Sunday, February 10, 2008

Friday, February 08, 2008

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

The inner being of the world often appears clouded
and hidden, and people's minds are full of doubts
and irritation, but Chromodoris magnifica cheers up their days,
and doubt's dark questions stay distant.

(Photo by Richard Seaman.)

Friday Hope Blogging

The California Coastal Commission has wisely rejected a plan to build a six-lane toll road through San Onofre State Beach:

The decision was a major setback for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which has spent years and tens of millions of dollars preparing to construct the 16-mile tollway as an alternative to Interstate 5.

"This project looks like something from the 1950s," said Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu, who voted against the tollway. "Putting a massive project in an environmentally sensitive area, it is inconceivable."
The South Carolina House has declined to define nuclear energy as renewable:
The S.C. House defeated a plan today to define nuclear power as a “renewable” form of energy after conservationists complained that it could set back efforts to develop solar, wind and other alternative energy sources....

Many lawmakers favor nuclear power as a way to limit pollution that adds to global warming. But by a 114-0 vote, the House agreed it wasn’t worth including nuclear in the definition of renewable energy.
Employees at the Interior Department have been leaking some very interesting e-mails:
The Interior Department is scrambling to stanch the flow of internal e-mails from its own scientists that undermine the legality of its aggressive offshore oil and gas lease sales in federal Arctic waters, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The e-mails belie Bush administration claims that environmental risks were adequately considered prior to offering tracts in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas for drilling.
A couple who'd been strongarmed into a high-cost loan has won an important court case:
In what is likely to be a precedent-setting decision in New York, state Supreme Court Justice Joseph J. Maltese agreed with the Shearons, recently telling the bank that it could not foreclose on the couple's New Springville townhouse and that it may have to pay them damages for their troubles and void the $355,000 mortgage on their Westport Lane home.

In his 11-page decision, Maltese rips the original lenders and brokers for making the high-cost loan to the Shearons without checking to see if the couple could repay the mortgage -- a violation of the 2002 predatory lending provisions of New York State banking law. It's the first time in the state that a judge has invoked those predatory lending provisions against a lender, and it could signal a shifting tide in how foreclosures are handled, experts note.
POGO reports on Alaska's new Checkbook Online site:
This week, the state of Alaska launched a website that tracks every state expenditure of over one thousand dollars, as reported on today's NPR Morning Edition. This makes Alaska the tenth state government to provide such a service to its taxpayers.
A South Dakota Senate committee has affirmed that pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth control shouldn't be protected by state law:
The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Ed Olson, R-Mitchell, said he believes pharmacists should dispense birth control pills and other contraceptive prescriptions. Women need to make birth control decisions without interference by government, and access to birth control can help reduce abortions, he said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has upheld Concord, NH's ban on digital billboards:
The court also agreed that Concord has a right to protect its visual environment, saying that the town's aesthetic goals would be much harder to achieve without a ban on EMCs.
A federal court has slapped down the Arizona Cattle Growers' bid to weaken protection for the Mexican spotted owl:
The Arizona Cattle Growers alleged among other things that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat designation unlawfully included areas not occupied by the species, failed to rely on the best available science, and failed to account for the economic impact of the designation. The court rejected all the Cattle Growers’ arguments.

“This was a complete victory for the Mexican spotted owl,” said attorney Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, which represented the Center for Biological Diversity in the case. “All arguments of the Arizona Cattle Growers were rejected, and the critical habitat designation was upheld.”
In related news, the timber industry has failed yet again to end ESA protection for the marbled murrelet:
The timber industry began its courtroom campaign against the murrelet more than seven years ago. Big timber was given a huge assist in 2004 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was ordered by Julie MacDonald, a political appointee in the Bush Department of the Interior who recently resigned amidst scandal over her bullying of agency scientists and political interference with biological decisions, to report that murrelets did not deserve protection in the lower 48 states. This finding reversed government scientists who had concluded that the birds continued to need protection. Although currently under investigation by the inspector general and Government Accounting Office, this last-minute flip-flop formed the basis of the timber industry’s lawsuit. Had the timber industry’s lawsuit been successful, much of the murrelet’s old-growth forest habitat would have been open for logging.

An "activist judge" has ruled that BushCo can't simply override her previous ruling on Navy sonar tests:
In her 36-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles rejected arguments made by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. The panel had said the military's need to conduct sonar exercises constituted an emergency that warranted an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act.

Cooper concluded “there is no emergency” and therefore no legal basis for the White House to approve “emergency alternative arrangements....”

