Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Rhetorical Dispute

I'm no Pollyanna, but the unpleasantness at Metacomments has really knocked me for a loop, to the extent that I've had no desire to post anything here lately.

It's not worth going over the details, any more than it'd be worthwhile to go swimming in the manure lagoon at a hog farm. What's shocking to me is the energy that people will spend justifying their bad qualities, versus cultivating their good ones. It's human nature, God knows, but blogs do seem to exacerbate it, and it bothers me.

I could also say that I'm amazed at the lengths to which people will go to defend personal failings that, if the truth were known, are probably the cause of most of their unhappiness. But as someone once said to me, "Why are you surprised at how badly people treat other people? Look at how they treat themselves."

Anyway, just for the record: If anyone wants to call me names, or attack my pet theories, or make pitiless fun of my beliefs, or announce that I have no fucking idea what I'm talking about...go right ahead. I'm a grown-up, and I can take it in stride (even if you use bad language). Hell, I may even agree with you.

But in cases where I don't agree, you'll find that I understand the difference between defending my point of view, and retaliating against you. Your IP address is of no interest to me. I don't care where you live, what you do for a living, or what your educational background is. All of that is your business, not mine. I figure that if I can't win an argument with my own words, and whatever tenuous grasp I have of facts and logic, I'm not going to be able to win it by posting information about where you work, or what sort of car you drive. I have no respect whatsoever for the intelligence or morality of bloggers who cross this line, whether they do so to attack my friends, or my opponents.

All of which is less important than this: I'm grateful for friends like Thers and NYMary. Anything else I might want to say is summed up very economically by M.M. Bakhtin:

The rhetorical dispute is a dispute in which it is important to gain victory over the opponent, not to approach the truth. This is the lowest form of rhetoric. In all higher forms one can reach solutions to questions that are capable of temporal, historical solutions, but not to ultimate questions (where rhetoric is impossible).
UPDATE: What Watertiger said.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Indebted to no magnet and no chart,
Nor under guidance of the polar fire,
Thorunna florens is a voyager on many coasts,
Grazing at large in meadows submarine....

Friday Hope Blogging

Via Gristmill, the BBC has an interesting article on energy harvesting:

The possibilities of this new sustainable energy source need not stop there as vibrations are created everywhere that people and transport are - railway stations, airports, roads and public thoroughfares.

We are applying and testing our ideas practically within a building project within the next year, including a sprung floor fitted with heel-strike generations to harvest the energy from people walking across it. This power output will then be wired back to provide the lighting within that building.
There's some talk of satellite monitoring as a basis for early-warning systems for floods and landslides:
Using NASA's advanced Earth-observing satellites, scientists have discovered a new opportunity to build early detection systems that might protect thousands from floods and landslides. This potential breakthrough in disaster monitoring and warning links satellite observations of soil type, vegetation and land slope with observations of rainfall, rivers and topography.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has created a fascinating fire map of the world:
The ATSR World Fire Atlas (WFA) – the first multi-year global fire atlas ever developed – provides data approximately six hours after acquisition and represents an important scientific resource because fire is a major agent of environmental change.
India has banned a cattle drug that was killing vultures. And underwater grasses are making a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. The "Four Sisters" - four enormous smokestacks off Cawthra Road in Mississauga, Ontario - are being demolished (news which makes me oddly wistful). And Brazil has created a buffer zone around its coral reefs:
The Abrolhos region, located off the coastal town of Caravelas in the far south of Bahia, northeast Brazil, is home to mangrove forests and restinga (a uniquely Brazilian ecosystem of sparsely vegetated sand ridges) and a complex of small islands, coral and algal reefs. Its natural resources directly support more than 100,000 people.
Here's an interesting example of biomimesis:
A desert beetle that wrings water from fog has inspired scientists to create a nanomaterial that literally plucks moisture from the air.
The story of the week, however, is surely Bacterial Hydrogen Production from Confectionary Waste:
As well as energy and environmental benefits, the technique could provide the confectionery industry (and potentially other foodstuff manufacturers) with a useful outlet for waste generated by their manufacturing processes. Much of this waste is currently disposed of in landfill sites.
Last, for my pal Steven, here's encouraging news of a trend towards deconsumption:
During the real-estate boom of the last decade, it seemed like there was no such thing as too big a home. Today, many Americans—and their local governments—are reconsidering that notion. Lawmakers in DeKalb County, Ga., passed a bill that allows residents to veto construction of new “megahouses.” In Marin County, Calif., would-be owners of new homes larger than 4,000 square feet must get approval from local authorities.

Pitkin County, Colo. (which includes Aspen), is now considering a 15,000-square-foot cap on home size. Already, houses larger than 5,000 square feet must include a source of renewable energy (such as solar panels) or pay a fee to support local renewable-energy projects. Interim legislation passed last February in Austin, Tex., restricts the size of new homes on existing residential lots: The homes must be no larger than 2,500 square feet, or less than 20% larger than the home that was removed, or no more than 40% as large as the lot. In April, a six-month moratorium was placed on construction of houses larger than 2,000 square feet in historic districts of Delray Beach, Fla.
Now, friends, you have two choices. You can perforate the synthetic contexts that amplify interstitial drosscapes, by means of the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator. Or you can indulge your penchant for antiquarian escapism with Pub Signs of the Midlands and Dime Store Novels. Choose wisely!

The Snake Pit

About a month ago, Ford Motor Co. offered buyers the opportunity to neutralize their carbon-dioxide emissions by signing up with a carbon-offset company called TerraPass.

Deals like this are inevitably riskier for the smaller, greener firm; Ford has much less credibility to lose, in terms of its customer base, than TerraPass does. And because of the high visibility of this deal, there's a sense in which TerraPass is putting the overall credibility of such partnerships on the line.

Sad to say, things aren't going too well. Triple Pundit explains:

Ford is a donor to the Competitive Enterprise Institute who recently produced a series of bizarre advertisements that essentially claim CO2 induced global warming is a hoax. Terrapass (who has an excellent blog by the way) promptly called them on it. Stating publically that nothing short of a wholesale dismissal of the ads and a public withdrawl of support to CEI would be the appropriate response from Ford.
Niel Golightly, Ford's Director of Sustainable Business Strategies responds:
For the record, Ford did NOT fund these ads. More importantly, we most definitely do NOT agree with their content.
Not good enough, by any means. TerraPass is exactly right; Ford should publicly repudiate CEI and withdraw all funding. Issuing palliative boilerplate to pressure groups, while funding a massive disinformation project like CEI - from whose skywide forehead monsters of venality like Michael Fumento were hatched - is textbook greenwashing. And while TerraPass seems to have faith in Golightly, I'm pretty skeptical about the bona fides of a guy who makes cutesy comments like
'CO2 is life'?! Criminy, even we liberal arts majors know that’s bogus.
Whoa...this dude is totally one of us. I'm surprised he didn't quote some Belle and Sebastian lyrics to drive the point home.

Golightly says:
Major players like GE, DuPont, Shell, BP, Duke Energy, Goldman Sachs and many others including, yes, Ford Motor Company, are feverishly working on what it will take to be compeitive in a carbon-constrained economy. And they know the day is coming when customers will reject brands that aren’t part of solving the problem.
They also hope to postpone that day indefinitely by exploiting the idealism of firms like TerraPass on the one hand, and funding denialist disinformation on the other.

