Friday, December 31, 2004

Friday Nudibranch Blogging


An appropriately festive specimen to ring in the new year.

Best wishes for 2005 to all of you, from all of me!

Designing for Disaster

I urge everyone to have a look at this article, which discusses the ideal design of security infrastructure. It makes some excellent points, which should be - but probably won't be - considered in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Saving Lives Costs Money!

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson has a message for the American people, particularly those whose cars sport magnetic ribbons that say "Support Our Troops": protective armor is expensive. And besides, no one thought we'd need it, because everyone knew that the Iraqis would greet us with candy and flowers.

Bolting extra armor on Humvee utility vehicles undoubtedly saves soldiers' lives, but it also adds indirectly to operating costs, a senior Army officer said Thursday....The extra 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of weight on each Humvee causes the vehicle's suspension system to wear out three or four times faster than normal, Sorenson said. The extra weight also adds to fuel consumption, he said.

The vast majority of Humvees were not armored initially because they were not intended for use in a high-threat environment and the Army had never seen an IED threat like it faces in Iraq.
Got that, soldiers? You don't have armor because your government is stingy, stupid, and in utter thrall to amoral hucksters like Ahmed Chalabi.

But what I find completely amazing is the claim that our Humvees "were not intended for use in a high-threat environment." What on earth is a war, if not a "high-threat environment"?

In a sane world, quotes like Sorenson's would cost Rumsfeld his job, if not his freedom.

Supporting Our Troops

I discussed the Army's problem with adenovirus a while back, but I think I had about five readers at that point - one of whom was a troll - so I'll recap. Briefly, it causes a respiratory disease that's become epidemic at some of our boot camps. The Army used to inoculate recruits against it, but decided that it was too expensive and stopped the program.

It was probably just a coincidence that the disease became common again after the inoculation stopped. Now, up to 3000 recruits a month are getting sick, and some are dying. This, of course, is far more expensive (and morally problematic) than the vaccinations were.

And personally, I really don't think that this is the appropriate way to deal with these costs:

[T]he grandparents of 18-year-old Army National Guard recruit Matthew Nish struggle for answers after being told their grandson died in July of heat exhaustion at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Guardians of Nish, they do not believe that explanation and have received few details other than a $7,100 bill for his medical treatment.
Fortunately, after the Seattle Times made some inquiries on behalf of these folks, the Army claimed the bill had been sent in error by a "subcontractor," voided it, and apologized to the boy's grandparents.

This demonstrates that reporters actually can bring injustices to light, and get them fixed. It's really a shame that so few of them bother to try.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bush is Bad for Business

International consumers who dislike BushCo are voting with their pocketbooks:

The Bush administration's foreign policy may be costing U.S. corporations business overseas--according to a new survey of 8,000 international consumers released this week by the Seattle-based Global Market Insite (GMI) Inc.

Unfortunately, current American foreign policy is viewed by international consumers as a significant negative, when it used to be a positive....Twenty percent of respondents in Europe and Canada said they consciously avoided buying U.S. products as a protest against those policies. That finding was consistent with a similar poll carried out by GMI three weeks after Bush's November election victory.
What this article doesn't mention is anger over Bush's stance on global warming, which has been a huge focus of the international boycott movement. I've been watching this situation since well before the Iraq War (mainly as it related to GMOs), and if the figure of twenty percent quoted in this article is accurate, that's a very large jump in the number of overseas consumers who are boycotting US products. It's also worth noting that tourism has been decreasing for most of Bush's time in office, partially because of our increasingly poor relationships with other countries.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Watch Out! You're Safe!

The mind plays strange tricks. For instance, consider this article about the threat of al-Qaeda attacking us with nuclear weapons. The headline says that the risk of such an attack is comfortingly remote, but the first two paragraphs tell a very different story:

Of all the clues that Osama bin Laden is after a nuclear weapon, perhaps the most significant came in intelligence reports indicating that he received fresh approval last year from a Saudi cleric for the use of a doomsday bomb against the United States.
Consider for just a moment this deployment of the colorful, inaccurate, and utterly gratuitous phrase "doomsday bomb." Now, let's continue:
For bin Laden, the religious ruling was a milestone in a long quest for an atomic weapon. For U.S. officials and others, it was a frightening reminder of what many consider the ultimate mass-casualty threat posed by modern terrorists. Even a small nuclear weapon detonated in a major American population center would be among history's most lethal acts of war, potentially rivaling the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
God save us! Who can forget the horror of the "doomsday bombs" that struck Japan on those fateful, nonconsecutive Doomsdays in 1945? Just imagine what it would be like if bin Laden hit us with nukes! We'd all be killed! Or most of us, anyway.

Here's what's going on with this article. Human brains are greedy for information, but they're inefficient at recognizing irrelevant information, particularly if it has some sort of emotional content. In this article, the details about what might happen if bin Laden got nuclear weapons are vivid and emotionally charged, but they're also completely irrelevant to what the story is actually about.

Nonetheless, the vividness of the opening paragraphs psychologically undercuts the message of the article, which is that a nuclear attack is unlikely. As a result, many readers will come away from this article feeling more disturbed about the possibility of such an attack.

The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described how different heuristics - which are cognitive rules-of-thumb that guide decision-making - can affect a subject's assessment of risk; the heuristic that relates to the article above is known as the availability heuristic and the specific fallacy involved is known as "misleading vividness." It's a tactic beloved by the Bush administration and the media, and this article is an exceptionally obvious instance of it. If you've never noticed this sleight-of-hand scaremongering before, I predict you'll be amazed at how often you'll notice it in the future.

Hear No Evil

From Britain comes a fascinating story that shows what happens when ethicists take their job so seriously that they actually become an obstacle to unethical behavior:

The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, is to scrap an advisory committee after it repeatedly placed obstacles in the way of government plans to introduce genetically modified crops.

The commission established by the government to monitor ethical and social issues linked to GM crops is to be disbanded after its members insisted that conventional and organic farmers should be protected from contamination by GM crops - and be compensated if safeguards fail.
I think what impresses me more than anything else about contemporary planetary management is the incredible childishness of the people in charge. If people tell them they can't do something, and explain why, they simply put their hands over their ears and shriek "But I want to!"

Who needs science or ethics, when you've got willful ignorance and greed?

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

An Ill Wind?

The years since George W. Bush took office have seen a remarkable increase in the development of wind farms. When Bush was governor of Texas, that state led the nation in new wind farms. It may not be a coincidence that at that time, the nation's largest producer of wind turbines was Enron Wind, which bought out a company called Zond Energy Systems.

Enron Wind was not included in Enron's bankruptcy claim. It was eventually sold to GE, which now handles turbine manufacturing, marketing, and the like under the name GE Energy. Oddly enough, GE Energy's website says that it was originally called "Zond Systems"; the Enron years are apparently not worth mentioning.

GE Energy's CEO is a man named John Rice; he seems to be quite cozy with Jeb Bush, and downright devoted to George W. Bush and the RNC.

It's possibly a coincidence that GE Energy just got a lucrative contract to build a huge wind farm for our new ally Pakistan. What's not in doubt, however, is that GE's legendary generosity to the GOP has paid off handsomely in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that its orders for turbines in the wake of Bush's wind-power tax credit total an impressive 1.3 billion dollars.

What's wrong with this, if it gets us away from fossil fuels? Like hydroelectric power, wind power is great in theory, but it has to be very carefully planned and regulated so that the negative effects don't outweigh the benefits. My concern is that just as with the orgy of dam-building in the middle of the twentieth century, we may approach a point where the delusion of growth for growth's sake drives decision-making on wind farms, and the financial goals of developers and politicians trump sensible siting guidelines.

In this scenario, tax credits would go not to companies that are committed to green technology or sustainability, but to energy giants with government connections, which have positioned themselves as the go-to people for wind power (usually through buyouts or takeovers, rather than in-house innovation). There's also an unsettling potential for shady land-lease deals; currently, landowners are paid $2,000 - $3,000 per turbine by the lessee. On some sites in Texas, this brings in almost $400,000 per year for lessors; that's a lot of money in anyone's English, and the temptation to relax siting restrictions will be accordingly great (particularly if the landowner just happens to be someone with political connections).

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Purpose of Government

The United States has an excellent early-warning system for tsunamis. So do Japan and Australia. And Thailand and Indonesia are both members of an international tsunami-warning system for the Pacific Ocean. The system is pretty simple: earthquakes are noticed, tsunami swells are measured with gauges, and people who are in danger are warned. In Hawa'ii, they use a siren.