“The court has affirmed that we do not live under an imperial presidency,” Joel Reynolds, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yesterday.
Further affirmation comes from the federal appeals court that ruled against BushCo's cap and trade system for mercury emissions.

In other legal news, a judge has struck down Banning, CA's approval of a new housing project:
Judge Cahraman of the Riverside Superior Court invalidated the City of Banning’s approval of an environmental impact report for the sprawling Black Bench project, which would place over 1,400 new houses on undeveloped grasslands and chaparral at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains remote from Banning’s core. The environmental impact report was struck down on nine separate grounds, including the failure to provide substantial evidence that there is an adequate water supply for the project, the improper rejection of project alternatives, and the improper deferral of the designation of an access road to the project site.
WorldChanging has an interesting post on porous streets in the Northwest. In Tijuana, meanwhile, activists are trying to install porous pavements in slum areas, in order to reduce run-off that affects people on both sides of the border.
The plan, at least its initial stages, is to cover dirt roads with concrete blocks designed to hold water and allow it to seep into the earth. Residents, mainly women, are making the 70,000 "permeable pavers" needed for just the first half mile of road....

"The intent is to create an example," says Oscar Romo, an environmentalist and professor at the University of California at San Diego who's leading the effort. "I don't have the resources or the will to start paving the [entire] city. What I'd like to do is convince authorities on both sides of the border that this is an environmentally friendly way to pave the roads."
An enormous new species of elephant shrew has been discovered in Africa:
Not really a Shrew at all, the species is more closely related to sea cows and elephants, this represents the 16th species of elephant-shrews found to date. Also known as "sengis" to avoid confusion, this species lives only in two high-altitude forest blocks in the mountains of south-central Tanzania.

Kenya's population of wild elephants in increasing:
In Tsavo, Africa's second-largest game reserve, 11,700 elephants were recorded during a five-day aerial census, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service, representing growth of more than 4 percent on the previous count three years ago.
Nigeria is putting duties on imports of scrapped computers:
Currently, importers can ship in old computers duty free. They are then gutted for spare parts and the unwanted bits are thrown away.

"(Old computers) will be banned completely later, but it has to be a gradual process to avoid our country turning into a dumping ground for scrap," Odey told reporters after a cabinet meeting that approved the idea of tariffs.
A program to revitalize depleted African soil has been launched in Kenya:
The initiative will place a particular focus on women, who are the majority of small-scale farmers in Africa and other parts of the world. Other agencies have pointed out that assisting women farmers goes a long way to tackling social inequalities and a looming global food shortage crisis.
The US Patent Office has revoked four patents on the AIDS drug Tenofovir, which could increase its availability in the developing world:
The public interest group Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), which challenged the patents in the US, submitted evidence that TDF was already a known substance at the time of Gilead’s application for the patents, and therefore a patent should not have been granted. The evidence used in the patent office’s ruling may have an impact on whether the drug will be granted patents in other countries, such as India and Brazil.
NASA satellite data are providing insight into how environmental factors affect disease and health:
“With our combined data, we’ll be able to pinpoint any statistical relationships between these diseases and where these people live, how hot their climate is and so forth,” Quattrochi said. “We’re analyzing the data now. With the wide geographic coverage, this study’s findings could help health officials with environmental exposure and health recommendations.”
The Sietch Blog explains how cars can be recycled into musical instruments:
Ah a world in which people tear apart cars to make other things...such a world may be here sooner than you think. With the high cost of oil, and the high chance of a shift to simple electric cars, it is unlikely that driving around an old gas guzzler will be legal or affordable. Instead its orchestras for everyone!
Treehugger discusses the trend towards dematerialized education. And Pruned surveys an unusual urban garden in Queens.

This is fascinating:
[A] new study based on molecular evidence suggests that avian ancestors were flapping their wings some 40 million years earlier than thought.
As is the news that terahertz radiation may help to detect artwork hidden beneath paint or plaster:
Current methods of imaging underdrawings can't detect certain art materials such as graphite or sanguine, a red chalk that some of the masters are believed to have used.

The team of researchers, which includes scientists at the Louvre Museum, Picometrix, LLC and U-M, used terahertz imaging to detect colored paints and a graphite drawing of a butterfly through 4 mm of plaster. They believe their technique is capable of seeing even deeper.
The photo at the top is from Silent Nests, which compiles Vicki Topaz's photographs of French pigeon houses dating from the 14th to the 18th century. The aerial suburbs at BLDGBLOG provide a nice counterpoint.

