Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Taking Back Some Control

In Arizona, Senator Jake Flake is proposing a bill that would prevent legislators from passing laws relating to agriculture:

Flake, a Republican, is a cattle rancher in the White Mountain community of Snowflake. His district includes the only industrial pig farm likely to be affected by his proposal.

Flake believes farming and ranching are highly complex activities — so much so that, he says, the industry should essentially be exempted from regulation by the Legislature.
Got that? If lawmakers can't understand the science behind a "complex" industry, they shouldn't be allowed to regulate it. While this might set an interesting precedent for protecting, say, stem-cell research, its dangers outweigh any conceivable benefit.
Constitutional expert Paul Bender, a law professor at Arizona State University, described Flake's bill as "nutty"....[H]e rightly points out that this proposal has broad and dangerous ramifications. As he said in an Associated Press story, "Lots of laws that you and I would not think of as agriculture laws limit and restrict the production of agricultural products." He cited as examples minimum wage laws and some environmental and water-quality regulations.
Flake's aim is to preempt a "Humane Farms Initiative" that's likely to be on the November ballot. That initiative would ban the use of gestation crates, among other gruesome practices. A threat this dire, needless to say, can only be addressed by formally placing factory farms beyond the law's reach.

This sort of anti-democratic, unconstitutional overkill is an increasingly common GOP response to environmental activism. The Utah House recently passed a truly hideous bill that would require nonprofit groups to post a bond before suing entities engaged in environmentally destructive projects:
Sponsoring Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, said the latest version of his HB100 "allows the state to take back some control" over environmental lawsuits that have stalled projects like the Legacy Highway. He assured fellow lawmakers the measure does not, as critics say, violate the state and federal constitutions. The bill, if enacted, would require nonprofit groups that want the courts to temporarily halt a new project during appeals to post a bond that covers any costs of delay, including wages, taxes and higher construction expenses or lose their state-granted right to do business in Utah.

"No one," said Tilton, "will be barred access to the courts."
No one, that is, who can afford to pay a multimillion-dollar bond that covers "damages suffered in Utah by any person because of the environmental litigation, including: (i) employees' lost wages, salaries, and benefits; (ii) lost net revenue; and (iii) consequential damages, including increased construction costs, because of the litigation."

It would be nice if we could demand a similar sacrifice from lawmakers who back legislation that's intended to harass or disenfranchise citizens. Ideally, each lawmaker who votes for a bill like Flake's or Tilton's would forfeit his or her seat if the bill is later struck down by the courts.

It seems fair to me.

Seance On a Wet Afternoon

Suzanne Fields, whose soul vibrates harmoniously in aetheric communion with the Absolute, uses her eerie powers to detect unrest among Harvard's storied dead:

On a quiet night some students swear you can hear voices from the past in Harvard Yard, echoes of the voices of John Hancock, John Adams, William James, Henry Adams, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. If ghosts could cry, you might hear the manly sobs of the ghosts of grown men.
I have no idea why Ms. Fields thought it necessary to reassure us that these sad ghosts are neither underage nor effeminate, but speaking as someone who's starved for innocent amusement of the sort Amanda McKittrick Ros used to dish out, I'm very glad she did.

What, of all the miseries in this world of woe, has caused these venerable haints to soak their winding sheets with spectral tears? The resignation of Larry Summers, natch:
Those men of Harvard's championship seasons wouldn't have recognized the place last week when Larry Summers threw in the towel, resigning as the president of the university. They could not understand how he lost a fight with the faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Well, Summers is the man who said that the Third World was underpolluted, a sentiment I suspect would not have found favor with Thoreau. And since Thoreau's distaste for Harvard is well known (to say nothing of his distaste for the sort of jingoistic boilerplate with which Summers' scolded its faculty), it's hard to believe that his ghost would shed tears - womanish or otherwise - over Summers' plight.

As for Emerson, he once said that "every hero becomes a bore at last." He also said that "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory." Put those quotes together, and one arrives at the startling conclusion that to conservatives, no hero ever becomes a bore. Which, I suppose, is one reason why their natural mode is bathos:
He was Big Man on Campus for a time, but not big enough to vanquish the Lilliputians guarding their miserable little nests of selfish indifference. He wanted a university of open inquiry with a diversity of ideas, a search for true learning. He wanted to bring ROTC back to the campus, to honor the military. He would reform the undergraduate curriculum stagnating in a swamp of sour indifference to true learning. This is the last thing Lilliputians tolerate.
Selfish indifference and sour indifference...all in a day's work for Lilliputians!

All in all, Ms. Fields is a charming combination of Konstantin Raudive and Andrei Zhdanov, and I applaud her attempt to enforce partiinost by means of necromancy.

And that's not the only trick up her sleeve, by any means. She may not know the first goddamn thing about Thoreau (and even less about the genes she claims cause female students to "gravitate to the soft stuff in the humanities"), but she does know that a proper elegy must end on a consoling note:
He's free now to rejoin the real world, where respect for learning and accomplishment is a given. The ghosts of Harvard Yard can only wish him godspeed.
It'd be interesting to know which "real world" Ms. Fields inhabits, when she's not hobnobbing with the dead-butch wraiths of Thoreau and Emerson. In the course of her article, she sneers at "the burnt-out grove of academe," where the "shuttered minds in the faculty lounges" are in thrall to "a politically correct minority of simpletons." In at least one other article, she reveals herself as one of those know-nothings who think they can discredit academics by pointing out that, after all, they're academics. (Some of them, she notes, even use impenetrable jargon like "transgressive discourses" and "power relations" to describe...uh...transgressive discourse and power relations.)

I submit that rhetoric like this has done very little to advance the idea that learning per se is worthy of respect. In fact, when it comes to conservative respect for learning, the only "given" I'm aware of is that it's rarely bestowed on anyone whose work isn't praised in The Mankind Quarterly.

On that score, Ms. Fields is typical. She praises Summers' infamous remarks on women in science without, apparently, being aware of any reasonable, science-based arguments against him. To hear her tell it, Summers was laid low by militant feminism, rather than by the fact that he was - not to put too fine a point on it - completely full of shit.

In yet another woeful attempt to seem literate, she compares Summers to Don Quixote - a man in the grip of superstitious delusions, who imagined great dangers where there were none - and moments later, to Gulliver beset by the Lilliputians. Unfortunately for her, Swift created the Lilliputians to satirize a brand of religious militarism that has its true modern-day echo in Bushism. For instance, Lilliputians forbid atheists to hold government office, and are quick to charge Gulliver, irrationally, with "treason." Even more interesting are the Lilliputian customs relating to the education of women:
[A] smaller Compass of Learning was enjoined them: for their maxim is, that among People of Quality a Wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable Companion, because she cannot always be young....In the Nurseries of Females of the meaner sort, the Children are instructed in all kinds of Works proper for their Sex....
Am I nitpicking? I don't think so. Like many other conservative poseurs, Ms. Fields proposes to defend a culture whose major works she either hasn't read, doesn't remember, or doesn't understand. That being the case, it seems fair to point out that the term "Lilliputian" is far more applicable to conservative than to postmodern culture. But perhaps Ms. Fields has communed with Swift's ghost, too, and knows something I don't.

Apropos of which, my own ramblings on the astral plane have informed me that at least one of Harvard's ghosts - that of Stephen Jay Gould - is actually relieved to see Summers go. You'll just have to trust me on this; I have kind of a sixth sense about these things.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Exploring Our Options

(This post originally appeared on January 10, 2005.)

Current discussions of the "Salvador option" seem to me like another example of the Right's ongoing demand for public approval of every crime and injustice it's ever perpetrated. From pseudoscientific apologies for racism by the likes of D'Souza and Thernstrom, to Ann Coulter's typically addled defense of Joe McCarthy, to all the commentators who recently pretended that Vietnam War protestors were some tiny lunatic fringe, to the repackaging of Oliver North as a legitimate policy analyst, the Right has for years been demanding new debates - on its own terms - on all its biggest failures. Every humiliation and insult the Right ever brought upon itself must apparently be recast as triumph in the public mind, while every act of flint-hearted evil is to be viewed as the respectable exercise of an "option."