Let's imagine this state-of-the-art system in action: A large earthquake happens, and generates a tsunami. Scientists notice it. They make phone calls to regional authorities in threatened areas, who turn on a siren telling people to get off the beaches and seek higher ground.

Yesterday, such a system would've given people anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to get away from the coast. But as we know, that's not what happened:

Australia's national agency for geological research, Geoscience Australia, said it alerted Emergency Management Australia half an hour after the massive earthquake.

That information was sent to Australian emergency services, police and the army, but not to Indian Ocean villages that needed it most....

In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, Charles McCreery, said US officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami but were hampered by the lack of an official alert system.

"We tried to do what we could. We don't have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," he said.
A primary duty of government is to anticipate hazards, and to protect citizens from them to the greatest extent possible. That means preventing military attacks, of course, but it also means protecting the public from epidemic disease, environmental catastrophes such as spills and pollution, and natural disasters.

If a government in a developing country can't protect its people from these disasters, then rich nations like the United States and the EU need to give them the money and the training to start doing it. Obviously, it's the right thing to do, morally speaking, and that's why I favor it. But let's put the bleeding-heart stuff aside for a moment and look strictly at "rational self-interest."

First-world nations have an economic stake in a lot of these regions, as well as populations of resident aliens and tourists; an early-warning system could protect these national assets. God knows the United States is willing to do far more reprehensible - and far more expensive - things to protect its interests abroad.

Also, it makes sense scientifically. Huge earthquakes and tsunamis don't stop being of scientific interest because they happen beyond the Pacific Rim. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) We should be closely monitoring geologic and oceanographic events no matter where they happen, especially because anomalous events often provide far more interesting scientific data than expected ones do.

Furthermore, if there had been an evacuation attempt yesterday, it could've provided important data on the effectiveness of evacuation methods, which could've proved instructive if a tsunami later threatened, say, California or Florida.

All this being the case, we probably could've invested in a few tidal gauges and a bit of early-warning infrastructure for countries on the Indian Ocean. Now that we're going to give these stricken countries millions of dollars in aid, some of that money surely ought to be allocated to developing and maintaining an international monitoring and early-warning system. It's in everyone's best interest.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Friday Nudibranch Blogging: Xmas Bonus!


Friday Nudibranch Blogging


The Long Arm of Monsanto

Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, was denied tenure after he published a paper in Nature on biotech contamination of native Mexican corn varieties.

Investigative reporters have traced the attacks against Chapela to a front group with strong connections to Monsanto and the far-right Competitive Enterprise Institute:

The result of our research was a whole series of articles that appeared in The Ecologist, The Guardian, New Scientist, Wired News and elsewhere, as well as stuff on radio and TV. Importantly, a lot of the coverage not only questioned the way in which the Berkeley scientists had been attacked and the role of Prakash, AgBioView, Monsanto's PR firm and so on, it also brought into question the wider campaign to overturn the research and why that had succeeded to the extent it had. The editor of Nature faced some pretty tough questions about why he'd buckled when the majority of the peer reviewers supported the principal conclusions of the original paper, and a lot came out about the threats against Chapela even before he published his research.
It seems that an additional strike against Chapela is that he objected to a $50,000,000 grant to the university from biotech giant Novartis, which would've given them the right to the first review of papers produced by Chapela's department.

Nature itself details other improprieties and conflicts of interest in the Chapela case. Interestingly enough, conservatives and libertarians were livid over Chapela's involvement with anti-pesticide and anti-GMO groups, which they said rendered his conclusions suspect. However, conflicts of interest involving connections to biotech firms didn't seem to bother these commentators at all (and in fact, the initial attacks along these lines came from operatives at the Bivings Group, which was Monsanto's PR firm).

If you're so inclined, you can sign a petition here to urge UC chancellors to review Dr. Chapela's tenure denial.

No Child Left Behind

The most pressing problems we're likely to face in the coming decades are not military, but technological. Energy independence, disease management, waste management, pollution control and site remediation, urban planning, global warming, effective counterterrorism...all of these things require technological and behavioral responses, and thus depend on our ability to educate citizens to meet these challenges.

Many EU countries are pulling ahead of us on these fronts. And because they really do make educating all their children a priority, that trend is likely to continue. Consider this article on Finland:

Finland spends more per elementary, middle- and high- school student than any other nation on Earth, and comes in second on spending for higher education. School lunches, health care, most class materials and university tuition are all free....Schools are local, community-based affairs, with extremely low turnover in their teaching staffs and strong expectations on parents. Students are all expected to study languages, math and science (and in Finland, girls now outperform boys on science tests). Two thirds of them go to university.
How ciuld anyone read that and feel proud of this country's current priorities? While Finland helps its female children to excel in the sciences, we're warning young girls that they'll be sexually undesirable if they "threaten a man's confidence" by knowing things. Which culture is going to be stronger and more secure in coming years? And which will be safer from tyranny?

We're not just wasting young lives in Iraq; we're wasting them every time we allow the anti-intellectual zealots of the Republican party to limit the educational options of our nation's children.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

What's Wrong With This Picture?


Image via Sexblo.gs

Love of Country

BushCo has written a truly shocking new set of regulations for forest management:

Replacing rules written by the Reagan administration to govern national forest plans, the Bush administration has adopted sweeping new regulations that relax protections for wildlife and eliminate a requirement for the public to weigh in on mining, logging and other activities.

The new rules...undo an obligation at the heart of the battles over Pacific Northwest old-growth forests and spotted owls: that federal managers "maintain viable populations" of wild animals in national forests.
Is that explicit enough for you? It is legal under this plan to annihilate wild animal populations, and public input will not be sought.

This, mind you, is the "Homeland." This is the sacred soil for which we must kill and die...presumably to prevent anyone from usurping our right to turn it into a poisonous wasteland. We are instructed to love this country above all others, and yet to be indifferent to - or to rejoice in - the fact that we're selling it off piecemeal to the highest bidder. We're told that it's the greatest country on earth, a nation specially and formally blessed by God Himself, and yet we're not supposed to imagine that it's worthy of special notice or special protection so long as there's a buck to be made.

It's as though we were to love our family members not for themselves, but because of the money we can make harvesting their organs.

Is Our Children Learning?

Arms Control Wonk catches a mindbogglingly stupid rhetorical question from the conservative rent-a-hack Ariel Beery, in re Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program:

"Can anyone explain how Uranium can be used for peaceful purposes?"
I like to imagine Beery's mood of high seriousness as he wrote this. I like to imagine him nodding smugly as he proofread it, quite certain not only that it was free of errors, but that it confirmed his reputation as a person willing to ask the really hard questions, and in so doing, astonish a world of settled belief and moral laxity.

What a fucking buffoon.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Fever

I've been pretty badly under the weather the last few days...flu, I guess. Whatever it is, it's given me a pretty consistent fever. As a result, there've been lots of shorter posts, and the longer ones tend to ramble even by my lax standards. I hope to be a bit more attentive and cogent soon, and thanks for bearing with me in the meantime.

Also, I'm sure it's a matter of serene indifference to just about everybody...but I really need to change my pseudonym. I've never been in love with it, and the Masonic connotations - which were very far from my mind when I chose it - have occasionally caused me trouble with the tinfoil-hat set. It was mainly intended as a tribute to this fellow, but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, it's too easily taken in the wrong way, and I've never really felt comfortable with it, so I'll have to come up with something else. Suggestions are welcome...insulting ones too, of course!

Christmas Under Siege!

Once again, the Right has spoken with one voice - and can it really be true that there are people in this country who are not yet sick of that whining, wheedling, insinuating voice? - and declared a state of national crisis: Christmas is under siege!

Needless to say, as soon as the GOP's barrel-organ struck up its customary dirge, our media monkeys began turning cartwheels and swinging from lamp-posts and baring their nasty little teeth. "Can Christmas be saved?" they chattered. "Have liberals gone too far?"

Sane people thought, "They can't be serious. These people are not going to sit there with a straight face, week after week, and tell us that all good Americans must band together to 'save Christmas.'" But as usual, sane people were wrong.

I have some scatterbrained, fever-addled thoughts on why so much effort is being devoted to this imaginary War on Christmas (putting aside the GOP's ongoing project of hustling the fundamentalists for spare change, which has to be taken as a given whenever Der Kulturkampf is waged).

Let's begin with a simple proposition: You can't put people through an economic wringer, frighten the wits out of them with terrorism alerts, depress them with the horrors of a chaotic, aimless war, poison their minds with hatred against their fellow citizens, and expect to get a bumper crop of Christmas cheer in return.

If Christmas is besieged, it's largely because Americans themselves are besieged. For many people in this country, the difference between what life could be and what it is tends to become very stark at this time of the year.

