Monday, April 30, 2007

Zero Empirical Evidence

In the new issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn makes a startling announcement:

[T[here is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.
I'll be polite, and assume that Cockburn is using "empirical" in some highly idiosyncratic sense. Regardless, what he apparently means is that while on a cruise back in 2001, he met up with a retired meteorologist, who subsequently showed him a "devastating" graph that disproves anthropogenic climate change.

Unfortunately, The Nation's ban on the reproduction of graven images has prevented Cockburn from including the graph with his column. But I'm sure that if we could see it, we'd find it just as devastating as Cockburn does. If not more so.

Despite the exquisite grasp of geophysics that Cockburn managed to pick up from his shipboard acquaintance, I'm disappointed to report that a good deal of his piece relies on standard-issue namecalling (the Dogma of global warming is promoted by Doomsters and Fearmongers!) and specious analogies (medieval Catholicism maintained its power by frightening people, just like the IPCC!).

To be fair, though, he does attempt to work a bit of hard science in, as thus:
It’s a notorious inconvenience for the Greenhousers that data also show CO2 concentrations from the Eocene period, 20 million years before Henry Ford trundled out his first Model T, 300 to 400 percent higher than current concentrations.
I have to assume that he's talking about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which changed the earth's climate catastrophically and led to a massive die-off of land and sea creatures. I'm not sure why he regards this as a rebuke to climate "doomsters."

In any case, Eocene CO2 concentrations are only an "inconvenience for the Greenhousers" if one assumes that because warming happened without human input in the past, it must be happening without human input now.

Which would be a pretty fucking stupid thing to do.

Scientists don't believe in anthropogenic climate change because they decided a priori that warming must be caused by humans; they believe in it because the warming they're currently observing is best explained anthropogenically (e.g., because the rate of change is faster than that observed in past natural events, and because of observed variation in carbon isotopes that are consistent with manmade warming).

Sad to say, Cockburn also dredges up the classic denialist argument that warming drives carbon emissions, rather than vice versa. Luckily, RealClimate recently addressed this misconception at length. I doubt their rebuttal would impress Cockburn, though; having concluded that mainstream scientists are either dupes or "hoaxers," he can safely ignore their attempts to correct him.

In my previous post, I suggested that there's sometimes an irresponsible, escapist quality to conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, one of Cockburn's complaints against 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that they suffer from "political infantilism" and are "immune to any reality check." He's also scolded them by invoking Occam's Razor, and quoting Adorno's observation that "the tendency to occultism is a symptom of regression in consciousness.”

In his new article, however, he informs us that he will soon reveal who the climate "hoaxers" are, and "what they're after."

Let the mighty hear, and tremble!

UPDATE: George Monbiot has also noticed the similarity of Cockburn's denialist stance to that of the "9/11 truthers" he's attacked as fools and dupes, and politely challenges him to provide scientific evidence for his claims.

Since I believe in presenting both sides of the story, I'm obliged to point out that Al Gore remains fat, and is pretending to have read Stendahl.

What "They" Want You To Think

Yesterday, a gasoline fire caused a section of freeway in Oakland, California to collapse:

The tanker carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline ignited after crashing into a pylon on the interchange, which connects westbound lanes of Interstate 80 to southbound I-880, on the edge of downtown Oakland about half a mile from the Bay Bridge's toll plaza....

Heat exceeded 2,750 degrees and caused the steel beams holding up the interchange from eastbound I-80 to eastbound Interstate 580 above to buckle and bolts holding the structure together to melt, leading to the collapse....
To the untrained eye, this would seem to debunk a central claim of 9/11 truthseekers:
[O]pen fires fueled by hydrocarbons, such as kerosene---which is what jet fuel is---can at most rise to 1700°F, which is almost 1100 degrees below the melting point of steel. We can, accordingly, dismiss the claim that the towers collapsed because their steel columns melted.
But to discerning readers, this story raises more questions than it answers. We all know that the media have been complicit in the crimes of the Bush Administration, and the cover-up of 9/11. Could this freeway collapse have been a "false flag" operation designed to discredit 9/11 investigators like David Ray Griffin?

The article's odd emphasis on the temperature of the fire, and the buckling of the steel columns, suggests that this is a very real possibility.

Add to this the fact that the crashed vehicle was coming from a refinery, and that the driver walked away from this disaster virtually unscathed, and we can see that there's something very wrong with the official narrative. After all, the Bush Administration's close ties to the oil and gas industry have been well documented. And if the fire had been as hot as news reports claim, the driver should've been immolated. How could he have walked away, even with second-degree burns, unless he'd prepared in advance for the crash, or parked the truck and detonated it from a distance (probably in order to ignite thermite charges concealed at weak points beneath the overpass)? The fact that this "accident" happened at 3:45 AM, an hour when one would expect few or no witnesses, adds strong circumstantial support to the latter theory.

It's unfortunate that most Americans will never even consider these possibilities, but not surprising. Ordinary people desperately want to believe that our government means well, and would never launch an attack on its own citizens or infrastructure.

I'm not actually being serious, of course. David Ray Griffin's claim that burning jet fuel couldn't have caused the WTC's beams to fail always struck me as idiotic, not least because there's a difference between a material's melting point, and the point at which it loses some or all of its structural strength. Conspiracy theorists have made much of "inconsistencies" in reporting on the WTC, but some of these claims seem to me to boil down to loose journalistic interpretations of words like "melted," which are common in reporting on scientific issues. A newspaper reporter who says the WTC beams "melted" in the fire doesn't necessarily mean that the steel became liquefied as a result of reaching its melting point.

None of which is to say that I accept the official 9/11 narrative as true; I don't. But I do think this narrative is more than damning enough to render conspiracy theories largely beside the point. And I sometimes wish that more attention were being paid to the wrongdoing admitted in that narrative, instead of to constantly shifting alternative narratives from a variety of competing and often equally dubious sources (including, perhaps, spreaders of disinformation).

That's my problem with a lot of conspiracy theories: they're ultimately escapist. In the case of 9/11, the existence of a hidden narrative - or multiple hidden narratives - allows people to overlook the "cover story." Which means, in a sense, that the cover story is the hidden story. It's almost as though the conspiracy theorists themselves can't accept that what's been acknowledged is shocking enough, and have irresponsibly retreated into fantasy.

You've gotta's possible.

UPDATE: A new site called 4/29 Truth aims to find out what really happened on that tragic day. (Hat tip: JR at Eschaton).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Janolus sp. sheds a shy solemnity,
This lamp in our poor room.
O grey and gold amenity, --
Silence and gentle gloom!

Friday Hope Blogging

Remember how giddy climate denialists became when it was announced that plants contribute to global warming by emitting methane? Well, it now looks as though they actually don’t:

A recent study in Nature suggested that terrestrial plants may be a global source of the potent greenhouse gas methane, making plants substantial contributors to the annual global methane budget. This controversial finding and the resulting commotion triggered a consortium of Dutch scientists to re-examine this in an independent study. Reporting in New Phytologist, Tom Dueck and colleagues present their results and conclude that methane emissions from plants are negligible and do not contribute to global climate change.
States continue to take the lead in cutting emissions:
At least 21 states and the District of Columbia are on track to create 46,000 megawatts of renewable power by 2020, eliminating 108 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions a year that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger is threatening to sue the EPA:
"If we don't see quick action from the federal government, we will sue the EPA," Schwarzenegger, a Republican, told an audience at the Milken Institute's Global Conference in Beverly Hills.

