Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

"Let Aquila rejoice with Bornella stellifer, who is no fish but a stupendous creeping thing."

Friday Hope Blogging

In honor of Julie Powell, I've dug up a few heartening agricultural stories this week. First, there's word of a new system that uses polarized light pulses to measure the nitrogen levels of crops, which may allow farmers to reduce their use of fertilizers.

The researchers hope their tractor-mountable N-Checker (for "nitrogen-checker") apparatus will help farmers determine in real time how much fertilizer to apply. By preventing waste, the system could decrease the cost of crop production and dramatically cut the nitrogen-laden runoff responsible for algal blooms and other damage to wetlands and waterways....The N-Checker can take 1000 measurements per second--at least every 10th of an inch--while moving at roughly 5 miles an hour. At that speed, a farmer could survey and fertilize tens of acres in a day, or hundreds of acres per day with a multi-sensor system.
Technological advances are all well and good, but there's a lot to be said for simply exercising common sense. In Africa, crop-destroying elephants are often maimed or killed by farmers. Here's an appealing low-tech solution to the problem:
Supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups, the Elephant Pepper Development Trust (EPDT) has not only promoted the use of chili peppers as a means of keeping elephants, buffalo, and other species away from important sources of human food, but has also introduced a viable cash crop to the economy of African nations.

"Chili peppers are unpalatable to crop-raiding mammals, so they give farmers an economically feasible means of minimizing damage to their investments," said Loki Osborn, project director for the EPDT. "They can be grown as buffer crops to prevent crop-raiding and then be harvested and sold on the world market through the trust."
Much as I enjoy hearing about innovative ideas like these, I'm usually far more thrilled when people stop doing unbelievably stupid things:
The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that it was banning the use of the antibiotic Baytril in poultry because of concerns that it could lead to antibiotic-resistant infections in people.

The agency's commissioner, Lester M. Crawford, ordered that approval for use of the drug, known generically as enrofloxacin, be withdrawn effective Sept. 12. Baytril, manufactured by Bayer of Leverkusen, Germany, is in the same family as the popular drug Cipro, which is used in humans.
My view of fluoroquinolones is implacably negative, so I'm particularly happy to see this drug getting pulled.

All in all, it's been a terrible week for Bayer, which means that the human prospect has brightened by about one-tenth of a candela. This firm - which was formerly a member of the chemical cartel I.G. Farben, whom you may remember from the sixth Nuremberg Trial - was also forced to withdraw its application to plant genetically engineered canola:
The German biotech giant Bayer has withdrawn its applications to grow genetically modified (GM) oilseed rape in the European Union, Friends of the Earth revealed today. The move comes as public calls for GM-free zones spreads across Europe and follows a series of research findings which have uncovered environmental damage resulting from the GM crop being grown.
Amazing what public outcry can achieve in some parts of the world, eh?

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Worsening Temper

Writing for the New York Times must be one of the most stressful jobs on earth, given how many of its feature writers seem to be on the verge of psychological disintegration.

Consider the case of Julie Powell. She's worried that the Union Square farmers' market in New York - a perfectly lovely, innocuous, and inexpensive place that I used to visit every week - is "judging" her. Actually, she's not just worried about it; she's angry about it:

My worsening temper can be calibrated precisely not to the longer days but rather to another unrelenting symbol of the season: the blossoming farmers' market I walk through in Manhattan's Union Square. I confess that half an hour browsing in that utopia of produce - or the new Whole Foods Market at the square's south end - often leaves me longing for the antiseptic but nonjudgmental aisles of low-end supermarkets like Key Food or Western Beef.
What this aberrant, idiosyncratic reflex has to do with the rest of us is anybody's guess. Most of us, I suspect, understand the desire of farmers to sell fresh produce direct to consumers and the desire of consumers to buy fresh produce direct from farmers. But where normal people see a commonplace free-market tradition going back centuries, Powell sees a conspiracy to make good people (e.g., her own sweet self) feel bad through the promotion of organic farming.

