Friday, September 30, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Today, if you have the gumption, we'll continue to investigate the voluptuous horrors of Halgerda sp. nudibranchs.

This is Halgerda okinawa. Some varieties can reach almost five inches in length, which is fairly gargantuan for a nudibranch. (The average nudibranch is about an inch long; many are considerably smaller).

H. okinawa is also unique in that it can bite effortlessly through a sixpenny nail, and has a moderate talent for composing hudibrastic couplets. Its satirical verse is most commonly directed at the subphylum Tunicata in general, and the appendicularians in particular.

Friday Hope Blogging

This week, the focus is on preventing or curing disease. The big news here is Effect Measure's tentatively optimistic report on the possibility that statins - which are widely used, relatively inexpensive anti-cholesterol drugs - may be able to prevent deadly cytokine storm reactions in H5N1 patients.

The idea that statins might be helpful for sepsis or influenza is based on more than speculation about mechanism. In 2004 Almog et al. (Circulation, Aug 17 2004;110(7):880-885) reported that patients admitted to the hospital with acute bacterial infections and who were on statins for more than a month for other reasons had a dramatically reduced incidence of severe sepsis (19% versus 2.2%) and reduced admission to the Intensive Care Unit (12.2% vs. 3.7%). An interesting point is that patients on statins might be expected to be at greater risk because they are taking a medication for a pre-existing medical condition.
I wouldn't advise anyone to run out and start eating statins like candy, but this is the first H5N1 treatment/prophylaxis story I've read that gives me any hope at all. Keep your fingers crossed!

As I'm sure anyone reading this knows, the rise of drug-resistant bacteria is a huge and growing problem, largely because of our cavalier, resolutely cornucopian policy of overusing and misusing them. While research is ongoing into new forms of antibiotics, other researchers have been taking aim at bacterial defenses themselves, at the genetic or molecular level.

Yesterday, Nature reported on a discovery about the defense mechanism of E. coli against the body's production of nitric oxide:
The discovery of this mechanism is just the first step in what Spiro hopes will be a line of research aimed at disrupting the mechanism by which the bacteria rids itself of the poisonous nitric oxide.

"If we can interfere with the mechanism, it could lead to better antibiotics and better treatments," said Spiro.
Another group of researchers has been conducting directed-evolution experiments to see how drug resistance forms, and how it can be inhibited:
A team of scientists in Argentina and Mexico identified mutations that increased the efficiency of a bacterial enzyme that renders penicillin and cephalosporin antibiotics useless. The results could lead to more effective enzyme inhibitors by giving drug designers a sneak peek at the next generation of resistance.
Last, there's some promising news from the Washington University School of Medicine. Scientists report that a new antibody has an unexpected method of preventing illness, which could have applications to the prevention of pediatric dengue fever, among other things:
A monoclonal antibody that can effectively treat mice infected with West Nile virus has an intriguing secret: Contrary to scientists' expectations, it does not block the virus's ability to attach to host cells. Instead, the antibody somehow stops the infectious process at a later point.

"This was a complete surprise to us, but it gives us some very useful insights," says senior author Daved Fremont, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology & immunology and of biochemistry & molecular biophysics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Based on what we've learned, we are now developing therapeutic antibodies for related viruses that also are effective at stopping the process of infection after the virus attaches to host cells."

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Investigators from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) have apparently been having a high old time at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an important DoE nuclear weapons site that houses enormous amounts of weapon-ready U-233.

They witnessed some fairly staggering breaches of security, which you can read about here.

ORNL's response was to claim that the investigators had broken free from their escorts, and led them on a merry chase around the image that sounds more like a Warner Brothers cartoon than a guided investigation of a nuclear site. Suffice it to say that this charge would reflect very poorly on the lab's security - which is provided by BWXT and Wackenhut - even if, by some incredible stretch of the imagination, it happened to be true. POGO notes somewhat acerbically that the combined age of its two investigators is a spry 134 years old.

A follow-up post goes into even more damning details:

[T]he POGO investigators were asked by Oak Ridge security guards if they were driving a blue pick up (they were, in fact, driving a Toyota Camry). So, assuming Oak Ridge isn't lying about having our boys under surveillance, were the guards actually observing the blue pick up and not the POGO Camry? In fact, when the investigators were finally being escorted to leave, the security guards kept insisting that they go back to "their" pick up truck. The investigators had to actually prove to them that their car keys were to the Camry.
Needless to say, this isn't the first time the Oak Ridge facility has had security problems. In a self-conducted security exercise, for instance, ORNL's entire security force was "killed" by intruders in a mere 90 seconds. They've also cheated on similar tests. And some of you may remember this story:
Sixteen foreign-born construction workers with phony immigration documents were able to enter a nuclear weapons plant in eastern Tennessee because of lax security controls, a federal report said Monday.
In other Homeland Security news, seat belt use has reached a new high.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Friends and Friends of Friends

Over at The Corner, John Podhoretz is doing some serious thinking about Bush's options vis a vis the Supreme Court.

One of the Democratic talking points that is getting some traction is the Crony Talking Point -- the idea that this presidency is made up of friends and friends of friends who all do business together and whose qualifications matter less than their connections to GWB. Since nobody on earth aside from Bush would actually consider Gonzales or Miers a suitable Supreme Court nominee, the appointment of either would smack precisely of the cronyism with which he is (in my view) being unfairly tarred. Bush would be giving his critics some very serious ammunition to use against him at a time when he can't afford to do such a thing.
Now that's good advice. Don't give your enemies "very serious ammunition" to use against you, unless you can afford it. Strategery, thy name is Podhoretz!

I don't usually trouble myself about what goes on at The Corner, any more than I keep tabs on the rats at the City Dump. But I do find it interesting that the Divine Wind of conservative triumphalism no longer blows fiercely enough to inflate purely decorative windsocks like John Podhoretz.

The "Crony Talking Point" is, to Podhoretz's mind, apparently a dirty trick on a par with the Wedgie, the Wet Willie, and the dreaded Rear Admiral...acts of casual brutality I'm sure he remembers all too well from those dark days before he learned - at his father's knee, no doubt - how important it is to suck up to witless bullies.

Where do Democrats get these talking points, anyway? Sure, Bush hired his pal Joe Allbaugh to head FEMA. But to be fair, Allbaugh had displayed valuable disaster-management skills during the Funeralgate scandal, when he aggressively covered up for a shockingly corrupt funeral services firm called SCI, which is run by a close friend of the Bush family.

And yeah, Allbaugh did indeed bring his old college chum Michael Brown to FEMA. But contrary to what liberal pundits would have you believe, Brown did have relevant experience: he'd repeatedly been sued for defamation and incompetence. Much is made of the fact that Brown had previously worked for the International Arabian Horse Association, but what people fail to note is that he had no relevant experience when he took that job, either. Kind of puts a different perspective on things, doesn't it?

As FEMA director, Brown hired a wholly owned subsidiary of SCI called Kenyon International to oversee the collection and disposal of corpses in New Orleans. But then again, who else was he supposed to hire? Did you want that job? I sure didn't!

Personally, I'm sticking with liberalism because I'm favor of mandatory homosexuality, and because I want representation for NAMBLA at the UN. But when I look at the paltriness of these Crony Talking Points, I have to agree with John Podhoretz: we can be pretty goddamn unfair sometimes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

We Almost Lost New York

John Negroponte claims that his terrorism database is working. His evidence? They arrested some guy in New York.

According to Negroponte, the New York City Police Department called the center last month because a routine search on a parking violation alerted officers that the individual might be a terrorist suspect.

"Sure enough, TSC database searches identified the subject as an alleged alien smuggler possibly associated with al-Qaida," Negroponte said.
Isn't it a marvelous age we live in, what with all its technology? This database suggested the man might be a terrorist, and so he was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. The system works!

Which is not to say that it's always worked:
Earlier this year, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in an audit that the database was missing some names that should be in it and had inaccurate information about others.

Donna Bucella, the center's director, has said the problems have been corrected.
The audit in question also revealed "management deficiencies, immature information technology and high personnel turnover." So how can we be sure these problems really were corrected? Well, for one thing, they arrested a guy in New York who might be a terrorist. If the system had been defective in some way, the police would've let him go free and he would've killed a bunch of people.