Schwarzenegger's move stems from California's request in 2005 to get a federal Clean Air Act waiver that would allow it to regulate auto emissions more aggressively.
California has also approved the nation’s toughest restrictions on formaldehyde use:
"There is no safe threshold for this carcinogen, and we know how to eliminate it," said Harry Demorest, president and chief executive of Columbia Forest Products, an Oregon-based manufacturer that began taking formaldehyde out of its plywood in 2002.
An article in the Vancouver Sun catalogs the changes afoot in Canada:
Leaf Rapids, Man., banned plastic bags. Low-flow toilets and shower heads are mandatory in new homes in Okotoks, Alta. The mayor of Aurora, Ont., is calling for clotheslines to reduce dependence on dryers. A Toronto city councillor is trying to ban leafblowers and Hamilton is considering banning more drive-thrus…. In one of the most radical measures, the town of Okotoks, 18 kilometres south of Calgary, is one of the first communities in the world to limit its population and boundaries based on what the surrounding environment can sustain.
Meanwhile, the Niagara Region plans to ban plastic bags in its composting system, and Peterborough, Ont., is the latest town to ban lawn pesticides. God’s vengeance will undoubtedly be swift and merciless.

Tom Philpott spotlights a pair of proposals that could help us to shift away from industrial agriculture:
One step in the right direction is the Competition Bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). There's a movement afoot to build the Harkin proposal into the farm bill by adding a "competition title." That move deserves support.

But curtailing the anti-competitive practices of the giants won't be enough rebuild local food infrastructure….Henry Herrera and Katherine Mendenhall of the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group have come up with an elegant idea [PDF]: create a funding stream, within the farm bill, for regional and local food-infrastructure projects -- indexed directly to the commodity payments now flowing to large-scale farmers who produce corn and soy for the global food (and increasingly, energy) industry.
Like all of Tom’s posts, it's worth reading in full.

WorldChanging discusses Duck-Rice:
Japanese farmer and entrepreneur, Takao Furuno, developed Duck-Rice as an integrated bio-system which eliminates the need for fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides by incorporating duck-raising into organic rice cultivation. The approach is now being replicated with substantial success all over South East Asia as an effective way to boost farmer incomes, reduce environmental impact and improve food security.
Scientists from Liverpool are trying to improve water management in Ghana:
Dr Rick Leah, project manager, said: "Ghanaian scientists who are trained in using the ‘Ecosystem Approach’ will in turn train scientists from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin to help harmonise environmental efforts in the region. Training for local stakeholders will also help enhance public awareness of aquatic systems.

"The aim of the project is to make local authorities and local people aware of the resources they currently have and how they should protect them in future. We have set up an interactive website where collaborators in the project, such as the Centre for African Wetlands and Ghana Wildlife Society, can log on and discuss problems they have faced and download teaching tools for researchers and school children."
There’s talk of using fructose to clean up hexavalent chromium:
[C]hemist Bryan Bilyeu of Xavier University, in New Orleans…reported that a fructose solution added to wastewater and soil contaminated with Cr(VI) removed 94 percent of the contaminate; glucose removed 93 percent. Sugar converts the toxic chromium into the naturally occurring and more stable chromium III--a nutrient necessary for life.
Encouraging, if true.

There are ten countries in the world that use child soldiers. Nine of them receive military aid from the United States. Accordingly, Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) have introduced The Child Soldier Prevention Act (S1175). You can show your support for this legislation by clicking here, and you can spread the word by clicking here.

Mexico City has legalized early abortion:
Lilian Sepulveda, the Latin American legal advisor for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said of the vote, this "is going to make an enormous difference in the lives of Mexican women… Instead of back alleys, women will be able to go to the doctor's office to get the health services they need," the Miami Herald reports.
According to No Capital, the Iowa House has decided that American citizens have certain inalienable rights:
The Iowa House took a historic vote Wednesday to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, giving approval to the measure in the waning days of this year’s session of the Iowa Legislature.
Nine Republicans voted in favor of the measure. In related news, New Hampshire voted to legalize civil unions.

Ted Kulongoski, the governor of Oregon, is living on food stamps for a week:
By volunteering to subsist on the average food-stamp recipient's budget of $21 per person per week, he and his wife, Mary Oberst, have gotten lots of folks thinking about hunger in Oregon.

The Oregon Food Bank got commitments from thousands of people who said they'd join the governor on lean rations this week.
A peer-reviewed, open-access journal called Open Medicine hopes “to facilitate the equitable dissemination of high-quality health research; to promote international dialogue and collaboration on health issues; to improve clinical practice; and to expand and deepen the understanding of health and health care.” As Revere says:
Open access works and benefits everyone. Open review has produced better and more constructive reviews by assent of both reviewers and authors. I am thrilled to see another major journal adopt these policies.
I'll wrap up with some quick links, as I forgot my powercord and am about to run out of batteries.

The image at top comes from a gallery of natural history photos by Lazslo Layton. See also the landscape photos of Thomas Schuepping, and Japanese Old Photographs in Bakumatsu-Meiji Period (both via Things).

Furthermore: A survey of Pietre Dure from Giornale Nuovo, and a lesson in abysses from BLDGBLOG.

A Lesser Evil

Rumor has it that Beijing plans to clear away its air pollution with cloudseeding:

China has announced plans to induce rain in Beijing in the days before the 2008 Olympics in an effort to clean the air. Scientists are wary about the effects of the process.
It’s interesting to compare this story with a similar story from last year:
Rain won't be the only threat when the Olympics take place in 2008. Beijing's smog is as big a threat to China's image-makers as a few raindrops.

That's somebody else's problem, says weather guru Zhang: "I can't do anything about the air pollution."
The widespread practice of cloudseeding has led to disputes between Chinese cities. Oddly enough, the attempt to modify weather tends to make ordinary weather events seem sinister:
One Zhoukou official accused Pingdingshan of intercepting clouds that would probably have drifted to other places.
These rather surreal conflicts notwithstanding, the question of whether cloudseeding actually increases rainfall remains open:
A 2003 report by the US National Academy of Sciences…concluded that after over 30 years of trying, "there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts."
I mention all this as the preamble to an interesting article on the ethics of geoengineering by Professor Steve Gardiner at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gardiner addresses Paul Crutzen’s argument that geoengineering may be a “lesser evil” than runaway climate change, and should accordingly be researched now in case it becomes “necessary” later:
It is not silly to think that substantial investment in geoengineering will itself encourage political inertia on mitigation and adaptation, and also facilitate the actual deployment of geoengineering "solutions". In short, Crutzen treats the decision to do research and the decision to deploy as if they were causally isolated. But it is not clear what justifies this assumption - indeed, the history of technological innovation suggests otherwise.
This is precisely correct, and it can’t be overemphasized. The similarity to space-based missile defense would be striking even if fanatical star warriors like Lowell Wood weren’t already positioning themselves to cash in on it. Money warps the perception of options like gravity warps space-time, and it’d be a shame if the self-justifying “necessity” of some geoengineering project caused us to overlook more practical adaptive tactics, like installing gills in Glenn Reynolds’ neck.

Gardiner also finds fault with the notion that geoengineering might be justified, despite its risks, by the state of exception in which the changing climate has placed us. The fact that we’ve put the world in grave danger doesn’t automatically ennoble whatever flailing attempt we make to remedy the situation, any more than our invasion of Iraq has ennobled torture or indefinite detention or the erection of security walls. As Gardiner notes, “there seems to be an important difference between preparing for an emergency and preparing for an emergency that is to be brought on by one's own moral failure.”

