Saturday, September 30, 2006

Friday Hope Blogging at WhirledView this week.

Illustration by Karl Selim Lemström, "a forgotten pioneer of polar light studies."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Huge Obligation

I find it hard to remind myself that we're actually debating, in this country, whether to make torture and indefinite detention legal. I don't think I'm alone in that. We don't want to think about it. Or more precisely, we don't want to think about the burden of responsibility it places on us.

In Rilke's novel The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Brigge compulsively avoids a blind, abject newspaper seller who is, to him, a figure of absolute horror. Finally, though, he's forced to look at the man:

My God, I thought with sudden vehemence, so you really are. There are proofs of your existence. I have forgotten them all and never even wanted any, for what a huge obligation would lie in the certainty of you. And yet that is just what has been shown to me.
This revelation - which you can view as religious or secular, as you prefer - and the obligation to which it leads, is precisely what we don’t want, because we can't face it without changing...well, everything.

Have people been tortured - and worse - in the name of our freedom or safety? Of course. But our faces weren't rubbed in it. The proper respect was paid to delicate feelings and weak knees and lazy idealism. We could put it out of our minds and go - literally - about our business.

Now, things are different. The Bush Administration - emboldened by our apathy - is daring us to feel the huge obligation that lies in the certainty of torture victims, and the indefinitely detained. We might almost thank them for it, inasmuch as they're forcing us to give up our illusions.

At least, I hope they're illusions. I hope this isn't happening because Americans are growing weary of what little civilization we enjoyed, and now wish to wallow erotically in human suffering like Leonard Lake and Dennis Rader. I hope we haven't gone mad, or fallen prey to mass sadomasochism, and learned to hear screams like music. I hope, in a sense of the word "hope" I find heartbreaking, that we're nothing worse than cowards.

Either way, the fact remains that people who will do this to other people will do it to you, and to people like you. Once a certain line is crossed, there's no law you can count on to protect you. At best, someone might conduct a cost/benefit analysis. And I think we all know how often such analyses justify what someone had already decided to do.

Would Americans really do this to each other? The short answer is that they already do - in prisons like Pelican Bay, for instance. And the work of Stanley Milgram and others has demonstrated the extent to which authority can override morality.

But there's more to it than that. Simone Weil oversimplified this issue when she said:
We experience evil only by refusing to allow ourselves to do it....As soon as we do evil, the evil appears as a sort of duty.
Convicted Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Graner Jr explains that the reality is more complicated, and more frightening:
The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'
People keep saying that torture doesn't work. But to the extent that it produces or reinforces feelings like Graner's, it works perfectly. The value of torture to BushCo is based not on what it does to our enemies, but on what it does to Americans. It's not about breaking the terrorists' will; it's about breaking ours.

We never wanted proof. And yet that is just what is being shown to us.

The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear

The DoD’s plan to dump millions of gallons of hydrolyzed VX nerve gas in the Delaware River has generated a lot of debate. If I recall the issue correctly, there are several concerns. First, there’s the question of whether it’s wise to dump several million gallons of caustic liquid into an important river.

Next, the hydrolysate may or may not contain cadmium, a well-known bioaccumulative poison. It will probably contain harmful trace amounts of VX; the EPA apparently ignores concentrations below 20ppb, which – unless I’m mistaken - is still high enough to kill fish. And it may also contain traces of an environmentally persistent toxic byproduct called EA2192.

The other issues are transportation and plant safety. The Army wants to send the hydrolysate from Indiana to New Jersey by truck, via Interstate 80. Once in New Jersey, the hydrolysate would receive secondary treatment before being dumped in the river. In 2006, the DuPont facility chosen for this job paid $200,000 in fines for “environmental and safety failings” (including, by an odd coincidence, contamination of the Delaware River).

I think it’s fair to say that the plan is controversial. Which is why it’s appalling – though not surprising – to learn that the DoD doesn’t want the General Accounting Office to assess its plans:

The Defense Department is urging House and Senate defense committee leaders to eliminate language from the pending defense authorization bill that would prohibit the Army from transporting chemical agent waste from an Indiana site to a commercial disposal facility in New Jersey until congressional auditors review the Army's disposal decisions.
Why? Because 9/11 changed everything, that’s why:
DOD in the appeal says it "made the decision to utilize off-site commercial treatment, storage, and disposal facilities for treatment and disposal of hydrolysate from [Newport] after the terrorist attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, to expedite the elimination of the chemical weapons stockpile based on a risk analysis for an incident occurring in [Newport] storage….
It’s funny how the threat of terrorism mandated this plan…but didn’t mandate securing New Jersey’s chemical plants, or Indian Point Nuclear Plant. It’s also funny to imagine how hysterical people would get if an al-Qaeda sleeper cell poured a few million gallons of caustic liquid contaminated with nerve gas, nerve gas byproducts, and toxic metal into an American river.

But that’s neither here nor there. If, as we hear so often these days, the innocent have nothing to fear, then there’s no reason for the DoD to object to a review by the GAO.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Stabbed In the Back!

Newsweek takes a look at Afghanistan, and asks "Is Victory Turning to Defeat?"

You're probably wondering which victory they're referring to. But let's pretend for a moment that setting up an unstable, Taliban-appeasing client regime in Kabul actually did constitute a victory, however modest. Now, read this:

Ridge by ridge and valley by valley, the religious zealots who harbored Osama bin Laden before 9/11—and who suffered devastating losses in the U.S. invasion that began five years ago next week—are surging back into the country's center. In the countryside over the past year Taliban guerrillas have filled a power vacuum that had been created by the relatively light NATO and U.S. military footprint of some 40,000 soldiers, and by the weakness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration....

It's a bad sign, too, that a shortage of local police has led Karzai to approve a plan allowing local warlords—often [opium] traffickers themselves—to rebuild their private armies....
There are three more pages to this story, if you can bear it.

If you can't, you'll definitely want to steer clear of Echidne's obituary for Safia Ama Jan, who was murdered, presumably by the Taliban, for her efforts to educate women. When the Taliban were in power, Ama Jan ran an underground school out of her home. Once they were "defeated," she opened multiple vocational schools for women. Yesterday, she was gunned down as she left her house, despite wearing a full burqa.

Most readers will remember a time when no matter how bad things got in Iraq, BushCo apologists would ask us to rejoice over all the new schools that were opening. By that measure, things in Afghanistan are going very badly indeed:
Militants last year burned down or attacked 146 schools, and already this year have attacked 158 schools, said Zuhoor Afghan, the top adviser to Afghanistan's education minister.
All of this might seem to imply a failure on the part of the Bush Administration...unless you understand, as Stanley Kurtz does, that the United States has once again been Stabbed in the Back&trade:
If Afghanistan collapses, it will prove that Europe has entirely lost the will to fight.
Kurtz is being somewhat coy, I think. By the time Karzai is finally airlifted from Kabul, BushCo's list of official scapegoats and backstabbers will be a good deal more inclusive than that.

Meanwhile, in a harrowing new piece in the Belfast Telegraph, a British officer explains what "the will to fight" actually entails:
We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, locally or from across the border....

You also have to think that each time we kill one, how many more enemies we are creating among his brothers and sons.

Small Containers

The grave existential threat posed by airline passengers laden with small bottles of strong oxidizers, industrial solvents, and assorted shock-sensitive explosives seems to have evaporated as quickly as a puddle of ethyl ether:

The new rules reflect TSA's confidence that small containers do not pose a threat to passengers, Melendez said. "We have been saying all along that when we believe we can apply some common sense and change the procedures for passengers. We will do that," Melendez said. "We talked with scientists in our national labs and the FBI, and we think we can allow these small amounts (of liquids)."
”When we believe we can apply some common sense…we will do that.” Very reassuring indeed. I also like how the TSA talked to people in their national labs and the FBI after inconveniencing and frightening airline travelers from Madawaska to Nome.