It's good that TerraPass is putting pressure on Ford, and I hope something comes of it. A better approach, for any future groups who wish to risk their credibility in order to improve an automaker's market share, would be to make defunding CEI - and the incestuous snake pit of think-tanks to which it belongs - a condition of partnership.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook is a Liar and a Fraud

Gregg Easterbrook wants us to know that it is now officially "reasonable" to be concerned about climate change.

Does this mean that people who previously denied climate change were not reasonable? Of course not! It doesn't work that way. The center-right position is synonymous with reason; as such, it can grant validity to other positions, but can't be invalidated itself.

Thus, Easterbrook patiently explains that skepticism and even denialism were "reasonable" until quite recently:

Once global-warming science was too uncertain to form the basis of policy decisions — and this was hardly just the contention of oil executives. "There is no evidence yet" of dangerous climate change, a National Academy of Sciences report said in 1991.
Now, when someone quotes only a few words from an untitled scientific report, it always piques my curiosity. It seems very likely that Easterbrook is referring to Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, which was produced by an NAS synthesis panel in 1991. If so, it looks as though Easterbrook skimmed the introduction, and found this:
There is no evidence yet of imminent rapid change [my emphasis]. But if the higher GCM projections prove to be accurate, substantial responses would be needed, and the stresses on this planet and its inhabitants would be serious.
The phrase "there is no evidence yet" appears nowhere else in the report, judging from a search of its contents.

Just to underscore the dishonesty of Easterbrook's quote-mining, here's an excerpt from the findings and conclusions:
The panel finds that, even given the considerable uncertainties in our knowledge of the relevant phenomena, greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses....Investment in mitigation measures acts as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises.
The report goes on to make recommendations for "reducing or offsetting" greenhouse gas emissions, including regulatory caps, incentives, and taxes ("policy decisions," in other words). It also notes:
The fact that people can adapt, or even that they are likely to do so, does not mean that the best policy is to wait for greenhouse warming to occur and let them adapt. Waiting and adapting may sacrifice overall economic improvement in the long run.
Next, Easterbrook dusts off this classic bit of disinformation:
A 1992 survey of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society found that only 17 percent of members believed there was sufficient grounds to declare an artificial greenhouse effect in progress.
At the risk of shocking you, this is not true:
Gallup actually reported that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring, with only 10 percent disagreeing and the rest undecided. Gallup took the unusual step of issuing a written correction to Will's column (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92): "Most scientists involved in research in this area believe that human-induced global warming is occurring now." Will never noted the error in his column.
Easterbrook has another piece of evidence:
In 1993 Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said there existed "a great range of uncertainty" regarding whether the world is warming.
Note that this quote follows the earlier pattern: Easterbrook transplants five words from an unknown context, and makes them refer to a conclusion of his own choosing. I couldn't find the quote in question, so I'll have to let this one go unchallenged for now.

I think I've made my point. But inasmuch as Easterbrook likes to present himself as a scientific wunderkind, I'll address one final issue:
Many greenhouse uncertainties remain, including whether rising temperatures would necessarily be bad. A warming world might moderate global energy demand: the rise in temperature so far has mostly expressed itself as milder winters, not hotter summers. Warming might open vast areas of Alaska, Canada and Russia to development.
First, a warmer world means colder oceans, which very likely means colder and more severe winters. The reasonable folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute explain:
Warming is causing more water to evaporate from the tropics, more rainfall in subpolar and polar regions, and more ice to melt at high latitudes. As a result, fresh water is being lost from the tropics and added to the ocean at higher latitudes. In the North Atlantic Ocean, the additional fresh water can change ocean circulation patterns, disrupting or redirecting currents that now carry warm water to the north. Redirecting or slowing this "Atlantic heat pump" would mean colder winters in the northeast U.S. and Western Europe. But the heat gained from higher greenhouse gas concentrations is still in the climate system, just elsewhere. The result: a warmer earth, a colder North Atlantic.
Second, a warmer world means more energy demand for - hold on to your hats - air conditioning. Third, melting tundra in the North is likely to release untold amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating the warming process:
The 3 to 7 degree rise in temperature predicted by global climate models could cause the breakdown of the arctic tundra’s vast store of soil carbon, releasing more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the air than plants are capable of taking in, said Michelle Mack, a University of Florida ecologist (formerly of the University of Alaska Fairbanks) and one of the lead researchers on a study published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.
I seldom urge letter-writing campaigns, but you might consider politely asking the New York Times to explain why it allows Easterbrook to impose on its readers with this noxious blend of deceptive quote-mining and hard-right pseudoscience.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Victims of Circumstance

President Bush explains his views on climate change:

[I]n my judgment we need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better lives and at the same time protect the environment.
Is climate change manmade, or are we blameless victims of circumstance? Is cholera caused by raw sewage in the public's water supply, or by the malign influence of the stars? Are wildfires that destroy wealthy people's homes caused by allowing massive construction in regions ecologically defined by frequent wildfires, or set by a shadowy cabal of eco-terrorists?

These are very complex questions. Let's let the market decide.

Speaking of wildfires, Mike Davis makes an important point in The Ecology of Fear about the distinction between "natural" and "manmade" blazes:
Anglo-Californians have always criminalized the problem of mountain wildfire. The majority have never accepted the natural role or inevitability of the chaparral fire cycle. (Conversely, there has been a persistent tendency to naturalize the strictly human causality of tenement fire.)
What guides these judgments? Business, of course. Building luxury housing in firetrap canyons is good for business, in the short term, and so is cramming immigrant workers into firetrap tenements. When luxury houses go up in smoke, you can blame eco-terrorists, or meddling environmentalists who opposed clearcutting. When tenements go up in smoke, it's an act of God (and really...what did those people expect, living that way?).

In the same way, saying that greenhouse gases are "natural" allows one to feign helplessness in the face of titanic forces. Meanwhile, a real force of nature like coastal erosion is a problem that taxpayers can and must solve at all costs (especially when it threatens multimillion-dollar houses built along privatized beaches).

It's all a matter of pretending we have power where we don't, and pretending we don't have power where we do, in order to maintain the polite fiction that life is more important than money.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Janolus indicus, a "tuft that thrives on saline nothingness."

Friday Hope Blogging

I've been a bit out of touch lately, having spent the week with a nasty case of bronchitis (and its silver lining, a bottle of codeine cough syrup). Fortunately, today's news is ample enough for my purposes.

The oil and gas industry has suffered a pleasing setback:

The House narrowly beat back an effort Thursday to end the 25-year-old moratorium on oil and gas drilling off much of the nation's coasts after a bipartisan group of lawmakers from California and Florida joined to defeat the measure....The vote revealed deep fissures among Republicans over the issue of offshore drilling. Lawmakers were split between the competing desires to boost energy supplies and protect coastal views and marine ecosystems.
The environment is a wedge issue? Who would've guessed?

The Wall Street Journal reports on the potency of green issues at the local level, using battles over factory farms as an example:
Officials in Michigan are considering new legislation proposed by environmentalists to tighten regulations over the animal operations in that state, following complaints from several townships of spilled effluent.