Christmas is a time when people tend to brood about security. Surrounded by family, they tend to worry about their children, and about aging parents who may need special and expensive care. Burdens that are heavy at the best of times can become enormous. Problems become harder to hide, while the need to hide them increases.

When Christmas became an orgy of consumerism, it also became a test of one's earning power. As such, it's also a measure of one's security. These are tests that an increasing number of us can't help but fail in George W. Bush's America. For many Americans, the only way to celebrate Jesus' birth in the style to which he's become accustomed will be to contact the moneylenders in their temple, and ask for a higher credit limit.

Sad to say, Christmas often makes us feel we have something to prove. If our Christmasses were happy, then our children's must be every bit as happy, or heads will roll. And if our Christmasses were unhappy, then our children's must be perfect; no one - least of all the children themselves - can be allowed to stand in the way of the Christmas juggernaut, lest they be crushed beneath its tinsel'd wheels.

It's also true that a holiday dedicated to celebrating feelings that we've been encouraged by our leaders to devalue, or to give up entirely - like compassion, and a sense of community - is going to be a bittersweet affair at best. Christmas is one of the most explicit examples of how we replace emotions with things. But what happens when we can't afford these things, or when we can have them only by giving up some of our security, as we do when we go into debt? Anxiety and guilt, at the very least.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalist hand-wringing over Christmas shows how easily metaphysical truths get replaced with empty ritual. Dogma always fills the vacuum left by retreating or confounded faith; no society will be more observant of ritual - or more unforgiving of dissent - than one that has lost sight of whatever was good and true in its faith. What we're seeing in religious conservatism today is not some Great Revival, but the anxious bluffing of a spiritual tradition that's bet the farm on a pair of deuces.

What I'm saying, in a very roundabout way, is that Christmas is a tremendous machine for generating free-floating anxiety. It stirs up deep, deep emotions having to do with family, security, comfort, home, and community. These are things that the Bush administration has either failed to protect or attacked furiously in the last four years, and this has created still more anxiety; it hits people, very literally, where they live, in ways that they can't necessarily define or explain.

The Right's greatest talent - perhaps its only talent - is to ferret out such anxieties and exploit them. It pinpoints the things that make people feel scared or disappointed or resentful or insecure, and proposes reductive, self-serving, emotionally convenient causes and solutions for them.

Do you feel bad? Do you feel worried? Don't reflect, don't try to understand...just lash out at atheists and beat up on gays! After all, every second you spend thinking, you run the risk of blaming the wrong people for your problems.

The "Christmas Under Siege" story is a pre-emptive strike; the Right's power depends on deflecting negative feelings away from its vicious economic policies, obviously, but also on hiding its spiritual emptiness. Rather than be called Scrooges themselves, they've sensibly decided to go on the attack. As always with the Right, accusation is confession.

What strikes me about the antics of Bill O'Reilly, as he fights his lonely battle to save Christmas, is that Scrooge honestly hated the holiday, and therefore refused to celebrate it; he didn't pretend to love it more deeply and fervently than anyone else. While Scrooge talked of tossing the poor into prisons and workhouses, and extolled the primacy of business over everything else in life, he didn't pretend to be brimming over with holiday cheer. That's because he was an emotional cripple, rather than a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Dickens understood hypocrites inside and out, and populated his later books with them in great numbers, but he didn't portray Scrooge as one of those tight-fisted, vicious, selfish people who pretends to be generous and jolly and pious. I imagine that's because he wanted Scrooge's redemption to be believable. If there's a single pious fraud in Dickens who has stopped being a pious fraud by the last chapter, I can't think of who it might be. Bounderby in Hard Times, an astounding hypocrite who is essentially identical to Bill O'Reilly, is not only not redeemed at the end of the book, but (in one of the most unsettling denouements ever written), establishes a society dedicated to creating simulacra of himself, so that the world will never suffer for lack of his wisdom. Dickens understood the difference between a person whose goodness has been submerged or sidetracked, like Scrooge, and a person who has torn goodness out by the roots and consciously replaced it with a ghastly counterfeit, like Bounderby. Or Bill O'Reilly.

Is Christmas under siege? For families whose loved ones have been living under literal siege in Iraq, thanks to the incompetence and callousness of the Bush administration, the question must seem trivial. For every family that lost a loved one in Iraq this year, in a war that will stand as a monument to dishonesty and bad judgment, the question must be irrelevant. For every bereaved parent or spouse or child or sibling who was horrified this week by Andrew Card's unblushing praise of Donald Rumsfeld - an utterly heartless man whose capacity for conscious evil has so far been limited only by his incompetence - the question must be insulting beyond belief.

Not just these suffering people, but the whole sane world must be appalled at the self-involvement of this country as we debate whether we're able to enjoy Christmas as much as we should, at a time when we're sending our children to kill and be killed in Iraq.

Starvation is On the March

World hunger increases; Bush cuts U.S. aid programs. Merry Christmas!

(Or as Bush would say, "Happy Holidays!")

[T]he Bush administration has reduced its contributions to global food aid programs aimed at helping millions of people climb out of poverty.

[snip]

As a result, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services and other charities have suspended or eliminated programs that were intended to help the poor feed themselves through improvements in farming, education and health.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

New Hope For the Wretched

Some of you may recall me harping on this point: it's been said that if 100 square miles of Nevada were covered with photovoltaics, it'd power the entire country. The obvious place to put the collectors, I argued, was on top of new and existing warehouses, carports, apartment buildings, and the like.

Turns out that San Diego, CA agrees with me; they've built a carport topped with photovoltaics, with excellent results.

(Full disclosure: it turns out that any number of people had already suggested this idea, so I'm not quite as ahead of the curve as I'd thought. This isn't the first time it's happened, either!)

The Limbaugh Effect

A new study on teen drug abuse shows that Rush Limbaugh has set an extremely bad example for America's youth:

Researchers are troubled by...a rise in the use of the pain-control narcotic OxyContin. Use of most other drugs declined or held steady.
If Limbaugh taught us nothing else in all the years he's been bellowing harebrained nonsense, he taught us that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a perfectly legitimate form of argument to use against one's opponents.

Therefore, there are two possibilities here. Did Limbaugh's high-profile abuse make this drug more attractive to curious teens? Or did the fact that he finally stopped popping several hundred tabs of Hillbilly Heroin per day mean that there was, for the first time in years, enough for everyone else?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Some Pig

Be it known:

"Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job," the president's chief of staff, Andrew Card, told ABC's "This Week."
For some reason, when I read that quote, all I could think about was this book, which describes the power of words to create reality.

Next we'll be hearing that Rumsfeld is "terrific" and "radiant."

His Word Is As a Lamp Unto Our Feet

Once again, Bush's razor-sharp mind has slashed unerringly at hypocrisy and cant, and laid bare the throbbing heart of a complex situation.

Asked to weigh in on the recent spate of gruesome terrorist bombings in Iraq, the President put his renowned "gut instincts" to good use:

"No question about it," he said. "The bombers are having an effect."

Bush: A Nattering Nabob of Negativism

I missed this WaPo article on Friday, but it makes some excellent points. First off, it contrasts Bush's vaunted message of optimism about the future with his scaremongering on Social Security. Most notable is the fact that while he postulates economic growth as a result of his policies, he bases the SS "crisis" on his pessimistic vision that "a rising tide of retiring baby boomers will inevitably slow economic growth and bankrupt Social Security." In short, he can't make up his mind whether he's a prattling poltroon of positivism, or a nattering nabob of negativism.

There's plenty of evidence that he's the latter, at least as far as our futures are concerned. Needless to say, Bush's own economic future looks about as bright as you'd expect for someone who's looting taxpayer money for the benefit of himself and his friends. Bush's mixed message for America may boil down to something as simple as "I've got mine and yours, and you can go to hell."

If I understand Bush's vision of the future, his tax cuts will stimulate growth, but retiring baby boomers will nonetheless hobble growth and destroy Social Security. This means that we need to privatize SS to a certain extent, and tie it to stock-market performance, which will generate profits based on economic growth...the very growth that Bush says will be crippled by retiring baby boomers.

[T]hose projections are based on a dire view of the nation's economic future, one in which the growth in economic productivity crashes from the 3.4 percent rate of last year to 1.6 percent from 2012 on. Economic growth is anticipated to be cut nearly in half from historic trends, to 1.8 percent between 2015 and 2080.
We've been growing by more than three percent since the Civil War, so a 68-year run of economic slowdown sounds to me like a less than ideal scenario for the stock market.