Since she has no rational justification for treating this weird stance as relevant to anyone but herself, she's obliged to conjure one up out of thin air. Thus, we learn that her "worsening temper" isn't caused by (for example) petty, carping priggishness, but by her exquisitely refined moral sense:
[T]here remains buried in this philosophy two things that just get my hackles up. The first and most dangerous aspect is the temptation of economic elitism. Of course, food has always been about class. In his classic meditation "The Physiology of Taste," first published in 1825, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin suggested a series of three "gastronomical tests," menus designed to expose the culinary sensitivity - or lack thereof - of one's dining companions...
So we're expected to fret over the clear and present danger of "economic elitism," even though "food has always been about class." I also note that Powell is rapturously conversant with Brillat-Savarin, which is at least suggestive of economic elitism (as are most "lifestyle" features in the Times).

But no sooner does Powell announce that the temptation of economic elitism is the "most dangerous aspect" of organic groceries than she changes her mind:
This sort of garden-variety condescension is eternal, and relatively harmless.

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There's nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.
Shopping requires time and money, friends; please make a note of it.

The impossibility of following Powell's argument here makes me wonder if she missed her calling as a three-card monte dealer. Economic elitism is dangerous, but also eternal and relatively harmless. Ethical buying is insidious, but there's nothing wrong with it.

Of course, whether or not eating wild Brazil nuts actually helps the rainforest isn't worthy of discussion, any more than assessments of external costs or government subsidies are allowable when talking about relative prices. The only thing that matters is how your buying decisions make Powell - and the "low-end" shoppers she claims to represent - feel.

Now, there are many, many forms of conspicuous consumption that don't come in for this sort of dyspeptic pseudo-ethical scrutiny in the pages of the Times. What apparently bothers Powell - what always bothers commentators like Powell - is the mere concept of ethical buying. Loading up on status-conferring geegaws out of sheer cupidity is normal and laudable; I suspect that an article on the "insidious dangers" of paying $25,000 for a Rolex would never make it past the editors.

Gratifying one's palate with fois gras or veal or caviar is also normal. What Thorsten Veblen called "the ceremonial differentiation of the dietary" is perfectly acceptable, so long as it stems from hedonistic self-regard rather than from even the most tentative form of social concern. One may shop at Zabar's - or dine at Aureole - without sparing a thought for the clientele of Key Food. It's only when one pays premium prices for, say, fair-trade chocolate that one's motivations must be dissected and one's hidden selfishness or venality smoked out.
When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff - and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children's food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?
A very touching question. Or it would be, if it weren't for that fact that mainstream American political culture - from the President on down - already equates penury with immorality. Like other propositions of Social Darwinism, it's prominently represented in the GOP's domestic platform, where it serves as an argument against social welfare programs and bankruptcy protections.

Obviously, the mother who buys food at Western Beef or Key Food isn't "bad." But the system that sells her meat that's pumped full of hormones - or worse yet, antibiotics - is very bad indeed. Unfortunately, the fact that it's economically convenient, and therefore morally acceptable, to feed the poor on contaminated low-quality meat is not the issue for Powell. She's too busy worrying whether shoppers at "low-end" grocery stores are getting sneered at by effete upperclass snobs. From there, the oddball anthropomorphic notion that the Union Square farmers' market is "judgmental" is just one blind leap of illogic away.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Managing Reality

My regular readers - that ever-rising tide of perspicacious humanity - will recall that I'm always complaining about a certain scientific view of reality as that which can be calculated. A regrettable correlate of this view is the assumption that what hasn't been calculated is unreal. Even more regrettable is the resulting equivalence between what can't be calculated in any sense (e.g., God), and what is merely difficult - or inconvenient - to calculate.

This is the besetting sin of economics in particular, but economics in its quasi-theological mode has shown a worrying ability to infect and cripple other disciplines. If refusing to worry about missing or nonconforming data is convenient for Milton Friedman, it's a moral duty for the rest of us.

Over at Defense Tech, Jeffrey Lewis has a must-read post on nuclear targeting protocols that makes these points brilliantly, along with many others. Starting from the tendency of organizations to "abstract reality in order to manage it," he goes on to discuss the reification of abstract, false, or imaginary data into reality; the logically indefensible exclusion of realities that can't be converted to data; and the episodes of all-too-literal insanity that result.

Only an organization would target 69 nuclear weapons on a single facility (later revealed to be the Sofrino missile defense radar) outside of Moscow in a strike designed to minimize "collateral damage". To take another example, STRATCOM calculates only blast damage from nuclear weapons. STRATCOM does not calculate the damage from any fires that would be ingnited, even though such fires would be far more damaging than any blast effects. Why? Because fire damage is hard to calculate and, therefore, not real.
Read the whole post, by all means. Everything Dr. Lewis writes is required reading, but this is one of the best blog posts I've seen in a while.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Hypselodoris iacula on parade.