The most cogent argument to be made for geoengineering is that we’re already doing it, and may as well get good at it. It’s agreeably romantic to believe in Virgin Nature, but romanticism about virginity generally does more to enable brutality and exploitation than to oppose it.

On the other hand, “in for a penny, in for a pound” isn’t a very good guideline for ethical decision-making. And I’m not comforted by the idea that future climate change may result from techno-messianic busywork instead of shortsighted greed. Gardiner’s prescriptions – which include alternative energy research, “a massive international climate assistance and refugee programme,” and “a very substantial compensation fund” – seem a lot more sane, ethical, and achievable.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Fruitful Ground

At Planet Gore, Iain Murray peers into the shiny new crystal ball that ExxonMobil bought for him and sees a brighter world:

It is likely that a warmer world will lead to more heat-related deaths, but likewise it will certainly see a reduction in cold-related deaths. These figures on both sides of this inequality vastly outweigh the numbers who might die as a result of any increase in vector-borne diseases (which isn't really a warming issue anyway).
I don’t want to seem like a pedant, but it’s not logical to argue that an estimated number “vastly outweighs” an unknown number.

And Murray’s claim that an “increase in vector-borne diseases…isn't really a warming issue” is completely nuts. It’s well known that climate change can affect the range and behavior of disease vectors. If the United States were to warm enough that people in Duluth began dying of Kala-azar, I think that this mortality could reasonably be viewed as “a warming issue.”

Beyond that, it makes little sense to assess the risk of temperature-related deaths while ignoring the other effects one expects from unusually high or low temperatures. Increased flooding or drought can kill plenty of people directly, while increasing the incidence of disease, and crippling local or even regional agriculture. A single such incident could kill more people in a given year than heat stroke and hypothermia combined.

Dr. Richard Tol calculates that each 1°C rise in global temperature would, for example, reduce cold-related deaths in North America by 64,000 each year, while increasing heat-related deaths by 14,000, making a net gain of 50,000 fewer human beings dying prematurely each year....
Logically, then, the death toll resulting from each 1°C rise that we avoid would be roughly equivalent to sixteen 9/11s per year.

Is that really what you want?

Meanwhile, Jim Manzi claims that having been proved wrong about climate change is good for conservatives:
[M]any of their natural allies have been unwilling to grant a necessary premise of the argument – that global warming is a real risk. Ironically, “losing” the debate on this fundamental scientific question moves the political argument to much more fruitful ground for conservatives: “OK, what should we do?”
Personally, I’d suggest shutting the fuck up and letting the people who were right all along tackle the problem.

Failing that, I suppose they could always cash in. Just think of the lives it'll save!

(Photo by Mark Rogers.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beyond and Back

Back in one piece, more or less, despite the unsettled weather across the Midwest. But then, "for the man sound in body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather."

I'm in the process of posting some representative photos over at Dime Geography, if anyone's interested.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Send home my long strayed eyes to me,
Which too long have dwelt on Mexichromis katalexis.

I'm traveling this week, and part of the next. I may or may not have time to post, what with the gaiety and excitement of life on the road.

Do try to bear up, if you can.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Hypselodoris bayeri "fluttering

Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion

Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

That was not ours although we understood,

Inhuman, of the veritable ocean."

(Photo by Eveline Marcus.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Friday Hope Blogging

I'm generally skeptical of the style and substance of Arnold Schwarzenegger's environmentalist rhetoric, but I did appreciate this stab at the denial industry:

“So who are the fanatics now?” Schwarzenegger asked during his address at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall, which was packed with young adults who twice gave him standing ovations. “They are the ones who are in denial.”
I suspect that a single statement like this is capable of counteracting tens of thousands of dollars' worth of denialist ad campaigns and hit pieces.

The same could probably be said for Conoco Phillips' decision to join a coalition calling for limits on greenhouse gases:
Conoco Phillips became the newest member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big business and environmental groups that in January told President Bush that mandatory emissions caps are needed to reduce the flow of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Conoco Phillips is the largest oil producer in Alaska and runs some of the North Slope oil fields.
And the Duke Foundation's decision to set up a $100 million fund for research into global warming:
Up to $100 million (€75 million) is to be awarded to nonprofit groups, research institutions and universities. They would be expected to study which policies and technologies will be the best to help build a "clean-energy economy," the foundation said in a statement Sunday.
Nor does it help the denialist cause to have Republican senator Wayne Gilchrest saying things like this:
How do you awake this sleeping giant called America that is lethargic because it’s well fed, well housed, well clothed, and well entertained? How do you break out of that cycle? An Inconvenient Truth, the movie, was one significant way to do it.

Educators in all our public schools, which are or should be the epicenter of intellectual thought, should begin making this a high priority in their curriculum. Colleges and universities should make it a high priority. Churches should make it a high priority: preserving God’s creation. People who are in positions of authority should be relentlessly pursuing this as an issue.
There's more to our changing attitude than rhetoric, though. Maryland's legislature has passed a groundbreaking solar power bill, largely because citizens got involved:
After the bill passed out of both the House and Senate by commanding majorities (Senate 30-17, and House 128-7) a small cabal of Senators took it upon themselves to do whatever it took to kill it -- including parliamentary maneuvers to delay action until the session ended....

So over the weekend, Maryland citizens sent hundreds of emails, and phone calls lit up the switchboards Monday morning -- all demanding that the Maryland Senate stand firm and not allow last-minute shenanigans to kill the solar bill. And when State Senator EJ Pipkin stood up Monday night to filibuster ... his cabal had evaporated.
While dead-enders like Pipkin make abject fools of themselves, researchers like Dr. Wayne Campbell continue to improve solar-cell technology:
After 10 years of research, Dr. Campbell has developed solar cell technology capable of generating electricity at a 10th of the cost of current silicon based solar cells.
The advent of 3D solar cells bears watching, too:
Unique three-dimensional solar cells that capture nearly all of the light that strikes them could boost the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) systems while reducing their size, weight and mechanical complexity.
The beleaguered Bush administration....

That was so pleasant, I believe I'll type it again.

The beleaguered Bush administration has suffered yet another setback:
A federal appeals court Monday rejected the Bush administration's novel 2004 plan for making Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams safe for salmon, saying it used "sleight of hand" and violated the Endangered Species Act....

"Under this approach, a listed species could be gradually destroyed, so long as each step on the path to destruction is sufficiently modest," Judge Sydney R. Thomas wrote of the Bush administration's approach to balancing dams against salmon. "This type of slow slide into oblivion is one of the very ills the ESA seeks to prevent."
Speakling of endangered species, a live condor egg has been found in California for the first time in a century:
"The first wild egg to us is the sign that the birds are being successful out in the wild and that they're going to make it," said biologist Joe Burnett.
Missouri seems to be having some success with restoring wetlands:
Ted Heisel, a local environmental attorney, said he has "mixed feelings" about the man-made features in the conservation area, but he credited the new wetlands with attracting wildlife, including the large flock of snow geese he saw about a month ago.
In Canterbury, England, grazing horses are being used to rejuvenate marshlands:
"Koniks do a fantastic job," says Peter Smith, chief executive of the Wildwood Trust in Kent. "Their low-level grazing means reed beds will soon return, which will provide the habitat to support a wider range of wildlife, such as black-tailed godwits, bitterns and water voles."
Agricultural Biodiversity reports on an interesting ethnobotanical garden in Sarawak, and adds "gardens of useful plants strike me as an excellent way to promote the virtues of agricultural biodiversity in a local context."

WorldChanging discusses the True Cost Clearinghouse, which is "an extensive archive of articles, studies and reports about the hidden ecological and social costs behind pricetags and standard cost-benefit analyses." Worth a look.