And that's precisely the complaint that sensible economists have with Bush's projections: you don't get to posit a massive economic slowdown on the one hand (traditional 3.5-percent growth limping along at half that rate for decades), while assuming typical stock-market returns of roughly 7.8 percent on the other.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research, which ardently opposes Bush's Social Security proposals, has concluded that stock gains under the trustees' economic projections would be 4.2 percent, a yield low enough to throw all of the White House's projected benefit gains into doubt.
Ideally, that would settle that. However, there was another very interesting quote in this article:
"Demography is destiny," Time Warner Inc. Chairman Richard D. Parsons said a day later, maintaining that an aging population will force Social Security changes, regardless of long-run economic growth.
That sounds kind of irrational. Fortunately, Parsons is a voice in the wilderness. After all, who's going to listen to anything the chairman of the biggest media conglomerate in the world says?

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Surf's Up!

This article describes some of the unpleasant surprises that England's beaches have in store for the unwary:

The seas and beaches around the British Isles are polluted with a cocktail of man-made detritus, including anti-tank missiles, phials of anthrax vaccine, drums of toxic chemicals and even parts of Ministry of Defence missile systems, according to one of the most authoritative reports on the marine environment.

[snip]

Those injured...included surfers off the west of Scotland who were burnt after discarded flares ignited. A West Country beachcomber collapsed after inspecting a drum of chemicals on a Devon beach. One of the most disturbing cases involved almost 500 phials of anthrax vaccine that had drifted into a Dorset bay...Safety alerts were issued after people stumbled across anti-tank mines on two popular Norfolk beaches. Flammable liquids had to be cleared from a Guernsey beach last summer.

'It is quite alarming when we get reports of materials self-igniting on beaches,' Dixon said.
No doubt. For those who don't have the stamina to read the entire article, here's the punchline: the British government has plans to build a liquid gas terminal near a sunken munitions ship containing "1,400 tonnes of unsalvaged explosives and detonators."

Bleeding-Edge Technology

California's wind farms are killing thousands of birds every year. What's to be done? Here's one solution:

If environmentalists and state officials have their way, the towering windmills that dot the Altamont Pass will be replaced and moved to prevent the killing of thousands of birds annually, including species protected under federal and state laws.

In an effort to curtail the carnage, they say the turbines -- which provide one-third of California's wind power -- should be newer, taller models and be concentrated on the leeward side of the hills.
Yeah, they could do that. Or they could encase the existing turbines in a protective cage, by using some version of this breakthrough technology.

I wonder which solution would be cheaper and more effective?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hardly Working

Don Rumsfeld is going to be taking some time out from his busy schedule, so that he can start signing death letters personally.

Previously, the letters were signed mechanically, by an unfeeling piece of office equipment.

From here on out, they'll be signed mechanically, by an unfeeling piece of office equipment.

Apocrypha

According to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), Iranians plan to crash airliners into New Hampshire's Seabrook nuclear plant. However, state and plant officals discount the reports.

Al Griffith, spokesman for Seabrook Station, said he’s not sure why this issue is resurfacing now, nearly two years after he first responded to media inquiries about threats against nuclear power plants.
It's resurfacing now because Weldon claims to have secret information from a former official of the Shah's regime, whom he refers to - imaginatively enough - as "Ali." He claims to have gone to the CIA with the information, and to a Senate intelligence oversight panel, and to have been rebuffed. It's no surprise, therefore, that as the New York Sun reports:
[T]he new book from Mr. Weldon, based in part on his meetings with Ali, will provide fresh ammunition for the Republicans against an intelligence community perceived by the White House as hostile to the president's policies.
The Sun article goes on to take a thinly veiled position of advocacy for Weldon's claims, noting that
[I]f Mr. Weldon's source turns out to be right, America could also be losing a valuable intelligence asset on Iran, a country where most intelligence analysts in America concede the CIA has too few human sources. The congressman's experience with America's spy service in the last year echoes frustrations from other American officials and analysts who have cultivated Iranians willing to provide America with intelligence, but who have been ignored.
Now, you can't make a claim like that without giving an example, so naturally the Sun complies:
After a December 2001 meeting in Rome between Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin and Iran-Contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar, the State Department and CIA went out of their way to shut down the channel. Mr. Franklin is now the target of a grand jury investigation into alleged espionage activities for passing information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
These are very deep waters indeed; you can judge for yourself whether this is a good example of the CIA mishandling intelligence matters.

In any case, I don't believe in this "Ali." Weldon was intimately involved with the Rumsfeld Missile Defense Commission, which heavily overstated the threat of an Iranian attack on U.S. soil. And as one of Washington's most avid sucklers at the teat of the defense industry (Boeing, in particular) he's been a consistent scaremonger about every other apocryphal danger that could possibly justify increased defense spending.

Also, Weldon has a more personal gripe with the CIA and the State Department:
Karen Weldon, an inexperienced 29-year-old lobbyist from suburban Philadelphia, seemed an unlikely choice for clients seeking global public relations services. Yet her tiny firm was selected last year for a plum $240,000 contract to promote the good works of a wealthy Serbian family that had been linked to accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite a lack of professional credentials, she had one notable asset — her father, U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who is a leading voice in Washington on former Eastern Bloc affairs. She got the contract after he championed the efforts of two family members, Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic, to win U.S. visas from the State Department, which so far has refused them entry.

[snip]

Intelligence officials warned Weldon that the brothers were too close to Milosevic, who is accused of leading the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslav federation.
But the congressman has praised the Karics, who own a vast empire of banking, telecommunication and other firms, as model business leaders and humanitarians. He has portrayed them as victims of faulty intelligence reports and, last month, asked the CIA to sit down with them and sort things out. He has repeatedly pressed the State Department to give them visas.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Dual-Use Technology

Many people are aware that the state legislatures of Alabama, Georgia and Texas have laws forbidding the marketing of vibrators. Now, however, it transpires that cellphones are being used as vibrators.

So what's the solution, if you're someone who wants to crack down on machine-aided forms of self-stimulation? Do you outlaw downloads of programs like Purring Kitty? Do you outlaw phone attachments like the ones offered at Dial-An-Orgasm? Or do you force phone manufacturers to stop offering "vibrate" alerts?

And what about the children? When you give your teen daughter a cellphone, aren't you running the risk of turning her into a compulsive masturbatrix? Would you not reproach yourself if, thanks to your thoughtlesness, she forsook childhood's wholesome amusements, and became yet another slack-jawed, hollow-eyed victim of unbridled lubricity? Shouldn't there be parental controls that will block the phone's ability to vibrate unless a code is entered?

I suspect that absurd questions like these are currently bedeviling the brains of our nation's most prominent busybodies.

Friday Nudibranch Blogging


A Modest Proposal

Rationing of flu shots has apparently left the United States with a large surplus of vaccine. What's to be done? Here's one opinion:

[A] federal advisory panel Friday recommended the government ease restrictions on the nation's supply and make shots available to everyone 50 and older. The move was prompted by worries all of a sudden that tens of thousands of doses of flu vaccine might go to waste.
I have a better idea. Let's donate surplus vaccine to Asian countries where H5N1 avian flu is rampant, and distribute it to people who work with poultry (as Canada did back in January). Doing so could lessen the chances of human coinfection with H5N1 and this season's flu strain, and could thus postpone or prevent a deadly flu pandemic. Sounds like rational self-interest to me!

Junk Science

Okay, let's pretend for a moment that there's no evidence whatsoever that global warming presents a problem. Let's pretend it's all a matter of interpretation.

Now, how does this statement come across, as a simple matter of logic?

Bjorn Lomborg...dismissed concerns about the catastrophic impacts of rising sea levels.

"We are probably gong to see sea levels rise about 50 centimeters over the coming century. Now that is a substantial amount, but what we don't remember is that in the last century they rose somewhere between 10 and 25 centimeters - and did anyone notice? I mean it is something we dealt with," Lomborg told CNSNews.com.
Fair enough. Suppose I lost 5 to 10 percent of my income in a given period, but was able to "deal with it." Does that say anything about my ability to deal with a further loss of 20 percent? Of course not. Below a certain income level, I'm not going to be able to sustain myself. Where that level is depends on a variety of specific factors (my rent, my burden of debt), all of which have to be addressed. Whatever you believe about global warming - and Lomberg concedes that sea levels are rising because of it - you can't logically say "We dealt with 25 centimeters and no one noticed; therefore, another 50 centimeters is not a serious problem." That's just stupid. Lomborg, it's worth noting, holds no degree in environmental science or climatology; he's a political science major, and his work in environmental science has been torn to shreds by a number of experts in Scientific American. For more information on this astonishingly weird man, you can check out the very entertaining Lomborg-Errors website.

