do with the PNAC? To say nothing, as Mooney notes, of the stock market.

There's a perfectly simple distinction to be made between a "guess" and an "informed guess": the informed guess is more likely to be correct. To suggest otherwise is to invite epistemological nihilism; if we adopted Crichton's views en masse, our society would be absolutely paralyzed.

Am I being an "alarmist" by saying that? I don't think so...at least, not in comparison to Crichton himself. Consider his doom-haunted fantods over the precautionary principle:
The "precautionary principle," properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle. It is self-contradictory. The precautionary principle therefore cannot be spoken of in terms that are too harsh.
That's a statement of such obvious dishonesty that I won't bother to explain all the ways in which it isn't valid, other than to remark that "properly applied" apparently translates here as "reduced to an absurd formulation for my own purposes."

What I will point out - putting Crichton's blitherings aside - is that an exceptionally rigid form of the precautionary principle is at the very heart of conservative thought. Conservatism is, or pretends to be, dedicated to pointing out the risks inherent in change (e.g., economic conservatives warn against the risks of governmental interference in markets); in short, it's largely a philosophy of risk management, one which relies heavily on invoking the precautionary principle.

As I described here, conservatives once stated that a proposed ban on DDT would cut US agricultural output by fifty percent. What was that statement? It was a prediction about the future. What was the purpose of making such a prediction? To urge lawmakers to apply the precautionary principle before enacting "dangerous" legislation. In essence, conservatives were arguing that unless it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that anti-DDT legislation wouldn't hurt American agribusiness, it shouldn't be enacted.

You'll find versions of the precautionary principle invoked by all manner of conservatives, bolstered by plenty of irrational and irresponsible scaremongering. Here's another example: gay marriage can't possibly be allowed, because conservatives predict - without any evidence at all - that it will "destroy marriage." The argument makes no sense whatsoever, but nevertheless, application of the conservative precautionary principle says that unless you can prove that gay marriage won't destroy heterosexual marriage, it must be forbidden.

And of course, the Right's argument against climate change is another example of the precautionary principle: unless an overwhelming majority of scientists can prove - to the complete satisfaction of every right-wing blowhard on earth - that doing nothing would be more dangerous than taking action, we must stay the course. If we don't, the sky will fall: the economy will be destroyed, or we'll lose our sovereignty, or (as Crichton argues) we'll end up living under "totalitarianism."

And this, mind you, is supposed to represent tough-minded, skeptical thinking.

Who Should Pay For Bags?

I wanted to say a couple of things about San Francisco's proposal to charge consumers 17 cents for shopping bags.

It's provoking the usual hysterical outbursts from right-wing scaremongers, who see the plan as the End of Civilization...but those people are stupid or corrupt, and their bad-faith arguments are not worth addressing. However, there are some rational concerns about the proposal.

Here's one complaint about the planned surcharge:

Under the grocery bag proposal, there would be no refunds for shoppers who return bags and thus no motivation for people to paw through trash bins plucking bags out of the waste stream.
That's a good point, if only because it demonstrates how much our recycling systems relies on dirt-poor human scavengers. But I have a feeling the author is confusing rewards for customers who reuse their own bags, with recycling rewards for people who pull bags out of trash cans. You can't compare the two, let alone conflate them. Also, many plastic bags either aren't recyclable, or aren't marked as recyclable, or aren't accepted by curbside recycling programs even if they are recyclable.

Here's another potential problem:
[T]he bag fee could be regressive, hitting lower-income consumers hardest.
A reasonable concern, but as someone who grew up well below the poverty line, I have to say that poor people are pretty goddamn adaptable, and will do whatever they can to save money. The middle and upper classes will be the ones most resistant to change, which is why a marketing-based approach, like the one I'll describe in a moment, is a good one.

Here's a complaint from grocers that I think is valid:
"All are very disturbed that supermarkets are the target when others that deal in plastic bags or paper bags are not subject to the tax," says Paul Smith, a vice president with the California Grocers Association.
That's a good point; grocers are not the only source of plastic and paper bag waste, but their customers are being held financially responsible for the disposal of all bags. I might prefer to see the manufacturers themselves surcharged; in other words, a bag manufacturer would charge stores an extra $1.70 per hundred bags; this would give all retailers an incentive to cut down on use.

Smith goes on to make an exceptionally silly argument, which suggests that he has no actual grasp of the situation:
He says bags are included in the cost of groceries and cost supermarkets less than 1 cent each for plastic and several pennies for paper.
That's just foolish. The issue is not what supermarkets pay for bags, obviously; the issue is what taxpayer-funded municipalities pay for having them in the waste stream.

Here's one way to handle the situation, if you're a grocer: have cloth bags made with your logo on it, and give them away to anyone who spends a certain amount on groceries. Offer special promotions and discounts for people who use them, sort of like a rewards card. Make people want to use them, and reap the rewards of a "green" brand image and consumer goodwill. (It's really pathetic...we're supposedly a nation of entrepreneurial and marketing geniuses, and yet our business leaders consistently run screaming from opportunities.)

The article ends with a description of how the city arrived at the cost of 17 cents per bag:
San Francisco supermarkets hand out 50 million bags a year, 90 percent plastic and 10 percent paper. Here is an estimate of what disposing of bags costs the city.

-- Recycling and compost contamination. Removal of bags from the recycling and composting streams, clearing machinery jams, and contamination of recycled and composted materials results in $1.09 million in added costs or lost sales. Cost per bag: 2.2 cents.

-- Collection and disposal. Collecting and disposing of bags costs $3.6 million annually. Cost per bag: 7.2 cents.

-- Street cleaning. Removing bags from city streets costs $2.6 million a year. Cost per bag: 5.2 cents.

-- Future landfill liability. Potential remediation and processing costs of bags in city landfills is $1.2 million annually. Cost per bag: 2.4 cents.

-- Total cost per bag: 17 cents.
Is that accurate? Probably not. For instance, one doubts that the cost of removing bags from city streets could accurately be extracted from the cost of removing all trash from the streets. Beyond that, I'd guess that all of these figures are pretty inaccurate, and that some of the basic assumptions are flat-out wrong (for instance, the assumption that there's no inefficiency or fraud padding out the costs).

That said, I also suspect that the figure of 45,000,000 plastic bags per year is conservative; San Francisco has a population of roughly 800,000 people, so that would boil down to a little more than one plastic bag per person, per week. Accurate or not, that's a staggering amount of useless plastic to be putting in the waste stream (paper bags are at least as bad as plastic, but I don't have time to get into that right now). The real number of bags is probably a good deal higher. I've seen clerks at drug stores put packs of gum in bags; I've even had them argue with me when I tell them I don't want a bag. If we were to assume that every person in San Francisco, on average, gets handed two plastic bags per week, which seems far more likely, we're talking about roughly 83 million bags per year. To assume that it costs taxpayers nothing to deal with this volume of waste is either willfully ignorant, dishonest, or insane.