Of course, it's inevitable that no matter how joyous the occasion, some naysayers will refuse to celebrate, and will choose instead to indulge the carping, bitter, suspicious side of their nature with defeatist talk, as thus:
[C]itizens may not be able to access or correct this information, and they will have no judicially enforceable right of redress for negative determinations made on the basis of the information in this system. Furthermore, neither the FBI nor agencies that use TSRS information have yet identified effective redress procedures to ensure that innocent citizens are not improperly flagged again and again.
That's as may be, but it doesn't change the fact that some guy was recently arrested in New York City, on suspicion of involvement with terrorism, and our country is almost certainly better for it.

Hybrids: Worse Than Hitler?

An opinion piece by Peter Valdes-Dapena at CNN/Money bears a stark, terrifying headline:

Hybrids: Don't buy the hype...hybrids save gas but they won't save you money.
Very stern stuff, eh? Unfortunately, a casual scan of the article shows that it's not true.

After an almost subliminal sneer at the notion of buying a car to make a "social statement," Vades-Depena gets down to the cold hard economic facts:
Some simple calculations by our partners at revealed the following: A hybrid Honda Accord costs about $3,800 more than the comparable non-hybrid version, including purchase, maintenance and insurance costs. Over five years, assuming 15,000 miles of driving per year, you'll make up that cost in gasoline money if the price of gas goes up immediately to $9.20 a gallon and averages that for the whole period.
The Ford Escape fares a bit better under similar conditions, at a break-even cost of $5.60 per gallon of gas.

However, the Prius actually does seem to save money, as well as gas:
Compared to a Toyota Camry, a car with similar interior space which costs about $100 more over five years, the Prius driver could actually save a small amount of money.
Well, a small amount is surely better than none. Look after the pennies, they say, and the dollars will look after themselves.

The opening salvo against hybrids begins to seem a trifle impetuous, when you consider that buying the most popular model might well save you about a hundred dollars per year, and save gasoline. This is probably why Edmunds' press release detailing their findings was more temperately titled "Most Hybrid Vehicles Not as Cost-Effective as They Seem."

There are other interesting problems with the CNN/Money article. Edmunds bases its figures on an average yearly mileage of 15,000 miles, over a period of five years. (That works out to roughly 41 miles per day...on the low side for many commuters, I fear.) However, the Edmunds study was written in June of this year, and accordingly assumes a gas price of $2.28 per gallon; that's about a dollar less than many of us are paying now. Edmunds also assumed a laughable three-percent annual increase in fuel prices over the first five years of ownership. For some reason, Valdes-Dapena doesn't mention that he's using outdated, pre-Katrina information, nor does he provide a link to Edmunds' findings.

He also leaves out a fairly important detail stressed by Edmunds:
Currently, hybrids make up less than one percent of market share. Accordingly, the manufacturers have not yet been able to achieve economies of scale and are passing the higher costs along to their buyers. Since current customer demand greatly exceeds supply, the vehicles are easily able to carry the premium transaction price.
So aside from the higher production cost translating into a higher sale price, we're basically talking here about market skimming, a common practice in which new products are targeted at affluent early adopters, who give the vehicle a sense of desirability that then drives demand in less affluent markets. In this strategy, supply is generally supposed to fall short of demand.

This has been SOP for the automotive industry for a long, long time, and anyone who writes about cars for a living knows it. But for some reason, hybrid cars often trigger an aggrieved deconstruction of marketing orthodoxies that usually get a free pass. Indeed, I've consistently noticed that hybrid vehicles are more likely to be portrayed in the media as "hyped" and "overpriced" than conventional vehicles with worse gas mileage and higher sticker prices. And in the case of the Prius, I've noticed a persistent refusal to acknowledge that it has other unique features and design elements that would arguably justify a premium price even if it weren't a hybrid.

Had Valdes-Dapena written this piece when the Edmunds study was originally released, it would've been merely ill-tempered and short-sighted. But trying to pass it off as "actionable intelligence" a few disastrous months after the fact looks an awful lot like dishonesty.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Bunch of Misguided Souls

Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a principled stand in favor of the "Minutemen," a patriotic organization sworn to protect America from those dusky-hued fiends who are - at this very moment! - plotting to work for the low wages offered illegally by American agribusiness and suburban homeowners:

"It's no different than if you have a neighborhood watch person there that's watching your children at the playground. I don't see it any different....(The) key to the whole thing that we have no violations, and we have no one carrying guns, and no one is harassing people," he said. "But they notify the border patrol if they miss somebody -- end of story."
Interestingly enough, these are pretty much the same words Tom DeLay used when asked on April 14 about the Minutemen:
It's no different than neighborhood-watch programs and I appreciate them doing it, as long as they can do it safely and don't get involved and do it the way they seem to be doing it, and that's just identifying people for the Border Patrol to come pick up.
Great minds think alike! Unfortunately, an article from the Brownsville Herald, dated September 18, suggests that they also think inaccurately:
"The group has been infiltrated by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and slightly unstable gun types," said Heidi Beirich, the deputy director for the SPLC.
You can't really trust the SPLC, of course...they're partisan. However, these charges are echoed by actual members of the Minutemen:
Janet Ahrens was one of the original Minuteman organizers in Goliad, a chapter that dissolved earlier this week. Her letter is rife with criticism of the group's leadership, truthfulness, regulations, sexism, racism and intentions.

"This operation has been based on deceit," Ahrens wrote. "I find it deceitful for such an important cause (to) cast the shadow of racism." She called the group "just a bunch of misguided souls" who want to "shoot the taco meat."
I must say, most of the political outrage over illegal immigration seems to me to be spun from the finest, frailest gossamer. In my neighborhood, virtually every house sported one or more pro-Bush banners in the weeks prior to the election. And virtually all of these households hire illegal immigrants on a weekly or even daily basis. Even in cases where they hire white contractors, much of the actual work tends to be done by Mexicans and Central Americans.

To be fair, I personally know contractors who pay skilled illegal workers the fair market value for their work (which is between $30 and $50 per hour, in this area). But this is much more the exception than the rule.

The American economy doesn't just like cheap, disempowered, non-organized literally relies on it. The political noises to the contrary are, in most cases, a cynical recognition that this is an issue to which lip service must be paid. As with abortion, GOP politicians must promise much, and deliver as little as possible, while pretending that liberals are tying their hands.

It seems to me that the only consistent libertarian or free market position would be to view immigration controls as a non-tariff barrier to trade. Services are clearly tradeable goods, and regulating trade - to say nothing of the freedom to enter into contracts - is supposed to be an inherent evil.

If the brutal sweatshop conditions in Saipan aren't a moral issue for global capital's fearless advocates, than I don't see why illegal immigration in the United States should be. If we're to sacrifice all our ideals to the bottom line, with the understanding that what's good for business is good for America, then it's clear that illegal immigration - which fulfills the capitalist wish-list of low wages, limited human rights, and little or no regulation - is an inestimable boon to our nation. The fact that the blame for any negative effects of this system can be deflected away from the businesses and politicians who profit from it, and onto the immigrants themselves, is the cherry on top.

The protectionist arguments that illegal immigration depresses wages, increases healthcare costs, and enables terrorism are all true, to varying extents. But many other corporatist policies depress wages, and increase healthcare costs and the risk of terrorism without exciting complaint from the anti-immigration crowd. This makes one suspect that the latter group is driven less by patriotic concern than by garden-variety xenophobia and scapegoating.

At any rate, our reliance on illegal immigrant labor is simply another example of our preference for short-term profits over long-term sustainability. The people who are getting most upset about it may want to rethink some of their pet theories and political affiliations.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Oil Be Damned

Treehugger describes a typical example of 21st-century problem-solving: We're afraid of trans-fats in our foods, so manufacturers are replacing them with palm oil. This is increasing the rate of deforestation in Asia, which is in turn threatening orangutans and other animals with extinction. I'm not convinced this would be a good trade-off even if there were no other options.

Some of you may recall a time when palm oil wasn't mankind's savior. Back in the eighties, eating products made with palm oil was thought to be an excellent way of edging out one's competition in the race to the boneyard. Fortunately, we now know better, inasmuch as most specialists recognize that compared to trans-fats, palm oil is almost healthy. If we're really lucky, some future food additive may be hazardous enough to make today's concern over trans-fats seem equally quaint, and we'll be able to return to using them, too.

I have no love for trans-fats, of course. But it bothers me that so many Americans are so morbidly concerned about the things they eat, while remaining so oblivious to the destructive effects of sudden, irrational surges in demand for unsustainably produced "healthy" foods.

In just the same way, many Americans became convinced that eating red meat would bring their deaths halfway to meet them, so they accordingly switched over to fish and shrimp. That relatively modest shift in dietary priorities led within a few years to a crisis of overfishing, and the dire environmental degradation associated with shrimp and fish farms. The same faulty thinking and corruption that had made the beef industry so disastrous, while keeping prices artificially low, was simply applied to the seafood industry, with similarly awful results.

