Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Crouching on the summit, Hypselodoris krakatoa dreams,
Petrifying with its abyss-gaze
The magus used to wondrous flights,
The studious group of pale Zoroastrians,
Sun-gazers and scanners of the stars,
The dazzled, the astounded.

(Photo by Jun Imamoto.)

Friday Hope Blogging

Given that this is the happiest day of the year, there’s no pressing need for today’s edition of FHB. But just in case you’re in the mood to gild the lily, I have a bunch of stories about cars, engines, and roads.

In Scotland, there’s interesting talk of creating a road energy system:

The system takes advantage of heat absorbed by tarmac, to convert roads and other tarred areas into solar panels. It generates energy to cool buildings and roads in summer and heat them in winter. Other benefits include not having to salt roads in winter, halving maintenance to tarmac and reducing emissions….

The road system works by drilling two boreholes, creating two wells, one hot and one cold. Using the heat-absorption capacity of tarmac, the energy created is stored in aquifers - underground layers of rock - which can be tapped into when required.
Georgia Tech has developed a virtually emission-free combustor:
Georgia Tech researchers have developed a new combustor (the combustion chamber where fuel is burned to power an engine or gas turbine) designed to burn fuel in a wide range of devices with ultra low emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO)….

The device has a simpler design than existing state-of-the-art combustors and could be manufactured and maintained at a much lower cost, making it more affordable in everything from jet engines and power plants to home water heaters.
In related news, Treehugger is excited about something called a Quasiturbine:
The Quasiturbine, is a new concept (patented 10 years ago), that promises to revolutionize the internal combustion engine. It is said to make engines more efficient, quieter and much lighter for the same torque and horsepower abilities. It also promises to make for better compressors and pneumatic motors (refrigeration, heat pumps, stirling engines, steam turbines).
This site offers a fascinating explanation of how quasiturbines work, complete with attractive animations.

DuPont claims to have developed a new bio-polymer for automobile refinishing:
The new coatings—which may be available by 2008—will be made using renewably sourced intermediate ingredients that are biodegradable and virtually non-toxic.
DuPont is the world’s largest supplier of these products, so if this is on the level, it’ll be a fairly big deal.

The same goes for UPS’s new fleet of trucks:
The new system replaces a truck's transmission with hydraulics and that, combined with a low-emission diesel engine, yields a 60 percent to 70 percent saving on fuel use.
In non-automotive news, the situation with the giant panda is not quite as bad as scientists thought. It turns out that there about 3,000 of them; previous estimates put their population at about 1,000.

Also, a new system for conducting virtual clinical trials may reduce the need for animal testing:
[T]hanks to Israeli bio-simulation company, Optimata, drug-developers can now bypass some of the development stages. Using a virtual computerized patient that mimics a human being's biological processes (created by complex mathematical parameters), Optimata can help predict drug toxicity and efficacy well-before drugs are used on animal models (a polite word for saying experimentations on lab rats and monkeys).
This site tells you how different cultures represent the sounds of common animals (Estonian ducks favor the evocative phrase “prääks prääks”). Bat calls aren’t represented, but that oversight is more than made up for by the Pacific Northwest Bat Call Library.

The bioacoustic artist David Dunn has released an amazing new CD called The Sound of Light in Trees: The Acoustic Ecology of Pinyon Pines:
[H]is recordings were often able to identify population booms before pheromone traps, the previously accepted best method. But in addition to simply finding what trees had active bark beetle populations, Dunn found himself captivated by the variety of sounds being made by the little invaders. As he explains in the extensive liner notes (and as explicated in more detail on the associated online material), bark beetles have a complex acoustic repertoire, one that deserves further scrutiny by bark beetle biologists and forest ecologists.
You can listen to samples and view sonograms here. You may also want to have a look at this exhibition by the avant-garde entomologist Irene Moon and friends, or browse through the incredible back-issue archive of Cultural Entomology Digest (I recommend starting with the Butterfly Alphabet).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Be Prepared!

Effect Measure on the current situation with H5N1:

[C]ases are appearing in small clusters, often in areas where no sick poultry can be found, or at least where no contact can be determined. About a third of the cases are in urban areas, although many city dwellers also keep birds. the latest large cluster exhibited all the marks of spread from person to person within the unfortunate extended family decimated by the virus.
So what should we do? According to this article, we should pray that our brave scientists somehow manage to thwart the terrorists who want to weaponize the flu virus:
This week in Rochester, scientists are discussing ways to better understand the flu and also how to prevent the possibility that terrorists could somehow modify flu as a bioweapon to make it even more lethal than it is already....

"Flu viruses are deadly – witness the 1918 Spanish flu which killed millions of people – and with modification, they can be made even more deadly," said Hulin Wu, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology and director of the modeling center. Wu's colleague, Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the center, added that "We don't know whether flu will be weaponized; it's crucial to ask the question and to be prepared."
Indeed. And I think we need to worry about terrorists weaponizing TB and AIDS, too. If that happened, millions could die, despite the selfless efforts of drug companies and politicians to save them.

We'd better drop another couple billion dollars on Project BioShield right away. If there's anything left over, it can go to Ray Kurzweil. (Long live the new flesh!)

After all, what's the point of funding schools if your kids are just going to get killed by weaponized flu?

Please, Mr. Postman

According to Defense Tech, Los Alamos National Lab intends to use U.S. Postal Service money as “alternative funding” for a new “science complex”:

Funds for the new Science Center weren't anywhere to be found in the Energy Department's publicly-available budgets. Nuke Watch had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out that the Energy Department was digging into the U.S. Postal Service's pockets for two new buildings (one classified, the other not) and a parking lot. "As a justification," Nuke Watch notes, the department "cited a vaguely worded federal law that authorizes the USPS to furnish property and services to executive branch agencies and vice versa."
Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, which uncovered this scheme, has more:
[T]he Lab has prepared no known federally required environmental impact analysis for the project. Further, Congress may be in the dark about this new Science Complex that could cost 100's of millions of dollars.
The project's suppposed to start in 2007 (as is the next USPS rate hike).

The DoD gets a generous amount of research money from the breast cancer stamp, which people can buy or not, as they see fit. I guess the DoE felt that a special-issue "Expand Los Alamos" stamp wouldn't have been quite as popular with the public.

(Thanks to Robster for alerting me to the ambiguous tone of that last paragraph as originally written.)

Small, Local, and Green

BLDGBLOG discusses China's ever-expanding use of mobile execution chambers:

As a replacement for the firing squad, this is nomadic power, bringing the state – and lethal injections – to your doorstep.

"Makers of death vans," USA Today reports, "say they save money for poor localities that would otherwise have to pay to construct execution facilities in prisons or court buildings. The vans ensure that prisoners sentenced to death can be executed locally, closer to communities where they broke the law."
Or as Kingsley Amis would put it, "Wherever you may be / they bring it to you, free."

Personally, I can't help but applaud this step towards our Dark Green Future. I trust the vans will eventually run on switchgrass-derived biofuel.