The point of the "Salvador option" is that, legally speaking, it was never an option. On the contrary, it was an extremely serious crime. That's why it was kept secret from Congress, and from the public. That's also why, when I protested these actions at the time, I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist or a liar. Now, however, we're learning that the illegal and immoral things that were done in El Salvador comprise an "option": one mere thing amongst other things, all of which can and should be discussed dispassionately by civilized people.

This is one of the Right's favorite strategies: They select arguments that traditionally carry a risk of social sanction, and absolutely revel in discussing them publicly. The goal, I believe, is to overthrow social norms, and make it emotionally and socially easier for people to say things like:

"I'm not a racist, but..."

"I don't support torture, but..."

"I believe in freedom of speech, but..."

"Sure, slavery was bad, but..."

The Right is eager to promote conversations like these, because it understands that every time a person can be led to compromise basic moral principles - every time a person defends the indefensible, or justifies the unjustifiable - that person becomes weaker and more malleable. It's a funny thing, but once I've gotten you to discuss the possible merits of doing something evil, I'm more than halfway to convincing you that it's worth doing.

The proper response to discussions about the "Salvador option" isn't a debate on effectiveness or morality or constitutionality or possible blowback; the proper response is horror and outrage. If a man offers to buy your six-year-old daughter for the international sex trade, you're not going to haggle over the price; you're going to see to it that this predatory monster is stopped dead in his tracks. That's precisely the emotional response that's appropriate when right-wing ghouls take to the airwaves to defend torture and terrorism and racism; the situation calls not for debate - not even heated debate - but for deep-seated spiritual revulsion, and immediate and effective preventative action.

If we refuse to rise to that occasion as a nation - if we can't say "enough is enough," and cast these intolerably arrogant moral lepers back into the outer darkness where they belong - it seems to me that we're just as despicable and dangerous as they are.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Plocamopherus tilesii. Brandishing a flaming torch, he seizes the absent, holds those who are present captive; he attracts those who turn their backs; he embraces everybody.

Friday Hope Blogging

At Gristmill, David Roberts reports on a new study showing that climate-change deniers represent about seven percent of the American population. They’re even lonelier in the UK, Sweden, and Japan, where they comprise a maximum of three percent of the population. In short, they have about as big a following as the Flat Earth Society. The reality-based community has pretty much won the day, and it’s time for us to start ignoring these know-nothing lunatics, and start concentrating on practical steps that people can take to improve things…not because these steps will necessarily save the world, but because encouraging personal responsibility and local involvement is the right thing to do no matter what happens.

In a nice symbolic gesture, 100 percent of the energy for the Statue of Liberty and the immigration museum at Ellis Island will soon come from wind power. Meanwhile, Iowa’s Woodbury County is turning its back on industrial agriculture:

The county intends its organic-conversion tax break to help farms break away from the ruinous commodity system, in which prices have been falling steadily for 50 years. By selling real food -- as opposed to industrial inputs -- to a local market, farmers can charges prices that reflect the value of their goods, not machinations on the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.
In Utah, duck hunters are calling for stricter mercury regulations in Nevada. And Willits, California is building a green hospital:
Some of the project goals identified for the new hospital and supported by the Howard Foundation are: water-efficient landscape design, light pollution reduction, water use reduction in building systems, CFC reduction in HVAC & R equipment, optimization of energy performance, storage and collection of recyclables, low-emitting paints and adhesives, indoor chemical pollutant source control, elimination of mercury, lead and cadmium, continuous thermal monitoring system, and full commissioning of the project into post occupancy.
In somewhat related news, the British Medical Journal reports on the feasibility of using behavioral medicine techniques to reduce the need for prescription drugs.

Also, a bacterium may be able to convert Styrofoam to a biodegradable plastic:
The microbes, a special strain of the soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida, converted polystyrene foam — commonly known as Styrofoam™ — into a biodegradable plastic, according to Kevin O’Connor, Ph.D., of University College Dublin, the study’s corresponding author. The study is among the first to investigate the possibility of converting a petroleum-based plastic waste into a reusable biodegradable form.
Last, I urge you to go and visit Collected Visions, a wonderful searchable archive compiling thousands of snapshots from family albums.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Self-Directed Life

After engaging in a process of sincere self-reflection, Dinesh D'Souza has come to the conclusion that America is...well, pretty goddamn great, all things considered.

Rich people live well everywhere, but what distinguishes America is that it provides a remarkably high standard of living for the “common man.” A country is not judged by how it treats its most affluent citizens but by how it treats the average citizen.
Note that casual, but utterly calculated and utterly subversive use of "average." Compare it to this statement from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops:
According to Catholic Social Teaching, the measure of a good society is based on how it treats the poor and most vulnerable.
This, of course, is an echo of the gospel of Matthew:
Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.
There have been many, many different phrasings of this sentiment, attributed to everyone from Gandhi to Churchill to Confucius. But D'Souza, bless his heart, has managed to improve on them all: A tax cut denied the average citizen is a tax cut denied Jesus.

It's not just foundational concepts of human morality that D'Souza's eager to bastardize and cheapen. Here's his thoughtful take on that delightful romp known as the civil rights movement:
I am struck by the ease with which Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement won its victories, and by the magnitude of white goodwill in this country.
If having bombs lobbed at one's wife and child, and then being assassinated, is D'Souza's idea of "ease," it's no wonder he sees the condition of America's poor as utopian.

As for the moral ambiguity of American foreign policy, D'Souza's rhetorical switchblade makes very short work of that Gordian knot:
To...critics, America talks about democracy and human rights while supporting ruthless dictatorships around the world. In the 1980s, for example, the U.S. supported Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Today, America is allied with unelected regimes in the Muslim world such as Pervez Musharaff in Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the critics charge that America’s actions abroad, such as in the Gulf War and Iraq, were not motivated by noble humanitarian ideals but by the crass desire to guarantee American access to oil.

These charges contain an element of truth....It is indeed true that American foreign policy seeks to protect America’s self-interest, but what is wrong with this? All it means is that the American people have empowered their government to act on their behalf against their adversaries.
I hadn't been aware until now that the Chileans whom Pinochet murdered were my "adversaries," nor that the women stoned to death in Saudi Arabia had been threatening, like Blake's invisible worm, my bed of crimson joy.

Though he's demonstrated a remarkable degree of mad-dog jingoism and moral blindness thusfar, D'Souza can't quite bring himself to dismiss the Islamofascist accusation that American culture is morally decadent. If ridding ourselves of our sexually irregular untermenschen were enough to end our quarrel with Islamic theocracy, he says, he'd be all for it. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple:
Islamic radicals are not just objecting to the excesses of American culture. They are objecting to the core principle of America: the idea of the self-directed life.
A revealing choice of terminology. It's this "self-directed life," of course, that empowers us to "protect America's self-interest" through policy decisions that D'Souza himself claims have been characterized by "blunders and mistakes"...the kind that nations make when they have "little aptitude for the nuances of international politics" and an "astonishing ignorance of the rest of the world."

Granted, these little foibles often involve blowing innocent people's children into bloody, blackened fragments...but honestly, who but an unregenerate sourpuss would wage jihad on so flimsy a pretext?

This interminable, masturbatory piece reveals D'Souza as a pornographer who wallows in what Steven Marcus called "unremitting repetition and minute mechanical variation." He titillates his readers with the details of an infantile dreamworld where they can endlessly enjoy the personal comforts of the American system, without ever being called to personal account for the violence it inflicts on others. D'Souza's "self-directed life" is what normal, morally functioning people call solipsism.

Read 'Em and Weep

Effect Measure on bird flu in Gaza:

The Israelis may rue the day they purposely destroyed the Palestinian civil infrastructure, including its health services (and continue to do so by withholding money they got by taxing Palestinians). And they will surely rue the day they bankrupted themselves and crippled their own infrastructure along with it by waging perpetual war, just as the US and its perpetual war has seriously weakened its own civil society....The virus is indifferent to this stupidity. From its point of view a Muslim or Christian Palestinian looks exactly the same as a Jewish Israeli. Same human cells. Same respiratory tract. Same immune systems. Same genetic machinery it can commandeer to make more copies of itself. It doesn't ask what superstition addles the brain of its new host. Superstition can't hurt this virus.