Perhaps attentiveness to one's health will pay off with an extra year or two of life. But one wonders how enjoyable those extra years will be, given the unsustainable policies we're pursuing today in order to meet the dietary demands of the naively health-conscious.

Lest this sound too dour, I should note that palm oil apparently solves other problems, too. Peak oil, for instance:

Malysia is building three biodiesel plants that will make fuel from palm oil. The plants will produce five percent processed palm oil blended with 95 percent petroleum diesel for diesel engine vehicles and static engines for industrial and power generation.
Palm biodiesel will only be 95% petroleum, and all we have to do to get it is cut down some rainforests and drive a few animals into extinction? What a bargain.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Given how lengthy, dense, and dour this week's posts have been, I feel obliged to celebrate the weekend with stimulation of an entirely different sort.

Thus, I present shocking - but strangely arousing - evidence of voyeurism in Halgerda diaphana.

Friday Hope Blogging

This week, it was a temptation to focus on BushCo's continued disintegration, but I convinced myself to hold off until I see the Plame indictments. Instead, I'm concerning myself primarily with issues relating to plants and agriculture.

WorldChanging reports that in the island nation of Vanautu, coconut oil is increasingly being used as a substitute for diesel.

Unlike with many biofuels, coconut oil doens't need to be transesterized - mixed with sodium hydroxide and alcohol to change its chemical composition - to run in a diesel engine. Filtered and warmed to temperatures about 25C, coconut oil is a better than satisfactory substitute for "mineral diesel" - it burns more slowly, which produces more even pressure on engine pistons, reducing engine wear, and lubricates the engine more effectively.
What I find appealing about this is that it's a local, low-tech solution. A smaller-scale, decentralized approach to petroleum fuel replacement, in which alternative fuels are produced from regional plants with a minimum of transportation and processing, is an attractive idea. It's ideal for an island chain with a small population, of course, but I'd like to think it might also applicable to fueling municipal vehicles, farm equipment, and the like.

One thing the article doesn't specifically mention is that diesel fuel is normally transported to Vanuatu by ship, which - of course - requires considerable fuel inputs. So if a regional switch to coconut-based fuel were possible, it seems logical that it'd reduce fuel transportation costs, as well as the potential for spills. UNDP Equator Initiative identifies another important benefit:
In common with many small and medium sized island economies Vanuatu is a net importer of goods, importing about three times the amount it exports. Diesel fuel accounts for about US$9 million, or about 10 per cent of the total value of imports. If a sizeable proportion of imported diesel could be substituted by an indigenously produced fuel, it would make a significant difference to the balance of payments deficit.
Closer to home, Treehugger discusses compostable plastic utensils made from corn and potato starch. There's nothing really new here, except that the material can be worked by existing machines designed for plastic production, which I found interesting. reports on research indicating that a coating of aloe vera gel works to protect fruits and vegetables from spoilage. This could be an attractive, harmless replacement for sulfur dioxide and other common synthetic preservatives.
Valero and his associates dipped a group of common table grapes (Crimson Seedless) into Aloe vera gel and stored them for five weeks under low temperature while exposing a group of untreated table grapes to the same conditions. The colorless Aloe gel used in this study was developed through a special processing technique that maximized the amount of active compounds in the gel, Valero and associates say. The gel can also be applied as a spray, they add.

The untreated grapes appeared to deteriorate rapidly within about 7 days, whereas the gel-coated grapes were well-preserved for up to 35 days under the same experimental conditions, the researchers say. The gel-treated grapes were firmer, had less weight loss and less color change than the untreated grapes, measures which correspond to higher freshness, they say.
Speaking of pesticides, here's a fascinating story:
For the first time, scientists have identified an ant species that produces its own natural herbicide to poison unwanted plants....The research focused on devil's gardens, mysterious tracts of vegetation that randomly appear in the Amazonian rainforest. "Devil's gardens are large stands of trees in the Amazonian rainforest that consist almost entirely of a single species, Duroia hirsuta, and, according to local legend, are cultivated by an evil forest spirit," write Frederickson and her colleagues in Nature. "Here we show that the ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, which nests in D. hirsuta stems, creates devil's gardens by poisoning all plants except its hosts with formic acid. By killing other plants, M. schumanni provides its colonies with abundant nest sites--a long-lasting benefit, as colonies can live for 800 years."
I guess there's no "hopeful" component to this story, but it was so interesting I couldn't resist including it!

The Organic Consumers Association announces that public pressure has forced a delay in Congress's secretive attempt to destroy organic standards.
Over the past 72 hours, Organic Consumers Association network members have deluged the U.S. Senate with 35,000 emails and 10,000 telephone calls...This nearly unprecedented grassroots upsurge has temporarily rattled Congress and the industry, delaying the initial Sneak Attack in the Senate on organic standards, resulting in a compromise amendment September 21 calling for "further study of the issue."
The proposed changes would hobble small, innovative, sustainable firms for the benefit of poison-spewing agribusiness dinosaurs, thus restricting competition and consumer choice (and proving, once again, that the corporatist Right's devotion to the "free market" is chimaerical). They would also reduce opportunities for public input into government rule-making, which has been an increasingly common anti-democratic strategy under BushCo.

The battle isn't over, of course.
[W]e expect another, possibly even more serious, Sneak Attack in the House/Senate Conference Committee over the next week as Congress members put the final wording together for the 2006 Congressional Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Therefore OCA is calling on consumers and the organic community to start applying pressure to their House of Representatives members as well as their Senators to stop the Conference Committee from degrading the standards. In addition we urge everyone to start applying pressure to the Organic Trade Association, who are unfortunately spearheading this Sneak Attack. We ask everyone who has read our SOS Action Alert and signed our petition to Congress to call your House of Representative member at this toll free number: 877-762-8762, as well as the OTA: 413-774-7511.
The attack on organic standards is part of a larger pattern of disenfranchisement, secrecy, and corporate cronyism that affects all of us, so I'd suggest that it's a good idea to get involved even if this isn't one of your pet issues.

If all else fails, you can fight back from the grave. There was considerable worry, back in the 1980s, that the Japanese would bury us. It turns out that this might not be such a bad thing:
Environmentally friendly funerals featuring coffins made of cardboard from fast-growing trees and urns that decompose in the soil are becoming more popular...Saiju Temple in Kyoto made a "garden cemetery" in May, where they plant plants instead of setting up grave stones. Instead of urns, they use capsules made from tea leaves that decompose in the soil.
If you prefer a watery grave, you can have your ashes made into a coral reef.
Eternal Reefs can take your ashes and mix them with special concrete formula to mould "reef balls", which are then placed in the ocean to provide a marine habitat compensating for the many we are destroying. Your loved ones can do the mixing, if so desired, and they can observe your remains being deep sixed and be given a GPS reference, with the longitude and latitude of your living marine memorial.
Who says environmentalism is dead?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Thursday Despair Blogging

The avian flu situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse, but the WHO nonetheless delivers a stern rebuke to our lyin' eyes:

The growing number of people with bird flu-like symptoms in Indonesia does not mean the outbreak is becoming worse, and there is no sign the virus can be passed easily among people, top U.N. health experts said on Thursday.
No sign, that is, except for the growing number of cases, which suggests that the outbreak is becoming worse.

Meanwhile, the CDC refuses to share vital information with researchers:
"Many in the influenza field are displeased with the CDC's practice of refusing to deposit sequences of most of the strains that they sequence," says Michael Deem, a physicist at Rice University in Houston, who works on predicting flu vaccine efficiency. Policy decisions, such as which vaccine to produce ahead of each flu season, are being made without the full data being available to the scientific community, he says. "The quality of their decisions, which can affect millions of people, cannot be checked."
As Revere says:
This Administration and its top water carriers at CDC are not just incompetent. They are a danger to the world and everyone in it. We all live in New Orleans now.
Too true. And in my opinion, the inexplicable decisions that have been made in regard to H5N1 will fuel conspiracy theories for generations. Just as Bush has undone years of sucking up to black churches with his response to Katrina, the inadequate and obfuscatory official response to H5N1 - if the worst happens - is going to fuel angry worldwide speculation about a planned, or abetted, die-off; the mistrust this engenders, rightly or wrongly, could have ugly and destructive results for years to come.

