Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Deadly Agents

Those of us who'd taken an interest in the fate of the Tripoli Six were pleased by their release last week. But as Harriet A. Washington reminds us, their liberation may intensify the problems that led to their imprisonment.

[T]o many Africans, the accusations, which have been validated by a guilty verdict and a promise to reimburse the families of the infected children with a $426 million payout, seem perfectly plausible. The medical workers’ release appears to be the latest episode in a health care nightmare in which white and Western-trained doctors and nurses have harmed Africans — and have gone unpunished.
As I said in an earlier post:
It's easy to feel impatient with these people, whose fanaticism blinds them to the fact that while we might bomb Muslims indiscriminately, or imprison and torture them indefinitely, or dump toxic waste along their shorelines, we are not going to shoot their children up with pathogen-laced vaccines.
People who speak about "completing the project of the Enlightenment" usually aren't talking about performing medical experiments on the poor and powerless. Regardless, this sort of research comes a bit closer to certain cultures' understanding of "Science" than the relentlessly cheerful abstractions of, say, Richard Dawkins.
Africa has harbored a number of high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research....

These medical killers are well known throughout Africa, but the most notorious is Wouter Basson, a former head of Project Coast, South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons unit under apartheid. Dr. Basson was charged with killing hundreds of blacks in South Africa and Namibia, from 1979 to 1987, many via injected poisons. He was never convicted in South African courts, even though his lieutenants testified in detail and with consistency about the medical crimes they conducted against blacks.
These are exceptions, of course, and Ms Washington is careful to acknowledge that fact. But as Adorno pointed, it's perfectly normal to "neutralize the key phenomena of social injustice as mere exceptions."

Meanwhile, via Adventus:
[L]ast fall, a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession's 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the "Rumsfeld definition" of humane treatment.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Point of Exhaustion

An article in The Economist discusses the theoretical implications of an alleged shift in the presumed beliefs of unidentifed people:

The panic about resource constraints that prevailed during the 1970s and 1980s, when the population was rising through the steep part of the S-curve, has given way to a new concern: that the number of people in the world is likely to start falling.
The article doesn't explain when the global population will start falling, nor how much it'll grow prior to that point. But who cares? The important thing is that "resource constraints" are not worth worrying about:
There doesn't seem to be much danger of a Malthusian catastrophe. Mankind appropriates about a quarter of what is known as the net primary production of the Earth (this is the plant tissue created by photosynthesis) — a lot, but hardly near the point of exhaustion....Certainly, the impact that people have on the climate is a problem; but the solution lies in consuming less fossil fuel, not in manipulating population levels.
There are a number of problems with this. First off, human appropriation creates externalities (including, since the author brings it up, impacts on climate). Second, this occasionally has a negative effect on net primary production (e.g., desertification, or changes in algae population), and thus on the animals that rely on it. Third, appropriating NPP can affect regional animal populations by leaving less energy for them. In other words, there's a lot more at issue here than reaching "the point of exhaustion."

This minor quibble aside, the article makes some clever suggestions for dealing with population decline, as thus:
The best way to ease the transition towards a smaller population would be to encourage people to work for longer, and remove the barriers that prevent them from doing so. State pension ages need raising. Mandatory retirement ages need to go.
What's not to like? The author also suggests that governments should make it easier for working women to have children, not least because of this attractive fringe benefit:
America and north-western Europe once also faced demographic decline, but are growing again, and not just because of immigration. All sorts of factors may be involved; but one obvious candidate is the efforts those countries have made to ease the business of being a working parent.
So if I've got this straight, we were formerly panicked about resource constraints, but now we're worried about population decline, which we shouldn't address by manipulating population levels, although governments should make it easier for working women to have children, which might keep the population growing and allow us to worry anew about resource constraints.

For some reason, it puts me in mind of a poem:
We are men of groans and howls,
Mystic men who eat boiled owls,
Tell us what you wish, oh King,
Our magic can do anything.
(Photo: Oklahoma Dust Bowl circa 1930, via USDA NRCS.)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Girls Can't Help It

If you’re a woman – and who isn’t, deep down? – you may be interested to learn that you find Fred Thompson irresistible:

Lorrie Morgan predicted to the Sunday Times of London that Thompson will prove irresistible to women voters: "He's majestic. He's a soft, safe place to be, and that could be Fred's ticket. Women love a soft place to lay and a strong pair of hands to hold us."
To me, he looks like Tor Johnson after a six-month bout of amoebic dysentery. On the other hand, he’s tall, he smells nice, and he’s on TV. Clearly, if anyone can save the GOP, it’s Thompson.

Or is it? Let’s consider some other possibilities:

Dennis Miller
Pros: Works cheap; no career conflicts.
Cons: People absolutely fucking hate him.

The Gorton’s Fisherman
Pros: Stays the course.
Cons: The intolerable stench of old seaman.

Andy Devine
Pros: Appeared in westerns with John Wayne; looks a bit like Fred Thompson; cruel to animals, but in an entertaining and instructive way.
Cons: Dead and buried these 30 years.

Foghorn Leghorn
Pros: Decisive; optimistic; has a strong Southern accent; it’d be fun to have a beer with him.
Cons: Licensing and branding issues.

Pros: African-American.
Cons: Black.

These candidates all have their strengths, to be sure. But the fact is, it'd take two men - two very special men - to distract our nation's yearning womanhood from the extraordinary sexual magnetism of Fred Thompson.

Ladies and gentlemen - but especially ladies - I give you those two men.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Nembrotha rubrolineata sings for no one but me
I tell my friends to listen to her in vain
No one ever hears her
Except one, only one
But though his air is sincere
I mistrust him, he might be a liar.

(Photo by Teresa Zubi.)

Friday Hope Blogging

The Tripoli Six have been released after eight years of wrongful imprisonment, and have returned home. Here’s Revere on the massive, nonpartisan movement to free them:

I don't know all the heroes, but I would like to make special mention of Nature Senior Correspondent Declan Butler who was instrumental in getting Nature, the world's greatest science journal, many scientists and, not least, the science blogosphere actively engaged. I am proud of my colleagues here at Science Blogs and elsewhere who weighed in at just the right moment, becoming the spearhead for a huge reaction from the blogosphere in general, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Declan was the spark that set it ablaze.
A federal judge has tossed out a frivolous lawsuit by off-road criminals:
A federal court has denied an attempt by off-road vehicle enthusiasts to reopen a rare, fragile desert stream in Death Valley National Park to extreme vehicle use. The off-roaders’ group had sued the federal government claiming it had a right to use the streambed under a repealed Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction.

“It’s a great day for Surprise Canyon and Death Valley National Park,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, representing six conservation groups involved in the case. “This place is a miracle — a gushing stream running through the desert. We’re pleased the court denied an attempt to turn this marble canyon’s waterfalls into a highway.”
Some background information is in order here. ORVs were previously allowed into the canyon. In order to make it passable, riders hacked down trees, ripped out plants, filled in portions of the river with rocks, and committed sundry other acts of vandalism. A coalition of groups sued the BLM for failing to protect the canyon, and won; the area has since made an amazing recovery. Here's a picture (via Ubehebe).