Let me ask: who's smartest, a Palestinian, an Israeli or this little virus?
Peak Energy on biofuels:
Malayasia might as well be a big wad of toilet paper for Westerners. Use once, call it "green" and throw away a functioning forest ecosystem for 100,000 years.

Delusion is not acceptable. Bio-Fuels are not acceptable. They will persist only as long as abundant energy allows.
Strategic Security Project Blog on new Russian warheads:
Will any nations observe the NPT in five to ten years from now? And how many non-nuclear states will produce their own weapons in that time period? Their efforts to become part of the nuclear club appear to be speeding up. The Soviet Union’s breakup - without a doubt the best thing that could have happened to that nation’s people – continues to have critical unintended consequences on a global scale.
Mike the Mad Biologist on restaurant toilet-water versus restaurant ice:
Jasmine Roberts, 7th-grade student:
"My hypothesis was that the fast food restaurants’ ice would contain more bacteria that the fast food restaurants’ toilet water."
We Make Money Not Art on chickens with teeth:
The team have...managed to induce teeth growth in normal chickens – activating genes that have lain dormant for 80 million years.
Last, Zone Interdite is compiling data on restricted areas all over the world. They're also working on 3D site reconstructions, so you can take a virtual walkthrough. The image above is a screenshot from their tour of Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Risk Management

(This post originally appeared on August 14, 2005.)

I hold this truth to be self-evident: Unreleased footage from Iraq's prisons depicts the US-sanctioned rape of children in front of their parents.

With that rather astonishing fact in mind, let's have a brief look at this NYT article:

Officials See Risk in the Release of Images of Iraq Prisoner Abuse

Pentagon officials argued that releasing the images would incite public opinion in the Muslim world and put the lives of American soldiers at risk.
Let's be clear about this. If our government has ordered, condoned, or attempted to cover up a policy of raping children in front of their parents, all of our lives deserve to be at risk. These are acts of incalculable evil, and we're all culpable for them. If I've been raping and murdering children and burying their carcasses in my backyard, and the police become interested in me, I can't seek an injunction against a backhoe operator on the grounds that his activities will inconvenience me, or upset my neighbors. I gave up all consideration for myself and my neighbors when I committed those crimes.

Notwithstanding, General Richard Myers warns us that
It is "probable that al-Qaeda and other groups will seize upon these images and videos as grist for their propaganda mill...."
It seems obvious to me that an administration whose actions so reliably aid al-Qaeda is incompetent at fighting al-Qaeda, but that's a mere detail.

A sane country holds its leaders accountable for crimes of this magnitude, because it realizes that the social and moral disequilibrium caused by failing to do so threatens every member of that society. Our morbid national obsession with morality - a showy, commercialized form of morality that lacks any consistency or validity, let alone compassion - is a perverted, superstitious recognition of this disequilibrium, and is about as sophisticated as knocking on wood to ward off evil. Apparently, if we can prevent infants from being raised by lesbians, we've done our part; we can shrug off the sexual torture of Iraqi children (and the very real possibility that these videotapes were created, at least in part, to serve as pornography for members of our government).

The argument that revealing the truth about these crimes would put the lives of American soldiers at risk is absurd. First, our soldiers' lives are already at risk, by virtue of being under the dominion of a corrupt administration. Second, there's a certain irony in the fact that BushCo is trying to protect itself by means of the basic argument against violating the Geneva Conventions, which is that committing war crimes puts one's own soldiers and civilians at risk. Needless to say, this is an argument that Bush and his creatures have been sneering at for years. Having rejected it summarily when it would've put a crimp in their plans, they have no right to invoke it in their own defense now.

My feeling is that if we're unwilling to identify and punish the officials behind these acts, we forfeit any right to complain about retribution, no matter what it is or whence it comes. Nature abhors a moral vacuum.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sentiment and Brutality

(Because I'm unusually busy this week, I'll be padding things out with some random re-posted pieces. This one's from November of 2005.)

Echidne - blessed be her holy name - has dissected the New York Times' ongoing series of articles about the alleged postfeminist woes of professional women.

Before engaging specifically with the latest of these remarkably unpleasant articles, I have to say that I find it interesting that mainstream media's cultural critics always seem to know, as Jean Cocteau put it, "exactly how far to go too far." To question the claims and demands of "feminism" - or some ideologically convenient version of it invented for the occasion - is thought-provoking and subversive. To challenge the basic economic and sociological assumptions that put families - and women, in particular - in an agonizing, no-win position would be intolerably shrill (and, most likely, unfashionably Marxist).

As ever, our culture treats women and children with a bizarre mixture of sentimentality and brutality. In Victorian Britain, one of the worst evils of raising female children within the factory system was said to be its effect on the girls' future competence as "prudent and industrious" wives for (who else?) factory workers. An 1833 report to the Factories Commission sounds a typical warning:

Brought up in the factory until they are married...they are almost entirely ignorant of household duties.
Another investigator, writing in 1843, makes the same point with considerably more pathos:
It very frequently happens that when the working-man returns home to his dinner he finds it unprepared: his wife has been at her shop, and she leaves the cooking of her husband's dinner to a neighbour who has forgotten it, and the poor man is obliged hastily to swallow his half-cooked meal, and to return to his labour with his stomach loaded with indigestible materials.
Note that these women, as often as not, kept on working full-time after marriage. Like the women profiled in the New York Times, they found that family obligations clashed with their "careers," largely because their role as primary caregivers remained in full force regardless of their other responsibilities.

There was no easy solution to the domestic inadequacy of factory-workers' wives, given that child labor was at that time seen as a logical and necessary outgrowth of capitalism. In Factories and the Factory System (1844), W. Taylor Cooke makes this point in terms that we might find shocking today, despite the fact that they remain logically unexceptionable within the context of our own dominant economic theories:
We mean to assert that infant labour....is in fact a national blessing, and absolutely necessary for the support of the manifold fiscal burthens which have been placed upon industry in this country.
In terms of the most garish sentimentality, Taylor goes on to describe how poor unemployed children die in the gutter, in order to justify the brutality of the factory system, which keeps God's little angels from starvation by maiming them and working them to death.

The NYT pieces - especially the latest one, by Jane Gross - employ somewhat similar emotional tactics. Ms. Gross contrasts the pathos of aging, stricken parents who need tender care with the decadent selfishness of the career woman, while downplaying or excusing the brutality of an official culture that elevates amoral economic imperatives over family values.

The protagonist of this sentimental morality play, Mary Ellen Geist, has learned to survive "without urban amenities like white balsamic vinegar" in order to look after her ailing parents. Financial success, which is usually presented by our media as the just and inevitable reward for hard work and shrewd management of assets, is suddenly contemptible and shabby; as a career woman, we learn, Ms. Geist was little more than a coddled sybarite who lolled around guzzling white balsamic vinegar (along with who knows what other outlandish culinary desiderata gleaned from the pages of the New York Times). Only when biological destiny trumps the false consciousness of postfeminist ambition does she become a real person, instead of a caricature.

In one of the only sections of her article that comes across as morally neutral, Ms. Gross insouciantly describes what's actually going on:
Women, now as always, bear a disproportionate burden for elder care and often leave jobs, either temporarily or permanently, when the double duty becomes overwhelming, according to recent studies of family care-giving, women in the workplace and retirement patterns....Despite a growing number of men helping aging relatives, women account for 71 percent of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to the task, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP in a 2004 study. Among those with the greatest burden of care, regardless of sex, 88 percent either take leaves of absence, quit or retire.

"It is a safe assumption," based on an array of research, "that women are more likely to put their careers on hold or end them because of care-giving responsibilities," said Carol Levine, director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund and an adviser to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
A feminist would call this a serious problem, and an injustice. Ms. Gross calls it the "Daughter Track," and presents it as a path to salvation for spoiled, self-centered urban hussies like Ms. Geist.