The most serious question raised by the 17-cent fee, and Pigouvian taxes in general, is whether the agencies that collect them will actually use them to mitigate environmental problems, instead of setting up yet another slush fund. Pigouvian taxes only work in systems where there's transparency and accountability, and there's precious little of either in American government. However, that applies equally to traditional forms of waste management, which have been a veritable omphalos of corruption since the 19th century.

Ultimately, I support San Francisco's legislation, primarily because it's prompting public debate about externalities, which is something that doesn't happen often enough. People can argue that 17 cents per bag is too much, or not enough, but they can't argue that there's no cost at all. I'm very happy to have a public debate over what the actual cost is, and who should pay it; I see it as another Lakoffian "slippery slope" issue.

Full disclosure: I haven't used grocery bags in ages. I have a few cloth bags, and clerks are more than happy to use them. It's perfectly easy and convenient, and it actually leaves me with more room in my house. (The space under my sink used to be filled with bags and bags of bags; now, I can use that space for other things.)

UPDATE: Re my suggestion about cloth bags issued by the grocer, I don't think I made myself clear enough. What I'm suggesting is cloth bags with barcodes, that are scanned at check-out to give discounts, just like a rewards card. That way, everyone comes out ahead...less plastic and paper in the waste stream, discounts for consumers, and tons of point-of-purchase market data for the retailers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Oil And Water

We're starting to get a pretty good picture, now, of how the next four years will go.

Yesterday, the Department of the Interior announced that it will allow drilling on Otero Mesa in New Mexico. At least eighty-five percent of New Mexicans oppose it. Hunters and ranchers, conservationists and libertarians, Republicans and Democrats...a majority of all of them opposed the plan. And with good reason:

The plan...allows drilling a maximum of 141 exploratory wells and 84 producing wells on nearly 2 million acres of Chihuahuan grassland in southern New Mexico....In total, the plan prohibits drilling on 124,000 acres.
In other words, the plan leaves only five percent of the land off limits to development.

Here's the ghastly part: Otero Mesa sits atop the largest untapped aquifer in New Mexico:
Conservative estimates show that without any recharge there is enough fresh potable water underlying Otero Mesa to serve a community of over 500,000 people for over fifty years.
Drilling for oil involves pumping and contaminating that water, and the BLM's plan puts absolutely no limits on how much water developers can pump for their own purposes.

And here's the really ghastly part:
According to the BLM, about 100 wells have been drilled in the last century and two have produced oil or gas. The state BLM office rates Otero Mesa's production potential as low to moderate.
So we have a choice: we can get enough water for 500,000 people for fifty years, or (if we're "lucky") enough oil for several days.

In drought-ridden New Mexico (and West Texas, which borders Otero), the water is actually worth far more than the oil, by any reasonable calculation. That doesn't matter, though, because the company that will develop Otero is the Harvey E. Yates Company, which has been a generous donor to George W. Bush and the Republican Party, and whose CEO is the former chairman of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a group of anti-environmental lawyers founded in 1976 by James Watt, where current Interior Secretary Gale Norton got her regrettable start...the very same Gale Norton, of course, whose Department of the Interior approved the drilling at Otero.

I suspect that the point of developing Otero is not making money, so much as demonstrating to "treehuggers" of all varieties that in the next four years, Bush's friends will do exactly as they please, and public opposition be damned.

Nuclear Parochialism

Bush's sincere desire to drive all sane people mad has led him to describe nuclear power as green, clean and renewable.

With that in mind, let's take a gander at a current debate over radwaste dumping in Australia.

The Australian government wants an offshore dump for its spent nuclear fuel, and is considering the Pacific island republic of Nauru. Nauru is bankrupt and powerless; it has a population of about 10,000, and has already been devastated by phosphate mining, which has denuded about 90 percent of the island.

Currently, the Australians are shipping a good deal of their radwaste to the United States and Europe. However,

[Science Minister Brenden] Nelson said the US agreement to accept spent nuclear fuel from Lucas Heights until 2016 did not eliminate the need for a long-term dump for Australian intermediate and low-level radioactive waste.
This Nelson character comes across as...well, as an asshole, to put it bluntly.
...Dr Nelson blamed states and territories – which all oppose dumps within their borders – for their "crippling parochialism and federalism", which forced the Government to drop plans to build a site near Woomera in remote South Australia.
"Parochialism"? Surely that's not quite the right word. However, I agree that countries have a moral obligation to keep their nuclear wastes within their own borders, with the full knowledge and consent of the public; if they can't meet that standard (as is indeed the case), then they ought to get out of the nuclear business.

Anyway, let's rejoin the intrepid Dr. Nelson:
While ruling out Tasmania, Dr Nelson would not reveal whether Nauru was being considered, saying only that "any offshore site will need to meet all criteria and all international treaty obligations to which Australia is a signatory".
Well, that's easy enough to settle. Nauru and Australia are both signatories to the Waigani Convention, which forbids the importation of radioactive waste to Nauru or any other South Pacific island. Clearly, they'll have to look elsewhere for a dumping site.

My point is, Australia's nuclear waste problem is comparatively minor; for one thing, it has no nuclear power plants. Yet it has enormous problems dealing with the waste it's got. A lot of its radwaste is currently being shipped overseas for reprocessing, which is touted as being somehow equivalent to recycling, though it's astronomically expensive and dangerous beyond all reckoning. After reprocessing, it's shipped back to Australia, as radioactive as ever. It's a fairly futile and stupid undertaking, I'd say.

Australia's Uranium Information Council says that "Nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes, and costs this into the product." That's an astonishing, heartbreaking lie. The nuclear power industry does nothing of the sort; it's been heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars since its inception, and has always resisted any honest assessment of externalities. The monumental shell game of "reprocessing" is just one example of how sky-high external costs are hidden, or pushed onto other countries.

Calling nuclear power "renewable" or "green" is something Republicans do for the sheer, trangressive thrill of it, like sneering at Martin Luther King Jr on his birthday, or calling Arab leaders "ragheads."

Monday, January 24, 2005

Immersed Remains



The Center For Land Use Interpretation, which is probably my favorite site on the Web, has a fascinating new exhibit on submerged towns at its Los Angeles office. If you're in the neighborhood, check it out.

I mention this because I linked to a page from CLUI's Land Use Database in my earlier post about chemical weapons, and it reminded me that I don't use - or praise - this remarkable resource often enough.