Panopticon Follies

Of the many ideas championed by WorldChanging, pretty much the only one that sticks in my craw is the participatory panopticon. This week's example is particularly disturbing: it's a Malaysian site that allows citizens to post picturephone photos of traffic violators:

The Malaysian Star notes that the site is operated by the national Traffic Ministry.

This is a nice example of two aspects of the participatory panopticon: (a) it's global; and (b) it makes it far simpler to record (and, possibly, prosecute) petty crimes and deceptions.
Nice? I'm not convinced. The advent of a surveillance state is not more appealing simply because ordinary citizens are its agents. Quite the opposite.

The intriguing side of the particpatory panopticon is its ability to reveal and reduce instances of police brutality and similar abuses of power. The program cited by WorldChanging, however, is more along the lines of a neighborhood watch program, and as such is merely an intensification of an existing form of top-down social control.

Personally, I'm always happy to see bad drivers identified and punished, and chances are, the Malaysian program will accomplish nothing more sinister than that. That said, I don't see how Malaysia's network of citizen-informants is really "world changing," in practical or philosophical terms. While it may not be absolutely necessary to denounce it, I see no compelling reason to applaud it.

As for the question of reducing police brutality - at demonstrations, for instance - I've noted elsewhere that there's some debate over whether panoptic surveillance actually reduces crime on the part of citizens or terrorists. Accordingly, I think it'd be logical to question whether it can realistically reduce governmental crime. One also has to consider the technological and financial advantages that government agencies enjoy. Jamming camcorders is one possible law-enforcement response to the participitory panopticon; jamming digital cameras is another.

Ultimately, the only thing I'm quite certain the participatory panopticon will bring us is increased sexual harassment of women, in public and private.

Friday Hope Blogging

I was fairly heartened by the CDC's new report on the burden of toxic chemicals found in the bodies of randomly sampled American citizens. Here's the crucial point:

Children's lead levels, associated with brain and development problems, have decreased significantly. In the early 1990s 4.4% of kids under age 5 had elevated lead levels. Today's report, which covers 1999 to 2002, found only 1.6% did.
The decrease is largely due to regulatory and clean-up efforts, of course. For decades, one of the primary sources of lead exposure was the organometallic compound tetraethyl lead, which was used as an anti-knock additive. How TEL got into gasoline is a story in itself; despite the medical consensus on the hazards of lead in general and organic lead in particular, the industry successfully painted the issue as one of "progress." Lead was the guardian of America's health, and TEL was "an apparent gift from God." The epidemic of hallucinations and delerium among TEL workers was handled with typical aplomb by Standard Oil's chief chemist, who said "These men probably went insane because they worked too hard."

In the ensuing years, we put about 7 million metric tons of lead into our gasoline. By 1982, leaded gasoline accounted for almost 90 percent of lead in the atmosphere. However, as we phased TEL out, blood lead levels dropped dramatically within a remarkably short period of time. If the current decrease doesn't seem like much, bear in mind that between 1976 and 1991, the incidence of elevated blood lead levels dropped from 77.8 percent to 4.4 percent.

A similar regulatory and clean-up effort for mercury could have equally dramatic results, which is why efforts like this are well worth supporting:
A group of 32 mostly Democratic senators acted last week to force a floor vote on a resolution that would overturn an EPA rule establishing a cap-and-trade program to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the resolution last month under a 1995 law that allows Congress to overturn final agency rules with a majority vote.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Sustainable Empire

I was brooding the other day about how easily technology becomes normative. Self-interested or irrational decisions within a technological system, once implemented, become impersonal demands of that system. They become self-justifying givens that actually limit human possibilities. We cede authority to them, and allow them to make moral decisions for us. Technology regulates ethics, instead of vice versa, by means of our alleged moral obligation not to obstruct "progress."

What got me thinking about all this was the above illustration (taken from Susan Buck-Morss' The Dialectic of Seeing) of Abel Pifre's solar-powered printing press, which he built in 1880 and used to print 500 copies per hour of a periodical called Journal Soleil.