Helping to lead that effort has been State Rep. Brian Palmer, Michigan's Republican majority whip. "I find myself in a very strange and unique alliance with the environmental groups on this issue," says Mr. Palmer, "because I believe they are absolutely right."
A survey of Minnesota hunters offers further evidence that the environment is an issue on which most Americans are united:
Of those polled, 76 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned that many fish and wildlife populations will decrease in the next 10 years, and most agreed that global warming is a factor. The poll, released Thursday, crossed political lines. Though most hunters and anglers are conservatives or moderates, 81 percent favor strong and quick government action to begin to curb the problem....
Speaking of government action, the New York Times has a terrific article on green policies in Chicago:
The tree planting...evolved over Mr. Daley's five terms into a much more sophisticated understanding of the benefits — including to the city's treasury — of conserving resources, saving energy, expanding parks, constructing environmentally sensitive buildings, reducing the amount of storm water, restoring wetlands, generating renewable energy and doing everything feasible to heal instead of harm the city's natural systems....

The Daley administration has planted 500,000 trees, is putting up the most energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive municipal buildings in the country, has agreed to provide developers with much faster permits if they construct green buildings, instituted a $600-million-a-year program to repair neighborhoods and city parks, promised to obtain 20 percent of the electricity used by the city from clean and renewable sources, and converted hundreds of abandoned and contaminated properties into new businesses.
I was also heartened by this article on green tourism. To me, the most interesting part was the description of a resort hotel whose swimming-pool uses saline in place of traditional pool chemicals. I'd never heard of this before; apparently, it's actually pretty common (though not common enough!).

In Colombia, a frog thought to be extinct has been found alive. And in Georgia, a healthy population of American chestnuts has been found; this tree was almost entirely wiped out by a blight in 1904.
"When the flowers are right, we're going to rush down and pollinate the flowers, collect the seeds a few weeks later and collect the nuts,'' Klaus said. "If we ever find a genetic solution to the chestnut blight, genes from that tree will find their way into those trees.''
General Hydrogen has sold its first hydrogen fuel-cell power pack for use in forklifts.
The Hydricity power packs, built around a Ballard fuel cell, can triple the runtime of battery-electric forklifts to 18 hours with constant voltage output, and can refuel in 3 minutes or less.
As a reward for wading through the above, you can take a look at these beautiful panoramic maps from the Library of Congress. Also, for those in the Washington DC area, the Smithsonian is hosting an exhibition of Antarctic photography by Joan Myers, whose incredible studies of the Salton Sea I've praised elsewhere.

You can get a sneak preview of the exhibition here, and you can watch a Quicktime "home movie" of her visit by clicking here.

Which reminds me...a few weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles, taking pictures of product murals and corner stores. By an odd coincidence, the new issue of Polar Inertia showcases the 99-cent stores and product murals of Los Angeles.

As always, the whole issue is worth an unhurried look.

Truth Versus Truthiness

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that an Australian group opposing wind power has close ties with a British group funded by the nuclear industry.

That group was set up by Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister. Sir Bernard is now a director of Supporters of Nuclear Energy, and a former consultant to British Nuclear Fuels. Coastal Guardians Victoria has also worked closely with the now-discredited British botanist David Bellamy, who believes climate change is a myth.
I've discussed David Bellamy at length here. Note, too, the Janus-faced approach of the nuclear industry: touting nuclear power as a "green" solution to climate change, while aiding and abetting climate-change denialists and other anti-environmental extremists.

That's not what's interesting about this article, though. What really startles me is that the author, Wendy Frew, seems to believe that the claims of public figures can be assessed in terms of their agreement with reality (as opposed to, say, market forces):
Mr Le Roy said wind power would not work because it needed back-up power (the national electricity grid is, in fact, already served by back-up power); green groups were split over wind power (all of Australia's major environment groups support wind power); and that wind turbines did not work because they could not store electricity. However, there is no effective way to store large amounts of electricity, regardless of whether it comes from coal or wind, energy experts say.
In most American papers, the same article would be very likely to follow the "competing claims" model (Electricity storage: Views differ) in which scientific belief becomes a matter of consumer choice. This, of course, results in an unnaturally extended shelf-life for the claims of disingenuous, anti-scientific hacks like LeRoy. It's the intellectual equivalent of ethanol subsidies.

The question is, does the "essential meaning" of such articles come from an authorial intent to maintain "balance," or from the specific political exigencies of the American journalistic field?

Thursday, May 18, 2006


A businessman named Charles Sotelo wants to buy an abandoned rail corridor running from the Mexican border to Benson, Arizona. The BLM had intended to turn the track into a nature trail, because a good portion of it lies along the San Pedro River:

The San Pedro is the last surviving desert river in the southwest. Congress recognized its importance in 1988 with the creation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It provides the most intact habitat in the world for the endangered Huachuca Water Umbel and is prized for its outstanding diversity of migratory birds, wildlife and cottonwood-willow forest.
Although Sotelo has no experience in railroad operations, his aim is to use the tracks to transport tanks of sulfuric acid into Arizona from Mexico. In support of this humanitarian endeavor, he and his investors have claimed they'll upgrade the tracks.
According to government documents, Sotelo's group pledges nearly $4 million toward upgrading 76.2 miles of track from Benson to the Mexican border. But much behind this proposal is murky, including the fact that Sotelo has refused to identify Sonora-Arizona's investors....

Sotelo himself seems a bit touchy about the subject. When I called his Bisbee office, the proprietor of Valle Realty and Development refused to discuss his railroad plans by phone. When I pressed, he hung up.
This seems to be SOP for Sotelo. In 2001, he "asked Cochise County to rezone about 40 acres of a 50-acre parcel of land east of Naco from transitional residential to heavy industry." A number of experts voiced concern about Sotelo's plans, and noted that his plans for transporting hazardous materials didn't meet federal requirements. Sotelo later withdrew his plans, after officials noted that they were "vague," and "gave him 30 days to define exactly what type of hazardous materials would be warehoused or transported under his proposed development."

Not long after that, Sotelo tried to do an end-run around regulations by claiming that a proposed 1,775-foot rail line to the Mexican border was a line relocation and didn't require prior approval. The request was denied.

Sotelo claims his railroad will result in economic growth and opportunity. But then, so would a broad trail running along "the last surviving desert river in the southwest," especially if it's home to birds that are hard to see elsewhere. As usual, the dichotomy between economic well-being and conservation is a false one.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

We All Scream

Every year, the chemical industry pays PR firms millions of dollars to explain that toxic materials pose no danger to public health, and to discredit anyone who says otherwise. I sometimes wonder how many innovative products and processes might've been perfected by now, if those millions had been used instead for research and development.

Now, a South African firm suggests that there is indeed a more cost-effective solution to dealing with chemophobic worrywarts:

The Vito ice cream factory, where a safety valve injected a ton of ammonia gas into the atmosphere last week, treated an affected school to ice creams on Monday, on the day a requested technical report landed on management's desk....

The children spent their break time licking ice creams and ice lollies. "When you spoil them, it's all forgotten," Belthorn acting principal Thomas Joemat joked.
The accident sent 160 people to the hospital; some are still recovering. Their ice cream, I assume, was delivered by special courier.