This is either security theater at its most cynical, or these people are complete fucking morons. (Or both, I suppose.) Here’s what I think: First, it’s possible to do serious damage aboard an airplane with three ounces of certain compounds, without having to mix up bombs in the lavatory. Second, if terrorists ever decide it’s worthwhile to attempt this (which I tend to doubt, frankly), they’ll eventually succeed despite TSA’s screening procedures. At which point, I guess we'll stop believing that we can “apply some common sense.” We'll go back to banning liquids (and powders, and crystals) from airplanes, while the terrorists go on to explore and exploit other vulnerabilities, secure in the knowledge that a relatively modest attack will have huge psychological and economic consequences.

This is why sensible people tend to see anti-terrorism as a matter of quiet intelligence-gathering and diplomacy, rather than as an endless, hyperactive game of Whack-a-Mole.

Muddying the Waters

I was already impressed with the volume and vehemence of Java’s mud eruption, but now scientists are saying that the eruption could continue for as long as a century:

"It's unlikely to stop permanently for a long time," Adriano Mazzini told a press conference in Jakarta. "It's hard to say when the overpressure will have been fully released. It could be one, 10 or 100 years. But to seal it will be very, very difficult." According to Mr Mazzini, unless the flow stops soon, the affected land, which has already starting sinking, could subside significantly. "It will be catastrophic," he said.
A “political and business consultant” named Dennis Heffernan makes an interesting comparison:
"Unless more resources are put to work, we're in danger of a catastrophe on the level of the Exxon Valdez."
So far, twenty factories and at least six villages have been inundated. And barriers intended to stop the flow have collapsed.
"Around 9pm, I heard thunder and my bed shook. When I woke up, hot mud was already knee deep," said excavator operator Effendi, who suffered bruises.
PT Lapindo Brantas, the gas exploration company whose two-mile-deep drilling may be responsible for the eruption, is bankrolling a torrid soap opera, in which volcanic passions are set against a backdrop of hot, stinking mud (two bathtubs' worth per second, by one estimate). Given the current scientific thinking on the mudflow, perhaps the series will run a good deal longer than the 13 episodes now in production.

So far, the government's solution seems to be to channel the mud into the ocean, which runs the risk of compromising – if not destroying - the livelihood of millions of coastal residents.

I can't help wondering whether all of this trouble would’ve been acceptable, economically speaking, if Lapindo had found a large enough gas field.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Sandy Wasteland

In a textbook example of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, residents of Boiling Springs Lakes, NC, are engaging in an orgy of clearcutting to remove trees that may, or may not, harbor the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker.

The results can be seen all over town. Along the roadsides, scattered brown bark is all that is left of pine stands. Mayor Joan Kinney has watched with dismay as waterfront lots across from her home on Big Lake have been stripped down to sandy wasteland.

“It’s ruined the beauty of our city,” Ms. Kinney said.
The "logic" here says that because Fish and Wildlife Service decisions on local woodpecker habitat may lead to new building restrictions, it's best to purge all the trees from one's property ahead of time. In this way, landowners can sneer at the would-be tyranny of the FWS, while reveling in their God-given freedom to do stupid, self-destructive things for no good reason.

The sheer number of logging permits granted - 368, according to the NY Times - suggests that this is an outbreak of mass hysteria. And at least one local official is doing his part to fan the flames:
Bonner Stiller has been holding on to two wooded half-acre lakefront lots for 23 years. He stripped both lots of longleaf pines before the government could issue its new map.

“They have finally developed a value,” said Mr. Stiller, a Republican member of the state General Assembly. “And then to have that taken away from you?”
The problem is, that's not exactly what's happening, as an official with the FWS explains:
Having a woodpecker tree on a piece of property does not necessarily mean a house cannot be built there, Mr. Benjamin said. A landowner can even get permission to cut down a cavity tree, as long as an alternative habitat can be found.
From the standpoint of "rational self-interest," trees usually add considerable value to a property. Landowners who cut down half their trees would be acting more in their own self-interest than these folks, who are simply lashing out (as a result, I'm sure, of melodramatic anti-ESA propaganda from the Right).

Safe Harbor programs comprise another way to escape ESA regulations without denuding one's land and denying habitat to threatened species. Perhaps Mr. Stiller, given his position as a public figure, ought to be educating the public about these options, instead of handing them a gun and helping them to take careful aim at their own feet.

Corrupt, Cruel and Inhumane

There’s more information available on the Tripoli Six, whose plight I discussed earlier. You can watch a short, gripping movie trailer here, and there’s a list of contacts and other pertinent links here (both via Effect Measure). Also via Effect Measure, this quote:

They stand in for all of us who risk killing our patients because the tools we are given are so defective, our patients, through no fault of their own, are so sick, and the system so corrupt, cruel and inhumane it cares nothing for their deaths except as a political gambit to divert attention.
This is well said, but it makes me question Revere’s assertion that this is not a partisan issue. In America, we’re currently debating whether torture should be legal, and whether science has any authority, and whether access to healthcare is a social good, let alone a human right. The situation in Libya – where religious hatred is trampling science, and political opportunism is whitewashing the horrors of a failed public health system, and torture was used to extract false confessions - shows what can happen when you compromise on certain basic values.

That said, prominent conservative blogs are picking up the story and demanding action, which is all to the good. We can continue to discuss the larger philosophical issues once the Tripoli Six are finally released. Until then, please continue to spread the word.

UPDATE: Effect Measure announces that Mickey Grant's film Infection - the trailer for which is linked above - is now available for free viewing via streaming video. Give it some time to load.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Excellent Indonesian nudibranch footage from Stephen Trainor. Nice soundtrack, too!

Friday Hope Blogging

Bruce Mau makes a good point in an interview with WorldChanging:

One of the big discussions in our project was the value of open source. I met this extraordinary guy who runs IIT in India, and he said, "You have no concept of what it means because it's inconsequential to you….You're not going to do it because there's no real incentive for you to do it. When you get to the developing world and go into India and provide free access to software, you have no idea how revolutionary that is in terms of providing tools to people that simply wouldn't have access before."

We were working at MIT the day that they put all of their coursework online. Think about what that does. A kid in India can now access everything that MIT has.
It’s very interesting to think about the extent to which considering a given change “inconsequential” is a luxury. Apropos of which, WorldChanging also has an interview with Inveneo, which builds communication stations in rural Africa:
Our Communication Stations are ultra-low-power PCs, running on Linux, requiring 12 watts of power. They can be run on solar, bicycle, wind, or other power; solar is the primary. This is important because most communities they serve are off the grid. They are very simple machines, with no moving parts, using off-the-shelf technology; they can also can be modified to add voice communication (VOIP).
New open-source tools allow ordinary people to make their own maps:
[Mark] Harrower, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is devoted to giving people powerful new tools to improve map-making. Building on his research theme of visualization and animation in cartography, Harrower has created a fleet of public domain software programs that help mapmakers with fundamental tasks such as selecting colors, filtering data, representing change and generalizing lines…. Harrower very strongly believes in making his inventions free and publicly available, rather than locking them up in an academic journal or a commercial license.
Speaking of maps, the federal government has been mapping radiological hotspots in New York’s five boroughs, in order to have a baseline reading in case of a dirty bomb detonation. It found some unexpected areas of radioactivity, including a large piece of parkland on Staten Island that has since been cordoned off from the public. Probably for the best, I’d say.

The government of Namibia is directing all institutions to heat their water with solar power:
It has been found that all Namibian households with electric geysers combined consume N$100 million worth of electricity every year. Suppose the government made it compulsory for all to use solar water heaters, the country would cut down its electricity consumption by between 15 and 20 percent.
Isn’t it odd how the American “unitary executive” claims the right to torture, but not to mandate the use of solar power?