Though it's not widely known today, the 1800s were actually a boom time for solar energy, not merely in terms of inventions, but in terms of actual use. The main reason for the era's frantic research into solar power was the fear that coal would be depleted - like timber before it - leaving Europe with no source of cheap energy. One of the pioneers of solar power was Augustin-Bernard Mouchot, who argued that "peak coal" was imminent: "Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion....Coal will undoubtedly be used up."

Mouchot's various solar-powered inventions won government support, and solar-powered desalinators and stoves were accordingly built in the colonial outposts of Algeria. This indicates that alternative forms of energy - while not so productive of superstitious awe as those concealed batteries with which the explorer Henry Stanley used to shock African chieftans whose hands he shook - shouldn't necessarily be despised by the imperialist imagination. The term "revolutionary," in the technological context, far too often means a new way of making the same mistakes, or committing the same crimes.

In any case, it was the ever-more-powerful natural gas, oil, and electric companies that sank the nascent solar industry, largely through the use of subsidies that allowed them to sell power - and electric devices like water heaters - at or below cost.

Now, WorldChanging notes that ChevronTexaco has issued a reasonably honest assessment of peak oil, and is asking - in all humility, natch - for public input into possible solutions.

Needless to say, any energy shortage we face is largely the result of industry's ruthless promotion of the cornucopian myth that oil was bountiful, and could be squandered at will. This went along with an equally ruthless devaluing of solar power and other energy sources, and a concerted effort to coax consumers in California and Florida off solar power and onto natural gas or electricity (a goal that was pretty well achieved by the 1940s). After that point, natural gas became something that "normal" people used to heat their homes and swimming pools and what have you. Solar power suddenly seemed disreputable and shabby; it was something of interest only to hollow-eyed health-food faddists who fed exclusively on blackstrap molasses...people who had, through ignorance or stubbornness, chosen to creep along a thorny dead-end path instead of parading down the golden thoroughfare of Progress with everyone else.

Today, of course, there are plenty of Americans who see the ongoing death and destruction in Iraq as an acceptable trade-off for the petroleum-based "necessities" of life. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is that companies like ChevronTexaco devoted themselves to the pretence that their shortsighted, greed-addled whims were somehow synonymous with social and economic progress.

All this being the case, talking with an oil company about peak-oil solutions is a bit like going over the blueprints for your new home with the arsonist who burned your old one down. One wouldn't welcome the solicitude of such a person, and one shouldn't welcome it from ChevronTexaco, either. The goal of such firms is the continuity of profitable operations; there's nothing they're less interested in than the democratization of energy or energy policy.

In an earlier, satirical post on our Dark Green Future, I discussed the "greening" of internment camps and torture chambers. The French government's use of solar power in Algeria - as well as the use of solar power by colonial explorers and the military in the 1800s - is a good example of how seemingly laudable advances in technology can leave unconscionable political and economic structures intact, or strengthen them. No matter how environmentally beneficial they may be, alternative sources of energy must lead to a greater decentralization of power to be really revolutionary. Otherwise, we're liable to end up with nothing more than a sustainable empire, in which ChevronTexaco plays much the same role that it does today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

"Common Sense Has Found An Advocate"

As its name suggests, the Independent Women's Forum is a congerie of crypto-misogynist dimwits who are incapable of independent thought and honest debate. Ever alert for a chance to indulge in obscure and laborious forms of sanctimony, they've decided that we have, as a society, failed to model our family lives sufficiently on those of penguins.

[T]he mating practices of the emperor penguins of Antarctica, the harshest land on earth, can put today’s American courtship and child-raising customs to shame. Penguins are completely monogamous (no commitment-phobes!), and they get together for the most important reason on earth: raising the next generation. Once mated, Ma and Pa Penguin take turns cradling their egg, and then their little one, on their feet so it won’t freeze on the ice beneath, while either Ma or Pa heads off 70 miles to the nearest ocean to fill up with fish, much of which will be regurgitated to the little one. Icy winds, blizzards, exhaustion, near-starvation: sorry, but kids come first in the penguin family, which is always a two-parent family, because penguins know that every child needs both a mother and a father.
I bow to no one in my admiration for penguins. Still, I'm not sure I want to pattern my life on theirs, no matter how fulfilling it might be to vomit half-digested herring into my child's gaping maw.

