Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

The Egyptian Parliament has added 64 seats that are reserved for women:

32 new constituencies, comprising two seats each, will be created nationwide to accept applications for running for the parliament from women only. The amendment will take effect starting from Egypt’s elections due next year for at least two legislative elections.
Australian has eased visa restrictions on victims of sex trafficking:
[T]he change will allow women to be granted a temporary visa for up to 45 days even if they do not cooperate with police.

They will also be entitled to support services to help them with legal advice, counselling and accommodation.
Obama has granted some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees:
President Obama signed an executive order granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees Wednesday, calling it "a historic step" but promising more action to come.
In the UK, the House of Lords has ruled against the use of secret evidence in terrorism trials:
The result was a resounding victory for justice: a unanimous verdict from all nine Law Lords against the government. They stated that a trial in which the accused can’t see or challenge the evidence against him is not a fair trial and is an abuse of basic human rights.
In the USA, anti-immigrant demagogy seems to be on the wane:
According to the Progressive States Network (PSN), budget deficits have meant that states are unwilling to pass legislation with a cost attached. Immigration is less of a wedge issue in 2009—that is, politicians seem less willing to push anti-immigrant platforms because candidates who did so in the 2008 elections lost.

PSN also reports that anti-immigrant legislators have been marginalized in 2009. Bills introduced by Texas State Rep. Leo Berman, a notorious anti-immigrant voice, got no traction, even from within his own party. No votes were taken on any of his 9 anti-immigrant bills.
A wolverine was seen in Colorado for the first time since 1919:
The wolverine was once native to found in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and California, but were mostly wiped out by around 1930.
Photo: Mark Packila © WCS.

Russia is creating a large Arctic park:
The 'Russian Arctic' park is located on the northern part of Novaya Zemlya, a long island that arcs out into the Arctic Ocean between the Barents and Kara Seas. It also includes some adjacent marine areas.

WWF has long been lobbying for the park, which is also a key area for walrus, wild reindeer and bird population. The park creation excludes all industrial activities.

"This is exactly the sort of thing we need to see from Arctic governments," says Neil Hamilton Director of WWF International’s Arctic Programme.
The marbled murrelet will retain ESA protections:
Rebuffing the anti-science stance of the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released a report finding that continued protection of marbled murrelets in Washington, Oregon, and California is required. This report replaces a 2004 review in which Bush political appointees reversed scientific and legal conclusions to try to eliminate protections for murrelets. The new report finds that the tri-state murrelet population is distinct and separate from other populations in Canada and Alaska.

“Science has won the day,” said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The marbled murrelet is severely imperiled and needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act to survive.”

Thirty-one other endangered birds will receive the protection they need:
The Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday that will compel the agency to provide protection for scores of the world’s most imperiled bird species and come into compliance with the Endangered Species Act. The Service has committed itself to publishing final listing determinations for six species of foreign birds and proposed listings for an additional 25 species, in accordance with a negotiated timeline that terminates on December 29, 2009.
The United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre has launched a new online system that will help scientists monitor marine protected areas:
"Obtaining and promoting accurate information on marine protected areas is a top priority. I am therefore delighted on World Oceans Day that we are launching WDPA – Marine as another critical tool alongside Protect Planet Ocean and Google Ocean to show the world how much of our seas are protected," said Dan Laffoley, Chair of IUCN's WCPA – Marine. "These new innovative approaches show everyone the urgent need for governments and all of us to radically scale up MPA networks as well as the ambition and effectiveness by which we manage marine resources."
(h/t: Peacay.)

Bjorn Lomborg is calling for a carbon tax.
According to the paper, Lomborg says a carbon tax "could address what he calls a 'market failure' in the development of solar-power systems and wind turbines effective enough and cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels."
Lomborg is such a dreadful person that his support is arguably less meaningful than his opposition. Still, it's safe to say that he's caused a fair number of heads to explode this week, so let us gather rosebuds while we may.

China's ban on plastic bags allegedly saved 1.6 million tons of oil:
A ban on super thin plastic bags cut the use of 40 billion bags, reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent and saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum, according to recent government estimates, Worldwatch reports.
Worldchanging reports on a solar autoclave:
The autoclave piggybacks off of solar cooking boxes already in wide use in rural Nicaragua. The cooking boxes, which are about the size of several extra-large pizza boxes stacked on top of one another, placed on waist-high legs, are used to cook eggs, plantains, cakes -- everything, that is, "except tortillas," Lori Hanna says. Hanna is the engineering student at the University of Dayton in Ohio who launched the project after spending two months in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, living and working amongst Las Mujeres Solares, a community group that is using the energy of the sun to patch the country's notoriously poor energy grid.
I have mixed emotions about this art installation at the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, but on the whole, I think it's worthwhile:
In one animal enclosure, the German duo have half-submerged a car in a watering hole used by the resident rhinos. In another enclosure, penguins frolic in the shadow of an oil pump, and in yet another, alligators must share their modest bayou with a bathtub and a monster truck tire.

According to the artists, these scenes of ecological nightmares are “experimental set-up[s]” in which “the viewer is forced to reconsider traditional modes of animal presentation and simultaneously to question the authenticity of concepts which are restaging 'natural' environments while they are increasingly endangered.”
While I share Pruned's loathing of golf courses and golf culture, I was slightly heartened to learn that "golf courses are all but weaned from municipal fresh-water systems, with 86 percent now using some other source, liked recycled effluent water, surface water or water treated by reverse osmosis."

The Telegraph has an interesting article on the planned shrinking of American cities:
The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature.

Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area.
The photo at the top is by Andrzej Kramarz, from his series Things, which details arrangements of goods at Krakow's flea markets. In related news, glass negatives from 1930s Poland. Initial images from the Herschel telescope. A living chair. And 57 photographs by Emmett Gowin:

I've had this Raindrop Melody Maker running all morning (via things). It goes well with the photos at Across the Great Divide, and with the music drifting in from the other room. It'd probably go just as well with two million pages of 19th-century newspapers (via The Bioscope). Or the rather surreal diagrams from A Beast Book.

Animal hands and luminous spacescapes. Paintings by Walt Kuhn. Lithographs by Cyprien Gaillard. And via Dark Roasted Blend, much-needed considerations of strangely shaped communities and factory decorations.

And, needless to say, a cartoon.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Call for Political Clarification

Since I don't have time, this week, to problematize the role of left-humanist ideology in the social reproduction of oppression, I figured I'd simply link to this excellent survey of emerging best practices in neo-Socialist polemics.

Every word is a sermon in itself, but points 7, 9, and 10 are dearest to my heart:

7. Your opponents are dogmatic and sectarian, unless they are not, in which case they are opportunists....

9. What people say is less important than what they imply. What they imply is what the correct political analysis leads you to decide that they imply. Don’t take their account as to what they are saying: tell them what they are saying. Be abusive if necessary. You have been provoked.

10. Welcome the new audience for socialism and always remember what they find of interest. What they find of interest is minutiae, because they are interested in political clarification and to that end the smallest details are important. Do not neglect the political ferment inside Skegness SWP, a council byelection in Oxford or what was on the front of Socialist Worker in 1969. This should fascinate a younger audience who missed the discussion the first time around (or the first two hundred).
These points can't be overemphasized, particularly if we wish to avoid falling prey to the sort of Zinovievian factionalist opportunism that marred the Fifth Comintern Congress.

Consider yourselves warned.

(Link via Moonbootica via rootless. Illustration by yours truly, stolen lazily from an earlier post.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Our Innocent Children

The irrepressible Bjorn Lomborg has come up with a new argument against AGW: It frightens children. And not in a good way, like clowns, or sirens, or fundamentalist sermons on Hell, or "duck and cover" drills for nuclear war, or balsawood drones laden with anthrax spores.

An article in the Washington Post cited nine-year-old Alyssa, who cries about the possibility of mass animal extinctions from global warming. In her words: "I don't like global warming because it kills animals, and I like animals."
What this child needs to understand is that a) mass animal extinctions are impossible, or at least unlikely, or at least not that big a deal; b) there are plenty more animals where those came from, and anyway this is why we have zoos; and c) it's far more tragic that millions of African children are dying of malaria, so turn off the waterworks or we'll give you something serious to cry about.

Usually, Lomborg is angry because people believe that something can be done about climate change. Today, though, he's angry because they don't. Consistency is for small-minded people, y'see, and Lomborg's wits are as wide as all outdoors.
Exaggeration also wears out the public's willingness to tackle global warming. If the planet is doomed, people wonder, why do anything?
Of course, most of the prominent people who claim that mitigation is impossible or pointless or a Marxist plot -- or all three -- are inactivists like Lomborg.

But so what? This argument allows Lomborg to lean down from Parnassus and sigh theatrically over what fools we mortals be, so it's as true as it needs to be. A boxer's feint isn't strictly honest, either; what matters is whether it throws his opponent off balance. And if you're not thrown off balance by Lomborg's argument that inaction is bad when it's based on despair, but good when it's based on complacency, your mind is a good deal sturdier than mine.

Essentially, Lomborg has translated his standard economic argument into emotional terms: just as the cost of taking action here and now must be weighed against the prospective riches of Third World tycoons from the year 2100, the present-day tears of a few deluded children must be weighed against the abiding joys of a future in which everything turns out just fine, thanks to clever people like Lomborg who understand that there's no sense in fighting fate.

Since catastrophic -- or even seriously disruptive -- climate change is pretty much impossible, normal reactions like anxiety or grief must be pathologized, and the fact that our children are worried becomes an argument against addressing the issues that worry them. To paraphrase Ivan Karamazov, Lomborg is unwilling to found the edifice of climate action on the unavenged tears of a child: the truth is not worth such a price.
The current debate about global warming is clearly harmful. I believe that it is time we demanded that the media stop scaring us and our kids silly. We deserve a more reasoned, more constructive, and less frightening dialogue.
Absolutely. Because otherwise, as Lord Monckton explains, we'll destroy Western prosperity, commit genocide against the Third World, and wind up daubing ourselves with woad and subsisting on fronds and bracken.

The sooner our kids get this through their thick little skulls, and recognize the deadly conspiracy that threatens their future, the better off we'll all be.

(Illustration: "Magic Lantern Alphabet of Animals. London, Paris, New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, not before 1886.')

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Sorry, but you'll have to dig up your own poem this week!

(Photo by Southoz.)

Friday Hope Blogging

I can only spare an hour or so to write this feature this week, so I'm afraid it won't be as long as usual. I hope to make up for it next week! In the meantime, if you have any good news, feel free to post it in the comments.

Miami has approved a domestic partnership ordinance:

The City of Miami will now extend the same health benefits to the declared domestic partners and children of city employees that are granted to heterosexual employees of the city.