New PDA software designed by African researchers lets Kalahari Bushmen record animal sightings in order to aid conservation efforts.
Pressing an icon records a sighting or other indications, which is sent wirelessly to a computer server by satellite. Of course, this free software can be used for other purposes than nature conservation. It can be applied around the world to social surveys, organic farming, integrated pest management and disaster relief.
A redevelopment plan in New Jersey has been halted on the grounds that its decision to raze a “blighted” older neighborhood was politically motivated:
In her decision, Judge Simonelli mentioned the close links between the developers and the James administration, adding that large contributions had been made to the former mayor and the Municipal Council, whose approval was needed for the area’s condemnation.
Historic preservation seems to be catching on in Phoenix, too, which is a mindboggling concept on any number of levels. Apparently, some historic buildings are being moved, instead of demolished. I suggest they be sent to the moon.

The LA Times reports on architectural activism in the Mojave Desert:
[R]arely have architectural skills been used to try to change the outcome of a controversy in the way one might use tree-sitting or monkey-wrenching. Now, a small group is doing just that in…an isolated outpost called Eagle Mountain….
It’s a long article, but well worth reading in full.

The North Carolina state House stands revealed as a gaggle of joyless old scrooges:
The state House on Monday voted 108-0 to ban the construction of new waste lagoons on hog farms and set higher standards for new waste disposal systems.

State leaders have been struggling with how to reduce the water and air pollution caused by the factory farms, which produce huge volumes of manure and urine that sit in open-air waste ponds.
Speaking of open-air waste ponds, AIDG Blog has an fascinating article on Weston, MA’s greenhouse-based sewage system:
Sometimes referred to as a “living machine”, the center treats 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of sewage per day and has an upper limit of 7,000 gallons. Waste is treated to secondary or tertiary standards through natural wetland processes, using absolutely no chemicals….

The old waste treatment system cost 11 to 15 cents per gallon of waste treated, compared to the natural system, which costs merely 10 cents per gallon. This reduction in cost per gallon seems to be common after switching to natural systems. In Poughkeepsie, for instance, a newer reed bed operation costs 3 to 5 cents per a gallon, whereas the older mechanical systems cost 7 to 15 cents.
In related news, the Chelsea Flower Show features a garden designed for Mars, or any other planet whose human population must wisely use limited resources.

A new research technique has revealed a talented new microorganism in Yellowstone's hot springs:
Unexpectedly, the new bacterium was discovered to have special light-harvesting antennae known as chlorosomes, which each contain about 250,000 chlorophylls. No member of this phylum nor any aerobic microbe was known to make chlorosomes before this discovery.
Inhabitat offers a deeply erotic account of paint-on solar cells:
The sunlight excites the polymer backing, which in turn causes it to release electrons.
Yes I said yes I will Yes.

CKR sees some positive movement towards arms control, and Revere sees some improvement in pandemic preparation. Small steps, granted, but these are tough critics, so their approval counts double. Another tiny step: PepsiCo will identify Aquafina as tap water on the label.

Unlike a lot of patchouli-drenched socialist bedwetters, I’ve never gotten very excited about the architectural reuse of shipping containers. This article is pretty compelling, though.

In Liberation Hydrology, Geoff Manaugh provides visual aids for exploring a different kind of hope, based on aestheticizing disaster (which is something I've wrestled with before). As Geoff says: "If this is what people think climate change will bring them, then a whole lot of people are probably looking forward to it."

That's exactly right, in my view. Scaring people with disaster on this scale doesn't work, not so much because it breeds apathy as because it tantalizes us with the "negative pleasure" of the Sublime.

But enough about that. You should have a look at Bees, Bees and More Bees, a beautiful Flickr set via Coudal.

And Images from a Galilean Telescope, and the decorated buses of Port-Au-Prince. You might also wish to take a few virtual flights over the Tibetan plains.

Also, BibliOdyssey has compiled plates from Kircher's Musurgia Universalis.

Last, because I'm too lazy to do my own research today, a dizzying nonverbal transcription of Moby-Dick, via Moon River.

(Photo at top from A Gallery of Citric Acid Photomicrographs, by Brian Johnston.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Atom-Age Boomtowns

The argument that nuclear power is the only reasonable solution to the problem of global warming is very compelling, even - or especially - to people who don't believe that global warming is actually happening.

Not surprisingly, this has encouraged a uranium boom in the West:

Since 2000, 175 U.S. firms have jumped into the market, and exploration expenditures have more than tripled to $185 million a year. In Colorado's San Miguel County, south of Nucla, some 1,731 new claims were staked last year; in all of 2002, there were 3. At the vanguard of the rush are the dilapidated towns whose residents reaped the rewards — and paid the price — of the last boom.
The price that Kingsville, Texas paid back in the eighties was high enough that some citizens are traveling to other towns to spread the gospel of mistrust:
"Don't sign on, don't lease," said Fred Bell, a 1951 graduate of Gallup High School who now lives seven miles south of Kingsville. "They'll get all they can out of you and then they're gone."
A spokesman for Uranium Resources Inc., explains that this time around, it won't be rape, but love; after all, "things have changed since the 1980s."
"If we can't do it safely," he said, "we won't do it at all."
In the eighties, of course, we had crackpots like James Watt and Donald Hodel in charge of Interior. Surely their like will not be here again. (Apropos of which, my heartiest congratulations to former Dick Cheney aide Randall Luthi, who's just been put in charge of the Minerals Management Service.)

Meanwhile, David Miller of Strathmore Minerals explains the economics of uranium mining:
Miller said of the several hundred uranium companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange today, only a handful will likely ever actually produce even a pound of yellowcake. But many will make money on speculation.

Driving speculation is uranium's phenomenal rise from the dead. Just four years ago, uranium (U308) was $7 per pound. Now at $130 per pound, the rush is on.
Which is why it's not inconceivable that twenty years from now, URI will be talking about the new regulations - and, more important, the sea-change in corporate culture - that make it impossible for things to go as they did in the bad old days of 2007.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Roy Spencer advances a paradigm-shattering theory on global warming:

[I]f I had to wager, I would bet on a small change in cloudiness to explain at least part of our current warmth.
Spencer offers this as an alternative to theories of warming based on human or solar activity. Which is kind of odd, since one would expect both mechanisms to have some sort of effect on cloud formation (contrails spring to mind, just for starters).

[I]t has been calculated that about a one-percent increase in low clouds could offset the warming from a doubling of the carbon-dioxide concentration.

Of course, it works the other way, too. A decrease in low clouds with warming would enhance the warming.

But when I mention this possibility to other climate researchers, the response is usually, “what would cause such a change in clouds?” You see, in climate research, if we can’t think of a causative mechanism, then it obviously doesn’t exist. And if we can’t measure cloud variations accurately enough to know if there has been a 0.5-percent change in the last 30 years, then we’ll just assume it hasn’t happened.

They call this science, but I call it faith.
Logicians call this petitio principii, but I call it being a yammering fuckhead.

If Spencer wants to argue that a certain amount of warming is due to changes in cloud formation, it seems reasonable to ask what caused those changes. Spencer's hope, I'm guessing, is that it'd turn out to be a matter of natural variation (or God's loving grace, if he prefers to draw on his soul-deep understanding of intelligent design).

Clouds being "a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away," I'm not sure how one would go about testing Spencer's hypothesis. I suppose we could consult anecdotal evidence (John Ruskin's The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, for instance). But I think most scientists would want to see something a little more...well, scientific. In the meantime, it requires a lot more faith to take an "0.5-percent change in the last 30 years" as revealed truth than it does to reject it as sheer speculation.

Regardless, Spencer scolds his colleagues for failing to come up with a "causative mechanism" for his own unproven - and possibly unprovable - hypothesis, and then sneers at them for abandoning science.

I wonder how many of them duck into stairwells, or pretend to be talking on cellphones, when they see him coming....