Congress has voted to make cockfighting a felony:
The Senate unanimously passed legislation Tuesday night that the House had approved in a lopsided vote late last month. President Bush is expected to sign the bill, which imposes a prison sentence of up to three years on anyone caught shipping fighting dogs or roosters, or the fighting implements used in cockfights.
There's talk of using insect eggs to produce vaccines:
An experimental flu vaccine made in insect cells – not in eggs, where flu vaccines currently available in the United States are grown – is safe and as effective as conventional vaccines in protecting people against the flu, according to results published in the April 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
As usual, Revere cuts through the hype and offers a balanced assessment:
This method produces substantial protein yields and the protein seems to be of good quality for immunological purposes. This has implications for other methods of producing immunogenic viral flu protein, including DNA based vaccines.

Even if this vaccine doesn't become the newest and best way to produce influenza vaccine, we've learned something.
Revere is also cautiously optimistic about the possibility that statins can reduce mortality in pandemic flu cases:
Some statins have now gone off patent and are available in generic form. They are among the highest volume drugs and supplies are plentiful, so if they are truly protective of the most virulent outcomes of H5N1 infection this is good news.
It does my antiquarian heart good to know that we'll soon be using zeppelins to explore the North Pole. More important, though, it gives me a perfect lead-in to recommend Stereoscopic Images of Lighter Than Air Flight.

Science and the Artist's Book is old, but new to me. It's worth visiting more for the scans of original science texts than for the artistic responses to them, although I did like Scott L. McCarney's Diderot / Doubleday / Deconstruction:

Luminous Lint presents War Models by William Laven.

Coudal recommends 100% Recuerdos Ajenos, a found photo site from Brazil. As do I.

As for Early Las comment, except that it goes nicely with the sounds of the Xenia Tornado, recorded on April 3, 1974.

Gallery of Automata strikes a blow for truth in advertising by offering a gallery of automata. You might also want to look at Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, a Flickr set from Chris O'Shea.

All of which pales in comparison to this video from Karakuri Corner, a site dedicated to Japanese automata.

If you need a soundtrack, you may choose between the pyrophone and the hydraulophone.

(Photo at top: "View of the telescope at Slough" by Sir John Herschel, 1839.)

The Only Moral System in History

Exciting new research undertaken by a gaggle of Canadian nanny-staters explains how a popular anti-wrinkle agent called 2-dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) delivers an "instant face lift":

[T]he application of DMAE induces a quick and spectacular swelling of skin cell vacuoles called fibroblasts, which act as reservoirs and interface between the inside and the outside of the cell.

In the hours following the application of DMAE, the researchers observed an important slowing down of cell division—sometimes coming to a complete stop, the inhibition of certain metabolic reactions, and the death of a significant percentage of fibroblasts. The mortality rate of fibroblasts, which varied according to DMAE concentration, was above 25% after 24 hours in the case of a concentration similar to the one resulting from normal use of an antiwrinkle cream. The thickening of the skin induced by the pathological swelling of the fibroblasts would explain the antiwrinkle effect of DMAE, according to the researchers.
It's not clear how these findings affect DMAE's standing as a memory booster, a performance enhancer for athletes, an antidepressant, or a curing agent for polyurethanes and epoxy resins.

In unrelated news, a number of industrial logging firms have apparently obtained lucrative logging rights in the Congo rainforest by giving bags of salt, crates of beer, machetes, and bicycles to the natives.

Which century is it, again?

(Image via UCLA's collection of Patent Medicine Trade Cards.)

Lessons Learned

The nerve gas hydrolysate that was supposed to have been dumped into the Delaware River now seems to be headed for Port Arthur, Texas.

Mitch Osborne of Veolia Environmental Services, which won the $49 million contract, explains why local residents should rejoice:

“What will be shipped to Port Arthur is only a moderate hazard,” Osborne said. “The wastewater contains absolutely no VX. It has a high pH and an odor like a skunk because of the sulfur. But the odor is harmless….It differs very little from the wide variety of hazardous wastes managed safely at the Veolia incinerator on a daily basis.”
Nicely put, eh? Osborne should probably use some of that $49 million to hire a PR person.

Incidentally, the wastewater contains less than 20 ppb of VX. You can debate whether or not that’s a safe level, but you can’t call it “absolutely no VX.”

Veolia’s an interesting company. It’s a spin-off of Vivendi, a French company that’s very well known to people who follow the debates over water privatization and media conglomeration; Public Citizen has evocatively described it as “swirling in a maelstrom of corporate corruption and chaos.”

Apparently, its deal with the Army was reached in secret:
The Veolia deal follows two previous disposal plans — by Perma-Fix Environmental Services Inc., in Dayton, Ohio, and DuPont Co. in Deepwater, N.J. — that were scuttled by strong opposition...after the Army publicly announced its intent to contract with the two companies. But that didn't happen in the case with Veolia.

"Let's call it lessons learned," said Army spokesman Greg Mahall.
Another lesson learned, I'm guessing, has to do with the relative political clout of locals. Port Arthur is predominantly black; whites make up a mere twenty percent of its population. By an odd coincidence, it’s also one of the most polluted towns in America:
Port Arthur ranks high in just about every national pollution statistic -- the city and surrounding county are among the top 10 percent for major chemical releases; environmental cancer risk; levels of carcinogens; and levels of toxins that interfere with fetal development.
Which is ideal, since any problems the hydrolysate causes – and to be fair, it may not cause any - will be a drop in the bucket.

While we’re on the subject, the LA Times has an illuminating article on the siting of toxic facilities in minority neighborhoods:
EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said the agency recognizes "that minority and/or low-income communities frequently may be disproportionately and adversely exposed to environmental harms and risks," and that the EPA attempts to address environmental justice concerns in its planning and budgeting….
That said:
President Bush's 2008 budget recommends a 28% cut in funds for such programs….
I’m glad to see that Don Imus lost his job for insulting young black people. Perhaps someday we'll stop allowing people to poison them.

Skillful Management

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love/hate relationship with the idea of valuing ecosystem services. I recognize that it’s important to quantify the benefits we gain from bats who eat insects, or marshes that filter contaminated water, and that the most effective, attention-grabbing way of quantifying these benefits - at least for now - is to assign a dollar value to them.

But I also recognize that once a dollar value has been assigned, it tends to crowd other types of value out of the picture. And I’m not even talking, as the objectivists have forbidden me to do, about intrinsic value; I’m talking about the difficulty of putting a dollar value on the quality of life, or on survival itself.

An article on apiculture in WorldChanging raises my hackles to the limited extent that it promotes this giddy, reductionist approach to the natural world. I’m not naïve enough to believe there’s such a thing as “wilderness” anymore. But I’m also not naïve enough to believe that “entrepreneurial thrill and DIY satisfaction” are a plausible solution to the loss of biodiversity.

Sarah Rich and David Zaks note that the population of bees has plummeted, and that this spells trouble for farmers who rely on “pollination services”:

From a strictly financial perspective, pollination is an invaluable service, provided by bees at no cost. But the cost we'd incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.
That’s a fairly wide range, which goes to show you that valuing ecosystem services is a very inexact science. Still, as I’ve said before, it’s better to argue over the amount of value provided than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

They mention the “entrepreneurial opportunities" offered by declining bee populations, but concede that hand pollination, at least, really isn’t a viable business niche. And they briefly discuss other natural pollinators, while noting that many of them, too, are in decline. Without faulting the authors’ concern, or grasp of the big picture, the problem with ecosystem services is precisely that it encourages people to think about "services" in the everyday sense: service providers compete for our business, and if we can’t get what we want from one, we’ll simply go to another. As long as we wear shoes, or eat bread, someone will seek to profit by making shoes or running a bakery. World without end, amen.