However, if Fallen Humanity did decide to emulate penguins, I note that we'd apparently have to do away with work-related gender distinctions. The division of labor seems admirably balanced among penguins, which makes them rather postfeminist, I'd say. They're not as radically anti-male and anti-family as seahorses or spiders, but they're not quite ready for Phyllis Schlafly's stamp of approval, either.

"Penguins know that every child needs a father and a mother." Of course, this is something a lot of otherwise appealing animals don't know. I suppose we may now cluck our tongues disapprovingly at elephants. And certain monkeys should probably be imprisoned or executed.

Another small problem with this argument is that penguins don't mate for life:
In only one aspect does penguin family life seem less than ideal in human terms: once the kids are sufficiently grown, their parents separate, to find brand-new mates the next mating season. "Grow Old Along With Me" is not their song. But isn’t that about equivalent to the human parents who don’t get along but bravely stick with the marriage until their offspring turn adult?
Since a four-year-old with ADD could identify the logical flaws in that paragraph, I won't insult your intelligence by pointing them out. I'll merely say that if protecting these magnificent birds is ever invoked as a reason not to drill for oil in the Antarctic, I suspect that the cynical jackals at the IWF will suddenly be far less taken with their moral virtues.

By the way, did the IWF piece remind anyone else of John Cleese's lecture on molluscs?
[T]he great scallop...this tatty, scrofulous old rapist, is second in depravity only to the common clam. This latter is a right whore, a harlot, a trollop, a cynical bed-hopping firm-breasted Rabelaisian bit of sea food that makes Fanny Hill look like a dead Pope. And finally, among the lamellibranch bivalves, that most depraved of the whole sub-species - the whelk. The whelk is nothing but a homosexual of the worst kind. This gay boy of the gastropods, this queer crustacean, this mincing mollusc, this screaming, prancing, limp-wristed queen of the deep makes me sick!
Link via Alicublog.

UPDATE: Matt from Tattered Coat has the punchline.

A Major Boon to Agriculture

Be it known:

A long-standing debate over ethanol's economic efficiency and energy attributes is evaporating under the pressure of fast-rising oil and gasoline prices.
In other words, irrationality, shortsightedness, and willful ignorance are setting the market value of a commodity. The system works!

This article helpfully goes on to explain (for those who came in late) that the demand for ethanol is increasing, but that there's some debate over its energy efficiency.
Proponents claim that ethanol - made mostly from corn - is a cost-effective, cleaner-burning fuel that lessens the need to import petroleum.

Opponents say ethanol takes more energy to produce than it yields, lessens automotive fuel mileage and wouldn't be economically efficient without a federal tax credit of 51 cents per gallon.
That's a fair assessment of both positions. What's missing is the fact that only one of these positions - the latter one - is correct. The idea that there is a fact of the matter, and that it's accessible to human percipience, remains an alien conception among American journalists.

Of course, it's also important to remember that gasoline wouldn't be economically efficient without tax credits and subsidies either. Even before externalities are factored in, the price of gasoline is artificially low.

The latest attack on ethanol's efficiency comes from professors David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad Patzek of UC-Berkeley.
"The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel,” Pimentel said. “Further, its production and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming.”
Sounds like a bargain, especially when you learn that Pimentel and Patzek didn't take certain costs into account:
Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, those figures were not included in the analysis.
As important as these factors are, the amount of water used to produce ethanol crops is arguably just as important, especially in states like Nebraska.

But what the heck...let's just ignore all of these issues, and soothe our sprained intellects with the balm of commodity fetishism:
Even though Colorado's average retail gasoline price last week reached a record high of $2.30, energy analysts say ethanol's cheaper price is helping to keep a lid on gasoline costs.
You're not having any problem following this, are you? The price of one commodity for which there's no accurate assessment of cost is holding down the price of another commodity for which there's no accurate assessment of cost. The music swells, and the blind lead the blind into a radiant sunset.

One ethanol proponent, at least, is refreshingly candid:
"We see it as a major boon to agriculture with benefits to consumers as well," said Jim Geist, a spokesman for the proposed Great Western Ethanol plant.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Hypselodoris picta, also known as Hypselodoris webbi. Nudibranch photos don't get too much better than this!

I have to add that this is the first time I've used Blogger Images, and I'm very pleased with it. I have few enough opportunities to praise Blogger, so I wanted to make the most of this one.

