Monday, October 31, 2005

Bless This Mess

Nerve gases are paradoxical weapons. They're so dangerous that their alleged presence in Iraq was said to be valid grounds for a war of aggression, and yet so safe that their storage, transport, and disposal on American soil couldn't possibly alarm anyone but hysterics and simpletons.

I've complained elsewhere about alkaline hydrolysis of VX nerve gas, which generates a huge volume of caustic liquid that may actually contain significant trace amounts of VX, as well as byproducts that are only a little less toxic. (The EPA notes that the detection levels for VX and its byproducts are based "solely on the protection of humans from a drinking water source and may not be protective of aquatic organisms through ingestion or dermal exposure.")

If some Iranian guy were arrested with so much as a test tube full of VX hydrolysate, it'd be considered an international incident. But our own agencies can spill gallons of it repeatedly, without exciting very much concern:

Army contractors halted operations Saturday at a Western Indiana complex built to destroy a deadly nerve agent after nearly 500 gallons of a caustic wastewater created by the chemical weapon's destruction spilled inside a contained area.
This wasn't the first hydrolysate spill at this facility; it probably won't be the last. And for the grand finale, roughly 4 million gallons of hydrolysate will be shipped to New Jersey and dumped in the Delaware River.

Who but a Chicken Little would object? And who but a Communist would've complained back when we were squandering taxpayer dollars to manufacture this useless weapon by the ton? After all, we have a sacred duty to this country that God has so abundantly blessed: we must ensure that no one poisons its soil and water and air but us.

And maybe Canada.

Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mound

Along the Anclote River, in Florida's North Pinellas County, there's a unconscionable shortage of boat ramps. This state of affairs is incommensurate with the dignity of rational beings and children of God, and must be remedied by any means necessary. Thus, the county is interested in buying a Superfund site and converting it to a recreational wonderland with boat ramps for all.

The site in question was used from 1947 to 1981 by a pair of chemical concerns that produced elemental phosphorus from phosphate ore. It comprises about 300,000 cubic yards of dirt contaminated with arsenic, lead, radium-226, and other unwholesome metals and carcinogens.

Stauffer Management Co., the current owner of the site, is responsible for remediation, and has chosen the dubious mound-and-cap method. Simply put, it intends to mix the contaminated soil with cement, shape it into enormous mounds, cover the mounds with a synthetic cap, and plant grass on top. The mounds will require ongoing monitoring, and should ideally be left completely undisturbed (to whatever extent that's possible on sinkhole-prone land alongside a river, in hurricane country). Stauffer would remain responsible for the care and maintenance of the mounds after the sale, and thus would presumably be liable if they fail. Unless, that is, Pinellas County "contributes" to their failure in some way.

The county seem to be gearing up to do just that. Plans for the Stauffer site include athletic fields, land storage for hundreds of boats, boat ramps galore, and - wait for it - parking lots on top of the mounds.

Some people may think it strange that Pinellas County would consider buying this land, given that it must either pay for the entire acreage while having access to only half of the land, or run the risk of siting recreational facilities atop toxic mounds.

It's all too plain that such people have never felt the cruel pangs of limited waterfront access.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

From the Nursery, To Your Heart

I strongly advise you to watch this slideshow. You might also want to take a look at the other photos you'll find on Snailbooty's flickr site.

Link via We Make Money Not Art.

Sunday Sermon Blogging

Here are some excerpts from "The Dogma of Hell," as preached circa 1877 by the American minister Octavius Brooks Frothingham:

The doctrine of future punishment as held by the creeds of Christendom, has always been rejected with abhorrence by the natural conscience of men, as fundamentally inconsistent with rational notions of justice....

It is vulgarly thought that the belief in future punishment is important as a check on the inordinate passions of men; that it is valuable in keeping society in order, men being more readily swayed by fear than by any other motive. This impression is, I am persuaded, quite mistaken....That men should be influenced for good by fear seems to be something like an absurdity. Fear can do no more for a moral nature, than darkness can do for a plant, or lightning for a tree. Sunshine alone quickens. Love alone warms. Violence may stimulate, but how can it nourish? Fear may create fear; can it create trust? Vitality is coincident with passionate desire, but fear produces apathy and revulsion....

The truth is that the threat of Hell even in its most mitigated form is so vastly in excess of any consciousness of guilt as to be practically inoperative. The flames might as well be painted, for all the terror they carry. It is impossible to bring such fantasies home to the practical sense. They who have imagination to realize them are disgusted. They who have not are confounded and stunned. Instead of apprehending a decline of morality from the popular disbelief in the doctrine of hell torments, it will be more reasonable to apprehend such decline from its continued profession, and the more sincere the profession, the graver the cause for apprehension....

For one nature, hard and brutal, that the terrors of the hereafter may have restrained, it has probably deadened, discouraged or brutalized a hundred sensitive spirits that needed only a ray of hope to bloom in beauty and shed a delicious fragrance on the air. If all were known, as all can never be, it would probably appear that the doctrine of future punishment has demoralized and dehumanized the ages in which it prevailed, and has seriously retarded the progress of virtue by hindering the natural play of motive and preventing the standard of moral attainment. If all were known it would probably appear that the doctrine reflected the inhumanity of inhuman generations, and deepened it....

To talk about eternal torment is not difficult; to profess belief in it may be possible even for good natured people, but to think it, to bring it home to reason or heart, is what the stoutest cannot do. It may be questioned whether a single man, even a single priest, preacher or churchman, ever fully "realized" the import of this doctrine. We know the names of single men whom the far off contemplation of it drove to the madhouse. Nothing but dense ignorance, credulity, mental and moral apathy, wrapping human sensibility about as though with the hide of a rhinoceros, enabled them to bear the suggestion of it, and still go on their way believing, hoping and rejoicing. In proportion as men become intelligent, conscientious and sensitive, they throw the incubus off, though, with it, they cast over creed, church, scripture, and all the associations of religion.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Elysia amakusana, who comes to my door that I might not sell vinegar anymore, but make a trade of sweetmaking.

Friday Hope Blogging

What else?

Far better legal minds than mine will tease out all the implications of this indictment in days to come. But I did notice that it straightforwardly establishes Plame's identity as an undercover operative, and that the instances it cites of Libby's false statements - and the timeline it offers of the White House's machinations - are devastating to the current line of wingnut apologetics. There's blood in the water now...lots of it.

I have nothing else to offer this week, save for a couple of short quotes. From Shakespeare, for those who still believe this administration:

This tyrant, whole sole name blisters our tongues,
Was once thought honest; you have loved him well;
He hath not touched you yet.
And from Cornelius Nepos, for the rest of us:
Hateful is the power, and pitiable is the life, of those who wish to be feared rather than loved.

For the Birds

California's Salton Sea is one of the most mindbogglingly awful - and breathtakingly beautiful - places in America. It formed accidentally in the early years of the 20th century, thanks to miscalculations by engineers who were trying to divert the Colorado River. It rapidly attracted bird life, and was designated in 1930 as a refuge for ducks, geese, and shorebirds.

It's the largest body of water in the state, with an average depth of about 51 feet. It gets virtually no rainfall, and is fed mainly by chemical-laden agricultural runoff from huge farms in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. It was also used as a bomb-testing range from the forties to the sixties.

Resort communities were built on its shores in the late fifties and early sixties, despite its contamination with ordnance, and the fact that the California Department of Fish and Game predicted in 1961 that increasing salinity would kill the sea by 1990. And indeed, there were dramatic die-offs of birds that frequented the lake in the eighties and nineties.

The resorts failed soon enough, and since then the grim little towns at the water's edge have been of use primarily to independent film-makers who need an off-the-rack signifier for the vague anomie of Generation X.

I first visited the Salton Sea in the early nineties. Like most visitors, I ended up at the abandoned Salton Bay Yacht Club. All the windows were gone, and the building was covered in graffiti ("Kill Clinton in '92!"). The curved cement floor overhanging the water was littered with pigeons whose heads had been cut off, apparently for someone's amusement. In the shallow water, there were thousands of blistered, decomposing fish floating among rafts of greasy bubbles.

The atmosphere in an outbuilding was even worse. The entraceway was dark and littered with broken bottles. Inside, a couple of singed mattresses lay near the site of a campfire. "Hail Satan" had been written on the wall in what looked - and smelled - like shit. On another wall, a writer using the more traditional felt marker advised me that "No matter where you go, you will all ways remember your memories of the Fuck Times."

But that was then. Now, apparently, the Salton Sea is ready to reclaim its rightful place as the Crown Jewel among America's poisonous, manmade inland seas.