Illustration: "Cloud study (after Alexander Cozens' 'Engravings of Skies')" by John Constable.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Monkey's Paw

It was a dark and stormy night. Professor Denys Glenlorn was sitting at his desk, attempting to calculate how much weight he could lift if he were equipped with a mechanized exoskelton.

“Someone’s at the door,” called Mrs. Glenlorn.

The Professor hoisted himself to his feet. “That’ll be Major Bloodloss from next door. He said he had something he wanted to show me.”

He pressed the automatic door-opener, and picked up his Heckler & Koch HK416 hopefully, in case he should prove to be mistaken about the bona fides of his visitor.

Moments later, Major Bloodloss strode in. He glanced at the Professor’s gun and laughed. “Better luck next time,” he said.

The Major took a seat by the fire, and grabbed greedily at the tumbler of whiskey proffered by Mrs. Glenlorn. Five glasses later, he was talking expansively about his role in the liberation of Grenada, and the dangers of allowing menstruating women to abide in foxholes, and the queer customs that prevail in foreign lands.

"That's all very interesting," said the Professor. "And yet, I feel that in some ways, I’ve led a more exciting life than you, thanks to the Internet. For instance, you can only fight in one war at a time. But I can fight in as many browser windows as I can open.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” the old soldier muttered. “What a hopelessly deluded little piss-ant you are.”

The Professor picked up an electrified ear-trumpet devised for him by Ray Kurzweil, and placed the narrow end into his ear canal; a light at the other end pulsed in response to the rhythms of human speech, as though it were animated by some otherworldly intelligence. “Pardon me?”

“Nothing,” said the Major.

“What was that you were telling me the other day about a monkey's paw, or something?"

The Major fumbled in his pocket, and pulled out a hideous, wizened little paw with matted tufts of pale hair around its wrist. “Bought it in France at a street market. The fellow said it’d grant its owner three wishes.”

The Professor snorted. “That’s socialism for you.”

“That’s what I thought, too. But it works. All you have to do is hold it aloft in your right hand, and say out loud what you want.”

The Professor took the paw and looked at it thoughtfully. “Can I try it?”

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said the Major.

Professor Glenlorn held the paw aloft and said, “I want the president to invade and occupy Iraq.”

Nothing happened. For a moment, the Professor looked as though he might burst into tears. The Major gestured towards the television. The Professor turned it on, and was astonished to behold many interesting scenes of calamity and bloodshed. Iraqis were being beaten, sexually tortured, and even murdered. Car bombs were exploding in markets and outside mosques. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dead, as were thousands of American soldiers. The cost of the war was skyrocketing, and wounded Americans – many of whom had been redeployed to Iraq multiple times - were being neglected in filthy hospitals.

“It worked!” he shrieked. "This is marvelous!"

“Don’t you see?” cried the Major. “You got your wish, but it brought nothing but disaster!”

“I suppose you’d like Saddam back, eh?” sneered the Professor. “Defeatism like yours can’t be tolerated in a time of war.” He raised the paw again and said, “I want George W. Bush to use every available tool in the fight against Islamofascism.”

No sooner had he pronounced these words than the Major vanished, and the war coverage was replaced by a rerun of Green Acres. The Professor was so exceedingly pleased by this further demonstration of the paw’s efficacy that several moments passed before he comprehended that the walls of his house – and of every other house on the street – were now made of transparent plastic. There was an itching sensation in his left wrist; he glanced down, and his acute mind instantly understood that he’d been implanted with some sort of RFID tracking device.

“One step nearer to our transhuman future!” he ejaculated. “The paw works perfectly. There's no downside at all, that I can see.”

He toyed with it pensively. “I’ve only got one wish left. I’ll have to make it a good one.”

“You’ve got mail,” his computer said. “Thanks,” replied the Professor, who was endeavoring to meet the changing demands of etiquette in an age of intelligent machines.

He walked over to his desk, and read with considerable interest the e-mail that had just been delivered.

He glanced slyly at his wife, who was slumped in the corner, crying softly. He raised the paw and whispered, “I want to get up and stay up. All night, every night.”

And so he did, until the day he died. For the monkey’s paw had given him a conscience.

Pleasure Centers

Thers reports that the war-drums are beating in Outer Wingnuttia over news that 24 will become carbon-neutral. As Noel Sheppard of Newsbusters says:

Now one of my favorite shows has become part of Al Gore's scam.
Things are even worse than Sheppard realizes, as demonstrated by the DoD's strategy to "increase the use of clean, renewable energy to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and to optimize environmental benefits and sustainability."

We'll be sending a truck 'round to collect your balls, Mr. Sheppard. You won't be needing 'em in the effete new world of Ecotopia.

Roy Edroso says that people like Sheppard can't enjoy ideologically nonconforming entertainment because "they recreate little Inquisitions in their minds, and the pleasure centers that should be receptive to such treats as "24" become subject to their review."

I'd argue that ideology is often what gives them permission to consume pop culture, kinda like those critical theorists who loll around watching reruns of Dawson's Creek in order to keep tabs on the Administered Society.

Beyond that, I suspect that for a lot of these folks, resenting Al Gore is far more thrilling than watching even the most torture-laden episode of 24. Yoke the two pastimes together, and you get the sort of ideological Fluffer Nutter that lures creatures like Sheppard the way picnic baskets lure Yogi Bear. To paraphrase Thomas Traherne, you never enjoy the world aright, 'til Al Gore has ruined it for you.

The MO here is somewhat analogous to that of the dieter who "forgets" to tell the waiter not to bring dessert, and when it comes, gets the triple pleasure of yelling at him, grudgingly agreeing to eat it anyway, and enjoying precisely the treat he wanted all along.

Anger and disgust are just as essential to these people's enjoyment of television as the elephant-house stench of sweaty flab on overheated naugahyde. I suspect they can't even enjoy something as ideologically correct as Veggie Tales without imagining liberals mocking its God-fearing wholesomeness while en route to one of those clubs where they turn people into human toilets.

Which, needless to say, is the icing on their cake. They're not cheating themselves of enjoyment, they're heightening it. It's the ideological equivalent of autoerotic asphyxiation.

UPDATE: Noel Sheppard notes that Thers (aka "Wingnuttery") uses vulgar language. This inspires one of Noel's commenters to put the matter in its proper historical context:
Just before the hippie movement, Lady Chattersly's Lover was released. D. H. Lawrence's purpose in writing the book was to put s*** and f*** back into common usage. I think he succeeded.
Which just goes to show that "anything can be said in this place and it will be true and will have to be believed."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday Music Blogging

Long Live Proletarian Internationalism!

Martin Durkin, the denialist halfwit behind The Great Global Warming Swindle, has written an op-ed explaining why he rules, and the world climatological community drools.

It starts out with a bang:

When I agreed to make The Great Global Warming Swindle, I was warned a middle-class fatwa would be placed on my head.
You have to admire the amount of mythology Durkin managed to cram into this short sentence. There's denialism as brave defiance of a blinkered, oppressive orthodoxy. There's environmentalism as religion (and an alien, terroristic religion at that). There's the neocon brand of vulgar Marxism, which heaps scorn on the bourgeoisie for not consuming enough. And best of all, there's the hysterical victimology that conflates being contradicted by experts with getting lynched.

If global warming is real, Durkin asks, then why is everyone getting so upset about the opinions of a humble documentary filmmaker? Clearly, "they" have something to hide, or they'd simply ignore his dissent and get on with the important work of rebutting denialist agitprop. QED, motherfuckers!