The environmental benefits are clear enough, but there are other compelling economic incentives. Firing squads have an unfortunate tendency to perforate otherwise marketable organs. The judicious use of lethal injection can put an end to this wasteful process, and might even help to pay for the expense of switching over to the death-van system. (Adding a dissecting-room to the vans would be even more economical, and a solar cremation unit would be the icing on the cake).
To guarantee that each execution is "carried out legally," they are all "recorded on video and audio that is played live to local law enforcement authorities" – state-induced death as a form of avant-garde cinema.
It’s not avant-garde at all; it’s as perfectly conventional as only a product of the bureaucratic gaze can be (cf. China's filmed executions of opium users in the 1930s). That said, I admit that the first thing I thought of here was Harrod Blank’s Camera Van turned outside-in.

Also, it's worth noting that whereas the Chinese government used to bill the prisoner's family for the cost of execution by firing squad, lethal injections are free. Everybody wins!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Huge Black Bogs

More good news from Iraq:

An environmental disaster is brewing in the heartland of Iraq's northern Sunni-led insurgency, where Iraqi officials say that in a desperate move to dispose of millions of barrels of an oil refinery byproduct called "black oil," the government pumped it into open mountain valleys and leaky reservoirs next to the Tigris River and set it on fire.

The resulting huge black bogs are threatening the river and the precious groundwater in the region, which is dotted with villages and crisscrossed by itinerant sheep herders....

The elected governor of the province that contains Baiji and Makhul said in an interview that he was outraged by what was happening there. "I call upon the United Nations and the United States administration to make haste in saving the people of Baiji and Tikrit from an environmental catastrophe," said the governor, Hamad Hmoud al-Qaisi.
I'm sure BushCo will get right on that. Especially given that this problem is inconveniencing "the heartland of Iraq's northern Sunni-led insurgency."

This is not a new issue. Back in 2003, the black oil situation at the Baiji refinery was already very bad:
The refinery is operating at only about 50 percent of its 280,000-barrel-per-day capacity because storage tanks at the plant are filled with more than 30 million gallons of fuel oil, said the director, Riyad Ghassab.

Fuel oil used to be removed from Baiji by a pipeline, but that line is now being used to transport crude to the refinery because the normal crude line was severed by saboteurs, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Three years and billions of dollars later, whether by design or default, the situation has clearly gotten worse. Stay the course!

Just FYI, this area remains sacred to wingnut mythology as the omphalos of Saddam's WMD arsenal, thanks in part to the eerie powers of Bill Tierney:
"I would ask God and just get a sense if something was valid or not, and then know if I needed to pursue it," he said. His assessments through prayer were then confirmed to him by a friend's clairvoyant dream, where he was able to find the location on a map.
Today's NYT article describes a ghastly outcome of the postwar embargo, of which I'd been blissfully unaware until now:
[I]n 1992, Iraqi engineers began drilling deep holes into Makhul, said Adnan Sammaraie, an Iraqi engineer who was then an Oil Ministry official and worked on the plans for the project.

The idea was to pump black oil and other refinery byproducts inside the mountains, where countless miles of cracks, caves and fissures could in theory contain almost limitless volumes, Mr. Sammaraie said. But the system was improperly monitored and it malfunctioned almost immediately, coughing up black oil and other polluted wastes and pouring them over the mountain range.
It's reckless speculation on my part, but I can't help wondering if all this drilling fueled the lurid fantasies of people like Bill Tierney, who warned of "deep tunnels" in the region's mountains.

Splitting the Atom

Ron Suskind describes an alleged plot by al-Qaeda to release hydrogen cyanide in the NYC subway system:

In the world of terrorist weaponry, this was the equivalent of splitting the atom. Obtain a few widely available chemicals, and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot and then kill everyone in the store.
Actually, the terrorist equivalent of splitting the atom would be splitting the atom. The device Suskind describes would not and probably could not kill everyone in a Home Depot store, not least because those stores have high ceilings and are well ventilated. Suskind uses the Nazi gas chambers to demonstrate the horrors of HCN poisoning, without giving sufficient attention to the rather stark architectural differences between a gas chamber, a Home Depot store, and a subway station.

This is no way to proceed, unless your goal is to frighten people unnecessarily (while distracting them from more likely and more devastating possibilities). To put things in perspective, the sarin attack in Tokyo's subway killed 13 people; unless I'm mistaken, sarin is roughly 100 times more powerful than HCN.

Defense Tech has more.

Vulcan’s Forge and Fingal’s Cave

The drawing above is from a terrific online exhibition called Vulcan’s Forge and Fingal’s Cave: Volcanoes, Basalt, and the Discovery of Geological Time. Go and have a look at it, is my advice.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Parallel Reality

Echidne (blessed be her holy name) steered me to this frightening interview with Michelle Goldberg, a fine writer who's spent a good deal of time researching the Christian Right. It's well worth reading in full, but a couple of things leap out at me.

The anxieties people are dealing with, and that people like James Dobson speak to, are very valid. A lot of people are in despair. Our culture is crass and vulgar and nihilistic. Families are falling apart -- especially in the most right-wing states, where divorce rates tend to be highest.
Absolutely right. I wrote a long piece on our "crass and vulgar and nihilistic" culture here, so I won't revisit the topic now. Instead, I'd like to point out how much easier diagnosis is than cure:
I'm still a first amendment absolutist, but I've come to think that, although I don't want to see Democrats move right on social issues, they need to make it clear that they are not the party of libertinism, and that they understand peoples' desire for wholesomeness and familial security.
Sounds great. The problem is, Democrats have very little choice in the matter. First off, I don't think it's possible for them to make enough concessions to be seen as "wholesome" by people whose lives are more or less defined by sexual hysteria. Second, they don't control their own representation; what Democrats and liberals say is filtered first through a generally hostile media, and second through an opportunistic, amoral pseudo-religious establishment.

Ms. Goldberg understands this, of course, as is clear from her account of the fundamentalist representation of the Terri Schiavo case:
You have to remember that, for people existing in the parallel reality of the Christian nationalist movement, Schiavo wasn't in a persistent vegetative state. In my book, I write about a speech that David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, gave to a banquet of leading Christian nationalists. He described her sobbing in her mother's arms after the courts condemned her to death. "Terri Schiavo was as alive as any person sitting here," he said. "Anything you saw on the videos, multiply times two hundred. I mean completely animated, completely responsive, desperately trying to talk." People in the audience were crying as he spoke.
Obviously, when you're talking about people who inhabit a "parallel reality" that has this sort of emotional appeal, it makes no sense to imagine the Democrats being able to make anything clear. Basically, they can either follow the fundamentalist rank-and-file through the looking-glass, and try to make the most of the third-class moral status they'd gain - possibly - from this compromise, or can they continue to be "the party of libertinism" (or worse) in the eyes of the Religious Right and its sympathizers. Terri Schiavo either sobbed in her mother's arms, or she didn't; there's absolutely no room here for compromise, or agreeing to disagree.

The progressive mindset, like other mindsets, is projective; we often find it hard to grasp that the everyday virtue of "finding common ground" is not attractive on any level to people who define themselves specifically in terms of their distance from us. If anything, Ms. Goldberg's wistful hope that Democrats will demonstrate "that they understand peoples' desire for wholesomeness and familial security" underscores this distance; note how easily one could read this as a condescending plea for tolerance, rather than for morality. The impression here is that when it comes to "wholesomeness," liberals are on the outside looking in.