I stumbled on CLUI in 1996, having been steered to it by the good people at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, next door. It was something of a dream come true for me. I remember driving around Utah in the early 1980s, and being fascinated by the area between Wendover and Tooele. This fascination, I'm sorry to say, was initially nothing more than a morbid aesthetic response: a foolish romantic appreciation of man's ability to make a bleak landscape infinitely bleaker. I subsequently did a lot of research on land use in that region, which taught me a fair amount about Dugway Proving Ground, which in turn taught me a bit more than I wished to know about the moral economy of American power in the 20th century. (Years later, I actually turned down a business-related opportunity to visit Dugway. I suppose I regret it now. Or maybe I don't.)

Anyway, I ended up with an obsessive interest in land use in the desert West, but I rarely had time to study or write about it. Thus, I was overjoyed to discover that CLUI had done a beautiful and thorough job of explaining the manmade landscape, and that they'd done it without resorting either to angry denunciation, or to the infectious - but not always wise - enthusiasm of someone like J.B. Jackson.

CLUI manages to walk a fine line between the artistic fetishization of damaged landscapes, and a nondidactic - but implicitly progressive - approach to encouraging public awareness of land use. For proof, go to the Land Use Database and click on your state; you never know what you'll find! What's especially interesting is how its neutral descriptions of sites, taken en masse, reveal the consistent patterns of military-industrial thinking; the bland, untroubled language of the database is in some ways far more effective than polemic would be.

Their bookstore is terrific, too.

A Fine Mess

What was the point of America's chemical weapons program? We spent billions of dollars developing enormous stockpiles of these unreliable, unpredictable weapons. Now, we're spending billions more to destroy them. Our greatest strategic accomplishment with CW technology (besides helping Saddam gas his enemies) came in 1968, when shifting winds during a VX test resulted in over 6,000 dead sheep, an accident which cost taxpayers over a million dollars.

Chemical weapons were a woefully stupid idea from the start. World War I told us all we needed to know about the logistical problems with using them on the battlefield; there was never a compelling reason to start mass production of them in this country. One can at least understand the logic behind the appeal of biological and nuclear weapons to the Cold Warriors, but our CW production was never anything more than a waste of time and money (or, if you prefer, a massive taxpayer giveaway to defense profiteers). Our CW program posed - and still poses - more danger to us than it ever did to any enemy.

Consider the situation in Colorado, where there are plans to build a $1.6 billion plant to destroy our useless, pointless stockpiles of mustard gas:

Pueblo officials have viewed construction of a neutralization plant to eliminate more than 780,000 mustard-gas munitions stored at the depot as an economic boon that could bring as many as 1,000 jobs to the area.
Whether this constitutes an economic boon for taxpaying citizens is debatable, but it's certainly a boon for Bechtel, which "won" the contract to build the plant.

On the other hand, maybe it won't bring in any jobs. Maybe it won't even get built:
[Colorado senators] Allard and Salazar said they were assured by Patrick Wakefield, a deputy assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the weapons would be destroyed at the Pueblo facility and wouldn't be shipped out of state. But in a memo the Army received Jan. 14, Wakefield ordered the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency to provide a briefing by Feb. 18 on destruction alternatives, including relocation.
The prospective plant in Colorado would use neutralization and biotreatment, a relatively safe (i.e., not obviously disastrous) method of disposal recommended by a DoD program called Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA). Budget problems at the Pentagon, however, are making relocation and incineration seem more likely; in that case, Pueblo's weapons would probably end up at Tooele, Utah.

Relocation, of course, involves transporting these extremely toxic materials over several hundred miles; that's a situation that should always be avoided. Incineration is a bad idea even when it's done properly; as many commentators have pointed out, it's not disposal so much as dispersal. That said, there are many, many reasons to oppose incinerating chemical weapons at Tooele.

Out of the Woodwork

Dennis Roddy has written an excellent piece on Jared Taylor, publisher of the white-supremacist rag American Renaissance, who was recently promoted as a "race-relations expert" on a number of radio and television stations.

What Taylor represents and how he got himself on no fewer than a half-dozen radio and television stations in large markets to denounce Martin Luther King illustrates the new tactics of white supremacy. Employing the dispassionate language of sociological and genetic studies, and under the veneer of academic inquiry, an assortment of highly educated people now push the theory that everything from unwed motherhood in Atlanta to economic collapse in Gambia can be explained by the genetic code imprinted on the races.
A lot of us made fun of the Religious Right in the Reagan years; few of us saw them gaining the power and influence they have today. I'd argue that Taylor's brand of white supremacy is on the verge of being similarly mainstreamed, and that one of the purposes of the Republican takeover of government was, in fact, to pave the way for a formal acceptance of white-supremacist pseudoscience as a respectable basis for public policy. Taylor himself has for years invoked the evils of "political correctness," claiming that it was stifling rational discussion of race and genetics; one has only to read a few articles in American Renaissance to see how profoundly its arguments have affected the discussion of racial issues on the right.

I really wonder what we intend to do about this.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

More On Mangroves

A pathologically dishonest and ignorant troll (who shall remain nameless) took umbrage at my recent post on the potentially lifesaving effect of mangroves in areas struck by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Actually, my post mainly had to do with the impact of different types of development in tourist regions, but new evidence indicates that the protective effects of mangroves are actually far more profound than initial reports suggested:

For generations, the Irula tribe in southern India made a living out of skinning snakes. Then a 1972 wildlife law banned such sales and the tribals, who lived in seaside forests, turned to fishing and worked on a government program to restore coastal mangrove swamps damaged by human development.

When the tsunami struck on December 26, the mangroves in the Pichavaram wetland acted as a buffer, saving the Irulas and about a dozen fishing hamlets from the killer waves.

"We were saved by the trees we planted in the past," said V. Kumar, an Irula who spends two hours every morning planting mangrove saplings. "Those who destroyed the forest and built houses on open beaches had to face the brunt," he said, pointing to a fishing hamlet on a sand bar between the mangroves and the sea that was completely washed away.

There was no loss of human life or property in these villages, located 100m to 700m from the sea. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu state, the worst-hit in India, the sea entered as deep as 1.5km, washing away thousands of people and their homes.

More Than Meets The Eye

Way back in 2001, ExxonMobil wrote a letter to the Bush administration, suggesting the ouster of Dr. Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The US promptly announced that it supported Dr Rajendra Pachauri as chairman of the panel, and lobbied strenuously on his behalf. Watson was ousted, and Pachauri was elected.

Now, Dr. Pachauri has just announced that

he personally believes that the world has "already reached the level of dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere" and called for immediate and "very deep" cuts in the pollution if humanity is to "survive".

[snip]

He told delegates: "Climate change is for real. We have just a small window of opportunity and it is closing rather rapidly. There is not a moment to lose."
The Independent article from which these quotes are taken is strange. It strongly implies that Pachauri is a Bush lapdog who turned on his master, and that this is a major embarassment for the United States.