The company responsible for the leak also took the opportunity to introduce the children to its products:
"They've been reading words like 'toxic' and 'poisonous' and obviously got quite a fright. We want to enlighten them about how ammonia can be used constructively," said Harnekar.
Got that? It wasn't the experience of finding themselves in a huge plume of foul-smelling, eye-burning, suffocating gas that gave these kids a was reading irresponsible agitprop about the hazards of ammonia.

All the same, there are possibilities here. Next year's budget for cleaning up the Hanford site is $1.8 billion. I'm thinking it would cost a good deal less to give everyone within a 200-mile radius free popsicles every day for the next five years. It'd probably do about as much for public safety, too. Definitely worth looking into, I think.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Our Collective Fate? Lies!

Victor Davis Hanson has decided to show us what it would be like if today's liberal media had been reporting during World War II.

In a fictional op-ed piece dated May 21, 1945 - so tantalizingly close to Hiroshima, and victory! - Hanson's imaginary America-hatin' editorialist gives FDR what for:

It is not out of “Roosevelt hating,” but out of the need for truth that requires this paper to remind the American people that Mr. Roosevelt, in whose hands our collective fate lies, has been untruthful to his wife about his liaisons, untruthful to the American people about the extent of his crippling illness, and thus, not surprisingly, untruthful to the United States Congress about the extent of our prewar involvement with the British Empire in its European war and the secret nature of our present commitments.
Emphasis added, for the simple reason that FDR died on April 12, 1945...which is something a renowned author writing in a high-profile magazine probably should've known, or looked up.

My suspicion is that Hanson wished to score propaganda points by mentioning certain events in his piece, but also wished to heap abuse on Roosevelt in a way that would've seemed particularly unrealistic after his death. Accordingly, he either gambled on the date and lost, or consciously picked one that looked "truthy."

The larger issue is that talk like that of Hanson's sock-puppet was heard very often in the thirties and forties, mainly from right-wing politicians and industrialists. Now would probably be a good time to reissue Rex Stout's The Illustrious Dunderheads, come to think of it:
The quotations in this book are only a sampling of the speeches delivered in the halls of Congress and elsewhere by U.S. Senators and Congressmen who have given currency to Nazi propaganda which is designed to bring about the defeat of the United States, the creation of a fascist America subservient to Hitler's Germany.
NOTE: Those who wish to read the childish, boorish, and sexually retarded version of this post may go here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

False glozing pleasures, casks of happiness,
Foolish night-fires, women's and children's wishes,
Chromodoris roboi, gilded emptiness,
Shadows well mounted, dreams in a career,
Embroidered lies, nothing between two dishes;

These are the pleasures here.

Friday Hope Blogging

I've been complaining quite a bit about the Big Three automakers lately, but this is pretty impressive:

GM’s Tonawanda (NY) Engine Plant, the world’s largest engine manufacturing facility, has achieved landfill-free status in its manufacturing operations by reducing waste generation, recycling and converting waste to energy. More than 95% of the waste materials from the plant’s manufacturing operations (23,233 tons annually) are recycled and nearly 5% (or 1,060 tons annually) are converted to energy at waste-to-energy facilities.
And my pal Rorschach informs me of these glad tidings:
An attempt by a Ford shareholder to force the automaker to drop protections for LGBT workers from its human resources regulations was swiftly defeated on Thursday. Shareholders at the company's annual meeting in Dearborn voted 95 percent to reject the proposal.
Meanwhile, Brockton, Massachusetts is nearing completion of the Brightfields plan it announced a few years back.
A once-polluted former industrial site that lay fallow off Brockton's Grove Street for over 40 years will soon host New England's first ''brightfields," a facility for generating solar energy. Over the next three months, a 425-kilowatt array of 1,395 solar panels will be installed across 3 acres of the old Brockton Gas Works site. The project, which will produce enough energy to power City Hall and meet a portion of the police station's energy demand, demonstrates that former industrial areas, landfills, and swaths of blighted land can be transformed into something more productive.
I'm less excited than Treehugger about these solar-powered ships, but I'll mention them anyway:
In the past week or so, two new proposals have emerged that the term audicous hardly seems to encompass. One is to build two 600 passenger hybrid-electric ferries to carry tourists to the island national park of Alcatraz from San Francisco. The ferries utilise massive solar wings to generate electricity, which cut fuel needs in half, with zero emissions while docking at the wharf. "As needed, the vessels will operate with diesel generators burning low-sulfur diesel fuel and equipped with air pollution controls that cut emissions by 70% to 90% (compared to conventional marine diesels)." The first such craft is due in two years.
The other proposal involves using solar "aquatankers" to haul water from a wet region of Australia to the drought-ridden city of Perth. Suffice it to say that I don't approve.

However, I do approve of this new design for offshore wind farms:
The wind turbines and towers would be assembled at a shipyard and placed on top of large floating cylinders. The canisters would be ballasted on the bottom with high-density concrete to keep the structure from tipping over, and the whole turbine assembly would be tugged out to sea. There, four steel cables would be attached to the platform, anchoring it to the sea floor.
The biggest benefits here are that the turbines can be sited far enough away from shore as to be invisible, and will be driven by faster and more reliable wind speeds. Also, I'd assume that using cable anchors is preferable to sinking dozens of shafts into the sea floor, both from a cost and an environmental point of view. But that's sheer speculation on my part.

In San Francisco, it looks as though an impossibly stupid power-plant cooling system is going to be shut down:
Mirant's own consultant...concluded the pumps kill 300 hundred [sic] million fish larvae every year. And water gushing from the discharge pipe — 26,000 gallons in the time it takes to read this sentence — scours the Bay's floor, kicking up sediments loaded with PCBs, mercury, arsenic, chromium and other industrial pollutants.
WorldChanging discusses organic LEDs (OLEDs), which I'm embarassed to say I've never heard of before. They sound interesting, though:
OLED's are greener to manufacture than LED's or fluorescents, and can even be printed by inkjet, instead of requiring vacuum chambers, high temperatures, and bevies of toxic chemicals like lead or mercury. This is a big reason to keep an eye on them for the future. Because of these facts, they will also end up cheaper to make than today's technologies.
Not sure what to make of this story, but it's certainly worth reading:
[O]ne particular antibiotic – fosfomycin – can treat Listeria in the body, despite it being ineffective in laboratory conditions. Because it was not effective in the laboratory, this drug has never been considered for the treatment of listeriosis, in spite of it reaching the infection sites more effectively than other antibiotics.

Professor Vazquez-Boland said: "Our results illustrate that antibiotic resistance in the laboratory does not always mean that the drug will not work in the infected patient. This work brings some optimism to the highly worrying problem of the increasing resistance to antibiotics."
Lots of blogs are talking about Worldmapper this week, and rightly so (I believe I saw it first at BLDGBLOG, so that's who gets the hat tip). Have a's fascinating, and visually stunning.

On a related note, We Make Money Not Art discusses new research on Earth's magnetic field, compiled from ship's logs dating back to 1590. If that's too dry for you, you could always watch Perversion for Profit, which brings a whole new meaning to "The Russians are coming!"

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Keeping the Public Informed

The National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa is accused of dumping liquefied animal remains into that city's wastewater system. The reporting on this story is unhelpful:

When this waste breaks down it creates complex proteins called "prions." Prions are listed as an environmental hazard by the EPA. Prions can cause potenially [sic] fatal diseases in humans and animals. Prion diseases include chronic wasting disease, which is found in deer and elk populations, and mad cow disease (BSE). So far no cases of either disease has ever been found in Iowa.
Prions aren't a breakdown product of animal remains; they occur naturally in mammalian cells. If there are prions in the remains at NADC, they probably result from experiments like this one.