“Providing employment benefits, including healthcare, to the domestic partners of our City of Miami employees is a common sense idea that has been far too long in coming. This is nothing more than treating people equally,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. “I am proud to say our City is doing the right thing.”
A courageous doctor has announced his plan to carry on George Tiller's work in Oklahoma:
A Nebraska doctor said Wednesday that he will perform third-term abortions in Kansas after the slaying of abortion provider George Tiller, but would not say whether he will open a new facility or offer the procedure at an existing practice.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart declined to discuss his plans in detail during a telephone interview with The Associated Press, but insisted "there will be a place in Kansas for the later second- and the medically indicated third-trimester patients very soon."
The federal government is taking steps to protect Hawaiian monk seals:
The federal government will designate critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and expand protected habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Its finding, to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, comes in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy. The Hawaiian monk seal is among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with a population of approximately 1,200. According to the finding, protection of beach habitat that supports resting, birthing, and raising pups, and marine habitat for foraging is essential for the conservation of the monk seals.
In related news, a judge has ruled in favor of increasing ESA protections for species in Southern California forests:
Monday a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act in preparing the biological opinions for the four Southern California forest plans. The ruling covers each of the four Southern California national forests — the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino, which cover more than 3.5 million acres of lands in Southern California. These forests are recognized as one of the most biologically rich areas on the planet, and were established to provide clean drinking water to the region.

“This ruling is a great victory for the rare and endangered species that call the Southern California forests home,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These rare plants and animals are all currently moving toward extinction, and they need help – help that the federal agencies should have provided but chose not to during the Bush administration. We can now start making sure they’re properly protected.”

Canada has dramatically expanded one of its national parks:
The government of Canada and the Dehcho First Nation announced today the expansion of Nahanni National Park from 1,865 square miles (4,830 square kilometers) to 12,000 square miles (31,080 square kilometers), over six times its original size.

"Nahanni is one of the great natural areas in the world," said Dr. John Weaver. "The previous boundary was too narrow and too small for these big animals, and this expansion will protect critical habitat for
Conservation measures have increased the population of Lear's macaw
Due to effective conservation measures the parrot’s population has reached nearly a thousand birds (up from a low of just a hundred individuals in 1989), and therefore was moved down the list, from Critically Endangered to Endangered.

"The fight to save Lear’s Macaw is far from over, but the news that it is being downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered is a clear indication that hard work is paying off," said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which has worked tirelessly to save Lear’s Macaw.
Afghanistan has created its first list of protected species:
Thirty-three species are included in Afghanistan’s first-ever listing of protected wildlife. Well-known animals like the snow leopard, wolves, and brown bears received full legal protection from hunting and harvesting alongside lesser-known species like the paghman salamander, goitered gazelle, and Himalayan elm tree.
Text messaging is improving medical outcomes in the developing world:
In the developing world, most communities don’t have access to a hospital, let alone a doctor. Valiant community health workers sometimes serve rural villages, but they don’t have the training or technology to assist with major medical problems. The distance between village and hospital, both in terms of travel and communication, often spells doom for residents. But FrontlineSMS:Medic is aiming to change that. It operates through a system called FrontlineSMS, which allows text messages to be sent to multiple users on one computer. With the Medic software, community health workers can text a hospital with a question about, say, a malaria patient and get a quick response. On the other end, hospitals don’t have to waste valuable time and resources sending doctors into the field when they don’t have to.
The Uighurs detained at Guantanamo have been accepted by Palau:
Pelau's president President Johnson Toribiong has earned the gratitude of the United States and a $200 million dollar "donation" from Washington through the soon-to-be renewed U.S.-Palau cooperation treaty.

Kudos to the diplomats who brokered this deal and to the sane, compassionate people of Palau.
And with that, I just have time to make a dash for the exit. Shadow art created from piles of rubbish. A dog with a pipe in its mouth, among other things. Scrapbooks by Stan Brakhage. A photographic illustration of Oranges and Lemons (via Coudal). Images of braided pollen streams. And the science of paleolandscapes.

Also, here's a cartoon from 1930.

(Photo at top: "Butterfly, Scales on Wing - Lepidoptera, Admiral. Vanessa Atalanta (Schuppen auf einem Schmetterlingsflügel" by Carl Strüwe, 1928.)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Friday, June 05, 2009

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

New Hampshire is the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage:

"Today, we are standing up for the liberties of same-sex couples by making clear that they will receive the same rights, responsibilities — and respect — under New Hampshire law," Lynch said.
Nevada has legalized domestic partnerships:
The Nevada Assembly voted 28-14 to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' veto of a bill establishing a domestic partnership law in the state.

The vote, coupled with the state Senate's 14-7 override during the weekend, means the bill becomes effective Oct. 1....
Eric Holder has restored the right of immigrants to effective legal counsel:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. yesterday overturned a Bush administration ruling in January that immigrants do not have a constitutional right to effective legal counsel in deportation proceedings.

In vacating the decision his predecessor, Michael B. Mukasey, issued two weeks before President George W. Bush left office, Holder restored one of the most common grounds cited by immigrants for appealing removal orders: that their attorneys were incompetent.
In Boston, a group of citizens is going door to door to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency:
The effort is as much about building community as it is about improving energy efficiency: homeowner hosts provide their volunteers with a meal and even musical entertainment at an end-of-the-day celebration. In its 10-month existence, the group has organized 17 projects — everything from a private residence to a homeless shelter to a church — and HEET-like teams have sprung up in five other Boston-area towns
The port of Long Beach is providing shore power to tankers, which will allow them to turn off their engines while loading and unloading cargo:
Shore power, also known as “cold-ironing,” allows a specially equipped vessel to plug in at berth. The vessel can then draw power for its pumps, communications, ventilation, lighting and other needs from Southern California Edison, instead of its own diesel engines.