Having liberated himself from the delusions of climate "science," Durkin is able to understand what's really going on. It seems that the middle class is angry because cheap airfares are cluttering up their favorite "exotic foreign places" with greasy, pockmarked proles. This has naturally led them to embrace the notion that human activities are affecting the climate. To contradict them, and point out that growth and globalization are intrinsically and eternally good, outrages them not because it's incorrect - how could it be? - but because it's "a grievous breach of social etiquette."

(If you imagine that Durkin himself is a member of the middle class, think again. He's more of a cheeky East End ragamuffin, as you can tell from his studious use of streetsmart verbiage like "vulgar oiks," "off their chump," "bally," and the fearsome "bugger-all.")

Since bourgie ressentiment is the sand on which the house of climate change is built, what ails the scientists who claim to have evidence for it? The answer is hinted at in the denialist mantra: everyone's stupid but me.
To the utter dismay of the global warming lobby, the world does not appear to be getting warmer. According to their own figures (from the UN-linked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the temperature has been static or slightly declining since 1998. The satellite data confirms this. This is clearly awkward. The least one should expect of global warming is that the Earth should be getting warmer.
The fact that scientists have concocted a rebuttal to this argument shows the lengths they'll go to hide from the Truth. It's enough to give a bloke the Joe Blakes.

Still, credit where it's due, and all that rot:
The man-made global warming parade, on one level, has been a phenomenal success. There isn't a political party or important public body or large corporation that doesn't feel compelled to pay lip service.
Compelled by what, precisely?

Well, dash it all, by that bloody buggery middle-class hauteur, don't you know, and...and...those blasted UN one-worlders who want an end to globalization. And those stuck-up stickybeaks who "hate plastic toys from factories and prefer wooden ones from craftsmen." And so on.

Fortunately, "thousands of wonderful, sane, bolshie [!] Australian viewers" know better than to listen to ponced-up gobshites like these, most of whom are too busy taking it up the Gary to give a monkey's chuff about the working man.

(Illustration at top: "Proletarians of all countries, unite!" by Dimitry Moor, 1919.)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

I'm not sure whether this is good news, a work of speculative fiction, or proof that the end times are nigh:

More than 100 largely Republican municipalities have passed laws to abolish the constitutional rights of corporations, inventing what some critics are calling a "radical" new kind of environmental activism. Led by the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, they are attempting to jumpstart a national movement, with Celdf chapters in at least 23 states actively promoting an agenda of "disobedient lawmaking."

"I understand that state law and federal law is supposed to pre-empt local laws, but federal law tells us we're supposed to have clean air and clean water," the mayor of Tamaqua, Pa., Christian Morrison, told The New York Sun.
As long as we're throwing paradigms out the window...the House has decided that taxpayers should have free access to the research they fund:
In what advocates hailed as a major advance for scientific communication, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved a measure directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide free public online access to agency-funded research findings within 12 months of their publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
There's talk of levying fines on fishing boats whose lines catch seabirds, turtles, and other unfortunate bystanders:
This dual approach, they say, would give fishermen financial incentives to find creative ways to avoid catching noncommercial species, known as by-catch, while providing funds to address more hazardous threats to seabirds and turtles.
Also, three men in Wales claim to have invented a device that transforms car exhaust into fuel:
They have developed a box which they say can be fixed underneath a car in place of the exhaust to trap the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming -- including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide -- and emit mostly water vapor.

The captured gases can be processed to create a biofuel using genetically modified algae.
It's hard not to be skeptical, but if SciAm can give it the benefit of the doubt, I can too. For now.

Florida has passed a law that allows victims of domestic violence to take time off without being fired:
"This law clearly is a step forward for victims of domestic violence," Jay Christiansen, the director of programs for the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples Florida, said. "It creates a framework for how businesses should respond to domestic violence, as well as providing Florida's nearly 120,000 annual victims of intimate partner abuse a few days of needed time to address the safety, legal and medical issues they face as they try to rebuild their lives free from abuse."
Riverside County, CA has ruled against developers who wished to put a golf course in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park:
Representatives from the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission stated that the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan could not move forward with Palmwood in place. This habitat plan — in development for more than 10 years — has been supported by local governments, public agencies, developers and environmentalists alike. It attempts to balance development and wildlife protection in one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States.

“This is a wonderful outcome for a difficult situation, and hopefully it will be sustained,” said Jeff Morgan from the Sierra Club. “Wildlife in the area will be fully protected under the Multi-Species Habitat Plan.”
A federal court has temporarily blocked Shell from drilling for oil in an Arctic whale-migration route.
The Court’s stay stops the drilling plan pending a hearing on the matter scheduled for August 14, 2007. “This is a much-needed respite for the delicate Arctic ecosystem. We are pleased the court is carefully considering the threats the drilling poses to Arctic wildlife and the people who rely upon that wildlife to sustain them,” said Deirdre McDonnell of Earthjustice, attorney for the groups.
Boulder, CO will offer incentives and penalties to prevent the construction of McMansions:
Homeowners willing to sign away their option to someday add additions to their houses would receive a one-time payment as well as lower yearly tax assessments on their homes. The forfeited enlargement rights would then be available for purchase through a specially established market. Residents planning to build or expand homes larger than the recommended thresholds — 7,000 square feet on the plains, 5,000 square feet in the mountains — would be required to purchase additional development rights at prices determined by the market, which might be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per property.
Terrain.org has a nice story on Greensboro, NC's Southside revitalization project:
One of the major hurdles to making Southside a vibrant, walkable community was Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, which runs through the center of the neighborhood. The road’s high-speed, suburban geometries were effectively cutting the neighborhood in half, creating an undesirable “dead zone” at the center. Using traffic-calming measures—such as shortening the building setbacks along the road and including on-street parking—the plan reclaims this main street as a grand urban boulevard, with a distinctive, pedestrian-friendly streetscape design that sets Southside apart from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Starbucks has been forced to shut down its colonial outpost in Beijing's Forbidden City:
The controversy over Starbucks at Beijing's 587-year-old Forbidden City has highlighted Chinese sensitivity about cultural symbols and unease over an influx of foreign pop culture.
One commentator complained, "This is not globalization, but an erosion of Chinese culture." He's half right.

Korean scientists claim to have devised a plastic solar cell:
Existing solar cells that use silicon semiconductors cost US$2.30 to generate one watt of electricity, which is three to 10 times higher than the production cost of thermal or hydro power. The new plastic solar cell costs just ten cents per watt.
The NYT has an interesting article on solar thermal power. Nothing new and startling, but a good overview. What's even less shocking is how well solar power suits the bedouin lifestyle.
At the moment everything at the retreat, apart from the air conditioning and one water pump, operates on solar energy. The TV and satellite receiver, lights, computer, phone chargers and refrigerators all run on solar power.

"My main motivation is that I want some peace and quiet. The generator is very noisy, not to mention how much it pollutes the area," says Al Mansouri.
WorldChanging reports on an Israeli charity that allows you to text-message meals to hungry children. They also discuss an Indian company that aims to help homes and businesses achieve zero waste.

An anti-chlamydia vaccine could save the widely infected and declining koala population:
"We've been able to develop the vaccine for koalas as a result of our studies on the development of human chlamydial vaccines done in the mouse model. We have identified several novel vaccine proteins that we hope will protect koalas as well."
CKR alerts me to the sequencing of the mosquito species Aedes aegypti's genome, which will be very useful in fighting dengue fever, yellow fever, and the other diseases it spreads. She also sent me a link entitled Second Life Science; I was skeptical, but it's actually pretty fascinating, particularly when you think about possible applications for education and medicine in the developing world:
Just after lunch on June 12, 2007, I teleported to a place called Genome Island to listen to a seaside talk about making music from a protein's amino acid sequence....This was my first seminar in Second Life, the online world that functions like an Internet chat room placed in a 3-D video game....