Backers of a plan to use development revenue to fund a revival at the sea bet they can build thousands of homes on a defunct testing site used by the group that developed the atomic bomb.

They're also considering relocating some of a wildlife refuge that hosts millions of migrating birds and converting thousands of acres of farmland to seaside homes and businesses.
This proposed relocation is an incomprehensibly stupid idea. The "millions of migrating birds" are what make the Salton Sea - despite its grave and growing problems - the second most diverse bird refuge in the country. You can see rare and endangered birds here in impressive numbers. Thus, I suspect that the best way of rehabilitating the area - and bringing in tourist dollars - would be to continue cleaning up the sea (along with the test base), limit development to tourist-oriented temporary housing with the smallest possible ecological footprint (there are few better areas for solar power, God knows), and turn the whole thing into a wildlife preserve.

The basic economic model here would be Nebraska's wise cultivation of eco-tourism, which has attracted hundreds and thousands of tourists to view sandhill cranes along the Platte River. There's compelling evidence that the economic impact of birdwatching in Nebraska dwarfs that of the business developments that might otherwise have destroyed the wetlands favored by migratory cranes:
Birding along the Platte River must be viewed within the context of shifting interests in outdoor recreation and tourism in the United States. In 1996, 62.8 million U.S. residents aged 16 years or older participated in a wildlife-watching activity (USDI 1997). The 1995 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment reported a 155.2% growth (to 54.1 million persons) in birding in the U.S. between 1982 and 1995 (NSRE 1996). Murdock (1997) has predicted that birding will be the only outdoor recreation in the U.S. with growth that will exceed that of the U.S. population between now and the year 2030. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of visitors from around the world are traveling to Nebraska to witness the annual gathering of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River during their migration.

This survey revealed that a travel party of birders visiting the Platte during crane season consisted of 5.19 persons. These visitors stayed in the region for 2.99 days, and spent an average of $285 per person in Nebraska ($336 overall). Birders interviewed for this survey were attracted to the Platte throughout the year (not just during crane migration), averaging 3.5 trips and spending a total of $790.17 on their annual travels to and within the Middle Platte. In contrast, Nebraska Department of Economic Development (1996) has estimated that the average nonresident traveling party visiting Nebraska consists of 2.5 persons, stays in the state 2.2 nights, and spends $159.
It'd be absurd to try to start a housing boom along the Salton Sea. The most compelling reason, of course, is that this is a region with very little water, and three-percent annual rainfall. The intelligent course of action would be to turn one of these towns into a proving ground for innovative and environmentally sound solar, water-reclamation, and building technologies; such groundbreaking developments, if done properly, would be likely to attract almost as much tourism as an extended and improved wildlife preserve will.

There's really no other sane or responsible option, in my view. A building boom based on the previous failed model would fail just as spectacularly this time around, especially in an era of skyrocketing gas prices and dwindling water resources.

(The photo above is by Jeff T. Alu, whose site features many other remarkable images from the Salton Sea.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Films Found In Old Cameras

The photo above was developed from decades-old film. You can find a beautiful gallery of such photos here.

At the risk of being an ingrate, I confess that I'd be happier if the photos appeared without commentary. One of the most important things an artist can learn is when to keep quiet.

The site also features galleries of photos taken with pinhole cameras, toy cameras, and the like. Very nice!

Link via We Make Money Not Art.

Passport to Hell

Cryptome has posted the State Department's final rules on the electronic passport, which will contain an RFID chip.

I reported elsewhere that these chips could turn American passports into a homing device for terrorists, kidnappers, and identity thieves. Fortunately, these problems seem to have been addressed. Unfortunately, other problems remain.

The new passports apparently can't be read from a distance of greater than ten centimeters. Of course, that's cold comfort to someone in a crowded bus or subway, so they've also incorporated a Faraday Cage in the cover:

[T]he Department, in cooperation with the GPO, will include an anti-skimming material in the front cover and spine of the electronic passport that will mitigate the threat of skimming from distances beyond the ten centimeters prescribed by the ISO 14443 technology, as long as the passport book is closed or nearly closed.
There's also an access code that must be entered before the chip can be read. This sounds pretty good in theory, although serious doubts remain as to whether the encryption standard is sufficient. And the Electronic Freedom Foundation and other privacy activists have a host of additional legal and ethical objections, which go far beyond the relatively easy-to-solve problem of unauthorized reading.

Interestingly, the State Department document describes the complaints received from the public.
Specifically, concerns focused as follows: 2019 comments listed security and/or privacy; 171 listed general objections to use of the data chip and/or the use of RFID; 85 listed general objections to use of the electronic passport; 52 listed general technology concerns; and 8 listed religious concerns. Overall, approximately 1% of the comments were positive, 98.5% were negative, and .5% were neither negative nor positive.
I'm flabbergasted to learn that in a country supposedly brimming over with addled fundamentalists who believe fervently in the "Mark of the Beast," only eight people were alarmed enough by this technology to complain to the State Department. Who could've predicted that the fundies would be so susceptible to the blandishments of the Antichrist? I previously suggested that RFID could be used as a wedge issue to sow discord between BushCo and its fundie enablers, but it looks as though I was too optimistic.

You can read all the comments here. Most are sensible; a few are entertainingly abusive and/or insane.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gentlemen, Starch Your Engines!

This helpful chart comes from Policy Pete by way of Mobjectivist.

We often hear that oil shale is tantalizingly close to being economically feasible. The carefree utopia that awaits us when we develop our potato reserves is less often discussed. In both cases, water intensity is a serious issue. Potatoes typically require about 20 inches of water per season, while oil-shale processing requires three to five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. On the bright side, few or no pesticides are used in the production of shale oil, whereas in 1996, 1,275,000 pounds of pesticides were applied to potatoes in Idaho's Red River Valley alone.

Then again, potato power would almost certainly involve less air pollution than traditional oil-shale processing; in theory, Estonia's oil-shale problems are far worse than ours would be, but we have to consider the possibility that the "urgent need" for shale oil will be used as a justification for ignoring or overturning applicable air-quality regulations.

When you consider Shell's exciting new in situ process - which is supposed to represent an improvement over the traditional methods - potatoes almost start to look attractive:

The company proposes to electrically heat a 1,000 foot-thick section of the Green River Formation to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, then keep it that hot for three years....Imagine a ten-acre production plot, 2,000 feet on a side. Inside that area, the company would drill up to 200 closely spaced wells. After those wells are lined with steel casing, 1,000 foot-long electric heaters would be inserted in preparation for the "bake"....

Although Shell's method avoids many of the negative impacts of mining oil shale, it requires a mind-boggling amount of electricity. To produce 100,000 barrels a day would require raising the temperature of 700,000,000,000 pounds of shale by 700 degrees F. How much power would be needed? A gigabunch — in rough numbers, about $500,000,000 per year. The least expensive source for electricity is a coal-fired power plant. How much coal, how many power plants? To produce 100,000 barrels per day, the RAND Corporation recently estimated that Shell will need to construct the largest power plant in Colorado history, large enough to serve a city of 500,000. This power plant, costing about $3 billion, would consume five million tons of coal each year, producing ten million tons of greenhouse gases, some of which would still be in the atmosphere a century from now. To double production, you’d need two power plants. One million barrels a day would require ten new power plants, five new coal mines.
Absolutely nightmarish, if true. But to Orrin Hatch, it's a beautiful dream:
"Utah has more recoverable oil in oil sands than the entire U.S. reserve," Hatch said. "That's a significant number, but it is overshadowed by the fact that the largest recoverable hydrocarbon resource in the world rests within the borders of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming in the form of oil shale."
To the pure in heart, all things are pure. Hatch tends to use Alberta's tar sands as proof that Utah's oil shale is viable, despite the fact that they're different things and require different types of processing (oil shale development is worse, though tar sands are ghastly in their own right). This is typical; enthusiasm for oil shale seems most intense among cornucopian wingnuts who prefer weird analogies and sentimental flights of fancy to inconvenient facts. Instapundit is, as usual, a good example:
Long term strategic plan for the United States: Get the price of oil up high enough that oil shale competes with Middle East oil. Then put Middle East oil producers out of business, or just let them run out of oil. Oil-funded islamoterror then goes out of business, too, and the Middle East goes back to being an unimportant backwater.
Indeed. What could be easier, save for pwning those Red Chinese l4m3rz with our m4d cold-fusion sk1llz? Insty's brilliant strategy reminds me of Monty Python's instructions on how to rid the world of disease:
Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again.
Arguments like Instapundit's are simply an application of slope-browed belligerence to the problems of the moment. And I mean "of the moment" very literally, given that the situations he expects oil shale to remedy may have changed dramatically by the time oil shale is even remotely viable. (Besides which, the terrorist-funding Saudis have diversified their investments nicely. I suspect they'll land on their feet, if not ours.)

