Saturday, April 30, 2005

Goddamn Lying Bastards: A Critical Reappraisal

Yesterday, I discussed an apocryphal Iranian magazine article called "Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars," which supposedly threatened the United States with an electromagnetic pulse attack, via aerial detonation of a nuclear weapon. I wasn't able to find the article online, and wondered whether it actually existed.

Well, it does. And thanks to the awe-inspiring munificence and sagacity of Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, I now have a copy of it.

There are a couple of interesting things about it. First and foremost, it contains no discussion of an EMP attack against the United States.

For that matter, it contains no discussion of an EMP attack against anyone.

In fact, it contains no mention of nuclear weapons whatsoever.

Yes, friends, you heard me correctly. This eight-year-old article, which a gaggle of "defense experts" is currently presenting as evidence for Iran's intention to launch an EMP attack using nuclear weapons, does not discuss the use of nuclear weapons, and does not discuss EMP attacks. Not once.

What it does talk about - in general terms fairly similar to those of Western articles on the subject - is cyberterrorism. Personally, I'd be hard pressed to see its discussion of that issue as a veiled threat, let alone an explicit one. But even if I did see it that way, it'd do little more than remind me that three of BushCo's top cybersecurity experts have resigned in two years, complaining that they had virtually no official support for their work.

In his piece on the Iranian article, Joseph Farah lifted this quote:

Even worse today when you disable a country's military high command through disruption of communications, you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country. If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults then they will disintegrate within a few years. American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot.
Oops...did I say "Farah lifted this quote"? I'm sorry. I meant to say "Farah stitched this quote together dishonestly, with malice aforethought, like the shameless jackal he is."

In the original article, these three sentences have little or nothing to do with one another. Worse still, the final sentence is missing eight of its original words, and is completely out of context. Have a look at these sentences in their original context:
Once you confuse the enemy communication network you can also disrupt the work of the enemy command and decisionmaking center. Even worse, today when you disable a country's military high command through disruption of communications you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country.

[snip - one paragraph missing]

If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronics assaults, then they will disintegrate within a few years. What is worse, in the information technology warfare there is no longer any distinction between civilians and combatants.

[snip - three paragraphs missing]

In an analysis of the current electronics warfare situation, the American daily, The Washington Post recently wrote that if the enemy forces succeeded in infiltrating the information network of the US Army, then the whole organization would collapse. It said in such a case that the American soldiers could not find food to eat nor could they be able to fire a single shot.
Isn't it droll that the ominous quote about American soldiers turns out to have been paraphrased from an article in the WaPo? I wonder why Farah left that bit out. After all, it proves that the WaPo - like most liberal papers - takes its marching orders from Islamofascist mullahs.

Oh, and for the benefit of the good folks at Rapture Ready, the standard Christian theological term for lying is "bearing false witness." You're not supposed to do it, last time I checked.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Last week, I promised Hedwig that I'd start posting the scientific names of these Monsters of the Deep.

This one is supposedly called Cadlinella ornatissima, but I suspect that it's really just a toy that some Japanese youngster accidentally dropped in the water.

Friday Hope Blogging

A couple of months ago, I discussed a hybridized high-yield West African rice called NERICA, which is admirably resistant to pests.

Now, Australian researchers have used selective breeding to create a variety of food crops with extra-high levels of nutrients. The motivation, as you might imagine, is to reduce worldwide deaths from malnutrition. Professor Ross Welch explains:

If you look at the number of deaths per year from diet-related disease it's approaching 24 million a year that lose their lives due to malnutrition, primarily from micronutrient malnutrition. And in the scheme of things that's much, much more than you can attribute to any other type of death, be it the occupational health and safety, AIDS, smoking, you name it. It doesn't even come close to those numbers.

So this is a massive problem globally and it comes from the fact that agriculture sees itself in production, in farming, in Ag industry and not part of nutrition.
Amen to that. The beauty of the Australian research is that it involves no bioengineering whatsoever, and yet it offers the nutritional gains that biotech bullies like Monsanto promised but failed miserably to deliver. This poses some serious problems for Monsanto's PR campaign, to say the least. And since the Australian crops are the work of compassionate and intelligent people, instead of fiends in human form, there are no restrictions on seed use; poor farmers can save and share them.

I was also pleased to read (courtesy of Triple Pundit) about some positive trends in land remediation. For one thing, it seems that the former "death strip" that marked the path of the Iron Curtain is being turned into a massive greenbelt:
For the past two years, a coalition of environmental and community development groups has pushed to turn the Iron Curtain zone into a mosaic of parks, nature preserves, and organic farms stretching from the Arctic shores of Finland and Russia to the arid frontier between Bulgaria and Greece.
There's also an interesting article about Britain's ambitious Changing Places program:
Britain's urban wastelands have been transformed into parks and wildlife reserves with the help of 500,000 volunteer workers.

In less than a decade, some of Britain's worst wastelands, derelict collieries, former chemical dumps, old quarries and industrial areas have been transformed into parks, wildlife areas, gardens and sports facilities.
In a very different frame of mind than I inhabit today, I once argued that President Kerry (remember him?) should bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps:
The Civilian Conservation Corps, which operated from 1934 to 1937, was an environmental remediation program that put millions of people to work maintaining and restoring America's wetlands, forests, beaches, and parks. Because these projects can take time, the program provided free lodging for workers, allowing the government to keep costs down while still providing workers with a living wage.
It sounds like the EU is moving in a somewhat similar direction, which'll give me the sort of vicarious thrill that normal people get from pornography. These perfidious non-Americans are also exploring radical concepts like collecting rainwater, which is as despicable an example of postmodern Marxist-Leninist do-gooder authoritarianism as I've ever seen. If God had meant us to collect rainwater, He would've given us giant saucer-shaped heads.

And last, on a more personal note, I'm thrilled beyond words to learn about the arrival of biodegradable packing tape. Speaking as a longtime eBay seller, this is pretty much a dream come true!

Darn Good Intelligence

The hypercredulous ninnies over at Rapture Ready have been reading Joseph Farah again, and thus they're in a tizzy over the possibility that Iran will detonate a nuclear weapon over American skies, knocking out our power and communications and bringing this once-proud nation to its knees.

Farah has been consorting with a man named Peter Pry, who is involved with a weird group called the "Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack." Pry says that an EMP attack is a grave and gathering threat, because

[A]n Iranian military journal has publicly considered the idea of launching an electromagnetic pulse attack as the key to defeating the world's lone superpower.
That the name of this journal doesn't appear in the article is probably a mere oversight. And when you're talking about something as upsetting as America's defeat at the hands of bloodthirsty Islamists, you can be forgiven for ignoring little details like the author's name, or the date of publication. Farah did manage to include the article's title, though: "Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars." And I, for one, am glad he did.

I found only one other reference on the Internets to an article with that title. It claims to be from something called "Iranian Journal," and it was published all the way back in 1998. The citation appears on a rather deranged-looking Powerpoint presentation by Dr. William Graham, a former "scientific advisor" to Ronald Reagan. Oddly enough, Dr. Graham also turns out to be the former chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.

A Google search for "Iranian Journal" and "EMP" brings up very few pertinent results, and all of them lead to Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, an ultra-right thinktank funded by Scaife and defense contractors. The redoubtable Frank Carlucci sits on the IFPA's board of directors.

The IFPA's reference is to an article called "Iranian Journal Examines Electronic Warfare." Searching the citation for this article leads you right back to the IFPA. To the very same page, in fact. One gets the feeling that "Iranian Journal" is published by the same folks who brought you Paris Business Review.

At this point, I think we've ascertained that the Iranian article is apocryphal at best. But maybe it does exist, somewhere. A more serious problem is that fact that the scenario it allegedly described - eight years ago - is really, really stupid. Take a gander at this quote:
If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults then they will disintegrate within a few years. American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot.
Does that makes sense to anyone?

Well, yes. It makes sense to the batshit-crazy con artist Jerome Corsi, who claims that this hallucinatory gibberish proves
...just how devious the fanatical mullahs in Tehran are. We are facing a clever and unscrupulous adversary in Iran that could bring America to its knees.
That sort of talk is neither hysterical nor simpleminded enough for current CATUSEPA chairman Lowell Wood, who claims that an Iranian EMP attack could "literally destroy the American nation and might cause the deaths of 90 percent of its people and set us back a century or more in time as far as our ability to function as a society."

