Monday, May 30, 2005

Foul Weather Friends

The mainstream media seem to be noticing - finally - that Rick Santorum received money from the CEO of AccuWeather, one of the nation's largest providers of weather data, before introducing a bill that could restrict the ability of the National Weather Service to provide free weather information.

"I don't think there's any coincidence between the two," Santorum said. "It's just that I happened to have a fundraiser in the town he was in."

Combined, Joel Myers and his brother, Barry Myers, AccuWeather's executive vice president, have donated more than $11,000 to Santorum and the Republican Party since 2003, according to FEC filings compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine, a campaign finance tracking group.
There are a couple of interesting points about this story. First, it's important to remember that AccuWeather uses taxpayer-funded NWS data for its forecasts, and that a good deal of weather mapping and modeling technology comes from research funded by federal grants. It seems rather high-handed for a private firm to suckle so avidly at the public teat, and then complain, as Rick Santorum did on AccuWeather's behalf, that
"It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free...."
Second, AccuWeather has misrepresented weather data for the benefit of the climate-change deniers at the Global Climate Coalition.

New Scientist explains:
[A] weather forecasting company called Accu-Weather published a report claiming that global warming over the past century had been "slight" and there was "no convincing observational evidence that...extreme temperature and precipitation events are on the rise". It turned out that the latter assertion was based on temperature readings from just three American weather stations and precipitation data from one. AccuWeather "shot themselves in the foot", according to Bruce Callander, head of the IPCC scientific unit at the Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre in Britain.

The Accu-Weather report was commissioned by a lobbying organisation called the Global Climate Coalition, which was set up in 1989 "to coordinate business participation in the scientific and policy debate on the global climate change issue". Its members include many big American producers and consumers of coal, oil and electricity - such as Dow Chemicals and the National Coal Association - all of whom might suffer from controls on emissions of carbon dioxide.
You can read a description of AccuWeather's scrupulous methodological errors here.

I really see no reason why our nation's laws should be rewritten - yet again - to accomodate a firm that has almost certainly perpetrated scientific fraud.

E-Waste and EPR in NYC

Treehugger reports on New York City's attempt to pass an EPR law requiring electronics manufacturers to take back their discarded and broken products. Companies that fail to comply with this law would lose the right to sell their products in NYC.

I'm a huge fan of EPR laws. Currently, manufacturers shift the cost of disposal and pollution onto taxpayers. Under EPR, they bear the economic brunt of their own bad decisions. Therefore, they have a strong financual incentive to reuse, recycle, and redesign their products.

This bill has already been called "onerous" by an industry insider, but it's nothing of the sort. It would require manufacturers to take back 30 percent of their devices by 2010, or alternatively, to offset the social costs of their pollution by donating used devices to schools and nonprofit groups. Thirty percent is nothing, and I don't believe in "mitigating" the noxious effects of heavy-metal leachates by donating Xboxes to public schools.

Which doesn't mean I'm against this law...far from it! I'm just noting how ridiculous it is that municipalities must negotiate with the makers of luxury items over how much of their toxic mess they're obliged to clean up. EPR laws make perfect sense, most of them are far less stringent than they should be, and no one should listen to the whining of manufacturers who are, in essence, refusing to meet the minimum standards of good citizenship.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Deep-Sea Antibiotics

Many readers are probably aware of the rise in cases of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Normally, this dangerous infection is found in hospitals, but lately cases have been turning up among the general public at an alarming rate.

However, it looks as though MRSA may have met its match:

UK experts from the Universities of Kent and Newcastle found a new species of a common bacterium that lives in the sea beds of Japan can kill MRSA.

Actinomycete bacteria are known for their antibiotic properties. The new species, verrucosispora maris, produces a unique antibiotic, abyssomicin C.
As one of the researchers notes:
"The ones from the bottom of the sea have not come into contact with disease-forming bacteria [on land] which therefore have not got any resistance to them."
One wonders what else is down there. Unfortunately, we're more interested in searching the oceans for oil than medicine. The discovery of abyssomicin C shows just how useful it is to leave ecosystems intact until we know what's in them.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is none other than Ceratosoma alleni, an improbable type of nudibranch discovered in 1993 by Jerry Allen of Tucson.

He wasn't the first person to see it, mind you...he was the first person to believe he'd seen it.

Friday Hope Blogging

As a general rule, Congress isn't the place to seek a medicine for one's melancholy. But this week, I do have some fair-to-middling positive news to report from those sacred precints.

I've often discussed the problems with chemical weapons disposal, including the Army's demented plan to dump hydrolysed VX nerve agent into the Delaware River.

Now, in a bipartisan effort, the House of Representatives has passed a bill with an amendment that would halt the Army's disposal plan. It goes to the Senate next, of course, and I think it stands a good chance of passing. But it wouldn't do any harm to give your senators a call...especially if you live in Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New Jersey.

Note that this is an amendment to a financial authorization bill for the DoD, so the fight in the Senate will be to avoid having it removed; the bill is likely to pass whether the amendment's there or not.

Another bill that deserves support is The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2005 (S.742/H.R. 2562). This bill would make it illegal to put nontherapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.

This is a no-brainer, with support from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and more than 350 other organizations.

After scanning the bill, I'd say that if anything, it leaves a few too many loopholes open for irresponsible and unnecessary use of antibiotics. But it's a good start. You can get more information on the costs and dangers of unnecessary antibiotic use here.

Apparently, the House also voted to forbid studies that deliberately expose human volunteers to pesticides. The EPA had ostentatiously stopped a toxicology study on pesticides that used children as guinea-pigs, but reserved the right to conduct similar studies. I haven't seen the details of the House vote yet, so I can't comment. Sounds promising, though.

I continue to feel, as I've argued elsewhere, that issues like these are the key to winning congressional races in '06 and beyond.

Speaking of winning congressional races, I'm very cautiously optmistic about Randall Terry's interest in running against Florida state senator Jim King (R-FL). Whether it's a real plan, or just a crazed warning shot across the bow, it's encouraging:

[S]tate Republicans could be willing to risk alienating voters in a general election to fight for their values, even with a polarizing candidate such as Terry, analysts said.

"We're talking about conservative Christian voters who today are a huge part of the Republican Party base, and King has been willing to say `No' from time to time," said David Niven, a former political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. "King has been willing to say `No' to (Gov.) Jeb Bush and he's been willing to say `No' to the extreme religious voices within the Republican Party. Right now they're not used to hearing that."
Trouble in paradise, eh? It'll be interesting to see how the amoral, corporatist, GOP greedheads go about re-bottling their flock of fundamentalist djinn. My guess is it may be a bigger job than they bargained for. With a bit of luck, we'll see a battle worthy of the Kilkenny cats.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Nature's Little Kings

Over at PublicOrgTheory, Joseph Logan suggests that power is something people don't feel comfortable discussing:

Most news strikes me as being discussions of power without overtly discussing power. A story on President Bush's approval ratings nearing an all-time low is really about his power to push his agenda...but the article doesn't say that. A story on the Supreme Court's review of abortion is about the power of religious and feminist groups to advance their agendas...but the article doesn't say that. A story on a police crackdown in Zimbabwe is about maintaining or subverting existing power structures...but the article doesn't say that.

One might protest that power is an assumed aspect of everyday life, something so obvious as to not need highlighting. I disagree....I believe the tendency to assume it implicit in public life is a mechanism for avoiding it altogether.
I think there's some truth to that, and it brings a few scattered thoughts to mind. First, I'd argue that what we tend to call "power," these days, is paranoia and sadism that focuses mechanically on increasing the weakness and vulnerability of others.

Real power is the willingness to surrender oneself to goodness rather than to paranoia and sadism, or to pinched greed and calculation. Still, in political and social terms, "power" most reliably comes when you increase the weakness and vulnerability of others. The assumption seems to be that when you've increased someone else's weakness and vulnerability, you've decreased your own. Which is insane, of course.

So if power really is taboo, I'd imagine it's because weakness is taboo. Discussions about power are - or should be - uncomfortable partially because they're revealing; one's worship of power offers insight into what one is afraid of, and ashamed of, and where one's vulnerabilities lie, and whether or not one is sane.

Notwithstanding, absolute power is now an unabashed rallying-cry on the Right, where self-awareness has never been popular. The breast-beating and garment-rending over the filibuster compromise is a good example of the perennial state of dissatisfaction in which conservatives find themselves; no sooner do they proclaim themselves the Ultimate Ass-Kickin' Rulers of the Universe than they're gnawed by the rodent teeth of the Enemy Within, and go back to bemoaning their eternal victimhood.