But if you really wish to be guided by illogical claims, made by people with no background in climatology or meteorology or environmental science, forget Lomborg: Myron Ebell is your man. Ebell holds degrees in economics; he has no expertise in the matter of climate change whatsoever, as this next quote demonstrates:
...Ebell questioned why rising Arctic temperatures were something to fear. "If global warming in the Arctic is such a problem, why do 80 percent of Canadians live within 50 miles of the U.S. border?" Ebell asked rhetorically. "If Canada warmed up a bit they might be able to live in more of their own country," he added.
And if San Francisco started freezing over in the winter, I could go sledding down Telegraph Hill. But so what? What's at issue here isn't where people can or can't live, it's what the effect of a warmer climate would be on all the biological and meteorological processes now happening in the Arctic.

Ebell's a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a far-right think-tank comprised mainly of political scientists and economists with no background in hard science; you can read about them here.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Rummy666@hotmail.com

Defense Tech reports the odd news that Donald Rumsfeld very probably has no e-mail address:

Rumsfeld apparently has strong opinions on how to e-mail and keep an inbox clean....It wouldn't be the first time the SECDEF gave unsolicited advice on a subject about which he knows very little.
You could do worse than read, and marvel at, this little story. I find it very plausible, actually. I've run into many men of a certain age and occupation who consider typing of any kind to be woman's work, and accordingly have huge mental blocks against e-mail. They deal with it grudgingly, if at all.

On the other hand, it's also possible that Rumsfeld is so lazy, callous, and disengaged that he simply doesn't need an e-mail address. When neither your job nor your financial security depends on being aware and competent, why should you wade through dozens of Viagra ads, and the imprecations of ten thousand angry soldiers, and yet another mildly risque e-greeting card from Prince Bandar, in order to get some tidbit of information you know you're just going to ignore?

The Festive Season


Joe Spector of Overland Park, Kansas, has placed one flag in his yard for each of the more than 1300 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. He's displaying the flags instead of Christmas decorations. Photo via Cryptome.

All Wrong

Did you happen to wonder where that unlicensed doctor from Florida got the botox he injected into his hapless patients? If so, you're not alone:

Homeland Security restrictions should have prevented an unlicensed doctor in Broward County from buying concentrated botulinum toxin, widely recognized as the most poisonous substance and a feared bioterrorism agent.

Yet the deadly toxin that landed four Florida residents in intensive care last month was made in a California lab, marketed by an Arizona biological supply company and shipped to Broward without raising any alarms.
So far, so good. Homeland security is a toothless sham...no surprises there. But get this:
"A single gram of crystalline toxin, evenly dispersed and inhaled, would kill more than a million people," the Journal of the American Medical Association reported, "although technical factors would make such dissemination difficult."
"Difficult" is an understatement; "impossible," though also inaccurate, would be closer to the truth. The chance of a terrorist killing a million people with a gram of botulinum toxin is effectively nil.

Surely this is the worst of all possible worlds: the threat from bioterrorism gets blown completely out of proportion by the media, while the Department of Homeland Security allows bioterror agents to be marketed, sold, and injected into people by unlicensed doctors. Good job, everyone! Take a nice long vacation...you've earned it!

How Things Affect Other Things

As I've noted elsewhere, scientists are increasingly willing to consider the possibility that things may, in some cases, affect other things:

Welcome to the new science of ecotoxicology in which scientists try to understand how the synthetic chemicals we're pouring into our environment affect the way earthly life goes about its business.

Recent research about musk fragrances and mussels illustrates this point. When gills from live mussels were exposed to water with low concentrations of six commercial musks, they were not poisoned....That was expected.

But after two hours, the researchers washed the gills and put them in musk-free water that also contained a red dye. Cells in the gill tissue took up the dye. That was not expected.

Those cells have a mechanism to detect a foreign substance...and keep it out. That worked for cells not exposed to the musk in the first place. Cells that had been exposed lost this natural defense.

That finding has a disturbing global implication....Cells in many animal species, including humans, use the same protective mechanism to ward off foreign substances.

[snip]

Laboratory research that leads to wider study is a hallmark of ecotoxicology. Scientists wouldn't know what to look for in the field without it.

Yet, "it is a virtual certainty that other effects are occurring in the field that we are presently overlooking in the lab," note the editors of Environmental Science & Technology, an American Chemical Society journal, which devoted a special issue to this new science.
Well, thank goodness that we have a "new science" upon this tired earth - a science based on "laboratory research that leads to wider study," which has already revolutionized our thinking by suggesting that things may happen in the world that are overlooked in the laboratory.

Science, to me, has always been about the investigation of relationships: how things affect other things. Forgive me for harping on this yet again, but the shelves of our bookstores are groaning under the weight of pop-science books about chaos theory. At this point, the concept that you can't necessarily ignore even the most minute aspects of a dynamic system should be pretty well understood.

A Republican for Transparency?

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) claims that he'll introduce legislation mandating strict deadlines for governmental compliance with FOIA requests.

[A]gencies are supposed to provide information on a timely basis. That rarely happens. In fact, the median response time from the Agriculture Department is 905 business days; it's 1,113 from the Environmental Protection Agency. In some of the most extreme examples, requests made in the 1980s still haven't been processed.

Cornyn wants to put teeth in the FOIA by creating strict deadlines for agencies to cough up information. He also wants to extend the act to cover the legislative branch, which conveniently exempted itself from its provisions.

"We the people are the bosses and not the servants," he said. "If we the people are going to remain well-informed so we can tell our elected officials what we want and what we won't put up with, we have to be able to be informed."

Sounds good to me! Cornyn has one of the worst voting records in the Senate, so I'm a bit skeptical of his motives (not least because such a bill is obviously not very likely to make it through this Congress). But if he's actually serious, good for him.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Discounted Truth! Absolute Values! Buy Now!

Via Echidne:

A rural Alabama judge began wearing a robe embroidered with the Ten Commandments to his Andalusia courtroom this week....Covington County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Ashley McKathan said he ordered the robe and had it embroidered using his own money. He said he did it because he felt strongly that he should stand up for his personal religious convictions.

"Truth is an absolute value," McKathan said, "and you can't divorce the law from the truth. I feel we must resist the modern attempts to discount the truth."

Truth may be an absolute value, but that doesn't mean that everyone who publicly pledges allegiance to it is trustworthy. Used-car salesmen routinely give themselves names like "Honest Ed," but that doesn't mean they won't turn the odometer back before selling you a car. In fact, it usually means they will. What's in a name, after all? We can start referring to Rumsfeld as "Competent Don," but it won't make him any more fit to be secretary of defense.

A man could wear a t-shirt that said "World's Greatest Stud," and yet be a ham-handed, self-centered clod who spends every night alone. Are we supposed to find Judge McKathen's peacock vanity somehow more noble, and less obnoxious, simply because he proclaims himself to be the living embodiment of Truth, rather than sexual prowess?

Of course not, because most of us believe in a higher ethical standard for justice than for casual sex, and see counterfeit virtue as something worse than counterfeit vice. I haven't read the Bible as closely as some, but I did come away from it with the sense that making a grandiose spectacle of one's holiness is a sin considerably worse than prostitution or adultery. McKathan, in his fancy embroidered gown, looks to me like he's trying to be God's pimp.

0.0010799 Leagues Under the Sea

For philistine idiocy, it's hard to beat this idea:

The Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa is to open 'Ithaa', the world’s first aquarium-style undersea restaurant....Ithaa will sit six meters below the waves of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by a vibrant coral reef and encased in clear acrylic offering diners 180-degrees of panoramic underwater views.

Perhaps I'm too wedded to a traditionalist viewpoint, but I think the word "vibrant" is better suited to coral reefs that don't have restaurants built in the middle of them. But I digress. According to Carsten Schieck, General Manager of Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa:
Our guests always comment on being blown away by the colour, clarity, and beauty of the underwater world in the Maldives, so it seemed the perfect idea to build a restaurant where diners can experience fine cuisine and take time to enjoy the views – without ever getting their feet wet.
It's possible, though, that these guests viewed "getting their feet wet" as somehow integral to the experience of being underwater, and that gawking at the same reef through plexiglas, while eating saffron-infused crabcakes dabbed with papaya-sage chutney, might not have quite the same emotional impact.

I think the point of seeking out "natural splendor" is that one should engage with it on its own terms as much as possible. Sure, it might be nice to be able to take in a Broadway show while bathed in the astringent moonlight of the Sahara, or to get half-price pitchers on Friday nights while visiting the Realms of the Boreal Pole. But the fact that one can imagine enjoying some familiar form of commerce in an unlikely location is not, in itself, justification for demanding it.