Farah goes on to report that these EMP paranoiacs are being sneered at by the Department of Homeland Security, which is the only positive thing I've ever read about that august body.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Dark Green Future

Defense Tech reports that our world-renowned detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has gone green, thanks to the addition of wind turbines:

Together, the four turbines will generate 3,800 kw [kilowatts], and in years of typical weather the wind turbines will produce almost 8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. They will reduce the consumption of 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel, reduce air pollution by 26 tons of sulfur dioxide and 15 tons of nitrous oxide, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 13 million pounds each year.

The new wind turbines will provide as much as 25% of the base's power generation during the high-wind months of late summer, and are expected to save taxpayers $1.2 million in annual energy costs.
This is wonderful news in itself. But what I find most exciting is that it suggests lots of world-changing possibilities for eco-torture. For instance, it's entirely possible that a redesigned water-torture system could produce a terrifying sensation of drowning for one prisoner, while generating enough microhydropower to shock the genitalia of another. With a few modifications, the Sunpipe could provide an ideal blinding light for interrogations, or produce varying degrees of diffuse or highly localized heat. And of course, replacing plastic-based restraints with hemp could do a lot to clean up Guantanamo's waste stream.

Another thing we should certainly do is increase the torture options legally available to us, in order to end the energy-intensive practice of flying prisoners to client states for "rendering." As we approach a peak-oil scenario, local torture and detention centers will become essential. It simply won't be feasible to ship "persons of interest" from one end of the country to another, let alone to Cuba. As in everything else, our guiding principle for torture and detention facilities should be "small, local, and green."

As usual, California leads the way. Alameda County's new solar prison provides a dazzling glimpse at the future of sustainable eco-incarceration.

As the Midas Touch of eco-design transforms processes and products at every level of society, it becomes more and more obvious that we really can have it all: We can tread lightly on Mother Earth, and keep our boots planted firmly on the necks of evildoers.

It brings a whole new meaning to the term "renewable power."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Comparing the Price of Liquids

This bright morning, Triple Pundit has offered up some evocative statistics about the price of liquids:

Upon comparison to a relatively simple commodity such as Coca Cola whose supply is seemningly limitless, the tremendous impact government subsidies have on one of our most coveted resources is suddenly obvious. When gasoline prices are compared to other liquid products, Snapple comes out costing 5 times that of gas, with nasal spray topping the list at a whopping 230 times the price of gasoline.
This information comes from the official site of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience, and Grocery Association. In essence, it explains that gas is one of the cheapest fluids you can buy, and strongly implies that consumers should stop whining and pony up the dough cheerfully.

How the VPCGA comparison is supposed to make people feel better about gas prices, or the U.S. economy - or economics in general - is completely beyond me. Aside from confirming yet again that what we call "the free market" is actually a colossal, incoherent shell game, the comparison offers very few comforts indeed. One should remember, too, that persistently higher gas prices have occasionally been known to result in higher prices for consumer goods...such as Scope mouthwash (currently at $27.20 per gallon), Visine eyedrops ($995 per gallon), and Nasalcrom nasal spray ($2615.28 per gallon).

The VPCGA neglected to compare gasoline prices to the price of Jeff Gannon's semen. Just for the record, I estimate the latter at $256,000 per gallon, based on a statistically average ejaculation of 1.5 teaspoons, at $500 a pop. I have a suspicion that gasoline, if its actual production costs and externalities were factored into its price, might well cost a good deal more than that.

In related news, rest assured that President Bush feels your pain:
President Bush will propose measures to address the "root causes" of high energy prices, including possible construction of oil refineries on closed military bases....

Monday, April 25, 2005

Beyond Timber and Fish

Some folks may remember me discussing the concept of ecosystem services a while back.

The Economist has an interesting article on this subject. (If you haven't noticed yet, "interesting" tends to be my polite way of saying "thought-provoking in a not entirely pleasing way.")

The article should inspire me with hope, in theory. It promotes the valuation of ecosystems, after all, and describes a new willingness among economists to consider externalities. And yet I came away from it in a gloomy mood, because it shows just how deep-rooted and destructive certain attitudes are, and how much of our economic life is based on mere silliness.

Consider this grotesque attempt to explain why it's suddenly possible for economists to discuss ecosystem services without getting wedgies, purple nurples, and the dreaded "Rear Admiral" from the Kool Kids:

[S]cience is producing abundant evidence that the natural environment provides a wide range of economic benefits beyond the obvious ones of timber and fish.
To me, this statement betrays a really remarkable amount of alienation from everyday reality; I'm less relieved to see this attitude faltering, than unsettled to see it persisting. (Of course, it's always possible the author's being ironic, just as it's possible that Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Sylvester.)

Anyway, be it known: the natural environment is a source of more - far more - than timber and fish. Once you've grasped this fact, you may congratulate yourself on inhabiting the bleeding edge of economic heterodoxy.

Next, you may want to try wrapping your mind around the notion that better information can lead to better decisions:
[T]he more there is known about the ecology of, say, a forest, the better the valuation of the services it provides will be. Fortunately, according to two reports published by the World Bank at the end of 2004, significant progress has been made towards developing techniques for valuing environmental costs and benefits. There is, says one of these reports, no longer any excuse for considering them unquantifiable.
If any of you good people thought that my snotty comments about the Refusing-To-Pay-Any-Attention Principle were exaggerated, I invite you to re-read that last quote. Obviously, there's a perfectly good excuse for treating unquantifiable things as unquantifiable. What's problematic is treating unquantifiable things as irrelevant. This is something economists have been doing for centuries, unfortunately. What's more, they've occasionally presented it as hard-headed pragmatism, even when it's clearly bad-faith Candyland bullshit.

It's also problematic to internalize and promote obscure forms of paranoia, as thus:
Forests and swamps (or "wetlands", to give the latter their politically correct modern moniker) filter and purify water, and act as reservoirs to capture rain and melting snow.
"Politically correct"? That's an absolutely daft thing to say. "Wetlands" doesn't refer merely to swamps; it also refers to marshes, estuaries, floodplains, ponds, and any number of other combinations of land and water (including areas - like meadows - that are seasonally inundated).

I guess the word "swamp" is supposed to be pejorative - all good economists know, after all, that swamps are horrible places of no utility to anybody - and thus, the use of "wetlands" must be a devious attempt to hoodwink the public with feel-good PC platitudes. Well, let there be no more sugarcoating of the awful truth: from here on out, any damp locale that's neither a swimming pool, nor a lake, nor an ocean is a swamp, and is very likely to be populated by water moccasins, 'gators, and haints. Tell your friends.

The article goes on to describe - approvingly, mind you - the shortsighted misuse of ecosystem valuation:
Valuing ecosystem services can also point to places where inaction is best. After fires in Croatia had damaged many forests, a study was done to see if restoration was worthwhile given their value to the tourist industry. Examination of 11 sites revealed that the net benefits varied significantly. Some sites were not worthy candidates and were dropped.
Evidently, these forests - despite their handy ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen - didn't count as "public goods." But then again, so what if they had?
Public goods are those which are in everybody's interest to have, but in no one's interest to provide. Clean air, for example, or, more controversially, the preservation of rare species of plant or animal.
On the contrary, the interest of the public is to provide these goods to itself, through the medium of government, which is one of the reasons we pay taxes. If something is in "everyone's interest to have," then it's logically in everyone's interest to provide and protect it. If this doesn't work reliably in real life, it's not because the concept is flawed, but because economic considerations - which in this instance is simply a synonym for criminality - cause government to put the interests of business before the interests of the public, so that the tax money that should protect public goods goes instead to subsidies and bailouts for developers and their ilk.

By the way, the Economist would like you to know that just because economists are catching on to things that conservationists have been saying for decades, it doesn't mean any of us should listen to what conservationists are saying now:
[M]any conservationists dislike valuation. Some misunderstand it as an approach that ignores cultural and spiritual values. It does not.
That's debatable. If the decision as to whether a given forest should be saved depends wholly on whether it attracts tourists, one could certainly make a case that cultural and spiritual values are being ignored. Viable ones, at any rate.

All my ill-tempered ranting aside, the article's worth reading. It's more positive than I'm making it sound, and its occasional ethical and logical incoherence probably could've been a lot more glaring.

Make Way For Ducklings

I spent a good deal of yesterday wallowing in anaerobic mud. The wife and I were visiting a marsh near our house when a trio of tiny ducklings lumbered out of the weeds and headed straight for us, letting out shrill little calls. As always, I reacted swiftly and surely; to turn dead white, shriek like a child, and teeter on the edge of syncope was, for me, the work of seconds. Fortunately, my wife was able to calm me down with the injectible valium she carries for just such emergencies.