Why does everybody pick on them, anyway? Why can't they get a break? All they're asking for is power so complete that it'll save them from the horrors of time, sex, and death. But for some reason, wicked people keep snatching this pretty bauble away. It seems odd that authoritarians simultaneously manage to see themselves as all-powerful and wretchedly weak...until you consider that the power is the mirror image of the weakness. Or, if you prefer, it's the gauze that binds their wounds.

It's amazing, really. The terrors that haunt these people have convinced them that roughly fifty percent of the country - a population that includes their neighbors and co-workers, their doctors and nurses, their customers and suppliers...their own children, in some cases - must be reduced to absolute powerlessness and driven into the Outer Darkness. That's a dead-end proposition if I've ever seen one.

But since power is illusory, it's no surprise that the people who worship it live in a fantasy world. One part of their fantasy is that they're self-sufficient; whatever they need, they can get it themselves. Another is that their aggression will somehow keep death and disaster at bay; what they do to others will never be done to them.

The Elizabethan poet John Davies had a similarly poignant self-regard, but he also had a clear sense of where his power ended:
I know I am one of Nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.
By contrast, Nature's Little Kings on the Right recall Brecht's line in "As You Make Your Bed":
If somebody's going to be trampled, it's you.
And if someone's going to do the trampling, it's me.
Apropos of which, perhaps one of the things that infuriates conservatives about the theory of evolution is the central role of chance. Absolute power is threatened by blind chance; therefore, many conservatives have apparently concluded not that absolute power is impossible, but that chance doesn't exist. (And it may not, for all I know.)

And yet, even the most powerful people sometimes fall victim to seemingly random, for instance, when their own actions destroy them in a simple instance of cause and effect. Thus, it's reported by Otto Friedrich that when an SS officer lay dying in the mud, after being knifed by a girl he'd raped, he moaned, "What did I ever do to deserve this agony?"

That's the clearest example I know of the authoritarian understanding of power and causality. What isn't under their power, they rule with an iron fist and God's imprimatur, from now 'til Doomsday. What is under their power remains completely out of their hands, and utterly unpredictable.

The point being, I suppose, that if we want to talk about power, we need to bone up on pathology. It may be some time yet before they're prised apart.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Glorified Puddles

A fine article in the St. Petersburg Times explains how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is allowing tens of thousands of acres of Florida wetlands to be turned into housing developments and malls, in defiance of the law, common sense, and the public interest.

The destruction itself isn't news, of course. The dream-logic of growth for growth's sake - which, like malignant cancer, is eminently natural - elevates destruction to a quasi-religious duty. What's interesting about wetland destruction in Florida is the role played by mitigation banking, that wonderful new free-market solution to all our environmental woes.

In 1999, Wal-Mart proposed a supercenter on 28 acres near the Cypress Lakes development in Oldsmar. Smack in the middle was a five-acre wetland that Wal-Mart said had to go.

The corps ordered something called "mitigation," the linchpin of the no net loss policy. It generally requires offsetting losses by creating new wetlands. But man-made wetlands frequently fail, a fact corps officials are well aware of.

"Mitigation is a fraud," said Anderson, the retired corps permit reviewer.
It turns out that in Florida, "mitigation" often means flooding an acre or two of ground in order to make up for destroying a complex aquatic ecosystem. Of course, this means you end up with two ruined ecosystems. But who's counting?

In Wal-Mart's case, they created "wetlands" around their supercenter's parking lot. To decorate these glorified puddles, they transplanted vegetation and cypress trees from the doomed wetland. In an arrangement typical of mitigation-banking schemes, they also agreed to preserve 26 acres of wetlands elsewhere.

And here's what happened:
Five years later, many of the transplanted trees are dead. Rainstorms send polluted water from the parking lot flowing into the largest man-made wetland, which doubles as a retention pond....And the preserved wetland? Without the corps' knowledge, Wal-Mart tried to sell it for development. Only after a civic group protested did the the corps force Wal-Mart to donate the land to Pinellas County.
There you have it: free-market solutions in action.

Occurrences like these are always presented as astonishing aberrations, and yet they're as persistent and predictable as virtually any natural phenomena on earth. This is what that hopelessly counterintuitive abstraction we call the free market does, and what any rational person must expect it to do in the future (unless it's sunk with all hands, as befits a pirate vessel).

Economic corruption is no less of an empirically verifiable physical fact than gravity, not least in that they both pull all of us down together. And yet, our experts will confess to nothing more than rueful surprise when things go as they always have:
James Connaughton, President George W. Bush's top environmental adviser, acknowledges that "sometimes some of these projects don't work out the way we think they should."
Obviously, the problem is that our legislators are dewy-eyed idealists, innocent as suckling babes of industry's slavering appetite for unethical short-term profit. And who are we to burden these trusting hearts with the truth? To describe our reality as it is would be an act of war against Candyland, that peaceable kingdom whose citizens never hurt a living soul.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Adult Table

A clever fellow named George Simpson is gloating over a Pew study that suggests bloggers had little influence on the 2004 presidential elections.

This makes Simpson happy, because he thinks people should get their news from Trained Professionals.

We tend to undervalue the job that news organizations do, especially when they pull a Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair. But god help us if the Fourth Estate was not there to keep the other three (Kings, Lords, and Commons) in check, and keep us informed.
God help us, indeed. We might start believing in manufactured crises, and disbelieving in real ones. In a worst-case scenario, we might even end up going to war under false pretences.
Isn't that why we read newspapers and watch TV news, so that somebody with some professional judgment can search through all the chaff and find the grains of wheat?
Well, the media made professional judgments in regards to the Iraq War; unfortunately, the "grains of wheat" turned out to be forgeries and lies. Tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dead and dying because a majority of media outlets chose to act as sedulous apes for BushCo, instead of keeping its creatures "in check."

Nonetheless, Simpson - who obviously has no close relatives deployed in Iraq - finds it pleasant to sit amid the smoking ruins of representative democracy, and enjoy the droll spectacle of the "Bursting Blog Bubble."
With all the press screw-ups with which we are all now too familiar, I still tend to trust the AP over some guy who sits around all day banging out his thoughts--presumably for posterity (or bragging rights).
You have to love the term "some guy." Many blogs - this one, for instance - are indeed the work of "some guy." But blogs like Arms Control Wonk and Effect Measure and Defense Tech and Informed Comment are the work of acknowledged experts in their respective fields; surely the fact that they work in a medium Simpson despises doesn't make their insights irrelevant. If the media had given real consideration to voices like these, instead of culling repeatedly from the same tiny herd of Bush-allied thinktank alumni, America would be a very different place today.

But to Simpson, everything in Blogistan is a matter of "posterity" and "bragging rights"; we're not to assume that anyone's motivations are better than that, nor are we to take bloggers seriously even when they can actually prove the facts of a case. A mainstream reporter for AP can be trusted by default, even when he or she uses blind quotes, or presents fact as opinion, or opinion as fact. But a blogger can't be trusted, even when he or she links directly to reams of evidence from reputable sources so that you can check facts as you go.

What makes Simpson's piece particularly grating is that while he sings his song of love to the mass media, newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor are soberly wondering why the Downing Street memo didn't cause a splash in the United States:
There may have been a point at which the US news media would have been all over a story about a British official's report that the Bush administration appeared intent on invading Iraq long before it sought Congress' approval – and that it "fixed" intelligence to fit its intention. But May 2005 is apparently way past that point.
One possible reason the story didn't make a big splash is that virtually no American newspaper chose to put the story on its front page. Many never carried it at all; many others waited for a week or two and then buried it in the back pages. To be fair, some of them may've assumed that the memo was a fake designed to boomerang on them. Still, the story could just as easily have been covered from that perspective: "News outlets wary of memo purporting to show that Bush fixed intelligence." There's always a way to cover a story, if it's really important to you.

Anyway, get a load of Simpson's gasping, shuddering climax:
When bloggers start schlepping down to check the police blotter at 3 a.m. just to make sure the victim's name is spelled correctly, then they can pull up a chair to the adult table.
One of the nice things about blogging is that in addition to dissecting Simpson's article, I can indulge in the luxury of saying that he's making a complete fucking asshole of himself here. At the risk of being redundant, "the adult table" to which Simpson refers comprises a gaggle of bloodstained popinjays and cowards who allowed the Bush Administration to take us to war on false pretences, and who believe that they've served the public interest whenever they present us with two sides to a matter how cartoonish, nonsensical, or cynical one or both of those sides may be.