Friday Hope Blogging

I'm very glad to have the time this week to get back to this long-neglected tradition. And being as this is a comeback of sorts, I thought I'd devote it to stories of far more important and heartening comebacks.

My exquisitely sapient friend Hedwig brings the roses to my cheeks with news of an increase in the number of an odd and captivating bird:

According to a recent report, New Zealand's Takahe, Porphyrio hochstetteri, the world's largest flightless rail, has experienced a dramatic increase in numbers. The annual census, carried out by New Zealand's Department of Conservation, covers a core part of the 50,000 hectare Takahe Special Area within Fiordland National Park. The 2005 census showed that Takahe experienced a 13.6% increase in the number of adult birds, with the number of breeding pairs up 7.9%.
If we're going to be bringing animals back from the brink of extinction, we may as well reclaim some of their habitat while we're at it. Apropos of which, Time has a fine article on the increasingly popular movement to destroy dams; it includes a photo of the spectacular demolition of Virginia's Embrey Dam, which further incarmined my already hypersanguinated malar dermis (to coin a phrase).
That many good things can happen when dams are removed is well documented. In 1999, for example, when a deconstruction crew took a wrecking ball to the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River, the results stunned even those who had lobbied for the dam's removal. Important fish species that used to swim from the ocean to spawn upstream--Atlantic salmon, alewives, sturgeon and shad--didn't just come back, marvels Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, "they surged back." The next year, almost a million alewives were massing in the river. Fish are also rebounding in Virginia's Rappahannock River after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted a gaping hole in the Embrey Dam last year.
The article reports that 175 dams have been dismantled in the last six years. It's a start!

Last, researchers have made the astonishing discovery that it may well be possible to recover some portion of memory lost to Alzheimer's Disease:
New research shows a mutant protein named tau is poisoning brain cells, and that blocking its production may allow some of those sick neurons to recover. It worked in demented mice who, to the scientists' surprise, fairly rapidly regained memory.

Things Continue To Affect Other Things

This morning, I came across an article claiming that scientists were "blaming" birds for polluting the Arctic with DDT and mercury. I was tempted to write an aggrieved little post on it, but I decided I couldn't be bothered.

Then I came across the Guardian's version of the story, entitled "Arctic pollution blamed on seabirds," which started out like this:

Seabirds - conspicuous polluters of newly polished cars in seaside towns - are also the culprits behind the pollution of the Arctic, according to Canadian scientists.
I'm not going to belabor the obvious point, which is that the birds in question are not culprits, but victims. I'm sure each of the journalists who chose to take this tone would agree, if pressed on the matter. What I do find somewhat sinister is that this tone seems to recur whenever there's a scientific story that's "funny" (e.g., it deals with excretion or sex...nudge nudge!), no matter how grim the implications of that story may be. You may recall how the rather alarming news that prescription antidepressants excreted in human urine were making their way into marine organisms was the inspiration for reams of limp journalistic raillery about "depressed fish."

There's no diabolical conspiracy involved, obviously. There's simply the fact that on a certain level, all hacks think alike. "If the fish are absorbing antidepressants...then any fish that was depressed would perk right up! Depressed fish! That's it! That's my angle! Boy, it's scary where my mind goes sometimes."

Anyway, having had our requisite giggle over the homely imperatives of the animal body, let's see if we can find a more substantive issue here. Professor Jules Blais, who conducted the study in question, has a wee bit of a confession to make:
"These contaminants have been washed into the ocean, where we generally assumed they were no longer affecting terrestrial ecosystems," Professor Blais said. "Our study shows that seabirds, which feed in the ocean but then come back to land, are returning not only with food for their young, but contaminants as well. The contaminants ... are released on land."
It's comforting that Professor Blais acknowledges the tendency of rivers to flow to the sea. But on what conceivable grounds could one "generally assume" that contaminants in the ocean would have no effect on terrestrial ecosystems? This is a fact so obvious that even politicians have occasionally recognized it. Blais' comment - assuming it's accurately represented - betrays a fairly profound alienation from everyday reality, of the sort I've had occasion to bemoan elsewhere.

Monday, July 11, 2005

What Are Bats Worth?

I've written before on attempts to place a dollar value on ecosystem services, a trend I feel is necessary in theory, but increasingly troubling in practice.

In Texas, researchers are currently attempting to calculate the value to farmers of the Mexican free-tailed bat, based on the number of destructive insect pests the bats eat.