When the logical response to everything you see and hear is "No one could be that incompetent," it's not much of a leap to assume that there's a malicious policy of willful neglect in place. If enough people make this leap, everything from vaccination programs, to the distribution of birth control, to the mere presence of NGOs in certain countries could be greeted with suspicion and even violence. In addition to the lives that may be lost as a result of our incoherent policies, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that we're maximizing the potential for long-term social destabilization.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Superintelligence For Dummies

If you were dogged enough to wade through my interminable rant against pop science, you may recall that I singled out Ray Kurzweil for particular abuse.

Thus, I'm pleased to note that PZ Myers has torn Kurzweil a brand-new fundamental aperture, large enough for the installation of an artifical anus built by self-replicating nanotubes, and powered by epidermal temperature fluctuations.

What's my problem with Kurzweil? Well, here's a brief summation of his views, in his own words:

Within 25 years, we'll reverse-engineer the brain and go on to develop superintelligence. Extrapolating the exponential growth of computational capacity (a factor of at least 1000 per decade), we'll expand inward to the fine forces, such as strings and quarks, and outward. Assuming we could overcome the speed of light limitation, within 300 years we would saturate the whole universe with our intelligence.
Where does one start? Kurzweil assumes that because the brain is mechanical - a fact that no one denies - it can therefore be reverse-engineered and built to spec, and will accordingly generate consciousness, just like that.

People who make this claim tend to insist that those who disagree with them are in thrall to mystical or quasi-mystical or otherwise obscurantist views. But there's really no reason to look at things that way. There are all sorts of physical and cognitive boundary conditions that might preclude the acquisition of certain types of knowledge. One could argue that it might be possible to send a probe beyond the event horizon of a black hole and have it report back to us, but no one has any idea of how to do it, and there's nothing unscientific or mystical about the belief that we'll never manage to pull it off. They laughed at Galileo Galilei, true enough, but they also laughed at Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

By the same token, compiling a complete topographic database of every planet in the universe is theoretically possible; topographic scanning is a simple mechanical operation, after all, and an armada of unmanned spacecraft could be sent to do the work. Nonetheless, it's not going to happen. The impossibility of traveling faster than the speed of light is one important obstacle (despite Kurzweil's ghastly assumption that we'll overcome it in order to "saturate the universe with our intelligence"); there are also logistical, financial, and epistemic obstacles.

Kurzweil and his ilk tend to dismiss such objections as arguments from incredulity, without conceding (at least, not to my satisfaction) that incredulity is often far more rational than belief. To my mind, when proponents of strong AI invoke the myriad advances in "artificial intelligence" made over the past few decades, it's not unlike proponents of faster-than-light travel pointing to the progress aviation has made between the Wright brothers' first flight and the advent of the space shuttle. It's simply a non sequitur.

Kurzweil also claims that in understanding the brain well enough to duplicate it, we'll come to understand ourselves. I find that notion incoherent. You might be able to understand how the brain physically generates a state of consciousness, but that doesn't mean that you'll then understand the subjective content - the meaning - of that state of consciousness. But meaning of this sort is precisely what we're concerned with when we talk about "understanding" ourselves. To use a common example, you can objectively analyze the mechanical process that gives rise to a subjective feeling of love, without reaching an objective understanding of why an individual has fallen in love with a specific person. Knowing the physical basis of a mental state doesn't explain subjective, self-reflexive experience, which is the only thing one really cares to understand about consciousness.

Suppose I read Oliver Twist; what I end up with in my brain is not a word-for-word copy of the book, buttressed by a thorough, accurate knowledge of the meaning of every word and reference in it, but a translation of the story into a wholly different form.

This is a mysterious process, to say the least. Among other things, it includes a transformation of the book into several different sorts of experience; this normally involves the generation of "visual" information (e.g., a sense of what Oliver "looks" like), and perhaps an empathic response (e.g., a sense of what it's "like" to be Oliver).

There's also the question of what it's like to read Oliver Twist (e.g., what it's like to read it while sick in bed with a cold, feeling mildly impatient with the discursive qualities of Victorian prose), and the question of what it's like to read about Oliver Twist, in the sense of one's individualistic response to the story's emotional content. Even if we assume that subjective experiences such as these are functionally definable, let alone reducible to specific physical processes that human ingenuity can feasibly mimic by means of technology, I think it's fair to say that no one has any idea how to go about doing it.

Some philosophers (e.g., Dennett) claim that qualia - subjective sensory experiences such as most of those I've invoked above - simply don't exist...a point of view I'm not alone in finding problematic (and, for that matter, weirdly dualistic). Other theorists believe that qualia are emergent, and will naturally be present in any AI system that can pass the Turing Test (or at least appear to be present, to such an extent that we must take their existence on faith, as most of us do when talking to other human beings). Both theories could be - and probably are - wrong, along with much of what we currently think we know about consciousness and cognition.

Now, the riddles of consciousness may simply comprise a few knotty problems, rather than eternal mysteries, but actually solving those problems - rather than wishing them away through the adoption of a dismissive philosophical stance - would seem to be the minimum requirement for designing a "conscious" machine, let alone a "spiritual" one. But Kurzweil continually invokes the increased storage space and processing speed of hardware, as though computational capacity has something obvious and coherent to do with those elusive phenomena which, in humans, we refer to as "consciousness" or "spirituality."

Ultimately, I think that Kurzweil's views - which include a belief in personal immortality through the "downloading" of the self - are little more than quasi-religious claptrap, and I sometimes suspect that the much-heralded "death of God" has caused many of us to invest our slack-jawed credulity - which is a human birthright, after all - in scientific rather than religious triumphalism. I'm not sure that this constitutes ethical or intellectual progress.

There's no doubt that Kurzweil's a smart man. But being smart and being wise are two different things. At Pharyngula, a commenter named Nix sums up the matter nicely:
The smarter you are, the more elaborate the castles you can build in the sky...supported by almost nothing at all but your own aspirations.

Early Warning

Defense Tech has tipped me off to an essential new blog by William Arkin, entitled Early Warning.

Arkin has just inaugurated a feature called "Code Name of the Week," which discusses top-secret government programs. Today's is called Granite Shadow:

Granite Shadow is yet another new Top Secret and compartmented operation related to the military’s extra-legal powers regarding weapons of mass destruction. It allows for emergency military operations in the United States without civilian supervision or control.....Granite Shadow posits domestic military operations, including intelligence collection and surveillance, unique rules of engagement regarding the use of lethal force, the use of experimental non-lethal weapons, and federal and military control of incident locations that are highly controversial and might border on the illegal.
Some of you may recall my earlier post on BushCo's apparent attempt to paint Arkin as a spy for Saddam Hussein, by means of that old standby, forged documents. A good number of Arkin's commenters, oddly enough, are similarly vicious and unprincipled. My favorite comment so far:
The sooner we hang you for treason, the better.
Arkin's a brave, patriotic man who's chosen an uncomfortable and dangerous line of work. I hope everyone who reads this will bookmark or blogroll him.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes, Red States

The previous post on racism resulted, as I thought it might, in some points of contention. Accordingly, I want to discuss in a little more detail what we know - or can reasonably assume - about the effects of discrimination.

Most readers, I hope, are familiar with the groundbreaking work of Jane Elliot, who since the late sixties has been giving a powerful demonstration of the psychological effects of discrimination. (If you're not familiar with her, this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a long feature on her.)

Briefly described, Elliot separated her class of third-graders into kids with brown eyes and kids with blue eyes. The kids with blue eyes were given colored armbands to wear. Elliott then informed the class that people with brown eyes were scientifically known to be smarter, cleaner, and more trustworthy than people with blue eyes. She also revoked certain privileges from blue-eyed children; they weren't allowed to drink directly from the water fountain, for instance. By contrast, brown-eyed children were told they would receive longer recesses, and other forms of favoritism.

The results were dramatic:

At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers' lounge. She described to her colleagues what she'd done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them....Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. "You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are," one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.
Ms. Elliot has since repeated the test many times, with the same results. As she explains in a Frontline interview:
I've learned that discrimination and its effects are the same no matter where you find them. I get the same results with the exercise in Berlin or in the Netherlands that I do in the U.S. or Australia or Curacao. And what's even more distressing is the fact that I've gotten the same results using the exercise with adults in Scotland and Australia in the year 2002 that I got using the exercise with children in Riceville, Iowa, in 1968.
One of the most destructive aspects of discrimination is its effect on "effort optimism" - the belief that one's hard work will actually pay off.