It's not quite that simple, though. Pachauri was not only criticizing BushCo back in 2001, but actually called for a boycott of ExxonMobil in an editorial:
The movement started by some prominent artists and leaders of public opinion in Europe for boycotting the products of Exxon-Mobil, a company which is seen as a major supporter of George W. Bush’s disastrous climate change policy, is a good way to put economic pressure on the US. It would be most useful for a worldwide movement which boycotts American goods as a source of global pollution, and as the only means to bringing the US administration to a position of minimal fairness.
Comments like these led Al Gore, who supported Watson, to call Pachauri "virulently anti-American." So why did BushCo back him so strongly? Good question. Timothy Noah's argument is interesting, though. He says that Pachauri is
...hostile to market solutions in which U.S. companies upgrade inefficient plants overseas as an alternative to reducing carbon dioxide output in less-dirty plants in the United States. Which is, indeed, the approach favored by the Bush administration. The larger point, though, is that Bush would just as soon not do anything about global warming. Backing a candidate likely to embroil the IPCC in a paralyzing spat between Western and non-Western nations is a pretty good way to achieve that.
That makes a fair amount of sense. Dr. Watson is a US citizen born in the UK, and a respected atmospheric scientist. Pachauri, by contrast, is from New Delhi, has degrees in economics and engineering, and is by free-marketeer standards a wild-eyed, America-hating extremist. In short, he's far less credible to American audiences; he fits the racist right-wing stereotype of a dark-skinned socialist from the Third World, who wants to cripple America's growth with regulations, while letting poorer countries like India do as they please.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

H5N1 Follies

I've tried to stay abreast of the H5N1 avian flu situation ever since starting this blog. Now, we seem to be close enough to zero hour that I don't really see the point of blogging about it anymore. Accordingly, I'm turning things over to the experts; anyone who's interested in keeping tabs on this approaching disaster can bookmark these sites:

Effect Measure offers frequent updates on the situation, from the point of view of public-health professionals. Their latest comments are fairly blunt:

Somebody needs to tell President Bush that it's not democracy and freedom that is likely to spread around the world under his "leadership." Instead of cavorting at obscenely costly inaugural events he should be instructing his public health establishment to sound the alarm that we may soon come under attack by a Virus of Mass Destruction.

Unfortunately the response to the Viet Nam wake-up call seems to be to hit the snooze alarm once again. Just a few more minutes sleep, please.

Many people voted for Bush because they thought he would "keep us safe." Now that's irony.

Recombinomics has daily updates by Dr. Henry Niman, the virologist who developed the flu monoclonal antibody. Here's a recent comment from him:
This season, the case fatality rate is running at 90% assuming the earlier reports of confirmation of the 8th and 9th fatalities are accurate and the middle (42M) brother in the north continues to recover. So far this season, no confirmed case of avian influenza in Vietnam has been discharged from the hospital, so technically the case fatality rate for confirmed cases with outcomes remains at 100%.
So far, the words "flu pandemic" have not crossed George W. Bush's lips. It'll be interesting to see how many people die before he holds a press conference. Anyone want to make a prediction?

Trust Us...We're Scientists!

POGO discusses the troubling situation at Boston University, where three researchers were infected with the prospective germ-warfare agent tularemia.

Jeanne Guillemin, the author of the new book, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, told POGO that:
The problems were multiple but secrecy was the worst of them. The microbiologists didn't know they were working with a virulent strain, when the first two became sick, the association with the lab was not made, when the diagnosis was confirmed, both BU and city and state government decided to keep the information from the public. Their rationale apparently was that since tularemia is not contagious, the public was not at risk. But tularemia transmits easily by air: suppose there were other cases in May that went unreported. The mortality rate for untreated tularemia, by the way, is 30 percent, as bad as the worst rate for smallpox. BU was lucky this time but the only head to roll was that of Peter Rice, who led the research project, yet public trust depends on accountability throughout all levels of government and research institutions. And where, we might ask, was the CDC, which seems to have kept its knowledge of these cases under wraps.

Where indeed? Though this story is bad enough in and of itself, I bring it up mainly because senior scientists at the WHO have just recommended creating a genetically modified version of the smallpox virus. What could possibly go wrong, you say? Lots of things. For instance:
Four years ago, scientists in Australia genetically modified a mousepox virus and inadvertently created a highly virulent strain that could not be stopped by vaccination. But the WHO insisted the latest proposal to engineer the human smallpox virus was inherently safer.
It's worth mentioning, I think, that no catastrophic accident was ever prefaced by experts saying "This is a terribly dangerous idea and we probably shouldn't be doing it, especially without adequate safeguards. But what the heck...you only live once!" Public avowals of confidence and competence are, if anything, a warning sign that the situation probably isn't being taken seriously enough.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging



Here we have one of the more fanciful links in the Great Chain of Being. It's hard to believe that this extravagantly over-endowed creature exists, let alone that it's a member of the nudibranch family. Nonetheless, it does, and it is. Takes all kinds, eh?

Friday Optimism Blogging

Inspired by the venerable tradition of Friday Cat (and Nudibranch!) Blogging, many bloggers are consecrating their Fridays to similar innocent amusements.

Some people post ten random songs from an iPod or mp3 player. I actually did that once (on another site), and felt kind of uneasy afterwards. I'm not what I listen to, and I no longer have any appetite for conspicuous or competitive consumption. Never again!

Other folks are doing a Friday blogroll add: pick a blog you like, and write a post about why other people should read it. I like that idea, although it may invite some uncomfortable speculation about whether one expects anything in return. And eventually, I imagine, you'd run out of blogs to promote, or space to blogroll them.

Instead, I think that from here on out, I'll post positive stories on Fridays...things that give me a bit of hope for the future. I wouldn't mind if the idea caught on; I think most of us could stand to go into the weekend with a bit of good news, or at least not-so-bad news.

Accordingly, here's a heartening article on the trend towards cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design at some of the world's largest electronics manufacturers. Among other things, it's a good example of how government regulations - or even the threat of them - can encourage innovation.

Before the Panasonic SD Video Camera was born, designers planned for its death....it has no lead, no mercury and no brominated flame retardants — all hazardous substances that make consumer electronics such as personal computers, digital cameras and televisions dangerous to bury in landfills and difficult to recycle. The camera's aluminum casing can be smelted and made into other products. When its lithium ion battery runs out, it can be dropped off at one of 30,000 retail stores nationwide.

"We wanted to eliminate hazardous materials and make it easy to recycle," said David Thompson, director of corporate environmental affairs for Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which owns Panasonic. "This is a design objective that's being built into all of our products."
Good for them. One trend the article mentions is the use of metal in place of plastic, which I applaud. Among other things, recognizing that there are high external costs to certain plastics gives designers leeway to work with nicer materials. A world in which plastic could be replaced by bamboo and stainless steel is, I would argue, a somewhat more gracious and bearable world. The materials that surround us have real psychological effects on us, just as strip-mall architecture does. By freeing us from an illusory economic imperative, acknowledging external costs allows us to make things that are both sturdy and pleasing to the senses. I really don't think that's a frivolous thing to desire.