Ms. Goldberg believes these people are dangerous - as do I - so it's natural that she'd look for some way of mitigating the danger. But again, I think we could move in these people's ideological direction a good deal farther than most of us would find comfortable, without appreciably reducing their rage or anomie. To Christian nationalists, suggestions like Ms. Goldberg's are likely to come across as an olive branch extended by an outnumbered enemy whose annihilation is both just and inevitable. Why on earth would they bargain with an enemy whose defeat is the climax of God's plan for humankind?

I can't imagine how progressives might address this problem, let alone solve it; almost every suggestion I've seen relies on the sort of rationalist arguments that amount to throwing gasoline on a bonfire. I do know that the media are playing an extremely dangerous game by mainstreaming the Religious Right, and ought to be held accountable for it (I'll pencil it in at the bottom of my "to-do" list).

Interestingly, Robert M. Jeffers argues that militant fundamentalism is running out of steam. For once, I don't find his argument particularly convincing. And even if it were accurate, I'm not positive it would lessen the political usefulness of catering to sexual and racial bigotry. That said, RMJ's opinions tend to be much better informed than mine, so I can't simply dismiss them out of hand.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

I denounce everyone
who ignores the other half,
the half that can’t be redeemed,
who lift their mountains of cement
where the hearts beat
inside Bornella stellifer
and where all of us will fall
in the last feast of pneumatic drills.

(Photo by Jun Imamoto.)

Friday Hope Blogging

President Bush's creation of the world's largest ocean reserve sounds too good to be true. But it seems to be on the level:

“This an unprecedented win for endangered Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles, black-footed albatrosses, tiger sharks, the incredible reef corals in these waters, the people of Hawaii and all Americans, now and in generations to come,” Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, said in a statement ahead of the announcement. “It’s the start of a new era of protecting places in the sea before they’re degraded beyond recognition. In my opinion, this is the best thing President Bush has done for the environment.”
The United States and Russia have apparently reached a deal on securing Russian caches of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons:
Projects include constructing facilities to lock down nuclear material and warheads; strengthening security at labs storing dangerous biological pathogens; developing special facilities to destroy chemical weapons; and dismantling long-range missiles and bombers.
Some skepticism is definitely in order here, but perhaps a bit of cautious optimism is defensible, too.

I don't know what to make of this, but it's absolutely fascinating:
Exposed metal surfaces are highly vulnerable to corrosion, but paint or other protective coatings can interfere with some uses, as well as add significant costs. Now, a comprehensive series of experiments suggests a new form of protection: bacteria....MR-1 is a remarkable organism that can incorporate metal into its metabolism, "inhaling certain metal oxides and compounds in one form, exhaling them in another," according to Kus's presentation. MR-1 has previously been used to precipitate uranium out of contaminated water. And "it can grow almost anywhere and does not cause disease in humans or animals," Kus notes.
Scientific American discusses the "greening" of the New York subway system:
These technologies won't just cut the facility's electric bills; they will cut its pollution profile. Combined they will avoid the emission of more than 500 tons of carbon dioxide, along with tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. "By using 100 kilowatts of [photovoltaic] capacity, reduction in carbon dioxide emissions equals the emissions from driving approximately 225,417 miles in an average passenger car," the MTA writes in its detailed description of the site.
Toyota has developed a new method for composting manure:
The world's number-two car maker said on Friday it had co-developed a cutting-edge composting ingredient and process that drastically reduce nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, as well as offensive odours produced by livestock waste -- part of its efforts to clean the environment.

"We've always wanted to do more in the agricultural field," Yasumori Ihara, a managing officer at Toyota, told a news conference.
One would like to know just what sort of "ingredient" this is...but it certainly sounds promising.

Researchers have discovered that night-time airplane flights have a much larger effect on climate than daytime flights:
"We get one-half of the climate effect from one-quarter of the year, from less than one-quarter of the air traffic," said meteorologist Nicola Stuber, who led the English research team. "If you get rid of the night flights, you can reduce the climate warming effect of the contrails."
Ideally, airlines will make some scheduling changes. Otherwise, it sounds like it'd be sensible to book daytime flights when you travel.

The city of Modesto, California has won a landmark pollution case against three chemical companies:
A San Francisco jury last week sided with Modesto in the city's quest to make chemical companies pay for soil and water pollution caused by dry-cleaning solvents they manufacture. The jury will decide how much to award the city in punitive damages from three companies that produced the solvents, which have been linked to cancer in people.
While we're on the topic of solvents, a company called Stemco is drastically reducing its use of toluene and MEK:
Stemco will eliminate 36,000 pounds of toluene and 18,000 pounds of methyl ethyl ketone from the waste it generates annually. The company also has joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Partnership for Environmental Priorities, a voluntary program in which companies pledge to reduce the use or release of 31 priority chemicals beyond the requirements of environmental regulations.
The EPA has banned the horrific pesticide Guthion:
Jay Brunner, an entomologist and director of the Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee, said Tuesday he is confident the new products, which number at least four, will adequately replace Guthion....[T]he new products are nontoxic to mammals, speed re-entry to an orchard following application to hours rather than days, and will better protect farm-worker health.
Treehugger has a good discussion of solar-powered air conditioners:
Some concepts just make sense- like when the developer of a solar powered pontoon boat pointed out -"Since most recreational boating is done when the weather is nice, solar power is particularly well adapted to the task." We were thinking that way while looking for a solar powered air conditioner- when do you need it? When it is hot and sunny.
Speaking of the sun, I recently noticed that the University of Mississippi has a beautiful collection of astronomy-themed magic lantern slides.

And Coudal informs me that George Eastman House has a huge collection of promotional lantern slides for silent films.

When you're done with those - assuming you ever are - be sure to take a look at this amazing collection of handpainted African trade signs:

Indeed, this world is adorned in diverse ways, decorated with rare ornaments.

Perpetual Pollution for Perpetual Clean-Up

George Ochenski explores the dialectic of "economic opportunity" in Montana:

Paul Polzin, director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and perpetual cheerleader for Montana’s resource extraction economy, was in Billings last week to hail the oil, gas and mining industries at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. In the meantime, Gov. Schweitzer was also in Billings hosting his Restoration Economy Forum, which highlighted the positive economic impact of cleaning up the environmental messes Polzin’s extraction industries leave behind....

[T]he governor pointed to the Clark Fork River cleanup, lauding the “investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in Montana’s economy, the creation of good-paying construction jobs, and the clean-up of past environmental damages.”
Given that creating new jobs is one of the most noble endeavors to which homo oeconomicus can aspire, it's easy to see that polluters ought to be praised, rather than condemned: they're merely planting the seeds of opportunity for future generations.

And if that's true of polluters, how much more true is it of firms that do a lackluster job of cleaning up environmental messes? After all, why spend five years and $100 million to create jobs and revitalize communities, when you can spend ten years and $500 million?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Garden Path

As a joint venture with Cargill, Monsanto has come up with a genetically engineered corn that contains elevated levels of the amino acid lysine. Apparently, when this corn is cooked, the lysine reacts with sugars to produce advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs) that pose problems for diabetics and pre-diabetics, and are implicated in other serious diseases.