I'd be remiss if I didn't draw your attention to Thursday Fossil Blogging at WhirledView, the exhibit of Photobooth pictures at Luminous Lint, and Parenthetically's feature on The Festival of Broken Needles. Those who seek a more harrowing form of nostalgia may proceed directly to Scholastic Book Club Covers of the 60s and 70s (via Coudal).

There's a bumper crop of glorious historic photos at Trésors Photographiques La Société de Géographie. If you'd prefer to stay closer to home, try Danny Wilcox Frazier's photographs of Iowa, or The Newton Owen Postcard Collection. I also recommend the astonishing geomancy almanac at BibliOdyssey.

Also: Astrophotography of the Southern Night Sky. And Herbert Pfostl's Paper Graveyard (via wood s lot).

The Invisible Garden offers a grand tour of moldy bread. See also Small Things Considered, whence comes this incredible photo:

Last, a little treatise on the fine art of vacuuming cows, circa 1920:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sticking to the Obvious

Jack Cashill has discovered and christened a new threat to our Democratic Republic: The Literary/Science Complex.

Some mischievous soul at William Jewell College, a smart Baptist institution outside Kansas City, invited me to participate Tuesday in a three-person panel called "Science, Politics and Policy."

I say "mischievous" because that person had to suspect the trouble I could cause for the star of the panel, Chris Mooney, an elfin journalist in his late 20s who had scored big in the literary/science complex with his 2005 book, "The Republican War on Science."
To hear him tell it, Cashill mopped the floor with Mooney, while proving that it's actually the Left that has launched a war on science. Here's some of his evidence:
Mooney...surprised me by insisting that embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning were two different things altogether.
I'm not sure why this would surprise Cashill, given that Mooney makes the distinction in the book Cashill claims to have read, and in the sole line that Cashill quotes from it. What's even more confusing is that Cashill himself goes on to make a similar distinction, even as he claims it doesn't exist:
As I explained to Mooney and the audience, there would have been little fuss had scientists stuck to in vitro discards. Instead, they ventured into the process of creating life to destroy it – therapeutic cloning. This is what embryonic stem cell research is all about and why it is so controversial.
From here, Cashill proceeds to a truly astonishing argument against global warming:
I suggested that the Vikings did not name the island "Greenland" as part of some real estate scam. I then talked about the settlements there, the vineyards that stretched into Northern England, the town names, the historical artifacts, the memoirs and the various core samples that suggest these warming events were not local.

"But then it got cold again," the biologist said as though this information somehow undercut my own. This tag-team madness continued when Mooney challenged my evidence that it had gotten cold at all. [??!!]

Sticking to the obvious, I referred the pair to the 16th-century winter landscapes of Dutch painter Peter Breugel and the 19th-century novel (and Disney special) about Dutch lad Hans Brinker and his silver skates.
Unless I'm dreaming, which is possible given that I'm doped up on Flexeril, Cashill is trying to debunk AGW by offering some paintings and a children's story as evidence that it gets cold during winter.

Which goes to show that "sticking to the obvious" is an excellent way of making a fool of yourself. (Or of other people, if you're a propagandist like Cashill.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fashionable Nonsense

"It's not easy being me," Walter E. Williams says. He goes on to describe (but not to demonstrate) his exquisite sensitivity to language, which doesn't permit him to indulge in the tawdry pleasure of personification.

How many times have you heard a weatherman say that the sun will try to come out later in the day? Sometimes their prediction turns out to be false and I wonder whether they would explain it by saying the sun didn't try hard enough. But it's not just weathermen who use teleological explanations, ascribing purposeful behavior to inanimate objects. I'm currently listening to CD lectures on particle physics and I'm told that strange quarks want to decay. I'm wondering how the professor knows what a strange quark wants; has he interviewed one?
Bwa ha ha, as the saying is.

Williams also gets upset when people call zeros Os:
In the past, I have asked operators whether I'd reach my party by pressing the telephone's "o" key instead of the zero key. Operators have always told me that to reach my party, I'd have to press the zero key, whereupon I'd ask them, why did they say "o"; were they deliberately trying to sabotage my communication efforts?
And a stern lesson it was to them, I'm sure.

Having wasted most of his space on this sort of grueling pedantry, Williams has only a moment left to get to the point:
I wonder whether it's just me, or is anyone else bothered by silly talk? It might be that I'm getting old and out of touch, or it might be that I'm suffering from having received my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people and nonsense was unacceptable.
This last sentence is fascinating, both grammatically and philosophically. As far as I can tell, the gist of Williams' column is that black people would be better off if white people stopped pretending to like them, because they would then be forced to use reflexive pronouns properly and to sneer at "nonsense" (e.g., personification, prosopoiea, synecdoche, and any other rhetorical figure that strays too far from the cold hard Gradgrindian facts).