And prion diseases aren't "potentially fatal." They're always fatal, without exception.

Here's the really odd part:
The problem, is when the NADC disposes of waste from animals they test for various diseases these employees say they have allegedly not been burning all that waste. Inceneration [sic] is the safest way to dispose of the potentially hazardous waste. The employees say the NADC has been using a bleaching process on the liquid remains of animals.
Well, that's as it should be, since bleach deactivates prions.

The concern, it seems, is that prions might contaminate the sewage sludge that gets spread on fields used to grow human and animal crops. But if they're using bleach to deactivate the prions - as the whistleblowing employees themselves claim is the case - that shouldn't be an issue.

I don't get this story at all.

UPDATE: This article says the whistleblowers are complaining that the NADC isn't using bleach:
Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the lab, said the heat treatment used in Ames is an approved method that deactivates the protein that causes the disease. The workers maintain that other labs use a safer system - bleaching, then cooking.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Medicine for Melancholy

China wants to build 48 new airports. Fortunately, the good folks at Raytheon are proposing to make shale-oil recovery cost-effective and environmentally safe, apparently by using some form of death-ray:

"Raytheon is an expert in RF technology," said Lee Silvestre, director of Mission Innovation at Raytheon IDS. "What makes this effort a breakthrough is that similar RF technology that we have been applying in core defense products -- radars for tracking and guidance systems -- has demonstrated applications in the energy crisis."
Whatever Raytheon's scheme is, it was probably foreshadowed in The Comic Book Periodic Table of the Elements.

Even with Raytheon on your team, you can't be absolutely sure that your short-sighted, midbogglingly stupid decisions will lead to an optimal outcome for you and your cronies. That's why the SurvivaBall is vital to your contingency planning:
Fred Wolf and a colleague at Halliburton demonstrated yesterday at the Catastrophic Loss conference in Florida three SurvivaBall mockups, and described how the inflatable units will sustainably protect managers from natural or cultural disturbances of any intensity or duration. The devices will include sophisticated communications systems, nutrient gathering capacities, onboard medical facilities, and a defense infrastructure to ensure that the corporate mission will not go unfulfilled even when most human life is rendered impossible by catastrophes or the consequent epidemics and armed conflicts.

If you're a Titan of Industry - like the ones who are lobbying to end buyer incentives for hybrid cars - you'll definitely want American taxpayers to buy you enough SurvivaBalls for the non-expendable personnel on your org chart! Especially since Project BioShield isn't working out too well:
The new developments are merely the latest problems in a program that was supposed to showcase the Bush administration's commitment to developing a broad national defense against bioterror attacks...but lately members from both parties have criticized the government's handling of it and demanded more progress. The anthrax program is by far the biggest contract awarded under BioShield to date.
If you can't afford a SurvivaBall, don't despair. The Inflatable Breasts Dress is better than nothing:
With large inflated breasts, she felt like she had a protective zone.
UPDATE: Just in case I've confused anyone, please note that at least one thing described in this post is a joke.

Online Blogintegrity

My involvement in the Online Blogintegrity project is - at least for now - the brightest jewel in my moral diadem. Though I had to give up reading bedtime stories to pediatric burn victims in order to participate, I'm confident that I made the right choice.

Some people, I imagine, might find it difficult to write posts that are commensurate with the gravity of this endeavor. With all due modesty, I've had no such problem. On the contrary - if I can speak for a moment from a position of pure objectivity - my posts thusfar represent an amalgam of clarity, rigor, and compassion that comes tantalizingly close to the perfection of thought.

I think you'll agree.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Descent of Huygens Onto Titan

This is one of the greatest things I've ever seen in my life.

UPDATE: Click the text, please...not the image. It's just a screen capture.

(Quicktime required.)

The More Things Change

The value of sustainability depends on what one is sustaining. In earlier posts, I've discussed the role of GOP nepotism in wind-farm siting; the idea of a solar-powered empire; and the outlook for environmentally friendly torture.

All of which ties in, to my mind, with Tom Philpott's article on the latest doings at Archer Daniels Midland:

The ascension to CEO of Patricia Woertz, most recently executive vice president at Chevron, marks the end of a four-decade run at ADM's top by the Andreas family. That venerable clan, whose chicanery runs from a key role in the Watergate scandal to a price-fixing scheme in the 1990s, built ADM into one of the U.S.'s most politically connected corporations. Congressional beneficiaries of ADM's campaign generosity likely need not fear; G. Allen Andreas, who has served as CEO since 1997 (when his uncle and predecessor was convicted of fixing the price of lysine, a corn product used in animal feed), will stay on as chairman of the board of directors....

The move eloquently signals ADM's intention to continue its rush into the auto-fuel market. The company has made billions over the years extracting the Midwest's soil fertility and transforming it into crappy food products like high-fructose corn syrup, buoyed by government commodity policy and the sugar quota. Now it intends to do the same in service of the internal-combustion engine.
Needless to say, Philpott goes on to explain that there's nothing remotely "green" about ADM's ethanol. From cashing in on government subsidies that reward overproduction of corn, to triggering an environmental and economic crisis in Brazil, ADM's approach to biofuels is expensive and dangerous. (A few years ago, the CATO Institute claimed that "every $1 of profits earned by [ADM's] ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.")

But then, as Dwayne Andreas of ADM once said:
"There isn't one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians."
Ms. Woertz, unsurprisingly, sees growth potential for ADM:
[W]e see significant trends that allow more protein-intensive diets and so forth in much of the world, particularly Asia. We see a shift in renewable energy supplies being needed.
As with the ostensibly cheap food that factory farms produce, consumers pay for ethanol three times: They pay for subsidies and R&D funding to industry; they pay at the cash register; and they pay for the external costs of any social and environmental problems that arise from unsustainable production techniques (which include, for those who are keeping track, the costs associated with illegal immigration).

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Lethal Coalition

Over at NRO, Kenneth Green argues that climate-change "alarmism" is on the wane. His evidence, not surprisingly, consists of lies and non sequiturs:

Michael Crichton’s State of Fear...has educated millions of readers about climate science. Parody sites such as The Onion and are heaping scorn on scientists who are increasingly sounding like angry authoritarian oracles.
And why not? What are research and data, compared to the scorn of parody sites, and the ravings of a hack novelist? (Just for the record, I searched the Onion's archives for terms like "climate change," "global warming," "atmosphere," "climatologists," and "greenhouse," but I didn't find anything that matches Green's description.)

Green attacks "the positively silly idea of establishing global-weather control by actively managing the atmosphere’s greenhouse-gas emissions." Demonstrating a fearsome grasp of climatological terms and methodology, Green helpfully explains that his ideological opponents comprise a "lethal coalition" of "one-worlders" and other "temperance fiends" who hate "fossil fuels, cars, large houses, urban sprawl, highways, rich people, fat people, industrial economies, airplanes, meat consumption, non-recycled paper, and just about everything else that might make someone smile."