Blogging may indeed be ineffectual; I'm quite sure that mine is. But at its best, blogging is informed by a certain moral seriousness about matters of life and death. That's in short supply these days, and some people aren't willing to trade it for a seat with the self-satisfied martinets at Simpson's "adult table."

Deadly Leprosy Epidemic Threatens America's Future!

As most readers probably know, we face a grave risk of a deadly influenza pandemic.

But that's not what's upsetting BushCo's handmaidens at WorldNetDaily. No, they're worried about leprosy.

Leprosy, the contagious skin disease evoking thoughts of biblical and medieval times, is now making its mark in the United States, and many believe the influx of illegal aliens is a main factor.
Of course, the real problem, as regards immigration and travel - legal and otherwise - is TB; avian flu is another serious consideration. But for some strange reason, WND prefers to harp on the "danger" of Hansen's Disease, a rare illness that happens to be slow-moving, eminently treatable, not terribly contagious, and declining worldwide.

It seems pretty obvious that WND chose to accuse illegal immigrants of spreading "leprosy" primarily because they believed it would resonate strongly with fundamentalist Christians (along with all the other know-nothing dimwits and hysterics who make up BushCo's base). Rapture Ready, of course, has already picked up the story.

The WND piece is essentially a rewrite of a week-old article by Ben Whitford, which appeared on the Columbia News Service site. The article was titled "Leprosy in America: New Cause for Concern." That title's a bit alarmist for my taste, but it's certainly preferable to WND's "Invasion USA: Are illegals making U.S. a leper colony?" It's also worth noting that Whitford's article doesn't focus specifically on illegal immigrants, but on immigration in general.

The Whitford story includes details that WND tellingly left out, such as this bit of information from Steve Pfeiffer, head of statistics and epidemiology at the National Hansen's Disease Program:
Pfeiffer...stressed that people with leprosy become non-infectious almost immediately after they receive treatment--and that most people who are exposed to leprosy in others never succumb to the disease.
WND has some other tricks up its sleeve. Have a look at this paragraph from Whitford's story:
[T]he short time between many immigrants’ entry to the US and their diagnosis with leprosy suggests that some immigrants, mostly from Mexico, may now be coming to the U.S. specifically to seek treatment, Pfeifer said.
I'm not thrilled with how this is written, because it sloppily implies that "many" immigrants are diagnosed with leprosy. What Whitford's trying to say is this: of the tiny number of immigrants found to have leprosy, "many" were diagnosed not long after arriving in the United States, which suggests that "some" of them may have come to the United States for treatment. In other words, some portion of some percentage of a vanishingly small minority may be seeking treatment in the United States.

Now, look at how WND rewords this:
But Pfeifer suggests many aliens are coming to the U.S. specifically to get treated for their skin condition, due to the short time between many immigrants' entry to the U.S. and their diagnosis with leprosy.
Here, the ambiguity in Whitford's account is intensified, and "many" is used where Whitford was careful to use "some." The implication is that lepers are pouring into the country, threatening us all with disfigurement and death, and putting an intolerable strain on our public-health infrastructure. (It's worth mentioning here that the WHO offers free multidrug treatment to HD sufferers in many poor countries.)

To be fair, WND does quote Dr. Denis Daumerie, head of the World Health Organization's leprosy-elimination program, who sneers at the idea of a leprosy epidemic:
"There is no risk of an epidemic of leprosy....There's absolutely no risk that the few immigrants who are affected by the disease, if they are diagnosed and treated, will spread the disease in the U.S."
But given the misleading vividness of the opening paragraph, and the implication that Daumerie is in a minority (despite his views being pretty much in line with Pfeiffer's, in the original article), I suspect that WND's readers will see Daumerie as an objectively pro-leprosy America-hater, and proceed blithely onwards to spittle-flecked, anti-immigrant hysteria.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Joy of Uselessness

It'd be foolhardy of me to imagine that I have anything worthwhile to add to Echidne's comments on the "evolutionary uselessness" of the female orgasm. However, the fact that I've been enraged ever since I read her post leaves me no choice but to try.

The article Echidne discusses deals with the views of Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd, who champions an earlier theory of Dr. Donald Symons:

That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life....In boys, the penis develops, along with the potential to have orgasms and ejaculate, while "females get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan."
Echidne wonders how multiple orgasms fit into this scheme. It's a good question. I've had occasion to note, over the course of my reproachable existence, that if anyone's orgasmic capacity should be considered substandard, it's that of men. And yet, one doesn't want to imply that abundantly orgasmic women are more "feminine" than others, as Dr. Lloyd, to her credit, notes:
If women, she said, are told that it is "natural" to have orgasms every time they have intercourse....then they feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal when they do not achieve it.
So what's the solution to the fact that our culture makes sexual "underachievers" feel abnormal? Apparently, the solution is to inform nonorgasmic women - despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever - that the female orgasm is "useless" in the grand scheme of evolution, and that only for men is it natural to have orgasms. That sounds like cold comfort indeed, especially given that many of these women are still going to have sexual urges, and be expected to cater to those of others. And, of course, the flipside of this argument is that women who are orgasmic are abnormal oddballs who represent an evolutionary dead end. You gals can't do anything right, can you?

Speculations like Dr. Lloyd's are basically pseudoscientific, like phrenology and astrology. I once knew someone who argued to me that astrology, whatever I thought about it, nonetheless had a success rate higher than mere chance could explain. Rather than argue over that point, I said, "Suppose I believed racial stereotypes about blacks, and because I felt they had a certain predictive power. Would it be ethical to pre-judge black strangers on that basis?"

In other words, how should I form an opinion about an individual: from assumptions about supposed tendencies of his or her racial group, or from direct, open-minded interaction? Even if astrology were real, what would be more important to focus on from an intersubjective (i.e., ethical) standpoint: the alleged similarities between Aquarians, or the observable differences that make them individuals?

Similarly, the fact that Dr. Lloyd's wildly irrational hypothesis could prove to be true - someday - doesn't change the fact that it should, ethically speaking, be treated as addled nonsense until then. Its potential for misuse, by people who find it agreeable to claim that woman aren't supposed to feel sexual pleasure, outweighs any conceivable benefit. The irresponsible overeagerness to privilege certain points along the continuum of human behavior as more "natural" or "useful" than others - especially in cases involving sex or race - is precisely why evolutionary psychologists are so often accused of being simpleminded buffoons with axes to grind.

Speaking of simpleminded buffoons with axes to grind, here's Dr. Lloyd again:
"Accounts of our evolutionary past tell us how the various parts of our body should function," Dr. Lloyd said.
Well, maybe. It didn't work so well for the "vestigial" appendix, after all. In any case, there's a huge difference between describing how the parts of our body should function, and ordaining how we should function, socially and sexually. Any theory that draws normative conclusions from an evolutionary interpretation of human behavior is a question-begging product of pseudoscience, and is likely to be dangerous into the bargain.

The fact that "suggestive" evidence can be produced for some bizarre proposition means nothing. People didn't make phrenology or astrology up out of whole cloth; they found what looked to them like evidence, in the form of patterns and correlations that seemed to offer predictive or explanatory power. From there to Bedlam is, too often, a journey of a few small steps:
"Perhaps the reason orgasm is so erratic is that it's phasing out," Dr. Hrdy said. "Our descendants on the starships may well wonder what all the fuss was about."
Then again, perhaps the reason orgasm is erratic is that human beings are erratic...and never more erratic than when they're trying to navigate the treacherous waters of human sexuality (too often equipped, I might add, with charts drawn up by unreliable sources like Drs. Lloyd and Symons). Since recorded history began, the dominant scientific, sociological, religious, and legal approaches to sexuality in general - and female sexuality in particular - have been vicious, ignorant, and oppressive; I don't think it's unreasonable to see current sexual behavior as reflecting this legacy in any number of ways.