It was obvious to my wife - who works as a wildlife nurse and rehabilitator - that these birds were lost or abandoned, and that their prognosis was extremely poor. She caught two, and I caught the other. We took them down to the water's edge and let them loose on the mudflats, and they immediately set off to join the nearest family. It may not have been the ducklings' biological family, but they were in no mood to be picky. While ducklings are precocious feeders, swimmers, and divers, they need a mother to protect them from hypothermia and predators, and to waterproof their feathers.

While we were carrying the birds, a passerby warned us that "the mother will reject them" because we'd touched them. That's a myth. Mothers don't care if ducklings have been handled by humans (they have a very poor sense of smell); and in many cases, they'll "adopt" the abandoned offspring of other parents, an interesting phenomenon known as "post-hatch brood amalgamation."

Within a few minutes, the mother had herded her brood out of the water - our foundlings included - and was warming them up on the shore.

Having done our good deed for the day, we wanted to get on with our walk. We went about fifty feet before we heard another duckling's distress call. This one was paddling in circles in a narrow canal surrounded by mud and pickleweed. To make a long - and messy - story short, we eventually caught it. After drying and warming it, we put it in a well-populated pool. It tried to attach itself to a number of couples, who outswam it or flew away. Things were looking pretty bleak, but it finally followed a female ruddy duck who led it to a mallard family, which it joined without incident.

Another passerby hinted that we were interfering with the Laws of Nature, which had mandated that these particular ducklings should be food for predators. There are a number of reasons why this was a silly objection; the main one is that it may still happen. In this marsh, egrets, kites, gopher snakes, and other predators abound, and these ducklings have a dangerous few weeks ahead of them.

But more to the point, you really can't romanticize the impersonal workings of nature in an essentially manmade ecosystem, where hatchlings face a galaxy of threats from humans, chemicals, fishing line, plastic bags, pets, and introduced or invasive species, in addition to their natural predators. A level of reproduction that's sufficient to keep a population stable in normal circumstances may not do the trick when new development, for instance, increases the threats to a species' survival.

We only traveled ten more feet before we came across two more lost ducklings. We tried for about ten minutes to catch them. I sank up to my calves in foul-smelling muck more than once. In the end, all we managed to do was separate and terrify them. They finally either hid themselves very well, or - more likely - drowned. Needless to say, we wished we'd left them alone, and went home feeling depressed and stupid.

So despite morally pure intentions and a considerable amount of expertise, our efforts apparently ended in catastrophic failure one-third of the time. Or is the fate of the last two ducklings "acceptable," since they would almost certainly have died of hypothermia or been eaten by predators regardless? Did we save four from "certain" death, or did we kill two through our blundering? Or was it a little of both?

Questions like these - trivial as they may seem when applied to the rescue of abandoned ducklings - are pertinent to far more serious undertakings. When your mistakes are counted in lives, precisely how many should you be allowed to make?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Still too busy for real posting...I should be back on top of things on Monday.

As for Friday Hope Blogging, you'll have to settle for this: I hope you have a nice weekend!

Cheap Imitations

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.

Whatever the cause, this life - for which our children must now kill and die - is so meager and occluded that it's no wonder our homegrown religion has emphasized the tantalizing nearness of the Big Payoff, in language more suited to a casino than a church. Indeed, as escaping poverty and debt becomes more and more difficult, gambling itself takes on an almost holy allure. It's not just the money, either. It's also the idea of recognition; winning a fortune would provide proof that one is special, and really was meant for better things. Ultimately, though, there's very little to say about a society that sees a place like Las Vegas as an "escape" from its burdens, rather than as an intensification of them, or at least as an insultingly explicit metaphor for them.

Surely, there's more than a little of Las Vegas in America's religious notions, which increasingly boil down to the worker's daydream of getting the last laugh. But here, the fantasy turns a bit darker. It's not enough to thrive, not enough to be singled out for reward while the scoffers turn green with envy; everyone who's "bad" must suffer. If the American God - the God, that is, of Scofield and Darby - is made in our own image, he's based partially on the office drone's vision of winning the lottery, and partially on the coward's admiration for brute force, but mainly on the overworked postal worker's dream of double-barreled justice. This God shares in our petty prejudices, damns whatever frightens us or angers us, and pointlessly punishes people whose personal knowledge of suffering is already more than deep enough.

Meanwhile, patriotism, like materialism, has defined itself through opposition until it's little more than a litany of denials. It's a denial of shared destiny, of community and responsibility, of guilt and shame and consideration and obligation. It's neither cosmopolitan, nor secular, nor intellectual, nor "green," nor tolerant. Nor is it welcoming or compassionate; the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was probably, after all, just a dirty trick of the perfidious French.

What we're pledging allegiance to at this point is unclear. In theory, it's probably some ideal of freedom that we're too scared, busy, ignorant, or debt-ridden to achieve. In practice, it may be the freedom to buy pills that will ease the infirmities our labors cause, or the freedom to forget our worries by watching complete strangers get punished for real or imaginary crimes. Americans are so relentlessly kicked around, so consistently made to feel helpless and's no surprise that "kicking ass and taking names" sometimes seems like the closest thing we have to a shared national dream.

We were made for better things, but seem to have no sense of what those things might be. The idea that success and money will make us happy - a proposition which virtually everything we see and hear in our daily lives proves false - is weirdly persistent. The lives of the most wealthy, glamorous, famous people are daily revealed as grotesque and awful farces; we dwell lovingly on every detail of their humiliation, while imagining that "success" will solve our problems (after all, with enough wealth, we can buy replicas of all the things we lost or threw away).

The fact that Bush's tawdry, heartless counterfeits of family and community and spirituality appeal to so many Americans isn't necessarily proof that they're stupid. More likely, it's proof that they're so starved for these things - and for the sense of belonging they engender - that they'll swallow anything. Because just as starving explorers used to eat strips of leather and splinters of wood while straggling through some wasteland, starving hearts will swallow lies.

(Originally posted 12/13/04)

Planetary Management At Its Finest!

This story will delight you, no matter how sick, sad, or suicidal you may have thought yourself. It's a grand medicine for melancholy, and it'll cost you next to nothing. Tell it to your children in place of a bedtime story, and watch their lovely little eyes fairly glow with wholesome wonderment.

A federal facility that pumps salty water 14,000 feet into the Earth's crust probably is associated with a magnitude 3.9 earthquake that struck the Utah-Colorado border this month, an official said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facility removes salt from the Dolores River, then pumps 230 gallons of brine per minute into deep wells in Utah's Paradox Valley Area.

The process is intended to decrease the salt content of the Colorado River downstream, but scientists say it also lubricates faults. The facility has caused thousands of earthquakes in the area since 1991, but most have been too small for people to feel. The 3.9 quake, which struck Nov. 6, was felt in Grand Junction, some 60 miles away. No damage was reported.

For those who don't know, the Colorado River is salty because Western soil is salty, and often has poor drainage conditions. Accordingly, we've found ways to drain irrigation run-off back into the river, along with tons of salt. This water is re-used continually as it travels through agricultural land, so salt concentrations increase dramatically as the water travels to Mexico. By the time it gets across the border, it's downright poisonous.

Our solution? Force astonishing amounts of this salty water into the earth's crust, presumably (though I haven't checked) without contaminating aquifers or other sources of fresh groundwater. One result of this solution? Earthquakes.

Spooky, eh? It's almost as though the earth were a complex system, in which certain actions lead to unforeseen results.

(Originally posted 11/14/04)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Klinghoffer Agonistes

In matchless prose that has all the forcefulness, and twice the pathos, of a sick kitten, David Klinghoffer announces that Pope Ratzinger is just what the doctor ordered for world Jewry.

Hark to his cold inexorable logic: Ratzinger's against moral relativism, and since "Jewish leadership" has come down on the side of moral relativism, mainstream Jews should admire Ratzinger, because - like all popes - he believes that Catholicism is the One True Faith, which gives Jews carte blanche to assert that Judaism is the One True Faith, which will lead - obviously! - to a new era of intransigent religious conservatism and the downfall of moral relativism.

The great question of our time, you see, is whether there is no truth anywhere - an ironically absolutist stance flirted with by a tiny group of confused postmodernist undergrads - or some truth somewhere, as pretty much everyone else on earth believes. What Klinghoffer - in his disingenuity or invincible ignorance - calls "moral relativism" is actually tolerance and pluralism: the notion that while there may be only one truth about deity, there is also a moral responsibility to respect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and the integrity of the individual. Which is, of course, a perfectly firm and reasonable ethical stance that has nothing to do with moral relativism, but a great deal to do with the founding of this country.