But "nature" doesn’t care whether we need our crops pollinated; it has no incentive to give us what we need to survive.

Another problem with ecosystem services is that once we’ve identified a “provider,” we tend to assume that a state of symbiosis will be maintained. Because it’s in our best interest to have pollination services, we’ll look after our pollinators, and they’ll thrive accordingly. Unfortunately, species that don’t enter into this “contract” may then be undervalued, as a professor quoted in the WorldChanging article explains:
To some extent, historically, there have been feral bees, wild bees that people haven’t domesticated that contribute pollination services. But when verola mites were introduced, feral populations all over the country crashed; nobody was there to protect them. And as a consequence, nobody has been there monitoring them, we have no idea what the feral bee population is in this country, whether there are bees that can fill in for the missing bees is just an open question.
In the end, though, my quarrel with the article really comes down to this claim:
Bees are a fantastic example of taking an ecosystem service and through skillful management, turning it into a commodity. As the delivery of this service is put in jeopardy, it is essential that we look for ways to maintain our pollination needs.
Perhaps “fantastic” is intended as a mischievous reference to chapter one of Das Kapital. And perhaps “skillful management” is intended as irony of an especially dour sort. But I don’t think so.

I don't see anything “world changing” about reducing ecosystem ecology, however tentatively or temporarily, to a branch of microeconomics; commodification of our environment is what got us into a good deal of the mess we’re in. And while it may indeed be “essential” for us to “maintain our pollination needs," what’s essential remains constrained by what’s possible. And what’s possible decreases with the loss of biodiversity.

I should add that having read other articles by Rich and Zaks, I believe they understand these issues as well as I do, if not better. I'm not questioning their knowledge or intentions, so much as their choice of language.

(Illustration by Edward Julius Detmold, circa 1911.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Science Says

Maggie Gallagher discerns an eerie parallel between James Cameron’s claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and the IPCC's claim that anthropogenic climate change is real: You can make scientific-sounding arguments for either position.

Oh goody, another lovely round of that increasingly popular parlor game, "Science Says." And just in time for Lent! James Cameron, the masterful storyteller who directed "Titantic," is clearly banking on the special media power this game has when someone (preferably a scientist, but a Hollywood director in a pinch will do) asserts that what science says ... is that the Bible is wrong.
Granted, James Cameron’s evidence is dubious, and his conclusions are unjustifiable. Still, the fact remains that he’s trying to appeal to the authority of science:
[T]he Science Says game works so well that people play it with the same dogmatic fervor they once played The Pope Says, and for a similar reason: Because if science really says something, you no longer need brook the irritation of tolerating dissent.
Which is exactly what’s happening in the field of climate research, where dissenters are routinely burned at the stake, and broken on the wheel, and God only knows what else.

I’m speaking figuratively, of course. While they haven’t literally been killed or tortured, they have been denied a voice in the debate…except to the very limited extent that they’ve been able to churn out op-eds, and appear at will on television without revealing their ties to industry, and write countless books and articles full of deathless lies, and testify before Congress, and get fawned over by every conservatarian dingbat from here to Qeqertarsuaq.

What’s really interesting is how Gallagher frames “dissent” versus “orthodoxy” on climate change. In her column, the dissenting view is represented by Timothy Ball, a skeptical Canadian climatologist (and anarcho-capitalist loon) who’s just been interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (behold the MSM’s intolerance of dissent!).

By contrast, climate “orthodoxy” is represented by Ellen Goodman, a liberal columnist. For some reason, Gallagher can’t seem to find a single climate expert to present the actual evidence for climate change.

This is partly because it’s easier to ridicule someone like Goodman than an actual climate scientist. But it’s also because science has to remain idealized – like childhood innocence - for Gallagher's strategy to work. See, she isn’t undermining the authority of science through epistemological nihilism; she’s protecting it against the encroachment of crypto-Marxist social engineers:
Scientists are far more than 90 percent certain about most scientific truths. It is social scientists who aim for 90 percent (or 95 percent) certainty, and the large margin for error -- a 1-in-10 chance by the authors' own estimate that the report is simply wrong about the cause of global warming.
A ninety-percent chance that we’re to blame for climate change is pretty serious (especially given the authoritative moral precedent of Dick Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine). It's not a large margin for error by any means, given what’s at stake. And needless to say, if Gallagher could dredge up statistics half that impressive to support her theory that feminism is to blame when men beat children to death, or blow up apartment buildings, she’d keep prattling about it until her jaw flew off its hinges.

[W]hat we have here is not a hard scientific fact, but a scientific judgment, a possibility, a probability perhaps, but hardly an undeniable fact like the Holocaust.
Of course, there was a point in time when the Holocaust wasn't an undeniable fact.

Some people even think that more should've been done to prevent it.

(Photo by Akuppa.)

Cultivating Grievances

Be it known: James Taranto has issued a diktat on racism; the matter is now settled, and any future complaints about this ineluctable fact of American life will invite his displeasure:

It's hard to make people feel guilty when they personally have done nothing wrong. It's hard to argue that racial disparities are the product of extant racism when there is no direct evidence that such racism is anything but extremely rare, and when public policy actually favors blacks over whites.
If it were truly difficult to make people feel guilty when they'd done nothing wrong, the Republican Party would've withered on the vine decades ago, to say nothing of organized religion.

Walter Benjamin once remarked that "only ignorant idealism can believe that sensual desire, of whatever sort, could designate the theological concept of sin." Needless to say, this country has plenty of ignorant idealists, and plenty of vicious cynics who'll exploit them for personal and political gain.

But never mind about that. It takes appallingly literal sangfroid to claim - not just in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but as an implicitly considered response to it - that "public policy favors blacks over whites." I often hear about how idyllic things are for blacks in this country, what with that red carpet that's rolled out for them wherever they go. But how many of the "oppressed" white people who echo Taranto's claims would trade places with black Americans, in order to get on this fast track to Easy Street? Not many, I imagine. (No doubt they enjoy the unique challenges that come with being white; bravely facing down these hardships makes success all the sweeter.)

Taranto claims that racism is "extremely rare." That hasn't been my experience, as I'll explain if you'll bear with me for a moment.

In the mid-seventies, when I was about eleven years old, I happened to spend a few days in a suburb near Norfolk, Virginia. It was a hot weekend, and I was invited to go swimming at a local pool.

The pool was huge, and looked fairly new. It was surrounded by a hurricane fence that, while probably not as imposing as it seems in my memory, was certainly more than six feet tall. I hadn't been splashing around for very long when I noticed that roughly a dozen black children of my own age were hanging onto the fence, staring grimly at us through the holes.

I asked one of the kids I'd come with why these children weren't allowed in. He told me that the pool was exclusively for members. "Are there any black members?" I asked.


"Why not?"

"They've got their own pools they can go to."

I let this non sequitur stand in place of an explanation, but the conversation disturbed me. Was it really possible that in 1970s Virginia, de facto segregation still existed? Was I dreaming? Hadn't everyone seen Roots?

As I found out soon enough, things weren't really any better where I lived. At the public high school I attended, the racism was literally out of control. There were incidents involving Ku Klux Klan costumes, racial epithets were spraypainted across lockers, and interracial fistfights were common. Even among people I considered friends there was frequent, casual talk about "niggers." It shocked me at first, but I adjusted, somewhat. My friends were quick to point out that they didn't hate black people...they just didn't like "niggers." Being confused, and sheltered, and as cowardly as only teenaged white boys can be, I let that explanation stand, too.