In 1970, after the the racist pseudoscientist Philip Jensen based a famous argument for the genetic inferiority of blacks on IQ tests, Scientific American was quick to notice the problem with his assumptions:
One would certainly expect, even for equivalent occupational classes, that the black level is on average lower than the white. No amount of money off more than 200 years of accumulated racial prejudices on the part of the whites, or reconstitute the disrupted black family, in part culturally inherited from the days of slavery. It is impossible to accept the idea that matching for status provides an adequate, or even a substantial control over the most important environmental differences between blacks and whites.
And adjusting for these environmental differences is child's play, compared to the methodological problems raised by Dr. Lloyd's argument. There are no objective means of studying a theory like hers. And even if there were - even if you could somehow study female sexual responsiveness in a cultural and emotional vacuum - it'd be meaningless, because it wouldn't have any bearing on the world in which women are obliged to live.

But still...isn't it nice to have a scientific field that's as faith-based, misogynistic, and sexually dismal as religious fundamentalism?

UPDATE: I made a number of very serious errors in this post, especially as regards my representation of Dr. Lloyd's views. Accordingly, I've issued an apology and retraction, which you can read here.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Ceratosoma magnifica. I have nothing to add.

Friday Hope Blogging

I've often posted about cheap and easy solutions to contaminated water in poor countries. This week, I have several more examples of ingenious low-tech water purifiers.

Near Near Future describes a personal water-purifier called the LifeStraw:

LifeStraw, by Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, is a 25 cm long plastic straw/pipe filter which turns dirty water into clean, drinkable water. Sucked up water meets two textile filters that filter out big materials, even clusters of bacteria. Then the water is led into a chamber of iodine impregnated beads, where bacteria, viruses and parasites are killed....The last chamber consists of granulated active carbon, which role is to take the main part of the bad smell of iodine, and to take the parasites that have not been taken by the pre-filter or killed by the iodine.
The LifeStraw retains its potency for a year. Another interesting portable purifier relies on a bellows-and-membrane arrangement to filter water.

Of course, these are Western technological devices, which must be manufactured elsewhere and distributed in poor villages. This leaves villagers in a position of utter dependence; if first-world political or economic considerations get in the way of manufacturing or distribution, they're out of luck. That's why real progress is more likely to come from rejecting this technological paradigm, in favor of local, low-tech solutions. Thus, as remarkable as the LifeStraw is, I'm more excited by water filters that can be constructed by anyone, from waste materials like cow dung and coffee grounds:
An Australian inventor claims that a handful of clay, yesterday’s coffee grounds and some cow manure are the ingredients that could bring clean, safe drinking water to much of the third world. The simple new technology, developed by ANU materials scientist Mr Tony Flynn, allows water filters to be made from commonly available materials and fired on the ground using cow manure as the source of heat, without the need for kiln. The filters have been tested and shown to remove common pathogens including E-coli. Unlike other water filtering devices, the filters are simple and inexpensive to make.
That was supposed to be it for this week, but I just came upon another bit of water-related good news, this time from WorldChanging:
Oculus Innovative Sciences, a Petaluma, California-based biomedical company, has developed a formulation of "ion-imbalanced, super-oxygenated" water which is able to kill bacteria, viruses and spores, but leave multicellular organisms unharmed. But not untouched -- the super-oxygenated water actually speeds healing of severe burns, diabetic ulcers, even necrotic flesh. The product is called Microcyn, and this week it received "510K" approval from the FDA as a medical device.
Reading stories like these, I'm always struck by what an awe-inspiring power it is to be able to alleviate suffering, to heal people. I've never seen a weapons system yet that impressed me half as much as the average ER nurse does. That's why it's so consistently exhilarating to find oneself on the side of real power, no matter who "wins" according to the grubby calculations of dead-eyed political hacks.

Someone recently said, apropos of the Great Men of our era, "They have so much death, but we have so much life." I take this to mean that their power amounts to absolutely nothing. They've already lost the only game worth playing.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Fringe Terrorists vs. Mainstream Terrorists

If you believe the FBI, the top domestic terror threat comes from environmental and animal-rights activists. According to John Lewis,

"There is nothing else going on in this country over the last several years that is racking up the high number of violent crimes and terrorist actions," Lewis said.
If you're racking your brains trying to think of an example of a deadly strike by one of these groups, don't bother; there haven't been any. Nonetheless,
Lewis said the FBI concluded those groups were more of a threat after comparing them with "right-wing extremists, KKK, anti-abortion groups and the like." He said most animal rights and eco-extremists so far have refrained from violence targeting human life.
So what sort of terrorism are we talking about? Arson and property damage, mainly. These are serious crimes, but anti-abortion terrorists resort to both tactics as often as any of the most radical environmental groups. Still, let me make it clear that people who would set fire to a lot full of SUVs in order to protest "pollution" are about as stupid as it's possible to be; they're a danger to themselves and others, and are a legitimate focus of law-enforcement efforts. I'm not arguing that eco-terrorists are harmless and ought to be coddled; I'm arguing that they're not the most dangerous domestic terrorists by any sane person's reckoning.

Other cited examples of eco-terrorist activity include releasing captive animals (definitely illegal, and often counterproductive from an environmentalist perspective, but hardly terrorism), and making harassing phone calls (which, I suppose, makes Fox News a terrorist outfit).

Let's compare all this to anti-abortion terrorists. Clayton Waagner identified himself as a terrorist - apparently unaware of the fact that former FBI head William Webster proclaimed in 1984 that it's not terrorism to attack abortion clinics - and openly declared war on the United States. Among other crimes, he mailed hundreds of fake anthrax letters to clinics and doctors around the country. The cost to society of responding to such letters is staggering, because each letter has to be treated as though it actually contains anthrax.

That, of course, was the action of one man; has a useful year-by-year chart of anti-clinic violence and threats of violence by the Christian Right, as does the site referenced immediately above. Regardless, violent radicals like Randall Terry and Paul Hill have routinely been treated as respectable ethical beings by the media; you're not going to see an advocate for radical eco-terrorism mainstreamed by way of a polite discussion with Ted Koppel. This media blackout curtails the ability of eco-terrorist groups to gain new recruits.

Next, let's consider meth labs. Meth labs are very likely to explode or catch fire. Meth chemists often dump dangerous chemicals in public places. People who run meth labs frequently boobytrap them with bombs, incendiary devices, tripwired shotguns, or ricin. Meth is often produced by members of white-power groups. And in some cases, the proceeds from meth labs may fund such groups. In addition, meth chemists represent a pool of "talent" that can be hired by white-power groups to produce sarin, anthrax, and other forms of WMD. Meth labs, I'd argue, should be considered important loci of domestic terrorism, and are definitely a bigger threat to American lives and property values than all eco-terror groups combined.

To my knowledge, no environmental or animal-rights group is known to have plotted chemical or biological warfare against society at large, with the exception of the obscure and abortive RISE group, which was dreamed up in 1971 by a pair of hapless teenagers. One may well speculate whether current groups might harbor similar ambitions, but it's well known that right-wing groups have salivated over both forms of terrorism for years, and that instructions on launching chemical and bacteriological attacks are widely circulated by right-wing sites on the Internets, and at gun shows.

All of this is pretty goddamn obvious. So why are these environmental fringe groups the top target of the FBI's domestic-terrorism efforts? Here's a likely explanation:
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the panel's chairman, said he hoped to examine more closely how the groups might be getting assistance in fund raising and communications from tax-exempt organizations' "mainstream activists" not directly blamed for the violence.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Backward Progress

I'm way too busy to post anything even remotely original today, but I'd like to plug this WorldChanging article on bioprospecting in historical texts. The idea is that there are lots of old books containing ethnomedical information, which haven't yet been analyzed in terms of what we now know about medicine and biochemistry. In addition to being medically useful, such information could produce a more accurate picture of the economic value of, say, rain forests.

I suspect that this sort of "prospecting" in old texts could be productive in many fields. There's a widespread assumption that progress happens when technology becomes more complex, or more efficient. But I'd argue that progress, properly so called, refers to an increase in a society's ability to survive. Technological advances may, or may not, increase a society's viability; in some cases, true progress may involve going backwards. In fact, some technological abilities can actually thwart progress, either by offering a false solution to a real problem, or by solving an illusory problem invented specially for the occasion. (The disturbing ways in which these technologies then become normative and self-justifying is a topic for another day.)

Anyway, as I discussed here, many old technologies were "superseded" without being perfected. It's time to revisit these technologies, and see whether we can improve on them. I'm not generally given to quoting Winston Churchill, but I do agree with his observation that "the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

Monday, May 16, 2005

Oil Intents and Purposes

One of the classic right-wing arguments against signing the UN Charter was that doing so would undermine US sovereignty. A number of conservatives still object to the WTO and NAFTA on similar grounds (though you hear fewer complaints from them now that Bush is in power; the primal, crypto-sexual thrill of having a corporatist bully in office trumps basic conservative principles nine times out of ten).