Providing shore power to an off-loading oil tanker is the pollution-reducing equivalent of removing 187,000 cars from the road for a day. In a year, shore power will eliminate more than 30 tons of pollution.
The country's largest solar array will be built in Austin, TX:
The array will be owned by San Francisco-based company Gemini Solar Development, which will lease the plant to Austin Energy. 30 megawatts is the amount of power that will be produced by the United States’ largest solar array - enough power for about 5,000 homes, and around double the output of the current largest solar array in the US. The array will be located in a 300 acre site at Webberville, which is owned by Austin Energy, the city’s electric company.
In related news, the largest urban array is planned for a brownfields site in Chicago:
Exelon is arguing for the importance of finding urban locations for renewable energy in order to provide electrical services in urban areas. The project is planning to lease and make use of a 39-acre brownfield owned by the City of Chicago at the West Pullman Industrial Redevelopment Area. This 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) facility, featuring 32,800 solar panels that will produce enough clean energy to fulfill the annual requirements of 1,200 to 1,500 homes, will displace approximately 31.2 million pounds of greenhouse emissions annually (the equivalent of taking more than 2,500 cars off the road or planting more than 3,200 acres of forest).
This is...odd:
Mother Nature has a previously unknown cleaning agent that scrubs away toxic air pollution, scientists have discovered.

What's more, the existence of the still mysterious substance has shaken up decades-long assumptions about our atmosphere's self-cleaning process.
China claims it will tax polluters:
“Collecting environmental taxes from (polluting) companies is one of the directions of China’s tax system reform,” Zhang Lijun, deputy head of the Environmental Protection Ministry, told reporters.

“Several departments are currently working together to develop research on this issue, and when the conditions are right we will launch an environmental taxation system for polluting companies.”
In the US, meanwhile, the Mercury Pollution Reduction act is closer to passing:
On Wednesday, the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act (HR 2190) passed a subcommittee vote that allows it to now be considered by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce committee. The majority of bills die, unsung, in subcommittees. Now the act, which would phase out mercury pollution from chlorine plants within two years of its passage, has a very good fighting chance at becoming law.

In the process, two amendments that would have seriously crippled this important bill were defeated. Olin Corporation, which owns two mercury-polluting plants, fought to have the deadline for mercury phaseout pushed back to 2020. Another amendment would have allowed companies to continue exporting mercury until 2013, when a ban goes into effect, essentially creating a “fire sale” on mercury.
AfriGadget reports on an interesting method of water harvesting:
A unique water harvesting method has been devised in the drought ridden crater of Mt. Suswa, which is dotted with continuously puffing scorching steam vents.

Taking advantage of the steam vents that dot this landscape, local Masai have ingeniously tapped the vents for steam that is condensed on long plastic pipes that drip continuously into drums. The local Masai claim that these vents can fill half a drum (approx 30 lt) per hour (though it seemed very unlikely to us). The water is sweet and apparently it feeds a community of several hundred people and their cattle with fresh and clean water.
The UK is once again graced by beavers:
More than 400 years after they are believed to have been eliminated from the British Isles, beavers have returned to the UK....

Beaver families were captured in Norway last year and quarantined for six months at a centre in Devon. The beaver families were then driven up to Knapdale Forest in Mid-Argyll, Scotland, and introduced into purpose built lodges.

Reportedly, the lodges were constructed of straw and willow, and filled with carrots and turnips. This allowed the beavers to gnaw through and enter the wild at their own pace.
A new antimicrobial agent is allegedly effective against the vaccinia virus, and also strengthens the immune system:
CSA-13 demonstrated effectiveness against vaccinia in three different tests. When CSA-13 and vaccinia virus were directly incubated together, the CSA-13 killed more than 96% of the virus at a 25 micromolar concentration. When CSA-13 was added to cells infected with vaccinia, it both reduced vaccinia virus gene expression and allowed more of the infected cells to survive....

Within their experiments, the researchers found that, in addition to directly killing the virus, CSA-13 also stimulated cells to produce their own antimicrobial proteins, LL-37 and HBD-3. Dr. Howell and colleagues have previously shown that these antimicrobial proteins also exhibit antiviral activity against vaccinia virus.
New research suggests that higher population density promotes innovation and the retention of skills:
Dr Mark Thomas, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, says: "When we think of how we came to be the sophisticated creatures we are, we often imagine some sudden critical change, a bit like when the black monolith appears in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In reality, there is no evidence of a big change in our biological makeup when we started behaving in an intelligent way. Our model can explain this even if our mental capacities are the same today as they were when we first originated as a species some 200,000 years ago.

"Ironically, our finding that successful innovation depends less on how smart you are than how connected you are seems as relevant today as it was 90,000 years ago."
Two very early recordings have been unearthed:
Inscribed on soot-blackened paper, the muffled sounds from more than 150 years ago play back like the “wa wa” of an unseen teacher in the Peanuts cartoons. It would be impossible to know that someone was playing the coronet and guitar, although other fragments, from a dramatic speech from Shakespeare’s Othello, might be discerned if you knew the lines by heart in French.

Yet these sound bites and other snippets, unveiled May 29 by historians at the annual meeting of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, are the earliest known recordings. A bunch of wavy lines scratched by a stylus onto fragile paper that had been blackened by smoke from an oil lamp date from 1857. That’s 20 years before Edison invented the phonograph.
You can listen to them here and here.