The virtue of being underwater, or in the Sahara, or at the North Pole, is precisely that it forces one to put aside mundane things and pay attention - real attention - to one's surroundings, instead of scanning wine lists and calculating tips and wolfing down creme brulee. Maybe I'm being overanalytical - it happens! - but it seems to me that what we're avoiding here is the experience of being humbled. If so, as bad as projects like this restaurant are for the natural world, they're possibly worse still for our sense of ourselves.

Entitlements

The Environmental Working Group has released its latest study of California's water subsidies for agribusiness, and found that they're going to a handful of the biggest farms. In other words, agribusiness gets water at a rate far below its market value, and California taxpayers pick up the tab.

This is an arrangement that's been in place for decades. The subsidies were originally part of a New Deal program called the Central Valley Project, which was intended to help small farmers survive the Depression through subsistence farming. There was a limit to the acreage that could be irrigated; if you had more than that, you were ineligible for subsidies unless you sold your excess land.

There were legal challenges, exemptions, and loopholes, and enforcement was inconsistent at best. In the program's early years, Southern Pacific was the largest recipient of subsidized water. By the forties, the biggest corporations in the state were, just as today, the biggest recipients of water subsidies, at a huge net loss to the taxpayers. Currently, CVP irrigators pay $17 per acre-foot of water; by contrast, San Francisco pays about $650 per acre-foot, and Los Angeles pays about $925. (Since the areas receiving the subsidies are mainly in Bush country, this is arguably a county-level analogue to the relationship between tax-donating Blue States and tax-receiving Red States; in this case, "liberals" pay through the nose for water and conserve it, while "conservatives" get water subsidies and waste it.)

Here's how the EWG describes the CVP:

The CVP cost the federal government $3.6 billion to construct. Part of the original deal was that farmers would pay back over $1 billion of this cost within 50 years of project completion. But in 2002 — more than 60 years since the water began flowing — irrigators had only paid back 11 percent of the tab. The reason? CVP recipients had signed 40-year contracts that granted farmers water at rates far below what was necessary to pay back the construction costs.

In fact, some of the water rates stipulated in these 40-year contracts were so low that they don't even cover the costs to the government of delivering the water. In 2002, for example, the contract rate for 17 CVP water districts, each of which paid for almost 300,000 acre-feet of water, was just $2 per acre-foot. Yet the cost for delivering this water to these districts was more than $10 per acre-foot. As a result, by 2002, 19 districts had repaid none of their share of the costs. Two districts did better than that: They had repaid $2 and $1.
Why does agribusiness continue to get these handouts? Basically, because they're used to having them, and they like them; they see them as entitlements. The subsidies don't really help with production; water comprises a small percentage of production costs for most crops. What the subsidies do cause is waste, partially by encouraging a lackadaisical attitude towards conservation, and partially by encouraging the planting of water-intensive crops like rice, which really don't belong in a desert state like California.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Cheap Imitations

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.

Whatever the cause, this life - for which our children must now kill and die - is so meager and occluded that it's no wonder our homegrown religion has emphasized the tantalizing nearness of the Big Payoff, in language more suited to a casino than a church. Indeed, as escaping poverty and debt becomes more and more difficult, gambling itself takes on an almost holy allure. It's not just the money, either. It's also the idea of recognition; winning a fortune would provide proof that one is special, and really was meant for better things. Ultimately, though, there's very little to say about a society that sees a place like Las Vegas as an "escape" from its burdens, rather than as an intensification of them, or at least as an insultingly explicit metaphor for them.

Surely, there's more than a little of Las Vegas in America's religious notions, which increasingly boil down to the worker's daydream of getting the last laugh. But here, the fantasy turns a bit darker. It's not enough to thrive, not enough to be singled out for reward while the scoffers turn green with envy; everyone who's "bad" must suffer. If the American God - the God, that is, of Scofield and Darby - is made in our own image, he's based partially on the office drone's vision of winning the lottery, and partially on the coward's admiration for brute force, but mainly on the overworked postal worker's dream of double-barreled justice. This God shares in our petty prejudices, damns whatever frightens us or angers us, and pointlessly punishes people whose personal knowledge of suffering is already more than deep enough.

Meanwhile, patriotism, like materialism, has defined itself through opposition until it's little more than a litany of denials. It's a denial of shared destiny, of community and responsibility, of guilt and shame and consideration and obligation. It's neither cosmopolitan, nor secular, nor intellectual, nor "green," nor tolerant. Nor is it welcoming or compassionate; the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was probably, after all, just a dirty trick of the perfidious French.

What we're pledging allegiance to at this point is unclear. In theory, it's probably some ideal of freedom that we're too scared, busy, ignorant, or debt-ridden to achieve. In practice, it may be the freedom to buy pills that will ease the infirmities our labors cause, or the freedom to forget our worries by watching complete strangers get punished for real or imaginary crimes. Americans are so relentlessly kicked around, so consistently made to feel helpless and insecure...it's no surprise that "kicking ass and taking names" sometimes seems like the closest thing we have to a shared national dream.

We were made for better things, but seem to have no sense of what those things might be. The idea that success and money will make us happy - a proposition which virtually everything we see and hear in our daily lives proves false - is weirdly persistent. The lives of the most wealthy, glamorous, famous people are daily revealed as grotesque and awful farces; we dwell lovingly on every detail of their humiliation, while imagining that "success" will solve our problems (after all, with enough wealth, we can buy replicas of all the things we lost or threw away).

The fact that Bush's tawdry, heartless counterfeits of family and community and spirituality appeal to so many Americans isn't necessarily proof that they're stupid. More likely, it's proof that they're so starved for these things - and for the sense of belonging they engender - that they'll swallow anything. Because just as starving explorers used to eat strips of leather and splinters of wood while straggling through some wasteland, starving hearts will swallow lies.

Will Reid Stall Yucca Mountain?

This article makes an important point about new minority leader Harry Reid (D-NV): he's firmly opposed to the siting of a national nuclear-waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which has cast the future of the project into uncertainty.

A portion of the staggering amount of radioactive waste at the Hanford, Washington site - which I discussed earlier here - is earmarked for shipment to Yucca Mountain circa 2010. Amazingly enough, the intent is to build a 300-mile rail line to the dump site, which would immediately become one of the country's most attractive terrorist targets. The alternative is to ship the material by truck. Both methods are supremely vulnerable to accidents and attacks. As this article notes,

Government planners say they need definitive answers to begin plotting transportation routes from Hanford and other sites to a national repository.

There has been no decision on whether the material will travel by truck or train. Either way, most observers agree an accident would be a national catastrophe.
Disposal problems, by the way, represent a variable cost of nuclear energy, which does not get factored into its price. I mention this in light of attempts by the industry to position itself as a "cheap" and "green" solution to global warming.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Beyond Hitler

The question of whether liberals should invoke Hitler in discussing the Bush administration is a pretty easy one to answer, intellectually speaking: we shouldn't do it. Emotionally, though, things are a bit more difficult, given how many of us see Bush as a profoundly evil and dangerous man.

Personally, I'm sometimes tempted to compare Bush to Hitler not because Bush is a mass murderer or a sociopath (though I think one can make a good case that he's both), but because of the similar structure and tactics of their respective mass movements: the means by which "palingenetic ultra-nationalism" works to achieve its ends.

The mechanisms by which the media has propped Bush up, and by means of which Karl Rove operates, are apparent to anyone who's given the matter any honest thought. Comparing Bush to Hitler aids and abets these mechanisms, not least because it provides an excuse for automatic dismissal; it marginalizes the accuser rather than the accused.

But if Hitler had never been born, the things happening in our country today would be just as grave and just as dangerous. Therefore, beyond noting the fundamental characteristics of fascism, as I tried to do in this post, I'm less interested in drawing comparisons between Bush and Hitler than in judging Bush's actions against basic standards of morality (the Golden Rule, for instance) and good governance.

Assuming, as I do, that Bush can't profitably be compared to Hitler, is the word "fascism" at least salvageable? There are a number of different beliefs about what constitutes fascism, but no matter which one you look at, the Bush administration meets most or all of the criteria. This is simply a fact. However, it's also what logicians call "trivially true"; the fact that we are similar to Nazi Germany in certain respects says nothing about how it happened, what should be done about it, or what will happen next. The things that happened in the last four years went far beyond what Roger Griffin calls the "fascist minimum," and a large percentage of the country either didn't notice, didn't care, or liked it. Of course, it's helpful for people who oppose Bush to understand the mechanisms of fascism, but to call American fascists what they are seems to be, in our current culture, irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.