I seem to have digressed somewhat, so let's get back to those potatoes for a moment. It'd be crazy to assume that potato power could keep us in the style to which we're accustomed, let alone allow for the growth demanded by our increasingly cancerous civilization. But for some reason, it's considered rational - in some circles - to stake our future on the even more intractable, unfeasible, and uneconomical problem of oil shale. That'd be sad, if we were courting nothing more uncomfortable than disappointed expectations. But given the amount of subsidies we're likely to hand out, and the environmental damage we're likely to do, and the time we're likely to waste, quite a bit more hangs in the balance.

Monday, October 24, 2005

A New Face In Hell

Fiscal restraint. Smaller government. Transparency and accountability. The GOP is turning its back on all these things once again, in order to create an expensive new government bureaucracy that will be exempt from oversight, cost accounting, and the Freedom of Information Act.

POGO has the details:

S. 1873, the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act of 2005, exempts industry from liability and a new agency within HHS, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and parts of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).
BARDA would have oversight of Project BioShield, and its copious funds. As regards accounting, the text of the Act specifies that:
[T]he requirement for the submission of certified cost and pricing information...shall not apply to any contract, grant, cooperative agreement, or other transaction entered into under the Project BioShield Act of 2004.
Fair enough. Who but a terrorist-appeaser of the worst sort would demand cost accounting for biodefense projects?

Needless to say, the centerpiece of the Act comprises the "incentives" it provides to the pharmaceutical industry. The most obvious of these is all-but-total protection from liability of any kind, ever. Another is exclusivity:
[T]he bill would allow Health and Human Services to sign exclusive sales contracts with particular manufacturers for a particular product. It would forbid government purchases of generic versions of such new drugs or vaccines as well as public sales of the products for use as countermeasures.
Behold the miracle of the Invisible Hand! All it takes is an offer of exemption from antitrust laws - along with a few other anti-transparency, anti-consumer, anti-democratic provisions - and we've got a readymade free-market solution to the problem of pandemic disease.

Or maybe we don't. Senator Tom Harkin has complained that the Act doesn't sufficiently address the threat of an H5N1 pandemic:
"We need emergency funding right now, probably to the tune of several billion dollars to begin to get grants out there right build the vaccine manufacturing facilities for flu vaccines....We need to get these facilities built in the next six or seven months."
The Act's author, Richard Burr (R-NC), is unimpressed with this line of reasoning:
Burr said including such provisions in the bill would have greatly delayed the measure. He said there is "ample time" to prepare such legislation and that the committee would soon begin work on it for passage next year.
Hear, hear! God forbid that a pressing need for specific anti-pandemic measures should delay the passage of anti-pandemic legislation.

The Boston Phoenix has a good article on the pursuit of "free market" solutions to previous pandemics, and their less than satisfactory results. The article also discusses a report that found some interesting lacunae in Massachussett's pandemic plan:
There is no plan for obtaining the syringes, containers, and other supplies needed by vaccination clinics. "It is unclear who is responsible" for this, the report says.

The state has no automated mortality-information reporting. Under the current system, a coded, searchable file of influenza deaths would not be available until at least three to four months after deaths occur.

There is no plan for providing security for the vaccines during their transportation from the central facility in Jamaica Plain to other parts of the state. Many large parts of the state have little or no available excess storage space for those vaccines.

Many sites that would store the vaccines have little or no security. For example, Western Massachusetts's vaccine would be stored at a UMass Amherst facility, where the only protection is the school's campus security. Central Massachusetts's supply office in West Boylston currently has no alarms or security personnel.

The state has no legal authority to enforce mandatory vaccination.
It's comforting to imagine that we have "ample time" to solve these problems, which I suspect bedevil other states than Massachusetts. How much of that time will be squandered by ideologically motivated attacks on consumer protection and government accountability remains to be seen.

UPDATE: Cervantes has more on the Massachusetts "plan." It's a must-read piece, as per usual.

Another Victory for Christ

Effect Measure is displeased by Starbucks' decision to bow to fundamentalist pressure, and include Christian aphorisms on its coffee cups:

Starbucks was apparently feeling the heat from America's Taliban. Baylor University (University?) pulled Starbucks cups after a quote from Armistead Maupin appeared saying life was too short (actually "too damn short") to hide being gay....Jeez. Talk about gutless. My next cup comes from Peets.
To my mind, this story represents a confluence of two distinctly American forms of peabrained fucking idiocy.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that we'd make quasi-religious heroes of entrepreneurs and CEOs, and that we'd base our society on that quasi-religious abstraction, the Free Market. What we end up with, as often as not, is corporate cowardice precisely like that displayed by Starbucks. They'll timorously kow-tow to some gaggle of neurasthenic God-bullies and idolaters, because cost/benefit analysis tells them it's the path of least resistance. Meanwhile, pressure groups that want Starbucks to do something positive for labor or the environment, at home or abroad, have to work ten times as hard for half as much gain, because real morality - real concern for the oppressed - costs more than Starbucks generally cares to spend.

Should we humor pseudo-religious bigots by pimping their woefully cheapened Scripture in the marketplace? Sure! Should we completely purge exploitative practices from Starbucks' supply chain? Perhaps could hurt the bottom line.

Meanwhile, the Christian Right is so power-mad, and so disinterested in those portions of the Bible that condemn self-aggrandizing public displays of piety, that it actually believes its God will be honored if it can extort a nonbelieving entity into paying cynical lip service to Christian rhetoric...on disposable goddamn coffee cups, no less! What saints they are, these strongarm enforcers of corporate hypocrisy. Surely, their reward will be great in Heaven.

But then, as we all know, American fundamentalism isn't about glorifying God. It's about glorifying the bullies, psychosexual cripples, and sad-sack attention-whores who fill its ranks, by giving them the power that wounded and weak souls so often crave. At its most harmless, this power degrades faith by elevating empty representations of piety over moral duties like compassion. At its most dangerous, of course, it gets people killed.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hearing Voices

A couple of days ago, a woman named Lashaun Harris drowned her three children in San Francisco Bay. Apparently, voices in her head told her to do it. Rumor has it that the DA in this bastion of softheaded liberalism will be pursuing the death penalty, despite the fact that Ms. Harris is schizophrenic.

Rumor also has it that George W. Bush was directed by God to invade Iraq. Thousands upon thousands of children are dead as a result, and one may assume that most of the mothers who survive them, unlike Ms. Harris, aren't protected from full consciousness of their loss by clinical insanity.

Of course, to suggest that Mr. Bush is a madman would be to sully civilized discourse. And to demand that he be tried and executed for listening to the voices in his head would probably invite a visit from the Secret Service. A deranged homeless woman who murders her children is a figure of moral horror. A wealthy white man - who has never suffered from any material want, nor any lack of opportunity, nor any lack of access to medical assistance - may put his pathology on display by murdering thousands of children, and be hailed as an exemplar of moral courage.

However hard it may be to practice egalitarianism in this world, we ought to be able to agree that there can be no moral hierarchy among those figments of the imagination that counsel people to murder innocents. All of them, at least, must be treated as equals. And yet, amazingly, the voices in George W. Bush's head seem to be more deserving of respect and deference than the voices in Lashaun Harris's head.

When you come right down to it, we all hear voices. We hear them on the radio and on television, and their weird propositions often sound as reasonable to us as those Ms. Harris heard surely sounded to her. They preach the Paracelsian doctrine that "like cures like"; the sovereign remedy for brutality and murder, they say, is more brutality and murder. America's "liberal hawks" listened rapturously to such voices in the run-up to the Iraq War, and they're paying a stern price today (i.e., a tiny but irksome amount of professional embarassment).

The decision to kill, in almost every instance, is based on disordered, pathological thinking. The paradox is that pathological thinking is often rigorously logical (G.K. Chesterton once argued that the lunatic is someone who has lost everything except reason). Ritual killing - the death penalty is a perfect example - invariably pretends to have a rational basis; it's barbarous, apotropaic superstition masquerading as morality, or even as science.

The ritual killing of the insane, of course, is particularly irrational. One can claim no deterrent effect for it (some insane people may even be attracted to the pomp and circumstance of capital punishment, like mosquitoes to bug zappers), nor can one claim a punitive effect (who is being punished?).