Studies on effort optimism have been conducted among Anglo-Indians (AIs) in India and Australia. Researchers found that within India, members of this lower-caste group were "apathetic and disruptive" in the schoolroom, and consistently displayed lower-than-average educational and financial success. However, things were different when AIs emigrated to Australia:
AIs believed that, in Australia, there was no job ceiling to speak off. This perception contrasted with their belief that in India they would never be able to attain good jobs. One of the main indicators of caste status is that the members of the caste should believe that no matter what their educational qualifications and effort on the job, they would never be able to attain material success (Ogbu, 1978; 1991). The job ceiling and the resulting "truncated opportunity structure (Boykin, 1986: 72)" insures that there is a loss of "effort optimism (Shack, 1970; cited in Ogbu, 1991: 24)".
As a position paper by the American Psychological Association notes, "caste-like minorities" need not be obviously racially distinct:
Distinctions of caste are not always linked to perceptions of race. In some countries lower and upper caste groups differ by appearance and are assumed to be racially distinct; in others they are not. The social and educational consequences are the same in both cases. All over the world, the children of castelike minorities do less well in school than upper-caste children and drop out sooner. Where there are data, they have usually been found to have lower test scores as well.
While there's legitimate controversy over the mechanisms, varieties, and implications of educational problems among "caste-like minorities," I do think these studies remain very suggestive, and that they offer a possible explanation for, among other things, the IQ gap between blacks and whites.

That said, the allied notion of blacks as an "oppositional culture" that actively rejects or devalues education is problematic; it seems to me that there may be plenty of other issues involved, not the least of which is the social stigma attaching in most school populations, and in American culture generally, to intelligence and studiousness. It's well known that female students' performance in math and science often decreases with the onset of puberty; this is usually thought to result from a combination of low teacher expectations and socialization / self-image issues.

Of course, there's undoubtedly a simultaneous cultural bias against females excelling in the sciences, but this just goes to show that the "devaluing" of education is not restricted to a particular racial group. School resistance is, in fact, common among white children. Resolution strategies, however, may be very different for black and white children, partially because black children are more likely to be viewed, unfairly, as representatives of their culture, while white children's failures are more likely to be individualized.

It'd be understandable if personal, familial, or even cultural distrust of white institutions impeded education in some black children, but I can't help suspecting that certain observers simply force black children into a culturally oppositional pigeonhole, without considering the pressures and negative influences that virtually all schoolchildren face. By the same token, it seems to me that the "acting out" typical of intelligent students in mainstream classes could easily be interpreted as "caste-like" behavior - or even subnormal intelligence - if the child happens to be black. Even the most normal behavior can have very different implications, depending on who's displaying it and who's interpreting it.

Getting back to Ms. Elliot's "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes" experiment, I have to say that the arbitrary separation of children into conflicting color-identified groups bears an eerie resemblance to our current fanatical reification of Red States and Blue States. Certainly, the similarities between the behavior of the "superior" children in Ms. Elliot's classes and the behavior of "Red Staters" are striking. It'd be pretty droll if GOP strategists had cribbed from Elliot's work; I don't think it's far-fetched by any means.

That's idle speculation on my part, of course, and there are other perfectly sound reasons to reject the Blue State / Red State mythology. But at this point, one can't help wondering if some amount of Bush-worship simply involves clinging to an artificial caste status conferred by "Redness," the primary ideological content of which is its opposition to "Blueness." I suppose that could help to explain why policies that require the abandonment of basic conservative principles are so frequently acclaimed on the Right; so long as these policies upset the Left, they're not only defensible, but necessary.

Speaking of conservative principles, Teddy Roosevelt delivered an incisive critique of precisely this sort of political caste theory back in 1900:
[I]f men are elected solely from any caste, or on any caste theory, the voter gradually substitutes the theory of allegiance to the caste for the theory of allegiance to the commonwealth as a whole, and instead of demanding as fundamental the qualities of probity and broad intelligence — which are the indispensable qualities in securing the welfare of the whole — as the first consideration, he demands, as a substitute, zeal in the service, or apparent service, of the class, which is quite compatible with gross corruption outside.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Cultivating Grievances

Be it known: James Taranto has issued a diktat on racism; the matter is now settled, and any future complaints about this ineluctable fact of American life will invite his displeasure:

It's hard to make people feel guilty when they personally have done nothing wrong. It's hard to argue that racial disparities are the product of extant racism when there is no direct evidence that such racism is anything but extremely rare, and when public policy actually favors blacks over whites.
If it were truly difficult to make people feel guilty when they'd done nothing wrong, the Republican Party would've withered on the vine decades ago, to say nothing of organized religion.

Walter Benjamin once remarked that "only ignorant idealism can believe that sensual desire, of whatever sort, could designate the theological concept of sin." Needless to say, this country has plenty of ignorant idealists, and plenty of vicious cynics who'll exploit them for personal and political gain.

But never mind about that. It takes appallingly literal sangfroid to claim - not just in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but as an implicitly considered response to it - that "public policy favors blacks over whites." I often hear about how idyllic things are for blacks in this country, what with that red carpet that's rolled out for them wherever they go. But how many of the "oppressed" white people who echo Taranto's claims would trade places with black Americans, in order to get on this fast track to Easy Street? Not many, I imagine. (No doubt they enjoy the unique challenges that come with being white; bravely facing down these hardships makes success all the sweeter.)

Taranto claims that racism is "extremely rare." That hasn't been my experience, as I'll explain if you'll bear with me for a moment.

In the mid-seventies, when I was about eleven years old, I happened to spend a few days in a suburb near Norfolk, Virginia. It was a hot weekend, and I was invited to go swimming at a local pool.

The pool was huge, and looked fairly new. It was surrounded by a hurricane fence that, while probably not as imposing as it seems in my memory, was certainly more than six feet tall. I hadn't been splashing around for very long when I noticed that roughly a dozen black children of my own age were hanging onto the fence, staring grimly at us through the holes.

I asked one of the kids I'd come with why these children weren't allowed in. He told me that the pool was exclusively for members. "Are there any black members?" I asked.


"Why not?"

"They've got their own pools they can go to."

I let this non sequitur stand in place of an explanation, but the conversation disturbed me. Was it really possible that in 1970s Virginia, de facto segregation still existed? Was I dreaming? Hadn't everyone seen Roots?

As I found out soon enough, things weren't really any better where I lived. At the public high school I attended, the racism was literally out of control. There were incidents involving Ku Klux Klan costumes, racial epithets were spraypainted across lockers, and interracial fistfights were common. Even among people I considered friends there was frequent, casual talk about "niggers." It shocked me at first, but I adjusted, somewhat. My friends were quick to point out that they didn't hate black people...they just didn't like "niggers." Being confused, and sheltered, and as cowardly as only teenaged white boys can be, I let that explanation stand, too.

Fortunately, I soon transferred to a small urban school whose students came from all over the world. Interracial friendships and dating were common, and racial violence was unheard of, on campus at least. It all seemed very utopian, initially.

But it wasn't, really. Certain cliques were actively racist, and spoke of blacks as a form of urban vermin, like rats or cockroaches; there were "hilarious" discussions about the feasibility of "nigger traps," baited with malt liquor and sneakers. I gravitated towards the punk scene, and found that the desire to cast off convention led some people to make reactionary racialist pronouncements. Later, a few of these kids even got involved with white supremacist groups. But it was more common for them simply to profess weariness with liberal orthodoxy and its various hypocrisies, and to play around with forbidden words and concepts.

I understood this stance, and even agreed with it to some extent. There's a difference, though, between having contempt for hypocritical pieties and shrugging off or excusing racism, and I'm afraid that many people - including myself - didn't always observe that difference. In any event, that subculture - and similar ones - have always involved an anti-egalitarian temptation, and for far too many people racialist notions were a logical extension of underground elitism.

The years went on, and I found that if you got enough alcohol into certain "respectable" people, they'd confide that they had know...problems with Jews or blacks (homosexuals, of course, were fair game in all seasons). I attended business dinners with wealthy white men who were more than willing to make racial slurs after a few rounds of martinis. This, I'm certain, was not merely an expression of animus - though it was surely that - but a way of assuring one another of their bona fides. In some horrible way, it was a demonstration of "good business sense," much like attacking unions or universal heathcare.

Anyway, what I learned from all this was the not very startling fact that white racism exists in every class and subculture. Without making any real effort, I found it among the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the educated and the uneducated, the bourgeoisie and the bohemians. I don't subscribe to the notion that every white person is inevitably and inherently racist - though I don't think it's an outrageous claim, by any means - but I do believe that every black person in this country experiences the effects of racism, and is accordingly entitled to the deepest possible feelings of suspicion, resentment, despair, and rage.