Undone needlework. More abandoned motels. The Soviet exploration of Venus (I may have linked to this before). The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines (via Coudal). And via things, a heart-quickening gallery of hypnotism ephemera, with an emphasis on the carnivalesque:

Atlas Obscura, yet another digital wunderkammer. The World of 100. Natural quasicrystals. Survey of exhaust pipe structures and kiddie rides. An introduction to Banded Agates, Sonic Hydrodynamics & the BZ Reaction. The crest considered. And, via Dark Roasted Blend, a church half-buried in lava.

Photos by Fred Herzog (via wood s lot). The visualization of randomness, courtesy of Random Walk. The first x-ray film. Ghastly 1950s ads for canned foods. Notes on polarization. And Postcards from Paradise.

Last but not least, here's the strangest cartoon I've seen in quite some time.

(Image at top: "The edge of the Andes Mountains is seen flanked by extensive alluvial fans that form relatively flat surfaces. Straight lines and geometric designs (left center) are the archeologic "Nazca lines" of prehistoric origin." Via GSFC.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Trickle Down

Having just read an article on Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, and his upcoming voyage into space, I'm feeling slightly peeved.

Laliberte will be paying about $30 million for his flight. Which is fine, I's his money, and people have spent more than that on worse things. What bothers me, apart from his unctuous expressions of self-admiration, is that he sees this as a humanitarian mission, on account of he's going to read a poem about water while he's up there, in order to convince the struggling masses that water is important to children and other living things.

"My mission is dedicated to making a difference on this vital resource by using what I know best: artistry," Laliberte said. "This will be the first poetic social mission in space.
You know what? Fuck you. In the first place, space missions were poetic long before anyone ever heard of your dunced-out new-age horseshit. In the second place, you're an asshole. In the third place, if you care that much about access to water, $30 million could save a pretty amazing number of lives over the next 12 months. Hell, AIDG could work miracles with one million bucks. For that matter, it looks as though your own One Drop Foundation could use it; as far as I can tell, they have exactly two projects up and running: one in Honduras and one in Nicaraugua.

Unfortunately, Laliberte seems to be less worried about saving lives than about raising global consciousness through mime and poetry and mawkish entrepreneur-speak about the power of dreams.
"I think this is one of the best investments anybody has done in order to promote the awareness of water," he said.

"If the impact is achieved, we will reach much more people than I would have done if I spent that money on Earth trying to convince people that water is an important issue."
Did I mention fuck you? Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I suspect that if Laliberte had simply taken the money he spent visioning and test-marketing the noxious phrase "poetic social mission in space," and given it to an NGO that deals with water issues, it would've done more good for the world than any of his pompous techno-hippie hijinks.

If Laliberte really wants to make the world a better place, perhaps he should consider staying up there.

Then again, maybe it's actually a noble and inspiring idea, and I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. What do you think?

UPDATE: In comments, jaytingle makes an excellent point:
Cirque siphons a huge portion of their revenue from visitors to a pointless city in the Nevada desert. There is an obvious disconnect between promoting the importance of water (who knew?) and making a buck off of pissing away massive quantities of that same substance.
I couldn't agree more. And I think it's gonna take more than a $30 million one-man poetry slam to make up for that.

A Disengagement From Reality

What America needs, according to conservatives, is a culture of personal responsibility. What it doesn't need, according to conservatives, is to feel bad about the environmental effects of personal choices.

That doesn't make any sense at all, until you consider their need to make everything they say sound like an Eternal Verity, even if it's just some opportunistic gibberish they cobbled together on the spot. It's not the content of their pronouncements that's important; it's the form and the tone, and the implication that Western Civilization itself is speaking.

Which brings us to George Will, who loves personal responsibility unless it infringes on the carelessness and recklessness and greed that made America great.

Basically, Will agrees with those lovable one-trick ponies Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that environmentalism is stupid and corrupt; this is a position they defend by ignoring any fact that doesn't support their view of environmentalism as some sort of hopelessly bourgeois cargo cult, while holding up equally bourgeois notions of "prosperity" as a beacon of hope for the developing world.

In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" [the New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger...say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures -- bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows -- "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."
That "grand significance" is personal responsibility, which I believe you'll find somewhere in William Bennett's Book of Virtures. In the case of tires and windows, there are also economic considerations, which I thought trumped just about everything.

Shopping decisions aren't "beyond politics" any more than voting is. Will knows this, normally, because he belongs to a subculture that sees (scientifically uninformed) consumer choice as a rubberstamp for political dogma; if Hummers are selling well, it means that The People Have Spoken and want Hummers, which means that environmentalism has been repudiated, which means that Freedom is on the march. But if people reject Hummers and start buying hybrids, it means that they're irrational faddists who don't understand that consumers are essentially powerless; they're simply trying to make themselves feel better by buying stuff (unlike, say, the principled patriots who stockpile guns).
A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius.
Sounds like market forces in action, to me. People like Will tend not to question purchases that confer status and prestige unless they're "green" (or the buyer is black, but we'll put that aside for now). A $25,000 Rolex is fine, as is a Maserati or a $1,500 pair of cowboy boots that you'll wear only at board meetings. But when Prius buyers pursue social status...well, that's a different matter entirely. If you thought that private vice inevitably leads to public virtue, think again; there are still a few isolate cases where consumerist self-gratification is a social evil, and this is one of them.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger note the telling "insignificance," as environmental measures, of planting gardens or using fluorescent bulbs. Their significance is therapeutic, but not for the planet. They make people feel better.
The first point I need to make in response is that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are preening douchebags. (It doesn't advance my argument, I know, but it does make me feel better.) More important, the greater urgency and higher concern they claim to feel about environmental issues seems to me to be belied by the fact that they don't quite believe in the processes that actually cause environmental harm. If switching to fluorescent lightbulbs doesn't matter, neither does pouring your waste motor oil down the drain. If planting a garden doesn't matter, neither does spraying your lawn with pesticides. For people who are constantly prattling about the glories of the market, Nordhaus and Shellenberger and Will seem to be a little unclear on the aggregate effects of individual choice.