In other words, whatever feeble analytical power Williams can bring to bear on these trivialities ennobles the educational system that prevailed in those dear dead days when it wasn't "fashionable for white people to like black people," and "nonsense was unacceptable" (except, of course, for the racist nonsense that made it fashionable for white people not to like black people).

If that's not what Williams is arguing here, I can't begin to imagine what he's actually trying to say.

(Illustration: "The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell, 1964.)

My Appointed Rounds

Photos from The Claude C. Matlack Collection.

Snapshots by Jean Thomas, The Traipsin' Woman.

Photos of Africville by Bob Brooks.

Near the Cross: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta.

Botanical and cartographical drawings by Alida Withoos.

A "social history of collecting," entitled Collect: Obsessive, Passionate, Visionary.

Ice, Fire, and Northern Myths.

An exhibition of works by Salvatore C. DiMarco and Gilbert J. Tucker of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Nova Scotia Bird Watercolors by S. Edgar Marsh.

(The illustration at top is from The Panorama Effect.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fanatical Simplicity

A number of conservative scholars fell in love at first sight with the term "Islamofascism," and have since been trying to invent a respectable pedigree for it, like some lovesick heiress from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

At a site called Family Security Matters, where the threat of Islamic bloodlust seems to trump such everyday family-destroyers as car accidents and cancer, Andrew Bostom gives Cliff May a passing grade for his latest attempt to connect Islam and National Socialism:

May’s inchoate effort should be applauded for its attempted illustration of any possible ideological nexus between Hitler’s Nazism and Islam.
The emphasis is in the original, which makes this an unusually honest summation of the business at hand. May's stab at linking Hitler and Islam - which actually strikes Bostom as daring, perhaps because he's been living on the moon for the last few years - may've been inadequate, but at least he understands that they ought to be linked, one way or another.

Having softened up his colleague with this faint praise, Bostom prepares to school his punk ass on the finer points of the Historical Method. He begins with an appeal to authority: Carl Jung once compared Hitler to Mohammed!

That really isn't very impressive, especially to those of us who've occasionally "dared" to doubt Jung's other opinions. But Bostom has lots of other quotes up his sleeve. Here's one from Albert Speer:
Hitler usually concluded this historical speculation by remarking, “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”
Bostom has inadvertently stumbled on a fairly profound characteristic of fascism: its parasitic opportunism. But he doesn't notice it, because he's too excited by the proximity, in this anecdote, of Hitler and Islam.

Bostom goes on to say that Hitler didn't want to alienate the Arabs, because he saw them as potential allies in his war on the Jews. Of course, Hitler formed an actual alliance with Japan, but what this reveals about the essential nature of Shinto or Buddhism is apparently of no interest.

The next witnesses for the prosecution are Jacob Burckhardt, who once called Mohammed "a radical simplifier," and Waldemar Gurian, who once called Hitler "a fanatical simplifier." See how the phrases are almost the same? And how it's impossible to imagine any other political or religious figures, living or dead, being described in this way?

He also mentions Ibn Warraq's discussion of Islam in light of Umberto Eco's Ur-Fascism. And like Warraq, he willfully ignores one of the most pertinent distinctions Eco makes:
In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life.
Emphasis added.

All of Bostom's scholarly posturing, and all of the silly anecdotal cherrypicking on which it relies, is supposed to provide retroactive support for the conclusion that Islam, when viewed for the sake of political convenience or personal animus as monolithic, is authoritarian (or dictatorial, or totalitarian, or despotic), and is therefore fascistic. These analogical sleights of hand are pretty much the same ones that provide the aeriform foundation for The House that Jonah Built, and they stand up to about as much critical scrutiny.

What we never learn from these earnest people is why it's so important, in practical terms, to discern "any possible ideological nexus between Hitler’s Nazism and Islam," instead of recognizing the various strains of violent Islamic radicalism as distinct, unique movements with their own goals and tactics and ideological substrate. Supposedly, it pays to know one's enemies. But "fanatical simplifiers" like Bostom prefer to force their current antagonists into the mold of a past they seem to understand no better than the present.

That said, Bostom promises that he will soon be presenting shocking new evidence that Nazis and Arabs both dislike Jews. So I suppose I'd better withhold my judgment for now.

(Illustration by Francesca Berrini.)