We generally understand this, but we've often been willing to ignore it when there were insane or retarded minorities or poor people to be executed. It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that such executions are ultimately based on Hitlerian notions of social hygiene: the eradication of "life unworthy of life."

But rather than show its true colors, and be accepted or rejected as it actually is, this ritualized killing pays lip service to the axioms of morality, and to a warped sentimentality that turns easily and naturally towards brutality. It exploits the death of children - who are symbols of innocence, and are thus of special rhetorical utility to hypocrites - to create a thirst for justice. But justice is a mirage; the only desire satisfied is bloodlust.

A society that listens to voices that justify capital punishment - particularly in a case like this one - is at least as crazy as Lashaun Harris, and a good deal more dangerous. A society that listens to voices that justify illegal and immoral wars of conquest is a good deal crazier, and infinitely more dangerous.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Glossodoris cruentis. Its speech is fit to force and break down any reluctance, any resistance of untamed and averted hearts, and to lead the holiest into depravity.

Friday Hope Blogging

This edition is cordially dedicated to Diane, who was kind enough to tell me she enjoyed the feature at the very moment I was thinking of discontinuing it.

Over at Grist, there's very cautious optimism about Wal-Mart's claim that it intends to pay more attention to environmental and labor issues.

The 'Mart has more power than many governments. It is, for good or ill, here, and enormously influential. If even a fraction of its power can be turned to stimulating green markets and establishing green practices, it could be a game changer.
The piece also notes that Wal-Mart exports account for 1% of China's GDP. In light of that statistic, and Wal-Mart's alleged willingness to forgo some as-yet unspecified amount of evildoing, it was interesting to read this Economist article on "the greening of China." The article's skeptical - for a few good reasons, and a few merely dogmatic ones - but it's still a fascinating look at how China has traditionally approached growth, and the strategies it could conceivably use to solve the problems caused by these dreadful policies.

You can add the South Bronx to the list of leopards that may soon be changing their spots. Having lived there, I can testify to the fact that it's one of the plague-spots of the earth, not least because it's the pre-eminent waste-dumping ground for all five boroughs. Now, a program called Sustainable South Bronx is hoping to improve things for the area and its residents. Among other things,
The organization would like to see the creation of a bicycle/pedestrian greenway, the conversion of a concrete plant into a public park, and a mixed-use waterfront development.
They're also working on smaller projects, like an open-air market, and outdoor movie shows. Take a look at their site, and help out if you're so inspired. (Link via Treehugger.)

The Lawrence Berkeley Lab is seldom synonymous with good news, but according to Science Blog, they're currently reporting a breakthrough with nanocrystal solar cells.
Researchers with Berkeley Lab and the University of California, Berkeley, have developed the first ultra-thin solar cells comprised entirely of inorganic nanocrystals and spin-cast from solution. These dual nanocrystal solar cells are as cheap and easy to make as solar cells made from organic polymers and offer the added advantage of being stable in air because they contain no organic materials....Unlike plastic solar cells, whose performance deteriorates over time, aging seems to improve the performance of these inorganic nanocrystal solar cells.
Speaking of solar power, my occasional, skeptical-but-polite commenter Engineer-Poet has an interesting set of proposals for dealing with our energy woes. As he puts it:
This concept would deal a severe blow to OPEC, be a death warrant for the oil companies and force a redistribution of their economic and political power to the electric utilities and the American people as businesses, families and individuals. The conversion of the American economy away from oil was stifled in the 1980's; this proposal would jump-start and then supercharge this long-overdue change.
Sounds good to me! Check it out, and read his responses to the comments for more info. If you like his ideas - and I think you probably will - give him a plug over at

Last, an earlier FHB post discussed the possibility that the advent of anti-impotence pharmaceuticals like Viagra could reduce the slaughter of endangered animals for native remedies. According to The Times of India, there's evidence that that's just what's happening.

Case Closed

Jeez. You wander away from the Internets for a couple of days, and there's no telling what excitement you'll miss. Having just visited Pharyngula, I'm duly astonished by this quote from Dr. Michael Behe, one of the "heavyweights" of intelligent design, who's been making an abject fool of himself in a Dover courtroom.

Mr. Rothschild asked, "What is the mechanism that intelligent design is proposing?"

Mr. Behe said: "It does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description of how these structures arose."
Like many people, I've made this precise complaint about ID before, under the impression that it dealt a devastating blow to the notion that ID is a scientific theory of even the most tentative sort. It's the sort of claim I'd expect an ID advocate to dispute. But Behe has embraced it openly and lovingly.

This is pretty goddamn droll, given that the precise sin of evolutionary biology, according to Behe, is that it fails to demonstrate "a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description" for certain types of biological complexity. But meanwhile, the IDeologues supposedly "triumph" by refusing even to propose such a mechanism. I guess this constitutes a moral victory, by their standards.

At this point, ID isn't merely done; the Fork of Inquiry is probing a small heap of oily ashes. And the only thing Behe is proving is that mouthpieces for creationism have devolved considerably since the passing of William Jennings Bryan.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Happy Birthday to Buffoonia!

I realized this morning that Bouphonia's first anniversary rolled around back on October 12th. It'd be easy enough to commemorate this millstone - I mean, milestone - by describing the astonishing changes I've wrought in the world over the last year. I could reel off the names of corrupt officials who are rotting in jail thanks to my efforts, and enumerate the social evils that I mitigated or exterminated through my judicious use of irony. I could mention some of the many heartsick wanderers in the burning sands of Deserta Americana, whose lives have been saved and sustained by this inexhaustible oasis of cultural and moral wisdom. I could even make known to you a few eminent persons for whom I am a tutelary spirit along the lines of the midget who inhabited Baron von Kempelen's chess-playing Turk.

But modesty is perhaps the most effulgent jewel in my soul's diadem, so I won't - nay, cannot - allow myself to go that route.

Nor can I explain the private agonies involved in the creation of each empty-headed, repetitive, and confused post on this site. Suffice it to say that like so many artistes, I'm now helped, now hindered by Saturn, whose burdensome gifts Giordano Bruno cataloged so studiously in his De Imaginum, Signorum, & Idearum Compositione:

Impediment, Intricacy, Chains, Detention, Separation, Enmeshing, Involvement, Meddling, Oppression, Surfeiting, Satiety, COncealment, Robing, Circumvention, Hindrance, Restriction, Getting even, Anguish, Bitter biting, disturbed Pallor, restless Bother, Tooth Biting; gnawing, ripping, braying, chewing, eating torturing, wearying, tormenting, destroying Cloud of Proposals; Bubble of Worries, Blaze of Doubly Boiled Anxieties.
Enough. I've already said too much! The spagyric art by which my leaden thoughts are transmuted into fool's gold must not be revealed, not even through the darkest of allegories.

Laborious gags aside, I do want to thank everyone who's tolerated my ramblings on this site. Blogging doesn't come naturally to me by any means, and there have been many times when it didn't seem worthwhile - or posssible - to keep it up. But now that I've elbowed my way into this wonderful community, I find it impossible to tear myself away, even if I don't necessarily feel worthy of membership.

Honestly, I owe all of you - friends and foes alike - a huge debt. Thanks to you, I've gained a much clearer sense of my strengths, and a much, much more realistic picture of my inadequacies. And needless to say, I've learned countless things of which I had not the faintest inkling a year ago (or even a month ago), and am a better and humbler person for it.

No gifts are necessary; what do you give the man who has everything, and appreciates nothing sufficiently? But please do drop in and say hello, especially if you're a lurker!


The Guardian has some cheery news:

Nearly a fifth of all human genes have been patented - the majority by private biotechnology companies, according to a survey of patent records published today.


Writing in the journal Science today, the researchers report that nearly 20% of the human genome, or 4,382 of the known 23, 688 human genes, have been patented, with over half owned by private companies. Around 63% of the patents are assigned to private firms, with one firm, Incyte Pharmaceuticals/Incyte Genomics, having intellectual property rights covering 2,000 human genes.
Patents, of course, imply certain rights. The right to exclude other researchers from working with the patented gene, for instance, or the right to charge them a licensing fee.

Over at Rhinocrisy, Saurabh explains the essential problem here:
[T]he breadth of the patents granted is far more in line with "privatization of the genome" than with protection of innovators' rights. Genes are informational; patents should be applied to, if anything, techniques that employ genes (e.g. using single nucleotide polymorphisms to identify disease susceptibility) rather than the genes themselves.
The pro-patent logic, as you might imagine, argues that IP rights are essential if companies are to remain competitive, innovative, and profitable. But again, that logic should apply to patents on techniques, and the creation of novel forms, not to raw natural materials.