The corn is strictly intended as livestock feed (lysine increases the conversion of feed to meat, allowing farmers to reduce the protein level in feed). And by "strictly," of course, I mean "technically":

Even though Monsanto states that LY038 is intended only for animal feed, they made application for approval as a human food so they do not have to keep the altered corn separate from edible corn.
Also, it seems that no one has bothered to perform safety tests on the cooked corn, an oversight which is causing some alarm in New Zealand:
The Centre for Research in Biosafety (INBI) is urging the food standards agency to reconsider its draft recommendation to approve a new type of GM corn. INBI has recommended that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) should not approve Monsanto’s genetically modified high-lysine LY038 corn until further safety studies have been conducted....INBI recommends that safety studies be conducted using GM corn that has been cooked and processed as it is in human food.
Sounds reasonable to me. And as we so often hear these days, the innocent have noithing to fear.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We Make Money Not Art on Russia's plans for a floating nuclear plant:

The plant will be built at an Arctic site where atomic submarines are made and is due to begin generating in 2010....

"There are risks of the unit itself sinking, there are risks in towing the units to where they need to be," explained Charles Digges, editor of Bellona.
Cervantes on an interesting new FDA rule:
What happens in practice is that data on the so-called "label" on risks of drugs lag several years behind the known facts. This doesn't require fraud on the part of the manufacturers, just foot-dragging combined with inefficiency and indifference on the part of the FDA. So even if side effects and counterindications aren't on the label, and you are harmed by the drug, you have no legal recourse.
Environmental Science & Technology on bacteria and flame retardants:
Bacteria in the soil can transform the most commonly used flame retardant compound in the United States into more toxic forms that could be harmful to humans, according to a new laboratory study published today....

"This study, for the first time, establishes that microbes found in every-day settings can degrade relatively stable forms of PBDEs, making them far less stable and potentially more toxic," says Lisa Alvarez-Cohen, Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author. "It implies that current and planned bans of the most toxic forms of PBDEs may be ineffectual if the less toxic forms are rendered more toxic when released into the environment."
Homeland Security Watch on "the imagination of failure":
Five factors explain why increasing investments (spending), political commitments (policy) and public sacrifice in the name of homeland security produce diminishing returns over time, each of which encompasses an important component of the current dilemma: (a) rising public expectations and standards for measuring government performance, (b) the power of failure (failures trump successes), (c) public imagination and exaggerated perceptions of terrorist threats, (d) political-military imagination and official overestimations of terrorist risks, and (e) declining public support for sacrificing civil liberties.
Subtopia on carceral urbanism in Ethiopia, and corporate militarism in Missouri.

(Photo of Prypiat, Ukraine by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Top Seven Conservative Commies

In response to Thers's list of the Top Six Conservative Microorganisms, I offer the Top Seven Conservative Commies. These men and women were born too soon to witness, and applaud, the global triumph of conservatism. As a result, they're generally considered to be members of the radical left. However, their inherent conservatism is obvious by virtue of the ineluctable fact that anything interesting, important, or useful is inherently conservative.

1. Karl Marx
Beneath its fashionable Marxist veneer, Das Kapital is probably the best guide to marketing and investment ever written. If you want to end up on the winning side of the class struggle, pick up this book and learn how commodity fetishism can make you rich!

2. Mikhail Bakunin
Bakunin advocated "absolute rejection of every authority... that...sacrifices freedom for the convenience of the state." Clearly, he would've been a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan, who famously said:

In my own mind, I was a citizen representing my fellow citizens against the institution of government.
3. Peter Kropotkin
Like Bakunin, Kropotkin was an anarchist, making him a fellow-traveler of anarcho-libertarianism, and therefore libertarianism, and therefore conservatism. His book Mutual Aid shows that government welfare programs are unnecessary because people can and will take care of themselves. As a critique of Darwinist dogma, Mutual Aid paved the way for the groundbreaking discoveries of the intelligent design movement. Also, unlike the "Blame America First" crowd, Kropotkin sided with the United States in World War I.

4. Walter Benjamin

Benjamin's messianic mysticism, his stolid respect for tradition, his pessimism about government, and his obsessive worry about the threat of chemical warfare all mark him as conservative at heart. To enlightened eyes, his Arcades Project is a celebration of the spiritually liberating power of capitalism that compares favorably with the oeuvre of James Lileks. Also, he corresponded cordially with conservatives like Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, while infuriating real commies like Brecht. And amazingly enough, he actually foresaw his own posthumous induction into the conservative movement: "Not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious."

5. Vladimir Mayakovsky
As Ann Althouse informs us, "To be a great artist is inherently right wing." So that settles that. Plus, Mayakovsky eventually repudiated Bolshevism, pretty much.

6. Emma Goldman
How people could so consistently mistake the author of My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia for some kind of lefty is beyond me! Also, Goldman clearly elucidated the evils of feminism:
[W]oman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation....
Kate O'Beirne would wholeheartedly agree!

7. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko
Few conservatives have been so effective at challenging hidebound scientific orthodoxy as Lysenko. Throughout his life, he refused to sacrifice his independence of mind for the evanescent pleasure of being in the mainstream. Its true that some of his understanding of genetics was lacking...but who among us could not say the same? The important thing is, at a time when the rest of the scientific world was marching in lockstep, Lysenko followed his conscience and the principles of free inquiry. (And you better believe he'd know how to handle any environmentalist wacko who tried to interfere with the factory system!)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fight the Power!

The other day, third-string conservatarian chatterbox Debra Saunders threatened to address the "bad science" behind climate change. Today, I'm sorry to say, she's gone and done it.

The results are pretty goddamn droll. She starts off with a hat-tip to Gregg Easterbrook:

Easterbrook noted that a 1992 survey found that a mere 17 percent of members of the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society believed in greenhouse-gas climate change. Since then, scientists have found more evidence of the phenomenon.

Gore was wrong in 1992 when he wrote that 98 percent of scientists agreed with him on global warming. Witness the survey cited above.
The problem here, of course, is that Easterbrook is completely full of shit; that "17 percent" came from a lie originally told by George Will:
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.
Just for the record, the Environmental Defense Fund notes:
Will's erroneous summary of this poll has been quoted so many times that it has become gospel for the proponents of the environmental backlash.
Next, Saunders pretends that as long she can dredge up a couple of dissident scientists, the matter is not yet settled.
[T]he faith-driven Gore argues that all scientists agree with him -- well, except for those who are bought and paid for by big polluters.
And how many of those could there be? Saunders gives us a hint:
I have to listen to former NASA scientist, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, when he tells me, "It is an alarming chart, but there are so many alternative explanations for what he's showing"....Spencer, who also writes for TCS Daily (which receives some funding from ExxonMobil), believes that some global warming is human-induced, but "I don't believe in climate catastrophe."
So despite having sneered at the idea that denialists are "bought and paid for by big polluters," Saunders can't make it through her short column without quoting a scientist with links to ExxonMobil. (SourceWatch has more on TCS Daily, and Tim Lambert has more on Spencer.)

Here's another of Saunders' expert witnesses:
Neil Frank, former director of the National Hurricane Center, told the Washington Post that global warming is "a hoax."
Yep. He also said this:
"Maybe we're living in a carbon dioxide-starved world. We don't know."
There you have it: The voice of reason! Such a bracing change from the dull orthodoxy of...well, pretty much everyone.

You might think that Saunders is making an inordinate fool of herself in order to protect the interests of the White House, and its political and corporate enablers. But that's just because you don't understand that the real establishment comprises Al Gore, Laurie David, and the American Meteorological Society:
[W]henever the establishment says you have to believe something, you want people who question the establishment.
Right on, sister.