Klinghoffer does, at least, demonstrate that if you start out with hopelessly flawed premises, you can end up with a grotesquely stupid conclusion:

Pope Benedict XVI has his truth. Jews who believe in Judaism, as opposed to relativism, have ours. The pope and the Jews can't both be right — but that fact, that there can only be one truth, is a singularly important truth in itself, arguably more important than any of the doctrinal points on which Jews, Catholics, and other Christians differ.
Look here, friend: If there's One True Faith - one narrow path to salvation - then any faith that contradicts it is false. A false faith prevents knowledge of God's truth, and without knowledge of God's truth, there's no salvation. And anything that stands in the way of salvation is evil, for all intents and purposes. If "the pope and the Jews can't both be right," then one of them is not merely wrong, but catastrophically evil.

It's not that goddamn complicated. In fact, the drab, plodding, lunatic simplicity of these notions is precisely their attraction to faux-spiritual vulgarians like Klinghoffer, which makes it all the more droll that he's pretending that these absolute values impose no intersubjective moral obligations (conversion at sword's point, for instance). Gee, that almost sounds like moral relativism!

(Link via Alicublog.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Tuesday Crow Blogging

I was hiking around Big Sur this weekend, and experimented with taking pictures through the eyepiece of my binocular. I like the way this one turned out.

Infectious Incompetence

In response to the disturbing release of the A/H2N2 influenza virus by Meridian, POGO offers a rundown of recent lab accidents involving pathogens. Plague baccili transported in suitcases, accidental TB all makes for comforting bedtime reading.

But POGO's focus on US accidents means they left out some other exciting cases, like the accidental smallpox release that led the head of a British research facility to slash his own throat. And the hapless Australian researchers who tried to engineer a contraceptive for mice, and inadvertantly created an deadly form of mousepox that was able to overcame the animal's natural genetic resistance. Plus,unless I'm mistaken, there have been at least three overseas lab accidents involving SARS.

One of the many unfortunate things about BushCo's robotic fixation on "biodefense" is that it's increased the number of labs working with these pathogens - and encouraged irresponsible genetic engineering experiments - and has thus increased the risk of a catastrophic accident. Here's a map of high-containment biodefense labs in operation as of November 2004. Rest assured that many more are on BushCo's wishlist.

You'll be glad to know that the WaPo is concerned about lab safety, in its usual tepid way:

[A]fter three weeks no one at CDC is yet able to explain whether Meridian put this particular strain of virus in its testing samples knowingly or by accident. Meridian does not respond to questions. CDC spokesmen say the agency is "working on" coming up with an explanation, but they point out that it has no mandate to monitor lab safety. It appears that this strange accident falls through the cracks of regulation. The virus in question is not classified as a "select agent," the misuse of which would be a criminal offense, although it may eventually be reclassified that way.
Regarding "select agent" classification, Effect Measure points out yet again how the tunnel-vision focus on biodefense scenarios is leading us to make stupid decisions:
The third, and perhaps most important question, relates to why H2N2 is handled under biosafety level 2 (BSL 2) conditions in the US ("good laboratory practice") but requires BSL 3 protection in Canada (use of safety cabinets and other protections). CDC Director Gerberding explained that because influenza isn't a bioterrorist agent, it did not receive the proper attention. Besides showing unbelievable stupidity, incompetence and a blind sense of misplaced priorities, we note that despite Canada's pleas and WHO's dismay the US has still not taken the required step of classifying H2N2 as a BSL 3 agent....
Getting back to the WaPo editorial, I find it irritating in that it simply questions whether enough safety precautions are in place, without questioning whether research of this type is wise or necessary:
[I]f the relatively free exchange of such materials is to continue, safety standards need to be updated more regularly, and everyone needs to be much clearer about what those standards are.
This is a remarkably vague and casual sentiment, I think. And I dislike its implication that unethical, wasteful, stupid, and dangerous research is acceptable as long as everyone takes the proper precautions. Open-air vulnerability testing is fine, by this logic, so long as a "harmless" organism is used. It seems to me that flawed research programs often lead to flawed practices; the massive influx of taxpayer dollars into this field is very likely to make a bad situation worse.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Shale Game

The Utah radio station KSL 1160 asks the immortal question Could Utah Oil Lower Gas Prices?

[M]ore and more of your money is going towards skyrocketing oil and gas prices. Alternative sources other than the Middle East are being looked at for oil, and one place is right here in Utah.
That sounds terrific, until you read the full piece, and realize that they're talking about - wait for it - shale oil and tar sands.
Utah has plenty of oil but it's all stuck in rock or sand....Utah Geological Survey Energy and Minerals Program Manager David Tabet says the reason no one has mined the oil is the extremely high cost.

However since a barrel of oil is now over $50 dollars companies may consider doing it if they get help from the government.
Where does one start? The cost of extracting and refining shale oil is, obviously, going to put its price well above $50 per barrel - if Australia's disastrous experience is any guide, the per-barrel cost could be three or four times that amount, without factoring in external costs - so the idea that it'd reduce gas prices is insane on its face. The corporate welfare hinted at in this article would come from taxpayers, of course; I fail to see how it'd help consumers to have them subsidize artificially low oil prices out of their own pockets.

Further, the greenhouse gas emissions of shale oils are about four times higher than that of regular oil, depending on the refining method used. It's also unbelievably water-intensive, which is a serious consideration in the desert West.

Via Energy Bulletin, today's Denver Post has a good, skeptical editorial on the financial hazards of investing in shale oil:
The boom of the late 1970s and early '80s was fueled by crude-oil prices that reached a high of nearly $40 a barrel in late 1981 (or about $80 in today's dollars).

It was thought that the 1.8 trillion barrels of oil locked in the Green River formation in Wyoming, Utah and northwestern Colorado could be developed economically.

Then oil prices plunged sharply, and on "Black Sunday," May 2, 1982, Exxon Corp. pulled the plug on its $5 billion Colony Oil Shale Project near Parachute. Others followed, leaving western Colorado's super-heated economy in a shambles.

Basements and Bedrooms

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk has seen fit to coarsen our national discourse by writing a piece entitled "Fuck the Washington Post." His complaint is with some remarks on China's nuclear capabilities that appeared in an article by Edward Cody, WaPo's man in Beijing:

Cody’s piece of lazy, news analysis trash has a few paragraphs devoted to Beijing's nuclear deterrent. Each and every one of the four sentences containing a factual statement is inaccurate in some way. That’s an amazing 100 percent "suck" factor.
Dr. Lewis notes that the WaPo has refused to run his rebuttal. From where I'm sitting - the living-room, if you must know - it looks as though the mass media are just as unwilling to accept criticism from acknowledged experts as they are from bloggers working out of their basements and bedrooms.

As Atrios would say, "Time to convene a panel on blogger ethics and the caustic nature of online criticism!"

Friday, April 15, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

I have no time to write at length today, so I'm simply going to draw your attention to a great new site called Triple Pundit, which provides fascinating and heartening information on new trends in energy, design, government, business, ecology, and so forth. It's well worth checking daily, along with Near Near Future, Treehugger, and WorldChanging. I love the fact that I don't have to brace myself for bad news while these pages are loading!

I also thought this recent post from Living the Scientific Life was touching and inspiring. And the current post has lots of great bird links!

The Lighter Side of Human Sacrifice

(Originally posted on 11/16/04)

I was thinking the other day about the old rites of sacrifice and propitiation that were associated with preindustrial mining and logging. It occurred to me that they often served to limit the environmental damage that such activities caused; the supernatural "demand" for human life or wealth, as payment for access to natural resources, made deficit spending a very uncomfortable prospect. That idea of a relationship with nature that requires sacrifice and accommodation on both sides is pretty much gone today, and I don't think that's a good thing.

While I don't believe we should go back to burning people alive in wicker cages or burying them under foundation stones, I do like the notion of treating our use of resources as a formal transaction between ourselves and nature, in which both sides must benefit, or at least break even. If nothing else, the logic behind sacrifice and offerings placed human obligations to the environment above the human right to exploit it, which is precisely where they should be.

Currently, we treat the natural world as something between a free all-you-can-eat buffet, and a conquered enemy who can be violated at will. Since there's no scientific evidence to support such an outlook, nor any logical or moral justification for it, it's hard not to think of it as a form of insanity. In fact, it's insane enough to make almost any earlier concept of our place in nature seem perfectly lucid.

For instance, a personified, sentient Nature that feels and punishes human abuse might be an irrational concept in materialist terms, but it's really a pretty accurate metaphor for what actually happens in a complex world. I mean that this concept is far more likely to promote a respectful understanding of complex causal relations than is the current irrational belief that actions and reactions in nature happen neatly and intelligibly, one at a time, like a slow-motion game of Whack-a-Mole.