I'm sure we all recall the recent public outrage at the thought of our government having to ask for "permission slips" from international busybodies before acting in the best interests of the American people. We were told in no uncertain terms that we would never be obliged to pass the "litmus test" of some shadowy foreign cabal before protecting ourselves at home and abroad.

Apparently, though, a certain shadowy foreign cabal does reserve the right to interfere with our ability to clean up our own water.

A company largely owned by the Saudi government has spent more than $1.5 million since 1998 lobbying Congress to shield the chemical industry from liability for damages caused by MTBE, a potentially cancer-causing gasoline additive that has seeped into water supplies across New England, according to federal documents.
And of course, despite all its prattle about our inviolable sovereignty, the GOP is perfectly comfortable with a foreign government lobbying against US anti-pollution laws:
DeLay is the chief proponent of a provision in the sweeping federal energy bill to relieve the MTBE industry of most liability for cleanup; the item led most New England lawmakers to vote against the measure last year, preventing Senate passage of the bill. DeLay won a fight to include the provision in the new energy bill that passed the House last month, but the Senate has yet to act on it.

The Saudi company, SABIC, is a leading maker of MTBE. It faces loss of business and potentially heavy cleanup costs if Congress does not protect the industry from lawsuits. The company, which has a member of the Saudi royal family as its chairman, has an office in Houston and a research and technology center in Sugar Land, Texas, DeLay's hometown and political base.
Don't bite that cyanide capsule just yet, friend; I have a couple more oil-related items for your amusement.

Traditionally, an oil refinery has been one of the most dangerous places you can work. But in 2002 and 2003, there were no fatalities at America's oil refineries.

Was it Bush's tough new standards? A new regimen of inspections? Better worker education? Safer equipment and processes?

No, it was that old BushCo standby, defining the problem out of existence. The use of independent contractors for the most dangerous jobs means that refineries don't have to reveal onsite fatalities to the government:
"They'll show up in the statistics but not as refinery workers," explained retired Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) economist Guy Toscano. "The more dangerous an occupation, the less likely a company would want to hire those people directly — they want to boost their own safety rates and decrease their liability."

Nor are such deaths generally counted in the refineries' individual injury and accident logs, which OSHA uses to determine its "hit lists" of dangerous facilities targeted for more frequent inspections. The way the U.S. safety statistics are kept, a work site will not generally get a black mark if contractors from other companies are killed or injured there — only if a permanent employee dies or gets hurt.
Last, you'll be pleased to know that Japanese researchers have invented a fuel cell that runs on blood. This could make the slogan "No blood for oil" more timely than ever!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Last week, I promised a more festive, less intimidating nudibranch. And now, here it is!

Only problem is, I don't know this one's name. Looks to be some sort of chromodorid, for what that's worth.

Friday Hope Blogging

No overarching thematic concern this week...just a grab-bag of things that've cheered me up or diverted me lately. I figure I can get away with it, 'cause I wrote this reasonably positive post a few days early.

Anyway, let's see...NextBillion has compiled some microfinance success stories. Banks operating in poor countries often charge low-income customers as much as thirty percent interest for a one-month loan of, say, $500. And yet, when given loans on reasonable and humane terms, the poor have am incredibly low rate of default. Microfinancing allows people to bypass banks; it provides tiny loans at affordable rates to poor people who want to start businesses. It's amazing how many of these loans are for fifty or a hundred dollars...that's enough to start a business for people in many countries, and at the same time, it can be almost impossible to earn through labor.

Next, I have some shocking news from Treehugger:

People in charge at the City of Toronto are asking: "Why are we using expensive, treated drinking water to flush toilets and irrigate lawns, when rainwater is a resource we can tap into for this water supply?"
Yep, you heard it here first: the idea of doing something useful with the millions of gallons of water that routinely fall from the sky is being considered by a North American city, even as we speak. As a bonus, this article has a photo of Toronto's gorgeous hydro plant, a lovely landmark I used to visit often, once upon a time.

Speaking of our civilized neighbors to the north, emergency contraceptives are available without a prescription throughout Canada. The policy has been in place for almost a month; there's been no rain of fire and brimstone on Saskatoon yet, but the Almighty may be waiting for a sign from BushCo.

As a result of her dangerous proximity to Canada, land of sex-crazed (and how!) socialist weasels, Washington governor Christine Gregoire has signed a groundbreaking solar-energy bill. WorldChanging has more.

Canada may be more advanced than us on any number of fronts - as may various other countries - but we still beat everyone hands down when it comes to early twentieth-century newspaper comics. I've been obsessed with these comics ever since I stumbled on my parents' Krazy Kat anthology when I was about six. The subject recently came up over at Eschaton, and the sagacious Mrs. Ibrahim al-Jaafari pointed me to a comics archive site called Coconino World, which, in addition to being a wonderful resource, is probably the most beautifully designed website I've ever seen. Thanks again, Mrs. I!

Thanks to a tip from Hedwig, I'm also wading through the Internet Bird Collection, which compiles videos of birds from around the world. Between this site and Coconino World, my social life is pretty much at a standstill for the foreseeable future.

Which brings me to my next subject. The more time we spend sitting slack-jawed in front of the computer looking at sites like these, the more we need plastic sheeting to protect our knees from drool. BioBags offers completely biodegradable alternatives to plastic wrap and plastic bags. They also make "Bio-Film, which is designed to protect your plantings from weeds and stimulate warmth for uniform growth, then return itself to the earth after the plantings reach maturation."

Last but not least, I liked this advice from interview with Kenn Kaufman of the National Audubon Society:
Q. If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

A. Learn to recognize, if you can't already, 50 native plants and animals of your own home region ... or in other words, make a basic connection to the real world!
Good advice. And I'll get right on it...just as soon as I'm done looking at this A.B. Frost page...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Æquivocation and Amphibologie

Say, friend...would you be interested in a sensible and humane discussion of space-based weapons? How about a magisterial explication of rhetorical fallacy?

Well, what if I told you that you could get both, along with a joke about someone's tiny cock? Would you take me up on the offer?

Then quit this place forthwith, and go to Arms Control Wonk.

I got nothing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Very Sad Spectacle

Like most people, I was momentarily amused by Neal Horsley's peacock-proud admission of bestiality.

But I was also disturbed by it, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It reminded me of a passage I'd read in some book, somewhere.

It kept nagging at me. I dug through my shelves, and finally found the elusive passage in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford came to America on the Mayflower, and was elected governor of Plymouth Colony. This book of memoirs covers the years from 1620 to 1647.

Here's the anecdote that Horsley's case brought to mind:

There was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger. He was servant to an honest man of Duxbury, being about 16 or 17 years of age. (His father and mother lived at the same time at Scituate.) He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, wIth a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the history requires it. He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practice towards the mare. (I forbear particulars.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confessed the fact with that beast at that time, but sundry times before and at several times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictment. And this his free confession was not only in private to the magistrates (though at first he strived to deny it) but to sundry, both ministers and others; and afterwards, upon his indictment, to the whole Court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be known by his description of them, others with them were brought before him and he declared which were they and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury and condemned, and after executed about the 8th of September, 1642. A very sad spectacle it was. For first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus XX.15; and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.
There are many fascinating things about this story, but what strikes me in particular is that it's described as "a very sad spectacle." Whatever one thinks of the Christian law that required this backward child to be executed - but only after watching the ceremonial slaughter of the animals he'd "buggered" - there's a certain note of gravity and regret in Bradford's account that I fail to detect in the antics of today's would-be theocrats (like Neal Horsley, for instance). What Bradford is describing is Old Testament theocracy done "right," in that it was the work of sincere people motivated less by sadism and self-loathing than by a painful sense of duty. I fear we have no such pool of theocratic talent to draw from nowadays.

The other, more serious point is that Horsley eventually jilted his equine paramours, and became the great and godly man we all admire today. In Plymouth Colony, he would've suffered a very different fate; the world would never have learned that his perverted, self-centered mistreatment of animals could be transmuted by the alchemy of dominionism into perverted, self-centered mistreatment of women.