Visual Pyrotechnics

Having been obsessed with early American comic strips since I was a little kid, I was thrilled to get my grubby mitts on a new book called Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900-1969.

Now that I've pored over it, I'm still enthusiastic, but I'm also a bit more inclined to look this horse in the mouth. The biggest problem is that some of the strips are reduced so much as to be nearly unreadable (e.g., Herbert Crowley's mindboggling 1910 strip "The Wiggle Much," which - frustratingly enough - is one of the handful of strips I've never come across before).

Also, the anthology jumps to 1969 for no other reason than to accomodate the acid-casualty scrawlings of Rory Hayes, a marginal figure in the SF underground comics scene whose work inexplicably appealed to Robert Crumb. My gripe here isn't just aesthetic; one thing that fascinates me about certain strips published between, say, 1900 and 1920 is that they represent a degree of freedom and creativity in ephemeral mass art that hasn't really been matched since. Including any underground artist - let alone Hayes - muddies these waters, and also serves to perpetuate the absurd notion that these early comic artists were somehow "ahead of their time."

The author, Dan Nadel, claims that "experimentation" initially flourished in comics because there were no standards in place. But that doesn't make sense. Why would a lack of standards lead to the laboriously florid phantasmagoria of early American comics? My argument would be that this phantasmagoria actually reflects the standards of the mainstream visual culture of the era, from Victorian children's books, to sheet music, to advertisements, to the vertiginous architectural follies of Coney Island. (Never mind the influence of Tenniel and Cruikshank on that generation of illustrators). To a fair extent, the style of early comic strips is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: a blend of Victorian bizarrerie with fashionable, widely emulated modern art styles ranging from art nouveau to expressionism.

Why this style expressed the dream-life of that era is the really interesting question, I think, and the romantic notion of the maverick "visionary" artist does little to answer it. Nadel makes the common mistake of assuming that because comic strips were a new medium, work that looks experimental to us was, in fact, experimental rather than comparatively mainstream.

Beyond that, there's the issue of production to consider: how much of the shift away from what Nadel calls "visual pyrotechnics" had to do with changing production methods and economies of scale at major newspapers, as opposed to the advent of a comic-strip "language with structure and rules"? Given that even in this book, the economic realities of the printing and publishing industries restrict the presentation of these strips, I can't help wishing Nadel had addressed this issue. It has interesting implications.

I realize that I'm being a pedant and an ingrate. At the same time, I can't help noticing that in the last five years or so, early comic strips have enjoyed the closest thing to a vogue I've seen in my lifetime. And yet there's really been no serious effort to compile lesser-known strips in a readable format, and far too little effort to place them in any more thoughtful context than that of the "visionary." I know it's expensive to produce books of full-color comic strips, and I've seen enough remaindered anthologies of Polly and Her Pals to know that the audience for this stuff is very, very limited. Still, I can't stop hoping that one day, this work will get the treatment it deserves. That said, anyone who's interested in comics or graphic art has no choice but to pick up Art Out of Time, and to thank Nadel for compiling it.

(Also, anyone who's interested in some of the larger issues here should check out Thers's recent posts over at Whiskey Ashes. He's got much smarter stuff to say about these things than I do.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

This Post is Rated R (Gore, Adult Themes, Profanity)

The climate change "debate" is getting stranger every day. The CEI, having just informed us that "CO2 is life," is now complaining that Al Gore's plane trips are producing too much of this miracle-working molecule, thereby exacerbating an environmental crisis that doesn't exist.

Some commentators inform us that it's far too late to do anything but adapt to a problem they previously said was imaginary. Others point out that we could've taken effective action over a decade ago, if only that dirty cocksucker Al Gore hadn't tied our hands.

You remember, I'm sure, how the political and business establishment was just dying to take aggressive action against climate change back in the nineties, but kept being thwarted at every turn by the arch-fiend Gore (who actually used the awesome power of his office to make research, innovation, and entrepreneurship punishable by death).

Meanwhile, Debra J. Saunders, having already taken Gore to task for his fearmongering, now chides him for his sunny optimism:

Sacrifice? Struggle? Wrenching transformation? Forget that. Fighting global warming will be good for your bottom line.

How convenient.
Don't you just hate that awful Al Gore, with his stupid positive outlook? Thank heavens you'll never hear delusional nonsense like Gore's from the hardheaded realists in America's boardrooms.

Don't mention the part about improving the bottom line to the folks at the Rocky Mountain News; they're currently howling about Gore's slavish devotion to the heresy of central planning, which makes him incapable of grasping fun facts like these:
Without setting goals or timetables to reduce greenhouse gases, the United States has reduced its "energy intensity" - the amount of energy we consume per dollar - nearly twice as fast as the EU over the past decade. That's because U.S. entrepreneurs have been free to invest in cleaner, more efficient technologies that will actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions over time, rather than scrambling to meet arbitrary caps.
See, that's the difference between the USA and the EU. In Europe, socialist tyranny has made it impossible for entrepreneurs to invest in "cleaner, more efficient technologies." That's why you never, ever see investment in green technology over there. (Sure, says "the US...lags Europe in its adoption of clean technologies." But what do they know?)

Putting aside the tenuous connection between energy use and GDP in the US economy, could there be another reason for our decline in energy intensity? The bong-sucking longhairs at the US Department of Energy seem to think so:
[T]he simple E/GDP ratio measure of energy intensity overstates the extent to which energy efficiency improvements have occurred in the economy, because factors the affect intensity that are unrelated to the efficiency of energy use are included in the ratio....One example of such an 'other explanatory factor' is the shift of economic activity out of the industrial sector and manufacturing, that use large amounts of energy per unit of output, into service industries that use only very small amounts of energy. A shift from steel to electronics influences the simple E/GDP ratio, but is not indicative of improvements in energy efficiency.

The new system of energy intensity indicators...provides a truer measure of changes in energy intensity that are associated with improvements in the efficient use of energy....between 1985 and 2004, energy intensity, based on total energy and as measured by our newly developed index fell by 10%, considerably less than the simple E/GDP ratio would indicate. This 10% change over this 19-year period corresponds to an average annual percentage reduction in energy intensity of 0.56% per year. Other explanatory factors unrelated to efficiency improvements contributed to a decline in energy use of 17% between 1985 and 2004.
All that's on the one hand. On the other, Al Gore grew a beard. You just can't trust a guy like that.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

The pullyshed perle Aegires vellosus's whytenes doth declare;
Dyamand poyntyd to rase oute hartly care;
Geyne surfetous suspecte the emeraud commendable;
Relucent smaragd, obiecte imcomperable.

(Photo by Jun Imamoto)

Friday Hope Blogging

Adventus has posted a remarkable interview with Michael Berg, father of slain journalist Nicholas Berg:

O'BRIEN: But at some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, 'I'm glad he's dead, the man who killed my son'?

BERG: No. How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?
If a voice as sane and courageous as Michael Berg’s doesn’t inspire hope, nothing can, or should.

As pretty much everyone knows, a vaccine for cervical cancer has been approved for sale. That’s good news, of course. But it also raises questions, as Echidne notes:
Unless some form of financial subsidy is provided, most women will not have access to the vaccine.