Isn't it altogether wonderful that our horrific healthcare system and deranged economic priorities allow career-obsessed whores to discover and display their hearts of gold, by foregoing "weekend wine tastings" in favor of elder care? As Echidne suggests, all this amounts to a cautionary bildungsroman for uppity women (and never mind that Ms. Geist's troubles have been substantially mitigated by the money she amassed during her "career woman" phase). As portrayed by Ms. Gross, Ms. Geist is not much more convincing than such stock figures of sentimental literature as the Drunkard Who Died Redeeemed on His Mother's Grave, and I'm afraid her story may fulfill a similarly brutal and dangerous social function.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Bright Side

We may have passed peak fish. And the Arctic Ocean may be producing less food for marine mammals. And the oceans may, in general, be getting more acidic.

But why accentuate the negative? There's gold in them thar abyssal zones:

We're on the brink of the era of deep ocean mining, says a global pioneer in the study of sea floor mineral deposits. Dr. Steven Scott, a geologist at the University of Toronto, in Toronto, Canada says that advances in marine geology and deep ocean technology have combined to make it realistic to go more than two kilometres underwater for gold and other mineral treasures.

It's a transformation that he says has evoked a knee-jerk reaction over the possible environmental impacts of this mining, which he believes could be less destructive than terrestrial mining.
"Knee-jerk," indeed. Granted, almost every man-made wasteland on earth has some eminent academic as its genius loci...but why worry about something that might go wrong, when there are valuable mineral resources at stake?

Besides, even if the worst happens, we can always aestheticize it, and be undiscerning consumers of death, as we were of life.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Discordoris boholensis, "an animal unzoological, without a fate, without a fact, its private history intact against the travesty of an anatomy."

Given the skywide pyrotechnical splendor of Friday Nudibranch Blogging, you might not have noticed that PZ Myers is trying doggedly to light a sparkler.

Rivalrous? Moi? Hardly. Go, by all means, and have a look at his Friday Cephalopod Blogging. Whether you find yourself marveling at Argonauta nodosa, or at Mr. Myers' giddy presumption in trying to divert the public's attention to his forlorn little backwater of the phylum Mollusca, I can assure you it'll be worth your time.

Friday Hope Blogging

The French government has agreed to take back an asbestos-laden ship headed for one of India's shipbreaking yards:

In what is being billed as a stunning victory for environmentalists, French President Jacques Chirac capitulated yesterday and ordered a contaminated warship destined for demolition in India to return home. His embarrassing reversal came immediately after France's Council of State ruled that the transfer to an Indian ship-breaking yard of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Clemenceau be suspended.
This is a good point at which to recall Lawrence Summers' views on "under-pollution":
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
Summers, of course, fails to grasp the difference between what's economical at a given moment, and what's in one's best interests in the long term. The abortive voyage of the Clemenceau humilated the French government, and that humiliation clearly outweighed the potential savings of offshoring asbestos pollution; in fact, it even outweighed the substantial cost of recalling the ship. More important, it cast a spotlight on the offshoring of toxic waste, and set a valuable precedent for first-world accountability; in the wake of Chirac's decision, Bangladesh has forbidden another asbestos-lined ship from being broken at Chittagong.

The problem isn't that low-wage countries are under-polluted; the problem is that high-tech countries have been underperforming when it comes to sensible redesign of products and processes. A new study on the long-term benefits of the EU's REACH program may help to change this:
The draft REACH legislation on chemicals could save society billion of euros in water treatment and other environmental costs such as sewage treatment, according to new research for the European Commission.
Meanwhile, over in Northern Ireland, researchers at Queen's University's Ionic Liquids Research Centre (QUILL) have apparently developed fume-free, low-toxicity industrial solvents. But as always, I'm more excited by low-tech ideas like Design for Africa:
Design for Africa is an ambitious project to bring design as a problem-solving tool to local communities in Africa. Brainchild of industrial designers Frank Hofmann and Staffan Weigel, the project's ambition is to assist the people of Kibera by helping them look at new ways of creating useful items from garbage and other rejected materials.
In pursuit of this goal, Hoffmann and Weigel will be spending a year driving across Africa; you can follow their progress (and support their work) here. (They have a nice photo gallery, too!)

Speaking of low-tech solutions, an organic farm in Virginia shows that allowing cows to forage confers a benefit on downstream neighbors, and on the environment generally:
Charles Stallings, a Virginia Tech dairy scientist, outlined the economic and environmental advantages of forage grazing to local farmers at a seminar Thursday. A dairy cow's intake of phosphorus, he said, relates directly to its potential to pollute surface water...."If you're trying to reduce phosphorus, forage is a good way. It's a healthier situation for the cow, as opposed to a high-grain diet."
On the medical front, there's more news on the possibility of high-speed production of an effective pandemic flu vaccine. Allegedly, it'll be possible to produce six million doses per week, after a one-month ramp-up. I don't have the expertise to assess this claim, but my fingers are crossed.

For recreation, I suggest Sounds From Space, which compiles recordings of satellites from a variety of countries. (Retro-futurists may prefer this collection of sounds from vintage craft like Oscar 1 and Sputnik.) Even more enjoyable - possibly - is Radio Meteor Listening, which allows you to listen in real time to meteor showers. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the sounds of the aurorae, which provide a nice soundtrack for the Hourly STD DMSP/POLAR Auroral Activity Report.

Adjacent Bodies

An article ominously titled Case pits your property rights vs. environment describes the plight of developer John Rapanos, who illegally filled in acres of Michigan wetlands.

Here's how Rapanos operates:

Mr. Rapanos hired a consultant, Dr. Goff, to prepare a report detailing the wetlands on the Salzburg site. Dr. Goff concluded that there were between 48 and 58 acres of wetlands on the site, presenting his findings in the form of a report and a map. Upset by the report, Mr. Rapanos ordered Dr. Goff to destroy both the report and map, as well as all references to Mr. Rapanos in Dr. Goff’s files. However, Dr. Goff was unwilling to do so. Mr. Rapanos stated he would “destroy” Dr. Goff if he did not comply, claiming that he would do away with the report and bulldoze the site himself, regardless of Dr. Goff’s findings.
And that's precisely what he did, ignoring a succession of cease and desist orders in the process. Not surprisingly, Rapanos' sociopathic thuggery turned heads at the Pacific Legal Foundation:
"He's an acerbic sort of guy who just won't bow," said his lawyer, Reed Hopper, whose Sacramento, Calif.-based property rights organization -- the Pacific Legal Foundation -- has taken Rapanos' case. "He's the kind of guy the law was designed to protect."
Which, I guess, explains why Mr. Rapanos was convicted, and why that conviction was upheld on appeal.

At issue is whether these wetlands are adjacent to "navigable waters," as defined by the Clean Water Act. Rapanos, needless to say, insists they aren't; amicus briefs have been filed on his behalf by such dispassionate scientific institutions as the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. Along with other harebrained sophistries, Rapanos' lawyers have proposed that applying the CWA to Rapanos' wetlands would be like applying it to a puddle in which a child is making mud pies; that's pretty goddamn unhinged even by loony-libertarian standards.

The courts have thusfar generally accepted the Army Corps of Engineers' stance that "wetlands adjacent to lakes, rivers, streams, and other bodies of water may function as integral parts of the aquatic environment even when the moisture creating the wetlands does not find its source in the adjacent bodies of water." In the Rapanos case, this view is backed up by briefs filed by 34 states, 4 former U.S. EPA officials, and an array of prominent biologists and botanists. It's also backed up by common sense. It's obvious that bodies of water need not directly abut one another to affect one another, and that these hydrological connections can have serious implications for public and environmental health.

It'll be interesting to see how Roberts and Alito rule.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Secular Modes of Redemption

Like many people, I've toyed with the notion that American fundamentalism is a cargo cult, living for the day when some Republican prophet - syncretically identified with a post-Darwinian Christ whose central teaching is "Blessed are the fit, for they shall survive" - will bestow untold wealth and power on his followers.