Still, you can mandate solar power for yourself with this attractive little device:
I bought this portable solar panel from SolarStyle on eBay for $20…. With this portable solar panel, I charge my MP3 player, a portable amplifier, a set of battery-powered Sony surround sound speakers, a cellular phone, a digital camera, two LED lamps, a LED booklight, and a LED flashlight.
BushCo’s harebrained attack on the Roadless Rule has run into a wee snag:
A federal judge on Wednesday reinstated the "Roadless Rule," a Clinton-era ban on road construction in nearly a third of national forests. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled that the Bush administration failed to conduct necessary environmental studies before making changes that allowed states to decide how to manage individual national forests.
They’ve been losing a lot of these battles lately. Perhaps they’re a bit overextended at the moment? In related news, the BLM has just banned off-roading in 222 square miles of Utah’s badlands.

San Francisco has what strikes me as an effective way of educating people about rising sea levels:
Today, they launched to bring the climate crisis home. It's an ingeniously simple idea: Participants tape up public spaces with a line of blue tape that marks the new sea level after unchecked global warming.

In a coastal city like San Francsico, it's a disturbing sight indeed -- the blue line cuts the urban landscape mercilessly, and you can really feel yourself going under. The project launched at Pier 39 -- tourist central here in SF -- so it's getting lots of exposure.
Richard Branson claims that he’ll spend $3 billion to fight climate change. Remarkable, if true. And if it comes to pass, you can thank Al Gore. (You can thank him for this, too.)

A group of scientists is trying to put an end to Japan’s demented, mindbogglingly sadistic annual dolphin slaughter:
[T]he ethical argument for ending the drive is supported by a solid foundation of scientific evidence indicating that dolphins possess the mental and emotional capacities for pain and suffering on a par with great apes and humans. It is also increasingly clear that dolphins have social traditions and cultures, complex interdependent relationships, and strong family ties all of which are susceptible to disruption or even dissolution in the drives.

"The scientific evidence is abundantly clear--the Japanese dolphin hunts are an assault on intelligent, sentient, and emotional beings with brains that should make us all stop and think" said Dr. Lori Marino, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University.
I couldn’t agree more, and I hope everyone who reads this will sign their petition. Now.

Okay, now that you’re back, here are some amazing mountain panoramas by Jack Brauer (via Coudal). Click on the photos to enlarge them, and then drag the cursor to scroll over them. Italy's Monte Paterno is particularly impressive.

Also, nine months of gestation in 20 seconds, and some lovely photos of Quebec and Ontario, including "a mosaic of 50 gilt lettering apartment names from Greater Montréal" (both via Things.)

Here are some sites I've found on my own: A world survey of doorknobs. A study of Wyoming rangelands through time. Pictures from the Museum of Comparative Oology. And last but not least, Trapeze Disrobing Act, a short film from 1903.

(Photo at top by greynotgrey.)

The Way Things Go

Some time ago, that great and good man Lawrence Summers described the developing world as underpolluted:

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
New Scientist describes some results of this impeccable logic:
[P]oison-laden electronics and asbestos-ridden ships continue to be dumped in poor countries. In the Ivory Coast, where riots have broken out and the governing coalition has resigned as a result of the dumping, the final victim might be the country's fragile peace process.
Meanwhile, Subtopia describes carceral urbanism in Padua, Italy, where thousands of African immigrants have been confined in a housing estate:
Padua has become a crime ridden urban battlezone between rival gangs, drug dealers, and populations of migrants who still lack the ability to work in Italy legally, to vote, and are essentially lost in an endless line waiting for some form of national legalization.

So, instead of critically re-examining the neccessary legal mechanisms for managing the multi-ethnic fabric of a modern Padua society, officials, in just a few hours, erected a msssive steel wall at the outskirts of Padua, to further isolate the ghettosphere of the Serenissima housing estate from nearby residents who felt threatened by an atmosphere of constant violence. Described as "a large and ugly barrier stretching for 84 metres, three metres high and made of thick steel panels, there is a police checkpoint at the entrance as well as CCTV cameras."
These are snapshots. Tom Philpott brilliantly describes a larger narrative into which they might conceivably fit.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Tough Job of Parenting

Some dingbat at WorldNetDaily is very excited about Facts on Fiction, a site that helps parents choose “safe” books for their children.

The site rates each book according to a number of simple criteria: there are easy-to-read charts for mature subject matter; profanity; sexual content; violence/illegal activity; tobacco/alcohol/drugs; and disrespectful/anti-social elements.

The reviewers have definitely done their homework. The chart for Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl reveals it to be more or less free of anti-social content – on the familial level, at any rate - although there are “multiple brief instances” of “arguing/disrespect without consequences.” (Those Frank children were downright spoiled, if you ask me.)

The book also features “frightening scenes,” or if you prefer, “situations that create fear.” Fortunately, you can click a link to get more specific objections, as thus:

There are constant references to the violence of WWII and the Holocaust.
It does seem a bit gratuitous, when you put it like that.

James and the Giant Peach - a book I personally found distasteful as a child – has some problems, too:
p. 57-59 The group argues about their fate.

p. 103-105 Insulting remarks by Centipede result in an attack by the Cloud-Men.
The first complaint has such profound philosophical implications that I scarcely feel qualified to address it. Suffice it to say that if I’d been directed to this site at an impressionable age, and read this entry, I’d probably be living under a freeway overpass today.

Regarding pages 103 to 105, I find it strange that after all these complaints about books in which disrespect brings no consequences, we’re now supposed to fret over books that take the opposite approach. John Yoo or Alberto Gonzalez could fashion a massive legal juggernaut around the concept that centipedes who insult cloud-men must pay a price. But when Roald Dahl says it, there’s a problem.

The points here are too obvious to belabor, but that rarely stops me. The moralistic approach to teaching literature had one of its greatest and most sensitive adherents in Flannery O’Connor; the fact that even she couldn’t quite manage to make a sensible argument for it ought to be instructive.

At the very least, a parent who wants to screen books in this way needs to have the decency to read them herself, instead of cribbing from someone else's absurd laundry list of imagined faults, and clucking over examples of disrespectful behavior and tobacco abuse among people who are en route to a state-administered death camp.

Granted, the understanding of culture tends to be simplistic across the political spectrum, and I know lefties whose grounds for judging works of art are every bit as thoughtless and reflexive as those of their conservative counterparts. It’s typical of our strange, paranoiac brand of optimism to assume that we can simply reduce art to a couple of simple propositions, and judge it accordingly.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to mediate or even restrict children’s access to certain material. It’s not. But you can’t do it this way. The examples above are absurd because they can’t be anything but absurd, given that the scope and intentions of projects like these will always be totally incommensurable with what art is and does.

According to WND, this site makes “the tough job of parenting just a little bit easier.” It does indeed make parenting easier, and that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. It rewards parental laziness, and legitimates parental ignorance. It makes parents worse, not better, while teaching children that they don’t even have to read Cliffs Notes to learn what they need to know about a book. Worst of all, it punishes children for the emotional problems of adults, in the name of protecting their innocence. If children are to be protected from “situations that create fear,” they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to think of books as the intellectual equivalent of sweaty-palmed strangers with candy.

But then, I would say that. After all, I was corrupted in my youth by a story in which steroid-enhanced rodents fed sleeping powder to a cat.

A Matter of Life and Death

According to any number of right-wing chatterers, the Bush Doctrine can be credited with “civilizing” Libya (even though Muammur Qaddafi had offered to disarm long before we invaded Iraq).