One thing the article doesn't mention is the new advances in biodegradable corn-based plastics (and other bioplastics) which companies like HP are using for printers. Another is the increasing use of bamboo, a beautiful and eminently renewable wood which grows almost as fast as you can cut it down, and is ideal for flooring and countertops. (I have a bamboo cutting-board...the best one I've ever owned! It's as hard as a rock, easy to clean, and lovely to look at.)

Anyway, the last few paragraphs of this article are music to my ears:
Disposing of old electronics traditionally has been the customer's problem. After Jan. 1, though, California retailers are required to collect a $6 to $10 recycling fee for every television and computer monitor sold. The fee will fund payments to private recyclers, who are paid 48 cents a pound to dismantle and recover reusable materials in old monitors.

European countries go even further. Germany requires electronics manufacturers to take back their products when customers are finished with them. Next year, the rest of the European Union will have similar rules. And by 2006, the European countries will ban sales of equipment containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.

At the heart of these regulations is an economic notion that the best way to deal with pollution is to build its cost into the product. If companies must pay to dispose of their own products, they would have an incentive to design their products to be easier to recycle or more environmentally friendly and, thus, less costly to clean up.
If I could change careers, I'd go into industrial design. It's a wide-open field with endless possibilities, now that conventional economic concepts are finally being redefined or discarded. That's a perfect example of why government regulation can be a good thing for business. Far from being an enemy of free enterprise, regulation is often a necessary catalyst for innovation and productivity.

Our Best Writer

My loyal readers - do I have any other kind? - will recall that I've often praised the fiction and essays of Marilynne Robinson. I finally got a chance to hear Ms. Robinson speak, and to meet her, which was an honor along the lines of meeting Melville or Hawthorne or Tolstoy, though I believe she's a more consistently astonishing and sensible writer than any of those men.

She was just about as luminous, precise, and inspiring as I'd expected. She began by reading a section of her impossibly beautiful new novel Gilead, which reminded me once again of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's remark that if bad stories have made people ill, we need to tell good stories to make them well. Gilead is a good, transformative story in exactly that sense.

Previously, Ms. Robinson wrote what I believe to be the ultimate indictment of capitalist illogic in Mother Country: Britain, The Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a book which earned her the unusual distinction, for an anti-nuclear polemicist, of being sued by Greenpeace under British libel laws (they sought damages for "hurt feelings," and won).

In that book's introduction, she said something that suggested she felt obliged to give up fiction:

I am angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured while we were all bemused by supposed monuments of value and intellect, vaults of bogus cultural riches. I feel the worth of my own life diminished by the tedious years I have spent acquiring competence in the arcana of minor invention...the grief borne home to others while I and my kind have been thus occupied lies on my conscience like a crime.
I'm in complete sympathy with this sentiment, and yet it's not quite correct, as Gilead proves. I know of no more powerful book on environmental problems than Mother Country, and no more clear-eyed exploration of their causes. But the very power and accuracy of the book - and the fact that it doesn't limit blame to expected, emotionally convenient villains - evoke a defensive response in some people, as do some of her essays. Gilead avoids this reaction, because it's a good story, instead of a good argument. In her nonfiction she talks about the ideals Americans have forgotten, and what is likely to become of us unless we remember them and make use of them; Gilead brings those ideals to radiant, unforgettable life, and is thus a far sturdier vehicle for their preservation and transmission. It's a celebration of attention and reflection, compassion and forgiveness, and "the strange exhilarations of our strange life on earth"; necessarily, it's also a repudiation of everything mean, petty, and stingy, and of every philosophy intended to excuse or ennoble meanness, pettiness, and stinginess. Given our current situation, that makes it a profoundly political book, and an almost unbearably touching one.

Ms. Robinson's work is, I think, intended as an antidote to what Simone Weil called "uprootedness." She's concerned with moving Americans towards a truer sense of their socially progressive heritage, largely by demolishing false histories (which, too often, were imposed by people opposed to that heritage) and revealing more accurate ones. Thus, in response to a tangentially related question from the audience, she described how the egalitarian ideals of 19th-century American religious progressivism - as exemplified by the abolitionists, and the fully integrated colleges they built throughout the Middle West - were trampled by the racialist pseudoscience of Agassiz and others, and were ultimately devalued or forgotten by their rightful 20th-century heirs. She suggested that we're in similar danger today, facing not merely the loss of rights that people suffered and died to win, which would be bad enough, but also the loss of our ability to comprehend and honor those traditions that made social engagement a moral duty, suffering and death notwithstanding.

As modern and usually secular progressives, we're expected to pass over ideas like Agassiz's quickly. We're happy to concede that social Darwinism was an unfortunate error, but not quite so happy to ponder what this error actually cost us as a nation, and what similarly drab and evil ideas might be costing us right now, not because they're true but because they offer us easy comforts, as well as "latitude responsible people do not have or desire." Ms. Robinson dwells on many such historical failures, and refuses to treat them as isolate events without ongoing repercussions (such as attempts to oppose one bad idea with another, ad nauseum). In The Death of Adam, she makes the radical claim that "everything always bears looking into"; in other words, if we don't assess our history carefully and critically, we don't really know who we are, which leads to dangerous misunderstandings of our present and our possibilities.

Despite my longwindedness here, I confess that I was absolutely tongue-tied while she signed my books. Finally, I blurted out that I felt about her books as she'd said she felt about Melville's (whose works, along with those of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, she'd called a central, benign influence in her life). I was a bit incoherent, God knows...but amazingly enough, I didn't feel embarrassed about it, and I'm a person who's perpetually embarrassed. That's because I believe she understood that it was hard for me to say precisely because of how deeply I meant it.

Small Steps

A couple of nights ago, I went to see a lecture by Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who works as a consultant to the factory-farm industry. Through what appears to be a profound understanding of animal cognition, which she attributes to her autism, she works to eliminate processes and practices that frighten farm animals and make them unmanageable. Her work is popular with fast-food businesses; many of the major chains audit their meat suppliers using standards that Ms. Grandin developed.

Her work is somewhat controversial in the vegan/vegetarian community, where humane killing is correctly - but also somewhat irrelevantly - seen as a euphemism for killing, period.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, that during the lecture, a woman in the audience asked her about the larger issues of factory farms, such as their effect on the environment and public health. Ms. Grandin responded that having autism doesn't allow her the luxury of broad, abstract thinking; she's limited to a narrow focus on how she can address a certain problem, at a certain place and time.