Then there is the sex roadblock. A virus that is transmitted by sex! What will people say if we vaccinate our unmarried daughters?
She’s right (she’s always right), and yet I’m cautiously optimistic about what will happen if a vaccine against cancer is impeded by regressive ideologies. I think this is one case where humanism will win out (especially as regards financial subsidies). And it’ll certainly bring the basic problems of poverty and misogyny into very sharp relief.

In other news, China is mass-producing solar water heaters:
At least 30 million Chinese households now have one and last year the country accounted for around 80 percent of the world market, said Eric Martinot, visiting scholar at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "We are at 15 to 20 percent annual growth and I don't see that slowing down."
Bank of America is offering a $3,000 reimbursement to full- and part-time employees who buy hybrid cars. Interesting...but not as interesting as Wal-Mart's decision to hire the Rocky Mountain Institute as a consultant on transportation and redesign. I remain mistrustful of partnerships like these, but I agree with Triple Pundit that this seems like a very positive development.

I’m very pleased to see that many American cities are banning or restricting suburban cul-de-sacs:
The most common complaint: traffic. Because most of the roads in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs are dead ends, some traffic experts say the only way to navigate around the neighborhood is to take peripheral roads that are already cluttered with traffic. And because most cul-de-sacs aren't connected by sidewalks, the only way for people who live there to run errands is to get in their cars and join the traffic….[I]n Rock Hill, S.C., which changed its rules in March, developers who build cul-de-sacs are required to cut pedestrian paths through their bulb-like tips to connect them to other sidewalks and allow people to walk through neighborhoods unimpeded.
American researchers have found a fungus that eats phenolic resins (which means we’re one step closer to a fungus that eats suburbs!):
A fungus that normally eats wood can also chew up some of the long-lasting plastic resins that clog landfill sites, researchers in the United States have found. This potentially offers an environmentally friendly way to recycle the waste.
Meanwhile, Japanese researchers claim to have found an energy-efficient way of detoxifying asbestos:
Researchers in Gunma Prefecture have developed an energy-saving device to decompose and detoxify asbestos that uses about 80 percent less energy than the conventional method.
A 750-legged millipede that hasn’t been seen for 80 years was rediscovered in California:
The species seems to be restricted to a single ravine in San Benito county, part of the California Floristic Province, a biodiversity hotspot.
To paraphrase Emma Goldman, "If I can't dance to the stridulation of fire ants, I don't want to be in your revolution.” Apropos of which, the sound library of the USDA’s Insect Behavior and Biocontrol Research Unit offers a guided tour of the aural unconscious:
The sounds of crickets courting and flies flying familiar to many of us, but have you heard a rice weevil larva eating inside a wheat kernel, a termite cutting a piece of wood, or a grub chewing on a root?
Not exciting enough for you? Click here to hear Plodia interpunctella larvae in dry dog food.

Note, though, that our recordings of these insects are much less impressive than the lyrebird’s recordings of us. Click here to watch the lyrebird imitate chainsaws, camera shutters, and car alarms. (I’m reminded, for some reason, of Philip K. Dick’s story “The Preserving Machine,” in which musical scores are changed into animals, with unexpected results.)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Slurry of Sterilized Waste

Given the ongoing attempt to foment hysteria over the stringently regulated use of cattle manure in organic farming, it’s instructive to consider this story:

Los Angeles officials said Wednesday they are considering a lawsuit to challenge Kern voters' decision to keep L.A. from trucking its sewage sludge to the other county.

The Kern ban came even as L.A. officials launched an experimental project to inject sludge beneath the ground in San Pedro.

Kern voters easily passed Measure E late Tuesday to prohibit the use of highly treated human waste, or biosolids, as fertilizer in unincorporated areas of their county.
Normally, 50 trucks travel from Los Angeles to Kern County every day, each carrying 22 tons of sludge contaminated by pharmaceuticals (among other things).

But never mind about that. The plan to inject sludge “beneath the ground” is far more interesting. The goal is to pump 400 tons of biosolids per day into the sandstone beneath Terminal Island, a doomed artificial island built around a mudflat at the former mouth of the Los Angeles River.
Under the plan, three wells would be drilled at the Terminal Island Treatment Plant. One well would be used to inject the slurry of sterilized waste into the spongelike sandstone where oil has been extracted. Two other wells would be used to monitor the spread of the biosolids in the rock.

"Over time, the expectation is that the material should break down into its constituent products: methane and carbon dioxide," said David Albright, manager of the EPA's groundwater office for the southwest region.

The slurry will be injected about one-half mile below the lowest groundwater level, and EPA officials said the project should have no impact on drinking water.
There's talk of sequestering the carbon dioxide, and storing the methane. As long as nothing goes wrong, it seems that this could indeed be preferable to hauling tons of sludge to Kern County and spreading it on fields, not least because the sludge currently shipped to Kern County comes from the treatment plant on Terminal Island. The question, of course, is whether it's reasonable to assume that nothing will go wrong.

Historical note: As a result of oil drilling, part of Terminal Island had subsided to 29 feet below sea level by the 1950s; the problem was “solved” by injecting water into the former wells. According to the Sierra Club (see previous link), that land is now “literally supported by constant, pressurized water injection.”

(Photo from the Center for Land Use Interpretation.)

Born to Trouble

In a typically powerful post, Robert M. Jeffers addresses some popular misconceptions:

"Progress" is now what will save us from ourselves or our "human condition." "Reason" will sweep up all the niggling problems that have beset us since our ancestors first left the trees. "Science" will lead us to a paradisial age which will raise us above ourselves and our limitations, our weaknesses and our venalities, our appetites and desires.
This ties in nicely, I think, with what Cervantes has to say:
Just as healing may sometimes involve coercion, force or fraud, disease may consist in part of subjective distress, and in part of social disability or deviance. After all, we are social beings; our status in society is a part of what we are. But whose job is it to define deviance, to ordain that it be corrected, and to carry out corrective action? Where does the authority come from?

And so a final dichotomy, between medical and social problems. Is there something wrong with this patient, or is there something wrong with the world in which this patient lives?
(Photo by Sarah Pickering.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Via Pruned:

The surface of the sun as observed by the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) in high temporal and spatial resolution. From coronal filaments, loops and mass ejections, magnetic arcades, ultraviolet and X-ray storms, and escaping prominences, earth-bound to create spectacular auroral displays or to wreak havoc on power grids and satellite telecommunication systems -- all archived in one giant database. And by giant I mean you can download 200+ gigabytes of movies in QuickTime and DVD img files! For free!
What are you waiting for?

Opportunities and Challenges

Canada's National Energy Board has taken a cold hard look at oil sands in a new report called Canada’s Oil Sands—Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: An Update.

The opportunity is easy enough to explain. Output could reach three million barrels per day by 2015. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that the USA currently imports about ten million gallons barrels of oil per day. How much oil China will want circa 2015 is an interesting question to ponder. Still, this would represent a 40% increase in oil production. That's a lot of money...on paper, at least.