Christopher Hitchens, for instance, held a pair of shotglasses to his rheumy, porcine eyes as though they were binoculars, and peered earnestly into Qaddafi’s heart:

Col. Qaddafi…has lived to rue the mistake he made with Pan Am. He started the grinding of an inexorable machine, beginning with the deceptively modest processes of Scottish law, and he now stands before the world as a gibbering and whimpering psycho, forced to pay blood money and to beg for leniency.
While this vision was dancing in Hitchens’ sodden brain, the Libyan government was preparing to execute five nurses and a doctor who’d been accused of injecting 400 infants with AIDS (under direction from the USA and Israel, natch), and were being subjected to imprisonment, torture, and rape.

Pharyngula explains the medics' current situation:
They appealed (wouldn't you?) and are now being retried. Prospects look bleak. Libyans celebrated joyfully when the initial verdict was cast down, and Mouammar Gaddafi…well, let's just say that having a megalomaniacal dictator running the country in which the trial takes place does not encourage much hope for a merciful intervention. The Libyans are now demanding $5.5 billion in compensation if they are to release the prisoners. This is nothing but a showy and high-priced extortion plot.
Note that Libya’s offer of compensation for the bombing of Pan Am 103 was a comparatively modest $2.7 billion.

Now that Bush and Qaddafi are bestest buddies, you’d think that a single phone call would set matters right. But then, Bush could very easily have made freeing these innocent medics a condition of having UN sanctions dropped and diplomatic ties restored. Therefore, it’s probably wise to assume that help will have to come from other quarters.

Declan Butler requests the involvement of bloggers, while Nature reiterates its call for scientists to speak up for these endangered colleagues, and for science itself. If you're so inclined, you can also contact your congresspeople, the State Department, and the US embassy in Libya (

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Denialists on Parade

Salon has obtained e-mails demonstrating the White House's attempts to control media access to climate scientists at the NOAA. Grist explains:

Commerce Deputy Director of Communications Chuck Fuqua happily OK'd interview requests with NOAA hurricane researcher Chris Landsea, who has stated publicly that global warming has little to no effect on hurricanes. In email correspondence, Fuqua writes, "Please make sure Chris is on message" and "I'm a little nervous on this, but trust he'll hold the course." But Fuqua declined a request that NOAA researcher Thomas Knutson, who published research indicating that global warming strengthens hurricanes, be on CNBC -- when told that Knutson disagreed with Landsea, Fuqua wrote, "Why can't we have one of the other guys on then?"
Meanwhile, the UK's Royal Society has taken the unprecedented - and politically astute - action of writing a letter to ExxonMobil, demanding that it stop funding denialist pseudoscience. After noting that ExxonMobil paid $2.9 million to denialist groups in the United States, the author makes this polite request:
I would be grateful if you could let me know which organisations in the UK and other European countries have been receiving funding from ExxonMobil so that I can work out which of these have been similarly providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.
Most damning of all, George Monbiot has fascinating new information on the pivotal role of Philip Morris in climate-change denial. Apparently, the tobacco giant's response to the threat of passive-smoking laws was to present the appearance of a grassroots rejection of "overregulation." This decentralized, generalist approach allowed Philip Morris's astroturf group - The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition - to seek funding from a wide variety of industries:
It was important, further letters stated, "to ensure that TASSC has a diverse group of contributors"; to "link the tobacco issue with other more 'politically correct' products"; and to associate scientific studies that cast smoking in a bad light with "broader questions about government research and regulations" - such as "global warming", "nuclear waste disposal" and "biotechnology".
I know that some Americans actually enjoy being treated with contempt by powerful people. But I think the rest of us can agree that a sensible country would dissolve Philip Morris and ExxonMobil, seize their assets, and use their money to fund the type of research and problem-solving that they hobbled for so many years.

UPDATE: Just to round things out, Bjorn Lomborg's flogging the Copenhagen Consensus yet again. I dealt with Lomborg and the CC at some length here.

Strength and Resolve

On the subject of torture, I can't say much more than I said almost two years ago:

The Right is eager to promote conversations like these, because it understands that every time a person can be led to compromise basic moral principles - every time a person defends the indefensible, or justifies the unjustifiable - that person becomes weaker and more malleable. It's a funny thing, but once I've gotten you to discuss the possible merits of doing something evil, I'm more than halfway to convincing you that it's worth doing....

If a man offers to buy your six-year-old daughter for the international sex trade, you're not going to haggle over the price; you're going to see to it that this predatory monster is stopped dead in his tracks. That's precisely the emotional response that's appropriate when right-wing ghouls take to the airwaves to defend torture and terrorism and racism; the situation calls not for debate - not even heated debate - but for deep-seated spiritual revulsion, and immediate and effective preventative action.

If we refuse to rise to that occasion as a nation - if we can't say "enough is enough," and cast these intolerably arrogant moral lepers back into the outer darkness where they belong - it seems to me that we're just as despicable and dangerous as they are.
I'd add that for the United States to repudiate torture, and to punish the transient officeholders who authorized it, would be a much more impressive show of strength and resolve, and a much greater blow against terrorist ideology, than BushCo has ever managed.

(Cartoon via WhirledView.)

Abandoned Structures of Asia

Possibly the greatest photo site ever.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cluttered and Dangerous

I’ve discussed the issue of underwater munition dumps several times, not so much because they’re a hazard – although they are – but because they’re such a perfect example of what passes for problem-solving among our expert class.

Here’s the situation in Nova Scotia:

Some of the most cluttered and dangerous deposits of bombs in these parts are corroding in soft silt at the bottom of the Bedford Basin and Halifax Harbour, in the centre of the province’s most densely populated region. But thousands of tonnes of other bombs and chemicals are in shallow waters of Sydney Harbour, in Bras d’Or Lake off Eskasoni and off Yarmouth, where a nuclear submarine, rusting in the water, still contains five vertical launch tubes and three live torpedoes....

[B]ecause the harbour is so deep the military has said they don't pose a big threat unless they are disturbed.
It's a good thing that, as James S. Robbins notes, human beings are infinitely adaptable:
Boaters are still not permitted to drop anchor due to the vast amount of unexploded munitions.
A larger worry is that unexploded ordnance may be incompatible with natural gas exploration:
Aging bombs can be easily triggered by minor underwater pressure - the "equivalent to the tap of a pencil," [Terry Long] said, noting that seismic blasts used by companies exploring for gas generate much greater pressure than that.
This could pose a very interesting problem at some point, because while there are obvious – and increasing – incentives for oil and gas drilling, cleaning up undersea UXO would be an incredibly dangerous and expensive undertaking.

Fortunately, we have plenty of experts whom we can trust to assess the situation carefully, and recommend the wisest course of action. Right?

(Given that this nautically themed post coincides with the return of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I’m obliged to add one final remark: Arrrr.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dear Dead Days

In his latest bid to wrest the title of “dumbest fucking guy on the planet” away from Doug Feith, John Yoo announces there were “no serious national security threats” to the United States in the 1970s, and that this is why Congress was able to place certain restrictions on presidential power.

Sounds about right. Putting aside the nuclear arsenals of the USSR and China, and the ceaselessly reiterated threat of Soviet expansionism, all I can think of is numerous attacks by the Black Liberation Army; a deadly bombing campaign by Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional; numerous bombings by the Weather Underground, including their 1975 attack on the U.S. State Department; the December 29, 1975 bombing of LaGuardia Airport, which killed 11 people; the Mayaguez incident; two assassination attempts against Gerald Ford by members of the Manson Family; Samuel Byck‘s 1974 attempt to kill Nixon by flying a hijacked plane into the White House; and the Alphabet Bomber’s deadly 1974 attack on Los Angeles International Airport (he also plotted to kill Nixon with nerve gas, and had 25 pounds of sodium cyanide in his house).

And countless terrorist attacks on America’s allies all over the world.

But other than that…

(Hat tip: Corrente.)

UPDATE: RMJ addresses the rest of Yoo's argument.