In practice, though, their own emotions are the last thing American blacks are entitled to; whites decide which of their emotions are valid, and which aren't. Black anger and desperation are "senseless," we're told, driven by irrational urges that increase in luridness with the white observer's own level of hostility and fear. Soon enough, failure to use deadly force against black "looters" is occasion for complaint among our nation's really serious people. "Look what animals those people are! And after all we've done for them!"

Did you know that there are neo-confederates who actually whine about the word "indivisible" in the Pledge of Allegiance? It diminishes them, you see. It dishonors their ancestors by implying that the Confederate cause was meaningless (just imagine the scalding tears of self-pity welling up in their little pig eyes at that thought). There's no question of "getting over" a slight against one's long-dead ancestors; the eternal verities of Blood and Soil can only be belittled or denied at the expense of one's soul.

Unless you're black, in which case you need to grow up and quit whining, already. As Taranto says:
Black leaders would be well advised to spend less energy cultivating grievances and more cultivating an understanding of their fellow Americans. That is the path to integration.
Indeed. Pull your filthy guts off my knife, lazybones, and get busy cleaning up that puddle of blood.

"Understanding"? A persistent and justifiable distrust of white claims, white intentions, and white institutions - passed from generation to generation, and reconfirmed as valid in each by ongoing experiences of racial bias - is the best result one could expect from the mental and physical violence inflicted on minorities in this country. Though I'm no mind reader, I suspect that blacks understand "their fellow Americans" all too well.

To talk about the "interests" of whites sounds daft to most people; suggest, critically, that such interests do exist, and are pursued avidly, and you're a race-baiting zealot. Speak approvingly of them, and you're a racist of the worst sort (i.e., an indiscreet one). But act on them without thinking, as casually as you breathe God's good air, and you may rejoice in your perfect normality. The pursuit of white interests is, to most white people, as invisible as the nitrogen cycle, an essential natural process with which racism's subtle advocates are eager to conflate it. There are no white interests; there is no white agenda. There are simply a number of objective "civilized" values that comprise a standard against which various moral claims can be weighed, and they just happen to confirm what everyone who matters already knew.

Thus, which feelings about racism are permissible - and which reactions to oppression are "normal" - is for white folks to decide; expressing grievances has been ruled unacceptable by the very people to whom the grievances are addressed. Blacks will have a legitimate gripe only when Taranto - or some equally well qualified arbiter of racial injustice - says they do. What noble impartiality! What admirable objectivity!

Grief, of course, isn't suitable for discussion. Grief has its own pathology, but to dwell on it would be too uncomfortable and too humanizing. Instead, blacks are said to be "cultivating grievances" (presumably in some form of hothouse, since our honest American soil would never allow such unnatural weeds to thrive).

One of the worst of all injustices is the attempt to convince people - through the abuse of whatever power one happens to have - that what they see and feel and know is mere delusion. I imagine that it would be easier, in some ways, to live under a system of formal apartheid than to be subject to virulent racism while being told that it's all in one's head...or worse, that it's simply a manipulative, made-up excuse for one's own laziness or ineptitude.

Having ascertained that white racism exists primarily in the minds of shiftless blacks, Taranto's free to concentrate on the far more serious pathology of "white guilt." Here, at least, he sees hope for the future. In two generations, Taranto claims, no whites will have personal memories of segregation; white guilt will then die out naturally. At this point, presumably, there'll be no more humoring blacks about the existence of racism; denying them jobs, loans, and education will be nothing more than a logical response to their history of failure. It's a bit like the old water test for witches, except here, the guilty are those who drown when their heads are held under water.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here's Halgerda albocristata. I've been paying insufficient attention to the many dazzling varieties of Halgerda sp., an error I'll try to remedy in coming weeks.

Friday Hope Blogging

This week, I'm going to concentrate on stories having to do with improving communication.

Treehugger discusses a new company called Inveneo, which has set up a free VoIP system for villagers in rural Uganda, where communication between villages normally requires a walk of several miles.

Each village in the Bukuuku program has a custom-built computer with a 2-GB microdrive, to eliminate moving parts, along with 256 MB of RAM and a 533-MHz processor. The computer is wired to a regular analog telephone set and a directional Wi-Fi antenna, which transmits the internet signal to a central hub at one of the villages.

Complete with 70-watt solar panels and a bicycle generator -- which can provide power in the event of no sunlight -- each installation costs only $1,800, including the outdoor Wi-Fi 802.11b antenna.
Apparently, the co-founders of Inveneo are currently in Louisiana and Mississippi, setting up wireless relay stations between shelters. Their homepage has details on their efforts.

Worldchanging has a fascinating story on a new biomimicry database. For those who don't know, biomimicry involves problem-solving design based on naturally evolved forms and processes, with - in the most laudable cases - an emphasis on sustainability and energy efficiency. (I previously discussed one interesting example here.)
[T]he [database] concept is a tool to pull knowledge across discipline boundaries, in order to facilitate the design of biomimetic buildings and products. The database will be a place where designers, architects, and engineers can find biological information, biomimetic design and engineering information, chemical and materials information, and experts. It will also be a place where researchers from diverse fields can collaborate despite being in far-removed institutions or disciplines. It will be a moderated wiki, and will have collaboration features, to leverage the expertise of its users.
In another triumph for open communication, a federal judge has delivered another crippling blow to the Patriot Act's ability to limit free speech:
The decision marks the second time a federal court has dealt a blow to the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to demand a range of personal records such as the identity of a person who has checked out books from a library or engaged in anonymous speech on the Internet. The first ruling, which also came in a case brought by the ACLU, found that the entire NSL provision was unconstitutional.
Last, on a somewhat more frivolous note, I'd like to point out that the second album by Dengue Fever is really, really good.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Birds and the Bees

In addition to its other unfortunate effects, Britain's nightmarish Sellafield nuclear plant is apparently generating an expanding mountain of dead, frozen, radioactive birds.

Sellafield is very worried - somewhat arbitrarily, I'd say, given their policy of discharging large amounts of radioactive material directly into the Irish Sea - that contaminated gulls and pigeons could spread radioactivity. Accordingly, they've hired sharpshooters to shoot the birds down. This policy has left them with freezers full of birds that qualify as low-level radioactive waste, but can't be disposed of at the existing waste site because of their "putrescence."

Something about this story is not quite convincing. Marilynne Robinson's Mother Country, which is the definitive book on Sellafield, demonstrates that the plant has tended, over the years, to publicize rather theatrical "protective" measures: a great fuss is made over peripheral issues - presumably to demonstrate a commitment to public health - while larger problems are covered up.

What I find especially interesting is the current contention that the radioactive birds can't be placed in the Drigg disposal site. After conducting a very small amount of research, I found this account of the killing and burial of 2000 feral pigeons from the village of Seascale, circa 1998:

With the entire flock culled by BNFL, the bodies were entombed in lead canisters and buried at BNFL's nearby Drigg licensed waste dump. The garden and tarmac drive from the sanctuary where the pigeons had been fed, were dug up and also removed for disposal at Drigg as Low Level Waste together with garden furniture, bird houses, flowers, shrubs and garden-gnomes.
This glaring contradiction aside, the sharpshooting plan makes little sense. One wonders if it could be a cover story for a drop in the overall population of birds in the vicinity of the plant, such as was noted in the nearby village of Ravenglass:
In 1981 nature reserve wardens noted a dramatic decline in the estimated 12,000 breeding pairs of black-headed gulls. By 1985 the colony was all but defunct. Many naturalists suspect that Sellafield's high discharges of the late 1970's were responsible, in some way affecting marine life and the food chain. Terns also disappeared during the 70's and numbers of Oystercatchers, Shelduck and Ringed Plovers have also declined.
I admit that this is just irresponsible speculation on my part. All I can say with any assurance is that the story, as written, doesn't make as much sense as one would wish.

While I'm on the subject, I have to put in a plug for the scientific illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's beautiful but disturbing book Heteroptera, which comprises detailed drawings of mutant insects and leaves found in the vicinity of Sellafield and other nuclear plants. As Hesse-Honegger explains in a related book called The Future's Mirror:
I started in Seascale next to the stone ring, and found 28 insects, bugs, beetles and flies, four of which had deformations on the feelers and wings of uneven lengths....I recorded the worst deformations on one bug larva of the soft family Miridae, which had a heavy deformation on the right wings, a seven point ladybird with wings of uneven length, and a leaf hopper which had a hole between the head and the thorax....In spite of the heavy winds, one could detect that the places with the highest incidence of deformities were in the areas close to Sellafield, or in the main wind directions: such as Seascale, Drigg, Calder Bridge and Ponsonby.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Katrina and EMP

What lesson should we learn from Hurricane Katrina, according to WorldNetDaily? Exactly the same lesson we should learn from every other event: Iran wants to destroy us by means of an electromagnetic pulse attack.