That's the problem when you make death the wages of sexual sin; you could end up robbing the world of a violent anti-abortion activist.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

States' Rights

A heartening new report says that efforts by U.S. states to clean up bioaccumulative pollutants are meeting the global standards mandated by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

I'm not surprised. The states are hotbeds of anti-pollution activity these days. It's easy to imagine them leapfrogging BushCo in order to meet world standards, not least because the Convention has been ratified by pretty much all of our major trading partners.

California is always accused of wild-eyed liberalism on environmental issues, but its leadership on this issue has far more to do with the fact that it's the world's sixth-largest economy. Backwater states that are sluggish about exporting anything but apocalyptic pseudochristianity can afford to have Limbaugh-esque tantrums about "socialism," or the sovereignty questions allegedly raised by new EU programs like REACH. California can't. The EU is now a bigger market than the United States; staying competitive by meeting foreign environmental standards, while reducing the need for regulation at home through re-engineering, would be a pretty fair example of a win-win situation for any business, and it's accordingly a win-win situation for California.

California plays the role states are supposed to play under federalism; it's a laboratory for working out new policies and new ideas. Like all states, its actions on the environment are allowed by the basic federalist principle that says the government can't set regulatory ceilings on states; it can only set a regulatory baseline, which each state is legally free to exceed.

The infallible GOP demigod Ronald Reagan had some strong opinions on this (somone told me he died recently...anyone know if that's true?). In Executive Order 12612, Reagan said:

The nature of our constitutional system encourages a healthy diversity in the public policies adopted by the people of the several States according to their own conditions, needs, and desires. In the search for enlightened public policy, individual States and communities are free to experiment with a variety of approaches to public issues.
Sounds good to me.

Now, here's William McDonough, to explain how to exceed federal regulatory standards, end pollution, and get rich doing it.
Our idea is to make production so clean, there's nothing bad left to regulate. This is extremely interesting to people of all political persuasions — those who love the environment and those who want commerce free of regulation....[At the Rohner textile plant in Switzerland] we designed a fabric safe enough to eat. The manufacturing process uses no mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, heavy-metal contaminants or chemicals that cause ozone depletion, allergies, skin desensitization or plant and fish toxicity. We screened 8,000 commonly used chemicals and ended up with 38. When inspectors measured the effluent water, they thought their instruments were broken. The water was as clean as Swiss drinking water. A garden club started using the waste trimmings as mulch. Workers no longer had to wear protective clothing. And it eliminated regulatory paperwork, so they've reduced the cost of production by 20 percent. Why spend money on paperwork, when you can spend it delivering service or paying your workers a living wage?
I like McDonough, because his accomplishments make it clear that BushCo and its creatures stand in the way of progress. When you argue over the allowable dose of methyl ethyl ketone, or about how stringently lindane should be regulated, you get caught in an action/reaction loop involving debates over technical data that the public generally can't follow.

But anyone can see the appeal of inventing interesting new ways of doing things, and everyone likes the idea of Neat New Stuff. Environmentalism no longer needs to be merely proscriptive; it can solve problems, save businesses money, reduce regulation, and increase profits. It's important for people to understand that BushCo is poisoning them, but it's also important for them to understand that BushCo comprises a gaggle of stolid, unimaginative, ossified dead-enders who are standing in the way of progress. Any state that doesn't want to lose its ability to innovate, prosper, and attract new residents must insist on its right to go over BushCo's head on environmental issues.

Tolerance Encourages

George Monbiot has objectively and demonstrably demolished David Bellamy, current darling of the climate-change skeptics.

It seems that Bellamy - who has impressive scientific credentials - sourced his claims about increased glacier growth to a site called Ice Age Now, which is run by a non-scientist named Robert W. Felix. Felix, in turn, sourced them to a magazine called 21 Century Science and Technology, which is published by Lyndon LaRouche.

Monbiot pursues the matter further, and finds that the LaRouche numbers came from Fred Singer of the Rev. Moon-funded anti-environmental thinktank SEPP. Singer claimed to have gotten them from "A paper published in Science in 1989."

Monbiot says this about that:

I went through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures, throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat.
Monbiot also hunts for the source of one of Bellamy's specific figures, and - in a moment of real journalistic inspiration - finds it:
While Bellamy's source claimed that 55% of 625 glaciers are advancing, Bellamy claimed that 555 of them - or 89% - are advancing. This figure appears to exist nowhere else. But on the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. This is the only explanation I can produce for his figure. When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics".

So, in Bellamy's poor typing, we have the basis for a whole new front in the war against climate science. The 555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a "fraud", a "scam", a "lie". I phoned New Scientist to ask if Bellamy had requested a correction. He had not.
A couple of brief, obvious points. What Monbiot did in this column was the bare minimum required by responsible journalism. Any journalist who fails to do the same thing, whenever such claims are made, is a hack, a lazybones, and an enabler of lies. Before posting stories on this blog, I've often tracked sources and figures, researched conflicts of interest, and so forth; it usually takes a few hours, and it almost never takes more than a day or two. If Bellamy had bothered to cite his sources in the first place, Monbiot probably could've researched this piece in an afternoon.

As for Bellamy, he's living proof - as if we needed more - that scientific credentials are no guarantee of clear thinking, honesty, integrity, competence, or sanity. He also demonstrates just how much "scientific evidence" depends for its social meaning on media representation. A common positivist dogma is that in the glorious march towards truth, scientific errors will inevitably be caught and scientific liars inevitably exposed. Unfortunately, this view tends to ignore the larger question of whether or not anyone actually cares when these things happen, or whether any self-destructive human activities actually change as a result. It's not scientific evidence that shapes public policy, it's interpretation. And interpretation is something the scientific community - to the very limited extent that it exists in a monolithic form - is largely powerless to control.

What does it mean to consider yourself the ultimate arbiter of truth, philosophically speaking, when you have no unmediated access to the public? In an age where the purpose of public opinion is to rubberstamp policy, it means next to nothing. Reality is simply what the majority of the people believe is happening...unless, of course, they've been "misled" by "alarmists" and must be ignored for their own good. A public that has epistemic doubts about hardline materialism is perfectly natural and comprehensible, from a journalistic and political perspective. A public that wants affordable healthcare is an anomaly that must've come about through some contaminating influence.

Putting that aside, it seems likely that Bellamy's actions were those of a man who was confident first that his scientific eminence would protect him from inconvenient questions, and second that journalistic and public apathy would protect him from the consequences of unprofessional behavior. I can see where he'd get those ideas. Our media's politeness about lying - and their obsequiousness in the face of any liar who's brazen enough to feign outrage at having his or her honesty questioned - means that there's no longer any social penalty for lying, especially when the lie is comforting to the powerful, or pays homage in some way to a popular prejudice.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Sorrow and the Pity

If, like me, you haven't seen much reason to shed hot salt tears over the plight of BushCo's seven blocked judicial nominees, then Nancy Benac of AP wishes a few maudlin and dishonest words with you.

They have been called a "family of seven judicial fanatics." Also "radical," "corporate stooges," the "most extreme of the extreme." The seven men and women whose judicial nominations are at the center of Washington's filibuster fight have been packaged as all-American success stories: a sharecropper's daughter, a senator's son, able jurists who can find time to teach Sunday school and clean up national parks.

Somewhere, behind all the labels, beyond the caricatures for good and ill, there are seven people whose judicial futures hinge on far more than competence.
Fair enough. We start with a bunch of namecalling, in blind quotes. We proceed to a description of the nominees' "packaging" - by whom? - as good, compassionate people. But don't be fooled: the real story is that these judges are human beings - with feelings, don't you know - whose very lives hang in the balance.

Of course, their lives hang in the balance solely because of the remarkable amount of power they seek over the lives of hundreds of thousands of other people, which includes the power of life and death. In my view, the more power you seek, the more scrutiny you should face. But now, apparently, the majesty of public office ennobles anyone who seeks it.

Anyway, back to Benac:
Plenty of other nominees have been here before, transformed into symbols in larger Washington battles for advantage. Many have experienced the frustration of having to remain largely silent throughout the brouhaha.
Note, I beg of you, the sheer nihilism of this passage. There's no sense here that anything is worth fighting for, that anyone's sincere (except, of course, for these seven hapless judicial nominees, and Benac's own sweet self). Nor are there any facts to report about the problems with these nominees; everything's simply a matter of political posturing.

Benac goes on to describe the tribulations of Lani Guinier, who "was branded the 'quota queen' by a conservative critic just one day after President Clinton nominated her to be civil rights chief in the Justice Department. The label stuck."