Sustainable Power

From Effect Measure comes more evidence of the advent of our Dark Green Future:

British arms manufacturer BAE Systems is designing "environmentally friendly" weapons, including "reduced lead" bullets, "reduced smoke" grenades and rockets with fewer toxins, The Sunday Times said. Other initiatives include developing armoured vehicles with lower carbon emissions, safer and more sustainable artillery and even recycling or composting waste explosives, the newspaper added.
Fair enough. God knows there are excellent reasons to ban the use of, say, depleted uranium munitions. And as repellent as it might be to massacre civilians, there’s no reason to compound the survivors’ suffering by using lead bullets. Environmentally friendly munitions are quite reasonable.

Then again, that’s precisely why they’re frightening. Walter Benjamin famously claimed that there is no monument of civilization that is not also a monument of barbarism. Advances like BAE's encourage a more optimistic outlook: There is no monument of barbarism that can’t be civilized.

One doesn’t admire mindless, orgiastic bloodshed, of course, but it’s less disturbing in many ways than rational, efficient bloodshed. Consider the guillotine: If your goal is to remove people’s heads, axe-wielding executioners are messy and unreliable; what if it takes three blows to get the head off, instead of one? The guillotine solved this problem nicely, while also turning execution into an educational demonstration of Newtonian kinematics. Clearly, this approach to head-removal was better suited to the dignity and grandeur of a clockwork universe.

By the same token, "green" munitions are better suited to a society that’s coming to appreciate the interdependence of all life. One can almost imagine some future apologist for slaughter officiously complaining about the enemies’ unenlightened use of lead bullets and VOCs. Kill 'em all, in Gaia's name!

Like it or not, though, this is progress. We have every reason to hope that Israel’s electrified wall against Egypt will be solar powered, and that if Raytheon gets the bid to wall off Saudi Arabia from Iraq, it’ll meet LEED standards. And of course, these modest projects are nothing compared to the worldchanging innovations we’ll see as we reduce the environmental footprint of Fortress America.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, all things considered.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday Consumerism Blogging

I finally got my hands on a copy of Joseph Gandy: An Architectural Visionary in Georgian England, and am absolutely giddy over it.

Brian Lukacher's text is well-written and exceedingly thorough. Thankfully, he isn't content to class Gandy as some sort of ex nihilo visionary (cf. the early comic-strip collection Art Out of Time). For example, he wisely positions Gandy's more otherworldly effects "in the late Georgian visual culture of eidophusikons, illuminated transparencies, and phantasmagoric theaters that flourished especially in London."

Apropos of which, here's Gandy's 1805 watercolor Pandemonium, or Part of the High Capital of Satan and His Peers:

You can click on the image to enlarge it. If this painting appeals to you at all, you'll be thrilled with the rest of the book.

Starting on October 17, Drawn and Quarterly is releasing Tove Jansson's complete Moomin strips, in five volumes. When I was about nine, I found a small, oblong paperback of Moomin strips in Finnish at a community garage sale. I couldn't make heads or tails of it, but that didn't stop me from carting it around everywhere, as a sort of talisman. Other than that, I've only seen a couple of amateur, xeroxed translations of a few strips - despite the fact that Tove Jansson is one of my favorite writers (and people) on earth - so as you might imagine, I'm very excited to get hold of this collection. And of course, anyone who hasn't read the novels should do so. Echidne wrote a lovely tribute to Tove Jansson and the Moomin books some months back, and - as always - got it exactly right:

Her books are very much about difference and how to live with it, about accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be, and about compromise. But she never preaches.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation's Overlook is well worth picking up. I discussed the CLUI at some length here, so I won't repeat myself. As the publisher says, "the CLUI serves as a kind of curator of the American landscape, a tour guide through ghost towns and show caves, past soap and shoelace factories, to open pit mines, casinos, landfills, and art installations, to the dry lakes where atomic bombs were tested and the ersatz villages where rescue workers train for toxic spills and other disasters. Sites like these rarely appear on street maps, but the Center believes that they are windows into the American psyche, landmarks that manifest the rich ambiguities of the nation's cultural history."

Also, Spirit of the Beehive - one of the most beautiful movies ever made - is finally coming out on Criterion. Watch it. Then watch it again.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Gymnodoris rubropapulosa, who is "an admirable instance of the unexpected forms in which the great Nemesis hides herself."

(Photo courtesy of Umiushi.)

Friday Hope Blogging

WorldChanging discusses the implications of a shift in consumerism from ownership to access, using Netflix as an example:

[B]y not having a store to which I drive to get the videos, the planet is spared the impacts of a retail outlet, as well as all those trips back and forth, each of which uses (though I haven't run the numbers, I'm sure this is true) far more fuel and generates far more pollution than do the daily rounds of the local mail carrier (who is, after all, making the trip anyway).
The article goes on to quote a study which found that:
Downloading 56 minutes of music is more than two and a half times less resource intensive than going to a shop to buy a CD, even if the music is burnt on to a CD-R.
The CD argument is a compelling one, because record labels have to make an advance decision as to how many people will buy a given release, and the result – in most cases – is that far too many CDs get made; even in cases where a release is popular – which is exceedingly rare - additional pressings typically don't factor in the number of copies available in used stores, on Amazon, and so forth.

Thus, the shift to an on-demand system for music and movie distribution makes a lot of sense; those who want an object to handle could simply download and print graphics, and make their own. I’ve always been a fetishist of sound-bearing media – I can spend hours on a site like this, with a puddle of drool collecting in my lap – but nonetheless, a shift away from mass-producing CDs and DVDs does seem both necessary and desirable.

On a related note, as a resolute anti-elitist cursed with fairly elitist tastes, I’ve always been bothered by competitive consumption, in which musical preference becomes the equivalent of the inflatable chest-sacs with which male frigate birds try to overawe each other. Things are changing, though; music that used to be hard to find, and genres that used to appeal only to a handful of self-styled cognoscenti, can now be downloaded easily, by anyone. One result has been a dilution of the cultural capital of music snobs, and I think this is all to the good. I’ll have more to say about this, someday, as it ties into a number of interesting political trends.

Anyway, let’s see what else I have. Cervantes says that green tea actually does seem to have a protective effect against cancer. Of course, you still have to deal with the uncomfortable side effects described by J.S. Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius, who theorized that green tea upsets the fluids of the brain, and leaves exposed a surface “on which disembodied spirits may operate.” Still, I think most of us would rather be stalked implacably by a diabolical black monkey than get colon cancer.

There’s a possibility of making artificial corneas from biomimetic hydrogels:
That material may promise a new view for at least 10 million people worldwide who are blind due to damaged or diseased corneas or many millions more who are nearsighted or farsighted due to misshapen corneas.
And Effect Measure offers “modestly good” news on the H5N1 vaccine front (albeit with a number of important caveats):
[T]his vaccine afforded cross protection for the various H5N1 sublineages (clades). This is important as there is doubt that the current killed virus vaccines made against a non-pandemic strain of H5N1 would also protect against one that has mutated to pandemic form. Since we still don't have a pandemic virus to test this vaccine against (fortunately) we don't know if this kind of live virus vaccine would have a better chance to work also against a pandemic strain. but these data suggests it has this potential.
There's word of an advance in the fight against childhood diarrhea, which kills hundreds of thousands annually:
The four-year project, the results of which are now being piloted in four hospitals in India, will offer a means of identifying the two most deadly forms of the disease quickly, cheaply and with little training necessary for practitioners.
Scientists seem to have found a way to stop the predations of invasive and destructive Argentine ants, by making them attack members of their own colony:
Slight alterations in the "recognition" chemicals on the exoskeletons of these closely related pests, these scientists say, could transform "kissing cousins" into mortal enemies, triggering deadly in-fighting within their normally peaceful super colonies, which have numerous queens and can stretch hundreds of miles.
One colony stretches from San Diego to Ukiah, if you can believe that.