One reason, as I suggested here, is the typical fascists' belief that they've made a clean break with history. Thus, to speak to Bush-fanciers of "historical precedent" is to invite ridicule; they believe that the United States which rose from the ashes on 9/11 is something new under the sun, something without precedent, to which the old rules no longer apply. That's what they do, by definition; fascism always devalues thought, history, analysis, received wisdom, and caution. It's proudly impulsive, unreflective, and irrational. That being the case, we have to realize that the most ironclad proof imaginable of BushCo's fascism is useless within the context of the information war we're fighting, and may even be counterproductive. If the old rules no longer apply, neither do the old comparisons.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Straining at Gnats and Swallowing Camels

Is it acceptable to give a US government security clearance to someone who has family members living in China? According to Judge James A. Young, the answer is a resounding "no":

While Applicant's contacts in the PRC are not foreign agents, their presence in that country, subject to the pressures of the communist regime, places them in a position to be potentially exploited by the PRC in a way that could force Applicant to choose between loyalty to his family and associates and loyalty to the U.S.
(Link courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.)

Of course, if you happen to be an aide to Dennis Hastert, it doesn't matter if you're a registered foreign agent with direct ties to Beijing's power elite...you can see all the U.S. secrets you want:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has hired a registered agent for a division of a Communist Chinese company linked to Beijing's military intelligence to be his new senior adviser for foreign policy and defense matters.
And that that goes double if you're a Saudi royal:
WOODWARD: Saturday, January 11th, with the president's permission, Cheney and Rumsfeld call Bandar to Cheney's West Wing office. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Myers, is there with a top-secret map of the war plan. And it says "Top Secret. No foreign." "No Foreign" means "no foreigners are supposed to see this."
Putting aside life's little ironies for the nonce, what do you think would keep us safer: denying security clearance to people with relatives in Red China? Or paying careful attention to the warnings of people who have security clearances, like Sibel Edmonds, instead of firing them and slapping eternal gag orders on them?

(Fun facts to know and tell: Hastert's former aide Nancy Dorn, whom the Right claimed was bringing the "tentacles of the PRC into the White House," later became a member of Dick Cheney's staff. She left that post in 2002, when Bush appointed her deputy director of the Office of Budget and Management.)

Faith-Based Gonorrhea?

In 1996, according to the CDC, North Carolina had 253 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 residents. Since the state population back then was about 8 million, that means they had about 20,240 cases total.

In 1996, California had 59 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 residents. Since it had a population of about 33,000,000, that means it had 19,470 cases total. In other words, California had fewer total cases of gonorrhea than North Carolina, despite having four times the population.

In 1996, Alabama had about 13,640 cases of gonorrhea, out of 4,400,000 residents. A little less than California...but then, California's population is about eight times that of Alabama.

Georgia had about 22,275 cases, out of 8,100,000 residents. Again, higher than California, despite a much smaller population.

Just sayin'!

The War on Competence

Via POGO, there seems to be a good deal of evidence that Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general of Homeland Security, is losing his job because he's good at it. According to Government Computer News,

Ervin’s office has issued highly critical reports on several programs at DHS. In October, for instance, one criticized the department for failing to take charge of the effort to combine the federal government’s numerous terrorist watch lists.

Erwin's damning reports on the nation's ongoing security problems can be found here.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Corporate Fallout Detector

I learned about this odd little invention from one of my favorite blogs in the world, Near Near Future:

James Patten, a Ph.D. candidate in the Tangible Media Group at MIT's Media Lab, has invented the Corporate Fallout Detector. The device scans barcodes of goods, and makes a clicking noise based on the environmental or ethical record (selectable via the "sensitivity" switch) of the manufacturer. The more "click click" you hear, the worse are the ethics of the company.

The system works by correlating several online bardcode databases with a pollution database and a corporate ethics database.

Apparently, Patten invented this "to encourage awareness and curiosity, rather than to serve as an educated consumer’s sole source of information." But I don't doubt he could make a fortune by mass-producing them. After all, the unhampered flow of information is a central pillar of the free market!

A Soundcheck for the Noise Machine

PR Watch summarizes a WaPo article on the upcoming GOP media blitz, which will attempt to convince Americans to give up a certain amount of their financial security, along with their unfettered right to legal redress of injuries, and whatever else the Lord High Executioner demands as his rightful tribute:

Bush's second term will focus on domestic policy, specifically "creating private Social Security accounts," "revising the tax code," "limiting the size and number of lawsuits, and changing immigration laws." The PR plan to sell these policies is underway. "In the next few weeks, White House officials, including [Karl] Rove, are planning to meet with Republican activists" to coordinate the campaign. "Several groups are raising money for an ad campaign that will likely be carried out by some of the same '527' groups active in the presidential campaign." Bush is asking the Heritage Foundation and other "well-funded conservative groups" to help, with "ads and commentary on television and in targeted publications."
I think it's safe to say that this'll be the shrillest, nastiest, most dishonest propaganda campaign yet. The radical Right has been slavering over these policies for decades; now that they're almost within grasp, don't expect to see tolerance of dissent, let alone reasoned debate. The ancient grievances, the irrational anxieties, the sociopathic greed, the bullyboy sneers, the stifled rage of polite racism, the psychosexual pathology of chickenhawk militarism, the spiritually crippled vision of poverty as sin...all of it will be channeled into an unparalleled orgy of shrieking accusation, cynical scaremongering, dead-eyed lying, and - above all - fully conscious malice. We're in for the battle of our lives...but at least we can assume that the soul-jarring, incandescent ugliness of these people will scare a few fence-sitters onto our side.

Friday Nudibranch Blogging


Robbing Peter to Pay Paul to Protect Peter

Defensetech.org reports that the money needed to put armor on military vehicles in Iraq will be coming out of soldiers' payroll funds:

Now, the accountants could have taken money from hulking, multi-billion dollar items, like the F-22 fighter or the creaky missile defense program. But no. Instead, the cash -- along with about a billion dollars in other funds -- was taken from the Army's payroll. From the accounts to pay soldiers in the field.

With that money gone, there's now only enough cash left in the register to keep paying soldiers until May or so. If a "supplemental" budget bill -- rumored to be $75 billion or more -- isn't passed by then, there will be no paychecks for G.I.s.

Congress will never let that happen, of course. No politician in his right mind is going to keep soldiers from getting paid. So, in the end, G.I.s will get the money they've been promised.

But, still, wouldn't it have been better to get this armor money together in the first place? The war has been going on since last March. Planning for it started in 2002. And only on November 19th did the Pentagon realize it needed more money to armor up its trucks?

Changing Horses

It seems that one of our age's reigning atheists has become a deist. Let me be the first to say, "Who cares?"

Flew's deism - like his atheism - is a matter between him and...whatever. If he's wrong about deism, what's it to me? If he was wrong about atheism, why should I care? I've got more pressing worries than the metaphysical U-turns of a man I've never met. That anyone would be considering this a personal victory or defeat is beyond my comprehension.

I will say that he is right to have been confounded by the question of life's origins...but then, this question has been puzzling people for a long, long time. Had Flew been less sure of himself in his earlier career, running head-on into reality might have shocked him a bit less. Indeed, it's amazing how easy it is for atheists and the religious to switch sides; the wine of their passion, I suppose, will fill either bottle equally. The Bible recognizes this, and thus has harsh words for those who "are neither cold nor hot." Simone Weil, meanwhile, thought certain types of atheism downright saintly in their refusal to accept easy comforts; she saw atheism as an often necessary purification from false notions of deity. (Not that atheism doesn't sometimes offer its own easy comforts, of course, but that's not what she was talking about.)

God knows I don't want passionate belief, wild-eyed claims, and the sense of cosmic drama to vanish from the earth. But in this country especially, we've reached a point where if these matters can't be discussed with humility, and with the respectful attention that human beings owe each other (whether God's watching or not), they probably shouldn't be discussed at all.

After all, there are more serious questions out there. For instance, why are we - not God, but we - letting one billion children live in unrelieved poverty, sickness, violence, and hunger? Should we tell these children it's God's will? Should we tell them there is no God, and explain the intricacies of realpolitik? Or should we stop prattling about things we don't understand, for once in our lives, and do something to help?

Counting on Catastrophe

Just about any business self-help book will tell you that one of the keys to success in the market is positioning oneself to take advantage of changing conditions.

But this raises an interesting point. If the changes in question are changes for the worse, what happens you cross the line between preparing for them, and depending on them? In other words, if you were to invest heavily in a company that would profit from a disaster, how would you feel about other people's efforts to avert that disaster?