Horace has been experimenting with Second Life as a way to teach undergraduate organic chemistry, a topic he says can definitely benefit from 3-D visualization. Several of his students have met on Drexel Island to challenge each other's organic know-how by touching an obelisk, which then flashes a sequence of quiz questions on Newman projections and Lewis dot structures.
I'll probably venture into Second Life eventually. God willing, I'll have a wooden computer by then.

Speaking of computers, a study suggests that leaving PCs on all night costs US businesses $1.7 billion annually.
Let's give those numbers some context: A midsize company with around 10,000 PCs wastes more than $165,000 per year in electricity costs for computers left on overnight, while contributing 1,381 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Giving those same computers a breather every night would have roughly the same effect as taking 2.58 million cars off the road, which is more than the number of autos zipping around the entire state of Maryland.
Of course, we need to weigh the potential savings here against the priceless gift of Freedom, and the fact that Al Gore ate Chilean sea bass the other night, like the appallingly fat man he is.

A new tumor paint may make it easier to distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells:
Current technology, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can distinguish tumors from healthy tissue only if more than 1 million cancer cells are present. But Cy5.5 can identify tumors with as few as 2000 cancer cells, making it 500 times more sensitive than MRI.
The photo at the top is from Accidental Mysteries, an absolutely incredible exhibition of anonymous photographs at Luminous Lint. Skip it at your peril!

You'll also want to ponder the inverted world, a map depicting earth's land as water, and vice versa, and Cincinnati's abandoned subway (both via Coudal.)

Also: The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings. A discussion of lunar litter and drowned villages at Things. Flickr's collection of cinema architecture.

Underwater Sounds Recorded in Glacier Bay, including the sly insinuating whisper of snowfall. An album of Field Recordings From Minnesota, available for free download courtesy of Wandering Ear. I also recommend Subterranean Salt Echoes, which was recorded "in the Salina Praid salt mine, located in rural Romania," and Winanga-li: Australian Soundscapes.

Last, sixty paintings by Arthur Dove.

Water, Water Everywhere

The debate over ethanol crops in Iowa offers some useful insights into the cornucopian imagination.

Certain people - let's call 'em "terrorists" - are arguing that because expanding ethanol crops will consume billions of gallons of water, the amount of water available in Iowa's aquifers has some bearing on whether the project is viable. Basically, they're attempting to balance supply with demand, and coming up short. Therefore, they see conservation - including mandatory water recycling - as a necessity.

Other people - we'll call them "realists" - point out that these policies might prevent them from doing something they really, really want to do:

Such mandates could damage Iowa's growing renewable fuels industry, they said.
In other words, making an elementary concession to reality could stunt the growth of an industry based on fantasy. Never mind the polite concessions regulators are already making to the fiction that ethanol is economically viable whether there's an inexhaustible supply of water or not; we must cast away all doubt, or be revealed as enemies of Progress.

And what exactly is "water shortage" supposed to mean, anyway? The stuff falls from the sky daily in the rainforest, thunders by the cubic mile over Niagara Falls every week, and is a copious byproduct of melting ice. What with the progress being made on desalinization, we may even be able to harvest the tears of the poor. For now, though, the market decrees that these options are less economical than pumping out aquifers that supply roughly 80 percent of Iowans with their drinking water:
For $25, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources grants a 10-year license for [ethanol] plants to pump as much water as they need from the ground.
This system works, obviously, and will continue to work until someone can prove that it doesn't:
State Sen. David Johnson, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he will not support regulations on how ethanol facilities use water until he sees proof that Iowa's aquifers are in trouble.
As for me, I refuse to stop writing checks until I see evidence that I'm overdrawn. In fact, I'm going to write a check for two dollars this very morning, in order to buy Sen. Johnson a copy of Iowa's Groundwater Basics: A Geological Guide to the Occurrence, Use, and Vulnerability of Iowa's Aquifers, which was published by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and includes this passage:
Where numerous wells withdraw large quantities of water over time...regional declines in water levels may occur. In Iowa, the most widespread of these declines has occurred in the extensive Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. Regional water levels have dropped about 100 feet in this aquifer since use began in the late 1800s, with the greatest lowering of water-levels near major pumping centers. Other declines of a more local nature have occurred, such as those in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas where the Silurian aquifer is heavily used.
In related news, ever-expanding ethanol crops in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay are expected to poison it with agricultural runoff:
The study forecasted that farmers in the bay watershed area will field more than half a million acres of corn over the next five years, reports The Washington Post. Corn fields usually produce more polluted runoff than other crops, creating a problem for the bay.

“It’s going in the opposite direction from where we want to go,” Jim Pease, a Virginia Tech professor and one of the study’s authors, told the newspaper.
It seems logical that increased runoff from the ethanol boom could pose a problem for Iowa's groundwater, too.

But I suppose we'd better wait until we see evidence. We wouldn't want to be irresponsible.

(Photo: Coffee Cup Watertower at Stanton, Iowa. Via Roadside America.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dual Use

"The perpetual menacings of danger," warned Alexander Hamilton, create a political climate where "the military state becomes elevated above the civil."

On the other hand, he was writing with a quill pen by the light of a whale-oil lamp, so what the hell did he know? 9/11 changed everything!

In England, a network of surveillance cameras identifies motorists who venture into central London, and charges them a toll. The goal is to reduce congestion and pollution; it's a perfect example of how technology can lead us to a Bright Green Future.

It's also a means of identifying and tracking terrorists, possibly, which is why people with a "need to know" are now being given access to the system. This adaptation is not technological so much as procedural; it's a simple matter of exempting certain agencies from the Data Protection Act, which was passed at some point during the long September 10th that preceded our taut, elegant, alert modernity:

Under previous rules, police had to apply for access to the cameras on a case-by-case basis because of concerns that routine use of the information would be an invasion of privacy.

Under the new rules, anti-terror officers will be able to view pictures in "real time" from Transport for London's (Tfl) 1,500 cameras, which use Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology to link cars with owners' details.
It's interesting to note that the toll applies only on weekdays, during peak hours. The cameras are designed to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that London's surveillance system doesn't seem to pose much of obstacle to terrorists, although (because?) residents of that city appear on camera roughly 300 times per day. Terrorists want to give the impression that they're everywhere at once; mass surveillance techniques, whatever their virtues, arguably serve as a taxpayer-funded force multiplier: cameras remind passersby that the enemy could appear anywhere, at any time, without providing any real sense of comfort (save for the notion that "before" footage might help researchers to identify one's body parts).

Such systems - and their portrayal in the media - don't just reinforce the threat of terrorism, but also the fear of crime. Another BBC article discusses the use of online crime maps to communicate a more "accurate" picture of risk:
The 2006-07 figures show overall crime rate remains stable - but the government has also found 65% of people think crime is getting worse nationally.
Go figure! I seem to recall a study in which people were told about all the things that would have to go wrong simultaneously to cause a nuclear meltdown. If I remember correctly, the people who'd been exposed to this narrative were more likely to see it as frighteningly plausible, even though it was intended to have the opposite effect.