Here's a fascinating biomimetic material based on ferns:
Scientists looked to ferns to create a novel energy scavenging device that uses the power of evaporation to move itself -- materials that could provide a method for powering micro and nano devices with just water or heat.
Last, a long-dry portion of the San Joaquin River will have water and salmon once again, thanks to a deal struck between environmentalists and farmers:
Based on a new 20-year, $250-to-$800 million restoration plan, agricultural water diversion from the river will be reduced by an average of 15 percent and the spring chinook salmon run, wiped out by a dam in 1942, will be revived. "The magnitude of this restoration effort … is virtually unprecedented in the American West," says Hal Candee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of 14 green groups that sued the Bureau of Reclamation in 1988.
I don't have much to offer in the way of entertainment this week. (You can blame Blogger, which ate the first draft of this post.) I think the photo above, of startrails around the Southern Pole, should be enough for anyone (you can see an animated version here). Other than that, I have yet another favorite blog, entitled (what is this?). I found it through Things, which also drew my attention to these photos found in the street.

Also, just for the hell of it, here's Arthur Dove's 1924 painting Nature Symbolized:

Alarums and Excursions

Robert M. Jeffers pours out the wine of his wrath upon Richard Dawkins, with excellent results. (Obligatory caveat: I don’t dislike Dawkins because he’s an outspoken atheist; I dislike him because he’s shallow, sloppy, and a lousy writer. Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Echidne talks about new research on the vulnerabilities of Diebold voting machines, and wonders what would happen if everyone exploited them. It’s a good question. Apropos of which, here's Bruce Schneier on hackers:

I believe the best computer security experts have the hacker mindset. When I look to hire people, I look for someone who can't walk into a store without figuring out how to shoplift. I look for someone who can't test a computer security program without trying to get around it. I look for someone who, when told that things work in a particular way, immediately asks how things stop working if you do something else. We need these people in security, and we need them on our side.
Alicublog discusses the conservatarians’ attempted rehabilitation of the racialist, anti-American loon Enoch Powell (which just goes to show that David Brooks was right: Conservatives are "acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears"). I’m thinking Eric Clapton could help this cause by recording a new single of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” backed with Skrewdriver’s “The Evil Crept In.”

Speaking of loons, Cryptome investigates an odd compound in the mountains of New Mexico. And Orcinus posts a photo of a GOP billboard from 1949.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why We're Pumping Oil

With a few ill-chosen words, the intrepid Don Young (R-AK) spirits us back into the Primatene Mists of time:

Young, noting the presence of network TV crews, took a moment to reflect on his thoughts regarding climate change, citing the benefit of global warming -- not caused by man -- in another eon to an area that today is frozen much of the year. "We're dealing with the most northern part of the United States of America, and a most hostile climate, and we're pumping oil, and I'd just like to remind them if they're asked where did the oil come from, and I would say this to Al Gore specifically: This was a jungle at one time, this was a forest at one time, this was a fern-laden area with mammoths at one time, and that's really why we're pumping oil," he said.
These glad tidings put PZ Myers in a mood to celebrate:
Global warming will foster the luxuriant bogs and swamps of a new, more tropical Alaska, laying down the deep beds of carbon that will fuel the SUVs of tomorrow's America!
Indeed. It's not just a good idea to melt the Arctic; it's a sacred trust: it's our moral duty to provide cheap, plentiful fuel for the bright-eyed, golden-haired, many-tentacled transhuman monsters of the mercifully distant future.

What about our children and grandchildren, you ask? I say to hell with the little weasels. We got ours, let 'em get theirs.

By the way...I know that plate tectonics is only a theory, and is therefore little better than reading tea leaves while high on LSD, but here's what the world is expected to look like by the time Rep. Young's oil might conceivably be ready for use:

I'm sure the good "people" of Afriscandieuroindiarabiasia will be very grateful for the conscientious, long-term thinking of visionaries like Rep. Young.

Love Among the Ruins

As most readers probably know, an oil-drilling mishap in East Java resulted in an amazing eruption of hot toxic mud that has displaced well over 10,000 people. The accident happened on May 29, but the flow continues today. It’s roughly the size of Monaco, and has swallowed villages and factories.

Now, a romantic soap opera is being filmed against this inspiring backdrop. That’d be odd enough in itself, but the soap opera is being bankrolled by the company whose drilling is responsible for the eruption:

"We don't want to blame anyone through this show. We want to show that behind this tragedy something positive can appear," director Daniel Rifki told Reuters during a break in filming.
The possibilities here are staggering. Al Gore may’ve inspired Love Story and uncovered the pollution at Love Canal, but even he wasn’t visionary enough to create Love Canal Story.

I look forward to heartwarming romantic stories set in toxic, ruined landscapes from Prypiat to Athabasca.

Our Dark Materials

In England, a group of teachers, child psychologists, and children’s authors (including Philip Pullman, author of the fine trilogy His Dark Materials) have written a letter of concern announcing that modernity is “poisoning” childhood.

"We are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioural and developmental conditions. Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust as full-grown adults can, to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change.

"They need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen based entertainment), first hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.
And a pony.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Our culture is a soul-annihilating nightmare, as I’ve argued elsewhere, and the effect it has on children is grounds for real concern.

That said, although the notion of the capitalist "invention of childhood" has surely been overemphasized, what we typically sentimentalize as “childhood” does require, to quote Herman Melville, “Time, Strength, Cash and Patience.” The UK's idealized concept of childhood is - like America's - essentially Victorian, and its foundational concept of “innocence” is anything but innocent. (Who but the guilty or unhappy would idealize a state of pre-knowledge?)

Sue Palmer, who circulated the letter, makes an interesting claim:
"Children’s development is being drastically affected by the kind of world they are brought up in," Palmer told the Daily Telegraph. "It is shocking."
Is it, really? It sounds to me like just about what you'd expect.

Where you find sentimentality, you often find a brutal reality it's intended to soften. I'm not sure it's sensible to think that we can build a shelter for children out of the dark materials of our culture, where they'll be allowed to wallow in wholesome, innocent wonder until they're old enough to consider the works of Ayn Rand and Niall Ferguson.

An anecdote from Thomas De Quincey’s childhood – which he calls an “introduction to the world of strife” - is revealing, in this context:
Both my brother and myself, for the sake of varying our intellectual amusements, occupied ourselves at times in governing imaginary kingdoms….

My own kingdom was an island called Gombroon. But in what parallel of north or south latitude it lay, I concealed for a time…for I was determined to place a monstrous world of waters between us as the only chance (and a very poor one it proved) for compelling my brother to keep the peace.
De Quincey also made Gombroon small and poor, with no natural resources. But this was no protection against his brother’s marauding kingdom of Tigrosylvania:
It seemed that vast horns and promontories ran down from all parts of his dominions towards any country whatsoever, in either hemisphere,—empire or republic, monarchy, polyarchy, or anarchy,—that he might have reasons for assaulting. Here in one moment vanished all that I had relied on for protection: distance I had relied on, and suddenly I was found in close neighborhood to my most formidable enemy. Poverty I had relied on, and that was not denied: he granted the poverty, but it was dependent on the barbarism of the Gombroonians. It seems that in the central forests of Gombroonia there were diamond mines, which my people, from their low condition of civilization, did not value, nor had any means of working….

O reader, do not laugh! I lived forever under the terror of two separate wars in two separate worlds: one against the factory boys, in a real world of flesh and blood, of stones and brickbats, of flight and pursuit…. the other in a world purely aerial, where all the combats and the sufferings were absolute moonshine. And yet the simple truth is, that, for anxiety and distress of mind, the reality…was as nothing in comparison of that dream kingdom….
De Quincey faced one final humiliation as king of Gombroon: the discovery that its people had tails:
My brother…published an extract from some scoundrel’s travels in Gombroon, according to which the Gombroonians had not yet emerged from this early condition of apedom. They, it seems, were still homines caudati. Overwhelming to me and stunning was the ignominy of this horrible discovery.
Now, I have to confess that I’m quoting this story at length mainly because I find it funny. Still, it’s a fascinating example of how easily political economy can find its way into children’s “pretty fancies” (or vice versa, for all I know). And though De Quincey doesn't mention it, I think it's pretty clear that the children of Tigrosylvania are more likely to enjoy a leisurely childhood than those of Gombroon.