Iran, which has experimented with missile detonations that can create nuclear electromagnetic pulse attacks capable of crippling U.S. electrical grids and computer technology, is taking notice of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina...."The mismanagement and the mishandling of the acute psychological problems brought about by Hurricane Katrina clearly showed that others can, at any given time, create a devastated war zone in any part of the U.S.," said Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, the official spokesman of the Revolutionary Guard.
Like Fu Manchu, and other comically garrulous figureheads of ethnic menace, Jazayeri goes on to discuss his evil plans at surprising length, presumably while sipping cognac and twirling his moustache. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with quotes intended to bolster anti-Iranian hysteria, it's extremely difficult to assess the context and import of Jayazeri's comments. Further, the translation varies considerably, and it's not exactly cogent in any version I've read so far. Having read several versions, the gist of Jayazeri's remarks seems to me to be that BushCo's incompetence and corruption are likely to act as force multipliers for anyone who wants to attack us, a proposition that one needn't be a fanatical Islamist to suspect is quite true.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Iran has the intent - let alone the ability - to launch an EMP attack. But another tendency of the EMP brigade is to re-report on their own previous allegations as though they've since become indisputable facts.
WorldNetDaily and Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin first reported Iran not only was covertly developing nuclear weapons, it was testing ballistic missiles specifically designed to destroy America's technical infrastructure, effectively neutralizing the world's lone superpower, according to U.S. intelligence sources, top scientists and western missile industry experts.
The ballistic missile in question is the Shabab-3; Dr. Jeffrey Lewis has some interesting things to say about the Shahab-3's apocryphal nuclear capabilities. If you read his piece, you'll note that the source for the warhead claim is Robert Joseph, the man who did so much to get the "negotiated truth" of the African yellowcake claim into Bush's State of the Union speech:
Alan Foley, a CIA weapons expert, told a Senate inquiry said he recalled telling Joseph that the CIA was not certain about the credibility of the evidence concerning Niger and recommended taking it out of the speech. Foley recalled that Joseph asked him if the speech could reflect that British intelligence reports said Iraq was seeking uranium. Foley said he told Joseph that the CIA had warned the British that it was dubious about the accuracy of the charge.

According to officials quoted in the Times, Foley finally said that Joseph asked him if it would be accurate to say that the British had reported the uranium request and Foley agreed that it would be.
The EMP claims seem to come from the same small circle of friends as the yellowcake claim and the claims about Saddam's WMD, and they seem to rely on the same evidenciary standards. I find this suggestive.

The rest of the current WND article reiterates - at great length - its previous coverage of EMP. Thus, we end up with a handful of quotes that don't actually mention EMP, but which ostensibly make this story "news," along with generous padding taken from previous EMP articles...almost as though the goal is to write something about the topic regularly, whether recent events justify it or not.

It seems to me that educating people about a real threat wouldn't require quite so many lies and logical contortions.

Can't Win, Don't Try

Is it worthwhile to point out - again - how incoherent and dishonest David Brooks is? Is there any glory in taking up one's lance against this puny dragon, whose fire has gone out and whose cunning little claws couldn't shred rotted silk?

Probably not. That said, in his latest column, Brooks examines

...the paradox at the heart of the Katrina disaster, which is that we really need government in times like this, but government is extremely limited in what it can effectively do.
Here we have the clarion call of modern conservatism: "We're doomed to be third-rate, so let's not even try to excel." Apparently, our complaints about the unnecessary suffering in New Orleans stem from an irrational belief that our government has the ability to act promptly and wisely in defense of this country's citizens.

I'm not sure where we got that idea. Perhaps it was from BushCo's insistence that they - and only they - knew how to keep America safe, and how to respond promptly and wisely to disasters, and that voting for anyone else would be tantamount to national suicide. If so, Brooks has decided it's time to burst that bubble. If you're juggling machetes while reading this, or operating a pavement saw, please stop before reading any further; your most cherished beliefs are about to be trampled into the dust, and it's more than likely that you'll swoon.
[T]he brutal fact is, government tends toward bureaucracy, which means elaborate paper flow but ineffective action. Government depends on planning, but planners can never really anticipate the inevitable complexity of events. And American government is inevitably divided and power is inevitably devolved.
I have no idea what "devolved" means, in this context. I doubt Brooks does either, so we'll let it alone.

I'm startled by all this talk about the "inevitable complexity of events," though. BushCo promised me moral clarity..."the kind men like," as the saying is. Not long ago, complexity, nuance, and ambiguity were of interest solely to coast-dwelling metrosexuals who put kiwi slices on their cheesecake, instead of the honest, unassuming strawberries favored at no-frills diners throughout Red America.

But now, suddenly, this world of stark moral absolutes is obscured by a fog of elitist doublespeak. Suddenly, events are complex. And American government is no help at all; it's ineffective, impuissant, and - lest we forget - "devolved." One wonders where Brooks hid this fearsome arsenal of defeatist pathopoeia in the months before our invasion of Iraq.

If nothing else, Our Hero has indeed convinced me that events are inevitably complicated. So what's to be done? Not much. As a wise man once said, you can't make a slim chance of improvement the enemy of stasis:
This preparedness plan is government as it really is. It reminds us that canning Michael Brown or appointing some tough response czar will not change the endemic failures at the heart of this institutional collapse.
In other words, you can't win, so don't try. After all, if banishing one or two incompetent flunkies can't cure what ails us, how could banishing the criminally negligent failure who hired them?

Here's the final paragraph. It's a perfect little gem, in its own way:
So of course we need limited but energetic government. But liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America's faith in big government.
You can say what you like, but Brooks really is an exceedingly cute character. He understands that we need "limited but energetic government" - an empty phrase that could mean anything at all - but the liberals simply expect Katrina to "restore America's faith in big government." Brooks' deployment of false dichotomies is always heavy-handed, but this is sophistry above and beyond the call of duty.

And this is the worst of all possible worlds. The Bush Administration is simultaneously the biggest and the most incompetent American government ever seen. But a disaster in which that administration was responsible for the lives of Americans, and failed to protect them, proves not that Bush is a bad president - nor that anti-human monsters of vanity like Grover Norquist have been wrong about virtually everything - but that government is the enemy and social programs are bad and bureaucratic incompetence is the natural way of things, world without end, amen.

In other words, BushCo's failure actually validates its own ideology. The only people whose worldviews must adjust to Katrina are liberals. Clever people like David Brooks recognized in this disaster nothing more unsettling than the confirmation of a pet dogma. Heads they win, tails we lose.

A sane reader would probably want to know how Brooks' "limited but energetic government" would respond to natural and manmade disasters, and whether that response would involve lolling around on vacation while a city is destroyed, or starving and brutalizing American citizens, or blocking their escape routes, or letting people in nursing homes drown like rats, or leaving doctors with no choice but to euthanize their patients. Those are the questions Katrina raises; those are also, not surprisingly, the questions Brooks ignores.

We can certainly agree that government is prone to failures, but not all failures are commensurable. Doctors fail too, but there's a difference between the doctor who misdiagnoses my case of mono as the flu, and the one who saws both my legs off by mistake. Neither doctor is ideal, but one is clearly much worse than the other. Our government may be prone to failure and corruption, but that's no reason to put a corrupt, criminally negligent failure in charge of it.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Who among us does not love Ceratosoma amoenum?

Friday Hope Blogging

If there's a future for New Orleans, it revolves primarily around the restoration of wetlands and barrier islands. Athenae wrote a fine post recently about the possibility of Katrina inaugurating a second New Deal, and I agree that this is necessary. The model here should be the Civilian Conservation Corps, which operated from 1934 to 1941. It put millions of economically distressed people to work maintaining and restoring America's wetlands, forests, beaches, and parks. Its educational program taught literacy and other skills, and these programs had a remarkably high utilization rate (up to 80%, in some cases).

The CCC was one of the most successful programs of the New Deal, and was popular even among Roosevelt-haters. That said, it wasn't perfect. For instance, the CCC destroyed an incredible amount of wetlands, an error for which we're still paying a considerable price today. However, the basic concept of the CCC is proven; it could be improved upon if we had intelligent leaders who were willing to listen to scientists, and who understood that the currently fashionable ideological objections to federal works projects are the product of empty-headed dogmatism.