If I understand the law properly, it agrees with me on that point. But there seem to be rather large loopholes for companies that claim a gene has some sort of unique commercial use, which can be a somewhat vague criterion.

Another concern of mine is that since all the interactions of genes within an organism are not entirely understood, a company that holds the patent on a specific gene could end up with unanticipated - and possibly dangerous - power and influence over medical discoveries that have nothing whatsoever to do with the commercial "usefulness" for which the patent was granted. How far will property rights extend in such a case (particularly at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is very well stocked with corporate lawyers)? Beats me. But I think it's logical to assume that lawsuits over genetic patents will be common in years to come, and that the costs of litigation will be recouped - one way or another - from the public. And I also suspect that this orgy of patenting will ultimately stifle innovation, rather than increase it.

In closing, I'll remark that Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the founders of the U.S. Patent Office, felt that patents were not a natural right, but a social convenience that must benefit society or have no legal force:
Inventions...cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ray Kurzweil: Visionary or Chump?

The irrepressible Ray Kurzweil has issued a startling ukase from his impregnable bunker atop Death Mountain. He's demanding the un-publishing of the genome for the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic.

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.
I wonder if Kurzweil realizes that the designs for an atomic bomb are currently very easy to come by. I wonder if he's aware that the British government made its own plans public a couple of years ago.

As Revere points out, pandemic influenza is a lousy bioweapon (I'd go a step further and say that bioweapons are lousy weapons, period). The possibility that hands-on experiments with the virus will lead to an accidental release is far more worrisome than the threat of terrorism.
Yet despite the danger, researchers in the US are working with reconstructed versions of the virus at less than the maximum level of containment. Many other experts are worried about the risks. "All the virologists I have spoken to have concerns," says Ingegerd Kallings of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control in Stockholm, who helped set laboratory safety standards for the World Health Organization.
As a matter of fact, one team of U.S. researchers actually eased biosecurity precautions while working with the 1918 virus.

The Sunshine Report details other problems with flu research:
Influenza with as many as five 1918 flu genes, and which are potentially pandemic, have already been handled at labs in at least four places other than CDC, including labs in Athens, GA, Winnipeg, MB (Canada), Seattle, WA, and Madison, WI. With the exception of the Canadian lab, none of these facilities has maximum (BSL-4) biological containment, and it is a virtual certainty that more labs will begin 1918 flu work now.

In fact, the only possible source of a new 1918 influenza outbreak is a laboratory. The situation of the 1918 flu is not dissimilar to SARS, whose natural transmission is believed to have been halted. The experience with SARS accidents is chilling: It has escaped three different labs to date. A 1918 influenza escape would be very likely to take a higher human toll. The US biodefense program has also had a number of lab accidents since 2002, including mishandling of anthrax and plague and laboratory-acquired infections of tularemia. In Russia, a researcher contracted ebola and died last year.
Kurzweil doesn't seem to have given these issues any thought. In his opinion, we need more bioweapons research:
We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.
Evidently, uncovering the voluptuous mysteries of the Singularity hasn't left Kurzweil with any time to read the goddamn newspaper. Readily available evidence indicates that a Manhattan Project for bioweapons is precisely what BushCo has been undertaking for years (and indeed, the term "Manhattan Project" may be apposite in its reference to the development of an offensive weapon).
According to Ari Schuler, an analyst at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there has been $14.5 billion spent on civilian biodefense programs since 2001. The fiscal year 2005 budget is 18 times that of 2001. Adjusted for inflation, annual federal spending on biodefense is greater than money spent on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
There's your "new Manhattan Project," Ray. Now, the next time you see the words "biodefense boom," you'll understand what they mean.

Funding for research into priority BW bacterial agents increased by 2388 percent in the last few years (funding for TB and HIV research was cut by 20 percent in the same period). New biocontainment labs are being built all over the country; chief among their stated purposes is "to provide Americans with effective therapies, vaccines and diagnostics for diseases caused by agents of bioterror." We've even returned to open-air vulnerability testing, using what we can only trust are harmless agents.

If Kurzweil knows any of this, it evidently doesn't impress him. While sensible people worry about BushCo's dangerous fixation on bioweapons, or the proliferation of hastily constructed biocontainment labs where accidents and sabotage are very real possibilities - or, more pertinently, the likelihood that a new, natural flu pandemic is imminent - Kurzweil ululates about the publication of the pandemic flu genome, and suggests that increased attention be paid to biodefense. It proves once again that one of terrorism's most insidious dangers is its destructive effect on human intelligence.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Project BioShield: Flawed or Fraudulent?

POGO offers some disconsolate thoughts on Stewart Simonson, who heads Project BioShield.

Simonson's qualifications for this job are, to put it politely, modest. Prior to a stint as Tommy Thompson's special legal counsel, Simonson was corporate secretary and counsel for Amtrak (which, as most of us know, is not exactly a haven for overachievers).

POGO argues that Simonson is yet another Michael Brown, and isn't up to the job of running Project BioShield. I tend to agree, not least because POGO offers compelling evidence:

Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, told CQ, "...the whole vaccine program is floundering in the absence of any sophisticated medical and scientific leadership." An anonymous industry official also said of Simonson, "He doesn't understand product development cycles [or] product risk. When he's making decisions, it's based on information he's getting from third parties, but he's not independently able to validate if what he's doing is right."
Regardless of who runs Project BioShield, though, it's a dubious undertaking. Just as the best way to prepare for suicide hijackings is to prepare for ordinary hijackings, effective bioterror response depends on having a well-funded, functional public-health system. And as I've noted elsewhere, hysteria over biodefense diverts attention and money from the areas where it's more urgently needed:
Local and state health officials say their underfunded agencies, which focus mostly on caring for the poor, have received inadequate federal funds and guidance on what the states should address in their bioterrorism master plans.
As a worst-case scenario, one can imagine a feedback loop in which ignoring everyday health threats leads to a decrease in preparedness for bioterror attacks (and natural disease outbreaks) at the state and local level, while the evidence of decreased preparedness leads to more spending on questionable biodefense strategies at the federal level.

In this scenario, the actual public-health problems we face - such as understaffed hospitals, overworked and undertrained ER nurses, a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment - would be ignored in order to fund inefficient research into "magic bullet" solutions to biological warfare agents (the benefits of which may, or may not, trickle down to the general public).

For most of us, this trade-off is likely to be a bad one. My guess is that in an actual emergency, a great many people in this country would have access neither to ordinary medical attention, nor to any new medicines created under the aegis of Project BioShield.

Ultimately, when assessing a program instituted or infiltrated by BushCo, the important question to ask is whether it's supposed to function in the commonly accepted sense - that is, as an obligation under the social contract - or whether it's supposed to serve very, very narrow financial or ideological interests. When some unqualified crony is put in charge of an agency, it indicates a level of corruption that can't be addressed simply by replacing that crony. People who find it profitable to put malleable hacks in positions of authority will just as cheerfully drive away, isolate, underfund, or undercut competent replacements.

POGO concludes:
As a recent study shows, careerists are superior to political appointees at getting results.
Not necessarily. It depends on the results you're after.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

An Accomplishment Worth Savoring

In Gideon Rose's fawning review of a new book on Iraq by the "hawkish liberal" George Packer, he asks a penetrating question:

How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos?
To answer, one must consider a host of issues that supporters of the war - George Packer, for instance - decided were irrelevant. The difficulty of imposing democracy at gunpoint is one. The tendency of the United States to install authoritarian regimes in countries that have resources it covets is another. A consideration of our dealings with Vietnam might be instructive, too, for those intrepid enough to venture so far into the dark past. Those of a more philosophical bent might even ponder the fact that there are different kinds of strength, and that "the strongest power in modern history" might actually have been rather weak in certain essential ways.

Packer may have considered these issues, or any number of others. But in the end, he found them all lacking in gravitas:
"I would run down the many compelling reasons why a war would be unwise, only to find at the end that Saddam was still in power, tormenting his people and defying the world," [Packer] writes. "The administration's war was not my war -- it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances -- but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way." Eventually, crossing his fingers and deciding that Saddam Hussein had to be considered the greater evil, he went along for the ride (as did I).
I submit that this is the most inexplicable and inexcusable opinion it was possible to have in the run-up to the war. To support the war and trust BushCo was merely to be a fool. But to support the war while objecting to BushCo's methods? I hope for Packer's sake that he's simply lying.