There's no denying that children everywhere ought to have more time "for reading, for dreaming, for music, for drama, for art, and simply for playing." But it's not clear what actual changes these rather Mandarin pronouncements are supposed to effect, or what they really signify in a world where so many millions of children face much more serious threats than addiction to videogames...especially given the connection between the “Time, Strength, Cash and Patience" an ideal childhood demands, and the economic ideal of sweatshops and child labor.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Serious People

Alicublog has discovered a clever little cartoon by someone named Mrs. R, in which our sexually perverted culture (represented, naturally enough, by a slutty, tattooed single mom with plenty o’ thems and those) compels an “at-risk child” to accept the Islamic critique of Western decadence, and then to become a suicide bomber.

The story is entertainingly daft. Just for starters, what drives the child to embrace Middle Eastern theology is an (alleged) ancient Egyptian perversion involving lesbians who vomit on one another. At this point, one is tempted to suggest that the storyline says more about the author’s perversion than anyone else’s, and leave it at that.

What’s really disturbing, though - because it's so ordinary - is that the cartoon sides with the terrorists’ view of America’s depravity. It’s essentially the conservative radical-chic version of Ward Churchill’s comment about the “little Eichmanns” at the WTC: Like rape victims who picked out the wrong clothes, “we” deserved what we got.

In reality, the terrorists themselves are responsible for the carnage of 9/11, and whatever their reasons may be, they’re without excuse. Those on the Right and Left who claim that “we brought it on ourselves” by being perverts or imperialists are, as Slavoj Zizek notes, avowing solidarity with the murderers rather than with their victims, a stance which he correctly calls an “ethical catastrophe.”

None of this is news, of course. Bush's handlers had barely hosed the encrusted dung off his quasi-royal nethers before Falwell and Robertson were on the TV blaming lesbians for 9/11. But in her comments section, Mrs. R makes a somewhat more arcane argument. She points out that if the “degenerate artists” of Europe hadn’t made degenerate art, they wouldn’t have run afoul of Hitler. That’s true, in a strictly logical sense (which goes to show you how much strict logic is worth). But it also suggests a somewhat too cozy relationship with Hitlerian aesthetics. Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but only a lunatic would feel personally affronted or endangered by it.

She goes on to complain that the Dadaists shouldn’t have “polluted” society with their perverted ideas, and that they got more or less what they deserved from Hitler for prattling about the “absurdity” of war. As it happens, Tristan Tzara joined the French Resistance in World War II, and John Heartfield was putting his life on the line to attack Hitler at a time when the American hard right was busy joining the Bund. But that’s neither here nor there. The interesting thing is that this ideology, which proposes to spread freedom across the globe, not only finds what little it comprehends of freedom to be repulsive, but also sees death by terrorism as a logical, salutary punishment for exercising artistic or sexual freedom “irresponsibly” (i.e., for exercising it, period).

I keep hearing that the Left doesn't take the threat of Islamic fundamentalism seriously. Well, I do take it seriously, and that's precisely why I don't trust the judgment of conservative hysterics who passionately identify with its hatred of secular society. Nor do I trust people who invariably explain what is, after all, a fairly straightforward problem with a glossolaliac outpouring of ahistorical scapegoating, incoherent analogy, neo-Hegelian claptrap, racialist blithering, pseudobiblical militancy, and general delirium.

Some of these people may be sincere, but none of them are serious. If they were serious, they'd make an effort to get their facts straight, if for no other reason than that it pays to know your enemy (instead of conflating "him" with everyone else on earth that you happen not to like, from Peter Singer to the Teletubbies to sexually confident women). Week after week, year after year, these people ululate about how "Islamofascists" hate us and want to kill us all, as though this were an intelligent position from which one could derive a useful strategy. The fact is, we've been calling these people "evildoers" and worse for quite some time. During that time, we've launched two wars - with no clear goals, and at an incalculable cost - and we've completely botched them both (unless our goal was to increase the appeal of anti-Western terrorism to young Muslims, which is a possibility I can't rule out).

For some reason, a number of Americans remain much more impressed by the Administration's namecalling - it's taut, elegant, alert! - than by its consistent pattern of strategic, intellectual, and moral failure. These people see fit to lecture us about seriousness, while they cut marionette capers in a blizzard of pixie dust, wearing pointy clown shoes and propeller beanies.

It makes me angry.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Blitzkrieg Archaeology

There’s an old joke about a farmer who shows a visitor an axe and says, “This here axe has been in my family for eight generations.”

“It must be very sturdy,” says the visitor.

“You bet it is. In all those years, we only had to replace the head twice, and the handle three times.”

The government of Burma takes a somewhat similar approach to its architectural treasures. In hopes of attracting Chinese and Thai tourists, it’s “restoring” its ancient temples by building new sites on top of the old ones.

"They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."
A Burmese historian describes it more simply as “blitzkrieg archaeology.”

In an example of the economic efficiency that makes Burma a favored business partner of Dick Cheney and China, the new temples are being built of cheap, shoddy materials, even though one of the reasons for the rebuilding frenzy is that many of the old buildings were damaged in an earthquake:
The ancient bricks and mortar were more durable than those used now. Even today, the old bricks are stronger than the new ones. Bang one of each kind together and it's the new one that breaks. But officials said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.
Fragments of the old buildings are inserted, when convenient, into the new, economical ones. (It’s tempting to offer this as a metaphor for BushCo’s attempts to cannibalize and retool convenient fragments of the American past. But why bother with metaphor when the reality is already insultingly explicit?)

One expert compares the regime’s actions to Mussolini’s destruction and reinvention of Rome, and in so doing, arrives at one of those penetrating insights for which Western liberalism is justly celebrated:
"The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure….To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime."
Well…yes. But this implies that brutal impoverishment is a side effect of the “ridiculous structures,” instead of a monument in its own right. Slums and palaces equally reflect a government's aspirations. And for certain types of power, they’re equal sources of pride.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Security and Insecurity

Sometimes, in the wee small hours, I worry that our national paranoia is not entirely consistent. In San Francisco, a small group of bluegill perch are being monitored at a water-treatment plant, in the hope that they'll provide early warning of a water-contamination plot. Meanwhile, the question of industrial water contamination is an ideal subject for relentless skeptical inquiry ("anything could've killed those fish; let's not jump to conclusions!").

Argue that you should be protected from mercury emissions, and you're a fearmongering chemophobe. Suggest that you should be protected from catastrophic medical expenses, and you're parasitic socialist scum. Shriek at the top of your lungs that you must be protected from "Islamofascism" no matter what it takes, and you're as courageous in your own little way as the soldiers dodging bullets in Iraq.

It's all very odd. A lot of security-conscious Americans seem perfectly happy speeding around in dangerous and defective vehicles, wolfing down dubious meat from uninspected factory farms, taking unsafe prescription drugs, and courting cardiac arrest by listening to Rush Limbaugh explain the horrors of government regulation. At the same time, they're stricken with grandiose self-pity at the thought of being beheaded by a terrorist - that bearded guy driving the taxi, for instance - or blown up by some obscure shock-sensitive explosive concealed in a tube of hemorrhoid ointment.

The essential question is, what would it cost our society to make a person like this feel "secure"? How can you assuage the fears of someone who believes that terrorism is an "existential threat," but also insists that climatology is a hotbed of liberal orthodoxy, and that the public-health system is a colonial outpost of Stalinism, and that anyone who has enough character and common sense not to buy into these weird, craven delusions is - of all things - a sissy?