Fortunately, I soon transferred to a small urban school whose students came from all over the world. Interracial friendships and dating were common, and racial violence was unheard of, on campus at least. It all seemed very utopian, initially.

But it wasn't, really. Certain cliques were actively racist, and spoke of blacks as a form of urban vermin, like rats or cockroaches; there were "hilarious" discussions about the feasibility of "nigger traps," baited with malt liquor and sneakers. I gravitated towards the punk scene, and found that the desire to cast off convention led some people to make reactionary racialist pronouncements. Later, a few of these kids even got involved with white supremacist groups. But it was more common for them simply to profess weariness with liberal orthodoxy and its various hypocrisies, and to play around with forbidden words and concepts.

I understood this stance, and even agreed with it to some extent. There's a difference, though, between having contempt for hypocritical pieties and shrugging off or excusing racism, and I'm afraid that many people - including myself - didn't always observe that difference. In any event, that subculture - and similar ones - have always involved an anti-egalitarian temptation, and for far too many people racialist notions were a logical extension of underground elitism.

The years went on, and I found that if you got enough alcohol into certain "respectable" people, they'd confide that they had know...problems with Jews or blacks (homosexuals, of course, were fair game in all seasons). I attended business dinners with wealthy white men who were more than willing to make racial slurs after a few rounds of martinis. This, I'm certain, was not merely an expression of animus - though it was surely that - but a way of assuring one another of their bona fides. In some horrible way, it was a demonstration of "good business sense," much like attacking unions or universal heathcare.

Anyway, what I learned from all this was the not very startling fact that white racism exists in every class and subculture. Without making any real effort, I found it among the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the educated and the uneducated, the bourgeoisie and the bohemians. I don't subscribe to the notion that every white person is inevitably and inherently racist - though I don't think it's an outrageous claim, by any means - but I do believe that every black person in this country experiences the effects of racism, and is accordingly entitled to the deepest possible feelings of suspicion, resentment, despair, and rage.

In practice, though, their own emotions are the last thing American blacks are entitled to; whites decide which of their emotions are valid, and which aren't. Black anger and desperation are "senseless," we're told, driven by irrational urges that increase in luridness with the white observer's own level of hostility and fear. Soon enough, failure to use deadly force against black "looters" is occasion for complaint among our nation's really serious people. "Look what animals those people are! And after all we've done for them!"

Did you know that there are neo-confederates who actually whine about the word "indivisible" in the Pledge of Allegiance? It diminishes them, you see. It dishonors their ancestors by implying that the Confederate cause was meaningless (just imagine the scalding tears of self-pity welling up in their little pig eyes at that thought). There's no question of "getting over" a slight against one's long-dead ancestors; the eternal verities of Blood and Soil can only be belittled or denied at the expense of one's soul.

Unless you're black, in which case you need to grow up and quit whining, already. As Taranto says:
Black leaders would be well advised to spend less energy cultivating grievances and more cultivating an understanding of their fellow Americans. That is the path to integration.
Indeed. Pull your filthy guts off my knife, lazybones, and get busy cleaning up that puddle of blood.

"Understanding"? A persistent and justifiable distrust of white claims, white intentions, and white institutions - passed from generation to generation, and reconfirmed as valid in each by ongoing experiences of racial bias - is the best result one could expect from the mental and physical violence inflicted on minorities in this country. Though I'm no mind reader, I suspect that blacks understand "their fellow Americans" all too well.

To talk about the "interests" of whites sounds daft to most people; suggest, critically, that such interests do exist, and are pursued avidly, and you're a race-baiting zealot. Speak approvingly of them, and you're a racist of the worst sort (i.e., an indiscreet one). But act on them without thinking, as casually as you breathe God's good air, and you may rejoice in your perfect normality. The pursuit of white interests is, to most white people, as invisible as the nitrogen cycle, an essential natural process with which racism's subtle advocates are eager to conflate it. There are no white interests; there is no white agenda. There are simply a number of objective "civilized" values that comprise a standard against which various moral claims can be weighed, and they just happen to confirm what everyone who matters already knew.

Thus, which feelings about racism are permissible - and which reactions to oppression are "normal" - is for white folks to decide; expressing grievances has been ruled unacceptable by the very people to whom the grievances are addressed. Blacks will have a legitimate gripe only when Taranto - or some equally well qualified arbiter of racial injustice - says they do. What noble impartiality! What admirable objectivity!

Grief, of course, isn't suitable for discussion. Grief has its own pathology, but to dwell on it would be too uncomfortable and too humanizing. Instead, blacks are said to be "cultivating grievances" (presumably in some form of hothouse, since our honest American soil would never allow such unnatural weeds to thrive).

One of the worst of all injustices is the attempt to convince people - through the abuse of whatever power one happens to have - that what they see and feel and know is mere delusion. I imagine that it would be easier, in some ways, to live under a system of formal apartheid than to be subject to virulent racism while being told that it's all in one's head...or worse, that it's simply a manipulative, made-up excuse for one's own laziness or ineptitude.

Having ascertained that white racism exists primarily in the minds of shiftless blacks, Taranto's free to concentrate on the far more serious pathology of "white guilt." Here, at least, he sees hope for the future. In two generations, Taranto claims, no whites will have personal memories of segregation; white guilt will then die out naturally. At this point, presumably, there'll be no more humoring blacks about the existence of racism; denying them jobs, loans, and education will be nothing more than a logical response to their history of failure. It's a bit like the old water test for witches, except here, the guilty are those who drown when their heads are held under water.

(Illustration: R. W. Shufeldt, "Comparison of the physiognomy of a Congo Negro and Caesar" [1915].)

(This post originally appeared on September 18, 2005.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Unspoilt Beauties of Nature

Lewis Page, an 11-year veteran of the Royal Navy with significant experience in bomb disposal, describes his experience cleaning up phosgene shells in the UK countryside:

Lest anyone think the UK was hit by an enemy chemical bombardment a few years back without it making the press, I should point out that these WMDs were British. The place where I was standing was a test range, long ago. Boffins working on UK chemical weapons programmes fired thousands of gas shells into the area, showing the gay disregard for safety cases, compensation culture, and the Geneva Protocols so characteristic of the era.

Even more casually, once they were done they simply opened the range up to the public. To this day, it's a popular spot for a bracing walk among the unspoilt beauties of nature.
Page goes on to make several essential points. First, he notes that chemical weapons are not WMD unless you have a staggering amount of them (e.g., 10 or 15 tons of nerve agent), and that awestruck media reports of their lethality aren’t always based on realistic scenarios:
A single kilogram of nerve agent is said to be enough to kill 100 million people….That is actually true: but one would have to break the kilogram down into individual doses and administer them orally, without wasting so much as a tenth of a milligram. It would be far simpler to shoot one's victims or blow them up. Even strangling them barehanded would be easier. And this is generally the case with chemical weapons.
Second, the outrage over chemical weapons is morally incoherent:
Ordinary explosive rounds [can] take out a majority of unprotected people, rising to almost everyone at the high end. And in this case the protection required to survive isn't a cheap, portable suit and mask. One would want a bunker or a 30-ton armoured vehicle to withstand conventional artillery, and even then the risk of a direct hit would remain. Conventional ammunition is infinitely easier to get, store, and transport, too.
I'd actually take this line of reasoning a bit further, as I did in an earlier post:
Sometimes I wonder if a certain amount of the horror that ordinary weapons should inspire has been deflected onto chemical weapons and their ilk, as though the distinction between blowing people up and poisoning them constituted a clear and decisive line between civilization and barbarism. Chemical weapons, properly so called, are inherently of limited use on the battlefield; their real utility, perhaps, lies in their ability to make other forms of mass murder seem relatively acceptable.
Page’s final point can’t be overemphasized, especially at a time when hapless dead-enders are pointing to improvised chlorine bombs as “proof” that Iraq had WMD:
Toppling [Saddam] may or may not have been a good idea, but his possession or lack of battlefield chemical weapons shouldn't have affected anyone's thinking on the matter.
In other CW news, the Chinese are claiming that the Japanese abandoned 2 million tons of CW in China at the end of World War II. Both countries are funding a clean-up effort that’ll utilize a mobile deactivation facility.