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Denver businessman Pat Broe, owner of the subarctic port of Churchill, Canada, stands poised to profit from polar trade....Global warming is melting once-frozen passages. Scientists even predict that by midcentury the fabled Northwest Passage will become a navigable reality, providing a northern commercial link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Arctic mineral deposits are beckoning miners. As for oil, one-third of the Earth's untapped reserves are believed to be up here...Churchill is the continent's only subarctic industrial port.

[snip]

Sitting in this chilly catbird seat is Denver railroad magnate and real estate developer Patrick Broe, 57. In 1997 his company, Omnitrax, the largest privately owned operator of short-line railroads in North America, bought the port for $7 from a Canadian government happy to unload a moneyloser. As part of the deal Omnitrax also paid $11 million to the Canadian National railroad for an 800-mile stretch that links Churchill to Canada's grain belt.

I'm not accusing Broe of anything, by the way. It just seems clear that before he can realize the greatest possible returns on his investment, some pretty awful things have to happen. So if enough people make similar speculative decisions, do we reach a point where the market "requires" disaster?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Bosses of Us

I think I've mentioned the concept of extended producer responsibility law before. If I didn't bring it up here, then I've surely bored everyone to tears with it over at Eschaton. The gist of it is, the Europeans are passing stringent regulations based on the radical idea that manufacturers, not taxpayers, are responsible for the effects of industrial materials and processes. There are a lot of good things about such laws, not least of which is that they prod firms to re-engineer and innovate. Oddly enough, though business folk love to talk about adaptation and challenges and opportunities, they often run screaming from all three in real life. And when they get big enough, they often prefer to get laws rewritten, rather than adapt to them.

Luckily for such firms, EPR and related laws may constitute non-tariff barriers to trade under the WTO, and could thus be challenged as illegal. Unluckily for them, consumers in Europe are strongly behind these laws, and will be voting with their pocketbooks. The European market is now much bigger than the US market, and it's increasingly in a position to dictate terms. Also, a lot of US companies have plants in the EU, which will have to abide by EU law, deal with EU-compliant supply chains, and so forth.

One of the most important things the EU favors is a new regulatory regime for chemicals, which is very different from our own deeply flawed TSCA system, particularly in its formal embrace of the precautionary principle. (I'm not even going to get into how bad TSCA is, save for the fact that it fails consumers, government, and business equally.) The implications of this...

Actually, never mind. The only reason I started writing this was to draw your attention to an excellent and very thorough article on this topic in The Nation.

This subject is a hobbyhorse of mine, so I'm sure I'll be going on about it in the future. But for now, suffice it to say that this issue is pertinent to everything that's going on in this country right now. There's no aspect of our lives that won't be affected by it. In my opinion, the EU laws are good, they're sane, and they're long overdue (if not a day late and a euro short). But in coming months, laws like these will be portrayed as the worst threat American business has ever faced. I suspect a good portion of the public debate will boil down to specious analogies between letting Europe "dictate" how we manufacture goods, and giving it "veto power" over protecting ourselves from terrorism, and that BushCo will try to stir up as much cultural and religious outrage as possible (lest anyone imagine for a moment that we could dream of compromising with the effete, God-hating, terrorist-appeasing, taxation-crazed, warm-beer-swilling socialist weasels of Europe).

Oh, and just as a private aside: all the people who thought I was delusional for laying this scenario out over the past decade are cordially invited to go fuck themselves.

Wasteful, Dangerous, Expensive, and Secret

Apparently, there are some mysterious problems with some of the items on BushCo's intelligence wish-list.

Congress' new blueprint for U.S. intelligence spending includes a mysterious and expensive spy program that drew extraordinary criticism from leading Democrats, with one saying the highly classified project is a threat to national security.

In an unusual rebuke, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, complained Wednesday that the spy project was "totally unjustified and very, very wasteful and dangerous to the national security." He called the program "stunningly expensive."

[snip]

Each senator - and more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials contacted by The Associated Press - declined to further describe or identify the disputed program, citing its classified nature.
Makes you wonder, huh? James Bamford, who seems pretty reliable to me, is quoted as saying it's probably a satellite-based program. The invaluable Defensetech.org site agrees, and offers info on what sort of programs Rockefeller might be talking about:
Back in January of 2003, the Defense Department launched its Experimental Satellite Series (XSS), which is developing pint-size orbiters, largely for offensive purposes. Recently-revealed XSS designs include a "blocker" microsat, which uses a "circular, gimbaled, opaque fan" to stop up enemy communications in space....Satellites from hostile countries aren't the only ones which could be blocked or grabbed by the American machines. In a recent report, the Air Force declared that orbiters from neutral nations, private companies -- even weather satellites -- were all on the target list, too.

Evidence Mounts for Things Being Complicated

Scientists have uncovered shocking new evidence that certain actions can have multiple effects, some of which can persist over time. Previously, it had been thought that the effects of any action taken in the natural world were attenuated in both space and time by what the physicist Ernest Mach dubbed the "Refusing-To-Pay-Any-Attention Principle." Now, however, it seems possible that one of industrial society's guiding principles may have to be re-examined.

Scientists studying the broader effects of wolf reintroduction said a growing body of evidence suggests that killing off predators such as wolves and grizzly bears in the last century started a cascade of effects that threw ecosystems out of balance.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that a thriving wolf population not only changes where and how elk browse - it even reverberates down to the number of willows that grow next to streams.

[snip]

Jim Peek, professor emeritus of wildlife biology at the University of Idaho, said it was too early to know whether the study's findings would hold up over time, but the observations were valid.

"It's important work, because it directs our attention toward things other than the fact that predators eat prey," Peek said.

They Hate Us For Our Tiny Windmills

The Bush administration - ever alert, ever vigilant - has compiled a list of the nation's major terrorism targets that includes miniature golf courses:

The Bush administration's effort to create a national database of potential terrorist targets such as dams, pipelines, chemical plants and skyscrapers is far behind schedule and may take years to finish.

Members of Congress who have seen parts of the classified list being created by the Department of Homeland Security say it's a haphazard compilation that includes water parks and miniature golf courses but omits some major sites in need of security.

"Their list is a joke," said Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. He called it "an exercise in full employment for bureaucrats, rather than a realistic way to make the country safer."

What's especially funny (and this is the sort of in-depth historical analysis you'll find nowhere else but Buffoonia), is that back in the 1930s, communities all over America passed ordinances regulating - or banning outright - the "madness" of miniature-golf, one of the major fears being that courses (especially all-night ones) were sinkholes of sin. As John Margolies describes in his book Miniature Golf,
In 1930 American City magazine wrote: "Miniature golf can indisputably lay claim to having inspired more legislation in a few months than any other form of entertainment on record."

In other words, the only thing that ever seriously threatened this nation's miniature golf courses was the overheated sexual imagination of American morality police.

...Joking aside, is this list a sign of incompetence, or something else? Look at it this way: Why would you put water parks and golf courses on a list like this? Well, possibly because you want people in certain locales to feel that terrorism threatens them and their children more personally than it actually does. Then, when the miniature golf course isn't blown up, people can say "Look what a good job Bush did protecting me!"

And why wouldn't you put major sites on the list, ones that might actually be under threat? Beats me. Maybe they were so busy devising psychologically manipulative sites that they didn't get around to listing the real ones. Or maybe they don't care, or are incompetent. Maybe there's no money left for real security measures, or the money's earmarked for something else...maybe they need it to defend Christmas against leftist slander, or to fight laws against dumping sewage in drinking water.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A Reasonable Republican

I'm really not someone who enjoys condemning entire groups of people as worthless, so a story like this one, in which a Republican does something sensible and sane, is a real pleasure to report:

In an effort to help the environment and lessen pollution, Suffolk Legislator Daniel Losquadro (R-Miller Place) introduced a resolution that would "begin the use of biodiesel fuel in the Suffolk County fleet" and "encourage the use of alternative fuels in the county."
Most American municipalities have fleets of diesel trucks. Converting them to biodiesel is incredibly easy and cheap; it would save huge amounts of fossil fuel, and reduce certain types of air pollution. Ideally, these vehicles should also be fitted with particle filters, which can reduce particulate emissions to as little as one percent. That's a lot more expensive per vehicle than biodiesel conversion, at about a thousand bucks a pop. However, high levels of airborne particulate matter can be expensive too!

The ideas Losquadro's promoting are being considered or implemented in cities and counties all over the country. You may want to consider suggesting or supporting such efforts in your own region. And Losquadro himself - from what I can gather by Googling his name - seems like a pretty admirable man; he has a good environmental record, and seems to have a real commitment to bipartisanship. I think he deserves letters of support and thanks.