I thought this was an interesting response. I spend a lot of time on this site arguing for a systematic approach to problems, and against ignoring connections and implications. At the same time, I do realize that a besetting sin of the Left is its tendency to want immediate, total change - to make perfection the enemy of improvement, and to discourage people by emphasizing the global scope of the problems they face. Too often, people on the Left claim that activists who focus on narrow issues are being naive, or addressing symptoms rather than causes, or what have you. Factory farms are a huge social evil, one version of the argument goes, and making them more morally acceptable, as Ms. Grandin tries to do, merely perpetuates a system that ought to be done away with entirely; to this worldview, anything short of total reform is compromise or appeasement.

I don't entirely agree. On the contrary, I think this issue is one of those "slippery slope" arguments that George Lakoff says the Left needs so desperately. On the Right, discussion of "partial-birth abortion" is intended as a step towards making all abortion cognitively unacceptable; get people to reject the morality of one type of abortion, and you're well on your way to making all forms of the procedure unacceptable.

Grandin's ideas are similar, in that they promote an initial emotional engagement with a specific problem of factory farming; this is a necessary before there can be any sort of commitment to changing a system that is catastrophic for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. There may be many, many steps between thinking "just because we eat animals doesn't mean we should torture them," and recognizing that factory farming is a public-health disaster for human beings themselves (or vice versa, for that matter), but that journey has to start somewhere, and it must be taken even if it ends in failure, as it well may. Even when they're not autistic, people seldom grasp complex systems at a glance; also, people need to feel that problems are manageable, and that small actions can make a big difference. Unfortunately, this is a view the Left doesn't always encourage.

It's a bit similar to being in debt; you can focus on the lump sum you owe, and say "Where am I going to get $10,000?", or you can focus on the fact that you can afford to pay $100 a month. People usually get into debt gradually, through the accumulation of small purchases and everyday expenses. They need to get out of debt the same way, through many small payments; they can't simply hold off on making payments until they win the lottery.

Through inattention and irresponsibility and inaction, we allowed our country to be taken over by radicals who worked slowly, but thoroughly, to achieve their ends; you can be quite sure that no victory ever seemed too small for them. Where they couldn't take a mile, they settled for an inch. But those inches have added up to a good many miles in my lifetime. Barring a Watergate-style meltdown, which is always a possibility, we're going to have to take America back just as slowly and thoroughly. Which means that the small victories are just as important as the big ones.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Anything Goes

If you want further proof that Bushism is a radical cult that seeks to overthrow the basic concepts of American governance, and replace them with something more akin to the Divine Right of Kings, look no further than these recent remarks by Dick Cheney:

Vice President Cheney said in an interview that the proper power of the presidency has finally been restored after being diminished in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and that President Bush contributed to the process by not allowing his narrow victory in the 2000 election to inhibit him during his first term.

"Even after we went through all of that, he never wanted to allow, correctly, the closeness of our election to in any way diminish the power of the presidency, lead him to make a decision that he needed to somehow trim his sails, and be less than a fully authorized, if you will, commander in chief, leader of our government, president of the United States," Cheney said in an interview last month that will be broadcast tomorrow night on "Inside the Presidency," a documentary on the History Channel.

[snip]

Cheney said that the "low point" of presidential power occurred at the beginning of Gerald R. Ford's presidency and that "over time" it has been restored, despite such challenges as the Iran-contra investigation under President Ronald Reagan, which Cheney characterized as an attempt to "criminalize a policy difference" between the president and Congress.
There's not much to say about this, except that it stands every ideal of American democracy on its head, displays utter contempt for the most basic Constitutional principles, and suggests that the next four years will be exceedingly grim times for anyone - Right or Left - who believes in legal or ethical limits on government power.

Quickening and Ensoulment

I finally got around to reading Londa Schiebinger's Plants and Empire, a fascinating book on colonialist bioprospecting which deals at great length with the controversy over abortifacients in early modern Europe, particularly as regards the slave trade. (Slave women frequently took abortifacient drugs in order to avoid having their children born into captivity.)

The part of the book that's especially pertinent right now has to do with the European views of "ensoulment": the point at which a fetus stops being a blob of protoplasm, and starts being a person. Initially, it seems, ensoulment was often thought to happen in the fourth or fifth month, after "quickening." When the baby started kicking, it was a person. Before that, it was simply biological matter with no special claim to respect or protection. (Though Schiebinger doesn't mention it, versions of this viewpoint were approved by Aristotle and Augustine; the latter drew a clear distiction between the ensouled "embryo animatus," and the unsouled "embryo inanimatus.")

Apparently, the combined authority of Aristotle and Augustine was more than enough for many early modern churches; Schiebinger notes that around 1600,

Church law was more lenient, teaching that "it is lawful to procure abortion before ensoulment of the fetus, lest a girl, detected pregnant, be killed or defamed. It seems probable that the fetus...lacks a rational soul and begins first to have one when it is born; and consequently it must be said that no abortion is homicide."
What's really fascinating is that laws specifying that ensoulment came with quickening made the pregnant women herself the arbiter of when a fetus was ensouled. Thus, it seems likely that the dogma that ensoulment occurs at conception was turned into law in order to take from women the authority to declare a child ensouled, which had made them the arbiters of whether or not they'd had a "criminal" abortion.

A very interesting book, and well worth reading given our current controversies. At the least, it provides further evidence that the modern pro-life view of ensoulment-at-conception by no means represents the traditional or scriptural religious view.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Credibility and Integrity

A week or so ago, I posted an article stating that

Jeb Bush has fired a top official who was accused of sexual harassment...

...and replaced him with a pornography addict, plagiarist, and apologist for slavery.
Now, the pornography addict, plagiarist, and apologist for slavery has resigned. He blames "sensationalized news stories" for his troubles, rather than the fact that the charges against him are clearly true. Plagiarism, in particular, is pretty easy to detect, and it was his own newspaper that investigated and punished him for it.

But just as Condi Rice can find it within herself to become aggrieved when her "credibility and integrity" are impugned by a public recitation of her own words, this fellow holds to the Republican credo that one remains innocent after being proved guilty.

Don't Leave Home Without It

From Behind the Homefront:

Plastic wallet cards that offer talking points for media interviews are standard issue for Army soldiers leaving for Iraq and are part of a stepped-up media-training program for soldiers, The News & Observer of Raleigh and Editor & Publisher reported.

"Talking point" cards for military personnel, meanwhile, are being updated regularly as the war progresses - often as much as once a week - to keep up with the conflict's changing issues and the proximity of embedded reporters. Among the current talking points: "We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Minding the Store

Given the latest lame attempts to explain the "missing" WMD, this can't be said often enough: If WMD were transferred from Iraq to Syria, it's BushCo's fault.