Up until now...estimates assigning a dollar value to Mexican free-tailed bats have been roundabout guesses, based on rudimentary counts of the bats' population, research into their diet and analysis of the quantity of pests in fields. The current study would be the first to quantify it....A local agronomist said that in Frio County alone the bats save farmers $2.5 million in pesticide.
What continues to bother me about market-based ecosystem valuation - apart from the fact that it assumes markets are rational, instead of seeing them as a ritualized, socially sanctioned form of hysteria - is that it commodifies things like free-tailed bats. If these bats do indeed save farmers $2.5 million, it's very likely that farmers will support bat conservation. However, it's also likely that they'll see bats as their property, in some obscure but vehement sense, and will view future developments from that standpoint. In other words, in a conflict between what benefits bats as self-directed entities, and what benefits farmers as "consumers" of bat-provided services, decisions are likely to be based on the onerous economics of pesticide application.

Can super-bats be genetically engineered, or made to eat different sorts of pests? Might we see Mexican free-tailed bat populations fall victim to downsizing and right-sizing, as more effective predators are bred or introduced? The problem with valuing ecosystem services is that it runs the risk of reifying a haphazard economic arrangement into a law of nature. Further, it has a normative tendency that can lead to pseudo-objective distinctions being made between "useful" and "non-useful" bats...those who pull their weight, and those who don't. The notion of life as an end in itself remains disturbingly alien to homo economicus.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

"A Threshold of Indeterminacy"

In the wake of Thursday's bombings, Defense Tech discusses the failure - or perhaps irrelevance - of London's surveillance system.

Londoners are seen on the city's vast amalgam of surveillance cameras an average of 300 times a day. Which means that the terrorists behind yesterday's bombings almost certainly knew they'd be caught on tape -- and went ahead with their attacks anyway.
The article goes on to discuss whether the "surveillance-as-deterrent" concept - which it traces back as far as Bentham's panopticon - actually translates into lower crime rates, even as regards more ordinary forms of crime.

Whether this type of surveillance works or not is somewhat immaterial; it has a self-perpetuating logic all its own. And of course, it may work much better, someday, if we keep shortchanging schools and hospitals in order to throw money at it.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Walter Benjamin's assertion that the "state of emergency" decreed by government is not the exception, but the rule. Giorgio Agamben sees the state of exception as a "threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism," and views it as characteristic of modern government.

It's the claim that a state of exception exists that leads us to accept the loss of privacy, and the suspicion of guilt, that panoptic mass surveillance represents. It also leads us to accept that there are certain people who represent "life unworthy of life," who can be killed at will, and who can paradoxically be made entirely subject to the law without having any recourse to it (cf. Guantanamo).

Which means that law is no longer law, but whim. However, the beauty of the state of exception is that it tends to be a reversion to a form of rule in which the sovereign is synonymous both with the state, and with nature or God. Thus, an act of violence that seems to be a cruel whim is actually in harmony with a spiritual order that, in Benjamin's phrase, "engenders those to whom punishment is due."

Francois Jullien's discussion of ancient theories of Chinese despotism in The Propensity of Things describes how the ruler must act as a force of nature, guided not by morality but by necessity:
Results follow automatically, for they are simply effects. Such a mechanism is inexhaustible, because it functions "naturally"...the nature of this power is that it issues orders ad infinitum without wearing out.
Jullien is speaking of the Legalist School, which flourished about five hundred years before Christ. Their central notion was that "humanity is not adequate for a government." In order to rule, one must be pitiless and inspire fear; to attempt to rule according ordinary human virtues was to Legalists self-contradictory foolishness. As Wang-Tsit Chan says in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, the Legalists
[A]ccepted no authority expect that of the ruler and looked for no precedent....aggression, war, and regimentation would be used without hesitation so long as they contributed to the power of the ruler.
Having recognized a person - or group of people - as "life unworthy of life," a Legalist ruler would know that to kill would be to act in harmony with nature.

The problem is, of course, that anyone can designate a class of people as unworthy of life, as today's terrorists do when they proclaim that their victims are protected neither by law nor by God. They've made the same determination that Agamben reports was made by the German penologist Karl Binding and the German doctor Alfred Hoche in their Authorization for the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Being Lived (1920), which is that there is no reason, "be it juridicial, social, or religious, not to authorize the killing, who are nothing but the frightening reverse image of authentic humanity."