Safer-sex advocates urge us to incorporate condoms and latex gloves into our foreplay; perhaps we need to learn to enjoy "the perpetual menacings of danger" in a similar way. As I reported earlier, a British amusement park plans to take an important step in this direction by marketing "dual use" surveillance tapes based on RFID tracking, which can either serve as a God's-eye home movie of your perfect day, or as a means of identifying the rapist who dragged your youngest child into a disused scenic-railway tunnel.

Idle speculation aside (for a moment), Atrios links to an interesting LA Times op-ed on the Iraq War:
Osama bin Laden's plan was to get the U.S. to overreact and overreach itself. With the invasion of Iraq, Bush fell slap-bang into that trap....

The mightiest military in the world fails to achieve its strategic goals and is, in the end, politically defeated by an economically and technologically inferior adversary.
Very true. Except for the minor detail that Bush and his creatures have profited handsomely from this "trap," which they themselves baited and set long before 9/11.

I'd also question the idea that the United States is economically and technologically superior to its enemies. Look at it this way: if I have a garden spade, and you have a bulldozer, I'm going to do a better and faster job of transplanting daisies. That makes me "technologically superior," in terms of the job at hand. By the same token, if I can spend a small amount of money into order to make you spend a great deal of money that ultimately aids my cause, I'm economically superior to you by any measure that matters.

The simple fact is, the terrorists' technology and finances are fairly well suited to their goals; ours aren't, at least as far as "winning" TSAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW is concerned.

But our goal isn't to win; it's to keep reacting to the perpetual menacings of danger. Our economics and technology are nicely suited to that strategy, which is not surprising given their vital role in creating it.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, soldiers are using leaf blowers as improvised IED detectors. Keep your eye out for Raytheon's $1.7 million prototype of a MIL-SPEC "accelerated airflow" system sometime in 2010.

(Photo: "A close-up of the Comedy/Tragedy masks on the front of the former 1932 Granada cinema in Dovecot, Liverpool" by philipgmayer.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tales From the Crypt

You probably think that the healthcare crisis has very little to do with illegal immigrants who have leprosy, and very much to do with the fact that insurance companies are for-profit businesses with exorbitant lobbying and marketing budgets, and outrageous CEO salaries.

In reality, the exact opposite is true. And WorldNetDaily has the numbers to prove it, so long as you don't insist on strict accuracy, fairness, or logic:

While "Sicko" filmmaker Michael Moore is blaming greed and a broken health care system for the inability of Americans to get health-care insurance, it turns out a heavy percentage of those without coverage are illegal aliens.

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, 43.6 percent of non-citizens in the U.S. are without health insurance. In addition, 33.6 percent of those born elsewhere are without coverage.
The main problem here, obviously, is that neither non-citizens, nor people who were born somewhere else, are necessarily "illegal" -- just ask John Derbyshire. (The role of greed in the hiring of dirt-cheap, uninsured laborers is a discussion for another day.)

The article goes on to say that hospitals are closing because they can't afford to provide emergency services to "uninsured and under-insured patients."

You may be thinking that this is a central point of healthcare reformers: the system's failure has increased the unnecessary use of ERs, which is astronomically expensive compared to preventative care and early intervention.

With all due respect, that type of thinking is destroying this country, and with it, the world's only hope for a brighter conservatarian tomorrow.

Now, you can find experts to argue for any position you like. But humanity has always granted a special authority to the opinions of revenants, haints, and spectres, whose membership in the Choir Invisible gives them a unique perspective on the issues of the day. This is precisely what makes the testimony of Madeleine Pelner Cosman so compelling:
Madeleine Pelner Cosman, author of a report in the spring issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, is particularly concerned with increases in multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis, chagas disease, dengue fever, polio, hepatitis A, B, and C, she told Lou Dobbs on CNN in June.
Ms. Cosman died on March 2, 2006. It's not clear why WND would wish to imply otherwise, but I'm sure it has something to do with Freedom, or perhaps Values.

Listen and tremble, foolish mortals, as the vivacious Ms. Cosman rails from beyond the grave against the acts and monuments of compassion:
A terrible, absolutely vicious, law called EMTALA: the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act...is really the culprit that requires every emergency room, and every physician of an emergency room, to treat [human beings] illegal aliens for free....

"Even physicians in those emergency rooms don't fully get the point that by being compassionate, and generous, and gracious, they are, in essence, destroying their own livelihoods as well as their own hospitals," she said.
The thing is, they could accomplish this destruction a lot more efficiently by allowing people to bleed to death on the sidewalk. That the EMTALA is the focus of wingnut outrage explains perfectly why their cause is doomed; this country simply will not tolerate the formal, systemic refusal of medical care to men and women and children who will die or be crippled or suffer noisily without it.

And even if it did, you couldn't find many doctors or nurses who'd be willing to work under those conditions. And even if you could, they'd be emotionally defective oddballs at best, and would be likely to give you and yours inadequate care.

Give people like Cosman what they want for a single month, and this country will have socialized medicine within the year.

(Illustration: From Trick Photography, 1902. Via Jack and Beverley's Spirit Photographs.)

Difficult Circumstances

WorldNetDaily - your trusted source for up-to-the-minute news on the epidemic of leprosy caused by Mexican rapists who work for al-Qaeda - now claims that Islamic insurgents are crucifying Christians:

Christians in Iraq, including converts from Islam and people involved in mixed-faith marriages, are being crucified by Muslim terrorists, according to a Dutch member of Parliament studying the war-torn country.

Several Iraqi Christians "are nailed to a cross and their arms are tied up with ropes. The ropes are put on fire," Joel Voordewind told BosNewsLife, an online news agency focusing on Christians and Jews in difficult circumstances.
Voordewind is a member of ChristenUnie, an orthodox Protestant party. Its more extreme positions reportedly include "facilitation by government of a one-earner model, allowing one parent, usually the wife, to stay at home and take care of the children." It takes a comparatively liberal stance on such issues as the environment and sanctuary for asylum seekers.

Voordewind says that he'll be presenting evidence for his story, and to be fair, it's possible that he has some; the accusations are lurid, but hardly unthinkable. That said, I'm pretty goddamn skeptical, given that Voordewind claims to have spoken to a survivor of crucifixion who "'even showed holes in his hands,' apparently from nails." That's the sort of confirming detail that tends to make a story less believable.

It doesn't much matter whether it's true or not, though; the extreme Right has already decided that it's real, and will undoubtedly use it as another argument in favor of exterminating all the brutes, along with their prospective victims (God will know His own).

In other WND news, illegal immigrants comprise up to fifty percent of our uninsured population, provided you count immigrants who are here legally, and round up a bit from there. They all have leprosy. Or most of them, anyway.

About which, more later.

(Photo: Secwepemc passion play, 1901. "The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia reported: "Heathenism and old custom are now extinct, the entire tribe being civilized and officially reported Catholic.")

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lashing Out

An article in Time soberly weighs the potential for acts of violence in Iraq:

Imagine a day in Iraq when catastrophic car bombs rip through not just one Iraqi city but several. Explosions coordinated to go off nearly simultaneously in places like Baghdad, Baqubah, Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, all places where insurgents are actively pursuing bombing campaigns, could bring about the highest death daily death toll seen yet and leave no question about the insurgency's ability to hold the entire country in a deadly grip more or less at will.
I don't like being told by journalists to imagine things - it strikes me as an imposition - but I'm willing to put that aside for now, in order to learn about further possibilities for unrest in Iraq.

Apparently, "U.S. forces themselves could come under coordinated attacks" in different parts of the country. You heard it here first! And even the Green Zone isn't safe from the ravages of war:
30 minutes of sustained, aimed mortar fire could kill dozens in one stroke as well as shatter official Iraqi buildings that represent the only meaningful display of governmental order in the country.
Shocking. The loss of life would be bad enough, but what if the illusion of order were shattered?