Except when it's politically useful, natch.
Now, say Nordhaus and Shellenberger, "the green bubble" has burst, pricked by Americans' intensified reluctance to pursue greenness at a cost to economic growth. The dark side of utopianism is "escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial." Reengagement with reality is among the recession's benefits.
OK, let's recap. People used to be "pursue greenness" because they foolishly believed that individual decisions could affect the environment. But now, the recession has made them realize that green choices hinder economic growth, or that the lack of economic growth hinders green choices, or something. Thus, they're leaving escapism and utopianism behind, in order to reengage with the reality of limitless growth without consequences and personal responsibility without guilt. And we know all of this because of the close attention we've paid to consumer buying patterns and opinions, which are meaningless except inasmuch as they confirm what George Will already believes.

I look forward to future installments of Will's column, in which he'll rail against the Green Bubble as though it had never actually burst.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Developing Narratives

Jacob Bronsther worries that Obama faces serious credibility problems in the Middle East, not because of recent history, but because of "the Muslim fascination with conspiracy theories."

It goes beyond Saudi schoolbooks that teach as fact the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a demonstrably bogus Jewish "plot" for world domination) and Tehran's sponsorship of a Holocaust skeptics conference. The 2004 tsunami? That was possibly caused by an Indian nuclear test, ably assisted by experts from the US and Israel, according to Egyptian newsweekly Al-Osboa. According to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, and Turkey do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. And when asked in the same survey what is most responsible for Muslim nations' lack of prosperity, about half of those in majority Muslim countries responded "US and Western policies" either first or second, beating out "lack of education," "government corruption," "Islamic fundamentalism," and "lack of democracy."
This is nicely done. The tsunami theory is utterly ludicrous, of course. But the Muslim suspicion of "US and Western policies" is somewhat less so, and the non-conspiratorial answers don't actually contradict it; there could occasionally be some connection, for instance, between government corruption and US policies.

Treating totally different types of argumentation as equivalent is a typical centrist gambit, though; this is how we know that Ann Coulter is the Right's version of Noam Chomsky, and Martin Durkin and James Hansen are both dubious sources for information on climate science.

Anyway, conspiracy theories are problematic, and here's why:
[W]hen Mr. Obama promises X Thursday, a great percentage of Muslims will believe he really intends Y or that some shadowy organization will ensure Z.
If this doesn't sound all that different from everyday life in these United States, you're obviously overlooking the uniquely Islamic character of the Islamic fascination with Islamic conspiracy theories that arise from the Islamic influence of Islam in the Islamic world.
Every culture exhibits some interest in conspiracy theories (see "The Da Vinci Code"), but they are especially resonant in Muslim contexts, and Western leaders need to find a way to mitigate this problem.
Sometimes I feel I must go mad. Bronsther has the opportunity to discuss conspiracy theories — specifically as they relate to the anti-American policies of an Islamo-Marxist president with no birth certificate who once launched a terrorist attack on a South African rugby team — and he trots out The Da Vinci Code as an example of conspiratorial thinking in the West.

Never mind that it's not only possible but respectable for American politicians to claim that global warming is a Marxist conspiracy, that evolution is an atheo-nihilist conspiracy, that the aim of higher education is to produce an army of radical Derridean firebrands who'll vote robotically for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, that Saddam dragged all his weapons to Syria right before we invaded, and that there's some sort of ideological alliance between fundamentalist Islam and the pro-sodomy babykillers and feminazis of the Left.

Never mind the 9/11 "truthers," who are too busy fretting over particle-beam weapons and hidden explosive charges and barrels of thermate to realize that the Twin Towers didn't actually need to collapse to provide a justification for war. And never mind our flocks of amateur Antichrist-hunters, and the world-hating ghouls who treat every deadly Third World mudslide as a glad tiding of the Rapture. Outside of our brief fascination with the dime-novel exploits of a fictional Harvard symbologist, we've managed to avoid the worst excesses of the conspiracy-theoretic mindset...thanks, it turns out, to our Judeo-Christian heritage:
In Islam there is a necessary link between religiosity and worldly power and success....Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man's tribulations – the Kingdom of Heaven. Not so in Islam.
Having been promised riches and power by Allah, and not having gotten them, Muslims naturally invent conspiracy theories to explain their failure to thrive. QED!

I'm not quite convinced. Though I'm not an accomplished Islamic scholar and exegete like Mr. Bronsther, I've read a bit of Islamic scripture and commentary in my day, and my impression is that one is welcome to strive after wealth -- so long as one uses a portion of it to benefit the poor -- but it's not guaranteed to anyone who prays strenuously enough, and rich Muslims aren't automatically thought to be more virtuous than poor ones. (The implication that fundamentalist Christianity has been inhospitable to conspiracy theories, and never treats wealth as a symptom of godliness, has a few problems as well.)

What's confusing me, possibly, is that I'm failing to read "Ialam" as a polite code word for "the brand of radical Islam promoted by Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi in the latter half of the last century":
Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, one of radical Islamism's founders, sermonized: "Your honor, which no one dared to touch, is now being trampled upon.… You are Muslims and yet are slaves! This situation is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black."
Mawdudi's explanation for this "impossibility," as Bronsther almost acknowledges, is as follows: "[I]f you believe that the reward of obedience to God can never be in the shape of disgrace, then you will have to concede that there is something wrong in your claim of being a Muslim." Which is not really conducive to conspiracy theories and ressentiment, in my opinion.