Many of us worried that BushCo would commit crimes against this country and others. We thought he was incompetent, vicious, and corrupt. We explained the basis for these suspicions by invoking his career of cowardice and dishonesty, and his demonstrably disastrous and crony-ridden stint as governor of Texas. But a gaggle of self-involved media chatterboxes like Packer and Rose chose to ignore all of this, and to ridicule those of us who had our facts in order and had drawn the proper conclusions from them.

Perhaps they were as naive as they claim. If so, they ought not to be allowed out of the house without a guardian, because they're a danger to themselves and others. More likely, though, they're bought-and-paid-for cowards whose solipsistic vanity is more discomfited by looking foolish than by being an accessory to mass murder.

What I find most offensive about Rose's tone, and Packer's, is their easy, privileged supposition that Civilization saved them a place at the table while they were out getting innocent people killed. Having willfully put themselves outside the moral community, by shilling for an idiotic war that turned out precisely as its opponents said it would, they're now shameless enough to subject us to the spectacle of their judiciously self-administered "chastening."

People have been executed for crimes less egregious than those of the journalists who acted as cheerleaders for this war, and people have killed themselves over sins far less mortal. When you have the blood of innocents on your hands, it's somewhat crude to demand sympathy for the agonized indecision you went through before the slaughter started.

I'm sickened by this burlesque of honesty and moral seriousness. I have no patience with people like Rose and Packer, who wail about how Bush botched "their war," not least because I suspect that if a "stable" authoritarian regime had been (or could be) imposed on Iraq, these human windsocks would have no serious quarrel with the killing involved, nor with any repressive, anti-democratic tendencies of the new regime.

Rose, in fact, isn't throwing away his party hat just yet; he's still holding out for the possibility of being able to say "I told you so":
[A]lthough events in Iraq have now largely passed out of Washington's control, there is still a remote possibility that the worst outcomes -- full-scale civil war or a completely failed state -- might be kept at bay, leaving the ending of one of the cruelest tyrannies in modern history as an accomplishment worth savoring.
When he's not busy saying daft things like this, Rose takes great pains to praise Packer's literary accomplishments. Perhaps it pleases him to remind us (and himself) that being catastrophically, murderously wrong about a war needn't be the end of one's career, no matter how unflattering this might be to our culture, and to human nature generally:
His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet.
Had Rose read elsewhere in Benjamin's On the Concept of History, he would've found a passage far more relevant to Packer's efforts:
At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate, and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to extricate the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entangled them. The assumption here is that those politicians' stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their "base in the masses," and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus are three aspects of the same thing.
"Servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus" perfectly describes the political and journalistic response to the Iraq War. And both Packer and Rose, as they attempt to reconcile their power-addled historicist daydreams with the fact that their "great and noble" undertaking has turned sour, also manage to underscore Benjamin's point about the political intertwining of culture and barbarism.

They should be ashamed. They're not.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Ceratosoma tenue. For all their outward show of pride, inwardly they be humble in mind, and despise worldly wealth, for you shall never take them with a penny in their purse.

I'm leaving town for a couple of days, so I probably won't get around to posting anything. Meanwhile, these dear friends of mine have written some very interesting posts:

Girl Scientist




Stayin' Alive

Check out the rest of the blogroll, too!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A More Sensitive Approach to Terrorism

A new screening test can detect vanishingly small trace amounts of substances like cocaine and explosives.

Bad news for terrorists and drug traffickers: The hunt for narcotics, explosives and biohazards is about to get faster and easier thanks to new research from Purdue University.

A new testing method can, for the first time, speedily check objects and people for traces of chemical compounds....[T]he research from Purdue...developed a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI, that eliminates a part of the mass spectrometry process, and thus speeds up the detection of substances to less than 10 seconds....
There are some fascinating possibilities here. As Common Sense Technology notes, we may all be drug traffickers:
There is one study indicating that up to 97% of all bills in circulation in the country are contaminated by cocaine, with an average of 7.3 micrograms of cocaine per bill.
That would seem to be well within DESI's range, since it's successfully recognized chemicals at the picogram level.

The opportunities such a system could conceivably present for practical jokes, acts of revenge or malice, or planned disruption of air travel are also worth considering. But the main issue is false and accidental positives. Purdue's press release dances around this issue:
[T]he team's forthcoming spectrometry gear, which will weigh less than 25 pounds, fits into a backpack and returns a negligible number of false readings, both factors that are also important to law enforcement officials.
Apropos of false readings, Common Sense Technology makes a good point about random drug screening by dogs that have a 98% accuracy rate:
[I]f a dog and handler team maintains an accuracy rate of 98%, "[t]his means that whenever drugs are present, the dog will alert 98% of the time" and "whenever drugs are absent, the dog will not alert 98% of the time." Assuming that 0.5% of the population has drugs in their possession, if the "dog sniffs 10,000 people, 50 will possess drugs. Out of these 50, the dog will correctly alert to 49. Of the remaining 9950 people that do not possess drugs, the dog will falsely alert to 2% of this group, resulting in 199 false detections. Out of this population of 10,000, the dog has positively alerted to 248 people, 49 of which are correct detections and 199 are false alerts."
It'd be interesting to apply similar calculations to the DESI system, given that the sample population is much, much larger, and the terrorist population much, much smaller.

Unfortunately, I can't do that, since I have no definition of "negligible." Regardless, I'm keen to play around with some numbers. If the system delivered a false positive for explosives 0.001 percent of the time, that'd result in roughly 290 false positives a year at JFK Airport alone. I'd imagine that farmers, who are more likely to be contaminated with trace amounts of, say, ammonium nitrate or organophosphates, might come in for particular scrutiny - as might people who are taking sublingual nitroglycerin for a heart condition - but this is sheer speculation on my part.

It does seem safe to say that if the system also screened for drugs, the number of false positives would be higher...possibly a lot higher. Intentional efforts to overwhelm or confuse the system are another concern; it sounds as though one could bring an airport almost to a standstill with an ounce or two of the right material.

We'll see, I guess.

Trouble in Paradise

Speaking of pharmaceuticals, the biotech industry's interest in biopharming is understandable, and one can imagine that it might even have benefits. But as I argued elsewhere, the industry's interest in conducting tests outdoors is criminally irresponsible and stupid.

In Hawai'i, opponents have won a lawsuit against a biotech concern that wishes to engineer microalgae to produce experimental drugs. This wasn't a lawsuit to stop the project itself, mind you; it was a lawsuit requiring the researchers to comply with existing state laws.

Many in the Kona community expressed their concerns about the risks of contamination of the coastal environment around the project area, which is highly valued and regularly used by local residents, and the dangers of human exposure to the experimental substances. The citizen groups and others urged the Board to undertake HEPA review before approving the project, but the Board ignored their pleas, failing even to give the reason for its refusal.
Obviously, the public shouldn't have to force biotech firms to obey state law, particularly when those firms have generously been given access to public land. Beyond that, I think these researchers' inability or unwillingness to work within appropriate legal and ethical boundaries raises questions about their actual competence to conduct their experiments. Environmental review of the sort mandated here is essentially an application of the scientific method; if you can't adhere to a responsible methodology at the outset, why should you be trusted to adhere to it later?

An earlier article describes the stringent process of scientific review that led to initial approval for this project:
[The Hawai'i State Board of Agriculture] argued that Hawai'i is being overrun by invasive species anyway so an accidental release of GM algae would just be more of the same. They reasoned that everything humans do, "even getting on a plane," has risks, so we might as well take the risk of introducing GMOs into the environment. The Board limited its concerns about a possible release to what might happen if the algae comes into contact with human skin or is ingested. When company officials assured them that no one would die from such exposure, members were satisfied, and opted to ignore potential impacts to other life forms. Then, board member Susan Matsushima, President of Alluvion, Inc., reminded those in attendance that our parents used to tell us not to stand in front of the microwave as evidence, apparently, that the algae is safe. Matsushima even invoked as a GMO expert none other than Wanda Adams. Never mind that the World Health Organization, National Institute of Health and the UN Environmental Development Program have all raised concerns about GMOs — if the food editor of the Honolulu Advertiser is on board, so is the Hawai'i Board of Agriculture.
No doubt I'm biased, but taking the "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach to environmental contamination doesn't constitute due diligence, in my book. And one wonders what manner of "progress" you're likely to end up with when you start by throwing standards, commonsense precautions, and laws out the window.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Household Hazardous Waste

I've posted before on the unfortunate tendency of excreted pharmaceuticals to accumulate in the environment. The ecotoxicological effects are becoming increasingly worrisome, especially those related to birth-control pills, antibiotics, and antidepressants (the latter two, of course, are massively overprescribed and misused).