After all, we had the technology to discover and prevent it:

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon says it has vastly improved its ability to sort, assess and organize the information from spy satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and other sensors. It relays that data quickly to analysts and commanders around the globe.
And we weren't alone, either...satellites from many other countries were watching Iraq very closely, well before the war started:
A profusion of both spy and commercial satellites in the last several years virtually guarantees that nothing done in the open can remain a secret for long. Some satellites boast technology that allows them to clearly see objects as small as 2 feet.
And thanks to a tip from Donald Rumsfeld, we even knew precisely where to look for the WMD:
Spy satellites, photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles are scouring the area between Baghdad and Tikrit.
This inside information should've enabled us to ensure that nothing could slip through the net, not even a truck convoy carrying hundreds of tons of nerve gas through the open desert:
American spy satellites scanning key targets throughout Iraq at least once every two hours in a concentrated surveillance operation which can pick out objects as small as six inches across in daylight and two to three feet wide at night....The giant craft orbit over Iraq at regular, predictable intervals, snapping high-resolution digital pictures of "sites of military interest" and providing the Pentagon and the CIA with continually updated records of major ground and air activity.
In short, if Saddam moved those weapons to another country under our nose, it was perhaps BushCo's single greatest intelligence failure, and is arguably far worse than simply being mistaken about the presence of WMD.

Personally, I'd rather plead guilty to being wrong about the WMD than to letting Saddam's henchmen waltz off with tons of them through one of the most carefully surveilled regions of the world. But chacun รก son gout, as they say in France.

If you want a more detailed, technical account of the intensive pre-war surveillance of Iraq's weapons facilities, you can go here.

Travels In Candyland

Near Near Future recently beguiled me into reading an article on the radical new science of "neuroeconomics" (no sooner do I type the words than I imagine a frowning Echidne, lovely in Her wrath).

It was originally published in The Economist - a magazine that has never been afraid to tackle the thornier points of socioeconomic ontology - and it starts off not with a bang, but a whimper:

Although Plato compared the human soul to a chariot pulled by the two horses of reason and emotion, modern economics has mostly been a one-horse show. It has been obsessed with reason.
Don't you just love the structure of that first sentence? I can write non sequiturs too, you know. Watch this: "Although Lesley Gore sang about sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, meteorology has concerned itself primarily with sunshine and rainbows."

Also, the fact that Plato scribbled that gag about horses doesn't mean that he himself wasn't "obsessed with reason," or that he mightn't have argued that economics should be a "one-horse show."

Let's not split hairs, though. Let's just take it on faith that Plato is the intellectual godfather of modern economics, and that he disapproved of placing reason above emotion, so that we can get back to this awesomely outrageous new science that's revolutionizing classical economics:
In decisions from how much to produce to whether to save and invest, humans have been assumed to be coolly rational calculators of their own self-interest. Over the past few years, however, evidence from psychology has persuaded many economists that reason does not always have its way.
That "many economists" have been dragged kicking and screaming from the spun-sugar citadels of Candyland represents real progress - there's no doubt about that - but there's clearly a great deal more work to be done. For instance, this writer's definition of "reason" as the "cooly rational" calculation of self-interest is both gratuitous and absurd. Self-interest and rationality may converge or diverge; they are not Siamese twins. Human economic behavior, taken as a whole, has never been coolly rational, and coolly rational decisions don't guarantee happy outcomes, or even non-fatal ones.

Anyway, just to bring the article full circle - it started out by talking about Plato, remember? - the author ends with an invocation of Life's Ineffable Mysteries:
Then there are age-old questions of free will: is your failure to save for old age simply a lifestyle choice, or is it down to faulty brain circuits?
Beats me...but I do know that "failure to save for old age" has been a common disaster throughout recorded history (almost as common as being defrauded of one's life savings by corrupt financiers). This offers further evidence that human beings can't be described en masse as "coolly rational calculators of self-interest." On the contrary, they've very often been self-defeating, feckless, improvident fuck-ups. What humans want, as often as not, is something for nothing. That's why they gamble, that's why they give their bank-account numbers to self-styled Nigerian functionaries, and that's why they believe in the illogical babblings of politicians and stock brokers and economists.

And as long as we're dragging Plato's carcass through the mud, it's worth noting that he also argued that "it should be impossible to entertain contradictory notions that defy the science of measurement." Just sayin'!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Put On a Happy Face



In an unwelcome attempt to intensify my already dour mood, Defense Tech discusses the military's need for new and better forms of propaganda to replace leafletting campaigns, which really haven't changed much since World War II.

[L]ast year, the U.S. military dropped 9.3 million leaflets into Afghanistan, and another 3.8 million into Iraq, according to Special Operations Technology magazine, trying to convince the locals to play nice with G.I.s.

U.S. Special Operations Command is exploring alternatives to the flyers. In a recent call for research, SOCOM expressed an interest in "air droppable, scatterable electronic media" to spread the good word about American intentions. "Internet-capable devices, entertainment and game devices, greeting cards, and phone and text messaging technologies" are just a few of the suggested options for these so-called "psychological operations," the magazine notes.
Obviously, communication is important when you're occupying a country. But to be effective, the message you're communicating has to have some connection to what people are seeing and hearing every day. Some propagandists make the mistake of treating populations as a blank slate, to be decorated with smiley faces at will, and fail to acknowledge the power of actual events to shape opinions. There's very little we can say to wipe the image of Abu Ghraib out of the Iraqi mind, for instance. The systematic, formalized use of torture and humiliation represented a conscious choice by the Pentagon to portray Americans as implacably evil people; this has had a lasting effect on Iraqi perceptions, just as it was intended to. The response to feel-good propaganda is different in the USA, of course, but that's because people here are comfortable. Comforting lies have a much greater power to compel belief in America than they do in Iraq.

Thus, when you're talking about raining electronic trinkets on the Iraqi population, you're talking about wasting a great deal of money that could be used instead to provide clean water (or what have you), as well as adding a significant new waste stream to a society that doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with the waste it's got.

Sometimes, it almost seems as though winning hearts and minds is not actually our goal.

Bad to Worse

The information in the new Seymour Hersh article is dreadful enough for anyone. But Arms Control Wonk makes a strong case that the situation may be even worse than Hersh says:

Hersh obviously thinks such a strike would be foolish, but he repeats a myth that is at least partially responsible for the ardor of proponents of a strike against Iranian facilities:
In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, setting its nuclear program back several years.
Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory University, has written The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks arguing that "closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not substantially delay the Iraqi nuclear [weapons] program and may have even hastened it." [Emphasis, mine.]
The explanation for this is worth reading in full, as is Reiter's piece.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Absolutely Fucking Despicable

There are moments - pretty often, actually - when Bush's dithering, vacant facade cracks, and one sees him for the spoiled, sociopathic, amoral fiend that he is. Here's an example:

President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.