But he sees a silver lining:
One used to hear near unanimity among the scientists beating the drum of climate alarmism. There was, invariably, only one possible course of action supported by “the consensus of scientists”: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions immediately, even if it meant the collapse of national economies. Not any more. On April 18, a group of 90 scientists wrote an open letter to Canada’s prime minister observing that “Advances in climate science . . . have provided more evidence supporting the need for action and development of a strategy for adaptation for projected changes.” The group goes on to emphasize that as “mitigation measures will become effective only after many years . . . adaptive strategies are essential and must begin now.”
This emphasis on "adaptive" response, needless to say, is necessary in part because the industry-funded antics of morally dysfunctional denalists like Green made taking timely action impossible.

More to the point, though, Green is lying consciously and with malice aforethought. Here's what the letter in question actually says:
There is an increasing urgency to act on the threat of climate change. Stopping the growth in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations by reducing emissions would also have benefits for air quality, human health and energy security. But since mitigation measures will become effective only after many years, adaptive strategies are essential and need to begin now.
You don't have to be a "one-worlder" to understand that these scientists are saying we should immediately reduce emissions, while preparing for serious problems. The letter shows plainly that the experts whom Green hails as representative of "cracks in the climate coalition" are predicting scenarios he calls "alarmist," and recommending actions he calls "positively silly."

At the risk of being uncivil, what a despicable fucking asshole this guy is.

A Little Light Reading

Subtopia discusses the work of Eyal Weizman, who has written extensively on "military urbanism" in Palestine:

Through his depictions of the verticality and three-dimensional spatiality of a military controlled urban landscape, Weizman also produced an amazingly coherent set of maps of the West Bank in conjunction with B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which reveals in a frightening visual display, the invisible geospatial complexity that has shaped an urbanism of the Israel-Palestinian conflict over the last 20 years.
Scientific American discusses new research on the mixture effects of common chemicals:
Biologist Tyrone Hayes and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have spent the past four years testing four herbicides, two fungicides and three insecticides commonly used in American cornfields. Individually, the chemicals had little effect on developing tadpoles at low concentrations, such as about 0.1 part per billion. But when Hayes exposed them to all nine at the same low level in the laboratory--the lowest level actually found in the field--the future frogs fell prey to endemic infection. Those that survived ended up smaller than their counterparts raised in clean water--despite taking longer to mature into adults.
Echidne locks horns with fundamentalist sexuality:
I understand the fear of rape and sexual violence in general, but I don't understand the fear of sex as such, the fear of sex so strong that it surpasses the fear of death. This idea of sexual license as an apocalypse, the end of everything. What would it actually end? Would there be copulation out in the streets? And if so, how many days would that last? Wouldn't people still need to eat and work and sleep and take care of their children?
Engineer-Poet explains a few things about high gas prices:
Most of this [Wahhabism] was paid for by the Saudi government and private patrons, financed by your spending at the gas pump. Yet when George W. Bush declared that your post-attack role was to go out and spend to prop up the economy, you didn't demand that Detroit help you to cut that monster off at the knees. Instead, you yawned when Congress gave huge tax breaks for any large (and thirsty) vehicle used "in a business"... and then bought plenty of Explorers and Durangos and Escalades and Avalanches yourselves, most of you just to look cool.

You had at least four years and two elections to express your displeasure to those folks you sent to Washington, four years to trade in that guzzling vehicle for something that wouldn't feed that monster in the Middle East, four years to act either collectively as voters or individually as consumers. You blew it, sleepwalking into the crisis.
And last, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management is pondering "The Monumental Task of Warning Future Generations":
Design ideas for the monuments and markers have been drawn from a broad range of sources: Yucca Mountain’s natural conditions, worldwide archeological studies, materials science, and verbal and symbolic linguistics. The monumental challenge is to address how warnings can be coherently conveyed for thousands of years into the future when human society and languages could change radically.
A monumental task, indeed...especially when one sees how difficult it is to make present generations understand present threats.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Tritonia diomedea, who, by an amazing coincidence, happens to be in the news today:

"Tritonia is one of the testing grounds for a lot of ideas for how nervous systems work," says Wyeth. "Field work with this organism is helpful because it gives you a good idea of how to set things up in the lab."

[T]hey respond to odors and other sensory cues by initiating beneficial navigational behaviors, including escaping from predators by swimming up into water currents that hurl them (un-sluggishly) end over end downstream and away from harm, as well as crawling aggressively (for slugs) upstream to breed and feed. The observations also correlated with earlier studies suggesting that sea slugs flatten out their bodies to reduce drag when they encounter strong water currents, a behavior that helps them avoid being swept away....

The observations that sea slugs navigate with respect to water flow and direction based on odor and other cues will inspire further studies of this behavior and aid scientists studying the nerve cells involved in navigation, an important problem every animal faces.

Friday Hope Blogging

Derrick Jensen has written a stirring diatribe against hope:

[H]ope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless....To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they've assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they've stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn't drive them extinct....When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to "hope" at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.
I think Jensen is a bit over the top when he argues that hope is inherently an obstacle to action, rather than a too-common substitute for it. And I can't think of any logical or metaphysical reason why hoping for a given result should mean that one has "given up any agency concerning it." Whether you look at this claim semantically or practically, it's pretty goddamn silly.

My view is that Jensen won't actually "do whatever it takes" to make sure coho salmon aren't driven to extinction. For one thing, he can't know which course of action will be successful; he can only hope he chooses the right one.

Further, the fact that Jensen wrote this piece implies that he hopes it will inspire people to take action. But that hope doesn't mean he gave up any agency. On the contrary, I'd imagine he wrote his article as carefully and thoughtfully as he could, in the hope that it would have the greatest possible effect on people. (If he didn't, he should've.)

Communication - writing, in particular - is a good example of how hope and agency are not only not mutually exclusive, but are often shackled together, for better or worse. Few people hope more fervently - or more irrationally - than those who wish to do things with words.

Jensen goes on to say:
I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I've learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction—the use of any excuse to justify inaction—reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.

[I]f you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don't determine whether or not you make the effort. You don't simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn't cause me to protect those I love, it's not love.
Alright, then. You do what it takes. The question is, what does it take?

On that note, let's retreat from cold hard reality, and seek shelter in the world of dreams:
Residents of the province of Quebec (Canada) may no longer smite their dandelions with 2,4-D, the herbicide found in popular lawn and garden products such as Green Cross Killex. The ban results as Quebec enacts the third and final phase of its Pesticides Management Code, which was launched in April 2003. The code is considered the toughest in North America and bans 20 active ingredients found in more than 200 products sold for cosmetic use in lawns and gardens.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts:
The Natick Conservation Commission voted unanimously last week to deny the state's request to use herbicides to treat the fast-growing Eurasian milfoil that is clogging the lake.
Admittedly, these are small victories. Not as small as this one, though:
A Jupiter man spotted a dead pelican in a Palm Beach pine tree, and a nonprofit seabird rescue organization took flight. "I couldn't believe my eyes," said Dimitri Gregorieff, then a Café L'Europe waiter. "I stood there for a few minutes and said, 'This can't be happening. It's just not right"....

So the one-man Seabird Rescue Foundation volunteer would drive almost daily to marinas and piers and transport injured pelicans to area wildlife hospitals that treat them for free.