You can't, because this kind of bullyboy paranoia is persistent and adaptive, much like the hypochondria to which it bears more than a superficial resemblence. Howard Hughes used to ward away germs by swaddling himself in acres of Kleenex. He terrorized himself with irrational fears, and then dreamed up irrational remedies for them in order to remain somewhat functional. Sound like anyone you know?

These mental bulwarks tend to be temporary, because the sufferer's problem is not with a specific threat, but with the world as it is, and the stark fact that death has us outgunned. The threat of disease is real, obviously, but there's a huge difference between taking sensible precautions against common illnesses, and cowering in a pitch-dark room with Kleenex boxes on your feet to ward off "contamination."

Having a wingnut tell you that you're weak on national security is like having Howard Hughes tell you that you don't wash your hands often enough. The obvious problem with this is that you can't wash your hands often enough to satisfy a maniac; there's not enough soap and water on earth.

Similarly, "securing the homeland" can never go far enough to reassure people whose own psychological borders are under constant attack. What links the conservatarians' blustering insouciance about the everyday threats that are statistically most likely to kill or cripple Americans, and their insistence that it's somehow possible to "kill all the terrorists," is the inability to face up to vulnerability and limitation: "I won't get mangled in a workplace accident that leaves me bankrupt and unable to work, and we can kill all the terrorists!"

"A day of horror like no other," you'll recall, was what Dick Cheney said we'd experience if we let the sickly, middlebrow dictates of law and rationality guide our anti-terrorism efforts. He implied that only cowards and traitors would question the wisdom of the administration's tactics. Actually, only cowards and traitors would see such tactics as wise.

For these damaged people, who crave a level of power and security that they can never have, every day is a day of horror. They want to sit safely in their panic rooms reading back issues of Soldier of Fortune until all the bad guys are dead, and they get furious when sane people tell them that this would be a miserable, occluded, ugly way to live even if it were at all feasible. That's defeatist talk, according to our hypochondriacal armchair warriors. Their plan is a perfectly good one; it just hasn't been tried out on the proper scale.

It's a bit like Howard Hughes imagining that one more layer of Kleenex will protect him. Except, of course, that these people aren't using Kleenex to protect themselves. They're using the lives of other people's children. That's why they're despicable, rather than merely depressing.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Hypselodoris acriba was a partner whom none could despise.

(Photo by Paul Osmond.)

Friday Hope Blogging

First off, let me say "good riddance" to Zozobra. He had it coming.

In other news, John Hofmeister, the president of Shell Oil, announces that the debate on manmade climate change is over, and that the denialist goon squad (the one that oil companies have funded for decades) turns out to be on the wrong side of history:

"It's a waste of time to debate it," he said. "Policy-makers have a responsibility to address it. The nation needs a public policy. We'll adjust."
Shell will adjust to a protracted period of high gasoline prices? How brave of them. That said, Hofmeister’s concession to reality does contribute to the marginalization of denialists, so let's have a grudging round of feeble applause.

In a similarly tentative way, I’m encouraged by the passage of the Obama-Coburn bill, which will allegedly create a searchable public database to track federal spending. Apart from this laudable aim, its passage represents another humiliating defeat for Ted Stevens (R-AK).

Stevens is in good company. A judge has blocked a gigantic, ill-advised oil-lease sale in Alaska:
Ruling that the Bush administration failed to properly consider the impact of oil development on sensitive wetlands, a U.S. district judge has temporarily blocked an upcoming Alaska oil-lease sale of about 1.7 million acres.
And Deltona, Florida’s attempt at leapfrog development has been slapped down by a county judge:
In a ruling applauded by slow-growth activists across Florida, a judge in Volusia County on Tuesday took the unusual step of knocking down Deltona's annexation of nearly 5,000 acres.
Meanwhile, Nugent Sand Co. will not be allowed to bore a wastewater pipe through a 4,000-year-old sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan:
The company did not appeal an Aug. 10 Ingham County Circuit Court ruling that supported the state's refusal to permit construction of a 600-foot-long pipeline through a 4,000-year-old dune. Nugent had until last Friday to appeal the court ruling but did not, said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Advances in environmental forensics may identify the sources of industrial pollution at brownfields, which could speed up the process of cleaning and redevelopment:
By determining scientifically and incontrovertibly who caused an incidence of pollution, environmental forensics will make legal proceedings arising from the Directive quicker, more straightforward, and therefore less expensive. This will remove some obstacles to brownfield development.
Speaking of which, an Australian researcher claims to be able to break down industrial pollutants with ultrasound:
Andrea Sosa Pintos from CSIRO Industrial Physics has shown that toxic and carcinogenic pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can be decomposed quickly, easily and cheaply using a portable treatment unit. “Chemical analysis of the soil and water after we’ve treated it confirms that more than 90 per cent of pollutants have been destroyed,” she says.
In a related story, there’s a new application for catalysts that enhance the oxidizing power of hydrogen peroxide:
Iron(III) tetraamido macrocyclic ligand (TAML) complexes developed by Terrence J. Collins and his research group at Carnegie Mellon University increase the oxidizing power of hydrogen peroxide under mild conditions, making the inexpensive catalysts useful for many environmental cleanup processes. Some examples include treating pulp and paper processing by-products; reducing sulfur in fuels; deactivating bacterial spores; and degrading trace amounts of bisphenol A, estrogens, and active pharmaceutical ingredients in wastewater.

In a new application, Collins and his coworkers report, TAML catalysts can completely degrade the thiophosphate triester pesticides fenitrothion, parathion, and chlorpyrifos methyl, which are under scrutiny as hormone-disrupting chemicals.
What this portends for the production of explosive peroxides in airplane lavatories is anybody’s guess.

Treehugger reports on an interesting new approach to fiber optic lighting:
An Ohio-based company called Fiberstars has come up with a way to combine lamps with fiber-optics to create lighting systems that consume far less energy than traditional fluorescent or incandescent bulbs. A single 70-watt metal halide lamp combined with fiber optics can provide as much lighting as eight 50-watt incandescent bulbs. Fiber optics also do not contain mercury like fluorescents.
At Cornell, researchers are working on a new type of organic semiconductor that displays electroluminescence and works as a photovoltaic cell:
The device is the first to use an "ionic junction," which researchers say could lead to improved performance. Since organic semiconductors can be made in thin, flexible sheets, they could create displays on cloth or paper.
In the UK, Sainsbury’s supermarket chain is switching from plastic to compostible packaging for many of its products:
It says the scheme, already trialled on some of its organic range, will save 3,550 tonnes of plastic a year. Almost half its organic fruit and vegetables will be in the new packaging this week, and 80% by January.
There’s a new issue of Polar Inertia, but as this is a day consecrated to good news I suggest that you curl up with it tomorrow (in the fetal position, natch). You can follow it up with the Dharma Bums’ Good Planets Are Hard to Find, which compiles remarkable photos sent in by readers.

Today, though, you should treat yourself to the sound of foghorns. Here’s a pleasingly tumultuous recording from the Golden Gate Bridge. Here are some rather clinical samples from San Pedro and Los Angeles Harbor. And here are various foghorn and buoy sounds from the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society. For more adventurous listeners, Computerscientist’s Music from the Ocean comprises “sonification and musical work using data from deep-water ocean buoys.” Listen to samples here.

If you’re looking for something a bit more spontaneous and open-ended, PALAOLA, which is “an autonomous, wind and solar powered observatory located on the Ekström ice shelf,” offers an live streaming audio from the Antarctic Ocean. (I just heard some Weddell seal calls!)

When you’re tired of PALAOA – if you ever are - click here to check in with the INSPIRE VLF radio receiver at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, which provides live streaming audio of ionospheric sounds. I’ve been known to leave it on all night.