What are the challenges? Oh, nothing very much. Rising costs for steel, cement, industrial equipment, and natural gas. Increased emission of greenhouse gases. A lack of skilled labor. Social disruption and collapsing infrastructure in towns near the oil fields. (The opportunity cost of squandering money, labor, and resources on oil sands isn't addressed...too hard to figure out, probably.)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there's also the minor issue of water:

Both mining and in situ operations use large volumes of water for extracting bitumen from the oil sands. Between 2 to 4.5 barrels of water are withdrawn, primarily from the Athabasca River, to produce each barrel of synthetic crude oil (SCO) in a mining operation. Currently, approved oil sands mining projects are licensed to divert 370 million cubic metres (2.3 billion barrels) of freshwater per year from the Athabasca River.

Planned oil sands mines would push the cumulative withdrawal to 529 million cubic meters (3.3 billion barrels) per year. Despite some recycling, almost all of the water withdrawn for oil sands operations ends up in tailings ponds. Stakeholders agree that the Athabasca River does not have sufficient flows to support the needs of all planned oil sands mining operations.
On the bright side, Canada's melting glaciers - including the Athabasca Glacier - could provide a bit of extra water in the short term (and perhaps some valuable uranium, too). And one must also consider the cultural advantages.

My carefully considered guess is that they'll decide the opportunities outweigh the challenges. Apropos of which, this quote from Theodor Adorno:
The obviousness of disaster becomes an asset to its apologists - what everyone knows no one need say - and under cover of silence is allowed to proceed unopposed. Assent is given to what has been drummed into people's heads by philosophy of every hue: that whatever has the persistent momentum of existence on its side is thereby proved right.
(Photo by Edward Burtynsky.)

Who's Counting?

The Pentagon has apparently come up with a brilliant cost-cutting measure:

Citing what it acknowledged was an "unofficial" internal Pentagon document, a watchdog agency has charged that plans to cut funding next year for chemical weapons destruction will cost taxpayers more than five times as much as the government will save.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group said that the House of Representatives' version of next year's defense budget, which cuts $40 million from projects in Pueblo and Kentucky, will wind up costing $220 million over the long term.
Flashback to 2001:
Interviews and documents obtained by The Times show that senior officials have concluded that costs will ultimately rise to about $24 billion, up from an earlier estimate of $15 billion. Pentagon sources said the revised timetables are expected to show that work will not be completed at some of the sites until between 2008 and 2012.
Flashback to 1990:
In a report released on Wednesday, the accounting office said the Army's prototype disposal plant, now in operation, was 32 months behind schedule and would cost at least $190 million more than 1985 estimates. Delays will also increase the cost of storing chemical weapons by $33 million.
To quote myself, "Our CW program posed - and still poses - more danger to us than it ever did to any enemy."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Dollar and a Dream

A new study claims that state-run lotteries are a remarkably effective way of broadening the gap between rich and poor:

A study published in the current issue of Policy Studies Journal finds that state-run lotteries have a serious effect on income distributions. More than taxes and other forms of gambling, lotteries promote the growth of inequality. That is, they aid the rich in getting richer and the poor in becoming poorer.
No surprise there. What's interesting is that the study also finds that other types of gambling don't necessarily have the same effect; the problem seems to be primarily with state-run lotteries.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with these lotteries is that they put the government in the position of promoting public innumeracy and irrationality. New York's lottery motto - "Hey, you never know!" - is a perfect example. The fact is, your chance of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot is so vanishingly small that you'd be better off keeping your money, and pinning your hopes on finding a winning ticket on the sidewalk.

Lottery promoters tell stories - real or imagined - about winners, because they know that presenting narratives about events makes them seem more believable (cf. the availability heuristic). In a perfect world, governments would be educating citizens about the availability heuristic, and probability theory, rather than exploiting public ignorance of them. In any case, it's not surprising that the people who are most susceptible to lottery ads would be members of the underclass.

It's interesting to consider how government lotteries are promoted, compared to gambling hells like Las Vegas. Ads inviting people to Las Vegas encourage them to think of themselves as successful, attractive high rollers who can easily afford to throw a little money around. Lottery ads, by contrast, almost always have a subtext of desperation and despair; the difference between the two approaches boils down to the difference between escapism and escape.

The notion that state-run lotteries help schools has been debunked many times. The situation in Illinois is a good example of the shell game played with lottery earnings:
The percentage of the overall state budget spent on education stayed about the same after the 1985 earmark. Instead of boosting the total money spent on schools, the state just put less tax money toward education and backfilled with the lottery money.
What I find most fascinating about this article is that it shows how the dream of "hitting the jackpot" persists even among Americans who have no interest in gambling:
"It'll relieve taxes, and I won't play the damned thing anyway, so, personally, I couldn't lose," one Alsip reader said back then. "Now how could I not support a deal like that?"
Because it's too good to be true, that's why; somewhere along the line, you're going to pay dearly for your "windfall." In California, surveys have shown that lotteries make voters unwilling to approve new funding for schools. (Why should they, when they have a lottery?) What's the cost, over time, of a dysfunctional school system? Much, much more than you "saved" by demanding that the budget be balanced by exploiting the delusional hopes of the poor and desperate.

What one must understand is that the lottery doesn't transfer wealth from the poor to the rich because it's flawed. It does it because that's what it was designed to do. And the fact that it accomplishes this redistribution of wealth by feigning sympathy with the plight of the wage slave is what makes it evil, rather than merely corrupt.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Organic Menace

A few weeks ago, I reported that Kenneth P. Green of the American Enterprise Institute had very selectively quoted a letter by Canadian scientists to support his contention that scientists were finally becoming "sensible" about global warming, and had stopped calling for "silly" reductions in emissions. In fact, as I demonstrated, the letter urgently called for immediate reductions in emissions. Green was simply lying.

Fresh from that rhetorical triumph, Green sets out to debunk three "myths" about organic farming. His dishonesty isn't quite as brazen this time around, in that anyone who wishes to check his facts has to look at several primary documents, instead of a single letter. Still, he's cobbled together an ungainly collection of lies and half-truths that would make a cat laugh.

[L]et's look at whether or not going vegan would stabilize the climate. Two vegetarian researchers recently published an article estimating that the typical American with a mixed diet puts out 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide each year than do people who consume only plants, which adds up to about 6 percent of U.S. emissions, but only 1.6 percent of worldwide emissions. But U.S. greenhouse emissions are a shrinking part of the world's inventory, as China and India are growing quickly. Whatever benefit that might come of American's going vegan would barely be noticeable, and quickly erased by emissions of developing countries.
It's interesting that Green apparently accepts the estimate of 1.5 tons of CO2 (which appears in this study). It'd be easier to quarrel with that number, I'd think, than to argue that if a specific action can't "stabilize the climate" in and of itself, there's no reason to pursue it as one strategy among others.

More to the point, Green conveniently ignores the study's findings on other greenhouse gases, such as those produced by manure lagoons:
[L]ivestock production and associated animal waste also emit greenhouse gases not associated with fossil-fuel combustion, primarily methane and nitrous oxide. "An example would be manure lagoons that are associated with large-scale pork production," Eshel said. "Those emit a lot of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere."
In my earlier post on Green, I pointed out that he uses the extent to which climate change has been allowed to proceed unchecked - thanks to the efforts of people like him - as an argument against taking anything other than adaptive action. (He's a bit like a doctor who tells you that you absolutely, positively don't have cancer - no matter what the tests say - and accuses you of being a hypochondriac and an hysteric. And then, once you finally get a correct diagnosis from another doctor, he says "You're too far gone. Treatment won't help, and even if it would, you couldn't afford it.")