Whether Mawdudi's "radical Islamism" guarantees all true believers a gazillion dollars in gold and a pony, I'll leave you to judge from this passage:
If [a Muslim] sees harm in a certain work but the Master says that it must be done, he must in any case do it though it may entail him any amount of loss in life and property. As against this, if he expects profit in some other work but the Master forbids him from undertaking it, he must never touch it though it may bring him even the wealth of the whole world...This is the knowledge and conduct by which a Muslim becomes a true servant of God.
Elsewhere, Mawdudi says that the ideal Muslim "will be contented with whatever he earns fairly and honestly and however much ill-gotten wealth is heaped before him he will not even look at it. He will have peace and contentment of heart — and what can be a greater wealth than this?"

Maybe it's a little silly to act like Muslims are far more prone to outlandish conspiracy theories than the rest of us, especially since our best and brightest routinely portray single-payer healthcare as a trapdoor to the Gulag. And maybe Bronsther's scholarship could've been a little more thorough and thoughtful in a couple of spots. But does any of this detract from his main point, which is that Muslims are to blame for their own goddamn problems, and ought to clean up their own backyards instead of whining about what goes on in Gaza and Abu Ghraib? Of course not. Nor does it detract from the essential nobility of his solution:
One bold step would be a pledge of US funding for many poor Muslims to go on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, one of their religious obligations. This would astonish the Muslim world.

Such proposals might enable Muslims to trust America a bit more, and begin to realize that their problem is endemic corruption and lack of education, rather than America or the Jews.
It's worth a shot, I guess. But let's not set our hopes too high, because after all, "conspiracy theories are in the Muslim cultural DNA"; they may simply assume, as usual, that we're promising X, but intending Y.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish up my expose on the Gulf War soldiers who are supposedly missing in action, but actually died in the Dulce Wars.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Playing With a Stick

Recently, a TV actress announced that she doesn't like Obama, but does like Sarah Palin. According to a gruelingly upbeat Kulturkampfer named Ned Rice, this unprecedented confession suggests that Hollywood conservatives have found the courage ("after decades of cowering") to whine publicly about taxes, immigration, taxes, abortion, taxes, faggotry, and taxes, without caring whose toes they step on. They're here, they may or may not be queer, get used to it!

And they owe it all to Andrew Breitbart, who has done for conservative self-esteem what Charles Atlas's Dynamic-Tension did for the love lives of seaside sissy-boys:

Some are calling this newfound courage the Breitbart Effect, named for the affable New Media titan who exposed the amoral Superfund toxic waste site of Tinsel Town by subjecting it to the standards of traditional, conservative (read: normal) American values.
If you don't want to call it the Breitbart Effect, Rice will also accept "the Having-Just-Grown-A-Pair Effect" (fuck you, feminists!), or "the Other Great Enlightenment" (fuck you, Joseph Alexandre Victor d'Hupay)! Call it what you like, as long as you credit Breitbart for bringing these shrinking violets out of their private hothouses and into the cold, cruel Streisandian world.

And speaking of Breitbart, isn't Breitbart just incredibly great? I mean, when you stop and think about it?
Andrew Breitbart grew up in the part of Los Angeles known as Brentwood (“O.J. country,” he calls it), surrounded by entertainment industry families and regular working folks like his father, a restaurateur, and his mother, who worked in the trust department at Bank of America. Andrew’s Wonder Bread years were spent playing baseball, watching his beloved Dodgers and absorbing the pop culture references that would help form the foundation of his life’s work.
Rice needs to revisit the work of David Brooks. Restaurateurs are not "regular working folks." On the contrary, they run the sort of snooty uppercrust restaurants that put kiwi slices and pink Himalayan salt on everything. If Rice were a true professional, he'd know better than to imply that Breitbart's father was a mincing, elitist Francophile who reeked of anise and saffron.

As a child, Breitbart sold burgers and pizza, like all good-hearted people. His parents instilled in him a respect for hard work and common sense, which explains the "gentlemanly C’s" he managed to earn at Tulane, when he wasn't busy "adding to his encyclopedic knowledge of classic TV and ’80s music." (The man may not know much about the Constitution, or the Nitrogen Cycle, but he can name every MTV veejay in chronological order, and tell you which ones are currently pro-life!)

Although Tulane did its damnedest to fill Breitbart with "post-modernist bilge," he didn't cotton to none o' that there foolishness. For him, the music of Haircut 100 and Huey Lewis had nothing to do with decentering subjectivity by positing "reality" as a social construction arising from a contested field of simulations, nor with interrogating meta-narratives by means of a ludic intertextuality; rather, he held with Aquinas that a song like "Hip to Be Square" is "true with respect to its conformity with the divine intellect, insofar as it fulfills the end to which it was ordained by the divine intellect."

He also realized that "the Hegelian dialectic he’d been subjected to in college" was not going to get him a job...perhaps because the Affirmative Action Cult had already earmarked all the Hegelian desk jobs for unqualified minorities like Francis Fukuyama.

Everything changed — or at least intensified — when Breitbart watched Clarence Thomas stagger painfully along the Via Dolorosa of his confirmation hearings. Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place:
In a flash of insight, Breitbart realized that the media were the Democratic Party, that the NAACP was the Democratic Party, that NOW was the Democratic Party and that the false notion that the media and the various rights groups were acting in the best interests of America independent of ideological bias seemed less laughable than criminal to him.
Soon, the Internet came along, which meant that Breitbart could offer this epiphany to a bunch of perpetually angry paranoiacs who'd probably already had it more than once. And the next thing you know, an actress on Law and Order found the nerve to complain about Obama. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair!