Fortunately, the military has taken the lessons of the last four years to heart, and is expecting trouble. As Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner says, "We fully expect al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives to lash out and stage spectacular attacks."

All in all, this is one of the stranger articles I've read about Iraq. The facts on the ground are disturbing enough that you'd think there'd be no need for this airy speculation about "coordinated explosions."

The image of insurgents "lashing out" against US forces is obviously ideological: these attacks will forever represent the death throes of dead enders, even if they "hold the entire country in a deadly grip more or less at will." It seems an effort is being made to represent what's happening in Iraq as something other than warfare, despite the fact that this is supposedly the "central front of the War on Terror." The attacks aren't military operations, but attempts to disturb order; that this order is illusory is beside the point.

On the bright side, we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here. Which is not to say that Iraq isn't a springboard, of some inexplicable sort, for Al-Qaeda to attack the USA.
The terrorist network Al-Qaida will likely leverage its contacts and capabilities in Iraq to mount an attack on U.S. soil, according to a new National Intelligence Estimate on threats to the United States.
It's not obvious to me why extremists fighting in Iraq would be better able to attack the United States than extremists living anywhere else on earth, but it does underscore the point that oceans don't protect us any better than BushCo protects State Department personnel in the Green Zone:
While some 100 British embassy workers and about 55 United Nations personnel living in the Green Zone sleep in hardened housing, State Department personnel sleep unprotected. Asked how State could require workers to walk around outdoors in body armor while making them sleep in unprotected quarters, the embassy official said: "I wouldn't characterize it as being a mixed message."

U.S. embassy workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told McClatchy that they're angry and scared. They'll get hardened sleeping quarters when construction of the new American embassy compound is complete. That's expected to be this fall.
So everything will be fine soon. In the meantime, these workers are just lashing out.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Matter of Principle

As part of its mission to drive sane people mad, the New York Times has published an epic article on The New Tycoons by Louis Uchitelle. The gist of it is that today's tycoons see themselves as benevolent demiurges, and are earnestly patting themselves on the back for their (tax-deductible) philanthropy, while ignoring the fact that a good number of the wounds they propose to heal were administered with their own brass knuckles.

Sanford I. Weill of Citigroup, for instance, compares himself favorably to Andrew Carnegie. It'd be easy enough to sneer at Carnegie's ethereal highmindedness by pointing out the extent to which it relied on allowing thugs like Henry Clay Frick to handle the grubby work of murdering the poor. But perhaps it'd be more fruitful to consider Carnegie's thinking at its best; in an age when Paul Krugman is seen as a socialist firebrand, Carnegie sounds almost like Emma Goldman. It's a bit of a stretch to imagine that he has an ideological heir among today's billionaires, but this is just what Uchitelle invites us to do:

These days, Mr. Weill and many of the nation’s very wealthy chief executives, entrepreneurs and financiers echo an earlier era — the Gilded Age before World War I — when powerful enterprises, dominated by men who grew immensely rich, ushered in the industrialization of the United States. The new titans often see themselves as pillars of a similarly prosperous and expansive age, one in which their successes and their philanthropy have made government less important than it once was.
By whose standards was that era prosperous? And who gets to decide how "important" government is to education, and the relief of the poor, and the allocation of natural resources, and the protection of public health?

I'll give you three guesses.

If you don't know what became of these genial men and their vast fortunes, and the pyromaniac blaze of their Gilded Age, you certainly won't learn it from Mr. Uchitelle, who tiptoes around the subsequent decades with the exaggerated discretion of a tipsy butler.
Those earlier barons disappeared by the 1920s and, constrained by the Depression and by the greater government oversight and high income tax rates that followed, no one really took their place. Then, starting in the late 1970s, as the constraints receded, new tycoons gradually emerged, and now their concentrated wealth has made the early years of the 21st century truly another Gilded Age.
I could accept this paragraph if it ended with a call to fetch the pitchforks, the torches, the tar and the feathers. But Uchitelle, who has perhaps been made dizzy by the high-octane miasma of Atlas Shrugged, seems to find the idea pretty agreeable.
“The whole world is moving to the American model of free enterprise and capital markets,” Mr. Weill said, arguing that Wall Street cannot be a big player in China or India without giants like Citigroup. “Not having American financial institutions that really are at the fulcrum of how these countries are converting to a free-enterprise system,” he said, “would really be a shame.”
Uchilette does find naysayers, of course, and quotes them; balance requires it. But overall, the terms of debate remain simplistic: Are tycoons world-healing demigods? Or are they merely necessary to our "expansive" nation, like air and water and lebensraum?

The condition of working life in the former Gilded Age is no more adequately discussed in this article than Carnegie's anti-imperialism. Nor does it address the harmful effect of a political climate favorable to tycoons on the public's access to information and education (except by serving as an example of it). Apropos of which, here's Henry Adams, writing back in the 1880s:
[T]he amusing thing is that no one talks about real interests. By common consent they agree to let these alone. We are afraid to discuss them. Instead of this the press is engaged in a most amusing dispute whether Mr. Cleveland had an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress.
Thank heavens for Progress!

Anyway, the important thing to remember about the Gilded Age is that the tycoons built our national infrastructure and made America rich and powerful; the fact that they did so with the help of protectionism, government subsidies, and general cronyism is beside the point, as is the fact that we're now selling off our infrastructure to foreign investors in order to finance our own Gilded Age. Radical critique, in this context, doesn't go much beyond the notion that today's millionaires might, after all, be just as happy with $10 million per year as $200 million (an ethical stance expressed perfectly by Chester A. Lampwick: "I'm not greedy. As long as I've got my health, and my millions of dollars, and my solid gold house, and my rocket car, I don't need anything else").

Mr. Weill, we learn, enjoys giving his money away. He doesn't much like the idea of having his money "taken" from him, though; as Uchilette helpfully explains, "the new tycoons oppose raising taxes on their fortunes."

Of course they do. That tycoons are universally competent geniuses is demonstrated by their net worth; who could possibly be more qualified to identify suffering and relieve it? Why should government be allowed to extort money from them? Sure, they get a lot of it back, in the form of subsidies, no-bid contracts, favorable legislation, and infrastructure investments. But if Ayn Rand taught us anything, it's that you can't have freedom where there is coercion, any more than you can mine coal without machine guns.
“The income distribution has to stand,” Mr. Griffin said, adding that by trying to alter it with a more progressive income tax, “you end up in problematic circumstances. In the current world, there will be people who will move from one tax area to another. I am proud to be an American. But if the tax became too high, as a matter of principle I would not be working this hard.”
UPDATE: Misattribution of quote fixed, thanks to Tom.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and Hypselodoris bullocki.

(Photo by Gerald Oskoboiny.)

Friday Hope Blogging

Mike Davis has written a terrific article on conservation and deconsumption during World War II. Every word is a sermon in itself, but here's the part I found particularly striking:

Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans "to change from an economy of waste - and this country has been notorious for waste - to an economy of conservation." A majority of civilians, some reluctantly but many others enthusiastically, answered the call....