We have a very funny notion of what's rational, these days. I honestly wonder where we find the heart to sneer at even the most fanciful beliefs of our ancestors. Given how little attention our "experts" have devoted to the likely consequences of human actions - let alone the possible ones - and how surprised they are when one of their pet schemes brings ruinous consequences, we might as well blame a Vengeful Deity for any disaster in which the chain of causality is longer than the two or three links we'll ordinarily deign to look at. After all, once you've cast aside basic notions of cause and effect, there's very little of rational thought left to be salvaged.

If laws of physics and chemistry and common sense no longer impress us - and can be shrugged off as "junk science" - then we may as well start believing that skyrocketing childhood asthma is an angry god's revenge for our failure to perform the necessary propitiatory rites at coal-burning power plants. As crazy as that is, it's still better than refusing to believe in the asthma, which is what the Bush administration would prefer us to do.

A false conception that led us towards self-preservation would surely be justifiable in utilitarian terms, making it a lesser evil (and, in that sense, a lesser lie) than a distressing amount of our current scientific and economic philosophy. If we really must base our economic and environmental policies on irrational beliefs and imaginary forces, we ought at least to choose ones that limit the harm we can do to the world and ourselves. The way things are going lately, we'll soon forfeit our right to be appalled by societies that practiced human sacrifice, and to call any age "dark" but our own.

This is especially true when you consider that we still conduct human sacrifices. We've simply placed them at the far end of our transactions with nature, where they're less apt to stand in the way of whatever delusion looks like progress this week. Instead of the "pay as you go" philosophy of preindustrial times, we've decided to run a sacrificial trade deficit, and let Nature collect her burnt offerings at her leisure, along with whatever interest has compounded.

People used to think it was worthwhile to sacrifice one person to protect a city. Now, we think it's worthwhile to sacrifice a city to protect first-quarter profits. Both viewpoints may be utterly irrational, but only one of them is evil.

Delivering Disease

There's a moderately alarmist article here about the shipping of pathogens:

Every day, deadly germs are shipped across the country and around the globe, right alongside the books, gourmet foods and birthday presents sent through FedEx Corp. and similar couriers.

Often their journeys can be circuitous, too.

Follow, for instance, a single vial of the potentially deadly flu virus causing a world health scare because it was included in test kits sent to more than 4,000 laboratories. It was grown in a Virginia lab, spent time in a Cincinnati freezer and passed through a small medical company on the Mexican border before it finally arrived at a Milwaukee lab.
I have to say, I don't see a lot of reason to be paranoid about legitimate labs shipping pathogens via legitimate couriers; IATA and FedEx overpack regulations for infectious substances and diagnostic specimens are very strict, and the packaging can withstand just about any accident it's likely to have. I'm far more concerned about mishandling or malice at the receiving end. In most cases, the labs themselves are far more dangerous than transportation, both in terms of accidentally infecting people (as thus), and providing pathogens to people who shouldn't have them (as thus).

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rumsfeld Über Alles

Arms Control Wonk raises an alarming question:

Is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scheming to assume responsibility for the nuclear weapons functions currently held by Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and the Departent of Energy (DOE)?

That seems the most likely inference, given the conservative antipathy toward DOE (and its control of nuclear weapons) that dates to its inception in 1977. Hell, Ronald Reagan campaigned on abolishing DOE.

Both the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute advocate turning over DOE's nuclear weapons responsibilities to the Department of Defense.

Congressional Republicans even sponsored a bill to abolish DOE in the 104th, 105th and 106th Congresses entitled, well, The Department of Energy Abolishment Act. Future Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham (R-MI) was a co-sponser of the Senate versions.
I'd like to add that the other attraction of abolishing the DOE, to conservatives, is the possibility of privatizing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Naval Petroleum Reserve, and all federal oil shale reserves. The Cato Institute's advice, in this regard, is all too typical:
[T]he SPR can be turned into an entrepreneurial asset. The reserve can be privatized by selling off either the entire operation or its individual parts....Foreign ownership (by Saudi Arabia, for example) should not be prohibited. Even a decision by the new owners to liquidate the crude and mothball the reserve must be respected. After all, the private market would not have constructed the reserve in the first place.
I have no love for the DOE, by the way; it's woefully incompetent and corrupt. But the solution to its problems certainly isn't a power grab by Rumsfeld, especially when you consider the radwaste issues. The thought of the DoD taking charge of Yucca Mountain is not a happy one.

Monkeys for Sale!

A new species of monkey was discovered in Bolivia, and it needed a name. The free market, as we know, holds the answer to all life's questions, so the right to name the monkey was auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The highest bidder turned out to be the, an Internet gambling concern. And the monkey was accordingly named the monkey:

A statement from CEO Richard Rowe suggested the company was looking for a publicity-generating investment more enduring than an item it paid $28,000 for in another online auction last year: a 10-year-old, partly eaten cheese sandwich thought to contain the image of the Virgin Mary.
On the positive side, $650,000 of this moneygrubbing buffoon's money went to fund a Bolivian wildlife preserve. On the negative side, the world is approaching the absolute zero of vulgarity. At Pharyngula, PZ makes the essential point that this creep could've settled for "Golden Palace," and had a halfway decent name for this enchanting little creature.

Apparently, there are some more unnamed monkeys out there. After a brief tour of the Internets, I'm thinking that " monkey" has a nice ring to it. Or perhaps the RNC could pay a lasting tribute to Jeff Gannon, by naming one of 'em the " monkey."

And think of the promotional possibilities when new pathogens spring'd bring a whole new meaning to "viral marketing"!

Who Among Us Does Not Love Virulent Hate?

Some goon at Power Line - whom I won't dignify with a link - is singing one of the Right's classic dirges:

There is no parallel in modern American history for the virulent hate that the left has generated against President Bush.
Okay, I know the drill. At this point, I'm supposed to bring up a series of dreary facts about the Right's jihad against Clinton. Among other things, I'm supposed to point out that it spent more money on Whitewater alone, than BushCo spent on the 9/11 and Enron investigations put together.

Instead, let's go back a bit further. Some folks may know that about a hundred years ago, William Randolph Hearst's papers attacked President McKinley viciously and violently. Eventually, the Hearst-run Journal editorialized to the effect that "if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done." McKinley, of course, was shot and killed a few months later.

As for FDR, Hearst called him "Stalin Delano Roosevelt." He was also attacked ceaselessly by the American Liberty League and America First, by Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin and the DuPont family.

The American Liberty League was pretty much the model for today's wingnut thinktanks; it was funded largely by hard-right industrialists, it produced reams of propaganda for dissemination to the media, and it filed frivolous legal challenges to progressive legislation. Further, the evidence that the ALL planned a military coup against FDR is compelling, if not conclusive; you can read a summary of the case here. And you can also ponder what William Dodd, US ambassador to Germany, said in a 1936 letter to Roosevelt:
A prominent executive of one of the largest corporations, told me point blank that he would be ready to take definite action to bring fascism into America if President Roosevelt continued his progressive policies. Certain American industrialists had a great deal to do with bringing fascist regimes into being in both Germany and Italy. They extended aid to help Fascism occupy the seat of power, and they are helping to keep it there. Propagandists for fascist groups try to dismiss the fascist scare. We should be aware of the symptoms. When industrialists ignore laws designed for social and economic progress they will seek recourse to a fascist state when the institutions of our government compel them to comply with the provisions.
Today, of course, the Internets are infested with hysterical conservatives who screech that "FDR was a socialist" who "nearly destroyed the country," and was - with Carter and Clinton - one of the three "worst presidents ever." The Right's hatred for FDR - which is weirdly immediate and personal, considering the man's been dead for sixty years - matches anything today's liberals are saying about Bush. If we're still reflexively ululating about Bush's crimes sixty years from now, and detecting his malign influence anywhere we think to look for it, Power Line might have a right to slap our wrists for our "virulent hate."

Let's see...Joseph Welch of the John Birch Society called Eisenhower a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." That's fairly hateful, I'd say. And LBJ's civil-rights legislation? That earned him a wee bit of resentment from the Right, if memory serves...tedious echoes of which are still reverberating on sites like FR and LGF.

But never mind the hypocrisy; let's focus on the stupidity. The Left's hatred of Nixon is a perfectly valid "parallel in modern American history" for its hatred of Bush, as is its hatred of Reagan. And the fact that BushCo comprises some of the most corrupt of the old Nixon and Reagan men might even explain some of the Left's outrage, if you stop to think about it.

It's really amazing how these schmucks can mistake any gibberish that comes into their heads for God's Own Truth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Protests and Panopticons

The New York Times describes how video footage of police activity during protests at the Republican National Convention contradicted the official version of events, and led to the dismissal of charges against roughly 400 protestors:

A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive, lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the convention....

Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going to pick up sushi....discovered that there were two versions of the same police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had been edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop's lawyer, prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician had cut the material by mistake.
WorldChanging has more info on a similar case:
In Dennis Kyne's case, an officer testified in vivid detail that he kicked, squirmed and screamed, forcing four officers to restrain him. But the case was dropped when prosecutors were presented with a video by a documentary filmmaker showing Kyne descending the library steps on his own power, with the testifying officer nowhere in sight.
The folks at WorldChanging see recording devices in the hands of private citizens as comprising a "participatory panopticon." For those who don't know, the panopticon is a mode of surveillance based on an architectural form devised in 1787 by Jeremy Bentham. Most people think of the panopticon as a prison, but Bentham also saw panoptic systems as a "means of extracting labor" from workers, and as an ideal tool for regulating madhouses, hospitals, and schools. As regards prisons and the like, Bentham's goal was to increase hidden surveillance to a practical maximum, while relying on the subjects' assumption of continuous surveillance to have a normative effect:
[T]he persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so....
It's very satisfying to imagine a reversal of this system, in which the many watch the few (needless to say, the innocent have nothing to fear). In reality, of course, the power relations are not quite that simple. The "participatory panopticon" is itself subject to surveillance, and to having its evidence seized and destroyed. But as recording devices get smaller, more inobtrusive, and more numerous, they may become effectively impossible to thwart.

You can find more information on how video documentation is being used to protect human rights here.

A Conundrum

I'm insanely busy right now. I'm absolutely swamped in deadlines, and also desperate to squeeze in a day or two of travel, anywhere, before I go around the bend completely.

Accordingly, I can either take a break for a week or so a la Echidne, during which perhaps I'd post a few old things that went up when I had about five regular readers, or I could simply post new stuff when I'm able. Or, I suppose, I could do both.

Not sure which option would be better...

UPDATE: This wasn't meant to be a plea for help or anything like that! It's really just an announcement that posting will either be light or redundant until I get some of my other work done.

The Mind Reels

As if we didn't have enough problems with H5N1 avian flu and the Marburg virus, it seems that the College of American Pathologists included the A/H2N2 virus - which caused the deadly 1957 Asian flu pandemic - in a testing kit for distribution to laboratories around the world.

Samples of this sort are used as unknowns, to test labs on their ability to identify pathogens. In this case, vials of the virus were sent to 5000 labs in 18 countries. The problem was noticed after the virus escaped from a kit at a high-containment Canadian lab.

Test kits for flu are not handled at a high level of biological containment as it is generally assumed they do not carry unusually dangerous viruses. But its escape in the Winnipeg lab is worrying, as the lab contains facilities with the highest level of containment and its staff is expected to maintain high levels of lab hygiene. Its most probable route of escape into the outside world would be if a lab worker catches the Asian flu, then passes it on.
Unfortunately, this is a strain to which no one born after 1968 has any immunity.

Effect Measure, as usual, explains the situation in terms that the layperson can understand; Revere calls this a major fuck-up.

For some reason, this seems like a good time to mention the global campaign to "prohibit the genetic engineering of smallpox, the insertion of smallpox genes in other poxviruses, and any further distribution of smallpox genetic material for non-diagnostic purposes."

UPDATE: I almost forgot about the recent spate of tularemia infections, which I discussed here.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Too Many Goddamn Books

Echidne has set me a task, and as her humble suppliant I'm obliged to carry it out cheerfully, if not well. It seems I have to answer these questions, and then pass 'em on to three other people. I hate this kind of thing, so you may consider this post the "Book of Job" of Echidneism:

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

That's a tough one. If I choose on the basis of practicality, I lean towards Barbara Comyns' "Sisters By A River." If I choose on the basis of sentimentality, I'd have to pick one of Tove Jansson's Moomin books. If perversity gets the better of me, I'd probably go for George Lippard's The Monks of Monk Hall or some other ridiculous Gothic potboiler.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Does Echidne count?

The last book you bought is:

I bought seven, thanks to a chance meeting between a hefty credit slip and a fifty-dollar bill! Things That Talk: Object Lessons From Art and Science; two out-of-print books of Pogo strips; A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss; Typologies of Industrial Buildings (possibly the greatest book ever!); Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman; and Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project.

The last book you read:

No idea...I'm plowing through a dozen things simultaneously! I guess it was either Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, or Bourdieu's Science of Science and Reflexivity.

What are you currently reading?

Oy. (See photo, above). Jeffers has forced me to re-read Wittgenstein, so I'm about midway through four different books of his'n, which I pick up according to my mood (I'm not complaining; I'm grateful!). I'm also reading Arkin's Code Words (I'm not putting those goddamn Amazon links in again); a book called Urban Sprawl and Public Health; a book about vaudeville called The Voice of the City; a collection of essays on Athanasius Kircher; Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture; Ernst Cassirer's The Individual and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy; an anthology of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories called Tales from a Gas-Lit Graveyard; Fanny Howe's Gone and The Wedding Dress; The Fierce and Beautiful World by Andrei Platonov; and Theodore Steinberg's Slide Mountain.

I have to stress that "reading," for me, means wrestling with four pages before bedtime, usually in a hypnogogic state where the sentences morph into gibberish so strange that it wakes me up (at which point, I re-read the last paragraph to make sure that it didn't really say that bit about dancing in a gown made of burnt toast). If I make any actual headway on a given book, it's because I have insomnnia, or am sitting around in a cafe.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

I'm assuming this island has food, water, fuel and so forth, and that the worry here is not day-to-day survival, but distracting myself from crippling depression and anxiety by retreating into the life of the mind. I must say, I've spent most of my life doing exactly that, and I can't say that it works very well.

Simone Weil - Notebooks
Christopher Smart - Jubilate Agno
Charles H. Hinton - The Fourth Dimension (I'd finally get to figure out the sheet of multi-colored cubes that comes with it!)
Thorndyke's History of Magic and Experimental Science (if you have to burn books to stay warm or signal for help, this is a veritable yule log)
Tove Jansson - Moominpappa at Sea

D'Arcy Thompson - Of Growth and Form
Melville - The Confidence Man

Lest all this sound too egg-headed, I hasten to add that if I could get omnibus editions comprising complete runs of all George Herriman's comic strips, and all Walt Kelly's Pogo strips, ad Cliff Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals, and Fontaine Fox's Toonerville Trolley, and Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, I'd ditch most of the titles above in a heartbeat.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons)? And Why?

Thersites, because he is a sempiternal man.
RMJ, because his word is as a lamp unto my feet.
Speechless, because I'm curious.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Nuclear Pipe Dreams

It's amazing how much journalists can get paid for being not only irresponsible and ignorant, but for turning logic entirely on its head. Watch how a pro like Nicholas Kristof does it:

It's increasingly clear that the biggest environmental threat we face is actually global warming, and that leads to a corollary: nuclear energy is green.
How does this stuff get past the editors? A child of five could be taught - without much effort - to understand the logical problem with this statement.

There may be a legitimate argument for a return to nuclear power, but I haven't seen it yet. The facts are these: Radwaste disposal is impossible. Storage is unconscionably dangerous, and reprocessing is both dangerous and astronomically expensive. External costs associated with spent nuclear fuel - which get picked up by taxpayers, or thrust onto helpless countries like Nauru - make it far more costly than anyone in industry or government lets on. If that's "green," by Kristof's standards, I'd hate to see his idea of "unsustainable."

Kill Me...I'm American!

If current plans to put RFID tags in passports go through, that t-shirt with the maple-leaf logo may not be enough to hide your shame when you're traveling in a country that BushCo has alienated (i.e., anywhere and everywhere).

Defense Tech quotes Bruce Schneier on the dangers of RFID-equipped passports:

"Unfortunately, RFID chips can be read by any reader, not just the ones at passport control. The upshot of this is that travelers carrying around RFID passports are broadcasting their identity. Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder's knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily -- and surreptitiously -- pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd."
In addition, furthermore, and notwithstanding:
"This is a dangerous, inappropriate device to be installing in U.S. passports," says Scannell, who imagines terrorists overseas identifying Americans by their passports when picking targets to bomb. "Which cafe do we lob the grenade into? Ping, ping, ping. There are 21 Americans in there." The tags could also be used to identify people who walk into an abortion clinic, a mosque or a political meeting.
RFID tags tend to have security holes a mile wide. For instance, an enterprising youth in Baltimore cracked a car-security chip without much trouble, allowing him to make a duplicate key.