You bet it did, sister. But then, that was back in the bad old days, before we learned how reprehensible it is to accuse presidents of making political appointments on the basis of race.

Next under the Benacoscope is good ol' Judge Bork. Is there any heart so intransigent, so inert, that it can remain unmoved by a recapitulation of that saintly man's sufferings?

Yes. Mine. So let's move on.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said Guinier and Bork became "convenient placeholders for wider political controversy." That is the case this time, too, he said.

"These people have entered the dangerous realm of symbolism," Turley said. "Some of these nominees appear almost to have been selected at random."
You have to admire Benac's ability to find a legal expert who just happens to agree so strongly with the thesis of her article. All the experts who could've offered a differing opinion must've been out raising money for Saddam's legal defense fund.

Having established beyond reasonable doubt that the controversy over these seven nominees is a cynical sham manufactured by vengeful party hacks and unfeeling political opportunists, Benac is free - at last - to discuss their individual cases.

Thus, we learn that two of the nominees from Michigan are being held up as payback for Republican rejection of Democratic nominees. How do we know? 'Cause we just do, that's how. As for the third,
Democrats have more substantive problems with one of them, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Henry Saad, and want to swap him for a different nominee from the state.
Democrats have problems with Saad that are more substantive than a petty grudge? Go figure. By the way, if you want to know what those problems are, don't expect Benac to tell you. Her forte is the Big Picture. If you're really curious, you can go here to learn about some of the problems with Saad.
The other four appeals judges renominated by Bush have been cast by Democrats as conservative ideologues with extreme views on issues including homosexuality, abortion, affirmative action, labor rights and environmental standards.
How did Democrats "cast" these judges as conservative ideologues? Oh, the usual dirty tricks...looking at their rulings, and various things they said. Petty, vindictive stuff like that.
These four have attracted the most vitriol, perhaps none so much as Janice Rogers Brown. The daughter of an Alabama sharecropper, Brown sits on the California Supreme Court. She has been nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Even Democrats recoiled at a cartoon circulating on the Internet that seems to exploit her race.
Jeez, if that cartoon made even Democrats recoil, it must be pure poison. I mean, think how hardened they are after years of listening to Katie Couric!

Let's take a moment to admire the exceeding cuteness of this article. The only nominee who merits a photo is Janice Rogers Brown. She's described in the first paragraph as a sharecropper's daughter. Just in case there's any doubt on that point, she's identified again as "the daughter of an Alabama sharecropper." And once we've accepted her standing as a Strong Black Woman Who Rose From Humble Beginnings, we'll naturally "recoil" at a cartoon that tried to "exploit her race" by accusing President Bush of exploiting her race.

Quotes from African-American leaders and women's groups opposed to Brown? None. Examples of her outrageously prejudiced, ignorant, and repellent statements, or her appalling judicial rulings? Irrelevant. Mention of her astonishingly low rating from the American Bar Association? Or the fact that three-fourths of the California State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees rated her "unqualified" to sit on the California Supreme Court? Hearsay.

Who needs any of that depressing talk, when you've got such an affecting mental picture of a little girl carrying her ragdoll through the cotton fields, in the honeyed light of an Alabama dawn?

The article trails off shortly afterwards; the chore of making Priscilla Owen and William Pryor seem like innocent victims of circumstance is clearly too daunting for Benac, though she does mention that they linger in "judicial purgatory," poor dear lambs.

Personally, I prefer judicial purgatory for them to judicial hell for everyone else.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here we have Polycera capensis. While most nudibranchs tend to be homebodies, this intrepid creature is suspected of having hitch-hiked from South Africa to Australia, by riding on the bottom of ships.

Friday Hope Blogging

This week, I have a few ocean-related stories.

Treehugger has a fascinating article on hydrogen-powered sailing. A system designed by a California-based firm called HaveBlue allows boats to pump water out of the ocean, and electrolyze it to hydrogen using solar power, wind power, and motion.

HaveBlue's website describes the process in more detail:

In the same way that solar panels, wind generators, engine alternators and shore power can be used with charge controllers to charge house batteries, HaveBlue systems use solar panels, wind generators, regenerative electric motors and shore power to "charge" or fill hydrogen tanks by splitting (electrolyzing) water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is vented harmlessly to the atmosphere, the hydrogen is plumbed into hydrogen tanks. The very pure water required is produced onboard as well with customized reverse osmosis water makers and de-ionization systems. Each step in the process takes power and imposes an energy “loss” on the original source of energy. Of the original energy “in” a percentage remains in the tanks. There are further losses on use of the hydrogen, but at a much lower level (greater efficiency) than fossil fuel (diesel or gas) at the fuel cell and electric drive steps.
HaveBlue estimates that by 2008, outfitting a boat with one of these systems will add only 20% to the cost of a sailing vessel.

Another innovative vessel currently under development could clean oil spills before they reach land:
In the event of an oil spill, this 120m trimaran would be capable of arriving very quickly on the scene. It could operate in gale force 7 winds and 8m waves, to collect, store and treat a slick before it hits a beach.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using electronic imaging techniques to detect ghostnets. These are lost or abandoned fishing nets which can float around indefinitely, killing birds and fish. Detecting them from the air is an important step in launching clean-up efforts; a removal project is slated to begin early next year. The nice thing about remote sensing of this type is that it'll allow clean-up in the open ocean; ghostnets are more destructive - and harder to remove - when they drift towards land and get tangled on reefs.

Last, Dick Durbin and Christopher Shays recently reintroduced the bipartisan Clean Cruise Ship Act, which would - among other things - limit the staggering amount of sewage and other wastes that most cruise ships dump into the ocean. You can support this bill by clicking here.

Ethanol Production at Paper Mills?

Despite being a bit of a skeptic when it comes to biofuels, I'm very cautiously optimistic - more or less - about a new process for producing ethanol from wood pulp at paper plants.

Forget corn processing. Don't wait for switch grass. The real key to producing enough ethanol for America's cars and trucks this century is wood.

That's the contention of researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY). By revamping the way paper is made, they've found an economical way to extract important energy-rich sugars from the trees and then convert these sugars into ethanol, a gasoline additive, and other useful chemicals.
It's hard to know what to make of this. It's pretty clear that they're talking about fermenting the pulping byproduct xylan into ethanol by means of ethanologenic microorganisms. There's certainly nothing new about doing that. Reading between the lines, what seems to be comparatively new is the high-temperature pre-treatment of the biomass, and (I'd assume) the use of heat-resistant microorganisms...much as is described in this patent application. Or perhaps the innovation is to paper-production methods, or machinery. Who knows? The description of the process is hopelessly vague, as is the environmental impact, which is addressed in this comically hyperambiguous quote:
"The materials we dissolve in the water are natural to begin with. We know how to clean up water well. When it is clean, its release to the environment has no long-term negative consequences."
That's plain enough, eh?

Also missing from the equation, not surprisingly, is any discussion of the energy it takes to produce ethanol through this process. (Something has to provide the heat, after all.) The word "economical" refers, as far as I can tell, to current prices and capabilities. But what's "economical" today may be unfeasible tomorrow (or today, for that matter). Whether it'll feasible to produce ethanol from paper mills in the future depends to a great extent on whether it'll be feasible to produce paper.

That said, the biomass used to produce ethanol (and acetic acid, which is fairly valuable, at a whopping 45 cents per pound) is currently going to waste. The main positive here - at least, it seems at first glance to be a positive - is that SUNY researchers are concentrating on utilizing "biomass willow," which is apparently fast-growing, and much less energy-intensive than corn. If we really must produce ethanol, even the slightest move away from the gargantuan, heavily subsidized fraud of corn-based biofuel is cause for celebration, in my opinion.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Little Treatise On Morals

Well, it's official: the media have informed us the number-one issue driving Bush voters was "moral values." Therefore, Bush's victory - if we accept it for the sake of argument as legitimate - represents a triumph of moral values over...

Over what, exactly?

I honestly think it would astonish our starry-eyed media to learn that moral values were foremost on the minds of Kerry voters, too. God knows they were foremost on mine. For instance, it's my firm belief that you simply do not lie your country into war for financial and political gain. The evil that has and will come from that single act of fully conscious immorality is beyond all reckoning, and I'll bow to no Old Testament prophet in my condemnation of it.