[T]he combination of a world crisis, full employment, and mild austerity seemed to be a tonic for the American character. New York Times columnist Samuel Williamson, for example, monitored the impacts of rationing and restricted auto use on families in commuter suburbs....After noting initial popular dismay and confusion, Williamson was heartened to see suburbanites riding bikes, mending clothes, planting gardens, and spending more time in cooperative endeavors with their neighbors. Without cars, people moved at a slower pace but seemed to accomplish more. Like Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, Williamson pointed out that American life had been revolutionized in a single generation and many good things seemingly lost forever; the war and the emphasis on conservation were now resurrecting some of the old values."
Who knows how much more we might accomplish in a less convenient world? A young man from Malawi has built an improvised windmill to power his village:
After having to drop out of school due to lack of funds, William Kamkwamba from Malawi decided to learn as much as he could from books that had been donated to his primary school’s library. One of the books detailed how to build a windmill that generated enough electricity.

With much trial and error, some local materials, and an investment of about 16 dollars, William constructed a windmill that could generate enough energy for a few light bulbs and a radio. While a few bulbs might sound insignificant, the difference changed William’s and his family’s life entirely. Instead of using expensive paraffin candles, which produce smoke and irritate the eyes, William and his family now use the energy generated by the wind to light up their house. The engineering youth also hooked up a car battery to his generator to use as a backup in case of a non-windy day.
You can visit William's blog by clicking here.

Inhabitat discusses the use of sun-powered ovens in Darfur and China:
Operation Blessing, a non-profit committed to “breaking the cycle of suffering” has taken the age-old technique of harnessing the sun’s heat to cook food, and turned it into a viable design for off-the-grid, minimal-resource third-world demographics. In the Gansu Province of China, and soon in Darfur camps, the sun-powered parabolic solar oven allows the suffering and hungry to cleanly cook and boil water and without firewood, using only that always-renewable energy source: the sun. The oven’s design is also a great example of using ancient technologies in modern ways to address social problems.
London's vice-mayor has a remarkably ambitious plan to shift the city towards decentralized power:
Of course you are not going to completely replace power stations or the grid. But you do not need to invest as much in new power stations or in an ageing infrastructure if you go for the new infrastructure - which is the energy revolution – which is generating your energy locally.
Read the whole thing; it's fairly staggering. You may also be interested in this account of off-the-grid living in Iowa, and this WaPo article on the eco-kosher movement, which "combines traditional Jewish dietary laws with new concerns about industrial agriculture, global warming and fair treatment of workers," and is allegedly representative of "the greening of American religion."

It's an article of faith among anti-environmental dingbats that a global shift towards organic farming would result in catastrophic worldwide famine. This was never a plausible argument, and there's mounting evidence that precisely the opposite is true.
Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land—according to new findings which refute the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.
As if that weren't enough, another study shows that organic farming is better at building soil than conventional no-till farming:
Plant physiologist John Teasdale, with the ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, was surprised to find that organic farming was a better soil builder than no-till. No-till has always been thought to be the best soil builder because it eliminates plowing and minimizes even light tillage to avoid damaging organic matter and exposing the soil to erosion.

Organic farming, despite its emphasis on building organic matter, was thought to actually endanger soil because it relies on tillage and cultivation--instead of herbicides--to kill weeds. But Teasdale's study showed that organic farming's addition of organic matter in manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.
Perhaps the well-known distaste of industry shills for "alarmism" stems from the fact that their own doomsaying is almost always incorrect. In any event, we can expect them to warn us that the EU's ban on mercury thermometers will cause an epidemic of blackwater fever; and that its ban on paraquat will lead to an outbreak of heroin abuse among preschoolers, and eventually force us to live in caves and treat toothaches by smashing our molars with rocks.

In a sequel of sorts to my earlier FHB story on text messaging as a protest tool, the Chinese government recently used text messages to warn 150,000 citizens of a flood:
Zhang Xue'an...began to receive messages on his mobile phone on July 3, and was told by local flood control authorities that a flood was only a few days away. He bought biscuits and bottled water, which proved very useful when his home was flooded three days later and water and gas supplies were cut off.
Delaware has struck down its two-year statute of limitations on child sexual abuse:
Because it can often take years for victims of sexual abuse to press charges, the bill will also provide a two-year period for victims to renew claims that were previously barred by the time limit. “Our children are very lucky to be protected,” Minner told The News Journal. “Some states have practically no law at all.”

California was the first state to pass this type of bill in 2002. Approximately a dozen other states have considered pursuing similar legislation, and an initiative in Washington, D.C. looks likely to pass.
Pennsylvania has passed a bill that protects women who breastfeed in public from being harassed:
A new law signed by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) gives women more rights and protections when breastfeeding in public. Governor Rendell signed the bill Monday, ensuring that a woman who breastfeeds in public cannot be accused of obscenity, indecent exposure, sexual conduct, or causing a nuisance.
Interestingly, Republicans dropped their opposition to this bill in part because its language was changed; instead of saying that women have the "right" to breastfeed, it now asserts their "freedom" to do so.

A US company claims to be able to "wash" contamination out of soil.
The two partners said they have developed a method to inject a biodegradable "soap," such as coconut oil, corn oil, soy or citrus oil, into the soil and target the contaminant. Within a few weeks, it breaks up a pollutant, such as petroleum, into tiny pieces - molecules.

Next, they infuse the molecules with oxygen, which reconfigures them through molecular bonding, into two byproducts - carbon dioxide and water, Hoag said.
Not sure what to make of that.

There are plans afoot to turn the former prison on Alcatraz into a learning center for green technology.
The green overhaul comes with a $3.5 million dollar price tag, which includes a new updated audio tour (the previous one was 20 years old), access to areas that were previously closed off to visitors, and replanting of the island gardens which have lain dormant for years. They also plan to make the island more self-sufficient through the generation of potable water, making use of the sewage wasted, and supplementing their sustainable energy resources with biofuel generators, leaving traditional diesel behind.
Portland, Oregon is planning a riverfront building that'll comprise 175,000 squre feet of solar cells. And Florida intends to enact comparatively strict emissions standards:
The rules, which would strengthen existing laws and therefore not need the approval of the legislature, would establish targets for Florida to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2017, to 1990 levels by 2025 and by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.
Germany, unsurprisingly, has a more ambitious plan:
Germany plans to boost the percentage of electricity generated by renewable resources to 45 percent by 2030 in a bid to curb global warming, environment minister Sigmar Gabriel said Thursday. Gabriel told reporters that a progress report on a renewable energy law passed in 2000 showed that the country had already surpassed the quota of 12.5 percent set for 2010.
If you're upset about the price you're paying for gas, this graphic may put things in perspective (click to enlarge):

The new Harry Potter book will be printed in a deluxe "green" edition; Grist reports that publishers increasingly follow this route, not least because "an Opinion Research Corporation poll revealed that 80% of readers are willing to pay more for books printed on recycled and environmentally responsible paper."

A small portion of the devastated Aral Sea has been restored:
Tastupek and other villages are rejuvenating because an eight mile-long dam now blocks a narrow channel through which water drained freely from the northern sea to the southern. Water that the Syr Darya River delivers into the northern sea is building up, slowly expanding its shores.
I was intrigued, this week, by new software that models the light in ancient buildings. And by BLDGBLOG's gorgeous survey of fossil rivers.

Coudal recommends Deleted Images: The Junkyard of Art. And a nice collection of matchbox labels.

As for me, I recommend that you take the tram from Darwen to Blackburn. Or vice versa.

You might also wish to browse these remarkable Victorian stove ads. Or this collection of glass negatives from the Economic Geology collection at the New York State Museum.

If this involves too much link-clicking for you, you can always chase yourself away from the computer with the sounds of the Cicadas of Michigan.

(Photograph at top: Glass plate negative by unknown photographer, ca. 1905.)