"One man is better than nobody," Gregorieff said.
Which is the point of this weekly (sort of) feature. It's not about saving the world; it's about the painfully slow process by which we come to understand that the world needs saving. It's not about documenting technological breakthroughs; it's about documenting individual decisions to do things differently, or - failing that - to try to do things differently.

But enough about that. Here are some magic lantern slides:

I hope you like them.

The Higher Compassion

Fresh from her adoring portrait of death-penalty abolitionist Pope John Paul - in which she bemoaned the "dumbing down" of Catholic precepts - the irrepressible Peggy Noonan lashes out at the jurors who denied her the blood of Zacarias Moussaoui. In doing so, this God-drunk lamb shows off her ability to x-ray the souls of her fellow citizens, and reveals her essentially Nietzschean view of morality:

What we witnessed here was not the higher compassion but a dizzy failure of nerve....How removed from our base passions we've become. Or hope to seem.

It is as if we've become sophisticated beyond our intelligence, savvy beyond wisdom. Some might say we are showing a great and careful generosity, as befits a great nation. But maybe we're just, or also, rolling in our high-mindedness like a puppy in the grass. Maybe we are losing some crude old grit. Maybe it's not good we lose it.
Compare Nietzsche in The Geneology of Morals:
What if a symptom of regression lurked in the “good,” likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present lived at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely?
I must say, Noonan's deconstructive approach to moral excellence has me thinking very seriously about my marital vows. Am I faithful to my wife out of "the higher compassion," or was my unwillingness to get involved with that woman at the sushi restaurant merely a "dizzy failure of nerve"? Am I rolling in my high-mindedness like a puppy in the grass? Do I merely hope to seem removed from my base passions?

How can I prove to myself that my fidelity isn't vanity masquerading as rectitude? Only, I suppose, by consciously wallowing in the "crude old grit" of infidelity.

If anyone's interested in helping me along the Via Dolorosa that leads - I hope! - to Noonanesque spiritual authenticity, I'll be spending the weekend in Room 108 of the El Morocco, in Bakersfield, California. Knock three times. And for God's sake, bring a bottle of something.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Plea for Decency

Like all really serious-minded people, I'm disturbed by a new, totally unprecedented lack of civility, integrity, and decency in American political discourse.

There can be no doubt that bloggers are primarily to blame. Thus, if you're a blogger, I implore you to visit Online Blogintegrity. Make sure that you sign its statement of principles, and follow them assiduously in your public and private life.

Remember: Once you've lost your integrity, it can be very expensive to buy it back!

Letting the Market Decide

It seems that a antiseptic agent commonly used in hand soaps and other products survives treatment in sewage plants:

Researchers estimated that more than 70 percent of the triclocarban used by consumers is released to the environment when treated sludge is put on land used, in part, for food production.
In Chemical and Engineering News, a dispassionate advocate of sound science - who just happens to represent the detergent industry - responds to these findings with a fusillade of PR boilerplate:
"This is an important topic, but we need to decide what to be concerned about and what not to," says Hans Sanderson, director of environmental safety at the Soap & Detergent Association. In light of the looming threat of a bird flu pandemic as well as public health risks posed by other infectious diseases, "why remove an extra health protection in consumers' homes?"
A fair question. First, there’s the plain fact that triclocarban is ineffective against viruses, which means it’s useless against avian flu. Second, an FDA panel recently found that there was no benefit to using antibacterial soaps.
Antibacterial soaps don't reduce the risk of illness any better than plain old soap, proclaimed an FDA advisory committee today in a unanimous vote.
After a scientific slapdown of that magnitude, it's hard to see how trying to pass off antibacterial soap as "an extra health protection" against avian flu amounts to anything more than arrogant quackery. The industry doesn't see it that way, though:
Elizabeth Anderson, a lawyer for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association [said] "We feel strongly that consumers must continue to have the choice to use these products."
Translation: "We don't care what the facts are, and we don't care what the dangers of drug-resistant bacteria may be. If we can keep consumers ignorant, confused, and frightened enough to buy this stuff, we're goddamn well going to do it."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

What Consumers Want

An editorial in the Detroit News rails against state intervention in setting mileage standards:

The market determines what consumers want, not bureaucrats. Automakers respond to consumer demand, but increasingly can't do that because there are so many political opportunists imposing rules on their business.
Which explains why Detroit churned out an endless supply of SUVs - and why BushCo offered generous tax breaks to SUV buyers - during a period of steadily climbing gas prices and devastating competition from smaller, more efficient foreign brands.

Here's my favorite part of the editorial:
[G]overnment has no business mandating what automakers produce.
All together now: 9/11 changed everything! Energy is a national security issue, if not the national security issue. If our government has a right to torture prisoners in defense of the Homeland, or to tap citizens' phones without a warrant, it certainly has the right to mandate what automakers produce. (If any CEOs complain, you can always accuse them of being soft on terrorism. It's the ultimate argument-settler!)

The problem, of course, is that the federal government is currently run by and for oil companies. Thus, state governments are obliged to take up the regulatory slack.

Now, I think that spouting free-market platitudes to overcompensate for your pathological fear of change is pretty goddamn lame at the best of times. But it's particularly absurd when you're getting your ass handed to you in the marketplace, and are abjectly begging for taxpayer-funded bailouts. While this DN editorialist lashes out at "environmentalist activists," cooler heads note the obvious:
Toyota, Honda, and many European carmakers saw sales grow, while year-to-date sales are down 6.7 percent at GM, 3.9 percent at Ford, and 0.1 percent at Chrysler.
Here's GM's thoughtful, innovative response:
"Given this crucial time in their recovery, they're going with the tried and true - large trucks," says Greg Gardner, an analyst at Harbour Consulting in Troy, Mich.
Ford, meanwhile, recently posted a quarterly loss of over $1 billion, with more losses expected.
Citigroup reiterated a sell rating on the shares. "Ford faces major headwinds in 2006-2008, including North American restructuring, lower financial earnings, and an aging product," according to Citigroup.
As for Chrysler, it's no longer American-owned.

Apparently, these are the sorts of innovations that are threatened by "government meddling": Manufacturing oversized gas-guzzlers whether people want them or not, losing a billion dollars per quarter, and selling off iconic American firms to foreigners.

It'd be a real shame if we gave up any of those winning strategies - to say nothing of the irrefutable philosophical principles behind them - just because of momentary hysteria over skyrocketing gas prices, and a "global war" that's supposed to last for decades.

Deadly Urban Warriors

As BushCo claims its turf in Iraq, a serious threat preoccupies those whose job it is to defend civilization:

The Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings and Vice Lords were born decades ago in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. Now, their gang graffiti is showing up 6,400 miles away in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods -- Iraq. Armored vehicles, concrete barricades and bathroom walls all have served as canvasses for their spray-painted gang art....

Of paramount concern is whether gang-affiliated soldiers' training will make them deadly urban warriors when they return to civilian life and if some are using their access to military equipment to supply gangs at home, said Barfield and other experts....

Barfield said Army recruiters eager to meet their goals have been overlooking applicants' gang tattoos and getting waivers for criminal backgrounds.
And why not? This is very neat economic logic: Send black and Latino criminals to wage war in Iraq, and you dispense with several figures of racial menace at once. Gang members are desperate, angry, violent, and uneducated enough to be ideal recruits for today's volunteer army; to borrow a stock phrase from an intimately related current issue, they do the work that most Americans don't want to do.