I also believe that you don't blame the poor for their poverty, nor attack the sick for their sickness. Instead, you help them first materially, and later (if you really must) philosophically. You do this because as a moral being, you're obliged to treat others as you would have them treat you. That's about the oldest moral concept there is, and I see absolutely no trace of it in BushCo's brave new world. (Not, at any rate, unless you believe that our country labors under a death-wish, which is a possibility I'm prepared to consider seriously.)

I would never accuse women who get raped of deserving it, not under any circumstances. Still less would I pile legal or medical woes upon their emotional and physical wounds. I can't imagine an uglier, more loathsome piece of injustice; to commit it under the pretence of personal righteousness is to be a mere vessel for Evil and a traitor to any recognizable human virtue.

I'm grateful that I don't confuse tight-fisted indifference to suffering with greatness of spirit, nor petty viciousness with personal sanctity. I'm grateful that I don't see military might as a sign of God's grace, nor view the murder of children in Iraq as a necessary step towards our national salvation.

My vote against Bush was a deeply felt protest against each of these acts and monuments of moral idiocy, and I cast that vote as passionately as anyone in America could've cast one for him. I'll wager the moral fervor of my beliefs against that of any gay-basher or abortion-bomber you can name. Furthermore, my beliefs have at least as much Biblical support as any cherished pet cruelty of the fundamentalists, and infinitely more support from the Constitution.

We've heard it claimed by the Right that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." I disagree. The Constitution is most certainly a suicide pact, in exactly the same way that the cry "Give me liberty or give me death" is a suicide pact. Truly moral beings recognize that some types of existence are beneath human dignity, and that tyranny's chief crime is to make human beings choose daily between life and liberty. That's a choice early Christians made when they chose to die rather than to renounce their faith, back in the days when they still believed that it was a bad bargain to win the world but lose one's soul.

So after millennia of soul-searching and thought and prayer and other sorts of high-minded and sincere inquiry...guess what? It turns out that as long as one is opposed to gay rights and abortion, and holds the poor in utter contempt, and worships that most false of all false idols, militarism, one is firmly on the path of righteousness. And the rest of us - the people who don't sneer at suffering or kick people when they're down or make comfortable excuses for evil - are supposed to be quietly abashed as BushCo's gruesome, cynical, and deadly burlesque of morality wins the day.

(Originally posted 11/9/04.)

Test Your RQ

I'm glutinous with self-approbation this morning, having gotten a negative score on the Republican Quotient test. Here are my results, for posterity's sake:

I am:
"You're a damn Commie! Where's Tailgunner Joe when we need him?"

Are You A Republican?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Goddamn Loudmouthed Bloggers: A Critical Reappraisal

Thanks to a link from Defense Tech (much appreciated!), I've gotten some e-mail and comments taking issue with my views on EMP. I'm not complaining, mind you; I'm happy to hear dissenting views, and to clarify my position, and - I hope - to learn new things.

With that in mind, I'm posting an adapted version of my response to one of the comments I received, in hopes that it'll explain my point of view to everyone's a couple of people's satisfaction.

First off, I don't think the threat of an EMP attack is absurd, in and of itself. I think the threat of an EMP attack by Iran is absurd.

North Korea, unless I'm mistaken, could possibly pull off an EMP attack. Same with China. But we're not talking about North Korea or China here, nor are we talking about EMP in general. We're talking about something very limited in scope:

1) Does the article cited by Farah provide any reason whatsoever to believe that Iran has "publicly considered" attacking the US via EMP?;


2) Does Iran have - or will it develop - the ability to launch such an attack?

Obviously, I'd answer both questions in the negative. But I concede that I may have expressed this a bit too...uh...energetically, for some people's taste. You can put it down to youthful exuberance.

I understand that the second question is debatable. I understand that, as Noah Shachtman says, you can't rule it out categorically. Nonetheless, I don't think Iran is likely to develop the capability to launch an EMP attack. And if they do launch one, I seriously doubt Lowell Wood's assertion that it might

literally destroy the American nation and could 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.
That said, my complaint is not that EMP is being discussed as a threat. My complaint is that a particular group of people is promoting a specific - and, in my opinion, unlikely - attack scenario through demonstrably dishonest means.

That's unethical, of course. But I think it's also irresponsible. If EMP truly is a serious threat, then it needs to be assessed honestly by neutral people who have no vested interest in drumming up support for a war on Iran, or shaking loose more money for missile defense. It seems to me that whether or not one agrees with me about the EMP danger posed by Iran, we should all be able to agree that articles like Farah's only serve to muddy these already murky waters.

One last point: Considering that we've had almost 45 years to reduce our vulnerability to EMP, I'm kind of surprised to learn that we haven't done it. We've spent an awful lot of money on the problem, and we've conducted a lot of tests; the consensus back in 1968 seemed to be that our electronic infrastructure needed to be "hardened" to withstand EMP. Basically, that meant shielding. And that was precisely the course of action the military took, as far as I can tell.

The Trestle EMP simulator at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico cost taxpayers almost $60 million in the late 1970s. Its purpose was to guide the design of effective EMP shielding (same with many aerial nuke tests in the late 1960s, if memory serves). If EMP still threatens us with annihilation, almost thirty years later, perhaps we ought to get at least a partial refund.

Apropos of which, we might want to revisit the findings of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project. According to their figures, the United States spent $13.2 trillion (in 1996 dollars) on national defense between 1940 and 1996. And it spent a further $5.5 trillion on nuclear programs, including missile defense (and therefore, including failed projects like the $25 billion Safeguard system, which was put out of its misery in 1976 by none other than Donald Rumsfeld).

And yet, somehow, we find ourselves incredibly vulnerable to a single high-altitude nuclear weapon.

Go figure.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Lewis has posted the full English text of the Iranian article Arms Control Wonk. I can't begin to say how grateful I am for his help with this stuff.

The Delusion-Based Community

History is basically a collective nightmare. And some people, now and again, believe they've awakened from it.

If they get the power, one of the first things they tend to do is declare war on the past. They start calendars anew, from the Year Zero. They burn books, and sometimes their authors. They deride outdated ideas, and outlaw outdated beliefs, preferring the resplendence of newly minted delusion to the dull patina of age-old common sense. Whatever ideas aren't mocked or banned outright, they twist into a cunning nest for their newly hatched regime. And at last, freed from the mental detritus of that fitful dream formerly called "reality," they make entirely predictable decisions that lead to entirely predictable results, and many people die, and another grim chapter is written in the annals of human stupidity.

OK, that was fun, but let's continue in plain English. If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us!

When you hear that "9/11 changed everything," what you're basically being told is that the New Age is at hand, and the old world is well and truly gone. It's not just that we have to approach terrorism differently (which is a false proposition in any case), it's that all former ideas are subject to reinterpretation or complete devaluation by BushCo. After 9/11, reality need not be admitted to the White House unless its papers are in order.

This is why neocons get furious if people say "If you do A, the result will be B." All that sort of talk is suspended until further notice; for now, it suffices to know that where there's a will to power, there's a way.

It all does seem very Nietzschean, or very postmodern (which makes me wonder if the Right's railing against postmodernism is yet another confession of guilt). But it may just be that diseased minds think alike. Either way, we now have a group of people in power who apparently believe that they create reality by acting and that, as the Bible says, "the former things are passed away."

That's not a new idea, by any means. Actually, it's as old as the hills. By the time the German people (with a little help from their friends) had come to hold this ancient delusion more or less en masse, Albert Einstein wrote a rather sad letter to Sigmund Freud, in hopes of figuring out how to bridge the gap between reality- and delusion-based communities. Here's what Einstein said:

[P]olitical power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority....How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions. An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them....Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called "intelligentsia" that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form - upon the printed page.

Freud's response, for the record, was more or less equivalent to the "Nevermore" of Poe's raven. But at any rate, this is the sort of thinking we're dealing with from BushCo: the disastrous thinking of intellectuals who've fallen prey to their own conceits, and the pretty things they read in clever books, and the pretty dreams they dreamed in cozy beds.

They honestly believe that on 9/11 a new and, God help us, a better world was born. The flames that we saw as a ghastly sunset on our world, they saw as a beautiful sunrise on theirs ("I love the optimism of that picture," Bush might say). They believe they've woken up from the circular nightmare of history, and can now see a straight path that leads away from all the old follies and delusions, away from all the old laws of fate that once called Great Men to account for their stupidity and hubris. But as Flann O'Brien said, "Hell goes round and round."

(Originally posted 10/20/04.)