Here's Green's next "myth":
Organic food sellers claim that organic farming is better than traditional farming because it uses less energy and chemicals to grow food. Some even claim that research published in Science showed organic farming was 50 percent more efficient than traditional farming. But what organic food purveyors don't talk about is that the same study showed crop yields were 20 percent lower. When you factor that into the equation, organic farming was only found to be about 19 percent more energy efficient per unit produced than traditional farming.

Or is it? As science writer Ron Bailey points out, the comparison wasn't really apples to apples. State-of-the-art organic farms were compared to older methods of traditional farming, not modern systems.
By "modern systems," Green means no-till farming; this would be a somewhat valid point, if it weren't possible to use no-till methods on organic farms. As usual, ideologues like Green like to pretend that there can be or will be no innovations in sustainable agriculture.

As for "science writer Ron Bailey," he writes for Reason magazine, and "was the 1993 Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute." (You may remember the CEI from their mindboggling pro-CO2 ad campaign). The article to which Green refers appeared in 2002. In 2005, however, researchers at Cornell University cast some doubt on his argument:
Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes.
Further, a 2004 study found that organic crops seem to have higher yields under drought conditions, and are better at capturing water runoff. There's also some evidence that the yield of organic crops is comparatively stable year to year.

Now, on to Green's last - and lamest - point:
The Institute of Food Technologists, an international, not-for-profit scientific society points out, "Organic foods are not superior in nutritional quality or safety when compared against conventional foods, yet organics do have the potential for greater pathogen contamination, and therefore greater risk of food poisoning."
In an earlier post on Kristin Gerencher - who also praises the "independence" of the Institute of Food Technologists - I noted that this group's corporate sponsors have included the Coca-Cola Company, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Given that the consumption of organic vegetables has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last decade, one would expect to see an accompanying uptick in food-poisoning cases attributable to organic produce. But there seems to be little evidence of this, and the FDA's food safety site has no special handling instructions or warnings for organic produce. The Wall Street Journal recently said that contaminated produce is a growing problem, but doesn't mention organic farming as a cause:
Several factors are responsible: the centralization of produce distribution, a rise in produce imports, as well as the growing popularity of pre-chopped fruits and vegetables.
Also, research conducted in 2004 found that "the E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was 4.3%, a level not statistically different from that in conventional samples," a finding that infuriated the anti-organic think-tank illiterati:
According to Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, the report's chief author and faculty member at the University of Minnesota, "I had a very heated discussion with Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute. They were very dissatisfied with our findings and told me that our interpretations were not 'correct.'
You can read all about Alex Avery here.

All in all, it seems as though Green is one of those Chicken Littles the Right always complains about...the kind who tries to advance a political agenda by scaring the bejesus out of the consumer. And ultimately, that may be one of the best reasons to buy local, organic produce whenever possible: Unlike agribusiness and factory farms, the people who sell organic produce at farmers' markets probably won't donate any of their profits to pathologically dishonest think-tanks like AEI and CEI.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Ceratosoma sinuatum is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of it
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.

In other news, the Dharma Bums have upped the ante in the highly competitive world of cat blogging.

Friday Hope Blogging

Oy, what a week. The best news, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's over. (Actually, that'd be the second-best news, after the advent of Whiskey Ashes. Hooray for that, says I.)

To continue the theme of extracting benefits from human filth and corruption, I guess I should note this:

Highland Energy Inc. president David McLennan smelled an opportunity with the rotting garbage at the old Upper Sackville Landfill site. In July, the 32-hectare dump will make history as the first landfill in Atlantic Canada to turn its decomposing tires, buses, and food into energy.
A new study shows that green businesses outperform those who "stay the course":
In a report tabled to the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, it was suggested that they outperformed the ‘business-as-usual’ guys by over 7%. An analyst at Innovest, who prepared the report speaks, unusually, in plain language, so we quote him: "These companies in the medium and long term will outperform their peers because those factors [social and environmental] will become increasingly germane to their performance."
Apropos of which:
The hedge fund giant Man Group revealed plans yesterday to become one of the first FTSE 100 companies to go completely carbon-neutral, reducing the number of flights its staff take, and committing to pay "carbon offsets" on the environmentally-unfriendly activities which it cannot avoid.
I was very interested to note that Man Group intends to use videoconferencing in place of air travel whenever possible. For some reason, I'd never thought about the impact of this technology on business travel and the airline industry.

Irrepressible.Info is a campaign launched by Amnesty International to protect Internet freedoms. They have a number of actions you can take, but I especially like this one:
Undermine censorship by publishing irrepressible fragments of censored material on your own site.
They've prepared a database of censored material, which you can access here.

A study on the cost and benefits of AIDS treatment shows, not surprisingly, that spending money to save people's lives can save people's lives:
Per-person survival increased by three months in 1989-92 and then by two years in 1993-95; both eras were characterized by the introduction of certain measures to prevent opportunistic infections. But in the four HAART eras spanning 1996 to 2003, per-person survival increased by approximately eight, 11, 12, and 13 years. Over the past 10 years, the investigators concluded, widespread adoption of HAART regimens, in addition to prophylaxis, led to at least 3 million years of life saved in the United States.
It's not enough to stay alive, though. One must make the most of one's time on earth. That's why you should go here to see the effects of resonance on rice grains. (Turn your speakers down first, though!) Then, go here to see the effect of heat on popsicles. (Links via Coudal.)

Also, via things: City of Lost Refrigerators. Window seat photos. An airplane scrapyard. Magic posters. And circular saw blunders in anaglyphic 3D.

How to Make a Monster

At long last, there's an explanation for Glenn Reynolds and his ilk; we called them sociopathic halfwits one too many times, and they finally decided to knuckle under and deliver the goods. I hope those of you who've been claiming that Reynolds is a pea-brained demagogue with less moral awareness than a spirochete are happy with the monster you created:

Some people, judging from my email, are misjudging — or deliberately misconstruing — Ingemi’s point. Ingemi’s point, as I took it, is that crying wolf leads in the end to moral callousness, as people assume that there’s no point in behaving morally when they’re going to be called monsters anyway. This seems rather uncontroversially obvious to me.
This is altogether marvelous stuff; every word is a sermon in itself.

I've been called a lot of names in the last few decades. I was told I hated America for opposing aid to Saddam in the eighties, and that I was objectively pro-Saddam for opposing war with him later. I've been called an anti-Semite for daring to question the policies of the Israeli far right, and a terrorist-coddler for supporting the Geneva Conventions, and a traitor for...well, for just about everything, really. And the number of names I've been called for "prematurely" accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change is incalculable; suffice it to say that I was on the right side of this issue almost twenty years before Gregg Easterbrook, and he's still calling Al Gore names.

Of course, I'm also a "mullahcrat" or "dhimmicrat" who opposes Bush out of a secret love for Islamofascism. How I'm supposed to reconcile my desire to live under sharia with my "hatred of religion," my "moral relativism," and my desire to "destroy marriage" and "murder babies," is anybody's guess. But gosh...if you folks don't stop saying these awful things about me, I guess I'll have to give it a whirl!

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to Reynolds' application of his "rather uncontroversially obvious" moral axiom to issues like American race relations and educational policy. Something tells me he may find those waters a bit muddier.