Apropos of which, a new Smithsonian article discusses the oft-studied cargo cult that worships a mythical American called "John Frum" (February 15 is the cult's high holy day). Mr. Frum's adherents believe that he's chosen a local volcano as his pied-à-terre, and that he intends - in his own sweet time, natch - to restore traditional values:

“John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were deliberately destroying our culture,” Chief Isaac says....
In other words, Frum is the mystical ace up the sleeve of people who, by any objective standard, are losing their local culture war. And what's particularly interesting is that he's going to reward his followers by reconciling their traditional values with the very consumer culture that threatens traditionalism.
“John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
That's not too far removed from our own free-market fundamentalism, which has also tried to co-opt the socioeconomic forces that threaten its "moral values." In both cases, the desire to return to a traditionalist Golden Age conflicts with the desire to enjoy the material trappings of the dominant culture; the conflict is ostensibly resolved when money and commodities become what Marc Fonda calls "secular modes of redemption." Gary North is a typical exponent of this view:
When Christianity adheres to the specifics of the Bible, it produces free market capitalism.
An earlier article on the Frum cult describes its embrace of conspicuous consumption as modeled by the American military:
Quite likely, the ni-Vanuatu aimed to evoke this godlike strength by casting their things away. So outside the perimeters of recognizable human activity, the military's expenditure was deemed the behavior of divinities: large-scale destruction of usable goods and a cavalier attitude toward disposability were inscribed in cargo cult religious practice.
Meanwhile, many of our own fundamentalists preach an odd gospel in which earth's wealth is inexhaustible, and can therefore be squandered, but not given away. Thanks to God's bounty, we can't run out of oil or wood or water. Thanks to God's laws, the "undeserving" have no claim to this cornucopian wealth.

Which, I suppose, just goes to show you that primitivism is in the eye of the beholder. Western observers who flock to Vanuatu for John Frum Day - which has become a tourist attraction, and thus, in a certain sense, a fulfillment of prophecy - often report variants of this conversation:
“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”

A Person of Compassion

The Rev. Robert Upshaw, of Columbus, Georgia, has been convicted of running an unsanitary and dangerous home for the mentally ill.

"We discovered several mentally challenged young adults there living in squalor and filthy conditions in very substandard buildings," Wiggins said. "The tenants had insufficient heat, insufficient electrical service, no water, no cooking or eating facilities."
Upshaw offered a strong defense:
"I am a minister," Upshaw told the judge. "I am a person of compassion."
Those seeking evidence of Upshaw's compassion need look no further than this:
One client was found in a room that reeked of urine and vomit, Wiggins said. Upshaw defended his actions in that instance.

"That was part of his diagnosis," Upshaw said. "He throws up a lot. He throws up. That is what he does."
Nice work if you can get it!

Upshaw is the pastor of Greater Grace Baptist Church. The words "Greater Grace" are evocative for students of fundamentalist pathology; Greater Grace World Outreach is a bizarre megachruch headed by Carl H. Stevens, with a history of financial fraud and worse. It'd be interesting to know whether Upshaw was involved with them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hotel Anthrax

BBC Radio is doing a fascinating program on U.S. germ warfare experiments. The focus of the first episode is on Operation Whitecoat, during which conscientious objectors were used as human guinea-pigs at Fort Detrick, Maryland. While this isn't new information by any means, it's very interesting to hear actual participants in these tests describe what they went through:

One white coat, George Shores, tells of how he was infected with tularaemia or rabbit fever. A giant metal sphere, known as the Eight Ball because of its resemblance to a snooker ball, was used in the experiment. Technicians exploded prototype bio-weapons inside the structure.

"They had like telephone booths all the way around the outside of the Eight Ball and you went into the telephone booth and shut the door and put on a mask like a gas mask.

"It was hooked up to the material that was inside the Eight Ball and you breathed it in," explained Mr Shores.
The Eight Ball still stands, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Personally, I'd like to see it turned into a monument symbolizing the dialectic of Enlightenment: Cénotaphe de Adorno et Horkheimer, after Etienne-Louis Boullee.)

You can listen to the BBC program here.

In related news, the British Ministry of Defense has settled with the family of a serviceman who died during a nerve-gas test in 1953. The original inquiry was held in secret, and returned a verdict of "death by misadventure." A second inquiry was opened in 1999, at the family's insistence, and returned a verdict of "gross negligence."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Protect the Queen!

From Reuters:

Whittington came up behind and failed to signal that he was there or announce himself, which is proper protocol for hunters. Cheney, an experienced hunter, fired his shotgun without realising that Whittington had approached the group.
From the International Hunter Education Association:
The area behind the hunters is off limits – no one turns to shoot behind.
From the Pennsylvania Game Commission:
Assume every noise and movement is another hunter. If there is any doubt whatsoever -- don't shoot.
From the National Wild Turkey Federation:
The saying, “Once you pull the trigger you can’t take it back,” might be cliché, but it also is very true. It’s vital to positively identify your target before pulling the trigger. “Shooting at sounds, movement or shapes is unethical and very dangerous and could result in someone being shot...."
From Americans for Gun Safety:
Positively Identify Your Target Before Shooting. When in Doubt, Don't Take the Shot.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here we have Kentodoris rubescens. Freed from the necessity of earning their livings, they have an abundance of leisure in which to cultivate the "small sweet courtesies of life."

Friday Hope Blogging

Planet Ark describes the growth of solar thermal power in the desert West:

People will soon cool their homes with power from the searing desert sun, according to companies investing in a little-used solar technology. Deserts are becoming hot spots for solar thermal power in which futuristic troughs concentrate the sun's rays and create steam to run power-producing turbines at power plants. It is a different technology than rooftop solar panels.
In somewhat related news, advances in solar titanium nanotubes may reduce the cost of producing photovoltaics. Better yet, nanotubes may also allow a breakthrough in energy-storing ultracapacitors:
"This configuration has the potential to maintain and even improve the high performance characteristics of ultracapacitors while providing energy storage densities comparable to batteries," Schindall said. "Nanotube-enhanced ultracapacitors would combine the long life and high power characteristics of a commercial ultracapacitor with the higher energy storage density normally available only from a chemical battery."
Triple Pundit describes a rather odd innovation from Japan:
Tokyo Electric Power Company managed to turn a piece of waste into a valuable and useful commodity. Fly ash from their coal burning power plants is being recycled into a type of pavement that is able to retain a cooler temperature than conventional asphalt. The result is that using the pavement will also reduce the "heat island effect" in cities - the tendency for cities to have a higher ambient temperature than the weather would ordinarily dictate - resulting, potentially, in much lower utility costs.
No word on the energy required to recycle the material; this site simply says that the process utilizes 100 percent of fly ash, and can lower road surface temperature by 10 degrees Celsius.

Maine has passed a law that requires manufacturers to pay for the cost of recycling e-waste:
Beyond saving money for the local taxpayers who usually bear the brunt of municipal recycling costs, the long-term aim of the law is to give manufacturers an economic incentive to design less-toxic and easier-to-recycle products.
Other states are expected to follow suit. This is part of a welcome trend of attacking the misleading - or nonexistent - accounting behind some of our most absurd policies. Apropos of which, a study from the UK attempts to calculate the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions. It's not pleasant reading, and as Treehugger notes, their solutions aren't particularly inspiring. Still, I'm always happy to see high-profile studies of external costs. (And I'm pleased that shareholders are increasingly forcing companies to address product toxicity.)

A far more important measure of our tentative progress towards sanity is that American evangelicals finally issued a statement demanding action on climate change. It's backed up by a survey showing that:
70 percent of evangelicals believe global warming poses a serious threat to future generations, and that "63 percent of evangelicals believe that while global warming may be a long-term issue, the problem is being caused today, so we must start addressing it immediately."
Dr. Matt Prescott suggests that one way of doing this would be to ban incandescent lightbulbs:
It has been estimated that if every household in the US replaced just three of its incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving designs and used them for five hours per day, it would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 23 million tonnes, reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of 11 coal-fired power stations and save $1.8bn.
Banning them outright is unworkable, in my opinion, though an extreme stance like Prescott's can be helpful if it gets people talking. That said, you should change every lightbulb you can to compact fluorescent. And if you can, install a SunPipe.

In medical news, researchers have found a way to re-engineer an antibiotic so that it works against resistant bacteria:
The scientists replaced a single atom from the molecular structure of vancomycin aglycon, a glycopeptide antibiotic that attacks the bacteria by inhibiting cell wall synthesis, significantly increasing the drug's spectrum of activity.
Last, have a look at this fascinating animation showing the evolution of the alphabet. (Via Occult Design).