As I've argued before, this is a great wedge issue. Libertarians hate RFID, and fundies fear it's the Mark of the Beast. BushCo, needless to say, loves it to bits. A Democrat who took a firm stand against this deeply flawed technology could garner support in some unlikely places.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

This week, I want to do a round-up of stories that - for one reason or another - I skipped the first time around.

A few weeks ago, I was talking about an unbelievably simple device for removing arsenic from drinking water. Now, it looks as though there might be an even simpler solution, which would have the added benefit of destroying an invasive plant!

Parvez Haris and his team at De Montfort University in Leicester suggest that dried and powdered root from water hyacinth, an invasive species from South America that is wreaking havoc across Asia and Africa, could be used to filter out arsenic....Lab experiments show that adding the root powder to contaminated water reduces arsenic levels to below the World Health Organization's safe limit of 10 micrograms per litre, even from initial concentrations 20 times as high.
In a somewhat related development, it's been proven that India's traditional brass water-pots kill bacteria that cause food poisoning:
After hearing anecdotal reports that water stored in mutkas is safer, Rob Reed and Puja Tandon at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, decided to investigate. When they added E. coli to water in various containers, the bacteria were all dead within 48 hours in mutkas, but survived in earthenware or plastic containers.
The bacteriocidal mechanism turns out to be copper leaching into the water, at levels far below the recommended daily dose for humans.

Whenever I talk about stories like these, I'm struck by the huge difference between what I need in order to have a better life, and what most of the world needs. For me, positive change means huge, tumultuous things: government figures languishing in jail, media figures in pillories, a complete revolution in public thinking, and other idle daydreams. But in many countries, of course, "positive change" means getting access to simple amenities like clean water.

And in others, it means being able to walk through a field without getting a leg blown off. I'm happy to report that there's a simple and inexpensive new aid to achieving this exceedingly humble desideratum:
British experts have teamed up to design a new anti-landmine device - called Dragon - to deal with millions of hidden explosive devices.

The device has been built by disarmament specialists Disarmco with the help of arms experts at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire. The high-temperature flare burns mines without causing them to explode.
The Dragon is safer and less environmentally destructive than purposefully detonating the mines. Another thing I like about it is that its inventors have taken local needs and capabilities into account:
Professor Ian Wallace, Head of Cranfield University's Department of Environmental and Ordnance Systems, said: "Working with the Disarmco team, we've created a new formulation based on low cost materials which are readily available around the world. Local communities - with little training - can use the portable production unit to manufacture the thousands of Dragons required to deal with landmines and un-exploded ordnance (UXOs)."
You can read more about Disarmco's work here. And if you're American, you can remind yourself that our "Culture of Life" crowd has consistently refused to do anything about land mines, which kill 8,000 and maim 20,000 innocent people per year; and that our cowardly, complicit media refused to air a commercial that dramatically demostrates what land mines do to children every day. Having contemplated this for even a nanosecond or two, you may feel inclined to give the Mines Advisory Group some money.

Another small thing that can make a big difference to besieged communities is urban food gardens. Bitter Greens Journal - a site I recently discovered and am already addicted to - discusses the value of these projects:
The trick is to create agricultural systems within and just outside of cities, minimizing the ruinous effects of long-haul freight transit, maximizing availability of fresh delicious food, and boosting local and even neighborhood economies.
BGJ goes on to describe a remarkable inner-city gardening project in Detroit. These gardens are catching on in African-American neighborhoods in many U.S. cities, and they're really wonderful. They teach a skill; they demonstrate scientific principles; they provide fresh vegetables to a community whose consumption of greens is well below the national average; they provide a source of income for impoverished neighborhoods; they beautify derelict areas, and attract songbirds, honeybees, and's hard to say enough good things about them, but H. Patricia Hynes' A Patch of Eden: America's Inner City Gardens tries heroically.

So much for local, low-tech issues. The big news on the high-tech front (in my opinion) is the increasing commercial feasibility of the vanadium redox battery (VRB); Treehugger did a story about it on April Fool's Day, leading some people to believe that it was a cruel hoax. Fortunately, it wasn't:
A new mass energy storage technology is on the cusp of entering mainstream society. The Japanese are currently using it on a grand scale, the Canadians have comprehensively evaluated it and soon Australians will have the opportunity to replace their old lead-acid batteries with a Vanadium Redox Battery alternative. There are no emissions, no disposal issues, no loss of charge, the construction materials are 'green' and the battery can be charged and discharged simultaneously.
The really fascinating thing about the VRB is that it can be recharged by, say, solar or wind power...but it can also be recharged by refueling:
Refuelling in five minutes by exchange of electrolyte at a specialised refuelling station allows 24 hour operation of buses, taxis, fork-lift trucks and other vehicles (not possible with any other type of battery system)....Unlike petrol, however, the vanadium solutions are never consumed, but can be recharged indefinitely. The spent solutions could thus be stored at the refuelling stations for recharging at night with off-peak electricity. The VRB recharging stations would thereby act as load-levelling systems, so that the need to build extra power stations to meet the increased power demand from electric vehicle charging would be deferred.
A small VRB can't yet power a conventional passenger vehicle, but the possibilities are heartening. And if the developer's site is to be believed, China is negotiating for a fleet of VRB buses - with electrolyte replacement and recharging stations - for use during the 2008 Olympics.

In other battery news, Alternative Energy Blog notes that Toshiba has developed a new lithium-ion battery that can be recharged to 80% of capacity in one minute:
The battery has a long life cycle, losing only 1% of capacity after 1,000 cycles of discharging and recharging, and can operate at very low temperatures.

Toshiba will bring the new rechargeable battery to commercial products in 2006. Initial applications will be in the automotive and industrial sectors, where the slim, small-sized battery will deliver large amounts of energy while requiring only a minute to recharge.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Family Affair

A while back, I discussed the links of wind-energy firms to Enron and other BushCo loyalists. My post ended with this bit of idle speculation about wind-farm siting:

There's also an unsettling potential for shady land-lease deals; currently, landowners are paid $2,000 - $3,000 per turbine by the lessee. On some sites in Texas, this brings in almost $400,000 per year for lessors; that's a lot of money in anyone's English, and the temptation to relax siting restrictions will be accordingly great (particularly if the landowner just happens to be someone with political connections).
Right on cue, here comes California State Rep. Richard Pombo:
Pombo (R-Tracy), heads the House committee that oversees the Interior Department. His parents own a 300-acre ranch in the Altamont Pass and have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from wind-power turbines on their land over the last 17 years — much more than the family gets from cattle on that land.
Now, certain environmental guidelines apply to the siting and operation of wind farms, primarily in order to protect endangered and migrating birds, many of whom tend to be killed by the turbine blades. The Pombo's Altamont Pass farm has been a particularly bad site for bird deaths; hundreds of birds are killed there yearly, including the federally protected golden eagle. These deaths brought the Altamont site a bit of scrutiny from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which apparently outraged Pombo's strong sense of filial devotion:
Last October, Pombo's aides wrote to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton asking her to suspend the guidelines. A few days later on Oct. 8, staff members of the House Resources Committee, which Pombo heads, confronted Fish and Wildlife Service officials about the guidelines and regulatory actions taken by the agency's Sacramento field office at Altamont. In both cases, they did not mention the Pombo family holdings.

Pombo told The Times he was unaware of the letter to Norton when it went out under his signature.
All of this confirms my view that while switching to renewable energy sources, we're frequently going to be dealing with the same corruption, callousness, and irrationality that made fossil fuels such a disaster. And unlike nuclear power, wind power's wholesome public image will make it very easy for Bush-allied energy companies to stifle dissent while grabbing and exploiting public lands, and siting unnecessary, low-productivity farms on privately owned lands for the benefit of the politically connected.

Unless wind-farm deals are carefully scrutinized and regulated, I'm afraid we're going to end up with a new round of public subsidies for private profiteering.

UPDATE: If you're wondering where you heard the name "Pombo" before, Effect Measure has more on this enigmatic figure's remarkable intellectual and scientific attainments.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Dumping in the Delaware

The reckless, poorly planned destruction of our useless chemical weapons continues to be far more of a threat to our well-being than a foreign CW attack ever was:

A process to destroy stockpiles of the nerve agent VX may not completely remove the presence of the deadly chemical set for ultimate disposal at the DuPont Chambers Works in Salem County, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study due for release today concludes.
The process in question - which I've discussed elsewhere in regards to mustard gas - is alkaline hydrolysis. In the case of nerve gas, the hydrolysate - the generic term for the end product of hydrolysis - would ideally (for lack of a better word) be a caustic solution of sodium hydroxide with phosphorus and sulfur compounds. Unfortunately, it looks like we may end up with something far worse:
"There is the possibility of trace elements of VX nerve agent in the hydrolysate," U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, D-1st Dist., of Haddon Heights, said following a CDC briefing Tuesday....Andrews suggested the Army and DuPont "are not sure" if there will be trace elements of VX in the hydrolysate.