But as the war turns sour, we're increasingly prone to worry (an all-consuming habit that is to our culture what prayer was to that of the Puritans). What if these soldiers blame America for what they saw and suffered in Iraq? What if they turn the killing techniques they've learned against us? What if they convert to Islam while they're over there, and form sleeper cells? What if they channel weapons to our enemies?

A black or Latino gang member who gets gunned down in Iraq can safely be designated a hero, and forgotten. The same soldier, if he comes back to America, will be an eternal suspect:
"They're not here for the red, white and blue. They're here for the black and gold," he said, referring to the gang colors of the Latin Kings.
Meanwhile, Shelby Steele frets that "white guilt" has tied our hands when it comes to fighting our enemies. As he sees it, when we gave up "white supremacy as a source of moral authority" (we never really did, of course, but let's pretend), we compromised our ability to mow down "mud people" (like Shelby himself) with the calm detachment proper to the Übermensch.

The fact that feelings of guilt often provide the perfect psychological impetus for "preemptive" violence against the wronged party doesn't seem to have occurred to Steele, even though it explains seemingly disparate GOP policies quite nicely.

There are other gangs in the U.S. military, by the way.
Barfield...has linked white soldiers to racist groups such as the Aryan Nations.
But for some reason, they aren't quite as worrisome as the black and Latino gangs. As always, white criminality and fanaticism is individualized, and seen as an exception. What blacks do, however, reflects badly on all of them; either they're loose cannons themselves, or they're in secret sympathy with the criminals. You just can't trust them...not even when they're fighting to "protect" you.

That said, the way in which gang leaders cynically exploit the human need for a tribalist sense of belonging, in order to seize and claim "turf" that will advance their own economic interests, is certainly reprehensible. God only knows where they got the idea.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dead In Iraq

An artist named Joseph DeLappe has come up with an interesting project:

I enter the online US Army recruiting game, "America's Army", in order to manually type the name, rank and date of death of each service person who has died to date in Iraq. The work is essentially a fleeting, online memorial to those military personnel who have been killed in this ongoing conflict. My actions are also intended as a cautionary gesture.

I enter the game using as my login name, "dead-in-iraq" and proceed to type the names using the game's text messaging system....I stand in position and type until I am killed. Upon being re-incarnated I continue to type.
Just for the record, here's how the U.S. Army describes America's Army:
The game is designed to provide an accurate portrayal of Soldier experiences. The game is an entertaining way for young adults to be educated about the U.S. Army and see some of the career opportunities available to Soldiers in the U.S. Army — all this as a virtual Soldier....

Just as is the case with the Army, the game has a firm grounding in values. The game establishes rules for engagement and imposes significant penalties for violations of these rules.

The Growing Cities of Alberta

Oil sands are to the cornucopian imagination what oxycontin is to Rush Limbaugh. Still, reality has a way of penetrating even the hardiest of self-imposed stupors:

The oil sands' thirst for water is far outstripping Alberta's projections, threatening to drain the Athabasca River as the pace of project development accelerates, a prominent environmental group says in a report issued yesterday....

In situ projects, which use steam to melt bitumen before it is pumped to the surface, used almost three times as much water in 2004 as originally projected. That part of the industry used 27 million cubic metres in 2004, the equivalent of about 72,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools....

"I fear we're going to run out of water before we run out of bitumen in northern Alberta," said Mary Griffiths, senior policy analyst at the Pembina Institute. The environmental group renewed its call for a moratorium on approving any new oil sands projects, and said the industry should start paying for the water it uses.
The implication of that last paragraph (if you read between the lines very, very carefully) is that the industry has been getting its water for free.

Does this mean that the per-barrel cost of processing oil sand is a bit higher than its political boosters claim, even before you factor in external costs? It certainly sounds that way. But I suppose it all depends on how you look at it:
The oil industry, while acknowledging that the concern over water use is growing, says its consumption should not be singled out. Other industries, including agriculture, use significant volumes, as do the growing cities of Alberta.
The most obvious problem with this logic, it seems to me, is that most of "the growing cities of Alberta" are growing primarily because of the boom in oil sands. The other problem is that unlike municipal water, most water used in oil fields doesn't go back into the watershed; instead, it's contaminated and stored in tailings ponds.

You can access the Pembina Institute's full report (or an eight-page summary) here.

A Drug On the Market

An article from the Korea Times discusses problems relating to drug disposal:

When asked about how they deal with such medicines, only 63 pharmacists, 15 percent of the total, said pharmaceutical companies take them back. About 16 percent said they simply dump the medicines with other garbage.

Some 64 percent said they just keep the medicines and wait for decisions from pharmaceutical companies and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association (KPA). Only 1 percent answered they take the medicines to agencies that deal with medical waste.
Part of the problem, apparently, is that pharmaceutical companies are offering drugs in bulk, with scant regard to actual patterns of use:
Pharmaceutical firms sell drugs in large containers, with a canister holding 500 to 1,000 pills. If only two to three patients come to a pharmacy with prescriptions for a particular pill, the pharmacy would use only about a dozen and the remaining hundreds of pills become overdue and useless.
The article goes on to say that at least one Korean river has levels of salicylic acid that are well above allowable U.S. levels. This is a breakdown product of aspirin (and other OTC drugs), and is thus of limited interest when considering the impact of prescription drugs. That said, aspirin's a perfect example of a drug that's routinely sold in bulk containers at "bargain" prices, making it much more likely that consumers won't use it before it expires. (The United States alone produces about 300 aspirin tablets per year for every man, woman, and child in the country.)

It's often claimed that drugs break down quickly in the environment. The problem is, when drugs are constantly in use, they can be replaced as soon as they break down, which may give rise to pseudo-persistence. And while I don't know anything about the testing protocol in Korea, I do know that in the United States, we have a tendency to measure drug levels in water (sort of), while downplaying the presence of less soluble compounds in sludges.

The EPA explains the problems with assessing the ecotoxicity of prescription and OTC drugs:
"Abnormal" behavior can masquerade as seemingly normal deviation within a natural statistical variation. Change can occur so slowly that it appears to result from natural events – with no reason to presume artificial causation. Connections of cause and effect are difficult to draw, in part because of the ambiguous and subjective nature of the effects, but especially when they are convoluted as aggregations of numerous, unrelated interactions.
So much for "informed choice." Speaking of which, Echidne eloquently makes a similar point in her obituary for John Kenneth Galbraith:
[M]athematics is not a religion and the knowledge we get by applying formal modeling is not superior just because it is based on formal modeling. It may be easier to follow and to criticize than a verbal explanation of a phenomenon, largely because the "words" in mathematics have very precise definitions and the "grammar" of the functions is known to all in the fields. But what the "sentences and paragraphs" say still depends on what we assumed at the beginning and on how good our data are, not just on how eloquent the mathematical language might be that we use.

Galbraith understood this. He was looking at features of the economic markets which did not lend themselves to easy mathematical expressions, and not because of faulty or unimportant reasoning, but because the required mathematics did not exist in some obvious form. Galbraith wanted to look at the complicated reality, the big picture, if you like, and the tools to do this were (and still are) limited to thinking and the use of ordinary language.