And in the Baltic, fishermen reportedly net three tons of unexploded munitions per year, some of which contain the nerve agent tabun; the United States dumped massive quantities of these CW overboard circa 1945.

On the bright side, researchers at Hawaii’s Ordnance Reef have found that sunken munitions comprise a far better foundation for coral growth than old tires.

For the sake of perspective, it’s worth remembering that in Cambodia alone, landmines and other UXO cause an average of two casualties per day (there were 875 casualties in 2005). Much as I dislike the idea of submerged nerve agents in our coastal waters, I’d rather we devoted more of our expertise and money to landmine removal in Indochina.

(Photo of Tooele Army Depot, Utah by Douglas C. Pizac/AP, via Cryptome.)

UPDATE: Cheery news from Danger Room:
A recent study out of the Air War College calls for using chemicals as "first-use weapons against terrorists" -- part of a larger pitch to rethink the long-time pariah of military warfare....

The Rhetoric of Choice

Robert M. Jeffers considers the case of Robert Daniels, who’s been detained in an Arizona hospital ward because he’s infected with drug-resistant TB, and has apparently failed to comply with “voluntary” infection-control measures:

{T]his is the kind of fear and ignorance I am much more concerned about than the abstractions of who is dominating our "mainstream discourse" with what ideas.
In my own post on this subject, I described the stance of Wendy McElroy, a libertarian who believes it’s indefensible for the state to isolate Daniels, and therefore wants the matter to be handled privately (i.e., by vigilantes who’ll “ensure” his isolation, by force if necessary).

My kneejerk view is that it is arguably acceptable for the state to defend society by isolating Daniels, so long as it’s done “humanely” (which, as Jeffers states and I believe, is not the case in this instance).

And yet. I recognize to my dismay that this stance implies that there’s a humane way of being inhumane, so long as one makes a few rational compromises (much like the one McElroy makes in order to sustain her ethics from a point completely outside it). Naturally, one wouldn't dream of doing such things if it weren't for the common good (as identified by, or with, some appropriately "wise" wielder of power).

I've heard a similar logic applied to Iraq, come to think of it: Why did we invade, when the more humane policy of containment and sanctions was working so well? Or to put it another way, why bomb and shoot people when you can isolate and starve them?

In Resurrection (1899), Leo Tolstoy wrote:
If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time--Christian, humane, simple, kind people--perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately.
Tolstoy's conclusion was that one must take responsibility, by opting out of a system that fights evil with evil.

Of course, that's impossibly highminded. And besides, it'd hardly be rational to choose a philosophy that's potentially incompatible with our long-term survival. (Unless there were serious money to be made.)

Speaking of rationality, David Klinghoffer argues that what PZ Myers has dubbed “uppity atheism” is essentially religious, because it’s based on a metaphysical certainty about the nature of reality.

Which I could live with, if Klinghoffer were willing to grant atheism-as-religion the respect he demands for religion per se. He wants atheism to be a faith - complete with its gospels and priests – but simultaneously wants to claim that it's not a real commitment, and provides no meaning or comfort to its believers. Atheists are intolerably arrogant and self-satisfied fundamentalists, and undernourished souls “racked by despair at life's apparent meaninglessness," depending on which stance is more effectively dismissive at a given moment. Heads he wins, tails they lose.

Elsewhere, Klinghoffer says that "Iraqis...should not be regarded as hopelessly enslaved to their culture -- nor to the legacy of Saddam Hussein. They can be liberated in soul as well as in body, turned into the first democrats in Arab history, if America wills it." In this, he agrees nicely with the “uppity atheist” Christopher Hitchens who uses the horrors of religious fanaticism as an alibi for supporting the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (while implicitly supporting its strategy of exploiting religious hatred to gain support for the “War on Terror”).

Still, let's give credit where it's due: Hitchens may be a drunken, rage-addled, warmongering, morally bankrupt coward who's incapable of admitting his mistakes, but at least he doesn't have an "invisible sky buddy." In this, if in nothing else, he's chosen to be rational.

In what I see, perhaps unwisely, as a related argument, Sheelzebub points out that there’s a difference between the ideal and the reality of “choice,” and that this difference has something to do with power:
When we have punitive laws aimed at poor women, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we have a history of pushing sterilization, Norplant, and Depo on mainly poor women of color (and damn the ensuing health problems), the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we hail lower birthrates among the poor as what will save the poor, and ignore things like economic justice, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we insist on punishing addicted women for not magically kicking the habit while pregnant and simultaneously turn them away when they seek help (since, you know, we have better things to fund with our tax dollars, like the Iraq war), the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we threaten to take away the children of poor women (many of whom are women of color) because of circumstances beyond their control, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When welfare-to-work policies are coupled with expensive daycare and the demonization of poor mothers as “welfare queens,” the rhetoric of choice rings hollow.
Which brings us back to Jeffers’ point: What do we allow to happen to other human beings - and to ourselves - while we haggle over our pet abstractions, and grind away at whatever's left of our rhetorical axes?

And to his other point, which is that my blog sucks:
If left blogistan has proven anything, it's proven that it's always easier to complain than to construct, to tear down rather than to build up, to propose wholesale replacement of the bums in charge with our bums, because once our bums have the power, they'll use it wisely!....

Power cannot be used wisely. It can only be used.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Frozen Music

BLDGBLOG has posted a terrific, wide-ranging interview with the film editor, sound mixer, and director Walter Murch. (I also advise you to watch Murch’s magnificent Return to Oz, if you haven’t already. Or even if you have.)

The new issue of Polar Inertia features haunting photoessays on the Argentinian necropolis Chacarita - which looks like something out of Murch’s film - and the Gaza International Airport.

Kosmograd on "home-owner holdouts" in the UK and China.

Subtopia offers a tour of the detention center being built on Christmas Island.

David Axe on the varied uses of checkpoints.

Neutron bombs, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and middle-class Marxism; it’s all part of the MoD's grim vision of the future.

(Photo of the Sutyagin House in Arkhangelsk, Russia via Bricoleurbanism.)

UPDATE: Broken link fixed. (Thanks, Rip!)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here's Glossodoris cruenta, beautifully photographed by Jean-François Herve.

I'd say more, but Four Legs Good and Tena are getting too impatient.

Friday Hope Blogging

Cambodian farmers are benefiting from organic farming techniques:

[A] sizable number of small-scale farmers in the Kingdom of Cambodia are not leaping into today's chemically dependent monocultures. Rather, they're using intelligent low-tech to take them straight to what many believe should become the norm of the future -- modern, high-yield, organic farming.