The Riot Act

Kenneth W. Chilton responds to the recent evangelical call for environmental stewardship:

Evangelicals have taken bold stands on controversial issues such as embracing a culture of life, protecting traditional marriage and family, promoting abstinence as AIDS prevention and many others. But this necessary activism does not mean they should try to take on every social issue.

Evangelicals are to be first and foremost messengers of the good news of the Gospel. Evangelicals ought to promote those things that please God and oppose things that clearly violate his righteous standard of conduct.

Climate change just doesn't rise to that level of moral imperative; climate change is not an "evangelical" issue.
Shorter Chilton: Stick to beating up on fags and women, and leave pollution to the experts at BushCo.

Obligatory background information: Chilton's a former member of the Weidenbaum Center, an anti-environmental think tank heavily funded by Exxon. He currently directs the Institute for the Study of Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University, which has also received funding from Exxon. His other main affiliation is with the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, which was launched on November 16, 2005, under these droll circumstances:
The ISA’s press conference was hosted at the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, DC by Her Excellency Edith Ssempala, Ugandan Embassador to the U.S. According to the ISA, Uganda has a balanced approach to dealing with environmental issues.
You can read more about Uganda's "balanced" approach to the environment here.

As for the ISA, it's essentially a revamped version of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship. Like the ICES, it's based on the Cornwall Declaration, a crazy quilt of dominionist and free-market balderdash rubberstamped by folks like James Dobson, Charles Colson, Paul Weyrich, and Donald Wildmon. The ISA site offers no funding information, but its advisory board includes people like Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, a remarkably extreme anti-environmental think tank funded by Philip Morris, Exxon, and the Bradley Foundation; Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a neocon think tank funded by the Scaife and Olin Foundations; David Barton, the anti-Constitutional theocrat behind the Wallbuilders; and a host of other well-connected zealots.

These RV Times That Try Men's Souls

Richard Pombo's chances for re-election are a tiny bit worse today, thanks to the revelation that he charged taxpayers thousands of dollars to take his family on a two-week vacation in an RV.

I'd like to think that this latest scandal might actually outrage the "values voters" who keep returning this indescribably venal and stupid man to office. Admittedly, they didn't care when he lied to Congress about his ranch being declared "critical habitat" for the San Joaquin kit fox, nor did they care when he obstructed justice in the FDIC's case against the archfiend Thomas Hurwitz. But that's not really surprising. In the Tartarus of modern Republicanism, such lies are merely Platonic shadows of a higher truth.

But this story's a bit different. It's so simple that a child - even a stupid or crazy child - can potentially understand it; the GOP mantra "it's your money" might even be of some rhetorical use. Pombo's spokesman says that this was a business trip, and that Congressmen can legally bring family members on such trips. Pombo, apparently, feels differently:

“This August, my family and I rented an RV and set out to explore the West,” Pombo, R-Tracy, wrote in a 2003 article posted on the Resources Committee’s Web site. “We spent two weeks on vacation, stopping along the way to enjoy the splendor of many of our national parks.”
One can imagine Pombo showing his wide-eyed tots points of interest in these parks: "Here's where we're going to do some strip-mining, and Daddy's friends are going to drill for oil right over there..."

Pombo's got other woes this week, I'm happy to say; his relationship with Jack Abramoff and Duane Gibson is under increased scrutiny. Since Gibson was involved in the Hurwitz case - in which Pombo and others rather flamboyantly alleged a criminal conspiracy between EarthFirst! and the FDIC - a gratifying number of Pombo's threads are coming loose at once.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Smart Boy Wanted

Jonah Goldberg, like his Biblical namesake, is trapped in the belly of a whale...the unhappy result of wedging himself elbows-deep up his own ass. Here's his latest epiphany, occasioned by the Muslim "cartoon riots":

Muslim, and particularly Arab, governments have a vested interest in stirring up this sort of thing because it distracts from their own corrupt regimes. And the Muslim "street" seems to fall for it every time.
At the risk of repeating myself: There's a War on Christmas. Liberals want to ban the Bible. Giving equal rights to gays will result in legalized bestiality. Bush will protect us from manimals. And Terri Schiavo was murdered by the ACLU, as part of its plan to bring back "the pagan death culture of pre-Christian Rome."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Manufactured Outrage

WorldNetDaily discusses allegations that a Muslim leader tried to intensify outrage over cartoon representations of Mohammed by circulating a faked image of the Prophet with a pig's nose. This would seem to tie in with other stories making the rounds, which claim that the Saudis exploited these cartoons in order to distract the Muslim world from Saudi culpability for the deaths of pilgrims during the Hajj. (dKos offers an interesting take on this story.)

I must say, it all sounds quite plausible to me. And if it turns out that Muslim leaders really have been fomenting religious hysteria for political gain, they have no further claim on our sympathy or respect. After all, Americans have more important things to worry about...like the War on Christmas, the liberal plot to ban the Bible, America's dizzying slide towards legalized bestiality, and the terrible threat of manimals.

Hit And Run

MIT offers the most detailed image of a virus ever contrived. It's eerily reminiscent of this illustration from Jacob Boehme's Theosophische Werke (1682). Or perhaps this one, from Michael Maier's Septimana philosophica (1620). It's nice that we're making simultaneous progress in virology and alchemical emblematics!

Secrecy News has a 1979 article on the CIA's program of remote medical diagnosis, which ties in nicely with last Friday's discussion of telemedicine.

Here, and again here, Altmouse flogs the artistic wares of her talented son, David Ogden Altmouse Steirs. (Recommend soundtrack: "Doc" Roberts and Asa Martin's 1928 recording of "Take Those Lips Away.")

Your allergy woes may be over, assuming you're willing to infect yourself with hookworms.

Amanda Marcotte on a modern-day Sleeping Beauty, and her Prince Charming.

Despite record profits, oil companies - Dick Cheney's noble exemplars of free-market rectitude - howl like titty-babies for more subsidies.

A handy map of the NSA Surveillance Octopus

Worse Than Useless

Despite a resounding defeat last May, Republican House candidate John Jaremchuk is trying once again to pass a law that would allow police to ticket anyone who can't prove U.S. residency within 72 hours. Hark to his cold inexorable logic:

I know critics are going to say it's racial profiling, but to some extent, racial profiling is necessary these days because of terrorism.
Well, Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph were white, last time I checked, as are most "eco-terrorists." And Mohammed Atta wasn't here illegally, if memory serves; he had a multiple entry visa. On top of which, what makes those dreaded al-Qaeda sleeper cells so frightening is that they may comprise people who legally live and work in the USA:
Some of the suspected advisers are believed to be longtime U.S. citizens, fully immersed in American life and able to financially direct an attack without directly participating in it....
In other words, proof of residency is not proof that one is not a terrorist. And people with visas - like Mohammed Atta - may be here legally without proof of residency. More to the point, perhaps, fining people $100 isn't really an effective deterrent against terrorism.

There are respectable arguments to be made against illegal immigration, so it's interesting that the rhetoric of anti-immigration crusaders is so often dishonest and crude. In my view, demagogues like Jeremchuk act as unwitting force multipliers for terrorists. They overreact to threats, increase worldwide resentment towards the USA, and use overblown rhetoric to divert money and attention from real issues to their pet hobbyhorses. They encourage an ill-informed contempt for legal rights and due process, while claiming to uphold the law. And they create a false sense of security by pretending to take anti-terrorism measures, which is likely to result in even more demoralization and panic if another attack actually occurs. In short, they're considerably worse than useless.

If you want to fight illegal immigration, that's your right. But do it honestly. Don't pretend that issuing $100 tickets to people with brown skin is going to strike some sort of blow against al-Qaeda.


From an exhibition of the wall charts of Karl Georg Friedrich Rudolf Leuckart.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Correct Form of Fanaticism

I've commented at other people's blogs on the Danish cartoon controversy, without ever feeling satisfied with what I said. It's an issue that's easy to get wrong, and perhaps impossible to get right. For a lot of us, too many values conflict here: free speech, pluralism, nonviolence, antiracism...it's very hard to find a comfortable compromise between those ideals. But I'l take a stab at it all the same.