This isn't the first time I've made this argument. But it's the first time I've seen it echoed across the country. Take, for instance, this editorial from the Dallas Morning News:

The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps gave work and hope to thousands who had lost it. Those exact models may not work for Katrina's diaspora, but the imaginative thinking they embodied is urgently required.

Government has gotten a bad name through the years, but history shows that bold government action can galvanize a despairing people when it is designed to restore dignity as well as material sufficiency. We could do worse as we embark on this great social experiment than to let that lesson from our past cry out to us in the coming days.
Very true. And if we heeded that cry, a good deal of the remediation and rebuilding in the wake of Katrina would be done by the hurricane victims themselves. Compensation would be flexible; the program would give participants such options as the ability to earn college tuition credits for themselves and their children, or to make payments towards a house or apartment in the rebuilt area. The wetlands would be restored and protected, and any objections from the oil and gas industry - whose predations are responsible for about one-third of their destruction - would be ignored as the prattling of myopic dead-enders.

Dealing with the aftermath of Katrina intelligently would also be of tremendous value to science, the economy, and other threatened cities, as Scientific American makes clear:
Fixing the delta would serve as a valuable test case for the country and the world. Coastal marshes are disappearing along the eastern seaboard, the other Gulf Coast states, San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River estuary for many of the same reasons besetting Louisiana. Parts of Houston are sinking faster than New Orleans. Major deltas around the globe--from the Orinoco in Venezuela, to the Nile in Egypt, to the Mekong in Vietnam--are in the same delicate state today that the Mississippi Delta was in 100 to 200 years ago. Lessons from New Orleans could help establish guidelines for safer development in these areas, and the state could export restoration technology worldwide. In Europe, the Rhine, Rhône and Po deltas are losing land. And if sea level rises substantially because of global warming in the next 100 years or so, numerous low-lying coastal cities such as New York would need to take protective measures similar to those proposed for Louisiana.
Countries like the Netherlands have plenty of expertise to share with us, if we care to listen. Perhaps we could even improve on their ideas.

What about the cost? Scientific American has one estimate, in what I presume are 2001 dollars:
Late in 1998 the governor's office, the state's Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and all 20 of the state's coastal parishes published Coast 2050--a blueprint for restoring coastal Louisiana. No group is bound by the plan, however, and if all the projects were pursued, the price tag would be $14 billion.
In George W. Bush's America, where $9 billion can vanish into the aether without raising any eyebrows, $14 billion is chicken feed. Congress has earmarked $52 billion for Katrina. At least a third of that money should go towards restoring wetlands and rebuilding the barrier islands, and displaced New Orleans residents should get the first shot at the jobs.

Easier said than done, of course. But things can and do change. I've seen people who were trying desperately to die turn themselves around, and I think countries can do it too. These people - as often as not - believed themselves worthless, for whatever reason, and I have a feeling that beneath all our nationalistic bluster, that may be our real problem. As the editorialist above notes, we're a despairing people. And why not? We're lectured continually about rights and considerations we not only can't have, but don't deserve. We don't deserve healthcare, we don't deserve a living wage or safe working conditions, we don't deserve better schools or cleaner air or cleaner water.

In my view, this amounts to a not terribly subtle way of telling us that we're worthless. Many Americans have apparently internalized this abuse to the point that they believe it, and have learned to take pride in their own degradation, as people so often do. But it begins to look as though the modest hopes we're allowed, by the political and religious jackals who fancy themselves our tutors in the science of living, are perhaps not enough to live on comfortably, even for those who are most eager to try. The ceaseless anger that animates so many believers in American exceptionalism seems to me to be powered more by fear and despair than anything else. At any rate, it surely doesn't advertise contentment.

Robert M. Jeffers notes that Bangladesh - one of the poorest countries on earth - is sending us $1 million, and comments on how odd it is "to realize the world cares about us, even when we don't care about them, even when we don't, as a nation, care about our own."

Seeing ourselves through the lens of a poor nation's pity ought to be instructive. Perhaps our power and wealth and possessions don't impress people - or excite their envy - quite as much as we used to think. Perhaps they don't impress us much anymore, either, and it's time to look elsewhere for meaning. As Jeffers says:
[A]nother part of the American mythos may yet serve us well: that it's never too late to correct your mistakes, and make amends, and start over. And this time, get it right.
Here's hoping.

Biolabs in New Orleans

Defense Tech makes a good point:

In and around the Big Easy are a number of Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) labs, meant to handle some of the nastier biological agents out there -- stuff like anthrax, plague, and genetically-engineering mousepox. Louisiana State University’s Medical School and the State of Louisiana both ran BSL-3s within the city. Tulane kept 5,000 monkeys for biodefense studies in its "National Primate Research Center," located in nearby Covington.
MemoryBlog has more:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a "Select Agents Program" for any facility that handles highly dangerous germs, including Ebola, Marburg, ricin, avian flu, and anthrax. At the top of their website is the following notice:
Announcement for Entities Impacted by Hurricane Katrina

Entities that are registered with the Select Agent Program who have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina may contact the CDC Select Agent Program for guidance on actions that should be taken to transfer Select Agents to another registered entity or report the theft, loss, or release of select agents that might have occurred due to storm damage.
Given BushCo's astronomical biodefense spending and avid siting of new labs, it'll be interesting to see how well these facilities withstood Katrina, and how well the people in charge of them performed.

Disaster Action Kids

Hey kids, you know what's fun? Disasters!

Welcome to FEMA for Kids! I'm Herman, the spokescrab for the site. This site teaches you how to be prepared for disasters and prevent disaster damage. You can also learn what causes disasters, play games, read stories and become a Disaster Action Kid. And don't forget to learn about FEMA. A story about my search for a disaster-proof shell is great reading, too!
Why would anyone want to be a Disaster Action Kid, you ask? Because they're awesomely outrageous, that's why!
Being a Disaster Action Kid is Fun! Disaster Action Kids are prepared!
Disaster Action Kids are also precocious and discerning patrons of the arts, who eschew flashy computer games, blockbuster movies, and solvent-huffing in favor of elegant, educational cartoons like this:

As you can see, FEMA spares no expense when it comes to meeting the entertainment needs of Disaster Action Kids. That's something to bear in mind the next time you hear someone calling them a gaggle of negligent monsters.

If you're a child, sign up with FEMA this instant, or I swear to God I'll give you something serious to cry about. If you're a parent, it's your patriotic duty to sign your indolent, sullen child up right now! And be sure to ask about the "Halliburton Helper" program for freedom-loving teens who've taken Herman the Spokescrab's "Stay In Your Shell" abstinence pledge!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Intelligent Design?

Despite my natural tendency to "reason with the worst that may befall," I've tried to avoid assuming that BushCo's shameful response to Hurricane Katrina involved anything more sinister than criminal negligence. Recent evidence, however, leads me to worry that my rosy outlook may not be justifiable for very much longer.

Even so, I don't want to jump to the conclusion that Bush's response plans were intelligently designed to minimize the chances of survival for those unfortunate people who were - as Wolf Blitzer eloquently phrased it - "so poor, and so black." There are other explanations, after all. Bureaucracy is a race to the bottom, tending towards an absolute zero of efficiency, competence, and compassion, and its effects can sometimes be hard to distinguish from those of organized crime, or clinical sociopathy. It's also possible that what looks to the cynical observer like premeditated murder could be nothing more than callous opportunism, aided by entrenched political and corporate structures that enable the same handful of people to profit, again and again, from catastrophes they do little to mitigate, and a great deal to exacerbate.

Granted, there does seem to be a clear and consistent pattern here: FEMA has made a habit of delaying its own aid, while preventing other sources of aid from reaching people who need it desperately. And we know that for several crucial days, virtually every decision made by BushCo and its creatures served to increase misery, confusion, and the risk of mass fatalities in New Orleans.

But for the time being, it's more comforting to accept that the President simply hired a bumbling equestrian buffoon to run FEMA, without foreseeing a single negative consequence; and that far from being shocked or remorseful when those consequences materialized, he insisted that the buffoon had done "a great job."

Because the alternative...well, that's just too terrible to contemplate. Isn't it?

(PLEASE NOTE: If you've noticed that this post has been rewritten, it's because I was working on it in a coffee shop, on a rented computer. My time ran out before I could finish it...and like an idiot, I hit "Publish" by mistake! Since the post amounted to little more than unedited ravings, I felt obliged to clean it up when I got home. Now you know!)