About 50,000 farm families in 15 of Cambodia's 20 provinces are learning to double and triple their yields and diversify their harvests without the high-cost, high-risk chemical and mechanical inputs found on most modern farms almost everywhere else.
Also in Cambodia, the Khmer Software Initiative aims to create open-source software adapted to the local language and economy:
We believe that in order to enter a digital world without forfeiting its culture, a country must do it by using software in its own language. Software in a foreign language exacerbates the digital divide, makes basic computer training difficult and expensive, closes computer-using jobs to people with little economic resources, impoverishes local culture, and blocks computer-based government processes, as the local language script cannot be used in databases.
Link via Allison Randall, who also discusses, “a non-profit organisation focused on the localisation, or translation, of Open Source software into South Africa's 11 official languages.”

Speaking of appropriate technology, Village Earth has joined Appropedia to create the largest world's largest open-source clearinghouse for information on sustainable and low-tech solutions.

Eritrea has banned female circumcision. Wonderful news, but let's hope they back the ban up with education, instead of relying on punitive measures.

Mexico may legalize abortion, instead of turning a blind, hypocritical eye to back-alley procedures and self-induced miscarriages:
The debate now roiling Mexico would have been nearly unthinkable a decade ago, proponents of the law say. The topic was so taboo that the church once excommunicated actresses and television producers for bringing it up in a soap opera.

“People are talking about abortion openly for the first time in Mexico,” said Lilian Sepúlveda, a lawyer with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights who tracks the issue in Latin America. “It is historic.”
A simple operation could prevent many maternal deaths in Africa:
Teaching doctors in Africa a low-tech operation to cut the cartilage of the symphysis pubis could save the lives of women in obstructed labor and their babies, according to an Essay in the open access journal PLoS Medicine.
Echidne reports that Wal-Mart has signed on to Planned Parenthood's contraceptive policy, and has accordingly announced that all its stores will stock OTC and emergency birth control, and provide it to customers
...without discrimination (no harassment or lectures), without delay, without judgment or regard for the number of refills prescribed or, in the case of OTC products requested.
Pam Spaulding continues her interview with Joe Murray, former attorney and columnist for the hard-right American Family Association, who has come out in favor of gay rights:
Look, there is no need to see gays as the enemies; such a view is not healthy. I used to believe that gays were part of a grand cultural conspiracy, out to replace the Christian culture, but found this to be untrue.

For the most part, gays want exactly what I want — a family, respect, happiness, the right to follow their dreams. Is this too much to ask? Would granting these rights shred our cultural fabric? Surely not.
If someone like Murray can overcome his prejudices, it’s quite possible that the rest of us can learn to see people where we once saw enemies.

Speaking of which, Atrios applauds Republican Governor Charlie Crist:
Florida's clemency board has worked out a deal with Gov. Charlie Crist to allow most felons released from prison to have their voting and other civil rights restored.

Under a rule approved Thursday, all but the most violent felons would avoid the need to get on a long list for a hearing before the board, which sometimes takes years.
A Washington man has apparently managed to power his house with a backyard hydrogen cell:
In 2004, they started rigging up a Rube Goldberg contraption that uses solar panels and electrolyzers to generate hydrogen and allows Web-based monitoring of its proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell. In late 2006, a bemused but impressed inspector granted state approval. Now the system, which they built for around $50,000, taps any surplus solar electricity to fill a 500-gallon hydrogen fuel tank, enough reserve for about 14 days’ worth of power (a second tank can be added to double that capacity).
Not content with having invented the Internets, Al Gore is working on an overhaul of the electric grid:
Using the momentum of his Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, Gore is advocating a decentralized "smart grid" that would allow anyone to set up their own generator and buy or sell surplus electricity without caps.

Such an "Electranet" would eliminate the need for new-generation plants, spark widespread use of renewable energy and, ultimately, beat back global warming.
There are obstacles, of course:
"Anything that improves efficiency becomes a business problem," Yeager said, noting that outside of California, utilities are compensated based on the number of kilowatt hours they sell, not on efficiency.
On top of which, Al Gore is fat and wears earth tones. Still, I thought the proposal was worth mentioning, since they seem to have overlooked it at Planet Gore.

There’s talk of building a giant solar tower outside El Paso. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m too lazy to doublecheck. Nothing wrong with hearing good news twice, I suppose.

Treehugger discusses vertical farms:
New York Magazine has a spectacular spread on [Dr. Dickson Despommier’s] vision of "a cluster of 30-story towers on Governors Island or cluster of 30-story towers on Governors Island or in Hudson Yards producing fruit, vegetables, and grains while also generating clean energy and purifying wastewater. Roughly 150 such buildings, Despommier estimates, could feed the entire city of New York for a year. Using current green building systems, a vertical farm could be self-sustaining and even produce a net output of clean water and energy."
Inhabitat has lots more (including, as always, some great pictures).

The Maryland State Senate has approved a ban on the mechanical dredging of shellfish.

Majikthise reports on the trend away from offering bottled water at high-end restaurants, “in favor of more environmentally-friendly in-house filtration and carbonation systems.”

A new firm called Generic Medical Devices intends to market - you guessed it - generic medical devices:
We plan to market our products at two-thirds the cost of existing brand name counterparts. We can achieve this substantial price reduction because we do not need to conduct costly clinical trials, because physicians have been previously trained on these devices and because we do not need to spend the marketing dollars required to introduce a new product to the marketplace and secure customer adoption.
They wisely plan "to partner with humanitarian organizations to make generic devices available to developing nations."

Aggressive forest management is perhaps not such a pressing need as experts previously thought:
A new study of forest lands that burned in the 1990s in northern California and southwestern Oregon has concluded there is a "fair to excellent" chance that an adequate level of conifers will regenerate naturally, in sites that had no manual planting or other forest management.

The authors said in their report that "assertions that burned areas, left unmanaged, will remain unproductive for some indefinite period, seem unwarranted." Short term delays in conifer regeneration and a broader range of recovering plant and animal species may also have benefits in terms of varied tree size, plant biodiversity, and wildlife habitat.
The Central Eurasian Information Resource Image Database “aims to develop a broad and representative collection of images illustrating the geography, folkways, lifestyles and architecture of the vast regions of the Russian Federation and other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union which, until now, have been relatively little visited or studied.” Highly recommended, as is the University of Washington’s Stereocard Collection.

When I first saw Film Before Film, Werner Nekes’ stunning documentary on pre-cinematic devices and "philosophical toys," I wanted it to last five times longer than it did. Fortunately, it turns out that in the intervening years, Nekes has made five more films dealing with the camera obscura, anamorphosis, moving slides, picture montage, and stroboscopic devices like the phenakistoscope. All of them are now available on DVD from MovieMail, or directly from Nekes himself (note: if you’re in North America, you'll need an all-region DVD player to watch them).

In the meantime, you can visit the Pre-Cinema page at Early Visual Media, which covers a lot of the same ground.

Those of you who are not already members of the Victorian Hairwork Society may want to pay them a visit, and possibly even download images of their 1865 hair album.

The rest of you can proceed directly to Folk Art in Bottles.

Or, if you prefer, the Cigar Band Museum. Or the x-ray photographs of Judith K. McMillan.

The latest issue of Micscape features A Close-Up View of the Gerbera Daisy, and an amazing Gallery of Beta-naphthyl Acetate Photomicrographs by Brian Johnston.

I also enjoyed Richard Howey’s magnified images of everyday objects like Velcro.

You can see more of Howey’s work at his homepage.

Last, but not least, 210 photos of American deserts, taken between 1891 and 1936.

(Photo at top: "Studio" by Hugh Shurley.)