"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."
Fair enough. After all, Clinton's re-election meant that he was morally unassailable, and that there was no longer any legal or moral rationale for holding him or his minions accountable for a single goddamn thing that happened in the previous four years.

In addition to extolling the joys of moral relativism, Bush also explained that he intends to let homosexuals bring our once-great nation to its...uh...knees, even though it means betraying the "values voters" who supposedly put him in office:
On the domestic front, Bush said he would not lobby the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage....The president said there is no reason to press for the amendment because so many senators are convinced that the Defense of Marriage Act -- which says states that outlaw same-sex unions do not have to recognize such marriages conducted outside their borders -- is sufficient. "Senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen. I'd take their admonition seriously. . . . Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate."
Ever get the feeling you've been cheated, fundies? I've argued before that Bush's religiosity was a sham; this should be all the proof anyone needs. But something tells me the "values voters" will accept this new confabulation without any discomfort, and will start echoing it confidently, as though they'd never believed anything else.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Mistakes Were Made

In the course of its disingenuous, paint-by-numbers breastbeating over the human frailties of journalists, the Wilmington News Journal studiously conflates Dan Rather's "mistake" on the Bush memos with Armstrong Williams' acceptance of federal bribe money:

Armstrong Williams' mistake was even more insidious. The Department of Education paid the television pundit and syndicated columnist, $249,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind program himself and to others.[Huh?] Mr. Armstrong first said he didn't realize he had done anything wrong because he had no formal journalism training.
What this editorialist fails to notice is that what Williams did or thought or said is utterly immaterial. What's important is that the Bush administration uses taxpayer money to bribe people; that fact would remain true even if Williams had turned the money down.

The Williams story isn't about a crisis in journalism, but in governance. The crisis in journalism is a subsidiary one, and one sees it primarily in the willingness of the media to throw themselves on any grenade that might threaten BushCo, just as this editorialist does by trotting out the usual self-flagellating journalistic cliches: "We have high ideals, but we're only human. In future, we really must try to be less partisan. Opinion and news must be separate, and clearly defined."

It's all improvisatory, incoherent, and totally beside the point. The only thing the Williams story means is that the federal government uses taxpayer money to bribe people. Anything Williams said about why he took the money, or how he feels about it in retrospect, merely confirms that our money was offered to him illegally.

UPDATE: I got up early to write this post, but not early enough to outfox the preternaturally shrewd Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, who was kind enough to point out that the editorial couldn't even get Williams' name right; you'll note that the article refers to "Mr. Armstrong." Pretty goddamn lame, eh?

Who's Counting?

Canadian scientists have invented a plastic composite that transforms infrared rays into electricity; National Geographic has a not entirely accurate take on it, with which I will now ceremoniously quibble:

The researchers combined specially designed nano particles called quantum dots with a polymer to make the plastic that can detect energy in the infrared.

With further advances, the new plastic "could allow up to 30 percent of the sun's radiant energy to be harnessed, compared to 6 percent in today's best plastic solar cells," said Peter Peumans, a Stanford University electrical engineering professor, who studied the work.
That "6 percent" is somewhat misleading, in that today's best solar cells already convert over 30 percent of radiant energy to electricity. Those aren't plastic cells, though (they're triple-junction gallium-indium-phosphide on gallium arsenide on germanium concentrator cells, if you really must know). If memory serves, the average commercial solar cell currently converts 12 to 15 percent.
At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power is significantly more expensive than conventional electrical power for residences. Average U.S. residential power prices are less than ten cents per kilowatt-hour, according to experts.
And therein lies the problem with how we calculate costs in this society. Obviously, the price at which a commodity is offered is different from its cost of production. In some cases, price is lower than cost (subsidies are the obvious example). The prices for coal, natural gas, and nuclear power are artificially low, and don't take into account the external costs of these technologies, which include pollution, accidents, the opportunity costs of land use, health problems among workers, and perhaps even the occasional war. The figure of ten cents per kilowatt-hour is simply wishful thinking; to think otherwise is to be guilty of reification.

Out With the Old

You can add the British Museum to the list of socialist weasels who hate freedom:

U.S. led troops using the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon as a base have caused widespread damage and contamination, according to a report by the British Museum.

The report, quoted by the Guardian newspaper on Saturday, said military vehicles had crushed a 2,600-year-old brick pavement and that there were archaeological fragments scattered across the site, including broken bricks stamped by King Nebuchadnezzar.

The dragons at the Ishtar Gate were marred by cracks and gaps where someone tried to remove their decorative bricks, the paper said....John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Near East department, who was invited by the Iraqis to study the site, also found that large quantities of sand mixed with archaeological fragments have been taken from the site to fill military sandbags and metal mesh baskets, the newspaper said.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging


After the steamy intimacy of last week's pics, I thought I'd better calm your raging hormones with the austere grandeur of Melibe leonina, the hooded nudibranch.

Fun With Moral Relativism

The hell with it. I'm going to trim this goddamn thing way down.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

When Bush calls a given program "essential," it's a pretty good indication that he intends to cripple it financially, or eliminate it altogether. Consider the sad fate of two important climate monitoring networks:

Congress has eliminated funding for a fledgling network of 110 observation stations intended to provide a definitive, long-term climate record for the United States.

The surprise assault on the Climate Reference Network (CRN) was buried in the 3000-page omnibus spending package for 2005 signed last month by President George W. Bush (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1662). Legislators also took a bite out of a long-established atmospheric monitoring network that includes the historic time sequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels measured at Hawaii's Mauna Loa. Both networks are key pillars in a much-touted international "system of systems" for earth observation that the Bush Administration has called essential for resolving uncertainties in the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (Science, 20 August 2004, p. 1096)
If you say that a program is "essential for resolving uncertainties," and then refuse to fund it, the logical conclusion is that you prefer uncertainty to facts. This typifies BushCo's "don't ask, don't tell" approach to science: it doesn't ask important questions, and doesn't wish to be told important things. Facts are meaningful only to the extent that they provide justification for doing what you've already decided to do.

Another example: the GOP's beloved missile defense is one of the great technological failures of our time. It simply doesn't work in any meaningful way. Its greatest "successes" have been due to a testing protocol that's analogous to playing "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" with one's eyes open, and bears no resemblance to likely real-world events. Now, it's failed yet again. But that's no reason to fret, according to the general in charge of the project:
Obering expressed confidence that the system "would work" if pressed into service against relatively simple enemy targets, meaning warheads without complex decoys or other measures for deceiving U.S. interceptors.
Which means, in other words, that it wouldn't do what it needs to even if it weren't a malfunctioning mess. Still, we'll fund the missile defense program, which doesn't work, and de-fund climate monitoring, which does.