The CDC expressed concerns about the presence of such metals as cadmium and phosphonic acids -- caustics -- in the hydrolysate.
This bit is just weird. Cadmium metal isn't caustic, and phosphonic acid is a weak corrosive at best. I assume this comes from confusion on the part of the author, but this is a fairly important subject, and it's not that hard to get the facts straight.
"No one has studied what the effect of these caustics are on the river and on health," Andrews suggested.
Again, the author makes it unclear what Andrews is talking about. If he's talking about cadmium, what he's saying is not true at all. The toxicity of cadmium is well known, and there've been many studies on its ecotoxicity and bioaccumulation (in water, particularly). For instance, here's a study on its toxicity to the water-flea Daphnia magna. And here's another, on the freshwater gastropod Biomphalaria glabrata. And here's one more, on the ringed seal. If there's cadmium in the hydrolysate, I'd call that a serious problem whether or not there are also trace amounts of VX. Unfortunately, I can't find the CDC report online, so I have no idea whether the worries over cadmium are justified.

If the Army will be hydrolysing 1200 tons of VX, it's going to end up with a much, much larger volume of hydrolysate (4 million gallons, by one estimate). Putting aside VX or cadmium content, that's an awful lot of caustic material. The Army's current cut-off level for VX detection is, I believe, 20ppb; according to the EPA, that's still sufficient to kill fish as large as striped bass.

Perhaps more important is the question of the hydrolysis byproduct EA2192:
The information provided by the Army to residents did not list EA2192 in its description of the hydrolysate compound....However, a 1998 report by the Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, a division of the National Academies of Science, says "Because EA-2192 retains a phosphorus-sulfur bond, its toxicity is only slightly reduced from the toxicity of VX."
There's more technical info on the toxicity and persistence of EA2192 here. While the current hydrolysis process seems to reduce EA2192 considerably, it looks to me as though trace amounts may still be present. My opinion, for what little it's worth, is this: We'd be much better off not dumping thousands of tons of VX hydrolysate in the Delaware River. But then, you knew that already!

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the Pentagon continues to drag its feet on destroying 280,000 mustard-gas shells:
[L]ast week, the Pentagon official in charge of the disposal program, Patrick Wakefield, had the audacity to claim that Pueblo was being delayed due to budget overruns. He further said the project won't get any money next year - and, in fact, full demolition of its munitions will be delayed until 2021, nine years after the deadline.

The delay is clearly unacceptable, as is Wakefield's explanation. The six incineration projects Wakefield favors elsewhere in the country will cost more than $4 billion each, and all are far behind schedule.

A Hard Question

If you have a nuclear plant less than 30 miles away from one of the largest urban populations in the country, should your emergency warning system be equipped with a backup power supply?

This, believe it or not, is the thorny philosophical conundrum currently bedeviling the most powerful brains at the NRC:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide in about a month whether to consider requiring nuclear power companies, including Indian Point's owner, Entergy, to install backup power systems for their emergency notification systems.

The federal agency held a nationwide conference call yesterday with environmental activists and others who worried that a power outage could hamper nuclear facilities' emergency alert systems. Several representatives from Riverkeeper, the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition and Westchester and Rockland county legislators said it was absurd not to have a backup system, such as batteries, to help warn residents about a radioactive leak. An Entergy representative participating in the call said the company was opposed to the idea.
Sure, batteries would work. Solar would work too, and would add a pleasing note of irony to the proceedings.

My view, of course, is that Indian Point should be shut down entirely. But if it must stay open, then you may count me as one feeble voice raised in support of emergency backup power.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Dr. Brooks' Prescription

David Brooks is, as usual, worried about his liberal friends. He may not agree with them - he may, indeed, loathe everything they stand for, with the white-hot loathing of a toady who doesn't wish to be reminded that there's more to life than toadying - but that doesn't mean he's unwilling to lend a helping hand.

First and foremost, he's worried that the Left has devolved into a gaggle of sedulous apes:

We're living in the age of the liberal copycat. Al Franken tries to create a liberal version of Rush. Al Gore announced his TV network yesterday.
Well, to be fair, Rush stole a great deal of his schtick from Father Coughlin. And this liberal TV network Brooks speaks of...who's that copying? I mean, the mass media are liberal by definition, are they not?

As I said, Brooks wants to help. He's dead set on it, and he's not going to let his contempt for us stand in his way:
Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at odds with reality.
What an old slyboots Brooks is, eh? What a master of amphibilogia! Honestly, no one does condescension quite like him...except for the comic-book guy from The Simpsons.

Brooks goes on to argue that feuding between factionalists has given today's Right its strengths, which are manifest in its ability to sell out its supposed principles at a moment's notice:
Once, Republicans were isolationists. Now most Republicans, according to a New York Times poll, believe the U.S. should try to change dictatorships into democracies when it can.
One could just as easily - and far more rationally - assume that this belief has changed because Republicans are power-worshipping opportunists who will believe anything if the right people tell them to. One need do no more than take a look at David Brooks, the Human Windsock, to see how true this is.

There's another unique quality of conservatives that Brooks would have us ponder: they know things about stuff.
Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears...
Acutely conscious, perhaps. Personally conversant with? Not bloody likely. On the contrary, much like Marxists, conservatives years ago fell into the habit of uncritically accepting received wisdom about their "intellectual forebears," without bothering to read any source materials in full. Why wade through Adam Smith's books, after all, when Rush Limbaugh can give you the important bits in seconds flat? I can't tell you how many conservatives I've met who've told me that Smith or Hayek or Rand "proved" something or other, only to be cast into dithering confusion when I innocently asked "How?"

In reality, many intellectual forebears of the Right are somewhat less than glamorous. They include Gerald L.K. Smith (creator of the Christ of the Ozarks), who described the UN very presciently - from the standpoint of blithering, ultra-right paranoia - way back in the 1940s:
Our new President has paid tribute to this internationalist organization which promises no good for the future of America. It outlaws prayer and forbid anyone to mention the name of Jesus within its halls...
These deranged opinions - and thousands more like them - have been ringing in the empty skulls of the GOP rank-and-file for decades, and the average conservative has no idea where they came from. The real story of factionalism on the Right, and the remarkable ability of the party's leadership to keep moderates on board while catering to extremists of the worst and most dangerous sort, is very interesting indeed. But it's not a subject that Brooks is likely to tackle anytime soon.

As ever, Brooks is unwilling to curse the darkness of the Left without lighting a Molotov cocktail. As he sees it, if liberalism's bones are ever to rise again, the Left needs to stop encouraging unity - which everyone knows has never done any political or social movement any good at all - and start encouraging fractious debate on a variety of Brooks-approved topics:
If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn't want message discipline. I'd take this opportunity to have a big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the American character.
Fair enough. The Left's in such a rut that it's been reduced to stealing patented right-wing ideas like broadcasting over the radio...but it can solve this problem by promoting a lively debate over the finer points of Herbert Croly's thought. At which point, we can look forward to another slap on the wrist from Brooks, for failing to understand that red-state moderates prefer NASCAR and barbeques to rarefied philosophical disputation.

This sort of disingenuous intellectual scolding has been a real habit with Brooks lately. He supposedly sees the ideas of these "good" liberals as eminently worth discussing, but you'll notice that he himself doesn't discuss them at all. And for good reason. Tom Paine's pretty conceits are anathema to today's Right. And John Dewey has been a conservative bogeyman for decades; he's routinely described as a Communist stooge and a minion of Satan. The idea that discussion of these thinkers is necessary for the Left - and that it never happens - comprises malice and ignorance in equal measures.

In his last column, Brooks suggests that intelligence agents should be forced to read Tolstoy, in order to learn about human nature. I like Tolstoy too, so I'm happy to share this pithy quote with Brooks:
The governments of our day - all of them, the most despotic and the liberal alike - have become what Herzen so well caIIed "Ghenghis Khan with the telegraph;" that is to say, organizations of violence based on no principle but the grossest tyranny, and at the same time taking advantage of all the means invented by enslave and oppress their fellows.
Tolstoy had something to say about people like Brooks, too...people "so intoxicated with a sense of their own imaginary dignity that they cease to feel their responsibility for what they do":
The desire of the educated classes to support the ideas they prefer, and the order of existence based on them, has attained its furthest limits. They lie, and delude themselves, and one another, with the subtlest forms of deception, simply to obscure, to deaden conscience.