First off, a trivial observation. Representations of the Prophet aren't scripturally indefensible, as far as I know, nor are they objected to by all Muslims. But the logic behind the ban is simple enough: an image of the Prophet does not and cannot represent the Prophet. Thus, in at least some of the Danish cartoons, we have an odd situation in which something that does not and cannot represent the Prophet blasphemes the Prophet by failing to represent Him. At this point, it seems that the central issue is one of appellation. This is creation of a sort, after all; one can imagine bringing some Duchampian readymade Prophet into being simply by naming it. Presumably, if I hand a piece of paper to someone while saying "This blank sheet represents the Prophet Mohammed," I've blasphemed. Presumably, if I draw a man in a turban without naming him, I haven't (though who can tell, without reading my mind?).

Give a drawing of Mohammed to an aniconic Muslim and you offend him, whatever your intent; that's the power of representation. Give the same man a drawing of food, and he'll go hungry; that's the impotence of representation. Unfortunately, we tend to focus more on representation's power than on its impotence, even though its power is a matter of the beholder's assent and is therefore not intrinsic to it. Many commenters note that Muslims who don't want Islam to be represented as violent should stop giving their assent to violence, and thus bring representation into harmony with reality. That's a perfectly valid point, but it's a point that applies to humanity in general. When it comes to violence and intolerance, most societies are much quicker to offer criticism than to accept it.

I think that Muslim outrage over these cartoons is understandable. But I can't defend rioting and bloodshed, nor the attempt to extort respect through violence or the threat of violence. Killing, disturbing the peace, arson, death threats...these are all serious crimes, and people who commit them shouldn't be allowed to claim that their "faith-based" thuggery deserves some sort of legal immunity or respect, especially when the faith they're "defending" explicitly extols suppression of anger and pardoning of offenses. (I hope my subtext here is quite clear.)

My suspicion is that the criminalization of "hate speech" is logically and morally untenable, much as I'd prefer it not to be. Tariq Ramadan, in a generally wise and humane article recommended by Echidne, makes a fundamental error when he says that we

...must assert the inalienable right to freedom of expression and, at the same time, demand measured exercise of it.
It's a sentiment one can't really disagree with, until one thinks about the implication of the word "demand." How can an "inalienable" right to self-expression coexist with a "demand" for measured exercise of free speech? Such a demand must be backed up by force...either by individuals, or by the state. That gives us a choice between submitting to mob violence, or submitting to a state that defines what sort of speech is beyond the pale. I'd argue that Muslim rioters in Denmark, and the Bush administration in America, are currently demonstrating some of the flaws with these respective forms of speech control.

Some conservative commentators are saying that these riots affirm our culture's moral superiority to Islamic culture. If violent displays of religious hysteria are inherently more immoral than calculated political attempts to restrict freedom, force compliance with religious dogma, deny human rights, or launch unnecessary wars, then there's nothing more to discuss; their fanatics are demonstrably worse than ours. But I'm not quite convinced that's true. And even if it were, it seems to me it'd be dangerous if a fixation on exotic fanaticism encouraged us to cast an indulgent eye on our homegrown varieties.

Here in the United States, at least one religious group has argued for a less lurid, but more chilling form of "ethical violence": they're hoping to discourage the use of a vaccine against human papilloma virus, which is associated with cervical cancer. I'd argue that this violence is comparable in its ruthlessness, callousness, and superstition to anything seen in Islam. The fact that it's been proposed by "respectable" white people - and that it would strike down its victims privately and one by one, rather than in public and en masse - certainly doesn't ennoble it. A religion that colludes with and gloats over disease is as ugly an example of barbarism as one could hope to find (Katha Pollitt eloquently calls it "honor killing on the installment plan").

That's an extreme example, of course. But then, we're talking about extremism, and its desire to impose its narrow, idiosyncratic ideas of virtue on the larger society. The fact that American fundamentalism doesn't (usually) murder people, and doesn't (usually) blow up or burn down buildings is all to the good, God knows. But it engenders other forms of violence and intolerance that are just as dangerous, and can be harder to identify and combat.

Sadly, our liberty isn't threatened only by religious barbarism. Thanks to these riots, the Right has momentarily rediscovered the glories of free speech, despite having labored to create a climate in which those who question the president can be attacked as traitors. The invocation of treason, a crime punishable by death or imprisonment, is a "polite" form of violence, the goal of which is - like the threats of Muslim rioters - to silence heterodoxy. This is a point that seems to be lost on those who want to ridicule Muslim "hypocrisy." If trying to cow one's critics into self-censorship is evil, it's evil regardless of one's modus operandi. Indeed, you could argue that our current hostility to dissent is ultimately more evil than theirs, given that we claim to be a model society from which "backwards" countries must learn the arts of civilization.

Our homegrown fanatics and political opportunists favor these forms of violence not because they're moral or defensible - they're anything but - but because they generally get a respectful hearing within our culture: they're the politically correct form of fanaticism. But they're still threats, still disheartening and oppressive, still inimical to a civilized society. Like Muslim rioting, they're something we're supposed to take into account, and be frightened of, before making the decision not to say something "blasphemous." And thus, they're a form of brutality that we'll have to reject before we can truly call ourselves civilized and free.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Draw Your Own Conclusions

John Podhoretz catches an exquisite little snowflake in his chubby palm, and barely has time to admire it before it melts:

As Alberto Gonzales tries to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee why it might be necessary to take extraordinary measures to subdue Al Qaeda, the "20th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, appeared in court for jury selection in his trial. He stood up, said, "I am Al Qaeda," announced he didn't want his lawyers to represent him because they were Americans, and had to be escorted from the courtroom. Draw your own conclusions.
Glad to! My conclusion is that this is the most deliriously incoherent comment yet made about warrantless wiretapping. Moussaoui's hijinks in court have no conceivable bearing on this issue. If anything, they're a reminder of Moussaoui's vainglory and irrationality, which is what led his flight instructor to contact the FBI in the first place.

When Moussaoui was arrested, he had in his possession - among other things - two knives; flight manuals for the Boeing 747 Model 400; a flight simulator computer program; and a computer disk containing information on crop dusting. This is what led FBI agents to request permission to search Moussaoui's computer. For some reason, FBI official Marion "Spike" Bowman refused to make the relevant FISA request, but he was nonetheless given a "Presidential Rank Award" and a generous cash bonus.

Given these facts, it's pretty difficult to paint Moussaoui as a poster boy for warrantless wiretapping. But to present Moussaoui's impotent, Manson-esque courtroom antics as support for Gonzalez's case is about as batshit crazy as it gets. The only conclusion I can draw about Podhoretz is the one Glenn Greenwald draws about Bush: he wants to let Al Qaeda dictate the type of government we have. Let's hope Moussaoui doesn't stand on his head while in court, or stick his tongue out at the judge; the repercussions for constitutional law could be enormous.

What If?

Can the president have "evildoers" assassinated on American soil? Newsweek takes a stab at answering this question, and comes up with this bizarre scenario:

What if the president had strong evidence that a Qaeda suspect was holed up with a dirty bomb and was about to attack?
Well, in that case, I doubt the president would personally order an assassination. Dealing with this suspect would be a task for federal law enforcement agents, and they'd already be authorized to use deadly force. Of course, they'd need to proceed cautiously - suppose the suspect had a dead man's trigger? - but that'd be true whether they chose to burst through his door, or had a sniper pick him off from a nearby rooftop. A really enterprising terrorist could even tip off the authorities himself, and wait for them with his finger on the detonator.

This is really just a new version of the "ticking time bomb" scenario with which advocates of limitless presidential power tried to justify torture. While it's true that torture is unreliable even when you're not dealing with a movement that invites personal martyrdom, what I find even more troubling about this argument is that terrorists aren't at all likely to use time bombs. They're far more likely to use remote triggers, preferably with some sort of fail-safe system (e.g., a cell-phone that any one of six individuals can dial to detonate the bomb). The "ticking time bomb" story is emotionally manipulative, largely because it's familiar from movies, but it's got very little to do with the actual nature of the threat we face from terrorism; it's a textbook example of misleading vividness, and I don't believe for a moment that it's accidental.