It's odd how often people who object to the "frightening reverse image of authentic humanity" exemplify it. In any case, the rulers held up as exemplary by the Legalist School are just such images. Like terrorists, they're able to kill with a steady hand and a dry eye, confident that they embody the laws that govern the unfolding of history. The Legalists were opposed to the Confucian school, whose talk of morality and virtue in rulers they found nonsensical. For its part, Confucianism generally held the view that a tyrannical emperor was himself "life unworthy of life," who could be killed at will for having betrayed the "Mandate of Heaven." Sic semper tyrannis, as the saying is. What could possibly go wrong?

All of this tends to reinforce the commonplace notion that between terrorists and politicians, there's not as much difference as one might wish. Defense Tech's mention of the panopticon reminds me that Jullien sees the Legalists' notion of power as a sort of society-wide panopticon, in which the ruler's position in the scheme of things allows him to remain opaque, while forcing transparency on others. Of course, the goal of terrorists is similarly to convince the public that they're invisibly in all places at once. Between the terrorists' imitation of omnipresence, and the government's, it's no wonder that things feel rather claustrophobic these days for "authentic humanity." Hell does indeed go 'round and 'round.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Halgerda aurantiomaculata. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair!

Speaking of despair, I've actually been working on a post for most of the day, to little avail. It's too hot to think, for one thing. And the subject matter is not exactly cheerful. I think it can wait 'til tomorrow, at the very least.

On the bright side, I had the rare good sense to contact a very dear friend who lives in London, near the site of one of the bombings. We hadn't talked in a long time, for a number of reasons that are, in retrospect, pretty silly. She was OK, fortunately. And it was instructive, at my age, to ponder the thought that catering to my own stubbornness and vanity might - just possibly - be a waste of time.

And now, I'll tip my dunce cap at a jaunty angle, and head out on the town!

Friday, July 01, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Not sure which nudibranch this is, but it certainly livens up its landscape!

I actually wrote a new post today, believe it or not. Not quite the triumphant return I'd planned, but possibly worth a look anyway.

Let Us Spray

President Bush claims that his new aid package for Africa will cut malaria deaths in half. The objectively racist, America-hating cynics at the WaPo were quick to cast aspersions on his pledge, as though the fact that Bush continually lies and breaks promises somehow makes him untrustworthy:

[S]ome analysts and advocates said the president's lofty language was not fully supported by his numbers, which they said were reached in part by repackaging previous pledges.
The WaPo also notes that there are three components to the Bush plan:
The program would provide indoor spraying, long-lasting insecticide-treated nets and new combination drugs for treatment, Bush said....
Indoor spraying, eh? A while ago, I blogged on Eritrea's 90-percent reduction in malaria cases, which it achieved primarily through the use of treated mosquito netting. There was another component to that story, which I didn't mention at the time. Chris Walker, Health Specialist at the World Bank, explains:
"If you go back five years, Eritrea used indoor spraying very extensively. But that's been cut back a lot with this project," he says.

"We've also introduced other kinds of insecticides which are more environmentally friendly than those they were using...."
For "those they were using," you can read "DDT."

So what does Bush mean by "indoor spraying"? One hint comes from the Website of Africa Fighting Malaria, which is a pro-DDT pressure group run by Richard Tren and Roger Bate. Tren is involved in a whole galaxy of bizarre loony-libertarian causes, from privatization of South Africa's water supply, to embracing global warming as a positive development, to banning the use of generic AIDS drugs. Bate is one of the kingpins of the ultra-right anti-environment movement; he loves DDT so much that he stridently agitates for spraying it in regions where the mosquitos have already developed resistance.

With all that in mind, let's look at what AFM has to say about Bush's anti-malaria plan:
Thankfully President Bush offered some hope to those seeking reform in the way malaria control is conducted. First, in specifically mentioning support for indoor spraying with insecticides President Bush has boosted hopes in African countries that this highly effective intervention will be scaled up.
I guess the most you can say us that if this "humanitarian" plan is indeed a giveaway to Monsanto, there's a chance that Bush will actually fund it...which is something he's never quite managed with his other aid packages.

Tim Lambert at Deltoid has lots more on Tren, Bate, and AFM.

I'd like to add that Bono, who proclaimed that "there's no denying the commitment" of Bush to Africa, is an utter schmuck.