To make matters worse, it turns out that the law actually forbids responsible disposal of unused and expired drugs:

This is something Grace Welham, a Dean Health System pharmacist, discovered earlier this year. Working on a newsletter for Dean Health, she thought a clever theme for her April pamphlet would be a medicine cabinet "spring cleaning."

It didn't take her long to realize her patients had one of two options: "You can flush them - or place them in a plastic container taped shut with duct tape, which then has to be placed into another duct-taped plastic container, and toss that in the trash."
You have to admire this thinking, unless your heart is as cold and inert as formica. Before you can contaminate the environment with a pharmaceutical, you must first add to the bulk and toxicity of your waste by packaging it redundantly in plastic and duct tape.

Why not take 'em back to the pharmacist? Extended producer responsibility laws are all the rage, after all, and this is a case where they make even more sense than usual.

It turns out that in this instance, the possibility of a take-back program is severely curtailed by federal law:
Pharmacies can't take back unused medications because of concerns they'll work their way back into the system. Before anyone can collect used drugs, an armed DEA officer or sheriff's deputy must be present, along with a written manifest, and a licensed pharmacist.
On top of which, there are laws regulating the transportation of pharmaceuticals, which limit the ability of local municipalities to collect them through HHW programs:
That came as a disappointment to Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District officials, who had proposed piggybacking pharmaceutical disposal with their mobile hazardous waste collection program. The sewerage district sets up various sites in Milwaukee County on certain days throughout the year, to allow residents to dispose of hazardous household goods such as pesticides and paints.
The article goes on to say that Milwaukee is working on a take-back program that'll meet federal requirements; that's an idea every municipality should be looking into. In the meantime, the DEA is said to be "looking for possible solutions"...hardly comforting, given that agency's history of incompetence and irrelevance. Clearly, the laws need to be changed to make safe pharmaceutical disposal mandatory, rather than an inconvenient option.

Me Ne Frego

An Italian man who has become an American citizen is celebrating his good fortune by combining two traditional pastimes of his native soil: music, and vendetta. Like all his countrymen, whose animal passions grow so extravagantly under the Mediterranean sun, there's something of the child in him, and something of the savage, too. As Charles Bargone memorably observed in Useless Hands, "the climate, so quick to change a man's skin, takes years to change his blood, and centuries to modify the neurones!"

There are many ways to serve your country, adopted or not; Zanna is pushing Minuteman Project Bands. "We are looking for patriotic musicians and singers to tour America & defend our borders," reads his announcement. "Just to be clear, we are not just seeking musicians who are looking for gigs, but we are seeking American Patriots who love America and wish to support the Minuteman Project and its cause!" And in the process, buy a few copies of Zanna's own CD, Wake Up America.

From his home base in Apple Valley, California, Zanna has issued the call for performers interested in becoming official state Minuteman Project Bands; all they need to do is send Zanna a cassette or music video of three songs from Wake Up America, which "is not suggested for the ears of liberals, communists, American politicians on the payroll of Mexico or other foreign countries, United Nations crooks, antigun freaks, backstabber Frenchies, prochoice Baby Killers, antimilitary hippies, Hollywood left chicken wings and illegal alien invaders."
Caveat venditor!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sunday Sermon Blogging

Last night at about 1:30, I was sitting under the gas heater at a sidewalk cafe, drinking oversized glasses of Belgian ale and listening with amazement to an itinerant Mexican guitarist - a modern-day John Henry! - who was trying to outperform the electronica blaring from the sound system. He wouldn't offer his foe even so small a concession as to play in its key or tempo, and the result was a category 5 storm of atonality.

It was ghastly, and yet weirdly touching. And at that moment I decided I'd consecrate Sundays to excerpts from American sermons and religious writings that stand in a similarly discordant relation to Christian and secular viciousness (and thus to conservatism, that idiot child of both).

I'll start with a sermon preached on December 9, 1621, at Plymouth, New England, by Robert Cushman. His text comes from I. Cor. 10. 24: Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.

What then must you do? May you live as retired hermits? And look after nobody? Nay, you must seek still the wealth of one another, and enquire as David, how liveth such a man? How is he clad? How is he fed? He is my brother, my associate; we ventured our lives together here, and had a hard brunt of it, and we are in league together. Is his labor harder than mine? Surely, I will ease him. Hath he no bed to lie on? Why, I have two; I'll lend him one. Hath he no apparel? Why, I have two suits; I'll give him one of them. Eats he coarse fare, bread and water, and I have better? Why, surely we will part stakes. He is as good a man as I, and we are bound to each other, so that his wants must be my wants, his sorrows my sorrows, his sickness my sickness, and his welfare my welfare, for I am as he is. And such a sweet sympathy were excellent, comfortable, yea, heavenly, and is the only maker and conserver of churches and commonwealths, and where this is wanting, ruin comes on quickly....

[T]rue it is, that as Christ was fain to crave water of the Samaritan woman, so men are forced to ask sometimes rather than starve, but indeed in all societies it should be offered them. Men often complain of men's boldness in asking, but how cometh this to pass, but because the world hath been so full of self-lovers, as no man would offer their money, meat, garments, though they saw men hungry, harborless, poor, and naked in the streets; and what is it that makes men brazen-faced, bold, brutish, tumultuous, mutinous, but because they are pinched with want, and see others of their companions (which it may be have less deserved) to live in prosperity and pleasure?

[W]hat is a man if he be not sociable, kind, affable, free-hearted, liberal? He is a beast in the shape of a man, or rather an infernal spirit, walking amongst men which makes the world a hell what in him lieth; for, it is even a hell to live where there are many such men. Such the Scripture calleth Nabals, which signifyeth fools and decayed men, which have lost both the sap of grace and nature; and such merciless men are called Goats, and shall be set at Christ's left hand at the last day. Oh therefore seek the wealth of one another.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Ceratosoma gracillimum, who, abandoning herself openly and avowedly to the pursuits of pleasure and power, has brilliantly fulfilled every aspiration which the heart of an ambitious woman without principle can entertain. She never forgets herself - never deals in sentiment nor hypocrisy - and always avows frankly her business and her objects.

Lest it be objected that I am insufficiently prodigal with those laborious terms of opprobrium which polite society deems appropriate to my subject, let me say merely that I write neither to palliate nor condemn, but to describe.

Friday Hope Blogging

Kevin Knobloch of the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that addressing global warming could reinvigorate the nation's economy. He'll get no argument from me; enthusiastic investment in new engineering, design, and manufacturing projects would create countless jobs and generate huge amounts of revenue.

Knoblach just as correctly sees accurate assessment of external costs as an essential step in improvong our situation:

What's needed, he said, is honest talk about the costs and benefits of our energy use.

All the costs of burning coal are not factored into its cost, from air pollution to respiratory problems to mercury in fish, he said, and the same is true with gasoline. Factor in the cost of defending the Middle East and the war in Iraq, and the price at the pump would be a lot higher.
The upshot - as we all know - is that business as usual under BushCo involves tremendous opportunity costs, in addition to its devastating external costs.

The logical solution is for states to ignore this administration's fanaticism and take the lead, both in terms of regulation and innovation. Fortunately, that's what's happening.
Dozens of states, frustrated over federal actions or inaction on the environment, are trying to fill the gap with their own green initiatives - or are filing lawsuits to block federal changes they say would weaken existing environmental regulations. In the past two years some 27 states have participated in at least a dozen major environmental initiatives - often lawsuits - in opposition to federal environmental policies....
As usual, California is the pace-setter; even our wildly unpopular, dumb-as-dirt Republican governor is comparatively forward-thinking on these issues. Yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed 29 environmental bills. Among other things, these bills require new cars to post their greenhouse gas emissions, forbid the use of experimental pesticides at schools, impose further restrictions on offshore dumping by ships, protect 31 miles of an endangered river, and stiffen penalties for drivers of off-road vehicles who trespass on protected wilderness. Not a bad day's work! (Rumors that all is not well in the house of repulsive anti-environment scumbag Richard Pombo are further cause for optimism...and not just for Californians!)

It looks as though California's modest expertise in energy conservation is proving to be marketable in China:
Last month, officials from the state Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. signed a pact with Jiangsu province, a booming coastal region of 75 million people, and informal agreements with Shanghai province and the central government in Beijing, to provide expertise and training to Chinese regulators and utility companies....Barbara Finamore, the China program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington D.C.-based environmental organization that helped organize the trip, cited a study by the council that found California-style conservation programs could reduce China's electricity consumption growth by 10 percent over the next decade. That would save enough electricity to avoid building 26 coal-fired power plants, and at one-quarter the cost of what it would take to build those plants, according to the study.
State agencies and businesses that can provide environment-oriented expertise and technology are likely to have a very bright future. Bush's attempt to fuel economic growth by gutting environmental regulations is exactly the wrong approach, and in my view it's destined for the same ash-heap to which Stalinism has been relegated.