Newsweek's dirty bomb scenario is just as misleading, and just as dishonest in its presentation of a false dichotomy: The President either inconveniences a terrorist, or a dirty bomb is detonated in an American city...which would you prefer? Of course, the two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive. We're not encouraged to think about what happens when torture or assassination goes wrong (as, for instance, when the Mossad shot an innocent waiter to death in Norway in 1974). Nor are we supposed to think about how religious terrorists actually operate, or how they might adapt to the threat of summary execution and turn it to their advantage.

Cass Sunstein says that Bush would be on shaky ground if he had someone killed "who was not actively preparing an attack." But what does "actively" mean? Would taking photos of a public building count? Buying a backpack? Looking at online maps? Renting a car? Hurrying to catch a train? Newsweek can't bring itself to ask these simple questions, let alone the only question that really matters: What if we grant this power to the president, and he - or one of his successors - turns out to be a criminal?

We Don't Protect Oceans Anymore

Bush has told us many times that "oceans don't protect us anymore." And he's quite right; the oceans that protected us from Britain in 1812, from Japan in 1941, from ICBMs throughout the Cold War, and from the Blind Sheik in 1993, have indeed grown lax in recent years.

I figure turnabout's fair play.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Flabellina expotata releasing its egg ribbon, "the way one takes from a secret compartment beautiful inherited gems."

Friday Hope Blogging

Both Peak Energy and Triple Pundit argued this week that Bush's promotion of alternative energy may represent a tipping point, regardless of whether or not he's sincere. As Monkeygrinder put it:

I must say that for as much as I feel the United States President to be an illegitimate ignoramus blunderhead, he has managed to raise the exposure of energy more in one hour than all the peak blogs did in the last year...an atmosphere where it is OK to start thinking about alternative energy is a huge positive in the United States.
I think that's probably true. Cognitive barriers are often a bigger obstacle to change than technological ones. And even a wildly unpopular, pathologically dishonest president has a tremendous amount of power to legitimate the terms of national debate.

With that in mind, I'm pleased to report that researchers at the University of Texas have invented a new type of membrane that should lower the cost of hydrogen production for fuel cells, and may make current petroleum refining less expensive.
A rubbery material that can purify hydrogen efficiently in its most usable form for fuel cells and oil refining has been developed by a chemical engineering group at The University of Texas at Austin...The membrane differs structurally and functionally from previous options, with a key advantage being its ability to permit hydrogen to remain compressed at high pressure. A compressed form of the light-weight gas is needed to process fossil fuels and for it to serve as a readily replaceable fuel for fuel cells.
Meanwhile, Mexico is taking dramatic steps to improve its air quality:
Mexico has launched an ambitious plan to drastically cut fuel emissions and improve air quality, the environment secretary said Tuesday....The restrictions on sulfur emissions and small particles will go into effect in July and will be gradually expanded each year until 2009, Luege said. He said that the limits are among "the strictest in the world."
And while we're on the subject of air quality, a federal judge has ruled that Christie Todd Whitman will not be granted immunity against a class-action lawsuit brought by residents of NYC:
"No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," the judge said.
Personal accountability for those entrusted with the public's health...an amazing concept! The other day, I was ranting against conscience clauses that would allow doctors and pharmacists to refuse medical treatment to patients they felt were morally unworthy. These people like to refer to themselves as "conscientious objectors," without noticing the distinction between saying "I refuse to kill those people" and "I refuse to heal those people." An article in the British Medical Journal rejects this self-aggrandizing nonsense:
If people are not prepared to offer legally permitted, efficient, and beneficial care to a patient because it conflicts with their values, they should not be doctors....Public servants must act in the public interest, not their own.
Precisely right, and it's nice to see the BMJ taking such an uncompromising stance on this issue, which I believe will ultimately be a huge loser for fundamentalist radicals.

Speaking of healthcare, WorldChanging has an interesting feature on telemedicine, which gives poor and rural areas remote access to first-world diagnostic and treatment expertise. They note that the European Space Agency recently held a workshop on the role of satellites in telemedicine, with an eye to the creation of a "pan-African e-network for telemedicine." For a detailed description of telemedicine, click here.

Last, Quiet American has about 25 hours of field recordings from Vietnam available for your listening pleasure. My favorite tracks so far are "Ominous gurgling from the faucet in room 402" and "Hmong women playing a duet on leaves." If you need something to look at while you're listening, try Soil Maps of Asia.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Jay Slack, the Field Supervisor of the FWS South Florida Ecological Service Field Office, has just gotten a promotion from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Slack relied on faulty data to greenlight development projects in the West Everglades, home to the endangered Florida panther. This is one of the rarest mammals on earth; only about 75 of them are left.

As some readers may recall, a whistleblower named Andrew Eller filed a complaint about the quality of these data; he claimed that FWS was knowingly relying on faulty studies to overstate the panther population, and understate its habitat needs. Some of the data, in fact, came from a scientist who later worked as a consultant for would-be developers of panther habitat; among other things, it assumed that all panthers were breeding adults, and that there was no difference between panther behavior at night and in the daytime.

A federal judge later found that the data attacked by Eller were indeed flawed. On that basis, he revoked the permit for a limestone quarry that would've excavated 6,000 acres of panther habitat, and described the FWS's support of the project as "arbitrary and capricious." Despite this vindication, the FWS fired Eller. (Eight months later, they re-hired him, but reassigned him to Kentucky.)

The quarry was a project of Florida Rock Industry, which has a history of attempting to mine in protected wilderness areas. Not surprisingly, its CEO was a contributer to the Bush campaign, and has also donated to Bill McCollum, a rabid anti-environment and anti-accountability crusader who was mercifully defeated by Bill Nelson in 2000.

A 2005 study of FWS offices under Slack, undertaken by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that Eller's experience was anything but isolated:

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents citing cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention;”

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings admitting that they have been “directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that are protective of species;” and

More than one-fourth (28%) reported having been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from” agency scientific documents.
Jeff Ruch of PEER says, “The elevation of Jay Slack is a case study of how basic accountability mechanisms are perverted in the Interior Department.” Actually, it's a case study of how basic accountability mechanisms are perverted in the Bush Administration, where misusing statistics, ignoring facts, and punishing competence comprise a foolproof recipe for success.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The official talking points on the chemical weapons dumped off the coast of Hawai'i continue to be misleading:

The Army still has not determined the location of most of the more than 8,000 tons of chemical munitions dumped off O'ahu at the end of World War II, but says that if their containers fail, most of the chemicals would break down into nontoxic compounds.
That's true, of course. It's also true that if you released nerve gas into a shopping mall, it'd break down into nontoxic compounds. What's of interest is what happens in between release and breakdown.

Nerve agent is viable in water for about six weeks. In some circumstances, mustard gas can remain viable for at least five years. Cyanide agents break down very quickly, but are roughly a thousand times more toxic to fish than to humans (whence the utterly grotesque practice of cyanide fishing); coral reefs are even more susceptible. Lewisite, however, is probably the most serious long-term problem.

This top-linked article gives us a partial inventory of the dumped weapons:
Pearl Harbor: 4,220 tons of hydrogen cyanide

O'ahu: 16,000 100-pound mustard bombs

Wai'anae: Seven tons of 1,000-pound hydrogen cyanide bombs; 461 tons of 1,000-pound cyanogen chloride bombs; 28 tons of 500-pound cyanogen chloride bombs; 800 tons of 114-pound mustard bombs; 510 tons of 4.2-inch mustard mortar shells, 1,817 tons of one-ton mustard containers; and 300 tons of one-ton lewisite containers.
That represents roughly a quarter of the 64,000,000 pounds of nerve and mustard agents currently thought to have been dumped in 26 sites off 11 states (for purposes of comparison, Saddam was alleged to have about 500 tons of chemical weapons).

The failure rate of different types of containers varies greatly depending on depth, temperature, current, and contents. But as time passes, the likelihood of their failure increases; the fact that the contents of an individual canister will eventually break down is cold comfort. The fact is, these munitions will remain dangerous for generations, and cleaning them up is going to cost taxpayers a fortune.

Looking at this monument to paranoia and profiteering, one can't help wondering what further wounds we'll inflict on ourselves in the name of the "Global War on Terror."