Lord knows Breitbart has earned the right to rest on his laurels. But instead, he's created a new group blog called Big Hollywood. Why "Big Hollywood"? I'm glad you asked.
Big Hollywood’s name is an allusion to supposedly evil corporate powers. Like Big Oil and Big Pharma, Big Hollywood’s name cheekily suggests that entertainment isn’t just an industry, it’s a powerful force for social and political change.
If Breitbart gets his way, Hollywood will turn away at last from the left-hand path, and start making films that reinforce traditional gender roles, ennoble white rage as a cleansing force in society, and present the rule of law as optional when there's terrorism afoot. (It may even go a step further, someday, and portray FDR as a socialist dictator who ruined the country, at which point cultural domination will suddenly become giving the people what they want.)

Instead of dealing with every Acte and Monument in Rice's hagiography, I'll proceed directly to the money quote. Here's Breitbart on the difference between Hollywood liberals and Hollywood conservatives:
Hollywood conservatives are a much happier lot, even though they’re manifestly oppressed. The best analogy I can think of is that Hollywood right-wingers are like an impoverished Third World child who happily plays with a stick, and Hollywood left-wingers are like a spoiled rich kid surrounded by expensive toys who’s so bored he’s throwing a tantrum.
On the one hand, oppression is a terrible injustice; on the other, all that's required to overcome it is a sunny disposish. Like many conservatives, Breitbart can't resist downplaying and trivializing human misery, even if doing so undercuts his own argument.

Note, too, that in this analogy, the people who typically express concern about Third World suffering and poverty are "spoiled rich kids," while the people who typically spout anodyne excuses for it are...the poor themselves. Not content with exploiting the labor of the poor, and the natural resources of their countries, conservatives now intend to harvest the tears of the oppressed with an eyedropper and apply them to their own cheeks.

But what of it? What is truth, when you come right down to it? You could look at Breitbart's analogy as batshit-crazy nonsense. Or you could look at it as a micronarrative that challenges the hegemonic discourse of liberalism, and is therefore precisely as "true" as it needs to be. Perhaps Breitbart shouldn't have been quite so quick to reject postmodernism, given the extent to which his work accepts it, and his movement depends on it.

(Photo by Hartmut Schwarzbach.)

Casting the Runes

The CIA is allegedly supplying foreign informants with electronic chips that help UAVs to identify and destroy targets:

It sounds like a tinfoil hat nightmare, come to life: tiny electronic homing beacons, guiding CIA killer drones to their targets. But local residents and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal wildlands say that’s exactly what’s happening. Tribesman in Waziristan are being paid to “plant the electronic devices” near militant safehouses, they tell the Guardian. “Hours or days later, a drone, guided by the signal from the chip, destroys the building with a salvo of missiles.”
This reminds me of M.R. James' 1911 horror story Casting the Runes, the villain of which murders a man by handing him a slip of paper covered with runes that mark him for death at the hands of a demon. The tables are turned on the villain when the paper is eventually passed back to him. (That's fiction for you.)

Presumably, someone always doublechecks each chip's coordinates before sending out a UAV, in order to make sure it hasn't been placed on a hospital or a school or an NGO facility. If so, we can stop worrying about that, and concentrate on worrying about this:
19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. "If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”

But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft — America’s key weapons in its covert war on Pakistan’s jihadists and insurgents — may have been lead to the wrong targets.
Apart from the remote possibility that people could collect these chips on behalf of AQ (or whomever), and use them for all sorts of practical jokes, it seems like there are some excellent opportunities here for very emphatic score-settling. It's not difficult to imagine a couple million bucks going up in smoke so that we can inadvertently take sides in some longstanding local feud.

That's assuming Rehman's story is true. The idea that we'd give a 19-year-old $122 to scatter these chips around like a lethal Johnny Appleseed seems farfetched to me. On the other hand, so do the last sixty years.

If it is true, we can at least be fairly certain that the evildoers will not be reverse-engineering these chips; hell, they barely understand how to use telephones. If they want sophisticated equipment like this, they'll probably have to wait until their wealthy proxies can buy it readymade at IDEX.

In the meantime, that thoughtful centrist Leon Panetta assures us that UAVs are "the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership." (Apart from feeding them cookies, that is.) This overconfident, illogical assertion is entirely different from Dick Cheney's overconfident, illogical assertions on torture. For one thing, it's Panetta speaking.

The virtue of these weapons is supposed to be that they allow us to act as we see fit, without taking "unnecessary" risks, let alone suffering casualties. In fact, that's one of the worst things about them. As P.W. Singer argues, "These weapons don’t just create greater physical distance, but also a different sort of psychological distance and disconnection. The bomber pilot isn’t just above his target, but seven thousand miles away. He doesn’t share with his foes even those brief minutes of danger that would give them a bond of mutual risk."

Which brings us back to James' story. The odd thing about casting the runes is that you can't simply mail them to the victim, or slip them into someone's jacket pocket or wallet. The spell doesn't work unless you meet your target face to face, with whatever personal risk that may entail. Even demons have their limits, it seems.

In unrelated news:
Glasgow video game company T-Enterprise has hired Moazzam Begg, a former inmate at Guantanamo Bay, as a consultant on upcoming video game Rendition: Guantanamo, a title set in the infamous U.S. prison camp.

(Illustration from Jacques Tourneur's film Curse of the Demon, 1957.)