Bush's lip service to "free market solutions" is pure cynicism; his "anti-regulatory" stance is actually an anti-competitive gambit to keep dead-end industries from having to adapt or die. Other countries have better ideas; if the United States keeps hobbling homegrown innovation, and fails to assume a position of leadership on green technology, it can look forward to a further loss of economic and ideological power.

I remain convinced that local involvement and global information-sharing are essential to defeating not just BushCo, but the right's false, dreary, counterproductive economic dogma. So I'm pleased to report that along with local resistance to the anti-environmental overreaching of BushCo's cronies, we're seeing a heartening increase in the number of citizen scientists, who are gathering data in collaboration with experts, and educating themselves and their neighbors about scientific issues that affect them:
As population growth continues to fuel development, issues like habitat loss, invasive species, and erosion literally appear in people's backyards, making neighbors into scientific stakeholders. And scientific questions outstrip the people power and resources of even the best-funded federal and local programs.

Nonprofit groups, scientists, and government agencies have begun to spend a few hours training amateurs to record data in a systematic way and allowing them to submit their findings over the Internet.
This article notes the importance of citizen scientists in early America, and explains the role of amateur scientists in environmental battles that are still being waged today:
Today's global warming predictions depend in part on weather observations telegraphed by hobbyist scientists to the Smithsonian Institute in the 1800s. Amateur ornithologists collected the bird eggs that helped biologist and writer Rachel Carson to understand that DDT was building up in the food chain and interfering with bird reproduction -- work made famous in her 1962 book, ''Silent Spring."
In somewhat related news, a new site called will pay you handsomely to use your ingenuity to help your fellow citizens.
Do you have a common-sense idea that will improve the day-to-day lives of everyday Americans? Or an opinion on how working families can succeed in the new global economy?

You have until December 5, 2005, to submit your idea and to weigh in. A panel of judges will select the top 21 ideas. All of America will be able to vote on the finalists, and on February 1, one person will win $100,000 — runners up receive $50,000 each.
There are lots of ideas posted on the site already; some are workable and clever, while others are entertainingly eccentric. I think we need more programs like this one. Perhaps we could replace "American Idol" with a show called "American Inventor," in which awards would be given for catering to a somewhat more engaged, community-oriented, and noble side of our nature? I'd watch it, for what that's worth.

Essential to all these projects is a recognition that econonic indicators are an inadequate - if not incoherent - measure of national well-being. In Bhutan, they prefer to measure gross national happiness, and this sensible idea is catching on:
Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.

The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.

The founding fathers, said John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and community interests. "The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people," Mr. Saul said. And, he added, this could not be further from "the 20th-century idea that you should smile because you're at Disneyland."
That's a beautiful way of expressing this problem; we've been encouraged to see democracy as a spectacle to be consumed, rather than as a collaborative project more akin to a community barn-raising. The stories I've compiled this week suggest, I hope, that this stance is increasingly being recognized as untenable, and is on its way out.

Oh, one last thing...I'm always happy when a dam is destroyed. In Maryland, another one bites the dust.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Worst That May Befall

I've argued consistently that BushCo's response to a flu pandemic will focus on repressive social control and extraconstitutional maneuvering. Now that Bush himself has more or less confirmed my fears, I want to discuss a possible pandemic scenario, in light of what increasingly looks like a policy of planned chaos in New Orleans.

My assumption here is that planned chaos is the ideal environment for BushCo, and that even a relatively mild pandemic will thus be milked for as much panic and unrest as possible. Quarantines will be imposed selectively, with low-income and high-density areas coming in for especially vigorous enforcement. People will not legally be able to leave these areas, and I suspect that services (e.g., garbage collection) will be curtailed. The unrest that will logically result will be met with the sort of brutal measures previously called for by conservatives in the wake of the mythical violence in New Orleans. And as in New Orleans, violence - or the mere rumor of it - will be used as an excuse to hold up or cancel delivery of life-sustaining necessities to poor areas.

The role of hard-right fundamentalism, as usual, will be to sanctify violence and repression on the one hand, and to ridicule compassion and leniency on the other. Bush's pseudoreligious surrogates will explain that the areas hardest hit - not just by the virus, mind you, but by consciously planned official neglect - were singled out by God for their sinfulness. Among other things, this will serve to assure Bush's increasingly restless base that God has taken matters into His own hands. The spectacle of a rampant and ululant God - who has finally gotten around to kicking ass and taking names - will be as balm in Gilead to the fundamentalist hordes that Bush has repeatedly, cynically jilted. Fatalities that don't fit this narrative will be ignored or downplayed by fundamentalists, perhaps with a remark about how God sees secret vice where the world sees naught but pomp and glory.

We know that medical supplies and hospital beds are insufficient to handle even a relatively mild pandemic. Far from being a problem, this is a requisite for the Right, which treats public health as a deadly game of musical chairs. Those who fail to secure a seat when the music stops are deservedly out of the game. Social Darwinism, not opposed to but buttressed by fundamentalism, will be invoked to explain why those who died in the greatest numbers were "life unworthy of life."

Corpse collection will undoubtedly be handled by Kenyon International, who are longtime cronies of the Bush family. In all likelihood, they'll simply ignore bodies festering in low-income, high-density areas; after all, they'll be paid handsomely from the public coffers whether they do the job or not. And if anyone complains about dereliction of duty in the inner cities, it's always possible to float the rumor that workers were chased away from half-eaten bodies by deranged cannibalistic blacks with assault weapons.

Having written out a death warrant for an unspecified number of undesirables, and forged God's signature on it, BushCo will turn to the far more important issue of removing constitutional obstacles to perennial one-party rule.

When considering these possibilities, it's worthwhile - and increasingly customary - to invoke the ideas of Carl Schmitt, an authoritarian legal theorist who questioned the viability of liberal constitutional government (and, for a time, threw in his lot with the Nazis). He claimed that such governments enable those who are enemies of the constitution to gain tyrannical power legally, by exploiting pluralism and tolerance; thus, the "open society" sows the seeds of its own destruction:

As soon as the assumption so essential for the system of legality collapses, specifically, that of legal disposition held equally on all sides, then there is no longer a remedy. The majority power in legal control of the means of state power must assume that the opposing party, when it achieves power legally, will use legal means to ensconce itself in power and to close the door behind it, hence, legally eliminating the principle of legality itself.
Under such circumstances, Schmitt argued, legality has no meaning: "there is no norm that is applicable to chaos."

In a "state of exception" - which might be caused by a terrorist attack, a pandemic, political unrest, or any number of other things - the sovereign must go beyond the legal system in order to preserve (one hopes) the preconstitutional spirit of the law; this dictatorial figure assesses the law from a point outside its boundaries, and modifies or annuls it as necessary. Schmitt says that "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts"; accordingly, "the exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology."

Schmitt argues that the possibility - or rather, inevitability - of the state of exception can best be addressed by a quasi-divine sovereign with broad extralegal powers, which must be available whenever the sovereign deems them necessary: "the law cannot protect itself." Legislative and executive functions coincide in the person of this sovereign, whose decisions have the force of law inasmuch as they reflect a homogenous popular will.

The potential for abuse of this concept by corporate and authoritarian elites - who have the means not just to represent and enforce, but to invent the "popular will" - must have been glaringly obvious in 1932, and is even more obvious today; we understand very well that once a ruler has declared a state of exception, under which unilateral executive decisions suspend or overturn existing laws, there may be no nonviolent incentive for the ruler to rescind it. Whether such decisions can be legitimated by popular acclaim and consent, or simply by popular failure to resist, is a question worth considering.

With all that said, my guess is that an H5N1 pandemic, so long as it's severe enough - or represented as severe enough - to cause public panic will bring issues like these ever more explicitly to the fore, as Bush arrogates an increasing number of "necessary" extralegal powers to himself, in order to confront a state of emergency that his actions will probably intensify, if not actually cause.

This scenario is speculative and limited in scope; it describes what I believe Bush would like to see happen, and thus it consciously ignores possibilities that I suspect Bush and his creatures are, themselves, choosing to ignore. What will actually happen depends on any number of factors that are partially or completely beyond BushCo's control. What's most worrisome to me - and at the same time, most heartening - is that BushCo itself probably doesn't realize this.